Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Race and the Cola Wars

The New York Times has an interesting op-ed by Grace Elicabeth Hale on race and the cola wars, which date back to the late 19th century. Two paragraphs:
Coke’s recipe wasn’t the only thing influenced by white supremacy: through the 1920s and ’30s, it studiously ignored the African-American market. Promotional material appeared in segregated locations that served both races, but rarely in those that catered to African-Americans alone.

Meanwhile Pepsi, the country’s second largest soft drink company, had tried to fight Coke by selling its sweeter product in a larger bottle for the same price. Still behind in 1940, Pepsi’s liberal chief executive, Walter S. Mack, tried a new approach: he hired a team of 12 African-American men to create a “negro markets” department.

Monkey See, Monkey Synch

This is a very interesting set of observations. At the time I wrote Beethoven's Anvil it seemed as though tight inter-individual synchronization was relatively rare. It'll be interesting to see how this line of investigation unfolds.

Yasuo Nagasaka, Zenas C. Chao, Naomi Hasegawa, Tomonori Notoya & Naotaka Fujii

Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 1151 doi:10.1038/srep01151
Received 13 September 2012 Accepted 07 January 2013 Published 28 January 2013

Abstracts: Humans show spontaneous synchronization of movements during social interactions; this coordination has been shown to facilitate smooth communication. Although human studies exploring spontaneous synchronization are increasing in number, little is known about this phenomenon in other species. In this study, we examined spontaneous behavioural synchronization between monkeys in a laboratory setting. Synchronization was quantified by changes in button-pressing behaviour while pairs of monkeys were facing one another. Synchronization between the monkeys was duly observed and it was participant-partner dependent. Further tests confirmed that the speed of button pressing changed to harmonic or sub-harmonic levels in relation to the partner's speed. In addition, the visual information from the partner induced a higher degree of synchronization than auditory information. This study establishes advanced tasks for testing social coordination in monkeys, and illustrates ways in which monkeys coordinate their actions to establish synchronization.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wilkins on Pattern Recognition

John Wilkins has an interesting post in which he argues that pattern recognition is neither induction nor deduction. His penultimate paragraph:
For a half century or more we have had the view that observation is theory laden. As I have argued before... observation need not be laden with theory of the domain under investigation. And what evolution has bequeathed need not be in the slightest theoretical, nor even reliable (as the massive literature on illusions shows us). We can naively observe things that we know little about, but we never start knowing, or at least being disposed to know, nothing.
Where Wilkins talks of observation, I talk of description. As I have said in various posts, what literary studies needs these days is more and better descriptive work. Only when we have such descriptions in hand can we craft proper theories of literature and how it works in the mind and society.

Addendum 29 Jan: I note that the discussion after the post has a number of interesting comments.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sorcerer's Apprentice Comic

In 1953 Paul Murray did a comic-book version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" episode from Fantasia. Michael Sporn has published a scan of it HERE (lower half of the page).

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cornering the Liberty Science Center



1980s TV and Vietnam

Just a note: I've watched a lot of TV, much of it standard network fare. Back in the 1980s I watched Magnum, P.I. and the A-Team. Both were one-hour prime-time action-adventure shows. The first was about a private investigator living in Hawaii. The second was about a team of adventurers who hired themselves out to do things and stuff. I've now been watching both on Hulu. Fun stuff, though not particularly edifying.

What I'd forgotten, though, is Vietnam is in the background of both series. The four members of the A-Team had been in the same unit in Vietnam. They got caught doing something they shouldn't have been doing–well, it's not THAT simple–and they were tossed in military prison. They escaped and went underground in Los Angeles, where they hired themselves out on the side of truth and justice.

Thomas Magnum had been in Vietnam as well. Two of his buddies in Hawaii, a helicopter pilot and a nightclub owner, had been in his unit in Vietnam. They were legitimately discharged so they didn't have to operate underground like the A-Team did.

Neither show is known for its realism.

I also watched M*A*S*H, a 1970s series set in Korea but which gained its salience from the fact that it aired in the immediate aftermath of the war in Vietnam.

Assignment: "Read" these TV shows as cultural response to, assimilation of, the war in Vietnam.

Philosophy TV: The Correlation of Church and State

Here's a video of a talk Graham Harman recently gave at Purdue:

It's mostly about the trials and tribulations of correlationism, a topic I've never really been able to take seriously. It seems to me that that fly escaped from the bottle some time ago. But what do I know?

