discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations
about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is
particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling. Because your consciousness has evolved to
choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is
that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles. You will begin to act. Then, once you are already in motion, your
consciousness will be informed of your decision. Thats when your brain generates a story to
explain why you chose to pick up the pen.
A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice. If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.
Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating. I could continue rattling off more facts. By reading this essay, you might learn something. But it probably wouldn’t change how you act. Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.
Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient,
Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.
While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he
had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of
was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.
This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making. It might take him all afternoon to make up
his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an
appointment or the color of his pen.
and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways. Even though his reasoning capacities seemed
perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a
conclusion. As Damasio summarized: “The
defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the
point at which choice making or response selection must occur.”
himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said
“And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”
all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good. Your intellect will invariably fall
short. Only by trusting your emotions
can you decide that one course of action is better than another.
is the value of stories.
who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could
provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in
the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9
/ 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.
“But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page
first-person narrative, they become activists.”
By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways. For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday. I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.
Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man,
she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on
a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see
that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but
today, and even then, that’s not who I
am. I’m actually a very kind, loving,
caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so
that’s the way of life I chose to take. I’m
an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.”
I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that
were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.”
her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole
truth. She refused to let other people
dictate the narrative of her life. “To
be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the
beginning, the middle, and the now.”
The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”
Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world. After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).
said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being
true to their experience hurts readers.
It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you
haven’t been exposed to it.”
Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the
writing. To not feel sorry for me, but
to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.”
The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue.
And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate. Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.
Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.
When we were in college,
my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art
(she was a fan, I was not). In the end,
we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t
even agree what art was. She
double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her
view was much more expansive than my own.
In retrospect, I can admit
that she was right. My view of art was
narrow-minded. If I had to proffer a
definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:
Art is an
intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural
By this standard, the big
images of soup qualify. So do the
I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology. Obviously, I now think that board games can be art. They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.
One drawback to my
newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that
almost any designed object qualifies as art.
For a piece of art to
“fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically
invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it
would be as though it were the first time.
You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.
Actually, I have
read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that. Words that skimmed over my mind as though
each synapse were coated with teflon.
I wasn’t keen on the
experience. Minutes had passed, but,
because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished
nothing. I don’t need to actually understand
a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read
it. Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic
Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning
squirms away from me:
The Optic Wraith
like a swarm of dense
woven from cold inferno
clinging to my palette
like the code from a bleak
my understanding of her
is condoned as general
as a cataleptic prairie
frayed at the core
by brushstrokes of vertigo
As Alexander’s words lure
me along, I lose my grasp. But although
I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six
pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certain know that something inside my
brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.
When I was in college, I
felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.
I was wrong. But I still believe
that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it
to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.
If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is
more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more,
and thereby convey the idea more.
A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the
creator’s intended message.
And, in terms of judging
the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is
For instance, a
chair. Every chair you’ve ever sat in
was designed by somebody. If you
wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with
you. And maybe it’s a very good chair:
comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun
illuminates it in the morning. But that
doesn’t mean it’s good art.
Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork. A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own. Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.”
When we humans make art,
we try to engage the emotions of our audience.
Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or
anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.
And human art is almost always made for a human audience. Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships. We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.
If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip. Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities. Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.
And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience. When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.
But what about octopus
Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years. Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals. Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.
Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA). Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.
Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking. Many types of animals do this. For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.
When we make art, we’re
indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to
appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.
Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses. They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them. And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.
Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience. Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy. Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.
If octopuses weren’t stuck
with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths,
I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we
are. The more we struggle to empathize
with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.
Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid. Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.
Salzman loves to write, and he was
lucky enough to make a career out of it.
But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to
know intimately every sort of character who might populate his
books. Even while writing Lost in
Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other –
Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the
world of Salzman the child. He was
forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of
the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book,
that he succeeded.
The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.
Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters. But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled. In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):
was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal
illness. Although I had given Carlos
tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And “please please please,” she urged in one
of her notes, “give him a different name.”
is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,]
must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books
about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answered, “Not
figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at
juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a
writing class there. If you’d like to
come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”
Salzman knew that he was too ignorant
to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened
himself to the world in order to learn more.
He visited the juvenile detention center. Soon, he began to teach his own writing class
there. He became friends with several
students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a
young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation
in a movie theater.
All writing draws upon empathy. Even to create nonfiction, a writer must
empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to
understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey. And with fiction, unless we expect authors to
populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder
the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would
perceive the world.
Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.
Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fallshort.
But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all. In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:
Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s
mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.
Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the
civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos thatMs. Schutz began her painting.
suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black
suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s
novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed
blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.
In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has
observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit
disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are
possible across racial lines.”
In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives. He allowed his heart to grow. And he, as a person, was changed. When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up. After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.
weren’t monsters, they were people. And
he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize
their shared humanity.
And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world. Because the world is clearly in need of change. And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we
don’t know how to make people happier.
But, actually, we do.
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is
different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting
anything illegal. I mentioned, above,
that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in
your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a
“dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure
will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty
side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law
enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too
high. And jail is not a happy
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes
in the hypothalamuswere run for 24 hours or 48 hours
consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance
Perhaps I should have
warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill
into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to
boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us
feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.
That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain
stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe,
I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly
like needles. But if you display that
same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of
actually shooting up. The men in my
poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word
“needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles
presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.
That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep
brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that
person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone
fall in love.
Far more effective than
any witch’s potion, that. Each time your
quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be
associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long
enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love
Of course, it probably
sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really
send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall
in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between
the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use
as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering
researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is
After about 20 min of such
interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he
was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she
had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested
that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay
orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab,
romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and
the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had
enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr
of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation,
which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence
activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three
research subjects available. They played
a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on
how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions
from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in
question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing
forces at play. A cultural norm for
sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much
as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people
found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal
cortex. When the stimulation increased
the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree,
while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel
any difference. When they were asked
about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the
selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle
with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated
being any the wiser.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in
love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many
men like this. Heath’s contemporaries
include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic
driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into
comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and
Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent
These men may well have
started with the best of intentions. But
in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a
surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an
electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably
make you feel happier. By way of
contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to
feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a
lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still
treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues
are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human
animals are even worse.
[University of Chicago
researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it
encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked
up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her
motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate
chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a
trapped companion. The free rat often
rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more
than delicious food.
Is it possible that these
rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no
chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they
just want to make contact? While the
original study failed to address this question, a different study created a
situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further
interaction. That they still did so
confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is
emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress,
which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave
her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still
knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their
tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of
emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became
insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel
happier. We know enough to be able to
reach into your mind and change it.
A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the
beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was
In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.
might say, “The sky is green.” Well,
personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god. Within the world of The Raven Tower,
after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become
green. If the god is sufficiently
powerful, that is. If the god is too
weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which
means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god. It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.
And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country. But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too. It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).
careless sentence could doom a god.
But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe. And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.
In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith. When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger. But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).
And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle. By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.
haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should. The theological underpinnings are brilliant,
the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my
spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.
Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.
The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all,
that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified. There is little difference between a bird and
a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but
neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.
our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble
human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and
non-human is absolute. Within The
Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that
entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.
people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.
In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek. (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate. I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)
does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was
the optimal tool for the task he set himself.
And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions. Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,”
in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing
simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously
believe a thing to be and not to be.
these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now
know that they are false.
research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible
for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.
An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even
though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute
compliments” in the terminology of set theory).
This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what
allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than
a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free
will. Our brains, which generate
consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.
Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known,
predictable rules. If the matter
composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution,
your future behavior could be predicted.
Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.
it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will. After all, we make decisions. I perceive myself to be choosing the words
that I type.
sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not
have free will. And I assume that most
other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of
seemingly contradictory beliefs.
of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with. Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious
life upon our planet:
consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its
syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of
thinker is also a determinable being.
This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being,
the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.
Raven Tower is a fantasy novel. Within that world, it was reasonable that
there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals. There are also warring gods, magical spells,
and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes
Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.
In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness. If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt. But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish.
will bleed. And writhe. Its body will produce stress hormones. But humans claimed that the fish was not
actually in pain.
They were wrong.
consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.
may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel
case is even more baffling. For the
longest time, science felt the same about human babies. Infants were considered sub-human organisms
that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t
scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks,
hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel
nothing. The babies’ reactions were
considered emotion-free reflexes. As a
result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive
surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia. They only gave them curare, a muscle
relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being
done to them.
the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have
a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying. Today we read about these experiments with
disbelief. One wonders if their pain
response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!
skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any
organism that fails to talk. It is as if
science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal
statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!” The importance we attach to language is just
ridiculous. It has given us more than a
century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.
From this lecture, I also
learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn. Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but
some people do. Chamberlain describes
several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how
commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they
had learned to talk.
didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.
world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have
Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and
our own. Although language does not
re-shape reality, words can create empathy.
We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories.
narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a
character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his
mind. Although human thinkers have not
always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.
When we were growing up, my sister accidentally signed up for a “record of the month” club.
It began with an innocent mistake. She saw an advertisement asking if she’d like a free copy of an album that she really wanted. So she sent in the little card and checked the box to say that, yes, she would like a free copy of that album!
But then the company kept sending more records … bad records … music that she didn’t want, and quite possibly that nobody wanted … and she had to return them or else get billed … but she had to pay shipping to return them … and, after agreeing to receive that first free album, it was excruciatingly difficult to take her name off their mailing list.
She did say “yes” … but the thing that my sister thought she was saying “yes” to, and the thing that the sleazy record company thought she was saying “yes” to, were very different.
In a recent New York Times editorial, Peggy Orenstein cited data from a study that asked college students what they’d “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d just met and danced with at a party. In this scenario, someone is saying “yes” … in response to the question “Do you want to go back to my place.”
But many college students assume that the “yes” suggests impending consent to something other than a late-night stroll. Almost half the men surveyed thought that vaginal sex was likely in that scenario; only a third of women thought so. This disparity suggests that there are a whole lot of pairings out there where somebody thinks that a woman’s “yes” is consenting to a lot more physical intimacy than she desires.
Indeed, a third of the women surveyed had previously been pressured into unwanted sex because they’d wanted to do some fooling around – touching, groping, kissing – but a partner persistently tried to do more even after being told “no.”
Why keep going? Perhaps somebody thought that his partner was simply mercurial – having said “yes,” at first, then “no,” perhaps he figured that she’d soon say “yes” again. Without stopping to think that her original “yes” was consenting to less than he assumed.
And without stopping to think that, even if she had said “yes” to activities that they’d collaboratively, explicitly described, she’s still allowed to say “no” later. Refusing to respect her right to maintain bodily autonomy – even after previous consent – makes for assault.
One flaw in Kate Harding’s otherwise lovely Asking For It is her repeated assertion that “you cannot prearrange consent.“
This statement is obviously false, because all consent is prearranged. Asking precedes doing. Otherwise, there wasn’t consent when the doing began.
The phrasing from Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More than Two is preferable: that all people “should have the right, without shame, blame, or guilt, to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.”
In Asking for It, Harding elaborates with the idea that:
A sleeping person cannot consent to sex. This should be the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the place where a lot of folks get hung up.
In some cases, it’s because people don’t want to think of themselves or their lovers as rapists. Every time I’ve made this point online, commenters have rushed to tell me that they enjoy waking up their partners with penetration or vice versa, or even that they have a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so.
Personally, I would feel weird about fooling around with someone who was asleep. Active participation from all parties makes things more fun, and someone who was asleep would be passive to the extreme.
