Monday, October 29, 2012

More Water: Crumb's Genesis

For those whose needs for wet disaster reading are not sated by Titanic, Michael Sporn has posted R. Crumb's rendering of Noah and the flood, from his version of Genesis. And it has pictures!

40 Days and Nights of Techno Hubris: Titanic

It’s 7:30 in the AM this Monday in late October, just before All Hallows Eve, and my thoughts turn to Titanic, not the ship, but a folk poem about that ship. It's a poem about water, lots of it, and that's one reason it comes to mind.

I’ve published it here before, back in May of 2010, but it’s time to bump it up to the top of the list, along with a new introduction. Why?

Here’s why.

Lafayette by the Bay

I live in the Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, less than a half-mile from the Hudson Rive and the New York Bay. Sometime in the next 24 hours there's going to be a storm surge in that bay and part of Jersey City is going to be flooded. Probably not my part, but, in those immortal words of Thomas Fats Waller, “one never knows, do one?”

Whatever flooding there is, and there WILL be some, will be driven by hurricane Sandy. Last year it was Irene. Irene wasn't as bad as predicted, at least not in my neighborhood–though Communipaw Avenue had 3 or 4 inches of water near Garfield, just a few blocks from me. But it was bad enough, and inflicted considerable damage inland in small towns and hamlets that were wrecked by raging rivers.

I want to blame this one on anthropogenic climate chaos, aka global warming. But that's tricky. There were hurricaines, and nasty one, long before us industrious industrial humans started messing with the climate. Not knowingly, not intentionally mind you, no more so that those ancient humans desiccated North Africa until it became the Sahara Dessert. Be messing with the environment we did, not doubt about it.

The thing, we can't blame any specific weather even on global warming, because all of the weather, all the time, 24/7/365 (366 in leap years) is affected. It's the general tempo and temperature that's affected, not specific events.

There are, of course, those who imagine techno-fixes for this mess. Let's pump some sulpher into the atmosphere, they say, it'll blot out the sun just enough to set things right. Any maybe we should all hold on to our lucky rabbit's foot while doing it, 'cause we're going to need all the luck we can get.

No, I fear that putting our faith in techno-fixes is just going to make things worse. We're not that powerful, not that knowledgeable. So let's be wise. Let’s listen to the poets of Titanic, which is, among other things, about techno hubris. And water, lots of water.

What's Titanic?


Titanic is a toast, a form of boasting narrative in the African-American oral tradition that is a precursor to rap and hip-hop. If you go to this YouTube video you can hear Rudy Ray Moore recite a version from Dolomite.

The strange case of the milk-drinking ape

Most adult humans cannot drink milk. Modern Europeans are the exception. Lactose intolerance is a matter of genetics, genetics which began to change in Turkey around 10,000 BCE, according to an article in Slate. Then
In an evolutionary eye-blink, 80 percent of Europeans became milk-drinkers; in some populations, the proportion is close to 100 percent. (Though globally, lactose intolerance is the norm; around two-thirds of humans cannot drink milk in adulthood.) The speed of this transformation is one of the weirder mysteries in the story of human evolution, more so because it's not clear why anybody needed the mutation to begin with. Through their cleverness, our lactose-intolerant forebears had already found a way to consume dairy without getting sick, irrespective of genetics.
If you let milk sit for only a few hours, the lactose begins to ferment out as milk becomes first yogurt and then cheese.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bulletin: KidZ Dig Worms

First, the Big Dig. Last year on Oct. 22 hundreds of citizens of Jersey City fanned out across the city and planted 10s of 1000s flowers. We did it again this year on Oct. 27. One thing I was reminded of on both occasions is that children really dig worms. Here’s last year:


And this year:


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Avatar twice, in the park


Bryant Watch: Narcissists ‘R Us

He’s got it bad, self-pitying Weltschmerz, and that’s not good, not good at all. He comes out fighting, after all, it’s not HIS problem, ‘cause Levi’s seen the light! Levi’s seen the light. It’s those damned Continentals:
The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution: subject or lived experience as the ground of being (phenomenology), spirit as ground of being (Hegel), economics as ground of being (Marx), signifier as ground of being (structuralism and post-structuralism), power as a ground of being (Foucault), history as a ground of being (Gadamer), text as a ground of being, ect. We even get romantic visions of nature evoking the will to power and élan vital.

In Freudian terms, these are so many responses to the narcisstic wound of nature and materiality. It is not the subject, lived experience, history, intentionality, the signifier, text, or power that explains nature, that explains nature, it is nature and materiality that explains all of these things.
Nonsense. Utter Rubbish.

Where he says “Continental philosophy” read “Levi Bryant.” Why? No one held a gun to Bryant’s head when he decided to get a degree in Continental philosophy. He chose to do so of his own free will. If Continental philosophy is indeed guilty of worshipping those false intellectual idols—and I’m by no means convinced it is, not all of them, not so simply—then those are the idols Bryant chose to worship when he signed up for the program.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Life in the Vats: Have We Forgotten How to Make Things?

If so, we’re dead. Oh sure, as individuals, we’re going to die someday. What I’m talking about is our society, our culture. We can’t live on service and information. We need to make things.

At all levels.

My father spent his working life with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. When he worked for there it was the second-largest steel company in the country, and perhaps the world. Now it doesn’t even exist.

I more or less know why the American steel industry collapsed—OPEC, high oil prices, foreign cars invading the American market, and so forth. I’m not pretending that didn’t happen or that we can go back to those days. We can’t.

But we’re doing something wrong. It’s not simply that flipping burgers doesn’t pay as well as pouring steel—and it is, after all, a lot less dangerous. Nor does running down the aisles of a giant fulfillment warehouse pay as well as working the assembly-line in an automobile plant, and that gig is, if anything, more physically wearing. The pay is important.

