Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts Inspired by Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization

Scull’s book disappointed me or, to be more accurate, the first half of the book disappointed me. The author tried to write a comprehensive history of insanity and ended up producing the world’s longest blue book essay for a Western Civ final. I don’t know if anybody is really up to the task of writing a cross-cultural history of madness, but Scull is not that guy. Heck, his effort reminded me my high school report on ancient attitudes to insanity, which I reread the other day while cleaning out some old papers. On the other hand, when Scull finally gets around to the last two centuries, he’s much better, passionate and on-point about the intellectual and moral scandal of the era of the mass incarceration of the insane, the hubris of the psychiatrists, the indifference of the politicians, and the incoherence of the law. Exposing the absurdity of the DSM is not especially difficult, I guess; but it sure is necessary.

I’m not quite up to writing a proper review of Scull’s book, but reading it occasioned a few random reflections:

  • For most of history, the care of the insane has been an exercise in law enforcement, which is why there are no firm dividing lines between treatment, punishment, and torture. Celsus recommended whipping lunatics to restore them to sanity. St Loyola recommended whipping yourself to atone for the crime of being a human being. For the first part of our history, we Americans put difficult people in madhouses. Later we put the same kind of people in prisons. Neither approach works very well.
  • “Insanity” does not name a natural group. Particular ailments that can indeed be separated out because of their clear causation have been identified from time to time and ceased to be though of as forms of madness. Indeed, the Greeks already distinguished delirium associated with fever from other kinds of aberrant behavior. Later epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and the psychiatric manifestations of tertiary syphilis were hived off.  It seems likely that manic depression and schizophrenia may eventually follow, though that remains to be seen; but most of the conditions identified in the various editions of the DSM are far slippery than something like agitated catatonia. It’s almost as if a problem has to be an ongoing category mistake in order to count as a proper entry in the Chinese encyclopedia that is the official nosology.
  • Simply getting a bunch of doctors to agree to call a set of behaviors a disease is not the same as making a discovery. I was in the audience in Toronto when the shrinks decided by a show of hands that homosexuality isn’t a psychiatric disorder. I almost laughed out loud, not because I think homosexuality is a kind of madness—I don’t and didn’t—but because of the stupidity of the whole procedure, which, to put it mildly, didn’t have much to do with satisfying Koch’s postulates.
  • People are far more fouled up than we want to believe. Normality is as mythical as God almighty.
  • A tremendous amount of psychiatry is merely a new version of phrenology. Though officially and even truculently materialist, the focus on neurology is actually rather Cartesian. It replaces one form of dualism with another. The world isn’t divided between things and souls, but between the brain and the rest of the world. Hence the obviously false notion that selves are located in certain parts of the brain and are identical with particular cerebral structures.
  • I am not my body. After all, my body knows how to synthesize proteins from amino acids. I certainly don’t. The self is a parasite rather like those fungi you read about that control the behavior of ants.  The analogy is actually rather close. In Plato, the rational self is pictured as the driver of a team of unruly horses that resist his efforts to guide the chariot upwards. In ants, the fungus gets the infected insect to climb the highest twig, the better to spread the spores that will burst from its swollen head.
  • For all its failings, psychoanalysis at least recognized that what’s at stake, at least for the most part, are meanings rather than brain chemicals. Scull is very good on this point. The fatal flaw of analysis is that you can’t get your insurance company to pay for it. The fact, if it is a fact, that it doesn’t do you any good is not the problem.
  • The Freudian view of things is not dissimilar to Buddhism. The difference is that the Freudians more or less clear-headedly vote for samsara. They recognize that the ego is an illusion; but they opt for the illusion. To quote an old line of my own: of course we’re fucked up. Angst in the Tao of the West—the alternative, as Nietzsche accurately pointed out, is European Buddhism.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Attack of Gas

I note that Oklahoma has legalized the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method, though stifling people in this fashion has never been tested and it would raise certain ethical issues to run a phase one trial. In any case, you’d think that opting for helium would have demonstrated a more developed sense of humor on the part of the legislature.  Really, I don’t know why we have so much trouble with this issue. We worry about how much a handful of condemned murderers will suffer, but we routinely torture living inmates.

