On a monsoon-like evening in early September, Lawrence Weschler, the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University and the author of many mind-altering books, including the newly released Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative, braved the elements to pay a visit to the Brooklyn Rail headquarters, where Rail contributor Jed Lipinski spoke with him about his life and work.
Jed Lipinski (Rail): Your dad was a jazz pianist and your grandfather, Ernst Toch, was a famous Viennese composer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony. Why did you become a writer instead of a musician?
Lawrence Weschler: Well, in part because I’m basically amusical. I cannot hear whether tones go up or down. I mean, I just cannot. When somebody’s describing Chinese to me as a tonal language, for example, and they say, “You know Ma can have four different intonations. It can be [with no change in intonation] Ma, it can be Ma, it can be Ma, it can be Ma.” I can’t hear any difference. Or the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, duh-duh da-dum, I cannot hear whether the last note goes up or down. I mean, I know intellectually that it goes down. But it just takes away a huge sensual enjoyment from listening to music. I even show up as a sort of comic bagatelle in Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia. He can’t believe how unmusical I am.
Having said that, I have great beat, I’m a good dancer, I can whistle things to you. I just can’t appreciate all kinds of things that are going on in music. Writing of course is similar to music in that it’s the sequential exposition of material across time, in a formful manner. Which is what my grandfather called architectonic, or architecture across time—capaciousness, constriction, going up, going down. But I wouldn’t be at all interested in doing certain kinds of writing. I would have no interest in being a daily journalist and adhering to the pyramid structure. I love poetry, and I tried a bit of poetry when I was younger, but not very seriously. What I’m interested in is storytelling and the expanse of the narrative—in the way a story starts from nothing, the same way a symphony begins from silence and then suddenly you’re in the midst of it. There’s a kind of magic thing that happens. It starts moving, and it’s formed, and there’s sluicing and all that kind of stuff, and that feels to me very, very musical.
Rail: Your new collection consists of pieces written over the last 15 years or so, and they all appear to be interrelated, in the same way that your books seem interrelated. Is that a conscious choice on your part?
Weschler: I’m very conscious of building a structure, and very often these books are meant to be tied to other books that they answer. It’s call-and-response. But one thing that’s been very frustrating for me as a writer is that they always get put in other parts of the bookstore. I think of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, the book I did about the Museum of Jurassic Technology, as being twinned to Boggs: A Comedy of Values. Boggs does for money what Mr. Wilson does for museums. They are both Socratic exercises about people who kind of upend your world, and suddenly you have no idea where you are, what’s going on, or why you value this stuff at all. They’re meant to be side by side, but in the bookstore you’ll find Boggs probably somewhere under economics, because it seems to be about money. And they never know where to put Mr. Wilson; it often ends up in New Age. This new book is a call-and-response to an earlier collection called Vermeer in Bosnia. At the New Yorker I used to say that I went back and forth between cultural comedies and political tragedies, but really they were always the same thing—I was playing off the same set of issues in both. But you only really see it if you see all the stuff together, and my stuff is hardly ever together.
Rail: Is there any bookstore out there that actually does shelve them all together?
Weschler: Alas, it’s called Amazon.
Rail: Oh, right. Well, one thing that is consistent throughout the new book is the appearance of paradoxes and all sorts of uncanny things, the biggest one perhaps being this idea of the “uncanny valley.” Can you describe what that expression means?
Weschler: I first heard that phrase while doing a piece for Wired magazine about the digital animation of the face, around eight or nine years ago, and I thought, “Ah, that is a title.” But it’s also an issue that goes all the way back to Heraclitus and Nicholas of Cusa, the numbers mystic, and everybody else. And the issue, basically, is that people who are animating the face started out with Mickey Mouse, who you can do an enormous amount of expressions with, so then they try to do more, and eventually they come up with digital animation. They begin digitally animating battle scenes, Quidditch matches, a person walking that is impossible to tell from the real thing. They can even do the hand, which is quite amazing when you think about how incredibly complicated the hand is. But when they tried to tackle the face—and I’d argue they still have this problem—they hit a wall. And, philosophically, that’s incredibly interesting. I mean, what would account for why they can’t do it? So I hung out with a bunch of animators for a few weeks, and questions began to arise. Such as: Why wouldn’t you just hire an actor? But the real question has to do with something called the uncanny valley, which is a notion originally advanced by a Japanese Buddhist roboticist named Masahiro Mori. Which you gotta love right there.
