Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gary Snyder, Zen Poet

American poet Gary Snyder studied oriental languages in the mid ‘50’s at Berkeley, where he hung out with Beat writers such as Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Though he is still often grouped with the Beats of the fifties, he actually missed that movement in American literary history because he moved to Japan in 1956 to study Buddhism and write. He won a Pulitzer in 1975 for his poetry. He said, "I don't want to be known as a Beat poet. I was there and I knew Alan and Jack and the others but they went a different direction. That was not me."

Snyder recently graced the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center with his presence and read some of his classic and recent work. He is now 85 years old, one of the last survivors of the generation that shaped the literary scene in the 50’s and ‘60s. Picture is from – G. Moretti.

His poetry blends a love of nature he acquired growing up in the Pacific Northwest, with the insights of Zen Buddhism. He uses short, simple words, nearly all observational. A metaphor is rare in a Snyder poem. Yet somehow he manages to straddle the impossible gap between particularity and universality. Example: “Earth Verse”: Wide enough to keep you looking / Open enough to keep you moving / dry enough to keep you honest / Prickly enough to make you tough / Green enough to go on living / Old enough to give you dreams. Longer works are equally thoughtful, moving, humorous and insightful.

At the U of A Poetry Workshop I gained a new respect for him and his poems. I had read and long forgotten some of his work in the 1970’s and he is not a poet I would actively seek out today, but this opportunity got me to sit down and direct my attention to his work and I was well pleased. (He said: "I never say that I am a poet. That is really bad. I say I write some poetry. That is OK.) I am impressed at how keenly observed, well-selected observational statements can invoke themes of universal cosmology, with rarely an abstract noun in the text. It makes me appreciate that abstraction is much easier to write than good sensory observation.

Nevertheless, there is a sour note permeating his work. It is what the Zen literature calls “the stink of Zen,” the parading of one’s superior insight under the pretension of humility. It is subtle, for there is no obvious self-aggrandizement in Snyder’s work. Yet there is more going on than mere admiration of nature and observation of life. There is an implicit pretension that the poem is simply direct description of life keenly observed, but I also see the outline of a large ego badly hidden behind the ostensible impersonality of objective description. That conflict of intentions is what I find distracting in his work. It pretends to be egoless description but isn’t, really, and how could it be? No decent literary work can be written without strong conveyance of its writer but Snyder seems to pretend otherwise. This is a minor annoyance that does not negate the real enjoyment that his poetry brings.

His well-known collections include Riprap ( 1959), and Cold Mountain Poems (1965) and Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Native American Art in Santa Fe

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts recently had its grand re-opening in Santa Fe after a six month renovation. What I saw there was real cutting edge visual arts, nothing like the beaded-moccasin-and-turquoise-bracelet type of show I half expected.

Among several excellent exhibits in the beautiful new galleries, two really stood out. Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin had two groups of works, both stunning, in an exhibit called "Oblique Drift." One group was “The Imaginary Indian” series. In these, traditional Tlingit masks are attached to a background of French toile, a wallpaper or curtain pattern showing a repetitive monochromatic drawing of a pastoral scene, such as a group of (white, European) people having a lovely picnic under a tree. In some cases the Indian mask is behind the fabric, smothered by it, visible only in bulging outline. In other examples, the mask is attached to the front of the canvas, but disturbingly, the toile pattern extends over the mask, as if the oblivious picnicking youth in the drawing have infected and spread over the Indian tradition like a fungus (which it did, of course). The effect is very powerful.

Another series from this same artist is called “The Curtis Legacy,” referring to 19th century photographer Edward Curtis who photographed Indians to illustrate the noble savage. Galanin’s pieces are large, almost life-sized color photographs of naked women, many full frontal, bending over backward and literally “in your face” with it, but always covering her own face with a colorful traditional Indian mask; but not even a genuine Tlingit mask, the artist notes on the card. These are manufactured commodity masks from Malaysia, mere tourist souvenirs. (I could find only one cropped sliver of an image from this group on the web, and no photography was allowed in the show). (

The effect of these photographs is a startling and moving objection to the mainstream culture’s objectification of the human body in general, and the Native image in particular, and its desacralizing of Native Americans' own sacred images. The pictures are also a commentary on the globalization of cultures, to the loss of some. While these images are ostensibly humorous and ironic, there is also a great deal of anger in them. I could almost hear in these pictures the artist shouting vulgar, witty epithets to Curtis and the larger white society on the topic of the so-called Noble Savage, curses that would make you cry instead of laugh.

