Friday, November 30, 2012

News Kneejerk: MoMA Sez "Games = Art."

Yesterday the MoMA announced that it is adding the following titles to its collection:

Another World
SimCity 2000
The Sims
Katamari Damacy
EVE Online
Dwarf Fortress

And this is only the beginning. If you clicked the link, you'll have surely noticed games like Pong, Asteroids, Chrono Trigger, and Minecraft on the MoMA's wish list.

Oh, good; here we go again. Video games: art?


I enjoy playing video games as much as the next hip twentysomething jerkoff, but this news from Manhattan somehow doesn't sit well with me. I've been trying all day to sort out why.

I've noticed, for one thing, that the more cultural legitimacy games acquire, the less interesting they become to me. This might be a personal problem as much as anything; the griping of an O.G. annoyed that the band that used to belong exclusively to him and his friends suddenly belongs to everyone.

Maybe there's more to it than that.

Nintendo Power -- a magazine whose reporting focused on reviews and strategy guides -- recently went under after 24 years. Nostalgic older players can be heard muttering to themselves about "the end of an age" as they click on the next Kotaku link.

Meanwhile: earlier this year, the Onion A.V. Club unveiled a spin-off site called The Gameological Society, which focuses its reporting on what video games mean. It's some relatively highbrow stuff, reading like some Artforum contributor's examination of Secret of Mana or Metroid. More than once I've stopped reading an article halfway through, thinking GOOD GOD, IT'S A FREAKING VIDEO GAME. GET OVER IT.

Yeah, yeah -- this from somebody who's written a veritable book on Final Fantasy. Call me inconsistent.

(However: two years after playing through the whole freaking Final Fantasy series, one through thirteen, and writing about it, I feel a lot differently about Final Fantasy.)

Truth is -- and I've said before -- video games have become a guilty pleasure for me. An hour spent plunking virtual credits into Revenge of Death-Adder on MAME is an hour I'm not writing, going outside, reading 19th century novels or Greek philosophers, learning calculus, looking at the stars, having sex, doing a crossword puzzle with a friend, et cetera., et cetera.

It's too passive. Which is fine -- were it not for the pet pleasures society affords us, those of us on the lower rungs would have burned down the banks and government offices years ago. Lord knows an hour or two with a fighting game or shmup after work has more than once been the difference between Functional Patrick and Sociopathic Patrick.

But art -- especially the sort proclaiming itself modern -- is not supposed to be passive.

Yeah, yeah -- video games are interactive, you say. That's not what I mean. Mario moves and jumps when you hit the buttons, but it's still so damned easy. That's the point; toys aren't meant to be hard. Games are meant to be played and won, ideally yielding their player as much entertainment and as little frustration as possible. For the most part they are psychic comfort food.

I've always been under the assumption that modern art's ideals are to provoke and challenge its viewers. To upend their assumptions and beliefs about the world in which they live; to force a reevaluation of their values and perspectives. Modern art is not easy. It's best when it drives you crazy because you can't easily resolve it, can't figure out how it makes you feel, can't "win" at it.

Tōru Iwatani made a very neat game once (Pac-Man) and is evidently a career lecturer these days, but I wonder if he has as many interesting things to say about his medium and the world as Kandinsky, Miró, or fuck, even Warhol?

Perhaps I am being unfair?

Maybe. But these might be questions we want to ask, distinctions we want to make when selecting which cultural artifacts have more weight and lasting value than others; which notes in the general cacophony allow the listener to transcend and arrange the rest in a more melodious order.


While typing the last paragraph, it occurred to me that the MoMA's very decision to incorporate games in its collection might be construed as a challenge. The choice itself was made to provoke thought, discussion, and argument.

Video games are not longer just hobby pieces for kids and geeks. "Subculture" is no longer a term that applies to self-described "gamers." The scene has gone mainstream in a big way. And the values expressed by these games, by the people who design them, and in the lifestyle choices of the people who consume them, are exerting an increasingly heavy influence on society.

I wonder if the MoMA isn't implicitly asking us to consider what the values implied by these developments might be? What is the difference between a pre-gaming culture and a gaming culture?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Space, Outer and Inner (Part II addendum)

Back in Jersey for the weekend -- sitting at my old desk where the window faces west; the waxing gibbous moon is in view, sinking toward the bare trees and power lines. And now I'm thinking that last post came out shallow and incomplete. Reading it back to myself, that line about human potential in hits an especially flat note.

The concept of "human potential" deserves examination. It sounds nice, but is most of the time employed only as a platitude. (My own usage is no exception.)

