Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

Quote of the Day

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There is one set of attitudes or methods [in discovery] that has to do with sensing the relevance of variables—avoiding immersion in edge effects and getting instead to the big sources of variance. This gift partly comes from intuitive familiarity with a range of phenomena, sheer “knowing the stuff.” But it also comes out of a sense of what things among many “smell right,” what things are of the right order of magnitude or scope or severity.

Jerome S. Bruner, On Knowing

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April 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The sound and the furry

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Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:

Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”

When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:

Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.

Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.

You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:

Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.

On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.

Quote of the Day

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I am going to say another thing which may seem strange to you at the moment, but which I have been taught by long experience, something that has value not only for philosophy but for all the sciences, for everything which in the strict sense of the term is theoretic. It is this: when anyone approaches science for the first time, the best way of easing him into it and of making clear to him what he is undertaking would be to say, “Do not seek to be convinced by what you are going to hear and what you are told to think; do not take this so seriously, but treat it like a game in which you are invited to observe the rules.”

José Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?

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April 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

From isolation to solitude

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We could say…that “solitude” is the occasional seclusion each person needs, in which he or she makes up the creative contributions that can only come into existence through individual persons and their imaginations. “Isolation” is society’s refusal of these contributions, such that the person is left to himself: a sort of prison without walls. The internal exile of being disregarded, of being given no role. Isolation must be turned into solitude…Solitude is like the forest clearing where someone draws from the spring, ancient symbol of inspiration, gaining the creativity that can only originate from individuals, though its results must be tested and developed in community. We all have our ways of attempting to do this and achieving it to one degree or another. But here the key reality is poetry. When we turn isolation into solitude by being creative and seeking ways to make this the basis of social life, we are poets. And poetry in the specific sense, the art of verse, is the most complete, concentrated version of the universal inspiration, the human demand to exercise our own productive powers and to make them effective in the public realm.

This may seem a strong statement. But one implication of it needs to be made even stronger. Poetry is not at all what it’s often said to be, the indulgence, development, and expression of private inward life. This is one of those half-truths that is the worst error, even a lie. Poetry is inward self-development plus the insistence that this must have a principal place in the public forum plus a third thing, a conclusion that flows from the first two. Everyone must be allowed full personal development, and everyone must be allowed full participation, since only full participation leads to full personal development, and in turn a proper society can only be produced by full development of each member. Poetry is, above every other human endeavor, the place where person and society are not merely joined but revealed in their original unity. Poetry is the place where the strange, painful division we have created between person and society is suffered, despaired over, denounced, subjected to comparison with memories and dreams and myths of better times, and given the gift of a prophecy: that the proper unity still and always persists, and that it can become the world we actually live in, not just in verse, but on both sides of our front door.

A.F. Moritz, “What Man Has Made of Man”

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April 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

The age of despair

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The whole age can be divided into those who write and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, and those who read disapprove of it and believe that they have a superior wisdom—and yet, if they were able to write, they would write the same thing. Basically, they are all equally despairing, but when one does not have the opportunity to become important with his despair, then it is hardly worth the trouble to despair and show it.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals

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April 22, 2017 at 7:09 am

The vision thing

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A few days ago, I was struck by the fact that a mere thirty-one years separated The Thing From Another World from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The former was released on April 21, 1951, the latter on June 25, 1982, and another remake, which I haven’t yet seen, arrived right on schedule in 2011. Three decades might have once seemed like a long time to me, but now, it feels like the blink of an eye. It’s the equivalent of the upcoming remake of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which was itself a reimagining of a movie that had been around for about the same amount of time. I picked these examples at random, and while there isn’t anything magical about a thirty-year cycle, it isn’t hard to understand. It’s enough time for a new generation of viewers to come of age, but not quite long enough for the memory of the earlier movie to fade entirely. (From my perspective, the films of the eighties seem psychologically far closer than those of the seventies, and not just for reasons of style.) It’s also long enough for the original reaction to a movie to be largely forgotten, so that it settles at what feels like its natural level. When The Thing From Another World first premiered, Isaac Asimov thought that it was one of the worst movies ever made. John W. Campbell, on whose original story it was based, was more generous, writing of the filmmakers: “I think they may be right in feeling that the proposition in ‘Who Goes There?’ is a little strong if presented literally in the screen.” Elsewhere, he noted:

I have an impression that the original version directed and acted with equal restraint would have sent some ten percent of the average movie audience into genuine, no-kidding, semi-permanent hysterical screaming meemies…You think that [story] wouldn’t tip an insipid paranoid psychotic right off the edge if it were presented skillfully?

