Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.


Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)

Style Detection

July 14, 2010

I came across a link recently to iwl.me, a site that claims to statistically analyze your writing style and tell you what famous writer your writing style resembles. I tried it out by plugging a few posts from this blog into it.

I didn’t get exactly consistent results. My most recent post, the one about Cormac McCarthy, reported “H.P. Lovecraft.” The one about AIs reported”Isaac Asimov.” The one about Andrew Bird, the one about Robert Lowell, and the one about Wallace Stevens all gave “David Foster Wallace.” Four of my unpublished short stories gave me “Neil Gaiman,” “Margaret Mitchell,” “Kurt Vonnegut,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle.”

This all makes a certain sense; something on existential horror is by Lovecraft, something about AIs by Asimov, a story with an analytic main character is by Doyle. But this is a correlation in subject matter, not style. Which defeats the entire point of the site. I don’t write like these people, I just write about the same things. That’s far from equivalent.

Nevertheless, the repeated result of “David Foster Wallace” intrigues me. I think I know what it means — I write long, sometimes overly long, sentences with precise grammar but still casual in appearance. That’s a primarily feature of the styles of both Wallace and Lovecraft. Indeed, my style here does tend to be, long complex sentences that try to flow easily into each other. My fiction writing is considerably different though. I wonder if it wouldn’t flow easier if I wrote it like I write these posts. It probably would; it would probably be worse though.

I also wondered about what author this post would claim to resemble. The site gave “Dan Brown.” Which I find, I suppose, somewhat insulting. Ah well.


March 23, 2010

Earlier today, The Daily Kraken, a blog I’ve read for the last few years written by a grad student at the University of Ottawa, linked to Inklings, a blog written by a friend of mine from school (though, bizarrely, I first met her online through that blog, then later met her in person). Since I list both in my Blogroll (over there to the right), I suspect that I was the source of the connection, though I could be wrong. Anyway, I’m taking this opportunity to link to both of them and say, “read! They’re interesting!” And often talk about things similar to those discussed on this very blog.

Incidentally, I used the word “blog” or a derivative thereof five times in the above paragraph, and was struck once again (I’ve noticed this before) by how hideous it is, even considering it’s a neologism. Why can we not use “journal” or something? Sigh… (Which is a funny looking word, though a fun one.)

The Fringe

February 25, 2010

I’ve taken an interest recently in what might be called pseudo-science. What I find fascinating about them isn’t the theories they propound, though (those are usually just kind of absurd), but their use of language. It often seems like they have to invent their own language in order to communicate their non-orthodox ideas.

For example, look at the advertisement here (link goes to language log, a blog well worth reading). Half of those words don’t actually mean anything to 99% of the population.

Or the quotation from here (link goes to strange maps, another good blog); “zetetic” is a real word, but no one ever uses it, so to give themselves an air of scientific precision these people have adopted it.

Then there’s things like this, which does not invent its own words but makes quite unique use of certain phrases; “educated stupid” is a great phrase, for example. Actually, that page sounds almost like poetry – doing dramatic readings of it is really fun.

Finally, check out this guy’s Wikipedia page. His whole schtick revolves around his own personal language which he says is meant to achieve “the stopping-claims of the theft, cheating, fraud, slavery and war.” Uh, yeah.

What are we to make of all of this? It seems like all of these people have invented their own language with which to talk to themselves and their few followers, and in doing so they have lost the ability to communicate with the outside world. Effectively, they speak a different language – and thus cannot be convinced by arguments against their position propounded in English.

This has obvious implications for philosophic thought in general, I think; trying to give precise definitions to words is useful, but if the definitions given or the words used become too separated from every-day speech, they can become a crutch, a means of retaining a believe in one’s own correctness by making argument against one’s position impossible.

Kirillov and Lolcats

January 10, 2010

There is a character in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils) named Kirillov who refuses to use proper grammar. Oh, he’s not ignorant of correct usage, though he claims that he has forgotten how to speak properly. He is simply intentionally agrammatic, using the wrong tenses, the wrong cases.

Oddly, what I first thought about when I encountered this chararacter was, lolcats! You know, the bizarre internet phenomenon where a picture of a cat is given an amusing, often grammatically incorrect or misspelled caption, and that makes it hilarious? They can be found on the website icanhascheezburger.com, which name pretty well captures what I’m talking about.