Another artist also showed powerfully evocative works in video, in an exhibit called "Round Up." Torry Mendoza presented a series of a half dozen or so short video works of less than 10 minutes each, in which he confronts, analyzes and excoriates the “The Hollywood Indian,” and the feelings and attitudes that have seeped into the mainstream collective consciousness as a result. In “Kemosabe Version 1.0” he remixes conversational snippets between the Lone Ranger and Tonto (from the television series), against a driving techno beat background. As the catalog says, “He scrutinizes the duo’s relationship by remixing a conversation between the two, revealing a master and servant disposition similar to the disparate relationships assumed by the nation-state with Native nations.”

In “Stupid Fucking White Men” he ridicules Kevin Costner’s wannabe Indian persona in the film, Dances With Wolves, by remixing short clips from Costner’s pseudo-Indian dance around a bonfire. The result is hilarious, but as with Galanin’s work, also deeply, bitterly angry. In Red Man and Savages, Mendoza concatenates short clips from Hollywood films in which white men and women played caricatures of Indian parts, stars such as Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Burt Lancaster, Lee Van Cleef. The stereotypes are patently ridiculous now, but they weren’t then. A couple of the shorts were less impressionistic and more documentary in style, but all aimed to illustrate Hollywood’s history of degrading stereotypes and outright hostility toward Native Americans (think John Wayne in The Searchers). It was a compelling and moving series of short films that I sat through twice.

There were several other exhibitions of outstanding work but these are the ones that captured my imagination most. I was not able to determine if these exhibits are traveling or permanent, and if traveling (most likely) how long they might be expected to remain at the MoCNA. But anyone who has a feeling for contemporary Native Art should pop over to Santa Fe before it is too late. (You can fly direct into Albuquerque and drive to Santa Fe in an hour).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunday on the Mountain

Temperatures in Tucson are over 100 degrees F. for most of June, July, and August, so one hardly needs an excuse to visit Mt. Lemmon in the nearby Catalina Mountains. At 9,000 feet, the weather is a refreshing 75 degrees and the ecology is Ponderosa pine, a nice change from saguaro and prickly pear.

At least it used to be pine forest up there. A terrible fire ripped through the top of the mountain in 2003, destroying much of the ski village of Summerhaven. Homes there now are nearly all new, rebuilt since the fire, and while the ground is still bare, seedlings have been planted and some growth is coming back. It takes about 90 minutes to get there from my end of town, and above 5000 feet you can turn off the air conditioning.

My excuse to visit the reconstructed Summerhaven was a free outdoor music concert on a Sunday afternoon featuring Black Leather Zydeco (see and hear at ). The concert was part of a summertime series put on by Live Acoustic Venue Association (LAVA), a non-profit promoter of live music in Tucson (see / ).

I am crazy about Zydeco and I am sorry it has fallen out of favor so it was nice to hear Black Leather Zydeco, a charming group of old guys who have also obviously fallen out of favor, but are happy to still perform that magic music. Their style is classical, Cajun Zydeco, a genuine folk music from southwestern Louisiana, and that was nice to hear. They sing it in Cajun French patois, which is cool. However I confess I prefer the commercial, “black” Zydeco of the type made popular by artists such as Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco. I know, it is not pure, but that’s what I like.

Still, Black Leather Zydeco did a respectable job on genuine instruments (the concertina and washboard vest, for example) and they were lively enough to get my foot stomping. The bass was way overmiked, the speakers were fuzzed out, and the vocals were, shall we say, lacking in diction. But hey, it was good music and the price was right.

The concert grounds (where a pre-fire building obviously stood once) offered hot dogs, caramel corn, beer and T-shirts but for lunch I walked down the narrow highway past the pizza place, the only traditional restaurant in the “downtown”, to a small metal trailer selling crepes. The place is called “Planet of the Crepes.”

