Overweening Generalist


Monday, June 27, 2016

Phenomenology and Info-Glut

At some point in the past 12 years I began to develop a Shadow that watched me consume information. Metaphorically, the Shadow set up lines of communication with "me" and took measures to insert redundancy and insulated wires, etc: the clarity of signal between Shadow and "me" became less and less noisy. I am not describing a clinical picture here; I'm not mentally ill.

Not yet, anyway.

The Shadow seemed only concerned with how I felt when reading books or on Internet, or any other media in which we decode alphabetical "words." (i.e., It's a lot like what you're doing right where you are sitting now.) I noticed It didn't care very much about my listening to music or watching TV. There had been a similar sort of Entity many years ago that watched my TV watching, but it was blunt and always correct. A typical message: "You're not really enjoying this program. Not anymore. Turn it off and do what really makes you happy."

A lot of the time that happy-making thing was reading. It still is.

I know now this Shadow and the earlier Entity were parts of myself I'd constructed from reading and thinking about how media affects me. And I know my reading can make me unhappy, but sometimes I ward that off by saying to myself, "This is very unpleasant information, and it seems mostly true, or true enough. But I'd rather be one who knows how the world 'really' works than an oblivious bore. It's what Jefferson said was essential for democracy to work." Something like that.

Mostly my reading brings me great joy and wonder. That's why I'm addicted to it. I'm okay with the addiction. Resonant energy-language from books interacting with my nervous system has become some sort of activity that acts symbiotically: I derive a sort of secular religiosity of wonder from it; it derives my attention and money, but I think the thing it really likes is how I propagate its seed. It wants pullulation; I deliver. We're both happy.

And, like playing a musical instrument, reading on and on for years and really challenging yourself makes you a more formidable reader. I can pick up Finnegans Wake at any point, read a page and yack about my interpretations there for 20 minutes. I'm currently reading my first Murakami book (and it's great!: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, not that you'd asked) and I get the palpable feeling that my intense readings of Borges make this book "easier" because of the earlier heavy lifting of the Argentine and Chandler, maybe William Gibson and a handful of like-marvelous writers...

I've at times (twice at minimum) read myself into Chapel Perilous, and reading was part of finding my way out. Nowadays the only worry I have in these regards is Info-Glut. I first became aware that I was not the only one who experienced the vertigo of info when a book called Information Anxiety appeared on the New Books shelf at my local library in 1990. It was by some guy named Richard Saul Wurman, who later invented the TED Talks. He gave some historical perspective. Misery loved company yet again...

Since then: a flood/deluge/onslaught/barrage/din of books and articles on the effects of too much information interacting with the nervous system. Ironic? Hell yes. Those terms (flood/deluge, etc) are some of the same ones people use when they talk about their own "info overload."

So: I guess I model internally my reading on some sort of Bell Curve, and most of the time I'm right near the top, on the lefthand slope, enjoying myself. And if I get to the top and tip over and start sliding down the righthand side, I know some good breathing exercises. I know to go be with friends. I know when to take a walk or play guitar, lose myself in that.

Some Notes From Outside Me and My Shadow

-David Foster Wallace, in an essay collected in Both Flesh and Not, addressed the combination of boredom - which his friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen said DFW died from (boredom) - and information anxiety: Total Noise. He not only addressed the personal responsibility to be informed as a citizen in a "democracy" but he felt like he was drowning, losing his autonomy, in "the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective." In order to stay afloat, we need allies, proxies, and subcontracting friends who will maybe read that long article for you, and tell you what's the gist and pith. A bulwark against info-glut were those invaluable writers of concision who knew how to marshall the flood of facts and convey them meaningfully. They seem to be essayists.

While I doubt I'll ever totally understand DFW's boredom problem - some things seem simply beyond me, temperamentally - the irony for us here is that he was one of those writers who provided that bulwark for us.

What further complicates DFW for me: in his brilliant discussion of Kafka and short stories and jokes in Consider the Lobster, he addresses Danish science writer Tor Norretranders's idea of exformation, "which is a certain quality of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient." - that's how DFW unpacks Norretranders here.

DFW's suicide is too sad -not to mention too arch and far too simplifying - to posit that his boredom-unto-out-of-control-depression-and-suicide was due to going over the Bell Curve, down the right-hand slope, careening into oblivion. His writing gives me nothing but pleasure; he makes me feel smarter. He helps me deal with the Glut.

-In David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading he tells us about the Global Information Industry Center's 2009 study about information consumption by Unistatians in 2008: tons of shallow crap. Okay, but why? This led me to Elizabeth Eisenstein.

-Around 1962, the honcho primo of the American Historical Association, Carl Bridenbaugh, gave a talk about how the new media of TV, telephones, polaroid cameras, transistor radios, data processing machines and "that Bitch Goddess, Quantification."

Bridenbaugh: "Notwithstanding the incessant chatter about communication that we hear daily, it has not improved; actually it has become more difficult."

Eisenstein's massive, 2-vol The Printing Press as an Agent of Change argued the opposite of Bridenbaugh, who thought we were losing our history, our memory, who we are, due to the new media. Eisenstein showed how utterly profound the Gutenberg explosion was responsible for the rise of science, the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. She cited Marshall McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy for pointing to scholars that they can be blind to the very medium in which they swim: books. The past was becoming not less accessible, but more accessible. Scholars translate books, crack codes like Linear B, uncover the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.

Still: how to make sense of that part of the glut you're mired in at present? Does info glut make us culturally crazy? Is this ultimately behind the phenomena of "FOMO" and other mediated maladies since 2000CE?

-T.S. Eliot, by 1934 quite the reactionary, but still:

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
-"The Rock"

While I don't share Eliot's Anglican bend by any stretch, why not constantly wonder about the principles and workings in us of data/information/knowledge/wisdom? And, perhaps especially: silence? It seems to me worthsomewhiles.

-Aldous Huxley and the stoned intelligentsia that followed in the wake of his Doors and Perception and Heaven and Hell often picked up Aldous's metaphorical riff: that tripping on LSD and psilocybin was flooding the nervous system with information. Huxley compared the experience of rapid info-flow on psychedelics as if ordinary life was spent while your mind was a garden hose with a crink in it, so we experience those dribbles and drabs as "reality. With psychedelic drugs, the garden hose is straightened out, and it feels like a goddamned fire hose of info-deluge. With the slightest tweak of a serotonin molecule, "reality" is seen in a profoundly new light. Lots of us have at times freaked out on that...glut.

It doesn't seem too much to see why robotic cults follow in the wake of this: the replacement by a very low-info environment. The grasping at quotidian Our Leader Will Tell Us crap. Jesus Told Me To Tell You crap. In order to feel better. I get it.

Back To My Shadow and Me

One thing that helps me in staving off the fear from Info-Glut: I find it feels good to imagine being part of a conspiracy of readers/knowers who are privy to certain things. (If I recall correctly, the Shadow turned me on to this cabal.) This seems to me at once both a product of my arrested adolescent Walter Mitty-mindedness, and a hedge against, for lack of a better word, insanity. I mean, Ted Kaczynski read the Great Books. Cosmic humor and frequent erotic flings with the Infinite Goof seem quite on the jocoserious order in face of the Glut. Or: do you have a better way?