But making things with your hands is more important. Being in the direct and immediate presence of morphing physical stuff—iron ore to iron, sheet metal to an auto body, thread to fabric, fabric to pajamas, logs to pulp, pulp to paper, paper to cut-outs for a home-made Halloween costume, seeds to earth to corn to hot-buttered corn-on-the cob—that’s VERY important.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reading with Graham, A Working Paper on the Emptiness of Counter-Factual Criticism and an OOO Conception of the Text

The full text of this working paper is available online at my SSRN page.
Abstract: Graham Harman has proposed a counter-factual literary criticism based on his object-oriented ontology. I argue: 1) that this proposed practical criticism collapses into the existing process of literary culture and is therefore empty, 2) that it implies a Platonic conception of the literary text, 3) that it follows from a rejection of Lévi-Strauss’s empirical work on myth that dates back to the mid-1970s and 4) that that rejection defended an intentionalist conception of the text, rather than a mechanistic one. As a counter-proposal I examine Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale using a method inspired by Lévi-Strauss, arguing that the differences between the plots of these two texts can be attributed to different cultural constructions of the family.
Introduction: A Black Hole in the Critical Mind

This collection consists of six posts. Five respond to Harman’s article in New Literary History, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism.” The first, however, responds to a blog post Harman made on Meillasoux’s reading of Mallarmé. There it seems to me that Harman is too indulgent, or perhaps strangely indulgent is the better phrase, of Meillasoux’s apparent critical numerology, which is, after all, a rather old critical gambit.

The burden of the other five pieces is that, as Harman presents it, object-oriented ontology has nothing to offer literary criticism. And that “nothing” is the ordinary nothing as in “there isn’t anything there,” rather than a philosophical capital-N nothing as some kind of pregnant negation that drives the dialectical wheels of the cosmos. His counter-factual criticism collapses into the ordinary process of literary culture and that’s that. It will not tell us anything we don’t already know.

In the process of making various arguments on these points, I tour some classic topics and some hobby horses:
  1. textual patterning and intention: Harmanian Conjunctions: Meillassoux and the Meno
  2. the mix and remix dynamic of literary culture: Harman on Literary Criticism, Curious
  3. the slippery humanistic concept of the text: Is Harman a Platonist? More on his recommendations for literary criticism
  4. sign and signifier, nature and culture: A Better Text, Really? Shades of Mike Hancher
  5. Lévi-Strauss on myth and a practical example of a more useful criticism: From Greene to Shakespeare: If Harman Wants to Talk Texts, He Should Learn from Lévi-Strauss
  6. and a return to a classic topic at the end: Intention and Meaning in Literary Criticism: Or, Another Run at Harman

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What I Learned from Tissa David

Yesterday I went to the Tissa David memorial that Michael Sporn organized. And I learned something. That’s not why I went, to learn something, but that’s what happened.

I learned something very important.

Personal style.

Animators have one, the good ones. I know that, not because I can spot those styles myself, but because I see people talking about this or that animator’s style, not simply in general terms, but with specific reference to specific scenes. The people who do this—say Sporn himself, or Michael Barrier, Mark Mayerson, and Thad Komorowski, to mention a few—have generally been studying animation longer than I have, some are animators themselves, and look at different things. Which, of course, is fine.

Last night I saw Tissa David’s style. Michael made it easy. He selected a number of clips from the course of her career, from the early years at the legendary Hubley studio to her most recent work, an animatic she did for Sporn’s feature-in-progress, POE. Some of the animation was done for entertainment purposes, some of it was done for advertising, there was a wide variety of visual styles. But you could see the same spirit animating all of the clips. That spirit was obviously Tissa David’s.

I loved the clip from Sporn’s Marzipan Pig (which I’d seen in full a few years ago at Sporn’s MOMA retrospective), where she animated a bumble bee and a talking hibiscus blossom. Her work on the hibiscus stunning, for she didn’t draw your standard anthropomorphic flower, with eyes, nose, and mouth. None of that. Just a hibiscus blossom, with petals, stamens, and stem. And she made the blossom act.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ascent: WTF! All Hell’s Breaking Loose


What Km-274 R’beqq, of the Reeb’Qu’el nation doesn’t know, of course, is that the Green Villains had summoned his people. Not necessarily his people, of course. The villains didn’t exactly know who or what they were summoning. But they knew that they couldn’t do it alone. That was clear. The sky-living one-percenters wouldn’t give up control gracefully. No, they’d go down before they’d change their ways.

Anxiety had been building for years. It came. It went. Ebb and flow. Always there.

You could see it in the eyes.



Wilkins: Pizza Reductionism and Infinite Computation

Caveat: This is another one I’m posting without proofing. Please inform me of typos and inexplicable blunders.
John Wilkins is a philosopher of science with a specialization in the philosophy of biology. One of the issues that interests him is one of those old-time good ones, reductionism. He’s a reductionist.

And he’s recently proposed what he calls “pizza reductionism” as opposed to bog-standard “layer–cake” reductionism. As the phrase suggests, layer cake reductionism imagines a strict hierarchy with no jumping over levels. For example: cognition → psychology → neurobiology → biology → biochemistry → chemistry → physics. In this view all laws and processes are ultimately the laws and processes of physics and the rest (chemistry, etc.) we entertain because it’s convenient for us to do so.

Pizza reductionism does away with the strict hierarchy. While topping may be piled upon toppings in a pizza in a layer-like way—especially in one of those everything goes pizzas—it’s not a necessary feature of construction. Any topping can find itself floating directly on the sauce, or even penetrating the sauce to the solid bedrock of the crust.

Though I recognize it as an interesting one, and worth your attention if you go in for these things, this distinction is not why I’m writing this post. As someone who’s pursuing the construction of a pluralist metaphysics on certain propositions from object-oriented ontology, I’m not interested in reductionism of any kind. No, what interests me is an argument Wilkins brings up in the course of explicating the consequences of pizza reductionism.

Let’s pick up Wilkins’ thinking in midstream:
So the physical property is the key. It is what exists independent of the propensities and predilections of the observer systems. How we carve that up at scales above the microphysical is conventional. But the phenomena themselves are clearly real: observers really do see reds, feel pain and use descriptors for classes of physical states. It’s just that these are not the final story, the explanans.
In Harman’s metaphysics that explanans is the every withdrawing object. Harman takes that capacity of withdrawal as cause for arguing that the object that is the explanans is the real object while the phenomena themselves, which he calls sensual objects, are not real. So, Harman and Wilkins seem to be looking at much the same configuration of conceptual stuff, though they manipulate it with different conceptual hooks, but arrive at very different ways of developing broader patterns of reasoning about that stuff. Wilkins is a reductionist; Harman is not.

