Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Vehicularization & Ring-Form: Remarks on some issues raised at #HEX01

Edit 11.16.17: I've added some new material to the section on ontological mismatch. I've marked it by highlighting it.
I enjoyed presenting to HEX01: First Workshop on the History of Expressive Systems. I wish I’d had more time (don’t we all?), I wish I’d been there in person to talk with people and play with the exhibits. We do what we can.

I’ve been thinking about these issues for years. And will continue doing so. Indeed, between the time I submitted a draft paper (Abstract Patterns in Stories: From the intellectual legacy of David G. Hays)...

And the time I put the last touches on the PowerPoint I used for the talk ...

I had a few ideas that pushed the work forward here and there. I continue the push in these notes, which are rather informal. I’m just trying to get the ideas down on (virtual) paper.

Of course, the workshop was about history, so what was I doing presenting new ideas? Continuing the history. Oh yes, I presented some history, the computational ideas worked out by David Hays and his students in the mid-1970s, and how I, a student of literature, came to them. But streams of intellectual development don’t stop just because they’re always disappearing into the past.

More importantly, things change, deeply. I went into the 1970s with one set of ideas – call it paradigm in Kuhn’s sense, an épistème in Foucault’s – which I used to think about how language and literature work. I encountered a very specific issue (problematic?) within that paradigm, the structure of “Kubla Khan”, and my efforts to deal with that issue forced me to think in terms outside that paradigm, to start cobbling together a new paradigm (if I may). Am I there yet? Who knows?

That’s what I address in the first of these notes, about ontological mismatch in our thinking. Then I take a look at the triune model of the brain, as Hays and I recast it in terms of control hierarchy. I then use that recasting to think about ring-form in King Kong. I conclude with some remarks about Heart of Darkness.

A half-century of ontological mismatch (beyond the singularity)

I mean ontology in the sense it has come to have in computer and cognitive science, the organization of different types of objects in some domain. Prior to my work on “Kubla Khan” [1] I had internalized a certain ontology for dealing with literary phenomena. But the moment I decided to interpret line-end punctuation like parentheses, brackets, and braces in a mathematical expression (or like nested parentheses in a LISP expression) I moved out of that ontology and into a different one. It’s worth noting that, when I made that decision, I specifically thought about the computer programming course I had taken, and how, in THAT world, if you place a comma where a colon is expected, it won’t work.

The problem, then, is how to think about literary texts in a world where LISP expressions are ‘native’ objects.

Of course, we–me, my teachers, others–didn’t realize that that’s what had happened. (Of course, we didn’t think in terms of conceptual ontologies at all.) We just thought I was doing something strange and interesting within the existing (or perhaps emerging) ontology. The same with my 1976 paper on Sonnet 129 [2]. To be sure, it looked very different from every other article in the special issue of MLN. It had all those diagrams, while the other papers had no diagrams at all.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that, when I did that work on “Kubla Khan”, I had irreversibly left the conceptual world of academic literary criticism. “Irreversible” because I can’t go back, though I can do good imitations.

Contemporary work in computational criticism presents the same problem. The desire to call it “distant reading” reflects a commitment to the standard ontology, an ontology is which the text is only incidentally marks on paper. In the standard ontology the text is, well, that’s hard to say. It’s that thing that you read, it’s somehow tethered to those marks on the page, but it’s more than those marks.

Well of course its more than those marks, but I can’t think of a better way to characterize that “more” than to think of it as come kind of computational process. And that’s what computational critics are scrupulously avoiding. On the one hand thinking of the mind as somehow fundamentally computational is of little practical value in their computational work. But also, they need to deflect the criticism of their more traditional colleagues who are wont to think of the notion of the mind as computational as, you know, the work of the devil.

Yet, in their own work, computational critics are working within an ontology in which the text is just marks on paper. The (miraculous? not really, but very artful (rare device)) craft in computational criticism is to analyze massive collections of such (mere) marks in a way that reveals the traces of mind, thousands and tens of thousands of minds reading. Think of it, from mere marks to the mind. That’s what computational criticism allows.

THAT ontology is different from, incommensurate with, the ontology of ordinary lit crit. There’s a deep tension that that is being glossed over. On the one hand, computational critics call it “deep reading” and note that, no, it’s not in competition with “close reading”. They’re complementary activities, complementary perhaps, but not ontologically compatible. On the other hand, traditional critics see “computer” and give a shudder–“There be dragons! Weave a circle around them thrice, and then lock ‘em up and throw away the key!” It’s not that bad; really, it isn’t. 

But still, THAT conversation has no happy ending. But no one’s dealing with that ontological gap. It can’t be bridged. Rather, it signals a need to rethink the discipline from top to bottom.

Which brings us to The Singularity. I figure that dreams and/or nightmares of the day when computers will become super-intelligent, those fantasies are rooted in a 19th century worldview. As such there’s an ontological mismatch between them and computing technology.

More later.

