David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2003 (page 3 of 4)

William Gass on Writing

William Gass on his profession:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

Yes, but cause? I didn’t know that there was one. Neurologists can spend years analyzing dopamine receptors in the faint hopes of a distant total understanding of the mind-body problem and associated fringe benefits, but even philosophy has more of a directional mechanism through peer acclamation, regardless of how arbitrary it can be. (Also note the purposeful exclusion of art and music, which are presumably more “rewarding”.)

Literature throws off far more chaff–in the sense of directionless, ephemeral entertainments–than almost any other liberal arts discipline because it is less regimented; it is emphatically empirical, even at its most abstract. Attempts to proceed from theory are often disastrous (see Iris Murdoch and Elias Canetti, but also Chernyshevsky’s What is To Be Done?, etc.). If you wade through the fiction section at a bookstore, it’s amazing how little older work is present as a percentage of the total books, and how transitory the appeal and designs of most of what’s being written are. I have to go to the university library to find a copy of Gotthelf’s influential and significant “The Black Spider.” There is no plan for the future of literature, nor can there be one under the definition of literature as it is understood. “Movements” are ephemeral and dwarfed by exceptions and detractors. Surrealism in my mind is much more of a piece in art than in literature; situationism (and its bastard child actionism) made itself felt more strongly in any discipline but literature. At its most absurd, Wyndham Lewis’s paintings stand in his one-man Vorticism movement a lot more comfortably than his novels.

Gass’s implicit message, as opposed to the explicit one of private despair and resilience, is that writers, at least recently, place themselves in their artistic stream less as trendsetters and waypoints than as individuals. This has its bad aspects: rampant individualism leads to lack of direction and accusations of being a crank. And it’s frustrating to crawl through the onslaught to find pearls of novelty and meaning. But for me, it’s still a greater discipline in conception, though rarely in practice.

As a tangent/afterthought, it’s helpful (as always) to look at the world of science-fiction, which has been more chummy and insular than the world of “regular” fiction. It also possesses less of a critical/academic infrastructure for delivering accolades to the most worthy work, despite the best efforts of people like John Clute. One writer/critic in the field once said that discerning science-fiction critics had to be willing to read an awful lot of terrible and mediocre genre books–and thus, unless you’re a peculiar sort of masochist who enjoys boredom, enjoy them–just to be able to find the good/great ones. I don’t see any reason why this can’t apply to all fiction.

John Coleman on Fires on the Plain

Circa 1962, this was an English film critic’s comment on Fires on the Plain:

Fires on the Plain is showing to an audience of turnip-headed morons…screams of laughter welcoming such acts as the impaling of a mad dog on a bayonet (the spray of blood that hit the ground really rolled them in the aisles), titters as the Japanese hero declines the invitation to cannibalism, bellows of fun as machine guns stuttered and gaunt men ran away.

The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Geegaw points me to Giornale Nuovo‘s review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, and since the book seems somewhat relevant to the day’s events, I offer my commentary.

The book is nominally about a circus that comes to a small, anonymous, Hungarian town. The circus has two main features: first, a really huge cadaver of a whale (yes, that would be a Leviathan); and second, the Prince, a homunculus-like figure who sows nihilism and violence, and eventually stirs the town’s people into a frenzy of rioting and killing, which is responded to in kind by the police.

Through this pass two sympathetic figures, the naive man-child Valuska, who does performances of the heavenly bodies in motion for bar patrons, and his mentor Mr. Eszter, who is obsessed with a project of retuning a piano to “natural” harmonies and abandoning the well/equal-temperment that was used as the basis for what Krasznahorkai evidently considers to be the peak of aesthetic achievement, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Krasznahorkai’s explanations are not especially clear, which is unfortunate, since it’s clearly the major metaphor of the book.

For reference, this explanation seems good, and for those of you with time on your hands, this essay on “Pythagorean Tuning and Medieval Polyphony” seems awfully interesting. The Chicago Reader offers a somewhat-helpful summary, and while this may not be helpful, it’s pretty amusing. The first piece concludes with a great passage:

There are four main reasons why modern scholars have lost interest in the question of what is the best tuning system. First, in the 1930s, Carl Seashore measured the pitch accuracy of real performers and showed that singers and violinists are remarkably inaccurate. For non-fixed-pitch instruments, the pitch accuracy is on the order of 25 cents. Yet Western listeners (and musicians) are not noticeable disturbed by the pitch intonation of professional performers. Secondly, on average, professional piano tuners fail to tune notes more accurately than about 8 cents. This means that even if performers could perform very accurately, they would find it difficult to find suitable instruments. Thirdly, listeners seemingly adapt to whatever system they have been exposed to. Most Western listeners find just intonation “weird” sounding rather than “better”. Moreover, professional musicians appear to prefer equally tempered intervals to their just counterparts. See the results of Vos 1986. Finally, pitch perception has been shown to be categorical in nature. In vision, many shades of red will be perceived as “red”. Similarly, listeners tend to mentally “re-code” mis-tuned pitches so they are experienced as falling in the correct category. Mis-tuning must be remarkably large (>50 cents) before they draw much attention. This insensitivity is especially marked for short duration sounds — which tend to dominant music-making.

But no matter, since Eszter’s obsession is with finding the harmony of the spheres and returning to mathematically pure intervals; all those nasty intervals are to him the indicators of “an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn.” But he doesn’t have much luck; in his purer tunings, Bach sounds awful.

