robertogreco + janeausten   4

The Book That Made Me: An Animal | Public Books
"The Lives of Animals was the first book I read in college—or at least the first book I read in a strange, amazing seminar that rewired my brain in the first semester of freshman year. The course was about animals, and I signed up for it probably because it was a course my dad, who had been advising me on all things college, would have taken himself. He kept animal effigies all over the apartment: portraits of a donkey and a marmot in the bathroom; a giant poster of “The External Structure of Cock and Chicken” in the living room; dog figures of many breeds; pigs, his favorite, in all shapes and sizes, in every single nook and cranny. In the dining room he had a huge pig sculpture made of leather, which in retrospect was a strange and morbid combination: one animal skinned to make an image of another. Our cocker spaniel had chewed its face beyond recognition by the time my mom got around to throwing it out.

My dad passed away in 2016, two years after they got divorced, and I faced the monumental task of disposing of his menagerie. I kept many things, of course, but couldn’t keep them all. It was so easy to throw out or donate clothes, housewares, furniture, even books. I didn’t know what to do with the creatures, who seemed to contain his spirit more than anything else. I laughed when I found a key chain in a random drawer: a little brass effigy of one pig mounting another. That was his humor. That was his mind, his way of seeing, his culture—which was based, like all cultures, in certain ideas about nature. Frankly, he was a difficult man to know even when he was alive. The animals offered me a way in, as they probably did for him.

Anyway, he was the one who saw the listing for a course named “Zooësis” and thought I might like it. And I really did, from the moment our indefatigably brilliant professor, Una Chaudhuri, asked us to read J. M. Coetzee’s weird, hybrid book. The Lives of Animals is a novella, but Coetzee delivered it as a two-part Tanner Lecture at Princeton in 1997, and it centers, in turn, on two lectures delivered by its aging novelist protagonist, Elizabeth Costello. During her visit to an obscure liberal arts college, she speaks hard-to-swallow truths about the cruelties we visit upon animals, making a controversial analogy between industrialized farming and the Third Reich. But the content of her lectures is almost less important than the reactions they generate and the personal consequences she incurs, which Coetzee shows us by nesting the lectures within a fictional frame. People get incensed; the academic establishment rebukes her argument, her way of arguing, everything she represents. Even her family relationships buckle under the weight of a worldview that seems to reject reason.

Her first lecture is about the poverty of philosophy, both as a basis for animal ethics and as a medium for thinking one’s way into the mind of another kind of creature. But her second lecture is about the potential of poetry, and it’s captivating in its optimism about the ability of human language to imagine radically nonhuman forms of sensory experience—or, perhaps more radically, forms of sensory experience we share with other species.

As a person who has worked within the field commonly known as animal studies but has never worked with real animals (unlike so many great boundary-crossing thinkers: the late poet-philosopher-veterinarian Vicki Hearne, the philosopher-ethologist Vinciane Despret, et al.), I often find myself bummed out by the inadequacy of representation: Specifically, what good are animals in books? Are they not inevitably vessels of human meaning? In Flush, her novel about the inner life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf has another way of putting the problem: “Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?” To which I would add: Do they not destroy, or at least ignore, the creature beyond the symbol as well?

Coetzee has a different view. Or Costello, at least, has some different ideas about what poetry can do. She celebrates poems like Ted Hughes’s “The Jaguar” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther”—“poetry that does not try to find an idea in the animal, that is not about the animal, but is instead the record of an engagement with him.” She finds value in poems that try to capture the fluid complexity of a moment of contact across species, rather than try to preserve an imagined essence of the animal in amber. She also defends the human imagination as something more powerful than we give it credit for. My favorite line from the book is her response to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel insists that it’s impossible for a human to know the answer to his titular question. Costello rebuts: “If we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?” I think it takes an effort of heart, more than mind, to follow her train of thought.