Wilkins continues:
And here we return to the methodological and epistemic versions of reduction. Alex Rosenberg (one of the last “club footed” reductionists still about, and with whom I agree) has argued (1994) that the problem with reductionism is simply computational: we just don’t have sufficient ability to work out the properties we see from first principles; neither the time nor the computational capacity.
From my point of view our lack of computational capacity is a game-stopper. If we cannot actually “work out the properties we see from first principles” then the assertion of reductionism is meaningless. It’s just an expression of blind faith and, while I do think there’s a role for blind faith in this world, I don’t think it incumbent upon to adopt someone else’s blind faith. If we can’t actually formulate the properly reduced laws and principles, then what’s the point in believing that they might exist?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bryant Watch: Philosophy meets the Borg

Bryant’s recent post, Ethico-Politico Weariness, has been getting raves. I can see why. Yet it’s oh so very personal: “I find myself . . . I reflect . . . I grow so tired . . . I’m divided . . .” So forget yourself and walk away already. Get outa the damn bottle! Just do it.

All this talk is just a way of flying around in the bottle and showing off your latest moves. Still, after milking this cri de cœur for all he can, Bryant does get down to business:
One wonders who these things are all for as they never seem to enter the broader social world and it is rare to encounter an academic who has a real political engagement beyond attending the occasional protest or writing the occasional open letter. In these dark and cynical moments, I find myself thinking that politics is what came to fill the void opened by the collapse of theology. Where the humanities used to be organized around theology and knowledge of God and advancement of his glory, the humanities encountered a void in the movement towards secularization.
Maybe Bryant should continue exploring that territory rather than making up a metaphysics that won’t fly, which alas, is my real topic for this post.

What do you mean “alas”?

Well, I keep asking myself why I bother to critique his thinking. Why don’t I just let him alone—‘cause he’s certainly not going to pay any attention to me—and go on about my business.

Good questions, what about it?

Well, I’ve been thinking on that, every time I post one of these. And I’m beginning to see why I do it. And it’s not primarily in the vain hope that I’ll have some influence on Bryant. He’s going to do what he’s going to do and that’s that. But someone’s got to point out that His Imperial Majesty is dancing around on the head of a pin without any clothes, nor any angels either.

Ratatouille 4: Psychomachia Modern, with a Digression into Shakespeare

Let’s start with a definition. The best one I found is in the Muppet Wiki:
Psychomachia is a literary concept named for a Latin poem by Prudentius. The poem dealt with the inner conflict within one's soul, between virtue and vice, through allegorical representations. This concept of an inner struggle became key to the developing Christian religion, and was refined dramatically in the medieval morality plays. Works such as Everyman, Piers Plowman, and Faust featured protagonists struggling with temptation, literally personified through the seven deadly sins (gluttony, lust, et. al). A variation of this involved the use of a "Good Angel" and "Evil Angel," one to encourage the tormented soul and the other to push the protagonist further along the path to ruination.

This eventually developed into the popular comedy cliche wherein a character has an angel on or above his shoulder, literally, and a devil.
In the Disney canon both Jiminy Cricket and Timothy Mouse are in this tradition. They are companions to the protagonist who help guide him in his quest for maturity. Jiminy Cricket is quite obviously Pinocchio’s moral minder; Timothy Mouse’s job is more about Dumbo’s morale than his morals.

In Ratatouille Gusteau provides both functions for Remy. He provides moral guidance—don’t be a thief—and he provides moral support. Gusteau first appears to Remy when he’s lost in the sewer. Remy’s leafing through the cookbook and an image of Gusteau comes up off the page and addresses him:

Rat 23 Gusteau book

Later, when he’s running through the attics of Paris, Gusteau materializes out of the air:

Rat 23 Gusteau appears

Ascent: Vuh-lain Expedition, Day One

My name is Km-274 R’beqq. I’m a student of exo-anthropology at Flambo-Z Chameleon Hive.

Two weeks ago our scanners have picked up emanations coming from the third planet in System Zap-Bar-Kor of the KrumRum Sektor. The vibrations are strong, high in the green band, with strong accents across the spectrum.

These beings call themselves the Vuh-lains, of the GReeN’h.

A most unusual energy signature. It’s an indication of intelligent life. No, not only that, but Artistic Capability that’s reaching escape velocity. I have the honor of being on the team that’s going to meet them and follow their ascent into the G-Zone.

Our ship has locked onto the G signal. The building’s in view. We’ve landed on the roof.

And now, see down there, I can feel the force:


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grooves, Grafs, and Toons: Transnational Cultural Forms

I'm bumping this one to the top of the list because it's more current than ever. Another one from olden times at The Valve (November 2006).

Word up:
It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

For the last three years or so I've been telling myself - and a few others as well - that anime and manga will do for the visual culture of this century what African-American music did for the musical culture of the last century:

Provide idioms that are adopted everywhere and adapted for local use.
I've now added graffiti to the list - not graffiti in general, but the kind of grafs I discussed in Shrine of the Triceratops, the contemporary sort that originated in America in the late 60s and early 70s and was then assimilated to hip-hop culture. The purpose of this post is simply to play around with the notion that grooves, grafs, and toons have been providing and will continue to provide the basic transnational idioms of musical and visual culture in the global age. This is an exercise in throat-clearing, thinking out loud, sizing things up.

Grafs on the move: Catch me if you can
Outa' Here


African American music - Europe meets Africa in North America - has been around the longest. I've seen a reference to minstrelsy in India in the mid-19th century, but have been unable to follow up on it. For the most part it seems to me that this florescence happened mostly in the 20th century; first jazz, then rock and soul (with the blues tagging along), and finally hip-hop. Each time a new set of idioms arose, they went international. By the late 20th century all the major idioms were performed in all continents (Antarctica excepted, though I suppose some of the folks working there might play a little something sometime - surely someone has taken a guitar or a harp there) and local hybrids have given rise to so-called world beat music - a marketing category for fusions of this or that African American idiom with anything else.

Why did this happen? Well, there is good old Western Imperialism organizing a international flows of goods, services, and ideas. But that just gets the music around; that doesn't make it stick, much less flourish and breed. For that the only reasonable answer is that it is locally attractive, not to everyone (it's not even that attractive at home), but to enough people to make a home for it. Why is it so attractive? The answer to that is not obvious, so let's leave it alone for now (see here for some fairly standard speculation).


Then we have graffiti. The standard story is that the modern idiom arose in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 60s and early 70s with simple “tags” aerosoled in publicly visible places. Ornate elaboration started in Philadelphia and then spread to New York, which it achieved its first flourishing on the sides of subway cars. As that died in chemical baths, the idiom spread to any and all available surfaces. When hip-hop came along in the late 70s, it picked up graffiti as one aspect of general hip hop culture and hence graffiti made the world trip along with hip hop. (At least I think that's what happened. I don't know how far it had spread before hip-hop picked it up.)

1974 US Boxing Team

In October of 1974 my father went to Poland on business. While in the airport he saw the US amateur boxing team. I don't know the team's affiliation–1974 wasn't an Olympic year–but these were top-rate boxers. He got their signatures on a postcard:


At least four of them went on to become professional champions: Michael Spoinks, Leon Spinks, Jr., ("Sugar") Ray Charles Leonard, and Aaron Pryor.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Human Population Expanded BEFORE the Agriculture Revolution

Hong-Xiang Zheng, Shi Yan, Zhen-Dong Qin & Li Jin. MtDNA analysis of global populations support that major population expansions began before Neolithic Time. Nature.

Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 745 doi:10.1038/srep00745
Received 22 August 2012 Accepted 24 September 2012 Published 18 October 2012

Abstract: Agriculture resulted in extensive population growths and human activities. However, whether major human expansions started after Neolithic Time still remained controversial. With the benefit of 1000 Genome Project, we were able to analyze a total of 910 samples from 11 populations in Africa, Europe and Americas. From these random samples, we identified the expansion lineages and reconstructed the historical demographic variations. In all the three continents, we found that most major lineage expansions (11 out of 15 star lineages in Africa, all autochthonous lineages in Europe and America) coalesced before the first appearance of agriculture. Furthermore, major population expansions were estimated after Last Glacial Maximum but before Neolithic Time, also corresponding to the result of major lineage expansions. Considering results in current and previous study, global mtDNA evidence showed that rising temperature after Last Glacial Maximum offered amiable environments and might be the most important factor for prehistorical human expansions.

Relations, Neurons, Culture

Caveat: I posted this without proofing. If you catch any typos or things that just don't make sense, please let me know. Thanks.
Anyone who’s been following object-oriented ontology and related matters in the blogosphere knows there’s major controversy over relations. In thinking about that business during the middle of the night I suddenly realized that it provides a way of talking nervous systems in individuals and in groups.
Here’s the basic idea: Neurons in an individual nervous system can be said to be internally related to one another. Two neurons in different individual nervous systems will not be internally related, but they may have external relations if the individuals are interacting with one another. Under certain conditions of interaction, however, neurons in different nervous systems can be said to be internally related is much the same way that neurons in the same nervous system are internally related.
I made that argument in some detail, though not those terms, in chapters 2 and especially 3 (which begins with fireflies and ends with clapping hands) of Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. You can find posts on these and related matters on this blog under the headings of coupling and synchrony.

Now, let’s go through a more leisurely statement of the idea.




The Wisdom of David Chang

Chang: So, tell me about your knife skills.

Janette: They’re good. Not great, but solid good, I think.
I assume that’s the real David Chang. But Janette isn’t real. As many of you know, she’s a fictional chef played by Kim Dickins in David Simon’s Treme. I don’t know whether those lines were scripted or improvised (do they do improv in this show around and about New Orleans musical culture?) but they feel true-to-life.

So, what is it with knife skills? Anyone who does more than a little cooking—and that’s all I do, more than a little—knows that you need to cut and chop, a lot. It’s a necessary skill. I assume that on the professional chef’s scale my knife skills are poor to terrible.

What I’m curious about, though, is whether knife skills are merely practical or if they are one of the gateways to artistry. The fact that the issue came up in this scene, which is a job interview in season 2, episode 8 (Can I Change My Mind?), suggests possibly the latter. My own knife usage certainly isn’t skilled enough to give me any intuitive sense of what’s going on.

But I’d guess that knife skills for a chef are like brush skills for a painter or sound for a musician—both of which I do way better than I prepare food. Of course, you need the basic skills to get anywhere at all. The painter needs the brush to get paint on the canvas; without command of basic sound, the musician is nothing. No two painters handle the brush in the same way, you can see the difference in the strokes, that is, in styles where the strokes are visible. And the best musicians have distinctive sounds.

Knife skills would seem be in the same ball park. It’s your basic contact with the physical stuff of your art: images for the painter, tunes for the musician, and dishes for the chef.
Janette: [My chef] said I might be happy here.

Chang: Well, Eric’s awesome, but happy? I’m not very happy, Who’s happy? I don’t even know what that is.
Sounds about right. But the best days are yet to come.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Questions of Context: Shakespeare and Tezuka

Vincent Barletta has made an interesting Arcade post about context in literary criticism. I respond here at New Savanna rather than there because my thoughts exceed any decent length for blog comments. First I offer passages from Barletta’s post, then I discuss an essay by Stephen Greenblatt, “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture.” After that, two early modern texts from English literature (Pantosto and the Winter's Tale) and, at the end, robots in the Japan of Osamu Tezuka.

Barletta’s Post

Focused as some of us are on medieval and early modern literature, the question of context comes up a great deal. Is our work sufficiently contextualized? Where and how do modern theories of language and meaning (our inevitable toolkit) fit into our work? Are we expected to bracket off ourselves (and our readers) from our work? Is it our goal to speak of, for example, fifteenth-century poetry in terms that only a fifteenth-century reader would understand (e.g., "According to Aquinas. . .")?
As I read those words my nose got chocked up with dust and I felt the chill of vampires rising from the crypts of ancient libraries.

Early in my career I’d heard rumors of scholars who didn’t believe one could properly use theories and concepts of a vintage more recent than the texts to which one applies them. No Freudian, Marxist, or Derridean analysis of Wuthering Heights, the Divine Comedy, or Oedipus the King. Now Barletta’s telling me that they still walk among us.

He goes on in the next paragraph:
These are extreme positions, and we mostly don't expect to write about medieval and early modern works in the same way that medieval and early modern writers did. Our readers, after all, have different expectations and needs. Modern theories and philosophies do have a place in our work, although we often have a very hard time defining for ourselves and our students (not to mention those anonymous readers who assess our work for publication) where the line that divides antiquarian fetishism and anachronism might be.
OK, that’s a little better, gives us a little breathing room.

Five Animated Features: A Book?

Edited from a note to Tim Perper.

Once I'd finished my Dumbo project I decided that “Hey, I've got a book here, Fantasia and Dumbo.” The book wouldn't be a general market coffee table book, of course, but a serious analytic study of those two films for a sophisticated (and heavily academic) audience. I've already got THAT one well-mapped out so I know more or less where this thing would be going.

But I'm considering extending my coverage beyond those two films to include several others:
Porco Rosso
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
That gives me five feature-length films. I'd want to devote considerable time to each film, so I'd have to cut back on the Disney material. Which is OK, because I've got all this stuff online for anyone who's interested. The addition of the three other films broadens the scope of the book, which should broaden its appeal.

