Monday, September 24, 2018

Sunrise peekaboo


Still, why do literary critics find it so difficult to focus on form?

A topic I’ve been thinking about off and on for some time, most recently: Once more, and thinking of ring composition: Why aren’t literary critics interested in describing literary form?

A meaning-focused discipline

It’s surely that literary criticism has focused on meaning. But why should that distract from an interest in form, especially since so-called formalism looms large in methodological discussions and in practical criticism? That is, why does formalism have so little to do with actual form? That’s the question.

Of course, form in the sense that I mean, isn’t completely invisible. It’s quite visible in formal verse, where patterns of rhyme, meter, and so forth have been extensively catalogued. This is, however, a relatively peripheral matter for literary critics, though it may be very important to some working poets.

Verse forms are visible because they are forms of sound, and sound is readily objectified. What of ring forms? Well, in the small, they’re known as chiasmus, and are well known and often remarked. But chiasmus often involves symmetrical arrangements of sound. Large-scale ring forms do not. They’re more difficult to identify, and certainly more problematic.

That they are large scale, encompassing the whole work, is one source of difficulty. You have compare features across the whole text, that’s much more difficult than comparing features within a line or a few lines of poetry. Moreover it’s not obvious what features you should be comparing. It’s not sound. And objectifying subject matter is trickier, no?

The road to form

In my own experience, it takes a fair amount of tedious work to identify ring-form structures. I can think of one case where I suspected a ring-form at the outset, Tezuka’s Metropolis, and another where I started with a clue, David Bordwell’s remark about symmetry in King Kong. In both of these cases it took me some hours of work over a day or three to conduct the analysis. And then there’s Gojira, where I’d worked on the film off and on over a couple of years before I suspected it might be a ring composition. And then, again, it was hours of work to verify my suspicion.

I note moreover that I did this work after, long after, I had adopted a computational view of literary texts. Indeed, I did most of this work after my 2006 paper on literary morphology [1]. By that time I had, of course, done the work on “Kubla Khan” and on Tezuka’s Metropolis. But it wasn’t until several years later I ran up a post about “The Nutcracker Suite” and “sorcerer’s Apprentice” episodes of Fantasia [2], though I must have worked on “The Nutcracker Suite” in 2006 or 2007 as I’d written a long email to Mary Douglas about it and she died in May of 2007.

My point is simply that I hadn’t begun this work in a systematic way until I’d found a example or two by the by and until I had a theoretical reason – computational form – to look for them. I’d been driven to computation by “Kubla Khan” years ago, after I found those nested structures that must “smelled” like computation.

Nested structure in “Kubla Khan”, ll. 1-36.
And it was easy and natural enough to extend computation to Lévi-Strauss’s notion of the armature. And finally, having adopted a computational view of language, it followed that literature must have a computational aspect as well. The remaining issue is whether or not literary texts display large-scale computational structures rather than simply being a concatenation of sentence-level structures. The existence of ring-form texts suggests that they do.

Tools for thought

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Software sucks! Why?

I’ve been programming for 15 years now. Recently our industry’s lack of care for efficiency, simplicity, and excellence started really getting to me, to the point of me getting depressed by my own career and the IT in general.

Modern cars work, let’s say for the sake of argument, at 98% of what’s physically possible with the current engine design. Modern buildings use just enough material to fulfill their function and stay safe under the given conditions. All planes converged to the optimal size/form/load and basically look the same.

Only in software, it’s fine if a program runs at 1% or even 0.01% of the possible performance. Everybody just seems to be ok with it. People are often even proud about how much inefficient it is, as in “why should we worry, computers are fast enough”:
@tveastman: I have a Python program I run every day, it takes 1.5 seconds. I spent six hours re-writing it in rust, now it takes 0.06 seconds. That efficiency improvement means I’ll make my time back in 41 years, 24 days :-)
You’ve probably heard this mantra: “programmer time is more expensive than computer time”. What it means basically is that we’re wasting computers at an unprecedented scale. Would you buy a car if it eats 100 liters per 100 kilometers? How about 1000 liters? With computers, we do that all the time.
Lots of stuff here.