Rail: When did he come up with this idea?
Weschler: This was about 40 years ago. Mori said that if you make a robot that is 80 percent lifelike, it’s fantastic. If you make it 90 percent lifelike, it’s incredible. 95 percent, it’s heaven. But at 96 percent, it’s a complete disaster, and you fall into what’s called the uncanny valley. Which is to say that, at 95 percent, it is a robot that is incredibly lifelike, but at 96 percent it’s a human being with something wrong. It’s icky. It’s repulsive. Arguably, the thing about robots—though not the face of the robot—is that they come out of the uncanny valley at around 98 percent. The thing about the face, though, is that you can get it to 99.999999 percent accuracy, and it will still be icky. And to ask why is a very good question.
Rail: In addition to exploring ideas about the face, the new book contains essays on things like a Yugoslavian performance artist and a human rights monitor in Rwanda. John Berger showed a similar interest in writing about both art and human rights. How much of an influence has he been for you?
Weschler: I actually met him for the first time three months ago.
Rail: Wow, that’s great. Out in Europe?
Weschler: I went out to see him, yes. We’ve been corresponding for years, but we’d never met. I’m regularly in Europe in June, for a little festival I do in Florence for New York University. And he lives about an hour south of Geneva, in a little farm village. But it’s always the same problem, because every year in June, he’s out doing the hay. He’s 85 years old, but he’s bringing in the hay. “I’d really love to see you,” he says, “but we can’t do it, because I’m doing the haying.” Here, by the way, is a photograph—
Rail: This is an iPhone photo of him on a—Honda motorcycle?
Weschler: It’s a Ducati, I think.
Rail: And he’s wearing a pair of blue overalls [laughs].
Weschler: He’s been off doing the hay.
Weschler: He’s been a very strong influence on me—one who not only gives you an idea that something might be interesting, but also gives you permission to do it. One story I often tell about John Berger is that, not too long after Che Guevara was killed, an amazing photograph of his dead body, which was laid out on a plinth, appeared in every newspaper in the world. They had taken many pictures that day, but this was the one that every editor went with. And so Berger writes an article that says, “We all know what this photograph is based on.” This image, he said, “is as if hot-wired in the brains of the generals that taught them where to stand, that taught the photograph where to take the picture from. This is obviously based on Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson.’” And when you look at the two of them side-by-side, it’s just mind-blowing. I remember thinking to myself, “This guy does not read the newspaper the way I read the newspaper.” I mean, that is a really interesting way to read the newspaper.
Because what happens then, by the way, is that you realize Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson”was in turn based on Masaccio’s “Deposition of Christ.” In the former, a thief is being anatomized—because that’s who they anatomized, thieves. He’s in a loincloth, and his feet are in the same place, and he’s basically a secular, Christ-like figure. And, now this is me talking, but if you want to know why Che eventually appears on people’s T-shirts, it’s because of how he looked when he died. He looked like Jesus as mediated through Rembrandt. Had he not been bearded at the time of his death— Had he looked like this guy here, for instance. [He shows a photo of a man who looks nothing like the iconic image of Che.] Everybody thinks it’s Desi Arnaz. But it’s a picture of Che as he’d disguised himself in his Argentinian passport photo when he was going to Africa, without the beard. He looks like a complete dufus and joker, you know, and had he looked like that when he died, would we have remembered him in the same way? I’m talking completely irrespective of politics here, and I’m not saying that politics doesn’t matter. What matters is the way images prepare the way for other images.
