Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thoughts on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was a major influence of my youth. In 1963 my older sister bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the early album that made him famous, and after getting used to his awful voice and amateurish instrumentation, I developed an interest in his lyrics that lasted well into adulthood. I think the first album of his that I bought was Highway 61 Revisited, which came out in 1965. I haven't listened to most of his albums, but from what I've heard, his best period was from 1963 to 1967, with the 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, arguably his best. By 1969 I was losing interest in his songs and I began to stop buying his albums. A few of the later ones, for instance Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Oh Mercy (1989), were supposed to be good, but I wasn't impressed. I attended one of his concerts in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1978 and the noise was so unpleasant that I left early.

The main thought that I have about Dylan is that he is an artistic opportunist. When he arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway and the Vietnam War was about to escalate. With the folk music scene taking off, dozens of performers were seeking to articulate a people's response in the then-popular vernacular of folk music. Here there can be no question about Dylan's talent: he virtually obliterated the competition by saying everything ten times better than anyone else could, even when he occasionally meandered into the obscure. At the time I thought of him as an intellectual who could articulate what is wrong in society and become an effective spokesperson for sane policies, but that turned out to be a completely incorrect understanding of Dylan.

The problem with Bob Dylan for me is that he doesn't actually represent anything. I suppose he has some vague allegiance to the apparent messages of some of his songs, but in the greater scheme of things his primary motivation all along, right up to the present, has been to achieve commercial success. I became aware of this only gradually over a period of many years. When he blew off reporters, making fun of them, I used to think that he just didn't want to be pigeonholed by idiots, but I now think that that was part of a conscious strategy he had to control his image. The fact is that he has never come clean on anything as far as I know. His so-called memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004) clarifies little and remains almost as elusive as his comments to the press from the 1960's. There is ample evidence that he was not above using people and walking all over them when necessary.

I recently came across an excellent example of Dylan's disingenuousness. The film The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000) is a documentary about Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who was one of Dylan's mentors in the early 1960's. Elliott was already established as a folk performer when Dylan came to town and soon introduced him to his friend Woody Guthrie, who was then very ill. You would never know this from reading Chronicles, because Elliott isn't mentioned in the book. Even Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, is dumbfounded that Dylan has chosen to ignore Elliott. What it looks like to me is that as soon as Dylan found out that Woody Guthrie was supposed to be the patron saint of folk music, he rushed to pay homage and establish an apparent close bond with him, while cutting Elliott out of the picture as much as possible.

Although I am hardly a Dylanologist, I think I know enough about him to say that the last 45 years of his life have been less important artistically than the previous 7 or 8 years. The question, then, for me, is how well his best work holds up. For a popular artist it has held up exceptionally well. I doubt that any commercial American lyricist compares favorably during his lifetime. However, Dylan is now, after the scholarly work of Christopher Ricks, also considered to be a major poet. On hearing this I was at first skeptical. You don't need an English degree to notice that even in Dylan's best songs there is an irreducible convenience representing his sense of timeliness or market awareness - or just plain sloppiness. Yet, after sampling all of the major American poets, it is hard to argue that he doesn't belong in that class. Aside from his conspicuous lack of discipline, Dylan could easily have been a major poet instead of a pop star.

Dylan decided early on that he didn't want to be a poet. He was courted by poets such as Archibald MacLeish, but it seems that he always wanted to be a pop star, and this is also why he finally rejected folk music in favor of the electric guitar, even though he was an inferior player of every instrument he ever attempted to play. It is evident from his lyrics, interviews and writings that he was an anti-intellectual from the start, and, for better or for worse, we may have got all that he had to offer in the first place.

One of the problems of our quasi-democratic, capitalistic society, I think, is that there is less pressure on artists to perform at high levels than there was during earlier periods. The lowest common denominator, public demand, often determines the extent to which an artist succeeds. In previous times, aristocrats, who were usually better educated and more discerning, were the final arbiters of artistic merit. From the point of view of an aesthetic purist, I think we probably could have got more out of Bob Dylan if he had been squeezed a little.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Father

I have been hesitant to write about my father, because it's a sad story. He has been dead for forty years now, so I thought I ought to write this, if only for posterity. There is something to be learned from his life, as there is from nearly everyone's, if only you look closely enough.

