Sesame Street’s Missed Opportunity

“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

–Junot Diaz

In her careful, compassionate critique of Sesame Street‘s new attempts to represent autistic kids on the show, Erin Human, quotes Junot Diaz, from a speech he gave to New Jersey students. Diaz sees his job as a novelist as “making mirrors” for people who aren’t represented much in mainstream culture.

That is what Sesame Street is trying to do with autistic kids. In “Not in Love with Julia,” Erin Human has spent a lot of time with the show’s various materials and she’s evaluated them, thinking about whether she’d want her own kids to see them. Sesame Street has created an autistic character, Julia. She’s intended to be a positive representation, to help kids understand neurological difference. But Julia isn’t a full-fledged muppet. She only appears in animated sequences. She doesn’t speak for herself, and the narratives she’s involved in are all aimed at educating so-called neurotypical kids. They don’t really speak to autistic kids on their terms.

I want to share Human’s article about Sesame Street, because she’s a master rhetorician. She offers a serious critique without attacking anybody. She’s a model of civil discourse, and we need more of that in the world. I also want to share it because autistic people’s lives will be improved if our cultures produce mirrors like the ones Diaz describes. The same goes for people who embody all kinds of difference, neurological or otherwise.

Because Human–whose name is amazing!–is such a compassionate critic, she ends with a sort of rallying cry:

This website is not good. There’s too much that’s bad tipping the scales toward ableism and stigma. I hope Sesame Street listens. I think they can still fix this. Go back to the drawing board (literally and figuratively) with Julia, scrap everything else. Yep, scrap it. You made an autistic muppet, awesome. I love that she does happy flapping and loves to sing. Make her a real muppet. Make her part of the Sesame Street family. Let her talk instead of just talking about her. Let autistic kids see their reflection in her and feel that they are real people too, not monsters. Let them tell their own stories. Sesame Street has always known how to let kids be kids and they can do it again, and they can start now.

It would be amazing if the people who make Sesame Street hear Human’s message. They have a chance to do a better job. I would love to see them rise to the occasion.

Joseph LeDoux: On the Radio

9780670015337In my other life as a DJ, I had the pleasure of spending two hours on the air with Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist and frontman for the band The Amygdaloids. My show is The Mixtape, on 90.5 FM WJFF in Jeffersonville, New York. Usually, it’s a music show, but last week it was a combination of music and interview. In his new book,  Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Anxiety, LeDoux argues that we need to understand consciousness if we’re going to understand fear and anxiety. Along with the book, LeDoux’s band The Amygdaloids released a CD also entitled Anxious.  During the show, we play several tracks from the CD and music about anxiety and fear from the pop music archive. We also discuss the biology of emotion, the “hard problem” of consciousness, and therapeutic treatments for anxiety (among other topics). You can listen below.

Caitlin Kuhwald: Jane Eyre’s Watercolors


Caitlin Kuhwald, “Iceberg.” Watercolor. 2014.

 The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon.  Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it.  Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible.  Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge.  This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre


Jane Eyre fans, get ready. Illustrator and watercolorist Caitlyn Kuhwald is revivifying Jane’s art. Jane Eyre spends a lot of time daydreaming worlds even more menacing than the ones she lives in. A prolific artist throughout the novel, she documents some of these daydreams in watercolor. Of course, drawing and painting would have been essential skills for a Victorian governess, who needed the “accomplishments” of the ruling classes in order to instruct her pupils in them–music, art, a breadth of reading from the classics to the contemporary. Ekphrasis–the literary depiction of a work of art–has a long history, including Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad, the frescoes in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the Grecian urn in Keats, the masterpiece in Zola, Dorian Gray’s portrait in Wilde, Icarus falling in Auden, The Goldfinch in Donna Tartt. Like these, Jane Eyre’s drawings are central to plot: Through them, Rochester learns that he has not hired a run-of-the-mill governess, setting in motion is compulsion to seduce her.

The terror of Jane’s watercolors strays pretty far from the routine landscapes or portraits of your ordinary governess. Like an heir to William Blake and a foremother to the surrealists, Jane Eyre is preoccupied with mystical landscapes and morbid bodies. Kuhwald’s recreations tell the story. I’ve included two finished pieces, “Evening Star” and “Iceberg”–as well exploratory illustrations for “Corpse,” a work in progress–along with Brontë’s descriptions of the watercolors from the novel. This is an ongoing project for Kuhwald, who is also considering illustrating some of the dreams and fantasies Jane doesn’t draw in the novel.


Caitlin Kuhwald, “Evening Star.” Watercolor. 2015.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze.  Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine.  The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail.  On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre



Caitlin Kuhwald. Sketch for “Corpse.” Ink on paper. 2015.

The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land.  One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart.  Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Caitlyn Kuhwald is known for her use of bright color, the precision of her detail, and her ability to re-envision the aesthetics of other eras. She’s an artist whose visual voice is ideal for the job of giving visual form to the terror and beauty of Jane Eyre’s artistic vision. 


The McGill Pain Index (and Its Metaphors)

If you’re in a lot of pain, you’re likely to visit a doctor who will ask you to complete a questionnaire based on the McGill Pain Index, which gets its name from the venerable Canadian University where it was developed. Pain is subjective, and the index is designed to generate something like objective statistics about our collective experience of physical pain.

