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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Signaling Humanity on The Road

It could be that I'm you're run-of-the-mill, desensitized American male, but I didn't get what the big deal was about cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" when I read it a couple years ago. Watching the movie, though, I had William Flesch's "Comeuppance" in mind, and I saw that there was a struggle, often between father and son but sometimes within each of them, to maintain their humanity in the face of such devastation. I suppose I understood this while first reading the book, but the struggle to remain "strong reciprocators" seemed somewhat beside the point, what with all the grieving and starvation and all. But Papa's and the boy's "carrying the fire" is important precisely because of these difficulties.

One criticism of Flesch's theory keeps rearing its head in my mind (a head rearing in my mind?): costly signaling, like that of the man and his son as they survive while also continuing to be strong reciprocators, is an explanation for many non-adaptive behaviors. But as I look around at the world and see more and more examples of costly signaling I have to wonder, what isn't costly signaling? Is the idea testable? Does incorporating it into the paradigm of natural selection render that theory untestable? The problem here is that costly signaling is too broad of a concept, one whose precise mechanics I've yet to see spelled out.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

From Rags to Republican

One of the dishwashers at the restaurant where I work likes to light-heartedly discuss politics with me. “How are things this week on the left?” he might ask. Not even in his twenties yet, he can impressively explain why it’s wrong to conflate communism with Stalinism. He believes the best government would be a communist one, but until we figure out how to establish it, our best option is to go republican. He loves Rush Limbaugh. One day I was talking about disparities in school funding when he began telling about why he doesn’t think that sort of thing is important. “I did horribly in school, but I decided I wanted to learn on my own.”

He went on to tell me about a terrible period he went through growing up, after his parents got divorced and his mother was left nearly destitute. The young dishwater had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. The story struck me because about two weeks earlier I’d been discussing politics with a customer in the dinning room who told a remarkably similar one. He was eating with his wife and their new baby. When I disagreed with him that Obama’s election was a national catastrophe he began an impromptu lecture on conservative ideology. I interrupted him, saying, “I understand top-down economics; I just don’t agree with it.” But when I started to explain the bottom-up theory, he interrupted me with a story about how his mom was on food stamps and they had nothing when he was a kid, and yet here he is, a well-to-do father (he even put a number on his prosperity). “I’m walking proof that it is possible.”

I can go on and on with more examples. It seems like the moment anyone takes up the mantle of economic conservatism for the first time he (usually males) has to put together one of these rags-to-riches stories. I guess I could do it too, with just a little exaggeration. “My first memories are of living in government subsidized apartments, and my parents argued about money almost every day of my life when I was a kid, and then they got divorced and I was devastated—I put on weight until I was morbidly obese and I went to a psychologist for depression because I missed a month of school in fourth grade.” (Actually, that’s not exaggerated at all.)

The point we’re supposed to take away is that hardship is good and that no matter how bad being poor may appear it’s nothing a good work ethic can’t fix. Invariably, the Horatio Alger proceeds to the non sequitur that his making it out of poverty means it’s a bad idea for us as a society to invest in programs to help the poor. Push him by asking what if the poverty he experienced wasn’t as bad as the worst poverty in the country, or where that work ethic that saved him came from, and he’ll most likely shift gears and start explaining that becoming a productive citizen is a matter of incentives.

The logic runs: if you give money to people who aren’t working, you’re taking away the main incentive they had to get off their asses and go to work. Likewise, if you take money away from the people who have earned it by taxing them, you’re giving them a disincentive to continue being productive. This a folksy version of a Skinner Box: you get the pigeons to do whatever tricks you want by rewarding them with food pellets when they get close to performing them correctly—“successive approximations” of the behavior—and punishing them by not giving them food pellets when they go astray. What’s shocking is that this is as sophisticated as the great Reagan Revolution ever got. It’s a psychological theory that was recognized as too simplistic in the 1950’s writ large to explain the economy. What if people can make money in ways other than going to work, say, by selling drugs? The conservatives’ answer—more police, harsher punishments. But what if money isn’t the only reward people respond to? And what if prison doesn’t work like it’s supposed to?

The main appeal, I think, to Skinner Box Economics is that it says, in effect, don’t worry about having more than other people because you’ve earned what you have. You deserve it. What a relief to hear that we have more because we’re just better people. We needn’t work ourselves up over the wretched plight of the have-nots; if they really wanted to, they could have everything we have. To keep this line of reasoning afloat you need to buoy it up with a bit of elitism: so maybe offering everyone the same incentives won’t make everyone rich, but the smartest and most industrious people will be alright. If you’re doing alright, then you must be smart and industrious. And if you’re filthy rich, say, Wall Street banker rich, then, well, you must be one amazing S.O.B. How much money you have becomes an index of how virtuous you are as a person. And some people are so amazing in fact that the worst thing society can do is hold them back in any way, because their prosperity is so awesome it benefits everyone—it trickles down. There you have it, a rationale for letting rich people do whatever they want, and leaving poor people to their own devices to pull up their own damn bootstraps. This is the thinking that has led to even our democratic president believing that he needs to pander to Wall Street to save the economy. This is conservatism. And it’s so silly no adult should entertain it for more than a moment.

A philosophy that further empowers the powerful, that justifies the holding of power over the masses of the less powerful, ought to be appealing to anyone who actually has power. But it’s remarkable how well these ideas trickle down to the rest of us. One way to account for the assimilation of Skinner Box Economics among the middle class is that it is the middle class; people in it still have to justify being more privileged than those in the lower classes. But the real draw probably has little to do with any recognition of one’s actual circumstances; it relies rather on a large-scale obliviousness of them. Psychologists have been documenting for years the power of two biases we all fall prey to that have bearing on our economic thinking: the first is the self-serving bias, according to which we take credit any time we succeed at something but point to forces beyond our control whenever we fail. One of the best examples of the self-serving bias is research showing that the percentage of people who believe themselves to be better-than-average drivers is in the nineties—even among those who’ve recently been at fault in a traffic accident. (Sounds like Wall Street.) The second bias, which is the flipside of the first, is the fundamental attribution error, according to which we privilege attributions of persistent character traits to other people in explaining their behavior at the expense of external, situational factors—when someone cuts us off while we’re driving we immediately conclude that person is a jerk, even though we attribute the same type of behavior in ourselves to our being late for a meeting.

Any line of thinking that leads one away from the comforting belief in his or her own infinite capacity for self-determination will inevitably fail to take hold in the minds of those who rely on intuition as a standard of truth. That’s why the conservative ideology is such an incoherent mess: on the one hand, you’re trying to create a scientific model for how the economy works (or doesn’t), but on the other you’re trying not only to leave intact people’s faith in free will but also to bolster it, to elevate it to the status of linchpin to the entire worldview. But free will and determinism don’t mix, and unless you resort to religious concepts of non-material souls there’s no place to locate free will in the natural world. The very notion of free will is self-serving to anyone at all successful in his or her life—and that’s why self-determination, in the face of extreme adversity, is fetishized by the right. That’s why every conservative has a rags-to-riches story to offer as proof of the true nature of economic forces.

The real wonder of the widespread appeal of conservatism is the enormous capacity it suggests we all have for taking our advantages for granted. Most people bristle when you even use the words advantage or privilege—as if you’re undermining their worth or authenticity as a person. But the advantages middle class people enjoy are glaring and undeniable. Sure, many of us were raised by single mothers who went through periods of hardship. I’d say most of us, though, had grandparents around who were willing to lend a helping hand here and there. And even if these grandparents didn’t provide loans or handouts they did provide the cultural capital that makes us recognizable to other middle class people as part of the tribe. What makes conservative rags-to-riches stories impossible prima facie is that the people telling them know the plot elements so well, meaning someone taught them the virtue of self-reliance, and they tell them in standard American English, with mouths full of shiny, straight teeth, in accents that belie the story’s gist. It may not seem, in hindsight, that they were comfortably ensconced in the middle class, but at the very least they were surrounded by middle class people, and benefiting from their attention.

You might be tempted to conclude that the role of contingency is left out of conservative ideology, but that’s not really the case. Contingency in the form of bad luck is incorporated into conservative thinking in the form of the very narratives of triumph over adversity that are offered as proof of the fatherly wisdom of the free market. In this way, the ideology is inextricably bound to the storyteller’s authenticity as a person. I suffered and toiled, the storyteller reasons, and therefore my accomplishments are genuine, my character strong. The corollary to this personal investment in what is no longer merely an economic theory is that any dawning awareness of people in worse circumstances than those endured and overcome by the authentic man or woman will be resisted as a threat to that authenticity. If they were to accept that they had it better or easier than some, then their victories would be invalidated. They are thus highly motivated to discount, or simply not to notice contingencies like generational or cultural advantages.

