Tuesday, January 14, 2003

JUST LINKING, NO THINKING: Some stuff I've found interesting lately.

Daze sends us towards P.J. Huffstutter's See No Evil in the LA Times calling for regulation of the porn industry, using Anne Marie Ballowe--the former Brooke Ashley--as an example.

Charles Murtaugh brings the goods twice, first with this Eugene Goodheart thing decrying E.O. Wilson's attempt to make biology the king of all forms of knowledge. Says Goodheart:

Sociobiology has another adversary in the radical skepticism of postmodernism, which denies the natural sciences, as it does to other discourses, any claim to objective knowledge, despite the amazing progress sciences have made in, for example, our understanding of the genetic makeup of living creatures. (I place "our" in quotation marks because we delegate scientific understanding and conviction to scientists. Our faith or trust in them–these modern-day Prosperos, if you will–is based in part on the evidence of the technology and medical advances that have come out of science.) One is not required to defend the scientism of Wilson and Diamond to affirm the scientists’ claims for the objectivity of their discoveries. It is, of course, true that scientific claims are always provisional and can be superseded by new knowledge. But there are claims that have been consolidated and not superseded, and those claims that have been superseded can be placed on a curve of progress to a better understanding of phenomena. My purpose here, however, is not to defend science–for it needs no defending–but rather to reflect on the opposition between two isms: scientism and radical postmodernism. Both are, in my view, detrimental to the cause of science and of the humanities.

For Wilson, scientism–he calls it the Enlightenment–and postmodern epistemology would appear to be the either/or of theoretical debate in the academy. "Postmodernism is the ultimate polar antithesis to the Enlightenment. The difference between the two extremes can be explained as follows: Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing." One theory aims for the unity of knowledge, the finding of ultimate explanations for everything; the opposing theory aims for a radical skepticism about the possibility of any certain knowledge. What they have in common is that both theories are grand theories–radical postmodernists would bridle at the attribution–with the ambition to account for everything. They are reductionist and therefore interdisciplinary in a bad sense, for they display an insufficient respect for the integrity and autonomy of the disciplines. Both theories are dogmatic and therefore incapable of that mixture of confidence and epistemological modesty that says, "This we can know, this we may yet know, this remains in the realm of mystery, subject to a variety of speculation and interpretation that cannot be resolved to certain knowledge."

Second there's this David Lodge essay on consciousness and the fact that literature has always understood it while science has not--or something to that effect. There's a history of the consciousness in there too:

Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens , observes that philosophy's "preoccupation with what we call consciousness now is recent - three and a half centuries perhaps." It is not, he says, merely that the word did not exist before then - neither did the concept. It was not coincidental that this same period saw the emergence of a new form of narrative literature in Europe which soon became dominant. Ian Watt, in his classic study of that phenomenon, The Rise of the Novel , suggests that "both the philosophical and the literary innovations must be seen as parallel manifestations of larger change - that vast transformation of Western civilization since the Renaissance which has replaced the unified world picture of the Middle Ages with another very different one - one which presents us, essentially, with a developing but unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences at particular times and in particular places."

Watt observed that whereas earlier narrative literature usually recycled familiar stories, novelists were the first storytellers to pretend that their stories had never been told before, that they were entirely new and unique, as is each of our own lives according to the empirical, historical, and individualistic concept of human life. They did this partly by imitating empirical forms of narrative like auto biography, confessions, letters, and early journalism. Defoe and Richardson are obvious examples.

But there was also a new emphasis on the interiority of experience, which Watt suggests followed from Descartes making consciousness the basis for a definition of man: "I think, therefore I am," in the famous formula. Watt observes that "once Descartes had given the thought processes within the individual's consciousness supreme importance, philosophical problems connected with personal identity naturally attracted a great deal of attention. In England, for example, Locke, Bishop Butler, Berkeley, Hume and Reid all debated the issue."

And this debate, the precursor of our own contemporary consciousness debate, fed into fiction both indirectly, through the process of meme transmission described by Dawkins, and in some cases, like that of Laurence Sterne, directly. Phenomena such as memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual's sense of self, became of central importance to speculative thinkers and writers of narrative literature alike.

It is probable that the fairly recent invention and rapid development of printing contributed to that process. The increasing availability of books in which exactly the same story could be experienced privately, silently, by discrete individuals, was a marked departure from the usual transmission of stories in preprint culture by means of oral recitation or dramatic performance in front of a collective audience. The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimicked the silent privacy of individual consciousness.

