Radicalized, by Corey Doctorow

Goodreads review:

Disappointingly simplistic.

I read an incisive short story by the author, Cory Doctorow, about algorithms a while ago, when I was writing about algorithmic accountability, that helped articulate some ideas for me. So I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, and I was excited to find someone who I thought would offer some insight into this Black Mirror-y world we live in. 

But this collection of stories resorts to easy moralizing. The four stories–about a superhero who tries to intervene in police brutality, a plucky immigrant who hacks her toaster, an Ayn Randian prepper, and a group of grieving Dads fed up with the insanity of our healthcare system–are populated by caricatures of evil hedge fund managers, faceless corporations, and righteous commoners. 

OTOH it’s an easy read, the toaster story is actually better than okay, and maybe if you don’t spend half your life on Twitter getting pounded over the head with these issues, it’ll provide some food for thought.

Thoughts: Playing in the Dark

“Marking the moment of awakening is like marking the moment one fell in love,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in We Were Eight Years in Power.

Funny because I mark the moment of reading Coates’s The Case for Reparations as an awakening. At the time I thought it was a singular thing, to have woken up from ignorance. I did not realize this would be a continuous waking up.

It would occur again after I moved to Harlem and after Eric Garner’s death, and all the deaths that followed, and again, with the rise of Trump.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark was another kind of awakening. A new friend recommended it to me while we stood in a used bookshop in Soho. I had picked up a Jane Austen book perhaps, or something similarly classic, and asked him which authors of the American educational canon he liked most. He said, didn’t you know that most of those writers were racist?

I stumbled my answer, and conceded that yes perhaps they were, but in my mind I did not agree to dismiss all the canonical greats with a single amoral labeling. He said, you should read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.

I downloaded it to my Kindle and left it unread for a week, or more. Now, it should be noted that I did not grow up reading the American canon. I am fairly ignorant of Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Faulkner; I hated Jane Austen and never read Charles Dickens. And nevertheless, I was afraid to read Morrison’s book. I was ignorant of Morrison too, and was afraid it would be a diatribe against everything white and past, that it would confuse the craft of writing with the morals of its craftsmen, that it would erase the art for the politics.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Morrison’s book is by far one of the most careful and insightful deliberation of how to interrogate a past without moral declarations. “My project rises from delight, not disappointment,” she writes. She uses the term curiosity, rather than analysis, investigation or judgement. Her project is to find out where blackness, what she refers to as ‘Aficanism,’ has influenced the canonical writers, and by extension our cultural blueprint of ourselves.

All of it is instructive, writes Morrison: the absence of black people and their caricature, the kindness and cruelty of the default actors, the descriptions and interactions between those in power and those without. It all leads to the understanding that the white man is not possible without the black man, because whiteness understands itself as the negative of blackness. It experiences power, conquest, righteousness, superiority, and freedom only because there are black and indigenous people available to be compared to.

I have heard the argument over and over that America would not be America without black people, and that white is not white without black, and I never fully accepted it. Functionally, yes. Without slave labor we could not have built the country we did. I did not not accept the argument, partially because it had never crystallized for me that I disagreed, and partially because it was not socially acceptable to do so.

But in the 100 or so pages of Playing in the Dark, I was immediately convinced. Morrison walks through several examples: Poe, Twain, Hemingway, Cather, and with deft literary analysis lays everything out bare. And she does it without recrimination, without denouncing Poe or Twain or Hemingway or Cather, because as she herself says, that is not the purpose of the book. It is not to discover if they are racist, it is to discover how blackness shaped the way they saw the world, even in the absence of black people as believable, acceptable, characters.

I felt chastised for my defensiveness, and I realize that there’s an argument that might denounce this analysis as a silencing of black recrimination and anger; as if, if Morrison had denounced the great writers, thereby wounding my whiteness, I would no longer be able to accept what she had to say.

I would engage with that argument, but I think it’s a piece of the kind of approach that Morrison avoids. Her work shows that this type of discussion about race, and writing, and how the past was made is crucial and important and tough and fascinating. A slash-and-burn treatment of history, or the present actually, where anything that is immoral is unacceptable and therefore unspeakable, is remarkably simplistic and destructive.

