Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Useless philosophical arguments about mind & computation, brain & computer

I’ve been interested the mind, computing, brains, and computers ever since my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins back in the mid-1960s. To that end I’ve educated myself about computation, and computers as well, and psychology of various kinds, neuroscience, literature, music, and the arts. I’ve also looked into philosophical issues on these matters. I’m unimpressed.

I suppose that John Searle’s Chinese Room argument is as well known in this business as any one line of argument is. I’ve read it, in several versions, and arguments against it. I find the arguments on both sides uninteresting. I’ve read a bit of Dreyfus, some Dennett, and somewhere along the way some others as well. I’m unimpressed.

Do I think that the mind is a (digital) computer? No, I don’t. But I do believe that using computation as a conceptual vehicle for thinking about the mind has taught us a lot, and will continue to do so. And the same with brains and computers. But the philosophers aren’t in that game and their arguments don’t contribute to it, one way or any other.

Their arguments seem to be about whether or not the game is worth playing. But how could they know if they don’t know and don’t care about how the game is played? Let us imagine, for example, that one day machine translation will be good enough for legal documents. Who cares whether or not those computers have minds or whether they’re really thinking? Well, I suppose it might matter in issues of liability. If a computer should make a mistake in translation, as human translators sometimes do, then perhaps the computer would be held liable if it is deemed to have a mind, otherwise its owner would be held liable. But beyond that?

Just what have these philosophers been arguing about for the last five or six decades?

Perhaps they are tracing the outer edge, the boundary, of a certain era of thought, an épistémè, to use Foucault’s term. Is that épistémè the long 19th century, or mid-20th century? I don’t know.

Now, I suppose those arguing that, no, the mind/brain is nothing like a computer, are also arguing that any research along those lines, whether in artificial intelligence, or some varity of psychology or linguistics, is so misguided that it cannot possibly be of any value. And in that case ALL such research must be stopped immediately. But that’s a VERY hard line to take given that such reseach has alrady produced much that is of value, both in practical technology and theoretical understanding. Still, if THAT’s what they’re arguing, then I suppose that those philosophers arguing the opposite line, that the mind is a computer etc., they’re trying to make room for research. Still, it seems like a wast.

And I don’t think that’s what’s going on. It’s something else.

But I’d like to think that whatever it is, it’s coming to an end. Those arguments are a waste of brain power.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Tangle with sun and clouds




The man who revealed that the tree of life is in fact a tangled net

From an article in the NYTimes Magazine about Carl Woese:
What made Woese the foremost challenger and modifier of Darwinian orthodoxy — as Einstein was to Newtonian orthodoxy — is that his work led to recognition that the tree’s cardinal premise is wrong. Branches do sometimes fuse. Limbs do sometimes converge. The scientific term for this phenomenon is horizontal gene transfer (H.G.T.). DNA itself can indeed move sideways, between limbs, across barriers, from one kind of creature into another.

Those were just two of three big surprises that flowed from the work and the influence of Woese — the existence of the archaea (that third kingdom of life) and the prevalence of H.G.T. (sideways heredity). The third big surprise is a revelation, or anyway a strong likelihood, about our own deepest ancestry. We ourselves — we humans — probably come from creatures that, as recently as 41 years ago, were not known to exist. How so? Because the latest news on archaea is that all animals, all plants, all fungi and all other complex creatures composed of cells bearing DNA within nuclei — that list includes us — may have descended from these odd, ancient microbes. Our limb, eukarya, seems to branch off the limb labeled archaea. The cells that compose our human bodies are now known to resemble, in telling ways, the cells of one group of archaea known as the Lokiarcheota, recently discovered in marine ooze, almost 11,000-feet deep between Norway and Greenland near an ocean-bottom hydrothermal vent. It’s a little like learning, with a jolt, that your great-great-great-grandfather came not from Lithuania but from Mars.

We are not precisely who we thought we were. We are composite creatures, and our ancestry seems to arise from a dark zone of the living world, a group of creatures about which science, until recent decades, was ignorant. Evolution is trickier, far more complicated, than we realized. The tree of life is more tangled. Genes don’t just move vertically. They can also pass laterally across species boundaries, across wider gaps, even between different kingdoms of life, and some have come sideways into our own lineage — the primate lineage — from unsuspected, nonprimate sources. It’s the genetic equivalent of a blood transfusion or (to use a different metaphor preferred by some scientists) an infection that transforms identity. They called it “infective heredity.”

