Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dumbo as Myth 2: Realigning the World

In Dumbo as Myth 1: Beginning and End I concentrated on the very beginning and the very end of the film, noticing that the end was the opposite of the beginning in mode of presentation. The story begins during a storm and asserts the difference between the sky and the ground. Birds live in the sky while other animals live on the ground. The story ends during the day and focuses on crows, creatures of the sky, sitting atop a telephone pole, which is sunk into the ground.

Now let’s take a look at the terms in which Dumbo takes his success and ask, once again: Why?


Dumbo’s success comes, of course, during a circus act featuring him. He failed the first time, when he tripped on his ears and collapsed the elephant pyramid rather than landing triumphantly on top. He succeeded the second time, but was humiliated because he was made-up as a clown and was soaked in white goo. The third time, as the cliché has it, was a charm. He flew.

And in the Big City, which is important. The film started in winter quarters somewhere in South Florida and played in a few small towns. But Dumbo triumphs in the Big City where, of course, the clowns had been anticipating their own triumph.

Once Dumbo had dunked the clowns and shown off his flying skills he took mild revenge on those matrons who had spurned him an his mother, spraying them with peanuts as though his trunk were a machine gun:

DUMBO peanut spray

DUMBO bull's eye

That’s the last thing we see in his act. Of course, it wasn’t planned. Then we see him flying with Timothy Mouse in his hat proclaiming: “You’re makin’ history!”

From Grandfather’s Diary: WWII, Ulysses, and Proust

My paternal grandfather, Axel Benzon, was a Dane. He and his wife, Louise, immigrated to America early in the 20th Century. He was educated as an engineer and knew Greek sufficiently well that he wrote poetry in Greek. He ended his professional career as chief engineer, I believe, of the main US Post Office in Manhattan.

And he kept a diary, the pages of which are generically entitled: “Leaves from my diary.” It’s not a handwritten affair, kept in one of those blank books one can buy at a stationary store. It’s typed on ordinary 8.5 by 11 paper. I’ve got a photocopy of much or most of it, but, judging by his index, not all.

Here’s the opening paragraphs from the entry for 14 April 1940:
Sunday and cloudy with occasionally a little snow-a good day to remain indoors and listen to the war news from Europe. These news are coming in frequently but are most confusing and it is difficult from the british and german dispatches to a form a true picture about the situation in all parts of Norway.

The Danish goose is cooked – there the germans are in possession of all parts and are now fortifying points of vantage, especially the northernmost part of Jutland from where they can dominate a great port of Skagerak and Kartegat.

The invasion of Norway was a masterstroke, no matter how it turns out. It gave evidence of the usual german thoroughness and precision and coupled with the fact that the german navy is so much inferior to that of the English it has been most successful and must have taken the English by surprise.
As you can imagine, his reflections are much occupied by the war. But not entirely so. For example, he also talks of his fondness for the game of golf and playing it on public courses in New York City—he lived in Jackson Heights at the time. I rather imagine that THAT land has long since been given over to building of one sort or another. In fact, at one point he mentions exactly that.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Fennel 2



The Face: Will and Expression

Two more out-takes from Beethoven’s Anvil, both about the face, control of facial muscles, and the expression of emotion. We’ve all at one time or another struggled to control our face, attempting “hide” something that’s trying to “break out”. How is such a conflict physically possible?

The first section of the post is about the facial nerve and how it has two components, each mediating a different aspect of behavior and driven by different brain systems. The second indicates some consequences of that division. Other posts related to this general subject:
The Facial Nerve

Let us consider a particular anatomical case, the facial nerve. The facial nerve is one of twelve pairs of cranial nerves that connect the brain to the sensors and muscles of the face and neck. (The spinal nerves do the same for the rest of the body. Taken together the cranial and spinal nerves constitute the peripheral nervous system.) It has both a sensory and a motor component. It is the motor component which is of interest to us now, for it controls muscles involved with facial expression.

If the motor component of the facial nerve is damaged in one region your ability to control your lower facial muscles in voluntary activity is weakened or lost. For example, it will be difficult to purse your lips or to hold food in your mouth while eating. But the muscles still respond to emotion. Conversely, damage in a different region will destroy emotional expression, but not voluntary use. Similarly Paul Ekman has noted that spontaneous smiles are different from voluntary ones. Thus we have one set of muscles subject to two different sources of control. The impulse to emotional expression would reflect one source of control--most likely located in the limbic system in the hypothalamus, the basal ganglia, and/or the cingulate gyrus--while the capacity for voluntary control--located in the motor cortex--would reflect a different source of control. When the facial muscles are strongly stimulated by both of these sources you might well have a conflict, for they might be moving those muscles in different ways.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Alien Phenomenology, Vegetable Edition


Dumbo as Myth 1: Beginning and End

What does it mean to say that Dumbo is a myth? The word has various meanings, but I mean it in the sense used by anthropologists and literary critics. In that sense myths are stories that tell members of a culture something fundamental about the world, often about how the world itself came into being, but not stated in realistic or rationalistic terms.

More often than not the members of the culture regard their myths as true, but set in Old Times when things were different. Of course, no one in Disney’s audience regarded the movie as true in that sense, not quite. Nor do I. But Dumbo does have many of the features of myths proper and it’s those features that interest me.

Why do I think this is a mythic tale? What it comes down to is that that’s the best way to account for those pink elephants on parade. While they do provide dramatic cover for a besotted Dumbo to fly up into a tree, they do much more than that, as we saw in the post, Animals in Cartoons: Tripping the Elephants Electric, where following remarks by Akira Lippit, I argued that animals show up in Golden Age cartoons as “a gesture of mourning for the disappearing wildlife” (Lippit, Electric Animal, p. 196) and machines are anthropomorphized as a way of restoring an animal presence. That equivalence between animal and machine is stated most clearly in the pink elephants episode, but it resonates throughout the film.

That gives Dumbo a mythic dimension that is not inherent in a story of mother-infant separation that otherwise drives the dramatic action. Why is that story one about an odd-ball infant? What’s the point of that? Is it simply a variation on the ugly duckling story? I think not. While Dumbo’s oddness is a personal characteristic, if you will, it also carries mythic freight, as I’ll suggest a bit later in this post.

But the scope of this post is limited. I’m not going to try to unravel the whole mythic underpinning. I just want to set things up by looking at how the movie begins and how it ends.

