Alex Sheremet’s “The Sum Of Others”

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Images of Greece from The Sum Of Others

[Note: This is a short story I first wrote when I was 22, and my first real attempt at prose. It was originally published to Cosmoetica and long forgotten. Over the last few years, however, I’ve received a surprising number of e-mails and comments about it, and think it’s best to re-post it here. Enjoy.]

The Sum Of Others

The bowl is rimmed with thickening smoke. The Maasai walk around it, dreaming in present tense. It’s what separates them from another world’s conception of things — feeble, static, and utterly dull, their stretched earlobes a kind of great corrective to the universe’s sameness. They are remarkably old, and yet they depend on the same tokens — mohawks, body piercing — so recent to other civilizations around them. Or rather, they are the tokens only now re-discovered, lost to the rules of Greek columns and symmetry, but emerging where all beginnings emerge. They have no symmetry here. One man undergoes this modification; another man does not. It is random and it is their way of paying respect to randomness, the real force of change, the only thing — an illness, a great epiphany that seems to come from nowhere — that stops most people from skimming the surface of things and living in an empty reverie. As the earlobe’s stretched, so is, they think, man’s instinct for pattern. But, none appears, at least not at first. They look at each other and see they have nothing in common save for this mutilation. One is old, his mouth a shrinking indentation against the tracery of his face, his eyes, at this point, quite arbitrary, and his fingers, stirring a lukewarm cup for the newest warrior among them, like inert strings that, after a great flowering of will and psychological exertion, finally move to the bidding of some external thing. The warrior, who’d drink the motoriki and drop in convulsions, is, for now, a healthy man, watching the yohimbe’s slender trunk rising to the sky. As soon as it can’t support itself any higher, an explosion of leaves forever caps its ascent. Months after he strips the bark into the bowl, drinks it, and loses his mind to demons, the warrior fears nothing, not even the encroaching whites. And then, almost imperceptibly, he returns to normal. A native intelligence runs through every wild thing in the village.

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They could tell the jump rope was heavy by the way it struck the terrace, foregoing the sharp woosh for an imprecise and duller sound. It was green and slick and mangled on the bottom from years of shaping shoulders, legs, and health, and although Plaka was very crowded, I felt, gripping the handles, calculating every tough, dramatic jump, like its solitary event — a good, dependable feeling, since, as an American in Greece, one never had to try too hard or talk too much. It was alright by me, since I can’t stand the thought of putting myself through inane conversation, complete with … Continue reading →

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 →

Soylent Is A Dismal Art

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Soylent

Image via Meghan Telpner.

A few years ago, a new foodstuff called Soylent hit the market. It purports to be a meal replacer for people who, like me, hate the inconvenience of cooking (I do it every day anyway, the import of which will be apparent by essay’s end), or even eating, but wish to get what the human body needs without the typical sugar overload and poor, refined oils such things usually entail. To be sure, Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s creator, is a tricky one. He initially tried to live on Soylent alone for a while, and survived the few months without issue, even submitting blood-work to show that was, indeed, possible. Predictably, Rhinehart eased off of Soylent, mixing regular food into his diet, as well, all the while insisting that others can remain on a Soylent-only diet. Yet the signals are quite mixed, from Rhinehart’s poorly-timed self-study that ensured no chronic issues could begin to surface, to encouraging others to blend Soylent with real food, thus turning the thing into a de facto supplement, to the fact that, for all of its supposed completeness, not even the creator, himself, is willing to live on it for the long term. And, in fact, I’d argue that no one should, since the relationship between food and disease is — save for some basics — a virtually unknown quanta, and even that little bit of knowledge is colored by ideology, falsehood, and outright manipulation.

Now, as a former fat guy, I’ve had to learn quite a bit about cooking and nutrition, but as an all-around curious type, with little inclination towards ideology, I’ve also learned how much bullshit — how much ignorance — goes into nutritional ‘science’. Indeed, it seems to me that the average nutritionist knows as much about food as the average literary critic knows about craft, thus confusing otherwise intelligent people, like Rob Rhinehart, into accepting things that can never be. And this is not simply because they have too many wrong answers. It is also that, for every question they purport to answer, there is a deeper, more important one that was NOT asked due to the original bias. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn’t even thought to be asked, and — worse! — cannot logically be asked under the conditions. Remember that, in art, the question is: how does it all cohere? And in science, the question is: how does it all cohere? You can read this statement left, right, up, or down, for the inflection will be the same; the meaning will not change; the spirit will not molt.

Art begins (or should begin) with a subtle understanding. If art’s a ‘thing,’ then it is, logically, a thing distinct from other things: from philosophy, say, or historiography, or politics. Perhaps it might have elements of each. And perhaps it might draw on multiple disciplines in order to sum up to its own thing. But if two things can be conflated with nothing lost whatsoever, then … Continue reading →

New Interview At Joel Bocko’s “Lost In The Movies”

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Joel Bocko New Interview Woody AllenFor those that regularly follow Joel Bocko’s website, you will have probably seen my new interview posted last week. I contacted Joel late last year since his work is quoted in Woody Allen: Reel To Real. In fact, he was one of the only critics mentioned, within, that correctly declared the late 70s/1980 of Woody’s cinematic output to be a genuine high point- and, yes, this includes Interiors as well as the supernal Stardust Memories. Joel expressed an interest in reviewing the book and interviewing me. The result is 15,000 words on art, criticism, philosophy, and film– with only a slice of it on Allen.