His parents were born in the late Victorian period and met in the London area during the Edwardian period. His father was in the third generation of a family of tailors from Shipston-on-Stour, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The family had lived in the Midlands for several generations and the male lineage was said to have immigrated to England from France as Huguenots, probably in the early eighteenth century. His mother came from a line of furriers originating in Yorkshire. His father got a job at Liberty of London at age 14 and bicycled to work until World War I broke out. He then joined the army and fought in the trenches in France, where he was non-fatally wounded in the throat by a sniper while repairing sandbag emplacements. After the war he remained at Liberty's for the rest of his career, rising to the position of vice chairman of the board of directors. When first married their neighbors were the author Kingsley Amis's parents, and years later my parents showed the elderly Amises around Manhattan when they visited New York.

My grandfather did not become wealthy through his job, but was able to buy a house with a large garden in the up-and-coming suburban town of Purley, Surrey. Their first son was named Ivor; my father was named Richard and attended Whitgift, a private school. I don't know much about Ivor, because he was killed in North Africa during World War II by another British soldier who was cleaning his gun. My father was six feet tall and athletic, playing rugby and swimming. He is said to have been a bully, and he had no interest in academics other than geography. I suppose he was the English equivalent of a jock.

As soon as he turned 18 in 1941 he joined the army. After a time he was sent to Sandhurst, the same college attended by Winston Churchill and comparable to West Point, for officer training. He became a lieutenant in the King's Dragoon Guards and commanded British tanks. During the course of the war he served in Italy, Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. He met my mother in Athens, where the British were stationed to ward off communists after the Germans had fled. They married in 1946 and moved to England in 1947, the year my older sister was born. His father got him a job at Liberty's, and we lived in Coulsdon and Purley. I was born in 1950 and my younger sister was born in 1954.

I don't know the circumstances, but apparently my father was fired from Liberty's. I believe he got another job from which he was also fired. Eventually he traveled to the U.S. and was hired by a textile company in Manhattan. The whole family moved to the U.S. in 1957, and most of our youths were spent in Pelham Manor, New York, just north of New York City. His work record didn't improve much in New York; he was fired at least twice, and finally looked at a career change some time in the early 1960's. Both he and my mother were skilled at making good first impressions, but my father didn't have much follow-through, and people spot this quickly in the business world. He took some vocational tests and was told that he had a high IQ and would make a great insurance salesman. Subsequently he worked as an unsuccessful life insurance agent.

The first few years in Pelham Manor were relatively pleasant. We were well adjusted, and life seemed stable. My mother was a stay-at-home mother, and we lived in a rented house near our elementary school. But by the time my father became an insurance agent he was already becoming a serious alcoholic. He started with beer, then moved to cheap wine, and in his later years was a heavy vodka drinker. A sales job was a mistake for him during this period of his life, because he was unaccountable for most of the day and could do whatever he liked. He was gregarious and liked to schmooze and drink. He wasn't picky and probably had a few low-life friends. My mother began working in the mid-1960's and thereafter became the main breadwinner of the family. As already discussed in my post about my mother, my father continued to decline and finally killed himself on the Ides of March in 1974.

When I was growing up, I was hardly aware of my father and was very close to my mother up until about age 12. From then onward my mother became far less important to me, and when I was a teenager my father was often antagonistic. He used various pretexts to bully me, and we didn't have much of a rapport. Often the household was chaotic, with my parents fighting over something or other. When intoxicated, my father became vicious and insulting, and, combined with my mother's expressive Mediterranean temperament, if they had a fight you could expect shouting, thrown objects, broken glass, spitting and occasionally a physical scuffle. This made us reluctant to bring friends home. However, one thing I had in common with my father was enjoyment of cards and games, and there were a few occasions when friends came over to play poker, with my father participating.

