The Object Of Objective Reality: Some Notes On Donald Hoffman

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Objective Reality Donald HoffmanA few months ago, The Atlantic published an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman arguing – albeit in a limited sense – against the notion of objective reality. It’s an interesting read, but only partly due to the science. More importantly, it illustrates an overlooked concept in pretty much all inquiry: that language, if ill-used or poorly defined, will ultimately poison good ideas, and generate new objects of study that simply don’t exist in the real world. In short, if people are confused by language, allowing words to invent or hide problems, scientists, in being a subset of people, are little different here. For this reason, Donald Hoffman falls into the kind of errors that even a layperson is familiar with, since they have in fact made the same mistakes themselves. The laity is inevitably corrected, however, since the real world is pretty unforgiving when compared to academia. Yet seeing just how he errs in such a low-stakes environment might shed some light on future questions: actual questions, I mean, and not the needless complications that scientists and philosophers can be quite good at.

Hoffman’s basic thesis is irrefutable: that organisms have evolved in a way that maximizes fitness, first, at the expense of things that they might have better valued under different circumstances. This, to me, is a re-phrasing of Leda Cosmides’s and John Tooby’s classic observation that ‘we are not fitness maximizers, but adaptation executors’. Yeah, the wording seems at odds with Hoffman’s thesis, but they’re in fact arguing the same thing: that we’ll do whatever it is that we’ll do, even as physical circumstances change, or (as with human beings) culture shifts and replaces older values. So, for example, whereas human beings value truth in the abstract, they are ill-prepared for what objective reality – in the totalizing sense – really is. They see sunlight, react to it emotionally, physiologically, etc., but cannot detect, say, radio waves, or ionizing radiation, because they have played such a minor role in most of human history, and have therefore had no utility, no way of capturing our biological attention. And this is true despite the fact that visible light accounts for a tiny slice of electromagnetic radiation, meaning, we are in just this one regard cut off from a huge chunk of reality. Then, when one tallies up the innumerable other evolutionary biases, it is clear that, for all of our curiosity, we weren’t built to inquire in just this way, and are using some fairly limited and imprecise tools for this purpose all the while organizing the universe along a survivalist bias that we ourselves have imbued into it.

Ok, so far, so good. Yet the issues start to come fast when these observations get mixed up with some wacky conclusions that are not at all a given from the above premises. Let us start, then, with this study on veridical perception, by Hoffman and others, and define the term in question. The word refers … Continue reading →

On The History Of Criticism (& Some Updates For My Readers!)

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Samuel Johnson History Of Criticism

Samuel Johnson, via WikiQuote.

Now that I’m busy working on my fourth book- a novel set in Tang-era China- I will have a more regular essay schedule, both for this website as well as my Tooth & Nail column over at Cosmoetica. But first, a few updates on Woody Allen: Reel To Real, the things that have come, and the things that will be:

First, from what readers, reviewers, academics, and film producers have written, the book is now the “standard” of Woody scholarship, as well as their favorite book on the subject. I intended Reel To Real to be both scholarly and accessible, as well as the most comprehensive text of its kind. It will continue to be exactly that, given the many updates it’s slated to receive over the coming years.

The book also won an Honorable Mention in the Non-Fiction category over at Readers’ Favorite Awards. Not sure what this really means, yet, as RFA do their publicity outreach in October, but I’m looking more at niche and specialty awards over the next few months. The fact is, Reel To Real is closer to scholarship than something that typically gets picked up by intelligent lay readers, despite being geared towards exactly that demographic. I’d like to get the book into the hands of more academics, given how- to my surprise- they’ve responded so well to it.

Then, a couple of nights ago, I was filmed as a talking-head for an upcoming documentary by Bradley Weatherholt. Oddly enough, the film deals with the cross-currents of Star Wars and philosophy/art/media studies, and although I’ve exactly zero interest in those films, the director wanted someone to discuss art history and the history of criticism. The questions were sharp, intelligent, and broad, making for a good, tangential sort of conversation. The short is that Bradley wants to expose people (such as those in a fandom) to ideas that they might not otherwise hear, much less be open to, and this is a useful way of doing exactly that. And, despite our different approaches, it seems that the both of us have the same goal: to understand art correctly, and to communicate this understanding as well as we can. I talk of Aristotle, Sir Philip Sidney, Pauline Kael (on whom my essay enticed Bradley to contact me), and others, more or less arguing the following, as per my initial e-mails to him:

My personal view is that 90+% of all ‘theory’ and academic writing on the topic of film is silly and worthless. It contributes nothing to really understanding a film, and even when it (rarely) helps one understand a particular slice of a film (ex., what it might say about race), it also exaggerates this slice by bringing an unnecessary and totally unrealistic amount of attention to it.

In short- you CANNOT split art into ‘1 thing.’ Every decade or so, one gets a new fad- a new ‘methodology’ that tries to pigeonhole cinema even as they … Continue reading →

“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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Mr. Robot Golden Age Of Television

The silly, ham-fisted poster for Mr. Robot. Image via IMDb.