The solution to the execution problem should be obvious to anybody who has taken Econ 101. There are surely many wealthy people who would pay a good price for the right to kill somebody with impunity, thus providing much needed revenue to the state while making the choice of lethal instrumentality a question for whoever was willing to pay the most. Privatizing state-sanctioned murder has the added benefit of undercutting a familiar argument against capital punishment. Opponents are forever carping that execution is much more expensive then life imprisonment. My suggestion would make the death house a profit center. A win-win situation.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Paradoxes were popular in my youth. It was the age of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a time when college kids wondered out loud whether the critique of an ideology could ever be anything but another ideology, when we all admired the Heroic Struggle of the Little People to Finish the Mural and wondered what we would have seen in the barbershop mirror if our heads weren’t in the way. Well, rapid transit gloria mundi. In the midst of the Cambrian explosion of consumer electronics, Cratylus is even more apropos than Heraclitus. It’s all you can do to step into the same river once. Under the circumstances, who has the time to be mesmerized by the mise en abyme of consciousness? Small wonder the world snake seems intent on biting somebody else’s tail these days. In the words of the irritated vulture, “patience my ass, I’m going to kill something!” Neurosis has given way to perversity, which, oddly enough, involves fewer kinks, at least from a topological point of view.  

Presumably we prefer things to be straightforward. Sadly, you can’t always get what you want, at least in world politics. Evidently Escher isn’t quite obsolete yet. Middle Eastern geopolitics is an ever-ascending (or descending) staircase. Iran is our enemy in Lebanon and Syria where it supports Hisbollah, which supports Assad, but our friend in Iraq where it fights ISIS, which fights Assad. Meanwhile, we scold the Pakistanis for oppressing the Shia, but send weapons to help the Saudis bomb and perhaps invade Yemen even though the Saudis oppress the Shia that live in the eastern part of their country. The Republicans don’t know whether to denounce Obama as a secret Muslim or a secret Shi’ite, which is perhaps more damning since for the most part, the Christians, at least the right wing ones, definitely lean Sunni. Even Senator McCain, an obligate carnivore in foreign policy, may be forgiven some confusion when it comes to deciding whom to attack, at least whom to attack first.

What we have here is what solid-state physicists describe as a frustrated system, “one where the interactions compete with each other and cannot be simultaneously satisfied.” If it were merely a matter of coming up with an economically rational policy or an ideologically coherent policy or a geopolitically shrewd policy, a solution set wouldn’t be so hard to compute. The equation we insist on solving, however, has only imaginary solutions.

Riyadh is the hometown of radical Islam, and Saudi royalty orchestrated the oil shocks that derailed the American economy back in the 70s. That bunch runs one of the world’s most repressive regimes. You’d think this absurd and malignant monarchy would be enemy number one, especially after prominent Saudis financed 9/11 and a bunch of young Saudis carried it out. Yes, but there’s all that oil. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be the focus of perpetual hatred for reasons that are never spelled out in public. At the behest of first the British and then the Israelis, we’ve bankrolled coups, propped up a tyrant, encouraged a foreign invader to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians, shot down an airliner, attempted to impoverish the country with non-stop sanctions, and engaged in cyberwar against it—I guess it’s something that we left it to the Israelis to do the murdering of Iranian scientists. I suppose our continuing hostility to the Iranians makes a certain human sense. Like Southern racists, we’ve acted so badly that we can’t change our attitudes now without admitting how insupportable our actions have been for decades. So we keep pretending that Iran is a major threat even though from a Real Politik perspective, Iran doesn't make much more sense as an enemy, so much so that we're finding it next to impossible not to treat them as allies.

Of course, it is far easier for an Israeli to make a case for war with Iran in view of their support for anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon and Gaza and the prospect that an Iran with even a rudimentary nuclear weapon would break Israel’s monopoly on atomic weapons in the region and limit its ability to bomb and invade its neighbors, something it has done, after all, on a great many occasions. But it’s not enough to prevent the Iranians from getting a bomb. The pot must boil indefinitely to provide cover for the gradual annexation of the West Bank and deflect attention from the obvious bankruptcy of the Zionist ideal in the eyes of the world at large. Real peace is a serious threat for a nation that looks more and more like South Africa before Mandela.

Why the U.S. puts up with endlessly being played by Netanyahu and company takes more explaining, though obviously the political leverage of the Israelis with both the Democrats and the Republicans has a lot to do with it. But maybe it’s just become a habit. For obvious reasons, many Americans and Europeans had a great deal of sympathy for the Jews in the wake of the horrors of World War II, certainly more sympathy than they had for the Palestinian, who were too different from us to count. Things are somewhat different now, but I remember that it was well into the 60’s before a spokesman for the swarthy others was even allowed to make his case on PBS—Palestinians in those days were as apologetic and cowed in their rare public appearances as members of the Mattachine Society before the Stonewall riots. Israel had its uses during the Cold War—one forgets how tense things got between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in ‘67 and ‘73. It’s also true that Israeli society is admired here for many defensible and some indefensible reasons—Israel is a democracy, albeit a herrenvolk democracy, with a vibrant intellectual life, and it is also the kind of ethno-theocracy that many Republicans wish America could be. Still, absent domestic political imperatives, no American administration would keep giving Israel billions in aid every year without putting an end to the settlements.

