Wild thing: Aslan and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) in the 2005 film of The Chronicles of Narnia
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Rowan Williams on Narnia - an archbishop interrogates utopia

The archbishop goes beyond the wardrobe door.

The epigraph that prefaces this short volume is a quotation from Francis Spufford’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, The Child That Books Built: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must write children’s books.” Here Spufford is making a reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s celebrated dictum “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. It is a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism and some mockery – if you can’t speak about something, how can you be other than silent about it? – and it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.

In contrast, Spufford’s variation on Wittgenstein is straightforward and illuminating: children’s books enable their authors – and their adult readers – to gain access to parts of human experience that books written for grown-ups don’t touch. The boundaries may be increasingly porous – childhood and adulthood are rapidly hanging social institutions, not purely biological states – but it is true that children’s books disregard distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary in ways that most books meant for adults do not even attempt. It cannot be accidental that fantastic fiction is a branch of literature with a strong appeal for children and adults alike.

Spufford is on to something important but I’m not sure how much it helps Rowan Williams’s argument in regard to C S Lewis. The seven volumes of Narnia stories have never struck me as offering a glimpse into the world of childhood. Set in a magical realm reached through a wardrobe in an upstairs room in the house of a professor, they are all too obviously a literary rendition of a middle-aged male’s nostalgic memories of growing up in Edwardian England. At that time, writers such as George MacDonald – a Scottish Congregationalist minister and author of many novels of fantasy, including the influential Phantastes (1858) – were still being widely read, and the Narnia books are based as much on Lewis’s adult reading as on his memories of being a child. Partly for that reason, the series has always had, for me, a distinctly stuffy, derivative quality.

It is this kitschy, neo-Edwardian atmosphere – as much as the traces of racism and misogyny that Philip Pullman, a ferocious critic of the Narnia books, has identified in them –that mars any enjoyment there might be in entering the world imagined in the series. These books lack the freshness of vision of Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first and best of his three “science-fiction” novels – an exquisite blend of interplanetary travel and metaphysical quest whose only obvious predecessor is David Lindsay’s extraordinary A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), which is soaked through with a dark Gnosticism that Lewis, though greatly impressed by the book, rejected as “so Manichaean as to be almost satanic”.

Soon to be former archbishop, Williams first set out his view of Lewis in three lectures given at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011. This new concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the place of humankind in the scheme of things. As Williams observes, “There is no ‘church’ in Narnia, no religion even” in Narnia. Even so, it is the Christian world-view that Narnia embodies that Williams wants to understand and convey to his readers. Though he mounts a partial defence of Lewis against some of the more lurid critiques, Williams is not chiefly concerned with apologetics. His overriding aim is to uncover what is unfamiliar and challenging in Lewis’s view of things, particularly for contemporary readers who cannot think of the world as anything other than a human construction. Williams has used other writers to define what is disturbing and challenging in Christianity –most notably in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008).

Packed with arresting insight, The Lion’s World is his most successful exercise to date in this Christian version of hermeneutics. It has often been argued – by myself, among others – that monotheism is excessively humancentred. Against this view, Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in Narnia, he notes that Aslan, the “great lion” that figures in all seven books as a symbol of divinity, is non-human – an astonishingly bold move on Lewis’s part, given how Christianity is usually understood.

As Williams writes, “Some varieties of nervous and impoverished Christian mind have been anxious about this, as about Lewis’s blithe co-options of pagan mythology.” I am still not persuaded that Christianity can escape anthropocentrism, but the idea that “human beings are always already embedded in their relations to the non-human world” is true and important – and just as challenging to nervous and impoverished secular thinkers as it is to believers in religion. It is not only conventional understandings of Christianity that Lewis is contesting, in Williams’s interpretation, but an entire modern world-view.

“To be human is to be with the non-human world,” Williams writes, “even to be for the non-human world.” Narnia’s talking beasts free the mind from the world-view – underpinning what Williams describes as “the passionate campaign against nature itself that is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity” – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world. It is a fantasy of human omnipotence that Lewis probed in many of his fictions – particularly The Great Divorce (1944-45) and That Hideous Strength (1945), but also in The Abolition of Man (1943), his most persuasive book of advocacy, in which he argues that refashioning nature and human nature to fit ideas of perfection or progress not only empties the nonhuman world of value but also dehumanises humankind. As Lewis pointed out and Williams recognises, Christians aren’t the only people who find such a prospect repugnant. So do adherents of every religion and philosophy that recognises a world beyond the human to which humankind must, in the end, submit.

Written during the Second World War, The Abolition of Man is strikingly prescient regarding those currents of 21st-century humanist and transhumanist thinking in which the future for the human species lies in leaving behind its animal inheritance. By exiting the earth and becoming minds in cyberspace, humans might manage to escape ageing and death. At the same time, they would cease to exist as human beings. As Williams writes, summarising what he takes to be Lewis’s meaning in the Narnia books, “Humanity can be manipulated into a nightmare caricature of eternal life, but only by losing what makes it human.” It may be that the necessary technologies will eventually be developed but the cost for those who use them will be, in effect, to vanish from the human scene. No doubt there will be some who are happy to pay this price and for my part I’m more than happy to let them do so. As Williams shows in this mind-opening little book, Lewis’s achievement was to point out just how high the price will be.

The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams is published by SPCK Publishing and priced at £8.99

 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge