Monday, February 19, 2018

Straying into Mnozil territory?

From the accompanying article in the NYTimes:
Michael Landers and Ariel Hsing, table tennis champions in their early 20s, are featured as the Ping-Pong-playing soloists in Andy Akiho’s energetic concerto “Ricochet,” which will have its American premiere on Tuesday as part of the Philharmonic’s Lunar New Year gala. And yes, this is the first time a Ping-Pong table has been onstage at David Geffen Hall.

As staged in New York, the concerto will showcase two soloists — a violinist, Elizabeth Zeltser of the Philharmonic, and a percussionist, David Cossin — at the front of the stage. The Ping-Pong players are elevated at the back, like opera singers performing above an orchestra pit.

Separating the athlete-soloists from the rest of the ensemble is a tall net that protects the musicians (and the audience) from wayward balls. Not that there should be so many of those: The table-tennis parts, which sometimes involve playing with objects like wine glasses and drums in lieu of paddles, require no less skill than the ones for the traditional instruments. Summer-camp amateurs need not apply. [...]

But Mr. Akiho, an imaginative composer and percussionist known for playing the steel pan and found instruments, said his concerto shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Kiddie Lit

Back in the middle of 2006 I’d blogged about Kiddie Lit. I’m republishing that post because it’s  relevant to my interest in Disney’s Fantasia and, in particular, to the issues of cuteness and family presented by the Pastoral episode. I note also that I’ve been looking through Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (2005).

* * * * *

A few years ago I read Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark (2003). I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, and graphic novels, and cartoons.

Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, America’s) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children's literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either). Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children's books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

As one case study, Clark considers Mark Twain, in particular, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These days we think of Huckleberry Finn as an adult book and Tom Sawyer as a boy's book. But that distinction was not a firm one for Twain and his contemporaries. In his own statements on both books Twain vacillated in his sense of his audience and so did his reviewers. Similarly, Louisa May Alcott and her audience did not think of Little Women as a specifically girl's book. It was a book that could be read with pleasure and edification by both children and adults. In fact, at the time, some considered it a mark of excellence that a book was accessible to children as well as to adults.

The move to differentiate the adult from the children's audience came in the first and second quarters of the 20th century and succeeded so well that we now assume it without question. And children's literature has been, for the most part, marginalized.

Clark devotes her final chapter to Disney. She makes the point that prior to the 40s Disney and his work was quite highly regarded in intellectual circles. Some even thought his cartoons were more aesthetically significant than contemporary live-action films. She also points out that anyone going to the movies assumed they would see cartoons before the feature. It didn't make any difference whether the feature was a light-hearted comedy or a serious drama, you'd see cartoons first. Cartoons became children's fare, she argues, after WWII and as a side-effect of TV, which made it easier to develop niche audiences. Families went to the movies, but it was easy to let kids watch cartoons on TV while mother went about her duties elsewhere in the house. As for Disney, Clark argues that opinion turned on him when he introduced human figures into his cartoons (with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the later 1930s, his first feature-length film).

One issue looms large: How can we properly value children’s literature? Is the study of children’s literature a proper part of the general study of literature or should it remain the province of schools of education and developmental psychologists?

* * * * *

That’s not the issue that faces me now, however, though it’s important, not simply to literary culture, but to film culture as well. There IS Disney, of course, but also Hayao Miyazaki and a host of others.

Two views of a crane and a look out the windows of an empty room




Friday, February 16, 2018

First CAD drawings at Boeing were scratched on aluminum sheets by 3D milling machines

Think about that the next time you read about how computers are rotting our brains because this that and the other oh for the days of hardcopy books yada yada!!

"Lolita" – in life and in fiction

Bindu Bansinath writes about how Nabokov's Lolita gave her a script which she followed to escape her molester. A few paragraphs:
Over time it became harder to deny the reality of the abuse, but still I felt I could tell no one. Exposing my uncle would ruin him, and I considered myself too unimportant to upend a grown man’s life. So I endured, pushing my family away and pulling my uncle close, and, I hoped, past suspicion.

I felt as if I were growing into two identities, the woman I was and the woman-as-object eclipsing her. And in “Lolita” I found a strange validation: that there was glamour to be had as an object of desire. If a pedophile’s gaze could be normalized and even beautified, then perhaps I could normalize and beautify my own situation. It was easier to digest an image of myself as a nymphet than to confront the reality of my victimhood.