It can’t be that the only lens through which to confront our culture is to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, even with the admirable goal of eradicating racism, recognizing our genocidal roots, and generally repudiating the past.

Morrison’s book gave me language and permission to question the collection of things we call our culture out of curiosity rather than judgement; to practice curiosity in a way that opens doors to more understanding, rather than shuts any doors we wish didn’t exist.

My year in books

I read 50 books in 2018.

(47 if you discount the few I fudged to meet my Goodreads challenge: an essay by Umberto Eco, which is a book, but I read online, a cookbook I bought for a $1 at Strand and quickly discarded.)

22 were translations

15 of which were novels (by Nobakov, Camus, Ferrante, Balzac)

4 of which were the delightful and morbid noir-comedy of French writer Pascal Garnier

11 were written by women

4 were in Spanish, including 2 by the Chilean/Mexican master Roberto Bolaño, who has reaffirmed my love for torrents of language

5 concerned urbanism, segregation and racism

2 concerned algorithms and privacy

2 were published in 2018

The one I would recommend to everyone is Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. I had not understood the notion that whiteness exists only as contrast to blackness until I read it. It helped me to think about the question of great literature from terrible men (and women), and about literature as what remains of a terrible history but the only one we have.

The authors I want to keep reading are Bolaño, Knausgaard, DeWitt, maybe Nobakov.

I revisited Fondane. I finally read Alan Watts. I tried to read Modiano in French. DeWitt blew my mind. Garnier was a treat. Coates was redundant. Nobakov was work, but probably worth it. Chris Kraus was a very wonderful surprise, a mix of art theory and essay that I devoured. Eileen Myles was refreshing and then quickly just okay. Alain de Botton makes me want to throw things. Knausgaard makes me want to slow the fuck down. I wish obfuscation had a chance.

Resolutions for 2019: 1) read at least 1 book of poetry 2) reread at least 2 books 3) read at least 3 books about writing

“Thought to the n-th degree”

Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays

Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays by Benjamin Fondane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this in the aftermath of the 2016 election. These were my thoughts then.

November 11, 2016: I did a strange thing. I downloaded a book to my Kindle that I’d randomly come across at a bookstore near my work a few weeks ago. It’s called Existential Monday, a collection of essays by Benjamin Fondane, a Romanian-French Jewish poet-philosopher who wrote between the wars. 

It was a beautiful escape. It was so pure. About reason and absurdity and individual vs absolute truth—it felt so much more essential to life than all this drama.

But even there I couldn’t entirely escape. First off, Fondane (he changed his name from Wreschler) died in an Auschwitz gas chamber. He saw 1933, he served in the French army in WWII and was stripped of his citizenship in 1942. He was detained by the French. He had to find a way for his philosophy to address it all. 

January 2017: This is a book I intend to read again. I’ve told myself so many times that I’ve passed the age where it’s fashionable to be existentialist, and then I read something and think how foolish that is.

There’s no better way to describe it than a salve. I read the intro by Bruce Baugh and I remembered how finite politics really is; how finite the present really is. How all year, as everything around me swirled around election politics, I kept searching for the articulation of the smallness of it.

Which, even now I’m not convinced. Because this election will definitely impact the population of the planet and the future of the planet. It will impact me and my friends. It may impact very mundane matters, very immediate matters, and very long-term matters. But somehow even that didn’t feel integral to existence.

I kept saying that the government we have, the institutions we have, I’m not going to say I don’t appreciate them, but if they weren’t my reality something else would be, and that would be fine. But there would still be something fundamental to existence that would be there.

Just the preface alone, which introduces us to Fondane’s quest to undo reason, his embrace of “impertinent uneasiness, this holy hypochondria,” was electrifying. I found someone who understood, and something that made me want to know more, to unearth what he was saying, instead of most things I consume that end when they end.

And it helps that Fondane is what I wish I was: a writer and philosopher and that he became a philosopher accidentally, because he was essentially one, not through training. (Though clearly he ended up adopting the formal way of discussing philosophy.) He loves paradox and the impossible and “thought to the n-th degree.”