Innovation and Excellence: Pound’s Typology

I posted this at The Valve in October of 2008 back in the days when people were worried about whether or not academic literary criticism should be more concerned about evaluating the quality of literary works. Some such classification would also apply, not only to other artistic realms, but to non-artistic fields.

* * * * *

Ezra Pound, A B C of Reading, New York: New Directions, 1960. From Chapter 2, pp. 39-40:
When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1 Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2 The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3 The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.

4 Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. ...

5 Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6 The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees.’ He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library ... but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

Thursday, July 26, 2012




Bryant Watch: McArt

Levi Bryant was discussing cave art in the comments to one of his recent machinological manifestos (a mech manifesto or McManifesto?) and elicited a critical comment from a friend of his. He decided the matter required more elaboration than is typical of a comment. So he fired up the boiler, set the gears in motion, and cranked out another post. Here’s a couple early lines:
While I readily acknowledge that the cave painters were the cause of the paintings, I strongly disagree that the painters are a part of the being of the painting. Just as ones parents are the cause of one’s being while nonetheless the child is an autonomous being, the painting is an autonomous beings that have its own power that exceed any particular cultural or historical context.
Both sentences merit close attention. Let’s start with the first.

Just what does he mean by the being of a painting? There is no doubt that the pigments of a painting, whether on a wall in a cave or on a canvas in a museum, exist independently of the artist or artists and independently of any observers. That is a truism, and an utterly uninteresting one at that.

In his original post, Machinic Art: The Matter of Contradiciton, Bryant had asserted: “The art work does not represent a percept, affect, or sensation, it creates a percept, affect, or sensation that has now become an autonomous material being in its own right, liberated from dependence on the sense organs.” This is just confused.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Through the Wayback Machine: Bateson and Mead on Cybernetics and Stuff

I’m reading a fascinating interview that Stewart Brand conducted between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. It was published in CoEvolution Quarterly in June, 1976. It oozes important intellectual history out its pores.

I’m only a partway through, but had to post a few snippits. Like this one on cybernetics (M=Mead, B=Bateson, SB=Stewart Brand):
M: They were talking almost entirely of negative feedback. By this time, Wiener and Bigelow and Johnny von Neumann of course, were members of the group, and Rosenblueth, Kurt Lewin, Molly Harrower, Evelyn Hutchinson, Leonard Savage, Henry Brosin and that Hungarian who always knew who was sleeping with who and it was the only thing he was interested in, I’ve forgotten his name. Well, the lists survive all right.

There were three groups of people. There were the mathematicians and physicists - people trained in the physical sciences, who were very, very precise in what they wanted to think about. There was a small group of us, anthropologists and psychiatrists, who were trained to know enough about psychology in groups so we knew what was happening, and could use it, and disallow it. And then there were two or three gossips in the middle, who were very simple people who had a lot of loose intuition and no discipline to what they were doing. In a sense it was the most interesting conference I’ve ever been in, because nobody knew how to manage this things yet.

SB: So you had one group of people that was to another group on a level they were not used to.

M: Yes, and shifting back and forth between these levels and keeping everything straight was very interesting. So we used the model, ‘feedback,’ and Kurt Lewin - who didn’t understand any known language, but always had to reduce them to concepts - he went away with the idea of feedback as something that when you did anything with a group you went back and told them later what had happened. And he died before anything much else happened. So the word ‘feedback’ got introduced incorrectly into the international UNESCO type conferences where it’s been ever since.

B: In the small group cult, feedback now means either telling people what they did, or answering.

M: Yes. ‘I don’t get any feedback from you,’ or ‘I can’t go on with this without some feedback.’ It wouldn’t have survived if Kurt had lived. He would undoubtedly have got it right.

Dumbo: Six Nights, Six Days

I’m now working on a post, Dumbo as Myth: Disney’s Metaphysics of Modernity, in which I’m going to attempt to deal with the whole film. So I’ve been looking it over and decided to break down the scenes by night and day from beginning to end.

The story begins on a dark and stormy night. That then is the first night and the events of the following day would be the first day. I’m thus reversing our normal sense of night following the day. On the third, fourth, and sixth days we have Dumbo perform. Those performances seem to happen in the late evening and early night and I’ve so indicated. I also assume that we’re working on cartoon time, if you will, so that these various acts are not worked out in rehearsal over a period of days, if not weeks, as they would be in a real circus. And so I don’t allow for rehearsals that we never see.

Given these assumptions, the film takes place over six nights and days.

Elegance and Grace


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Learned Helplessness and Voter Apathy

This is rude and crude. Don't know whether or not I believe it. But it's worth thinking about. Bleg: Does anyone know of anything along these lines, pro or con, that's well thought-out and documented?
There are things that are important to us, and things that are not. There are things that we can control, and things that we cannot. Our ability, or not, to control unimportant things is of little consequence. It is otherwise with our ability to control important things.

We cannot control the weather, for example, not very much. Nor can we control the fact that we, and everyone we know, is going to die. Yes, we may have some limited control over the timing and circumstances but the fact of death itself is beyond our control.

So how do we deal with those things that are enormously important to us, but which we cannot control?

Learned Helplessness

I want to come back to that, but for now let’s set it aside and think about learned helplessness, a phenomenon identified by Martin Seligman and his colleagues in the late 1960s. Here’s a typical experiment as explained in the Wikipedia entry:
In Part 1 of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of "yoked pairs." A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn't stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable." Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.
That is to say, the dogs in Groups 1 and 2 did not appear to be depressed. The experiment had a second part:
In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn't try.

A Jazzman Prepares

In March of last year I posted a passage from Beethoven's Anvil in which I told about a few moments when the music had unusual power. Jeb's recent comment on acting reminded me of a passage from Stanislavski that I quoted in some commentary subsequent to that blues story. Here's that commentary, from Beethoven's Anvil, pp. 94-95.

* * * * *

While this account makes it seem like I was doing a lot of thinking and calculating while playing, I wasn’t. For one thing, there was no time; the whole solo couldn't have lasted much more than a minute and a half. The thinking was mostly a matter of a few quick intuitive judgments and was done in (imagined) music and images more than in words or verbal symbols. It more resembled the mental process of riding a bicycle or carrying on a conversation than playing chess. On a bicycle, if you see a pothole, you don’t need to explore and weigh alternatives; you just avoid it and continue pedaling. In conversation you say what you think; you don’t make conscious decisions about each word and phrase.