This place is so obscure, it does not even have an address and TripAdvisor has never heard of it so I couldn’t review it there. Needless to say, no phone or web site either. But it looks like enough capital equipment to be permanent for the summer months anyway. It must be hauled somewhere during the winter. But the food is terrific. An attractive young woman working alone fries up a crepe (a very thin pancake) in less than 10 minutes and wraps meat and vegetables into it, serving it in an inverted cardboard cone. You munch down on it from the top. It’s sort of like a tortilla wrap but not really. You sit on a picnic table stacked with old issues of the Economist magazine while you wait. (I got the sense that the proprietor probably has an advanced college degree).

What makes these crepes worth having is the creative and tasty ingredients. I had one wrapped around tomato, raw spinach, goat cheese, mushrooms and basil pesto. It was fantastic, and a lot of fresh food for $5.50. My wife had a more breakfasty bacon and egg number, but we were both tempted by the special, the “Figtastic” for $7, made of brown butter figs with sage, prosciutto, and brie.

Other offerings include a breast of smoked duck with havarti and arugula. There is a “sweet” crepe column for those wanting more of a dessert thing, for example one with fresh strawberries, Nutella, milk chocolate, and whipped cream. I think it is worth a trip to the top of Mt. Lemmon just to get one of these crepes, even if there is no free concert! (Although I don’t know if she is there every day, or only when there is a concert. Next time I will ask.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Juneteenth at Arcosanti

June 19 celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves, specifically, the slaves in Galveston, Texas, whose owners “did not get the memo” until 1865, two full years after Lincoln’s proclamation (and at the end of the Civil War). But finally all the slaves were free in the U.S., on a date somewhere around June 19th, now known as Juneteenth.

The twelfth annual Juneteenth “Celebration of Freedom” was held at Arcosanti, a large property held by a private foundation near Prescott, AZ. I checked out the festival and had a pretty good time.

Arcosanti is the name of a 4,000 acre desert preserve on which Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri built, in the 1970’s, a few concrete buildings to illustrate his vision of urban living for the future. This is somewhat ironic since the buildings are in the middle of absolutely nowhere, hardly urban. But there are some living quarters there and the plan is to someday be able to house 5,000 people in a model community. The principles of the project include an emphasis on self-sufficiency, reliance on solar power, recycling of resources, and in general “good vibes.”

Apparently a few dozen volunteers and architecture students do live there and there are a few accommodations for guests. See .

As for a vision of an urban future, I remain skeptical. Soleri was clearly fond of poured concrete and the buildings, while not exactly like military bunkers, are far from aesthetic. And the whole place is in serious disrepair, so the unpainted concrete structures are pocked and cracked, chipped and patched, discolored by weather; and painted surfaces are faded, cracked, and stained by leaching. Some new construction was evident, even if maintenance was not. The living quarters I glimpsed could only be described as squalor, but then I guess it is basically a neo-hippie commune right now, so maybe the place is not at its best. They have a foundry there where they manufacture bronze windchime bells that are apparently widely appreciated. Sales of those (in the $100’s and the multi-$1000’s each), support much of the operations. The bells do sound beautiful, complex, beautifully resonant and are as well-tuned as they are well-priced. There is also a ceramics center where they make clay chimes for those of us not willing to spring for the bronze. I saw one greenhouse, surely not enough to feed even the volunteers, although the “vision” posters and architectural models show a community rife with acres of greenhouses and people living like bees in a hive.

I took the guided tour, or half of it anyway, and observed an extremely strong sense of founder-worship that was cultish, information-free, and so off-putting, I slipped away. It is possible to be respectful of a founder without being reverent. A little background research on Soleri reveals that he is a serious architect and urban planner (still alive, I believe, although he would be in his 90’s) who would be appalled at such worship.

The setting out in the desert is stunningly beautiful. I stayed in one of the guest rooms, which was a 10 x 14 box made of concrete on five sides, and glass on the sixth. It was austere, to say the least, with no heat or air conditioning, no TV, no telephone, but electricity, clean towels and running water and a tiny bathroom where you could actually take a shower while sitting on the toilet. Still, the room was quiet and reasonably comfortable, and it was wonderful to be awakened at dawn by the sun lighting up the basalt cliffs across the dry river bed.

The Juneteenth celebration was enjoyable. Apparently it is organized and run by Milton Canon, a saxophonist and president of the Prescott Jazz society, with help from his son, the Rev. Michael, and his lovely wife, who poured at the wine and cheese reception. There was no printed schedule of events so it was always a mystery what was going on at any time, but I did enjoy several good acts in the concrete amphitheater. The featured group was Henry Turner Jr. and Flavor, a sort of Blues-Funk-Reggae dance band. ( free mp3 samples at .