For example:
Every device I own fails regularly one way or another. My Dell monitor needs a hard reboot from time to time because there’s software in it. Airdrop? You’re lucky if it’ll detect your device, otherwise, what do I do? Bluetooth? Spec is so complex that devices won’t talk to each other and periodic resets are the best way to go.
This too:
We put virtual machines inside Linux, and then we put Docker inside virtual machines, simply because nobody was able to clean up the mess that most programs, languages and their environment produce. We cover shit with blankets just not to deal with it. “Single binary” is still a HUGE selling point for Go, for example. No mess == success.
And so it goes.

I note that this is the same world where other folks are talking about superintelligent computers and recursively reprogram themselves to be smarter and smarter and really smarter.





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A look under the hood through the insane musical genius that is Mnozil Brass

Note: This had been originally posted at 3 Quarks Daily, but it got lost when 3QD moved to a new location. Meanwhile a number of the video clips got thrown in jail by the copyright protection gang. Consequently I've had to find new versions (where I good) and the timings on the new versions are a bit different from the timings I list in the text.]
I don’t know just when it was, but let’s say it was half a dozen years ago. I’m on an email list for trumpet players and someone had sent a message suggesting we check out the Mnozil Brass. Strange name, I thought, but I found some clips on YouTube and have been entranced ever since.

They’re a brass septet from Austria, six trumpets, six trombones, and a tuba. Their repertoire is all over the place and their genius is unmistakable. They are superb musicians, but also arch conceptualists, skilled comedic performers, and questionable dancers. They put on a hell-of-a-show. And I do mean “put-on”, as much of what they do is deeply serious in a way that only inspired buffoonery can be.

Here’s a performance that was posted to YouTube in April of 2012. It’s just shy of four minutes long and goes through distinct phases. It’s called “Moldavia”, presumably after the old principality in Eastern Europe.

Watch the clip. Tell me what you hear, but also what you see. Both are important. It’s their interaction that is characteristic of Mnozil.

What I hear, of course, is brass playing, a lyrical trombone, ferocious trumpets, a tuba holding down the bottom. And then there’s the singing toward the end. What are they doing while singing? They’re not standing still like choir boys. They’re moving and gesticulating madly. Dominance it looks like to me, (male) dominance. You may have heard that in the music, though perhaps not identifying it as such; but now you can see it. They’re showing you what’s driving the music.

But that’s not how it starts. It starts with a rubato trombone solo. There’s a shot of the tuba player slouched in his seat reading some magazine; it’s black with a large white Playboy bunny logo on it. The implication is that he’s looking at pictures of naked women.

And so it goes. There’s lots of business going on. I could, but won’t, comment on it endlessly.

But I’ll say just a bit more. At about twenty seconds in we’re in tempo and the leftmost trumpeter (Thomas Gansch, the ringleader of the group) does a few dance steps, while remaining seated. To my (not terribly well informed) eye they look like steps from some Balkan circle dance. A bit later there’s some business about the trumpeters standing play, but one of them isn’t coordinated with the others. What’s that about?

It goes by quickly and then things move on. What we’re seeing is the behind-the-scenes (under the hood) mechanisms of performance. Signals have been crossed and it takes awhile to get things straightened out. That is, that’s what we’re being shown. Of course, no one’s really confused. This is all scripted. It’s part of the performance. Mnozil are playing at performing.

But that disappears at about two minutes in when the trumpets start playing a wicked fast melody in an odd meter (7/8), at least by the most common practice in Western music. Remember, this is “Moldavia”, somewhere suspended between Europe and the (exotic) Middle East. I can assure you, as a trumpet player, that what they’re doing here is ferociously difficult. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You can hear it in the music. And that difficulty requires skill, concentration, and commitment. At this point it’s all and only music. And yet a minute later they’re doing that vocal nonsense.

That’s how it is. Back and forth. Irony. Sincerity. Irony. Sincerity. Overall: KICKASS! Their virtuosity gives weight to their clowning. And their clowning humanizes their virtuosity.

They’re unique.

