Wednesday, December 20, 2023

excerpts from Tom Wolfe's "Hooking Up" (essays)

On AI, brains, etc.: "I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stock broker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does and only that. The rest is Digibabble." (76) Further, there's much more to life than intelligence and processing speed: "But if these inventions, remarkable as they surely are, have improved the human mind or reduced the human beast's zeal for banding together with his blood brethren against other human beasts, it has escaped my notice." (76) 

More on genetics, including references to Dean Hamer and "the gay gene"and the NIH's "Violence Initiative" (92): "The present moment resembles that moment in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church forbade the dissection of human bodies, for fear that what was discovered inside might cast doubt on the Christian doctrine that God created man in his own image. Even more radioactive is the matter of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests. Privately—not many care to speak out—the vast majority of neuroscientists believe the genetic component of an individual's intelligence is remarkably high. Your intelligence can be improved upon by skilled and devoted mentors or it can be held back by a poor upbringing—i.e., the [photographic] negative can be well developed or poorly developed—but your genes are what really make the difference. The recent ruckus over Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve is probably just the beginning of the bitterness the subject is going to create." (94-95) 

On nature, nurture, and Neitzsche with his famous "God is dead" in 1882 and the prophetic implications: It was "not a declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a 'tremendous event', the greatest event of modern history." But he predicted that, as a result, the 20th Century would have "wars such as have never happened on earth" because "human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt...As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods." He predicted that "mankind would limp through the 20th Century on the capital of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the 21st Century, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of 'the total eclipse of all values'. This would also be a frantic period of 'revaluation,' in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old." (98-99) 


On books (almost necessarily) as better than movies—but unfortunately, the death of novels (167-170): Today it is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who are themselves excited by the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now, in all its varieties. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who can’t wait to head out into that raucous rout, like the Dreisers, Lewises, and Steinbecks of the first half of the twentieth century, and see it for themselves. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who today have the instincts of reporters, the curiosity, the vitality, the joie de vivre, the drive, the energy to tackle any subject, head out onto any terrain, no matter how far it may be removed from their own experience—often because it is so far removed from their own experience and they can’t wait to see it for themselves. As a result, the movie, not the novel, became the great naturalistic storytelling medium of the late twentieth century. Movies can be other things, but they are inherently naturalistic—and I suggest that this is precisely what their audiences adore most about them: their intense realism. 

In using the first two of these devices, scene-by-scene construction and dialogue, movies have an obvious advantage; we actually see the scenes and hear the words. But when it comes to putting the viewer inside the head of a character or making him aware of life’s complex array of status details, the movies have been stymied. In attempting to create the interior point of view, they have tried everything, from the use of a voice-over that speaks the character’s thoughts, to subtitles that write them out, to the aside, in which the actor turns toward the camera in the midst of a scene and simply says what he’s thinking. They have tried putting the camera on the shoulder of the that the audience sees him only when he looks in the mirror, and having him speak his thoughts in voice-over. But nothing works; nothing in all the motion-picture arts can put you inside the head, the skin, the central nervous system of another human being the way a realistic novel can. The movies are not much better with status details. When it comes time to deal with social gradations, they are immediately reduced to gross effects likely to lapse into caricature at any moment; the house that is too grand or too dreadful, the accent that is too snobbish or too crude. Which brings us to another major shortcoming of movies as a technology: they have a hard time explaining...anything. They are a time-driven medium compelled by their very nature to produce a constant flow of images... 

The American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts she is right now. It needs novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye. If the ranks of such novelists swell, the world-- even that effete corner which calls itself the literary world-- will be amazed by how quickly the American novel comes to life. 


On genetics, eugenics, E.O. Wilson's work, and Dawkins' memes (80-86), including the irony that memes don't exist; the evolutionary gaps are enormous; and Dawkins reduces to an Archbishop of Fundamentalism who believes in "fairies, trolls and elves". 

There are three other remarkable chapters/essays in this collection: "The Invisible Artist" on artist/architect Frederick Hart; "The Rococo Marxists" (in Harpers); and the "Tiny Mummies" hatchet job on The New Yorker. 


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