This week we host James Paul Gee, recently retired Arizona State University professor and researcher in a plethora of topics including psycholinguistics and discourse analysis. As we talk about his latest book, What Is a Human? Language, Mind, and Culture, Gee casually uplifts our fundamental understanding of what it means to be, well, human and how we’ve severely underestimated animal intelligence and overestimated our own. We discuss the significance of identity signals throughout anthropological history, how ideas of basing safety on certain identifiers has evolved into what we know today as cultures, religions, and nations and how they have been polarized to both unify and divide. Gee attributes the mass spread of misinformation in recent years to the human need for comfort in something regardless of veracity, though he posits an optimistic goal: to make the truth comforting and to speak the facts that engage with people’s hearts. Whether we use these methods to reform our systems or to redefine how we view our kind, they will no doubt be instrumental in getting us and our world to flourish.
See bottom of this page for a full transcript of this episode.
Here are some of the references from this episode, for those who want to dig a little deeper:
James Paul Gee’s What Is a Human?
Henry’s blog series with James Paul Gee, 2011
2011 Pullias Lecture: Games, Learning, and the Looming Crisis in Higher Education
About Hampshire College, where Gee first taught
Amanda Gorman performing her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inauguration
For another take on Moby Dick, listen to our earlier episode The Great Eastern with Howard A. Rodman
Share your thoughts via Twitter with Henry, Colin and the How Do You Like It So Far? account! You can also email us at [email protected].
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James Paul Gee: Humans are not motivated by truth. Period. They’re motivated by comfort, but comfort isn’t trivial to them. It means you’ve got to assuage my fear of death, my finitude, my fear that I don’t belong, my fear that I’m unsafe. You’ve got to assuage that. Anything that will assuage that is very attractive to human beings. Now, that doesn’t mean truth isn’t attractive. It means you got to make it attractive. The biggest problem we have is the bad guys are really, really good at making up comfort stories that aren’t true, but we, and I know it’s not easy, but we should be making up comfort stories that are true to show people that truth can be comforting.
Colin Maclay: Hello, and welcome How Do You Like It So Far, a podcast about popular culture and our changing world. I’m Colin Maclay.
Henry Jenkins: And I’m Henry Jenkins. We are joined today by James Paul Gee who Wikipedia describes as a retired American researcher who worked in psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, bilingual education and new literacy studies, and as this conversation here today will suggest he’s also now actively interested in animal intelligence, evolutionary biology, and essentially what makes us human. I knew him as a thinking partner for 15 years on the space of digital media and learning where we did a number of different appearances together, recently wrote a piece, in dialogue with each other. Today he’s going to talk about his new book What Is a Human? And he has fascinating things to say, not only about humans, but animals. Welcome to the show, Jim, it’s been a while since we’ve done a conversation together, but it’s fun to be back together.
JPG: Yes indeed.
HJ: Your book is called What is Human? So let’s cut to the chase, what is human?
JPG: What Is a Human? Yes, let’s cut to the chase. Now, of course, the whole book is about it. But if I was going to put it in a very short way; humans are self domesticated, herd animals who hear voices. That is what they are. It’s very interesting how they got there. What is interesting is that today a body of literature is coming out from many different fields, evolutionary biology and neuroscience and anthropological work, all sorts of work that is throwing great light on not just what humans are, but what animals are. This work is exciting, but disappointing in the way that anybody who reads it says, “First of all, we’re finding out the humans aren’t the least bit like what we thought they were, but then we were wrong about all other animals too.” One message is, the other animals are a lot smarter than you thought, and you are a lot stupider than you thought.
JPG: Now, what do I mean by itself, domesticated, herd animal hearing voices. Well, this came out of an evolutionary set of changes that interacted. They didn’t happen linearly. We domesticate animals, and the properties, by breeding them. Domesticated animals have certain properties, both in their brains and genes and body, that you could tell they’ve been domesticated – if a Martian came down, he’d say, “Well, somebody domesticated these guys.” Trouble is, who did it? Well, we did it. We did it to ourselves. The way we did it was very, very consequential. In most animals of art that we came from, the primates, they can only really live in fairly small groups. That’s because they cannot tolerate strangers, and because they settle their issues through strength, through reactive anger, immediately getting angry. The bullies are the bosses, right? They’ve worked it out in an interesting way. Some of them like baboons have so much stress in their systems that basically they’re in misery, but they survive. That’s all evolution cares about.
JPG: Now, some point in human history, very early, probably before homo-sapiens humans got the beginning of an ability to time travel, that is to think in their heads of a different time and a different place, and to begin to read the minds of others. Then eventually they’re… It didn’t start full blown, but they got that. One of the things they discovered when they got that is; well, a bully isn’t always going to win. If a small group of weaklings get together and use this planning function, as a stealth function, as a function to get ready, they can always beat the bully. What that did is, through human history, it eradicated, just normal evolutionary terms, highly aggressive males that lash out, and it put a premium on collaborative planning ahead of time.
JPG: In the beginning, this was good because hunting gatherer groups lived in a fairly egalitarian way and bullies just were excluded, either thrown out or killed. This planning function worked pretty well, but you were still a creature that lived at most with 100 other people. You had a happy little camper group. But this mental power readily, by again, good evolutionary grounds, could go out of control because it’s the same power that allows you to lie, allows you to see, allows you to think; “Is this true or not? Is that person telling the truth or not?” There is a fair amount of literature that learning to lie fuel the human brain. It’s certainly built this planning function. Think about it.
JPG: Any creature that’s got the capacity to lie, some of the primates have it already, is going to be heavily advantaged in an evolutionary race. The only way you’re going to defend yourself is get better at detecting lies. Then the liars are going to have to get better and the detectors are going to get better. It’s a race. Then the best liar biases. The best liar is a self deceiver, one who believes his own lies. This ability to create stories, fictions, lies to be able to manipulate others has taken the form in humans. It has this form in sperm whales as well, by the way, of identity signals. Humans are herd animals, but they’re herd animals that are not always subject to aggression because they could be controlled by planning.
