Archive for May, 2005

Underground Resistance

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Tonight at Fuse-In, the Detroit techno music festival, I saw/heard the legendary Underground Resistance (performing under the name, one of their many pseudonyms, Galaxy 2 Galaxy). It was a great hour and a half (almost) of music, cool and yet bombarding the senses, with UR’s pounding rhythms and sheets of (often melodic) sound. But the set extended beyond basic Underground Resistance, as they showcased other affiliated performers (including Los Hermanos and Red Planet), and sometimes dancers, and played in a range of styles, including nods to Motown and Carlos Santana. All in all, the set was less SF/futuristic than it was multicultural/fusion: I mean a hard-edged multicultural, not the sappy corporate/liberal kind. A projection screen behind them showed/mixed images that ranged from kung fu film shots to Native American dances to stills of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Mother Teresa, and MLK/Malcolm. The set went by in a rush. At the end, Mike Banks (I presume it was) said to the crowd, “you’ve been schooled.”

Silent Cell Network

Monday, May 30th, 2005

Strange and interesting doings by the Silent Cell Network.

She Hate Me

Monday, May 30th, 2005

Spike Lee’s She Hate Me is a total mess of a film. It’s sprawling and digressive, all over the place; and its main plot line (black man serves as superstud to impregnate lesbians who want to have babies) is too over-the-top to be taken seriously, but not over-the-top enough to work as satire. The film seems to be an attempt to address homophobia, but its ostensible message of tolerance is overlain with smug condescension, in precisely the same way that the anti-racist messages of “liberal” Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s (like Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) were compromised by their ultimately racist and condescending portrayal of black people (see James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for the ultimate analysis of these latter). And She Hate Me concludes with a reaffirmation of bourgeois family values — the restoration of a “kinder, gentler” patriarchy — that is the obnoxious ideological message of so many of Spike Lee’s films.

And yet, and yet… As with nearly everything Spike Lee has ever done, I loved nearly every minute of the film. Should I call it the triumph of form, or technique, over content? In part; though I don’t think form and content can really be separated. It is more a question of the way Lee’s cinematography and editing create a sort of counterplot, running underneath, and in dialectical tension with, the often didactic intentions of the screenplay.

The best comparison here might be to Scorsese — another great director whose camera never falters, even though he has frittered away most of his later career on pretentious, unconvincing, and utterly pointless projects. And the comparison, I think, goes entirely in Lee’s favor: his bad films, like She Hate Me, are a hundred times more interesting, emotionally moving, and thought-provoking than such Scorsese white elephants as The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Gangs of New York. Lee is simply the more inventive and formally adventurous filmmaker of the two. Scorsese and Lee both have highly individual, auteurist styles. But whereas Scorsese uses his style to embalm his material, Lee’s style is a flexible instrument that he will bend to any purpose: he is willing to try almost anything once, and he is continually turning out extreme experiments, that don’t always work but that always show a cinematic intelligence and exuberance, no matter how dubious the material. This is the sense in which, as I’ve said before, Lee — for all his fame — is actually the most underrated of American directors.

In She Hate Me, the counterplot — and Lee’s exuberant inventiveness — come out in the way he moves the camera, the way his framings (indoors) and tracking shots (outdoors) always lead to a sense of space as psychologically charged with the psychological demands and ambivalences of the characters, and in the hysterical rush and overload of the montage sequences (most notably, one in which the protagonist — played with understated elegance by Anthony Mackie — impregnates a series of hyper-stereotypical glam lesbians, and a later one in which said lesbians all give birth, with much groaning and screaming). There’s also a series of bizarre, almost surreal digressions: like the animations of Mackie’s character’s sperm racing up the vagina and into the uterus, or the sequence where John Turturro, playing a Mafia don, does an impression of Brando in The Godfather, or — best of all, perhaps — the sequences that take on the story of Frank Wills, the night watchman who discovered the Watergate burglary, but who sank into despair, poverty, and an early death after his service to democracy went unrecognized (there is one scene especially where Wills is taunted by Haldeman, Erlichman, Gordon Liddy, etc., plus Nixon himself, or an actor wearing a grotesque Nixon mask).There’s also a climactic scene, where Mackie does his Jimmy Stewart impression (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) before a US Senate hearing where he’s being bullied by Brian Dennehy as an old, corrupt committee chairman. (I think I forgot to mention that the film is not just about impregnating lesbians, but also about corporate corruption and greed, with Woody Harrelson doing a turn as a Ken Lay-style sleazeball CEO). Not to mention the German mad scientist who gives Mackie’s character cornball advice and then kills himself in the movie’s first five minutes. And so on and so on….

