Wednesday, August 29, 2012
As I was working on Dumbo it became clear that I needed to know more about the emergence of “funny animals” cartoons. While Akira Lippit’s insights from the end of Electric Animal (which showed up in the post Animals in Cartoons: Tripping the Elephants Electric) were on the mark I wanted more, that is, more specifically about animation history.
I think I found, if not IT (such ITs are never really found, are they?), at least something that promises to be very useful. It’s The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (2009), by Paul Wells. The title’s promising and so is the book. I’ve read through a very interesting introduction and hit pay dirt in the first paragraph of the first chapter, “The Bear Who Wasn’t: Bestial Ambivalence.”
Here’s that paragraph:
In Chuck Jones’s adaptation of Frank Tashlin’s children’s book The Bear That Wasn’t . . . a bear emerges out of hibernation into a Metropolis-style factory, where he is viewed as “a silly man, who needs a shave, and wears a fur coat.” Though he maintains he is a bear, his protestations are ignored and he is put to oppressive, repetitive work in the factory, until he too denies his own identity. Finally, reminded of his intrinsic place in the natural order by the passing of a flock of migrating geese and the onset of autumn, he escapes the human world and goes back to hibernation. Tashlin’s pessimistic tale was written in 1946, and in its depiction of an inhumane hierarchy of foremen, managers, vice-presidents, and presidents, and even downbeat zoo animals, it shows a hopeless view of humankind as it seeks to rebuild the postwar world.
Now, we don’t have a factory in Dumbo, but as I pointed out in Dumbo as Myth 2.2: Machines and Fordism, the factory method of repetitive production is alluded to at the beginning of the Pink Elephants episode where elephant after elephant after elephant parades by, as though they came off an assembly line; and, of course, that episode ends with elephants transforming themselves into machines (cars, trains, and motorboats). Similar, Fordism lurked in Fantasia behind those repetitive brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
This is from an email I wrote to Walter Freeman (neuroscientist, UCal Berkeley) and Ralph Holloway (neuroscientist, Columbia U) on April 6, 2002. This is a sequel to an early post on learning to play 3-against-2 but does not depend on it.Walter and Ralph,
I noticed something interesting the other day that has to do with “free drumming” (to be defined). I seemed to be making choices in visual-motor space rather than auditory space. This is quite different from what I do when improvising on the trumpet, where I seem to make choices in auditory space. That is to say, when playing the trumpet I make choices in terms of what I want to hear rather than in terms of what I want my body to do. I’m not sure whether or not this is because I’m considerably more expert on the trumpet than on my drum.
Let me begin by describing my drum. It’s what’s called a tongue drum or slit drum. It’s a wooden box about 24 inches along its greatest dimension (which is oriented horizontally and transverse when playing) and 8 inches along the other dimensions. It has six “tongues” cut into the top (playing) surface arranged in three rows with two tongues in each row. The tongues are of different lengths but are not precisely tuned. While you can, in most cases, easily hear which tongue in any pair is higher, you cannot assign any particular interval to the pitch difference. I should note, however, that you can get different sounds from any given tongue depending on where you hit it. Thus you can hit a long tongue in such a place that the tone will sound higher than that you get when hitting a shorter tongue. The major point, however, is simply that the tongues are not precisely tuned and, in consequence, you cannot play melodic lines and riffs. This is a drum, not a six-toned marimba.
So, the melodic and harmonic imagination I employ when playing the trumpet isn’t very useful here. Rhythm, of course, remains. But we do need a term for the higher and lower aspect of the sound. Brain imaging data does suggest that interval perception is different from pitch perception and that, in turn, suggests that our ordinary sense of melody is really the joint produce of interval and pitch perception. Thus interval perception by itself tells you whether one tone is more or less higher or lower than another and gives some sense of the magnitude of the difference. But the ordinary sense of melody combines that with perception of the pitches of the individual tones in the melodic stream. My drum patterns are thus based on rhythm, interval, volume and, to a limited extent, timbre.
In most musical situations drums play repetitive patterns. That is certainly the case, for example, with African polyrhythms. Each player has a certain pattern to play and she plays it more or less without variation for the duration of the performance, or performance segment. There may be some variation here and there, but it’s not large and not systematic. In a given performance the master drummer may signal a change, at which time everyone will switch to a new pattern. This doesn’t happen often, and it always happens in prescribed and well-understood ways. The master drummer is the only one who’s free to play something other than a repetitive pattern. Even then, he’s generally not doing the sort of thing a jazz drummer or a tabla player does when they are soloing; the range of variation is generally more restricted.
When I talk of free drumming I mean anything other than playing the same pattern over and over and over without (significant) variation. Free drumming requires that you make a lot of choices. So, how are those choices made?
Monday, August 27, 2012
One of the many avatars of Anonymous posted a bunch of questions about my recent post, Harman’s Ontology on a Single Level and Objects as Wells of Abundance. While the questions had a certain wise-guy attitude about them, they nonetheless collectively raise an important issue: What’s the distinction between philosophy and the many specialized intellectual disciplines? So, I’ve decided to answer those questions as a way of exploring that issue just a bit.
I do not expect to answer them definitively nor do I expect to define the distinction between philosophical questions and questions in the specialized disciplines. All I want to do is indicate how I’d begin approaching the issue, and that’s to consider many examples. Anonymous’s list is a useful set of examples. Some are nonsense and some seem deep and beyond any answer I can give; most are somewhere in-between.
The questions end up being framed as questions about Human’s thought, which makes sense, of course. But I am not Harman and do not speak for him. I do, however, find his ideas useful, though I suspect that the use I make of them is not something that Harman himself would do.
More importantly, I have never considered any of my posts about Harmon’s ideas as ‘ground-level’ posts suitable for those unfamiliar with Harman’s own writing. I assume some knowledge of his work. That doesn’t change in this post, not at all.
