Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sinatra's Favorite Color

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The Great Writer: Graffiti and the Singularity

An Apocalyptic Fantasy in Some Acts, Maybe More, Maybe Less

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So, I was wondering, as I do from time to time: What’s this blog about? Sure, I write it, but that doesn’t mean that I know what I’m going. What do all these things have to do with one another other than me being interested in them: cultural evolution, graffiti, music, anime (Miyazaki, Kawajiri) and animation (Disney, Paley), flowers (flix), Shakespeare, sexuality, and a little of this and some of that.

As I said, I was thinking through that stuff and it hit me: Graffiti and the Singularity!

WTF? What in doG’s name do they have to do with one another?

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THE SINGULARITY, as you may know, is something that’s supposed to happen in the not too distant future, though not necessarily just around the corner, when computers get big enough and smart enough that they can light out for the territory on their own. Spontaneously, over night, they’ll out-think us and, from that point on, we won’t know what they’re up to. Heck, we won’t even know they’ve gone over to the THE OTHER SIDE because we won’t be smart enough to detect it and they won’t have any reason to tell us about it.

That’s one version, anyhow.

But what’s that have to do with graffiti? Well, it seems Vernor Vinge came up with the idea back in 1983, about a year before Subway Art came out. I suppose lots of notions were sent up in trial balloons within a year or two of Subway Art, one way or the other. But they don’t count. ‘Cause you see, Style Wars came out in 83 and you had Kase 2 talking about computer styles in graff.

Yeah, that’s it. Kase 2 read Vinge’s article and got the idea for computer styles from the singularity. Or did Vinge see Style Wars and cop the idea from Kase 2? Maybe neither. Maybe both were channeling the Great Writer.

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For you see, both computers and graffiti are about writing. The graffiti case is well-known. It started with the tag, the writer’s name. And became more developed and elaborate until wild styles came on the scene. With wild styles the name was all but obliterated in the elaboration, figuration, and transformation. But it was still there, in the deep core, in the instruction set of the design matrix.

In a 19th Century Mall?

Just watch them. Magic with music. Some opera singers show up at the local mall and start singing. Everyone is transfixed.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

A View to Paradise

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Miyazaki Notes 2: Castle in the Sky

Speaking about his third feature, Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki remarked:
Personally, I do think there’s a continuity all the way from Nausicaä. I realize that some people may be taken aback when they watch it, thinking of it as the follow-up to Nausicaä. But I created the work hoping that little children could also enjoy it.*
The problem, of course, is that Castle in the Sky is a very different Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind, which was, in turn, very different from its predecessor, Miyazaki’s first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro. Nausicaä was a dark story, set in a grim world on the edge of the desert and populated by giant insects and fungi. The human race is nearing extinction. The world of Castle in the Sky is pretty much late 19th Century Europe with some steampunk and other modifications. No giant insects, no giant fungi, and the human race is not at the edge of extinction. Nausicaä is in her late teens, while, Pazu and Sheeta, the protagonists of Castle, are, say, 11 or 12. That difference in ages makes a great difference in the kind of story you can tell.

Deep Similarity in Their Worlds

Yet there is a continuity between the two films. If you step back you realize that, beneath the differences, there are broad similarities. In both films, the present is haunted by the past death of a technologically advanced civilization, one that had a mysterious source of energy and that employed large artificial creatures (aka robots). In both stories the central grouping must negotiate for its survival between two larger groups at odds with one another. In Nausicaä we have the people of the valley between the Tolmekians and the Pegites; in Castle it’s Pazu and Sheeta between Muska and the army and Dola and her pirates. The two stories thus share the same fundamental dramatic armature.

Now, consider the role etherium plays in Castle: etherium is the mineral substance that was used to power Laputa. The crystal in Sheeta’s necklace is made of etherium. And the etherium ‘knows’ when Sheeta is in trouble and acts to aid her. In Nausicaä the natural world is in league with the human world through Nausicaä's bond with the ohmu. In Castle it is etherium that makes that bond, through Sheeta. Further, consider that Laputa has functioned for years without human intervention, floating in the sky. Miyazaki has staged that world so that it acts, as a whole, as being with agency.

And then we have the robots in Laputa, artificial creatures that act to defend Laputa and to protect Sheeta. On Laputa there are a number of ‘dead’ robots that are in various stages of becoming absorbed into the landscape; yes, they are decaying, but plants are growing from them too. And that’s important. We assume that, at some point in the past, these robots were created by human beings to serve certain purposes. We don’t see anything that contradicts such an assumption, but we don’t see this happening, not even in flashbacks. It’s just an uncontroverted assumption. What we do see is that these robots occupy a liminal zone between the human and the natural, thus breaking down the distinction between the human and natural worlds. (See this post for further remarks on how Miyazaki stages the relationship between man and nature in Nausicaä.)

Thus, while Castle in the Sky does not focus disaster, as Nausicaä does, it makes similar assumptions about the relations between the human and the nature. They are not distinctly different, and opposed, domains. For this reason, and the similarity of their underlying dramatic armature, I believe that the two films are, as Miyazaki maintains, deeply similar despite very obvious differences.

Sheeta has Breasts?

Now I want to take a look at a specific aspect Sheeta’s character design. It’s something that is both obvious and not. You can’t help be notice it when you see the movie, but I didn’t consciously take note of it until I’d seen it several times.

I’m talking about Sheeta’s breasts. It’s not clear how old she is, but she seems to be a bit younger than Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and she had just turned 13. Sheeta would seem to be 11 or 12. This is a typical shot of how she appears early in the film:

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She looks like a young girl. In particular, she is flat-chested. About half-way through the film she and Pazu are rescued by the Dola gang and decide to stick with them. Dola decides that Sheeta needs a change of clothes – she’d somehow lost her dress while in captivity and was wearing only a slip. Here’s Sheeta in Dola’s cabin as Dola looks for something for her to wear:

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Photographing Street Art: Luna Park, Becki Fuller and Stefan Kloo

Brooklyn Street Art has published a two-part interview with three street art photographers, Luna Park, Becki Fuller and Stefan Kloo. Park and Fuller are based in New York City; Kloo is in Los Angeles. Part I is here. Part 2 is here.

