William Eggington has an essay in the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog about the way in which Borges and Kant(among others) prefigured the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Now that’s not supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to be able to predict the world through theory, philosophy, and imagination – but Kant and others clearly did it, and it’s been commented many times (so many as to be an unfortunate trope) that quantum mechanics is predicted to a startling detail by Buddhist and Hindu epistemology.
He quotes Borges: "(W)e have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it resistant, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and firm in time; but we have left in its architecture tenuous and eternal interstices of unreason, so that we know it is false.”
We are always observing the world, Eggington notes, as subjective beings who piece together evidence that we pick-and-choose – and this creates cracks in the world, ones that philosophers and artists are often far ahead of scientists at mapping.
The problem of accurately observing the world is one that science has profitably ignored in order to make advances – but it has also mistakenly come to believe that those very advances have also solved the problem of accurately observing the world. Yet nothing could be less true.
I’m in the middle of reading ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ 1985 book “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” and he talks about this phenomenon at length. The passages are worth quoting in their entirety (unfortunately I’m reading it on an ereader, so I can’t quote page numbers in a meaningful way, but the following is from Chapter 10):
I stared and I stared until I couldn’t even see the sky. But it was hopeless. Venus was gone. It shouldn’t have been. Astronomers know the amount of light reflected by the planet, and we should be able to see it, even in broad daylight. Some Indians can. And but a few hundred years ago, sailors from our own civilization navigated by it, following its path as easily by day as they did by night. It is simply a skill that we have lost, and I have often wondered why.
Though we frequently speak of the potential of the brain, in practice our mental capacity seem sto be limited. Every human mind has the same latent capabilities, but for reasons that have always intrigued anthropologists different peoples develop pit in different ways, and the distinctions, in effect, amount to unconscious cultural choices. There is a small isolated group of seminomadic Indians in the northwest Amazon whose technology is so rudimentary that until quite recently they used stone axes. Yet these same people possess a knowledge of the tropical forest that puts almost any biologist to shame. As children they learn to recognize such complex phenomena as floral pollination and fruit dispersal, to understand and accurately predict animal behavior, to anticipate the fruiting cycles of hundreds of forest trees. As adults their awareness is refined to an uncanny degree; at forty paces, for example, their hunters can smell animal urine and distinguish on the basis of scent alone which out of dozens of possible species left it. Such sensitivity is not an innate attribute of these people, any more than technological prowess is something inevitably and uniquely ours. Both are consequences of adaptive choices that resulted in the development of highly specialized but different mental skills, at the obvious expense of others. Within a culture, change also means choice. In our society, for example, we now think nothing about driving at high speeds down expressways, a task that involves countless rapid, unconscious sensory responses and decisions which, to say the least, would have intimidated our great-grandfathers. Yet in acquiring such dexterity, we have forfeited other skills like the ability to see Venus, to smell animals, to hear the weather change.
Perhaps our biggest choice came four centuries ago when we began to breed scientists. This was not something our ancestors aimed for. It as a result of historical circumstances that produced a particular way of thinking that was not necessarily better than what had come before, only different. Every society, including our own, is moved by a fundamental quest for unity; a struggle to create order out of perceived disorder, integrity in the face of diversity, consistency in the face of anomaly. This vital urge to render coherent and intelligible models of the universe is at the root of all religion, philosophy, and, of course, science. What distinguishes scientific thinking from that of traditional and, as it often turns out, nonliterate cultures is the tendency of the latter to seek the shortest possible means to achieve total understanding of their world. The vodoun society, for example, spins a web of belief that is all-inclusive, that generates an illusion of total comprehension. No matter how an outsider might view it, for the individual member of that society the illusion holds, not because of coercive force, but simply because for him there is no other way. And what’s more, the belief system works; it gives meaning to the universe.
Scientific thinking is quite the opposite. We explicitly deny such comprehensive visions, and instead deliberately divide our world, our perceptions, and our confusion into however many particles are necessary to achieve understanding according to the rules of our logic. We set things apart from each other, and then what we cannot explain we dismiss with euphemisms. For example, we could ask whya tree fell over in a storm and killed a pedestrian. The scientist might suggest that the trunk was rotten and the velocity of the wind was higher than usual. But when pressed to explain why it happened at the instand when that individual passed, we would undoubtedly hear words such as chance, coincidence, and fate; terms which, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless but which conveniently leave the issue open. For the vodounist, each detail in that progression of events would have a total, immediate, and satisfactory explanation within the parameters of his belief system.
For us to doubt the conclusions of the vodounist is expected, but it is nevertheless presumptuous. For one, their system works, at least for them. What’s more, for most of us our basis for accepting the models and theories of our scientists is no more solid or objective than that of the vodounist who accepts the metaphysical theology of the houngan. Few layman know or even care to know the principles that guide science; we accept the results on faith, and like the peasant we simply defer to the accredited experts of the tradition. Yet we scientists work under the constraints of our own illusions. We assume that somehow we shall be able to divide the universe into enough infinitesimally small pieces, that somehow even according to our own rules we shall be able to comprehend these, and critically we assume that these particles, though extracted from the whole, will render meaningful conclusions about the totality. Perhaps most dangerously, we assume that in doing this, in making this kind of choice, we sacrifice nothing. But we do. I can no longer see Venus.
This trade-off means that those who have grown up inculcated into a western/scientific/industrial society will always tend to see the world in exactly those terms, and we will miss some very big cracks in the world indeed. That’s been proven over and over again, most recently in the work of scientists like Joe Heinrich. Pacific Standard Magazine recently published a cover-article on his work, entitled “We Aren’t the World,” showing that in fact much of what we consider to be hard-wired perceptions for human beings vary drastically from culture to culture.
Let me quote again, this time from a couple of passages:
As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic.
The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.
In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Again … not new. The much maligned Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that language impacts cognitive processing, came out of the 1920s – and that research had precedents too. But apparently we have to be reminded of this, over and over again. There are cracks in our worldview, and these cracks are often invisible to science because they are the foundation upon which scientific assumptions are based.
There’s nothing wrong with that … in fact it’s a useful and necessary thing in order to make real advances … unless we forget we’re doing it at all. Unless we mistake “the way we see the world” for “the only way it could possibly be.” Unless we think that our testing must reveal all their is and that our vision is the only one that counts.
Then bad things start to happen – and often we’re the last to know.
I was alone in the forest. I was alone on the hill. The sky above me was midnight blue, and its darkness shone like a sheet of glass in the moonlight. But there was no moon. There were even no stars, though there should have been: the nearest town was dozens of miles away.
I stared up at the empty sky. Midnight blue, the color of a ceramic tile from ancient Persia. I walked through the brush looking up, catching glimpses of the perfect night through the tree tops.
I heard a flute.
You’re going to tell me this was circumstantial. I know you are. Because any time we hear about something out of the ordinary, we try to explain it away. Sometimes this is wise: we have to protect ourselves against swindlers and hustlers. But sometimes this is a sickness, a malady: a gangrene eating at the limbs of life. Sometimes it is the act of a willful child, holding his ears and shouting “no no no!” at something he doesn’t understand.
So yes, it had been a week since I’d last spoken to another human being. And yes, I had gone a day and a half without food. I have nothing to hide.
But I heard a flute echoing through the forest.
I stopped. I reached out and put my hand on a tree. The music seemed like it was all around me, coming from every direction. It would be as hard to explain the melody as it would be the color of the night sky. In my mind, now that I think of it this way, they even matched. A haunting midnight blue melody under a sky without stars. The flute rising up and down with the hills, winding its way through the trees, without any light to guide it.
At the time, I thought it was a silver flute. Now, thinking back, I think I was a wooden one. You’re going to tell me that this inconsistency makes the whole thing less likely. But you weren’t there, and the sound of the music has never left my mind. Not for a second.
I came to a small clearing and I looked up at the beautiful blue sky and listened to the flute echo through the forest and realized that no other human being was around to hear this. There was no path, there was no way back: so deep there was only a way in.
The song ended, and for a moment the music came to a halt. And then, over my shoulder, I heard a voice whisper “Run.”
I didn’t turn. I didn’t look. I ran. If you had been there, you would have understood. The voice, that voice that came where no other human being could have been, didn’t say to investigate. It didn’t say to turn around. It said “Run,” and I listened, though I was tired and lonely and starving. If you don’t understand that, we will probably never have anything to say to one another after my story is through.
