Who Was The Joyce Girl? A Conversation with Annabel Abbs

Author Annabel Abbs writes powerful stories that capture the lives and struggles of remarkable women. Her first novel, The Joyce Girl, tells the fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce, forgotten daughter of author James Joyce. Abbs gives voice to Lucia and enables her to tell her own story—a fascinating, heartbreaking tale of thwarted ambition, passionate creativity, and the power of love to inspire and destroy.

Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall discussion of The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020. To preface the conversation, she spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about the life of Lucia, what it means to be a self-taught writer, and the amazing but overlooked artists who Abbs finds inspiring.

AE: Can you tell us a bit about The Joyce Girl?

AA: It’s a fictional re-working of a critical period in the life of the only daughter of James Joyce (the Irish author of the great modernist novel, Ulysses), Lucia Joyce. The novel is deeply researched, but all of Lucia’s letters, medical notes, diaries were destroyed, so there was very little of her left. During this period—1928 to 1934—she lived with her family in Paris where she was training to be a dancer. She was supposed to be a very good dancer and had performed in dance tours in Italy and Belgium as well as at various theatres in Paris. But during this time she stopped dancing, and I wanted to understand why she had given up something she loved. At the same time her father was grappling with his final book, Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years to write. Lucia was also believed to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett at this time, and then with Alexander Calder, who became her drawing teacher when she gave up dance. Later on, she told other people she had been engaged to each of them.

AE: How much of the story is biographical and how much is fiction? Why did you choose a mixture of the two, rather than fully in a biography format?

AA: Lucia is already the subject of a biography written by a Joyce scholar, and although I relied heavily on it, the book is constrained by the absence of material in Lucia’s voice. No new material has come to light, so I felt wary about writing a second biography. I felt her story lent itself to a fictional re-telling where I could slip beneath her skin and imagine her experience—at the centre of an oddly dysfunctional exiled family but in the wild excitement of Paris at its creative apotheosis. All the characters are based on real people and all the main events of the novel actually took place, so the biographical facts acted as my scaffolding leaving me free to imagine Lucia’s thoughts, feelings and responses.

AE: What was it like to write the characters of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Carl Jung? How did that experience compare to writing Lucia, particularly as a figure whose personal character is likely less well-known but is more central to this story?

AA: Lucia was the hardest character to write. Not only had her own letters and diaries been destroyed but so had hundreds of letters that mentioned her or discussed her predicament. I felt as though I was looking for her through an endless telescope. I had quite a few photographs and one snippet of autobiography that I used to look at in a London archive, but it was hard to fathom her from so little. Joyce, Beckett and Jung have tens of biographies between them, as well as collected letters, interviews, voice recordings and numerous scholarly works. I read four biographies of Beckett, and hundreds of his letters, as well as attending an entire season of his plays, going to something every day for a month. I had a much clearer sense of their characters, their foibles, their likes and dislikes.

Lucia came to me in that strange liminal time between wake and sleep. It sounds weird, but in those few minutes I found a version of her—my version.

AE: Many would consider James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to be household names—yet not Lucia Joyce. Why do we have so few details about her life? What initially drew you to tell Lucia’s story—and what draws you to continue that discussion today?

AA: Yes, Joyce and Beckett are household names, as is Carl Jung—who she was sent to in 1934 as she became more and more fragile. This juxtaposition made me uncomfortable—the way the men in her life had become legendary figures while she had been erased from history, barely a footnote in most scholarly works on Joyce. There was considerable evidence that Joyce had been hugely influenced by Lucia, and inspired by her dancing. References to it appear throughout Finnegans Wake. I felt this needed acknowledging. I was indignant at the attempts to wipe out all trace of her. But the stigma of mental illness was very strong then. Lucia’s story is really about what happens when you live in the shadow of another person, what happens when your own creativity is thwarted, and the dark underbelly of jazz-age Paris. There was an entire community of extraordinary dancers (mostly women) in Paris at the time, most of whom have been forgotten. We still think of 1920s Paris as being very much the playground of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Picasso. But there were just as many women trying to live in a new, more emancipated way. I’d like to see them all resurrected.

AE: How does your own work as a dancer compare with Lucia’s point of view? When researching Lucia’s life, did you find that you and she had any similar experiences from working in that field?

AA: I’d done some dance before but not the freeform modern dance that Lucia trained in. So I tracked down someone who had trained with the same woman as Lucia. She was nearly 90 and she introduced me to a group of dancers (most of them very elderly!) and a teacher who taught me to dance the same method. It’s called the Margaret Morris Method (Margaret Morris was the name of the woman who devised this style of dance) and it’s still going in some parts of the world. It’s a very expressive form of movement, with lots of improvisation. I loved it, and it gave me an immediate understanding of how Lucia must have felt when she danced. It’s nothing like ballet. It’s very free, very creative. It was Lucia’s voice, I realized. She spoke through her body while her father spoke through words.

AE: You mentioned that Lucia served as her father’s muse for Finnegans Wake. Can you elaborate on this, based on your research about their lives and relationship? 

