Saturday, June 21, 2008

Authors@Google: Dr. John Medina, Brain Rules

Another cool author talk at Google, featuring John Medina, author of Brain Rules. He offers 12 Rules (see below) to make and keep our brains healthy.

Via Wikipedia:
John J. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist with special research interests in the isolation and characterization of genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. Founding director of the Talaris Research Institute in Seattle Washington, Medina has spent most of his professional life as a private research consultant, working primarily in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries on research issues related to mental health. He is an affiliate professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and is the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Medina writes the "Molecules of the Mind" column for the Psychiatric Times.
Here is some info from his site promoting the book.

The brain is an amazing thing. Most of us have no idea what’s really going on inside our heads. Yet brain scientists have uncovered details every business leader, parent, and teacher should know.

How do we learn? What exactly do sleep and stress do to our brains? Why is multi-tasking a myth? Why is it so easy to forget—and so important to repeat new knowledge?

Brain Rules is about what we know for sure, and what we might do about it.

Find out more about Brain Rules

John Medina Media Coverage
Here is his talk from Google.

Here are his 12 Rules:
Explore each rule through illustrations, charts and video. These tutorials are designed to reinforce the concepts in the book; we recommend reading the corresponding chapter first.

Exercise EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
Evolution SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
wiring WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
attention ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don't pay attention to boring things.
shortterm SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
longterm LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
sleep SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
stress STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don't learn the same way.
multisensory SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
vision VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
gender GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
exploration EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

Neuro-Liberalism and the Political Brain

Seems as though politics has become enamored with neuroscience as a way to explain and hopefully manipulate voters. George Lakoff offers one such view in his new book, The Political Mind, reviewed in the New York Times.
George Lakoff wants to save his country. In a series of books, Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has explained how the right wins and keeps power: by framing issues and controlling minds. His latest book, “The Political Mind,” grounds his critique and his agenda in neuroscience. Lakoff proposes to beat conservatives at their own game. “Democracy is too important to leave the shaping of the brains of Americans to authoritarians,” he argues. But shaping brains is a treacherous business. It’s hard to manipulate voters and still be a democrat.

Lakoff blames “neoliberals” and their “Old Enlightenment” mentality for the Democratic Party’s weakness. They think they can win elections by citing facts and offering programs that serve voters’ interests. When they lose, they conclude that they need to move farther to the right, where the voters are.

This is all wrong, Lakoff explains. Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth and that self-interest is a conservative idea. In a “New Enlightenment,” progressives will exploit these discoveries. They’ll present frames instead of raw facts. They’ll train the public to think less about self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters.

The basis of Lakoff’s theory is simple: the mind is the brain. Any connection that forms between your thoughts also forms between your neurons. As you internalize a metaphor, a circuit in your brain “physically constitutes the metaphor.” This parallel development continues as mental complexity increases. “Narratives are brain structures,” he proposes.

The general idea makes sense: brain and mind are dual aspects of the same thing. But Lakoff seems to forget that the language of mental construction is itself a metaphor. He describes how synapses are strengthened, neurons “wire together,” “neural binding” fuses “permanent circuits” and a worldview solidifies through “long-term bindings to the core.” With these elaborations, he mechanizes the brain-mind relationship. The brain’s structure and dynamics don’t just embody thought, he says; they physically constrain it.

To Lakoff, this explains why conservatives win elections. They manipulate us more effectively. They’ve been “preparing the seedbed of our brains with their high-level general principles so that when ‘tax relief’ was planted, their framing could take root and sprout.” And “as a result, progressive messages don’t take root.”

Worse, conservatives planted their war-on-terror metaphor in our brains during a moment of “national trauma,” when our synapses were vulnerable. The fear they’ve cultivated has combined with widespread overwork and health care anxiety to “activate the norepinephrine system,” causing a “reduced capacity to notice” President Bush’s misdeeds. We keep voting the wrong way because our brains are “physically affected by stress” and “neurally shaped by past conservative framing.”

Read the whole review.

I tend to agree with Lakoff's assessment, to a degree. In a society where (in general) facts = science = secularism, people will not respond well to the traditional Democratic approach of citing facts and figures to make their case. But they do respond to powerful narratives, since that is where their faith is based.

As an example, Al Gore got nowhere as a Senator and Vice President talking about climate change in facts, statistics, and so on. But when we started showing slides and framing the issue as a moral cause, people got on board.

Where I disagree with Lakoff is in his view that since voters are irrational and unpredictable, we should “not follow polls but use them to see how they can change public opinion to their moral worldview.” OK, this sounds more than a little unethical, and raises some serious issues.

Who is to say that -- assuming this were possible -- that politicians would use it to create a fascist society, just as Hitler used the same techniques to create a Nazi Germany. With so many Americans uneasy about the current state of the world and what lies ahead, a savvy politician -- or political party -- could use these techniques (just as George Bush and Karl Rove have) to build a fear-based coalition of the ignorant.

Food for thought.

Jurgen Habermas - Notes on a Post-Secular Society

Sight and Sound ran an interesting article the other day by one of Ken Wilber's favorite philosopher's, Jurgen Habermas.

In Notes on a Post-Secular Society, Habermas suggests that -- among other things -- that a society cannot be post-secular until it has become secular. While this includes several European countries (affluent societies of Europe or countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand), it would seemingly not include the United States, since we are far from being a secular country.

He also equates Pentacostalism and radical Islam as both being forms of fundamentalism, which is sure to piss off conservatives. But he says this:
They either combat the modern world or withdraw from it into isolation. Their forms of worship combine spiritualism and adventism with rigid moral conceptions and literal adherence to the holy scriptures.
Quite true. One only need look at how "fundamentalism" in this country rejects science and evolution, while taking a very literal reading of Genesis as divine truth.