Rail: This reminds me that, like Berger, and like another Berger protégé Geoff Dyer, you’re frequently stopping to think about things, or considering things from a different angle, which often leads to a kind of strange realization about the subject under discussion. You even come out and say it in your essays: “If you stop and think about it. …”
Weschler: It’s true, and one of the things you just did is something that I like to do, which is to take clichés seriously. To stop and listen to them. I should mention, by the way, that I am not an art critic. I mean, I am completely a fraud in everything I do. Which is probably the right way to be, if you’re going to be a narrative reporter of a certain kind. When I went to Poland, I didn’t know a thing about Poland the day I landed. When I went to Bosnia, I really didn’t know anything about the situation there. In terms of art, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody will say, “Well, so-and-so, so-and-so” and I have no idea who they’re talking about. But one of the things I try to do is write about things I don’t know anything about, because then you get to participate in the freshness of my excitement about it.
Rail: You’re also someone who really emphasizes the process of asking questions. You’ve talked before about the glory of the question-asking stance, and the importance of honing questions in interviews to figure out the best one is to ask.
Weschler: That was one of the many things I learned while at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It was four years old when I got there, and it was just an incredible place to be. It was the experimental campus of the U.C. system and we had all these fantastic professors. It occurs to me now that in college, you really only need to learn two or three things. You need to learn how to read—to really read, not just to decipher words on a page. And you need to learn how to ask questions, which is a skill. Often what happens, if you’re reporting or doing interviews, is that you go out thinking you know what the question is, but it turns out that it doesn’t open anything up. It rings but it doesn’t ring true. So if you interview 40 people over the course of three weeks in Bosnia, for example, you’re not only taking notes on everything that everybody says, but you’re trying to figure out which is the question that works. You start with: “Why did you kill those people?” But that doesn’t work, you know. So then you try others: “What was it like when…?” And then you have to keep going, until you figure out what the question is. And then you can go back and look at all your notes in the light of that question. If you can learn that, the whole rest of your life will be a college education.
Rail: Your book A Miracle, A Universe, which came out in 1990 and was originally published in the New Yorker, asks a big question about how countries like Brazil and Uruguay should deal with the torturers in their midst after the collapse of repressive military regimes.
Weschler: Yes, and questions like that tend to be pretty broad. I remember in the Uruguay piece, there comes a point where you have to figure out what the military and the general mean when they say “we.” They said things like: “It would be against our honor and you can’t be a country if you don’t have honor.” But who exactly are they talking about here? You began to see the “we” floating in the sentence in different kinds of ways, and suddenly it opened up all kinds of stuff that was interesting. One of the huge revelations to me in Brazil was that the generals were completely freaked out by the fact that military interrogators who raped their subjects were having fun. I mean, the generals were all for rape as an instrument of interrogation, and as a means for destroying a person’s will to solidarity. But when they began getting reports that these guys were having fun doing it! Well, the generals were horrified, because it was totally against their honor, and as a result the military began to fracture.
Rail: Several times in the new book, and throughout A Miracle, A Universe—I mean, even in the title there—you refer to human rights as a kind of magic. You write that there’s something miraculous about human beings standing up to power and histories of violence that stretch back thousands of years.
Weschler: A while ago I had the wonderful occasion to collaborate with Dick Avedon, at the New Yorker, for an essay about human rights. Human Rights Watch had 10 or 12 monitors that year, and I was going to write a little thing about what it means to be a human rights monitor, after Avedon took the photos. And it was incredibly interesting to watch him do it. He had this totally inspired notion to bring each monitor forward, so that it appears as if the other ones have his or her back. In each picture, you would see the close-up of one of them, while three or four others stood behind. I had to write a text that would rise to that level, and the way I began was with the notion that the statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” is ridiculous. I mean, all of history is the exact opposite. And the really amazing words in that phrase are not “we” or “truths” or “self-evident” or “equal,” but rather “we hold.” Because it’s not at all self-evident that all men are created equal. It’s the least self-evident thing there is. But the minute you say “we hold,” it suggests that by standing together, the 10 of us, this incredible thing happens. It begins to take on a physical reality.
