Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Mind Club

The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why it Matters
Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray (Viking, 2016)

    'The problem of other minds' is one of the age-old philosophical conundrums. Renee Descartes was pretty sure that he had a mind, and you do, or you wouldn’t be here now, but what about dogs, or fish, or fruit flies? What about computers like Watson, the Jeopardy champion? In The Mind Club, Dan Wagner and Kurt Gray bring psychological research to bear on the philosophical question of just what it means to have a mind.

     The premise of the book is that we have two different senses for the concept, whose relationship is complex. On the one hand, there’s an interior state of experience, having to do with sensations, emotions, and 'what it’s like' to be you. Experience is not directly accessible to others, but we can imagine it much more readily in a dog than in a fruit fly. We can even picture it more easily in dead people than we can in robots.

    On the other hand, the exterior aspects of mind are termed agency. By this, Wegner and Gray mean the ability to set goals and make things happen in the world, whether scratching our noses or erecting skyscrapers. Fully functioning people have both, of course, but the edge cases are instructive. Small children are high in experience and low in agency, which gives rise to the moral imperative not to harm them. If parents (and the village) do their job, children grow up to have agency, as well, acquiring the moral imperative not to harm others.

    Such complementarity seems to be baked in to these concepts, which often appear as two sides of a coin. "Thinking doers are active minds with moral responsibility that do actions, minds like corporations and God. Vulnerable feelers are passive minds with moral rights that have actions done to them, minds like puppies, medical patients, and babies. This division of doer and feeler should feel intuitive because it is as ancient as human thought."

     Indeed, Aristotle divided the moral world along the same lines, naming the active party the agent, and the victim or recipient of an action the patient. "Linking mind perception to morality not only explains the enduring hilarity of kids injuring unsuspecting adults but also allows you to predict your moral outrage about almost any infraction. Tough man (high agency) punches kitten (high experience)? Immoral. Kitten (low agency) scratches tough man (low experience)? Not immoral."

     The implications of this framework run throughout the book, as they do throughout family life, our systems of charitable giving, and the justice system. "When someone is cast as a victimized moral patient–a vulnerable feeler–it is difficult to simultaneously see him or her as an agent responsible for wrongdoing. This explains why defendants on trial often testify to the suffering or abuse they experienced in their lives, such as in the case of Lorena Bobbitt."

      The Mind Club is dense with research: each chapter cites fifty or more articles or books; but the writing is witty, and moves right along. In the end, it crosses from psychology back to philosophy: "We are forever a point of view: even if we lose our memories, meditate away our desires, and quiet our constant quest for mental control, we are still a source of perception. But recognizing this fact provides the secret to transcending ourselves as much as we possibly can. By understanding that we perceive the world instead of understanding it directly, we can realize not only that the self is fragile and that free will is an illusion but also that other minds can be both more and less than they appear."

Any Good Books,
January 2020

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Power Concedes Nothing

Power Concedes Nothing: The Unfinished Fight for Social Justice in America
Connie Rice (Scribner, 2012)

    Connie Rice had a path of high achievement set before her from infancy. Her parents met at Howard College, where her mother trained as a teacher. Her father had an exemplary Air Force career, which exposed Connie and her two younger brothers to a great variety of human environments, while shielding them from most of the racial hardships that other Black kids faced in the sixties. What could have been disruptive was embraced as adventurous: "On top of [her mother's] relentless academic tasks, she dunked us in whatever the new local culture offered–ballet, piano lessons, new food, painting, crafts, ceramics, horseback riding, archery, bowling, swim teams, drama, skiing, county fairs, high tea, or square dancing." That sounds manic, verging on comic, but it led to the kind of confidence that permitted Connie twice to walk into a new school and become class president.

