Friday, November 30, 2012

Some Things at the Green Villain

Here's a shot I took of the bar one afternoon. The sunglasses and the liquor bottle I recognize, but what's the white fuzzy?


When was the last time you saw a circular saw and a rake together?

Conterfactual Criticism in Action

I've criticism Graham Harman's notion of counter-factual criticism in a series of posts on this blog (e.g. in this post, where I discuss Greene, Shakespeare, and Lévi-Strauss), which I've also rolled up into a PDF, Reading with Graham.

If you want to see some counter-factual criticism in action, or something very like it–as I don't really know, concretely, what Harman had in mind–see Tim Perper's comments in this discussion of Miyazaki's Porco Rosso.

Hyperviscosity and Bathtub Philosophy

A couple of mornings ago I had a good idea while lounging in the tub. A good idea, but not a great or surprising idea. Good’s enough.

As I explained a year or so ago, I do a lot of thinking while lounging in the tub in the morning—or, for that matter, at other times of the day, on occasion. So this was not at all unusual. Still, I thought I’d post a brief note to the blog, you know, just to note the cognitive utility of hanging out in the tub. ‘Cause tending to one’s mind is important, but a rather obscure and tricky business.

Alas, I forgot to do so. And I forget just now which good idea I had that day, though I have a sense that I did act on it. Anyhow, it happened again today. So I made a point of writing a note this time.

Today’s insight is simple, that I could, and perhaps even should and will, talk about manga and anime at the end of my next, and I hope penultimate post, on pluralism. Working title for the post: Facing up to Relativism: Pluralist Axiology.

A mouthful, that: “axiology.” It’s basically a cover term for ethics and aesthetics. What’s a pluralist got to say about the fact that different peoples have different Life Ways?

Negotiation, that’s what. Latour talks about it in “Exploring Common Worlds” in Politics of Nature. While I had no specific itinerary in mind when I set out on this venture into OOO-land, I certainly didn’t expect to find myself with an occasion to talk about cartoons. But now...

* * * * *

Enough. This is about the bathtub, not about a post I’m going to write sometime in the next several days (I hope).

Bryant Watch: A NEW Levi, a NEW Theory, I Say Piffle!

With a first draft due in January, Bryant’s just posted an update on his onto-cartography project.

He tells us this is going to be “a very different conceptual universe than the one found [in Democracy of Objects] (though building on that universe).” This is, of course, one of his characteristic rhetorical gestures, one he generally deploys with respect to Marxism, Lacan, critique, semiotics, the kitchen sink, and all the rest. He’s an all-inclusive theorist, always advancing, but never leaving anything behind. Why, he’s so all-inclusive he even includes his own past work.

Can’t beat that with a stick!

Then he tells us how his mind works—and, BTW, just what other contemporary philosopher is so generous as to give us a glimpse into the workings of his mind? “I draw things together that are disparate, working by a method of ‘pastiche’ and ‘collage’, because this is how I think and also because I believe that this is how being itself unfolds.” So, he’s got a mind like Being, which means that whatever comes out of it must be true because it’s from Being Itself.

Then comes the biggie:
Second, there is an ontological point being made here. Following on Harman’s point that all objects are withdrawn from one another such that every object “distorts” and “caricatures” other objects, it follows that every theoretical articulation– itself a machine or object –caricatures beings. As Harman argues in Guerrilla Metaphysics, the best we can do is allude to objects. This needs to be reflected in the style of theory. Theory must perpetually change its style, it’s mode of articulation, to underline the point that no theory– as is the case with all thought, discourse, perception, and relations between objects –ever manages to represent being. Shifts in styles and vocabulary mark the withdrawn nature of objects or machines and perpetually remind us that machines are “operationally closed and selectively open” to other objects.
So after reminding us that he moves forward by including everything from the past, he informs us, that, nonetheless, he’s always changing because that’s how Being is. Always withdrawing, can’t keep up.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Increasing Organismic Complexity through Natural Selection

happens when an organism's energetic cost of obtaining useful information is lower than the energy value of the resources obtained through that information. In what kind of universe is this condition met? Well, yeah, our universe. But that’s no answer.

Cf. Benzon and Hays, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity, Journal of Social and Biological Structures, vol. 13, pp. 33-40, 1990.

Abstract: While science has accepted biological evolution through natural selection, there is no generally agreed explanation for why evolution leads to ever more complex organisms. Evolution yields organismic complexity because the universe is, in its very fabric, inherently complex, as suggested by Ilya Prigogine's work on dissipative structures. Because the universe is complex, increments in organismic complexity yield survival benefits: (1) more efficient extraction of energy and matter, (2) more flexible response to vicissitudes, (3) more effective search. J.J. Gibson's ecological psychology provides a clue to the advantages of sophisticated information processing while the lore of computational theory suggests that a complex computer is needed efficiently to perform complex computations (i.e. sophisticated information processing).

Visualizing the Mind in Three Cartoons

It’s time for a visit home, by which I mean it’s time to get back to serious business, blogging about animation.

I want to return to territory I poked into in Toccata Redux: Visualizing Mental Objects, where I looked at some imagery in Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from Fantasia and from Ratatouille. The imagery had to do with visualizing mental processes. I want to add a third film into that mix, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence.

There’s a sense in which all of Fantasia is about visualizing the mind, for that’s the frame premise: The boyz (and girrls) in the orchestra are going to play some music while you construct visual images to go along. Except that Uncle Walt’s going to help you by putting the imagery up there on the screen. But that frame is only really active for the first episode, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and that because the imagery is strange, semi-abstract and so resists being identified is this or that specific thing or action.

And so we see things like this:


flying discs

Since they don’t look much like 3D objects in a 3D world it’s easy enough to take them as mental objects, things of the mind, not of an external world, if only by default.

Funny Money

“Knowledge,” the new mural at the Green Villain just asks you to interpret its imagery. After all, it was created for a specific occasion, Thanksgiving, there’s a big “Thank” up there in Gothic letters, flanked by two figures obviously representing Native Americans, albeit with some distinctive “modern” touches. But no turkeys to speak of.

So, yeah, what’s I mean?

