Saturday, June 30, 2012

Let’s Pretend the Metaphysical Impulse


I have it on good authority that when the New Metaphysicians, those object-oriented mavens of the real, gather in their clubhouse for their Wednesday night meetings, they play a game, “Let’s pretend...”

Let’s pretend you’re a butterfly.

Let’s pretend you’re a Kuiper Belt Object. 
Let’s pretend you’re a bubble-sort algorithm. 
Let’s pretend you’re a kumquat. 
Let’s pretend you’re a mote in G-d’s eye. 
Let’s pretend you’re an end credit in a Miyazaki film. 
Let’s pretend.
They gather in a circle, clasp hands, close their eyes, and one of them utters the phrase: “Let’s pretend . . . “ Then another, just which one and how the determination is made is up in the air, fills in the blank: “... you’re an insight into the nature of being.” The next, as determined by the same method, adds an attribute, or an event: “I’d be colorless and green” – “I’d jump for joy” – “I’d, well, I’d I’d I’d “ – “You’d stutter, that’s what” – “you sorry excuse” – “for an iron butterfly” – “knockin’ on heaven’s” – “portmanteau.” And so the game goes.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Animals in Cartoons: Tripping the Elephants Electric

pink elephants 34 electricity

I’ve been thinking about the relationships between animals and humans in Disney’s Dumbo, about the fact that it centers on animals—elephants in particular—and not on humans. This animal focus is not at all unusual. By this time, 1941, there’d been a substantial history of cartoons centered on animals. If anything, cartoons were more likely to center on humans than animals.

At the same time I’ve been trying to get a handle on what, for lack of better terms, we can think of as the metaphysical implications of animation as a medium, specifically, animation as opposed to live action film-making. I’ll leave the metaphysics as an exercise for the reader; I’ve not yet figured out how to do it. But I’ve got half a clue about the animals.

Of Animals and Cartoons

Why elephants? Akira Mizuta Lippit has a most provocative suggestion in Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (pp. 186-187):
The Oxford English Dictionary places the first known usage of the word anthropomorphism in the context of “an injunction against attributing human traits to animals” in the second half of the nineteenth century. (Until this referential shift, the word was used to indicate mistaken attributions of human qualities to deities.) It is during in the nineteenth century, with the rise of modernism in literature and art, that animals came to occupy the thoughts of a culture in transition. As they disappeared, animals became increasingly the subjects of nostalgic curiosity. When horse-drawn carriages gave way to steam engines, plaster horses were mounted on tramcar fronts in an effort to simulate continuity with the older, animal-driven vehicles. Once considered a metonymy of nature, animals came to be seen as emblems of the new, industrialized environment. Animals appeared to merge with the new technological bodies replacing them.
Near the very end of the book Lippit has some intriguing comments about cinema, animation in particular (p. 196):
One final speculation: the cinema developed, indeed embodied animal traits as a gesture of mourning for the disappearing wildlife. The figure for nature in language, animal, was transformed in cinema to the name for movement in technology, animation. And if animals were denied the capacity for languages, animals as filmic organisms were themselves turned into languages, or at least, into semiotic facilities.
If Lippit’s speculations are plausible, and I’m certainly disposed toward them, we can begin to see why so many animals appeared in cartoons. As Lippit notes a bit later, animation “encrypted the figure of the animal as its totem” (p. 197). And so we have Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda, Tom and Jerry and Yogi the Bear, Huckleberry Hound and countless others, funny animals all. In Lippit’s terms, those funny animals are “semiotic facilities.” Facile, in the sense of virtuosity, they are, and fascinating as well.

Pluto the Dwarf and the Politics of Science

I was doing my usual situation review at 5AM when it struck me that the object officially known as 134340 Pluto would be a good case study for the role of social construction and politics in science. When I was growing up that object was known as Pluto (Wikipedia entry here), the ninth planet of our solar system. It was discovered in 1930 after a search that had begun in the 1840s. The name was suggested a British school girl, Venetia Burney and, soon after being applied to the planet, was applied to a cartoon dog by the Walt Disney Company.

And that’s where things stood until early in the last decade of the 20th Century when astronomers began to discover other similar objects “out there” in what became known as the Kuiper belt (Wikipedia article here). A number of the moons of other planets are hypothesized to be members of the Kuiper belt.

Then, 136199 Eris was discovered early in 2005. It’s much farther out in space then 134340 Pluto; but it orbits the sun; has its own moon, Dysnomia; and is larger than 134340 Pluto. Whoops! We’ve got problems, Houston.

It was one thing to discover the Pluto was one of a bunch of objects out there, some of which may be orbiting other planets as moons. As long as Pluto was larger than those other objects it made sense to classify it as a plant along with the other 8 (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) and thus as something other than those other KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects). But if Eris is larger than Pluto, albeit farther out, this classification is looking a bit capricious and arbitrary.

What to do?

Why Lévi-Strauss is Important

From Patrice Maniglier, Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2009: A Lévi-Straussian Century, published in radical philosophy:
Whether we think of Lacan, Barthes, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, or even Badiou, and no matter what philosophical resources directly inspired them, they all inherited problems (and often concepts) set up by Lévi-Strauss. More importantly, they also inherited the terrain upon which their daring speculative constructions could be deemed to touch directly on practices, in particular scientific ones. However, while the reputation of all these authors is now well established in philosophical circles, Lévi- Strauss remains comparatively little known and little read. This neglect, regrettably, contributes directly to the increasingly marked tendency to ‘normalize’ these practices and speculations and to confine them anew in somewhat solipsistic dialogue within a philosophical tradition that is once again locked within itself, taking away from themnot only their specificity but also a great deal of their intelligibility and interest. It is symptomatic that the English-speaking academic world (which prides itself so much, relative to its French counterpart, in ‘taking seriously’ these subversive thinkers, both as a source of inspirationand as objects of interpretation, if not veneration) has remained largely silent about Lévi-Strauss, while more and more works are devoted to him in French.... 
Lévi-Strauss proposed no small number of new philosophical constructs – take, among many others, the concept of ‘floating signifier’ which has had such a long career from Lacan to Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Spivak, Žižek, Laclau… He insisted, however, that such constructs were tobe treated as nothing more than ad hoc tools to solve particular anthropological or ethnographic problems, a strategy which did little to win over some of his philosophical colleagues.
In conclusion:
I don’t know whether the next century might one day be recognized as Deleuzean (or Badiouian, or anything else), but if it is, I’m sure that it that it won’t be so without us first realizing that the one which ended so recently has been Lévi-Straussian. It is time to start rereading his work, if we seek to find new ways to allow philosophical constructions to accomplish their real and most fundamental promise: to act upon the world they confront.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Entropy and Self-Organization on the Table Top

With a Note on What to do When You are Fascinated by Technical Concepts but Lack the Math: Call the Plumber!


