Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Make a noise

(This is book commentary 2.2 on Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers, now seen through the haze of days. Weeks! It's been weeks since I read it! My thoughts needed to gestate, but what do I have for it? A bunch of interesting quotations, but everything's slipped out of context. If I had the head for it, the right mindset, I'm sure I could work that to say something meaningful about neural connections, how real life settles into one's mind, but I don't.)

This book feels like a roadmap. How to translate life experience into words, to make a book.

There are echoes of the Variations everywhere, without ever trying to be the Variations. I never expected this book, any book, to live up to the Variations; this one is quietly satisfying, thoughtful.

U. was the place where I first saw how paint might encode politics, first heard how a sonata layered itself like a living hierarchy, first felt sentences cadence into engagement. I first put myself up inside the damp chamois of another person's body in U. First love smelted, sublimated, and vaporized here in four slight years.

I betrayed my beloved physics in this town, shacked up with literature.


When did I shack up with literature?, I wonder. Did I, in fact? I gave up math, but I don't think there was betrayal. But there was no whirlwind romance either. I'd always had literature on the side, since I was 6.

So here I have a selection of quotations I thought poignant, or beautiful, or worth thinking about. Without anything much to say about them.

The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child on line and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it.


This Lentz, I reasoned, had a neural network buried in that mountain of equipment. One that he was training to recognize beauty. One that would tell him, after repeated listenings, how that simple reed breathing made and unmade the shifting signal weights that triggered souls.


At bottom , at synapse level, I was far more fluid than I'd ever suspected. As fluid as the sum of things that had happened to me, all things retained or apparently lost. Every input to my associative sieve changed the way I sieved the next input.


We humans are winging it, improvising. Input pattern x set off associative matrix y, which bears only the slightest relevance to the stimulus and is often worthless. Conscious intelligence is smoke and mirrors. Almost free-associative. Nobody really responds to anyone else, per se. We all spout our canned and thumb-nailed scripts, with the barest minimum of polite segues. Granted we're remarkably fast at indexing and retrieval. But comprehension and appropriate response are often more on the order of buckshot.


These weird parallaxes of framing must be why the mind opened out at all. Meaning was not a pitch but an interval. It sprang from the depth of disjunction, the distance between one circuit's center and the edge of another. Representation caught the sign napping, with its semantic pants down. Sense lay in metaphor's embarrassment at having two takes on the same thing. For the first time, I understood Emerson's saying about the use of life being to learn metonymy.

Life was metonymy, or at least stood for it.


The interval. The disjunction. I'm seeing all relationships in these terms now. White space. Negative space. The space between. The need to conflate it.

Then there's this: "the only two careers worth striving for were doctor and musician." I think it's true. I think. Heal the body. Heal the soul. We need to be healed.

Helen did not sing the way real little girls sang. Technically, she almost passed. Her synthesized voice skittered off speech's earth into tentative, tonal Kitty Hawk. Her tune sounded remarkably limber, given the scope of that mechanical tour de force.

But she did not sing for the right reasons. Little girls sang to keep time for kickball or jump ropes. The little boy soprano I had played onstage at twelve had been doing that. Singing the tune I'd taught Helen, keeping imitative time by bouncing a ball against a pasteup shop door.


I'm wired, of course, to hear "Helena" in "Helen." And I wonder about my girl's singing. She is always singing. (Days I wish she wouldn't. Days she doesn't, days she's not there, are empty.) Making up words to known tunes. Devising new tunes for as yet untold stories. About the cat, or spiders in the bathtub, or how much she loves me.
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