New Non-Fiction: Neuro-Magic, Public Toilets, and the Sublime

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde (Henry Holt)

In Hiding the Elephant (2003), Jim Steinmeyer writes, “The magician and author Henry Hay noted that the decline of the waistcoat has affected magic more than the invention of communications satellites.” Steinmeyer’s history of illusion-making underscores the magician’s vocation as engineer who inherits secrets but also his hardware and accessories. The design of the Magic Cabinet explains why a person seems to disappear inside it.

MagicCover.jpgNow, Stephen Macknik and Susan Martinez-Conde, neuroscientists at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, offer what they describe as “the first book ever written on the neuroscience of magic, or, if you will, neuromagic.” Sleights of Mind discloses how today’s Las Vegas-style magic acts are accomplished. But the authors’ intentions run deeper: they want to prove that “a surprising proportion of your perceptions are fundamentally illusory.”

They write, “We think the enduring mystery about magic is how the brain constructs – and falls for – illusions. In this regard, we hold a minority view among our fellow visual scientists. To the generation that preceded us, illusions were considered errors of perception … where the visual system got it wrong. We disagree. Illusions are not exceptions and they are not necessarily mistakes … They are adaptive shortcuts that your brain makes to speed up processing, or reduce the amount of processing necessary to provide you with the information you need to survive.”

MagicCopperfiewld.jpegThe eye’s optic nerve sends visual information to the brain through about a million neural wires called axons. Since each axon represents one pixel of the image being reported, then “each eye is roughly equivalent to a one-megapixel camera. Sounds like a lot, but consider that even your cell phone camera probably has better resolution than that.” To compensate, we “‘fill in’ parts of visual scenes that the brain cannot process.” The authors regard magicians as “masterminds of human cognition” who exploit our rutted filling-in habits. The waistcoat has evolved into David Copperfield’s leather jacket but the brain remains reliably gullible and stubborn, focused on effects and insisting on patterns of causation that don’t exist.

The authors enlist the support of several accomplished magicians such as Teller of Penn & Teller. When secrets are revealed, they mark the relevant section with a “spoiler alert” required by the magicians so readers may avoid learning any secrets they would rather not know. Nevertheless, I can’t overcome the sense that such revelations are betrayals. My innocent heart pays in some way for what I learn about my credulous brain. Card tricks, mentalism, the lady cut in half, a head floating in space, the Indian rope trick, the kleptic arts – all are deconstructed via neuro-research. The book includes several visual illusions for readers to puzzle over.

MagicCards.jpegHow do we apply their findings to daily experience? The authors don’t quite pull that bunny out of their hats. A stingy two-page epilogue covers “some of the lessons we have learned.” The provisionality of perception leads back to philosophical texts that the scientists may have found too slippery in their undergraduate days. But their narrative is enlivened by an enthusiasm for magic – and avidity for discovering how we construct versions of reality.

In part one of Henry IV, Glendower says: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?” Macknik and Martinez-Conde prove that we’re not only willing but also designed to follow Glendower’s eyes as he points to the vasty deep, even while his hands are picking our pouches.

[Published November 9, 2010. 304 pages, $26.00 hardcover]

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Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, essays edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén (New York University Press)

Some years ago while traveling on business through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, I stopped to use the men’s room and noticed a large fly in my urinal. Naturally, I aimed at the fly – just as the Dutch sanitation experts had intended. The fly was a convincing decal. It is estimated that this ruse reduces urine spillage by seventy percent.

ToiletCover.jpgHarvey Molotch and Laura Norén, sociologists who teach and use the rest rooms at New York University, see the public toilet as a “tense domain … The toilet involves doing the private in public and under conditions only loosely under the control of the actors involved.” By studying these places “we have the potential to make discoveries with implications for personal hygiene, psychological stress, and social betterment.” Globally speaking, the World Toilet Association, an NGO headquartered in Singapore, advocates for improved sanitation (2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitation). While conceding that “problems of basic sanitation do not much arise” in America, Molotch and Norén insist that public toilets teem with other issues:

“We have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern. Precisely because the toilet operates somewhat in hiding, those who plan, manage, and control its use often act on their own, without a public to which they must provide detailed and explicit accounts of what they are doing. The toilet thus operates irresponsibly … it thus resists change.”