Matter is not given. In the present-day view it has to be constructed out of a more fundamental concept in terms of quantum fields. In this construction of matter, thermodynamic concepts (irreversibility, entropy) have a role to play. 
–Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, 1984

I’ve been thinking a lot about entropy lately.

It is, of course, one of the foundational concepts of modern thought, haunting our dreams with the prospect of the universe grinding to a halt in heat death, but also animating our hope of understanding how life arose in the universe. In a Latourian context one might even speculate that entropy is the concept that, more than any other (except perhaps biological evolution, with which it has become richly intertwined), gives the lie to the Modern’s conceit that they are here and nature is somewhere over there, separated from one another by a sharp line of clear and distinct ideas. For the concept of entropy, unlike relativity and quantum mechanics, has arisen from deep within the world of classical physics.

According to the Wikipedia the term was coined in 1865 by Rudolf Clausius, but the work leading to the concept originated earlier in the century with the research of Lazare Carnot, a mathematician whose
1803 paper Fundamental Principles of Equilibrium and Movement proposed that in any machine the accelerations and shocks of the moving parts represent losses of moment of activity. In other words, in any natural process there exists an inherent tendency towards the dissipation of useful energy. Building on this work, in 1824 Lazare's son Sadi Carnot published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire which posited that in all heat-engines whenever "caloric", or what is now known as heat, falls through a temperature difference, work or motive power can be produced from the actions of the "fall of caloric" between a hot and cold body.
There you have it, the machine, a mechanical device with moving parts. We have Newtonian mechanics with its three laws of motion and the grand suggestion that the universe works like a clock, a vast device of many parts all ticking away in perfect order, except when they don’t. And there’s La Mettrie’s 1748 treatise, Man a Machine.

Oh! how easy our intellectual life would have become if only the universe were nothing but a clock and we but little tick-tocks within it.

But it is not, nor are we. The mechanistic vision ground to a halt in the analysis of fire and we became but especially clever monkeys through Darwin’s elucidation of a pattern he traced though the geological, paleontological, botanical and zoological records.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Green Being


Here's a question about aesthetics under purview of object-oriented ontology: The idea of a flat ontology means that we no longer have a ladder in which humans are above animals, animals above plants, and plants above rocks. Does that imply that rocks and plants are as worthly of photographic attention as humans? Even that they are as beautiful, to use a somewhat old and neglected word?


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Being in Division, Sky in Grass


Background to Pluralism

I have been interested in pluralist ideas for some time, though have never attempted to develop them in a systematic way, nor do I have any immediate plans to do so. But, in anticipation of the 2013 publication of the English translation of Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (I can't read French), I DO intend to devote more casual effort to the matter. Latour brought the subject to my attention through his use of the term “pluriverse” in Politics of Nature, a term he attributed to William James. Then, only a week or two ago when Terence Blake introduced me to some papers by Paul Feyerabend, papers that seemed very Latourian to me.

This post, however, does not propose any arguments. I just lay out some material. First I list some excerpts from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

As Latour had referenced William James, I begin with excerpts from the William James article. I follow with excerpts form the articles on Pluralist Theories of Truth and concluding with the article on The Unity of Science. The SEP also had articles on Value Pluralism and Religious Diversity, but they didn’t seem to bear very directly on the metaphysical issues that capture my attention. In the last section I list the abstracts of two of my papers from the 1990s. While neither paper uses the term “pluralism,” but the abstracts should give a useful indication of my own intellectual commitments on the matter.

American Mythology in Disney’s Dumbo


Several years ago I sent a long email to Mike Barrier, the animation historian, about Disney’s Dumbo. I couple days later I noticed that he’d posted it on his website, along with some frame grabs he’d added. I was, of course, pleased that he’d done so. In anticipation of a post I’m preparing about the metaphysics—you heard me, metaphysics—of “Pink Elephants on Parade” I’ve decided to re-post that letter here in a slightly edited version.

* * * * *

I’ve just been watching Dumbo. I suppose it’s been over thirty years since I last saw it, or some part of it, so my expectations were most strongly influenced by what I’ve read in the last year or two. I was primed for the “Baby Mine” and “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequences. The crow sequence caught me off guard, but as soon as it got started I had a sense of recollection.

What’s interesting about that sequence, of course, is that the crows are voiced and animated as African-Americans, though they’re just crows. Many of those featureless roustabouts earlier in the film appear African-American as well; but they are people, and they don’t talk or sing. They are bit players. The crows are more significant to the plot. While they start out with ridicule – though a rather odd sort of ridicule as it’s directed at the notion of a flying elephant – they’re quickly won over to Dumbo’s cause by a “sermon” preached by “reverend rodent” (Timothy Mouse). They then work with Timothy on a scheme that succeeds in getting Dumbo to fly. That is to say, they provide both social support and practical aid.

What interests me is the specific role these African-American crows play. For that role is deeply sanctioned within American culture. Though I’m not prepared to sketch out a history, I can give some salient examples.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pink Elephants, They're Coming!

Look out! look out! Pink elephants on parade
Here they come, hippity hoppity
They’re here, and there
Pink elephants everywhere.

pink elephants 4 parade from one

Yeah, but do they have an ontology? That's what I want to know.

An ontology? What's that, and why would an elephant need one?

You know what they say, don't you?

No, I don't. Would you tell me?

It's better to be than need one.

Be what?

An ontology.

Parts is Parts: What's a Sentence?

This is slightloy revised from the third part of a post I posted on The Valve in March 2010. The point is simple. Take a chunk of language (prose or poetry), remove all delimiters, punction and capitals, and what happens? It gets more difficult to read. What does that suggest to you about the working of the mechanisms underlying language?

* * * * *

Let's take a brief passage from David Patrick Columbia, the redoutable chronicler of New York City's social set. The subject matter is not difficult or esoteric, it's quite ordinary, still: What's he saying?
The courtly Mr. Ney is not a newcomer to Southampton in the 1990s he and his previous wife Judy they were divorced last year owned a house that had previously been owned by Anne McDonnell Ford Johnson also a Southamptonite and coincidentally a cousin of Pat Wood small worlds collide and happiness results congratulations to the happy couple
The passage has not been rendered unintelligible, but it’s a bit difficult to parse. In particular, there’s an interjection – “they were divorced last year” – that derails one’s parsing when you have no cue that it IS an interjection.

