Thank you @tonyhawk for giving #JerseyCity this awesome #skate park. Nice post! @terrencemcd @JC_Gov pic.twitter.com/x5ZGrcGRVL
— Steven Fulop (@StevenFulop) February 27, 2015
Friday, February 27, 2015
I went to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. I was getting a degree in English, but I hung out in the Music Department studying jazz improvisation with Frank Foster, who'd been with Count Basie as a player and arranger in the 1950s. Sometime in the 1990s I believe it was, Frank took over leadership of the Basie Band. This video is the first of five from a Basie concert in 1994. It opens featuring Frank on "After You've Gone". The whole thing is worth a listen.
I’ve been working my way through The Rockford Files on Netflix. As many of you know the show originally aired in the later 1970s and is about a private investigator, Jim Rockford, who lives in a trailer at the beach in Malibu. Rockford’s basically a good guy who has to bend the rules to make ends meet.
I’m coming to the end of the run and yesterday watched an episode entitled “The Return of the Black Shadow”. The episode is more focused on one of Rockford’s friends and associates, John Cooper, than on Rockford himself. Cooper has a sister Gail, who is a librarian, and Rockford has agreed to take her on a date (deep sea fishing). The date gets hijacked by a motorcycle gang that gang rapes Gail and beats Rockford up.
The question that’s on my mind is: Why is it that it’s a librarian who is raped? If you are going to tell a half-way interesting story about rape, the victim has to be something other than a rape victim, no? But why not an interior decorator, a lawyer, a psychiatrist, an engineer, or a model, all of whom have appeared in episodes of the show and many of them were dated by Rockford?
Obviously, this isn’t a question about the real world, it’s a question about story craft, about myth-logic.
When the episode opens Rockford and Gail are driving along in his car having a conversation, an awkward conversation. She’s thanking Rockford for taking her out; she knows he’s only doing this as a favor to her brother, John; and Rockford’s protesting that, no, he’s taking her out because he wants to and she’s a nice woman; and she’s telling him about a major cataloguing project she’s working on, physics; and he’s laughing at her jokes and; on the whole, they’re managing to put a pleasant face on an awkward situation. As they’re driving along they’re passed by a gang of bikers, The Rattlers, who hassle them a bit as they pass around them.
When the bikers have finally passed them Gail mentions that her brother, John, had been a biker in his youth; he belonged to The Black Shadows. But he grew out of it and went to law school. They continue driving.
When they stop for gas, the bikers show up at the gas station and start hassling Rockford. One of them gets in his car (Rockford had stepped out for some reason which I forget) and starts hassling Gail. The net result is that they take her up into the hills and rape her; Rockford follows and gets beaten up; and the police arrive just in time.
When brother John finds out he is, of course, very angry. He decides that he’s not going to leave things to the police. He gets his bike out, puts on his old Black Shadow clothes, and manages to work his way into the gang that did it. And so forth. The gang’s caught and, at the end, Gail seems to have recovered, at least physically.
And I’m still wondering: why a librarian? Maybe no reason at all, maybe that’s merely a contingent fact about the character. However, the maiden librarian IS a minor stock figure and Gail fits the bill.
Generally I've opted for some kind of thematic order for my Friday Fotos. Not so this Friday. Today I'm letting visitors to my Flickr page pick the photos. These are the photos that have been viewed most often since last evening.
Graffiti in a back alley in Jersey City, now gone, taken in August, 2013:
A photo of the Hudson River I took on February 10, but posted only yesterday:
Looking across the Hudson at Manhattan, taken on February 11, posted yesterday:
We've seen a lot of these little guys. I took the photo in August of 2012 and its now been viewed 1672 times:
I took this in September of 2012:
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Another working paper on a classic Walter Lantz cartoon from the 1940s. Download from:
Abstract and Introduction below:
Abstract: The Greatest Man in Siam is a Walter Lantz cartoon from 1943. It has a pseudo-Oriental setting and depicts a contest to win the hand of a young princess. The losers present themselves as intelligent, rich, and athletic, respectively, while the winner is a good musician and dancer. He’s also the only one who plays attention to the princess and doesn’t insult the king. The cartoon ends with everyone dancing, thus affirming communal values over individual accomplishment. Just before the end there is a virtuoso dance sequence between the couple; it was superbly animated by Pat Matthews.Contents:Introduction: What Fun! Learning to See 1The Hottest Man in Siam 4The Greatest Social Contract in Siam 18Why Siam? The Contest Motif 32The Phallus in the Palace 34Eyes, Electricity, and a Contest 38In Praise of Cartoons: Lantz Does Conceptual Integration 45The Siam Paradox 54Shamus Culhane of the Avant-Garde 55
Introduction: What Fun! Learning to See
This cartoon gave me a great deal of pleasure. Above all, there is the dance sequence, which is flat-out joyous wonderful. Then there is the anonymous solo trumpeter on the sound track, who just kills it! I’ve rarely heard such heart-felt and enthusiastic playing on the sound track of any film. As I’m a trumpet player myself, I suppose I get more of a kick out of the trumpeting that most would, but the player’s passion is evident.
Then there is the chase, the intellectual chase. I didn’t start out to write a series of posts on The Greatest Man in Siam. At this point I don’t really remember just what I set out to do – though now that I’ve looked, I notice I’ve got some remarks about that in my initial post. About all I can remember is that, when I first decided to blog about it, I didn’t intend to write so very much about that dance sequence. But once I actually started planning the post, that was when I figured that I really needed to devote a whole post to nothing more than the dance sequence. I figured I could take care of the rest of the cartoon in another post.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Once I started digging I had to dig for more. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on in this cartoon. And then, when I was pretty much done The New York Times published an article about the cartoon’s director, Shamus Cullhane, pointing out that he consciously and deliberately slathered this cartoon in phallic symbolism.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
In a NYTimes article on the photography of Roy DeCarava, Teju Cole makes this observation:
All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as “normal.” Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face-recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin.
An artist tries to elicit from unfriendly tools the best they can manage. A black photographer of black skin can adjust his or her light meters; or make the necessary exposure compensations while shooting; or correct the image at the printing stage. These small adjustments would have been necessary for most photographers who worked with black subjects, from James Van Der Zee at the beginning of the century to DeCarava’s best-known contemporary, Gordon Parks, who was on the staff of Life magazine....
DeCarava, on the other hand, insisted on finding a way into the inner life of his scenes. He worked without assistants and did his own developing, and almost all his work bore the mark of his idiosyncrasies. The chiaroscuro effects came from technical choices: a combination of underexposure, darkroom virtuosity and occasionally printing on soft paper. And yet there’s also a sense that he gave the pictures what they wanted, instead of imposing an agenda on them.