    Within the Black American Princess bubble, there were also experiences that foretold what she'd use all that preparation for. Reading Anne Frank's diary, as a ten-year-old; navigating between terrible schools (Anacostia, San Antonio) and great ones (London, Shaker Heights); winning the debate championship of Texas; and spending one high school summer watching the Watergate hearings. "Every day, after scouring the newspapers for behind-the-scenes analysis, I stood at the ironing board, glued to the television. At first the Judiciary Committee's hearings, a cross between a constitutional show trial and a suspense-filled soap opera, were riveting enough."

    When, in due course, the immortal Barbara Jordan rose to be recognized, Connie Rice had a new heroine. "When she cross-examined a witness, challenged her colleagues on the committee, or parried with lawyers, I felt I was watching Elizabeth I incarnated as a black congresswoman from Texas." Jordan's full-throated defense of the Constitution, and her indictment of Richard Nixon's corruption, struck a chord in Rice that would propel her to law school and the work of social justice.

    But first, at her mother's urging, Radcliffe College. (Rice was one of the last people to be admitted to Harvard by accident, as the colleges proceeded toward their merger.) She studied Government, made some good friends, and took up martial arts. Her Tae Kwon Do was so strong that she took three years off to pursue it, medaling at the national championships, before going on to NYU.

     In her second summer there, she interned with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund on death penalty cases. Here was an education! And one that seemed more significant than third-year classes, though she did enough to finish school. "Death row had ripped off law school's Socratic mask and shown me the sordid underbelly of our warped bar of justice." Rice moved on to a clerkship in Federal court, and even a year or so in a major law firm, just to show she could do it, before winding up in Los Angeles in the west-coast branch of the LDF.

     That's where the real story in this memoir begins, as Rice brings all this experience to bear on the violent culture of the gang-ridden streets, the violent culture of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the stultifying intransigence of government bureaucracy. Sometimes the work is on an individual level, as when she is enlisted to help a fugitive surrender without getting shot by the police on his way in. Other times, she makes herself heard with lawsuits, including one that resulted in the LA school district building 140 new schools, making up a deficit of thirty years without new construction.

     On whatever scale, the work is legal, it's political, and it's always personal. Her mission is to look out for the people deemed too poor for decent education, too down-and-out for police protection, too insignificant for elected officials to notice them. "I've learned that suing cops earns their respect but helping them to change earns their trust. I've learned to make adversaries into allies and, when necessary, to sue my friends and even my own board members, because it doesn't matter who holds it–power concedes nothing without a demand."

Any Good Books, December, 2019

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Destiny Thief

Any Good Books, November, 2019

The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life
Richard Russo (2018, Vintage)

    Richard Russo came late to writing fiction. In his twenties, he studied for a Ph.D. in American literature, and was on his way to becoming a teacher. But before he acquired that degree, he also pursued a Master of Fine Arts in fiction. He wasn't good at it yet, but he had some idea of what he needed to learn. So, as the academic career got off the ground–endless sections of freshman composition at Penn State–he returned to his first novel, of which his teacher had liked only the portion set in his home town in upstate New York. "They weren't exactly good, those forty pages, but they were mine, which was more than could be said for the other two hundred." 

     Bad news, he thought, since he'd spent his twenties getting as far from Gloversville as he could manage. That said, however, if he was doomed to be from Gloversville (where his grandfather had actually been a glove cutter), why not see what could be made of it? "I needed not only to claim as my own the very place I'd been fleeing for so long but also to lose myself there, to give my full attention to the kind of people whose lives were, at least to me, both important and essential."
    In the meantime, he had learned some of the skills of writing fiction, which he has gone on to teach. I was especially interested in the essay "What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience." When he commended to his students the practice of telling the story from the omniscient point of view, they tended to resist. Maybe it means they haven't read enough literature; novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries favored the godlike point of view. Maybe they're just too young: "As we mature we see patterns, and those can resolve themselves into worlds. We want to tell readers how those worlds (as well as the real one they're based on) work. At twenty-five or thirty, not many writers are anxious to assume so much responsibility." Certainly, I have read stories from this century that would have been greatly improved if the writer had seen fit to explain a little more.
     Russo relishes the mastery of Charles Dickens. His essay on The Pickwick Papers shows how a youthful Dickens overran the bounds of the sketches he'd been commissioned to write. "By the time we're not quite halfway through the book, both we and Dickens are suddenly aware that he's writing a novel; he's begun to plant narrative seeds that will bear fruit in later chapters, to defer dramatic payoffs and in so doing increase their power." Dickens has already begun to intermingle the pathos of the world he sees around him with an irresistible comedic streak. No wonder he's still being read. 