Comparative planetology is a line of study within astronomy aimed at learning more about the features of planets) particularly those in our own neighborhood) and seeing what their similarities and differences suggest about the general principles of planetary formation and evolution. It's a rich field, especially since the planets of our solar system are (relatively) easier to examine and probe than interstellar objects.

Anyone who paid attention in science class should remember the local planets are each defined by their unique features. Mercury is the densest planet and its surface is marked by craters and compression folds. Venus is distinct for its dense atmosphere and tremendous surface temperatures. Mars is sandy and gusty; Jupiter boasts a gigantic magnetic field and tumultuous clouds. Et cetera, et cetera.

On Earth we observe liquid oceans and organic life.

Through the lens of astronomy, life is a surface feature of this planet. No anthropocentric fallacies would be risked in suggesting it is the defining feature: we can point to ther worlds that probably have oceans of liquid water (Europa, Enceladus, Titan), atmospheres and weather (Venus, Mars, Titan), and geological activity (Io), but so far none of our probes or mechanical eyes have spied any worlds on which organic life is so suffusively visible.

The point is that we, Homo sapiens, are merely a constituent part of a characteristic of the planet on which we live.

Even this type of language betrays a profoundly-rooted fallacy in our accustomed reasoning. "The planet on which we live." It implies that the Earth is only the setting of human life, which is absurd.

Given what light astronomy and the related sciences have shed upon our own world, it becomes exponentially difficult to argue humanity's domination of, or even separation from the Earth. Homo sapiens' ascendance was contingent upon a multitude of factors within the Earth's biosphere, and the biosphere's existence is wholly owed to certain overlapping circumstances in the Earth's (and Solar System's) formation.

Given all we've learned about the evolution of terrestrial life and of our own species, we cannot avoid recognizing that Homo sapiens is a transitional stage. The varieties of organic life are constantly in flux, and "humanity" is no exception.

Moreover, our species is only one element in a dynamic, interrelated, and widely inscrutable biosphere that is likewise in a state of constant change. (Total terrestrial homeostasis is likely an impossibility.)

(Note: this is as much a concern of comparative planetology as Earth science. Either discipline can be viewed as an inversion of the other.)

A phrase like "human potential" is exceedingly singleminded. We must ask ourselves: potential for what? To do what? (And what will we become?)

To venture into space, explore the universe, seed the stars is a popular idea, and an ambitious one. But it's rather farsighted, looking ahead to the shore while ignoring the stones and shallows at the bow.

Sustainability and survival are more immediate concerns. Can humanity successfully adapt to the changes its proliferation has wrought upon Earth's biosphere?

At any rate: when we discuss "human potential" we must try to keep our arguments in the realm of practicality. Art, science, technology, and high standards of living are all nice things, but they're rather beside the point when we look at Homo sapiens without the tint of anthropocentric bias. "Where are we going?" is a good question, but it can't be answered until we solve the riddle of "how will we ensure the species' long-term survival?"

Touching upon these topics, we might take a lesson from the history of astronomy and astrophysics. The most renowned figures of these fields were people who, in the course of their inquiries, found that the facts pointed them towards disturbing conclusions. They are to be admired not only for their intellectual powers, but for their courage in following their findings into frightening and forbidden places.

Remember that Galileo, the father of modern astronomy, found himself tried by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy. His professing the veracity of the heliocentric model went contrary to all conventional wisdom, traditional thought, and religious dogma. It was more than a taboo, more than just a disturbing thought -- it threatened to topple humankind from its special (imagined) position in the cosmos.

But Galileo's claims were correct. His detractors are today rightfully viewed as backwards-thinking dogmatists.

Any serious assessment of humanity, civilization, and the problems of their tenability must be made with the same discipline, resolve, and courage as a Galileo. (Or a Darwin. Or an Einstein.)

Though we are more or less a surface feature of our planet, we can control our activities -- to a certain extent. (Perhaps we can't, in which case it is helpful to believe we can.)

Human behavior continues to be largely influenced by hold assumptions about the species' origins and position within the cosmic order. How can this state of things be changed? How can human behavior be modified to better correspond with our changed (read: improved) perception of the facts? And what changes would we see?

These questions would be better posed and much better answered by more learned and intelligent people than me. But we owe it to ourselves to make an honest attempt to ask and try to answer such questions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Space, Outer and Inner (Part II)

I think I'll be taking a short break from blogging so I can turn my undivided (or rather less divided) attention towards a couple of heavier items on my agenda. (I need to edit a short novel and prep it for pimping. A novella requires editing and fact checking. Etc. Etc.) In a perfect world I would have enough time to simultaneously work on short and long-term projects, but this is no perfect world.

