Monday, August 27, 2001

Remora

Companeros - I'm going to Mexico City today, and won't be back for a week. This will probably be my last post until the 7th.
I'm going down there to visit my friend, Miruna, and her husband, Rodrigo. Their daughter, Constanza, will be one year old tomorrow. Imagine - I'm told she has gotten too old for her bouncy-bounce, which was her favorite thing to do in the morning when I visited them in January. From her seat, dangling in the doorway in the kitchen, she could preside, with appropriate shrieks, over the coffee being brewed there, and the reading of the morning's Jornada.

Back then, staying upright on the sofa was a job - not one Constanza particularly liked. But even during the two weeks I was there, she was visibly gaining motor skills. Or at least she was getting good at balancing herself upright. Now I'm told she's an ace crawler. My god, she'll be walking pretty soon. The biped thing. She is traversing worlds. I write fiction when I can, and one of my reasons for doing so is to timidly pierce that separation between myself, centered in this world, and other selves, centered in their worlds, and centrally private within them - at some lone point, untouched. This fascinates me - this separateness of people, the vegetable/animal/material aspect in the word, "grow."
Not that Constanza's growth is anybody's growth - she is already probably making gestures and seeing things in a way that will characterize her throughout her life. The dim index to which we unconsciously refer - the memory encoded in our gaits and ways of tilting our heads.
Enough of this.
Supposedly, tomorrow's itinerary will include the zoo.

On another front:
I know there will be those of you - one of you - maybe half of one of you - who will miss my daily harangues. Other visitors to this site might want to look into the archives. One of these days I am going to post a sort of index, so that visitors interested in Plutarch can visit the Plutarch posts, and those interested in Nirvana can visit the Nirvana posts, and so on.
Farewell for now.
Remora

Every once in a while, I think of Ulrike Meinhof.
Of course, when the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades and Direct Action were doing primal political therapy by planting bombs and having shootouts with police, I was an American teenager, thinking that listening to old Bob Dylan albums was an act of extreme bohemianism. Besides, I was a conservative teenager - my folks were Republicans, and until I was in college, my heros were William F. Buckley and Solzhenitsyn.

At the same time, though, I was a romantic - I still am, essentially - so that I always understood the terrorist position, which is that politics is always a subset of drama, and that it should be judged by the same standards. A polis that was stagnant, smug, self-satisfied - that was, in short, dramatically uninteresting - was, if one investigated it, usually living on buried crimes. The uninteresting, in other words, is motivated - and the motivations for it are often not uninteresting. In fact, they are often events of a signally bloody and bitter nature. I was a teen reader of Dostoevsky - I absorbed the atmosphere of the Dostoevskian novel, I understood the desperation of his heros, their sense that the air was being sucked out of their lives and that they had to do something - they had to do something major - because I felt the same way, living in a Georgia suburb, feeling myself dimished by every church picnic and pep rally. Yeah, I was a self-important little creep, but on the other hand, I really think it is good to develop the feeling of self-importance if you are an outsider. And it is never clearer that you are an outsider or an insider than in your teen years. In Dostoevsky, there was always the melodrama, there was always the action which seemed to exactly parallel the metaphysical issues. But when his characters come to do a major thing, it always ended up as a minor homicide: the breaking of pawnbrokers, dissolute old men, ex-revolutionaries in provincial towns. These murders were, indeed, lurid, but the light they shed, once committed, was incommensurate with the expectation one had, the projects leading up to them. Planning the murder, the perpetrators seemed outsized, but doing the murder, trying to get away with the murder, the perpetrators seemed tawdry. One meant to strike at the face of God, and one ends up burying a shovel. It is all so sad and disgraceful.

I was reminded of these things by an essay by Paul Berman in the latest New Republic. He mentions, in passing, something I didn't know - that one of the victims of the RAF (popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang) was himself an unindicted former SS officer.

"Of the many crimes committed by the Red Army Fraction, the most famous of all was the cold-blooded execution of Hans-Martin Schleyer, the president of the West German employers' federation, who turned out to have been a top SS officer in Prague during the Nazi occupation."

There are a few sites devoted to the Baader-Meinhof gang on the web. In a sense, these sites are about a time that seems incredibly dated - the motives and lifes of these terrorists seem as far away as the motives and lives of the levelers in 1640s England. Here's a beautiful, eerie scene form Ulrike Meinhof's life. it is 1972. She has been captured by the police.