One of the reasons that we didn't get along well, besides basic male rivalry, was that our personalities were nearly opposite. I am quiet, introverted and thoughtful, and he was loud, extroverted and reckless. He was always looking to fault me about something, and finally he settled on the idea that I was a coward, which he confided to my mother, but not to me. He had observed that I was more cautious than he was, and later he seems to have concluded that this was a sign of cowardice when I filed as a conscientious objector for the draft in 1968. Because of his military background, a conscientious objector was a coward and there were no two ways about it. He forced me to withdraw my conscientious objector application, which he thought of as a disgrace to the family. In the end it made no difference, because the Vietnam War was winding down, my lottery number was 365, and I was never drafted.

This brings me to how his background made him a misfit as an adult. He was not closely supervised when he was growing up and liked to raise hell. He would take a large kite called an Atalanta to the beach and use it to hoist a pail of water into the air and then dump the water on sunbathers. As a teenager he sneaked his girlfriend, Muriel, into his bedroom while his parents were at home. Going from this to war and marriage to a foreign bride within five years was not likely to produce a stable adulthood. I'm not sure whether he would fit the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he certainly had symptoms. He was usually nervous, chewing his nails constantly, grinding his teeth and chain-smoking Viceroys, and he had ulcers. He didn't sleep well and would wake up in the middle of the night and read an entire detective novel. But it is also significant how poorly prepared he was to be an adult. Unlike most middle-class parents today, his parents ridiculed formal educations, because they thought they had done perfectly well without them. He thought the same way as an adult. Even though his lack of a college education probably contributed to his failure in the business world, he still didn't think that it was necessary for his children to attend college, and it would have been fine with him if we had all just got jobs after high school. His main piece of advice to me was "You can do whatever you like, but don't get caught."

From my vantage point it is difficult to determine which factors had the most negative impact on my father's life. The factors that I'm aware of include a poorly supervised childhood, traumatic war experiences, unsustainable early successes, narcissistic tendencies, an inappropriate bride and a difficult transition to civilian life. The most obvious problem, which is easily seen today in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the transition to civilian life. My thought here is that war conditions are completely incompatible with conventional peacetime life. For many soldiers, war becomes the norm, and activities such as having a career and raising a family lose all intrinsic meaning to them. I don't think my father took business seriously, and I can't honestly say that he was wrong. On an instinctive level, war is far closer to the norm in human history than showing up at an office every day and helping a corporation increase its profits. It is probably the case that those who go into war without being fully prepared to exit into civilian life are at risk for becoming social misfits when they do leave the military. My father mistakenly thought that he would get lifetime credit for his war exploits but soon found out that no one cared about them. To make matters worse, Americans saw themselves as the victors of World War II rather than the British (though the Russians were probably more responsible than any other nation).

The choice of my mother as his bride also seems to have been a big mistake. He oversold himself at the time, and in effect my mother married down. Her family was better educated, more culturally sophisticated and significantly wealthier than his. Moreover, she had little to offer in a practical way. She was only 21 when they married, had not been to college and had no experience in business or anything else. She had led a completely sheltered childhood. Yet her expectation was that she would live in a wealthy, respected household and spend her days raising children and entertaining guests. The marriage was a disaster waiting to happen, and after my father died my mother quickly latched onto the kind of person that she should have sought to begin with, a wealthy businessman who had the means to take care of her. If my father had instead married a savvy Englishwoman who steered him in the right direction, he would have had a much better chance of adjusting to civilian life in England and may have been better able to navigate the British business environment, as some of his friends were able to do. As it was, my parents often seemed to inhabit a fantasy world, and although I myself am given to imaginative thinking, my early family experience always draws me back to extreme realism.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Ascent of Frivolous Scholarship as an Element of American Decline

You will have noted from some of my previous posts that I am not enamored with a lot of what goes on within the academic world these days. I have problems with M.F.A. programs, for example, and found the recent political correctness exhibited by students at Smith College absurd. Furthermore, in hindsight, some of my undergraduate teachers seem to have been out of touch with reality according to the way I currently think. It doesn't help that I am now reading Thinks..., a novel by David Lodge, who is probably one of the best satirists of academia. And I live in a college town where I can pass for a professor and am occasionally amused to watch unacquainted academics mistakenly size me up to determine my rank within their strata. Then yesterday, on top of it all, I read an interview with Elizabeth Povinelli, who is the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.