The fact is that the idea of a metaphysical object is a subtle one. And while Harman does give definitional statements, in The Quadruple Object and elsewhere, it would be a mistake to think that, once you’ve read those statements you know what he’s talking about. You don’t. Think of those statements as guide posts at the beginning of a path. You still need to walk the path by reading what he says at some length so as to get a feel for the kind of intellectual work he’s doing with the idea.
The remarks I make here aren’t going to change that.
As you know the government of Bhutan has adopted Gross National Happiness as the appropriate measure of national well-being (rather than, say, oh, gross national product, GNP):
Like many psychological and social indicators, GNH is somewhat easier to state than to define with mathematical precision. Nonetheless, it serves as a unifying vision for Bhutan's five-year planning process and all the derived planning documents that guide the economic and development plans of the country. Proposed policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review based on a GNH impact statement that is similar in nature to the Environmental Impact Statement required for development in the U.S.The Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.
That's Bhutan, but I don't live there and chances are you don't either. But yesterday, just as I was coming out of my afternoon nap (one of the keys to my personal happiness, BTW) I got a phone call from a young lady who identified herself as being with the Gallup polling organization. She asked me if I'd be willing to answer a few questions and I agreed.
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Photograph by Bill Benzon, poem by Sally Benzon, siblings all.
Words with Neil Armstrong
On the other side
of counting each night
wakened to sunrise,
here is the moment when
the shore by leave of its senses
the vigil: living or dead,
whose sound in clapping
one by one is the toll
weathered of degrees
deep with listless light.
Somehow the moon,
the moon alone can speculate
how to crystallize
no one’s pictured face
seen in a breezy garden.
Melody calling of us
silent to the salt cast
of our reflections: You bear
whose shadows of sound
-- each and every thrall --
delights in tiding
the afterlight. Earthbound.
Forever the leap of moon
is home again. Again.
O mercy! Love! Mercy!
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Late in 1877 the Nez Perce nation fought an asymmetrical war with the United States of America. For over three months Chief Joseph led 800 companions in a battle against the United States Army as they made a thousand-mile flight to Canada that stopped 40 miles short. On October 5, 1877 Chief Joseph surrendered, uttering these words:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are - perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
Joseph and his people were not treated well in surrender. Alas.
But it is not the Nez Perce that I’m thinking about today.
Friday, August 24, 2012
I've revised the post to clarify the relationship between abundance and autonomy.In my first post on literature and pluralism I argued, almost as an aside, that Harman’s 2-level ontology, real and sensual objects, could be interpreted as a single level. In this post I wish to restate that interpretation and explore it just a little bit.
Harman’s Core Assertions
Let us start with Harman’s elegant encapsulation of his philosophy in two propositions:
1. Individual entities of various different scales (not just tiny quarks and electrons) are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.2. These entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations. Objects withdraw from relation.
My initial reaction to that was: What happened to sensual objects? In my current interpretation of his thought they are unnecessary because they can be derived from the existence of relations.
After all, an object that exists utterly without relation to any other object cannot have any sensual objects in its ‘interior’—I believe that’s a term Harman uses in this context. If two objects exist in relation to one another, than each will have a sensual object of the other in its interior. Further, the nature of that sensual object depends strictly on the nature of the relationship, no? It follows from that that positing the existence of these sensual objects adds nothing to our understanding of the ontological situation. They are redundant.
It is thus apparent that, in an imagery of abundance rather than of withdrawal, real objects are sources or wells of abundance, while sensual objects are not. As real objects enter into relationships with one another, abundance is drawn forth in those relationships. And it is this abundance that is most important in understanding the autonomy of real objects. They are autonomous, not in the sense that they are not dependent on other objects—they may or may not be—but in that they are endless sources of abundance within their own Realm.
Thus the acorn depends on its immediate environment for the nutrients it needs to sprout, take root, and become an oak tree. It is not autonomous from that environment. But it is abundant in the world in that it persists through a wide variety changes, shocks, and insults, and continues to convert its inputs into, ultimately, more acorns and hence more oaks.
Each Realm is characterized by its own form of abundance, abundance which may or may not depend on other Realms. Just how that works in detail, well, that’s obviously the major conceptual task for ontological pluralism and far beyond the scope of a blog post.
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Graham Harman, The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism, New Literary History, 43, 2 (2012) pp. 183-208.
Graham Harman’s recent intervention, to use the local term of art, into literary criticism is both useful and, well, curious.
What makes is useful for me, as someone who is in the lit crit game, albeit at the periphery, is his outsider’s synoptic take on the last six decades of play. Following a quick review of speculative realism Harman has pungent sections devoted to the New Criticism, New Historicism, and Deconstruction. That seems right to me. That is to say, now that Harman has written it up so elegantly and succinctly—in eleven pages—it’s clear to me that those ARE the conceptual foci around which the discipline has organized its peregrinations over the last 60 years.
To be sure, that’s not all that’s gone on. He misses the various reader-oriented criticisms and the manifold identity-based criticisms (feminist, African-American, post-colonial, and so forth) that have been and are being deployed. But those criticisms don’t propose any core conception of the literary text and the critic’s job that isn’t there in the Big Three Harman has isolated. And, as a practical matter, those criticisms have depended on both deconstructive and new historicist insights. So Harman is right to side-line them.
That’s the useful part of his easy, in fact, the bulk of it. The curious part comes in the conclusion, where Harman offers a suggestion for what criticism should do in light of object-oriented ontology.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
It is an old tradition, as old as humans have walked the face of this planet, that eating together is central to human community. This post is about two such communities.
Twin Willows Seminars
Twin Willows is a residence on the eastern shore of Lake Erie just south of Buffalo, NY. It is named after the large twin willow trees on the property. When I visited there it belonged to the late David Hays and his wife, Janet.
