Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What WAS I thinking when I snapped this photo? Not the Beatles and not Abbey Road

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If you are of a certain age and a certain inclination you can’t help by think of the album cover for Abbey Road, released by the Beatles in 1969. That’s certainly what I thought when I looked at the photo on my computer.

But that’s not what I was thinking when I took the photo. I had come out of New York City’s Penn Station at a bit after 5PM on Saturday, October 14, 2017. I was taking photos to document the day – a train ride my sister had gotten for us in celebration of my upcoming major birthday – and snapping shots in front of the station. Traffic was busy, making photography a bit tricky, everything moving, shots materializing and disappearing just as quickly.

It was shoot or die. I saw those people walking across street and my mind flashed there’s a photo there, but not in so many words. It was just a realization that I had to point and shoot NOW or lose it. So I took the shot.

And moved on, taking other shots.

But I’m sure that intuitive decision had been primed by that album cover I saw so many times over the years, but not, say, in the last five or six, perhaps more, years.

And, you see, when you shoot quickly, sometimes things don’t quite work out. Sometimes that’s OK.

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Can you learn anything worthwhile about a text if you treat it, not as a TEXT, but as a string of marks on pages? [#DH]

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published a drive-by take-down of the digital humanities. It was by one Timothy Brennan, who didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t know that he didn’t known, and more likely than not, didn’t care.
Timothy Brennan, The Digital-Humanities Bust, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 2017, http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Bust/241424
Subsequently there was a relatively brief tweet storm in the DH twittersphere in which one Michael Gavin observed that Brennan seemed genuinely confused:


“Lexical patterns”, what are they? The purpose of this post is to explicate my response to Gavin.

The Text is not the (physical) text

While literary critics sometimes use “the text” to refer to a physical book, or to alphanumeric markings on the pages in such a book, they generally have something vaguer and ore expansive in mind. Here is a passage from a well-known, I won’t say “text”, article by Roland Barthes [1]:
1. The text must not be understood as a computable object. It would be futile to attempt a material separation of works from texts. In particular, we must not permit ourselves to say: the work is classical, the text is avant-garde; there is no question of establishing a trophy in modernity's name and declaring certain literary productions in and out by reason of their chronological situation: there can be “Text” in a very old work, and many products of contemporary literature are not texts at all. The difference is as follows: the work is a fragment of substance, it occupies a portion of the spaces of books (for example, in a library). The Text is a methodological field. The opposition may recall (though not reproduce term for term) a distinction proposed by Lacan: “reality” is shown [se montre], the “real” is proved [se démontre]; in the same way, the work is seen (in bookstores, in card catalogues, on examination syllabuses), the text is demonstrated, is spoken according to certain rules (or against certain rules); the work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only when caught up in a discourse (or rather it is Text for the very reason that it knows itself to be so); the Text is not the decomposition of the work, it is the work which is the Text's imaginary tail. Or again: the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production. It follows that the Text cannot stop (for example, at a library shelf); its constitutive moment is traversal (notably, it can traverse the work, several works).  
And that is just the first of seven propositions in that well known text article, which has attained, shall we say, the status of a classic.

I have no intention of offering extended commentary on this passage. I will note, however, that Barthes obviously knows that there’s an important difference between the physical object and what he’s calling the text. Every critic knows that. We are not dumb, but we do have work to do.

Secondly, perhaps the central concept is in that italicized assertion: “the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production.”

Finally, I note that that first sentence has also been translated as: “The Text must not be thought of as a defined object” [2]. Not being a reader of French, much less a French speaker, I don’t know which translation is truer to the original. It is quite possible that they are equally true and false at the same time. But “computable object” has more resonance in this particular context.

Now, just to flesh things out a bit, let us consider a more recent passage, one that is more didactic. This is from the introduction Rita Copeland and Frances Ferguson prepared for five essays from the 2012 English Institute devoted to the text [3]:
Yet with the conceptual breadth that has come to characterize notions of text and textuality, literary criticism has found itself at a confluence of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, history, politics, and law. Thus, for example, notions of cultural text and social text have placed literary study in productive dialogue with fields in the social sciences. Moreover, text has come to stand for different and often contradictory things: linguistic data for philology; the unfolding “real time” of interaction for sociolinguistics; the problems of copy-text and markup in editorial theory; the objectified written work (“verbal icon”) for New Criticism; in some versions of poststructuralism the horizons of language that overcome the closure of the work; in theater studies the other of performance, ambiguously artifact and event. “Text” has been the subject of venerable traditions of scholarship centered on the establishment and critique of scriptural authority as well as the classical heritage. In the modern world it figures anew in the regulation of intellectual property. Has text become, or was it always, an ideal, immaterial object, a conceptual site for the investigation of knowledge, ownership and propriety, or authority? If so, what then is, or ever was, a “material” text? What institutions, linguistic procedures, commentary forms, and interpretive protocols stabilize text as an object of study? [p. 417]
“Linguistic data” and “copy-text”, they sound like the physical text itself, the rest of them, not so much.

If literary critics were to confine themselves to discussing the physical text, what would we say? Those engaged in book studies and editorial projects would have more to say than most, but even they would find such rigor to be intolerably confining. The physical signs on the page, or the vibrations in the air, exist and come alive in a vast a complicated network of ... well, just exactly what? Relationships among people to be sure, but also relationships between sights and sounds and ideas and movements and feelings and a whole bunch of stuff mediated by the nervous systems of all those people interacting with one another.

It’s that vast network of people and neuro-mental stuff that we’re trying to understand when we explicate literary and cultural Texts. As we lack really good accounts of all that stuff, literary critics have felt that we had little choice by to adopt this more capacious conception, albeit at the expense of definition and precision. Anyhow, aren’t the people trying to figure out those systems, aren’t they scientists? And aren’t we, as humanists, skeptical about science?

And then along came the computer.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Three from the window of a moving train

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Out of the ground with your hands, my summer in coal @3QD

I’ve done a little editing to a recent post and reposted it at 3 Quarks Daily under the title, slightly changed from the original, My summer job working in coal – or, how I learned about class in America: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2017/10/my-summer-job-working-in-coal-or-how-i-learned-about-class-in-america.html

It would be a bit strong to say that coal pervaded my life growing up, but I was aware of it and thought about it, in one way or another, almost, perhaps, likely, daily – steel too. After all, my father was in the business and took frequent trips to visit coal mines and cleaning plants. I remember waiting for him to come home, staying up late a night they day of his return, and getting the little gifts he’d bring me and my sister from whatever exotic place he’d visited. I remember the hard hats he wore when on site.

