Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Fotos: Some varieties of the horizontal

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The rhetoric of interpretation in literary criticism

This is a follow-up to my post, Description, Interpretation, Explanation, and Evaluation as Rhetorical Roles in Literary Criticism [#DH]. I want to take another crack at characterizing the role of interpretation in literary criticism, and in contrast to the roles of description, explanation, and evaluation. I’m thinking something like this: The purpose of interpretation is to translate one’s sense of a literary text into discursive prose.

Why the word “sense”? I don’t want to use “read” (which is over-used in literary criticism) or “experience”, which doesn’t seem quite right. Encounter? Engagement? No better than “sense” and perhaps not as good.

Notice also the use of “translate”. Literary critics and philosophers have made much of the difference between literary texts and ordinary texts. A great deal of attention has been given over to attempts to define the nature of literary texts as opposed to non-literary texts, not always with obvious success. Yet, the feeling persists that there is a difference and that critics must do something about that difference. What they do is write interpretive criticism. And that is an act of translation, a translation from one mode of being, if you will, to another.

So, we now have:
Description sets the terms in which a phenomenon is introduced into discourse and presented for investigation through any of the other three roles.

Interpretation is the process of translating one’s sense of the text’s meaning into discursive prose.

Explanation links description of texts to psychological, neural, and social mechanisms.

Evaluation is the process of relating literary texts to vital human interests. Typically evaluation is based on interpreted meaning.
The distinction between description and interpretation is often fuzzy. In thinking in terms of roles, however, it isn’t necessary to assign a given statement (of whatever length) to one role or another. It can play both roles.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Alone in the Sky: 432 Park Ave., Manhattan

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In defense of Freud

George Prochnik reviews Frederick Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, in the NYTimes. Crews, as you may know, is a literary critic who was a Freudian early in his career, but then decided that psychoanalysis was deeply mistaken. He has since devoted considerable time and effort to debunking it.

From Prochnik's review:
Here is a fascinating conundrum: The creator of a scientifically delegitimized blueprint of the human mind and of a largely discontinued psychotherapeutic discipline retains the cultural capital of history’s greatest playwright and the erstwhile Son of God.

Crews is right that the matter demands further investigation, but this is not the book he has written. Instead “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” focuses on the man — specifically how a reflective young scientist with high ambitions and gifted mentors lost perspective on his “wild hunches,” covered up his errors and created “an international cult of personality.” In practice, this translates into 700-plus pages of Freud mangling experiments, shafting loved ones, friends, teachers, colleagues, patients and ultimately, God help us, swindling humanity at large. Here we have Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester, woman hater, money-worshiper, chronic plagiarizer and all-around nasty nut job. This Freud doesn’t really develop, he just builds a rap sheet.

There is value in Crews’s having synthesized the full roster of Freud’s blunders between 1884 and 1900, the period his book concentrates on. Almost all of this material has been covered before, but not compiled in one volume — and Crews has brought a new level of detail to some of these accounts.
However:
Crews is so invested in denying Freud primacy for any of the ideas associated with psychoanalysis that have retained a jot of credibility, and offers such a paucity of larger sociohistorical context for a study of this scale, that in reading his account it is easy to imagine humanity’s understanding of sexuality and psychology as such was advancing quite admirably until Freud came along and thrust us all into the lurid dungeon of his own ugly obsessions. Stefan Zweig’s account of sexual life in pre-Freud Vienna provides a different perspective: “The fear of everything physical and natural dominated the whole people, from the highest to the lowest with the violence of an actual neurosis,” Zweig wrote in his autobiography. Young women “were hermetically locked up under the control of the family, hindered in their free bodily as well as intellectual development. The young men were forced to secrecy and reticence by a morality which fundamentally no one believed or obeyed.” The cruelty of this social paradigm was equally pernicious across the Atlantic, contemporary observers noted, where New England’s code of civilized mores was often crippling for women and morbidly confusing for men.

