Archive for March, 2004

Top Ten

Monday, March 29th, 2004

Top Ten is one of the many comics Alan Moore has produced in the last five years or so under the rubric of America’s Best Comics. It’s been collected in two trade paperback volumes.
Top Ten is light and airy, even goofy, despite the fact that its subjects include serial killing, drug addiction, and pedophilia. The premise is this: Neopolis is a city where all the citizens have comic book superpowers. Top Ten follows the officers of the city’s police precinct through a week or so of their various activities and adventures.
Having pretty much invented the hardcore look at how psychologically fucked up superheroes would be if they were real, twenty years ago in Watchmen, Moore takes a radically different tack this time. The tone of Top Ten is more Barney Miller than Hill Street Blues. Moore has fun with (and makes fun of) superhero comic book conventions, and sets up one absurd situation after another. Basically, he revels in the extravagence of possibilities afforded him by his set-up. What makes it work really, even for readers like myself who have little emotional feeling for the superhero genre, is the effortless fluidity and grace with which Moore juggles his many balls; the book is almost a textbook example of narrative economy and elegant self-referential construction. (Also, Gene Ha’s illustrations are wonderful: dense and complex, they render the sheer intensity and craziness of urban existence melded with the wacko insanity of superhero fantasy gone bonkers).
I’m almost inclined to say that the pleasures of Top Ten are like those of watching old, low budget Hollywood films, by those directors (like Edgar Ulmer, Budd Boetticher, Joseph H Lewis, Gerd Oswald, and so on, whom Andrew Sarris designated as masters of “expressive esoterica”). Except that Alan Moore has, at the same time, a postmodern self-consciousness about it all, which those old directors didn’t really have. So it might be more accurate to say that Moore’s uniqueness is that he can pull off a self-conscious pomo pastiche/evocation of naive, old, “low culture” genres without any of the smarmy condescension and all-too-self-congratulatory campiness that so often vitiates such efforts.
Top Ten is a light entertainment, in contrast to such more ‘serious’ works of Moore’s as Watchmen, From Hell, and Promethea. But it’s a mark, I think, of Alan Moore’s sophistication and cosmpolitanism and brilliance as an artist, that he can also toss off such a pitch-perfect, self-aware but “naive” serial as Top Ten.

More Jay-Z remixes

Sunday, March 28th, 2004

I like DJ Cheap Cologne’s Double Black Album (Jay-Z’s Black Album mixed with Metallica’s Black Album) a lot better than DJ DangerMouse’s Grey Album (Jay-Z’s Black Album mixed with the Beatles’ White Album). (Instructions on how to get both albums can be found on the Banned Music website. Basically you have to download the files with BitTorrent).
As I noted here before, the Grey Album doesn’t really work: the Beatles samples don’t fit well with Jay-Z’s vocals, but neither does the contrast between them make for an interesting enough tension.
Cheap Cologne’s mix, on the other hand, is a match made in heaven. It’s as musically convincing to me as Jay-Z’s original album was. The loss of funkiness in the beat is compensated for by the way that Metallica’s power chords meld almost seamlessly with Jay-Z’s rapping: the same kind of (over)emphatic (macho?) insistence is pounded into your head by both artists. In conventional gender terms, you might say that not only do Jay-Z and Metallica both exclude even the slightest trace of the feminine, they both do so in pretty much the same way, by creating a kind of totalized, hermetically sealed musical space in which no alternatives seem possible, no flexibility is permissible, your only option (unless you turn off the music altogether) is to submit utterly.
Which is finally my problem with both Jay-Z and Metallica: they are both very, very good at what they do, but I don’t particularly cherish what it is that they do.
Still more Jay-Z remixes are available via the Jay-Z Construction Set. I haven’t had the time (or energy) to assimilate them all — much as I like the project of remixing Jay-Z in all sorts of ways conceptually, there are still lots of other things that I’d rather listen to — but MC ScottD’s Hot Buttered Soul Remixes and Kev Brown’s Brown Album both sound pretty interesting.