So it was with that solo. Once I had decided to take a solo I followed an improvisatory strategy I'd used thousands of times before: start simple and build from there. The details, particular notes and riffs (melodic fragments) simply fell into place without any specific effort. The decision to attempt a second chorus consisted of a brief moment of panic, followed by an image. I remembered a concert where Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophone player, ended a solo to great effect by going to his bottom register and playing with strength, force, and cajones. The flash of that image was, in effect, both my decision to continue playing and my strategy for how to do it. Once I started that second chorus I had a definite sense that another force had entered my playing.

Links: Animism, Absorption

E-Flux journal is running a special issue on animism. From Anselm Franke's introduction:
A ghost is haunting modernity—the ghost of animism. It awaits us everywhere when we step outside modern reason’s cone of light, outside its firmly mapped order, when approaching its frontier zones and “outside.” We find it in the imagined darkness of modernity’s outside, where everything changes shape and the world is reassembled from the fragments that reason expels from its chains of coherences.

The task is to bring those constitutive others at the “dark” side of modern reason—like “animism,” but also the “imaginary,” the “negative,” “otherness,” or even “evil”—back into the relational diagram of modernity. To take those universalized sites of otherness that receive names such as “a universal tendency of humankind” or even its “origin,” and bring them back into history, would be perhaps the only way to account for the relational constitution of the present, to face the sorcery of its double binds. To embark upon this task is thus to understand these are never given “universals” of the modern, but its very relational products. They are the sites that modern history is silent about, to the extent that the very narrative of the “the modern” is built upon this silence as its fundament. The narrative-imaginary vacuum of the present is the direct outcome of this silence. This silence tells us that it is actually not animism, but modernity that is the ghost—halfway between presence and absence, life and death. And the future grand narratives of modernity may well speak of this ghost from the perspective of its other, from its “animist” side.
Neuroanthropology has a guest post by Neely Myers on The Neuroanthropology of Embodiment, Absorption, and Dissociation. I've been reading on this kind of thing since the counter-cultural psychedelic 60s. Discussions of trance, Gongfu, meditation, possession, music, etc.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Poor Need and Deserve the Humanities Too

From The New York Times, by Abby Goodnough:
For much of last year, Ms. Rivera, now 21, also studied philosophy, art, literature and history, just as students do at Smith, Amherst and the cluster of other elite colleges in this region of western Massachusetts. She was one of several young mothers enrolled in the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program for the poor offered by the Care Center and about 15 other organizations across the country. The course aims to provide what Earl Shorris, who started it at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York City in 1995, called “an avenue to reflection.” Such avenues are hard to come by in Holyoke, which has among the highest dropout and teenage pregnancy rates in the state.

Mr. Shorris, who died in May, rejected the notion that the poor should focus on learning practical skills to prepare for mostly low-paying jobs. He believed that studying the humanities would teach them how to reflect on the world, putting them on more equal footing with the privileged class....

“There’s a way in which the course asks people to examine their life and what they are seeing around them more deeply,” said Anne Teschner, the Care Center’s executive director. “Living in poverty can be very constricting, so to bring those more expansive ideas into the world of people struggling economically is really empowering.”

Golf and the Groove

Here’s another out-take from Beethoven’s Anvil. This is about how a so-so player rose above himself when matched against \, who was then on the rise.

* * * * *

Let us, for a moment, return to athletics. During the period in which I have written this book, Tiger Woods established himself as arguably the greatest golfer in history, and he is not yet thirty, which is a prime time for golfers, though other athletes are often on the decline by that time. In particular, Woods became the youngest golfer ever to complete a so-called Grand Slam, winning the four most prestigious tournaments in the game--the British Open (open meaning that both professionals and amateurs compete), the United States Open, the Master’s, and the PGA (Professional Golfer’s Association)--and, beyond that, winning three of them in a single season.

However, it’s not Tiger Woods who interests me. Yes, he may well be the greatest golfer in history. And whatever role natural athletic endowment plays in that greatness, one must also consider the amount of time Woods spent playing golf at a very early age. By the time he was five he may well have logged more hours playing golf than any other five-year-old in history. Given what we now know about the brain’s maturation, that implies that Woods’ may be more intimately attuned to the requirements and rhythms of golf than any other player. And that is why he will raise the bar on golfing excellence. But, as I said, the mystery of his excellence is not the mystery I want to think about.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reality 3: Five Tables, How Many Realms?

The real lesson to be learned from the principle of complementarity, a lesson that can perhaps be transferred to other fields of knowledge, consists in emphasizing the wealth of reality, which overflows any single language, any single logical structure. Each language can express only part of reality. 
–Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos
In Reality 1: Kuhn and Harman I took Harman’s argument for three tables, following Eddington’s argument for two, and suggested that we have five tables, thus:
Going back to that pesky Eddingtonian table, I count the one real table (withdrawn) and four manifest (sensuous in Harman’s terms, intentional in more traditional phenomenological terms) tables: 1) sensory-motor, 2) Newtonian, 3) quantum, and 4) Einsteinian.
Now that I’m explicitly exploring the notion that an abundant universe gives rise to multiple Realms of Being, do I locate each of these tables in a different Realm?

I don’t know.

First, let’s set aside what I identified as the real table, the one that’s always withdrawing. Second, let’s say that the sensory-motor table belongs in what I’ll call the Mundane Realm. That’s the Realm of everyday life as lived in sensory-motor phenomenal terms and as conceptualized in common sense terms. I suspect that there’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to bother with further clarification.

What about the Newtonian, quantum, and Einsteinian tables? Since each of those tables is conceptualized within a specific scientific paradigm each should receive the same treatment. We’ve got two choices. Locate all of them in a Realm called Science or Western Science, or locate each in a Realm that is paradigm-specific: the Newtonian Realm, the Einsteinian Realm, and the Quantum Realm? No doubt there are issues to be discussed, but I’m simply going to opt for paradigm-specific Realms on the grounds that those paradigms are incommensurate, to use Kuhn’s well-known term.

From Yesterday's Catch


The thing about butterflies is, not only are the reluctant to pose for the camera, they fly such flitty and irregular paths that you can't track them in flight, like you can birds. I suppose that's their way of avoiding getting eaten by birds. So, I spent 10 or 15 minutes following this butterfly around the garden and, nice as could be, it poses.


Most of this shot is out-of-focus, That, of course, is deliberate. Not that I deliberately de-focused the shot. Rather, I was intent on shooting those translucent stalks of Swiss chard. That's where I focussed. As a side-effect, most of the shot then had to be out of focus. To be sure, I could have gone for greater depth of field. But I longer ago decided that didn't interest me. Why have everything in focus? It's not as though there's any mystery about what these objects are.


