David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2011 (page 1 of 3)

Birdwatching Provides an Alternative to Love (or, The Question Concerning Ornithology)

This essay is adapted from a commencement speech Jonathan Franzen delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College.

A couple of weeks ago, I started watching loggerhead shrikes instead of Eurasian wigeons. Needless to say, I was impressed with the qualities of the shrike. Even when a live one was not on hand, I wanted to keep looking at pictures of my shrikes and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its black face mask, the silky action of its hooked bill, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its wings.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new shrike. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old Eurasian wigeon, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship.

Let me toss out the idea that, as birds discover and respond to what consumers most want, birds have become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of birdwatching, the ontology of ornithos, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a bird so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

Let me suggest, finally, that the world of birdwatching is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.

Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include camping, birdwatching, biking, and the particularly grotesque equation of nightingales with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should watch birds with them.

And, since birds are really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for their manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To watch a bird is merely to include the bird in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing birdwatching disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of birdwatching and the problem of actual love.

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the ornitho-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by birdwatching — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and watching birds. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a birdwatcher.

But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with computers. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a computer geek, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the programming languages I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to learn new ones. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a piece of code, any code, even a Perl script or a stylesheet, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.

How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of programming became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

Because now, not merely liking technology but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the future again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of things I loved.

But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real computers, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

Diderot’s Philosophy of Mind: Vitalist or Emergentist?

This is a bit of further detail on a topic I didn’t have space to treat at length in my TLS article on Diderot, but which always had particular interest for me. In the 18th century, philosophy of mind was struggling in several different ways to come to terms with the influences of empiricism and naturalism. Hobbes was arguably the first to really press the point for a monist, materialist view of reality, life, and the mind, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that in-depth accounts were constructed. I find Diderot’s to be the most satisfying, but it is also one of the most radical.

Among those, like most of the philosophes, who had embraced atheism or at least a non-active role for God in the process of the development of the universe and the human, there were two general schools of thought. One went by the names of vitalism and hylozoism, two separate but related concepts. Both propose that there is some innate principle or characteristic of some or all matter that gives it life, sensitivity, and/or mind.

(The difference between raw sensitivity and higher cognition/mind was another significant question, but which I’ll avoid here since it will only complicate matters. The question at hand is how to explain the occurrence of any sort of sensitivity or mental properties whatsoever in some matter.)

The second school proposed that sensitivity and mind was an emergent property, only arising out of matter when it had a certain configuration and/or relation to the world. This appealed to the more mechanistically-minded.

These two schools have strong analogues today, though bits and pieces have switched sides or been subdivided. Vitalism and hylozoism posit a certain innate property to some or all matter in the same way that John Searle’s biological naturalism or Galen Strawson’s panpsychism does (David Skrbina’s Panpsychism Through the Ages traces this line), while the emergent school continues today in certain forms of functionalism.

The question still remains, ultimately, one of whether sensitivity or mind is a fundamental or emergent property.

Forever ecumenical, Diderot seems to draw from both sides. Diderot proposes at the start of D’Alembert’s Dream that a stone could potentially think, possessing a “latent sensitivity,” and extends this sort of property to all matter as a kind of “pansensism,” tantamount to panpsychism. On the other hand, he gives a lengthy account of how matter spontaneously organizes itself into increasingly complex forms so as to produce hierarchical structures of consciousness and experience. Here he seems to anticipate Daniel Dennett’s homuncular functionalism. And he flatly denies that there are prototypical forms of sensitive organisms that can combine to form larger ones.

Lester Crocker thinks Diderot never figured it out:

How matter organizes itself into living forms is a question that perplexes Diderot in all his writings on the subject. Does inorganic matter become life by restructuring itself to produce “sensitivity”? Or does “sensitivity” exist in latent or degraded form in non-living substances, awaiting activation by some process such as chemical fermentation (spontaneous generation) or ingestion? He is never able to decide between the two alternatives, or indeed to believe for long, with any real conviction, in either one.

Lester Crocker, Diderot’s Chaotic Order

I think Crocker is wrong here. Diderot had sufficient perspective to find neither approach wholly satisfactory, and so he attempted to combine the best aspects of each. The key is in a phrase that he used near-identically in both Elements of Physiology and D’Alembert’s Dream: “la sensibilité, propriété générale de la matière, ou produit de l’organisation.” [Sensitivity, general property of matter, or product of organization.]

This phrase may seem like dithering, but it is in fact Diderot specifying coexistent causes of sensitivity. Elsewhere he makes it clear that neither description by itself is sufficient; he is not giving a binary opposition.