The jargon used and the style of argumentation seemed so ridiculous to me that I don't see how any educated person could take Povinelli seriously. Yet she has a top faculty position at a leading university. What is even more alarming is that this state of affairs has existed for many years. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal satirized postmodern cultural studies by publishing a hoax article, discussed here, which was accepted uncritically by the editors of the academic publication Social Text. Sokal intentionally spiced his article with statements that would obviously be questionable to scientists and mathematicians, but because the editors agreed with its conclusions, they didn't bother to have it checked by a qualified scientist.

As a non-academic, I don't have much contact with this cultural schism. However, since I've been reading more science-oriented writing lately, Povinelli's interview was jarring to me. The difference in language usage, terminology, concepts and worldview from that encountered in ordinary public discourse or even in the specialized philosophical discourse that I'm used to is striking. Particularly when you consider that this was an interview format, one would expect a higher degree of intelligibility than, for example, in a technical research paper. As written, I doubt it would meet the editorial standards of The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, The Wilson Quarterly, etc.

Although I'm not in a position to say much about this phenomenon and am not particularly interested in looking into it further, I do see a disturbing pattern of balkanization in academia. The traditional academic disciplines of English, history, philosophy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics covered different areas and often used different languages and methods, but they were not in conflict while I was in college. The difference now seems to be a politicization of academia rather than the emergence of new, defensible concepts. I get the impression that much of this is an offshoot of the feminism of the 1970's combined with French theory emanating from thinkers such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. Most of it sounds like utter nonsense to me.

The "two cultures" problem seems to crop up regularly in universities. It caused economist Larry Summers to be fired as president of Harvard in 2006, and no doubt adds pressures throughout the academic world. I am not usually sympathetic with people like Summers, who tend to be aggressive, insensitive careerist bullies, but in his case he had science and reason on his side. My concern is not that science ought to have more respect and funding than the humanities, but that the high castes within some of the humanities are populated with people who are just plain intellectually bankrupt. They are presiding over what should be meaningful branches of knowledge and turning them into fantasy boutique inventions that serve their own purposes. This kind of frivolity and bad judgment in major public and private institutions is probably symptomatic of the excesses in countries that are in decline, and it has parallels in the ongoing dysfunction of the federal government. Furthermore, academics like Povinelli are culpable for the dissemination of confused and false information that is likely to be a hindrance rather than a help to those students who take them seriously.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Consciousness and Artificial Intelligence

There is currently a bustle in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, philosophy and science fiction regarding the possibility of creating intelligent machines. As mentioned earlier, I believe that they will become a reality sooner or later. Predictably, the philosophers are muddying the water by trying to throw in obsolete concepts of consciousness and mind. I have no interest in examining their arguments closely, but I do have thoughts on the subject that clarify the issues somewhat, to me anyway.

Ever since Descartes there has been the so-called mind-body problem, which, inexplicably to me, arouses great concern among philosophers. In philosophy, the trick is to describe the nature of something that seems to exist independently of the physical world yet interacts with it. My approach is to say that "mind" is simply a linguistic representation of what we also call a conscious human brain. "Consciousness" itself is just a word that designates our subjective sense of awareness of our own existence within an environment. Some philosophers believe that there are inherent obstacles to creating artificial intelligence that is conscious. Machines have been made that can win at chess and Jeopardy, but they don't have minds and are not conscious according to our definitions. Typically these philosophers say that we don't know enough about how the human brain works to simulate it with computers. Although they may not be completely wrong, I think they make fundamental mistakes about the nature of consciousness and intelligence.