Dawn in the garden. But where are Adam and Eve?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tim Morton: “Ain’t Natural” Ain’t Reasonable

From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010.

Here’s a tricky passage, p. 86:
Okay, deep breath—it just isn’t right to criticize genetic engineering as unnatural, as if decent people should ban horses, dogs and cats, wheat and barley. It isn’t sound to call “technological” gene manipulation wrong, as if stud farming wasn’t technical manipulation. Crossbreeding is a form of technology. Fields and ditches are technology. Apes with termite sticks are technological. And what is barley if not a queer plant? Biological beings are all queer. All food is Frankenfood. The ecological thought might argue, provocatively I know, that genetic engineering is simply doing consciously what was once unconscious. My DNA can be told to produce viruses—that’s how viruses replicate. There isn’t a little picture of me in my DNA: hence the swine flue, which evolved from viruses affecting three different species. Genomics can use a virus to tell bacterial DNA to make plastic rather than bacteria.
So for so good. I think.

The assertion “it’s unnatural and therefore wrong” is loaded with ideological freight and thus fraught with risk of self-contradiction. Just what about us humans and our ways IS natural, anyhow? Fruit may grow on trees, but loin cloths, no matter what they’re made of, the DON’T grow on trees, or anywhere else. We make them out of stuff of one kind or another. They are un-natural. But not wearing one—or a similar garment—is generally considered to be a bit too, um, err, natural.

Quantum Focal Effect in Two Green Phases



Friday, July 20, 2012

Computer Simulation of a Single-Celled Organism

Researchers at Stanford and at the J. Craig Ventner Institute announce the 'complete' simulation of a single organims. From the New York Times:
The simulation of the complete life cycle of the pathogen, Mycoplasma genitalium, was presented on Friday in the journal Cell. The scientists called it a “first draft” but added that the effort was the first time an entire organism had been modeled in such detail — in this case, all of its 525 genes. 
“Where I think our work is different is that we explicitly include all of the genes and every known gene function,” the team’s leader, Markus W. Covert, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, wrote in an e-mail. “There’s no one else out there who has been able to include more than a handful of functions or more than, say, one-third of the genes.” 
The simulation, which runs on a cluster of 128 computers, models the complete life span of the cell at the molecular level, charting the interactions of 28 categories of molecules — including DNA, RNA, proteins and small molecules known as metabolites that are generated by cell processes.

How Dumbo Ends: Crows Left Behind

Having already examined the opening of Dumbo, let’s now take a look at the ending. Nothing deep here. Just stating what’s there for everyone to see.

Let’s go way to the end, when the action’s over. Dumbo’s triumphed in the circus. Immediately we get a montage of newspaper and magazine covers:

DUMBO Wonder Elephant

This next one is particularly important. Not only because it references the war, but because it identifies Dumbo with a bomber whose nose was designed to look like him:

DUMBO Dumbomber's for Defense

Military aircraft were as high-tech as technology got in 1941—still are in 2012 for that matter. That identification—between animals and technology—is at the heart of the mythological dimension of the film.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Three Numbers in Global Climate Roulette

Bill McKibben, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, Rolling Stone.

First number: 2 degrees Celsius. Some sort of vague international consensus has been reached that we have to keep the rise in annual average temperature below 2 degrees C. That number dates to 1995 and the average has gone up 0.8 degrees C. since then. Some experts think 2 degrees is too much; 1 degree would be much safer.

Second number: 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide: "Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees."

Third number: 2,795 gigatons of CO2: That's how much CO2 will be released when we burn all the fossil-fuels in existing proven reserves. Notice that it's almost five times the "allowable"limit, which itself may be too high.

Are we cooked?
Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That's the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
Is it too much to say that the fossil-fuel industry is evil?
Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. "Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices," says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. "But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."

Tech is Over

Google is sitting on 10s of billions in cash and has no idea how to invest it. Microsoft and Apple are the same way. See the discussion at Marginal Revolution.

How about a guaranteed income floor for everyone and a 20 hr/week job for everyone who wants it? The 19th century ended a long time ago, folks.

Full discussion by Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) and Peter Thiel (tech investor) at Fortune.


Last year it was irises. Looks like cabbage this year. Though not all cabbages, any more than it was all irises last year. These are the cabbages that have caught my eye:



The two beings have a similar geometric richness and complexity and, I suppose, the same principles of biochemical structural engineering are at work. Are those ribs or veins?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Oh Woe is Me!

Massive Online Learning and the Unbundling of Undergraduate Education

An interesting and insightful post by Benjamin Lima. Here's the nut:
A college education has traditionally bundled several different kinds of goods together:
1. The curriculum: mastery of specific knowledge and development of more general reasoning, analytical, and communication skills.
2. The extra-curriculum: a network of friends and contacts, and experience gained from clubs, sports, internships and other activities.
3. The signaling process: validation of general talent or status by completing all of the above at a “better” or highly ranked college.
4. The college experience: everything that is personally interesting, enjoyable or rewarding about living in a certain place with certain people, and having experiences that are personally valuable to the college student, regardless of their value to anyone else or to society at large—everything from late-night conversations about the meaning of life, to road trips, to pranks, sports rivalries, and “school spirit.”
Traditionally, colleges provided all of these goods in a bundle, simply because the best way to provide them was to expensively gather a lot of students, faculty and resources in one place for several years at a time. But now, with the internet, is the logic of bundling starting to break down?

I think it’s immediately apparent that the first type of goods—the curriculum—is by far the most vulnerable to disruption from the internet. Highly self-motivated students (i.e., Abraham Lincoln) have always been able to teach themselves, given the resources, and the internet is simply going to accelerate and expand this opportunity to anyone in the world who has an internet connection. This is where the disruption of higher education is going to parallel that of journalism, publishing and music.

My hunch, however, is that the second, third and fourth types of goods are going to be affected very differently. For these, there is simply no substitute for being in the right place with the right people.
H/t Tyler Cowan.

Topology and Children’s Intuition About Form

The material I recently posted as Metamorphosis, Identity, and Metaphysics in Dumbo and Fantasia started out as a piece on topology in Pink Elephants on Parade. And then it went somewhere else. In that context the topology material didn’t quite hold together. But it has some interest in itself, not so much for the topology but for Piaget’s remarks on children’s acquisition of intuitive topology and geometry. So I’m posting that material as a separate piece.