The novella reflects her resistance to the imperious voice of human reason—and her embrace of the messiness of the subjective imagination—on many levels. She’s uneasy at the bully pulpit, as was Coetzee himself. For the longest time I thought that the narrator was omniscient—an impersonal God figure aligned with Coetzee’s own position at that Princeton lectern. But then I read the novella again, preparing to teach it in a lit class where we were also reading Jane Austen. I realized that the narrator filters everything through the perspective of John Bernard, Costello’s son, who has a strange tendency to obsess over his mother’s body (paging Dr. Freud: “Her shoulders stoop; her flesh has grown flabby”) and profoundly ambivalent feelings about her. He is torn between sympathy and repulsion, connection and alienation. He is torn, also, between her perspective, which persuades him to an extent, and the perspective of his wife, Norma, a philosophy professor who loathes her and has no patience for her anti-rationalist message.

The question this novella raises is always that of its own construction: Why is it a novella in the first place? What does Coetzee communicate through fiction that he couldn’t have communicated through a polemic? I think the technique of focalization, which grounds everything in John’s perspective, shows us exactly what an abstract polemic about animals couldn’t: the impossibility of speaking from a position outside our embodiment, our emotions, our primordial and instinctual feelings toward kin. In other words, the impossibility of speaking about animals as though we were not animals ourselves.

Every time I read the book—definitely every time I teach it—the potentialities of its form grow in number. I find new rooms in the house of fiction that reveal how grand a mansion it is. I display it proudly, in the center of a bookshelf lined with animal books like Marian Engel’s Bear, Woolf’s Flush, J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, Kafka’s stories, and John Berger’s Pig Earth. The shelf is my own version of my father’s menagerie, brimming with all manner of complex and contradictory creatures. All of them are representations, but that doesn’t make them feel any less real, or any less alive.

I regard my father with some of the ambivalence that John, the son in Coetzee’s story, feels toward his own mother and her thoughts on animals. But I encounter the creatures he left behind with warmth, solidarity, and hope."
via:timoslimo  jmcoetzee  multispecies  morethanhuman  senses  writing  howwewrite  language  whywewrite  fiction  animals  bodies  unachaudhuri  philosophy  elizabethbarrettbrowning  virginiawoolf  vincianedespret  animalrights  vickihearne  rainermariarilke  tedhughes  narration  thomasnagel  imagination  messiness  janeausten  perspective  novellas  kafka  johnberger  marianengel  jrackerley  hope  solidarity  communication  embodiment  emotions  persuasion  mattmargini  canon  books  reading  howweread  teaching  howweteach  farming  livestock  sensory  multisensory  animalstudies  poetry  poems  complexity  grief  literature  families  2019 
7 weeks ago by robertogreco
Will Self: Are humans evolving beyond the need to tell stories? | Books | The Guardian
"Neuroscientists who insist technology is changing our brains may have it wrong. What if we are switching from books to digital entertainment because of a change in our need to communicate?"



"A few years ago I gave a lecture in Oxford that was reprinted in the Guardian under the heading: “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)”. In it I argued that the novel was losing its cultural centrality due to the digitisation of print: we are entering a new era, one with a radically different form of knowledge technology, and while those of us who have what Marshal McLuhan termed “Gutenberg minds” may find it hard to comprehend – such was our sense of the solidity of the literary world – without the necessity for the physical book itself, there’s no clear requirement for the art forms it gave rise to. I never actually argued that the novel was dead, nor that narrative itself was imperilled, yet whenever I discuss these matters with bookish folk they all exclaim: “But we need stories – people will always need stories.” As if that were an end to the matter.

Non-coincidentally, in line with this shift from print to digital there’s been an increase in the number of scientific studies of narrative forms and our cognitive responses to them. There’s a nice symmetry here: just as the technology arrives to convert the actual into the virtual, so other technologies arise, making it possible for us to look inside the brain and see its actual response to the virtual worlds we fabulate and confabulate. In truth, I find much of this research – which marries arty anxiety with techno-assuredness – to be self-serving, reflecting an ability to win the grants available for modish interdisciplinary studies, rather than some new physical paradigm with which to explain highly complex mental phenomena. Really, neuroscience has taken on the sexy mantle once draped round the shoulders of genetics. A few years ago, each day seemed to bring forth a new gene for this or that. Such “discoveries” rested on a very simplistic view of how the DNA of the human genotype is expressed in us poor, individual phenotypes – and I suspect many of the current discoveries, which link alterations in our highly plastic brains to cognitive functions we can observe using sophisticated equipment, will prove to be equally ill-founded.