After the riots, order is re-estabished by Eszter’s estranged wife, Mrs. Eszter, who cheerfully and aggressively implements new martial law in light of the need to exert control over the town. She is the sort who was born to fill a power vacuum, and she stands in opposition to both Eszter and Valuska, representing the human capacity towards control, organization, and power; she’s effective, functional, but brutal and arbitrary. Just like the imposition of equal temperament on music (it is all but said).

And when Mr. Eszter retunes his piano back to equal temperament at the end of the book so he can again hear the glory of Bach without his ears bleeding…you can guess what that means. Krasznahorkai’s moral position is ambivalent, but his ideological layout seems to still be derived from Hobbes (and to some extent, Burke): we are given limited natural tools out of which we construct edifices that can reach heights of beauty as well as oppress and dullen. But they remain arbitrary, able to be torn down and built back up. Eszter’s appreciation of equal temperament is as good as it’s going to get.

(I don’t agree with this; I actually think there are significant problems with this metaphor, but the book offers enough to chew on that I’m willing to take it on its own terms.)

Krasznahorkai manages to end the book with a masterstroke, though, with a stunning, sustained description of the body’s biology, which he reveals as a more precise metaphor than temperament. The drama offsets the nagging feeling that Krasznahorkai has left a few loose ends hanging. For the record, Eszter ends up fine, and Valuska is beaten but alive.

So I think about this book while watching television and seeing the statue go down for the Nth time, and the looting and the anarchy and the celebrations and the violence, and I think the book may be too nihilistic, not for its painting of inherent natural imperfection or the implication of destruction in every creative act, but for its lack of differentiation: to use the metaphor, for being unwilling to distinguish one tuning from another. The resignation, or lack of attention, makes the book dark for the wrong reason. In pursuing an ornate Faberge egg of a metaphor, Krasznahorkai loses sight of a complex anthropological standpoint and ends up as a reductionist. The book sets lofty philosophical goals and makes immense progress towards them, but I do not find it fully-formed.

As a footnote, the movie adaptation, The Werckmeister Harmonies nearly obscures the main thrust of the book and goes for a more tepid, sensory approach, turning the complexities of the book into a parable.

The Incredulous Stare on Transhumanism

UFO Breakfast gives Nick Bostrom and Transhumanism the old incredulous stare:

It appears that Yale’s philosophy department is hiring “transhumanists,” a philosophical school which until now I’d thought was limited to Dungeons & Dragons afterparties and the editorial war room of Wired Magazine circa 1996.

To be fair, though, transhumanists do participate in a lineage of vapid American optimism…

I grant that Bostrom’s visions are extreme, but there already exist quite a few professors who believe in the singularity and the ascension of humanity into a transhumanistic mind. Roger Penrose is even scared of it. Most of them are not in philosophy departments, however, and most of them have noted scientific accomplishments to rest on. Likewise, Barrow and Tipler’s anthropic principle originated with certified physicists. (The Bostrom article UFO Breakfast points to is fun, but look to Bostrom’s dissertation on the anthropic principle for the real oh-my-god moments.)

(There also is some superficial similarity with eugenicism in terms of an exhortatory jargon for human self-improvement, but I wouldn’t press this point.)

But this isn’t some new low for philosophy. Bostrom et al. may be Panglossian in their study of what’s got to be fairly close to the best of all possible worlds, but how about those possible worlds? The well-regarded David Lewis studied them, and a couple of his formulations are here:

1. Possible worlds exist — they are just as real as our world;
2. Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world — they differ in content, not in kind;
3. Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic — they are irreducible entities in their own right.

The usual response, unless you’re an Everett many-worlds fan, is the incredulous stare:

The Incredulous Stare is simply the view that modal realism is intuitively grotesque.

Maybe it’s a cheap shot, but is transhumanism any more grotesque? The main difference seem to be its cyber-cool trappings, and who am I to begrudge Bostrom that?

(I should add that I find Lewis’s use of supervenience to salvage his brand of materialism almost equally hard to swallow. This paper is the best I could find on short notice and only coarsely trashes his theories, but I still think there are deeper, internal problems beyond the ones the paper goes after. I won’t discuss them because I don’t believe anyone really cares.)

My point? Only that Bostrom is not a new step down in quality, but a step up in accessibility, and like neoconservativism and cultural studies, that can only mean good news (money and prestige) for philosophy.

Only Dissent: Thoughtless Kind Again

Invisible Adjunct more pithily addresses what I was trying to get at when I quoted Erving Goffman on media. She notes the sheer increase in noise that comes with the instant audiences of the web:

But our desire to “only connect,” combined with our ability to read and comment at the speed of light, argues against the humility that the distance and the vastness should recommend.

I would add that even more connect, it’s the desire to be heard speaking in a societally acceptable context, any one other than just speaking to one’s self in an empty room.

Goffman’s work, most handily summarized in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, mostly concerns itself with the often deceptive practices embodied in order to obtain a willing audience for one’s actions and words. Yet the presence and immediacy of the situation grants a consistency that paradoxically prevents the discourse from falling into several independent solipsistic streams. In the case of mass media, the listener plays catch-up with one dominant stream, attempting to find an acceptable position to receive it.

What half-detached, half-immediate forms of discourse like blogs and message boards offer is a way to obtain a responsive audience with so much less commonality between the parties. (To take an extreme case: what is the “real-life” equivalent of a troll?) “Connection” need only be restricted to like-minded thinkers, because others can be ignored. Each speaker can easily shift context to whatever is most favorable to them.

This need not be bad, but it goes a fair ways towards culturally legitimizing speech which in past times would have been kept private in the speaker’s own head. Consequently, there is a purgative nature to some of it that can be rather ugly, aesthetically speaking.

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