JPG: But that planning, in the best way to control them, is to send signals that we are us and therefore safe, and you are them and therefore not safe. Humans took identity signals just way out of all control, our dialects are identity signals. That allowed us to be able to live in groups the size of nations, because we have identity signals that are different levels. For example, chimpanzees could never eat in a restaurant with strangers, and humans do it all the time. But they’re not strangers because they’re sending you their identity signals that they’re safe.
JPG: Now, the trouble with identity signals is they can unify and they can divide. As we see in America, identity signals that used to mean Americans now means just your Americans, and then they split. This has been a constant hassle with human beings.
JPG: Now to the voices. The capacity to time travel and think about your own thoughts is bound to also make you wonder, this part of me that’s thinking about myself, how can I think about myself? There’s two cells and the brain is splitting. You know Julian Jaynes in the old days, an hypothesis that’s probably not physically true, but it’s true in an important metaphorical way. As humans began to be able talk to themselves, which is essential for planning ahead of time, then they thought the voices were coming from outside from God and stuff, and that they were being told what to do. Then it changed this theory, they caught on, “Whoa! It’s inside of me.” That capacity to talk to yourself, which we now know the biology of is called the default system in your brain, and it is the capacity that operates when you stop focusing on something and you just sit there or even when you’re sleeping, the brain never turns off. It just activates the default mode, which is introspection.
JPG: You talking to yourself, not necessarily. Also, your ability to plan, your ability to imagine is introspection. But this division between a self that sees and evaluate and the self that acts gives rise to the feeling that one of those is corporeal, the self that is being told what to do or being assessed or being… and one of them is kind of not corporeal. It is somehow spiritual because it’s… you can notice by the way, humans can… I’m doing it right now. You are too. You can look at yourself almost like you’re in a third person game, and be thinking in the default mode, “What am I saying? What are these people thinking?”
JPG: That gave humans two things. The idea that that self might be able to go elsewhere, either live forever or… Then 40,000 years ago, you get shaman, going into caves and there’s pictures, which are certainly part of a ritual. In the picture is animals that they hunt, but also creatures that are half human and half animal, which is the shaman. The shaman is there because the community is concerned, the animals are running out. They’re hunting them and they’re leaving. The shaman is going to go into this religious ceremony for their community, and he’s going to take this part of him that isn’t necessarily corporeal, and he’s going to, for the community because he’s going to not only get to talk to him now, it’s going to talk to the spirits and he’s going to go to their land where they’re incorporeal part is, their spirits.
JPG: He’s going to beg them to stay, to allow themselves to be hunted and form a relationship. Now, that idea of time traveling in space and time for a community to get forces that aren’t in our bodies that are spirits or gods or devils or angels that the shaman does, is done all over the world to this day. It’s not the least bit uncommon. It’s still there. The evidence, the shaman is a healer because he’s doing this to heal some remedy and a person in the community. Here’s the fascinating evidence. When a shaman does this, goes on, has a vision, comes back, and the vision heals you, may have camps, you may have something else. It works only under one condition. And that is, first of all, the whole ritual has to be done communally in a group that knows each other, and everybody in the room must believe it and everybody has to participate. When they do, it works. Now, that’s another finding we know. Nothing surprising at all, because to humans, there is absolutely no difference between mental distress and physical distress; both of them produce a stress hormones that are inflammatory and damage you.
JPG: You can only really heal yourself by getting rid of them. Community that is stressed by inequality or drought is just as if you are out there beating them up. The cure is the same. It is either you use the body or the mind to stop the stress hormones. Now, let me just conclude to say that you and I live in the country with the most anxiety, depression in the world. We can measure that by the amount of stress hormones in your body, and we are off the chart. You talk about the hockey stick, I mean, we are off the chart. Inequality gives rise to this. The evidence for that is now beyond belief that high inequality gives rise to stresses because each person feels it doesn’t really matter because it’s all rigged. Then they get physically sick and they have massive health bills.
JPG: What happens; people look for a sense of belonging and mattering that will make them feel safe, and that they create identity signals around that. If they can’t find one that is healthy, for others, they find one thats toxic, because humans have a dire need to belong, they’re herd animals, and therefore they will find their belonging where they find it. And a society that lets them find it any old way they do looks just like ours.
HJ: Now, even reading the book, seeing it brought together in that way is really, really powerful.
JPG: Well, thank you.
HJ: I think you you’ve already started down the path I was going to take us next, which is this book is full of metaphors, analogies, comparisons, one whole string of which has to do with the animals and humans. And you begin the book talking about termites. As you go along, you’ll get deeper and deeper into mammals and particularly barnyard animals for reasons that will become clear, but also you’re talking more about monkeys, you’re talking about fish and birds, even sea monkeys at one point, although metaphorically, a metaphor built on a metaphor. No reptiles that I noticed, but-
JPG: It’s an oversight. You could use anything. Look, I just found out recently the best example of a social animal that does… identity is so strong, it constantly is driving their culture are naked mole-rats. Again, I told you, animals are out there. You’re not watching, Henry. I’m not watching. They’re out there doing all sorts of stuff. Now there are people who actually… I think it’s a great story. For years people taught… I actually wrote an article about this years and years ago, that only in songbirds, only males sing. That’s quasi true in the United States, but birds didn’t originate here. Around the world, we now know it’s not the least bit uncommon for females to sing. Then of course you get the inevitable story from a graduate student who’s now become famous saying, “Well, back when I was working with Joe, I certainly heard the females singing, but I wasn’t about to tell Joe because he said I was crazy.”
