Biological Universals as Authenticity, or, What’s the Matter with Steven Pinker?

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(Crossposted at Arcade.)

In a fascinating parable, “A Story In Two Parts, With An Ending Yet To Be Written,” posted on the National Humanities Center’s On the Human Web site, Paula Moya tells the tale of a researcher named Kitayama who travels from the land of Interdependence to the land of Independence, conducts research into the way that culture shapes perception, and finds his results grossly misinterpreted by journalists (as reinforcing racist narratives of essential ethnic differences). Kitayama’s basic finding is that those of an Independent cultural disposition tend to commit the “fundamental attribution error” when judging actions, overvaluing the importance of personality as an explanation of action, whereas Interdependent folk are likely to consider situational factors when judging human action and agency. [1]

The mistranslation of Kitayama’s work from culture to race in Moya’s story is a not-so-disguised allegory of the journalistic framing of forthcoming research by Jinkyung Na and Shinobu Kitayama, specifically their article “Spontaneous Trait Inference is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence.” This mistranslation (from culture to race; from Those Reared in an “Asian” Cultural Context to simply Asians) is presented as an example of what Moya and her collaborator Hazel Markus call “doing race,” “creating ethnic groups based on perceived physical and behavioral characteristics, associating differential power and privilege with these characteristics, and then justifying the resulting inequalities.” The comments following Moya’s article are well worth reading in their entirety, as is Andrew Goldstone’s great Arcade reply, “Race, Ethnicity, Brains: Some Marginalia.”

There is much to say about Moya’s post, but I want to point to a reference she makes to the pop science journalism of Steven Pinker. In Moya’s allegory, Kitayama achieves a measure of success, getting together with Recognition (Connie), only to come home to the following scene:

All was going well, that is, until one day Kitayama came home in the middle of the afternoon and found Connie in the bedroom, looking flushed and breathing heavily as she shoved a book under the pillow. “What are you doing?” demanded Kitayama. “Since when do you hide your reading material from me?” Connie avoided his gaze as she handed him the book she’d been reading. Kitayama felt an arrow pierce his heart as he gazed at the title: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “How could you?” he cried, “Don’t you know that Pinker believes that human behavior is generated by the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that may be universal and innate? He claims that culture is epiphenomenal to more basic psychological processes! It’s everything I’ve worked so hard to overturn!”

“I’m sorry, dear,” replied Connie, looking genuinely apologetic. “It’s just so scientific,” she offered. “There’s something so wonderfully hard about cognitive neuroscience,” she added with an appreciative shiver.

I am no fan of Steven Pinker, least of all his attempts to write about the arts, but I would not characterize his views on culture in the way the fictional Kitayama does. In The Blank Slate, Pinker does not argue that culture is epiphenomenal so much as claim that there are a list of human universals that transcend cultural difference. He writes, “My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing–no one believes that–but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.” That is, in his view certain aspects of human existence are culturally variable–though no less biological for their variation–and other aspects of humanity can be found among all cultures. The fictional nature of Moya’s story might suggest that delving into “Kitayama’s” error is beside the point, but I think looking at what Pinker is really arguing will yield some interesting insights into the significance of Na and Kitayama’s real research.

At this level of abstraction, it seems to me that Pinker’s claim is hard to dispute, but the problem is that it is also hardly very interesting from the perspective of the human sciences. What Pinker fails to tell us with any level of precision is where we can find the boundary between difference and identity and what the significance of that boundary is. Pinker’s appendix listing human universals is so free of relevant discussion and context as to leave the reader scratching his head–though it seems perfectly plausible that human universals, like the language faculty, exist and might tell us something about the arts. His discussion of evolutionary psychology, for this head-scratching reader at least, fails to convince, though this is more the fault of contemporary evolutionary psychology than Pinker, whose own area of expertise is linguistics.

As many reviewers have pointed out, The Blank Slate‘s discussion artistic production (in genetic or evolutionary or biological terms) borders on the ridiculous, quickly and problematically moving from fact to norm, abandoning science very quickly for poorly thought through moralizing. From arguments about universal human capacities to appreciate symmetry or tonality Pinker claims priority for artworks that make use of symmetry and tonality.

After embarassingly misquoting Virginia Woolf, and fundamentally misunderstanding her views on human nature, Pinker disparages “the [then] new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism, which seized control in its later decades.” Modernism’s problem is that it allegedly denies human nature, which is a mistake because “[a]rt is in our nature–in the blood and in the bone… in the brain and in the genes… In all societies people dance, sing, decorate surfaces, and tell and act out stories.”

Of course, Pinker is aware enough of how problematic his argument is to feel the need to explain the prestige of artworks (elite artworks, as I’m sure Sarah Palin would not hesitate to note) that fail to meet his Fact-Backed-Norm, and so he whips out his shopworn Bourdieu. “The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired with our circuitry for status…” We are also informed that the avant-guard tendency to “sneer[] at the bourgeoisie” is

a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political value. The fact is that the values of the middle class–personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy–are good things, not bad things [as presumably postmodernists thing]. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most arrests are members in good standing who adopt a few bohemian affectations.

Humans who appreciate modernist or avant-garde artworks only pretend to do so because of an ultimately (in an evolutionarily psychological sense) cynical desire to gain acclaim and prestige (and fitter sexual partners, which is what the game often boils down to) or because we are “cross-wired” in weird ways:

As Bourdieu points out, only a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new works of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any schmo could have beautiful things.

We can all be grateful that Pinker doesn’t have his moral-circuitry cross-wired with his status-circuitry. Certainly, none of us could imagine that there is any advantage Pinker might gain (in either a proximate or ultimate sense) in condemning the menace of Sneering Sophmoric Status-Grabbing Bohemian Modernist/Postmodernist Beauty-Haters in these terms, especially since those of us who enjoy ugly artworks (how can I deny that I am a hater of schmos?) are so powerfully dominant.

