23 February 2012

Interpreting the Alien Zombie Within

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:56 am

In the campy cult movie Evil Dead 2, the protagonist’s right hand takes on a mind of its own and tries to kill him. The scene degenerates into a rendition of what you might find on a sixth-grade playground: the hero uses his left hand to hold back his right hand, which is trying to attack his face. Eventually he cuts off the hand with a chain saw and traps the still-moving hand under an upside-down garbage can. He stacks books on top of the can to pin it down, and the careful observer can see that the topmost book is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

As preposterous as this plotline may seem, there is, in fact, a disorder called alien hand syndrome. While it’s not as dramatic as the Evil Dead version, the idea is roughly the same. In alien hand syndrome, which can result from the split-brain surgeries we discussed a few pages ago, the two hands express conflicting desires. A patient’s “alien” hand might pick up a cookie to put it in his mouth, while the normally behaving hand will grab it at the wrist and stop it. A struggle ensues. Or one hand will pick up a newspaper, and the other will slap it back down. Or one hand will zip up a jacket, and the other will unzip it. Some patients with alien hand syndrome have found that yelling “Stop!” will cause the other hemisphere (and the alien hand) to back down. But besides that little modicum of control, the hand is running on its own inaccessible programs, and that’s why it’s branded as alien — because the conscious part of the patient seems to have no predictive power over it; it does not feel as though it’s part of the patient’s personality at all. A patient in this situation often says, “I swear I’m not doing this.” Which revisits one of the main points of this book: who is the I? His own brain is doing it, not anyone else’s. It’s simply that he doesn’t have conscious access to those programs.

What does alien hand syndrome tell us? It unmasks the fact that we harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions — from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee — are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems. (I use these terms interchangeably: zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.) Some alien systems are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry. When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Alien hand syndrome also tells us that under normal circumstances, all the automated programs are tightly controlled such that only one behavioral output can happen at a time. The alien hand highlights the normally seamless way in which the brain keeps a lid on internal conflicts. It requires only a little structural damage to uncover what is happening beneath. In other words, keeping the union of subsystems together is not something the brain does without effort — instead, it is an active process. It is only when factions begin to secede from the union that the alienness of the parts becomes obvious…

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. Thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea”), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

To bring this sort of fabrication to light, we need only look at another experiment with split-brain patients. As we saw earlier, the right and left halves are similar to each other but not identical. In humans, the left hemisphere (which contains most of the capacity to speak language) can speak about what it is feeling, whereas the mute right hemisphere can communicate its thoughts only by commanding the left hand to point, reach, or write. And this fact opens the door to an experiment regarding the retrospective fabrication of stories. In 1978, researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left hemisphere of a split-brain patient and a picture of a snowy winter scene to his right hemisphere. The patient was then asked to point at cards that represented what he had just seen. His right hand pointed to a card with a chicken, and his left hand pointed to a card with a snow shovel. The experimenters asked him why he was pointing to the shovel. Recall that his left hemisphere (the one with the capacity for language) had information only about the chicken, and nothing else. But the left hemisphere, without missing a beat, fabricated a story: “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” When one part of the brain makes a choice, other parts can quickly invent a story to explain why. If you show the command “Walk” to the right hemisphere (the one without language), the patient will get up and start walking. If you stop him and ask why he’s leaving, his left hemisphere, cooking up an answer, will say something like “I was going to get a drink of water.”

The chicken/shovel experiment led Gazzaniga and LeDoux to conclude that the left hemisphere acts as an “interpreter,” watching the actions and behaviors of the body and assigning a coherent narrative to these events. And the left hemisphere works this way even in normal, intact brains. Hidden programs drive actions, and the left hemisphere makes justifications. This idea of retrospective storytelling suggests that we come to know our own attitudes and emotions, at least partially, by inferring them from observations of our own behavior. As Gazzaniga put it, “These findings all suggest that the interpretive mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none — which leads it continually to make mistakes.”

This fabrication is not limited to split-brain patients. Your brain, as well, interprets your body’s actions and builds a story around them. Psychologists have found that if you hold a pencil between your teeth while you read something, you’ll think the material is funnier; that’s because the interpretation is influenced by the smile on your face. If you sit up straight instead of slouching, you’ll feel happier. The brain assumes that if the mouth and spine are doing that, it must be because of cheerfulness.

– David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 2011


  1. This fabrication is not limited to split-brain patients. Your brain, as well, interprets your body’s actions and builds a story around them. Psychologists have found that if you hold a pencil between your teeth while you read something, you’ll think the material is funnier; that’s because the interpretation is influenced by the smile on your face. If you sit up straight instead of slouching, you’ll feel happier. The brain assumes that if the mouth and spine are doing that, it must be because of cheerfulness.

    See this is the kinda stuff I find utterly objectionable, although it always makes the NYT bestseller list because it´s so REASSURING to the general audience. Let´s say that you had STRUCTURAL reasons to be unhappy, such as bereavement due to terminal illness, the loss of a loved one, or melancholia (of the kind depicted in the movie, a feeling of displacement in the world). No doubt for several hours sitting up straight would relieve you of some of the pain, the same way jogging can make one feel reinvigorated temporarily. But would it take away the structural unhappiness?
    The psychologists who did this research defined the intervening variable ´´happiness´´ as some positivist pragmatist mumbojumbo – say the bubbly sensations of a cocktail party – and then proceeded to ´´prove´´ the wellknown cognitivist mantra that external behaviors can shape your internal personality. But the whole thing is completely trivial and basically irrelevant. It is only usable as a set of advice for the wurkers to avoid the mousearm syndrome.

    As for the ´´alien hand´´ is this now some fancy new terminology for the neuroscientist to acknowledge the Unconscious? I don´t get the point.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 24 February 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  2. Eagleman presents his central thesis on page 4:

    “Most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Most of its operations are above the security clearance of the conscious mind. The I simply has no right of entry.”

    I doubt that most people find this idea very reassuring. I find it mildly disturbing to think that my mood would be affected even slightly by holding a pencil between my teeth. In emphasizing the importance of the unconscious, contemporary neuroscience and experimental psychology find themselves allied with psychoanalysis. The rational homunculus sitting in the control room, scanning the sensory-perceptual monitors, gauging and adjusting the emotions, weighing the options and rendering conscious decisions, intentionally pulling the levers of subjective agency — it’s this sort of cognitivism, inherited from Plato and Descartes and all of the other mind-body dualists, that’s under siege by contemporary brain research.

    Freud knew about the unconscious not just because of his clinical practice but because he studied medicine. Much of the core scientific work on sensation, perception, reflexes, and so on — mental activity taking place outside of consciousness — was done in the 19th century. Freud said that the turning point in his career was his work with Charcot, a neurologist who studied memory and cognitive impairment in brain-injured patients.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 February 2012 @ 3:23 pm

  3. Putting yourself in certain body positions and calming your breathing have been part of hatha yoga practise for millennia.