Here’s a different clip, called “Ballad”, and that’s what it is. I’ve been told it’s from the soundtrack of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but I’ve not verified that, nor does it matter for my purposes. What matters is that it’s one piece of music from start to finish, with no funny stage business. It’s ‘ordinary’ music, played extraordinarily well.
[This clip was, alas, consumed by the copyright protection gang.]
Regardless of the kind of music being played, this is what we expect of musical performances, just the music. If you don’t see what Mnozil’s doing while performing “Moldavia” you music quite a bit. Here, you don’t miss much.

Now let’s look at a performance where the music is utterly simple while the performance is all. It’s called “Lonely Boy”. At the beginning we hear the tuba player, Wilfried Brandstötter, lay down an ostinato bass line and see a lone man – trombonist Leonard Paul – slumped down in a chair.

One by one he brings two other trombonists and then two trumpeters out. He ‘manipulates’ the trombone slides with his feet and the trumpet valves with his fingers, but the other players do the blowing. Paul is looking utterly detached while doing this. It’s an astonishing feat played in an utterly deadpan manner.

And then the last member of the group, trumpeter Roman Rindberger, comes out and removes the chair from underneath Paul. The performance continues seamlessly while Rindberger parades around like a triumphant magician. Of course, his is the easiest part, strutting and looking (a bit) graceful.

But it works. It all works. Take it as an allegory about how people performing music become a single interconnected being, albeit one distributed across several physically distinct bodies. And the audience is (just) an extension of that being.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Standing in the Jersey City Heights, looking over Hoboken, to Manhattan



Courtesies and Seams: My relationship with David Hays, teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend

I’d been planning to write this for some time. Having spent a good bit of time over the last month thinking and writing about the toxic relationship Avital Ronell had with Nimrod Reitman [1], it seemed urgent that I tell a story about a different kind of relationship.
* * * * *

I met David Hays in the Spring of 1974, my second semester in graduate school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I was sitting in the English Department’s graduate student lounge talking with Ralph Henry Reese, a second year student. When I mentioned my interest in cognitive science, and in particular, in cognitive networks, he brought out this cognitive network diagram he’d been working on. It was for buried treasure stories. He’d been working with this guy in Linguistics, David Hays. He was a computational linguist. The name rang a bell.

Didn’t he write that article in Dædalus [2], about language and love? I didn’t know he was here at Buffalo. That was a good article, the best in the issue.

And so I met Hays in his office and explained what I was up to. We talked about cognitive science I suppose, because that’s what I was there for, and about my specific problem: I’d found this formal pattern in “Kubla Khan” that smelled like computation – I’m not sure I used that word, “smelled” in that first computation, but it did come up early in our conversations. There was nothing in literary criticism that gave me a clue as to what it was about and no one in the English Department who could really help me, though they liked the work. Perhaps he would read my MA thesis on the poem and let me know what he thought? He agreed and I left him with a copy of the thesis.

I returned a week or two later and we talked. Have you tried this? Yes, I said. Didn’t get me anywhere. What about this? Same thing. He was impressed, thought there was something there, but just what...We decided to work together, teacher and student.

* * * * *

I enrolled in a graduate seminar Hays was giving that fall, “Language as a Focus for Intellectual Integration.” The rubric was a flexible one, basically a vehicle for Hays and his students to investigate whatever interested them. Each student could suggest a book or two. I remember Hays had us read William Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception, and Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. I’d offered Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, and Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism. I forget what else we read. The class format was simple, weekly readings, discussion in Hays’s office (there weren’t but a handful of students enrolled), and a final paper.

At the same time Hays tutored me in his semantic theory. He’d written a book, Mechanisms of Language, for a course of the same name, in which he set out his best account of language, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. He never published it formally; rather the Linguistics department arranged to make copies of the typescript for distribution in class. He gave me a copy. We concentrated on semantics, which was more or less independent of the other material.

We met once a week at my apartment. We sat around the kitchen table because we needed to be able to draw diagrams. Hays’ theory was very visual. We used up a lot of paper.

Why my apartment? Convenience mostly. SUNY Buffalo had just opened a new suburban campus. The Linguistics Department had moved there, but the English Department had not. The English Department remained in north Buffalo and I lived near the department. Hays would come by my apartment on the way to his office at the new campus – on seminar days I commuted to his office by shuttle bus.

At the beginning of the semester I’d asked Hays how long he thought it would take me to learn the semantic model. Why’d I ask that? I don’t know, vanity, eagerness, who knows. I asked. He said it generally took two to three months. Thought I to myself, it won’t take ME that long. And you know what? Three months. Back and forth across the kitchen table, working exercises from Mechanisms, talking, drawing diagrams. It was like math. It WAS math, albeit of an informal kind. You had to work the problems. That was the only way.

At the end of those three months I took what I’d learned in those tutoring sessions and applied it to some fragments of William Carlos Williams’ Patterson, Book V, which I’d been studying in a poetry seminar taught by Charlie Altieri. The result was a long paper which I submitted to both seminars, Modern Poetry and Linguistics as a Focus of Intellectual Integration. Here’s a diagram from that paper:


That’s what took me three months, maybe four, to learn. It’s not just the diagrams themselves, what the labels (COS, SIM, BGN, MTL, NRT, etc.) mean and so forth, but how to go from natural language statements to these diagrams representing the underlying semantic structure. It’s the back-and-forth between language and diagrams that takes time to learn, to internalize.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The extended network of humans and things (ANT) that constitutes an AI system

Friday Fotos: Some varieties of H2O






Three modes of investigation in the human sciences: interpretive, experimental, and grammatical [#DH]

Three decades ago I prepared a report in which I proposed an interdisciplinary course that embraced what I took to be the three primary modes of investigation in the human sciences [1]. To write the report I needed terms for referring to those modes. That was a problem, for, as far as I could tell, standard terms didn’t exist.

The terminological problem remains, but I’ve reached a tentative decision about one-word terms: interpretive, experimental, and grammatical.

Interpretation, of course, can be used so broadly as to refer to just about any method. Everything requires interpretation, right? Well, yes, but that’s what I mean. I mean interpretation as it is practiced, perhaps most centrally, in literary criticism, in particular, in the practice of analyzing and interpretive individual texts. But critics can read texts spanning, say, a century and interpret what happened in the course of that century. Historians do the same thing; you amass a pile of evidence about some historical phenomenon or period and then you figure it what it all means. That is, you interpret it. And so with anthropology, and so forth.

By experimental I mean the type of work typically done in the behavioral and social sciences. One gathers data by some means – laboratory observation, survey instrument, public or privates records, whatever – and subject it to statistical analysis. The data and analysis constitute and experiment intended to test some hypothesis, though in many cases the only hypothesis on offer is the null hypothesis. Different data or different analytic approach, different experiment.

Grammatical thinking is perhaps the newest kid on the methodological block, though the idea of a grammar is quite old. I take linguistics as my core example, where I have in mind the formal and quasi-formal approach to linguistic phenomena that arose after World War II in the work of Chomsky and associates, computational linguists, and linguists of other schools. As it developed the grammatical approach extended to a wide range of perceptual, cognitive, and motor and behavioral phenomena. Some of the most interesting work of this kind involves the use of computer models.

Work in digital humanities has brought experimental methods to bear on phenomena which had previously been almost exclusively interpretive. Grammatical approaches are still rare within the humanities, and that includes most forms of cognitive literary criticism.

Ideally undergraduates majoring in any of the human sciences would be acquainted with all three approaches, though they would concentrate in only one or two. When such students then go on to doctoral work they would bring that breadth of acquaintance with them. Frankly, I think dissertations should employ two out of the three approaches. I note that much current work in digital humanities involves both interpretive and experimental approaches.

[1] William L. Benzon, Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, an Approach for a New Era, Working Paper,

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Is something rotten in the heart of Wikipedia?

For example:
First, Wikipedia no longer has over 100,000 editors. The number of active editors has been declining for over a decade, even as fewer new editors join the site. MIT researchers found the “complex bureaucracy” and “hard-line responses to newcomers’ mistakes” were the primary reasons why would-be editors opted not to stick around. Meanwhile, the site’s core of “active” editors decreased from 2007 to 2015 by 40%, dropping to about 30,000.1 In 2017, Purdue University reported that just one percent of those editors had made 77% of the total edits.2 The rate of changes rejected climbed from 6% in 2006 to 25% in 2010,3 and the site bans 1,000 IP addresses a day.4 “Edit wars” are resolved by silencing them. Editors who hang on long enough to become administrators capable of freezing and deleting entries no longer feel compelled to abide by Wikipedia’s rules, and statistics show that the number of editors approved to become administrators has plummeted since 2007.5 Wikipedia is an oligarchy with all the problems that entails. One set of rules exists for the user-citizen, and one for the ruling class of administrators and senior editors.
More at Helen Buyniski, Wikipedia: Rotten to the Core?

Like this, for example:
“Charitable organizations” like Wikimedia are barred from operating for the benefit of “private interests,” with no part of a group’s “net earnings” accruing “to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”19 Yet Wales was so fond of his Wikimedia credit card he was relieved of it in 2006, after it was revealed that he was billing $1,300 steak dinners and other outsize expenses to the “charity.”20 Wales, like some of his editors, takes Wikipedia’s rules as mere suggestions. From minor tweaks to entries belonging to his famous friends21 to more extensive reputational rehab for a girlfriend22 to wholesale rewriting of his own history,23 he has earned the “god king” nickname bestowed upon him by his adoring public. Openly disregarding Wikipedia’s laws while enforcing them on everyone else, Wales has made Wikipedia a microcosm of the society that birthed it. Is it any wonder that the same injustices so rife in America today are playing out on our computer screens as well – that the wealthy and well-connected are subject to different rules than the rest of us?
The list goes on and on.

Frank Zappa meets Philly Joe Jones, what a concept...and there's more!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In days of old...



Star struck and broken down: Reflections on the case of Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and the rest

A new working paper, title above, link, abstract, contents, and introduction below:

Abstract: In the summer of 2018 a scandal broke out at New York University concerning the way a senior literary critic, Avital Ronell, had exploited a graduate student, Nimrod Reitman. This paper examines this scandal in the general context of academic literary criticism as it developed in the third quarter of the 20th century, eventuating in the phenomenon of the “star” critic. Ronell is such a star. Stardom is one thing, however, and is specific to the particular conditions of literary criticism. Abuse is a different phenomenon, tied to personal behavior and informal local norms. The paper includes a close analysis of a short article Ronell wrote on the occasion of the death of Jacques Derrida, her teacher and mentor.


Introduction: Sorting things out 2
How did literary criticism come to this foul pass? [#AvitalRonell] 4
Lit crit stars, real or an illusion? 9
The case of Paul de Man 12
Identity, gossip, and the personal 13
The lure of the esoteric 15
Comments on a short text Avital Ronell wrote to honor and remember Derrida 18
Roshomon redux, the case of Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and NYU 24
Appendix: The triumph of interpretation (aka “reading”) 28
Introduction: Sorting things out

Until several weeks ago Avital Ronell was little more than a name that I associated with Continental thought, I don’t know, maybe I even associated it with deconstruction. Then the scandal broke. I read a tweet Corey Robin posted in mid-August (see p. 4) in which he examined the complaint Reitman had filed against Ronell and NYU. That’s what got me interested in the case. Robin’s point was simple, regardless of what had actually happened between Reitman and Ronell, regardless of Ronell’s star status, it was clear that this relationship took up an enormous amount of Reitman’s time, as though Ronell recognized no boundary between herself and Reitman.

That’s what interested, this lack of boundaries. Why? Because I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what happened to literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s. Critics started referring to analytic interpretation as reading, thus eliding a boundary between ordinary reading, which any literate person does, and interpretation, a professional activity normally expressed in written articles or conference papers (see the appendix, p. 28 ff.). Was there some connection here, a connection between boundary loss within critical practice, where interpretation collapses into reading, and in pedagogical practice, where Ronell elided the boundary between herself and her student?