JPG: The thing is, when you look, it’s always different. It’s not right. Now, back to the metaphor. First thing to say is, here’s another human property, but this is the property of all animals. Evolution would never make you care much about truth. It couldn’t. There’s no mechanism in which it could for two reasons. One is, you only see the parts of the world that you have the senses for. Other animals have different senses and see vastly different things than you do. Many of them much, much better, but not all. Therefore, you’re not seeing the world. You’re just seeing your world, the human one. What the Germans call your [German].
JPG: But second of all, anything that you believe or… we learn from our experience, and any lesson you learn from experience, if it works to keep you alive and pass on your genes but is false, it will get passed on. But if it’s true and doesn’t work, it won’t get passed on. Evolution cannot be tropic to truth for those two reasons. Furthermore, humans use beliefs, that is, these conscious beliefs that come out of our thinking to ourselves and mulling and talking to others. We use beliefs as identity signals of who we belong to. We do not use them in primarily the truth. That is why every human is deeply prone to what we call confirmation bias, but a word that uses much better is my side bias. The beliefs are the identity signals of your side, and your side is what’s keeping you alive. Remember this, sense of needing to matter and belong.
JPG: Therefore, you’re not about to care whether they are true or not, because your beliefs are a cheerleading for your team and your team is all you’ve got. By the way, confirmation bias is as bad or worse in educated people as it is in uneducated people.
JPG: All right. Metaphors. First of all, the only way you can do novel work, and this includes science, if you were trying to understand and do domain, by definition, you don’t know how to describe it correctly. You don’t know all the true things about it. The all the way in is a metaphor. You first try to make a metaphor and learn something, and then it may be, maybe you cash out the metaphor later into actual descriptors. Now, some of the animals stuff, like the termite mounds, are not so much metaphors as fodder for humans to think because those animals all had different niches they had to survive in, and over billion of years, they solved problems that humans have been utterly unable to solve.
JPG: Over the last three years, I’ve taught a class in architecture at ASU with some architects, and the mound is a masterpiece of architecture, of self-designed, self changing, self-transforming architecture that is in and of the earth. It’s masterpiece we’ve noticed. We have plenty to learn from it. Now, think about this; the American army is stuff is tried for untold amount of times to get an airplane that could hover the way a hummingbird does and make it out of not metal because if you try to do that, hovering with metal, it just breaks very quickly. Well, hummingbirds have been doing it for millions of years. We still can’t do it. Not surprisingly, people want to look at what they did.
JPG: It turns out though, you can get inspiration, but you still got to… you’ve got to get as smart as evolution was. By the way, as you know, there are adaptive system ways now to discover stuff. Metaphor is a crucial, but the part that really interests me, and with your work in civics is important, I think, and that is, humans are not motivated by truth. Period. They’re motivated by comfort, but comfort isn’t trivial to them. It means you’ve got to assuage my fear of death, my fear of finitude, my fear that I don’t belong, my fear that I’m unsafe. You’ve got to assuage that. Anything that will assuage that is very attractive to human beings.
JPG: Now, that doesn’t mean truth isn’t attractive. It means you got to make it attractive. The biggest problem we have is the bad guys are really, really good at making up comfort stories that aren’t true, but we, and I know it’s not easy, but we should be making up comfort stories that are true to show people that truth can be comforting. With the issue where we were talking about of unintended consequences, we humans now know, boy, stuff I believe that seems to work out in the short run sometimes really screws me in the long run. Well, then you can say, “Well, that’s because in the short run, truth matters less than in the long run because sooner or later the world bites you.” We have segregated the arts, the humanities and sciences in ways in which the function of storytelling or explanatory sense-making or motivating is in one side of the fence and the function truth is the other.
JPG: Then the side that can tell stories, we have put into school and made it canonical so everybody thinks nobody should have it because it’s just classist elitism to. We have a society that has utter disdain for science, so we’re in a mess. The only people I know… Henry, I’m sure you know many people who are doing this, but activist artists in participatory projects are doing this. They are activism around facts, but not ones that are not speaking to the needs of human beings. I mean, a good example would be, is we hear about white privilege all the time. The first thing to say is, it’s so trivially true, I don’t know why we’d have to mention it. There is no soul that doesn’t know it’s true. We’ve been talking about it forever, but we haven’t done much about it. It’s still there.
JPG: Talking and getting angry, but not doing anything just leaves the victims to be victims. Well, the reason is, if you wanted to do something, you’d have to get a team, that is, you’d have to do this planning function to get a coalition of people together, across some degree of diversity so that you could win. Telling them this simple truth when they have no job or three jobs and they’re on opioids or they’re… lost their house, that white privilege is hardly going to motivate them joining the coalition. Now, if your way of being in the world is saying, “I’m so moral that I will not collaborate with other people who don’t agree with me in everything and won’t own up to the facts that are important to me,” good. Then what you ought to do is go to war and you see if humans in the beginning had had that attitude, the bullies would still be winning.
JPG: If we keep that attitude, the bullies are going to be back. I know as a former academic, even saying that white privilege is probably not the most motivating coalition-builder is probably the end of my career, but the career is already over.
HJ: Yes, it’s nice to be at the point where got no fuck left to give.
JPG: There’s really nothing bad you could do to me that I haven’t already done to myself.
HJ: Well, a lot of where you’re coming from comes from your new experiences as a gentleman farmer. I think one of the things the book maps is your progression from white trash to gentlemen farmer over the course of a lifetime. What are some of the lessons you’re learning from your pigs, your goats, the other animals that you’re talking about?