More specifically, the various alternatives Harman discusses feel like voices in a conversation among people who have never acted in the world. They live in a truncated version of the spaceship Enterprise, of Star Trek fame. In this version the transporters are down so no one ever leaves the Enterprise and no one ever arrives. Further, the Enterprise never engages in battle. So the offices just hang on on the bridge, watch what appears on the screen, and eat the food that magically appears in the replicators. It's in THAT world that they discuss correlationism, whether or not something exists outside thought.

But, in THAT situation, what difference does it make? Things appear on the screen and they disappear. But nothing happens on the Enterprise except for conversation. So who cares?

Here's a much humbler video. This is a short discussion of whether or not the USA should have an inaugural prayer. The problem is that America is religiously diverse, so which religion would be represented in the prayer? As David Gushee asks: "Who is praying to what god for what purpose?"

The easy answer, of course, is to dispense with the prayer entirely. And I suspect that may be the philosophically preferred answer. But the problem implied by this discussion won't thereby disappear: How do diverse people live together under the umbrella of a single state? You spin correlationism however you will, but it doesn't touch that question.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Follow the light-colored one




Orientalism New York Style

It seems the movies have fostered a certain conception of New York Chinese restaurants, red wall paper and complex Oriental ornamentation. Trouble is, there aren't any Chinese restaurants that look like that. One time there may have been, but not now. Here's photos and commentary.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Computing the Brain

Here's a discussion about the possibility of computing the brain. It takes off from a note by Bruce Stirling. There are two interesting motifs in the discussion:

1. We have enough raw computing power to simulate the brain.

2. We haven't got the foggiest idea of how to organize that computing power.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Aaron Swartz, Depression, and Prosecution

Writing at Question Copyright, Karl Fogel observes:
There are many remembrances [of Aaron Swartz] already on the Internet, but two in particular stand out: Rick Perlstein's and Lawrence Lessig's. Both are personal remembrances, but both make the point (Rick even more directly in a separate Facebook post) that it would be a mistake to reflexively pathologize this and blame it simply on Aaron's occasional depression. In Rick's words, from a Facebook conversation: "I would downplay the depression angle. The big piece he wrote about his depression came when he was 17. When I talked to him about my own depression a year ago, he really didn't respond as a fellow-traveler. I can't say precisely, but I don't think it was a huge part of his life. Having his soul gnarled down to a nub by a Javert had much more to do with it, I think." You'd be depressed too if the might of the U.S. federal judicial system seemed dedicated to sending you to jail for most of your life over an essentially altruistic act that harmed no one. I can't read Aaron's mind and don't know what he was thinking, but the relentlessness of that system bearing down on him was there, every day, with no sign of respite. Whether one is prone to depression or not, that's a hard, hard road. And your friends and allies may defend you till they're blue in the face, but they're not going to be there in the jail cell with you.

Bordwell on Early Cinema

David Bordwell has posted a Powerpoint presentation, with voice-over, about early cinema (1908-1920). It's mostly about the evolution of cinematic style. But his examples are from several national traditions (American, Danish, Russian, Italian, Japanese) and so indirectly contributes to my argument about the fundamentally transnational nature of cinema culture. Film-makers routinely learned from practices in various nations.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sleep Ain't What It Used to Be

Back in September I posted a paragraph from a NYTimes op-ed arguing that the 8-hour block IS NOT a 'natural' sleep pattern. It's culturally imposed. There's more where that came from:

* * * * *

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Jacket copy [boldface mine]:
Americans spend billions of dollars every year on drugs, therapy, and other remedies trying to get a good night’s sleep. Anxieties about not getting enough sleep and the impact of sleeplessness on productivity, health, and happiness pervade medical opinion, the workplace, and popular culture. In The Slumbering Masses, Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer addresses the phenomenon of sleep and sleeplessness in the United States, tracing the influence of medicine and industrial capitalism on the sleeping habits of Americans from the nineteenth century to the present. 
Before the introduction of factory shift work, Americans enjoyed a range of sleeping practices, most commonly two nightly periods of rest supplemented by daytime naps. The new sleeping regimen—eight uninterrupted hours of sleep at night—led to the pathologization of other ways of sleeping. Arguing that the current model of sleep is rooted not in biology but in industrial capitalism’s relentless need for productivity, The Slumbering Masses examines so-called Z-drugs that promote sleep, the use of both legal and illicit stimulants to combat sleepiness, and the contemporary politics of time. Wolf-Meyer concludes by exploring the extremes of sleep, from cases of perpetual sleeplessness and the sleepwalking defense in criminal courts to military experiments with ultra-short periods of sleep. 
Drawing on untapped archival sources and long-term ethnographic research with people who both experience and treat sleep abnormalities, Wolf-Meyer analyzes and sharply critiques how sleep and its supposed disorders are understood and treated. By recognizing the variety and limits of sleep, he contends, we can establish more flexible expectations about sleep and, ultimately, subvert the damage of sleep pathology and industrial control on our lives.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Iron Maidens


Life of Pi a Transnational Hit

So far the film's grossed $400 world-wide, says The Guardian:
But it's in Asia that the impact of Ang Lee's film ... has been truly felt. Among the mostly strong figures in territories across the region were two standout performances: $13m in India, where local star Irrfan Khan and a $1m marketing spend – the highest ever in distributor Fox Star India's history – helped the film punch its weight against Bollywood; and over $90m in China, where it become only the second US film, after Titanic 3D, to gross more than in North America. Chinese filmgoers flocked to social media to debate Lee's film fable: more than five million messages were exchanged, discussing the meaning of the carnivorous island and the open ending, on Sina Weibo, the country's Twitter equivalent.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds

In the weeks since writing about the preliminary results Goldstone and Underwood have reported of their work on topic analysis of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association) I’ve continued to think about Natalia Cecire’s reservations. You may recall that she’s comfortable using topic analysis to point toward interesting texts that she will then examine for herself. But she had doubts about using it as evidence itself. For that, she’d need to have “a convincing theory of what the math has to do with the structure of (English) language” and that, presumably, requires some detailed knowledge both of language and of math.

I’m sympathetic to her reservations. What I’ve been thinking about is this: Just WHAT would she want to know?

Ted Underwood offered a response to her in which he referenced a Wikipedia article on distributional semantics, which I’ve read. He summarized that article, which is a short one, thus: “It’s just … things that occur in the same contexts gotta have something in common.” I agree with that summary.

And that’s the problem. That is what has had me thinking about this matter. Underwood’s statement is brief and easy to understand. What’s the problem?

I believe, in fact that “a convincing theory of what the math has to do with the structure of (English) language” would not be terribly useful to Cecire, not nearly so useful as simply playing around with topic analysis over a period of time by going back and forth between the computer-generated topics and associated texts. Only doing this time after time Cecile will be able to verify, for herself, that the computer-identified topics are meaningful entities. Though I don’t know this, I suspect that, whatever they may know about the computational processing behind topic analysis, such play has been important to both Goldstone and Underwood and to anyone else who uses the technique.

Thus I know that this, yet another run at explaining topic modeling, is bound to fail, as it cannot possibly substitute for the requisite experience. All I’m after is a different way to thinking about the technique and the strange conceptual objects it creates.

Bags of Words

I’ve read several accounts of topic modeling, this one by Matt Jockers, this one by Scott Weingart, this one by Ted Underwood and, finally, this technical review by David Blei: Probabilistic topic models [PDF] (Communications of the ACM, 55(4): 77–84, 2012). The first three were written for humanists while the last was written for computer scientists. It contained a most useful phrase, “bag of words.” That’s how the basic topic modeling technique, something called Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) treats individual texts, as bags of words.

IBM First in Patents in 2012

I.B.M. collected 6,478 patents last year. I.B.M.’s patent asset generates an estimated $1 billion a year in license revenue. But it also a shield against patent litigation by competitors and patent-holding firms.
That makes it 20 years in a row that IBM has been first. Samsung Electronics was second with 5,081 patents. Apple and Google, though coming up in the rankings, were somewhat further down in the rankings. However:

But in the Boston Consulting ranking, based mainly on an opinion survey of 1,500 executives, I.B.M. placed sixth among the most innovative companies in 2012. Apple came in first, followed by Google, in this measure of perception rather than patent counts.

Cousin Sue


MLA 2013, Between Pain and Pleasure: Michael Bérubé’s Presidential Address

I’ve just read though it: How We Got Here. The title, as one would expect, cuts two ways. Where “here” is simply the profession of literary studies, the answer is pleasure. We like to read, to teach others how to do so, and to think and write about literature.