Vehicularization & the Triune Brain


I learned about MacLean’s notion of the triune brain [3] sometime during my undergraduate years at Hopkins. I learned about it in Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. Some years later David Hays and I reinterpreted it in the course of working on a paper about the brain [4]. We talked of vehicularization, though we never published on it. Behaviorally, a higher order system serves as a vehicle for moving the organism to a place in the environment where control can safely be transferred to a lower order system. Conversely, when a lower order system is blocked without having satisfied the exit requirement of the current mode, transfer can be given over to a higher level system, which will then transport the organism to a location in the environment where satisfaction of the current exit condition is more likely. The overall effect of behavioral vehicularization can be stated in terms of a hill-climbing search strategy.

For example, you’ve been working hard and, all of a sudden, you notice that you’re ravenously hungry. Your lowest level system, the one that is actually capable of satisfying your hunger, wants to grab some food and start chewing. If a cheese burger or a head of lettuce is close at hand, you can see it and grab it, it does into action and your immediate hunger is sated. If no food is available, however, you turn control over to a higher-level system that then goes looking for food. If you are in your home, you’ll go to the kitchen or the pantry and see what’s available, now.

In hill-climbing a gradient is placed on the environment, the search space, such that locations most likely to satisfy the search, to fulfill the system's current need, are higher than unpromising locations. [Don't confuse a physically real environment and the abstract search space. The hill being climbed is abstract.] The organism then climbs to the top of the nearest hill and, if all is well, is satisfied. However, hill-climbing has a weakness; the local maximum may not be the global maximum for the search space. When this is the case the system is stuck at the local peak with no way of moving down it and then over to the global maximum.

So, you’re hungry. There’s nothing immediately to hand, but you smell something potentially delicious. You follow your nose and it leads you to a window. There’s no food on the window sill and the window’s filled by a screen you can’t break through. What do you do? If you insist on following your nose, you’re stuck. That’s a local maximum. So you’ve got to stop following your nose and do something else to take to a place in your environment where following your nose will be more successful.

In such a situation a modal organism can only exit the current mode. That being done, the gradient which trapped it is lifted and it is now moving along a different gradient, quite possibly one defined by an exploratory or search mode. That is budgeting. Vehicularized organisms can deal with the situation by transferring control to a higher order system which can then move the lower order system away from its local maximum to a position in the environment closer to the global maximum for that lower system. When that location is reached control is then transferred to the lower system, which climbs the hill to satisfaction.

There’s more in this post on Vehicularization [5] and this working paper on behavioral mode [6].

In gaming terms (about which I know very little), ”shooters” of whatever type require one mode of behavior while strategy games (again, of whatever type) require an entirely different mode. The first moves back and forth between immediate sensory-motor activity (the shooting) and moving about the game space. Think of it as a two vehicle game, where the shooter (reptilian brain?) is carried around by the explorer (mammalian brain?). A purely strategic game would involve more abstract modes (vehicles).

Vehicularization in King Kong

Let’s do King Kong, quick and dirty – see [7] for more detail about the film.

1. We start with Denham looking for actress to play in his adventure film. That is, he’s got a plan he wants to execute, but he can’t start until he’s found that actress. So he’s in a mode of open-ended exploration (our highest level system?) with an unbounded time horizon. As soon as he recruits Darrow he can go into execution mode (down a level), because he’s got everything else he needs.

2. Now we’re sailing to Skull Island in search of Kong. When we get there we’re going to shoot footage of Darrow and the monster, then come back, make the film, and get rich. We don’t know exactly when these things are going to happen, but we’ve got a rough time table. We’re no longer in exploration mode. Oh, and Darrow falls in love with Driscoll, the ship’s first mate. This is entirely outside Denham’s plan, but will become important as the film progresses.

3. We arrive at Skull Island. We didn’t figure on the natives, but, hey, they make for good footage. So we start shooting. We now go down to a still lower-level system, with a much tighter time horizon. Don’t know what to call this, but filming is just a means to an end. It’s a lower level of execution. Let’s do this:

Exploration >> strategic execution >> tactical execution.

But then all hell breaks loose. The natives have stolen Darrow. All bets are off. Now we’ve got to rescue her. And so...

4. We venture into Kong’s territory. We’re now into physical survival, which is still lower than tactical execution. I’m not going to try to come up with a proper name, as I’m not actually trying to build a model (yet). But you get the idea. Physical survival in the jungle, defending yourself against dinosaurs, that’ a very different kind of activity from shooting film. Naturally, it’s Driscoll, the ship’s mate who’s fallen in love with Darrow, who leads the hunt and sticks with it.


Ω. We’ve reached the heart of the film. And, to the extent that we identify with Darrow, we’re simply frozen in fear–and, BTW, there’s a technical literature on this, though I don’t have citations available at the moment. The freeze response is a well-known last-ditch defense mechanism in that animal world. At this point we can do nothing but watch as Kong and T-Rex battle it out and hope for the best.