Saturday, February 21, 2015
This post is an elaboration I made on a comment in my Academia.edu session on my open letter to Steven Pinker.
From my point of view it is all but perceptually obvious that one can comment on literary texts in a way intended to advance, or critique, the (ethical) project embodied in the text or one can take up a position outside that (ethical) project and comment on the text as a phenomenon in the world, perhaps as from the point of view of a Martian ethologist. One can imagine that ethologist is merely curious about what Earthlings are up to, or perhaps the ethologist is thinking of Martian expeditions to Earth for purposes of trade or conquest. Whatever the purpose, that ethologist no more has trouble objectifying our literary works than Lévi-Strauss had trouble objectifying the myths of South American tribespeople.
The distinction between criticism and scholarship seems obvious and secure enough. But that, I suspect, is because scholarship typically works at some “distance” from the text – to use the standard trope in these matters, that of distance. But if one proposes a mode of commentary that is both “close” to the text and disinterested in the text’s (ethical) project, then things get difficult.
So let’s forget about literature for a moment and think about language and linguistics. Linguistics has become a fairly technical discipline in the last half century. Becoming fluent in any of the versions of contemporary linguistics is not easy. But it isn’t required in order to speak or write in an intelligible way. Just as you don’t need to know physics and engineering to drive a car, so you don’t need to know linguistics in order to speak and write. And if you want to improve your speaking and writing, the best thing to do is practice using good models and, of course, find a tutor. But that tutor is not going to lecture you on phrase structure grammar, dependency theory, functional grammar, construction grammar, stratificational grammar or any of the other contemporary forms of syntactic theory. Those forms of grammar are about language in the way that thermodynamics is about what happens in an automobile engine. But a thorough knowledge of thermodynamics is not going to improve your driving and a mastery of the minimalist program in generative grammar is not going to improve your prose.
THAT’s the distinction I want to make for literature. There’s an extensive body of models and theories about the mind, and a bit about culture, that didn’t exist 40 years ago and that’s what I have in mind when I talk about knowing how the mind works and how culture works. I don’t see that understanding, in effect, the thermodynamics of the mind is going to be of much use in teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Prelude, Faust, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, and so forth.
Now let’s push things one step farther. Driving a car is one thing. Being able to do engine repair is another. And understanding the physics and chemistry of combustion and energy conversion and transfer, that’s still a third thing. These bodies of knowledge are related in that they have to do with automobiles. But they don’t imply one another.
Friday, February 20, 2015
is perhaps the most important skill of a literary critic. The trouble with Theory, then, is not so much the terms in which interpretations are couched, but the fact that it privileges creating those accounts over the finding of patterns. Right now we need better descriptions of our texts and that requires that we find the patterns which are the “joints” of the textual body, to use Plato’s metaphor.
This, incidentally, is why digital criticism is so very important. But its very nature it foregrounds the discovery patterns. It is because the patterns are so very strange that the fact of their "patternhood" is foregrounded.
Of course, the discovery of patterns is not the ultimate end of literary study. But the meanings and mechanisms we seek are there in the patterns. Without those, we have nothing to understand and explain. Simply cranking out more propositions from the Theory Engine is, at this point, a waste of time.
Victor Borge never got the memo saying that classical musicians stopped improvising sometime during the middle of the 19th century. So, when a fiddle player wanted to perform a tune that Borge had heard, but never played, Borge simply improvised an accompaniment. It's a bit over the top at points, but then Borge is a comedian. Watch how the two men interact act with one another. There are points where one or the other doesn't quite know what's coming up, so they have to look and listen.
Pay attention at about 3:13, in a slow section (stuck in the middle of all the fast stuff).
It's supposed to return to the up-tempo romp, but the fiddle player strings out a note (which registers on Borge's face) and repeats the slow material, w/ Borge following, of course. At about 3:43 Borge starts a nice counter melody; from 3:54 to the end it's nuts, with a nice counter melody in octaves at about 4:02. Notice the nice hesitation for the very last note, a skillful touch.
I am, of course, speaking metaphorically, when I talk of a flat Earth, and, for that matter, when I talk of escape as well. By flat Earth I mean a set of default assumptions. In this case, the assumptions about the study of English literature in America that were in place at the beginning of J. Hillis Miller’s career.
As many of you know, Miller is one of the most eminent literary critics in the American academy and played a major role in the development of deconstructive and post-structuralism criticism. But that’s not where he started, obviously. When he started, interpretive criticism was relatively rare in academia, and didn’t exist at Harvard, where he did his graduate work. But let’s set that aside.
What interests me now is simply that there were assumptions in place. As Miller states in this passage from a 2003 article in the ADE Bulletin, “My Fifty Years in the Profession” (PDF):
The discipline of English studies was certainly well in place when I entered graduate school in 1948 and when I began full-time teaching in 1952. In those days we knew what we were doing. All sorts of disciplinary rules, boundaries, and taken-for-granted assumptions were firmly in place. We knew what the canon was, what were the main periods of English literary history, and what constituted good scholarship in the field.... In those days “we” were mostly men, all men in the English department at Hopkins, and all the works we studied, with some exceptions, were by men. American literature was pretty marginal. It all made perfect sense.
Whatever those assumptions were, that’s what I’m calling flat earth.
As for the flat Earth, no doubt that’s how I thought of the earth when I was a child, if I thought about such things at all. I mean, why would I think otherwise? And if there was no reason to think otherwise, then why would I bother to note that the Earth appeared to be flat? The Earth was just the world around me and it was what it was.
At some point, though, I learned that the Earth was round. I don’t remember just when, or how, or what I learned at the same time. No doubt I learned in some time in primary school. But for all I know, I may have learned it first at home. I know at some point we had a globe, but just when we got it, I don’t know.
My point, though, is that it didn’t make much sense to think of the possibility of a flat Earth until I learned that, no, the Earth wasn’t flat. It was round. Then, of course, someone had to explain how it was that the Earth appeared to be flat through it really wasn’t. I figure that explanation would have gotten nowhere if I hadn’t been willing to take it on authority. Because it simply wouldn’t have made sense according to any scheme I was capable to conjuring up at the time.
The Wikipedia entry on Flat Earth tells me that various ancient peoples believed the Earth to be flat under a domed firmament. Some of these peoples further believed the Earth to be floating in an ocean, while others had no such belief. How could they have believed otherwise?
