Friday, June 23, 2017

Maybe quantum mechanics isn't so weird after all

I more or less believe that on general principle, but I don't quite follow this interesting article by Philip Ball, Quantum common sense. I haven't read it with care, at least not yet. But I wanted to park some quotes here for the record. I thought this was kind of neat:
It’s not enough, though, for a quantum state to survive decoherence in order for us to be able to measure it. Survival means that the state is measurable in principle – but we still have to get at that information to detect the state. So we need to ask how that information becomes available to an experimenter. (Really, who’d have thought there is so much to the mere act of observation?)

Here’s the exciting answer: it’s precisely because a quantum system interacts with its environment that it leaves an imprint on a classical measuring device at all. If we were able, with some amazing instrument, to record the trajectories of all the air molecules bounding off the speck of dust, we could figure out where the speck is without looking at it directly; we could just monitor the imprint it leaves on its environment. And this is, in effect, all we are doing whenever we determine the position, or any other property, of anything: we’re detecting not the object itself, but the effect it creates.

Just as coupling the object to its environment sets decoherence in train, so too it imprints information about the object onto the environment, creating a kind of replica. A measurement of that object then amounts to acquiring this information from the replica.
What Quantum Darwinism tell us is that, fundamentally, the issue is not really about whether probing physically disturbs what is probed (although that can happen). It is the gathering of information that alters the picture. Through decoherence, the Universe retains selected highlights of the quantum world, and those highlights have exactly the features that we have learnt to expect from the classical world. We come along and sweep up that information – and in the process we destroy it, one copy at a time.

Decoherence doesn’t completely neutralise the puzzle of quantum mechanics. Most importantly, although it shows how the probabilities inherent in the quantum wave function get pared down to classical-like particulars, it does not explain the issue of uniqueness: why, out of the possible outcomes of a measurement that survive decoherence, we see only one of them. Some researchers feel compelled to add this as an extra (you might say ‘super-common-sensical’) axiom: they define reality as quantum theory plus uniqueness.
Seems rather poetic, doesn't it?

Blossom in black and white

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Trump's foreign policy: An end to American hegemony?

Writing in The American Conservative, Andrew Bacevich notes a post-Trump nostalgia for a world order characterized as, "Liberalism, along with norms, rules, openness, and internationalism: these ostensibly define the postwar and post-Cold War tradition of American statecraft." He goes on to note that such a view leaves out a few things:
Or, somewhat more expansively, among the items failing to qualify for mention in the liberal internationalist, rules-based version of past U.S. policy are the following: meddling in foreign elections; coups and assassination plots in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere; indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns in North Korea and throughout Southeast Asia; a nuclear arms race bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon; support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Iran, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere—many of them abandoned when deemed inconvenient; the shielding of illegal activities through the use of the Security Council veto; unlawful wars launched under false pretenses; “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and the indefinite imprisonment of persons without any semblance of due process.
A bit later:
Prior to Trump’s arrival on the scene, few members of the foreign-policy elite, now apparently smitten with norms, fancied that the United States was engaged in creating any such order. America’s purpose was not to promulgate rules but to police an informal empire that during the Cold War encompassed the “Free World” and became more expansive still once the Cold War ended.
Trump’s conception of a usable past differs radically from that favored in establishment quarters. Put simply, the 45th president does not subscribe to the imperative of sustaining American hegemony because he does not subscribe to the establishment’s narrative of 20th-century history. According to that canonical narrative, exertions by the United States in a sequence of conflicts dating from 1914 and ending in 1989 enabled good to triumph over evil. Absent these American efforts, evil would have prevailed. Contained within that parable-like story, members of the establishment believe, are the lessons that should guide U.S. policy in the 21st century.

Trump doesn’t see it that way, as his appropriation of the historically loaded phrase “America First” attests. In his view, what might have occurred had the United States not waged war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and had it not subsequently confronted the Soviet Union matters less than what did occur when the assertion of hegemonic prerogatives found the United States invading Iraq in 2003 with disastrous results.

In effect, Trump dismisses the lessons of the 20th century as irrelevant to the 21st. Crucially, he goes a step further by questioning the moral basis for past U.S. actions. Thus, his extraordinary response to a TV host’s charge that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer.
Concerning the Trump resistance:
Say this for the anti-Trump resistance: while the fascism-just-around-the-corner rhetoric may be overheated and a touch overwrought, it qualifies as forthright and heartfelt. While not sharing the view that Trump will rob Americans of their freedoms, I neither question the sincerity nor doubt the passion of those who believe otherwise. Indeed, I am grateful to them for acting so forcefully on their convictions. They are inspiring.

