Monday, December 31, 2012

Purple Year's End


Thomas Kuhn's Revolution at 50

Writing in The New Atlantis, Matthew Rees reconsiders Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on it's 50th anniversary. Here are a few passages directed specifically at the social sciences, which were not much on Kuhn's mind when he wrote the book. I'm not sure I agree with Rees, but he makes interesting points.
While the physical sciences were the most prominent in the public mind when Kuhn was writing Structure in the early 1960s, today biology is in ascendance. It is striking, as Hacking notes in his introductory essay, that Kuhn does not explore whether Darwin’s revolution fits within his thesis. It is far from clear that Kuhn’s thesis can adequately account for not only Darwin’s revolution but also cell theory, Mendelian or molecular genetics, or many of the other major developments in the history of biology.... But in the half century since Kuhn wrote his book, biology has taken the place of physics as the dominant science — and so in the social sciences, the conception of society as a machine has gone out of vogue. Social scientists have increasingly turned to biology and ecology for possible analogies on which to build their social theories; organisms are supplanting machines as the guiding metaphor for social life. 
Here come our friends IS and OUGHT:


While I'm obviously not on hiatus at this point, I'm still working with a rental computer. It's taking time to get data transferred from my backup drive to the new machine. The problem seems to be in my email contacts. For some reason they weren't able to recover them from the back-up, so they're trying to recover them from the machine that died.

Ain't technology wonderful?



This brought a tear to my eyes

and I'm not at all a Zep fan. But you can't deny the power of this performance, which isn't by Led Zepplin, but was performed for them at the Kennedy Center.

Which reminds me: What about aging rockers? I heard that Mick Jagger tore it up at the Garden a couple of weeks ago. Maybe we need to rething old age.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Put a grin on the groove and aim the beat at your feet"

So says drummer Duffy Jackson, son of bassist, Chubby Jackson. Sounds like a real sweet cat. Listen to the interview. It's a pleasure.

Some Conservatory Flowers





This comment is undoubtedly naïve. A major sin in the contemporary philosophical environment. It is what it is.

The sin of correlationism is generally laid at the feet of Immanuel Kant and his Copernican revolution. Why not implicate Descartes?

He’s the one who divided the cosmos into two utterly different kinds of substance, res cogitansand res extensa. That’s where the problem lies, no? Given that these two substances are utterly different, and that our minds are constituted by one of them, the relationship between mind and the world becomes problematic. Descartes invoked God to handle that problem.

If you jettison God, then you’ve really got a problem. Correlationism is one solution. But it’s not the only one.

Why not jettison the division of the cosmos into two utterly different substances? What happens then? The relationship between humankind and the rest of the world becomes just another relationship. It may be a particularly complex one, but that’s OK. Complexity is not the same as Utterly Different.

In this regime correlationism simply disappears. Hence, you don’t even have to take the trouble to deny it or argue against it.


Fan Dance


The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure

Back in August of 2011 I published a relatively short document outlining my sense of where literary studies should go. I’ve now revised that document, retaining the four-part structure of my assessment, but somewhat revising my sense of what those four parts are. Then I talked of 1) description, 2) the newer psychologies, 3) object-oriented ontology, and 4) digital humanities. I’ve retained 1 and 4, but 2 and 3 have become naturalist criticism and ethical criticism, respectively. This change, of course, reflects the work I’ve recently done on a pluralist metaphysics.

This revision has the merit, I believe, of being a bit closer to what is actually happening in literary studies as naturalist criticism isn’t so restrictive a rubric as the newer psychologies and ethical criticism isn’t nearly so restrictive as object-oriented ontology. But the emphasis remains as it was then:

The primary texts constitute the treasure we study. Full and accurate descriptions of those texts are the key to that treasure. Everything else is built on those descriptions.

1) Description: We need to develop richer descriptions of the texts we study. I’ve blogged about this here and there, and I note that some folks at Arcade seem to be thinking about these lines. But mostly what I’ve been doing is working at honing my descriptive skills, with texts and with films. The postscript about a handbook for Heart of Darkness is as close as I’ve come to an explicit justification for description, though my recent post, Corpus Linguistics, Literary Studies, and Description, hints at what a fuller argument might entail.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Pipe Organ at Longwood Gardens

is set up so that you can go behind the pipes. Here's a few shots:


The pipes are behind glass, hence the reflections you see in the photos.


Q. Are these the most elaborate musical instruments ever made?


Think about it...


Corpus Linguistics, Literary Studies, and Description

One of my main hobbyhorses these days is description. Literary studies has to get a lot more sophisticated about description, which is mostly taken for granted and so is not done very rigorously. There isn’t even a sense that there’s something there to be rigorous about. Perhaps corpus linguistics is a way to open up that conversation.

The crucial insight is this: What makes a statement descriptive IS NOT how one arrives at it, but the role it plays in the larger intellectual enterprise.

A Little Background Music

Back in the 1950s there was this notion that the process of aesthetic criticism took the form of a pipeline that started with description, moved on to analysis, then interpretation and finally evaluation. Academic literary practice simply dropped evaluation altogether and concentrated its efforts on interpretation. There were attempts to side-step the difficulties of interpretation by asserting that one is simply describing what’s there. To this Stanley Fish has replied (“What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” in Is There a Text in This Class?, Harvard 1980, p. 353):
The basic gesture then, is to disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text: but it actually is a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all. 
And that takes care of that.

Except that it doesn’t. Fish is correct in asserting that there’s no such thing as a theory-free description. Literary texts are rich and complicated objects. When the critic picks this or that feature for discussion those choices are done with something in mind. They aren’t innocent.

But, as Michael Bérubé has pointed out in “There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser” (in Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, eds. Postmodern Sophistries, SUNY Press 2004, pp. 11-26) there is interpretation and there is interpretation and they’re not alike. The process by which the mind’s eye makes out letters and punctuation marks from ink smudges is interpretive, for example, but it’s rather different from throwing Marx and Freud at a text and coming up with meaning.

Thus I take it that the existence of some kind of interpretive component to any description need not imply that the necessity of interpretation implies that it is impossible to descriptively carve literary texts at their joints. And that’s one of the things that I want from description, to carve texts at their joints.

Of course, one has to know how to do that. And THAT, it would seem, is far from obvious.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Training Trees: Ontology in Cognition

This is a bonsai tree I photographed at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia:


The label for each such tree noted the date on which training began.

That’s what interests me, the use of the word “training.” One would not say that a black smith trains iron to become horseshoes, or a knife blade, or hardware fittings for doors and cabinets. Metal is not trainable in the sense that plants, animals, and humans are.

This usage seems most common for humans and animals, perhaps because training plants is not so common. Of myself I can say that I was trained by David Hays, but I would not say that I was trained by the other graduate faculty with whom I studied in graduate. It is true, that they trained me in a general way, but I worked more closely with Hays than with any of the others and acquired both a richer and a more specific set of skills from him. There are aspects of my work that are identifiably linked to David Hays, most obviously my work in cognitive networks.
Similarly, one can say of a boxer preparing for a fight that he is “in training” for the fight. A boxer in training will usually be working with a trainer. That trainer will be working with the boxer on both boxing skills and general physical conditioning. Things change in the world of football. There the coach is responsible for football skills while a trainer is responsible for physical conditioning.

Animals can be trained as well, though some animals are more easily trained than others. Dogs more so than cats, horses more so than cattle.

Humans, of course, can also train themselves, whether in athletic skills, intellectual skills, or any other kind of skill or conditioning. But plants and animals cannot. They must be trained by a human. And inanimate things, like chunks of metal, cannot be trained at all, though they can be worked, forged, shaped, carved, and so forth.

Informally we can say that living things have souls while inanimate things do not. It is the soul that accepts training. Further, we seem to have at least two kinds of souls. The soul of a plant can accept training but cannot itself direct training. It would seem that animals are like plants in this respect. The football example seems to imply that humans have two kinds of soul. One soul is the province of coaches while the other is for trainers to work on.

In thus talking of souls I do not mean to imply that such souls are consciously conceived. They may or may not be, but even where they are there’s no particular reason to believe that that conception plays a role in the semantic mechanisms underlying the usage of the verb “to train.” Those are the mechanisms that have interested me for some time. When I talk of ontological cognition, those mechanisms are what I have in mind. The explicit concept of the soul, or the notions of a vital, sensitive, and rational soul, those are most likely rationalizations of the underlying semantic mechanisms. 

Living lines, Longwood Gardens




Being and Correlation, What ARE They?

When I first started looking into object-oriented ontology I found all the talk of being (sometimes capitalized as Being) a bit peculiar, and this despite the fact that I’d read a fair amount of such talk in my youth and didn’t find it peculiar then. What had happened since then that made such ordinary philosophical discourse seem odd?

And correlation, as in correlationism, that really had me spinning. I read the words and made sense of them one at a time, but the sentences didn’t hold together for me. I couldn’t grasp what’s being talked about. I didn’t resonate. It just stayed there, like a lump of indigestible meat.

While talk of being and correlationism no longer seems strange, I’m still not sure what’s being talked about. I’m not even sure that the talkers themselves know. Consider this passage from Alexander Galloway’s recent cri de Coeur in Critical Inquiry, The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism (vol. 39, Winter 2013, p. 354):
For Meillassoux correlationism means that knowledge of the world is always the result of a correlation between subject and object. “By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other,” Meillassoux writes. Under the system of correlationism, subjectivity and objectivity are forever bound together.
Meillassoux’s statement naively reads as though there is being somewhere out there, like kumquats, x-rays, and elephants, and there is thinking, again somewhere out there, like galaxies, frogs, and geodes. And those things out there, being and thinking, they are terms than cannot be separately considered. What can that possibly mean?

