This week’s recommended reading includes: a warning about and meditation upon the possible dire consequences of the human species’ spectacular success in dominating the planetary petri dish; a profile of a literary journal devoted to injecting ancient wisdom into the wasteland of the modern cyber-soul; a beautiful explanation and defense of literature’s inherent resistance to being “understood” by algorithmic data analysis; information and opinions on Mind and Cosmos, the new book in which philosopher Thomas Nagel argues for the inadequacy of the standard materialist version of science; a warning and lament about the artistically decrepit state of American cinema; a long 1979 article, written in the immediate aftermath of the original Stars Wars movie, that examines both the movie’s seismic cultural impact and its origin in the mind and machinations of George Lucas; notes on a recent lecture given by psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, famed for her research into the phenomenon of “hearing voices” and its psychological and cultural meanings; and a fascinating New York Times piece about a Greek island where people tend to live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet.
State of the Species
Charles C. Mann, Orion, November/December 2012
Teaser: Does success spell doom for Homo sapiens?
Why and how did humankind become “unusually successful”? And what, to an evolutionary biologist, does “success” mean, if self-destruction is part of the definition? Does that self-destruction include the rest of the biosphere? What are human beings in the grand scheme of things anyway, and where are we headed? What is human nature, if there is such a thing, and how did we acquire it? What does that nature portend for our interactions with the environment? With 7 billion of us crowding the planet, it’s hard to imagine more vital questions … By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food. To someone like [Lynn] Margulis [a researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms], Homo sapiens looks like one of these briefly fortunate species … With almost no surviving biological competition, humankind had ever more unhindered access to the planetary petri dish: in the past two hundred years, the number of humans walking the planet ballooned from 1 to 7 billion, with a few billion more expected in coming decades … In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings … [I]t is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.
Lewis Lapham’s Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed
Ron Rosenbaum, Smithsonian magazine, November 2012
[NOTE: Given our long-running focus here at The Teeming Brain on the subjects of culture collapse, rising dystopia, and the necessity of undertaking projects of monastic-type cultural preservation in order to safeguard both collective knowledge and one's own soul during a new dark age, it's fascinating to read the opening passage of this profile of Lewis Lapham and his wonderful Lapham's Quarterly and realize that he is using the publication for precisely this kind of purpose.]
Teaser: With his erudite Quarterly, the legendary Harper’s editor aims for an antidote to digital-age ignorance.
The cavalry charge that Lewis Lapham is now leading could be said to be one against headlessness — against the historically illiterate, heedless hordesmen of the digital revolution ignorant of our intellectual heritage; against the “Internet intellectuals” and hucksters of the purportedly utopian digital future who are decapitating our culture, trading in the ideas of some 3,000 years of civilization for…BuzzFeed. Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper’s, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. Suddenly thanks to Google Books, JSTOR and the like, all the great thinkers of all the civilizations past and present are one or two clicks away. The great library of Alexandria, nexus of all the learning of the ancient world that burned to the ground, has risen from the ashes online. And yet — here is the paradox — the wisdom of the ages is in some ways more distant and difficult to find than ever, buried like lost treasure beneath a fathomless ocean of online ignorance and trivia that makes what is worthy and timeless more inaccessible than ever. There has been no great librarian of Alexandria, no accessible finder’s guide, until Lapham created his quarterly five years ago with the quixotic mission of serving as a highly selective search engine for the wisdom of the past. Which is why the spartan quarters of the Quarterly remind me of the role rare and scattered monasteries of the Dark Ages played when, as the plague raged and the scarce manuscripts of classical literature were being burned, dedicated monks made it their sacred mission to preserve, copy, illuminate manuscripts that otherwise might have been lost forever … Lapham’s deeper agenda is to inject the wisdom of the ages into the roiling controversies of the day through small doses that are irresistible reading … Each page is an illumination of the consciousness, the culture that created you, and that is waiting to recreate you.