Bishop of the Moon, I kid you not – from Orlando to the Moon

The crash of 2008 and its aftermath, so far

Tooze calls it a problem in “Western capitalism” intentionally. It was not just an American problem. When it began, many saw it as such and dumped the blame on Washington. In September 2008, as Wall Street burned, the German finance minister Peer Steinbruck explained that the collapse was centered in the United States because of America’s “simplistic” and “dangerous” laissez-faire approach. Italy’s finance minister assured the world that its banking system was stable because “it did not speak English.”

In fact this was nonsense. One of the great strengths of Tooze’s book is to demonstrate the deeply intertwined nature of the European and American financial systems. In 2006, European banks generated a third of America’s riskiest privately issued mortgage-backed securities. By 2007, two-thirds of commercial paper issued was sponsored by a European financial entity. The enormous expansion of the global financial system had largely been a trans-Atlantic project, with European banks jumping in as eagerly and greedily to find new sources of profit as American banks. European regulators were as blind to the mounting problems as their American counterparts, which led to problems on a similar scale. “Between 2001 and 2006,” Tooze writes, “Greece, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, the U.K., France, Ireland and Spain all experienced real estate booms more severe than those that energized the United States.”

But while the crisis may have been caused in both America and Europe, it was solved largely by Washington. Partly, this reflected the post-Cold War financial system, in which the dollar had become the hyperdominant global currency and, as a result, the Federal Reserve had truly become the world’s central bank. But Tooze also convincingly shows that the European Central Bank mismanaged things from the start. The Fed acted aggressively and also in highly ingenious ways, becoming a guarantor of last resort to the battered balance sheets of American but also European banks. About half the liquidity support the Fed provided during the crisis went to European banks, Tooze observes.

A reminder


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Grappling in the Agora with Joe Rogan

Rogan WP covershot

I've posted another working paper to Academia.edu. The title's above. Here's the URL:


Abstract, contents, and introduction below.

* * * * *

Abstract: The Joe Rogan Experience is one of the most popular podcasts on the web, reaching 10s of millions of viewers per month. Rogan discusses a wide variety of topics with a variety of guests, some of them friends who appear regularly: martial arts, comedy, nutrition and health, conspiracy theories, psychedelic drugs, and a variety of science topics. In this paper I discuss several specific podcasts, with: Steven Pinker (his latest book, Enlightenment Now), Michael Pollan (psychedelic drugs), Neil deGrasse Tyson (moon landing), Howard Bloom (music, altered states, space program), and Joey Diaz (Bruce Lee and martial arts). I also include an annotated transcription of the Joey Diaz conversation.


Introduction: Joe Rogan and Socrates in the Agora 2
Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan 5
The world according to jiujitsu 9
Two notes on psychedelic experience (Michael Pollan on Joe Rogan) 10
Joe Rogan talks with Howard Bloom, Zoooommm! 12
Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz call “Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris” – a rough transcript 16
On the conversational construction of cultural reality: Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz discuss Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon 25

Introduction: Joe Rogan and Socrates in the Agora

The idea that Joe Rogan is a modern Socrates is absurd, no? Well...let’s think about it.

Sure, I know, Socrates is the father of Western philosophy, or maybe grandfather, or great uncle, who knows, but one of those ancients. Apparently he’d go into Athens’ public square, the agora, and hold conversations on philosophical matters. I have no idea what mix of strangers and regulars joined in, but there certainly were regulars. Plato was one of them and he modeled his philosophical discourses after Socrates’ mode of talk, thus producing the first substantial body of written intellectual discourse in Western secular thought.

I have no reason to think that Rogan has made or will make any original contributions to contemporary thought, not does Rogan make any such claims for himself. As far as I can tell he thinks of himself as a guy who likes to have rambling conversations on various topics with various people. Some of these people are friends of his, or at least people he knows personally even if he doesn’t routinely hang out with them. He may have these people on the podcast time and again. Of these, some are comedians, others are martial artists, and others, bow hunting, who knows? These conversations typically run two-and-a-half to three hours long and are just casual conversation, though every once in awhile they’ll dig in a bit.

But Rogan also has conversations with guests having substantial intellectual expertise of one kind or another, for example: Steve Pinker (linguistics, psychology), Sean Carroll (physics, cosmology), Dennis McKenna (ethnopharmacology, psychedelic drugs), Debra Soh (neurosciences), Brett Weinstein (evolutionary biology), and Adam Frank (physics, astronomy). These conversations are also casual in manner, where Rogan plays the Everyman who is curious about these topics. And so he learns something from these experts, as do his viewers.

