“A wonderful moral substitute for war”

Oliver Morton and I belong to the generation sometimes dubbed Apollo’s orphans. We grew up dazzled (rightly) by Apollo’s achievement. It left us, however, with the unshakable (and wrong) belief that our enthusiasm was common, something to do with what we were taught to call humanity’s “outward urge”. The refrain was constant: how in people there was this inborn desire to leave their familiar surroundings and explore strange new worlds. Nonsense. Over a century elapsed between Columbus’s initial voyage and the first permanent English settlements. And yet this urge felt so visceral, so essential to one’s idea of oneself: how could it possibly turn out to be the psychic artefact of a passing political moment?

Reading Oliver Morton’s The Moon and Robert Stone and Alan Adres’s Chasing the Moon for The Telegraph, 18 May 2019

 

 

Asking for it

Capital is not the point here. Neither is capitalism. The point is our relationship with information. Amazon’s algorithms are sucking all the localism out of the retail system, to the point where whole high streets have vanished — and entire communities with them. Amazon is in part powered by the fatuous metricisation of social variety through systems of scores, rankings, likes, stars and grades, which are (not coincidentally) the methods by which social media structures — from clownish Twitter to China’s Orwellian Social Credit System — turn qualitative differences into quantitative inequalities.

Reading The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social by Steffen Mau (Polity Press) for the Times Literary Supplement, 30 April 2019 

“The English expedition of 1919 is to blame for this whole misery”

‘The English expedition of 1919 is ultimately to blame for this whole misery, by which the general masses seized possession of me,’ Einstein once remarked. Charlie Chaplin understood his appeal: ‘They cheer me because they all understand me,’ he remarked, accompanying the theoretical physicist to a film premiere, ‘and they cheer you because no one understands you.’

Four books to celebrate the centenary of  Eddington’s 1919 eclipse observations. For The Spectator, 11 May 2019.

 

Choose-your-own adventure

Reading The Importance of Small Decisions by Michael O’Brien, R. Alexander Bentley and William Brock for New Scientist, 13 April 2019

What if you could map all kinds of human decision-making and use it to chart society’s evolution?

This is what academics Michael O’Brien, Alexander Bentley and William Brock try to do in The Importance of Small Decisions. It is an attempt to expand on a 2014 paper, “Mapping collective behavior in the big-data era”, that they wrote in Behavioral and Brain Sciences . While contriving to be somehow both too short and rambling, it bites off more than it can chew, nearly chokes to death on the ins and outs of group selection, and coughs up its best ideas in the last 40 pages.

Draw a graph. The horizontal axis maps decisions according to how socially influenced they are. The vertical axis tells you how clear the costs and pay-offs are for each decision. Rational choices sit in the north-western quadrant of the map. To the north-east, bearded capuchins teach each other how to break into palm nuts in a charming example of social learning (pictured). Twitter storms generated by fake news swirl about the south-east.

The more choices you face, the greater the cognitive load. The authors cite economist Eric Beinhocker, who in The Origin of Wealth calculated that human choices had multiplied a hundred million-fold in the past 10,000 years. Small and insignificant decisions now consume us.

Worse, costs and pay-offs are increasingly hidden in an ocean of informational white noise, so that it is easier to follow a trend than find an expert. “Why worry about the underlying causes of global warming when we can see what tens of millions of our closest friends think?” ask the authors, building to a fine, satirical climax.

In an effort to communicate widely, the authors have, I think, left out a few too many details from their original paper. And a mid-period novel by Philip K. Dick would paint a more visceral picture of a world created by too much information. Still, there is much fun to be had reading the garrulous banter of these three extremely smart academics.

Come on, Baggy, get with the beat!

Reading The Evolving Animal Orchestra: In search of what makes us musical by Henkjan Honing for New Scientist, 6 April 2019

The perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm,” wrote Darwin in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, “is probably common to all animals.”

Henkjan Honing has tested this eminently reasonable idea, and in his book, The Evolving Animal Orchestra, he reports back. He details his disappointment, frustration and downright failure with such wit, humility and a love of the chase that any young person reading it will surely want to run away to become a cognitive scientist.

No culture has yet been found that doesn’t have music, and all music shares certain universal characteristics: melodies composed of seven or fewer discrete pitches; a regular beat; a limited sequence of rhythmic patterns. All this would suggest a biological basis for musicality.

A bird flies with regular beats of its wings. Animals walk with a particular rhythm. So you might expect beat perception to be present in everything that doesn’t want to falter when moving. But it isn’t. Honing describes experiments that demonstrate conclusively that we are the only primates with a sense of rhythm, possibly deriving from advanced beat perception.

Only strongly social animals, he writes, from songbirds and parrots to elephants and humans, have beat perception. What if musicality was acquired by all prosocial species through a process of convergent evolution? Like some other cognitive scientists, Honing now wonders whether language might derive from music, in a similar way to how reading uses much older neural structures that recognise contrast and sharp corners.

Honing must now test this exciting hypothesis. And if The Evolving Animal Orchestra is how he responds to disappointment, I can’t wait to see what he makes of success.

This God has taste

The Guardian spiked this one: a review of I am God by Giacomo Sartori, translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall (Restless Books)

This sweet, silly, not-so-shallow entertainment from 2016 ( Sono Dio, the first of Giacomo Sartori’s works to receive an English translation) takes an age before naming its young protagonist. For ages, she’s simply “the tall one”; sometimes, “the sodomatrix” (she inseminates cattle for a living).

Her name is Daphne, “a militant atheist who spends her nights trying to sabotage the Vatican website,” and she ekes out a precarious professional living in the edgeland laboratories of post-industrial Italy. The narrator sketches her relationship with her stoner dad and her love triangle with Lothario (or Apollo, or Randy — it doesn’t really matter) and his diminutive girlfriend. His eye is sharp: at one point we get to glimpse “the palm of [Daphne’s] hand moving over [Lothario’s] chest as if washing a window.” But the narrator keeps slipping off the point into a welter of self-absorbed footnotes. Daphne interests him — indeed, he’s besotted — but really he’s more interested in himself. And no wonder. As he never tires of repeating, with an ever more desperate compulsion: “I am God”.

This is a God with time on his hands. Not for him a purely functional creation with “trees of shapeless gelatin broth, made of a revolting goo like industrial waste. Neon lights that suddenly flick off, instead of sunsets.” This God has taste.

Why, then, does he find himself falling for such an emotionally careless mortal as Daphne? Could it be “that this gimpy human language hasn’t already contaminated me with some human germ…?” Sly comic business ensues as, with every word He utters, God paints Himself further into a corner it will take a miracle to escape.

The author Giacomo Sartori is a soil specialist turned novelist and one of the founders of Nazione Indiana, a blog and cultural project created to give voice to Italy’s literary eccentrics. Italy’s stultifying rural culture has been his main target up to now. Here, though, he’s taking shots at humanity in general: “They’re such hucksters,” he sighs, from behind the novel’s divine veil, “so reliably unpredictable, immoral and nuts that anyone observing them is soon transfixed.”

Of course, Sartori’s theological gags could be read just as easily as the humdrum concerns of a writer falling under the spell of their characters. But there’s much to relish in the way God comes to appreciate more deeply the lot of his favourite playthings, “telling a million stories, twisting the facts, philosophizing, drowning in their own words. All vain efforts; unhappy they are, unhappy they remain.”

A world that has run out of normal

As global temperatures rise, and the mean sea-level with them, I have been tracing the likely flood levels of the Thames Valley, to see which of my literary rivals will disappear beneath the waves first. I live on a hill, and what I’d like to say is: you’ll be stuck with me a while longer than most. But on the day I had set aside to consume David Wallace-Wells’s terrifying account of climate change and the future of our species (there isn’t one), the water supply to my block was unaccountably cut off. Failing to make a cup of tea reminded me, with some force, of what ought to be obvious: that my hill is a post-apocalyptic death-trap.

Reading The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells for the Telegraph, 16 February 2019

And so we wait

In the 1996 comedy film Swingers, Jon Favreau plays Mike, a young man in love with love, and at war with the answerphones of the world. “Hi,” says one young woman’s machine, “this is Nikki. Leave a message,” prompting Mike to work, flub after flub, through an entire, entirely fictitious, relationship with the absent Nikki. “This just isn’t working out,” he sighs, on about his 20th attempt to leave a message that is neither creepy nor incoherent. “I – I think you’re great, but, uh, I – I… Maybe we should just take some time off from each other. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s what I’m going through.”