I can’t help thinking the project is hopeless. How can people know how to rate pain on a scale of 1 to 10? In relation to what? The history of our own pain? The pain of others? The most severe pain I ever experienced was when I was in middle school. I’d sprayed my hair lavender to go to school as a punk rocker on Halloween. I guess I sprayed too many fumes up my nose and ended up in the nurse’s office barfing with a migraine (the only one I’ve experienced). I guess I’d rate that pain a 9. It probably saved me from getting my ass kicked that day, which saved me from physical pain that probably would have rated only a 5 or 6. (And plenty of unrateable humiliation.)

But the McGill Pain Index doesn’t just rate pain. It categorizes it. Pain can flicker, jump, drill, stab, cut, rasp, burn, or shoot.


Nearly every category of pain on the index is a metaphor. Pain is a knife, it’s a hammer, a fire, a drill, a gun, a piece of sandpaper. Virginia Woolf complained that “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” The McGill Pain Index was launched in 1971, 30 years after Woolf’s death. I wonder if she would have appreciated it.

In her book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry remarks that “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” We can’t share pain. It reminds us that we’re alone with our pesky subjective experiences. Based on this, Scarry observes that another person’s pain is always doubtful. We can’t share it, so we can’t believe it, not viscerally. Our own pain, she writes, is “a certainty.” We know it. It dominates us.

But we can share pain, through metaphors. This makes me wonder: Has the McGill Index unwittingly turned the clinical experience of diagnosing pain into an aesthetic exercise?

In the words of Emily Dickinson,

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Pain is an obliterating certainty. It dominates consciousness. It suspends time. It sees itself everywhere. But when we atomize it, with the McGill metaphors, we fill in the blanks and interrupt the infinity. That’s what aesthetic experience does: It hijacks consciousness with experience created through engagement with an artist’s tools for simulating experience in paint or words or video.

I don’t remember if the school nurse talked the fake punk rocker in her office that day through the McGill questionnaire, but from memory I’d call that pain icy. The projectile vomit, on the other hand, was rasping.

My Body Remembers

I pause when I reach the porch. Stanley sees me. My current step-dad is prone on the couch, hairy in boxer shorts. The light from the TV blinks on his face and chest. His mouth is moving, like he’s talking to the screen. I open the door and walk in, looking straight ahead at my room. He stinks, of course, like musty sweat and alcohol. If I can walk past without provoking him, maybe we can skip what I know is about to happen.

“Hey kid, where ya been?” Walk.

“No hello for your old man. Would Mommy like that? Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” she mimicks my high kid’s voice. “Fuckin’ momma’s boy.”

“I’m here,” I mutter.

“What was that? Huh? Whatever. You missed the fuckin’ game.”

“I hate football.” He knows that. of course.

“I hate football,” He mimicks. “Fuckin’ wuss. Go play with your Barbies.” He’s up, hairy and staggering toward me, red and grinning. “Commeer. Commeeer. You scared? I just want to talk to you.” He picks me up. My body is stringy and uncoordinated. He shakes it. I start to cry.

“Whatsamatter, kid? I didn’t do shit. Toughen up. Learn how to fight. Fight me. Fuck.”

“I hate you,” I say. He drops me. I try to stop my heaves. I rub my face on the floor to dry the tears. I struggle to compose my face. I can’t stand that contorted crying face.

“Look, you goddamn sissy ass faggot. You want a fight? I got the belt. Look.” He’s grinning but yelling too. Fun and fury are all mixed up in Stanley. “Nobody ever teaches you a lesson. Your old man’s a fuckin’ loser. He’s not around to teach you anything. That’s your problem. I’ll teach you.” I feel his foot nudging me, like I’m a dead animal he wants to turn over. I freeze. If I remain still, it will eventually end. I know this from experience.

Stanley didn’t beat me up all the time. He mocked me constantly. He played a game that involved swinging me around in the air, against my will, while I cried for him to stop.

I don’t know how accurate the memories are. Time gelled them. Writing warped them. But my body remembers–something. I’ve had enough therapy to make emotional and intellectual peace with Stanley’s abuse. I even confronted him in an oblique way, at my Nanny’s funeral. There was slight satisfaction in that.

It wasn’t until I was about forty that I realized my body is almost always on constant alert. If somebody cutting my hair nudges my head, it’s an effort not to resist. If a masseur or doctor tries to move my limbs or torso, I have to make a conscious effort to move my body the way I think it’s supposed to go. I often get it wrong. I can tell this perplexes people. A couple of years ago, a man much larger than me confronted me in a physical way that swept my body right back into those rooms with Stanley. When I see this man, it’s like that frozen and contorted kid emerges from my cells and occupies my muscles and nerves. Bones too. The alert also means I’m pretty good at navigating traffic on a bike and at catching falling glasses before they break.

I decided to write this today because my body’s memory fascinates me but also because I’m a little tired of it. My best guess is that my body learned to freeze, like a threatened rabbit, and held the pose at the ready. Just in case. Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s some kind of physical practice that might loosen the fear out of my muscles.

I’m fine. I love my life. I’m not looking for condolences or sympathy. But if you have ideas about the relationship between childhood physical abuse and body memory, I’d love to hear about them.

Adapted from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland, Donadio & Olson).

Breaking: Telepathic Passionflowers Are Felt to Undergo Suffering



e. PASSIVE [_]
f. OTHER [x] *


Imagine a series of over-layering discs. To unlock the axis of the blossom, you need to know which numbers to dial. You need to know how to rotate each disc. Otherwise the passionflower will never share its secret with you.

Not everyone can unlock the blossom of a passionflower.  It takes practice. It takes apocalypse. It takes a certain genius.