And he has lots of viewers, millions of them. Of course they don’t interact with him in the way Socrates’ interlocutors interacted with him – we simply don’t have any venue like the agora of ancient Greece. But they interact with one another in comments to the podcasts and in online forums like Reddit. And, yes, a lot of that interaction is just chitchat, but some of it is more substantive. There is learning going on, ideas exchanged, opinions validated.

Molly Worthen discussed Rogan and others in a recent column in The New York Times, “The Podcast Bros Want to Optimize Your Life”, noting:
Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

All this continues a long American tradition of self-help and creative, market-minded spirituality. The 19th century brimmed with gurus ready to guide you to other dimensions and prophets of the path from rags to riches. The podcasters’ exhortations to cultivate character and learn from the habits of successful businessmen, scientists and soldiers (whom they invite for interviews that sometimes stretch longer than two hours) could come straight from the pages of Victorian self-improvement manuals.
A bit later:
This is the podcast bro ethos: Ditch your ideologically charged identity. Accept your evolutionary programming. Take responsibility for mastering it, and find a cosmic purpose. “I’m not saying it’s only personal responsibility that matters, but you have to start there,” Mr. Marcus told me.

But wait — how does cutting down carbs and tossing kettlebells set me up to serve the universe? Here is where the podcast bros get metaphysical. Many have a strong interest in spirituality, and see practices like Buddhist meditation or consuming hallucinogenic “plant medicine” as not just a way to improve daily performance, but a path to something deeper. Their metaphysical tastes range from Carl Jung’s psychology to ancient Stoic philosophy, which calls for self-control and transcendence of material wealth.
That’s a pretty interesting mix of materials. That kind of range, and his popularity, is what makes Joe Rogan such an interesting and, I believe, important figure.

That’s why I’ve spent a good many hours over the last three months watching Rogan’s podcasts. I’ve watched, I don’t know, a dozen or two dozen all the way through, and many fragments from others. For Rogan’s fans will cut his podcasts into fragments and post them online, as does Rogan himself (more likely Jamie Vernon, his technical aide-de-camp). And from that I’ve made half a dozen posts to my blog, New Savanna, which I’ve gathered into this working paper.

Because that’s what it is, a work in progress, not finished–and maybe never to be finished. Who knows?

Well over half of this paper is devoted to a single 10 minute conversation Rogan had with one of his regulars, comedian Joey Diaz. They’re discussing the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris at the end of Way of the Dragon, an important martial arts film. Both Rogan and Diaz are martial artists, so Bruce Lee is a hero to them, perhaps Chuck Norris as well, though he doesn’t have the iconic status that Lee does. I watched that segment relatively early in my dive into the Joe Rogan Experience and the conversation struck me as emanating from the center of Rogan’s worldview. So I included it in the article I wrote for 3 Quarks Daily in late May – “Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan”, where I also discussed conversations with Steven Pinker and Neil deGrasse Tyson. That piece is the first section of this working paper.

The Rogan/Diaz was still with me after two more months of Joe Rogan, so I decided to transcribe it, not for any “deep” philosophical content, no, not that. But just to see how it went, because it’s that kind of conversation that’s made Rogan a star of the podcast world. In the next to last section of this document – “Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz call ‘Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris’ – a rough transcript” – I present the transcript without any comments other than a few introductory remarks. In the last section – “On the conversational construction of cultural reality: Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz discuss Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon” – I add extensive interline commentary to the conversation. Just how do these guys build a sense of reality? That’s what I’m curious about.

The shortest piece in this collection, “The world according to jiujitsu”, consists of a transcription of an impromptu speech that Rogan gave when he was awarded a black belt by Eddie Bravo – also a friend and regular guest on the podcast. That speech, so it seems, expresses Rogan’s core values. The other two pieces are based on specific podcasts, one with Michal Pollan and the other with Howard Bloom (whom I know), and have transcripts of short segments from each. Why transcriptions? Because the back-and-forth is important.

It’s the shuttle and the loom.

