Volume Four, Politics and Potter
One of the reasons I could read so many books last year was that I now no longer have any difficulty listening to audiobooks. These days I can crank them up to triple speed, depending on the narrator, and follow the text without issue. Hooray! I can read even more shit. Hurrah!
Well, one of the best audiobooks I read was The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, narrated by the author. Bob is a very enthusiastic narrator, and a passionate, amusing writer. Even though it’s popular psychology, it does go into some detail of methodology, so it’s not a complete waste of time.* But being a psychology book perhaps it is anyway as while it describes American “right-wing authoritarianism” very well, that’s all it does. But Bob A is a passionate narrator and a reasonable…describer, so it’s highly entertaining, even if he doesn’t give you any prizes for listening.
[If you want something a little more explanatory, try How Democracies Die (interesting due to its references to multiple real-world examples of democratic degradation, with only minor factual inaccuracies), or The Dictator’s Handbook (clouded by its popular prose and scholastic-nonsense thought experiments and comical policy advise, but nevertheless its tremendously cynical explanation of political behaviour is an attractive and plausible one—if very poorly argued for, at times).]
Another hilarious non-fiction book I read was Stephen Hicks’s Nietzsche and the Nazis. I first encountered Prof. Hicks’s work in a blog whinging about modern art. It was very clear the man knew absolutely nothing about aesthetics, art history, or the philosophy and sensibilities of the artists he was speaking about. It was utter nonsense. I thought he was just some angry dude with a blog, but apparently he’s a professor of philosophy. Still, at least not of art. Well, as it turns out, he doesn’t seem to know much more about philosophy, and even when discussing philosophy, he just can’t stop himself from getting into aesthetics. Unfortunately, even when writing a book rather than a blog, he fudges the facts about relevant iconography and its inspirations.
That said, he’s another author-narrator who is infectiously enthusiastic. I bet he’s an incredible teacher! It’s just a shame he seems to have no fucking idea about the topics he’s teaching…this year I’ll read Explaining Postmodernism, so his redemption is still possible.
Like a Thief in Broad Daylight by Slavoj Zizek—Prof. Hicks’s post-modern antithesis—was disappointingly little more than a pointless panoply of jokes and film reviews, all taken from his speaking circuit: mildly amusing, entertaining, less factual errors than Prof. Hicks, but ultimately probably about as hollow. Unfortunately it was not narrated by the author (if it was, I’d recommend it as highly as Prof. Hick’s hilarious documentary version of his book; but you may as well just watch a few of Zizek’s lectures which contain the entire contents of his book).
Incidentally, I’ve always felt that the hatred so much of American academia has for German and French philosophy comes across very much like jealousy and envy. There are few American thinkers of note compared to French and German ones, and two of the most notable have six names between them, all of which must be used, and ideas that are in many ways antithetical to so many modern American mainstream trains of thought. And last century? American thinkers loved internationally were reduced to mere initials—the only way things could have got any worse! After all, America is the land of liberty, liberality and libertines—all French inventions. And what of American optimism, pragmatism and violent Christian radicalism? Let’s not forget that Romanticism, Marxism and the reformation were all originally Teutonic or British affairs. Hell, for Objectivists like Prof. Hicks, even the serious thinkers with political views not dissimilar to Ayn Rand (much more a Soviet Realist than American one, for pity’s sake) are Austrian, and the most serious free marketeers are all continental or British! What can American academics (from Chomsky to Huntington) do but to cast shade at the continent and their local contemporaries who recognise the continent’s far greater achievements?
The biggest disappointment in a non-fiction book, however, was the muddled arguments of David Rothenberg in Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution. Essentially, the main thesis seems to be that aesthetics is a non-arbitrary determining factor in evolution. Why? Well, while mocking Kipling’s Just So Stories throughout the book—as with biological determinism described by evolutionary psychologists themselves—so it is with David Rothenberg: the circular logic of American evangelists arguing that evolution cannot exist because cucumbers are so perfectly shaped for the sexual pleasure of women—for this reason they were not halal in the Ottoman harem—only Allah could have created them! I think that’s how it goes, anyway. Well, this sort of nonsense might pass mustard (that’s how I eat my cucumbers, but I wouldn’t recommend lubing them up with it) in Sunday school and evolutionary psychology, but it should not in the more serious realm of philosophy.
There’s also some stuff about art informing science, and science informing art, but to cherry pick one example for and one against: it is indeed true that our best botanical representations are idealist artworks and not, say, photography (was this even in the book? Can’t remember). But what about when it comes to science informing art? The mathematical representation of butterfly pattern formation is not only an objectively less accurate depiction of butterfly patterns than those by artists, it is also significantly uglier, too—let alone as potentially beautiful as butterfly patterns themselves. To believe they perfectly represent butterfly patterns both objectively (fidelity) and subjectively (aesthetically) is to believe the metaphorical language of mathematics is the object that it depicts, not the subject depicting it: reality is, in fact, the precise reverse of this equation. Geometry is a metaphor. A tremendously useful metaphor, but its precise symmetrical representations are illusions incompatible with both beauty and fidelity—while beauty and fidelity are asymmetrical, yet inseparable; unless one lives in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of averages. (After all Charles Dodgson was, among many other things, an accomplished mathematician; but he was a much greater writer, so was well aware that the distorting world of averages, while illuminating, is an illusion.)
I re-read and read some Karen Pryor I haven’t read before. Not her seminal breastfeeding stuff, but her behavioural work—she is one of the people responsible for us thinking dolphins are so smart. And they are. The thing is, if you are just as smart as dolphins, then you’ll ignore superstitions and dogma in how you interact with animals, and in doing so discover that animals, as a rule, are pretty damn smart; not just dolphins. Hell, even people stupid enough to accept such superstitions and dogmas are—in other areas at least—too!
Yet sometimes stupids stump smarts—in any animal—which is why her breastfeeding book had a more revolutionary effect on us human beings than her behavioural and animal training books (as I’ve implied, people are animals; and people train all animals, including other people, often as stupidly as possible).
Simply put, although contained in very humble books by one of the more influential people on modern life (not just on public displays of mammaries and sea mammals, but child rearing in general; she’s yet another great Romantic! Maybe worthy of being a strand of Blake’s hair), I think she describes best the revolutionary possibilities of using positive reinforcement as the driving force behind behavioural influence (in a protestant world, it is also a philosophical revelation if one thinks of positive reinforcement as the basis of behaviour—and that this is a good thing). She does not limit herself to trying to understand this phenomenon from the perspective of neurology, psychology, behaviourism, anthropology, or evolution, but is able to competently reference all of them—each offering valuable insight of its own, yet producing a very limited picture if one were not to consider them together.
Lastly, if I were to try and develop a theory of aesthetics, it would be time for me to kill myself. But if I was feeling suicidal, before I killed myself, I would deify only the aesthetes who could appreciate the art not only of children, but of artists producing art for children. Really, my aim would be to create a suicide cult—I mean theory—with me at the centre of it as some kind of Rasputin-like figure using the sin of aesthetic theory to destroy sin and aesthetic theory once and for all. My ingratiation in the inner circles of Canberra should be relatively easy, as parliament is already a hive of incompetent libertines debauching each other and committing regular acts of political suicide, while swallowing whole the gospel of economic mystics. Which is a longwinded way of saying that some of the best books I read this year were written for children.
Yes, I revisited a few Beatrix Potter books, which are works of magnificent, scientific simplicity (how’s that for aesthetic analysis?), made my way through all the Moomin comics (I grew up in Moomin Valley as much as I did Victoria; few authors have achieved such a powerful sense of place: my soul still resides in Moomin Valley when I am not reading Moomintroll, just as when I leave the Yarra River, part of my soul remains behind in its waters) some of which I’d read before and some not, and re-read Winnie the Pooh—a wonderful ‘60s edition I “borrowed” from my father’s house.
It was fascinating reading Winnie the Pooh after watching the Soviet cartoon adaptation: so much of the spirit of Winnie the Pooh is melancholic, lonely, and hopeless. People on the internet joke about the Soviet adaptation as if it’s some sort of surreal mutilation of the books, but I think it is one of the greatest adaptations of any literary work ever; perfectly in tune with the despairing spirit of the original series.
We’ll see how many books I’ll read this year, and if I write any nonsense about them again. Another aesthetic principle: a writer can only write nonsense about writing, unless the writer is an auto-cannibal. And such a writer would be more of a gastronome than an aesthete, anyway.
*You may have noticed the Karen Pryor books are also popular, not academic books. They nevertheless reference methodology when referring to her own or other scientists’ discoveries. Even better, you can easily test any of its major claims yourself. Do so, it will shatter many links in the chain of your mind-forg’d manacles.