"Meinhof is transferred from Ossendorf Prison to Zweibr�cken Prison to take part in an identification line-up. Meinhof is determined to ruin the process by screaming "I'M ULRIKE MEINHOF!" The police instruct the other women in the line-up to follow suit; the witnesses are treated the unforgettable spectacle of six women screaming and clawing at their guards; five impostors and one true criminal all screaming hysterically: "SWINE!" "THIS IS ALL JUST A SHOW!" and "I AM ULRIKE MEINHOF"

I am still moved and puzzled by these people, though. I went through a period, in my twenties, when I thought Dostoevsky was below me - that Nabokov's judgement (N. opined that Dostoevsky was not only a bad writer, but a rather disgusting one) was just. I now believe that Nabokov is not only the lesser artist, but the reason that he is a lesser artist is wrapped up in his inability to appreciate Dostoevsky. It is the key to his failure to ever write a novel as good as Belyi's Petersburg.

It is easy for me to dig down to a level in which my alarm and melancholy about the cultural debasement of the USA, and the American tendency to not only shun contrition, but to actually express pride about the crimes of America's past - about the source of so muich of Europe's wealth - the arms sales, the encouragement of the worst third world dictators, the alternative of ostracism or savagery meted out to anyone who challenges the status quo - overwhelms my reason, making me think that there was something right about the Meinhofs of the world. That there was a justification in all this dionysian bloodshedding.
Well, there is always a justification for bloodshedding. I can enter that level, but, luckily for me, I can't stay there very long. They were shallow thinkers, moralists of the visceral response, and their crimes easily dwindled into a private vindicativeness far from the grander political action which they dreamed to unfold - the children of Nechaev, not so different, really, in their justification of every crime, from their brothers and sisters who took managerial positions with multi-nationals and were able to justify every enclosure of land, every theft of mineral rights, with some dumb allusion to economic theory. Yes, a historic dead-end, Nechaev, Ulrike, Baader who were, nevertheless so necessary to literature. In the case of the sixties radicals, though, their poet was Delillo - a writer of a much different sensibility than Dostoevsky. Although, come to think of it, they both share a very paranoid mindset.

Sunday, August 26, 2001

Remora

Tony Blair is finally getting a bit of resistance in his party for trying to complete the Thatcher revolution. Usually a good Marxist would have some French Revolutionary analogy at hand - you know, Blair is playing the Demoulins to John Major's Lafayette, or some obscure thing like that - but there is nothing I can think of at the moment. Roy Hattersley has a nice denunciation of Blair in today's Observer. Key grafs

"...during the general election campaign Tony Blair was asked on television why he was not prepared to increase taxes on the rich in order to help the poor.

He replied that increasing the top rates of income tax would drive entrepreneurs from the country - without explaining that they would be unlikely to go to those other European Union members where both direct taxes and gross domestic product are higher than in Britain.

The second part of his answer must have chilled thousands of Labour Party members to the bone. The object of his policy was, he said, a general expansion in wealth. If that happened the higher earners would drag the poor along behind them. The Labour Party now believes in the trickle-down effect."

Warning about this article: Hattersley makes some batty remarks about inherited traits. His opposition to Blair avails itself of a pseudo-science that makes me uncomfortable. But at least there is some striking out at today's appalling Labour party. Meanwhile, the Tories are floundering about, with Clarke and Smith going at it like mudwrestlers on a sinking lifeboat. Which is a shame, because there are serious problems with the Europe Idea, and nobody is going to represent them. Duncan Smith is of course a joke, and his problem with Europe is basically, well, Europeans live there. The typical xenophobia of the retarded right wing. And that will be a great cover for advocates of Europe to get across an un-democratic program that, in a thousand ways, de-politicizes the economy - in other words, invests its control even more firmly in the hands of speculators, CEOs, and central bankers.
Remora

John McNeil at Genomeweb reports that the headlines last June (like the NYT'S Genetic Code of Human Life Is Cracked by Scientists) were a little premature. We don't have a final count of human genes, yet. All that stir last year - it is rather like announcing that men have landed on the moon, and then finding out, a year later, that they actually have gotten very close to the moon.