It goes without much saying, especially for anyone with even a remote understanding of the history of the arts, that there is reason to be skeptical of Pinker’s account of how and why we appreciate difficult and avant-garde artworks–let’s break out the brain scanners, people, and prove him wrong!–but even more troubling is Pinker’s not-so-tacit claim that we should appreciate art along lines he approves of.

Even for the sake of argument granting his claims, who is to say that our evolutionarily psychological status-seeking response to art is invalid or a complicated form of cynicism? As I noted in my previous post, where I discuss the attempt of neuromarketers to use brain scanners as a means of breaking through social dissemblance to understand what we really want from our advertisements, our films, and (I’m sure some day soon) our literature, Pinker’s invocation of alleged aesthetic universals assumes what it needs to argue for: the superiority or desirability of the universals he celebrates.

After all, rage is a human universal, as is sickness, as is the genetic programming that leads us all inexorably toward death [2], but the fact of their universality is in no way an argument for their desirability. Indeed, given that we’re all biology all the way down–our universals and our differences, our aesthetic sense and our social sense, our fated deaths and our desire to transcend death are all by Pinker’s account proximately or ultimately expressions of or bound by biology [3]–we are very quickly back to square one even if we grant the validity of his argument. Pinker’s rhetoric honors a certain element of our biology (universals) as authentic while granting other aspects (cultural differences, social motivations, a distaste for the popular) an almost unnatural or diabolical power, but why should we?

I would tenatively contribute to the discussion Moya has provocatively begun by suggesting that, in a sense, humans are cultural all the way down precisely because we’re biological all the way down, as Pinker’s errors help us see more clearly. Returning to the research that prompted Moya’s parable, Kitayama argues that cultural differences are “deep,” that they go “much deeper” than we previously thought, engaging in a move that might be viewed as the reverse of Pinker’s (biological difference or variability seems now to be the authentic or valorized term). But what if these differences turned out to be “shallow”? What if cultural differences were actually “skin deep”? What, if anything, would follow? After all, our shallowness too would be no less biological than our depths.

(Note: This post has been slightly modified.)

[1] I will blithely ignore the degree to which the “fundamental attribution error” should be considered an error, though I should note that Kitayama doesn’t use the term.

[2] Mysteriously, in the appendix of The Blank Slate, which reproduces Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals, death is not listed as a human universal, though there is an entry for “death rituals.”

[3] Also, chemistry and physics and many other physical processes.

The End of Ideology (Critique)?

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(Crossposted at Arcade.)


In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek famously lays out his analysis of claims that we* find ourselves in a postideological age. Žižek doesn’t exactly mean “postideological” in the sense of Daniel Bell or Francis Fukuyama. For Bell or Fukuyama, postideology is characterized by the rise of technocracy, the transformation of great political debates into parochial, microideological questions, what tax rate to set, how to regulate this or that industry, what zoning ordinances to pass in a city. For Žižek, by contrast, postideology refers to the failure or collapse of ideology critique as such.

We used to think that by exposing frauds, lies, and the subtle ideological lacework of high cultural artefacts, we liberated ourselves from self-deception and false consciousness. Now, Žižek admits, everyone practices ideology critique. We have achieved a reflexive cynicism, what Peter Sloterdijk calls “cynical reason.” Recounting Sloterdijk’s argument in Critique of Cynical Reason, Žižek writes: “Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account… the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reason to retain the mask.” Under such conditions, “the traditional critique of ideology no longer works. We can no longer subject the ideological text to ‘symptomatic reading’, confronting it with its blank spots, with what it must repress to organize itself, to preserve its consistency–cynical reason takes this distance into account in advance.”

In this post, I’d like to question whether traditional ideology critique is as obsolete as Žižek suggests, and eventually question the efficacy of his endrun around its alleged collapse. I haven’t arrived at strong conclusions yet, but I’d love to get a conversation started in the comments section that might help me figure out whether or not Žižek is right.


The Space Merchants, a small masterpiece of science fictional satire, will serve as my model of traditional ideology critique.

Fredrick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 novel depicts a dystopian future in which the free market has colonized all governmental functions and public space. The House of Representatives and Senate represent not American states but corporate firms, in proportion to those firms’ financial might. The social world is divided between two great classes: immiserated consumers (the overwhelming majority of the population, many of whom rent individual stairs in skyscrapers to sleep upon every night) and wealthy executives (a tiny but powerful minority who enjoy slightly more space in tiny studio apartments).

Government-engineered overpopulation (meant to increase the consumer base) threatens to consume all of Planet Earth’s resources, inspiring the rise of the “Consies,” radical conservationists who engage in sabotague and other acts of dissent against the monolithic consumerist order of the day. Let it not be said that Pohl and Kornbluth’s satire is subtle.  Nonetheless, it dates surprisingly well for Golden Age science fiction. The novel’s plot hinges on an effort by the “Star Class” copysmith, Mitch Courtney of Fowler Schocken Associates, to successfully sell American consumers on the prospect of colonizing Venus, which is by all accounts a hellhole–scalding hot, wracked by 500 mph winds, chemically toxic to biological life–more or less uninhabitable. The novel is thus not only about the social dynamics of its dystopian world, but a commentary on the contemporary function and dangers of advertising, a popular topic at the time (and ever since).

There is much one can say about the novel but for the purposes of this post, I’d like to present one especially interesting scene. Early in the novel, Mitch is trying to convince Jack O’Shea, the first man to land on Venus and return to Earth alive, that marketers can indeed shape consumer preferences using only language, that in fact O’Shea’s various consumer choices have been successfully, subconsciously manipulated by Fowler Schocken Associates.

O’Shea laughed uncertainly. “And you did it with words?”

“Words and pictures. Sights and sound and smell and taste and touch. And the greatest of these is words. Do you read poetry?”

