Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘consciousness

I Had To Do Some Laundry, So You Know What That Means: Wednesday Links!

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* CFP: Feral Feminisms is pleased to announce that we are now accepting submissions for our first general issue. Submission deadline is 15 January 2019.

* What our science fiction says about us.

* From the Earth to the Moon. And hell why not it’s Wednesday just a few more.

Following a Board of Trustees meeting this afternoon, Temple University President Richard Englert released a statement on behalf of the board, announcing that professor Marc Lamont Hill will not be punished or investigated for his Nov. 28 speech during an event organized with the United Nations. Now investigate the feckless administrators who made these baseless threats.

Executive Compensation at Private and Public Colleges 2018.

Following scientists in three fields, the paper’s authors found that it took about five years for a half of a science cohort to leave academic work in 2010 — compared to 35 years in the 1960s.

* Tired: China is building a social points system that will rank people from birth to death. Wired: Trump Is Trying to Use Credit Scores to Keep Immigrants Out of the U.S.

* Wow, here and I thought Scott Walker was a man of principle and integrity.

Social media will always be destructive for the Left. We should log the fuck off. I tweeted a tweet about the president and the modest virality of that tweet smells bad.

Grant Morrison Opens Up About Feuding With Alan Moore and Why He Still Doesn’t Like Watchmen.

* Upright Citizen’s Brigade on the brink.

* The Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of its oldest ice — a startling sign of what’s to come. Unparalleled warmth is changing the Arctic and affecting weather in US, Europe. In what is being called the first of its kind, Mayor Francis Suarez quietly signed a resolution last month to address climate gentrification in Miami. Those 3% of scientific papers that deny climate change? A review found them all flawed. EPA announces plan to poison all the water.

Children of Ted: Two decades after his last deadly act of ecoterrorism, the Unabomber has become an unlikely prophet to a new generation of acolytes.

ICE arrested 170 potential sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children.

* They say bipartisanship is dead, but U.S. House unanimously approves sweeping self-driving car measure.

* The law, in its infinite equality watch: Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has dropped charges against 23-year-old Jazmine Headley related to her arrest at a social services office on Friday, he announced Tuesday. Headley was charged with resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration, and trespassing after security guards called police over a dispute that apparently began because she was sitting on the floor while she waited with her 1-year-old son to renew a child-care benefit. Charge the cops who did this next.

* “Teenager Claims Body-Cams Show the Police Framed Him. What Do You See?” What terrible luck that the camera mysterious turned off during the relevant portion of the search! What are the chances!

What Everyone Having Diarrhea On The Set of The Magnificent Seven Tells Us About Toxic Masculinity.

* A ProPublica investigation has found that the IRS has been so gutted that audits of the top 1% are rapidly converging on audits of the bottom 36%. This is of course totally irrational, but completely in line with the contempt the ruling class has for the poor.

What It Means to Be a Marxist.

* The CRISPR babies and scientific ethics.

* The final stage of any sufficiently mammoth crime is abusing bankruptcy law to avoid responsibility.

* I remember having my mind blown by reading this observation in Daniel Dennett book twenty years ago: An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have.

* Throw these Chromebooks in the snow. Leave childhood alone, let kids have a little bit of joy.

* We lost that war. But the fight goes on.

* Yeah, that’ll solve it!

* And here is John F. Kennedy in 1961 writing to reassure a child that fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapon testing won’t kill Santa.

Happy Birthday Connor Links!

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My son is being born today, so the posting will probably be sporadic even by summer standards. Sorry! And hooray!

* FindingEstella from @amplify285 is an awesome Octavia Butler Archives Tumblr.

* NASA: ‘Our plan is to colonize Mars.’ Well, then, let’s go!

* Alt-Ac as Symptom and Cure.

* Breaking: The Constitution is a shell game.

* Why Physicists Are Saying Consciousness Is A State Of Matter, Like a Solid, A Liquid Or A Gas.

* This fantasy has survived the 1980s, of course, even as the action genre that spawned RoboCop has faded. Meanwhile, the market fundamentalism and “tough-on-crime” rhetoric that the film makes fun of, still relatively novel in 1987, have today become normalized. The idea of redemptive violence—mass incarceration, a heavily armed police force—is now so deeply embedded in our political culture that we may no longer be able to see it well enough to mock it. RoboCop is thus both more dated and more current than ever. Its critical edge comes from a pessimistic vision of the future that is getting closer all the time.

If social and labor movements are to break out of this cycle, it will have to mean an actual break to the left of the Democratic Party. Or not?

charlie-brown-lucy-football

* Politics in Times of Anxiety.