But I don’t want to take on the whole mural. Just a segment. Look here at the lower left, just above the stage:


I really really want to see that as a parody of paper money, American style. It is green, after all, the traditional color attributed to money—green backs and all. And the proprietor of the place, when asked about the name, Green Villain, did say something about money as the root of all evil. So, money. Funny money.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Academic Publishing, A Personal History, Part 2: To the Blogosphere and Beyond

Rather than pick up the story of my involvement in academic publishing where I left off in the first post, in 2006 or so after having published several long articles in PsyArt, I want to go back to the 1990s and pick up some email action. That was quite important, both for the conversations, and the people I met through those conversations. It remains an important part of my digital mix, though not so important in the overall flow of things.

Listserves: Memetics and Evolutionary Psych

Judging from the email I’ve got stashed on my computer, I joined a memetics listserve in the middle of 1997. As you may know memetics is the study of memes. I don’t know who coined the term “memetics” but Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as the cultural analogy to the biological gene. As I was and remain very interested in cultural evolution it was natural that I join that listserve.

An email list is not, of course, a formal means of academic publication nor is it even informal publication comparable to blogging. It’s a conversation, or can be, but not like face-to-face or telephone. On a listserve you typically have many people who receive messages but do not themselves make comments. And that means that, when you do make a comment to the list, you have no idea what most of your audience is thinking—which, of course, is just like ordinary print publication or, for that matter, digital publication as well. But the overall dynamic is one of interaction, so you and your interlocutors are, in effect, putting on a show for an undisclosed population of lurkers. Listserve conversation are also notorious for degenerating into flame wars, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. It’s just something that happens.

But you can also have useful conversations. The memetics list gave me a good sense of the state of play in the memetics world, which is a peculiar one. Though the idea was hatched by a card-carrying academic of high order, Richard Dawkins, and has a small following in the academy (e.g. Daniel Dennett among others), it hadn’t gained traction in the academy back then—the late 1990s—and still hasn’t. Perhaps it’s a superb idea that’s just too “out there” for hide-bound academics, or perhaps it’s not such a good idea. Myself, I’m somewhere between those two views.

Description and the Teleome, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description, I argued the rich descriptions of art objects—literary texts, musical compositions and performances, paintings, and so forth—are reasonable proxies for what theoretical psychologist Mark Changizi has called the teleome:
the ultimate catalog of an animal’s what-it-does-es. The teleome is something along the lines of the set of all the capabilities our brains and bodies were selected to carry out. It is our set of powers, or the set of things we can do, or our function list.
I now want to say a bit more about why I think the careful study of art is central to arriving at an understanding of the human teleome.

Perception and Cognition in Context

I note first that Changizi has defined the teleome with respect to all animals and that, in his work he has considered a wide range of animal species. Thus, for example, in his work on binary vision (The Vision Revolution, chapter 2: “X-Ray Vision”), he surveyed information on eye position and orientation (side-facing or front-facing) in a wide range of species to reach his conclusion that binary vision isn’t about depth perception, it’s about seeing ‘through’ occlusions (grass, leaves) in front of the face. That is, he considered the visual system in the context of its use. It’s not merely that the eye-brain system evolved to see, but that it evolved to see in particular environments and so has become adapted to the visual affordances of those environments.

What then is the context for human artistic expression? Other people, that’s what. This is so obvious that it amounts to a truism. But in the context of 20th century academia, which, of course, is hanging on in this 21st century, that truism has a bit of a punch. In the case of literary criticism, my “home” discipline, the intellectual culture has been molded by an implicit core belief that criticism is an intimate “conversation” between the critic and the text in which the critic explores the recesses of his or her soul. The critic would then, of course, publish his or her reading and so enter into scholarly communion with other critics using literary texts to explore the recesses of their souls.

Now, few critics, living or dead, would actually subscribe to those words; most, I suspect, would object to them, and vigorously. After all, isn’t a lot of criticism about how texts form and mis-inform the minds of whole friggin’ societies? Yes, but, in my view, such moves are like the cycles upon cycles Ptolemaic astronomers had to employ to resolve the gap between their observations of planetary movement and their model, which put the earth at the center of the system. The center of academic literary criticism is the Cartesian subject, the lone mind in search of the external world and of other minds.

Given that starting point, the business of figuring out what the text means—a text, after all, that is external to the critic—is deeply problematic. It is from that difficulty that academic criticism developed a rich and elaborate array of conceptual epicycles.

Art is for Groups

When I set out to do a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I simply tossed that Cartesian starting point to the winds. I didn’t even bother to mount much of an argument that against it. I simply declared that it’s not going to get us anywhere and dropped it.

Howdy there




Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description

Just the other day The New York Times’ John Markoff published an article on recent and apparently dramatic success in artificial intelligence: Scientists See Promise in Deep-Learning Programs. I skimmed the article—which said almost nothing about the techniques of this deep-learning—and wondered whether or not we’re being set-up for another fall. Markoff mentions the so-called “AI winter” of the mid-1980s that froze out entrepreneurial dreams of riches through practical AI when the practical proved impossible. He doesn’t mention that something similar happened to machine translation and computational linguistics in the early 1960s when Federal funding disappeared.

Stalking the Wild Teleome

So, with wonder in hand, I went over to Changizi and asked: “What do you think, boom or bust?” Mark pulled out his post: What Should We Unravel Next, After the Genome? Answer: The Teleome. He sets the stage:
Imagine that you find some mysterious device under your bed. What’s your next thought? It’s to wonder what the device does. Could it be a hand vacuum, a kid toy? …a bomb? Notice that your first thought does not concern how the device works. It’s premature to get to the “how it works” without having figured out the “what it does”. Obviously!

In much of the biological and brain sciences, however, there appears to be something of an inversion to this. In many scientific circles questions about “what it does” are deemed intrinsically unscientific or meaningless, and explanations in that domain are necessarily “just so” stories rather than science. Only questions concerning the biological mechanisms — i.e., concerning “how it works” — are truly kosher. And this attitude is reflected in funding priorities: ”how” funding dominates the “what it’s for” funding by a mile.
On the one hand, yes, sure, I agree. On the other hand, just a minute there. As you know I study literary texts, among other complex cultural objects such as movies, music, and graffiti. Not so long ago I found myself hip deep in nonsense about the adaptive purpose of art: it’s all about mating, no it’s about useful stories, no no no it’s about figuring out what to do with hyperactive intelligence, and so on. That is, they seem to be taking Changizi’s advice and are trying to figure out what it’s doing when the brain’s pumping out art and such. They’re looking for purpose, for what the design is supposed to accomplish.