By identifying sexual desire as a universal drive with endlessly idiosyncratic objects determined by individual experiences and memories, Freud, more than anyone, not only made it possible to see female desire as a force no less powerful or valid than male desire; he made all the variants of sexual proclivity dance along a shared erotic continuum. In doing so, Freud articulated basic conceptual premises that reduced the sway of experts who attributed diverse sexual urges to hereditary degeneration or criminal pathology. His work has allowed many people to feel less isolated and freakish in their deepest cravings and fears.
And so:
The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.
As you may know, I continue to find psychoanalytic ideas useful, as I assert in Neural Weather, an Informal Defense of Psychoanalytic Ideas. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I read John Bowlby's Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1. Attachment while it was still in typescript. I was guided in this by Mary Ainsworth, who had studied with Bowlby. In that work Bowlby began reconstructing (some) psychoanalytic ideas using ideas from systems theory (Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior, 1960) and observations from ethology. That seemed to me to be the way to go, and still does: reconstruct the ideas in contemporary terms. That project is on-going.

Zipping along now

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

NCIS, boundary issues: terrorism, sexual harassment, and rambling on

As I mentioned in this post, I’ve been watching a lot of NCIS and wondering why it’s perhaps the most popular show on network TV. It’s a crime show, and crime shows have a long and deep history on television, in the movies, and in fiction. What are such shows about? Abstractly considered, they’re about a boundary, the boundary between actions that legitimate and those that are not. Criminals are those who transgress that boundary in some way and police are those who restore the boundary by catching criminals.

Moreover, NCIS came on the air in September of 2003, two years after 9/11. And 9/11, of course, put terrorism at the top of America’s attention vector. What is terrorism but a specific class of boundary violations. While ordinary criminal activity is mostly undertaken for the private benefit of the criminals, terrorism is done to damage the body politic, to make citizens feel that they are not safe. Moreover, the bombing of the World Trade Center was done by foreign nationals and so violates the nation’s territorial integrity.

A good many NCIS episodes are about terrorists. I don’t have a count, but let’s say it’s a third of them. When the NCIS agents apprehend a terrorist they not only restore the body politic in the way the capture of any criminal does, but they restore the integrity of the nation as well. Surely this part of the show’s appeal.

But there’s something much more subtle and interesting in NCIS, for boundary issues are written into the texture of the show in the way people interact with one another.

Consider one of the central characters, Senior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. He is a bit of a bully, wise guy, and sexual harasser. He’s real prick, but good at heart (of course). I don’t know how many times I’ve winced at his intrusive and harassing remarks. And I’m certainly not the only one. The Wikipedia article on DiNozzo remarks that “Tony was often criticized by the female audience at the beginning of the show's run for his chauvinism.” What is sexual harassment if not violating someone’s personal boundaries?

But that’s not the only kind of boundary violation in the show. The three characters who are more or less intellectual – the medical examiner, the forensic specialist, and another Special Agent – tend to ramble on about technical matters. Gibbs, head of the team and the show’s central character, will ask one of them what’s going and they’ll start rambling on about this that and the other, mostly technical matters leading up to an eventual conclusion, until Gibbs cuts them off and demands, What’s the point? He’s clearly annoyed and so, I strongly suspect, is the audience. I know I am.

This is a kind of boundary violation. Gibb’s wants know this or that so he can push the investigation further. He trusts their technical competence (very important) and doesn’t care about the detail. It’s his sense of the whole investigation sets the boundaries on these conversation. Technical details violate those boundaries.

Consider Ducky, Dr. Donald Mallard, the Medical Examiner. He’s very good – they all are (this, after all, is TV) – but easily lost in details. Not only that, but he often starts meandering through old cases or even wanders into his army days. He’s British and resembles Higgins, from Magnum P.I., in this respect. His assistant ME (for most of the show’s run), Jimmy Palmer, is also a rambler.

And so it goes with Abby Sciuto, the Forensic Specialist and Timothy McGee, another Special Agent. McGee’s MIT graduate, and expert in computers. This contrasts with DiNozzo, who is an athlete from Ohio State. DiNozzo has his own form of rambling, not on technical matters, but movie references. He’s forever comparing current events to movies he’s seen, to the annoyance of just about everyone.