AA: Joyce attended all Lucia’s performances and there are accounts of her dancing in his study while he wrote. Finnegans Wake is full of references to dance and when she was initially hospitalized he visited her every Sunday and they danced together. Later, Lucia said that all the bits in Finnegans Wake about dance, love and madness were about her. Dance seemed to be how they communicated when words failed them, it seemed to be a bond between them. What struck me was how they were both breaking boundaries. He was writing a book about the ‘dark night of the soul’ using language as it had never been used before (or since) and she was dancing using movement as it had never been seen before. Her dance was as radical as his writing.

AE: What do you think of the concept of “the muse” in general—as a typically feminine figure that’s been woven into our concept of authorship in classical and contemporary literature? Do you see the archetype as empowering? Damaging?

AA: The notion of the muse (usually female, often supine) seems quaintly old-fashioned now, thank goodness! It’s a notion that requires a person to be both subject and object, making it inherently problematic. I find it hard to see the traditional muse as anything other than passive and possessed. On the other hand, in the past being a ‘muse’ offered women the chance to do something a little more interesting than they might otherwise have done and to have exposure to a circle of artists and writers. So I’m reluctant to write them off. All too often they were aspiring artists themselves. They frequently had an enormous impact on the works they inspired, but received no credit for this. This is what bothers me—how little agency they seem to have had and how little credit they received.

Does anyone call themselves a muse now?

AE: You’ve famously decided against formal writing courses and MA programs, instead building your own curriculum and structure. How long did it take you to figure out what worked for you? How do you keep yourself motivated?

AA: I had too many family commitments to do a course, although I would dearly have loved the support network that comes with doing a Creative Writing Masters! Instead I bought some books and devised some creative writing exercises that I did whenever I was stuck. And I read like crazy, copying out lines and paragraphs and then dismantling them so I could better understand the author’s craft. I also edited and rewrote, over and over. I was kept motivated by my rage at how Lucia had been treated. Whenever I stalled (which was often), I took out a photograph of Lucia in the mental hospital where she died, and was re-fuelled with anger. Then I got back to work.

I think you need to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos, uncertainty and isolation if you take this route. COVID-19 lockdown is a good dry run!

AE: Who are some female writers and artists from history who inspire you, but who have been overlooked or overshadowed in their time? Who are the female artists and authors who inspire you today?

AA: Oh so many…where to start? Overlooked…all the best-selling female poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many women wrote and published hugely popular poetry, but very little made it into the cannon. It frequently lacks the muscular style of their male counterparts but why do we rate muscular more highly than emotional? Letitia Landon is my current favourite—she wrote under the initials L.E.L and died tragically at the age of 36. I’ve also been researching and writing about a painter called Gwen John who also worked in 1920s Paris but was completely overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John.

Finally, I’ve spent much of lockdown looking at the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe—all that open space has helped keep me sane in my London house—and reading Hilary Mantel, one of the best historical novelists writing today (in my view!).


Annabel Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall conversation about her book The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020.

 

What Are People Doing? Commencement

Every week the Town Crier blog looks back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening, and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Mrs. Jane Douglas Champlin was the honor guest at an attractive luncheon” and, “There is the sort of an exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery which will appeal to the various members of a family.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Throughout Seattle and across the country, stay-at-home orders have disrupted normal class schedules. Many students have found themselves gearing up to attend virtual graduations, or taking final exams remotely. Despite the strangeness of the times, it’s certainly nothing new for students to enjoy a well-deserved graduation. The same was true in 1920 as well, says the Town Crier. 

“The Saint Nicholas School held its Commencement exercises yesterday morning, June 4, for the class of 1920, in the Fine Arts Gallery,” mentions the ‘Crier in their June 5, 1920 issue. Renowned for its attendance by many of the most prominent families in Seattle, the Saint Nicholas School was a private girls’ school that prepared its students both for navigating  Seattle’s high society, as well as for pursuing their own courses of higher education.

“The School, under the direction of Miss Edith Dabney, has made an enviable reputation as one of fine Ideals that are being realized in the life of the pupil, and when it comes to the last analysis there can be nothing of higher worth gained from any school than the building of character.” Sounds like a worthy institution. 

Of course, we have many worthy schools today as well. One such establishment is Cornish College of the Arts, who are proudly broadcasting a graduation of their own. Cornish invites us to celebrate a fresh wave of burgeoning artists with a virtual commencement ceremony on May 16 starting at 11AM. The event will feature the work of talented performers and speakers from the class of 2020. The festivities also include addresses from President Raymond Tymas-Jones, Provost William Seigh, and Cornish alumna Skye Borgman. 

Sounds like a worthy way to spend a Saturday!

 

What Are People Doing? Virtual Museums

Every week the Town Crier blog looks back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening, and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “One of the gayest parties of the season was the dance given by Mr. and Mrs. James Doster Hoge at the Golf Club” and, “Youngsters, taking advantage of the cold snap, have hunted up the old ice skates of various vintages and are indulging themselves in the rare sport of skating.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Even a century ago, Seattle was no stranger to the arts. “There are three small but exquisite bronzes by Prince Troubetzkoy now on view at the Fine Arts Gallery, 1218 Fourth Avenue, which are well worth seeing,” wrote the Town Crier issue published May 8, 1920. “The work of this sculptor is accepted as being among the very best of its kind and of a marked individuality, so it is really a privilege for Seattle to be given an opportunity to see these bronzes.”

Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy (1866-1938) was an acclaimed artist and a sculptor, described by playwright George Bernard Shaw as “the most astonishing sculptor of modern times.” Interestingly, back then Seattle valued free access to the arts just as much as we do today—even for viewing the work of a master such as Troubetzkoy. “Admittance is free and the public is cordially invited to attend,” the Crier informs us.

Troubetzkoy’s work is no doubt inspiring to behold in person, though perhaps it’s for the best that his sculptures have already come and gone. After all, if his work were here today our options for viewing it would be limited to livestream or video—a somewhat diminished experience for a medium as tactile as sculpture.

Luckily we still have access to fine art in Seattle today, even while sheltering in place. The Frye Art Museum had to suspend their exhibition of the work of video artist and photographer Agnieszka Polska, but an excerpt of the exhibit is still viewable virtually! A far cry from bronzes, this installation of Polska’s work follows a childlike sun who is a helpless witness to ethical and environmental collapse on Earth. 

The Seattle Art Museum is also presenting their own suite of ways to enjoy the arts at home. They recently released a virtual discussion reflecting on the ways that living in quarantine impacts our daily rhythms. Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, ruminates on artwork propelled by walking, and the ways our rhythms adjust to each landscape we cross. 

Be sure to check out the websites for these local museums and keep an eye out for future videos. Though we can’t be there in person to enjoy these exhibits, it’s certainly easier to engage with inspirational art today than it would have been 100 years ago. 

Though, to be fair, we’re probably not doing anything Troubetzkoy wouldn’t have done if he’d had the internet.

Left On Red: The Month of Red May, Seattle’s Vacation From Capitalism

Seattle is a city that demands we think outside the box, and few series exemplify this idea quite like Red May. For the month of May, speakers gather to interrogate contemporary issues through the lens of Marxism, political economy, feminism, race, and philosophy. 

During a typical season, May at Town Hall would find fascinating conversations about capitalism and society making their way to our stages. We typically partner with our friends at Red May as part of their eponymous festival of radical art and thought, featuring local and national speakers helping Seattle turn red for a month. As they say, maybe we can’t move beyond capitalism by next week—but we can sure as hell take a vacation from it.

This year, while we won’t be able to keep up the tradition of bringing Red May speakers to our space, you can still take your vacation from capitalism—Red May is broadcasting their full calendar of events! Take a look at some of the highlights from this upcoming month of alternatives to capitalism:

The Antifada podcast (5/7) is a one-stop destination for “Ultra-Left-Post-Posadist-Nihilist-Anarcho-Communist-comedy and politics.” In this episode, our hosts delve into the effects of the coronavirus on our workforce and examine the future of work at a rare moment when almost nobody is working.

Negative solidarity: an aggressively enraged sense of injustice—the belief that “Because I endure lousy working conditions (wage freezes, no benefits, increasing precarity) everyone else must too.” Will this viewpoint expand in scope and intensity after the quarantine? Sit in with Jason Read, Jeremy Gilbert, Jo Isaacson, Steven Shaviro, and moderator Bruno George for a panel discussion on The Future of Negative Solidarity (5/9).

The Dig (5/15) is an acclaimed podcast from Jacobin magazine, featuring journalist and host Dan Denvir. He sits down with Holly Jean Buck from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability for a discussion on global warming, technology, and the work ahead of us for repairing our relationship with our planet.

The Behind The News podcast (5/21) brings together Asad Haider, Jodi Dean, Leo Panitch and moderator Doug Henwood for a wide-ranging panorama of the current moment: how will the coronavirus affect our country, and what strategies should the Left follow to derail the next push for more austerity?

Dissent magazine has been called one of America’s leading intellectual journals and a mainstay of the democratic left, with a mission to cultivate the next generation of labor journalists, cultural critics, and political polemicists. They bring us an episode of their Belabored podcast (5/24), delivering punchy labor journalism from Cal Winslow and Emily Cunningham with Michel Chen and Sarah Jaffe.

In her book Capital is Dead McKenzie Wark poses a provocative thought experiment: what if we are not in capitalism anymore—but something worse? Political theorist Jodi Dean sits down with Wark with a forward-looking conversation on Communism or Neo-Feudalism (5/25).

Coronavirus has shone a harsh light on the US carceral state. Just like with nursing homes and elder care facilities, the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at jails, prisons, and penitentiaries are ideal conditions for the incubation and spread of the virus. Red May convenes a panel of local experts for a discussion on The Covid Crisis and the Carceral State (5/30).

Still curious about Red May? You can take a look at their full festival calendar on their website—or dig into previous Red May events at Town Hall with a look into our archives.

What Are People Doing? Seattle Shakespeare

Every week the Town Crier blog looks back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening, and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Miss Pollock spoke of ‘Experiences and Opportunities in France’” and, “Mrs. Castlen, one of the active promoters of horseback riding in the city, carried off the blue in the polo class and was the only woman competing against the army officers.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

“Next week the Shakespeare fans are going to have their innings and there will be a whole week given over to the plays of the immortal Bard of Avon at the Metropolitan,” wrote the Town Crier on May 7, 1921. Seattle’s love of Shakespeare, then and now, certainly can’t be denied. 

