robertogreco + thomasnagel   7

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 
july 2019 by robertogreco
What Animals Taught Me About Being Human - The New York Times
"Surrounding myself with animals to feel less alone was a mistake: The greatest comfort is in knowing their lives are not about us at all."



"Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves. The purpose of animals in medieval bestiaries, for example, was to give us lessons in how to live. I don’t know anyone who now thinks of pelicans as models of Christian self-sacrifice, or the imagined couplings of vipers and lampreys as an allegorical exhortation for wives to put up with unpleasant husbands. But our minds still work like bestiaries. We thrill at the notion that we could be as wild as a hawk or a weasel, possessing the inner ferocity to go after the things we want; we laugh at animal videos that make us yearn to experience life as joyfully as a bounding lamb. A photograph of the last passenger pigeon makes palpable the grief and fear of our own unimaginable extinction. We use animals as ideas to amplify and enlarge aspects of ourselves, turning them into simple, safe harbors for things we feel and often cannot express.

None of us see animals clearly. They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them. Encountering them is an encounter with everything you’ve ever learned about them from previous sightings, from books, images, conversations. Even rigorous scientific studies have asked questions of animals in ways that reflect our human concerns. In the late 1930s, for example, when the Dutch and Austrian ethologists Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz towed models resembling flying hawks above turkey chicks, they were trying to prove that these birds hatched with a hard-wired image resembling an airborne bird of prey already in their minds that compelled them to freeze in terror. While later research has suggested it is very likely that young turkeys actually learn what to fear from other turkeys, the earlier experiment is still valuable, not least for what it says about human fears. To me it seems shaped by the historical anxieties of a Europe threatened for the first time by large-scale aerial warfare, when pronouncements were made that “the bomber will always get through,” no matter how tight the national defense."



"For some weeks, I’ve been worried about the health of family and friends. Today I’ve stared at a computer screen for hours. My eyes hurt. My heart does, too. Feeling the need for air, I sit on the step of my open back door and see a rook, a sociable species of European crow, flying low toward my house through gray evening air. Straightaway I use the trick I learned as a child, and all my difficult emotions lessen as I imagine how the press of cooling air might feel against its wings. But my deepest relief doesn’t come from imagining I can feel what the rook feels, know what the rook knows — instead, it’s slow delight in recognizing that I cannot. These days I take emotional solace from understanding that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all. The house it’s flying over has meaning for both of us. To me, it is home. To a rook? A way point on a journey, a collection of tiles and slopes, useful as a perch or a thing to drop walnuts on in autumn to make them shatter and let it winkle out the flesh inside.

Then there is something else. As it passes overhead, the rook tilts its head to regard me briefly before flying on. And with that glance I feel a prickling in my skin that runs down my spine, and my sense of place shifts. The rook and I have shared no purpose. For one brief moment we noticed each other, is all. When I looked at the rook and the rook looked at me, I became a feature of its landscape as much as it became a feature of mine. Our separate lives, for that moment, coincided, and all my anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else pulled me back into the world by sending a glance across the divide."
animals  multispecies  posthumanism  humans  2017  helenmacdonald  crows  corvids  rooks  thomasnagel  birds  nature  wildlife  human-animalrelations  anthropomorphism  human-animalrelationships  nikotinbergen  konradlorenz 
may 2017 by robertogreco
Why time management is ruining our lives | Oliver Burkeman | Technology | The Guardian
"All of our efforts to be more productive backfire – and only make us feel even busier and more stressed"



"At the very bottom of our anxious urge to manage time better – the urge driving Frederick Winslow Taylor, Merlin Mann, me and perhaps you – it’s not hard to discern a familiar motive: the fear of death. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it, on any meaningful timescale other than human life itself – that of the planet, say, or the cosmos – “we will all be dead any minute”. No wonder we are so drawn to the problem of how to make better use of our days: if we could solve it, we could avoid the feeling, in Seneca’s words, of finding life at an end just when we were getting ready to live. To die with the sense of nothing left undone: it’s nothing less than the promise of immortality by other means.

But the modern zeal for personal productivity, rooted in Taylor’s philosophy of efficiency, takes things several significant steps further. If only we could find the right techniques and apply enough self-discipline, it suggests, we could know that we were fitting everything important in, and could feel happy at last. It is up to us – indeed, it is our obligation – to maximise our productivity. This is a convenient ideology from the point of view of those who stand to profit from our working harder, and our increased capacity for consumer spending. But it also functions as a form of psychological avoidance. The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.

Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don’t have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days. “How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, in what reads like a foreshadowing of our present circumstances. “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like – but eventually you’ll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren’t really about technology. They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas. Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon? Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters?

For Merlin Mann, consciously confronting these questions was a matter of realising that people would always be making more claims on his time – worthy claims, too, for the most part – than it would be possible for him to meet. And that even the best, most efficient system for managing the emails they sent him was never going to provide a solution to that. “Eventually, I realised something,” he told me. “Email is not a technical problem. It’s a people problem. And you can’t fix people.”"
time  timemanagement  productivity  psychology  gtd  2016  oliverburkeman  stress  busyness  frederickwinslowtaylor  taylorism  merlinmann  technology  thomasnagel  humans  seneca  efficiency 
december 2016 by robertogreco
The steel man of #GamerGate — The Message — Medium
"Every so often, the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco hosts a debate. It might be about nuclear power or synthetic biology or perhaps the very notion of human progress — high-stakes stuff. But the format is nothing like the showdowns on cable news or the debates in election season.

Instead, it goes like this:

There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction — a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument — and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction.

The first time I saw one of these debates, it blew my mind.

Our democratic culture has, I believe, basically given up on debate as a tool for changing minds or achieving consensus. Instead, we use it as a stage for performance, for political point-scoring. When we debate — and this is true whether it’s a big televised event or a little online roundtable — we direct our arguments not at our opponents but rather at our allies. We rile the base. We face the choir. We preach!

Apparently, the Long Now Foundation didn’t get the memo, and neither did L. Rhodes. In his piece addressing #GamerGate, he truly speaks to his opponents, and his focus never wavers. There are no winks to his allies and no dog whistles that I can detect. It’s a miracle of tone. There are so many opportunities to be snide, to score a point — just one little point! — and he takes none of them.

Rhodes’s piece reminded me, also, of Alan Jacobs’s reference [http://www.theamericanconservative.com/jacobs/thomas-nagel-is-admirably-fair-minded/ ], years ago, to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s review of a book by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Nagel is a staunch atheist; Plantinga, a devout Christian.

Jacobs wrote:
Having confessed that he “cannot imagine believing what [Plantinga] believes,” Nagel nevertheless must acknowledge that Plantinga is doing excellent philosophical work and that his arguments cannot be easily dismissed. Moreover, Nagel clearly relishes simply being exposed to ways of thinking so alien to his own — he obviously finds it refreshing.

Instead of the straw man argument — that scourge — we have the steel man: “the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.”

The fact that Nagel takes this approach shouldn’t be surprising; it has long been valued in philosophy and rhetoric, and more recently by the so-called “rationalist” community online. This is laudable — I mean, these people really know how to argue! — but there’s an inertness to the practice in those communities: a sense, too often, of arguments unfolding for their own sake in a hermetically-sealed arena.

So the thing that impresses me about Rhodes’s piece is that it is real: enmeshed in a real conversation and addressed to real opponents, which implies real risk. This isn’t a philosophy symposium; it’s a roiling argument that has spawned mobs of internet harassers.

Did Rhodes’s piece turn #GamerGate around? No.

Did it change a few people’s minds? There is evidence, here on Medium and also on Twitter, that it did. In this culture — on this internet — that’s a small miracle.

There’s a recipe available here, for anyone brave enough to use it: strong arguments presented in good faith not to our allies but to our actual opponents. I use the word “brave” very consciously, because I believe this is just about the most dangerous kind of writing and thinking you can do."



"This kind of writing is dangerous because it goes beyond (mere) argumentation; it becomes immersion, method acting, dual-booting. To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger. You need sharp thinking and compelling language, but you also need close attention and deep empathy. I don’t mean to be too woo-woo about it, but truly, you need love. The overall sensibility is closer to caregiving than to punditry."
debate  empathy  ethnography  listening  robinsloan  lrhodes  alanjacobs  thomasnagel  alvinplantinga  goodfaith  strawman  steelman  strawmen  steelmen  philosophy  rhetoric  conversation  goodwill  mindchanging  mindchanges 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Works Cited: Wasting time on the internet: a syllabus
"This is a syllabus in progress, imagined as part writing workshop, part American studies course on aesthetics. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

What I Did For Love: Taste, Evaluation, and Aesthetics in American Culture

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like,” goes the disclaimer. In this writing-intensive part-workshop, part-seminar, we will seek to unpack the relationship between “art” and “what I like” by examining a variety of cultural objects together with accounts of “taste.” What are the uses of an art that nobody likes? Could “annoyance” be an aesthetic principle? What is the role of money in taste? What are the ethics of aesthetics? Under what circumstances is an aesthetic pleasure “guilty”? When should the appreciation of art works be a matter of disinterested judgment, and when a matter of passionate engagement? Does “love” blind? What is the difference between a “fan” and a “critic”? What are the affordances and limits of the “formulaic” and the “generic”?

Four weeks of this course will be devoted to workshopping students’ critical writing, examining the roles of description, praise, blame, analysis, and enthusiasm in writing about culture. Students will also maintain a course blog. For the final assignment, students are encouraged to pitch their writing to an appropriately chosen publication.



Short exercise: choose a cultural object to describe as plainly as possible. About 500 words.



Essay 1: Describe some piece of culture (novel, film, painting, poem, music video, etc.) that you love, and that you also think is good. (These are two different things.) Explain why it is that you love the piece, what it is that makes it good, and how you can tell the difference (and under what circumstances you can’t). Be sure to explain what it is that makes art good in general—you don’t need to advance a fully developed theory of aesthetics, but you do need to unpack your assumptions as much as you can. Have an argument. This should be around 3000 words.



