Friday, September 30, 2011
This is the penultimate episode of Fantasia, coming immediately before the Ave Maria. Our host and commenter, Deems Taylor, tells us that it depicts the profane while the last episode depicts the sacred. It the most frenzied and hyperkinetic episode, which places it in radical contrast to the all but static Ave Maria.
It is also one of the most frightening, if not THE most frightening cartoons ever made. The fright centers on Chernobog, the mountain/devil/demon being at the center of the episode. He was animated by Vladimir Tytla, whose father was a Ukrainian cavalryman. Tytla’s work on Chernobog is widely regarded as the finest hand-drawn animation ever done, an opinion I will not contradict or even question. I am particularly fond of two shots near the end, when we hear the church bell that brings the demonic revels to an end. Chernobog is in pain
and protectively fearful
Think on that, slowly, carefully. Only minutes before we’d seen him summoning the spirits of the dead to the revels, then toying with them and capriciously tossing them into hell fires. Now he’s cringing in pain and fear at the mere sound of a church bell. What gives?
Here, just a bit later we see Chernobog, a very weary Chernobog, folding his wings so as to then dissolve back into the mountain:
The animation here is exquisite, with an ever so delicate stagger between the arm movement and the wing movement. While Tytla had reference footage to work from – actor Bela Lugosi, and his director on this episode, Wilfred Jackson – he could not have had reference footage for this shot, because no such creature exists.
When John Culhane asked Tytla how he achieved such effects “he drew himself up, like an actor getting back into an old role. ‘I imagined that I was as big as a mountain and made of rock and yet I was feeling and moving,’ Tytla answered. Then he dropped the devil’s posture and became a man again. ‘You see?’” (Walt Disney’s Fantasia, p. 196). No, I don’t see, because I wasn’t there. But I feel Chernobog in my back every time I watch this episode, even when I sit here writing about it.
There’s a heft and grandeur in Chernobog that is worthy of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Without Tytla’s powerful acting, his powerful realization of Chernobog, Night on Bald Mountain would only be a magnificent swirling freak show. Tytla gave it the weight of Greek tragedy.
But where’s the tragedy?
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
With a digression through de Man and a pendant to Exodus
Graham Harman’s been reading Meillassoux (just a name to me) on Mallarme (another name, but far more familiar). Of the Meillasoux Harman says:
So far, it’s a brilliant reading of Mallarmé’s famous poem, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard. (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.)
Meillassoux finds a numerical code at work in the text, admitting all the while that many will find secret codes to be “puerile,” but he makes it work nonetheless. He draws on a number of techniques to establish this.
Meillassoux’s right there, but it’s puerility well-authorized by slightly older critical practice, which R. G. Peterson summarized in “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature” (PMLA vol. 91 no. 3, pp. 367-374), a fascinating article. For instance, Peterson points out that the rhyme scheme for Dylan Thomas’ “Author’s Prologue,” a poem of roughly 100 lines, is one giant mother (or is that mutha’ or even mofo?) of a chiasmus. That is, the first word rhymes with the last, the second with the penultimate, the third with the antepenultimate, and so forth. That can’t possibly be an accident, nor even the result of unconscious intent, no? Thomas must have done so deliberately. But who’d even notice such a thing unless one went looking for it?
It was Peterson who first put me on to ring-form composition, which I found in, e.g. Disney’s Fantasia,* and which occupied the late Mary Douglas in the last decade of her career (Leviticus as Literature, In the Wilderness, Thinking in Circles).
So, there IS something there in all this counting and symmetry and structure. But just what, and where, that’s a bit of a mystery. I figure half this stuff is nonsense, half not. And I don’t know how to draw the separating line. Maybe a properly compositionist literary criticism will be able to figure that out in, say, an intellectual generation or three.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
I’ve been reading my way around (pp. 1-40 complete, dippings throughout the rest) in Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (originally published in French in 2010), a short dense book. Rather like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (original German edition, 1921), perhaps my favorite work of philosophy. They’re similar in page count, c. 150 pp., which means the Wittgenstein is rather shorter as it’s published in German and English on facing pages. So it’s only 75 pages or so.
And in a radically different style. Wittgenstein’s text is written in short, often single sentence, paragraphs, which are individually numbered. As you move to the middle logical notation and truth tables appear. In the end, mysticism:
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Thus it came as something of a mild shock to see all the object language up front (note: I’ve not studied the book in over 30 years and have only skimmed it now):
2.01 A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects (things).
2.0123 If I know an object I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs.
2.014 Objects contain the possibility of all situations.
2.01 Objects are simple.
2.021 Objects make up the substance of the world. That is why they cannot be composite.
2.03 In a state of affairs objects fit into one another like the links of a chain.
I’ve left out much, and there is, of course more later. And all is subject to interpretation (what to make of 2.021?). Still, on the surface, a certain congeniality appears.
Back in the day—and I do mean back—I thought of myself as doing cognitive science and literary criticism. So crazy was I, way back even before when in 1985 Hillis Miller lamented the death of deconstruction before the MLA, that I even thought others would be itching to jump aboard the cognitive bus.
Along come the mid 90s and lo and behold! others had declared themselves to be cognitivists, even as evolutionary psychology was looking good to still others. Things were moving, at last.
But alas, these literary cognitivists knew little of my work—after all, how could any literary scholar possibly have committed to cognitive science in the 1970s?—and their work was quite different in style from my own. If you came to my work after having read this newer stuff, you wouldn’t recognize it as the same. And it isn’t. Same with evolutionary psychology. Though I began incorporating primate ethology into my work in the 70s, the literary Darwinians were barking up a different tree.
In THIS newer context, how was I to brand myself—and make no mistake, it is about branding in the Madison Avenue sense. One’s got to sell oneself in the marketplace of ideas. “Ideas” is, of course, a term of courtesy. Ideas are secondary to this marketplace. What matters is whether your book is on a front shelf, cover out. Product placement.
After thinking things through, I produced a quasi-manifesto for naturalist criticism. Here’s a paragraph:
Yes, I know that “the natural” is somewhat problematic, but you’ll just have to get past that. No label is perfect and I’m not about to coin a new term. Assuming you can struggle past the word, what does naturalism suggest to you? To me the term conjures up a slightly eccentric investigator wandering about the world examining flora and fauna, writing up notes, taking photos, making drawing, and perhaps even collecting specimens. That feels right to me, except that I’m nosing about poems, plays, novels, films, and other miscellaneous things. Beyond that I’d like the term to suggest some sense of literature as thoroughly in and a part of the world. There’s only one world and literature exists in it.
Now I find that “natural” is not so good a term, though not quite for the reasons I was imagining in that paragraph.
What to do?
What I’m considering is adopting Latour’s term, “compositionism”, from his recent manifesto (downloadable PDF, video). To be sure, it appears to be a new coinage and I tend to be suspicious of new coinages. But, if so, it’s not MY new coinage, so I’m off the hook. Latour glosses the term as follows:
Even though the word “composition” is a bit too long and windy, what is nice is that it underlines that things have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has a clear root in art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from “compromise” and “compromising” retaining with it a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. . . . Above all, a composition can fail and thus retain what is most important in the notion of constructivism (a label which I could have used as well, had it not been already taken by art history). It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is well or badly constructed, well or badlycomposed.
That is all quite congenial, for it’s all about how things are constructed, and that’s what most interests me as a literary critic: how these things, these works of literary art, how they are constructed.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. Comments on “Conclusion: From Society to Collective—Can the Social Be Reassembled?” pp. 247-262.
I would dearly love to pick up from my post on ANT and Literary Studies and generalize to culture in general, drawing, of course, on my remarks about graffiti and music as well. The idea would be to recast memes as rigid intermediaries constituted as, shall we say, semiotic codes. The individual code items, then, could be combined into various ‘texts’—in the extended meaning of that term—which function as mediators between individuals and the groups of which they are members. But I must leave that generalization as an exercise for the reader. Were I to embark upon it I’m afraid I might never find my way back out and thus would never be able to finish these notes.
Not a useful result.
Laws and Explanations
So, to the final chapter of Reassembling the Social. And we’re going to get there by taking a look at the concluding paragraph of the penultimate chapter (p. 246):
The laws of the social world may exist, but they occupy a very different position from what the tradition had first thought. They are not behind the scene, above our heads and before the action, but after the action, below the participants and smack in the foreground. They don’t cover, nor encompass, nor gather, nor explain; they circulate, they format, they standardize, they coordinate, they have to be explained.
That last sentence came as something of a rude shock after Latour’s earlier proscription of explanation. Here’s a passage (p. 137) I quoted in Reading Latour 10: Description & Graffiti:
Either the networks that make possible a state of affairs are fully deployed—and then adding an explanation will be superfluous—or we ‘add an explanation’ stating that some other actor or factor should be taken into account, so that it is the description that should be extended one step further. If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.
But I stopped reading too soon. That passage continues with this line (and of course more): “There is an exception, however, if it refers to a fairly stable state of affairs where some actors do indeed play the role of fully determined—and thus of fully ‘explained’ intermediaries—but in this case we are back to simpler pre-relativist cases.”
That is, we’re back at the sociology of the social, which is about stabilized social worlds, not worlds in flux, for which Actor-Network Theory has been devised. It’s those worlds in flux where description must be paramount, for how can there be laws if there is no stability? Well, I think there may be an approach to that question, but I’m going to set it aside.
I take it that Latour’s point about “laws of the social world” is that, when we’re dealing with a stabilized world, that stability itself must be explained. Those are the explanations Latour seeks. The laws stating the regularities of a stabilized world are the products of something—forces, structures—Latour fails to name (as far as I can determine).
But his final chapter is not about those worlds. It’s about the world still in flux.
Here's a chunk out of the press release:
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models, UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people’s dynamic visual experiences – in this case, watching Hollywood movie trailers.
As yet, the technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed. However, the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams and memories, according to researchers.
“This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery,” said Professor Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist and coauthor of the study published online today (Sept. 22) in the journal Current Biology. “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”
So, think of visual perception as real-time simulation in neural wetware of the external world driven by sensory input. Remember that the brain is actively predicting what's coming next. It's expecting certain input. That's the simulation aspect. It then, in effect, uses sensory input to calibrate and refine its prediction.
So, you're walking your familiar walk to, say, the subway stop, or your mailbox, whatever. The brain 'cues up' an enactment, a simulation, of that walk, based, of course, on all those times you've walked that walk. That simulation is 'running' in high-dimensional state space of your mind. If I interpret Walter Freeman's theorizing correctly (from a different Berkeley lab, but not associated with this work), the simulation 'meets,' becomes 'entangled with,' incoming visual sensations frame by frame—click click click click—more or less like movies. Each frame of visual experience marks an encounter between the simulation and the external world.
The Berkeley researches have found a way to 'read' the traces of the wetware simulation and reconstruct the visual scene they were tracing. Generalizing from this, the second paragraph above asserts, they expect one day to be able to visualize those simulations we run that are not met by, entangled with, visual input. Very clever.
This links to a page from Gallant's lab. There you'll find a link to the full paper (behind a pay wall), an abstract of the article, and some fascinating film clips. This one is fascinating:
The top row shows the video clip that was presented to each of three subjects. The bottom three rows depict various possible reconstructions of the input video. The leftmost image in the row shows the best reconstruction; the others are possibilities. Note the high agreement between subjects.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
The “sex appeal” of the inorganic, like life, is another way to give voice to what I think of as a shimmering, potentially violent vitality intrinsic to matter.
—Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter
We all know that B.B. King’s guitar is named Lucille. Why? No, not ‘why “Lucille”’? Why is it named at all?
Perhaps it’s a gesture of affection. The guitar, after all, is very close to him. It’s one of his voices, it is, in some sense, part of him.