                                             l'image de bobby campbell                                       

Friday, June 17, 2016

Obscurity, Codes and Puzzles in Books: Ponderings

"Censorship is the mother of metaphor." - Borges

While I'm on record as being with the cognitive neurolinguistics of Lakoff, et.al., as my main model for the mother of metaphor, Borges here gets at something I find exceedingly interesting: the now-marginalized idea that writers have used coded language for various reasons, and one of them would be to escape persecution by the State. I give Borges his point here.
Joyce's Friend Byrne's Crypto

With the debates about mass surveillance and encryption continuing on to what I assume is a slow boil, and with brilliant high school students bringing the debate (literally) to Capitol Hill, many of us of a certain caste of mind eventually wonder where and when this began. One day we find ourselves in the archives and indexes of old books. We learn some of what we set out for. In my case - and probably (?) yours - you get the serendipitous hit, too. A recent example from my own forays:

John Francis Byrne, who was James Joyce's best friend at university in Dublin, later invented a cryptographic device that he thought might make him rich, because it was an uncrackable "Chaocipher," which used what's called an "autokey" in the trade. It was a cigar box with some bits of strings and a few odds and ends. When Byrne showed it to his cousin she said it would win him a Nobel Prize, "not for science, apparently, but for ushering in an age of universal peace by conferring the gift of perfect security upon the communications of all nations and all men." - The Codebreakers, Kahn, p.767

                                                       J.F. Byrne, Joyce's friend

Byrne thought his device would be used by businessmen, brotherhoods, religious groups and social institutions, and by "husband, wife, or lover." (Kahn, quoting Byrne, p.768) Anyone could use his device anywhere and would provide perfect encryption. Byrne met with and tried to sell his device to the US Army, State Department, AT&T, and the Navy, and was turned down. The State Dept sent him a form letter, telling him their own "ciphers are adequate to its needs."

Byrne, who published a book in 1951 called The Silent Years, mostly about remembering Joyce, devoted the final third of his book to telling the world about his amazing encryption machine, and actually challenged the public to crack his code, offering "$5000 or the total royalties of the first three months after publication of his book..." (Kahn, 768) Byrne challenged the American Cryptogram Association, the New York Cipher Society and Norbert Wiener to crack his code.

"Nobody ever claimed the money, and Byrne died a few years later. One may presume that the reason both for the failure of the public to read his cipher and failure of the government to adopt it was that while the cipher probably had its merits, its many demerits outweighed them for practical use. Byrne, like many inventors, both won and lost. His cipher was never broken. But his dream never came true." (768)

                                            David Kahn, 2013. His book The Codebreakers
                                            is a tour-de-force.

When Joyce came back to Dublin in 1909, another of his old friends from university, Vincent Cosgrave, told Joyce that Nora had "walked out" with him around the time Nora fell for the dreamy writer, which devastated him. He wrote accusatory letters to Nora, who was living at their home in Trieste. He wondered if Giorgio, his first child and only son, born in 1905, was really his. Byrne tried to convince Joyce that Cosgrave and Oliver St. John Gogarty (the model for Ulysses's "Buck Mulligan") were trying to ruin Joyce. It was a plot. Joyce's brother Stan told James that Nora had rebuffed Cosgrave, and this calmed the Irish/cosmopolitan bard.

In real life, Byrne lived with cousins at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin, which is the address of Leopold and Molly Bloom. Byrne is "Cranly" in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the character who lends a sympathetic ear to Stephen's aesthetic ideas, amongst other things. The section late at night in Ulysses, where Bloom has forgotten the key to his house, so he jumps the fence and gets in through the backdoor and lets Stephen in? That actually happened with Byrne. Joyce makes me think of it as a mythic thing, which is marvelous on his part...

By 1910 Byrne had emigrated to New York, where he worked as a journalist under the name J.F. Renby, an anagram of his last name. He died in 1960.
Arthur Melzer Makes Me Think

"Against history, we developed community through the use of a subtle and ambiguous language that could be heard in one way by the oppressor, in another way by your friends. Our weapons of sabotage were ambiguity, humor, paradox, mystery, poetry, song and magic."
-Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian essayist, broadcaster and poet, in his 1990 The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto For Escape, pp.38-39

In a dizzyingly wonderful book that leaves me wondering what I'm missing, Michigan State professor of political science, Arthur Melzer, published Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (2014).

[Get a load of his out-of-book appendix, a real data-dump of historical textual examples that bolster his claims that esoteric writing (writing in a tricky way in order to not be persecuted or not damage the body politic, but it's more complicated than that) has basically gone on since writing and the State emerged.]

The book was reviewed widely and positively...by NeoCons. The bad reviews seem to be from anti-NeoCons. Melzer says the book needed to be written, and the subject - which was one of Leo Strauss's main riffs - wasn't really Melzer's thing. He doesn't like esoteric writing. He wants to read writers who say exactly what they mean.

I've read the book and find it magisterial. Then I made the mistake of re-reading a book of essays, mostly by Umberto Eco, with contributions by Christine Brooke-Rose, Richard Rorty, and Jonathan Culler: Interpretation and Overinterpretation. I find it heady stuff. But it worsened my probably paranoid overinterpretation of Melzer's avowed reluctance to address the topic, and his NeoCon ties.

"My friends and colleagues all regard it as curious that I should be the one to write this book. There are people who have a real love for esoteric interpretation and a real gift for it. I am not one of them."

And yet there's 450 pages (plus that online appendix!), scholarly throughout. And then I'm into Eco, illustrating how paranoid overinterpretations occur. And there's NeoCon Mark Lilla, in his book on Vico (who to me is the most interesting example of what Melzer calls "defensive esoteric" writing), saying he disagrees with Leo Strauss on an esotericist reading of Vico. (See G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern, pp.243-245)

Before Melzer's book appeared, for years I'd accumulated notes on the topic on my own, but I hadn't read NeoCon godfather Strauss's 1952 Persecution and the Art of Writing. I accumulated notes based on my readings of Robert Anton Wilson, William S. Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Norman O. Brown, Frances Yates, Nietzsche, etc.

The British empiricist Isaiah Berlin knew Strauss and liked him, admired his mind, but thought a lot of his ideas were wrong, including the esoteric idea:

"Strauss was a careful, honest and deeply concerned thinker, who seemed to have taught his pupils to read between the lines of the classical philosophers - he had a theory that these thinkers had secret doctrines beneath the overt one - which could only be discovered by hints, allusions and other symptoms, sometimes because such thinkers thought in this fashion, sometimes for fear of censorship, oppressive regimes and the like. This had been a great stimulus to ingenuity and all kinds of fanciful subtleties, but seems to me to be wrong-headed. Strauss's rejection of the post-Renaissance world as hopelessly corrupted by Positivism and empiricism seems to me to border on the absurd."
-Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, with Ramin Jahanbegloo, pp. 31-32

And yet Berlin seems to me one of the most astute readers of Vico. And yet: I agree with Berlin about Strauss's rejection of Modernity. And yet: Melzer's book seems overwhelmingly persuasive.

I have not read my way into yet another Chapel Perilous. But I have once again become, lately, ever-more hyper-aware of my own interpretive schemes in reading.

The headspace? Cosmic hilarity!
Ending in a Southernly Direction

Lee Server interviewed the late great Terry Southern, and here's a passage apropos:

Server: Reading Candy as a kid, I'll confess to you, played a definite part in my growing into manhood - I don't intend to go into details. What would you read for "erotic purposes" as a youngster?

Terry Southern: When I was young, they had what were called "little fuck-books" - which featured characters taken from the comics. Most of them were absurd and grotesque, but there were one or two of genuine erotic interest; "Blondie" comes to mind, as do "Dale" and "Flash Gordon" and darling "Ella Cinders." For a while, convinced there was more than met the eye, I tried to "read between the lines" in the famous Nancy Drew books, searching for some deep secret insinuation of erotica so powerful and pervasive as to account for the extraordinary popularity of these books, but alas, was able to garner no mileage ("J.O." wise) from this innocuous, and seemingly endless, series.
-Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995, ed. Mike Southern and Josh Alan Friedman, p.2
                                                   grafica di Bob Campbell

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On "Maps" as Maybe the Best Metaphor For Our Knowledge?

I was talking with a friend of a friend about GPS devices and I said I didn't have one. He didn't either. I said I like the challenge of getting lost (my sense of direction in non-familiar environments seems sub-optimal) and trying to "figure it out." We both still carry road-maps in our cars. About GPS systems: Apparently they're getting smaller, cheaper, more portable, and are causing trouble with not only the cops "illegally" tracking someone, but citizens are using them to spy on each other. (But of course...)

(I've already digressed?)

I still use road maps in my car. I love maps of all kinds. They fire my imagination.

"The map is not the territory." - Korzybski, who apparently annoyed certain segments of the cognoscenti by repeating something so obvious. (But is the phrase so obvious when looked at from from the angle of personal knowledge? Human behavior? Our own neuroses?)