ToiletSign.gifAlmost everyone uses the public toilet – and therefore, say the authors, the public toilet ought to accommodate a totality of requirements. These range from the obvious (the needs of the disabled) to the idiosyncratic (“Women with elaborate hair styles … need more counter time than do women with simple cuts”). Toilets cause anxiety (“How far away is the facility? Is it clean in the sense that matters to me? Do I have access by right? By money? … Will there be paper covers I can put on the toilet seat?”) which the authors call “toilet suffering.” If there is no Starbucks nearby, where do I go? If I go to the Starbucks, do I have to buy a latte first so I don’t raise the specter of a conspicuous defecator? Through which door goes the transgendered person?

The authors ask: Is it public responsibility to inhibit acts in the public toilet that are considered harmful, septic, or illegal? “Besides drugs, people use toilets to nap, have sex with others or themselves, read, write graffiti, vandalize, chat (in person or on cell phone), groom, smoke, or nip a drink. They hide from teachers and parents. Sociologists go in to write up their notes. Shoplifters use the stalls to change into stolen clothes. Others just steal a moment of solace. At least once in a while, a violent crime gets committed. What types of control – signs of warning, guards at the entrance, video surveillance in the stalls – are appropriate, and how far should they go?” Bicyclists clean up after cross-town commutes. Women breastfeed. Parents change diapers.

When George Costanza took an expensive art book into a Brentano’s bathroom, he was reprimanded and the book was “flagged.” Mocking both George and extreme control (they made him pay for the book), the “Seinfeld” episode may suggest why the essays in Toilet are so engaging. The writers and readers all have an intuitive and intimate grasp of the topic.

ToiletSign2.jpegPart 1 (“Living in the Loo”) of Toilet addresses the use of public toilets – what is it like to be there? Ruth Barcan explores restrooms as “spaces designed to separate people into categories as well as to eliminate, disavow, or conceal things or persons that threaten these categories.” Zena Kamash, an Oxford archaeologists, examines toilets of the ancient world – is there an archetypal toilet behavior? (Apparently there has always been graffiti; a recent excavation of a Roman toilet found these words: cacavi sed culu[m] non estergavi or “I shat but did not wipe my ass.”) Irus Braverman of the University of Buffalo law school ends the section with a look at the officials who inspect, regulate and do surveillance on toilets.

Part 2 (“Who Gets to Go”) deals with access: “who gets to go and under what conditions?” Why do Manhattan’s dogs have “execratory freedom” to piss away, while cabdrivers must find (if they can) a place to park and another to pee? (“Male taxi drivers often repurpose empty bottles as urinals.”) Clara Greed asks what it would take to create a nonsexist restroom – through urban planning that attends to the needs of women. Terry Kogan shows that “laws requiring that public restrooms by separated by sex are not a simple recognition of natural anatomical differences.” David Serlin looks at the strange behavior of men in toilets – and how it affects disabled or blind males. Since men generally don’t address each other, they lose potential access to assistance and information. In lieu of human support, the authorities equip the bathroom with supposedly compensating hardware.

ToiletSofitel.jpgMary Anne Case weighs the potential for unisex toilets, an issue that turned into a protest movement at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 2001. Gender-variant students stated in their “urinary desegregation” proposal to the administration, “We are often subjecting ourselves to severe discomfort, verbal and physical harassment, and a general fear of who we will encounter and what they will say or do based on their assumptions of our identities.” Since I presume the victims get picked on in many situations and places, it interests me that they selected the restrooms as the totemic place where their otherness should be fully integrated. Barbara Penner, a lecturer at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, argues in her essay that the discipline of toilet design is rife with forbidden topics such as this.

In between the essays, Molotch and Norén insert brief “rest stops” – anecdotal slices of story, data and graphics. In total, this surprisingly lively and feisty book clarifies the authors’ belief that “peeing is political.”

