Wednesday, August 31, 2011




Aka Zombies

Reading Latour 8: Some Conjunctions in the Pluriverse

Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter “Fourth Source of Uncertainty: Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern,” pp. 87-120.

Back in post six in this series, Recouping Constructivism, I commented on some passages early in this long chapter. In the post I’m going to comment on a passage or two near the end of the chapter. As for the middle, as for how Latour got from there to here, briefly and crudely, it’s like this:

Traditionally, classically, the social sciences have proposed accounts of people’s behavior that are quite different from those proposed by people themselves. Thus, Jack buys a BMW because he likes its style and engineering. Mr. Sociologist, however, asserts that Jack buys the BMW to one-up his neighbors, who drive Toyotas and Fords. And so on. In the extreme, one might even say that Mr. Sociologist substitutes his account for Jack’s, making it clear that, as far as he, Mr. Sociologist is concerned, Jack doesn’t know jack---- about his own motives. These deeper motives derive, of course, from ‘the social’.

Well, the sociologists of science did the same thing for science, The scientists, unlike ordinary folks, protested: “You guys are crazy. Your ‘the social’ plays no role in our laboratories. What you see is what you get.” Latour choose to believe the scientists, though many chose not to.

And so Latour was motivated to drop the, or is it ‘a’?, standard distinction between the natural and the social. And so (pp. 111-112):
To our great surprise, once the artificial boundary between social and natural was removed, non-human entities were able to appear under an unexpected guise. For instance, rocks might be useful to knock an idealist back to his senses, but rocks in geology seemed to be much more varied, much more uncertain, much more open, and deploy more types of agencies than the narrow role given to them in empiricist accounts. . . . . Empiricism no longer appears as the solid bedrock on which to build everything else, but as a very poor rendering of experience. This poverty, however, is not overcome by moving away from material experience, for instance to the ‘rich human subjectivity’, but closer to the much variegated lives materials have to offer. It’s not true that one should fight reductionism by adding some human, symbolic, subjective, or social ‘aspect’ to the description since reductionism, to begin with, does not render justice to objective facts.
Latour ends up with what he calls a second empiricism (p. 115): “its science, its politics, its esthetics, its morality are all different from the past. It is still real and objective, but it is livelier, more talkative, pluralistic, and more mediated than the other.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some Versions of the Urban Pastoral

Here we have a meeting place near the old watering hole. Perhaps the natives knap stones in this area. Maybe they just meet and gab. Or perhaps they make other ceremonial objects.

IMGP1641rd - Meeting place near the old watering hole

These poles and wires appear to be a primitive apparatus for communing with the gods. As you can see, there are a lot of poles, and a lot of squarish huts.

IMGP1660rd -  sticks and wires and the SKY, mofo! the SKY, sticks and wires travel the sky

Again, more poles and wires.

The Rebirth of Mind and Society: Jaynes and Nietzsche

The passage that follows is from the opening of Chapter 10: “Music and Civilization” of my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (pp. 222-226). It is about how the Greeks reconceived themselves through a process that Jean Piaget has called reflective abstraction. I look at this, first in the domain of emotion (Julian Jaynes) and then in that of drama (Nietzsche). Note that here and there I refer to the mind as “neural weather,” a metaphor I develop early in the book. The idea is simply that the mind is a constantly shifting mass of neural firings as the weather is a constantly shifting mass of molecular collisions.

* * * * *

In 1967, a book with an ungainly title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, created a minor sensation with an astonishingly quixotic and original thesis: human consciousness originated in ancient Greece sometime between Homer and an Athenian Golden Age. That is to say, Homer was a Hellenic zombie telling heroic tales about older zombies. Night of the Living Dead had opened in Athens and was playing to a packed house.

The author, Julian Jaynes, stages this argument by noting that Iliad and Odyssey contain many episodes in which humans receive direction from gods and goddesses, and do not contain many words referring to mental states and actions. He takes the first observation at face value and concludes that the Homeric Greeks heard inner voices and acted on what they heard. From the fact that mental words had become common by the time of the Athenian Golden Age, he concludes that by that time, human consciousness had emerged. The inner voices were no longer necessary as their function was subsumed by consciousness; Jaynes would thus have us believe that the creation of concepts about mental states and acts gave rise to consciousness.

However skeptical I am about aspects of Jaynes's theory—for example, the idea that Sophocles was conscious while Homer was not is deeply odd—something very important clearly happened in the period he surveys. Jaynes seems to have assumed that the absence of words about mental states means there was no consciousness. I see no reason to accept such an assumption. If one thinks of consciousness they way Walter Freeman does, then rabbits and dogs are conscious. But they have no words for mental states either.

If we reject Jaynes’ claim about consciousness, however, we can still accept some of the reasoning that accompanies it. The important observation is that mental terms were scarce in Homeric times, but not in Sophoclean and later times. If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind. Similarly, Sophocles' Oedipus the King would not have been possible in Homer's time precisely because it takes place in a mental realm. It is about mental events, acts of knowing or denial.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Graffiti, the Site

Given that its illegal nature is so important to so many graffiti writers, I’ve wondered whether or not legitimation would destroy the craft. Of course, there’s no way to tell. But, my site-centric view of graffiti suggests perhaps not. Consider this collaboration between Gaia and Nanook:

Rockefeller and the Empire State
Photo: Andy Milford.

It’s part of a Living Walls Albany project and is legit. I note that this isn’t graffiti in the ‘classic’ sense; it’s not directly derived from the NYC-Philly ‘axis,’ though the echoes are strong in the stripes juxtaposed with the portrait.