This less than clear point is a result of Diderot’s dynamic metaphysics. Diderot was rather Heraclitian in his metaphysics: the nature of the universe was constant change, best represented by spontaneous biological evolution and organization. But he extended this to all matter, specifying properties as potentialities rather than actualities. Here, he physicalizes Leibniz. To quote another excellent Diderot scholar, Marx Wartofsky:

Diderot’s matter has motion as an inherent property. It is not endowed with motion; it is not a ground in which motion is put. Matter itself is uncreated, eternal, its motion is its essential mode of existence.

The “latent sensitivity” is not akin to potential energy in the conventional sense, as Diderot thinks of such potentialities as primary properties, not abstractions.

Mais quel rapport y a-t-il entre le mouvement et la sensibilité? Serait-ce par hasard que vous reconnaîtriez une sensibilité active et une sensibilité inerte, comme il y a une force vive et une force morte? Une force vive qui se manifeste par la translation, une force morte qui se manifeste par la pression ; une sensibilité active qui se caractérise par certaines actions remarquables dans l’animal et peut-être dans la plante; et une sensibilité inerte dont on serait assuré par le passage à l’état de sensibilité active.

D’Alembert’s Dream

So while a latent sensibility is rendered active depending on the particular state of matter at a given point, the property is always there. This is not just terminological juggling. Diderot’s suggestion is that reality is primarily processual and makes sense when modeled as such. With such a dynamism at the root of his metaphysics, he is able to posit a “latent” property that does not take the form of a measurable static quality but as a description of a process fundamental to all matter.

Diderot is not certain how latent matter becomes non-latent, and I think this accounts for some of his own hesitation and confusion in dealing with this topic. He gives examples of it happening, as with eating food, but he sees this as a scientific problem to be solved when greater resources are available. Diderot’s contribution was to reframe the problem of mind metaphysically in order to make the possible answers more satisfying.

From Robert Musil’s Diaries, 1919

I do not ever know if it is my good spirit or my evil spirit that speaks these words within me. But it simply has to get out.

Since I awoke to life I have always seen things in an “other” way. That means: in places, clear criticism, in places, clear suggestions, well thought through. Some I have written down and published. But much more has remained at a level of dark antipathy. Half raised up, then sunk down into obscurity. Intuition sensing far-reaching connections that the understanding has not followed.

The understanding that has had the benefit of scientific training is loath to follow if it has not been able to build itself bridges for itself whose load-bearing capacity is calculated exactly. Here and there I completed the calculations for a single area of such a bridge; dropped the work again in the conviction that it is not possible, after all, to finish it. I could sit down and gather material in the way that it has been done in similar assiduous, large scale experiments — Wundt, Lamprecht, Chamberlain, Spengler.

But what remains when this is done? When the breath has evaporated with which one tried to bring such fullness to life, there is nothing but a dead heap of inorganic material.

The five-year-long slavery of the war has, in the meantime, torn the best piece from my life; the run-up has become too long, the opportunity to summon up all my forces is too short. To renounce or to leap, whatever then happens, this is the only choice that remains.

I renounce any systematic approach and the demand for exact proof. I will only say what I think, and make clear why I think it. I comfort myself with the thought that even significant works of science were born of similar distress, that Locke’s. . . .  are in fact travel correspondence.

I want to develop an image of the world, the real background, in order to be able to unfold my unreality before it.

Robert Musil, Notebook 19 (1919)

Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction

Albert Hirschman was an amazing writer and his three slim books written for a general readership make their points with incredible efficiency. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is incisive about the individual’s relationship and loyalty to a provider or employer. The Passions and the Interests is an excellent history of why capitalism seemed like such a savior when Adam Smith and others were promoting it, and how those arguments have persisted and mutated.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is a bit more diffuse and abstract than those books. It is at its best when most concrete. Hirschman, an admitted progressive, examines reactionary and conservative arguments of three types:

  • According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
  • The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
  • Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

(These do map uncannily onto my own Three Versions of Conservatism. The mapping is Elitist Conservative : futility :: Sentimental Conservative : jeopardy :: Cynical Conservative : perversity.)

I think the three theses do not in fact cleave as cleanly as Hirschman wants them to. Futility is something of a lesser version of the other two, as any action that is useless can then easily be portrayed as wasteful or dangerous. Futility often exists as a fallback position: “Well, if welfare won’t make people more poor, and if it isn’t in fact a huge waste of money…it still won’t do any good!” Hirschman points out that switching rhetorical strategies, no matter how incoherent, is extremely common.

Hirschman pronounces the Perversity thesis “the single most popular and effective weapon in the annals of reactionary rhetoric.” I agree, and it dominates the book as well. I think Hirschman misses one significant reason why it is more successful than jeopardy. (Futility is less hyperbolic and scary than the other two and so easily loses out.) Jeopardy is multidimensional, while perversity is monodimensional. Jeopardy requires one to think about trade-offs between two or more separate but interdependent axes of goods and values, while perversity simply argues that we will go the wrong way along a single axis.

