Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.

Notes:

1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

True Detective: Eight Points of Contention

I finished watching True Detective last night. I found the finale deeply disappointing but I can’t say that I was surprised; the show had seemed incapable, over the last few episodes, of sustaining the portentousness it had built up in the first three or so installments. I still think the show was outstanding, but I don’t think it delivered on the promises it held out as it began (and it especially did not capture the tragic mood of the haunting title sequence; see #1 below.)

Here are some observations, in no particular order, that attempt to sustain that claim:

1. I understood True Detective to not be a murder mystery but rather a tragedy about two deeply flawed men; given that, the ending was hokey and cliched, descending into Hollywood-style redemption, sweetness and light. The finale should have ended with the ‘final showdown’ in Carcosa. This failure was made even more acute with the contrast provided by the opening few minutes of ‘Form and Void‘, which were absolutely chilling and showed True Detective at its best.

2. There was a brooding Gothic atmosphere in the first four episodes that faded away in the last four; from the moment the show jumped to 2002, it lost its distinctive mood and became more conventional.

3. Matthew McConaughey‘s acting intensity started to diminish; I think he was struggling with maintaining the Cohle facade and the strains of that showed in the last couple of episodes. By the end, even his make-up mask seemed like it was fading and slipping.

4. The show’s template was a little well-worn: angry, violent, male detectives, serial killers, female victims, abusive families, small-town USA as locale for horror. (I hope that in its forthcoming seasons we see interesting and distinctive variations on these, including some different periods as well.)

5. Cohle‘s invocation of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche–among others–was well-done in parts, but also felt forced at times.

6. Disappointingly, nothing was ever made of Audrey Hart‘s drawings; this was a strange red herring to throw into the mix. Especially because Mart Hart consistently showed himself to be such an unhinged, violent protector of his female ‘property’: his assaults on Lisa‘s date, Cohle, Audrey’s boyfriends.

7.  The epic six-minute gunbattle in ‘Who Goes There?‘ A wonderful, dramatic, action-packed sequence that wasn’t all that consequential in the ‘resolution’ of the plot. It didn’t have to be; but it would have been nice to have had that scene invested with a greater importance.

8. The detective work that Marty puts on show in the season finale could have made more appearances; all too often, the clues that came Hart and Cohle’s way were all too easily obtained. Two classic instances of this: a) Charlie Lange provides valuable clues on three separate occasions; each time, he is abruptly drafted in to provide these and then shunted out, his task of providing momentum to the show’s narrative accomplished b) we are asked to believe that a geriatric lady, living in an old-folks residence, not only remembers a paintjob from many years ago, but also the color of the paint used, and a distinctive facial feature on one of the painters.

In the end, True Detective was still a very good television show, but the promise it held out initially wasn’t realized.

The Police Precinct as Augean Stable

Over the past few years, I have met some–very personable and intelligent–young men who seemed possessed by the same passion: they wished to join the police, to “serve their community”, to “give something back”. They knew the police forces they wished to become members of were dysfunctional and corrupt, but that was precisely why their service was called for; they would work “with” their fellow policemen to reform it “from the inside.” These young men were not lacking in sincerity, not one bit.

I knew these young men with varying degrees of familiarity. To those that I felt comfortable enough with to be blunt and plain-spoken, I offered the following response: give up the ghost; run, not walk, away from police work; hang on to your humanity. To the others, I merely said “Good luck,” shook hands, and kept walking.

The eager would-be internal reformer is not cognizant, I think, of just how endemic police dysfunction is, how widespread the anomie among its forces’ members. A fresh-faced aspirant who joins the police will be first routed through the police academy, where he will be exposed to its particular brand of indoctrination into the language and methodologies of policing, now made ever more confrontational and violent. But the academy is mild fare compared to what awaits him at the precinct.

In the precinct, our budding hero will meet the embittered veteran, bitter and caustic, survivor of brushes with angry residents of urban neighborhoods, pesky city administrators, hypocritical, officious, autocratic Internal Affairs’ investigators, ignorant, nosy media persons; his is a world populated by opponents of all stripes; the criminal is only distinguished from this cast by his overt and explicit commitment to resisting the police. The rest are nuisances. And so, tragically, is the community the veteran has been policing.