These scenes are all utterly bonkers: they detract from any hope of making a coherent and convincing film; but they are what makes the movie come alive. She Hate Me is a completely crazy potpourri of stereotypes, non sequiturs, stylistic affectations, and random observations. Almost every five minutes I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and wondering: what the hell did Spike Lee think he was doing? But this is precisely what makes She Hate Me into such a fascinating, and (for me, at least) compulsively watchable film.

Commodity Fetishism

Friday, May 27th, 2005

It’s been three weeks since I turned in my final grades; I don’t have to teach again until September. Which means I have been able to start writing again. I’m working on a new book, tentatively titled The Age of Aesthetics. (This, like almost everything about it, is subject to change). Now, I can’t see doing the book on the blog: writing, for me, is far too much of a slow process involving multiple revisions for that to be at all practical. (In fact, it’s more the reverse: things I right initially on the blog often turn out, after much excruciating revision, to be raw material for the book). But, since writing something long like this inevitably means blogging less, I thought I could at least put up some fragments, excerpts, and outtakes from the book as occasional blog entries. I hope it won’t end up sounding too much more pedantic than the stuff I usually post here.

So here goes.

Marx defines the fetishism of commodities as a “definite social relation between men which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In the marketplace, as in”the misty realm of religion. . . the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.” Traditionally, this is interpreted as a theory of alienation and illusion. According to the conventional reading, commodities are really just inert objects, things; but we project our own human relationships onto these objects, so that they seem to us, fantastically and falsely, to be alive. Zizek, however, argues for a subtle inversion of this logic. It’s not that we literally believe in the magical properties of things, so much as that, while we remain “rational utilitarians, guided only by [our] selfish interests. . .the things (commodities) themselves believe in [our] place. . . [We] no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for [us].”

However, isn’t this a case where Zizek (for once) doesn’t go far enough? Zizek seeks to overturn the common assumption “that a belief is something interior and knowledge something exterior (in the sense that it can be verified through an external procedure).” He argues, instead, that “it is belief which is radically exterior, embodied in the practical, effective procedure of people.” And this becomes the basis for his materialist theory of ideology. So far, so good. But why does Zizek, in this turn to material practice, still characterize what he finds there in terms of “belief,” which is to say cognition? Following Zizek’s own logic, we should say that commodity fetishism is not a matter of belief or ideology. It doesn’t belong to the category of mystification, or intellectual (mis)apprehension, at all. Rather, fetishism or animism is a set of ritual practices, stances, and attunements to the world, constituting the way we participate in capitalist existence. Commodities actually are alive: more alive, perhaps, than we ourselves are. They “appear,” or stand forth, or “shine” (the word Marx uses is scheinen) as autonomous beings. Commodities don’t just “believe” for us; much more, they usurp our day-to-day lives, and act pragmatically in our place. The “naive” consumer, who sees commodities as animate beings, endowed with magical properties, is therefore not mystified or deluded. He or she is accurately perceiving the way that capitalism works, how it endows material things with an inner life. Under the reign of commodities, we live — as William Burroughs said we did — in a “magical universe.”