Passionflowers are mauve and blue. Sometimes they’re orange. Sometimes they’re red – as red as blood; as red as a 911 emergency phone call.

I myself have never seen a passionflower. Not with my own eyes. Not in this lifetime. Or so I’ve been told.


MD1: “The transcranial magnetic sessions are clearly helping.”

Professional hair cutter: “When was the last time you got a haircut?”

MD2: “I would urge you to stop the transcranial electromagnetic sessions. They seem to be making you worse.”

MD3: “You are on too many medications.”

Radio in hair salon: “I feel stupid. And contagious. Here we are now. Entertain us.”

MD2: “Maybe you’re on the wrong combination of meds. Have you considered changing them?”

Friend: “You seem to be functioning pretty well.”

MD1: “Who told you that?”

Radio in salon: “I’m worse at what I do best. And for this gift I feel blessed.”

MD3: “I’m surprised you haven’t yet died from an interaction of these medications. No wonder you’ve been vomiting.”

Self: “I always cut my own hair. Well, except for today.”

MD1: “Another alternative would be hospitalization.”

Friend: “Since when have you been vomiting?”

MD2: “It could be due to another condition altogether. Maybe you should take a medical leave. Get thoroughly checked out.”

Radio: “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous!”

MD3: “Do you consume gluten and sugar? If so, you should remove them from your diet.”

Professional hair cutter: “When was the last time you got a *real* hair cut?”

MD1: “ECT is also extremely effective.”

Acquaintance: “If you were reincarnated, what would you want to be next?”

Self: “I don’t remember… Maybe a decade ago.”

MD3: “I encourage you to overcome your fear of acupuncture needles.”

Self: “You don’t understand. I can’t take a leave. It is impossible. I need this job.”

Radio: “Hello, hello, hello, how low. Hello, hello, hello, hollow.”

MD2: “Have you tried Latuda? Studies have shown that it can do wonders for bipolar patients.”

Professional hair cutter (while shampooing my hair vigorously): “Ohhhh… So, an accident?”

MD1: “At least finish this round of treatments.”

RN (in a soft voice while taking my blood pressure): “Personally I think you should try medical marijuana.”

Acquaintance: “A leaf? Why would you want to be a leaf? No one wants to be reincarnated as a leaf.”

Hypnagogic voice: “…passionflower tea will soothe your nervous system naturally passionflower tea will soothe your nervous system naturally passionflower tea will… ”
Self: “Accident? I don’t understand. What accident.”

MD3: “I’m looking at your chart and these meds are toxic.”

Professional hair cutter (while rinsing my hair): “Yes, brain damage?”

MD2: “These meds are keeping you alive.”

Radio: “And I forget just why I taste. Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile. I found it hard, hard to find. Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

Acquaintance: “Why not aspire to be a beam of light in your next life?”

Self (confused by the towel in which my hair is tightly wrapped): “What are you talking about? And what is this thing on my head? How do I turn it off? Why does my head hurt?”

Friend: “Wait. You spend how long writing each letter of recommendation? Damn. Having OCD must suck.”

Radio: “A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial”

Self: “A beam of light. That would be nice. A beam of light. A beam of light.”




Seo-Young Chu is intrigued by the etymological resonances between and among (in alphabetical order) ‘anthropopathic,’ ‘apathy,’ ‘dispassionate,’ ’empathy,’ ‘homeopathic,’ ‘impatience,’ ‘passion,’ ‘passion-flower,’ ‘passive,’ ‘pathetic,’ ‘pathologist,’ ‘pathology,’ ‘pathos,’ ‘patient,’ ‘sympathy,’ and ‘telepath.’

Mona’s Trip

“Ma’am, I’m Agent Brown and this is Agent Blonde. Secret Service.” They flash their badges at my mom. “Your dog seems to be in some distress.” Mona, our black lab, has been acting weird for a couple of weeks. We’ve all gotten used to the yelping, but you have to admit the lunging toward the sky is pretty weird.

“I’m taking her to the vet,” my mom says. I wonder if it’s true.

“But that’s not why we’re here,” Blonde says. “We’re here to discuss a Stanley Messin. We believe you were married to him.”

“Yeah?” she says.

“Mr. Messin was heard making a threat on the life of President Ford.”

“What?” my mom says. They’re going to arrest Stanley. I’m really starting to like police.

“Goddamn Stanley Messin kill the fucking ex-President?” my  mom’s friend Cheech says. “Now that’s hilarious.”  Cheech waitresses with my mom at the Seafood Market. She’s Portuguese too. She’s got the same shag as all the Yourgales guys who own the restaurant, except even blacker and more wiry. Her Portuguese skin is darker than ours, and her nose is bigger. She could easily be a man. She talks like one. She and my mom hang out all the time now.

“We take these threats seriously,” Brown says.

“Not this one, Honey,” Cheech says. “It’s a fuckin’ joke.”

“Cheech,” my mom says, shooting her a shut up look.

“Is that your impression, ma’am,” Blonde says to my mom, “that the threat is not serious?”

“Stanley just likes to talk. He gets drunk and talks.”

“Thank you for your time, ma’am. We’ll be in touch if we have further questions.”

“Okay,” she says, shutting the door.