The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very … Continue reading →

On The Art Of Francis Bacon

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Art Of Francis Bacon Daniela Grapa

Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Painting by Daniela Grapa.

In many ways, the art of Francis Bacon was merely the technical side of a far deeper movement, probably in development ever since the first human beings decide to ‘create’ something — anything, really — and wondered of their own compulsion. This is the idea (from the 1800s onward) that art is not there to simply ‘look good,’ or to edify didactically, or to praise God, reject God, be social, be political, or any other singular thing that would get so often demanded of it. Instead, the idea was that art is here to communicate, which is really the most expansive definition of all, incorporating many of the old, bias-ridden requirements all the while forging wholly new ones. Van Gogh was already doing this in his landscapes, given, as they were, to colors and techniques that were less beautiful than evocative; Walt Whitman was busy opening up poetry in the same direction, being full of seemingly ‘rough’ declaratives that must have sounded quite alarming to classically-trained ears; and Pablo Picasso hyper-developed the idea well into the 20th century, to the point that it became abused by AbEx painters who’d confuse ‘communication’ with literally an infinity (as opposed to a multiplicity) of meanings. Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.

One of Bacon’s most famous paintings is Study After Velazquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X (1953), part of the so-called ‘Screaming Popes’ series (of which there are close to 50 paintings). It takes Diego Velazquez’s portrait of the arch-conservative Pope — in fact, one of the most famous portraits in history, replete with light refracting off of his chest, the determined look, the curious stifling the almost small-‘A’ abstract backdrop — and gives it an entirely new context. In it, the figure is being closed in (by the outer portion of a skeletal chair?) with Innocent’s once-refracting chest moved about a foot down, all the way to the waist, so that mere coloration has the effect of making this personage seem disembodied. On top, Innocent’s calm — simmering, in Velazquez — is changed into a scream, with the rain-like colors either intensifying or recapitulating its effect.

Art Of Francis Bacon Study Velazquez Portrait Pope Innocent X

No, it’s not a great painting, for like most of Francis Bacon’s art, it points to little but its own self. Yet one must take note of what it does well. There is, for instance, the way it plays with its own influences, for Bacon did not arbitrarily choose Diego Velazquez as his model: he saw (or thought he saw) what might have been underneath Innocent X’s glance, and deduced from this … Continue reading →

On Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” (“Love Conquers Everything”)

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Michelangelo Caravaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia (1601-2). Image via Wikipedia.

Michelangelo Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (1601-2). Image via Wikipedia.

In my article on Hieronymus Bosch, I posit Bosch as a proto-Modern, or even a pure Modern if one considers his work from a purely conceptual standpoint. This is because despite some of his technical lacks (he pretty much worked as a ‘flat’ medieval painter), he was the first to turn these shortcomings into a strength. Bosch took the expected allegories, the almost child-like didacticism of earlier religious painters and deepened them, made these stories richer and fresh. In short, he ripped medieval art outside of its own context, thus sidestepping its worst qualities by focusing on new ones, revealing how even seemingly primitive techniques can be rehabilitated into something worthwhile, a fact that no amount of Renaissance-level realism could have equaled. This was an important move, historically, since it showed that technical ability at the exclusion of all else is NOT the end-all of art — an idea that has still be argued, most notably by Nabokov — but that novel combinations of techniques and ideas can lead to something greater than these individual parts.

Thus, modern painting does not really stem from the innovations of the Renaissance (which were more or less predictable — scientific, even) but the decision to use these innovations for a higher purpose. Sure, Bosch seemed to ignore these innovations altogether, taking a short-cut to this higher purpose while obviating what was superficially new, but it’s the conceptions, the far deeper story-telling that mattered in a way that mere, dull realism could not. Yet just as Bosch eclipsed the Renaissance painters, he, too, would eventually be surpassed when these technical innovations could be married to genuine depth. And this confluence of things would first enter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1572-1610), quite possibly the first true Modern, and the greatest artist of any form, medium, or genre, in the West, up until that time. Interestingly, his date of birth coincides with the birth of John Donne, who (excepting the Chinese writers) was probably the greatest writer until that point, while his death parallels the publication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which — even more than Shakespeare’s plays — helped usher in artistic modernism.

To see how Caravaggio accomplished all this, I’m going to use just one painting: Amor Vincit Omnia (“Love Conquers All,” or a number of other titles), not because it’s the best or most representative of the above points, but because it is my own personal favorite, and the first painting that really taught me about visual art.Cupid is put into a physical position — almost a contortion, really — that painters before and after Caravaggio have used. Indeed, lots of painters, such as Delacroix and some of the pre-Raphaelites, have erred in thinking that ‘action’ in a painting is best, and that novelty for novelty’s sake (especially in terms of human positioning) might get you somewhere artistically. Yet Caravaggio’s Cupid is anything but novelty, for he’s just crashed through … Continue reading →