JPG: Tremendous amount of lessons. The irony is my brother’s an identical twin, and so we both came out of white trash. At one point he lived in Cottonwood where I live and I lived in Sedona. Sedona is a fancy place, Cottonwood is rural. He couldn’t take it. It was like going back to our relatives. He fled. Then I moved over here and it felt very comfortable. Thing about farming, one of the reasons I wanted to do it is it’d become very clear to me that one of the biggest mistakes humans made in their evolution history was standing up because most of the information is on the ground for us terrestrial creatures. If you get a pig or if you have a dog or you get any animal, the information they get off the ground chemically and electrically, and microorganisms off the ground is so far superior to what we have when we stood up and lost all the senses that would allow us, like smell, to be grounded.
JPG: Then we exasperated that by moving to cities, closing out microorganisms, polluting them. Returning to a farm… my farm is not a farm to farm the animals for food, it is to have the great pleasure to see domesticated animals, like ourselves, sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, live out their entire life. Most of those domesticated animals don’t get to do that. That’s what it’s about. But what they really teach you is, first of all, you don’t know who an animal is. They’re not humans and anthropomorphism is not necessary… They are absolute beings. They have their own forms of excellence and specialists. The one thing they are better at than humans by far is competence. You do not see incompetent pigs, you do not see incompetent birds. You don’t. But I think I once saw a competent human, and that could have been I was drunk.
JPG: But the thing is, you learn a lot about the nature of that creature. First of all, you learn that everyone is an individual. That saying that there’s a donkey nature, by no means, every donkey isn’t different. It means there’s limits to what you can do to the donkey, if you want it to flourish. In many ways, this is what inspired me, is I thought about, “Wow, if our school system had as bad a theory of donkeys as they have as humans and education, all the donkeys would be dead or stupidified.” It’s a metaphor in one way, but it’s also to really go back to the ground being now in these architecture classes. Our theme this year is farming the future. That is, as the future gets cataclysmic and people have to participate and they won’t be able to engage this industrial destruction of the earth, how do we get back to the earth in a participatory communal way?
JPG: There’s movements like restorative agriculture, many others, that are really all about us, for a change, getting down back to the ground. We’re going to have to do that or the earth will be dead. We’re going to have to go back and take care of it. I think that anybody who lives with animals respectfully know that at one level they are like a different being, but at the very deepest level, there is a minimal difference between you and them. We share the same DNA. You look at the pig or the donkey, it has a tongue like yours, it sneezes just like you, it yawns. I look at these animals and I said, “Wow, the people who don’t believe in evolution, why did God make every one of them yawn?”
JPG: I mean, it doesn’t make sense. It yawns just like you and me. One of the great things is I have sheep and goats, and they separated evolutionarily a long time ago, but not as long as we did from chimpanzees. You can see that even though they’d been separated for several million years, in evolutionary time, that was yesterday. They look at each other and say, “Well, we’re the same, guys.” They can sense, and that’s because they have identity signals of what goats or sheep are safe, and they can readily send them to each other and get into the same herd. And yet humans can’t do it with other humans.
JPG: Anyway, the farm is a metaphor, but also a way to deal with the crisis of my retirement, which metaphorically, Henry, I retired January 2020, and then the whole world did. And I felt, “Wow. I didn’t know I mattered that much to these people.”
HJ: Well, there are places as I’m reading the book where you are speaking with such a lovingness of your pigs and critique of humans, and I’m fully convinced you like pigs better than you like humans.
JPG: I do. Look, every animal is special in its own way. But you cannot look at a pig, and pigs first of all, are weird because they care the most about food. They just deeply care about food, and they have no hard time finding food. Why are they so smart? I mean, they are incredibly smart. In fact, they outsmart me every day, and I say, “What are you guys doing? It seems like all you guys ever do is eat, and now we’re out here and I look like a fool because you just figured that out.” They never look unhappy. If they’re unhappy, they go to sleep. If it’s raining, they stand out in it. If they need some sun, they lay in it… See, they don’t have any voice saying to them, “Boy, you should feel bad about how obese you are. You really should feel… It means your worthless.” A pig doesn’t care.
JPG: By the way, this voice inside of us that talk to us, it is the source of most of our power, but also a lot of our grief. The profession that is made out like a bandit because of this voice is therapy. But there is a very interesting case where a woman who was a scientist, actually studying the brain, got a stroke and lost that internal voice. One of the reasons is the internal voice is fueled by what’s called the phonological loop, the ability to retain something for a couple of minutes, so it should keep cycling it. She lost that, so she could no longer hear a voice talking… she couldn’t do introspection.
JPG: She had two effects. One was a lot of fear, and the other one was absolute joy that the voice had quit. It came back after years. But if you asked many people today, especially in a highly unequal society and a highly polarized society, “Would you just assume that we turn this voice off so you can be closer to a pig?” In an election that would win by a landslide because they’re not living our lives. None of us got damaged by the virus. I’m sitting, we’re sitting in nice, safe spaces with full salaries or pensions. The voice tortures me, but I didn’t pay a very big price for that torture compared to what many people have paid.
JPG: Now, the way we have to help humans besides making truth motivating is we have to get people to turn the voice off as a voice of criticism and an anxiety and self hatred that is social, is sold to you by the society, and to turn the parts where it is planning and trying to think how to collaborate by getting into other people’s perspectives on. Jaynes’s bi-caramel mind is actually right. When the humans thought the other voice was coming from outside and then we found that; well, it’s actually due to an internal mechanism in the brain. We thought, “Well, it’s wrong,” but you see the real truth of the matter is those voices are coming from outside you because where did you get the voices? You got them from your socialization, your family, your religions, your history, your media, and the voice that’s talking to you, even though you say you feel it’s Henry. Nope, it’s Henry and a whole bunch of other people.
JPG: Some of those people need to be jettisoned from the voice. As long as you pretend it’s your unique little voice, “I got to be me,” and you keep those forces of culture and history that are no good, then you’re just gonna make money for the therapists.