Turner rapped about music, black history, and the meaning of Juneteenth, and played lead acoustic guitar. He knows how to lay down a hypnotic groove, although I should say that inhaling some of the second-hand smoke in the air probably enhanced my appreciation. The stage was flanked by large black and white portraits of Robert F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. These were never mentioned or explained, perhaps because the meanings were self-evident. The crowd was disappointingly sparse, maybe half black and half white, but only a hundred or so total. Around the outside of the concrete steps on the top level were booths selling everything from kettle corn and “cowboy dogs” to masks, dashikis and “ethnic” crafts. The whole vibe was very friendly and I was surprised the place was not jammed with people.

Around 8 pm there was a dance under the Arcosanti (concrete) arches. Turner and his group kept continuous hypnotic dance grooves going for hours, including some memorable original reggae tunes, such as “Rastaman in the White House.” Lots of people danced while children ran and played among the forest of legs, eating popcorn and generally having a good time, as I did.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Church of Beethoven

I went to church last Sunday for the first time in fifty years. I was tempted by the Church of Beethoven, in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Slogan: “Church minus the religion!”).

Founded in 2007 by cellist Felix Wurman, the idea of the church is to “celebrate the ecstasy of music” in a church where “music is the principle element, not an afterthought.” “Wurman recruited musicians from the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, and they began playing Sunday concerts in an abandoned gas station off old Route 66. Wurman called the Sunday concerts the Church of Beethoven. Wurman said he founded the church to help people "find spirituality through culture. “ (Wikipedia). Wurman died of cancer in 2009.

The Sunday “services” are currently held in an abandoned warehouse and loading dock in downtown Albuquerque (1715 5th St., NW) and start at 10:30 am, for one hour. I was fortunate to catch a Schubert piece, “Rondo in A major for solo violin and strings.” A standard string quartet was supplemented with a bass (which simply doubled the cello part) plus of course the soloist, in this case, David Felberg, violinist with the New Mexico Symphony and also co-director of the Church since Wurman’s death. It was a lovely, rousing piece with lots of delightful folk elements, which Felberg played entirely from memory. The rest of crew kept a close eye on him and did manage to keep up.
(Felix Wurman)

There were perhaps 150 people there, mostly aged over 40 (perhaps because there is a $15 admission charge). You can get one cup of espresso coffee free and attendees bring home made cookies and other nibbles. It is a very warm, friendly crowd. The other side of the warehouse (which I snuck into) is divided into stalls which are apparently rented out as artist studios and there is a small art gallery as well. The entrance to the warehouse has quirky artistic sculptures around it which warns you that you are entering a light, playful zone.

After the Schubert, poet Richard Vargas read a new composition, which I think was titled “Shenandoah.” Vargas is at the forefront of contemporary Latino poetry and has published several books of verse. See for a sample of his work. I thought the poem he read, about immigrants from the south, was musical, rhythmic, and extremely heartfelt, but it did not achieve much separation of tone and mood, so the overall effect was something like a jeremiad. Still, the content was edgy and it was courageous to present it to an all-white, middle class, middle-aged audience. It was quite well received by the crowd.

After the poetry reading there were two minutes of silence. Then the duo of Stephanie Bettman (voice and fiddle) and Luke Halpin (voice, guitar and mandolin) played a selection of traditional tunes and their own compositions. The duo bills itself as a “bluegrass duo” and while their instruments and style of playing have a bluegrassy sound, their compositions do not. Instead I would characterize the performance as sappy, sentimental, brain-dead folk music, which was a real disappointment because it is obvious that these players have considerable talent. (Check However, maybe they knew their audience much better than I, for their performance was warmly appreciated.

I forgot to mention that there was also a video artist there, someone who was not on the program, who projected some very creative video shorts onto a sheet while the crowd was gathering before the start of the morning’s performance. He was introduced and said a few words about how the video images were triggered or paced in some way to the sounds of the crowd noises. Too bad he was not better documented for the audience, and remains anonymous.

Overall, this was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday morning. The Church of Beethoven is unique as far as I know, but I don’t see why it should be. If every city had a similar organization, the country would be a better place. (See

Friday, April 30, 2010

Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour

Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour

The University of Arizona presents an arts program each year consisting of classical music, jazz, ballet, and other fine arts. This April, they brought to town a group called The Monterey Jazz Festival, featuring Regina Carter, Kenny Barron, Russell Malone, and Kurt Elling.