And I remember talking with him about his work. I remember him telling me about dead plant matter turning into peat, peat into lignite and lignite into coal. Coal was once living matter.

Coal is elemental. It’s a fuel, a dirty fuel. A dirty fuel that gave us the iron and steel industries. Coal fires gave us the Anthropocene.
Ashes to Dust
Life to Coal
Coal to Ashes
Dust to Life

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stairway to Penn Station, NYC

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Another (strenuous) take on what went wrong with literary criticism, John Searle and Geoffrey Hartman edition

Yeah, I know. But it’s important to get this right.

Once again I’m going to review that Geoffrey Hartman statement I find so characteristic of the mid-1970s rearward shift in academic literary criticism, the one about ‘rithmatic and distance. But this time I want to put it in the context a discussion of the ontological and epistemological senses of objective and subjective that John Searle makes in The Construction of Social Reality, Penguin Books, 1995.

Searle: Ontology and Epistemology

After some preliminary discussion, some of which I’ve appended to this post, Searle concludes (p. 7):
Here, then, are the bare bones of our ontology: We live in a world made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force. Some of these are organized into systems. Some of these systems are living systems and some of these living systems have evolved consciousness. With consciousness comes intentionality, the capacity of the organism to represent objects and states of affairs in the world to itself. Now the question is, how can we account for the existence of social facts within that ontology?
How indeed.

Searle then observes (pp. 7-8):
Much of our world view depends on our concept of objectivity and the contrast between the objective and the subjective. Famously, the distinction is a matter of degree, but it is less often remarked that both “objective” and “subjective” have several different senses. For our present discussion two senses are crucial, an epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction and an ontological sense. Epistemically speaking, “objective” and “subjective “ are primarily predicates of judgments. We often speak of judgments as being “subjective” when we mean that their truth or falsity cannot be settled “objectively,” because the truth or falsity is not a simple matter of fact but depends on certain attitudes, feelings, and points of view of the makers such subjective judgments with objective judgments, such as the judgment “Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam during the year 1632.” For such objective judgments, the facts in the world that make them true or false are independent of anybody’s attitudes or feelings about them. In this epistemic sense we can speak not only of objective judgments but of objective facts. Corresponding to objectively true judgments there are objective facts. It should be obvious from these examples that the contrast between epistemic objectivity and epistemic subjectivity is a matter of degree.

In addition to the epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction, there is also a related ontological sense. In the ontological sense, “objective” and “subjective” are predicates of entities and types of entities, and they ascribe modes of existence. In the ontological sense, pains are subjective entities, because their mode of existence depends on being felt by subjects. But mountains, for example, in contrast to pains, are ontologically objective because their mode of existence is independent of any perceiver or any mental state.
Word meanings, in this sense, are ontologically subjective, which I’ve previously argued [1]. And so are the meanings of texts, even texts about objective facts. Hence textual meaning can be subject to endless, and often fruitless, discussion, especially when intersubjective agreement on the meanings of crucial terms is lax.

Continuing directly on from the previous passage, (pp. 8-9):
We can see the distinction between the distinctions clearly if we reflect on the fact that we can make epistemically subjective statements about entities that are ontologically objective, and similarly, we can make epistemically objective statements about entities that are ontologically subjective. For example, the statement “Mt. Everest is more beautiful than Mt. Whitney” is about ontologically objective entities, but makes a subjective judgment about them. On the other hand, the statement “I now have a pain in my lower back” reports an epistemically objective fact in the sense that it is made true by the existence of an actual fact that is not dependent on any stance, attitudes, or opinions of observers. However, the phenomenon itself, the actual pain, has a subjective mode of existence.
I argue, though Searle might disagree, that the meanings of the words in that statement – “I now have a pain in my lower back” – are themselves ontologically subjective, despite the fact that the statement itself, in context, is ABOUT an epistemologically objective fact (where that fact is about something ontologically subjective, a pain).

It’s confusing, I know. Alas, it’s going to get worse.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Latour on the second science "war"

Q: How do you look back at the “science wars”?
A: Nothing that happened during the ’90s deserves the name “war.” It was a dispute, caused by social scientists studying how science is done and being critical of this process. Our analyses triggered a reaction of people with an idealistic and unsustainable view of science who thought they were under attack. Some of the critique was indeed ridiculous, and I was associated with that postmodern relativist stuff, I was put into that crowd by others. I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.
We’re in a totally different situation now. We are indeed at war. This war is run by a mix of big corporations and some scientists who deny climate change. They have a strong interest in the issue and a large influence on the population.
Q: How did you get involved in this second science war?
A: It happened in 2009 at a cocktail party. A famous climate scientist came up to me and said: “Can you help us? We are being attacked unfairly.” Claude Allègre, a French scientist and former minister of education, was running a very efficient ideological campaign against climate science.
It symbolized a turnaround. People who had never really understood what we as science studies scholars were doing suddenly realized they needed us. They were not equipped, intellectually, politically, and philosophically, to resist the attack of colleagues accusing them of being nothing more than a lobby. 
Q: How do you explain the rise of antiscientific thinking and “alternative facts”? 
A: To have common facts, you need a common reality. This needs to be instituted in church, classes, decent journalism, peer review. … It is not about posttruth, it is about the fact that large groups of people are living in a different world with different realities, where the climate is not changing.
The second science war has at least freed us of the idea that science and technology can be separated from policy. I have always argued that they can't be. Science has never been immune to political bias. On issues with huge policy implications, you cannot produce unbiased data. That does not mean you cannot produce good science, but scientists should explicitly state their interests, their values, and what sort of proof will make them change their mind. 
Q: How should scientists wage this new war? 
A: We will have to regain some of the authority of science. That is the complete opposite from where we started doing science studies. Now, scientists have to win back respect. But the solution is the same: You need to present science as science in action. I agree that’s risky, because we make the uncertainties and controversies explicit.
H/t 3QD.

Emergency Exit

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MacArthur Fellowships: Search for creativity or the same old cronyism?