CM: With so many of those forces and such diverse forces of socialization all around us, how do we even begin to think about… my voice had me up last night saying very unkind things all through the night and I’m not worried so much. Body image isn’t the main thing that drives me, but then there’s 50 or 75 or a thousand other things. We have our whole economic, social, educational, all these edifices are built on those things that feed the voices that we hear. How do you start to think about beginning to change those dynamics?
JPG: Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on trying to lower that voice, but we’re finding out newer and newer stuff that is going to lead to therapeutic things. But the fundamental thing is this, because we are herd animals that come out of the primate line, humans are a immensely tropic to status in the sense of what do other people think of me. One of the reasons this voice bothers you so much is you were socialized to care way too much about what society thinks of you, groups think of you, what your identities signals mean to you. That is one problem. The other problem is your voice is healthier and pretty healthy when you feel you belong and you feel safe, because the way the vagus nerve in the body works is if you feel threatened or unsafe as many Americans do, it turns on two parts of the nerve that you really go to fleeing, fighting, hiding, trying to protect yourself, and it absolutely turns off the part of the nerve that makes you pro-social and open to others.
JPG: At a biological point of view, unless you turn off the unsafe signals, whether they’re mentally unsafe, it does no good to send a kid to school and think he’s going to learn, you’re no good for people to collaborate. Now, the other thing I had to say is we moderates have totally give up on the idea of arguing about what is good. What I think we ought to do is, evolution doesn’t care whether you flourish, only whether you survive, but you, you care whether you flourish. Therefore we need to say, how do humans flourish? Not just survive. How do they flourish? And see, now we have a test for that. It isn’t going to just be subjective. We certainly want you to argue for the good, but it’s not a totally subjective matter because if your system is full of inflammation from stress chemicals, it is slowly eating your organs, and it even goes into your brain and begins to destroy parts of your brain.
JPG: I think we can all agree whether we were communist or Nazis that an organism that is destroying itself from the inside out through inflammation just like little knife blades stabbing at it is not flourishing. We could agree on that. The what you could do is you say, “Well, this will certainly be true with school. Let’s check if the kids in school are flourishing.” First of all, because if they’re not, they can’t learn. And second of all, if they’re not, you should be in jail; you’re taking care of your donkeys poorly.
JPG: Anyway, but when you get to the flourishing thing, well, you can use this test, but it still means you’ve got to make choices about what is good for human beings. One choice that I make, and you have to argue with, remember, you cannot just say it’s true, so you’ve got to believe it, is that if something I do is toxic to others, in the end, it’s not good for me. Now, I can’t convince you by simple truth, but I could put that into a game or into other stuff and you’d say, “Wait a minute. I thought that it didn’t harm me because Joe here is unhappy, but now I see this could be bad.” Anyway, we have to reach it.
JPG: See, it’s the humanities. We got to get them out of school, we got to get them out of canonical lists, and we’ve certainly got to get away from the liberals who say anything anybody writes or makes is equally good as anything else. That’s not true. It’s not true that people make better stuff because they’re more gifted; it’s because they have drawn on their life experiences and had life experiences in a way that not only took effort but care. I don’t doubt that everybody could produce a good piece of art, but that doesn’t mean everybody did. I certainly don’t think all the great pieces of art hanging on the walls.
JPG: But I do think that the function of media and art was to give you design sensations, experiences, where you could learn and understand in ways that you can’t by being just let free in the world. And that’s a responsibility. To me, every designer, an architect, a media designer, game designer, and author, they are teachers. You are teaching people. What do teachers and parents do? They say, “I have to design this experience, mentor it, guide you so you don’t kill yourself or you don’t learn something that seems so spiffy and later find out it’s absolutely toxic”
JPG: No humans… I don’t know any culture that… And by the way, animals don’t do this. Animals don’t just turn the young loose… most of them, many, many species don’t turn the animals loose and say, “Hey, I hope you catch onto what we caught on to.” They pass it down. They teach and they often do it through designing, and it’s a niche and environment where the child can observe the right thing or be with them in the right way. In many ways, if you’re an ethical designer, you are a modern shaman, a modern parent, a modern teacher it’s an ethical responsibility, and you better take it. But if you sit around and say, “Well, everything’s as good as everything else.” Well, look at the state of the world that got us.
HJ: I kept reading this, but we’re going down this path toward education, and I kept reading this book through the shadow of your other books, and you edge toward education and edge off it again. There are moments you talk about grades as fetishes as an example of what a fetish is. Near the end, I think we’re reaching this conclusion that if we were wrong about what a human is, then education is inhumane or non-human, designed for the wrong species.
JPG: Exactly, in conclusion. It might work for martians. I don’t know. I don’t know what a martian is like. What this book has to do with education, it says, if you don’t know what a donkey is and also realize that because a donkey is something, it doesn’t mean every donkey’s the same, then you should not be teaching donkeys. The game issue is this, I’ve always argued that games where you are making choices in a virtual world is an exterior version of our talking to ourselves. It’s what we do in our imagination; we role play. Games invented a technology that allowed us to take this function of talking to ourselves and thinking about it while we do it, and put it out externally with content that maybe we could never have gotten or I have no access to.
JPG: That is a powerful technology if used correctly. What you say is that technology, which is really an external imagination, needs to be developed so it makes up for the weaknesses of our imagination: that my side bias, the nagging torture of ourselves, and supplements the good parts of it, which is imagining new identity signals that go wider and worlds that can actually be changed. The message is, I’d like a game designer to say, “Wow, I better up my game.” I’d like a school to say, “I better go study what a human is.” That’s its message. Otherwise, you’re right, Henry, when you have school systems today where many of the kids have such high stress levels that they’re sick and inflammation, and you’re not speaking to any of what their voices are telling them of how inferior and bad they are because they didn’t get Bill Gates’ money, then I don’t know why you bother to teach them because they’re not listening to you. They’re listening to this.