A new humanities? Glad you asked

Here's a report I prepared in 1985, my last year on the faculty at The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (aka RPT). I was one of a handful of faculty given a small summer grant to design a new and interdisciplinary undergraduate course for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I imagined that this course would be team taught by faculty representing the three different modes of thought in the human sciences (English for les sciences de l'homme). These three modes of thought don't have standard names and I've never been able to come up with labels I found satisfactory. Still, they are:
1) discursive, hermeneutic, interpretive, such as literary criticism and most history before cliometrics,
2) social/behavioral science, characterized by statistical analysis of data (the corpus linguistics methods of so-called "distant reading" fall under this rubric), and
3) structural, linguistic, even computational, where computation is a model for human thought and activity.
The idea of the course was to expose undergraduate students to these three modes of thought as applied to some one topic. And, incidentally, it might do the same for the faculty teaching the course.

Now THAT would be a new humanities. It's probably not possible within the current institutional setting, but really, it has to happen some day. It's the only thing that makes intellectual sense.
Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, an Approach for a New Era

The human sciences encompass a wide variety of disciplines: literary studies, musicology, art history, anthropology (cultural and physical), psychology (perceptual, cognitive, evolutionary, Freudian, etc.), sociology, political science, economics, history, cultural geography, and so forth. In this paper I process to organize courses and curricula aso as to include: 1) material from three different methodological styles (interpretive, behavioral or social scientific, and structural/constructive: linguistics, cognitive science), 2) historical and structural/functional approaches, and 3) materials from diverse cultures. The overall scheme is exemplified by two versions of a course on Signs and Symbols, one organized around a Shakespeare play and the other organized around traditional disciplines.
Download the full report:


Ah, the Danes and the sea, Christian Benjamin Olsen

This photo (top one) has gotten 78 views so far today, and the day is still young.

20150109-_IGP2208-2wbalB GRFD

You would prefer maybe this version:

20150109-_IGP2208-2wbalB Gr DIF

Or this?

20150109-_IGP2208-2wbalB Gr

This maybe?


This, near as I can tell, is the "origial", more or less as it came out of the camera:


What is it? Snow falling at night. There's a street light above and it appears that we're looking at the edge of a building.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Galen Strawson on Michael Pollan on Psychedelics

What should we call the experience?
There’s a terminally weary group of words used to characterize psychedelic experience. Among them we find (in descending order of association with the supernatural) “holy”, “sacred”, “mystical”, “spiritual”; “transcendence”, “bliss”, “selflessness”, “oneness”. Some are so loaded, and directly question-begging (in the original sense of the term), that it seems best to introduce a new neutral term – “X” – for the purposes of this review. X is whatever it is that is most powerfully positive in psychedelic experience. It is what psychologists try to measure when they administer the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire”, devised in the 1960s. There’s a wide consensus that there is no significant experiential difference between pharmacologically induced X and X that arises as a result of meditative or other spiritual practices.
There is an extra­ordinary degree of agreement, on the part of those who have successful “trips” under suitably controlled conditions, that the fundamental principle of reality is love.
As the Beatles' sang, "Say the word, the word is love". After this and that Strawson observes:
But love requires a lover and a loved (it is logically a two-place relation), and most of those who use the word in an attempt to convey their X experience seem to have something else – a kind of perfectly impersonal blessedness – in mind.

We shouldn’t, then, look for “authenticity” in X experience – if that is supposed to mean that there’s nothing (ultimately) bad in reality. We can leave room for primordial blessedness if it allows for unutterable tragedy. But we should probably look no further than the magnificence of the experience itself. Its significance consists in the fact that it exists.

We can go a little further. There seems to be a deeper psychological formation underneath the experience of love. The best name for it, perhaps, is Acceptance (awarded a capital “A” to match Huxley’s capital-L “Love”): profound, anxiety-dissolving acquiescence in how things are, acceptance of life, acceptance of death. Acceptance, when attained, involves experience of great joy – just as relief from intense pain is (some say) the greatest human pleasure. It is what Nietzsche is after when he speaks of amor fati, loving one’s fate. It’s precisely what he lacked when, in July 1885, he wrote to Franz Overbeck that “my life now consists in the wish that things might be other than I understand them to be, and that someone might make my ‘truths’ appear unbelievable to me”.