What’s gone is the vandalism and all that that implies. But it’s still very much a site-centric work. As Gaia’s caption explains:
Portrait of Gov Nelson Rockefeller and Sven Lukin's wall painting, Untitled. This particular work, amongst many other masterpieces, is on exhibition underneath the Empire State Plaza and apart of one of the largest Modernist art collections available for public view. Clearly inspired by the glimmering Brasilia, Rockefeller and Corning masterminded the 98.5 acre marble and steel Plaza according to Wallace Harrison's design. After 17 years of constructions, this massive project was finally completed in 1976 and now sits squarely in direct contrast with the sleepy, historic capitol that is city of Albany.
And that’s what paramount, site-centricity, site-specificity. And then, ephemerality. How long will this last?

Reading Latour 7: A Bit of Reflection

Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.
Reading Latour is both rewarding and frustrating. Rewarding because yes yes yes. Frustrating because yes yes yes. At this point I almost feel as though I should transcribe large sections of his text into these posts and simply interject ‘yes yes yes’ here and there by way of commentary. And that’s all. For, in a sense I have nothing to add. What he says seems to me, almost / more or less self-evident in the words he uses.

* * * * *

Right now I think the best thing is to sit back and reflect a bit. I’ve spent most of my career thinking about the mind and about culture, using literature and music and this and that as vehicles for so doing. I know, of course, that mind and culture are intimately bound up in society, but society hasn’t been front an center in my thinking. Well, reading Latour I see he’s framing the question of society in a way that’s commensurate with mind and culture as I have come to think about them.

Thus, what he says is at once utterly familiar and utterly strange. It is familiar in that I do recognize what he’s talking about, in particular, I recognize the zig-zag network of connections between objects and humans that he points out at every turn. No, it’s not that I recognize those networks he points out. They are strange to me, things I’ve not thought of myself—though graffiti’s brought me very close to them. Rather, I recognize them as points of attachment for ‘the mental’ and ‘the cultural’ that I’ve been examining.

So I see the fit. And now I just want to get on with it, to hook it all up. Hence the frustration. For I know it’s not that easy. That you have to describe it . all . in minute . precious . detail. So much work to do! Hallelujah! So much work to do! Pushing the rock up the hill up the hill up the hill.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Flooding Possible


I took this photo a little before 2 PM today, Saturday 27 August 2011. We're expected to get a tropical storm slash hurricane through here tomorrow morning. That should cover the ground around that building, which is at the northern edge of Liberty State Park in Jersey City and only yards away from New York harbor.

After the storm, and roughly the same time of day:


Reading Latour 6: Recouping Constructivism

With a Note on the Sciences of the Artificial
Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter “Fourth Source of Uncertainty: Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern,” pp. 87-120.

For what it’s worth, this is the second longest chapter of the book, the longest being the penultimate one, “Third Move: Connecting Sites”, pp. 219-246.

Now Latour confronts the sociology of science, though in its newer guise as “science studies.” This is where he first made his mark, where I first heard of him, though did not read him. And this, as we all know, has been the site of some of the nastiest intellectual fighting of the past three decades, a war that bled out of the academy and into the general sphere. And it remains there, and in strange forms and strange company indeed.

But that’s an aside.

The set-up (p. 88): “We now understand why the word ‘social’ could entail so much misunderstanding; it confused two entirely different meanings: a kind of stuff and a movement for assembling non-social entities.” And it’s on that distinction that Latour will recoup ‘construct’ as in ‘science is socially constructed.’

We all know, of course, that science, like pretty much everything else in human culture, is socially constructed. That, as they say, is banal and trivial. And yet, that’s the fulcrum point on which Latour will re-construct social construction. Indeed, that’s what he’s been doing in the whole book, showing us why ‘the social’, but the social considered (constructed?) as assemblages of heterogonous networks of entities, is not at all trivial. That is, when you look, carefully, at how science or anything else is constructed, it’s not trivial at all. When seen carefully it all looks like those parodic contraptions we know as Rube Goldberg machines, named after, you guessed it, Rube Goldberg, cartoonist, engineer, and inventor.

That seems innocent enough. But, alas, that’s not how ‘the social’ was construed in much of this newer work on science in its social setting, and that’s certainly not how the opponents of this work construed the social. In these discussions it was the other social that was in force, the social as a “kind of stuff”. In that reading, the social construction of science meant that scientific knowledge was constituted of/by this social stuff and, as such, was pretty much arbitrary with respect to how the world works. That is, science wasn’t objective it all. It was just a bunch of ideas that the boys in the club agreed upon.

Them’s fightin’ words, and fight they did. But we know all that.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Decision Theory 101

making decisions is hard

Will in the Nervous System, and Its Consequences

This is a passage that didn’t make the cut for Beethoven’s Anvil. It’s about the will, its footprint in the nervous system, and what that means about our relationship to our nervous system. Notice that peculiar locution, which implies that we are something other than the nervous system that thinks us. We are and we aren’t, aren’t we?

Willfulness is a subjective experience and, accordingly, psychology and neuroscience have banned talk of will and volition for most of this century. However, such language is embedded in neuroscientific terminology, a fact noted by Bernard Baars. The division of the peripheral nervous system that regulates the viscera is called the autonomic nervous system, indicating its capacity to operate autonomously, one cannot will one’s heart rate to go up or down, or will that digestion cease or commence. At the same time, talk of voluntary actions is routine. The neural pathways for voluntary action, which tend to be those that control the skeletal muscles, are separate from the autonomic nervous system.

However, we must note that this distinction is made from the point of view of the actor and not from that of an external observer. That is to say, the distinction is subjective. It is true that neural systems indicated by Baars are physically distinct, a matter visible to numerous investigators. What is peculiar is that one of these systems is thought of as being voluntary while the other is involuntary. Whether or not an action is voluntary is something one can ascertain only by asking the actor. One can’t ask such questions of rats, cats, and monkeys and expect meaningful answers. Does this mean that animals do not have wills?

This distinction that seems so obvious on a phenomenal level, is not quite so obvious when one begins looking for the relevant neural structures. For one thing, given appropriate feedback, autonomic functions can be subject to voluntary control. Thus, in one experiment, it proved easy for subjects to raise or lower their blood pressure when given a flashing light to indicate success. On the other hand the motor system does not divide neatly into voluntary and involuntary divisions, though it does seem that voluntary actions do seem to be those that are mediated by frontal cortex. For these reasons we need to be cautious when talking about what we can and cannot will. With that in mind, let us continue on, thinking strictly in terms of subjective experience.