Dr. Hays, as I called him then—though I came to call him “Dave” once I got my Ph.D., an old academic tradition—would hold informal seminars at his home, Twin Willows. These seminars were informal in the sense that no academic credit was offered for them nor did one have to enroll in a specific course to attend. They were open to anyone interested in the matters under discussion—language, cognition, human culture, as seen through ideas that Hays had been developing over the years.
Otherwise, these seminars were as serious as most academic discussions I’ve been privy to, in fact, far more serious than most, and more fun. The routine was simple. At the beginning of the intellectual part of the meeting every participant, whether lowly undergraduate student on senior faculty, could put an item on the agenda. They would then be discussed in order. I forget just how that order was determined, but it makes little difference. If something didn’t get discussed, it would go on the agenda for the next meeting.
Monday, August 20, 2012
I’ve been taking lots of photographs of the Lafayette Community Learning Garden, mostly to take cool looking photographs. But other things sometimes show up in photographs.
These photographs illustrate damage to plants. I assume these types of damage are quite common; there’s nothing new or deeply interesting in them. But they’re interesting to me simply because I’ve got a state in this garden and so am interested in what happens there, though I know relatively little about gardening and the relevant biology.
Cabbage Eaten at the Core
This cabbage was fine on the morning of August 17 at 7:42 AM:
Twelve hours later, at 7:42 PM, it was badly damaged:
Judging by a remark in the final paragraph, I wrote “Beyond Oppositional Trickeration” sometime during the O. J. Simpson trial and published it in Gravity within a month or two before “Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drummology.” The tone is conversational, a bit hip, but without the Lord Buckley embroidery of “Fore Play.” As I recall “whiteness” was being discovered at the time and, though I never read any of the books resultant upon that discovery, I read certainly articles and interviews. Could hardly miss them, they were thicker than snow at the North Pole. The influence of those ideas is obvious.
Were I to develop these ideas more formally, I would devote considerable effort to delivering on this informal observation, which I make early on: we must orient ourselves to that whole range of experience we have access to beyond our immediate family and neighborhood. What I had and have in mind is that, to the extent that we are aware of human history, we must situate ourselves within it in some role that gives us some place in history. By identifying with some ethnic, religious, or national group, we make contact with history through the role that group has played in history.
One can argue that such identifications are ideological formations, that they organize history and culture into patterns owing more to stance and desire than to fact, but such unmasking does not in itself eliminate the need for such identities. Nor does it provide alternative means for satisfying that need. Perhaps we should devote some effort to understanding just why human brains and groups and humans need such fictions. But that's rather more than I attempted in this piece and certainly more than I am now prepared to undertake.
This piece offers sketches of whiteness and blackness and how their opposition is more than mere opposition. There is a psycho-cultural dynamics at work that is rather independent of reasoned argument. For what it is worth, when I wrote this piece, I had no intimation that, a decade later, America would trick itself into fighting a nebulous "war" on terrorism, and thereby wage a real and hopeless war in Iraq. But the mechanism of "oppositional trickeration" I describe is what drives that nebulous war.
Note: This piece was originally published in Meanderings, which became absorbed by Gravity. It was one of the first sepia-toned joints on the web, and remains so to this day. Thanks, Cuda! BTW, here's Cuda, that's Cuda or Cooter Brown, a nom de plume for a most distinguished gentleman who shall remain nameless (dig the digressions!) writing about his star-struck youth. Very intense. Very.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Two questions, closely related, but not the same:
What’s a community garden?What’s a garden community?
So, what IS a community garden? I suppose it’s a garden that, in some sense, belongs to a community rather than belonging to a private individual or organization.
In what sense CAN a garden belong to the community? There is the legal sense. This requires that the community form itself into a legally recognized organization and that that organization, in turn, owns the land on which the garden is created. But, legal ownership of the land is not necessary nor sufficient. The land can be donated, and it need not be donated to anyone or any group in particular. It need only be made available.
Gardens require labor. This IS necessary. Where does that labor come from? Why, from the community. People donate their labor to the garden, creating the beds, planting, weeding, watering, aerating, and harvesting. Where do the fruits go, the vegetables, flowers, herbs, and, yes, fruits? To the community.
And so it is with the Lafayette Community Learning Garden. While is has been organized out of the Morris Canal Community Development Corporation, MC CDC doesn’t own the land. The land has been donated, if only for a couple of years, by a local developer. Local businesses provided materials, supplies, food and drink on work days, and plants. The community itself has been providing the labor. Some people knew about the garden before ground-breaking and signed up ahead of time. Others pitched in when they saw things happening.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Not, mind you, that the rocks just up and cleared themselves out of the way, nor did lumber arrange itself into planter boxes, much less did the dirt leap into the boxes followed in close order by seeds, seedlings, shoots, and sprouts. Nothing like that. But the garden wasn’t planned by spreadsheet and Gant charts, nor was it built by highly organized teams working against the clock, on time and on budget. Fact is, if you’d been on site any Saturday—and a few weekdays here and there—from mid-April through May and into mid-June it’s not clear to me just what you’d have seen. And I was there.
It all depends on just when you showed up. You might have seen people building things, planting things, watering the plants, and painting the wall. But you might have seen some women and girls tossing rocks over a wall, or a young boy burying himself to his neck in a mound of dirt, or a middle-aged man taking photographs of a plush-toy frog lounging in the lettuce, or men women boys girls and dogs chillin’ around the barbecue listening to hip-hop and Rnb on the radio.
Not a high-energy task-oriented workforce at all. But they built the garden. We, we built the garden—I’m the guy who photographed the toy frog. Also shoveled some dirt. And ate some barbecue.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Once I began investigating Object-Oriented Ontology it didn’t take long to bump up against that claim that fictions too are real. At first I found that claim disconcerting, but then I got used to it. I had been reading OOOist thought through the standard notion that the real world is one thing, and fiction is quite different. Against THAT claim the OOO notion IS disconcerting.