We all go to the window and watch Brown and Blonde pull out of the driveway, Mona’s yelps deepening to a growl as she tries to leap in the direction of their car. At the side of the shed, we can see JP and his friend Sonny looking down at the ground like two archeologists who just found buried treasure. JP’s been living in our shed since he got out of prison. Everybody but me knows he OD’d on PCP, which is why he’s been acting weird. Between him and Mona, our dusty yard is like a psych ward.

“JP is out of his mind,” Cheech says. “He buy you that sheep yet, Jas?” JP and I are going to start a business. He’s going to buy me a sheep, and I’m going to use it to make money mowing people’s lawns.

“No,” I say, starting to think he never will. “I could have been making money by now.”

“Don’t count on it,” she replies.

“Cheech,” my mom reprimands.

“Well, he’s out of his fucking mind. He shouldn’t get the kid’s hopes up. What the fuck are they doin’ anyway?”

When we get down there, we see that they’re kneeling over a pile of dog poop. Mona poop. “What’s up?” Cheech asks. What’s up is that the poop is dotted with shreds of what looks like construction paper with colored patterns on it. “Oh, shit,” Cheech says.

JP’s eyes are wide like a toddler’s. His mouth’s a little open. “We found it,” he says.

“What?” my mom asks.

“The acid Sonny buried.”

“That was two-hundred hits,” Sonny says.

“What?” my mom says.

“That’s it. In Mona’s shit,” JP says, pointing at the pile of dried up Mona poop from which Sonny is prying little bits of mangled orange and blue paper.

“Goddamn dog ODs,” Cheech says, “and the cat leaves another dead fuckin’ rabbit at the back door.” Everybody looks. Misty’s not around, but her gift is curled up on the back step, its tiny ear sticking up and its white ball of a tail. Mona’s on her side now, exhausted, whimpering.


Mona wags her body down Lake Drive, a frothy rage growing out of the discomfort she feels with the freedom. JP and his wife Sue Ellen were sitting on the porch, sunning their new baby, Jimmy Freddy. Mona had the same idea. When the sun is straight up at the top of the sky, it makes her black fur shine in this way she can feel beneath the skin. She likes to lay with her two front paws stretched straight out in front of her snout. The baby was right in her line of vision, on Sue Ellen’s lap, naked, a pink ball of fat with droopy blue eyes. It was something about the squishy velvet of his skin. Mona pounced in one straight glide, her teeth bared so that all she had to do was clamp and she could feel her teeth sink in before Sue Ellen, screaming and hitting her hard on the top of her head, pulled the baby into the shack.

She can still feel the sun under her skin, and she can taste the baby’s blood under her tongue, where some of it lodged itself. She passes Riley, whose lanky Irish Wolfhound gait and greasy matted fur intimidate her into snarling. When he just trots past, she releases a high-pitched bark, the kind that makes an animal sound like she’s lost control.

She’s just passed the mile point when she sees the cage—a wooden rectangle on stilts covered in chicken wire. She has to climb a bank of ice plant to reach it, but the fur poking through, a light grey dusted with cocoa at the ends, is worth the effort. Her paws get tangled in the vines more than once, but she just keeps her eye on the fur, which moves almost imperceptibly every few seconds, like good bait should.

The humiliation of the tangled ice plant still in her eyes, she reprises her pounce, diving straight at the cage and breaking one of the old wood posts that it holds together. The angora inside is trying to adjust to the new slope in its floor when it sees Mona’s snarl invade. Barking maniacally now, Mona goes straight for a mouthful of wide round eyes and droopy cocoa ears. The crush of bones and the stringy resistance of muscle become the sum of her reality while she chews at the carcass, until she hears a scream a lot like Sue Ellen’s, but deeper. Without bothering to see the gray hair or turquoise necklace attached to it, she dives straight down the ice plant and lands her pads hard on the concrete of Lake Drive. Her mouth is a matted mess of cotton-dry fur and salty blood.


From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).

25 Things about Boyhood

I watched Boyhood again during a very long plane ride, returning to the U.S. after some time in two very different countries: the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka. Sometimes I like to imitate the list style of Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things about Me Too. I love that book, and I enjoy imitating other writers. And long plane rides seem to inspire short bursts of writing.

1. Stories about mean stepfathers make me feel raw.

2. If you want to understand America, this movie is a good place to start (whether you’re American or not).

3. The soundtrack: Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Phoenix, Cat Power,  Gotye–and, yes, Britney. I could do without Coldplay’s “Yellow,” but it felt pretty true to the moment. I guess they probably couldn’t get the rights for Beatles songs.

4. Smart works of art with vernacular voices comfort me; they make feel like I have a place in the world.

5. I’ve never seen a Richard Linklater movie I didn’t like.

6. I still think the movie is about how hard it is to become a decent man in America, one who isn’t goaded into feeling like a failure under the pressure of American masculinity, one who doesn’t take that failure out on other people. This helps me think a little differently about the mean stepfathers in my own past. But as I mentioned in #1, it also just makes me feel raw. I guess feeling raw is important.

7. Like Before Sunrise,  this movie is also about the balancing acts of life: earning a living, chasing bliss, respecting others, pursuing and maintaining integrity, having fun, living with the unknown, figuring out when to forgive (and when not to).

8. Patricia Arquette is very appealing.

9. The movie is about girlhood and womanhood as much as boyhood. They’re all hard.

10. A lot of characters express casual homophobia. It’s clear we’re meant to see they are casually wrong. I don’t think any movie can do everything, so I’m not complaining, but there’s not much in the movie to counteract the casual homophobia.

11. College should be fun, and it should be fun on students’ terms—not packaged for them by a university. The fun is important to making the learning meaningful and lasting.

