Overweening Generalist


Sunday, April 13, 2014

If You're Bored, Don't Read This

Or, on second thought, go ahead and read; I mean: why not? It's not like you have anything better to do, fer crissakes.

I can't find the source for a quote I'm about to fake, but I'm fairly sure it was either Timothy Leary or Robert Anton Wilson who said that, if you're bored you're boring. Does that seem callous to you? It does to me, or did. Now I see it as a tremendous spur, because when I read the quote - wherever the damned thing is - I had been well on my way to a personal abolition of boredom. I testify here: I'm never bored. (I will admit that I simply may not perceive myself as being bored, even when some fMRI shows my state to be very much like another's who testified that they are bored, but this line of thought could easily veer into some arcane spiel, which I shall resist.)

"Someone please text me. I'm bored." - seen far too often in CraigsList personals.

                                         Laurence Sterne, author of Tristam Shandy

If we're all caught up in the Infinite Goof - and I think we are - boredom seems some sort of faulty mechanism which we needn't accede to. To those who are bored, easily bored, usually bored, find most people boring, or were not bored but are now that they've read this far: let us assign blame to the school system, which never taught us how to rewire our nervous systems to avoid boredom. Or blame Bad Economics, your parents, your diet and genome, and Other People. Once we've assigned blame, we feel cleansed, absolved of a bad habit (?) such as boredom, and decide to never be bored again. I assert it's a worthy goal. Why not give it a shot? I suspect exactly 13 of you are way ahead of me on this one.

Oh, but there "really are" so many dreadfully boredom-inducing things out there, you say. Bullshit. To steal gleefully from Billy the Shakes and warp him a tad: nothing is either boring or not but thinking makes it so.

Gawd, you might be thinking: this Overweening Generalist dude is a simpleton! Ha! Maybe, but the old game of equating sophistication with being bored with what the lower-minds find accessible and fun? I'm not buying. Your above-it-all Weltschmerz isn't working and I hate to say it, but you look like a damned fool to me, usually.

Back to the Infinite Goof: I don't see the world as an Epic, with all the breathtaking events swirling around me, and myself in the center of History. We do know some friends who seem sort of like this, no? Hey, if it works for them and their marvelously endowed egos: let them enjoy their narratives. How fantastic these lives are to those living in them! And we get to play some small part!

Neither do I see the world as a Tragedy or a Melodrama; those who do - they seem to never know this about themselves! - seem so boring that they're of a passing fascination to me. I listen, probe, try to get into the head space in which the keynotes of every day seem to point to boundless Tragedy or soapy Melodrama. (There are Good People and Bad People, dontcha know? And me and my friends are the Good People...

Uh-huh...What's the payoff?)

Yes, you're not hallucinating: by dint of my writing about boredom in this way, I seem to be arguing that boredom is interesting (or: not boring) to me.

In an Infinite Goof life is more like a Black Comedy. I cop to it: I live in a Black Comedy. Almost all of my favorite writers seem to live in one, too. We humans have made up almost everything we take very seriously...and forgotten we did this. We assert a Free Will, but that's quite debatable. Certainly the frontal cortex thinks it's running the entire show, but the lower half of our brains, and our amygdalas and oh hell: the limbic system in toto: they act and speak in ways quite contrary and perplexing to "us."

"What was I thinking when I did X (not the drug, but the variable that X stands for)?" Indeed.

Paraphrasing William James: Of course everything is determined and yet our wills are free. A sort of free-willed determinism must be the run of the game.

If that's not cosmically hilarious to you, you might not be paying attention.

"A subject for a great poet would be God's boredom after the seventh day of creation," Nietzsche says. A funny line? You're with me if you said aye.

Now, accidents do happen and some of our fellow humans find themselves mired in sadnesses and depressions and crippling anxieties and fears and it's nothing to joke about. But it does seem to lend credence to the Black Comedy model: a war criminal like Dick Cheney not only got away with it, he's smiling and has many fans and yet another book out, huge advance, and gets to air his ghoulish opinions on dipshit TV "news" as if he's a wizened Elder Statesman. Meanwhile, you remember that happy-go-lucky guy from high school? The one who liked everyone and was fun to be around? Remember when he cut all his hair off in solidarity with that other student who got cancer? Some of us followed suit and sheared their locks too. Yea, him. His wife died in a car accident (drunk driver), then he lost his job and I saw him the other day, looking like crap, begging for change outside a Starbucks.

Justice? A noble social construct. The preceding paragraph illustrates why I don't see the world as a Farce. Too much suffering. Too little equity and justice, too much luck and chance.

Robert Anton Wilson turned me on to life as a Black Comedy, and that a major, always-ongoing activity in life must be to learn how to "use your brain for fun and profit." I'm working on it, always. I have my days.

The Black Comedy is life inside the Infinite Goof, and I rather like it here. In Laurence Sterne's eternally delightful novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, Shandy's father, in conversation with Uncle Toby, asserts "Every thing in this world [...] is big with jest, - and has wit in it, and instruction too, - if we can but find it out." (Book V, chapter 32)

I've been reading more and more about pleasure and human evolution and confess I'm quite taken with ideas about us humans stumbling onto more and more ways to modulate our "selves" - our inner states -  in order to feel good. Or at least: better than that last brain-state, which could have been more pleasant than it turned out to be. You're thinking: drugs? I'm saying: yes. You're thinking: sex? I'm retorting: of course! What do you think I am, a damned eejit? Hell: masturbation, a perennial hot topic for me, even if it's clearly not for most others, judging by how quickly they withdraw themselves from the midst of me when I broach the subject.

And so I often find myself alone, abandoned at a gala. May as well rub one out...

Play. Humor. Invention. Tinkering. And oh my lawd: daydreaming, sooo underrated. Not underrated but seemingly essential play: music. Make it, listen to it. Really listen. Feel the music activate the bioelectric circuitry of your brain and bod, one brain module secreting dopamine and faxing it to another area of your brain, which in turn spray-bathes its own endogenous euphorics onto the finest neurons, temporarily coating your precious grey goo with glee...and this all due to a blistering guitar solo! Think of the effort that guitarist put forth, only to do that to my brain. Thanks, man. Maybe I should actually buy your CD, rather than downloading it gratis. (In truth, I've never downloaded any music from the Net, for free. Ever.)

And yes: engaging our sensoria with media such as this thing you're doing right now. Are you bored? If so, I blame you, mostly. I will accept part of the blame, if only to make you feel better.

The line from Shandy's pop reminded me of feelings I get when I read Buddhist or Taoist texts. And, on a level inchoate to me now: the impetus of comedy. The problem seems to me: if you don't get the joke...you don't get the joke. Which in turn feeds me more of the Black Comedy vibe.

Anyway, the topic I've been tap dancing around here seems timeless. David Foster Wallace, in his posthumous novel The Pale King, has a not-named character say:

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive...To be, in a word, unborable. (p.438)

What gets me there is 1.) "unborable" and 2.) "conditioned". Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Brief Notes and Illustrations on the Illuminating Aspects of Studying Advertising


"Now that I have your attention..." <----That's an old chestnut in advertising.

Friends, the Overweening Generalist knows his Readers, and they're the finest. The Overweening Generalist, furthermore, knows you're free and intelligent and you could choose any blog to read but you've chosen this one, right now, and the Overweening Generalist KNOWS as well as you do that in the end this is really only just another damned blog (hey, we get tired of blogs too sometimes when they don't measure up). But the Overweening Generalist feels humbled, and hopes to bring the discerning, no-bullshit Reader real VALUE, and free, instant and new information you can use.

Doesn't advertising suck ass? I mean, who says it better than (maybe)Banksy? Here he talks about advertisers "taking the piss out of you" and that they're "laughing at you" and you know every bit written inside that Coke bottle is true, right? Deface ads!Let's take back our selves, values, consciousness and let the goddamned advertisers peddle their papers somewhere else!

