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Archive for December, 2016

“In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.

The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.

The mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima faciedigital’, drawing parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain

Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software. The landmark event that launched what is now broadly called ‘cognitive science’ was the publication of Language and Communication(1951) by the psychologist George Miller. Miller proposed that the mental world could be studied rigorously using concepts from information theory, computation and linguistics.

This kind of thinking was taken to its ultimate expression in the short book The Computer and the Brain (1958), in which the mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima facie digital’. Although he acknowledged that little was actually known about the role the brain played in human reasoning and memory, he drew parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain.

Propelled by subsequent advances in both computer technology and brain research, an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to understand human intelligence gradually developed, firmly rooted in the idea that humans are, like computers, information processors. This effort now involves thousands of researchers, consumes billions of dollars in funding, and has generated a vast literature consisting of both technical and mainstream articles and books. Ray Kurzweil’s book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed(2013), exemplifies this perspective, speculating about the ‘algorithms’ of the brain, how the brain ‘processes data’, and even how it superficially resembles integrated circuits in its structure.

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.”

– Robert Epstein, “The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer,” Aeon. December 31, 2016.

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December 31, 2016: a new episode of The Anatomy Lesson at 11pm EST on CFRC 101.9fm. An annual tradition – the last episode of the year sticks to the roots of this show as closely as I can. Featuring Love of Life Orchestra,  Current 93, Sara Ayers, Plus Instruments, The The, Invisible College, 23 Skidoo, Nocturnal Emissions, Ryuichi Sakamto, This Heat and We Be Echo.  Check out the whole setlist below, tune in at 101.9 on your FM dial, stream at http://audio.cfrc.ca:8000/listen.pls or download the finished show at cfrc.ca or on mixcloud here.

Current 93 – “The Red Face of God” The Red Face of God (1988)
We Be Echo – “Kick” Ceza Evi (1983)
Plus Instruments – “Paradise” Exile In Paradise (1985, 2013)
Nocturnal Emissions – “Rusting Shells” Shake Those Chains Rattle Those Cages (1985)
This Heat – “Fall of Saigon” Live at Krefeld 1980 (1981)
Invisible College – “Between Wars” Luxury of Horns (1982)
Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Warhead” Riot in Lagos (1983)
23 Skidoo – “Coup” Coup (1983)
The The – “Giant” Soul Mining (1983)
Sara Ayers – “In The Air” Fluorochrome (1985)
Love of Life Orchestra – “Beginning of the Heartbreak/Don’t, Don’t” Extended Niceties (1980)
 

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Joseph Kuwasseg, scenes from the prehistoric earth from 14 print series for Die Urvelt in ihren verschiedenen Bildungsperioden

by Prof. Franz Unger, 1851. Watercolor. 

Landesmuseum Joanneum.  Source.

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“As federal reform legislation stalled, focus shifted to the states, where leaders have come face-to-face with the harsh reality that we are putting too many people behind bars for too long for the wrong reasons…States became the compelling, but quiet, justice reform story of 2016. From Georgia to Minnesota, Maryland to Alaska, the states passed broad, sweeping overhauls to unduly harsh sentencing laws, archaic criminal codes, and inadequate rehabilitation and reentry programming. Over the past five years, the 10 states that most significantly reduced their prison populations saw a more significant decline in crime than those states where imprisonment rates continue to climb.”

– Holly Harris, “Could 2017 be the year for justice reform?CNN. December 29, 2016.

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“If the laments of the critical theorists are to make a comeback, a new book by Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries might help lead it. A group biography of the Frankfurt intellectuals, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School ought to draw attention to a tradition of thought that, while manifestly flawed, feels depressingly relevant.

Jeffries, though, set out to write the book long before Trump’s peculiar ascendance. “After the economic crisis in 2008,” he told me, “books like Karl Marx’s Capital were suddenly best-sellers, and the reason was that people were looking for critiques of contemporary culture. So it seemed like a good time to dust these guys off and revisit their work.”

Now, having witnessed Brexit and Trump’s presidential campaign, Jeffries is all the more convinced that the Frankfurt School deserves a rereading.

I sat down with him last week to talk about the new book and about what he learned from reentering the Frankfurt orbit.

Sean Illing
What’s the main intellectual contribution of the Frankfurt School in your mind?

Stuart Jeffries
I think the main contribution is their insistence on the power of culture as a political tool, and also the power of the mass media. They examined as closely as anyone how these instruments became politically relevant, and what the consequences of that were.

