The theory of evolution predicts that different brain-mutations must exist within the human population. The pomo debate illustrates it.
October 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
Foreign languages add perspective: sometimes they let you see something that should otherwise be obvious but in your own language remains occluded by customary usage. A Polish pomo debate (here) turns out useful in just this way, casting new light on the entire pomo debate: not because of what the poster said (after all, what she said was the usual attack by one of us on what we perceive as nonsensical statements emanating from pomo: nothing new in that, we already know pomo is nonsense) but because of something one of the pomo-defenders said in the discussion section: “It is OK to be critical of pomo, but why castigate it?” (Można krytykować ale po co zaraz zjeżdżać?)
Because Polish debate usage allows this kind of friendly appeal to sense of fair-play, it also allows the appealing side to expose itself. In this case, the defender reveals that he thinks that the the attacker’s act of holding up a pomo statement to ridicule as pure nonsense is an act of “castigation”. He thinks that because, either:
— the defender does not think the statement in question is nonsense;
— he admits that it is nonsense but thinks nonsense is perfectly admissible in debate.
Whichever is the case, the defender does not think what we think: that nonsense offends.
This raises an interesting question: why does nonsense offend us and not them? I feel that the correct explanation must be architecture of the mind. We simply have different heads. Our model of CPU does not allow certain kinds of computing, while theirs does. The result is mutual incomprehension.
This is as it should be: the theory of evolution predicts the existence of different minds: if the human mind is the result of evolution, it is the result of the rise of mutations and competition between them. If the human mind has not somehow magically stopped evolving but continues to do what it has done for the past two million years, then different mind-mutations must exist within the population. And they do: the pomo debate illustrates it.
October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
Not a day goes by without some (usually degreed) moron declaring about a writer or a thinker of the past, with great surprise, how modern the said writer/thinker sounds. Such declarations aren’t proof of their subjects’ modernity: they are proof of the speakers’ perverted idea of the men of the past as being somehow essentially different from “us moderns”. (“The past, whatever it was, was very different”).
The frequency of the declaration is proof of the ubiquity of the notion. It’s so universal, it must be taught in school.
It is of course classic Hegelianism — since tempora mutantur it follows that nos et mutamur in illis, etc. (No, do not blame the Romans: though the phrase is Latin, which makes everyone imagine it to be by Cicero or Ovid, it is neither Roman nor Greek, but a late 16ht century fabrication).
Which is amazing: Marx is nearly dead, but Hegel – you can’t kill that thing, ever. Like a vampire, like a killer weed, he is immortal. The most persistently durable and influential thinker in the European intellectual milieu remains — one of her worst!
April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
In an entertaining article by this name, Derek Freeman undertakes to explain why Dyaks take heads.
Unsurprisingly it turns out — to assure fertility.
(Everything the primitive man ever does — or thinks about — it would seem — is fertility. Is this why we call him primitive — or is it just the imagination of the anthropologists that is?)
How does Freeman arrive at his conclusion? Not by asking the Dyaks themselves, who, he says, were not very helpful in establishing this conclusion (p. 234). Rather, he argues by way of Greeks and Romans who thought that sperm originates in the brain (not an especially wild assumption, if you consider male behavior carefully) and descends into the genitals through the spinal column.
As a group of English scholars once said: and therefore a witch.*
Freeman’s refusal to take a no for an answer is important if only because other anthropologists suffer from the same misconception: homo is sapiens, according to the profession, and therefore all his actions must arise from thought. To coin a phrase, thought germinates action. In fact, the business stands the other way up: man acts and only then thinks up good reasons for doing so.
The actual reason why Dyaks take heads stares Freeman in the face on the pages of his own article, but, a true scientist that he is, he does not notice. The reason is, in short, that the taking of heads assures that” the forest will abound with wild animals” (p. 237). Which it sure does: every head taken means one less competitor for food. Head-taking is an early form of environmental protection.
Incidentally, the article mentions another anthropological argument: that of McKinley, that heads are taken as a way of “winning souls for humanity” by “the ritual incorporation of the enemy as a friend”, the enemy’s head being chosen as a “ritual symbol of social personhood”. I have news for McKinley: the reason why heads are the preferred trophy world over is that the head is the only proof positive that the victim is really 100% dead.
