The Defeatist Reviews 2014

Books and Literature, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Science, The Life of the Mind

Several years ago some guy named Pinker
wrote a book, which said that human kind
has now become less violent, more refined.
I pictured him composed like Rodin’s Thinker,
but sitting on the can leaving a stinker.
Here’s the triumph of the counterintuitive mind:
to pitch the fruit of knowledge, eat the rind;
fish proud to have caught that hook and line and sinker.
Was last year the worst that’s ever been?
I doubt it. What’s a good year? What is bad?
History has no progression. It
only accumulates, and no one wins;
to think it otherwise is to be mad.
Care less. Do nothing. Fuck it, man. And quit.

Goodbye Normal Genes

Culture, Science, The Life of the Mind

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first render in the unconditional declarative on Facebook:


Click. The same revelations reappear, hedged around by caveats like the lonely straight girl in a gay bar. Oh, our genes—notice the plural?—could make us gay . . . or straight. The flight from pure causality continues in the text, which departs even the territory of sexual difference for an and-everything-in-between taxonomy of non-classification. Evolutionary biology, ladies and gentlemen, where some (or all) of our characteristics and behaviors are determined (in part, possibly) by some (or all) of our genes (among other factors).

By the end, we’re back in Kinsey scale territory:

It’s a bit like height, which is influenced by variants in thousands of genes, as well as the environment, and produces a “continuous distribution” of people of different heights. At the two extremes are the very tall and the very short.

In the same way, at each end of a continuous distribution of human mating preference, we would expect the “very male-loving” and the “very female-loving” in both sexes.

Gay men and lesbian women may simply be the two ends of the same distribution.

Ooooo, girl.

The desire to ratify scientifically our moral and social and economic postures and preferences is part of a generally cowardly morality that takes a look at some vile human prejudice and goes off searching for a pipette and a bell curve as a counter-scripture to whatever Bronze-Age prejudice a misunderstood God re-dredged up every time a louche Hellenism threatened to make Western civilization vaguely civilized. I’m glad that this fuzzy evidence is being wielded in favor of gay equality; I’m gay, after all. But I can’t help but see it as the boneheaded inverse of all the The New Republicans, Dark Enlightenment dweebs, and other direly self-afflicted determinist assholes forever trying to prove with the modern-day phrenology of intelligence testing that The Blacks Are Stupider. “We’re just asking the questions!” Yeah, yeah. Some of my best friends are black.

I’m sure genetic inheritance and gene expression do influence sexuality; likewise, intelligence and hair color and the desire to eat, or not to eat, cilantro; but the desperate reductivism that keeps popping up to declare that this or that immensely complex trait is the result of some butterfly-pinned nucleotide—and the attendant desire to draw some kind of socioeconomic conclusion therefrom—reeks of both the alchemical and the eugenic. God, remember the study about the genetic basis of American political affiliation? That’s what I’m talking about.

This is like when that weird-looking National Review gnome appeared a few days ago to declare that Laverne Cox is biologically not a woman and the Internet bravely rushed in to declare that scientifically she is. “He doesn’t understand the complexity . . .” And we were all treated to a series of semi-coherent expostulations on various human intersex conditions, as if that has anything to do with the social right of an autonomous human individual to decide whether she wants to live her life as a man or a woman or both or neither, less yet to determine against which physical expression of our species rather aesthetically unfortunate genital she wishes to press her own. If we make the concretized and inevitably temporary axioms of popular (I emphasize) science the preconditions of moral acceptability, then we are in big trouble, people. If Laverne Cox decides tomorrow that she wishes to be referred to by the pronoun Qfwfq  and that her gender is henceforth Parthogenetic Quintsexual Proteus Universal then it’s still no skin off my ass, whether ratified by double-blind or by dungeon-master.

Consider the study at hand. What it proposes, in fact, is that with the exception of a relatively small population on the long tails of the normal distribution, human sexuality exists along a fluctuating continuum, and even as one of those, ahem, long-tailed lovers myself, I can assure you all that some element of choice is involved in the expression of sexuality, gender, etc.—for me, to a lesser degree; for the Kinsey 4s out there, perhaps more. I went through periods of greater and lesser effeminacy (apologies for the word choice), especially earlier in my life; I’ve never been especially sexually interested in women, but I’ve certainly be attracted to them, sometimes, especially with close friends, with an intensity that shades into eroticism. Sexual morals should be built on the tripartite foundation of autonomy, self-determination, and consent, not on some fanciful on-off switch in the cells.