I’ve yet to hear a rags-to-riches story that begins with a malnourished and overstressed mother giving birth prematurely to a cognitively impaired and immuno-compromised baby, and continues with a malnourished and neglected childhood in underperforming schools where not a teacher nor a classmate can be found who places any real value on education, and ends with the hard-working, intelligent person you see in front of you, who makes a pretty decent income and is raising a proud, healthy family. Severely impoverished people live a different world, and however bad we middle-class toilers think we’ve had it we should never be so callous and oblivious to claim we’ve seen and mastered that world. But Skinner Box Economics doesn’t just fail because some of us are born less able to perform successive approximations of the various tricks of productivity; it fails because it’s based on an inadequate theory of human motivation. Rewards and punishments work to determine our behavior to be sure, but the only people who sit around calculating outcomes and navigating incentives and disincentives with a constant eye toward the bottom line are the rich executives who benefit most from a general acceptance of supply-side economics.

The main cultural disadvantage for people growing up in poor families in poor neighborhoods is that the individuals who are likely to serve as role models there will seldom be the beacons of middle-class virtue we stupidly expect our incentive structure to produce. When I was growing up, I looked up to my older brothers, and wanted to do whatever they were doing. And I looked up to an older neighbor kid, whose influence led me to race bikes at local parks. Later my role models were Jean Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I got into martial arts and physical fitness. Soon thereafter, I began to idolize novelists and scientists. Skinnerian behaviorism has been supplanted in the social sciences by theories emphasizing the importance of observational learning, as well as the undeniable role of basic drives like the one for status-seeking. Primatologist Frans de Waal, for instance, has proposed a theory for cultural transmission—in both apes and humans—called BIOL, for bonding and identification based observational learning. What this theory suggests is that our personalities are largely determined by a proclivity for seeking out high-status individuals whom we admire, assimilating their values and beliefs, and emulating their behavior. Absent a paragon of the Calvinist work ethic, no amount of incentives is going to turn a child into the type of person who tells conservative rags-to-riches stories.

The thing to take away from these stories is usually that there is a figure or two who perform admirably in them—the single mom, the determined dad, the charismatic teacher. And the message isn’t about economics at all but about culture and family. Conservatives tout the sanctity of family and the importance of good parenting but when they come face-to-face with the products of poor parenting they see only the products of bad decisions. Middle class parents go to agonizing lengths to ensure their children grow up in good neighborhoods and attend good schools but suggest to them that how well someone behaves is a function of how much they have—how much love and attention, how much healthy food and access to doctors, how much they can count on their struggles being worthwhile—and those same middle class parents will warn you about the dangers of making excuses.

The real proof of how well conservative policies work is not to be found in anecdotes, no matter how numerous; it’s in measures of social mobility. The story these measures tell about the effects of moving farther to the right as a country contrast rather starkly with all the rags-to-Republican tales of personal heroism. But then numbers aren’t really stories; there’s no authenticity and self-congratulation to be gleaned from statistics; and if it’s really true that we owe our prosperity to chance, well, that’s just depressing—and discouraging. We can take some encouragement for our stories of hardship though. We just have to take note of how often the evidence they provide for poverty—food stamps, rent-controlled housing—are in fact government programs to aid the impoverished. They must be working.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The First Whole-World Problem in History

As I’m watching and listening to coverage of Copenhagen every day, while at the same time seeing clips of Big Oil Senator James Inhofe maintaining that nothing will be agreed upon by way of curbing emissions in the US Congress, and even seeing the giant of skepticism James the-seemingly-not-so-Amazing-anymore Randi joining ranks with the deniers, it occurs to me that this is the first truly whole-world problem in history. It’s no wonder there’s so much finger-pointing, responsibility dodging and blame denying. When has it ever been the case before that what one nation did affected not just one region, as in the case of outsourcing or colonialism, but the whole world? And it’s not just what any one nation does; it’s what every nation does. This is precisely what lies behind the denialists’ claims that the global warming issue is really a ruse to establish some chimerical New World Order or World Government. The fact that we’re having such a hard time coming to any kind of agreement on how to deal with the problem, which truly does demand a response from every nation in the world, belies the notion that such an elaborate hoax could ever be pulled off.

A whole-world problem—and the key to solving it is to get everyone to acknowledge it. But of course some people, some businesses, have more to lose once it is universally acknowledged than others. When concern about global warming was new, it was understandable that fossil fuel companies would be hold-outs longer than other sectors, even that the US, with its economy so dependent on oil, would be the last to come around. Something new and disturbing is happening today though. Industry channels millions of dollars into PR firms and so-called think tanks like Cato, and when any one person first makes the decision to invest in this kind of commercial and ideological “research” he or she must realize that the “findings” will be highly dubious, not to mention intentionally deceptive. But then somewhere along the line the industry as a whole decides to take the talking points seriously—to treat them as if they were real science. Soon the initial step of hiring the PR firms and commissioning the think tanks is forgotten altogether, and it’s a matter of “Our knowledge is as a good as your knowledge,” a shoppers’ paradise of ideas, a postmodern nightmare.

Maybe it’s not so remarkable that industries can so effectively delude themselves since, after all, individuals do it every day. What is remarkable, though, is how effectively they’ve enlisted so many people who aren’t even part of those industries to trumpet their patently contrived talking points—and to do it with such zeal. In past entries, I’ve hinted at some possible explanations for how this conversion and near-radicalization of ordinary citizens is accomplished. But I like to point out that, though it’s part of the denialists litany of canards that global warming is religion, it seems to me what the PR people have exploited in so many conservatives is their own cherished beliefs in the omnipotence and benevolence of the invisible hand of the free market and in the omnipotence and benevolence of America. Aren’t these beliefs much closer to a religion than the belief that carbon dioxide is rapidly accumulating in the troposphere (measurable, measured, verified), trapping heat from the sun (measurable, measured, verified), and causing the global average temperature to increase (amen?).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Cost of Denying the Abyss: Signals of Selfishness and Altruism in Death in Venice 4th and Final Part

Read from the beginning
It is Tadzio’s role as a paragon of prosociality that makes his less than perfect teeth so striking to Aschenbach. When he first notices that the boys’ teeth are “not as attractive as they might have been,” he sees it as a sign that he is “sickly” and that he will “probably not live to grow old” (51). For some reason this thought provides him with a “feeling of satisfaction or relief,” perhaps because it allays some of the envy he feels for the boy, which is naturally already much allayed simply by dint of his being a child. Later, when Tadzio is playing on the beach with his friend Jashu, he is described as looking at the other boy and “smiling with eyes and lips” (60). And, when it happens by chance that Aschenbach and Tadzio actually come face-to-face and the young boy smiles at the old man, he can barely stand it. “You mustn’t smile like that!” he imagines saying. “One mustn’t, do you hear, mustn’t smile like that at anyone!” (67). The symbolism of teeth in Death in Venice is close to that of language: Aschenbach comes to know that “Eros dwells in language” (62) as he sits writing an essay that has been inspired by the boy’s beauty. Language itself is an inherently social adaptation. But the old writer uses it only in isolation. Likewise, teeth serve both the self-directed function of mastication and the other-directed one of conveying emotion.

Aschenbach at the beginning only sees virtue in the artist who “clenches his teeth in proud shame” (30) as he sacrifices himself, like St. Sebastian, to his art. But it was, in fact, the appearance of an exotic traveler’s teeth, bared aggressively, that brought about the “extraordinary expansion of his inner self” (25) that culminates in his trip to Venice. What he can’t stand about Tadzio’s smile is that it shows the happiness that comes with human interaction. Near the end of the novella, after he’s had his epiphanic vision of the bacchanal overtaking the mountains with “a human and animal swarm” (81), and after the narrator says that he “no longer feared the observant eyes of other people” (82), he is prepared to accept this message of the dual-purpose of teeth—and language—from the barber who is trying to convince him to dye his hair: “If certain people who profess moral disapproval of cosmetics were to be logical enough to extend such rigorous principles to their teeth, the result would be rather disgusting” (83).
But Tadzio serves as a major character in a novella that hews to an aesthetic of verisimilitude, so there must be more to him than what he symbolizes. What Mann suggests in the story is that Aschenbach is genuinely attracted to the boy for his classical beauty. From this initial admiration, his obsession could simply have developed as a result of his hitherto un-volunteered emotions finding a convenient object. From this perspective, the absence of Tadzio’s father is significant because it means there is less threat of violent reprisal for his stalking of the boy. Aschenbach is a social cripple. While he is simply incapable of meaningfully conversing and interacting with adults, he is morally and artistically bound not to get too close to the young boy. At one of the few points where he considers taking the plunge, he balks because he fears it would lead “to a wholesome disenchantment,” and “the fact now seemed to be that the aging lover no longer wished to be disenchanted, that the intoxication was too precious to him” (63). His solitary existence has been suffocating him so long that he’s glad for even this unfulfilling and forbidden interaction at a distance.