Each year since 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival is a three day festival, with educational clinics and workshops, performances of course, food, celebration, and all the rest. (This year’s festival is September 17-19 and will feature Dianne Reeves). Then festival performers go “on the road” to bring high quality jazz performances to the rest of the country. It is not clear how these performers are selected each year, but right now it is the group described above.

I attended this performance because of Regina Carter, who I think is the best jazz violinist in the world right now. It was a thrill to see and hear her perform. The only CD she was selling that night was “I’ll be seeing you: A sentimental journey (2006),” not her latest one, “Reverse thread” (2010). The sentimental journey disc is dreadful, full of popular tunes from the 30’s and ‘40s. She adds her unique pizzazz to them, but the disc is obviously designed for a general audience and is not any kind of adventure. I bought it anyway, just so I could say hello to her after the show while getting her autograph, and tell her how much I admired her work. She is a quiet, gentle, and modest person, younger than I thought. And she has a beautiful face. When I raved on about her 2001 CD, Freefall, she said only (“I’m always grateful to work with Kenny”).

Anyway, that CD signing ritual thing is cruelty to performers but I guess it is part of the job. I’m sure they are not capable of hearing anything said to them after their exhausting performance. Malone was actually yawning with fatigue. I complimented him anyway on his performance and told him I enjoyed his disc with Benny Green (Jazz at the Bistro). Barron, who must be at least in his mid-70’s, did not show up for the signing. Bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Drummer Johnathan Blake were also absent. I shook hands with Kurt Elling and left.

The playlist was tame, unfortunately. Tucson has a lot of retirees. I was one of the youngest people in the concert hall. So the group apparently geared the performance so as not to frighten anyone. That was a disappointment. Also, there is not a lot of money in Tucson. With tickets running $30 to $75, there were not too many young people. I estimated an audience of about 1000, so the concert was a success. It’s pretty amazing that many people turned out on a Tuesday night in a place that must seem like the absolute ends of the Earth for these performers. Tucson, AZ? I venture to guess their show is entirely different in San Francisco or New York. I had a cheap seat way back in row FF, but with a pair of Bausch & Lomb binoculars I felt like I was in the front row. Acoustics in the old, restored Centennial Hall are not excellent but quite adequate.

The group opened with a lively piece by McCoy Tyner that featured scat singing by vocalist Elling. Then Carter soloed on a selection originally performed by Stuff Smith, and amazingly, she made it sound exactly like Stuff Smith was playing. That was cool. Barron did a featured piece called New York Attitude, followed by Malone with an emotional ballad from the film, “an Affair to Remember.” Elling sang Horace Silver’s humorous number, “Soul Food.” I admit I am not a huge fan of jazz vocals. I love Johnny Hart and Mel Torme, and a few others of that caliber, but in general, I find that the singer’s ego gets in the way of the music and spoils it for me. Elling is a huge star, but I did not immediately take to his style or to his very limited vocal range. I realize scat singing is hard to do, but I can only take it for about a minute or two then it becomes boring. I thought Elling did more shouting than singing. Also, he doesn’t move well, so his performance seems stiff. The audience seemed to appreciate him quite well, so I guess he just does not appeal to my taste.

Kenny Barron played his own composition, “Calypso” which had good Caribbean rhythms and even sounded like steel drums in places, but the highlight was a wonderful drum solo by Blake. While he was very fast and flashy with the sticks, it was his feet that made the solo great. He kept a hypnotic dance rhythm going underneath the brilliant work on top. It was very Caribbean, very driving, and yet complex, and I thought I could be dancing around a bonfire on the beach and by the end of it I was disoriented. It was a pretty spectacular drum solo. There were plenty of other interesting offerings, including a Monk tune (which I can hum, but cannot name right now) that devolved into scat singing. Regina and Kenny played a soul-stirring duet of Georgia on My Mind, in which she demonstrated again why she is the master of her craft. Astonishingly, the tune somehow morphed into Amazing Grace by the end. There was also a very uptempo rendition of Nature Boy, which involved pizzicato on the violin, a drum solo, and lyrics by Elling.