To my way of thinking, many creatures with brains are technically conscious. While most of their biological processes occur automatically according to their genetic and environmental histories, they have a sense of self, if only for the purpose of self-preservation. It seems to me that humans aren't that different from most mammals as far as consciousness is concerned. In terms of gross biological behavior, we're similar to mice: we seek food and shelter, mate, raise offspring, look for new sources of food and shelter when necessary, etc. We more closely resemble successful predators that engage in social behavior, such as wolves. The top predators generally have the ability to assess situations, do rudimentary planning, change plans when necessary and function within a social milieu. I don't think that there is much meaning to be attached to the word "consciousness" beyond a fairly narrow biological context that we share with other animals.

When you come right down to it, the things that differentiate us from other sophisticated mammals are a larger, more specialized brain, bipedal locomotion, hands capable of skillfully manipulating objects, complex language and a predisposition to eusociality. We pride ourselves in our reasoning ability, appreciation of the arts, etc., but these are really just consequences of the other characteristics mentioned. I think that human anthropocentric arrogance causes us to overvalue our status within the natural world, and now there are those among us who want to extend that logic to machines, which, somehow or other, are supposed to be incapable of matching our abilities.

The higher functions of our brains are hard to duplicate in machines, because they came into existence over billions of years of evolution, and our genes have so much junk in them, i.e. inactive DNA, that it is difficult to see how they end up producing thoughts. Additionally, as organisms, how we take in information from our environment is different from how machines typically accumulate information. Perhaps the largest challenge is the fact that, as inanimate objects, computers do not contain a protocol that makes their continued survival a priority, whereas most of our behavior is directly or indirectly related to our instincts to survive as individuals and as a species. However, I think it may prove to be a mistake to try to make machines that think like humans. Two problems with that are A. We don't know exactly how we think, and B. Computers may be able to think better using a model other than humans.

From a psychological and marketing standpoint, intelligent machines similar to us may seem advantageous: we inherently prefer human-like interface to robotic interface. But presuming that we can build super-intelligent computers, that appearance could be created through the use of sub-routines that simulate human behavior. To have a truly human super-intelligent computer could actually be extremely dangerous. The last thing that we could ever want is an entity that is more intelligent than we are and interested in its continued existence and reproduction. This is the kind of scenario often depicted in science fiction movies, and it could potentially occur if we made the wrong design decisions. It may prove to be easier and less dangerous to make super-intelligent machines that are based exclusively on theoretical considerations that ignore the characteristics of organisms like us.

I can't say how or when these machines will actually be designed and built, but I want to emphasize that whether or not they are conscious may be irrelevant. They will be taking in information and processing it, two things that we do, but will not necessarily need to be self-aware, i.e. conscious. Perhaps they will have what we call creativity, which in their case may mean that they will be able to find new ways of analyzing phenomena and novel solutions to problems that are of interest to us. They could be designed to communicate with us in a normal manner, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, while being completely nonhuman inside. If consciousness is associated with a drive to self-preservation, it would be better if they weren't.

My thought regarding intelligence is that we overrate ours considerably. This is only because we have not confronted intelligence greater than our own. Research on human behavior consistently shows that we frequently make poor assessments of situations and bad decisions. Men as a group tend to be unrealistically overconfident in many scenarios. There probably are evolutionary reasons for many of our characteristics that will not apply to super-intelligent machines, and that will be one of their strengths.

The sense I get is that when we encounter super-intelligence the world will be changed forever. Our chronic case of anthropocentrism will be cured when we have machines that can do nearly everything better than we can. Thus, from a long-term policy standpoint, I think our governments and universities are rather shortsighted. For example, although in the near future there may be some advantages to be gleaned from providing better educations to more people, it is possible that nearly all jobs will eventually become automated. In the short term, better education might help increase equality globally, but I don't think it will make much difference longer-term. It may turn out that prevention of the abuse of future technology and management of the transition to a technologically advanced post-capitalist society are far more important than any issues currently under consideration on a global level.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Poetry Moratorium

I seem to have reached an impasse in my current foray into poetry. During this round I've been looking at American poems, reading The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. My last stab was in 1996, when I read A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz. The Milosz anthology is of extremely high quality and has a much broader selection in terms of geography and time, though it is much shorter. I recommend Milosz if, like me, you want to wet your toes a little.