    Libet’s experiments showing that decisions had been made before one became conscious of them seems to carry the suggestion that the self only comes into the picture when there is consciousness of the decision. We may be then led by the nose towards a position where the decision cannot be a real decision because I am not conscious of making it. One might also come to be persuaded that agency is a mirage. If we think in terms of the person as agent then the breaking up of agency according to micro-seconds in the brain is creating a false causal chain with arbitrary stages.

    Lesion literature is fascinating for the way it makes us question what we take for granted, but the thing is, its siren suggestions may be just as wrong as our assumptions.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 24 February 2012 @ 6:23 pm

  4. I think all of that is right. The eliminativists want to, yes, eliminate self altogether; it seems justified at least to acknowledge that self-directed agency is more limited than most of us in the West are usually prepared to acknowledge. There’s a hint of liberation in this, including the possibility that the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives don’t necessarily have to be true. We construct fictions around ourselves all the time: why not go ahead and acknowledge the fuzzy boundary between fiction and nonfiction when it comes to imposing or assuming meaning?


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 February 2012 @ 7:34 pm

  5. why not go ahead and acknowledge the fuzzy boundary between fiction and nonfiction when it comes to imposing or assuming meaning?

    Yes, and it’s pleasant and works too. I mentioned on IDNYC that that’s why I don’t care for dream interp. because the dreams aren’t only about things ‘outside them’, they have their own reality, and are wonderful films and fiction. I told this to someone some 30 years ago, that my dreams were like movies; that’s why I wrote that post as I did–use the dream for your own purposes, therapize it instead of the other way around (at least when it’s so obvious what it ‘means’–you should play with it.)


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 24 February 2012 @ 7:55 pm

  6. “Yes, and it’s pleasant and works too.”

    In the early months of this blog I wrote a post entitled All Thought is Unconscious, based on the book Unformulated Experience by analyst Donnel Stern. The gist is this:

    In the unconscious are recollections, images, behavior sequences, ideas, impressions, feelings, imaginings, and so on. But the content swirls around in an inchoate state, adaptable to any number of virtual meanings that can pull them together into a coherent pattern. “If we are asked exactly what is unformulated in unformulated experience,” Stern writes, “then we can say that it is meaning. When we accomplish a new formulation, we have created a new meaning. Sometimes a new meaning entails new perceptions, memories, fantasies, and so on; sometimes it does not.”

    In an analytic session Stern will offer interpretations of the unformulated experiences to which the client gives voice, but he doesn’t regard these interpretations as true. If the client finds them interesting, useful, entertaining, the basis for further thought, etc., then it’s a successful interpretation. If the interpretation just sits there inert, then Stern and the client leave it behind and go on. In the excerpted passage from Eagleman the split-brain patient invents a story explaining the association between chicken and snow shovel: it was his conscious fictional interpretation of an unconscious brain state that was inaccessible to introspection. Pretty clearly his explanation wasn’t the true reason for his association between chicken and shovel, but the fictional story he invented gave him an alternative way of integrating left and right hemispheres when the biological integration apparatus, the corpus callosum, was no longer there to do the job.

    Stern quoted Paul Valéry:

    “The instability, incoherence, inconsequence of which I spoke which trouble and limit the mind in any sustained effort of construction or composition, are just as surely also treasures of possibility, whose riches it senses in its vicinity at the very moment when it is consulting itself. These are the mind’s reserves, from which anything may come, its reasons for hoping that the solution, the signal, the image, or the missing word may be nearer at hand than it seems. The mind can always feel in the darkness around it the truth or the decision it is looking for, which it knows to be at the mercy of the slightest thing, of that very meaningless disorder which seemed to divert it and banish it indefinitely… Disorder is the condition of the mind’s fertility: it contains the mind’s promise, since its fertility depends on the unexpected rather than the expected, on what we do not know, and because we do not know it, than on what we know.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2012 @ 6:38 am

  7. “the dreams aren’t only about things ‘outside them’, they have their own reality, and are wonderful films and fiction.”

    Yes. In my recent posts about Metzinger I neglected to describe his summary of dream state and its relation to the waking state. While awake and conscious the brain takes input from various sensory systems that continuously monitor the external world, the body, and the brain itself. The brain then assembles this variegated information into a coherent whole representation of self-in-the-world. When asleep the sensory systems are mostly offline, but during REM sleep they become active. You’re still asleep though, so the perceptual information about the external world and the body remain mostly shut down. That leaves you with brain activity, isolated from material reality. Just as during wakefulness the brain assembles a coherent representation of the inputs, so too does it perform this same activity during REM sleep — but it has only the firings of brain neurons to work with in assembling this representation, unanchored from the physical world. And so the brain does the best it can, fitting together the various bits and pieces of neural activity into a more-or-less coherent world and story line. The story-telling activity is similar to waking state, but the story is more unhinged from outside reality, more clearly fictional. Even when unconscious, the brain invents compelling stories that can incorporate practically any random material you throw at it inside a meaningful context.

    During the unfolding of a dream, why did your brain come up with that particular world and story instead of some other one? Well, now you can engage your waking-state storytelling abilities to imagine some possibilities. Is any one interpretation more true than any other? It’s hard to say, but if the story you tell yourself about your dream is interesting, entertaining, stimulating of other ideas, etc., then it’s a good interpretation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2012 @ 7:00 am

  8. “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Is memory just faulty or organised around a likely story. It’s selective by virtue of the natural economy of decision making. People can be persuaded to remember things that never happened. Forgetting can be benign. The alternative can be a too vivid memory. Is the truth better than a comforting lie? ”Is a lie a dream that don’t come true or is it something worse?”.

    Facing the truth about oneself or others is not an easy task. We want to believe the flattering things that false friends tell us. In his final year Yeats wrote ‘man cannot know truth but he can embody it’. He was inclined to doubt the myths that had sustained him (The Circus Animals Desertion).

    Dreams aren’t lies but ways of presenting the truth of what we really feel and think. The central fact about the dream is that logic is abrogated. To deny or say no to something we have to demonstrate that by action. Thus the truth can be presented to us which in the waking state we would deny or censor.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 25 February 2012 @ 5:15 pm

  9. “We want to believe the flattering things that false friends tell us.”

    Not necessarily, and ‘flattery’ is always a dangerous term; ‘complimentary’ is better, although when things are genial, saying that something is flattery is all right if it’s known to be sincere. A ‘false friend’ is contradictory. I’ve also been flattered six ways to Sunday by ‘friends’ who I knew were certainly false, but their ‘flattery’ was true. But I didn’t value it, which is, of course, different–they weren’t doing it except to exact profit. This same kind of person who overdoes the flattery will overdue the condemnation as well, and both are lies, or forms of exaggerations Likewise, I’ve been condemned by true friends and false pretenders for things I actually wanted to believe I was guilty of, and wasn’t.

    “Dreams aren’t lies but ways of presenting the truth of what we really feel and think.”

    That sounds a bit glib to me. You can flatter yourself with a dream, and upon waking I still won’t have fucked my 5th grade girlfriend that I never did in real life. But I remember I tried to dream that I did for years, and finally dreamed that we fully consummated, and it was very liberating, but factually could be said only to be a ‘kind of truth’. Of course, it’s not a ‘lie’, because it represented a sense of reaching something inaccessible. It was one of those childhood romances in which some friend was appointed to tell either of us that ‘she loves you’, etc. We were so shy we could barely look at each other. It was like that at the gallery the other night, the owner is so dazzlingly beautiful I dare say nothing on my own bleug, which she reads, but she knows I can’t keep my eyes off her, even though I mainly go there for what art is on display. John knows those posts about the brilliant Ms. Wilson, whom I met the other night. I definitely think her work is ‘genius’ and told her so, and I don’t think that’s ‘false flattery’, I just don’t have the money to buy her sculptures. But the looks of that OWNER, Helen, the first time I’ve ever seen that name fully lived up to, I can’t say a WORD. She looks at me and knows she’s just as gorgeous as I think she is! I gotta stay away from that place, because I’m not sure I recognized the husband and split after I gave her the books. She was really the subject of the DREAM post I wrote the other day about another beauty from years past. When the old ‘Jeanne’ told me, after I said ‘I’ve always loved you’, that ‘No, you just want me to be your cunt!’ I was almost surely thinking of La Belle Helene. Although I’m not sure what I want, I can tell that for sure. Too late, though.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 25 February 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  10. In my most recent vivid dream, several large parties were being held simultaneously in some large city. The parties were geographically dispersed, so travel between them required bus rides. There were two people I knew in the dream, both of them old friends: one is dead, the other might be dead. Bill died about seven years ago, and I returned from France to Chicago to attend the funeral, where there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. In my dream Bill was jovial, as in life, possibly hosting one of the parties. Tom, the other friend, has disappeared without a trace. His last act known to me or to anyone I know was to send a parcel from some Caribbean island to another old friend, Drake, who happens to be an attorney, with instructions to hold onto the parcel until further notice. The package was sent 25 years ago, and Drake has held onto it all these years without ever opening it. Drake has enlisted private I’s to track Tom down, but without success. In my dream I saw Tom getting off the bus. He was about 40 years old in the dream, cheerful and talkative, but most unusual was his height. In real life Tom is/was maybe 5 foot 7; in the dream he was 7 feet tall.

    Now of course it’s not true that Bill is alive or that Tom is gigantic. But this true story about Tom’s parcel I worked into a novel I finished about a year ago. I wrote another novel since then, and now I’m circling around the next one. I’ve been wondering whether to pick up the story of Tom’s parcel, so his enormity of appearance in the dream “means” to me that he is fictionally large in meaning and so I “should” continue the fictionalization of his story.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2012 @ 6:12 pm

  11. This kind of Jungian ”dream interpretation” can only be parodied lightly, or end up in some Astrology magazine, because dreams are impossible to interpret without the current discourse of the dreamer being analyzed at the same time. The way he recounts the dream is more important than the content of the dream, and the associations he makes while he is in discourse with the analyst, cannot be retrieved retroactively in written format without losing their original significance.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 25 February 2012 @ 7:20 pm

  12. I tend to agree, though the writing of my dream corresponds pretty well with how I remembered it upon awakening. Three other things: (1) I was enjoying myself at these parties; (2) at one point I got lost getting off the bus looking for one of the parties; (3) Tom loomed above me, but I felt no sense of threat. Now it’s time for dinner interpretation…

    Yesterday I cooked some polenta (i.e., cornmeal mush) and poured it into a flat cake pan to cool and solidify. This evening the meal involved a lot of sauteeing. It started with some fresh asparagus spears sauteed in butter with salt and sugar. Then a boneless chicken breast. As it was finishing I added to the pan some diced onions and chopped walnuts. Meanwhile in the other pan I’m sauteeing the polenta, sliced into inch-wide strips, until they’re crispy. I take the chicken, onions, and walnuts up from the first pan. A little more butter, and sautee some thinly-sliced pear for about two minutes, and take from the pan. A bit more butter, chicken stock, cream, white wine, and a spoonful of apricot jam into the pan. Reduce, then add some bleu and parmesan cheese. Take the hot plates from the oven. Put asparagus on one side of each plate. Slice the chicken breast into strips, then begin the vertical assembly: crispy polenta strips on the bottom, then the chicken slices, then the pear slices, then the sauce, top with onion and walnuts, sprinkle with paprika. Serve with white wine. Oh it was sublime.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2012 @ 7:37 pm

  13. Is that from a recipe or did you figure out those ingredients? I wouldn’t have known to use pears and apricot jam on my own, if also onions, blue cheese and parmesan. Do you experiment with these fruit and salty flavours sometimes? You must have used a recipe to tell you to stack them up like that, didn’t you? Reminds me of when herbs started being used a lot in desserts in the 90s. I made a Blueberry Pound Cake with thyme and lime in it. Did NOT like it, and it was because of the thyme. My own dinner started to go for the parmesan too, and was more humble, but still rather rapturous: A 3-egg omelet filled with two fat Italian sweet sausages chopped and sauteed with onion and green pepper. It would have been even better with the parmesan, but it seems I want parmesan literally all the time, so I consciously resisted.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 25 February 2012 @ 7:54 pm

  14. Once at a restaurant I had a great appetizer of crispy polenta, pears, pine nuts and gorgonzola sauce. Subsequently I played around with replicating it a few times, adding jam etc, until I arrived at a pleasing version. I thought that the chicken breast and onions would work with it for a main course, and that the walnuts would be an adequate substitute for the pine nuts. The asparagus was a very good accompaniment.

    Your omelet sounds superb: I love Italian sausage. Do you ever use MSG by the way? I buy it at the Asian market and often put it in eggs.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  15. No, I’ve never used it, because I used to get reactions from the MSG when the Chinese restaurants still used it a lot, almost this weird muscular stiffening. It’s like that old product Accent, and I loved that when my mother discovered it and we used it all the time, but maybe not as much, never had reactions back then.

    Yes, I’ve become a very good omelette maker, and it’s NOT the easiest thing in the world to get perfect either. I lift and lower the pan over the fire so there’s no chance of it getting browned. I also very often add a tablespoon of white wine to the eggs themselves, a secret I learned from ‘Janet’ and that is divine. But I didn’t for this, which had the similar ingredients to that rustic Rigatoni with Sausage ‘n’ Garlic that I do a lot from the Sopranos Cookbook. I wouldn’t have been able to figure out those ingredients for such a complex dish as you made, though.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 25 February 2012 @ 8:10 pm

  16. Parmesan, like MSG, has high concentrations of the fifth flavor, or umami.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 February 2012 @ 8:53 am

  17. Illegal:
    I was told once by someone, ‘I loved your story’. An imp made me ask ‘what was it about? Blank look. Ungracious of me I know but that’s how I am. The best sort of peer review I have gotten is from carpenters at my brother’s house who noted and approved the hand run crown moulding that I had made for a traditional dresser/hutch. I wasn’t there at the time but if I had been the conversation might have been:
    – You didn’t get that cornice in Higgins shop.
    This is said with a nod and no eye contact.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 26 February 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  18. Somewhat mysterieuse (it gets a little ‘literary’ at the end), but of course there are ‘fake compliments’. Since you knew that before you wrote the comment about ‘flattery from false friends’, I thought it necessary to tell you that that is very oblique writing when done in informal conversation. You can do it and literature and not have to explain yourself if you don’t want to, but if you speak in a near-fable informally, people won’t get what you are aiming at. What I derive from your two comments on this is that you seem to think understatement which proves the validity of something is the best. Well, it’s definitely has a kind of holiness to it that I like too, but modesty can also be overrated. I’m sure you’ve had real compliments on your writing, too, so maybe it was just an obvious sense that the person who said ‘I loved your story’ was fatuous even before (s)he said it. In that case, asking ‘what was it about?’ was a legitimate response, and the blank look meant whatever, that (s)he hadn’t read it, but you’d know…if the person really meant it, you probably wouldn’t ask (you seem serious enough even in this flat medium), but if the person meant it and you did ask, you might possibly be seen as merely rude. And they may have been right.

