Wednesday, September 30, 2015

On the Rez: Grooves, Gambling, and Grass

There’s a very interesting story out of South Dakota. It seems that Federal law permitting marijuana in some states now permits it on Indian reservations, so:
The Santee Sioux tribe has already proven its business acumen, running a successful casino, a 120-room hotel and a 240-head buffalo ranch on the plains of South Dakota.

But those enterprises have not been immune to competition and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, so the small tribe of 400 is undertaking a new venture — opening the nation's first marijuana resort on its reservation. The experiment could offer a new money-making model for tribes nationwide seeking economic opportunities beyond casinos.

Santee Sioux leaders plan to grow their own pot and sell it in a smoking lounge that includes a nightclub, arcade games, bar and food service, and eventually, slot machines and an outdoor music venue.
Intriguing, very intriguing. Gambling, music, and grass all in one place. What if other tribes get into this? Will reservations become prime vacation spots for other Americans?

On the one hand we have the settlement of the Americas by Europeans and the concomitant decimation of the native population. At the same time those Europeans brought in and enslaved Africans to provide labor. In 20th century America descendants of those enslaved Africans became prominent and visible in society as entertainers, music, dance, and sports.

At the same time the descendants of the original inhabitants were confined to reservations, but those reservations have a legal status that is different from that of ‘ordinary’ territory. And that difference allowed casino gambling, which many tribes have gotten into. Now we have marijuana added into the mix. It’s like the tribes can exploit their special legal status to create a nationwide network of adult playgrounds. And somehow this mixes in with the remnants of “noble savage” mythology to add a “back to the land” and a “spiritual” vibe to these spots. And that’s both phony and real at the same time.

Very interesting. We’ve got Las Vegas, Disneyland and Disneyworld, and now the Tribal World of Gambling, Grass, and Grooves.

Where’s the world headed?

Work in Progress, FANAKAPAN @ #GVM019

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What's up with this crazyass US politics?

My friend (and former teacher) Art asked me what I thought about the current Presidential campaign in the US. Alas, I have no particular thoughts or wisdom.

My basic thought on US politics for years is that the Cold War helped keep the country together. Whatever differences we had among ourselves, we were locked in battle against (godless) communism, primarily the Soviet Union, but also China and, of course, our neighbor off the coast of Florida, Cuba. Any free floating aggression anyone had, well, direct it at those communists, who are trying to destroy our liberties.

When Reagan and Gorbachov put an end to the Cold War on Governors Island in New York harbor, the nation lost a common enemy. The citizenry no longer channel its various free-floating aggressions against the Russians (and Chinese, and Cubans). What to do?

I think a lot of that aggression got rechanneled internally to various targets, giving us the so-called culture wars of the 1990s, which of course, are still with us. Along came 9/11 and the War on Terror was born. Now there was a target. The trouble is, that war hasn't worked out as it was supposed to, and too many American soldiers died.

So, we're stuck.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Doodle your way to deeper understanding

According to research, creating visual representations of concepts and ideas can improve comprehension by helping us break down, organize and remember what we learn. In fact, simply doodling may help all students, but especially those with attention-deficit disorder, better focus in class — even if the doodle has nothing obvious to do with the content being taught.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What the worm's brain tells the neuroscientist

Cornelia Bargmann is co-chair of the Brain Initiative, created two years ago by the Obama administration to fund research into new tools for studying the brain. She's done seminal research on C. elegans, a small worm whose every cell, and thus every neuron, as been mapped. Its brain has "roughly 7,000 connections and 300 neurons", she told the NYTimes.
You could look at a brain cell — which you could see because the creature is transparent — and say, “I know what that cell does. I know what it’s connected to. I know what genes it expresses.” For a researcher, that’s a lot.
It's a far cry from the human brain,but the fact that we have mapped the whole thing and, in some sense, have access to it all makes it a very useful organism for learning some basic things about how nervous systems work.
...one of the biggest surprises in modern biology is that the genes are not that different between the different animals. Almost every gene we are interested in with humans is recognizable in a mouse. Most are recognizable in a worm or in a fly.

So what have you learned from your worm?

In 1993, we did an experiment showing that worms could smell. This wasn’t known before. Our next experiment, I think the most important my lab did, is that we made a worm neuron smell an odor it had never smelled before, and we made the animal completely change its opinion of that odor by doing that.

We had an animal that loves an odor that smells like a certain food it likes. Usually, the worm runs right toward the odor. We took the gene that is a sensor for the food from where it was normally supposed to be. We put it into a different neuron that senses things the worm finds dangerous.

Then, we “asked” the worm what it thought of this smell it usually loves. It ran away from the smell, as if it were dangerous.

This said that the odor-sensing nerve cells form an innate map where each one knows whether something is good or bad about the environment. There’s a completely unlearned internal set of preferences, a set of instincts about what’s good and bad.
The cortex of mammalian brains is arranged as a crumpled sheet of neurons organized into columns of neurons that are perpendicular to the surface of the sheet. The neurons in these columns are tightly connected with one another and some of them have connections outside the column as well. Each column is roughly the scale of the entire nervous system of C. elegant. Cf. Busy Bee Brain.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Fotos: Misty Morning on the Hudson

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Goldstone and Underwood, #149: Foreign Language Education

Another post based on: Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood , “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us”, New Literary History 45, no. 3, Summer 2014. Website: http://andrewgoldstone.com/blog/2014/05/29/quiet/
Topic 149 is interesting: language university students english education teaching study modern foreign school. That looks like foreign language education.

The temporal distribution is interesting as well – and it’s the only topic with this three-peak distribution (you can see thumbails of all topic distributions here):

149 language universtiy

That middle rise spans the 1950s and 1960s, the early decades of the Cold War. In 1957 the Russian’s put the first artificial satellite into earth orbit, Sputnik, and that spurred the government to put money into higher education.

Here we’ve got the top ten articles for the topic. Notice that they’re all from that middle period and that they’re all about foreign language education.
  1. Paquette, F. André. "Developing Guidelines for Teacher Education Programs in Modern Foreign Languages." PMLA 81, no. 2 (May 1966): 3–6.
  2. [Anon]. "English Teacher Preparation Study Guidelines for the Preparation of Teachers of English." PMLA 82, no. 4 (September 1967): 19–25.
  3. Hook, J. N. "Project English: The First Year." PMLA 78, no. 4 (September 1963): 33–35.
  4. [Anon]. "Qualifications for Secondary School Teachers of Modern Foreign Languages." PMLA 70, no. 4 (September 1955): 46–49.
  5. [Anon]. "Modern Foreign Languages in the Comprehensive Secondary School." PMLA 74, no. 4 (September 1959): 27–33.
  6. Walsh, Donald D. "The MLA FL Program in 1962." PMLA 78, no. 2 (May 1963): 20–24.
  7. Mildenberger, Kenneth W. "The MLA College Language Manual Project: History and Present Status." PMLA 72, no. 4 (September 1957): 11–18.
  8. Walsh, Donald D. "The Foreign Language Program in 1964." PMLA 80, no. 2 (May 1965): 29–32.
  9. Shugrue, Michael F., and Thomas F. Crawley. "The Conclusion of the Initial Phase: The English Program of the Usoe." PMLA 82, no. 6 (November 1967): 15–32.
  10. [Anon]. "The Preparation of College FL Teachers." PMLA 70, no. 4 (September 1955): 57–68.

Peekaboo 3, Statue of Liberty Edition

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Buddhism in Europe in the 18th Century, among other things

Alison Gopnik is an important and influential developmental psychologist. FWIW her brother writes for The New Yorker. She has a compelling autobiographical essay in The Atlantic about David Hume, Buddhism, and her mid-life crisis. Here's a paragraph:
settled into a new routine. Instead of going to therapy, I haunted the theology sections of used-book stores and spent the solitary evenings reading. I wI ould sit in front of my grand fireplace, where a single sawdust log smoldered, wrapped in several duvets, and learn more about Buddhism.

I discovered that at least one person in Europe in the 1730s not only knew about Buddhism but had studied Buddhist philosophy for years. His name was Ippolito Desideri, and he had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet. In 1728, just before Hume began the Treatise, Desideri finished his book, the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 20th century. The catch was that it wasn’t published. No Catholic missionary could publish anything without the approval of the Vatican—and officials there had declared that Desideri’s book could not be printed. The manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

I still couldn’t think or write about children, but maybe I could write an essay about Hume and Buddhism and include Desideri as a sort of close call—a missed connection.

I consulted Ernest Mossner’s classic biography of Hume. When Hume wrote the Treatise, he was living in a little French town called La Flèche, 160 miles southwest of Paris. Mossner said Hume went to La Flèche to “rusticate,” probably because it was cheap. But he also mentioned that La Flèche was home to the Jesuit Royal College.

So Hume lived near a French Jesuit college when he wrote the Treatise. This was an intriguing coincidence for my essay. But it didn’t really connect him to Desideri, of course, who had lived in Rome and Tibet.
Trying to figure out whether or not Hume knew about Buddhism:
But Desideri visited in 1727. David Hume arrived at La Flèche eight years later, in 1735. Could anyone there have told Hume about Desideri? I couldn’t find any trace of Père Tolu, the Jesuit who had been especially interested in Desideri.
Maybe Hume’s letters contained a clue? I sat on my narrow sofa bed, listening to the rain fall, and made my way through his voluminous correspondence. To be immersed in Desideri’s world was fascinating but exhausting. To be immersed in Hume’s world was sheer pleasure. Hume writes better than any other great philosopher and, unlike many great philosophers, he is funny, humane, fair, and wise. He charmed the sophisticated Parisian ladies of the grand salons, though he was stout, awkward, and absentminded and spoke French with an execrable Scots accent. They called him “le bon David”—the good David.
And so:
What had I learned?

I’d learned that Hume could indeed have known about Buddhist philosophy. In fact, he had written the Treatise in one of the few places in Europe where that knowledge was available. Dolu himself had had firsthand experience of Siamese Buddhism, and had talked at some length with Desideri, who knew about Tibetan Buddhism. It’s even possible that the Jesuits at the Royal College had a copy of Desideri’s manuscript.

Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what Hume learned at the Royal College, or whether any of it influenced the Treatise. Philosophers like Descartes, Malebranche, and Bayle had already put Hume on the skeptical path. But simply hearing about the Buddhist argument against the self could have nudged him further in that direction. Buddhist ideas might have percolated in his mind and influenced his thoughts, even if he didn’t track their source. After all, contemporary philosophers have been known to borrow ideas without remembering exactly where they came from.

Topic Analysis: Goldstone & Underwood and the "economy" of word distribution across topics

Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood , “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us”, New Literary History 45, no. 3, Summer 2014. Website: http://andrewgoldstone.com/blog/2014/05/29/quiet/
A week or so ago when I was examining the topic model Goldstone and Underwood used in their study of the shifting interests of academic literary critics I became curious about the topics that accounted for the largest number of word tokens in the entire corpus. I’d noticed one, for example, that accounted for 8.7% of the tokens. What’s that about? What about the next highest three topics?

So I looked them up and here they are, the top four arranged in that order, from top to bottom, but without any information to identify what’s in the topics:

top4

These charts are quite different. The middle two are skewed to the left and the top and bottom one are skewed to the right, the though bottom one, while generally to the right, is strongest toward the center.

One would expect them to be quite different. But they’re not. This table lists the words in the topic along with the totals for the corpus:

top 4 total

Even a casual look at those words, only the top 10 for each topic, reveals quite a bit of overlap. This table gives more detail:

top 4 analysis

We’ve got only 22 different words. Two of them, “even” and “made”, are present in all four topics while two others, “other” and ”same”, are present in three topics. If these topics are so apparently similar, why are they distributed so differently in time?

Curious about this, I sent an email to Ted Underwood that included an earlier version of this document, suggesting that the difference has to be in the words at the middles and the bottom ends of the topics, which cannot be easily examined in the online presentation. I noted:
Those top ten words seem to be semantically neutral, sort of "connector" words. They don't identify any substantive intellectual interests. These topics must somehow be complements to those topics which show strong thematic interests concentrated either early in the discipline's history, or late.
Here’s Underwood’s reply:
I think you're really right about the problem here. These large topics are representing something of historical significance, but the standard way of labeling them doesn't reveal what.