I've been criticizing the MacArthur Fellowships for five years now. It's about time I reposted the original articles in the series. This is the first one, which I'd originally published on October 9, 2013, under the title, "MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free". This looonng post examines the history of the program, looks at three recipients in the first year (1981) – "Skip" Gates, Robert Penn Warren, and Stephen Wolfram –  considers criticisms of the program, and examines the class of 2013, where 15 of 24 fellows have tenure at elite institutions – hence the suspicion, which I share with others, that the Fellows program is yet another case of elitist cronyism. I conclude with a simple suggestion: Don't give any awards to people with tenure at those schools. I stick by that suggestion. I've collected my observations into a working paper, The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before?, which you may download at this link: 
https://www.academia.edu/7974651/The_Genius_Chronicles_Going_Boldly_Where_None_Have_Gone_Before
* * * * *

I’ve been following the MacArthur Fellowship program from the beginning. Like many, I believe it's too conservative in its pick of fellows. I long ago decided that the foundation could improve matters by adopting a simple rule: don’t award fellowships to anyone who has stable employment at an elite institution.

My reasoning was simple: if they’ve got an elite job, they can eat and they can work. Depending on the job, they may not have as much time for creative work as they’d like to have. But they’ve got more time than they’d have if they had to wait tables, do temp word-processing, or teach five adjunct courses a term spread across three different schools. They can function creatively.

That puts them ahead those who are so busy scratching for a living that they cannot function creatively at all.

When I set out to write this post, that’s all I had in mind. I’d reiterate the standard complaint about MacArthur’s programmatic constipation, with appropriate links here and there, and then offer up my one simple suggestion. I figured it for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred words.

But then things started getting interesting, and more complex. So I’ve had to write a much longer post. I’ve not given up on that simple idea, nor have I augmented it. But I have a richer and more interesting rationale for it. That’s what this post is about.

The Genius Grants

I don’t know when I first heard that the newly formed Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation would “be looking for gifted but impecunious poets, promising young composers, research scientists in midcareer and other ‘exceptionally talented people’”, as The New York Times put it in 1980, but, like many creative people, I thought to myself: At last, a foundation that’s looking for (people like) me. The article went on to say:
Many foundation programs have sought to assist scholars and artists...but most have required that the would-be fellows already have achieved some public recognition. Unlike most others, the new fellowships will permit the recipients to choose entirely new fields of interest, with no requirement that the fellowship lead to the completion of a project, publication, or even a progress report.
Just what I need, thought I to myself, just what I need. It would allow me to blow this pop stand and get some real work done.

As Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation’s benefactor, John D. MacArthur, would put it in 1981:
“This program,” Mr. MacArthur said, “is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father - the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track.”

“If only a handful produce something of importance - whether it be a work of art or a major breakthrough in the sciences - it will have been worth the risk.”
My name wasn’t on that list or on any subsequent list.

Nor, I tentatively decided in that first year, was the foundation deeply interested in people like me, people whose work did not fit into conventional categories and thus would be ineligible for conventional foundation largesse. Rather, given the foundation’s actual practice, it is clear that the MacArthur Fellows Program has been funding pretty much the same people funded by every other foundation and government agency.

The major distinguishing characteristic of a MacArthur Fellowship is that you don’t have to do anything to justify the funding; nor, for that matter, can you actually apply for support. The support comes to you, unbidden, and once you start cashing the checks, you are under no obligation complete a stated project nor submit any reports. This is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, but this goodness is of little comfort to those who don’t get a MacArthur Fellowship.

None of these observations are new. They’ve been made ever since the foundation began awarding the fellowships. The problem with these observations is that, assuming that the foundation really does want to identify and gift those who “boldly go where no man has gone before”; identifying those people is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

My purpose in this post, then, is not to come up with rules and procedures so the MacArthur Foundation can go about that task the right way. I don’t think there is a right way. The task is impossible.

Rather, I want to do two things. First, I argue that the MacArthur Fellows Program functions to provide the foundation world with a cosmetic device whereby it can pat itself vigorously on the back for going boldly where none have gone before while continuing to fund the same suspects. Second, I argue that the best thing the Foundation could do at this point is simply to stop awarding fellowships to people who have secure employment at elite institutions. That’s a simple, but in view of my larger argument, no longer a simple-minded, suggestion.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Minimalism on the Hudson River, with ducks

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This is your brain on stories

Decoding the Neural Representation of Story Meanings across Languages
Morteza Dehghani, Reihane Boghrati, Kingson Man, Joseph Hoover, Sarah Gimbel, Ashish Vaswani, Jason Zevin, Mary Immordino, Andrew Gordon, Antonio Damasio, Jonas Kaplan

PsyArXiv Preprint, doi: 10.17605/OSF.IO/QRPP3

Abstract 

Drawing from a common lexicon of semantic units, humans fashion narratives whose meaning transcends that of their individual utterances. However, while brain regions that represent lower-level semantic units, such as words and sentences, have been identified, questions remain about the neural representation of narrative comprehension, which involves inferring cumulative meaning. To address these questions, we exposed English, Mandarin and Farsi native speakers to native language translations of the same stories during fMRI scanning. Using a new technique in natural language processing, we calculated the distributed representations of these stories (capturing the meaning of the stories in high-dimensional semantic space), and demonstrate that using these representations we can identify the specific story a participant was reading from the neural data. Notably, this was possible even when the distributed representations were calculated using stories in a different language than the participant was reading. Relying on over 44 billion classifications, our results reveal that identification relied on a collection of brain regions most prominently located in the default mode network. These results demonstrate that neuro-semantic encoding of narratives happens at levels higher than individual semantic units and that this encoding is systematic across both individuals and languages.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Fotos: On the beach

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Why the computational form of literary texts is mere form in the Kantian sense

Actually, it’s not me that’s taking the look at Kant. To be sure, I read some Kant years ago, and I do mean years, more like decades. But I don’t remember it and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Critique of Judgment, which is the text in play here. It was put in play in a recent article:
Robert Lehman, Formalism, Mere Form, and Judgment, New Literary History, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 245-263.
I’m thus in the precarious position of having to rely on Lehman’s presentation of Kant. But then, isn’t that what intellectual life is like, working in the community of scholars, always depending on the kindness of strangers?

What is formalism, what is literature?
Before looking at Kant via Lehman, however, let me give you the rough and ready on two matters: 1) what I mean by formalism, and 2) how I understand what literature is.

My basic approach to the second is a crude “I know it when I see it.” Of course, I’ve learned from others, starting with my parents. They taught me that, for example, Moby Dick is literature, The Voyage of the Beagle is not, and so forth. Now that I think about it, I’m not at all sure that I’ve ever had to determine, for myself, whether or not this text was literature or not. Good vs. mediocre vs. downright bad literature, yes. But literature vs. something else, I don’t think so.