    Once when I went home to Alabama from New York, I played the first Bach 3-Part Invention in morning church service–I don’t think it was the Offertory, for which it might not have been quite long enough–and my cousin about 10 years older than I said afterwards “Pat, I liked your song.” And, of course, ‘song’ is incorrect, but would I hold that against her? And she is easily the richest person I’m related to, what was I going to do, say ‘So you’re beginning to value things other than your fabulous sets of china, your huge wardrobe and your 5 houses?’

    And nobody else said a thing about it. So it varies.

    What you seem to be getting at in your near-parable tone reminds me of some of Thoreau’s talk about ‘elegant manners’ in some commoner and somebody royal who was rude and haughty. Of course, we know that can happen, and we also know that it often doesn’t. Even Charles Ives, who named a movement of his Concord Sonata after Thoreau, and wrote Essays before all 4 movements, complained about Thoreau’s ‘cussedness’, and if Ives, most ‘cussedness-oriented’ of all musicians, just short of calling Mozart, Chopin and Debussy faggots (he doesn’t, but he and his wife were shitty to Henry Cowell, when they found out he was homo–but I haven’t got time to look up all the hick things he said about these 3 composers, which I once wrote up in some program notes–the things about Debussy were definitely the stupidest, although he said that Mozart reminded him of ‘sitting on a perfumed cushion’)–anyway, if Ives said it about Thoreau, it’s got to be true. I remember myself how I tedious I thought his endless discussions about ice formations were, and how ‘there are no more beautiful things than lakes and trees’, very dogmatic. There’s also that famous passage in ‘Walden’, in which he starts talking about how ‘making communication between Boston and New York better, more convenient, easier, but shouldn’t they be concentrating instead on making Boston and New York themselves better?’ And yet there was something weirdly persuasive in his version of the Puritan mind; I couldn’t get it out of my head sometimes. I don’t know, maybe it was Martha Graham’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ that was the tipping point: That was about rural people, and nothing Thoreau ever said about pine trees holds a candle to it. I think, in the end, it is that very cussedness about Henry David Thoreau that most distinguishes him.

    Far off the reservation just there, one pleads mercy. But it’s also a fact that his experiment at Walden Pond doesn’t come near in severity and difficulty that some of the hermit-yogis of India have done, and I’ll even give the Desert Fathers a gold star for outdoing him in conviction. I was just introduced to him a lot earlier. Thanks for responding, though. You’re oblique expression is interesting, and I’ll try to get round to reading some of your own bleug entries this week or next.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 26 February 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  19. Also, a few minutes later, your remark about the ‘nod and no eye contact’ reminds me of the Shaker aesthetic, which I admire and can fully see the beauty in–the famous furniture is the most obvious. I cannot, however, stick to it very long, because it is a rigorous and largely anti-sensual aesthetic. In short, it couldn’t have arrived at what it did arrive at without that kind of restriction, but even its members dwindled. Although that isn’t very relevant, all sorts of beautiful things are replaced and die out. There are many versions of this kind of severe, ascetic aesthetic. Curiously, it makes me think of Noguchi’s ‘Jocasta’s Chair’, which was made for Graham’s piece ‘Night Journey’. It reminds me superficially of some Shaker chairs, but is much more stylized (I’ve seen the one made for the original production in the Noguchi Museum in Queens), theatrical and the Shakers would see no resemblance at all.

    On the other hand, the most beautiful part of Appalachian Spring is perhaps just after the wedding of the Bride and the Husbandman, in which they dance to the Shaker Hymn ‘Simple Gifts’. I am glad I remembered this, because this is the real thing, and I can stay with this indefinitely. I also went to a memorial service for Audrey Hepburn in 1993 at the 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church, and a boys’ choir sang ‘Simple Gifts’. That is perfect, and when the Pioneer Woman at the end of ‘Spring’ does a kind of square dance with the Preacher’s Followers and a soaring version of the song swells up, it is even more moving. Martha understood all this completely–she even got her vanity out of the way enough to let tall dancers do the goddess-like Pioneer Woman, which was uncharacteristic. She also understood Medea and said things like ‘my dear Jacqueline Onassis’ in later life. I don’t know if in Ireland, with all that literal Catholicism which is so much more rigorously adhered to than it is on the Continent (where Italians and French are often referred to as ‘atheistic Catholics’), you have something that is akin to American Puritanism. I have a cousin in Boston, and we made a point of visiting all the homes (at least from the outside) of Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcott House, even Walden Pond. Of these, the only one that still speaks to me is Hawthorne, who I think is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. But I don’t think ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is necessarily better than ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. Things like that.

    Thanks for your patience, wasn’t expecting to get going like that.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 26 February 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  20. I believe the square dance that is done in Appalachian is a kind of ‘allemande’, but there are not male/female partners, the Pioneer Woman goes through the ring of Followers, briefly joining arms with each and winding through. It’s very beautiful, and both Night Journey and Appalachian Spring are filmed in the late 50s and easily available on DVD.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 26 February 2012 @ 2:50 pm

  21. John,
    Just thought I’d mention the film ‘Las Manos de Orlac’ which Malcolm Lowry features in ‘Under the Volcano’.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 26 February 2012 @ 4:39 pm

  22. Now that’s a strange association with the post, I gotta hand it to you. Tonight is the Oscars, but since I’ve seen only two of the Best Picture nominees I’m less interested than usual. Some day I’ll brace myself for rereading Under the Volcano, which deserves its acclaim. I’ve never seen the John Huston film version, nor have I ever heard anything about it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 February 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  23. John:
    ‘Cool Hand Luke’ would have been further away. Las Manos is the everyday story of re-attached hands, those of Orlac, the killair who has been executed. Their new owner is Rollo who discovers that he now is an excellent knife-thrower. Bad things happen. Hands that get away on their putative owners are a standard theme. Consider Dr. Strangelove.

    Dr.Oliver Sacks has written about folk who repudiate limbs that are clearly theirs. Homunculi forget their instructions. Sometimes trauma starts it off, a skiing accident and a leg that once was mine becomes recalcitrant, alien and must come off, if not legally then in a little known facility where such things can be arranged ‘for a price’. A new owner out on the piste may discover that he keeps turning to the right or left as the case may be.

