Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hercule Poirot: The Reveal, and a Bleg

I’ve been watching a bunch of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries on YouTube. As the Wikipedia notes: "After solving a case Poirot has the habit of collecting all people involved into a single room and explaining them the reasoning that led him to the solution, and revealing that the murderer is one of them."

What’s up with that? Others have used that trope, but did Christie invent it?

What I really want to know is: Why? How does the trope function? While Poirot could simply point out the guilty party and then explain how he figured it out, he never does that. There’s always an element of indirection in his technique, casting suspicion on other suspects before finally nailing the culprit.

Of course, this gives Christie, or the film-maker, an opportunity to review the case and thereby refresh it in the reader’s/viewer’s mind. What’s the function of the review?

ADDENDUM: The answer to this question might will be somewhere at Michael Grost's site, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, which I've just discovered courtesy of David Bordwell's current (11 June 2012) piece, I Love a Mystery: Extra-credit reading. Grost's site is mind-bogglingly extensive and Bordwell's article is wonderful. Did you know that "in 1940, 40 % of all titles published were mysteries, and in 1945, an average four radio shows devoted to mystery were broadcast every day, each drawing about ten million listeners"? I didn't.

Variations: Weed in Dandelion




Baboons Decide, Beethoven 9

Reading Latour’s recent essay reminds me that he’s done some work on baboons. I haven’t, but a particular bit of baboon behavior has been on my mind for years: collective decision-making. Here’s a passage from Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 107-110) where I talk about baboon decision-making and compare it to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Let’s consider an example of real social interaction, but not among humans. Let us follow Hans Kummer in observing a resting troop of baboons deciding where to go next. As you read this account you might imagine that you are a baboon situated somewhere in the middle of a troop having, say, eighty members. This is what Kummer sees from his vantage point outside the troop:
The troop performs slow on-the-spot movements, changing its shape like an undecided amoeba. Here and there, males move a few yards away from the troop and sit down, facing in a particular direction away from the center. Pseudopods are generally formed by the younger adult males and their groups. For a time, pseudopods protrude and withdraw again, until one of the older males in the center of the troop rises and struts toward one of the pseudopods. At this, the entire troop is alerted and begins to depart in the indicated direction.
There is thus a fair amount of milling about in which the group ponders its options and, after due deliberation, an elder makes a decision. The troop pulls together and heads out. By comparison you might think about the opening of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: distinctly different musical ideas mill about at until one of them, the “Ode to Joy,” takes charge.

Let’s think about the older males at the group’s center. They cannot see the entire troop in a glance nor even by scanning from a fixed point of view. Each is checking out the various pseudopods and one another, glancing about, picking up indications here and there and integrating it all until one of them decides both that he’s the one to signal a direction, and what that direction is. Whatever the exact nature of the neural dynamics that performs these tasks, all this attending, updating, and integrating requires a pretty sophisticated control system to scan the scene and integrate tens or hundreds of indications about the state of the troop.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Latour's Modes of Existence

Ornstein's Tart's State-Specific Sciences, and a Note on Work, Love, Play, and Adventure

Graham Harman has just posted a link to a Latour draft: Biography of an Investigation: On a Book about Modes of Existence (PDF).

An Ethnographer from Mars

Here's one passage, about his days in Africa:
In the Abidjan of 1973-75, I discovered all at once the most predatory forms of capitalism, the methods of ethnography, and the puzzles of anthropology. And one puzzling question in particular that has never left me: why do we use the ideas of modernity, the modernizing frontier, the contrast between modern and premodern, before we even apply to those who call themselves civilizers the same methods of investigation that we apply to the “others” – those whom we claim, if not to civilize entirely, then at least to modernize a little? ...

There was a flagrant asymmetry here: the Whites anthropologized the Blacks, yes, quite well, but they avoided anthropologizing themselves. Or else they did so in a falsely distant, “exotic” fashion, by focusing on the most archaic aspects of their own society – communal festivals, belief in astrology, first communion meals – and not on what I was seeing with my own eyes (eyes educated, it is true, by a collective reading of L’Anti-Oedipe): industrial technologies, economization, “development,” scientific reasoning, and so on: in other words, everything that makes up the structural heart of the expanding empires.

Whence the idea of applying the methods of the social sciences, ethnography in particular, to the most modern practices.
Indeed, why not? Why not, in effect, take up the role of the mythical Martian ethnographer and use it as a vehicle to study the Modern World at the very heart of Modernity and height of its Powers?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weeds, Where from do they Come?


