Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An all-night prayer service in Ghana

The Apostle Paul, arriving at an island on his journey to share the Gospel, picked up some brushwood for a fire, and a startled viper within it leapt out and bit his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they thought that he would die. But Paul shook the viper off and lived. The pastor applied the Scripture to our lives: “Say it out loud!” he shouted. “Every viper sticking to my hands, my marriage, my career, my destiny, I shake it off. I shake it off!” The 200 people around me jumped up and down and shook their hands with fury, hurling invisible and metaphorical vipers into the air.

To be in Africa is to encounter a God different from that of a charismatic church in the United States. People say that the boundary between the supernatural and the natural is thinner there. Certainly religion is everywhere — churches and church billboards seem to be on every street — and atheists are few. American evangelicals often say that faith is more intense in Africa. There is something to this. Compared with Ghanaian charismatic Christianity, American Christianity can seem like soggy toast.

It is not just the intensity that seems different. In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Rings in the Qur’an

Carl Ernst at the University of North Carolina has written on a book about the Qur’an: How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations.
... for his book Ernst tackled sura 60, the 13-verse passage that some scholars say was pasted together from separate pieces of revelation. 
“It was even better than I imagined,” Ernst says. When viewed as a ring composition, the contradictory verses make sense. The outer verses refer to warfare against enemies and to Abraham’s battle with idol worshipers. But at the very center of the passage—verse number seven— is where the sura’s core message appears:
“Perhaps it may be possible for God to create affection between you and your enemies.”
“It’s just so striking,” Ernst says. “And when you see it in the middle of a conflict that leads you to the center, you have to say, that’s quite remarkable.”

These verses have been well-studied and cherished by mainstream Muslims for centuries; religious pluralism is not a new notion for them. But today, as Islamist radicals aim to divide the believers of the God of Abraham, Ernst and others are providing strong evidence that religious pluralism is at the heart of the Qur’an. It’s not one sentiment among equals. “It is literally showing up as a central theme,” Ernst says.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rings in Disney's Fantasia

While I'm still buried in Gojira, I think it's useful to remember that there are a number of ring forms in Disney's Fantasia. Both (The Nutcracker Suite, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are rings. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a five-part narrative with the first and last segments focused on the Sorcerer, and second and fourth on his Apprentice, and the middle on a dream the Apprentice has. For what it's worth, that dream doesn't exist in the Goethe ballad that was Disney's immediate source of the story.

The Nutracker Suite isn't a narrative at all. As the name suggests, it's a suite. Disney chose six of the eight sections from Tchaikovsky's original suite and sets them in a small wooded pond. The first and sixth sections are about nature sprites or fairy's causing daily (first) and seasonal (sixth) changes in plant life. The second and fifth show dancing plants against a black background. The middle two segments (three and four) have acquatic settings. The third involves flower petals dancing on the surface of the stream while the fourth shows goldfish underneath the stream. It's the only segment involving animal life. What makes it particularly interesting is that a couple of the fish look directly at the audience and react to what they see–arguably the only place in the film that this happens.

The fact that this segment isn't a narrative is interesting to me precisely because it isn't a narrative. And yet one of those two central episodes is clearly marked as somehow important. That those fish look at us is no mere accident. But why did Disney do it? Why the ring form in a non-narrative setting? This suggests there is an aspect to ring form that isn't narrative in character. It's something else.

As if we didn't have enough to think about as it is.

The human difference? It's in the wiring pattern

The most obvious difference between the human brain and those of our nearest relatively is simple size: Our brain is different? But how can that account for the vast behavioral difference? Perhaps the difference in size has, indirectly, led to differences in wiring pattern. That's what Harvard's Randy L. Buckner and Fenna M. Krienen have argued:
Our association cortices are crucial for the kinds of thought that we humans excel at. Among other tasks, association cortices are crucial for making decisions, retrieving memories and reflecting on ourselves.

Association cortices are also unusual for their wiring. They are not connected in the relatively simple, bucket-brigade pattern found in other mammal brains. Instead, they link to one another with wild abandon. A map of association cortices looks less like an assembly line and more like the Internet, with each region linked to others near and far.