Literature Is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities
Stephen Marche, Los Angeles Review of Books, October 28, 2012
[NOTE: This is simply awesome.]
Big data is coming for your books. It’s already come for everything else. All human endeavor has by now generated its own monadic mass of data, and through these vast accumulations of ciphers the robots now endlessly scour for significance much the way cockroaches scour for nutrition in the enormous bat dung piles hiding in Bornean caves … But there is a deeper problem with the digital humanities in general, a fundamental assumption that runs through all aspects of the methodology and which has not been adequately assessed in its nascent theory. Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data … The algorithmic analysis of novels and of newspaper articles is necessarily at the limit of reductivism. The process of turning literature into data removes distinction itself. It removes taste. It removes all the refinement from criticism. It removes the history of the reception of works … The experience of the mystery of language is the original literary sensation. The exuberance of ancient literature — whether it is in the simple, inscrutable lyrics of Sappho or Oedipus’s tragic misunderstanding of the oracles — contains a furiously distressed joy that words mean so much more than they mean. Take any meaningful line in literature and the same fugitive release from the status of information is there.
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press, 2012
The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.
Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.
Thomas Nagel is not crazy
Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson, Prospect, October 23, 2012
Via The Browser
[W]hat if science is fundamentally incapable of explaining our own existence as thinking things? What if it proves impossible to fit human beings neatly into the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes? In Mind and Cosmos, the prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel’s latest book, he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings. What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution … Nagel, according to his critics, has completely lost it … As often happens when a philosopher deviates from scientific orthodoxy, Nagel’s book has been thoroughly denounced … But why suppose that reality is exhaustively described by science in its current form? There are plenty of things that aren’t obviously describable in scientific terms which are part of reality: mathematics, logic, language, history, and, here we go again, consciousness. It is never going to be possible to put these under a microscope. There is also no obvious reason why the scientific method (granting that there is a coherent singular scientific method and content, which is itself dubious) warrants one picture of reality over another … [O]ne of the motivating factors behind Nagel’s book, one largely glossed over by his critics so far, is that even with the extraordinary success of science, there is no obvious way it could account for things like consciousness, rationality, or moral values. We can disagree with Nagel that those things need to be part of our picture of reality. We can disagree with Nagel that there must be one coherent way of describing reality. We can even disagree with Nagel that there is an appearance-reality distinction. But we can’t keep gesturing to science’s great pragmatic value as a way of papering over its incomplete metaphysics … Nagel’s arguments against naturalism as an account of reality are powerful and demand close consideration.
Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?
David Denby, The New Republic, September 24, 2012
Teaser: How the richness of technology led to the poverty of imagination.
[M]ovies – mainstream American movies — are in serious trouble. And this is hardly a problem that worries movie critics more than anyone else: many moviegoers feel the same puzzlement and dismay … By the 1980s, the economics of the business became largely event-driven, with a never-ending production of spectacle and animation that draws young audiences away from their home screens on opening weekend. For years, the tastes of young audiences have wielded an influence on what gets made way out of proportion to their numbers in the population. We now have a movie culture so bizarrely pulled out of shape that it makes one wonder what kind of future movies will have … “Give me the children until they are seven, and anyone may have them afterwards,” Francis Xavier, one of the early Jesuits, is supposed to have said. The studios grab boys when they are seven, eight, or nine, command a corner of their hearts, and hold them with franchise sequels and product tie-ins for fifteen years … The intentional shift in large-scale movie production away from adults is a sad betrayal and a minor catastrophe. Among other things, it has killed a lot of the culture of the movies. By culture, I do not mean film festivals, film magazines, and cinephile Internet sites and bloggers, all of which are flourishing. I mean that blessedly saturated mental state of moviegoing, both solitary and social, half dreamy, half critical, maybe amused, but also sometimes awed, that fuels a living art form … So are American movies finished, a cultural irrelevance? Despite almost everything, I don’t think the game is up, not by any means … But the trouble is real, and it has been growing for more than twenty-five years. By now there is a wearying, numbing, infuriating sameness to the cycle of American releases year after year. Much of the time, adults cannot find anything to see. And that reason alone is enough to make us realize that American movies are in a terrible crisis, which is not going to end soon.