But “a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so” means that the parties involved did arrange consent. “Do you want to have sex with me right now?”, “Do you want to have sex with me in an hour?”, and “Do you want to have sex with me while you’re asleep?” are all valid questions. Strange, but valid. Someone might be interested in responding “yes” to any or all of those.
And of course, per Veaux and Rickert, that “yes” can be retracted. At any time, for any reason.
Although I enjoyed most of Harding’s book, this distinction is important. We are causing real harm when we equate strange but valid practices with assault – in doing so, we give people more opportunity to rationalize assault. If we incorrectly narrow the definition of consent, we empower others to incorrectly expand the definition.
And that – the ability to explain away crimes – is one reason why these assaults are soprevalent.
From Orenstein’s editorial:
When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology, interviewed male college students, most endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous, and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.
When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.
In jail last week, we read Fatimah Asghar’s “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,” alternately titled “When Refusing to Twerk Is a Radical Form of Self Love.” I’m a sucker for narrative poems that talk about consent, precisely because so many men end up in jail for violating consent.
And Asghar’s poem is excellent:
Sometimes it’s as simple as the boys, howling
under bright lights, who only see the dissected
parts of you –
nose, wrist, nape of neck, nipple –
that which can be held down, pinned back, cut open …
Asghar writes about the way young women at collegiate parties must learn to enforce the boundaries of their “yes.” Although a woman has said that “yes,” she wants to dance, or to drink, she did not consent to the “sweaty nails pushing / gritty into your stomach, the weight of claws ripping / at the button on your jeans.”
People in jail experience a dramatic loss of personal autonomy. Whenever the men walk to or from my class, they must stop, spread their legs, place their hands upon the wall, and wait for a guard to grope with gloved hands over every contour of their bodies.
Perhaps this sense of violation helped them to understand Asghar’s perspective:
Sometimes it’s as simple
as standing still amid all the moving & heat & card
& plastic & science & sway & say:
Today, this body
My family recently attended a preschool birthday party at which cupcakes were served. I watched in horror as the children ate. Some used grimy fingers to claw off the top layer of frosting. Others attempted to shove the entire frosted top into their gaping maws, as though they thought their jaws might distend snake-like. These kids failed, obviously, and mostly smashed the cupcakes against their faces.
And then, a mere two minutes later, the kids all slid from their chairs to run off and rampage elsewhere in the house. The table was a wreckage; no child had actually eaten a cupcake. They’d eaten frosting, sure, but left the remnants crumbled and half-masticated on their plates.
needed to clean up.
I was a better person, I would have offered to help. But I didn’t.
I just stood there with my mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust.
wonder why it’s so hard for our family to make friends. Surely my constant scowls seem charming! Right?
Even at our own house, where our compost bin ensures that uneaten food isn’t completely wasted … and where my own children are responsible for the entirety of any mangled remnants … I loathe scraping the plates clean.
I don’t like washing dishes.
we have a dishwasher. Slide dirty dishes
into the rack, push a button, and, voila, a robot will make them clean!
automation is making our world worse.
official unemployment in the United States is low, the economy is doing
poorly. The official statistics don’t
count people who’ve given up, and they don’t count people who are stuck with
worse jobs that they would’ve had in the past.
Low unemployment is supposed to drive up people’s salaries. When a company knows that there are few available job seekers, they’ll pay more to prevent you from leaving. But that’s not happening, currently. If a company knows that your life is sufficiently bleak, and also that no other company is planning to treat you better, then they can keep salaries low. Financial misery lets employers operate like a cartel.
Despite low unemployment,
most employees are quite replaceable. If
you won’t do the work, a robot could instead.
Just like my beleaguered dishwasher, filled with plates and bowls too
gross for me to want to touch, a robot won’t advocate for better
treatment. And a robot draws no
salary. If you have the wealth to invest
in a dishwasher – or a washing machine, or a donut maker, or a
legal-document-drafting algorithm – it’ll serve you tirelessly for years.