Yellow Iris


Unbounded Qualities of Objects

The Other Side of Withdrawal

The need for philosophy and its place in the intellectual world may be self-evident to you. But, as I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s not self-evident to me. Thus, as I’ve been thinking about object oriented ontology and related matters over the past year or so, I’ve been wondering: What’s this for? What can it do that can’t be done with other conceptual tools?

While I suppose I could try to take OOO at face value, that would be an artificial and not very useful exercise. Rather, I wish to locate philosophy within matters that have concerned me even though I have not attempted to develop them in a philosophical manner. My recent posts on Kuhn, Gibson and OOO mark one properly philosophical line of though. A recent post by Harman reminded me of another. The post is a long one about an open letter written by one Belhaj Kacem. Though it’s interesting in full, here’s the bit the set off bells:
1. At least twice, and arguably three times, Belhaj Kacem claims that I believe the primary qualities of things can be directly known by mathematics. Absolutely not! That’s Meillassoux, not me. I disagree with that claim completely.
There we are, “qualities of things” and “can be directly known” – those phrases are what clicked.

You see, for some time now I’ve been entertaining the notion that things can have an unbounded number of qualities, only some of which will come into play in any given interaction with an object. Measurement is a kind of interaction in which human investigators assess this or that quality of an object. And, as we know, the problematics of measurement have loomed over the past century or so.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tiny grass is dreaming

So reads a sign somewhere in China. Actually, the sign reads "Do Not Disturb, Tiny Grass is Dreaming." Just how that came about, the sign, not the dreaming grass, is subject to a wonderful post at Language Log. The notion of dreaming grass seems to be a popular one in the Middle Kingdom.

• • • • •


Grass, not necessarily tiny. Don't think it's dreaming either. More like prophesying.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Paradox of Suspense

Writing of a reader who’d complained that, in an earlier post, he’d included spoilers about a book (The Hunger Games), Stanley Fish cites evidence that spoilers do not in fact spoil a story. On the contrary:
In August 2011 two researchers at the University of California at San Diego reported (in the journal Psychological Science) that in a controlled experiment, “subjects significantly preferred spoiled over unspoiled stories in the case of both … ironic twist stories and … mysteries.” In fact, it seems “that giving away … surprises makes readers like stories better “perhaps because of the “pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character.”

The suggestion is that there is a trade-off in the pleasures available to first-time readers or viewers on the one hand, and “repeaters” (as they are called in the scholarly literature) on the other. First-time readers or viewers, because they don’t know what’s going to happen, have access to the pleasures of suspense — going down the wrong path, guessing at the identity of the killer, wondering about the fate of the hero. Repeaters who do know what is going to happen cannot experience those pleasures, but they can recognize significances they missed the first time around, see ironies that emerge only in hindsight and savor the skill with which a plot is constructed. If suspense is taken away by certainty, certainty offers other compensations, and those compensations, rather than being undermined by a spoiler, require one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Some Varieties of the Author and Authority

One of the things I found just a bit curious about Andrew Goldstone’s post on book publishing was his assertion, in his diagram, that writers are the focus of literary study. I’d always thought it was the texts that were the focus, but perhaps Goldstone was simply asserting the priority of writers over readers.

In a comment Natalia Cecire introduces the notion of a meta-author:
In some ways this notion—or this literary moment—restores the primacy of an author, or let's say, meta-author (that is, the publisher), who controls the list. To privilege the early twentieth century for the ways in which it enables such a reading (whether or not the charismatic publisher model is quite appropriate) seems to be a bit of a retreat. For the mind-boggling publishing conglomerates we have now, we have to compass a notion of corporate meta-authorship (the way that Pixar authors an animated feature). At that point, I suppose, narratives fail.
The Pixar example is interesting. My initial impulse was to ask: But is the Pixar case any different from that of the collectivity that makes any film?

But that’s not quite right. For, in the case of live-action film, we’ve arrived at the convention of attributing the film to the director; in some case the director may also be the writer but this is generally not the case. But Pixar is NOT a director. It is a studio. Pixar films do have directors, but there does seem to be a tendency for the studio itself to overshadow the director. Thus WALL-E, for example, is a Pixar film, not an Andrew Stanton film. But then, Disney is like that too. There are directors for Disney features, but the films are generally attributed to the studio, not to the directors.

So, we’ve got: individual authors of books, directors of live-action films, studios producing animated features (Pixar and Disney) and now meta-authors, that is, publishing houses. I don’t think Cecire was proposing “meta-author” as a serious term of art; she was on her way to making another point, one involving a passage from Tocqueville.

