Saturday, August 27, 2016

Faces: JC African-American Cultural Festival 2016

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Yet Another Brief for Description (and Form)

These remarks are prompted by Ted Underwood’s tweets from the other day:
Those tweets triggered my own long-standing puzzlement over why literary criticism has neglected the close and attentive description of literary form.

* * * * *

Let’s go to the text Underwood is referencing (see the link in his first tweet), Sharon Marcus, “Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of Scale” (Modern Language Quarterly 77.3, 2016, 297-319). She uses description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation as her analytic categories (304). And, while her discussion tends to circle around a ‘dialectic’ of description and interpretation, she also emphasizes Auerbach’s use of evaluative language: “Mimesis may owe its lasting allure to Auerbach’s complex relationship to the language of value” (300). And then (301):
Certain adjectives have consistently positive or negative valences in Mimesis: rich, wide, full, strong, broad, and deep are always terms of praise, while thin, narrow, and shallow always have negative connotations. Tellingly, Auerbach’s values are themselves related to scale; his epithets suggest that he prefers what is large and dense to what is small and empty, the river to the rivulet.
Such evaluative terms link Auerbach’s criticism to the existential concerns that, in the conventional view (which I do not intend to contest), motivates our interest in literature in the first place. Those concerns are ethical and aesthetic, but, as Marcus notes, such evaluative matters where bracketed out of professional consideration back in the 1960s though they have returned in the form of critique (306). Auerbach was writing before that dispensation took hold and so was free to use evaluative language to link his discussion, both at the micro-scale of individual passages and the macro-scale of Western literary history, to his (and our) life in the here and now.

Distant reading, however, is fundamentally descriptive in character, as Underwood notes. Moreover, as Franco Moretti has asserted in interviews and publications, he pursues distant reading because he seeks explanations, not interpretations. That is, he sees an opposition between interpretation and description. And this is where things begin to get interesting, because I suspect that Underwood would prefer not to see things that way and Marcus seems to be resisting as well. That is, they would prefer to see them working in concert rather than opposition.

But look at what Marcus says about explanation (305-306):
Explanation designates the operation by which literary critics assign causality, though explanation can also signify description and interpretation, as when we “explain” a poem. Literary critics tend to downplay causality — “why?” is not our favorite question — and usually refer the sources of a text’s meaning or form to disciplines other than literary criticism, such as history, biography, economics, philosophy, or neuroscience. Thus scholars often relate specific features of literary works to general phenomena such as modernity, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, or the structure of our brains. But because explanation is an undervalued operation in literary criticism, one seen to depend on the kind of literalism that leads many critics to reject description as impossible, the exact nature of the link between general phenomena and specific works often remains nebulous. Literary critics are more likely to posit the relationship between the realist novel and capitalism as one of homology, analogy, or shared commitments (to, say, individualism) than they are to trace a clear line from one as cause to the other as effect.
In practice, literary critics neglect precisely what Moretti seeks, explanation. When Marcus asserts the literary critics like to talk of “homology, analogy, or shared commitments,” she is in effect saying that they talk of interpretation.

That is, in terms of actual practice if not in abstract methodological terms, interpretation and explanation are, as Moretti sees, alternative forms of causal explanation. “Classically,” if I may, the cause of a text is the author; the classical critic seeks the author’s intention as the source of a text’s meaning. Why is the text what it is? How did it come into being? The author did it. Post-classically, the author got bracketed out in favor of social, semiotic, and psychological forces operating through the author. It is those forces that bring the text into existence and are the source of its meaning. The post-classical critic then smuggles evaluation in by way of critique, thereby completing the circuit and linking criticism to those existential concerns – what is the good? how do I live? – that motivate literature itself.

This is a nice trick, and it is “sold” by the ruse of calling interpretation “reading,” thus making it appear to be continuous with the ordinary activity of reading as practiced by those very many readers who have never taken any courses in literary criticism (or have forgotten them long ago) much less become proficient in one or more of the various schools of interpretation and critique. Interpretive proficiency does not come “naturally” in the way that learning to speak does. It requires years of practice and tutelage at an advanced level.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Fotos: Welcome to Eden: The Bergen Arches

Since it's Bergen Arches week in Jersey City I thought I'd bump one of my many Bergen Arches posts to the top of the queue.

The local name for the phenomenon, the Bergen Arches, is a bit well, odd. Yes, there are arches, five of them; two are bridges and three are short tunnels. You see them when you are there, but what you really see is the Erie Cut, a trench cut through Bergen Hill, which is the southern tip of the Jersey Palisades.


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The Cut is 85 feet deep and almost a mile long. It was cut into solid rock in the early 20th century to bring four railroad tracks to the port at Jersey City. Jersey City - like Hoboken to its immediate North (where “On the Waterfront” was set) - is no longer a port city; those tracks have been abandoned and only one of them remains. No one goes into the Cut except graffiti writers, historic preservationists, and other assorted miscreants and adventurers.

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Once you're in the Cut you're in another world. Yes, New York City is two or three miles to the east across the Hudson and Jersey City is all over the place 85 feet up. But down in the Cut, those places aren't real. The Cut is its own world, lush vegetation, crumbling masonry, rusting rails, trash strewn about here and there, mud and muck, and mosquitoes, those damn mosquitoes! Nope, it's not Machu Pichu and it's not Victoria Falls, but it's pretty damn good for being in the middle of one of the densest urban areas in the freakin' world.

Is Description [FINALLY!] Coming of Age in Literary Criticism? [AT LONG FREAKIN’ LAST!]

Description, of course, has been kicking around for awhile. It’s part of a critical quartet articulated by Monroe Beardsley in the 1950s: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Stanley Fish took it to task in Is There a Text in This Class? where he castigates Steven Booth for asserting that he was but describing Shakespeare’s sonnets (p. 353):
The basic gesture, then, is to disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text; but it is actually a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all. The claim, however, is an impossible one since in order “simply to present” the text, one must at the very least describe it ... and description can occur only within a stipulative understanding of what there is to be described, an understanding that will produce the object of its attention.
And that’s where things have pretty much rested until recently.

In 2010 Heather Love published an essay that got a fair amount of buzz, Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn (New Literary History, 41, No. 2, 371-391). After citing Bruno Latour on the importance of description, Love takes a look at Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but NOT to describe features of Morrison’s text. Rather, she’s interested in Morrison’s use of description IN her text. If Latour describes the phenomena that interest him, why doesn't Love do the same? Why does she displace her descriptive desire into Morrison's text?

More recently Sharon Marcus discusses description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation in the course of analyzing Auerbach’s method in Mimesis in Modern Language Quarterly. She notes (p. 298):
For the past several decades, the most celebrated literary critics have tended to value interpretation, connotation, and the figurative over description, denotation, and the literal, arguing that the latter set of terms names operations that are impossible to carry out. Literary critics often rally around the preferred terms by casting them as methodological underdogs in need of defense against an allegedly dominant empiricist positivism that no longer prevails even in the sciences.
She goes on to show the Auerbach makes frequent use of description while distinguishing it from interpretation (308) and to argue that we value Auerbach because of his use of description (309).

And now Marcus has conspired with Heather Love and Stephen Best to edit an issue of Representations (Summer 2016) devoted to description. What next?

Summer 2016 • Number 135

SPECIAL ISSUE: Description Across Disciplines
Edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best


Observable Behavior 1–10, page 22

The Point of Precision, page 31


Cloud Physiognomy, page 45

Description and 
the Nonhuman View of Nature, page 72

GEORGINA KLEEGE – Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications, page 89

Interpret or Describe? page 102


Description in the Psychological Sciences, page 119

No Problem, page 140

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dead Reeds in Three Views




The mystery of humanistic epistemology in 5 tweets and a link

The cognitive linguists like to talk about 'human scale.' One of the things that happens in conceptual blending, as they call it, is that phenomena can be repackaged from their own 'natural' scale to human scale. Is that what interpretation does that the descriptive methods of 'distant reading' don't do?

Election Special: The Blues House

Since it's a Presidential election year it's time to bring this out again, it's Dizzy Gillespie's stump speech from his 1964 Presidential  run. I wonder what he would have thought about the out-going President, Barack Hussein Obama?
Which is not at all the same as the House of Blues. No, the Blues House is what the White House would have been if John Birks Gillespie had been elected President back in 1964, when he ran for the office. John Birks Gillespie, of course, was better known as Dizzy. He was from Cheraw, South Carolina, and was one of the finest trumpeters and most important jazz musicians of the 20th Century.

His Presidential run was at one and the same time not entirely serious and completely and utterly serious. A certain amount irony was involved, which is perhaps why the lyrics to the theme song were set to “Salt Peanuts” - a tune Diz would one day perform in the White House with President Jimmy Carter.

He developed a standard stump speech which eventually made its way into his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop (Doubleday 1979 pp. 457-458). It's full of jazz references that will be obscure to those who don't know the music, and various contemporary references are likely to be lost as well. Though I never heard Gillespie give this speech, I've heard him speak on several musical occasions and his comic timing is superb. That is utterly lost in this transcription, though those familiar with his vocal patterns can - in some small measure - supply them as they read his words. Here they are.

* * * * *

When I am elected President of the United States, my first executive order will be to change the name of the White House! To the Blues House.

Income tax must be abolished, and we plan to legalize 'numbers' - you know, the same way they brought jazz into the concert halls and made it respectable. We refuse to be influenced by the warnings of one NAACP official who claims that making this particular aspect of big business legal would upset the nation's economy disastrously.

One of the ways we can cut down governmental expenditures is to disband the FBI and have the Senate Internal Security Committee investigate everything under white sheets for un-American activities. Understand, we won't take no 'sheet' off anybody!

All U.S. Attorneys and judges in the South will be our people so we can get some redress. 'One Man-One Vote' - that's our motto. We might even disenfranchise women and let them run the country. They'll do it anyhow.

The Army and Navy will be combined so no promoter can take too big a cut off the top of the 'double-gig' setup they have now.

The National Labor Relations Board will rule that people applying for jobs have to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won't know what they are until after they've been hired. The sheets, of course, will all be colored!

We're going to recall every U.S. ambassador except Chester Bowles and give the assignments to jazz musicians because they really 'know where it is.'

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hoboken After Dark: 14th Street


Digital Resistance & Anti-Neoliberal Hype [#DH]

Today, the digital turn in its various constellations offers the best potential for fostering resistance to the conservative forces that seek to devalue interpretive inquiry. This is because the nature of the work itself forces scholars to attend to that frictive zone where critical acts are taken up by technologies, woven into the material world, and entangled within a network of social and cultural practices. The pressures of this seemingly new kind of work have opened a fruitful space of collaborative inquiry around issues like the politics of information storage, the economics of the scholarly monograph, and the role of the public domain. By drawing attention to systems of mediation, this shift has also galvanized discussion around access and disability, as well as the critical valences of different modes of representation and how they invisibly shape discourse. And it has empowered scholars to take publishing (by which I simply mean making an idea public) under their own control while developing frameworks for accreting value to previously undervalued practices, such as editing, technical design, and creative criticism. Of course, simply engaging in digital or collaborative scholarship alone won’t result in a more equitable academy, nor is such work any more inherently resistant than “literary-interpretive practices” are. Rather, the productive entanglement of the humanities’ interpretive work and its self-conscious mediation holds the greatest possibility for catalyzing change right now.

This possibility has most been realized at the fecund node where the concerns of book history, media studies, information sciences, and digital scholarship meet. I don’t think this is an accident. Historians of information and media technologies deal with tangible objects and infrastructures, and as such are accustomed to thematizing the points of contact between immaterial ideas and the material systems that store, archive, and communicate them. Scholars working across these areas know well that archives are not neutral zones of accumulation but battlegrounds of interpretation; that no discourse remains untainted by the technologies that mediate it; and that moments of media transition — which are all moments — are always hybrid, containing simultaneously progressive and regressive values. Because of their methodological commitments, these fields are capable of historicizing the emergence of electronically-mediated methods, thereby deconstructing the false oppositions that often unwittingly guide both critics and advocates, such as humanities/neoliberalism or thinking/making. Thus historians of text technologies are best poised to seize the technological and rhetorical upheavals of our time as an opportunity to restructure the humanities in ways that are both more culturally salient and politically potent.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Something just a little shocking

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My Early Jazz Education 4: Thelonius Sphere Monk

And then there’s Thelonius Sphere Monk. The album was Thelonious Monk Big Band and Quartet in Concert. I don’t know how I came across that album, but it stunned me, though it took some getting used to. At that point Maynard Ferguson’s early 1960s band was my idea of a big band. Monk’s band, not his usual performance context, wasn’t at all like that. Not that big, nor that brassy. And, of course it was Monk. Here’s the personnel:

Arranger: Hall Overton
Bass: Butch Warren
Alto Saxophone, Clarinet: Phil Woods
Tenor Saxophone: Charlie Rouse
Baritone Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Clarinet: Gene Allen
Soprano Saxophone: Steve Lacy
Trumpet: Nick Travis
Trombone: Eddie Bert
Cornet: Thad Jones

Let’s listen to “Bye-Ya,” a Monk original:

Notice that the cut is 11:24, longer than anything I’d heard. The length is in the solos. The tune is a standard AABA tune. But, upon closer listening, not so standard. To a first approximation the harmony’s pretty static, with little excursions at the end of each 8 bar phrase. We don’t have a strong sense of tonal center, which makes this pretty advanced for its time.

Which Monk was. Advanced. Monk is generally classed with bebop. He worked with a lot of boppers, and he emerged when bop did. But he was halfway to 1960s modal music and mid-1960s “out” music.

“Epistrophy” is similar, but even hipper:

This is a short version (no solos), used as a theme song. Listen closely to Monk’s left hand at 1:32; he’s playing simple ascending triplet figures. We’ll get back to them in a second.

It too is AABA. The A section used a simple 2-bar riff repeated four times, with subtle variations. The B section (aka the bridge) has a more developed melody. So, melodically, it’s riffs in the A section against an actual melody in the B.

Harmonically, like “Bye-Ya,” the tonal center is weak. Now, listen closely to the A section, which is two closely related 2-chord vamps. We’ve got D-flat 7 to D7 for four bars, and then E-flat 7 to E7 for four bars. Like so:

Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Db7 D7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|Eb7 E7|

So, do whatever makes sense over Db D7 for four bars, and then take it up half a step for the next four. That’s the structure you’ve got work with. It’s either little or nothing, or very subtle, depending on your skill.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Variations on the Night, from Hoboken to Jersey City and beyond

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Markos Vamvakaris, Rebetiko Master, @3QD

I’ve got another piece up at 3 Quarks Daily: Markos Vamvakaris: A Pilgrim on Ancient Byzantine Roads. It’s a review of his autobiography, Markos Vamvakaris: The Man and the Bouzouki, as told to Angeliki Vellou-Keil and translated into English by Noonie Minogue.

Markos Vamvakaris in 1967
Here’s a note I sent to Charlie Keil, Angeliki’s husband, while I was reading the book:
I’m now 57 pages into the Markos autobiography and beginning to get the barest hint of how to deal with it for 3QD. The easy thing, of course, would be to treat him as an exotic primitive. I think, in fact, that it will be difficult NOT to treat him in that way. But I’m beginning to get a sense of how I can, if not completely avoid that, at least to subject that temptation to some humanizing discipline.

I very quickly started comparing him with Louis Armstrong. Both were born poor and had difficult early lives, both lived among criminals and reprobates, both were involved with drugs, and, of course, both eventually became nationally recognized musicians. And Armstrong, of course, wrote his own autobiography, albeit early in life, which was then edited into shape. And he wrote (often long) letters all his long. So there is that. But it’s not clear how far this gets me.

But then we have the fact of Markos’ songs appearing in the text near events to which they are somehow tied. And so they are contextualized. THAT’s the barest hint.

And then there’s the odd and, yes, exotic part of the world he comes from. Except that we in the West have the myth of the origins of Western culture in ancient Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem. And yeah well sure, except that those places would appear very exotic indeed to any modern civilized Westerner who would time-travel back to them. But then we treat contemporary musicians and performers (of all kinds) as exotics, don’t we? It’s a curious business.

And I’ve got a question, perhaps for Angie. In her appendix she refers (p. 284) to “the dhromos (path) or maqam of each song”. I’m curious about the word “maqam.” I know it as Arabic for melodic mode. Is she using it as an Arabic term that’s equivalent to “dhromos” or has the term been adopted into Greek?
Yes, maqam was taken into Greek. Same word, same meaning. This is a part of the world where the difference between Europe and Asia Minor has more to do with lines drawn on maps than with the lifeways of the people living there.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the review Charlie posted to; it talks about just how such a book is gathered together:
I am biased, of course, because I know that my wife, Angeliki Vellou Keil, worked very hard to pull the transcriptions of taped interviews together for this book. It took over a year of daily visits to a little office around the corner from our house in Buffalo, patiently shaping different pieces of interviews together for each chapter. I often looked at Alan Lomax's Mr. Jelly Roll as an early example of an as-told-to book. He made it look so easy to do. And David Ritz is another master of this craft, sometimes turning out 2 or 3 books a year by recording, transcribing, and sequencing the events and opinions, editing out any excesses of profanity, or leaving out a passing on of ugly rumors. His books, some of them very long and fully detailed, always feel natural, true to life – again it looks easy. But take it from a friend of David's and a witness to wife Angeliki's labors, there are a lot of decisions to make about how many repetitions to leave in, and when does it seem prudent to leave a love affair out, or to put some particularly nasty insult or criticism of someone aside. At all times Angie insisted on keeping it just the way Markos spoke it, sticking to the transcription, and that turned out to have some unexpected benefits.
Even if it made it difficult to untangle at points. But it’s worth your serious attention.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Melissa Dinsman interviews Richard Grusin in the last LARB interview on DH

Where should the work be done? departments, libraries, labs? of the things I really loved, more than even the networked computer classroom, was the computer lab for our masters program. I would go in the lab regularly to just kind of kibitz and chitchat and see what was going on with people, because at almost any hour of the day there would be some grad student in there working. It was a fun environment: it was loose, informal, collaborative, and the hierarchies broke down — I was the student. So I’m a huge fan of labs. I think one of the positive aspects of the digital humanities has been the creation of these kinds of open and different spaces.

How do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

My first inclination is to say not much. But I think there are two places where digital work in the humanities is being done, and often being done outside the academy. One of these places is participatory culture. There has been an explosion of students writing online, be it blogging or fan fiction or whatever. And I think this is really one of the places where digital work in the humanities is being done as a result of changes in technology. We haven’t really made enough of a connection between this kind of participatory culture and the classroom, but I think we are moving in that direction. The other place is in the classroom. We think of the public in a kind of consumerist way. But our students are also the public. As college is becoming more and more universal, all of those students who are taking humanities courses are part of the public, and I don’t think most of them understand the digital humanities. DH is a branding tool for faculty and getting resources.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Amanda Bananas


American science rests on foundations funded by the Department of Defense

Americans lionize the scientist as head-in-the-clouds genius (the Einstein hero) and the inventor as misfit-in-the-garage genius (the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hero). The discomfiting reality, however, is that much of today’s technological world exists because of DOD’s role in catalyzing and steering science and technology. This was industrial policy, and it worked because it brought all of the players in the innovation game together, disciplined them by providing strategic, long-term focus for their activities, and shielded them from the market rationality that would have doomed almost every crazy, over-expensive idea that today makes the world go round. The great accomplishments of the military-industrial complex did not result from allowing scientists to pursue “subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity,” but by channeling that curiosity toward the solution of problems that DOD wanted to solve.

Such goal-driven industrial policies are supposed to be the stuff of Soviet five-year plans, not market-based democracies, and neither scientists nor policymakers have had much of an appetite for recognizing DOD’s role in creating the foundations of our modern economy and society. Vannevar Bush’s beautiful lie has been a much more appealing explanation, ideologically and politically. Not everyone, however, has been fooled.
Bush's beautiful lie, "Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown." The truth:
First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.

Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself.

Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences. 
Especially interesting in the context of recent discussions about 'digital humanities' and 'neoliberalism.'

H/t 3QD.