Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reading Hyperobjects 3: Are We Are Poems about the Earth?

Before considering the subtitle of today’s post, which is derived from the last sentence on page 51 of the thirteenth page of “Nonlocality”, I want to examine the first paragraph, just to examine what’s in there, with some care and attention to detail. First I’ll quote the paragraph in full without commentary; then I’ll comment on it line-by-line.
When I look at the sun gleaming on the solar panels on my roof, I am watching global warming unfold. Carbon compounds and other molecules in the upper atmosphere magnify the burning intensity of the sun in the Great Central Valley of California. Yet I do not see global warming as such. I see this brilliant blade of sunlight, burning the top of my head as I watch it with half-closed eyes reflecting off the burnished, sapphire surface of solar panels. The manifold that I witness is not merely a “subjective impression,” but is rather just this collusion between sunlight, solar panels, roof, and eyes. Yet global warming is not here. Hyperobjects are nonlocal.
Microsoft Word tells me that paragraph has 93 words. Let’s go through it sentence by sentence.

1) When I look at the sun gleaming on the solar panels on my roof, I am watching global warming unfold: Three things, the sun, solar panels/roof, and global warming. An three spatial scales, the solar system at millions of miles, the earth at 10s of thousands of miles, and the house, at tens of feet. All linked by the fact that Morton is aware of them.

2) Carbon compounds and other molecules in the upper atmosphere magnify the burning intensity of the sun in the Great Central Valley of California: Morton now elaborates on warming and introduces a fourth scale, the microscopic scale of molecules and atoms; objects invisible to the naked eye; objects we think about only through scientific investigation and reporting. Action has shifted from Morton and his seeing to those molecules distributed about the upper atmosphere; they’re magnifying. And, by implication, he’s feeling the sun’s burning intensity. Morton closes the sentence by opening out on a fifth scale, the Central Valley: smaller than the earth, larger than the house.

3) Yet I do not see global warming as such: This sentence inserts a gap (a word Morton uses often, as in the gap between phenomenon and thing) between Morton, the observer writer, and global warming, his subject. He’s seeing something, and he knows global warming is somehow IN that something, but he really isn’t seeing global weather. Rather...

4) I see this brilliant blade of sunlight, burning the top of my head as I watch it with half-closed eyes reflecting off the burnished, sapphire surface of solar panels: Now we’re moving back into the conceptual space of the first two sentences, e.g. burning intensity of the sun (2), burning the top of my head (4); solar panels (1) solar panels (4). To this we add his head and his eyes, organs of sight.

Invitation Orange


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Networks for Humanists

Just bumped into these today:

More Networks in the Humanities or Did books have DNA?: Elijah Meeks, a look at the use of networks in visualizing large textual datasets: "The network is not a social network or geographic network or logical network but rather a primitive object capable of and useful for the modeling and analysis of relationships between a wide variety of objects."

Digital Humanities Forum 2014: Nodes & Networks in the Humanities: Geometries, Relationships, Processes: A conference scheduled for September 12 & 13, 2014, at the University of Kansas. Conference on the 13th, workshops on the 12th. Registration is open.

See also my various posts on networks and, in particular, Toward a Computational Historicism. Part 1: Discourse and Conceptual Topology, where I discuss networks on three different scales.

Beyond Quantification: Digital Criticism and the Search for Patterns

I've collected my recent posts on patterns into a working paper. It's online at SSRN. Here's the abstract and the introduction.
Abstract: Literary critics seek patterns, whether patterns in individual texts or patterns in large collections of texts. Valid patterns are taken as indices of causal mechanisms of one sort or another. Most abstractly, a pattern emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment. An ecological niche is a pattern “traced” by an organism in its environment. Literary texts are themselves patterns traced by writers (and readers) through their life worlds. Patterns are frequently described through visualizations. The concept of pattern thus dissolves the apparent conflict between quantification and meaning, for quantification is but a means to describing a pattern. It is up to the critic to determine whether or not a pattern is meaningful by identifying the mechanism that produced the pattern. Examples from Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad.
Introduction: Patterns and Descriptions

There is a sense, of course, in which I’ve been aware of and have been perceiving and thinking about patterns all my life. They are ubiquitous after all. But it wasn’t until I began studying cognitive science with the late David Hays that “pattern” became a term of art. Hays and his students were developing a network model of cognitive structure – such works became common in the 1970s. Such networks admit of two general kinds of computational process, path tracing and pattern recognition. Path tracing is computationally easy, while the pattern recognition is not. Human beings, however, are very good at perceiving and recognizing patterns.