Here is a lengthier quote from what is a very long article:
My impression is that the data collected globally still provides surprisingly robust support for the defenders of the secularization thesis.(8) In my view the weakness of the theory of secularization is due rather to rash inferences that betray an imprecise use of the concepts of 'secularization' and 'modernization'. What is true is that in the course of the differentiation of functional social systems, churches and religious communities increasingly confined themselves to their core function of pastoral care and had to renounce their competencies in other areas of society. At the same time, the practice of faith also withdrew into more a personal or subjective domain. There is a correlation between the functional specification of the religious system and the individualisation of religious practice.

However, as Jose Casanova correctly points out, the loss of function and the trend towards individualization do not necessarily imply that religion loses influence and relevance either in the political arena and the culture of a society or in the personal conduct of life.(9) Quite apart from their numerical weight, religious communities can obviously still claim a 'seat' in the life of societies that are largely secularized. Today, public consciousness in Europe can be described in terms of a 'post-secular society' to the extent that at present it still has to "adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment".(10) The revised reading of the secularization hypothesis relates less to its substance and more to the predictions concerning the future role of 'religion'. The description of modern societies as "post-secular" refers to a change in consciousness that I attribute primarily to three phenomena.

First, the broad perception of those global conflicts that are often presented as hinging on religious strife changes public consciousness. The majority of European citizens do not even need the presence of intrusive fundamentalist movements and the fear of terrorism, defined in religious terms, to make them aware of their own relativity within the global horizon. This undermines the secularistic belief in the foreseeable disappearance of religion and robs the secular understanding of the world of any triumphal zest. The awareness of living in a secular society is no longer bound up with the certainty that cultural and social modernisation can advance only at the cost of the public influence and personal relevance of religion.

Second, religion is gaining influence not only worldwide but also within national public spheres. I am thinking here of the fact that churches and religious organisations are increasingly assuming the role of "communities of interpretation" in the public arena of secular societies.(11) They can attain influence on public opinion and will formation by making relevant contributions to key issues, irrespective of whether their arguments are convincing or objectionable. Our pluralist societies constitute a responsive sounding board for such interventions because they are increasingly split on value conflicts requiring political regulation. Be it the dispute over the legalisation of abortion or voluntary euthanasia, on the bioethical issues of reproductive medicine, questions of animal protection or climate change – on these and similar questions the divisive premises are so opaque that it is by no means settled from the outset which party can draw on the more convincing moral intuitions.

Pushing the issue closer home, let me remind you that the visibility and vibrancy of foreign religious communities also spur the attention to the familiar churches and congregations. The Muslims next door force the Christian citizens to face up to the practice of a rival faith. And they also give the secular citizens a keener consciousness of the phenomenon of the public presence of religion.

The third stimulus for a change of consciousness among the population is the immigration of "guest-workers" and refugees, specifically from countries with traditional cultural backgrounds. Since the 16th century, Europe has had to contend with confessional schisms within its own culture and society. In the wake of the present immigration, the more blatant dissonances between different religions link up with the challenge of a pluralism of ways of life typical of immigrant societies. This extends beyond the challenge of a pluralism of denominations. In societies like ours which are still caught in the painful process of transformation into postcolonial immigrant societies, the issue of tolerant coexistence between different religious communities is made harder by the difficult problem of how to integrate immigrant cultures socially. While coping with the pressure of globalized labor markets, social integration must succeed even under the humiliating conditions of growing social inequality. But that is a different story.

I have thus far taken the position of a sociological observer in trying to answer the question of why we can term secularized societies "post-secular". In these societies, religion maintains a public influence and relevance, while the secularistic certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground. If we henceforth adopt the perspective of participants, however, we face a quite different, namely normative question: How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society and what must we reciprocally expect from one another in order to ensure that in firmly entrenched nation states, social relations remain civil despite the growth of a plurality of cultures and religious world views?
Read the whole article.

I just found a couple of books by Habermas in a used bookstore -- I think I'm going to enjoy reading him.

Slate - Jeffrey Goldberg, Neuropundit?

The other day, in a Psychology in the News post, I linked to an article in The New Yorker (by Jeffery Goldberg) called My Amygdala, My Self. The article proposed to be an examination of how brain scans can reveal preferences and biases, a field referred to as neuromarketing.

Bill Knapp, a Democratic political consultant and co-owner of the brain-based marketing firm FKF Applied Research.

Here is a lengthy quote.

The Atlantic experiment begins with a video clip of Jimmy Carter speaking about Hamas—a sequence guaranteed to provoke anxiety in a guy like Goldberg. Sure enough, the subject shows strong, bilateral activity in the amygdala, a structure associated with the panic response. "Jeff, do you fear this guy?" asks Iacoboni.

But studies have shown that the neurons of the amygdala can also fire off when someone experiences happiness, sexual arousal, or an intense aroma (among many other things). So, why do we think that Jimmy Carter makes Goldberg feel anxious instead of horny? Because we already know how he feels about Jimmy Carter.

This circular reasoning throws the whole endeavor into question. If you can't interpret the brain-imaging data without prior knowledge, then what good are the data? Why not just ask Goldberg what he thinks of Carter and skip the $600-an-hour brain scan?

A similar problem emerges when the FKF team presents Goldberg with film clips of Barack Obama. These provoked activity among his "mirror neurons," suggestive of empathy, and in the medial orbito-frontal cortex, here described as a "source of positive emotion." The interpretation: Goldberg—or Goldberg's brain—likes Obama.

But activation of the medial orbito-frontal cortex could mean something else entirely. This brain-imaging study from 2002 found a comparable signal whenever subjects gazed at an attractive, smiling face. If that's all the mOFC registers—a pretty face, as opposed to a deep connection—then an image of Obama would be just as likely to activate the brain of a stalwart Republican or a Clinton supporter. If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that the senator from Illinois is a good-looking guy.

Indeed, to interpret activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex as a sign of political affiliation even goes against FKF's own past research. During the 2004 campaign, the same group of researchers scanned the brains of 20 highly partisan voters while showing them pictures of George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader. When these subjects looked at images of their favorite candidate, some of them showed signs of "positive emotion" in the mOFC. But others showed no activity at all.