It took a good deal of deliberate observation and analysis to think otherwise. I have little knowledge of how some thinkers began to believe the Earth was round. But the idea seems to have originated with the ancient Greeks and spread from there. And it seems to me that it is only in that context, when another idea about the Earth was in play, that the notion of the Earth as “flat” had any “bite” and, by that time, of course it was on the way out.
Once again: What does it mean to take a photo? This photograph, believe it or not, is a color photo. I took it in a snowstorm, and that pretty much eliminated color. The color of the river, of course, comes in some measure from reflecting the sky. On a bright day with a blue sky, the water is blue. On a snow-stormy day, there is no blue to reflect, and so the water appears grayish. The most obvious hint of color is in the dingy atop the cabin of the boat.
Here is another, brighter, rendering of the same photo:
And now we enter photoshop territory. The color play is not so blatant and flamboyant as in these moonshots, but it's certainly there.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
I was trolling through The Valve looking for an old post of mine (which I found) and came across this gem by Miriam Burstein, Critical. It's a response to an article that Lindsay Waters had published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he complained that criticism had become too much about ideas, not enough about aesthetics. Burstein said he was confused, and I think she was right. But then, figuring out what academic literary criticism is about is a confusing task.
Her second paragraph:
Waters lays down the law in the very first paragraph: "Trying to figure out what's up with American literary scholarship — I mean the writing coming out of colleges that relates to literature — is difficult. This stuff cannot be understood by the norms of healthy literary criticism as it has been practiced from Aristotle to Helen Vendler." At the risk of sounding like Ophelia Benson (not, I'd add, that I consider that at all a bad thing): "norms"? Which "norms"? What sort of historical narrative easily encompasses everyone from Aristotle to Vendler? (This generalization treads dangerously close to the dreaded Michener School of the Looooong Historical View.) And what's the relationship between "criticism" and "scholarship"? In any event, it's not yet clear if, by "healthy," Mr. Waters simply means practical criticism, rhetorical criticism, or something else entirely.
I recommend the post, though it's from December of 2005; and the following discussion is useful as well. For example, Luther Blissett about Waters on Walter Benn Michaels (WBM):
Waters’ point is that you can’t tell the difference between WBM dealing with a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, a comix artist, a philosopher, a think tank political scientist, a right-wing journo nutjob, or a left-wing social activist. As you write, Scott, these different texts are all simply “arguments” and all arguments have “consequences” (’tho “consequences” isn’t the right word, because WBM never attends to real world consequences of arguments but rather to possible logical implications, if this then that sorts of things).Waters’ argument seems to be: what world are we in when all uses of language are simply “messages” to be uncoded, when all forms of literary art are simply nicely gift-wrapped packages with the “real goods” inside (so you can just toss out the wrapping and the box and be glad you got—wait for it—a fruit cake! Hooray!).
Yep, it's a problem.
People generally don’t suffer high rates of PTSD after natural disasters. Instead, people suffer from PTSD after moral atrocities. Soldiers who’ve endured the depraved world of combat experience their own symptoms. Trauma is an expulsive cataclysm of the soul.Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyWe now have a growing number of books and institutions grappling with this reality, including Phil Klay’s story collection “Redeployment,” which won the National Book Award; Nancy Sherman’s forthcoming “Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers”; and therapy programs like the one on moral injury found at the San Diego Naval Medical Center. These writers and therapists suggest that there has to be a moral reckoning, a discernment process that doesn’t whitewash what happened but does lead to merciful judgments about how much guilt should be borne; settled and measured conclusions about how responsibility for terrible things should be apportioned.
It's certainly not a "pretty" photo. In fact, the dirty snow being caught in the blade of the snowplow is rather "ugly", no? But I like the contrast between the bright bits of color – the neon green in the upper right, the orange 'wands' on the plow blade, the signs on the fence (left of center) – and the overall whiteness and greenness of the shot.
I like the composition, the plow coming in from the left, the car turning in from the right, the roofline of the service station at the top, the rectilinearity of it all playing against the angle of the blade.
And I like the visibility of the falling snow across the picture place. There are some flakes that must be fairly close to the lens, they're so large in the picture; you can see these particularly well against the blade. And there's a noticeable contrast between those large up-close flakes and smaller ones. They're in a satisfying range of sizes. They permeate the 2D surface of the photo as they permeated the 3D volume of the scene. Without that I might not find this photo so interesting.
is the genre through which the playwright and his audience acknowledge and ‘take ownership’ of their unconscious. If Shakespeare hadn’t first written all of those tragedies he wouldn’t have been able to write a Prospero who says of Caliban “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” It is in the death (or imminent death) of the tragic hero that the playwright/audience acknowledge the hidden impulses that propelled their actions.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
When I first started posting at The Valve I posted a series on the problem of literary character: Since they ARE fictions, why is it so difficult for us to talk about them AS fictions? Why are we always using that language and concepts of real people to talk about these fictions? This is one of those posts, originally going on the web on August 5, 2006.
Let's look at the individual reader as he or she apprehends a text and thus (re)creates the lives of the fictional characters in the text. It is common to say that we come to identify with literary characters. But, as Norman Holland pointed out in The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968, pp. 262 ff.), it is by no means clear just what we mean by identification in this context. Still, in order to get this discourse on the road, we need some word for the relationship a reader establishes with a character. If not “identification,” then what?
Keith Oatley has been writing about fiction as simulation of the world:
Shakespeare’s great innovation was of theatre as a model of the world. The audience member constructs the simulated model in the course of the play, and thereby takes part in the design activity. So fiction is to understanding social interaction as computer simulation is to understanding, perception and reasoning. Shakespeare designed plays as simulations of human actions in relation to predicaments, so that the deep structure of selfhood and of the interaction of people who have distinct personalities becomes clearer.*
Oatley has the notion of simulation from computing, where computers are used to simulate a wide variety of phenomena – traffic patterns, explosions, fluid flow, and so forth. He proposes that simulation is just the notion we need in order properly to interpret the Greek mimesis. Stories are “the kind of simulation that runs on minds rather than on computers."
I find Oatley’s proposal to be plausible, but I’ve got reservations. Thus much of what I say will be a critique of that notion. I am not particularly happy about this mode of proceeding, as I would prefer simply to set forth a problem-free account. Alas, I am not aware of such an account and so must be content with a crude demonstration by via negativa.
A Scene from Shakespeare
I would like to discuss Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, focusing on the first scene of Act IV. I have two reasons for choosing this scene: 1) Eight major characters are on stage and most of them have substantial speaking parts in the scene. 2) The scene is emotionally rich, with the characters having distinctly different interests in the action. Whatever it means for a reader to simulate an imaginary world, the complexity of this scene taxes that capacity.
