stochastic resonance in reading

Stochastic resonance (SR) is a phenomenon where a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor, can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal, which contains a wide spectrum of frequencies. The frequencies in the white noise corresponding to the original signal’s frequencies will resonate with each other, amplifying the original signal while not amplifying the rest of the white noise (thereby increasing the signal-to-noise ratio which makes the original signal more prominent). Further, the added white noise can be enough to be detectable by the sensor, which can then filter it out to effectively detect the original, previously undetectable signal.

This works for sound and image alike, for example:

sr

SR may help to explain why some people learn better when surrounded by white noise — thus writers who hang out in coffee shops. SR has been identified in the sensory neurobiology of many creatures, but I don’t understand that stuff at all, so please don’t have any illusions about my competence to grasp serious scientific ideas.

I mention all this because I think reading texts from the past — something about which I have written a book — is a way of usefully introducing stochastic resonance into our mental lives. Maybe I’m stretching a metaphor here, but bear with me.

Some people say we live in an age of information overload. Clay Shirky has said that it’s not information overload but rather “filter failure.” A slightly different way to put Shirky’s point is to say that a super-surplus of input makes it difficult for us to discern genuine information, to distinguish signal from noise. We can’t sift and sort and bring order to all the stuff assaulting us.

But if you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.

When you approach the text from the past on its own terms and for its own sake, it becomes a kind of white noise in relation to present concerns. Your attention to the long ago and far away makes the tumult and the shouting die, the captains and the kings depart. (Allusion alert!) It’s when the current environment lies outside the scope of your attention, when you neither seek nor expect any connection to it, that you make room for random resonances to form.

And when they do form, you begin to discern the really key features of your moment more clearly. An image begins to appear where there had been formlessness. Useless and pernicious statements start to recede into the background as you perceive them for what they are. The salient and the helpful points move to the forefront of your attention.

You can’t force this to happen — indeed, any attempt to force it will result in the simple confirmation of what you already think. It’s only when the resonances feel truly random — when they arise at moments when you’re not looking for or expecting them — that they have the power of clarification. You can predict that resonances will occur; but you can’t predict when they’ll show up or what they’ll be.

This may be a subset of the Eureka phenomenon, but at the moment I’m inclined to think that it’s largely distinct from that, though not unrelated.

By the way, I think all that I’ve described here describes equally well the experience of reading much science fiction and fantasy. The fact that almost all of my leisure reading is (a) old books, (b) SF, (c) fantasy suggests that my fundamental orientation as a reader is a hopeful openness to stochastic resonance.

lessons from the past

Once I saw how things were going I got away from Twitter and stopped checking my RSS reader. I didn’t want to hear any news, mainly because I knew that there wouldn’t be much news as such — though there would be vast tracts of reason-bereft, emotionally-incontinent opinionating. And I don’t need that. Ever.

Instead, I’ve just read Ron Chernow‘s massive and quite excellent biography of George Washington. It’s been a useful as well as an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it reminds me what actual leadership looks like; and for another, it reminds me of how deeply flawed even the best leaders can be, and how profoundly wrong. As is always the case when I spend some serious time with the past, I get perspective. I see the good and the bad of my own time with more clarity and accuracy. And if anything vital has happened over the past few days while I’ve been reading, I’ve got plenty of time to catch up. As I’ve said before, I prefer to take my news a week at a time anyway, not minute by minute.

One theme in Chernow’s biography particularly sticks with me. It concerns the end of Washington’s second administration and his brief period as an ex-President (he lived only two-and-a-half years after departing the office). That was a time when when political parties in something like the modern sense of the term — though many of the Founders referred to the power and danger of “Factions” — dramatically strengthened. It was also a time when journalists who supported one faction would say pretty much anything to discredit the other one, would make up any sort of tale. John Adams, violently angered by all the lies told about him and his colleagues — and there really were lies, outrageous lies, about him, just as there were about Washington near the end of his second term — strongly supported and oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts to punish journalistic bias and fake news, as well as to deter immigration — though Adams and his fellow in-power Federalists were only concerned to punish the lies that worked against their policies, not the lies that worked in their favor. (Plenty of those circulated also.) Washington, rather surprisingly and disappointingly, thought these laws good ones.

I draw certain lessons from this whole sordid history. Habitual dishonesty, on the part of politicians and journalists alike, inflames partisanship. You exaggerate the nastiness of your political opponents, and that leads people in your camp to think of the other side not as fellow citizens with whom you disagree on policy, but rather something close to moral monsters. Gratified by your increasingly tight bond with the like-minded, you stretch your exaggerations into outright lies, which gain even more rapturous agreement within your Ingroup and more incandescent anger against the Outgroup. Dishonesty begets partisanship, and partisanship begets further dishonesty. It’s a classic vicious circle.

And one more phenomenon is begotten by all this malice. Wheeled around in this accelerating circle of your own devising, you become incapable of comprehending, or even seeing, something that it is absolutely necessary for every wise social actor to know: In some situations all parties act badly. Sometimes there are no good guys, just fools and knaves, blinded to the true character of their own behavior by their preening partisan self-righteousness.

Lucy Ellmann and old books

We’re at the copy-editing stage of my next book, so it’s too late to add anything, but goodness, I wish I could squeeze in this from Lucy Ellmann:

Some time ago I pretty much decided to read only books written before the atom bomb was dropped, when everything changed for all life on Earth. The industrial revolution’s bad enough, but nuclear weapons really are party-poopers.

I don’t stick strictly to this policy, but I often find it more rewarding to read what people thought about, and what they did with literature, before we were reduced by war and capitalism to mere monetary units, bomb fodder and password generators. And before the natural world became a depository for plastics and nuclear waste.