But only superficially so. For the belief that fictions are different from ‘reality’ does not entail a belief that fictions do not have consequences in the ‘real world.’ Not at all. That fiction has real consequences is not in doubt, and that’s all the OOOists are claiming. More or less.
That fictional objects have real consequences. That is to say, they are real objects, good and proper.
But is that so? Are they philosophically proper objects?
Is Popeye Autonomous?
Consider Popeye, who seems to have become OOO’s paradigmatic example of a fictional object that is real. There’s nothing particularly problematic about any of the physical images of him, whether in print media or movie. They’re all real objects. And, while the psychological and neural processes that take place in the minds of people reading Popeye comics or watching Popeye cartoons are not well understood, they are not, as processes, any more obscure than those involving reading about George W. Bush or watching film and video clips of him.
What’s tricky is the fictional being that is conjured out of all those still and moving images through all those mental and neural processes in all those individual heads. As I understand them, the objects under investigation in OOO must be autonomous objects. The physical images, yes, they are autonomous objects. And the neurochemical brain processes, they too are autonomous—or are they? But that fictional being, that Popeye, is not autonomous in that sense. He is utterly dependent on all those people being aware of him.
And so we arrive at a problem I stated in From Objects to Pluralism and simply set aside, that of object autonomy. In that post I was worried about acorns and oaks: “…in what sense can an oak tree be autonomous if its very existence is dependent upon a proper environment?” Now I’m worried about fictional beings and their dependence on minds that construct them out of promptings from some material substrate.
This time I have a suggestion to make, but only a suggestion, one which I’ll elaborate in a later post. My suggestion is this: What matters about (real) objects is that they be sources of abundance. That a given object may depend on some substrate is no problem if the object absorbs and reconfigures the substrate in a new and open-ended way, as acorns and oaks do with the nutrition on which they depend.
And so, I submit, is the case with at least some fictional objects, the Real ones. But I want to take a look at some remarks by Harman before outlining an argument on that. He seems to have an other notion.
Monday, August 13, 2012
Unlike Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has no talking animals, Dumbo has many of them, and talking humans as well. In this post I want to look at who talks, and in the case of Dumbo and his mother, who doesn’t, and examine how that talk, or silence, functions in the film.
The first talker we encounter in Dumbo is the stork who delivers him. Then we hear the elephant matrons, and one line from Mrs. Jumbo, when she utters her son’s name, which is the only line she speaks in the film. Later, after the tent’s been put up in the middle of a stormy night, after the opening day parade, and after Dumbo’s had a bath, we hear the first human talking, a barker drawing the crowed to the side shows and the menagerie (plus crowd chatter). The next human to talk is the brat who taunts Dumbo (more chatter).
I’m going to start with those talking humans, move on to the others, and then move on to the animals, talkers and non-talkers, move to the peculiar case of Timothy Mouse, and conclude with a comparison to Pinocchio.
So, Dumbo has concluded his bath, he ventures toward the crowd as he hears the barker and gets noticed by a big-eared boy, who taunts him, remaking how odd he looks—with lots of crowd chatter in the background. This leads to the first crisis in the movie, when Mrs. Jumbo spanks the boy and then goes berserk. That brings the ringmaster running: “What’s going on?...Surround her. ” Thus yet another human speaks, one who’s the boss of the circus and thus the authority in the story.
We hear from him several more times. We hear him when he introduces his spectacular new act, an introduction which prompts cynical remarks from the elephants actually performing the act. But we also hear him at night, in his tent.
The first time is when he’s talking to his assistant about a new act and later that night when he’s gotten the brilliant idea suggested to him by Timothy Mouse. In that conversation with his assistant we don’t see either of them directly. Rather we see them in silhouette against the tent wall. THAT’s what I want to talk about. We see the same motif while eavesdropping on the clown conversation, which is the other major bit of human-talk in the film.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
In Dumbo Timothy Mouse implants an idea into the ringmaster’s mind by talking to him in his sleep:
He explicitly says: “I am the voice of your subconscious mind. Your inspiration.”
What would this have meant to Disney’s audience in the early 1940s? Of course, his audience was large and, presumably, diverse and relatively few of them would have had a college education. Judging from a graph in Caplow, Hicks, and Wattenberg, The First Measured Century (p. 53) fewer than 10% of adults had a college degree and only about 25% had graduated high school.
I, of course, though “Freud and psychoanalysis” when I heard that term, especially in that context. But the Freudian term is “unconscious” rather than “subconscious”, and, as the Wikipedia entry for “subconscious” points out, Freud explicitly rejected the term. Rather, “subconscious” is a lay term that sometimes erroneously substitutes for “unconscious” and sometimes means, well, the subconscious mind.
Which came in vogue early in the last century. I queried Google’s Ngram Viewer on “subconscious” and “unconscious” and discovered a thing or two. First, “unconscious” appears far more often than “subconscious”, with peaks just after 1920 and in the mid-1950s. Given that the Ngram Viewer is running against a database of books rather than of print in general that seems to make sense. But it would be interesting to run the query against popular periodicals and popular books. Second, “subconscious” peaks just after 1920, but then falls, never to rise again (this is clearer in this query on “subconscious” only).
A bit more sleuthing turned up this ad from Popular Science in March of 1923 touting Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion by one Emile Coué, who
stands out today as the man who has discovered just what to do to put in operation the great forces in our subconscious mind to help us achieve whatever we desire.
I’ve not read the book and what little I’ve read about it suggests that it’s not going to say anything about mental mice giving you inspiration while asleep. But it does have the feel of the kind of pop psych that was likely rather well known. Further, Coué’s ideas were picked up by Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, which seems to be the right popular ball park.
So I’m guessing that Coué and similar writers are more responsible for the early 1920s peak of “subconscious” than Freud is and that this strain of thinking is more likely to have been known to Disney’s 1940s audience than psychoanalysis is.