In all, it was an enjoyable concert, but slightly disappointing. Compared to her work on the “Freefall” album, Regina was sedated. The whole group seemed tired or somehow just not into it as much as they could have been. So the concert was a crowd-pleaser, but what do you expect for Tucson, AZ? I’m just grateful they were here at all.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Toward a Science of Consciousness

Toward a Science of Consciousness
April 12-17 Tucson, AZ

The Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona held its ninth biennial conference in the Tucson Convention Center, as it does every even numbered year. In the odd years, the conference is held overseas. The 2011 conference will be in Tel-Aviv. According to the catalog, “The Tucson conferences are the major world gatherings on a broad spectrum of approaches to the fundamental question of how the brain produces conscious experience, a question which addresses who we are, the nature of reality and our place in the universe. An estimated 700 scientists, philosophers, psychologists, experientialists, artists and others from 43 countries on 6 continents … participate[d] in 400 presentations…”

This is the fourth or fifth one I have attended since the series began in 1994. It was not as well attended as some previous ones, possibly because of the worldwide recession, but it was still deeply fascinating. These are among the most profound questions human beings face. I presented a paper at this one, “Avoiding the Perceptual Model of Introspection,” available online at (scroll down 10% or so to find it). It seemed well-received and the Q&A session after was lively. My point was (is) that introspection is not a passive inspection of mental contents but necessarily involves active conceptualization, which is itself subject to the biases of language and culture. It is a tiny contribution, I hope, on the road to development of a full “scientific” method of introspection that would allow us to examine the mind directly in a way that could produce broad consensus.

The conference opened with three interesting talks about William James, founder of experimental psychology in America with his laboratory at Harvard in 1875. His writings are much admired even today by virtually all scholars working in the field of consciousness studies. Eugene Taylor talked about James’ “Radical Empiricism,” the idea that no aspect of human experience should be excluded from scientific study, and that includes consciousness. That was a radical idea then, and it still is today, because consciousness, whatever it is, is not physical, and therefore not amenable to the scientific method. A hundred and twenty five years ago, the scientific method was not as well-defined as it is today and James could get away with such a proposal. Today, the best we can hope for is to study of the brain, and from that, make unverifiable inferences about the mind. Taylor recognized this dilemma, but seemed resigned to it, as there is little appetite in the scientific community for reform of the method.

Bernard Baars, a well-known member of the inner circle at TSC (he teaches the WebCourse on Consciousness for the Center (see ), gave a talk blaming James for behaviorism. The reasoning is that James “glorified” the mind-body problem, according to Baars, and argued for the reality of mind in that dichotomy. By focusing on on that dichotomy, James gave the behaviorists an opportunity to declare material monism and end the confusion. Compounding his sins, James also put a great deal of emphasis on the problem of reconciling religion and science. Again, the behaviorists ended that dilemma in a stroke by declaring religious questions unscientific. That is an oversimplified history of psychology, although not entirely wrong. Baars himself favors a materialist, neurologically based explanation of consciousness, so it is understandable that he would present history this way.

After the opening plenary speeches, there are multiple, smaller break-out groups run in parallel on such topics as neurobiology and consciousness, the nature of representation, unconscious processes, artificial intelligence, perception and art, altered states of consciousness, and so on. There are about five speakers at each of these mini-conferences, and if one is fleet of foot and lucky with the timing, it is possible to dash among the conference rooms to catch the most interesting talks within several groups, but it is always frustrating that choices must be made. In the evening of the opening day there was a reception in the Hotel Arizona (a very dreary place that used to be a Holiday Inn until it became too run down even for that company). Tucson is sorely lacking in decent hotels to support the convention center.

There was an interesting plenary talk by Marcus Raichle, one of the “discoverers” of so-called Brain Dark Energy. I use ironic quotes because I am not convinced that anything significant actually has been discovered there. Raichle and others have documented the well known fact that the brain is always active, even when the mind is at rest, even during sleep. This fact was noted in 1929 by the inventor of the electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, that measures “brain waves”. What Raichle and others have done is map the intensity and extent of this background brain activity and correlate some aspects of it to other, better known brain functions. He has also indulged in wild speculation about what the background noise might be “for.” (And of course, he had the good fortune to be the first one to call it “Dark Energy.” Woo-woo!). You can get a quick summary of his work in the March, 2010 issue of Scientific American. I think it is interesting stuff, but grossly overinterpreted.