12. The editing between the various eras of the characters’ lives is elegant.

13. There seems to be a pattern to the editing: We get a scene that involves hard questions about the future, and then we cut to a reality where the characters have aged and their lives have changed, answering those questions (obliquely).

14. The movie is also about kindness, but kindness is complicated. Without mutual respect, it becomes condescending or controlling. Respectful kindness involves a negotiation.

15. Arquette’s charisma has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a little bit stout and a little bit fragile. Also, her speaking voice. Also, she reminds me of my beloved friend Kenna McRae.

16. I met only one American in Sri Lanka. He was about my mom’s age and lived in Encinitas, California—where I lived as a little kid. He talked like my uncle and was planning to stay in the Weligama for five months.

17. This movie is a melancholy transition after a short sojourn outside the U.S.—during which the country erupted into violence because of the very public injustice of the dismissal of Darren Wilson’s case and some outrageous announcements from powers that be, who seemed intent on provoking the violence.

18. The evolution of hairstyles for all the characters is entirely convincing. Did the same crew work on hair and makeup during every phase of shooting, over the course of twelve years?

19. The “mama for Obama” character is hilarious.

20. One guy in Sri Lanka told me Obama is black but great. I chose to believe the “but” was a language issue that meant something more like, “It’s a big deal that America has a black Preisdent.” I think I was right about that, but I’m not sure. Another guy told me that Obama is complicated because he seems to be a man of good character, but he oversees a military that invades other countries. This guy wonders if one day country as big as the U.S. might decide to invade Sri Lanka for some reason. Perhaps India.

21. American masculinity involves a set of ideas that govern everybody’s lives, starting pretty much from birth. I think Linklater’s saying we’d be better off without the pressures of these ideas, but you can’t simply change them at will. It’s up to people to live daily lives that create alternatives ways of being (and thinking). And feeling.

22. I’ve learned a lot about American masculinity from talking to Ken Nielsen. He’s eloquent on differences between American masculinity and the meanings of manliness various other cultures. I have a feeling Ken will write a book about this, and we can all learn from it.

23. Finally a portrait of a professor (Arquette) who is neither a HEROIC SAVIOR or a SCHEMING SOCIOPATH.The scenes with the gardener she inspires to go to college come close to casting Arquette as the savior professor, but they sill make me cry. (She does become the heroic single mother, even though she marries a bunch of assholes. Heroes aren’t so bad, though, and she’s a complicated one. Single motherhood is really hard in our world, obviously.)

24. I’m pretty sure I spotted a cameo from the guy who played the autistic kid in Waking Life, and I’m also pretty sure Mason’s college roommate was imitating Speed Levitch during the scene where they were tripping in the desert.

25. “It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

Margot’s Brain Shelf

by Kevin Ferguson

I’m currently writing about how the cinema affects memory, looking at how writers have invoked specific spaces—such as the attic, boarding school, or riverfront—to function as sites of memory in cinematic ways.

Virginia Woolf got me started. Born before motion pictures were invented, Woolf in her one piece of film criticism (“The Cinema,” 1926) expresses a skepticism towards the new art of cinema that is at odds with her later autobiographical writings about the possibilities for film technology to serve as a memory prop. For instance, in 1939’s “A Sketch of the Past,” she fantasizes that in the future “some device will be invented by which we can tap” the existence of the past. “I see it,” she imagines, “the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. [. . .] I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past.”

The device Woolf imagined is common today, and even in 1939 her “long ribbon of scenes” evoked film, even if she wasn’t aware of it. Woolf’s imagining of a “ribbon of scenes” as a utopian technology of memory overlaps with the materiality of the filmstrip. Woolf intuits there and elsewhere that memories need a “base” to rest upon, and this base can be both a concrete memento as well as a general location, such as her childhood home. For Woolf, the “ribbon of scenes” is a powerful, second space where memories can be located.

Talking about this idea and how it might relate to the “extended mind thesis” Sebastian Groes wrote about for californica, Jason pointed me to Temple Grandin, who begins her memoir, “I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.” Grandin used a metaphor of video technology to explain how her autistic mind works differently from language-based speakers. But she actually shows again how easy it is today to perceive mind and memory as movie-like. In this account, the development of cinema technology changes the mediation of memoir’s central conflict between self and world as memoirists and their readers begin to internalize cinematic conventions.

So, I’ve been thinking about these things throughout my days, and reading up on them at night, and talking about them with work friends. But I was surprised to hear my four-year-old daughter answer a question by telling me, “well, I just looked at my brain shelf.” I had asked her how she knew a particular fact (something about the weather). It was actually a disingenuous question on my part; I was really fishing for information about how her day at pre-k went. Children are reticent (or maybe just unconditioned) to give the kind of summary-of-the-day adults have over dinner, so I was playing junior lawyer and trying to get her to connect some trivia with some event from the day. I had assumed she would answer something like, “Mr. Tse taught us about clouds” or “Ms. Francis had us do an experiment with water,” but instead there was this wonderful conception of the “brain shelf” as a source of information that otherwise could not be accounted for. Was she describing something like “intuition,” or was she becoming aware of rational thinking as something that requires mental effort? (I bet a child psychologist could answer this for me.) And then: what was her mind like before she had her brain shelf?

Margot's Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.

Margot’s Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.


Margot:  My brain shelf tells me lots of information.

Kevin:  Like what?

Margot:  Like, um, like books tell me information that I want to know.