Disobedient Organs

The dance between that which we can will and that which we cannot is, of course, both ancient and basic. As an example, us consider a brief passage by one of the greatest Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, whose career straddled the third and fourth centuries. In his master work, The City of God, Augustine observes:





Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mimi and Eunice: Donne’s Extasie Remixed

Nina Paley originally posted this cartoon as “Bees in Their Bonnets”. But the four stanzas of John Donne’s “The Extasie” work as well, though there is, I suppose, something of a stylistic clash between Paley’s cartoon style and Donne’s poetic style.

From John Donne, “The Extasie”

This ecstasy doth unperplex
    (We said) and tell us what we love;
We see by this, it was not sex;
    We see, we saw not, what did move:

But as all several souls contain
    Mixture of things they know not what,
Love these mix'd souls doth mix again,
    And makes both one, each this, and that.

A single violet transplant,
    The strength, the colour, and the size—
All which before was poor and scant—
    Redoubles still, and multiplies.

When love with one another so
    Interanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
    Defects of loneliness controls.

Here’s the full poem.

Light and Light


Reading Latour 5: Things

No ideas but in things”
—William Carlos Williams

Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter “Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency,” pp. 63-86.

Some Passages on Things

p. 68:
It is always things—and now I mean this last word literally—which, in practice, lend their ‘steely’ quality to the hapless ‘society.’
pp. 71-72:
This, of course, does not mean that these participants ‘determine’ the action, that baskets ‘cause’ the fetching of provisions or that hammers ‘impose’ the hitting of the nail. Such a reversal in the direction of influence would be simply a way to transform objects into the causes whose effects would be transported through human action now limited to a trail of mere intermediaries. Rather, it means that there might exist many metaphysical shades between full causality and sheer inexistence. In addition to ‘determining’ and serving as a ‘backdrop for human action’, things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on.
I note that Latour highlights J.J. Gibson’s notion of affordance in a footnote to this passage. Affordances are considered to be properties of things out there in the world, but they are the properties that allow us humans to ‘latch on’ to them, whether perceptually—how do we smell, hear, see, touch, taste them?—or motorically—how to we move to, from, around them, how do we manipulate them?

p. 74:
It is true that, at first sight, the difficulty or registering the role of objects comes from the apparent incommensurability of their modes of action with traditionally conceived social ties. But sociologists of the social have misunderstood the nature of such incommensurability. They have concluded that because they are incommensurable they should be kept separate from proper social ties, without realizing that they should have concluded precisely the opposed: it’s because they are incommensurable that they have been fetched in the first place! If they were as weak as the social skills they have to reinforce, if they were made of the same material quality, where would the gain be? Baboons we were, baboons we would have remained.
Latour is concerned about the stability of so many human social arrangements, and he’s pointing out that this stability depends, in so many various ways, on our interaction with things. Think of those stone weapons and tools so prominent in humanity’s early archeological record, so prominent that homo faber, man the tool-maker, is one prominent conception of our nature. But think also about books, the written word, stable repositories of specific language strings, not thoughts, no not thoughts. Just strings of characters. We read the thoughts into those characters. The reading may change from decade to decade, century to century, millennium (gasp) to millennium, but where would those readings be is they had only ephemeral atmospheric vibrations as their object?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What we have here is a failure to communicate

agony of writing

Why don’t we know what we do?

In my recent writing about graffiti I’ve come up against a discrepancy between how I think about graffiti and how graffiti writers think about it. The thing is, how could I possibly be right? After all, I only photograph graffiti; they’re the ones who actually make it. Don’t they know what they’re doing?

Well, yes and no.

It’s one thing to do something, another thing to be able to step back from the doing and reflect on it, as though it were somewhere ‘out there’ where it can be easily observed, analyzed, and described. I’ll get to the graffiti case later, but right now I want to think about this as a general phenomenon, that we often don’t know what we’re doing.

This is an issue I think about a lot, and in many contexts, for it pervades human behavior, both individual and a social. We don’t KNOW how we do what we do; nonetheless, we manage to DO IT.

In thinking about this, I find one particular example very useful. I call on it time and again, turning it over and over in my mind like a worry stone. I used it in a recent post, Two Puzzles Concerning the Self. It’s an experiment Jean Piaget conducted in the early 1970s, which I’ll repeat from that earlier post, more or less (note that that version, in turn, was extracted from a long and formal academic article about the self).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hot Green


Laws of Existence

Without copyright law, art would not exist! Without patent law, inventions would not exist! Without real estate law, land would not exist. Without marriage law, love would not exist.

Reading Latour 4: Society and Culture

Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.
Before I forget, talking of the admittedly awkward label, actor-network theory, Latour observes (p. 9):
I was ready to drop this label for more elaborate ones . . . until someone pointed out to me that the acronym A.N.T. was perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler. An ant writing for other ants, this fits my project very well!
And ants, we know, leave chemical traces wherever they go. They navigate their world by following those traces.

For use larger-brained animals, the process of thinking leaves chemical traces in our brains.

Process and Upkeep

It’s become obvious that Latour is reacting against the reification of ‘the social’ into a metaphysical substance with inherent causal properties (p. 35):
Whereas, for the sociologists of the social, the great virtue of appeals to society is that they offer this long lasting stability on a plate and for free, our school views stability as exactly what has to be explained by appealing to costly and demanding means. . . . The great benefit of a performative definition [is that] it draws attention to the means necessary to ceaselessly upkeep the groups and to the key contributions made by the analysts’ own resources.
I’m a bit skeptical of that last clause I’d like examples of continuing social groups brought into being through the scrutiny of analysts—but otherwise, yes.