Or maybe even better than (maybe) Banksy was Bill Hicks (died 1994). Here he is, for less than 3 minutes of your precious time: [NSFW]

This fascinated me, because Adam Corner wrote a fairly brilliant piece for Aeon that pretty much covered what Hicks was saying here, circa 1992. Corner's piece was from November, 2013. A researcher in psychology, Corner writes, "The advertising industry anticipates and then absorbs its own opposition, like a politician cracking jokes at his own expense to disarm hostile media." Corner seems to be getting at the deep structure of advertising when he writes that ads and the people who engineer them systematically promote clusters of values that are antithetical to pro-social or pro-environment attitudes. Who cares about the problems of sustainability of human life, or that the stock market was recently revealed as being fixed, or that your neighbors were downsized and now being unfairly foreclosed upon by a predatory bank? The new i-Gadget is out! And you know you NEED one now, if you're ever going to stand a chance to be happy again.

Buy this thing. Do it. For yourself. You owe yourself. If you make yourself happy, you might make others around you happy, and Everyone wins.

Do you want to know what's one of the most fascinating things on Ad folks' minds? Well, I'll tell you: they spend a lot of money to understand how you (18-35 year olds who have education and some spending money) are cynical about ads. They need to know as much as possible about how you feel distaste towards certain ads, and why. They know a lot about your values and how you think. They are truly fascinated with your highly sophisticated understandings of what advertising does, and how it works. 

So they can sell you stuff. Stuff you probably don't need or even want. Stuff that you'll look at after two weeks and say to yourself, "What was I thinking?" Lots of people - like Banksy and Bill Hicks and Adbusters and the brilliant people who put together the video (below) - think advertising is evil. I think it's a strong point but sort of wrong, but before I elucidate, please watch this. I'll be right back after this very important message:

Generic Brand Video Click HERE Now

Does this nail the ad people or what? I think it's "spot" (HA!) on. It seems like Good Work to me, but who's buying? Didn't you already know this shit? Of course you have a DVR and fast-forward through almost every commercial, but you still like to pick apart every ad you (happen to note) see with your friends, right? It's fun...They can't put anything over on you and your pals, can They?

We "don't even look" at the ads in glossy magazines or online; we can't "afford to spend the time." But by definition we don't know how much those ads affected us subliminally. 

Have They co-opted dissent now, making dissent into a marketing tool? Is this notion too depressing to deal with right now? Want a nice tall cool beverage?

Advertisers Versus Intelligent Consumers: A Dialectic

Recently I read a precis for some academic's PhD dissertation about James Joyce and advertising in Ulysses, a novel I will always be reading off and on until I die. Most of you know one of the main characters, Leopold Bloom, sells ads, analyzes ads, dreams up ideas for ads. It's 1904, so the psychology and science of manipulation and persuasion is in its infancy. The academic, Matthew Hayward, discovered that Joyce made annotations to a pamphlet titled Advertising, Or The Art of Making Known, by Howard Bridgewater, circa 1910. It had been thought by most Joyce scholars that Joyce did this in order to procure employment at a bank, but Hayward sees it as Joyce's way of getting into that part of Bloom's advertising-mind.

Adam Corner's article (linked to above), and the (maybe) Banksy and Bill Hicks and the satirical expose of generic brand ad-writing are, as I see it, part of the historical ying-yang of ads, persuasion, manipulation and much of the world as we know it, circa 1900-NOW. Let us all study advertising in our own idiosyncratic ways, because then we learn more about ourselves as consumers of ideas and goods, it keeps us on our toes, exhilarated and more mentally alert, we learn a lot about the mechanisms of advertising and our fellow citizens, and finally, we learn quite a huge lot about human psychology and mass manipulation.

My main influence in this is Marshall McLuhan, who, in a piece called "Love-Goddess Assembly Line" (published in his seminal, whacked, hyper-creative, cranky-Catholic-conservative, Joyce-Pound-Wyndham Lewis-influenced The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man), discussed two juxtaposed ads from the 1940s (the book was published in 1951!), one for soap and one for women's girdles, and showed how women seemed to be mass-produced off an assembly line. This particular essay (the whole book is amazing, even when McLuhan seems oh-so-very wrong) has McLuhan playing "anthropologist". He wants to be able to READ advertising and make it tell us something very deep and non-trivial about the culture we inhabit. He's always pointing out recurring patterns and symbols and how symbols migrate, he's "probing" before he came to terms with this term. 

"No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations," McLuhan writes. This line follows very closely on a quote from Cecil B. DeMille, who decries how young female would-be actresses in Hollywood all start to look the same to him. McLuhan had wondered why himself, he wants a better science of popular culture imagery and text; he wants to discern themes and their variations in the underlying "laws" that "will mould its songs and art and social expression." 

McLuhan then utters a nice line of what we now call "physics envy" from another major influence, Alfred North Whitehead:

"A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, 'some theory of discontinuous existence is required.' But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today a vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all." 

McLuhan then says this is where the ad agencies come in. He sees them as very useful toward focusing the multiple perspectives we must live with and understand. Dig this from McLuhan about advertisers:

"They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. [McLuhan later called this "macro-gesticulation" - OG] They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking through into the Alice In Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer's unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence."

Look at ads this way! Why not? Assume McLuhan's basically right: the advertisers are - ironically - unconsciously revealing all kinds of things about human non-conscious motivation. 

The history of advertising can be fascinating and ultra-instructive. Some of my favorite texts have been: 

A lot, maybe most, ads fail. 

Chomsky has often used the term "intellectual self-defense," but much of advertising now bypasses (or tries to) our rational, "intellectual" mind and instead appeal to the limbic, emotional brain, and even the "reptilian" brain stem. In my experience, studying ads is at first "intellectual" because we're so used to reading. But after some time, signals from the non-rational parts of your brain will arrive at your frontal cortex and you will gain some insight. This seems very much like reading an ambiguous text, because, unless you can find and buttonhole the main ad-entity behind the studied ad, you will only have interpretations. Make yours rich!

We like to convince ourselves we're impervious to the power of ads, that they're strictly for schmucks. How wrong we are. They are an exceedingly rich source for probing the deep structure of the paideuma.

I hope you enjoyed my little piece on hacking advertising. You may be aware I was changing fonts throughout, in hopes of maintaining your interest. I also employed some big-assed font sizes, hoping to keep you reading. You may also have noted this blogspew appeared on April 1st, and wonder if the OG-dude is playing your for a Fool.

Again, you will only have interpretations

Are we cool? 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Recent Research on Odors

Last July I read a delightful essay by a former chemistry teacher, who was responding to an article in Scientific American that defended the minor, competing theory of how olfaction works in humans, and presumably, other mammals and critters: that each molecule has quantum vibration, and this is what distinguishes smells for us. A hydrogen atom in a molecule was substituted with a heavier deuterium isotope, which technically did not change the molecular structure of the original, but both flies and people could smell the difference. Previously, the idea of a quantum vibration working in the nervous system was laughed at by detractors as "fashionable junk science." The reigning idea of olfaction is that  a molecule docks in one of our 400-or-so different receptors on the olfactory bulb, and each receptor acts in concert with the others. Once docked, a chain reaction occurs and the brain recognizes, "Hey that smells like sandalwood," or "Ewww! What smells like rotten eggs in here?" The author of the essay, Ruchira Paul, wasn't entirely convinced of the quantum vibrational theory, but was still open to it.

What I liked most was Ruchira's observations that we have a limited vocabulary for odors, we don't have accurate standards for measuring smells, that our memory of odors lasts longer than our memory of sights, and that our sense of scents seemed uniquely intimate in its link with our own biographies and memories, our history. Thus seems probably because olfaction is part of the limbic system. She writes that smells are the "forgotten sense" in the semantic sense that, among psychophysical testing of our perceptual apparatuses, researchers have had better instruments to test our range of detection of differences in sight and sound, because they are purely physical phenomena, while our sense of smell and taste are chemical and thus more unwieldy and difficult to measure.