Why weren't the brains of the party faithful lighting up? Marco Iacoboni addresses this question in his new book Mirroring People. (See Chapter 10, on "Neuropolitics.") The inconsistent results, he argues, must have reflected the cumulative effects of political smear campaigns. "In such a toxic climate, how could you possibly identify and empathize with your own candidate, even though he would still receive your vote? It was almost impossible." Thus Iacoboni concludes that "negative ads work" and that they "create a dangerous emotional disconnect between voters and the leaders who should represent them."

Ah, classic neuropunditry. Note the inversion: The fact that partisan voters don't show mOFC activity in response to their favorite candidate clearly goes against the experimental hypothesis—i.e., it suggests that a voter's political preferences cannot simply be read off an image of his brain. But rather than take these data at face value, the FKF team devises a brand-new interpretation and represents a failure as a new discovery. Thanks to political brain scanning, they argue, we now have neurological proof that negative campaigns are effective!

Read the whole article.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Parable - The Emperor's Three Questions

A cool and seemingly Buddhist parable from Leo Tolstoy. Rather than Buddhist, however, it is likely more a version of Christian anarchism, although he didn't ever call himself an anarchist.

I hadn't read this story before -- found it quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh's Miracle of Mindfulness.

The Emperor's Three Questions By Leo Tolstoy

One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

1. What is the best time to do each thing?
2. Who are the most important people to work with?
3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task, and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice.

Someone else said that certain matters require immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord.

One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers.

Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.

After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who lived on a mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor wished to find the hermit to ask him the three questions, though he knew the hermit never left the mountains and was known to receive only the poor, refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his attendants to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the hermit.

Reaching the holy man's dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. He was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the earth, he heaved heavily.

The emperor approached him and said, "I have come here to ask your help with three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?"

The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and continued digging. The emperor said, "You must be tired. Here, let me give you a hand with that." The hermit thanked him, handed the emperor the spade, and then sat down on the ground to rest.

After he had dug two rows, the emperor stopped and turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead stood and pointed to the spade and said, "Why don't you rest now? I can take over again." But the emperor continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The emperor put down the spade and said to the hermit, "I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions. But if you can't give me any answer, please let me know so that I can get on my way home."

The hermit lifted his head and asked the emperor, "Do you hear someone running over there?" The emperor turned his head. They both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach. The man ran toward the emperor before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man's clothing, the emperor and hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash. The emperor cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.

At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. The hermit gave the emperor a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they laid him down on the hermit's bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The emperor was worn out from a long day of climbing the mountain and digging the garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he rose, the sun had already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around him in confusion. When he saw the emperor, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, "Please forgive me."

"But what have you done that I should forgive you?" the emperor asked.

"You do not know me, your majesty, but I know you. I was your sworn enemy, and I had vowed to take vengeance on you, for during the last war you killed my brother and seized my property. When I learned that you were coming alone to the mountain to meet the hermit, I resolved to surprise you on your way back and kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so I left my ambush in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I escaped and ran here. If I hadn't met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me you forgiveness."

The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return all the man's property and to send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he was completely healed. After ordering his attendants to take the man home, the emperor returned to see the hermit. Before returning to the palace the emperor wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the hermit sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.

The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor. "But your questions have already been answered."

"How's that?" the emperor asked, puzzled.

"Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me."

"Later, when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound."

"Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life."

Eurozine - Two Articles on Nietzsche

I have been a Nietzsche fan since high school, when I first read Thus Spoke Zarathustra. When I was in college, The Birth of Tragedy was important in the writing of my master's thesis.

Eurozine posted two articles in the new issue on ideas in Nietzsche and their influence in the present. Both are quite good and quite interesting, whether one agrees with them or not.

The heaviest burden
by György Tatar

Nietzsche and the death of God

Nietzsche's response to having lost faith, but not being able to live without it, was to invent the figure of a new creator – someone who could bring together Man and World once again. In order to do this, man had to begin to think through his own existence: the heaviest burden of all.

The madman. – Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" – as many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. [...] The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.
~ Nietzsche, The Gay Science

With the metaphor of the "Death of God", Nietzsche means that the highest principles of all hitherto accepted world conceptions have lost their values. The death of the biblical God does not just leave behind a world as it has always been. Rather, it leaves behind a world which has lost its meaning. Only the guffawing rabble surrounding the "Madman" believes that a world without God and a world with God is the same. But if by "world" we mean the human world, the one that concerns us, the one in which all our needs, desires, joys and hopes are rooted, it makes a difference to this world whether it was created, and whether its creator has, at the same time, revealed itself to its creations as their redeemer.

The Madman brings a message about that condition of the world which the rabble cannot yet perceive: namely, that the "personal" ties between God, the World and Man – the arch concepts of traditional European thought – have been loosened. We can see the beginning of this loosening in the emergence of the modern scientific worldview of the seventeenth century and its de-humanization of the world. The relentless dismantling of the relation between Man and World played a central role in this process. The emerging de-humanized world, one which no longer relates to man from within itself, henceforth became a dead world. The prelude to the death of God was the death of the World.

In Nietzsche's mind, the total collapse of hitherto existing goals and values – their general loss of reality – is formulated as the absence of world. According to him, unlike the ancients, modern man no longer inhabits an eternal world created for him. He is "moving, away from all suns, plunging continually, through an infinite nothing".[1] However, because the meaning of the news about the death of God are still distant and strange to him, he still lives as if he lived in a divinely created world, even if he does not believe in it. In Nietzsche's conception, the images man makes of the world and of himself are the externalizations of his goals, values, mistakes, truths and prejudices. More precisely, the ones emerging victorious from the battle over goals and values will be the ones giving shape to the world of posterity. It is they who become its "higher man". Regardless of greater or smaller differences across different customs, or of the historical evolution of beliefs, the essential nature of these goals and values – the fundamental structure of world they belong to – remains the same.
Read the rest of this article.