One thing I tried (though it didn't make it into the final article) was labeling topics by selecting words that are prominent in the topic and that also correlate with its trajectory over time. That gets you down below the neutral "connector" words at the top of the list, and reveals what it is that's changing over time. I believe that labeling strategy makes these big "glob topics" a lot more interpretable. It works well with smaller topics too. But this is also a kind of an ad hoc trick, and we didn't want to complicate the story in the article.
So, let’s think about this for a minute. If we look at the topics that skew to the right (that is, the present) in these charts, they tend to be Theory-laden and are heavily about society and politics, as Goldstone and Underwood pointed out – I’ve presented a few of them below. Those that skew right (the past), are quite different in character – I’ve presented some of them as well.

Museum and Tug at Night

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ethical Criticism: Blakey Vermeule on Theory, Cornel West in the Academy, Now What?

Several years ago the journal Style devoted a double issue to evolutionary criticism. It had a target article by Joseph Carroll, responses from 10 or 20 other scholars, and then a final reply by Carroll. One of the respondents was Blakey Vermeule:
Response to Joseph Carroll, Style Vol. 42, Nos. 2&3, Summer/Fall 2008, pp. 302-306
She has some fascinating remarks about the presence of Theory in the literary academy. She argues, correctly I believe, that Theory is primarily expressive and is intended to advance a liberationist agenda. I present those remarks in the next section of this post. They lead, in turn, to the case of Cornel West in the academy. He’s one of our most visible public intellectuals, certainly pursues human liberation, but he hasn’t functioned as a purebred academic since some time in the last century. Is there a legitimate place in the academy for Cornel West? I conclude with some brief remarks on how the literary academy should change.

The Expressive Function of Literary Criticism

Vermeule asserts that she’s deeply sympathetic to literary Darwinism, for it (p. 303):
gives us a chance to speak with a common language, a language that runs with the grain of human nature rather than in any old direction. This will certainly improve the intellectual climate overall: more interesting conferences, fewer silly statements, less hair-tearing, less teeth-gnashing (I speak for myself).
She then expresses her doubt that “that having a common, science-based language will make much difference to what English professors do”.

What do they do?
The most successful members of our profession are not philosophers or historians but still even at this late date, critics—people who explain really well what artists are up to (about which more in a moment). Whether it is practiced on the page or in the classroom, good criticism is a fiendishly difficult craft. People crave explanations of art, insofar as they do, because knowing some context dramatically increases the pleasure art gives us. Just as challenges from science have not in the least lessened the grip of religious belief on people’s psyches, so challenges from empiricist humanists are not going to lessen the grip of aesthetic power. And in the end, reaching towards those fragile works of mastery and genius is the work we’re called on to do. (p. 303)
She goes on to talk about a documentary that Richard Dawkins produced about religion, The Root of All Evil, where Dawkins confronts a very successful preacher, Ted Haggard, about “how he can mislead his congregation so badly” (303). She counters Dawkins by point out that he “misses the point”, that the congregants don’t (304):
come to church for the theology. If the theology helps get them in the right frame of mind, so much the better. But really they come for the emotional pleasure, pleasure that the swirling lights and the loud music and the us- versus-them rhetoric help to trigger.
Yes. She then goes on to observe (304):
Theory has taken hold in humanities departments because it is (or was) a branch of theology, not science. Its explanatory aims are finally subordinate to its emotive ones: it gives people energy and the will to do the work. Theory has been more or less overtly driven by a liberationist agenda—and it has developed strong resemblances to religious cults, in which powerful gurus dispense dogma and their disciples disseminate it. Some theory-centered disciplines make this more or less explicit. Take feminist studies. Feminist studies has been driven explicitly by a liberationist agenda but it has signally refused to address—in fact has been entirely contemptuous of—the mounting evidence that there are significant hormonal, neurological, and cognitive differences between the sexes. If you can’t admit the question, you aren’t a discipline.
I think that’s right as well. Theory in its many varieties IS driven by a liberationist agenda.

So what? Remember that Vermeule is responding to an article in which Joseph Carroll has set out a case for literary Darwinism, and she is deeply sympathetic to those ideas. But how do they meet the discipline’s need for expressing a liberationist agenda? (They don’t.)

The Color in "Mad Max: Fury Road"

One reason why Fury Road looks so good is results from Miller’s and and his cinematographer’s decision to avoid the look of most post-apocalyptic movies. Anne Thompson describes their approach: “The cliches of the genre were to desaturate the cinematography. So he and great Australian cinematographer John Seale (dragged out of retirement), saturated the color. ‘We were able to change the skies, and go against the idea that because it’s the apocalypse, there’s no longer any beauty in the world.'” (AC, June 2015, p. 48)

There are desert areas of Africa where the sand is the rich, peachy color that appears in the film. The Namibian desert, however, is not so colorful.
The film’s senior colorist, Eric Whipp, describes the challenge of differentiating the largely brown, beige, and grey colors of the costumes and vehicles from such backgrounds: “The desert sand in Namibia is, in reality, closer to be gray color, but pushing it toward rich gold colors complemented the characters and vehicles, providing a strong, graphic look. The only other dominant color in the film was blue sky, which we embraced.
The transformation of the desert into rich yellow and orange tones was done with what was obviously aggressive digital color grading. It runs marvelously counter to the dull blues, browns, and grays that form the dominant look of so many action films.
 

Peekaboo 2

Since Otto von Münchow liked yesterday's photo, I thought I'd post a companion. This is pretty much the same scene, but the focal plane is at the grass in the foreground rather than behind that grass"

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Here's another more aggressive pair I took the same day:

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And another photo from the same walk through Liberty State Park in Jersey City:

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Notice a few out of focus elements at the bottom of the photo. That, of course, is quite deliberate. Once I decided to pursue photography I also decided that I also wanted somehow to photograph, not just objects, but space. Thus I will frequently have out of focus elements in the foreground as a reminder that there are things closer to the camera than the objects in focus. That reminder serves to mark the existence of space.

One last shot:

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Here's an extreme example of a photo where almost nothing is in focus. The focal plane captures parts of a few stalks of grass. Everything else is blurred. But those few sharply etched fragments of grass are enough to anchor the eye and draw you in.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Alignment in “The Road Not Taken”

One of the things that interests me about poetry is alignment, or, perhaps more accurately, (deliberate) misalignment. Thus, while Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” consists of four stanzas of equal length, sentence-end punctuation doesn’t align with stanza divisions. To be sure, the poem does consist of four sentences, but the first one includes the first two stanzas plus the first two lines of the third. The third line of the third stanza is the second sentence, while the last two lines of that stanza constitute the third sentence. The fourth stanza is a sentence unto itself.