Peyton Manning Reflects upon the Fundamental Unknowability of a Universe Defined by Probability Alone

Poetry, Religion, Science, Sports

What I wanted was a quiet moment when
the faded but still present noise would fill
my conscious concentration, leaving my will
alone; arrayed within my vision, men
like motes moving in liquid, Brownian,
but, to a mind—if sensitized, if skilled—
though arbitrary, apprehensible.
All this—just this—is what I wanted; then
a random error—outcome of measurements
and observation, imprecision, luck,
and deviation, human failing, God—
occurred; the eye and ear are instruments,
each ultimately imprecise, and fuck!—
reveal all sense of order: lies and fraud.

A Pound of Music

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Religion, Science

How do you solve a problem like Stephen Pinker?

Ross Douthat notes the curious convergence: that “the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods,” which were, according to Pinker, “explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable,” lead inexorably to the economoral worldview to which Pinker has–surely a coincidence–already subscribed. Fuck Theory, meanwhile, notices that Pinker seems unfamiliar with the philosophers he name drops to open his essay. (By the way, Pinker also mangles Bergson’s élan vital, elsewhere and otherwise in the essay, if only in passing.) FT might be too kind. He damns our scientician for having failed to read the primary sources, but the real knock is that Pinker could have avoided a lot of these basic errors just by reading Will Durant. He could have read Wikipedia! Is there anything as unforgivably lazy in this great age of the internet as a man incapable of feigning authority over a couple thousand words?

Look, I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m an atheist. I believe that the mind is an emergent phenomena of the brain. You might say that I constitute the natural constituency for Pinker’s argument, which is what makes its obtuseness and inadequacy so annoying. It gets everything backward. He says, for example, that science wipes away “the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces [and] undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.” No word on what testable hypotheses prohibit second degree murder or which codicil of evolutionary psychology demands that we not remove the mattress tags, but let’s allow the point. It is true, after all, that the sorts of bureaucratic rationalization that led to more modern systems of trial and punishment are kissin’ cousins with Pinker’s over-broadly defined science. Nevertheless, we end up in a bizarre territory wherein morality is defined by utility but the “science” behind it is a transcendent ideology:

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

The implication of this complaint, and the essential thesis of the article, is that science, whatever that is, uniquely among all human disciplines and endeavors, is not subject to utilitarian analysis, is not merely a mathematical function, a delta of positive change to “human flourishing.”

In fact, I agree. I think it would be a shame to look at the advancement of scientific knowledge, the immense growth of our species’ physical insight into the world and the universe, as a merely additive process whose sole measure is the number of new patents, cures, and minutes of extended battery life. Yes, there will surely be some practical outcome of learning that dolphins give each other names, but there is something essentially miraculous in simply knowing it to be true. And this is why I find Pinker’s claim so utterly bizarre, as if science must stake out a monopoly on the extraordinary, all our other transcendent experiences subsumed to its totalitarian scope. Pardon me, but isn’t that just weird? Religion claims to give life meaning, but by proving the Biblical creation myth false, science, gives life meaning. Replacing one false, totalizing claim with another is an odd way to run a debate team, if you know what I’m saying.

But then, this is where Pinker really wanders down a dusty path:

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.

Slow down there, Percy Bysshe! Okay, I agree that pictures of the Earth from its own satellite are pretty fucking lovely, but what is, and from whence comes, sublime beauty? What does it mean to “mean” to be human? When you say, “our place in nature,” I presume you mean something more than our position on the food chain and our direct impact on global climatic systems. Cognitive neuroscience may lay claim to the question of how and why our particular subset of upright mammals perceives beauty as it does, but clearly we’re talking about something more than a reducible pleasure response to a Fibonacci-derived golden ration. Why do we find the Hubble deep field beautiful? Why, actually, do we artificially color it to make it beautiful? And what is “beautiful”?

These are lines of inquiry that real scientists (as opposed to commercial popularizers) and scholars of the humanities and artists and authors think about with much greater depth and subtlety than you’d suspect reading this crackpot essay, which prefers to lob vague accusations of disastrous postmodernism at the humanities as if it were an essay in Commentary in 1985. I mean, if Pinker reveals himself as something less than a scholar of philosophy at the beginning, he shows himself as an even worse art critic later on. Cheering for a new, scientific art like a bizarro Soviet, he actually says:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes.

This is the rough equivalent of James Turrell demanding that chemists to avail themselves of the unknown discipline of gas chromatography. Yo, Pinky, it’s Robert Smithson calling from 1970. He’d like to sell you a large, earthwork time machine. Artists have long embraced science and technology in their work and their practice. Has Pinker ever heard of Steve Kurtz? Does he know about collectives like Informationlab? Is he aware that the Oberlin Conservatory established the Technology in Music and Related Arts program in 1967? Does he read science fiction? Shit, I mean, has he heard of a little-known avant-garde filmmaker named James Cameron? Physician, heal thyself.