Not so with those who now wring their hands about the passing of the fictive liberal international order credited to enlightened American statecraft. They are engaged in a great scam, working assiduously to sustain the pretense that the world of 2017 remains essentially what it was in 1937 or 1947 or 1957 when it is not.
H/t 3 Quarks Daily.

The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over 50 years

Updated 6.23.17.

In the course of thinking about my recent rejection at New Literary History I found myself, once again, rethinking the evolution of the profession as I’ve seen it from the 1960s to the present. In fact, that rejection has led me, once again, to rethink that history and to change some of my ideas, particularly about the significance of the 1970s.

This post is a guide to my historically-oriented thinking about academic literary criticism. Much, but not all, of the historical material is autobiographical in nature.

I list the articles more or less in the order of writing. In some cases a post has been rewritten and revised several years after I first wrote it. The link I give is to the most recent version.

Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life (1975-2015)

This is about my years at Johns Hopkins, both undergraduate (1965-1969) and graduate (1969-72). That’s when, I see in retrospect, I left the profession intellectually, with a “structuralism and beyond” MA thesis on “Kubla Khan,” even before I’d joined it institutionally, but getting my PhD. I originally wrote this while I was working on my PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo. Art Efron published a journal, Paunch, and I wrote it for that. The current version includes interpolated comments from 2014 and 2015.

The Demise of Deconstruction: On J. Hillis Miller’s MLA Presidential Address 1986. PMLA. Vol. 103, No. 1, Jan. 1988, p. 57.

A letter I published in PMLA in which I replied to J. Hillis Miller on the eclipse of deconstruction. I suggested 1) that deconstruction had a different valence for those who merely learned it in graduate school than for those who had struggled to create it, and 2) that it was in eclipse because it did the same thing to every text.

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology (2006-2016)

At the beginning of every course (at Johns Hopkins) Dick Macksey would hand out a chronology, a way, I suppose, of saying “history is important” without lecturing on the topic. It was with that in mind that I originally posted this rough and ready chronology in a comment to a discussion at The Valve. The occasion was an online symposium that interrogated Theory by discussing the anthology, Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP 2005). I then emended it a bit and made it a freestanding post. As the title suggests, it juxtaposes developments in cognitive science and literary theory from the 1950s through the end of the millennium.

[BTW The entire Theory’s Empire symposium is worth looking at, including the comments on the posts:]

Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker (2007-2011)

An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism (2015)

Steven Pinker has been a severe critic of the humanities for ignoring recent work in the social and behavioral sciences. He has also argued that the arts serve no biological purpose, that they are “cheesecake for the mind.” When I read his The Stuff of Thought (2007) I realized his later chapters contained the basis for an account of the arts. I sketched that out, added a brief account of why deconstruction had been popular, and published it as an open letter, along with his reply. It appeared first at The Valve (2007) and then at New Savanna (2011). In 2015 I posted it to a “session” at I took some of my comments in that discussion along with some other materials and published the lot at as a working paper. In a final section I propose a four-fold division of literary criticism: 1) description, 2) naturalist criticism, 3) ethical criticism, and 4) digital criticism.

Thinking is action as well (in the brain)

June 12, Science News:
Summary: Neuroscientists have recently put forward an original hypothesis -- all these cognitive functions rely on one central function: emulation. This function creates an abstract dynamic 'image' of movements, thereby enabling the brain to strengthen its motor skills and construct a precise and lasting representation of them. The fronto-parietal network, it is argued, has evolved from a network that only controlled motor skills to a much more generalized system.
* * * * *

This function creates an abstract dynamic 'image' of movements, thereby enabling the brain to strengthen its motor skills and construct a precise and lasting representation of them. The fronto-parietal network, it is argued, has evolved from a network that only controlled motor skills to a much more generalised system. This hypothesis, which is set out in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, would explain why patients who have suffered an injury in this specific part in the brain have sequelae that affect a number of functions which, at first glance, do not necessarily appear to be linked. This research could open the door to more effective multi-modal therapies for individuals with cerebral lesions.

