Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘remix’

09 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Ecstasy of Influence: Jonathan Lethem on the Author as a Public Intellectual

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A self-conscious reflection on literary self-consciousness, or what David Foster Wallace’s true gift really was.

If you’ve ever aspired to write a book — and let’s agree that ‘book’ is not a diagnosis of medium — or understand those who do and have, then Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is for you. It’s part anthology of Lethem’s finest longform writing, part meditation on what it means to be what Lethem calls, not without a good measure of self-conscious self-consciousness, “an intellectual” — and even what it means to be an intellectual reader of an intellectual. He terms this the “white elephant” role of the author as a public intellectual and goes on to explore its burdens, blessings, and cultural responsibilities. (And he welcomes you to the conversation with a “bias spoiler alert” that forewarns: “I think I’m an intellectual, and I think you are too, whether you like it or not.”)

The zesty collection of “uncollected” writings includes some of Lethem’s best-known nonfiction pieces, exploring everything from cinema to graffiti to cyberculture to Bob Dylan, lined with a layer of metadata — epigraphs, quotes, reviews. But, above all, the anthology is about what Lethem calls “negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive.” He writes:

I want to bite the hand that feeds me, even if that hand is sometimes yours, reader.

The book’s title is based on Lethem’s excellent 2007 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Curiously, Lethem appears preoccupied — whether in self-conscious jest or in heartfelt reality, the line between which is always elusive in the heart of the novelist — with these “plagiarisms,” “lifts both acknowledged and unacknowledged, both conscious and (surely) unconscious.” Curious because he gladly lists his many influences in writing his newest pieces — Renata Adler, Mark McGurl, David Foster Wallace, to name a few, alongside “usual suspects” like David Shields, Geoff Dyer, and Annie Dillard, as well as his life’s obsession with Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Given this very book is essentially a florilegium of writings and ideas by both Lethem himself and his literary influences, to slap the label “plagiarism” on the fundamental dynamic of what I’ve all too frequently referred to as combinatorial creativity is, at best, a semantic slip in the age of remix culture and, at its most unwholesome, an affront on the very mechanism that fuels creation, literary or otherwise.

(You can catch more of Lethem’s thoughts on influence in the excellent documentary Walking on Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age.)

For a taste, here are some favorite quotes that capture the mischievous irreverence and deep reflection with which Lethem approaches his subject.

On David Foster Wallace and self-consciousness:

David Foster Wallace deserves to be remembered as a great writer not because he was capable of doing PhD-level philosophical speculation as well as shunting fictional characters (slowly) through a well-described room but because he mastered a certain area of human sensation totally: intricate self-conscious remorse at the fact of self-consciousness. Wallace’s way of loading up this indistinct area with scrupulous depiction made a lot of people feel less lonely; meanwhile, the possibility that being the depicter made Wallace feel more lonely has become a widely circulated armchair-shrink’s allegory for the usefulness of self-consciousness. Because it doesn’t help. Doesn’t help the depressed person feel undepressed, doesn’t help the storyteller tell the story.

On language and self-consciousness:

Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place.

On language and abstraction:

Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream.

On influence itself:

Influence is semiconscious, not something to delineate too extensively, except when we’ve patterned our latest book on a literary monument of the past, at least a half-century old, by a master with whom we’d never dare compare ourselves, only hope to be ‘worthy of.’

On the curse of micro-celebrity:

If you want to drive a person mad in a fame culture, offer him only a little fame, the very least amount you can scrape up. This happens every day, but it happens in slow motion for novelists. We’re like the guy who gets voted off first on Survivor, except instead of departing the island we walk its beaches forever, muttering.

On the crux of writing:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’

On Vonnegut’s famously bitter retort to critics he thought wanted to see him vanish from the literary landscape — “I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books” — and the meta-irony therein:

Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep it in circulation shows he was wrong.

With its meta-commentary and its passionate urgency, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is at once a collection of some of our time’s best longform writing and a welcome reflection, if a self-conscious one, on the writer’s fate in contemporary culture.

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27 OCTOBER, 2011

What Is a Person?

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What remix culture and philosophy have to do with personhood in the age of synthetic biology.

We’ve previously explored three different disciplines’ perspectives on what it means to be human and a neuroscientist’s search for the self. But what, exactly, is a person? That’s exactly what sociologist Christian Smith examines in What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up — a fascinating and ambitious meditation on the grand existential question, the answer to which determines our view of our selves, our expectations of others, and our conception of what makes a good society, arguing that much of contemporary theory and thought on personhood is incomplete, short-sighted, misguided even.

Equal parts critical and constructive, Smith confronts the basic paradox of the social sciences — their preoccupation with describing and analyzing human activities, cultures, and social structures but falling short on the core understanding of the human condition — and tackles the four fundamental flaws of social science in defining personhood.

Impoverished is he who can predict economic trends but who does not well understand his own self.” ~ Christian Smith

(Economic bonus: Amazon has a deal on the Kindle edition, currently available for $4.95 — a sixth of the analog version.)

The first disconnect Smith addresses is that of social science theories, despite their interesting and illuminating propositions about social life, failing to fully represent our actual dimensions as human beings.

When we look at the models of the human operative in, say, exchange theory, social control theory, rational choice, functionalism, network theory, evolutionary theory, sociobiology, or sociological Marxism, we may recognize certain aspects of our lives in them. Otherwise the theories would feel completely alien and implausible to us. But I suspect that few of us recognize in those theories what we understand to be most important about our own selves as people. Something about them fails to capture our deep subjective experience as persons, crucial dimensions of the richness of our own lived lives, what thinkers in previous ages might have called our ‘souls’ or ‘hearts.'” ~ Christian Smith

The second disjoint deals with the gap between the social sciences’ depiction of human beings and the moral and political beliefs that many social scientists embrace as individuals, yet few of their theories actually reflect those beliefs.

Much theory portrays humans as essentially governed by external social influences, competing socially for material resources, strategically manipulating public presentations of the self, struggling with rivals for power and status, cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles, rationalizing actions with post hoc discursive justifications, and otherwise behaving, thinking, and feeling in ways that are commonly predictable by variable attributes and categories according to which their lives can be broken down, measured, and statistically modeled.” ~ Christian Smith

Smith’s third focal point explores sociologists’ preoccupation with conceptualizing social structures at the expense of understanding what actually gave rise to them, or how the nature of individual personhood effects them.

Much of sociology simply takes social structures for granted and focuses instead on how they shape human outcomes… A good theory of the origins of social structures needs to be rooted in a larger theory about the nature of human persons.” ~ Christian Smith

Lastly, Smith takes on what’s perhaps the greatest gap of all — our modern uncertainties about the human self and person as we grapple with concepts like humanoid robotics, synthetic biology, and other technology-driven facets of mankind’s evolution.

In the wake of the postmodernist critique from the humanities in the face of the rapidly growing power of biotechnology and genetic engineering in the natural sciences, many people today stand uncertain about the meaning or lucidity of the very notion of a coherent self or person, unclear about what a person essentially is or might be whose dignity might be worth preserving, as technological capabilities to reconfigure the human expand.” ~ Christian Smith

But my favorite part has to be Smith’s nod to remix culture as applied to intellectual inquiry and the sciences, demonstrating the power of the idea-mashup in the style of the Medieval florilegium.

There is nothing new under the sun. And so the case I build contains no particularly novel ideas… I mostly weave together certain perspectives and insights that others have already expressed.” ~ Christian Smith

Above all, Smith debunks the idea that science, morality, politics, and philosophy are separate matters that don’t, and needn’t, intersect — a byproduct of the ill-conceived model demanding the social sciences emulate the natural sciences. What Is a Person? is thus as much a compelling case for cross-disciplinary curiosity as it is a testament to the power of the synthesizer as a storyteller, weaving together existing ideas to illuminate the subject for a new angle and in richer light.

HT my mind on books

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07 OCTOBER, 2011

Richard Feynman on Beauty, Honors, and Curiosity

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The art of uncertainty, why awards are the wrong pursuit, and how to find wonder in truth.

On the heels of yesterday’s children’s book on science by Richard Dawkins and Wednesday’s testament to remix culture comes an ingenious intersection of the two — an inspired effort to promote science education and scientific literacy amongst the general public by way of a remix gem. Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower, who has previously delighted us with some Carl Sagan gold, has created a trilogy of magnificent mashups using the words of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, culled from various BBC, NASA, and other notable footage, to convey the power, wonder, and whimsy of science. Dubbed the Feynman Series, it’s a continuation of the brilliant Sagan Series.

Beauty does away with the common myth that scientists are unable to truly appreciate beauty in nature as Feynman explains what a scientist actually is and does.


I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. [...] I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose.

Honours peels away at the pretense of awards as false horsemen of gratification.

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.

Curiosity is Feynman’s lament for simplicity, which gets lost in our ceaseless hunger for sensationalism.

[The Big Bang] is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales which other people used to make up, when wondering about the universe we lived in on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. And, so, what’s the wonder in physics to me is that it’s revealed the truth is so remarkable.

For more on Feynman’s legacy and genius, look no further than Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher.

via Open Culture

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