Monday, May 30, 2011

Deco Metropolis


Implicit Analysis in Two Texts, a Cartoon and a Romance

It’s been a commonplace for two or three decades that narrative is a mode of thought. It is my impression — though I could be wrong — that this literature takes narrative at face value. Narrative situates things and events in relation to one another in time and space and that’s what narrative thinking is about.

I think narrative is used in a more subtle way. That more subtle mode of thought is the object of this post. Just how this more subtle thinking works, the fundamental mechanisms, that is not at all obvious. That something interesting is going on, though, that is relatively easy to spot.

I want to begin by presenting a more or less contemporary example, the Walter Lantz cartoon The Greatest Man in Siam. After that I’ll offer a suggestion or two about what might be going on. Then it’s on to a second example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I conclude by suggesting that we’re dealing with a computational form that realizes the poetic function as defined by Roman Jakobson.

Why the Greatest?

In The Greatest Man in Siam a king holds a contest to choose a mate for his daughter. Four men appear for the contest. The first three are dismissed and the last one wins. It’s in these four contests that this mode of thought, which I’ll call implicit analysis, takes place.

The first man presents himself as the smartest man in Siam, the second as the richest, the third as the fastest, and the fourth as the hottest – “hot” in the sense of hot jazz and what that implies. We’re given no particular reason why the last man wins. The king doesn’t say something like, “I declare thee the winner because X.” The first three are each dismissed for reasons related to their proclaimed strengths; the fourth is not. He makes his pitch, does his dance, and gets the girl, all without explanation.

Why’d the fourth man win? Because he was a trumpeter? Well, what’s so special about trumpeters? We can go at it the other way: What did the other three have in common that disqualified them? How were they like one another, but different from the trumpet player? If they’d all been clarinet players, then we might conclude that the folks who made the cartoon like trumpeters, but not clarinetists. But they weren’t clarinetists, nor drummers, nor masons, nor bakers, nor merchants. Each was something different, but all were losers.

Make Way for the Next Ones




Placeholder: Flowers, Photos, Art

I keep thinking I need to take another whack at “What is art?” in the context of my photos. Most recently, the iris photos. But, as I think about it, the essay grows and grows in my mind until it oversteps the bounds of a blog post. So, instead, I offer this place holder.

The burden, the theme, is, of course, what’s the difference between art photos and the rest, which might be calendar shots or national geographic shots (considered as a generic type of photo) or greeting card shots or family album shots or just photos? What’s the difference, the distinction, the activator? The affordances?

Of course, it took awhile for photos to be accepted as art. Even longer for color photos. That’s a side issue, I think. Maybe not.

In the background there is Duchamp’s urinal. It’s not the object, it’s the setting, the mindset. But would the joke slash provocation have worked with a man’s suit or a flower pot or a sewing machine? Then came Warhol, with the Brillo boxes, soup cans, electric chair, Marilyns, and, yes, flowers. More provocation, less joke, less provocative, however, as the career wore on.

Still: all the photos.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Where’s the Kleenex Go?

By “kleenex” I mean “generic facial tissue,” though often enough I use Kleenex brand. As for where it goes, just where, in my apartment, does it go?

The issue is a simple one: When I need a facial tissue, I want to be able to get one quickly and easily by reaching for one in one of the standard places. Having just moved, I need to establish those standard places for standard things – wallet, keys, pen knife, facial tissue. The new standard places will, of course, be comparable to the standard places from my previous apartment, but perhaps not exactly the same, as the new apartment has a different layout. Still, now that my computer desk is set-up, I’ve got a box of tissue – not, in this case, Kleenex brand – on a small swing-out shelf on the desk, just like I had before. And there’s another box on the small stand beside my bed, as it was in the apartment before the previous one. And a box in the bathroom, though not on the toilet tank. This box is on the window ledge above the bathtub.

And so it goes, finding places for the standard objects. After a week-and-a-half the furniture layout is more or less worked out. But only more or less. I had to junk an armoire that got damaged in moving, for example. Probably won’t buy another. But I’m not sure what I’ll do with the things that would have gone in it. Perhaps some simple storage bins.

