DFW says, perhaps on artspeak

29 Jul

We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication.

It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes… If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them.

As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius — which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

– David Foster Wallace, The Believer

DFW says

28 Jul

…political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying…

How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.

Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff about our current president [in 2003], his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration.

Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up. But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me — there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.

– David Foster Wallace, The Believer

waking up

25 Apr

Someone forwarded me a fascinating article about the impact of being aware of the emotions of others: What It’s Like to ‘Wake Up’ From Autism After Magnetic Stimulation.

“Though he wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 40, John Elder Robison felt isolated and disconnected throughout his entire youth and early adulthood. But in 2008, at 50, he took part in what became a three-year research project looking at brain function in individuals with autism spectrum disorders and exploring the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to help them.”

So what exactly happened when you first stated noticing emotional cues?

When I got to work I walked into the waiting room, as I usually do, and I looked at everyone and there was this flood of emotion. I could see it all: They were scared and anxious and eager, and never in my life had I seen something like that. I had to step out of the room because I didn’t know how to cope. It felt like ESP. Maybe in the past I used the logical part of my brain to look at people around me and carefully analyze. I figured out situations using logic. So I had that powerful ability but now the screen of emotion was turned on, too.

So it wasn’t the positive outcome you had hoped for?

I’d fantasized about really understanding other people’s emotional world. I imagined a world of sweetness and light — emotions I’d been missing all my life. But when it happened, the reality showed me what a fool I’d been. Now, I could look at a person and sense all their emotions. And most were downers. Maybe they were upset about whether they could afford to fix their car. Maybe they had kids in college and tuition was choking them. Maybe they were jealous or angry. It was enough to make me burst into tears over ordinary auto service-department conversations. I couldn’t talk and I had to go outside. I must have come across as so very weird.

So, in a way, you feel your autism had protected you from the pain in the world?

Yes. And now, I realized, that protective shield was suddenly lost.

Perhaps non-autistic people are so accustomed to this that we don’t feel the impact like Robison. Or at least I’d always assumed that empathy was a good thing. Seeing it from his perspective puts a new spin on it. Maybe we haven’t quite evolved along with the pace of urbanization and globalization. I’d imagine that if we lived in small towns back in the day, empathy was manageable, but being exposed to news from all over the world, feeds from hundreds of contacts, an endless stream of strangers in dense cities… maybe our brains are a bit behind in being able to properly manage the emotional load.


19 Apr

ASCO (wiki)

Julie Nyman

8 Apr

Julie Nyman‘s Shreds of Laughter and Kys


6 Apr

wild as the wind

31 Mar

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29 Mar

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Yoko Ono says

9 Feb

I think it is possible to see a chair as it is. But when you burn the chair, you suddenly realize that the chair in your mind did not burn or disappear. The world of construction seems to be the most tangible, and therefore final. This made me nervous. I started to wonder if it were really so.

Isn’t a construction a beginning of a thing like a seed? Isn’t it a segment of a larger totality, like an elephant’s tail? Isn’t it something just about to emerge – not quite structured – never quite structured… like an unfinished church with a sky ceiling? Therefore, the following works:

…A garden covered with thick marble instead of snow – but like snow, which is to be appreciated only when you uncover the marble coating.

One thousand needles: imagine threading them with a straight thread…

– Yoko Ono, Grapefruit

weekend silliness: ? whazupwitu?

6 Feb

I try to push my students toward experimenting and taking on real issues in the world, and then I see something like this, and I think, well, okay, or you could make something like this.