Thinking about Delayed Response by Jason Farman (Yale) for the Telegraph, 6 February 2019.

Whose head is it anyway?

Reading Hubert Haddad’s novel Desirable Body for the Guardian, 22 December 2018

English speakers have only two or three translations from the French by which to judge the sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish output of Tunisian poet and novelist Hubert Haddad. He began writing long prose in the 1970s and has been turning out a novel a year, more or less, since the turn of the century.

First published as Corps désirable in 2015, this novel sews a real-life maverick neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, into a narrative that coincides with the bicentenary of the first ever neurosurgical horror story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Cédric Allyn-Weberson, scion of a big pharma plutocrat, has set sail for the coast of Paros with his war correspondent girlfriend Lorna Leer, on a yacht called Evasion. A horrible accident crushes his spine but leaves his head intact. Funded by Cédric’s estranged father Morice, Canavero sets about transplanting Cédric’s head on to a donor body. Assuming the operation succeeds, how will Cédric cope?

Nevertheless, this short, sly novel is not about Canavero’s surgery so much as about the existential questions it raises. Emotions are physiological phenomena, interpreted by the mind. It follows that Cédric’s head, trapped “in a merciless battle … abandoned to this slow, living enterprise, to the invading hysteria of muscles and organs”, can’t possibly know how to read his new body. His life has, sure enough, been reduced to “a sort of crystalline, luminous, almost abstract dream”.

Cédric doesn’t forget who he is; he simply ceases to care, and adopts a creaturely attitude in which self hardly matters, and beings are born and die nameless. In his world, “There was no one, with the exception of a few chance encounters and sometimes some embraces. Did birds or rats worry about their social identity?”

There is something dated about Haddad’s book: an effect as curious as it is, I am sure, deliberate, with piquant hints of Ian Fleming in his use of glamorous European locations. It’s in its glancing, elliptical relationship to technology that Desirable Body takes its most curious backward step. Yet this elusive approach feels like a breath of fresh air after decades spent wading through big infrastructure-saturated fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Haddad focuses succinctly on formal existential questions: questions for which there are no handy apps, and which can in no way be evaded by the application of ameliorating technology.

The besetting existential problem for the book, and, indeed, for poor Cédric himself, is pleasure. He discovers this with a vengeance when he once again (and at last) goes to bed with his girlfriend: “Getting used to this new body after so much time seems like an appropriation of a sexual kind, a disturbing usurpation, a rape almost.” Lorna’s excitement only adds to his confusion: “The last straw is the jealous impulse that overtakes him when he sees her writhing on top of him.”

French critics have received Desirable Body with due solemnity. Surely this was a mistake: Haddad’s nostalgic gestures are playful, not ponderous, and I don’t think we are required to take them too seriously. Following Cédric’s dismal post-operative sexual experience, the book changes gear from tragedy to farce; indeed, becomes laugh-out-loud funny as he finds himself king-for-a-day in a buffoonish and clockwork world where “no one is really loved because we constantly go to the wrong house or the wrong person with the same extraordinary obstinacy”.

Desirable Body is about more than one decapitated man’s unusual plight; it’s about how surprisingly little our choices have to do with our feelings and passions. A farce, then, and a sharp one: it’s funny to contemplate, but if you fell into its toils for a second, you’d die screaming in horror.

Religion is more than opium

A review for the Telegraph: A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A history of Soviet atheism by Victoria Smolkin

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin clambered into Vostok I, blasted into space, and became the first human being to orbit the earth.

“And suddenly I hear: Man is in space! My God! I stopped heating up the oven, sat next to the radio receiver, afraid to step away even for a minute.” This is the recollection of a 73-year-old woman from the Kuibyshev region, published in the state newspaper Izvestiia a little over a month later.

“We were always told that God is in the heavens, so how can a man fly there and not bump into Elijah the Prophet or one of God’s angels? What if God punishes him for his insolence?… Now I am convinced that God is Science, is Man.”