I ran through the forest, stumbling over branches and lurching to keep from bumping in to trees. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, and the music picked up from every side and played a tarantella. I ran to the tune of a merry Spanish dance and nearly killed myself as tree branches whipped at me in the dark, and from a hundred yards behind me I heard the sound of a woman scream.
It was a panther, hunting. That’s what they sound like when they find prey. And I did what I had been told to do, long before I ever left for woods this deep: I took off my shirt and threw it behind me. The cats hunt by scent: it would stop and maul the shirt and give me time to get away.
I ran and I ran and my face was bleeding and my legs were bruised and my hands were bleeding from times I had fallen against the ground, and I heard another cry behind me, like a child wailing, and I took off my pants and threw them behind me and ran further as the flute played its dance. And later my shoes, and my socks … and at the most dreadful cry of all, my underwear … and I ran, naked, through the woods far, far away from any city, under the midnight blue sky that was empty of stars while the flute played its Spanish dance and something terrible hunted behind me.
You’re going to tell me it didn’t happen this way. That’s what people tell me. They say I was deluded: they take the fact that I’m honest about my hunger and my loneliness and use it against me. I’ve come to expect it.
But I ran until I couldn’t anymore. I ran until my body heaved and my legs buckled and I collapsed. Not many people ever do that: push their body to the point that it just stops. But I did, and the spot where I fell was beneath a giant tree with enormous roots and great limbs, and for a long time I couldn’t breathe at all: I just stared up, through the spaces between its leaves, at the midnight blue sky.
And then the flute, the flute that I’d never gotten any closer to or farther from no matter how hard I ran, stopped the dance, and instead it played slow and it played gently. It played a soothing melody, the kind a mother would hum to her child while she was holding it absently, her mind on something else.
My breath came suddenly: my lungs filled, and I wept while the air went in and out of me and the flute cooed and I couldn’t turn my head away from the midnight blue sky. I began to shudder, and I felt a hand on my head: someone stroking my hair in time to the music, and the whole world vanished. Everything except the flute, and the hand on my hair, and the midnight blue sky.
That’s what it was. That’s what it was like.
When I walked out of the forest, maybe it was the next night, maybe it wasn’t, I was here. I was taken in by the constables and given clothes. They always itch. They say the whole world is explored and connected, and so I expected that someday someone would find me, or recognize my accent. But it hasn’t happened. Every night since, there have been stars. Someday, there won’t be, the sky will be midnight blue, and on that night I’ll head back.
Until then, I’m here, and I don’t think we have anything to talk about.
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“How could you stand there naked in front of a bunch of strangers, stark naked?”
Phil didn’t get it, and that saddened Karen a bit. He usually got her perfectly.
“Well, for a shy person, it was the perfect job. I didn’t have to talk to anybody, or make eye contact with anyone. It’s like what I do now.”
“Writing? How so?”
“I am a shy exhibitionist.”
The first time Karen went outside naked was after that conversation, and it was because Phil had dared her to. He was curious about her past, about how much was still in her. In a way, her former life as an artist’s model made it easier for her to take off her clothes. But the people she had posed for as they sketched were strangers, whereas the people who may or may not have been standing at their windows were her neighbours. Neighbours, she had learned, tended to judge.
When Karen first moved to Belleville, she was friendly to everyone, and everyone was polite and icy towards her. She invited the women who lived next door over for coffee. The first one, a social worker named Denise, came but only stayed a few minutes. As Karen got up to walk her neighbour to the door, she looked at the untouched cup of coffee and plate of muffins and reflected that Denise was probably wary that she would become part of her caseload. Karen knew she must have appeared troubled, although she was only exhausted and overwhelmed from her move. As Denise went out the door, Karen timidly asked her if she could borrow her husband to help move a bed from one room to another.
“ That is, if he doesn’t have back problems,” Karen added with a nervous laugh.
“Well, actually, he does,” Denise said.
Karen apologized for asking, but half an hour later, Guy showed up at her door. Unsmiling, he asked her where the bed was. They went upstairs, moved it, and then he bolted out of the room as if pursued by wasps. He continued running down the stairs -- Karen stood at the top of the stairs and called down, “thanks, goodbye” -- but there was no answer as he ran out the door.
The other woman was Christine. She told Karen that she had intended to come over that day but that both her husband and her father had bad colds. Karen didn’t understand why that stopped her from going next door for a coffee, but she just thought, that’s all right, I gave it a try.
About a year later, making small talk with Christine and her husband Robert, Karen mentioned that she didn’t know how to program her thermostat. Robert’s reply stunned her.
“Well, maybe you could get one of your men friends to help you.”
Men friends? Was he referring to Karen’s brother, the colleagues she occasionally carpooled with, her (gay) personal trainer? She hadn’t met Phil yet. He wasn’t in the picture back then, and after Robert’s comment, she made sure to avoid dating locally.
Now, not wanting to disappoint Phil, holding his gaze, Karen took off her clothes and put them on a chair. They were in the living room. She took the three or four steps to the door, half-expecting him to call her back. He didn’t, so Karen opened the door, went outside and stood on the front step for about two minutes. Not much happened. She wasn’t cold. It was about seven on a Sunday evening at the end of July, a warm rainstorm brewing, pleasant enough. She felt breezes where we don’t usually feel them: through her legs, on the tops of her breasts and on her nipples. She heard the sounds of cutlery clinking together, a faucet running and then being turned off, and an unseen woman calling her cat. Two cars passed by. In one, a child stared at her through the window and then turned and called to her parents in the front seat. That was all.
But Karen felt completely exhilarated.
She came inside, beaming.
“You look great!” Phil said.
“Not just because you’re naked.”
“I know,” she said, and they smiled at each other.
Later that evening, fully clothed, Phil and Karen went for a walk. As they left, it started to rain. They encountered the Harris’s, the family from across the street, arriving home from their own walk. The kids were Amanda, a dreamy, wild-haired redhead of about fourteen and her slightly older, autistic brother Jordan. The parents gave Phil and Karen a strange look, but then maybe that had something to do with the fact that it had started to rain. When it started to pour Phil and Karen finally did give up. As they reversed direction, running home shrieking with laughter, they came upon Amanda standing still in front of her house, as the rain poured through her hair and clothes, soaking her.
Karen went outside naked again on Wednesday evening. She put the porch light on this time. It seemed to her that the street got a bit quieter, as if holding its breath. A teenage couple she didn’t recognize passed. They were very deep in conversation, and didn’t glance her way. But she felt watched nevertheless.
She did it again the following evening. This time she went down her front steps and stood in front of them, in the moonlight. A few houses away, there were children playing on the street, which struck her as unusual. The children on this street were kept inside after supper, in front of screens. They did not react to her though. It was if she and they were part of the natural landscape, like the birds in the trees. I am at one with the universe, she mused, smiling to herself. She did the tree, a yogic position she had once tried to learn that required her to stand on one foot with the other tucked up inside the opposite thigh. For the first time, she had no trouble at all keeping the pose without wobbling. Her trunk was solid and straight, the sole of one bare foot rooted in the grass, the other curled up and nestled tightly inside the back of the opposite knee, her arms stretched out from her sides like strong branches.
On Saturday morning, Christine from next door beckoned to Karen from her front porch as she was getting the newspaper from her front steps. Karen was apprehensive, but then Christine added:
“My dad. He’s painting eggs.”
Painting eggs? But Easter was months ago. Since when did men, especially of that generation – Donald was ninety years old – engage in Easter egg design anyway? Christine put her finger to her lips as she led Karen through her house to the sun room in the back, where her frail, bespectacled father was sitting across the room from a small table adorned with a red tablecloth and a small bowl of ordinary white eggs. Directly in front of Donald: an easel, a palette, an orange ceramic vase containing paintbrushes. His hands trembled slightly as he raised his paintbrush to apply a swirl of white paint to the canvas. He didn’t hear them come in, absorbed as he was in his work. On the floor, against the wall beside him were several other paintings. All depicted eggs.
Karen wondered why Christine had summoned her. It could be that like most people, Helen misunderstood what Karen did for a living, which was writing publicity brochures for art galleries. Maybe Christine thought her dad deserved some world renown in return for ninety years of dull existence. Or maybe Christine was ready to move on to a deeper level of neighbourliness. Until now, they had never been in each other’s houses, had never shared much besides shovels and tomatoes.
