“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, October 10, 2003

Bollettino

Leonard Bast

If you rehearse the news of this week � the deaths and explosions in Iraq, the shredding of our excuse for a pre-emptive war, the double standard of an administration that, on the one hand, imprisons dark skinned men en masse for security reasons, and, on the other hand, claims the de facto right to leak illegal, punitive information, the continuing unemployment misery, the shadows cast by the mountain of debts piled up in two brief years by this country � you would think that now, if ever, was the progressive moment. That poses an ugly question, however: why, if this is the progressive moment, has a Republican actor been overwhelmingly swept into office in California?

We believe part of the answer lies in Howard�s End.

We�ve been reading Howard�s End with a lot of attention this week, as part of our on-going campaign to scope out things we can use in the classic novels. Foster is a wholly admirable writer. Here�s how he does that most difficult thing, letting time, blank time, pass: �And the conversation drifted away and away, and Helen�s cigarette turned to a spot in the darkness, and the great flats opposite were sown with lighted windows, which vanished and were relit again, and vanished incessantly�� This is superb on every level. The great flats opposite will soon be figuring in the story, for one thing, so their place as a sort of chronometer is appropriate � and yet, since the reader, at this point, doesn�t know that, their insertion here is one of those ways a writer insinuates his facts into the reader�s unconsciousness, becoming a sort of fate in the process, something that presses, however mildly, upon the reader, as we know that those lights will press upon Helen Schlegel � whose cigarette is (in a bit of a cheat) lit for an awful long time. The perfection of this kind of writing extends to the freedom it gives Forster with regards to his characters. Forster, again and again, will come out of his seemingly neutral role and make blatant and manipulative comments that he means to be read as blatant and manipulative. Thee reader, who is already caught up in the artificial fate spun by the text, has the sense, in these passages, that luck itself is speaking � that here at last privilege, the unfairness in things, is disclosing itself, becoming palpable.

Which brings us to Bast. Those who�ve read Howard�s End will remember that Bast is the striving clerk � the lowbrow from the East End whose entanglement with the Schlegel sisters will lead to disaster. Forster sizes up Bast with a famous passage. This passage crystallizes a mood and tone that, at least since the seventies, has been endemic to the American progressive culture. It comes in Chapter VI, which announces �We are not concerned with the very poor.� The hauteur of this announcement sets the whole tone for Leonard. He doesn�t have the Dickensensian advantage of rags and sentiment. No, he is merely one of the lowly. And the lowly must be squashed. �He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it.� This, so far, is such a break with the politics of the English novel that we have to pause. Even Thackeray, who probably thought along these lines, never violated the novelistic rule here: the poor might be shown as greedy, criminal, ungenerous, etc. But at the end of the day, the poor anchor the novelistic notion of virtue. This is true not just in Bleak House, but in the Princess Cassamassima; in Vanity Fair, which departs about as far as any Victorian novel from the sentimentality that we associate with the Victorians, the excesses of the rich, or at least those who possess the credit of the rich, are projected, as it were, upon the screen of a society in which one man�s excess is the absence of another man�s bread.

What Lytton Strachey�s Eminent Victorians was supposed to have done, Forster, with these brief sentences, does; he rings down an era by negating its deepest sentiments. It is a curious gesture. There�s a fierce defense of caste encoded in it � a freezing of the social whole to preserve it from the social mobility that Wells� characters were all about � as well as Dickens. As well, perhaps, as Becky Sharp. This, in a way, is Foster's blow against the Invisible Man -- for the Invisible Man is from that class of the self-educated whose threat to Foster's own group will grow with the century. Forster effortlessly merges this affection for caste into the liberalism of his favored caste, whose progressive role is to worry, infinitely, about the social inequities at the origin of their wealth, even as they weld it as a weapon to defend their cultural privileges. This, I think, has a lot to do with the alienation between progressives and what would seem to be their natural constituency. Here is how Foster catalogues the gulf between Bast and the Schlegels (who, we later learn, are rich only by Bast like standards � between the three of them, they bring in a rentier income of about 1,900 pounds a year, not exactly wealth on the American scale -- but much more like the kind of income a tenured American professor can depend on): "He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food.�

The astonishing impudence of this affects a reader like me with the force of a slap in the face. It is, in fact, denied within the very narrative. We already have measured Charles Wilcox's manners, and found them wanting. When we later learn about Bast�s incredible patience with Jacky, the unlikely down at heels bathing beauty with whom he is living, we know immediately that no rich man would be as kind, or as lovable, in this kind of relationship � that is, no rich man in a novel. Forster, while blatant, does lace his presentation of Bast with irony. We watch Bast read the Stones of Venice, an activity Foster pokes a lot of fun at. Bast, we are told, has been �trying to form his style on Ruskin: he understood him to be the great master of English prose.� Of course, if we go back to the passage about the lights going on and off in the great flats opposite the Schlegels, we know that Bast isn�t the only one to absorb certain patterns of English prose from Ruskin. We know that the perfection of the dying phrase, �� which vanished and were relit again, and vanished incessantly� certainly comes out of Ruskin�s influence, if not Ruskin. That is inescapable. But rarely has a great writer been so undercut by another great writer � for Ruskin, become Leonard Bast�s standard of greatness, can certainly not be Bloomsbury�s.

I think it says a lot about the Progressive community that Schwarzenegger's obviously awful behavior towards women and men -- towards any subordinate, in fact -- was simply shrugged off by the electorate. The aftermath of the trashing of such as Paula Jones is not going to go away so easily. It discredits almost every word out of the mouth of the various feminists who enthusiasticaly piled on that Arkansas secretary whose down at heels-ness was every bit as painful as Foster's Jacky. Hypocrisy, which has become the conservative vice, is one thing; but meanness for the sake of power is something a lot scarier. That's because anybody who exists in that realm of the "craving for food' knows that meanness every day. The progressive movement without labor becomes Bloomsbury, and Bloomsbury is only attractive to people who live in Bloomsbury.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Bollettino

We hate zombies. We�ve recently been copyediting some philosophy papers. One of the papers we had the privilege of marking up makes a plausible argument about consciousness as an emergent property. But the paper�s worth, we thought, was vitiated by its easy acceptance of the so-called zombie argument. That argument, which is associated with David Chalmers, goes approximately like this: a molecular level simulacrum of a human being without consciousness is imaginable. This human being, in other words, has no inner feels. Chalmers calls this imagined creature a zombie. He uses the logical possibility of zombies to argue that mental properties � feels, qualia, whatever you want to call them � can�t be explained by the physicalist agenda. In other words, consciousness is something over and beyond the physical properties of the brain, or whatever we take to be the material site of cognition, sensing, etc.

We thought that argument was bogus at the time � imagining the logical possibility of the unicorn doesn�t tell us squat about the ethology of the mountain goat � but having to confront it in a paper on emergence, it occurred to us that complexity theory gives a rather unique refutation of the zombie thesis.

Complexity theory is, of course, a huge topic in itself. However, one of its principles is emergence. Jaegwon Kim, who is a pretty heavy hitter in the world of event ontology, has an on-line paper about emergence that I�d urge LI readers to go to. The introduction is succinct and, for my purposes, sufficient:

� In trying to make emergence intelligible, it is useful to divide the ideas usually associated with the concept into two groups. One group of ideas are manifest in the statement that emergent properties are "novel" and "unpredictable" from the knowledge of their lower-level bases, and that they are not "explainable" or "mechanistically reducible" in terms of their underlying properties. The second group of ideas I have in mind comprises the specific emergentist doctrines concerning emergent properties, and, in particular, claims about the causal powers of the emergents. Prominent among them is the claim that the emergents bring into the world new causal powers of their own, and, in particular, that they have powers to influence and control the direction of the lower-level processes from which they emerge. This is a fundamental tenet of emergentism, not only in the classic emergentism of Samuel Alexander, Lloyd Morgan, and others but also in its various modern versions. Emergentists often contrast their position with epiphenomenalism, dismissing the latter with open scorn. On their view, emergents have causal/explanatory powers in their own right, introducing novel, and hitherto unknown, causal structures into the world.�

From Kim�s outline, it is obvious that emergence is a probabilistic property. That is, we need to scale our search for emergent phenomena to sets that are big enough to allow statistical analysis. Chalmers, and most writers on zombies that I�ve seen, seem oblivious to this approach. Chalmer�s thought experiment involves a one to one relationship between Chalmers and a zombie Chalmers. Yet Chalmers notion of consciousness seems to be at least consonant with the idea that consciousness is an emergent property.

Now if consciousness is truly emergent, than there is a big discrepancy between Chalmers example of a zombie and the emergent paradigm. That paradigm would take into account the fact that there is an exact molecular correlation between humans and zombies and it would predict that in any statistically significant set of zombies, consciousness would emerge in one of them. Nor would there be any way of culling the zombies to prevent this happening. Why? This is where the non-reductionism of emergence kicks in. There is no single physical feature, or single causative factor, that accounts for the emergent property. That is, indeed, the whole import of emergentism. So Chalmers zombies, which have been accepted as an imaginable, would have to have something else within them blocking consciousness � in other words, something distinguishing them, on the molecular level, from human beings � in order for one to be able to pick out, with 100% certainty, from a set of zombies the zombie without consciousness.

This leaves us with two possibilities: we can rescue zombies as a counter-factual by abandoning emergentism -- in which case we would have to explain why emergence doesn't happen given circumstances in which the emergent paradigm seems to apply -- or we can abandon zombies, and seek another counter-factual to talk about consciousness.

I�m rather surprised more people haven�t brandished the emergent program against the zombie thought experiment. Perhaps this is because the seduction of thinking of the zombie as a one to one relationship blinds philosophers to the fact that, in dealing with living creatures, they are dealing with biology. And biology works with populations.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Bollettino

"Every quantitative measure we have shows that we are winning the war." � McNamara, 1962.


This administration and its propagandists are so depressingly predictable that sometimes it just stops me. Do I really want to say the obvious, I say to myself. Here in LI central. There's a scene, at the end of Brazil, where a man is wrapped in newspapers: stray sheets that are blown by the wind and that adhere to him, first one, then another, until he is covered. That's how I think of the cliches that are employed both to defend and to diss the Bushies.

...So LI was unsurprised to read, in the WP today, a column that echoes McNamara. For weeks, the specifically conservative media - the Instapundits of the world -- has echoed with happy, happy images of Iraq, and scathing denunciations of the scurrilous liberal press � always reporting on things like dead American soldiers, instead of the 5,000 wonderful construction projects blossoming in some section of Northern Iraq, deploying our soldiers. Now, one might regard the latter fact as less a happy image of American benevolence and more an image of how out of whack the American mission in Iraq has become � U.S. soldiers competing with the 60% unemployed in Iraq on make work projects. But there is, at least, some sense to the rightwing complaint. The low intensity war in Iraq has not yet achieved critical mass � that is, it hasn�t passed from the kind of hostility that the French put down in Algeria after 1945 to the kind of hostility the French couldn�t put down in Algeria after 1954.


Yet, when we read, as we did today, in the Washington Post, the establishment estimate of our "progress" in Iraq, the spirit of McNamara starts howling through the halls. A Brookings Institute fellow, Michael O'Hanlen introduces us to some Ur McNamara technical analysis -- especially in terms of the lethality of our responses to hostile forces -- that the old man himself must admire.