JPG: You’ve got to say, “Hey, listen to me,” and they’re only gonna listen to you if you say, “There’s hope, what you’re going to tell me now is going to be a voice from the outside of hope, and I’m going to put it into my voices and maybe I’ll throw a few other ones off,” and do it. That’s what education was supposed to be doing. At its best, it’s what it did for you and me. It made us aware of what some of these voices were, who should be thrown out, who should be in.
JPG: But education has been co-opted at the university level by grant getting and marketing. I think as the humanities and arts have died because no one wants to pay for them anymore, they are making a huge comeback outside of school. Art didn’t die. A bunch of kids are doing it as you know, and they’re doing it in the way it was always meant to be done, as a participatory experience that made people think about experience, in a way that was motivating and not alienating, but was novel and exciting. As the humanities die… they will come back in the younger generation and get back their function. I hope that as that happens… Look, we self domesticated ourselves, we changed ourselves in history radically, we are the sort of species who can do it again.
HJ: One of the passages in the book that really moved me stayed with me as I reflected on it is your description of learning poetry, which speaks directly to what you were just saying about the humanities. I think you and I come from more or less the same class roots and through similar processes, although, I never quite got poetry. My wife gave me a poetry book of Elizabeth Browning’s poems when we first got married, and I sat down one night and was so proud of myself, I read it and every line connected with every other line, and I was understanding it. When I woke up the next morning and realized that numbers after each line were actually page numbers, and I was reading the titles of the poems, not the poems-
JPG: Could have been a great poem. I remember, I went to a Catholic seminary that I was in for six years and never left, and they banned most books and they certainly didn’t teach poetry. Then when I came out, I got a degree in philosophy and became a theoretical linguist, syntactician. Then I got my first job at Hampshire College, which is a very liberal college where people don’t have to stay in any class. They graduate by projects. The classes are there to help, but they can leave. They don’t need classes to graduate. They had one of the very first cognitive science programs in the country, and they were right next to UMass Amherst, which was the second best linguistics department, and they weren’t too far from MIT, which was the best.
JPG: It was a good job until I discovered that I made… and my first course was called on government binding. I went in there and there were 84 students. I thought, “Well, this is an erudite college that is willing to take Chomsky and syntax at this level as undergraduates Two stayed, because they had come thinking it was about S and M. By the way, the two that stayed are both today full professors of linguistics. The little group of us linguists got together. Most of the students wanted to do humanities. They said, “We got to attract them somehow.” I had heard of this field stylistics where you did the linguistics with poetry. I hadn’t seen much of it. I suggested it. I said, “If any of you guys know literature or poetry, we could do this.”
JPG: They said, “Well, I know literature and poetry out of school. I don’t like it. Why don’t you teach it, Jim?” I was living with a woman at the time who was educated, and I went back and said, “What the hell do I do now? I never read any poetry,” and she said, “Well, just go get a Norton anthology of modern poetry and sit there and read it, see if it moves you.” Well, I was just blown out of the water. As a linguist, just blown out of the water. To me, it was like what I called semantic saturation. Every part of it is saturated with meaning, and in the best poetry, with participatory meaning. There were often several interpretations and they were juxtaposing with other interpretations of meaning that invites you into that poem.
JPG: I then read Moby Dick, and I thought, “God, best novel.” Later when I then taught this class, of course, on linguistics and poetry and literature, it was to get these kids to take syntax by exposing it to them, and yet I had got hooked on the poetry and literature. When I would do it in class, they always… whatever we’ve got to do, they had had it in school and they hated it. Then we would actually look at what it meant as a piece of language in an experience you’re having with it, and they would say, “God, this is really good. How come no one told us?”
JPG: I realized no book had been ruined for them more than Moby Dick. They thought it was the story of a whale. I said to myself, “It is just amazingly good I did not read Moby Dick in school.” It’s not the story the whale as you know, it’s a story of everything. I also found out though, that once you showed these people that they, themselves, as speakers of language are in their daily life, using language poetically deeply to make meaning that humans are all very good at language if you traumatize them and they have to make sense, they start telling a story. I would show them that that human language from children and adults, when people cared and were passionate and forgot enough about their internal voice to put their passion in there trying to make sense, that was already strong language, and that the poets were part of that tradition. They had no trouble understanding that.
JPG: School just ruined it for them. Poetry then has been important to me ever since. I have three volumes of poetry published and more written. My poetry story is sad. I’ve never wanted to write poetry though I like to read it, but one time, a few years ago I had, for the first time in my life, serious allergies and I was seriously depressed. All of a sudden I found myself, I was in the car and Betty was driving, getting out a legal pad and writing with a pen, which I had not done for decades, poetry. Couldn’t stop myself. Just absolutely could not stop. Just wrote poem after poem. I had no sense of composing them. They came out. Somebody publishing things saw some of them and said, “Wow, let’s publish these poems,” and they did. Then I went for allergy treatments that worked, and I’ve never had an urge to write a poem since.
HJ: Writing poetry was an allergic reaction.
JPG: I said to my allergist, I said, “Is writing poetry a symptom of allergy?” And he said, “I’ve never heard that.” I gave him a copy of my poetry book and said, “Well it is, here it is.” I have no idea, but it was an amazing experience because this idea when you start with a muse, it was that experience. I enjoyed the hell out of it. It was lovely. I would love to be able to do it again. I keep trying to get sick, but living on the farm, my immune system’s too good now. Anyway, it was an amazing experience, but it also, by the way, when I read them myself later, it gives me just more respect for real poets. Look at the tremendous impact that the young woman poet at the inauguration had on the society and put that together with the fact of all these right wingers and elitists saying poetry is irrelevant. You can’t get a job with it. It doesn’t matter to society at all. You say those are the voices. There are some voices you need to get out of your head.