* The Common Core leaves intact the longstanding ethos of American public education: what’s good for capital is good for the student.

* Is soccer finally becoming a mainstream TV sport in America? These charts say yes.

* Bazillionaires! They’re just like us!

* Drone crews told investigators their respective crashed planes had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.

* Sherlock Holmes is officially out of copyright. Start your slashes!

* The end of the NCAA.

* Podcast of the week: Rachel and Miles x-Plain the X-Men.

* Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction. Almost certainly a factor in the prevalence of Iraq War stories being (1) science fictional (2) set in narrative situations that recast us as the victims of our own invasion.

* US v. Portugal: It was the worst. See you Thursday.

* And Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has your improved Turing Test.

Wednesday Links: MOOCpocalypse, Debtpocalypse, Truthserumpocalypse, and More

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Privatization. Naked. Higher Education Shock Doctrine.

* The actual politics of professors.

* Exactly as the Founders intended: Judge William Sylvester ruled that in the event of Holmes pleading insanity his prosecutors would be permitted to interrogate him while he is under the influence of a medical drug designed to loosen him up and get him to talk. The idea would be that such a “narcoanalytic interview” would be used to confirm whether or not he had been legally insane when he embarked on his shooting spree on 20 July last year. There’s some things an adversarial legal system just isn’t good at; this is obviously one of them. Determination of insanity should be inquisitorial: let a panel of experts evaluate him and make a decision about how to proceed on that basis.

* If we can locate the origins of true consciousness in the literary tradition of a particular civilization, we can finally figure out who is really human and who isn’t.

An open letter to The Atlantic regarding the payment of workers.

* The latest law school debt figures are pretty ugly.

The U.S. drones program is shrouded in confusion. The media generally has portrayed the project as one that targets high-level terrorists with surgical precision, when in fact a very small percent of its targets are senior level, and hundreds of civilians have been killed. Giving people that information tends to change their attitude toward the program.

* And more Big Data from Big Porn: Porn search site PornMD has, for the sake of publicity and social science, collected its most-used search terms for the last six months and accounted them by location—not just in the U.S. but across the world. This is a safe-for-most-workplaces Gawker link, though there are some bawdy words in the searches.

The Singularity Is Now

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Written by gerrycanavan

August 13, 2009 at 1:57 am

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Infinite Jest #8: Brains, Rats, Happiness, and the Problem of Atheism

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The spoiler line sometimes makes it difficult to write these Infinite Summer posts; the thoughts for this one have been percolating for a few weeks but we were never quite where I wanted to be in the book before discussing them. Like Daryl Houston, a lot of my thoughts on this second reading of Infinite Jest are crystalizing around the Steeply/Marathe discussions of the Entertainment, which now seem to me to be organization points for many of the book’s broader philosophical themes.

One of the major existential problems being confronted in IJ is the tragedy of embodied consciousness. It’s laid out explicitly for us in this week’s section beginning on 470, which discusses the (real-life) experiments surrounding the discovery of the p-terminal in the brain:

‘Older’s earliest subjects were rats, and the results were apparently sobering. The Nu—the Canadians found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever’s stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue.”

That pleasure resides inside the brain is, of course, the materialist nexus that links the MacGuffin-like search for the Entertainment with DFW’s ruminations on the nature of addiction—both hypertrophic stimulations of the pleasure center that cause abject misery and death.

Scientific materialism sticks a dagger through the heart of humanism, a spike in all our brains. If we are (just) brains, then we are (mere) machines. Highly, indescribably complex machines, sure, but machines. And this can only be understood as a deeply dehumanizing loss for a culture that is so steeped in its own sense of spiritual exceptionalism. It is the ultimate reduction in status. The things that make us feel human—love, music, passion, art—now threaten to recede to nothing after a century of materialist triumph, replaced instead with raw mammalian instinct: a new vision of the human as oversized rat running a maze to pull a lever and get a treat.

Atheism, which is necessarily materialist, necessarily carries with it the bleak and terrible suspicion that you might not even exist in any meaningful sense—a suspicion that, if we are lucky, we don’t find ourselves dwelling on for all that much of the time. It’s this baseline existential dread that fuels our contemporary anxieties about Pavlovian behaviorism, brainwashing, pharmacological happiness, and soulless bodysnatchers—concepts which threaten us with frightening dehumanization only insofar as we admit they have us pegged.

Isn’t happiness-in-a-tube still happiness? Why not chemically synthesize love? Are not the bodysnatched content, better at being us than we are, with none of our squishy excess?

Why not watch the Entertainment?