    ‘Under the Volcano’ the movie, I was a little bit consular at the time but it was good.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 27 February 2012 @ 4:20 am

  24. Correction: Rollo gives the hands, Orlac gets the hands. Peter Lorre as Dr.Gogol attaches them. Gripping!


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 27 February 2012 @ 5:34 am

  25. I’d forgotten about Dr. Strangelove’s hand. In Evil Dead 2 I particularly like when the possessed hand, still attached, begins dragging its owner across the floor. Evil Dead 2 was a movie largely stitched together from the severed parts of earlier films. Perhaps it was intentionally metaphorical: when all the stories have already been told, Frankensteinian collage is all that remains. I’ve not seen The Artist, just crowned as Best Picture, but evidently it’s a self-conscious throwback without irony. “I want to thank Billy Wilder,” said the director as he accepted the statuette, “and I want to thank Billy Wilder, and I want to thank Billy Wilder.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2012 @ 7:04 am

  26. but evidently it’s a self-conscious throwback without irony.

    Brilliant diagnosis! I don’t want to see that film on principle.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 28 February 2012 @ 2:41 am

  27. I always see the Oscar winner eventually, so I’ll probably see this one too. I’ve watched them all from the past sixty years except The Greatest Show on Earth, which won best picture of 1952. I tried a couple of years ago but the boredom and hokum quickly became overwhelming and I had to turn it off.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 February 2012 @ 9:38 am

  28. Returning to the original topic, here’s an excerpt from Anthony Kenny’s TLS review of Goetz and Talliaferro’s recently-published A Brief History of the Soul. Kenny looks at the soulful contribution of Descartes, whom he calls “the most thoroughgoing dualist of all time”:

    Descartes not only believed that mind could exist without body: he also redrew the boundary between the mental and the non-mental. Medieval Aristotelians regarded mind as the faculty, or set of faculties, that mark off human beings from other animals. Many dumb animals share with us the ability to see and hear, and to feel pleasure and pain; but only human beings can think abstract thoughts and take rational decisions. It was the faculties of intellect and will which, on this view, constituted the mind. Intellectual activity, it was claimed, was in a particular sense immaterial, whereas sensation was impossible without a material body.

    Descartes placed the boundary between mind and matter elsewhere. For him it was consciousness, rather than intelligence and rationality, that was the defining criterion of the mental; the mind, for him, was the realm of whatever is accessible to introspection. Every form of human experience, he believed, included an element that was spiritual rather than material, a phenomenal component that was no more than contingently connected with bodily causes, expressions and mechanisms.

    For Descartes, as for the Aristotelians, non-human animals lacked minds. But the substitution of consciousness in place of rationality as the defining characteristic of the mental led to a surprising consequence. Since he had extended mind now to include sensation and emotion as well as intellection, he must in consistency deny that animals were conscious; they were, he claimed, complicated material machines. Descartes, in sum, spiritualized human sensation and emotion, and mechanized animal sensation and emotion.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 February 2012 @ 7:02 pm

  29. We can recognise the unworkability of dualism ie the causal problem, how body and mind is supposed to interact. But how are we to get a grip on the idea that the brain secretes consciousness, that neuronal activity just is consciousness. The one is unworkable, the other is inconceivable.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 29 February 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  30. In important ways the brain’s representation of the world in consciousness is not unlike the transformation of sodium and chlorine into salt. Salt isn’t excreted by its elemental components, nor are its properties reducible to those of its elements, but at the same time salt is nothing more than its elements. Self-organizing systems have emergent properties, all the way down to the subatomic and up to the intergalactic.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 February 2012 @ 6:20 pm

  31. Whereas we can understand quite well a chemical reaction, the precipitation of thought via cerebral activity is mysterious. We don’t perceive perceiving. It might be said that we can’t perceive perception because it is not graspable. The idea of emergence of consciousness after a certain threshold of complexity has been attained is to reserve the ascription of consciousness to already complex forms of life. The panpsychist view, that everything bears information and that information is by definition for everything else including itself, offers a continuum which may be more true to the progress of evolution. The being of things, their substantial form, is information. To be obscure, the intensification of information for itself in the present moment is duration for Bergson. To put it in another and obscurium per obscurius way, our soul is the quality of this duration. Time in purgatory is meant to dissolve duration that information might become pure consciousness.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 1 March 2012 @ 2:47 am

  32. Panpsychism is one possible explanation for the emergence of consciousness over the course of evolution. I’d never read any Spinoza and only a bit of Whitehead or Hegel before I began hanging around in this corner of the blogosphere. I remain even more ignorant of Bergson. I don’t see why panpsychism would necessarily be overthrown even if some of the mysteries are penetrated and scientists discover the biochemical activities by which brains generate consciousness. It’s possible to understand with precision specific kinds of information, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the universe is itself a vast and intricate system for transmitting and receiving information.

    “Whereas we can understand quite well a chemical reaction, the precipitation of thought via cerebral activity is mysterious.”

    The fact that humans don’t understand how consciousness emerges from brain activity constitutes one among countless limitations of human understanding. But certainly more is known about consciousness now than was the case a hundred years ago. The same could be said for chemical reactions: far more is known today than was known 200 years ago. The chemical make-up of salt isn’t accessible to human introspection or ordinary perception. While salt is ubiquitous on earth and has been known to humans since prehistory, neither of salt’s elemental components exists in nature in its pure state. Still, the mysteries were eventually unraveled by humans. I just did a brief google search: chlorine was discovered in 1774; sodium, in 1807. I still don’t know when someone figured out that salt is sodium chloride. I also don’t know when NaCl was first made from its elements, or when someone discovered how NaCl became such an abundant compound on earth, or how it became essential to animal metabolism. If humans didn’t have salt sloshing through their bodies and brains they would never have made any of these discoveries.

    I just read a brief summary of the discovery of the chemical composition of water. Around 1885 Henry Cavendish, James Watt and Antoine Lavoisier simultaneously and independently figured out, under controlled laboratory conditions, that water was comprised of two parts “inflammable air” and one part oxygen. Evidently there was a protracted dispute among the three as to which one should get the credit. Cavendish believed that hydrogen could be explained by phlogiston theory, whereas Lavoisier was one of the first chemists to understand the element-compound relationships that became the foundation of modern chemical science.

    Based on recommendation from Asher Kay at the Dead Voles blog, I’ve been reading Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon. His project is to avoid reductionism and eliminativism in science by exploring the importance of constraints in information and of teleology in self-organization of life forms. It’s certainly the case that psychological scientists include goals and constraints in their investigations of human cognition. The issue becomes important at the interfaces between psychology, biology and chemistry. Deacon wants to preserve the predictive power of reductionist science while accounting for the seeming inconsistencies of self-organization and sapience with this powerful scientific paradigm. I’ve read about 40% of Deacon’s book: not far enough to judge whether I think he’s succeeding in his quest.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 March 2012 @ 7:53 am

  33. “I see them in the primitive silkscreen the brain is able to produce, maybe eight inches in front of my closed eyes, miniaturized by time and distance, riddled by visual static, each figure a dancing red ribbon. These are among the people I’ve tried to know twice, the second time in memory and language. Through them, myself. They are what I’ve become, in ways I don’t understand but which I believe will accrue to a rounded truth, a second life for me as well as for them.”