It has become obvious to me though my thinking about the cultural evolutionary process that, while “evolution” tends to denote change (of a certain type? through a certain mechanism?), that stability is the first requirement. That is, whenever / however fully human culture first emerged, it’s first ‘task’ was to achieve stability, reliable transmission of cultural patterns from one generation to the next. Prior to this achievement, culture would ‘drift’ aimlessly from one generation to the next. Once stability had been achieved—can we see this in hand axes?—well, then it takes real ‘work’ to create cultural change. Cultural change, ‘evolution’ in the ordinary sense of the term, becomes a problem to be explained. And the rapid change of cultural forms in the West over the past half-millennium, how odd! And yet we’ve come to see it as the norm.

How odd!

Is ANT a sociology of cultural evolution?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hot Grass


For Consideration: Culture Creates Groups

It has been believed that groups create culture.

1. It is more deeply true that culture creates groups. That is, groups emerge into being around mutualities of cultural practice. Graffiti is a case in point.

2. Individuals in these groups are unaware of culture’s group-creating mechanisms.

3. Groups create anti-groups in the image of one another’s ‘shadows.’

4. Taken together, groups and culture create history. Stability first, then change.

Zhang Yimou: Not One Less, and Curse of the Golden Flower

Over the past year or two I’ve watched a number of films by Zhang Yimou, including Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Shanghai Triad. I saw Hero when it was in American theatrical release. I’m currently watching Not One Less (1999) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) an astonishing pair of films.

What’s astonishing is that they’re utterly different. Not One Less is a realist drama using non-professional actors and is about the students in a small school in contemporary rural China. Curse is an epic about the Imperial court in ancient China and employs lavish sets, grand spectacle, and top-tier professional actors. Curse hardly seems like it’s about people at all; the central characters seem more like minor deities being moved about on-stage by cosmic forces—either that, or grandly colored shadow puppets. By contrast Not One Less is awash in the simple humanity of its characters, especially the children, struggling with their lessons, working to help one of their classmates.

The two films also stand in thematic contrast. And it wasn’t until I’d watched Curse for a second time that I actually managed to understand the plot, while Not One was transparent, step by step, from the start.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

flowers flowers flowers


Reading Latour 3: Groups and the Game of Graffiti

This reading Latour (Reassembling the Social) is tough. It’s not that the ideas are particularly tough; they’re not, at least not so far. It’s that I read a line or paragraph, and it sets me to thinking, and thinking, and thinking . . . so I put the Latour down and think and think some more. It takes time to run his stuff through (several decades of) my own accumulated thoughts, which include the graffiti thoughts I’ve been having for the past few years.

And it’s graffiti I really want to understand, not so much Latour. I’m reading him so I can better read graffiti.



On to groups. I talk of graffiti culture as though there is such a thing. There is graffiti itself, on the walls, in photos, in books and on the web. And there are the people who make the graffiti, take the photos, put them in books, and on the web. And others besides, those who look at the graffiti and the photos.

Sometimes when I talk of graffiti culture, I mean to indicate a group of people. And that, groups, is Latour’s first topic after the introduction. So, p. 29:
To sum up, whereas for sociologists the first problem seems to settle on one privileged grouping, our most common experience, if we are faithful to it, tells us that there are lots of contradictory group formations, group enrollment—activity to which social scientists are obviously crucial contributors. The choice is thus clear: either we follow social scientists and begin our travel by setting up at the start which kind of group and level of analysis we will focus on, or we follow the actors’ own ways and begin our travels by the traces left behind by their activity of forming and dismantling groups.
What’s interesting about graffiti is that the graffiti itself is a means through which and around which groups come into being. Considered as a group, or as an irritant or stimulus to group formation, the illegal nature of graffiti is crucial. Let’s follow it out.


I’ve been going about this the wrong way—isn’t it always thus? The illegal nature of graffiti IS an issue, as is the FIDELITY of graffiti style to the NYC and Philly originals all over the world. And the two ARE linked. The question ISN’T so much: Why did graffiti persist despite its illegal nature.

Rather, the question IS more like: Under what circumstances will the illegal nature of an expressive practice tend to foster that practice? What does the existence and persistence of graffiti tell us about the world?

The fact that graffiti is illegal means that the state is going to impose costs on the activity. If graffiti is to persist in the face of those costs, then those costs to ‘the graffiti community’ must be lower than the benefits of graffiti, however those costs and benefits are counted up.

With these considerations in mind, let’s take another look. To begin with, we must note that graffiti started as the expressive practice of (mostly) minority young men, young men who were already somewhat alienated from mainstream America. Thus, the disapproval of mainstream America is not new to them and might even conceivably be rewarding to them if they settle on an Oppositional identity.

The Game of Graffiti

So, to define our game a bit: (1) The individual graffiti writer is one player in the graffiti game. (2) The state, as represented by the police and the justice system, is a third player. The state functions as a proxy for the whole of legitimate society. (3) Each writer ‘plays’ to what I believe sociologists call a ‘reference group’, the group of people which a given individual, such as a graffiti writer, considers to be his peers, his homies. This group will be fuzzy and fluid, but will include other graffiti writers, but also those among their immediate associates who may not themselves be writers. Considered as a collectivity, these reference groups are another player. Call it simply the graffiti community.

THAT’s the group whose existence we’re trying to understand, along with graffiti itself.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Orange Aid


Great Chain of Copy-Being

Reading Latour 2: The Social

The Question of Graffiti

Public discourse on graffiti tends to be dominated by one question: Is it art or vandalism? My first impulse, as you might imagine, is to note that we don’t have an either/or dichotomy here, that graffiti can easily both. I suspect that reaction is both too sophisticated and not sophisticated enough.

What I’m thinking, of course, is whether or not an image is art is logically independent of where it is and whether or not it is legally there. The people who pose the question obviously don’t think that way, otherwise they wouldn’t post just THAT question. Still, if you asked them, What is art? what would they say? I don’t know, but I can imagine that someone during the conversation at least some of them would say: I know it when I see it. And some might say: You know, it’s in museums and galleries and sells for lots of money.