This sentence division is not a necessary consequence of the conventions of English punctuation. It is precisely because those conventions are flexible that Frost could have one sentence encompass two stanzas and two lines without raising any hackles. But he could have punctuated the poem differently. It seems to me, for example, that the following would have been a more ‘natural’ way to punctuate those first two stanzas (my changes underlined; for reference, see original punctuation below):

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler. Long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.    

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear. 
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same. 

I put periods at the ends of both stanzas and divided each into two sentences in a ‘natural’ way: Divide the first stanza into two sentences by putting a period after “traveler”. Divide the second in two by putting a period after “wear” at the end of the third line.

The question then arises, why did Frost divide the poem into sentences the way he did? I’m guessing that we don’t really know, nor did he, at least not consciously. I’m not familiar with Frost scholarship, but nothing I’ve read about this poem in the last couple of days says anything that speaks to the issue beyond noting that the final stanza is the first one he wrote. So, it was conceived as a coherent unit and the rest of the poem was crafted to match.

However Frost went about the rest of the poem, I assume, by default, that his punctuation decisions were mostly intuitive. He stretched that first sentence over two-plus stanzas because it felt right. What was triggering that feeling?

Peekaboo

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Monday, September 21, 2015

Ring-Composition @3QD: “The Road Not Taken”

It’s time for my once-every-four-weeks piece in 3 Quarks Daily. This time it’s a bit of descriptive poetics, about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” As Frost once wrote in a letter, his poems are “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless” (I copped that line from Michael Andor Brodeur). This one certainly does.

Frost’s poems are like Dr. Who’s Tardis: It’s this innocent looking blue box around the corner, but when you enter Zoomm!! it’s off for a spin around the universe. If you you work it right, though, you return home, safe and revivified.

My post’s a nice piece of work, if I do say so myself. But also a bit embarrassing, as I seem to have described something in this much-analyzed known poem that other scholars have missed. That’s what I discuss next, going into my standard rant about the need for description of literary form. Then I conclude by pointing out that Frost employed a trick in this poem very much like one Coleridge used a century earlier in “Kubla Kahn” – now there’s a poetic Tardis if ever there was one!

The Road Literary Critics Don’t Travel

There’s nothing special about what I did with Frost’s poem. It’s pretty much straight-up formal description, with a bit of ever so slightly technical linguistics in it. By looking at a little tricky business with tense I show that this poem is – you guessed ita ring-composition. Another one.

But who cares about such things? Well, some people do, but most literary critics do not. Because, for all that literary critics have nattered on about form, they’re not really interested in it. The discipline became mesmerized by hermeneutics in the middle of the last century and simply tossed poetics over the rail.

This is one of the best-known 20th century American poems. And yet it seems that none of its many critics have grasped this most fundamental aspect of the poem’s form, as though it just doesn’t matter. They’re not paying attention.

It’s rather like an arthropodologist who doesn’t know whether or not centipedes have exactly 100 legs and whether they typically have more legs than millipedes have. Yes, there’s lots of legs propelling those creatures over the face of the earth. Maybe even lots and lots. Exactly 100 or exactly 1000? More, less, a range? But you know I haven’t counted up to 100 since I was ten years old on the school fieldtrip counting all those bottles of beer on the wall. Boring!

Counting the number of legs on an arthropod is not difficult. You do have to know how to count, and you have to be careful, as you don’t want to skip any or double-count any. It’s not rocket science. It’s not deep.

But it’s necessary. And it’s the foundation for the study of morphological variety. If you don’t have a grip on that, you’re never going to understand evolution. Without descriptive control over his materials, Darwin wouldn’t have been able to see the pattern that he explained by evolution.

What patterns are literary critics missing because they don’t want to or don’t know how to analyze and describe the forms of literary texts? We patterns are lost to human understanding, what knowledge, because the stewards of these texts don’t describe them?

Jetskiing on the Hudson

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Rita Felski Calls for Latourian Humanities

She points out (Doing the Humanities with Bruno Latour) that critique is over-rated:
Helen Small writes: “the work of the humanities is frequently descriptive, or appreciative, or imaginative, or provocative, or speculative, more than it is critical.” This seems exactly right. That intellectuals in the humanities so often invoke “critique” as a guiding ethos and principle may speak to the stubborn persistence of an either/or mindset: the fear that if one is not negating the status quo, one is therefore being co-opted by it. The practices of academic life may turn out to be more messy, more ambiguous, and more interesting. And it is here that I found Bruno Latour’s work very helpful in working through a different set of ideas on why the humanities matter.

Can we develop a defense of the humanities that is not anchored exclusively in the value of “critical thinking”? Are there other attitudes, actions, orientations in play? To what extent are humanists engaged in practices of making as well as unmaking, composing as well as questioning, creating as well as subverting? And can we talk about the social ties of the humanities in ways that avoid the dichotomy of heroic opposition or craven cooption? Perhaps we need a multi-dimensional defense of the humanities; one that accumulates rationales rather than limiting them or narrowing them down. Today I offer four terms: curating, conveying, criticizing; composing—hoping that the lure of alliteration will not overly compromise the force of my argument! (I make no attempt to be comprehensive and welcome other suggestions about what the humanities do and how we do the humanities).
FWIW, Felski edits New Literary History, which is where Latour published "Steps Toward the Writing of a Compositionist Manifesto" in 2010.

I've written a bit about compositionism here at New Savanna, and called for compositionist literary studies a couple of years ago.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

RGB on a Facade in Hoboken, at Night

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Which one did I really see

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and which ones were photoshopped

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into existence?

You should be able to tell. There's a clue in the photos.

Literary Form, the Mind, and Computation: A Brief Note (Boiling It Down)

They’re intimately related. To a first approximation, the form of a literary work reflects the full economy of mental faculties working together, cooperatively and in conflict, to produce the work. It is NOT the result of some literary module that is but one mental faculty among 10s and 100s even 1000s. That form is to be understood computationally because computation is the only kind of (physical) process that organizes all those resources (‘emergently’, natch).