Numerous functional imaging studies show that the fronto-parietal network is activated by very disparate tasks. This is the case for motor activities, such as picking up or pointing to an object, as well as for eye movements -- and even when no movement is involved, if we shift our attention or perform a mental calculation. Radek Ptak, a neuropsychologist at the UNIGE Faculty of medicine and the HUG Division of neurorehabilitation, puts it like this: "Why is the very same region important for so many different tasks? What is the relationship between motor skills, motor learning and the development of cognition in humans? These are the questions that lie at the heart of our research." A review of all the data currently available suggests that the tasks share a common process, which the scientists have termed "emulation." This process, which consists of planning and representing a movement without actually performing it, activates the brain network in the same way as real movements. "But we hypothesise that the brain goes a step further," explains Dr Ptak: "It uses such dynamic representations to carry out increasingly complex cognitive functions beyond just planning movements."

* * * * *

Radek Ptak, Armin Schnider, Julia Fellrath. The Dorsal Frontoparietal Network: A Core System for Emulated Action. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.05.002

Friday Fotos: Rainbow Variations on a Blossom

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Cooperative hunting among the orcas?

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said.

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.
Sperm whales are getting into the act too. Here's a video of whales skimming a line:

"After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled."

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jeremy Lent on the Great Transformation

Imagining himself speaking in the year 2050, historian Jeremy Lent imagines how the world escapes climate catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism (PDF at

I’ve finally PDF’ed my Open Letter to Dan Everett and uploaded it to Academia,edu:

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Abstract: Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguistics, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics). Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).

Dan Everett & Me . . . 1
Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics . . . 1
Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up . . . 4
Meaning in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . . . 8
Pattern in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . . . 13
Contexts of Understanding: Naturalist Criticism and Ethical Criticism . . . 21

Wonder Woman: A Quick Take

After reading the rapturous reviews and reading about young girls exiting the theaters pulling swords from their dresses and spinning lariats of glowing gold I decided to see Wonder Woman. And, yes, it was a good film. And, yes, it was still a superhero comic-book film, albeit with a grrl in the lead.

One of the fight scenes – I believe it was the first one – had me chuckling with glee. Gal Gadot was spectacular; hope she gets a raise for the next one, and profit participation. The trench warfare was appropriately grim – the War to Win All Wars, ha! And the film played nicely with Diana’s expectation that she would be fighting Ares. Her male sidekick tried to tell her it’s only a metaphor – which is surely what much of the audience was thinking as well. But, no, Diana insisted that he was real and that she’d fight him. And the film obeyed, pulling Ares out of leftfield for a final super-spectacular battle sequence (in the course of which boy sidekick sacrifices himself for the good of the cause).

And then there’s that final scene, back in the present, with Diana Prince in her office at the Louvre looking at a photograph sent to her by Bruce Wayne. It’s a photo taken at the front with Diana, male sidekick, and the others in their rag-tag gang. She’s thinking that only love can save the world.

She no doubt believes that. It may well be true. But that’s not what this movie is about. As contrarian economist Tyler Cowen observed, “Yet, immediately beneath the facade of the apparently rampant feminism is a quite traditional or even reactionary tale of martial virtue being inescapable.”

If you’re looking for a heroic woman warrior who fights with love, might I suggest Miyazaki’s Nausicaä? She’s good with a sword, but she also speaks with the animals and she’s a scientist. And, yes, she does save the world.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jabba the Hutt, or How We Communicate

This post is now over six years old, but it's one of my favorites.

* * * * *

(10.23.13) They're having an interesting discussion of conversational turn-taking over at Language Log (see the comment HERE). So I thought I'd dig out this three year old post which suggests that conversation is a bit like kids playing in a sandbox, or with blocks, or dolls. Everything is visible to everyone at all times. The trick is to coordinate movements as you move the toys around.

* * * * *

From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that.

That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole.
I don’t know how long ago I saw that program, it may well have been pre-WWW, but certainly not pre-internet, which is older than Star Wars, or at least it’s precursor, ARPAnet, is older than Star Wars. In any event, you can now read about the puppetry behind Jabba at the Wikipedia and elsewhere (scroll down to Behind the Scenes). The above description is accurate enough for my purposes.

And that purpose is to provide a metaphor, not just for music-making, but for communication in general. In particular, for speech communication. The idea is to provide an alternative that thoughtful people can use to over-ride the pernicious effects of the so-called conduit metaphor, which Michael Reddy* analyzed as a pile of lexical habits we employ when talking about language. These habits presume that we communicate by sending meaning through some kind of conduit, whether real (e.g. a telephone line) or virtual (e.g. that air between two people talking). The person at one end of the conduit puts the meaning into a packet of language, sends the packet through the conduit. The other person takes the packet from the conduit and then takes the meaning out of it.

