Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In Memoriam: William Benzon

IMGP3517rd - Five ducks and freedom tower

* * * * *

From Dad

by Sally Benzon

William Benzon
(1912 – 1998)

Clinging to light
By weeping tears

Charged with this silence
Only sorrow can receive:

Whispered heights of trees
Sway the breathless memory

Out of nowhere,
From the airs of body

You walk at once alone,
And beside us: Not that we are

Asked by a flock of birds
Who insist on behalf

Of one shy authority,
“Part our days together

To a different branch. Larry, Sally,
Sing to laugh around the world

With me!”
Tiding this canopy,
You are the man whose voice outlives

Agreeable disbelief
Into our inhabited green

Hundreds of leaves, golf balls, too
And leaves growing! . . .

Round of arms’ reach
The echo of echoed wings

Reveals the merry chance
Now a sunbeaming glow:

Chimes to sound
The melody of you.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

ADD: Drugs Don't Work Long Term

L. Alan Sroufe has an oped in today's NYTimes on the use of drugs to treat ADD (attention Deficient Disorder) in children: Ritalin Gone Wrong.
Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems. The drugs can also have serious side effects, including stunting growth.

Sadly, few physicians and parents seem to be aware of what we have been learning about the lack of effectiveness of these drugs.
He suggests that experience may be the cause:
Policy makers are so convinced that children with attention deficits have an organic disease that they have all but called off the search for a comprehensive understanding of the condition. The National Institute of Mental Health finances research aimed largely at physiological and brain components of A.D.D. While there is some research on other treatment approaches, very little is studied regarding the role of experience. Scientists, aware of this orientation, tend to submit only grants aimed at elucidating the biochemistry.

Thus, only one question is asked: are there aspects of brain functioning associated with childhood attention problems? The answer is always yes. Overlooked is the very real possibility that both the brain anomalies and the A.D.D. result from experience.
Here's some informal notes I did some years ago on the experience angle: Music and the Prevention and Amelioration of ADHD: A Theoretical Perspective:
Russell A. Barkley has argued that ADHD is fundamentally a disorientation in time. These notes explore the possibility that music, which requires and supports finely tuned temporal cognition, might play a role in ameliorating ADHD. The discussion ranges across cultural issues (grasshopper vs. ant, lower rate of diagnosis of ADHD among African-Americans), play, distribution of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, neural development, and genes in culture (studies of the distribution of alleles for dopamine receptors). Unfortunately, the literature on ADHD does not allow us to draw strong conclusions. We do not understand what causes ADHD nor do we understand how best to treat the condition. However, in view of the fact that ADHD does involve problems with temporal cognition, and that music does train one’s sense of timing, the use of music therapy as a way of ameliorating ADHD should be investigated. I also advocate conducting epidemiological studies about the relationship between dancing and music in childhood, especially in early childhood, and the incidence of ADHD.

Friday, January 27, 2012

More Fishy Business

Mark Liberman has a run at Stanley Fish's recent fusillade against digital humanties, which turns on a pair of plosives in a paragraph in Milton's Aeropagetica. Fish makes a big deal out of Milton's p's and b's while Liberman does a statistical analysis of their occurence in the text and concludes that Fish's argument is much ado about nothing.

Which translates rather easily into much ado about Stanley Fish, opportunist extraordinaire. In the spirit of my own brief post from a couples days ago, I made the following comment to Liberman's piece:

It's difficult to know just how seriously to take this little performance, but it's worth setting it in the larger context of Fish's career as a theorist of methodology. Back in the dark and benighted times of the 1970s he wrote some take-downs of linguistic and statistical methods in stylistics which he included in his very influential 1980 collection, Is There A Text in This Class? Elsewhere in that collection he argued his version of the notion that the meanings critics find in texts are the meanings that they themselves put there (as authorised by their local 'interpretive community'). It was his ability to argue that point that put him on the map as a BIG THEORIST.

That, of course, is rather different from the position he's now claiming in this piece, namely that the meaning is put there by the author and that it's the critic's job to find it through arguments that can be right, a good thing, or wrong, not so good. THAT was the mainstream position at mid-20th century; that was the position Fish and others were then deposing.

So perhaps he's changed his mind. Though I note that only a few years ago he was arguing that what critics, such as himself, do is pretty much play around with texts in a way that is unfettered by utility in any way, shape, or form. And that's the glory of it all.

And that DOES seem to be what Fish was doing in his plosives palaver in this piece, playing around.

I note that in one of his excursions in the current piece, Fish argues against one Stephen Ramsay, who "doesn’t want to narrow interpretive possibilities, he wants to multiply them." That is, Ramsey seems to view digital explorations of texts as a means of playing around even more, a comfortable demodernist postconstructive recouperation of post-industrial capitalist technology. So, if Fish is going to position himself against THAT, well, what better position to assume than arguing for truth, justice, and the old intentionalst way?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fish Argues Against Interpretation Via Digital Humanities

He's at it again. Fish has another post contra-digital humanities, this time centering on interpretation. Not surprisingly, he's opposed, which is consistent with remarks he made about stylistics, including computational stylistics, in one or two of the essays in Is There A Text in This Class? What IS surprising, given the arguments in that—arguably ancient—book, is his final paragraph:
But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.
When did he revert to the beliefs he so strenuously argued against in that text, the beliefs that made him a Major Theorist?