* * * * *

I’ve been thinking about the deficiencies, the absences, of the newer psychologies for literary study, and the corresponding poverty of abundance (so much to read! so much to do!) that shows up in the literary schools incorporating them (cognitive criticism, literary Darwinism). I’ve used the metaphor of a building, a cathedral to indicate the problem. As literary critics, we have to understanding the design of the whole cathedral and how the components function to support and realize the design. But the newer psychologies study only components, and the materials and processes for understanding them. They give us no ‘purchase’ on the whole.

Hence the paradox of poverty amid abundance. Through these newer psychologies these critics bring a whole lotta’ stuff to the table: abundance. But not what we need: poverty.

And then there’s psychoanalysis, which I’ve defended. It’s been used extensively in literary criticism, and successfully too. Psychoanalysis is, I submit, about the whole mind. And that’s why it’s been useful to literary critics. Psychoanalysis deals in fantasy, dreams, and stories, the stuff of which literature is made. It is thus commensurate with literature/literary criticism.

Psychoanalysis has pleasure and anxiety in opposition (note: anxiety, not pain). In Beethoven’s Anvil I argued that pleasure and anxiety are whole brain processes. Music dispels anxiety. So does literature.

* * * * *

Literary form is about dispelling anxiety by bringing the brain’s capacities into harmony. There can be no grammar of literary forms in the sense that there can be a grammar of language. Language is only a single, albeit complex, capacity. Literature is something else.

We can see literature’s emergent economy by comparing Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with his “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” “Lime-Tree Bower” is a simple narrative about an afternoon’s experience. Its versification is simple. “Kubla Khan” is not a narrative, and doesn’t cohere in such a straight-forward way. It needs its complex versification – multiple meters, elaborate rhyme – to hold it together in the mind.

That’s the economy of one literary mind. I sketch it out in a working paper: STC, Poetic Form, and a Glimpse of the Mind. No grammar. Just the mind.

And its in the form that the mind is most directly manifest. It’s the form the mind regulates. And that form is computational in kind.

But what does that mean, computational? Explain that and we’re home free. Well, not free, as the intellectual expense will have been high. But we’ll be in a position to begin understanding how literature works (in) the mind.

It’s computation that weighs and balances the competing interests imperatives mental faculties. Only a metaphor at this point. But it’s the right metaphor. When the result is right – satisficing? – it feels good (like sugar and spice, now).

Jakobson’s poetic function? Is that it? For his poetic function is one of the most obscure notions that’s every strayed into literary theory: the projection of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination.

What does that mean? Is that what literary form is about? Is that what literary computation is attempting?

Questions, questions.

Friday, September 18, 2015

On the Poverty of Literary Darwinism

Since I've just spent a fair amount of time criticising cognitive criticism, it seemed only fair that I turn my attention to literary Darwinism, or, as Brian Boyd prefers, evocriticism. I've not written any new pieces but have gathered a number of older pieces into a working paper (title above). Links, abstract, contents, and introduction below.

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Abstract: The central thesis of literary Darwinism is that literary culture is best considered as a biologically adaptive human capacity. Consequently, evolutionary psychology is the central psychology tool kit to be employed in examining literary phenomena. In practice, this has resulted in some interesting theoretical statements, some quite sophisticated. But it has also given us practical criticism that is rather pedestrian. This document has been compiled of six different articles written over a period of years, including one extensive formal essay-review, and a variety of shorter pieces.
CONTENTS

Introduction: What Would Darwin Say? 2
Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism 5
All Hail Our Darwinian Overlords! 23
Paradise Lost: The Faith of Evolutionary Psychology 26
Nature Culture Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories 32
Romantic Love, Conversation, Biology, and Culture 37
Do Literary Texts Count as Strong Evidence about the Human Mind? 43

Introduction: What Would Darwin Say?

Of course I have no way of knowing how the great man would react to Darwinian literary criticism, as Joseph Carroll calls it, though not all practitioners favor this label. He might well approve on the evocritics’ insistence that literature is biologically adaptive. And he would certainly approve of their instance that human psychology is necessarily psychobiology and that we can and should understand that psychology in phylogenetic context.

Yet there is much in Darwin’s intellectual practice that has little or no analog in evocriticism. Darwin was himself a prodigious naturalist, collecting specimens of life forms and describing them. Moreover, by the time he began his work he was the beneficiary of three centuries of such work. Without all this descriptive work available he wouldn’t have been able to observe the patterns which he took as evidence of evolution.

We might think of this descriptive work as analogous to close reading in literary studies, but this close reading rarely involves describing textual morphologies. Yes, we know that sonnets have 14 lines and certain characteristic rhyme schemes and we’ve amassed similar information about other poetic forms. Our sense of prose form is much more diffuse. But attending to such matters, to the analysis and description of form, has not been central to literary criticism. My own work has convinced me, however, that our texts do have identifiable morphologies, but we – the whole profession – have just not been interested in describing and identifying them. Nor have the Darwinians, despite their biological inspiration.

Nor do they have any evident interest in the evolution of literary forms. That might be because there is no off-the-shelf account of cultural evolution that’s adequate for these purposes – memetics, for example, is questionable. But why not take that lack as an intellectual opportunity? Why not undertake the descriptive work on which such a cultural evolutionary account of literary form could be based? [1]

But I’m riding my own hobby horse at this point. The fact that the Darwinian critics haven’t undertaken a certain biologically-inspired intellectual enterprise is no criticism of the one they have undertaken. That’s what makes up most of this document (see descriptions after the asterisks). I wrote most of these pieces several years ago, and they are quite different in character. The descriptions below should give you some sense of what’s in them.

I would, however, like to comment on one issue that’s central to their thinking, the biological adaptive value of literature. I think it’s an important question, and an interesting one, but I wax hot and cold on whether or not we’ve got the means to discuss it in a useful way. The big problem, of course, is that we have so little evidence of behavioral evolution. We don’t know what our ancestors were doing. We’ve got artifacts of various kinds, stone tools, rock art, and so forth, and we’ve got skeletons and skulls. These give us clues, but only clues.

So we’ve got do a lot of constructing and inferencing to arrive at a conclusion. The whole apparatus strikes me as being rather rickety. Still, in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001), I argued that music had an adaptive value, and that was its ability quell anxiety. More recently Michael Austin has argued that anxiety has driven the origins of literature, Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature (2011). I’ve not yet read it, but intend to do so. Obviously I’m disposed in favor of the overall argument.