* * * * *
Questioning authority
By Alan D. Schrift

Nietzsche's gift to Derrida

Be it the moral-theological tradition, God, or his own status as author, Nietzsche's refusal to legitimate authority remains constant. As Alan D. Schrift writes, Nietzsche's deconstruction of authoritarian subjectivity shares much with Jacques Derrida's post-modern critique of the subject as a privileged centre of discourse.

The question of authority and its legitimation is a central issue in Nietzsche's writings, and one to which insufficient attention has been paid. Whether he is dismantling the authority of the moral-theological tradition, deconstructing the authority of God, or excising the hidden metaphysical authority within language, Nietzsche's refusal to legitimate any figure of authority remains constant. This holds for his own authority as a writer, the authority of his "prophet" Zarathustra, and the authority of the Übermensch.[1] As he remarks apropos of moral authority, "in the presence of morality, as in the face of any authority, one is not allowed to think, far less to express an opinion: here one has to obey! As long as the world has existed no authority has yet been willing to let itself become the object of critique".[2] Because authority demands obedience, a philosophy of the future will necessitate a critique of authority. If values are to be transvalued, obedience to the previous values must be undermined. The whole Nietzschean project of genealogy directs itself toward deconstructing the foundations of the dominant values of modernity, which is to say that Nietzsche's project of a transvaluation of values presupposes a delegitimation of the existing (moral) authority.

While the question of authority may not have been sufficiently attended to in Nietzsche's writings, it has been a central question in the work of Jacques Derrida. Here, as elsewhere,[3] we can see, both in broad outline and with a certain degree of specificity, how Nietzsche's ideas are developed in Derrida's thought on literary authority and its relation to the deconstruction of the subject. While the critique of the subject in recent French thought is most closely identified with the work of Michel Foucault,[4] Derrida also addressed the question of the authoritarian domination that accompanies the modern concept of the subject. Derrida develops his deconstructive critique of the subject as a privileged centre of discourse in the context of his project of delegitimizing authority, whether that authority emerges in the form of the author's domination of the text[5] or the tradition's reading of the history of philosophy. In fact, as Derrida himself noted in an interview published in Positions, from his earliest published texts, his project of delegitimation was an attempt "to systematize a deconstructive critique precisely against the authority of meaning, as the transcendental signified or as telos..."[6]

In Derrida's reading of Nietzsche, the deconstruction of authority emerges alongside his logic of undecidability. Derrida often "uses" Nietzsche as a paradigm of undecidability to frustrate the logocentric longing to choose between one or the other alternative within a fixed binary opposition. A case in point is Derrida's 1968 lecture "The Ends of Man." At the conclusion of this lecture, Derrida brings this logic of undecidability to bear on the two strategies that have appeared in connection with the deconstruction of metaphysical humanism. The first strategy, which Derrida associates with Heidegger, proceeds by means of a return to the origins of the metaphysical tradition and uses the resources of this tradition against itself. In adopting this strategy, "one risks ceaselessly confirming, consolidating, relieving [reléve] at an always more certain depth that which one allegedly deconstructs".[7] The second deconstructive strategy, which Derrida identifies with French philosophy in the 1960s, affirms an absolute break with tradition, seeking to change ground in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion. However, such a strategy fails to recognize that one cannot break with the tradition while retaining its language. The inevitable consequence of this blindness to the powers of language is a naive reinstatement of a "new" ground on the very site one sought to displace.
Read the rest of this article.

Mindfulness and Admitting Mistakes -- The Reserach

Wray Herbert at We're Only Human takes an interesting look at The Neurons of Recovery. I find this post intriguing because he is able to connect a fairly standard cognitive test with the ability to self-monitor and admit our mistakes, one of the cornerstones of the recovery programs based on the 12 Steps.

The Neurons of Recovery

By Wray Herbert

One of the cornerstones of many addiction treatment programs is what’s called “moral inventory.” Rather than just white-knuckling it through day after miserable day without drugs or alcohol, recovering addicts and alcoholics are taught to honestly and rigorously monitor their daily thoughts and behavior and relationships, and when they do something wrong to promptly set things right. The idea is that personal dishonesty is somehow related to destructive habits, and that authenticity in daily life is a key to staying clean and sober.

Just how this happens is a mystery, and most recovering addicts don’t much care about the details. But psychologists are very interested in the spiritual dimensions of sobriety. How can
daily vigilance and small ethical acts—apologizing for being hurtful or rude or uncharitable—translate into the concrete choice not to light up a crack pipe or pour a tumbler of whiskey? What could such moral striving possibly have to do with the tormenting compulsions of addiction?

New brain research may help illuminate this mystery. Psychologist Rebecca Compton of Haverford College and her colleagues have been observing the vigilant brain in action, and exploring the connection between cognitive watchfulness and serenity. They don’t use a spiritual vocabulary, of course. In the jargon of the laboratory, they have been studying “error-related negativity,” or ERN. This is shorthand for an electrical pulse that comes from particular region of the brain, a bundle of neurons known to watch out for mistakes. They have also been studying a separate but nearby part of the brain responsible for correcting errors once they’re spotted. They wanted to see if and how these basic tools of cognitive regulation relate to stress and anxiety in the real world.
Read the whole post.

This is the tenth step: Continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

I'm not a huge fan of the 12-step programs, but I am a huge fan of ANYTHING that can help people kick addictions and live more healthy, responsible lives. This particular step is very similar to living a mindful life.

Many of us work hard to be mindful and what we say and do, so as to avoid hurting other people or hurting ourselves. We often fail. But part of the practice is noticing when we fail as quickly as possible and making amends if possible.

I recently posted one of the great sutras on mindfulness, the Anapanasati Sutta - The Breath-Mindfulness Discourse. A more modern to this has become a popular method of psychotherapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT):

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a method of therapy which blends features of two disciplines:

In MBCT, the patient is invited to recognize and accept feelings as they come and go instead of trying to push them away. Traditional cognitive therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), focuses on changing negative content of thoughts while MBCT emphasizes the process of paying attention to thoughts and feelings moment by moment and without judgment. Changing the patient's relationship to the suffering caused by negative thoughts is the key because there is no possible way to alleviate all suffering. No therapy or meditation will prevent unpleasant things from happening in our daily lives but the two practices combined may provide more objectivity from which to view these unpleasant things.