HJ: Well, one of the things that I think struck me about Amanda… Gorman is her name?
HJ: Her poem, was it had features that would not be reproducible in text. That is, her gestures are part of the point. It’s a multi-modal experience of poetry as is the intonation of the voice. And that’s all the stuff that gets stripped aside when we create textbooks and bring poetry into the classroom.
JPG: Right. That’s because when we made poetry and plays and Shakespeare canonical, we made them part of our textual world when they had not ever been part of textual worlds. We did exactly the same with the Bible. The New Testament, Old Testament, oral stories thousands of years old told by multiple groups. They were part of the voice they heard, and in a sense, knew came from outside them from their ancestors. Then when you put that into the text, the so-called religions of the book, what happens is it floats away from the way in which is indigenously embedded into culture, into earth, into landscape, and becomes this universal abstraction that is not very meaningful and has to be policed by people as texts, not as participation in life.
JPG: Yes, but see, the good thing is people saw it’s a poem that she said and the power of saying it. Think about it, for people who have heard Trump speak for four years, what it sounded like to know what language with care sounds like. Notice, by the way, she did not need me to tell her; you have to tell the truth, but tell it slant.
HJ: You said right before we went on the air that you see this as your final book, and you end this with an homage to the editor of The Examined Life. Is the examined life something we only get to when we are retired and therefore can look back or is it process of ongoing examining?
JPG: The issue for me over the examined life is given that I was raised in this fanatically devout Catholic world, but with a lot of background on theology, and then got degrees in philosophy and linguistics and then went on to work in a lot of areas, and when I came to the humanities, indigenously, indirectly, everything in my life that has led me to believe the saying “an unexamined life is not worth living.” That was a cardinal belief of mine. That means you’re living that life. It doesn’t mean you do it at the end. The real question for me in retirement is, is it true? Are people in this world now with such lack of safety and equality, are the people who examine their lives happier or the people who don’t? How many people in the history of the world even had the opportunity to examine their lives when they’re living out of trash.
JPG: An old person comes and says… well, I don’t know if this has happened to you yet, Henry, but it certainly happened to me. As you get older, you realize you don’t know much. You don’t know. I don’t think not knowing is a detriment to doing good work. I think it might be better. But you have to still trust your moral intuitions of what’s worth doing, or you can’t do it. I think what I’m doing there is trying to find out is there some ground other than my arrogance or fear that the examined life is an important thing for humans to do at a moral level. I’m examining that question without an answer to it, because the book is saying that it is interesting, probably important, but it certainly is interesting, before you die to know what a human was. It’s fascinating because I’d like to know.
JPG: That’s why I wrote the book, but not because I know, we’re only beginning to know, I wanted to give everybody the tools to ask the question for themselves. Not to come up with my answer, but to say, “Okay, here was my attempt. Now you take your turn.” I did that because I think it’s important and interesting to me, but of course nobody has to do it. I think we all, as academics, baby boomers in particular, we bear some responsibility for the state of the world. We were the most privileged generation in history. The baby boom did not have necessarily great intuitions about how to take care of the earth or even how to take care of their own children. As we get older, we need to do like the old, old Catholics did, a self examination and wonder whether it’s worth doing.
JPG: Now, it’s my last book because no one needs more books from me now. My limit was up. What I want to do, and I’m trying to do this with some people now, is work with much younger people who do not have all of the voices. They have some bad voices in their head, but they’re not the ones in mine. For the first time I met somebody who does not have Saint Augustan in their mind. That’s a new thing in history. And trying to get them to say, “Look, you have to take this further.” That doesn’t mean agreeing with me; that means taking this intuition that we’ve got to keep harping on, “How do we get humans to flourish?” Because if they don’t flourish, the world will not end, but the world that is livable for them will end. We need young people to do it now. So I’m perfectly glad to help them, write stuff for them, model stuff for them. Bu they are the ones that are going to have to carry it into the future.
JPG: That’s a lot of what you do, Henry. I think that’s our moral obligation to do that, so that we pass on… Remember, all these animals, parrots, whales, they pass on the knowledge of the elders so that not the species, but the group they’re in, can get good at what they have to do to live and not have to rediscover over and over again. That’s the job among parrots and among whales for the elders. That’s our job now.
HJ: Well, that’s a powerful place to wrap things up. It’s been great having this conversation.
JPG: It’s fun to talk to you guys. Yeah, it’s great. This was very, very good.
HJ: That little bit of music you just heard is from Bing Crosby’s song from the ’40s, Swinging on a Star, which has interesting things to say about animal intelligence and education, so right at you, Jim. Right after the conversation was recorded and James Paul Gee tells us there’s no such thing as an incompetent cat, someone sent me a cute cat video where a cat has his head in the sink, the water is running all over it, and he’s trying to lick up air because his mouth is not in the line of water. I sent it to Jim and said, “This seems to me and incompetent cat.” He wrote back and said, “Oh yeah, but humans laugh at it all the time just the lord it over the poor cat.”
HJ: The more I looked at it, and later that day got a video where a cat had his head caught in a Kleenex box and is desperately trying to get it off, I realized that most of the cute cat videos are videos of cats caught in a human world trying to do things humans do simply, but things that aren’t in the nature of cats at all. They’re not bad cats. They’re cats doing a bad job of pretending to be human.
CM: That is awesome. My first reaction was, of course, my cats drink out of the tap all the time. Every day they just sit there whenever I go to the bathroom, they’re like, “All right, let us get some water.” I have videos of them drinking water, either alone or together, both of them drinking from the same stream in a way that I find miraculous that they can get their, they can catch a droplet, at a time, of water and have the patience to do that. I think in addition your observation that cat failings are basically about human failings in some sense or interacting with the human environment, our cats are also incredibly adept at interacting with the human environment, able to open doors and unlocked things. My old cat used to be able to lock a door, which I found amazing.