The physics: we have three light receptors, and researchers have estimated humans can distinguish about 10 million colors. Wavelengths of light turned out to be quite amenable to measurement.

Our ears are very complex, miraculous little organs working in concert, and biophysical research in the branch of physics called acoustics found that humans could distinguish differences in around 500,000 wavelengths of sound, and we now know that this number diminishes with age. (<---Depressingly, I found I dropped out at 14kHz. And yes, I'm close to twice 25.)

But what about odors? Chemistry-detection/measurement turned out to be more of a sticky wicket. Many of us grew up hearing and believing that we humans are completely defeated by dogs in our ability to detect odors. If you have an old biology textbook hanging around the house it probably says humans can perceive about 10,000 different odors, while dogs detect 300,000,000. This turns out to be a vastly un-empirical guesstimate from the 1920s. How far-off the guesstimate was we'll get to in a moment.

A year ago, March 2013, I began doing some research on medical diagnoses via analysis odors, because of all those articles on dogs I'd read over the years: how they could detect cancer and all that. It turned out to be fascinating, hot, exciting stuff, and maybe I'll do a separate blogspew on it one day, but just a quick diversion into that area...

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles say, of course: obesity is not difficult to detect. I mean, just look at that dude! And why are people obese? Well, obviously: they eat too much and don't exercise enough. Jeez, no foolin' Sherlock? Tell me something we don't know! How about this: when you breathe out certain gas-emitting bacteria from the microbiome in your gut, this may be a deeper reason why you're obese: the ratio of gut bacteria that are associated with fatness versus the gut bacteria that are not? The implications are <ahem> large. And this gives our overweight loved ones cause for hope, because if we can figure out how to alter our gut bacteria ratio via drugs or even simple probiotics? We could be on the way to defeating obesity. (And oh man! This has become a hot research topic; there's a lot riding on making this work.) ("Doctors Detect Obesity Bug On Breath")

Also, dig: 11 months ago, in PLOS ONE, a possible discovery of individual human metabolic phenotypes! (Human wha?) Okay, our gadgets are now becoming so sophisticated that the chemical world is becoming much easier to map, finally. Maybe it will soon catch up with purely physical phenomena we can measure. But researchers in Zurich, noting that, despite fluctuating factors involving diet and the gut microbiome, people's urine remained "highly individual," and that urine phenotypes (phenotypes: that which we can observe; genotypes: an organism's genetic makeup which codes for genetic expression that largely gives rise to that which is phenotypic) persist over time. The Zurich researchers used a group of subjects over nine days, exhaling into a machine that handled mass spectrometry, found that "consistent with previous metabolimic studies based on urine, we conclude that individual signatures of breath composition exists." I've even heard this individual-breath signature idea bandied about as a way to get rid of all our passwords, but I'm not sure if the geek was joking or not.

Back to our general sense of smells...

Last September a study appeared in PLOS ONE that I found intriguing: in 1985 a book appeared called Atlas of Odor Character Profiles, by Andrew Dravnieks. Researchers used this book as a basic data set to start with, and with it they have determined there are around ten basic, tightly-structured categories of odor. They are:

1. fragrant
2. woody/resinous
3. fruity (non-citrus)
4. chemical
5. minty/peppermint
6. sweet
7. popcorn
8. lemon
[The last two are both "sickening"]
9. pungent
10. decayed

What they hope to do now is demonstrate the soundness of this - to me, overly-rationalistic take, but what do I know? - model by predicting how a given chemical compound is likely to smell. (My first guess? Number 4.) The researchers used very elaborate statistical techniques to arrive at the 10 and will continue to do so as they test their model. And maybe I shouldn't be so snarky: the basic model for the sense of taste has remained the same for very many years, only going from four to five since 1985 in the West (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, with the relatively recent addition of umami).

I hope these guys are on to something, if only for the reason that we can all internalize these ten categories and then invent more words to describe nuances within each category. With this research, Ruchira Paul's observation that we don't yet have accurate standards by which to measure smell will have been eclipsed by some new, "objective" model.

The Latest: Humans Can Detect One TRILLION Odors ("Conservative Estimate")
You may have heard the news from last week. See HERE for a decent overview. Researchers at Rockefeller University took 26 participants and used 128 different odor molecules. (In the actual phenomenological-existential "real" world there are vastly more odors, but that's why this research is so brilliant: they would test a person by mixing two of three vials with combinations from the 128 odors, and the third one was not the same as the other two. The result: if less than 50% of the molecules are identical, people could still smell the difference! People could tell the difference between the two (same) vials and the one different one. If 51% of the two vials were identical, people could tell. The researchers admitted that often the admixtures of odors from the original 128 were "nasty and weird." Think about it: they could mix 10, 20, or 30 odors, in any combination from the 128. This yields trillions of different scents. And people could detect the differences! One basic odor of the 128 may have been "orange," another "spearmint" or "anise." But they mixed them together in all sorts of groupings. No wonder they were "nasty and weird."

We have around 400 different small receptors, working in concert. A smell of a rose would have around 275 different molecules in unique combination.

One of the olfactory researchers, Andreas Keller, said, "The message here is that we have far more sensitivity in our sense of smell that for which we give ourselves credit. We just don't pay attention to it and don't use it in everyday life."

I want to see this study replicated many times. It almost seems too wonderful to be true. I hope there's no Clever Hans Effect tainting the research. It makes me wonder about training humans to smell cancer like dogs, but we seem so biased toward sophisticated gadgetry in this regard, and against dogs and human perceptual apparatus alone, that I won't hold my breath...or nose.

Imagining Smells: An Uncommon Gift
Or so Oliver Sacks tells us. Most of us have little trouble conjuring in our minds a sight or sound from our vivid past. But it's rare to summon an induced hallucination of odor. However, some can do this, and Sacks relates what one "Gordon C." wrote to him in 2011:

Smelling objects that are not visible seems to have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember....If, for instance, I think for a few minutes about my long dead grandmother, I can almost immediately recall with near-perfect sensory awareness the powder that she always used. If I'm writing to someone about lilacs, or any specific flowering plant, my olfactory senses produce that fragrance. This is not to say that merely writing the word "roses" produces the scent; I have to recall a specific instance connected with a rose, or whatever, in order to produce the effect. I always considered this ability to be quite natural, and it wasn't until adolescence that I discovered it was not normal for everyone. Now I consider it a wonderful gift of my specific brain.
-pp.45-46, Hallucinations

On the other hand, there are other, more terrifying olfactory hallucinations described in this wonderful book: people who had traumatic accidents who were violently attacked or witnessed something horrific will, when by-chance experiencing the smell or similar smells associated with the traumatic moment, might experience a shell-shocked "replay"back to the Very Unpleasant Moment.

Let us tend to those more-common moments when some odor sends us back in time to a more comforting or interesting moment, which seems more common with the olfactory/memory nexus than the triggering of traumatic memories.

Friday, March 14, 2014

On Gossip

I once worked in a music store that was owned by a good Christian family man who had been arrested for molesting children (or so the allegations held). His name appeared in the paper but he never went to prison. This was a long time ago, and I remember finding this out, thinking of my previous moments with the guy (who seemed pent-up but but like a decent guy), and wondering how to know more without appearing that I knew more: what Robert Anton Wilson calls the Burden Of Nescience in a hierarchical social system. I was merely one of many music teachers in the guy's store; I made enough to pay my bills and eat, and buy my girlfriend (and myself) drinks. I couldn't afford to know too much.

However, over the years, I certainly heard a lot. I had soon decided to just doubt everything I heard about him. Why? Well, he was never going to get near any of the kids I taught, but the area I lived in was filled with middle-class christian right wingers and I'd read books like Satanic Panic: rumormongering can really get out of hand. In the end I guess I sorta thought, "If he really is doing this and he keeps doing this he'll get caught and won't be able to buy his way out of it and he'll go to jail and the store will either be run by the family or it'll close down and I'll be out of a job. I won't worry about it until then. And besides: what if he's not guilty?  What if there's something else going on and he has enemies who are trying to ruin him? I'd rather give him a part of the benefit of a doubt and remember no jury heard the evidence and convicted. Imagine what it would be like to be unfairly charged."