In contrast, the two female agents, Caitlin Todd (first two seasons) and Ziva David (seasons 3-11), never ramble on. But they are the primary objects of DiNozzo’s sexist remarks.

And of course Gibbs doesn’t ramble, and neither do the two long term NCIS directors, Jenny Shepard (season 3-5) and Leon Vance (season 6 to the present). These are authority figures. It is thus their job to keep things on track. Gibbs, though, doesn’t always do things by the book, which the directors know. Gibbs has a freedom to maneuver that the directors, by virtue of their position, do not.

The analytic trick, it seems to me, is to make sense of collection of characters and their characteristics. While rambling is generally associated to intellectuality and maleness, Abby rambles and is female, while DiNozzo rambles and is male. But DiNozzo’s rambling is about films, not about technical issues pertaining to evidence; that differentiates him from Ducky, McGee, and Abby. Abby has a goth persona, with tattoos (which are mostly just talked about) and funky taste in clothing while Caitlin and Ziva are more, well, standard/mainstream. She is also effusive while the other two women are not.

There is a logic here, myth logic I call it, but it’s not yet clear to me what’s going on.

I think it calls for some more rambling.

More later.

Green Zoom, Vertical Flow

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Swear words in American books

Jean M. Twenge, Hannah VanLandingham, W. Keith Campbell. The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: Increases in the Use of Swear Words in American Books, 1950-2008. SAGE Open. July-September 2017: 1-8.
Abstract: Evidence is accumulating that American culture has become more individualistic since the 1950s. In the present research, we focused on one plausible manifestation of individualism, the use of swear words in cultural products. We examined trends in the use of the seven words identified by George Carlin in 1972 as the “seven words you can never say on television” in the Google Books corpus of American English books from 1950 to 2008. We find a steady linear increase in the use of swear words, with books published in 2005-2008 twenty-eight times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s. Increases for individual swear words ranged from 4 to 678 times (ds = 6.58-45.42). These results suggest that American culture has become increasingly accepting of the expression of taboo words, consistent with higher cultural individualism.
Ben  Zimmer tells me this is shoddy scholarship and points to this piece in The New Republic.

In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness [#DH]

This post is about aesthetics, one bit of Conrad’s craft. What’s the semantic ‘center’ of Heart of Darkness? I think Conrad has indicated that quite clearly and I’m wondering if it can be investigated computationally.

I have called paragraph 103 of Heart of Darkness the Nexus because in encapsulates the story of Kurtz, the central enigma of the story and one of two central characters–the other being Marlow, a boat captain and the main narrator. Some 300 words from the paragraph’s beginning we have the following sentence: “'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—' everything belonged to him.” [I've appended the opening to the end of this post.] That opening phrase is repeated later, in a slightly different form, in paragraph 148, while the steamer is on its return trip with Kurtz on board: “My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.” So, we have the two versions:
1) My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—
2) My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas
We can consolidate the different terms into a single phrase:
3) My Intended, ivory, station, river, career, ideas
Let’s think of those terms in the context of Kurtz’s life. Briefly:
My Intended: the women he wishes to marry, but her relatives didn’t think him worthy of her because he was too poor.
ivory: The potential source of Kurtz’s wealth, produced by elephants in Africa.
station: Kurtz’s place of business, but also where he took an African mistress.
river: The Congo, connecting the station to the Atlantic Ocean and thereby to Europe.
career: Kurtz went into the ivory trade to make enough money to become worthy of his Intended.
ideas: His schemes for the betterment of the Congo, written up in a 17-page document ending with the phrase, alas, ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’
Now consider them as words, without any context. They cover a wide range of things:
My Intended: fiancé, not merely a woman, but a woman in a specific social relationship.
ivory: physical substance in solid form
station: geographic locus
river: geographical feature, liquid substance
career: from the dictionary, “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life”
ideas: immaterial, mental
My hunch is that Conrad’s phrase linking those words together is emblematic of Kurtz’s life and hence of the book. I want to make computational sense of that centrality, that emblematicity (if you will). Selecting those words and then linking them together into a single phrase, that is a product of Conrad’s craft, as is placing the first occurrence of that phrase at the structural center of the text and the second occurrence somewhat later.

