Becoming someone else that you were not in the beginning

In a 1982 interview, French philosopher Michel Foucault remarked:

I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to becoming someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know where it will end.

On the Internet and deep reading

Nicholas Carr:

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman  eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic

The tragedy of learning nothing

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden offers this insight about Shakespearen tragedy, in general, and Othello, in particular:

The big figures in Shakespeare’s tragedies do not learn anything – that is the ultimate tragedy of Shakespearean tragedy. Othello says in his last speech,

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

Othello learns nothing, remains in defiance, and is damned. He cannot think why he did what he did, or realize what was wrong. His thoughts are not on Desdemona at all. He just recalls he did some service to the state, and he ends by identifying himself with another outsider, the Moslem Turk. He has no realization of why he was jealous. It’s easy for us to see that Othello and Desdemona should not have married, but he never does.

What is the crux of Othello’s fall?

Literary critic Arthur Kirsch writes an essay on Othello in his excellent book, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love. What is “the crux of Othello’s fall”? Kirsch says:

He believes Desdemona cannot be true because he becomes convinced that he himself is unlovable and, believing that, he also becomes convinced that Desdemona’s manifest attraction to him is itself perverse, a “proof” of her corruption. Just before he strangles her, he and she have the following acutely painful dialogue:

OTHELLO: Think on thy sins.
DESDEMONA: They are loves I bear to you.
OTHELLO: Ay, and for that thou diest.
DESDEMONA: That death’s unnatural that kills for loving (V.2.43)

I am not altogether sure what these lines mean. Desdemona may be referring to the sin of disobeying her father. Othello may be condemning Desdemona for her very desire for him, or he may be projecting upon her his incapacity to accept his own desires, probably both. And hovering over these lines may be the sense of guilt of the original sin, which was at once physical and spiritual. But whatever their precise meaning, the lines convey the ultimate horror of the play, which is Othello’s radical rejection of the precept upon which his, or any, marriage is founded: “So men are bound to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his own wife, loveth himself” [Ephesians 5:28]. The tragedy of Othello is that finally he fails to love his own body, to love himself, and it is this despairing self-hatred that spawns the enormous savagery, degradation, and destructiveness of his jealousy.

The difference between Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden makes this brilliant observation on the tragedy of Othello:

The particular kind of tragedy Shakespeare writes differs from Greek tragedy. Both assume that the tragic figure is a great or good man suffering from a flaw that brings him to destruction. If one asks, what is the matter with the Greek character, the answer is hybris, which is not translatable by our word pride. Hybris is the belief that one is omnipotent, a god. This doesn’t cause a radical difference in the way you behave, but the tragedy is the gods’ punishment for a man’s feeling like this. The envy of the gods is aroused when someone powerful – a power derived from them – should claim to be their equal. The gods show the heroes that they aren’t. The tragic heroes in Greek drama must therefore be great men, in a worldly sense. Members of the chorus in Greek tragedy can’t be heroes. The whole point in a Greek tragedy is that the hero and his tragic fate are exceptional.

Shakespeare’s tragic characters, on the other hand, suffer from the Christian sin of pride: knowing you aren’t God, but trying to become Him – a sin of which any of us is capable. Hybris is the manifestation of overweening self-confidence, of over-security. Pride is the manifestation of a lack of security, of the anxiety that is due to lack of faith, and of a defiance of one’s finite limitations as a human being. It is a form of despair. There are two types of despair: one is the despair of willing not to be oneself, the other is the despair of willing to be oneself. The official heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are men of passion who will not be themselves – their passions, not unlike the humours of Jonson’s characters, are the attempt to hide from themselves what they are. The other type of tragic figure is Iago, a tragic hero without passion, who refuses to yield to what he knows, who wills to be himself, who knows what he is and refuses to change, who refuses to relate himself in love to others and insists on standing outside the community. Iago relates to others only negatively.

Two kinds of sexual jealousy

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden makes this observation on the tragedy of Othello:

There are two kinds of sexual jealousy. Ordinary sexual jealousy involves the infidelity of a person who has given himself to you when you discover that you can’t retain that gift. The bigger type is the jealousy of a person seen as a goddess or god-idol. In this type, (a) the idol must act in accord with your will, and (b) must act so of his own free will. Here, the moment you doubt, you’re sunk,  because once the idol is seen as human, like oneself, all assurances, all acts, can have a double interpretation. Either you must give up the idol or you must realize that you’re dependent on another human being.

Othello is an optical – and conceptual – illusion

ZebraIn Shakespeare and Modern Culture, Marjorie Garber writes this about the tragedy Othello:

The doubleness of focus is intrinsic to the very structure of the play. Othello in modern culture can certainly be said to have a “double consciousness” in the specialized sense used by W. E. B. DuBois: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body” (p. 172).

***

The play is itself the most elusive and maddening of optical – and conceptual – illusions, figure and ground constantly exchanging places. If Oedipus is the myth and the play about a crossroads, we might invoke an everyday icon of modern life and say that Othello is the myth and the play about a crosswalk, or what in Britain is known as a “zebra crossing”: a pedestrian crossing marked by broad black-and-white stripes on the road. Othello is a hero; Othello is a dupe. Iago is a devil, a scoundrel, a Machiavel; Iago is the type of the successful modern politician, from Richard Darman to Karl Rove. Iago is a terrorist; Iago is a strategy for combating terrorism, by getting into the minds of others. Othello is black, brown, Moorish, African; a white actor in blackface; a black actor; a cliché for black actors; a political challenge for white actors. Iago hates Othello; no, he loves him, but he doesn’t know it, or can’t admit it. The play is about race, about politics, about preferment, about jealousy, about desire, about evil, about innocence, about motiveless malignity (p. 177).