[Published November 17, 2010. 316 pages, 54 b&w photos/illustrations, $18.95 paperback]

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The Sublime, a collection of essays edited by Simon Morley (MIT Press)

SublimeBierstadt.jpegAs seminarians we picked up the notion of the sublime from Burke, Kant, Hegel, Schiller, and Schopenhauer. They promoted a taste-changing moment in the arts that valued shuddering, disorienting pleasures. Burke wrote, “Astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” The Romantic experience of the sublime was a negatively heady experience of personal limits. You look at something in the world; it reminds you of what you lack. By the time Freud and Benjamin got involved, vistas of the Matterhorn gave way to everyday life itself, now seen as sufficiently uncanny and disturbing to trigger the terror.

But what happened to “the sublime”? The fifty-two essays, statements, and reviews collected in Simon Morley’s The Sublime show that artists are still captivated and troubled by “new realities too vertiginously complex.” This collection “explores the range of artistic theory and practice that attempts to articulate such moments of mute encounter with all that exceeds our comprehension.” The signs, codes, imagery and words of our culture, generated by forces beyond our control, have replaced craggy vistas as main sources of dizzy confusion. We may complain in our art, but we are drawn to destabilizing forces.

SublimeCover.jpgMorley sorts the texts into seven categories: The Unpresentable, Transcendence, Nature, Technology, terror, The Uncanny, and Altered States. The postmodern sublime dominates, but there are also spiritual, psychological, metaphysical perspectives. Morley continues, “Within each of these sections are recorded three levels of encounter with the sublime. The first attempts to evoke the actual experience of the sublime through the medium itself. The second consists of discourses through which the sublime experience is described or delineated. The third presents theories about the meaning of the sublime.”

Barnett Newman’s influential 1948 essay, “The Sublime Is Now,” is the book’s de facto starting point. He signaled a new requirement – detachment from a “blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation,” that is, from observing and recording “within a framework of pure plasticity” – and working in a new mode “by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.”

I’ve been telling my poet and writer friends about The Sublime because the artists and critics here may tell us things that we struggle or don’t like to tell ourselves about our limits. On the one hand, I may be suspicious of poets for whom exaltation is synonymous with the beautiful statement, to paraphrase Newman (who is describing Longinus). On the other hand, when language plummets while holding hands with incomprehension (a both a victim and valorizer of the sublime ), I may resent the blind exertion of willful control.

A few samples:

Julia Kristeva’s “Approaching Abjection” (1980): “We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it – on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger. But also because abjection itself is a composite of judgment and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives.”

SublimeSign.jpgJean-François Lyotard’s “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” (1988): “How is one to understand the sublime, or, let us say provisionally, the object of a sublime experience, as a ‘here and now’? … This isn’t a matter of sense or reality bearing upon what happens or what this might mean. Before asking questions about what it is and about its significance, before the quid, it must ‘first’ so to speak ‘happen,’ quod. That it happens precedes the question pertaining to what happens.”

Slavoj Zizek’s “The Sublime Object of Ideology” (1989): “The Sublime is the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable. It is a unique point in Kant’s system, a point at which the fissure, the gap between phenomenon and Thing-in-Itself, is abolished in a negative way, because in it the phenomenon’s very inability to represent the Thing adequately is inscribed in the phenomenon itself.”

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s “Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime” (1999): “A contemporary sublime might have to engage an environment in which multiplicitous signification, that proliferation of systems which is the technological condition of late capitalism, is not only the norm but the model, and where the issues are not the incomplete and the rough but the intersection of differences and repetition as difference … where repetition precedes and makes possible the original. What makes it a repetition is also what prevents it from being one, it is in fact not that which it repeats.”

Luce Irigaray’s “Belief Itself” (2002): “And anyone who does not go down into the abyss can only repeat and retrace the ways already opened that cover over the trace of the vanished gods. Alone, the poet runs the risk of moving outside the world and turning over what it opens up until touching the bottom … Terror becomes consent to everything, permission for everything that touches, without refusal or withdrawal.”

Other contributors include Marina Abramovic, John Berger, Bill Viola, Fredric Jameson, Gerhard Richter, Marco Belpoliti, Barbara Claire Freeman, Robert Smithson, and Jean Fisher.

[Published May 6, 2010. 238 pages, $24.95 paperback. “Documents of Contemporary Art” series.]