“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

Saturday, February 23, 2008

I'm alive, he cried

I think it must be: starve a fever. At least, that is the course I’ve taken in the last few days. LI has been down with the flu. We’ve been living in a world of biomorphic distortions and inexplicable lapses of time, much like the narrator of Le Très-Haut. We’ve crammed ourselves with Tylonals, sudafeds, and cough suppressants – the latter of which still does not bar the dog from our door. The dog that is making that godawful din, growling, whining and barking, which shoots out of our mouth and rattle our bones. Possessed by a demon dog and condemned to walk the reaches of the night.

Yesterday we had to finish a review. It couldn’t be put off any longer. Such agony! Usually reviewing a novel combines putting together a flow sheet with a few remarks from our distinguished panel of judges. But instead of bright and spritely flow, every sentence we wrote seemed a peculiar and malicious bog, in which we would sink up to our chin. And then, by mainforce, we’d go forward by another sentence, and so on. The funny thing is that the review, which in the end was pretty bare and barren, is probably just the thing our editor is looking for – we are always being edited back to a paint by numbers, thumb up or thumb down format, there. Sadly, people actually expect reviews to be thumb up or thumb down affairs, when the faithful reviewer could truly care less about whether a review is positive or negative. No, the real reviewer has a wholly surgical objective: to peel back the skin and muscle from the heart cavity and reach in and touch the beating, quivering center of the book. That is reviewer’s coup. Which is why the question I am most often asked about my reviews is – but did you like the book?

Well, I have answered a few questions this week. One question is: how much food does a man have to consume in a day? And the answer is: a can of tomato soup every two days is sufficient. However, I have this creeping feeling that my fast is about to break.

And here comes sickness...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the oligarchy

For those among you who love (as much as LI loves!) xrays of the oligarchy, I strongly advise John Cassidy’s article in the March Portfolio.

---Your freedom is garbage!
---It is the freedom of the majority!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

the mathematical theory of the struggle for life

"If sharks were people,” the small daughter of his landlady asked Mr. K., would they then be nicer to the small fish?” – Brecht, Wenn die Haifische Menschen wären

Continuing LI’s notes on the predator/prey relationship – we discovered, through one of Machery’s essays, that a famous essay by Volterra had caught Raymond Queneau’s eye, and was mentioned in his 1943 essay, The place of mathematics in the classification of the sciences, which begins like this: “In its relations with mathemtics, every science passes through the following four phases (four as of now, perhaps five tomorrow)” – which elegantly combines the academic and the Groucho Marxian. Queneau briefly surveys the sciences, claims that physics has gone through three of his stages, already, and then writes: “This is the ideal stage for the scientists of the late nineteenth century. The other sciences reamin far behind in this regard. Only very limited subjects are treated by this method: in biology, the theory of the fight for life; in sociology, econometrics. These two examples furthermore show that there is no incompatibility between the analytic method and the life sciences. The delay is in part explained by the fact that such an application apparently offers no problem to be resolved from the mathematical point of view, and so no potential for discovery; mathematicians thus soon lost interest in these theoretical fields, which offered no grist for their mill. if the theory of the fight for life was developed by Volterra, it’s because it ultimately led to integro-differential equations worthy of interest.”

The explanation from mathematical banality might not quite have been the whole story, or at least LI can’t see it. But it is a nice story, nonetheless. The essay arose out of a project Queneau was working on in July 1942 (terrible months to encounter the struggle for life): Brouillon projet d’une atteinte a une science absolue de l’histoire, (sketch for a project for an attempt at an absolute science of history) of which Voltarra’s Lecons sur la theorie methematique de la lutte pour la vie was going to be one of the main sources, and Vico, Bruck, William Flinders Petrie, Spengler, “authors who believed they could discern rhythms or cycles in history” would be the other.” In the Model History in which Queneau jotted down these reminiscences, he also wrote: “if there had never been any wars or revolutions, there would never have been any history; there wouldn’t be any matter for history; history would be without an object… happy people have no history. History is the science of the misery of mankind.”

Most people have heard of the Volterra-Lotka equations, which show how predator-prey relations should oscillate around an ideal equilibrium over time, all other conditions being equal, and how that oscillation takes on four states. Queneau’s idea that, perhaps, these predator-prey states are strung out over human history is startling.

The Plan 9 from outer space Party

Yesterday, I figured it out.

I’ve been wondering if the GOP was serious. They are actually going to nominate this guy?

For a number of years, LI has used the term zombie to denote those who support George Bush. It seemed like a pertinent insult – after all, these were people who have confused a war with a tailgate party. Their sense of unearned entitlement is only equaled by their contempt for liberty. Their lumbering walk through many a comments thread gave meaning to the term, 'self-administered lobotomy'.

But I had thought that the Republican party honchos had a certain amount of control. They would feed the doggies what they damned well pleased.

But – in a final coup de theâtre of massive incompetence – Bush’s toxicity has apparently affected the party itself. John McCain is such a lemon that no amount of media fluffing will get beyond the fact that he seems to be doing standup on the Ed Sullivan show of yore. He is very very of yore.