Nina Paley's God-Mother, a new animation



Nina says:
Music: Kalimankou Denkou
(Godmother Denkou)
Bulgarian folk song, arranged by Krassimir Kyurkchiysky
Performed by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir

This is the intro/prologue to my feature film Seder-Masochism. Uploaded at 1080p instead of 4K because I'm sure I'll fuss with it still. Animated in Moho Pro.

It is by far the slowest-paced thing I've ever animated. Be patient. Best at full screen.
 
It's wonderful. Stately and reverent.

Chimps can learn rock-paper-scissors (sorta')

Jie Gao, Yanjie SuMasaki Tomonaga, Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Learning the rules of the rock–paper–scissors game: chimpanzees versus children. Primates (2017) https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-017-0620-0.
Abstract: The present study aimed to investigate whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) could learn a transverse pattern by being trained in the rules of the rock–paper–scissors game in which “paper” beats “rock,” “rock” beats “scissors,” and “scissors” beats “paper.” Additionally, this study compared the learning processes between chimpanzees and children. Seven chimpanzees were tested using a computer-controlled task. They were trained to choose the stronger of two options according to the game rules. The chimpanzees first engaged in the paper–rock sessions until they reached the learning criterion. Subsequently, they engaged in the rock–scissors and scissors–paper sessions, before progressing to sessions with all three pairs mixed. Five of the seven chimpanzees completed training after a mean of 307 sessions, which indicates that they learned the circular pattern. The chimpanzees required more scissors–paper sessions (14.29 ± 6.89), the third learnt pair, than paper–rock (1.71 ± 0.18) and rock–scissors (3.14 ± 0.70) sessions, suggesting they had difficulty finalizing the circularity. The chimpanzees then received generalization tests using new stimuli, which they learned quickly. A similar procedure was performed with children (35–71 months, n = 38) who needed the same number of trials for all three pairs during single-paired sessions. Their accuracy during the mixed-pair sessions improved with age and was better than chance from 50 months of age, which indicates that the ability to solve the transverse patterning problem might develop at around 4 years of age. The present findings show that chimpanzees were able to learn the task but had difficulties with circularity, whereas children learned the task more easily and developed the relevant ability at approximately 4 years of age. Furthermore, the chimpanzees’ performance during the mixed-pair sessions was similar to that of 4-year-old children during the corresponding stage of training.
I took a look at the research paper, and the chimps didn't actually do the manual gestures. They worked at a computer presentation of hand images, choosing the proper one for each move. What the researchers were after was whether or not the chimps could learn transverse patterning (A>B, B>C, C>A), which is fine. But I'd like to know whether or not they could learn the manual gestures and whether or not two chimps could play. I have no intuitions about this, but still, I'd like to know.

The gestures themselves are simple enough, of course. I should think chimps would have no problems But can they manage the interpersonal coordination, the precise synchronization that humans exhibit when playing the game. I'm not so sure chimps could manage that. The experimental set-up doesn't involve the chimps synchronizing with anything.

The game is also known as Rochambeau and had been traced back to early 17th-centrury China. The Wikipedia entry is interesting. Among many other things we learn:
The common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana) exhibits a rock–paper–scissors pattern in its mating strategies. Of its three color types of males, "orange beats blue, blue beats yellow, and yellow beats orange" in competition for females, which is similar to the rules of rock-paper-scissors.

On the Waterfront, 2017

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Darwin’s Demon: A thought experiment about complexity in biology

Imagine a large vat containing prebiotic soup. Somewhere outside the vat is a source of free energy, like the sun provides to the earth. The vat is divided into two compartments and the partition has a small hole. There’s a demon in one of the compartments (cousin to Maxwell’s famous demon). Whenever a living creature evolves out of the soup on one side of the wall, say its the left side, the demon captures it and moves it through the hole to the right side. Should any living creature on the right side attempt to go back through the hole to the left side the demon prevents it from doing so.

Over time, what happens?

Nothing happens on the left side. As soon as anything interesting happens (that is, a living creature emerges) the demon hurries it over to the right side of the vat. No evolution at all. The right side, obviously enough is going to become more and more densely populated with living creatures of the simplest kind, the kind that can emerge directly and immediately from prebiotic soup.