It doesn’t work that way, not the meaning part. What does go through the conduit is a speech signal, vibrations in air, analog or digital signals through electrical lines, characters written or printed on paper, and so forth. But the meaning isn’t actually IN the signal. If it were, then we could understand any language with ease because the meaning would be in the physical signal itself. Alas, that’s not the case. Meanings are linked to segments of the signal by hard-learned linguistic conventions; and the conventions are different for each language.

What happens, then, is that the listener construes the meaning of the signal according to their understanding of the overall context and their understanding of the governing linguistic conventions. The may or may not get it right. And there’s likely to be a bit of conversational negotiation before the speakers agree on whatever is at issue.

And that is what the Jabba metaphor is about. Everyone stands in the same relationship to what appears on the TV monitor showing Jabba’s movements. In the case of a musical group, each person is playing their own part – the drummer, bass player, tuba, glockenspiel, sitar, nose flute, pipe organ, whatever – and is aware of it and what they intend next. The monitor gives them the whole, in which their part must fit.

The case of speech is trickier, for one person speaks while the others listen. The Jabba metaphor suggests that the speaker doesn’t actually know what he or she is saying until he or she actually hears it spoken. And that just doesn’t make sense.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tickle! Tickle! Magenta!


Extra! Computational Criticism Breaks with Tradition! Sky Remains Overhead

Andrew Goldstone has decided that perhaps so-called distant reading is not reading at all. The document is relatively short, “The Doxa of Reading” (PDF), and will appear in PMLA for May 2017. Goldstone takes “doxa” from Pierre Bourdieu (whom I’ve not read) who regards it “as what participants in the literary field take for granted.” What critics take for granted is “the assumption that the primary activity of academic literary study is textual interpretation.” Though Goldstone doesn’t say so, this wasn’t always the case, though it has been the case for the last five or six decades.

Bourdieu also allows for orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which stand in opposition to rupture. In Goldstone’s analysis–I refuse to call it a reading–the term “distant reading” functions as a heterodox form of reading and does so, in effect, to ward off the realization that it is not a form of reading at all but a rupture from reading. Goldstone’s analysis is both subtle and complex, just enough so that I’m not sure where he stands. But his penultimate sentence seems clear enough: “If we cease to regard the different versions of distant reading as a singular project [...] we gain a wider sense of the possibilities for scholarship.” I take that to mean in some version distant reading computational criticism really does point beyond “reading” and so to new modes of literary investigation.

In the course of his argument Goldstone considers the visual objects that have become a signal feature of so much work in computational criticism:
Looking back on the work of the Literary Lab in a recent pamphlet, Moretti asserts:
Images come first, in our pamphlets, because–by visualizing empirical findings–they constitute the specific object of study of computational criticism; they are our “text”; the counterpart to what a well-defined excerpt is to close reading. (“Literature, Measured” 3)
As an account of a quantitative methodology, this is a strange statement: visualizations are powerful exploratory tools, but they should be considered provisional summaries of the data of literary history, not primary objects. As a description of argumentative rhetoric, however, Moretti’s analogy between visualization and excerpt is illuminating. It positions the “computational critic” as an expert interpreter of visual texts, a heterodox version of the close reader.
He is correct. Those visual objects are not the “primary objects” of investigation. Yes, they are “exploratory tools”.

It seems to me that they have the character of observations (of the primary object of investigation). Think of the images created in radio astronomy; they make look rather like optical photographs, but they aren’t. The process through which they are constructed is different. The visual objects of computational criticism don’t look like photographs; they look like the charts and graphs that are ubiquitous in so many quantitative disciplines. But they have the same status in the intellectual process as those images of radio astronomy, that of observations.

It is through observations that a phenomenon of interest enters the investigative field. Observations as well have something of a descriptive character. Wouldn’t you know, description has recently become of interest in discussions of critical method and practice, along with “surface reading”.

And with that I want to turn to the aborted structuralist moment in the history of literary criticism. Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics in 1975. In his preface he observed (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning.
Culler himself never followed up on the poetics he proposed, nor did others take him up on it. To be sure, we have narratology, a poetics of the narrative. But it is hardly central to the discipline as it has been practiced over the past half-century or so.

