Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe

I’ve not read much Tom Wolfe, but he strikes me as the kind of author I should read more of. That’s why I picked up a used copy of Hooking Up at one of the recent book sales hosted by my local public library. I knew nothing about it. I assumed it was a novel, similar in style to the only other Wolfe I have read, A Man in Full.

I was wrong. Hooking Up is a collection of essays (and one novella), some far more interesting than others. The worst of the bunch, in my opinion, is actually the titular Hooking Up, where Wolfe adopts a retrospective satiric lens to “report” on “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World,” as described in the essay’s subtitle.

By the year 2000, the term “working class” had fallen into disuse in the United States, and “proletariat” was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum, the better to allow his gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs. The two of them would have just ordered a round of Quibel sparkling water, from the state of West Virginia, because by 2000 the once-favored European sparkling waters Perrier and San Pellegrino seemed so tacky.

That’s the first paragraph -- and it goes downhill from there, the satire drifting more frequently into condescension than intuitive understanding. It doesn’t date well, frankly. Perhaps it describes the world Wolfe saw when he looked around at the occupants of rent-controlled New York apartments, but the year 2000 that he describes is all-but-unrecognizable to this Midwesterner that has lived now 17 years past that mystical date.

But the essay Hooking Up does introduce and reveal an underlying theme for the rest of the book. Wolfe is clearly both a big thinker and an entertaining writer, combining those two elements together in thoughtful and engaging ways. But in all the various subjects he tackles -- art, science, politics, religion -- his bias is towards the idea that the old ways are the best. Wherever man tries to upend the established order, to Wolfe, he will fail.

For example, he (rightfully, to my way of thinking) dismisses most of the hype over the impact of the Internet on the human animal.

All of our digifuturists, even the best, suffer from what the philosopher Joseph Levine calls “the explanatory gap.” There is never an explanation of just why or how such vast changes, such evolutionary and revolutionary leaps forward, are going to take place. McLuhan at least recognized the problem and went to the trouble of offering a neuroscientific hypothesis, his theory of how various media alter the human nervous system by changing the “sensory balance.” Everyone after him has succumbed to what is known as the “Web-mind fallacy,” the purely magical assumption that as the Web, the Internet, spreads over the globe, the human mind expands with it. Magical beliefs are leaps of logic based on proximity or resemblance. Many primitive tribes have associated the waving of the crops or tall grass in the wind with the rain that follows. During a drought the tribesmen get together and create harmonic waves with their bodies in the belief that it is the waving that brings on the rain. Anthropologists have posited these tribal hulas as the origin of dance. Similarly, we have the current magical Web euphoria. A computer is a computer, and the human brain is a computer. Therefore, a computer is a brain, too, and if we get a sufficient number of them, millions, billions, operating all over the world, in a single seamless Web, we will have a superbrain that converges on a plane far above such old-fashioned concerns as nationalism and racial and ethnic competition.

Wolfe doesn’t buy it. And it is probably only partially because he is a champion of the old-fashioned.

I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stockbroker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does, and only that. All the rest is Digibabble.

I sympathize with Wolfe’s intolerance of the hype. But at the same time, his indictment above rings a little hollow to me. With the shoe on the other foot, an equivalent faultfinder might complain that the human brain also does only one thing: it moves calcium ions across the synapses between neurons. That is the brain’s basic electrochemical function, just as Wolfe has described the Internet’s basic information retrieval function, but those basic functions are capable of giving rise to so many wonderful abilities and experiences. Citing the elimination of walking to the mailbox or making phone calls as the only benefit of the Internet is akin to citing the ability to walk and make phone calls as the only benefit of our brains.

But I’ll cut him some slack on that one. Because the place where Wolfe really comes across as a curmudgeon is when he tackles Richard Dawkins and his theory of memes.

In 1976, a year after Wilson had lit up the sky with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a British zoologist and Darwinian fundamentalist, Richard Dawkins, published a book called The Selfish Gene in which he announced the discovery of memes. Memes were viruses in the form of ideas, slogans, tunes, styles, images, doctrines, anything with sufficient attractiveness or catchiness to infect the brain -- “infect,” like “virus,” became part of the subject’s earnest, wannabe-scientific terminology -- after which they operated like genes, passing along what had been naively thought of as the creations of culture.

Wolfe’s bias is really on display in this first paragraph. What he calls a Darwinian fundamentalist, others might call an evolutionary biologist. What he calls wannabe-scientific terminology, others might call a scientific hypothesis.