But let’s assume that there may well come a time when I would have to make such a judgment. It might be an easy judgment to make, or it might not. Where the judgment is easy for me, I suspect it will be easy for others. Where it is difficult, there as well. But in that case, we might arrive at different judgments. In consequence we could enter into a discussion about the matter and give our reasons. Perhaps we’d reach agreement, perhaps not. If not, what of it?

Well, one might throw up one’s hands and say, but then, but then, isn’t the distinction between literature and non-literature pointless? No, difficult and fuzzy, yes; pointless, no. There are color patches that are obviously blue and other ones that are obviously green. That doesn’t mean that difficult cases, cases we decide, perhaps, by tossing a coin, force us to abandon any notion that blue and green are different colors. This or that virtuoso theorist may care to gum up the whole works by invoking a difficult case, but so what? That’s posturing, not thinking.

As for formalism, all I mean is that I’m interested in analyzing and describing the formal properties of literary texts. My big beef with existing literary criticism is that, for the most part, that project seems peripheral to the enterprise despite the fact that form is a central concept of the discipline and formalism a well-recognized critical stance, or family of stances. I find it odd that these formalists, for whom the general fact of form is so very important, show so little interest in specific instances that they cannot spend time analyzing texts for their formal features.

Kant on phenomenal vs. mere form

But I think Lehman’s article can help us sort this out.

He opens by observing (p. 245):
... the ascendancy of the old formalisms—of the Yale School (minus the antiformalist Harold Bloom), or of the New Critics (expanded to include René Wellek and Austin Warren), or even of Aristotle—tended to coincide with an increased attention to or anxiety around the question of literature as such, the rise of the new formalism has not.
But these new formalists are no more interested in describing formal features than those old formalists were. What differentiates these new formalists from the old, it seems, is that “the new formalism has done nothing to answer the question: what is literature? As far as I can tell, it has not even tried” (p. 246). OK, I’m with them on that.

Here’s what Lehman thinks formalism is, both old and new, (p. 246):
At its most basic, I mean an approach to art objects—literature, film, painting, and so on—grounded in an attention to these objects’ spatiotemporal qualities, their phenomenal qualities, which might allow for the transmission of a content or a meaning but that are not themselves intrinsically meaningful. As a critical practice, then, formalism would prescribe consideration of meter, line, composition, rhythm, movement, shape: all those characteristics that are supposed to make an art object what it is. Now, I hope that this definition is broad enough to be relatively uncontroversial. I intend it to be prior both to Levinson’s distinction between “activist” and “normative” formalism—that is, between approaches that affirm and approaches that deny the compatibility of formalism and historicism—and to the question of what model of form ought to be adopted—static or dynamic, molar or molecular. And it does not depend on any especially rigid division of form from content, a division that certain varieties of formalism pride themselves on their having moved beyond.
Am I a formalist in THAT sense? Let’s be careful here.

Jerry Seinfeld: It's 98% in how you deliver the joke

Here's Jerry Seinfeld talking with George Stephanopoulos (who, you may recall, had been White House Communications Director under Bill Clinton) about comedy. In his new Netflix special Seinfeld returns to the oldest jokes in his repertoire. Starting at about 2:28 he talks about he had to relearn ALL of the old bits, which he illustrates with one about cotton balls.



Stephanopoulos: It's not just what's on paper?
Seinfeld: No, no. That's...two percent of it. 98 percent is the way you do it.
There's a shot in the special where we see all the yellow pads on which Seinfeld crafted his jokes. We see that shot in this little clip.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What I got from Blade Runner

reality dispersion vector zed 574.009 epsilon 38

super secret government laboratory in a place that nobody can ever know about

Why the New Intellectuals Don't Cut It

Back in the mid-1990s I met one Cuda Brown (not his real name) online. We hit it off and went on to establish one of the first black zones on the internet. We started out as Meanderings, a newsletter that Cuda had been circulating privately among his friends, but it time that morphed into Gravity, which then died because we didn't have the means to sustain the effort. But it was fun for the year or so that it lasted. We had one of the first discussion forums on the web, something that Cuda coded up in a DB program – Informix? – and we did a collaboration with Vibe Magazine on the trial of O. J. Simpson.

Cuda wrote a number of pieces, including this stunner on his early days as a black nationalist, and I wrote some, including this one from March 1995, which I'm reprinting here on New Savanna. It's a bit old, but made a point or two. Black intellectuals now have a lot more to say about music than they did back then, though not, I'm sure, through any influence by this piece. It's just the logical thing to do. As for the psychology I discuss, still a deafening silence. You might want to look at the list I give, which I took from Robert Boynton's piece in The Atlantic Monthly, and see how they've fared over the last two decades. BTW, you might notice that the domain name for those various pages is "newsavanna". Where do you think I got the name for my blog?

* * * * *
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Bring that man's baby back.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack! . .
I want my spirit back.
CLICKETY CLACK!
Bubble music being seen and heard on Saturday night
Blinding the eyes of ones that's supposed to see!
Bubble music, being played and showed, throughout America.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . .
Somebody's mind's got off the goddamn track!
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . . .
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
. . . .
Who will it be? Who will it be?
It certainly won't be someone that says that they're free.
– Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The Atlantic Monthly for March [1995] features an important article by Robert S. Boynton about "The New Intellectuals," by which he means a group of thinkers who are both public intellectuals and black intellectuals. They are public in the sense that they often address themselves to a general educated audience rather than speaking exclusively to an audience of academic specialists. They are black in two senses. In the first place they have enough so-called black blood in their veins that they would be classified as black by census-takers. In the second they are variously concerned with what it means to black and American, or American and black, or, increasingly, just plain American.

Toward the end of the article, Boynton asserts that "If today's black intellectuals have not yet–with the exception of Toni Morrison's extraordinary novels–produced a body of work that will sustain itself through the Darwinian selection process of American culture, there is no reason to believe that they won't. They are relatively young, and a number seem to be just hitting their stride." The purpose of this essay is to suggest that if these 40-something intellectuals (plus or minus a decade) don't soon get some funkadelic glide in their stride, some jivometric pep in their step, there is little chance that they will produce a deep and abiding body of work, though one can always hope that they will produce an intellectual climate in which others may come along and walk where they fear to tread.

As a group, their collective work has two central weaknesses in my view:
  1. However much they may admire black music, they don't make it central to their thought and writing.
  2. Whatever they may know about the psychodynamics of racism, they are unwilling to talk and write about it.
The joint effect of their blindness is that they cannot address themselves to the deepest dynamics of American culture. They weave elegant designs around the edges, but the warp and woof are invisible to them.

Caveat Emptor – “Don't let a fox stand guard over the chickens”

Before I begin, I should make a disclaimer or two. First, the weaknesses I've indicated don't apply uniformly to all in Boynton's anointed group, which is a large and diverse bunch of folks including, in no particular order:
Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Orlando Patterson, Shelby Steele, David Levering Lewis, Stanley Crouch, Patricia Williams, William Julius Wilson, bell hooks, Houston Baker, Randall Kennedy, Michael Eric Dyson, Gerald Early, Jerry Watts, Robert Gooding-Williams, Nell Painter, Thomas Sowell, Ellis Cose, Juan Williams, Lani Guinier, Glenn Loury, Michelle Wallace, Manning Marable, Adolph Reed, June Jordan, Walter Williams, and Derrick Bell.
Stanley Crouch and Gerald Early have, for example, written extensively about black music. Houston Baker has written a book about hip hop, though he's more concerned with the lyrics than with rhyme, rhythm and artistic technique. Cornel West has a chapter in Race Matters about sex and race, which is at the heart of racist psychodynamics. For the most part, however, the music is more admired than analyzed and understood and the subject of psychodynamics is left untouched and, therefore, unscathed.

The other qualification is personal and negative. I haven't read all of those folks, so I may well be sticking a foot or two in my mouth. Just so you know, I have read at least something, and generally more, by the following: Toni Morrison, Orlando Patterson, Stanley Crouch, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Houston Baker, Gerald Early, Thomas Sowell, and Juan Williams. Beyond this, I know something about the work of many of those whom I haven't read. In particular, I know their work doesn't address the issues I've mentioned above.

While critiquing individuals for what they don't do is a doubtful enterprise, and one I will nonetheless undertake, my real criticism is of the group. Boynton has written about and invested hope in them as a group. My criticism is directed at deficiencies in the intellectual program one can expect of this aggregation. To the extent they can control and influence discourse about America, we are in trouble. That trouble is not so deep as that presented by, say, the religious right, but it is a trouble progressive folk would be better off without.

Finally, regardless of what may seem to be a rather nasty critique, I should say that reading these folks has given me much pleasure and more than a little insight. Thus my criticism is in the spirit of the "loyal opposition." They have much to teach us. But, they also have much to learn about themselves and about America. It's about time they cut the cord and get on with it.

Music and The New Intellectuals

Let's begin by looking at just why these folks don't write very much about the music so many of them clearly love and draw on for spiritual strength. The reason is simple. They are intellectuals functioning in a tradition which has been and still is deeply suspicious of music (and any other expressive form, though literature has received partial dispensation since it consists of words artfully arrayed). Hence that tradition doesn't demand that you have any significant understanding of music in order to sport the credentials of an intellectual or that you take such understanding into the public arena. Plato condemned music 2400 years ago and the curse has stuck. The sin of the father has been dogging the sons and daughters ever since.

Thus, if you go into the stacks of any major research library you'll find many more pages about Shakespeare than Beethoven, Balzac than Mozart, Dante than Bach, or Goethe than Brahms. Clearly, music is not held in so high a regard as literature. No doubt that this is in part attributable to the fact that writing about music seems more difficult than writing about literature. To go much beyond impressionist evocation of feelings and styles, you must learn something of music theory so you can discuss technique and structure in musical terms. When well done, such as Charles Rosen's superb The Classical Style, the result is as deep and illuminating as any work of literary analysis. But, on the whole, the intellectual community clearly does not believe the end is worth the trouble of actually learning how to think about music.

Lit Crit: A Short Take on What Went Wrong

It became besotted with meaning subordinated everything to it. Literary meaning was special. What made it special? Literary form. And thus form was subordinated to meaning, and done so in such a way that little independent attention was given to form. Thus form is an enormously important concept in literary criticism, but is also hopelessly fuzzy. No one knows what it is or how it works, except that it makes literary language special.

Critics wanted to literature to be a form of theology or philosophy. Literary criticism had to produce THAT kind of knowledge, whatever that was. Deconstruction shot a hole in that project and allowed/forced it to continue on jury-rigged contraptions of duct tape and chewing gum. Then power took over and held critics mesmerized. They devoted their time and energy to evade the traps set by power.

They read texts as the world, the world as texts.

A hopeless mess.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Plastic chairs

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More pennies from heaven, once again, the MacArthur Foundation waffles in its distribution of Big Macs (Fellowships)

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It’s that time of year, folks. The MacArthur Foundation has announced its latest round of so-called genius grants – a term they coyly back away from – and the world of elite institutions rejoices in the largesse it bestows on “the creative class”. In its annual flurry of air kisses to the Foundation’s Big Mac program (aka The MacArthur Fellows), The NewYork Times quotes Cecilia A. Conrad, leader of the fellows program, as saying
the goal was to find “people on the precipice,” where the award will make a difference, but also to inspire creativity more broadly. 
“We hope that when people read about the fellows, it makes them think about how they might be more creative in their own lives,” Ms. Conrad said. “It does something for the human spirit.”
Gimme’ a break. What a whopper. The program’s mostly special sauce, with only a little beef on a nice fluffy bun.

Yes, since the beginning, the program’s nattered on about helping people on the edge, “where the award will make a difference”, but it has mostly given its awards to people who are safe and secure, that is, to people like the good folks at the MacArthur Foundation. To be sure, most of these people are very creative, but most of them have secure gigs as well. They are not on any precipice. They aren’t making a living waiting tables at Mom’s Miracle Meal, doing temp word-processing at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, hustling pool at Benny’s Billiard Emporium, or any other make-do gig. They don’t have to work day gigs to pay the rent so they can be creative at nights and on weekends. Their day gig IS their creative gig.

Why doesn’t the Foundation come clean and stop giving awards to people who have secure jobs? Yeah, I know, that would force them to look outside the circle of elite institutions which they serve. It would make their work harder. It might even force them to be, you know, creative. What a novel idea!