On the other hand, though I have in fact given some thought to the question of just why, biologically, we make art (e.g. Emotion Recollected in Tranquility), I’ve been more compelled by the question How does it work? So I seem to be taking the wrong side of Changizi’s argument. Changizi argues we’re not going to figure out how it works until we know what it’s trying to do:
We need a “teleome,” the ultimate catalog of an animal’s what-it-does-es. The teleome is something along the lines of the set of all the capabilities our brains and bodies were selected to carry out. It is our set of powers, or the set of things we can do, or our function list.
Now, I rather doubt that Changizi would be enlightened if someone told him that, among the many powers of human brains and bodies, are the powers to make poems, music, and images. I mean, he already knows that, just as he knows that human brains and bodies fight wars, negotiate treaties, and even, on rare occasions, go boldly where no man has gone before. These proposals are chosen from the wrong conceptual universe; they don’t quite mesh with the conceptual materials of the cognitive, behavioral, and neurosciences.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Austerity at the Villain

Somewhat more austere art than the flamboyance of Knowledge (seen here in process and when done) right around the corner and through a door.


Notice the door left of center. It gives you a sense of scale.

On Describing Clouds, It can be done

John Wilkins does it again, with his post, The classification of clouds, which interests me because you can’t classify what you can’t describe. And, as you may have surmised, description is one of my current hobbyhorses. The only literary studies (and similar disciplines) are going to ride out of the current hermeneutic swamp is on the back of description.

So what does Wilkins say? For openers:
Clouds were regarded as so subjective, fleeting and resistant to classification that they were a byword for the failure of empirical classification, until Luke Howard in 1802 proposed the foundation for our present system of cloud classification (in competition, although he did not know it, with others in Europe, and on the heels of Hooke and later meterological language proposals including one by Lamarck the same year.
Now, as a practical matter, neither classification nor description loom large in the literary studies tool kit. There are recognized genres—poems, lyrical and dramatic; dramas, comic, tragic, and otherwise; novels, historical, autobiographical, the Bildungsroman, and so forth; and there are pesky things like the pastoral. But classification schemes are not much discussed. Nor, for that matter, do I see it as an immediately pressing matter. But description is, and, perhaps after a generation or two of competent descriptive work, the problem of literary classification will appear more tractable, or disappear in an unexpected way.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

During and After @ the Villain

"Knowledge," a Green Giving mural by Mr. Mustart, Distort, and Serringe (Element Tree). 


But what's it all mean?


John Wilkins asks, and answers: Why is Darwin controversial?

A no-nonsense take-no-prisoners post. First he lists reasons often offered, all of them not so:
...because they imply that species are mutable... [No]
...because he implied racist ideas about humans...[Nope!]
...because he thought the age of the earth was large...[Get outa' here!]
...because his account of humans being animals contradicted the Bible...[No,no, no! and furthermore] it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin...
And then he comes clean:
No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.

All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology.
Designs and minds, those vain minds couldn't stomach the notion that the world can get along with out them. "It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special." There you have it.

Up Close and Personal





Saturday, November 24, 2012

Academic Publishing, A Personal History, Part 1: An Outside Move

When I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in the Fall of 1965 academic publication was all hard copy; back then, that was the ONLY kind of copy there was. Computers were the size of gymnasiums and the internet didn’t exist. Academic publication consisted of articles, books and this that and the other, but all on paper.

And that’s still how most of it is, especially the prestige tier. If you want to get tenure and fame at schools that prize publication, you have to publish well in the hard copy literature, books if you’re a humanist, articles otherwise.

When I set out in academia I wanted a good permanent post, at a good school, and, yes, a bit of fame, enough to help the ideas along. Things didn’t work out that way. Instead, I’ve watched, and published from outside academia.

I figure that, by the time that the old ways have crumbled, perhaps some of the fugitives will be ready to listen to what I’ve been thinking over the past three decades or so. And I’ll have lots for them to read, some of it published in the traditional way, even well published; but some of it published in non-standard ways.

But this post, and a later one, isn’t about those ideas. It’s about how I’ve published my work and how that’s been changing. In this post I go from the beginning of my career though the microfiche experiment of the American Journal of Computational Linguistics and up to yesterday (well, five years or so ago), when I published four longish articles in a new online journal, PsyArt. In a second post I’ll discuss the blogosphere and beyond.

The Old Way

My first academic publication was a page and a half in an edited volume, a comment on Neville Dyson-Hudson’s essay in Macksey and Donato, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. That came out in 1970, when I was a master’s student in the Humanities Seminar at Hopkins. My first article, “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics,” came out in 1976 in the Comparative Literature issue of MLN. When the issue came out I got a packet of off-prints, copies of my article that I could give to people.

In the months following publication I received a some postcards requesting copies of my article. The postcards were mostly preprinted forms with a blank line where the name of the article and journal would be printed or scrawled. That’s how it was in those days and, presumably, going back decades before. Photocopying existed but it wasn’t so cheap and ubiquitous that scholars could routinely make photocopies of articles rather than collecting off-prints.

The system didn’t work particularly well. Even then it was clear the most articles didn’t get read and that journals were routinely backlogged. But it was what we had.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Chives in the Wild


Unity of Being 2: Choosing Life Ways

I ended my previous post on unity of being by suggesting:
In terms of the pluralist metaphysics I have been proposing and exploring, we each live our lives in various Realms of Being. Each society affords its members various Realms of Being, various ways of acting in the world, whether alone or through interacting with others. Unity of Being is the capacity to move fluidly among these realms...In this sense Unity of Being is NOT that all Realms are one and the same, but rather that we can move among them and ourselves remain one and the same.
I now want to elaborate on that suggestion.

I want to start with human biology, thus setting foot into the den of evolutionary psychology. My standard analogy is that of a game such as chess. Biology provides the pieces, the game board, and the rules. Human culture dictates the larger strategy of playing the game.

The constraints of biology are as real as those of chess. Bishops can’t move rectilinearly, rooks can’t move diagonally, and pawns can only move one or two spaces at a time. Similarly, reproduction requires two, death is inevitable, and oxygen is a requirement of life. Unyielding though these constraints are, there is much freedom in playing chess and there is much freedom in organizing human society.

At the end of this post I will offer, in a provisional and somewhat parabolic mode, the suggestion that, while none of us can choose the culture into which we are born and in which we are raised, at some point in our lives we are free to choose the culture in which we will live out our lives and in the context of which we will die. Such a choice, while it is not new, it has been rare in most times and places. In the so-called post-modern world it is becoming almost routine. Indeed, in the face of global warming we may not be able to avoid such a choice.

