BrainNet, Auberon Waugh’s Savage Prose, and Against Didactic Art
Privately, Auberon Waugh was “genial and generous,” as one friend put it. Publicly, he was “savage.” Why? “In his time as a columnist he wrote for many papers, from the Catholic Herald to the Daily Mail, by way of the Spectator, the New Statesman and the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. The Private Eye diary, however, saw him at his best. Nobody but Ingrams, as Waugh acknowledged, would have published it and taken the attendant crossfire, certainly not for 14 years. The end came in 1986. Waugh was the victim of a practical joke after his friend Henry Porter, who was working on the Sunday Times, sent him a letter apparently from Claire Tomalin, the paper’s literary editor, asking him to review Mae West Is Dead, Adam Mars-Jones’s selection of lesbian and gay fiction, adding that she would ‘expect a generous piece’. Waugh duly relayed this breach of professional etiquette to readers of the diary, whereupon Tomalin had no alternative but to sue. To Waugh’s disappointment, Ingrams was minded to accept an out of court settlement. Waugh made vigorous attempts to inflame the situation, giving it ‘a good wiggle’ with a number of articles in the Spectator which he hoped would lead to a charge of contempt of court, but to no avail. The anti-climax left him depressed. ‘If all libels were to be settled by large sums of money out of court, what joy was there in writing them?’ Two months later he resigned . . . He was relentless in pursuit of vendettas, one of the most successful of which was the campaign against Anthony Powell, which offered scope for every element of Waugh’s mixed feelings about literary life. He objected to Powell’s ‘abominable’ prose, to his pretentiousness in insisting that his name be pronounced ‘Pole’ because of his supposed descent from a 12th-century Welsh king, and to the fact that Powell thought the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time was on a par with the novels of Evelyn Waugh. After years of mutual antagonism, the feud came to a spectacular climax in 1990 when Powell published a collection of his reviews, many of them from the Telegraph, where he was lead reviewer. Exactly how and why that paper’s literary editor, Nicholas Shakespeare, came to send Powell’s Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers to Waugh remains obscure. As recently as January last year Shakespeare was still trying to explain the course of events in the Spectator. Waugh’s review, which he insisted was a ‘good-natured’ bit of fun, was precisely calibrated to hit all of Powell’s many tender spots . . . Hell broke loose on a scale beyond Waugh’s wildest hopes. Powell resigned from the Telegraph, Shakespeare was ‘allowed to leave’, and, to make up for the offence it had caused, the newspaper took the extraordinary step of commissioning a bust of Powell to go in its offices. Waugh wondered if that was entirely wise: ‘people are often sensitive about these things.’”
Can humans communicate brain-to-brain without language? A new study demonstrates we can, but boy is it inefficient: “We present BrainNet which, to our knowledge, is the first multi-person non-invasive direct brain-to-brain interface for collaborative problem solving. The interface combines electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain signals and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to deliver information noninvasively to the brain. The interface allows three human subjects to collaborate and solve a task using direct brain-to-brain communication. Two of the three subjects are designated as “Senders” whose brain signals are decoded using real-time EEG data analysis. The decoding process extracts each Sender’s decision about whether to rotate a block in a Tetris-like game before it is dropped to fill a line. The Senders’ decisions are transmitted via the Internet to the brain of a third subject, the ‘Receiver,’ who cannot see the game screen. The Senders’ decisions are delivered to the Receiver’s brain via magnetic stimulation of the occipital cortex. The Receiver integrates the information received from the two Senders and uses an EEG interface to make a decision about either turning the block or keeping it in the same orientation. A second round of the game provides an additional chance for the Senders to evaluate the Receiver’s decision and send feedback to the Receiver’s brain, and for the Receiver to rectify a possible incorrect decision made in the first round. We evaluated the performance of BrainNet in terms of (1) Group-level performance during the game, (2) True/False positive rates of subjects’ decisions, and (3) Mutual information between subjects. Five groups, each with three human subjects, successfully used BrainNet to perform the collaborative task, with an average accuracy of 81.25%.” Read more on the study here.
The new MOMA is a mess: “The aggressively transgressive new MoMA, trying to combat museum-ennui by shaking up its displays, has aimed its cannon at the canon. Its disruptive installation strategy audaciously breaches traditional geographic, temporal and art-historical boundaries, arranging shotgun marriages among strange (and strained) bedfellows and sundering longtime soulmates . . . In doing so, MoMA is not so much editing art history as eschewing it.”
Reconsidering Charles Péguy’s Temporal and Eternal: “Like Dante before him, Péguy was a poet of the Church and the Nation, and one who, like Virgil, conceived of life as a series of overlapping, hierarchical loyalties to communities greater than ourselves.”
