Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Groupthink, dormroom favorites and that pest Darwin

Despite the needlessly highfalutin’ sound of the phrase “intellectual power cadre,” there’s still something enormously appealing about the idea of a bunch of brainy maniacs getting together, bouncing ideas around and goading each other into great things. A creative comfort zone that’s generated by your peers is incredibly rewarding; I’ve always found it fascinating to trace friendships and relationships between artists, if only to practice armchair psychology in tracing influences and trends.

Granted, groups like this inevitably burn themselves out, or turn against one another, or simply grow apart. But there’s nothing like watching a group of similarly-minded artists getting together and producing great things because of (or, perhaps, in spite of) their influence on one another.

Another excellent piece in this vein is Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece “Group Think”, which examines the clubhouse atmosphere of Saturday Night Live’s heyday in the context of similar group-driven movements throughout history, and comes up with some interesting points along the way:
We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that's not how it works, whether it's television comedy or, for that matter, the more exalted realms of art and politics and ideas. In his book "The Sociology of Philosophies," Randall Collins finds in all of known history only three major thinkers who appeared on the scene by themselves: the first-century Taoist metaphysician Wang Ch'ung, the fourteenth-century Zen mystic Bassui Tokusho, and the fourteenth-century Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Everyone else who mattered was part of a movement, a school, a band of followers and disciples and mentors and rivals and friends who saw each other all the time and had long arguments over coffee and slept with one another's spouses.
So I’m not famous, but anyway, a book I really loved in college was Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s one of those books that’s next to impossible to summarize, because it covers so many different bases; Hofstadter is a lot like Arthur Koestler in his restless examination of practically anything that crosses his radar. Ostensibly it’s about the process of translating a poem by French writer Clement Marot into simple Yankspeak, but Hofstadter spins this narrative thread off into a thousand different directions; even when he’s totally lost you, you still marvel at the sheer wealth of ideas and the associative web that he weaves.

David Fincher once noted that language was invented so that people could lie to one another; Hofstadter’s ebullient examination of art, language and ideas (and, most movingly, love) strikes far deeper than you ever expect it to, and really gives you a reason to believe. Back in my dormroom days, Thoreau’s Walden provided me a few weeks worth of great head-in-the-clouds idealism, but Le Ton beau de Marot is the one I still find myself sneaking back to.
  • D. T. Max places Austen and Darwin in the same sphere at the New York Times Magazine.
Science and art would seem to be strange bedfellows and yet the great artists -- the ones whose work endures -- set out to capture nature’s patterns in their work, most particularly our own. A comment from Christopher Hitchens in the aforementioned Slate piece, regarding George Eliot’s talent “in guessing at the real springs of human motive and in describing the mammalian underlay of social forces,” ties in nicely with this piece, which examines Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the context of evolutionary behavior.

Yeah, it’s probably because there’s a new movie of it out, but still, there are plenty of interesting bits along the way:
It is useful to know a bit about current literary criticism to understand how different the Darwinist approach to literature is. Current literary theory tends to look at a text as the product of particular social conditions or, less often, as a network of references to other texts. (Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, famously observed that there was "nothing outside the text.") It often focuses on how the writer's and the reader's identities - straight, gay, female, male, black, white, colonizer or colonized - shape a particular narrative or its interpretation. Theorists sometimes regard science as simply another form of language or suspect that when scientists claim to speak for nature, they are disguising their own assertion of power. Literary Darwinism breaks with these tendencies. First, its goal is to study literature through biology - not politics or semiotics. Second, it takes as a given not that literature possesses its own truth or many truths but that it derives its truth from laws of nature.

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