Where “here” is the dismal fact that most of the profession’s teaching is done by poorly paid contingent faculty, Bérubé doesn’t actually say how that came about, though he implies that professional neglect played a role: “I know it has taken us, as a profession, far too long to come to terms with the fact of our deprofessionalization.” I will note, however, that that particular handwriting was on the wall in the early 1970s, when Federal money for higher education started shrinking.

In between the pleasure and the pain Bérubé makes it clear that pleasure IS NOT an adequate justification for humanistic study:
In my capacity as Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, I have made this very clear: I will not talk about my institute as a pleasure center. We will have no cheery booster-brochure rhetoric about celebrating the humanities or appreciating the arts. I am going to insist, to the campus community, to alumni, to anyone who may be listening, that serious study in the humanities—the practices of advanced literacy, the fine arts of interpretation—is a game of high and difficult technique, as C. L. R. James once said of cricket. That doesn’t mean we can’t love it, as James surely loved cricket; but it means we are going to insist that it requires serious training and practice, practice, practice. We are dealing with the art and the science of figuring out, as Peter Brooks once put it, not merely what texts mean but how texts mean. It is a pleasure, no question, but it is a pleasure that also demands intellectual creativity and intellectual rigor. Perhaps to our students we can stress the pleasurable aspects of our discipline; but if our discipline is only a matter of pleasure, then you have not provided what most people would see as a reason to do advanced research in it. Justifying the humanities is one thing; justifying careers of study in the humanities is quite another.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

“Xanadu” on the Digital Tip

Now that digital humanities is the coming thing in literary studies—Ho! Ho! Ho!—I thought I’d did out at old—well, not that old—working paper: One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme. It’s rather different in spirit and technique from the text mining/corpus linguistics techniques that are currently raising the bar in computational humanities. But it is computationally intensive. It’s just that the intensity is not on my desktop, it’s in Google’s servers. I used Google to troll the web for “Xanadu” and identified two contexts, other than the Coleridge’s poem, where I got a lot of hits.

Here’s the abstract:
I treat a single word 'xanadu', as a 'meme' and follow it from a 17th century book, to a 19th century poem (Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"), into the 20th century where it was picked up by a classic movie ("Citizen Kane"), an ongoing software development project (Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu), and another movie and hit song, Olivia Newton-John's Xanadu. The aggregate result can be seen when you google the word, you get 6 million hits. What is interesting about those hits is that, while some of them are directly related to Coleridge's poem, more seem to be related to Nelson's software project, Olivia Newton-John's film and song, and (indirectly) to Welles' movie. Thus one cluster of Xanadu sites is high tech while another is about luxury and excess (and then there's the Manchester Swingers Club Xanadu).
We can call the first cluster of sites the cybernetic context while the second is the sybaritic context. This simple diagram shows the evolution:

Xanadu Cladogram

The Citizen Kane line is, of course, the sybaritic one, while the Ted Nelson line is the cybernetic one.

The Culture that are Disney

From a New York Times story on an electronic wristband that Disney plans to roll out for visitors it's Orlando flagship part, Walt Disney World:
“When Disney makes a move, it moves the culture,” said Steve Brown, chief operating officer for Lo-Q, a British company that provides line management and ticketing systems for theme parks and zoos.
Hyperbole, yes. But bt how much?

Jersey Joe (drawings to the future)

Jersey Joe, aka Rime, recently showed some interesting drawings in Manhattan at the Klughaus gallery: Dangerous Drawings About New York. You can see flics on Jersey Joe's blog, at the Klughaus blog, and at Fresh Paint NYC. Highly recommended, especially for you object-orienteers. This is intricate detailed stuff in which anything can happen.

When I landed in Jersey City over a decade ago, I lived more or less across the street from a Jersey Joe character, though I didn't know it at the time. I just knew that it was fresh:


When I started actively scouting out graffiti I found this:

Jersey Joe on Wall

Monday, January 7, 2013

Prophetic Petals



U.S. War on Drugs is a Bust

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy argue that the war on drugs that Nixon started in 1971 has failed and must be reconsidered. "By most accounts, the gains from the war have been modest at best." And the human cost is very high:
The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities.
The war on drugs drives up drug prices and forces the formation of large criminal cartels:
The paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society.