Robert Anton Wilson, elaborating on Korzybski's famous riff, reminded us that for a map to actually "be" the territory it would:

  • Have to be as big as the territory
  • Have to show every inhabitant, including animals, plants, and microbes
  • Give an account of every change, which it cannot do: maps are inherently frozen in time

In a fragment by Borges, "On Exactitude In Science," the cartographers of the Empire zealously mapped the entire Empire, point-by-point. The map of the Empire was as big as the Empire: what a pain in the ass. Eventually, they realized the uselessness and "pitilessness" of such a venture.

In reading a collection of articles on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (AKA: the DSM-V), I became ever more aware that Big Pharma had succeeded in making more behaviors "diseases" that could be treated by drugs, while things like "homosexuality" had been taken out of earlier versions of the book. Psychiatrists apparently listen to their patients, and if they don't "know" enough about what drug to prescribe - what they decode as a specific set of mental symptoms - they consult the DSM-V. But it's only a "map" of human complaints and hypotheses and theories and ideologies about what might help "remedy" the patient's unhappiness.

Here's where I think Korzybski's "map" metaphor is still underrated. Practically all of our knowledge "is" "maps". Certainly all of our books are maps. Even "fiction" books. (I welcome a spirited disagreement in the comments!)


Veteran Korzybski scholar Robert Pula:

By "maps" [in the korzybskian sense] we should understand everything and anything that humans formulate...including (to take a few in alphabetical order), biology, Buddhism, Catholicism, chemistry, Evangelism, Freudianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Lutheranism, physics, Taoism, etc, etc,...!"
-Preface to the 5th ed. of Science and Sanity, 1994, p. xvii

This entire blog - any blog you read - mostly consists of maps, or maps of maps, or maps of maps of maps, etc. And what of it? Are we still sub- and/or un-consciously looking for Someone with The Truth? (What we want is "more of the truth," no?)

What truths do we want most for ourselves? How to go about it? When do we know we're on the "best" or one of the better trails?

Computer scientist Alan Kay, on "science":

Science is a relationship between what we can represent and think about and what's actually "out there"; it's an extension of good map making..."
-p.118 What We Believe But Can't Prove (ed. John Brockman)

Kay appreciates Korzybski. Here's Blake Victor Seidenshaw on Alan Kay on Alfred Korzybski (or a map of a map of a map?):

I enjoyed Alan Kay's perceptive comments about the irony of the Korzybskian "null-A," since the "null" is itself an Aristotelian operator! Alan mentioned that he thought Korzybski himself probably would have found this hilarious, since he had obviously never intended to do away with Aristotelian logic entirely. This is an important, if obvious point: if you think about it, as Korzybski certainly did, we cannot logically - intellectually - do away with classical logic; the very attempt to do so would precisely reproduce it. This amounts to an excellent paradox; it is literally unthinkable.
-ETC: A Review of General Semantics; vol.67; no.1, January 2010, p.3

With Robert Anton Wilson, "The word is not the thing" being called Korzybksi's First Law, the 2nd Law is "The map is not the territory." Aside from the philosophical zombies and the possibility I'm a brain in a vat imagining/hallucinating my "reality" (or the recent lysergic philosophical idea that we're probably Sims created by more advanced beings from Elsewhere, although, with this last, on some level, so effing what?), there seems to be a booming, buzzing confusion of a pre-verbal world "out there." Once we note it and begin to make sense of it we're abstracting/making a "map" of "reality" in our nervous system. (I think that guy is going to make a left-hand turn...why can't he use his turn indicator?: This forms part of your own mental map of "driving" or "other drivers", etc)

It seems there might exist some exceptions to this? Maybe. How about when maps are part of the territory? When I'm teaching a class and I talk about how "maps" work, am I not using maps as part of the territory about representation from within a teaching framework?

[...Or does this constitute a Strange Loop? Can I JOOTS (jump outside of the system- Douglas Hofstadter) and aver the teacher is using his knowledge (map) to talk about how maps work, putting teacher in a larger set/system of "reality" of map-users and map-makers? Just asking for a friend...]

Well, as we saw in my prior OG-spew, many Serious Thinkers thought Korzybski "nutty" and gave plenty of snarl words and "reasons" why. I'm not buying. Korzybski was weird, but also: pretty damned genius, in my opinion. Here's a passage from deep in modern cognitive neurolinguistics:

(The author has spent 190+ pages addressing neurons, how they fire, how the nervous system of humans make neural circuits based on embodied being-in-the-world, and how conceptual schemes arise, allowing us to categorize our experiences and understand the world. - OG):

How do people learn the concepts and language covering rich array of cultural frames such as baseball, marriage, and politics? In particular, what does the embodied NTL [Neural Theory of Language - OG] have to say about learning and using the language of cultural discourse? 

The answer is metaphor. Metaphor in general refers to understanding one domain in terms of another...The NTL approach suggests that all of our cultural frames derive their meanings from metaphorical mappings to the embodied experience represented in primary conceptual schemas. 
-p.194, From Molecule To Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language, Jerome A. Feldman (2006)

Now: you're an embodied human reading and abstracting from what I've written here. You're making sense of it in the best way you can for right now. (I am trying to do this, as you read and breathe.) Feldman is reporting on not only his own work, but the work of hundreds of other cognitive scientists and others. He's trying his best - presumably - to get us to understand this exciting set of ideas. And, as I abstract from this, it's all about "metaphorical mappings."

We are attracted to people who make really interesting maps. A lot of the time we call these people "artists" or "inventors." We love them because they help us make our own maps richer in detail.

If you accept the idea in the title for this blog-spew, what other sorts of metaphors exist but maps? Metaphors here "are" maps. Maps are metaphors, by a process of algebraic thinking.

Where might I have gone wrong here?

                                            artaĵo por Bobby Campbell

Friday, June 3, 2016

Why Korzybski Waned: Some Educated Guesses

As I meditate - even ruminate, at times - on the quandary of climate change, income inequality, the Supreme Court's tragically stupid ruling that money "is" speech, that Trump or Hillary will probably be the next POTUS, etc, lately I've been thinking that, were Korzybski's "General Semantics" (from now on: "GS") taught in schools, or talked about on teevee or lauded in pop kulch, we couldn't possibly "be" in the mess we seem to be in now. I recently re-read Ezra Pound's 1937 essay "On the Immediate Need of Confucius" and thought, "We need Korzybski immediately."

And GS had its moment in Unistat education (c.1938-55 or so); now it's apparently thought of as something from the "fringe." While I constantly re-read the Ur-Text of GS, Korzybski's Science and Sanity, and can always "see" something sort of "wild" in the text, I think it's one of the great underrated books of all time.

I will try to provide a brief, necessarily idiosyncratic and truncated sketch of GS's marginalization. The following ideas, while numbered, represent no particular hierarchy:

1. The late media theorist Neil Postman (d:2003), who was a great student of Korzybski's writings, gave two reasons why Korzybski had fallen out of favor:

"Many academicians do not care for Korzybski - in part because he was not careful, and in part, because they have no patience for genius." - originally in Postman's "autobibliography" in his own book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, but my immediate source is "Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk - Redux," by Martin Levinson, PhD, in Etc: A Review of General Semantics, vol.63, number1, January 2006, pp.67-76

Brief comment by OG: Yes, Korzybski seems at times not-careful (ask me about the jazz irony sometime, for example); also: he clearly seems like an overpowering generalist-genius to me. If academicians have no patience for such a cat, my current main interpretation is that specialization has so manically taken over academe, and someone who writes about - on many pages all-at-once - neurobiology/philosophy/mathematics/biology/anthropology/physics/psychology and chemistry: can't possibly be taken seriously. I see AK's synthesis of what was known by 1933 as astounding.