For the moment, then, THAT’s my suggestion about the adaptive value of literature: it reduces anxiety. More generally, that’s the adaptive value of expressive culture in general, the arts, ritual, and religion. Not only that but I believe that THAT, the role expressive culture plays in reducing human anxiety, gives it causal force in history. But that’s a large argument, well beyond the scope of these notes. I note only that it’s an argument about cultural evolution, not biological evolution.

Interdisciplinary Research

Nature has a special set of articles devoted to interdisciplinarity (16 Septermber 2015). Ii've offer excerpts and comments on two of the articles.

INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH IS ON THE RISE

Since the mid-1980s, research papers have increasingly cited work outside their own disciplines. The analysis shown here used journal names to assign more than 35 million papers in the Web of Science to 14 major conventional disciplines (such as biology or physics) and 143 specialities. The fraction of paper references that point to work in other disciplines is increasing in both the natural and the social sciences. The fraction that points to another speciality in the same discipline (for example, a genetics paper pointing to zoology) shows a slight decline.
Judging from the graphs, in the social sciences 40% of the papers referenced other disciplines in 1950, dropping to 33% in the early 1970s, and then rising to just below 50% in 2010.
INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH TAKES TIME TO HAVE AN IMPACT

Whether interdisciplinary research gains more citations than disciplinary research is contentious. Over three years, papers with diverse references tend to pick up fewer citations than the norm, but over 13 years they gain more. Some studies suggest that a little interdisciplinarity is better than a lot: papers that combine very disparate fields tend to earn fewer citations. But interdisciplinary work can have broad societal and economic impacts that are not captured by citations.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the article is an intereactive chart that allows you to explore the interdisciplinary tendencies of various disciplines between 1950 and 2014. Each disciplinary area is represented on a graph where the X axis indicates how percentage of references to outside disciplines while the Y axis represents citations from outside disciplines. This chart is worth exploring.

Literature doesn't show up as a recognizeable area until about 1975, w/ 41% references to other disciplines and 13% citations from outside. By 1990 references to outside have dropped to 23% while citations from outside have risen to 21%. In 2010 literature has 37% references out and 29% citations from outside. Compared to other humanities disciplines (religion, language and linguistics, philosophy, history, and miscellaneous), literary studies is a bit more insular, both in its citation practices and in citations received.

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Friday Fotos: Sunflower Revival

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Revolution in the auto industry?

The main risk for carmakers is probably not so much that an Apple car would destroy Mercedes-Benz or BMW the way the iPhone gutted Nokia, the Finnish company that was once the world’s largest maker of mobile phones. Rather, the risk is that Apple and Google would turn the carmakers into mere hardware makers — and hog the profit. […]

Technology that links cars to data networks, so-called connectivity, also plays a role in reducing emissions and satisfying regulators. Systems that help drivers quickly find a parking space or avoid traffic jams, besides being convenient, help limit unnecessary driving and save fuel. But the new technologies are expensive, and car buyers are not necessarily willing to pay. Electric cars account for a sliver of the market so far.

Those pressures have been building for several years, but they have intensified since word leaked out early this year that Apple was studying whether to build a car.

“What has been an evolution is going to be a revolution,” said Stephan Winkelmann, the chief executive of Lamborghini, the Italian maker of super sports cars that is part of the Volkswagen group.

“Starting from sustainability, going over to digitalization, and ending up at autonomous driving — these three big things are really something that is a game changer for the automotive industry,” Mr. Winkelmann said in an interview. “Everybody has to tackle these challenges.”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Negotiating Meaning in Conversation

Some years ago reading William Croft (Explaining Language Change) convinced me that we negotiate meaning in ordinary conversation. Now we've got some empirical evidence on just how this is done, thought that's not how the authors frame their research. 

They frame it as repair of communication, which is fine. But surely one of the reasons for "repair" – which seems to happen every 90 seconds on average – is that meaning isn't clear. It must thus be clarified. That's negotiation, for the most part small scale and routine, but it's the back-and-forth that counts.

Seán Roberts summarizes the research in a post at Replicated Typo. From his summary:
In this paper, a team of linguists looked at over 2000 cases of problems with communication in 12 languages.  On average, people have a problem with understanding every 90 seconds! The team coded each instance and found that the same 3 basic tools were used in each language:
• Open Request: Signalling a problem with the whole utterance (Huh?)
• Restricted Request: Asking for clarification of a part (Go where?)
• Restricted Offer: Asking for confirmation of what was heard (Go between them?)
Each tool is increasingly specific about the source of the problem, but takes longer on average to produce.  This means that the amount of work to repair the problem is shared between the speakers. 
The full article is published in PLoS ONE 10(9):

Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems

Mark Dingemanse, Seán G. Roberts, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Paul Drew, Simeon Floyd, Rosa S. Gisladottir, Kobin H. Kendrick, Stephen C. Levinson, Elizabeth Manrique

Published: September 16, 2015 • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136100

Abstract: There would be little adaptive value in a complex communication system like human language if there were no ways to detect and correct problems. A systematic comparison of conversation in a broad sample of the world’s languages reveals a universal system for the real-time resolution of frequent breakdowns in communication. In a sample of 12 languages of 8 language families of varied typological profiles we find a system of ‘other-initiated repair’, where the recipient of an unclear message can signal trouble and the sender can repair the original message. We find that this system is frequently used (on average about once per 1.4 minutes in any language), and that it has detailed common properties, contrary to assumptions of radical cultural variation. Unrelated languages share the same three functionally distinct types of repair initiator for signalling problems and use them in the same kinds of contexts. People prefer to choose the type that is the most specific possible, a principle that minimizes cost both for the sender being asked to fix the problem and for the dyad as a social unit. Disruption to the conversation is kept to a minimum, with the two-utterance repair sequence being on average no longer that the single utterance which is being fixed. The findings, controlled for historical relationships, situation types and other dependencies, reveal the fundamentally cooperative nature of human communication and offer support for the pragmatic universals hypothesis: while languages may vary in the organization of grammar and meaning, key systems of language use may be largely similar across cultural groups. They also provide a fresh perspective on controversies about the core properties of language, by revealing a common infrastructure for social interaction which may be the universal bedrock upon which linguistic diversity rests.

