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Monday, November 4, 2013

A wholesale and necessary change



It's time Barbaric Rage & Love underwent a wholesale and necessary change.  I thought I'd figured it out with my last post but I was wrong.

Comment sections are unnecessary as only a small handful of people cared to comment.  And all those lists of books and articles and videos &c., &c. -- they're a lot of work to maintain and I don't have the time for them anymore.  Plus I wonder how many people ever utilized them.  For those of you who did . . . let me put it this way: the books listed as of pixel time would make quite a library for any interested writer or artist.

Mostly, I need to write in a longer format.  It's just the way I am.

This blog will remain accessible though inactive, and I will refer to its posts as necessary.  I hope you'll follow me as I get a bit more personal in this endeavor.  Welcome to


See you there.

(Image: 2 by chrisinplymouth)

Monday, October 7, 2013

The fear of a humanist: "we are also animals"


The fuss over scientism reached a plateau of sorts with a recent back-and-forth, and its subsequent reverberations (here, here and here), between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic. Pinker was first with "Science is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors and tenure-less historians," which Wieseltier disputed first with a video and then with a very long essay, "Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen."  More recently they flailed at each other again in "Science vs. the Humanities, Round III."

I read these pieces toward the end of a summer-long hiatus from BR&L during which the old guy in the back of my head (my own little Jonathan Franzen) ranted that blogging is for fools -- at least change the damn thing! take less time to drivel! and maybe a little less pretentiously! -- and, as it turned out, the debate and Wieseltier in particular have led to this post about it all and which, most likely, will be a complete mess.  So what's new.

I'm back.

I have four thoughts about the Pinker-Wieseltier match.  First, it's easy to think the controversy over scientism is concerned primarily with jobs, reputations, funding and all the showy swagger of academic-slash-public intellectual hoopla; that probably the best thing for the average writer and artist to do is go get drunk.  But there actually is something bigger going on: fear -- which I'll come to in a bit.  Second, I don't want Leon Wieseltier defending what I hold dear in the arts; defending anything I hold dear, really.  Third is that Pinker begins the match sounding like a reasonable man but, by the time he gets to round three, finally goes after Wieseltier with the derision this debate requires. As Pinker states accurately and sardonically, "The era in which an essayist can get away with ex cathedra pronouncements on factual questions in social science is coming to an end."  The entire debate is worth reading in chronological order but if you either don't want to or don't have the time, skip directly to Part III.

Finally, the most important question -- how might the artist respond? -- is lost in the debate.  Which is unfortunate because today's artists work at a time when so much we think we know about ourselves as a species, as social animals, as individuals -- as artists! -- is being overthrown by rapid developments in the evolutionary and cognitive sciences.  Too rapid, almost.  This omission came to me as I read one outrageously pompous passage of Wieseltier's:
. . . the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.  For these scientizers, they are not differences in kind; they are differences only in appearance, whereas a deeper explanation, a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness.  The underlying sameness is the presumption of scientism.  The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm.  They are not pluralists.  With this uniform notion of intelligibility, Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world, as it was developed by thinkers from Vico and Dilthey to Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams.
As Daniel Dennett characterized it at Edge (I take this only very very slightly out of context): the "pomposity of a fake pope."  How true.  Anyway, Wieseltier continues his puffing and pacing and prattling . . .
The boundary is porous, of course: whatever else we are, we are also animals, and the impact upon us of material causes is indisputable.  But we are animals who live in culture; which is to say, the biological or psychological or economic elements of our constitution do not operate in sovereign independence of "the human spirit."  They are inflected and interpreted in meanings and intentions.  We do not only receive material causes, we also act upon them.  For this reason, we cannot be explained only in terms of our externalities. 
No, Mr. Wieseltier, we are not "also animals"; we are first and foremost animals.  And even though you don't like it, those damned "scientizers" are beginning to expose the biological-chemical-physical facts concerning the "sovereign independence of 'the human spirit," yours included; about culture too, high-, low- and middlebrow; that all of it, somehow, comes from the physical workings of our evolved brains -- all of it; that, as I quote John Gray above in the masthead, "the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.  To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals."  I know I have grossly simplified matters, but I do so purposely because I'm talking (in addition to myself) to writers and artists (I hope) who are interested in taking on the challenge of presenting what it means to be the particular animal we are in light of the latest science.  There are tons of details to attend to, and continuous change, daily if not hourly (follow #Cognitive or #BRAIN or #Science on Twitter if you don't believe me).  It is not an easy task.

