Book Review: Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life by Phillip Thurtle

Reviewed by Amy Ione

As I began Phillip Thurtle’s well-researched Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life, I wondered how his “envisioning of life” would intersect with the abundant evidence that a complex array of grids have served as a foundational element in art, architecture, and design production throughout history. A few examples that quickly come to mind include those used to construct perfectly proportioned Egyptian and Aztec temples, Islamic and Buddhist art, Chuck Close’s stylized portraits, and the layout of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Rosalind Krauss’ 1978 statement that the surfacing of the grid in early twentieth century modernist art was an announcement of “modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse” [1] is also a part of the grid litany, although one that gives a negative cast to how we use grids to engage with objects in our world.

As it turns out, Biology in the Grid moves along a markedly different track. Despite his integration of graphic design, the entertainment industry, advertising, and cultural theory, the book is largely orthogonal to the long art and design trajectory. Thurtle sees grids as a framework within a biopolitical circumstance and makes the point that “living in the grid’ does not equalize us because all lives are not treated similarly despite the seeming uniformity of the form. In his words: Continue reading “Book Review: Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life by Phillip Thurtle”

Book Review: The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce

Reviewed by Amy Ione.   

The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce is a robust and multidimensional reminder of the complexity of human consciousness. Moving from Enlightenment studies of electricity and human anatomy to our 21st century digitally-connected globe, this interdisciplinary study asserts that delusions of electronic persecution have been a preeminent symptom of psychosis for over 200 years. One impressive feature of the study is how deftly Sconce weaves together case studies, literary source material, court cases, and popular media. Through this material he argues that we are moving toward an increasingly psychotic reality in which data practices will produce a world in which thought, reflection, and doubt will be disrupted by the very structures humans are putting in place. In his view, the current melding of big data and political power is creating a situation in which it is becoming more difficult to isolate precisely how (or perhaps where) bodies, the mind, electronics, and information intersect. He draws a parallel between psychotic disembodiment and electronic simulations:

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Facebook Society: Losing Ourselves in Sharing Ourselves: Reviewed by Amy Ione

According to Roberto Simanowski, the author of Facebook Society: Losing Ourselves in Sharing Ourselves, this volume isn’t a book about Facebook. Rather his concern is what he calls Facebook society. His starting point is Facebook’s claim that it is building a “global community,” and his underlying assumption is that social-media platforms have altered social interaction, political life, and outlooks on the world, even for people who do not regularly use them. Bringing boundless enthusiasm to how Facebook and other social apps create community, this cultural studies perspective both celebrates networked society and offers a critique of problematic elements derived from digital communities, with a particular focus on our concept of the self.

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Review of A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species

Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2019
Published: Leonardo Reviews

A Different Kind of Animal is based on two lectures Robert Boyd delivered in 2016 at Princeton University as a part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. In these lectures Boyd introduces his theory that biology and culture are both evolutionary, a topic he’s been working on with Peter Richerson for three decades. Needless to say, this is a broad topic, a point brought home by the four Responses to the lectures also included in the volume. All four commentators endorse the contours of Boyd’s theory and their critiques also raise valid questions: Is Boyd too reductive? Does Boyd’s view of social learning and cooperation rely too much on copying others? Does he adequately define the ways that norms arise and change? Is he ignoring how individuals manipulate norms?

At the beginning of the book Boyd points out that his lectures are about human uniqueness and cumulative cultural adaptation, not the inventive capacities of individuals. He writes:

“We are much better at learning from others than other species are, and equally important, we are motivated to learn from others even when we do not understand why our models are doing what they are doing. This psychology allows human populations to accumulate pools of adaptive information that greatly exceed the inventive capacities of individuals. Cumulative cultural evolution is critical for human adaptation.” (p. 16)

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Book Review of William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises

In my 2007 Leonardo review of Rosalind Krauss’ book Perpetual Inventory I characterized her essay on William Kentridge as the most compelling in the book [1]. Krauss introduced him as a South African artist whose animated films pursue the problems of apartheid and spoke about how he creatively mixed film, drawing, and erasure with highly charged ideas. She also spoke about how his peripatetic approach, improvisational process (fortuna), and his use of erasure spoke of a creative practice that combines drawing and seeing with making and assessing. Krauss concluded that regardless of whether Kentridge’s drawings for projection come together in a series that examines apartheid, capitalist greed, eros, memory, or whatever, his process is not based primarily on the theme of the series. Rather, in her view, and I share her view to some degree, the works result through the dictates of his creative process. William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises by Leora Maltz-Leca sees his philosophical relationship to the work as more important than his creative practice per se. Therefore, one intriguing question on my mind as I wrote this review is why Maltz-Leca, and indeed Kentridge himself as relayed in this book through a number of interviews, did not change my mind.

