An Electric Conversation with Hollis Robbins on the Black Sonnet Tradition, Progress, and AI, with Guest Appearances by Marcus Christian and GPT-3

by Bill Benzon

I was hanging out on Twitter the other day, discussing my previous 3QD piece (about Progress Studies) with Hollis Robbins, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Cal State at Sonoma. We were breezing along at 240 characters per message unit when, Wham! right out of the blue the inspiration hit me: How about an interview?

Thus I have the pleasure of bringing another Johns Hopkins graduate into orbit around 3QD. Hollis graduated in ’83; Michael Liss, right about the corner, in ’77; and Abbas Raza, our editor, in ’85; I’m class of  ’69. Both of us studied with and were influenced by the late Dick Macksey, a humanist polymath at Hopkins with a fabulous rare book collection. I know Michael took a course with Macksey and Abbas, alas, he missed out, but he met Hugh Kenner, who was his girlfriend’s advisor.

Robbins has also been Director of the Africana Studies program at Hopkins and chaired the Department of Humanities at the Peabody Institute. Peabody was an independent school when I took trumpet lessons from Harold Rehrig back in the early 1970s. It started dating Hopkins in 1978 and they got hitched in 1985.

And – you see – another connection. Robbins’ father played trumpet in the jazz band at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1950s. A quarter of a century later I was on the faculty there and ventured into the jazz band, which was student run.

It’s fate I call it, destiny, kismet. [Social networks, fool!]

Robbins has published this and that all over the place, including her own poetry, and she’s worked with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. to give us The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006). Not only was Uncle Tom’s Cabin a best seller in its day (mid-19th century), but an enormous swath of popular culture rests on its foundations. If you haven’t yet done so, read it.

She’s here to talk about her most recent book, just out: Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition. Read more »

From Progress Studies to Progress: Through decadence and beyond

by Bill Benzon

How do we get there from here? Evolution, revolution, or revolution through evolution? I don’t know, but as the smart kids are saying these days, I have my priors. As does everyone else.

A movement begins

Back in July 2019 Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen called for a science of progress in an article in The Atlantic. The article generated a fair response, some in favor, some pushing back – Collison has collected some of the responses here – and people have begun conversing and gathering around the idea of progress studies. The purpose of this post is to take a quick look at what has been going on and a somewhat

more considered look at what needs to happen if an interest in progress studies is to yield discernible progress.

Let’s begin with a passage from Collison and Cowen, “We Need a New Science of Progress”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

Before digging into what Progress Studies would entail, it’s worth noting that we still need a lot of progress. We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.

Mark their reach: cure all diseases, solve climate change, world’s population live comfortably, predict and mitigate natural disasters, travel cheaply, educate all young people well. The words are easy to comprehend, and those two paragraphs are relatively short. But they are talking about human life on earth, all of it, going forward. Can you get our mind around it, your hands? Really? It’s beyond my grasp.

They go on : “Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.” Given their reach, if not their grasp, just what would treatment, the laying on of hands, entail? Read more »

Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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Pandora, Prometheus, and Pessimism

Schopenhauer

According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, women were created for the sole purpose of punishing men. The punishment of mankind in the form of womankind was kalon kakon, or a ‘beautiful evil’ – sent by the gods for a crime committed not by man but by the Titan Prometheus. Prometheus was presumptuous enough to steal fire (symbolising knowledge) from heaven to give to mankind. Zeus, infuriated with mankind’s sudden enlightenment, punished him with ‘a bane to plague their lives’, as Jenny March says. This bane was woman.

The first woman was ironically named ‘Allgifts’. She was fashioned out of the combined talents of the Olympian gods. Created from earth and water by the great smith-god Hephaistos, she was attired and domesticated by Athena; Aphrodite gave her beauty and grace; and, finally, Hermes deposited a cunning nature deep inside her heart. Zeus delivered this beautiful, and secretly evil, gift to Prometheus’ gullible brother Epimetheus. We call this first woman by the more popular name Pandora. She brought with her a dowry – the infamous ‘Pandora’s Box’, which was actually a great jar (or pithos). In the jar were sorrow, disease and hard labour. By opening it, Pandora unleashed these evils which have been plaguing us ever since. The only thing which remained in the box, within control of humanity, was hope. This was supposed to be some kind of consolation for all the suffering that life imposes on us, as individuals and as a species.

Yet, this seems like little consolation to some thinkers. One interpretation of this entire event is that with knowledge (Prometheus’ fire) comes sorrow (Pandora’s pithos). Even Ecclesiastes 1:18 reminds us of this. To somehow reconcile the two, some philosophers have asserted that with an increase in knowledge comes the alleviation of the suffering brought about by Pandora. The greatest exponent of this was probably Socrates but definitely his disciple Plato. Socrates, as a Platonic character, says that the unconsidered life is not worth living – or, to prove the point: the considered life is worth living. Yet, why is this so?

In fact, as figures like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Gray remind us, examining our life individually and human life in general, one is more likely to arrive at the opposite conclusion. Their views are this: Our world is filled with much suffering, strife and individual struggle. Our individual lives are hard – some much worse than others – and it seems that no amount of rationalising has decreased selfishness, bigotry and violence in us. We are still fearful of each other; we still quiver at the thought of death. Suffering is scattered about the world like pollen on a breeze. Of course there is no perfect way to measure human-induced suffering – but by all current measurements, for example body-count, we have in fact gotten worse (think of Nagasaki or the Khmer-Rouge).

Modern writers, like John Gray, who are taking on the mantle of Schopenhauer, say: We have used the outcomes of technology, the products of reason and the results of knowledge, to kill each other more efficiently, to induce suffering on an unprecedented scale. Knowledge of the world, how to manipulate it, is used to deliver suffering. This goes against the Socratic optimism which states that knowledge brings about a confirmation of life, making it ‘worth living’. According to Gray, this is not so.

409px-Glass-of-water

Of course because of technology most of us are alive. For example, given that women’s bodies are so poorly ‘designed’ for labour, many of us run a very high risk of death during labour: both the newborn and the mother. The reason for this is because of our bipedal nature. During birth, a child must pass through the middle of the pelvis: because we evolved to walk on two legs, this space is narrower than for other apes. Also, newborn humans have a much larger head because of a larger brain. Humans are therefore born at a much earlier stage (any later and the head would be even bigger) and are more vulnerable, thus entirely dependent on their parents. With the larger head and narrower pelvis, the entire process is slow and painful for the mother. Thanks to medical technology, this can be alleviated somewhat and the chances of infection and death are greatly lessened. Due to the brilliance in technology and the efficiency of medically-trained doctors – both of which are outcomes of reason – mother and child have a far greater chance of surviving.

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