For once, Campbell, whose predictions were only rarely on the mark, was entirely prescient. By the time John Carpenter’s The Thing came out, The Thing From Another World was seen as classic, and the remake, which tracked the original novella much more closely, struck many viewers as an assault on its legacy. One of its most vocal detractors, curiously, was Harlan Ellison, who certainly couldn’t be accused of squeamishness. In a column for L.A. Weekly, Ellison wrote that Carpenter “showed some stuff with Halloween,” but dismissed his later movies as “a swan dive into the potty.” He continued:

The Thing…[is a] depredation [Carpenter] attempts to validate by saying he wanted to pull out of the original John W. Campbell story those treasures undiscovered by the original creators…One should not eat before seeing it…and one cannot eat after having seen it.

If the treasures Carpenter sought to unearth are contained in the special effects lunacy of mannequins made to look like men, splitting open to disgorge sentient lasagna that slaughters for no conceivable reason, then John Carpenter is a raider of the lost ark of Art who ought to be sentenced to a lifetime of watching Neil Simon plays and films.

The Thing did not need to be remade, if the best this fearfully limited director could bring forth was a ripoff of Alien in the frozen tundra, this pointless, dehumanized freeway smashup of grisly special effects dreck, flensed of all characterization, philosophy, subtext, or rationality.

Thirty years later, the cycle of pop culture has come full circle, and it’s fair to say that Carpenter’s movie has eclipsed not just Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, but even Campbell himself. (Having spent the last year trying to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t science fiction fans, I can testify that if Campbell’s name resonates with them at all, it’s thanks solely to the 1982 version of The Thing.) Yet the two movies also share surprising affinities, and not simply because Carpenter idolized Hawks. Both seem interested in Campbell’s premise mostly for the visual possibilities that it suggests. In the late forties, the rights to “Who Goes There?” were purchased by RKO at the urging of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the latter of whom wrote the script, with uncredited contributions from Hecht and Hawks. The direction was credited to Nyby, Hawks’s protégé, but Hawks was always on the set and later claimed most of the director’s fee, leading to much disagreement over who was responsible for the result. In the end, it threw out nearly all of Campbell’s story, keeping only the basic premise of an alien spacecraft discovered by researchers in an icy environment, while shifting the setting from Antarctica to Alaska. The filmmakers were clearly more drawn to the idea of a group of men facing danger in isolation, one of Hawks’s favorite themes, and they lavished greater attention on the stock types that they understood—the pilot, the journalist, the girl—than on the scientists, who were reduced to thankless foils. David Thomson has noted that the central principle of Hawks’s work is that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,” and the contrast has never been more evident than it is here.

And while Hawks isn’t usually remembered as a visual director, The Thing From Another World exists almost entirely as a series of images: the opening titles burning through the screen, the crew standing in a circle on the ice to reveal the shape of the flying saucer underneath, the shock reveal of the alien itself in the doorway. When you account for the passage of time, Carpenter’s version rests on similar foundations. His characters and dialogue are less distinct than Hawks’s, but he also seems to have regarded Campbell’s story primarily as a source of visual problems and solutions. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the images that are burned into my brain from The Thing probably add up to a total of about five minutes: the limits of its technology mean that we only see it in action for a few seconds at a time. But those images, most of which were the work of the special effects prodigy Rob Bottin, are still the best practical effects I’ve ever seen. (It also includes the single best jump scare in the movies, which is taken all but intact from Campbell.) Even after thirty years, its shock moments are so unforgettable that they have a way of overpowering the rest, as they did for Ellison, and neither version ever really approximates the clean narrative momentum of “Who Goes There?” But maybe that’s how it should be. Campbell, for all his gifts, wasn’t primarily a visual writer, and the movies are a visual medium, particularly in horror and science fiction. Both of the classic versions of The Thing are translations from one kind of storytelling to another, and they stick in the imagination precisely to the extent that they depart from the original. They’re works for the eye, not the mind, which may be why the only memorable line in either movie is the final warning in Hawks’s version, broadcast over the airwaves to the world, telling us to watch the skies.

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