MBCT's main technique is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) eight week program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Research shows that MBSR is enormously empowering for patients with chronic pain, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as for psychological problems such as anxiety and panic. People often misunderstand the goal of therapy and especially mindfulness. Relaxation and happiness are not the aim, but rather a "freedom from the tendency to get drawn into automatic reactions to thoughts, feelings, and events" .[1] Patients change the relationship to chronic pain so the pain becomes more manageable.

This form of therapy is growing in popularity in recent years, and I think it may be an outstanding approach for some clients. When we react to things without awareness or consciousness, we are not fully present in our lives. The tendency to get drawn into automatic reactions is what we want to overcome with mindfulness, so that we can be less reactive and more present. In the study presented above, the results were related to this idea:

Those with overall greater cognitive control—the ones who monitored themselves closely and adjusted efficiently—were also the ones who were best at handling stress. Remember that these were college students, so almost all of them felt pressures from deadlines and too much work. But the ones who spotted and corrected errors in their own mental performance were in general more calm and relaxed, even with college life’s predictable stresses. The ones who did not inventory and learn from their mistakes were beaten down by life’s pressures.

While Buddhist practice is not about creating happiness, it is one of the nice side effects. The more mindful we become, and the more we become self-aware -- or in the language of psychology, self-monitored -- the less bogged down we become in the fluctuations of daily life -- the less attachment we feel.

So how do we develop this skill if we don't already possess it?

It's pretty easy -- we sit and we breathe, and we watch the breath move in and out, thinking "breathing in," then thinking "breathing out," and we bring our attention back to our breath whenever it wonders away (and it WILL wonder). It's that simple. Start with 10 minutes a day and see how it feels, Over time, try to increase that time to 15, 20, or 30 minutes or more.

The more time we spend doing this, and then also working to be mindful of our thoughts, words, and actions in our daily lives, the less attachment we will feel, the happier we will be.

Colbert Report - Sean Hannity Loves America

Making humor out of one dumbass quote from Sean Hannity.

Technology Rocks

Just a heads up . . . you can now find me at Friend Feed, a cool online application for collecting all of our feeds in one place and following the feeds of our friends. I've been using this for a couple of weeks now and I love it.

And as of a couple of days ago, I am now Twittering. I haven't done too much here yet, but I hope to join the world of 140 characters in more depth.

The Myth of Shambhala

The myth of Shambhala is one the most enduring and corrupted ideas to come from Buddhism. Even the Nazis attempted to claim some form of occult inspiration from the idea. Perhaps they were working some of the same terrain as Madame Blavatsky, who posited Shambhala as the metaphysical home to the Aryans.

Cabinet Magazine took a look at the history of the myth, from the Fall 2007 issue. This is a well-researched and highly entertaining look at the many [false] conceptions of shambhala.

Utopia on the Roof of the World

Chris Wiley

Svetoslav Roerich, Portrait of Nicholas Roerich, 1937. Courtesy the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.

Somewhere high up in the Himalayas, surrounded by a range of snow-capped peaks treacherous enough to defeat even the most intrepid mountaineer, lies a kingdom of unparalleled splendor, peace, and tranquility. This place, known as Shambhala, is home to palaces built of rare stone and pure gold and bedecked with a lapidary's laundry list of precious gems, glasses, and colored corals. There are lakes where Shambhala's noble, healthy, and prosperous subjects cavort in boats carved from jewels, and a lush sandalwood grove where they can peacefully contemplate an enormous, three-dimensional Mandala of unparalleled opulence. But beyond this bountiful earthly splendor, Shambhala is also a privileged spiritual realm -- those who are born there are guaranteed to achieve Enlightenment in the span of a single lifetime. It is, in short, a paradise -- a utopia cordoned off from the world not by water, like Sir Thomas More's famous island, but by tectonic eruptions of stone.

It is also, of course, a myth, though one that has been, and continues to be, taken as serious, geographic fact by both Eastern and Western Buddhists, as well as a cavalcade of mystics, occultists, ufologists, New Agers, and Neo-Nazis. This credulous attitude towards the Shambhala myth may seem absurd, but it has furnished history with some of the oddest stories of the West's fantasies about, and interactions with, the Far East.

The Shambhala myth is derived from a number of esoteric Buddhist texts, primarily the Kalachakra Tantra. Taken together, these texts provide detailed descriptions of the kingdom, trace the arc of its history, and prophesy its future. We are told that the enormous, lotus-shaped, mountain kingdom is ruled by a lineage of wise, august monarchs, who each reign for a hundred years. They serve as the keepers of the sacred Kalachakra teachings, which were passed down by the Buddha to Shambhala's first king, King Suchandra. By living according to these esoteric teachings, all of Shambhala's millions of villagers have fulfilling, enlightened lives. Despite the relative humbleness of their villages when compared to the extravagances of the capital city, they are left wanting for nothing.

While the Kalachakra Tantra describes Shambhala as a perpetual bastion of peace and wisdom, it also foretells the decline of the world beyond its borders, where the Buddha's teachings will gradually be forgotten. The climax of the kingdom's history arrives when the outside world has reached its spiritual nadir: then, Shambhala's last king, Rudra Chakrin, and the kingdom's vast armies will mount their horses and gallop over the mountains, cleansing the world of blight and ushering in a thousand-year Golden Age.

Nicholas Roerich, Sophia - the Wisdom of the Almighty, 1932. Courtesy the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

It is an evocative eschatology, a fantastic ending to a fantastic tale. It is not surprising, then, that during the heyday of Western imperialism, as the Orientalist-minded began to mine the exotic religious traditions of the Far East for new sources of spiritual expression, Shambhala should make its way into the vocabularies of such seekers. But, of course, the Shambhala myth did not just appear, ex nihilo, in the drawing rooms of the West's occultist elite. Instead, it was placed there -- almost single-handedly -- by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the eccentric matriarch of the Theosophical Society.