Without those simple little cues that delimit phrases, punctuation marks and capitalization, we’ve got to think explicitly about how to group the words into phrases. We can figure out what’s going on, but it takes some work. We have to try various things and see if they make sense. The fact is, many different things make sense, locally. The problem is to find a solution that makes global sense for the passage.

Now let's consider a literary text: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, in modernized spelling, but without punctuation, initial caps, or line breaks:
the expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action and till action lust is perjured murderous blood full of blame savage extreme rude cruel not to trust enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight past reason hunted and no sooner had past reason hated as a swallow'd bait on purpose laid to make the taker mad mad in pursuit and in possession so had having and in quest to have extreme a bliss in proof and proved a very woe before a joy proposed behind a dream all this the world well knows yet none knows well to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I haven't forgotten cartoons

But, as you can see, other things have grabbed my attention. I WILL get back to cartoons, though I don't know when.

Meanwhile I was cruising Morton's joint and came across this oldish post about ecocriticism and animation. I know, just what the doctor ordered. Check it out anyhow, it's good, like spinach, or blueberries. What the post implies is that animation is the avant-garde, the bees knees, the tip of the top. You know that, I know that. It's nice to know that they no that, no?

Anyhow, here's what I posted as a comment to Tim's post; take it as a quick reminder of cortoonology on New Savanna:
I'm surprised I missed this one, Tim, as animation is one of my main interests and I've written at least one post explicitly in animation and OOO, Cartoon Metaphysics, and there's this one here, Animation and the Sentient Text. I've blogged a ton about Miyazaki. Here, for example, is a catalog of Miyazaki's use of animals.

And Disney, Disney too. You gotta' get around whatever reservations you have about Disnification or Disney, Inc. because Disney's Ink & Paint are more important and deeper. It's not that there's no reason for concern, there is, lots of it. But, first, look at the ink (and thank the women whose hands put it on celluloid). Start with the Nutcracker Suite episode (and here, where it's packaged with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which, BTW, can be read as a gloss on Fordism) of Fantasia. It's the most gorgeous piece of film ever made, and from the minds of women, too! not only their hands.

If weird's your style, check out Pink Elephants on Parade. It's elephants all the way down, baby! And then we've got Miyazaki's pig man, Proco Rosso. Talk about weird objects, what do you do with Road Runner, where signs and things trade places in tricky ways?

Lotsa weirdness goin' on.
BTW, does anyone know what "plastmaticness" is?

Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence

Including a brief excursion into the Black Church and concluding with a sighting of the nature/culture riff(t), the cosmic background radiation of our intellectual tradition
Bruno Latour (2010) On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Duke University Press.
A short book in three chapters. From the back cover: “In this concise work, Latour delves into the ‘belief in naïve belief,’ the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are fabricated, and that ‘facts’ are not. . . While the fetish-worshipper knows perfectly well that fetishes are man-made, the Modern icon-breaker inevitably erects new icons.”

In the first chapter Latour discusses an animist ceremony and so forth and so on, but I want to skip over all that and look at some passages in the third chapter, for that leads us to the modes of existence Latour promises in his next book. They’re what I’m interested in. What does Latour have in mind here?

Felicity and Truth

p. 100:
Truth production in science, religion, law, politics, technology, economics, etc. is what I have been studying, over the years . . . Systematic comparisons of what I call “regimes of enunciation” or “modes of existence” are what I am after, and if there is any technical argument in what follows, it is from this rather idiosyncratic comparative anthropology that they will come from. In a sort of weak analogy with speech-act theory, I’ve devoted myself to mapping out the “conditions of felicity” of the various activities that in our cultures are able to elicit truth. . .my problem concerns how to become attuned to the right conditions of felicity of those different types of “truth-generators.”
I take it that truth here does not (necessarily) mean a Tarskian correspondence between some proposition(s) and some state in the world, though it may mean that for this or that mode of existence. The point is that there is no ONE mode of existence with one TRUE DISCOURSE devoted to it (along with many untrue ones). There are many modes of existence, each with its own discourse (or perhaps no discourse at all?). Each mode has its own felicity conditions, its own indices of validity. This is a PLURALIST view of the world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Latour Invites Us to Investigate Modes of Existence

Here's a 16-minute video, in English:

The project website is here. Here's the blog post for this video.

Jumper Protests Human Folly

The New York Times reports:
Racing regulators kept hearing the reports: trainers were giving their horses a powerful performance-enhancing potion drawn from the backs of a type of South American frog.
When asked for a comment, Jumper the Frog responded,"This is an outrage against frogs and horses everywhere. Have these humans no shame?"


Jumper further stated that the Amphibian Protection Association is investigating rumors that members of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia have been licking frog backs in late night sessions in the gardens at Monticello. "If these rumors prove true," Jumper remarked, "the consequences will be most grave. Humans must not be allowed to continue acting like narcissistic damn fools. Frankly, they're stinking up the planet. They need to stop it. Right now."

Agency, Action, Language, and OOO Rhetoric

I was walking in downtown Jersey City yesterday. Just as I stepped off the curb to cross Washington Boulevard in the Newport area I noticed a woman stepping from the street onto the sidewalk. She was talking on her cell phone and she dropped her purse, but didn’t notice the drop.

As soon as I’d registered those two things, and without thought, I shouted (more forceful than loud) “Excuse me” even as I bent down to retrieve her phone. The shout and the retrieval were part of the same unified action though, obviously, they required different body systems.
[She heard my shout and I handed the purse to her. We went on our respective ways without saying a word. We were both busy.]
What struck me in the seconds immediately after that encounter is the swiftness, directness, and simplicity with which I acted. It wasn’t particularly unusual, not at all. Nor was it exactly ‘usual’ either. Such actions are quite common, not to mention necessary, in various situations. In sports or in music, for example, one routinely strings a bunch of such actions together without a thought.

But I’ve been thinking about object-oriented ontology recently, and about the rhetorical ploys it uses to acknowledge objects. Like that purse and its fall. Of that purse at that moment, I could say it called to me and that I responded to the call. In that usage the purse, the mere object, is the actor and I, the human, am the recipient of the action.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Harman's Philosophy in Two Lines

Not all that long ago, but not just last year, Graham Harman posted a brief tutorial on the history and relations among the thinkers and concepts of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. In that tutorial he asserted that his own philosophy follows from these two propositions:
1. Individual entities of various different scales (not just tiny quarks and electrons) are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. These entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations. Objects withdraw from relation.
Elegant, no?

Critical Strategies 2: Explanations, Intention and Beyond

When talking about what I’m up to as a literary critic I will often say: I’m not interested in what a text means, I want to explain how it works in the mind, or words to that effect. On one of those occasions a commenter at The Valve observed that, when literary critics provide a reading, an interpretation, for a text they ARE explaining the text. The meaning asserted in the reading IS the explanation.