David Graeber on Superheroes

The plot is almost always some approximation of the following: a bad guy, maybe a crime boss, more often a powerful supervillain, embarks on a project of world conquest, destruction, theft, extortion, or revenge. The hero is alerted to the danger and figures out what’s happening. After trials and dilemmas, at the last possible minute the hero foils the villain’s plans. The world is returned to normal until the next episode when exactly the same thing happens once again.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own, at least not in their role as heroes: as Clark Kent, Superman may be constantly trying, and failing, to get into Lois Lane’s pants, but as Superman, he is purely reactive. In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.

Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas. Clearly, we are supposed to first, without consciously realizing it, identify with the villains. After all, they’re having all the fun. Then of course we feel guilty for it, re-identify with the hero, and have even more fun watching the superego clubbing the errant Id back into submission.

Strange Night • Late Winter • Hoboken > Manhattan

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism

In the fifth post, It’s Time to Leave the Sandbox, in my series on the poverty of cognitive criticism I managed to rough out a sketch of academic literary criticism that I rather like. So I’ve decided to present that sketch in a post of its own. I’ve dropped most of the comments on cognitive criticism and added a few things.

The most important additions come from the study Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood did of a century-long run of articles in seven journals, The Quiet Transformation of Literary Studies [1]. These are the journals they used: Critical Inquiry (1974–2013), ELH (1934–2013), Modern Language Review (1905–2013), Modern Philology (1903–2013), New Literary History (1969–2012), PMLA (1889–2007), and the Review of English Studies (1925–2012).

I begin by presenting one aspect of the argument that Goldstone and Underwood make, that our current terms of critical art only because established after World War II. Then I present the material I’ve reworked from that older post, this time with some charts from Goldstone and Underwood, and so other things as well.

Note: If topic models are something of a mystery. I (attempt to) explain them in Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds.

Post War Shift

Goldstone and Underwood demonstrate that perhaps the most significant change in the discipline happened in the quarter century or so after World War II. Here’s a summary statement (p. 372):
The model indicates that the conceptual building blocks of contemporary literary study become prominent as scholarly key terms only in the decades after the war—and some not until the 1980s. We suggest, speculatively, that this pattern testifies not to the rejection but to the naturalization of literary criticism in scholarship. It becomes part of the shared atmosphere of literary study, a taken-for-granted part of the doxa of literary scholarship. Whereas in the prewar decades, other, more descriptive modes of scholarship were important, the post-1970 discourses of the literary, interpretation, and reading all suggest a shared agreement that these are the true objects and aims of literary study—as the critics believed. If criticism itself was no longer the most prominent idea under discussion, this was likely due to the tacit acceptance of its premises, not their supersession.
Consider topic 16, where these are the ten most prominent words: criticism work critical theory art critics critic nature method view. This graph shows how that topic evolved in prominence over time:

criticism 16

Now consider topic 29: image time first images theme structure imagery final present pattern. Notice “structure” and “pattern” in that list. The (in)famous structualism conference was held at Johns Hopkins in 1966, just before the peak in the chart, while the conference proceedings (The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man) were published in 1970, one year after the peak, 1969:

image pattern 29
At the time structuralism was regarded as The Next Big Thing, hence the conference. But Jacques Derrida was brought in as a last minute replacement and his critique of Lévi-Strauss turned out to be the beginning of the end of structuralism and the beginning of the various developments that came to be called capital “T” Theory. The structuralist moment, with its focus on language, signs, and system, was but a turning point.

An old photograph and a light

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Breakthrough in Machine Chess

Keeping in mind that my technical knowledge of computer chess is thin, this is impressive stuff (reported in MIT Tech Review):
While Deep Blue was searching some 200 million positions per second, Kasparov was probably searching no more than five a second. And yet he played at essentially the same level. Clearly, humans have a trick up their sleeve that computers have yet to master.

This trick is in evaluating chess positions and narrowing down the most profitable avenues of search. That dramatically simplifies the computational task because it prunes the tree of all possible moves to just a few branches.

Computers have never been good at this, but today that changes thanks to the work of Matthew Lai at Imperial College London. Lai has created an artificial intelligence machine called Giraffe that has taught itself to play chess by evaluating positions much more like humans and in an entirely different way to conventional chess engines.

Straight out of the box, the new machine plays at the same level as the best conventional chess engines, many of which have been fine-tuned over many years. On a human level, it is equivalent to FIDE International Master status, placing it within the top 2.2 percent of tournament chess players.

The technology behind Lai’s new machine is a neural network. This is a way of processing information inspired by the human brain. It consists of several layers of nodes that are connected in a way that change as the system is trained. This training process uses lots of examples to fine-tune the connections so that the network produces a specific output given a certain input, to recognize the presence of face in a picture, for example.

In the last few years, neural networks have become hugely powerful thanks to two advances. The first is a better understanding of how to fine-tune these networks as they learn, thanks in part to much faster computers. The second is the availability of massive annotated datasets to train the networks.

That has allowed computer scientists to train much bigger networks organized into many layers. These so-called deep neural networks have become hugely powerful and now routinely outperform humans in pattern recognition tasks such as face recognition and handwriting recognition.

So it’s no surprise that deep neural networks ought to be able to spot patterns in chess and that’s exactly the approach Lai has taken. His network consists of four layers that together examine each position on the board in three different ways.
If I didn't know better I might start proclaiming, "The singularity is near! The singularity is near! Repent and be saved! The singularity is near!" But I do know better. Chess is a finite game; abstractly considered, no more difficult than tic-tac-toe. In practice though the chess search space is vastly larger, and that makes it a challenging game. 

But there are many many human tasks where we don't know how to characterize the search space. Those tasks won't fall so easily.

Still, exciting stuff.

Wuthering Heights, Vampires, Handbooks, and Citizen Science

Heathcliff as vampire wannabe? Why didn't I think of that? Fortunately others have.