Here’s what’s going on: The characters have gathered for the wedding of Claudio and Hero, the arrangement of which has been accomplished in one of three plot lines intertwined in the first three acts. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is another of those plot lines. While the third is Don John’s scheme to destroy the wedding. Don John’s notion has been to deceieve Claudio into believing that Hero is a woman of loose morals who has deceived him even after having accepted his proposal. Thus, while the other characters, save Don John, believe they are about to witness a wedding, Claudio intends to denounce Hero before the assembled group.
And that’s what he proceeds to do, within thirty lines of the scene’s opening. Hero doesn’t say much, but she does deny the charges. She then faints and is taken for dead. At that point Don John, Claudio, and Don Pedro leave. Hero then revives and those who remain plan a course of action that will, they hope, clear her name.
My first issue is this: Is it physiologically possible for one person, one nervous system, to simulate the actions and emotions of all the characters in this scene? Different emotions are mediated by different neural and physiological systems. In particular the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are important in motivation and emotion and they are antagonists, pulling physiological processes in opposite directions. Claudio’s aggressive anger – perhaps with overtones of hatred – would be sympathetically driven while Hero’s protective faint would be parasympathetically driven. Can a single nervous system simulate both of those states, either simultaneously or in close succession? That seems highly unlikely. And those are only two characters in the scene. What of Hero’s father, Claudio’s patron, of Beatrice and Benedick, the Friar? And what of Don John? Is he feeling pleasure, perhaps even triumph – albeit concealing these feelings from the others – at seeing his plotting bear fruit?
It seems rather unlikely that a reader would be able to simulate these various feelings and attitudes within the relatively brief compass of a few minutes. Beyond the difficulty of simultaneously activating mutually exclusive neuro-physiological systems, we have the fact that these hormonally rich systems change state more slowly than perceptual and cognitive systems. Even if we simplify the reader’s problem by asserting that the reader only need simulate the character who is speaking, we have the problem of switching from one character to the next, which could be daunting where three or four characters switch back and forth within the compass of only a dozen or two lines.
So, perhaps the reader does not simulate these feelings and attitudes in any very deep way; in particular, perhaps the slower acting hormonal systems are not recruited into action at all. Or perhaps the reader is not simulating the emotions of any of the characters in the scene. Rather, the reader is simply reacting to the actions and words of people whom the reader “knows” and toward which the reader has various attitudes, both positive and negative. That is, if the reader is simulating anyone, it is a person watching such a scene. I am imagining that the reader is simulating someone in attendance at such a wedding, but not participating in them in any way.
And this is not so far from imagining the reader to be in the audience of a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. In this situation each actor has responsibility for simulating the words and actions of a character, and only one character. The playgoer need only react to the play.
At this point, however, the notion that a reader, or a playgoer, is simulating the action seems rather far away from what Oatley has been asserting, who talks as though the reader is simulating the characters from the inside. Though he doesn’t use phrases like “from the inside,” that seems to be what he is asserting. If, for the reasons I have asserted, that is difficult or impossible, then it is not at all obvious to me what simulation might mean. What could it mean to simulate a character from the outside?** (Note that this problem doesn’t arise in computer simulation of physical phenomena.)
One way to deal with this problem would be to say something like: “Well, we don’t simulate all the characters. Just one or a small group of them.” Given that Oatley is arguing that such simulations help us understand ourselves and others, and thus help us negotiate our social lives, it is not at all clear that such a narrowing of scope is legitimate. But even if we accept it, difficulties remain.
The Foolish Protagonist
Let us return to Much Ado. Unlike Hamlet or Othello, the play doesn’t really have a single protagonist. But Claudio takes the active role in one plot and is obviously is a central figure in this drama.
Let us say that Claudio is motivated by anger in this scene. But the accusation motivating that anger is wrong, and the reader knows it. That knowledge effectively bars the reader from “identifying” with Claudio and so simulating his anger toward Hero. If the reader feels any anger at all in this scene – as this reader did – it is more likely to be directed at Claudio himself, perhaps against Don John as well, or simply at the whole bollixed situation. One sort of reader may also feel a bit of pity for Claudio, who, after all, was deceived; while another sort of reader may feel that Claudio was wrong not to have first broached the matter in private. But no reader is simply going to follow along with Claudio’s feelings and actions.
At this point, it seems to me that, if the notion of simulation is to be of much use, that we need to know considerably more about just how the brain does these things. Rather than speculate about what such knowledge might yield, I want to move in a different direction.
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Characteristically, Reed argues in detail and at length. The opening paragraph:
Ava Du Vernay’s film Selma has generated yet another wave of mass mediated debate over cinematic representation of black Americans’ historical experience of racial injustice. The controversy’s logic is at this point familiar, nearly clichéd. Du Vernay and others have responded to complaints about the film’s historical accuracy, particularly in its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, with invocations of artistic license and assertions that the film is not intended as historical scholarship. However, even Maureen Dowd recognizes the contradiction at the core of those claims. “The ‘Hey, it’s just a movie’ excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.”1 And that contradiction, as I’ve noted [“Django Unchained, or, The Help”], permeates the dizzyingly incoherent and breathtakingly shallow pop controversies spawned by recent films dramatizing either the black experience of slavery or the southern Jim Crow order.
Later in the essay:
After open Nazi/Klansman (take your pick; he wore both swastika and hood) David Duke had received a majority of white votes in both the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial race and a US Senate race a year earlier, I was asked to comment on whether his appeal was a lamentable testament to how little things had changed in southern politics. My response was that his overall performance in those two elections was rather an illustration of the significance of the VRA. Twenty-five years earlier, if Duke had gotten solid majorities of the white vote, he’d have been elected. And that is not just a simple arithmetical point about the additive force of the black vote. That by the dawn of the 1990s more than two-fifths of white Louisiana voters had no trouble voting for candidates actively supported by a vast majority of black voters marks a more significant sea change. That deeper shift in political culture and the potential it implies for pursuit of a transformatively progressive politics is also a reason that the reactionary alliance of fascist agitators, racist and other lunatics and the corporate interests that fund them have become so hell bent on undoing voting rights.
It's a long one and I'm not going to attempt a summary. But go take a look.
There's an interesting running argument at Michael Barrier's joint about whether or not two comic book artists (mostly of) the 1950s were exploited. Carl Barks drew Disney comics and, in particular, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge while John Stanley drew Little Lulu. The discussion is in connection with his most recent book: Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books.