The fourth time Karen stood naked outside was the following Tuesday, later at night. She went down her front steps, crossed her yard and planted herself where the grass met the sidewalk, under a street lamp. The street was completely still, apart from the sound of crickets. She wondered if everyone was in bed, and then decided that she hoped so. When she had modeled for art classes, she had been young and unself-conscious. No spring chicken anymore, she thought, looking down at her stretched belly and dimpled thighs. This will be the last time. I am running out of nerve here. As she turned to go back into the house, she felt something bore into her right foot. Walking barefoot next to where the garbage got picked up probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. She lifted her foot, brushed her palm across the sole, and to her relief a piece of eggshell dropped onto the lawn. Lucky. Maybe running out of luck though.
She came inside and found Phil waiting for her in the vestibule.
“It’s okay,” he said, studying her face and understanding everything. “You’ve been really brave.”
He hugged her and told her that he had decided to take her advice and quit his job as a high school teacher and try to make a living singing.
“Brave and slave don’t go together,” he said simply.
“You make me happy when you sing,” said Karen.
“You’re not worried about money?”
“You could go to Vegas. I hear there’s lots of money there.”
“No, but seriously.”
“You could be a singing teacher, Phil. You could teach the world to sing.”
The next evening, as they returned from their walk, they heard a song they recognized from their university years. Then they saw Janice, who lived next to the Harris’s, dancing on her front lawn in her nightgown. She had let her grey hair out of its bun and it swirled around her like a silver cape. Her lips were moving to the words of the song: I would go out tonight/ but I haven’t got a stitch to wear/ This man said/ it’s gruesome/ that someone so handsome should care.
On Sunday, Karen was pulling up dandelions from her front lawn with a weed whacker. A young blonde woman she didn’t recognize walked by with a blond toddler and suddenly slowed her steps and called to her.
“Hey, what a great floppy sun hat!” the woman exclaimed.
Karen wondered if they had already met.
“What are you doing? Are you making holes in your lawn? Look Victor, she’s making holes in her lawn. How curious!”
“I’m pulling out the dandelions.”
“You’re pulling out the dandelions?” She was obviously new to suburbia.
“Well, yeah,” Karen said, secretly pleased that she didn’t seem to get it, “I do it a bit for the neighbours.”
“For the neighbours?!”
Karen decided she liked this young woman very much.
“Well, look, all the neighbours around have immaculate lawns. I don’t think they like these dandelions.”
“You could also just leave them…”
“Yeah, but sometimes you have to do things to get along with other people.”
The young woman’s name was Louisa, and she and Victor had just moved back in with her mother.
“I’m Janice’s daughter. Do you know Janice?” Louisa pointed to their house.
“Oh, I know Janice,” Karen said uncertainly; the truth was, she didn’t know a lot about her until now. Until the dancing the other night, she certainly never would have pinned her as a Smiths’ fan.
Victor was pulling Louisa’s hand and trying to drag her to the park, so Karen went back to work. Louisa looked back at Karen a few times as Victor pulled her down the street. Karen didn’t let it show, but she was very pleased to have made a new friend. It was about time.
Louisa couldn’t go anywhere; she had to stay home with Victor. She passed some of the time baking. Her mother didn’t babysit anymore. That was okay; she was starting to make friends during the day; she was coming out of her shell -- her mother’s expression. She imagined both of them, awkward and ugly as giant reptiles, emerging through a white filmy membrane, pecking and tapping the ceiling and front of their oval houses, cracking large white chips and slowly stepping through the doors they’d made. Louisa winced at the metallic clanging the cookie tins made as she slid them onto the racks. She closed the oven door as quietly as she could and listened for sleepy cries from upstairs.
She crept upstairs and sat next to Victor for a few minutes and wiped the sweat of his forehead with the heel of a floury palm. She watched his chest rise and fall; she watched his tiny perfect eyelids flutter. Then she turned to the window and waited for the angel to appear. The Dandelion Killer occasionally turned into something soft and surprising at night. Set us free, naked lady! Suddenly she realized that the quiet man from across the street was standing at his window too. Was he the one?
At night, Phil and Karen began to hear noises coming from one of the houses on their block. At first they thought it was cats in heat. Then they thought someone was in pain. Then, they wondered, those kinds of moans? From which house?
One morning Karen found a package of homemade cookies at her door with a note that said, “to my angel-hero, from the anonymous baker”.
There was so much more she would have liked to say. “My mother is doing a lot better, thanks to you. I came home so that she could take care of me, but she was doing so much worse. She is really busy now, though, and I have nobody to talk to except my little boy. I hope you like the cookies. They’re full of cashews and macadamias. I hope you’re not allergic to nuts. I don’t usually like to cook or bake, although I wish I did. I have always wanted to be the sort of person who liked to cook; I associate cooks with generous, friendly people, the kind of people who smile easily. When I spoke to you the other day you probably thought I was a different kind of person. The fact is, I had rehearsed. I always rehearse.”
Then one day Christine invited Phil and Karen over for supper. The first frigging invitation from anyone in ten years. Karen thought. I can’t believe it. They brought two bottles of white wine and half a watermelon. Christine’s dad proudly introduced Tickle, their new beagle, and Tickle wagged his tail and happily piddled next to Karen’s feet. Everyone laughed except Donald, who looked mortified, and kept apologizing to her. They ate in the back yard. Phil and Karen noticed a change: the lawn was cheerfully overgrown. Christine served several courses of food: daikon salad, roasted carrots, zucchini in a tomato sauce, chicken in a cream cheese sauce. Robert and Christine’s son, Charles, an investment banker in his early-thirties, arrived wearing bicycle shorts that Karen found tight, weird and hard to look at. As if sensing her discomfort but getting it all wrong, Charles looked deeply into her eyes all evening.
“Have you noticed that we’ve stopped mowing the lawn?” Robert said happily, his eyes sparkling. His hair, white with a few streaks of black, seemed longer too.
“That’s such a good idea, Robert,” Karen said, thinking of their new neighbour, Louisa. “ Let’s make it a movement. Enough with the mowing and weeding. I wonder if we could get Denise and Guy to join us.”
“Oh, I think it’s just Denise now,” said Christine. “Guy’s gone; he’s left her. He was obsessed with some other woman.”
“Oh, that’s really sad,” Karen said, surprised.
“I know. Poor Denise. She didn’t know what was wrong and then he finally told her. He’d just stand and stare out the window all the time until she asked him, and then he finally told her.”
Karen nearly choked on her wine. Phil stroked her arm reassuringly.
“Told her what?”
“What do you mean? He told her what was bugging him, that he was obsessed with some woman.”
The four men – Phil, Robert, Donald and even Charles –exchanged looks.
A pause. Then, chimes. They heard the knife-sharpening man’s truck roll slowly into the street.
A few evenings later, Karen was sitting alone at her picnic table in the backyard, listening to the crickets, when Denise suddenly appeared through the crack in the fence that separated their properties. She was walking slightly unsteadily and holding a glass of red wine. She sat down across from Karen and gave her a rather frightening smile.
“Good party the other night?” she asked, and then cackled. “Were they talking about me?”
Although ten years had gone by since Karen had tried to befriend her next-door neighbour, they had never stood on each other’s property, nor discussed anything much besides the weather, what exactly they were supposed to put in the recycling bin, how much the tinker charged, and for what sized blade. Once Denise and Guy had tried to get Karen and Phil to share the cost of setting a skunk trap, and Karen had told them that she liked skunks. Karen was silent now, trying to think of an answer, as if trying to figure out how to say something in a foreign language.
“Are you afraid of me? Are you afraid of Virginia Wolf?” Denise asked, and cackled again. Then she grew quiet, but her smile stayed.
“That’s funny. I used to be afraid of you,” she continued after a while.
“It wasn’t my…it wasn’t what I did that…”
“I didn’t think … with my clothes off, you know, I’m not young anymore, and I’m not exactly voluptuous…”
“Yes, yes, quite true,” said Denise impatiently. “Anyway, it’s much better now that he’s gone. Good riddance to her too.”
“The boys have grown up and left,” Denise went on, “so what did I need him for? To move my bed? Not likely!”
She laughed again. Karen wondered if she could be excused.
“You know,” Denise continued, “when you are in a shitty mood and you just need a guy whose shoulder you can cry on?”
Her voice was getting softer and friendlier now. Karen nodded and smiled sympathetically.