The significance of photography is obvious. Street art is ephemeral, lasting only days, weeks, months, or a few years if it is in less trafficked areas (I’ve photographed some walls that have been untouched for four or five years, perhaps even more). The photograph then is the only more-or-less permanent record we’ve got. More importantly, with the emergence of the web, digital photography becomes more than a mere record of the work. It becomes a means of communication among artists and between artists and their public. Posting flix on the web has become a key step in the life-cycle of street art. Between the street and the web, this art occupies a cultural niche that is independent of that occupied by 'legit' art.

Park, Fuller, and Kloo talk about developing relationships with the artists, getting tips on where good stuff is, or is going to be, getting email from PR flacks, having their images swiped without credit, and above all, their passion for the art itself.

Check it out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Graffiti Classics

The New York Times reports on the “Subway Art History” project, “a newly formed collective of (mostly) former graffiti writers in their 20s and 30s, who have embarked on an unusual citywide campaign to summon 50 or more of the most famous pieces of old-school graffiti out of the history books and back onto the streets.” So far they’ve reworked classic pieces by SEEN, BLADE, and DONDI, preserving the general style of the pieces, but making strategic changes in them, changes that allude to world and cultural history in general. Thus “Dondi” becomes “Ghandi” and “Blade” becomes “Plato.” The pieces being honored – for the project is an act of homage – were illegally executed on subway cars. These remakes are being done on the sides of buildings and with permission from the building owners.
The project was partly inspired, [one of the writers] said, by one completed last year along a blighted commercial stretch of West Philadelphia by the artist Steve Powers. As part of that city’s Mural Arts Program, Mr. Powers created a series of eye-popping murals visible from the elevated train line, with the cooperation of local property owners.

In New York the idea is to use the pieces to try to teach a two-part history lesson. The first is about the glories (as the collective sees it) of the early days of graffiti and the invention of a vernacular art form that has swept the world. The second lesson is about world history itself, in neighborhoods where education remains low on the list of priorities for many struggling teenagers.
Blade himself is quoted as saying “It’s nice the attention guys my age are finally starting to get for our work.” A writer who is on Flickr as RAPMUSIC is not so enthusiastic. He posted a photo of the SEEN remake – “Joan of Arc” – under the title “FUUUUCK THIS.”

I suspect that this project will get a mixed reaction. Some old school writers, like Blade, will applaud, as will many others. But I rather doubt that Rapmusic is the only who’s got problems with it. It’s just too legit.

As for me, I think it’s interesting is what I think. Back in late 2006 when I first started getting interested in graffiti I went looking for books. New ones were coming out and they were getting display space, not only in book stores, but in other stores as well – I bought one book at an Urban Outfitters in the West Village. Graffiti has become a source of design in the hip hop world and in extreme sports. Graffiti’s making a run on going legit.

Can’t say that I see anything wrong with that. Even as I say that I know full well that the illegal stuff will continue (see my remarks on Graffiti and Transgression). Whatever’s driving that – and I don’t think that’s a simple matter, not at this point in history – isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s a well that’s going to keep on pumping paint onto walls.

And this Subway Art History project, with its recreation of old pieces, pieces that exist only in photographs, that indicates that graffiti now has a classical past, a past that can be recalled, respected, and, yes, recreated. Last year’s reissue of the two ‘bibles’ of graffiti, The Faith of Graffiti and Subway Art, marked the beginning of this classical phase.

What I’m curious about is the future. Will graffiti rest on its laurels and be content to recycle old styles, newly elaborated? Or will it venture into new territory? No way to know.

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RAELS and SONET: Not Old School

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RAELS and SONET: A Year Later

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pink Elephants Parade on the Web

A couple of hours after I’d posted my analysis of the “Pink Elephants” sequence, I googled the sequence to see what would pop up. Google returned almost 67,000 hits. I don’t know whether that’s a lot or not; it’s just a number.

Of course, there's a Wikipedia entry. And there’s a good many clips of the sequence, including this one which is synched to Sun Ra playing the song. The song’s also been recorded by Barbara Cook (no visual), who specializes in nuanced performances of Broadway and cabaret tunes. The Dancing Image has posted over 50 frame grabs from the sequence (though the order is off in some cases). Mnemosyne Productions has posted a tribute to the sequence; the tribute uses stop-motion animation (on a Mexican theme), with music performed by Seattle’s Circus Contraption.

At the beginning of the year Cartoon Brew posted notice of a debate between Bill Plympton and Pat Smith. Plympton said it’s not all that; Smith said it is. Readers joined the debate on all three pages.

One issue: scariness. Plympton said it wasn’t all that scary. Some agreed; Smith and others disagreed with him. Scariness, like beauty, is surely in the eye of the beholder. And a young child is likely to behold the sequence differently from an adult. My own take, as you can gather from my analysis, is that part of it was meant to be scary (the first half) and part of it wasn’t (the second half).

And then there’s the question of how it served the film. A number of people pointed out that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the film, which makes sense. Others were quite satisfied with it in context, which also makes sense – I address this as well. Commenting at the Brew, Russell H remarks:
This scene is important if one agrees with the concept thatt DUMBO is so effective because it’s a classic “hero” tale in the Joseph Campbell sense. At this point in a story like this, it’s common that the hero (Dumbo) , befriended by a “trickster” (Timothy) is taken on a “vision quest” (a mystical journey that reveals his destiny) and awakens in “another world” (the countryside away from the circus) where he meets other “outsiders” (the crows) who help him to unlock his latent talent –he really was flyng during the “Pink Elephants” sequence) and fulfill his destiny (he goes back, avenges himself on those who humiliated him, and brings fame and glory to the circus).

Without this sequence, how can Dumbo learn to fly in a non-contrived, dramatic way in the context of the story?
Yep.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Graffiti and Transgression

They didn’t think of it as art back in the day. That came later. it was writing. And it was illegal; it was vandalism. And the vandalism mattered, not as an act of defacing property, but as an act of asserting one’s existence in a public space.

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And then Norman Mailer wrote of the faith of graffiti. He embraced the vandalism. And he called it art. Is the vandalism essential to the art? One might say that the design is the design, regardless of what surface it’s on, regardless of whether or not it was done with permission. That argument makes sense.

And so there’s lots of graffiti on “permission” walls these days. All over the world. There’s graffiti on canvases, some hanging in museums and private collections. None of it illegal. Some of it even commissioned and paid-for. Is it real graffiti anymore? If not, is it art?

