Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: November, 2011

Drain Brain

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: “What the fuck just happened? is the true question of all philosophy.

Head cold. First snow of the year. And strange days at the Brain.

This post was intended to simply notify everybody of a couple additional posts I had made in the limbic basement. First, there’s “Parmenide’s Hinge,” a failed prospectus for the failed dissertation attempt I made prior to Truth and Context. I actually stumbled across it searching through some old files for an ancient short story I had written (back to that in a moment). The reread blew me away, not only because I had completely forgotten about it, but because it happened to end, I mean literally end,  with the question I had answered for another short piece, this one new, that I had written in response to a philosopher named Ray Brassier, whose excellent Nihil Unbound I have been using as a guide book for my safari through some of the more recent Continental philosophy. It still freaks me out how I could work for years on a question that I had forgotten.

Meanwhile, after weeks of intense back and forth on the comment board, the blog essentially falls silent. Except that it isn’t silent. The numbers are up (TPB now has literally twice the traffic it had even several months ago), but nobody seems to be posting. Since I let my temper get the best of me on a couple of occasions the last two dust-ups (Murph! Where did you go, brother?) I worried that maybe my thin skin was scaring potential commentators away. So I decided to check out what everyone seemed to be reading… I never realized that WordPress had so many tools for dowsing traffic.

Two big surprises.  The biggest one has to be my review of Infinite Jest. In a matter of five or six weeks it’s managed to become one of the most viewed pages on the blog short of the main page! Don’t ask me how – or why. It makes me think I should do more reviews!

The most significant surprise, however, is that my short reply to Ray Brassier is getting hundreds of hits. Then I get a couple of emails from friends out in the philosophy world telling me about the buzz the thing appears to have created. It almost seems like the rest of the blog has gone quiet in expectation. So I get this crazy Doctor Frankenstein feeling, that all these years I’ve been toiling in isolation, fearing as much as hoping that the world would discover my ‘work,’ only to wake up and find that my basement laboratory had been broken into!

It’s all good, I know. It’s what I wanted  to happen. But stay tuned: with any luck, you’re about to find out what happens when a fringe crackpot engages a foundational cultural institution.

But meanwhile, back to that short story I was looking for, “The Judas Tree.” I thought some of you might find it interesting to read something written before The Darkness that Comes Before. And then I made the mistake of reading the bloody thing – and realized why I had sworn off short-story writing altogether way back then. Peee-yewww! And once again I found myself two people sitting in one chair: the marketer saying, “Good God, man, who would buy any of your books after seeing that shite?”; and the decent  human being saying, “It would actually be good for some people to see how much writing was more a matter of work and craft than something you just lucked into at birth!”

Usually the decent human being wins out in these episodes, but I have been very, very hard on the marketer of late. And let’s face it, he’s the guy who pays the bills.

So I’m trying to think how I can have it both ways… And fire up the comment strings in the process!

Beauty as Brutality

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: All we have is surprise and the question. Only these make the infinite plain because only these make ignorance visible.

Aphorism of the Day II: Earwa, like Biblical Israel, smells of balls.

So I’ve posted what will be the final version of “Four Revelations” on the site. It feels much, much tighter to me now. The non sequiturs feel pregnant with meaning. The flashbacks all feel like they’ve been torn from greater narratives. The parallels between the flashbacks and the present strike some odd and allusive semantic notes. The language feels fresh, the images raw. For me anyway. I’ve also injected a note of imperial condescension into the Nonman’s observations – something I might expand in subsequent tinkering.

This is precisely the way I work with novels, though typically I find myself streamlining the language, paring the lyricism back, unlike here. I run through it, take some time, then run through it again, killing the lame and looking for alternate opportunities. When I think about writing, I literally think about rewriting: this is where it begins to feel like sculpture to me, like a non-linear exercise, when I have a blob of meaning already given that I can shape and detail.

Of course it’s all in my head. Everything I’m discussing here exists nowhere but in my head (and perhaps not even there!), which really shows both the presumption and the risk that underwrites all creative writing: to assume that these things happening here will also happen out there, in the heads of others. That’s what makes this an indulgent piece, and from a brute marketing standpoint, probably the worst one I could have chosen as my first Atrocity Tale!