And it also helps one of my methodological points, which is comparative analysis. As you know, I'm big on description. And, as you also know, description is not at all a straight-forward business. Not at all. It's tricky stuff. Because these things we're describing are complex. Just WHAT do you describe, and why, and when do you stop?

Well, one way to focus the descriptive effort is to look at several examples—you know, “comparison and contrast” from composition 101. You focus on what's similar across your examples and what's different. Depending on what you're looking at, you've still got a tricky job, but at least this gives you some direction.

The addition of the other three films opens up the analytic/descriptive space considerably. Obviously I'm not aiming for a comprehensive study of feature-length animation. I just want to explore some things, both thematic and methodological, and, above all, make the point that: This is serious art worth careful and serious consideration.

Light FX: In search of visual pain

Did any of these photos give you a twinge of pain when you looked at them? If so, Mark Changizi can tell you why.



Thursday, October 18, 2012

Intention and Meaning in Literary Criticism: Or, Another Run at Harman

“Classically,” if I may, intention has been invoked in discussions of literary theory as a necessary supplement to the physical sign, or more exactly, the physical signifier. In his 1967 Validity in Interpretation E. D. Hirsch talks of finding “A slumber did my spirit seal” inscribed in beach sand. Is it really Wordsworth’s poem or is it just an empty, albeit incredible, simulacrum of the poem?

That depends on how those marks got there. If they were placed there by a being capable of the proper sort of intentions, such as a human being, then it’s Wordsworth’s poem. But if they got there through operations of the wind and waves, or the operation of intentional beings of the improper sort (e.g. worms crawling about), then, no, they don’t constitute Wordsworth’s poem. They have no (proper) intention and thus have no meaning.

Well, this sort of thing has generated a great deal of discussion (e.g. Knapp and Michaels, “Against Theory”, 1982), and continues to do so, see, for example, this 2007 post by Joseph Kugelmass at my old stomping grounds, The Valve, which is in turn linked to posts by the redoubtable John Holbo. I don’t want to reprise those arguments.

Rather I wish first to reduce them to a crude and simple formula, then run some variations on that reduction. After that I offer a supplement to that formula, and go on from there to address, once again, Graham Harman’s recent article in New Literary History: “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism” (vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 183-208, 2012).

Numerals, Letters, Whatever


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I hear ya' knockin'


Tales Told on a Wall, A Year in the Life

As Louis Armstrong would say, this is one of them old-time good ones. It's from The Valve, December 20, 2007. So it's not THAT old. But we're talking graffiti years, and almost five years in graffiti time, that's old. This is about one wall, and the changes it went through in a bit over a year from late October of 2006 through the end of December 2008. Since then a lot has happened on those walls, but this is enough to make the point about how graffiti changes.
Some walls stay the same; some change, frequently. The walls I’m talking about are in Jersey City, NJ, the graffiti-covered walls I’ve been photographing for over a year. Though there are norms about going over another writer’s work, they’re only one factor in the changes I’ve observed. It is not my intention, however, to offer any comprehensive analysis of these changes. My purpose is more limited: to present some of the changes, on one wall, over the past year or so.

Even with that restriction, my story is incomplete – indeed, that restriction forces incompleteness. For this wall is only one node in a network of walls, a network that is quite dense in the immediate vicinity of this wall – say 100 yards south, 300 yards north, and 50 yards on either side (but mostly to the East), a bit less dense in a mile radius around this wall, but with several areas densely packed with graffiti walls. Beyond that, for all practical purposes, the network is world-wide. It's not only that the stories on this wall are linked to stories on adjacent walls, but that the writers who’ve worked on this wall have worked on some of those other walls, and they know writers who’ve worked on still more, and so forth.

More compactly, there’s a five month period – December 2006 through April 2007 – where I didn’t take any photographs of this wall, so I don’t know what happened in that interval. More consequentially, I haven’t interviewed any of the writers, so I don’t have their versions of what happened and why. All I know is what I see and what I can conjecture on that basis.

Perhaps that is best, at least for my limited purposes here. What interests me is simply that things change on the wall. Day gives way to night gives way to day, etc. Sunny gives way to cloudy gives way to rain, and then back to sunny. Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring. Things change. The wall is part of that.

Here’s the wall as it was on 27 October 2006:

SUE 10-27-06.jpg

The wall is on the South side of a stanchion supporting the 14th Street Viaduct, which conveys West-bound traffic from the Holland Tunnel to the New Jersey Thruway. If you look at the right side of the wall you can see that it already has at least three layers of work on it. The top layer is over the cream background, which is in turn over a grey background, and it is over a white background. At the left we see the letters “SUE___TR__.” I conjecture that that’s the name of a graffiti crew.

Ill Nature LGM




Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Matter, Life, and Culture (so far)

Edit: Tuesday evening, 16 Oct. I have added three paragraphs since first posting this in the morning. They are at the end of the section on Realms of cultural practice.
Having devoted several posts to developing concepts of literary criticism within a pluralist framework, it’s time to have a distinctly different discussion, one about the distinction between the Realms of Matter and of Life. We must be careful here, however, not to think of matter as the inert substance of Descartes’ res extensa. In talking of vibrant matter it seems to me that Jane Bennett has it about right. Rocks, clouds and star dust may not be alive, but in view of quantum mechanics and complex dynamics we cannot say that matter is as dead as Descartes and, of course many others, believed it to be.

Further, I don’t assume that either of these Realms is a single Realm. For the moment, however, I’m going to proceed as though that were the case. What I’m after is the distinction between mere matter, if you will, and life.

Conceptual Machinery: A Review

First, let’s reprise the basic propositions that I stated in From Objects to Pluralism. We have two propositions taken over and modified from Harman:
1. Individual entities of various different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations.
To these I’ve added two more:
3. Realms of Being consist of specific kinds of entities in specific relations with one another.

4. Our cosmos has evolved from one Realm to the many evident today. It is possible that Realms exist of which we are unaware. There is no obvious limit to the emergence of new Realms from existing ones.
That’s the basic framework we’re working with.

Matter and Life, Rocks and Acorns

Consider the difference between a rock and an acorn. A rock is pretty much a hard dense lump of stuff regardless of its local environment. Whether it’s on the ground in a woods in Western Pennsylvania, or miles under the Pacific in the Marianas Trench, in specimen case in a museum somewhere, or floating somewhere between Jupiter and Mars, it is what it is, a rock. If you nudge it toward the Sun, however, when it gets close enough it will melt, then vaporize, and its atoms will break down into plasma (of the physical kind, not the Latourian). No more rock.