That's sorta how I feel about Woody Allen right now: he has a very well-known enemy. I, unlike the normally decent Katie McDonough of Salon, will not convict Woody based on what appears to be hearsay.

I've been thumbing through a bunch of books on gossip: Joseph Epstein's Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (appeared pre-Snowden Era), philosopher Emrys Westacott's The Virtue Of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness and Other Bad Habits (also appeared pre-Snowden), and a few others.

Two Alleged Etymologies For "Gossip"
1. It comes from "god-sibling" and originally pertained to the talk between two god-parents of a child, the talk having to do with the child's well-being.

2. George Washington told his spies to "go-sip" by infiltrating Brit troops and drinking with them, trying to learn of military maneuvers.

                                          Anthropologist Robin Dunbar

Problems With Semantics
The Bible has some line about how "Gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret." It's somewhere in the prequel to The New Testament. How many of us have had unpleasant moments when we found out a friend said something that arrived back at us, thinking our secret was held in confidence? Two years ago I said something that I either didn't know was supposed to have been in confidence, or had forgotten because it seemed trivial, or I was drunk on red zinfandel when hearing that which was supposed to have been confidential. And I later heard about it; I got an earful. I felt like an asshole. The information I had conveyed to a third party was gossipy about the good news of a friend's love life. I could go into why I thought it shouldn't be a secret anyway, but all of this feels catty.

In 5th century BCE Athens, once a year, the citizens could vote to not only ostracize but send into exile anyone who seemed to have too much dirt on others, or anyone who seemed potentially too tyrannical or possessed with the idea of power over others. We don't do this anymore, but should we? (Or do we still do the exile trip, but in other ways? We shall see...)

Eleanor Roosevelt is usually credited with saying that great minds talk about ideas, average minds events, and small minds talk about other people. How can gossip occur if it's about ideas? I can see certain events having gossipy possibilities. Many of the sections of books and articles I've read on gossip attest to how it's not only unavoidable, but FUN!

Okay, in what sense is it "fun"? At Staffordshire University a study suggests that gossip can be good for our self-esteem, but we need to be nice. Here's how to test it: Say positive things about a fictional person to someone else. Or - but be careful - say nothing but good stuff about a real person. Then note how you feel. Then say a bunch of unsavory things about another fictional person and note how you feel.

In studies about gossip conducted at Berkeley and Stanford, it's suggested that spreading true info about bad actors prevents exploitation, maintains social order, and even lowers stress levels of the gossipers. The researchers emphasize that the content of the gossip in the controlled studies be about "reputational information sharing" and not about petty nitpicking, hearsay unverified, or malicious rumors. The gossip must be reliable. Participants in the study were tested beforehand to determine their relative levels of altruism or selfishness, then they played an online game having to do with economic trust. When it was learned that players can spread gossip (or "knowledge"?) about how another player tends to cheat, the games became more fair, and the most-impacted players were the ones who had scored low on altruism and high on selfishness: knowing that other players know about you and can easily spread info (gossip) about you tended to put you on the straight and narrow.

How does gossip lower stress levels in the gossiper? Answer: Witnessing cheating raised the heart rate; telling someone else about the cheater lowered it.

I read a few articles on the Berkeley-Stanford gossip studies and found them interesting but from what I gathered about the assumptions behind the methodology, it all seems far too artificial and overly-rational. I mean: only "reputational information sharing" was considered gossip (actually: "prosocial" gossip) in the studies? Okay. But in real life, in situ: school, workplace, etc: gossip in more traditional semantic senses can seem fairly malicious. Picking on a kid because he's "weird." Or not beautiful. Or too smart. Or let's all make fun of Helen in Accounting because of that dress. And kids and adults seem perfectly happy to be rumormongers and spread all sorts of malicious hearsay. 'Cuz it's fun! And we're still fairly tribal beings...

Lines from Stephen Burt's poem, "Rue", in which he seems to be replaying his own high school years about The Ramones, what kids wore, how they wrote on every surface, what we all saw going on in the back of the bus between him and her, etc:

Gossip in school makes a kind of electrical storm,
or else
             a medium of exchange:
once you share what you know, then you learn what you can.
-p.42, Belmont

This rings true on a certain anthropological level, and indeed Robin Dunbar's 1997 book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language made quite the splash, the ripples still visible.

Good gossip: spreading true information about actors in a situation
Bad gossip: everything else thought of as "gossip"?

"It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one's own back that are absolutely and entirely true." - Oscar Wilde, from The Picture of Dorian Gray

Other Possible Goods From Gossip
My sources allege that a mild slamming of one's friends and loved ones is understood as "normal" and not egregious. Snobbery has its own occult rules for propriety, to be found out with experience. Snobbery seems related to gossip, but I'm not sure how to delineate it. Rudeness likewise. But: many sources seem to stick up for the salutary aspects alleged by researchers at Berkeley: it could lessen bullying, counteract secrecy, strengthen human relationships, be emotionally cathartic, infuse justice in power structures, and even be a part of Socrates's "examined life."

Or at least that's the buzz around here, lately. This is strictly on the down-low, but the scuttlebutt on gossip is that, if you're relaying true information about good and bad behavior of others in the local environment, it's a socially powerful thing.

I do wonder about the epistemology problems. How does someone know they're relaying something true? It may be called "reputational information sharing" by scholars, but how does a gossiper actually know what they're perceiving is the truth? Perhaps that's beyond the scope of both the researchers' and my own inquiries, but I tend to assume I'm probably missing some information when I engage in this sort of behavior, so I tend to hedge.

Finally here: this business about relaying information that results in salutary outcomes: what of Assange, Snowden, Kiriakou, et.al? If the sort of research results coming out of Berkeley are correct, how does it reflect on The Whistleblowers? Just a thought...

Dishin' It
So...you know the great playwright Arthur Miller? He had a child who was disabled so he dumped the kid in an institution for life, yea. Oh yea. And not long ago I read the wild memoirs of some guy who ran around 1940s-60s Hollywood, and Spencer Tracy? I'd never heard he was gay! (I forget the name of the book, but I could dig it up for you...) Fidel Castro fucked Kenneth Tynan's wife, wow. What do you make of that?

Really: how do you feel when you read that stuff, to whatever degree of truth was there? I feel oddly childish just typing it. And yet: it sort of...seems...kinda...fun. Stanford neurobiologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky enjoys talking about People magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People issue, because he says it shows how we're just like the baboons he's spent decades studying in the wilds of Africa: they are intensely social, like us. They have status hierarchies, like us. And they like hanging with their friends, like us. But when two baboons get into a fight? It's just like the rubberneck session on the freeway: everyone must slow down to gawk at the carnage, the primate-drama of it all.

I Hear This Site Is Really Something To Look At
Hell, I have looked at it. And you probably have too. Frank Warren calls his PostSecret.com  site the "largest advertisement-free blog in the world."

Internet Trolls and Malice of Forethought
Much of the latest "gossip can be good for us" research points out that the scads of heinous, vicious, stupid and downright disturbing comments on the Net are due to anonymity. When there's no price to be paid - from gossip? - viral hatred has free reign. Point well-taken. It's a problem and we're working on it.

Ian Leslie's piece in Aeon
It's here. Why do we overshare online? Because this Net thing caught us evolutionarily off-guard. For most of our existence as hominids we had no walls. Although our saner minds on this issue say we have an instinct for privacy, the evidence shows we have almost no sense of how privacy works on the Net. "Every day, embarrassments are endured, jobs lost and individuals endangered because of unforeseen consequences triggered by a tweet or a status update." Indeed, when I read Leslie's piece it reminded me of a haunting and criminally underrated (so far!) book called Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, that does a fairly thorough job on this phenomena. I found it a page-turner of a non-fiction book, but like a real-life horror-story, seeing as how Niedzviecki wrote it before the Snowden Era and I read it while the Era was giving birth to itself. Sobering as all get the fuck out...Indeed, Leslie in his Aeon piece has a line about the type of person at the NSA who's supposed to be monitoring us that fits in with Niedzviecki's thesis that we're all already spying on each other anyway.