The mathematics of space comes in several varieties, of which ordinary Euclidean geometry is the most familiar. Topology is a more recent mathematics of space, one that is considerably more general than geometry. Robert Bruner at Wayne State observes that “the thing that distinguishes different kinds of geometry from each other ... is in the kinds of transformations that are allowed before you really consider something changed,” a view he attributes to Felix Kline, who is most popularly known for the Klein Bottle, which manages to be both inside and outside itself at the same time.

As Bruner explains, geometry is quite restrictive with respect to identity-conserving transformations while topology is quite liberal:
In ordinary Euclidean geometry, you can move things around and flip them over, but you can't stretch or bend them. This is called "congruence" in geometry class. Two things are congruent if you can lay one on top of the other in such a way that they exactly match.

In projective geometry, invented during the Renaissance to understand perspective drawing, two things are considered the same if they are both views of the same object. For example, look at a plate on a table from directly above the table, and the plate looks round, like a circle. But walk away a few feet and look at it, and it looks much wider than long, like an ellipse, because of the angle you're at. The ellipse and circle are projectively equivalent.
And it wasn’t only Renaissance mathematicians who were interested in projective geometry. As Bruner’s remarks imply, artists were also interested in it, and used it in their painting. Animators, obviously, must be intuitive masters of projective geometry, for they have draw many carefully calibrated views of complex objects, such as people and animals, moving in space.

Bruner continues:
In topology, any continuous change which can be continuously undone is allowed. So a circle is the same as a triangle or a square, because you just `pull on' parts of the circle to make corners and then straighten the sides, to change a circle into a square. Then you just `smooth it out' to turn it back into a circle. These two processes are continuous in the sense that during each of them, nearby points at the start are still nearby at the end.
This is the crucial point, all points have the same neighbors when a circle is transformed into a square.

From Objects to Pluralism

I have now revised this and republished it HERE. The major change is to incorporate Harman's notion of vicarious or indirect causality as the basis on which to examine patterns of relations among objects.

* * *
. . . we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher, but to take example from our two recent speeches. The single general form which they postulated was irrationality; next on the analogy of a single natural body with its pairs of like-named members, right arm or leg, as we say, and left, they conceived of madness as a single objective form existing in human beings. Wherefore the first speech divided off a part on the left, and continued to make divisions . . . 

– Plato, Phaedrus (265e-266a)
Having hazarded that pluralism is the Next Big Thing I now feel some obligation to clarify what I mean by pluralism. As it’s object-oriented philosophy that brought me to this dance, I’ll use it as a vehicle for so doing.

First, using a passage from a Graham Harman interview, I raise the question of the relationship between philosophy and the more specialized disciplines. I then continue with Harman in a section where, in effect, I ask: What can we build with objects and relations alone? By way of illustration I bring up the case of knowledge representation in the cognitive sciences, where complex conceptual systems are constructed from just that, objects and relations.

Then I take an excursion into the work of Levi Bryant, whose concept of regimes of attraction indicates the existence of relatively stable patterns of relationships over large collections of objects. I then go into full tap dance mode, suggesting that we can construct Realms of Being from that notion. Realms of Being, that the world consists of many different ever evolving Realms, THAT’s what I mean by pluralism. Given that, the task of metaphysics is to figure out what those Realms are and how they’re interlinked.

I conclude with some more general remarks.

A General Theory of Objects?

As a way of setting the stage, consider the following passage from Graham Harman’s interview at ASK/TELL:
. . . the reason to focus on objects rather than on “language, social change, sexuality or animals” is because philosophy is obliged to be global in scope. If philosophy were to give one of these other entities a starring role, it would have to reduce the rest of the universe to them. “Language is the root of everything.” Here, you are choosing one specific kind of entity to be the root of all others, and there is no basis for this. Sociology tends to view all reality in terms of its emergence from human societies and belief-systems. Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena. Physics deals with tiny physical objects and says that everything is made out of them, except that physics is useless when trying to explain things like metaphors, the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of dreams, and so forth.

All these other disciplines focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world. Only philosophy can be a general theory of objects, describing Symbolist poetry and the interaction of cartoon characters just as easily as the slamming together of two comets in distant space.
My immediate and quite spontaneous reaction to that was a less than charitable: And just what can philosophy tell me about cartoon characters? I asked that question in my capacity as someone who has a specialized interest in cartoons and so has spent hours upon hours going through cartoons scene by scene, shot by shot, and even frame by frame, trying to figure out how these things work. It would be too much to expect a philosopher to look at cartoons in such detail.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Those Were the Days

But the best days are yet to come.

Dynamic Range, Eye vs. Display

The human eye has a much greater dynamic range than any film or digital display. By dynamic range I mean, roughly, the ability to discrimate between slighly different light values over a wide range of light values. This photograph illustrates the problem:


There's a large area at left center where we see a well-articulated image, three water towers and some other stuff (including the Empire State Building) against the sky. The surrounding area, however, is lost in dark murk. But, I assure you, I wasn't standing in the dark when I took the shot. I could see my surroundings perfectly well.

Now, a digital camera can register a greater dynamic range than any display or film can present. So it is possible rebalance the pixel values so that the foreground structure is nicely articulated:



In this story in Salon Andrew Leonard points out that speculation about the future of a single man, point guard Jeremy Lin, is messing with the market capitalization of Madison Square Garden.
In pure dollars-and-cents terms, Lin transcends mere basketball. Who cares how many assists per game he gets — if you count the global Chinese population (and you should), his fans literally number in the billions. That’s a lot of jersey sales and a serious spike in the TV ratings. His early spring run as a Knick raised the market capitalization of the Knicks’ parent company, the Madison Square Garden company, by around $70 million. The rumors that the Knicks might not sign him have resulted in a $50 million drop! Consider this: the Houston Rocket offer is worth $25.1 million over three years — that’s just half the loss in value MSG has suffered since the news broke that the Knicks are giving Lin the cold shoulder.

Hidden Worlds



Monday, July 16, 2012

Metamorphosis, Identity, and Metaphysics in Dumbo and Fantasia

Things do not always appear the same. Depending on your point of view a disk can appear circular or elliptical and a square can appear trapezoidal. The visual system must learn about such transformations if we are to be able to reliably identify objects under various circumstances.

But some things would seem to undergo intrinsic transformation and yet retain their identity. Consider the riddle of the Sphinx: What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening. Now we’ve got a real puzzle. The riddle asserts an identity over difference. And can one and the same thing have three different forms? The answer to the riddle is, of course, man, who crawls on four limbs in infancy, walks on two as an adult, and requires the aid of a cane in old age.