He has given animals souls

From Harvard and Yale, this stocky, industrious man who had never graduated from high school received honorary degrees. He was honored by Yale the same day as it honored Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Prof. William Lyon Phelps of Yale said of Mr. Disney: 
"He has accomplished something that has defied all the efforts and experiments of the laboratories in zoology and biology. He has given animals souls."
Presumably Prof. Phelps said that the day Disney received his honorary degree, which, I believe, would have been in the late 1930s. That was long before animals and our attitudes toward them had become a focal concern in the humanities. Which means that his assertion about Disney didn't have THAT particular kind of weight. 

I rather imagine that what he had in mind is simply that Disney (among others) made cartoons about animals that walked about on their hind legs and talked, as though they were humans. What I'm wondering is this: What's the relationship between those cartoons, then, and the present existence of animal studies?

Animal studies didn't come from nothing. It has had to draw on existing cultural resources, both immediately and directly, and indirectly as well. I'm thinking that those cartoons are among the most important of the indirect cultural resources on which animal studies draws. Without those cartoons suffused throughout the society, animal studies would be a much harder sell.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Theme do Yoyo, Fontella Bass and the Art Ensemble of Chicago

Phil Freeman of Burning Ambulance has noted the death of Fontella Bass, RnB singer and wife of Lester Bowie, avant-garde trumpeter with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She sang "Theme do Yoyo" on one of their earliest and best-known albums, Les Stances a Sophie, which was soundtrack music for a movie of the same name. Here's a YouTube clip from the movie:

I haven't got the foggiest idea what's going on in the movie, which I've never seen. But that album hit me like a ton of bricks when I first heard it back in, say, 1969 (when it was released) or 1970, and I've still got the vinyl. I could hear the funk in the bass line, but it was jittery in a way that funk and RnB are not. And the horn solos, wonderful!

A quick check of YouTube shows that others have covered the tune. Very interesting. It's not often that anyone covers avant-garde/free jazz tunes. But then this wasn't an ordinary free jazz tune. There is jazz that is free in the sense that it rigorously avoids recognizable rhythm, melody, and harmony.  It CAN be fun to play, though I'm not so fond of listening to it. The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC) was free even of THAT stricture. And that freedom left them room to make ordinary sense, or at least to float it on an extraordinary foundation.

The jitter in that bass line was avant-garde. But the core was pure funk. And so with Fontella Bass's vocal, pure RnB. But her ability to negotiate it over that bass line, pure freedom. A remarkable performance.

Contrasts: Longwood Gardens



This Land? MINE! All Mine!

She's at it again, Nina Paley. She's been working on a Biblical epic under the working title Sadermasochism. And, she's working on the last part first–The last shall be first? Here's the final scene:

While this little bloodbath is about one particular and relatively small piece of land in a particular place that has been ongoing for thousands of years, one might well be tempted to see it as both metaphor and metonymy for all nationalists land claims.

Whatever happened to Jean Piaget? And where’s the mind?

I learned about Piaget as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. He had a profound influence on me. The idea of learning how the mind works by studying how it develops had intuitive appeal and Piaget’s systematic exploration and exposition of mental mechanisms gave a sense the mind was not just an inchoate box full of processes and miasmatic desires but that there was a complex and highly structured “device” at work.

Furthermore Piaget 1) considered himself a structuralist and wrote a little book about it, 2) and quite explicitly argued that the mind constructs reality. He even addressed himself to the history of the mind, under the heading of genetic epistemology through analysis of the historical development of mathematical and causal concepts.

Even then, it was apparent that, if he was a structuralist, is was a different kind of structuralist from, say, Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. However much they were interested in the mind, Piaget had much more to say about it. He did not see it as a profusion of signs variously chasing, eluding, and opposing one another. And, alas, his ideas were not of much use for critique. And THAT, I suspect, is why he never really made the team for humanist discourse, though a large, ingenious, and industrious body of psychologists has been busily at work extending, amending, revising, and critiquing his work.

Not that I think that a knowledge of Piaget alone would plug the hole I see in Latour’s thinking and that of his students, the object-oriented philosophers. But such knowledge would at least give them a sense of “thickness” to the mind, a sense that there’s something more than a bunch of signs playing hide-and-go-seek.

Disney at Longwood Gardens

Here's a screenshot from the Ave Maria episode of Disney's Fantasia:

AveMaria5 by the still water

Look at those trees, and their reflection in the water. Now look at at the trees, and their reflections, in this photo I just took at Longwood Gardens, once a DuPont estate, which are located near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:


The general resemblance is remarkable, no? 

Well, interesting, but not remarkable. The general resemblance between certain forests of tall trees and the vaulted ceilings of gothic cathedral's was obvious to the men who designed those cathedrals. THAT's why they designed them that way, to embody that similarity. When Pierre DuPont's gardeners created the gardens in the first quarter of the 20th century they certainly would have had those cathedrals in mind. And Disney's artists, particularly concept artist, Kay Nielson, certainly had the same thing in mind when they designed the Ave Maria episode in the late 1930s.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Thinking Pluralism

I’m thinking about three ideas for the introduction to the PDF of the main argument in my pluralism series:

  1. Philosophy cannot provide the foundations for the naturalist study of anything. The specialized disciplines must necessarily be responsible for their own foundations.
  2. The naturalist study of human kind necessarily includes an account of why humans seek to live an ethical life, but it cannot itself provide an ethics. The metaphysician must, of course, take note of this in considering the ways of Being. I discuss this in my argument under the heading of Ethical Criticism and Unity of Being
  3. Philosophy can provide the foundations for ethical discussions. Though it should feel free to call on any of the specialized human sciences for support and insight, it cannot base its arguments on them for the well-known reason that one cannot derive an OUGHT from a IS.