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has been prominent in arguing that our new digital lives are profoundly altering the structure of our brains. This is undoubtedly the case – but then all human activities impact upon the individual brain as they’re happening; this by no means implies a permanent alteration, let alone a heritable one. After all, so far as we can tell the gross neural anatomy of the human has remained unchanged for hundreds of millennia, while the age of bi-directional digital media only properly dates – in my view – from the inception of wireless broadband in the early 2000s, hardly enough time for natural selection to get to work on the adaptive advantages of … tweeting. Nevertheless, pioneering studies have long since shown that licensed London cab drivers, who’ve completed the exhaustive “Knowledge” (which consists of memorising every street and notable building within a six mile radius of Charing Cross), have considerably enlarged posterior hippocampi.

This is the part of brain concerned with way-finding, but it’s also strongly implicated in memory formation; neuroscientists are now discovering that at the cognitive level all three abilities – memory, location, and narration – are intimately bound up. This, too, is hardly surprising: key for humans, throughout their long pre-history as hunter-gatherers, has been the ability to find food, remember where food is and tell the others about it. It’s strange, of course, to think of Pride and Prejudice or Ulysses as simply elaborations upon our biologically determined inclination to give people directions – but then it’s perhaps stranger still to realise that sustained use of satellite navigation, combined with absorbing all our narrative requirements in pictorial rather written form, may transform us into miserable and disoriented amnesiacs.

When he lectured on literature in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov would draw a map on the blackboard at the beginning of each session, depicting, for example, the floor plan of Austen’s Mansfield Park, or the “two ways” of Proust’s Combray. What Nabokov seems to have understood intuitively is what neuroscience is now proving: reading fiction enables a deeply memorable engagement with our sense of space and place. What the master was perhaps less aware of – because, as yet, this phenomenon was inchoate – was that throughout the 20th century the editing techniques employed in Hollywood films were being increasingly refined. This is the so-called “tyranny of film”: editing methods that compel our attention, rather than leaving us free to absorb the narrative in our own way. Anyone now in middle age will have an intuitive understanding of this: shots are shorter nowadays, and almost all transitions are effected by crosscutting, whereby two ongoing scenes are intercut in order to force upon the viewer the idea of their synchrony. It’s in large part this tyranny that makes contemporary films something of a headache for older viewers, to whom they can seem like a hypnotic swirl of action.

It will come as no surprise to Gutenberg minds to learn that reading is a better means of forming memory than watching films, as is listening to afternoon drama on Radio 4. This is the so-called “visualisation hypothesis” that proposes that people – and children in particular – find it harder not only to remember film as against spoken or written narratives, but also to come up with novel responses to them, because the amount of information they’re given, together with its determinate nature, forecloses imaginative response.

Almost all contemporary parents – and especially those of us who class themselves as “readers” – have engaged in the Great Battle of Screen: attempting to limit our children’s consumption of films, videos, computer games and phone-based social media. We feel intuitively that it can’t be doing our kids any good – they seem mentally distracted as well as physically fidgety: unable to concentrate as they often look from one handheld screen to a second freestanding one, alternating between tweezering some images on a touchscreen and manipulating others using a remote control. Far from admonishing my younger children to “read the classics” – an utterly forlorn hope – I often find myself simply wishing they’d put their phones down long enough to have their attention compelled by the film we’re watching.

If we take seriously the conclusions of these recent neuroscientific studies, one fact is indisputable: whatever the figures for books sales (either in print or digital form), reading for pleasure has been in serious decline for over a decade. That this form of narrative absorption (if you’ll forgive the coinage) is closely correlated with high attainment and wellbeing may tell us nothing about the underlying causation, but the studies do demonstrate that the suite of cognitive aptitudes needed to decipher text and turn it into living, breathing, visible and tangible worlds seem to wither away once we stop turning the pages and start goggling at virtual tales.