This is queer on so many levels and angles it’s beyond wonderful. And that’s no theory. Fact.
First, it’s brass instruments, gender-typed as male. Performed by, well, men. Most of them Austrian, you know, from Mitteleuropa. Conservatory-trained but still in touch with folk brass band traditions, which are still very much alive in Central and Eastern Europe through the Balkans, but have become thoroughly bourgie in the USofA and England (British brass bands).
It opens with a fanfare very much in the heroic brass mold. And then it goes all to hell. First there's a trombonist playing Stevie Wonder. That's Zoltan Kiss, from Hungary, strutting and prancing around the stage. An absolute monster of a player, though only one aspect of his monsterhood is on display here.
Then we have two trumpeters and the tuba player doing “Stayin’ Alive” in falsetto. That's the BeeGees, disco, very gay. Male falsetto, well now, that’s got layers and layers. One strain of this vocal style goes back to West Africa, where male falsetto is uber macho, unlike in the (white) West where it’s, well, you know, homo. But not in African-America, where male falsetto retains its West African gender typing.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Victor Mair has a wonderful little post at Language Log about deciphering a cuneiform text. In the comments Mark Liberman makes an educated guess about how so few syllables (a dozen or so) could be translated as “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, provisioner (of) Esagila and Egida, foremost heir of Nabopolasser king of Babylon…”
There was a time when I figured that lynchings where things that happened more or less in secret. A bunch of good old boys would be out drinking and start talking about all the things wrong with the world and how those uppity n****** (yep, I'm Old School on THAT word) need to be put in their place. One of them would remember that his cousin was on guard at the jail that night and maybe he'd let them get one of the prisoners so they could string him up. Before you knew it, the sun would rise and there'd be a body hanging from a tree down by the creek where the old swimming hole was.
As I said, that's what I thought. Until I decided to do a little research. What I discovered laid that illusion to rest.
I suppose some lynchings were like that. But there were also lynchings that were much more like the electrocution of Topsy, the elephant who was executed in public at Coney Island in 1903 while Thomas Edison filmed the event (which I discuss here). Here's a little bit of what I discovered. It's from a book project that never got off the ground. If you want to do a little research yourself, try this link; it's a Google search on "lynching postcards."
* * * * *
In one of the songs most closely identified with her, “Strange Fruit,” Billy Holiday sings of “black bodies swinging from the cottonwood trees.” With over three-thousand black (and seven-hundred white) victims, lynchings plagued this country for a fifty-year period straddling the turn of the century and are a telling example and symbol of racist violence. One doesn’t have to examine them too closely to suspect more than we are even yet prepared to acknowledge about the cultural psychodynamics of racism.
We must be quite clear on this point: as horrible as the beating of Rodney King was, the lynchings were much worse. The national outrage which followed the broadcast of that beating is a sign of how far we have advanced in the last sixty or seventy years. One way to appreciate that advance is to confront the enormous pain, horror, and evil of those lynchings.
Friday, August 10, 2012
This is another set of out-takes from Beethoven’s Anvil. In this passage I’m pursing a notion from mid-20th Century, an idea that provided Ruth Benedict for the title of her best-known book: Patterns of Culture. The title conveys the idea: cultures aren’t arbitrary collections of attitudes, activities, and traits; in matters large, small, and in-between they display patterns.
I begin with a passage that contrasts jazz and classical music on the one hand with basketball and football on the other, where jazz and basketball embody one style while classical music and football embody a different style. I then continue with a series of passages that move on from that to general styles of corporate organization, contrasting the hierarchical industrial corporation with the flatter and more fluid style that has emerged in high tech companies. I conclude some brief observations from my experience with one such company.
* * * * *
First, confining ourselves to the expressive sphere, let's consider two brief examples from sports, which is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger society. It is not difficult to see a thematic similarity between classical music and football, on the one hand, and jazz and basketball, on the other hand.
Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach/composer. Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called "downs", with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.
Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
As the title indicates, this post is a follow-up to my previous post, Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism. This post has been prompted both by my own after thoughts and by remarks by Terence Blake.
Caveat: This is quick and dirty. I’m more interested in sketching out a quick scheme than in working out details.
Let’s start with a simple diagram depicting relationships between three Realms of Being:
The Common Sense Realm is the world of consensus reality; we hold it more or less in common with all (adult) inhabitants of our society. The Literary Realm is the world of literary texts of all kinds, high, low, and mid-cult, adults, children, young adults, whatever. The Realm of Literary Criticism is that of formal written commentary on those texts. An arrow between two realms indicates some relationship between the two. The Realm at the head end of the arrow has access to the Realm at the tail end.
Thus LCR (Literary Criticism Realm) has access to both CSR (Common Sense Realm or Common Sense) and LR (Literary Realm). Note that the arrow between CSR and LR is double-headed, indicating that each has access to the other. The texts in LCR are largely about objects (informally understood), persons, and events in CSR while the texts in LR physically circulate in CSR and people comment informally on those texts in CSR.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
When I set out to investigate Object-Oriented Ontology a year and a half ago I had several things vaguely in mind: 1) the possibility that Continental philosophy was waking up from its dogmatic dreams of dalliance and devastation, 2) some help in conceptualizing graffiti as a manifestation of the spirit of the place, and 3) some help in framing some questions about literature and literary criticism. Let’s set the first two aside and take up the third.
I take the following three propositions to be true:
1) The meaning of literary texts is indeterminate.2) There is, however, something quite precise about texts; I take that to be form.3) The form of texts can be effectively described in that, presupposing agreement on method, different can come to agreement about formal attributes of a text.