The Man Who Made Star Wars
Lynda Miles and Michael Pye, The Atlantic, March 1979
[NOTE: To read Denby's impassioned essay about the soul-death of American cinema above, and then to read this reprinted piece from three decades ago in The Atlantic, which describes George Lucas's deliberate creation of the original Star Wars film for the purpose of making a gargantuan amount of money in order to finance other projects in the vein of "personal films, concentrating on the poetry of cinema," is fascinating and dreadful, especially in light of what actually became of Lucas's career and American cinema under his dominating influence.]
Teaser: The idea was to make a high adventure film for children. The result was the box-office hit of all time. The man responsible was George Lucas.
Lucas was a star pupil [in film school at USC], but not exactly a model. He dominated student film festivals with movies more sophisticated and accomplished than his peers’. But he constantly broke rules. He bought extra footage to make films longer than class projects allowed. He used his first one-minute allocation of film to produce the animated short which won him first prize in the National Student Film Festival. In all, he made eight films while an undergraduate … Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys (“I love them, I’m really into that”), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York. From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products … The idea of Star Wars was simply to make a “real gee-whiz movie.” It would be a high adventure film for children, a pleasure film which would be a logical end to the road down which Coppola had directed his apparently cold, remote associate … “The title Star Wars was an insurance policy. The studio didn’t see it that way; they thought science fiction was a very bad genre, that women didn’t like it, although they did no market research on that until after the film was finished. But we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars.” Beyond that audience, Lucas was firm that the general public should be encouraged to see the film not as esoteric science fiction but as a space fantasy … Star Wars has been taken with ominous seriousness. It should not be. The single strongest impression it leaves is of another great American tradition which involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action, technology, and thrills. It is pinball-on a cosmic scale … George Lucas kept a sizable interest in any sequels to Star Wars. That was written into his original contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, at his insistence. The money will be the seed of his other projects. He still dreams of making personal films, concentrating on the poetry of cinema.
Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai
Greg Downey, Neuroanthropology, October 28, 2012
Perhaps one of the most interesting things that Tanya says in her lecture, however, is a discussion she also picked up in a piece in The American Scholar (Living with Voices). In a single slide, toward the very end of the talk, Luhrmann discusses the ‘Hearing Voices’ movement, a therapeutic movement in Europe, America, and elsewhere, that encourages individuals to have more of a positive and engaged relationship with the voices that they hear. She suggests that cross-cultural research offers an opportunity to examine ‘natural experiments,’ in which different local relationships to auditory hallucinations might influence the prognosis for schizophrenia … The current biomedical approach encouraged a scorched earth pharmacological assault on the patient’s voices, with many of the patient’s other psychic attributes — attention, ability to concentrate, sexual desire, even sense of well-being—the regrettable collateral damage of the war on madness … Whether we fear each time that we hear a voice that our world may come unraveled, or whether we listen and hope for positive voices to advise us and even keep us company, may turn out to be a self-fulfilling expectation … The way that individuals experience the ‘mind’ in each place [i.e., among different cultures] also matters. When the research team asked American patients whether the voices were ‘real,’ the question was easy for US subjects to answer; they recognized the distinction between ‘real’ voices and voices ‘inside your head,’ in part because the mind was understood to be a closed space. Having some other agents in your mind was clearly a sign of illness or dysfunction, so the voices were ‘extremely disconcerting.’ In contrast, even the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘not real’ didn’t quite make the same intuitive sense to the subjects in other places, perhaps because their understanding of ‘mind’ was less private.