“How could that be so?” I ask. “Because the text was written to convey THAT meaning”, goes the answer. “Once we know what the author intended, what more is there to know?”

The Intentional Framework Rules!

Crudely put, I believe that’s how academic literary criticism works, and in pretty much all its form, from the New Critics and their immediate predecessors right on up to, well, the present. All criticism is inscribed within this intentional framework:* to explain a text one explicates the intention animating it.

With exceptions of course. But I’m not so much interested in the exceptions as I am in a refinement or two pegged to that notion of the author.

One refinement is psychological. There is the unconscious, whether that of the classical depth psychologies (Freund and Jung) or of the newer cognitivists and neuralists. We are not consciously aware of the full scope of our intentional behavior. Literary critics are well aware of this and have developed critical approaches to ferreting out these so-called hidden meanings.

Thar be humans!


Bowles and Gintis on Cooperation

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution
by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Princeton University Press, 288 pp., $35 
Reviewed in The New Republic by Ruy Teixeira
I've read a number of papers by Gintis and interacted with him some years ago on an evolutionary psychology listserve. He's a smart man and this sounds like a terrific book. From the review:
The selfless gene (or, more likely, genes) allowed our ancestors to think and to act as a group, thereby outcompeting other chimp-like species—literally leaving them in the dust. Moreover, our cooperative nature allowed us to build ever more complex ways of interacting with one another, which led to further evolution of the traits that facilitate cooperation (referred to as “gene-culture coevolution”). The end result of this dynamic was civilization and, eventually, the globally interconnected society we live in today. 
According to this view of human nature, we are defined by our sense of fairness, adherence to group norms, willingness to punish those who violate such norms, and to share and work for the good of the group. We are not a species of seven billion selfish individuals, uninterested in anything save our own welfare and willing to cheerfully break any rule and hurt any other individual to secure it. Indeed, we think of such people as sociopaths, and if their tendencies actually dominated humanity we would still be back on the savannah with the rest of the chimp-like species. This view, as it becomes more widely accepted and understood, should have enormous significance for economics, politics, and a wide range of public policy challenges.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Google's Got a Knowledge Graph

And Alexis Madrigal writes about it, in the most general terms, at the Atlantic. It was started by John Giannandrea, Danny Hillis, and Robert Cook as Metaweb in 2005 and Google subsequently bought it five years later and enlarged it. A lot. And now it's helping you, at the right-side of a Google search result.
What did Google bring to the acquisition, aside from money? Data, of course, of a very specific kind. Before, they were just guessing at what people might want to know (cheese, rivers, highways, etc). With Google's search data, they *know* what users are after, so they can go about finding and making that information available.

With Google's help, their database has grown rapidly to over 500 million items objects. That's orders of magnitude larger than previous attempts to educate artificial intelligences like the Cyc project out of the University of Texas. (Though it should be noted that Cyc has some capabilities that the Knowledge Graph does not.)

In the end, what is most significant to Giannandrea is that "we're taking a baby step in teaching all our computers at Google something about our human world." As for what comes next, he can't say, but the idea is that it will become a resource that all Google developers can call on, the core of common sense at the center of Google's vast web.
Of course I don't know what's under the hood, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't based on ideas first floated back in the late 1960s and that flourished through the mid 1980s, when they were all but abandoned in favor of entirely different techniques and somewhat different problems. The above-mentioned Cyc project is from that era.

I wonder what the ontology looks like?

How the Meme Became a Pest

Here's an interesting article about how the idea of memes, which Dawkins introduced as a metaphor in 1976, had become a raging conceptual pest by the turn of the century (full text is downloadable):
Jeremy Trevelyan Burman. The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999. Perspectives on Science. Spring 2012, Vol. 20, No. 1, Pages 75-104
Posted Online January 19, 2012.
© 2012 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Abstract: When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind. (In the UK, this occurred slightly later.) It is also now clear that this becoming involved complex sustained interactions between scholars, journalists, and the letter-writing public. We must therefore read the “meme” through lenses provided by its popularization. The results are in turn suggestive of the processes of meaning-construction in scholarly communication more generally.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Dialog Concerning Ethics and Ontology

This is an intervtion into the current fracas concerning ethics and ontology in speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, various and sundry new materialisms, the axiological topology of aesthetic manifolds in seven dimensions, flat soufflés in the Cantor set, and similar matters. It stars Jumper the Frog and Kong the Gorilla, proprietors of the Pacific Avenue Theater of Metaphysical Intervention.


* * * * * * *

Imitation: Beyond those Freakin' Mirror Neurons

On the Relationship between the Visual Perception of and Motor Regulation of Motion

Imitation is important in human behavior, and perhaps in animal behavior as well. But it is one thing to think about imitation in the abstract and another to ask: How is it done, physically, by the brain and body? You see someone doing something, and you do it, just like that. Well, you do it just like that if the behavrior is within your repertoire; otherwise you've got work to do.

These days you're likely to hear a canned answer to the question: mirror neurons. From the Wikipedia: "A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another." That there are such neurons tells us something, but not much. How does the neuron "know" that the action observed (vision) and the action executed (motor) are the same?

That's the question before us, one of them anyhow.

Moving and Seeing Motion

Two days ago I posted a recent discussion the regulation of motor behavior and appended some commentary; the work was done in the laboratory of Michael Riley and was specifically concerned with the interataction of two people. The theoretical approach was based on the work of Nikolai Bernstein from the middle of the last century. Bernstein was concerned about the computational program of controlling bodies with many "degrees of freedom" (independent vectors of control) and hypothesized that the brain performed this feet by coupling the the motions of different parts of the system (that is, joints) so as to "compress" the system's degrees of freedom.

Yesterday I posted two videos about the work of Gunnar Johansson, a Swedish researcher interested in motion perception, including the perception of biologial motion (e.g. people in motion). What Johansson did was simple: He'd present subjects with a short video of simple objects in motion, dots and lines, and ask them what they saw. Given the many different ways one could "assemble" the moving objects into a perceptible something, the problem is computationally difficult (as researchers in computationhal vision discovered long ago). And yet humans have no difficulty at all resolving the relative motions of two-dozen dots into (the mental image of) two people walking or dancing, and can do so in a second or less.

How do they do that? Well, the brain does have lots of computing power available to it, but that computinig power is not infinite and when it comes to infinities the world outpaces the brain every time. Computing is a physical activity and works against limited resources, of which time is one. Compared to electronic circuts neurons are slow, very slow. But they solve this horrendus computational problem in under a second.