The riddle is something of a trick, interpreting arms as legs in one case and a cane as a leg in another. Still, the underlying, if exaggerated, point holds, that people do change form over time. More generally, living things change form. And some such transformations are more extreme than that in the Sphinx’s riddle, e.g. the acorn and the oak, the caterpillar and the butterfly.

I want to look at how metamorphosis is handled the Pink Elephants episode of Dumbo and in three episodes in Fantasia: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Rite of Spring, and Night on Bald Mountain. There are subtle differences which are worth noting. I end up arguing that the varying treatment of metamorphosis in the different episodes is evidence of an underlying sense of how reality works. If these "laws" of identity and change are violated, then you cannot even have a coherent fantasy world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Blood Rite


Life: Hypercycles, Meaning, and Prebiotic Evolution

I'm posting some old notes (March 1988) as background to some of the pluralism posts I've been making. These notes are relevant to thinking about Realms of Being, in particular, the Realm of living things.

* * * * *

Manfred Eigen, William Gardiner, Peter Schuster, Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch, "The Origin of Genetic Information," Scientific American 244, # 4: 88 - 118, April 1981.

p. 107:
Darwinian competition in a quasispecies distribution was based on selection according to the chemical kinetics of the sequences; what the sequences 'meant' played no role. The meaning of the message could not be ignored when hypercyclic organization of enzymes and RNS's came linto play, since the meaning governed the strength of the coupling. The one-directional character of the cyclic coupling, however, still excluded any feedback that would allow genetic meaning to be evaluated and so make possible selection of the best information.
To get feedback permitting the evaluation of genetic meaning Eigen et al. hypothesize that we get compartmentalization. A wall is built around a small volume of chemical soup in which a particular hypercycles is active. The genetic material in the soup codes the information necessary to build another enclosed volume (i.e. a cell). Now hypercycles can compete with one another. And genetic information can be evaluated. Now we have a meaningful genotype-phenotype distinction. In a way I don't really understand, that distinction is what allows us to talk properly genetic code, a physical structure which has a meaning.

Three Against Two the Tambuka Way

Western music is based on so-called duple rhythms, patterns of two or multiples of two. There are triple rhythms as well, the waltz for example, but they aren't as prominent. What Western rhythm rarely does is superimpose the two.

Not so in much of the third world, where three against two is a way of life. Here's a passage from Beethoven's Anvil (pp. 116-117) that describes a technique for learning three-against-two that is ascribed to an origin myth. Imagine that, a culture that makes rhythm part of it's origin myth.

* * * * *

The Tumbuka of Malawi, in southeastern Africa, have an origin myth that is coupled with a thigh slapping routine. The myth concerns Mupa, who discovered the rhythms used in vimbuza music, the music played for the trance dancing central to Tumbuka healing. Mupa discovered the rhythms while slapping his thighs. He began with a simple alternation—slap the right thigh with the right hand, left thigh with the left hand, in even alternating strokes—but that quickly grew boring. So he began figuring out more interesting ways to generate rhythms. I won’t recite the whole story—you can find it in Steven Friedson’s book, Dancing Prophets—but I will briefly describe the thigh-slapping routine that Mupa developed.

First, take a comfortable seat with your feet resting on the floor. Gently slap one thigh (say, the right thigh with the right hand) and then the other; do this repeatedly with an even rhythm at a comfortable tempo. Now, group your strokes into groups of three by slapping your knee on the first of each group of three. You will probably have to count to do this. You could use number names and say “one two three” but any three syllables will do. Just repeat the sequence over and over and slap your knee on the first syllable in the series. Not only is the physical gesture a little different from before, so is the sound. Notice that the initial stroke in your groups—set in bold type—will alternate between your right and left knees:

(1) R knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh (1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh

Friday, July 13, 2012

Graffiti from the Archives (2007)




Tim Morton’s Politics of the Mesh

From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010, p. 29:
The ecological thought does, indeed, consist in the ramifications of the “truly wonderful fact” of the mesh. All life forms are the mesh, and so are all dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. We know even more about how life forms have shaped Earth (think of oil, of oxygen—the first climate change cataclysm). We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts. Iron is mostly a by-product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen. Mountains can be made of shells and fossilized bacteria. Death and the mesh go together in another sense, too, because natural election implies extinction.
If that isn’t politics, I don’t know what is. Not politics in the sense of Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Tories, nor feminists, plutocrats, and anarchists. But politics as negotiation, coalition, and competition. We’re all trying to survive here, make our nut, live and die with grace.

There’s the math: game theory. The great John von Neuman—and he was great, believe me, the Einstein of the 20th Century—invented it as World War II—the great political maelstrom that also gave us the atomic bomb and the digital computer, both of which had von Neuman’s fingerprints all over them—came to a close. Game theory is a mathematics of rational agents in interaction, generally competitive, but not necessarily purely. And the rationality, that’s a peculiar abstract notion not quite the same as the ordinary language word of the same pronunciation and spelling.

Game theory quickly became a tool of economists and political scientists. Pentagon planners used it in war games and plotted strategy against the Russkies, who, I am sure, returned the favor. No mere abstract mathematical exercise that, not when it was that close to the finger poised above the Hot Button to nuclear disaster. And if game theory had urged the finger to depress that button?

BOOM! Massive environmental impact event. Some live, some die, life goes on.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Organic Ojbect


Whither OOO? – A Plea for Description

Thinking is hard work. It uses up neurochemicals at a fierce rate. It’s draining. A dull ache in the body.

And object-oriented philosophy, I don’t know, I just don’t know. Or maybe I do and keep trying to deny what I suspect.

The thing is, these folks profess something between respect and admiration for Bruno Latour and what does he say? “No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement.” That’s what he says.

Have they not read that? Do they not take it seriously? Or maybe they think it’s not for them. That passage, after all, is taken from Reassembling the Social, which is more a social methodology handbook than a metaphysical treatise. So maybe it doesn’t apply to them, the philosophers. Latour, the anthropologist, he’s done the describing, he’s gotten the lessons.