Over at The Literature Network, kev67 asked (in Nov 2012):
I was just wondering whether Wuthering Heights was some sort of proto-vampire book when in the last chapter Nelly herself wonders whether Heathcliff is a ghoul or a vampire. I was surprised as I did not think vampires had been discovered till later. I have not watched any of the Twilight films (and I don't intend to neither) but it struck me there were some similarities between Wuthering Heights, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other vampire films and television series. Heathcliff can stand bright sunlight; bibles, wooden crosses, garlic and holy water might annoy him but would not be sufficient to ward him off; and although driving a wooden stake through his heart would kill him, so would other methods of execution. However, there are some similarities: Heathcliff is evil (like most vampires). Heathcliff and Catherine continue to walk the Earth after death and do not find rest. Heathcliff has no hope of salvation, neither does he want it. Heathcliff's idea of heaven is close to torment. Heathcliff's love for Catherine is eternal (rather like some vampire love stories). Heathcliff's love for Catherine is rather chaste. Heathcliff is tall, strong, rather dark with long, black hair. Heathcliff forms one point of a love triangle with Catherine as the apex (a bit like Twilight I believe).
The good folks at Shmoop – "We speak student" – are on the case. Here's the lead to their Wuthering Heights material:
Edward and Bella, meet Heathcliff and Catherine.

That's right: before The Walking Dead, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Vampire Diaries, there was Wuthering Heights.

At first glance, Heathcliff may not resemble the vampires that you've grown to know and love (or hate), but he's got a lot more going for him than most of 'em. Just saying.

Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, revolves around the passionate and destructive love between its two central characters, Emily Brontë's headstrong and beautiful Catherine Earnshaw and her tall, dark, handsome, and brooding hero/devil, Heathcliff.

Forget the romantic candlelit dinners, the wine, and the roses. Catherine and Heathcliff's love exists on an entirely different plane: one that involves ghosts, corpses, the communion (or possession) of souls, and revenge. And, speaking of revenge, Heathcliff—who harbors more than one grudge against his adoptive family, the love of his life, and his neighbors—manages to make every revenge drama look like kid's play.
And to seal the deal, "Reading Wuthering Heights gives you bragging rights over all your friends who think that the whole vampire thing started with Buffy. Suckas."

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I'm thinking a couple of things.

First, the connection is valid. I assume that proper scholarly work has been done on this connection, tracing themes and connections, that sort of thing. If not, get on it, someone!

Second, I'm guessing that these two sites, Shmoop, and The Literature Network, are aimed at high school students and lower level undergraduates and community college students (and their teachers). And we've got Cliff's Notes and Spark Notes and others serving the same market. They all have basic stuff about literary texts, mostly canonical ones.

How much of the material at these sites could be consolidated into consensus handbooks of materials about these texts? These sites are commercial enterprizes and so, I assume, would be reluctant to give up their stuff to an open-access resource. But, they're already giving their stuff away on the net. Why don't they all draw on the same body of standard material, material that furthermore has been vetted by scholars – assuming you can find first-rate scholars willing to do this. These sites would also be useful for the casebook industry.

I've been calling for handbooks for awhile. My point is that we've got the seeds of that already on the net.

Third, this leads us to citizen science. There's lots of 'fan'-created stuff on the web. Some of high quality. This Wuthering Heights site, by Paul Thompson, is excellent. I found it when looking for a timeline of events in the story. Thompson's done quite a bit of sleuthing on this. There's handbook quality material lurking here.

But how do we put it all together? And just who is "we"? Does literary academia want to commit proud suicide or does it want to enter the 21st century and engage the large population of people who are interested in literature (though they might not give a crap about high theory)?

There's a parable here

You figure it out.

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Or it it just cause and effect?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Reach out

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Graffiti Aesthetics • Some Notes

Another working paper, title above, link, abstract, and introduction below. 

This image asks a question (notice where the arrow points):

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I answer it at the very end of the post.

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Abstract: Graffiti may or may not be art, and that may or may not matter. To those ends I discuss a half dozen or so pieces in different styles, show that, whatever his particular style, Ceaze’s letterforms do not overlap, identify X-form and ‘crazy organic’ as styles, and distinguish between ‘old school’ and wild style. Moreover, because of its insistence on the name as the basic matrix of a piece, graffiti may represent a break from the past comparable to the adoption of 3D perspective in the early modern era and the creation of abstraction at the beginning of the modern. Finally, graffiti exists on at least a half dozen different quality levels.

CONTENTS

Introduction: Graffiti Writing Art 2
Graffiti Aesthetics: Five Easy Pieces 4
Graffiti Aesthetics 2: Learning to See 9
Old School and Wild Style 9
Another Example 11
Triple-Logic 12
Styles of Derivation 13
Graffiti Aesthetics 3: Stylistic Identity 17
Graffiti Aesthetics 4: The Space of Writing 23
Graffiti, Is it Art? 27

Introduction: Graffiti Writing Art

Is it art? – that’s what they always ask. Is it art? As often as not the implied answer is, No, it’s vandalism, as though it couldn’t be both. Even if that’s not the implied answer there’s a sense that art is a well-defined thing and that one can answer the question by applying some well-known definition of that well-defined thing to the phenomenon of graffiti and voilà! out pops the answer, yes or no.

More sophisticated people know that Is it art? has been a preoccupation at least since Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall, in the wrong orientation, and dubbed it “Fountain”. Even with that under their belt, these more sophisticated people may be stumped by the question, and then launch into a long-winded exposition of the history of the 20th century plastic arts that manages to go nowhere. And so the question is left hanging, like Duchamps’ urinal.

Let it hang. The people who first created graffiti – by which I mean certain styles that originated in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s – knew little about capital “A” Art and weren’t going there. For their descendants Art is somewhere between the enemy, irrelevant, and moderately interesting, depending on time of day, phase of the Moon, blood temperature, heads or tails, and a dozen other variables which may or may not sum to 42.

What I know is that when I walked along that corridor of columns (in Jersey City, NJ, near the Holland Tunnel, yet so far away), four abreast, extravagant colors and patterns eight feet high and twenty feet wide at the base of each, I thought I’d entered some wacked out Egyptian temple that had been decorated by priests who had been higher than the Saturn V that took Neil Armstrong to the Moon. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what I was seeing.

Is it art? Who gives a crap?

That was nine years ago. That’s when I decided to photograph graffiti. That’s when I decided to get a better camera so I could take better photos. And that’s when I decided to write about graffiti for The Valve, a group blog of mostly literary folks that I was writing for.

I posted the first four of these pieces to The Valve in August of 2007, almost a year after I’d begun photographing graffiti. I posted the last of them to New Savanna (The Valve has been defunct for a couple years now) in July of this year.