Broken Angels

Saturday, March 27th, 2004

Broken Angels is Richard K. Morgan’s second science fiction novel, the sequel to Altered Carbon (which I wrote about here). That is to say, the two novels share a protagonist, and are set in the same universe; but they are very different sorts of books.
Where Altered Carbon was a futuristic, noirish detective novel, Broken Angels fits rather into the military/adventurer genre. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is a mercenary-for-hire, as are many of the other characters we meet. Yet who Kovacs, or anyone else, is really working for, remains unclear until the end of the book.
The high-tech concerns of the previous book — “sleeves,” or alternate bodies into which your mind can be downloaded, and the use of virtual reality for torture — are just background here, taken for granted as everyday actualities of the world(s) of the novel. Mostly, advanced technology is manufactured for, and used by, the military. We get everything from bodily implants that turn you into an unstoppable killing machine, to devices that take control of your neural system and make any thoughts of resistance impossible, to self-evolving, genocidal nanobots of amazing viciousness and efficiency.
And that’s just machinery for everyday use. The really high-tech stuff in the novel, left behind by a vanished alien civilization, is beyond the understanding of the human characters, who merely scavenge it as they can.
What we get, beyond the technology, is a glimpse into a society of unremitting brutality: a brutality that is not the least bit alien to that of our own world today. The 30-odd worlds of Morgan’s fictional universe are controlled by large corporations, who will stop at nothing to get the obedience, and the profits, that they want. The “market” is “free,” so that anything can be bought and sold — provided that the corporations don’t just kill you to get what you are trying to sell to them (after torturing you to find out what you might not be telling them). Because everything is regulated by money, backed up by force of arms, there is of course no such thing as voting, or as freedom of expression.
Beyond this, endemic warfare engulfs many of the 30-odd human-inhabited planets in Morgan’s universe. War takes place, usually, on a planetary scale, with “tactical” nukes as one of the milder weapons in everybody’s arsenal. On Sanction IV, the planet where Broken Angels is set, an ongoing war between forces loyal to the corporations and ostensible socialists has resulted in massive slaughter, large areas dosed with high levels of radioactivity, and most of the living population confined to concentration camps. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for free-lance mercenaries, like Takeshi Kovacs, to engage in lots of mayhem on the side. Sadism is the rule on a micro- as well as a macro-scale, and nobody is incapable of betraying the people closest to them.
What makes this harrowing vision work is the unglamorized ugliness, as well as the intimacy, of Morgan’s descriptions of violence. His fatalistic characters (few of whom survive) take such a level of murder and destruction for granted; it’s the only thing they know. The novel teeters between a generalized Hobbesian vision of the inevitable war of all against all, on the one hand, and a finely honed moral and political outrage at the machinations of power and exploitation, on the other. There’s not a shred of utopian hope in this book, no suggestion that a better world is possible; but at the same time we are never allowed to forget that all this is not just a generalized result of “the human condition”, but the very specific and carefully machinated outcome of particular institutions and power relations.
Broken Angels is plotted fairly conventionally, and in spite of everything the cynical action-hero protagonist triumphs (or at least survives and gets rid of his enemies) at the end. (There’s even the conventional big shootout in outer space for a culmination). But this predictable genre stuff doesn’t really get in the way of Morgan’s dystopian vision. Morgan pulls no punches, andBroken Angels is considerably darker and more disturbing than the “cyberpunk” fiction of the 1980s ever was. Because Morgan’s vision of corporate domination is much grimmer, and unrelieved by any glimpses of chic nihilism or countercultural hipness.