    …so remarks the narrator toward the end of Don DeLillo’s The Names, just after realizing that he missed a lot during his first viewing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 March 2012 @ 2:05 pm

  34. However John when we talk about brain/mind identity here it has to be admitted that it is identity but not as we know it. I can speak of this ash stool here in front of me being identical with itself even if it previously was in a different position. It’s the same stool. To say that this brain activity is consciousness is not to make an similar assertion of identity. We can imagine there being brain activity which is the same or exactly similar in every respect as some previous brain activity e.g. looking at a red painting. This could even be established by brain imaging. However when I say that I have a red consciousness or a consciousness of red on a number of different occasions i.e. each time I look at the red painting, is problematic. What I am having is a number of experiences of the red painting but I have a single relevant concept of red, a single red consciousness. In short many instances of red experience and a single concept. This is what makes a mental life possible and what makes memory possible. If all experiences whatever were twinned with a consciousness as in the neural correlates construction of the problem then the mental overload would be overwhelming.

    Bergson has lots along these lines in Matter and Memory and even if you are not persuaded by it, the mental agility of a master creating space and turning room in the constricted parking of the brain/mind problem is fascinating. For me this is half the joy in reading metaphysics.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 1 March 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  35. Well I’m glad you enjoy it, Michael. It’s notable that philosophy is so closely associated with specific philosophers, whereas science is associated more with its findings. The prose describing scientific research is intentionally flat, lest rhetorical flourishes rather than rigor prove persuasive. E.g., anyone following the explicitly-described methodology could discover what Lavoisier did in his lab.

    “identity but not as we know it” …There are plenty of natural and artificial events that change over time — migration patterns of birds, traffic patterns on the streets, the images on the television screen — but this doesn’t exclude them from systematic understanding. Your single concept of redness: surely this too is subject to empirical exploration. E.g., systematic variation of electromagnetic wave frequencies emitted by some light source correlated with your verbal description of the color you see, correlated with other observers, even without brain imaging studies, should provide some indication of the relationship between concept and stimulus. This sort of research was already being conducted in the 19th century; it provides a basis for further exploration via brain imaging, neural network simulation, and other methods. Regarding memory, I briefly noted on your blog that my memory of, e.g., having eaten lamb and potato pancakes and broccoli for supper tonight could be validated by having some recording device watch me eating at the table, or by asking my wife who ate with me. Perceptions and memories involve both brains and the outside world, and both are subject to investigation.

    “the mental load would be overwhelming” — right: empirical evidence supports the contention that humans spontaneously and unconsciously avoid this overload. The sensory apparatus extracts only a small fraction of the information available in the environment, and the brain retains only a small fraction of its sensory inputs in long-term memory.

    I suspect though that none of this gets at what really interests you though about minds, consciousness, and memory.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 March 2012 @ 7:27 pm

  36. Having read some of the ‘dead voles’ and your contributions I have a clearer sense of your position. It would probably be an oversimplification to attribute to you the view that if we knew everything about the brain we would know everything about the mind but you are heading in that direction, I think. Do any of the philosophical quibbles that are made, by Tallis, by myself make any difference to physical research. They don’t seem to. Does that mean that they are irrelevant per se? I don’t think so naturally particularly in the areas where large metaphysical claims are made on the basis of empirical findings. The questions which may or not be interesting are these: Does all empirical research proceed on the basis of metaphysical assumptions with the circularity that implies I.e. we find what we are looking for. Secondly can all such assumptions be jettisoned allowing the scientists to proceed untrammeled?


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 2 March 2012 @ 5:25 am

  37. I don’t understand the metaphysical objections you’re raising to my comments. Perhaps my lack of understanding demonstrates that I’m locked inside some tacit metaphysic that’s impenetrable by your interventions. Did I eat lamb last night for supper or not? Do I still remember it today? If you ask me a year from now what I ate for supper 366 nights ago will I remember? These seem like real questions, for which it’s possible to find answers, unencumbered by metaphysical commitments.

    Eagleman points out that humans can see less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum. What you and I call “red” is assembled in the brain from electromagnetic waves hitting cells in the retina, which transmit some of the signals they detect through the optic nerve to the cerebral cortex, where the information is represented perceptually as red. All of this neural activity for assembling a visual representation of redness takes place in total darkness: no outside light reaches the brain. That visual perception works this way is no more within the human ability to perceive or intuit directly than are the elemental composition of salt or water. Further, you and I can attune what we each call “red” by pointing to various objects in the environment and seeing if the color-names we assign to them are the same. But it’s also demonstrably the case that humans can detect slight differences in color without being able to assign different names to them — so color discrimination isn’t only a social-linguistic construction. Infants can detect color differences long before they can understand language. And so on, incrementally investigating the subject, iterating between empirical evidence and hypotheses for explaining/predicting it. Did the scientists who pieced together what’s currently known about vision have an a priori metaphysical commitment to what they would accept as the right answer? Some surely did, while some did not; regardless, they all must come to grips with the same empirical findings. Do you have specific metaphysical objections to this model of visual perception? What are they? Is there a basis on which we might agree to resolve our specific differences in understanding?

    Clearly not everything is known about the brain, or about light waves, or about retinas, or about the activities of salt and water molecules for that matter. More is known now than was formerly known; more will be known ten years from now. While further investigation may explain how you and I perceive something red, that explanation is outside of our phenomenal awareness and our self-awareness. The eliminativists are going to contend that the way humans perceive redness, or the way any one particular human perceives the evening redness in the sky at some particular March sunset, is not real; that only the mechanics by which these perceptions are assembled are real. I don’t accept that position; I don’t know anyone but a few scientifically-informed metaphysicians who does. Still, is there anything outside of that sunset; and outside of my body that positions itself so that its eyeballs can receive light inputs from that sunset at particular angles relative to other objects in my immediate environment; and outside of my brain that receives the visual input, implicitly compares it to other sunsets, and assembles a set of words to describe it; and the society of fellow humans who also look at sunsets and who talk about them with one another? If there is, does this other outside thing obviate the systematic understanding of how physical environments, bodies, brains, and societies function together in seeing that sunset?


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2012 @ 6:26 am

  38. There is a tacit metaphysical commitment in empirical science that everything results from natural causes. More important to day-to-day scientific work is the methodological commitment: all natural causes can potentially be discovered and explained in ways that humans can understand. Certainly in psychological and brain sciences the potential is far from realized: findings are deemed highly significant even when they account for only a statistically small percentage of the variance in observations; the theoretical endpoint of accounting for 100% of variance is rarely approached very closely. The main practical consequence of the methodological commitment is that nothing is ruled out of bounds for scientific investigation. If, e.g., there are gods, how do they communicate to many people at the same time without producing audible or visual signals? If there is an elan vital, how does it transmit itself through animate beings and inanimate objects?


