Tag Archives: myth

#53 On equipment for living

Dear Mat,

One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.

I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living

#35 On representation

Dear M,

Our representations of the world are of roughly two kinds: innate (you call them “toolkits”) and ideological (which you call “maps”)*. The problem with maps, you say is that they’re rigid and predictable.

But surely our innate representations of the world — folk psychology, moral instincts, heuristic decision making — are more rigid. They’ve been honed by natural selection’s trial and error solutions that allow organisms to do a good enough job, in a limited but relevant domain. Maybe they work 90% of the time and there would be a massive opportunity cost to improve the other 10%, so they leave it at that.

One has to wait many lifetimes (generations) for our innate toolkits to change but one can change maps many times in a lifetime. Continue reading #35 On representation