Klaus Theweleit

Wednesday, March 24th, 2004

Klaus Theweleit is a German cultural critic who seems (like a lot of people I’ve been reading recently) to be a bit under-recognized in the US currently. His massive two-volume book Male Fantasies, originally published in Germany in 1977, won him some American fame (in academic circles, at least) when it was translated into English in 1987; but it seems to have been forgotten in the years since. Since then, he’s published a lot, including another massive, multi-volume work, The Book of Kings; but little of it has appeared in English translation. (You can find out a little about The Book of Kings here and here).
Male Fantasies was a wonderfully over-the-top study of the relations between misogyny and fascism. More precisely, it was a kind of left-Freudian analysis of the Freikorps, which was a proto-Nazi militia in Germany just after the end of World War I. In analyzing letters, fiction, and propaganda created by members of the Freikorps, Theweleit uncovered a configuration in which militarism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were driven by a fear of dissolving boundaries, a reactive need to affirm the body’s hardness and invulnerability, a phobic resistance to the “oceanic,” and to flows and flexibilities of all sorts: these latter being associated with the maternal, the sexual, the feminine, etc. Theweleit both grounded this configuration very closely in the particularities of time, place, culture, and social class; and suggested how the pathology he uncovered had larger resonances throughout the history of misogynistic Western culture.
Basically, Theweleit offered an update of (the early) Wilhelm Reich’s analysis of “the mass psychology of fascism” and of rigidified, repressive “character armor.” What Theweleit added to Reich was a brilliant and omnivorous pop culture sensibility, a decided feminist slant, and a kind of gonzo theoretical style. (He is always excessive, and often quite funny as well).
I read Male Fantasies fifteen years ago and I was greatly impressed. I’m not sure what has brought me back to Theweleit now, aside from my general project of looking at other theoretical sources (from Whitehead to Jaynes to McKenna to Kittler to Canetti) instead of just rereading the usual French suspects. But, besides Male Fantasies, it turns out that only one quite slender volume of Theweleit’s has been translated into English: Object-Choice (All You Need Is Love). It’s a discussion of Freud’s notion of “object-choice,” i.e. how we “choose” the people we fall in love with.
Theweleit first gives a typology of the varieties of object-choice, proposing a lot of categories in addition to Freud’s. He then looks at Freud’s own “object-choices,” looking at his relationships with his wife, with his daughter Anna, with his patients, with his female disciples (women psychoanalysts were important in the early history of the psychoanalytic movement), and with women who “mediated” his intense relationships with other men (most notably hear, C. G. Jung’s wife).
Psychoanalyzing Freud himself is something that has been done widely in the last 25 years; this aspect of Theweleit’s book isn’t all that new or (to me) interesting. What is interesting about the book is this:
Theweleit brings out the sense, which one finds in Freud at his best, that our deepest desires and actions are ones over which we have no control, and which we cannot possibly understand, or even recognize in and about ourselves. This sense of our inevitable blindness to our own motives, of the way the “self” is imbricated in configurations of meaning that extend far beyond it, is what’s missing from all those contemporary approaches to the mind, cognitive or otherwise, that congratulate themselves on leaving Freud behind.
And this is the aspect of Freud that I cannot give up, no matter how unfortunate (Oedipus) and obnoxious (the discussions of female sexuality) I find so many of his particular formulations to be.
As a “postmodern” person, I can’t be happy with Freud’s (characteristically modernist) insistence on interiority and “depth psychology.” We don’t believe any longer in that old, deep self, which Freud maintained in his theories, even as he showed it to be irretrievably riven.
But Theweleit redoes Freud, you might say, laterally instead of in depth. He traces horizontal networks of effects in the place of Freudian profundity. In Object-Choice, this is done both through the multiplication of Freud’s categories, and through the way that Theweleit extends their reach throughout the social field — so that male “object-choices,” in particular, turn out to have as much to do with social class, with institutional power relations, and above all with the continual subordination of women, as they do with the old Oedipal triangle. Though he’s more Freudian than Deleuze and Guattari (and though he certainly has that sense of the irremediable that D& G programatically reject — which rejection is one of my problems with D&G), Theweleit definitely shows, in a manner congruent with theirs, how unconscious drives and desires invest the whole social field, and not just the self-enclosed nuclear family.
That, and Theweleit’s love for rock ‘n’ roll, are what drive his work. (I’m ambivalent about the rock ‘n’ roll part, because it makes me fear that Theweleit might be one of those people who, while understanding the greatness of the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, fails to display a similar enthusiasm for more recent developments. Is Theweleit down with Missy and Timbaland, or with Dizzee Rascal? I honestly don’t know).