And the two do indeed interact. It seems the influence between them isn’t just in the direction of sociable boy to aloof man either; it goes the other way as well. When the street band plays outside the hotel, Aschenbach is horrified by the guitarist’s violation of “artistic distance” (76) as he works the crowd, a social artist without the slightest concern for dignity. While the rest of the crowd laughs, Aschenbach remains serious, and to his surprise he sees Tadzio, sitting on a balcony across from him, is “returning his glance,” and

"had remained no less serious than himself, just as if he were regulating his attitude and expression by those of the older man, and as if the general mood had no power over him while Aschenbach kept aloof from it" (76).
A few days later, on what will be his last day on the beach, Aschenbach witnesses a fight between Tadzio and his subservient friend Jashu. The weaker but higher-status boy throws sand in the face of the stronger, submissive one. Jashu wrestles Tadzio to the ground and presses his face into the sand until he is nearly suffocated. After the tussle, Tadzio sulks away, waving off all gestures of remorse and refusing all pleas for forgiveness. The last thing Aschenbach sees before his death is the boy he loved for his social nature standing alone on a small island with his back to his friends. As he loses consciousness, he imagines the young boy summoning him, not to himself but out toward the sea, the abyss, beyond.

Aschenbach ultimately fails to save Tadzio by informing his mother of the epidemic because he lacks the strength to redeem himself. The idea of returning to the sterility of his disciplined solitude appeals to him no more than resigning himself to death from cholera. Even though he considers telling Tadzio’s mother to leave Venice with her family, “a decent action which would cleanse his conscience,” and which would also signal his altruism, he never goes through with it because it would “give him back to himself again” (80). He thus becomes a second-order free-rider by failing to punish the Venetian authorities who are covering up the crisis to protect their income from tourists. But he will get what’s coming to him. He will pay the price for his fame and for the mistake embodied in the art that purchased it for him; he pays for trying to deny his affinity with the abyss—and in doing so he signals his creator’s acknowledgement of it.

Of the considerations which recommend Flesch’s theory about our emotional engagement with literature, perhaps the most compelling is that if it is valid it would lead to the inevitable conclusion that we in fact don’t need a theory, either Flesch’s or anyone else’s, to enjoy narratives. (A theory that argues for its own superfluity—how’s that for costly signaling?) And it is difficult to imagine someone reading Death in Venice for the first time and not vacillating between pity and disgust at each new development of Aschenbach’s predicament, not wondering what Thomas Mann meant in having his character go on at such overblown length about the nature of art, not shuffling among multiple hypotheses about Mann’s feelings toward Aschenbach, and not dreading the possibility that Tadzio might be harmed in some way, his innocence compromised, dreading it almost as much for the sake of Aschenbach as for the boy himself because it would be so catastrophic for both of them. It is difficult to imagine anyone laying the book down and then having a casual conversation about it that didn’t focus on these concerns.

But, if the theory does have validity, it would not suggest that all works ought to be equally accessible to all readers, and part of the appeal of Death in Venice is that it is multifaceted enough to prompt innumerable conversations, casual and otherwise, assuming those reading it have the wherewithal to appreciate its niceties. After all, our ability to appreciate the most sophisticated texts is a form of honest signaling onto itself. In addition to sophistication, Mann’s novella also provides us an opportunity to signal our own strong reciprocity by caring what type of character Achenbach turns out to be—and what type of author Thomas Mann was. In the end, though, the characters in any given story need not lend themselves to easy analysis in terms of strong reciprocity; many of the most fascinating characters, from Milton’s Satan, to Bronte’s Heathcliff, even to the pirate Jack Sparrow, demonstrate dynamic mixes of selfish and altruistic behavior. But what will they do when it really matters?

Monday, December 14, 2009

An Evolutionary Approach to Death in Venice Part 3

Read from the beginning
Flesch follows theorists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi in positing what they call “the handicap principle” as an explanation for how strong reciprocity could evolve and persist in animal populations. As is evident from people’s behavior in The Ultimatum Game, they are willing to pay a price, in other words to handicap themselves, for the sake of fairness. What makes the handicap effective as a signal is that the individual who imposes it on him- or herself must be able to survive with the added burden. The peacock signals his fitness with his elaborate feathers because only a fit individual could drag around such a cumbersome display. (Conspicuous consumption is the human financial analog.) Humans, on the other hand, signal their fitness, and thus enhance their reputations, by taking on the costs of rewarding fellow altruists, and even more so by punishing defectors. Flesch calls this “costly signaling.” And it explains the emphasis Mann places on the costs incurred by Aschenbach in the service of his art. But does Aschenbach’s writing somehow signal his strong reciprocity?

Death in Venice is at base a narrative exploration of the nature of art and how it affects the life of the artist. It must be borne in mind that even as we are assessing Aschenbach’s work for signs of strong reciprocity we are simultaneously assessing the work of Thomas Mann for the same quality. This observation suggests the possibility that, altruistic as Aschenbach may have believed he was in the beginning of the story, Mann may be signaling to us, his readers, his own altruism by punishing his character for his wrongheaded approach to art. In Flesch’s words, “The story tells a story of punishment; the story punishes as story; the storyteller represents him- or herself as an altruistic punisher by telling it” (83). We in turn signal our own strong reciprocity by volunteering affect for the characters, in the case of Aschenbach a feeling of suspicion and indignation at the beginning—assuming we disagree with his theories of art—and perhaps even a pleasurable anticipation of comeuppance for him. By the end of the story, though, what we feel for him is more likely to be pity. Aschenbach won much of his acclaim as the author of a work called A Study in Abjection, which reflects his decision to “repudiate knowledge” (32). The story is described as

"an outbreak of disgust against an age indecently undermined by psychology and represented by the figure of that spiritless, witless semiscoundrel who cheats his way into a destiny of sorts when, motivated by his own ineptitude and depravity and ethical whimsicality, he drives his wife into the arms of a callow youth—convinced that his intellectual depths entitle him to behave
with contemptible baseness" (32).

It seems the story was about a second-order free-rider who failed or refused to punish two defectors. And the story itself was the punishment of the second-order free-rider by a third-order observer. So, Aschenbach is indeed a moralist, a strong reciprocator, by he is a moralist of a certain type:

"The forthright words of condemnation which here weighed vileness in the balance and found it wanting—they proclaimed their writer’s renunciation of all moral skepticism, of every kind of sympathy with the abyss; they declared his repudiation of the laxity of that compassionate principle which holds that to understand all is to forgive all" (32).

The principle Aschenbach adheres to in the place of understanding and forgiveness is Frederick the Great’s “durchhalten!” (29), which signals his determination to rise above his own disadvantages, to trumpet “the heroism of weakness” (31). This Anti-Enlightenment attitude is all but indistinguishable from conservative ideology at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. And it may even be that with the novella Mann is signaling not just his strong reciprocity and his aesthetic philosophy, but also his political beliefs.

The closing section of the novella can be seen as a refutation of the theory of art expounded in the second chapter. Aschenbach, it seems, has overcompensated for the undignified, unmanly nature of his work by applying to it a militaristically strenuous ethos. Over time, this intense rigor has dried his well of creativity, and his existence has become unbearably sterile. The turn he takes over the course of the plot is toward greater fertility. Unfortunately, he lacks the wisdom to balance his unruly social emotions with his eagerness to maintain his dignity.

"There he sat, the master, the artist who had achieved dignity, the author of A Study in Abjection, he who in such paradigmatically pure form had repudiated intellectual vagrancy and the murky depths, who had proclaimed his renunciation of all sympathy with the abyss, who had weighed vileness in the balance and found it wanting; he who had risen so high, who had set his face against his own sophistication, grown out of all his irony, and taken on the commitments of one whom the public trusted; he, whose fame was official, whose name had been ennobled, and on whose style young boys were taught to model their own" (85).

Some critics cite these lines as evidence that the narrator is taking a step away from the character and establishing an ironic distance (Furst 167). According to this reading, Mann has witnessed his protagonist’s dejection in the face of overwhelming temptation, and is taking an opportunity to signal to his readers that he doesn’t condone this acquiescence but is merely narrating it. But the statement that Aschenbach had successfully “grown out of all his irony” in the midst of such an ironic sentence belies that reading. And that he goes on to deliver, in his imagination at least, a discourse on what he’s discovered through the course of his journey to be the true nature of art further suggests the inextricability of the narration from Aschenbach’s thoughts.

