Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The 1% greet the sun

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Reading Macroanalysis 7: Influence, or the evolving dynamic integrity of the aesthetic sphere

While I do intend to write two more posts (at least) on thematic analysis, yesterday’s effort burned me out temporarily. So today’s post is a somewhat shorter one on Jockers’ last substantive chapter.
I opened this investigation of Macroanalysis with the following paragraph:
The book arrived midway last week, when I hadn’t even finished reading Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects, much less finished blogging about it. But that didn’t stop me from giving Macroanalysis a look-thru: contents, some of the figures, read a bit here and there. I ended up reading Chapter 9, “Influence”, first; I’d read Matt Wilkins’ review in the LA Review of Books:
It’s a nifty approach that produces a fascinatingly opaque result: Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s famously odd 18th-century bildungsroman, is judged to be the most influential member of the collection, followed by George Gissing’s unremarkable The Whirlpool (1897) and Benjamin Disraeli’s decidedly minor romance Venetia (1837). If you can make sense of this result, you’re ahead of Jockers himself, who more or less throws up his hands and ends both the chapter and the analytical portion of the book a paragraph later.
Would I be able to make sense of those results? thought I to myself as I read. Nope, I couldn’t. Better luck next time.
I am now prepared to offer a re-interpretation of those results. But before I do that I need to explain more or less what Jockers is doing in this the final analytical chapter of the book. How does he operationalize the concept of influence?

When we say that, for example, that J. K. Rowling was influenced by the Narnia novels of C. S. Lewis, what do we mean? We mean that she read them and has incorporated features of those books into her own work. There is a direct relationship between Rowling’s activities and those influential books.

Influence thus understood is something that ‘travels’ along certain paths in the enormous meshwork of reading and writing transactions that constitute literary culture. As there are only a relatively few writers in that network, and only a relatively few of their transactions are writing ones (let’s say that the writing of a book is a single transaction) most of the transactions in the network are readings. Only a few of the transactions in the meshwork carry influence.

But Jockers doesn’t have access to that meshwork. None of us does. To be sure, we can see bits and pieces of it here in there in diaries, letters, and published reviews, but most of the transactions are lost to history. We can only look for the effects of those transactions.

And that’s what Jockers does. He assumes, reasonably enough, that if one author is influenced by another, then we should see indicators of that influence in the work. There should be a noticeable resemblance between those works.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reading Macroanalysis 6.1: Theme–Dogs, Gold, Slavery, and Awakening

Chapter 8 of Macroanalysis is about “Theme.” Jockers uses topic analysis to investigate the occurrence of 500 ‘themes’ in a corpus of 3,346 19th-century British, American, and Irish books. He opens with a bit of intellectual history, from the Russin Formalists to Google’s Ngrams; then he launches into topic analysis, which emerged at the turn of the millennium he gives some simple examples, and then he gets serious.

But I’m going to skip over all of that for now. For one thing, I’ve been through the topic analysis drill several times in the past year or so and don’t want to go through it again. If you need an introduction or a review, check out Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds, or, in this series, Reading Macroanalysis 5: An Interlude on Scale: Micro, Meso, and Macro. For another, Jockers has put a topic tool online, 500 Themes from a corpus of 19th-Century Fiction. Those are the topics he discusses in this chapter.

Once I was done reading the chapter I started playing with the tool. I’d pick a topic and then look at the graphics:
  1. a word cloud to display the most frequent words in the topic,
  2. a bar chart indicating usage of the topic by author gender (male, female, and undetermined),
  3. a line graph showing gender usage over time,
  4. a bar chart indicating usage of topic by author nationality (American, British, Irish).,and
  5. a line graph showing national usage over time.
At first I was just browsing, moving from one theme to the next. But then I hit one that grabbed my attention. So I spent the next couple of hours looking at themes and thinking about them.

I’m going to devote the rest of this post and the next one showing what I found. Then I’ll do a third post where I review what Jockers found and recast the enterprise in terms of cultural evolution. Note that in all of this I’m just playing around, but in a serious way. It is all preliminary and provisional. I haven’t reached any firm conclusions on the particular themes I look at. The only thing I’m sure about is that this, and similar techniques, are going to revolutionize the way we do literary history.

Before proceeding on, however, two caveats are necessary. While the Jockers’ is substantial it isn’t every British, American, and Irish novel written in the 19th Century. Perhaps more important, it is natural to read these theme charts as reflecting the interests of the 19th Century reading public. And in some sense that is so.

But we have to be careful. For some of these books were more widely read than others and a few of them, the canonical ones, are still being read. But the extent of a books’ readership is not reflected in the data. The fact that a book was published at all implies, of course, that someone thought there was an audience for it. But a publisher’s interest isn’t quite the same as a reader’s interest. We simply don’t know how accurately publisher interest tracks reader interest.

With those reservations in mind, let’s take a look.

Of Dogs and Gold

In the course of browsing through Jockers’ themes menu I saw “DOGS.” Let’s look at that, I thought. Why dogs? you may ask. No deep reason, but some years ago, way back in graduate school in fact, I’d noticed that dogs figured as a significant motif in Wuthering Heights. Major transitions among humans were marked by violence between dogs and humans (e.g. Lockwood arrives and is greeted by a barking dog, Catherine gets bitten by Skulker; see this post). More recently, I’d read a handful of articles about the domestication of dogs during human evolutionary history. I was just curious.

Here’s the word cloud for the DOGS topic:

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Hi Ho! Hi Ho! Luminous Beings Off to Work They Go

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Jersey City: Past, Present, Future

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This photograph represents a bit of Jersey City as it is now. Well, not exactly now, the moment you’re viewing it. But, loosly speaking, the present time. The photo was taken on August 12, 2014.

The building complex up there on the hill started life in the late 19th Century as a charity hospital. When Frank “Boss” Hague became Mayor of Jersey City he completely renovated it starting with a new 23-story surgical complex. As Hague was very powerful in Democratic politics he was able to command the Works Progress Administration funds needed to expand his Jersey City Medical Center. The JCMC provided free medical care to Jersey City residents. The complex is now being converted into an upscale apartment complex called The Beacon.

Down the hill from The Beacon, and not visible in this photos, we have the Montgomery Gardens public housing project–a distinctly different population from the upscale Beacon. It’s slated for demolition and the neighborhood’s slated for revitalization. We’ll see.

Descriptive Analysis of “The Cat and the Moon”

Working Paper online at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2481876.

A New Dance Turn: “The Cat and the Moon” All up in One Another

Abstract: The semantic structure of Yeats' "The Cat and the Moon" is embodied through a syntactic and sound structure which also goes through phases, phases which complement that semantic structure. The first phase consists of two four-line sentences, each weakly rhymed ABCB. The second phase continues with four-line rhyme groups, but the rhymes are strong. Syntactically, there is a strong alignment between rhyme groups and syntactic grouping in the first phase while there is no obvious alignment between sound and syntax in the second phase of the poem, which also contains two rhetorical questions. The poem's third phase synthesizes the stylistic features of the first two phases. It has the synchrony of rhyme and syntax that characterizes the first phase; but the rhymes are strong and the penultimate sentence of the poem is a rhetorical question—features of the second phase. The poem thus embodies, in both sound and sense, the cyclic interpenetration of opposites which is its meaning.

The Rhetoric of Climate Change

Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.
The political discussion of climate wasn't always a log-jamed disaster: "The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate." But things changed:
The process that had led, however disagreeably, to successful environmental action in the 1970s and ’80s brought on political stasis in the ’90s. Environmental issues became ways for politicians to signal their clan identity to supporters. As symbols, the issues couldn’t be compromised. Standing up for your side telegraphed your commitment to take back America—either from tyrannical liberal elitism or right-wing greed and fecklessness. Nothing got done.
Coal is our biggest problem:

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hoboken Store Window at Night

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After Nature: After Speculative Realism: On online philosophy, a...

After Nature: After Speculative Realism: On online philosophy, a...: Bill Benzon at New Savanna blog has a write up HERE on how he perceives the academy to be changing - specifically the academy understood a…
And Leon goes on from there to offer a sometimes thoughtful sometimes formulaic response to my post.

First, Leon reads me rather too strongly. That post was a quicky when originally put up and so was the repost, perhaps rather too much so. One thing he says that I find, shall we say, irritating is "Benzon believes that as the economy changes learning will too." I said that? It's the word "economy" that I find bothersome, not a word I used nor even implied. What I talked of was a "society-wide shift" that's been going on for the past 50 years. I said nothing about the economic sector specifically and for good reason: I don't believe that the economy is in the institutional driver's seat. I'm not sure that any one sector enjoys that status.

But that's not a discussion I want to enter into here.

And while I certainly did point to philosophical events then taking place in the blogosphere concerning Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, I certainly didn't say that all the action's shifted to the blogosphere. With respect to the blogosphere my point was more modest: interesting things are happening here. I specifically mentioned Graham Harman, not simply because he is a devotee of OOO, but even more so because he's based at American University in Cairo, which is nowhere near the center of the academic world. I was implying the notion that change sometimes/often comes from the periphery: the blogosphere, Cairo. I suppose the American University of Beirut is as peripheral.

Chiasmus and Ring-Forms in Antiquity

My friend Charles Cameron just told me about an undated online book on chiasmus and and ring-composition: Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (1998). From the Preface by David Noel Freedman:
The basic figure of chiasm simply involves the reversal of the order of words in balancing clauses or phrases. Since the cross-over effect is not required in any language, it is an optional and often deliberate practice which serves one or several different purposes. Questions are generally raised, at this level, not about the existence or identification of the device, but rather about its significance and force in the overall structure. Is it more than a trivial inversion, or does it have some arcane or aesthetic validity with palpable or subliminal meaning?

The more extended uses of chiasm raise further questions. As with much of literature, especially poetry, ambiguity and obscurity are inherent in the form and content: chiasm only adds to the uncertainty and mystery. Scholars now recognize chiasms beyond the simple type described above, chiasms which involve passages of verse or prose ranging in length from a few sentences to hundreds of thousands of words. This more complex form of chiasm is not merely grammatical but structural or intentional; it systematically serves to concentrate the reader's or hearer's interest on the central expression. The number of such chiastic constructions which satisfy both sets of criteria: inversion and balance on the one hand, and climactic centrality on the other, is substantially less than the simpler mechanical variety. But wherever they are present, these structures may add novel perspectives and unexpected dimension to the texts in which they appear.

There is yet a further extension of the term chiasm. Even more difficult and controversial issues arise when chiasm is defined in terms of thought and theme, rather than the more visible words and patterns. Inevitably a large subjective element enters into these discussions, and the presence or absence of chiasm on this level can become almost a voter's choice.

Wither Academia: Is a new academy being born?

This is slightly revised from some remarks I made at Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms community.
An observation. A thousand years ago the Christian church was the institutional center of intellectual life in the West. Then a culture-wide shift in ideas and values (& info tech, the printing press) took place, the so-called Renaissance. In the wake of those institutional changes, the church no longer served to ANCHOR intellectual life. That function shifted to largely secular colleges and universities.

Well, we've been undergoing a similar society-wide shift for, say, the past 50 years. In this context, the university system is in the anchor position that the church was in then. What's going to push the university system to the side?

It's a tricky question. Many disciplines, for example, require heavy capital investment in equipment and facilities (scientific and engineering labs, etc.). I don't see other institutions emerging to take over there, at least not across the board. In some fields, computer engineering for example, yes, the industrial investment is large and much cutting edge research takes place there (think of IBM). Maybe in these capital-heavy fields the universities will become custodians of equipment, but the real thinking will take place elsewhere.

And it’s the thinking that matters. Who does it, where are the based, how do they interact?

Right now there’s a revolution taking place in continental philosophy around some ideas flying under the flags of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. The blogosphere is critical to these people. Some of the primary discussions are taking place on and between blogs which also, of course, reference discussions written up in more traditional forums. One of the central figures in this movement is Graham Harman. He’s located at American University in Cairo, which is not exactly the geographical center of the elite university world.

One of the most vigorous and productive of these bloggers is Timothy Morton, professor of literature and ecology (or environment, I forget which), at UCal Davis. He posts prolifically to his blog, live-blogs conference presentations, and posts streaming video of conferences. Here’s his blog, Ecology without Nature.

No, the old university system, the one in which we got trained, that’s dead. It doesn’t know it yet; it just feels ill. But it’s dead. It’ll take awhile for that to become fully apparent and awhile to make funeral arrangements and construct memorials. But that’s what will happen over the next two or three intellectual generations.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Is New York City planing to be flooded?

Ted Steinberg, Dissent Magazine:
Nevertheless, Douglas Hill, an engineer affiliated with the Stony Brook Storm Surge Research Group, remains frustrated. He argues that New York has failed to fully absorb the lessons of Hurricane Katrina—which highlighted the perils of an ad hoc approach to flooding—and the necessity for cities to focus on public safety rather than simply on preserving infrastructure. He is also dispirited by the overall focus on hundred-year protection, which is too low a figure given all the people and wealth at stake, and by city leaders’ refusal to acknowledge that hurricane barriers have worked (at least so far) in large European cities and smaller U.S. ones such as Stamford, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island. He depressingly concludes that “New York City plans to be flooded.”

One of the last things Bloomberg did while in office was oversee the release of a $19.5 billion plan to protect the city from storms. The plan did not recommend giant storm-surge barriers but opted instead for a pluralistic approach involving small barricades at the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, portable floodwalls for Red Hook and East Harlem, levees, and the regeneration of the old marshlands around the city to help reduce the impact of wave action. The plan amounts to an effort to surround New York with protection using a whole range of smaller projects instead of employing massive structures. If nothing else, the Bloomberg plan bucks the trend of large cities across the world employing vast engineering schemes to shut out the sea. It’s a kind of avant-garde approach to natural hazards that seems to overlook the fact that, whatever their faults, the great barriers have worked so far, while the Bloomberg game plan remains untested.

Everyone Poops: Graffiti on the Psychoanalytic Tip

Take a quick look at this photo and then close your eyes and think about it a bit:

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I’m guessing that your overall impression is that it’s a mess, just a lot of visual crap. If you are of a psychoanalytic cast of mind, you might even think it rather anal expulsive. And then you might notice that hey! there’s a toilet there, or perhaps you have to take another look and focus a bit to see it amid all the, you know, crap.

Holy crap! you’re thinking, I was right. Anal as hell.

And then you might wonder how and why that particular bathroom got to be such a mess. After all, that’s not how bathrooms are in our culture. We like them clean and neat, like this one in a men’s rooming house:

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The Underground

Well, that first bathroom, I assure you, is not in a men’s rooming house, though a few guys do make their home in that space from time to time. It’s in an old industrial building – used to belong to Clorox – in a second or third tier neighborhood in Jersey City. It’s part of a 5000 sq. ft. suite that’s used as an event space for an underground cultural scene. That’s the building there to the left, though this particular suite is at the other end:

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We’re looking into the alley behind the building. Though you can’t quite see it, the walls of the alley are lined with graffiti from one end to the other. Here’s the entrance hall to the suite:

Shaky Cam Comparison: Light vs. Paint

For this shot the shaky cam was deliberately pointed at lights in the sky:

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In this shot, the camera was pointed at paint on a wall and it shook of its own initiative:

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Friday, August 15, 2014

The crazy-ass world of bad debt

The notion that a portfolio of debt could be stolen may seem improbable, but plenty of debt brokers are all too willing to sell “bad paper.” Such brokers sometimes “double sell” or “triple sell” the same file to multiple unsuspecting buyers. Other times, a broker may sell paper that he does not own and obtained by nefarious means. I spoke at length with one debt broker from Buffalo, who told me that he had hired a hacker from China to break into a former client’s email account and obtain his password. Once he had the client’s password, the broker had access to his paper. He then simply took a portfolio and, subsequently, sold it to another buyer — who didn’t know and didn’t ask where it came from.

Five Friday Fotos: Shaky Cam 2

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