Bringing up the always interesting question, what was behind the hype?

Here's the graf from McNeil's article.

"Writing in a letter to the editor of Cell , a group of scientists led by Michael Cooke and John Bogenesch at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, together with researchers at the Scripps Research Institute, said a comparison of the two published versions of the human genome showed for the first time that they have only about 16,000 genes in common. Thus, if the two teams of researchers have accurately predicted their additional 26,000 genes, the total number of genes should equal at least 42,000. "



Dope

I read a rather dismal piece by the anthropologist Robin Fox today, in the London Review of Books. Fox, who is the head of the Anthropology department at Rutgers, reviewed the biography of Colin Turnbull, the man who studied the Ik and the Mbuti Pygmies. Turnbull's book on the Ik, The Mountain People, became famous in the seventies. It supposedly showed a people who had lost any claim to humanity - a people reduced, by starvation, perhaps, to an appalling, Hobbesian state of man against man (und Gott gegen alles). This view of the Ik was dramatized by Peter Brooks and was well propagated, even though it was based on a faulty observation of the Ik by an openly prejudiced man who advocated a form of cultural genocide being practiced against these people.

Turnbull's earlier book about the Pygmies had stressed how good they were, in tacit comparison, especially, to the civilized Westerner. But the Mountain People, with its supposedly tough minded debunking of the Noble Savage myth, won the support of people like Robert Ardrey. In the seventies, along with the beginning of socio-biology, an anthropological school arose which claimed to be at once scientific and tough-minded about humankind. Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox (the Rutgers Team) were early and vocal adherents of this school, and of course Ardrey was a big fellow travelor. They introduce each others books, they write about each other - you know, the clique thing. Napoleon Chagnon is another member in not so good standing, now - but his book on the Yanomamo expressed the world view of this ostensibly scientifically minded group rather well in the seventies. These people held that- when you look at primitive human groups - this group had no problem with the word primitive - you'll find violence and power struggles. You won't find cooperation or altruism. And that is how humans are.

Now, one's immediate question is: why is the Hobbesian view more "scientific" than what Fox calls the Rousseauist view? That's a good question. In Fox's review of Turnbull, he contrasts the professional, scientific anthropologist with the subjectivism of the Margaret Mead's and Colin Turnbull's. He also sounds a note common to all the anthropologists of his tribe. It is that contemporary society is dominated by the view that human beings are innately good, and that this view is projected on primitive tribes to show that they have one or another outstanding virtue.

Let's take the later claim first. My response to it is: are Fox and his kind out of their minds? His evidence for the idea that we believe in the innate goodness of human beings seems to come from desultory discussions in the faculty lounge. Maybe Fox should take a look at concrete, even, dare I say it, objective social phenomena and ask himself - does this reflect a society which believes in the innate goodness of man? The first exhibit, of course, would be the over one trillion dollars spent in this country alone to amass a tidy 20 to 40 thousand or so nuclear missiles, and the popular perception that this amount of weaponry can blow up the world. He might want to look at TV news casts - especially local newscasts - and add up how much news is devoted to violence, and how much to, say, works of charity. He might want to check out the standard curriculum of the American high school. In my day, it leaned heavily to Lord of the Flies kind of books - emphasizing a point which is obvious to the average adolecent, that we are born under a bad sign. Far from having disappeared, the notion of original sin, in this culture, has ramified itself in dozens of ways. In fact, this makes anthropological sense - the disappearance of a cultural trope as common in this culture as original sin really would be a surprise.

Why would an anthropologist claim otherwise? The motif for this rhetorical move is resentment. It provides a story line in bad faith, casting such as Fox as embattled, or somehow minority, intellectuals - when in fact they are quite powerful, very networked intellectuals. It presents their opponents not only as wrong, but powerful - which of course creates the question characterstic of the politics of resentment -- how did the bad get to be powerful? There's a fascinating ritual here - a mimicry of victimage by people who are not, in any sense of the word, victims. But as this ritual plays out, increasingly any challenge to the Fox worldview is immediately interpreted as violence. In this way, a group which makes the claim to be scientific engages in a discourse that is anything but.


