Sunday, December 5, 2010

Blog Retirement

I've decided to retire this blog for good. This decision is based on some pretty petty reasons: I've decided that the name 'Book Flog' constrains one to keep talking about books, which, let's admit, are increasingly unimportant in the contemporary world.

So: any future bloggish activity will be at my new venture, The Homing Pigeon Experience. With a silly name like that, it could be about almost anything.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Summer Book Roundup

So. Summer is on its way out, and I have updated this blog even less than I did during the year. Which isn’t good, considering that a lot of what I spent my summer doing was…well, reading. As you’ll see in a moment, most of this reading was extremely ‘extra-curricular’. There are probably deep-seated emotional reasons for my not continuing to do little web write-ups of my reading habits—chief among them the realization that the things that I have to say about books, if they’re even marginally accurate, are almost exactly the same things that most rational reviewers might say—but today, as I moped around the apartment, I did what all sad schlubs do when they’re sitting around with too much to do and too little hope: I Googled my name. Lo and Behold! Right after my and facebook profiles, up pops this website. Hence, as a last-ditch effort to control my public persona (but obviously not that much, given this intro), I provide you, the reading public, with a list of selections from my non-internet summer reading, completely lacking any annotations.

Please judge me lightly. If a selection here seems unusually shitty or repugnant (i.e., The Turner Diaries, which is just as shitty and repugnant as you’ve heard, if you’ve heard of it), chalk that up to me doing unassigned research. Like a real-life critic, I’ve put an asterisk by the titles I’d especially recommend. In no particular order…

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan

*Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, by Gail A Eisnitz

Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel

American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, by Lou Michel & Dan Herbeck

The Turner Diaries, by Andrew Macdonald

Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy, by Joan Burbick

McTeague, by Frank Norris

*The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin

*Glamorama and Imperial Bedrooms, by Bret Easton Ellis

Horns, by Joe Hill

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, by Martin Amis

*Eating the Dinosaur, by Chuck Klosterman

Consciousness and the Novel, by David Lodge

The Prisoner of Sex, by Norman Mailer

Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by Nick Reding

Is this all? I’m not sure. Without launching into a 20,000 word post, it’s hard to say much about the whole. Some were great, some (see: Mailer, Norman) pretty terrible. It’s worth mentioning that this was the summer that I finally caught up with some of the great TV of our modern age, and I can say with little embarassment that I enjoyed making my way through The Wire and Breaking Bad more than anything else on this list.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Preliminary Thoughts on Scientific Prose

Many ideological diatribes are stimulated by personal vendettas, and this one is no different. Today, I went to the physics office to pick up a paper I wrote for a class last semester (caution dictates that I put no damning evidence of which class), and I was surprised at the low grade I received on it. I do not think of myself as the world’s greatest physicist, but neither do I think it self-flattery to claim that I have the ability to dredge up info on a well-documented topic and to put said info into my own words—which was exactly all that was required for the assigned project. The result, a paper entitled “Strong Force Parity Violation, Maybe”, required quite a bit of effort on my part, and upon turning it in I was sorry that it was to fall stillborn on the presses, so to speak, as there would be but one reader of this paper: the professor (still unnamed, as caution dictates).

Since I have been on the teaching end of things myself, I understand that it is not possible for a professor to annotate each returned assignment fully; grading papers, after all, is not the sort of work that one would do without pay. But the two comments on the front page, which were the only comments given, did not (in my opinion) justify the low grade. For posterity, here they are:

The intent was to have these papers written in the style of a regular article for Phys. Rev. Lett., not in the conversational, informal manner presented here.


Overall, the content of the paper is fine. However, the style is too informal. The colloquial style, imbued with cynicism, is not appropriate for a research paper.

In brief, though my content was ‘fine’, the gently irreverent presentation manner was enough to bring me down to a B-, a grade that, in terms of graduate work, is on the borderline of unsatisfactory, an effective FAIL. Although this slight is a few weeks past, and although the grades are all filed away and history has marched on, I am still steamed about this issue. Of course, I’m going to tell you why.