I suspect, maybe even fear? that the relationships between these three are tricky. But that’s OK.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bryant Watch: Serres on Science and Philosophy

Levi Bryant quotes from Michael SerresConversations on Science, Culture, and Time (p. 14)

Either science must develop its own intrinsic epistemology, in which case it is a question of science and not of epistemology, or else it’s a matter of external annotation– at best redundant and useless, at worst a commentary or even publicity.  
And (p. 29):
Epistemology requires one to learn science in order to commentate it badly, or worse, in order to recopy it.  Scientists themselves are better able to reflect on their material than the best epistemologists in the world– or at least more inventively.  
He further notes that "All these things are still seen everywhere today." OK. So why does he so  consistently "commentate it badly, or worse, in order to recopy it"? Is it because he summarizes science in the name of ontology and he feels he can get it wrong and it won't matter?

Sunday, December 23, 2012


I'm going to be on break for a few days. On the one hand I'm going out of town to visit my sister. On the other hand, my computer died so I'm limping along on crutches.

Walt Disney, Object-Oriented?

The audio commentary to the 60th Anniversary Edition of Fantasia has many comments by Walt Disney, often in his own voice (rather than someone reading something he said). Of the leaves in the final segment of The Nutcracker Suite, Disney said this (emphasis mine):
Have perfect control of the leaf. Make the leaf do all the movements we want it to do. I don’t like it where it gets down and dances; we’re limiting the leaf to what a human being can do. That’s another thing. We could make a comedy out of this, but I don’t think we should. Take a floating leaf and the shapes it might assume. Like when the leaf floats down and lands on the ground and the movement of the wind. You’ve seen them in a high wind. Try to take the natural movement of the leaves and things like that being tossed around in the wind. A ballet effect.”
I've noted before on New Savanna that animation seems an inherently object-oriented medium. Everything had to be drawn by hand, sticks, stones, apples, cats, and people alike. And anything and everything could be and often was brought to life. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Carl Barks Christmas

Michael Sporn has posted scans of A Christmas for Shacktown, a superb Carl Barks comic book staring Donald Duck, Daisey, his three nephews, and Uncle Scrooge.

Kismet: The West Bank Latrobe Federal Brass Band

Can 140 years of Tasmanian tradition be given new life on the West Bank of the Hudson River?

Every year for the past dozen or so years Tony Hicks has put together a brass band to play Christmas tunes, first for the Hamilton Park Ale House, and then when Maggie opened her own place on Newark Street, Tony booked us there, Skinner’s Loft. It was a fun gig. Around 6:30 we’d line up outside on the street and play for half and hour or so. Then we’d come inside, have a beer or two, and play a couple sets in the upstairs dining room. The staff would wear funny Christmas hats and people would sing along with the band.

Good holiday cheer.

This year, alas, for whatever reason, Maggie decided not to do it. We decided, on the contrary, that we’d give her a freebie. Not the whole gig, but out doors on the side walk, we’d do that.

So, after a good half-hour devoted to finding a parking space I enter Skinner’s Loft and see Tony and Ed, another trumpet player, sitting at the bar. I join them and Tony starts telling us about the Latrobe Federal Brass Band, back in Tasmania, where he’s from. Along about the time he gets to telling us about a particularly opinioned character named Scudgy Clayton we decided it was time to play.

So we go outside, set up our music stands, break out our horns—Ed on trumpet, Tony on Euphonium (a $3000 horn he got for $50 in a pawn shop), and me on trumpet, and start playing, Hark the Herald Angels, Jingle Bells, and so forth. Before you know it an eight-year old Vietnamese kid lays a twenty on Ed’s music stand.

Whoa! That never happened before. So we play some more while dreaming of mortgage payments and new shoes and before you know it, another dollar, and another, a quarter, and by the time we’re done, $29.25. All unexpected.

Political Graffiti: Truth on Arab Walls

Nancy Demerdash, "Concuming Revolution: Ethics, Art, and Ambivalence in the Arab Spring, New Middle Eastern Studies, December 3, 2012.