And THAT is the ethical edge of the pluralism I have been sketching, the capacity, the imperative, to choose, in a non-trivial way, the fundamental armature of our lives. We must choose how we would seek unity of being.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Vegetable Views



Getting Psyched: Football (and Music)

Charles Siebert has published an interesting essay in the New York Times Magazine: The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot (November 21, 2012). It’s about his nephew, Pat Schiller, a college line backer trying to make the pros. Here’s a passage that points at the heart of one of my central topics, behavioral mode:
“I enjoy hitting,” Pat told me as we pulled into the lot of the ProForce training facility in an industrial park on Batavia’s flat, barren outskirts. “Especially when you stop someone short on third or fourth down and you look up and the crowd’s going nuts and you’re like: ‘I did that. Me. You’re welcome.’ That’s cool. People always ask me, ‘Do you change when you get on the field?’ Before a game starts, I have my routine, I listen to my music and I walk out and look up at the crowd and I . . . I’m getting goose bumps right now talking about it. It’s crazy. My body is filled with emotions I can’t even describe. I come out of my body, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to kill somebody.’ I become this lunatic. And even when I start to come back down after the first few plays, I’m still a different person. You know, a savage. But when I first come out, it’s like a drug, I’m literally trembling, almost crying. I have so much emotion.”
Notice that he has a routine, a little ritual if you will. He doesn’t just flip a switch and Shazaam! he’s in game mode. He’s got to do certain things to psych himself. The ritual includes music. Of course.

Earlier in the article we learned:
Driving his gray pickup back home in Geneva [Illinois] during a break a few weeks after the close of minicamp, Pat popped in a CD. He wanted to me hear the motivational music he listens to before games or personal workout sessions like the one we were driving to that July morning at the ProForce training facility in Batavia, the adjacent town. He still had another couple of weeks off before the start of padded, preseason camp at the end of July. But on the verge of his first and perhaps only crack at the N.F.L., he had no intention of relaxing. He reached over and ramped up the volume, his pickup trembling now as soaring chords and tribal chants swirled above the same slow, propulsive backbeat.

“O.K., don’t laugh,” he said. “But when I’m listening to this, I imagine myself running through a primeval forest somewhere with just a loincloth on and a huge hunting knife in my mouth. I’m really looking to kill something.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Coming and Going at the Villain



American Wildlife and Culture

I published this in The Valve six years ago, one of several pieces on identity issues. It comes to mind now as I contemplate doing a book on five animated features, one of which is Disney's Fantasia. In a longish post arguing that Fantasia is a masterpiece I also argued that it is an expression of a transnational culture emerging in the 20th century. But what does that mean, a a transnational culture, as opposed ot a national culture? For there is a line of argument and analysis suggesting that the idea of a national culture is a fiction. If and to the extent that that is so, might transnational be the normal state of many cultural formations? Those are the kinds of ideas in play here.
I have previously argued that the notion of “Western culture” is unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis. The term is ideological and finds its meaning in geopolitical struggles, not the study of culture. I feel much the same way about the phrase “American culture.” Such phrases, when employed to talk a general way about politics, society, and history, tend to designate some undifferentiated metaphysic substance. In one case that substance is associated with the West, but not Africa or the Orient. In the other case the substance is associated with the United States of America, but no other nation.

I want to do a bit of thinking aloud and explore this matter by contrast that usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term's geographical range is ambiguous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context.

My point is that, whatever geographical range one specifies, the term does not imply that the wildlife species in question has some special essence that makes the species American. Some species are found only in America whiles others are found elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, we have a body of biological theory that allows us to understand the situation in terms of geography, climate, and history (both near-term, going back 500 or 1000 years, and deep, going back millions of years).

Now, let us construe “American culture” as meaning simply the cultural practices taking place on American soil - however you wish to understand its geographic scope. Given the wide range of peoples who have migrated to America, it follows that there are a wide range of cultural practices taking place on American soil that cannot reasonably be considered American. Without even attempting to characterize those more specifically, let's just cross them off the list and go on to some less obvious cases.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Writing on the Wall



Chapter 1 of the New Latour Available, Apocalypse Awaits


Catherine Porter is translating Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence to be published by Harvard University Press in 2013. A provisional translation of the introduction and first chapter is now available at Latour’s website (link at bottom of the page).

I’ve just started reading it. As the first page is strongly marked “NOT FOR QUOTATION” I won’t. But I will say that the opening is JUST SO.

Latour talks of a recent meeting where a climate scientist is explaining climate change to a small group of on the whole sympathetic industrialists and businessmen. One of them asks why they should believe that scientists rather than the skeptics. The scientist pauses for a bit and then observes that if people don’t trust the institutions of science, we’re in trouble. He then launches into an explanation of how those institutions work and points out that the skeptics have no comparable institutional infrastructure.

Latour observes—and I believe he’s right about this—that only five or ten years ago such a researcher would have invoked Science itself, not the institution, and he certainly would not have gone into an account of how the institution works.

That’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten into the introduction, a scant three pages. So I don’t know what Latour went on to say, though he did say that the researcher was quite right to make the answer that he did, and that despite the fact that those institutions are frightfully complex. It’s as though—I’m speaking in my own voice now—under the dual pressure of climate chaos caused mostly by carbon emissions and skepticism about the consequences, Science has decided that it must come clean about its inner workings, must cease presenting itself as a secular theology to be taken on faith by the unwashed masses.
Could this, I wonder, be what’s driving the new atheists, outrage that their science is no longer being taken on faith, that they are being asked by the public to explain themselves?
But that’s an aside.

Global Warming: Is it beginning to sink in?

The New York Times has recognized global warming for some time. So it's not surprising that, post-Sandy, it's been running a variety of articles on the theme: WTF do we do? Then thing is, the damage from Sandy has been so extensive that, one way or the other, billions upon billions of dollars will have to be spent. Even if the body politic decides to do nothing, that is, go back the way things were before Sandy, it's going to cost billions and billions of dollars.

And that's billions and billions of dollars in one of the most visible cities in the world, a city that has long prided itself on being the world's de facto financial and artistic capital and, in a sense, the world's premier city. After all, New York is where the United Nations in headquartered, no? New York is not some exotic quasi-tropical tourist destination like New Orleans. New York is, you know, the captial of the freakin' world.