This Fall, I’m updating Reel To Real with new material, including an unexpurgated version of the above interview- another 5,000-8,000 words, probably- that was simply too technical to include on Joel’s site. Still, those interested in the macro of my judgments- their inner ‘why’- will do well to read it. They are a blueprint to the arts as a whole.

Anyway- here is my answer to the first question. The interview can be read in full here.

Before we begin, for the sake of readers can you introduce yourself, your interest in Allen, and the reasons behind your outlook and approach to this book?

I am a poet, critic, and novelist living in New York City. I have a variety of interests- hence my desire to do film criticism from a wide “art-first” approach, where issues of character, writing, narrative, imagery, music, and their summation(s) matter. More than anything, however, I wanted Woody Allen: Reel To Real to be a kind of blueprint for critiquing art as a whole. It covers dozens of films at great depth so that, over time, the reader knows what to look for, and can extrapolate some of these ideas to the art-world at large. In an important sense, this book isn’t merely ‘about’ Woody’s art. It is about ART, with Woody serving merely as a convenient specimen.

For this reason, I don’t necessarily state my premises outright- I don’t give readers a ‘list’ of what to look for in a good film, as that’s the quickest way to formulaic thinking (which is counter to art) and a way of avoiding the exceptions that utterly DEFINE so much of art. For instance: to many viewers, John Cassavetes’s best films might ‘go on too long,’ or Walt Whitman’s great poems have too much ‘stuff’ within. Yet a careful look at either reveals that there is purpose- there is communication- in the excess, even though concision is a good rule of thumb. The point is that any artistic rule immediately calls up sub-categories, exceptions, sub-exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions… save for one. And it is this: whatever ends up on the screen, page, or frame, it must be purposeful- it must communicate something of substance, or at least act as a route to substance, of re-framing substance. And the measure of ‘substance’ is Man at his apex. I am … Continue reading →

“Mattress Girl” Emma Sulkowicz Goes Off The Deep End

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"Mattress Girl" Emma Sulkowicz is now THE dominant narrative, rather than 'a' victim.

Image via Wikipedia.

A few days ago, I was Googling around to find some information on the Emma Sulkowicz (“Mattress Girl”) rape case when I realized that the first result referred to a sex video. Now, I already thought she was psychotic, and entitled, and selfish, and that- despite the overwhelming evidence of Paul Nungesser’s innocence- I’d always be in the liberal minority for such views. Yet if I had even a phantom of a doubt re: Mattress Girl’s inner troubles, it was lifted when she decided to make this video and pass it off as something other than what it is: a re-renewal of the attention she’s craved for well over a year now, waning ever since the two students graduated and went separate ways.

Officially, I guess, the video is called an “art work,” but let’s be real. It’s nothing more than a sex tape. Adding a little history to it- as well as a pinch of psychosis- does nothing to change the fundamentals of what happens when you sit down, push a button, and wait for the pixels to light up. In short, look at it for what’s on screen rather than what you wish to project upon it- what isn’t there. There are 4 frames to show a series of sex acts (some of them violent) filmed from 4 different angles, with a French title- Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol– meant to obscure the hollowness of the actual ‘film’. It’s ridiculous that I even have to argue such a point, but this is little more than a reflection of what people deem to be serious.

It gets worse. The video was time-stamped 8/12/2012 (the date of the alleged rape) to ‘deepen’ her original claims, as well as further needle Paul Nungesser. Of course, given that Nungesser has a lawsuit pending for his gross mis-treatment, the date was promptly removed during a several-hour stretch that Sulkowicz claims was a hacking attack on her website. More likely, however, Sulkowicz wanted to retain whatever bit of plausible deniability that she has left. For the facts of the case have not changed:

1. Paul Nungesser was accused of rape many months after the alleged incident.

2. Nungesser and Sulkowicz continued to exchange pleasantries- including flirtations- into the winter.

3. The accusation came AFTER enough months had passed to ‘establish’ an odd case re: Nungesser’s character. “Josie” claimed he tried to kiss and grope her without permission– then sent fun, sexual e-mails to him later, mirroring Sulkwociz’s own behavior. “Natalie” more or less claimed he was a bad boyfriend rather than abusive– yet had just come out of an abusive relationship, herself, was suffering from depression, and still agreed to meet up/make plans after their breakup.

4. Columbia investigates Nungesser and finds nothing- even though an investigator admitted to really wanting to find fault with him, only to conclude that Sulkowicz was lying.

5. The police might have investigated, but Sulkowicz declined due to the emotional battery … Continue reading →