2. Korzybski was a Polish count, polyglot, and not a bona fide academic, under Western standards. Hence, he was often seen as a cranky weirdo by academics. Not one of "us." Tries to cover too much. Too esoteric and generalistic. Now: many writers in different fields loved Korzybski and wrote interpretations (abstractions?) of his work. One of the earliest popularizers of AK's work was by Stuart Chase, whose Tyranny of Words (1938) was a best-seller. Chase was an MIT social theorist and advisor to FDR.

Brief comment: While Woody Allen's joke about the intellectual class being like the Mafia - "they only kill their own" - is one of my favorites, this seems like an exception.

3. By the late 1950s/early 1960s, AK and his GS was seen by the "responsible" intellectuals as allied with the outre and growing culture later known as "the counterculture." William S. Burroughs studied under AK briefly, and used ideas about GS in a science fiction-y way. (By extension, Allen Ginsberg was influenced by WSB's interest in Korzybski, and so Ginsberg was obviously influenced by GS too. When mentioning Ginsberg in this context, it seems Alan Watts's AK influence need be added.) Indeed, for a while, GS was seen as synonymous with science fiction-thought, with Heinlein being an exponent of AK. A.E. Van Vogt wrote SF novels trying to popularize his interpretations of GS. (Sorry about the initial-stew here!)

4. AK and his GS have gradually become "infected" (my word) by its association with Scientology. Perhaps the richest irony here: an adequate understanding of GS would reveal that a mere association of one group with another does not mean that one groups's idea "infected" the following group. The notion that previously-created knowledge is utilized by many subsequent groups, for their own ends, still seems a pillar of sophisticated thought.

In Lawrence Wright's riveting book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (2013), while science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was formulating his new religion, Jack Parsons's ex-mistress, Sara Elizabeth "Betty" Northrup, read to Hubbard from Korzybski; and Hubbard, "immediately grasped the ideas as the basis for a system of psychology, if not for a whole religion." (p.60) A further taste:

"Korzybski pointed out that words are not the things they describe, in the same way that a map is not the territory is represents. Language shapes thinking, creating mental habits, which can stand in the way of sanity by preserving delusions. Korzybski argued that emotional disturbances, learning disorders, and many psychosomatic illnesses - including heart problems, skin diseases, sexual disorders, migraines, alcoholism, arthritis, even dental cavities - could be remedied by semantic training, much as Hubbard would claim for his own work. He cited Korzybski frequently, although he admitted that he could never get through the texts themselves. 'Bob Heinlein sat down one time and talked for ten whole minutes on the subject of Korzybski to me and it was very clever,' he later related. 'I know quite a bit about Korzybski's works.'" (p.60)

Comment: There's no doubt Science and Sanity influenced Dianetics. I feel quite confident that Korzybski (who died in 1950) would disavow such a thing. Is it the fault of a writer if a later writer takes their work and uses it toward entirely different ends? Nietzsche's sister played her brother's work into the proto-Nazi's thought. I also have no doubt Nietzsche would have been appalled by Alfred Rosenberg's use of his thought, not to mention Hitler's bad reading in Mein Kampf. I will not comment on the parade of Christian fascists we've seen in the grand historical sweep.

5. As Unistat gradually took on the character of the National Security State after 1947, there slowly grew an apparatus of apologists for the State (of which I prefer Chomsky's term "commissar class"), and some of these intellectuals appointed themselves as "debunkers" of challenges to scientific orthodoxy. Darkly ironic, and seemingly at odds with the spirit of scientific investigation itself, probably the most famous and enduring Official Debunker was Martin Gardner, a brilliant writer who seemed polymathic in a way that mirrored Korzybski. However, in his enormously influential book Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science (1952), Gardner lumped Korzybski in with flying saucer fanatics, psionics, the Bates theory of eyesight, Atlantis, Bridey Murphy...and L. Ron Hubbard. The zeitgeist and Gardner's formidable writing chops cannot be overestimated here. The chapter, "General Semantics, Etc," gives (to my eyes) a bad-faith ad hominem reading of Science and Sanity. While prefacing that he thinks Korzybski's bad book is not as bad as previously-discussed pillories of Wilhelm Reich and Hubbard (separate chapters are devoted to taking down those guys too), Gardner writes of Korzybski's magnum opus:

"It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric therapy." (p.281)

At the same time, Gardner - who for some reason links Korzybski with Jacob L. Moreno, the Rumanian who invented psychodrama - says Korzybski "may or may not have considerable scientific merit." Then he gets down to debunking. If Korzybski ever had a good idea, it was not a new idea. usw.

Comment: At the risk of taking 10,000 words to debunk this debunker, I would merely aver that Korzybski's psychology of perception and individual/societal "making sense" of phenomena is still on very strong ground, and that Gardner should have at least acknowledged this and written, "It seems to me that..." (It is a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive...etc). I charge Gardner with ad hominem, but he's canny about it. It seems mean-spirited and underhanded to me, with lots of appeals to authority and almost zero charity. See for yourself: Chapter 23, pp.281-291.

6. Many years ago I was sitting in a very large room on the 5th floor of the hall of justice in Long Beach, California, waiting to see if I would be impanelled on an actual jury. I was reading Korzybski or another book on GS. An older lady stopped and took note: "You're reading General Semantics! I used to teach that." I asked what ever happened to it? How come I wasn't taught it? She said "The business community hated it." She also said she thought the local churches and politicians didn't like it, either. I remember saying this reminded me of Socrates getting busted for "corrupting the youth" of Athens. I recall the older lady saying it was sort of like that, yea.

Comment: I mean this as an endorsement of Korzybski.

                                   A Chomsky diagram: how will this tell you how
                                   "the death tax" really works?

7. In 1957, Noam Chomsky broke radically with a long historic tradition in linguistics, publishing a thin book titled Syntactic Structures. It was so obscure at the time the only place he could publish it was at The Hague. In what myself and many others take to be a prime example of "physics envy" in areas of the academy that were not physics, this book gradually achieved academic cult-status, filled with abstruse diagrams of transformations of sentence structures, as an attempt to get to the "deep structure" (still a potent metaphor, with legs!) of English. The goal was audacious: scrap the entire history of empirical linguistics and, using the latest mathematics and following a Cartesian philosophical rationalism, to eventually show that human language contains Universal Grammar that only humans are endowed with, by...well, not the Creator-creator. Not evolution, either. Oh, he'd deal with that some other day.

Comment: This may be the most underrated reason why Korzybski is now seen as a fringe figure: Chomsky's linguistic work, which now looked as important and impressive as physics diagrams on a blackboard as scribbled by Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, or Feynman, was too seductive to not jump on board if you were an academic who wanted in on the Newest Abstruse Theory. Or: a new, possibly more-encompassing language paradigm, which, if legit, was a real winner. Couple this with Chomsky's tireless humanistic ethics against the State, war, inequality, official lies, Behaviorism, and most of his fellow intellectuals' overweening ambition to serve the State: you have the conscience of the entire Intellectual Class residing in one man's thought. I think Chomsky's odd non-charismatic charisma helped his linguistic program, which was doomed, probably from its inception, to never be able to account for the most important aspect of language: semantics. Intellectual attention space is limited. Chomsky's language ideas and his background as a properly trained academic seemed more impressive. Hence, GS waned. Unistat culture suffered. I now see Chomsky's linguistic gains, over 60 years, to be quite modest considering the declared ambitious grasp in scope. It was a bifuration point, culturally, and to our detriment and for complex reasons, it went the other way...

8. "Popularizations" are not serious reading. This, in the age of Specialization, seems gospel in Academe. Now not only AK but his popularizers are seen as not only "wrong" because non-Chomskyan, but debased, because for the masses. I have on my shelves GS-popularizations such as People In Quandaries by Wendell Johnson; Levels of Knowing and Existence by Harry L. Weinberg; The Language of Wisdom and Folly, by Irving J. Lee; Mathsemantics: Making Numbers Talk Sense, by Edward MacNeal. Oh, and Samuel Hayakawa's Language In Thought and Action, which has proven to be the most famous of GS popularizers. (More about this last book and author below.)

