Saturday, December 31, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: What is Graffiti?

I'll be at the University of Chicago next Thursday talking about graffiti in their Semiotics Workshop (details here). The presentation will be informal and is based on a number of slightly revised blog posts. I've written the following introductory remarks to the posts.

* * * * *

Graffiti: Some Parameters

What is graffiti? That’s the question. Well, actually, it’s two questions. One is relatively easy to answer, though the answer is, inevitably, a fuzzy one. The other is difficult to answer, perhaps even, at this time, impossible. Impossible because we may not have the terms in which to state an answer. But perhaps impossible as well because graffiti is still in a state of becoming and, as such, has not yet settled into being some one thing or several delimited things. It’s the second question that interests me, but I can’t get to it until I’ve provided an answer to the first.

Names: Tags, Throwies, Pieces

On the first question, by graffiti I mean an expressive tradition that seems to have started in North Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which spread out from there. It’s now all over the world, with visible stylistic links back to the 1970s graffiti in the Northeastern USofA.

Graffiti’s about the name, the name a person takes when they decide to write graffiti: Taki183, Snake, Dondi, Blade, Seen, to name a few names. The word “graffiti” has been externally imposed, though it’s long been accepted within graffiti culture. Since the form is about the name, the people who do it think of it as writing, and of themselves as writers. They write graffiti. A writer may write under two or more different names, nor is it uncommon for a writer to get up (that is do graffiti on a wall) under the name of another writer in his crew.

The tag is the most basic form of graffiti, but it can, in some hands, take on the grace of a master calligrapher. Tags can be done quickly. Throw-ups or throwies are more elaborate, generally taking the form of block of balloon letters with outline and fill in contrasting colors. They cover more space that tags and take more time to do. Tags can be done in, say, a minute or less; throwies take several minutes. [When you’re avoiding the police, time to execute is important.]

Pieces, aka masterpieces, are the most elaborate of the basic graffiti forms. A piece is likely five or six feet high, maybe eight or ten, and can be 15 to 20 feet wide. The design of a piece may be worked out beforehand in a black book. Pieces may be multi-colored and may feature various kinds of representational art. If executed in so-called wild style the name may be so distorted and elaborated as to be unreadable.

But What IS it?

When Norman Mailer wrote his 1974 essay, “The Faith of Graffiti,” he declared it to be art, perhaps the first to do so. But many New Yorkers – most? – thought it was vandalism. After all, it was illegally done. So, is it art or vandalism?

They aren’t exclusive categories. Remember, however, that those original graffiti writers did not come up in the world of art schools, galleries, and museums. They operated outside of it. And getting away with vandalism was important to them. It still is. That is, the illegal nature of the work is not an incidental fact of its production. Even those among the very small number of writers who make a living working with design firms will still keep up their street cred by doing illegals.

A tag sprayed on a moveable board is just a tag. But it earns the writer no street cred. A tag on the back of a stop sign, or on the side of a water tower, that tag is illegal and earns points. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it’s identifiably the tag of a named writer: Ceaze, Tdee, KH1, Sol, Werds, to a name a few that have gotten up in my neck of the woods. Aesthetics counts, but just where and why and how much, that’s tricky.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Peregrinations of Agency vis-à-vis the Text

Back in the ancient days of the 1950s the intentional fallacy was invoked to separate the text from the author, indeed, it was invoked to separate any work of art from its creator. Agency was thus invested solely in the text itself, the autonomous text. It was the critic’s job to interrogate the text and thus discern its meaning.

As a practical matter, it turned out that texts spoke differently to different critics. For some this was evidence of the richness of texts, that they should support so many meanings. For others it was a problem.

The problem tried out various solutions. One line of thinking restored authorial intention, subordinating textual meaning to that intention, thus locating agency in the author. Another line of thinking killed the author and located meaning in codes variously linked to social structure or to the unconscious. Agency was thus denied to author, reader, and text and invested in those codes and the nebulous structures placing them on offer. Yet another line of thinking located agency in the reader.

So: text, author, codes, reader. What else could there be?

Now the speculative realists and object-oriented ontologists are investing the text with agency—see, for example, this Twitter lecture by Eileen Joy and this commentary by Levi Bryant. Is this but a return to an old position albeit encased in new terminology? Or will something new emerge?

Who knows? I note that Bryant ends by suggesting that we “allow the work of art to transform how we sense”—a old idea, tried and true: make it new.

I further note that Joy begins by asking: “First, what happens when we consider that literary characters are not human beings, but more like mathematical compressions of the human?” Indeed, literary characters ARE NOT human beings. Could we perhaps arrive at some understanding of just how they are “mathematical compressions” and of how we understand such compressions?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

OOO is Very Abstract, but so is KR

Over the past several months I’ve been reading around in object-oriented ontology (OOO)—I’m currently reading an interview with Levi Bryant—and I note that it’s a very abstract way of dealing with the world. Here, for example, is a passage from that Bryant interview:
Is use the term “withdrawal” in a somewhat different sense than Harman. For Harman, withdrawal means that objects are independent of all their relations such that they never touch or relate to one another. For me, by contrast, objects are capable of relating, but are also external to the relations in the sense that they can break with current relations and enter into new relations. With Harman I thus hold that objects are independent in the sense that they are not constituted by their relations, while contrary to Harman I hold that objects can enter into relations with other objects. For me, withdrawal thus means two things. On the one hand, withdrawal refers to the virtual dimension of objects. The virtual dimension of objects or their powers is forever withdrawn from other objects. Not only do objects have all sorts of powers that may or may not ever lead to manifestations or actualizations (a person might never get a tan because they live their entire life locked in a dungeon), but also powers as such are never themselves manifested. That is, the qualities an object manifests never resemble the powers that it possesses.
It’s all about JUST objects and relations, and powers, and qualities too. Very abstract.

There’s nothing surprising about that. That’s how philosophy tends to be. And I knew that going in.

What strikes me, however, is that this level of abstraction feels akin to knowledge representation (KR), the discipline in cognitive science and artificial intelligence about representing human knowledge in computational form. KR has many specific formalisms, but one can think of them as being about objects and relations, powers and qualities. If you’re building an expert system for medical diagnosis, well, what objects, relations, powers, and qualities do you need to have in your system in order to represent some body of medical diagnostics? If you want to be able to recognize stories about going into food establishments and ordering a meal, what objects, relations, powers, and qualities do you need to have in your system in order to do that? So, the study of KR is the study of how to deploy objects, relations, powers, and qualities in representing bodies of knowledge.

Russell Hoban: Disappearances

Was the late Russell Hoban an object-oriented ontologist? How's this sound?
More and more I find life is a series of disappearances followed usually but not always by reappearances; you disappear from your morning self and reappear as your afternoon self; you disappear from feeling good and reappear feeling bad. And people, even face to face and clasped in each other's arms, disappear from each other.
H/t Michael Sporn.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Alenka Pinterič

Nina Paley’s started background research for her Exodus project (aka Seder-Masochism). One aspect of her research has been to immerse herself in recordings of the theme song from Exodus, a hit movie from 1960 about a shipload of Holocaust survivors after World War II. The theme song became a hit in an instrumental version by duo-pianists Ferrante and Teicher and was covered in many other instrumental versions. Pop star Pat Boone wrote lyrics and vocal versions multiplied like rabbits, many of which are available on YouTube.

Paley singled out one version for special mention on her Facebook page, a version by one Alenka Pinterič, which she introduced with this sentence: “But I just came across this one, which is...special. Like, Trolololo special. It has viral potential.” That reads like Paley had her tongue in her cheek. And when you hear it, well . . . . The thing is, a day later she reposted that same version, remarking that it “is the only version of "Exodus" that gets BETTER every time you play it.” No tongue in cheek. In comments she says: “What makes it great is her palpable joy and confidence.” She’s right. I’m not sure that “great” is the word, but “palpable joy and confidence,” yes. Here it is:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Community Bands in America

In 19th century America, the community band was at the center of community life. Here's a documentary about them:
Meet The Band, a Hindsight Media production, is a one-hour documentary tracing the history of community bands n the United States. We profile four very different bands from around the country and takes us through the American Revolution, the Civil War and the 20th century.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New coinage: "Assholocracy"

Over at Language Log Geoffrey Pullum is arguing for "assholocracy" as a new addition to the English language. Donald Trump is his favored instance of the assholocrat, but examples are legion:
The whole Arab Spring has been a process of bringing down assholocracies. Italy suffered under one until recently. Russia and Syria are now protesting against their own crooked assholocracies, and the only reason North Korea and Zimbabwe don't do the same is that they daren't, they could be killed. We in the West are going to need a term for being ruled by assholocrats, because they continue to threaten to exercise power over huge parts of the earth's population even if not (yet) over us.