Over time, the novel became more than a coping mechanism; it became a guide. I came to see how Lolita uses Humbert’s obsession with her as a means to gain power over him. In the blue kidnapping car in which the two travel cross-country, she uses this power to accuse him of rape, of being a “dirty man.” While Humbert fumbles to justify booking one hotel room for them both, she names their situation for the incest it is. She knows she is Humbert’s vulnerability and learns how to use herself against him.

Eventually, so did I.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Some Notes on the Inspired Insanity of Mnozil Brass

I don’t know when I first discovered the Mnozil Brass, but I’ve been listening to them for a number of years now. They’re brilliant, but just what they do, that’s a bit tough to characterize. Sure, they make music, but what kind of music? – nor is it just music either.

Here’s a short clip entitled “Remixes Concerto of Arutiunian”. When it opens we see four musicians on stage, three trombone players and a tuba player (in the rear) and we hear trumpet playing off stage. If you’re familiar with the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto you know that the music you’re listening to isn’t that, nor anything like it. For all I know it’s some traditional Tyrolean tune – Mnozil is an Austrian outfit.

The three trombone players engage in some stage business to the music – perhaps they’re imitating some mechanical figures dancing on the lid of a wind-up music box. They look at the tuba player, he looks at them, they look at one another, making faces and gesturing. They come up with a plan. By about 35 seconds in they’ve come up with something. At the same time the music has switched into a minor key. Our musicians are prancing around, gesturing with their horns, and are oriented toward the left side of the stage. Obviously that’s where the trumpeters are.

At about 49 seconds in they unload with a blast of music. It’s a line from the Arutiunian trumpet concerto. As soon as they finish that line the offstage trumpeters let go with a short fanfare as our onstage musicians prance around in triumph while the audience claps. There’s even a bit of armpit sniffing.

But their victory is short-lived. At about 1:10 or so the trumpeters start up again, this time with “The Mexican Hat Dance.” So the lower brass starts up again with the gesturing, setting up to deliver another blast of sound to the trumpeters. At about 1:33 they deliver the same line from the Arutiunian; the trumpeters answer with the same little fanfare; and the lower brass continue on this time.

At 1:45 the trumpeters come prancing out on to the stage, making gestures like they’re on horseback. One of them, the last one (Thomas Gansch), is playing the trumpet solo line from the Arutiunian. Now we’ve got seven musicians on stage prancing around like they’re on horseback, one of them playing the solo line, the lower brass playing back-up figures, and then another melody appears. I don’t recognize it; maybe it was composed for this piece, maybe it’s from a music score, who knows? It’s not clear what’s going on, but they manage to work themselves into a V formation, prancing all the while, and then work their way to a straight line facing the audience. At 2:30 the music converges on the theme song from Bonanza. They play a few bars of that and they’re done. They make gestures suggesting they’re bringing their horses to a halt so they can dismount. As some of you may know, Bonanza was a hit Western that was on American TV in the 1960s. That, presumably, provides a rationale for the horse riding.

But what’s the rationale for the whole performance, which I find rather convincing? The stage business is not incidental, it’s essential, as is the juxtaposition of distinctly different kinds of source music. In the end I suppose that the Arutiunian is the dominant voice, but still, what’s the point? It seems to me that the stage business is required to make the whole thing hold together. It gives us just a bit of a story, some kind of conflict between the trumpets and the low brass that is somehow resolved through horsing around at the end.

Here’s another somewhat longer bit, “Cirque - toot toot”. It opens with a lone trombone player on stage standing on a chair. He blows a whistle and the other musicians enter from both sides of the stage playing something that I don’t recognize. They march around a bit and then our ‘conductor’, the trombonist we started with, whistles them to a halt and then starts them up again.

They continue playing – the piece they were playing at the beginning – and work their way to a line across the stage. And then...I’m not going to try to describe what happens as it’s best to see it. But there’s a bunch of stage business, the music stops, the trombonist gets everyone positioned just right and then, at about three minutes in, they start up again. At about 3:11 we realize they’re playing “In the Navy”, a song that was a hit for The Village People several years ago. They get through one line of that, put down their instruments, and start singing another Village People hit, “Y.M.C.A.” That falls apart at about 3:40 and they start up again with the piece they opened with, marching around on stage.

The trombonist whistles them to a halt at 4:29. Two of the trombones start up with a line from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring while the opening guy puts on a mask and then joins in. We’re midway through the performance. They move around and so forth, their motions in one way or another reflecting what’s going on in the music. But from here to the end the music is from The Rite of Spring. They bring it to a unified and satisfying, albeit a bit abrupt, conclusion at about 9:17.