“My God, of course not! Who can?”

“I don’t mean the contemporary stuff; you’re quite right about that. I mean Keats, Swinburne, Wylie—the great lyricists.”

“I used to,” he cautiously admitted. “What about it?”

“I’m going to ask you to spend the morning and afternoon with one of the world’s great lyric poets: A girl named Tildy Mathis. She doesn’t know that she’s a poet; she thinks she’s a boss copywriter. Don’t enlighten her. It might make her unhappy.

‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou Foster-child of Silence and slow Time—’

That’s the sort of thing she would have written before the rise of advertising. The correlation is perfectly clear. Advertising up, lyric poetry down. There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” he asked.

“I said you’re on the inside, Jack. There’s a responsibility that goes with power. Here in this profession we reach into the souls of men and women. We do it by taking talent and redirecting it. Nobody should play with lives the way we do unless he’s motivated by the highest ideals.”

O’Shea reassures Mitch not worry, that his motives in promoting the colonization of a nearly uninhabitable planet are pure. “I’m not in this thing for money or fame,” he says. “I’m in it so the human race can have some elbow room and dignity again.” Mitch is shocked at this answer and informs the reader that “[t]he ‘highest ideal’ I had been about to cite was Sales.”

What may not be obvious, and what it took me a while to wrap my head around, is that Mitch is not — and at no time in the novel can ever be accused of being–a cynic. Mitch is a true believer in the sacrament of Sales. He believes in the virtue of the current order–and sees nothing deceptive or self-interested in his pursuit of what he regards as the “highest ideal.” His uprightness and inability to see the horror before his eyes is, of course, partly what makes The Space Merchants so funny.

When, later in the novel, he comes to understand the ideological flaws in his worldview, he begins acting differently, ultimately bringing theory and action into alignment. Score one for traditional ideology critique!


Have things changed much since The Space Merchants was published? I’d suggest the answer is no.

A similar non-cynical commitment can be seen in the recent vogue for “neuromarketing” and “neurocinema,” a practice that involves using fMRI scans to understand more fully how we process visual and auditory stimuli while watching advertisements and films. Firms with such imaginative names as MindSign Neuromarketing, Neuro-Insight, NeuroFocus, and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Caltech are leading the effort to figure out what our brains “really” think as we watch film.

Explaining the goals of neurocinema, Peter Katz says:

Movies could easily become more effective at fulfilling the expectations of their particular genre. Theatrical directors can go far beyond the current limitations of market research to gain access into their audience’s subconscious mind. The filmmakers will be able to track precisely which sequences/scenes excite, emotionally engage or lose the viewer’s interest based on what regions of the brain are activated. From that info a director can edit, re-shoot an actor’s bad performance, adjust a score, pump up visual effects and apply any other changes to improve or replace the least compelling scenes. Studios will create trailers that will [be] more effective at winning over their intended demographic. Marketing executives will know in a TV spot whether or not to push the romance- or action-genre angle because, for example, a scene featuring the leads kissing at a coffee shop could subconsciously engage the focus group more than a scene featuring a helicopter exploding.

Their ultimate goal, of course, is to create aesthetic experiences that are utterly engrossing and irrisistable, all in the holy name of Sales, which–naturally!–only occur by supplying the autonomous consumer with What He Demands, even if this consumer doesn’t know what he is really Demanding. This is a version of what the film cartridge “Infinite Jest” does in David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus. But what is interesting to me about neuromarketing/-cinema is the degree to which our “subconscious” responses to stimuli are regarded as our “authentic” responses. The problem researchers seem to face is that consumers don’t remember films well enough to fill out surveys or that when they fill out such surveys consumers feel obligated to respond positively. Social norms and lapses in consciousness get in the way of arriving at the truth.

In short, neuromarketers/-cineasts position what they are doing as giving The People what They Really Want. What could be more non-cynical than that? And yet, the question remains: would a humanistic debunking of the idea that fMRI scans are such “authentic” or “real” representations of desire do much to derail the train of neurocinema? If not, what sort of ideology critique could?


Attempting to expose the reign of cynical reason, Žižek’s develops an idea of “ideological fantasy,” the notion that cynical subjects “do not know… that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but they are doing it as if they do not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called the ideological fantasy.”

He concludes that to the degree our ideology is encoded not in our ideas but in our collective, unconscious fantasies, “we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way–one of many ways–to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.” I am skeptical that the transfer of ideology from ideas to fantasies solves the problem, for a variety of reasons.

Isn’t the critique of ideological fantasies very much in line with traditional ideology critique, simply transferred to a new object? Don’t the examples of The Space Merchants and neurocinema suggest that the fundamental problem is the content of ideology, not its form? Given these examples, isn’t a little bit of cynicism just what we need?

* Please feel free to engage in ideology critique of my use of the term “we” in the comments section below. Or have I preempted your† ideology critique by anticipating it here in this footnote, in effect sucking you into an unconscious ideological fantasy? Don’t look at me for answers! I have no idea.

† I give up.

13 Ways of Looking at “Pac-Man”

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(Crossposted at Arcade.)

January was apparently Andrew Ross month over at Dissent.  Two articles, Jeffrey J. Williams’s “How to be an Intellectual: The Cases of Richard Rorty and Andrew Ross” (in the Winter 2011 issue of the magazine) and Kevin Mattson’s “Cult Stud Mugged” (an online original), track Ross’s evolution from a so-called cult-stud into someone more akin to an academic labor reporter.

Though the tone of each of these articles differs significantly — Mattson is by far snarkier and consquently more amusing than Williams — the upshot of each is that Ross has matured into a serious, Dissent-approved scholar after a flashy but shallow cult-stud start.  Their larger, more trenchant point is that the casualization of acadmic labor, September 11, the various wars of the last decade, and the financial crisis have collectively “mugged” cultural studies afficionados, revealing its modes of analysis to be significantly less studly that was previously imagined.