* * * * *

I’ve been writing about this public relations campaign – for that’s what it is – since 2013. In the first year I did more than simply gripe about the unadventurous class of 2013; I also recounted the history of the MacArthur Fellowships. Then, in a series of four follow-up posts, I elaborated on that original critique. In subsequent years I’ve tallied the current class. I have been accumulating those posts into a working paper:

The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before? Version 5, Working Paper, October 2017, 52 pp. https://www.academia.edu/7974651/The_Genius_Chronicles_Going_Boldly_Where_None_Have_Gone_Before

Waffle Tallies

Here’s the Big Mac “waffle” tally (percentage of awards to people with secure gigs) for the last five years, including 2017:
2013: 63%
2014: 52%
2015: 54%
2016: 57%
2017: 50%
The 2017 tally is a first, 50-50, half at secure university gigs, half at other gigs. Note, however, that two of those other gigs are a tenure-track university posts, and one of them is with The New York Times. No guarantees there, unlike the secure jobs, but they’re pretty safe. There are no starving artists in this crowd.

Current Class

I’ve divided them into four groups:
Secure university posts: 12
Pre-tenure university: 2
Other-employed: 6
Self-employed: 4

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Pennies from heaven

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Two questions about language: Why is it computationally privileged? Why is literary form objectively knowable, but meaning not?

What does that first question even mean? In what sense is language computationally privileged? They may well be an abstract answer to that question, but I don’t have to skills to articulate it. So I’ll have to do so indirectly.

In the decade or so following World War II electronic digital computation developed around a few key problems: 1) data processing, e.g. tabulating census statistics, 2) dynamics, e.g. simulating atomic explosions, artillery calculations, and 3) machine translation. Not artificial vision, or hearing, or motor kinematics, or any other human sensory or motor activity. The problem was to translate texts from one natural language to another.

THAT’s computational privilege, but I mean privilege in perhaps a peculiar sense. Machine translation, of course, was important for reasons of national defense. It wasn’t just any language we wanted to translate from; it was Russian. But that’s not what I mean by privilege. That’s why the work was funded, but by privilege I mean something like tractable. Language was deemed computationally tractable.

Language is computationally tractable in a way that those other activities – seeing, hearing, moving the body – are not. Why? Because digital computing is itself a linguistic activity, albeit that languages involved are highly restricted and limited in a way that natural languages aren’t. Still, natural language is more like computer languages than seeing, hearing, and jumping rope are. That’s what I mean by computationally tractable.

And this point it gets a little tricky. What is arithmetic? Ordinarily we think of it as a kind of math, which is very different from language. Ordinarily, that’s so. But it’s also superficial.

How do we do arithmetic calculations? One can use a simple mechanical device, like an abacus. But we’re taught to do it with numerical symbols, for values zero through nine, plus a decimal point, plus four operators (plus, minus, times, divided by) and the equals sign. That, plus a bunch of simple rules, makes arithmetic a kind of simple language. There is thus a deep connection between language and arithmetic, and hence between language and mathematics.

That’s computational privilege.

Now, our second question: Why is literary form objectively knowable, but meaning not? Caveat: This is going to be quick and impressionistic, more of a conceptual placeholder than anything else.

Literary form belongs to the computable aspect of language. Word meaning, and hence the meaning of texts of any kind, including literary texts, ultimately depends on the world and our access to the world through the senses and the motor system. That access is, in principle, open-ended and undefined. It is not computable.

Word meaning, I submit, is pretty much like those elusive qualia that philosophers talk about. Perhaps we can think of it as the qualia of the mind. We can build and test models of visual perception, for example, and so investigate the relationship between objective characteristics of the visual scene and color perception, that is, we can build models of how qualia arise, but those models are models, not qualia themselves. If the model is implemented in a computational system attached to visual sensors, then it may actually created pseudo qualia, but real qualia require a living system. We don’t know how to create those.

The same is true for language, for meaning vs. semantics. We can build a semantic model, which is about how words and texts have meaning. But it IS a model, not meaning. (For more on the distinction between meaning and semantics, see my recent post, 2 Comments on Moretti’s LitLab 15: Patterns and Interpretation [#DH].)

Meaning and qualia are both ontologically and epistemologically subjective in Searle’s sense. Semantics models and sensory models are both ontologically and epistemologically objective in Searle’s sense [1]. (Also see my recent post, Objectivity and Intersubjective Agreement.)

* * * * *

[1] John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Penguin Books, 1995, pp. 5 ff.

Monday, October 9, 2017

AIDAluna heading out to sea

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How I discovered the structure of “Kubla Khan” & came to realize the importance of description

I say discover because I regard the poem’s structure as something existing objectively in the world, prior to and independent of my work, or anyone else’s for that matter. However, I regard that discovery as tentative because it really hasn’t been confirmed. The profession – academic literary criticism – isn’t like that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with this talk of a discovery that hasn’t been confirmed. Let’s set that aside for the moment. We’ll return to the issue at the end – though that’ll take awhile (you might want to get a cup of coffee, or some scotch, whatever’s appropriate).

This is about description, and how I came to realize the importance of description. That happened through my work on “Kubla Khan” – other texts as well, but that was the Rubicon. I’m going through this once again now because the profession seems to be in the process of discovering, or rediscovering description – e.g. the special issue of Representations (Summer 2016) devoted to it – and is still quite tentative about it. By my reading – and here I’m being polemical – they don’t know what they’re up to.

But then I didn’t know what I was doing either, not back then. That’s why I’m writing this, to emphasize how very difficult it can be to understand what you’re doing. It was only two decades or more after the fact that I came to understand what I had done in the early 1970s.

A structuralist analysis of “Kubla Khan”

In my senior year at Johns Hopkins I enrolled in a two-semester course on Romantic Literature, taught by (the legendary) Earl Wasserman. Keats, Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott in the Fall (1968); Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Jane Austen in the Spring (1969). That’s when I became hooked on “Kubla Khan”, the spring of 1969. I had this idea that the poem attained completeness by asserting its own incompleteness, a formulation that Wasserman loved, and that would have been well suited to the emerging deconstructive dispensation, though I didn’t frame it that way.

I stayed at Hopkins for a master’s degree in Humanities and wrote my thesis on “Kubla Khan”. I had become interested in structuralism and wanted to do a structuralist analysis – I refuse to call it a reading – of the poem, which was dripping with the binary oppositions so central to structuralist thought. Oh, I had other thinkers I wanted to bring to the poem, but I centered on Lévi-Strauss.

Therein lies the problem. It stalked and ambushed me and laid me low. When he began his work on myth Lévi-Strauss pursued the idea that a myth began with a binary opposition – life vs. death, nature vs. culture, that sort of thing – expressed in extreme form and proceeded by substituting successively less extreme forms of the opposition until, with one final substitution, it all but eliminated the opposition. Thus he had an intriguing scheme that explained why myths took the form they did. That’s what attracted me, the possibility of an actual explanation.