Artists across the region are also taking their craft to the street, the very locus of resistance. Of course, there is a long and sustained tradition of graffiti and mural arts in the Middle East, mainly in Palestine and the Occupied Territories.[16] But since the revolutions, these public art forms have exploded in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and to a far lesser degree in Syria.[17] Recognizing the Lefebvreian social and political production of urban space and its constant reconfigurations,[18] artists identify with the urban marginals who continually negotiate their integration with and contestations to the disintegrating systems of state and bureaucratic power.[19] Meaning, for these urban artists and everyday locals alike, is constituted from lived experiences within the spaces of revolution. Street artists have come to inscribe on public walls past memories and memorials to those struggles and lives lost in the revolutions. But for the general public, the spaces on these walls have acquired profound collective and personal meaning.  Murals and graffiti panels embody concrete memories for passersby and neighborhood locals; people gather around the walls, engaging in discussions of what should be represented and how a particular piece moves them or invokes a certain memory.[20] These art forms have transformed public spaces and streets into what Asef Bayat terms the “political street,” signifying “the collective sensibilities, shared feelings, and public judgment of ordinary people in their day-to-day utterances and practices… The Arab Street… should be seen in terms of such expression of collective sentiments in the Arab public sphere.”[21]
Check out the images. They're superb. H/t Alexander Key.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is Shooting Guns Addictive?

Steven Kotler writes an op-ed with neuroscientist James Olds. They suggest that shooting guns might be addictive:
Dopamine shows up when we take a risk—and firing a gun is always a risk. It shows up when we encounter something novel and since guns blow things up, well that usually pretty novel. If you’re serious about your guns and use them for target practice or hunting, well that requires pattern recognition and this increases dopamine as well.

Are there direct correlations? Has anyone yet done a PET or MRS scan (the only ways to screen for dopamine in the brain) of people just leaving a firing range? Not that we can tell (though we’ll outline this and a few possible areas of research in a moment). We do know, from copious amounts of video game research, that first person shooter games release dopamine, and this has been linked to everything from learning and rewards to ideas about violence and harm to winning and motivation.

What does all of this really mean? It means that the reason gun violence continues to rise (and the reason gun control legislation remains so hard to pass) is because we are quite literally addicted to our guns.

The Comedian's Craft: Seinfeld (and the truth about Michael Richards)

Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
On the way to the Gotham Comedy Club for a surprise set:
Seinfeld likes pressure. He describes doing live comedy as “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.” His objective at Gotham was piecework. “A lot of what I’ll be doing tonight are tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth,” he said. “A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.” One bit began with the observation that “tuxedos are the universal symbol for pulling a fast one.” “That line works,” he said. “But I want to get from there to a point about how the places where you see tuxedos are not honest places — casinos, award shows, beauty pageants, the maitre d’ — all these things feel shady.” He added: “But I’ve been having trouble getting the audience to that. I’m trying to bring that to a punchline.” ... “I have this old ’57 Porsche Speedster, and the way the door closes, I’ll just sit there and listen to the sound of the latch going, cluh-CLICK-click,” Seinfeld said. “That door! I live for that door. Whatever the opposite of planned obsolescence is, that’s what I’m into.”
After the set, which got him a standing ovation:
“I’d say two-thirds of that set was garbage,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Whether it was lines coming out wrong or the rhythm being off.” He said he’d counted “probably eight” jokes that failed to get the kinds of laughs he desired. “There’s different kinds of laughs,” he explained. “It’s like a baseball lineup: this guy’s your power hitter, this guy gets on base, this guy works out walks. If everybody does their job, we’re gonna win.” I told him about the khaki guy’s spit take, and Seinfeld cracked up, calling this “a rare butterfly.” Nevertheless, “there wasn’t one moment where I was where I wanted to be. That was just a workout. I had to get it going again.”

Seinfeld has an office, which is not in his home. After he's taken his kids to school and worked out in the gym, he does to that office and works:

No street noise penetrates. The pages of the pad are destined for either a wastebasket or a master file containing Seinfeld’s entire act, handwritten. The other day, perusing this file, he found a joke in which, discussing touch-screen phones, he likens the act of scrolling through a contact list and deleting names to the effete, disdainful gesture of a “gay French king” deciding whom to behead. Seinfeld wrote the joke a year ago and forgot it; having rediscovered it, he’d be telling it onstage that weekend. 
Seinfeld’s shows last a little over an hour, but he has about two hours of material in active rotation, so he’s able to swap in different bits on different nights. There is a contemporary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis. Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly synonymous with black-belt stand-up. Seinfeld wants no part of it. “This ‘new hour’ nonsense — I can’t do it,” he said. “I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work.”
On dirty language:
Almost from the beginning, Seinfeld has forsworn graphic language in his bits, dismissing it as a crutch. “Guys that can use any word they want — if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week,” he said.
Now he gives us a glimpse into the inner workings:
“I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
Of course, it's not just their attention to him. It's the impulses running around in their brains. Comedy depends on timing. The punch line has to come at exactly the right time, not a tenth of a second too soon, and not a tenth too late. The punch line has to be timed so it has a catalytic impact on the neural flow set off by the joke.

Think of this as a matter of coupling, the performer's mind with the audience, and vice versa. Audience members give the performer direct access to their minds; the performance goes straight to the lizard brain without being filtered. But, to use that coupling, the performer has to open himself to the audience, to be aware of every twitch and twitter.
“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
When you drop "made of" you drop a few tenths of a second from the build-up and change the timing of the joke. And I'm sure he's right about the effect of repeating that phrase, first with "water" and then with "smoke." That kind of repetition has an effect on the neural flow, it disturbs The Force.