It’s been documented that Shakespeare wrote some of his plays from home during the 1603 outbreak of bubonic plague. Would that we all had the resolve to write a masterpiece right now—but second best to that is watching some of the Bard’s plays in action. Luckily, Seattle Shakespeare Company has us covered. They’ve put together a collection of streaming options for viewing Shakespeare performances at home, and have partnered with local artists to present “Ruff Reads” of classic plays. And for those who want to put on their own productions, they’re even offering resources for teaching Shakespeare’s work.

Of course, the ‘Crier had its own idea of what a good performance looked like. “John E. Kellerd comes again with his company and those who have heard him will remember the delightful simplicity with which he reads his lines. In his creed, ‘The Play’s the Thing,’ and he never smothers it with upholstery and mouthings.” A high bar to beat, indeed.

“Incidentally, you’ll be surprised to see the number of Shakespeare devotees in this town. ‘Best people,’ you know, and all that sort of thing.” 

Stay healthy, all you best people out there.

Shouting From The Margins

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many historically marginalized groups are finding themselves facing prejudice, animosity, and rejection by a system already stacked against them. But South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green is stepping forward as proof that if you speak loudly enough, your voice can still triumph, even from the margins. 

In a typical Town Hall season, we select Artists or Scholars in Residence and give them the literal keys to the building so they can engage with our programs and develop original events for the community. This year, in consideration of the current global crisis, we’re altering our Residency platform to present a podcast residency.

In partnership with South Seattle Emerald, Town Hall presents Life on the Margins. Co-hosts Marcus Harrison Green, Enrique Cerna, and Jini Palmer share stories not just about marginalized communities, but from within, and alongside them. In each bi-weekly installment of this residency podcast, they engage with the narratives and experiences of our city, sharing them more widely with the Town Hall community.


Alexander Eby: Back in 2017 you served as Town Hall’s Scholar In Residence. What’s got you excited to be working with Town Hall again?

Marcus Harrison Green: It’s great, to be honest with you I feel almost as if I never left. Town Hall is such a central hub of the city when it comes to civic engagement, when it comes to featuring  public intellectuals, provisions of space for communities to come to and gather together and feel as if they are a part of the fabric of the city. Even after I left as the Scholar In Residence I would still go and participate in talks, I would go to and attend talks that were very insightful life affirming and challenging. And, well I’m not a really religious person, but I imagine it’s like the feeling of having worked at a church for a while as a youth minister or what have you, and then shifting to becoming a congregant. So even though I wasn’t necessarily there in an official capacity anymore, I was certainly there in intellectual or an emotional one. So it’s almost as if I never left.

I think the Beach Boys said something like this once, trying to create an experience where people can go from it, but can never leave it. And that’s really what Town Hall is to me. Even though I’ve gone from the physical space, it stays with you. It makes an indelible imprint upon you.

AE: Can you tell me a bit about Life On The Margins? What inspired this project?

MHG: I think for us—myself and my co-hosts Enrique Cerna and Jini Palmer—I think like anyone, we’re all consumers of media, whether that’s broadcast or printed or digital. For us, this podcast came about because we were seeing a need that wasn’t met, and conversations that weren’t being had with any regularity on a lot of mainstream platforms. We really wanted to hone in on what’s been going on with marginalized communities, on their stories. Our city and county, certainly before the coronavirus, have been seeing this shift and reconfiguration. And even now I think it’s more important when you have this pandemic that we’re all experiencing, and the potential for certain communities, especially communities of color, to be disproportionately hurt. 

I know that the early local numbers don’t quite match to what’s been going on nationally—I think in Louisiana, 70% of the deaths that have been recorded are African-America, and there’s been a huge surge of COVID cases in the Latino community. If these numbers are any indication, it’ll be communities of color who will be hurt the most. And I think that even though we are empathizing with and featuring the stories of communities of color,  this is still something that affects people who are within our community, within the fabric of Seattle and King County. These are stories that affect us all, so we’re just trying to bring some light where darkness once was.

AE: With the quarantine directly affecting everyone’s lives right now, the first episode of Life On The Margins is very much reflective of this moment in time. What kind of direction do you hope to take the show in future episodes? 

MHG: We definitely want to make this a longer-running podcast series, and this is just season 1. We felt that, given the current state of the world, that would certainly be a good topic to explore in this 6-episode run. So that will be the thrust of it for the first few episodes, but obviously life is large, so we want to try to highlight other things that are going on. And we’re definitely acknowledging that people are experiencing some COVID fatigue, shall we say, and many folks want to take their minds off of what’s going on around them. 

AE: I’m curious about your thoughts on this—the idea of self-isolation and quarantine as a sort of blueprint for collective action. Once the quarantines are lifted, how can we use this shared experience to motivate ourselves and others to show up for other causes and make change in other parts of society?

MHG: We keep hearing this mantra repeatedly right now, “we’re all in this together.” One of the things this time of quarantine has given us is to be somewhat introspective and contemplative. I think that’s allowed people to interrogate and examine what that actually means, for all of us to be in this together. What does that look like in practice? Lots of people are scanning fundraising pages for different organizations and thinking about their $1200 stimulus check, thinking maybe they don’t necessarily need all of it. I know this is all indefinite, but I think when all of this is over it will have shown us that if we can come together in the worst of times, why can’t we in the best of times? 