Kevin:  What kind of information does your brain shelf have?

Margot:  Like if you ask me what the weather is my brain shelf knows.

Kevin:  What’s your brain shelf look like?

Margot:  It looks like a rectangle.

Kevin:  Is it big?

Margot:  Yeah…a big rectangle.

Kevin:  When did you first learn about your brain shelf?

Margot:  I don’t know, but I forget. I learned it on a crazy, wacky day. *Margot talks in a goofy, deep voice, imitating her Brain Shelf*

Kevin:  Where is your brain shelf?

Margot:  In my brain.

Kevin:  Where’s that?

Margot:  Where in my brain?…In the middle of my brain.

Kevin:  Does everyone have a brain shelf, or just you?

Margot:  Everybody.

Kevin:  How do you know everyone has one?

Margot:  Because my brain shelf told me. My brain shelf can talk.

Kevin:  When is your brain shelf most talkative?

Margot:  At nighttime.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Because it sleeps in the morning and not in the day.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  It’s nocturnal.

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s nocturnal?

Margot:  Yeah.

Kevin:  Does it keep you up at night?

Margot:  No

Kevin:  Why not?

Margot:  Because it whispers.

Kevin:  Tell me something bad about your brain shelf.

Margot:  It never does bad stuff.

Kevin:  Only good? How come?

Margot:  It never hits me.

Kevin:  So how does it work?

Margot:  There’s a red button that you have to push, like three times.

Kevin:  No, seriously, you just made that up. Tell me how it works.

Margot:  No, I tell my brain, and my brain pushes the button. It’s sleeping in the morning so I whisper to it and I wake it up. It can also tell me math questions. In *goofy voice*: “What’s two plus two?”

Kevin:  Is your brain shelf cranky in the morning or happy?

Margot:  Happy. Because his mom always makes him dinner. And he loves it. It’s always his favorite dinner, but it’s always the saw thing.

Kevin:  What does he have to eat?

Margot:  All of his favorite stuff. Like Brussell sprouts, macaroni and cheese, and he also has chickpeas. [Margot refuses to eat the first two things]

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s a boy?

Margot:  A girl.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Cause it talks like a woman. It’s a woman.

Kevin:  Do you think your brain shelf is going to be any different next year?

Margot:  Yeah. Because it’s stretchy, and whenever I grow it stretches and goes. Actually, it likes to do Legos.

Kevin:  Could you name your brain shelf?

Margot:  Yeah. Dick. Sally. The Cat in the Hat. Lucia [school friend]. Lucy [cousin]. Margot. John Robert [cousin]. Baby Jack, I mean Big Jack [cousin]. Nana and Pa [grandparents]. Mimi and PopPop [grandparents]. Computer. Getting Videos Taken Away from You. [We go on a digression here because she had “videos taken away” as a punishment, but then realized she has more fun without them: “Daddy, It’s fun when I lose my videos. It’s fun when I have my videos, but it’s even funner when I get my videos canceled because I do other stuff and sometime I get to make Legos.”]

Kevin:  Anything else you want to tell me about your brain shelf.

Margot:  No. That’s it.

Kevin:  Thanks.

Margot:  You’re welcome.

* * *

Dear Kevin and Margot,

I wish I could have been there for your brain shelf conversation. I have so many questions:


This nineteenth-century engraving from an edition of Goethe’s Faust, the homunculus captures a perennial confusion about where the mind is. Is it inside the person who thinks and feels? Or outside? Or nowhere at all, as the fantastical element of the engraving might suggest?Illustration from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ depicting Mephistopheles creating a homunculus, 1854 (engraving). Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library. 

Has Margot been reading extended mind theories that suggest that some of the tools we use to think become so integral to our thinking process that they should be thought of as aspects of our minds? What does Margot think of Paracelsus’s sixteenth-century alchemy writing, in which he proposes the idea of a homunculus–a little human in the brain who controls our consciousness?

Margot seems a little impish about her brain shelf, like she knows she’s confabulating. She takes an image of a bookshelf and transports it from the external world into her brain. It seems possible to me that a four-year-old might not yet have absorbed the interiority metaphor.

For most adults in the western world, it’s almost impossible not to think of our mental states and the narrators of our consciousness as “inner” phenomena. We talk about our inner selves and interior monologues–and when we locate them this way, we mask the mystery of their origins. Many religious traditions solve this problem by locating them in a soul–usually conceived as a substance that transcends the human body but resides within it. So it’s both inside and outside. But if you don’t believe in a soul, where do you find consciousness? Woolf seems to do something similar by ascribing memory to a “ribbon of scences,” like film reel.

You should also know that while Margot is four, she’s got the personal style (and poise) of a Godard heroine. Godard, I would argue, locates consciousness outside his stylish characters’ bodies, whose nonsensical behavior seems motivated by their cars, glances, dance moves, and well-tailored clothing.







The Prosthetic God: Psychosomatic Extension in the Digital Age

Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that your mind and body are intricately intertwined with your partner. The other person is, then, not so ‘other’: they are symbiotic extensions of ourselves, sometimes to the degree that our partners seem to know us more that we do ourselves. Love, emotional security and sex are the psychophysiological interconnections that successful partnerships are based on.