For all this, it is a brilliant article; the description of the ngelampang ceremony, in which the daughters of the god petulantly ask to be given a head, an infant whose head is about to be taken confides in his mother that he “dreamt of being bitten by a huge and threatening snake, from which his head hurts even more than if it had been struck against an upstanding stump” (to which the mother answers “I fear my child that you are about to be speared and your head about to be carried off in a cane container”), the taken head is rocked gently like a baby and sung lullybies to, and when it is let slip out of its wrappings and dropped on the floor, it causes the women of the long house to jump up in (pretended) revulsion — the ceremony has all the precious worth of all superstructure — which is not, as per Marx, the weed grown upon economics, but weed grown on the evolved, mechanical, unconscious, hard-wired behavior. (The explanation; perhaps the justification; but not the reason).
One only wishes the description provided more details of lighting, dress, colors, music. Life and ideology are alright, but theater, well, that’s really interesting.
*Cf. proof that if she floats, she is made of wood (or maybe a duck), Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail
January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
Last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:
“Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”
Now: note that among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.
Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).
A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.
Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.
Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease. But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.
This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma: is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable. The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.
But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains. Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most. Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.
Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.
May 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Outwardly, nothing has changed. I am the same. The life-plan remains the same; my work at it — constant. Yet, inwardly everything has changed. I am not the man I was twelve months ago. Seen from inside looking out, everything looks different. Totally new.
The cause of the change was an unprecedented — and unrelieved — sequence of betrayals which I have suffered over the course of the last year. It was a rare conjunction, certainly: I have suffered as much betrayal in the past, but the individual instances were spread out over years and interspersed with occasional acts of good faith, which allowed me to see the world as mixed, neither good nor bad. Now they all came fast upon each others’ heels, unalloyed, unvaried, relentless.
Why this should happen now is an interesting question.
It could have merely been a matter of bad luck, as when in a game of dice one keeps rolling low and his opponent high (and, to paraphrase a market dictum, one could remain unlucky longer than he is liquid).
But it might also be something about my age: there is a reason why so many men my age turn into curmudgeons: no matter how beautiful we may have been in our youth; and how well we have kept up over the years; come fifty or so our engagement with age begins to resemble a high-speed collision with a Mack truck; the aging process accelerates dramatically, there is a kind of instance of inflation (as a big-bangologist might call it1), or, perhaps I should say, saggflation; and now it is no longer possible to disguise or ignore the effects of age. And if, god forbid, we also drink and smoke, well, there is no hiding the fact that we’re over and done with and the only direction is south. We can see it for ourselves: we don’t like looking in the mirror when shaving: even to our own eyes we have become repulsive.
And perhaps, wittingly, or unwittingly, this is what people respond to: our value as a sex object has deteriorated and with it deteriorates people’s willingness to give us credit of any sort. Not merely because they no longer want to sleep with us but also because, in their correct estimation, no one else does.
Or perhaps it is that they can see death creeping up on us: their strategies with us become more short term, in search of a quicker payoff. They no longer bother taking time to set us up for the big fraud, but pass directly into a series of small frauds. Perhaps they fear we may not be around long enough for the big one.
So, while it is possible that my last 12 months were but an accident, a statistical freak, you can see why the same accident might happen to men my age with a strangely reliable frequency. And it does: many of us become bitter and cynical. This may well be a rule of life: and not only among humans.2 This just may be the way nature works with all pack mammals.
In fact, my first clue that my own series of unfortunate events may not be unique to me, came during my conversation with Chris, an old friend about a decade older than me. We met for lunch at a hotel, I had not seen him for about a year and I was shocked to see how he looked: he had been physically devastated by his struggle with his run-away wife over the custody of their son. (In fact, he died only days later from a ruptured aorta). “You try to be nice to people”, he said, “and they turn around and shit on you.” He was not lying: I knew him as a generous and kind person; and his death occasioned a feeding frenzy among his heirs and friends.
So, come to our age, we suddenly begin to see people in a new light; it is as if scales fell off our eyes; like the blind man cured by Jesus, we suddenly see the world we had never seen before. And the view which this new power of vision affords us is not pretty. It is hard not to feel hurt. There is a desire for payback, perhaps, but mainly a desire to change one’s life-strategy entirely to prevent the hurt form happening again. Something needs to be done, but what?
In the past, when I came to the decision to break up a relationship — whether a love or a friendship — I sometimes said nothing, and merely changed my behavior, letting them figure it out for themselves. I suppose I did it to avoid the melodrama of partings, but also as a kind of proof of disrespect: not telling people about an important decision you have made concerning your relationship with them is a way of telling them how little you value their opinion. The calculation was that, eventually, they would figure it out for themselves — and be hurt by my unilateral decision — and yet, if they ever confronted me about it, I could add disrespect to disrespect by denying that anything has changed, saying that I have merely been busy, have moved, changed my hours, etc.
This time, though, the change is more general — I have come to see all people in a new way; and decided to break off with all; by which I mean — never to cultivate a warm feeling towards another person again. And what could possibly be the point of letting everyone know that? In the past, abandoning a single person while retaining my friendship with others, could be calculated to hurt that person if they ever realized my abandonment of them was selective, personal. But this, of course, does not work if we abandon all people: the people abandoned would not so much see our action as somehow an effective punishment we inflict on the world (the world will continue as it has always done) as — a punishment of ourselves; a beaten retreat from the world: a defeat. They would not be upset to see it; but the contrary. Thus, visibly abandoning all would only increase their pleasure.
This is of course what the curmudgeons do: their bristling exterior is a kind of revenge against the totality of human race which has disappointed them in so many of its individual instances. But this sort of revenge is not just silly as shown above — it is also a form of whining: a kind of appeal for humanity to note how badly it has treated us, perhaps a desperate plea for it to mend its ways. (The Japanese have an special term for this behavior: amaeru, or solicitation of pity). In doing so, the curmudgeon persists in the misguided and fundamentally unproductive effort to seek comfort in the feelings and reactions of others, whether positive or negative. It only perpetuates the curmudgeon’s dependency on others. But this is not the point. The point is to end it.
Thus, grumpiness is not the way to go. Better do the opposite: change nothing. Smile. Trade complements and small favors. Do not let on that anything at all has changed, but keep your heart firmly locked against the least feeling of warmth, of liking. The correct way to deal with the duplicity and faithlessness of the human race is not to try to change the race (which will never happen); or to somehow trick it into changing its ways (it is an empty sort of victory to force people to love you); but to secede form it entirely.
It was observed by a commentator (may have been Russell in his History), that at the heart of The Great Man’s3 philosophy lay a paradox: his prescription to pursue individual pleasure at all costs seems to have quarreled with his genuine decency and generosity towards people: it gave Him pleasure to be nice to his friends and to spend time in their company. People like Him will find it difficult to secede: they will have to learn to control their natural impulses.
1 “In physical cosmology, cosmic inflation, cosmological inflation or just inflation is the theorized extremely rapid exponential expansion of the early universe by a factor of at least 1078 in volume, driven by a negative-pressure vacuum energy density. The inflationary epoch comprises the first part of the electroweak epoch following the grand unification epoch. It lasted from 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang to sometime between 10−33 and 10−32 seconds. Following the inflationary period, the universe continues to expand.”
2 Aged alpha-male silver-back gorillas (themselves a symbol of grumpiness) retire from their tribes to be left in peace. So do old alpha-male wolves.
3 Epicurus, of course. Who else?
May 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Roskam’s Live Unnoticed (that’s λάθε βιῶσας to you) is scholarly — i.e. not interested in the doctrine as a tool for life, but in the doctrine as it was, or may have been, its origins and later fate. It meticulously traces the history of an idea — but doesn’t seem to care a whit for the idea itself.
(Scholars aren’t philosophers. But give scholars a break: by and large, even philosophers aren’t philosophers).
Roskam’s interpretation starts with the assumption that everything ever issued from the lips of The Great Man had to be based on the strict hedonistic calculus (the philosophers’ quest being a kind of dumb calculator). And therefore, he argues, Epicurus probably didn’t dispute the pleasures stemming from fame, status and power, but merely suggested that the security of a low-profile life on balance yielded more pleasure than did the public life of success.
Or, maybe The Great Man really did not feel any pleasure in status and power.
Hard as it is for an ambitious scholar to imagine, such people do exist, and some of them even bear the name of “scholars” — though the word in classical Chinese context means something else than it does in modern Europe — dictionaries of prominent Ming and Qing figures are full of successful men retiring to small islands to raise storks. (And many more, mostly liars, I imagine, saying they want to).