The exploitation argument seems to be this: Their work was heads and shoulder above that of their peers, but their pay wasn't commensurate with that superiority. The non-exploitation argument seems to be: 1) their financial arrangements were such that they assumed no financial risk, 2) they had more artistic freedom than their peers, and 3) there is no evidence that the superiority of their work had much effect of sales of the comic books in which that work appeared.
In order to say a cartoonist was being "exploited" it should be possible to measure, however roughly, the difference that cartoonist's work made to the sales of the comic books to which he contributed. If a cartoonist's work was adding several hundred thousand copies to a comic book's sales, but the cartoonist's page rate was the same as that of his colleagues, exploitation may be the right word.
But as I've written about Barks (on pages 191-92), it's hard to say that the excellence of his work made a significant difference in the sales of Walt Disney's Comics and Donald Duck. Uncle Scrooge was a different matter, of course, but even there the Disney connection was very important. Recall that "Walt Disney's" was unusually large above "Uncle Scrooge" on the cover of the first issue; Western wanted to make sure that its readers knew that this relatively unfamiliar character was part of the familiar Disney universe. In light of Uncle Scrooge's subsequent success, it's easy to forget that Western was assuming the risk that readers would not embrace the new title (as they did not embrace many other Dell tryout titles). That risk was entirely Western's; even if Uncle Scrooge had flopped, Barks would have been paid....
Of course, Western could have rewarded the excellence of Stanley's Lulu work with extra money, and maybe it did, as with Barks's bonuses. Supporters of the exploitation hypothesis might say, of course, that as welcome as such extra pay undoubtedly was, it still was given to the artist by the grace of the publisher, and that as long as the extra payment was discretionary, and not given as a matter of right, the exploitation was only softened and not removed. But I still lean toward the belief that it's hard to find exploitation when the "exploited" artist has assumed no financial risk and has in some ways—as in the opportunity to do artistically superior work—actually benefited from the presumed exploitation.
When I first started posting at The Valve I posted a series on the problem of literary character: Since they ARE fictions, why is it so difficult for us to talk about them AS fictions? Why are we always using that language and concepts of real people to talk about these fictions? This is one of those posts, originally going on the web on July 25, 2006.
Some years ago I published an essay on Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy, Othello, a tragedy, and The Winter's Tale, a romance.* All involve a protagonist who mistakenly believes the woman he loves to be unfaithful – the Claudio-Hero plot in Much Ado. Though I argue the point in my essay, for the purposes of this post I will simply assume that that common plot feature betrays the same psycho-social problematic in each play. Thus in this group of three plays we have a "natural" experiment in which a single problematic is dramatically realized in three different kinds of play.
In the comedy the male protagonist makes the mistake during courtship; in the tragedy the mistake happens shortly after marriage; and in the romance, the mistake occurs well into the marriage. If we examine the relationships between the characters, we find that it gets closer as we move from one play to the next. And that's not all. There seem to be systematic differences among the configuration of characters in these plays. And that has led me to wonder whether or not those differences are related to the fact that we are dealing with three different genres, comedy, tragedy, and romance. Are these configurations merely incidental features of the plays or are they intrinsic to the different genres -- as realized by Shakespeare, if not in general? This line of thinking was suggested to me by a remark Frye had made in his Anatomy of Criticism, to the effect that a tragedy is a comedy where the last act, the reconciliation, has gone missing.
With this in mind, consider the following table, in which the first column names the function a given character takes in the play:
|Much Ado||Othello||Winter's Tale|
Does this table depict something for which an explanation is necessary or does it depict a mere contingent set of relationships between these plays? If an explanation is necessary, what kind?
Monday, February 16, 2015
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marl Greif discusses "public intellectuals" through the lens of The Partisan Review, the touchstone of discourse about public intellectualism.
During World War II PR benefitted from the influx of first-rank European writers and thinkers:
The combination of knowledgeable, left-wing anti-Communism with firsthand possession of a European émigré inheritance, all hammered together through American literary and artistic networks in the great metropolis, was a rare alloy. And as the United States emerged as the lone Western superpower, and its State Department sought to woo a rebuilt Europe away from the Soviet alternative, this metal came increasingly into demand. PR gained a kind of establishment support. This source of its success has been regretted by historians as often as the magazine’s outsized authority has been saluted. To critics, it was as if the recalcitrant stuff of critical thought had been weaponized. The establishment link marks the somewhat uncomfortable side of Richard Hofstadter’s famous statement in 1963’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that Partisan Review, against much philistinism elsewhere, had become a "house organ of the American intellectual community." But had the house organ become a consensus mouthpiece?
As for the current moment (emphasis mine):
At the arrival of the Great Recession, in 2007-8, I ruefully reminded friends and students that the Depression of the 20th century, despite its miseries, had been surprisingly good for intellect. I think we have all the dislocation, injustice, and economic inequality we need, when we look at our America—and the classes of writers, teachers, arguers, dreamers, "petty bourgeois" or proletarian, have indeed even been flattened and equalized a bit, in their salaries and prospects. Maybe they need to be flattened even more, to truly take the measure of popular life in America. But the outrages on offer are surely outrageous enough. As for depoliticization: Students stew in philosophies of radical social change on one side, and observations of the corruption in the present order on the other. I don’t know anyone’s bookshelf without its Marx and Wollstonecraft, its Chomsky and Naomi Klein. The thing we’ve lost is really party politics, and it has been replaced by music-centered subculture as the main beacon for the organizing (and self-organizing) of youth. Scratch through the surface of any little magazine of the last 30 years and you’ll find the inspiration of ’zines and DIY punk rock (hip hop may serve a parallel function through different channels). But that may be a subject for another occasion.Which leaves the question of the university. The economics of higher education in the contemporary moment may be bad for many of us—teachers, students, and temporary passers-through. But, again—this should not be a priori bad for public intellect or public debate. Quite the opposite. A large pool of disgruntled free-thinking people who are not actually starving, gathered in many local physical centers, whose vocation leads them to amass an enormous quantity of knowledge and skill in disputation, and who possess 24-hour access to research libraries, might be the most publicly argumentative the world has known.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
In the course of my current Academica.edu session (about the nature of stories and the discipline of literary criticism) Per Aage Brandt brought my attention to his paper, Forces and Spaces – Maupassant, Borges, Hemingway. Toward a Semio-Cognitive Narratology, in which he outlines (to quote from his abstract) “a model of the constitutive architecture of narrative meaning as manifested by ‘good stories’, stories that make sense by conveying a vie& of the human condition.” In this model he proposes that actions move back and forth between “a canonical set of narrative spaces, each encompassing and contributing a significant part of the meaning of a story” and that these narrative spaces are typically “staged as distinct locations” in the physical space depicted in the narrative. He labeled these four spaces: Condition, Catastrophe, Consequence, and Conclusion.