The afternoon and evening were again absorbed by the dozens of concurrent sessions on topics such as Introspection (in which I read my paper), panpsychism (the idea that everything in the world is conscious), phenomenology, dreaming, quantum physics (which some people think is related to consciousness), and spiritual and religious approaches. Alas, when one is giving a paper at one of these concurrent sessions, it is impolite to leave for a different session, so I was obliged to attend exclusively to matters of introspection.

The evening poster sessions were not as numerous as in past conferences, but there were several dozen. I didn’t see a whole lot that was new and exciting there. A lot of the familiar old arguments were re-hashed with some new twist: Can computers think? Are philosophical zombies really conceivable? Is a science of consciousness even possible? The Neural basis of decision-making, What are feelings? What is Shamanism? Each author is supposed to be standing by his or her poster to engage in discussion of it, although many were not. A lot of the posters were little more than the pages of a typed paper tacked to the board – too much to read on a fly-by. Apparently, many people have difficulty summarizing their work. Despite its extreme unevenness, the poster session is usually where one can get a glimpse of the hot new ideas of tomorrow, and a sense of what the young researchers are thinking.

On Thursday, David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher, former director of the Tucson Center for Consciousness studies, and well-loved consciousness rock-star, gave a rare paper of his own on “the Singularity.” This hare-brained idea taken from science fiction, supposes that as soon as we have computers (robots) with intelligence equal to that of humans (right around the corner according to some people), then those robots will be able to build other robots with even greater intelligence. Extrapolate that line of thinking and you see a curve of exponentially increasing robotic intelligence, until at some point a super-intelligence is reached and human beings become irrelevant. Chalmers suggests therefore, that we should program into our artificial intelligence systems basic human values, including a high value on human life. Or even better, as soon as we have a complete map of the brain, we should “upload” a copy of a person’s mind to one of these supercomputers, so we could be part of the superintelligence revolution and not be left behind. But, Chalmers cautions, there are problems. Would the uploaded consciousness be the same person as the biological person it was taken from? Or would it be two persons (Bio-Dave and Digi-Dave)? How could it be the same person, if there are two distinct copies of the consciousness? Additional philosophical perplexities of that nature were brought forth and considered.

The talk was delivered mostly with a straight face, but it is hard for me to believe that Chalmers took it very seriously. I think he was just trying to liven up the discussion. If he was serious, I am surprised, shocked, really, at his naivety. I choose to believe he was pulling our collective leg.

On Friday was one of the most interesting talks of the entire conference. A Buddhist monk, Za Choeje Rinpoche, spoke. In 1984 the Dalai Lama named him the sixth reincarnation of ZaChoeje Rinpoche, one of the highest Buddhist Lamas of Eastern Tibet. At the age of 16, Rinpoche entered a Tibetan monastery for 10 years of studies. He came to the U.S. 1998 to lead the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour. Afterwards, he lectured on Tibetan culture and philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta. He told his tale with self-deprecating humor. He said that as an ordinary 16-year old boy in southern India, he was completely surprised to be identified as the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint. “If I was the reincarnation,” he asked, “how come I didn’t know about it?” It took him several years to “become the person everybody said I was.” He talked about Buddhism and becoming enlightened, which he described as “ceasing to struggle against the struggles of life.” (Which is not the same as ceasing to struggle). When someone asked him what was the nature of enlightenment, he referred to the big screen, on which every other speaker had shown a PowerPoint. But the screen was completely blank. The crowd was delighted. He did say that when you finally burrow down to the bottom human experience, what you find is laughter. And then he giggled. After his talk, which was enthusiastically received by the audience, he was swamped with additional questioners. It was impossible to get to him. I would have liked to ask him two questions: 1. What is mental illness? And 2. When you were in that monastery all those years, learning all the Buddhist prayers, to what or whom were you praying?

A Buddhist Lama is a hard act to follow but Neurophysiologists Antonio Damasio gave a nice presentation on “the Neural Self” accompanied by interesting slides. As he has already done in his numerous bestselling books, he defined several levels of self, including a “protoself” that constitutes one's feeling of existing and living, and arises from the processes in the brainstem that regulate the automatic life functions, such as breathing. Beyond that there is a “core self,” a secondary self that rises to consciousness whenever the primary protoself is modified. A tertiary self is the autobiographical self based on large scale integration of memories and experience.