And, like most (every?) performers, he needs space to transition from everyday mode, to performance mode. That is, he needs to set up his mind so he can become coupled to the audience:
“When Clark Kent turns into Superman, he needs a moment — a phone booth, a storage room!” Seinfeld said, describing the breathing room he relies on to get into show mode. “If I’m at home, I don’t have the physical or mental space to don my costume. It’s horrible. There’s no closing of doors: I have little kids. As soon as you close the door someone’s banging on it. And when I’m home, I love that. I don’t want any personal space, I want them crawling all over me. But when I do this other thing? I can’t tell you I enjoyed it that much.”
And just to underline the point that performance mode IS NOT everyday mode, Seinfeld comments the incident where Michael Richards lost it and yelled "nigger" at hecklers:
In the controversy that followed, it was hard not to see the rant as a moment of unfiltered ugliness, but Seinfeld says this interpretation reflects a category error. Speech on a stage, delivered in a performative context, is unique, he argues, and bits — even those that come off the cuff — are different from straight confessions. “It was a colossal comedic error,” Seinfeld said. “He was angry, and it was the wrong choice, but it was a comedic attempt that failed. In our culture, we don’t allow that, especially in the racial realm. But as a comedian, I know what happened, he knows what happened and every other comedian knows what happened. And all the black comics know it, and a lot of them felt bad about it, because they know it’s rough to be judged that way in that context. You’re leaping off a cliff and trying to land on the other side. It was just another missed leap.”



Bryant Watch: Digging Out, But We Need New Tools

Levi Bryant's singing another variation on the tune "Critique is Over." Sounds like he's digging himself out of a hole, perhaps one of those holes of perpetual withdrawal.

This, of course, is good.
The point is that today we need to find the will to believe a little, to affirm a little, and to commit a little.
One object at a time?
Only where we abandon our foundationalist, obsessional assumptions, our desire to have the truth before we pursue the truth, our intoxication with epistemology, will we be able to move beyond this paralysis.
How about abandoning the idea that the interpretive mode is the only mode of thought a humanist needs? It's all well and good to abandon critique, but without a richer and more robust conceputal tool kit, the affirmative conceptual structures will become tangled in their own verbal complexities. And that will lead to calls for another round of critique to clean up the mess.

No, critique isn't the problem. It's a sympton of the problem. The problem is trying to get too much conceptual mileage out of nothing more than verbal constructs. As I argue in this report on undergraduate education in the human sciences, we need to learn the USE of structural tools from linguists, mathematicians and software engineers and the USE of statistical tools from social and behavioral scientists.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tassels, Twigs, and Leaves




Wilkins on Classification and the Periodic Table

It might be thought that classification in the special and historical sciences is occasionally atheoretical, but that in the general sciences, physics and chemistry, it is derived from Theory. But in fact one of the most exemplary cases of empirical classification that led to Theory is in these sciences: the periodic table.
Wilkins is singing my song: description and classification lead to theory. That, of course, is what happened in biology, as Wilkins mentions later. Without three of four CENTURIES of describing and classifying prior to him, Darwin wouldn't have had the basis on which to float his theory of evolution.

Mendeleev even expressly noted that he was taking a Lockean or even operationalist approach:
. . . by investigating  and  describing  what  is visible  and  open  to  direct  observation  by  the organs of the senses, we may hope to arrive, first at hypotheses,  and afterwards at theories, of what has now to be taken as the basis of our investigations. (quoted in Kultgen 1958: 180)
Subsequent to the adoption of the table by chemists, there arose a program to improve and explain the “periodic law”. As Scerri says, once scientists have a classification, they seek an underlying cause of the regularities (as Darwin did).
Literary studies needs to take a cue from biology and chemistry and get our descriptive house in order.

The Anthropocene in Pictures

That's us, or rather our impact on the physical disposition of the planet. Here's how it goes:
the Pleistocene, 2.5 million years ago to 12 thousand years ago, saw the emergence of humans from clever apes. 
the Holocene, 12 thousand years ago to to 1800 AD, from agriculture to industry and the emergence of loosely integrate world order of human commerce and exchange; 
and now the Anthropocene, 1800 AD the present and into the future, when industry started pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, little knowing the consequences.
The anthropocene is mapped out in images of the earth at Globaïa. H/t Tim Morton.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Twins, but they're not identical


The Newtown Tragedy and the Emperor's New Clothes

We'll get to that fairly tale in a minute, for it embodies a deep truth about living in society. But let's first think about guns. That gun ownership has been such a controversial issue in American politics suggests that it speaks to our sense of who and what we are.

What kind of phenomenon is gun ownership? Obviously, it's a fact about human beings. Some own guns and some do not. The question becomes: Is gunownership related to other characteristics of a person or not? It might be the case, for example, that gun owners are more likely to have blue eyes than non-gun owners. It that's the case–and there's no reason it is, this is just a hypothetical example–what's that about? Is there a common causal factor behind blue eyes and gun ownership?