Still and all, I note that it was not so long ago that the author was proclaimed dead. Not literally, of course, but as a causal agent in accounting for texts the author was deemed useless and authorial agency was dispersed into impersonal codes and social institutions. In this context Cecire’s meta-author looks like a ghostly being suspended between the creature that actually wrote the manuscript and the codes and institutions that distribute it and through which it is intelligible.

This business of agency is a tricky one, isn’t it?

A Side-Order of Flat Ontology, A Latour Litany



Monday, May 21, 2012

Wind-Blown Light

living light blown by the wind.jpg

Virtual Windows

virtual windows.jpg

Music Cognition U, a website

Here's what they say about themselves:
Music Cognition U. is designed and maintained by a group of music cognition research scientists to communicate our latest findings to the public, to students, public policy makers, and other researchers. It is also a place for people to communicate, comment, and share their experiences and thoughts about music with one another and the research community. The page is hosted by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin at McGill University, through a grant from The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Swan, white


The Puzzle of Publishing and Literary Culture

Writing at Arcade, Andrew Goldstone has a post on the apparent lack of connection between the study of literature and the study of book publishing. The post consists of a summary of the central arguments from John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, which I’ve not read, as framed by Goldstone’s bemusement.

Thus, literary scholars “are much more used to making arguments about the product than the process. And Thompson’s attention to publishing turns out not to require much specificity about the products—that is, the texts of books, or even the way readers read books.” Thompson writes about literary agents, publishers, and retailers, not about writers much less those creatures of mystery, readers:
Thompson repeatedly emphasizes that one of the distinguishing traits of publishing as a business is the unpredictability of the success of any given book. Selling books is not like selling widgets, because readers’ taste remains, in the view even of the sales executives and marketing managers of big publishing corporations, very hard to predict. Only top author “brands” and certain very well-defined genres have any predictability of reader response, but these domains of lesser uncertainty are not enough to sustain the big publishers’ business.
In that respect, the book business is like the movie business, as Robert De Vany has demonstrated in Hollywood Economics. The people whose business depends on the sale of books, or movie admissions, don’t know how to predict behavior in their marketplace. It’s opaque to them.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Young Man With Another Man's Horn

Reprinted from The Valve, back in July of 2008.
I suppose I was somewhere between 11 and 13 years old when I saw Young Man With a Horn on TV. It had a powerful effect on me. I played trumpet, not terribly well in any absolute sense, though I was pretty good for my age. And I was discovering jazz.

A movie about was a jazz trumpet player was thus a natural. The actual trumpet playing was superb, as it was done by Harry James, a man who knew the craft though I didn’t know it at the time. The film starred Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin and told a standard tale of conflict between the requirements of commercial success and the need for artistic freedom. It also told a standard tale of a man caught between a mysterious woman who’s no good for him and the wholesome woman who’s just what he needs, though he doesn’t find that out until he’s all but destroyed himself pursuing the mystery woman.

hazzard observes.jpg

But this essay is mostly about the music, not the romance. And about the racial characterization, not only of the music, but, by implication, of one’s soul, one’s inner self. But let’s hold off on that for a moment while I continue to wax nostalgic.

There’s a scene early in the film where Rick Martin is sitting in bed playing his trumpet while his teacher looks on. I thought this was so cool that, as soon as the movie was over, I went up to my room, sat in my bed, and played my trumpet. That’s the kind of effect this movie had on me. But I soon discovered that, cool though it may have looked, sitting in bed is no way to play the trumpet. It makes breathing and breath support difficult. Without breath, the trumpet is nothing. I also learned to be skeptical about what you see in movies.

End of digression. This is not about what I learned from this movie when I was a kid. This is about how the movie staged the social relations of jazz.




Chaos in the Movie Biz: A Review of Hollywood Economics

De Vany presents a profound and imaginative treatment of the economics of the movie business, one that has implications, not only for similar businesses such as publishing and music (and even pharmaceuticals), but for our understanding of the dynamics of culture. When Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" he unwittingly paved the way for tons and tons of sexy but shallow commentary on human culture. Though that is not what he set out to do – "meme" never shows up in the book – De Vany has given mathematical form to the behavior of movie memes and has demonstrated that it is the people who are in charge, not the memes.

I want to underscore this point as many of my humanist colleagues have spent the last several decades castigating Hollywood for its hegemonic hold over the subject masses who have little choice but to submit to having their brains scrambled by Hollywood nonsense. It’s not that simple. Hollywood would dearly love to have such control over the audience, for it would make for a much more profitable business. Alas, as De Vany demonstrates, the Hollywood suits and moguls don’t have that kind of power. The oppressed masses do, in fact, have quite a bit of autonomy in their actions. No movie can succeed without word-of-mouth recommendations, and those words cannot be dictated from on high.

Nobody Knows

In the words of screen writer William Goldman, “nobody knows anything” about what happens to movies once they are released to the theatres. Most movies don't even break even, much less make a profit – not in theatrical release, which is what De Vany investigates. (These days, movies make money on DVDs and TV, but that's another story, told by Jay Epstein.) That's no way to run a business, but the problems are inherent in the nature of movies as a business venture. The deep and ineradicable condition of the business is that there is no reliable way to estimate the market appeal of a movie short of putting it on screens across the country and seeing if people come to watch.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bordwell on Movie Tech (and Artistry)

Over the past several months, David Bordwell has been thinking hard, and writing a lot, about the move to digital technology in films. His most recent post is called The Gearheads, with George Star Wars Lucas, James Avatar Cameron, and Peter Lord of the Rings Jackson as the reigning Troika of Tech. It's a long post, and I'm not going to attempt a summary. But I'll quote a passage, actually, three passages: one about about illusion, one about gear, and the other about a film.

Now that we've been sold digital and 3D, the next techinnovation is higher frame-rate, 48, if not 60, frames per second. Always, the Troika talks of realism:
It’s hard to believe that Lucas and Cameron don’t know the long tradition of debate in the arts about realism. Realism can be considered a question of subject matter, plot plausibility, random detail, psychological revelation, and many other things; it isn’t just about trompe l’oeil illusion. Moreover, documentary and experimental filmmakers have suggested that cinema can capture moments of unplanned truth. And André Bazin and others have argued that even when presenting fictional tales, photographic cinema gives us unique access to some essential qualities of phenomenal reality.... Instead, Lucas and Cameron offer a Frank Frazetta notion of realism: glistening, overripe, academically correct rendering of things we’ve seen many times before.

The Nonhuman Turn

That’s the title of a conference recently hosted by the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. I learned about the conference at Tim Morton’s joint.

My initial reaction was one of irritation: Yet another freakin’ TURN! What is it with humanists and these turns? – the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the cognitive turn, the Crab Nebula turn, the spinach turn, the giant economy-size turn.

The “turn” usage bugs me. Somehow it strikes me as self-regarding, as though conflated with “star turn”. It’s as though something doesn’t exist until it’s blessed by humanists, which act of blessing is called turning. Or perhaps it's an implication that the world turns about us humanists. (For an alternative reading, from the conference more-or-less, scan down this page.)

And so now the humanists have recognized the nonhuman. Good. I just wish they’d get on with it instead of making such a fuss.

ADDENDUM: In view of some of the "theoretical developments" listed in the conference announcemnt (e.g. the new brains sciences, systems theory) is the nonhuman turn a way of legitimizing science for the true-blue humanist?

Subjective and Objective

The supposedly separate realms of the subjective and the objective are actually only poles of attention. The dualism of observer and environment is unnecessary. The information for the perception of "here" is of the same kind as the information for the perception of "there," and a continuous layout of surfaces extends from one to the other. . . . Self-perception and environment perception go together.
—J. J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

Lush, in an abandoned building


Just a little closer...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mind-Culture Coevolution

This is the introduction to an old website where I've parked a bunch of work that David Hays and I did on cultural evolution. I thought I'd repost it here as a guild to that work. In the first three sections I indicate the rough outline and intellectual context of that work, then I comment briefly on the individual papers (and Hays' book on technological evolution), my book on music (Beethoven's Anvil), and finally Hays' last work, in which he reviewed and synthesized the literature on cultural complexity in non-literate cultures. Note: This has been superseded by a newer version on New Savanna.

Mind and Culture

A central phenomenon of the human presence on earth is that, over the long term, we have gained ever more capacity to understand and manipulate the physical world and, though some would debate this, the human worlds of psyche and society. The major purpose of the theory which the late David Hays and I have developed (and which I continue to develop) is to understand the mental structures and processes underlying that increased capacity. While more conventional students of history and of cultural evolution have much to say about what happened and when and what was influenced by what else, few have much to say about the conceptual and affective mechanisms in which these increased capacities are embedded. That is the story we have been endeavoring to tell.

