Dementia is caused by a range of medical conditions (the best-known being Alzheimer’s) that eat holes in the short-term memory of sufferers and degrade their capacity to process new information. Memory becomes like a flickering signal from a faraway shortwave radio station: people can do and say things, then promptly forget them, and then do and say them again. They can no longer read obvious social cues. They become easily distressed as a thickening fog descends upon them, causing them to lose track of everything. As the disease progresses, only fleeting glimpses of the once capable person can be seen; for the rest of the time, everyone is stuck with an uninvited guest. Eventually, the sufferer fails to recognise even loved ones.
Dementia raises deeply troubling issues about our obligations to care for people whose identity might have changed in the most disturbing ways. In turn, those changes challenge us to confront our philosophical and ethical assumptions about what makes up that identity in the first place. Everyone touched by the disease goes through a crash-course in the philosophy of mind.
Philosophy is not of much practical use with most illnesses but in the case of dementia it provides insights about selfhood and identity that can help us make sense of the condition and our own reactions to it. Broadly speaking, there are two accounts of how personal identity is formed and sustained. Each has different implications for how we understand dementia and so seek to care for people with it.
Our commonsense understanding of the self has been dominated by an individualistic idea that goes back to René Descartes and John Locke in the 17th century. Descartes found certainty within himself – ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The inner, mental life of the self was also grounds for knowing our experience to be real, and that we were not dreaming. Locke, for his part, identified the self with the ordered flow of sense experiences that the mind recorded. That tradition, more recently updated by the British philosopher Derek Parfit in books such as Reasons and Persons (1984), argues that identity and memory come from the same place: a psychological connectedness and continuity maintained inside our heads. Selfhood hinges on our ability to order memory, and connect a set of experiences to form a coherent autobiography of who we were and how we became the person we are now. The theory has implications for dementia, because dementia destroys the temporal binding that sustains our identity.
According to Baldwin van Gorp of Leuven University in Belgium, who studies how the media reports dementia, this individualistic, inward looking, memory-based account of identity is the default way that dementia is framed in most public debates. That framing carries clear implications for how we might hold dementia at bay: keep your brain as fit as possible; do lots of physical and mental exercise. It explains why dementia self-help books lean so heavily on the provision of external supports: Post-It notes and other visual reminders that jog the memory. Google – that instant memory-jogger – might already be helping to forestall the dependency created by dementia. Before long, no doubt, little robots will accompany us to make sure we remember to take our pills and flush the toilet.
This idea that identity is based in memory underpins the excitement that greets the brain implants being developed by US firms such as Medtronics and Boston Scientific as potential ‘cures’ for Alzheimer’s, and the BRAIN initiative founded in 2013 by the US President Barack Obama to fund university research into treatments for common brain conditions.
n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.
Session at a bass players house? Yes. Gig in Jersey City for $40, toll money, and dinner? Yes. Singer's demo recording session? Yes. High school musical in White Plains? Yes. Jam session at the Tea Lounge? Yes. Say yes for moral and financial reasons. Take it all, play your ass off, and be cool.
2. Go hear everyone play, especially older jazz musicians.
Pay the cover, buy the drink, sit in the front. Don't worry if the music is good, bad, or indifferent. You will learn something. Any conclusion you draw is likely to change in a few months anyway.
3. Assume every musician you meet, on any gig, in any scene, of any age, of any background, is very, very good.
This is not an arts-friendly cheap-living European capitol This is not a Midwest college town. This is New York. Most musicians moved here from somewhere far away to achieve their life's dream. If they have lived here longer than you, they know something you don't, and are very, very good at something. So be cool.
4.) Give every musician you meet a reason to notice you.
I do not know how many musicians move to New York ever year. I do know that very, very few of them stay. Therefore, if you tell an older musician, "I just moved to town", that older musician is quite reasonably seeing you as one of many. If you wish to stand out, play as well as you can, and be friendly, polite, and sincere. You might be surprised how many people notice.
5.) Be generous in praising and supporting friends, colleagues, and peers.
Your friend, who moved here with you, gets a great gig, while you are hoping to maybe sit in somewhere. Go to his or her gig, and cheer him or her on. At a jam session, you are outplayed by someone your age. Try to make some connection with that person. Again, this will be better morally and materially, and no, this is not easy.
6.) Have extremely clear goals, and go right to work achieving them.