Sean Illing

And how were they influenced by the rise of fascism in Germany at the time?

Stuart Jeffries

In the 1920s, they were wondering why there was no socialist revolution in a sophisticated and advanced industrialized country like Germany. Why a successful Bolshevik Revolution a couple years before in Russia but not in Germany? They concluded that culture and the use of the media was the primary tool for oppressing the masses without the masses realizing that they’re being oppressed.

This is what they witnessed in Germany, and it became the guiding insight of their work and the main source of their relevance.

Sean Illing

And yet they fell into irrelevance anyhow — why?

Stuart Jeffries

They became irrelevant because people didn’t worry too much about culture — they were too comfortable to realize there was a problem. “Culture” is a difficult concept; hard to get your hands around it.

Sean Illing

Theodor Adorno, one of the faces of the Frankfurt School, coined the phrase “culture industry.” What did he mean?

Stuart Jeffries

Well, he was distinguishing art from culture. Art is something that’s elevating and challenges the existing order, whereas culture is precisely the opposite. Culture, or the culture industry, uses art in a conservative way, which is to say it uses art to uphold the existing order.

So the culture industry peddles an ideology that supports the prevailing power structure — in the case of America, that ideology was consumerism.

Sean Illing
What changed for Adorno and the other critical theorists when they landed in America? Why did they see American culture as ripe for fascism?

Stuart Jeffries
Well, Adorno came to the states and was appalled by the culture industry; it was an utter scandal in his mind. He saw the culture industry controlling the minds of Americans in much the same way Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, controlled the minds of Germans.

So Adorno and the other critical theorists saw culture as inherently totalitarian, and this was particularly true in America. This, of course, didn’t go over well with the public. You have these Germans coming to your country with their old attitudes and their defense of bourgeois art, and they’re critical of every aspect of American culture and regard it as an artistic wasteland.

Americans struggled with this idea that popular culture, their popular culture, could be subversive in this way. And, to be fair, many of the critical theorists didn’t get American culture, and so they undoubtedly overreached at times.

Sean Illing
What was so unique about the culture industry in America? Adorno seemed to think it was a prop for totalitarian capitalism, and that it was all the more insidious because it was more camouflaged than it was in Germany.

Stuart Jeffries
That’s right. He thought it was so insidious because it didn’t appear to have an ideological message; it was never self-consciously ideological in the way that German propaganda was. It wasn’t that America was equivalent to Germany or that American propaganda was equivalently awful; rather, it was that America’s culture industry smuggled its consumerist ethos into its art with a similar goal of producing conformity of thought and behavior.

Having just fled Germany, Adorno saw this as a precursor to something like fascism.

Sean Illing
The goal of German propaganda at the time was obvious, but what was the goal of American propaganda? To manufacture consent by way of mass distraction?

Stuart Jeffries
Manufacturing distraction is exactly what it is. If you read Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, you see him struggling with this problem. He sees in 1964 that everyone is getting too comfortable to revolt against oppression of any kind. People are distracted by the sexual revolution, by popular music, by virtually every aspect of mass culture.

As you can see, it’s really hard to sympathize with these guys, because they’re bringing such a sweeping critique that it’s, frankly, hard to believe. But I’m convinced there’s some truth in it.

Sean Illing
I have to say, one thing I appreciate about the critical theorists was their willingness to identify totalitarian tendencies on the left and the right. They recognized that ideological single-mindedness was the real danger.

Stuart Jeffries
They were true critics in that sense, and that resonated with me as well. I used to be involved in the Communist Party, and very often the “left fascism” that Habermas, one of the more famous Frankfurt scholars, described is what I saw — the shutting down of debate in particular.

While they incited hatred on both sides of the aisle, you have to admire their intellectual consistency.

Sean Illing
Let’s pivot to the present. Why did you write this book about the Frankfurt School now? It seems strangely relevant given what’s happening in our politics at the moment, but obviously you undertook this project a few years ago when things were quite different.

Stuart Jeffries
After the economic crisis in 2008, books like Karl Marx’s Capital were suddenly best-sellers, and the reason was that people were looking for critiques of contemporary culture. So it seemed like a good time to dust these guys off and revisit their work.

And then someone like Trump comes along and proves it even further.

Sean Illing
I think a lot of people, myself included, are fumbling for constructive ways to think about what’s happening right now, both politically and culturally. I’ve watched Trump bulldoze his way to the presidency for over a year now, and I still can’t quite believe it.