That something like this is going on seems plausible on the face of it. As Brandt noted in a comment over at the session, “spaces and behaviors are regularly linked, in human cultures as in many animal behaviors.” Thus humans and animals typically has a nesting space or den where they sleep and a daily routine the moves through the same spaces in a regular circuit where they satisfy their various needs. I note further that, as all animals have to navigate through the physical world, the neural machinery for guiding us through space is phylogenetically very old, reliable, and sophisticated.
However, for the purposes of this post, I want to set the abstract narratology aside and simply concentrate on the physical places in a small set of narratives. Furthermore, those narratives share a common narrative form, known as ring composition. In the next section I describe that form with a simple example and then, in successive sections, consider three texts: Tezuka’s Metropolis, Honda’s Gojira, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A final section has links to other materials.
Let’s Take a Journey
Let us start with a very simple narrative, one with no remarkable features. It is a story about how I leave my apartment to get a quart of milk at the local King’s grocery store and then return to my apartment by the same route. This story, as you will quickly see, had the canonical form of a ring; that’s why I’m telling it.
Here is that story, told in a telegraphic way.
A: Leave Apartment
B: Exit Building, turn left to 13th St.
C: Walk East on 13th St. for a block, cross Hudson
D: Turn right, walk so many yards to the door of King’s
E: Enter King’s and purchase milk
D’: Exit King’s, turn right and walk so many yards to 13th St.
C’: Cross Hudson and walk one block on 13th to Washington St.
B’: Turn right and walk to the door of 1301 Washington St.
A’: Enter building and return to my apartment
This story has a center point, my purchase of milk, and the events in the story, such as they are, are arranged symmetrically around that central event.
That story interests me because the ring-form is incidental to my intentions in telling the story. In telling the story I didn’t intend it to have a ring form. All I intended was to tell the events as they happened or, to be more precise, as I remembered them happening. My memory stream has the events ordered one after the other and that’s how I told them.
Where, then, did the narrative symmetry come from? It came from the material conditions of the narrated events. The story was simple. I started at one place, when to another to do something, and then I returned to my starting point. Because returned by the same route I used when going to the goal place, the symmetry was a natural consequence of geography. Had I returned by a different route, the symmetry would have been broken.
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Coupling and Human Community: Miscellaneous Notes on the Fundamental Physical Foundations of Human Mind, Culture, and Society
Another working paper is available:
Abstract: Coupling exists when two or more individuals interact in such a tightly coordinated way that we may consider them to be, effectively, a single system. The coupled system has a state space that is smaller than the total state space of the individual members and has fewer degrees of freedom. Coupling is considered in a variety of situations – music, conversation, and sports – and in relationship to the brain. A number of thought experiments are considered along with a variety of different disciplines.
Introduction: Coupling is Fundamental to Human Community
This miscellaneous grab bag of posts is as fundamental as anything I’ve put online. By coupling I (suppose I) the interaction of two or more people in such a close way that we can most effectively analyze them as a single system in which some signal paths go between individuals while most are within the nervous system and bodies of the coupled individuals. I devote two chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil to this, the second, “Music and Coupling”, and third, “Fireflies: Dynamics and Brain States”, and it is the foundation for much of the rest of the book.
Some excerpts from that book are included in these posts, as well as excerpts from my notes. Some posts consist of an abstract or two and some commentary; others work up an argument. But there is no argument in the working paper as a whole, just snapshots and vignettes.
Since there is no overall argument, there is no logical arrangement, but it didn’t make sense to arrange them chronologically either. In the following arrangement the first four posts more or less cover the territory. The other sections are loosely thematic. The short descriptions should give you some idea of what’s going on.
* * * * *
Taken as a group, these are perhaps the most important four posts and pretty much cover the territory. The first is purely anecdotal while the next two are more conceptual; the third, in particular, is substantial, not so much in itself as in the material it references. The fourth is again anecdotal and retains to the same kind of material as in the first, percussion.
Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell: An anecdote about four musicians in rehearsal and how, through precise coupling their interaction produced audible sounds that no one of them was playing. In effect, the interactions between the four individuals in this post are not so different from that of the many (hypothetical) bees in the next one.
The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality: This is built on a passage from Beethoven’s Anvil where I consider work that’s been done on synchronized applause where the activity is analyzed as a case of coupled oscillation. I amplify this passage with some old notes where I speculate about the neuro-muscular underpinnings of synchronized applause.
Cooperation, Coupling, Music, and Soccer: This post compares the state-space argument for coupling that I argued in chapter 3 of Beethoven’s Anvil with research based on the so-called degrees of freedom problem identified by the Russian psychologist, Nikolai Bernstein, in the 1960s. In Beethoven’s Anvil I argued that the state-space of a music-making group is no larger than the state space of any one member. Michael Riley et al. demonstrate that people interacting on a common neuro-motor task experience dimensional compression so that they have fewer degrees of freedom than they would have when considered individually.
Time after Time: Music and Memory in the Group: This is about the peculiar way that individual players in traditional African percussion ensembles depended on the group to be able to remember and execute their individual parts. “The drummer cannot access motor patterns in his own brain and body without help from others.”
Friday, February 13, 2015
There was a raft of research on psychedelic drugs back in the 1960s, and then it stopped. But researchers are once again getting interested. The New Yorker has an article about this revival. Here's three paragraphs:
Every guided psychedelic journey is different, but a few themes seem to recur. Several of the cancer patients I interviewed at N.Y.U. and Hopkins described an experience of either giving birth or being born. Many also described an encounter with their cancer that had the effect of diminishing its power over them. Dinah Bazer, a shy woman in her sixties who had been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2010, screamed at the black mass of fear she encountered while peering into her rib cage: “Fuck you, I won’t be eaten alive!” Since her session, she says, she has stopped worrying about a recurrence—one of the objectives of the trial.This long post has a brief account of an LSD trip I took back in the early 1970s.
Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as “We are all one” or “Love is all that matters.” The usual ratio of wonder to banality in the adult mind is overturned, and such ideas acquire the force of revealed truth. The result is a kind of conversion experience, and the researchers believe that this is what is responsible for the therapeutic effect.