The Oulipo institution: “Unusual forms and, especially, difficult constraints have been the Oulipo’s stock in trade since the group’s formation in 1960. At its monthly meetings, which have run almost uninterrupted ever since, pre-existing examples of constrained writing are collected and considered, while new forms are developed and discussed. A laboratory more than a writers’ group, the Oulipo has nevertheless provided us with a number of major works, among them Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition (published in English as A Void), in which the author shuns any words containing the letter E, and Italo Calvino’s 1979 postmodern romp Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), in which the sections are organised according to a complex algorithm. Once semi-secret, the group is now very much part of the literary landscape. In Paris, it gives monthly readings (‘les jeudis de l’Oulipo’) at the Bibliothèque Nationale, while a large exhibition based on the group’s extensive archives ran at the library’s Arsenal site a few years ago. Even though the principles of Oulipian writing might not have changed much since the group’s ‘Second Manifesto’ appeared in the early 1970s, the label avant-garde no longer seems apt for this well-loved institution and its venerable old hands. The world, it seems, has caught up with the joys of anagrams and lipograms. And where once English readers could keep up with the Oulipo in collections put out by small presses, notably Atlas and McSweeney’s, now, as if to confirm the group’s move into the mainstream, we have The Penguin Book of Oulipo, a bumper anthology that pulls together a hundred works by members, imitators and those inadvertent advance plagiarists. The catholic selection policy is striking. The group has been known to come down hard on writers who take its name in vain, and as a consequence critics often treat it with a kind of deferential pedantry. Philip Terry, the volume’s editor, should be applauded for not kowtowing. His anthology plays fast and loose with the term ‘Oulipo’: perhaps we should call the works here ‘oulipian’ with a small O, rather than risk deploying the proprietary capital.”
Essay of the Day:
In Harper’s, Kevin Baker gives the critics of Victor Arnautoff’s George Washington murals a history lesson and explains why it is important to save anddisplay them:
“A confirmed Communist himself, Arnautoff painted murals all over the Bay Area in the 1930s: in post offices and on the wall of a medical clinic, in the chapel of the Presidio army base, in the library of the California School of Fine Arts, and in San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Everywhere he worked, Arnautoff included scenes of struggle, of the fights of working people to form unions, win power, and build a decent life for themselves.
“Arnautoff was not content to paint the sort of triumphalist, manifest-destiny form of public art then prevalent all over the United States. He was not going to tell the story of the Father of Our Country without including the enchained human misery that served as the main source of our first president’s wealth or the dead First Peoples who were a legacy of the way West that Washington had pointed. Arnautoff included both in his murals: enslaved African Americans working at Mount Vernon and a dead Native American, killed by a menacing, gray phalanx of well-armed frontiersmen, off to conquer the rest of the continent.
“Yet, contrary to what critics of the murals have claimed, neither African Americans nor American Indians are portrayed only in passive or victimized roles. A man of color is one of a group shown pulling up a liberty pole, while Native Americans, in full battle regalia, fight with and against Washington and, above all, for themselves. This was, in other words, the real, gloriously ambiguous beginning of the United States, which included bitter conflict and exploitation.
“Somehow, Arnautoff’s impertinence was overlooked at the time. But when he dared to make a lithograph linking Vice President Richard Nixon with Joseph McCarthy, he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and subjected to a campaign to have him fired from Stanford, where he was then teaching. Stanford stood firm, and Arnautoff remained on the faculty until he retired and moved back to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1979.
“His Washington High murals didn’t draw much outside notice, though, until the 1960s, when the Black Panther–inspired Black Student Union demanded that the enslaved African Americans depicted be painted over because the depiction allegedly denigrated black people.
“Yet even in the crucible that was 1968, cooler heads prevailed. Local artists defended the murals, pointing out what a radical statement the acknowledgment of enslaved peoples at Mount Vernon was in the 1930s. When the students at Washington High were polled, nearly two thirds of them responded that the mural should be supplemented but not destroyed.”
* * *
“‘We have come to a place where art, unless it’s absolutely didactic, is without agency and without significance,’ Dewey Crumpler told the Artnet reporter. ‘And that becomes really a slippery slope that leads to a very dark place. I thought fifty years ago that [the Arnautoff mural] should not be destroyed—because there are elements that are just waiting in the wings to take down other art, and they will use this argument to do exactly that.’
“These sound to me like bedrock principles, but I doubt they will pierce the cartoon Leninism of the mural’s critics, with their willingness to use any tactics, no matter how undemocratic or unfair, to get what they want. Somehow, it seems to have become standard procedure for the identity-politics left in America to smear, to insult, to vilify all who disagree with them, in any way, on any issue.”
Photo: Lenk im Simmental
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