A turn to poetics would have been a rupture from emerging interpretive practices (aka reading). But then those practices themselves constituted a rupture from the practice of a discipline rooted in philology and (traditional) literary history. While interpretive criticism has its roots before World War II, it isn’t until after the war that it became the center of critical activity. As that happened interpretive practice became the focus of scrutiny, scrutiny that led, among other things, to the (in)famous structuralism conference that took place at Johns Hopkins in 1966. But the rupture that actually happened, was not a turn to poetics, but a turn to deconstruction. And if deconstruction was noisy and obstreperous at the time, in retrospect it is clear that it was not a rupture at all, but just a further variation on interpretive reading.

It remains to be seen whether or not computational criticism will flourish as a genuine rupture from interpretative reading, though not so much as a replacement as a supplement. If so, will it find common cause with a new poetics, one based on surface “reading”, description, and perhaps even the newer psychologies (cognitive, neuro-, and evolutionary)? Can we move beyond reading, not only in the analysis of large corpora, but in the analysis of single texts? And can we move beyond a meta language centered on notions of reading and space (close, distant, hidden, surface) to one based on the intellectual operations involved (among others, description, analysis, interpretation, explanation)?

* * * * *

Of course I've addressed these issues endlessly here and in my working papers. For a start, see this post from 3 Quarks Daily, “The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age”, and in numerous blog entries and working papers (e.g. these working papers on description).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Does "distant reading" presage a return to poetics?

By all means, read the piece Goldstone links to in the first tweet,"The Doxa of Reading" (accepted for publication in PMLA).

See this piece from 3 Quarks Daily (5 may 2014), The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday Fotos: Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, June 2017






Kenan Malik asks some questions about culture and cultural appropriation

Cf. my earlier post in which I quote from his NYTimes op-ed.

H/t Jerry Coyne.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jomny Sun – OOO tweeter

From the NYTimes profile:
Sun had just emerged from the “cave” of finishing the book’s illustrations. He spent a year completing 180 drawings, pen on vellum, and managed to damage his shoulder in the process. It was his attempt to bring a sensibility reminiscent of some of his favorite writer-illustrators — Bill Watterson of “Calvin and Hobbes,” Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak — into the social-media age. In the book, an alien comes to Earth and encounters animals and trees, which he assumes are people. There is an otter that spouts art theory. An egg enduring an existential crisis. A melancholic tree. A bee who offers therapy to a bear. The story lines intersect, vanish, reappear.
Cf. My current post on Tim Morton.

Matryoshka dolls


Timothy Morton in the Guardian – "the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene"

Morton in the art world:
Over the past decade, Morton’s ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Morton’s books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Morton’s correspondence with Björk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Some of his ideas:
His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.
And so:
We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true.
Apocalypse now:
Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.
Which is to say, the apocalypse is already with us:
Morton means not only that irreversible global warming is under way, but also something more wide-reaching. “We Mesopotamians” – as he calls the past 400 or so generations of humans living in agricultural and industrial societies – thought that we were simply manipulating other entities (by farming and engineering, and so on) in a vacuum, as if we were lab technicians and they were in some kind of giant petri dish called “nature” or “the environment”. In the Anthropocene, Morton says, we must wake up to the fact that we never stood apart from or controlled the non-human things on the planet, but have always been thoroughly bound up with them. We can’t even burn, throw or flush things away without them coming back to us in some form, such as harmful pollution. Our most cherished ideas about nature and the environment – that they are separate from us, and relatively stable – have been destroyed.

Morton likens this realisation to detective stories in which the hunter realises he is hunting himself (his favourite examples are Blade Runner and Oedipus Rex). “Not all of us are prepared to feel sufficiently creeped out” by this epiphany, he says. But there’s another twist: even though humans have caused the Anthropocene, we cannot control it.
And so, believe it or not, we must rejoice:
That might sound gloomy, but Morton glimpses in it a liberation. If we give up the delusion of controlling everything around us, we might refocus ourselves on the pleasure we take in other beings and life itself. Enjoyment, Morton believes, might be the thing that turns us on to a new kind of politics. “You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure,” the tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter timeline reads. “Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.”
And, wouldn't you know, he's been "convening with members of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to contemplate the kinds of messages we should be sending into space on a potential reboot of the Voyager mission."