Kong wins, and now we can switch out of this rock-bottom freeze mode and start activating ever higher-level vehicles: 4’, 3’, 2’, 1’.

At this point I’m going to break off and, in the annoying manner of math texts, leave the rest as an exercise for the reader. I’m doing this because it’s not a simple matter of bringing ever higher level vehicles back on line. Oh, we do do that, but we keep the lower level vehicles around for action as well. After all, at the very end we’re into physical survival as Kong rampages through New York City, picks Darrow out of an apartment building where she’d gone with her fiancé, Driscoll, to hide. But now we’ve got the resources of Western Civilization on our side as Kong is killed by men in airplanes (remember, this is 1933; the planes are more sophisticated that WWI, but not WWII level).

And Denham’s original plan to get rich seems shot to hell. Yes, they sold a lot of tickets to the show, but how much of that money is he going to keep once the law suits have been settled? All that seems clear at the end is that Darrow and Driscoll are going to be married (and live happily ever after).

Which, in the end, was the point of the whole exercise. That may not have been what Denham was up to, but it’s what this film, King Kong, was up to. This is a story of true love leading to marriage which has been disguised as a jungle adventure. Why? Answering that question will involve some serious myth logic (Lévi-Strauss plus Freud).

More later.

Heart of Darkness: Story (fabula) and plot (syuzhet)

Now, in Heart of Darkness, let’s make a distinction out of narratology 101, between story and plot. Story is the events as they unfold in time. Plot is how those events are arranged into a narrative. In the simplest kind of narrative plot converges on story. Heart of Darkness is not that kind of narrative [8].

Heart of Darkness uses the double-narration as a way of transforming story order into plot order and, in the process, introducing other information into the narrative. Let’s forget about what Marlow does in the course of telling his story to the other gentlemen on the yacht. Here’s what we get:

1. Marlow’s aunt hooks him with a trading company that needs to hire a captain. He gets the job.

2. He travels to Africa and up the Congo.

3. On the way up the river the ship is attacked and the helmsman is killed.

Ω. They arrive at Central Station, retrieve Kurtz and his ivory, and start back down river.

3’. Kurtz dies. His last words, “The horror! The horror!”

2’. Marlow returns to Europe where

1’. Marlow lies to Kurtz’s fiancé (“the Intended” as she’s called), telling her that Kurtz’s last words were of her.

Notice that we’ve now got nice ring-form symmetry between the front and back halves of the story. In particular, the death of the helmsman is balanced against the death of Kurtz. The helmsman is African; Kurtz is European.

When Marlow tells his tale, he does something very clever. He takes the basic features of Kurtz’s life and inserts them into the episode about the death of the helmsman. That longest paragraph there...
HD whole envelope
...the one I’ve called The Nexus, that’s the structural center of the narrative. It’s a précis of Kurtz’s life. And Marlow frames it with the death of his helmsman.

Immediately before that paragraph we’re cruising up the Congo when we’re attached. The helmsman catches a spear in the chest and falls bleeding on the deck. It’s at that point that Marlow breaks from the main narrative an inserts that capsule history of Marlow’s life into the narrative. And he tells that history in such a way that Marlow becomes a figure for Europe. By contrast, the dying helmsman becomes a figure for Africa. The very last thing that Marlow does in that Nexus insert is to compare Kurtz and the dying helmsman and to say:
No; I can't forget him [Kurtz], though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully,—I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me—I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.
That’s the end of the Nexus paragraph. When then return to the helmsman, who is bleeding out on the deck. And we push him overboard into the Congo River.

That is an extraordinary piece of narrative craftsmanship. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to explain how this bit of craftsmanship is like what Coleridge did in “Kubla Khan”, using “sunny dome” and “caves of ice” to insert the ‘calculated value’ of the first thirty-six lines into the middle of the process of evaluating the last eighteen lines [1].

I can’t for the life of me see how we can think about these things without reference to computation.

More to come

There’s more to come, obviously. Just when, that’s not obvious. I’ve been working on these problems off and on for years. I have no intention of stopping.


[1] Original version: William Benzon, THE ARTICULATED VISION: Coleridge's “Kubla Khan”. MA Thesis, Johns Hopkins, 1972. Most recent version: William Benzon. “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003. URL:

[2] William Benzon, Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics, MLN 91: 1976, 952-982. URL:

[3] Triune Brain, Wikipedia, accessed November 15, 2017,
For a more technical treatment, Science Direct has gathered a suite of articles under that heading,

[4] William Benzon and David Hays, Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence, Journal of Social and Biological Structures, Vol. 11, No. 8, July 1988, 293-322.

[5] See my recent post, Vehicularization: A Control Principle in a Complex Modal Animal (w/ new note on King Kong), New Savanna,

[6] See my working paper, Mode and Behavior,

[8] Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales, Version 2, Working Paper, October 2, 2015, 49 pp.

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