The large profits for drug dealers who avoid being caught and punished encourage them to try to bribe and intimidate police, politicians, the military and anyone else involved in the war against drugs. If police and officials resist bribes and try to enforce antidrug laws, they are threatened with violence and often begin to fear for their lives and those of their families.
In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the sale of drugs, but not the use:

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Metaphysical Graffiti


But, really, why paint that on a door? Does the writing pass that door every day, or at least frequently? What do people think when they see that, which is on a side-street that's not terribly well traveled, either by vehicles or foot traffic? What, if anything, would the writer accept as an answer to the question? What else has the writer put up?

Yes, it's easy to dismiss it as vandalism. But not so easy to understand the confluence of this that and the other that resulted in those markings being in that place at that time.

Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches

You can download a PDF of the main exposition of my pluralist metaphysics from my online  repositories:
The PDF, of course, includes the introduction which I published here a few days ago: From Literary Criticism to Pluralist Metaphysics, an Introduction. You can also download PDF's of secondary documents. I've listed the currently available ones after the eight propositions in the main document.

Eight Propositions in a Pluralist Metaphysics

This main exposition sketchs a pluralist metaphysical system variously inspired by the ideas of Bruno Latour, Paul Feyerabend, Graham Harman, J. J. Gibson and William James.

1. Objects: Individual entities of many different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. Abundance: These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by the sum of all possible relations.

3. Realms of Being: In the large objects exist in patterns of relatively stable interactions among multiple objects. These are relations of indirect or vicarious causality. Analytically, we need to separate the roles from the entities that assume them. This is the core of what will become a distinction between culture and society.

4. Unity of Being: Humans desire the ability to access and reflect on memories of events in one’s life. The extent that that is achieved is called Unity of Being.

5. Life Way: A Latourian collective, with human and non-human members, is considered to participate in all the Realms in which any member of the collective plays a role. The ‘envelope’ of those Realms is called a Life Way.

6. Latourian Negotiation: Collectives having different Life Ways have been interacting through a process of negotiation in which differences among Life Ways are resolved and commonalities created or not depending on the desire to extend the boundaries of the larger more inclusive collective. The outcome cannot be predicted or foreseen.

7. Realms of Abundance: Realms of Being are organized into Realms of Abundance, of which three have appeared to far: Matter, Life, and Culture.

8. The Fourth Arena: The current global Latourian negotiation brings us to the edge of a fourth Arena of Abundance. If it goes well, that’s where our successors will dwell.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Improv: How to make sh*t up, the way of the Danish gypsy

Victor Borge had heard the Czardas by Monti, a famous violin show piece, but had never played it. So he just made up a piano part on the spot.

As an extra-special bonus here's Borge accompanying a recorder player on the very same tune!

Computing = Math, NOT

Everyone knows that computers are about math. And that may be one source of humanistic resistance to computational research techniques, especially in the use of corpus technique for examining large bodies of texts of historical or literary interest. So: Computers are math, math is not language, literary texts ARE language; therefore the use of computer in analyzing literary texts is taboo as it sullies the linguistic purity of those texts.

Except that computers aren’t about math, at least not essentially so. To equate computers with math is to mis-identify computing with one use of computing, the calculation of numerical values. That equation also mis-identifies mathematics with but one aspect of it, numerical calculations.

* * * * *

The contrast between math and language is, of course, deeply embedded in the American educational system. In particular, it is built into the various standardized tests one takes on the way into college and then, from there, into graduate school. One takes tests that are designed to test verbal abilities, one thing, and mathematical abilities, a different thing. And, while some people score more or less the same on both, others do very much better on one of them. The upshot is that it is easy and natural for us to think in terms of math-like subjects and verbal-like subjects and people good at either but not necessarily both.

The problem is that what takes place “under the hood” in corpus linguistics is not just math (statistics) and natural language (the texts). It’s also and mostly computation, and computation is not math, though, as I said up top, the association between the two is a strong one.

When Alan Turing formalized the idea of computing in the idea of an abstract machine, that abstract machine processed symbols—in very general senses of symbols and processes. That is, Turing formalized computation as a very constrained linguistic process.