What’s it all about? As with the first piece we have the juxtaposition of distinctly different kinds of music in a single performance. This is characteristic of their repertoire as a whole. And we have the use of stage business to hold things together. There’s a sense in which they’re “meta” to the music they performing, but not very. They’re certainly not disengaged. Ironic? Maybe.

Basically, it works. I can describe something of what they’re doing. But what it all means, what holds it together, that’s beyond me. I’m not sure we’ve got the language needed to deal with it.

Let me leave you with one last clip. It’s called “Ballad”, and that’s what it is. It’s one piece of music from start to finish, with no funny stage business. It’s ‘ordinary’ music, played extraordinarily well.

* * * * *

More commentary on Mnozil:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

State-dependent cognition and its relevance to cultural evolution

Daniel Nettle, State-dependent cognition and its relevance to cultural evolution, Behavioural Processes, Available online 5 February 2018:
Abstract: Individuals cope with their worlds by using information. In humans in particular, an important potential source of information is cultural tradition. Evolutionary models have examined when it is advantageous to use cultural information, and psychological studies have examined the cognitive biases and priorities that may transform cultural traditions over time. However, these studies have not generally incorporated the idea that individuals vary in state. I argue that variation in state is likely to influence the relative payoffs of using cultural information versus gathering personal information; and also that people in different states will have different cognitive biases and priorities, leading them to transform cultural information in different ways. I explore hunger as one example of state variable likely to have consequences for cultural evolution. Variation in state has the potential to explain why cultural traditions and dynamics are so variable between individuals and populations. It offers evolutionarily-grounded links between the ecology in which individuals live, individual-level cognitive processes, and patterns of culture. However, incorporating heterogeneity of state also makes the modelling of cultural evolution more complex, particularly if the distribution of states is itself influenced by the distribution of cultural beliefs and practices.
You might want to look at this post from 2012, Latour's Modes of Existence Tart's State-Specific Sciences, and a Note on Work, Love, Play, and Adventure. More generally, you might want to browse through things I's posted on behavioral mode.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Dalai Lama: Prayer isn't enough, we must act

The Rebirth of Mind and Society: Jaynes and Nietzsche

The passage that follows is from the opening of Chapter 10: “Music and Civilization” of my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (pp. 222-226). It is about how the Greeks reconceived themselves through a process that Jean Piaget has called reflective abstraction. I look at this, first in the domain of emotion (Julian Jaynes) and then in that of drama (Nietzsche). Note that here and there I refer to the mind as “neural weather,” a metaphor I develop early in the book. The idea is simply that the mind is a constantly shifting mass of neural firings as the weather is a constantly shifting mass of molecular collisions.

* * * * *

In 1967, a book with an ungainly title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, created a minor sensation with an astonishingly quixotic and original thesis: human consciousness originated in ancient Greece sometime between Homer and an Athenian Golden Age. That is to say, Homer was a Hellenic zombie telling heroic tales about older zombies. Night of the Living Dead had opened in Athens and was playing to a packed house.

The author, Julian Jaynes, stages this argument by noting that Iliad and Odyssey contain many episodes in which humans receive direction from gods and goddesses, and do not contain many words referring to mental states and actions. He takes the first observation at face value and concludes that the Homeric Greeks heard inner voices and acted on what they heard. From the fact that mental words had become common by the time of the Athenian Golden Age, he concludes that by that time, human consciousness had emerged. The inner voices were no longer necessary as their function was subsumed by consciousness; Jaynes would thus have us believe that the creation of concepts about mental states and acts gave rise to consciousness.

However skeptical I am about aspects of Jaynes's theory—for example, the idea that Sophocles was conscious while Homer was not is deeply odd—something very important clearly happened in the period he surveys. Jaynes seems to have assumed that the absence of words about mental states means there was no consciousness. I see no reason to accept such an assumption. If one thinks of consciousness they way Walter Freeman does, then rabbits and dogs are conscious. But they have no words for mental states either.

If we reject Jaynes’ claim about consciousness, however, we can still accept some of the reasoning that accompanies it. The important observation is that mental terms were scarce in Homeric times, but not in Sophoclean and later times. If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind. Similarly, Sophocles' Oedipus the King would not have been possible in Homer's time precisely because it takes place in a mental realm. It is about mental events, acts of knowing or denial.

I submit that this change is about the emergence, not of consciousness itself, but of a whole range of new modes of consciousness, new ways to use the mind, new patterns of neural weather. Another way of talking about this change is to use Jean Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction. In his studies of child development, Piaget proposed that conceptual development proceeds through a series of stages in which the mental mechanisms of later stages objectify those that were used in earlier stages. The conceptual development that Jaynes has identified is like this.