Which is why I have decided that this the GOP’s version of Plan 9 from outer space. Compare McCain’s fifties-ish patter (and his impulse to surround himself with the doddering and the demented) to this clip of Ed Wood. Surely, McCain is stealing his routine from the amazing Kreskin, seen at the end of this clip. While I believe the zombie’s will swallow nearly everything, I refuse to believe they are going to rally so that we can elect the amazing Kreskin to that tv spectacular, White House idol.

Perhaps, not being a tv watcher, I am presuming too much on my own eye. After all, via you tube clips of the Chelsea Handler show, I've learned that Dancing with the Stars is a hit. That's, well, quite a shock - Americans, I always thought, were way too sophisticated to watch stuff that the yahoo Euro tv networks put on - so maybe this is a bad sign. I just don't see McCain, however, going anywhere but down.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

social animal 2

“Submitting to the influence of the considerable scientific progress of the second half of the nineteenth century – Bertillon’s anthropometric measurements, the discovery of fingerprints for the utilization of the police by Galton – the detective novel substituted proof by indexes for proof by witness.”

- Dominique Viart, The imaginary of signs at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Viart’s essay on signs is an attempt, in a brief space, to come to terms with Eco’s claim that the sign existed, basically, as a secondary or minor vehicle for other major conceptual themes (of language, of reason, of logic) up until the beginning of the 20th century. Viart references the success of a new kind of detective novel that traced signs into the past – back to the primary scene of some crime.

There is, of course, no better testimony to the moment in which the eyewitness becomes subordinate to the trace than M, Franz Lang’s film. Of course, the trace and the eyewitness, in correspondence to the law that all opposites shall dance the Moonwalk to a joyous sound played on an ocarina in the black heart of a dead deconstructionist, mutually exclude each other by mutually presupposing each other, and teach the Mosaic law as it came down to Wittgenstein – can your right hand steal from your left hand? (when the Mosaic law was transmitted through Wittgenstein, it came out as a series of questions. Which poses the question, is it possible to create a code of law in which every rule is a question?) But to return to M – you will remember, LI readers, that the eyewitness to Peter Lorre’s child murderer is a blind man. What he witnesses is a conjunction of sounds – the sound of a voice he heard, the sound of a little girl’s voice. The viewer witnesses a ball and a balloon. The blind man tells a fake blind beggar about the man, and the fake blind beggar marks Hans Beckert (Lorre) with the fatal M. Surely more than one Lacanian, orgasming uncontrollably, has had to be ushered sternly out of the movie house whilst watching the famous scene when Lorre turns and sees the M chalked on the back of his coat in the mirror.

Which take us back to Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on Freud, Morelli and Holmes. After cross cutting quotes from Morelli to Sherlock Holmes to Freud, Ginzburg makes his first point like this:

“We have outlined an analogy between the methods of Morelli, of Holmes, and of Freud. We have mentioned the connection between Morelli and Holmes, and that between Morelli and Freud. The peculiar similarities between the activities of Holmes and Freud have been discussed by Steven Marcus (1976:x-xi). 15 Freud himself, by the way, told a patient (the "Wolf-Man") how interested he was in Sherlock Holmes’s stories. When, however, in the spring of 1913, a colleague of his (T. Reik) suggested a parallel between the psychoanalytic method and Holmes's method, Freud replied expressing his admiration of Morelli's technique as a connoisseur. In all three cases tiny details provide the key to a deeper reality, inaccessible by other methods. These details may be symptoms, for Freud, or clues, for Holmes, or features of paintings, for Morelli (Gardiner 1971:146; Reik 1949:24).

How do we explain the triple analogy? There is an obvious answer. Freud was a doctor; Morelli had a degree in medicine; Conan Doyle had been a doctor before settling down to write. In all three cases we can invoke the model of medical semiotics or symptomatology-the discipline which permits diagnosis, though the disease cannot be directly observed, on the basis of superficial symptoms or signs, often irrelevant to the eye of the layman, or even of Dr. Watson. (Incidentally, the Holmes-Watson pair, the sharp-eyed detective and the obtuse doctor, represents the splitting of a single character, one of the youthful Conan Doyle's professors, famous for his diagnostic ability.) But it is not simply a matter of biographical coincidences. Toward the end of the nineteenth century (more precisely, the decade 1870-1880), this “semiotic” approach, a paradigm or model based on the interpretation of clues, had become increasingly influential in the field of human sciences. Its roots, however, were far more ancient.

Remember we started with footprints. Our signs go back to myths, and our myths go back to footprints – as Ginzburg remarks, there is a Chinese legend that the first letters were copied from the track of a wading bird through the sand.