Left, Center, and Right


Friday, January 4, 2013

On the Matter of Vitalism

This brief working paper is available for download on my SSRN page.
Introduction: The Old Dead Matter Ain’t What It Used to Be

These three short posts take as their starting point some observations that Levi Bryant made about Jane Bennett’s vitalism as set forth in Vibrant Matter. At the time I wrote them I was not at all anticipating the work that has occupied me in the last half year, elaborating a pluralist metaphysics on a skeletal core of ideas from object-oriented ontology. But the key position in that elaboration is evident in these three pieces.

That key notion, as I’ve now stated many times, is that, where Harman employs a rhetoric of privation and thinks of objects as withdrawing, I use a rhetoric of plenitude and think of objects as wells of abundance. THAT’s what was driving me in this passage from the third of these pieces:
I note as well that the terms of this discussion have now moved away from the terms in which Levi Bryant posed his original criticism of Bennett. Instead of self-organization [Bryant] vs. vitalism [Bennett] I’m talking about: 1) “weird” matter, and 2) various kinds of properties of objects, specifically, classically mechanical, chaotically mechanical, and 3) possibly unspecified others. My bias in this is that there ARE other classes of properties and that, with careful analysis, it should be possible to identify some of those classes.
That objects not only have many properties, but many classes of properties, that is what I mean by objects as wells of abundance. I made the distinction between classical properties and chaotic properties in the second of these pieces, and made it in computational terms.

In the first piece I made a point that I take from Bennett, namely that the contemporary conception of mere matter that we have from quantum mechanics is so very different from that available to Descartes and so many others that the distinction between living and non-living that they in part founded on the distinction must be re-thought. The purpose of such a rethinking is not to assert that difference between a rock and an acorn, for example, is not so great as it once was. In this new dispensation they are still very different kinds of things, but the whole conceptual world in which that difference is inscribed and traced is itself a new and by no means complete one.

It’s all in play and up for grabs. It’s a new world, one of which we have yet to take the measure.

My Current Mood


Realms and Modes, Toward a Robust Understanding of Culture

Latour has only 15 Modes of Existence, though he says that the number and identity of them is provisional. Nonetheless, that notion strikes me as being roughly comparable to what I have been calling Realms of Being, of which there must be 10s of thousands so far.

How could that be, 15 or so vs. 10s of thousands? One thing that’s going goes like this. Latour, for example, has a Mode for religion (which he abbreviates as REL). I’m going to have a Realm for each distinct religion, which must number in the thousands is you count the supernatural belief system of each hunter-gatherer, nomadic, and horticultural society as a religion. If so, then it’s possible that my notion of Realms of Being is not necessarily incompatible with Latour’s notion of Modes of Existence. Perhaps many of my Realms will map onto a single one of Latour’s Modes.

Now the question for religion becomes: does each of those Realms operate according to the same “felicity conditions” (Latour’s term for the operating ‘envelope’ of a Mode)?

I don’t know. It’s a serious question, and an empirical one. An attempt to answer it will move us toward a deeper understanding of culture than we now have.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Halloween that Wasn't


Holmes/Watson and Fanfic

The American Reader has a nice article on fan faction by Suzanne Black. The article choose Sherlock Holms stories as its central example, noting that Conan Doyle's enigmatic sleuth inspired fan fiction from the beginning. It seems that Doyle himself approved of these efforts, "suggesting that those fan-critics had as much right to define Holmes' fictional universe as he did." And of course that particular pool keeps feeding gushers.

A small sample of SH fanfiction reveals the sheer variety. Popular sub-genres of fanfiction include crossover texts (“Holmes meets Dracula”), alternative universe, or “AU” (introducing characters to a new or fantastical setting), and gender-switching. The subgenre “femlock” features Holmes or Watson or both rewritten as female. Joan Watson, as the female incarnation of John, has become a popular trope, most recently incarnated by Lucy Liu on CBS’s new series Elementary. Most prominently, though, fanfiction focuses on erotic or romantic relationships, including “slash” content (non-canonical, often homosexual, relationships). For this reason, it is often depicted as a revolutionary and counter-cultural form of expression. Fanfiction.net, the largest online database of fanfiction, lists over 20,000 works relating to Sherlock alone. AO3, a newer online archive for fan works (texts, art, and audio), launched in 2009, lists over 18,000 works in “Sherlock Holmes and Related Fandoms,” which is its fifth most populated category and is growing rapidly. This conflation by AO3 of the adaptations of SH into one category hints at the intertextual interdependence of the stories and their adaptations. 
A search on AO3 for the SH fan texts with the most hits supplies, on the first page: an epic AU romance between Holmes and Watson that recontextualizes them as actors in contemporary Los Angeles; an experimental, first person narrative from Holmes’ perspective about his feelings for Watson; a humorous, fluffy piece in which Holmes proposes marriage to Watson; an AU retelling of the Sherlock episode “The Great Game” in which Watson is psychic.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos

With my old machine dead and the data not yet transferred to my new machine, I’ve been having to make do without my files. So I can’t yet produce the promised PDF of the main argument in my pluralist series. Since I want to get that out there I’ve decided to post the introduction to the blog, as I normally do, and simply link the component posts at the end. I’ll produce the PDF when I can.

* * * * *
From Literary Criticism to Pluralist Metaphysics, an Introduction
To the extent that I’ve got a home discipline, it is literary criticism. Consequently, though I DO know better, I tend to think of philosophy as a hand-maiden to literary criticism. That’s where this introduction begins, with literary criticism, which has provided the problems that, once again, led me to philosophy. After indicating how philosophy has pointed a way out of those problems I turn to philosophy itself. I conclude by discussing the order of posts in this document as a whole.
The Road to Xanadu, as it were
The posts I’ve collected at the end of this post resulted from a decision I made some time in the first half of 2011: Let’s look into this object-oriented ontology business. But why had I made THAT wacky decision? After all, as I’ve explained in a series of posts about Lévi-Strauss, I’d abandoned that intellectual tradition early in my career when I’d decided that this new-fangled cognitive science seemed more promising for my particular critical interests. Why return to Continental philosophy, the tradition I’d abandoned?

It certainly WASN’T because I’d decided that I’d made a mistake. Oh careerwise, yes, a mistake. Intellectually, not at all. 

The problem I was tracking was a rhetorical one. My work on literature, and now film, differed from 1) traditional humanist work, 2) post-structuralist, new historical, and various identity theories, all of which rolls up into capital-Tee Theory, and 3) from the work that more recent literary scholars, working independently of me, have done in cognitive criticism. That’s a lot of difference!

The chief differences are two: 1) to practice what I now call naturalist criticism one must abandon, or at least bracket, the search for textual meaning, and 2) while naturalist criticism aspires to, well, everything! the single most important task on the critical horizon is description, we’ve got to get much better descriptive control of our texts. Given that the post-philological discipline of academic criticism is built on the search for textual meaning that first difference would seem to be something of a showstopper, no? But in truth, my goal was not so much to convince literary critics to follow me, but simply to assure them that I am not the enemy. Still even for that more limited purpose, that I’m willing to forgo meaning seems a bit, well, dangerous. Who knows what craziness might follow from that?

As for description, no one objects to it, everyone does it, but it’s not glamorous. There’s an old formula that says aesthetic criticism begins with description, and then moves to analysis, interpretation, and, finally, evaluation. Academic critics have tossed evaluation out the door, though we have smuggled it in through the basement in the guise of ideological and political critique, while concentrating our attention on interpretation. Description is simply taken for granted. How could I possibly be doing anything at all worthwhile if I regard description as something that is rigorous, demanding, and deserving of our most serious attention.

So, in bracketing meaning I mark myself as an enemy, more or less. And in championing description I mark myself as simple-minded and unimaginative. Those are rather considerable rhetorical hurdles to jump.

Now I suppose that in some vague way I was hoping that I could cloak the appearance of being a simple-minded wolf with the razzle-dazzle of an object-oriented sheepskin. But there’s no direct way one can pursue such a disguise. Directly, what I was after was 1) an ethical and aesthetic complement to my work and 2) a somewhat different way of rationalizing that work.

By the time the great ethics scandal broke in the middle of 2012 I’d pretty much decided that object-oriented ontology (OOO) was a bust on both counts. On the second matter, rationalization, object-oriented ontology fails me because it’s not about objects in a sense useful to me, which is akin to what Franco Moretti is pursuing in distant reading. The purpose of “distance” is to allow the critic to treat the text as an object, “out there.” That’s what I do. And I do it because such objectification allows one to see fascinating and, yes, even beautiful and elegant patterns that are rendered invisible through the pursuit of meaning. Describing those patterns is a task worthy of any serious intellectual. Latour understands the importance of description, but these, his fellow-traveling disciples seem oblivious to that side of his work.



