Monday, March 3, 2014

Tim Perper: Polymath, Friend, and Colleague

My friend Tim Perper died unexpectedly on January 21 of this year. An obituary was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. This post contains some more personal remarks.
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I met Tim Perper online sometime in the late 1990s. It was on a listserve devoted to memetics. Neither of us had much patience for the more or less prevalent concept of memes as pesky little mental thingies that flitted about from one brain to another, taking over neural real estate in orgies of self-perpetuation. And so we argued against that idea in its various forms while attempting, against the tide, to formulate more serious ideas about cultural evolution. We also hung out on a listserve devoted to evolutionary psychology. Tim was a biologist by training – molecular biology and genetics – while I had been interested in both primate ethology and neuroscience since my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins.

In mid-career, however, Tim was able to convince the Guggenheim Foundation to fund two years of research on human courtship in which he observed couples interacting in venues such as bars and church socials. Tim had thus become something of a cultural anthropologist. He incorporated that field research into Sex Signals: The Biology of Love (1985), which also drew on the Western literary tradition going back to classical times.

Tim and I had a lot to talk about: culture, biology, sex, love, and literature. And we talked about it all, mostly through email, but also over the phone and in-person as well. When I was researching my book on music, Tim drew my attention to the work of Walter Freeman, a neurobiologist at Berkeley. Tim was interested in complex dynamics and chaos, as was Freeman. So was I, but I didn’t have the technical background that Tim had, so I would turn to him to discuss such matters, interactional synchrony – which he’d observed in his courtship research – in particular.

Tim was eager to share his expertise, and quite skillful in doing so. He knew how to explain technical matters to someone lacking the math. That is an important and valuable skill, though not sufficiently appreciated. Without Tim’s help some of my work would have been more difficult, if not impossible. Thank you, Tim Perper!

Sometime in 2003 or 2004 I told Tim of my interest in Disney’s Fantasia and he suggested that I take a look at Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which I’d heard about, but not seen. I rented it from Netflix and I was hooked. Tim and his wife, Martha Cornog, had begun studying manga and anime and now he'd gotten me hooked. The first time I visited him and Martha I marveled at the manga that seemed stacked everywhere in their home. That first time they may have had just about every manga available in English translation, but it soon became impossible to keep up no matter how high the manga were stacked.

Tim was interested in the depiction of sexuality and of women and girls – as was I – but also in the simple fact that these stories came from a non-Western culture, and one that had worldwide appeal. This wasn’t just an academic interest – though it certainly WAS that – it was also a vital interest, if you will. Tim saw manga and anime as sources of much needed correction and amelioration of the sex-negative attitudes that have afflicted Western civilization for centuries.

And so we talked and phoned and emailed about anime and manga. If you aren’t familiar with it, well, it’s incredibly diverse, with titles directed for a wide variety of audiences, children, teens, and adults, with varying tastes for fantasy, romance, adventure, science fiction, horror, mystery, and whatever else. Tim consumed it all. Yes, he had his favorites, but it all interested him. It was a brave new world with marvelous creatures in it and Tim was exploring it.

Much of our conversation was intellectual in kind – we’d ferret out references, analyze page layout, talk about Japanese myth and lore (about which Tim knew more than I), worry over matters of analysis and interpretation. Through it all there was delight and joy. This stuff was fun!

But also, at times, almost unutterably sad. I remember one conversation at some neighborhood bar. Tim was recounting the story in some manga title – I forget which. At one point Tim’s eyes misted and his voice got a hitch it. The story had become real and present to him in the retelling. He had entered into the story and allowed it into his life.

I will miss those conversations. I will miss Tim. He was a brilliant and engaging intellectual. More than that, he was a good intellectual companion, a fellow traveler. I miss him.

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I have just reprinted a post that Tim and his wife, Martha Cornog, originally wrote for The Valve: Plucky Heroines from Haggard to Hikaru to Buffy.

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