Jaynes’ analysis centers on a handful of terms. As used in the Iliad these words refer to bodily symptoms, but they later come to have mental referents, such as mind or spirit. One of these terms is thumos:
It refers to a mass of internal sensations in response to environmental crises. ... This includes the dilation of the blood vessels in striate muscles and in the heart, an increase in tremor of striate muscles, a burst of blood pressure, the constriction of blood vessels in the abdominal viscera and in the skin, the relaxing of smooth muscles, and the sudden increased energy from the sugar released into the blood from the liver, and possible perceptual changes with the dilation of the pupil of the eye. This complex was, then, the internal pattern of sensation that preceded particularly violent activity in a critical situation. And by doing so repeatedly, the pattern of sensation begins to take on the term for the activity itself. Thereafter, it is the thumos which gives strength to a warrior in battle. ...
The next step is to conceptualize thumos as a container of various psychological substances such as vigor, and as an agent responsible for some class of psychological acts. Once Jaynes has made similar arguments for the other terms, it seems obvious that the conceptualization of mind we find in classical Greek thinkers is constructed over sets of bodily symptoms we now recognize as being regulated by the brain centers most directly responsible for motivation and emotion.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Which neoliberalism do you mean?

"Neoliberal" has become the catch-all curse-world of the political left. But it has a complex genealogy dating back to the late 19th century, which is sketched in by Daniel Rodgers in Dissent. A paragraph:
But the problem with neoliberalism is neither that it has no meaning nor that it has an infinite number of them. It is that the term has been applied to four distinctly different phenomena. “Neoliberalism” stands, first, for the late capitalist economy of our times; second, for a strand of ideas; third, for a globally circulating bundle of policy measures; and fourth, for the hegemonic force of the culture that surrounds and entraps us. These four neoliberalisms are intricately related, of course. But the very act of bundling them together, tucking their differences, loose ends, and a clear sense of their actually existing relations under the fabric of a single word, may, perversely, obscure what we need to see most clearly.

Hiding in plain sight


Ritual in Apocalypse Now

This is one of a number of old posts on Apocalypse Now (which I've listed at the end of the post). I've collected them into a single downloadable PDF: Apocalypse Now: Working Papers.
Now that I’ve come to terms with the film’s ending, I’ve seen a pattern in Apocalypse Now that’s been staring me in the face the whole time. The pattern is that of a rite of passage as described by Arnold van Gennep and Emile Durkheim. The final sacrifice of the caribao is part of this pattern, but only part. The pattern, in fact, governs the whole film.

First, let’s consider ritual pattern (using prose I’ve lifted from one of my essays on Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues). Then we can follow it through Apocalypse Now and conclude, symmetrically, with more prose lifted from that Sita essay.

Ritual Pattern

The pattern I have in mind are an abstraction from structures anthropologists have found in rituals around the world. Here’s how I characterized that structure in my essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (find downloadable PDF here):
In “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” Edmund Leach has described the ritual structure of Durkheim's “states of the moral person.” They are: 1) secular life, 2) separation from the secular world and transition to 3) the marginal state where the ‘moral person’ is in a world discontinuous from the ordinary world, often being regarded as being dead, and from which a return to the secular is made by a process of 4) aggregation or desacralization, often symbolized by rebirth. Arnold van Gennep talks of separation, transition, and incorporation in The Rites of Passage. The ritual sequence involves two realms of being, the secular and the sacred, and is designed to order the transition of initiates between these two realms.
As a simple example, consider the bride’s role in the now standard Christian wedding ceremony, a ceremony in which she will loose the surname she was born with and assume her husband’s surname, thereby changing her social identity. She enters the church with a veil over her face. She is thus faceless; symbolically, she has no social identity and is now separated from the secular world. Accompanied by her father, she walks to the altar where she is met by the groom; she is in a transitional state. She and the groom exchange vows and the priest pronounces them to be married. Now that she has her new social identity, and a new name, the veil can be lifted and the new woman can be incorporated into society in that new identity.

This ritual is a relatively short, but anthropologists have recorded rituals that last for hours and days and even longer. Adolescent initiation rites, for example, can last for months. There is an initial rite of separation where the young men, shall we say, are stripped on their ordinary identity. They may have to wear special dress and have special markings on their bodies. They may be given a different name as well. Once they have thus been separated from society, they’ll go live in some other place reserved for them and they’ll be taught things needful to be an adult man in their society. This process can easily last several months and may involve arduous physical tasks or a vision quest. During this period their friends and family may well treat them as being dead, which they are, socially. They are in transition, without an identity in their society. Once the proper things have been done another ceremony will be performed and the young men will be given new names, perhaps new body make-up, and will be incorporated into society as adults.