Subjects revelled in their sudden ability to travel seemingly at will through space and time, using it to visit Elizabethan England, the banks of the Ganges, or Wordsworthian scenes from their childhood. The impediment of a body is gone, as is one’s identity, yet, paradoxically, a perceiving and recording “I” still exists. Several volunteers used the metaphor of a camera being pulled back on the scene of their lives, to a point where matters that had once seemed daunting now appeared manageable—smoking, cancer, even death. Their accounts are reminiscent of the “overview effect” described by astronauts who have glimpsed the earth from a great distance, an experience that some of them say permanently altered their priorities. Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of “inverse P.T.S.D.”—“a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior, and presumably in the brain.”
I can’t stand it.
Woke up this morning, checked in at 3QD and saw a link to Sebastian Normandin, Scientism and Skepticism: A Reply to Steven Pinker. Here we go again, says I to myself, here we go. So I refreshed myself on Pinker’s New Republic article and then blitzed through the Normandin.
I don’t know what’s going on here.
You need to understand. I was at Hopkins when the French landed. Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, Nietzsche, I’ve read them all. But I’ve also read Chomsky, Herb Simon, Warren McCulloch, Robert Merton, Don Norman, George Miller, Irwin DeVore, and a bunch more. I’ve been walking both sides of that aisle for over four decades and I think they’re all crazy.
A plague on both your houses!
* * * * *
The Humanist: The problem with science is that it’s always cranking it up to 11.
The Scientist: You humanists always speak in extremes. So obscure. “Eleven”? What’s that, a metaphor?
The Humanist: There you go again. Crankin’ it up a notch. “Thirteen”? That’s an unlucky number!
The Scientist: At least it’s a number!
The Humanist: 15!
The Scientist: 4 squared!
The Humanist: Who’s a square, you blockhead?!
The Scientist: ninety-nine!
The Humanist: ‘Leventy-‘leven!
See these posts: Map of Musical Genres (1264 genres, the map itself): Are musical genres real and constraining or are they mixing together polymorphically? (17 genre clusters).Now that music genres have been unhitched from the centralised broadcast media, and now genre labels are not ordered through TV, weeklies and radio, the possibilities have suddenly opened for music to be ordered in new ways. One of the key changes here is that music cultures are now largely self-organising. Genre labels might still be dreamed up and created by industry insiders, journalists and artists, but they are more often the product of interaction through social media. The tagging processes that are used to classify music are now performed and attached by those with an interest in consuming the music. This has opened up the potential for music genres to proliferate, expand and develop, for sub genres and even sub-sub-sub genres to spiral, and on other occasions for genres judged irrelevant to wither into uncoolness.To take just one popular meta-genre, metal, we find the massive variety of sub-genres associated with this one genre alone are quite unfathomable, the suggestively labelled ‘math metal’ is indicative of this fragmentation within genres. The result of this new type of musical categorisation is that music cultures become self-organising things. This self-organising system is open to rapid change, to increasingly granular and microscopic genres and genres within genres, and to the fragmenting of musical categories around small differences. To understand music we need to focus a little more on how these cultures are organising themselves.This is an impressive and revealing set of practices that tell us much about how people identify with music, how they differentiate their music and themselves from other people and how music can be understood as it becomes a part of people’s lives. Here we have something close to collective action as real-time social media enable responsive classifications of everyday culture. I’ve focused upon music here, but this is now touching lots of cultural spheres.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
The New York Times has run a long series of pieces on anxiety. I've not read any of them, but I'm parking the link here.for later reference.
I've been running an Academia.edu Session on my old open letter to Steven Pinker about storytelling and literary criticism. Here's a note I've appended to it.
There are two reasons why I put the Trickster at the center of this open letter: 1) the story does not support various utilitarian proposals for the cultural importance of stories, and 2) I was interested in the physical and social context in which those stories lived, face-to-face story-telling. That second reason is more important.
I also believe that function has been served when the story-telling ends. Commentary on the stories is a secondary matter. The Winnebago certainly did not have New Critical, psychoanalytic, Marxist, deconstructive, post-modern, feminist, post-colonial etc. readings available to them. Nor were such readings readily available to anyone until after WWII or even the third quarter of the last century.
I’ve been told that Victorian literary criticism was primarily moral. The stories and characters were taken at face value and the critic was concerned with the morality of their actions. I’ve read a bit of fan commentary on the web and it is not, for the most part, interpretive. I know some work has been done on reading groups, but I don’t know whether any of that has been on the kinds of discussions that take place. But I’d be surprised if interpretive commentary was common, if only because fluency in the craft requires more focused practice than most people have. It wasn’t until my final year in college that I was able to “open” a text myself and develop my own line of thought without being “captive” to commentary by others (the instructor, critical articles).
Finally, I offer an anecdote from graduate school. I studied Shakespeare with one Richard Fry. At one point we were talking in the hallway – before, after class? I don’t recall the occasion – and he remarked that he didn’t see why we had criticism for modern texts. After all, they are about the world we’re living in, more or less. We don’t need commentary to usher us into that world. Shakespeare, though, is rather different. The language itself is a bit different, many strange words, and the world is quite different, no capitalism, no representative democracy, very different technology, different social arrangements, and so on. It wasn’t a long conversation at all, just a few quick remarks; I’ve already been more explicit than that conversation was. But I don’t think I’m being unfair to the spirit of his comment.
As some of you may know, Tiger Woods, one of the finest golfers in the world, is having a rough time. He just shot his worst professional game ever and has taken an open-ended leave from the game. Writing in The New York Times, Karen Crouse, suggests that he have some fun:
Every day he should play at least 18 holes, preferably with friends, and let his imagination run loose. He should throw balls into the woods and try to curve shots around trees. He should purposely hit from the fairway of one hole to the green of another — surely, no one at his home course, the Medalist, will mind — to infuse his routine with fun.
Instead of looking at his swing on a video monitor, Woods needs to picture shots in his head and then playfully try to duplicate them. No pressure, all process. As soon as he deflects the focus from the results, he’ll experience success, and his confidence will return like long-lost paparazzi.
Woods could do worse than making the drive from Jupiter, Fla., to Miami to play a few rounds with Lucy Li, who competed in last year’s United States Women’s Open at age 11. She talked about how her coach, Jim McLean, kept golf fun by having her hit while balancing on one leg or using one hand.