Dawkins’s memes definitely infected the fundamentalists, in any event. The literature of Memeland began pouring out: Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, William H. Calvin’s How Brains Think, Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (with a foreword by Richard Dawkins), and on and on.

I hope Wolfe has actually read all these books. I haven’t, but I have read The Selfish Gene, and I think he’s got his facts wrong. But before we go there, let’s serve up this delicious paragraph.

Dawkins has many devout followers precisely because his memes are seen as the missing link in Darwinism as a theory, a theoretical discovery every bit as important as the skull of Peking man. One of Bill Gates’s epigones at Microsoft, Charles Simonyi, was so impressed with Dawkins and his memes and their historic place on the scientific frontier, he endowed a chair at Oxford University titled the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and installed Dawkins in it. This makes Dawkins the postmodern equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dawkins is now Archbishop of Darwinian Fundamentalism and Hierophant of the Memes.

No, Dawkins is not the Archbishop of Darwinian Fundamentalism, he is a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, an objective that has obviously failed with the segment of the public named Tom Wolfe.

There turns out to be one serious problem with memes, however. They don’t exist. A neurophysiologist can use the most powerful and sophisticated brain imaging now available -- and still not find a meme. The Darwinian fundamentalists, like fundamentalists in any area, are ready for such an obvious objection. They will explain that memes operate in a way analogous to genes, i.e., through natural selection and survival of the fittest memes. But in science, unfortunately, “analogous to” just won’t do. The tribal hula in analogous to the waving of a wheat field in the wind before the rain, too. Here the explanatory gap becomes enormous. Even though some of the fundamentalists have scientific credentials, not one even hazards a guess as to how, in physiological, neural terms, the meme “infection” is supposed to take place.

Now, anyone who has read my reaction to The Selfish Gene may be surprised to find me coming to Dawkins’s defense, but I’m pretty sure that even Dawkins doesn’t believe that memes have a physical existence that can be found nestled among the various lobes of the human brain. Memes, in his description, are an analogy, an attempt to describe a mechanism by which cultural phenomena can be transitioned from generation to generation, some rising in prominence, others falling away into disuse and extinction. Wolfe cries that memes have no explanatory power, yet, to Dawkins, memes are not meant to be an explanation, just a cognitive framework in which the explanation could someday be found.

And besides, let’s not forget that the revolutionary idea in The Selfish Gene is not about memes at all. It’s about genes being selfish.

But, despite these incongruities, Hooking Up is a mostly engaging read, offering up insights that likely only make sense when viewed from Wolfe’s idiosyncratic, half-enlightened, half-luddite perspective.

Insights like..

In the middle of an essay on the navel-gazing distractions of intellectual culture, the perspective that multicultural studies have become the new haven of Marxist ideology, with the chosen minority serving in the role of the proletariat.

Today the humanities faculties are hives of abstruse doctrines such as structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, commodification theory … The names vary, but the subtext is always the same: Marxism may be dead, and the proletariat has proved to be hopeless. They’re all at sea with their third wives. But we can find new proletariats whose ideological benefactors we can be -- women, non-whites, put-upon white ethnics, homosexuals, transsexuals, the polymorphously perverse, pornographers, prostitutes (sex workers), hardwood trees -- which we can use to express our indignation toward the powers that be and our aloofness to their bourgeois stooges, to keep the flame of skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt burning.

And in the middle of an essay on abandonment of journalistic curiosity in halls of serious literature, the view that movies have today replaced literature as repositories of the intense realism the public still seeks.

Today it is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who are themselves excited by the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now, in all its varieties. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who can’t wait to head out into that raucous rout, like the Dreisers, Lewises, and Steinbecks of the first half of the twentieth century, and see it for themselves. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who today have the instincts of reporters, the curiosity, the vitality, the joie de vivre, the drive, the energy to tackle any subject, head out onto any terrain, no matter how far it may be removed from their own experience -- often because it is so far removed from their own experience and they can’t wait to see it for themselves. As a result, the movie, not the novel, became the great naturalistic storytelling medium of the late twentieth century. Movies can be other things, but they are inherently naturalistic -- and I suggest that this is precisely what their audiences adore most about them: their intense realism.

Insights like these kept me turning the page, enjoying the perspectives offered, and the prose in which they were composed, whether I agreed with them or not.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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