Fossil Brains of Humans

For those interested in the pre-history of the human brain, Ralph Holloway is essential reading. He's put a career's worth of work online in the form of downloadable PDFs. Check out, e.g.:

2009 Holloway, Ralph L., Sherwood, Chet C., Hof, Patrick R. and Rilling, James K., Evolution of the Brain: In Humans--Paleoneurology (PDF). The New Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, in Springer.

2008 Holloway, Ralph L. "The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective." (PDF) Annual Review of Anthropology 37.1 (2008): 1-19.

1981 Holloway, Ralph L. Culture, symbols, and human brain evolution: a synthesis. Dialectical Anthropology. 5: 287-303.

Strogatz on Powers of 10

In the last of his current series of articles on math, Visualizing Vastness, Steven Strogatz starts with the solar system, generalizes to powers of 10, and then offers these two paragraphs:
This style of thinking, this powers-of-10 mentality, is our best hope for making sense of the immensity of the natural world. What makes subjects like biology and climate science so hard is not just that they involve so many variables; it’s that the crucial phenomena in them occur over such a wide range of scales. Biologists need to contend with everything from nano-size DNA molecules on up to cells, organs, organisms and ecosystems. For climate scientists the relevant scales go from the molecular (the photochemistry of ozone) to the global (the fluid mechanics of the jet stream). Many of the great scientific puzzles of our time have this multiscale character.

A contentious example, especially in this election season, is inequality. The distribution of wealth in the United States spans at least 10 powers of 10, ranging from people whose net worth is measured in tens of billions of dollars, to those with barely a dollar to their names. This disparity dwarfs even the six powers of 10 in the solar system. As such, the distribution is extremely difficult to depict on a single graph, at least on the standard kinds of plots with linear axes, which is why you never see it displayed on one page.
The juxtaposition is striking.

Heroes in January



Monday, October 15, 2012

Prelude to an Environmental Investigation

These are some of regulars at the sk8 park, the sk8boarders and the BMXers, where the Shua Group staged their Environmental Investigation (see yesterday‘s post). They were quite active before the event.

These two made at least a half-dozen runs before the dance began, one attempting a trick, the other video-taping the attempt. They’ll go around the mound at the left and turn, coming toward the camera to execute the trick.


The Story of Civilization: Stuck in Traffic

One day I waited an hour in traffic to go a quarter of a mile so I could enter the Holland Tunnel and cross under the Hudson River to my home in Jersey City. While sitting in the cue and kept thinking why why why? Why?

In answer the question with a boiling-frog story, a parable about Happy Island. I conclude by suggesting that the world is happy island and we’re stuck in traffic.

Tunnel Traffic

I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. Whenever I go to Manhattan I use public transportation, which is reasonably good, though just a bit inconvenient from my present location. Driving my car through a tunnel or over a bridge and parking it on Manhattan, that’s VERY inconvenient. And so I avoid doing it.

But I had to go to rural Connecticut to meet Charlie for a trip up to Vermont. I could have taken public transportion to a point where Charlie could pick me up. But that’s a longish walk and four trains, or a longish walk and three trains and a long walk or a cab. Which was a hassle. So I decided to drive. Yes, I’d have to cross the Hudson River, but the Holland Tunnel’s nearby and I could avoid rush-hour traffic on both trips, too and from. And driving on Manhattan was a bit of a hassle, but not too bad on this trip because I’d be mostly on the West Side Highway.

So I drove. I left on Thursday morning at, say, 9:45 AM. By 11:30 I’d crossed off the northern end of Manhattan and was headed toward Connecticut. That’s an hour and forty-five minutes to go the first 15 miles, and probably an hour to go the first four miles, from my place in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway headed North.

And that wasn’t rush-hour.

Nor was it rush-hour mid-afternoon on Saturday when I made the return trip. It took at least 45 minutes to get from West Side Avenue and 12th street into the tunnel, and traffic was unusually slow inside the tunnel, for whatever reason.

I’d be very surprised indeed if tunnel traffic was that bad when the Holland Tunnel first opened early in the 20th century. Nor do I have any idea when traffic began to build-up at the tunnel. It was opened in 1927 and the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel followed a decade later; the second tube took another eight years. Was it built in response to traffic build-up in the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge? Seems possible. A third tube was opened in ’57, a response to increased traffic.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Environmental Investigation: Shua Group

Time: 13 October 2012, starting at 1PM
Place: Guerilla sk8 park near the Morris Canal and I78 overpass, Jersey City, New Jersey Event: Environmental Investigation, a dance performance by the Shua Group
The performance space is not a venue for dance, or music, or theatre. It’s the concrete floor slab of a demolished warehouse that’s been turned into a park by and for skate-boarders and BMX bikers, some of whom stick around for the performance. I’d guess that many of the 40 or so people in the audience have never been back here, perhaps didn’t even know it existed.

This shot is just before the performance began. The guy is not one of the performers, he’s one of the regulars here. We’ll see him again.


The dancers wait ‘off-stage’:


A BMXer rides through.


Though I don’t actually know this, I’m guessing that his performance wasn’t scripted. I’m also guessing that the choreographer and dancers were unfazed by this intrusion that’s not an intrusion because it’s in the environment we all share: together.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fragments of the Old Neighborhood



Peace Symbol: Nuclear Disarmament

one of them old time good ones

The peace symbol is one of the most widely known symbols in the world. It was created in 1958 by Gerald Holtom as a symbol for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The symbol combines the semaphor (signal flag) symbols for “N” and “D” (nuclear disarmament). In the “N” the flags are held pointing diagonally toward the ground and, for the “D” one points up and one down, forming a vertical line.


The symbol was used in first anti-nuclear march in London (to Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons were manufactured) in 1958. One of Martin Luther King’s associates, Bayard Rustin, attended that march and brought the symbol back to the US. It was adopted by anti-war movement and has since become a universal symbol of peace.

Note that the symbol has not been copyrighted. The CND explains:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Our Kids Need a SK8 Park, an Open Letter to Diane Coleman

Diane Coleman is running for City Council in Jersey City’s Ward F.