Dr. Buckner and Dr. Krienen argue that this change occurred because of the way brains develop. In the human brain, some neurons still receive chemical signals that cause them to form a bucket brigade from the sensory cortices to the motor cortices. But because of the brain’s size, some neurons are too far from the signals to follow their commands. “They may have broken off and formed a new circuit,” Dr. Buckner said.

Birds in a Tree and the Sky


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Marriage in Japan (Gojira)

I’ve been doing a bit of checking on Japanese marriage customs in order to get a better sense of how the Japanese audience for Gojira would have perceived the romance plot. I’ve gotten the impression that the relationship between Emiko Yamane and Hideto Ogata would have seemed quite modern, perhaps daringly so. And the form of arrangement between Emiko Yamane and Daisuke Serizawa might well have seemed particularly traditional. The situation seems complex.

The most prevalent form of arranged marriage involves a third party consultation who finds suitable young adults and arranges a meeting. Such a go-between may be retained by someone who wishes to get married or by parents seeking a spouse for their child. It’s hard to tell, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case with Emiko Yamane and Daisuke Serizawa; that arrangement seems to have been made when Emiko, at least, was still a child.

In any event, some form of arranged marriage prevailed up through World War II. A recent (2012) news article in The Telegraph begins:
Until 1945 [arranged marriages] were almost universal. They started to decline during the post war American occupation, but as late as 1960 it is estimated that 70 per cent of weddings were arranged.

Westernisation and the increasing independence of women led to a marked decline. By 1990 the proportion of arranged marriages is thought to have fallen to around 30 per cent of the total.
The article goes on to assert that arranged marriages are “up to 40 percent.”

Holiday Flowers



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Little known fact: Santa's reindeer are all female

From Language Log, of all places:
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female deer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December.

Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to EVERY historical rendition depicting Santa's reindeer, EVERY single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen, had to be a girl.

Decorations in a Contrasting Style



Monday, December 23, 2013

The Monster Plot in Gojira and the Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem is a peculiar thought experiment that philosophers have invented to explore certain aspects of moral reasoning. It’s so peculiar that some wonder whether or not anything of value is to be gained from thinking about such problems – see comments in various discussions at Crooked Timber. However that may be, I’ve realized that Gojira, in effect, presents a somewhat elaborated version of the Trolley Problem. Let’s start with the Trolley Problem and then consider Gojira.
Note: Like my previous post on Gojira, this one is going to involve a description of who said what and when that you might find tedious. I sympathize. I found it exhausting to write. But I don’t see any way of getting around it. If we are going to understand how movies work in the minds of those who watch them, then we have to attend closely to such things. If we’re going to understand why this film has a ring form structure, we need to attend to just what happens and when it happens. In this case, the question is: why is an assertion of parental authority the central scene in the film?
The Trolley Problem

Here’s how the Wikipedia presents the Trolley Problem, using a formulation by Judith Jarvis Thompson:
... a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
In Gojira the monster plays the role of the trolley, Japan plays the role of the five people, and Dr. Serizawa plays the role of the fat man. The film solves the problem by getting the “fat man”, that is Dr. Serizawa, to agree to suicide.

In the abstract, the makers of the film had free reign in getting rid of Gojira. That they should choose to eliminate him in this way, albeit elaborating and disguising it quite a bit, is interesting.

What Serizawa Knows

Let’s consider the situation of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa as it was at the beginning of the film. His research led him to the invention of the Oxygen Destroyer, which would allow the creation of a weapon so powerful that, if it fell into the wrong hands, it could cause great evil in the world. For that reason Serizawa was keeping his invention secret.

But we don’t know any of this at the start of the film. We don’t even see him until well into the film and it isn’t until the last third that we learn about the Oxygen Destroyer. But simple reflection makes it obvious that both that research and his ambivalence were in place when the events of the film began. Let’s take a look at how our awareness of this information unfolds.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Reeds, Focal Plane, Foto

I love shots like this:


The visual material is simple, a bunch of reeds, all running more or less vertically. What I like to do is play around with the focal plane. In the photo above the focal plane is somewhere in among the reeds. Thus the reeds closest to the camera are blurred. The image is sharpest at a place where the photographer isn't. The camera thus projects the viewer into the scene in a way that's otherwise physically impossible.

In this next photo we combine that focal plane effect with a bit of flooding light:


In this one the focal plane is at the front, which is so sparse that most of the image is blurred:

If reality is social, then where's reality?