I think we’re going to see an awakening, an acknowledgement of other people’s humanity and empathy. I people on my daily walk, people who used to hurry to pass you by—now their cadence is slower and more deliberate, and they actually wave and say hi. This is a period where we can use this time to look within ourselves and learn to extend our locus of concern to other people.

AE: What’s on your quarantine reading list? 

MHG: Right now it’s a lot of the Stoics. I’m in the middle of reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It poses a question a question to me that’s applicable not just to this time period but to life in general, which challenges me to wake up every morning and face this strangeness and uncertainty and ask myself “how do I want to be remembered in this time, and how do I want to remember myself in this time?” Was I a better friend, a better son, a better roommate? Did I cultivate resilience? Was I kind, was I generous? Was I somebody who I was proud to be? And I think anything that can challenge you day by day to be a person who’s better because they’ve endured the worst. I know it’s a 3000-year-old text, but that still resonated with me.

I’ve also been reading How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi, Nickel And Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Then there’s Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, and I’m about to start Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown—I’m trying to knock out about one a week. 

AE: Who do you have lined up for future guests on the show?

MHG: We’re definitely trying to get a range of people, to strike a balance between the sort of well-known figures and everyday people, if you will. We’ll certainly have a mixture. At the end of the day, what we sought out with our guests was people who had an interesting story, or an interesting take or stance to share with our listenership. We do have Luis Rodriguez coming up actually on the next episode. He and his wife Leona are very prominent because of their famed and venerable coffee shop called The Station coffee house, which is continuing to help serve people in need and bring people together.

AE: What’s one message you want to send to listeners of Life On The Margins, and to Seattle in general? 

MHG: I would say that we have an opportunity here to really sit still and really examine life as it is, and ask if we want it to continue to be this way. I think it’s time to really focus on what matters, and to maybe rethink things. We’re always in this frenzy of life, we barely have time to think because we always have to move on to the next thing and the next thing after that. And now we have the time to not take things for granted—just saying hello in a coffee shop, sending a message to a loved one expressing that you care. This is the kind of time where we can value life more than we have done and cherish it more than we have done. How do we want to show up in this world today, how do I want to be present, what do I want to take away? That’s something we can do now, and I hope it’s something we can bring forward into the future.

Listen to Marcus Harrison Green, in conversation with Jini Palmer and Enrique Cerna plus special guests, every two weeks with new episodes of Life On The Margins

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog looks back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening, and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “The Junior Prom takes place tonight at the Masonic Temple” and, “The Smith College Club of Seattle is giving a series of dances at the Women’s University Club to aid in raising the $4,000,000 endowment fund for their alma mater.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Some excellent children’s entertainment was available over a century ago. The April 24, 1919 edition of the Town Crier informs us of a fascinating show. “On April 30 and May 1 Miss Cornish is taking her group of six puppeteers to Portland, where they will present the plays of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Columbine’ at the Little Theater.” That would have been a show to see! It certainly brought lots of entertainment to the kids—a real necessity, both then and now.

Luckily, the Seattle Public Library is here to deliver a much-needed dose of children’s programming for parents in quarantine. Their Virtual Story Time event aimed at toddlers present stories, rhymes, songs, and fun with their children’s librarian. No doubt these streams will be just as big a hit as Miss Cornish’s puppet shows: “Four performances were planned, but the house was so quickly sold out for two of them a wire was sent asking for a fifth.” 

You can check out Virtual Story Time events on the SPL’s facebook page, or the online calendar on their website. Happy National Library Week!

Emerging Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Yonck

Humans occupy a unique place in nature. Our evolution has been interdependent on pattern recognition and the development of technology unlike any other animal on the planet. We often consider our primary evolutionary advantage to be our intelligence—yet we are still limited in our ability to define what “intelligence” actually means. 

Futurist Richard Yonck speaks to audiences and writes about artificial intelligence and other emerging trends and technologies. Yonck sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss how we define intelligence today, and introduce us to technologies and ideas that are redefining our understanding of intelligence both in and beyond ourselves.

AE: Your new book, Future Minds, is about the many ways our world is becoming more and differently intelligent. Can you expand on that?

RY: Absolutely. Future Minds takes a very broad view of the purpose of intelligence in the universe in order to better understand the ways it is likely to develop here on Earth over the next century and beyond. Using what’s known as a Big History framework that spans the life of the cosmos, it explores the possible fundamental drivers behind the development of complexity, life and intelligence. From there, it dives into the work and research into intelligence-related technologies that are rapidly transforming our world today. From advanced AI to brain-computer interfaces to biotechnological augmentation and more, it looks at the possible paths that lie ahead for humankind.

AE: Broadly speaking, how do we currently define “intelligence”? Do you agree with that definition—and if not, how should we be defining intelligence?

RY: There is no single unifying definition of intelligence. In fact, based on the literature, there are literally hundreds of such definitions. This is in part because it’s one of those words that AI pioneer Marvin Minsky used to call a “suitcase word.” Not rigorously defined, it carries many different meanings and associations which contributes to lots of challenges when talking about it. In the opening of the book, I explore a range of these in order to try to get to the kernel, the core meaning for the purpose of this discussion. This isn’t to say it’s the only way to define intelligence. I’m just trying to establish a starting point.