Madame Blavatsky, or HPB, as she was commonly referred to, was a self-described "hippopotamus of an old woman" who, despite frequent accusations of charlatanism and allegations made by the British government of spying for the Russians, managed to establish a worldwide network of devotees to her particular brand of esotericism. A spiritual vocation of Byzantine complexity, Theosophy may be understood as a unique bricolage of spiritualism, ancient mythology, Eastern religion, and the legendarily turgid mystical novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The Shambhala myth made its way into Blavatsky's mystical stew through an account of anthropogenesis offered in her most famous book, The Secret Doctrine (1888).

Put briefly, The Secret Doctrine retells human evolution as a progression of five distinct "Root Races." Each of the historical Root Races (with the exception of the first, which had no physical form) inhabited a different mythological continent: the second inhabited Hyperborea; the third, Lemuria; the fourth, Atlantis. According to HPB's account, Shambhala became the place where surviving Atlanteans fled after their homeland sank into the ocean. From there, the Atlanteans shared their culture and wisdom with a fifth, overlapping Root Race, which has since spread out across most of the known world: the Aryans.

Theosophy's fantastical tales turned Shambhala into fodder for those already hungry for the occult. But some were not content to let the stories of this mythical land simply rattle about in their parlors. With its intoxicating blend of utopianism, exotic religion, and potential adventure in far-flung lands, the Shambhala myth proved too compelling to let lie.

Considering the importance of Blavatsky's phylogeny for those interested in Aryans and Aryanism, it should come as no surprise that some of those stirred to action by the Shambhala myth were members of the Nazi party -- in particular, those working under Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler in a branch of the SS called the Ahnenerbe, which served as the organization's "Ancestral Heritage" office. The Ahnenerbe was Himmler's pet project, established to trace the heritage of the "master race" back to its origins. It was to this end that, in 1938, five SS officers were sent on an expedition to Tibet.

The Ahnenerbe's "scientific" endeavors were colored by Himmler's library of bizarre beliefs, which ranged from the pseudoscientific (he was an advocate of Hans HÃrbiger's World Ice Theory, which posited that the universe is shaped by the continual battle between fire and ice), to the merely egomaniacal (he was convinced that he was the reincarnation of the tenth-century Saxon king Henry the Fowler, and organized expeditions to prove this). As a result, the Ahnenerbe was staffed by an assortment of cranks, amateurs, and, in the case of Karl Maria Wiligut, often referred to as "Himmler's Rasputin," the clinically insane. This made for a combustible mix of occult belief and all manner of contemporary pseudoscience. And so it was that the Shambhala myth, filtered through Theosophy, came to meet phrenology and physiognomy on the Tibetan plateau.

The main players in the SS expedition were Ernst SchÃfer, a famous explorer and zoologist who served as the expedition's leader, and Bruno Berger, who served as the team's anthropologist. Unlike many in the Ahnenerbe, SchÃfer was a respected scientist, and it remains unclear whether his allegiance to the SS was ideological or, as he later claimed, merely opportunistic. Berger's alliances were slightly more clear-cut. During his time on the "Roof of the World," he measured the heads of Tibetans with menacing calipers that pinched and prodded, and made physiognomic facial casts out of torturously slow-drying plaster, all in hopes of finding traces of the master race. Berger would later be involved in gathering anatomical specimens from among the prisoners in Auschwitz, in preparation for a never-realized expedition to the Caucasus with SchÃfer's then-newly established Sven Hedin Institute for Inner Asian Research.

When the members of the Ahnenerbe's "German Tibet Expedition" returned in 1939, laden with animal skins, artifacts, holy texts, photographs and film reels, and, of course, the facial casts and phrenological data collected by Berger, Himmler declared the expedition an unqualified success. Though in this case Shambhala served as merely a catalyst for the journey rather than its destination, the "German Tibet Expedition" sparked later assertions -- despite lack of evidence -- that the Nazis made frequent, secretive trips to Tibet in search of the utopian kingdom itself. These rumors have made Shambhala central to a branch of contemporary Neo-Nazi thought known as "Esoteric Hitlerism." Miguel Serrano, a former Chilean diplomat and major figure in the Esoteric Hitlerist movement, in fact asserts that Hitler did not die in Berlin but rather fled to Shambhala (in Serrano's account, relocated from the Tibetan Himalayas to the center of the earth), whence he will soon emerge, astride a white steed and flanked by an army of UFOs, to inaugurate the "Fourth Reich."

Despite scant evidence that the Nazis journeyed to Tibet in search of Shambhala itself, the "German Tibet Expedition" was preceded by two Tibetan expeditions led by a man who most certainly was: Nicholas Roerich, once a world-famous painter and renowned mystic who lent his name to a major international treaty, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and played a behind-the-scenes role in the Roosevelt administration. Roerich rose to fame at the beginning of the twentieth century in his native Russia where, in addition to his painting practice, he designed sets and costumes for the theater, most notably for the Ballets Russes's staging of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. He was also involved in Moscow's flourishing occult movement, which orbited around HPB's Theosophical teachings. It was through his involvement in the construction of a Theosophical-Buddhist Temple in Moscow in 1909 that he met Agvan Dorjiev, a major player in Russian-Tibetan relations and tutor to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Dorjiev's fascination with the location of Shambhala would inspire Roerich's epic quest.

By the time Roerich moved to New York City in 1920, he had developed a complex system of beliefs surrounding Shambhala, which he concluded was located in the Himalayas. For Roerich, Shambhala was linked not only to the myth of the Holy Grail but literally connected to the Altay Mountains in Central Asia via a series of underground tunnels that joined it to Belovode, the "Land of White Waters" from Siberian mythology. However, Roerich's most outlandish belief, which he hid from all but his closest confidants, was that he and his family were fated to play an integral role in bringing about the dawn of the Golden Age.