The problem that I encounter is that I don't like most poems. As the poet William Matthews (1942-1997) somewhat cynically put it, there are four main themes in published poems:

1. I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We're not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent and on we know not what.

The poems that I've been reading aren't quite this formulaic, but I find that even when I like a poet initially, his or her poems become tiresome quickly. Of the four categories listed, I prefer the first, but it is hard to write a poem in that theme that isn't trite or reminiscent of other poems. My favorite poems tend to invoke something of the mystery of life, and this, unfortunately, seems to be almost absent from American poetry. Another thing that I like in poems, not mentioned by Matthews, is acute perception, and I find that very, very few writers of any sort have it. Poets are far more likely to write about how they feel about something or other than notice anything of interest outside of themselves. Then if they do notice something, they tend to transform it into a poetic gimmick rather than a real insight.

As in the case of literary fiction, academia tends to monopolize and ruin poetry. In 1995 I read Soul Says, by Helen Vendler, the Harvard professor. The book is academic hagiography advocating Jorie Graham, a poet whom I can't stand to read and who now is also a professor at Harvard. Moreover, I was a little surprised to see that some recognized poets themselves disparage academia. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan said "I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It's been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs], I have often said." The poet Tom Clark (born 1941) was unimpressed by contemporary academic poets when he graduated from college, and he later rejected an opportunity to become "a university poet...thus irrevocably exiting, with a headstrong lack of foresight surely to be regretted, the moving staircase of academic poetry-careering." I sympathize with independent-minded poets and their poems appeal to me more than those written by others.

The impression I get from reading poems and about poets is that most of them just like writing poems and have made lifelong habits of it. It would come as no surprise to me if unread poetry troves of quality equal to the best published poems were to be found suddenly, just as in the case of Vivian Maier's photographs. Emily Dickinson herself had very few poems published during her lifetime, and although as she recedes into the distant past her context is becoming increasingly obscure, she still stands out as one of America's best poets.

I will continue to read poems, but at a slower pace. This means that the Poem of the Day may hardly ever be posted again, because I find the pickings so slim. I suppose that if I wanted to find more poems that I like, I would have to write them myself.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Art as Historical Record

We recently watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which is about a French-American woman whose photographs were discovered after her death. She spent the latter part of her life working as a nanny on the North Shore of Chicago and had a photography hobby that was not well known to anyone besides herself. Upon her death, her possessions were sold at auction and thousands of her negatives were found. When experts saw prints of the photographs it became apparent that she had quite a talent, and there have now been exhibitions of her work all over the world. It is a shame that she did not achieve recognition during her lifetime, because she could have used the money. However, her personality quirks may have had a significant influence on the course of her life, which remains somewhat of a mystery. Vivian Maier was what you would call a street photographer and had a knack for spotting and framing pictures and sometimes getting the subjects to pose optimally. From the selection I've seen, I thinks she ranks about the same as many famous photographers. I am bringing this up because it ties in with an ongoing interest of mine, which is the determination of what counts as art.

Most of what I consider to be art is inextricably linked to specific historical contexts. In some ways, the best cave art seems just as good to me as any art that has ever been produced. Art often seems simply to be a representation of the physical and cultural artifacts of a particular era. Carefully painted portraits aren't necessarily much different from carefully executed photographic portraits. The Impressionists depicted daily life in France in a manner similar to the Japanese depiction of life during the Ukiyo-e period, though the materials used and styles differed. I think in many cases the subject matter of a particular form of art may change very little over time, though the materials, methods and styles may vary considerably. With the passage of time, older works of art gain an exotic aura, because they highlight people and circumstances that no longer exist and are of nostalgic value, sometimes evoking an idealized past. There are also the decorative arts, which sometimes overlap with fine art, but to me they are of lesser importance.