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These questions keep spinning round and round.

You see, if the image is a name, however disguised and elaborated, then it matters whether or not that name is legally permitted to exist on that surface. For the name carries the spirit of a person, and is an assertion against the legitimacy of that surface, that wall. Without the link to the person, it’s just a design. With no spirit.

Or so one might argue.

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And then there’s this. Almost two decades before he wrote about graffiti, Mailer wrote “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which was about the attractions that a certain kind of black life had for certain kinds of mostly alienated white people. Which is to say, it’s about what those white people needed those black people to be, for their own purposes. Black reality was no where to be found.

The essay was embarrassing to read.

When I started reading The Faith of Graffiti, as opposed to looking at the pictures, I feared it would be more of the same. But it wasn’t, not at all. Mailer no longer needed a fix of hipness. He maintained his distance, perhaps the vital presence of Jon Naar’s photos kept him honest.

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But the temptation is there, to value the transgressive nature of graffiti, not for what it means to the writer, but for what it means to the viewer. The viewer gets vicarious kicks through the danger the writer has put on the wall. Now the transgressing graffiti writer becomes a gladiator in the mind’s eye of the hipster art appreciator. The danger is real for the gladiator, but only a pasing thrill for the spectator. You could see it depicted in Wild Style, when Lee went to the rich folk's party and the lady invited him into her bedroom, for a commission. Transgression indeed.

There’s no way out of it. It’s inherent in the situation. It’s difficult to be honest in a dishonest world.

What wonders what will happen when a graffiti museum is created. Will  writers have to break into it in the middle of the night and spray the walls to keep it real? No one knows.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Faith & Handstyles: Graffiti Affirmed

Roughly forty years ago a bunch of kids wrote their names wherever they could in New York City, but particularly in subway stations and on subway trains. Among them, Mike 171 and Snake. About the same time an adult photographer, Jon Naar, was commissioned to photograph those names and an adult writer, Norman Mailer, was commissioned to write about them. They approached their respective tasks dragging their worlds in tow. Mailer was at the top of his game, with reams of prose and a Pulitzer behind him. Naar was on the way up. And the kids, they were down, but not out.

None of them knew what they were doing, not in a larger historical sense. The kids were staking claims on their lives in the public space of New York City, a city that cared less about them than about others. Mailer and Naar? They’d been given commissions and were fulfilling them.

With style. All of them with style and commitment. The result, a book: The Faith of Graffiti. The book became a monument and graffiti itself went round the world. Forty years later we look back and see what became of them; we see them as seeds.

And so, forty years later, three of those people gathered with others to discuss then and now. The discussion was convened by the Wooster Collective, represented by Sara and Marc Schiller (his father commissioned Mailer to write the graffiti essay). Naar, Mike 171, and Snake were there; Mailer was otherwise disengaged. They were joined by a sociologist, Dr. James Dickinson, and a designer, Massimo Vignelli, a world-renowned designer who’d designed the signage for the New York subway system. When Snake and Mike 171 wrote their names on those walls, they were going up against Vignelli. The discussion was held in the Nineth Avenue offices of Knoll, a design firm that has commissioned work from both Naar and Vignelli.

The discussion was wonderful. Someone should have video taped it. I should have taken notes. But someone didn’t and neither did I. So all I can do is say that it was wonderful and add a word or two to that.

Mike 171 told us his story. Twelve years old when his father died, on the streets, acting out, getting up, white boy in a many-colored neighborhood. In particular, he told us the story of Cay 161, who’d given Mailer the name of the book when he told him “the name is the faith of graffiti.” It was a tale of the streets, of cops and a chase, of an injury. But I don’t remember it. Mike, of course, does. And we all heard him tell it, fresh as yesterday.

When asked what he thought about graffiti, about the names around the subway signage he’d designed, Vignelli took a breath, drew back a bit, explained that graffiti was vandalism, and that the social fabric was very fragile. Yes, we hear you, fragile. And then he pointed out that, of course, the fabric was already torn. Hence, graffiti.

What he liked were the tags, the handstyles, the spontaneous gestures. What he didn’t so much like were the elaborate and premeditated and elaborated pieces. Mike 171 followed him there, it was pure, innocent [yes! pure innocent vandalism] and then came the money and the galleries and it wasn’t the same.

Still isn’t.

But it is.

That wasn’t the whole discussion. It wasn’t just Massimo Vignelli, famed Italian-born designer now living and working in NYC, and Mike 171, uptown kid turned firefighter who made it out from under the rubble of the 2nd tower on 9/11. It wasn’t just them. Everyone had a say – Naar, the Schillers, Snake, Dickenson – but they were the hub, the axis, around which it all turned.

You shoulda’ been there.

And, yes, graffiti’s gone commercial. There’s an elite group of writers who make cash-money for their designs. But graffiti’s also circled the globe. It’s the only form of abstract art that’s found a mass audience. That’s worth thinking about.

As you think about it, think about Mike 171 and Snake getting up forty years ago, Naar photographing them, Mailer writing it all, telling the world why it’s important. Those worlds converging, conjoining, and spinning off their separate ways.

The kids are still at it. And the cops still chase them. But with a difference. Some of those cops were once writers themselves.



Here’s some handstyles (aka tags) from Jersey City. When you look at them, imagine yourself sweeping them out, feel it in your shoulder and arm. In not much more than the time it takes to sign your name, with care, that’s how long it takes a writer to transform a wall with an elegant handstyle.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

A plea for the study of friendship

At Arcade, Gregory Jusdanis argues for the study of friendship:
So what’s wrong with friendship and why are people so indifferent to it? How can an important relationship be so lost in the academic radar screen? Of course, there has been in the last twenty years some work on friendship in many fields, such as literary criticism, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Interestingly, many of these studies begin with the standard complaint about the little interest expressed by the academy in the topic.

This professional unresponsiveness is matched by society’s coolness to friendship. In contrast to classical Greece and Rome or twelfth-century medieval Europe, modern society makes marriage its organizing metaphor. It is marriage that gets religious, political, and legal recognition. Friendship is really invisible, enjoying little institutional support. The community is not concerned if we make friends or not as much as it does if we get married. Friendship seems is crucial in childhood and adolescence as a socializing mechanism. But after the years of prime reproduction have passed, the community loses interest in our friendships. Ask a middle age man how many intimate friends he has! And then ask yourself if anyone cares.
His final two lines: "We want the two characters to conform to the reigning categories of heterosexual and homosexual. But we don’t want them to be friends because, as friends, they would disrupt these categories."