Of course, not everyone is enchanted:
The Morton detractors with whom I spoke accused him of misunderstanding contemporary science, like quantum mechanics and set theory, and then claiming his distortions as support for his wild ideas. They shared a broad critique that reminded me of the sceptical adage, “If you open your mind too far, your brains will fall out.” The slurry of interesting ideas in Morton’s work doesn’t hold together under scrutiny, they say.
And, yeah, I can understand that. But:
Morton’s defenders, however, see him as something of a Ralph Waldo Emerson for the Anthropocene: his writing has value, even if it doesn’t always stand up to philosophical scrutiny. “No one in a philosophy department is going to be taking Tim Morton seriously,” Claire Colebrook, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has worked extensively on the Anthropocene, told me. But she teaches Morton’s work to undergraduates and they love it. “Why? Because they’re like, ‘Shut up and give me an idea!’”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is Shelley’s Frankenstein a Ring-Form Text?

I’ve not read Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, but I’m told that it has a complex narrative structure. Dorothea Wolschak explains:
In the core of the novel the Creature's story is presented to us framed by Victor Frankenstein's story which itself is enframed by Robert Walton's epistolary narrative. The overall structure of the novel is symmetrical: it begins with the letters of Walton, shifts to Victor's tale, then to the Creature's narration, so as to switch to Victor again and end with the records of Walton. In this manner the reader gets different versions of the same story from different perspectives. Mary Shelley's rather atypical approach not to stick to only one narrator and one defined narrative situation throughout the book creates various impressions on the reader of the novel.
Thus we have:

Walton (Frankenstein ((Creature)) Frankenstein) Walton

That looks like a ring-form. Until I’ve actually read the text I can’t say whether or not it functions in that way. It’s on my list.

H/t Giorgina Paiella

Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man in 19th century America

Tyler Cowen was a wide-ranging interview with Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and writer for The New Yorker. The whole thing is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this bit:
LEPORE: There’s this lovely series of lectures that Frederick Douglass gives in the 1860s. They have different titles, but one of them is called “Pictures in Progress.” Douglass, when he escaped from slavery, 1838, he was 20, the year before the daguerreotype comes to the United States. He sits for a daguerreotype in 1841, and he’s really transformed by what it is to see himself in a photograph.

In the 1860s, he writes all these essays about photography in which he argues that photography is the most democratic art. And he means portrait photography. And that no white man will ever make a true likeness of a black man because he’s been represented in caricature — the kind of runaway slave ad with the guy, the little figure, silhouette of the black figure carrying a sack. And, as historians have recently demonstrated, he’s the most photographed man in the 19th century. Douglass just makes a big commitment to being photographed.

COWEN: More than Lincoln?

LEPORE: Yeah, he is really obsessed with photography because what it means to have a black man represented is the kind of “I am a man” speech that you know from the 1960s, these kind of black protests, that slogan “I am a man. I’m not a caricature; I’m not less than a man.” And he writes this essay about photography, why it’s so important, and why it’s basically, although not a natively American art, is the sort of de facto American art form because even the poorest servant, even the poorest cook-maid, can afford a photograph of herself and of the people that she loves.

In previous ages, when it would be kings and bishops who were portrayed, that everybody can see themselves and can see one another and, therefore, we can understand our equality. He has this whole technologically deterministic argument about photography and progress, and it’s very much bound up in 19th-century fantasy, notions of progress. But it’s a little heartbreaking to read because that’s not what happens with photography, right?

Guitar and blue denim


Kenan Malik defends "cultural appropriation"

Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy. 
The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy. It’s the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not appropriated by others.
Earlier in the op-ed Malik had mentioned several current examples of protests against such "appropriation", including:
Earlier this year, controversy erupted when New York’s Whitney Museum picked for its Biennial Exhibition Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Many objected to a white painter like Ms. Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history. The British artist Hannah Black organized a petition to have the work destroyed.
Malik's penultimate paragraph:
To suggest that [Schutz], as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam. In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Monday, June 12, 2017

How long before we see the cabinet members kissing the Presidential ring?

Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett

This is the final post in a old series (from four years ago) on memes, cultural evolution, and the thought of Daniel Dennett. You can download a PDF of the whole series HERE. The abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.

* * * * *

Introduction: Taming the Wild Meme

These notes contain my most recent thinking on cultural evolution, an interest that goes back to my dissertation days in the 1970s at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978), included a chapter on narrative, “From Ape to Essence and the Evolution of Tales,” (subsequently published as “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self”). But that early work didn’t focus on the process of cultural evolution. Rather, it was about the unfolding of ever more sophisticated cultural forms–an interest I shared with my teacher, the late David G. Hays.