The Island Where People Forget to Die
Dan Buettner, The New York Times, October 24, 2012
After X-rays, his doctor concluded that [Stamatis] Moraitis had lung cancer. As he recalls, nine other doctors confirmed the diagnosis. They gave him nine months to live. He was in his mid-60s. Moraitis considered staying in America and seeking aggressive cancer treatment at a local hospital. That way, he could also be close to his adult children. But he decided instead to return to Ikaria, where he could be buried with his ancestors in a cemetery shaded by oak trees that overlooked the Aegean Sea. Moraitis and [his wife] Elpiniki moved in with his elderly parents, into a tiny, whitewashed house on two acres of stepped vineyards near Evdilos, on the north side of Ikaria. At first, he spent his days in bed, as his mother and wife tended to him. He reconnected with his faith. On Sunday mornings, he hobbled up the hill to a tiny Greek Orthodox chapel where his grandfather once served as a priest. When his childhood friends discovered that he had moved back, they started showing up every afternoon. They’d talk for hours, an activity that invariably involved a bottle or two of locally produced wine. I might as well die happy, he thought. In the ensuing months, something strange happened. He says he started to feel stronger. One day, feeling ambitious, he planted some vegetables in the garden. He didn’t expect to live to harvest them, but he enjoyed being in the sunshine, breathing the ocean air. Elpiniki could enjoy the fresh vegetables after he was gone. Six months came and went. Moraitis didn’t die. Instead, he reaped his garden and, feeling emboldened, cleaned up the family vineyard as well. Easing himself into the island routine, he woke up when he felt like it, worked in the vineyards until midafternoon, made himself lunch and then took a long nap. In the evenings, he often walked to the local tavern, where he played dominoes past midnight. The years passed. His health continued to improve. He added a couple of rooms to his parents’ home so his children could visit. He built up the vineyard until it produced 400 gallons of wine a year. Today, three and a half decades later, he’s 97 years old — according to an official document he disputes; he says he’s 102 — and cancer-free. He never went through chemotherapy, took drugs or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move home to Ikaria.
Nightmare: The Birth of Horror
Christopher Frayling, BBC Books, 1996
[NOTE: This is the companion book for th1996 BBC television series of the same title, which traces the origins of four towering works of 19th-century British horror -- Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Hound of the Bakservilles -- in the authors' own dreams and nightmares, as viewed against the background Henry Fuseli's seminal series of "Nightmare" paintings. Here are Frayling's closing words, which are deeply insightful and delectable.]
At the Somme — a small river in Picardy, Northern France — two years later, half-a-million allied troops were killed or wounded in one engagement along a front of eighteen miles — 60,000 on the first morning, 30,000 in the first hour. The butchery of Saturday 1 July 1916 was — and still is — the greatest sacrifice in British military history — and all to gain four miles of ground at the expense of the German trench-lines. These were the real-life horrors of the twentieth century, which made the great Victorian “horror stories” — the nightmares of the nineteenth century — seem not only tame, but curiously re-assuring. Like your favourite box of chocolates. Frankenstein’s creature, the vampire, Mr Hyde and the black dog — which had been in the mainstream of Victorian literature — became not very respectable components in the entertainment industry, ways of distracting the audience from the horrors of everyday life.
Originally, they were the products of nightmare and experience: they became landmarks in what has been called “the geography of inexperience,” with a minimal contact with the real world. In the process, they left the world of literature altogether to become myths — myths for the modern era. And, as a result, they changed their meaning beyond all recognition. As did the word “horror.” Millions of people think they know these stories, but the stories they know are not the stories which were written. These Victorian horrors, these fantasies by gaslight, represent one of Britain’s greatest and most lasting contributions to the global culture of the twentieth century, the era of mass production, mass consumption and of course mass destruction.
Images: Agios Kirikos, Ikaria by Stelios Kiousis (Agios Kirikos, Ikaria) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons; Transformers 3 driller via Wikipedia