The things that go in drawers, and on shelves, that’s a mess. I’ve got lots of books and lots of CDs. I just took them from boxes and put them where convenient. They’ll need to be put in order. I suppose I’ll do that gradually, as I use them. ‘Cause I’ve got to find them to use them. Having found them, I’ll want to put them somewhere so I can find them again, without a full search. The same with pens and pencils and paperclips and paper. I know where those things are, sorta’, but the exact order needs to evolve. That’ll take time.

That’s just inside the apartment.

Around the Corner


What Does It Mean for a Brain to Represent Itself?

What might it mean for a brain to construct an account of itself? That’s not at all obvious. Let’s start with a simple, if somewhat odd case, and then get lost.

Damasio’s Brain Sketchs Itself

Antonio Damasio is interested in how brains work. Since his own brain falls within that class of objects, the representations he constructs of the typical brain would thereby apply to his brain. But we should not imagine Damasio in a surgical suite under local anesthesia, brain exposed, looking at an image of that brain in a mirror and making a sketch of it in the way some artist might construct a painting of Isaac Newton.

Were such a thing to happen—and for all I know it may have—it would certainly be the case that:
  1. the image of Damasio’s brain in the mirror would be physically distinct from the brain itself, that
  2. Damasio’s sketch would be physically distinct from both the mirror image and the brain itself, and that
  3. the neural representation (in Damasio’s brain) of the image in the mirror and of the sketch would be physically distinct from the mirror image itself, the sketch itself, and the brain itself and this despite the fact that it exists within that very brain.
In any event, the neural representation of brain function which Damasio created over the years would itself be physically distinct from any of the representations in 1, 2 or 3 above.

Thursday, May 26, 2011



Plato’s Brain Contemplating Itself in the Guise of the Ideal Forms

Consider Plato, his brain, and his philosophy.

In his philosophy Plato wondered how some thing, such as a bed, could exist when it presented so many different appearances, appearing large and small or variously tilted, and so forth. Thus in the Theatetus (152d) Plato has Socrates teaching a secret doctrine of Protagoras:
It declares that nothing is one thing just by itself, no can you rightly call it by some definite name, nor even say it is of any definite sort. On the contrary, if you call it ‘large,’ it will be found to be also small, if ‘heavy,’ to be also light, and so an all through, because nothing is one thing or some thing or of any definite sort. All the things we are pleased to say ‘are,’ are really in process of becoming, as a result of movement and change and of blending one with another.
Plato inferred that there must be something behind those appearances holding them together. That something was the Ideal Form of bedness, which existed in realm of Ideals.

This problem is one quite familiar to researchers in the cognitive sciences, only we do not think of it as having anything to do with the nature of beds. Rather, we think of it as having to do with the nature of perception: How can the nervous system identify objects given the multiplicity of appearances they present to the eye? Many proposals have been made in answer to this question, some rather general, others quite specific. But none of them has recourse to Plato’s Ideals. Rather, they tend to propose something which might be called a canonical form along with a set of transformations which map perceptual appearances to the canonical form. This canonical form corresponds to Plato’s Ideal Form, but has its existence in some physical mechanism for processing information.

Fame's Golden Handcuffs

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Irises Wild

When I first started photographing irises, I didn't take shots like this:


or this:


and certainly not this:


Rather, I started with conventional 'portrait' shots, like this:


That's only natural. You shoot what you (can) see, and I'd seen hundreds of shots like that, or like this:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Object-Oriented-Ontology?

In asking that question I am not asking “Why would anyone want to investigate such a thing?” The answer to that is pretty standard: “Because it’s interesting.” No, the question I’m asking, and have been asking (myself) these past two or three months is: “Given that I abandoned the Continental philosophical tradition over three decades ago, and have no plans to return to it, why do I have even a peripheral interest in this recent manifestation of it?”