Roerich referred to his project of bringing about the eschatological prophecies laid down in the Kalachakra Tantra as the "Great Plan." He believed that it was his calling to found a pan-Buddhist state, which would unite areas of Russia, Mongolia, and China with Tibet, and whose creation would finally summon the armies of Shambhala from their mountain stronghold. For most, a plan this grandiose would flounder in the realm of delusion. But Nicholas Roerich had powerful and influential friends and two of them -- Louis L. Horch, a successful Wall Street currency broker, and Henry A. Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and, later, his vice president -- would respectively fund Roerich's two lengthy expeditions in the Far East. The exact details of what occurred on these expeditions remain somewhat cloudy, as Roerich, ever secretive about his geopolitical scheming, preferred to maintain in public the persona of an artist, scholar, and guru. However, his actions were public enough to garner the attention of at least a half-dozen governments that were convinced that he was a covert political operative.

Despite his best efforts, Roerich's pursuit of his "Great Plan" finally ended in scandal and disappointment. His fall from grace was precipitated by his actions during his second journey east from 1934 to 1936, which was funded -- with taxpayer dollars -- by Wallace's Department of Agriculture. While Roerich's first expedition had, on the surface, been an artistic and scholarly one free from political significance, this second expedition was organized to gather drought-resistant grasses that would help combat the American Dust Bowl. Like Horch, Wallace was aware of Roerich's ulterior motives -- or at least some of them -- as the two had maintained, in the years preceding the expedition, an extensive, mystically-oriented correspondence in which Wallace played the part of Roerich's awed and obedient pupil. However, Wallace could not have predicted that Roerich would allow these secret motives to take total precedence over the serious mission with which he had been entrusted, and leave the exasperated botanists who had been put in his charge to chase him across Japan, China, and Mongolia.

Though it would take some time for Wallace to see Roerich as anything but infallible, the utter lack of botanical specimens returned for the purpose of erosion control (Roerich did send back a number of superfluous medicinal herbs) left Wallace increasingly disillusioned with his former guru. Roerich's funding was suspended in 1935, and his expedition's misadventures opened the way for Treasury Department allegations of tax evasion, as well as a lawsuit filed over old loans by a similarly disenchanted Horch, who had, in addition to the money he fronted for Roerich's first expedition, funded the creation of the Roerich Museum in a palatial building on New York's Upper West Side. After the calamitous end to his final Tibetan excursion, Roerich settled permanently with his family in India's Kullu Valley and never returned to the United States. Though he and his family remained prominent figures in India, counting among their friends the future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Roerich's fame in the West faded. Even the Roerich Museum, once ensconced in Horch's imposing, twenty-seven-story Art Deco skyscraper, was relegated to a modest townhouse on a sleepy side street, where it remains today.

Similarly, the Shambhala myth itself has gradually slipped from its prominent place in the Western imagination. It now resides only in a few scattered outposts, maintained by groups with eclectic subcultural proclivities. It has, however, persisted as a vestigial cultural memory, sneaking into the popular lexicon in disguise. When the West dreams of a utopian mountain hideaway, it now dreams of Shangri-La. The name itself is enough to conjure visions of clear mountain streams, and lush, sequestered valleys in exotic locales. However, it is not a name that has its roots in some occluded, mythic past, as one might be led to suspect. Instead, Shangri-La arrived in our collective fantasy life through Lost Horizon, a 1933 novel by James Hilton, in which Shangri-La is the name of a utopian lamasery in the Tibetan Himalayas that seems to exist outside of time. Hilton's Shangri-La is clearly based on the Shambhala myth, though he has Westernized some of its aspects (rather than acting as a storehouse for esoteric spiritual teachings, for instance, Shangri-La is fashioned as a modern-day Library of Alexandria, which will keep the world's cultural treasures safe during the coming apocalypse), and it is this version that has seeped into our contemporary fantasies of the place. Thus Shambhala remains with us in a third-generation form -- no longer the impetus for daring or dastardly exploration of far-flung lands, it has moved from myth, to fiction, to a mere passing daydream.

Shambhala thangka, Eastern Tibet, possibly Derge, mid-1800s.

Chris Wiley, a former editorial assistant at Cabinet, is a Brooklyn-based photographer and writer. He recently received his MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, London, and served as the managing editor for Charley 05.

Big Think - True Happiness

Dan Gilbert, the guru of happiness, talks about affective forecasting, impact bias, and happiness.

The embed function isn't working for the main video, so you'll have to go to the site to watch it. Meanwhile, here is another Dan Gilbert video on happiness.

The Art of Reviewing Books One Hasn't Read

This is funny as hell, but maybe only because I'm a book geek.

Some guy who calls himself Jon Swift reviews books over at Amazon that he hasn't read -- and he notes that fact up front. He seems to be engaging in some form of cultural criticism, while at the same time having a bit of fun. Very cool.

He now has his own blog to preserve his reviews - Amazon keeps pulling his stuff over there.

Here is the story from Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.
A Modest Proposal

Jon Swift is not, I believe, a member of our guild, but he writes some of the liveliest and most incisive reviews around, and it is time that we honor him.

An essential part of the Swiftian critical method is that the critic not read very much. (All of his pieces open with the line "I haven't actually read this book but....") This helps him to be prolific, and he never gets distracted from the task of formulating a judgment.