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2012 @ 7:05 am

  39. These discussions have been going on for a very long time. Is metaphysics falsifiable? Can we even decide between different brands? If it’s knowledge we ought to be able to establish it and if it isn’t knowledge what is it. Can scientific findings contradict metaphysical principles? Must all empirical investigation have some overarching metaphysical stance? If all metaphysical speculation stopped tomorrrow would it make any difference to science? Probably, or even certainly, not would be a likely answer. Who gets the last word? Some people feel the force of these questions others do not and if one doesn’t then it may seem like a pointless exercise.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 2 March 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  40. Who gets the last word? You do: we’ll move on. Thanks for the conversation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2012 @ 5:23 pm

  41. “Some people feel the force of these questions others do not and if one doesn’t then it may seem like a pointless exercise.”

    Exactement. I was just thinking of this very possibility that I may think it may or may not be a pointless exercise today, after having followed the conversation closely. My conclusion was ‘no, it’s not pointless, if I don’t have to spend much time on it personally’. One spends time on such things, to a certain degree, according to how ‘practical’ they may actually, secretly, or otherwise, seem.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 2 March 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  42. Did you see the pertinent excerpt from DeLillo in comment 33, IDNYC? It appeared about ten pages from the end of The Names as a rather anomalous observation in the context, like some anachronistic high-tech intro to Recherche du Temps Perdu, maybe after having eaten a madeleine laced with acid. The book was very good.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2012 @ 9:02 pm

  43. Of course I saw it, and was very struck by the ‘red ribbon’, but I need to get the whole book. I’m very glad it caught you, because I had somehow overlooked it, and wouldn’t even have known to check it out otherwise. I’ll then post some on IDNYC about it too. Of course, the matter of ‘knowing a person twice’ is something I’m very fond of. I’ve read religious texts that say this will always be a Sisyphean endeavour, but I have thrown that out and gone ahead and ‘become’ them and they’ve ‘become’ me. This is actually very tied up with sexual desire, and I really can’t think of a single religion that does not basically condemn sex, including the ones which (or especially those) talk about ‘how it’s all right in its place’. Just make sure it’s got the special prison is what they are saying, because a religion that allows too much sexual tolerance is going to have LE (Law Enforcement, for the uninitiated) on its ass.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 2 March 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  44. Just now, while putting the hold on ‘The Names’, I noticed that there is a 2008 book called ‘Don DeLillo, Jean Baudrillard and the Consumer Conundrum’ by Mark Schuster. I am going to take a look at this no matter what kind of reviews it got–the combination is very racy.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 2 March 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  45. Illegal:
    If there’s a point to this it’s that the two parties (broad brush) can be talking about the same thing in different senses. So you can have ‘red’ and its place in the spectrum, rods and cones etc and ‘red’, the very concept of ‘red as such’, conceptualising as such’ etc. The second party might not even know all that much about what the first was talking about to make sense within his own domain and vice versa. That would not prevent impetuous individuals in either party to make judgments about the goals of the other one. And they do.

    Last word is an irony not an attempt at foreclosure. There’s a talking past one another and so not addressing the same sense of the subject under discussion. Not that we were at that, quite.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 3 March 2012 @ 5:12 am

  46. I don’t think about visual sensation/perception all that often either, but it is the kind of red that Eagleman, a scientist, writes about in the book I excerpted in the post. Curiously, Eagleman also wrote an extended fiction, like the nonfiction published just last year, entitled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Structured rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities and about as short, Sum consists of a series of speculative after-death scenarios. Not quite science fiction, each of the afterlives, briefly and whimsically described, is built around some scientific or philosophical idea, some ancient, some contemporary. Apparently Eagleman was an English major in college before studying neuroscience at the doctoral level. The novel has sold well, especially in GB (Eagleton is American). I found it fairly clever and entertaining.

    Yesterday I read a post by Levi Bryant in which the idea of redness makes an appearance, at least by implication. He claims, following Plato, that truth isn’t in statements made about a thing but in the thing itself. Levi writes not about redness but about beerness, but we can make the replacement without much difficulty. Is Busch Lite, Levi asks, a true beer or a false one? It depends, he asserts, on the extent to which it embodies the ideal beer. (Levi happens to invoke a German ideal rather than a universal one, though I think we can overlook the cultural and political implications.) Apparently though the intrinsic truth or falsity of a beer is also open to persuasion. However, instead of persuading the beer-drinker, the metaphysical rhetorician must persuade the beer itself. I can imagine after putting away a six-pack or two that I might start telling the Busch Light that it’s a true beer. Anyhow, the post then extends this argument to fiction. Is a novel true? If so, it’s true in and of itself, in its “ability to stand” as a novel, and not in whether the text makes true statements about the real world. But what about the role of persuasion? The post concludes:

    “Readers, of course, offer interpretations of novels, yet it’s a mistake to think that it is other people that they must persuade. Rather, in hazarding an interpretation the entity that a reader must persuade is the novel. The question is “does my response/reading persuade Kafka’s Trial?”, not “does my response/reading persuade my professor, the editors of a journal, or my daughter?” It is the reader that must persuade the novel, not the novel that manages to persuade or not persuade the reader. And so too would the same principles hold for every scientific hypothesis, every religious rapture, every activist political group, and so on. In each case it is a question of a distributed process or activity of assembling and of persuading all entities involved so as to generate something that manages to stand for a moment or eons. “

    I’m not persuaded. But an image of Pinocchio beer just came to mind: “I want to be a real beer…”


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2012 @ 7:40 am

  47. On a not-unrelated tangent, today’s number 8 on Amazon’s best-seller list is Thinking, Fast and Slow by cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In collaboration with Amos Tversky, Kahneman has done a lot of research on human decision-making, focusing especially on the intuitive heuristic-driven “fast” thinking people use as short-cuts to conscious and methodical rational-empirical “slow” thinking. Sometimes the intuitions are reliable, but sometimes they’re not: making these distinctions became the focus of the research. In 2002 Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize for this work (Tversky had died a few years earlier), which has implications for how people make financial decisions under conditions of risk and uncertainty. It’s notable that a cognitive psychology book would break into the Top Ten; I suspect some significant proportion of the buyers are looking for self-help tips.

    And now a related personal memory comes into my conscious awareness. Late in my grad school years I was on the colloquium committee, charged with inviting visiting speakers, arranging their housing and transportation, wining and dining them, etc. By that point I was working on evaluating expert-novice differences and on doing so-called “knowledge engineering” for designing and building expert systems: artificial intelligence programs designed to mimic human expertise on decision-making tasks. Kahneman and Tversky’s work was important in this context: should the system designer emulate human decision-making heuristics, or should the system run algorithms that might give more accurate answers via a decision process that could be rejected as incomprehensible by human users of the system? Anyhow, we invited Daniel Robinson to present a colloquium talk. Robinson, from Catholic-affiliated Georgetown University, specialized in historical and philosophical psychology. He was quite Cartesian in his approach: sensation and perception are subject to reductionistic scientific methods adapted from physics, whereas consciousness is irreducible, transcendent, the subject of metaphysics rather than science. Robinson was very sharp, fluent, quick with an apt and often sarcastic riposte. So, the committee members take Robinson out to dinner. We go around the table telling him what we’re working on. My area of cognitive research infringed on what Robinson regarded as inappropriate for scientific methods, so I knew I was in trouble. Tell Dr. Robinson what you’re working on, prompted one of my associates with a smirk. “You know, Dr. Robinson,” I said, “it’s becoming possible for computer programs to emulate human reasoning.” “I wish I knew more humans who could emulate human reasoning,” came Robinson’s deadpan reply.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2012 @ 10:20 am

  48. What Bryant characterises as a crude interpretation of Plato sounds to me very much like Plato as he wrote it. Plato in Phaedrus speaks of carving nature at the joints and it’s clear that he thought natural kinds were a true reflection of the ideas. We only see them per speculum in enigmate of course. I’m not sure that the ‘real’ German beer corresponds to Plato’s idea though. Beer would and the glass in which it is served. Real beer is a figment of the adman’s mind and does not correspond to any real thing. It possibly is that great heresy correlationism which acts on LB like ‘Frau Blucher’ on the horse in Young Frankenstein.