I conjecture that, in time, somewhat more complex creatures will emerge on the right side, creatures that depend on and even ‘feed off of’ the simpler ones. Call the simples creatures Order 1 creatures: O1. These new creatures, then, would be Order 2 creatures: O2. The O2 creatures, however, cannot afford to take over completely. They cannot drive the O1 to extinction, for they depend on them for their livelihood. As the right side of the vat approaches the maximum density of O2 and O1 creatures, perhaps a niche* ‘opens up’ for some O3 creatures.

And so on.

There’s always room at the top. And so life becomes ever more complex. But there is no teleology in this little story. All action is local. But that action takes place in a limited space with access to unlimited energy.

Addendum 8.15.2017: I don’t recall when I first thought up this little experiment, but this is the first time I’ve written it up. And writing things, even informally in notes such as this, often forces you to think a bit more. Which I did. Though not immediately.

And hour or two, let’s say, after I’d posted this note I asked myself: “Do we really need the apparatus of the partition and the demon? Really, since the most interesting action is on one side of the vat, why not just have one vat, full of evolving slime?” But, you know, I really liked the idea of the partition and the demon, and not just because that’s the form of the classic Maxwell’s demon. Some work is being done with that, but what?

Here’s my proposal: What you get with the partition and the demon is the idea that evolutionary stasis requires work. That demon is doing work when it spots evolved creatures emerging on the left side and shunts them over to the right. If life can evolve at all, it can’t help but becoming more complex over time. That’s what it means for the universe to be complex.

Do I actually believe that? Hmmm....

Note

*The concept of a niche has subtleties. See these two posts:

Hustle and bustle on the West Side on a cloudy day

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

The emergence of cumulative culture, or: What Dawkins got right

This is a follow up to my post, Gestalt Switch in the Emergence of Human Culture. I want a way to differentiate my version of culture from the current ‘orthodoxy’ (gene-culture coevolution, dual inheritance theory). At the moment I’m thinking that the emergence of cumulative culture is the Rubicon. But why and how?

In orthodox cultural evolution theory fitness is evaluated at the biological phenotype, and only at the phenotype. Dawkins’ insight, I believe, is that, to understand cultural evolution, we need to think of entities where fitness is evaluated with respect to some (purely) cultural entity, rather than and more or less independently of fitness for biological individuals carrying those cultural features.

Here’s what I think: It is the emergence of cumulative culture, however that happened, that created an arena in which purely cultural entities could survive and thrive, or not. What determines fitness for preservation in the domain of cumulative culture?

However it arose, that domain is the coupled nervous systems of interacting humans. And to account for how it operates we need a cultural analog of both the biological gene and the biological phenotype.

Now we have sharability, in effect, as a fitness criterion for cultural entities. They are fit because they afford us opportunities for social interaction (like mutual grooming among infra-human primates?). They may well afford other benefits, but sharability is always a factor.

* * * * *

With this in mind we can take a look at what Dawkins has to say about memes. First, though, I want to start with the second paragraph of The Selfish Gene (p. 12):
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride atoms together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, and were formed in the ‘big bang’ which, according to prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.
Dawkins then goes on to argue that stability in the biological world depends on molecules he will call replicators (p. 15). At first these replicators were free-floaters in the primeval biomolecular soup. In time they became (p. 20) “genes, and we are their survival machines.

What’s important is Dawkins’s plea for stability as the necessary precursor to meaningful change. That is as important in culture as in biology. Stability is the foundation of cumulative culture. Without it groups would be continually ‘reinventing the wheel’ because the wheel just wouldn’t stay invented. Just how cumulative culture emerged, that’s obviously an important issue, but let’s shelve it for the purposes of this post and take a look at why Dawkins hypothesized the concept of memes.