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Book Review by Amy Ione: Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2018

The title of Lisa Sideris’ book, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World, made me wonder: Would this consecration expose me to something wondrous? While I don’t think the word wondrous quite fits my response, the book is a rewarding read. Sideris, a talented writer, introduces pointed questions to guide her study. I was particularly impressed with her nuanced evaluation of the new cosmologies that claim to bring science and spirituality together. In addition, the author’s erudite discussion stands out as a refreshing example of why the kind of critical thinking encouraged by the humanities has value.

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Book Review by Amy Ione: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

Reviewed by Amy Ione, January 2018

Although creating a mess is not qualitatively the same as creating an original mathematical equation, what the word ‘creating’ denotes in each case is nonetheless clear. I cannot answer why we easily comprehend the meaning in both instances, but I do know that creativity’s amorphous and multidimensional reality is tantalizing even if our use of the word spans a spectrum of activities. In terms of discovery and human psychology, a good touchstone is a graphic that the creativity researcher Robert Sternberg put together titled “Cognitive Characteristic of Creative Persons” [1]. In it he summarizes the views of 16 authors who contributed to an anthology he edited on this subject in 1988. One striking feature of the chart is that each author stressed multiple traits and yet no single trait was postulated by every one of the renowned contributors. Among them were Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Howard Gardner, Howard Gruber, and Dean Simonton. Equally striking 30 years later is that the distribution of the 20 relevant characteristics they identified seems dated now. Nine of the experts, the second highest number for any trait, argued for specialization (or creativity in a particular domain) in 1988. Given the emphasis on transdisciplinary work in the 21st century, I would guess that this factor would not rank as high today. By contrast, the top characteristic, stressed by 11 of the 16 authors, seems to still hold. This is the use of existing knowledge as a basis for new ideas. Even so, at under 70% it was nonetheless not universally chosen.
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Amy Ione Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience

Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience, Guest Editor, Susan Magsamen; Editor, Ashfaq Ishaq.

Posted at Leonardo Reviews

I sat down to read this ChildArt issue about art and the brain a few days after I learned of Marian Diamond’s (1926-2017) death [1]. Perhaps best known for her studies of Einstein’s brain, which noted that he had more support cells in the brain than average, she was also a distinguished educator and a pioneer in brain plasticity research. The two products of her legacy that influenced me directly came to mind as I absorbed the essays. First, I recalled how Diamond’s skill as an educator came through in an interactive videotaped lesson on the brain she did during her tenure as Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science (recorded in 1990). While explaining the brain’s functions and dissecting an actual brain she also sensitively responded to questions posed by a group of two elementary school students and two graduate students. The composite demonstrated how a talented instructor is able to stimulate learning [2]. In addition, and similarly, when I was a docent at the Hall, one of the most popular installations was an interactive installation about the brain, designed by Diamond, that engaged visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

ChildArt’s “Your Brain on Art” likewise captures the importance of engagement in education and human development, introducing projects that highlight children in schools as well as cross-cultural and community outreach. Divided into three sections, the issue also reminds us that children learn and experience life in more than one way. Continue reading “Amy Ione Review of ChildArt Magazine: Arts and Mind – The Brain Science of Human Experience”

Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists

Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists
edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman

Review by Amy Ione
Posted: Leonardo Reviews, May 2017
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One of the Times Higher Education’s Best Books of 2015, Future of the Brain offers a compilation of original essays by leading brain researchers. Divided into seven sections, the range and disparities of the authors’ views underscore the dearth of an overarching theory researchers apply to studies in this area. Cross-references among chapters do, however, remind us that science itself succeeds through communication among scientists about what their data says. Also noteworthy is that, even given the spectrum of views, most of the authors share a “we can do this” attitude: They are confident we can and will eventually understand the brain. Suffice it to say, as Gary Marcus, one of the book’s two editors notes: “Neuroscience today is a collection of facts, rather than ideas; what is missing is connective tissue. We know (or think we know) roughly what neurons do, and that they communicate with one another, but not what they are communicating” (p. 205).

The first section, mapping the brain, presents connectome projects. This idea (with computation) is the primary research paradigm presented in the book. Essays by Mike Hawrylycz, Misha Ahrens, Christof Koch, Anthony Zador, and George Church set the stage for this book’s survey of current efforts to understand brain connectivity through mapping and imaging neural activities of mice, strategies for reverse engineering and so forth. Computation, the subject of the second section, includes essays by May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Krishna Shenoy, Olaf Sporns, and Jeremy Freeman. Together the two sections argue that the brain is an organ of computation and scientists need to figure out what the brain is computing. Continue reading “Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists”