Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

03 JULY, 2012

Ralph Ellison on Race and the Power of the Writer in Society: A Rare 1966 Interview

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“Power, for the writer….lies in his ability to reveal if only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity.”

In 1953, celebrated novelist Ralph Ellison gave a remarkable National Book Award acceptance speech, arguing for fiction as a soapbox for injustice and a chariot of hope. Thirteen years later, in 1966, he gave a rare interview for the National Education Television, in which he discusses a number of timeless, timely topics — national identity, race, the purpose of literature — with extraordinary eloquence and grace, complementing E.B. White’s insights on the role and responsibility of the writer and George Orwell’s thoughts on the writer’s motives and political purpose.

Power, for the writer, it seems to me lies in his ability to reveal if only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity. And, in this country, I think it’s very, very important for the writer to, no matter what the agony of his experience….he should stick to what he’s doing, because the slightest thing that is new, or the slightest thing that has been overlooked, which would tell us about the unity of American experience — beyond all considerations of class, of race, or religion — are very, very important. I think that the nation is still in the process of becoming, of drawing itself together, of discovering itself. And when a writer fails to contribute to this, then he’s played his art false, and he probably does violence to our political vision of ourselves.

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03 JULY, 2012

Jesse Bering on the Adaptive Value and Neurochemistry of Heartbreak

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The science of why it’s possible to actually die of a broken heart.

This must be the season for fascinating books on the psychology and anthropology of sexuality, from the history of judging desire to the origins of sex. Now, in Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human (public library), research psychologist Jesse Bering — whom you might recall as the author of the excellent The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, and who is a frequent contributor to Scientific American and Slate — examines the kaleidoscope of sexual taboos through the lens of science and psychology, from the evolution of body fluids to the politics of polyamory to the neurochemistry of heartbreak.

In one particularly fascinating chapter, highlighting studies that reveal a correlation between homophobia and repressed homosexual desire, Bering zooms in on the leaps of logic that permeate much of the rhetoric on homosexuality and the naturalistic fallacies that attempt to define notions of “normalcy”:

[I]t’s rather strange that we look for moral guidance about human sexuality from the rest of the animal kingdom, a logical fallacy in which what is ‘natural’ — such as homosexual behavior in other species — is regarded as ‘acceptable.’ It’s as if the fact that bonobos, desert toads, and emus have occasional same-sex liaisons has a moral bearing on gay rights in human beings. Even if we were the lone queer species in this godless galaxy, even if it were entirely a ‘choice’ between two consenting adults, why would that make it more reasonable to discriminate against people in homosexual relationships?

Beyond these philosophical problems with seeking out social prescriptions from a nature that is completely mute as to what we should do with our penises and vaginas, however, there’s an even bigger hurdle to taking polyamory chic beyond the tabloids, talk shows, and Internet forums and into standard bedroom practice. And that is simply the fact that we’ve evolved to empathize with other people’s suffering, including the suffering of the people we’d betray by putting our affable genitals to their evolved promiscuous use.

Heartbreak is every bit as much a psychological adaptation as is the compulsion to have sex with those other than our partners, and it throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists’ otherwise practical polyamory.

Bering goes on to offer a kind of scientific anatomy of heartbreak, citing the familiar work of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher:

[T]here are two main stages associated with a dead and dying romantic relationship, which is so often tied to one partner’s infidelities. During the ‘protest’ stage that occurs in the immediate aftermath of rejection, ‘abandoned lovers are generally dedicated to winning their sweetheart back. They obsessively dissect the relationship, trying to establish what went wrong; and they doggedly strategize about how to rekindle the romance. Disappointed lovers often make dramatic, humiliating, or even dangerous entrances into a beloved’s home or place of work, then storm out, only to return and plead anew. They visit mutual haunts and shared friends. They phone, e-mail, and write letters, pleading, accusing, and/or trying to seduce their abandoner.’

