Monday, June 1, 2015
Books I'm Reading: Vision and Art; Forbidden Knowledge; Turing's Cathedral
Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neurobiologist, has written Art and Vision (Abrams 2002), a volume on the biology of seeing ("the biology of seeing" is the book's subtitle) that will be of interest to anyone curious about how we see and especially to artists; the book reproduces many, many works of art that illustrate the biological principles the author lays out. Livingstone covers the nature of light itself before moving on to an explanation of human color vision and then to a chapter on luminance and night vision. These early chapters are worth reading more than once before moving on; most of the rest of the book assumes the reader has taken this information fully on board. Despite being challenging in places, a very attractively laid out, informative book that I'll probably go back to many times.
These case histories look first at science and technology. Shattuck discusses development of the atomic bomb and pursuit of The Human Genome Project as illustrative of two sharply contrasting attitudes toward the advancement of scientific knowledge--one, deeply ambivalent, sees the advance of science as perhaps inevitable but at the same time sinful; the other makes no apologies for supporting unbridled scientific investigation. The section on the writings of the Marquis de Sade asks whether they deserve the appreciation they've attracted in recent decades, examining along the way the question of how they may have influenced serial killers and other sociopaths. The final chapter is a summary that itself refers the reader to an appendix in which Shattuck attempts to categorize the types of forbidden knowledge discussed in his book--these being: inaccessible or unattainable knowledge; knowledge prohibited by divine, religious, moral, or secular authority; dangerous, destructive or unwelcome knowledge; Fragile, delicate knowledge; knowledge double-bound; and Ambiguous knowledge.
The first four of these, as the author himself points out, are fairly self-explanatory. Shattuck's last two categories are less so. Knowledge double-bound refers to the mutually exclusive nature of objective (exterior, contemplative) knowledge and subjective (gained through direct experience) knowledge. "Exterior objective knowledge will never carry us to a full grasp of any subjective experience. On the other hand, as the French proverb suggests [Tout savor c'est tout pardoner: To understand all is to forgive all] full empathy with another experience or another life takes away from us the capacity to see it objectively and judge it aright." Ambiguous knowledge refers to the sometimes contradictory effects of knowledge. Well written, dense with intriguing ideas, and well worth the time it requires to read, although this is the kind of book that may require several readings to fully absorb.