This discussion has reminded me of my own introduction to cultural studies, way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell.  Whatever may be true of Ross’s work, past and present, I think the shift away from cultural studies isn’t only about a turn toward more “serious” issues, such as grad student unionization, sweatshops, and income inequality.  I have been tracking a similar shift even in the way we analyze “merely” cultural objects.  This is where Pac-Man comes in.  I should warn my readers, that this post will only discuss two of the thirteen ways one might look at the game.


As an undergrad with semotics in my eyes, I read — and loved — Arthur Asa Berger’s Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics.  Nothing was more exciting to me than semiotics; the very word seemed magical. A science of signs?  How cool was that? Very. I enjoyed lavishly sprinkling phrases like hermeneutics and ontology into papers I would now be forced to admit probably would have been better off without such stylistic garnishes.  To get a sense of why I was a fan, I present a long quote from Berger’s analysis of Pac-Man:

We can find in “Pac Man,” I believe, a sign that a rather profound change was taking place in the American psyche. Earlier video games (and the video-game phenomenon is significant in its own right) such as “Space Invaders” and so on, involved rocket ships coursing through outer space, blasting aliens and hostile forces with ray guns, laser beams, and other weapons, and represented a very different orientation from “Pac Man.” The games were highly phallic and they also expressed a sense of freedom and openness. The games were played in outer space and one had a sense of infinite possibility.

“Pac Man,” however, represents something quite different. The game takes place in a labyrinth which implies, metaphorically, that we are all trapped, closeted in a claustrophobic situation in which the nature of things is that we must either eat or be eaten. This oral aspect of the game suggests further that there is some kind of diffuse regression taking place and we have moved from the phallic stage (guns, rockets) to the oral stage (eating, biting).

Regression often takes place in people as a means of coping with anxiety and there is good reason to suspect that the popularity of a game like “Pac Man” indicates that our young people, who play the game, are coping with their anxieties by regressing (in the service of their egos). This may be because they are, for some reason, now afraid of taking on responsibilities and feel anxious about long-term relationships and mature interpersonal sexuality. When we regress to more child-like stages we escape from the demands of adulthood–but we pay a considerable price.

It is these aspects of “Pac Man” that disturb me. On the surface it is just a game. But the nature of the game–its design, which suggests that we are all prisoners of a system from which there is no escape, and its regressive aspects–must give all who speculate about the hidden meanings in phenomena something to think about.

“Pac Man” is important because it was the most popular video game in America for several years. In the 1990s, video games are much more sophisticated and complex and use more powerful technologies. They also may be more violent, sexist and psychologically damaging.

As badly as this passage may be dated, I can still remember the sense of liberation and fun it held, and passages like it, in its capacity to bring together two seemingly irreconcilable discursive registers: pop culture and high theory. To be fair to my younger self, there was also a sense of irony and play in reading such passages. I had no illusions that Pac-Man‘s aescendency spelled or was a symptom of doom, psychopathology, and sexist regression for the youth of America. Still:  “All who speculate about the hidden meanings in phenomena”! That exactly describes the group I wanted to be a part of.


Sometime between the late nineties and today, something changed. To give a sense of what has changed, for me and for cultural studies as an enterprise, I’d like now to contrast Berger to a more recent approach to Pac-Man, drawn from Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, the first in a new series from The MIT Press called “Platform Studies,” for which Motfort and Bogost also serve as editors.  The most important insight this book offers about Pac-Man is that gaming platforms matter: there is no Pac-Man apart from the technological frameworks within which the game is realized. The following review succinctly sums up how the Atari version of Pac-Man differed from the arcade version — and why the home console verson sucked:

Let me now quote at length from Racing the Beam to indicate the insights Monfort and Bogost bring to Pac-Man:

Even before we get to the game’s hero and villains, Pac-Man’s method of drawing the maze demonstrates one of the major challenges in porting the game to the Atari VCS: time. In the arcade game, the programmer would load character values into video RAM once per maze, using the character tiles to create its boundaries. On the VCS, the maze is constructed from playfield graphics, each line of which has to be loaded from ROM and drawn separately for each scan line of the television display.

To be sure, mazes had already been displayed and explored in VCS games like Combat, Slot Racers, and Adventure. But these games had to construct their mazes from whole cloth, building them out of symmetrical playfields. The arcade incarnation of Pac-Mac demonstrates how the notion of the maze became more tightly coupled to the hardware affordances of tile-based video systems. In the arcade game, each thin wall, dot, or energizer is created by a single character from video memory. Though the method is somewhat arcane, the coin-op Pac-Man also allowed up to four colors per character in an eight-bit color space. (Each character defined six high bits as a “base” color–which is actually a reference to a color map of 256 unique colors stored in ROM–with two low bits added for each pixel of the bitmap.) This method allows the hollow, round-edged shapes that characterize the Pac-Man maze–a type of bitmap detail unavailable via VCS playfield graphics. The maze of the VCS game is simplified in structure as well as in appearance, consisting of rectangular paths and longer straight-line corridors and lacking the more intricate pathways of the arcade game.

What should be immediately apparent is that Monfort and Bogost have very little interest in approaching Pac-Man with a semiotic tool-kit; instead, they want to give an account of the form of the Atari VCS version of Pac-Man relative to the technical, economic, and temporal limitations constraining its development.  More than anything, their fantastic little book reads like a technically-literate guided tour or history of the game console.

More and more, I find myself drawn away from the approach to studying culture and the arts represented by Berger and toward the richly rendered historical, technical, and formal description offered by accounts such as Racing the Beam.  Those three registers — the historical, technical, and formal — turn out to be tightly linked together.  You simply can’t discuss one without discussing the others.  Such rich descriptions must always be pressed into the service of larger arguments, of course; technical description for its own sake is of little interest apart from the claims such description serves.  Yet a close attention to technical details allows Monfort and Bogost to paint a richer picture of these early Atari games than a non-technical treatment could.  One comes away from this history with a renewed sense of how amazingly creative early game developers were.