But he’d abandoned that scheme when he began Mythologiques. Oh well, never mind. Anyhow, I wasn’t dealing with a myth or group of myths, I was dealing with a poem. One poem: “Kubla Khan”.

Finding binary oppositions was easy – Kubla vs. the wailing woman, the wailing woman vs. the Abyssinia maid, Kubla vs. the maid, the dome vs. the caves, wailing vs. song, maid vs. auditors, Kubla vs. poet. They were all over the place, those oppositions. But I couldn’t see any order to them.

Here’s a fragment from one of my worksheets:

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I’d typed the poem out in triple-space and then marked it up. I must have done this half-a-dozen times. Sometimes double spaced, sometimes triple. And I used different colors of felt-tip pens to indicate different aspects of structure.

It just went on and on. And then I gave up.

Of course there was more on my mind than those oppositions. For one thing I had been reading everything I could find on “Kubla Khan” in the Hopkins library. Along with bits and pieces of that scholarship I was also weaving my other core thinkers into the mix, Wittgenstein, Piaget, Merleau-Ponty, and Nietzsche. But it wasn’t working. In the spring of 1970 I stopped typing on page 142. Some time after that, I don’t recall when, I had the idea of treating line-end punctuation as a means of dividing the text into hierarchically ordered units in the same way that parentheses, brackets and braces are used in grouping elements of mathematical expressions. Once I had done that I could see that the punctuation structure of the poem matched the units I that had slowly emerged in my examination of binary oppositions.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

WWI and the American Security State

Amid an ugly mood of coarse jingoism, nativism, and racism, Wilson used the war to create America’s first national-security state, including passage of the Espionage and Sedition acts and an unsurpassed assault on civil liberties. During the last year of the war and the years immediately following, there were bloody race riots, the Red Scare and the Palmer raids, the recrudescence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the flagrantly racist immigration acts passed by Congress as postwar America withdrew into its shell. The extraordinary Randolph Bourne forewarned much of this but died in 1918, before he could see the frightening accuracy of his prediction: “War is the health of the state,” Bourne had lamented. “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”

Sekrets and Spies

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Interesting, on the state

Scott makes his case by tracing, step by unholy step, how human beings were led first into the agricultural fields and then into the domain of the state, bringing a vast set of conscripts into the army of supposed advancement. Starting with the fire that introduced “landscaping,” Scott tracks how we domesticated not merely herd animals to do the grunt work of agriculture but also many human beings—notably slaves, who for a long time were conceived as beasts of burden within the human domain. In its own fashion, even the new ruling class became herdlike, tame animals who recast every facet of life in the grim service of their crops, which grew their humans as much as the other way around.
And so it goes, step by remorseless step. But Moyne is skeptical:
That Scott presents as his major finding that eons separated the development of cultivation and the rise of the state not only cuts against any conclusion that the pathways into state bondage were inevitable; it also goes far to undermine Scott’s entire outlook. The fact that nothing about the innovations of fire and agriculture and “incipient urbanism” necessarily required states and their iniquities means that many of the good things “civilization” has brought are indeed separable from its greatest evils and therefore do not necessarily deserve the opprobrium implied by both the title and the argument of his book. Though Scott does not observe it, the first half of Against the Grain reads like a paean to a different style of agricultural civilization in the making: the best of a stateless hunting-and-gathering society tweaked in the name of bread. It also suggests a lesson that Scott would never draw: that the state itself has never been given on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. He acknowledges that there is no decisive moment when the state emerged and no single feature that defines it. In his challenge to the inevitability of the state after fire and even agriculture, Scott misses the chance to develop a theory of the variety of governments, not only in the past but also in the future.
By degrees leading to this conclusion:
If freedom and equality are things that only a specific set of events in the modern history of the state has allowed us to value, then Scott’s project to go back before its origin to find earlier expressions of them is a projection onto our ancestors, not the discovery of an alternative world to be won by turning our backs on modernity. And it is surely no excuse to give up the task of saving our civilizations and states in the name of the modern values only they have allowed propounding. 
Yet Scott is so enamored with the versatility of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors—especially when compared with the monotonies of grain cultivation—that he never thinks to describe how they -interpreted the freedom and equality he assigns to them. He never confronts the possibility that only a new kind of state could make new kinds of ideals possible, including his own. His fascinating presentation of human self-domestication is a highlight of Against the Grain. But like Clastres—and, more indirectly, Friedrich Nietzsche before him—Scott is implicitly judging the state wanting by criteria that are unthinkable without its rise. He not only ignores the tremendous defects of “uncivilized” life, but he also fails to reflect on the absence in it of the ideals of liberty and equality that alone could justify his admiration. Scott is a product of the modern state who does not care to know it.
Worth a look.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Computation, games, humor, and common sense

Mark Liberman has an interesting post today, Cartoonist walks into a language lab… He poses a task for machine learning:
New Yorker cartoons are usually captioned these days, with fewer in the lovely mute style of a William Steig.  A general theory of language use should be able to explain how cartoon captions, a genre of text, are understood. The cartoons illustrate (sic) the dependence of language comprehension on context (the one created by the drawing) and background knowledge (about, for example, rats running mazes, guys marooned on islands, St. Peter’s gate, corporate culture, New Yorkers). The popular Caption Contest is an image-labeling task, generating humorous labels for an incongruous scene.
A bit later:
The weekly caption contest has yielded a massive amount of data that is being analyzed using NLP and machine learning techniques.  (The contest: Entrants submit captions for a cartoon; from the 5000 or so entries the editors pick three finalists; readers pick the winner by voting on-line.)  Just think of the studies that can be done with this goldmine of a data set!  Identify the linguistic properties that distinguish the winning captions from the two losers. Build a classifier that can estimate relative funniness from properties such as word choices, grammatical complexity, affective valence (“sentiment”), readability, structure of the joke, etc.  Use the classifier to predict the winners on other weeks. Or the rated humorosity of other cartoons.
 
Heavy hitters from places like Microsoft, Google, Michigan, Columbia, Yale, and Yahoo have taken swings at this ... The results (from the few published studies I found) have been uninspiring.
Liberman then asks a crucial question: “Is labeling New Yorker cartoons harder than playing Go?” – you may recall that not too long ago Google’s DeepMind made a media splash when one of its programs defeated the best human expert on Go. Liberman’s answer to his question is, of course, yes, labeling cartoons is harder.