And it's freakin' out because now it's GOT to spend billions and billions to do SOMETHING. But what? And, no matter what gets done, Occupy Wall Street will be watching and tweeting. The revolution may not be televised, but the reconstruction of NYC will be tweeted to infinity and beyond

In Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm Michael Kimmelman puts it like this:
Cost-benefit analyses, long overdue, should answer tough questions like whether it’s actually worth saving some neighborhoods in flood zones. Communities like Breezy Point should be given knowledge, power and choice about their options, then the responsibility to live by that choice.

This means embracing a policy of compassion and honest talk. It’s no good merely to try to go back to the way things were, because they are not
This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.

But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.

So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.

Monday, November 19, 2012

This place had been trashed before Sandy, still...


Thought as Inner Speech

What is thought? It depends, of course, on what you mean by thought. One might use “thought” in the sense of, say, one of three major categories of mental activity: thought, perception, and feeling. Or maybe willing makes it four and perhaps something else makes it five. Whatever. But if you mean thought in that deep and fundamental sense, then it’s a difficult question and I’ll pass on it.

What I have in mind is something less rigorous. I’m interested in the commonsense notion of thought and that, I believe, is more or less inner speech. As such, it’s something that humans do but animals do not. We have language, they do not, hence they cannot have inner speech. On the other hand, animals might well think in the deeper sense I alluded to in the first paragraph.

It’s this common sense notion of thought as inner speech that interests me. I trace my position on this to Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist from the first half of the 20th Century. For a contemporary account in that tradition, see Sydney Lamb’s Pathways of the Brain (1998, pp. 181 ff.).

The rest of this post consists of an account of inner speech that I gave in Beethoven’s Anvil (Basic Books, pp. 151-153). I’m interested in inner speech because it’s a vehicle that allows us to take command of our actions.

* * * * *

What does it mean to say that you cease to think? It means, I believe, that inner speech ceases to play a role in directing your activities. I am thus identifying the commonsense notion of “thinking” with inner speech. Your brain certainly does not shut down when you stop thinking yet remain fully awake, attentive, and performing music. All that ceases is one process.

That process was investigated by Lev Semenovich Vygotsky during the 20s and 30s in the Soviet Union and published in 1934 in his classic Thought and Language. The book was suppressed in 1936 and was not readily available until a decade after WWII. Vygotsky’s general idea is that as others direct the child's actions and perceptions through language, so the child comes to use language in directing her own activities.

Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, an Approach for a New Era

This is the introduction to a report that I've placed at my SSRN page. You may download the PDF there:
Abstract: The human sciences encompass a wide variety of disciplines: literary studies, musicology, art history, anthropology (cultural and physical), psychology (perceptual, cognitive, evolutionary, Freudian, etc.), sociology, political science, economics, history, cultural geography, and so forth. In this paper I process to organize courses and curricula aso as to include: 1) material from three different methodological styles (interpretive, behavioral or social scientific, and structural/constructive: linguistics, cognitive science), 2) historical and structural/functional approaches, and 3) materials from diverse cultures. The overall scheme is exemplified by two versions of a course on Signs and Symbols, one organized around a Shakespeare play and the other organized around traditional disciplines.
My first and only faculty appointed was in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, a very good engineering school, the oldest in the country. During the summer of 1985 the school of Humanities and Social Sciences embarked on one of those periodic soul-searching exercises academic units undertake in order to revitalize their mission and–hope! hope!–increase the budget. Accordingly, the school offered a number of faculty small stipends to develop innovative brand-spanking new courses which they would present at a faculty retreat.

I took one of those grants despite the fact that I would not be returning in the Fall and developed, not a course, but an approach to curriculum design which is camouflaged as a strategy for designing a large lecture-based introductory course. I understand that such courses have been getting a bad rap, and I even understand why, I think. Nonetheless if I had to do it again in this new millennium I would. But that’s neither here nor there.

What’s important is the method I used. It’s a method that could be used in designing any course in the human sciences whatsoever, though its interdisciplinary nature is particularly suited to the large introductory course as that’s the kind of course the could most readily command the participation of faculty from a half-dozen or more disciplines. But the method could also be used in planning a suite of modules to be offered online and which individual students could organize into individualized programs that nonetheless met a coherent set of overall curricular goals.

Old School Graff, Big and Bold





Sunday, November 18, 2012

Free Style: Jammin' be Jammin'

Kevin Charles Redmon on freestyle:
Freestyling is to rap as improvisation is to jazz. Rather than reciting a pre-written rhyme, or reading off pages of sheet music, the artist stands up onstage and channels the Muse directly, no filter: whatever comes up, comes out. ... Freestyle and improv demand a particular kind of genius. Watch enough YouTube videos of jam sessions at the Blue Note or rap battles at ScribbleJam, and you begin to recognize the sight of a performer lost in the creative process: the droopy eyes, the nodding head, the trance-like sway. They’ve left planet earth and entered a flow state.
Preachers, the good ones, do the same thing. For that matter, classical musicians playing from the score, they can flow too. Flow is about performance is about flow.

Here's what the brain's up to:
When an artist was freestyling, rather than rapping conventionally, there was a marked activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and a deactivation of the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC).

As coauthor Allen Braun, head of the NIH’s language section, explains, “A simple way to looking at it is that the medial portions of the prefrontal cortex”—those parts that lit up on the fMRI—“are involved in motivation, organization, and drive towards a behavior.” In other words, freestyling depends heavily on those functions.
Here's the original research. The hip-hop study is here. And earlier study of jazz improv is here.

Copyright May be in Play

 The House Republicans want to rein it in. And the Mouse is pissed!

There's one discussion at Crooked Timber and another at Marginal Revolution.

Morning Rush Hour at the Holland Tunnel, Jersey Side

Say Hello to the End of the World


A month ago I used Holland Tunnel traffic as a vehicle for explaining how, with the best of intentions, our world has gotten too big and unwieldy. Here's some photos of rush hour traffic that I took on November 27, 2006 at roughly 7AM.

The tolls have doubled since then, not to mention the price of gas. Cynical rumour has it that the increase is mostly to fund the construction of One World Center. At 1776 feet tall–get it, 1776?–it's the tallest office building in the USofA. And it's a dog. The office space isn't needed.

The Rule of Law, Fairy Tale Law

Scenes from Hans Christian Anderson. A great aunt made this for me.

I often invoke Myth Logic in my posts on films. It's real, deep, inexorable, and I don't understand it. As far as I know, Lévi-Strauss is the last one to shed substantial insight into Myth Logic. Before him there was, perhaps, Freud and, I suppose, Jung. And that's more or less it.