Our theory is thus about processes in the human mind. Those processes evolve in tandem with culture. They require culture for their support while they enable culture through their capacities. In particular, we believe that the genetic elements of culture are to be found in the external world, in the properties of artifacts and behaviors, not inside human heads. Hays first articulated this idea in his book on the evolution of technology and I have developed it in my papers "Culture as an Evolutionary Arena," "Culture's Evolutionary Landscape" and, most recently, in my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. This puts our work at odds with some students of cultural evolution, especially those who identify with memetics, who tend to think of culture's genetic elements as residing in nervous systems.

We have aspired to a system of thought in which the mechanisms of mind and feeling have discernible form and specificity rather than being the airy nothings of philosophical wish and theological hope. We would be happy to see computer simulations of the mechanisms we've been proposing. Unfortunately neither the computational art nor our thinking is up to this task. But that, together with the neuropsychologist's workbench, is the arena in which these matters must eventually find representation investigation, and a long way down the line, resolution. The point is that, however vague our ideas about mechanisms currently may be, it is our conviction that the phenomenon under investigation, culture and its implementation in the human brain, is not vague and formless, nor is it, any more, beyond our ken.

Where, in the History of Thought, is OOO?

The Object-Oriented Ontologists, along, I suspect, with the Speculative Realists, seem to think that their turn to metaphysics is a New Philosophical Beginning. And perhaps it is. Stylistically, though, it rather reads like earlier philosophy in the (20th century) Continental tradition. That is, at least from more or less the outside, it seems more or less of a piece with that older work.

Not a rupture at all, and thus not New Beginning. Not necessarily more of the same, but more of something similar.

Latour – We Have Never Been Modern, Politics of Nature – seems rather closer to a New Beginning. Though there’s more than a little Continental indirection and metaphor in his style, it doesn’t seem quite so bound up in the style.

By way of comparison, consider the relationship between Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian mechanics. Could we say that OOO surpasses Kant and Hegel as Einstein surpasses Newton?

In terms of the account that David Hays and I have offered of the major transitions in the development of human culture, is OOO philosophy rank 4 while Kant and Hegel are rank 3?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dance to a Different Drummer: Groovology and Politics

Groovology, about the groove, the human groove, the dancing and music-making at the heart of human community and togetherness. A line of thinkers going back through Darwin and Rousseau argued that it’s music that made clever apes into human beings – and, wouldn’t you know? that connects to the apes, the rabbits, fish, bees, flowers and the earth as well. Because we sing and dance we are human. Groovology is lightness and joy, but also sorrow and healing. It binds us together in common action and feeling, in community.

What has that to do with politics?

Politics too is about community, about negotiating among that various needs and desires of people living in a group. When the group is small, the negotiations are face-to-face, as is grooving. When the group is small, groovology and politics are commensurate, their connection is obvious.

It is when the group gets large, very large, that the connection is obscured. The USofA is very large, our political leaders distant from the local places where we politic and negotiate. And yet there are obvious connections, still.

Politics is not all backrooms and stolen votes. Politics is also ceremony, and ceremony has music: Hail to the Chief, The Star Spangled Banner, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Washington Post March, Taps, and much else.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Human Self, Natural, Cultural, Both, Neither?

Maurice Bloch has an interesting article on the human self which he dubs “the blob” for rhetorical purposes: The Blob, Anthropology of This Century (Issue 1, May 2011). His purpose is sketch out a framework in which the universalist tendencies of psychologists and the culturally specific and relativist tendencies of anthropologists can commingle and even be transcended in a mutually beneficial way.

Rather than attempt a summary, much less a discussion, I’m just going to offer a few paragraphs to indicate the flavor of the discussion. Thus, the opening paragraph:
The history of the social sciences and especially that of modern anthropology has been dominated by a recurrent controversy about what kind of phenomena people are. On the one hand there are those who assume that human beings are a straightforward matter: they are beings driven by easily understood desires directed towards an empirically obvious world. The prototypical examples of such theoreticians are Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, or more recently the proponents of rational choice theory. The positions of these thinkers have been, again and again, criticised by those who have stressed that there can be no place in theory for actors who are simply imagined as “generic human beings” since people are always the specific product of their particular and unique location in the social, the historical and the cultural process. Among the writers who have made this kind of point are such as Emile Durkheim, Louis Dumont, and more recently Michel Foucault and the post-modernists.
After this that and the other Bloch proposes a multi-level model with a core component (no reflexive awareness) common to all animals (I believe), a minimal component (a sense of continuity in time) common to birds and mammals (more or less), and a narrative component which seems unique to humans. The narrative component comes in two flavors, which Bloch differentiates according to a distinction proposed by philosopher Galen Strawson, who
argues that there are some people who are into creating conscious autobiographical narratives about themselves. These he refers to as “diachronics”. And there are others, like himself, who are just not interested in doing this. It is not their rhetorical style. He calls these latter people, somewhat unfortunately, “episodics”. Strawson intends the distinction to apply to all cultures at all times but the people he uses as examples are all Europeans or North Americans. As will be made clear below, although I am sure he is right that everywhere and at all times there are individuals of both type, that does not mean that the distinction is not of use also in contrasting different cultural settings.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Two Geese


Thinking Together, One Mind or Many?