But, of course, he's allowed to change his beliefs. We all are. For that matter, some of the positions he's arguing against aren't terribly attractive to me, at least as he presents them. But that's neither here nor there.

My major problem is that he's implicitly asserting that digital humanities stands or falls on its service to interpretation. It doesn't. And, heretical though though the idea may seem, interpretation need not be the central activity of literary criticism. We've been too long too greedy after meaning. Understanding how texts work is not at all co-extensive with figuring out, case by case, what this or that text means.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Conversation Continues: What is Graffiti?

My meeting with the Semiotics Workshop at the University of Chicago went very well, very well indeed. As you may recall, I was asked to present a paper: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: What is Graffiti? It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had in an academic setting. The workshop coordinators, Britta Ingebretson and Chris Bloechl, had distributed my paper to participants ahead of time so: 1) everyone had read it and had a chance to think about it, and 2) I didn’t have to make a formal presentation. Instead, 3) we could devote our time to discussion. To get things started Joseph Weiss made some brief remarks about my paper and then the floor was opened for discussion.

That discussion, as I said, went very well. It continued through dinner afterward. And I’ve continued thinking about issues raised.

What’s a Site?

Britta Ingebretson wanted to know how I determined the boundary of a site, but, as things unfolded, I never got a chance to answer. The question is important because I’ve argued that the site is an important locus for analytical and explanatory attention. The site isn’t simply where the graffiti happens to be, but it somehow plays a contributory role in graffiti culture.

At one level the question is relatively simple, relatively, but not completely. I’ve organized my online photos by site, and I’ve even marked up a Google Earth map with outlines of those sites:


The pushpins indicate buildings (green = my apartment, blue = a high school, red = entrance to/exit from the Holland Tunnel) while the yellow rectangles bound sites. While there are tags on street signs and dumpsters all over, the pieces tend to be within the yellow boundaries. They are not, however, uniformly distributed within the boundaries. The exact distribution varies from site to site. The large rectangular site, HC (Holland Corridor, right of center), however, is a bit different. It is not densely packed with pieces, but pieces are here and there within the boundaries, though many are now gone as the buildings themselves have been demolished.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Listening is All

One of the motifs that returns again and again in these “Inside the Actor’s Studio” interviews is listening. Most recently, the interviews with Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, and Juliette Binoch. Listening is all, listening is everything.

The first time I heard that it surprised me. And then became utterly obvious. I am, after all, a musician. To perform music, you must listen to your fellow performers. And it makes no difference whether the performance is more or less fully notated on a score or there is no score at all. In either case you MUST listen to your fellow performers.

For that matter, you must listen to yourself as well. The point of practice and preparation, in a sense, is that that, in performance, you play your instrument, sing, speak, by intending to HEAR something. The muscular stuff is subordinated to what you hear.

Now, I suppose I don’t have anything very specific in mind when I’m wishing that literary critics listen to actors talking about their craft. The thing is, if you take that actor talk seriously you have to accept that there is a deep and subtle process involved in simply speaking the words “as they are written.” And coming to grips with that process, whatever it is, is what we must do as critics.

And it is precisely what WE EVADE when we look for meaning. Whatever actors may think about if and when they think about meaning, they cannot be thinking about THAT when they’re listening to another actor, or actors, and summoning their lines in response to what they’re hearing.

That is, this actor talk is a way to get some sense of a process involved in simply and only speaking the words as they’re written. No hidden meanings required. The only other way to get that sense is to go more deeply into the cognitive sciences than, as far as I can tell, any of the literary cognitivists have been able or willing to go. You have to think, explicitly, formally or almost so, about computational process.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

As Actors Prepare, so Should Critics Learn

Every once in awhile I like to listen to a bunch of James Lipton’s interviews with theatre and film people, mostly actors. They’re all over YouTube; just google “Inside the Actors Studio.” I’ve been doing so this weekend.

What I enjoy is the nitty-gritty sense of craft, of what actors do to prepare a role. For example, in this interview, starting at roughly 17:30 or so, Jeremy Irons talks about playing twin brothers in Dead Ringers (a film I’ve not seen):

He says that, in order to differentiate the two, he thought in terms of “energy point” (his term), acting one brother from the forehead and the other from the throat—but, note, that Irons didn’t use those terms. Rather, he pointed to the points on his body. I don’t know whether or not he was using “energy point” as a synonym for “chakra,” but I’d guess the idea is the same. In any event, his remark was immediately and intuitive to me, perhaps because I’m a musician and, as such, understand something of what’s involved in performing.

Whatever you think, however you think, it all MUST come out in how you use your body. Performance is physical. It’s easy enough to talk about embodiment—such talk has been fashionable in a number of disciplines for over a decade—but you can’t merely talk a performance. You must execute it.

More and more I think listening to such interviews could be more important for academic literary critics than learning philosophy or psychology or even literary theory. That’s all abstract, learning it always moves you away from the work, from the text, off into greedy meaning and abstraction. That’s easy and, at this point, it’s in the way of making intellectual progress.

Critics need a much stronger sense of literature as craft, of texts as things constructed, to precise and rigorous, if flexible, standards. Listening to good actors talk about their craft, and figuring out how to take such talk seriously, deeply, that might begin pushing our minds in the right direction.