What’s important about the ritual pattern is not how elaborate it is, or how long it takes for the full ritual to run to completion. What’s important is the pattern itself: separation, transition, and incorporation. That’s the pattern we’re going to look for in Apocalypse Now.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Friday Fotos: Cleopatra's pump, grid edition






Will in the Nervous System, and Its Consequences

This is a passage that didn’t make the cut for Beethoven’s Anvil. It’s about the will, its footprint in the nervous system, and what that means about our relationship to our nervous system. Notice that peculiar locution, which implies that we are something other than the nervous system that thinks us. We are and we aren’t, aren’t we?
Willfulness is a subjective experience and, accordingly, psychology and neuroscience have banned talk of will and volition for most of this century. However, such language is embedded in neuroscientific terminology, a fact noted by Bernard Baars. The division of the peripheral nervous system that regulates the viscera is called the autonomic nervous system, indicating its capacity to operate autonomously, one cannot will one’s heart rate to go up or down, or will that digestion cease or commence. At the same time, talk of voluntary actions is routine. The neural pathways for voluntary action, which tend to be those that control the skeletal muscles, are separate from the autonomic nervous system.

However, we must note that this distinction is made from the point of view of the actor and not from that of an external observer. That is to say, the distinction is subjective. It is true that neural systems indicated by Baars are physically distinct, a matter visible to numerous investigators. What is peculiar is that one of these systems is thought of as being voluntary while the other is involuntary. Whether or not an action is voluntary is something one can ascertain only by asking the actor. One can’t ask such questions of rats, cats, and monkeys and expect meaningful answers. Does this mean that animals do not have wills?

This distinction that seems so obvious on a phenomenal level, is not quite so obvious when one begins looking for the relevant neural structures. For one thing, given appropriate feedback, autonomic functions can be subject to voluntary control. Thus, in one experiment, it proved easy for subjects to raise or lower their blood pressure when given a flashing light to indicate success. On the other hand the motor system does not divide neatly into voluntary and involuntary divisions, though it does seem that voluntary actions do seem to be those that are mediated by frontal cortex. For these reasons we need to be cautious when talking about what we can and cannot will. With that in mind, let us continue on, thinking strictly in terms of subjective experience.

Disobedient Organs

The dance between that which we can will and that which we cannot is, of course, both ancient and basic. As an example, us consider a brief passage by one of the greatest Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, whose career straddled the third and fourth centuries. In his master work, The City of God, Augustine observes:
There are, then, many kinds of lusts for this or that, but when the word is used by itself without specification it suggests to most people the lust for sexual excitement. Such lust does not merely invade the whole body and outward members; it takes such complete and passionate possession of the whole man, both physically and emotionally, that what results is the keenest of all pleasures on the level of sensation; and, at the crisis of excitement, it practically paralyzes all power of deliberate thought.

This is so true that it creates a problem for every lover of wisdom and holy joys...Any such person would prefer, if this were possible, to beget his children without suffering this passion. He could wish that, just as all his other members obey his reason in the performance of their appointed tasks, so the organs of parenthood, too, might function in obedience to the orders of will and not be excited by the ardors of lust.
What Augustine is asserting of sexuality is in fact true for emotion and motivation in general. Tenderness, anger and thirst are no more subject to will than is sexual desire.

However, one can attempt to manipulate one’s emotional and motivational state through indirect means. That is why we have pornography, romance novels, and military music. Those things can be apprehended at will and they may well produce the desired effect. But they may not. Even if they do we might get stuck with more of an effect than we wanted. Such indirect manipulations are not always reliable.

Seductive Sounds

Given Augustine’s abhorrence of anything that threatens the “power of deliberate thought” the following passage from his Confessions is interesting:
But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music...I must allow it a position of some honour in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honour than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung...But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of the senses, which often leads it astray.
When he asserts that the singing stirs his mind he is, of course, acknowledging that there is something going on beyond will and reason, something that he finds potentially dangerous. While he would like to deal with the words alone he cannot bring himself entirely to forgo the stirrings of music. He is ambivalent, and ambivalence that stems from the fact that music is a willed activity that can easily stir the passions, thus producing results beyond the will and perhaps even capable of superseding the will.

And one of those passions that seems peculiarly responsive to music is sexual passion. One wills the music and before you know it, the music is willing those “other members” to dance. When they dance, there goes the will.

It’s paper / rock / scissors round and round.

It’s also Shakespeare 129.

It’s us.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

On the deceptive nature of visual geometry