“The Sonnet Is Dead”, a sonnet by Joanna Cleary

From the Summer 2018 issue of Temz Review here is a sonnet (of course) by Joanna Cleary. I like its ironic treatment of contemporary lit crit certainties. And of course, the poem itself subverts the title:

The Sonnet is Dead
By Joanna Cleary

The sonnet is dead; we’ve talked it to death.
Love is complicated, political.
And what could be more complicated than
a sonnet? They are always ironic,
my professor said sternly to the class.
Always. The idea is ironized
in the sestet. I was still half-asleep,
retracing my pen over the octave,
thinking that it first could have been written
on a day as rain-splattered as today,
and the poet could have walked home slowly
with both feet wet from stepping in puddles
as sunlight appeared in the sky again
to touch water drops shining on cobwebs.

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David Monacchi: “Fragments of Extinction”, the sounds of vanishing nature

With the prospect of mass extinction in the news, it seems a good time to reflect on the loss of soundscapes. In Ireland, the corncrake and the curlew were once the background sounds of daily life; now they are nearly vanished.

I have posted before about nature recording artists such as Gordon Hempton and Chris Watson who have captured soundscapes in the natural world that one hopes will not vanish altogether. I came across David Monacchi and his Fragments of Extinction project.

Monacchi records (and streams) soundscapes from the dwindling number of intact, untouched forests around the world. What makes his work especially compelling is the clarity with which he illustrates how these ecosystems have a panoply of harmonious acoustic niches, across species and genera. The best way to get a sense is this short video:

https://vimeo.com/306680713/description

L.M. Sacasas on accusations of romanticising the past.

At The Frailest Thing blog, L.M. Sacasas identifies something I’ve often noticed and wish there was a handy word for:

Steven Pinker and Jason Hickel have recently engaged in a back-and-forth about whether or not global poverty is decreasing. The first salvo was an essay by Hickel in the Guardian targeting claims made by Bill Gates. Pinker responded here, and Hickel posted his rejoinder at his site.

I’ll let you dive in to the debate if you’re so inclined. The exchange is of interest to me, in part, because evaluations of modern technology are often intertwined with this larger debate about the relative merits of what, for brevity’s sake, we may simply call modernity (although, of course, it’s complicated).

I’m especially interested in a rhetorical move that is often employed in these kinds of debates:  it amounts to the charge of romanticizing the past.

So, for example, Pinker claims, “Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence.” I’ll note in passing Hickel’s response, summed up in this line: “All of this violence, and much more, gets elided in your narrative and repackaged as a happy story of progress. And you say I’m the one possessed of romantic fairy tales.” Hickel, in my view, gets the better of Pinker on this point.

In any case, the trope is recurring and, as I see it, tiresome. I wrote about it quite early in the life of this blog when I explained that I did not, in fact, wish to be a medieval peasant.

More recently, Matt Stoller tweeted, “When I criticize big tech monopolies the bad faith response is often a variant of ‘so you want to go back to horses and buggies?!?’” Stoller encountered some variant of this line so often that he was searching for a simple term by which to refer to it. It’s a Borg Complex symptom, as far as I’m concerned.

At a forum about technology and human flourishing I recently attended, the moderator, a fine scholar whose work I admire, explicitly cautioned us in his opening statements against romanticizing the past.

It would take no time at all to find similar examples, especially if you expand “romanticizing the past” to include the equally common charge of reactionary nostalgia. Both betray a palpable anxiousness about upholding the superiority of the present.

Reminds me of David Cooper’s “shouting about humankind being part of nature may mask a fear that it is nothing of the sort.”  One wishes for a handy German term.  Or some other neologism.

” To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often”

It’s been a while since I posted anything linking to Adam deVille’s blog but I was struck by the title of the book he considers here. I am curious to find out the context of this phrase of the soon-to-be-canonized Newman:

To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often: The Development of John Henry Newman’s Ecclesiological Outlook, 1845–1877 by Ryan J. Marr (Fortress Academic, 2018), 234pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

This study approaches John Henry Newman’s writings on the church from a fresh perspective by examining the development of Newman’s ecclesiological outlook over time. It demonstrates that it can be misleading to refer to Newman’s “Catholic ecclesiology” (singular), because such an approach gives the impression that Newman maintained a stable ecclesiological perspective during his Roman Catholic period. In reality, Newman’s outlook on the church underwent significant developments over the last four decades of his life. As a result of various events in his life, including the Rambler affair and his experience of the First Vatican Council, Newman slowly developed an ecclesiological outlook that counterbalanced the authority of the pope and bishops with a robust account of the role of theologians and the lay faithful in the reception and transmission of church doctrine. Whether consciously or not, Newman left his ecclesiological writings open for further development on the part of theologians who would follow after him.