    Dickens was writing for money, of course, and under the deadline pressures of serial publication. Russo has much to say about craft and art, and how they may (or may not) survive in the world of commerce. Creative writing programs proliferate, but it seems unlikely that the audience for fiction is actually growing. "Popular culture tells us that those who fail didn't want success badly enough, as if hunger and faith were the best predictors of it. In reality, hunger and faith, absent talent, or at least a certain facility, is more often a prescription for heartbreak." 

    Howbeit, we must attend to our craft, if art is to have a chance; there are no guarantees. "That art should be so elusive is deeply mysterious. In many respects it seems so straightforward. What art demands of us has remained constant down through the centuries–that we slow down, observe, contemplate, court quiet, practice stillness, live as if we have all the time in the world, knowing full well that we don't."

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Any Good Books, October, 2019

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Cecelia Watson (Ecco, 2019)

        It's characteristic of the thoroughness of Cecelia Watson's research that the she knows both the date of the semicolon's invention (1494) and the name of the inventor, a Venetian publisher; the type designer was Bolognese. The humanists of the Renaissance were busy inventing marks, most of which quickly faded out of use; the semicolon survived because of its utility as a way to mark a pause, longer than the one marked by a comma, and shorter than that of a colon. In other words, its use was purely a matter of prosody, the music of language.

        From the middle of the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, grammarians contended to publish the most thorough explications of English grammar, and the most 'scientific'. The competition was fierce; one dauntless scholar published “The Grammar of English Grammars, which contained 1,192 pages filled with tiny print surveying a selection of 548 English grammar books that had been published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, up until the 1852 printing of his own book.” Some authors based their grammatical theories on Latin and Greek; others attempted logical induction directly from English. They all had much the same difficulty: “how could it be possible to give useful rules for punctuation, while at the same time acknowledging that those rules couldn't describe every valid approach to punctuating a text?” 

       But it was ever thus: ambiguity creeps in through the cracks. Watson has a couple of chapters about legal situations where the rules were asked to carry more weight than they really could bear. “Any remaining hope that the law could somehow escape the challenges posed by punctuation went out the window when a semicolon set about wreaking havoc up and down the Northeast Corridor in a dramatic Massachusetts court case that caused six years of controversy in courtrooms, in legislative debates, and in the streets.” Six years! 
       She has another couple of chapters about the stylistic uses of the semicolon. Herman Melville wrote in the nineteenth century, the semicolon's golden age. “No,” says Watson, “it's not really that Melville uses the semicolon to stretch out the distance between a capital letter and a period; instead, the semicolons are in the service of carrying you slowly, gently, pleasurably away from whatever it was you thought you were reading about–the process of beheading the whale, or how to assess winds, or cannibalism.”

       In the hands of the modern essayist Rebecca Solnit, on the other hand, “A semicolon is sometimes not a pause, but the opposite: an instrument of quickness, a little springboard that launches you rapidly from thought to thought.” These observations return the semicolon to the realm of music. The punctuation may, incidentally, accord with The Chicago Manual of Style, but it was chosen for its rhythm. 
       Watson is not opposed to rules, exactly, but she is opposed to idolatry about them. For one thing, as we've seen, they had to be invented. For another, they can make no claim to completeness, because the language is always flourishing in new ways. As language changes, we imagine that it decays, because the rules of our youth pass out of fashion; in reality, though, “[t]here was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated 'properly.'” 
      She's also opposed to the pernicious snobbery by which those of us who happened to grow up speaking the dominant dialect ascribe some kind of moral virtue to following the rules. “Rules can be an easy, lazy way to put the onus on someone else: if you make a grammar mistake while trying to convey something heartfelt, I can just point out that you've used a comma splice and I'm excused from confronting what you were saying, since you didn't say it properly.” Don't be that person. Communicating is better than standing on privilege, any day.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