A very clear goal might be very general: "Check out NYC jazz and/or the music scene in general!" Maybe you're more specific: "I want this band, with these people, to play these tunes, at this place, for this amount of people, x number of times per year/month/week". Excellent. Get cracking. Not sure of your goal? No problem. Just acknowledge that you're unsure. You'll figure it out.
fourth landscape is an album that strikes that perfect balance between composed and improvised materials. I believe it was Coltrane who first called improvisation “spontaneous composition” and the improvisations here are so well placed within the structures created that it becomes hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. In fact, it wasn’t until my second spin of landscape that I was sure it wasn’t an entirely free improv affair.
Inspection of the cover reveals that all the pieces are, in fact, composed, four by Delbecq, four by Blaser, and three by Hemingway. Marc Chenard’s illuminating notes state that ten of the eleven selections were communicated via traditional notation on score paper. The CD cover is my only nit concerning the project, for Nuscope has gone away from their signature look that features original art, and instead used a prosaic photograph of water.
Those who have heard Delbecq’s releases on Songlines such as Circles and Calligrams and The Sixth Jump, know that he has a very unique style that utilizes some prepared piano techniques for a percussive effect, particularly in the lower register. I think that he sometimes overuses this approach, but here again the word “balance” comes into play, as he syncs up with Hemingway to establish percussion-based phrases that sound inspired by African rhythms. Elsewhere, he contributes sparkling single-note runs and even a little synthesized bass, very sparingly and tastefully, to bolster the group sound.
And what remains to be said about Samuel Blaser? There is seemingly no end to his imagination or his ability to fit in perfectly in any situation. He has flawless technique, but that technique doesn’t get in the way of his expression. You can be sure that an album he is on is one worth exploring.
We all know that a corporation’s Twitter account is managed by a social-media worker (despite Denny’s claims on Twitter to be an “egg” rather than a social-media guru). Social media managers for corporate brands tend to be young people steeped in digital culture, who may be junior in status but are tasked with building a newly “hip” brand essence for the social media reading public. So does the frisson of reading these weird corporate tweets happen because we are rating the social-media manager’s performance on Twitter, like an Olympic judge holding up a score at the end of each tweet (and supplying important metrics to the brand at the same time)? Or does the Denny’s brand’s mewling Twitter intimacy make us feel paternal, bound to support and foster our corporate brand children as they speak to us through the web, learning our native medium?
That explanation doesn’t seem complete to me, though. I also feel a sinister intimation of power in these new corporate social-media voices. Denny’s the corporation has transformed itself through its tone into a hip, ageless kid basking in the approval of its many followers. And this may be the creepy core what makes me uncomfortable in the Denny’s voice: When brands speak anonymously and yet so intimately through the voices of unnamed social-media managers, we like them more than we can like any individual tweeter. On social media, the cute-voiced corporation is cuter than any person.
For us, there is a sociopathic freedom in knowing there is no individual behind the Twitter account. The corporation will not reach out for support in hard times the way an individual person on Twitter may. Laughing with it doesn’t trigger an existential fear that we might be relied on for support, sending vibes or crowdfunds during @dennysdiner’s darkest emotional hour.
But while our own motivations for liking corporate brands more than individual people on Twitter may signal a certain desire to shirk responsibility, the exploitative relation goes both ways. The corporation, while needing nothing emotional from us, still wants something: our attention, our loyalty, our love for its #brand, which it can by definition never return, either for us individually or for us as a class of persons. Corporations are not persons; they live above persons, with rights and profits superseding us. The most we can get from the brand is the minor personal branding thrill of retweeting a corporation’s particularly well-mixed on-meme tweet to show that we “get”both the meme and the corporation’s remix of it.
Is the sinisterness of the Denny’s Twitter presence, then, that even as we are laughing at a restaurant chain tweeting at us like a coy, meme-hashing kid, we are also aware that we are being manipulated by the witty teen’s fundamental opposite? That no individual person could garner the laughs, followers, and, most important, shareholder value for being coolly funny that a corporation can? Because regular users can amass faves and followers, but not typically the shareholder value in their personal brand that a corporation can.
That is, in speaking to us like an equal, Denny’s shows us how we can never be equals with a corporate brand, on Twitter as in life. In fact, just as corporations have become “persons” in law, they have also become “persons” on social media, bearing all the fruits of personhood while retaining all the massive advantages of being an entity that defies individual personhood. At the end of the day, @Dennysdiner is just a legal structuring entity housed somewhere in Delaware, formed to serve mediocre diner food in cities across America. And yet in spite of — or maybe even because of — this uncanny act of assuming personhood, we like it. Corporations can’t be lonely, but with their newfound “cute” voices they are becoming more popular than people.