But I’m happy with it. Earwa is where brutality goes to be beautiful, and insofar as “Four Revelations” continues the examination of this paradox, I’m happy with it. For those of you who think it… just… is… ‘brutal,’ You got me all wrong! This story literally leaps across the line that I force all the novels to walk – intentionally so.

On a different note, I’ve opened a small kiosk in the Speculative Fragments section called “Adventures in Recent Continental Thought”  for the hard core philosophy wankers out there. A lot has happened in the last ten years, and I’ve finally grown curious enough to check it all out. Academic philosophy underwent a radical split around the turn of the 20th century, with ‘Hegel fatigue’ and the new logic inspiring a number of German and English thinkers to abandon the 19th century preoccupation with Idealism, and to take a second-order linguistic approach to philosophical problems, while others on the Continent decided to only wipe part of the blackboard clean, and to continue the original Kantian project with an eye to the priority of examing appearances as they appear, and life as it is lived. The Analytic/Continental divide in philosophy was born, and having attended a PhD program evenly split between the two, I can tell you first hand that it was so radical that parties from either camp literally could not understand each other.

The fact that no one in the real world could understand either of them didn’t seem to make much of an impression (beyond a kind of condescending defensiveness). Nor did the fact that they often couldn’t understand themselves. But then philosophy is where languages are birthed just to watch them die. In present Continental Thought, there’s a huge attempt to go ‘backward,’ to free philosophy from Kant’s critical bottleneck, and to return to the ancient work of Metaphysics. In certain circles, it is cool to be ‘Cartesian’ once again. 

If you can see past the jargon it’s quite interesting, but as far as I can tell it lacks the obvious genius of some individual figure to provide the cohesive framework of implicit or explicit consensus to survive long as ‘movement.’ Viewed for a certain institutional distance, the key to the success of any Continental philosophical movement seems to be the provision of some kind of wholesale perjorative label, the ‘Problematic Ontological Assumption’ that has bottled all other philosophy in a blind alley. This is the most efficient way to accomplish two central goals: explain why it is you have won the magical philosophy lottery and hook impressionable grad students hungry to stake new ground. The new POA turns of ‘Correlation,’ the way post-Kantian philosophy are all philosophies of ‘access.’ At this point, I don’t think Correlation has the mileage a POA needs to keep a movement going, but the rules of philosophical contagion have radically changed – in just ten years, no less. I find it interesting the way the proliferation of so many philosophy blogs has the effect of displaying how much philosophical transformation is driven by good old fashioned social competition.

But anyway, if you’re into these sort of things, and your jargon tolerance is epic, I’ll be posting my impressions and evaluations as I read on. I begin with a partially tongue-in-cheek critique of the ‘philosophical book,’ then consider Francois Laruelle’s ‘non-philosophy’ philosophy, ending with the invention of something called ‘Rhapsophy,’ as philosophy’s ‘other other.’

Three Pound Brain remains, as ever, the crossroads between incompatible empires.

The Brain Just Got Bigger…

by rsbakker

An update on several things:

1) The industry is all but in a state of crisis right now, so I just wanted to urge everyone to cultivate a culture buying books. As a midlist author, I am on the bubble, so any appreciable erosion of my sales will force me out of the full-time writing game. It really is as simple as that. It only took me ten years to write The Darkness That Comes Before part-time! So cut a crazy old headbanger a break and spread the word when you can.

2) The Unholy Consult continues to grow, but more slowly than I had hoped.  At the moment, things feel forced and wooden, at which point I begin obessessively rewriting. I want this book to crack like a whip, almost too much I sometimes worry. But every book I’ve written (with the exception of Disciple of the Dog) has been a melodrama like this, alternating between inspriration and desperation.

 3) In an effort to reboot my brain, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks exploring the chaotic mess of documents on my computer. I actually posted several substantial fragments of my final dissertation attempt, so for those of you interested, there’s plenty of stuff to make you go cross-eyed. For that small handful who has read Derrida or Heidegger, I also posted a new piece on the Limit With One Side. Believe or not, but I think the overall word count for Three Pound Brain has doubled.