It may be more than that. The name may well reflect the subtle intricacy of King’s relationship to his guitar, his instrument. To play an instrument well, one must learn to yield to its physicality, to blend with it. You can’t dominate it. Well, you can try, and you CAN succeed. But you pay a cost. You musicianship suffers.
As I’m not a guitar player, however, I can’t tell you what it means to yield to a guitar. Of sure, I can guess, I can make up stories, and you might find those stories convincing. If you’re not a guitar player. But guitar players, the thoughtful ones at least, will know that I’m faking it.
I suppose I could talk about the trumpet—I’ve been playing for half a century—but that’s just a little complex. And my point really isn’t about complexity. It’s about subtlety.
So let’s talk about the claves. The claves are a pair of short sticks that tend to be roughly eight inches long and an inch in diameter. They’re used in Latin music, indeed, they’re central to many genres, to produce a sharp penetrating percussive sound. They’re usually made of hard dense wood. Mine are made of fiberglass:
You hold one clave in your left hand and then strike it with the other one, held in your right hand (if you’re right handed). Simple, no? Well, yes. And no.
It’s more like you cradle the one clave (it doesn’t matter which one) in your left hand. You hold your hand palm-up, lay the clave across it, and grip it only so much as needed to keep it in place. You don’t need to grip it tightly, nor do you even WANT to grip it tightly. If you do that, then your hand will dampen the vibrations and dull the sound. The ‘crack!’ will no longer be sharp and crisp.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
There are great big worlds out there. If we get outside of the Enlightenment, of the Judeo-Christian system of a single truth, everything else being superstition or wrong, there’s a world that we can learn from, and there’s so much to learn.
—Dr. Sidney Greenfield
So, some months ago I read this Timothy Morton guy at Stanford’s Arcade and he gets me interested in object-oriented ontology, which is something of a shock as it’s in the Continental philosophical tradition, which I abandoned years ago, when I abandoned all philosophy (and literary criticism, too). What AM I doing reading this stuff? Well, as I’ve said here and there, I’m after graffiti, I’m after the ‘other side’ of literary understanding (it’s ‘other’ from my distinctly non-standard POV, but that other descends from the traditional humanistic criticism that I abandoned).
And so off I go traipsing through Latour, having a grand old time, and now I’ve started reading Bennett (Vibrant Matter) and Harman (The Quadruple Object) and, once again, it’s WTF!city. This stuff is, well, it’s Continental, that’s what it is. And as I read it I’m telling myself that’s how perception works, that’s what the brain is going. I’m psychologizing it. But they’re not talking about the mind, they’re talking about the world. And I know THAT. Heck, that’s why I’m reading this stuff. But do I HAVE to? Why? What’s it going to get me?
[Dude, you won’t know THAT until you get there, will you?
I suppose not.]
Ecstasy and Healing
Meanwhile, in over the transom, one Sharon Alexander Dreyfus tells me she’s read my essay-review of Benny Shanon’s Antipodes of the Mind and before you know it I’ve got an eCopy of her dissertation, Oh My God!!!!: Ecstatic ritual as examined through the evocative techniques of gospel choir, which is right up my alley, since music and ecstasy is something that, not only interests me, but that I’ve been through. Are you experienced? sings the hippy heavy blues metal psychedelic rock guitar-god musician.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Our sense of what to do tomorrow is conditioned by what we want to happen after that, and then after that. That is to say, our sense of how to act in the present is strongly determined by our sense of that future. If we have hope for the future, if we can see a world for our grandchildren that’s better than our own, then we read the current situation as the starting point of a journey to that world. If the future looks bleak, then the current situation is taken as an arena in which we must begin constructing defenses against impending doom.
The mood in America is bleak, and has been for some time. The current recession has darkened the bleakness, but it did not create it. Nor did the bleakness descend, all of a sudden, on 9/11. It’s been with us, in one way or another, for some time.
Some years ago I met a man who changed my sense of the possible, and the necessary. He had a dream, this Jerry Greenberg (he now calls himself Zeal), and he called it World Island. He called it a World’s Fair for a World that’s Permanently Fair. Though it could be built anywhere in the world, he planned it for Governors Island, a 172 acre island off the tip of Manhattan in New York Harbor. Governors Island had been a Coast Guard base until it was finally decommissioned and turned over to the joint custody of New York State and New York City.
The State and the City created the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation to come up with a plan for the Island. GIPEC decided to solicit proposals for the private development of the Island. I worked with Zeal and others over a period of several years to craft a proposal, which we entered into a competition. We lost, but then so did everyone else. Just what’s being done with the Island is not exactly clear, though interesting things do happen there.
But Governors Island is a side-issue at this point. What’s important is Zeal’s vision for this World Island. That changed my sense of what is possible in the world, and of what is necessary. I’ve appended to this post a short work of fiction that takes the form of a news story announcing plans to construct World Island on Governors Island, As I said, however, this could happen anywhere in the world. Perhaps, in view of the Arab Spring, it should most fittingly happen in the Middle East.
That is one thing. That will give you a sense of the proposal. As you read it, remember that it is fiction. None of the events described therein have happened, or will happen. Should you want more, I have uploaded the executive summary from our proposal. You can download that here.
At the moment I’ve got more blogging and blogging-related tasks than I know what to do with. They’re all piling up so bad I can’t think. Here’s an accounting, more or less, of what I’m trying to sort out.
I started blogging about this film several years ago with an argument that it was a masterpiece. Then I added posts on individual episodes with no intention of doing the whole thing. But I’m now so close that I should go all the way and then wrap the whole thing in a single downloadable Working Paper PDF at SSRN.
Perhaps my intellectual anchor, certainly my longest focus. I’ve got, at least, a longish post on description as the core discipline in a revised literary studies. Then I can wrap a bunch of posts into a Working Papers for SSRN.
I’ve had a request for more graffiti posts. Of course, I’ve got tons of photos I could post and comment on. I should probably do something on the Underbelly Project now that I’ve got a clearer focus on the graffiti site. I might PDF the posts I’ve done on the graffiti site. And there’s Juliet Fleming’s Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England; not about the contemporary movement, but useful perspective.
Need to finish ‘reading’ Reassembling the Social and PDF the series. What about the ‘Compositionist Manifesto’?
Such Stuff of Dreams
Keith Oatley’s book on the psychology of fiction, mostly empirical work. Very good. Need to review it.
In Praise of Women’s Hands
A post I’ve been planning: Disney’s inker’s and painters, Betty Busby and quilters, Japanese musicians (Hiromi!), Miyazaki’s view in Porco Rosso (“Forgive us for building a fighter plane with the hands of women.”)
Lots of stuff. A piece on trumpet players and their mouthpieces as a complement to Jane Bennett’s recent presentation on hoarding. Something on two books I’ve started reading: Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object, and Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. I should probably PDF a bunch of the posts I’ve done so far. And there’s scads of material I could work on. In particular: What’s the relationship between OOO and the work DGH and I did on the cognitive structure of ontological thought? How does that affect the philosophical game, if at all?
All this is a big puzzle: what to do? What’s worth doing? Don’t know.
Truth and Traditions Party
This is a project I’m working on with Charlie Keil which I blog separately from New Savanna and The Valve. The big deal there is to draft a c. 30K to 40K book that can serve as a political manifesto and campaign platform in 2012. Books I’m reading to this end include three by Walter Mosley (Life Out of Context, What Next, and Workin’ on the Chain Gang) and one by William “Upski” Wimsatt, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs Perhaps a post on the old World Island project.
Odds and Ends
Lots of them coming in, including a book by Les Spence for review.
The Chronicle of Jivometric Johnson and the Lady Irene
Don’t know whether I’ll do this or not. Not only is it a new project – as if I didn’t have enough already in the works – but it’s a new KIND of project, and one that might well fail. It’s fiction.
It would be set in that old jivometrics universe I created back in the mid-90s. The general idea is to riff on the Exodus story. We’ve got a bunch of folks piled up on the banks of the River Jordan who’s great grandparents wanted to get ovah! But now, getting’ ovah’s mostly a dream and a topic of idle chat. Until Jivometric Johnson meets the Lady Irene. And somehow, they make real plans to cross the river, finally.
That old jivometrics universe is a whacked out cross between Jorge Borges and Lord Buckley and so has room for lots of stuff. It may be my best bet for putting all this stuff together. But I don’t know whether I can do it. At all. I did that original piece on inspiration, not craft. But craft's all I got though, who knows, maybe the inspiration will come. As they say, fake it 'till you make it.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
But it’s almost amusing that the human/inanimate divide is such a sacred thing to many contemporary people that they are angered by its metaphorical transgression as well. Indeed, this divide may be the central religious principle of modernism, as Latour decisively and permanently demonstrated in We Have Never Been Modern, a work that refutes so many things that refuse to die.
But, just what are the metaphorical commitments of those who would police the human/inanimate divide, or its proxy, the animate/inanimate divide? One of the largest movements in Western thought over the past half millennium has been the imperative to locate all accounts of observable phenomena on the inanimate side of that divide. The name of this program is reductionism. Everything, ultimately is physics, and physics is about itty bitty and super-itty bitty particles in motion (and waves—whoops!).
The ultimate task of the metaphor police is to ensure that there is nothing essential, nothing vital, on the animate side of that line. One is allowed to talk on the animate side of the line if and only if one can: 1) demonstrate the connections back to the inanimate side of the line, and 2) show that all the real work’s being done on the inanimate side. This is called emergentism and it’s quite popular.
Howdy Doody Metaphysics in the Computer Age
Now, enter the computer. Computers, whether analog (remember those?) or digital, are physical devices, operating by known physical principles (more or less). And they process information, whatever that is—and believe me, just what it is, that’s a tad problematic once you get out of some very narrow conceptual confines. Moreover, you know what, boys and girls? If a computer can process enough information fast enough, it’ll be able to think. Really. Think. And so we’ve now shoved thinking onto the inanimate side of that line.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
Three cheers: hip hip hooray! hip hip hooray! hip hip hooray! Outstanding! Awesome! Way cool!
It gets better boys and girls, it really does.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
And all’s right with the world
Under ‘pressure’ from Jane “Vibrant Materials” Bennett, Levi Bryant speaks for a strategic vitalism. Tim Morton seconds the thought. And Graham Harmon concurs.
Change, my friends, change. It’s a new world emerging on the horizon.
Can machines, like, think?
It goes without saying that we are undergoing a culture-wide upheaval that is changing how we think about and, thus how we experience, the world. One obvious source of conceptual pressure is the rise of the digital computer, which has forced us to consider the possibility of an elaborate electro-mechanical contraption that can, somehow, think. Well, if such a thing can think, what does that do to the once-firm distinction between mind and matter? Kind of knocks the feet out from under it, doesn’t it. Does that imply, as well, that the computer is somehow alive?
With those boundaries in peril—between mind and matter, mechanism and living organism—then, who could have been surprised when Jane Bennett brought up the topic of animism at the recent OOO meetings. Her book, after all, is titled Vibrant Matter. In her talk last Tuesday, “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”, she noted in passing that ontology is written in the grammar of our language; which is to say, it’s written into our basic modes of thought. This is something I’ve blogged about recently:
- Ontology in Perception and Thought
- The Great Chain of Being as Conceptual Structure
- An Ontological Moment in Human Thought
There is this technical paper as well, Ontology in Knowledge Representation.
The world IS the world, independent of our perception and conception. But we cannot know it directly. We know it only through the means currently at our disposal, and those means are, in part, cultural. We can change them, and have done so in the past. We are doing so, once again. And not for the last time.
It’s time to return to animation, the medium which has, in many ways, been one of my core arenas over the past few years, that and graffiti. I’ve working on Fantasia for the last several years, starting with an appreciation of the film as a whole, and then writing pieces on specific segments. I’ve got two more to go, Night on Bald Mountain and the Pastoral Symphony, plus the intermission interlude, including the sound-track. I’ve already discussed the Ave Maria sequence with Mike Barrier.
The Ave Maria segment, the last one in Disney's Fantasia, must be one of the most restrained animation sequences ever produced. There are segments where nothing, or almost nothing, moves for a second or three. And this is not limited animation Hanna-Barbara style or anime style, where motion is minimized to save money, though money was an issue, as always.
There are two sources of movement in films: 1) movement produced by the camera, and 2) movements of objects in front of the camera. This segment runs for almost six minutes, half of which have no moving objects on screen. The IS motion, but it’s produced by the camera, and that is often minimal.
It’s an astonishing conception, especially since it follows Night on Bald Mountain, which is perhaps the most frenetic of the segments. And that, in part is the point. The two were planned to contrast the sacred (Ave Maria) with the secular (Bald Mountain). Disney has mirrored, amplified, and transformed this thematic contrast by an almost whole-scale contrast in formal and technical means.
This is maximal animation, as maximal as there’s ever been. And the visible restraint, in fact, required extreme technical effort, as John Culhane details in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. A special camera rig had to be built to film the last scene in the segment, a long zoom from deep in the forest to a sunrise. The rig spanned a sound-stage that was 45 feet wide. And that last segment had to be shot three times, each time taking several days. The wrong lens had been in the camera during the first shoot. The second shoot was interrupted by an earthquake which may have misaligned the equipment. The only way to tell would have been to develop the film and see how it looked. If it looked bad, it would have been too late to re-shoot it and make the premier date. So they started over again, from the beginning of the segment.
The segment's ONLY foreground movement comes from the procession of religious—whether they’re supposed to be pilgrims, nuns, or priests is not at all clear, nor does it matter—that occurs in the first half of the sequence. They are relatively small on the screen, and that caused a problem. It’s a matter of precision (Culhane, p. 200):
You know, I'm deeply skeptical about all these gloom and doom arguments about how the internet is messing with our minds and dumbing us down. But, these Facebook folks have got me worried.
Because they unilaterally mess with the interface, privacy, settings, and so forth, and we have no control over what they do. One morning you wake up and, WHAM! the interface has changed. They may tell you about the changes, and give you some degree of control over those changes, but basically, you have to live with them if you want to continue using FB.
And just why's this evil?
Because it's your mind they're messing with. FB is a portal in the world, you plug-in and there you go, cruising the web. They tell you they're improving the interface, and perhaps they are, in some ergonomic sense. But they're also messing with your mind.
They're messing with your mind! Who gave them permission to do THAT?
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Most of it, yes. We all know that, but we sideline that knowledge because we’re stuck with this cult of originality. Everyone’s got to do their own thing because to do otherwise would be to be an imitative wanker, right? I mean, being a wanker is bad enough, but an imitative wanker? Puhlease.
And what could be more pathetic than an Elvis impersonator? Right? I mean, you work your hair into a slick pompadour, wear a sequined jump suit, and sing Elvis songs. Lame lame lame.
That’s what I thought too. Until a few years ago when I went to a special visitors’ day at my mother’s nursing home. We gathered at tables out doors and had lunch. When we were through, an Elvis impersonator came out—pompadour, jump suit, and karaoke unit—and entertained us. Before my eyes had rolled too far back in my head, the pleasure of his performance had me hooked.
I mean, I don't know how close he got to Elvis as I don't know Elvis's music that well. The performance was good in the sense that the audience loved it, and the music was good. Not original, but, yes. good, very good. He sang a variety of songs, sang them well, and flirted with the old ladies, and I DO mean old. They loved him and he clearly enjoyed singing to them. Not in front of them, or at them, but to them.
What more could you want from a performance?
What more could you want from a performance?
And that’s a shame, because I was working up such a wonderful head of intellectual steam while, first, showering, and then lounging in the tub.
I’d seen the word several times during last week’s OOOevents and wondered “What the freak? What’s this ‘affectivity’ affectation? I know feelings, emotions, affection, even affect. But ‘affectivity’? Gimme a break, Sheesh. Sounds like a word coined by intellectuals who want to talk about emotions held at the end of a long stick, with clothespins over their noses to close off the, well, you know, the affectivity.”
That’s for openers. Then I was going to divert into a rant on “hybridity” as a comparable case. You know:
Whoever coined that word should be shot. For one thing, they’ve got a tin ear for the English language. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. For another, who needs it? I understand that human cultures—the province of the word—are hybrids. But do we really need this word to talk about it? Sounds like something coined by a self-important theorist type who wants to pretend that he invented the notion. As I said, they should be shot. Or, barring that, they should be forbidden to publish in English ever again. We don’t need crap words littering the language.
Now, “affectivity” isn’t as bad, musically, as “hybridity”. It just seems to me unnecessary. And so forth and so on . . . and then I'd return to the main rant.
Monday, September 19, 2011
One of the things that Latour does in Reassembling the Social is show that ‘the local’ is deeply ambiguous. This is nowhere more obvious that in photography, where, automatically, at least three loci are conjured into being by every photograph: 1) the locus of viewing, 2) the locus of taking-the-photo, and 3) the locus/loci IN the photo.
Consider this photograph:
When I took that photo I was standing at a certain place; at that time the locus of viewing (1) and the locus of taking (2) are/were the same. Now, of course, the locus of viewing has become many, each at the place where a viewer looks at the photo. The locus of the-taking, of course, remains unchanged.
But what about the loci IN the photo itself? The lamps were, say, 10 to 20 yards from me. The tall building to the left is the Goldman Sachs Building in Jersey City. It’s, say, between a half-mile and a mile from where I stood when I took the photo. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building (in the middle) would be, say, five or six miles away on the island of Manhattan. The clouds in the sky, how far away are they? And the sun, it is nowhere visible in this photo, but its existence is implied by the fact that the photo exists. For it supplied the light, the photos, which are the physical basis of the photo. It’s 93 million miles away.
Just where IS this photo? What is the locus?
In asking that question I don’t mean to be mysterious, or philosophically deep, or problematic. None of those things. The loci in question can be traced, at least in principle, in a fairly direct fashion. What’s important, at this juncture in our thinking about the world, is that the apprehension of the Latour Locus, if I may, be immediate and intuitive. One should not have to pull out the threads laboriously one after the other. Rather, one should intuit them immediately and be prepared to spin them out as necessary.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
The word “speculation” came up a few times in last week’s OOOevents, generally cloaked in ambivalence. I don’t know the word’s valence in “Speculative Realism”, so I don’t know just what these folks were being ambivalent about. I DO know that I am unabashedly in favor of speculation.
When you find yourself in the middle of the desert, but your map’s run out, what’re you going to do? Go back? Well, you can do that, but wherever you left from won’t be any better when you get back. And for YOU it will likely be worse. Or, you could dig a whole, crawl into it, and die. Once you've given those those two a whirl, it seems to me you have only one other possibility: Forward ho! Without a map, without landmarks, without assurance that there’s any there there.
[You could, if you’re clever, manage the Indian rope trick and vanish up into the air. That’ll only last a second or three, though it’ll feel like forever while you’re up up and away in your metaphysical balloon.]
Anyhow, the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil is called “Speculative Engineering”. The engineering is as important as the speculation. Engineers design and construct; they make something out of nothing. Our scientific culture has tended to backseat engineering—too pedestrian, too dirty, too much contact with raw stuff—but computer science has put the lie to that. For computer science is as much, and often more, a matter of engineering than of science.
Here’s how I introduce speculation (p. xii):
While we have indeed learned a great deal, the story I tell is, in fact, as incomplete as it is ambitious. I have used empirical evidence wherever I could, but we don’t have enough evidence to cover the ground. There are gaping holes which I can only fill in with speculation.
It is for that reason that Beethoven’s Anvil looks to the future, not to the past. It is a plan for intellectual journeys we have yet to take, not an account of voyages past.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
OOOIII: The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium is now slipping into the past and I’m still wondering about my interest in object-oriented ontology. There were moments during Wednesday’s ‘wrap-up’ panel when I thought to myself I need wonder no more. But, no, I’m still wondering. Note, however, that wondering is not doubting. I have no doubts. But I do wonder.
It’s clear that, like Jane Bennett (The Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter), McKenzie Wark (P(OO): Praxis (object-oriented)), and Shannon Mattern (Everything is Infrastructure), I’m more interested in working with, describing, and understanding specific objects and assemblages than I am in theorizing about objecthood. I AM glad that theorizing is taking place, but I’m not quite sure why.
In particular, what is the relationship between that theorizing and the practical business of describing and working with objects (praxis). What is the relationship between the theorizing and the praxis? What can we say about it?
Perhaps we can approach that issue by through the question:
How do I know whether or not I’ve got a proper object by the tail?
While this is a question about knowledge, it is not an epistemological question. It is, rather, one of methodology. Once we’ve got an object, then, and only then, can we worry about knowing that object—keeping in mind, of course, that it ever withdraws as we ever know.
To this end, I offer three objects that interest me a great deal: the world-wide graffiti wall, the music-making group, and the literary text.
The World-Wide Graffiti Wall (WWGW)
As always, by graffiti I mean the specific tradition that started in NewYorkandPhilly in the late 60s and early 70s. This graffiti goes on walls, mostly by not entirely out doors, often in acts of vandalism. By the world-wide graffiti wall I mean all the graffiti in this tradition considered as a single ever-changing object. Given its large spatial extent—six continents, and, who knows, maybe there’s some on Antarctica too—this WWGW is surely one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects.
One of the things that interests me about the WWGW is its geometry, the spatial distribution of its discontinuous parts. Those aren’t connected together in one place, nor are they uniformly distributed. They aren’t, for example, evenly spaced on a rectangular grid.
For one thing, they are on land, not in the ocean, though surely graffiti exists on many islands, e.g. the Japanese islands. Graffiti tends to be in urban areas, which are not evenly distributed. Nor is it evenly distributed within urban areas. Given an area with a fair complement of graffiti, it will not be evenly distributed in that area. We must also consider the graffiti that’s placed on freight cars (known as ‘freights’ or ‘fr8s’) and on trucks. That graffiti moves from place to place.
Which means that the WWGW is fluid on at least two time scales. On a scale of weeks to years we can trace the creation, degradation and destruction of graffiti on the walls. On a scale of minutes to days we can trace the movement of graffiti on trucks and freights.
Consider the map below, which indicates the graffiti zones in the Jersey City neighborhood where I’ve taken most of my graffiti photos:
The red pushpin is the entrance for the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan; the green pushpin is the building where I lived for a decade; and the blue pushpin is Dickinson High School, which overlooks the Hudson River. The graffiti zones are outlined in yellow. While there are tags all through the area, those zones are where you find the elaborately worked ‘pieces.’ The pieces are not uniformly distributed within those zones. In particular, zone HC is thinly populated, but it didn’t make sense to be more exact in a map of this scale. Area JC is the Newport Wall that was mentioned Gastman and Neelon’s recent The History of Graffiti in America. Finally, I note that one wall in area BR has become obscured by a tree that fell on it when Tropical Storm Irene passed through.
Now, let us imagine that we’ve mapped all the graffiti in the world as of some arbitrary date, and that we’ve mapped it down to, say, the square meter. What’s the shape of this distributed object? In particular, is it a fractal?
Further, let’s play six-degrees-of-separation with graffiti writers. Two writers can be considered linked if they’ve painted the same wall. It doesn’t matter whether or not they did it at the same time, or whether or not they’ve ever had face-to-face contact. Let us, however, add the provision that their work must have been simultaneously visible for, say, at least a week. Now, how many links between any two writers?
As you think about that question, consider the fact that only a few miles from the above area in Jersey City is a building in Long Island City, 5 Points, that has attracted graffiti writers from all over the world. The building is managed by a man who writes as Meres. Meres has gotten up on one of the walls in zone N in that map. Because of his position at 5 Points, where he has, of course, gotten up, Meres is closely links to writers the world over.
Finally, politics. Almost all of the graffiti on those sites is vandalism, thus implicating the institutional structure of society. Further, sites BA-BC, BR, CT, and YD are all posted no-trespassing zones, which means that I was breaking the law when it walked those zones taking photographs.
I would hazard to guess the electoral politics of graffiti writers. I suspect it’s mostly unformed. But I also suspect that much of it would be in sympathy with this piece from zone YD:
To those at OOOIII who worry about alterting the world to global climate change, I say: get graffiti writers to put it up on the WWGW.
But, is the WWGW a proper object? If so, why? If not, why not?
I'm thinking of tapestries like, for example, the Unicorn tapestries. These large complex objects are not one-person jobs. If I had to guess, I'd guess that they were designed by men, but the actual weaving was done by women. That guess is based on general gender-role stereotypes, but also on the fact that that was the division of labor in the Disney studios of the 'classical' era: the images were designed and animated by men, but the inking and painting of the cells was done by women.
So, I'd conjecture that the division of labor in a medieval tapestry studio was the same. FWIW, the drawing used to transfer the artist's designe to the tapestry loom is called a cartoon.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Two things you should know about our father. He loved golf, a game played, as you must surely know, in a garden. One winter, for example, he painted some old golf balls with red shoe polish and then went out on the course to practice in the snow. Was his golf jones so bad he needed a fix in mid-winter? Or was he secretly amused at the thought of a middle-aged man trudging about in the snow hitting red balls with some very expensive sticks?
He also kept meticulous practice notes and designed and constructed his own putter.
* * *
He had a sense of humor. We called it his “Danish sense of humor.” Whether or not it was peculiarly Danish is beside the point. His parents were from Denmark, of which he was proud. Victor Borge was Danish, played the piano well, had a sense of humor. From this it follows that Dad’s humor was Danish.
A favorite riddle: A duck family was swimming in a pond, Mother, Father, and the Baby. Perhaps there was a fourth; I forget; but it doesn’t matter. Anyhow, they swam about: circles, S-curves, spiracles, ogives, pterodactyls, parabolas, equilateral triangles, eternal ones too, helices, and hemi-demi-semiquavers, all the standard figures of Olympic pond swimming. As they were heading back to shore, feeling all flushed and satisfied, the baby duck remarked: “Aren’t we five ducks having fun?”
Why'd the baby ask that?
* * * * *
by Sally Benzon
(1912 – 1998)
Clinging to light
By weeping tears
Charged with this silence
Only sorrow can receive:
Whispered heights of trees
Sway the breathless memory
Out of nowhere,
From the airs of body
You walk at once alone,
And beside us: Not that we are
Asked by a flock of birds
Who insist on behalf
Of one shy authority,
“Part our days together
To a different branch. Larry, Sally,
Sing to laugh around the world
With me!” Tiding this canopy,
You are the man whose voice outlives
Into our inhabited green
Hundreds of leaves, golf balls, too
And leaves growing! . . .
Round of arms’ reach
The echo of echoed wings
Reveals the merry chance
Now a sunbeaming glow:
Chimes to sound
The melody of you.
Went to hear Jane Bennet last night as part of OOOfestIII. She spoke on “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”—what do hoarders have to teach us about things and stuff? But she also talked, perhaps inevitably, about talking OOOtalk.
I know the feeling.
You can try to construct your statement using socially approved locutions. In fact, you must! try to do so. That’s where you start.
And it fails. Inevitably. You keep piling on the sentences, the structure gets ever more baroque. It topples and, like the Tower of Babel, does so without ever having achieved its object.
So you start over with crazy talk. You know, Julie Andrews (cue the orchestra): “The hills are alive, with talking objects . . . “ Things are alive, they’ve got spirits, they call to us. But no, it’s not like that. We’re not talking about emanations from another world, little ghostly whisperers.. But they are alive. In some way. Metaphor perhaps, but not mere metaphor. Metaphor as reach, grasp, and march into the swamps of a new land.
To boldly go where no man has gone before to infinity and beyond.
It’s one thing to coin a term of art or two. But to wrestle with a whole new way of speaking?
The game’s afoot.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. Concerning the chapter “Third Move: Connecting Sites,” pp. 219-246.
I want to deal with the material in Latour’s penultimate chapter, “Third Move: Connecting Sites,” by considering how one might think about literature in ANT terms. These ANTs will not, of course, guide us to deep descriptive knowledge of the texts, the sort of knowledge I’ve advocated in my notes on Heart of Darkness, to name one example. That’s not what the ANTs are about. The ANTs are about how people interact with one another and with a multitude of environments and objects, texts among them.
Texts and Standards
Latour is interested in “what circulates from site to site” (p. 222). Texts certainly do that. He starts by thinking about forms: “To provide a piece of information is the action of putting something into a form” (p. 223). A few pages later he’s talking about standards and metrology, the study of measurement. His first example is that of the kilogram. So generalize from that, for the contemporary world is woven through with standards of all kinds (p. 228): “Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people: Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement?”
One can certainly read large swaths of the recent history of literary studies as a gloss on that question. Does the text have a single ‘true’ meaning? If so, how do we determine it and so compel universal agreement? If not . . . what then? These matters became acute in the 1960s through the casual, and near universal, observation that critics do not, in fact, agree on the meanings of texts.
Logically prior to the problem of interpretation is that of the canon: Just which texts are we supposed to be in agreement about? As a matter of recent history, of course, the problem of textual meaning came to a head before that of the canon.
The canon, it seems to me, is just that body of texts around and through which a population of individuals constitutes itself as a group. Canon wars are thus wars between groups or, perhaps more accurately in Latour’s terminology, wars among collectives attempting to constitute themselves as the hegemonic social group. What we need to think about is how texts can serve such a purpose.
Text as Intermediary
Earlier in the book Latour distinguishes between intermediaries and mediators (p. 39):
An intermediary, in my vocabulary, is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. . . . Mediators, on the other hand . . . transform, translate, distort, and modify meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry.
As a first approximation I take it that the texts themselves are intermediaries while our various explications of the text, from the most casual (as in office chatter about the book you read the night before, or the movie you saw) to the most formal presentation in a professional journal, are mediators.
That’s my strong position. My weak position is that it’s the form of the text that is an intermediary; the ‘content’ may well have the flavor of being a mediator. In Literary Morphology I have argued that texts have a computational form that must necessarily be the same for all readers, a proposition which psychologist Keith Oatley accepts (Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, p. 71).
In making such an argument what concerns me is how texts work in the mind and brain, which cannot be determined through interpreting those texts (cf. Bordwell, Making Meaning). Just how that—working in mind and brain—to be determined, well that’s the question, isn’t it? We don’t know as yet.
For the minds and hands of women that made Disney's Nutcracker Suite so gorgeous.
I didn't know what I was doing when I took these photos. Well, I did and I didn't. When you're shooting in the direction of the sun, or directly into it, the camera fills with energetic photons and cranks the sensor up to eleven. It gets flooded. You may get a usable shot, you may not. A lot depends on 'luck', and a lot depends on how you're willing to work with the shot.
As for those wonderful flying ducks, that's a different kind of gift. They were close enough that, in order to track them, I had to swivel my body. In that situation thoughts of framing the shot go out the window. You just have to hope the camera will capture focus in time for you to get any shot at all.
In the case of this particular shot I didn't even remember I'd taken it. I must have worked so quickly that my mind didn't have time to register the taking. Consequently, when I started trolling though them morning's shoot, it was a complete surprise. And a wonderful one.
The world is gifted.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
I'm now reading about color vision in Mark Changizi's The Vision Revolution. It's slow going, but NOT because it's difficult or poorly written. On the contrary, it's very well written and the material is pretty straightforward.
But it's NEW to me. Though I'm not an expert in color perception, I have read a good deal about it over the years and have thought about it quite a lot. I've even written several blog posts about it.
It's the joint product of my knowledge and my level of interest that makes the sledding rough. As I've said, what Changizi says is quite different from the literature I've read. All that other stuff’s in Cincinnati, as it were. Changizi’s writing from Timbuktu. That's one thing.
The other thing is that I really want to understand what he's saying, because I regard him as easily one of the best psychologists of his generation. Well, perhaps that's not right, as I'm really not in any position to judge psychologists of his generation. But I've read lots of thinkers in various disciplines, and he's one of the most compelling.
Because I find him compelling, I want to really understand what he's saying. That means I've got to hook it up with everything I've known and thought about color. I can't treat his ideas as self-sufficient capsules. It takes time to make all the hook-ups. I certainly can't make them in real time while reading him. I'm going to have to sleep on it, etc.
It’s like reading Latour. I have to take it slow.
So, one idea is that color vision isn't about picking out colorful fruit against a green background, an old idea that's one of the things I thought I knew. Tossing that overboard is easy. Zhrrt! It's done. And it’s easy to slip Changizi’s idea into place, provisionally.
His idea? That we have color vision so we can sense other people’s moods as indicated by blood flow in the skin. Zhrrt! It’s been installed. Provisionally.
On Monday 12 September 2011 Network Awesome will feature Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.
Network Awesome? Never heard of it.
You’ve never heard of Network Awesome!#? What rock have you been sleeping under?
No rock, sheesh! Don’t get cranky on me. It’s a big world, you know, awesome. I’m busy, already flying on information overload. So chill out.
Well, to be honest, I didn’t know about Network Awesome ‘till about a month ago, when Michael Sporn hipped me to it. Well, not just me, but anyone who read his blog. Newtwork Awesome had programmed some classic Japanese animation, which interested him because he’s an animator—and, incidentally, runs one of the best animation blogs in Greater Blogistan. And it interests me because I’m interested in Japanese animation.
So I virtually hauled my virtual ass over there and took a look. Yep, there they were, old Japanese cartoons. Even better, interesting commentary, such as this piece by Cory Gross about Mitsuyeo Seo’s Divine Sea Warriors, which was Japan’s first feature-length animated film, and also war propaganda.
That’s the formula, interesting material intelligently curated coupled with compelling commentary. Where else can you find that?
See, I told you.
Network Awesome was founded in January of 2011 by Jason Forrest, an electronic musician and entrepreneur, who wants to make the best of an almost forgotten past available to us now and for the future. That is to say, he wants to keep culture alive, a mission that is particularly important as we face the daunting task of creating a new ways of living on this planet, not to mention an outpost on Mars one of these days.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Events are closing in on me, that is, I seem to have overcommitted my time, and, in consequence, my blogging schedule is likely to suffer over the next week or two. Thus, rather than another bit of commentary on Latour, I offer this video (h/t Tim Morton), May Nature Be Recomposed? A Few Questions of Cosmopolitics:
This lecture has been published: An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History, Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2010. If you can’t get behind the pay wall, you can download a prepublication draft here (PDF). Levi Bryant comments at Larval Subjects.
* * * * *
I plant two more posts in my Latour series. One of them, most likely the next one, will be about Latour’s view of the political, which he articulates in the last chapter of Reassembling the Social. The key notion, as I now see it (subject to reconsideration), is that political change is possible only in those ‘zones’ that are still fluid. The sociology of the social, as he’s been calling it, cannot, by it’s very methodology (and it’s success) map these zones. It is a sociology of a world that has settled into more or less stable institutional form. Only ANT sociology has the tools to identify, via description, zones of change.
My other post will sketch out the consequences of ANT for literary criticism. What tools does it afford us? A key passage (p, 236):
Apart from religion, no other domain has been more bulldozed to death by critical sociology than the sociology of art. Every sculpture, painting, haute cuisine dish, techno rave, and novel has been explained to nothingness by the social factors ‘hidden behind’ them. Through some inversion of Plato’s allegory of the cave, all the objects people have learned to cherish have been replaced by puppets projecting social shadows which are supposed to be the only ‘true reality’ that is ‘behind’ the appreciation of the work of art.