It’s the sublime terror at the Nothing at the core of our existence that plagues Gately whenever he tries to get his hands around the Higher Power demanded by AA (see 443 [on which, Daryl notes, Gately feels like a rat] and 467). Wallace, in the oft-quoted Kenyon commencement speech, seems to really believe that belief in some sort of Higher Power is necessary for any sense of fulfillment, though he tries to leave the details as open as AA does:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J. C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

For Wallace, the only way out of the trap of embodied consciousness—of being a rat pulling its pleasure lever—is to reassert the existence of transcendent value not as a matter of proven epistemic certainty but as a radical and rational choice against basic human frailty. The speech goes on:

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.

Of course the tragedy informing all our readings this summer is that DFW didn’t make it to 50. He died when he was 46. And when we read Infinite Jest I think we must do so with the recognition that we have lost the infinite thing and it is not coming back. I don’t equate this recognition with unconsciousness or automatism—because the sad truth is that even when you set out to worship transcendence you cannot escape the fear that the thing you worship is actually tiny, and a lie, and just inside your head. I don’t think we can just fool ourselves into living as though God had never died; I don’t think we can play pretend. As an atheist in that nihilistic Gately sense—as someone who does not worship and cannot believe, not even as a life-saving performative choice—it seems to me the terrible first step is to face things as they are, in all their unhappy finitude. The miracle of life comes not just despite this, but out of it.

Infinite Summer #5: Maps and Territories

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Anyone who has been in graduate school as long as I have recognizes a reference to maps and territories immediately:

If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where, with the decline of the Empire this map becomes frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction, bearing witness to an imperial pride and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, rather as an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing), this fable would then have come full circle for us, and now has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

What destroys the Interdependence Day Y.D.A.U. game of Eschaton—which I must admit is another personal favorite sequence in the novel—is exactly this Baudrillardian sense of (Pemulis’s words) “map-not-territory equivocationary horseshit” (337), i.e., the postmodern inability to distinguish between maps and territories that is, in the end, the inability to locate “territory” at all. For Pemulis this kind of cognitive breakdown threatens our ability to think at all:

Pemulis howls that Lord is in his vacillation appeasing Ingersoll in Ingersoll’s effort to fatally fuck with the very breath and bread of Eschaton. Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Payers are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real…

…and Pemulis shouts across that it’s so totally beside the point it doesn’t matter, that the reason players aren’t explicitly exempted in the ESCHAX.DIR is that their exemption is what makes Eschaton and its axioms fucking possible in the first place. … Pemulis says because otherwise use your heads otherwise nonstrategic emotions would get aroused and Combatants would be whacking balls at each other’s physical persons all the time and Eschaton wouldn’t even be possible in its icily elegant game-theoretical form. He’s stopped jumping up and down, at least, Troeltsch observes. Players’ exemption from strikes goes without saying, Pemulis says; it’s like preaxiomatic. Pemulis tells Lord to consider what he’s doing very carefully, because from where Pemulis is standing Lord looks to be willing to very possibly compromise Eschaton’s map for all time. (338)

It’s not hard to see Pemulis’s impotent, rage-filled anxiety over the fate of Eschaton’s objective purity as, in miniature, the reaction of traditional Enlightenment rationality to its challenge from an increasingly hegemonic postmodernity that is characterized by cognitive decentering, indeterminacy, irrationality, and labyrinthine self-referentiality. Pemulis is not the first to shout that we must build floodwalls against certain lines of speculation and deny the possibility of alternate subjectivities for fear of total cognitive chaos (whether said chaos is named postmodernism, social constructivism, cultural relativism, theory, or something else entirely)—to claim, in other words, that only a sufficiently abstractive and “objective” faux universality, the terms of which have always been agreed upon in advance, properly counts as Thought in the first place.

Two further thoughts emerge: first, that this anxiety about maps and territories is clearly a central problem for the reader of Infinite Jest as well, who, I think, must struggle to stay afloat in a narrative whose irony is confusingly unstable, with satire that is constantly threatening to devolve into parody and even to mere gag. 390 pages in, I find that I am still trying to get a firm grip on what is “real” and what is “not real” in this text, that is, what is best understood through a conventionally realist interpretive lens and what is better described as hyperbolic and hyperreal in the style that James Wood famously named hysterical realism.

And second, that the opposition between maps and territories laid out in the Eschaton section is central to one of the more memorable turns of phrase that DFW uses throughout IJ: the endless variations on “eliminate his own map for good” as a euphemism for suicide. That we ourselves are maps, not territories suggests, on the one hand, a idealist vision of the universe in which objective reality takes a backseat to our subjective understanding of it and on the other a psychoanalytic framing of consciousness itself as essentially false and illusionary—the latter take driven home at the end of the section by Hal’s need to feel his own face to see if he is wincing (342). What do we do if consciousness itself is a simulacrum without a referent, and all self-reflection therefore a kind of hopeless mise en abyme?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Dollhouse

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A few quick Dollhouse reflections in light of tonight’s “season” finale. Spoilers below, naturally.