Rail: In your essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” which appears in the 2004 book of the same name, you talk about an Italian judge who is overseeing the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. He tells you a horrific story, and that he deals with hearing such things every day by going to a local museum to look at paintings by Vermeer.
Weschler: The story he tells, without the gory details here, is about torture with the intent to drive the person crazy. And the problem the judge was facing was that they hadn’t deemed the person crazy, he had testified in a pre-trial hearing and then committed suicide. And the question he was having to face was, can you admit this testimony? Clearly the guy is dead. So my immediate question was, “How do you keep from going crazy hearing these stories?” And he says, “Well, as often as possible, I go to the Mauritshuis museum here in the Hague to spend time with the Vermeers.” And as he told me that story, what I realized, which I had never thought about before, was that when Vermeer was painting those paintings—which for us are the epitome of peacefulness, of serenity—all of Europe was Bosnia. Europe was just coming out of the Thirty Years’ War, they were on their way into this horrendous world with Louis XIV, which would end with him dying of a heart attack. And so Vermeer, in a profound way, becomes the person who invents our notion of peace through something that happens for the first time in painting, which is the portrayal of a profound inner subjectivity. He works inside these genres—a girl asleep, a woman pouring milk, a prostitute taking money—that are all within the Dutch context, which is often how Vermeer is portrayed. You know, “That painting is about vanity, that’s about sloth, that’s about…” There are all these moral categories. But what Vermeer says is, “No, this is a real person. A person like me.” The inner subjectivity serves as the basis for the profound invention of this concept of peace that says, “No, that person is not a Protestant, that person is not a Catholic, that person is not a Serb, it’s not a Croat, it’s not a Hutu, et cetera. It’s a person like me.” Which is incredibly exciting.
Rail: Do you think you write about art out of a similar motivation, to sort of offset the horrific stories you hear while reporting on human rights?
Weschler: I would argue that, in all sorts of ways, the essential issues in both are the same. I’m interested in passion. I’m interested in people who are kind of moseying along in the everydayness of their life, and suddenly they catch fire. You can see that happening with artists I’ve written about, like Robert Irwin, who was this kind of half-assed artist who one day suddenly became obsessed with painting single lines on a canvas, to the point that he did it for three years, 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and emerged with 10 canvases and 20 lines. And it’s insane, but he caught fire and he’s doing something. In political terms, I first saw the same sort of thing when I was in Poland. The theorists of Solidarity in Poland at the time had this great line. They said that Solidarity was the expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation, by which they meant its capacity to act as the “subject” of history, and not just the “object” of history. Which is a grammatical transformation. Certain little countries had been content up to that point to be the object of other people’s sentences. Whereas Germanys, Hitlers, Stalins, Soviet Unions—they all insist on being the subjects of their own sentences. And that is the great revolutionary moment—whether it happens in Uruguay, or Egypt more recently—when people who have been weighed down suddenly stand up. And what typically follows, of course, is repression, or taking people who act like subjects and turning them back into objects. And resistance is refusing to be forced. That’s the drama of what’s going on. You can take the same language and talk about artists. There’s a moment where the painter stops asking, “What can I do?” and starts asking instead, “What can art do?” Or the moment where the artist stands drop-jawed before his own creation. Rather than continuing to go through the motions, the artist suddenly becomes the motion, through the intervention of grace. I believe that happens in art.
Rail: There’s an essay in Uncanny Valley about the novelist Mark Salzman, who goes through a long period of writer’s block only to produce what you describe as an almost perfect novel, called Lying Awake. Salzman writes in that book: “You can’t make great music happen, you can only prepare yourself for it to happen.”