I’m interested in how we think together, in why some conceptual work must be done alone, while other work can variously be shared with others.

Without bothering to do more set-up, let’s wade right in, with a passage from Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1970, 2nd Ed.). We’re in the first chapter, where he’s developing the concept of a paradigm and using optics as his example and noting that various schools of thought and practice had obtained before optics emerged as a mature science (p. 13):
At various times all these schools made significant contributions to the body of concepts, phenomena, and techniques from which Newton drew the first nearly uniformly accepted paradigm for physical optics. Any definition of the scientist that excludes at least the more creative members of these various schools will exclude their modern successors as well. Those men were scientists. Yet anyone examining a survey of physical optics before Newton may well conclude that, though the field’s practitioners were scientists, the net result of their activity was something less than science. Being able to take no common body of belief for granted, each writer on physical optics felt forced to build his field anew from is foundations. In doing so, his choice of supporting observation and experiment was relatively free, for there was no standard set of methods or of phenomena that every optical writer felt forced to employ and explain. Under these circumstances, the dialogue of the resulting books was often directed as much to the members of other schools as it was to nature. That pattern is not unfamiliar in a number of creative fields today, nor is it incompatible with significant discovery and invention. It is not, however, the pattern of development that physical optics acquired after Newton and that other natural sciences make similar today.
Kuhn continues with further examples and eventually comes up with the notion of a paradigm, which in his original formulation was something only possessed by mature scientific disciplines (within a decade or two the concept had been generalized to everything). Thus Kuhn would speak of the pre-paradigmatic phase of a discipline that, upon adoption of a paradigm, became a science.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Decade of Wolfram's New Science

Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science (NKS) was published in May 10 years ago. Wolfram has a post in which he discusses what's come of those ideas so far: what kinds of work has been done (pure, applied, NKS "way of thinking) in various fields: computer science, math, physics, etc. From his post,  [note the Latour litany]:
Hair patterns in mice. Shapes of human molars. Collective butterfly motion. Evolution of soil thicknesses. Interactions of trading strategies. Clustering of red blood cells in capillaries. Patterns of worm appendages. Shapes of galaxies. Effects of fires on ecosystems. Structure of stromatolites. Patterns of leaf stomata operation. Spatial spread of influenza in hospitals. Pedestrian traffic flow. Skin cancer development. Size distributions of companies. Microscopic origins of friction. And many, many more.

One of the key lessons of NKS is that even when a phenomenon appears complex, there may still be a simple underlying model for it. And to me one of the most interesting features of the applied NKS literature is that over the course of the decade typical successful models have been getting simpler and simpler—presumably as people get more confident in using the methods and ideas of NKS.
 I find his notion of computational irreducibility particularly suggestive. If literary works are computationally irreducible in that sense, then interpretation can never, in principle, capture the meaning of a literary work. At best, it can only approximate this or that aspect of the meaning. (Actually I suspect it's weaker than that, but...)

More Dandelion Being


Reality 2: Heidegger/Harman and J. J. Gibson

This is, in a logical sense, a prequel to yesterday’s post, Reality 1: Kuhn and Harman. In that post I asserted an analogy between Thomas Kuhn’s treatment of the relationship between Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics and Graham Harman’s treatment of Eddington’s two tables, the phenomenal table and the quantum mechanical table. The purpose of this prequel is to put some conceptual scaffolding between the perceptual activity of examining an object and the rather more abstraction activity of scientific reasoning about objects. We begin by first considering Heidegger’s account of the object, as given by Harman (for I’ve not myself read Heidegger) and then move on to the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson. That will create an “epistemological bridge” to yesterday’s treatment of Kuhn.

Tool Being and the Phenomenal World

Let us begin with some passages from Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object, where he recounts Heidegger’s analysis of the tool (p. 35):
His famous tool analysis in Being and Time shows that our usual way of dealing with things is not observing them as present-at-hand (vorhanden) in consciousness, but silently relying on them as ready-to-hand (zuhanden). Hammers and drills are usually present to us only when they fail. Prior to this they withdraw into a subterranean background, enacting their reality in the cosmos without appearing in the least. Insofar as they recede into the depths, tool-beings tend to coalesce into a system of equipment in which it is difficult to distinguish between individual beings.
I note, without further commentary, that Heidegger chose a tool as his object of philosophical contemplation, that is, something artificial.