The veteran will provide our naif with his first serious education in the realities of police life; he will come to see, over a period of time, like the rest of his “brothers” do, that the police are alone in their task, that the world “outside” is not made up of folks like them who need protection but instead is just one indiscriminate mass, perhaps only distinguished by their relative obedience in complying with police directives to shut up, speak when spoken to, open doors, close windows, recite the alphabet backwards, empty their pockets, lie on the ground, or get out of the car.  He will come to view himself as a beleaguered hero, desperately in need of empathetic understanding; he will resent, and be angered by, those who do not talk to him in accordance with this self-image; he might repress this sensation for a short while, but it will soon  manifest itself, perhaps in his over-enthusiastic handcuffing or subduing a “suspect”, perhaps in his brusque speech, perhaps in his willingness to understand his work as soldier patrolling hostile territory, as entailing inevitable casualties and collateral damage.

Our apprentice will be all too soon disabused of his innocence; he will soon be auditioning for the role of grizzled precinct veteran.

 

 

 

 

Marty Hart Comes Undone

The fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective–”Who Goes There”–is justifiably famous for director Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s epic six-minute tracking take of a gun battle gone spectacularly, violently wrong. There is another scene in the episode that should be just as famous: Marty Hart‘s epic, rage and profanity-filled meltdown on finding out his wife Maggie has left him (after his paramour Lisa Tragnetti has ratted him out to her.)

A recap: Hart comes home to find packed suitcases and a note waiting for him. He reads the note–with no voiceover for the viewer–his face contorted by shock, anger, and fear. He then calls Lisa to find out if his worst fears are true. The next couple of minutes are absolutely terrifying.

Marty’s conversation with Lisa is as horrifying as it is because we witness the shocking transformation of two humans–formerly bound by sexual intimacy and shared confidences–into creatures possessed by a seemingly boundless mutual hatred. Hart is forced to channel his anger through an impersonal instrument, the phone, but it is visibly and viscerally present in his expressions, his bulging veins, his reddened visage, his clenched teeth; it is the closest I’ve seen a human being come to embodying a controlled detonation.

Marty’s anger is especially frightening because we know it is animated by fear. To Marty, Lisa has transformed herself into something dangerous and vicious; she is capable of great damage and harm; she has suddenly revealed a power once hidden; she is unafraid to use it. Marty is terrified by her, petrified by the knowledge he has consorted with such a monster. She is now beyond the control he thought he exerted over her; their past intimacy now appears as mere prelude for this betrayal. Marty is floundering; he has had the wind knocked out of him by Lisa; through his rage, he attempts to find a grounding in a bewildering new world.

But most frighteningly of all, Marty’s rage is impotent. He cannot shovel sand back into the hourglass; he cannot roll back Lisa’s communique; he cannot undo his affair; he cannot even bring Maggie to the phone. He rages and rages, not just at Lisa, but at himself, at the arrangements of this universe that place the past out of reach, that expose us again and again to such terrible finality. He can curse and commit himself to the deadliest of acts, but only for the future. The past is done and dusted.

Our daily composure is commonly understood as an elaborate construction, a holding back of the forces that fray us around the edges and threaten to pull us apart; it is often unable to resist the various insults sent its way. At those moments, we ‘lose our shit’, we come undone; we slump, the accumulated tension too great to bear. Watching another’s decay thus is frightening because it reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility; it tells us we may suffer a similar fate, unable to take refuge behind our daily facade of normalcy.

Don’t be a “Crabby Patty” About AI

Fredrik DeBoer has written an interesting post on the prospects for artificial intelligence, one that is pessimistic about its prospects and skeptical about some of the claims made for its success. I disagree with some of its implicit premises and claims.

AI’s goals can be understood as being two-fold, depending on your understanding of the field. First, to make machines that can perform tasks, which if performed by humans, would be said to require “intelligence”. Second, to understand human cognitive processes and replicate them in a suitable architecture. The first enterprise is engineering; the second, cognitive science (Vico-style: “the true and the made are convertible”).

The first cares little about the particular implementation mechanism or the theoretical underpinning of task performance; success in task execution is all. If you can make a robot capable of brewing a cup of tea in kitchens strange and familiar, it does not matter what its composition, computational architecture or control logics are, all that matters is that brewed cup of tea. The second cares little about the implementation medium – it could be silicon and plastic – but it does about the mechanism employed; it must faithfully instantiate and realize an abstraction of a distinctly human cognitive process. Aeronautical engineers replicate the flight of feathered birds using aluminum and jet engines; they physically instantiate abstract principles of flight. The cognitive science version of AI seeks to perform a similar feat for human cognition; AI should validate our best science of mind.