Perversity’s simplicity is its strength. Far more efficient to argue that welfare will make people poor, that affirmative action will disenfranchise minorities, that antitrust will destroy competition. Simple, elegant, and utterly specious.

Consequently, the Jeopardy thesis is more intellectually interesting, even if it’s been less ubiquitous. Hirschman has some great quotes from the 19th and 18th centuries arguing that giving people the right to vote would endanger people’s liberty. The same neocons who tell us how we should be aping Athenian democracy today are reversing the same pattern used by Fustel de Coulanges in 1864, who said that the democracy of Athens was only possible through a complete absence of what we call liberty.  Now, according to Kagan and Smith and Hanson, democracy is only possible through an increasing absence of liberty. For Fustel, Greece was a scary bogeyman; now it’s an unreachable ideal. Same rhetoric.

And through this handy chart that Hirschman gives, we see that some of the neocons and racial “scientists” of today are the same people who were arguing against welfare decades ago, using the same rhetoric:

Hirschman also critiques progressive rhetoric for having too sunny a view, but despite his claims of even-handedness, he seems to be a lot harder on the reactionaries. Maybe this is just my own bias: optimism about bringing liberty, suffrage, and welfare to those lacking it seems far less offensive than attempts to prevent those efforts.

Still, while Hirschman treats Tocqueville and Scheler with some respect, the others come in for well-deserved contempt. It is always good to be reminded of what a horrible person Pareto was (Mussolini supporter, anti-democratic, draconian Social Darwinist); isn’t Pareto-optimality just another statement of the Jeopardy thesis?

Hirschman seems to agree, but he does point out the danger of the progressive/radical “desperate predicament” strategy, which rhetorically argues that things are so bad that any cost is justifiable as long as it brings about change. The more conservatives argue the danger, the more they argue that there are never legitimate grounds for change, the more it pushes radicals to say that the danger is necessary and justified.

Hirschman concludes that Burkean arguments actually radicalized progressives in the 19th century, inducing them to portray current conditions as more hopeless and more desperate than they would have otherwise. I don’t know if the link is quite so direct. I think that the French Revolution itself did force progressives to look at the potential costs of revolution more closely, and that itself may have helped to radicalize the rhetoric.

Yet ultimately it is the bad faith of the reactionaries that dominates, and Hirschman quotes Charles de Rémusat’s devastating critique of Burke’s blind worship of tradition to show just how empty such rhetoric is:

If the events, in their fatality, have been such that a people does not find, or does not know how to find, its own entitlements in its annals, if no epoch of its history has left behind a good national memory, then all the morals and all the archeology one can mobilize will not be able to endow that people with the faith it lacks nor with the attitudes this faith might have forged . . . If to be free a people must have been so in the past, if it must have had a good government to be able to aspire to one today or if at least it must be able to imagine having had these two things, then such a people is immobilized by its own past, its future is foreclosed; and there are nations that are condemned to dwell forever in despair.

Mark Twain’s Cynicism and That Last Part of Huck Finn

When I was in high school, I read Huck Finn, and like so many others, I thought the book fell into a hole for its last third, when the Jim-Huck adventures end and Tom Sawyer takes over with some juvenile antics. I had recently read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and so I recall thinking and saying that even the first two-thirds of Huck Finn weren’t as good as Invisible Man (either as a treatment of race or as literature period; I still rate Invisible Man higher!).

But still, the last third of Huck Finn was bafflingly bad compared to what went before. I know that a long time had elapsed before Twain had written that last third, but that didn’t seem to explain the drastic shift in tone and content. As Thomas Powers says in Incandescent Memory:

The last third of Huckleberry Finn is stage-managed for laughs by Tom Sawyer, dropped into the story by authorial fiat. Tom masterminds Jim’s escape from the Phelps plantation according to all the ‘best authorities’ of boys’ literature. Any evening after dark Jim might have walked out of the cabin where he was being held prisoner, but no, Tom insists they must dig him out, and secret letters must be written, and Jim the lonely prisoner must be friends with spiders and snakes, and a whole lot of other nonsensical stuff which we may as well concede is funny in its way and funny to a point. But it is no longer Huckleberry Finn; it is no longer an unflinching tale of the cruelty and wrong of human bondage.

Except it is. It took me many years to go back and reread it because I drifted toward European literature and resided there for quite a while, but when I did, Huck Finn read a bit differently than it had when I was 15. Tom Sawyer becomes the cruel master in a pantomime of slavery and exploitation. Here’s a passage from when Tom is working out a coat of arms and inscription for “Jim the lonely prisoner”:

Tom’d got all that coat of arms business fixed, so now he started in to finish up the rest of that part of the work, which was to plan out a mournful inscription — said Jim got to have one, like they all done. He made up a lot, and wrote them out on a paper, and read them off, so:

1. Here a captive heart busted.
2. Here a poor prisoner, forsook by the world and friends,
fretted out his sorrowful life.
3. Here a lonely heart broke, and a worn spirit went to
its rest, after thirty-seven years of solitary captivity.
4. Here, homeless and friendless, after thirty-seven years
of bitter captivity, perished a noble stranger, natural son of
Louis XIV.