Daniel Kahneman
In another semantic sense of "gossip" the Nobelist in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow freely uses "gossip" as something he wants to encourage: the vocabulary about unconscious biases and their mechanisms that he and his colleague Tversky found and named? He wanted this vocabulary to worm its way to the "water cooler" at work. He thinks it's all gossip-worthy stuff! (And I agree with him. I just wish it actually played out more than it seems to...) (See index or even just pp.3-4)

Wilson's Jocoserious Use of Gossip
Humans' "instinct to gossip" shows up in Robert Anton Wilson's work in a few places. In one of two footnotes on p.302 of his novel The Widow's Son, the 'patapsychologist and "theo-chemist" de Selby has advocated for the flat earth "on the grounds that nobody has 'encountered and endured' a spherical earth (which is a theory generated by 'the instinct to gossip.')" In a piece titled "The Persistence of False Memory," encountered and endured in Wake Up Down There!: The Excluded Middle Anthology, RAW argues that the "instinct to gossip" is AKA public opinion, and falls under the rubric of Preposterous Perception as found in 'Patapsychology, and seems similar to the role of Nietzsche's "will to power" in his books and "the Id" in Freud's books.

Wilson makes us wonder how much of "reality" - our everyday, taken-for-granted assumptions about what is unquestionably "real" - how much of this was generated by gossip? If we keep talking about stuff we can't see, smell, taste, hear, touch, or even detect with any manmade instruments...how "real" is it?

Last Word: Prof. Carlin
Here's something I never knew. Prof. Carlin simply drops this tantalizing hint on p.57 of Napalm and Silly Putty: "At one time there existed an entire race of people whose knowledge consisted entirely of gossip."

I wish he's elaborated, but he was wily that way, even cryptic. But I want to know more. Heck and golly: Enquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Human Voice Quality and the Subconscious and Psychedelia

In order to enact the voice of the Judeo-Xtian "God" one must have a deep and masculine and well-modulated voice. Or so I recall from an old Woody Allen essay. But indeed: when you're casting the Part, if you think of James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman you're probably somewhere near the mainstream. Voices like theirs have gravitas.

My casting would have a lot of people up in arms, but I think I'd like Sandy Wood as my voice of God, or the Goddess, the Head Honcho, the Creator of All Things. Here she is. Just listen to her! (Click on any one of those audio links and note how fantastic she sounds compared to the "experts" who say a few sentences.) I first heard Sandy Wood on the "Stardate" syndicated radio spot on my local AM news radio, late at night. I was completely mesmerized by the quality of her voice, and I will listen to "Stardate"and try to pay attention to the content, but will probably lose out to that part of my brain that processes the musical qualities in human voices. It's not just that Sandy Wood sounds sexy in an otherworldly way - she does to me - but there's something...trippy in her voice. I will admit that the subject matter - constellations, planets, asteroids, the cosmos - seem to fit her voice perfectly, but I think if she read from the telephone book it would still sound pretty cool.

I've long paid attention to outstanding voices, male or female, and I think I'm just weird that way, but also: as a 6-foot-tall, 175 pound heterosexual male, I sound "soft" and nasal-y and maybe a tad effeminate. If I don't consciously lower my voice when answering the phone often the person will call me "Ma'am"...and I don't tell them they're wrong. It's not worth it. I've lost my ego on that. I don't care anymore. I'm secure. They're just doing some survey or they have the wrong number and I don't know why I pick up the phone in the first place these days, what with caller ID.

I remember, around age 20, reading about a social science study that had been replicated many times. They tell three or five male college students they're participating in some study that really has nothing to  do with what they're really studying: they are all sitting in a room talking about the supposed subject. After a period of time, a good-looking female enters the room, taking no notice of the males. She moves some paper around, arranges some things, then leaves. She or another handsome woman come in a few minutes later and rearrange things for a minute, then leave. The males subconsciously lower their voice about an octave when the female is in the room. They're told about it later and are not aware they lowered their voices. The argument had to do with the social construction of masculinity, as I recall, but if that was the purpose, I'm not sure it's all that valid because men might do this for evolutionary reasons.

Anyway, this sort of study made me aware of the possibility that I may be acting "masculine" for reasons that had been beyond my own self-perception, so I quit and made peace with my "soft" non-God-like voice.

At the same time, other voices continue to captivate me. It could be some aspect of timbre, or accent. There are people with not-great voices who enunciate words a certain way and the content of what they're talking about is also so fascinating I can't stop listening. Terence McKenna was like that for me: if he didn't care so much about enunciating words his voice would be nondescript. But he did care about his speech qualities and his content was always completely riveting. To this day, I'll listen to McKenna and get almost as much enjoyment from the quality of his voice as the incredibly interesting topics he riffed on. I still remember the first time I heard him, late night on KPFK-FM from Los Angeles. I think I was literally mesmerized, entranced, enchanted. That voice!

I've been reading about what I'll call musical qualities of speech. Idiolect (definition: "the speech habits peculiar to a particular person") isn't a bad place to hang ideas about how you and your friends sound.

David Antin is a good example of an artist I had read, knowing what I had read was originally an impromptu-speech. Antin does free-style improvisations of talks on very intellectual themes, in front of an audience. He's like a jazz monologist. He records his shows and if everything comes together and he gets an outstanding performance, he transcribes the talks into poetry and publishes them in a book. But when his voice started appearing on the Net - I had read him without ever hearing him - I was disappointed he didn't sound more like McKenna, or McLuhan or William Burroughs, or even Buckminster Fuller. (I find McLuhan, Burroughs and Fuller - especially Burroughs - as somewhat like McKenna: great idiolects, riveting content.)

Not long ago I heard the President of Bard College, Leon Botstein, give a talk. The content was pretty interesting, but get a load of the big-brass god-like quality of this guy's idiolect. The content is not psychedelic; I personally find listening to him to have a mild psychedelic effect.

With the rise of radio (c.1923 till its heydey in the late 1940s, even up to now), people with certain native and trained speech/vocal/idiolect qualities were selected for. Actors and actresses lost their jobs with the advent of the talkies, as Singin' In The Rain illustrates so memorably. I always had a love/hate relationship with those Voices of Authority or voices of The State ("News...on the march!"): they sounded great, but they sounded a tad too authoritarian. The amount of work that actor and voice-over artist Reed Hadley got in films noir demonstrates this well. Hadley had also done voice-over for the US military in short films about the atomic bomb tests and other demonstrations of killingry and the overwhelming power of the State to murder. And his stentorian voice is also heard on some of my favorite noir films: House on 92nd Street; Shock; T-Men; He Walked By Night; Canon City; Boomerang! and Walk A Crooked Mile. With Hadley intoning, the police, FBI, upper brass military: they were all on the side of Good, and Evil (anyone the State deemed undesirable) didn't stand a chance. I tried to find an example of Hadley's voice but couldn't. If you watch one of the above films you'll hear him and say, "Ohhh...yea. That guy."

Under the Wikipedia entry for "Voice of God" Hadley shows up on a list, but I noted that apparently some conspiracy theorists think the CIA does a voice-of-God thing to beam into people's heads. If anyone has a good line on this, lemme know.

Aside from Sandy Wood and a few other female voices, my relationship with female idiolects is different from male sounds because frankly, I can't separate an interesting female voice from its sexualizing aspect in my nervous system. I will listen to the "traffic on the eights" on local AM radio news shows, if only to hear the often-female voices that had been through vocal training school. I have no idea what they look like; I'm only digging their sound. If I'm comfy-cozy in bed at 3AM and some sultry voice tells me there's an overturned 18-wheeler 35 miles down the freeway from me and traffic won't start flowing again until 5AM...what do I care? I'm digging the way she sounds as she says, "All lanes southbound will be closed for Cal-Trans until six-thirty."