The belief of the scientific establishment—by which I mean, the belief of all those who act as though Science were property that must be unthinkingly defended against the unwashed hordes—is that there is a proper order in which New Thought might be expressed. It is, approximately at least, the way that the big scientific journals are run. If a scientist has a research article he’d like published, he sends it to an Important Journal. The journal then sends it off to its team of volunteer reviewers. These reviewers are scientists who are hip to the jargon and ideas that are commonplace in the discipline that a journal addresses; if they weren’t, they, like the rest of the educated public, would not be able even to slog their way through the papers, so heavy are they with jargon and logical leaps that are filled elsewhere in ‘the literature’ (itself a loosely defined canon of oral tradition and common knowledge sometimes never put into print).

These reviewers have a few roles. First, they decide if the result described in the paper is plausible. If it is deemed too looney or far-fetched, it can be sent back to the author with a remark that says, ‘Sorry, this can’t possibly be right.’ If the reviewers think that it looks plausible, then there’s a further branching point. On one side of this branch, there’s the line that says, ‘Sorry, this is probably correct, but it’s too close to being the same as the result of [insert other paper reference here]’; the paper dies. On the other side, the hopeful vista after which all submitted papers desperately pine, there is the helpful suggestion. This means that the reviewers might send back the paper to the author with remarks saying things like, ‘Did you think of [X]? [Paper reference] makes it clear that this is something that all people thinking seriously about [topic of interest] should look into.’ After a few rounds of correspondence, if enough of the reviewers’ concerns are addressed to their satisfaction, then the paper goes to press. Victory!

This process of ‘Peer Review’ is posited by many establishment scientists as the wondrous thing which sets science apart from those unwashed masses, who truck in opinion and hearsay. If you ever go to a scientific talk on a politically explosive topic, you’re sure to hear it as a kind of proof—e.g., ‘There is not a single peer-reviewed publication supporting the concept of intelligent design’ or ‘Have you looked at the ratio of peer-reviewed articles that support human-caused global warming vs. the number of peer-reviewed against it? The number is staggering!’

Now. Peer Review, as such, may be necessary for something, but I contend that largely what it is necessary for is the maintenance of group cohesion among scientists. This is not to say that this cohesion is not at all valuable; the jargon-heavy prose, for one thing, sets a bar that says, ‘Persons not having the requisite amount of time put into breaking through this language barrier are not admitted.’ And in some sense, this is not so insidious as my bald statements might make it seem. There are certain facts that come out of the way that mathematics is set up, for instance, and people ignorant of these underlying assumption-based facts are going to have a hard time following applications to the forbidding hinterlands of Current Research.

But there are just as many things that are non-obvious facts, and these must be sorted out sociologically. (For scientists reading this blog and hating it: a concrete example is quantum-mechanical ‘spin’, which is a term that is often tossed around as if its definition were perfectly well-defined to people in the know, but which, it turns out, has an awful lot of sub-connotations that must be revealed by context.) Beyond this, there’s the issue of style—my reason for discussing all this stuff in the first place.

To examine the effect of style on credibility, let me tell you a little story. Just to be absolutely clear: it’s not factual. It’s not fair, either. I made it all up.

This story involves two brothers, Mechanic Bob and Scientist Jim. These two men were drive along the road, late on a Saturday night, when they suddenly pass by an incredible sight: an alien landing a la ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Since the aliens in that movie were pretty friendly, the brothers park their car and get out to greet them. Unfortunately, it turns out that these aliens are not benign, and they come at our poor wayfarers with a clear intent to harm.

The brothers are astounded, flabbergasted, amazed…and terrified out of their wits. They both jump into Bob’s hot rod, and by a hair they escape with their lives. Bob always figured that there was more going on than the scientists were letting on, so he feels finally vindicated, and believe me when I tell you that he lets Jim know it. Stupid scientists! Jim, on the other hand, is shocked as hell, but he is also secretly glad that he was the one to witness this grand occasion. Aliens—just like in the movies! Despite his otherwise lackluster scientific output, this is a discovery big enough to make him famous, enough to make him the world’s leading UFOologist overnight.

Here our story, like a paper on its journey through academic publication, splits off into possibilities .