Polling data indicates that there IS a relationship between reported political affiliation and gun ownership: Republicans are more likely to own guns than Democrats. This has changed over time: Gun ownership has diminished considerably over that last 40 years among Democrats but NOT Republicans. What's THAT about and is it correlated with anything else.

In 1973, about 55 percent of Republicans reported having a gun in their household against 45 percent of Democrats, according to the General Social Survey, a biennial poll of American adults.

Gun ownership has declined over the past 40 years — but almost all the decrease has come from Democrats. By 2010, according to the General Social Survey, the gun ownership rate among adults that identified as Democratic had fallen to 22 percent. But it remained at about 50 percent among Republican adults.
The poll makes clear that gun ownership is deeply embedded in political identity, and vice versa. Some other variables, such as whether a voter lives in an urban area, also strongly predict gun ownership. But the differences between the parties remain even after accounting for these characteristics.
But the differences are most apparent in suburban areas. There, 58 percent of Republican voters said there was a gun in their household, against just 27 percent of Democrats.
It seems, further more, that "gun ownership rates are inversely correlated with educational attainment." That is, the more education one has, the less likely one is to own a gun. Why?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Literary History, the Future: Kemp Malone, Corpus Linguistics, Digital Archaeology, and Cultural Evolution

In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery—the farther back you draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot.
– Buckminster Fuller

The following remarks are rather speculative in nature, as many of my remarks tend to be. I’m sketching large conclusions on the basis of only a few anecdotes. But those conclusions aren’t really conclusions at all, not in the sense that they are based on arguments presented prior to them. I’ve been thinking about cultural evolution for years, and about the need to apply sophisticated statistical techniques to large bodies of text—really, all the texts we can get, in all languages—by way of investigating cultural evolution.

So it is no surprise that this post arrives at cultural evolution and concludes with remarks on how the human sciences will have to change their institutional ways to support that kind of research. Conceptually, I was there years ago. But now we have a younger generation of scholars who are going down this path, and it is by no means obvious that the profession is ready to support them. Sure, funding is there for “digital humanities,” so deans and department chairs can get funding and score points for successful hires. But you can’t build a new and profound intellectual enterprise on financially-driven institutional gamesmanship alone.

You need a vision, and though I’d like to be proved wrong, I don’t see that vision, certainly not on the web. That’s why I’m writing this post. Consider it a sequel to an article I published back in 1976 with my teacher and mentor, David Hays: Computational Linguistics and the Humanist. This post presupposes the conceptual framework of that article, but does not restate nor endorse its specific visionary recommendations (given in the form of a hypothetical computer program, called Prospero, for simulating the “reading” of texts).

The world has changed since then and in ways neither Hays nor I anticipated. This post reflects those changes and takes as its starting point a recent web discussion about recovering the history of literary studies by using the largely statistical techniques of corpus linguistics in a kind of digital archaeology. But like Tristram Shandy, I approach that starting point indirectly, by way of a digression.

Who’s Kemp Malone?

Back in the ancient days when I was still an undergraduate, and we tied an onion in our belts as was the style at the time, I was at an English Department function at Johns Hopkins when someone pointed to an old man and said, in hushed tones, “that’s Kemp Malone.” Who is Kemp Malone, I thought? From his Wikipedia bio:
Born in an academic family, Kemp Malone graduated from Emory College as it then was in 1907, with the ambition of mastering all the languages that impinged upon the development of Middle English. He spent several years in Germany, Denmark and Iceland. When World War I broke out he served two years in the United States Army and was discharged with the rank of Captain.

Malone served as President of the Modern Language Association, and other philological associations ... and was etymology editor of the American College Dictionary, 1947.
Who’d have thought the Modern Language Association was a philological association?

Pluralism Primer: Abundance


The object-oriented ontologists think of objects as, in a philosophical sense, unbounded. As do I. But we differ in how we conceptualize that difference.

The object-oriented ontologists think of the object as withdrawing. Objects are always withdrawing from one another, hence they are always withdrawing from us. Which means that we, as philosophers, are always chasing after them. No sooner do we lay a philosophical glove on them than they exude a dab of philosophical grease and slip away.


Hence theirs is a flat landscape punctured by the black holes of ever withdrawing objects. They probe the holes but nothing ever comes out. Godot never shows up.

Pluralists think of objects as manifold, a plenitude of presence, abundant. Grasping objects is easy, but full comprehension is all but impossible. As soon as you break off a piece for examination the object fills the void. No matter how many pieces you examine there’s always more to see and touch.

Sunday, December 16, 2012



The Abundance Principle and The Fourth Arena

In casually thinking over the pluralist work, as I’ve been doing this past week, I’ve realized that I can push the exploration one more step without too much work. This post should be brief.

