(Cross posted from my
(I read this book while at the same time reading
Dynamics in Action
by Alicia Juarrero. I finished Deacon's book first. I decided to read them together, because Juarrero has formally accused Deacon of plagiarism. You can read about that
. Read the comments on the latter for more. Anyways I'm trying to get my head around the ideas first.)
from last December is a good place to start. There are many other reviews of this book around the web, so I won't struggle too much with trying to summarize the ideas. I got a big kick out of reading Deacon's other book, Symbolic Species (
). That book was about the dialectical co-evolution of language and the brain, and this newer book (2011) is in a way about the co-evolution of self-organizing forms. Both of these books seemed very "dialectical" to me, but I honestly still don't know if I'm using that word correctly or if I'm only using it in my own private way. Anyhow the idea is that as simple material forms work through their thermodynamic changes they can come together in mutually supportive ways to create new meta-forms (like what happens with crystals or whirlpools), which can then combine to form more complex forms-of-forms-of-forms which can be said in a extremely primitive way to look after themselves, to work to persist in their current arrangement of forms, and to reproduce and evolve. Deacon calls this primitive life-form an "autogen." (Juarrero sometimes uses the phrase "structured structuring structures" which I guess she got from Antonio Damasio.) It only really exists in theory, but his point is that it's not a totally crazy idea that something like that could have come together billions of years ago on Earth. It doesn't violate the laws of physics.
I associate this kind of "leveling-up" or differentiation with dialectics. In
the 3-part dialectic you needed to get your head around was Charles Peirce's icon > index > symbol. In this book, there's another nested 3-part structure: thermodynamic > morphodynamic > teleodynamic. (Peirce again makes a few cameos here.) The complex lifeforms we know and love evolved after billions of years of teleodynamic activity. There are also difficult chapters that discuss the concepts of information and work in terms of this dialectic.
Deacon discusses how in theory this dialectical geometric logic could unfold in simple material systems, and then towards the end discusses how this logic can apply to what we know about brains and consciousness. The sections on brains were of course what I was interested in. They felt intuitively right to me, for what it's worth, and the parallels with Buddhist ideas were obvious and exciting to see.
He argues against the idea that consciousness and life are to be understood in merely linear terms, such as mechanism/function, or information/computation. Instead we should pay attention to how life emerges from forms of thermodynamic and morphodynamic energy flows which use geometrical arrangements to pit physical processes against each other in order to perpetuate far-from-equilibrium structures. Thus new formal arrangements become new efficient causes. The parts affect the whole, the whole affects the parts. As new arrangements of forms persist, new possibilities arise for new systems and relationships between forms to emerge, and as these affect the ability of the sub-forms to survive and reproduce the new meta-arrangements persist insofar as the sub-forms which support them are selected to perpetuate them. Wholes support parts which support wholes. In this way forms "level-up" into new meta-forms (these are my words for thinking about it). Once these forms (which at this point are no longer merely material, but are self-perpetuating forms-of-forms, and so exist as it were in the spaces between matter, and are "absential" (to use one of Deacon's many neologisms)) found ways to use the patterns of DNA and RNA molecules to integrate different areas of themselves they got really good at generating different architectures for staying alive and reproducing. At this level the material form of the organism is in a sense beside the point—the point is the whole dynamic arrangement of self-perpetuating form (which is parasitic on matter but also paradoxically independent in the sense that it is a dynamic matter/form combo, "more than the sum of its parts" at any one moment, emergent and absential).
A lot of this is standard evolution stuff, but what I guess Deacon is saying is that the important thing is to follow the formal logic of nested spiraling yin/yangs of presences and absences all the way down to the basic level of thermodynamics and back up again in order to see how life and consciousness are best understood in terms of a dialectic of dynamic processes. The higher levels at which information and function and consciousness seem paradoxical only make sense if you take into account the whole multi-dimensional dialectic of presence and absence.
So did Aristotle nail it? All four causes are accounted for and back in action. There's a lot of discussion of Aristotle in this book and
Dynamics in Action,
which I look forward to finishing. Greek science's turn toward the timeless and mathematical and away from the contextually embedded narrative description is a big issue in that book. What about Lao Tse? "Clay is fashioned into vessels but it is on their
that their use depends.” (Deacon quotes this too.) Deacon also discusses the "discovery" of zero as analogous to what he is trying to say about absential "things." (More often he uses the word "ententional" to refer to these absent forms that make a difference. I don't think that word is going to catch on.)
I haven't mentioned how difficult to read this book is yet. It's not super bad, but it's pretty difficult. He coins a lot of new words, which normally I'm fine with, and even wish more writers would do, but other reviewers have felt it was a bit much. You need to have a pretty basic understanding of physics and biology. I'm no master wordsmith but I couldn't help but feel at times like he could have explained things more clearly and that he was making it more difficult than was necessary. I'd love to take a crack at diagramming or drawing comics about the ideas in this book and Juarrero's book. Deacon throws in a few diagrams, but it seems to me like visualization would really help. Saying "figure/background reversal" over and over doesn't quite drive the point home without an illustration, like one of
*UPDATED 9/1/14: What I say about concentration isn't right, so please just ignore this sentence. I've been meaning to fix this. Now I see it differently, but it's hard to explain. It doesn't really matter. Stick with meditating.