In the lines about the former dignified master, Mann is maintaining the free indirect style of narration he’s used throughout the story. The early respect and admiration evinced by the narrator is a reflection of Aschenbach’s high opinion of himself, and when this opinion turns sour it isn’t a signal that the narrator is abandoning him, but that he simply has come to think ill of himself. (A comparison of the narrative style of Death in Venice with that of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary may be of future interest.) In an earlier scene, Mann even locates the source of Aschenbach’s self-doubts. The love-stricken man is standing in the hallway of the hotel, leaning his head against the door to listen for Tadzio’s voice, and running “the risk of being surprised and discovered in this insane situation” (71). This risk calls to mind his ancestors, to whom he habitually rehearses the list of his achievements so that he can assure himself of “the respect they could not have withheld.” But naturally he’s worried about what they might say about his present circumstances.

"But for that matter, what would they have said about his entire life, a life that had deviated from theirs to the point of degeneracy, this life of his in the compulsive service of art, this life about
which he himself, adopting the civic values of his forefathers, had once let fall such mocking observations" (71).

Aschenbach’s militaristic approach to his writing has been a reaction to his abiding uncertainty about the value, the manly dignity, of any life devoted to art. He wants to prove to himself that he is living up to the standards and ideals of his heroic ancestors. And yet, here he is, shamefully infatuated with a young boy he lacks the social grace even to greet casually. We may feel pity for him at this point, but to do so, ironically, we must apply that same principle, “to understand all is to forgive all” (32), he himself has so strenuously repudiated. This is his comeuppance.

In his discourse to Phaedrus near the end of the novella, Aschenbach has to admit to the young boy, and to himself, that “though we may be heroes in our fashion and disciplined warriors, yet we are like women, for it is passion that exalts us,” and that “we writers can be neither wise nor dignified” (85). And, despite his earlier renunciation, he now recognizes that he “has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss” (86). The great author’s downfall can be read as the inevitable result of his long repression of this tendency. But it can also be read as a demonstration of the real dangers all artists must face, the costs that will ensue should they fail to strike a proper balance between disciplined solitude and passionate abandon. As the story begins, Aschenbach’s work is described as tending “toward the exemplary and definitive, the fastidiously conventional, the conservative and formal and even formulaic” (33). This description is remarkable for its distance from the work in which it is found, and thus it fails to imply the approval the author—here at the beginning of the story is where the narrator’s ironic distance is most in evidence. And since the distance between Aschenbach and Thomas Mann is established early on, the two men’s views of art can actually be seen as converging at the end of the novella, though Mann probably intended to imply that Aschenbach is overcompensating in the opposite direction in his move toward acknowledging his kinship with the abyss.

But is Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio merely a punishment exacted by an unsympathetic contriver of the plot that is his fate? When he first glimpses the young boy, it is in the presence of several of his sisters, a governess, and later his mother. This absence of an adult male figure may be noteworthy in light of the narrator’s earlier emphasis on the fact that Aschenbach, though once married and father to a girl, “never had a son” (33). As noted earlier, his feelings for the boy are at one point described as “a paternal fondness” (51). In many ways, Tadzio is nothing like the old man: he has long, blond, curly hair, compared with Aschenbach’s short, dark hair; he gives off an “air of richness and indulgence” (44), while Achenbach is all austerity and restraint; he is a “lie-abed” (46) while the old man gets up early to work; most importantly, Tadzio is always surrounded with companions, while Aschenbach had “grown up by himself, without companions,” and because of his physical weakness “medical advice and care made school attendance impossible” (29). Tellingly, after first seeing Tadzio and watching him on the beach that first time, he goes back to his hotel room, where

"he spent some time in front of the looking glass studying his gray hair, his weary sharp-featured face. At that moment he thought of his fame, reflected that many people recognized him on the streets and would gaze at him respectfully, saluting the unerring and graceful power of his language—he recalled the external successes he could think of that his talent had brought him,
even calling to mind his elevation to nobility" (51).

What Aschenbach has just become aware of through comparing himself to the boy is that Tadzio is prosocial—he even volunteers some punitive affect, a mild altruistic punishment on behalf of his Polish countrymen, to a Russian family sharing the beach when he signals them by “glaring forth a black message of hatred” (49)—while he, despite his fame, is utterly friendless and his days are devoted solely to his own selfish endeavors. In many ways, Tadzio is his conduit from his northern, solitary, disciplined, and even antiseptic existence to the southern world that is crowded, indulgent, and, it turns out, infected. When he acknowledges his love for the boy is when his famously closed fist opens in “a gesture that gladly bade welcome” (57).
Read part 4

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Literary Darwinism and Death in Venice Part 2

Read from the beginning
At one point, Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, and the famous author is “so deeply shaken that he was forced to flee” (67). The poor man nearly collapses hyperventilating.

Whether the character is wrestling with a temptation to molest the boy or not, however, it may seem as though Mann has gone far afield of the domain accessible to evolutionary biology, especially in light of the Achenbach’s ultimate fate in the story. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson map this domain in their introduction to the essay collection The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. The authors whose work they’ve included in the book focus on three main questions: “First, what is literature about?” (xxv), in other words, what can an evolutionary approach tell us about the contents of literary work? Gottschall and Wilson preview the answer, suggesting that “survival and reproduction are ‘on the minds’ of all species that have minds and should dominate the stories of the one speaks and writes.” Joseph Carroll’s contribution to the collection, “Human Nature and Literary Meaning,” exemplifies this approach. Carroll goes so far as to schematize seven of what he terms “behavioral systems” into a diagram of human interests we can expect to find in successful stories (89).

The elements of Death in Venice critics like Carroll would probably emphasize are Aschenbach’s concern for his status, his awareness of his parents’ legacy, and his own “paternal fondness” (51) for Tadzio. However, Tadzio is not in fact Aschenbach’s son, meaning the older man has no genetic interest in the boy. And, though “Mating” is on Carroll’s diagram, pederasty really doesn’t have any place on it. A case could be made that Tadzio somehow hijacks Aschenbach’s parenting system, and that his mating system, though misdirected, is still functioning. But the explanatory power of the model is further diminished by each of these exceptions—as well as the one represented by the “Survival” system. And the second question addressed by the authors of Literary Animal, “what is literary for?” (xxv), the question of function, poses its own problems for readings of Mann’s novella. In her essay, “Reverse-Engineering Narrative,” Michelle Scalise Sugiyama argues that our proclivity to tell and attend to stories evolved as “a low-cost, readily available means of amplifying social experiences” (189). This didactic function may also overlap with one akin to play or exercise, leading to “a feedback loop between storytelling and theory of mind: storytelling may help build or strengthen theory of mind, which in turn enriches storytelling, with further enriches theory of mind, and so on” (189). As intriguing as this idea is, it can only account for stories about people in general, and say much about why any specific story is more compelling than any other. The third question posed in The Literary Animal is what would an application of a scientific epistemology to literature look like? But to my knowledge no research that even approaches the rigor of science has been conducted on Death in Venice.

William Flesch makes a significant advance for evolutionary theories of literature by not focusing on either content or function; instead his interest lies in what he calls “narrative interest,” which he defines as “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). In concentrating on why we experience anxiety and other emotions—what he calls “volunteered affect”—Flesch is moving into the realm of phenomenology (but he fortunately steers clear of the absurd obscurantism of past theorists in that realm). Merely by attempting to explain this experience of what he, along with several of the authors in The Literary Animal, recognizes as a “cultural universal,” he is effectively countering Eagleton’s argument about the necessity of theory. Indeed, Donald Brown reports in his book Human Universals, everywhere we know there are people, we have good evidence that they routinely immerse themselves in stories, even if many of them take much more rudimentary forms than the most sophisticated world literature. There are several other research programs that have demonstrated the immediacy of our experience with narratives. One study that was conducted after Flesch’s book was published found that “Different neural systems track changes in the situation of a story” (Speer et al. 989). The interesting thing about these different neural systems is that they aren’t all associated with language. “Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities” (989). What this study and others like it suggest is that, contra Poststructuralism, we take meaning from language by referencing it against our experiences—experience and meaning may be inseparable, but experience takes precedence.

But why should our brains be so engaged with the activities of fictional characters? Why, for that matter, should so much of our minds be devoted to following what even real people do? Flesch takes another important step toward a viable theory of narrative engagement when he eschews what is known as “The Selfish Gene” approach to ethology, named for the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins. According to this view, all behavior is the end result of a chain of causation ending with the genotype of the individual performing the behavior. The corollary to this assumption is that all behavior must somehow serve the genes that are its ultimate cause. So, for instance, any behavior which appears to benefit another individual can usually be shown to favor the genes of the one performing it. The two main examples or this genetic selfishness resulting in apparent altruism are inclusive fitness, whereby individuals favor relatives because they are likely to carry many of the same genes, including the ones causing the behavior, and reciprocal altruism, whereby individuals engage in tit-for-tat or quid pro quo exchanges with non-related others. Recent theorists, however, most notably Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson (the co-editor of The Literary Animal), and Robert Axelrod, have developed models in which cooperation rather than selfishness, genetic or otherwise, is the norm. And these models have held up against, partly because they were informed by, tests of real human behavior.