Monday, December 12, 2011

Tank Tankoro, by Gajo Sakamoto

Gaja Sakamoto. Tank Tankuro: Prewar Works, 1934-45. Presspop, Inc. 2011.
I was browsing in Jim Hanley’s Universe* a few weeks ago and saw a handsomely slipcased volume by someone I’d never heard of, Gajo Sakamoto, about a character I’d never heard of, Tank Tankoro. That I’d never heard of either means nothing, of course. The fine print on the label pasted to the cellophane wrapper indicated that this Tankoro character was “the preeminent robot superhero manga from pre-WWII Japan” and that it had somehow gotten lost even in Japan and wasn’t rediscovered there until the 1970s, at which point it was republished to much joy and acclaim.

A very convincing sales pitch and, as I said, the slipcasing was very handsome. But I didn’t buy that first time. But two weeks later . . . then I bought. I ripped off the cellophane wrapper, took the book out of its case and started leafing though. Good paper, high quality printing, I thought, and funny.

I leafed through to page 73 and noticed a bunch of guys and a canon, but no ammunition. I turned the page and saw a nice two-page spread (74-75), in four color printing (the earlier pages had been only black and red). On the right-hand page some guy had a basket stacked high with octopi while on the left-hand the guys with the canon were wondering “What’ll we do with them?”

Of course, I new exactly what they were going to do with them, and started chuckling at the notion of using octopi as canon balls (while also thinking that that wasn’t too kind to the octopi). And, yep! that’s what happened on pages 76 and 77. And then 78 and 79 formed another two page spread, which you can see on the web, here (page 78) and here (page 79). The octopi formed a chain stretching from Tankuro up there in the air down to the guys on the ground, who were trying to reel him in: “It’s like beach net fishing.”

What an utterly absurd and wonderful conception. Of course, it didn’t work. Tankuro freed himself, because he’s the hero. I was hooked.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Another one of those shots where the sun burns a whole in the fabric of reality


David Graeber: Anarchism, Debt, and Militarism

The White Review has a far-ranging interview with David Graeber, economic anthropologist and OWS theorist. Here he talks about how US overseas military arrangements and foreign debt amount to empire under a different set of names (paragraphing mine):
Since 1972 when Nixon went off the gold standard, the world reserve currency has been the US dollar, but what ultimately backs the US dollar? People say nothing, it’s ‘fiat money’ but I don’t think this is true. It’s a credit system based on the circulation of debt.

Of course the US has the enormous advantage of being able to write checks that are never actually cashed: US treasury bonds have become the basic reserve currency for the central banks and as Michael Hudson originally pointed out, most of these American treasury bonds are never really cashed in. They’re rolled over year after year to buy new ones, and these holders are taking a loss on them as they pay interest lower than inflation. So why are they doing that?

Well, if you look at the size of US deficit it corresponds almost exactly to the real saw [sic] military budget. If you look at graphs showing the growth of the US deficit, and the percentage of it held overseas, and the US military spending—basically, you see almost exactly the same curve. So basically, foreign governments and institutional lenders are buying US treasury bonds and paying for this enormous military spending.

So, who are the guys doing it? Well during the cold war it was especially West Germany, now, apart from China, the most important are places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Gulf states. What do these states have in common? They’re all covered in US military bases, or under US military protection. The US is borrowing the money to create these military bases from the very countries that the US military is sitting on top of.

In the past, such arrangements were called ‘empires’ and the money sent over was referred to as ‘tribute.’ Now apparently your not allowed to use that language, so it’s called a ‘loan.’ Nonetheless, that link between the military and the core of the financial system remains, it’s the thing we’re not supposed to think about.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

When I first got interested in object-oriented ontology (OOO) I wondered just what qualified as an object, metaphysically speaking. I suppose the question was particularly acute because, at that time, I was reading Tim Morton’s early thinking on hyperobjects, which presupposed ordinary metaphysical objects and seemed to extend it in some (possibly strange) way to some special class of objects, objects, Tim, said, that were massively distributed in space and time. Such as global climate change. What’s to be gained, I wondered, by saying that climate change is an object, as opposed, say, to a process?

