Sunday, January 09, 2005


The educational system in America, in California particularly, is under construction. It has been for some years. Perhaps you missed the signs, but they were there.

"The Road Most Travelled--Your Tax Dollars at Work"

Unfortunately for you, students are being taught not to think, or, rather to think along only certain edge towards certain paths...all of which serpintine towards the glorious horizon of unthinking. These paths all have crosswords with signposts: "Which college should I go to?" "How much money will I make?" "How far is Starbuck's from here?" "Should I become a doctor or just marry one?"

Ah, but why is this unfortunate for you? The answer is that YOU are already there, in the bright silken throne of comfort and career where you have, for the most part, stopped thinking. Perhaps you have vague existential yearnings. But they are (thankfully) buried in iPod commercials and the nighborhood gossip and the aroma of herbal tea and croissants. Who, then, will think the thoughts? Who will ask questions to find the clues to find the secret door which opens to the path which has been hidden all along? THAT road won't be travelled by you. Or at least not without a guide.

Who will think us towards what humans will be?

Following this paragraph is an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (the fictional narrator/writer is giving a speech inspired by some very real experiments which occurred almost one hundred years ago). I think it is so cool that I typed it up. The analogy he is forming is clear...but less clear is how to fight the scientists who trick, punish and torture us out of our thoughts. Ultimately, I believe, we are our own scientists--having locked ourselves in our overpriced Californian homes filled with enough "stuff" to occupy our consciouses for decades. Read on if you like. I must go play video games. My attention span is not what it used to be.

"In 1912, the Prussian Academy of Sciences established on the island of Tenerife a station devoted to experimentation inot the mental capacities of apes, particularly chimpanzees. The station operated until 1920.

One of the scientists working there was the psychologist Wolfgang Kohler. In 1917 Kohler published a monograph entitled The Mentality of Apes describing his experiments. In November of the same year Franz Kafka published his “Report to an Academy”. Whether Kafka had read Kohler’s book I do not know. He makes no reference to it in his letters or diaries, and his library disappeared during the Nazi era. Some two hundred of his books reemerged in 1982. They do not include Kohler’s book, but that proves nothing.

I am not a Kafka scholar. In fact, I am not a scholar at all. My status in the world does not rest on whether I am right or wrong in claiming that Kafka read Kohler’s book. But I would like to think he did, and the chronology makes my speculation at least plausible.

According to his own account, Red Peter was captured on the African mainland by hunters specializing in the ape trade, and shipped across the sea to a scientific institute. So were the apes Kohler worked with. Both Red Peter and Kohler’s apes then underwent a period of training intended to humanize them. Red Peter passed his course with flying colours, though at deep personal cost. Kafka’s story deals with that cost: we learn what it consists in through the ironies and silences of the story. Kohler’s apes did less well. Nevertheless, they acquired at least a smattering of education.

Let me recount to you some what the apes on Tenerife leanred from their master Wolfgang Kohler, in particular Sultan, the best of his pupils, in a certain sense the prototype of Red Peter.

Sultan is alone in his pen. He is hungry: the food that used to arrive regularly has unaccountably ceased coming.

The man who used to feed him and has now stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three metres above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him.

Sutlan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: Why have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought—for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?—is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?

The answer is: No. The next day the man hangs a fresh bunch of bananas from the wire but also fills the crates with stones so that they are too heavy to be dragged. One is not supposed to think: Why has he filled he crates with stones> One is supposed to think: How does one use the crates to get the bananas despite the fact that they are filled with stones?

One is beginning to see how the man’s mind works.

Sultan empties the stones from the crates, builds a tower with the crates, climbs the tower, pulls down the bananas.

As long as Sultan continues to think wrong thoughts, he is starved. He is starved until the pangs of hunger are so intense, so overriding, that he is forced to think the right thought, namely, how to go about getting the bananas. Thus are the mental capabilities of the chimpanzee tested to their uttermost.

The man drops a bunch of bananas a metre outside the wire pen. Into the pen he tosses a stick. The wrong thought is: Why has he stopped hanging the bananas on the wire? The wrong thought (the right wrong thought, however) is: How does one use the three crates to reach the bananas? The right thought is: How does one use the stick to reach the bananas?

At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards the lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied. Although his entire history, from the time his mother was shot and he was captured, through his voyage in a cage to imprisonment on this island prison camp and the sadistic games that are played around food here, leads him to ask questions about the justice of the universe and the place of this penal colony in it, a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics towards the humbler reaches of practical reason. And somehow, as he inches through his labyrinth of constraint, manipulation and duplicity, he must realize that on no account dare he give up, for on his brothers and sisters may be determined by how well he performs."


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