Beyond the Corporate University

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, NYU's Andrew Ross argues that the notion of the "corporate" university may be good for water-cooler chat, but it's not adequate to what's happening with the university. His final paragraph is worth thinking about:
In the cold-war heyday, C. Wright Mills argued that the exercise of power in the United States was shaped by "interlocking directorates" drawn from corporations, the government, and the military. Mills's thesis, while cogent for its time, could use an update. Research universities are becoming independent drivers of the economy—stimulating growth and development rather than merely providing trained labor and research. In so doing, they are forging their own influential directorates. Nongovernmental organizations will very likely follow suit. At that point, the tripartite model that Mills set forth in 1956 will have added at least two more prongs. In anticipation of that scenario, we should consider that our universities, far from devolving into mere adjuncts of corporations, will more likely end up as players, in their own right, on a landscape with many hubs.
So we're headed toward interlocking directorates drawn from corporations, universities, the government, NGOs, and the military. Do I belive it? Don't know.

Happy STC! & Diz

It's Samuel Taylor Coleridge's birthday today. And holy crap! it's Dizzy Gillespie's birthday too.

Two of my favorites.

Here's Roger Ebert's tribute to Coleridge. It includes Orson Welles reading "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," with visuals by Gustave Dore, assmbled into a film by Larry Jordan. Tom O'Bedlam reads "Kubla Khan,"

Feelings, nothing more than feelings . . .

It's not how you look...


Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

3 Notes on Miyazaki: Becoming

I’ve been thinking about Hayao Miyazaki a lot. Here are three notes about his films. There’s a connection between them, but not an argument.

The screen shots are from Ponyo, depicting her in three phases in her being.

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The Miyazaki Canon

When we think of Miyazaki, we think of a series of animated feature films started with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. But that’s not his first film; The Castle of Cagliostro is, and Miyazaki also did lots of TV work earlier in his career. Why do we set that work aside when thinking of Miyazaki?

The answer is intuitively obvious when one looks at the pre-Nausicaä work. If you look at Cagliostro, which I know fairly well (but I’ve not seen any of the TV work), it’s obvious that it’s in a different world from Nausicaä and subsequent films. It’s a well-make action-adventure film, as are, for the matter, the later Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso. But it lacks something that the later films have.

What is it? We can use works like subtlety, richness, or complexity, all of which seem apt. And yet they’re just words. What do they mean? How do we find them in the films?

However we approach those questions, I note that Nausicaä signals its difference from Cagliostro in obvious ways. From the opening frames of the film (see this post at Acephalous), we know we’re in a strange world, a dying post-apocalyptic world. In contrast Cagliostro looks bright and sunny. Both are full of adventure, but Cagliostro is a crime caper while Nausicaä is a save-the-world quest in a post apocalyptic world. The hero of Cagliostro is male, Lupin III, and he saves a princess. Nausicaä’s hero is, of course, Princess Nausicaä herself.

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Instability: Man and Nature in Nausicaä

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is widely regarded as an ecological fable, and obviously so. And yet that doesn’t quite get it right. It seems clear that, in a general way, the world is looking bleak for humans, and I emphasis that, for humans, because of a firestorm wrought by humans 1000 years ago. There’s a poisonous jungle that’s growing larger and land suitable for human habitation is shrinking. The war between the Pegites and the Tolmekians is linked to their (mistaken) efforts to deal with this problem. Nausicaä and her people are caught between these two greater powers, whose war threatens them more than the jungle.

Now, consider a passage from interview Miyazaki gave the day after the film opened in 1984 [Hayao Miyazaki. Starting Point: 1979-1996. San Francisco: Viz Media 2009, p. 335]:
— About the depiction of the Sea of Decay: in the early scenes, such as the village where Yupa ends up, it’s rather eerie. At the end, the Sea of Decay where Yupa and Asbel are traveling appears very bright.

Miyazaki: We see birds that harm humans as harmful and those that are useful to humans as useful. It’s all arbitrary. The impression we have of a landscape changes depending on the emotions of the person view the landscape. Nature that is generous is, at the same time, nature that is ferocious. This is why humans feel humbled in the face of nature and why they are able to realize its true abundance. In The Dark Crystal, they talk about the earth’s surface being damaged for thousands of years. And at the end, what happens is that something like a golf course is shown. [laughs] Compared to that, the original jungle, with its multitude of inhabitants, was much livelier. I think that’s fine. So I think it’s a very strange story.
In such a world humans do not have a privileged place. How do you center a movie on humans – and this movie is surely centered on humans – in such a world? What makes their impending extinction a matter of central concern?

The sincerest form of flattery

Cosplay


Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Renovation at the Malibu

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More on the Malibu Diner.

Roger Ebert: “I’m not a miracle.

And neither are the Chilean miners.” Thus Ebert opens a recent entry to his journal. Ebert continues:
We are all alive today for perfectly rational reasons. Yet there is a common compulsion to describe unlikely outcomes as miraculous -- if they are happy, of course. If sad, they are simply reported on, or among the believing described as "the will of God." Some disasters are so horrible they don't qualify as the will of God, but as the work of Satan playing for the other team.
After a bit of this and that he returns to the miners:
How much better to describe the rescue as the result of the fortitude of the miners and the skill of the good-willed people on the surface who reached them in what was, after all, a very short time. How much better to say the outcome in Chile was the result of intelligence and good will. But there seems to be a narrative in these matters that requires the citing of divinity.
From there Ebert brings it home by discussing his medical emergency when his carotid artery burst just as he was leaving the hospital after successful surgery. Since he was still in the hospital, surrounded by his medical team wishing him well, that team switched into rescue mode and saved his life. Improbable? Yes. But not a miracle.