And so, our encounter with commodities and brands is an affective experience, before it is a cognitive one. It’s not belief that is at stake here, but attraction and revulsion, euphoria and disgust, a warm sense of belonging, nostalgia, panic, and loss….

New Novels

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

I’m happy to see that three of my favorite living writers have new novels coming out this summer, pleasingly spaced a month apart: John Crowley on June 14th, Cormac McCarthy on July 19th, and Bret Easton Ellis on August 16th.

Phallos

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

Phallos, which came out last year (2004), is the most recently published novel by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a short work — a mere 95 pages — dense, playful, and delightful. The blurb on the back of the book calls it “a Lacanian riddle to delight,” and that isn’t far wrong.

Delany’s Phallos takes the form of a summary/synopsis/commentary, on the Web of a gay porn novel called Phallos, set in ancient Rome and apparently written in the 1960s, that is out of print and very difficult to find. So I guess it could be called meta-pornography: it’s a pornographic narrative that is only presented indirectly, through all the screens of a somewhat unreliable narrator choosing excerpts, and discussing issues of provenance and textual details about a book that (of course) only exists inside the book we are actually reading. As a result of this strategy, also, the copious sex of the pornographic narrative is not explicitly described on the page in any great detail, but mostly just alluded to. The book is allied, therefore, to Delany’s other sexual narratives (Hogg, Equinox, and The Mad Man) but in a reduced (in size and scope) and considerably more indirect manner.

This indirection is of course the point of the book, which is a book about the phallus of Freudian/Lacanian theory, the signifier of desire, and of erotic (& masculine) potency, but which (as a mere signifier) is always absent, or other than itself. The phallus in Phallos is both the unavailable, and only indirectly narrated, pornographic narrative itself, and also (within that distanced, non-present narrative) the missing male organ of an obscure god (or more precisely, of a statue or idol of an obscure god) whose absence, or quality of being missing, circulates through the narrative, and is the “absent cause” of its repetitions, permutations, and deviations.

Describing Delany’s novel in this way, however accurate, also sells it short, because it makes it sound as if the book were just an allegorization, or an “illustration,” of a philosophical idea: which it is not; because Phallos is not exhausted by its allegorical or ideational nature. This is because it is an affectively powerful work (with an intensity that is both playful and emotionally deep and compelling, if not — for me, at least, as a heterosexual reader — directly arousing). You might say that the novel embodies the absence, the non-identity, the simulacral emptying-out of virility, that is its subject: if embodying something non-present (if not quite a “lack” in orthodox Lacanian terms either) is not too much of an oxymoron.

Actually, the most accurate categorization would probably be to say that Phallos is a philosophical novel (or novella), in precisely the sense that Voltaire’s Candide and Diderot’s Bijoux indiscrets and Jacques le fataliste, together with other 18th century fictional works by Sade and others, are philosophical novels. It’s a work of speculation, and even of wisdom — but one in which the thought is carried by narrative, rather than by theoretical argument. It touches on metaphysical issues, having to do with the nature of selfhood and of desire; but ultimately it is a book about how to live.

The absence that is the phallus/phallos means that desire is never sated by total satisfaction, but always awakened again; that life necessarily implies a certain degree of loss, disappointment, and unfulfillment. The phallus, therefore, always implies change and becoming, without the possibility of attaining a final state of peace: it is “that signification itself by which something else always molds us toward something better — or sometimes, something worse — than what we already are” (77). Desire is never entirely realized — there is no utopia or nirvana — but nonetheless “desire is as endlessly unquenchable as it is repeatable” (62).The novel — or, rather, the novel within the novel, indirectly refracted to is — is filled with orgies and all sorts of sexual extremity; but (as has been the case in some of Delany’s earlier works (and as I have previously noted with regard to his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) this sex is not presented as transgressive: rather it’s seen as a rather civilized way of negotiating the delights and disappointments, opportunities and limitations, of life. There may be a “lack” at the center of desire; but (sexual) variety is literally the spice of a life of desire, and does not contradict, but supplements a main sexual and partnering relationship that is secure and lasting; as Neoptolomus, the hero of the novel-within-the-novel, reflects at one point (not too far from the end), “with such variety [of sexual experiences and pleasures] it becomes hard to hold on to where that lack lies, since that absent center moves about so: If I have learned anything in this time, is that losing track of it, in such a secure relationship, is surely the closest we can come to filling it” (75). I’m not sure if this difficult pronouncement is sufficiently clear apart from its context in the narrative; but it does express a kind of pragmatic utopianism, if I can dare to use such an oxymoronic phrase, that does not make its point, or achieve its hope, at the price of ignoring change and loss — though it is a perspective that is scarcely intelligible or admissible within contemporary American social, political, religious, and psychological discourse, and in fact serves as a terrible condemnation of the wretchedness of mainstream America’s hopes and fears today.