But back to fear.  Wieseltier has probably expressed a deep fear which, if I read John Gray correctly, seems to lie at the very center of humanism.  I owe an apology to Gray.  I criticized him once but only recently read two of his books, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals and The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, both of which are like ice cold water sprayed refreshingly from a high-pressure hose at the hot-air immolation of Wieseltier and his supporters.  The crux of his argument is that humanism is "a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth."  It's what I call, in the posts of BR&L, New Romanticism, the illusion that man can replace God because man is a conscious being capable of Reason (ex Socrates) and equipped with technological prowess seemingly without limits; as Gray writes in Straw Dogs:
If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. . . .  Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds. Nietzsche knew this; but he could not accept it.  He was trapped in the chalk circle of Christian hopes.  A believer to the end, he never gave up the absurd faith that something could be made of the human animal.  He invented the ridiculous figure of the Superman to give history meaning it had not had before.  He hoped that humankind would thereby be awakened from its long sleep.  As could have been foreseen, he succeeded only in adding further nightmares to its confused dream.
I still have one slight beef with Gray: his conflation of "science" with "technology" which I think of as separate endeavors (a future post?).  But his basic premise is correct.  And in the humanist drive to replace God with Man, the arts became a sort of divine celebration with Schools and Movements and Isms, the conceptual claptrap of High Culture.  This is what Wieseltier defends in his attacks on scientism -- defends out of fear, for without it, what (I imagine him saying to himself in a mirror) am I but just another animal, without purpose, without a human spirit?  He cannot be comforted in knowing that his beloved human spirit is an illusion too, created, as with everything else about us, by the chemical and electrical processes in our brains.  No God, no Superman, no human spirit, no Socratic Good, not even a Freudian Super Ego -- as they say in the movies, be afraid; be very afraid.

Welcome, dear writer and artist, to the twenty-first century.

Now, as for changes at BR&L, my list:

  • No more jumps.
  • Five (instead of ten) posts per page.
  • Less frequent posts so I can (1) spend more of my lucid time working on my novel and (2) take a bit more care writing posts.  I'll attempt a more essayist approach to BR&L.  The science of Homo sapiens will remain the focus, but as I am a mere writer and the most I can do is think out loud, I will attempt to do so with a bit more thought and, maybe, style. The latter means putting more of myself in the posts.  Which is about as personal as I want to get.  And there will be no ex cathedra pronouncements, promise.
  • No projects or attempts to interview anyone.  My time is too valuable to give myself heartburn needlessly.   
  • Culling of the lists at right.
  • Image credits will be sized the same as the text font.
  • Most important, I will focus on literary writing.  Though the visual arts and music may still come up in certain posts, I am most interested in language.  Once again I need to quote John Gray, for he gets to the heart of the matter: "By using language we have invented a fictive self, which we project into the past and the future -- and even beyond the grave. The self we imagine surviving death is a phantom even in life."

(Image: "Chimpanzees at school" from Brehm's Life of animals, Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"Being ground to a halt"


I wake momentarily from my blogging siesta . . .

I know.  Two weeks became a couple months, more.  This summer has bent my life in unexpected ways: physical endurance, personal loss, an extremely purposed (and emotionally draining) drowning in the novel I'm writing, annoyance with the famous and the not so-; all and more have twisted me in knots and the blog has felt its brunt -- as John Berryman put it, "being ground to a halt."  Further, this post is not a complete return; more a sort of wave, though less as in passing than in warning.

I need to change BR&L.  I'm undecided how and need to think on it some more.  Part of me wants to make it more personal but this thought makes another part of me cringe.  Back in April, Stephen T. Casper, a historian who writes about neuroscience at The Neuro Timeswrote that he "admires [my] enthusiasm, curiosity, and boldness" at BR&L.  He confuses boldness with foolishness, and I am pretty certain that making this blog more personally revealing would be the height (or depth) of folly.  I'll go this far now . . .

I am an unpublished writer of novels.  I am no longer a communication or marketing consultant, freelance writer or any such professional.  I pay the few bills I have by toiling physically in the sun or, to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, in "combat with the sun."   This is because my current residence is in the Phoenix, Arizona (USA) metropolitan area, an assemblage of cities in the Sonoran Desert known as the Valley of the Sun but which I think of as the Valley of the Sux, as I intend to escape it in the coming months (more about this when it happens).  Sharif Ali bin al Karish, Omar Sharif's character in one of my favorite movies, Lawrence of Arabia, tells T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole, something to the effect that no Arab loves the desert, that he prefers a green countryside, lushness, life; I do, too, and I'm not an Arab.  The point, though, is that after more than ten years of attempting to balance an almost psychotic need to write creatively with a practical need to have a career, after more than ten years of teaching myself how to write and gaining a more nuanced understanding of the idea of failure, and after two and a half years deep into the second draft of a very serious novel, I finally made the decision this summer to focus as exclusively as possible on my art.  Hence the new profile at right.  (No, the picture will not change.  I don't like looking at myself, for one thing, and I'll leave it at that for now.)