Death and divorce are experienced as amputation; the mind and body of one’s partner act as phantom limbs, which, as James Krasner explores in his excellent essay ‘Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs’ (2004), we still feel even though they are gone. In Ian McEwan’s recent novel The Children Act (2014), the High Court Judge Fiona Maye kicks out her husband after he politely asks if he can have an affair. Their separation has an unsettling effect: ‘This morning, waking with a cold part of a bed to her left – a form of amputation – she felt the first conventional ache of abandonment.’ During a recent discussion at a literary festival organised by The Memory Network, The Story of Memory, however, McEwan expressed his scepticism over the possibility ofdigital technology as  extending our minds. This seems curious as technology increasingly takes over our thought and memory.

google glass

Someone wearing Google Glass.

This article investigates the nature of the increased prostheticization of humans in the digital age, and shows that despite sceptics such as McEwan we are moving to an increased integration of our mind with the world beyond the subjective self. I am deeply interested in what is known the ‘extended mind theory’ (EMT), which is championed by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who first wrote their ideas up in an essay in 1998 . They argue that consciousness if not simply a product of the brain, but that objects and tools outside the human body are used by the mind to augment cognitive processes. A notebook in which we write down an address of a friend, or our mobile phone that remembers telephone number, becomes an external tool on which our thinking relies. We live through an age in which we are increasing offloading cognition onto external tools, from Google to GPS, and are used digital prosthetics more and more. Thinking thus takes place not strictly within the brain, and becomes distributed across various external technologies and media. One may think, for instance, of Google Glass, a device which augments cognition. I call twenty-first century people ‘prosthetic Gods’.

Literary history is littered with examples of psychosomatic extension. In Meditations XVII (1624), John Donne notes the connection between people and their environment: ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself/ Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind.’ John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1666) sees God create Eve from Adam’s rib ‘with cordial spirits warme, And Life-blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound, But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d.’ The historical success of religion is based on the promise of self-expansion: it provides an imaginary framework that allows us to extend our selves into the wider community. It is not surprising then that religious doctrines aim to regulate of body-mind extensions, from being in love and sex to social relationships and immersion in works of art. We’re addicted to these extensions as a way of combatting the human condition: we can negate our loneliness and limitation through immersion in community, scriptures, and marriage, and the community.

Precisely because we humans are not beings of infinite understanding we aspire to be gods, as Sigmund Freud notes in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). We’re not just trying to overcome eternal strife between ourselves and others, but we’re searching for an ‘oceanic’ feeling – an sense of immersion that creates the sensation of wholeness. Hence the gods have become such a powerful imaginative force, as their omnipotence and omniscience embodies this sense of limitlessness and immersiveness. In the modern age, this religious sense of self-extension is gradually replaced by a new kind of logic of prosthetics, whereby material extensions, technologies and media allow us to aspire to a godlike status.

In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud notes:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. […] Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interest of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.

You might think that technology helps us to alleviate the human condition, yet technological prosthetics on the whole received a luke-warm welcome, as Freud already notes. The modernists experienced the early twentieth century as a state of increased isolation, alienation, unhomeliness, and their work is driven by an anxiety about the loss of self and organic connection with community. In T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) the typewriter turns a secretary into hapless cyborgian automaton, a ‘human engine’ who smoothes ‘her hair with automatic hand’. In our time, Google Glass will help us think and enhance communication. Our human mind seems to crave extension: during a Google Glass trial a test subject showed withdrawal symptom, and dream of his prosthesis. After the Second World War, Marshall McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media (1964) warned against the ways in which the human mind is undermined by new technology and media, such as the television: ‘Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.’


Scene from David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J. G Ballard’s Crash (1973)

This predominantly negative reception of modern thinking about technology and the cyborg finds it expression in latemodernist works such as J. G. Ballard Crash (1974) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), in which the integration of technology into the body is accompanied by a loss of control over the human mind, while also opening up to new connective potentialities. The protagonist of Crash, ‘James Ballard’, survives a crash after which he sinks into a druggy mirage of transformations that argues for the car as a prosthesis central to the twentieth century imagination. ‘Ballard’ confuses motor oil and cooling liquid, with semen, vaginal mucus and menstrual blood. Eyes ‘are flicking like windshield wipers’, the car crash itself is conflated with the sex act,  and Ballard realises how human behaviour is recoded along the technological rules of the car: ‘I realized that I was exactly modelling my responses to the car on the way in which Karen had touched Catherine’s body.’

videodrome 1

Scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which recalls Milton’s line ‘wide was the wound, But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d’ from Paradise Lost (1666)

In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) a scumbaggy media entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is lost in a labyrinth of hallucinatory media experiments whereby TV screens come alive to absorb the viewer. Renn inserts video cassettes and guns into his body via a new orifice in his belly, and this merging of bodies with technology should be seen as a surreal literalization of the way in which new technology acts as a prosthetics, and which changes social and sexual behaviour.

videodrome 2

A surreal literalization of the ‘hand gun’ as prosthesis in Videodrome (1983)

Donna Haraway and Hal Foster have continued to explore the increasingly symbiotic relationship between technology and the human body in the late twentieth century. Since the arrival of new digital technologies and media to the masses in the mid-nineties, the prostheticisation of human beings has accelerated. At the moment there seems to be a stand-off between the ‘cautionarists’ and ‘reluctant optimists’. In the former group we find Nick Carr, whose The Shallows (2010) argues that the distraction integral to our online experience prevents us from deep thinking. Other critics who warn against the detrimental impact of the digital include George Steiner, Will Self, Victor Mayer-Schönberger, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and Joshua Foer. In the other camp we find Clive Thompson, whose Smarter Than You Think (2013) argues that technology augments our minds, and that we should celebrate scientific innovations. Cognitive scientists such as Itiel Dror and Stevan Harnad show that our mental capacities are not simply lost because of new cognitive technologies, but that they are changing, and might trigger the next step in our evolutionary development. The tension between these camps is captured nicely in temporal terms by Hal Foster: ‘Sometimes these beginnings are seen as primordial, and cast into a distant field of primitive life; sometime they are viewed as futuristic, and dreamt as a new form of technological being.’