I note further that one sort of psychologist would say that we become habituated to tools while a different psychologist would observe that we assimilate tools to our sensory-motor schemas. I provide this psychological framing to ease the transition to J. J. Gibson, a psychologist, but also, simply, as a possible matter of interest.


Or the conjunction between cave art and digital media


Monday, May 7, 2012

Reality 1: Kuhn and Harman

There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Postscript-1969
First a bit of Thomas Kuhn on two paradigms of dynamics, Newtonian and Einsteinian, and then a bit of Graham Harman on tables.

Newtonian and Einsteinian Dynamics

In one of the later chapters of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn considers the relationship between Newtonian and Einsteinian dynamics (pp. 97-103). The problem arises because, though Einstein’s theory has apparently supplanted Newton’s theory, that theory and its various extensions and elaborations have not been tossed on the dust-heap of history. They remain in daily use by countless engineers and scientists around the world. How can this be so if Einstein’s theory is the more accurate one?

It is not simply that, for a wide range of situations, classical dynamics is sufficiently accurate, though that is the case. It is that for a wide range of situations there is no measurable difference between the classical account and the relativistic account. Perhaps, some have suggested, we can somehow derive the classical account from the relativistic account as a special case so that we really have only one theory, the relativistic theory.

Kuhn shows that this won’t work (pp. 101-102). Yes, we can start with statements of the Einsteinian account and add restrictions so as to cover only the Newtonian cases. While this justifies the continued use of Newtonian laws – Kuhn remarks that “an argument of the same type is used to justify teaching earth-centered astronomy to surveyors” (p. 102) – these derived laws are not, in fact, Newton’s. They don’t have the same form nor do the variables and parameters have the same physical referents. The derivation doesn’t do the required job. The two theories remain distinct. They embody, in Kuhn’s well-known term, different paradigms.

So, for a wide range of situations we seem to be ‘stuck’ with two different valid and attested scientific accounts. This doesn’t present any practical problems. But it seems to present some kind of conceptual problem. Let us, for the sake of argument, say that the problem is a metaphysical one. As such, it requires philosophical consideration.

But of what kind?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dandelion Being



Some Varieties of the Hero

Tim Perper has added extensive comments to yesterday’s bleg in which I asked for books about heroes. I’ve copied those comments into the first part of this post. After his remarks I’ve appended a passage by Northrup Frye.

Tim Perper: Preliminary Remarks on Heroes and Heroines in Manga and Anime

I was recently asked to comment on a paper about heroes in manga and anime, not only in general, but also specifically suggesting sources the author might want to use from other writers and critics. I’m no expert on Heroes in literature, but I know something about manga and anime.

The paper talks about the nature of the “hero,” failed heroes in particular, about manga and anime, about Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica, about Emiya Kiritsugu and Homura Akemi, and quite a range of other topics. I suggested that some focusing might help, but some related ideas might be more interesting here.

Thanks to your comments, it sure looks like there’s not all that much written by Western literary critics about the Hero as archetype – Joseph Campbell did a book on such heroes, and there’s a psychoanalytical literature as well, e.g., Otto Rank. However, there IS a good deal of writing on individual heroes in novels, plays, films, and comics. Franco Moretti did a book on the modern epic that covers a lot of this ground, and there are others as well.

The basic idea is that the concept of the Hero has changed very drastically in Western literary history – for example, starting with tales of King Arthur and of various Irish folk heroes, from a millennium or more ago, and then running into the “death of the hero” in the 19th century “bourgeois” novel, followed by his resurrection as Anti-Hero in the 20th Century, like Rieux, the anti-hero of Camus’ 1947 The Plague. The first kind of hero (King Arthur) is a man – no women in this literature! – who embodies the nation and its people, beliefs, and ideals in himself. The earliest and greatest was perhaps Beowulf from the 700s in Old English – he is archetype of the Ideal Man of his society. In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a masterful essay about this kind of hero. By contrast, Rieux is simply a physician stranded by World War II in Oran when the black plague strikes...

With the development of the bourgeosie in Europe starting ca. 1850, heroes like King Arthur and Cormac mac Airt faded away into memory. They have reawakened today only as cardboard fossils in modern video games of sword-swinging “heroes” who fight an endless array of multicolor computer monsters. Those computer game “heroes” are NOT heroes in the original sense of a man of great courage facing moral uncertainty and death – like Odysseus in Homer’s poetry or the heroes in medieval stories of Roland.