Johansson's answer was that the brain imposes constraints on the problem. Those constraints represent dimensional compression. The brain doesn't consider all possible interpretations of the dots and lines in the visual display. It considers only some of them, those that involve the motion of rigid bodies, such as limbs.

We now ready to think about what those mirror neurons are doing.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Feyerabend and Minimalist Ontology

Terence Blake's got another Feyerabend post: IS THE ONTOLOGICAL TURN A USELESS DETOUR?: Feyerabend on Ontological Critique? He links to late letters which Feyerabend wrote to one Isaac Ben-Israel, who was interested in military intelligence. Now, if you're thinking of James Bond, spies, and stuff, that's the least of it. Much of the best, most interesting, and most challenging intelligence is done from open sources. Curious about North Korea, or Iran? Well, what can you infer from information you can obtain on the web? How can you tell when a situation of interest has arisen deep inside those countries? That's practical epistemology of the most urgent sort.

Anyhow, we find this in one of those letters:
My argument is a metaphysical argument: reality (or Being) has no well-defined structure but reacts in different ways to different approaches. Being approached over decades, by experiment of ever increasing complexity it produces elementary particles; being approached in a more ‘spiritual’ way, it produces gods. Some approaches lead to nothing and collapse. So I would say that different societies and different epistemologies may uncover different sides of the world, provided Being (which has more sides than one) reacts appropriately.
Meanwhile, my buddy John Wilkins has a measured assessment of Feyerabend that's a few years old: How not to Feyerabend. Wilkins, you may recall, is something of a pluralist.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cooperation, Coupling, Music, and Soccer

Early in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I set about conceptualizing group music-making at the neural level in terms of the collective neural state space (on neural state space, see this post). I argued, in effect, that the size of this collective neural state space could be no larger than the state space of an individual member of the group. By contrast, if the same group of people is just hanging around chatting in a coffee house or sipping piña coladas by the pool, their collective state space is likely to be considerably larger than that of any individual, as you would expect.

What’s the difference? When they’re making music, their actions are tightly coupled together, they constrain one another. Rather severely.

As this idea was central to my overall argument I called it a principle and gave it a name: Ensemble State Collapse (Beethoven’s Anvil, p. 61). The state space of the ensemble has no more (and likely fewer) dimensions than the state space of a single individual acting autonomously. “Dimension” is the key word. We’re dealing with spaces of very high dimensionality, millions upon millions upon millions.

I now discover that what I called ensemble state collapse has another name, dimensional compression. There’s that word, “dimension.” I discovered this in the following article:
Michael A. Riley, Michael J. Richardson, Kevin Shockley and Verónica C. Ramenzoni, Interpersonal synergies, Frontiers in Psychology, March 2011 2:38, pp. 1-7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00038
The opening paragraph gives a feel for the article:
We present the perspective that interpersonal movement coordination results from establishing interpersonal synergies. Interpersonal synergies are higher-order control systems formed by coupling movement system degrees of freedom of two (or more) actors. Characteristic features of synergies identified in studies of intrapersonal coordination – dimensional compression and reciprocal compensation – are revealed in studies of interpersonal coordination that applied the uncontrolled manifold approach and principal component analysis to interpersonal movement tasks. Broader implications of the interpersonal synergy approach for movement science include an expanded notion of mechanism and an emphasis on interaction-dominant dynamics.

Kilroy Was Here

From a recent NYTimes article on cave art in Spain:
The handprints common at several of the Spanish caves were stencils, probably made by blowing pigment on a hand placed against the cave wall. The oldest example, at El Castillo, proved to be at least 37,300 years old, which the scientists said “considerably increases the antiquity of this motif and implies that depictions of the human hand were among the oldest art known in Europe.”
These handprints show up all over. I'm wondering if they were put there as marks of personal identity, personal presence. Without a written language it would have been impossible to write a name on the wall. But a handprint could well serve the same function.


Thursday, June 14, 2012



Ontology and Epistemology: gone, together?

Terence Blake informs me that I’ve “been reflecting on the necessary rapprochement between ontology and epistemology,” a notion I find just a little surprising. For, as I told him, I’ve not thought of myself as doing that; I’ve not set that as an intellectual objective. Yet I can see why he would make that observation.

I’ll take it under advisement.

Multiple Worlds

Speaking crudely and informally, I do believe that we live in multiple worlds, each with its own way of knowing. There is no such thing as THE scientific method, not even for science, whatever that is, much less for everything.

Agency, Ontology and the Specter of Rube Goldberg

In the course of the recent dust-up over ‘flat’ ethics Levi Bryant brings up the issue of agency, and properly so. To this end he quotes a passage from Michel Serres, The Parasite, a text I’ve not read (thus leaving me without context for the passage). Here it is:
A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there for the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. (225 – 226)
Bryant glosses it thus:
What Alex [Reid] and Serres remind us is that we’re never strictly the origin of our own actions, but that often we’re the object of the agency of nonhumans such as the soccer ball. If this point is so crucial and deserves to be the starting point of discussion on these issues, then this is because it significantly complicates our notion of agency and just who and what counts as an agent.
And a bit later:
Second, as Serres’ example of the soccer ball as a subject where humans are quasi-objects for it–where the soccer ball is the seat of agency and the players are patients; in part, anyway–suggests, we need to develop an adequate notion of agency. What sorts of agency are there? What agency do we have?
My initial reaction, I’m sad, and perhaps a bit ashamed, to say, was out of an old TV commercial: Where’s the beef?

In what interesting sense is the ball doing all that? We can say that the ball is an agent, we can agree with one another to talk in that way, and to extend such talk all the way to Alpha Centauri, but what do we thus accomplish? We can say that a dog’s tail is actually a fifth leg, but that doesn’t make it so.

I fear that proceeding along these lines is likely to lead to a Rube Goldberggian disparity between means and ends, an elaborate technical apparatus to perform a simple task. Mastery of the philosophical apparatus may bring intellectual satisfaction of a kind, but it won’t yield much insight into the world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pluralism: Terence Blake and Agent Swarm

Just (re-)discovered Terrence blake and his blog, Agent Swarm. Been reading around here and there. There's a nice series of posts on Paul Feyerabend. Try the fifth, Ontological Pluralism vs Constructivism. Here's an interesting one on Harman and Eddington's tables (one of several): PLURALIST ONTOLOGY: Let a Thousand Tables Bloom! A couple others: Multiple Worlds and Post-Identity, Friendship and Multiple Worlds: Kindness and Wariness, and Abundance vs Withdrawal: The real does not withdraw, it abounds.