Dealing with this epic game of pick up sticks requires a light touch and a tolerance for complexity, but above all a recognition that local victories may result in overall defeat. What I hear from many politicians is a simply a call for acting out. “Do something, damn it!” In all probability the Republicans will run on a policy of going to war against Iran. The thinking appears to be that if we jump off the roof, we’ll be perfectly OK until we pass the fifth floor on the way down, at which point we can reassess the situation.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Funeral Baked Meats

Since it’s Easter morning, it’s perhaps an appropriate time to resurrect the dead, in this case an old poem that was (sort of) published almost a quarter of a century ago. Adam Gopnik wrote a much better essay on the same topic a few years ago—coming across Gopnik's work this morning is what make me think of my old poem.


We are saved by grace alone. It follows
The chalice of eternal mercy’s
An earthen cup and not a golden grail.
To be saved by a miracle is not a miracle.
He was not the man with the honey beard and the tender eyes
But an excitable young intellectual
Whose love, like ours, was overgrown with rage
Like the last rose in an abandoned garden
Among the thorns, entangled branch and root.
Certainly he was not very nice,
Moody and hysterical and then suddenly cold;
And if his words were sometimes a new thing in the world,
Mostly he repeated the wisdom and insanity of the prophets.
He wasn’t a good teacher either.
His followers followed him for their own reasons
As if they had caught the power in his voice
But not the sense. As for the rest
They hardly listened at all or heard
What they wanted to ear and already believed.
For the exhausted women he was an Adonis.
For the men,
Against all the evidence, a vengeful sword.
Perhaps he cured the sick or perhaps
The wretched took some comfort from his hand
Because compassion in his day as ours
Is by itself a portent. Beyond that sign
Which either suffices or does not
He gave no other, as you all well know;
For you are fools. He died and he stayed dead.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Morning Glory

From time to time everybody dreams epic-making insights that melt away at first light. If we remember them at all, they turn out to be either absurd or obvious. What’s worrisome is that the last three moments of Zen continue to make sense to me. Perhaps senility is making me impressed with things everybody knows.

Dream insight #1

The living things in the universe form a guild, not a taxon. Unless the theory of panspermia turns out to be true, whatever complex beings we might encounter would not be kin of ours no matter how similar they may appear to be. Which is quite different than the situation here on earth where the bed bugs are literally our cousins; and even liverworts, black mold, and bacteria are all in the family, albeit more than a few times removed. It may be reasonable to define a class of complicated entities that play the same thermodynamic role on other planetary bodies as organisms do here; but this category would not be like a family or a genus or even a phyla or kingdom. You can speculate, as Conway Morris does in his book Life’s Solutions, that living things would necessarily converge on a common plan—Morris even supposes that intelligent beings will all turn out to be bipeds—but this is the merest guessing. Since all the living things we have experience of belong to a single natural group, Conway is making an inference from a database with a single entry. In any case, even if the spacemen looked an awful lot like us, they would be at best a little more than kind, but less than kin. Under the hood, in the cellular depths, living things elsewhere are surely based on different frozen accidents. The genetic code isn’t just a QWERTY; but it’s one of the most efficient possible codes, not the most efficient possible code. Other features of living things, notably the chemistry of membranes and the specific suite of organelles found in eukaryotes are also inheritances from symmetry breaks. Does anybody seriously believe that mitochondria or chloroplasts are inevitable features of complex living things?  

Dream insight #2

The first line of the Gospel According to John is absurd on its face. “In the beginning was the Word” implies that a language can exist without either any one to listen or a world to speak about. Wittgenstein famously argued that a private language is impossible, but God’s language would be more than merely private. Even solipsists who question whether other people have minds don’t doubt that there are things outside themselves.  The fourth evangelist implied something even more drastic and implausible than solipsism. Of course creation myths are usually, if not necessarily illogical—the myth about the origin of aquatic plants has otters in it and the myth about the origin of otters has flowering plants in it—but the Abrahamic religions sharpen the contradictions. “Let there be light!” says God in his primal solitude, but it is never explained who he’s talking to or who or what is available to allow there to be light. Imagining that he’s talking to the heavenly hosts doesn’t help since they are also created beings. “Let there be angels!” simply pushes the problem back a step without resolving it.