In Scenario 1, the two brothers call the local police, babbling like fools, both out of their heads. They get the local sheriff on the phone, and Bob talks first. “The aliens,” he cries, “it was horrible! They tried to kill us! It was only because of my souped-up Chevy that we got out alive!” Jim is quick to corroborate the story. “Bob and I disagree on just about everything,” he says breathlessly, “but this time he’s right. The aliens were out to get us! We must run for our lives! Everyone evacuate! Listen to me—I have a Ph.D. in Science, goddamit…and I’m afraid to die.” On the other end, at the police station, the only sounds that anyone could make out were a sort-of incoherent moaning. A young patrolman listening to his radio thought it sounded like the proverbial ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that they sometimes talk about, punctuated by cries of, “I saw this in the lab…”

Scenario 2 starts out just the same as Scenario 1. Bob immediately blubbers his innermost fears to a total stranger, the sheriff. The difference is in Jim’s response. Instead of acting as a fallible human, Jim puts on his Scientist Coat to address the feckless official. “Sheriff, can you hear me?” he says in a calm, clear tone. “Bob has seen something that’s given him quite a shock, and I believe that he may be in need of medical treatment to cope with what he’s seen. However, I can tell you that in perfect confidence, in my capacity as a scientist, that what he saw was very real, and presents a real threat. I believe that the aliens’ most probable method of attack will be to use gabba-gabba-gabba in their attack—I know this by the bitter scent emanating from their spacecraft, which is the same as the scent I noted when we used gabba-gabba-goo in our laboratory. The chemical compositions are nearly identical. What we did to reverse the effects of these reactions was to obbadooberate the gabba-gabba-goo. I would suggest, for the good of the citizens of Blah-de-dah-ville, that the National Guard be stationed outside of the city limits, ready and poised for obbadooberization.”

As anyone with a proper diet of sci-fi should be able to tell you, these two scenarios have very different outcomes. In the first case, the warning is ignored, and Blah-de-dah-ville is obliverated by the aliens in a crushing defeat that takes just under 90 min. In the second case, you can bet that the aliens were obbadooberized to the hilt…making Scientist Bob a hero’s hero’s hero.

The point of this silly little tale? Style matters, but not for the reasons that your typical establishment scientist thinks.

As far as I’ve been able to figure out, the proposed reason that scientific papers are required to be written in a stiff, ‘formal’ style is to let the content speak for itself, and hence to raise Science above the sad, grey affairs of common humanity. What I’m stating here, without proof, as a probably unjustified opinion that is obviously slanted by what I think was an unfair grade, is that formal writing masks more than it tells. IMHO, there’s a big problem with a system that lends credibility to Scenario 2, but not Scenario 1. Would it not be more rational for Scenario 1 to effect the bigger change? The problem here, it seems to me, is that the formal style, effective as it was in Scenario 2, is a two-edged sword. In some cases (I’m thinking of mathematical proofs), the dryness lends a certain intellectual clarity to the work which is appropriate; just as often (now I’m thinking of strings, multiverses and extra-dimensional fantasias), it lends an inappropriate air of seriousness to ideas which we have literally no reason to take seriously. The whole reason that style is important is that it forces writers to communicate rather than just speak, to tell as they show.

My complaint is registered. I feel much better, thanks.

Note: For an example of what is considered a ‘beautiful style’ by many physicists, see the writings of P.A.M. Dirac. That he was probably autistic should not be considered an unimportant side-note in a stylistic analysis of his work.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, by Samuel C. Florman

It’s an ugly trend, I know, for book reviews to center too much around the reviewer—a sign, perhaps, that the reviewer is too much of a self-centered asshole to snap out of his natural narcissistic delusion to actually consider the work at hand—but in this case, I might have a small responsibility to start out with some caveats about myself. As a physics grad student, see, I come programmed with a swarm of biases about engineering. In physics classes, we are taught to scorn engineers, to think that they’re a necessary but secondary life form that exists to take our discoveries and put them out into the world. Our discoveries, though—let’s be clear about the boundaries of importance. These engineers are not to be thought of as pioneers or anything so grand; they’re worker bees doing the world’s work, while we, the great queens, give them the pictures of the world that they, neither intelligent enough nor imaginative enough to imagine otherwise, must blindly take as truth. This nasty little caricature may be necessary for the promulgation of physics (something to keep physicists from asking those practical questions like: why, if I’m so smart, do I get paid so little? and why doesn’t society think I’m cool, huh?), and engineers, so I’m told, are taught to harbor similar negative biases toward ‘pure’ scientists, those poor, impractical schmucks who couldn’t implement a real-world solution if life depended on it.