The thing about Myth Logic is that it is compelling to both adults and children, if not the youngest ones, children nonetheless. That, no doubt, is why Walt Disney chose to make them the basis of his feature film oeuvre, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Though none of the other classic five, the first five features Disney made, are based on fairy tales, Pinocchio and Dumbo are like fairy tales in that they too are based on Myth Logic.

Verllyn Klinkenborg has an oped in the NYTimes in praise of fairy tales: Throw Out the Rules! Read a Fairy Tale. That is to say, immerse yourself in Myth Logic.

IMGP4159 mermaid
These laws sound like embroidered samplers you might find hanging in a witch’s kitchen. “If you’ve given in once, you have to give in forever.” That’s from Mr. Pullman’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Or, “Nothing tastes as good as what you eat by yourself,” from “The Cat and the Mouse Set Up House.” To a child, the Grimm rules are no more surprising than the rules of everyday life. That’s part of their enchantment. In fact, they call into question, as Lewis Carroll did, what often passes for conventional wisdom. “Beggars can’t be choosers.” But who says? Would a choosy beggar belong to our world or the Grimms’?

The tales — and most of the rules within them — are completely discontinuous. Enchanted princes clearly can’t do anything, for instance, or they wouldn’t be flounders. We’re not allowed to wonder whether the mouse that set up house is the one that later moves in with a talking sausage. Nor do the laws lead to the moral of the story. Most of the tales lack anything so simple. Read them through, and you realize that there are any number of kings — kings everywhere! — but very few lessons to instill in a child.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Night, Keep Left



Secret Societies: Japan, the Enlightenment, Graffiti

Awhile ago I wrote a post about similarities between graffiti crews in contemporary America (and the world) and artist's groups in Tokugawa Japan. For example, in both places the group accepted people from various otherwise disparate social groups and classes and in both cases group members would adopt a name specific to the group. I now find that 18th Century was festooned with similar secret societies. From an article in Wired:
Hundreds of thousands of Europeans belonged to secret societies in the 18th century, Önnerfors explained to Megyesi; in Sweden alone, there were more than a hundred orders. Though they were clandestine, they were often remarkably inclusive. Many welcomed noblemen and merchants alike—a rare egalitarian practice in an era of strict social hierarchies. That made the orders dangerous to the state. They also frequently didn’t care about their adherents’ Christian denomination, making these orders—especially the biggest of them, Freemasonry—an implicit threat to the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1738 Pope Clement XII forbade all Catholics from joining a Masonic lodge. Others implied that the male-only groups might be hotbeds of sodomy. Not long after, rumors started that members of these orders actually worshipped the devil.

These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.
Who'd have thought that the Masons are kissing cousins to the AIDS crew, or PFE, LNR, or ADHD?

Graffiti Aesthetics: The Space of Writing

Note, November 2010: With The Underbelly Project still reverberating on the web I thought I'd reprint an old post I wrote on space in graffiti. I published it in 2007 in The Valve. Note that while the Underbelly Project included both graffiti and street art, this article is specifically about graffiti. I may also pertain to some street art, but certainly not all. The post points out that major advances in Western art have involved reconceptualizing pictorial space. In this post I argue that graffiti provides the basis for another such reconceptualization and thus holds out the opportunity for fundamental aesthetic innovation. What I didn't say is that graffiti is the only form of abstract / non-representational art that that has gotten popular acceptance around the globe.
Note, November 2012: What I didn't say, either in the post below, or in the prefatory note above, is what I hope graffiti can and will do. This has to do with graffiti's commitment to, well I don't quite know what to call it, the name-based space that's at heart of graffiti. But whatever it is, it seems to be able to accept and absorb any form of imagery. The cartoon-based characters that showed up, mostly as embellishments, in the New York subways in the 70s and 80s persist, of course. But they've also become elaborated, both toward pictorial realism, but also toward other forms of imagery. In some cases the characters and other imagery have pushed the names aside so that graffiti has morphed into something else.
So, while "traditional" piecing (including wild style) tends to dominate graffiti, just about any sort of imagery has become absorbed into the culture – some of which can be seen on the ever-changing walls of the Green Villain, just around the corner and down the block from me. And that imagery includes comic book imagery and strange machines, futuristic machines, and just plain weird stuff.  So, could graffiti absorb and articulate scientific imagery, from the micro world of quarks and biomolecules through the macro world of planets, star systems, galaxies and, well, the whole universe? What would a graffiti-based Powers of Ten be like?
Awesome is what. Freakin' awesome. That is could graffiti become the art form for articulating the invisible worlds of post 19th-century science? That's something the must happen. Disney took a run at it in the Rite of Spring episode of Fantasia and, in a different way, in the intermission interlude; it's there on the pages of countless comic books and in science fiction films. But it's not really there in art galleries. Graffiti could put it there.

The artists who work in this particular tradition call themselves writers. The rationale is obvious enough as the tradition is grounded in the practice of getting one's nickname up on the wall in the form of tags, throw-ups, and pieces. Piecing is the most complex of these practices and often involves creating the illusion of three-dimensionality through two devices. Drop shadows create the illusion that the letters are suspended or floating over a surface and their shadows are projected on to that surface; the use of drop shadows, of course, implies a light source. The other device is to treat the letters as though they have thickness and to show this by rendering their edges in depth; this presupposes some specific projection of the letters onto the picture plane.

And thus we arrive at my subject, that of the pictorial space implied by graffiti. Have graffiti writers made any discoveries about pictorial space? I don't have an answer for it. But I can tell you why I believe it's an important question to ask and why I believe that writers may already have discovered something new, or are likely to do so in the future.

Representational Space

Consider the tradition of Western representational art from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century. All of those paintings and drawings and prints are inscribed within the projection of 3D Euclidian geometry onto the pictorial plane. The discovery and deployment of that projection is fundamental to Western art. It opened up a whole new world.

And when that world started to seem old and stuffy, artists moved beyond it, not by painting new subject matter - though there was some of that - but by proposing new conceptions of pictorial space. The cubists weren't happy with the Euclidian projection and, in effect, tried to treat the picture plane as though it were a 3D space, or was it that they tried to project a 4D space onto the plane? Whatever. Kandinsky used the 2D image plane to depict a two and a half-dimensional pictorial space (the notion is from the visual perception work of the late David Marr) filled with lines and surfaces in motion, but no solid objects. Jackson Pollock painted motion in fractal space while Mark Rothko gave us colored luminosity in spaces of undefined dimensionality.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Status Report: Journey into OOO and Pluralism

Sometime back in August I expected to conclude my pluralism project by the end of Summer or sometime in September at the latest. Didn’t happen.