Dream insight #3

Since the prospect of reward motivates people, inequality can promote economic growth and technological innovation. In that respect, inequality, is a good thing, at least potentially. Thing is, our economy is now so top loaded that there isn't enough inequality to go around. There's an inequality shortage. So many of the goodies go to the very top that there aren't enough left to adequately reward effort and ingenuity among the middle class and the working poor. A winner-take-all political economy creates the slackers it supposedly despises. "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

No Spoilers

Epic poems aren’t suspenseful. Even his horses knew what was in store for Achilles. The dominant affect is foreboding, not surprise. In the Mahabharata, the leader of the Kauravas and his hapless father are endlessly warned of the inevitable consequences of making unjust war on the Pandavas. The virtuous cousins are undeniably in the right, are led by five redoubtable warriors including the invincible Arjuna, and have the support of Krishna, who is acknowledged by all to be the incarnation of the supreme God of the universe. You’d think that it would be pretty clear that the odds are not favorable and that the outcome, even for the victors, will be the grandest of disasters. The Greeks spoke of “an Iliad of woes;” but the Mahabharata, which is twenty times longer than the Iliad, also has twenty times the misery. As the poet describes them, the weapons of the combatants sound like nuclear weapons; and the stricken field at the end of the war is like the aftermath of Hiroshima, right down to the black rain. Only one heir survives from either set of cousins; and the whole caste of the kshatryas is devastated, just as the Gods had purposed when they fated the war. The age of Kali begins. All of it was foreseeable and indeed foreseen and yet nothing could divert the dark will of Duryodhana or motivate his father to insist that he change course.

I was just finishing up reading Carole Staymurti’s modern retelling of the Mahabharata when I heard the Israeli election results. It struck me how the shortsightedness of the leader of the Israelis rhymed with the unwisdom of the leader of the Kauravas or at least fit into the meter of the epic, which sounds a little like Hiawatha— Duryodhana, Netanyahu. Of course I don’t know whether the current Israeli policy really will lead to the plains of Megiddo as Duryodhana’s stubbornness led to Kuruksetre. What I don’t get is just how peace or even the long-term existence of Israel is possible in the absence of any legal standing for the Palestinians in an increasingly hostile world. I certainly don’t see how we help matters if the U.S. insists on playing the part of the literally blind king who facilitated his son’s moral blindness until it was too late. Netanyahu is supposedly walking back the statements he made just before the election, but surely nobody believes him. After all, what was novel in his earlier remarks was simply that they were uttered in public. Paying lip service to a two-state solution, really to any solution, while proceeding with the de facto annexation of the West Bank has been part of the Israeli arcana of state for decades. No other assumption fits with Israel’s behavior. Maybe somebody in Tel Aviv has a strategy that goes beyond the next election, but they are certainly keeping that plan secret. In lieu of wisdom, defiance and amor fati. Heroic intransigence. 

As far as our part in this grim epic is concerned, I don’t know if Obama has ever heard of Dhritarashtra but it matters if, after a couple of weeks of ritualized disapproval, he goes back to the by now habitual role of enabler played by American presidents for their own short-term political ends. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Prophet Procrastinates

By the time you hear about the latest thing, it’s usually too late. That’s true of fashion trends and intellectual developments, all of which have a finite velocity of propagation. The news travels at various speeds and arrives at different places at different times, and you’re probably not in the right place. On the other hand, if you happen to travel faster than a fad, you’re doomed to déjà vu since relativistic time travel, though exotic or impractical in physics, is merely banal in culture. I experienced this kind of jet lag when I moved from California to Connecticut in 1967 and lived through the Summer of Love twice, once in the Summer in San Francisco and once in the Fall in New Haven. A year later I experienced a third repetition in Jonesboro, Arkansas where the locals thought they were the cat’s pajamas because they’d just discovered tie-dye. No reason to feel superior about this sort of thing, though. Nietzsche made fun of people who were inordinately proud of themselves for being fifteen minutes ahead of the Zeitgeist. To modify a once trendy expression, we are always already hicks.

Brokers make automatic profits by exploiting infinitesimal time delays in the reporting of stock prices. The authors of popular nonfiction books practice a similar but much more leisurely form of arbitrage as they retail as novelties merchandize that has been available for a long time at a much cheaper price on the wholesale market. If you read a serious journal like SCIENCE you experience a more or less perpetual reverb as what you read about in January shows up as hot news on CNN in August.