The problem with cooperation within a group is that as soon as it is established individuals can benefit themselves (and their genes) by treating the cooperators selfishly—i.e. by cheating. From the selfish gene perspective, selection at the level of the group is all but impossible because “group boundaries,” in Flesch’s words, “are too porous” (5). Any population in which acting for the benefit of the group is the norm will almost certainly be infiltrated by individuals acting for their own benefit. To conceptualize and test the various models of cooperation, many biologists use a scenario borrowed from the economic field of “Game Theory” known as “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” The prisoner is arrested with one of his accomplices, from whom he is immediately separated so that they have no chance to communicate. Each prisoner then has the option either to confess or to keep quiet. If neither prisoner confesses—i.e. if they cooperate—they will each serve a meager one-year sentence. But if the first prisoner keeps quiet while the second confesses, then the first gets twenty years and the second goes free. This scenario simulates the conditions under which small benefits accrue to cooperators, but there is much more to be gained by cheating. If they both confess, they each get five years. Cooperation can still take hold over multiple iterations if the prisoners simply remember how their accomplices responded to the dilemma in the past. Reciprocal altruism is what develops in the scenarios when reputations for cooperating or cheating come into play. But something still more interesting happens when you put humans, who can be counted on to have not only reputations but also myriad social ties, through scenarios like the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Flesch finds an important clue to the mystery of human engagement with fictional narrative in the outcomes of experiments based on a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma called “The Ultimatum Game.” In this simple set-up, one participant is given a sum of money which he must then propose to split with another participant with the only proviso being that the receiver must accept the cut being offered. If the receiver thinks the cut is unfair, say if the proposer offers a measly ten percent, he or she can veto the offer and neither participant gets any money. The key here, as Flesch points out, is that

"It is irrational for the responder not to accept any proposed split from the proposer. The responder will always come out better by accepting than by vetoing. And yet people generally veto offers of less than 25 percent of the original sum. This means they are paying to punish" (31).

People experience this costly indignation even when they aren’t themselves the potential beneficiaries of the proposed cut. In another variation of the game called the “3-Player Dictator Game,” the first player, the dictator, receives the sum of cash and then offers the second player a cut, this time without any threat of veto. The catch is that the third player can reward or punish the other two, but to do so he or she has pay. For every dollar the third player contributes, he or she can add four dollars to the receiver or deduct four dollars from the dictator. “It is highly irrational,” Flesch observes, “for this player to pay to reward or punish, but again considerations of fairness trump rational self-interest. People do pay” (33). And it seems they actually enjoy paying. Flesch goes on to cite research showing that pleasure centers in the brain become active when people are witnessing these types of interaction and anticipating this type of punishment, which because of its cost to the punisher is called “altruistic punishment.” It has a real-world corollary in the Italian Mafia’s strictly enforced code of silence known as “omerta,” under which anyone who informs against his colleagues can expect to be killed.

Groups in which the type of behavior demonstrated by third players in dictator games, known as “strong reciprocity,” which Flesch defines as occurring when a group member “punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the social group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with reciprocator” (21-22), can sustain a norm of cooperation. On a basic level, a taxonomy can be created of different types of individual within a cooperative population: there are the cooperators, the defectors, who act solely for their own (or their genes’) interest, and punishers. Adding strong reciprocity to the equation, though, gives us what are called “second-order” players. If, for instance, an individual defects, or free-rides on the cooperation of the other group members, anyone who witnesses this behavior and fails to punish it becomes a second-order free-rider. By extrapolation, someone who fails to punish a second-order free-rider becomes a third-order one, and so on ad infinitum. So we now have a model in which individuals track each other’s behavior to see whether they are altruistic or selfish, and in which individuals are emotionally inclined to favor the altruistic and desire punishment, from first or second or however many order punishers, for the selfish, but there is one more piece of the puzzle of human cooperation, one which is integral to an evolutionary account of our interest in a character like Gustav von Aschenbach.

Death in Venice is the story of a man who has devoted himself so completely to his writing that any part of him concerned with all the other aspects of his life, and in particular his social life, has atrophied to the point of paralysis. His writing has been his grand, altruistic gesture to society, a gesture made at a great personal cost.

"Hidden away among Aschenbach’s writings was a passage directly asserting that nearly all the great things that exist owe their existence to a defiant despite: it is despite grief and anguish, despite poverty, loneliness, bodily weakness, vice and passion and a thousand inhibitions, that they have come into being at all. But this was more than an observation, it was an experience, it was positively the formula of his life and his fame" (30).
Read part 3

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Literary Darwinist Take on Death in Venice Part 1

There is comfort to be had in the orderliness of solitude, but that orderliness will be the first casualty in any encounter with other people. Such is the experience of Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s 1911 novel Death in Venice. Aschenbach has not, however, strived for solitude and order for the sake of comfort—at least not by his own account—but rather for the sake of his art, to which he has devoted himself single-mindedly, even monomaniacally, his whole life. Now, at age fifty, newly elevated to a titled status, Aschenbach has become acutely aware of all he has sacrificed on the altar of his accomplishment. The desire for fame, as philosopher David Hume explained, is paradoxically an altruistic one. At least in the short-term, no one has anything to gain from the dedication and toil that are the hallmark of ambition. And status will tend to be awarded to those whose services or accomplishments benefit society at large and not any select part of it the ambitious has special designs for or interest in. As selfish as we may seem at first glance, we humans tend to be drawn to the ambitious for the other-directedness their ambition signals.

Evolutionary Literary Critic William Flesch incorporates Hume’s argument into the theoretical framework he lays out in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, in which he posits that one of our biggest joys in reading fictional narratives derives from our capacity to track characters while anticipating rewards for the altruistic and comeuppance for the selfish. With this biological perspective in mind, Aschenbach’s fate in the course of the novel can be viewed as hinging on whether he will be able, once he’s stepped away from the lonely duty of his writing, to establish intimate relationships with real humans, as he betrays a desperate longing to do. When he ultimately fails in this endeavor, largely because he fails to commit himself to it fully, Mann has the opportunity to signal to his readers how grave the danger is that every artist, including Thomas Mann, must face as he stands at the edge of the abyss.

Mann’s novel was published at an interesting time, not just geopolitically, but in the realm of literary theory as well. Most notably, the years leading up to 1911 saw the ascendancy of Freudian psychoanalysis. Mann has even suggested that Death in Venice was at least partly inspired by Freud’s ideas (Symington, 128). And it has gone on to be re-evaluated countless times in light of not only psychoanalytic developments but of those of several other newly christened and burgeoning literary theories. Readers of this nearly hundred-year-old story may rightly ask whether it has any meaning to anyone not steeped in such paradigms, especially since the value—and validity—of literary theory in general, and psychoanalysis in particular are being questioned in many arenas. Terry Eagleton notes in the preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition of his popular Literary Theory: An Introduction that there has been “in recent times the growth of a kind of anti-theory” (vii). In the original preface to the same work, he writes:
"Some students and critics…protest that literary theory “gets in between the reader and the work.” The simple response to this is that without some kind of theory, however unreflective and implicit, we would not know what a “literary work” was in the first place, or how we were to read it" (xii).
Authors like Flesch, however, along with others who subscribe to the recently developed set of theories collectively labeled Literary Darwinism, would probably insist that Eagleton vastly underestimates just how unreflective and implicit our appreciation of narrative really is.

If there are cases, though, in which Eagleton’s argument holds up, they would probably be those works which are heavily influenced by the theories that would be referenced to interpret them, and Death in Venice certainly falls into that category. But these special cases shouldn’t overshadow the fact that when Eagleton makes the seemingly obvious point that we must have some theory of literature if we’re to make any sense of our reading, he is in fact making a rather grand assumption, one in keeping with a broader poststructuralist paradigm. According to this view, objectivity is impossible because our only real contact with the world and its inhabitants is through language. This observation, which in a banal way is indisputable—if it’s not rendered linguistically we can’t speak or write about it—takes the emphasis away from any firsthand experience with either the world or the text and affords to language the utmost power in determining our beliefs, and even our perceptions. The flipside of this linguistic or discursive determinism is that any social phenomenon we examine, from a work of fiction to the institutionalized marginalization of women and minorities, is somehow encapsulated in and promulgated through the medium of language. Poststructuralism has led many to the conclusion that the most effective remedy for such inequality and injustice consists of changing the way we talk and write about people and their relations. This political program, disparaged (accurately) by conservatives with the label “political correctness,” has been singularly ineffective.