So it stands. So, too, it is probably not all that surprising that ‘The Existential Pleasures of Engineering’ didn’t overly rile my humors. The book itself is one of those tradesman’s classics that engineers (at least, the engineers at Dordt college, in my hometown) are assigned to read in their intro-to-engineering course as a pep talk that outlines what an engineer does, why this is good for society, and why, for those suited to it, engineering can be an enjoyable and profitable way to spend a life. These aren’t overly ambitious goals for a book, but they make it perfectly suited for that minor-classics niche that fills up introductory course syllabi. For non-engineers, the interesting parts of the book are likely to be those least involved in the craft of itself. For instance, what’s that ‘existential’ qualifier doing in the title of the book? And why this unusual emphasis on ‘pleasure’?

To explain those rhetorical questions, the first place to look is the preface, where Florman sets out the goals of his enterprise with an engineer’s directness:

At first glance, engineering and existentialism appear to have nothing to do with each other. The engineer uses the logic of science to achieve practical results. The existentialist is guided by the promptings of his heart, which, as Pascal said, has its reasons that reason cannot know. The existentialism most typically sees the engineer as an antagonist whose analytical methods and pragmatic approach to life are said to be desensitizing and soul deadening—in a word, antiexistential. To show that this adversary relationship is based on a misapprehension of the nature of the engineering experience is—as can be surmised from the title—a primary objective of the book.

Well, good enough. Next, though, we should probably check the copyright page, to position this puppy in history. 1976—the bicentennial year, true, but also right in the middle of the Future-Shock Decade, the Me Decade, and (most importantly) just after the Vietnam War’s end. History, at least to hear this book’s message, had conspired against the engineer. Back in the good old days of American Progress, an engineer was a friend to tomorrow, a reality enhancer, a vision facilitator. No more. In the wake of Vietnam, the engineer was just another blank-faced technocrat responsible for making bombs, tinkering toward Armageddon. The first of the book’s three sections is devoted to demonstrating this fall from grace; it is largely a pastiche of quotes from poems and novels from before and after the fall. For example. Before, we get Walt Whitman on the possibilities of new technologies:

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.

Vs. Afterward, we’re given Cat Stevens as a representative of modern poetic protest (complete with unnecessary apostrophes, so as to compete with Whitman):

Well I think it’s fine building Jumbo planes, or taking a ride on a cosmic train, switch on summer from a slot machine, yes, get what you want to, if you want ‘cause you can get anything.
I know we’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but tell me, where d’ th’ ch’ldr’n play?

As the man said, engineering needed an image rehab, and Part 2 of the book takes the fight to technology’s critics. In the chapter titled ‘Antitechnology’, he names his nemesi and gives each a key text: founding father of the antitechnologists, Jacques Ellul (“The Technological Society”); convert and intellectual heavyweight, Lewis Mumford (“The Myth of the Machine”—published in Pt. 1, “Technics and Human Development” and Pt. 2 “The Pentagon of Power”); scientific backer, the biologist Rene Dubos (“So Human an Animal”, which won the 1968 Pulitzer for nonfiction); popularizer via the New Yorker, Charles A. Reich (“The Greening of America”); and the man who put all this material into its final, summed-up form, Theodore Rozak (“Where the Wasteland Ends”). Here’s Florman talking smack: “They make an unlikely combination: a theological philosopher, a historian of technology, a biologist, and two academic apologists for the counterculture…With the exception of Dubos, who speaks in tones of sweet reason, they are all inclined to make extravagant statements, and, again with the exception of Dubos, they have been subjected to criticism and even ridicule. Yet certain of their basic ideas are receiving much serious attention. The thoughtful engineer has no choice but to give these ideas a hearing.” (pg. 48)

Given the already extant “criticism and ridicule” toward these poor luddites, the wringing that they’re put through in the next pages might seem a bit much. In terms of history, certainly, these guys posed little threat to engineering as a whole (especially since the ‘green’ movement in America today is so heavily intertwined with both engineering and capitalist economics). But the book is a pep talk, and any good pep talk includes a hefty offering of why the other team can be beat. This is kept mostly on the proper ideological level, and it’s possible that my boredom here is more that I’m already in the choir (no preaching necessary, thanks) than that the topics are so noncontroversial as I assume.