Comment: All of these books consist for me as guides to what might have been. Korzybski's work was so fecund that none of these books are alike. Just one irony among many I could point out here: In Chomsky's Understanding Power, he extolls 1930s leftist intellectuals for popularizing difficult subjects! (see pp.331-333) For more irony, see pp.37-44, where Noam - not doing linguistics but championing human freedom against the State and its violence, gives one example after another of how the State uses Orwellian language against the masses, who are defenseless unless they somehow learn one or another form of "intellectual self-defense," none of which could possibly include GS because that approach is "all wrong."(<----I read an email from Noam forwarded to me by a friend who asked what Chomsky thought of GS)

Popularizations are not to be taken seriously, but we want the public to understand the increasingly opaque world. So: popularizations are no good unless they're good. Since 1930: it looks to me like the Commissar Class doesn't really care if a small minority of the population reads something very truthful about power. As long as more than a "few" don't catch on?

9. In what functions as an update on Gardner, Steven Pinker's popular book The Language Instinct (1994) has an entire chapter showing why Korzybski/GS/Sapir-Whorf "are" all wrong. Pinker has picked up the Chomsky linguistic model and assumed the role of Public Intellectual. When I read his chapter, "Mentalese" from TLI, I get the feeling Pinker has never actually read Korzybski. I emailed him; Pinker never wrote back. In my opinion Pinker contributes to the enormous disservice to the public by making fun of the previous model of how language works. (See The Language Instinct, pp. 55-82 and see what you think?)

10. Regarding S. I. Hayakawa, the most popular popularizer of Korzybski: it's pretty complicated. Because Hayakawa was teaching mostly writers and humanities types, his biographer, Gerald Haslam, has called Hayakawa's GS "General Semantics Lite." Language In Thought and Action is a delightful read, and will make you "smarter" right away. However, if you decide then to look at his source - Science and Sanity - you will probably be STUNNED by all the math and science.

In Robert Anton Wilson's book The Illuminati Papers, there's a page of Erisiana that may seen obscure now. On p.92 (I have the olde And/Or Press issue), there's a jokey-ornate form letter from, among other "groups," the American Anarchist Association. The letter is addressed to someone named S.I. Hayakawa, and cautions the recipient to read another person with the same name, because the other Hayakawa was evidently a sane reader of GS who knew and wrote about  Korzybski well. The recipient of the letter would benefit, because "He might also teach you something about neurosemantic relaxation. In the last photograph We saw of you confronting the dissidents, your entire face, shoulders, and body showed rigidity, neurosemantic 'closedness,' and the general nonverbal message, 'Don't talk to me; my mind is made up.' General Semantics might teach you how to grow out of this infantile and primitive attitudinal set and function as a time-binding and open personality. Please get in touch with the other Dr. Hayakawa an give this a try." - signed by "Theophobia the Elder," a Robert Anton Wilson pseudonym within the Discordian religion.

Some background HERE.

Here's his biographer, Haslam, giving a talk to General Semantics Symposium.

A defense of Hayakawa by his son: Let's remember that S.I. Hayakawa1 is not the same as S.I. Hayakawa2, who isn't the same as S.I. Hayakawa3, etc.

Comment: Hayakawa famously slept in the California Senate. As Haslam notes, it's ironic that this is all people remember about Hayakawa (who was Marshall McLuhan's paperboy in Canada when he was very young!); it seems very unfortunate that his semantic reactions at SF State during the anarchic late 1960s has been used to denigrate GS.

11. Robert Anton Wilson - who turned me on to Korzybski - told interviewer Charles Platt in the early 1980s that there were "defects" in his [Korzybski's- OG] system, but his body of work is something "everybody should grapple with." RAW told me he thought Korzybski could be personally abrasive, and that may be why he fell out of favor. (I forget where I read that some of Korzybski's students said he could be "blasphemously cheerful.") There's an idea that runs through a lot of RAW's heavily-influenced-by-Korzybski oeuvre: that there is a semantic unconscious - which Pound called  paideuma - in which it is taboo to know how power, sex and knowledge "really work." In my opinion, this may be the deepest "reason" why Korzybski waned.

                                           बॉबी कैम्पबेल द्वारा कलाकृति

Friday, May 27, 2016

On Hillary Clinton's UFOlogy

Since last December I've noted that Hillary Rodham Clinton (henceforth: HRC) has been openly talking about how she'd like to "get to the bottom" of what the Unistat gummint knows about UFOs/aliens.

Call me cynical (What? In this election cycle? Golly!), but I immediately thought of the neo-Machiavellian political theories of guys like Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and their Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics from 2012: even in a democracy you need enough coalitions of support from the "selectorate" in order to win; you may be yanking other coalition's chains, but you need as many voting blocs of special interests as possible. The ones with money who helped you get elected matter most to you, and if you yank their chains the wrong way, you're cooked.

I thought, "Well, she's going for the X-Files-obsessed vote here." Cynical! (Of me and/or HRC.)

Then I continued to follow HRC and her UFO talk, and I went back and researched a bit to see how phony HRC might be on this subject. It gets complicated. Which is how I like it.

While Donald Trump trots out around one conspiracy theory per day lately: Vincent Foster was killed by the Clintons; Obama may still be a secret Muslim; Scalia was murdered and it was covered up; vaccines cause autism; many thousands of muslims were seen celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11/01; Ted Cruz's father had a hand in the JFK hit; Bill Clinton has sexually "assaulted" several women, etc...he's clearly going for the Nutjob vote, which I think he already had sewn up a long time ago.

I'd say, "Maybe time to dial it back a bit, Donny," but he'd probably have his goons haul me out of the room, telling said goons to "Knock the crap out of him. I'll pay your legal fees." (Ladies and germs: the future President of Unistat!)

I figured HRC needed to tap into the quasi-religious and conspiracist idea that the Unistat gov still has classified files about aliens. That's probably a sizable voting bloc, eh? (The voters, not the aliens.)

It turns out she seems to have been genuinely interested in UFOs (she corrected Jimmy Kimmel on his show earlier this year: the scientific, evidence-based community prefer UAPs [Unidentified Aerial Phenomena]), which greatly - apparently? - impressed the ardent UFO-philes out there. HRC met with Laurence Rockefeller  in 1995, at his Wyoming ranch. She was photographed with serious physicist Paul Davies's book Are We Alone?

(Coincidentally, Davies very recently wrote an article for Scientific American that posits maybe life in the universe is exceedingly rare, afterall...assumptions that there must be life seeded all over this universe - the one you're probably in right now - seem unwarranted...is Davies trying to distance himself from HRC? Wheels within wheels...)

Longtime Clinton operative John Podesta is an X-Files aficionado and has talked about getting the files declassified, asserting recently that "There are still classified files that could be declassified." (Maybe it depends on what the term "are" means?)

Kimmel told HRC that he'd asked her husband and Obama about the UFOs and they didn't find anything. Hillary: "Well I'm going to do it again." Great, because it's not like the economy needs fixing or anything. Go for it, Hills-y baby! (Obama has treated questions about UFOs as a joke.)

So, while Bill was Prez 1993-2000, they weren't able to "get to the bottom of it"? Why? Maybe lots of stuff has happened since then? Who knows...Let's try to keep an open mind here. Let's keep digging...

I stumbled on to an article about former Prez Gerald Ford, who, as a Michigan Congressman in 1966, responded to UFO sightings over Michigan by calling for a Congressional Hearing. He didn't get the hearing, and seems to have taken his constituents' fears seriously (this was only five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War in full swing, UFOs not the humorous Thing they are now), but Ford did get a long report on UFO sightings from the U. of Colorado and Project Blue Book, which ran from 1947-1969. This report considered 12,618 UFO sightings, all explained as weather balloons, atmospheric phenomena, or classified test flights, and a few other things. 701 sightings were still inconclusive.

The conspiracy-minded will want me to mention that Ford was on the Warren Commission. Done. Anyway...

Oh yea: Project Blue Book? Recently, the CIA tweeted that all those UFO sightings in the 1950s and '60s? It was them! I mean...not THEM-them, but the CIA. Which is "them" enough for me. Yea, verily the CIA asserts they were covering up their very high-flying U-2 Program, 1954-74. So, a branch of the Unistat government withheld evidence from a future US President and anyone else who might be interested in what the hell was going on with odd things in the sky. The cads! Those...bounders have done it again!