This is a longwinded way of suggesting that the shift away from the older cult-stud model — which these Dissent essays register — seems not only to apply to political, economic, and historical questions, but also to textual analysis and to the study of culture as such.  To my mind, this shift is almost all for the good, though it is in some ways less fun than the earlier model.

The Postironic Art of Charlie Kaufman

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(Crossposted from Arcade.)

I’d like to point my loyal readers to the amazing introduction Charlie Kaufman wrote for Synecdoche, New York: The Shooting Script, which is available over at The Rumpus. I would summarize the introduction and analyze it — I am almost unable to resist the temptation — but to do so would ruin the pleasure and surprise of the thing itself.

Suffice it to say, I consider Kaufman’s ouvre to be a species of what I call postirony; indeed, Kaufman’s body of work was instrumental for me — along with the work of David Foster Wallace and Chris Ware — in suggesting the need for such a term in the first place.  By postirony, I mean the use of metafictional or postmodernist (usually narrative) techniques in the pursuit of what amounts to the pursuit of humanistic or traditional themes:  the desire to “really connect” to other people, the project of cultivating sincerity, the wish to move beyond systems-level analysis of the world toward an analysis of character, the new centrality of “narrative” and “storytelling” in experimental works.  It doubly suffices to say that the details get pretty complicated pretty quickly, so I won’t go into those details here.

Kaufman’s introduction, here, takes us in a remarkably short space from a kind of metafiction that initially seems cynical and mercenary toward self-transcendence, human connection, and the mutuality of love.  It’s awesome.

Infinite Summer and New Models of Online Scholarship

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(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’d like to use my bloggy pulpit to draw your attention to a draft of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s essay, “Infinite Summer: Reading the Social Network,” which discusses the origin and signifiance of an online effort to read Infinite Jest the summer after David Foster Wallace’s suicide.

This essay is destined to become part of a collection of essays on David Foster Wallace, which I am co-editing with Sam Cohen, called The Legacy of David Foster Wallace: Critical and Creative Assessments. The collection is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press.

Beyond the content of the essay, I want to start a conversation about the future of scholarship and academic communities on the Internet. Along with group blogs (Arcade, The Valve, Crooked Timber, and countless group and personal blogs), there are journals that publish exclusively online (electronic book review), wiki-like resources dedicated to certain fields (Modernism Lab at Yale), and electronic “gateway” or aggregator sites (Nines).

What is new, as far as I know, about the model Fitzpatrick is using is that she is getting commentary on her drafts of written essays through an “open” peer review process. She has gone through this open review process with her new book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Internet (which is also forthcoming from NYU Press) and she has gone so far as to put her first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (which Vanderbilt first published in 2006), online in full.

In a sense, Fitzpatrick is “blogging” this essay — she is using WordPress as a framework to make her essay available — but the open-source WordPress theme/plugin (CommentPress) she is using facilitates reading her text like a book and commenting on individual pages and paragraphs. There have been other projects that led to the development of this framework, including McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, which was subsequently published by Harvard UP.

All of this leads me to ask a few questions: What are the advantages and disadvantages of showing work in progress online and inviting commentary? Is there any reason why, a few years after a work of scholarship has come out, and in the overwhelming majority of cases has sold most of what it will ever sell, we should not all be placing our books online? Are we too print-bound? Too locked into norms that guarantee that our work is inaccessible to vast majority of readers? Or are there good reasons for keeping our systems of scholarly dissemination more or less as they are today?

I ask these questions without much of an agenda. Rather, I’d like to spark a conversation that will help me think through these issues.

Zadie Smith, Facebook, and the Game Layer

in Facebook, Jaron Lanier, New York Review of Books, Seth Priebatsch, Zadie Smith

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

In the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith has written an interesting review of Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network that doubles as a critique of Facebook.  Smith rhetorically positions herself as a sort of luddite or dinosaur, a defender of what she calls "Person 1.0" against the debasements wrought upon — and by — a generation of "People 2.0."  Drawing on the arguments of Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, Smith suggests that Facebook entraps us "in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore":  

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?

Initially, I felt that Smith’s argument bordered on alarmism — a sort of critical low-hanging fruit for the Smart Set.  Who, after all, really thinks that the existence of a memorial means the person so memorialized continues "in some sense" to live?  Doesn’t Facebook merely supplement our personhood, not replace it, giving us new channels through which to express or constitute whatever greater totality we are?  Didn’t advertisers think of us as little more than our capacity to buy well before Facebook ever came into the world?

After a bit of thought, though, I recalled recently seeing this video on the construction of a "game layer" over reality, which speaks very much to Smith’s concerns–

–and I came to think Smith may have a point, though I also offer this video as a way of reformulating or restating Smith’s argument.  In the terms of this reformulation, the issue isn’t so much that we become 2.0 folk when we enmesh ourselves in electronic systems such as Facebook.  Instead, the question is one that is relevant in all areas of political, economic, and social significance:  Who designs the systems we are embedded within?  Who gets to build — and who has the technical expertise to build — the frameworks or, as Priebatsch puts it in this video, the "game dynamics" that incentivize certain behaviors and suppress others?  In an era increasingly obsessed with behavioral economics and its myriad "nudges," who is nudging you — and how?

Hipsters and the New Gilded Age

in hipsters, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Mark Greif, new gilded age, Richard Lloyd

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’d like to post a few comments on Mark Greif’s excellent essay, "What was the Hipster?" which was published in New York magazine and is part of a new book of the same name put out by the n+1 Foundation.