And that question—what IS an object?—was still very much on my mind at the OOO meetings in New York City in mid-September. A brief exchange between Graham Harman and Levi Bryant clarified that at bit. I forget just what they were talking about, but they decided tnat, no, it wasn’t an object, it was a set, an arbitrary collection of objects. So, (metaphysical) objects are one thing, sets another. We’re getting somewhere.

Then I discovered, perhaps in reading The Quadruple Object (which I’m still studying, it’s a dense little book) that imaginary objects are as much under consideration as, well, real objects. Except, you see, that imaginary objects are real objects, don’t you see? but not real in the way that real objects are. Now, of course, that’s not what Harman says, nor is it quite what I was thinking or am now thinking, but it’s a useful index of potential confusion.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Look Around a Tree


Underbelly Links

Jasper Rees was the journalist tasked with breaking The Underbelly Project in The New York Times and The Times of London. Now he tells the tale of going down there to get the story, The Underbelly Project: New York:
My pulse starts to race. This kind of excitement is not normally available to arts journalists (the PRs see to that). The surface underfoot suddenly turns rough and damp. My hand-torch – we’ve got two between four – picks out puddles among the loose cement. We clamber over various obstacles – details of what and how withheld – until we are in an empty space. In the dark, lit by our torches, it’s more like a concrete cave. I get the impression that pretty much nobody has been down here in decades.
Juxtapose Magazine goes to The Underbelly Project @ Art Basel Miami 2011.

Jeff Stark set a table for two in the Underbelly project in November 2011, and left the table behind. Now he sets a table in an abandoned marine park in Miami as part of the Underbelly festivities at Art Basel.

Conference on Psycho-Ontology

There’s a conference on that topic at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem on 11-15 December of this year, with David Chalmers, Steven Pinker, Lera Bofoditsky and Jesse Prinz headlining. Here’s how the conference bills itself:
Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality? Philosophers such as Hume, Kant, James, Bergson, Husserl, Kuhn, and Goodman have, in different ways, seemed to believe this question should be answered in the affirmative. Yet as disciplines, cognitive science and metaphysics are usually conducted without reference to one another.

“Psycho-ontology” can be defined as the investigation of the relationship between human cognition and features of reality: We do psycho-ontology when we study the way perception, thought, and emotion play a role in helping constitute the world we inhabit. But psycho-ontology can also move in the opposite direction: It can involve studying the fundamental features of reality in order to gain insight into how human cognitive processes work.
It’s a subject of some interest to me, what with my long-standing interest in psychology of ontological cognition.

However, in looking over the program a bit, I suspect it may miss the point as far as object-oriented ontology (OOO) is concerned. The blurb for Chalmers gives it away: “What is the minimal vocabulary that Laplace's demon would need in order to know all truths about the world?” That’s not what OOO is about nor is it quite what I’m about. For my part, I fear that the notion of a fixed vocabulary is somehow adequate to all truths is somewhere between deeply problematic and hopeless one. But the broader point is simply that Chalmers seems concerned about enumerating the kinds of things in the world, which is what ontology seems to mean for this conference.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Many Tables?

Graham Harman has a recent post in which he wonders about tables:
Because of something I had to write I was going over A.S. Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (or over the Introduction, anyway, which was the relevant part for my purposes). This Introduction is famous for its discussion of the “two tables”: the scientific table that is mostly empty space and made up of rushing subatomic particles, and the table of everyday life (which Eddington confusingly names the “substantial” table, but never mind that).

I find that I have no sympathy for either of those two tables. The real table is the third table that is neither scientific nor everyday.

Under Eddington’s schema, both tables are dissolved into nearby sets of relations– either into their tiny little components detectable by the sciences, or into their effects on humans.
I’ve not read Eddington’s introduction, but only the single page that shows up in the Google Books preview. But that leads me to suspect that the situation is worse the Harman’s suggested.

The scientific table seems to be the quantum-mechanical table of sub-atomic charged particles, where those particle are not little itty bitty grains of sand, but even smaller; they’re something else. I suspect that Eddington’s “substantial” table is a conflation of all those various appearances (sensual objects in Harman’s terminology) the table presents to human perception and action with the classical table as defined in various respects by Descartes, Gallileo and Newton. It's the table of classical mechanics. If we count all those appearances as one table, that gives us three tables, two scientific tables (quantum and classical) and one everyday table (appearances). Harman’s real table is a fourth. It, presumably, is what holds those other tables together or, if you will, it is what spawns them.