As a practical matter, literary criticism has taken the first as a truism. Every critic gets to “roll their own” meaning for a text; all that one has to do is provide a reasonable justification within some accepted interpretive scheme. Beyond this tacit and informal practice, some critics have explicitly argued for indeterminate meaning while others have argued for determinate meaning, often making the author the source of that meaning.
OOO as Interpretive Scheme
Object-oriented ontology can easily serve as an interpretive scheme, providing of course, that it can justify itself as a philosophical regime. That is, primary justification comes in basic philosophical terms, not in the application to literature. From my point of view, this is neither here nor there. The addition of one more interpretive engine to the critic’s tool kit is of relatively little consequence if, like me, you want to do something other than, beyond, reading texts.
Harman, however, has made some remarks that point toward the possibility of non-reductive readings, readings that don’t bypass the “surface” of the text in haste to find the “hidden” meanings, which I’ve discussed in Explicating Literature in Light of Object-Oriented Ontology. But those remarks are only pointers. It’s not clear to me how they might open up into full-blown explications. And, in any event, an explication is, in the end, an explication is a reading, and I’m chasing different unicorns.
Nor, it seems to me, does OOO have anything special to say about textual indeterminacy. Levi Bryant, to be sure, has declared that texts are factories, in a usage from Deleuze and Guattari. As far as I can tell, Bryant has nothing particularly interesting to say about how it is that texts do this, just that they obviously do so. All Bryant has to offer is old wine in new bottles or, as Terrence Blake puts is, tautological reformulation.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Disney, of course, did not create this little circus out of whole cloth. He drew and depended on a history, not only of the circus itself, but of circus movies. While the word “circus” dates back to ancient Rome, the modern circus originated in 18th Century England while the traveling circus dates to the second quarter of the 19th Century in America.
Joshua Brown was the first to adopt the canvas tent as a performance venue in 1825. At roughly the same time Hachaliah Bailey organized a traveling menagerie around an African elephant and others soon entered the menagerie business, with some adding circus performances as well. “With that,” writes Dominique Jando,”the unique character of the American circus emerged: It was a traveling tent show coupled with a menagerie and fun by businessmen, a very different model from that of European circuses, which for the most part remained under the control of performing families.”
By mid-century some 30 circuses toured the country and became quite popular, perhaps the most popular form of mass entertainment in the country. [I say “perhaps” because I’m getting this information from articles about circuses; I’ve read articles about minstrelsy that claim it as the most popular form of entertainment. As far as I can tell, nothing of importance hangs on the truth of these claims. Both were popular forms of entertainment.] William C. Coup, P.T. Barnum’s manager, conceived the circus train in the early 1870s and thus completed the configuration we see in Dumbo.
Monday, August 6, 2012
From Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP 2010, p. 104:
What’s wrong with the “re-enchantment of the world”? There’s nothing wrong with enchantment. It’s the prefix “re-“ that the source of the problem. This prefix assumes that the world was once enchanted, that we have done something to disenchant it, and that we can, and should, get back to where we once belonged. We simply can’t unthink modernity. If there is any enchantment, it lies in the future. The ecological “enchants the world,” if enchantment means exploring the profound and wonderful openness and intimacy of the mesh. What can we make of the new constellation? What art, literature, music, science, and philosophy are suitable to it? Art can contain utopian energy. As Percey Shelley put it, art is a kind of shadow from the future that looms into our present world.
The fact is, enchantment is as more about us than it is about the world. It is WE who are or are not enchanted by the world. But what good does our enchantment do the world?
What need does the world have of our enchantment?
If there’s disenchantment, that too has more to do with us than the world. If we want to we can get over it. If we can’t, well, no sense it looking to the world. Its got its own problems. It could care less about our disenchantment.
The world, like Old Man River, just keeps rollin’ along. And we can learn to chant anytime we so wish.
OK, so we’ve got this interplay of animals and machines in Dumbo. We’ve got Akira Lippit’s assertion that animals show up in early cartoons as “a gesture of mourning for the disappearing wildlife” (Electric Animal, p. 196); we’ve got the locomotive, Casey Jones, Jr. puffing “I think I can, I think I can” as it goes up the mountain; and we’ve got pink elephants transforming themselves into cars.
I want to do a bit more thinking about this dialectic of animals and machines. Most generally machines present humans with three problems:
1) A metaphysical problem.2) A common sense problem.3) A a problem of social organization.
Let’s run through them in order and so how, of if, they show up in Dumbo.
Machines as Metaphysical Problem
The metaphysical problem was set by Descartes, Leibniz and others and is still with us. In its deepest form it involves specialized and often technical discussions that are mostly the province of specialized and learned intellectuals, though it does filter down to the common world. As such it doesn’t translate well into films, where robots and computers come across as strange kinds of people. That is, the metaphysical problem becomes expressed as the common sense problem.
Dumbo doesn’t deal with this issue at all. But the common sense world is another matter.
Machines in the Common Sense World
The common sense problem is simply that of living in a world where there are machines. To someone born and raised in the world of machines they present no more, and no less, of a problem than plants, animals, humans, and all sorts of man-made things. To someone born and raised in a world without machines, they DO present a problem: how does one comprehend and deal with these strange things?
So, imagine that you reached adulthood without ever having seen a car or an automobile. You’re used to seeing humans and animals move across the land and you’re used to seeing them pull carts and wagons. How do you react the first time you see a railroad train? How do you make sense of what appears to be a thoroughly artificial device moving over the land under its own power? It doesn’t make sense. Animals can move, but this isn’t an animal. It’s a machine. You can see the parts, the levers and the wheels, you can see the smoke coming out of the fire box. But there’s no flesh there. It’s a bit spooky, no? There’s no ready-made place for such a thing in your conceptual system.
Critiquing Levi Bryant is like shooting fish in a barrel, a very large barrel with an unbounded supply of fish. One could become addicted and so be lost to an endless, and ultimately fruitless, Sisyphean task. Still, I can't resist his most recent post, McKenzie Wark: How Do You Occupy an Abstraction? (4 Aug 2012).