Tom’s voice trembled whilst he was reading them, and he most broke down. When he got done he couldn’t no way make up his mind which one for Jim to scrabble on to the wall, they was all so good; but at last he allowed he would let him scrabble them all on. Jim said it would take him a year to scrabble such a lot of truck on to the logs with a nail, and he didn’t know how to make letters, besides; but Tom said he would block them out for him, and then he wouldn’t have nothing to do but just follow the lines. Then pretty soon he says:

“Come to think, the logs ain’t a-going to do; they don’t have log walls in a dungeon: we got to dig the inscriptions into a rock. We’ll fetch a rock.”

Jim said the rock was worse than the logs; he said it would take him such a pison long time to dig them into a rock he wouldn’t ever get out. But Tom said he would let me help him do it. Then he took a look to see how me and Jim was getting along with the pens.

This is a sick variation on Tom Sawyer’s bad boy antics from the earlier book. He gives Jim what is tantamount to slave labor, and then allows the inefficacious Huck to “help” Jim with it. He has more sympathy for his imagined royal prisoner in his fantasy than for Jim. Tom here is a shallow privileged brat who treats slaves like his own private playthings.

Huck, for his part, quietly goes along with all of Tom’s maneuvers, having lost whatever self-respect and moral uprightness he might have gained earlier in the book. What is life and death to Jim is fanciful, unreal fun and games to Tom.

An ensuing scene in which Tom tries to sell Jim on “making friends” with a rattlesnake is even more disturbing:

Tom: “Yes — easy enough. Every animal is grateful for kindness and petting, and they wouldn’t think of hurting a person that pets them. Any book will tell you that. You try — that’s all I ask; just try for two or three days. Why, you can get him so in a little while that he’ll love you; and sleep with you; and won’t stay away from you a minute; and will let you wrap him round your neck and put his head in your mouth.”

Jim: “Please, Mars Tom — doan’ talk so! I can’t stan’ it! He’d let me shove his head in my mouf — fer a favor, hain’t it? I lay he’d wait a pow’ful long time ‘fo’ I ast him. En mo’ en dat, I doan’ want him to sleep wid me.”

“Jim, don’t act so foolish. A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no sich glory. Snake take ‘n bite Jim’s chin off, den whah is de glory? No, sah, I doan’ want no sich doin’s.”

“Blame it, can’t you try? I only want you to try — you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

Tom condescends to Jim and is disbelieving at Jim’s lack of gratitude. “Can’t you try?” he says, patronizingly. He also has Jim dress up as a woman in order to escape, in case the humiliation wasn’t already apparent enough. And Jim calls him “Mars Tom” the whole way through.

The heartwarming friendship between Jim and Huck looks awfully hollow by this point. Tom, of course, proves utterly useless during the real escape from the angry mob, when Huck finally has latitude to act on Jim’s behalf once again. Seen in this light, the end is a lot closer to ghastly works like The Mysterious Stranger, in which Twain abandoned all hope for humanity and virtue.

The Mysterious Stranger was adapted rather too closely in The Adventures of Mark Twain, which I’m really glad I missed as a kid (“What’s your name?” “Satan.”):

Returning to Huck Finn: I didn’t realize any of the implications of the last part in high school. I was young and naive. I wish someone had told me. Now it seems obvious.

Update: I have to add this even more grotesque display of Tom’s callousness, when he tells Jim to play music for the rats in his cell and Jim says he doesn’t think the rats will be interested:

They don’t care what kind of music ’tis. A jews-harp’s plenty good enough for a rat. All animals like music — in a prison they dote on it. Specially, painful music; and you can’t get no other kind out of a jews-harp. It always interests them; they come out to see what’s the matter with you. Yes, you’re all right; you’re fixed very well. You want to set on your bed nights before you go to sleep, and early in the mornings, and play your jews-harp; play ‘The Last Link is Broken’ — that’s the thing that ‘ll scoop a rat quicker ‘n anything else; and when you’ve played about two minutes you’ll see all the rats, and the snakes, and spiders, and things begin to feel worried about you, and come. And they’ll just fairly swarm over you, and have a noble good time.”

Yes, dey will, I reck’n, Mars Tom, but what kine er time is Jim havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint. But I’ll do it ef I got to. I reck’n I better keep de animals satisfied, en not have no trouble in de house.”


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