4) And lastly, I have finally discovered Catherynne Valente. I read her short story “The Bread We Eat in Dreams” hot on the heels of completing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has only won, um, let’s see, the Pulitzer and just about every other award America has to offer, and Valente not only makes her look like a prose drone, she also writes fantasy.

She could very well be the One.

Four Revelations Redux

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Clog a sewer pipe and shit will become your priority. Civilization is infrastructure, the luxury of turning the human to-do list upside down.

I just thought I would post to let you know that I’ve posted the first substantial rewrite of “Four Revelations,” as well as to clear one raucous comment list to make room for another.

This second draft should give you all an idea of how I work: a first draft written in the heat of some idea, followed by a second that tries to expunge the tired language, tighten the details, sharpen the imagery, and to exploit the various dramatic, thematic, and stylistic opportunities that might have suggested themselves over the intervening days. So in this version, I worked on the parallels and contrasts between the timeframes, drawing out some of the ancient memories, snipping others. I made Conphas more flip to contrast his arrogance to that of Cu’jara Cinmoi. I also gave him a more salient role, with both a motive and a slight backstory. I strengthened and paced the network of repetitions. I also reworked the tenses throughout, giving the jumble of past and present tenses from before a definite structure.

It’s still missing something, though. I’m not happy with the development of the overarching concern, the notion of scale and proportion, the Nonman versus the human, the epic versus the mundane, the glorious versus the sordid.

Regarding the comments, have at ‘er. As frustrated as I sometimes get, the fact is I love families where everyone kicks one another’s shins under the table. And I love that Three Pound Brain is such a lively, opinionated place. Someone pass the cheese, please…

Hard Core Philosopherization

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: There are two ways to think the Riddle of Consciousness: What do you have to add to a roundworm to get a human? and What do you have to subtract from God to get Jesus? The first will get you to consciousness, but only if you use the second to solve the riddle. 

“Four Revelations” has received a fantastic amount of traffic these past several days, and has occasioned considerable debate. Strangely enough, I’ve found myself sucked back into the orbit of that ancient gas-giant named Derrida. I decided to go to Vanderbilt University for my philosophy PhD so that I could study with David Wood, who was at that time the only philosopher I could find who was actively writing on the topic of my obsession, the Continental Philosophy of Time. That was 1997, and as time passed, my interest in time did not so much wane as drift into isolation. I never stopped writing about time, as the title of Light, Time, and Gravity might suggest. In fact, I even thought I had solved all the old problems that had plagued me, that I had come up with a simple, elegant, and most importantly, naturalistic account of what the Now was. But as an institutional refugee, I never bothered to check back in on the old ‘time scene.’ I literally assumed that people had moved on.

It turns out I was wrong. In fact, it turns out all the texts I had obsessed over in the 90’s now house a veritable saloon of drunken philosophers, all them troubled the way I was once troubled (before moving on to more troubling things). This spurred a new piece on naturalizing deconstruction that I added to the Speculations page. In the course of rummaging through my old files I found “To Be and Not To Be,”  the draft of an old essay from 2000, what began as an attempt to spin an article out of my dissertation’s first chapter, but ended up killing my dissertation project instead. And I also bumped into “Outing the It that Thinks,” the paper I gave at the Nietzsche Workshop just a couple of months back, and so I ironed out a couple of wrinkles, and put it up as well–just to prove how lax the editorial standards are here at Three Pound Brain. As always, I remain the only person daring enough to publish my philosophy.

Check them out if you’re interested. Just be warned that they contain some hard core philosopherization.

Speaking of Philosopherizing: I popped over to VoxDay the other day to see what new mischief he was stirring up, and found this wonderful little tidbit. The humility is almost enough to make you dizzy–that much is the same. But am I wrong to think there’s been a change? And if there has been a change, what should we make of it?

Four Revelations

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: If words were feathers then scientists would be falcons, preachers would be vultures, writers would be peacocks, and philosophers would be turkeys.

I’ve put up a draft of an Atrocity Tale here. [Click it now if you want to read it without any commentary whatsoever].

