Thursday, November 9, 2017

I’m confused, don’t know which way is up, time to ramble [#HEX01 #DH]

Well, not really confused. But there’s a lot going on so I need to just sit back a bit and THINK.

HEX01 & ring composition

I’m psyched about my upcoming talk at HEX01, the First Workshop on the History of Expressive Systems. I’ll be Skyping it in early Tuesday morning (the 14th). The talk’s called “Abstract Patterns in Stories: From the intellectual legacy of David G. Hays” and will give me a chance to get some early work of mine, and of Dave Hays, my teacher, on the record before an audience that’s actually interested in it, which is more than I can say for literary critics, even those who profess to be interested in cognitive science. Oh sure, they’re interested in cognitive science, within limits. But let’s not go there now.

Anyhow, I’ve been working on a presentation version of the material, which, of course, is necessarily very different from the written document. I’m including some material oriented toward folks who might be interested in making interactive ring-form narratives/games. And I’m discovering new things in the process. Not radically/deeply new, mind you. But interestingly new. It’s exciting.

I’m beginning to get a feel for the inner logic, the myth logic, of these ring-form narratives – see Tuesday’s Vehicularization: A Control Principle in a Complex Modal Animal (w/ new note on King Kong). It’s about temporal horizons, which seem to get shorter and shorter as we approach the center, and then they start to open up once we’re through it. (See opening paragraph of the vehicularization post.) I even think I can make this work on “Kubla Khan”, where all this started.

These are complicated objects, these texts, these movies. They have lots of properties, lots of features. Figuring out which ones are critical to the underlying mechanisms and which are peripheral, that’s tough. It seems to go in layers. You start with the ‘outside’, the overall form, get a descriptive feel for that. Then the next layer begins to clarify. Perhaps you have to adjust your description of the first layer, perhaps not. Now you’ve got two layers of descriptive material. Now the third emerges.

Of course, ‘layer’ is just a metaphor. But it seems to be a useful one. The work proceeds in stages, each building on the earlier. It may also forces changes. Looks like the old hermeneutic circle, doesn’t it?

This thinking is exhausting. So I’m tired, good tired, but tired nonetheless.

Cultural evolution – and a book?

But I’ve been neglecting my cultural evolution stuff, the open letter to John Lawler that I mentioned back in August, along with the working paper that seems to have emerged from that, yet another run on the direction of cultural evolution in 19th century Anglophone literature. And behind that lurks that book on cultural evolution that I agreed to do well over a year ago, but haven’t gotten to it, yet.

I thought I’d get back to it early this year, but my mood dropped and I did little intellection work for several months (look at my post counts for March through July of this year) and then, when things started to pick up, literature outpaced cultural evolution, and still does. I don’t know how that situation will resolve itself. Do I want to do a book on cultural evolution? Sure. Do I want to do a book on, say, ring-composition? Heck yeah! Which one first, can I do them at the same time? Which one is more likely to find an audience?

The thing is, I’ve actually got a publisher interested in the cultural evolution book.

We’ll see.

Blindness in academic literary criticism

Back in lit crit land, it’s becoming clearer and clearer then when academic lit crit decided to throw in with meaning as its focus, it adopted a mode of thought that has blinded it to description and form. The irony is, of course, is that form is a key concept in how it framed its interest in meaning. It’s a crazy business.

There’s this diffuse notion of the text and this idea of form as making literary texts special. Taken together they blind critics to the visible mechanisms of form. At this point literary criticism has nowhere to go. It can keep rehashing and remixing existing methods, run some (trivial) variations on them, but it’s not going to get anywhere.

Sonnet 129 & mechanisms – Eureka!

Back to the top, in working on the talk for HEX01 I got another chance to think through the work I did on Sonnet 129 back in the 1970s, for that’s at the center of my talk, which is computational in nature. Doing that work was a great experience for me; it changed the way I thought about the mind, and about texts and literature. And yet, alas, I don’t see that there’s anyway to convey what I learned to literary critics. The barrier to entry – as they say in the business world ¬– is too high. You’ve got to understand those networks, thoroughly and intuitively. It took me a semester’s worth of one-on-one tutoring (by Hays) to get me into that game and then it was another year or more before I drafted the sonnet paper.

So, what did I get out of that? A feel for mechanism, a feel for the mechanics of mind. The model we built – conceptually – was and remains only a toy model. But a toy model is better than no model at all. The thing is, the model Hays and I (and others) crafted was full embodied. We had a sensorimotor system there, and ways to connect with motivation and emotion. And my cognitive sketch of faculty psychology gave us a way of thinking about how the mind thinks about itself (and its body). This wasn’t mere hand-waving gestures, but explicit constructions. Toy, yes. But explicit.

And when it finally clicked, Eureka! And that’s what I did one day, I jumped for joy and chuckled for 10 minutes, the full (apocryphal) Archimedes experience. I forget just what occasioned the joy, but I think it was figuring out how the final coupled of the sonnet related to the rest of it. That is, figuring out how to construct a network that would do THAT job.

You know, it really is a matter of form. Literary form IS special. As are literary texts, but also films, etc. Why? Because the require the full cooperative interaction of all our mental faculties, the lizard brain as well as the mammalian brain. They’ve all got to work together.

Well, that toy model I built to account for Shakespeare’s “The Expense of Spirit” allowed me to get a glimpse of how it all works. The mind, not just the mind as philosophers seem to think of it, as a substance that may or may not be material, but as a complex self-organizing and self-aware mechanisms. THAT’s what I got out of my work at Buffalo.

One day undergraduates will be able to play with and examine such models. They could do it now if they were put before them. But....

Two formative intellectual experiences

So, two important intellectual experiences early in my career: “Kubla Khan” and “The Expense of Spirit”. The first taught me that literary texts have definite form, that that form is real, is there in the text, and is not just something the critic projects into the text. The second gave me a way to think about where and how that form comes about, a way to think about the mind.

Meanwhile, the Bergen Arches Project

Meanwhile, back in Northern New Jersey, Greg Edgell and I are incorporating our Bergen Arches project as a nonprofit corporation. Next step, raise money to get a feasibility study.

Step by step.

This, obviously, is a very different kind of effort from my intellectual work. But, in the large, they share a common goal:

To Make the World a Better Place

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