Astute students of the game will recognize this as a return to the game's fundamental in Ancient Nubia. The following account has been passed down through the ages at the annual retreats of that most royal and ancient of secret societies, The Order of Mystic Jewels for the Propagation of Grace, Right Living, and Saturday Night through Historic Intervention by Any Means Necessary:
... the most significant differences between the ancient and modern games involved the finely-tuned geometric judgment and kinematic finesse of greens play. The ancients mastered putting so quickly that the rules had to be changed to make putting even more difficult. Inspired by Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks routine, the rules committee, officially called the Jive Adjudicators and Soul Satisficers (JASS), required that all putts be executed while the player is standing on only one leg, with alternation from one leg to the other being required from one green to the next. When that became too easy they decided that all putts less than a meter long were to be executed from a headstand position. On the front nine players were required hold the putter in one hand only, their choice, using the other hand to maintain balance. On the middle nine they were required to hold the putter in both hands. The concentration and balance thus required taxed the ability of even those magnificent athletes. The JASS decided that those with a handicap above 13 were allowed to use a head ring to help them maintain stability. On the back nine players were required to use both hands for balance and support and to execute the stroke with their legs, which were bent from the hips so that they stood out at a right angle from the body. The caddy would then place the putter between the player's knees and the player would execute the stroke with a twisting movement starting in the torso and continuing to the legs. In time, as knowledge of the game made its way to India, meandering from village to village, town to town, and city to city, the system of putting postures became separated from golf itself and evolved into the spiritual practice of Hatha Yoga. But that's another story, to be told at another time, in another place.
In oral cultures the same stories are told time and again. For every individual there will always be a first time to hear any one story, but in time they all become familiar, familiar friends. There are thus no surprises in the hearing, no new “information” thereby conveyed. There is only the stories themselves, and of course, the company of one’s fellows.
Writing in The Guardian, Stephen Marche talking about reading two texts one hundred times, Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves.
The experience is distinct from all other kinds of reading. I’m calling it centireading.I read Hamlet a 100 times because of Anthony Hopkins. He once mentioned, in an interview with Backstage magazine, that he typically reads his scripts over a 100 times, which gives him “a tremendous sense of ease and the power of confidence” over the material. I was writing a good chunk of my doctoral dissertation on Hamlet and I needed all the sense of ease and power of confidence I could muster.
Has he arrived at an experience of those texts that approximates that in oral culture (minus, of course, the presence of one’s fellows)?
After a hundred reads, familiarity with the text verges on memorisation – the sensation of the words passing over the eyes like cud through the fourth stomach of a cow. Centireading belongs to the extreme of reader experience, the ultramarathon of the bookish, but it’s not that uncommon. To a certain type of reader, exposure at the right moment to Anne of Green Gables or Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes or Dune can almost guarantee centireading. Christmas is devoted to reading books we all know perfectly well. The children want to hear the one story they have heard so many times they don’t need to hear it again.By the time you read something more than a hundred times, you’ve passed well beyond “knowing how it turns out”. The next sentence is known before the sentence you’re reading is finished. As I reread Hamlet now, I know as Gertrude says, “Why seems it so with thee?” that Hamlet will say “Seems, Madam? Nay it is. I know not seems.” I know as Bertie asks “What are the chances of a cobra biting Harold, Jeeves?” that Jeeves will answer: “Slight, I should imagine, sir. And in such an event, knowing the boy as intimately as I do, my anxiety would be entirely for the snake.” Centireading reveals a pleasure peculiar to text lurking underneath story and language and even understanding. Part of the attraction of centireading is that it provides the physical activity of reading without the mental acuity usually required.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
In Beethoven’s Anvil I cited Kierkegard, Ernst Becker and Franz Borkeneau in asserting (p. 90): “Our intelligence allows us to know that we will die, and the rituals though which we mark death are among the most important and intense we perform. I suggest that without such rituals, death threatens to become a psychological trap for the living. Periodic participation in ritual musicking reduces one’s sense of isolation and attaches one to the group, as Freeman has suggested, making one’s individual fate a matter of less concern.“
I’ve just learned that there is a body of theory more or less devoted to arguing that culture is primarily a device for dealing with our fear of death, Terror Management Theory. Here’s the opening of the Wikipedia entry:
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.
At roughly the same time I came across an article with a very long title: Philip T. Hoffman, Why was it that Europeans conquered the rest of the world? The politics and economics of Europe’s comparative advantage in violence (PDF). The article argues that while it is not clear, in general, just when “Western Europe first forged ahead of other parts of the world,” it is clear that in one area, the ability to wage war, Europe had “an undeniable comparative advantage well before 1800...” While the whole argument is interesting, I’m interested in one sentence, from page 11: “In an era before nationalism motivated troops, armies had to be centralized, for if soldiers (many of whom were mercenaries) were scattered across a country, desertions would soar.”
There it is, our old friend death. Nationalism made a difference in how states could motivate their troops. Nationalism is one of those cultural inventions that distances us from death.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
From the essay/review by David Bordwell:
Early sound cartoons are sometimes characterized as “prisoners of the beat” because they create cycles of motion that are lined up with the musical meter. Lea traces how Disney animation became more fluid and flexible, syncing more around sound events than around rigid beats. She illustrates her case with analyses of Hell’s Bells (1929), The Three Little Pigs (1933), and Playful Pluto (1934). The last two are widely regarded as classic Silly Symphonies, and she sheds fresh light on them through the sort of micro-analysis brought to bear on Ivan.
Bordwell's verdict?She shows how sections gain a fast or slow tempo through the interaction of many factors, of which shot length is only one. In particular, Disney directors could change pace through a tool that Eisenstein didn’t have: altering the frame rate of animation. Normal animation is “on twos”; each drawn frame is photographed twice, to last for two film frames. Many stretches of the Disney cartoons are on twos, but sometimes, to create vivid sync points, the filmmakers go “on ones,” allotting one frame for each drawing. This is more expensive and time-consuming, but it allows for the sort of fine control of pace that we find in The Three Little Pigs. There the Wolf launches into “a jazzy, up-tempo gallop” that accelerates the danger bearing down on the pigs. In a similar way, Playful Pluto creates variety by “matching movement to different fractions of the beat and establishing differential rates of movement within the shot.” Imagineering, for sure.
Film Rhythm after Sound is a breakthrough in showing how narrative cinema masters time in its finest grain. We’re used to talking about scenes, shots, and lines of dialogue. Lea has taken us into the nano-worlds of a film: frames and parts of frames, fractions of seconds, phonemes. As Richard Feynman once said of atomic particles, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” Of course Lea doesn’t overlook characterization, plot dynamics, themes, and other familiar furniture of criticism. But she shows how our moment-by-moment experience depends on the sensuous particulars that escape our notice as the movie whisks past us. We can’t detect these micro-stylistics on the fly. Yet they are there, working on us, powerfully engaging our senses. Film criticism, informed by historical research, seldom attains this book’s level of delicacy. Analyzing a movie’s soundtrack will not be the same again.