One possible explanation for this failure is that the poststructuralists’ understanding of human nature and human knowledge is grossly off the mark. Indeed, to Eagleton’s claim that we need a theory of literature or of language to get meaning out of a novel, most linguists, cognitive neuroscientists, and any other scientist involved in the study of human behavior would simply respond nonsense. Almost all of the “structures” discursive determinists insist are encapsulated in and propagated through language are to be found elsewhere in human (and sometimes non-human) cognition and in wider cultural networks. It is perhaps a partial concession to the argument that discursive determinism can only lead to infinite regresses, and that any theory of literature must be grounded in a wider understanding of human nature, that the longest chapter of Eagleton’s book is devoted to psychoanalysis. And what could Death in Venice be if not a tale about a repressed homosexual who has achieved eminence through the disciplined sublimation of his desires into literature, but who eventually buckles under the strain and succumbs to perversion and sickness? More importantly, if Freud’s model of the unconscious has been shown to be inaccurate, and repression a mere chimera, must Mann’s novel be relegated to a category of works whose interest is solely historical? (One of the most damning refutations of Eagleton’s argument for the necessity of theory is that such a category is so difficult to fill.)

If Flesch is correct in arguing that our interest in fiction is inseparable from our propensity for tracking other people, assessing their proclivity toward altruism, and anticipating the apportionment of just deserts, Gustav von Aschenbach, who has devoted his life to solitary public service, but who through the course of the novel abandons this service and sets out on an adventure consisting of multiple potential encounters with flesh-and-blood humans, may still attract the attention of post-Freudian (or simply non-Freudian) readers. Another way to frame to the repression-sublimation-perversion dynamic central to Death in Venice is as an enactment of the benefits of an intense devotion to art being overwhelmed by its costs and risks. An excerpt that can serve as a key to unlocking the symbolism of the entire novel comes when Aschenbach is at last settled in his hotel in Venice:

"The observations and encounters of a devotee of solitude and silence are at once less distinct and more penetrating than those of the sociable man; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness. Images and perceptions which might otherwise be easily dispelled by a glance, a laugh, an exchange of comments, concern him unduly, they sink into mute depths, take on significance, become experiences, adventures, emotions. The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden "(43).

Can Aschenbach, a devotee of solitude, be considered prosocial or altruistic? He can when the fruit of his solitude is the poetic creation prized by the society as a whole. However, the plot of the story focuses more on the perverse and the forbidden, on the great man’s fall from grace. Any yet these costs are suffered, not by society, but by the artist alone, so in the end he can be seen as even more of an altruist—he is in fact a martyr. (And many a poststructuralist critic would take this opportunity to highlight the word art in the middle of martyr.)

In the lead-up to this martyrdom, however, Aschenbach toes the very selfish waters of pedophilia. What little suspense the plot has to offer comes from uncertainty over how far the august author will allow his obsession with the young boy Tadzio to take him. Are we monitoring Aschenbach to see if he gives into temptation? Interestingly, his attraction for the young boy is never explicitly described as sexual. There are suggestive lines, to be sure, especially those coming in the wake of Aschenbach’s discovery of the epidemic being covered up by the Venetian authorities. His response is to become elated.

"For to passion, as to crime, the assured everyday order and stability of things is not opportune, and any weakening of the civil structure, any chaos and disaster afflicting the world, must be welcome to it, as offering a vague hope of turning such circumstances to its advantage" (68).

This line can not only be read as proof that Aschenbach indeed has a selfish desire to satisfy, a passion awaiting the opportunity to press—or take—its advantage; it can also be seen as a piece of puzzle that was his motivation for coming to Venice in the first place. Did he gravitate to this place because of the disruption of the daily order, the chaos, it promised? Soon after the narrator refers to this “vague hope” he reveals that Aschenbach has begun doing more than merely watching Tadzio—he’s been following him around. All the while, though, the unease about whether the devotee of solitude will ever get close enough to do any sort of harm to the object of his obsession is undercut by the great pains he goes to just to keep the boy in view juxtaposed with the fact that it never seems to occur to him to simply approach and begin a conversation.
Read part 2

Money Controls the Message--Does Money Control Our Minds?

The multi-billionaires pay millions to PR firms who scientifically tailor their messages to exploit the apathy and ignorance of the middle class so the multi-billionaires can continue their collusion with that middle class in the parasitization of the generationally disadvantaged lower classes, along with the middle class itself (colluding in its own parasitization), for the short-term benefit of the multi-billionaires and the long-term detriment of everyone.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


David Biello over at Scientific American has written about the Climate Change email pseudo-scandal: "While the revelations about pressuring the peer review process and apparent slowness in responding to an avalanche of requests for information unveil something below impressive scientific and personal behavior, they can also be seen as the frustrated responses of people working on complex data under deadline while being harassed by political opponents. Note the adjective there. Political, not scientific, opponents. Because the opposition here is not grounded in any robust scientific theory or alternative hypotheses (all of those, in their time, have been shot down and nothing new has been offered in years)."

Well, of course, some of that political resistance may stem from honest scientific skepticism. Unfortunately, the source of this skepticism is anything but scientific--it's financial. James Inhofe (Republican from Oklahoma), ranking member of The Environment and Public Works Committee, had his seat in the Senate purchased for him by the oil and gas industry. (Check this out at the cite Open Secrets.) This is the guy who is calling for the investigation of the CRU. I humbly submit we investigate the hacker and see which oil company paid him and how much.

We can investigate the emails ourselves. Those pesky climate scientists are so sneaky they've gone and posted all of them on a searchable database.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


If it weren't for the fact that I've been stressed about the 20-pager I have to write for Critical Theory, and the barely started story I'm working on for Writing Fiction, I think I probably would have predicted the manufactured controversy going by the name Climategate.

The big revelation here is that there's a political dimension to science--as there is to every human endeavor. I haven't yet researched the details enough to comment intelligently, but I want to point out two things: the first is the timing, as Cap-n-trade is being debated and Copenhagen is coming up, and the second is the hypocrisy of the conservative outcry at the mere (and likely manipulated) suggestion that scientists "colluded" to prevent publication of certain papers (based on their methods, according to them, not their conclusions), while they're going around touting reports of 3200 supposed scientists who disagree with global warming findings which are downright egregious in their intentional misrepresentations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Collateral Damage in the War between Goverment and Caveman Conservatives

This past weekend, I watched Thomas Friedman on Charlie Rose and some of his comments are definitely worth discussing in the context of tribalism and conservatism. Friedman complained that American government solutions are usually suboptimal because rather than settling on any well considered plan of action the various players try to hash out compromises that will appeal to enough of the electorate to make it into law. Our programs are, therefore, the sum of all the machinations of any and all interest groups who see to fit to get involved. The Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the House health care bill is a case in point.

What worries me most about the U.S. government is its tendency toward plutocracy. As long as well funded organizations like the Christian Right are allowed to make their presence felt, not just through PR gimmicks and massive message machines, but through direct bribes to law-makers, we will continue on our downward spiral back toward the Dark Ages. If it is true that conservative economic policies lead to greater inequality in wealth, what can we expect the final outcome of greater influence for rich people to be but something resembling feudalism? If we break down the barrier between church and state, what will we have but a move toward Theocracy? Projection of military power? Attacks on science based on dubious moral reasoning?
I certainly have my problems with the U.S. government, but declaring war on it is both adolescent and dangerous. That kind of us versus them thinking makes any kind of substantial reform all but impossible. And what's the goal of such a battle? What do the small government advocates want, anarchy? If not, they must concede that there's a point where there can be too little government. But the question of how big or how small government should be is a ridiculous oversimplification.
What would be optimal here is a government that could be counted on to act in the best interest of the people it represents. Fortunately, that's exactly what the U.S. Constitution established the groundwork for. The only problem is that too many of us are drunk on religious bromides or distracted by brainless celebrity antics to pay enough attention to what's going on with our supposed leaders to make sure the worst of them don't get their second term.
"The price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance."

Enlightening the Entertainment Zombies

"What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse? Is it because we do such a miserable job in schools teaching what science is all about—that it is not a collection of facts or stories but a process for weeding out nonsense to get closer to the underlying beautiful reality of nature? Perhaps not. But I worry for the future of our democracy if a combination of a free press and democratically elected leaders cannot together somehow more effectively defend empirical reality against the onslaught of ideology and fanaticism." Lawrence M. Krauss

Friday, October 30, 2009

Paranormal Activities--a Little Too Normal

As someone who will probably never own a monster-size TV, I make a point of getting to the theater at least once every October for a scary movie on the big screen. I've watched the likes of "Frailty," "Skeleton Key," "Event Horizon," and "Slither" at home, but there's nothing like the sound and the fury of being in a theater for the full experience.

This year the movie to see is "Paranormal Activity," which has been called a "Blair Witch" in suburbia. The intended effect is definitely verisimilitude, as the film opens and ends with nary a credit, and consists entirely of the high-tech home camera recordings of Micah, the boyfriend of the demonically haunted Katie. (Micah and Katie are the real names of the actors.)

