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Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

The “Splendidly Cranky” Utopian: An Interview with Curtis White

December 3, 2015 | by

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Curtis White first came to public attention as a culture critic with his best-selling The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003). Dubbed “splendidly cranky” by Molly Ivins and “absolutely indispensible” by Slavoj Zizek, The Middle Mind showed White’s ability to speak to a broad readership about the themes that run through all of his books—cultural skepticism, intellectual freedom, and the utopian function of the imagination. White’s “imagination” is the kind with an adjective in front of it: the political imagination, the social imagination, the scientific imagination. To say the political imagination rather than simply politics is to take the conceptual leap that White’s work insists upon, whereby we are reminded not only that we invent the rules of “politics” but that we reinvent and reaffirm them every day.

White grew up in postwar suburban California. He studied literature with John Barth and philosophy with Gayatri Spivak and spent his entire professional career at Illinois State University in Normal, where he eventually became a Distinguished Professor, before retiring in 2009. He now spends his time training for triathlons and writing books, most recently The Science Delusion (2013) and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, which was published last month.

I corresponded by e-mail with White over a few weeks last summer about Reason, Romanticism, and the benefit of heartbreak.

We, Robots strikes me as a companion volume to The Science Delusion—two complementary ways of approaching the same problem. What do you see as the books’ common ground?

Amused indignation? All of my recent nonfictions, going back to The Middle Mind, are, finally, ideology critiques. The last two aren’t so much about science and robots as they are about the stories we’re told about science and the dawning age of “intelligent machines.” As with all ideology, we’re told these stories in order to gain our consent to a social reality that is unjust, unequal, and—here’s where I come in—dishonest. I’m indignant about the dishonesty of “science communicators” like Richard Dawkins or the economist Tyler Cowen. Dawkins and his cohort Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens speak as if science were the only legitimate source of “truth,” while the humanities, art, and religion are disciplines for the undisciplined. Cowen is a machine-age entrepreneur who glosses over the most egregious social consequences of living through machines, wholly lacking the imagination to understand how others might look at his robot utopia. For him, this future is inevitable anyway, and criticism of it is merely “standing in the way of progress.”

These are very narrow, bigoted men. They have no respect for anything other than their own empirical, technological dogmas. The worrisome thing is that we don’t see more prominent objections to their thinking, other than a few heroic figures like Chris Hedges. But I may have answered my own question there—if you have strong objections to what is inevitable, you will not be “prominent.” You will not be taken seriously. As much as possible, you will not be seen. Read More »

Swimming with Oliver Sacks

August 31, 2015 | by

Oliver Sacks died yesterday at eighty-two.

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Oliver Sacks swimming in Rhinebeck, NY, in July 2015. Photo: Bill Hayes

I met Oliver Sacks at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist and writers residency in the Adirondacks, where we spent August of 2012. The room I was assigned had a pretty view out onto Eagle Lake, but it was tiny—there was no way I could pace in it, and I needed to pace, so I disappeared into the mountains several times a day. I walked and walked, got lost in the pouring rain and knocked on the cabin doors of strangers, hoping to be adopted, maybe. Instead I was given haphazard, passionless directions back to the colony. While I was feeling the dark of the woods pressing heavily on my shoulders, Oliver was writing to the sounds of the loons on the lake. He was seventy-nine then. Read More »

Literary NFL, and Other News

February 5, 2013 | by

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  • “The Ravens’ lack of interest thus far in supporting the city’s literary legacy is a travesty.” The Super Bowl doesn’t help Poe!
  • “Ladies and gentlemen, your Literary National Football League.” (And more!)
  • Speaking of (sort of) fictional characters inspired by real people... 
  • Doodling and Neuroscience 101. Half of this sounds doable.
  • “Anthony Trollope, before he set off for his job at the GPO every day, would write three thousand words between 5:30 and 8:30 A. M.. He kept his watch in front of him so he could achieve two hundred fifty words each quarter-hour. If he finished one novel before 8:30, he would instantly start the next one.” Don’t worry: not all writers’ word-counts are this demoralizing inspiring. 
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    Kids Are All Right, Like E-books

    September 19, 2012 | by

  • Onscreen writers “can be cynical hacks, genre stars or dislocated sportswriters. In romantic comedies, the writer is often a witty Lothario or a good-natured wimp. Either way, the profession’s primary function is to provide the character with plenty of free time.”
  • Jane Austen can stimulate brain function. Presumably, so can other authors.
  • “I am posting this for people who have Kindles, are in the U.S., and might want to get this. I am not posting this for people to tell me that they hate Kindles, hate all e-books, or are grumpy because they do not live in a country where they can download this.” Neil Gaiman makes a PA on Facebook.
  • You know who loves e-books? Kids.
  • As for the old-fashioned, paper kind, well, nowadays they’re less “reading material” and more “business cards.”
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    A Week in Culture: Dan Chiasson, Poet

    December 1, 2010 | by

    DAY ONE

    6:15 A.M. Our children wake us up. Nobody wants anything read to them this morning. They are involved in some kind of acrimonious negotiation involving Lego heads (“That’s my head!” “It’s MY head!” “No, mine!” et cetera) so I go into the next room and start thinking about a class I am guest teaching today at BU. I’ve been reading (and writing) father-son poems, and I think, Why not just tell the students what’s on my mind: Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem for his son, “Three Things There Be.” The poem comes in several variants; I print them out and look at a brief discussion of the variants as well as the provocative “spoiled riddle” poems (poems that act like riddles but give their solutions away) on Slate, by Robert Pinsky.

    I go to the Times website, and there is (fortuitously) this article on metaphor and the brain. I skim it for something I can say to the class. Neuroscience is very keen on poets and poetry these days: It turns out that when you call someone a cockroach, you activate the same part of your brain that can recall the picture of an actual cockroach

    8:30 A.M. I head into Boston. It’s an hour drive this time of day. I get a four-shot latte at Karma Coffee, Route 20 in Sudbury (do yourself a favor). I am listening a lot to the Byrds’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo these days, especially “One Hundred Years from Now.” I have a problem that technology has solved. When I like a song, I listen to it over and over for weeks at a time. You used to have to keep rewinding the tape, and the tape would snap or come unraveled. Now, with iPods, it’s no problem.

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