This also means I feel a need to change my approach to writing BR&L.  For one thing I'll post less frequently, out of necessity, while I finish the novel.  Maybe I'll be more personal; maybe not.  But I will continue attempting to be bold.  Or foolish, as it may be.  I call Kurt Vonnegut to my defense: "We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."  Further changes are under consideration.

So, I continue my siesta, though I promise it won't be too much longer.  A lot has been going on that deserves notice and comment, including a provocative back-and-forth between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, from which I got the quote for the current masthead.

(Image: Smoky Dusty Light Rays Texture by Sprogz)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Time for a mid-summer siesta


It's time for a siesta.  I guess I've actually been on one for a couple weeks, but this makes it official.  I have a few things in the works and continue to check for subjects, but the brain's a little cooked these days.  It doesn't help that a horrible heat wave has begun where I live -- 118F (47.7C) yesterday.  So I'm going to rest for a couple weeks, recharge my brain's tiny batteries.  Later.  After I wake up.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A thought-provoking new book on violence


I have never been much interested in crime, either real crime reports or novels about it, including murder mysteries, but the novel I'm writing has an extremely violent crime at its center so I have become more interested in violence from a neurolaw perspective.  There's actually very little neuroscience, or science in general, in the story I'm telling as I want to focus more on questions of free will from religious and secular humanist perspectives.  But, as I say, I'm paying more attention these days to the intersection of biology, particularly brain biology, and human violence.

Adrian Raine is the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and his latest book has just been published by Pantheon Books: The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime.  I'm sitting at the bookstore now skimming through it and thought I ought to share a tiny bit of it, because he raises a ton of issues that writers should consider, particularly authors who include violence and crime in their books and stories.  Raine discusses the latest science about violence in his book, from genetics to child birth to brain physiology to nutrition to public policy, and what all of this means for our legal system.  

From page 92, Chapter 4, "Murderous Minds" (footnotes not shown for readability):
I've been arguing that the prefrontal cortex and limbic system are misfiring in violent offenders.  We also found [in research studies] that our murderers had poorer functioning in the angular gyrus.  We've seen that other studies of antisocial individuals reveal abnormalities in the posterior cingulate, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, while others document abnormal functioning in the superior temporal gyrus in violent offenders, psychopaths, and antisocial individuals.
Let's now compare this hit list of brain areas in antisocials to the hit list activated when normal people contemplate a moral dilemma.  What are the areas most commonly activated across studies in moral tasks?  They are none other than the polar/medial prefrontal cortex, the ventral prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala.  There is an undeniable degree of overlap. . . .
It's not a perfect match by any means.  Furthermore, while the posterior cingulate is activated during moral judgment, evidence implicating this region in antisocial behavior is sparse to date, although studies have indeed found abnormalities in the posterior cingulate in psychopaths, impulsively aggressive patients, and spouse-abusers. Nevertheless, there are commonalities we cannot ignore.  Some parts of offenders' brains critical for thinking morally just don't seem to be functioning very well.
Raine is unafraid of controversy.  One quick example is spousal abuse.  From page 87 of the same chapter:
. . . I do think we need to recognize that there's more to domestic violence than the traditional feminist perspective cares to admit.  Feminists argue that the cause of spousal abuse lies in a patriarchal society that sanctions men's using physical power to control women.  We argue instead that neurobiology nudges some men to overreact at home and that we need to consider a contribution by the brain to spousal abuse.  Why?  Because traditional treatment programs to treat spouse-abusers based on the feminist perspective simply do not work.
And from page 317, Chapter 10, "The Brain on Trial":
Most prisoners whom I suspected to have brain dysfunction simply had no idea that anything was wrong with them. . . .  Even when their biological dysfunction is pointed out to them, like many of the general public they believe that the causes of violence nevertheless lie squarely in social factors like poverty, unemployment, bad influences, poor parenting, and child abuse.  That's what they have grown up to believe.  I think that these offenders and some of you think that way because poverty and bad parenting can be objectively seen and recognized, and are consequently very salient -- whereas biological risk factors are invisible to the naked eye.  Yet the neurobiological reality is that many offenders . . . have brain impairments and cannot objectively evaluate their own minds.
There is a ton of thought-provoking information in this book.  If you're a writer or artist of any kind who focuses on violence in your work, I recommend that you at least check it out.