^ loved reading
# did not like
The Great Gatsby ^
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Marcel Proust
Game of Thrones ^, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords ^,
Feast for Crows, Dance of Dragons #
by George R.R. Martin
The True Deceiver
by Tove Jansson
The Pale King ^
by David Foster Wallace
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives #
by David Eagleman
The Metamorphosis and other stories
by Franz Kafka
(Sammy Harkham edition)
The Looking Glass Book of Stories ^#
by Various, ed. Hart Day Leavitt
Also: New Yorker stories, and misc. short stories in collections which I didn’t finish.
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt
Obviously the list is short this year because George RR Martin dominated with 5 giant books. I’ll admit that I loved escaping into the unpredictable and empty plotlines, but I wish I had spent a lot of that reading time on better, meatier stuff. They’re candy. But it was easier to read these books while I was in the middle of Ganges #4 and in the hangover period after than to read more demanding books; it can be dangerous letting something rewire your brain in the middle of a big project. That’s what I told myself. Still, I wish I had read more Proust or Kafka instead. (Did not like the show.) Sisters Brothers is a weird western -- very fun to read, you'd like it.
by Steven Johnson
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer
The Memory Chalet ^
by Tony Judt
by Donovan Hohn
Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline ^
by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton
All of the books in the nonfiction category are more or less recommended. (Lousy abandoned books are not listed.) I learned a lot. I finally Moonwalking this after an article by Foer first introduced me to the idea of memory palaces in an article back in 2007. I've been obsessed with the idea and the meta-idea ever since. Memory palaces was a theme this year: Tony Judt used memory palaces to help him compose the essays in The Memory Chalet, which are wise and moving. This may be the first year in a while that I didn’t read anything about climate change — a conscious choice -- though Moby Duck was somewhat eco-apocalyptic. Cartographies of Time is great. I knew when I saw Saul Steinberg in the first few pages that it was going to be great. I can't recommend it highly enough, if you're interested in that kind of thing.
The Creative Habit
by Twyla Tharp
Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection ^
by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick
Find Your Focus Zone #
by Lucy Jo Palladino
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey ^
by Jill Bolte Taylor
Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware
by Andy Hunt
The self-help category is comprised of books I found at the library when I’d wander around on a break from writing or drawing. The self-help section at this library is huge, many times the size of, say, the painting section. I got a lot of help from Loneliness — one of the most significant books of the year for me. My Stroke of Insight taught me (finally) to understand and begin thinking in the right/left brain model. Creative Habit and Pragmatic Thinking also both have a lot of good stuff in them. There were some lousy books too, but those aren’t listed here because I barely read them. You can tell pretty quick with this type of book whether it's going to be good or not. Focus Zone is listed because I actually read it, and it was somewhat helpful, even though it wasn't very special.
What Do Pictures Want? ^
by WJT Mitchell
On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion ^
by Gabriel Josipovici
The Book of God: A Response to the Bible ^
by Gabriel Josipovici
Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? #
by Leszek Kolakowski
The Grand Design #
by Stephen Hawking and Leon Mlodinow
What Technology Wants
by Kevin Kelley
This blog post here got me to read two books by Gabriel Josipovici, for which I’m very grateful. They’ll be with me for a long time. I had read WJT Mitchell’s other books in college (I have re-read Iconology, though — 3 or 4 times!) and one day I was like, “oh yeah...what is he up to?” I really enjoyed the riffing and thinking in What Pictures Want (2004), and recommend his work to any intelligent comics reader who likes thinking about the nuts and bolts of these things, or really anyone who likes thinking and reading. What Technology Wants was a good sprint through a generally optimistic argument about technology, and humanity, but it was maybe too optimistic for me. A lot to chew on. I'm going to have to think more about it before I figure out what I think. The Grand Design didn't really grab me, and Why Is There Something was an unremarkable intro to philosophy.
* * *
In terms of pure reading enjoyment, for me The Great Gatsby was #1, followed by Josipovici, then WJT Mitchell. Proust and Kafka are in their own category of, I don’t know, “the sublime” or something. Other books, like Loneliness or My Stroke weren’t masterpieces but did teach me big ideas that will probably stick with me and improve my life (“technologies!”). I liked Cartographies and Book of God so much that I bought them after reading library copies.
Many of these books were found at the library, either on the book sale shelf, or just browsing around.
I started a few other books that I never finished -- you know how it is. Maybe next year. I'm not listing comics or graphic novels because they should get their own post, as should Internet reading. (Also, for the record, I'm not listing the research reading I did for various projects.)
UPDATE 1/1/12: It just occurred to me that the title What do Pictures Want? contains a play on the word "want" (desire/lack -- Mitchell points this out himself several times), but What Technology Wants does not contain this double meaning, and reading that book you can see how it couldn't. I'd love to see Mitchell review and play with the ideas and ideology of Kelley's book.
Also, I had somehow forgotten about Cartographies, so I added that.
Forgot Sisters Brothers!
by Theo Ellsworth
-"Norman Eight's Left Arm"
by Ray Fenwick
-Great sci-fi story with a long name by Jonas Madden-Connor.