At the Strangers' Gate

At the Strangers' Gate: Arrivals in New York
Adam Gopnik (2017, Vintage Books)

     In 1980, Adam Gopnik and his soon-to-be-wife, Martha, left Montreal for the brighter lights of New York. They were just kids when they arrived, twenty and eighteen, and they moved into an absurd apartment, a nine-by-eleven basement studio on East Eighty-seventh Street. “We were so enraptured with the idea of our escaping and intertwining that everything unappealing about the place was transposed into the key of irresistible.” 
     That is to say, it was an optimistic time. Martha was studying film-making at Columbia, and Adam was starting art-history graduate school, though his ambitions also including writing for magazines and composing for Broadway. Everything seemed possible. “If your faith is in life's poetry, as ours was, a tiny room inadequate by any human standard and designed to make life borderline impossible looks appealing. The less possible it becomes, the more beautiful the illusion looks.”

     Gopnik says (and, being his age, I agree) “Forty years is the natural gestation time of nostalgia, the interval it takes for a past period to become a lost time, and, sometimes, a golden age.” We don't really feel that way about the eighties, especially in New York, where the brassiness of the gold rush has left an unpleasant stain, to this day, on our economic lives. “Today the young live less absurd lives, but have more chastened ambitions. Adequacy seems, bitterly, enough.”

     Forty years ago, sweetly, fake-Scandinavian ice cream was new. “The apartments got smaller and the ice cream got fattier. Eating premium ice cream in a tiny space with roaches was almost the same as living in a reasonable amount of room.” By the same token, lunchtime talks about the pictures at the Museum of Modern Art for fifty dollars a time seemed like a fair start in the working world. “In the eighties, fluidity of opportunity made up for absurdity of occupation. You did a silly job, but having jobs was not in itself silly–one led to a better one.” 

     In Gopnik's case, that meant becoming the fashion copyeditor at Gentlemen's Quarterly, though he was singularly unqualified on nearly all counts. Martha had all the fashion sense in the family, and all the eye for detail. What Adam had was a way with words. “...I pounded out, with ever-increasing confidence, rules and diktats and nonnegotiable dogmas on grooming.” Really, what was there to say? “Perhaps the truth is that fashion can only be diktats, and our respect for fashion is our secret respect for the necessity of an arbitrary principle in life.”

     With a newly full-time salary, the Gopniks made a giant leap upward, into SoHo. Against all odds, they found a fifteen hundred square foot loft space in the middle of an urban village where the work of art making occurred behind every historic cast-iron facade. (The upstairs neighbor worked in straw, dead fish having proved impractical.) As an art historian and critic, Gopnik was at the center of the known world, though I freely confess that I have to take his word for the value and meaning of the various works on offer. 

     Job led on to job, editing fiction for GQ and then for Knopf, and eventually writing at The New Yorker, all before the age of twenty-seven; it would seem magical if you didn't know about all the work behind it. In the case of The New Yorker, the work was to walk around, to look and listen. He cultivated the legendary Joseph Mitchell, who put him onto what he calls the secret of good writing: “a wild exactitude.” Gopnik says, “Flat descriptive sentences describing an absurdly vivid character, simple inventories of impossible objects–that was the end! Good stories were strange stories told straight.” 

     It's likely that this book will mean more to you if you ever saw New York in the eighties, but if not, don't let that stop you. Gopnik's wild exactitude is always worth the price of admission.

Email edition September 1, 2019