Capital-A Acceptance seems tightly linked with the dissolution of one’s sense of self, or at least the elimination of one’s sense of the importance of self, and neuroscientists have not been slow to speculate about this. Scans of the tripping brain show dramatic reduction in the activity in the so-called default mode network or DMN – known to some neuro­scientists as “the me network”. One may doubt all such specific neurological hypotheses, but those who believe that the DMN is a suspect theoretical construct can think simply of activity in, and interaction between, the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobule, lateral temporal cortex, dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Pollan reproduces two diagrams recently published by the Imperial College lab using various scanning technologies. They represent the activity and interconnectivity of a brain under the influence of psilocybin, and a brain after the administering of an “active placebo” (a placebo that causes a strong tingling sensation, so that one feels one may have been given the drug under test). They’re spectacularly different. The psilocybin brain is thick with areas of activity and lines of interconnection; the placebo or everyday brain is almost bare by comparison. One doesn’t have to accept any of the specific neurological explanations to concede that the diagrams point up the richness of psychedelic experience.

Some think that psychedelics simply reactivate earlier capacities. “Babies and children are basically tripping all the time”, in Alison Gopnik’s words. Growing up fits a powerful “reducing valve” onto the great consciousness engine of the brain, as philosophers like Henri Bergson and C. D. Broad once proposed, and as Wordsworth intimated – and St Paul (“now we see through a glass, darkly; then, face to face”). According to this theory, maturation renders the brain fit for purpose in a difficult world; it imposes a mental filter that admits, in Huxley’s words, only the “measly trickle of the kind of consciousness” we need in order to survive. Psychedelic drugs remove the valve or filter. They dissolve the standard self-system, interrupting what Hazlitt called the “long narrowing of the mind to our own particular feelings and interests”. They return us, in Pollan’s words, to the wonder of “unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!)”

In ordinary life, as Kant said, the “dear self is always turning up”. Psychedelics takes it offline. In X experience we lose what Iris Murdoch calls the “fat relentless ego”. We quit – again in Murdoch’s words – the “familiar rat-runs of selfish day-dream”. It seems, furthermore – and crucially – that a single dose can have lasting effects.
There's a bit more.



Music and Language Syntax Interact in Broca’s Area

Kunert R, Willems RM, Casasanto D, Patel AD, Hagoort P (2015) Music and Language Syntax Interact in Broca’s Area: An fMRI Study. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0141069. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0141069

Abstract: Instrumental music and language are both syntactic systems, employing complex, hierar- chically-structured sequences built using implicit structural norms. This organization allows listeners to understand the role of individual words or tones in the context of an unfolding sentence or melody. Previous studies suggest that the brain mechanisms of syntactic pro- cessing may be partly shared between music and language. However, functional neuroim- aging evidence for anatomical overlap of brain activity involved in linguistic and musical syntactic processing has been lacking. In the present study we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in conjunction with an interference paradigm based on sung sen- tences. We show that the processing demands of musical syntax (harmony) and language syntax interact in Broca’s area in the left inferior frontal gyrus (without leading to music and language main effects). A language main effect in Broca’s area only emerged in the com- plex music harmony condition, suggesting that (with our stimuli and tasks) a language effect only becomes visible under conditions of increased demands on shared neural resources. In contrast to previous studies, our design allows us to rule out that the observed neural interaction is due to: (1) general attention mechanisms, as a psychoacoustic auditory anom- aly behaved unlike the harmonic manipulation, (2) error processing, as the language and the music stimuli contained no structural errors. The current results thus suggest that two different cognitive domains—music and language—might draw on the same high level syn- tactic integration resources in Broca’s area.

Study language in context so we can understand how it is a function of the whole brain

Uri Hasson, Giovanna Egidi, Marco Marelli, Roel M. Willems, Grounding the neurobiology of language in first principles: The necessity of non-language-centric explanations for language comprehension, Cognition, Volume 180, November 2018, Pages 135-157, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.018

Abstract: Recent decades have ushered in tremendous progress in understanding the neural basis of language. Most of our current knowledge on language and the brain, however, is derived from lab-based experiments that are far removed from everyday language use, and that are inspired by questions originating in linguistic and psycholinguistic contexts. In this paper we argue that in order to make progress, the field needs to shift its focus to understanding the neurobiology of naturalistic language comprehension. We present here a new conceptual framework for understanding the neurobiological organization of language comprehension. This framework is non-language-centered in the computational/neurobiological constructs it identifies, and focuses strongly on context. Our core arguments address three general issues: (i) the difficulty in extending language-centric explanations to discourse; (ii) the necessity of taking context as a serious topic of study, modeling it formally and acknowledging the limitations on external validity when studying language comprehension outside context; and (iii) the tenuous status of the language network as an explanatory construct. We argue that adopting this framework means that neurobiological studies of language will be less focused on identifying correlations between brain activity patterns and mechanisms postulated by psycholinguistic theories. Instead, they will be less self-referential and increasingly more inclined towards integration of language with other cognitive systems, ultimately doing more justice to the neurobiological organization of language and how it supports language as it is used in everyday life.