That first non-answer is what happens when you try to define art by its content and someone pushes you to the wall on it. When I say that the nature of art is independent of its legal status, that sort of thing is surely what I have in mind. And if you pressed me on it, well, seriously, if you REALLY DID press men on it, I wouldn’t say “I know it when I see it.” But I’d admit there is a problem. What about Duchamp’s urinal? What makes that urinal art, but not all the other urinals in the world?

Which brings me to that second answer: It hangs in galleries, etc. That, of course, is an institutional definition. And it’s a very sophisticated sense of what art is, more sophisticated than most people are on such matters. My imaginary interlocutor is not, in fact, offering such a definition. Rather, in desperation, they’re using museums and galleries as shorthand ways of pointing out thousands of examples of capital “A” Art. And so they point to the institutions that, in the institutional definition, constitute art.

And so we’re back at that question: Is it art or vandalism? If that question is taken as one, not about the images themselves, but about the authorizing institutions, then, YES, it is dichotomous. And the dichotomy is between institutionally authorized and, not merely unauthorized, but entirely outside legitimate society. What I think is that, as ordinarily asked and understood, the question is unclear, indefinite, ambiguous. It is not clearly and explicitly about institutions, but it implies them; nor is it NOT about imagistic content, for the question does implies it.

Social Calculations

The question is a messy one. As is the matter of ‘the social.’ And that brings us back to Latour. As I mentioned in my previous Latour post, he sets up his argument by countering his position against what he takes to be The Standard view. Here’s how he starts that (p. 3):
The first solution has been to post the existence of a specific sort of phenomenon variously called ‘society’, ‘social order’, ‘social practice’, ‘social dimension’, or ‘social structure’. For the last century during which social theories have been elaborated, it has been important to distinguish this domain of reality from other domains such as economics, geography, biology, psychology, law, science, and politics. A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or to ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative—it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical, natural—and some positive—it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Liberty Obscured



stop bashing your head

Cultural Construction: Much Ado About Fundamental Matters

Two days ago I posted on family values (from Merry Olde England to Fire Island), with an informal and semi-organized discussion about how Shakespeare began “reconstructing” the family. That, of course, is not what he thought he was doing. We don’t really know what he thought about much of anything, we just have his plays and poems. But one of his thoughts, no doubt, was “I gotta get paid.” So it’s only in long retrospect that we can see him reconstruct family values.

But what does that mean, reconstruct family values? Just what is being constructed, and how?

The literary Darwinists would have us believe that Shakespeare’s texts are just fancy costumes over ape behavior, behavior which is quite plastic and complex. And they ARE that. But their thinking is dominated by E.O. Wilson’s poverty-stricken view that culture is held in check by a “genetic leash,” a metaphor I find to be useless. If you really want to use THAT metaphor, then surely it’s the other way around, that culture holds the genes on a leash.

But I prefer a different metaphor, that of building blocks, or of a game, such as chess. Biology provides the basic pieces and the basic rules, but culture plays the game, or builds the structure. Given that the pieces and the basic rules are what they are, culture can’t build just any structure, or make just any sequence of moves. But culture does have quite a bit of freeplay.

Shakespeare Moves Biology's Game Pieces

And that’s what we see in Shakespeare, he’s making new moves. The fact that, for the most part, he’s retelling old tales let’s us see the newness in his moves. Without knowing what the basic pieces are, however, it’s hard for us to read the moves.

We know more about those basic pieces than we did, say, 40 or 50 years ago. We know, for example, that the system for infant-mother attachment is different from the system for sexual bonding between adults; and we know something of the neurophysiology. We also know that we regulate relationships and interactions according to distinctly different principles, egalitarianism and hierarchy; these, presumably, are neurally separate as well.

This may seem, well, commonsensical. The trouble with common sense is that it doesn’t explain anything. It’s just how we think and talk. What’s new is carefully gathered evidence, and the neural clues. It’s not just that we have different words for different behaviors, but that we now know there REALLY ARE different underlying systems.

"Kubla Khan," Video Style

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What'll they patent next? Air?

Reading Latour 1: Tracing

I finally decided that I’d have to bite the bullet and read Latour. Not Harman, who is an explicator of Latour, or Bryant, or Bogost, who gave us the Latour Litanizer, nor even Morton, who introduced me too OOO, and whom I’ve been reading in blog-sized form. Which counts for more than you might think, as not only have I been reading, but I’ve been commenting, and Tim’s commented back. And making my own OOOish posts, on which Tim’s commented. That dialog is worth, say, 5 thick books, merely read.

But all signs pointed to Latour, a sociologist by trade. Who likes flat ontologies. And whom, so I’ve read, sees things, mere physical things, as ineluctably part of the social.

That, it seems to me, is what I need, for my specific problem is that of the graffiti site, the wall on which the marks are made, time and again. As I’ve said time and again, the site is some kind of agent in the graffiti world. And the graffiti world, well graffiti world is just a phrase, a label. That I use the term should not be taken to imply that I understand it.

Further, object-oriented ontology is, well, it’s philosophy. And I’m not sure about philosophy. What does it mean to talk about capital “B” Being, and to do so with a straight face and without crossing your fingers? Heidegger? I’ve known about him for years. Never read him. Merleau-Ponty was my man back in the day. I’m not sure I how far I can go with thinking that regards Heidegger as a living influence. & Latour doesn’t even have Heidegger in his index—I’m talking about Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, the book I bought.

No, I simply don’t know how to negotiate my way in philosophy, not anymore. And I’m not interested in reaching philosophical conclusions. My immediate task is to understand graffiti. Such understanding as I manage to scrape together will, I figure, be some kind of informal and discursive social science perhaps with a psychological twist. It’s not going to be philosophy.