“Well,” Denise said, abruptly pushing herself up from the bench and shouting again. “He was NEVER that guy.”
“To hell with him, then,” Karen said, imitating Denise’s drunken voice, but she immediately regretted her lack of inhibition.
Denise didn’t notice. She just said “exactly” and waved her glass at Karen before turning toward the gap in the fence. She added, shouting over her shoulder, “Mid-life crisis. What a cliché.”
Going off with a young blonde and a new little boy. Karen despised clichés. They kept getting in the way of her writing, like weeds.
“That stupid old cow with her stupid Smiths records and her stupid nightgown,” Denise shouted out her kitchen window.
The words took a moment to digest.
As Karen returned into the house through the back she saw Phil ahead of her down the corridor, closing the front door. In his hands: another bag of baked goods. They smelled wonderfully nutty.
Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada. Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
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Facebook ergo sum. Or, by contrast: I am not on Facebook, therefore I do not exist.
This is not the conclusion of an extraordinary new article by Rob Horning, “Google Alert for the Soul” – it is the premise.
From the very first paragraph: “(A)uthenticity is shifting, describing not fidelity to an inner truth about the self but fidelity to the self posited by the synthesis of data captured in social media — what I here call the data self. This sort of decentered authenticity posits a self entirely enmeshed in algorithmic controls, but it may also be the first step toward postauthenticity, in which identity ceases to be conceived as personal property.”
He is literally suggesting that the only route to authenticity in the world of Big Data (a term he doesn’t use) is to let your social media tell you who you are. Don’t fight it: it’s liberating.
“From this totalizing system, we can then derive the comfort that everything will be recorded and be factored in — we don’t need to decide in advance what is significant, what to consume or not consume. With social media as a personal content-management system, we get to consume more than ever, free of the supposed guilt that comes from consuming the wrong stuff or showing off.”
The “data self” as he notes in a graphic (but not the text itself – is there a difference anymore?) will even allow “Winning by having outsourced the production of one’s own subjectivity.” This, the graphic states “frees subject for higher level thinking/curating/consuming.”
Exactly what higher level thinking or curating can be done without subjectivity is left to the imagination. Exactly what “higher level consuming” is I can’t even begin to guess. I’d be really interested if someone could explain it to me in 100 words or less.
Horning (Executive Editor of “The New Inquiry” and author of “Marginal Utility”) is trying his best, but it’s damn hard to have a revolutionary idea these days. The notion that we are what people see us as, far from being innovative, began way before social media.
Satre talked about it at length in the concept of “Being for Others” – and if Satre talked about it, you can be sure Heidegger thought of it.
Erving Goffman wrote about how the “self” is a theatrical construct on a very different level in his 1959 book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” generally considered one of the seminal works of sociology.
Jacques Barzun talked about the need for external structure was the whole point of early education in his 1959 book “The House of Intellect.”
By contrast, Rollo May described members of the older generations as “gyroscopic man” in his 1953 book “Man’s Search for Himself”: in the past people had gotten their inner “gyroscope,” that kept them level as they moved through life, from external factors and influences. They had been set and spun by society, and the momentum kept them turning. But that contrasted with the newer generations … us … who had the opportunity to determine their characters for themselves – a task that fills us with anxiety.
Horning is, perhaps without knowing it, taking us right back to May and getting in his face. Saying that the very idea of “searching” for yourself is more effectively done with someone else’s algorithm than your own thoughts. The whole concept of “meaning” is mistaken: it’s something somebody else gives to you.
It’s supposed to be futuristic – an “only social media makes this possible” world – but it sounds very much like a move backwards. They didn’t have social networks, but this was how people in the Middle Ages organized their identities. They “were” who they were told: they had a place, and a hierarchy, and a community, and these things defined what they thought and how they felt.
The ancient Romans, along with Chinese peasants, and the Hindu caste system, had similar approaches.
Horning’s idea of what the “social media totality” is supposed to do for the “data self” – a “mechanism for turning experience into cultural capital, or quantified identity,” “an efficient system for processing everyday life to imbue it with meaning” – is exactly what pre-modern societies had. Horning’s big idea is to return our existential freedom to history’s library and get on with the Big Book of the Middle Ages.
There is a difference, though: not once in his article do the words “character” or “virtue” appear.
To the gyroscopic men – to the people of the Middle Ages and ancient Rome and Confucian China – the primary benefit of not having a personal, existential, identity was that it would make you a better person. Your character would be built by having standards to live up to, and by doing so you would become a virtuous person (though that meant different things to different societies). Your role and feelings may have been proscribed, but you could fail to live up to them – or you could excel. To talk about “who you are” without talking about the quality of your character was nonsense.
But here we are. The data self has no concern with character or virtue, and nothing to live up to. The social media algorithms will tell each “vidual” (Horning’s term) who they are with no fuss or angst – and hence no struggle. Even if you wanted to improve your character and could contemplate such an act – perhaps you have the Aristotle app – there’s nothing to improve. The benefits of the Data Self are achieved through a total abdication of responsibility: indeed, the benefit of the Data Self is a total abdication of responsibility.
This is not something the cultures that came before would have recognized.
But we recognize it. For decades now there have been warnings that the more we think about human beings in technological terms, the more we have limited our humanity to what our machines can do.
It’s not just the disappearance of human interaction with bank tellers or phone operators in exchange for key pads and recordings telling us to press 1-9, followed by the pound key. Sherry Turkle at MIT has documented the way in which some convalescence homes are giving residents fuzzy robotic pets – in lieu of human contact, which is expensive.
“We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things,” she wrote in “Alone Together.” “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
She goes on: “Human relationships are rich and they're messy and they're demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.”
While we have fewer opportunities to interact with real people, we are “always on” with the digital world – constantly connected – constantly asked to process data, never stopping, never taking time to reflect: just like our devices.
We increasingly take drugs for our moods, rather than talking to people or thinking our issues through.
Traditional classrooms, we’re now told, are on the way out because online lectures are so much more efficient … entirely eliminating the Socratic method and reducing “learning” into a data dump. (They are not the same, but “understanding” in a broad sense is hard to measure … at least by machine … so it’s going to the wayside.)
Instead of being liberated by our devices to be more human, our devices are making us more like them.
Horning has written the manifesto for this phenomenon: we do this, he says, because this is who we truly are. We are data, and the idea that we would have an existential life under these conditions is as absurd as asking about the psychology of a square root.
“What can’t be shared and processed,” he writes, “is ‘unreal,’ irrelevant to identity.”
There goes man’s search for meaning. Or anything. What you need to know will be brought to you by an algorithm that already anticipates your preferences.
In it's way it's a seductive proposition: all the joys of 21st century technology without any attendant responsibility: not even the requirement of instrospection and intellectual honesty. We can just dissolve into our networks and be ... happy?
It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with this idea, because anything I would use to refute it – like Aristotle’s notion of character, or the existence and importance of my own subjectivity even as a non-Facebook user – doesn’t really compute with the worldview Horning is putting forward. If the premise is that I am a unit of social media interactions, then any objection I put forward will merely be used to calculated what kind of social media unit I am, the better to establish my Netflix rankings.
But I will say this: Horning grounds the search for pre-data self “authenticity” is the acts of consumption. “Earlier notions of authenticity were premised on a unique interior self that consumerism would help us express,” he wrote in the same first paragraph I quoted at the beginning.
And later: “Consumerism encouraged the idea that we were born unique individuals and that we could display that uniqueness to the world by buying things. This became the basis of the modern notion of authenticity, one of consumerism’s most successful and desirable products.”
Here we may have the crux of the case: if you assumed that all search for identity was based, measured, and authenticated by acts of consumption, then perhaps the data self is indeed the next logical step. If you believe individual identity is just a phase of consumer capitalism, then what the hell?
But that’s not what Aristotle was talking about. That’s not what Montaigne was doing. That’s not what Heidegger was thinking, or what Frankl or May were writing about. Consumerism has absolutely become a force majeure in modern life, but none of the thinkers we turn to for insight about authentic identity would have seen the kind of car you drive or number of Apple products you carry around to be relevant information (however measurable). Indeed, the notion that "you are what you have" also more resembles the pre-modern world (when land-owning was tied to rights, for example) than the last century.
If you can honestly say that the notion of “authenticity” is grounded in the things you buy, then perhaps the data self is only a logical extension. But as a manifesto, Horning’s work has nothing to offer those of us who have always been looking for more.