'Cuz, "national security," of course. If you read the article, professional "skeptic" and debunker Robert Sheaffer is calling bullshit on the CIA here. O! sooo rich! So meaty! Sheaffer once accused Robert Anton Wilson of "malicious, misguided fanaticism." (Personally, I prefer the properly "guided" fanaticism, but that's just me.) Sheaffer is long-suffering. In 1990, he charged the novelist Wilson as one who "attacks language and thought" the way a "terrorist attacks"...and to add insult, Wilson seems to have enjoyed a hearty belly-laugh over what he did as a writer of satire. Horrible!

To be honest, why are you even reading what some dipshit blogger like the OG thinks about these ideas? Clearly: Robert Sheaffer is the go-to Grand Poo-Bah of all things honest and capital tee Truth. What does Sheaffer think of HRC wanting to get to the bottom of the UFO/aliens thing?

HRC and her UFOlogy Sancho Panza, Podesta, just want transparency, evidence-based science, and the destigmatization of those who are interested in whether or not We Are Not Alone. The UFO/alien cohort (Sorry! Very snarky of me: the UAP/alien cohort) is an estimable one too: Stephen Bassett, who spends his time lobbying Congress on extraterrestrial/UFO issues? His organization has 2.5 million Twitter followers. That could put you over the top. (In November.)

December, 2015: HRC tells a New Hampshire reporter, "We may have been visited already." (Yes, and you may have already won the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes of one million dollars cash!)

I like this line from HRC: "There's enough stories out there that I don't think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up." Point well taken. They could be in the bathroom, or out by the swing-set near the wading pool. The possibilities seem well-nigh endless.

In 1996, Bob Woodward's book The Choice made fun of HRC (what a meanie!), seeming to ridicule her for having conversations with dead heroes of hers, like Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In delving in some archives (Okay: I read about six short articles published in the last year) and re-visiting the Wm Jefferson Clinton years in Office, I was reminded that, indeed, the X-Files seemed to run alongside his term. And Independence Day did boffo box office. And HRC openly complained about a "vast right wing conspiracy" out to get her and Bill. (I think she had something tangible with that last bit of conspiracy thinking, but this was all pre 9/11/01; it was practically Leave It To Beaver time compared to what we're looking at now.)

And you know what? Even though I confess I'm not a HRC fan - not by a longshot - I do think she has some good points about her UFOlogizing. But it sounds better coming from the mouth of a higher-up who may as well be anonymous to me: a luminary named Christopher Mellon, a former Senate Intelligence Committee guy, former intel at the Dept of Defense: "It shouldn't be a source of embarrassment to discuss it. [UFOs/UAPs/aliens- OG] We should be humble in terms of recognizing the extreme limits of our own understanding of physics and the universe."

Amen to that, Mellon. (Can I borrow a $50-spot?)

So: I've rambled fairly incoherently through this blogspew, and I have no excuse save for I'm stoned on some uber-dank OG Fire and trying to laff my way into November. I've considered my alternatives, and laffing seems the best.

Two more tangential points to make, and then I promise I'll be more sober for the next installment of the OG:

1. Blogger Justin Raimondo thinks Trump is a "false flag" candidate. Or at least as of last July Raimondo thought this. He says that just before Trump got into the Republican race he was trying to help his friend, Hillary Rodham Clinton. How else do you describe the sheer INSANITY of Trump's gambits so far? (Note the date Raimondo wrote this. What does he think now? No seriously: what does he think? Anyone know? I'm too stoned to Bing it.) And what do YOU think of this idea? I mean: consider the implications. Have you read Baudrillard on the Simulacrum? Is it time to resume your studies of the deep structure in The Matrix films?

Which leads me to Noam Chomsky, who recently said a Trump Prez is basically a "death warrant" for humanity and the planet. Noam the Subtle. (I confess I'd rather he was wrong on this one, if for no other reason than my overweening bias towards humanity not dying on a burned-up, uninhabitable planet.) So yea...

2. In Chomsky's 2007 book, What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World: Interviews With David Barsamian, Noam says this:

A couple of years ago I came across a Pentagon document that was about declassification procedures. Among other things, it proposed that the government should periodically declassify information about the Kennedy assassination. Let people trace whether Kennedy was killed by the mafia, so activists will go off on a wild goose chase instead of pursuing real problems or getting organized. It wouldn't shock me if thirty years from now we discover in a declassified record that the 9/11 industry was also being fed by the administration. -pp.39-40

So, I end with epistemology down the rabbit hole: Chomsky bristles when you say he's a "conspiracy theorist." He does "institutional analysis." (He does it really well, methinks.) BUT: If the JFK hit is the great conspiracy - or at least in your Top Five - Chomsky seems to be saying here that the government has been engaged in a conspiracy to mislead people into thinking that the government conspires to mislead people.

Let this sink in.

Or not.

Does Chomsky make a valid point here? A sound one?

See you on the Other Side of the Looking Glass.

Some Other Reading I Did Before I Bloviated; Lots of the Quoted Material Is Found Here:
"Hillary Clinton Is Serious About UFOs," by AJ Vicens, Mother Jones, 25 March, 2016

"Hillary Clinton Gives UFO Buffs Hope She Will Open the X-Files," by Amy Chozick, New York Times, 10 May 2016

"What Hillary Clinton Says About Aliens Is Totally Misguided," by Natalie Drake, National Geographic, 11 May 2016

"A Guide to the Many Conspiracy Theories Donald Trump Has Embraced," by Brett Neely, NPR, 24 May 2016

"Welsh Government Uses Klingon to Respond to Serious UFO Questions," by Sebastian Anthony, Ars Technica, 12 July 2015

"The Government Tested a Flying Saucer in 1956. Here's the Full Report," by Rebecca Onion, Slate, 11 July 2013

June 1962 issue of Paul Krassner's The Realist: Krassner reported that UFOs were really diaphragms dropped by nuns on their ascent to heaven.

"NASA Preps Real Flying Saucer For Takeoff," by Amanda Kooser, CNET, 19 May 2014

"US Secretly Run by Nazi Space Aliens, Says Iranian News Agency"

"Alien Nation: Have Humans Been Abducted By Extraterrestials?," by Ralph Blumenthal, Vanity Fair, 10 May 2013 (Robert Redford planned a film about heretic Harvard psychologist John Mack)

OG here: Just a thought: why worry about possible Extraterrestrial Intelligence "visiting" us, when we already have yellow slime-mold intelligence, a jellyfish takeover in the making, and thousands of asteroids that can wipe us out?  And nota quite bene I'm not even mentioning the antibiotic apocalypse, runaway global warming, AI singularity Worst Case scenarios, or the Trump Presidency.

Have a fine day!

                                           אמנות על ידי בוב קמפבל

Friday, May 20, 2016

Synthetic Biology and Giambattista Vico

Less than two months ago as I write this, J. Craig Venter and his team published in Science the deets on how they built a synthetic organism, called "Syn3.0," and it's got only 473 genes. This is the lowest number of genes that we know of for a self-replicating living thing that doesn't require a host.

It's a sober-seeming Frankenstein scene, is it not?

HERE is a nice write-up in Nature on this

They did this via trial and error; they didn't build Syn3.0 from scratch. They took a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, which lives in cattle, and painstakingly and systematically knocked out genes to see if they were truly essential. If a gene seemed to be essential for life, or a gene played a critical role in the regulation of other genes, they left it in. They whittled away a lot.

A complex bacterium like E. coli has around 6000 genes; humans have around 19,500.

What appears most fascinating to Venter and his crew (and me too) is this: once they finished and confirmed they had synthesized/whittled away a new organism, they still couldn't figure out exactly what 149 of the 473 genes did that were so essential to life. So: we don't know 1/3 of what is essential to life. We have our work cut out for us...or these synthetic biologists/fancy bio-hackers do.

The rest of us, like the girl who just ate a slice of pizza with anchovies, wait with baited breath.