To become popular and “cool,” brands have had to learn the very techniques we learned as resistant teens to deal with power: our sarcastic humor and our endlessly remixable memes. Corporate #weirdtwitter redeploys the memes we once used to signal our resistant identities to one other to make themselves seem like our sassy peers. In other words, Denny’s the corporation wants a seat at the table at the Denny’s where we used to go to meet and commune with other teens in all our midnight, underground, post-all-ages-show angst.
In steps Jennifer Egan. A little more than one year Patchett’s
senior, Egan is, at the time of this writing, the last winner of the
Pulitzer in fiction. The final two chapters of her prize-winning story
cycle, A Visit From the Goon Squad,
leave little doubt that Egan shares an end-times view of the fate of
literature. But instead of shouting from the sidelines, Egan allows
herself to challenge these concerns in her work.
Indeed, earlier this year in the New Yorker’s
science-fiction issue, Egan published “Black Box,” a story written in
sentences of 140 characters or less. Then, over the course of nearly a
week, @NYerFiction proceeded to tweet that story, a dystopic
second-person thriller about an android spy posing as a call girl. In
turning toward science-fiction and sci-fi forms, Egan is exploring new
possibilities for literature in an age when technology and new media are
competing for the book-reader’s attention. But even more, Egan’s recent
sci-fi excursions expose her not as a writer resigned to the waning
importance of literature, but as a literary “luddite” willing to take
things to the next level, to begin a sabotage.
* * * *
In terms of plot, “Black Box” is a relatively
traditional sci-fi story of human individuality in revolt against a
mechanized society. Egan stated in the New Yorker podcast that the unnamed protagonist is in fact Lulu from the outlandish last chapter of Goon Squad,
“Pure Language,” and that the events here take place ten years after
the end of the novel, in the 2030s. In “Pure Language,” Lulu is the
poster-girl of an imagined new generation, a whiz with technology and
marketing, steeped in the lingo, and yet with an almost 1950s naïveté:
she has no tattoos, she doesn’t use drugs, she doesn’t swear, and her
only passion is money (uncommon traits for somebody working for a punk
But in “Black Box,” Lulu is radically transformed. We find her
working for the government, on the biggest (and only) mission of her
life, posing as a call girl so that she can infiltrate an inner-circle
of foreign enemies of states. Her wholesomeness has become devout
patriotism, and her body has been consumed by the technologies she once
mastered: the state has placed cameras behind her eyes, a discreet
microphone in her ear, and a record of field instructions in a microchip
beneath her hairline. Presumably, the latter is the origin of the
tweet-like dispatches that make up the story.
It’s true that writers less-decorated than Egan have been
experimenting with Twitter lit since the site launched a few years back,
but in “Black Box,” Egan uses the limited and piecemeal nature of the
Tweet not just as constraints, but as tonal guidelines for the narrative
voice. Whether the dispatches are from Lulu in the field back to
headquarters or vice versa remains delightfully unclear. Moreover the
second-person imperative tone of the story lends each sentence an
aphoristic quality, such that they might be read not as dispatches at
all, but as an internalized set of rules about how to be a spy, a woman,
and a patriot.
Indeed, a complicated system of authority emerges over the course of
“Black Box” as we learn the full extent of Lulu’s devotion to her
mission. Just as her body is grafted with machines of espionage, it also
becomes a place for grafting gendered expectations: she must wear gold
heels, must have tanned feet, must be innocuous, must register as
“young,” and must wear a sundress “widely viewed as attractive.” Later,
while her “Designated Mate” violates her, Lulu must practice a
dissociation technique so as not to appear uncomfortable and break the
illusion of being a prostitute. At inopportune times, Lulu’s mind turns
to her husband back home, and she must remind herself that he is a
fierce patriot and proud of her for undertaking this work.
It is not widely known that Tarkovsky, whose films often seem to be composed as a montage of still photos, in a period effectively took photos with a Polaroid camera. These photos, taken at home and in Italy, in spite of all their technical imperfections bear witness to the same way of seeing and visual world as the great films.
A selection from these photos was first published in Italy in 2006, and recently a Russian photo blog digitized all the pictures.