"When Computers Where Women"

That's the title of an article Jennifer S. Light published in Technology and Culture (40.3, 1999, 455-483). It's about ENIAC, an electronic computer built "to automate ballistics computations during World War II." The publicly available excerpt of Light's article (which is otherwise gated) says:
Nearly two hundred young women, both civilian and military, worked on the project as human "computers," performing ballistics computations during the war. Six of them were selected to program a machine that, ironically, would take their name and replace them, a machine whose technical expertise would become vastly more celebrated than their own. 
The omission of women from the history of computer science perpetuates misconceptions of women as uninterested or incapable in the field. This article retells the history of ENIAC's "invention" with special focus on the female technicians whom existing computer histories have rendered invisible. In particular, it examines how the job of programmer, perceived in recent years as masculine work, originated as feminized clerical labor.
The women (from the Wikipedia article on ENIAC): Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman.

Women's Rights and the Japanese Constitution

The New York Times has an interesting obit about Beate Gordon, who wrote women's rights into the post-WWII Japanse Constitution:
A civilian attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s army of occupation after World War II, Ms. Gordon was the last living member of the American team that wrote Japan’s postwar Constitution.

Her work — drafting language that gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day.

“It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said Monday in a telephone interview. “By just writing those things into the Constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?”

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Fringe Theories

For what it's worth, the Wikipedia has a policy on fringe theories. Here's the opening paragraphs:
Wikipedia summarizes significant opinions, with representation in proportion to their prominence. A Wikipedia article should not make a fringe theory appear more notable than it is. Claims must be based upon independent reliable sources. A theory that is not broadly supported by scholarship in its field must not be given undue weight in an article about a mainstream idea,[1] and reliable sources must be cited that affirm the relationship of the marginal idea to the mainstream idea in a serious and substantial manner.

There are numerous reasons for this. Wikipedia is not and must not become the validating source for non-significant subjects. Wikipedia is not a forum for original research.[2] And for writers and editors of Wikipedia articles to write about controversial ideas in a neutral manner, it is of vital importance that they simply restate what is said by independent secondary sources of reasonable reliability and quality.

Birds on the Ground


An Electric Universe!?

It turns out that the Higgs Boson that was finally discovered over the summer isn't acting like a Higgs Boson should. A renegade school of plasma cosmologists are claiming that the universe isn't what mainstream physicists think it is. The Guardian reports:
The core thesis of Electric Universe cosmology is that the predominant force in the Universe is not [gravity], as the Standard Model would have us believe, but rather, a vastly more powerful force: electromagnetism. The consequences of this difference are enormous. For instance, we now have a Sun whose power does not come from within it, but from outside. Both the Sun and other generators of power in the universe – Black Holes, pulsars, quasars, etc. – are rather to be understood as nodes in a cosmic webwork of electrical filaments spanning the universe. A star like our Sun is best understood as a node where two or more such filaments meet in space.
Yikes! Does this mean that a transporter beam is just around the corner? That would be way cool.
The stakes are high, so the resistance is fierce. If the Electric Universe people are right, all physicists now working, are working on nothing; all physics students are learning nothing; enormous sums of money have been allocated for nothing. A scientific crisis quickly morphs into a vast professional crisis. And we who simply wish to learn about the universe will have to start over again from scratch.
I don't know enough physics to have even a laughable opinion on this fracas, but THAT characterization of physics matches a view I sometimes have of my home discipline, literary criticism. Getting serious about describing texts isn't quite starting over from scratch, but it's a gesture in that direction.

H/t Tim Morton.

How Many Infinities?

I don't know how old I was when I first encountered "infinity."

How big is it?

Really, really big?

Bigger than the galaxy?


Bigger than the universe?


Bigger than 10 universes?

Yes. Bigger than an infinity of universes?

Whoa! That's big.

Nor do I recall just when someone Cantor's elegant diagonal argument that the set of real numbers is, in some sense, larger than the set of natural numbers. I was probably in college at the time and it was likely either Henry Shapiro or Peter Barnett who took me through the demonstration. So already we're getting sophisticated. We've got sets, we've got natural numbers and real numbers and we've got one-to-one correspondence.

One-to-one correspondence? What's that?

Do you have all your toes?