At the neurobiological level, the protest stage is characterized by unusually heightened, even frantic activity of dopamine and norepinephrine receptors in the brain, which has the effect of pronounced alertness similar to what is found in young animals abandoned by their mothers. This impassioned protest stage — if it proves unsuccessful in reestablishing the romantic relationship — slowly disintegrates into the second stage of heartbreak, what Fisher refers to as ‘resignation/despair,’ in which the rejected party gives up all hope of ever getting back together. ‘Drugged by sorrow,’ writes Fisher, ‘most cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink too much, or hole up and watch TV.’ At the level of the brain, overtaxed dopamine-making cells begin sputtering out, causing lethargy and depression. And in the saddest cases, this depression is linked to heart attacks or strokes, so people can, quite literally, die of a broken heart. So we may not be ‘naturally monogamous’ as a species, but neither are we naturally polygamous.

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[O]ne of the more fascinating things about the resignation/despair stage is the possibility that it actually serves an adaptive function that may help to salvage the doomed relationship, especially for an empathetic species such as our own…. [H]eartbreak is not easily experienced at either end, and when your actions have produced such a sad and lamentable reaction in another person, when you watch someone you care about (but no longer feel any real long-term or sexual desire to be with) suffer in such ways, it can be difficult to fully extricate yourself from a withered romance. If I had to guess — in the absence of any studies that I’m aware of to support this claim — I’d say that a considerable amount of genes have replicated in our species solely because, with our damnable social cognitive abilities, we just don’t have the heart to break other people’s hearts.

Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human is excellent in its entirety, woven of Bering’s rare tapestry of scientific rigor and a powerful, articulate social point of view.

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29 JUNE, 2012

Powershift: Alvin Toffler on the Age of Post-Fact Knowledge and the Super-Symbolic Economy (1990)

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“We are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.”

More than twenty years ago, in 1990, writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, whom you might recall as the author of the Future Shock, penned Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (public library) — a visionary lens on how social, political, and economic power structures are changing at the dawn of the information age, presaging many of today’s cultural paradigms and touching on other timely topics like networked knowledge, the role of intuition, and the value of adding context.

In Chapter 2, titled “Muscle, Money, and Mind,” Toffler lays the foundation of his core argument — the idea that knowledge is becoming the key currency of a new super-symbolic economy, leaving behind the materiality of the industrial age:

Knowledge itself … turns out to be not only the source of the highest-quality power, but also the most important ingredient of force and wealth. Put differently, knowledge has gone from being an adjunct of money power and muscle power, to being their very essence. It is, in fact, the ultimate amplifier. This is the key to the powershift that lies ahead, and it explains why the battle for control of knowledge and the means of communication is heating up all over the world.

But it isn’t until Chapter 8, titled “The Ultimate Substitute,” that Toffler’s vision truly shines as he offers an elegant definition of the knowledge economy and the dramatic shifts in social currency that we’re only just beginning to see reach a tipping point today:

All economic systems sit upon a ‘knowledge base.’

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At rare moments in history the advance of knowledge has smashed through old barriers. The most important of these breakthroughs has been the invention of new tools for thinking and communication, like the ideogram… the alphabet… the zero… and in our century, the computer.

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Today we are living through one of those exclamation points in history when the entire structure of human knowledge is once again trembling with change as old barriers fall. We are not just accumulating more ‘facts’ — whatever they may be. Just as we are now restructuring companies and whole economies, we are totally reorganizing the production and distribution of knowledge and the symbols used to communicate it.

What does this mean?

It means that we are creating new networks of knowledge … linking concepts to one another in startling ways … building up amazing hierarchies of inference … spawning new theories, hypotheses, and images, based on novel assumptions, new languages, codes, and logics. Businesses, governments, and individuals are collecting and storing more sheer data than any previous generation in history (creating a massive, confusing gold mine for tomorrow’s historians.)

But more important, we are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.

Not all this new knowledge is factual or even explicit. Much knowledge, as the term is used here, is unspoken, consisting of assumptions piled atop assumptions, of fragmentary models, of unnoticed analogies, and it includes not simply logical and seemingly unemotional information data, but values, the products of passion and emotion, not to mention imagination and intuition.

It is today’s gigantic upheaval in the knowledge base of society — not computer hype or mere financial manipulation — that explains the rise of a super-symbolic economy.

Powershift follows Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980).

Image HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

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