This privacy, the fact that no one knows our thoughts as intimately as we ourselves know them, is what makes consciousness such a challenge to scientific investigation. "Consciousness," says Susan Greenfield in The Human Brain: A Guided Tour , "is the ultimate puzzle to the neuroscientist; it is your most private place." But for the very same reason consciousness is of absorbing interest to novelists - and to their readers. "Fiction has, and must keep, a private address," Eudora Welty wrote.

Salon interviews John McWhorter and it was good:

So what is a racist then?

A racist is someone who hates black people because they are black and/or acts against the welfare of black people. That person today is increasingly rare. More to the point, as often as not that person can't have any effect on your life. So what's the big deal? I know that sounds naive, but if you have a basic ego, how much can that matter? We're taught to fall to pieces whenever there's a "racist." Why?

Well, that brings me to the next question: Do you really think that most black people do fall to pieces? Who and what are you talking about?

No, and that's one of the major themes of "Authentically Black." There is a split identity in black culture today, and I see this daily. There's what you're expected to do in public, and there's what you're expected to do in private. The black undergraduate who hears a professor use the word "niggardly" or hears something an administrator says that could be construed as "racist" and runs out of the classroom crying, I firmly believe, is not genuinely hurt. They have a sense that as good, thinking African-Americans it's their job to blow the whistle on racism in public. It's the same kind of theater that your counterculturally oriented white undergraduates pull.

So somebody says "nigger" or somebody draws a picture in some dorm, and a certain 25 black students jump out onto the central plaza and the local media comes and you've always got one or two of them who will cry. They're not cynical; it's not that they're doing it on purpose, but they have a sense that to be intelligent, engaged black people you're supposed to pull this kind of routine. Deep down, most black people know that some of these things will not destroy you, that you can succeed in a world even if it's not perfect. That is the biggest problem today -- the sense that to be authentically black is to cloak the black race in victimhood in public, no matter how well the race is doing. The idea is to keep whites on the hook. In private, this is not the way that black people talk.

The sadder truth is that for many white people, black people are a minority with a sad history, and they'd rather be rid of us completely. The very sad truth is that white people are much more important to black mythology than the other way around. That's not fair, but like many things that aren't fair, it's also true.

Might that be changing considering how much black culture has influenced white culture? What I find hard to believe is that whites aren't conscious in some ways of how they emulate black people.

Interesting question. Many black people are afraid that we're being co-opted. What they don't understand is how black white people are getting. And it's something that's easy to miss; fish don't know that they're wet. But it's at the point where hybridism is becoming very much the norm. Most people don't think about the fact that the way Britney Spears sings and moves is black.

It's not only in entertainment. You see it in the way people talk. A lot of "ebonics" is now ordinary speech. I don't know how many white girls I've seen calling each other "dude." "Dude" starts with black people and it percolates into white vernacular among men. Now white women are saying, "Dude, let's go get our nails done." It's a black thing. If you look at a silent film, at white people moving in 1903, they don't walk like white people now, they don't nod like white people. All of us are blacker. So what we're really moving towards is a Mariah Carey, Tiger Woods sort of thing. Nowadays, black people do matter more to white people, but in a good way, because black people are in white people and they don't even know it, which is the way it should be.

Which is the way it should be?

Yeah, because we're moving towards getting past race. Al Sharpton wouldn't like that, but we're going to get past it. Getting past it does not mean these communities of wary blacks and wary whites eyeing each other and writing Op-Eds about each other.

Do they feel that way about hip-hop? It's mostly black controlled.

Hip-hop is interesting. It's almost as if people are waiting for it to be co-opted. But the thing is that there is no hip-hop Elvis and there's not going to be one. There is Eminem, but nobody would claim that he is taking the lion's share. There is nobody who thinks of Eminem as the quintessence of hip-hop.

But people have compared him to Elvis. Well, he compares himself to Elvis, anyway.

In that way that he is a white hip-hopper. But he is not taking over the field. He is not making more money than any other number of hip-hoppers. He is just one of the many. And he's doing fine. But he's not taking over in the way that Elvis did. Elvis made it and all of a sudden he's making more money than Chubby Checker and Sam Cooke and all the others combined. Eminem's not doing that, he's not going to, nor will any white hip-hopper do it. Things have changed. The white kids in the suburbs are not listening only to Eminem. There's no sense that they like Eminem better than the black ones.

There you go.

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