I take DeBoer’s critique of so-called “statistical” or “big-data” AI to be: you’re only working toward the first goal, not toward the second. That is a fair observation, but it does not establish the following added conclusion: cognitive science is the “right” or the “only” way to realize artificial intelligence. It also does not establish the following conclusion: engineering AI is a useless distraction in the task of understanding human cognition or what artificial intelligence or even “real intelligence” might be. Cognitive science AI is not the only worthwhile paradigm for AI, not the only intellectually useful one.

To see this, consider what the successes–even partial–of engineering AI tell  us: intelligence is not one thing, it is many; intelligence is achievable both by mimicking human cognitive processes and not; in some cases, it is more easily achieved by the latter. The successes of engineering AI should tell us that the very phenomena–intelligence–we take ourselves to be studying in cognitive science isn’t well understood; they tell us the very thing being studied–”mind”–might not be a thing to begin with.  (DeBoer rightly disdains the “mysterianism” in claims like “intelligence is an emergent property” but he seems comfortable with the chauvinism of “intelligence achievable by non-human means isn’t intelligence.” A simulation of intelligence isn’t “only” a simulation; it forces us to reckon with the possibility “real intelligence” might be “only a simulation.”)

What we call intelligence is a performative capacity; creatures that possess intelligence can do things in this world; the way humans accomplish those tasks is of interest, but so are other ways of doing so. They show us many relationships to our environment can be described as “cognitive” or “mindful”; if giant-lookup machines and human beings can both play chess and write poems then that tells us something interesting about the nature of those capacities. If language comprehension can be achieved by statistical methods, then that tells us we should regard our own linguistic capacities in a different light; a speaking and writing wind-up toy should make us revisit the phenomena of language anew: just what is this destination, reachable in such radically dissimilar routes–’human cognition’ and ‘machine learning’?

DeBoer rightly points out the difficulties both AI methodologies face; I would go further and say that given our level of (in)comprehension, we do not even possess much of a principled basis for so roundly dismissing the claims made by statistical or big-data AI. It might turn out that the presuppositions of cognitive science might be altered by the successes of engineering AI, thus changing its methodologies and indicators of success; cognitive science might be looking in the wrong places for the wrong things.

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.

The Perennial Allure of Utopian Sex

In Margaret Atwood‘s cautionary, speculative tale of a genetic engineering run amuck, Oryx and Crake, the Snowman observes the Crakers are unusually and refreshingly sexually enlightened:

Off to the side, from what is probably a glade where the tents and trailers used to be set up, he can hear laughter and singing, and shouts of admiration and encouragement. There must be a mating going on, a rare-enough occasion among the people: Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough.

There’ll be the standard quintuplet, four men and the woman in heat. Her condition will be obvious to all from the bright-blue colour of her buttocks and abdomen….

Since it’s only the blue tissue and the pheromones released by it that stimulate the males, there’s no more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and the act. Courtship begins at the first whiff, the first faint blush of azure, with the males presenting flowers to the females….From amongst the floral tributes the female chooses four flowers, and the sexual ardour of the unsuccessful candidates dissipates immediately, with no hard feelings left. Then, when the blue of her abdomen has reached its deepest shade, the female and her quartet find a secluded spot and go at it until the woman becomes pregnant and her blue colouring fades. And that is that.

No more No means yes anyway, thinks Snowman. No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape. The five of them will roister for hours, three of the men standing guard and doing the singing and shouting while the fourth one copulates, turn and turn about….It no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child may be, since there’s no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for war. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it’s more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.

 No description of a utopia–even one gone wrong, as they usually do–is complete without its particular vision of how sex is reconfigured in its arrangements. A utopia wouldn’t be one if it retained this world’s insane sexual  jealousy, its violence, its terribly asymmetric, hypocritical, chauvinistic and gendered understanding of sexual roles, responsibilities, virtues and sins. Unsurprisingly utopian visions of sex often run close together; most seek to describe arrangements that ameliorate the devastating effects current sexual politics have on our psyches and bodies. The relief we seek in these imagined worlds is similar: freedom from the terrible burdens imposed on us by the expectations of masculinity and patriarchy, moral superegos, religious guilt, the discomfort our fantasies evoke in us.

Most of all, utopias seek to demote and demystify sex, to knock it off its pedestal; in so doing, ironically, they make intractable the mystery of why something so common, so necessary, so essential, becomes so mythical, so elusive.