Another curatorial note by Dr. Jerry Cullum…

Reading List? We Don’t Need No Stinking Reading List is another curatorial note by art critic, Dr. Jerry Cullum, regarding From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again, a show that he will be curating at whitespace featuring works by 22 artists including four artists from Sao Paulo, Brazil who will be contributing site-specific work. Hugo Fortes will present a video installation in whitespec project space. The piece titled “Evolution in Three Lessons,” include the lessons from the ravens at the Tower of London to the fauna and native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego encountered by Darwin. Rachel Rosalen and Rafael Marchetti are constructing a device that they describe as follows: “A new living-kind of species mixing molecular properties and electronic prostheses simulates a new hybridization between water living systems and electric living systems. Having an electric sensorially capacity, Hydrophiletic-Z can absolve the gravity while not losing its own plasticity.” Sissi Fonseca will appear in a one-time-only live performance at 9 pm on Friday, July 6. “Placebo” will involve amulets, medicinal capsules, and buckets of water. All four artists will present at the opening reception on July 6 from 7-10 pm.

Reading List? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Reading List

I assume I should assemble a list of all the standard titles in the vast topic implied by the exhibition title “From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again,” but I have never read many of those books, which makes it difficult to recommend them. (My familiarity with their main theses comes through other people’s essays attacking or defending them.)

My own preferred list, however, would be misleading in the extreme, because the books that influenced me did so because I am who I am and because I had read the books in the order that I read them, in the decades in which I read them. Some books are essential under one set of historical circumstances and absolutely worthless a few decades later, when the prevailing ideas that they put into doubt or modified are no longer even remembered.

We no longer need to displace logical positivist philosophy, for example, or even Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism. So the books that provided intellectual resources that questioned them are now pointless.

I am not sure there is any point, for that matter, in rehearsing how I got to the books I would recommend in place of the books everyone is reading (except perhaps for James Gleick’s The Information and a couple of others), except as a way of warning that they won’t do the same thing for you that they do for me. I got here, wherever “here” is, through via a set of turning points that ranged from Herbert Read to Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality to Robert Ornstein’s The Psychology of Consciousness to André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence to Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing to Wittgenstein’s Vienna and The Dialectical Imagination and Walter Benjamin to James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture to…well, there is another quarter century of turning points to go, but my point (turning or not) is that I probably overvalue some current books because they illuminate problems for me in the same way that these books illuminated them for me. Other people have different sets of problems, and reasons for considering them as problems to be solved. We may throw away our ladders after we have climbed up them, but they still determine how we make our ascent.

With that in mind, I can name Barbara Maria Stafford’s A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field as a provocative anthology of approaches to linking neurology with the humanities, albeit in ways that will sometimes prove heavy going to folks who haven’t already thought about basic questions in the various academic disciplines under discussion.

I realize I overvalue David Eagleman, whose grasp of his own field of neurology is singularly idiosyncratic, because he raises questions nobody else is willing to raise. He is also the only neurological researcher I know of who writes speculative fiction, and fiction that relates to the big questions I have purposely left out of the list of books in the paragraph before last. (You would never know I wrote my M.A. thesis on Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, Campbell before he got into the squishiness of following your bliss.)

Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind is a lovely, poetic exploration of neurological science tempered by Ackerman’s previous poetico-scientific endeavors, and if you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you will like. I do, although I just recently read it because I passed it over when it came out in 2004.

The tangled wings of evolutionary psychology (and I have left out such topics as Richard Lewontin’s quarrel with the just-so stories of the sociobiologists) get straightened out in interesting ways in David Rothenberg’s equally poetic but much more data-laden Survival of the Beautiful. This 2011 volume was recommended to me only in recent weeks so I can’t claim to have absorbed enough of it to summarize, but it’s a musicologist’s defense of the idea of neuroaesthetics—and the idea that beauty possesses survival value, else it wouldn’t have made its way into the fabric of evolution in the way that it has. (Bowerbirds and cuttlefish are a case in point. Though sexual selection and camouflage appear as driving forces, Rothenberg does admit that there is a case to be made for the sheer accident of the evolution of something like aesthetic capacities in any number of species.)

I recommend that book, of course, because the defense of “beauty” as a meaningful topic of discussion is something that pleases me, even if Dave Hickey’s approach to it is frustratingly wrong. James Elkins’ efforts to combine a whole bunch of academic disciplines strikes me as a much more productive approach to this problem and to a host of others, including the rethinking of global cultures and how to relate them to one another in the twenty-first century. The practical problem in this latter is that cultures compete by denying their intrinsic hybridity, but that is a complex system that nobody has even tried to connect to neurology yet…except very obliquely.

to be continued



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