Egon Schiele paints some flowers

Friday, August 10, 2018

A new humanities for the 21st century, really? – Heart of Darkness across multiple media, Or: The times they are a changin’

From the other day, “the new humanities”:

I replied with this:
A New Humanities implies not only new methods, but new objects of inquiry. What is the current status of, e.g. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, etc. as objects of humanistic inquiry?
And then, after a bit of discussion, we got around to this:

I picked Heart of Darkness, of course, because I’ve done quite a bit of work on it, Apocalypse Now as well. As for the range of associated texts–a major Hollywood film, a Japanese manga, and whatever-the-hell Bourdain's show is–that allows you to address culture in a more complex and interesting way than you could using just the High Culture literary text. And that's important for understanding how culture works, no?

I cite some of that work on both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now in an open letter I wrote to Dan Everett, who was then Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University (he’s now back to be just a regular faculty member):

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

In one section of the letter I talk of teaching Heart of Darkness at the undergraduate level, including those other texts. I’ve reproduced that section below. That’s followed by another discussion of the text, one more oriented toward research, perhaps a graduate level course, one concerned with patterns in the text, including a remarkable pattern that one finds by looking at how long the paragraphs are. You’ll have to read the open letter for that discussion.

Teaching Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the texts most frequently taught in undergraduate courses. Why is it so popular? Well, it’s relatively short, 40,000 words, which is a consideration, albeit a minor one. Surely it’s popular for its subject matter – roughly, European imperialism in Africa – and, secondarily, Conrad’s impressionist style. Still, why, why do those things matter?

Let’s look at a short statement by J. Hillis Miller, a senior and very respected literary critic. He is old enough to have gotten his degree at Harvard at a time when, in his view, few in the English Department there were much good at interpreting texts. Moreover he is one in the first generation of deconstructive critics. Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Association of Departments of English honored him for his fifty years in the profession. Of his early days as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, the 1950s and 1960s, Miller tells us:
English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. [1]
Which is to say, literature is taught as a vehicle for cultural indoctrination. Of course you know that; you don’t need Hillis Miller to tell you that. But I just wanted to get the idea explicitly on the record along with that little (emic) irony about English literature in the United States – Miller had earlier pointed out that, at the time, American literature was marginal in the academy, at least at Hopkins. And what I’m wondering is if the original impetus behind interpretive criticism wasn’t cultural anxiety: Just who are we and what are our values? Let’s set that aside for the moment, though I’ll return to it at the end of this section.

Just a bit more about Heart of Darkness, which is a relatively straight-forward story. A pilot, Charles Marlow, needs a gig. He calls on an aunt who gets him an interview with a continental firm which hires him to pilot a steamer up the Congo River to a trading station that has gone incommunicado. Marlow’s job is to make contact with the station agent, who is regarded as a real up-and-comer. Marlow is to recover the ivory that Kurtz has, presumably, been accumulating. Marlow is our narrator. Actually, he tells the story to an unnamed third party, who then tells it to us, but we can skip that detail. That third party presents the bulk of the story to us as Marlow’s own words. Marlow’s steamer is crewed by native Africans and, in addition to personnel from the trading company, there are pilgrims on board.

Marlow is presented as a brilliant and talented man who went to Africa to earn enough money to make him worthy of his Intended; we don’t learn this last detail until late in the story, nor are we ever told her name. We’re also led to believe that Kurtz has gone mad, setting himself up as a demi-god to the natives and taking a native mistress. As for those natives, it is clear that they have been very badly treated by the Europeans.

Whatever else is going on, Heart of Darkness is an indictment of European imperialism in Africa. And yet in 1975 Chinua Achibe, the Nigerian novelist, set off bombshells when he delivered a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” [2]. How could Heart of Darkness be racist, people objected, when the text obviously condemns imperialism? Easy, goes the rejoinder, for Conrad deprives Africans of agency, depicts them only as victims, and never has even one of them speak. Now, NOW, we’ve got something to think and talk about. Heart of Darkness may be over a century old, but the issues it embodies are very much alive in this, the 21st century.