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Monday, March 22nd, 2004

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, is one of those books, proposing a radical new thesis, that had an enormous impact when it was first published (1976), but has since fallen into the backwaters of intellectual fashion. Today it still has an ardent cult following, but otherwise it is not so much rejected as it is not taken seriously in the first place, and thereby, it is almost totally ignored.
This neglect is somewhat unfortunate. While I don’t think there is any scientific “proof” for Jaynes’ argument, and while certain of his assertions are almost certainly wrong, his book remains intellectually provocative; it opens up some very important questions, even if we are not ready to follow its conclusions.
Basically, Jaynes argues that consciousness, as we understand it today, has only been possessed by human beings for the last four thousand years or so. (By “consciousness” he means, not the primary perceptual awareness that all mammals, and perhaps many other ‘lower’ organisms as well, seem to possess, but what I would prefer to call self-consciousness, or second-order consciousness: the ability to reflect upon oneself, to introspect, to narrate one’s existence). Jaynes proposes that, in the second millennium BC and before, human beings were not self-conscious, and did not reflect upon what they did; rather, people heard voices instructing them in what to do, and they obeyed these voices immediately and unreflectively. These voices were believed (to the extent that “belief” is a relevant category in such circumstances) to be the voices of gods; their neurological cause was probably language issuing from the right hemisphere of the brain, and experienced hallucinatorily, and obeyed, by the left hemisphere (which is where speech is localized today).
This is why Jaynes calls the archaic mind a non-conscious, “bicameral” one. Thought was linguistic, but it did not have any correlates in consciousness; people didn’t make decisions, but instead the decisions were made automatically, and conveyed by the voices. One half of the brain commanded the other, so that decision-making and action were entirely separate functions. Neither of these hemispheres was “conscious” in the modern sense.
It was only as the result of catastrophic events in the second millennium BC that these voices fell silent, and were replaced by a new invention, that which we now know as self-conscious, reflective thought.
Jaynes introduces his theory by making reference to the Iliad, in which there is almost no description of interiority and subjectivity, or of conscious decision-making; instead, all the characters act at the promptings of the gods, who give them commands that they obey without question. Jaynes suggests that we take these descriptions literally, that this was the way the mind worked for thousands of years of human history. After the opening section of the book, where he quite interestingly discusses a range of philosophical issues having to do with the nature of consciousness and its relation to language, Jaynes supports his argument almost entirely through an analysis of ancient texts and of archaeological discoveries.
Where to begin in discussing such a suggestive, even if overly simple and overly totalizing, thesis? First of all, Jaynes argues that language is a prerequisite for consciousness, rather than the (common-sensical) reverse. This seems to me to be unarguably true, if we mean reflexive, or second-order consciousness. His arguments for this thesis, coming out of the tradition of Anglo-American empirically-grounded psychology, are interesting precisely in their difference from deconstructionist, and other Continental philosophical, arguments to much the same effect. This is useful because Jaynes thereby is able to point to the (relative) primacy of language in the human mind, without getting lost in those rather silly skeptical paradoxes that the deconstructionists are partial to.
Second, I find incredibly valuable the way Jaynes presents his picture of the schizophrenic, pre-conscious “bicameral mind” as a mechanism of social control. The bicameral mind arises, according to Jaynes, in tandem with the development of agriculture and the creation of the first cities (i.e. the first stirrings of “civilization” in Mesopotamia, and perhaps also Egypt, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley, at around 9000 BC). Its purpose is to ensure obedience and social harmony; it entails, and enables, the creation of vast, rigid, theocratic hierarchies, such as existed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt (and also, much later, in the Mayan cities of the Western Hemisphere, and in other civilizations around the world). This is the aspect of Jaynes that interested William Burroughs, with his investigations into language as a form of social control and as a virus infecting, even as it created, the human mind.
In describing the passage from bicamerality to self-consciousness, Jaynes is really proposing a genealogy of different regimes of language and subjectivity, in a manner that resonates with ideas proposed by Deleuze and Guattari at around the same time (see especially the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus). For Jaynes as for Deleuze/Guattari (I assume that Jaynes was unacquainted with D&G’s work, and vice versa), a “despotic” regime is displaced and replaced by a passional, subjectifying one. (I need to be a bit careful here, because I don’t want to merely translate Jaynes’ terms and arguments into deleuzoguattarian ones. The specific interest of Jaynes’ book is how he defamiliarizes the bicameral mindset, shows how it cannot be reduced to the categories that we, subjective people, take for granted).