For instance. Under Florman’s characterization, the tone of all the antitechnological lit mentioned is uniform and unquestioning on some topics, one of these being the powerlessness of individuals to make their own decisions under the headlong march of techy progress. Florman prefigures Pinker on this subject and says that these critics have it exactly reversed. Technology is, as a capitalist enterprise, responding to the desires that people already have, not (as some suggest) insidiously creating needs in order to pump up profits. In fact, he goes farther with this critique and asserts that their referral to technology as an inevitable progression is just the type of dehumanization that they claim to detest, for behind each machine is an engineer, a human, and this person is simply doing his best to respond to societal needs with the tools he has. There’s even a subtext of snobbery in the antitechnologist’s furor. When Roszak complains of his irritation that during a trip to Yellowstone, “Never once were we out of earshot of chattering throngs and transistor radios or beyond the odor of automobile exhaust…Ah, wilderness,” Florman acidly responds, “How nice it would be for a select few of us if Delphi and Yellowstone could be set aside for our personal enjoyment, with the masses restricted to places to places such as Coney Island, more suited to their coarser sensibilities.” (pg. 80)

This is well said, and I find much to agree with in it. When today’s internet populists attack Al Gore’s plane flights and jumbo lodges, the same sort of anger gets (rightly) stoked. What I find harder to appreciate is why this little volume latches onto that most anti-intellectual of philosophies, existentialism, and claims it for the engineers. Aaaand…we’re back to the scientist/engineer divide. Florman praises the engineer as a ‘doer,’ as homo faber (‘man the maker’), and not as some scientist who would passively suck all meaning and pleasure from the world. No man plagued by doubt, he. Ah, screw it. Let him go to Sartre, and they can together condemn contemplation as an outcome of a bourgeoisie philosophy (really—Sartre does this, here). As for me, I can write little diatribes on my unread blog, dismissing the last third of the book as little more than a name-checking of every novel ever to involve an engineer. Hey, look, existentialists, I’m choosing! I’m sorry—I’m going to go indulge in some more of my sad passiveness, and try to actually understand what the hell’s going on…indeed, an unheroic thing, if ever. You can stuff it, engineers, O ye heroes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
--Reinhold Niebuhr

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a book about secular morality. This comes as something of a surprise, since author Steven Pinker is a Harvard psychologist whose other popular books deal largely with matters one might be able to stow away as scientific exotica (mostly evolutionary linguistics and neuroscience). But this book, his fourth, combines his interests as a scientist with his concerns as a citizen. Its major claim is that the ‘official theory’ (his term) of human nature held the large educated public—viz., that the human being is cut off and separate from the natural world, set apart uniquely as one who can make free decisions divorced from biology—is incorrect and, moreover, is ultimately a danger to society. He acknowledges that thinking of people as smart animals caught in all the brutal evolutionary traps is controversial, and the large bulk of the book is spent attempting to justify why this scary fact is not scary at all. His risky gambit toward this direction is to make the case that moral arguments must be divorced entirely from the workings of nature, and he argues furiously along these lines, acknowledging the evolutionary naturalness of rape and murder at the same time at the same time as he cheers on the struggle toward justice.

It makes for some odd reading, but this house divided against itself makes a mighty effort to stand. The beginning chapters are some of its strongest and most convincing, rooted as they are in normal science. Pinker argues that it is ultimately inconsistent, at odds both with data and with common sense, to believe that there is no inborn human nature. He points to results from cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology to make the point that it is much more coherent to posit that human desires shape culture than it is to say that culture is a primary shaper of humans, as is often claimed by humanities scholars. Language, one of Pinker’s particular interests, is held up as but one of the things that superficially differs between humans but ultimately shows the commonality of an inborn nature, just as wildebeests’ running minutes after birth shows an inborn tendency, a genetic characteristic unlearned and present from the beginning.