While the whole post clocks in at well over 2000 words I've decided to limit my observations to the final sentence, more or less. Here it is: "I guess this post will get Homeland Security after me." In case you didn't believe it the first time, here it is again: "I guess this post will get Homeland Security after me."
What the Fuck!%&@!!#!
As you know the United States Department of Homeland Security was formed in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and is charged "with the primary responsibilities of protecting the United States of America and U.S. Territories (including Protectorates) from and responding to terrorist attacks, man-made accidents, and natural disasters."
So Levi Bryant, Official Jester to the Court of Philosopher Queens–no sexist he, philosopher kings are so old school–is telling us that there is something in that post that merits the attention of the government agency charged with protecting the United States from terrorist attack. If Bryant has any serious intention to commit an act or acts of terrorism it would be self-destructively stupid to 1) post it on the internet in a public blog, and 2) to double-dog dare DHS to come get him. On the other hand, if he has no such intention, then his statement is pure self-pleasuring bluster, bombast, and bloviation.
You be the judge.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
A lecture, "Ecological Crises, Digital Humanities and New Political Assemblies," at Azim Premji University in Bangalore on 23 March 2012:
45:45: "Ecology is not about nature."
About the Talk (from YouTube):
Ecological crises in contemporary times have created problems for political representation. Existing political assemblies cannot handle these crises due to their scale, the esoteric character of the scientific knowledge necessary to apprehend them, and the intensity of conflicts of values that they generate. Digital resources suggest new possibilities for mapping the heterogeneous networks which link scientists, decision makers, media, citizens and other participants in public debates over ecological issues. They can create political assemblies where contending world views and modes of reasoning engage each other.
Early in the lecture Latour quickly sketches three modes, science, law, and "double-click." At 34:15 he does a quick recap and then at 34:48 sketches the religious mode in the form of Christianity, to roughly 36:55.
At 43:00 he undertakes a discussion of 'diplomacy', which lasts until 48:23 or so. He talks of diplomacy as the way in which spokesmen for the various modes come together and negotiate a common reality. Diplomacy and negotiation because there is no common arbiter. One cannot appeal, for example, to Nature or to Science, to settle matters. In the absence of an ultimate court of appeal the various collectives must negotiate a common world among themselves.
This process was an abstract idea as described in Politics of Nature. Latour now proposes to begin it as a real process. To that end he and his team are constructing an online component to his project, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. Latour discusess that online and interactive component at the end of his talk, which is followed by discussion.
Friday, August 3, 2012
Well, it wasn’t quite like that.
For one thing, they weren’t really trumpeters. They held the horns and blew through them, but not much came out. If those guys were trumpeters, then my name’s Joe Friday and I’m a homicide detective in the LAPD. It isn’t—my name—and I’m not.
Chet the Jet
But I was part of a situation in which three erstwhile trumpet players did manage to escape from prison. Me and Chet the Jet—that’s what we sometimes called him, but only behind his back. Dr. Chester H. Wickwire was University Chaplain at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I’d been an undergraduate there and then took a job in the Chaplain’s Office. This was during the Vietnam era and I’d been a conscientious objector to military service and so had to perform alternative service, as it was called.
We, Dr. Wickwire’s staff, sometimes referred to him as Chet the Jet. Just where and why that nickname, I don’t know. But it was oddly apt. Dr. Wickwire couldn’t jet about anywhere. He’d had polio in his youth and needed two canes for support when walking, though he made do with one for short distances.
Nonetheless Dr. Wickwire got around. He was a dynamo and a mainstay of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements in Baltimore, which often created a bit of tension with the university administration. He ran a tutoring program, a free university, two film series, a coffee house, the Sunday Experience (in lieu of regular church services) and managed to teach a course or two while also counseling students.
One day Dr. Wickwire got a letter from a medium security institution in the Maryland State prison system—I forget which prison it was, but it wasn’t Jessup, which was a maximum security institution at the time (early 1970s). A group of prisoners had formed a musical group, a rhythm and blues and soul review called Sounds, Incorporated. They were looking for gigs.
Not paying gigs, of course, but free gigs, courtesy of the Maryland State prison system. Here’s the deal: If an outside organization would invite them to perform, the prison would let them out to perform. So naturally they wrote to the Chaplain at Johns Hopkins. If anyone would extend these men an invite, he would.
Sounds, Inc. had been practicing for a year and were about to give an in-house performance and dinner on their first anniversary. Wickwire was invited to attend and check them out. As I was a decent musician and he trusted my judgment, Chet handed that one off to me.
Using the public bus, it took a transfer and a bit over an hour to get out to the prison. I remember little about the prison or the event.
But I do remember the double gate. They’d open the outer gate—thick iron bars like a portcullis—and let, say, a dozen visitors in. They’d then lower that gate and, when it was shut and secured, open the inner gate, disgorging the visitors into the prison. I must have shown ID, signed something somewhere, and been subject to some kind of search, but I don’t really remember that. I just remember thinking: So this is prison. Grim.
We made our way, no doubt under escort, to the cafeteria and sat down at rectangular metal tables, with attached swing-out seats, three or four to a side. Somehow we got food; I believe, in fact, that we were served. I remember that the food wasn’t awful, just standard institutional food served on paper plates to be eaten with plastic utensils. Nothing that could be used as a weapon, though I imagine that, in a pinch, you could break a plastic knife and get a sharp point that could make a mess of someone’s eye.
I remember a striking woman walking down one of the aisles, tall, stately, modestly dressed in white from her head down to her ankles. I figured she must have been a wife of one of the prisoners and that she, and most likely he as well, was a Black Muslim. I don’t actually know that, I’m just guessing. Circumstances. The Vibe.