And kindly written them up. Being is flat. All objects count and so must be accounted for. The philosophers have read Latour, they’ve gotten the message, they don’t need to describe. After all, they’re not anthropologists. They’re philosophers.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bryant Watch: Territorial Marking

Levi Bryant’s latest post opens with a humdinger of a line:
Noticing the proliferation of neologisms in my thought lately– “phallusophy”, “Diotimatics”, “spectralogy”, etc. –I naturally found myself worrying whether or not there’s a structural psychosis at work in my theory.
Later on:
Likewise, I am endlessly proliferating neologisms, taking great delight in their invention (it’s at the core of my theoretical jouissance).
Um, err, I noticed this tendency from the get-go, starting with Bryant’s own custom coinage for his brand of thought: onticology. Other people make do with existing terms, or cobble phrases together from existing ones, but not Levi Bryant.

His Lacanian account of his theory engine's “structural psychosis” may be just the ticket. What I think, though, is that King Bryant needs his own court jester to make funny faces and rude noises when his jouissance gets out of control. The only jouissance I smell here is good old territorial marking juice.

Electric Juice for Animals and Machines

Now that Akira Lippit (Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife) has alerted me to the significance of electricity in animals and animals in animation, it’s time to revisit Pink Elephants on Parade. Not the whole thing, just the electric sequence.

The sequence has six phases of which the electric sequence is the fifth. As a contextual reminder, here’s a lightly annotated list of them (this post discusses the whole sequence):
1. Elephants from Elephants: Origins, with Dumbo and Timothy Mouse still on screen here and there. March music. Ends when elephants fill the screen with pinkness and we hear a trumpet fanfare.

2. An Elephant State of Mind: Elephants parade in what appears to be a mental hospital. Vocals. Psychedelic patterning as elephants collide. Ends with the walking creature made of elephant heads. Transition to...

3. Elephant Odalisque: Eyes of head transform into bouncing pyramids (of the Egyptian variety). Orientalism. Slinky music, dancing harem elephant, ending in The Eye. Fanfare, part the curtain.

4. Elephant Couple Dance: Two elephants, male and female, green and pink chiaroscuro outlined against a black background. Dancing, skating, boating, skiing. A wash of snow fills the screen and...

5. Hot Elephant Juice: This is the sequence we’re examining.

6. Elephant Machines: Music morphs from Latin to accelerating mechanical music paced by a three-note trumpet motif repeated and repeated and repeated. Machine Age hustle and bustle leading to an explosion of elephants. At the very end they come down from the top of the screen and become pink clouds in a dawn landscape.
First, a caveat: This is a virtuoso piece of effects animation. To appreciate it you need to step through this sequence frame by frame. Screen shots only hint at what’s going on.

Elephant Juice

The sequence starts when a spray of snow filling the frame cuts to our elephant pair encased in ice and shivering, but shivering to a Latin beat the quickly thaws them out.

Dumbo Unfreeze

Their trunks touch and the electric elephant juice produces an explosion.


Tim Morton: Beyond Apocalypse

From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010, p. 19:
The ecological thought must transcend the language of apocalypse. It’s ironic that we can imagine the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves more readily than we can the collapse of the banking system—and despite this, amazingly, as this book was written, the banking system did collapse. The ecological thought must imagine economic change; otherwise it’s just another piece on the game board of capitalist ideology. The boring, rapacious reality we have constructed, with its familiar, furious, yet ultimately state whirl, isn’t the final state of history. The ecological society to come will be much more pleasurable, far more sociable, and ever so much more reasonable than we imagine.
Yes. By all means, transcend apocalypse, transcend capitalism. The future CAN be better.

At the same time I want to imagine the worst. Climate change: Whooosssshhh and crunch. Billions will suffer and die. Humans, but not only humans. Other flora and fauna as well. Trillions upon trillions.

We humans may well climate-change ourselves to extinction. But the earth will survive. Life will survive. And thrive. Not the same life that was here a billion years ago, a million years, ten-thousand, one-hundred, yesterday. But life will go on, and flourish, without us.

Seinfeld: Who's on First?

Comedian Jerry Seinfield has a half-hour program devoted to Abbot and Costello's famous "Who's on First" routine. Richard Sandomir interviews him in the NYTimes:
They performed the routine hundreds, maybe thousand of times in vaudeville theaters and on the set of the 1945 film “The Naughty Nineties.” 
Seinfeld said by telephone Monday: “You think about how they worked. They did eight shows a day in vaudeville, five, six days a week.” 
As a stand-up comic, he said that he could not fathom being part of a two-man team, let alone one that worked together for decades. “I think it’s pretty well acknowledged that it’s way tougher than marriage,” he said. From the 1930s on, they honed “Who’s on First?” so deftly and so often, Seinfeld said, that all the air was sucked out of it, leaving a sketch with near-perfect timing. The less air, the funnier it gets, he said. 
“When the laugh happens,” he said, “you want that next line right up against it, and again, right up against it. It creates a compression that makes your mind work faster, which makes you laugh.”
Yes. They're coupled, two minds as one. Two BRAINS as one. Here's the routine:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cabbage Patch



Funny Animals: Notes on Humans in Metaphysical Drag

I’m burning brain cells like mad trying to figure out Dumbo. I got up at 4:30 this morning and sent a long email to my friend and colleague, Tim Perper. Here’s a lightly edited version of that email. It’s rough, tentative, crude, but it’s where I’m trying to go.

* * * * *

As you may know, I’m currently working on Disney’s Dumbo and, in consequence, have been thinking a lot about animals in cartoons. “Funny animals” were, and still are, all over the place, but why? On the one hand we know they’re humans in animal drag. But what’s the point of the drag? In particular, if they’re humans in drag, then why do we so often have regular humans playing roles in funny animal cartoons? Does the presence of all these animal humans represent a way of dealing with animality, or of humanity?

Questions, questions, questions!

Akira Lippit made a fruitful suggestion at the end of Electric Animal, where he suggested that animals appeared in cartoons at the time that they were disappearing from American life. People were moving from the farms to the city (and then the suburbs) and machines were more and more taking over work formerly done by animals (this, of course, was well under way in the 19th century). He also noted that Descartes thought of animals as automatons. Thus, animals as machines.

All that’s in play. I’m currently reading Paul Wells, Animation and America, and he makes consonant observations. Funny animal cartoons are a vehicle for thinking about what it means to be human, and the use of the animal vehicle also implies an attempt to think through animality as well. These funny animals aren’t merely humans in costume, they’re humans under scrutiny and the costumes are metaphysical in nature.