There was nothing new, as all this has been covered in his books, but it was nice to have it all spelled out in one summary talk. I don’t buy the theory myself, because it presupposes identity of mind and brain, which I find unintelligible, and at the same time presupposes mind-body dualism. Damasio says such things as “The brainstem delivers conscious experience.” What? I defy him to cut open a brainstem and point out the “consciousness” there. The brain is very complicated, but it is just a piece of meat. It does not have “consciousness” lurking within it. And again, the brainstem delivers consciousness? To what or whom does it deliver, we must wonder. The little man in the head, or homunculus, no doubt. I grant that it is nearly impossible to talk about the mind-body problem without getting tangled up in such linguistic absurdities, but I expected better from a world-famous scientist giving a talk with this title.

There were many more plenary talks, and dozens more concurrent sessions and dozens of new posters in the second poster session. There were also after-hours presentations of “Art and Media” where one could marvel, for example at beautiful, colorful magnifications of biological processes captured on film.

After hours on Friday night there was everybody’s favorite, the Consciousness Poetry Slam and the Zombie Blues. At the poetry slam, volunteer conference-attendees read or otherwise perform an original poem on a consciousness related theme. There is quite a diversity, as you can imagine. The hit piece this year was surely one by a young man (didn’t get the name) who played a decent electronic keyboard and sang original lyrics to the Beatles’ tune, “Hey Jude.” Only in this case, it was “Hey Stu,” referring to Stuart Hameroff, the conference director. It didn’t take long before the whole auditorium was screaming, Na, Na, Na, Na-na-na Na, Hey Stu.

Following the poems, attendees can offer one or more verses of the Zombie Blues (which I think was originally written by Dave Chalmers), to a very forgiving band that is expert at helping non-experts sing their lines. Chalmers
always starts it off singing the original lyrics: “I act like you act, I do what you do, But I don’t know what it’s like to be you. What consciousness is, I ain’t got a clue, I got the Zombie blues.” While not as rich and varied this time as in past conferences, the zombie blues session is still a highlight.

There were too many other fascinating speeches and papers read to be summarized here, but I filled up half a notebook with ideas to follow up on, so that in itself makes the whole thing worth the exhausting effort. I’ll be back next time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rethinking Andy Warhol

I recently saw an exhibition of Andy Warhol prints at the Tucson Museum of Art ( that runs through July 3, 2010. Warhol prints are vastly overexposed in popular culture, so even though I have admired the Marilyns and the Elvises and the Campbell’s Soup before, I had low expectations. But I guess I was not as familiar with his work as I thought, and the diversity of work in this exhibit gave me a new respect for the artist.

No photography was allowed so I can barely remember what I saw. Most, or maybe all of the works were from the Bank of America Collection, one of the largest corporate collections in the world. All ten of the Campbell’s soups were there, and I think one Marilyn.

Somehow I had never been aware of the wildflowers, a set of about a dozen prints of four wildflowers at macro range. The color combinations were an essay in human consciousness. It was impossible to pick a favorite.

Then there was a series of prints of Muhammed Ali that I had never seen. They were thoughtful and intimate. There was an odd group of prints that seemed to be a riff on the work of Keith Haring, on the theme of commercial art and the commercialization of society. I didn’t quite get that bunch.

A set of ten large prints called “Endangered Species” was a knockout. Photographs of the ten chosen animals were enhanced with line drawing and color, color, color. Again it was the colors that knocked me out. The representations of the animals are standard and not that interesting, but the color enhancements were the star. Unlike someone like J.M.W. Turner, also a colorist, Warhol doesn’t just show color for the sake of color, he articulates it in contrasts and complements. I just don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain what he was doing, but the result is stunning.

There was also a series of images about well-known cultural icons, such as Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Santa Clause. These, I felt, were not only exercises in composition and color, but also carried sociological and political meaning. For example, Mickey Mouse had a glitter background. Superman had a comic-book, line-drawing shadow, and Aunt Jemima was imaginatively done in black on black. This was my favorite series of the show.

There was a biographical video showing which was worthwhile in setting the personal and historical context for Warhol’s work.

Warhol was prolific, and this collection represents only a tiny fraction of his print output, but even so it is diverse enough to give an entirely new perspective.