* All in all the Alpha plotline was fairly disappointing, my appreciation for Alan Tudyk aside. It reduced a little too neatly to a run-of-the-mill serial-killer plotline when there seemed to be much, much more potential there. I’m not calling network interference, necessarily, but things seemed rushed and a little undercooked. Joss fumbled this one.

(UPDATE: To be more precise, he fumbled the plotline in almost exactly the same way he fumbled the Adam and First Evil storylines on Buffy. The composite event—which shouldn’t have been caused by a mechanical malfunction—should have made Alpha actually Godlike. Alpha’s portrayal in this episode ruins almost everything about what was interesting about the character to begin with. It’s also somewhat inconsistent with the way the event had been portrayed in earlier episodes, especially with regard to Topher and Adele’s puzzlement over how it happened—which is not to suggest Dollhouse has a particularly good record on the consistency front in any case.)

* Called the Fred situation last week, though I was hoping she’d known she was a Doll all along. I think the character had significantly more potential that way—though it’s interesting to think that she was just set up to be the hero of the second season, the Dollhouse’s only self-aware victim and the audience’s new clearest focal point for narrative identification.

* Which also makes her a pretty good candidate for season two’s Big Bad.

* Neil and I spent a lot of time last week talking about Dr. Saunders and whether or not her Dollness suggests that the Dollhouse is able to do direct editing/programming of memories (“imprint code”), as opposed to a fuzzier, less exact approach (“imprint soup”). (I’d always assumed imprint code, and that most of the characters would turn out to have been modified in some way or another; Neil was more skeptical.) At first glance, this episode suggests they can edit directly—but the more I think about it it seems more likely that every Dr. Saunders is a Doll.

UPDATE: Though the fact that Fred/Saunders remembers a version of the Alpha attack that explains her scars may shift the balance back towards direct editing / imprint coding again.

* Is Victor really gone? He was one of the best actors on the show, that’s just not possible.

* It will would be interesting to see whether Mellie is really released. I’m also curious what deal Ballard signed; “I’m nobody” suggests he agreed to do the rest of her service as a Doll, whereas I think most people were expecting he’d be hired as a handler.

* Since the Dollhouse’s contracts aren’t legal, of course, there’s no reason not to have your cake and eat it too. Once Ballard is enslaved, bring Madeline back in for a treatment.

* It also remains the case that you’d want every employee to be a Doll, all things being equal; see Dr. Saunders above. Why would they even let Dominics, Boyds, and Tophers in the door, when they can cook up compliant and perfectly loyal substitutes in-house? One possible answer to this might have to do with the exact nature of the Doll programs; if they’re imprint-soups as opposed to imprint-codes, maybe there are structural limits to how long they can be used before the personality imprint goes bad or breaks down.

* Echo/ED remains, by far, the least interesting thing about this show. I was really hoping they’d kill off the Caroline wedge so at least something interesting would happen there.

* Well, that’s a little unfair; apropos of the Great Transporter Debate this episode makes it a little hard to see how the process of being “wiped” isn’t itself necessarily death. If we accept that continuity of consciousness is required for metaphysical identity—and we wave our hands at things like sleep for just a moment—then it would seem to be the case that “Caroline” can be hypothetically restored after her five years are up and she’s hypothetically released from her contract. But it’s equally clear that the person who wakes up in Chrissy Seaver’s body is not metaphysically identical to the original Caroline. So how can the one revival result in a “real” resurrection and the other in a “false” one? What’s the difference between “copy” and “restore”? It could only be Ballard’s “soul,” which, like Topher, I scoff at. So it seems to me that when you’re switched off, that’s it, you’re dead, which has some pretty serious implications for comas, head injury, amnesia, insanity, aging, sleep, and just about everything else having to do with what we naively believe consciousness is.

*Hope you noticed and enjoyed the brief Firefly shout-out as much as I did. Take that, Fox. (UPDATE: Missed at first the Angel bit about souls in jars—it was a double shoutout to both his unjustly canceled shows…)

Sadly, despite the hopes of all good nerds, that’s probably it for Dollhouse. But “Epitaph One” comes out with the DVD this July, and there’s even rumors today that Joss might spin-off that into a new show. Because spin-offs of failed one-season flops are so very common.

Written by gerrycanavan

May 9, 2009 at 2:30 am