Abundance is, I believe, very important. My teacher and colleague, the late David Hays, used to say the world was fecund, a kindred notion, I believe.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Iris Rising


Fundamentalism in America: It's socially constructed

I’ve long wondered why the teaching of evolution has been such a controversial matter in America. Yes, I know, the fundamentalists. But why have they decided to dig in their heels on this particular issue? After all, a wide range of religions have had no problem accommodating modern biology. Such accommodations are easy to finagle.

At some point I got the hunch that perhaps fundamentalist intransigence on this point was, at least in part, a form of resistance to stereotyping of them as ignorant troglodytes. Thus I was pleased last year when William Eggington posted an excerpt from his In Defense of Religious Moderation at Arcade. That excerpt contained this passage:
Likewise, we tend to view the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which was eternalized in the 1955 play and 1960 film Inherit the Wind, as having revealed the depths of belief in creation science already present in fundamentalist communities. But as [Karen] Armstrong has argued, before the Scopes trial few fundamentalists actually believed in creation science or thought it particularly important to do so. Creation science became a hot-button item for the fundamentalist movement only after William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in court by Clarence Darrow was ridiculed by the journalist and essayist H. L Mencken, who wrote in an obituary for Bryan that he “lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind who write school-books.” In the face of such humiliating condescension, groups tend to close ranks around tenets and practices that define them as different from the outside world.
I’ve not looked at Armstrong’s argument so I’ve pretty much got to take Eggington’s statement of it at face value, which I’m willing to do for the moment.

John Wilkins on Pluralism

It's been awhile since I've visited John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts. So I popped over there last evening and found this long and most interesting post: Knight’s Song, or What is a [scientific] theory? Indeed, what IS a theory? It's a perplexing question–right next to What's an idea?–and John has some worthwhile thoughts, with no less than six "senses" for what a theory might be.

But what caught me especial attention was three paragraphs near the end, in a discussion of scientific domains, what are they? They play to my interest in ontological pluralism (cf. my remarks on Kuhn and Harman):
Attempts to formulate ontologies of domains also typically derive from the theoretical commitments of the domain (atoms are part of the domain of physics, while pain sensations aren’t); so if the theoretical commitments are sui generis to the domain because the nature of “theory” in that domain is unique also, we have a problem of ontological relativity, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how you think ontologies should be handled.

This is, in effect, an argument for a descriptive pluralism. Pluralisms are often thought of as some kind of failure or postmodern relativism, but I see them rather differently. We start our investigations of things based on the phenomena that present themselves to our inspection. Since we have prior sensory, social and conceptual commitments which may or may not be reliable guides to the structure of the world, we very often have to revise our concepts to fit what we learn by investigation. So, “fish” no longer means any thing that lives in water and moves of its own accord, and humans are now apes. Pluralism is a necessary aspect of discovering that the world wasn’t structured the way we naively thought it was. It is a recognition that words matter less than the world they describe.

But this indicates something about science that is so obvious as to almost not need saying: evidence – observation, measurement and experiment – takes priority over theory. That is perhaps a dumb thing to say, or perhaps it is so dangerous as to be obviously false, depending on what you think about our ways of knowing and explaining (theoretical constructionists would take the latter tack). But I think that theories, and domains demarcated by theories, are definable solely in terms of their being something other than evidence. In short, a theory is what evidence isn’t.

Monday, June 11, 2012

40% of All Titles Were Mysteries

David Bordwell has an interesting post, I Love a Mystery: Extra-credit reading, that has the following:
Contrary to what historians imply, the puzzle novel with a brilliant sleuth was far from defunct. Christie’s Poirot and Sayers’ Wimsey retained their fame into the 1940s, significantly outselling Hammett and Chandler. Ellery Queen’s novels are not read much today, so it’s hard to imagine a time when over a million copies of them were in print. More generally, the public’s appetite for mystery novels and radio plays was intense. 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 find that figure stunning.

Though he lists sources at the end, Bordwell doesn't indicate which of them contained that figure. I'd be curious to know how it was arrived at. It would be remarkable if it were 40% of all fiction titles, but 40% of all titles without qualification? I don't know what to make of that. How many titles were published, and who read them? What was the ecology of entertainment like at the time?

Presuppositions and Conclusions: Some Comments on Latour

PRESUPPOSITIONS: What is the background from which Latour's thought emerged, and against which he was working?

These two passages are from “Biography of an Investigation: On a Book about Modes of Existence” (PDF). This article is a brief intellectual autobiography explaining how Latour arrived at his current project on modes of existence.

In this passage Latour is talking of the impact of working with Shirley Strum as she studied baboons in Kenya, p. 12: could I not be overwhelmed by those troops of monkeys whose path was crossed by leaping gazelles, by zebra or buffalo herds, and occasionally by a pachyderm slipping soundlessly by? No, this was not nature untamed, not the celebrated “wildlife”; or rather, yes, it was all that, but it was something quite different as well: it was a segment in the traejectory of phenomena left to themselves, without the intimidating presence of human subjects; these latter were pushed off into the wings. And yet these researchers capable of following and not dominating their object of study were producing science, and very good science at that...
Two things: That last sentence, the simple assertion that the ethologists WERE doing science. And the foundation of ethology is the description of animal behavior; that’s where it starts, with observation and description. Description, as we know, is central to Latour’s conception of social investigation.

And then there is the simple sense of wonder that the baboons, and other animals, got along perfectly well without humans. Surely he didn’t think that life ‘in the wild’ was somehow dependent on humans? That is to say, just what IS the presupposition here, the background AGAINST which Latour’s observation is working? I rather imagine he was also impressed with the intricacy and subtlety of baboon social life.

Hoboken Sidewalk


Sexual modernity started 300 years ago

Laura Miller reviews The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, in Salon. Two paragraphs:
“The Origin of Sex” begins with an anecdote from 1612. An unmarried couple accused of fornication and bastardy (producing an illegitimate child) were dragged before the magistrates. They were convicted, then sentenced to be stripped naked to the waist, “whipped from the Gatehouse in Westminster unto Temple Bar” before the jeering public and then banished from the city — severed from their families, former friends, and previous occupations. Publicly shamed and condemned, their lives as they knew them were over.

As extreme as such penalties sound, Dabhoiwala argues, they were generally approved by the populace. Even “members of the gentry and aristocracy” would be punished for “adultery and other sexual crimes,” and that was fine by their neighbors, who saw the stern policing of sexual behavior as a communal as well as a church responsibility. By contrast, a little over a hundred years later, Londoners would be founding hospitals to rescue and reform “fallen women” and gobbling up printed accounts of the exploits of famous courtesans. It was a huge change: from a culture of what Dabhoiwala calls “sexual discipline” to one where many viewed sexual pleasure as natural, something you couldn’t really expect people to forgo — at least, as long as those people were heterosexual men of the higher classes.
The change is about coming to regard “sexuality as something uniquely personal, a key element of one’s identity and a matter of private, rather than public conscience”.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Being and Agency

An unformed thought:

I’m thinking that a key move for Latour may simply have been to differentiate agency from being. That would allow him to put all beings on the same ontological footing while at the same time acknowledging that different kinds of beings have different powers of agency.