My current line of investigation is very much about process, the standard evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention as applied to cultural forms, rather than living forms. I began that work in the mid-1990s and took my cue from Hays, as I explain in the section below, “What's a meme? Where I got my conception”. At the end of the decade I had drafted a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), in which I arrived at pretty much my current conception, but only with respect to music: music memes are the culturally active properties musical sound.

I didn’t generalize the argument to language until I prepared a series of posts conceived as background to a (rather long and detailed) post I wrote for the National Humanities Institute in 2010: Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities (PDF HERE). But I didn’t actually advance this conception in that post. Rather, I tucked it into an extensive series of background posts that I posted at New Savanna prior to posting my main article. That’s where, using the emic/etic distinction, I first advanced the completely general idea that memes are observable properties of objects and things that are culturally active. I’ve collected that series of posts into a single downloadable PDF: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2.

But I still had doubts about that position. Though the last three of those background posts were about language, I still had reservations. The problem was meaning: If that conception was correct, then word meanings could not possibly be memetic. Did I really want to argue that?

The upshot of this current series of notes is that, yes, I really want to argue it. And I have done at some length while using several articles by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as my foil. For the most part I focus on figuring out what kinds of entities play the role of memes, but toward the end, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”, I have a few remarks about long-term dynamics, that is, about cultural change.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Blue and Green (flowers)


Notes Toward a Naturalist Cultural History

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley 

I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify.

–Edward W. Said

This post is something of a pastiche, a bit of bricolage assembled from flotsam and jetsam floating around here and there. My ultimate target is human history, which I believe to be driven by culture or, perhaps more precisely, by human cultural aspirations. It’s an old and somewhat discredited idea. My proximal target is the New Historicism, as it is called in literary circles.

And my method is, well, Shandyian, progression through digression. First, I quote from the famous archaeology passage in Lévi-Strauss’s travelogue and intellectual biography, Tristes Tropiques. Then comes a parody of New Historicist practice that I introduced into a discussion around the corner at Language Log. Responding to an objection by Geoff Nunberg, I responded with a somewhat longer and more substantive comment. With a bit of editing that has become Reflective Abstraction in the History of Mentalities, in which I argue for directional change in that history, and do so using an example of my own (from Amleth to Hamlet) and two examples from Stephen Greenblatt. I conclude with a statement about culture as a driving force in history. That statement is lifted from an early, and unpublished, draft of Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, which is my major methodological statement to date.

Lévi-Strauss: History as Archaeology

Tristes Tropiques, published in 1955, established Lévi-Strauss as a figure to be reckoned with. This well-known passage is from Chapter 6, “The Making of an Anthropologist” (Atheneum, 1974, p. 57):
When I became acquainted with Freud’s theories, I quite naturally looked upon them as the application, to the individual human being, of a method the basic pattern of which is represented by geology. In both cases, the researcher, to begin with, finds himself faced with seemingly impenetrable phenomena; in both cases, in order to take stock of, and gauge, the elements of a complex situation, he must display subtle qualities, such as sensitivity, intuition and taste. And yet, the order which is thus introduced into a seemingly incoherent mass is neither contingent nor arbitrary. Unlike the history of the historians, that of the geologist is similar to the history of the psychoanalyst in that it tries to project in time – rather in the manner of a tableau vivant – certain basic characteristics of the physical or mental universe . . . Following Rousseau, and in what I consider to be a definitive manner, Marx established that social science is no more founded on the basis of events than physics is founded on sense data: the object is to construct a model and to study its property [sic] and its different reactions in laboratory conditions in order later to apply the observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings, which may be far removed from what had been forecast.
Note three things: First the references to Freud and Marx. These would become to go-to theorists on Continent-influenced literary study in the latter half of the 20th Century though, of course, their ideas would be refracted through, reflected from, and combined with those of other thinkers, earlier and later. Second, note the geological metaphor, and the stratigraphy implicit in it. Lévi-Strauss had set that up in a previous paragraph (p. 56): “A pale blurred line, or an often almost imperceptible difference in the shape and consistency of rock fragments, are evidence of the fact that two oceans once succeeded each other where, today, I can see nothing but barren soil.” Third, “construct a model”, yes; but just how do we study history’s “different reactions in laboratory conditions”?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On the shore



Trump, the person (DJT) versus the role (POTUS)

Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic has a new post up, A New Jurisprudence for an Oathless Presidency, in which she considers, as she has in earlier posts, the judicial fate of Trump’s travel ban. Her discussion turns “on whether the judiciary can permissibly consider off-the-cuff statements made by Trump and his associates as evidence of religious animus in the drafting of the executive orders,” a matter which may soon end up before the Supreme Court. The issue is the intent of the order and what constitutes legitimate evidence of that intend.