All of what I say here about women's voices and my reaction seems to have some sort of relationship to a new...fad?: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), and here's just one example from YouTube, but there are many, many others. It's like audio porn?

Some other voices that have seemed psychedelic to me:
-John Facenda, the voice of NFL films
-Malcolm X
-just about anyone on the BBC news as we get it in Unistat
-Andre Gregory (ever see My Dinner With Andre? I'm never aware the camera doesn't move out of that restaurant! I won't even comment on how this came out in 1981, vis a vis the world situation now...)
-Spaulding Gray
-Orson Welles

Tics, too many ummms, ahhhhs, the growing "vocal fry" in women's voices: all these make me want to change to channel. I confess I have to remind myself that not everyone who speaks with an accent from the American South is a neo-nazi or Klansman. Yes, I'm prejudiced. I also tend to find it grating when grown women seem to be dialing up the "little girl" sounds in their idiolect.

I suspect most of us find we subconsciously make assumptions about a person based on the way they sound, apart from what they say. In Anne Karpf's book The Human Voice she tells us that between the 1920s and 1940s all sorts of studies tried to prove that we can judge a person's personality by the quality of their voice, "extroverts" speaking faster and louder and pausing less, for example. Here's how  weird it could get:

"In the 1950s an American laryngologist even maintained that neuroses had their own, distinctive vocal means of expression, their oral counterpart. 'Neurosis is itself voice-bound...The man who is afraid,' he argued, 'will show it in his voice...Voice is the primary expression of the individual, and even through voice alone the neurotic pattern can be discovered.' Purely on the basis of a recording of an adolescent boy's voice, this doctor judged him fearful, cowardly, egocentric, self-conscious, effeminate, intelligent, and gifted. When the boy's Rorschach test was analysed, almost identical conclusions were reached."

Phrenology and its popular accomplices never dies, does it?

I would have liked to have delved into the Voice in history, as clearly some voices have the power to worm themselves deeply into the mass nervous system, for ill or good. I'm interested in the neurobiology of this, but baldly state my ignorance of this as of this date, so bid y'all adieu.

Check out John Facenda, another "voice of God" voice, who made NFL films into an art form (along with the music...and I'm not even a football fan!):

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Moist Panties": The Oddity of Word Aversion

Whilst reading a collection of articles on slang, trying to get a line on how it's created by in-groups in order to define themselves and give members a sense of belonging, and how created slang words make their way into mainstream culture, I happened upon the apparently mysterious linguistic topic of word aversion.

I'll get to moist panties in a sec, but I wonder what y'all make of sentences such as, "After a nourishing hot meal it was Tad's brainchild to make fudge, but feeling suddenly like he needed to vomit, he dropped the spoon, wiped his slacks, felt like puke, and threw his sweaty shirt into the crevice of his couch." Or: "The hardscrabble pugilist towed his luggage into his man-cave, his brow felt viscous and the scab began to ooze. He wondered if he'd ever win a bout again, and if this was the new normal."

Okay, I admit these sentences seem ripped from a Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest, but I crammed in as many words as I could that people reported having a visceral reaction to...for seemingly no good reason at all. There are no "swear" words here. The words seem pedestrian, inoffensive.

U. of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman gives this definition for word aversion:

"A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be overused or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting." 

I read this and, similar to the association Proust had with madeleines, I remembered a conversation with a friend in which he brought up how much he couldn't stand the word "ointment." Just the sound of it bothered him. He was otherwise of very sound mind.

So, I swerved and started reading on word aversion. It seems a lot of us have these words that really bug us, but scholars don't know why, or what percentage of the population has these aversions, or how old the phenomenon is, whether it's similar to disgust over sounds, smells or tastes, or if bilingual people - who have more of a sense of how arbitrary words and meanings are - are less prone to word aversion.


Sarah Fentem of The Atlantic really hates the word "panties." She goes on about why, and while I get where she's coming from, I happen to love the word "panties." Fentem seems to think it connotes patriarchy and making women's undergarments (the lower one) into a little girl thing. It's undignified, I guess. For me, it makes me slightly randy, and I don't think of women as anything less than men; au contraire: women might be better than us men. Or I find myself often thinking so...What's interesting is that Fentem seems to have a lot of company.

But the all-time gross-out word, or at least recently, in English, seems to be "moist." Which...I don't understand. Here's another word I think perfectly lovely. In reading on the aversion for "moist," I learn it migrated to us from the French in the 14th century, and meant "damp." The French got it from a Latin word that denoted that which is slimy, moldy, mushy, and possibly associated with disease.

I use "amazing" too much, and I'm not happy about it, but many others abuse it to the point where it almost disgusts me. "Your hair...is amazing!" No, it's not. Very few hairdos are truly "amazing," but let's not go down that road. I dislike the word "amazing" because of its overuse, so that doesn't qualify under Prof. Liberman's definition.

Others declare they detest the word "like" as a placeholder in everyday conversation, and I agree, but that doesn't qualify under the Liberman definition either. When college students are asked what words they dislike they often trot out pus, mucous, phlegm, vomit, puke, crud, scab and ooze, but the disgust issue seems to be baked on there. And besides, I really like all those words. They don't disgust me; I'm not aversive to them.

But why did other people cite brainchild, slacks, navel, squab, cornucopia, pugilist and goose pimple? This is where it gets interesting. Interesting-weird. To me, anyway...

I tried to compile a list, over the past two days, of words that seem to bug me, for no good reason. I came up with:

dust bunnies: I think I don't like this because I remember my mom picking up the term from TV she'd recently watched, and I guess maybe this lowbrow acquisition bothered my affected and wanna-be highbrow pretenses at the time. The aversion to the term has stuck for 30-odd years.

yummy: I almost feel apologetic for admitting this one. After all, it's an extremely common expression of joy over food, and lately: the good looks of someone else, and it seems that women will say it about hunky men far more than men about alluring women. I think maybe it seems too childish for me? As I said: I apologize to all of you, but Liberman does say it's an "irrational distaste."

FWB/friends with benefits: Gawd, I hated this from the get-go, as soon as I understood the acronym. Have your flings! Be far more..."French" folks! Enjoy your dalliances. But to couch your carnal sex-partner in terms from the workplace? "Benefits"? Now that I'm forced to write about it, I'd prefer "fuck pal" as it's so up-front and unapologetic, brazen even. The "benefits" connotes the Human Resources person down the hall, sick days, the rec room at work. Come to think of it, FWB doesn't disgust me. It pisses me off. I think of John Dewey's term for people who are so caught up in their work it's their whole goddamned life; they can't talk about anything else, even when off work. And it's BORING to listen to: who in the office said what when so-and-so showed up dressed like blah blah and then the thing that another person at work knows that the other person doesn't know they know and that some other co-worker might be gay, etc: Dewey's term: "occupational psychosis." Fuck FWB! And maybe FWB wouldn't count with Liberman, I'm not sure: my distaste seems rational to me, not "irrational."

foodie: I loathe this term, but I think I've unpacked it and it's about class and pretentiousness. I use it, but only within the context of jokes. I saw a sketch comedy bit where a guy with AIDS walks out on his date because she says in passing she's gluten-free and he says he's a foodie and that disgusts him. "Gluten-free is bullshit! I'm outta here!" I can imagine a few friends reading this and later bringing it up, because they use "foodie" all the time, and I try to hide my wincing. Hoo-boy...

upscale: I think I hate this word for roughly the same reason I hate foodie. It doesn't seem like panties or moist or crevice to me. I maybe think far too much about words...I will use "upscale" in an ironic or comic sense, too.