Then: a discussion of the status of miracles in Roman Catholic theology. On Ebert’s word that theology is quite subtle about the miraculous. Most things casually asserted to be miracles are not so in the conspectus of Roman Catholicism, certainly not the rescue of the Chilean miners nor the saving of Ebert’s life. And, nearing the end – where he declares that he doesn’t himself believe in miracles (he’s a lapsed Catholic) – he mentions evolution and then darts away from it:
That puts me in mind of all the arguments against evolution that depend on a complete ignorance of the definition of a scientific theory. But let's not go there today. Returning to the subject, what has all this to do with my carotid artery, or the Chilean miners? I argue that few people have a good idea of what a miracle actually is. It's not like entering the lottery. God doesn't perform miracles for a few lucky winners. They take place for one purpose only, and that is not to spare lives, cure disease, heal limbs or prevent a bus from falling off a mountain. Their only purpose is to demonstrate the glory of God.
But let’s return to evolution. One implication of Ebert’s argument, it seems to me, is that the habit of mind that treats the rescue of the Chilean miners, and so many other things, as being miraculous, belongs to the same discourse that dismisses evolution and that dismisses evidence for anthropogenic climate change. It’s one thing to dismiss science in cases where the causal mechanisms are obscure and incompletely understood and where the data is difficult to gather and interpret. That’s not the case with the Chilean miners. But if routine habits of mind deny rational explanations in cases where such explanations are ready at hand, then obscure and difficult phenomena, like evolution and climate change, they haven’t got a chance.



That’s one thing, then, Ebert’s article itself. But it’s posted to the blog and, as such, garners comments. Ebert’s posts routinely attracted many comments, many of them long and thoughtful. Since his blog is monitored, and Ebert himself does the monitoring, he reads all the comments. People know this.

This post attracted an extraordinary comment, from one Eric Schmidt. He identifies himself as a grad student, gay, and in long-term conflict about Catholicism. At the time he read Ebert’s post he was in an atheist phase:
And yet, reading your post at 7:25 a.m., I felt the overwhelming, almost out-of-body urge to go to Catholic mass and confession. My parents, who were staying with me over the weekend, must have seemed rather startled when I jumped out of bed and drove hastily to a church I knew would have a mass this early with opportunities for confession. ...

And in the confessional I poured out -- admittedly with some stuttering and prodding -- all my hurt, my agony, my anger at God, my anger at my fragmented adolescence, my anger for those years of my life when it seemed God was looking down and laughing. I didn't cry or beat my breast. That's the Hollywood version of catharsis. Mine wasn't a majestic confession, just a true one. And I feel back on a path toward God now.
There is, of course, a bit more, but you’ll have to read it at Ebert’s joint. Here’s part of Ebert’s response: “. . . you take seriously what I take seriously, but it draws us in opposite directions.”

There’s an old term for it: Concordia discors.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

*uc* *or *ores*

So, a few of us have been discussing costumes, sexual politics, and environmentalism in Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and my old nemesis from The Valve, Rich Puchalsky mentioned a NSFW site called Fuck for Forest, which he characterized as “an eco-sex-activism site.” And that it is.

Here’s the explanatory copy on the front page:
Fuckforforest is a non-profit organization. The project is run by openly sexual people, who use their sexuality and love to direct attention to and collect money for the earth`s threatened nature.

If you like our idea and want to support nature and FFF, please become a member. Enter the members area and get access to thousands of photos and videos of erotic activists, showing you real idealism! Also visit our web shop and read more about us on the info pages.

Want to be a activist for our cause? Please contact FFF! Do not hide love, share love! If you have self-made photos or videos, Push this link to share with nature!
I’ve spent a bit of time looking around, and it’s pretty interesting. Lots of throbbing drums, animal calls, naked people out doors, tattoos and piercings, and, of course, sex. It ain’t your grandfathers universe, that’s for sure, nor your grandmothers.

My basic impression is that these are clever people with a sense of humor and a sense of mission. May the force be with them.

The World Go Round



Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Here and There, and Thorns Too

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mind the Gap: Reality and Prophesy in Nausicaä

With the arguable exception of The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki never sets his films in a realistic world. Each world differs from our familiar world in some way. In the case of Porco Rosso, for example, the difference is minor. The title character is a man with the head of a pig. He wasn’t always like that – we see a flashback to an earlier time when he was fully human – and there are hints that Porco has been restored at the end of the film. But we never see him, so we don’t know.

In contrast, the world of Howl’s Moving Castle differs from our world in major ways. Witches and wizards are routinely called to serve in wartime and the titular castle has a door that opens on four different locations in the world. The working of spells is central to the film, which is also filled with strange magical creatures neither human nor animal.

And so it goes with the other films. All strange, but some only a bit, others middling, and still others, very.

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Lord Yupa being chased by an Ohmu, and Princess Nausicaä flies to the rescue.
I’m interested in the world of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. To a first approximation, it is much like our world, obeying much the same physical and biological laws. A thousand years in the past industrial civilization had been destroyed in a big conflagration and now humanity is hanging on by a thread as the toxic jungle spreads and destroys village after village. The jungle is populated by huge insects, much larger than any insects we know, and fungi. But it’s not obvious that these insects and fungi operate on exotic biological principles. Nor do we see any spirits, such as those in Spirited Away, or animal gods, such as those in Princess Mononoke.

Still, if we agree that those insects and fungi are baseline reality, Miyazaki plays with reality in, shall we say, curious ways. The central character, Nausicaä, is regarded as extraordinary by all who encounter her. She has an empathy for and understanding of the insects which is extraordinary. Yet, we know that she has studied them, and the jungle quite carefully. The first time we see her she carefully collects a spore sample. Later we see that she’s built an underground laboratory. Could her mysterious empathy and understanding simply be the result of systematic exploration and study?

Even if that is so, that would not explain the most mysterious event of all – how, at the end of the story, she dies and is then brought back to life by the Ohmu, large many-eyed armadillo-like insects covered in hard shells. Strange and wondrous though that event may be, that’s not what I want to look at. We just have to take that event on faith, if you will. That’s just how this world works.

The event I want to consider is strange in a more modest way.

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Fireside Chat: Obaba, Princess Nausicaä, Lord Yupa
Early in the film Nausicaä is in her father’s bedroom along with Lord Yupa and Obaba. Her father, King Jihl, is ill and won’t live much longer (in fact, he's murdered). Lord Yupa has just come back from a year-long journey to survey the state of the jungle. Obaba, the Wise Old Crone, asserts that he’s been looking for a messiah-like figure whose coming has been foretold in a 1000-year-old prophesy depicted in a tapestry hung on the wall: “That one, wearing a robe of blue, shall descend onto a golden field. To forge once again the lost bond with the land. And lead everyone, at last, to a land of purity.” Yupa denies that he’s been searching for such a figure, declaring it to be a myth.