“Or abandoning the realms of myth and hypothesis for that of documented history, there are undoubtedly striking analogies between the hunters' model we have been developing and the model implicit in the texts of Mesopotamian divination, which date from at least 3,000 years B.C. (Boterro 1974). Both require minute examination of the real, however trivial, to uncover the traces of events which the observer cannot directly experience. Droppings, footprints, hairs, feathers, in the one case; innards, drops of oil in water, stars, involuntary movements in the other. It is true that the second group, unlike the first, could be extended indefinitely, since the Mesopotamian diviners read signs of future in more or less anything. But to our eyes another difference matters more: the fact that divination pointed toward the future, while the hunter’s deciphering pointed towards he actual past—albeit occurring a few instants before. Yet in terms of understanding, the approach in each case was much alike; the intellectual stages—analysis, comparison, classification—identical, at least in theory. But only, of course, in theory: the social contexts were quite different. In particular, It has been observed that the invention of writing must have had a great effect on Mesopotamian divination (Bottero 1974:154ff.). Mesopotamian gods had, besides other kingly prerogatives, the power of communication with their subjects through written messages-on stars, human bodies, everywhere -which the diviners had the task of deciphering. (This was an idea which in turn over thousands of years would flow into the image of "the book of nature") And the identification and divination with the deciphering of characters divinely inscribed was reinforced in real life by the pictographic character of this early writing, "cuneiform"; it too, like divination, conveyed one thing through another.”

I seem to be going off track, here, from our original theme – the groove in this record – of the social animal, but this is because one thinks of the hunter and the prey as being, somehow, alone. And that is because we live far from the real hunts and chases. But the notion of the social animal begins not just with language, but with something to tell and some way to tell it. It begins with organization. This is why Pliny’s story of the elephants passing down the herd line an impress of a human footprint should give us a certain shock – much like the shock Peter Lorre gets from seeing himself in the mirror. It is the shock of being prey, not predator. The shock pulls us back.

I’ll try to get to this again, soon.

The Bob-fest

LI has been so pressed this week that our ambition – to advance a little along the line of the theme of the social animal – has been totally fucked. Fortunately, we’ve spent the last two days attending lectures at the Bob-fest – the conference commemorating Robert Solomon. The academic custom of reading papers at conferences, as anybody knows who has actually gone to a conference and had papers read to him or her, is not exactly the most exciting activity in the world. It ranks somewhere around TV coverage of the Tour de France – long stretches of time go by without anything seeming to happen, and then everybody gets briefly excited, and then ennui stretches out again. This conference was a bit more personal, a bit more eccentric, and instead of the standard way of asking questions, those with questions and comments would go down, at the end of the panel, to the panel table and sit around and speak. I did not hear all sessions, but of the four I heard, the highlight was surely the paper read by my friend, Janet McCracken, entitled " Grief and the Mnemonics of Places: A Thank You Note", which ranged over the funeral games in the Iliad to the place of the dog at Zoroastrian funeral rituals to connect a number of seemingly disparate topics – the dead as companions, the need to mark the earth for the dead, the relation of the human and the animal (and, especially, that subclass of domesticated animal, pets) from the perspective of death. I’m merely flying over the paper giving its grosser features, but McCracken’s paper was just the kind of Shandian essay I wrote about last week, re Ian Hacking’s paper on cyborgs.

Afterwards, I was in a group around McCracken, talking about animals, and of course animal intelligence, and we all sort of marveled that animal intelligence is always measured by seeing how close animals can come to human intelligence. That is surely wrong. An ant or dog or whale born with a human brain would quickly die. Intelligence, if it has any meaning at all, is connected to animal existence, and so one would want to produce a number of intelligence models fitting different animals. As a counterpart on tests of, say, the human intelligence achievable by parrots, it would be interesting to see how close humans can approach to parrot intelligence. Of course, it is pretty difficult to probe into parrot intelligence, but surely we can devise models for parrot seeing, hearing and flight such that they could be fed into a virtual environment, in which we could insert a human subject.

So, LI was not wholly negligent of the social animal theme we so abruptly aborted.

Later, thinking of animals, humans and intelligence, it struck me that one of the reasons I have problems with the machine model of humans and animals is that, in my experience, those who are best with machines – engineers, for instance – are really piss poor at human relationships. My old man, for instance, became pretty well known in the HVAC field. He had a certain diagnostic genius for what was wrong with, say, a 13,500 BTU roof unit that had been underperforming. He could track a ductwork problem down to its malign root. And yet, he couldn’t read the face of a man who was obviously trying to con him out of ten thousand dollars – a situation that my old man faced, alas, all too frequently, as he seemed to be on some list of gulls passed around in the confidence game. As for women, well, forget it. This is, of course, an absurdly limited sample – but I have met a lot of engineers in my life, and a lot of people who make their money repairing machines. It seems to me that generally an inverse relationship held between psychological insightfulness and mechanical ability. Although I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule – my brothers, for instance, are both engineer/repair men, and both of them are fairly interested in what makes human beings tick (which already distinguishes them from most IBM engineers I’ve met). One has adopted an attitude of therapeutic nihilism – since it is impossible to rely on rule based behavior, here, it is foolish to judge – while the other is more inclined to a sympathy theory, and is very good at empathizing and advising – as I well know.

Obviously, this is touch and go evidence, a set of ordinary superstitions. But it does perhaps point to a nuance in the relationship between biology and positivism in the 19th century – given a certain notion of social engineering that went with utilitarianism and was carried into the scientific ideology of the late nineteenth century, biology was often the science from whence sprang the dissenters. Scientific psychology, in order to gain credibility, often veered closer to engineering than to biology. And this made a lot of difference.