In writing Future Minds, I wanted to understand why intelligence exists at all in this cold, impersonal universe of ours. How do the basic underlying principles of nature drive the incremental ascent of complexity, life and intelligence? Eventually, this came down to a variation of a definition that comes to us via the field of physics: Intelligence is anything that seeks to maximize its own future freedom of action, whether that effort involves cognitive choice or is merely deterministic in nature. In other words, anything that promotes and perpetuates its own existence or that of its descendants, including its ability to act on and influence the environment to its benefit, can be said to be a form of intelligence. Taken as a relative statement, this can apply to different levels of living, and perhaps even nonliving processes, up and down the scale. Single-celled organisms, plants, animals, including humans, and even technology can all fit along a spectrum when viewed in this way.

AE: What are some of the technologies that are causing our world to become differently intelligent?

RY: Certainly, a lot of people would point to artificial intelligence and deep learning as examples, though many in and outside the field take issue with calling these systems intelligent. But we tend to forget just how young this field and its advances are. The 75 years of AI is barely one human lifetime and we’ve been wielding technology for some 150,000 generations. Beyond that, our species has existed for an eyeblink of time relative to all life on this planet. So far as I’m concerned, these technologies are only barely getting started.

Beyond this, we have augmentation technologies like brain-computer interfaces, otherwise known as BCIs. Designed to allow us to connect to and operate devices using our thoughts, many people think of these as belonging to the world of science fiction, but BCIs have already come so far. They’ve been used to send messages on Twitter, to operate wheelchairs, to type on virtual keyboards, and even to play video games. While much of the early research and its applications have focused on restoring lost functions for the physically and cognitively impaired, in time, uses of this technology will extend to much more elective and discretionary purposes. 

We are probably only a few decades from BCIs being very commonplace in society. This will continue a long-term trend that has allowed us to access and interact with our technologies by ever more natural and immediate means. The most recent and evident form of this has been the progression of computer user interfaces. Eight decades ago, computers were programmed by physically rewiring them. This was followed by punch cards and punch tape, then using keyboards to type on a command line, followed by the graphic user interfaces of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, our devices are increasingly operated using natural user interfaces including touch, voice, and gesture. Each step of the way, these interfaces have allowed us to interact in more natural ways with our devices, until today, even a young child can easily make use of the amazing processing power of a smartphone. BCIs and other interface technologies will only continue this trend, eventually giving each of us the ability to access immense informational and processing resources using only our thoughts.

Numerous other fields are contributing to a world in which we and our technologies will become increasingly and differently intelligent. Biotechnological neural augmentation, neuro-enhancing drugs and various forms of directed brain stimulation are all taking us in this direction. In the end, we shouldn’t be surprised to see each playing a role according to different needs and circumstances.

AE: Your books and other writing look at many different aspects of the future. What does it mean to be a futurist? 

RY: Again, here’s another word that’s often not well-defined. There are plenty of people who attach the word “futurist” to their resume because they think it makes them sound forward-thinking, but a futurist’s work is much more specific than that. It’s a field made up of people who actively study the future in structured ways, applying rigorous methodologies to try to anticipate and prepare for different potential futures. Many of these people receive formal education in master’s and doctoral foresight programs, while others have transitioned from different fields, many of which often have a strong analytic component. In my case, that’s computer science. Still others are trained and mentored within large corporate environments, such as Intel, Microsoft, and Ford Motor Company.

Though human beings have always had the ability to anticipate what lies ahead, the field really got its formal start following World War II, during the Cold War era. There was a need to better understand weapons development feasibility and timelines, which led to the early think tanks, such as the Rand Corporation. Over time, the need for futurist thinking and foresight extended to and became essential to other parts of government as well as to corporations and other organizations. Today, most major companies utilize in-house and consulting futurists, though these forecasters and analysts often go under many different titles.

AE: What technologies or ideas are helping us understand intelligence today?

RY: It might be easier to say what fields are not involved. The study of intelligence in its many forms draws from so many different branches of science. Scanning technologies, artificial intelligence, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, and developmental psychology are but a few of the fields that play a role in our developing understanding of the brain’s structure, function and language. Some of this knowledge is being used in the course of trying to model and emulate the brain through technologies like neuromorphic computing, while other areas have inspired neural networks and developmental learning models that are being applied to deep learning.

AE: How likely do you think it is that the refinement of technologies like brain-computer interfaces or deep learning neural networks will result in a new form of intelligence? 

RY: That really depends on the time frame being discussed. If you’re talking about five or even ten years, then I don’t feel it’s very likely. But if you’re asking about 50 or 100 years from now, then it’s much closer to being an inevitability.

I’d also suggest that developments in intelligence will probably remain incremental. In the past, new technologies like written language and literacy, mass communication, the Internet, and smartphones have taken time to develop and be adopted. Each of these has changed what we know, as well as how and when we can know it. Not only has this augmented our intelligence and access to knowledge, but it’s contributed to the rewiring of our neuroplastic brains in order to make better use of these technologies. While many aspects of technological adoption are speeding up, it still takes time to make that happen.

