Monday, December 25, 2006

On the Side of the Apes

One of the chief culprits in the theft of "human nature", according to Garber, is Edward. O. Wilson. I wanted to like his recent book, Consilience, if only out of perversity: it was trashed by the philosophically informed reviewers.

The principal complaint is that Wilson never explains what "consilience", or the unity of knowledge, is supposed to be. Hints vary from the agreeably bland – the different branches of human learning had better be consistent with one another – to the dramatic: nothing of explanatory value is lost if we appeal to "only one class of explanation", the kind that invokes the laws of physics. As the commentators note, ontological reduction may be supported by the history of science; the redundancy of explanations framed in unreduced vocabularies is not. Wilson's pivotal step is an unexamined inference from the former to the latter.

The failure to think about the point of consilience in anything by the vaguest terms, as the synthesis of a worldview, lies behind most of the bad theorizing that occupies the rest of the book. For instance:
Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions. […] Who or what in the brain monitors all this activity? No one. Nothing. The scenarios are not seen by some other part of the brain. They just are. Consciousness is the virtual world composed by the scenarios.
Wilson's completion of the Enlightenment project in the philosophy of mind looks suspiciously similar to the bundle of ideas that appeared at its beginning. Even if we set aside the long history of refutations, it is hard to think of a good question to which this might be the answer.

Elsewhere, the question is made tolerably clear, at the cost of changing the subject. Thus, the alleged consilience of art and science rests on an evolutionary account of human creativity – as though the deepest problem of interpretation were the novelist's worst friend: "Where do you get your ideas?"

The answer, not surprisingly, is that "[artistic] inspiration […] rises from the artesian wells of human nature." What doesn't? The controversial claim is not that our capacities were shaped by evolution, but that they come in relatively focused packages or dispositions, tied to specific behaviours, and that they are always or mostly adaptive. Wilson insists on the more ambitious theory, of fixed "epigenetic rules", modeled on the case of incest-avoidance, and extended to the power of reason itself:
I suggest that rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules.
There is only one exception:
The human mind evolved to believe in gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not under-written by genetic algorithms. […] The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another.
No wonder Wilson is keen to unify everything under the banner of science: it is the sole capacity of the human mind that is not hopelessly trapped in the Pleistocene.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Who Owns "Human Nature"?

The question is posed by Marjorie Garber in the second lecture of her Manifesto for Literary Studies, an attractive booklet published a few years back, which I recently discovered. Her topic is the theft of "human nature" – which "was once the intellectual property of poets, philosophers and political theorists" – by natural science. According to Garber,
[This] shift in the disciplinary custody of "human nature" has serious consequences for the value of that amorphous enterprise called "the humanities." For if the place to investigate "human nature" is not "the humanities," what is the use of the humanistic disciplines? What else gives them cultural authority? And, equally to the point, what is the use of funding, supporting, studying and teaching them?
She spends the rest of the lecture in a rather scattered attempt to recover the stolen goods.

Garber's principal weapon is the claim that "[language] is not a secondary but a primary constituent of human nature". She might intend the view that human nature is linguistically constructed – whatever that means. But her remark could also be read more modestly, as the doctrine that man is a cultural animal: it belongs to our nature to participate in varied cultural and historical formations, to which human language is essential. "[What] I have been contending", Garber writes, "is that today's humanists are asking 'human nature' questions all the time, when they talk about psychic violence, or material culture, or epistemic breaks, or the history of the book, or the counterintuitive."

The problem is that studying these variations of culture is studying human nature the way a field guide to the insects of Western Pennsylvania is about the nature of life. If it is worth using the concept at all, human nature must refer to what is common and essential to human beings: in this case, the fact of culture, and its mutability, not the particular mutations.

What puzzles me in Garber's approach is why the prestige of the humanities should be thought to rest on a pervasive engagement with human nature in the first place. It is as though she concedes to the critics of the liberal arts that the study of a local tradition or form – lyric poetry, Greek tragedy, the Victorian novel – is pointless, in itself. The only questions worth asking – and more significantly, worth funding – are what she ends by calling "the Big Questions: the Who Am I questions, the What Am I Doing Here questions".

It would be tempting for a philosopher to accept the praise implicit in this idea. But the proper response is to doubt the assumption on which it rests. Why concede to science, and philosophy, that the relative generality of their questions makes them more important? A defence of the humanities should be a defence of history and anthropology and literary studies, even when they tell us nothing about who we are.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Narrative, deferred

A structural property shared by two books I have read in the past few weeks: they are anonymous narratives of someone else's life.

The story of Jacques Austerlitz – his arrival in England on a Kinder-transport from Prague, his subsequent attempts to discover where he came from and who is – all of this is told at second hand, in W. G. Sebald's haunting novel. These conversations, scattered across Europe over many years, unplanned and structureless, create a sense of insubstantial identity, as if Austerlitz is himself the ghost of his parents.

The effect is quite different in Primo Levi's The Wrench. Here the vicarious narrative traces the exploits of Tino Faussone, itinerant mechanical problem-solver. From his elaborate descriptions of physical and intellectual labour – rigging cranes, distilling acid, beating copper, building bridges, welding steel – we are invited to draw the moral that, except for miracles, "loving your work […] represents the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth."

And yet, despite this happiness, what we are given directly is never work itself, but stories about work, told at leisure, over drinks or on aimless walks. It is the prospect of narration that justifies the hardship of work:
[If] there aren't troubles, it's no fun telling about it afterward. And you know, you said so yourself: telling about things is one of the joys of life.
What reconciles the threatened contradiction – is happiness work, or telling stories about work? – is the implicit argument that story-telling itself is work, that Faussone's listener must take the ore of conversation, "grind it, hone it [and] hammer it into shape". The deferral of narrative draws attention to these tasks: it is essential to the book.

It is hard to find a similar explanation for the structure of Austerlitz, which is marked by a second property, no less distinctive than the first: its sentences and paragraphs are enormously long. The first indentation appears on page 27, the next on page 59. A sentence describing the concentration camp at Theresienstadt goes on for eight pages before coming to a stop. The movement is not headlong; it is slow, mesmeric, aimless.

What is the point of these eccentricities of prose, and of form? Merely to generate an atmosphere of dislocation? In a novel about the paralysis involved in having no story – "I am living the wrong life" – there must be more to it than that.