I now have the barest scent of an answer to that question: Because it’s the start of something new. I could, of course, be wrong in that, but it smells like something new’s afoot. And that’s exciting.

My reasoning on that point is odd. On the one hand, Tim Morton, my chief informant, tells me it’s new. Well, not me, directly and specifically. But that’s his stance and attitude. And I take it at face value. That’s not odd at all. We take things at face value all the time.

Here’s the odd part: Most of the lit crit work in the newer psychologies is not new at all, or, I should say, not new in any deep and interesting way. How, you might ask, do we get from OOO to newer psychologies in lit crit? Well, I told you my reasoning was odd, didn’t I?

Let’s set that aside for a moment. I have some more direct observations to offer.

All Creatures

For something over two millennia Western thought has been organized by this or that conception of a Great Chain of Being in which the things in the world are arrayed from lowliest forms of inanimate matter to the most august forms of life, material and spiritual. Just what these lowest and highest forms are, that has varied from era to era. In times past, for example, the highest forms of being were higher than us; but that ended for a large class of folks sometime during the modern era. And that same modern era has seen the ambivalent assimilation of humankind to animalkind.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nature Culture Tweedledum Tweedledee

I reviewed Brian Boyd's The Origin of Stories roughly two years ago in The Valve. I reproduce that review below. Boyd's book is perhaps the best single example of the application of the newer psychologies to the study of literature. By "newer psychologies" I mean the cognitive sciences, neuropsychology, and evolutionary psychology. Boyd leans heavily toward evolutionary psychology, but deals with the others as well, especially cognitive development. The book also illustrates the main weakness of these various approaches to date: old wine, new bottles. The practical criticism that has come from these psychologies is, for the most part, of a piece with work that could have been done half a century ago. All that's changed is the terminology. One reason for this is that none of these thinkers have come to terms with the driving force behind these psychologies: computation. But that's another discussion, though you can see glimgses of it here, where I annote four books on cognitivism.

I’ve been going round and round with Brian Boyd’s new book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard 2009). My copy is festooned with small yellow post-it notes (for whatever reason I decided not to write in the page margins); I’ve written several long emails to my manga-anime buddy, Tim Perper (who was trained as a biologist); and have so far dumped 5000+ plus words about the book into a Word file. I’m doing this because Boyd is playing in an important game, one that interests me a great deal: Reconstructing Literary Studies.

As that subject is of interest here at The Valve, I decided that I just had to blog about this book. But how? I believe the book is important. That suggests a positive review. But I also believe that Boyd’s arguments have deep flaws. That suggests a negative review. I have undertaken to write both.

Good Stuff

Let’s start on the positive tip. Boyd devotes his last major discussion to Horton Hears a Who!, giving it 59 pages out of 414 pages of body text. That’s 14% of a book that’s intended to revolutionize literary studies by reconciling it with the Darwin-touched sciences, from biology itself through psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, economics, and who knows what else.

14 percent!

Why is this a big deal? Because literary studies was conceived as the study of High Culture and remains fundamentally High Culture despite the recent inroads of cultural studies. Dr. Seuss is decidedly pop cultural; he wrote for children – yes, adults dig his work (especially, it seems, adults learning English as a second language); and he used pictures, lots of them. And he does this without apology or excuse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Boyd’s discussion considers Theodor Geisel’s (i.e. Dr. Seuss) career in advertising, his love of drawing, his extensive reworking of materials, the visual rhetoric in a particular two-page spread (the “confrontation scene”), and the grain-of-sand irritant that sparked the story, a post-war trip to Japan that got Geisel thinking about democracy. Boyd moves though these materials using a problems-and-solutions method (from film-critic David Bordwell) that seeks explanations in universal terms (human nature and basic social life), local factors (cultural and social), the individual artist, and the particular work. He concludes by arguing that Horton Hears a Who!, and other fictions too, has many meanings.

Copyright Reform

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Living with Living Creatures: Will We Become the Apocalypse?

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul.