Let’s start with the commonsense distinction between living things and non-living things. By the kinds of arguments Jane Bennett has advanced in Vibrant Matter that distinction seems questionable as given. Considering the strange world of quantum mechanics and the self-organizing turbulence of complex dynamics and other such things, plain old stuff seems more dynamic, more vibrant, than is seemed to, say, Descartes. What I did when, using more poetry than reason, I declared the universe to be alive, I simply invested life in the whole universe, not simply in the earth’s biosphere. In that formulation, the universe was alive even before life, as we think about it, appeared on earth, or anywhere else (if life has indeed arisen elsewhere).

The universe was, and is, abundant. It thus evolves.

Yet, if the life/non-life distinction isn’t quite what common sense makes it out to be, still, there is a distinction of some sort to be made. There is a difference between the biosphere and, say, the Moon or the Sun. What I want to say is that, when life as we call it arose on earth, the abundance that had made the cosmos as a whole a living thing, had now become invested in (incarnated in) the biosphere considered as a small component of the universe as a whole.

Big Thing Watch: Continental Theory and Digital Humanities

The Big Thing I have in mind, is of course, the one Ian Bogost invoked at the end of his post on object-oriented ontology and politics, though I’ve got rather different ideas about where it’s coming from and where it’s going.

That discussion has flared up once again and, to my mind, by far the most sophisticated discussion is taking place at Terrence Blake’s Agent Swarm. I particularly recommend the post, Badiousian Background to Galloway’s argument vs Dumbing Down of the “Controversy”, with contributions from David Columbia, Virgilio Rivas, Blake himself, and some remarks from me as well. The discussion of BADIOU’S AND GALLOWAY’S CLONES is not quite so full, but Philip has an insightful comment to the effect that Galloway has merely asserted a bunch of connections each of which must, in fact, be argued. He’s preaching to the choir—there’s a lot of that, of course.

I find Blake’s discussions useful precisely because Blake himself, and his commenters, are familiar with a Continental literature that is now foreign to me, though I studied Continental thought early in my career. In an ideal world I’d read that literature for myself. This is not that ideal world and my time, like theirs, is limited. So it is useful for me to swim in their waters on my terms and thereby establish common themes and ideas arising in very different discourses.

At the same time, I’ve been hanging out in a discussion at Ted Underwood’s digital humanities blog, The Stone and the Shell. Underwood and Andrew Goldstone have just posted a fascinating piece on work they’ve been doing with the corpus of articles in PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association), What can topic models of PMLA teach us about the history of literary scholarship? In addition to Goldstone and Underwood, Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Weingart and Matt Wilkens have joined in (me too). To my rather speculative mind they seem to be on the trail of the “memetic” undercurrents of the cultural evolutionary process through which philology split into linguistics and interpretive lit crit after World War II.

For a glimpse into the deep background of that split take a look at Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus, which appeared in Critical Inquiry. Geoghegan looks at the period during and immediately after World War II when Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan picked up ideas about information theory and cybernetics from American thinkers at MIT and Bell Labs. THAT line of development leads to deconstruction and post-modernism when it comes back across the Atlantic and crashes into the New Criticism in the middle and late 1960s—think of the 1966 structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins. Galloway and company are playing in and around those waters.

But another stream from those currents hits land in Boston where it becomes Chomksian linguistics, which in turn drove the expansion of linguistics into a fully autonomous intellectual disciplines. And an offshoot from that gave us computational linguistics, from which corpus linguistics emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s where the topic analysis stuff comes from.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Guns in America: Rights vs. Control

In the wake of the Connecticut shootings Nate Silver (NYTimes) has an intersting column about America's "conversation" on guns as it is reported in the media. Here's the core finding:
If the news coverage is any guide, there has been a change of tone in recent years in the public conversation about guns. The two-word phrase “gun control” is being used considerably less often than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But the phrase “gun rights” is being used more often. And the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is being invoked more frequently in the discussion.
After some interesting discussion of the data:
The change in rhetoric may reflect the increasing polarization in the debate over gun policy. “Gun control,” a relatively neutral term, has been used less and less often. But more politically charged phrases, like “gun violence” and “gun rights,” have become more common. Those who advocate greater restrictions on gun ownership may have determined that their most persuasive argument is to talk about the consequences of increased access to guns ... For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections...

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

A Pilgrim's Gotta' Have Shoes



Friday, December 14, 2012

Wheels Within Wheels: Corporate Largesse Meets the Lizard

I’m sure you’ve all heard of those large lizards lurking in the New York City subway tunnels. You know, Amy gets a cute little pet lizard, feeds it for several months—lettuce, grubs, flies, whatever lizards eat—and it grows, and grows, and gets a little too big. So Mommy and Daddy flush it and it ends up Underground. Where it grows and grows until it becomes So Huge it becomes the Stuff of Legend.


In this story the role of The Lizard is played by graffiti, which, as is well known, also came up from the subways of New York City and has become the stuff of legend. Writing on the walls all over the world, six continents no less—but penguins don’t do graffiti. Too cold down there. Survival takes 110% of their time and effort.


As for Corporate Largesse, that’s played by Johnson & Johnson, the bandage and baby lotion company. At least that’s how I think of them, because that’s what I remember from my childhood, in which there was no graffiti—too early in time. But there were lizards, small ones, living near the creek over there, that one too.