I’ve wanted to include a Nonman stream-of-consciousness piece in the books for quite some time, but I thought the exercise would simply gum the story up too much for too many readers, as well as compromise the singularity of the likewise opaque White-Luck Warrior sections, which I wanted to stand out as much as possible.

Comments are most welcome.

The Pen is Mightier than the Word

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Of all the sad things in the world, none possess the poignant absurdity of self-described radicals defending the status quo. Like squeezing lemons over a razor cut: it’s just too stupid to be really painful.

Sorry guys, I know this is small fry stuff (compared to the latest fare), but… This is the newspaper I read.

Russell Smith, my favourite arts columnist at the Globe and Mail, has offered yet another defence of the literary status quo, this time on the societal value of “snarky snobs.”

We need snarky snobs, we love them, we look to them with interest even if we’re not going to slavishly follow their proclamations: We want at least to know what the snarky snob position is.

I actually agree with a great deal of what he says in this article, with a number of crucial provisos. So long as, for instance, you consider his ‘we’ in the above quote to be royal–or limited to his particular ingroup–I entirely concur. Russell Smith is nothing if not social display conscious: he also writes for the Fashion and Style section after all. Odds are, someone who’s keen on what people are wearing in Milan will also be keen on what people are reading in New York.

I also agree with his argument from analogy: literary critics are indeed like fountain pen geeks. They are a dedicated group of enthusiastic specialists who think their criteria are the criteria. Now if literature were just another commodity like fountain pens, one where the commodity virtues of reliability, ease-of-use, and stylishness (social display value) reigned supreme, then the argument would be a real zinger.

Of course, like an angry ex, he reaches for the tried and true buttons. He explicitly claims that those who rail against the ‘Gatekeepers’ are basically just jealous. He implies their ignorance and ingratitude at almost every turn. But, I can forgive him that. As a long time writer for the Globe and Mail, I imagine he finds spinning criticism into flattery almost effortless.

It’s his final statement that gets my goat: “I will continue to think the role of the educated critic is to pull the gates of art wide open.” Question-begging, anyone? The criticism is 1) that the ‘educated critic’ has actually forgotten what art is, that they use parochial ingroup yardsticks to measure the world; and 2) that they belong to a much larger societal apparatus that has monopolized several crucial institutional bottlenecks, perpetuating a set of values and exclusions that have a number of negative social and political consequences.

With reference to (1), what he should have said was that the present role of the educated critic is to pull open the gates of what they think is cool open. I’ll grant that they know what they think is cool better than I do any day. But to say that their present role is to pull the gates of art open, well then, I think we need to debate the changing nature of art in the information age, because what you call ‘art’ looks an awful lot like upscale Entertainment to me…

Or worse, fountain pens.

With reference to (2), what he should have acknowledged was that the ‘educated critic’s’ role is institutional through and through. His failure to do so makes me think he isn’t all that, well… educated. The literary critic’s role is to discharge numerous institutional requirements and obligations, including, securing ingroup prestige, conserving socio-institutional capital, reasserting identity claims, and the long, long list of dodgey things we all do all the bloody time. Since Russell seems to know next to nothing about the human animal, he takes the literary critics claims at face value. I imagine he thinks that self-righteousness and unconscious social agendas are something that only social conservatives suffer. But like Chomsky is quick to point out in his institutional critiques, the thing to remember is that slave-owners were generally nice people. Most everyone is generally nice. Most everyone ‘just’ wants to ‘help’ people. Yes, even God-fearing slave-owners had ‘good intentions.’

Parachute nice people into problematic institutions and no matter how innocuous their small sphere of activity seems, they simply become another cog in a socially pernicious machine. They assimilate their norms to the institution’s norms (toothless bitching is often one of them) because that’s what humans do in the quest for economic and social security. They also confuse agreement for intelligence, and so take pride for surrounding themselves with ‘intelligent’ people, those who only dare debate the details. And the next thing you know, they encounter agreement almost everywhere they turn, including in what they read. All those intelligent books!

Insofar as every formally organized institution in the history of the human race falls under this description, I’m not sure there’s much to debate. Even if you don’t agree with the specifics of my critique, I hope you can at least see that Russell is making a clear cut claim to institutional authority, saying that you should defer (with hip cynicism doubling as genuine skepticism, of course) to his definition of art. Thus the fountain pen analogy: no one has problems deferring to the authority of a fountain pen geek. By simply analogizing literary culture to the fountain pen industry, he implies that it is harmless and friendly. That the authority at stake is trivial.