S. T. Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp”
Chet Wickwire was one of the most remarkable men I’ve known. He was Chaplain of The Johns Hopkins University in the third quarter of the last century. It’s in that capacity that I came to know him. He was central to both the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 1960s and 1970s; he established a tutorial program that worked with inner city children, and he organized a wide variety of programs that benefited Johns Hopkins students and the local community. I worked for him as a program assistant for two or three years in the early 1970s.

One day during a meeting in his office – it may have been the weekly staff meeting – someone pointed out a possibly injured bee on the floor. My impulse – this is what I thought – was simply to kill it and throw the body into the trash. Chet’s was different. He gently picked the bee up and set it on the window sill. It then flew away.

That simple act of kindness, to a mere insect, impressed me deeply. Every time I think to kill an insect, I think of Chet and the bee. Sometimes I refrain and do what little I can to help the insect along, though often enough I kill the insect. But not without a twinge of guilt and angst, which is distinct from any disgust over contact with squishy insect guts.

But why was Chet unwilling to kill the bee? It is, after all, only an animal, and a rather lowly one at that? The only reasonable answer to that question is that he respected the bee as a living being. And if you ask: Why that? Well, is that not a reasonable why for an adult human being to act?

Just how are we to conduct our relations with other living beings? What degree of respect do we accord to their life? The answers to those questions, of course, vary from one culture to another. One concern here – it’s lurking in the background – is that the answer of the industrialized West, the agribusiness factory farming West is: None. None at all. No respect for other life forms. Is that answer anything less than a suicide pact?

Let me retell a story about my cousin Sue. She was born in the city and raised in the suburbs. But in her mid-30s or so she moved to the country and married a veterinarian. She began to raise sheep, not as pets, but as a source of wool to be spun into thread which she would then weave into cloth. When the sheep reached a certain age, she would take them to the butcher and, a day later, she and her husband would stock their freezer with mutton.

Despite the fact that these sheep are not pets, taking them to be butchered was not easy. Nor was their first meal comprised of mutton from sheep they'd raised. I'm told that when Sue and her husband sat down to that meal they were rather glum and sat there in silence, eating nothing. Then Sue said “baaa” in imitation of a sheep, they laughed, and began eating.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Let it be

control vs. letting go

Art on the Bathroom Wall

I just hung the first piece of art in my new apartment. In the bathroom. Not the living room – well, I guess it’s the living room slash dining room slash kitchen – not the office (aka second bedroom), and not the bedroom. The bathroom.

For one thing, the arrangement of the room was pretty much set, with the major items being built-in – bath & shower, toilet, and sink. Not much for me to do here. And the walls were empty. The other rooms are still piled with boxes and furniture, so I wasn’t and still am not sure just what art will go where.

It’s not that I planned it this way. I didn’t have any particular plan for where the art would go – I’ve got quite a bit, most of it my own. I certainly didn’t plan to put any art on the bathroom wall.

It just happened. Yet I’d like to think there’s a certain justice about how things have worked it. Perhaps a bit of art.

In some obvious ways this is the nicest apartment I’ve had, ever. I’ve lived most of my adult life as an independent scholar. Independent means I can study what I wanted to study, when I wanted to study it. And publish on the same schedule. That’s very important. Independent also means that I don’t hold an academic post and hence no steady income – though most academic posts are none too steady these days. That’s important too, though not at all desireable nor desired. It’s just a fact of my life.

So, when I say it’s my nicest apartment, don’t get grand visions of luxury living or even semi-luxury living. This is a small two-bedroom apartment, in a newly renovated building, with new appliances of decent quality in a poor part of Jersey City across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. I’m not on the waterfront nor even in view of it, but I can walk to Liberty State Park, and that Park looks out on the backside of the Statue of Liberty.

Not too bad for perpetual student living.