Swift's reviews all run at Amazon -- or at least they do when Amazon doesn't take them down:
Considering all the attention my reviews have brought to the money-losing Internet bookseller and all the inspiration they have given people by showing that you don't necessarily have to read books to review them, you would think that Amazon would be more appreciative of my work.... Nevertheless, I stand by all of my reviews and so in the interest of posterity and the historical record I have decided to post them here on my modest blog where they will be safe from the clutches of Amazon censors.
One thing that makes Swift a good reviewer is that he engages in fact-checking, even when he shares the ideological worldview of an author. See his review of Thomas Friedman's best-seller from a few years ago:
I have not actually read this book but I want to point out that there is one very big mistake right on the cover: The world is not flat; it is, in fact, round. Even though I am a conservative like Mr. Friedman and I appreciate his support of President Bush and the War in Iraq, I think conservatives like us have to be very careful about being perceived as unscientific because of our opposition to Evolution and I think a book like this which has a scientific error right on the cover is not very helpful.
He can be generous to an author who has fallen on hard times -- namely James Frey with A Million Little Pieces:
I have not actually read this book but James Frey says that only 12 pages of his book are untrue and I think that's a pretty good average. I think it's a great and compelling book and recommend it highly. Only 12 words of this review are untrue. Can you guess which ones they are?
As shown in response to Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary?, Swift is prepared to answer a rhetorical question:
I have not actually read this book but I want Ms. Dowd to know that men are very necessary. Without men, for example, I think we would be losing the War in Iraq. I used to like Ms. Dowd when she was attacking President Clinton for having sex but now she is attacking President Bush and there is no evidence whatsoever that he is having sex so I don't understand what the problem is.
Swift makes illuminating connections between public policy and popular culture, as when discussing the book Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America:
I have not actually read this book but I love the movie with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. I thought it was very funny and very imaginative with all of the alien creatures. I don't remember the movie saying anything about the Supreme Court but I know they often change books when they adapt them into movies. Even though I agree with everything Justice Scalia says he does sometimes seem like an alien from another planet, which I mean in a good way.
A certain theme returns when Swift looks at (and I mean that literally) a book by populist newscaster Lou Dobbs on the effects of globalization:
Apparently he believes that illegal aliens from other planets are taking American jobs. He is so obsessed with this idea that no matter what topic he is discussing he eventually ends up blaming aliens. Back when Walter Cronkite was an anchor if he had started obsessing about UFOs the network would have yanked him off the air immediately. I guess times have changed.
Swift is also interested in contemorary fiction -- if not quite enough, of course, actually to read it. About Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay he writes:
I have not actually read this book but I did see the movie and I liked it very much. However, I don't understand why people keep referring to it as the "gay cowboy movie." Can't two men be very good friends without everybody saying they're gay?
If Dorothy Parker were alive today....she'd be really, really old. Even so, she would join me in calling for NBCC to honor Jon Swift with a medal for special valor in the pursuit of book criticism.

Guernica Interviews John Ashbery

A cool interview with poet John Ashbery from Guernica, a magazine of art and politics. Interesting that they describe Ashbery as a rock star to poetry lovers -- that may be true, but I doubt very many people actually read him. I enjoy Ashbery's style and the challenge of making sense of his work, but he doesn't move me -- his work is too cerebral. But that's just me.

Houses at Night

An interview with John Ashbery

Ashbery350.jpg John Ashbery is something of a rock star to poetry lovers. The man himself is genial and approachable; the poetry, however, has a bad-boy appeal: difficult, magnetic, rebellious. Last spring, he read from his latest collection, A Worldly Country, at St. Mark's Church in Greenwich Village. He walked to the podium in the body of an eighty-year-old man; yet the voice that emerged was much younger. He thanked his introducer, Anselm Berrigan, who referenced Ashbery's early dismissal (age eight) of rhyming poetry. Ashbery laughed a little at that youthful renunciation and then read A Worldly Country's title poem, composed entirely of rhyming couplets: "One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness, / and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness." It seemed to be a gesture to a defiant past put behind him, but no one was fooled.

A descendant of T.S. Eliot, another poet who broke with literary convention and enjoyed an uneasy relationship with his birth country, Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927. He grew up on his father's fruit farm, a place poet Dan Chiasson recently referred to as the kind where imagination is the only escape from boredom. After graduating from high school, Ashbery went to Harvard where he befriended Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. He later received his M.A. from Columbia. When he was twenty-eight, Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, was selected by W. H. Auden for the 1956 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and the same year he also received a Fulbright and moved to Paris where he remained for a decade. After his scholarship money ran out, he survived by translating and writing art criticism for the International Herald Tribune. Ashbery's real success came in 1975 when Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Ashbery has published more than twenty poetry collections as well as prose, plays, and one novel co-written with James Schuyler. He is the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College and divides his time between New York City and Hudson, New York.

A Worldly Country continues Ashbery's tradition of discursive poems, akin to Eliot as much as to the French poets Ashbery admires. Frequently he uses pop references in his work, and while he isn't entirely dismissive of American culture, he admits, "I've always felt somewhat at a remove from the world around me in America." That remove, of course, may be mirrored back to him by readers who are baffled by his poems, one who famously wrote in to the New Yorker, a magazine that had frequently published Ashbery's poems, to profess his utter confusion. Along with the advice Ashbery himself offers below to those readers, another might be simply: attend a reading. It’s not that Ashbery is a performer; rather, it’s that the poems are meant to be heard. Tuning in and out of an Ashbery poem heightens the experience, allows you to savor a particular line or phrase. In a word: music.

At eighty, Ashbery is active as ever: in addition to A Worldly Country, he released his selected later poems, Notes from the Air, late last year. This collection is a far cry from a swan song. Ashbery continues to write new poems, was just appointed Poet Laureate of MtvU (MTV's college network) and is looking forward to an upcoming collaboration with filmmaker Guy Maddin. Often when the age of a poet is mentioned, the number is a kind of excuse, a polite way of acknowledging a writer’s falling off. Ashbery's face has some telltale signs of age: a little slack in the cheeks, a few deep-set wrinkles in the forehead. But he is far from ravaged, and his age would be difficult to guess. In photographs, he often gazes directly at the camera—tight-lipped as if he is keeping secrets. He has the same square jaw of youth, the same thin lips and clear, blue eyes. The part of his hair is the same, though the locks have thinned and whitened. And his poetry too is as beguiling as ever. Like Merlin, he seems, almost, to be aging backwards. More than any other American poetry, Ashbery's lends itself to subjective interpretation, and I have no qualms about reading myself into "To Be Affronted" from A Worldly Country: "When I was young I / thought he was a wizard."

—Erica Wright for Guernica

Go read the interview.