Greif’s essay has led me to reflect on some theories I’ve been cultivating, in the darkest recesses of my academic mind, over the last year. Sometime in the middle of 2009, I became convinced that literature — and the support systems that give it life — don’t arise from a vacuum, though literary critics often treat it as if it does. This thought is, in a sense, quite elementary:  writers and readers develop within specific institutional contexts — educational, economic, and juridical, which are necessary for literature to flourish.  My own sense of literary possibility, my own love of certain writers, arose within such institutions.  As a correlary, I have become convinced that, though critics endlessly love to complain about it, the midcentury ascendence of middlebrow culture (and the authority of the literary novel in the United States) is intimately tied to the history of the middle class, which as a group has the resources, education, and leisure to produce and consume such literature.  Though these institutions, and the forms of authority they have engendered, have often excluded and marginalized nonwhites, women, nonheterosexuals, among others, our goal should be to make our institutions more egalitarian, more inclusive, more reflective of our highest aspirations for freedom and creative life.

All of this isn’t to say that the relationship between the middle class and literature is in any way simple or mechanical, nor do I mean to imply that only the middle class produces literary readers and writers — such a claim would be absurd — but I would claim that the rise of the middle class after World War II played a decisive, and in many ways positive, role in shaping contemporary reading publics and constructing an environment in which literary art could flourish on a historically unprecedented scale.

If these claims are true, then the gradual but persistent erosion of the middle class — what many, including the economist Paul Krugman, have called the "new gilded age" — foretells the coming of a "correction" — perhaps massive, perhaps middling in scope — within literary culture, a correction for the worse. This correction has been the story of American literature since the early 1970s:  the destruction of the midlist, the rise of celebrity authors, the mania of the book auction, the quiet transformation of reading publics. Though magnificent literary work continues to be be written and published — and we should have no doubt that great art will continue do be created — the conditions under which art is produced and consumed are growing more constricted, leading many creative writers to take refuge in the University, if they’re lucky. While many critics blame technology and mass media for declining mass interest in serious literature — and some critics, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick, make the claim that the discourse of the death of the novel arises from male white anxiety about the multicultural expansion of literary culture — I think changes within our socioeconomic life since the early 1970s are a crucial and understudied part of the story.


(1) It is in the context of these reflections that I think we must understand what the hipster is and what he (the hipster is almost invariably male) portends for the relationship between economic and cultural life. I should say from the outset that the sort of hipster Greif is talking about has only a glancing relationship to the midcentury hipster celebrated by Anatole Broyard, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer; there is much to say about this earlier incarnation of the hipster (in my dissertation, I wrote almost eighty pages on the midcentury hipster), but this figure bears little connection to what we mean today when we call someone a hipster.

Greif describes the contemporary hipster this way:

When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present.

The matrix from which the hipster emerged included the dimension of nineties youth culture, often called alternative or indie, that defined itself by its rejection of consumerism. Yet in an ethnography of Wicker Park, Chicago, in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Lloyd showed how a culture of aspiring artists who worked day jobs in bars and coffee shops could unintentionally provide a milieu for new, late-capitalist commerce in design, marketing, and web development. The neo-bohemian neighborhoods, near to the explosion of new wealth in city financial centers, became amusement districts for a new class of rich young people. The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction

And, elaborating on the hipster’s relationship to oppositional culture and the avant-garde, Greif concludes:

One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.

Though well-observed and pleasantly cutting — as a resident of San Francisco’s Mission district, I can testify to the accuracy of this assessment — Greif misses an opportunity to decisively define the new breed of hipster, let alone find adequate grounds for critiquing this figure, and he proceeds instead through the accretion of examples and the dropping of accurate hipster brand names (showing, of course, his own critical hipness). Greif gives us a hint of a truely critical definition of the hipster in his discussion of Richard Lloyd’s terrific 2005 study, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, but he misses what may be Lloyd’s most startling point. The neo-bohemian enclaves of Wicker Park, Williamsburg, and the Mission are filled with aspiring artists and "creative-class" quasiprofessionals who accept disempowering, low-wage work in the creative service economy as a sign of distinction and liberation.  These new hipsters are just waiting for their big break while waiting tables.

In my own work, which builds on Lloyd’s study, I define the contemporary hipster as a type of person who is intensely focused on a process of self-making by means of strategic consumption. That is, the hipster constructs an identity by becoming something like a professional shopper, an "early adopter" of trends and fashions, as Greif rightly points out. What the hipster disavows is, quite specifically, an awareness of his class situation. What is the hipster’s class situation? Fundamentally, I would argue, the hipster is a child of the middle class, typically college educated, who — as Lloyd points out — has abandoned the project of reproducing his class status in order to enter the perpetual carnival of the lifestyle service industry. College degree in hand, the hipster works in coffee shops, in bars, as a permanent intern, aspires to artistic greatness, and is enjoying his relative penury, which is convenient because during the "new gilded age" there simply aren’t enough jobs to reproduce the hipster’s class, even if he wanted to.

(2) This leads me to a second critique of Greif’s argument. Perhaps inadvertently, "What was the hipster?" reproduces the authenticity-seeking imperative of hipness. In his important books, The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God, Thomas Frank’s point isn’t that rebel consumers constitute a "fake" counterculture but rather that counterculture is, and has always been, completely harmonious with the ethic of consumption. Malcolm Cowley got it right when he diagnosed the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village as, at root, a "consumption ethic," observing in 1934 that "self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match," that "[l]iving for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow." The notion that hipsters ought, like "real" counterculturalists — by Greif’s account, "bike messengers, straight-edge skaters, Lesbian Avengers, freegans, enviro-anarchists, and interracial hip-hoppers who live as they please" — raise "a spiritual middle finger" in the face of authority misses the salient point that (like Broyard’s midcentury hipsters) the middle finger in question is only ever spiritual or symbolic. Is a middle-finger-waving Lesbian Avenger, who feel spiritually good, but has no political power, in any better situation than the ever vilified hipster?