He wasn’t immune from politics. He lived between the wars and died in Auschwitz. One of his essays is a defense of continuing to think when the world is going to shit. He argues with himself, presenting both sides. We must do something, how can we escape into thought, and I think that’s the kind of question that doesn’t get resolved. You know ultimately that to think, to attempt to touch all of existence, can’t ever be inappropriate, but it certainly feels that way.

He once told his wife that he’s the exact type of Jew Hitler wanted to get rid of, the most authentic kind, “rebellious. disobedient. nonconformist.” 

Is it rebellious/disobedient/nonconformist right now to double down on thought/philosophy/art rather than action/rage/strategy, or is it abdication?

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In the Name of Identity

In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to BelongIn the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong by Amin Maalouf

Amin Maalouf is in some ways perfectly positioned to write a book on identity. He is a Lebanese Arab Christian who moved to France as an adult to escape Lebanon’s civil war, a poster child for the fusion of multiple identities. He has firsthand experience of being an immigrant, a minority, and how bloody identity can be.

His book is a sober, personal, compassionate exploration of identity as both necessary, and oftentimes fatal. His main premise is that most problems arise when people are forced to choose between identities, and to identify as one to the exclusion of everything else. Rather than accept that each person is by definition the sum of all of his or her identities, people are often forced to define themselves by one above all, and when that’s threatened, they feel justified in protecting it by any means.

On a broader discussion about identity in a globalizing world, he points out that for most, globalization has meant the loss of identity. Because progress has come to mean westernization (or even Americanization), and that for the rest of the world, “Modernisation has constantly meant the abandoning of part of themselves.” Which I think is a spectacular, and very humane point. A sort of precursor to the ‘whiteness’ problem.

What’s interesting is how much has changed since the nineties, when the book was written. Maalouf is more hopeful than he ought to have been, considering how things turned out. However, I think we have come to see that globalization does not necessarily lead to uniformity, and that while American soft power is tremendous, there has thus far been enough space for it to do its thing alongside the continued growth of robust regional/ethnic/national/religious cultures.

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Thoughts: Turing’s Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book attempted to be both the story and the explanation of the first computer, and ended up accomplishing a very confused mix of the two. It’s a beautiful effort with a ton of information (and I understand from other reviews, new information) about the building of the first computer, and everything that led up to it, and its lasting impacts on the philosophy and structure of computing.

Unfortunately, the chronology was confusing, the narrative was unclear, the explanations assumed more knowledge than I had, and the rhapsodizing about search engines as the ultimate—even possibly thinking—computers put the other philosophical/prophetic passages in doubt.

I don’t have another history of computers book to suggest at the moment but I have a feeling that there are far better ones out there depending on your level of previous knowledge and desired depth of knowledge. It’s a shame because there’s so much great stuff in here. It was just hard to parse most of the time.

That being said, there were plenty of themes/questions/ideas/tidbits that got me thinking. Here are a few of those:

“The part that is stable we are going to predict. And the part that is unstable we are going to control.”

John von Neumann said that, and it’s part of a larger theme about how computers were made only once people realized that instead of expecting perfection, they should expect imperfection and account for it.

“There is reason to suspect that our predilection for linear codes, which have a simple, almost temporal sequence, is chiefly a literary habit.”

I have no idea if this is true but seems like an interesting thing to think about.

“If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.”

So like humans then?

“Machines will dream first.”

Before thinking that is. What a wonderful thought. It brings to mind the silent square nineties computer that sat in my father’s office at home, alone in the dark after we all finally went to sleep. Did it dream?

“That the resulting human behavior can only be counted on statistically, not deterministically, is… no obstacle to the synthesis of those unreliable human beings into a reliable organism.”

This (which comes from the section on the future of computers, or what its first inventors thought of its future back in the fifties) is terrifying. Not only because it suggests a future where humans are controlled by computers, but because it means that now currently, we are already statistics. And the fact that predictions made about us based on human data are predictive but not deterministic is not a consolation.

Oh, and the origin story of the Monte Carlo method. It’s a great origin story and now I actually understand what it is!

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