And this drops us into the lap of the real dilemma: which is that literary culture has stopped asking what literature is supposed to do. Instead, it has circled its wagons around a family of historical resemblances and traditional exclusions, a covert literary essentialism. Never has the human communications environment changed so radically in such a short time, and yet the blithe, comforting, and privilege-conserving assumption is that the literary animal has no need to adapt to its crazy new habitat. There’s no need to look, let alone debate. The old modernist morphology need not worry about context to accomplish its goal. Which is… what? Alienate the larger outgroup community? Ornament itself with prizes and galas and trusts? Religiously avoid any baseline cultural appeal? Gratify the values and attitudes of its readership?

To make matters worse, literary culture has become ideologically defensive and conservative–as Russell typifies, I think. It seems to have lost the capacity to even honestly consider outgroup criticisms (‘they’re just a bunch of jealous manques’), let alone be anything remotely approaching the ‘self-critical institution’ it pretends to be. Too many mortgages. Too many privileges. Too many smiles in the mirror.

So, Russell… you… look… marvelous


The Informatic Rag and Bone Shop

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Consciousness is the gear that confuses itself for the whole machine. Thus God wipes out trailer parks with tornados.

This is basically to wipe the chalkboard clean for a new round of comments. I checked the stats, and Three Pound Brain is still getting over 500 hits a day despite the amount of semantic grease sizzling on the philosophical grill (usually it dips below 300 when I go on these jags). It’s been heavy fare. Phenomenological flies buzzing about ontological burgers. Epistemological wasps sniffing metaphysical pop cans. There’s more than a few jelly bellies out there, I’m sure.

My guess is that a lot of people want to ask, assert, or even vent. For people alienated or even angered by all this, don’t give in to the instinct to dismiss or belittle, because this shit ain’t just philosophy anymore. It’s actually informing a small but growing fraction of what you see on TV, and it’s the ‘growing’ part that has all of us in a tizzy. For people interested in learning more about Thomas Metzinger, try reading Ego Tunnel, where he translates a number of his ideas into terms lay-people can understand. Then check out Susan Blackmore’s absolutely fantastic Conversations on Consciousness: it’s the best magical mystery tour of all the wild theories being thrown around that I can think of, and in the words of the thinkers themselves. Otherwise, Peter Rankin’s Conscious Entities site is the clearest, most fair-minded introduction to the world of consciousness studies that I know of on the web.

So, this is how I see the debate:

The primary questions, it seems to me, are 1) Where are we headed? and 2) What are we are?

More and more I’m becoming fascinated by the way these two questions are becoming conceptually intertwined. Where we are headed, it seems to me, depends on what we are. If the BBH is correct and consciousness is an informatic rag and bone shop, then eliminativism (hopefully without the materialism) will become science, and knowledge and experience will find themselves utterly divorced. I’ve sketched various scenarios where the masses wander through proliferating cults of meaning while corporations and governments utilize the science to concentrate more and more power. We have no constitutional provisions for the separation of Science and State.

The world of Neuropath.

The two questions are intertwined because it could be the case that we are what we are in a way that makes it impossible to intuit what we are. Our intuitive ‘sense of self’ is largely hardwired. This means that if our intuitive sense of self is thoroughly mistaken, then we are a misapprehension. Since the masses will always trust their intuitions over discourse, they will simply adapt their discourse accordingly, rationalize our collective misapprehension into something foundational. Since science allows us to instrumentalize our environments, make tools of natural processes, the more science learns about what we are, the more those possessing knowledge and resources will be able to manipulate others. Given the cultural sacralization of our collective misapprehension into various cults of meaning, they likely will be able to do so without resistance. As seems to be the case with neuromarketing now.

In a sense, the prospect of this and related scenarios is the raison d’etre of Three Pound Brain. Or one of them, I should say. The other is to raise my profile as an author and to sell some fucking books! Which is why I’ve stashed the rest of my crazy ass ruminations here.