(3) I would thus emphasize that what is missing from Greif’s analysis of the new hipster is a robust notion of class as well as a critique of the way in which the imaginative life of the hipster is premised on certain kinds of obfuscations and short-term magical thinking. The hipster is a person who is convinced he is going to be a Great Artist — even if his art is a form of lifestyle or brand management — and he tells himself that he will keep working that bartending job another year, keep working as a barista until his band, his brand, his novel takes flight. There will, of course, come a time of reckoning — what I have sometimes described to friends as a Great Sucking Sound — as the college-educated aesthetes of the middle class find themselves unable to reproduce their class status. Some would-be hipsters will find salvation in grad school, some will make their way into elite law schools, and some will rediscover their inner management consultant, but not all of them will, not enough.  After the reckoning to come, the pool of the middle class will have shrunk, and the children of hipsters will, when taken as a group, find themselves unable to reproduce the neo-bohemian folkways of their fathers and mothers. Unless, of course, the middle finger they raise ceases to be symbolic or spiritual.


I write all of this not to counsel despair or cynicism. Quite the opposite. I think that the seeds of genuine opposition to authority — of an art-loving coalition committed to unmaking the new gilded age — might need to find grounds other than the symbolic or the spiritual. My premise is that by understanding our situation, we can work to change it. Am I wrong to think so?

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The Xtranormal Future of the Humanities

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

In the spirit of continuing the conversation we have been having on Arcade about Stanley Fish, the recent axing of French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theatre at SUNY Albany, and the future of the humanities, I’d like to present this video (h/t Mark Vega).

This is a video created using "xtranormal," a service that allows one to choreograph computer generated figurines, creating primitive animated three dimensional storyboards, based on text inputs. While painful and funny — especially for those of us who are on the job market this year — xtranormal raises interesting questions about possible new directions in the development of narrative art, giving us a hint of what is to come, what critics will have to give consideration to.

The tools with which this video were created are relatively primitive, but should we expect narrative art of considerable sophistication to be created using tools such as this in the near future? It seems clear to me that the answer is yes — we will in a not-too-near future be inundated by animated narrative in huge quantities. And, as I hope this video makes plain, such videos can be incredibly intelligent and engaging. Of course, anyone who has ever watched South Park — or, as I have, taught episodes of South Park in a course — already knows this.

In a future where anyone, working more or less alone, can construct films of (increasing) sophistication, will the ultimate promise of being a novelist — sole, individual control over one’s artistic output, at least in theory — give way to a world of one-person moviemakers? Will all classic literature be mediated by a new layer of animated figures acting out plots and scenarios originally written in novelistic form? If so, is this a bad thing? Are there pedagogical opportunities such systems offer teachers willing to embed new media in the classroom?

Lacanian Lipstick on an Unconscious Pig

in Adam Serwer, Amy Hungerford, Fredric Jameson, Gavin Miller, Jacques Lacan, Philip Roth, Philosophy and Literature, psychoanalysis, The Human Stain

(Crossposted at ARCADE.)

Gavin Miller has a written a fascinating article,"The Apathetic Fallacy," in the April 2010 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Following up on the arguments made by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in "Against Theory," Miller argues that the humanities are plagued by a wide-ranging — and harmful — taboo against speaking about intentionality and subjective epistemology.  Our main mistake, he contends, is that we mistake objective ontology with objective epistemology.  Because we aspire to be scientific, we dismiss arguments that rely on introspection and fear the consequences of accepting "first-person warranted claims" (a fear first expressed by advocates of behaviorist psychology).  This leads to absurd readings of texts, such as Fredric Jameson’s famous Lacan-inspired misreading of Bob Perelman’s "China," which allegedly exemplifies the schizophrenic breakdown of signifying chains under conditions of late capitalism.

Let me share my favorite paragraph of Miller’s essay, an example meant to illustrate the limitations of Lacanian psychoanalysis: 

The ethics of the Lacanian “unconscious” are, I believe, less than benign. The interpretative practice that Fink describes seems indistinguishable from the hermeneutics of abuse directed at Barack Obama for his 2008 campaign comment that “you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” This remark was meant as a metaphor for Republican policy, but was interpreted by the Republicans as a reference to Sarah Palin’s candidature for Vice-President. The “pig” in the metaphor, they insisted, was Palin, who had earlier joked—with implicit reference to herself—that the difference between “a hockey mom and a pit bull [terrier]” was “lipstick.” Had only the Republicans been more Lacanian, they could have added that Obama’s repudiation of this interpretation indicated his pre-analytic investment in a specular image of wholeness and self-identity.

This example neatly expresses the crux of Miller’s argument, revealing both its strengths and the questions it begs. lipstick on a pigMiller is in essence asking, what kind of loon would blame Obama for calling Sarah Palin a lipstick-wearing pig?  George Saunders might say this kind:

So, when Barack Obama says he will put some lipstick on my pig, I am, like, Are you calling me a pig? If so, thanks! Pigs are the most non-Élite of all barnyard animals. And also, if you put lipstick on my pig, do you know what the difference will be between that pig and a pit bull? I’ll tell you: a pit bull can easily kill a pig. And, as the pig dies, guess what the Hockey Mom is doing? Going to her car, putting on more lipstick, so that, upon returning, finding that pig dead, she once again looks identical to that pit bull, which, staying on mission, the two of them step over the dead pig, looking exactly like twins, except the pit bull is scratching his lower ass with one frantic leg, whereas the Hockey Mom is carrying an extra hockey stick in case Todd breaks his again. But both are going, like, Ha ha, where’s that dumb pig now? Dead, that’s who, and also: not a smidge of lipstick.

A lose-lose for the pig.

As the political blogger Adam Serwer has recently argued, the American right has increasingly taken up the mantle of identity politics — "an identity politics which perceives persecution, and possible extinction, for a culturally constructed usually white, conservative, ‘real American’" — embracing the politically correct tendencies formerly associated with liberalism.  More and more, I would add, it is the left (more so even than liberalism) that is opposing identity politics, trying to make connections, to disrupt the absurdist malfunction of reasoning that Saunders represents in the form of his narrator’s damaged discourse.  Which is not to say that Saunders doesn’t also reinforce some hoary culture war stereotypes — his satire was, after all, published in the New Yorker, and seems to complain that supporters of Palin aren’t merely wrong, but stupid.  My minimal point, though, is that the apathetic fallacy Miller discusses is a bipartisan affair on the American political scene.

But is there no defense we might mount of Saunders’s narrator’s misinterpretation of Obama or Jameson’s misreading of Perelman?  I am certainly a fan of referring to intentionality in critical arguments I make.  I’ve spent a considerable about of time in archives this summer and during previous summers looking for evidence to justify my various critical claims, on the assumption that authorial intention matters.  But isn’t the common confusion of intended-meaning with what we might call significance, well, significant?

And, if we are to speak of the ethical dimensions of how we use language, to what degree should we hold someone responsible for the significance of the words they use?  To what degree is it valid to judge the success of art in terms of its effect on its consumer?  It seems hard to maintain that intention should always trump significance.  Aesthetic responses are, to different degrees, grounded upon our appreciation of the nonsemantic qualities of speech, as Amy Hungerford points out on her recent study, Postmodern Belief.  We frequently treat the nonsemantic — the aesthetic, cultural, social, historical — as though it were a kind of meaning or had the force of meaning.  Whole artistic movements have been built around such conflations.  Should we simply banish or ignore these movements?  Judge them as failures because they get their theory wrong?

This sort of confusion is at the heart of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, a novel that revolves around the "politically correct" misapprehension of intention.  Coleman Silk, a classics professor at Athena College, is punished as racist for using the word "spook" in reference to two absent black students, despite the fact that he meant the expression to have no racist meaning.  He was merely referring to the ghost-like absence of his students, he explains.  And yet Roth is too cagy to simply come out on the side of intention, against significance, though his sympathies pretty clearly lie with Silk.  After all, Roth might have constructed his parable of political correctness run amok without also making Silk someone who is passing for white and as a Jew.  This plot development exposes some of the limits of grounding critical analysis in the investigation of intentionality.  Can Silk "intend" himself white?  Clearly, Silk doesn’t think so.  He believes that his blackness is a function of who he is, not what he means or what he does.  Otherwise, there would be no such practice as "passing."  As Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, without a sense of racial essentialism, a "passing" Coleman Silk would simply be white because he is taken as white. 

But if blackness isn’t what Silk does, but rather who he is, then he shouldn’t be able to submit his blackness as evidence that he is not racist, at least not if he believes that it is only his intentions that ought to count in judging his language.  His blackness is, because he understands himself to be passing, definitionally not a function of his intentions and meanings.  So, paradoxically, Silk is submitting his blackness (who he is) as evidence that he could not be making a racist statement (what he means), despite the fact that being who he is by definition has no meaning if intention is what really matters.  It only has significance.  Ergo, Silk must be saying something like, "As a black man, I am alive to the significance of racist words and phrases.  It is therefore reasonable for you to assume that I would not use words with a pejorative significance.  From this set of facts, you can reverse-engineer my intention and my true meaning."  

So even Silk must rest his self-defense on the notion that there ought limits to what one can say — he implicitly accepts these limits, tacitly claims to be very much aware of them — regardless of one’s true intentions.  Though he avoids the apathetic fallacy, his difference from his persecutors is one of degree, not kind.  Silk continues to believe, as the administration of Athena College does, that you are obliged to confront common or public interpretations of your words even if those interpretations don’t express your real intention.  Just as one cannot defend oneself when breaking the law by claiming not to know the law — "I shouldn’t be fined because I didn’t know I was supposed to curb my dog!" — one cannot disown the significance of one’s language.  This in no way is meant to be a judgment about what specific consequences should follow from violating these socially determined limits, only to say that Silk seems to be on the same page as his enemies.

Bringing this discussion back to "The Apathetic Fallacy," I find myself agreeing with Miller that we should not commit the apathetic fallacy — we should not discount subjective epistemology or confuse objectivity in epistemology with objectivity in ontology — but I do feel we should also guard against the false belief that in not committing this fallacy we have excised the responsibility that we have for our words (both their meaning and their significance).  Miller doesn’t seem to hold to a strong version of this view, but in the Manichean cultures that have defined literary study over the last thirty years, and here Michaels can be deemed as guilty as those who he often rightly disagrees with, swinging too far the other way is a… significant risk.  

Op-Ed Preview: WikiLeaks vs. Top Secret America

in Uncategorized

My satirical political novel "Pop Apocalypse" presents a future world in which the U.S. goes on an invasion spree around the world. Among other places, I had my fictional U.S. invade Iceland. It seemed like a great gag: Why would the U.S. want to invade a tiny country of 250,000 people in the Arctic Circle whose most notable export is Bjork?

But reality always finds a way of outrunning satire. On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen suggested that Iceland is, in effect, aiding an enemy of the U.S., Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Last week, WikiLeaks released more than 90,000 classified documents related to the Afghan war, which paint a ground-level picture of the war far grimmer than official pronouncements.

Assange often works from Iceland. Thiessen thinks the government can — and by implication should — consider "not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business.

So should we expect drone strikes over Iceland? Will the U.S. render Assange to a black site? Will he be held indefinitely in a cell as an enemy combatant?

To read the rest of "WikiLeaks vs. Top Secret America," visit AOL News.

Thanks to Gina Misiroglu for connecting me to AOL.