Because Fox's review isn't on the Net, I'm not going to play ping pong with it on this post. Instead, lets go to another example of the misuse of the word science which is generally in keeping with the school of Fox, Tiger, et al. There's a piece in the April Scientific American that is a perfect expression of the use of science, and the connotations evoked by that word, to disguise a merely ideological construct.

It was written by Michael Shermer, who labels himself as a Skeptic. If Shermer is a skeptic, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Shermer mounts a defense of Napoleon Chagnon against a book published by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado. Tierney's book, briefly, attacks Chagnon for a number of reasons.
1. He accuses Chagnon of provoking violence by the means he used to get information.
2. He accuses Chagnon of being criminally careless in gathering together Yamomami Indians in 'festivals" that Chagnon filmed, knowing that some of the Indians were infected with measels.
3. He subjects Chagnon's facts and figures to a long and complicated critique. This part of the book extends for a good one hundred pages, and even includes a humorous table showing the dates when Chagnon promised to supply his data for various article he has written, and the date when that data was actually revealed. The latter date is -- it hasn't been revealed yet. A considerable portion of Chagnon's data set, even from the seventies, has still not been made available to other researchers.

Shermer begins his defense by his interpretation of Tierney's attack. He simplifies Tierney's points into one over-riding point: that Chagnon falsely labels the Yanomamo as Violent People. Here is Shermer's response.

' Humans are not easily pigeonholed into such clear-cut categories. The nature and intensity of our behavior depend on a host of biological, social and historical variables. Chagnon understands this. Tierney does not. Thus, Darkness in El Dorado fails not just because he didn't get the story straight (there are countless factual errors and distortions in the book) but because the book is predicated on a misunderstanding of how science works and of the difference between anecdotes (on which Tierney's book is based) and statistical trends (on which Chagnon's book depends). "

It is the last sentence I want to highlight here. Shermer's distinction is deeply meretricious, and, I think, syptomatic of how evolutionary anthropologists have distorted the word science.

To say that Tierney's book is based on anecdotes is rather funny, especially when contrasted with "statistical trends." What are Chagnon's statistical trends? Well, when you track them down, they are... anecdotes. Chagnon collected a number of stories about murders. There are no police among the Yamomami - his stories about murders depend on informants. As do his other stories about violent acts. From this base, he produced his statistics. Schermer must believe that quantifying over stories given one by informants somehow transforms the anecdote into science. That belief is, to say the least, not very skeptical.

In fact, the anecdote/science distinction is bogus, anyway. To report an occurence in a laboratory is, in one sense, to relate an anecdote. Hopefully, it is an anecdote that contains information that allows for the reconstruction of the occurence. Measurement alone is not science. I can count my fingers all day, but that doesn't make me a hand specialist. When Chagnon does quantify his research, they have a tendency to, let us say, exhibit grossly peculiar patterns. For instance, as Tierney shows, Chagnon's statistics on violence among the Yamomami show that violence among males INCREASES with age -- which, if true, would make the Yamomami a unique case. Or take the statistics on lineage based upon the blood samples taken by Chagnon and his partner, James Neel, in the sixties. According to Neel, these blood samples show a very low percentage of illegitimacy. That is, the husbands of Yamomami women usually turned out to be the real biological fathers of their children. Two things should be said about this. One is that the blood samples were taken before the technique of DNA fingerprinting was developed; so Neal and Chagnon necessarily had to use the much more unreliable blood type technique. But the other thing to say is -- what does legitimacy mean in a polyandrous society? Especially given Chagnon's own account of the prevelance of rape among the Yamomami, it is hard to know what to make of the evidence of the blood types. It is hard to know, in other words, without a supporting context of anecdotes - information from informers.

As for Tierney's countless factual errors - well, this is a stone that the friends of Napoleon Chagnon might not want to launch. His record is filled with matters of fact and conclusions that are violently disputed by others in the field, like Douglas Good and Brian Ferguson. His attitude towards evidence is bizarrely territorial - he seems to believe that information is about loyalty rather than objective fact. His tendency to accuse his opponents of Marxism doesn't help, either.

I once planned to do an extensive review of Tierney's book, but I never got around to it. A pity. One of these days, I will track the fallacies of evolutionary psychology and its allies (socio-biology and evolutionary anthropology) down, and shoot them. Bang bang bang - clay pigeons, all. In front of all of the readers of this site.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...