Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sloppy seconds in the Penny Press!


Whenever we here at Stevereads are feeling a bit beaten up by life (interns peculating paper clips, the Reichmarshal's rise to power, late night drunken phone calls from Beepy, etc), we can now buck ourselves up with the following mantra: "at least we're not serving 30 years in a Nicaragua for a crime we didn't commit."

Unfortunately, young Eric Volz can't say the same. His horrifying story is reported in the latest issue of Men's Journal, and it doesn't exactly fill one with a burning urge to visit Nicaragua anytime soon.

Volz was an energetic young ex-pat soaking up the sun in the gorgeous seaside town of San Juan del Sur, a town he loved and was trying aggressively to promote, real estate-wise, as the next big 'undiscovered' piece of paradise. He was two hours away having lunch with a Nicaraguan journalist when he got a phone call from friends telling him that his beautiful ex-girlfriend had been found brutally murdered.

He rushed to the scene, made inquiries of the police (once they showed up - he beat them to the crime scene), and was amazed a few days later to find himself accused by those same police of having killed the girl. He was arrested, tried (a judge, no jury, and plenty of far more viable suspects), found guilty, and tossed into jail, where he languishes still, despite the efforts of his parents and colleagues to obtain an appeal (the U.S. government, aware of his situation from the start, comes off as curiously impotent).

So things could be worse for us.

A faint wiff of injustice lingers over the latest TLS as well (although without, it should be pointed out, the overtones of prison rape), where Douglas Hofstadter's new book "I am a Strange Loop" is given a review so forgiving and loving and nurturing it lacked only a bottle of warm milk to make its ministrations complete.

The reviewer, Uriah Kriegel, waits until the very end of the piece to confess that he was sympathetic to Hofstadter before he opened the book, but he needn't have worried: his predisposition is pretty obvious right from the start.

Hofstadter's book, as some of you may not know, is yet another manifesto of "the 'Homo Sapiens Only' club" (a free book - you hush, Kevin - to the first of you who can identify where the term comes from), musing on and on about the nature of consciousness and what it is that makes human beings so gosh-darn SPECIAL. All throughout the book, the rest of the living thing on Earth are summoned up only to use as paper lions, stalking horses, and judas goats.

Like book, like reviewer. When Kriegel isn't praising Hofstadter's 'approachable' prose, he's mirroring his subject's bland bigotry. He brings up, for instance, the celebrated 'mark test':

"But the dog's self-conception is very limited. For example, studies show that dogs do not recognize themselves in the mirror. In these studies, a mark is painted on the animal's forehead, and when a mirror is brought in, it is observed whether the animal makes any attempt to wipe the mark off. The number of animals who pass the 'mark test,' as psychologists call it, is surprisingly small: the chimpanzee, the orang-utan, the bottlenose dolphin, and the Asian elephant are the only ones on record. Even gorillas, baboons and African elephants fail, as do humans younger than eighteen months."

Given all the smug mis-apprehensions crammed into this one little example, we here at Stevereads are amazed Hofstadter didn't use it for his own book. The temptation to heave a heavy sigh over the whole of it is well-nigh imperative.

We could start with all the ways in which this 'test' is conceptually flawed (the central underlying question of whether or not some species wouldn't CARE that they had a mark on their forehead is of course never addressed or even raised; dogs, for instance, have been known not only to EAT EACH OTHER'S SHIT but also to ROLL AROUND in pretty much ANYBODY'S shit ... it's possible they're not the most fastidious beings on Earth), or we could open with the impossibility of actually performing the 'test' (we'd like the meet the psychologist who could paint a mark on an African elephant's forehead in the wild ... which means the dolphins, orangutans, elephants, baboons, and eighteen-month-old human babies all had this 'test' performed on them IN CAPTIVITY, which immediately invalidates the results, just as a psych-profile conducted right this minute on Eric Volz wouldn't have a scrap of validity except in that context), but as with Hofstadter's book, it's the underlying bigotry of the whole conception that irks us the most.

Humans self-reflect because it's a side-effect of language, which is a specialized skill they developed over millennia (although if Kriegel and Hofstadter think it's a universally-practiced skill among all of humankind, they really need to get out more often; your average adult raven or octopus or timber wolf conducts their life with a Hell of a lot more introspection than is ever used by the vast majority of humankind). And human beings are only just beginning to make tiny baby-steps into inquiring whether or not other language-heavy species (the birds and the bees, for instance) have also developed ... well, something. Something wondrous and complicated and truly alien, but something no less valid and validating than the specifically human style of self-consciousness.

These inquiries - into what it really means to be a humpback whale or a giant tortoise or, gawd help us, a basset hound - aren't helped by blinkered books like Hofstadter's, and they aren't helped by softball 'reviews' like Kriegel's.