As far as computers, neural networks, deep learning, and the like, these are all becoming more capable, but it’s a mistake to think of them specifically in terms of human intelligence. Besides, we already have plenty of human intelligence all around us. The value of artificial intelligence is the many ways in which it differs from our own thinking so that we can leverage it to our advantage. This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t draw on our understanding of the human brain as an inspiration for AI. But biology and technology are such radically different starting points, it would be a mistake to assume we’ll ever develop a machine that can think exactly like a person. At least not for a long time. This isn’t to say AI won’t eventually be able to emulate human thought and behavior quite well. It almost inevitably will and that raises many of its own issues and concerns. But AI will achieve this through fundamentally different means than the human brain does. Which in part is what I mean about our world becoming “differently intelligent”.

AE: If humanity is going to leave Earth one day, we may need to be prepared to encounter intelligences beyond our planet. How can we bridge the gap when approaching intelligences that may be very different from our own? 

RY: That’s a really big question and there are several different elements to address. First, it’s not a question of if, but when we leave Earth. From a purely statistical standpoint we have to expand beyond this one planet if we are to survive as a species in the long run. As the famous physicist Stephen Hawking said, “if we want to continue beyond the next 100 years, our future is in space.”

While my book attempts to expand what we identify as intelligence, in part to better recognize it when we do encounter it, both here on Earth and elsewhere, I’m not optimistic that we will meet anything nearly so advanced as ourselves beyond this planet for a very long time. Of course, I could be pleasantly surprised, but I think it may be many millennia before we find ourselves directly interacting with an extraterrestrial species, if in fact any exist within our tiny region of the universe.

AE: We share a world with many animals we often consider to be intelligent (chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, ravens, octopuses, etc.) How do we apply contemporary discussions of intelligence to these creatures? Could studying these animals prepare us for interactions with artificial or alien intelligences?

RY: There’s a ton of terrific research being done on all sorts of animal intelligence. Many of us tend to think of human intelligence as superior to most, if not all of these, but in fact we’re all just differently intelligent. After all, intelligence is much more than just the neural processes that take place in our brains, which even in us humans we’re only aware of a tiny percentage of. It’s also our metabolism, our emotions, our cells, our genetics and much more. Whether we’re talking about an ant, a bat, or a whale, that creature’s intelligence has evolved specifically so it can successfully occupy a particular ecological niche. Human beings evolved to fill what’s been referred to as a cognitive niche which has worked out very well for us. But we’re extremely poorly evolved for many of those other niches, so from those perspectives, we’re really not all that intelligent at all.

AE: What steps could we take as a society to live in an era alongside an emerging intelligence we can’t easily comprehend? How can we foster that comprehension?

RY: The question implies or assumes that the emerging intelligence is separate from ourselves, which is only one scenario. Certainly, if AI ever reaches a certain level or threshold, there are many ways we’ll have to adjust, but it very likely won’t be in the sort of adversarial terms we’ve come to know from the fictions of The Terminator or The Matrix. As I discuss in my book, the biggest issues are probably around what are known as value alignment problems. It could even be argued that we’re already starting to see this. Since people begin from such different origins than whatever technological intelligence may eventually be developed, what is important to us isn’t likely to align with what is important to that advanced AI. As a result, we wouldn’t need to be in direct conflict with the AI in order to experience it as a threat. In fact, the AI wouldn’t even need to be conscious or have what we would recognize as self-awareness. Simply the inability to care about us or it seeing us as an obstacle to what’s known as its “utility function” would be sufficient to get us in a great deal of trouble that could ultimately result in our extinction. While that’s an extreme extrapolation of existing trends, we’d be wise to consider the possibility and seriously explore how best to avoid such an outcome.

But that’s only one possibility. What if we ourselves are the emerging intelligences, given the potential for augmenting our own minds? After all, we are by far the most advanced and adaptable intelligence we know of, so that’s a pretty significant jumping off point to start from. What challenges would this present for different forms of inequality between populations, for how we interact as a society, for maintaining the many features we value in our humanity? As we continue to enhance human intelligence, we’ll have a lot of different things to consider and plan for.

Yet another emerging intelligence we need to think about is our global civilization itself. By many measures, this may be the true emergent intelligence we need to pay attention to. Just as individual cells don’t comprehend the larger body they’re part of, it’s challenging for us to fully appreciate society as its own form of evolving independent intelligence. To be sure, these are still early days and human civilization is still developing. But I wonder how things will appear in a few thousand years, taken from a different, less anthropocentric perspective?

AE: What is your favorite product of human intelligence? Which advancement in the modern era do you appreciate most?

RY: My favorite product of human intelligence would certainly have to be language. Spoken language has only been around for a few hundred thousand years—and the written word, a bare fraction of that. With the development of language, it became possible to assemble and manipulate concepts, to exchange and build ideas, to communicate knowledge between otherwise isolated minds, share our inner worlds, expand our understanding that others have their own subjective worlds, all as deep and rich as our own. In the absence of true language, none of this would really exist.

As for a favorite advancement in the modern era, I’d have to say it’s the scientific method. While there are those who see this as its own type of belief system, it is in many ways the antithesis of that. More than just a single area of knowledge or understanding, the scientific method is itself a technology, a series of processes by which real, objective insights about nearly everything can be acquired and built upon over time. All along the way, the capacity for reevaluation and correction of that information exists, leading to a deeply structured body of knowledge based on objective reality that all of humanity can draw on and benefit from. Nearly every aspect of our world has been enhanced, improved, or made possible by the products of the scientific method and probably more than 99% of all existing technology has resulted from its use over the past four hundred years. Now certainly, we’ve reached a stage when we can say that there are things we will never be able to know and answers we can never attain, but even this insight comes to us courtesy of this profoundly beneficial process. As a result, this will remain one of the key drivers in the continued advancement of intelligence and knowledge for the foreseeable future.