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Prophetic Tapestry

Mimi Mimi Mimi Mimi . . . . . .


Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Naïve Reading of Naïve Reading

Robert Pippin in The New York Times, “In Defense of Naïve Reading.” He notes that “it is still the teaching of literature that generates the most academic, and especially non-academic, discussion.” Part of his discussion notes that the teaching of vernacular literature in higher education is relatively new and that, consequently, “we have not yet settled on the right or commonly agreed upon way to go about it.” And so:
Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of “research.” By and large they were produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them. But just as clearly, the teaching of literature in universities ─ especially after the 19th-century research model of Humboldt University of Berlin was widely copied ─ needed a justification consistent with the aims of that academic setting: that fact alone has always shaped the way vernacular literature has been taught.
That is to say, in most times and places literary culture got along just fine without the benefits of learned study and commentary on the texts, though I will note that, in contrast, religious texts have attracted enormous bodies of learned commentary, elaboration, and exegesis.

Getting back to Pippin’s argument, the proper academic study of literature required a means of creating and transmitting knowledge and encouraged collaboration with other disciplines. At the same time it also required a way of evaluating student performance: “Students’ papers must be graded and no faculty member wants to face the inevitable ‘that’s just your opinion’ unarmed, as it were.”

Pippin goes on to note that, in the first place:
Literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language.
This is, of course, a traditional and venerable observation, often invoked in arguments against academic criticism or, indeed, criticism of any kind whatsoever. Pippin also suggests that
such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge . . . is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy.
He rightly observes that this is a controversial claim, but I’m willing to grant it. For example, current arguments about whether or not literature (or the arts more generally) are biologically adaptive speak to this point. As far as I can tell, such arguments are about naïve reading, though they don’t use that term. They do not say that the value of literature requires explicit interpretation. And a good thing that they don’t, because, as we know, explicit interpretive activity is relatively new in human history. Homer's audience, and Dante's and Shakespeare's and Austen's, and so forth, they're all naïve in Pippin's sense. And if one doesn’t like these arguments – I certainly have doubts about them myself – other arguments are available (I’ve made some myself). Biological adaptiveness is by no means the only theoretical approach.

Pippin then goes on to grant that, of course, “we certainly need a theory about how artistic works mean anything at all, why or in what sense, reading a novel, say, is different from reading a detailed case history.” And so forth. In this I, of course, concur. My suspicion about Pippin, given what else he has to say, is that he doesn’t have any particular suggestions about how we ought to go about this, how we can improve current thinking on such matters. Maybe he thinks we have such matters well in hand (if so, I disagree); maybe he doesn't. There's no way to tell from what he's written here.

But he does go on to observe that, while there is developing interest in using neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to such ends, “such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.” He doesn’t even so much as hint at the possibility that the problem is not inherent in neuroscience or evolutionary psychology, or, for that matter, the cognitive sciences more broadly considered, but simply in what has been most readily done to date. He doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that good use can in fact be made of these newer psychologies. On that point, of course, I believe he is wrong. I’ve argued the matter informally here, in this “quasifesto” for a naturalist criticism, and more formally in this long programmatic article on literary morphology and this somewhat shorter piece on cultural evolution and the human sciences.

Which is to say, he offers no positive program beyond advocating “naïve” reading. What does he think should be taught in undergraduate literature courses? Is he simply saying, drop the ‘Theory’ and do what they did in the golden days of yesteryear? If not that, then what? Surely he isn’t suggesting what one might call The New Naïveté, for, if he is, what’s to distinguish it from the Old Naïveté? Wouldn’t those distinguishing marks constitute some kind of theory, and wouldn’t that theory need justification and elaboration? And wouldn’t that, in turn, end up, in effect, reprising the last 50 years in literary criticism? And what about the research program? I don’t see that naïve reading has any, not as Pippin describes it.

He wants us to stop doing something – though just what isn’t entirely clear – and do more of something that’s been going on all along. By all means, naïve reading, yes. People do it all the time. It goes on in reading groups, off-line and on-line. It’s all over the blogosphere. And I’m sure the non-academic literary blogosphere thanks Pippin for his endorsement.

But really, I’m afraid this academic mandarin, this Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago, this panjandrum supreme, has no clothes. It would be naïve to think otherwise.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ebert Defends Literature on the uncharted seas

I’ve recently become interested in Roger Ebert. As I’ve indicated earlier, he’s long served me as a reference critic, someone I’d consult on movies that interest me. My current interest extends beyond that.

The nature of my current interest is not entirely clear to me. Oh, sure, Ebert is one of the most prominent intellectuals in America these days, and is readily available on the web. As is Stanley Fish. That Stanley Fish is an intellectual is obvious on the face of it. But Roger Ebert, he’s a film critic, no? Yes, and we don’t normally think of film critics as intellectuals. But there are film critics and there are film critics.

And Roger Ebert is more than a film critic. Perhaps he’s always been more than a film critic. But it’s his writing in his blog that interests me, and that’s what’s prompted me to think of him as an intellectual. Yes, I find it just a bit strange. But I’m going with it. He’s not the type of intellectual Stanley Fish is, but an intellectual he is. And, for what it’s worth, he’s more widely known.

And that’s worth something. Just what, I don’t know. But something, and that something is part of my attraction.



You may have heard that Ebert’s been kicking up a fuss about video games. He doesn’t think that they can ever be art. This little tempest in a teapot led him to Tweet and then blog a simple question: “Which of these would you value more? A great video game. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.” The answer came back 13,823 to 8,088 in favor of video games.

And so Ebert posted that result to his blog, while also admitting that there was nothing remotely scientific about his procedure. It’s just an informal question, with an answer that didn’t please him. And he launches into a defense and justification of literature without, however, saying anything more against video games. For the moment, that’s done and gone.

Ebert tells us that he first read Huckleberry Finn when he was seven – I believe I was a bit older than that when my father read it to me. He quotes Hemingway’s line about all modern American literature descending from Huck Finn. [He illustrates his post with scans from a Huck Finn comic.] And he quotes his favorite passage from the book: “Read it over a couple of times and then read it aloud to someone you like. It's music. Can you imagine a more evocative description of a thunderstorm?”