The always-interesting deVille has a a forthcoming book on the radical (yet also traditional) structural reforms he holds the Catholic Church needs to make to fundamentally address the crisis of sexual abuse and the associated abuse of trust and power. Presumably this book draws on Newman’s thought on these matters.

Apologetic temperance

At The Frailest Thing, LM Sacasas has a post on digital detox provoked by this New York Times piece by Kevin Roose. The whole thing (in both cases) is worth reading. I found this Sacasas observation resonated:

It’s always interesting to me to note the preemptive framings such pieces feel they must deploy. They reveal a lot about their rhetorical context. For example, “I confess that entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton.” Or, more pointedly, this: “Sadly, there is no way to talk about the benefits of digital disconnection without sounding like a Goop subscriber or a neo-Luddite. Performative wellness is obnoxious, as is reflexive technophobia.”

The implicit fear that commending tech temperance might earn one the label of neo-Luddite is especially telling. Of course, the fear itself already cedes too much ground to the Luddite bashers and to the Borgs, who use the term as an a-historical slur.

Those of us who have reservations about the direction technology takes us often adopt this apologetic, throat-clearing tone. The fear of seeming Luddite or in some way anti-progess haunts us. Why? Why is this fear so intense?

One could speculate. One could speculate that our culture is replete with rather vapid yet pervasive buzz about disruption, change, the folly of trying to keep things the same. Change is the only constant, that sort of thing.

Or maybe it is something totally other.

You are not alone: the word “sonder”

I recently came across the word “sonder”

Coined in 2012 by John Koenig, whose project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, aims to come up with new words for emotions that currently lack words.[1][2]Related to German sonder- (special) and French sonder (to probe).[3]

(neologism) The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

I am not that sure how I feel about it. As with solastalgia I am somewhat suspcious of the resort to neologism. I have a nagging sense that there is another, already existing word for this… perhaps I should think of a word for this nagging sense.

I posted this review of “How To Build An Android: The True Story of Philip K Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” by David Dufty on the SF Site in 2013 – I originally reblogged this on the fairly quiet A Medical Education, but here it is on my more popular blog….:

 

How to Build an Android:
The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection
David F. Dufty
Henry Holt and Company, 273 pages

Just over seven years ago, the head of Philip K Dick went missing from an America West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. A tired roboticist, transferring the talking robotic replication of Dick’s head from one tech presentation to another, left it in an overhead baggage locker. An incident which has already inspired a radio play (Gregory Whitehead’sBring Me The Head of Philip K Dick) and received substantial media coverage at the time, it initially seemed to me somewhat too slight to merit book-length treatment. Perhaps a long piece in Wired would do it justice. And indeed, surveying what other reviewers have made of the book (David F. Dufty has handily compiled prior reviews, including poor ones, on his website), I find that some have concluded with my initial impression. For instance, New Scientist‘s Sally Adee found “50 pages of detailed historical introductions to every last person involved in the android project… Dufty recounts conversations in exhausting detail, and finds nothing too small or insignificant to share with the reader: we learn where the Starbucks is at several convention centres, we learn of one room that “the frame was made out of timber.” We learn that Google created a famous search engine.”

I however found Adee’s criticism unfair, and somewhat beside the point. Dufty, a postdoc in the University of Memphis at the same time as many of the events described and therefore working with many of the personalities involved, has crafted a readable narrative which ranges from the nature of academic politics (and the grant applications that take up most of any senior researchers time) to the distinctions between Alan Turing’s and Philip K Dick’s visions of what distinguishes — or could distinguish — computers from humans. In the end, the book dealt with weighty themes, some of the weightiest themes we can think of. As Henry Markham of the Blue Brain project so eloquently describes in his TED talk on the subject, computational simulation of the human brain is one of the grandest challenges we can conceive (and possibly an unattainable one, although that’s another debate) Dufty may have a somewhat flat, deadpan style, but it reminded me of the dictum (possibly one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s) that extraordinary narratives should have an unadorned, simple style.

If the book has a protagonist, it is the man who left the head in the overhead luggage compartment on that fateful flight, David Hanson, a trained sculptor turned roboticist who passionately argued — contra to the prevailing wisdom in the robotics community that aesthetics don’t matter — that beautiful and lifelike humanoid robots were crucial in the development of robots that would truly revolutionise our lives. Hanson emphatically rejected the notion of the “uncanny valley,” the supposed phenomenon whereby, as robotic models and digital representations of humans come closer and closer to being lifelike (while missing the mark slightly), we are more and more repulsed. Intuitively the uncanny valley makes sense to many, yet as Hanson has pointed out there is a lack of empirical evidence to support its existence.

Artificial intelligence has evolved to become focused on specific tasks, often those of intellectual prowess (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) rather than the overall simulation of human mental functioning in all its manifestations. This has lead to great, headline-catching successes (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) but has arguably lead away from a visionary, transformational view of the possibilities of AI. Hanson advocates approach to robotics grounded more in a gestalt view of humanity and human-ness than the mere performance of tasks in isolation, and one which emphasises the aesthetic nature of the whole android concept. For Hanson, leaps of scientific progress are as much artistic and aesthetic as anything else. Dufty describes the combination of sculpting craft and high tech that goes into the creation of a Hanson style robot very well.

Philip K Dick was an ideal candidate for potential immortalisation as a robot head in many ways. Obviously, his fiction had dealt explicitly with themes of humanity and humanoid robots, and the difficulty distinguishing between them. Empathy, rather than Turing’s imitable intellectual functioning, was the key. Dick has become more than a cult figure and is now widely regarded as a key American author of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Any Dick related project will garner attention, and the project coincided with the production of the Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly, and indeed was identified as a publicity aid for the film. Also, Dick’s reputation as a sort of neo-gnostic eccentric meant that elliptical or cryptic responses which might otherwise be seen as failures of artificial intelligence would be seen as just typical Philip K Dick.

Another characteristic of Dick made him an ideal subject for such a project. Although he was dead and therefore his head couldn’t be directly modelled from life, there was a vast archive of conversations he had had with all comers in his California bungalow in the 70s, when his house had been a sort of perpetual symposium of dropouts and outcasts with whom he would hold court. These conversations covered a vast range of topics, esoteric and everyday, which allowed the team to create a bank of possible responses to a great deal of questions. They also programmed some standard responses to questions such as “what is your name?” They never programmed Dick with a response to “do androids dream of electric sheep?”

The head was a hit at the various conferences and exhibitions it was displayed at, to the extent that each member of the public who patiently queued up to meet it could only have a minute or two of interaction. Dick’s daughters were consulted about the project, and after being convinced of the good intentions of those involved agree, but had an understandable ambivalence about it. The head did tend to get caught in infinite verbal loops, which the roboticists tried to manage by creating a “kill switch” to terminate logorrheic conversations. In its exhibited life the head was, to a certain degree, something of a Mechanical Turk, with a human behind the scenes desperately trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneous conversation.

I was reading the English psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissaryaround the same time as Dufty’s book. McGilchrist’s book is a massive, sweeping, visionary book which argues that the division between the two hemispheres of the brain — the one which is grossly simplified into the dichotomy of logical left brain and creative right brain — has been not only a determinant of human history and culture but THE great determinant. McGilchrist has marshalled an enormously impressive range of philosophical, empirical, artistic and other forms of evidence for his argument, and while it is not utterly persuasive in all respects and hemispherical specialisation is itself far from a binary, dichotomous phenomenon, it is a book worth arguing with. In any case, McGilchrist again and again assails what he terms the left-brain tendency towards decontextualized analysis and away from an appreciation of holistic and of nuance. Artificial Intelligence’s turn to a task-focused approach is, in McGilchrist’s terms, a classic case of the triumph of the left brain.

Dufty’s book is deceptive. Initially it seems a rather bald account of the story of Dick’s head, but it builds into a thought-provoking book. Dufty marries the exciting, speculative world of contemporary AI and robotics with the prosaic reality of grant applications and presentations at noisy, busy, conferences. There is an amusing thread of Talking Heads references throughout — indeed David Byrne is a not insignificant player in the story . One of these references is slightly off the mark though — while Talking Heads did do a version of “Take Me To The River,” it is originally an Al Green song. Why does this come up? You’ll have to read the book to see.