This highlights how much we don't know, and makes ever-clearer the reason why, after Venter and scientists working for the Unistat government "mapped" the human genome 13-16 years ago, miracle breakthroughs in health and medicine did not pour forth immediately after.

                                              a human-made bacterium, believe it or not
A Variation on a Theme
My favorite analogous explanation for this went something like: for hundreds of years we heard wonderful music but weren't sure where it was coming from. Through a Herculean effort by legions of biologists, eventually we learned that this music had the structure of something we discovered was a "piano." Tremendous efforts by public sector genius and private wizards finally produced a map of the music: a Steinway piano! What a fantastic discovery of human ingenuity!

But then: you need to learn how to play Beethoven. Just having the piano and knowing that you press certain keys little hammers inside struck strings and made "notes"? Not good enough. We had to actually understand the thing. We had to learn how to play something like the Appassionata

Tall order? Of course! Would we shrink from it and ditch our lessons and not practice our Hanon exercises? No. We're all in. Here's where Vico makes his entrance...

Expository Material
Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), an early admirer of Descartes, later did a 180 from "Renato" (as Vico refers to him in his Autobiography) and said no: it's not correct that we humans can only truly have knowledge of the physical world because we can apply our rationality and math to understand it; Renato said we can't know the human past, so forget about it. Vico said, anzi, we can only truly know what we have ourselves made: the social world. Law, politics, art, history, etc. Even mathematics is a human construction. We did not make Nature, so we can't truly know it. Scholars of Vico (who call themselves Vichians and not Viconians) refer to this idea as Vico's principle of verum factum

Because of verum factum, various scholars have called Vico the first Anthropologist, the inventor of the sociology of knowledge, the first great modern sociologist, etc. It's interesting. I don't know what to think, because Vico's writing - especially in his magnum opus The New Science - seems to alternate between staggeringly prescient ideas and really crazy and "wrong" ones. Here is one of his most famous passages, and the one cited most often with regard to verum factum:

Still, in the dense and dark night which envelopes remotest antiquity, there shines an eternal and inextinguishable light. It is a truth which cannot be doubted: The civil world is certainly the creation of humankind. And consequently, the principles of the civil world can and must be discovered within the modifications of the human mind. If we reflect on this, we can only wonder why all the philosophers have so earnestly pursued a knowledge of the world of nature, which only God can know as its creator, while they neglected to study the world of nations, or civil world, which people can in fact know because they created it. The cause of this paradox is that infirmity of the human mind noted in Axiom 63. Because it is buried deep within the body, the human mind naturally tends to notice what is corporeal, and must make a great and laborious effort to understand itself, just as the eye sees all external objects, but needs a mirror to see itself. - section 331, translation by Dave Marsh

A couple of notes:
- The Inquisition was very strong in Naples, when Vico was doing his thing. The reference to "God" in his text is problematic, to my eyes. Perhaps he truly believed all the things he says about "God," but I see plenty of room for doubt. In his Autobiography he certainly seems to have been heavily influenced by Lucretius, who popularized Epicurus. Vico also has plenty of oblique things to say about the deep and enduring history of class warfare and he doesn't seem all that admiring of history's aristocracy. Vico was one of those thinkers who seemed to have read everything available; he had personally known thinkers around Naples who had paid for speaking out for thought free of Church restrictions. He certainly had read about others who'd suffered at the hands of the Inquisition.

-Hobbes and many other thinkers of antiquity and the Renaissance had ideas like verum factum, but they only mentioned this notion in passing; with Vico this idea is central to his thought.

-Axiom 63 reads thus:
Because of the senses, the human mind naturally tends to view itself externally in the body, and it is only with great difficulty that it can understand itself by means of reflection. This axiom offers us this universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are transferred from physical objects and their properties to signify what is conceptual and spiritual. 

Finally: OG's Point, If Indeed He Has One?
When I first delved into Vico I thought verum factum was wrong: the revolution in modern science since the Renaissance was based on a special way of looking into nature: some phenomenon needed to be explained, hypotheses competed until a line of very fecund thought - a theory - led to a cascade of knowledge about the physical world. Ideas were freely exchanged and published and the idea that my experiment, while exciting, needed to be replicated by many others working independently for it to be considered "true"...this seemed to me like a vast leap in human knowledge. At the same time, the idea of "knowledge" in the Humanities (which to this day I love with a very deep passion) was not making gigantic strides. When scientific knowledge cashed out into Technology, which accelerated the human world, I just thought Vico, while exceedingly erudite and weird and entertaining, was a bit daft here.

Later, when reading people like Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Foucault and Latour, I realized the physical sciences didn't actually work as neatly as I'd been led to believe. Further, the most successful physical theory ever - the quantum theory - led to philosophical quagmires dizzying and surreal. Did we really understand the physical world, or did we pragmatically go with what worked, while retroactively explaining what was "really" going on?

                                          Richard Feynman's blackboard at CalTech                           

Apocalypse and/or Utopia
Now, we are making living things. I'm quite sure Syn3.0 is merely the first of thousands of human-made living things. And Venter and his colleagues are playing Creator in order to understand, at a fine-grain level, the physical, chemical and biological way something does its thing.

Is verum factum then a "dead" idea? I don't know, but when Venter and his guys came up with an artificial living thing a few years ago, it prompted Obama to issue a bioethics review and the Vatican challenged Venter on his claim of creating life. And so has it ever been...

Finally: if you read the link to the article in Nature, you may have noted that Venter and his crew inserted their own names - literally - into the deep structure of Syn3.0. Why? As watermarks, a way of marking this territory of Life as human-made. They also inserted some quotes and one was from Richard Feynman's blackboard, as seen in the photo above: "What I cannot create I do not understand."

Sounds a lot like Vico to me.

"In Newly-Created Life Form, a Major Mystery," by Emily Singer

"Scientists Synthesize the Shortest Known Genome Necessary For Life," by Amina Khan

"Why Would Scientists Want to Build a Human Genome From Scratch?", by Sally Adee

The New Science, by Giambattista Vico, translated by Dave Marsh


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Updates and Re-Takes On Some Old Posts: Toxo, Hot Peppers and Boredom

A. Toxoplasmosis 
I had written a bit on Toxoplasmosis gondii  HERE. This is a weird microbe that infects around 11% of Unistatians and other countries have a much higher infection rate. If infected by this parasite, most people's immune systems keep it in check; for others it appears to get into the brain, cause cysts there (Ew!), and very weird stuff: it makes women more aggressive; men become more impulsive and less fearful when they probably should be cautious. One way we get it is via contact with domesticated cat feces. It rarely kills anyone; it simply makes them act strangely.

Right after I wrote about it, another study came out. (Secondhand HERE.) Its lead author, E.Fuller Torrey, thinks cats should be seen as more dangerous than most of us think they are. Having a cat around in your childhood might lead to schizophrenia or other mental illness in adulthood, their study suggests.

Sidelight: Interestingly to sombunall readers of this blog, Dr. Torrey published a book on Ezra Pound in 1984; I've read it: Torrey thinks Pound and his pals in high places got away with pulling a fast one on the Unistat gummint: Pound was found, basically, insane for broadcasting his at-times vile antisemitic thoughts over the radio with Mussolini's imprimatur, and therefore Pound avoided a death sentence for treason.

Adding to this bizarre infection, a study in France sought to understand the possible evolutionary aspect of Toxo. Some chimps were infected with it, and urine from a leopard didn't scare them away like it should have. Today, mice and rats infected with Toxo aren't afraid of domesticated cats like they ought to be, for their own survival. I also learned that lions and tigers are not predators of chimps, but leopards are. I will never become a zoologist at this point...

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky is fascinated by the Toxo research, while his equally brilliant colleague at Stanford's rival, U. of California at Berkeley, Michael B. Eisen, said this study is interesting, but the chimps' sense of smell could be set off by factors other than their Toxo infection.