In literature, historical context is important. Many of the great novels of the nineteenth century have value added to them simply on the basis of their depiction of a bygone era that is of special sentimental or other interest. Moreover, particularly in the case of Western Europe, there was a cultural heyday in France and England that lasted up until World War I. Having followed the progression from Victor Hugo to Balzac to Flaubert to Proust, the latter bringing us into the modern era, I have the impression that there was a peak in French and English literature at about the time of Flaubert. This may be because French culture also seemed to have reached some sort of apex then. Yes, Proust exhibits a new style, but he still seems conceptually and culturally derivative. As I wade through In Search of Lost Time, I can't escape the notion that he has too much time to kill, doesn't get to the point soon enough, and is frequently uninsightful about his social milieu and himself. Yet he is distant enough in time to merit the stamp of approval from most contemporary academics. I find that although his writing style can be captivating at times, at other times his prose resemble a rambling, self-indulgent memoir. Even so, Proust is more interesting to read than most American writers. Perhaps because American culture has never been impressive to me, it is hard for me to warm up to its literature. American life is so prosaic and philistine that it doesn't arouse much reaction among aesthetes. To be sure, there is a lot going on here, and pockets of interest can be found, but you have to look hard and there is a lot of trial and error. The lack of history makes nearly everything new, and to an undiscerning public, that's fine, even when the discerning think otherwise. As Denise Levertov wrote in a late poem:

Dear 19th century! Give me refuge
in your unconscious sanctuary for a while....

Getting back to Vivian Maier's work, some of it takes on significance purely from its documentation of life in New York and Chicago in the 1950's and 1960's. It is possible that if she were still alive and photographing people in Chicago, those would be very good photographs too, but the passage of time certainly makes a difference.

Monday, December 8, 2014

We Real Cool

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.


—Gwendolyn Brooks

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Intellectual Blunders

Although in some ways I may have been suited to an academic career, there were factors that worked against it that have become clearer to me over time. The most obvious was that my study habits weren't particularly good until I was about halfway through college. Slightly less obvious at the time was my innate skepticism of the merits of prevailing views in subjects that are not intrinsically precise. For example, if an idea came up in a philosophy class that I thought was either too vague to be of much use or just plain wrong, but we had to examine it because so-and-so said it was important, my natural tendency was to look at philosophers sociologically. Eventually I began to see the philosophy department sociologically, with many prevailing ideas, whether good or bad, in place simply because they suited the faculty members collectively in ways that had nothing to do with their merit. Most of the subjects in a liberal arts program are not exact, and the same pattern could be observed in them.

The deeper I delved into philosophy, the more unsatisfactory it seemed. Philosophy in the U.S. has centered on the analytic tradition that took shape early in the twentieth century specifically at Trinity College, Cambridge, where G.E. Moore explored the foundations of ethics, Bertrand Russell explored the foundations of mathematics, and Ludwig Wittgenstein continued Russell's work in mathematical logic. The goal was to escape idealism and metaphysics, which had been popular up until that time, and place philosophy on more rigorous footing like that of the sciences. Ironically, little of the work from that period has any relevance today. Moore's book, Principia Ethica, is now seen more as a model for philosophical writing style than as a valuable exposition on ethics. Russell's Principia Mathematica is only narrowly relevant in formal logic and has been ignored by mathematicians since the work of Kurt Gödel. Wittgenstein repudiated most of his early work when he set off on ordinary language philosophy later in his career. Nevertheless, the analytic style is still in vogue as far as I know. My view is that philosophy lost its way at about that time. As the sciences became more specialized and more exact, the need for scientists to be natural philosophers, as they used to be called, declined, and the role of stand-alone philosophy has remained unclear. But that hasn't stopped academic philosophers from trying to carve out a niche for themselves and engage in turf wars with other disciplines. I'm not sure how this will be resolved, but I don't regret leaving the field. Today, many scientists hold philosophers in low regard, and I can see why. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that most of what goes on in philosophy departments these days is a waste of time.