So, the bathroom. On the whole it’s the nicest bathroom I’ve had, though the tub was deeper and a bit longer at 2nd Street in Troy, NY. The fixtures are all new. There’s nice false-stone tile on the floor, up the walls, and around the bath. There’s a single window just above the bathtub, which is very convenient. Not only do I get a little natural light in the bath, but the window sill can serve as a shelf on which to place my shampoo and conditioner.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

John Cage on Irises

George Mantor had an iris garden, which he improved each year by throwing out the commoner varieties. One day his attention was called to another very fine iris garden. Jealously he made some inquiries. The garden, it turned out, belonged to the man who collected his garbage.
John Cage, Silence, Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p. 263.



Monday, May 16, 2011

Life with Animals: Eating an Animal You’d Raised

This post is a place-holder for a longer discussion of our life with other living things. I’d already mentioned feeling sad when I’d accidentally killed a flower. This is a story about my cousin Sue, and how she reacted to eating a sheep she’d raised.
Sue was born in the city and raised in the suburbs. But in her mid-30s or so she moved to the country and married a veterinarian. She began to raise sheep, not as pets, but as a source of wool to be spun into thread which she would then weave into cloth. When the sheep reached a certain age, she would take them to the butcher and, a day later, she and her husband would stock their freezer with mutton.

Despite the fact that these sheep are not pets, taking them to be butchered was not easy. Nor was their first meal comprised of mutton from sheep they'd raised. I'm told that when Sue and Larry sat down to that meal they were rather glum and sat there in silence, eating nothing. Then Sue said "baaa" in imitation of a sheep, they laughed, and began eating.

It seems to me that that complex of attitudes and behavior is what taboo is about. In making a sheep's call my cousin was both acknowledging an identity with the animal she'd raised and signaling their difference. Once that had been done it became possible to eat the meat.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


New Savanna will be on a break for a few days while I'm moving from Hoboken back to Jersey City. See you than and there.



Saturday, May 14, 2011

Flowers / Irises


Flowers are much on my mind these days. Particularly irises.

I’ve been photographing flowers since late May of last year; irises in particular since May 1st of this.

In the past month or so Georgia O’Keefe and Robert Maplethorpe have been on mind. Obviously so. O’Keefe is known for painting large pictures of flowers seen close-up. And Maplethorpe too is known for his images of flowers, these photographic. In both cases, the images are said to be sexualized.

And I believe it. I can see it. That’s why their names have been circulating in my mind.


And what I think is, no, it’s not that, it’s more than that, perhaps less as well. But that’s not right, not now in the early 20th century.

It may have taken an act of imaginative daring to see female genitals in O’Keefe’s flowers; even in Maplethrope’s flowers decades later. But no more. That connection, I note furthermore, is old as the hills. Now it’s banal. All those flowers I’ve been photographing, close-up, at a distance, en masse, they’re all. just. flowers.

The thing is, the blossoms really are reproductive organs, the reproductive organs of plants. And to call some of those plants “flowers” is to reduce those plants to their reproductive organs. They have stems, leaves, and roots as well. And the blossoms, the sex organs, they’re both male and female. So the O’Keefe/Maplethorpe resonance, while scoring on the geometry, gets the biology wrong.

Light Catchers




Friday, May 13, 2011

Explain the Wind, Will You

What would you think of the wind in a world without science? How would you experience it? How would you explain it?

You can’t see it, though you can see its effects in the motions of trees and bushes, grasses and flowers. You can see the dust it whips up. How it ripples the water in a pond. Drives the clouds and rain.

But the wind itself is invisible.

You can feel it on your skin. The resistance it offers when you move against it, or across it. It may even knock you off your feet it’s that powerful.

So, yes, there’s something to explain. But how do you craft the explanation? That’s the question, HOW explain the wind?

When a tree falls and crushes your dwelling, there’s a clear and obvious relationship between what the tree does and what happens to your dwelling. When you grab a stick at either end, put the middle against your knee, and then pull back on the ends, breaking the stick, there’s a clear relationship between what you do and what happens to the stick.

What is there to explain the effects of the wind? A spirit perhaps? Yes. It’s the spirit of the wind that causes those things, leaves blown off trees, the coolness on your skin, the ripples on the pond. It’s the spirit of the wind that does those things.

That was then, in ancient times. Now we know more. We know about the phases of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. We know that the atmosphere consists of gases that, when sufficiently cooled, become liquid (like water) or even solid (like rocks). The wind is just movement in matter in its gas phase.

We know about pressure differentials in the atmosphere and how they cause atmospheric gases to flow from regions of high pressure to regions of low pressure. That flow is the wind. And we can tell stories about what causes differences in atmospheric pressure.

Or, shall I say, some people can tell such stories. But I can’t do much better than what I’ve just done in the previous two paragraph. Sure, with time and thought I CAN do better. And I could do much better by doing a little reading in this and that source. But there will come a point where I must face my own ignorance. It some point I just don’t know what’s going on with the wind. My best explanation will be rather shallow compared to the best explanation that’s available to atmospheric science.

That, I suggest, is why I do not experience the wind as a mystery despite that fact that I cannot explain it. And I know that I cannot explain. I know also the others CAN explain it. And I am willing to trust that their explanations are correct.

That trust keeps the sense of mystery, and the fear, at bay. That trust informs me that the matter is in hand.

What is the source of that trust?

The Wind


It's everywhere, pervasive, and strong.


Can't see it except through its effects.


Can it see us? When we feel it,


does it feel us?

Lost and Found

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

filthy profit = second-hand pooperty

American Wildlife and Culture

In view of Andrew Goldstone's interrogation of race and culture at Arcade, it seemed appropriate to republish this piece that I'd first published at The Valve in 2006.
I have previously argued that the notion of “Western culture” is unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis. The term is ideological and finds its meaning in geopolitical struggles, not the study of culture. I feel much the same way about the phrase “American culture.” Such phrases, when employed to talk a general way about politics, society, and history, tend to designate some undifferentiated metaphysic substance. In one case that substance is associated with the West, but not Africa or the Orient. In the other case the substance is associated with the United States of America, but no other nation.

I want to do a bit of thinking aloud and explore this matter by contrast that usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term's geographical range is ambiguous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context.

My point is that, whatever geographical range one specifies, the term does not imply that the wildlife species in question has some special essence that makes the species American. Some species are found only America whiles others are found elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, we have a body of biological theory that allows us to understand the situation in terms of geography, climate, and history (both near-term, going back 500 or 1000 years, and deep, going back millions of years).

Now, let us construe “American culture” as meaning simply the cultural practices taking place on American soil - however you wish to understand its geographic scope. Given the wide range of peoples who have migrated to America, it follows that there are a wide range of cultural practices taking place on American soil that cannot reasonably be considered American. Without even attempting to characterize those more specifically, let's just cross them off the list and go on to some less obvious cases.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Not Cave Art


And they said photographs couldn't be art

Herzog’s Cave of Prattle and Banshee Muzak

This is not good. Having watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams with some friends, I decided to write a review. And so, as is my habit, I checked out some other reviews, just to calibrate my own impressions (and those of my friends). Right off the bat, three Big Name Reviewers – David Edelstein of New York Magazine, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times – are saying this is a good film, albeit with flaws.

Well, everything has flaws, and this is not a good film. As my friend and Big Name Cartoonist Nina Paley said on her Facebook wall: Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams": an excellent subject ruined by mediocre filmmaking and even worse gratuitous 3-D. I didn’t find the 3D so bothersome as she did – it made her head hurt – so I’ll back off on that part of her comment just a bit.

But only just a bit. All too often I found myself thinking “Wow! so this is that new-fangled 3D” when I’d have prefered to be left in peace to dwell on: “Wow! a rhinoceros,” or “Wow! four horses, look there’s two lions, fight! fight!” or “Wow! all those hand prints way deep in the cave” or “Wow! the glistening stalagmites and stalactites, the glistening crystalline surfaces.” Instead it was the 3D, the banshee New Agey music, and Herzog’s prattling commentary.

Yo, Dude! Anyone sophisticated enough to want to see a film about these paintings in the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc is sophisticated enough to think their own thoughts about the mysteries and enigmas. They don’t need you to tell them what to think and how to feel. So back off.

Alas, it’s too late for that. He’s made the film and fluffed out 60 minutes worth of material to 95 minutes. If the subject interests you, and you don’t mind paying a premium price (17 freakin’ dollars in NYC) to wear the high-tech 3D glasses, you might want to see the film. But your interest would better be served by putting that money toward a nice book of photographs of the cave. You might even find a book with intelligent and non-obtrusive commentary.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Musician’s Journal: On Learning to Play Polyrhythms

A couple weeks ago I wrote, in a general and impersonal way, about playing three-against-two. In this post I revisit that topic, but personally. This is a long email I’d written to Walter Freeman, a neurobiologist at UCal Berkeley, about how I’d learned to play polyrhythms, first two against three, then three against four. Note especially the last section, which is about breathlessness that seems to be induced by a certain kind of rhythmic practice. This email is dated 22 March 2002.

Dear Walter,

I thought I’d offer some informal observations about learning to play polyrhythms. The occasion for these observations is simple: about a week ago I was finally able to play 3 beats in the left hand against 4 in the right. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The Early Years

The early part of the story takes place in my childhood, of which my memories are poor. I started learning the trumpet in the 4th grade, when I was 10. Somewhere, say within the first two years, I learned to play eight-note triplets, three (more or less) evenly spaced notes within a single beat. I then learned to play quarter-note or “drag” triplets, three notes spaced over two beats. I vaguely remember that as being somewhat more difficult. The problem was that, like lots of kids, I was taught to beat time with my foot. Eight-note triplets occur within the span of a single foot tap, while quarter-note triplets span two foot-tapes. That’s the problem, placing three notes over two foot taps. You are, in effect, playing polyrhythms between the arm-hand-tongue-breath system of trumpeting and the foot system of time-keeping (which also has a verbal component). In any event, I somehow learned that. [My impression is that, in general, children have a more difficult time learning quarter-note triplets than eight-note triplets.]

We move ahead a few years to my early teens when I took piano lessons for about two years (in addition to continuing on trumpet). Somewhere in that period I encountered playing two in the left hand against three in the right. I lost the encounter. I couldn’t get the hang of it.

Two Against Three

We now move ahead about 30 years. I was playing with a group called the New African Music Collective (NAMC). The group varied from one occasion to the next, but had a core personnel of me on trumpet (and some percussion), Ade on percussion, and Druis on percussion and vocals. When we added players to the group, we added percussionists, though we had a bass player for awhile. The central musical premise of the group was to explore African and Afro-Cuban rhythms: polyrhythm central. So I got used to floating my trumpet lines over and against polyrhythms and became proficient at superimposing various groupings on whatever was happening with the percussionists. Thus I could play lines that would have been four-square and dull if they had stood alone; but they bristled with tension and force in a polyrhythmic context.

It is in this context that I began to practice playing an small 8-key balaphone (a marimba-like instrument with gourd resonators) and a tongue drum (a wooden box with eight “tongues” cut into the top surface). Every so often I’d take a wack at playing 2 against 3 (2-3). One day it just clicked. And it became reliable fairly quickly, within one or two days. That is to say, I could sit down at the instrument (whether balaphone or tongue drum) and start playing 2 against 3 without any preparation.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Culture is a Driving Force in History

Over at Arcade Gregory Jusdanis has raised the question of culture’s role in social change, lamenting the fact that the default and dominant view is that culture is “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” Culture is treated as being epiphenomenal to the economy.