The existence of character, too, may be a digital divide.
Once, he had graded papers. People make jokes about a red pen, but it had been standard, back in those days, and the students hadn’t argued. The red, like the robe of an inquisitor, had meant authority. He was a polymath, teaching history and mathematics both … a noted expert in the history of mathematics … and he’d been good enough at his work to enjoy it. But it had been waiting, and it had never come. Not once, in 30 years, had he felt the electric shock that comes with a student standing up and rebelling for the sake of truth. They had rebelled, a few of them, the brave ones, the idiots … but they’d always been wrong. He’d always had to force them back in to place. There is, he suspected, a world of opportunity in being wrong about something important – new possibilities open up, new avenues for study, and the potential companionship of the kid who finally gets it right. He’d expected that moment would come. For ten years, he was sure it was around the corner. With only five years left until retirement, he’d looked under every rock. He’d taught at the ivy league, at community colleges, he’d done remedial courses in prisons. Almost begging for a well timed lapse in judgment.
His expertise remained untarnished. He wore the crown of righteousness. More than righteousness – rightness. At his retirement party, a university affair, covered in the press where a stupid young reporter had written that there would never be another one like him … as if she knew anything about it … he’d wanted to swallow arsenic.
History is built on the backs of men like me, he’d thought, and felt desperately alone. Who else could do it?
Now he tended bar. He’d moved to the west coast. He was the token old man behind the counter three shifts a week, in a watering hole in a gentrifying neighborhood that was beginning to appeal to young people like his students. He poured the drinks he was told, he wrote up the bills in red pen, and he listened, like Saul on the road to Tarsis, for a change in the weather.
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I’m going to admit something.
Back when I was a kid, a truly little kid, I would sit in front of the TV and watch the old 60’s Batman show … and didn’t know that it was camp.
Come on. What did I know from camp? I vaguely knew how the whole “superhero” thing was supposed to go (I’m not sure how the structure seeped into my brain), and the Adam West “Batman” seemed to hit all the right notes to a still fairly naïve 7-year-old, even if many of the particulars struck me as odd around the edges.
But … and this is the point … even that fairly naïve 7-year-old would have laughed at someone who said that “Batman fights for family,” and “lives for love.”
It’s one thing to have “Pow!” and “Wham!” appear on the screen in the middle of a fight scene – but “Batman fights for family”? Just how was I supposed to believe that?
Those lines, however, were said in all seriousness some 50 years later, as the ABC Family Channel decided to air an edited version of “Batman Begins” – and then had to promote it to their viewing audience. So we get a 30 second spot with a narrator saying Batman “Lives for love” in a way that suggests the Dark Knight is really, really, going to ask Katie Holmes out to the prom this time.
It’s become a minor internet laughingstock for exactly that reason, but it’s also kind of baffling. How could ABC Family actually break a character who … in some 90 years of writing … has gone through more incarnations than the Dalai Lama?
We’ve had 30’s detective Batman, innocuous Batman, campy Batman, “Dark Knight” Batman, psychotic Batman … we’ve had Dick Grayson and Jean-Paul Valley don the cape-and-cowl , and you don’t even know who Jean-Paul Valley is. Some of these approaches have been better than others, some are revered while others groaned at, but out of all those different approaches it’s a 30 second promo for a Batman movie on the ABC Family Channel that makes us shake our heads and say “Bullshit! You don’t understand Batman at all!”
How does that work?
It has been argued that comic book characters are the 21st century’s additions to Jungian Archetypes: that Superman and Spider-Man stand alongside the “wise old man” and the “crone” as mythic representations of the modern psyche. There’s probably something to that.
But comic book characters are also intellectual property, like Mickey Mouse and Ronald Reagan, and subject to the whims of the latest marketing campaign. How many Spider-Man movies have we had in the last 20 years? How many Batman? 6? 9? 15? Each with different – sometimes wildly so – versions of the character, which have little to nothing to do with anything that came before. George Clooney’s bat-armor had nipples on it, for Christ sake.
How many Spider-Mans do we need?
The comic books are no safe haven. Two years ago DC comics decided to scrap their entire line, ditch some of their comics, and start all the remaining books from scratch. The “New 52” are all deliberately modernized takes on the various characters, begging the question: how, pray tell, do you come up with an Aquaman that the 21st century deserves?
The intent was to break away from literally decades of piled-on storylines that were impossible for anyone to untangle; the second Robin, for example, was killed by the Joker until the crisis of infinite earths, at which point the second Robin from another world joined our continuity and donned the identity of one of Batman’s greatest foes, who … wait … that can’t possibly be right. It’s crazy talk.
But while the artistic intent might have been to discard much of this admittedly inane material about these characters that had piled up since the 70s and reach into the archetypal essence to reveal a streamlined, believable, vital hero for our time … the process was driven by the sales department, with an “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. Animal Man will never be the same.
Actually, that’s supposed to be a really good series now. But you get the idea …
Marvel’s following suit, with “Marvel NOW!” (I kid you not) mixing teams and changing characters in ways that are overtly calculated to lead to more movies: “The Uncanny Avengers” is a hybrid between the Avengers and the X-Men that has “Three picture deal with a to-be-named-director” where its heart ought to be.
Comics aren’t the only archetypal characters getting makeovers. JJ Abrams’ “reboot” of the Star Trek movies literally destroyed the old continuity – it was as though a million voices screamed “Take THAT William Shatner!” George Lucas actually destroyed his own continuity before selling it to Disney, which is the creative equivalent of Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In this environment where every universe is an etch-a-sketch and every character is a palimpsest, is it even possible to talk about the “essence” of a character? Does Batman have enough of an essence not to … what the hell? … “fight for family and live for love?”
If so, what is it? What is it about a fictional character that can possibly be true? I’d argue there is something: the very existence of King Arthur and Merlin, across a thousand years and easily as many versions as Batman, suggests to me that there is something at the heart of a cultural archetype that carries on across the generations.
But those characters belong to the collective unconscious, not Disney. Marvel (owned by Disney) has the right to make a “definitive” version of the X-Men, no matter what the collective unconscious says, and Batman is a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton. (Don’t act so surprised).
Because surely an archetype has to stand for SOMETHING if it’s to mean anything – and “The New 52” and their peers can’t possibly pass that test.
Or perhaps each culture gets the archetypes it deserves. Carl Jung and Rollo May both believed you can predict the future of a culture by looking at the therapy patients of the present: neurotics are the psychological equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, more sensitive to emerging socio-cultural issues, and so today’s neurotics are tomorrow’s everyman.
Taken from that perspective, it’s inevitable that a culture in which identity is so much a matter of fluid presentation … what you decide to show on your social network, what identities you take on and off … would inspire archetypes who are, themselves, completely amenable to makeovers and market forces. The only problem with the Anima and the Wise Old Man is that they wouldn’t do comedy for a pilot set in a Los Angeles hospital.
Yeah, that sounds like us.
The keeper of the lighthouse took his indentured apprentice down to the beach for the first time yesterday. Down the narrow path between the crags that looked like teeth from a tiger and through the jagged points resembled nothing so much as tusks. The keeper showed his apprentice where they were, but did not bother telling him the signs that would help him remember … he would not have to come down here alone for many years. Until then, it was better if he didn’t know how. But he needed to know: to understand the serious nature of the work his parents had sold him to.
It was not the rocks the apprentice stared at, of course, when he came below. It was not even the wrecks of the ships, aging and rotting on the shore … there hadn’t been a shipwreck here in a hundred years, not since the maps had changed. Instead, the young boy looked at the vast line of crab-like things with human eyes scattered along the shore … a dark red line of millions, their legs flailing and twisting and struggling for purchase in the ruddy sand.
The boy would be 13 now, or 14, though it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the number of years he had been trained, which was nearly two. Nearly two, and he was a quick study … though he did not understand. Instead he gasped, and gaped, then tried to turn away – but his master would not let him.
“Yes, I know,” said the Keeper, holding the boy’s face forward. “This shore is cursed. Look at it carefully. This is why we keep the lantern burning.”
The boy gasped in his master’s tight grip. When he could get a breath, after he stopped struggling, he asked the only question: “What are they?”
“I don’t know,” the Keeper said. “Not for sure. What my father said, though, is that they’re souls.”
“Human souls that have lost their way, gone too far from the shores they knew. Wandered too deep into troubled waters, and didn’t know to stay away. This is all that’s left. And it’s ugly.”