Here’s the nub of his concern:
I believe reading good books is the best way we can civilize ourselves even in the absence of all other opportunities. If a child can read, has access to books and the freedom to read them, that child need not be "disadvantaged" for long. What concerns me is that reading competence and experience has been falling steadily in America. Most of the adults I meet are not very "well read." My parents were.
And then:
Beyond a certain point, we take our education into our own hands. We discover what excites us intellectually, and seek it out. The world of books allows us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times and other places, who belonged to other races and religions. It allows us to become more humane and open-minded. In exposing us to prose of the highest level, it encourages us to think in a way that isn't merely "better" but is more fanciful, creative, poetic and expressive. It makes us less boring, and less bore-able.
This is all quite traditional. It could have been written fifty or sixty years ago. No doubt it was, by other intellectuals, in other words.

It’s as though the intellectual ferment that ripped through English departments in the 70s and 80s, ferment in which Stanley Fish was a major rabble rouser, it’s as though that had passed Ebert by. Ebert is writing as a traditional humanist in a world where the academic stewards of humanism have all but abandoned the tradition. The promising new ideas of the 70s and 80s have, indeed, changed the field of discourse. But the way forward is no longer apparent. We’re in a swamp, we have no map, nor compass, and so we don’t know where we’re going.

Yet Ebert defends reading in traditional terms as though Fish’s swamp didn’t exist. What’s particularly interesting is that it’s literature that Ebert is defending, not film. Literature is very important to him, but it’s film that he’s put at the center of his intellectual life. I don’t know what terms he’d use to defend film, though one could certainly say that it allows us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times and other places, who belonged to other races and religions. It allows us to become more humane and open-minded. In exposing us to prose of the highest level, it encourages us to think in a way that isn't merely "better" but is more fanciful, creative, poetic and expressive. It makes us less boring, and less bore-able.

Such words, once again, ignore Fish’s swamp. But they’re apt. Moreover it seems to me that we’re living in a world where film has the kind of importance that novels had in the 19th century. In fact, film may be less important now than it was 30, 50, 80 years ago. And video games, I’m told the video game market is bigger than the film market. Do video games allow us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times . . . . ? I don’t know, I don’t play them.

So, in consequence of an argument that video games aren’t and will never be art, Roger Ebert, a film critic, mounts a traditional defense of literature. That’s were we are today. That’s our uncharted sea.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

to tweet

Over at Language Log Geoffry Pullum has an interesting little post about how 'tweet' is developing as a verb:
The verb tweet is gradually developing its own syntax according to what it means and what its users regard as its combinatory possibilities. That is a really interesting, though unintended, large-scale natural experiment in how syntactic change works. And it is running right now, every minute of every day.
Re-read that middle sentence and think about it, carefully.

This is language change, happening before your very eyes. And you can follow it through Google, if you so wish.

RIP — He went in his sleep



Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Let it Bleed

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Movie Ecology: A little blitz

No depth here at all, & nothing new. I just want to get it out in a short ‘graspable’ statement.
When my parents were young (1st half 20th century), movies were coming online as major mass entertainment. There were a lot of movies, everyone went to them, and fairly often. Radio, of course, was coming online as well; and newspapers had been around and prominent for over a century.

Movies were paid for by the audience. Radio existed on advertising, and newspapers existed on advertising, plus some audience payment.

In my own youth (3rd quarter 20th century), things were changing. TV arrived. Now people could see moving images in the privacy of their homes. Movies began to feel the pinch, but were still quite popular, and still had to succeed on audience payments; TV was free to audience (like radio) and made money on advertising.

Then along came pay TV (cable). Slowly things changed. And home video recorders, with movie programming (& then TV?). More changes.

Now we have the internet, where EVERYTHING is available in one way or another. Movies are a very different business from what they were in my parent’s youth, or even mine. Much more depends on the blockbuster. & the movie-going demographic is narrower, much more youth oriented. Just WHAT do in-theater movies have to offer in a world where you can get anything and everything through the net? A big screen and a crowd to sit with you – that’s it. They’re still financed by audience payments, those these payments now come from different sources: theater admissions, DVD sales, DVD rentals, cable & satellite views.

And NOW intellectual property is a BIG issue, much more significant than it was in my parents’ youth or in mine. Just WHY is it an issue? Because we have a distribution mechanism, the web, that is difficult to ‘fence off’ and police.

So how does anything get paid-for?

Through this story we’ve got institutions created at one stage persisting into the next stage and attempting to impose their economic ‘profile’ in the next stage.

Movies are expensive to make, and so their costs must be spread across lots of small fees – admissions, media sales and rental. But digital tech is driving many costs down, even as James Cameron spends c. $300M on Avatar (much, I suppose, on R&D).

Where’s this going? Will there be as much change in the next century as there has been over the last? What kind of change? Much of the change over the past century has been supported and driven by technology. What’s future tech have in store?

On that last issue it seems to me we have to add something to the picture: games. Back in my youth we had pinball machines, relatively simple electromechanical tech. Merge that with board games and digital tech and you have a whole new world, a whole new ecology. One that, I’m told, grosses more than movies.

Digital tech is approaching the point where anyone can create anything and make it available to anyone, all relatively cheaply. What’s there for tech to do but get internally smarter. And that means games, no?

Should we ever hit the SINGULARITY, then all of this becomes meaningless. I don’t think that will happen. But perhaps something WILL happen that’s even STRANGER than the Singularity. After all, the singularity, by now, is becoming quite familiar.
There, enough. Too long, perhaps graspable. Holes all over the place. What would it take to do better? By which I mean even shorter, more graspable, and more accurate?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ebert on Burden

I’ve been reading around in Roger Ebert’s blog, which is most interesting. Most interesting indeed.

I’ve always thought about him as a movie critic, one I first encountered on TV, where he was teamed up with the late Gene Siskel. For the past several years I’ve used him as a ‘reference’ critic, a critic I’d consult on any movie that interested me. It’s not that I expected Ebert to get it just right, but only that I expected to learn from whatever he said.

As I read around in his blog, I’m learning that there’s more to Roger Ebert than a film critic. Just how much more, I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Ebert himself.



I’ve just finished a post on Chris Burden, a very impressive essay indeed. Who, you ask, is Chris Burden? Fair question.