Bambi and Beyond

And Disney’s a funky and complex case. Dumbo was his fourth animated feature. It was followed by Bambi, his last until the late 1940s—the war killed his feature film business. Bambi is gorgeously drawn and animated, but I find it to be a yawner of a story. Bambi’s born, mommy gets shot, Bambi survives. Big deal. But it also represents a real attempt by Disney to deal with animals almost more or less sorta’ as animals. For example, they brought a fawn onto the studio lot and observed it so they could get it right. They also, ahem, realized that a realistically drawn fawn would not be cute enough.

Where Bambi leads, I think, is to Disney’s nature films, which began in the late 1940s. It does seem that Disney’s the one who’s most responsible for creating nature films as a genre. Now he faked those films in various ways—reusing shots, editing shots of different animals as though they were the same animal, and imposing human family values on animal lives—but he did photograph real animals in natural settings. And the public loved it, which was a good thing for the studio, for Disney always seemed to be running it on the edge of insolvency. The films were relatively cheap to produce (yeah, it costs money to hang out in the jungle with movie cameras, but not as much as an army of animators and inkers or expensive movie stars) and brought in bucks, well over production and marketing costs.

And, in the larger picture, others have done on to do a better job of documenting animal life than Disney did back in the day.

Dumbo, Animals in Clothes, and Humans

But this is a digression. Back to cartoons, and to Dumbo. The central figures in this film are animals, elephants, crows, a mouse, and a stork. Those aren’t the only animals, but they’re the central ones. And you know what? They wear clothes! The other animals don’t.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why A Stork? The Opening of Dumbo

Why does Disney open with that fairytale about babies being delivered by storks, and why does he milk it for about seven minutes and forty seconds (over a tenth of the film)? Well, it’s a device that allows them (for it’s not just Uncle Walt, especially not on this one, where he was unusually hands-off) to do a number things, only one of which is to avoid biological reality with those details that are so often embarrassing to well-reared citizens, not to mention many others. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that’s the least of its uses.

Perhaps the most important thing is that it proclaims, from the get-go, that this is a FAIRYTALE, or if you will, a MYTH. That puts you in the proper receptive mode so you don’t worry about pesky details of verisimilitude and plausibility. Instead you’re prepared to bask in the sights and sounds in a different, perhaps even deeper, way.

Control Issues

Things Change, Shit Happens, Environmental Art

There's always paint on the wall, and there's always someone's bed at the foot of the wall.

new pieces, old bed.jpg
6 Nov 2007

empty sleeping platform 10AM.jpg
1 December 2007

R. E. Shaw: Eco-Psych, Pluralism, Schrödinger’s Cat

I have known of Robert E. Shaw for a number of years. Though he started his career as a standard issue cognitivist (Chomsky and Piaget) he became converted to the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson relatively early in his career. Alas, providing a characterization of Gibson’s conception that is both succinct (under 25 words) and intelligible to those who do not already know seems impossible. Suffice it say, Gibson believed that perception is direct and not mediated by a raft of representational machinery (take THAT! Immanuel, though Gibson was thinking as a psychologist, not a philosopher), and that the environment is replete with ‘information’ that an animal’s sensory systems can ‘grab on to’ (my phrase).

I believe that ecological psychology is compatible both with some version of object-oriented ontology (OOO) and with some version of pluralism. In fact, Shaw himself has explicitly formulated pluralist ideas in Ecological Foundations of Cognition: II. Degrees of Freedom and Conserved Quantities in Animal -- Environment Systems (co-authored with M. T. Turvey), which is available for download from his website. That paper is reprinted in Núñez and Freeman, eds. Reclaiming Cognition (pp. 111-123), which is where I was re-reading it last night when I decided to go out on the web to see if I could find more of Shaw’s work.

What set me off was Shaw’s statement of the plenitude hypothesis, which
asserts that nature is a plenum, or superabundance, of real possibilities—a view consistent with ecological psychology ... This idea is of a plenum that sits behind observed reality is also fundamental to modern physics, and sums up its weakened view of determinism: If laws of nature do not disallow something, then it exists.
Looks like pluralism to me!

I may say more about his development of plenitude in a later post—I’m still digesting—but I thought some of you might appreciate his (Bogostian?) treatment of Schrödinger’s experimental cat:
By Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, if a cat can be potentially killed by a random quantum event, the outcome remains in limbo, with the cat being neither living nor dead, or both, if you prefer, until observed or measured. Observing the situation is an occasion on which the wave function of the cat-and-apparatus collapses into one of the two possible, superposed states. Observation is supposed to cascade sufficient constraints to make the cat’s indefinite possible state (both alive and dead), into a potential state (either alive or dead), to being a unique value of a bound variable—a constant (say, alive). . . .

The issue is not whether we observe the cat and find it either living or dead, but whether the cat observes us as well. If it does, then neither it nor we can be dead, indefinite, or nonexistent, in the usual meaning of these words. If the observer and the cat can have mutual and reciprocal perspectives, then they are dual observers, a social dyad, sharing an environment (laboratory). Hence an ecosystem exists.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Patrik Schumacher on Philosophy Among the Disciplines

My recent complaint about Levi Bryant’s misuse of physical concepts (entropy here, phase space and attractors here) is one aspect of thinking through the questions: What is philosophy for? Do I need it? Why? How?

Patrik Schumacher has an article which speaks to the issue (H/t Graham Harman). Speaking of architecture:
The adoption of an “ontology” within a discursive field like architecture is more than the mere adoption of certain basic concepts and propositions. The adoption of a new ontology worthy of this title would have to include the adoption of a new set of primitives and operations within the design process.
Concerning philosophy’s dependence on other disciplines:
If anything, the inverse is true: a philosophical doctrine or system succeeds or fails to the extent to which it is adopted, adapted and operationalized within the specialized, professional discourse-practices (societal function systems) like business, politics, the sciences, medicine, engineering, and architecture, among others. Philosophy does not have its own domain of practical engagement and responsibility. Rather it is both a conceptual agent provocateur and exchange hub relative to all the other function systems. It gathers, compares, abstracts and distributes the most advanced modes of conceptualization from each field. Philosophy is also to some extent creative and proposes its own conceptual inventions in response to what it observes in the specialized discourses. It has often aspired to construct an overarching conceptual system that somehow tries to cohere and encompass all or most of the specialized discourses. However, philosophy is no master discourse that could settle conceptual questions and instruct all function systems accordingly.
A critical assertion:
The more general and comprehensive a philosophical system tries to be, the more vague it must remain, and the more degrees of freedom it will have to leave to the various specific domains that might (or might not) appropriate, adapt, and apply it.