“Can we help them?” the boy asked. And it was a stupid question, but it was a good one, the kind the Keeper liked to hear.
“I’m not a doctor,” he said. “I’m not a priest. Do you know how?”
The boy considered: he would have looked away, but the Keeper’s hands were still tight. “We could move them? Take them to town?”
The Keeper answered a bit too quickly, because that was the response he’d been expecting. “If you go near them,” he said, “they’ll bite.”
“They’re venomous. Their eyes and their venom, that’s what they keep after getting so far lost. That and, sometimes, their voices. When we come at night you’ll hear them sing: but that won’t be for many years.”
“Sing?” The boy was lost now, too.
His master patted him on the back. “Let’s go.”
He turned, too willingly, and then stopped. “ But …”
“All you need to understand,” the Keeper said, “is why we don’t want a ship to wreck here. Only one ship can make this landing safely … the rest must be turned away, or crash ashore in this. You need to know that. You need to know why we don’t make mistakes.”
The boy was silent on the trip back up, back through the rocks like tusks, back through the crags like teeth. He said nothing when the spray lashed salt water on his face.
He was given a hearty meal that night, fresh greens and pot pie, while the Keeper talked. “The light must be natural,” he said. “We must keep the lantern burning at night with the fire the sun lit in the day. The artificial lights, the city lights, these only attract the ships. Bring them closer. I don’t know why.”
The Keeper’s wife, a voluptuous and quiet woman who had never given him a son, began to rinse dishes in the kitchen. Later that night when the apprentice was in his room, pretending to sleep in his wool pajamas, she would open his door softly to look in. He held his breath and didn’t move.
When the door closed and her ghostly footfalls down the steps were gone, the boy slipped out of bed, tied a bundle of his clothes together with some biscuits he’d snuck from the table, and stepped out of his room. He held his breath as he walked down the steps, praying the cat would not scream. He moved slowly as he opened the lighthouse door, praying the dog would not bark.
And then he ran as fast as he could, back towards the world he knew, far, far away, breaking the bargain his parents had made, promising never to come so close to these shores again and swearing never to let himself be so lost.
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Never trust someone who wants to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge or tell you how neuroscience explains it all. Both are scams, though in the latter case someone might actually be sincere. That doesn’t make them any less wrong, though: some of the most dangerous ideas in history have been very, very, sincere.
Today’s lesson in bad brain comparisons is taken from the New York Times op-ed (April 12,2013) “What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art.”
Anyone who knows anything about how newspapers are run doesn’t hold a headline against the author – I once saw the exact same headline on a story about local zoning ordinances in Kernshaw County – but it’s hard not to make comparisons with the headlines they used to run about phrenology. “What bumps on the head can tell us about art!” was surely all the rage at the TOMx talks in the late 19th century, where it was a well known fact that advances in Latin grammar were going to change EVERYTHING.
Today’s essay purports to show, through an examination of late 19th century Viennese portraiture, “how the brain explains art.” I’m not making this up, though if I had it would have been delicious satire.
“As a group,” author Eric Kandel writes, “these artists sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the people in their portraits, but each painter developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate those mental processes.”
“Their efforts to get at the truth beneath the appearance of an individual both paralleled and were influenced by similar efforts at the time in the fields of biology and psychoanalysis. Thus the portraits of the modernists in the period known as “Vienna 1900” offer a great example of how artistic, psychological and scientific insights can enrich one another.”
Okay, still waiting …
“Klimt’s drawings display a nuanced intuition of female sexuality and convey his understanding of sexuality’s link with aggression, picking up on things that even Freud missed. Kokoschka and Schiele grasped the idea that insight into another begins with understanding of oneself. In honest self-portraits with his lover Alma Mahler, Kokoschka captured himself as hopelessly anxious, certain that he would be rejected — which he was. Schiele, the youngest of the group, revealed his vulnerability more deeply, rendering himself, often nude and exposed, as subject to the existential crises of modern life.”
That’s really interesting. But, where is he going with this? Wasn’t there something about “the brain”?
Kandel goes on, immediately following that paragraph to write:
“Such real-world collisions of artistic, medical and biological modes of thought raise the question: How can art and science be brought together?”
Wait – what?
The fact that a bunch of good portrait artists all had their own style is a “collision of artistic, medical and biological modes of thought” that demands an explanation involving science?
I had no idea that Kandel could leap such tall buildings in a single bound.
Not to take away from the specialness of the “Vienna 1900,” but, what Kandel has described them as doing - attempting to connect the expressions of their subjects with their inner lives and character - is exactly what portrait artists have been doing since … since … well … portraits. Arguably even cave paintings.
Surely yes, the portrait artists of Vienna, in that fruitful period when psychoanalysis developed, thought about their approach differently – but the idea of going beyond the surface of the subject has plenty of precedents. In the British decadents, for example; or in Michelangelo carving up cadavers in order to better understand musculature.
Or in Aristotle, saying “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Artists in different times and places had different ideas about what it meant for something to be on the surface, or beneath it, but it’s not a “collision of modes of thought.” It’s art. To the extent it has permeable boundaries … well, yes. Human cultural endeavors, including science, do not exist in isolation chambers, and never have. Art and science have always influenced each other. Science produced new kinds of paint. Google, it seems, is obsessed with Star Trek.
But … what does this have to do with the brain again? Back to the text, boys: there’s got to be a concrete example of the thesis statement here somewhere.
“Alois Riegl, of the Vienna School of Art History in 1900, was the first to truly address this question. He understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement” or the “beholder’s share.”
Art history was now aligned with psychology. Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, two of Riegl’s disciples, argued that a work of art is inherently ambiguous and therefore that each person who sees it has a different interpretation. In essence, the beholder recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps.
This insight implied that the brain is a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it. We can see this with illusions and ambiguous figures that trick our brain into thinking that we see things that are not there. In this sense, a task of figurative painting is to convince the beholder that an illusion is true.”
So … the fact that your brain helps you see the art makes it a “creativity machine” that tells us a great deal about art.
(Sigh). There are two problems with this new idea. One of which is that it isn’t new at all - and has nothing to do with neuroscience.
Like “portraiture,” the idea that the viewer helps complete the work of art has existed for a very long time. It did not spring up out of the head of Alois Reigl in 1900. Once again, Aristotle was way ahead of Reigl (and is still ahead of Kandel) in noting that art must speak either above or below our character as viewers of it - and that this would change the viewer's experience.
I have a rule – just to be clear on this – that if Arististotle wrote about it you didn’t discover it. Kandel is promoting a serious rule violation here.
But in this case Aristotle isn’t actually the go-to guy for the idea of art as an audience centered process. In the 1960’s English Professor Stanley Fish (among others) pioneered “reader response criticism,” a wholly worked out aesthetic suggesting (as he noted in the title of one of his essays) that we ourselves “write” Hamlet every time we read it.
So this idea’s been out there for a long while (over 2000 years), and fully elucidated. Kandel is peddling old news.
But here’s the really important bit: neither Aristotle nor Fish (at the time) had any knowledge of neuroscience. No concept of brain chemistry or “mirror neurons.” They created the full-out theory of reader response criticism without ever once mentioning neurology.
Occam’s razor suggests that if you can completely cut out an element of a theory and still have the theory intact, it’s an unnecessary element.
Then there’s the second problem: this idea can be applied just as consistently to anything people do.
Hey, you know, when you get a parking ticket and you look at it, your brain processes crucial information from the outside world about the ticket, like the letters and numbers and the municipality? That makes the brain a “parking machine,” doesn’t it? Because you can’t see the ticket without your brain? So the brain obviously has a lot to tell us about parking tickets.
Likewise, when I make a salad, my brain gives me crucial contextual clues about things like the kind of lettuce and whether I like fruit and nuts, which means the brain is a “salad machine” that has so much to tell us about the nature of salad.
If you buy that one, next week the brain is going to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. You really can’t explain the bridge, you see, without your brain.
Maybe the brain can tell us something about Art, but Eric Kandel hasn’t. He’s taken old ideas, slapped “the brain” onto them, and claimed they’re a discovery of the new science.
Until the champions of neuroscience can tell us something about art that hasn’t come up many times before … in ancient Greece, in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Period … they should really stick to neuroscience.