No doubt whatever I do implies some philosophical stance. But I’ll let others worry about it, if, that is, there’s anything worth worrying about.


Liberty Rising




Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Family Values: From Merry Olde England to Fire Island

An artist friend of mine spent a couple of days last week vacationing with one of her friends on Fire Island, a narrow island of summer homes off the southern coast of Long Island. She describes it as a very family sort of place—the part of the island, that is, that’s not a gay enclave. And therein lies the beef, such as it is.

For my artist friend is not a family person. She was once married, but that’s over. Didn’t have any kids, and glad of it. She has no desire to get married again and, in particular, NO KIDS. She’s skeptical about families. She finds them, one gathers, rather creepy.

And so she told a bunch of us, time and again, over a long Friday afternoon lunch. Frolicking in the sun and surf, communing with nature, all that was fine and refreshing. What a vacation’s for. But doing that in the presence of FAMILIES, mommies and daddies and their kids, why are these people oppressing me? And people DO oppress her over the fact that she’s a woman who HAS NO KIDS. Ewe! How unnatural, they beam at her. No! how sane, she protects herself, people, too many people, will be the death of the earth, and it’s families that cause people to multiply multiply multiply.

Why families? she wonders. Biology, comes the reply, from another friend, we’ve got these urges, and these urges produce families.

Well, yes, we do. And those urges do crank out families. But is THAT what families are about? Is that ALL they’re about? Perhaps there’s more to families than mere biology.

Could a commitment to one’s family be a way of committing oneself to something beyond oneself? If that is so, well, then things become very complicated. It’s not simply that self-transcending commitment can take many forms. But that there’s a world of difference between inflating oneself to fill the world under one guise or another, and committing to THAT, and committing oneself to something outside, other than, one self. The problem is that YOU who are at the center of this commitment may not be able to tell the difference.

Self-Knowledge, TV Style


Working Paper on Heart of Darkness

A PDF of my all my posts on Heart of Darkness is now available on my SSRN page.
Introduction: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

That’s not what I set out to do when I undertook these notes. The idea was simply to do for Heart of Darkness what I’d just done with Apocalypse Now, or had done last year with Sita Sings the Blues: provide miscellaneous commentary on a rich text. Miscellaneous implies that I have no particular goal in mind. I start wherever and stop when I feel that, well, when I feel that I’ve said enough. The only thing that’s sure is that along the way I’ll do some fairly detailed descriptive work and that I’ll devote some attention to the form of the word.

And that’s what I did for the first six posts. Then, WHAM! Well, not WHAM, not right off the bat. More like, hmmm, I wonder… I got curious. I’d noticed that the nexus sentence, which I’d examined in posts five and six, seemed to be the longest in the text. I was considering remarking on this while writing the fifth post. But I decided, no, I better not. I better check it, not that anything much depends on getting that assertion right, but still, it’s safer to check. If rather tedious.

And so I counted the number of words in each paragraph, displayed the counts on a graph and all of a sudden found myself engaged in the quantitative analysis of a text. I knew, of course, that such analysis had been done, I just didn’t figure that I’d wander into such work by surprise, as it were. But I did, and now it’s done, and I’m left having to make sense of it.

But not immediately. The immediate task is to situate that analytic work among the more qualitative work and to look at, and appraise, it all. What’s up?

Scales of Description

In looking over these posts (and, I might add, those on Apocalypse Now) I see that my miscellaneous approach isn’t so miscellaneous. There is a method there; there is an objective. The objective is to examine the work on a variety of scales and to see how phenomena at those various scales interact with one another. The method, loosely conceived, is to choose analytic and descriptive techniques that allow me to do that.

Thus the Latour Litany (3 & 4)—My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my. . . —is itself a small-scale feature of the text, though its implicational scope is large. It first appears, however, in that nexus paragraph (5 & 6), which is structurally central (5). Structural centrality, of course, is a function of the entire text. It is about the mutual interaction of parts in the whole.





Monday, August 15, 2011

Graffiti and the Site: What’s to be Explained, Anyhow?

Really, the rise and spread of graffiti, largely outside the institutions of the art world. Not completely outside by any means. But the gallery world, the museum world, and the art school world have pretty much been at the periphery of the graffiti scene, and remain there to this day. That’s not mere happenstance. That’s deliberate.

But what are the nature of the deliberations, and by who?

Here’s what I think:
You can’t understand the rise of graffiti culture unless you understand the site. And you can’t understand the site if you think of it as basically a canvas substitute. It’s like canvas in that it has a surface on which paint is applied. Otherwise, it is different and must be conceptualized differently.
What I don’t know, is how to explain that. I can talk around it, but explain it, no. The purpose of this post is simply to think out-loud, to get some thoughts out there where I can step back a look at them and perhaps see something I’m missing. I’m going to talk around it, but in public.

Starting from Basics

Graffiti started as tagging, a way to get recognition from girls (Cornbread in Philly) and one’s peers. You put your name in a public place, so it’s visible. Alas, it’s also vandalism. So, there’s a tension, a conflict. You’ve got to get up while avoiding getting caught.

That’s the founding situation. From that grew . . . a world.

Enter, competition. You’re all competing for recognition. How do you do it? Let us assume, for the moment, that all are equal in technical skill (can control) and aesthetic skill (design). Let’s further assume that all we’re doing is single stroke tags. No throw-ups, no pieces. Given that, what’s the basis for competition?

Basically, visibility. You can be in more places, and in more visible places. The two are not at all the same. Thirty tags in a place where no one goes are collectively less visible than one tag in a spot everyone passes every day. Hitting lots of spots just takes time. Hitting the best spots, that takes luck, skill, and aggression.

And it doesn’t hurt to have some athletic ability and so courage. Visible places can be high up and relatively difficult to get to. Those who can and are willing to reach those spots, they have an advantage over others lack the physical skill, or lack the courage.