He believes otherwise, and I agree with him. Culture is itself a driving force in history. Jusdanis goes on to note:
So it was with relief that I read Nurdan Gürbilek’s recent book, The New Cultural Climate in Turkey. As Turkey’s foremost literary and cultural critic, Gürbilek describes the wonderful power of culture in society. Writing on the social transformations Turkey experienced after the military coup of the 1980’s, she shows the intense involvement of culture in the decades since then. She demonstrates, for instance, how intellectuals, pushed to the margins, jailed, and tortured, gained power by seeking refuge and freedom in cultural institutions.
He goes on to observe that
Nationalism is a perfect example of a cultural factor that can act as a force in itself. Colonized peoples, feeling themselves oppressed by foreign rulers, have often turned to culture (as identity and as artistic production) where they preserve something vital and untouched by the foe. And on the basis of this culture (traditional identities, inherited institutions, folk art, ritual), they try to build a new society, different from the neighbors and the colonial rulers. I have studied this in Greece.

In the decades leading to the Greek War of Independence of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire, Greek intellectuals living in Europe and within the Empire, sought to reformulate Greek identity. They provided a new geography of Greece, uncovered the links to the ancient past, reconsidered the ties of Greece to Europe, and tried to create a new type of language. In short, they sought to convince the peasant populations that Greek society was belated, that it lagged far behind developments in western Europe. Trying to rouse Greek populations with the arguments of belatedness, they sought to place culture at the forefront of their program of social engineering.
I’ve done a bit of work about how popular music has been important in social transformation in 20th century America: “Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues”.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

HIdden Knowledge

Moretti Update: Visualization and Objectification

Early in 2006 The Valve sponsored a book event on Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. A dozen thinkers prepared comments on the book, Moretti responded, The Valve’s commentariat joined in the fun. This event has subsequently be edited into a book, Jonathan Goodwin and John Holbo, eds., Reading Graphs, Maps, Trees (2011). A few years later The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on Moretti’s Literature Lab at Stanford; and this kicked off a lively Valve discussion.

Moretti’s latest work has kicked off a discussion at Crooked Timber. In this work Moretti has graphed networks of relationships between characters in texts. The basic idea is simple: write the names of characters on a sheet of paper. If two characters talk to one another, connect them with a line, thus:


Moretti has reported his results in The New Left Review and in a somewhat longer pamphlet available for download from his lab.

In this post I’m not concerned with the Moretti’s results, I’m interested in a comment he made along the way. This is from page four of the pamphlet:
Third consequence of this approach: once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead: you reduce the text to characters and interactions, abstract them from everything else, and this process of reduction and abstraction makes the model obviously much less than the original object – just think of this: I am discussing Hamlet, and saying nothing about Shakespeare’s words – but also, in another sense, much more than it, because a model allows you to see the underlying structures of a complex object.
This is an important methodological point. By drawing a network of character relationships one has created a model that is clearly distinguishable from the text itself. One has objectified an underlying mechanism.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Is Academia Eating Its Young?

Saturn devouring young 400

The fate of bloggers has been a matter of some interest in the academic blogosphere. Not bloggers in general, but graduate students and junior faculty. The concern is not just that no professional credit accrues for blogging, but that blogging may actually hurt one’s career. It is a fact that many (older) faculty are, at best, ignorant of and indifferent to, online activity of all sorts, including blogging. Some – many? – are actively hostile to it.

This issue came to my attention most recently though a discussion at Arcade, a humanities site sponsored by Stanford. Arcade includes a group blog where a wide range of humanists have blogging rights. This particular issue was not the central focus of the discussion – which was about the anxieties attendant upon thinking in public and, by the way, why aren’t people posting as much anymore? – but it did come up.

In thinking about the issue I was struck by one thought: it’s pointless to try legitimating blogging in the current academic world. Of course I think blogging is a valid intellectual pursuit,; that’s not an issue. The current academic world is too far gone to be able to accommodate blogging in a robust way. Just why I think that would require some explaining, which I don’t want to at the moment. Let’s just say that I’ve been deeply skeptical about academic institutions for some time, and this is just another reason to despair of them.

And that leads me to this question: Is the academic world eating it’s young? And if so, how can it survive?

I believe the answer to the first question is “Yes.” And the answer to the second question must therefore be, “No, it cannot survive. Not in its present form.”

Nothing like a good theory to wake you up in the morning