We learned so much about art, about human psychology, about the mind, from all the human culture that came before the neuroscience revolution. The most frustrating part of what is, without doubt, a genuine revolution in the sciences is its tendency to ignore that vast repository of knowledge and wisdom, instead limiting itself to what it can see from neurons firing under laboratory conditions right this minute. That's tragic, because it not only doesn't advance neuroscience, it attempts to hold back our knowledge of art, psychology, and the mind, stunting it by demanding we ignore thousands of years of worthy precedent.
Both neuroscience and the humanities would be enriched if neuroscientists were better humanists. That would help us stop "discovering" old news, again and again, and encourage real advances.
Some people pace when they’re nervous. Others can’t stop talking. I, given the opportunity, tweeze. My eyebrows, that is. I don’t know if anyone else does it; it’s the one habit I have which makes me wonder if I’m compulsive. I tweeze my eyebrows every morning no matter what kind of mood I’m in; but when I’m nervous I tweeze them again and again and again.
My eyebrows are black, like my hair. My father’s side of the family is Mediterranean, so my hair, though fine, is very thick. So are my eyebrows. When I was a kid, I hated them. They were too wide, too close together. Almost a unibrow.
When I was in fifth grade, I locked myself in the bathroom and, with shaking hands, picked up my father’s double-edged Gillette steel-handled razor. Peering carefully into the mirror I shaved the space between my eyebrows, making it a bit wider on each side. But I was young and my hand was unsteady; my left eyebrow wasn’t the same length as my right one anymore. I tried to fix it. The space between my eyebrows grew wider and wider but I couldn’t line it up evenly. My reflection grew fuzzy as my eyes filled. It was clear that to do any more would make me look like a freak. Maybe I already did.
My mother spotted it right away.
“What on earth did you do?”
“I tried to fix my eyebrows.” The tears I’d been holding back spilled out.
She explained that a razor blade was not the proper tool for such a delicate job. She introduced me to tweezers. My mother was a kind woman, so despite her conviction that my eyebrows were just fine and shouldn’t be tampered with, she sat down with me and carefully shaped my eyebrows. They looked much better.
Over the years I reached a comfort level with my eyebrows. They were a bit wide, (I never could allow them to grow too close together) but I had wide eyes as well and they looked fine to me. Then I got a job as a model. It was, unfortunately, after the big eyebrow look had come and gone.
I was sent to a salon to be “prepared” for my first shoot. They cut my long hair, waxed my upper lip and tweezed my eyebrows before applying professional makeup. They pulled hair after hair as I flinched and my eyes watered. When they were done and I was handed a mirror, I gasped. My eyebrows were two thin, black lines arching with surprise over my enormous gold-flecked eyes.
“Bee-yoo-tee-ful!” gushed the effusive man who would be doing my makeup.
I wasn’t sure. But my eyebrows got rave reviews from everyone I knew, so I figured they were worth keeping.
I tweezed religiously to maintain those two skinny crescents. I did it for years. Then I got married and had a baby. I didn’t have time for such a high-maintenance look. I stopped.
I have a picture from those days. It is a family portrait of my husband, our baby and me. My hair is short, I am heavy. My eyebrows are so thick it seems my eyes are about to be buried in an avalanche of coal-colored pine branches. My smile looks wobbly.
Years passed, my husband and I fell into a routine and I found myself wishing I had never gotten married. Life became heavy and so did I. I can’t remember now what woke me up, but one day I decided to do something about it. I needed to feel good about myself again. I started walking every morning, stopped eating cookies with the baby, bounced around with a workout tape while he napped. I lost weight, colored my hair and began to tweeze my eyebrows. I looked wonderful. My husband thought so, too, for a little while.
I find comfort in tweezing. It is an activity that requires complete concentration – one slip and you may find yourself cock-eyed looking or, just as bad, with a bald spot in the middle of one eyebrow. I tweeze hairs long before they get long enough to be removed by waxing. I can’t stand to let them grow that long. I get them when they first begin to appear. Sometimes the tweezers gently break the skin over a black hair just beginning to sprout. I can grasp that tiny hair and pull it by its root before it ever gets a chance to change the contour of my eyebrows.
I go too far sometimes. When I’m really worried about something, I’ve occasionally tried to tweeze hairs which were impossible to get. I’ve drawn blood. Sometimes I try to get at an ingrown hair because the lump over it annoys me. That leaves a mark.
My husband left me last week.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m not even forty and I feel like my life is over.”
He’d take care of us, he said. But he didn’t want to live with us anymore. He’d found someone else. Someone fun.
I put Benny down for bed an hour ago. He’s a terrific little guy. He’s a happy kid and he deserves a happy life. I called my girlfriend Mary and asked her if she’d come watch him for me tonight. Mary and her husband are wonderful people and they are dying to have a baby, but they can’t. They’re great with Benny.
I put the lid down on the toilet in the bathroom and pull the magnifying mirror close. My tweezers are wonderful; large and thin and sharp. I carefully, carefully pluck the stray hairs between my eyes, careful not to gouge myself. Then I begin on the hairs underneath. I should have enough time to finish before the pills I took hit me. I want to look surprised.
Susan Barnett is a journalist, a writer and nationally syndicated radio show host. She lives in Woodstock, NY.
Back in the days of independent cinema – you know, before 1980 – there were dozens of film production houses that worked region-by-region all across America. Small shops, small pictures, small money – mini-studios that might give you some financing if you had a track record, or were an exciting talent, or just had a cool idea. If you traced the lineage of one of these houses, it sometimes ended in the Mob. But not all were crooks – some were legitimate forces, such as Roger Corman or CinePix. Still others were fly-by-night operations with $100,000 and dream, sprung out of cash made on porno or from footage for the local news. Point is, there was money and the little guy could get it.
That system is long dead. Time has seen the acquisition of every small house by a larger one – big fish gobbling up the guppies until there was no more independent cinema.
So what’s a young kid with a dream to do? You love indie horror and you want to make some of that yourself. You shoot a backyard monster movie starring all your friends and pay for it with your allowance. Then you make a better and longer film for $500. Then you drop $1,000 on your magnum opus. Though the films are improving, they still stink. And you’re broke. Now that you’ve got experience, you do a line budget and get hungry to hire professionals. Do some great splatter effects! Make a nice DVD case and a poster! You add it up and it totals $20,000 bucks. That’s more than your mom has in her mattress, more than your uncle has in savings, more than your dentist has in teeth.
Eeesh. What now? The answer these days is crowdsourcing (aka crowd-funding). It is built on the classic maxim, “If you get a million people to give you one dollar, you’d be a millionaire.”
Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the champions in this space, as well as supporting organizations like Fractured Atlas. Operating outside of Hollywood or the normal arts grant system, these groups provide a forum for people to plead their case, show their chops, and, more importantly, connect with like-minded supporters. Showcase everything from gallery artists, to novelists, to theatre companies, these groups really have been a boon is for the new generation of horror filmmakers with an individual vision, an exploitable element, and a hook outside of the normal Hollywood fare.
The (almost) no-strings-attached cash opportunity for genre filmmakers is unique. John Klein, producer and director of the upcoming zombie epic, Chrysalis, raised $35,000 in budget using a successful Kickstarter campaign. “It’s a big gamble with a lot of pressure – not unlike typical fundraising, but with the added catch of having to get as many people as possible on board within a super-short time frame.” It should be noted that most of the donations were at the $10 and $100 targets, a fact verified by the stats of most projects on these crowdsource platforms.
Writer/Executive Producer Kevin Sommerfield recently funded his slasher flick Don’t Go To The Reunion with a successful bid to the masses. “By Day 5 of our thirty-day campaign, we were at just over $1,000 raised on a budget of $10,000. We spent about four hours creating the campaign and asking friends, family, and horror fans what the perfect rewards would be to get them to back the project.” Since the contributor (also known as a backer) won’t have any artistic influence (unlike a Hollywood producer) or profit points, rewards are the key. “Posters, DVDs, T-shirts, scripts. For the ‘ultimate backer’ who gave $2,000 or more, we offered a death scene in the film.”
Horror fans would kill to travel back in time, maybe give a few bucks to a little-known Pittsburgh company called Image Ten, and appear as a zombie in the first independent horror flick to make some serious bucks, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Now you can hunt down the next Romero and break into the undead without a time machine.