The couple are entirely believable--I feel like I know people just like them--if not altogether likable. And the plot unfolds gradually in an effort to maintain credibility by easing into the crazier scenes. (Spoiler alert!) It turns out Micah has bought the camera because some weird noises have been waking them up, and it emerges that Katie has been dealing with hauntings since she was eight years old. This latter tidbit affords Micah the leverage he needs to convince her he has a right to keep filming when she'd just as soon stop trying to catch the phenomena on tape. Micah's experimental attitude becomes a source of tension, especially when he brings home a Ouija Board, a course of action specifically mentioned by a psychic as one to be avoided, as it would just further provoke the entity.

The psychic is an interesting element. Katie calls him to the house, despite Micah's skepticism, because she is genuinely frightened by the strange occurrences. During his first visit, he establishes that the entity is not a ghost, as in the spirit of a dead human, but rather a demon. Because his specialty is ghosts, he refers the couple to another expert. Psychics referring out to specialists strikes me as a novel idea, and in the event it probably would about scare the piss out of me. Unfortunately, the demonologist is out of town.

The nighttime occurrences get more outrageous, the tension between the couple gets worse, and no one gets any sleep. The film-makers use a foreshadowing approach to making the supernatural scenes credible, so one night the camera records the blanket being pulled off of Katie's foot in preparation for the next night in which she's pulled off the bed by that same foot and dragged down the hall. As things are at this point completely out of hand, the psychic is called back. This time however he barely sets foot inside the door, so overwhelming is the demonic presence. He flees explaining that his being there will only make the demon angry.

"Paranormal Activity" had me for a while--I was in suspense and startle-ready. But over time the foreshadowing technique, which had the intensity of the demon's machinations increasing night-by-night, got tedious, so that by the final few night vision scenes my heart rate was back to normal. The height of the movie's effectiveness for me was when Micah poured baby powder all over the top of the stairs, and this allowed the couple to discover that the demon, which had three-toes like a bird or a dinosaur, had entered their room--but never left. Soon after this scene though the movie got into some very familiar territory.

The Ouija board, on its own, spelled out the name of a woman who was possessed, apparently by the same demon haunting Katie. Micah discovered her story on the Internet. This woman, Diane, died in the course of an attempted exorcism. I don't need to mention the name of the movie this brought to mind. Up to this point, there's been little by way of special effects too. But by the end we get a look at the possessed Katie making jerky motions, her face demonically distorted, and inhuman sounds coming from her. At every use of these digital effects, I was cast further out of the story. When the demonic Katie eventually screams to lure Micah downstairs, where she murders him, and the audience is allowed to discover what's happened only when his body flies back up the stairs and collides with the camera, well, I shook my head and thought about how unfortunate it was that a movie that could have been great had it exercised the discipline to maintain its subtlety throughout went too far and ruined the effect.

There was a lot of to-do about "The Blair Witch Project" for the back story, the Sci-Fi channel documentary and the website, all of which had many viewers believing they were seeing real footage of the actors' demise. I think these bells and whistles over time have diminished what is actually a really good movie; people forgot how good it was because it was "disproved." But I compare the ending of that movie with "Paranormal Activity" and find the latter wanting.

Of course, then I get home, find my girlfriend asleep on the couch, go into our bedroom, which is lit by these damn energy-saving green nightlights she bought so it looks exactly like the night vision scenes in the movie, and try to sleep as I notice a clicking noise under my bed. A cord? No. A cat? Both are on the bed. Wtf?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe Doesn't Like You

Well, it's October, and I'm reminded of a 20-page paper I wrote all the way back in the spring semester about Poe. (Seriously, that's a long time to be thinking about a paper.) It's not very often that you have the chance to make any actual discoveries when you're researching papers in English (or any other topics for that matter). But I came up with something new--as far as I can tell.

Before you read any further, you have to have read "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado" to really understand what I'm about to write. If you haven't read them get cracking here.

Now, a lot of the murders that take place in Poe stories seem to have little or no motive. The conventional way to account for this is to conclude the murderers are simply insane, or that their motives are unconscious. But, knowing as we do that psychoanalysis is worthless pseudoscience, and that Poe predated Freud, we might want better answers. The stories above are listed in the order in which they were written, and I suggest there's a progression. In "Tell-Tale," the murder victim is an old man who is killed because of his one staring eye. In "Black Cat," the victims are a one-eyed cat (whose loss of the other eye makes a dual victim) and the murderer's/narrator's wife. The only thing mentioned about the victim in "Imp" is that he was fond of reading by candlelight. And Fortunato in "Amontillado" is a rich drunk guy who gets killed because he treats Montressor contemptuously.

The key to unlocking the true victim of Poe's aggression comes from an examination of these victims' names--or rather, the two of them that Poe's deigns to give names. One of course is Fortunato, which is pretty suggestive in itself. The other belongs to the hapless cat, Pluto. Now, most readers with any knowledge of mythology at all see the name Pluto and think, ah, the god of the underworld. Poe's a creepy guy so in this horror story it only fits that a cat would have a name vaguely associated with Hell. But Pluto--or Dis--has been tied to wealth throughout history. In Dante's Inferno, for instance, Fortuna and Plutus (actually a separate deity but often conflated) are in the fourth circle guarding the avaricious and prodigal. Even the name Pluto translates to "wealth-giver."

The old man in "Tell-Tale" looks at the narrator with only one eye because he's half blind. Poe intended much of his work as satire, but his readers constantly mistook his work for what it was designed to parody. The old man only saw the horror story, and was blind to the joke. The cat, Pluto, is likewise a stand-in for Poe's half blind readership, on whom he depends for his wealth. That's why in trying to kill the cat all the narrator manages to do is kill his wife. (Poe's wife had TB, and he agonized over the shabby, unheated rooms his poverty relegated them to.) Notice in all these stories, the narrator can't help bragging about how brilliantly he planned and executed the murders--only to be found out later by some supernatural means. The dead reader in "Imp" is pretty self-explanatory, and is possibly a reference to the symbolic murder in "Black Cat." And then there's Montressor, who tells his story several years after committing the crime, because he's sure now he won't be caught--no one at that point in Poe's life had broken his coded message, and he had little confidence anyone would.

So when it seems like Poe is going over the top, as silly critics like Harold Bloom take him to task for doing, keep in mind he's doing it deliberately. He's expecting to be taken only half seriously. And if you never picked up on this he'd just as soon bury an ax in your stupid skull and leave you walled up in some cellar, never to be found.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Man from Earth

"The Man from Earth" is one of those out-of-the way movies you're lucky if you ever hear of. When my girlfriend's coworker started telling me about it, my mind went first to "The Selfish Gene," in which I remember Dawkins discussing Peter Medawar's point that aging can be seen as a genetic illness (pages 40-1, in the edition I stole from my brother), and then to the "Highlander" movies and TV series. I went to Blockbuster that same night to rent it, but, despite being able to confirm a movie of that title existed, the clerks told me none of the stores in town carried it. Naturally, at this point I wanted to see it even more, so I ordered it from Amazon (where I see it has inexplicably gone up in price by more than two dollars since I ordered it).

When the coworker heard how excited I was about the movie, he tried to lower my expectations. It isn't a big Hollywood movie, there's no explosions, and it's really no more than a bunch of people sitting around talking. A thoughtful sci-fi movie, based on a screenplay by a guy who wrote for "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" (Jerome Bixby, who supposedly wrote it on his deathbed), with no Hollywoodism, well, now I wanted to see it even more. I did, however, take his point that my expectations shouldn't be too high regarding the acting, directing, and editing.

Finally watching the movie, I was immediately annoyed by the character Harry (John Billingsley) and had a moment of panic, thinking he might be signalling how hokey the rest of the movie would be. Fortunately, that moment passed pretty quickly as Harry was made to tone down his obnoxiousness by the gravity of the conversation. Harry is a biology professor, who along with an anthropologist, an archeologist, and a couple of other academics, has dropped in on John Oldman, a history professor who has just skipped out on his own going away party at the university in Arizona where they all work. Right away, it is clear that John has something on his mind, and his colleagues, sensing this, encourage him to explain why he's leaving his job, especially in light of his being in line for chair of the history department.

John, after some resistance, poses a hypothetical question: what would a Cro-Magnon man from the Magdalenian be like if he were alive today? Dan (Tony Todd), the anthropologist, takes it as a prompt to an intellectual exercise--perhaps inspired by John wanting to write story along the same lines. But before long, John is claiming to have been around to refuse setting sail with Columbus because he feared falling off the edge of the world. The plot progresses as John's colleagues try to figure out if he's psychotic, playing a game with them, or telling the truth. Meanwhile, he goes on telling them about his experiences.