Also of interest: in this issue's letters page, Professor Jonathan Bate is taken to task for a piece he wrote recently singing the praises of his new Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the collected works of Shakespeare. Jan Piggott writes:

"Jonathan Bates writes, 'When I was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Random House to prepare the first new complete Shakespeare of the new century ... I realized that there was a true gap in the crowded market: a modern-spelling and lightly corrected Folio-based edition.
But Nick de Somogyi's paperback series of individual plays (Nick Hern Book), begun in 2001 and now including most of the major plays, exactly fills that gap, and better, thanks to de Somogyi's scholarly, original and witty introductions and careful editing.
Surely someone at the RSC could have told Bate about this sterling precedent edition; a blurb on the back of the 'Hamlet' in the series (2001) reads: 'I would certainly use it, and I can imagine all of my colleagues doing the same - Adrian Noble, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company.' It is quite wrong of Professor Bate to write as if this series did not exist."

A hit! A very palpable hit!

Of course, both Bate's edition of the First Folio and Hofstadter's book are dealt with at great length over at Open Letters Monthly, as are a great many other matters literary and poetical. But then, the truly cultured among you will know that already ...

20 comments:

beepy said...

I find that my 150 dogs all value content over facade. No vanity there. A little bit of dirt on the forehead? Not to worry. A good heart and a gentle mind is all that counts to them. The rodents, however, just want a full dish and a bit of company. And not to be eaten. If I don't eat them, I can grease up their foreheads all I want.

Besides, they probably think that we are all mentally deficient to think that that smell-free, one dimensional thing in the mirror has anything to do with us at all. It's not even alive; can't humans tell that?

To change the subject,am I the only one lame enough (friendless enough? mentally deficient enough?) to still be here on Stevereads?

beepy said...

God, I must adore him.

beepy said...

Oh, and I don't remember anyone running this test on a manatee.

jrhyley said...

The line comes from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, spoken by Azetbur.

Yep, I'm a dork.

Kevin Caron said...

I'm still here, Beepy!

It's almost as good a prize as the various items I've been promised to be mentioned every time a free book is offered.

Almost!

beepy said...

I know what you mean, Kevin. I too get a little secret thrill whenever my name or the word "manatee" gets mentions.

I am glad that I'm not alone here. Being alone with Steve is one of my biggest fears.

beepy said...

Okay, so it's me, Kevin and some unknown person (jrhyley). Can Stevereads recover its former glory?

Jeff E. said...

I'm still here as well. I've just been a little busy acclimating to a new 9-5 job.

I've also had to tiptoe around this post as Steve knows full well that I enjoy Douglas Hofsteader. Major land mine there. But I'll rise to the bait and hopefully the resulting furies will breathe some of the old life back into Stevereads.

While I'm very sorry Hofstaeder made such a bonehead move as to disparage dogs and other obviously sentient beings, I still like his area of inquiry and quirky prose style enough to be a fan. The reason Hofsteader is such a humano-centrist is because he works mostly in the field of artificial intelligence. So one of his set goals is to isolate the characteristics of human intelligence that might be replicated by machines, and then attempt to actually do so. Studying the differences in types of intelligence (especially between species) helps to illuminate the roles of various mental faculties.

I still think he's being a bonehead in a few of the areas highlighted by our solemn host, but unlike our host I don't believe he's doing it for the specific purpose of being a cruel and close-minded jackass.

Kevin Caron said...

Whoa! Zing!

Hippolyta said...

I'm here!

Now, what is this about Reichmarshal rising to power? Did that little troll manage to climb the corporate ladder? I'm surprised his legs are long enough!

Sam said...

I'm here! Didn't you see how I had to suffer seeing my poor parents' intelligence impugned by the Reichmarshal (who was, what, seven when Walter Mondale ran for President?)? But what could I say, knowing that my poor parents had also voted for Michael Dukakis?

Sometimes life is tough here in Stevereads.

Kevin Caron said...

I'll suffer when I find myself or someone I respect doing something The RM approves of.

Till then, I remain proud of Mom's voting record.

Dad, on the other hand... Oy.

Hippolyta said...

wow, wait, someone update me on the RM's activity....

Gianni said...

I'm still here, too. As far as Reichmarshall (sp?) goes, he's still doing his thing: speaking out the side of his mouth and threatening to put me in a work camp...

beepy said...

Sam, don't feel bad. I voted on the side of righteousness along with your parents. (not that I'm old enough to have voted in those elections, of course. I find time-travel so useful in times like these.)

I'm glad to see the faithful still remain. If only we can get Steve back.

Sam said...

Bah, I lost all confidence in Steve's voting habits during his bandwagon boosterism for the Whig party. Tippecanoe and Tyler, indeed!

Greg said...

What about Steve's reading habits? Steve, you know I see all the orders that come in.
Um.....Gossip Girl?

greg said...

Um...also...thanks for those excellent books on Vietnam.

beepy said...

Ahhhh, Gossip Girls. The real Steve emerges.

steve said...

yer all banished. BANISHED, I say!