Says Klein, “Our $200 prize was that you got to be a zombie in the film. It was specific to that dollar amount only; you couldn't pledge $500 for one package and include that prize. You'd have to bid separately for that perk. We were really surprised by how popular that backer level ended up being; we were constantly upping the number of available prizes at that level because they kept selling out! We had about 25 zombies in the film who came from that package.”
Sommerfield recommends all levels of backing have at least some connection with the audience. “You need to offer rewards with immediate payoffs. Even if it is just a simple thank you, it is nice to show that you appreciate the support.”
Finding the next George Romero is no easy task, but with campaign assets – like links to the director’s previous films coupled with fresh interviews or trailers about the new project – at least you get a sense of what these people are capable of delivering. Creating advanced assets – and buzz – is really boosted by the horror community, where a very loyal (and forgiving) fan base chases the next big thing in the same way dogs chase cars.
Red Clark, director of the upcoming adaptation of Gray Matter, based on the short story by Stephen King, jokes, “I watched a movie about a killer turkey raise over $100,000 and was thinking, okay I have no excuse now.” Clark went with Kickstarter rather than Indiegogo, explaining, “Kickstarter was more well-known at the time. I liked the look better. I also wanted to raise the amount or nothing at all and have the momentum build off of that.”
Indiegogo allows campaigners to set a budget, solicit funds, and keep the funds – even if you fall short of your goal. Kickstarter – known as the slicker cousin – has a catch: you have thirty days (sometimes sixty, sometimes ninety) to raise 100% of your goal or you lose it, all of it.
“I love the look, feel, and design of Kickstarter,” concedes Sommerfield. “I think it is
great that Indiegogo has the option for Flexible Filming, but with the ‘all-or-none’ motto of Kickstarter, it gives it a real threat. It makes it that much more fulfilling if you reach it.” Sommerfield had to pull out all the stops to get over his goal. “Call every relative, text every friend. By the end of that campaign there wasn't a single person we knew that didn't know about the project. I thought I was going to die at the end of it. No sleep and lots of stress, but it was worth it to be able to make our film. We've been lucky. This was our fourth film funded through Kickstarter and the fourth successful one.”
Not every campaign is a success – and not every project gets completed. But for horror filmmakers and fans, it is a chance worth taking. Direct access to a community, lower budgets with bigger impact, and the sheer showmanship are heavy gravity for horror people.
“I did organize some promotional assets. I did some test shooting. It was definitely helpful to showcase the style and energy of the movie and not just have a talking head,” adds Clark. “I probably spent about $400 in pre-campaign costs because I hired a friend to do a promotional poster for me and I printed a bunch of cards and flyers.”
So what advice do these filmmakers have when asking strangers for money? “We were completely caught off guard by taxes,” warns John Klein. “The money you raise will be taxed by the IRS as income. For larger projects especially it's important to have an LLC or comparable entity in place to receive that money and deal with those issues, rather than trying to funnel it through your personal accounts. Do your research and talk with an accountant early on in the process, and budget appropriately!”
Some advice applies even when horror directors and producers seek funding outside of the crowd kids.
For example, John Pata and Adam Bartlett were co-directors of the successful feature Dead Weight. That film’s budget came from private investors, not crowdsourcing. Pata concedes pre-planning, quoting, and providing a budget makes a case for credibility. “One of the items we included in our proposals to potential investors was a budget breakdown. Somehow, we finished production just under budget. Surrounding ourselves with incredibly dedicated and passionate people (most of which were friends before we even began the project) definitely helped quite a bit.” And Bartlett recommends saving a little for festivals. “We weren't aware of the high cost of film festival submissions. Someone told us once at a film festival that you should save 15% of your budget just to submit to film festivals, and that sounds about right.”
Clark adds about his experience: “It was a lot of fun and it really made me grateful to know so many amazing people. I had old friends from junior high come out of the woodwork and pledge. I was touched. Very humbling and inspiring. I talked about it as much as I could. I brought business cards and flyers to events. Lots of friends who helped me with this. I had a couple large pledges did not come through. One for $1,000. My assumption is the person pledged the project early on then realized they didn't have the money when it came time to settle. I'm not really sure, I didn't know them personally. Unfortunately, there were some processing charges there, so I actually lost money, but I don't hold any bad feelings at all. I'm just grateful for the people who followed through.”
Of the pros and cons, Klein remarks, “Funding Chrysalis through Kickstarter forced us to really plan things strongly in advance. It was like going through pre-production several months early, requiring us to lock key crew members and scout locations and budget effectively early on. And it also taught us an incredible amount about the value of marketing and social media; our Facebook page had over 500 fans and our Kickstarter page had close to 1,500 likes before a single frame of footage was shot! That allowed us to figure out a lot about what people liked and didn't like about the concept and the story, and gave us incentive to keep the conversation going with our fans. We had a fairly detailed budget going into the campaign, which included a tentative budget for how much the Kickstarter prizes would cost to produce and deliver to our backers once the film was finished, and which also took into account the 10% we'd lose to Kickstarter and Amazon afterwards in fees. However, we initially had planned to shoot the film in the fall and not the winter (a shift to accommodate some incredible actors), which led to some tight budgeting issues, and in addition, the production was beset with difficulties that led to us having to schedule a couple of pickup days in late March. I won't say we're over-budget, but I will say we're stretched pretty thin at this point!”
“I've been making movies since I was little,” says Clark, “so I sort of spend all my money on making movies or going out on dates to see movies. This was my first crowd-funding project where I actually asked if people wanted to get involved on the financing.”
So when will Gray Matter hit the streets? “We're in production now,” says Clark. “Due to needed weather conditions (the film takes place in the winter, which came very late this year) and the practical effects taking a lot of time, we are still shooting the final pieces. That said, it's looking really awesome and I'm beyond happy with everyone’s work so far.”
Why would someone not do this kind of funding? For the makers of Dead Weight, the choice came down to putting their energy into the film itself, rather than a campaign. Says Pata, “During the writing process, we had an in depth discussion about how we wanted to raise money and, although we knew it would be the difficult path, we made the decision to go with private funding. Ask any filmmaker, no matter how many investors you have, or how much you raise, you could always use more money. For starters, I sold a screen printing shop I co-owned to work on Dead Weight full time, and ended up putting about 90% of the money I got into the film. Sadly, films cost money to make and money can go really fast. Being able to directly involve people we know with our film is definitely the best thing about how we funded the film. Also, to know that people believed in us and our project enough to loan us money was an incredible feeling.” Bartlett adds, “Being privately funded I'd say the biggest pro was that we control and own the film 100%. This is ours. I guess the only real con I can think of is that it was incredibly difficult to raise the money we were looking for. Through a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter, people are just out there looking for projects to back. We had to get out and look for people that wanted to support the film. The obligation that came with funding is a plan to repay the investor and an executive producer credit. There are some investors who didn't want to be listed as an executive producer on the film or IMDb page, which was their choice.”
Next time for Bartlett and Pata, will they put a hand out to the crowdsource community?
“We may fund things differently next time around,” says Bartlett. “With Dead Weight under our belt and the large amount of praise through reviews, film festival acceptance, award nominations, etc., we feel like that will give us a lot of ammunition if we decide to take our next project to a platform of crowdsourcing. We will still pursue some private investors, as we have actually had interest from a number of parties already, but with independent filmmaking you can never have too many options.”
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If you’d like further information about the projects mentioned in this article:
Chrysalis (http://chrysalis2013.com) is a post-apocalyptic horror film, set 25 years after a bio-terrorist attack unleashes a virus upon the world, transforming much of humanity into vicious creatures and laying waste to civilization.
Dead Weight (http://www.carryingdeadweight.com) tells the story of Charlie Russell as he treks through the wilderness in search of his girlfriend, Samantha, after a widespread biological outbreak wipes out civilization.
Don’t Go to the Reunion (http://www.slasherstudios.com) Paying homage to revenge slashers like Slaughter High, Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me, and Prom Night, Don't Go to the Reunion is the ultimate love letter to slashers.
Gray Matter (http://graymattermovie.com) is a non-commerical short horror film adaptation of "Gray Matter,” a story by Stephen King from his collection Night Shift. The story takes place during a winter storm, when a group of regulars at a liquor store travel out to check on a friend who has slowly been "changing shape" over the past couple months.
And, if you’d like to see a campaign in full effect at the time of this article, checkout Patrick Rea’s Enclosure over at Indiegogo:
Enclosure (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/enclosure) is a monster movie where most of the action is centered inside of a tent during a camping excursion.
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.