Keeping skill levels more or less the same, let’s expand the repertoire from tags to throw-ups. They’re larger and hence more visible than tags; further, they can go over and thus obliterate tags. But they take a bit more time to do; five minutes or perhaps ten, as opposed to a minute or less. How does this change things? It seems to me it favors the quick and the daring.

For Their Own Good


Question of the Day


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Network Awesome is, well, awesome

Here's the self-description:
Network Awesome is a platform for entertaining and interesting TV. We spotlight the best from the past to create something new for the future. In a sense it’s TV about TV but our wider intent is to show something about culture as a whole. This can manifest itself in a kids cartoon from 1973, an interview from 1948 or a movie from 1993 – We’re pretty open minded about what Network Awesome is and what it can be. It’s our commitment to provide you what we think is interesting and clever TV - hopefully you agree.
And their archive. A few of their documentaries:
  • The Outsider: Harry Partch
  • The Secret Life of Chaos
  • The Siouxsie & The Banshees Story
  • Welcome to the Go Go
  • Who Is Poly Styrene?
  • The Story Of Jamaican Music Vol 1
From the Esses:
  • Salvador Dali - A Soft Self Portrait
  • Series - Taxi: On the Job
  • Sharpe's Eagle -2
  • Sigmund & the Sea Monsters - Mama Redecorates
  • Space Giants - 3 - ATTACK of the MOLESAURUS
  • Spider-Woman - A Crime In A Time
  • Spiderman 1967 4
They're got an online magazine, about their online content, naturally.




Spike Lee on the Shakespeare Tip

The following is an excerpt from a working paper on Spike Lee’s Mo’Better Blues. The paper is “Spike Lee’s Blues” and you can download it from my SSRN page.

* * * * *

The depiction of this marriage [between the protagonist, Bleek Gilliam and Indigo] is, unfortunately, the least satisfactory and least plausible section of the film. As a coherent dramatic statement, the film ended with Bleek's failed comeback when he sat-in with Shadow (his former sax player) and Clarke in the Dizzy club — the club's name is an obvious reference to Dizzy Gillespie, jazz's last elder statesman and trumpet-playing counterpart to Bird, who did have a club named after him, Birdland. His subsequent marriage and child are not very plausible. He proposes marriage to Indigo in the very terms which he had rejected and satirized in "Pop Top 40." Now that he cannot be a musician, he changes his mind about one-and-only-forever love. Now he wants/needs a woman to save him. And the woman accepts him. But Bleek hasn't grown and deepened in any obvious way; he has just transferred his dependence from his career to a wife. Which is to say, simply, that Spike Lee hasn't quite figured out how to resolve these problems.

But he does give some indication of how he wants the matter resolved. To see this we have to examine the final scene of the movie. It parallels the first scene quite closely, so closely that any difference is thereby foregrounded. That difference, we can only assume, is what has been gained by the events of the picture.

Thus, in the final scene, a young boy is practicing his trumpet when his young friends come after him to join them in play. To emphasize the parallel with the opening scene, Lee uses the same child actors. In the final scene, as one would expect, Bleek is the father and his son, Miles (named after Miles Davis?), is the boy. But where young Bleek had been forced to continue practicing, young Miles is allowed out (at Bleek's urging) after a little sermon on the importance of practicing. Bleek, we are to infer, doesn't want to impose the inflexible discipline on his son that his mother had imposed on him. Young Miles will not, we are to presume, grow up in the crippled way that Bleek did.

By staging the final scene in this way Lee is asserting that Bleek has gained a measure of flexibility and insight, that he has grown though his experience. That is, he is asserting something which he hasn't, in fact, shown. Mo' Better Blues happens in two distinct phases. One runs from the beginning up through Bleek's failed come-back at the Dizzy club. The other runs from Bleek's proposal to the end. The only thing which binds these two together is Lee's cinematic assertion that the second is the logical continuation of the first. But, whereas the moves in the first phase are carefully plotted, with plausible causal links between the actions and reactions of the various characters, the moves in the second phase are not carefully plotted, they are only asserted, with a great deal of dramatic weight falling on a montage sequence set to the music of John Coltrane. And the transition between the first and the second phase is similarly implausible. It is clear that what Lee wants to say requires these two phases, otherwise he wouldn't have made the movie this way. It is also clear that Lee hasn't yet been able to establish a coherent framework in which to make this statement.

This situation is not unprecedented in dramatic history. Five-hundred years ago Shakespeare created some plays — Pericles, Cymbaline, and The Winter's Tale — that were similarly broken into two phases. Let's look at one of them and compare it to Mo' Better Blues. Like Mo' Better, The Winter's Tale breaks into two movements. In both cases, the second movement focuses on the offspring of the characters introduced in the first piece.

Big Pink




Saturday, August 13, 2011

Beyond Close Reading

Whether it be France or in the United States, the foremost characteristic of contemporary criticism is the tendency to expect a reconciliation from poetry; to see it in a possibility of filling the gap that cleaves Being.

—Paul de Man, The Dead-end of Formalist Criticism

Ever since I was seduced, shall we say, by Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of ethnographic materials, in particular, his analysis of myth, I have been puzzled why what became the critical establishment passed over his structuralism in favor of deconstruction. It could not have been that Lévi-Strauss had, after all, been deconstructed. Because every thinker worth consideration can be deconstructed, mostly certainly the deconstructors themselves, who deconstruct in uneasy and uncanny awareness of this peculiar fact.

In time I settled on a simple explanation for this passing over: Lévi-Strauss sought to objectify the thinking behind the artifacts he analyzed, and that, whether he was successful or not, put his methods beyond reach. It is all fine a good to objectify Other People’s Culture, but we, the exegetes of Western texts, we are not going to do that with our texts. No sir. While I still believe that to be the case, the recent Arcade discussion of close reading has caused me to refocus that thought.