This isn’t completely novel material, and I doubt that any of the criticized chattering classes would undergo a radical conversion after reading the opening chapters. Pinker discusses this explicitly in the second part of the book (entitled, appropriately enough, “Fear and Loathing”). Pinker delves into the well-known cases of E.O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, and Richard Herrnstein, author of the article “I.Q.” and co-author of The Bell Curve, contending—persuasively, I think—that the outcry against these men was mainly politically motivated and failed to falsify their claims. That Wilson is defended is no surprise; Wilson’s theory that evolution can be used to explain the structure of animal societies, including human societies, is an obvious and heavy influence on The Blank Slate. Wilson has his haters (including such Pinker-reviled luminaries as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin), but he is far from a pariah on the level of a Herrnstein. “I.Q.” is an infamous article, and in academic circles, Herrnstein’s name is nearly synonymous with ‘Social Darwinism.' To defend Herrnstein is to require some lengthy explanations.

And lengthy explanations are given. Chapter after chapter rolls along with the same dramatic thrust: that although evolutionary trends explain all the evils of the world, they don’t excuse them. For instance, getting back to Herrnstein, Pinker’s opinion is that we should look at his work to see that, yes, the social strata have different statistical profiles, and, yes, the ultimate causes of this order are likely to have an evolutionary flavor. But this should not be the end of our musing; we should now subject it to our moral reasoning. Does this order correspond with our core values? If not, we have a social duty to fight against nature, utilizing fighting tools designed with that stubborn beast, the human, in mind.

This strategy may sound uncomfortably ad hoc, even at first glance, but in the late “Hot Buttons” section of the book, where Mr. Pinker openly opines on the issues of Politics, Violence, Gender, Children and The Arts (in that order), his musings are earthly and timely. In the violence section, for instance, he probes the reasons why violence can be in an individual’s rational self-interest; following Hobbes, cantankerous author of the conservative political-science classic, Leviathan, he explains that violence can give a competitive (genetic) advantage, that it may arise spontaneously when two parties do not trust one another, and that it may bestow glory on the winner. This goes against the dual mantras claiming that violence is a learned behavior and that violence is a social disease. Recalling the violence he saw break out in a single afternoon after the start of a Montreal police strike, Pinker asserts that violence is a natural response to myriad societal pressures, should there be no opposing force pushing against it. “Denying the logic of violence makes it easy to forget how readily violence can flare up, and ignoring the parts of the mind that ignite violence makes it easy to overlook the parts that can extinguish it,” he says, reasonably enough.

Of course, the main reason that his argument works so well in the case of violence is that the quandary’s moral outcome is so well-rehearsed; were it to argue that violence is not as bad as we had all thought, then he would have an actual controversy on his hands. In other chapters, however, he does effectively that, turning conventional moral repugnancies—incest and embryonic human cloning, to name two examples—into evolutionary mistakes. These sections are likely to make many readers uncomfortable, for they underline the essential weakness of the entire strategy: when morals are divorced from any appeals to naturalness, they dissolve into mere sets of personal preferences for behavior. Certainly, logical groundings for behavior can be constructed (Pinker likes this approach—the interested reader is referred to John Rawls’s writings on Justice), but there is little to impel a person geared toward selfishness to follow these guidelines.

Weird, too, are the strictly defined corners of Pinker’s moral imagination. Listen to this rather tone-deaf passage:
On strictly rational grounds, the volatility of sex is a paradox, because in an era with contraception and women’s rights these archaic entanglements should have no claim on our feelings. We should be ziplessly loving the one we’re with, and sex should inspire no more gossip, music, fiction, raunchy humor, or strong emotions than eating or talking does. The fact that people are tormented by the Darwinian economics of babies they are no longer having is testimony to the long reach of human nature.