"As for Baathist remnants of Saddam's regime, they are diminishing with time as coalition forces attack and arrest them. For example, in the region north of Baghdad now run by Gen. Ray Odierno's 4th Infantry Division, some 600 fighters have been killed and 2,500 arrested in recent months. Not all of these are Baathists, to be sure, but with such attrition rates, a group of fighters that probably numbered 10,000 to 20,000 at peak strength will decline significantly over time -- especially because it has no appealing ideology with which to attract more members (unless we so mishandle the operation as to make anti-Americanism that rallying ideology -- a prospect that remains unlikely at present, given our plans to intensify reconstruction efforts and turn over power to Iraqis quickly.) "

Notice the crock of these stats -- the 10,000 to 20,000, pulled out of a hat -- the number of killed, which is interesting insofar as the military has refused, so far, to give numbers of enemy dead -- and the final clause, with its heavy breathing pre-supposition that the Americans so obviously represent good that there should be no problem. Well, let's see, if I were trying to find a rallying ideology against the Americans, what would I say? Oh, perhaps something about how they are selling off Iraq's national property and supporting Israel against our Moslem brothers. Right off hand. But of course ... we know that story won't work. Hasn't Wolfowitz told us it won't work?

What to say? Except that these people are so amazingly incompetent that one wonders, were they ever really, like ... educated somewhere?

Monday, October 06, 2003

Bollettino

Israel's strike against Syria poses a real question for Iraq -- although this angle seems to have wholly escaped the American press. The neo-con dream was to create, wholesale, a country that could accept an Israel that had absorbed the West Bank and shipped the pesky Palestinians to Jordan. However, this idea was and is crazy. It's shred of plausibility stems from Saddam resentment. Under Saddam, support for the Palestinians created a lot of that -- understandably so, given that the tyrant granted more money to the family of Palestinian martyrs than the average Iraqi could make in a year under the brainless system of looting that was Saddam's notion of the national economy. And one didn't have to be a genius to figure out that the money going to the martyrs was plunging the Palestinian state into an uncontrollable confrontation with a stronger power that wouldn't hesitate on killing two or three Palestinians for every Israeli killed.

That said, there is no way that any Arab nation is going to revert to 30s truckling to a Western colonial agenda. Personally, LI doubts that Israel is serious about attacking Syria -- bombing an empty camp was more of a gesture than a strike, and it was meant for home consumption. Sharon was signalling his one saleable characteristic -- his toughness -- to an audience that has to suffer the consequences of his career long effort to eliminate the "Palestinian menace" by any means possible. Sharon has brought the war home to every home in Israel, without successfully stemming the intifada. In normal circumstances, that failure would have long ago left him in the dust. But there is a special madness that reigns in besieged states -- it is the madness that does not reckon on the success or failure of strategies, but rather bets everything on the visceral reactions attendent on the momentary carrying out of the violent act. Retaliation feels good. Helplessness doesn't. Politics gets down, here, to two choices in the endocrinal system. That the retaliation feeds the helplessness is a view that is just too exterior, too cold, to be accessed in the moment. Sharon exists on that organic amphetimine surge. Given that, he could well decide to initiate other attacks, for instance in Lebanon, or against Iran, just in order to survive, politically. There's something ironic in this. Sharon is the most typically Middle Eastern leader Israel has ever had -- he is Israel's Nassar. And not from Nassar's golden period -- more from the decline, more from the late sixties.

Now, if Sharon acts to promote his interests in this way, it would surely provoke a reaction in Iraq. That the Bush administration seems blind to this is typical of the absurd way the Pentagon (which, by the grace of Bush's ignorance, is in charge of policy, here) has gone about reforming the Middle East without bothering to know anything about the Middle East.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Bollettino

Blues and hard ons. That's the stuff your modern PharmaFrankenstein conglomerate battens onto, like a garbage fly taking on slime. Take GlaxoSmithKlein. Here's a multi-billion dollar, global corporation that sees, in this world of malaria, hepatitis C, and cancer a real growth opportunity in next generation Paxil and its newest drug, Levitra, to combat that truly fatal disorder, the unruly penis:


"The company says it plans to hold a meeting for analysts on Dec. 3 to describe in detail all the new drugs it hopes to roll out, including an AIDS drug and a medicine for incontinence, both of which are under review by the Food and Drug Administration. "If I can deliver this pipeline, the creation of value will be enormous," Dr. Garnier said. Convincing investors that the future is bright is crucial for Glaxo because the next several years don't look so good. Generics are threatening the company's biggest sellers, including the anti-depressant Paxil. The company's historical lead in AIDS drugs is slipping. And while its newest drug, Levitra for erectile dysfunction, is doing well, the company has few other potential big sellers ready for introduction in the next two years."

The Times story about Glaxo's failure to deliver on the 'synergies" that were supposed to power the merger that created the firm in 2000 takes aim at the problems in the laboratory -- problems at the heart of the Pharma industry. The Times angle is that these problems are organizational -- different lab routines, priorities and projects got tossed together, and that mix, along with the imperative to cut costs and raise profits, has devastated the 'intangible" knowledge structure that supports drug innovation.

But buried in the piece is an interesting graf that throws a light upon the announcements newspapers trot out almost every day about this or that medical breakthrough:

"Mergers are hardly the only reason Glaxo and its competitors have produced so few new medicines. The science of drug development has become tougher. New technologies like robotic screening machines that rapidly test millions of chemical compounds against biological targets have not worked as well as industry executives hoped. And the avalanche of genetic information created over the last several years has led to more confusion than clarity."

Shades of James Le Fanu, the British doctor whose book, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, was reviewed, with enthusiasm, years ago by LI. Le Fanu pointed out some startling things. For one thing, accident has played far more of a part in the history of drug development than anybody wants to admit. From the accidents that were capitalized on in the invention of Penicillin, to the vast, random experiment of administering a variety of chemicals to a host of humans during world war two -- which was the basis for the post-war discovery of the first anti-psychotic drugs, and of cortisone. Le Fanu was also very scoriating about genetic medicine and about epidemiology. Actually, he might have been a little too scoriating about both. However, there might be something to his sense that natural selection is not something that can be completely modeled by a computer algorithm. The "biological targets" that are aimed at by the "millions of chemical compounds" give us a sense of the still prevailing model of linear processes that bedevils expert systems. If these were really "targets," then surely throwing a million darts would hit one of them. But of course, this is a very foolish way to envision predator prey relationships. It is a very foolish way of modeling both genetic and pathogenic diseases.

For more about Le Fanu, here's our review

There is an economic moral, too, to be drawn from Glaxo's problems. A major argument of those who support BigPharma, like Andrew Sullivan, is that the free market cannot be trusted to encourage drug innovation. Of course, Andrew Sullivan types say just the opposite -- however, if you parse their prose, what they are really saying is that Pharma companies should enjoy extended monopolies on their Intellectual Property. This means essentially closing down the market in generic drugs. The argument goes something like this: because the lab work to produce a pharmaceutical is so costly, and because the tests and bureaucracy that intervene before the drug gets to market are also so costly, pharmaceutical companies should enjoy a longer period of monopoly in order to recoop their investments. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the fact that other salient avenues of cost cutting make it more likely that a pharmaceutical company will use that monopolistic advantage not to find new drugs, but to piggyback on successful older drugs. This, after all, is the ultimate cost cutter. Monopoly, in other words, creates a vicious incentive. That incentive would be abolished if, in fact, we encouraged a healthier market in generics. That we are contemplating allowing generic drugs to be imported from Canada that can't be manufactured here points to the convolutions by which Pharmaceutical companies have successfully blocked the real working of a free market economy. Remember, Adam Smith was much more concerned about the pernicious effects of monopoly than he was about State intervention in the economy per se: in fact, Smith pointed out that it the use of monopoly was precisely the preferred State method for economic intervention. At least in the realm of the health industry, we need a return to Smith.