Weschler: Exactly. There is preparation for receptivity, but that doesn’t cause it to happen. Similarly, you can do eight million dots on the face through motion capture technology, but that doesn’t necessarily bridge the gap of the uncanny valley. I guess one of the people I always return to is Nicholas of Cusa, whose ideas are still very useful. He was this number mystic, a late-Medieval, early-Renaissance guy, and he responded to this idea at the time that, to gain knowledge of God, one should just catalogue everything—books, rocks, flowers, human emotions—so that by the end you have catalogued all of God’s creations, for the creator. So Cusa, who is a mathematician, says: “Well, I suppose that’s a bit like an n-sided polygon inside of a circle.” In other words, you take a triangle inside of a circle, and you keep adding sides to it, and the more sides you add the closer it comes to being a circle. And yet, at the same time, you keep getting further away, because a circle only has one “side,” one line, and here you’ve got a million lines and angles. Cusa was the one to come up with this concept that at a certain point, you have to make a leap of faith—from the n-sided polygon to the circle, say. And that leap of faith is accomplished through grace, which is to say, for free.
If you’re a writer, you can have all your notes, a million notes, but the piece just isn’t coming together. It isn’t flowing, it isn’t surging, and you know it isn’t because you tap it and it doesn’t ring true. And it’s miserable. I have a friend who says there are only two moments in a writer’s life that are any fun: when you come up with the idea, and when you finish. Or, as Thomas Mann says, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” But the point is that suddenly, after all that aching difficulty, you finally, hopefully, break out of it. You break free. It wouldn’t have happened without all the prior work, but the work wasn’t necessarily what caused it to happen. This is true when you talk to Polish Solidarity people, or when you talk to Egyptians right now. You were working on this for 25 years and nothing happened, you say. Why now? And they say: Beats us! We don’t know.
Rail: Let’s talk briefly about the Oakes twins, whose new exhibit you curated at the CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea and which is on view until October 29. How did you first meet them?
Weschler: I first encountered Ryan and Trevor Oakes, ironically, in the context of another pair of identical twins, who I was pursuing for a different thing about a crocheted coral reef. This woman Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine Wertheim—one was a physicist, the other was an artist—founded an institute called the Institute for Figuring. In the context of meeting them, they said you should meet these other twins, who had themselves created an amazing hyperbolic form, but for completely different reasons. And they were great. They’re 29 years old. They got full scholarships to Cooper Union in New York, but the thing about them is that they know just about everything about the phenomenology of vision. And they know this because they’ve been having an intense conversation about vision for 27 years, since they were toddlers. Not stuff like, When you squint your eye this way, what do you see? I mean, at a certain point they were sitting on log stumps 20 yards apart and shouting to each other about what the depth perception of a creature that had eyes that far apart would be like. Which is not your average 12-year-old conversation.
Phrased differently, they have been two people in a prolonged conversation about what the phenomenon of binocularity is all about. When you’re with them, they finish each other’s sentences; they have this kind of uncanny understanding of each other. They’re distinct people, but they are also completely tuned into each other, and they keep asking really interesting questions. While they were still in college, they made a series of critical breakthroughs in their depiction of physical reality. And they have come up with a way for tracing the world with camera lucida-like precision, but without any equipment except their two eyes—or, more precisely, their visual cortex. One of the things they kind of rediscovered is that, although the predominant metaphor for seeing since the Renaissance has been looking through a window, this is not in fact what the world really looks like. We are actually on the inside of a perceptual sphere. So a lot of the work they’ve done has been on concave surfaces. When I first met them, they were still limiting themselves to drawing the outlines of things—these uncanny, hugely complicated places—with black ink. But since then, over the last year or two, they started doing color. Or what they describe as “light foam,” by which they mean light that comes from the sun and spherically spreads in 360 degrees of infinite rays. Their most recent images are kind of like Seurat, although Seurat used points, and they’re using a kind of quantum looping.
Rail: They’re not exactly famous at this point, right?
Weschler: That’s true, and I think that’s something fairly common in my stuff. I tend not to write about famous people at the moment of their fame. This was a huge cloud over my head with Tina Brown at the New Yorker. My position with her was that you should never profile a celebrity at the moment of their celebrity, because all you’ll get is a piece about the condition of celebrity. Don’t do a profile of a person when they’re on their book tour. A lot of the pieces in this book are about people you may not have heard of. I think Walter Murch, for instance, who edited Apocalypse Now and many other great films, is much more interesting to write about than Francis Ford Coppola. In this context, I think about Julia Roberts’s decision to marry a cinematographer. The stars who marry each other—that’s boring. But the one who knows that the real genius on the stage is the cinematographer, well, that’s really interesting.