Of course, the sidelining of reading narrative (and along with it the semi-retirement of all those narrative forms we love) is small potatoes compared with the loss of our capacity for episodic memory: would we be quite so quick to post those fantastic holiday photographs on Facebook if we knew that in so doing we’d imperil our ability to recall unaided our walk along the perfect crescent of sand, and our first ecstatic kiss? You might’ve thought that as a novelist who depends on fully attuned Gutenberg minds to read his increasingly complex and confusing texts I’d be dismayed by this craven new couch-based world; and, as a novelist, I am.

I began writing my books on a manual typewriter at around the same time wireless broadband became ubiquitous, sensing it was inimical not only to the act of writing, but that of reading as well: a novel should be a self-contained and self-explanatory world (at least, that’s how the form has evolved), and it needs to be created in the same cognitive mode as it’s consumed: the writer hunkering down into his own episodic memories, and using his own canonical knowledge, while imagining all the things he’s describing, rather than Googling them to see what someone else thinks they look like. I also sense the decline in committed reading among the young that these studies claim: true, the number of those who’ve ever been inclined “to get up in the morning in the fullness of youth”, as Nietzsche so eloquently put it, “and open a book” has always been small; but then it’s worth recalling the sting in the tail of his remark: “now that’s what I call vicious”.

And there is something vicious about all that book learning, especially when it had to be done by rote. There’s something vicious as well about the baby boomer generation, which, not content to dominate the cultural landscape, also demands that everyone younger than us survey it in the same way. For the past five years I’ve been working on a trilogy of novels that aim to map the connections between technological change, warfare and human psychopathology, so obviously I’m attempting to respond to the zeitgeist using this increasingly obsolete art form. My view is that we’re deluded if we think new technologies come into existence because of clearly defined human objectives – let alone benevolent ones – and it’s this that should shape our response to them. No, the history of the 20th century – and now the 21st – is replete with examples of technologies that were developed purely in order to facilitate the killing of people at … [more]
willself  communication  digital  writing  howwewrite  entertainment  books  socialmedia  neuroscience  2016  marshallmcluhan  gutenbergminds  print  change  singularity  videogames  gaming  games  poetry  novels  susangreenfield  rote  rotelearning  twitter  knowledge  education  brain  wayfinding  memory  location  narration  navigation  vladimirnabokov  proust  janeausten  film  video  attention  editing  reading  howweread  visualizationhypothesis  visualization  text  imagery  images  cognition  literacy  multiliteracies  memories  nietzsche  booklearning  technology  mobile  phones  mentalillness  ptsd  humans  humanity  digitalmedia  richardbrautigan  narrative  storytelling 
november 2016 by robertogreco
Southwest by South - Ta-Nehisi Coates - Personal - The Atlantic
"My friend schooled me on the best running path. And we talked about architecture, Austin, and the horror and beauty of the South. (Everything is a problem.) In large measure, I'm missing out on the whole festival. I did a panel on distraction and the internet. I went to a party where Diplodocus was spinning (I decline to abbreviate, because "Diplodocus" is too awesome of a word. I insist on taking every opportunity to employ it.) But there's a gang-bang element here, one you tend to find at all festivals, but one I generally dislike all the same. So I revel in the small moments, margherita pizza and red wine. A chance to greet a fellow Commie."
introverts  ta-nehisicoates  sxsw  texas  slavery  2011  austin  janeausten  diplodocus  parenthood  distraction  attention  relationships  from delicious
march 2011 by robertogreco
Semicolon squalls - Bobulate
"People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. As one grammarian put it, the semicolon is the mortar that joins two ideas into a greater one. But semicolons don’t create a structure; they just point to one. It’s nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it’s nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one."
writing  punctuation  grammar  janeausten  english  change  flux  from delicious
november 2010 by robertogreco

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