CM: It is funny, but they are good at being them. We are introducing the distortions into their world. I guess, arguably, kind of what he said is we introduced the distortions into our world as well. The way that we are training this little voice in our heads to run amok in ways that undermine so much of society and undermine us individually, I feel like it’s part of this cycle that we make work or make challenges for ourselves. I think generally when I was reflecting on this conversation, a lot of it for me was about how the digital world, or it spurred thoughts on how the digital world amplifies and distorts and otherwise changes all these ways of being human in ways that make us less human and less communal and less of ourselves. I felt an indictment of technology fairly strongly.
HJ: Yes. I think that’s partially right. I think an indictment of human culture. He calls humans throughout the book man-made monsters. The sense that we created a monstrous version of ourselves by the ways we designed environments that are inappropriate for us, starting maybe with the home and the family, but particularly for him, I think he’s thinking about education because after a lifelong career in education, talking about education, I think some of his frustrations with the failure of educational reform are just beneath the surface when he speaks and writes on this topic, which is why I think we saw more of that as we got deeper into the humanities. I also think though that Jim has always been celebrating video games as a space of learning and as a space that teachers can learn from and bring certain design principles back into their class.
HJ: I’ve always been moved by Jim’s passion and discovery of video games well past the age where most people today would experience them, and his willingness to lecture and play video games live at the same time. I sure as hell couldn’t.
CM: That’s awesome.
HJ: He’s out there playing the game, showing us features of the game, explaining the educational dimensions of the game. It was just so clear that this was an environment he’s really comfortable with, but the farm also seems to be an environment that he feels especially comfortable with. It’s fascinating to me as someone who’s known him for a long time to suddenly see this… to mix my metaphors, a flowering of animal imagery in his speech, the way he’s drawing on this new found fascination with the natural world, and his writing is speaking as an analogy to think about what we need to do for humans. In that space, one wonders if a well-designed social media system would not be like the mound that, as he’s talking about, a kind of symbiotic relationship the termites have to their environment and toward other species, which allow them to think in ways that go well beyond the mental capacity of the species. I think that fantasy of collective intelligence is something many of us had when we first started thinking about the online world.
CM: Yeah. The reality, of course, is that it feels often that rather than developing practices and technologies and so on that support that collective intelligence, it’s more about hoarding. It’s more about being king of the mountain and more about who gets there first, and that rather than creating that mound space classically, rather than growing the pie or growing the mound, it’s about dividing it up right, or dividing it and owning the mound, whether it’s a technology company or whatever other power that be is. We get in our own way of building on that more ambitious example. I wonder, I imagine that one of the appeals of animals is that they don’t have that voice in their head in the same way, so they’re not, perhaps… they’re competing of course, but in a much more collaborative way, as we know from all kinds of research, for survival. We, on the other hand, have this real… we’ve incorporated some real distortions into the ways that we work together or work against one another.
HJ: One of the ways we can reverse that, I think, is for humans to engage with animals more on their own terms. I was very moved this summer by this Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, and it’s about a guy who is deep… a filmmaker who’s deeply depressed, goes through an island and just began swimming with his camera every day and meets this octopus under the water and becomes fascinated with the octopus’s world. But more than that, the octopus begins to welcome him in. That over time, they build a trust relationship, and the octopus and humans are cuddling together, which is very not the major of octopuses, or octopi, which are solo creatures, but he comes to really respect the way the octopus adapts to his environment, the way the octopus uses his smarts to get away from predators, just the way the octopus lives his life.
HJ: Over the 90 minutes, we are into the world of the octopus, which is not an animal that’s easy to humanize, but the film really turns it into an important figure that we come to care about over the course of the story without anthropomorphizing the octopus in any way. It remains an octopus who thinks and lives in an octopus world, and the human is the one who has to adapt to learn from the octopus.
CM: I mean, what you don’t mention… I very much enjoyed that movie too, was that the guy, the protagonist, one of the protagonists, not the octopus, he’s not especially human, he’s not particularly warm or engaging. He’s aloof and hard to reach, and that ultimately, I felt like the octopus made him more human in the way that he describes at the end, his relationship with his son and how he sees the world. It was really the octopus that was teaching him about humanity in a funny way. Which I think is powerful of how far we get away from who we are.
CM: The other thing it reminded me of was the movie AlphaGo, which is about the technology that that plays the incredibly complex game Go and beats humans, and how the Go champion says that watching AlphaGo play made him more human. It’s funny how it may not be humans that inspire us to be human, but not humans to help us to appreciate our humanity.
HJ: Yeah, well, in James Paul Gee’s case, it must be pigs.
CM: Well, thank you so much, Henry. That was a great conversation. I’m looking forward to reading the book.
HJ: See you next week when we will be talking to Warren Hedges who studies fantasy, nationalism, white supremacy, and has interesting reflections on the QAnon Shaman, who was one of the insurrectionists who was often photographed inside the Capitol building in early January.
CM: Huge and undying thanks to our amazing producers Sophie Madej and Josh Chang.
HJ: We also thank University of Southern California Annenberg School and the MacArthur Foundation for their support for our activities, even though we’re no longer recording out of the wonderful studios at Annenberg, but are recording wherever our laptop happens to be at any given moment in time.
CM: Most of the time we are here in Los Angeles, like the USC campus, which rests on the historical lands of the Tongva and Gabrielino people, and we appreciate their stewardship. In addition to finding us wherever you find your podcasts, we are on the web at howdoyoulikeitsofar.org, all one word as it were. And on social at H-D-Y-L-I-S-F both on Twitter and Instagram. So check us out, say hello!