Such differentiation stands in radical contrast to the traditional Great Chain of Being where higher beings also had more powers (agency). In the Great Chain being and agency are the same thing.

What about non-reduction? Could it be that non-reduction forces a distinction between being and agency?

We ARE Animals

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers have written a fascinating opinion piece about similarities between animal and human disease for theNew York Times:
Do animals get breast cancer? Stress-induced heart attacks? Brain tumors? How about shingles and gout? Fainting spells? Night after night, condition after condition, the answer kept coming back “yes.” My research yielded a series of fascinating commonalities.

Melanoma has been diagnosed in the bodies of animals from penguins to buffalo. Koalas in Australia are in the middle of a rampant epidemic of chlamydia. Yes, that kind — sexually transmitted. I wondered about obesity and diabetes — two of the most pressing health concerns of our time. Do wild animals get medically obese? Do they overeat or binge eat? I learned that yes, they do.
We all grieve and we like to get high:
Perhaps a human patient compulsively burning himself with cigarettes could improve if his therapist consulted a bird specialist experienced in the treatment of parrots with feather-picking disorder. Significantly for substance abusers and addicts, species from birds to elephants are known to seek out psychotropic berries and plants that change their sensory states — that is, get them high.
There was a time when practitioners treated all species:
A century or two ago, in some rural communities, animals and humans were cared for by the same practitioner. And physicians and veterinarians both claim the same 19th-century doctor, William Osler, as a father of their fields. However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split in the late 1800s. Increasing urbanization meant that fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of daily life.
And then there's the taboo on anthropomorphising:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Alien Phenomenology


Here's a set of links to the collected adventures of Sparkychan (the pink one) and Gojochan (for Gojira aka Godzilla).

Shazam!! Dog adopts chimp and my blog gets lots of visitors

I woke up this morning to discover that an old post, Two Puzzles Concerning the Self, have catapulted from nowhere to being the 10th most popular post on the site. How'd THAT happen?

The obvious hypothesis is that someone put up a link somewhere and that link was feeding the site. Sure enough I found a link from a Reddit discussion about a dog that had adoped a baby chimp. The discussion turned to "things chimps do" and that lead to this remark linking to my post. Lots of discussion about chimps in there.

But it was a dog that did the adopting. What about dogs?

Here's the photographs that sparked the discussion. I bet it isn't the dog that put the diaper on the chimp.

Harman to Holt to Russell: Philosophy, Knowlege, and the World

There's this notion that philosophy, in effect, is the scouting party of knowledge. Once the philosophers have explored a territory and put boundaries on it, they pass it off to specialists, who till the soil, erect homes, breweries, observatories, roads, garbage dumps, and so forth. I don't know when I first came across this notion, though not expressed in those terms, but I do think of it from time and time. And rather often in recent weeks and months as I think about the relationship between philosophy and more specialized disciplines.

What I mostly wonder is whether or not that story is true or whether its just a nice 'just-so' story.

So this morning I see a post by Graham Harman on complaints physicists have be lodging about philosophers. Harman is referring to a NYTimes op-ed by Justin Holt, Physicists, Stop the Churlishness. This is the paragraph in Harman's piece that caught my eye:
I also couldn’t disagree more with the Russell passage cited here, to the effect that philosophy aims at knowledge, and that once knowledge is achieved in an area it ceases to be philosophy. I’m with the Meno on this one. Philosophy does not aim at knowledge. That’s even the whole point.
See that first sentence? That's more or less the idea I've been wondering about, and Holt attributes it to Bertrand Russell. So I high-tail it over Holt's piece to see if he has more from Russell. Alas, he does not, but nonetheless the paragraph's worth quoting in full:
As Bertrand Russell (himself no slouch at physics and mathematics) observed, philosophy aims at knowledge, and as soon as it obtains definite knowledge in a specific area, that area ceases to be called “philosophy.” And scientific progress gives philosophers more and more to do. Allow me to quote Nietzsche (although I know that will be considered by some to be in bad taste): “As the circle of science grows larger, it touches paradox at more places.” Physicists expand the circle, and philosophers help clear up the paradoxes. May both camps flourish.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bats, Beagles, and Kuhn’s Problem

We know that bats and beagles live in very different sensory words, sensory worlds that are different from ours as well. This causes us no distress. We understand that bats and beagles live in different life worlds—which differ from ours as well—and that they each have sensory and motor equipment appropriate to their world. Though we can’t hear sounds that bats can, we know of and can measure such sounds, and the same holds true for smell and beagles.

All of this makes sense in the generous framework of biological evolution. No one has fits about “relativism” over the fact that animals live in worlds constructed by their sensory and motor capabilities. No one worries that the constructedness of animal worlds somehow threatens the fabric of reality. Bats and beagles have different life worlds, but we understand that neither of those life worlds is THE WORLD, writ large.

So why does the fact that Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian mechanics cause us some little distress? That’s what I’m calling Kuhn’s problem since, as I explained in an earlier post, he’s the one who explicated the problem in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Bats and beagles have in different life worlds as Newtonians and Einsteinians have different mechanics. But in all cases THE WORLD is the world, no?

Nature and Culture




Thursday, June 7, 2012

Critical Strategies 1: Stories as Equipment for Living

Whatever else I may be thinking about, I’m always thinking about literature and literary criticism. Over the years a passage from Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form, has been a touchstone. Burke starts out talking about proverbs and how we can use them to structure and make sense of our lives.

Let us consider a simple proverb (my example, not Burke’s): A stitch in time saves nine. The proverb directly implies a story about, say, a garment where a seam has come loose. If one gives the seam a stitch now, the garment will be strong, sturdy and wearable. If not, the seam will continue to unravel until the garment is unwearable, at which point it will be more difficult to repair (nine stitches instead of one), if it can be repaired at all.

It’s a story of preventive maintenance, one that can be applied to automobiles and computers, but also to human relationships. What’s important in making such extensions is the overall pattern, not the specific entities and actions involved. If you apply the proverb to automobile maintenance, the stitch in time might become an oil change and the nine stitches saved becomes a costly transmission repair. When applied to a human relationship the stitch in time might be an apology and the nine stitches saved might be a law suit.