I’ll stop there, though Phallos, for all its brevity, is so rich and (indeed) inspiring a text that it calls out for a more extended, as well as less muddled, appreciation than I have been able to provide here.

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Wednesday, May 11th, 2005

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite non-academic, nonfiction writers. (I’m sorry that seems like such a negative description; but one of the virtues of Johnson is precisely that it is difficult to pigeonhole him positively in terms of content, as he writes on the boundary between culture, science, technology, poststructuralist theory, etc…). I don’t always agree with Johnson, but he always makes me think, as well as being one of those writers who can convey complex ideas in prose of great clarity. (I wrote about his last book here). Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, is as intelligently provocative as anything he’s written.

As its title and subtitle indicate, Everything Bad Is Good For You is a polemical defense of the value of contemporary popular culture. Johnson contests the all-too-often repeated claims that American popular culture is vile and debased, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, that it is all about sensationalistic exploitation and dumbing down. He argues, instead, that popular culture is actually making us smarter, in ways that can even be quantified by intelligence tests and the like. Johnson’s method of analysis is basically McLuhanesque; that is to say, he pays attention to the medium rather than the message; or (in the Deleuze/Guattari terms that he cites briefly in an appendix) to what works of popular culture do rather than what they mean, what connections they make rather than what symbols they deploy, or what ideologies they express. Rather than lamenting any alleged decline from print/books/literature to the various multimedia modes in vogue today, he asks the McLuhanite question of how these new media engage us, what modes of perception, action, and thought they appeal to and incite, and how this makes for a qualitative difference from print/literary sensibilities.

Johnson focuses at greatest length on computer games and television. Games involve us actively in difficult tasks of multi-stranded and multiply hierarchized problem-solving; recent TV series involve us in tracking multiple plot strands (The Sopranos), mastering multiple forms of allusion and self-reference (The Simpsons, Seinfeld), comprehending elliptical, convoluted plots (24), and making sense of dense social networks (24, The Sopranos). (He especially stresses how much more complex, rich, and rewarding these shows are than the relatively linear, slow, and stolid shows of the 1970s(. At lesser length, Johnson also discusses multitasking and mastering different software paradigms in order to use the Internet, and the effects of challengingly non-linear movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half of the book, he then goes on to generalize about economic factors that have led to greater complexity in popular culture in the last 20 or 30 years, as well as speculations on collateral subjects ranging from neurobiology (the dopamine reward circuits in relation to gaming), to studies of IQ tests (scores have risen steadily over the last few generations).

As a polemic, Everything Bad Is Good For You is right on target and extremely welcome, and I hope people actually listen to it and get persuaded by it. (Of course, I was already on Johnson’s side before I started reading the book, so I may not be the best person to judge its success as rhetorical persuasion). I have no use for the high culture elitism that still exists in certain intellectual quarters; and I have no use for the nostalgia of all too many people my age (the baby boomer generation) who assert that the pop culture of our youth was somehow necessarily superior to what is going on now. When the late Susan Sontag, for instance, suggested in her otherwise very fine essay on Abu Ghraib that the culture of videogames could be blamed for the soldiers’ readiness to engage in torture: this was really no more than gross ignorance, and she needed to be called on it. (I don’t mean to pick on the recently dead; but this was the best example that came to me, honest). Hopefully Johnson’s book will make it more difficult for such assertions to pass muster in the future.