Short exercise: write a piece of fanfiction, about 1000 words, in the setting of your choice.



Short exercise: Make the case that some cultural object is a “remake” of another, earlier one (for example, that Pixar’s Toy Story is a remake of Disney’s Pinocchio). Be honest about the ways in which the claim does not hold up. In addition to noting similarities or lines of influence, you should explain what we gain from understanding the later object as a remake of the earlier one. 500–1,000 words.



Essay 2: Choose a piece of art and viciously pan it. Your critique should be utterly devastating, which is to say that you should be able to persuade your reader that this piece is a blight on humanity, and not merely that you are a mean-spirited person. This will be more effective if you resist choosing an easy target. 2,000–3,000 words.



Essay 3: Review some piece of culture that was recently produced—say, since January 2012. Give your reader a fairly thickly textured sense of what this piece is like, and explain what its successes and failures are. Once again, be sure to unpack what it means for something to “succeed” (in any register). What is the historical, cultural, or aesthetic milieu in which this piece is ideally legible? Make a point. This should be around 3,000 words.



Essay 4: Revise your review for publication in a venue of your choice. It may be print or online. When you submit this assignment to me, you should also submit a copy of the submission guidelines for this venue (to which your revised review should adhere) and a rationale (about 500 words) for choosing this publication. You are encouraged to actually submit the review to the publication you have chosen. (You might be interested in this [http://whopays.tumblr.com/ ].)"
nataliacecire  culture  internet  web  reading  2013  johnkeats  robertfrost  petercoviello  aesthetics  beauty  guiltypleasures  thomasnagel  judgement  clementgreenberg  pierrebordieu  thorsteinveblen  barbarahernsteinsmith  tseliot  andrewlloydwebber  thewasteland  taste  class  williambutleryeats  josefalbers  difficulty  mariannemoore  siannengai  leonarddiepeveen  lawrencelevine  rosalindkrauss  popculutre  authenticity  criticism  gender  chinuaahcebe  appropriation  music  williamgibson  cuteness  commodification  marktwain  edgarallanpoe  lililoofbourow  christianbök  walterbenjamin  maryoliver  writing  syllabus  classideas  highbrow  lowbrow  kant  syllabi 
january 2014 by robertogreco
On Being an Octopus | Boston Review
"If octopuses did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. I don’t know if we could manage this, so it’s as well that we don’t have to. As we explore the relations between mind, body, evolution, and experience, nothing stretches our thinking the way an octopus does.

In a famous 1974 paper, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked: What is it like to be a bat? He asked this in part to challenge materialism, the view that everything that goes on in our universe comprises physical processes and nothing more. A materialist view of the mind, Nagel said, cannot even begin to give an explanation of the subjective side of our mental lives, an account of what it feels like to have thoughts and experiences. Nagel chose bats as his example because they are not so simple that we doubt they have experiences at all, but they are, he said, “a fundamentally alien form of life.”

Bats certainly live lives different from our own, but evolutionarily speaking they are our close cousins, fellow mammals with nervous systems built on a similar plan. If we want to think about something more truly alien, the octopus is ideal. Octopuses are distant from us in evolutionary terms, have a nervous system of very different design, and bodies with no bones and little fixed shape at all. What is it like to be an octopus? The question is intrinsically interesting and, beyond that, provides a good way to chip away at the problem Nagel raised for a materialist understanding of the mind."



"Getting a sense of what it feels like to be another animal must involve the use of memory and imagination."
animals  octopus  imagination  memory  perspective  thinking  2013  petergodfrey-smith  materialism  nature  mollusks  cephalapods  bats  thomasnagel  richarddawkins  psychology  bennyhochner  tamargutnick  takaakikaneko  masakitomonaga  chimps  chimpanzees  science  technology  philosophy  mind 
june 2013 by robertogreco
A whole magazine of this, please « Snarkmarket
"Seriously, imagine this magazine. (And when I say “magazine” I obviously mean “website.”) It would be so different from anything that’s out there today. It wouldn’t be people trying to convince you of things. (This is the usual mode of, say, The New York Review of Books—although props to them for publishing Nagel on Plantinga.) Nor would it be people ironically infiltrating different belief systems. (This is the mode of a lot of narrative journalism today, and it’s super entertaining! You know: “I spent six weeks hanging out with these crazy people and here’s what I saw.”) It would be… brains at work. Call it The Grappler. An engine of empathy. I don’t know. It would probably have a readership of 300 people but maybe that’s okay."

[Alexis Madrigal comment: "All hail that which does not scale! All hail that which does not scale!"]
saulwurman  intimacy  small  scale  externalization  debate  belief  thomasnagel  longnow  alanjacobs  ianbogost  www.www  wwwconference  intellectualexcercises  understanding  writing  ideas  magazines  comments  snarkmarket  2012  thegrappler  perspective  empathy  robinsloan 
september 2012 by robertogreco

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