Heretofore the practice has been to ignore such “off-the-cuff statements” (including Presidential tweets) because, in effect, they are merely personal statements and cannot be taken to reflect the intention of actions taken in the name of the Presidency. For reasons Jurecic has stated before and reiterates here, the courts are now allowing such statements to be taken into evidence. There is the opinion that Trump himself does not make a firm distinction between his personal interests and opinions and the Presidency and therefore the courts cannot treat his actions in the ordinary way.

And so Jurecic ends up here:
And examining Trump’s campaign-trail and presidential statements on the travel ban—an examination the majority considers permissible under McCreary—the court finds the national security rationale behind the travel ban to have been proffered in bad faith. (In her concurrence, Judge Stephanie Thacker reaches the same conclusion only on the basis of post-inauguration statements by Trump, having reasoned that candidate Trump’s comments are not appropriately considered.)

There are certainly disagreements to be had with this analysis. (Judge Niemeyer, for example, argues that it substantially misapplies both Mandel and Din. On Lawfare, Peter Margulies and Josh Blackman have made similar points.) But if the courts are going to write a new jurisprudence for an oathless presidency into the law, Mandel and Din actually make for a very natural place to start. Both literally concern the question of “bad faith,” the same question raised by whether the courts can trust Trump’s fidelity to his oath. To put it another way, the cases are an expression of the “presumption of regularity,” the idea that we can usually trust public officials to do their duty. And as the Trump administration is discovering, that presumption of regularity is only a presumption, which courts can waive in extraordinary circumstances.

If the majority—along with the number of other courts that have ruled against both the original and the revised travel ban—is crafting a new body of law for a new kind of presidency outside the presumption of regularity, why not say so explicitly? I suspect that many onlookers sympathetic to the plaintiffs but concerned by the charge into uncharted legal territory might be comforted by a direct acknowledgement of the dynamics at work here, but the rhetorical signposts of blindness and sight may be as close as the courts can comfortably get. It may be a question of wanting to step lightly or to avoid further accusations of making up law from whole cloth. Or perhaps some of the judges ruling against the ban are seeing through a glass darkly, and may not themselves be entirely aware of the implications.
That’s what’s interesting, that the judges may be “crafting a new body of law for a new kind of presidency” and this is being done is full view of the public. At the center of this action we have the distinction between a person, in this case Donald J. Trump, and the status that person occupies, the presidency of the United States.

That distinction, of course, is quite general and applies to all manner of organizational life, both public and private, and not just to the presidency. The idea of a meritocracy, for example, depends on the distinction. One succeeds in an organization based on one’s competence and accomplishments, not on one’s attachments to kith and kin. Is the Trump presidency going to unfold as a morality play about that distinction?

Jurecic concludes:
Courts regularly rely on legal fictions and simplifications, which are what make it possible to map the reasoned structure of law onto a chaotic and unreasonable world. There is nothing wrong or unusual about this. The difference here is that the bizarre facts of the travel ban cases and the bad faith at the core of Trump’s presidency have exacerbated—to the point of absurdity—the gap between the abstract legal questions at play under existing doctrine and the facts at the ground. The situation recalls Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific crisis, in which an existing paradigm of thought begins to lose its ability to explain and predict the shape of things. We may be at that point now—where the paradigm of deference to the executive in national security without reference to the integrity of the president’s oath is clearly faltering but the jurisprudence of an oathless presidency has yet to fully emerge.

* * * * *

You might want to look at an earlier article by Jurecic, Body Double: What Medieval Executive Theory Tells Us About Trump’s Twitter Accounts, where she says:
The astute reader will instinctively see what I’m driving at here: President Trump’s two Twitter accounts. Indeed, I want to propose here almost entirely with a straight face that the relationship between the @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump accounts is the new manifestation of a very old dynamic. That is, the distinction between @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump is the distinction between the office and the person who fills it, what we might call the President’s “Twitter politic” and his “Twitter natural.”
You might also want to review a post I made shortly after the election, The Crown and the Presidency, 2016, in which I discuss the Netflix series, The Crown, and point out that one of the central themes of that series, at least in its first season, is the distinction between the person, Elizabeth, and the status she came to occupy, Queen of England.