In the meantime, I will be updating the comics page every week for a month or two, so don't expect me to disappear. I'll slap the strips up here and they will double as blog posts, because I'm allowed to do that.

Now. About a year and a half ago I threw together a post about why astronomy is a useful and beautiful thing, but never concluded it and so left it dangling as a "Part I." Since I dislike leaving projects unfinished, and since I've been going out to hunt for Messier objects lately (the Crab Nebula and Triangulum Galaxy still elude my lens), now seems as good a time as any to tie up this year-old loose end.

I'm looking at the original half-baked post again and thinking I remember where I wanted to go with it -- but well, we'll see. A thought dropped sixteen months ago probably won't be quite the same when it's picked back up.

Anyway: today we begin with the grand Western intellectual tradition of arguing with shit Plato said. From the Republic:

And now, Socrates, as you rebuked the vulgar manner in which I praised astronomy before, my praise shall be given in your own spirit. For every one, as I think, must see that astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.

Every one but myself, I said; to every one else this may be clear, but not to me.

And what then would you say?

I should rather say that those who elevate astronomy into philosophy appear to me to make us look downwards and not upwards.

What do you mean? he asked.

You, I replied, have in your mind a truly sublime conception of our knowledge of the things above. And I dare say that if a person were to throw his head back and study the fretted ceiling, you would still think that his mind was the percipient, and not his eyes. And you are very likely right, and I may be a simpleton: but, in my opinion, that knowledge only which is of being and of the unseen can make the soul look upwards, and whether a man gapes at the heavens or blinks on the ground, seeking to learn some particular of sense, I would deny that he can learn, for nothing of that sort is matter of science; his soul is looking downwards, not upwards, whether his way to knowledge is by water or by land, whether he floats, or only lies on his back.

I acknowledge, he said, the justice of your rebuke. Still, I should like to ascertain how astronomy can be learned in any manner more conducive to that knowledge of which we are speaking?

I will tell you, I said: The starry heaven which we behold is wrought upon a visible ground, and therefore, although the fairest and most perfect of visible things, must necessarily be deemed inferior far to the true motions of absolute swiftness and absolute slowness, which are relative to each other, and carry with them that which is contained in them, in the true number and in every true figure. Now, these are to be apprehended by reason and intelligence, but not by sight.

True, he replied.

The spangled heavens should be used as a pattern and with a view to that higher knowledge; their beauty is like the beauty of figures or pictures excellently wrought by the hand of Daedalus, or some other great artist, which we may chance to behold; any geometrician who saw them would appreciate the exquisiteness of their workmanship, but he would never dream of thinking that in them he could find the true equal or the true double, or the truth of any other proportion.

No, he replied, such an idea would be ridiculous.

And will not a true astronomer have the same feeling when he looks at the movements of the stars? Will he not think that heaven and the things in heaven are framed by the Creator of them in the most perfect manner? But he will never imagine that the proportions of night and day, or of both to the month, or of the month to the year, or of the stars to these and to one another, and any other things that are material and visible can also be eternal and subject to no deviation -- that would be absurd; and it is equally absurd to take so much pains in investigating their exact truth.

I quite agree, though I never thought of this before.

Then, I said, in astronomy, as in geometry, we should employ problems, and let the heavens alone if we would approach the subject in the right way and so make the natural gift of reason to be of any real use.

It's neat to imagine that the most renowned minds of antiquity disdained empiricism. Just thinking about something was more than good enough for them, and infinitely preferable to dirtying their hands with the contents of this filthy reality. This would be why Aristotle (and thus Western science, for many centuries) believed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Until Galileo, we don't know of anyone ever bothering to test it.

The material fact supersedes the thought. And as the physical reality we experience terraforms our intellectual landscape, the extent to which we accurately understand that reality informs the veracity of our idealizations.

Plato underestimates the extent to which the study of the stars can expand human knowledge -- which, of course, is the classical aim of philosophy. After all, astronomy is the egg from which modern science hatched; and in only the last few centuries, the scientific method has yielded such a wealth of hidden facts of our world as to necessitate a thorough reevaluation of two or three millennia’s worth of philosophy. (Do you think Plato would be galled by the irony of being upended by the results of pursuit he deemed “absurd” and unfit for the philosopher?)

As the history of astronomy over the last five hundred years is a veritable trophy rack for science, it also attests to a physical universe that consistently defies our presumptions about it.

For instance:

“The stars and sun revolve around the Earth, which is the center of the universe.” Nope!

“The Earth and other planets move around the sun in circular paths.” Nope!

“The universe is about as big as all the stars we can see.” Nope!

“Light travels through space instantaneously.” Nope!

“The values of time and space are absolute.” Nope!