All that said, there was one aspect of Johnson’s approach and argument that I found disappointing and limiting. This was his almost exclusive focus on the cognitive aspects of how the popular media he was discussing work, and his nearly complete avoidance of any discussion of how they work affectively. (I should note that this has nothing to do with the focus on form instead of content, or medium instead of message; it’s the McLuhanesque effects of the new electronic media themselves that need to be formulated in affective terms as well as cognitive ones). This is a problem I’ve discussed many times in the course of this blog, and it’s something less specific to Johnson than it is a characteristic of our general contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. Despite the efforts of a few prominent neurobiologists (like Damasio and LeDoux, who to my mind raise crucial questions even if they don’t go far enough), the understanding of “the mind” in this post-Freudian age is almost exclusively through the lens of “cognitive science.”

How does this work out in Everything Bad Is Good For You? For Johnson, the important thing is how computer games train us in “participatory thinking and analysis,” how they “challenge the mind to make sense of an environment” (p.61); the fact that this works through the dopamine reward system, so that we feel a rush of pleasure when we overcome our frustration by solving a puzzle, is really only a secondary matter for him (it is part of the explanation of why and how it all works, but he doesn’t find it important in itself). This seems wrong to me; the emotional states that we experience through our participation in cultural forms are as important, perhaps more so, than the training skills we establish and sharpen. In any case, we need to question the subordination of the affective dimension to the cognitive one, the positioning of the former as just an instrument to aid in the latter; though (or precisely because) this seems to be one of the most central and unquestioned tenets of postmodern thought and culture.

So I want to know more about how games work affectively; even though it may well be that the whole point of games, the reason why they are so central a formation in our culture today, is precisely because, like the cognitive science Johnson uses to understand them, their whole point is to subordinate affect to cognition. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gamer; it may be that my anti-cognitive-centrism, like my boredom at the sort of problem-solving that goes on in games, is itself a symptom of my being still all-too-entrenched in print culture. But I don’t think so; I can make a stronger case for the importance of affect to other media that I know better than games, and that Johnson discusses in wholly cognitive terms: like television and movies (and comix, which Johnson says very little about, though in an endnote he quotes at length from Henry Jenkins, who rightly indicates that contemporary comix would fit very well into the argument, since in recent years they have become dazzlingly complex both narratively and visually). Buffy isn’t nearly as dense in terms of narrative threads as some of the shows Johnson discusses, but it is as dense in terms of allusiveness, self-referentiality, and the demands it makes on its audience to remember seeming minor details from past episodes, etc. Yet — as I said in my recent post on the show — its cognitive density serves its affective richness, rather than the reverse: and the ways that Buffy explores affect, together with the sorts of affect it displays, strike me as very different from anything you would find in traditional (or modernist) print culture. And I’d say the same for Charlie Kaufman films, and for the few gaming experiences I have tried (admittedly, mostly outdated ones at this point, like Myst and online role-playing in MUDs). Whatever cognitive abilities these works of popular culture instill or assume, their “payoff” has always been (for me) affective, with a wide variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to fear and anxiety, and with a basic temporal orientation towards the future (in its openness and unknowability) — which is something beyond the reach of cognitive skills.