My skepticism about academic philosophy has alerted me to conditions and people in other academic fields when noticeable mistakes are made and perpetuated by leaders in the field. An interesting one that I came across is the case of Louis Agassiz. He was one of the leading scientists of the nineteenth century and taught at Harvard. He did important work in biology and was the first to propose and find evidence for an ice age in geological history. In addition, he was one of the first popular science writers and became well known throughout the world. So far so good, but beyond these contributions he totally rejected Darwinism and the theory of evolution and was himself a creationist. He was also a proponent of polygenism, the theory that each race has a separate origin, which led to the subsequent accusation that he was a racist. In short, by the time of his death in 1873 he was completely out of step with modern science and a relic of the past. Some of his questionable writings are still in vogue and circulated by creationists in support of their views.

I am currently in the process of reading How Not to Be Wrong, by the mathematician Jordan Ellenberg. The book provides informal explanations of how math works in a variety of contexts that come up in your life and contains numerous humorous anecdotes to make his points. One that I found particularly interesting was about the psychologist B.F. Skinner. Apparently in college Skinner wanted to be a novelist, wrote sonnets and took no psychology courses. After college he attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and gave Robert Frost several of his short stories to read. Frost wrote back "All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice....I take it that everybody has the prejudice and spends some time feeling for it to speak and write from. But most people end as they begin by acting out the prejudices of other people." Actually, this sounds like pretty good advice to me. Skinner then moved into his parents' attic and attempted to write, but he made little headway and finally gave up. He later wrote "A violent reaction against all things literary was setting in....I had failed as a writer because I had nothing important to say, but I could not accept that explanation. It was literature which must be at fault....Literature must be demolished."

When Skinner later became a psychology professor, he devised an experiment to show that Shakespeare had no particular skill at alliteration in his sonnets, a process which he thought could be produced randomly. He wrote "Proof that there is a process responsible for alliterative patterning can only be obtained through a statistical analysis of initial consonants in a reasonably large sample." He sought to show that the first letter of one word of a sonnet has no effect on other words in the same line. Using 100 sonnets as data, he concluded that "In spite of the seeming richness of alliteration in the sonnets, there is no significant evidence of a process of alliteration in the behavior of the poet to which any serious attention should be given. So far as this aspect of poetry is concerned, Shakespeare might as well have drawn words out of a hat." Of course, Ellenberg, the mathematician, goes on to demolish Skinner's argument: "A statistical study that's not refined enough to detect a phenomenon of the expected size is called underpowered—the equivalent of looking at planets with binoculars." The detail was there, but the data was insufficient to show it. Apparently Skinner had an ax to grind with Shakespeare, and that had clouded his thinking.

Skinner, like the philosophers mentioned, was attempting to increase exactitude in his field. He later became known as a radical behaviorist. I sympathize with his desire to make the field more scientific, because earlier pioneers such as Freud and Jung were not really scientists. While they did have insights into human nature, it is hard to see how anyone ever took concepts such as the id, the ego, the superego, the collective unconscious or archetypes very seriously. Long ago I read several of Jung's books, and I now see him as a crank/mystic, not as a scientist at all. Skinner goes overboard in the opposite direction, and is of little or no use on some of the more subtle aspects of human existence. Even so, I agree with his emphasis on studying behavior and his association of all mental activity with the brain rather than with a soul or some other unknowable force. Apparently he has been stereotyped somewhat by his critics, but a lot of his work has held up and can still be seen in fields such as behavioral economics and in the use of positive and negative reinforcements in various therapies and child rearing.

There are, no doubt, many bad ideas still floating around in academia—more than I could ever know. Fortunately I have never had to deal with Jacques Derrida or Jacques Lacan. When I was in college there were no such things as women's studies or gender studies. There was no Ph.D. in disaster ethics. Even so, I see no reason to eliminate most "soft" subjects from academic curricula. There will always be a place for the study of the arts and other fuzzy humanistic subjects. One caveat is that problems emerge when the humanities attempt to reinvent themselves as sciences. Unfortunately, in a capitalistic society there is more money to be made through the sciences, and the humanities are likely to decline in importance as fields of study under the current status quo.