This short essay was first published in The Chinati Foundation Newsletter #15, in October 2010, and appears in Uncanny Valley under the section titled “Four Easy Pieces.”
Another Easy Piece
by Lawrence Weschler
The Judd Ant
Marfa, Texas / 2007
So the other afternoon I happened to find myself walking the length of the late Donald Judd’s enigmatically posed (if strangely imposing) processional of giant concrete die, spread out across an otherwise empty wildgrass expanse along the periphery of his marvelous Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I say “die,” though of course the (precisely) 64 boxy concrete structures are not exactly mammoth dice; rather, at least dimensionally, think of a pair of dice cubes glued cheek-by-jowl one beside the next and then hollowed out, either lengthwise (precisely 5 meters long by 2 1/2 high and 2 1/2 meters deep) or through the narrow core (2 1/2 meters by 2 1/2 and 5 meters deep); some of them completely hollow so you can see clean through, others stoppered either at the front or the back (like packing crates, alternately wide or deep, lying on their sides); the whole lot of them gathered into (at first) seemingly random clusters, three long see-through boxes in a starlike splay here, and then three wide stoppered boxes one behind the next there, and then…groups of three or five or six spread one beyond the next, until tramping the full length of the wide wildgrass field (exactly one kilometer), you have traversed 15 such groupings.
Open, closed; wide, narrow; three, six, five; radial, side-by-side, one behind the other: The didactic character of the experience (“Hmm, that’s true, you can try it that way, and then this other, and if you add one more you can do it this way, and now hollow them out the other way, and now stopper the hollows”) gradually giving way to an experience more lyrical, or perhaps poetical (certain effects seeming to repeat themselves like deep tidal refrains, just beyond the reach of conscious apperception) before the whole mad enterprise begins to throb as profoundly existential (the sheer absurdity of the effort involved in lugging these huge concrete slabs out onto this godforsaken field, the Stonehenge defiant assertion of value implied, the primoridal insistence on a brute human trace across this otherwise barren high desert expanse).
Not bad, not bad, I found myself thrumming as now, doubling back, I returned the length of the rutted path, reprising the 15 clusters in reverse, ambling toward the Foundation’s headquarters compound way up ahead, humming along (didactical/poetical/existential), my gaze presently drifting absentmindedly to the ground before me (churned tire-ruts and dried mud puddles and tufts of upthrust grass), when—I swear to God—I happened to notice a little ant dragging an improbably long stalk of dried blond wildgrass. And I mean a stalk a good five or six times its own body length. Pulling and pulling on the damn thing, and now laying it down and traipsing back along its length so as to be able instead to push it forward, much of the time (swear to God) tilting the stalk a good 45 degrees into the air, laying it down again, nudging it leftward, going around to the other side, nudging it right, returning to the back to lift it skyward and shovingly forward once again. And so on. And on. Relentlessly.
By this time I was completely absorbed. Minutes passed—the ant, the straw, their dogged course—till finally the ant dragged the thing under and presently around a tuft of wild grass, lay the straw down, pulled back momentarily, seeming to appraise the situation, and now began nudging it ever so slightly this way and that, lining it up perfectly (as I now suddenly perceived, dumbfounded) with another length of dry straw already there, which in turn perfectly abutted another length still, the three lengths of identical blond straw now perfectly aligning—nudge, push, nudge, nudge, pull—into one long length. Whereupon, its mission apparently accomplished, the seemingly satisfied little creature simply wandered off into the gathering evening light.
As, at length, did I, wondering, had Judd first got it from the ant, or the ant from the Judds, or was it that Judd conditioned me even to be able to notice the ant, or was that ant simply God (or, at very least, God’s high priest), or (I mean, seriously) what? Just what was that?