The American people...: A lifetime of having my Crap Detector on while politicians and other demagogues speak has me recoiling in a visceral rictus of hate for this term. It's a term that's supposed to instantly hypnotize its audience, and it only adds to my hatred of it because it seems like it works well enough for the assholes who use it.

convo: I see this in writing. People want to get together for drinks and some conversation. Only they write "convo," which strongly suggests to me they have nothing to say that could even possibly be of remote interest to me. I think this one fits Liberman's definition. I feel an irrationality in my distaste for this term.

And finally: I would like to murder and get away unpunished anytime a person says:

The F-bomb: The layers of ignorance and sheer idiocy this term connotes, for me? I can't even go into it here, now. Suffice: if you say that someone "dropped an F-bomb" I will want to drop you, hopefully with blood oozing out of your ears. FUCK seems like a perfectly lovely word to me. Jesus H. Muthafucking Christ on a pogo stick: GROW THE FUCK UP, AMERICA!

Another scholar, Jason Riggle of U. of Chicago, says word aversion seems highly specific in evoking a visceral reaction, but about feelings of disgust, not moral outrage or annoyance. The words that disgust people seem to conjur up an association of imagery or some scenario. I'm not sure any of my words work here from his perspective. And if so, it has been suggested that the people who aren't bothered by moist panties covered in crud in a crevice, who might need to put some ointment on that scab that's oozing pus? They're people who work with words and writing every day. I have since I was five years old.

Robert Anton Wilson was not word-aversive, and his first published book was a dictionary of slang and "forbidden words." He'd wanted to discuss how irrational semantic reactions to some words which acted like spells on listeners and readers, but the publishers cut out those parts. In the last decade or so of his life he wrote an essay about "fuck" and other words that we're supposed to be scandalized by...even "liberals" will seek to harm your career if you use these black magick words. RAW begins his essay, "Copulating Currency," with these lines:

James Joyce defined an artistic epiphany as any "vulgarity of language" which reveals the "whatness" or "radiance" of an event or of those structural systems which remain "grave and constant in human affairs." As biographer Richard Ellmann noted, the effect of these fragments on conversation, preserved in Joyce's novels, often appears "uncanny." I myself tend to find them a combination of the tragic and the hilarious. - see p.171, TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution

The linguistic scholars who have yet to formally delve into word aversion have already banished Alfred Korzybski to the Region of Thud; he is declasse in the groves of academe. But he'd already come up with a robust theory that covers much of this ground: we have "semantic reactions" to words and they work throughout the nervous system (NB: the current linguistic professors' use of "visceral"), and, well, let's let Korzybski speak from 1933 to us, the time being bound:

Since "knowledge", then, is not the first order un-speakable objective level, whether an object, a feeling; structure and so relations, becomes the only possible content of "knowledge" and of meanings. On the lowest level of our analysis, when we explore the objective level (the unspeakable feelings in this case), we must try to define every "meaning" as a conscious feeling of actual, or assumed, or wished...relations which pertain to first-order objective entities [...] The meanings of meanings, in a given case, represent composite, affective, psycho-logical configurations of all relations pertaining to the case, coloured by past experiences, state of health, mood of the moment, and other contingencies.
-pp.22-23, Science and Sanity

Korzybski was the one who cautioned us: the word is not the thing; the word "water" will not make you wet. A later student of Korzybski paraphrased him: the menu is not the meal. We should try to constantly remind ourselves, via a "consciousness of abstracting" that we are throwing around abstract words and maybe we don't even know what we're talking about. Does the "National Debt" have a certain odor? What color is it? How much does it weigh? If we can't give good answers to these types of questions, we may be tossing around a high-order abstraction as if it were on the same level as the hammer on the table in front of you.

Natasha Fedotova of the U. of Pennsylvania found that the word "rat" can "contaminate" words next to it. I hope you have a good rat time tonight at the cafe with all your friends! (Wha?) Fedotova served perfectly delicious food on plates that said RAT on them; people tended to not want to eat.

Here's my kinda guy: blogger Ted McCagg. He got the idea to determine the best word ever. Not the most erudite or funniest or most whimsical: "the best." And all sorts of people got involved and he laid out a massive competition, like the college basketball "March Madness" style of brackets. He loves words like Wilson and Joyce did...and George Carlin, indeed. I too like kerfuffle, hornswoggle, gherkin and diphthong. I even like viscous and maggots.

And, of course, moist panties.

[Apologies to all who have been harmed by certain words in this blog!]

Monday, February 17, 2014

Qualia and Having a Nasty Cold Virus, Drinking Wine: What's It Like?

My colleague Eric Wagner recently wrote that reading primary sources rather than studying what other writers have to say about the primary sources was lately more enjoyable for him. While I read this, I had been trying not to notice that I seemed to have been "coming down" with a particularly virulent cold virus that others around me had been jousting with. (I used the quote marks in that last sentence for  fans of George Lakoff.)

This is not the flu; I have no fever. But it is a markedly aggressive HRV (human rhino virus) that has had normally hale and stout friends sneezing, hacking and croaking their speech for eight days, some even 17.

Eric's self-observation made me think of Robert Anton Wilson's line about reading primary sources to avoid the "standardization of error," which made me look up and read about Vilhjalmur Stefansson's life.

                                      If you feel not-sick while reading this, do you 
                                      remember vividly what it FEELS like to be like
                                      this guy?

As my throat got scratchier and my feeling of physical being worse and worse, I thought about our reactions to works - even people and ordinary objects - prior to contamination by others's opinions or learned "expertise."There's a long line of thinking that says Go First To The Source, forsaking all others. Both Eric and I have been influenced by Ezra Pound in this, although Ezra, much of the time, wants you to see for yourself, by thinking for yourself, that his - Ez's - esthetics were superior all along. He's funny in that way. One of Ez's students, Louis Zukofsky, wrote a book called A Test of Poetry, which seems like a better way to test your own esthetics without previous knowledge that "experts" agree that So-and-So is great, others less so, etc. In an earlier part of the Roaring Twentieth Century, I.A. Richards conducted similar tests about poetry; I did a gloss on him HERE. Wagner has a blog that's centered on his experience reading and thinking around Zukofsky.

What Pound, Richards and Zukofsky seem to want to engender in their readers is an axiology: a personal hierarchy of values about what's good and why and how works are alike in some way and not in others, etc.

I went to sleep reading about Heidegger's phenomenology, neuroscience ideas about Art, Kant's ding an sich ("the thing in itself"), and wasted into somnolence thinking how underrated phenomenology was...or that it seemed  that way to me.

I woke up feeling much worse. The virus had set up shop in me, clearly: I had observed friends with this same thing, hoping I wouldn't get it. My symptoms, as I understand them, arose due to my immune system's "war" (for Lakoff fans, again) against the virus, which only wants to hack into my own cells and use their resources to make more copies of themselves. The symptoms are a good thing, even though we feel like shit. It means we're probably winning. (Who's this "we"?)

As I felt worse and worse and dreaded the at-minimum seven day sentence of dealing with this virus, I began to realize something I'd noted many times before: being sick, for me, seems like an odd discrete mind-state. I don't think I've been sick for a couple of years, but here I am, knowing intellectually that I'm usually not in this state. The odd thing - for me - is this: I can't feel what it's like to not be sick when I'm sick, even though I spend most of my life, in effect, "practicing" the state of being not-sick. I can certainly remember the state of wellness, but it's as if I remember it by reading about it in a book.

I've talked to friends about this and it seems around half know what I'm talking about and roughly concur: a nasty cold or the flu is a discrete mental state, like being high on LSD or mourning the loss of a loved one. The other half either doesn't "see" it this way: they're still "themselves" but just temporarily feeling lousy. It's not discrete; it's more a matter of degree for them, which certainly seems legit to me. Others who haven't seemed to agree with my "discrete state" of sickness idea seemed to have either been bored with my line of thought, or that I was talking too much again about some bizarre idea.

So I dropped my thinking of esthetic perception and read all day on qualia, a topic in the philosophy of mind that generated much debate and heat, shed some light of various quality, and seems to go on and on and on.