Though I may well have heard of Burden back in the mid-1970s when he was doing his best-known work, I don’t having known about him. As far as I can tell, I first heard about him a few years ago in an informal lecture by Eric Fischl, who was lamenting and protesting the sorry state of contemporary art. Fischl used Burden as a case in point, talking about a ‘piece’ in which Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a 22 caliber rifle (Normal Mailer referenced this piece in his superb essay on graffiti).

Which is to say that Burden is / was a performance / conceptual artist (as far as I know, he no longer does such things). And performance / conceptual art never much interested me.

Ebert’s post is about a piece Burden performed in Chicago in 1975. As Ebert says, quoting the news report that he filed at the time:
At 8:20 p.m., the body artist Chris Burden entered a large gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, did not look at his audience of 400 or more, set a clock for midnight, and lay down on the floor beneath a large sheet of plate glass that was angled against the wall. So commenced on April 11 a deceptively simple piece of conceptual art that would eventually involve the imaginations of thousands of Chicagoans who had never heard of Burden, would cause the museum to fear for Burden's life, and would end at a time and in a way that Burden did not remotely anticipate.
That’s after Ebert had introduced his subject and compared Burden to Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist. Ebert continues quoting from his old news report while interrupting it every few paragraphs to insert new comments on Burden and whatever it is that he’s been doing. So we have Ebert, in the present (well, October of 2009) in dialogue with the Ebert of 1975, both contemplating Chris Burden.

Ebert’s illustrated his post with old photos of several of Burden’s performances:
In gathering art and video for this entry, I discovered something that rather surprised me. Burden had made no particular effort to photograph or film his performance pieces. The photos that exist are of low quality, suggesting snapshots by casual visitors. Some of the video was done by news organizations. When David Blaine is frozen into a block of ice or buried alive, he is always visible, and takes care that his performance is documented. For Chris Burden, I believe, the experience is what remains. His experience, and ours. Continuing as an artist, he eventually ended his body art, and became a teacher. For some years he has refused to discuss that period in his life.
That ends Ebert’s post.

It is well worth reading. Of course he tells how Burden’s 1975 Chicago piece ends, as well as discussing several other Burden performances. He makes a compelling case for those performances.

Not that he attempts to argue that they are great art, or even art. He doesn’t. But he makes some kind of case for – or is it merely around? – those performances. I’m tempted to say that the universe prompted Burden to do those performances so that Ebert could write this essay.

What’s tricky is whether or not Ebert’s post depends on the fact that Burden actually did those things. Sure, he wouldn’t have been assigned the story back in 1975 if Burden weren’t really doing such things. But the way Ebert handles his current piece, evoking Kafka (a writer of fiction), inserting comments on it, well somehow he manages to sublime those past events into his current meditation.



In another post Ebert tells us that his mother had wanted him to become a priest. Well, he’s edging up on that zone in this post. And, I gather, he’s a secular man these days.

Ah, the mystery, the mystery!

That Ebert, he’s a comer. Bears watching.

Silence is golden



Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Essentialism?

I don’t know just when I first read references to ‘essentialism,’ references to something that was bad, but the badness of which seemed a bit obscure to me. All of a sudden, people seemed to be critiquing this essentialism, but just where this critique came from, that I don’t know. Since that time, way long ago, I’ve seen the term used quite a bit, and have more or less become comfortable with it, though the critique.... Most recently, essentialism’s turned up at ARCADE, in a post by Christopher Warley, Un-canonizing Lady Mary Wroth and in this post by Josh Landy, his second shot across Derrida’s bow.

I’m most comfortable with the term, however, arenas other than literature. In (the philosophy of) biology it refers to the idea that individuals in some class of organisms (generally at the species level) have certain defining characteristics; those characteristics thus constitute the essence of the class (for example, see this blog post by John Wilkins). The problem is that it is very difficult to come up with such lists of defining characters. Which is to say, there is a some procedure for determining that ‘these are all the same thing’ and another procedure for saying what it is that makes them the same. The second procedure doesn’t seem to produce results that agree with those of the first procedure and, for whatever, that first procedure takes precedence.

Just how and why that mismatch should occur certainly needs looking into. But not here, and not by me.

Essences also crop up in that branch of cognitive psychology that tries to figure out what concepts are. The concepts in question tend not to be abstract concepts, but rather simple and concrete ones, things such as birds and furniture. What’s happened over the last two or three decades is that the so-called ‘classical’ view of concepts has failed various experimental investigations. As I say in my review of Gregory Murphy’s The Big Book of Concepts:
This [classical] view dates back to Aristotle and holds that concepts are given meaning by necessary and sufficient conditions. One problem with this view is that it has proven very difficult to specify those conditions for both real and artificial concepts—a discussion in which Wittgenstein has been very influential. Another problem is that the view doesn't admit of gradations. Something either is, or is not, an example of a particular concept. This is difficult to square with the line of experimental investigation initiated by Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues in the mid-70s. They have found that, for example, a robin is more birdlike than a chicken and that a chair is more furniture-like than a piano. The classical view has no way of accounting for this well-replicated empirical result.
Note that the biologists are talking about a process that’s happening in the natural world and saying that that process doesn’t involve essences; something else is going on. The psychologists are talking about how we think. That we seem to think robins are more birdlike than chickens has nothing to do with whether or not that is so in any biological sense.

One might ask: If our minds do not, in fact, categorize things by essences, then how did the notion of essence arise? I’m not sure that the question is a good one. For the notion of essences did not arise as an account of how our minds work; it arose as an account of the world. But if, as the evolutionary psychologists say, our minds are adapted to the world, and our minds do not traffic in essences, then how is it that we came to adopt that erroneous notion that DOESN’T square up with the world? And why is it so very difficult to dislodge this erroneous notion?

Frankly, I’m not sure I even understand (the implications of) what I asked in those last two questions. And I fear that, if I were to venture ahead, things would only get worse. There’s a conceptual thicket ahead, and I don’t want to get tangled up in it.

So I’m going to back off.

But I want to make one parting observation. We’ve been told that the quantum world is Very Different from the mundane world, and thus it is very difficult to understand. Just do the math, some physicists say, don’t worry about the interpretation. OK. But, is the quantum world the Only Strange World there is? If this business of essences is such a sticky mess, could it be that the whole world is, in fact, Deeply Strange, and resistant to our casual and comfortable conceptualizations?