All of which brings me to the most crucial omission in Johnson’s book, which is that he says almost nothing about music. Now, there needn’t be a requirement for a commentator to master all genres. I can scarcely fault him for having as little to say about hip hop as I have to say about computer games. Still, music is arguably the one field of popular culture in which affect (as opposed to cognition) is most central, most foregrounded, and most powerful; and some theorists (Jacques Attali and Kodwo Eshun, among others) would argue that music is the most future-oriented of genres as well. The only time that Johnson discusses music (in a footnote on pp 225-226) he curiously says that his argument about how economic and technological factors have made games and television much more cognitively complex in the last twenty-five years or so doesn’t apply to music, because the analogous technological revolution happened in music much earlier, in the switch from “throwaway singles” to “albums designed to be heard hundreds of times” in the 1960s. He implies that music, unlike TV and games and movies, hasn’t gotten any more complex since that time (and may even have been dumbed down, to judge from his pejorative comments about MTV videos, whose elaborate fast editing styles he doesn’t consider to be an example of cognitively interesting complexity). He says nothing about how digital technologies (sampling, synthesizing, multiple tracks) have changed music; and he fails to consider how the rhythmic complexity of Top 40s hits today goes as far beyond the pop of the 60s and 70s, and the verbal dexterity of Wu Tang or Jay-Z or Eminem goes as far beyond that of The Sugarhill Gang or The Furious Five, as the narrative complexity of The Sopranos goes beyond the simple-minded linearity of shows like (one of his favorite negative examples) Starsky and Hutch.

Such musical examples entirely support Johnson’s polemical point about how popular culture today is in many ways richer and denser than that of thirty years ago. But the reasons for this happening in music are much more difficult to state in cognitive terms (and, let’s face it, much more difficult to render in language altogether) than is the case with things like problem-solving skills and narrative structures. (You could discuss it in relation to musical relationality — songs sampling or otherwise alluding to previous songs — but that would only be scratching the surface). Music remains for me, therefore, a privileged instance in which McLuhanesque change resists definition in cognitive-centered terms.

Warren Ellis on Storytelling

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Warren Ellis gives a great account of why he writes stories, how storytelling is connected to drugs and to the unonscious, and what this all means for our being-in-the-world.

Teranesia

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Greg Egan is one of the finest contemporary writers of “hard” SF, which is to say science fiction that strongly emphasizes the science, trying to keep the science coherent and to extrapolate plausibly (at least) from currently existing science and technology. Most of Egan’s books involve physics and computer science, speculating about such things as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Teranesia is something of an exception in his work, as it deals with biology, takes place in the very near (instead of far distant) future, stresses character development and emotion — especially guilt and shame — more than his other novels, and has some directly political themes (Egan touches on religious and ethnic strife in Indonesia, with its heritage of both colonial exploitation and military misrule and corruption; as well as on Australia’s shameful mistreatment of asylum seekers — a matter on which he expands in his online Afterward to the novel). I read Teranesia mostly because I am looking at “bioaesthetics”, and at the “the biological imagination” (though I wish I had a better phrase for this); I was curious to see what Egan would do with biology.

The novel worked for the most part in terms of plot, characters, and emotion; but the biology was indeed the most interesting thing about it. The major conceit of Teranesia is the appearance of strange mutations, initially confined to one species of butterfly on one island in the Molucca Sea, but increasingly manifested across animal and plant species, and in a wider and wider area. These mutations seem to be too radical, too well-calibrated, and too quick, to be explicable by chance mutations plus the winnowing effect of natural selection. In the space of twenty years, entire animal and plant species develop altered body plans that allow them to feed (or to protect themselves from predation) much more easily, to squeeze out all competitors in the ecosystem, and to proliferate themselves from island to island.

It’s almost as if Egan had set himself as a task to envision a scenario of “biological exuberance“, a scenario that would seem to strongly imply some other evolutionary force than Darwinian natural selection — whether Christian “intelligent design,” some variant of Lamarckianism, Bergsonian elan vital, Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, or the constraints of form championed by such non-mainstream biologists as Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin — and yet to explain the scenario in terms that are entirely in accord with orthodox neodarwinism and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. How could rapid and evidently purposive evolutionary change nonetheless result from the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection? All the scientists in Teranesia take the orthodox framework for granted; and in opposition to them, Egan sets religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and “postmodern cultural theorists” who celebrate the trickster mischievousness or irrational bounty of Nature on the other (Egan’s heavy-handed, Alan Sokal-esque satire of the latter group — the book came out at around the same time as the Sokal-vs.-Social Text incident — is the most lame and tiresome aspect of the novel).