Part of the Sartrean existentialist vision – it arose in France after the end of World War II – denies that such heroes can even exist today. Hegel – who wrote an analysis of these king-heroes – is dead; long live Nietzsche – who wrote about the Lesser Man who supplanted the king-hero. With the Lesser Man comes Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) – a failure, not heroic enough even to be tragic. In US supercomics, we move away from one set of cardboard characters, like early Superman and Batman, to other cardboard characters like Peter Parker as Spiderman and Batman, the Dark Knight: the hero as a neurotic. The bourgeois “hero” has become not a heroic king, but Marcus Welby, M.D., played on US television by Robert Young from the 60s to mid-70s, and Jim Anderson, also played by Robert Young on Father Knows Best from the 50s to the mid-70s.

Another Lesser Man is Luke Skywalker – and with Star Wars a new element begins to emerge: the heroine starts to replace the Lesser Man in strength, courage, and just plain rattling warriorship. A much discussed subgenre of the Dangerous Heroine is the rape-revenge film, which has attracted a fair amount of critical attention, e.g., by Jacinda Read.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pacific Pizza, Nighttime


Supercolonies, or, What’s a society?

Mark “Dr. Bugs” Moffett has recently written a review of the literature on certain ants that live in so-called supercolonies:
Mark W. Moffett. Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society? Behavioral Ecology (2012). doi: 10.1093/behecoo /ars043, First published online: April 20, 2012. Full text here (PDF).
As the name suggests, supercolonies are large, with millions to perhaps a trillion members. They can also live in discontinuous sites, sometimes located on several continents, as a result of human transport.

What’s “at issue,” Moffett says, “is what we should consider a colony (or society).” However we may wish to characterize colonies from the outside, what’s functionally important is how individuals in societies distinguish between insiders and outsiders, for that’s the distinction that allows colonies to exist as functioning entities. Ants do not recognize one another as individuals.
The recognition system that ants use for identification with a colony and rejection of aliens is based on shared cues, typically a colony-specific odor blend generated by queens or workers (though environment has its influences: Crozier and Dix 1979; d’Ettorre and Lenoir 2010). As a result, ant colonies remain tightly knit without each individual necessarily having been in direct contact with every one of its nestmates.

Compare these “anonymous societies,” as I call them, with the societies of nonhuman vertebrates such as dolphins, elephants, cooperative breeding birds, and primates like the chimpanzee, where societies are defined by members recalling each other individually to know who is in their group and who is not.... I suggest calling these “individual recognition societies.” As a general rule such societies have at most 100 members.
The point of distinguishing between individual and anonymous recognition strategies, then, is colony size. Individual recognizers must recognize each an every member of the colony as individuals; anonymous recognizers do not. The colony size of individual recognizers is thus limited by the capacity of individuals to recognize one another. There is no such limitation on the colony size of anonymous recognizers.

Of course, we humans are individuals recognizers, and we’ve come to live in societies much larger than 100. And we do so by augmenting individual recognition in various ways. As an extreme example, consider passport control at border crossings. The officials who let travelers cross national borders certainly do not recognize individual travelers. Rather, they verify the validity of an official document that generally includes a photograph of the individual presenting that document. The stamps and seals on that document, in effect, play the role that odor blends play in ant colonies.

And with that, I turn things over to Moffett, first with the abstract for the article (which I’ve broken into segments) and then with a passage or two from the article itself.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bleg: Heroes and Heroines

My friend and colleague Tim Perper sent me the following email:
I need some references to canonical or not-so-canonical work on The Hero in lit crit. I'm looking for the kind of book about which knowledgegable people would say "Oh, you haven't read Warnoff's book? Well, you really MUST, you know --" whoever Warnoff may have been. Also anything by various Big Name critics, especially those Southern School guys with three names, like Walter Tamlake Carothers, whoever HE may have been.

I also need some equally canonical, or if not canonical then equally hip, discussion of differences between the Hero and the Heroine.

If you can throw in some Russian formalists, that'd help too. You know, Obstretchnikov's essay on "The Peasant Hero in Russian Folktales," written in 1923 under the influence of -- well, you get the idea.

In a word, I want the basic stuff, without which one is simply ignorant, like I am at the moment.
The first thing that came to mind was Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces, which also turned up at the top of a Google Scholar search. Anyone have any suggestions? Anything in that Google list look interesting?