“The universe is essentially static.” Nope!

“Gravity should put the brakes on cosmic expansion.” Nope!

Homo sapiens (and perhaps a few very closely-related ancestors) are, as far as we can guess, the first and only animals on this planet capable of conducting such enquiries into the machinery of reality. We’ve only gotten decent at deciphering the universe’s blueprints in the last 500 years or so (out of the nearly 200,000-year history of our species), and there is yet unimaginably much beyond our grasp. But we’re moving right along.

It’s rather drolly funny that some of Homo sapiens' mightiest intellectual achievements led directly to the realization of Homo sapiens' cosmic insignificance.

From the very beginning of our species's foray into the domain of “intelligent” life, we’ve just been figuring our shit out as we went along. Everything had to be invented on the fly -- it’s not as though Homo sapiens ever had any prior examples it could follow.

Throughout most of its history, humanity's conception of its place in the cosmos was far from accurate. Our perceptive senses evolved as a means to keep us alive (in a terrestrial environment) long enough to pass on our genes, not to peer into the outer and innermost vistas of reality and speculate on its causes. Jury-rigging the capacity to do the latter with our faculties for the former was just a wonderful accident. (Whether or not such an adaptation is advantageous for the long-term survival of the species remains to be seen.)

The various conceptions of the universe painted by our ancestors vary with time and place, but the overall pictures are fairly similar. The Earth was the fulcrum of the universe, made and kept by gods and spirits with strikingly human characteristics, who interacted and communicated with human beings. Though humanity was unquestionably subordinate to higher powers, the gods representing these forces of nature could be petitioned, placated, and reasoned with by human beings.

Now we know that this is not the case. The universe is vaster and stranger than we can understand, and our stature in it has shrunk considerably in the last few centuries. The "new" cosmos is no longer something on which we can easily impose human characteristics, and we have little to no reason to believe that it has any interest or investment in our continued existence. And it certainly does not communicate with us; every solid fact about its existence about which we can be remotely sure had to be wrestled from it.

(Consider how many of our traditions, institutions, beliefs, prejudices, etc., were born of actions taken, decisions made on the fly based on incomplete information, repeated and repeated long after their initial usefulness had passed, their original intent and context forgotten. “There’s orthodoxy!”)

(Of course, one maddening truism of humanity's lot is that the facts are never all in.)

Today we know the stars in the night sky aren’t just green-screened somewhere behind our existence; our existence is a haphazard collateral product of their existence, and there exist more stars than human beings.

This is the context of all human affairs, and we cannot claim to understand anything when we neglect to put it in its proper context.

The pursuit of astronomy -- and I mean doing more than just looking at Astronomy Picture of the Day; I mean looking at the stars out of habit, keeping track of the movements of the planets and phases of the moon, investing in some optics, learning about the methods and milestones, even crunching some of the numbers for yourself -- will bring the practitioner down to Earth, so to speak.

In fact, a foray into amateur astronomy can often make one feel intolerably small. People looking at the night sky for a while often remark how tiny it makes them feel; going outside with a telescope on every other clear night puts one face to face with this aspect of their situation on a regular basis, making it that much harder to ignore.

This is a useful thing.

Another useful (but somewhat more extreme) exercise would be to look at yourself in the mirror each morning and remind yourself that you’re very close to nothing. Nothing I do matters. Everything I feel and know and possess will be lost. Everything I make and say will be forgotten.

(Recall as well that everyone else in the world is as equally tiny and clueless and lost, and they’re only a quiet, starry night away from being reminded of it.)

Routinely call to mind as well that the Earth formed 4.54 billion years before you came into existence, and will go on existing without you until the dying sun gobbles it up (five billion years from now?),  destroying every last trace of Homo sapiens' existence except for a few burnt-out space probes coasting through eternity.

(Granted, we’re discounting the possibility that humanity gets its shit together and survives long enough to master interstellar travel, but I think we can safely assume the odds are not in its favor. I eagerly invite humanity to please prove me wrong.)

But none of this is new information. You’re certainly aware that this is the truth of our existence, but probably don’t think about it very much. We rather go to lengths to avoid dwelling on it.

I believe that what a person decides to do, when honestly confronting the fact that his life is infinitesimal and all his work in vain (because all human endeavor will finally amount to nothing in time), determines the grade of his character. The existentialists might call it the truest choice he can make.

Even as it humbles us, the knowledge of our place in the cosmos must also encourage. Most of us probably aren't in the habit of conceiving of miracles as infinitesimal occurrences -- but, well, here we are: small creatures of strange and splendid circumstance.