But perhaps refocus is not the concept I need. It’s more like regestalt. Where I was looking at a rabbit, or a young woman, they’re looking at a duck, or an old crone, as the figure may be. In a response to comments Andrew Goldstone remarked: “If I could have figured out how to specify it more accurately, I would have added ‘vaguely theological flavor’ to my list of genre requisites.” Later on Lee Konstantinou remarks “. . . though one could argue that being inducted into literary mysteries is a form of appreciation. We move beyond simple evaluation toward appreciation-as-epiphany or appreciation-as-secular-religious-experience.” It is that theological resonance that had escaped my own thinking.

And that depite the fact that I have often thought of traditional critics as a secular priesthood presiding over the sacred texts of their culture. Perhaps I put too much emphasis on the secular term of that description. Perhaps the operative attitude was never so secular. Perhaps traditional humanist criticism takes place in an unstable liminal zone between secular activity pure and simple and explicit religious exegesis of the standard Judeo-Christian Biblical texts.

In any event, I missed that nuance. But I didn’t miss the nostalgia that persisted even among those who questioned the New Critics. Consider Geoffrey Hartman, one of the so-called Yale School of deconstructive critics, though Hartman did not go so far as Miller, de Man, nor Derrida himself. In the title essay from The Fate of Reading (1975) Hartman is grappling with the fact that, no matter how intensely critics are oriented toward the texts of which they write, that very act of writing requires distance from those texts. One cannot write about the text if and while one is immersed in reading it. Complaining that contemporary theorists—mostly French or under French influence—have come to privilege such writing over reading, Hartman asks (p. 272): "To what can we turn now to restore reading, or that conscious and scrupulous form of it we call literary criticism?"

Friday, August 12, 2011


Appropriations Battle


How Big is a Thought?

What a strange question: How big is a thought? Can have sizes?

We know that a blue whale is larger than the krill on which it feeds. Does that mean that the blue whale thought must be larger, by 100s of thousands of times, than the krill thought? What about the thought of a star and the thought of a quark? Is the thought of the universe the biggest thought of all? If so, is it contained in that sentence, by mere inclusion of the phrase, “thought of the universe”, for that sentence is a small thing, is it not?

I suppose one might as well ask: How many thoughts can you put on the head of a pin, nicely arranged, by category? Now, if one asked that of books, the answer is simple: None, books are each one alone, typically, much larger than a pin head. Now, if we could miniaturize the books—I’m thinking of Nelson Shrinkafeller (scan down the page), an occasional character from the old Li’l Abner cartoon strip . . . .

The size of a book depends on many things, kind and weight of paper, page size, how the type is set, and so forth. But it depends mostly on the number of words. Words represent thoughts, no? Do lots of words imply a big thought, perhaps standing behind them, like the sun rising through the trees, spreading streams of glory through the forest? But what of a telephone book? Lots of words, but nary a thought among them.

If all those questions are born of category mistakes, you say, then how is it that we talk of big ideas? There’s a website called Big Think, presenting “Blogs, Articles and Videos from the World's Top Thinkers and Leaders.” What is it about those thoughts that makes them big? I suppose its their implications. Perhaps a BIG THOUGHT has implications for many other thoughts, brings a new order to them, whereas small and medium-sized thoughts are not so richly linked to other thoughts.

Perhaps we can represent thoughts by networks, like maps. Each atomic thought is a place on the map. These thoughts are connected to one another across the surface of the map. We could then say that thoughts with more connections, with a larger network, are BIGGER than thoughts with few connections.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Whose Norm?


Apocalypse Now and Thin Red Line

I’ve been enjoying Malick’s The Thin Red Line and thought I’d compare it with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Nothing elaborate or formal; just some notes.

Both are war films, and both involve the jungle. But they’re quite different. Still, I can’t help wondering whether or not Malick has learned from Coppola’s staging of the jungle. To be sure, Malick’s film is much more IN the jungle than Coppola’s, but I can’t help but think that anyone who’d see Apocalypse Now would be influenced by the Chef & Willard jungle tiger sequence. Not in any direct and deliberate way. It’s just that when you’ve SEEN that sequence in Apocalypse Now you can’t help but see the jungle in that way. On the other hand, all those shots of the sun filtering down through the trees in a misty air, those are Malick’s.

Both films involve a (human) sacrifice, though with different valence. Coppola’s Kurtz is sacrificed to rid the national soul of bad blood while Malick’s Witt is sacrified, well, that others might live, and perhaps to validate THE LIGHT as well. There’s nothing in Coppola’s film doing the work of The Light in Malick’s; nor is there anything in Malick’s film doing the work of a largely invisible directorate of four star general clowns. It’s not obvious to me whether this difference is metaphysical or merely a contingent matter of thematic choice.

Malick treats war as a fact of human life, as a fact, perhaps, of the cosmos at large. Deal with it. Coppola treats war as the product of cumulative human corruption. Deal with it.

And deal with it they have. Superbly, each in his way.

Tossing Paint Binds the World, or, Green Chapel in Jersey City


Yet he saw some way off what seemed like a mound,
A hillock high and broad, hard by the water,
Where the stream fell in foam down the face of the steep
And bubbled as if it boiled on its bed below.
The knight urges his horse, and heads for the knoll;
Leaps lightly to earth; loops well the rein
Of his steed to a stout branch, and stations him there.
He strides straight to the mound, strolls all about,
Much wondering what it was, but no whit the wiser;
It had a hole at one end, and on either side,
And hollow all within, like some old cave,
Or a crevice of an old crag—he could not discern

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Urban Design Studio, as I’ve been calling it, isn’t quite so undifferentiated from its surroundings as is the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it aspires to that condition. Here’s a shot of the North Wall:


The foliage all but disappears into the blue and yellow patterning on the wall, or is it emergence? Taking a closer look, could that be the Green Knight himself we see?


Let’s move around to the West Wall. Here we see a typical undifferentiated palimpsest of multiple interacting asynchronous causal agents, that is, different writers, different times, messin’ ‘round:

Trinity, 3 Malicks

seeing thru.jpg


flaming green & fuzz.jpg