He explains:
Go has a conventionalized set-up and explicit rules. A captioning model has to figure out what game is being played.  Captioning is a type of scene labeling but that requires recognizing what’s in the scene which in this case is, literally, ridiculous: exaggerated, crude, eccentric, stylized renderings of the world. Quite different from the naturalistic scenes that have been the focus of so much attention in AI. 
He goes on to observe:
... humor turns on a vast amount of background knowledge. That feeling when you just don’t get it happens when we either don’t know the relevant stuff or can’t figure out what’s relevant to that cartoon.  A deep learning network might well acquire the requisite knowledge of the world but not from 80,000 drawings: insufficient data.  Same for analyzing the captions: it’s necessary to know the language.  People have acquired most of the knowledge that's required by other means.
That, common sense background knowledge, is one of the problems that squelched classic symbolic processing several decades ago. Researchers realized that in dealing with even very simple language, we draw on a vast back of common sense knowledge. How are we doing to hand-code all that into a computer? And once we've done it, what of combinatorial explosion?

Friday Fotos: More Festival Flix (Hoboken Arts & Music Fall 2017)

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Blade Runner 2049, a quick hit

Saw Blade Runner 2049 yesterday evening. I had to. Don’t you?

I saw the original when it came out and have watched some DVD version many times. I know, because I’ve seen it on the screen, how Ridley Scott’s original influenced a whole world of films, near future noir, if you will.

Visually, thematically, temperamentally, the new film is true to the original. It’s a long film, 2h 43m, and feels a bit slow, as the original did from time to time. But there’s nothing quite like Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy (Rutger Hower) in it–I’m talking energy, impact (for some characters did have a Pris look about them).

Not only is it visually true to the original – and spectacular – but it has picked up motifs, images, aura from films influenced by the first. Thus I saw Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (did I ever see this one!), The Fifth Element, the Matrix films, and Spielberg’s A.I. up on the screen. But also, and oddly enough, Kubrick’s 2001, which is much earlier (1969) that Ridley Scott’s (1982).

On the whole, I agree with A. O. Scott, The New York Times:
As such, “Blade Runner 2049” stands in relation to “Blade Runner” almost exactly as K stands in relation to Deckard before the two meet: as a more docile, less rebellious “improvement,” tweaked and retrofitted to meet consumer demand. And the customers are likely to be satisfied. But now and then — when K and Deckard are knocking around the old gambling palace; when K visits an enigmatic mind-technician played by Carla Juri — you get an inkling that something else might have been possible. Something freer, more romantic, more heroic, less determined by the corporate program.
As for the underlying philosophical issues, in the end, I must confess, I don’t quite get it, not with this film, not with its predecessor. It was only in reading Scott’s review just now that I remembered, oh that’s what it’s about: “How do we know what is real, ourselves included?” Well, yes, how DO we know? The film attempts to convert that question into a puzzle, a matter of dogged and clever detective work, when perhaps it should be working harder to reveal it as an unending mystery.

* * * * *

Villeneuve’s picked up a trick from the Wachowskis, who released The Animatrix, a collection of nine animated shorts situated in the Matrix universe. Villeneuv’s commissioned three shorts, though only one of them is animated. That one, Black Out 2022, is by Shinichirō Watanabe, who directed Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, two of my favorite anime series. You can see these three films on YouTube, both separately and combined. Here’s the three of them together:

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Two dogs and I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-it-ain't-human

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Taboo, abstraction, and living with animals

The late Mary Douglas had been kind enough to blurb my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. After it's publication in 2001 my editor, Bill Frucht, put my directly in touch with Douglas and we began corresponding on a variety of things. Here's a long note I sent her on June 22, 2001.

* * * * * 

Dear Mary,

I've been reading a bit about the Nuer and their cattle (Evans-Pritchard 1940) and the Huaulu and their taboos (Valeri 2000) and find myself wondering what it would take to argue that abstract thinking emerged in our ancestors as a means of organizing their minds under the pressure of living among animals. Why the need to differentiate ourselves from them?

As long as you think of the mind as the Cartesian instrument of rational thought, the question is unintelligible. The differences between us and them are quite obvious. From that point of view, primitive thought is hopelessly confused.

But, of course, that point of view is wrong. The differentiation required is social and emotional, not perceptual and logical.

Cousin Sue 

First, however, let me tell a story. It is about my cousin Sue. She was born in the city and raised in the suburbs. But in her mid-30s or so she moved to the country and married a veterinarian. She began to raise sheep, not as pets, but as a source of wool to be spun into thread which she would then weave into cloth. When the sheep reached a certain age, she would take them to the butcher and, a day later, she and her husband would stock their freezer with mutton.

Despite the fact that these sheep are not pets, taking them to be butchered was not easy. Nor was their first meal comprised of mutton from sheep they'd raised. I'm told that when Sue and Larry sat down to that meal they were rather glum and sat there in silence, eating nothing. Then Sue said "baaa" in imitation of a sheep, they laughed, and began eating.

It seems to me that that complex of attitudes and behavior is what taboo is about. In making a sheep's call my cousin was both acknowledging an identity with the animal she'd raised and signaling their difference. Once that had been done it became possible to eat the meat.

Wolves to Dogs

So I now find myself wondering just when in our evolutionary history we first found ourselves faced with the problem of living among animals. It's a problem both of how we interact with animals and of the capacity of our neural machinery at the time. At the moment I'm thinking about the domestication of wolves into dogs, which seems to have happened on the order of 130 kya to 150 kya. By that time we were fairly large-brained. Up until then we knew animals as predators and prey. To domesticate wolves we must, in effect, come to know them as children and as subordinate companions and workers. That is, we must take them into our social system.

As Valeri has noted in his remarks on the Huaulu and their dogs (2000, p. 229), from a dog's point of view, the human master is just Top Dog. That is, dogs assimilate humans to their own social system. My point is that the identification goes in the other direction as well. Thus John Morgan (1999, p. 205) notes that "domestication was greatly facilitated because humans and wolves shared similar cooperative hunting behaviors and extended family social structure. Thus wolves and humans were pre-adapted to fit into each other's ecologies and families. Tame wolves and their descendants would have provided an enormous competitive advantage for the human groups that domesticated them.... From the dog's point of view, humans were pack members who brought food to the pups. Human support enabled dogs to have two litters of pups per year instead of the single little in wolves."