As for the music, it was good, very good. But only that. Truth be told, the romantic in me was expecting-hoping to be blown away by an undiscovered Marvin Gaye followed by an undiscovered James Brown. But it wasn’t that good. These were good musicians, talented and skilled, but not stars.
The Chaplain invited them to perform. Three times.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Valerio Valeri. The Forest of Taboos. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
The late Mary Douglas gave this book a stellar review in either Nature or Science, I forget which. So I bought it and I’ve read most, though not all, of it. Yes, it’s stellar.
I just pulled if off the shelf on the hunch that it would speak to my current interest in Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Why would I think that? Because Dumbo is a story about animals, animals and humans, that’s why. And taboo is very much about animals and humans, but also plants and humans. And, if it is the best treatment we’ve got of taboo—which is pretty much what Douglas said of it—then it just has to be relevant.
It is, and also to object-oriented ontology and animals studies.
But this isn’t going to be a review or summary or anything like it. I just want to quote a few passages from Chapter 4, “Zoology and Meatology”.
Precisely because animals are our next of kin, because they offer a ready mirror for human attributes, for virtues and vices, taken together they raise a problem of self-definition for us: to establish where the difference between animal and human lies is to define what it is to be human...We ourselves come from a tradition where animals and humans have been radically opposed on ontological grounds—that is, on the grounds of the soul/body distinction. One way or another, we are all heirs to Descartes on this. He has left us with some outmoded furniture, which we have put in a dark corner but still occasionally use to support our plates when we enjoy our steak or roast.
That is, when we eat animal flesh we do so secure in the belief that animals really are radically different from us and that, therefore, we are not being cannibalistic in eating them. Valeri continues (p. 180):
Descartes believes that granting a soul to animals is an error second only to denying God. Animals are for him pure machines, and as such devoid of any signification beyond their utility. This cleavage is logically related to another one, that of soul and body in humans. Together, they run counter to any possible problematic of taboo, for eating is reduced to the confrontation of two machines, the human-body machine and the animal-body machine, under the detached gaze of a disembodied, self-determining subject—the cogito. Such a subject cannot be undermined by eating; the horrors and the dangers, but also the pleasures, of the transmutation of nonself into self are unknown to it. Food concerns the body, not the soul; res cogitans is radically separated from res extensa, so that the kinship between soulless animal and the soulful human can be severed at the root.
See, animals and machines, the equation of the two. That’s all over the place in cartoons, in Dumbo. But also the identification of animals and humans. But surely identity is transitive, no? So, if ‘animals=machines’ and ‘humans=animals’ then it follows that ‘humans=machines’.
A bit later, p. 180:
If we are to understand why eating, and especially the eating of animals, is inseparable from the idea of taboo in Huaulu, we must forget Descartes or his residual effects on our ideas and practices. We must accept the Huaulu premise that no radical ontological difference between the human eater and the nonhuman eaten exists. [Graham Harman and Tim Morton, did you see THAT?] At the same time, we must not remain Cartesian in the very reversal of the Cartesian ontology. That the Huaulu do not postulate an inseparable ontological barrier between animal and human does not mean that they are not preoccupied with differentiating them. On the contrary, the lack of any guaranteed, a priori difference means that the difference has to be created constantly through various cultural practices which demonstrate it. The main practice of it is precisely that of taboo.
And it’s not as though we Moderns have somehow miraculously broken free of such problems. Not at all. We’ve got them all over the place. Hence the proliferation of Funny Animal cartoons and comics in mid-20th-century America. That, of course, takes some explaining, which is more than I’m up to in this little post.
I note only that on the next page (181) Valeri points out that the Huaulu have no word that corresponds to our word “animal”. He goes on to imply that they don’t have any word corresponding to “plant” either, though he does not say this outright. This is common enough in preliterate societies. In fact, it seems to be the norm (Brent Berlin, Ethnobiological Classification, 1992). This does not, however, mean that they lack the concepts, either or animal or plant. Valeri makes it quite clear that the Huaulu have such concepts.
So, how does a culture deal with concepts from which it lacks names? For that, I suspect, is what’s going on in funny animal cartoons and comics.
Or, a Prolegomenon to Myth Logic, Disney Style
This business of making it up as you go along, while it has its charm, also presents problems. Once lost in the bushes you might find your way back out by following the light breaking through the underbrush, but you might just wander even deeper into strange territory. Sometimes it pays to stop walking and to think.
That’s what I’m doing here. The first thing I want to do is to separate what I will call the core story from the costuming and sets used to present it. One cannot tell a proper story that is about only some being that is born and separated from its mother. It has to be some particular kind of being, whether a flea, an angel, or, in this case, an elephant.
So that’s what I do in the first section. The rest of the post is about the costumes and sets. My larger argument is that Dumbo is as much about the costumes and sets as it is about the emotions and actions in the core story.
The Core Story
goes like this:
1. An odd infant is delivered to its mother.
2. That infant is ridiculed by the mother’s companions but defended by mother, of course.
3. The infant is threatened by some other creature, and the mother punishes that creature.
4. That creature’s protectors separate the mother from her infant and lock her up. The infant is devastated.
5. The infant attracts a protector who defends him against mother’s erstwhile companions.
6. The infant then precipitates a disaster that injures mother’s companions and results in the infant being ostracized by said companions.
7. Infant visits mother and both are comforted.
8. Infant has a vision and is changed, discovering a new capacity that is rooted in the very oddness that caused all the trouble.
9. Infant triumphs and punishes mother’s companions.
10. Infant and mother are reunited and happy.
The Funny Animal Principle
In this particular story the infant, its mother, and her companions are elephants. There are other animals in the story, including a mouse, who becomes the infant’s mentor. There are also humans in the story. Though some of the humans play important roles, they are secondary to the elephants, the mouse, and some crows.
That’s strange, though there have been many such strange stories told. It’s strange because we are humans and we identify with those core animals as though they are humans.