In this view the proverb doesn’t have one true meaning. It has a pattern, and that pattern can function in a wide range of situations. Burke gives a number of example proverbs, arranged under various headings: consolation, vengeance, and foretelling. Having thus reminded us of the usefulness of proverbs, Burke then asks (296): “Why not extend such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature?” Indeed, why not?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Graffiti Site, A Quick Take

The physical and cultural ecology of graffiti is unlike that of any other visual art. Graffiti sites change from day to day, month to month, season to season, and year to year. They are more like the weather than the “timeless” works under the protection of museums. The role of the graffiti site in graffiti ecology is comparable to that of the heart in the circulatory system; it’s the driver. 

Community Garden

I'm the trumpet player you see early in the video. As for the garden, it just happened over about six weeks, with volunteer labor and donations of materials and equipment.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Of Intentionality and Nervous Systems

Of course I mean intentionality in the philosophical sense, a notion that Franz Brentano imported from medieval thought to modern. As Harman puts it in The Quadruple Object, “what distinguishes the mental from the physical for Brentano is that mental acts are always directed toward an object” (p. 21). When Fido sees and smells chopped liver in his food bowl he intends them—assuming, of course, that you are willing to grant a mind to Fido, a dog. His visual and olfactory perceptions are intentional objects, though Harman, not liking the “antiseptic sterility” of the term, prefers to speak of sensual objects.

In Harman’s philosophy sensual objects stand in contrast to real objects, such as the bowl and the chopped liver. Fido’s brain, body, and sense organs are also real objects in this sense. As I understand Harman’s usage, he could even talk of a larger object inside of which we would find Fido, the bowl, and the chopped liver as proper parts.

It follows that while Fido is contemplating the chopped liver, there is a real process in his brain that is his perception of that chopped liver. Let us say that that process too is an object. What is the relationship between that real neural process, that evanescent and fluctuating object in Fido, and those other real objects, the bowl and the chopped liver, that participate in, but do not dominate, that neural process?

Tricky Questions

I find that to be a very tricky question, and tricky in the nasty way that involves matters of mere definition and matters of substance that must be teased apart. I want to locate intentionality somewhere in that relationship, but just where I’m not sure. Is the sensual object another name for the intentionality that exists between a nervous system and the world? Or do we say that intentionality is the relationship between the nervous system and the intentional object? Or something else entirely? How do we talk of the relationship between a perception considered as a sensual object and the real nervous system without which that sensual object would not exist?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Plato's Muse


Dandelions Talk with the Sun


Knowledge in Its Varieties

It seems to me that philosophical discourse about knowledge, at least in the so-called analytic tradition, has become dominated by the philosohpy of science, as though science where the only kind of knowledge. And Colin McGinn has even called for philosophy to rebrand itself as a kind of science, ontic science. While Julian Friedland has proudly proclaimed that Philosophy is Not a Science, he has done so mostly to assert that, at its best, philosophy "can yield knowledge at times more reliable and enduring than science, strictly speaking." That is to say, science remains the standard by which he judges.

This is nuts, though I don't quite know what to do about it.

I suspect that Latour's focus on modes of existence will be most helpful in that it focuses our attention, not on epistemology, but on metaphysics. For I think that's where the work has to be done. The science-centric world assumes one Realm of Being, far which there are various ways of knowing, some better than others, with science being The Best and superstition and religion beint The Worst. What I'm hoping from Latour is that he, in effect, argues for multipe Realms of Being such that there can be specific methods of knowledge appropriate to each. The focus has to shift toward the world to be known, and away from the method of knowing.

We'll see.

Meanwhile, as a reminder, Philip Kitchner has written The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge, (in The New Republic) by an exchange with Jerry Coyne at Coyne's blog. It's fairly standard stuff, but worth a quick read. It doesn't indicate how to get there, but it's good enough to indicate that there IS someplace else.

Betwixt and Between: It's a Doll's World

Judging from what I've seen in photographs, everyday dress in Japan is mostly Western in style. But traditional Japanese dress is much closer to hand than premodern dress is in the West. And then you have cosplay, dressing up as characters in mange and anime, which is similar to Western fan practices, and "dollers", which I've just learned about:
Though “dollers” have been around some 20 years, people who dress up as dolls—inside large plastic heads—have traditionally been male. That a pretty, friendly girl is now happy to talk about her lifestyle in this cosplay subgenre has given the practice a wider audience, and doller otaku a new focus for their interest.
Dollers where whole-head masks that are like doll's heads. They're quite confining:
[Trying on the mask] Wow! You can hardly see or breathe properly with this mask on.

Yes, you could suffocate if you wore it for too long and you can hardly see where you are going. But I don’t mind being led by the hand, usually by photographers. What’s important is I can become something on the borderline between human beings and dolls. I like the idea of existing somewhere between the 2-D and 3-D worlds.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth?

In the fourth chapter, “Relativism”, of We Have Never Been Modern (p. 98), Latour offers a passage from Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind:
The false antinomy between logical and prelogical mentality was surmounted at the same time. The savage mind is as logical in the same sense and the same fashion as ours, though as our own is only when it is applied to knowledge of a universe in which it recognizes physical and semantic properties simultaneously ... It will be objected that there remains a major difference between the thought of primitives and our own: Information Theory is concerned with genuine messages whereas primitives mistake mere manifestations of physical determinism for messages ... In treating the sensible properties of the animal and plant kingdoms as if they were the elements of a message, and in discovering ‘signatures’—and no signs—in them, men [those with savage minds] have made mistakes of identification: the meaningful element was not always the one they supposed. But, without perfected instruments which would have permitted them to place it where it most often is – namely, at the microscopic level – they already discerned ‘as through a glass darkly’ principles of interpretation whose heuristic value and accordance with reality have been revealed to us only through very recent inventions: telecommunications, computers and electron microscopes.
The passage was so very striking that I decided that I had to verify it. Did the savage minds really anticipate telecommunications, computers, and electron microscopes?

Lévi-Strauss really said that?

Yes, it turns out, he really did. It’s not, mind you, that I even remotely entertained the notion that Latour was misquoting Lévi-Strauss, it’s just what Lévi-Strauss really did say was so, shall we say, outrageously generous. I mean, now that we know that bacteria communicate with one another through chemicals perhaps we can argue that they’re really the ones who invented the internet, not Al Gore.

Spots of Light


Friday, June 1, 2012

OOO Archaeology

Johan Normark is an archaeologist working with object-oriented ontology, among other ologies. He's goe some interesting stuff at his blog Archaeological Haecceities, which I've just begun exploring. What's interesting is that he's not a philosopher. He's interested in specific stuff, the Maya among others, and is using OOO as a way think about that stuff. So he's working  with real examples rather than philosopher's potted examples. Check it out.