So: Toxo may have jumped from being incubated in the guts of a Big Cat, to domesticated cats circa 15,000 years ago. But I don't see the evolutionary Big Picture of Toxo, other than it's doing what it's got to do to keep going generation after generation, like viruses. It makes some of us act really weird, and humans in our pre-history who ended up being eaten by big cats? They're not any of our ancestors. I'd like to hear an Intelligent Design person explain this one.

B. On Hot Peppers
Three and a half years ago I blogged about, among other things, my love for very hot peppers, and how I might have hallucinated in a Thai restaurant near Berkeley due to an extreme hot pepper event. I still chase after the buzz, and the quest to develop the hottest peppers in the world continues unabated.

Recently I ran across a fascinating article by a Berkeley writer (who I only know by name), Andrew Leonard. "Why Revolutionaries Love Spicy Food: How the Chili Pepper Got To China."

Now, I consider Nautilus one of the best online magazines, but the comments for this article were, I thought, really horrid. So many fine points made by Leonard missed! (Also: Leonard invites semantic reaction by asserting that "revolutionaries" like really hot peppers, when he really only makes a strong case for those Chinese coming out of Sichuan Province.) Was George Washington a lover of hot peppers? Doing the research: no. Karl Marx? Probably not. Che? He appears to have liked spicy food, but he didn't make a huge deal out of it. One of the highlights of Leonard's piece is the story of how former German schoolteacher Otto Braun, turned Soviet counter-espionage agent, was sent to advise Mao, and couldn't get used to the very spicy food, and Mao is quoted, "The food of the true revolutionary is red pepper."

U. of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin had long been interested in why some people really love hot, spicy foods and peppers. Why do peppers seem "hot" when they aren't? Because capsaicin activates pain receptors (called TRPV1) for actual hot things. It's a delightful glitch, methinks. Rozin thought people attracted to hot peppers and who enjoy the taste and the pain must be the same sorts of people who are thrill-seekers, chance-takers...maybe even revolutionaries? Mao thought the pepper-lover is ready to fight and win; Rozin later coined the term "benign masochism" for pepper-lovers.

(So who are the malignant masochists? Poor Trump supporters?)

Decades after Rozin's guesses about hot pepper-lovers, research has validated his ideas. A Penn.State study showed a significant correlation between "sensation seeking" and love for hot peppers. (Italics mine to remind you it's tentative.)

Leonard goes into the history of Sichuan Province: where, about 250 years after Columbus, hot peppers made their way and grew easily and cheaply and preserved themselves for long periods and added flavor to dishes, vitamins B and C, and were antibacterial to boot.

The history of Sichuan and its de-population in the 16th century due to banditry, famine and rebellions, followed by an influx of 1.7 million the next century (fall of the Ming, rise of the Qing) is one Leonard tries to tie with the hot and humid province, the ying/yang medicinal philosophy, the cheapness of raising hot peppers there, and risk-taking personalities on the move due to internal strife. Because these hardy souls lived through tough times and migrated to Sichuan from other parts of China, the idea is that revolutionary personalities are prevalent there. And hey, I dig a spicy-food-loving lady too. But the neurobiological research so far shows that these pepper-lovers may just be more thrill-seeking; I think political revolutionary is a mere sub-type. Still, read the article, 'cuz it's pretty good if you're into that sorta thing.

It seems people are probably not born with a penchant for spicy hot peppers, and need to become habituated. I think I habituated myself, and it could be because I'm what Linda Bartoshuk calls a "nontaster": the number of fungiform papillae on my tongue make me like my coffee black and strong, my beer very hoppy and bitter, my peppers really hot, etc. However, I have never considered myself a thrill-seeker in the ordinary sense of the term. I do seek novelty...

C. On Boredom
I assayed some aspects - mostly my subjectivity - toward boredom HERE. With the availability heuristic - or is it more like "priming"? - once I've written on some topic, that topic suddenly appears everywhere.

A book called Unbored came to my attention. Although it's for younger people, I saw a lot of my own thinking on the topic reflected there. In delving into Robert Anton Wilson's Sex, Drugs and Magick, looking for a reference about something else, I happened to re-read a part of RAW's discussion of Aleister Crowley's book Diary of a Drug Fiend:

In the third, and most controversial part of the book, "Purgatorio", Peter and Lou attempt a cure under the auspices of a mysterious magician named King Lamus - a thinly disguised portrait of Crowley himself. At the Abbey of Thelema (based on an actual religious retreat once run by Crowley in Sicily), Peter and Lou are put in a situation where all the cocaine and heroin they could possibly want is immediately and easily available to them. King Lamus tells them, using Crowley's favorite slogan, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

There is a gimmick, of course. In fact, there are several gimmicks. The abbey, although hardly as austere as a Christian monastery, is quite isolated from civilization; Peter and Lou are soon confronted with the most underrated but powerful force in the world - boredom. There are no movies, nightclubs, or other distractions. When they complain, King Lamus tells them again, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." They soon discover that, in spite of their hedonistic existence, they have never actually done their "will" in a profound sense, but have only followed momentary whims. Isolated at the abbey, they are forced to ask themselves, again and again, what they truly do "will" for their subsequent lives.

Take a few moments to ponder this?

Boredom is being tackled by neuroscientists: if you've ever been tackled by a neuroscientist, you know what I mean. But I jest. Scientist Bill Greisar says of boredom that it's so pervasive it "suggests it serves some critical role in behavior." Which I think Crowley - a more interesting psychologist to my eyes - saw in the early part of the century. In one of many articles on boredom studies, Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage comes up, as does Dickens, and the idea of one thinker that boredom is a milder form of disgust, which took me some time to "see." (Right now, I've gone back to not "seeing" much of a relationship between Boredom and Disgust, and I'm afraid it simply was never meant to be. I'd like to fix up Boredom with Anger...)

Many studies have shown that boring activities lead to more creativity, even boring reading activities. ("In some circumstances" was the caveat from one researcher.)

In a creative activity bored subjects performed better than distressed, elated and relaxed subjects. (I wonder how they provoked elation?) The physiology of boredom is interesting: you're more stressed (cortisol in bloodstream), with an increased heart rate, unmotivated by your surroundings, and have a difficult time sustaining attention.

What could be the purpose of boredom? A Texas A&M study suggests boredom is something like hunger or thirst: it motivates you to change your immediate circumstances. You seek novelty, new goals and situations. "By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed." Anticipation of a change in mental state is associated with our old pal Dopamine.

Philosopher Andreas Elpidorou says boredom is essential for a decent life and life without it would be a nightmare.

Around the same time, I stumbled upon the idea that, how can we still be bored in the 21st century? The idea is that too much stimulation is boring.

Since my initial blog on boredom, I've become convinced that I do get bored. It's probably not true of my assertion that I'm never bored. It's a matter of degree, which reduces to the felt amount of time bored, which for me isn't much. Id est: my moments of boredom are so brief, I don't frame them as "me being bored." I simply move on to the next thing. And there are endlessly interesting things of easy avail to me. Perhaps I'm some sort of intelligent simpleton?

I consider my lifetime love of reading here paramount. How many departures from my paramount "reality" are available to me in books? It's endless. It's good for a reliable squirt of dopamine into my brain-pan.

Not long ago I read a wonderful novella by Anton Chekhov, The Story of a Nobody, from around 1893. The description of the main male antagonist's friend, a logical man named Pekarasky, who can multiply two three-digit numbers in his head immediately, has railway and finance tables memorized, can convert currencies mentally and accurately:

But for this extraordinary intelligence many things that even a stupid man knows were quite incomprehensible. Thus he could not understand at all why it is that people get bored, cry, shoot themselves and even kill others, why they worry about things and events that do not affect them personally, and why they laugh when they read Gogol or Saltykov-Schedrin. 

Is this not a creepy guy, this Pekarsky? Doesn't something about him seem vaguely monstrous to you?

Walker Pearcy's theory of hurricanes seems to fit in here nicely. Malaise and despair and world-weariness can be fixed by a you-must-act-now situation, which is the hurricane. My view is that we need to pay attention and develop a mental "patch" so that it doesn't require a hurricane or car accident in order to make our interiorities vital again.

                                           kunst: Mr. Bob Campbell