He offers these remarks in the course of talking about the god “meme” (193):
Some of my colleagues have suggested to me that this account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question. In the last analysis they wish always to go back to ‘biological advantage’. To them it is not good enough to say that the idea of a god has 'great psychological appeal'. They want to know why it has great psychological appeal. Psychological appeal means appeal to brains, and brains are shaped by natural selection of genes in gene-pools. They want to find some way in which having a brain like that improves gene survival.
“Appeal to brains” is the operative phrase. Later he’ll remark (199):
This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.
I find the phrase “advantageous to itself” a bit iffy, though it’s consistent with his arguments about the ‘selfishness’ of genes, which I accept. My point here is that Dawkins is quite clear that, in positing the existence of memes he’s up to more than talking about a way of inheriting behavior from one generation to another. Somehow culture is a different arena for evolutionary processes, though one necessarily coupled with biology.

Orthodox cultural evolution theory doesn’t have much to say about what makes culture “appeal to brains”–though Dan Sperber’s theory of cultural “attraction” is relevant here. Unfortunately, Dawkins was unable to formulate a useful concept of “appeal to brains”, nor was his acolyte in this, Daniel Dennett. To get it right, or at least a plausible first approximation, you need to think seriously about just how brains CAN communicate cultural materials. I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to that over the years, so I won’t try to summarize that work here. For the curious, I recommend:
  • Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books 2001). Here I use Walter Freeman’s work on complex neurodynamics to, in effect, define the domain of cumulative culture, at least for music (chapters 2 and 3), which sets the stage for defining attractors in this domain as the cultural analog to the biological phenotype (chapter 8 and 9).
  • “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture. This paper builds on my work in Beethoven’s Anvil and develops the idea of a coordinator as the cultural analog to the biological meme.
The following two working papers are directed at Dennett’s discussions of memes (prior to his most recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, which I’ve not read).

Universal Kid Space & Kiddie Lit

I was reminded of what I call “universal kid space” some years ago when I was at one of Nina Paley’s “frunches” – a weekly lunch-gathering of people interested in free culture. Vibha Pinglé and her six year old son Kartik were visiting New York and joined us for the frunch. It turns out that Kartik is a great fan of Paley’s film, Sita Sings the Blues. Which was just a little surprising, but not too.

Sita, as some of you may know, is an animated feature-length film. In America animated films, aka cartoons, have been regarded as kid’s fare since the 1950s. Sita, however, was not made for children. Its subject matter, divorce and the subsequent mourning of the lost relationship, is adult and Paley’s story-telling technique – three intertwined narratives – is quite sophisticated. And yet young Kartik loves the film, as he demonstrated by singing one of the songs from the film, a satiric little ditty about the omniscient goodness of Rama.


Even if much of the story was lost on Kartik, there’s much in the film that would resonate with a lively and intelligent six year old. For one thing, the film is just freakin’ gorgeous, something anyone with a brain, a heart, and a liver, can appreciate. And it’s filled with more or less self-contained musical set pieces that can be enjoyed for their marriage of music and image. And then there’s the cool stuff – purple monsters, a many-headed man, flying eyeballs, arrows and fighting and gore – cartoon gore, of course, but gore nonetheless.

So Kartik can comprehend the film in his way and we can understand it in ours. The visual presentation, I believe, is very important. Verbal presentation, written or spoken, will involve vocabulary problems as there are many words that adults or even older children know, but young children will find mysterious. Where the story is visually present on the screen there’s something that even a young child can see and grasp; the words don’t matter. That’s one aspect of universal kid space, but there’s surely more.

I associate universal kid space with the phrase “for kids of all ages” and with the animated feature films produced by Disney studios starting with Snow White and Pinocchio in the late 1930s. Here are some notes I made some years ago when I was just beginning to discover anime and to think seriously about animation.

September 2003

What I find so interesting an peculiar about those films [the early Disney features and similar films] is that they are intelligible and entertaining both to fairly young children and to their parents and grandparents. That is to say, Grandpa’s grandchildren can enjoy these films on their own terms, but so can Grandpa. Grandpa might take special pleasure in viewing these films with his grandchildren, but he doesn’t need to be with them in order to take pleasure in the films; he doesn’t need to borrow his pleasure from theirs.

I think such films, and the cultural space they inhabit, are a remarkable creation. When and where did it come into existence? What are its characteristics?