Let me tell you about some kids, Diane. Some young adults, too, I suspect. I’ve only met them once, and only talked to one of them. I know they’re good kids because I’ve seen what they’ve built. Though they’re probably not old enough to vote for anyone, and they know the world’s stacked against them, I figure they’d vote for someone like you because they'd appreciate what you've for done the community. Chances are you've already helped some of them, or their mom, or dad, or a friend.


So, anyhow, they like to skateboard (they spell it sk8, fewer characters, you know) and to ride BMX bikes. But there’s no place for them to do it. The city’s too busy handing out construction contracts to friends and friends of friends so they can build high-rise apartment complexes for wannabe bankers and gofers to bankers. As I’m sure YOU know Diane, this goes on because those bankers are swimming in so much cash that even the gofers and wannabes can afford to live in luxury.

The Green Villain is Ready

The green villain is a mood, a sensibility, an ethos, to use the ancient Greek term. And a distinctly urban ethos at that.

But it’s also a place, and as a place it is properly capitalized: Green Villain. It’s in a small factory building one that, like 1000s of such buildings across America is no longer used as a factory. Many of those buildings are no longer used at all; they’re abandoned and have fallen into disrepair.

This building is not at all abandoned. It has a number of different tenants operating various kinds of businesses. The Green Villain is one of them. It has 5000 square feet and it operates an ethos. That’s its business: mood, sensibility, attitude.

In a word: CULTURE.

A sample:


That’s Salvador Dali in the middle; and that’s his mustache under his nose, reaching out to 12, for whatever reason. The chairs and table at the right belong to the space, not to the art. But they were there and so got into the flick. I don’t know what that cord’s doing or where it goes at the upper left. But next to it on the wall you see “stino,” which is the last five letters of “Destino,” which, in turn, is the name of a film that Dali and Disney were working on, but never completed. Such is the way of the world.

D'oh: The Spread of "I, for one, welcome our new * overlords"

Back on 29 January 2004 Language Log's Mark Liberman Googled this phrase: "I, for one, welcome our new * overlords". The asterisk, of course, is a wild card and will match any word. When Homer Simpson Kent Brockman (who else?) originally uttered the phrase the word was "insect": "I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords." The phrase has since garnered a blither of variations. There's an intersting discussion of this meme at Know Your Meme; the discussion includes a Google Trends graph with a big spike early in 2011.

Why the spike? In February of 2011 IBM's Watson played against human champions in a three-day match. Ken Jennings wrote "I for one welcome our new computer overlords" below one of his answers on the final show.

Back to Liberman. When he Googled the wildcarded phrase in 2004 he got 1940 hits. I just Googled it and got 1,210,000 this. How many do you get?

Mark's current post on The Simpsons is about the show's influence on the English language. The horror! the horror!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Synchronized Walking in Japan

Only the Japanese would make synchronized walking into a competitive sport. But the first time they break into two squares and then the squares walk diagonally through one another--WOW! And then they go backwards!

The Dance of the Metronomes

Put 32 metronomes on the same surface. Set them to the same tempo, but different start then a slightly different times. What happens?

Of course, you know what happens. But how it happens, that’s interesting. Look at the lower right about about 2 minutes in.

For informed commentary, hop over to Cosmic Variance.

ADDENDUM: Ligeti's Poème symphonique. H/t Ben Marshall-Corser.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fire burns cotton

This is from a casual note by Cosma Shalizi about graphical causal models. I'm publishing it here: 1) to park it where I can find it readily, 2) because it bears on a favorite example of Graham Harman's, and 3) sheds light on the 'tissue' of indirect causality (Harman's concept) that is the basis of my conception of Realm of Being:
Part of what we mean by "cause" is that, when we know the immediate causes, the remoter causes are irrelevant --- given the parents, remoter ancestors don't matter. The standard example is that applying a flame to a piece of cotton will cause it to burn, whether the flame came from a match, spark, lighter or what-not. Probabilistically, this is a conditional independence property, or a Markov property: a variable is independent of its ancestors conditional on its parents. In fact, given its parents, its children, and its childrens' other parents, a variable is conditionally independent of all other variables. This is called the graphical or causal Markov property. When this holds, we can factor the joint probability distribution for all the variables into the product of the distribution of the exogenous variables, and the conditional distribution for each endogenous variable given its parents.
Cf. remarks on visual notation in my post Harman's Ontology on a Single Level. Come to think of it, Arthur Stinchcomb's Constructing Social Theory makes occasional use of graph notation.

Once an empire


Generation Anthropocene

A project and a blog. The Anthropocene, of course, is the geological age characterized by human dominance of the earth. It's our present age. At the moment it's headed toward disaster for us, though the earth will undoubtedly survive–it's bigger than we are–and the biosphere most likely continue to thrive, thought perhaps with a dramatically different variety and distribution of life-forms.

From the project's mission statement:
History is accelerating. Global population has crossed seven billion, the planet’s temperature continues its abrupt rise, and scientists warn we are in the midst of a new mass extinction. Transformations this enormous are rare in earth’s 4.6 billion year history and humankind’s planetary impact is geologic in scale. We have caused a new geologic age, and it has a name: The Anthropocene.
... We seek out cross-generational stories from our changing environmental and cultural landscapes, discussing all things Anthropocene with thought-leaders like geologists and historians, ecologists and philosophers. We’re grappling with our realization that we’re a geologic force and confronting the new reality with investigative storytelling.
What's your story, morning glory? 

Why Hand-Drawn Animation?

The Skeleton of an Argument and Some Examples

That question’s been on my mind for awhile now, six months, a year, likely more. I’m convinced that hand-drawn animation is important and that it would be a serious cultural loss if the medium were to disappear. But I don’t know why.

That is, I can’t formulate an account I find convincing. Is the problem that I’m not sufficiently adept in using the appropriate concepts? But just what ARE the appropriate concepts? Do they even exist?

Academic film criticism, for example, certainly doesn’t have the concepts. It’s derived from literary criticism and is mostly about meaning, meaning so abstracted that it’s medium-independent. That won’t do. The concepts I need must be specifically about the medium. Such concepts, while they do exist in our intellectual culture, are relatively rare and not generally given much weight, so besotted are we with meaning.

Perhaps the concepts don’t exist. If not, well, it’s not the first time I’ve set out to answer an impossible question. But, sheesh! this is getting tiresome! For once I’d like to tackle a Big Question that has the Right Answer waiting Just Around the Corner.

* * * * *

A traditional rationale for hand-drawn animation, as opposed to live-action films, is that it allows you to do things that are somewhere between difficult and all-but-impossible in live-action. That’s a start. Now all we have to do is establish that those things are interesting and valuable.