    We all came from rocks and gas so we all know each other, we inform each other according to our natures. Fruit that turns red when ripe was no good to a colour blind hominid so the development of red-seeing was good for fruit and the hominid. (that story may be garbled).

    The reader persuading the novel is a neat inversion and a sort of wilful paradox but on examination seems empty. Persuasion is wrought by conscious argument or rhetoric and therefore cannot be accomplished by one on something inert. Maybe I’m mistaken as to his intent on that.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 3 March 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  49. In conflating “real” and “true” Levi avoids having to defend claims that in his ontology he is making true statements about reality. But enough about Levi’s drinking problem. Suppose right now you happened to be holding a glass of beer in your left hand: make it a Harp lager if you like. Now suppose you pointed to the glass with your right forefinger and announced: “This is my latest short story.” I’d be prepared to say that what you had just asserted was false. It is a true assertion in the trivial Bryantian sense that it truly is an assertion. But we press on. Suppose, after talking to that glass of beer until you were blue in the face, you were able to persuade it that it really and truly is your short story. How would the beer communicate to you, and to me, that you had been successful in your rhetorical arts, such that now the beer accepted its identity as a short story? Would it have to renounce its beerness? Or would a rhetorical transubstantiation have been achieved, such that the beer retained the accidents of beerness while its substance had simultaneously been transformed into storyness? Or must you quaff the beer in order for its hidden story-essence to be released? If you start jabbering away while drinking is it “just” the beer talking? Clearly more research is needed.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  50. “Or must you quaff the beer in order for its hidden story-essence to be released?”

    That is inarguably the one one can say no to, because the story can be about a drunk beer or an undrunk beer. And don’t tell me it can’t. I’ve just been reading about a lot of smack in ‘Inherent Vice’, and sometimes it’s packaged in a TV set box from the late 60s and hidden in a muffdiver’s waterbed-flooded beach pad, and sometimes it’s shot in the neck of Puck Weaverton, who’s in on the LAPD game WAY UP THERE, what with Adrian Prussia, the hit man, letting him even kill the cop he gets paid for killing (but just faked it and has permanent immunity upon being charged).

    “If you start jabbering away while drinking is it “just” the beer talking?”

    No, but it’s partly the beer talking. It’s like what I realized yesterday about loans ‘not being your money’. But that’s just not true. If you are allowed to spend the money on a house, a mortgage is YOUR money while you are using it, even if you got to pay somebody else some other money back for the time saved by not earning it ‘the hard way’. So it’s both ‘your money’ and ‘not your money’. When beer loosens you up, it’s still YOUR talk, but it’s also the beer’s. You know that, but you sure do know how to bring ’em in. I wonder what the fuck ‘NB’s up to these days. He claimed once to have loved ‘The Red Shoes’ (‘of course’, he said), and also made up a child’s name one time, ‘Romy’. unless he really does have the other one besides the late Schneider-woman.

    “Clearly more research is needed.”

    Ha ha, yassure, the world is waiting for the sunrise, as the old Tin Pan Alley tune goes.

    The beer can’t renounce, though. You should know that by now. This is like why I put Damian Veal on the goddam bleugroll, because he pointed out that Harman started talking about how there was not a lot of literature on ‘the suffering of inanimate objects’. Seriously, don’t you think talk of ‘suffering of inanimate objects’ is a TRUE form of Apocalypse? I think when people talk about that sort of shit, everything Fukuyama said is true. After all, there’s a store selling vases down the block that has lasted 5 years called The End of History, and that’s on a block where the turnover, esp. since 2008, has been such that there don’t remain any retail stores for more than a year, usually. Usually just rich hobbbyists think it’ll be fun to open one for awhile, replacing somebody who couldn’t pay retail store rents, which usually have 10-year leases. All the best cheap Spanish restaurants have shut down in my neighborhood except one with great Cuban sandwiches. It is VERY depressing, and these fuckheads don’t worry about that, ‘passe’ by now, so they have to get a new trendy angle to try and market, proving Germaine Greer right about Damian Hirst and ‘Marketing is the Art of the 21st Century’. Because it does not need arguing to know that suffering of inanimate objects should not be allowed to continue past its very enunciation.

    So, no, definitely not. The beer makes no conscious decisions, but the ‘beer is talking’ is a useful way of putting the fact that it’s got power, but no brain. (or mind either, and I tend to agree with Michael that brain and mind are not the same thing, but I don’t like to talk about it, it’s still always sort of ‘iffy’, you know, like ‘different deaths’ or ‘death is the great leveler, so they’re all the same’. However, our ideas of ‘brain/mind differences’ would be as different as the ‘red’ business. And none of those gals, all of whom had a spatter or slash of red spray paint in their work which made the curator think they were ‘conversing’ had any atavistic connection with Kandinsky’s Chicago ‘red streak’ or Martha Graham either, and they seemed uncomfortable talking about it too. I think they didn’t actually know which Kandinsky painting I was talking about (and I can’t remember it either.)


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 4 March 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  51. “don’t you think talk of ‘suffering of inanimate objects’ is a TRUE form of Apocalypse?”

    That’s very good. “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now,” Saint Paul wrote to the Romans as he gazed down the corridors of time into the millennium. If you click on that image of the guy wearing a red vest at the upper left of Veal’s blog, you’ll see someone else wearing sunglasses and an Epistemology Police t-shirt. That I think is Pete Wolfendale, who writes the Deontologistics blog. I suspect that the epistemological violations in Bryant’s beery post have come to the attention of the authorities.

    A shop named The End of History sounds like a portalic establishment in a Ray Bradbury story. I’ve never tried writing while drinking, but I don’t believe it would have a salutary effect, as I’d be more likely to say to hell with it and do something else. I guess I’m not the right vector for the beer’s self-expression.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2012 @ 7:16 am

  52. Yes, I’d seen that before, didn’t remember that it was clicking the red-vested guy, which, by the way, is what I’d like to know? Is that from a movie? The guy is very attractive, and reminds me of Baryshnikov, but I’ve never figured it out. From something of Herzog or The Tin Drum or something? Totally guessing.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 5 March 2012 @ 11:54 am

  53. I don’t know who the red-vested guy is either. I was guessing some old British comedy television show, mostly based on the sarcastic tone of the blog.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 March 2012 @ 12:09 pm

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