[SPOILER ALERT] The way that Egan solves his puzzle is this. The mutations all turn out to be the result of the actions of a single gene, one that can jump from species to species, and that has the ability to rewrite/mutate the rest of the genome in which it finds itself by snipping out individual base pairs, and introducing transcription errors and replacements. Given a random DNA sequence to work with, the effect of the mutations is basically random. But given an actual genome to work with, the new gene enforces changes that are far from random, that in fact optimize the genome for survival and expansion. The new gene does this by, in effect, exploring the phase space of all possible mutations to a considerable depth. And it does this by a trick of quantum theory. Egan calls on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mutations are correlated with the collapse of the quantum wave function. All the mutations that could have happened to a given genome, but did not, in fact have occurred in parallel universes. Over the course of a genome’s history, therefore, all the alternative universes generated by every mutation constitute a phase space of all the possible changes the organism could have undergone, and it is these “many universes” the new gene is able to explore, and “choose” the changes that, statistically speaking, were the most successful ones. In this way, the new gene is able to optimize the entire genome or organism; even though it itself is purely a “selfish gene,” driven only to maximize its own reproduction. Egan wryly notes that “most processes in molecular biology had analogies in computing, but it was rarely helpful to push them too far” (256); nonetheless, he extrapolates this logic by imagining a DNA “program” that works like a “quantum supercomputer” (289).

Egan’s solution to his own puzzle is elegant, economical, and shrewd. He’s really doing what hard SF does best: applying the rigor of scientific reasoning to an imaginary problem, and (especially) abiding by the initial conditions set forth by the problem. He successfully constructs a scenario in which even the most extreme instance of apparent design can be explained without recourse to teleology. Though Egan’s hypothesis is counterfactual and probably impossible — which is just a fancy way of saying he is writing fiction — it does in fact usefully illuminate the logic of biological explanation.

And it’s this logic to which I want to turn. Getting rid of teleology is in fact harder than it might seem. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how meaningful and functioning complex patterns can emerge from randomness, without there being a pre-existing plan. “Intelligent design” theory today, like the 18th-century “argument from design,” claims that a structure like the eye, or like the interwoven network of chemical pathways that function in every cell, are too complex to have arisen without planning. Darwinian theory argues, to the contrary — quite convincingly and cogently — not only that “selection” processes are able to account for the formation of these structures, but that these structures’ very complexity precludes their having been made by planning and foresight, or any other way. (For the most explicit statement of this argument, see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins gives a reductionist, atomistic version of the argument. I would argue — though Dawkins himself would not agree — that this account is not inconsistent with the claims of Kauffman that natural selection rides piggyback on other sorts of spontaneous organization in natural systems).

But none of this stops Dawkins, or other hardcore Darwinians, from using the vocabulary of purpose on nearly all occasions. The eye is a structure whose purpose is seeing; genes are “selfish” because they “want” — i.e. their “purpose” is — to create more copies of themselves. Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, Dawkins is still describing life by comparing it to a watch — or to a computer — even if the “watchmaker” is “blind” and not purposeful or conscious. Kant’s pre-Darwinian observation, that we cannot help seeing life as “purposive,” even though we would be wrong to attribute explicit “purpose” to it — still holds true in evolutionary theory.