Very very briefly and ridiculously inadequately: We both sit down to drink a glass of zinfandel and talk about rock, stocks, the Sox, or life's building-blocks. Apart from the language of wine-tasting (the gamut: oak cask, aged, berry, body, nose/bouquet, tannins, bitterness, fruitiness, etc), we're drinking wine poured from the same bottle. How do you like it?, I ask. It's very good, you say. Yea, I like it too. Nice color.

Here's the thing: those on the side of qualia's existence and importance say there's something ineffable about your experience drinking that wine, an explanatory gap. It's not like doing your income taxes. Drinking that zinfandel - your experience doing it - is not like feeling rushed and late for work. It's not like stubbing your toe after getting out of the shower. Each of these things is different from each other, even though they all involve you in the world, subject to gravity and made of atoms, possessed of articulate language, and a nervous system well experienced in the world. It seems like each experience of the world cannot be completely reduced to physical processes; there's always something left-over, something ineffable and unique about our experience.

We do simulations of what it might be "like" to "be" someone famous, brilliant, beautiful, or widely hated. Some of us may have tremendous imaginations, but we cannot know, I cannot know, what it's like to be Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Or Cate Blanchett. Or Dan Dennett.

I began to think of having this nasty cold as a suite of qualia: the feeling of being literally phlegmatic due to a virus? We've all had the experience. But how do I know your experience is the same as mine? I can't. Oh, we can talk and nod: yep, I feel that way too; those words seem adequate enough. But they are only words.

A typical thought-experiment in philosophy: You meet some alien from another world who cannot feel physical pain, but It speaks your language well and is crazy-intelligent. You explain the physiology of nerve pathways and the spine, types of pain receptors, qualities of pain from a paper cut versus a kick to the shins, etc. The alien downloads into his freakish mind, from the Cloud of info available to us via Internet and books: everything available that has any sort of important bearing on the physiology of pain. And categorizes and memorizes all of it, so any question you ask it about pain, no matter how occult and abstruse? Our alien can answer you in a matter of seconds, with a long stream of data that seems meaningful in some way. Very soon It knows everything any human has ever discovered about pain, and could lecture at the best medical schools on it. Every human authority on pain in the world recognizes our alien ("It") as the Brain About Pain. And yet: It can't feel pain. This is qualia. The alien knows everything about pain except the actual experience of pain, and what sort of "knowledge" is that? 

"What's it like to experience_____?"

"What's it like to be_____?"

Now: qualia is usually discussed in terms of basic, simple experiences, like the wine example I gave. Departures from our mundane, "ordinary" feelings of "reality" - altered states of consciousness - seem to enter into the qualia discussions less often. But if they are not the same, then surely the ideas do overlap? Being very stoned on hashish while sitting intensely close to one of the great violinists in the world as she plays the Chaconne in D minor seems like both a very radical altered state and so filled with qualia as to be qualia-stupid: just model it: This is what it is for me to be radically stoned and sitting 4 feet from Victoria Mullova playing Bach...Yes? And how was it different from the way coffee smelled, from down the hall on Sunday morning while you were still in bed and just coming out of sleep? We realize one experience was otherworldly, but only you know what it was like for you to experience both events.

A very convincing idea in cognitive psychology that has to do with the question: Why do we "like" horror movies or tragedies and sad stories? Why are we drawn to news stories about horrible things that happen to people? A big part of the answer is: we use these stories to mentally rehearse worse-case scenarios for ourselves. Just in case. The fictional horrors and depressing stories are more "enjoyable" because, while we know they could be "real" in this case everyone's safe because they are not in fact real. We build circuitry in our brains about these stories, just in case we need to draw upon the "knowledge" there. David Hume said this type of thinking about the sufferings of others builds empathy towards others. The experience of the stories have qualia, if you're into that too. But maybe I'm muddling up the topic even more than I normally do...

Daniel Dennett defends the materialist view of the world by saying that qualia is a fancy word for something that is so ordinary we hardly ever think about it: the way the world seems to us. He has a very refined and nuanced refutation (or denigration) of qualia, and I refer The Reader to his book Consciousness Explained. Because most of the eminent adherents of qualia seem to talk about it as if it's aligned with the Hard Problem of nailing down what consciousness "is" and we don't have any way to scientifically answer this to most scientists' satisfaction, it's a metaphysical concept. Which is anathema to the materialist. I disagree with Dennett and Minsky and a few other qualia-denigrators/deniers of repute, but not for reasons that seem all that robust to me: I think it's a question of personality and temperament. I think the major reason I like and "believe" in qualia is because it's fun to do so. Others choose Batman or God. Go figure.

Now, I have thought a lot about very high order abstractions like god, justice (especially informal examples), terrorism, Being, and infinity. There are similar debates about these words too, and what they refer to, or why referring to them is to talk poppycock. It's all fascinating to me. I find I think about these ideas in as many rational ways as I can; I try to articulate the points of view of those who seem to disagree with me in order to better understand where they're coming from. And I note I always have strong emotional responses to each word, for different "reasons." With qualia, I'm okay with it: I find it pragmatically useful to assume it exists, because it's pleasurable to do so. I'm well aware of a host of very good arguments against it, that it's "mere metaphysics," and that it might be an accident of language or brain evolution; it could be the result of a kludge.

V.S. Ramachandran thinks qualia is probably related to brain development that differs us from chimps. We have Wernicke's Area. Parts of the parietal lobe became differentiated in function way back in our dim past. "Rama" thinks qualia has to do with the idea of "the self" and finding meaning and brain areas - it has a whole hell of a lot to do with the Big Problem of consciousness - so he thinks qualia is a metaphysical concept now, but with further neuroscience, it can become physical.

John Searle sees consciousness as explainable by biology too, "like digestion," and I once heard him say that "conscious states are qualia all the way down."

David Chalmers posits a "principle of organizational invariance" and says that hey, if you AI/roboticists can array computer chips in a way to map the neural circuitry of the brain, you'll get qualia, which is such a trippy idea I almost feel a cannabis contact-high writing this.

But I and many others see Chalmers, Searle, and Rama as serious characters. And aye, the Materialists are worthy opponents too.

Robert Anton Wilson, as far as I can recall, never used the word qualia, but he did think we experienced it, because of the array of life-experiences and memories we brought with us to any further experience. These memories and life experiences were totally unique to us. Right there: qualia. But add to this: our nervous systems are not identical, physically, so our sensoria cannot be 100% identical. We bring cultural references and a vast suite of tricks that our language can play in our experience too. Wilson was a longtime linguistic relativist. He said we also bring moods and expectations to experience, which seem highly variable and can shape our experience of something as simple as a glass of wine. For Wilson, we lived alone on the island of our own vastly idiosyncratic subjectivities, but due to language, gestures and time-binding, we can have intersubjective discourse, bugs and misunderstandings and all.

Indeed, have you ever been so preoccupied that you took your first sip and then were asked "How do you like it?" and you realized you didn't even tune in to the taste and note anything? That's a quale right there: singular for qualia. Either lie and say it's "a bit too jammy for my taste, but all in all it's quaffable and not plonk by any means, no," or admit it: you didn't even notice, because, "I just found out the IRS is going to audit me." So...there's qualia: your total feelings about finding out you're being audited by the IRS, but only your unique feelings about it. Everyone will agree it sucks, of course. But there's more!

For Further Reference
-John Searle's TED talk on consciousness: 15 minutes. The old Berkeley dude still has it, here.
-Wiki for qualia. I was going to make most of the post about Schrodinger, but the Idiot parts of my writing brain took over. Sorry!
-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is usually a first-rate place to dig into a topic in philosophy, and here they come through in spades.
-V.S. Ramachandran! It's worth 8 minutes of your day, probably.
-9 1/2 minutes: this guy does a very good job of giving us a basic idea about qualia
-Thomas Nagel's famous 1974 paper, "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?", which did a lot to make qualia into more of debated and then popular topic in the philosophy of mind. (Schrodinger's ideas should have done it in the late 1940s/early 1950s, but I think he was way ahead of his time.)