Richard Yonck will be joining us at Town Hall next season on 9/15/2020 to discuss his book Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe. 

 

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog looks back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening, and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “at three o’clock, there will be a musicale arranged by Mrs. Appleton, at the Women’s University Club” and, “Easter Week opened with the brilliant masquerade given by the Junior Club and closed with the gay Tennis Ball.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Easter has come and gone, finding Seattlites quarantined in their homes. But this isn’t the first time Seattle’s had a slow April. “The Lenten season seems to be having less effect on social affairs than usual this year,” read the April 5, 1919 issue of the Town Crier. “Bridge is on the increase and dancing carries on quite as usual. As a matter of fact, there has been no such social revival here, following the war, as has taken place in other cities.” 

Not everyone in 1919 was affected by these doldrums, however. “But one may be sure that even though there are no large social events drawing the many groups into one, yet youth will be served and many small circles are continually forming for social life, regardless of decrees.” Here’s hoping that people today take the opposite model. Suspend forming for social life! Respect decrees!

The people of Seattle were optimistic back then that the summer would give everyone a chance to get out of their homes once more. “Possibly next season will find a realignment of forces, but at present there is no indication of a renewal of social activity after Lent, save for the ever-present benefits that know neither time nor season.” 

Right now Town Hall is striving to be that ever-present benefit by presenting our events virtually, with new weekly podcast episodes and upcoming livestreams practically every day. 

In lieu of another game of bridge, tune in during quarantine for jazz concerts, civic conversations, podcast episodes about the search for alien life, and so much more. And keep your social life healthy by tuning in together with friends!

(Virtually) Here For It

R. Eric Thomas tells the kinds of stories we need. They connect us with the American experience writ large—the trends, the headlines, the important conversations—all filtered through his unique and hilarious perspective. Thomas joined us for a livestreamed conversation on 4/16 (watch the full event below) to discuss his new book Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America. But before the broadcast, he spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss writing rituals, staying busy during quarantine, and ways to find humor in absurdity.

AE: News and pop culture happen so fast these days, you have so much to keep track of when writing for your column at ELLE.com. How do you decide which topics make it into your articles? What about on a personal level—how do you choose what to consume when there’s so much out there?

ET: I try to be really judicious with my news diet personally because, like you said, there’s a lot out there and most of it is not great. So typically, I track what’s happening online all-day for work and then purposefully try to separate from the news stream in the evening. Like everyone else I’m addicted to social media, so I’m not able to distance myself completely. But after work I’m much more likely to be tweeting about food or YouTube videos of Broadway stars than I am about a press conference or stimulus package. Then, before bed I find the most distressing article I can and I read that and then go to bed. I don’t mean to but it always ends up that way so I’m just claiming it as a practice.

AE: Your job must require you to basically live on social media. It must be exhausting to be exposed to fraught news stories and the Latest Terrible Thing every day! How do you find the humor in current events? What drives you to keep coming back? 

ET: I look for the absurdity, of which there is plenty. I look for the things that make me excited, of which there is also quite a lot. It’s ultimately more enjoyable to write humorously about things that make us happy rather than things that make us angry or sad. So, I take the little things and blow them up, focusing on little strange details or asides that still capture the spirit of the news.

AE: If you had to pick one of the essays and stories from your book to tell people in order to give them a sense of what the book is about, which would you choose? 

ET: All of the essays are different in terms of approach and subject, but I think the essay “There’s Never Any Trouble Here in Bubbleland” is a fun grab bag of all the ingredients I worked with in this book: humor and heart, applying ideas about identity and belonging to one’s lived experience, and pop culture references.

AE: Every writer’s process is different, and most tend to look a little strange from the outside. What’s one of your strangest routines or rituals to get yourself in the headspace for writing?

ET: My new thing lately is dusting my baseboards. This is sort of a quarantine habit, actually. I used to go buy a baked good when I was trying to get in a writing headspace—I will go to the ends of the earth for a blueberry muffin. But with that off the table for now, I have to resort to things I can do within my house. My baseboards are shining like the top of the Chrysler Building right now.

AE: What are your go-to strategies for chasing off boredom while in isolation? What’s the weirdest trend you’ve heard about (or participated in) while in quarantine?

ET: I’m actually pretty busy in quarantine, which I’m grateful for. I’ve got my day job and other events and projects that are keeping me tied up. But I’m really appreciating that the lack of access to a larger physical social life does afford more opportunity to watch TV and movies and read, so I’m doing a lot of that in the evenings. I thought about getting really into skincare, like purchasing a lot of products and emerging from my house absolutely gorgeous when this is over. I did the purchasing part but I haven’t really gotten around to the rest. There’s time though. Whenever this is done, I’m going to be a supermodel.


R. Eric Thomas joined us for a livestream on Thursday, 4/16—and you can watch the entire event below.

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