The opposition between religion and science set up in this letter is charmingly naive — as though a space capsule might shatter the crystal walls of heaven! But the official Soviet attitude to these matters was not much different. Lenin considered religion “merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” Religion was simply a vicious exploitation of uneducated peoples’ urge to superstition. As socialism developed, superstitions in general would disappear, and religions along with them.

The art theorist Aleksey Gan called the constructivist Moscow Planetarium, completed in the late 1920s, “a building in which religious services are held… until society grows to the level of a scientific understanding, and the instinctual need for spectacle comes up against the real phenomena of the world and technology.”

The assumption here — that religion evaporates as soon as people learn to behave rationally — was no less absurd at the time than it is now; how it survived as a political instinct over generations is going to take a lot of explanation. Victoria Smolkin, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, delivers, but with a certain flatness of style that can grate after a while.

By 1973, with 70 planetariums littering the urban landscape and an ideologically oblivious populace gearing itself for a religious revival, I found myself wishing that her gloves would come off.

For the people she is writing about, the stakes could not have been higher. What can be more important than the meaning of life? We are all going to die, after all, and everything we do in our little lives is going to be forgotten. Had we absolutely no convictions about the value of anything beyond our little lives, we would most likely stay in bed, starving and soiling ourselves. The severely depressed do exactly this, for they have grown pathologically realistic about their survival chances.

Cultures are engines of enchantment. They give us reasons to get up in the morning. They give us people, institutions, ideas, and even whole planes of magical reality to live for.

The 1917 Revolution’s great blow-hards were more than happy to accept this role for their revolutionary culture. “Let thousands of us die to resurrect millions of people all over the earth!’ exclaims Rybin in Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel Mother. “That’s what: dying’s easy for the sake of resurrection! If only the people rise!’ And in his two-volume Religion and Socialism, the Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky prophesies the coming of a culture in which the masses will wiillingly “die for the common good… sacrificing to realise a state that starts not with his ‘I’ but with our ‘we’.”

Given the necessary freedom and funding, perhaps the early Soviet Union’s self-styled “God-builders” — Alexander Bogdanov, Leon Trotsky and the rest — might have cooked up a uniquely Soviet metaphysics, with rituals for birth, marriage and death that were worth the name. In suprematism, constructivism, cosmism, and all the other millenarian “-isms” floating about at the turn of the century, Russia had no shortage of fresh ingredients.

But Lenin’s lumpen anticlericals held the day. Bogdanov was sidelined and Trotsky was (literally) axed. Lenin looted the church. Stalin coopted the Orthodox faith to bolster patriotism in a time of war. Khrushchev criminalised all religions and most folk practices in the name of state unity. And none of them had a clue why the state’s materialism — even as it matured into a coherent philosophy — failed to replace the religion to which it was contrivedly opposed.

A homegrown sociology became possible under the fourth premier Leonid Brezhnev’s supposedly ossifying rule, and with it there developed something like a mature understanding of what religion actually was. These insights were painfully and often clumsily won — like Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. trying to understand the business of gift-giving by measuring all the boxes under the tree. And the understanding, when it came, came far too late.

The price of generations of off-again, on-again religious repression was not a confident secularism, or even a convulsive religious reaction. It was poison: ennui and cynicism and ideological indifference that proved impossible for the state to oppose because it had no structure, no leaders, no flag, no clergy or dogma.

In the end there was nothing left but to throw in the towel. Mikhail Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen on 29 April 1988, and embraced the millennium as a national celebration. Konstantin Kharchev, chair of the Council for Religious Affairs, commented: “The church has survived, and has not only survived, but has rejuvenated itself. And the question arises: which is more useful to the party — someone who believes in God, someone who believes in nothing at all, or someone who believes in both God and Communism? I think we should choose the lesser evil.” (234)

Cultures do not collapse from war or drought or earthquake. They fall apart because, as the archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out, they lose the point of themselves. Now the heavy lifting of this volume is done, let us hope Smolkin takes a breath and describes the desolation wrought by the institutions she has researched in such detail. There’s a warning here that we, deep in our own contemporary disenchantment, should heed.