I posed and explored that question in my first post, “How did literary criticism come to this foul pass? [#AvitalRonell]” (pp. 4 ff.), where I also examined a 1997 article David Shumway had published about “stars” in literary theory, which I continued to explore in a second post, “Lit crit stars, real or an illusion?” (pp. 9 ff.). In another post I noted the star status of Paul de Man and the controversy that arose around his anti-semitic journalism during World War II (pp. 12 ff.). A fourth post, “Identity, gossip, and the personal” (pp. 13 ff.) considered the relationship between the critic’s identity and the valence of their critical statements and a fifth looked at the use of often obscure technical terminology, “The lure of the esoteric” (pp. 15 ff.).

The upshot is that, rightly or wrongly, I satisfied myself that there is a relation ship between the collapse of critical interpretation into mere reading in the 1960s and 1970s and the emergence of the literary star in the 1980s and 1990s. We must be careful, however, for, as Shumway was careful to point out, the phenomenon of the star literary critic is a bit different from intellectual prominence in other disciplines. The star critic assumes a status that is, in a way, like that of the canonical authors they study and interpret. The significance of such a critic’s writings is thus dependent on their personal imprimature, their charisma, above and beyond any arguments they may make. Hence the importance of word play and allusion, which have little evidentiary or logical value, but are a vehicle for virtuoso display, for the expression of personal charisma.

And so I undertook an analysis of a short piece by Ronell, “Comments on a short text Avital Ronell wrote to honor and remember Derrida” (pp. 18 ff.). She had been a student of his. In this piece, one of eighteen published in a special section in PMLA in 2005, she rather boldly declares herself to be his intellectual heir and successor. No, she doesn’t say so explicitly, but that is what she DOES, with great virtuosity and wit, and no little vanity, vanity either acceptable to the journal’s editors or simply unrecognized as such.

That leaves us with one more piece, “Roshomon redux, the case of Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and NYU” (pp. 24 ff.). Here I present statements by six others, without any comment from me: Marjorie Perloff (a senior academic now retired), Andrea Long Chu (a graduate student who had studied with Ronell), William Cheung
 (another graduate student), Bernd Hüppauf (a retired academic who had hired her at NYU), Heidi Haitri (an artist and, I assume, a friend), and Corey Robin (an academic political scientist).

What have I learned from this? That’s hard to say. There’s a lingering sadness, and anger, sadness over the pain and suffering at the heart of this story, anger at the institutional conditions that allowed it to happen. By institutional conditions I mean both the evolution of literary and cultural criticism that eventuated in the star phenomenon and the administrative arrangements that gave Ronell the power to exploit Reitman in this way.

I also learned something more specific. When I started this line of exploration I was looking for a connection between the intellectual conditions of literary theory, on the one hand, and Ronell’s treatment of Reitman on the other. I’ve decided that the connection is not so direct as I had set out to discover. Yes, there is a connection between those intellectual conditions and the phenomenon of the lit crit star, and Ronell was certainly such a star. That is one thing.

But lit crit stars do not necessarily exploit graduate students in the way Ronell exploited Reitman. This is a matter both of individual behavior and local informal norms. I certainly don’t have any general knowledge of the relationship between such stars and their students, though I have known a star or two (before they’d become stars), but I have no reason to believe they all comport themselves like this, though some might. On the other hand, there have been a number of cases abuse and exploitation by prominent and influential academics in other fields, fields that never had stardom in this sense. That is the other thing.

So we have stardom on the one hand, exploitation and abuse on the other. They are separate phenomena which happened to be conjoined in this particular case. In retrospect that seems obvious.

In this particular case it seems to me that much of the reaction to this case is closely tied to widespread animus against postmodern, deconstructionist literary criticism (aka theory) of the kind practiced by Ronell (and many of her defenders). Concern for and about Ronell and Reitman, who after all are strangers to most of us, is secondary. I know that assertion would benefit from a kind of argument that I’ve not really made in this paper. But I offer it as an indication of the atmosphere in which I undertook this work. It’s the smoke in that atmosphere, if you will, that I had to cut though in order to arrive at the otherwise obvious conclusion of the previous paragraph.

The craft of curve-fitting [FAKE SCIENCE!]