People often say that the
jobs of the future will be those that require a human touch. Those people are wrong. Your brain is a finite network of synapses,
your body an epidermis-swathed sack of gristle.
In the long run, everything you do could be replicated by a
machine. It could look like you, talk
like you, think like you – or better.
And – after its initial
development and manufacture – it wouldn’t cost its owners anything.
As our automation technologies improve, more and more of the world’s income will be shunted to the people who are wealthy enough to own robots. Right now, human delivery people are paid for dropping off the packages people buy from Amazon – but as soon as Jeff Bezos owns drones and self-driving cars, he’ll keep those drivers’ salaries for himself. As your labor becomes less valuable relative to the output of a machine, it’s inevitable that inequality will increase. Unless we implement intentional redistribution.
A recent editorial by Eduardo Porter for the New York Timesadvocates for a tax on automation. Perhaps this seems sensible, given what I’ve written above – if robots make the world worse, then perhaps robots should be made more expensive.
After all, the correct way to account for negative externalities in a capitalist economy is through taxation. That’s how capitalism solves the tragedy of the commons. If the cost of an action is paid by everyone collectively – like pollution, which causes us all to drink dirty water, or breathe asthma-inducing air, or face apocalyptic climate change – but the profit is garnered by individuals, then that person’s private cost-benefit analysis will call for too much pollution.
For every dollar the Koch
brothers earn, the world at large might need to spend $1,000 fighting climate
change. That dollar clearly isn’t worth
it. But if each dollar they earn
increases their personal suffering by only a nickel, then of course they
should keep going! That’s what
capitalism demands. Pollute more, and
keep your ninety-five cents!
But a person’s private
priorities can be made to mirror our society’s by charging a tax equal to the
total cost of pollution. Then that person’s
individual cost-benefit analysis will compare the total cost of an
action against its total benefit.
A pollution tax wouldn’t
tell people to stop being productive … it would simply nudge them toward forms
of production that either pollute less, or are more valuable per unit of
But automation isn’t
Yes, automation is making
the world worse. But automation itself
isn’t bad. I’m very happy with my
If we want to use tax policy to improve the world, we need to consider which features of our society have allowed automation to make the world worse. And it’s not the robots themselves, but rather the precipitous way that current wealth begets future wealth. So the best solution is not to tax robots, specifically, but rather to tax wealth (with owned robots being a form of wealth … just like my dishwasher. Nothing makes me feel rich like that lemony-fresh scent of plates I didn’t have to scrub myself.)
And, after taxing wealth,
we would need to find a way to provide money back to people.
World War II taught us
that unnecessary production – making goods whose only value was to be used up
and decrease the value of other goods, like bombs and tanks and guns – could
improve the economic situation of the world.
We ended the Great Depression by paying people to make weapons. And we could ameliorate the current economic
malaise with something similar.
But an actual war
seems misguided, what with all the killing and dying. There are better, kinder ways to increase
wasteful government spending.
If I were in charge of my own town, I’d convert the abandoned elevator factory into a bespoke sneaker and clothing factory. The local university offers a degree in fashion design, and it might be nice if there were a way for students to have batches of five or ten items produced to specification.
As a business, this wouldn’t be economically viable. That’s the point. It would be intentionally wasteful production, employing humans instead of robots. Everything would be monetarily inefficient, with the product sold below cost.
It’d be a terrible
business, but a reasonable charity.
With alarmingly high frequency, lawmakers try to impose work requirements on welfare payments. I obviously think this policy would be absurd. But it wouldn’t be so bad if there were government-provided work opportunities.
Robots can make shoes
cheaper. That’s true. But by taxing wealth and using it to
subsidize wasteful production, we could renew people’s sense of purpose in life
and combat inequality. No wars required!
And no need for a tax
targeting my dishwasher. Because,
seriously. I’ve got kids. I don’t want to clean up after them. Would you?