The material on animals I began exploring in my work on Dumbo (e.g. HERE and HERE) gets at that, though it needs more work. I may have to think explicitly about what happens when animal images are interpreted through neuro-mental systems tuned for humans. That leads me into the psychology of ontology, which could be rough sledding. But if that’s where I have to go, well, at least I’m relatively familiar with the topography, rocky and swampy though it may be.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Simple Gratitude

I prepared a pot roast yesterday for the first time in two or three years.

Most of the time my dinner preparations are embarrassingly primitive. Yes, I do eat out or get take-out—mostly cheap take-out the year and a half I lived in Hoboken. But for most of my adult life I’ve prepared dinner.

Two or three times a year I’d do a pot roast. Certainly nothing elaborate or fancy. Still, it’s a step above rock-bottom basic. After all, it does require that you peel onions, carrots, and potatoes—though I didn’t peel them this time. I do like the skins. You have to dredge the meat in a flour and spice mixture. It’s got to cook for several hours, so you’ve got to watch it, help it along.

There’s enough to do that one has a sense of involvement with the food. It’s something you think about, tend to, and care for.

It felt good.

And when I put the food on my plate, I blessed it. I didn’t say anything, but I felt something. That something was a blessing.

Which I realized only as I composed this note. That blessing is the point of the note, it’s why I set out to write it. But the specific word wasn’t in my mind when I sat down to type.

It’s one I associate with Coleridge, his poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” at the very end:
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path across the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross'd the mighty Orb's dilated glory,
While thou stood'st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.



Strogatz on Math

Steven Strogatz has been writing on math for The New York Times. He did a series back in 2010 and now he's doing another. I enjoyed his book, Synch: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, and recommend his Times columns. The current one is on catastrophe theory, which he illustrates by business cycles and sleep cycles.

Monday, October 8, 2012

From Greene to Shakespeare: If Harman Wants to Talk Texts, He Should Learn from Lévi-Strauss

This is revised, adapted, and extended from a post I first published at The Valve and have since republished in a working paper which is available at my SSRN page HERE. This is the fourth, and I hope the last, in my responses to Harman’s The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism (PDF).
No doubt Harman has read some Lévi-Strauss—there’s a lot of it. But perhaps not the right Lévi-Strauss, which is the Lévi-Strauss of The Raw and the Cooked and the other volumes in that series. Perhaps Harman has read it—maybe even in French, Le Cru et le Cuit, which is beyond me—but he’s not quite gotten the point. Which is a bit obscure, as Lévi-Strauss was working at the outer limits of his capacities and so didn’t quite know what he was doing. He just kept doing it.

Everyone seems to think that Derrida vanquished Lévi-Strauss back in ’66. Which he didn’t. Yes, he poked holes in Lévi-Strauss’s rationalizations of his work, but not the empirical work itself. Looking back on it—I just glanced through “Structure, Sign, and Play…” the other day—I’m a bit surprised that so many seemed to have taken that critique at face value. I’m thinking that, as between deconstruction and painstaking and often detailed comparative analysis of literary texts (the ‘myths’ of most interest to Derrida’s audience), deconstruction is so much more like good old close reading that the litterateurs jumped on deconstruction as a way to return to the old ways under the guise of going boldly where no man has gone before. And they did—a matter I discuss in more detail in Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti.

Which meant that by the time Harman had arrived on the scene the verdict on Lévi-Strauss had long since been signed, sealed, and delivered—you can have him!

It’s time we give him another run.

Raw Myth on the Fly

In his earlier work Lévi-Strauss had considered myths one or two at a time. In The Raw and the Cooked he examines a collection of myths, 187 of them, and treats them as an integrated system of stories. He’s after the grammar, if you will, that underlies the whole lot of them.

If Lévi-Strauss had used Harman’s proposed counter-factual method he’d have started with a myth, changed something, and then watched it jiggle around until it settled into a new form. Well, he’d have done the jiggling himself, wouldn’t he? But let’s pretend, for the purposes of this little fantasy, that the myth has powers of its own and so can do such things as compensatory jiggling.

So, Graham Lévi-Strauss (GL-S) starts with the classic, George Goes to Gary, and swaps George’s grandmother for his uncle. Grandmother out, uncle in. What happens? Well, instead of giving him a home improvement loan, the bank forecloses on his mortgage. Now he’s homeless so his girlfriend’s parents forbid her to marry him. He joins the Navy, sees the world, and ends up as a used-car salesman in Anchorage, Alaska, which is rather far from the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. He goes out in the woods hunting grizzly. Just when he’s spotted a grizzly WHAM! he comes upon his uncle attempting to rape his old girlfriend. He rescues the girl, she marries him, and they live happily ever after.

Computational Linguistics: Martin Kay

This is an interview with Martin Kay. He's one of the grand old men of computational linguistics. He was there at the beginning, in the mid-1950s; he's made major contributions (discussed in this video) and he still has an active research program. He worked with my teacher and colleague, the late David Hays, whom he discusses starting at 4:25 or so. The interview runs a bit over an hour and gets a bit technical here and there. But it gives you a good flavor of the discipline. 

Starting at roughly 48 minutes he discusses the statistical methods that came over the field starting in the early 1990s or so. He speculates that the rule-based thinkers like Kay (and his generation and the much of the next) will be making a rapprochement with the statistical folks. Or vice versa. "As a scientist you want to explain what gives rise to those statistics."

This part of the discussion is very important. Much recommended. You might also want to nose around at the site, for the Oxford Internet Institute, which has many interesting videos, such as this one by Ted Nelson musing his way through his career.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Toccata Redux: Visualizing Mental Objects

What’s this


? and this

flying discs

? and this

7 cathedral


In all cases, of course, one may properly answer: a frame from the first episode of Fantasia: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. But that’s not quite what I meant. I KNOW they’re frames from Fantasia. But what do they represent? Or are they just meaningless abstractions?

Story Slams, coming to a venue near you?

My friend Rich told me about these things called story slams. You have five minutes to tell a True Life Story before a live audience. He seems to think it started with a bunch called The Moth, in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City.

I'd never heard of them before, which is neither here nor there. But I've got the impression that they're pretty new, though The Moth dates all the way back to 1997, which is pretty old in popular culture terms. I mean, that's way back there at Web 1.4, before blogs and Facebook.

Google only comes up with 130K hits or so, which is not a lot.

Will story slams catch fire?