We are marvelous beings with incredible capabilities. Look at us: we’re monkeys that have gone to the moon; apes that figured out how split the atom. We’ve sent flying robots beyond Pluto. We’ve figured out what life is made of and how it works. We’ve peered at photons and galactic clusters. We created the blue-flavored snocone and Beatles records.

Of all the other 187 planets and moons in our neighborhood, none of them have produced anything remotely like us. Of the 851 extrasolar planets we've counted in our galaxy (so far), we guess that only 0.5% are habitable. Peculiarly, astronomy has revealed at once how insignificant and how precious we are.

People preoccupied with the stars are popularly regarded as asocial, but it it is hard not to feel a concerned interest, if not compassion, for one's fellow creatures when his avocations routinely put their situation's tenuity in such sharp focus.

Although it’s miraculous that we’ve been able to come so far and achieve so much, we have nothing assuring us that we’ll go much farther or learn much more. The cosmos has no reason to wish to take care of us.

We must take care of ourselves.

Any world we would choose to build for ourselves that would be worthy of us -- of the best parts of us and our potential -- must be constructed with a mind to our position in the broad scheme of things, and all of its ramifications.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Juicefest 2012

This week, I and a couple of other folks at the "farm" partook in a three-day juice fast (or juice "cleanse," depending on what literature you're reading).

The basic idea is that you're consuming nothing but certain liquids -- water, tea, fruit, and vegetable juice -- for 72 hours. Since this is usually done an exercise in healthful living or self-denial, it's common practice to eschew sugar, caffeine, animal products, nicotine, THC, asprin, etc. On this front I cheated a little by putting honey (animal product) in my rooibos tea and having one (1) cup of black coffee during the evening.

The health benefits of the juice fast are under scrutiny and debate, and its value as a full-system cleanse are almost certainly overstated. On the other hand, some studies seem to suggest that the human body switches into "repair mode" when it's not receiving fresh input.

But I wished to do it solely for the benefit of experience. I wanted to know how it would feel to willingly go without solid food for three days. (Granted, it wasn't a true fast -- I was still getting a decent, though likely not entirely sufficient, supply of nutrients -- but asceticism is a pool probably best waded into.) Consciousness expansion and alteration is an occasional hobby of mine, and popular lore has it that people think uncommon thoughts on empty bellies. This was one I hadn't tried. My hope was that when faced with an energy shortage, my faculties would ration thoughts more carefully, foregoing the old ad jingles, Simpsons quotes, and sexual fantasies, expending the whole of its limited resources on grand and brilliant ideas.

No less appealing was the test of discipline the fast presented. Anyone who's followed my stuff for any length of time must be aware of my on-again-off-again romance with cigarettes; nicotine is a mistress that doesn't take "no" for an answer very gracefully. Moreover, I've lately grappled with the fear that I'm not productive enough as a writer, and that a lack of gumption is to blame rather than any external circumstances. Forcing myself to go three days without eating -- and proving to myself that it was something I could will myself through -- would, I hoped, generate a focus and momentum I could carry with me in the days afterward.

It wasn't easy. Well, not for me, anyway. One of the three of us had already been on a raw fruits and vegetable diet for a couple of weeks and felt fine (even great) all throughout. I'd tried easing into it three or four days before it began by cutting meat, dairy, sugar, and gluten from my diet (in that order), but not receiving any solid biomass for days on end put a tremendous strain on my system. But I did it. Seventy-two hours (actually, probably closer to  seventy-eight) without any solid food.

THE GOOD: There were times I did feel more focused. Smells and colors seemed to become more vivid. If I had every wished for a shakeup in my weekly routine, this was something like a low-magnitude earthquake. I discovered I can go without coffee in the mornings in the morning and during my workday, and I can't remember a moment that I craved cigarettes. I found myself speaking and acting more deliberately: after all, I was on a tight energy budget. And I'd be lying if I claimed to not feel like a self-satisfied bad ass for seeing a project like this all the way through.

THE BAD: I was hungry. HUNGRY -- caps, bold, italic, underscore. Headaches, body aches. Between the bursts of vitality (usually after blending and consuming juice) were periods of rusty-joint lethargy. I experienced mood swings. My patience for people was drastically reduced. I'd wake up two or three times a night and I couldn't stop pissing from all the tea I poured into my stomach to trick it into suspecting a meal might be happening.

THE UGLY: I understand why some vegans treat omnivores with such condescension. It's a craving for self-assurance. There were times I felt compelled to boot up my snootiest available voice and lecture my peers on the benefits of "liquidity" and the evils of solid foods. What, you think I'm jealous of what you're eating? Curry? No thanks. Do you have any idea how unhealthy solids are for you? And bad for the environment? This thin, faintly potato-flavored broth is delicious, and so much easier to digest than your rich, oily, calorie-filled curry. Frankly, I pity you.