But what do I mean by concluding the pluralism project? If I may use the Lewis and Clark expedition as a crude geographic analogy, by concluding the pluralism project I mean reaching the Pacific Ocean. At that point the extent of the territory has been gauged, if only crudely and in a preliminary fashion, and now it’s time to assess and get down to serious and systematic exploration.

So why haven’t I hit the Pacific as expected? On the one hand, other things came up; Dumbo and animals, for example, got more intense and time consuming. But also, I’d misunderestimated the territory, which is to be expected. As late as two days ago I expected to reach the Pacific with one more longish post. I’d just done a longish post on unity of being — something I’d intended to include the subject in my reach-the-Pacific post as a section — and once again I was anxious to breathe the ocean air.

Alas, as I thought about the unity of being post I realized that I need another one. So I’ve made an entry in my pluralism file — Unity of Being 2: Conflict and the Self — and have sketched out a top-level topic outline. And THAT’s got me worried:
Evolutionary Heritage
Inner speech
The Self in the Group
Modes: Shame
Conflict (Wm. Powers)
Five or six top-level topics, that’s a lot, even for a long-form blog post. Those provisional notions will no doubt change as I start writing, so it might not be so bad. Or it might be worse. If I can bring that one in with single post, then I think I’ll be on track to write the Pacific post. But I don’t make any promises.

The Myth Factory




Shadows Know

shadows on the wall.jpg

Bumper-Sticker Semiotics

While driving in Jersey City yesterday I found myself behind a Jeep SUV that had these slogans on stickers plastered to the tail gate:

I ♥ bacon

My Son is a U.S. Marine

I ♥ Obamacare

New York Giants

What’s that say about the car’s owner? Each sticker, of course, asserts an identification. It’s the collectivity of such identifications that’s interesting. Each of those stickers seems to mark a point along a different dimension in cultural-semantic space.

How many dimensions are in fact available in that space? That is, if we were to collect all available bumper stickers, load them into an appropriate piece of software and run the analysis, how many dimensions would we get and what would they be?

* * * * *

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Recreational Hateration

There's a lot of that in the world. It shows up on the web in the form of pointless flame wars.

And it seems to dominate presidential politics. Pick your poison, hang it on the other guy, and hate away.

It's a lousy way to conduct public business. It's convenient for the 1% as it's easy for them to use their control of the media to manipulate the electorate and distract us from the fact that, Democrat or Republicam, it's the rich who run things. And they're going to run us into the ground on the hateration brigade.

Sleeping Habits

I've been adjusting my sleeping habits.

Like most of us, I grew up believing that one must get eight hours of sleep a night and that those hours had to be in a continuous chunk. The latter was rarely if ever explicitly stated; it was just assumed. Eight hours is eight hours straight.

So, when I found myself nodding off at 8, 8:30, or 9 PM I'd set myself some task that would keep me awake at least until 9:30 or 10. And when I'd waken in the middle of the night I just lay there in bed until I went back to sleep. Sometimes that happened quickly and sometimes it didn't.

And I'd take frequent naps during the day.

Then I read David Randall's article in the NYTimes. Shazaam! You mean it doesn't have to be eight continuous hours? You mean this 8-hours thing is a recent invention, that people routinely awaken in the middle of night and do stuff? That there was a lot of napping in the world, I already knew that, and did it myself. But the other stuff? Hot-diggity-dawg!

Now when I feel sleepy at 8PM I go to bed. And when I awaken at midnight or 1PM or 2PM or whenever, I'll get up and work for an hour or two. No problems.

And the napping continues.

The Villain Reflects


You won't recognize the place next time you see it. Snap!

'Cept you will, 'cause it's still  the Villain.


Ontological Cognition, a Working Paper

Abstract: Ontological cognition is about the cognitive apparatus we use to organize the world into different kinds of things according to their powers and capacities: animal, vegetable, mineral; living, non-living; human, non-human; etc. As such it differs from the philosophical discipline of ontology, which is about the world itself, not our thoughts about the world. As ontological cognition snakes through many disciplines these reflections run from Wittgenstein through literature and the Great Chain of Being to computation and knowledge representation (KR).

The complete working paper is available in PDF form on my SSRN page ( and the blog posts are tagged ontological cognition.
Introduction: Ontological Cognition in the Study of Ontology

The study of ontological cognition is not, of course, the same as the philosophical study of ontology. It is merely (merely, ha!) about how WE conceptualize the world. By contrast, the philosophical discourse is about how the world is, REALLY. Keeping the two pursuits distinct and non-interfering is a tricky business.

Different though the two disciplines are, my background in ontological cognition has been very important in my recent forays into object-oriented ontology (OOO), which is about the world, not about thought. Without it I would not have decided to take OOO, Graham Harman’s version in particular, and treat it as a foundation on which to build a provisional pluralist ontology based on Realms of Being.

System and Computation

The study of ontological cognition has been at the core of my intellectual life since I encountered David G. Hays in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. I was a student in the English Department and he was a professor in the Linguistics Department. I first met him near the end of my first year at Buffalo. I became one of his students, if not that summer, then certainly in the Fall of that year. From him I learned semantics and cognition of a computational kind, for that was Hays’s core discipline at the time, computational linguistics.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Villain's Watching You


So watch right back at 'em.


Chomksy: Lit Crit at the Top & Engineering Has Changed

There's an interesting interview with Noam Chomsky in The Atlantic. Among other things, he puts literary criticism at the top of a 'pyramind' of knowledge:
If a molecule is too big, you give it to the chemists. The chemists, for them, if the molecule is too big or the system gets too big, you give it to the biologists. And if it gets too big for them, they give it to the psychologists, and finally it ends up in the hands of the literary critic, and so on.
I would not, of course, take that as a considered judgment about the place of literary criticism in academic intellectual life. But it's a reasonable statement about how difficult the task is.

Later in the interview he makes an interesting observation about engineering:
And it's kind of interesting to see what happened to engineering. So like when I got to MIT, it was 1950s, this was an engineering school. There was a very good math department, physics department, but they were service departments. They were teaching the engineers tricks they could use. The electrical engineering department, you learned how to build a circuit. Well if you went to MIT in the 1960s, or now, it's completely different. No matter what engineering field you're in, you learn the same basic science and mathematics. And then maybe you learn a little bit about how to apply it. But that's a very different approach.

Chomsky Sends Skinner to the Showers

During my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins I took a course on psycholinguistics taught by James Deese. The course work consisted of writing weekly synopses of classic articles in psycholinguistics. One of those was a review of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. Another was Chomsky's 1959 review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Those two reviews rocked my world. I became a Chomskyian, at least for a few years. And then it wore thin and I jumped ship.

But that's another story.

During the 1950s B. F. Skinner was the leading light of behaviorist psychology, the reigning paradigm in academic psychology in American universities. Behaviorists believed that science was necessarily grounded in empirical observation. Since the mind could not be observed, psychological science could not talk about it. Behavior was observable, and so THAT's what psychology must study.

In Verbal Behavior Skinner set out to explain language in behaviorist terms. Chomsky demolished Skinner's theorizing by introducing arguments of a new type into psychology, arguments about computational complexity. Rather than attempting to summarize Chomsky's arguments here and now–it's 6:30 in the morning and I've not even finished my first cup of tea–I'll let you read them for yourself. The whole review is online along with a 1967 preface by Chomsky. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bryant Watch: Egocentric R’ We, Repressive Desublimation, Toil and Trouble

Before I get to egocentricity—which I use in Piaget’s sense of the term—I want to look at Bryant’s post on his current comment policy:
Some of you have been complaining about your comments not being posted. My comment policy is simple: if your comments are rude, sarcastic, snarky, accusational, or insulting they don’t get posted. It has nothing to do with not tolerating disagreement. If you poke around the blog you’ll find plenty of disagreements, often very heated. It has everything to do with incivility.
Bollocks!—which, of course, is the kind of rude incivility Bryant forbids at his site.

He’s right about disagreement, there’s lots of it in his comments. But it’s disagreement within a carefully circumscribed orbit. While Bryant has a right, as does any thinker, to insist that criticism be informed and germane, so much of what he says is sloppy, incoherent, and flat out wrong that his post is self-serving nonsense, especially where Bryant accuses his critics of being boys and “masculinist, ape-like, asshole[s].”

Now to the interesting stuff.

Egocentricity in the Piagetian Sense

Yesterday Bryant had a post on networks, a subject I know something about. It’s incoherent and incompetent. But it’s also egocentric, and that’s what interests me.

When Piaget talks of the child being egocentric he isn’t asserting that the child is selfish, not at all. He’s saying that the child is a prisoner of his her own point of view. She can’t see the world as others do and so, in communicating with others, fails to take their viewpoint into account.

In this sense egocentricity is not an all or nothing affair. It comes in layers and varieties. As the child matures she sheds egocentricity after egocentricity. But even as adults most of us are egocentric in the sense of being ethnocentric; we look at the world from the standpoint of our own culture but are (relatively) blind to other cultures. Moving beyond egocentricity is not a matter of will or good intentions. It’s a matter of learning.

Nature's variations on a graffiti theme

July 6, 2007

This is one of my favorite graffiti subjects. It's in the Erie Cut in the middle of Jersey City. No one goes down there except graffiti writers, homeless people, and urban explorers. For about a year construction workers went used the cut as a way to move things and stuff to and from a construction site at the West end. But that's over.

halloween lighting.jpg
October 31, 2007

There's a least two visible layers on this wall. The older layer has those flyer saucer things and the whitish background. The newer layer has Hemlock written across the bottom. I suspect that the bubbles are background for Hemlock rather than a third layer.

Incense 2

A couple of days ago I noted that I burned a lot of incense while the power was out, that I find incense to be a comforting presence.

Why? That is, why is it a comforting presence?

I don't really know, but I'm sure there's a neural angle to it. Of course, there's a neural angle to anything we sense, feel, think, desire, or are in any way aware of. That's because that's what the nervous system does, mediates awareness and action.

That's not what I mean. What I suspect is that there's a neural angle that's somehow interesting or significant.

Why would I think that? Because smell is one of the most primitive and basic senses. It's a chemical sense, it detects chemicals by the shape of their molecules.

There's nothing more basic to life than the shape of molecules. That's how many biomolecules work, by their shape. That's one of the main research areas in molecular biology, understanding the shape of biomolecules: How does a long string of protein fold up into a complex 3D shape? That's how drugs work; the drug molecule is a biological "key" that opens a biological "lock"–the lock-and-key analogy is, I believe, a standard one. I certainly didn't invent it.

It's worth remembering that Watson and Crick got a Nobel Prize for doing a very "simple" thing: determining the shape of the DNA molecule. Simple my ass! Yes, the shape is a simple one, a double-helix. But figuring that out was not at all simple. Not at all.

But I digress.

Incencse. Chemical sense. Smell.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Unity of Being: Conflict and the Self

In the process of formulating a pluralist approach to literary criticism I introduced the notion of unity of being (Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism) and said a few things about it with regard to literature. Now I want to generalize the idea.

The term itself is not at all new, though I have no idea when and where I first encountered it much less how old it is. Nor, of course, is the idea, though just what THAT idea is in THIS context, that’s not obvious. That’s what I want to explore.

In context of literary criticism I had two things in mind: the direct experience of literature and the world as constructed in a given text. The first concerns what it feels like to experience a given text, moment by moment, from beginning to end. The second is how one lives one’s life outside and beyond the text, but in its shadow. That is, the world view embodied in the text. In doing so I simply indicated that those things are what I meant by unity of being.

And that’s how I’m going to proceed, inductively rather than deductively. I could, abstractly considered, proceed by defining being and consequent to that defining unity and disunity of being. Maybe I’ll eventually end up there, but not now. In particular, I may figure out the relationship between “being” in this context and “being” in the general context of pluralist ontology: Are they the same thing or not?

Another Case: Music

So, unity of being and the literary text.

What about, not a verbal text, but instrumental music, or dance? There we have the moment by moment experience, but there is no reference to, construction of, the world? Here unity of being can exist only in the expressive act, for there is no expression of nor reference to a world outside the expressive act.

The case is an important one because I believe it to be fundamental to the evolutionary, psychological, social, and psychological transition from clever ape to proto-human. In making that argument, as I did at some length in Beethoven’s Anvil, I argued that rhythm, not melody much less harmony, is the foundation. And synchronization to a simple beat is the most basic form of rhythmic organization in a group. Fireflies have been observed to synchronize their blinking, certain audiences will synchronize their clapping. And almost all forms of music require that the players synchronize around a single repetitive beat.