This is partly a question about adaptation. Hardcore neodarwinism assumes that every feature of an organism, no matter how minor, is adaptive — which is to say that it has a reproductive purpose, for which it was selected. And evolutionary theorists go through extraordinary contortions to explain how “features” like homosexuality, which evidently do not contribute to the production of more offspring, nonetheless must be “adaptive” — or reproductively selected for — in some way. In a case like homosexuality, it seems obvious to suggest that: a)it is not a well-defined category, but one that has a lot of blurry edges and culturally variable aspects, so it’s misguided in the first place to find a genetic correlate to it; and b)that to the extent that genes do play a role in same-sex object choice, it may well be that what was “selected for” was not homosexuality per se, but something more general (the sort of sexual disposition that is extremely plastic, i.e. capable of realizing itself in multiple forms).

More generally, adaptationism is problematic because defending it soon brings you to a point of reductio ad absurdum. Many features of organisms are evidently adaptive, but when you start to assert that everything must be, a priori, you are condemning yourself to a kind of interpretive paranoia that sees meanings, intentions, and purposes everywhere. You start out aware that (in Egan’s words) “evolution is senseless: the great dumb machine, grinding out microscopic improvements one end, spitting out a few billion corpses from the other ” (112). But you end up with a sort of argument from design, a paradoxical denial of contingency, chance, superfluity, and meaninglessness. Evolutionary theorists assume that every feature of every organism necessarily has a meaning and a purpose; which is what leads them to simply invent purposive explanations (what Stephen Jay Gould disparaged as “just-so stories”) when they cannot be discovered by empirical means.

All these difficulties crop up in the course of Teranesia. Egan’s protagonist, Prabir, is gay, and he supposes that his sexual orientation is like an “oxbow lake” produced by a river: something that’s “not part of the flow” of the river, but that the river keeps creating nonetheless (109). Conversely, he is (rightly) angered by the suggestion that homosexuality is adaptive because it has the evolutionary purpose of being “a kind of insurance policy — to look after the others if something happens to the parents” (110). Angry because such an explanation would suggest that his being as a person has no value in its own right, for itself. And this is picked up at the end of the novel, when the new gene crosses species and starts to metastasize in Prabir’s own body. As a ruthless and super-efficient machine for adaptation, it threatens to wipe out Prabir’s own “oxbow lake,” together with anything that might seem “superfluous” from the point of view of adaptive efficiency (310).

By the end of the novel, the new gene has to be contained, for it threatens to “optimize” Prabir, and through him the rest of humanity, into a monstrous reproductive machine. Teranesia suddenly turns, in its last thirty pages or so, into a horror novel; and the final plot twist that saves Prabir is (in contrast to everything that has come before) exceedingly unconvincing and unsatisfying, because it hinges on seeing the malignant gene as purpose-driven to an extent that simply (I mean in the context of Egan’s fiction itself) isn’t credible.

Teranesia thus ends up tracking and reproducing what I am tempted to call (in Kantian style) the antinomies of neodarwinian explanation. Starting from the basic assertion that “life is meaningless” (338 — the very last words of the novel), it nonetheless finds itself compelled to hypothesize a monstrous, totalizing purposiveness. The specter of biological exuberance is exorcized, but monstrosity is not thereby dispelled; it simply returns in an even more extreme form. Even Egan’s recourse to quantum mechanics is symptomatic: because quantum mechanics is so inherently paradoxical — because it is literally impossible to understand in anything like intuitive terms — it becomes the last recourse when you are trying to explain in rationalistic and reductive terms some aspect of reality (and of life especially) that turns out to be stubbornly mysterious. Quantum mechanics allows you to have it both ways: Egan’s use of it can be compared, for instance, to the way Roger Penrose has recourse to quantum effects in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness. In short, Teranesia is a good enough book that it runs up against, and inadvertently demonstrates, the aporias implicit within the scientific rationality to which Egan is committed.

Save CBGBs!

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Action is needed now, to save CBGB’s, the club on the Bowery in New York City where American punk music really got its start in the late 1970s. I won’t pontificate like an old geezer on the evenings I spent there in 1977-1979. I’ll just say that CBGBs is part of musical history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed by the forces of gentrification. Nightspore alerted me to this, and he has more information here; the official “Save CBGBs” page is here.