Another way of looking at this extended mind debate is through the current battle between the ‘brainiacs’, who believe that basically we are our brain and those believing in Clark’s ‘the extended mind thesis’. In Supersizing the Mind (2011), Clark argues for people being

part of an extended cognitive machine [whereby] body- and world-involving cycles are best understood […] as quite literally  extending the machinery of mind out into the world—as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason.

This idea has many detractors, including Ian McEwan. In a TLS review, cognitive scientist and philosopher Jerry Fodor argues that EMT is wrong because Clark takes literal what is actually a metaphor, namely, the idea that external memory and cognition devices are literally part of our minds. If one looks at the surreal literalizations of the mind-world relationship in Ballard’s and Cronenberg’s work, one might think McEwan and Fodor are right. Donne and Milton also used metaphors to suggest connectivity. We are imagining that our minds are extended.

I’m not sure if Fodor read the same book as I did. According to him Clark argues that the EMT can only be right if we assume that our mind is our brain. Clark’s argument is exactly the opposite, however: EMT thrashes what he calls the ‘brainbound’ perspective of brainiacs such as Antonio Damasio and Dick Swaab, who believe that all human cognition depends directly on neural activity alone’. This reductive thinking is widely disputed in the humanities, a discipline that believes that thought is generated and conditioned by history, culture, language, the senses, and communication with other minds.

Yet, what Clark calls ‘brainbound’ thinking has taken hold in contemporary literature, from McEwan’s Saturday (2005) to E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain (2014) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013). The brain also reigns supreme in novels that dramatize neuropathologies such as autism in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) and Lottie Moggach Kiss Me First (2013).

There are a number of new fictions that dare to let go of this brainbound solipsism. A strong example is Jennifer Egan’s short story ‘Black Box’ (2012), first published on via The New Yorker’s Twitter stream. ‘Black Box’ is a set of aphoristic messages sent by woman spy in a future Mediterranean setting. The spy receives Data Surges via a Universal Port built into her body, has a camera build into her eye and other senses are connected to the control centre as well. This produces the ability of the mind to behave separately from the body: ‘Keep your body in view at all times; if your mind loses track of your body, it may be hard—even impossible—to reunite the two.’ Some agents leave their bodies altogether. Egan’s short story argues: ‘In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favour of the dazzling collective.’ Egan’s short story becomes an exploration and celebration of the possibilities offered by augmented, transactive cognition and group intelligence in the digital age. Egan argues for EMT, for an active braiding together of mind, other minds and the world, so the other is less other, but seen and felt and believed to be an integral part of ourselves.

Naomi Alderman’s short story ‘Together’ (2013) predicts a future in which our very thought is broadcast via the social media network into which we have become fully integrated: ‘With broadcasts directly to the visual centres of your brain, input devices under your skin, and a soundstream that taps directly into the aural nerve, turning it off and on is as easy as a thought.’ In the story, Alderman also challenges the Cartesian mind-world duality on which modern thinking is based: ‘The relationship between the mind and the body is problematic. The 17th century philosopher Descartes thought that they were separate and distinct entities. The body is a machine, the mind is its driver. Other philosophers have accused him of imagining a homunculus – a tiny man – inside the skull, examining inputs from eyes and ears and other senses, pressing buttons in response to make the body move. This position is philosophically unsound.’ Yet, despite this effacing of the mind-world duality, Alderman, like Egan, notes that we will remain human: lonely, full of miscommunication and in search of love.

Dreaming Together: a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010)

Dreaming Together: a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010)

Other recent works of fiction have playfully negated the mind-world dualism too, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) to a score of tech thrillers such as Daniel Suarez’s Daemon (2006) and FreedomTM (2010), Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005) and James Smythe’s The Testimony (2012). One might also think of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010) in which cognition is also a collective enterprise.

I like this new heroism, an attitude that opens up new ways of thinking about a number of things. The idea of the extended mind starts from the idea that we are all connected with one another through technologies, and this has a profoundly democratic potential. After more than a century of capitalism the image of ourselves is deeply individualistic; the twentieth century was the century of the self. The extended mind thesis can work against this individualism and reclaim some sense of an organic collective spirit in the knowledge that we are all connected, on various levels. It also generates the idea that intelligence is not something that is generated strictly within the brain, but that it is a subtle and complex interactive process that partly lies outside the human body.  It questions ownership of, and control over, knowledge and has a radically democratic potential that re-directs individualism and re-organises society with a renewed focus on empathy, affect and altruism. Rather than be anxious, we could celebrate the increasing immersion, which should make us realize that people, nature and the world are fundamentally woven together. ‘Everything is connected’ goes the cliché, but not just in the sense of our keeping in touch with our friends across the world via email or Facebook. We are connected on profoundly deep physiological and sensory levels, through the informational streams that seep and leak into our minds, and through global phenomena like climate change, which affect us all. The twenty-first century prosthetic hero demands a duty of care for the human mind that transcends the reductive position of the brainiacs, and forges new ways of thinking about the changing nature of being human.

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