Anger and alienation have resulted, and they’re fine subjects, but there are times when you’d like to remember some of the higher points in the history of civilisation as well, and the natural world before we learned to view it all as tainted. The intense humour, innocence, sexiness and play of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for instance – could this have been written after Hiroshima? Could Gargantua and Pantagruel? Don Quixote? Emma? I don’t see how. Thanks to the offences of patriarchy, a lot of the fun has gone out of being human, and I like books that look at life in less constricted ways.

I love this statement because of its provocations — provocations that should be assessed with some care. For one thing, I don’t see that the variety of books has especially diminished since Hiroshima — I mean, Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Shack and a whole bunch of adult coloring books have appeared since the end of that war — and if we’re missing the distinctive (and very funny) kind of “sexiness” in Tristram Shandy I think that has a lot more to do with the sexual revolution and its unanticipated consequences than with the atom bomb. 

But the idea that before the industrial revolution, with its accompanying “war and capitalism” and reduction of persons to “mere monetary units,” the natural world was perceived in a radically different way — that’s promising. Though I think the main thing that should be said about pre-modern nature is not that it was untainted but that it was scary as shit. Which is just as much worthy of our interest and reflection. 

We could debate such matters all day — and should! Because there’s no question that the past really is another country, though they don’t everything different there. Trying to understand the continuities as well as the discontinuities is what reading books from the past is all about. 

Anyway, my book is going to be great on all that stuff. Make sure it’s the only book published in 2020 that you buy in 2020, okay? Otherwise, stick with the old stuff. You’ll be glad you did. 

terror and history

This excellent post by my colleague Philip Jenkins reminds us of an earlier era — just 25 years ago! — when America was worried about right-wing terrorists. As I have often pointed out — see here and here — it’s not just the distant past we’ve forgotten, it’s the very recent past. And that forgetfulness makes it very difficult for us to come up with appropriate and proportionate responses to our current problems.

presentism revisited

A follow-up to my recent post on a certain variety of chronological snobbery: I see that Louise Doughty has nominated her top 10 ghost stories. Their dates:

  • 1987
  • 1898
  • 2015
  • 2017
  • 2017
  • 2010
  • 2002
  • 2009
  • 1983
  • 2001

So: seven of the ten best ghost stories ever written have appeared in the past 18 years. Amazing! How do we account for the fact that just in this century writers have gotten so good at ghost stories — so much better that people who came before, like Arthur Machen and M. R. James and Charles Dickens? It’s a mystery.

chronological snobbery

The novelist Hannah Beckerman was asked, “I’m an English lit postgraduate who’s slipped into a reading rut since my final exams – what are some good books to get me back into loving literature?” Here are the first publication dates of the books she recommended:

  • 2006
  • 2016
  • 2013
  • 2010
  • 2014
  • 2015
  • 2015
  • 1995
  • 1997
  • 2000
  • 2002
  • 2017
  • 1959–1994 (Paley’s stories)
  • 1937
  • 2017
  • 2019
  • 1988
  • 1926
  • 1989
  • 1999
  • 2015

Also, all of them are written in English and by people from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the USA. The two major temporal outliers (1937 and 1926) are both children’s books, and there are no adults-only (or -primarily) novels from before 2002.

Is it really likely that all the books that might be recommended to someone who wants to “get … back into loving literature” are from our culture, our language, our time? And that none of them are poems or plays?

this is your mind on presentism

As a person writing a book about the need to cultivate temporal bandwidth, I am so pleased when various prominent cultural outlets do advance publicity on my behalf. Consider for instance this piece in the New Yorker on the decline in the study of history:

“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo … can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.

I would give a big Amen to this but with one caveat: it’s not more history majors we need, it’s a more general, more widespread, acquaintance with history. Without that we are fully at the mercy of our now-habitual and increasingly tyrannical presentism.

Consider, as an exemplum, this Farhad Manjoo column, in which he deplores the “prison” of being referred to by gendered pronouns. Damon Linker’s response zeroes in on a key point:

But what is this freedom that Manjoo and so many others suddenly crave for themselves and their children? That’s more than a little mysterious. Slaves everywhere presumably know that they are unfree, even if they accept the legitimacy of the system and the master that keeps them enslaved. But what is this bondage we couldn’t even begin to perceive in 2009 that in under a decade has become a burden so onerous that it produces a demand for the overturning of well-settled rules and assumptions, some of which (“the gender binary”) go all the way back to the earliest origins of human civilization?

I think Linker could have, with equal appositeness, referred to 2014: If you got in a time machine and showed the Farhad Manjoo of 2014 a copy of his 2019 column, he almost certainly would not believe that he had written it. A stance that in 2014 was been so uncontroversial that it didn’t rise to the level of consciousness — that it’s okay for us to refer to ourselves by gendered pronouns — is now the unmistakable sign of “a ubiquitous prison for the mind.” And yet so thoroughly is Manjoo immersed in the imperatives of the moment that he’s not even aware of the discontinuity. That is the real prison for the mind.

grass

totalitarian presentism

Senator Ben Sasse doesn’t read modern fiction, only old books, and people on social media are getting seriously freaked out.

Let’s stop and think about this. Sasse’s day job requires him to spend dozens of hours a week immersed in the affairs of the moment. When he turns on his TV: affairs of the moment. When he ferries people around as an Uber driver, he hears about people’s take on the affairs of the moment. When he listens to the radio: affairs of the moment. When he’s on social media: affairs of the moment. But if, in his leisure hours, he wants to read old books, he’s THE WORST. He has committed the unpardonable sin.

It is not enough for many people that they be so utterly presentist in their sensibility that their temporal bandwidth is a nanometer wide. Everyone must share their obsession with the instant. No one may look to other times. It’s not just presentism, it’s totalitarian presentism.

Yeah, I really do need to write this book.