Unsurprisingly, he extends this argument to homosexuality, stating that “no logical argument can be formed against it.” To this Midwestern reader, at least, the curt dismissals seem to belie their own ignorance of human nature, for I have myself witnessed how an arbitrary set of beginning assumptions (which, given the scant supply of a priori truths, is where just about every argument begins) can rationally parlay into just about any imaginable conclusion.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the book’s conceptual problems. Its goals—first convicting the reader that the tabula rasa view of mind is incorrect, and then showing why this view of things is at worst benign and at best extraordinarily helpful—require digressions into many areas of philosophy that are likely never to reach consensus. The four chapters designed to allay readers of specific fears that might come with conversion to the authors’ POV (fears of inequity, of imperfectability, of determinism, and of nihilism—to read off the chapter titles) are particularly unsatisfying. The chapter on determinism, in fact, is maddeningly illogical; rather than take one of the intellectually honest, though unsavory, options—options like admitting a mind/body split, or granting the illusory nature of free will, or even grasping onto some esoteric version of quantum mechanics—he merely lays out some of the sticky issues, only to back away. The stickiest of these issues is that of personal responsibility, which is resolved, as it were, by catchphrase. “The difference between explaining behavior and excusing it,” Pinker informs us, “is captured in the saying ‘To understand is not to forgive,’ and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre.”

On the other hand, I feel that I understand Pinker’s problem, and I forgive him for his slight dishonesty. Anyone who has honestly entertained the possibility that the world is set up to follow rules, tightly organized microscopic rules that churn on silently beneath the chaotic surfaces of our lives, must admit that (in that case) all their best justifications are nothing but theater. A person’s will, like all else, would be but a loosely bundled package of stimuli and accordant responses. The logical consistency of this worldview does nothing to curb the absurdity of actually living with it, which requires one to forget it each time a decision is to be made, with each turn signal and each uttered word. It is the absurdity of a life sharply divided between theory and action, between the knowledge of bondage and the illusion of choice. Camus had no idea.

I do not doubt that Steven Pinker has spent his hours staring into this deep pit; at some points, he nearly admits as much. But this leaves The Blank Slate in the paradoxical position of being just about the best book imaginable on the subject of how neo-Darwinism can cozily jibe with humanism. Only after turning the last page does the dust begin to clear: the old philosophical bugaboos are still here, but now they’re chasing us faster than ever.

Note: My discussion might make it sound like The Blank Slate is a tightly focused exposition of modern morals, as devoid of humor as this post. Not so, potential reader. Pinker goes out of his way to pepper the whole affair with cartoons, movie quotes, etc. It’s more of a shaggy-dog book of opinions and hearsay than it is a work of moral philosophy. Lest I give you any doubt, let me say this explicitly: I enjoyed reading this book, and maybe you would too.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

Among books, American Psycho is something of a dirty celebrity, a work whose dribbling trail of sleazy reputation precedes it. The one-sentence summary is just too easy: Patrick Bateman, Harvard graduate and Wall Street shark, is a fashion-obsessed psychopath who flatly narrates his life as he proceeds to assault and gruesomely murder girlfriends and business associates, all the while unable to make his friends understand that he is, in fact, a serial killer (despite nearly constant confessions). A few years ago, a movie version came out with Christian Bale as a goofy, retro version of Pat Bateman, and nobody blinked. But in 1991, when the book first came out, it was a major item of debate. Despite a reported six-figure advance to Bret Easton Ellis, the hot-shot wunderkind with two successful novels under his belt, the original publisher Simon & Schuster noted the brewing controversy and dropped American Psycho, citing ‘aesthetic differences.’ Vintage Contemporaries picked it up, and the negative attention proved too compelling to resist, making it both a bestseller and a necessary discussion topic. In an oddly representative case of moral outrage, the New York Times refused to print the title on its bestseller list, lest the publicity drive more people to read it and (thus) to become raving, Armani-clad murderers. (If you’re interested, here is a more complete critical history.)