Predicting what has already taken place isn’t magic, but it’s a living. The various warnings we’re been hearing lately about the menace of renegade computer programs are a case in point. Of course the idea of a takeover by artificial intelligences has been around for a long time. Before Skynet, there was the Forbin project and who knows how many Twilight Zone episodes. Harlan Elison’s story, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, is an especially memorable variation on the theme. More recently, the menace of machine intelligence has become a concern of credible people like Bill Joy, Stephen Hawkins, and Nick Bostrom. I don’t discount these worries, but it seems to me that they are already out of date. The inhuman system that has gone rogue is not a giant server farm in Utah but the capitalist economy, and that happened quite a while ago.

The good thing about markets is that they automatically take care of distribution and supply problems that would defeat the computational capabilities of a central planning agency. In that respect they are like optimization techniques. In fact, Leonid Kantorovich, one of the inventors of linear programming, was looking for a way to rationalize the Russian economy without resorting to profits and supply and demand pricing—the British writer Francis Spufford wrote a fascinating novel about the episode, Red Plenty. Even with the help of modern computers, however, the maximization problem blows up, which is why even most of the Left in Europe and North America now buys into von Hayek’s insight into that the economy functions as a dispersed form of intelligence, “the result of human action but not of human design.” Folks who want to bring back Gosplan are notably thin on the ground these days. What has concerned me for decades, however, is the other side of the Hayekian notion; for if the economy manages to aggregate the decisions of millions of human beings and thereby find a maximum, it is far from clear just what it maximizes. Why it would maximize my welfare or the welfare of everybody or even the welfare of a chosen class is unclear. Apparently one can only trust the invisible maker, the materialist Holy Ghost, and have faith that a process beyond the control of individuals or even communities will be for the best. And, as with the old fashion kind of faith, it’s easier to believe in the goodness of God if you’re one of the elect than if you’re one of the preterite.

It would be a form of animism to attribute a purpose to the economy just as it is a form of superstition to think that evolution has a purpose. Nevertheless, both commerce and nature act as if they were up to something, though presumably that something is something better defined thermodynamically than theologically. Living things are bags of enzymes, organic catalysts that accelerate the rate of chemical change without altering its direction. We dissipate energy for a living; indeed, from an inhuman perspective, living just is the dissipation of energy and my body is a contrivance devised by natural selection to efficiently turn perfectly good food into shit. I’m no Hayek scholar, but I gather that he saw the economy as a subsystem or elaboration of evolution. If there’s something to that, perhaps what the market system does is just the continuation of the entropic vocation of life, only in business suits this time. 

People, especially guys on barstools, think that economy is organized for the benefit of the already wealthy and powerful; but from a wider point of view, that view may have things almost exactly backwards. Extreme inequality furthers the tendency of the system to endlessly increase material throughput. The system has its own very good reasons to produce tycoons. Billionaires are like the old couple from Iowa who really does win the jackpot at Reno. The Casino can’t bilk everybody; there have to be some winners to explain why the rest of us go playing a losing game. But the hyperwealthy do more than serve as the mechanical rabbit at the dog track. They can also be counted on to use their enormous financial resources to effectively defend the system from the human rationality that threatens to interfere with its intrinsic tendencies. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for top one percent of the top one percent, though it must be truly horrible to wake up every morning and realize you’re Donald Trump and can’t do anything about it. Still, the richest of the rich are more dupes than masters. Secondary causes.

Natural selection ceaselessly tends to increase the inclusive fitness of organisms, but that doesn’t mean I have to take the inclusive fitness as the basis for my personal sense of values. In fact I don’t. My morality is quite self-consciously anti-natural, though I’m perfectly well aware that my private purposes exploit the order produced by the natural-selection machine and cannot defy it without obvious costs. Similarly, I recognize the reality and power of the economic calculating machine, but I don’t share its implied teleology. A humane political economics doesn’t identify with the aggressor. The old Jews used to have a legend that God slew the female leviathan, but saved her meat for the eventual messianic feast. I don’t think that’s feasible, but maybe we can parasitize the Great Beast.

Speaking of anachronism. These thoughts are pretty much a reflection on what Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation back in 1944 so it’s either allusion or plagiarism depending on how you look at it. Or maybe it’s a structural transformation of an old joke about Arkansas’ slowest train. The train stops unexpectedly and the passenger asks the conductor what happened. “There’s a cow on the tracks.” The train starts up, but stops after a little while. “Now what?” “We caught up with the cow again.”