Writing 101, part 1

Last night we held our first of four writing classes with the Austin Underground Graduate School. I had 17 students show up. It was, as usual, difficult to tell if they liked the activities, or if they were getting what they expected, or if they would return next week. Nobody walked out, though, so that’s a plus?

I had them read some Nietzsche and some Richard Dawkins (two excerpts about truth and/vs science) and then respond with a page of writing about whether or not there exists an objective reality—and if so, how can we access it and how can/should we harness it. Then I gave them some rules and they edited their writing to avoid redundancies and cliches.

The feedback on the readings was mixed, and I didn’t read anyone’s pages so I don’t even know if the writing and editing were productive. I didn’t want to scare anyone off by having them submit their words for review. But next week I’ll have them turn in some pieces as they leave, for me to edit and comment on.

Why am I teaching the class? Well I think we all need to communicate better. One guy said he hoped to learn how to talk to his father about politics. I don’t know if this class can help him, but that’s not a bad goal to start with.

And I don’t mean “convince” when I write “communicate better.”


“But it’s out of control, and we’re going to make it a very short process. And we’re going to either give you your permits, or we’re not going to give you your permits. But you’re going to know very quickly. And generally speaking, we’re going to be giving you your permits.”  – Donald Trump

Does Violence Work?

Here’s an excellent review of Frantz Fanon and his work, to mark yesterday’s MLK, Jr. Day holiday: “Where life is seized“.

Author of the anti-racist jeremiad Black Skin, White Masks; spokesman for the Algerian Revolution and author of The Wretched of the Earth, the ‘bible’ of decolonisation; inspiration to Third World revolutionaries from the refugee camps of Palestine to the back streets of Tehran and Beirut, Harlem and Oakland; founder, avant la lettre, of post-colonialism; hero to the alienated banlieusards of France, who feel as if the Battle of Algiers never ended, but simply moved to the cités: Frantz Fanon has been remembered in a lot of ways, but almost all of them have foregrounded his advocacy of resistance, especially violent resistance.

I am leading an informal writing class starting in February, on the topic of truth in the post-literate age, and I’m wondering if Fanon would make for good discussion (of course I’m including Nietzsche). Will Fanon, like Derrick Jensen, lose credibility over time? And what does it say about me that I still love both of them?

The Fiction of Fictional Characters

Three years ago I wrote about how Americans like zombie plots in film and television because these motifs mirror our own reality—one with boredom and addiction as main life/career choices and terror as a national health-care policy. I think this phenomenon is still mostly true, although I often think that the importance of movies and TV is overstated, especially when gains in movements or civil rights are claimed simply because of increased representation in media—as if Orange Is the New Black changed the prison system. This notion reaches its most annoying manifestation when delusional actors think their portrayals actually move any needles (pun intended). But then again, maybe I’m wrong about that, too; fictional characters do serve to normalize otherwise radical situations (which is why they’re so useful for propaganda machines). Yet, I just don’t see how Breaking Bad will actually change drug or health-care policy, or how The Wire will change journalism or the criminal justice system.

More On The Octopus

Here’s yet another article about octopus intelligence: “Just how smart is an octopus?“.

This time, though, (as opposed to several recent books and studies about the sentience of cephalopods) human exceptionalism is maintained:

But how far can cephalopods take their mental power? Are they capable of conscious thought? Godfrey-Smith treks through some rather testing philosophical and psychological terrain to conclude in the negative. While cephalopods are capable of exceptional complexity in their signalling, the machinery of interpretation is too limited. Humans, perhaps uniquely, have gained the ability to step outside ourselves, to think about our thoughts by means of an unstoppable internal monologue. While cephalopods can produce highly patterned signals, they can’t see their own skins, Godfrey-Smith argues, so he rules out the possibility of any internal monologue.

I wonder why it’s so difficult for us to imagine other animals imagining. If we were to learn that, in this instance, octopi have crossed some cognitive threshold, thereby allowing them to join the ranks of mammals or even of birds, how would we act differently? Or would we, at all?