Harry, being the biologist, provides one possible answer to how this type of immortality could occur. Unlike Dawkins, who writes that, "A gene that is lethal in an older body may still be successful in the gene pool, provided its lethal effect does not show itself until after the body has had time to do at least some reproducing" (40), he focuses on the role of the immune system, suggesting that aging is somehow a gradual accumulation of regenerative or immune failures. The mechanism underlying John's immortality isn't very important to the plot, but somehow just mentioning it puts "The Man from Earth" in a different category than "Highlander."

"Highlander" is really just a James Bond fantasy: a guy who knows enough to put everyone else to shame. Though I still like that Duncan and Connor spent eternity training and reading rather than running for office or playing video games, the wish-fulfillment of the premise is too overwhelming to take the stories seriously. Witness the success rate of the McLeod boys when it came to wooing women. John Oldman, on the other hand, spends a significant portion of his last moments with his friends stressing how little he knows.

And that is one of the most serendipitous elements of the plot, the tension arising from the fact that there is simply no way for John to prove what he's saying. He's forgotten much of what he's known in course of 14 thousand years. And what he does know he could have learned from any number of books. Of course, Harry wants to take him to a lab, but John is leery lest he get stuck there. John says he met another immortal only one time in all his life, and they both doubted whether the other was telling the truth. So, while "Highlander" somewhat absurdly suggested there could be immortals all around and we wouldn't know it, "Man from Earth" shows that even if they weren't trying to remain incognito, we still wouldn't know about them.

We wouldn't know, that is, unless we knew them long enough to see that they didn't age. John claims that he "moves on" from wherever he is and whatever he's doing every ten years to avoid just this eventuality. For most of us, this would be difficult, but as he tells his girlfriend Sandy, "I've gotten over it too many times." Time feels different to John because he's had so long to habituate to its passing. All of this provides great fodder for conversation among the highly educated gathering, but then comes the big twist; John was Jesus.

Having studied with the Buddha, he figured Rome could use a little Buddhism and got crucified for his trouble--but with ropes, which "don't make as good of religious symbols as nails." Now, he's pretty hostile to Christianity, which has little to do with what he originally tried to teach. "The mythical overlay," as he calls it, has completely distorted what actually happened. Sure enough, Edith (Ellen Crawford), whose specialty is never mentioned, takes issue with the sacrilege and adds another layer to what the groups sees as John's sadism in stringing them along--even as they enjoy the unfolding story.

This part of the movie could have easily gotten really hokey--everyone with a story of past lives knows Napoleon or some other significant historical figure--but because of Edith's resistance, and John's constant downplaying of the importance of what he did, it proves thought-provoking. Who's ever thought of a caveman Jesus?

And that's what I found so satisfying about the movie: it's really just the working out of an idea through skeptical but open-minded and educated conversation. It has its dramatic moments, but I for came away with much the same feeling I have when I've just had a conversation of my own with a similar group of friends.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ardi brings up an important question: since his skeleton is 1.2 million years older than Lucy, does this mean I need to get a new tattoo?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ardi: One Sick Ape

It's exciting times for paleoanthropologists, what with the new skeleton of ardipithecus ramidus unveiled and described in Science. So, allow me to preempt the Intelligent Design reporters by spoofing them:

Paleoanthropologists are frankly baffled by the find. In their search for the famous missing link between humans and chimpanzees, it seems they've been frustrated yet again. Ardipithicus Ramidus, even though it's supposedly more than a million years older than the famed Australopithecus Lucy, doesn't look at all chimp-like. In fact, analysis of the bones of its hand suggest that they would have been poorly suited for the type of locomotion typical of chimpanzees called knuckle-dragging.

What's most striking about the reports of this new find is that the researchers never for a moment entertain the possibility that what they have on their hands is in fact not a human ancestor, even though it falls so far outside of the schemes they themselves have been putting forth since Darwin of how human evolution is supposed to have occurred. Could this single skeleton merely be an ape wracked by some sort of pathology? And in light of what happened at Piltdown we must also ask, could this be a hoax?

I hope I don't have to explain to anyone reading this post that humans didn't evolve from chimps but rather both evolved from a common ancestor. Knuckle-walking, it seems, evolved in chimps after our species went their own separate evolutionary ways. The Piltdown Hoax was 97 years ago. And fragments from several individuals were found.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tribalism vs Morality?

I have defined tribalism as consisting of two dynamics: intense, dehumanizing competition between groups, and intense competition for status within group hierarchies. I then went on to identify the first of these dynamics as a recurrent theme in populist conservatism. Conservatives demonstrate tribal aggressiveness ("It's us versus them and we're better") in their positions on foreign policy (Hawks!), immigration, gun control, and, I would argue, even in economic policy.

"I don't want my tax dollars going to assholes who refuse to work," is the mantra, which begs questions about those who can't work, lack the education to get a decent job, work but don't make enough to support themselves and their families, work but go bankrupt because of medical expenses, and on and on. Conservative economic thinking is tribal because it reduces the population of the country to two categories, the deserving and the undeserving, and shows an inhuman lack of empathy toward the group to which the conservatives are sure they don't belong.

But what about the other dynamic? Where, if anywhere, does hierarchy come into play in populist conservative thought? A recent study carried out by Daniel C. Wisneski, Brad L. Lytle, and Lind J. Skitka attempted to prise apart the roles of religiosity and moral conviction in determining attitudes toward authority. They discovered something surprising: highly religious people tend to be more trusting of authority, while people claiming to have strong moral convictions tend to automatically distrust authority. The surprise was that religiosity and moral conviction don't go hand-in-hand, and, in this study, weren't even related. Now, this is one study, and it was based on attitudes to a specific authority, namely the Supreme Court, in regard to a specific issue, physician assisted suicide. But the results, especially the fact that people who were religious didn't claim to have strong moral convictions, is suggestive.

Euthanasia and abortion are issues that can't be seen in terms of outgroup hostility. But, if the conservative position on them is based on authority, i.e. the dictates handed down from those atop the hierarchy, then we're still dealing with tribalism. I say if because although this study is suggestive we still have to reserve judgment. And it's possible to identify the tribalism inherent in conservatism even if we allow for a couple of exceptions. But still, it's telling that opposition to abortion and euthanasia are so inextricably tied to Christianity, with its big alpha in the sky, who alone has the authority to decide on matters of life and death. Are there any non-religious groups who are anti-abortion?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Caveman Conservatism

If some people are more tribal than others, one might reasonably assume that they would gravitate more to sports. If you were to examine, say, their offices or bedroom, you would expect to find sports paraphernalia like posters and such. Also, since membership in any group is potential grounds for tribal identity, other group markers, say, American flags just might be more prevalent in the personal spaces of these more tribal individuals.

When Sam Gosling, author of "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," conducted all the research he describes in the book, he wasn't measuring tribalism directly. Instead, he was focusing on the Big Five personality traits. He did, however, include political leanings in his questionnaires. So what kind of stuff do liberals and conservatives have in their rooms?

Well, liberals tend to be a bit messier, while conservatives are much more organized. But that's not what I find most interesting in Gosling's findings. Conservatives, it turns out, aren't just concerned with order when it comes to tidiness. They're also more interested in order in terms of rankings--team rankings. What Gosling and his colleagues found was that conservatives were much more likely to have sports paraphernalia in their rooms and offices than liberals. They were also more likely to have American flags.

This leads me to wonder, are conservatives more tribal? Could there even be something fundamentally tribal about the conservative philosophy? Tribalism is a natural human tendency, a built-in bias, and even though it may have been adaptive when all humanity lived in small groups and numbered in the millions, now that we're living in a world of nearly seven billion, a world in which some of the tribes have nuclear weapons, tribalism is dangerous, potentially cataclysmic.

How many times have you talked to a gun owner about gun control and heard that great argument, if you make owning a gun a crime, then only criminals will own guns? This argument isn't even valid; it only makes sense because it appeals to our tribal inclinations. Slightly rephrased, it says there are good guys and bad guys and we want the good guys to have more guns.

"I don't have any problem with the ones who come over legally," is what I hear at the outset of every discussion I have with a conservative on immigration. "But they come over here and" compete with our tribe for resources. Of course, going through the process of immigrating legally is fine and good, but the ignorance and lack of empathy that emphasizing it shows is appalling.

Foreign policy: Ever wonder why some of the same people who argued that the Patriot Act was a great idea are now complaining about how big Big Brother is getting under Obama? It's simple, if you're watching out for bad guys, it's good, but if you're getting into the business of the folks, well then you are the bad guys.

Gays are not like us, therefore they aren't part of our tribe.

Welfare: don't take from the good guys and give to the bad guys (substitute white for good and black for bad and you're not far off the mark).

Abortion is trickier so I'll tackle it later.

I know I'm dealing here with "populist" conservatism and not the more sophisticated types. (David Brooks knows a lot more than I do about policy.) But instead of embracing this kind of outgoup hate and accepting it as legitimate discourse, we should be educating our youth to recognize and see past it.