Even decades later, the book remains shocking, though it’s still hard to imagine that a novel—a what?—could provoke any kind of a public outcry. While reading it, I doubted that anyone could seriously believe that Ellis himself condoned the actions portrayed in his book, but there’s still the problem of ends and means to consider: does the audience really need to sit through graphic depictions of child murders, rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc., etc., to get the point? The contrary position was eloquently put forth by David Foster Wallace, a writer I admire very much, in this interview. Consider his opinion:

I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clich├ęd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

If I didn’t think that this point was worth considering, I wouldn’t quote it at such length. But I also think that DFW’s commentary trivializes what American Psycho actually does. The heart of his criticism is that AP does little to “illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in [the world].” Certainly, Patrick Bateman gives us few hints about how people might positively live, but it seems to me that the character already understands how he should live and consciously decides to go against it. His secretary, Jean, exemplifies the un-ironic, earnest love that he understands is healthy. Early on, he says that he’ll “probably marry her.” In one of the few tender passages of the book, near the end, after all the perversions and aversions have already been performed, Jean directly expresses her love for him, and after this direct outpouring, Patrick experiences what he calls a “flood of reality”—an awareness that, would he allow it, yielding to an honest relationship might change everything. Listen:

I sense [Jean] wants to rearrange my life in a significant way—her eyes tell me this and though I see a truth in them, I also know that one day, sometime very soon, she too will be locked in the rhythm of my insanity. All I have to do is keep silent about this and not bring it up—yet she weakens me, it’s almost as if she’s making the decision about who I am, and in my own stubborn, willful way I can admit to feeling a pang, something tightening inside, and before I can stop it I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love (pg. 378-9 of the 1st edition).

Of course, this is easy to miss, coming as it does after a section describing the ripped-out vaginas kept in his gym locker.

This passage, however, suggests why American Psycho might not focus on what people ‘should’ be doing: it’s simply too damn obvious. People should, ya’ know, care about each other and treat each other with some common decency. This is not difficult to grasp. What’s less obvious is the extent to which the slickness of the 1980s yuppie culture refuted these basic tenets. Patrick Bateman’s relentless chasing of surfaces, of workouts and sex with ‘hardbodies,’ is a depiction of hell in Manhattan, as is suggested in the book’s borrowed opening line—the iconic “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” from Dante’s Inferno, translated into a hip graffito. The extremity of this vision is relentless, a succession of smash cuts and videotapes depicting a world without restraint. It is the work of a moral diagnostician, and in that capacity, it is comparable to the work of the very different writer, Walker Percy, whose most famous novel, The Moviegoer, examined the beginnings of the unrestrained pursuit of passive pleasure. In this tradition, American Psycho represents the apocalyptic end of the line, with valuable criticism offered in the most jarring possible way.

Hopefully, we won’t need a reminder like this again.

Endnote: Although I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t think American Psycho would translate very well to film. This movie review shares some of my worries.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning...was the Command Line"

Tonight, I read Neal Stephenson’s book-length essay, In the Beginning…was the Command Line, which on one level is a meditation on computer operating systems, but which also contains some pretty brilliant discussion about the way that technology forces us toward mediated meta-involvements with our environment that ultimately take away as much power as they give. It’s printed as a book, but you can also find the full text available on the internet here.

As an example of the commentary contained therein, I offer up this short passage:

A few years ago I walked into a grocery store somewhere and was presented with the following tableau vivant : near the entrance a young couple were standing in front of a large cosmetics display. The man was stolidly holding a shopping basket between his hands while his mate raked blister-packs of makeup off the display and piled them in. Since then I've always thought of that man as the personification of an interesting human tendency: not only are we not offended to be dazzled by manufactured images, but we like it. We practically insist on it. We are eager to be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a theme park ride, vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there holding the basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.

That sort of thing comprises the first ½ of the essay, whereupon it delves into the truly hard-core geekery (i.e., he actually discusses his personal history with operating systems, culminating with what amounts to a long, concentrated advert for Linux). Actually, I thought that this, too, was fascinating. But if you’re not of the persuasion that finds the nitty-gritty so very interesting, then maybe it’s best to stop reading as soon as he starts relating his spoilt love affair with Apple Corp.

In case this warning puts you off from reading any more than the first half, then I would be remiss not to give a taste of the essay’s bizarre ending. Maybe this sort of thing can be expected from a (literary) sci-fi writer:

I think that the message [of Lee Smolin’s book The Live of the Cosmos] is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:
universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....
and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

If one time through the essay leaves you hungry for more, here is an authorized version of the text that's heavily commented upon by a working computer coder.