Marvin Minsky as Marduk

The Stanford computer scientist & artificial intelligence maven Marvin Minsky is interviewed (along with Daniel Dennet) by Wired Magazine about the nature of human consciousness & the prospects for machine intelligence. Asked why we need machine intelligence, Minsky opines:

I think there is a worldwide survival problem. As the population grows and people live longer, there won’t be anybody to do the work. So there is an urgent need to make inexpensive mechanical people that are able to do all the things that moderately unskilled people do now.

Minsky, last I heard, was a Stanford professor. Is there some kind of bubble over Palo Alto that prevents reality from seeping through to the populace? All I could think of was the Babylonian god Marduk, who created human beings because the gods were working too hard & needed a bit of kip. He doesn’t say so, but presumably these AIs would be implanted into something like chimp hybrids & presto a new race of slaves would be ready to serve humanity as it declines into senescence.

I’ve had a visceral reaction over the years against the reductionism of guys like Minsky & Dennet, but I am, as a student of American Pragmatism, attracted to the notion, advanced especially by Dennet in the interview, that mind is a sort of political amalgamation. There does not have to be one center of consciousness. The self is a polity, more or less coherent depending on the circumstances. After minsky talks about emotion as a “turning off” of other mental functions, as if the brain had a control center, Dennet replies:

Computer programmers have the luxury to create hierarchies of control. The systems, the subsystems, the sub-sub-subsystems are complete slaves. They never rebel. This gives you a model of the mind with the highest echelons of logic at the top. But if you think about a brain as a community of individually semiautonomous, even independently evolved agencies, as Marvin has, you realize that the agencies have to be browbeaten and they have to form alliances. Emotions aren’t an add-on but rather the politics of the whole system.

That is both witty & apt. Minsky’s metaphors reveal his attraction to slavery as a psychological & social paradigm. That is, they reveal him to be a kind of hyper-intellectual creep.

Anne Winters: Making the Political Personal

I’ve been reading Anne Winters’ remarkable book, The Displaced of Capital. The title poem begins:

“A shift in the structure of experience . . .”
As I pass down Broadway this misty late-winter morning,
the city is ever-alluring, but thousands of miles to the south
the subsistence farms of chickens, yams and guava
are bought by transnationals, burst into miles
of export tobacco and coffee; and now it seems the farmer
has left behind his ploughed-under village for an illegal
partitioned attic in the outer boroughs. Perhaps
he’s the hand that emerged with your change
from behind the glossies at the corner kiosk;
the displaced of capital have come to the capital.

It is hard to imagine a more perfectly written set of lines. I deeply admire the politics, but let me dwell for the moment on the pacing. This is in many ways straight-forward free verse in the modernist tradition. Eliot, had he not been a politically conservative twit, might have written such lines remembering his master Donne. There is a directness in the diction & clarity in the sentences that come out of modernist anti-romantic realism. The stanza is built around three compounds: late-winter, ever-alluring, & ploughed-under, each of which feels like a noun but is in fact a modifier. The effect is to increase the richness & rigor of the lines without increasing the intensity of the diction.

And the poem’s seemingly casual diction is key to its politics. The speaker of the poem does not stand apart & preach to the reader, but includes herself in the machinery of displacement. Surely this is a requirement for political poetry in out time, probably always. A matter of self-awareness without which political awareness is thin & brittle.

Note: “The Displaced of Capital” was published in The Nation last year; the full text of the poem is available there.

Poem by Paula Tatarunis

Skipping around poetry blogs last night, I came across this poem by Paula Tatarunis, whose posts at Paula’s House of Toast often consist primarily of arresting photographs. And there is something photographic about this poem, startling & unnerving.


And, finally, an apocalypse.
Blood sky, bone wood,
unstrung harps, lights burnt out,
green a memory no mind can hold
amidst its general fear and the purple onslaught
of what comes next —

— the Sunday matinee
of thorn-filled crib and hopeful relics dredged
from a red muck of want

O come, O come,

O child who seems to sleep,
but, when we stand from our prostrations,
who also stands,
stands upright and clings to a strafed wall,
eyes shut against the blast.

What is the World?

“[W]hat do we think of as the world? Americans have been prone to think of ourselves as the world,” notes Adrienne Rich in this interview from the (London) Times. No American poet, over the last thirty years, has done more to disabuse Americans of that notion–that we are the world–than Adrienne Rich. Her poems are often awkward–fragments cemented together by passion–but they are unstinting in their generous intellectual power. [Interview via Wood s Lot.]

One of the things that has almost stopped me writing poems the last few years was the problem of the political in poetry. “Poetry is not a billboard,” says Rich in the interview, “It is not linguistic aromatherapy.” I imagine a slightly ironic, humorous tone in her statement, given that Rich has often been accused of being a billboard poet by critics who cannot hear her voice or who dismiss the idea that poetry can be or ought to be political. What we mean by “political” is the key to understanding what Rich means. “I, for many, many years have felt not just that the personal becomes political, but that the political becomes personal.” Speaking only for myself, the problem has been how to make the political personal without being overwhelmed by the white noise of the political discourse.” It takes a very robust poetry, like that of Adrienne Rich, to make that work.

When Wittgenstein famously wrote, “The world is all that is the case,” did he mean The world is only that which is the case? If you put the accent on all the sentence can be read that way. This would mean that the world is only that which can be formulated, put into propositions. Or did he mean something more capacious, that the world is everything that comes to consciousness? Rich, when she asks the question, “What do we think of as the world?” is mostly talking about geopolitics; but her work as a whole demands that we understand the world in the broadest possible sense. Poetry is one of the basic ways in which we are able to bring experience to consciousness. Rich’s poetry, these thirty years, has kept insisting that we refuse to accept that which (merely) can be said & that we find out, as writers, that which must be said.


Last night at my department’s holiday dinner, Carole & I sat across the table from my colleague Chris Robinson, who is also a reader of this blog. Chris imagined, when I wrote the other day about Carole splitting wood, that we use the wood for aesthetic purposes. That we had the occasional bourgeois conflagration as part of our gracious country lifestyle. Let me correct this misapprehension without further delay. We heat our house with wood. Carole splits the bigger chunks, most quarter & half rounds of birch & maple, into smaller pieces that burn hotter. She does this every day in winter. And in the summer she stacks ten cords after the Toomey brothers dump it under the pine trees out front. We do have a furnace in the cellar & a tank of fuel oil so that the house won’t get too cold if we’re away for the whole day, but we make it a point of pride to keep the furnace turned off while we’re at home.


One degree this morning. We woke earlier than usual this morning. I’m getting over a cold & couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went downstairs & made coffee. Now, though the sun isn’t up yet, I can hear Carole out beside the house splitting wood for the stove. The maul clunks into the wood. Once. Twice. Three times if it’s a big log. Then The two pieces fall apart making a dull clanking sound in the cold air. Carole likes splitting wood–it’s a chore she actually took away from me shortly after we moved to the country & I showed her how to swing a maul. When it comes to heating the place, my job is to clean out the woodstove & maintain the fire. As I was making the coffee, I bult up the fire from last night’s damped-down bed of coals & now, forty minutes later, the house is warm. Still dark at six-thirty. I have the prospect of an open day before me. Classes ended yesterday, but the papers haven’t come in for grading yet. Since I’ve been under the weather, I’m going to stay home, read, & fiddle with the syllabus for a course I’m teaching next semester. When Carole gets home from work, we’ll drive into Potsdam for my department’s Holiday Dinner. Don’t envy me too much, though–the grading starts Monday.