(I hope I don't have to tell anyone I'm joking.)

THE OTHER: When you're hungry, you are more exclusive in your concerns than when you're fed. That was my experience, anyhow. I'd go on Twitter and read all the retweeted trenchant gibberish dispatches from the most popular dada/nihilist Twitterati and think who gives a shit? I'd look at video game blogs and think who gives a shit? Facebook? YouTube? The A.V. Club? Fuck it all, empty static, fuck it all. I'd try playing video games -- Earthworm Jim, Drill Dozer, and Cave Story -- and find myself unwilling to muster enough interest to play for longer than a few minutes. But for some reason, Bolesław Prus fared much better at eliciting my concentration. Marcus Aurelius did better than Prus; William Carlos Williams better than both. In my state of mind they just seemed a more worthwhile effort.

This morning I broke the fast with a bowl of cereal (cornflakes and granola) with rice milk and an apple. It felt strange. Anyone else who has ever stopped smoking for a few months and then picked it back up again will have some understanding of what it was like. Chewing and swallowing wasn't nearly what I hoped or thought it would be. The act itself seemed unseemly and I felt vaguely guilty for it. The second cigarette is always a bit better; so was the peanut butter and banana sandwich I had for lunch. The third cigarette is wonderful, and I suspect the chicken cheesesteak I plan to order in an hour or two will be just so.

 I certainly couldn't do another juice fast right away, but I wouldn't totally rule it out for the foreseeable future. We'll see how I feel after a few more days of solid food, but I may consider making a regular practice of a once-a-week twelve-hour juice and water fast. While any health benefits might well be owed to the placebo effect, the focus and determination brought on by an empty stomach are definitely not.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Basis of Faith in Art

To supplement last week's dispatch, I thought I'd slap an excerpt from William Carlos Williams' "The Basis of Faith in Art" up on here. But since I can't find an etext and the thing is hard to chop up (like much of Williams' poetry, it doesn't trace out an easy A to Z argument and lends itself poorly to blurbs), I went ahead and transcribed the whole damn thing out of his Selected Essays. Hopefully there aren't too many typos.

Thought to have been written around 1937, the piece depicts an impassioned dialogue between the poet and his architect brother about art -- what it is, what it does, who it's for. It can be hard to follow, but I can promise an interesting and fun (if not rewarding) read if you can spare the time and patience.

The Basis of Faith in Art
William Carlos Williams

My brother, who is an architect, told me recently that his mind had been aflame over the problems of construction today more than ever before. Upon what she we base our judgments? he said to me almost in despair. You are a writer, he said, I'd like to know how you work. What do you find to be of importance? We must both be looking for more or less the same things. Tell me how you go about it.

I just sit down and write.

It must be more conscious than that. You must have some basis for acceptance of a word, a phrasea general character of composition. I, for instance, after a lifetime of practice, feel that I'm just beginning to sense a few of the underlying movements, call them rules, governing my profession and that this talk of "old" and "modern" has very little to do with the matter.

That's a large piece of woods, though, to get lost in.

The basis is honesty in construction, that you can do certain things with the material and other things you cannot do. Therein lie all the answers.

Yes, if you get it down to a bare hunk of rock, a few tree-length timbers, a bucket of rubble and cement and a bundle of glass. But what are you going to do with them? Isn't that more to the point?

Build a house. A few years ago we began to get the first models and then gradually the local examples of the modernistic dwellings as originated in France and Germany, the so-called "functional" dwelling. This, we were told, is the future. Everything else is old hat. At last architecture has been freed from its trammels. This is the new.

It was intended to be a house though, wasn't it?

Yes, a house; rooms, doors, windows....

Electricity, modern plumbing, refrigeration, autos, twin beds....just to emphasize the modern phase.

And very good houses they are too, some of themby Le Corbusier and the rest. But I always wondered about certain of their structural features, their narrow moldings, etc. Look at them today. They are falling apart. Look. I've been designing a display window for a large manufacturer down South. I've been almost crazy with it. I tried the engineers, the glass makers, everybody, on the proper thickness of the pane, the maximum area and safety factors, the proper anchoring of it. They all say it can't be done. But I've got to do it. Then one day last week, right in the middle of my troubles, I walked out of the office and hadn't gone three blocks when I ran plump into such a window as I had been working on, installed, right in front of me. I couldn't believe my eyes so I went up and put my thumb against the glass and pressed! The whole thing shook as if an earthquake had struck it and almost exploded in my face on the rebound. Such a thing can't stand. It wobbled back and forth even under that slight pressure. That's not architecture.