The latter parts of Jaynes’ book, where he gives massive evidence for his thesis, are somewhat disappointing; in part because the readings of the historical and literary record are so obviously so tendentious, and in part because Jaynes seems content just to reiterate his big idea, rather than really exploring its potential ramifications and implications. He does have a short and interesting discussion about how so many aspects of our world today, from scientists’ search for a “theory of everything” to the worldwide fundamentalist backlash, can be seen as continuing responses to the collapse of the bicameral mind, which still casts its considerable shadow, thousands of years after it happened. But all this is sketchy in the extreme. I note that Jaynes never published (hence, probably, was unable to complete) a promised second volume, devoted to The Consequences of Consciousness, in the twenty years he lived after publishing The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
How “true” is Jaynes’ theory, however? Some of Jaynes’ speculations on neurobiology clearly need to be revised, in the light of our far greater knowledge of the subject today compared to 1976. And I don’t know enough about classical texts to pass any judgment on his readings of the Iliad or Babylonian cuneiform.
But on a larger scale, Jaynes’ theory is pretty much like those of psychoanalysis and evolutionary psychology, and like Terence McKenna’s speculations on the psychedelic origins of consciousness: all of these are stories that cannot be backed up or “proven” scientifically, but that also can’t be simply dismissed, because they refer to issues that themselves demand some sort of self-conscious narrativization, that cannot be resolved by positivist means alone. Empirical investigation can disconfirm particular theories, but it can never succeed in getting rid of our need for such unprovable, metaphorical “just-so stories.”
(The weakness of sociobiological, or evolutionary psychological explanations, in comparison to those of Freud, McKenna, or Jaynes, is that the evolutionary psychologists lay claim to a positivistic grounding that they do not really have, as well as that these theories are totally reductive and unimaginative to boot. Evolutionary psychology theorists generally cannot see beyond their own noses; they fail to realize how tautological they are, in their repetitions of the cliches of our own culture, especially in matters of sex and gender. For all their differences, Freud, McKenna, and Jaynes, at least, are trying to think beyond the narrow prejudices of their own cultural situations; for they are all profoundly aware, as Steven Pinker is not, that their own perspectives are culturally constrained).
As an unprovable but tantalizing “just-so” story of how consciousness came to be, then, Jaynes’ book is valuable precisely for its sense of the contingency of what we take most for granted, of the ways that very deep parts of our mentality are culturally specific and variably, rather than being inscribed “in the genes.” (Or more precisely, how we are genetically endowed, precisely, with such a wide and weird range of mental potentialities). Jaynes’ observations on the neural substrate of bicamerality, on the one hand, and subjective self-consciousness, on the other, suggest new and as yet unfollowed possibilities of research, even if his particular formulation proves to be (as it probably is) incorrect.
The biggest flaw in Jaynes’ scheme, I think, is his failure to consider in any adequate way what might have come before the great bicameral despotisms. Though he only looks at a very narrow sample of ancient history — that of the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt — he claims results that are universally valid. (He suggests, for instance, that similar events took place in China, though he says that he cannot pursue the investigation himself, since he does not know Chinese). But even if we accept that the bicameral model applies to China, and to the Maya, Aztec, and Inca empires, this says nothing about all the so-called “primitive” peoples around the world, who never experienced the bicameral despotic state. He is right to suggest that such peoples are by no means outside of history, and that today they are as fully self-conscious as people anywhere else: the idea of “noble savages,” untainted by contact with “civilization,” is nothing but a racist and imperialist myth. Still, Jaynes seems to assume that all the peoples of the earth went through a period of bicamerality, that the pre-bicameral mind is not a fully linguistic one, and that “hunter-gatherer groups” have either already “been a part of a bicameral theocracy” in the past, or else were “like other primates, being neither bicameral nor conscious,” until learning consciousness by contact with other groups. But this is obviously wrong; Jaynes wants to locate the origin of language as recently as 12,000 years ago, when it certainly has to be much earlier, before the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens spread out from Africa. A major expansion of Jaynes’ theory is therefore needed, one that would consider the mentality of gift societies (Mauss), stateless societies (Pierre Clastres), etc, societies that know nothing of (and might even actively “ward off”) bicameral despotism.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Friday, March 19th, 2004

I loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry film. It manages to be both funny and poignant, and to feel fresh even though it’s recycling some fairly hoary chestnuts of romantic comedy. As you’d expect from Charlie Kaufman, form trumps content, in a cleverly self-referential way. But to call the film “clever” is a bit unfair; such a characterization doesn’t do justice to the way its affect is simultaneously goofy and heartfelt.
It’s hard to talk about the film without, to some extent, giving it away. It’s not that the plot contains any real surprises, once you accept its outrageous premise. But the manner of presentation is frequently surprising.
The premise is a technology that allows you to selectively erase your memories. You can forget everything about an unhappy love affair, forget even the other person’s existence, with nothing else being affected. As presented in the film, this technology is hilariously sleazy and tacky — it’s done overnight in your bedroom, while you sleep, and the techs party, have sex, and drink up all your liquor, while they are supposedly monitoring the state of your brain on their laptops. (They chase down emotional memories that pop out in green from an MRI scan photo on the computer, as if they were killing enemies in a computer game).
So, Jim Carrey (pitch-perfect: unusually subdued, rather morose in fact, but also without the heavyhanded seriousness of his previous efforts to “act” in films like The Truman Show) and Kate Winslet (manic and overbearing, but engagingly and believably so) are a couple who break up: they love each other, but also get on each other’s nerves and wear themselves down through constant bickering. One day, after walking out on Jim, Kate has her memories of him wiped. When Jim finds out about this, he is distraught; he decides he needs to get his memories of her wiped as well. Most of the movie takes place in Jim’s brain, while he’s asleep, and the techs are giving his brain a washing. In the middle of it all, Jim changes his mind: he doesn’t want to forget Kate after all. He runs with her through memory after memory, trying to evade the relentless process of erasure. Hilarity ensues, as well as non-linear narrative hijinks.
So the narrative is scrambled; and it changes before our eyes, since truth is always a function of — always subject to — the vagaries of memory and desire. It’s not that it’s hard to follow: Kaufman isn’t interested in luring us into trying to solve a puzzle, the way Christopher Nolan does in Memento. Much more interestingly, the non-linearity of Eternal Sunshine allows Kaufman to link memories (plot events) associatively, like music, developing themes, repeating with variations, changing the feel of a scene by undermining and altering its context. This, together with Gondry’s quicksilver direction (continually varying mood through subtle visual and musical cues, plays of color and sound) is what makes the film so engaging and enthralling. Gondry uses a lot of technical tricks from his music videos, especially various sorts of visual composting; and miraculously (unlike what usually happens), they survive their transplant from the world of 3-minute videos to the vastly different world of feature films. They seem expressive, and not just gimmicky.
David Edelstein rightly compares Eternal Sunshine to the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 40s. But where Edelstein is referring to the way that Sunshine, like those earlier films, is what Stanley Cavell calls a “comedy of remarriage,” the most striking parallel for me is one of agility and speed. I’m thinking of the rapid-fire exchanges of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and even better the manic exchanges between Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. In those films, Howard Hawks was a slyly laid-back director, cunningly arranging camerawork and editing in order to foreground his stars, and their repartee, as effectively as possible. Though Carrey and Winslet are terrific, Gondry and Kaufman don’t rely as exclusively on dialogue as Hawks did; but Sunshine‘s conceptual and visual conceits have the same effects of density and wit through sheer velocity that the screwball comedies had through dialogue and the stars’ physical presence alone.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface here; there’s a lot more to say. But that will have to wait until the film comes out on DVD and I can watch it again, several times. Suffice it to say that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Charlie Kaufman’s best work yet; together with Mulholland Drive and Punch Drunk Love and perhaps Lost in Translation, it’s evidence that American filmmaking is still alive, in spite of everything, in the twenty-first century.