What does our present reality look like through the prism of critical theory?

Stuart Jeffries
There’s a lot of similar factors operating in the UK, where I live, and in America. You see this with Brexit and with Trump. There’s a resurgence of racism and a kind of contempt for liberal democracy.

From the perspective of critical theory, Trump is clearly a product of a mass media age. The way he speaks and lies and bombards voters — this is a way of controlling people, especially people who don’t have a sense of history. I saw the same thing in the months leading up the Brexit vote earlier this year: the lying, the fearmongering, the hysteria.

Mass media allows for a kind of collective hypnosis, and to some extent that is what we’re seeing.

Sean Illing
I’ve thought long and hard about what Trump says about our culture — its decadence, its thoughtlessness. But this seems too easy, too shallow. I feel like I’m missing something deeper or perhaps more concrete.

Stuart Jeffries
That’s interesting. I had a friend involved in Democratic politics in Pennsylvania this year, and he kept asking people if they were going to vote for Hillary, and they’d often say, “No, I can’t do it — God will decide.” I find that sense of fatalism and that failure to take one’s responsibility seriously terrifying. And yet it’s been brought to life in the most vivid way imaginable, and I have to hope that the consequences of this will force people to reengage.”

– Sean Illing & Stuart Jeffries, “If you want to understand the age of Trump, you need to read the Frankfurt School,VOX. December 27, 2016

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“Merry Christmas for the Quads,” Toronto Star. December 27, 1935. Page 19.

“The Mahaney quadruplets of St. John, N. B., left to right, Edith Mae, Edna Louise, John Douglas and Lyda Christine, as they read a telegram saying a cash gift was on the way from guardians of the Dionne quintuplets to assure them a happy Christmas”

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“Vera Rubin, one of the most important astronomers of the 20th century, died on December 25th in Princeton, NJ at age 88. She played a seminal role in our understanding of dark matter, and should have been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics—but never was.

Born in 1928 and raised in Washington DC, Rubin was fascinated with the night sky from an early age. “There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night,” she said in an American Institute of Physics oral interview in 1989. Rubin always knew she’d be an astronomer. She consumed books about space, and chose to attend Vassar College after reading the work of Maria Mitchell, a 19th century astronomy professor at Vassar and the first American female astronomer. (“Shame on you,” Rubin told her interviewer on finding that he hadn’t heard of Mitchell). Rubin earned her Master’s at Cornell, her Ph.D at Georgetown, and went on to study at the Carnegie Institute in Washington alongside astronomer Kent Ford.

Rubin dealt with a lot of shit as a female astronomer. A science teacher initially told her to stay away from the field, she recalled in an interview. After calling her thesis “sloppy,” one of her Cornell advisers said that since she was pregnant, he could present her work for her at the American Astronomical Society meeting—under his name. “I can go,” she said. Since she was the first female astronomer to use the telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, there were no women’s bathrooms, so she picked a bathroom and taped a paper cutout of a woman to it. When she applied to Princeton University for graduate school, she was told, “Princeton does not accept women,” according to the Washington Post.

But still, Rubin managed to be a role model and helpful mentor for those who needed help. “I remember in the 1980’s as a young Assistant Professor at Yale, when I needed to obtain some figures for a book I was writing on dark matter, contacting her out of the blue, and receiving warm encouragement, and the figures, a few days later,” wrote Lawrence M. Krauss in a Scientific American guest blog. And with every card stacked against her, she still kicked major ass. She made observations of galaxies now used as for proof for dark matter’s existence.

Rubin didn’t come up with the dark matter idea; Fritz Zwicky coined the term in 1933 as a theory to explain why the Coma Cluster of galaxies didn’t blow apart, according to an American Museum of Natural History profile. Rubin instead provided compelling evidence for its existence. The laws of physics say that stuff in galaxies should spin slower further from the galactic center. Rubin’s observations instead showed that galaxies spun at the same speed throughout, meaning that there must be some mass hidden from our telescopes. “The conclusion is inescapable that non-luminous matter exists beyond the optical galaxy,” she wrote in her 1980 paper. Today, we know that dark matter comprises around four-fifths of the universe’s matter.

Keeping in line with all the other crap she dealt with, Rubin died before she had been awarded the Nobel Prize—which, to be clear, she should definitely have won.”

– Ryan F. Mandelbaum, “The Woman Who Convinced Us That Dark Matter Existed Was Never Awarded a Nobel Prize,” Gizmodo. December 27, 2016.

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