So we talked along.

On the other hand, he said, look at the new So-and-So building they want to put up in Washington. As if we hadn't enough stone columns there already, X's idea is to take such and such a perfect example of the Greekhe doesn't even bother to design anythingand tell them to large-scale it in everywhere. I can't do anything better than that, he says, why even try?

The spirit of Phidias, eh?without Phidias.

Tell me, continued my brother earnestly, what about writing? I'm tremendously interested.

You know how I started to write, I said. I didn't know what I was doing but I knew what I wanted to do.

What, for instance?

I wanted to protest against the blackguardy and beauty of the world, my world.

So you took to poetry.

The only way I could find was poetryand prose to a lesser extent. So I gradually began to learn, very slowly. If I remember rightly it was more a matter of how I could cling to what I had and not relinquish it in the face of tradition than anything else.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Numbers, Novels, and Other Objects of Towering Significance: A Series of Tangents

Today we will not discuss politics. Why don't we talk about math and books instead?

A few days ago I advanced from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4 in my secondhand calculus textbook. When given problems involving related rates and implicit differentation, I can now produce the correct answers, which is incredible to me. Only a year ago it would have been unthinkable. (Have I mentioned before that I only passed precalc with a D- and graduated high school because the teacher felt sorry for me? I think I probably have.)

So the mathematics kick continues. When I'm not cobbling together a working knowledge of all the algebra I deliberately ignored throughout high school, I'm often reading about mathematics instead. These are unusual times indeed.

Over the weekend a piece by Eugene Wigner ("The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences") pointed me towards a Bertrand Russel essay ("The Study of Mathematics," which I heartily recommend to educators and closeted mathphile kindreds alike) that sent flames running along a pair of fuses in my cortex.

First of all, Russel begins with:

In regard to every form of human activity it is necessary that the question should be asked from time to time, What is its purpose and ideal? In what way does it contribute to the beauty of human existence?

Sound advice, even (or especially?) on the personal scale. "Do I maintain my habits and beliefs out of reasoned conviction or behavioral inertia?"

So my first impulse was to put Russel's question to a some folks on a gaming forum, replacing "it" with "video games." Some responses were genuinely compelling -- but I realized after the fact that there are only a few ways of putting such a question to gamers without coming across as though you're trying to start an argument, and I chose none of them.

Then I looked away from my special six-button Chun-Li joypad and noticed the rough draft of a new short novel lying on my desk, still unedited. My asking myself the next question was inevitable.

What is the novel's purpose and ideal? In what way does it contribute to the beauty of human existence?

And: what, if anything, makes it indispensable to us?

First: I don't accept "entertainment" as an answer, although a good book must necessarily be engaging. There must be some kind of utility value to fiction. It must be able to make an argument for its worth on its own behalf, and one with more weight than "well, I'm amusing" or "because I'm beautiful/because I'm art." (The first statement is pablum, the second means nothing.)

On this planet we have millions of books consisting entirely of information about things that didn't actually happen, and words that were never said by people who never existed. Many such books form a mandatory constituent of a student's education, from primary school to university. I certainly hope there's a reason for this, and that we remember what it is.

(Mr. Russell grumbles about pedantic math teachers dissuading students from discovering the beauty of pure mathematics for themselves. I'm just as concerned when I hear students or former students complaining about being unable to enjoy The Great Gatsby -- a valuable novel that should be virtually impossible not to enjoy -- because of the way the instructor presented it.)

(I hope to god we know there are better reasons for teaching literature than to improve vocabulary and reading comprehension.)

The library that's the setting and focus of my day job hosts a modest a fiction section. The contents of these shelves don't get much love from the collection stewards, least of all me. I've been assigned the task of culling expendable books to make room for an influx of about 250 linear feet of material (blah blah blah job) and so far the majority of Goodwill fodder has come from the fiction shelves.

The consensus among the library's decision-makers is that a fiction section is a fine thing for our library to have, provided it is small and assigned less priority than anything else on the shelves, including the decorative little plants. Meanwhile, we'll put just about any book on spirituality or theology on the shelves (remember that I am employed at a facility associated with the Religious Society of Friends), provided its author isn't some self-published whackjob. For a novel to be absolutely safe from deaccessioning, it needs to have been written by an author found in college-required texts or a Pulitzer/Nobel prize winner.