Eastern Standard Tribe

Thursday, March 18th, 2004

Cory Doctorow‘s latest SF novel, Eastern Standard Tribe (also available for free download), doesn’t reimagine utopia as Disneyland, as his previous novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, did. Eastern Standard Tribes is more mundane, and set closer to the present.
Indeed, the only even slightly futuristic technology in EST is the “comms”: an integrated mobile phone and PDA with extreme ease of use, desktop-worthy memory and storage, and ubiquitous fast wireless access to both the phone system and the Net. Something, in other words, that has already been conceptualized clearly, though with details that haven’t been worked out yet in practice.
In essence, therefore, EST is a novel of the almost-present, and it reads well as a light, zippy satire on the high-tech yuppie culture of techno-savvy “road warriors.” The book is funny and ultimately upbeat: I don’t really see any irony in its celebration of user-friendly tech and entrepreneurship. Nonetheless, the plot does turn upon betrayal, something that clues us in to the naivete and limited understanding of its likable narrator/protagonist.
Doctorow, like William Gibson and Sofia Coppola, sees jet lag as emblematic of the postmodern, globalized condition. The novel’s title refers to the fact that the narrator’s associations and allegiances, for both work and leisure, are with people in eastern North America (New York, Toronto, Boston). This means that he has to keep himself and his schedule on Eastern Standard time (GMT-5), so that he can remain in real-time touch with his friends (through phone and online chat on his comms) even when he is somewhere else in the world entirely (like London, where much of the book’s action unfolds). The resulting clash between local time and Eastern Time wreaks havoc on his circadian rhythms, and he stumbles through most of the novel in a kind of haze, oscillating unsteadily between excessive alertness and extreme fatigue.
What makes the book work overall is Doctorow’s sly sensibility. He throws out ideas with a prodigality that is only matched by their understatedness. It’s easy to read right through the novel’s suggestions and scenarios, and only realize retrospectively (if at all) how clever and crazy they were. And that’s what gives this book (like Doctorow’s other fiction) its alluring and refreshing affective tone: things often seem ever so slightly off, or empty, or not quite real, but in a pleasing, displaced sort of way. Eastern Standard Tribes does not have any overt references (unless I missed them, which is a possibility) to Disney and Disneyland (objects of Doctorow’s self-confessed obsession), but the feel of the book conveys a strange hint of what it might be like if a Disneyesque, blandly feelgood sensibility were deployed in the service of offbeat eccentricity, instead of (the Disney Corp.’s actual) normative values.

Forget Baghdad

Sunday, March 14th, 2004

Forget Baghdad, a documentary film by Samir, tracks the complexities of “identity” in the Middle East. I caught it today at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, after missing it last month at the Seattle Arab-Iranian Film Festival.
Samir, the director of Forget Baghdad, is a Shiite Muslim Iraqi emigre, living in Switzerland. (His father, an Iraqi Communist, had to flee the country to escape Saddam). In the film, he interviews four elderly Jewish Iraqi emigres, all ex-Communists, who were forced to leave Baghdad for Israel in 1951, when almost the entire Iraqi Jewish community was prevailed upon (by both the Iraqi and Israeli governments) to emigrate. (A fifth interviewee is Ella Shohat, born in Israel of Iraqi Jewish parents, and currently teaching film at NYU).
All the interviewees are articulate, and display very mixed emotions. They all miss Baghdad, and regret the disappearance of the multi-religious society that existed in Iraq (as in many parts of the Arab world) prior to 1948; they all feel their Arabness as fully as they do their Jewishness; they all have experienced discrimination in Israeli society, as Mizrahim (“Oriental” Jews) rather than Ashkenazim (European Jews).
By their accounts, no discrimination against Jews existed in Iraq before 1941, when a pogrom was unleashed by nationalist putsch against the pro-British monarchy, with support from the Nazis. (It remains true today: anti-Semitism, so-called, is a European import into the Arab world).
Forget Baghdad isn’t a great film, but it well demonstrates, once again, how the lines of ethnic and religious turmoil that bedevil the world today are not “age-old” rivalries, but modernist inventions. It shows, too, how “Jews” and “Arabs” are, culturally speaking, much closer kin than is usually acknowledged.

Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions

Wednesday, March 10th, 2004

Richard C. Francis’ Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions is a powerful critique of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that makes its points almost entirely in carefully worked-out scientific terms. That is to say, it doesn’t spend much time asking why, for instance, the evolutionary psychologists are so obsessed with tracking down supposed gender differences that are allegedly “in the genes”, as opposed to many other equally plausible research programs and subjects of interest. (This is an important question, but one that cultural critics can handle well enough by themselves). Instead, Francis gives a detailed and devastating critique of the (pseudo-)science behind all too many sociobiological claims.
Francis spends most of the book considering instances of sexual differentiation in vertebrate species other than human beings; this establishes a baseline for considering claims about the “innate” differences between men and women. He compares cases in which the differences between the males and females of a given species can convincingly be argued to be a direct result of natural selection and/or sexual selection, from those in which other, more proximate, explanations seem to fit the facts better.
Francis’ real target is extreme adaptationism: the doctrine that every observable characteristic of any organism needs to be understood as a direct adaptation of some sort. Of course, Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould started criticizing adaptationism way back in the 1960s. They introduced the ideas of exaptation (the transfer of a characteristic that evolved for one purpose, or in one context, to another context or purpose) and spandrels (features that have no adaptive purpose of their own, but exist as unavoidable side-effects of other features that did arise adaptively). Gould also famously criticized sociobiologists for their “just-so stories”: their tendency to argue on the basis of narratives of what primordial human conditions might or should have been like, even in the absence of any hard evidence for the truth of these narratives.
But Francis goes beyond Lewontin and Gould, to mount a more general attack on the teleological bias of adaptationist explanations: in asking “why-questions” (what is a particular feature of an organism for? what purposes does it serve?) at the expense of “how-questions” (how could a particular feature actually have arisen historically? what role does it have, given the previously-existing constraints that the organism faces?), adaptationist biology (and even more, its offshoot evolutionary psychology) has in effect reinstated the “argument from design” of pre-Darwinian “natural theology.”
In ignoring “how-questions,” adaptationists assert meaning and purpose without any ability to explain in causal and material terms how such meanings and purposes could possibly have come about. They separate the logic of adaptation from its material causation, just as cognitive scientists divorce “information” from its physical instantiation. For all their talk about “optimization” under ecological “constraints,” adaptationists ignore how the contingencies of history, and the constraints arising from how organisms are already “locked-in” to particular mechanisms and patterns of development, limit and channel evolutionary possibilities. (A parallel could be made, as well, to the way “free-market” economists ignore history, not to mention patterns of unequal power and distribution, in their quest to reduce everything to “efficiency”).
If extreme adaptationism is so problematic when it comes to discussing spotted hyenas and marsh tits and cichlids, how much more so is it when we come to consider human beings? Unlike certain “humanist”, idealizing opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, Francis doesn’t make his argument depend upon the supposed uniqueness of the human species. It is precisely on the grounds of recognizing human beings as biological organisms that we have to reject all this simplistic “biologizing.” Francis is devastating, for instance, in discussing how evolutionary psychologists make so much of sexual dimorphisms between men and women that are minute (if they exist at all) in comparison to such dimorphisms in other vertebrate species. And he underscores the importance of looking for social causes of physiological and psychological differences, not in defiance of biology, but precisely because of it. The largest irony here is that, not only do the adaptationists in effect replace Darwin with theology; they also ignore the basic facts of neurophysiology and endocrinology, in their efforts to proclaim essential, “hard-wired”, and transhistorical differences between men and women.

The World of Arthur Russell

Wednesday, March 10th, 2004

The World of Arthur Russell is the most gorgeous music I have heard in ages. Russell (1951-1992) was an 80s disco producer with an avant-garde/classical music background. (See Sasha Freire-Jones’ article in The New Yorker for background). All Russell’s songs have a driving disco beat, a rhythm that’s less straightforward than it might seem at first, but that makes them instantly accessible and infectious. At the same time, there’s always something about them that’s deeply weird: a bit of unexpected instrumentation, a vocal that just seems somehow off, an out-of-pace shift of tonality…
Russell’s music is too quirky and strange to be called simply “charming”; but too quicksilver to be taken ponderously. It seems just the right thing to be listening to right now, on one of Seattle’s (rare) sunny days; there’s always a tinge of melancholy, but one that only seems to enrich the music’s overall cheerfulness (cheerfulness in the Nietzschean sense, gai savoir).