What the two have in common is that they involve people who know correct grammar intentionally misusing words in order to provoke a reaction. Yes, lolcats are meant to be humorous – but they achieve their humor through self-conscious absurdity. They point to themselves and say, “I’m misusing the language, and I know it!” If you show that you are aware of the absurdity of language, it puts you above it.

How is language absurd? Firstly, it’s arbitrary. We collectively agree on what words mean, how they go together, how sentences are formed, but we could just as easily speak a different language. The fact that Kirillov and lolcats are comprehensible even though they break the rules proves that arbitrariness – they’ve made you understand them even though they refused to follow the rules. You know exactly what “I can has cheezburger?” means, even though “I can has” shouldn’t mean anything and “cheezburger” won’t be found in any dictionary.

But, apart from language itself, the very idea of communication is absurd in certain lights. What does Kirillov care what you have to say? Nothing. And conversely, he realizes that you do not (or at least ought not to) care about what he has to say. He will invite you to have tea with him, but the phrase intentionally sounds forced, because he wants you to know that he does not really care whether or not you have tea, that he knows you don’t really care, that he’s going to ask anyway to be polite, but that he does not care. As he says near the end of the novel: “Makes no difference.” Not, “It makes no difference,” but, “Makes no difference.”

I find myself reacting thusly every so often. If I have to text someone about their location, I won’t say “where are you?” but rather “where is you?” or “where be you?” I’ll do the same for myself; “i’z in my apt” rather than “I’m in my apartment.” Or I’ll try to respond in German rather than English – I constantly find myself using “wo?” instead of “where?” and “wie ist die uhr?” instead of “what time is it?”

In a way, it’s an attempt to break through the banality of life, to transcend earthly existence. Kirillov refuses to use correct grammar, and his entire philosophy is centered around the idea that he should commit suicide in order to become God: “I want to put an end to my life, because that’s my idea, because I don’t want to be afraid of death.”

But that statement itself perfectly demonstrates Kirillov’s error. He does not want to be afraid of death, but he is – he’s afraid of the power that death has over him. His solution is not to fight that power, but to give in to it entirely. Kirillov is afraid of being “merely” human. His suicide is, in the end, still an act of cowardice.

The same applies to his bizarre speech patterns. He’s refusing to engage his fellow human beings as human beings – he insists on being agrammatic so that he doesn’t have to do so. In fact, this seems true of most such breakings of grammar, including my own. The phrase “where is you?”, after all, conjugates “to be” not for the second person, but for the third person – changes the “you” from a person to interact with into an object to be dealt with.

And the lolcat caption does the same thing. Instead of saying, “can I have a cheezburger?” the cat says “I can has cheezburger?” Whomever the cat is addressing is thus treated as a robot, with an input of “ask for cheeseburger” and an output of “get a cheeseburger,” without being given the respect of a grammatically correct question.

This is funny, of course, because this is exactly how pets treat people; they use them. I’ve seen “lolcats” of dogs, horses, walruses, etc – but rarely people, and I don’t think it would work for people. For people, I think, it would just be disturbing, as the character of Kirillov is himself disturbing.

I’ll Just Have Water

December 17, 2009

I went out to dinner with an assortment of people earlier tonight (there were 5 of us total), and noticed something I have noticed often before:

The waiter comes up to the table and asks the person to his immediate left, “what do you want to drink?” She replies, “Oh, I’ll just have water.” The person to her immediate left says the same. Then the next person orders an iced tea – and the two remaining people (I was last) both get cokes. Neither of them get water.

What’s notable here is how often it goes like this – the first person asked almost always gets water, and then either it goes around the entire table with everyone getting water, or someone will get something else and then everyone left feels free to get whatever they want. Rarely will the first person not get water, and rarely will anyone get water after someone has “dared” to not get water.

What’s the explanation for this? I don’t know exactly, but my guess is it has to do with people not wanting to look profligate or poor, and not wanting to force other people to do so either. Buying a coke in a restaurant costs two or three dollars, which is just enough to not be a completely insignificant amount of money. Thus if the first person gets a water, it’s “OK” for the next person to do so as well, and so on, and once someone gets a coke, everyone else has the choice presented to them and usually chooses to get a coke, since, after all, it tastes better. But if the first person got coke, no one could get water without looking cheap, which is no good.

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