But this is a value judgement informed by the policies of an institutional collection. After all, we have limited shelf space and the material on display should reflect the establishment and its values. Still -- I was initially taken aback by the committee's willingness to part with the novels in the collection before anything else. (This was, however, before I noticed that most of the stuff in the fiction section isn't exactly high-caliber. On a related note, I occasionally wonder if the contempt I feel for books counted in the "popular women's fiction" set is actually warranted. Maybe I'd find a specimen I liked if I could just check the urge to fling the book across the room after reading two pages.)

Meanwhile, I've been starting to notice that the majority of my friends who habitually read for pleasure are usually sitting down with nonfiction rather than novels. Hell, I've been mostly reading nonfiction for the last year or so.

A member of the library committee once offhandedly told me he never reads fiction. Not in decades.

And that chat brought to mind something I'd read some months before: a person explaining why he'd stopped reading novels and exclusively reads philosophy texts. Fiction doesn't go far enough, he says. Philosophy isn't just pithy; it is pure. In literature, the royal perfection of raw philosophic principle is diluted and muddled by the mundane exigencies of narrative.

And that's the second fuse. Russel again:

Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible; but the world of pure reason knows no compromise, no practical limitations, no barrier to the creative activity embodying in splendid edifices the passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work springs. Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.

And that's just it. Brilliantly and probably unintentionally, Russel implies the value of art even as he asserts the value of mathematics.

Mathematics and human experience don't occur in the same world. The study of mathematics, logic, philosophy, etc. might temporarily vault the human practitioner into a loftier realm (metaphorically speaking), but he's still stuck on planet Earth.

Mathematics, our conduit to Russel's world of pure reason, is damn near absolutely consistent and infallible. That's the beauty of it. I wouldn't be the first person to point out that 1 + 1 = 2 is practically a creed attesting to the existence of order in this world.

"One," "two," and the relationship between them only exists in the perfect, imaginary realm of pure mathematics. They don't live here with us.

Objects and quantities in the physical universe we inhabit aren't as simple. They're harder to parse. They're more elusive. A human being's sensory perception of reality doesn't always reflect the physical fact of reality. The individual's subjective experience of reality leads to disagreement and confusion regarding the contents of reality. To the physcial contents of the world we've added abstractions like "freedom," "love," "justice," "hope," "beauty," "meaning," etc., and assigned them tremendous importance without really taking the time reach a consensus what they are and what they mean. We can hardly concur on what apparently blitheringly obvious concepts like "good" and "bad" really mean, much less decide how these labels should be apportioned.

(Related, from Constance Reid:

Actually modern mathematicians have a considerable respect for the obvious. They have found that quite often what appears obvious is not at all; in fact, quite often it is not even true. They have also found that even when it is true, it is often almost impossible to prove that it is true. )

Mathematics and logic operate -- and they operate unreasonably well -- because they work in a system with clearly defined objects and rules. No such rules exist for subjective human experience.

Philosophy, logic, and mathematics have yet to conclusively solve humanity and the world. The qualitative experience of human existence has, of yet, resisted quantification.

In this life there is always ambiguity and uncertainty. And on the basis of this fact rests the continent where a search for the real value of art and of the novel should begin.

Literature is, like economics, a dismal science. We can create and read it as study of something about which we can guess and learn, but staunchly resists systematization: subjective human experience. If the principles along which human life acts are the stuff of philosophy, the novel makes an excellent petri dish in which we can observe what happens, how well they work, and what changes when our Ideas (in the Platonic sense) descend from the ethereal to the material.

We teach The Great Gatsby to instruct students on the meaning of America -- a thing that can't be quantified, that doesn't exist in any material sense. We teach Catcher in the Rye as a lesson about adolescence -- a biological/psychological/social state that can be characterized in a litany of quantitative terms that somehow seem to exclude important information in spite of their thoroughness. We teach Lord of the Flies to instruct students about human nature and society without compelling neophytes to wade through millennia of unresolved academic squabbling. We teach Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman because there are things in the dirty obscurity of subjective human experience that affect us profoundly, though most of us are as powerless to identify them as to articulate why and how they stir us.

The products of mankind's excursions into the world of pure reason -- math, logic, philosophy -- are our best hope for creating a better world for ourselves. But art is what can best teach us about who we are now and the world we're stuck for the time being.

And it is my partisan opinion that the novel, more than any other art, has addressed these things the most thoroughly and with the most maturity. (But this is a line of thought whose full pursuit would carry us much farther than the confines of a half-baked blog post.)

This fact that may well change as technology transforms the way information is created, transferred, and consumed. But I do believe the novel has value and potential that's far from being totally tapped -- despite what the existence of books like 50 Shades of Grey and Loving the Band might suggest to the contrary.

(Regarding my habit of writing novels, I suppose all this implies that I have a lot to which I must live up if I hope to assert the worth of what I do.)