Friday, 14 July 2006

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On The Adaptive Unconscious & It Not Being a Terrible Idea [I should dedicate this post to Ray Davis, without whom I couldn't have written it. But who dedicates posts to people? That said, one item he linked to deserves special consideration, as it proves stuff written years ago possesses commensurate quantities of wit and intelligence to things posted within the past 24 hours. Also, I remember now why I miss him, and regret again whatever part I played in driving him away. But enough of that. To the post!] Today is one of those rare days I regret not being a "professional" blogger. I have so much on my plate—so much which seems urgent—that I hardly know where to focus my attention. So I'll let someone else decide: Following Ray's links, I stumbled on Jonah Lehrer's lukewarm defense of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Unbeknownst to you, dear readers, I wrote a very similar account not only of Gladwell's book, but of all popular neuroscience, in which I declared sublime those "meta-" moments that only books about human consciousness provide. For example: Picture in your mind the face of Marilyn Monroe. Ready? You just used your fusiform gyrus. (219) Blows my mind every time. I love books that produce the physiological effects they describe in the act of describing them. Steven Pinker's explanations may be just-so stories, but the processes for which they account are solid science. When he says "when Y, then X," you can be certain that when a guy confronts Y, his brain explodes with X—even if X didn't develop because a greater percentage of monkeys who could scuttle up trees one-handed in the rain survived than didn't. Now, thanks to Lehrer, I can trumpet Timothy D. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves too, only without all the caveats Gladwell inspired. For one, the complaint about the dearth of footnotes evaporates. Wilson documents the studies he cites, and I've spent the past couple of hours browsing through those articles. I'm surprised by what I've found. More often than not, the claims the authors propound are far more radical than those Wilson attributes to them. He tones them down, renders them more palatable to the regnant orthodoxy. Which is odd. Most popular science writers inflate the importance of the research they cite in order to grab the reader's attention. (Norman Holland and Steven Pinker spring to mind.) Why does Wilson take the opposite tack? I'm not sure. It may be constitutional. Anyone who can "teach the conflicts"—that is the first non-paywalled link I could find—the way Wilson can possesses the rare talent for fairness in the face of vicious intellectual bluster. He presents all arguments—the psychoanalytic included—in their strongest forms and that, apparently, entails deflating the work of contemporary cognitive science while inflating the importance of psychoanalytic "findings." With the exception of Occam's Razor's appearance on page 79 —there is "no need to introduce additional theoretical constructs"—psychoanalysis seems a viable, if frequently problematic, alternative to contemporary cognitive theory. (Which, of course, merely validates the "scientific" quality of Freud's intuitions. Not that Wilson...
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Untitled Thomas Pynchon This information shot across my radar a few weeks back, but I didn’t believe it until today.* You can now pre-order your very own Untitled Thomas Pynchon (Hardback). I’m not sure what to make of Amazon’s description (or its purported source): Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all. With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred. The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx. As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them. Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction. Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck. *I was burned by Time in 1997. Some fool wrote a feature about the publication of Mason & Dixon, The Gospel According to the Son, and the “forthcoming” Salinger novel.

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