What put the idea before me, though, as something demanding specific thought, are remarks Franco Moretti made in coming to grips with his work on the network analysis of plot structure. In Network Theory, Plot Analysis (Literary Lab Pamphlet 2, 2011, p. 11) he noted that he “did not need network theory; but I probably needed networks.... What I took from network theory were less concepts than visualization.” We then examine the visualizations to determine whether or not they indicate patterns that are worth further exploration.

That, it seems to me, should put to rest fears about the incommensurability of numbers and meaning or, even worse, anxiety about infecting humanistic inquiry with quantitative evil. It’s not about numbers and counting. It’s about patterns. Numerical work is subordinate to and in service of looking for patterns, whether patterns in individual texts, as Moretti was doing in his work on plot structures, or patterns in collections of hundreds and thousands of texts spanning decades or more of historical time.

But, just what IS a pattern anyhow? How do we tell the difference between patterns and, well, non-patterns? Those are tricky questions, questions I pursue in the posts that make up this working paper. If what we’re looking for is some a priori way of specifying what patterns are so that we can then theorize about patterns in a general way, then I think we’re in trouble. In the sections, “Pattern” as a Term of Art and Patterns as Epistemological Objects, I suggest that there is no such thing. What emerges from those discussions is something like this: A pattern is something that emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment in which it either survives or fails – where the italicized terms are understood in a very general and abstract sense. Thus understood, patterns are relations between machines and environments.

Reading Hyperobjects: Pardon Me While I Have a Strange Interlude

I’ve begun reading Morton’s second chapter, “Nonlocality,” and have decided I need to say something about Morton’s use of science, a subject matter that’s already occasioned a fair amount of discussion. Jon Cogburn’s written a useful post, How not to engage with other humanists; Nathan Brown and the continental/continental divide, which generated a great deal of discussion, much of it about Morton’s Realist Magic (which I’ve not read). Some thinkers are appalled by what Morton does and think it discredits his work. Others, while cognizant of difficulties, take a somewhat different view.

In reply to Cogburn, Terrence Blake said: “I do not discuss Morton at all as, like you, I think he is doing something very different than philosophy most of the time...” Others seem to agree; I’m one of them. In my own remark I observed that
I've been strongly influenced by Lévi-Strauss, an important precursor to (while also being contemporary to) much of the thinking in question. He made use of mathematical ideas. In particular, his four-volume study of myth is larded with technical-seeming diagrams, notation, and he talks of proving this or that in a mathematical way. But he also says, in the introduction to The Raw and the Cooked, that this is all by way of metaphor, analogy. He isn't really using algebraic group theory, but finds some notions from it useful.

It seems to me that his use of those ideas is rhetorical and, in a way, necessary as well. The short-hand notions allow you to see relationships that cannot be expressed very well in prose. It's the visual layout and the way you can examine relationships among items as they're laid out on the page – very useful.

Reading Hyperobjects 2: What does real mean?

The question is from “Viscosity,” p. 32, and “real” is italicized. It’s a good question, one I often ask myself from within my own worldview – you’ll recall l concluded last time with a confession that I live a somewhat different ethos from the one through which Morton is writing, and so the answer I seek likely has a different valence and distribution. But I suspect we’re using those word forms under similar existential pressure.

* * * * *

The chapter opens:
I do not access hyperobjects across a distance, through some transparent medium. Hyperobjects are here...Like faces pressed against a window, they leer at me menacingly...From the center of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole impinges on my awareness (p. 27)
Don’t ask how it does that, for Morton tell us “as if... in the car next to me...” Just believe it and roll on.

Hyperobjects are agents. They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causality flows like electricity. (p. 29)
Causality flows?


Why not? And you know, Disney was there long before he started doing PR for atomic energy (Our Friend the Atom). See:


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Corner Room at the Urban Design Center

The last time I visited the Urban Design Center it had been reduced to rubble, except for a corner room. Here's some shots of that room.



Reading Hyperobjects 1: The World has Ended

Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press 2013. 229 pp.

I’m finding the book to be a bit of a tough read, requiring frequent pauses for thought. But more of that at the end.

* * * * *

I’ve finished the introduction, “A Quake in Being,” pp. 1-24.
A hyperobject could be the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades. A hyperobject could be the biosphere, or the Solar System. A hyperobject could be the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just plutonium, or the uranium. A hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism. Hyperobjects, then, are “hyper” in relation to some other entity, whether they are directly manufactured by humans or not. (p. 1)
That quells some misgivings I had when Morton was explaining the concept at Stanford’s Arcade. At that time he seemed to dwell on weirdness, but the terms of his definition – hyperobjects are massively distributed in space and times, etc. – didn’t specify weirdness. But there’s nothing weird about the Solar System, or Styrofoam, or even capitalism, though it is perhaps a bit weird to think of all the world’s Styrofoam as one (collective) (hyper-)object.

You know how when you read Borges’ The Library of Babel you had little choice but to imagine books one might find there? There’s the one with a joke about three clergymen and a mosquito on page 79, but the punch line’s missing. The punch line is on page 123 in some other book, but in Klingon. And of course there’s a book containing the draft text of Hyperobjects, except that it reads right-to-left and back-to-front.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rahsaanovision Strikes Again

rahsaan broadcast

Body and Spirit: A Story of Fathers and Sons

David Hays and I talked of many things, not all of them intellectually serious. But intellectual seriousness was at the heart of conversations between us. Discussing intellectual matters with Dave had been a part of my weekly routine since graduate school. I want to share with you an almost-idea I had wanted to discuss with Dave at about the time he went into surgery, the surgery from which he never recovered.

This idea originated in introspection, as did many of the ideas we discussed. I had wanted to discuss it with Dave, first on general principle, but second because it seemed to have some relevance to a question he had pondered for a decade or more:
How is it that seeing ballet well-performed can have such a favorable effect on a person?
One could, of course, abstract from this question a more general one about the psychological effects of aesthetic experience. It would not be unfair to say that it is this more general question that “really” interested us. However, neither of us could see any way of getting to that more general question without analyzing particular kinds of aesthetic experience. Dave was drawn to the ballet while I was more drawn to literature and music.

The line I wanted to take up with Dave was prompted by the experience I had in writing a piece called “Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drumology” (and republished at New Savanna) The piece was in the style of, say, John Barth meets Richard Pryor, and purported to be about how golf was created by the ancient Egyptians. It started out as a satire of then current Afrocentric scholarship demonstrating that the ancient Egyptians were black in skin and culture, that the ancient Greeks were heavily indebted to those Egyptians, and therefore that Civilization originated in Africa. I don't command the scholarly literature on this issue and don't much care about it one way or the other. But the thinkers advancing the case for a black Egypt have something more at stake than simply correcting the historical record.

And my response to that “something more at stake” was to create a historical fantasy in which black Egyptians are the creators of golf, a notion which is far afield from anything which is, so far as I know, being argued seriously. In this fantasy golf is the creation of one Pharaoh Ramses Golfotep MCXLVII of the `N Baa Dynasty. He was inspired in this endeavor by a trumpeter named Daniel Louis Satchotep II, also known as King Toot. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to ponder the implications of some autobiographical facts: my father was an excellent golfer; I never took up the game; but I’m a pretty good trumpet player.

Writing this piece on the Egyptian origins of golf had a very strong effect on me. It is a short piece which went through a series of revisions over the course of about a week. During that week I was often convulsed in laughter, even awakening in the middle of the night to think about this absurd story and to laugh.

That is not all.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Japan's special envoy, Yokio Fushiki, makes strange bedfellows at Madam Wayquay's home for wayward objects




Collective Creativity

At long last the venerable New York Times is beginning to catch up with New Savanna. I've been blogging about collective creativity for awhile now, and thinking about it for longer than I've been blogging about it, at least since I learned that Duke Ellington copped ideas from his men and built compositions around them – and I have the vague sense that that thinking predates Lincoln Collier's biography of Ellington. So I've been at it awhile.

Anyhow, they're running an op-ed, The End of 'Genius', by Joshua Wolf Shenk:
But the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network, as with the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at “The Daily Show” or — the real heart of creativity — the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we’ve yet to fully reckon.

Historically speaking, locating genius within individuals is a recent enterprise. Before the 16th century, one did not speak of people being geniuses but having geniuses. “Genius,” explains the Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber, meant “a tutelary god or spirit given to every person at birth.” Any value that emerged from within a person depended on a potent, unseen force coming from beyond that person.
After noting the proliferation of new world in social science and social neuroscience Shenk focuses on the pair:
The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Michael Nielson: The Artist and the Machine

From the post, which is about images produced through scientific instrumentation:
While Super-realism isn’t new, that doesn’t mean it’s yet in the artistic mainstream. Many people don’t consider works such as the Hubble Extreme Deep Field or the light-in-a-bottle video to be art. (I would not be surprised if this includes the creators of those works.) Even works more explicitly artistic in intent, such as Water in Suspense, are viewed as borderline. But I believe that each of these works reveals a new aesthetic, an aesthetic generated by the scientific principles underlying the phenomenon being represented. And insofar as they reveal a new aesthetic, I believe these works are art.
He concludes:
Super-realism has grown rapidly in the past twenty to thirty years. Three forces are driving that growth.

First, far more people can access and learn to use scientific instruments. Recall Juan Geuer and his virtuoso home-made laser light show. There are people building everything from home-made bubble chambers to balloons exploring the upper atmosphere. These are not isolated curiosities, but rather part of a rapidly expanding social phenomenon that has been called by many names: the DIY movement, citizen science, the Maker movement. Whatever it is, it’s growing...

Second, the data being taken by many of these instruments is being shared openly, online. In the 1980s if a scientist used a telescope to take a photograph, likely no more than a few dozen people would ever touch the photographic plate. Now more than a billion people can download data from the Hubble Telescope, and find new ways to visualize it...

Third, we’re collectively building a powerful suite of tools to reveal these new worlds. For example, as I write there are more than 25,000 open source visualization projects available on the code repository GitHub. Most of those projects are, of coure, experiments that will be abandoned. But there are also many powerful tools that give people incredible abilities to make and reveal beauty. It’s no wonder Super-realism is flowering.

Story-tellers say that reality is often stranger and more interesting than fiction. I believe this is true for all art. The reason is that nature is more imaginative than we, and as we probe deeper into nature, we will continue to discover new aesthetics and new forms of beauty. I believe these new aesthetics will stimulate art for decades or centuries to come.

Beyond Spindling and Mutilation: Shouldn't we recover machine translation for the digital humanities and thereby increase our imaginative scope?

Here's a nice standard-issue history of the digital humanities from NEH, tracing us back to Fr. Busa:
The story of digital humanities often begins with another theologian on a quest to make a concordance. In the mid 1940s, Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, latched onto the idea of making a master index of works by Saint Thomas Aquinas and related authors. Busa had written his dissertation on “the metaphysics of presence” in Aquinas. Looking for the answer, he created 10,000 hand-written index cards. His work demonstrated the importance of how an author uses a particular word, especially prepositions. But making an index for all of Aquinas’s works required wrangling ten million words of Medieval Latin. It seemed an impossible task.

In 1949, Busa’s search for a solution led him to the United States and International Business Machines, better known as IBM, which had a patent on the resources Busa needed to realize his project. Without the company’s help, his vision for a master concordance would remain just a dream.
But what of machine translation, that's almost as old?

I know, I know, the genealogy may spring from the same root, but its branches went in a different, very different, direction. But still, isn't translation a characteristically humanistic activity, one of the most fundamental? All those biblical texts translated into Latin and Greek, all those classical texts translated into modern European tongues, not to mention translations from Sanskrit, Mandarin, and all those other many tongues.

Perhaps it's too dangerous to reclaim that aspect of our heritage? Because then we'd have to follow computing deep into the heart of language and the mind. 

But what of the soul, of the spirit? Do not fold, bend, mutilate, or spindle!* 

Wouldn't want to do that, would we? The computer is a tool of the Devil. Why? 

Because capitalism, because imperialism, because patriarchy, because racism! Because EVIL.

Still, computing is a child of the soul, an avatar of the spirit. What are we to do? Should we not reclaim it? Must we remain imprisoned in the 60s forever, an era when many of us were not even born?

Besides, if we're already using the computer to do back-room grunt work, then we've already entered the Devil's Workshop. We might as well look at our hands and see what they're doing to stave off idleness. Really, there's no way out. We're committed.

We need a properly revisionist history of our discipline.

*Some links: Free Speech Movement: Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle, "Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle": A Cultural History of the Punch Card.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Patterns and Literature

So, patterns. Some patterns operate on the time and scale of sensory perception; we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste things in the course of everyday life. But other patterns require more time and deliberation. That our solar system consists of planets and asteroids in transit about the sun is a pattern, but it’s not one given in sensory perception. Rather, it’s one that can be inscribed on a surface (where on can see it at human scale) and that emerged through thousands upon thousands of observations made by hundreds of individuals conversing over the course of centuries.

Literary texts (and films) are a bit like that. They are devices for capturing patterns of (mostly, generally) human life. Depending on the text, the reading may take only minutes or hours, perhaps over the course of days, but the writing likely took longer. Each text rests on a history of texts from which it draws and against which it reacts, and a body of texts requires a community to keep it in circulation.

Lifeways and Literature

Susan Langer (Feeling and Form) would say that these textual patterns embody virtual experience. Wayne Booth (The Company We Keep) talks of literature as a way of “trying out” modes of life, while more recently, Keith Oatley (Such Stuff as Dreams) writes of literary experience as simulation. We can say that these patterns are meant to be taken up by one’s whole psyche, one’s whole being – even that they are meant to facilitate unity of being.

Kenneth Burke writes of this in “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Finally, it is not, after all, as though life happens OVER THERE, while literature takes place in a separate space IN HERE such that literature is completely external to life. It’s not that simple. Literature takes place in and reacts on life.

The Curvature of Organic Space