From a NYTimes article about an online game, Clash of the Clans, and a young man who was once the best in the world, George Yao:
To those of us raised in the world before social media, it is a given that the “real” world is the one in which you sit in traffic on your way to pick up the dry cleaning. Our connection to this world is the chief measure of our sanity. But if we’re honest about it, reality is hardly so simple now. When a guy like George Yao can plow through an anesthetizing day of mortgage regulations only to return at night to a digital fraternity where he is loved and celebrated, with friends who share his daily experience, who’s to say which is real and which is illusory? If a game can make you famous, if it can yield genuine friendships and even a new career, then why shouldn’t it become, at least for a time, the epicenter of your life?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Some Informal Thoughts about Romance, Monsters, and Myth Logic in Gojira

This is a long note I sent to my friend and colleague, Tim Perper, who brought Gojira to my attention a few years ago.
* * * * *

I’ve now been thinking through the plot of Gojira from the point of view of the romance plot, looking at the monster plot as supporting it. That turns out to be rather interesting.

When we first see Emiko she’s in Ogata’s office and he’s on the phone, just having gotten out of the shower. Business has come up and he’s got to break their date. Stuff happens.

There’s an investigative expedition to Odo Island. Emiko accompanies her father, a paleontologist who’s been consulted on this monster business. Ogata goes, presumably, because he’s been involved in salvage operations. Emiko helps her father take measurements and collect samples. The monster appears, everyone’s frightened. Emiko stumbles, Ogato helps her. The almost embrace. But then her father comes. They get up.

Where’s this going? Simple. It took a national emergency – Gojira’s all but destroyed Tokyo and who knows what he’ll do next – for this young woman to betray her fiancé, defy her father, and flout tradition in order to reveal the secret that will save the nation. That secret was entrusted to her by Serizawa, her fiancé, just before Gojira rampaged through Tokyo, including destroying the Diet building. Then and only then did she reveal Serizawa’s secret.

Why did he show her the Oxygen Destroyer? Well, he had to tell someone, keeping it a secret was just too hard. And she is someone he’s known for a long time. Moreover, as they are betrothed, they are practically family. He can trust her.

Who did she tell? Ogata, naturally, her beloved. And together they convince Serizawa that he’s got to reveal his research, for the good of the country. He’s worried that, if he reveals the secret, that politicians might put it to evil ends. “Even if I burn my notes the secret will still be in my head. Until I die, how can I be sure I won’t be forced by someone to make the device again? …What am I going to do?”

Friday, December 20, 2013

Warhol Variations 2

There's an obvious similarity between these images and the earlier Warhol Variations I'd posted. They are derived from the same source material.

self-similar, 3 layers

I don't recall the order in which I did what, but the general idea is to build an image in layers using differen sized versions of the same source in each layer. The above image has three layers, so the source material is used at three different scales. This image only has two layers:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ring Form Opportunity No. 4: Gojira is a Ring

9 at the tower fence.jpg

I have now all but decided that Gojira is a ring form text. It took a bit of work to sort through the film once again, but I spotted a temporal anomaly, as in two other cases, Tezuka’s Metropolis and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and that pretty much confirmed it for me.

I think the best way to proceed at this point is to begin with the general story, then to look at the central sequence. After that I’ll consider the whole film.

Gojira: Characters and Story

The film has two plots, the monster plot and a love story. The same characters are central to both plots, though Gojira’s role in the love story would seem to be rather peripheral. The characters:
Gojira: An ancient creature apparently brought from its niche under water by recent atomic testing.

Professor Kyohei Yamane: Zoologist who is an expert on whatever and who identifies what Gojira is. He wants to keep Gojira alive so it can be studied.

Emiko Yamane: Yamane’s daughter, who was betrothed to one man (Serizawa) since childhood but who is in love with another (Ogata).

Hideto Ogata: A diver with the salvage company called to find the remains of first ship Gojira destroyed.

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa: A brilliant young scientist who was betrothed to Emiko in childhood. His research has produced a weapon that could kill Gojira.
The monster plot is simple. Gojira destroys two boats at sea and then attacks Odo Island, where there’s a small fishing village. Hearings are held, decisions are made, and defenses constructed. They fail. Gojira attacks Tokyo twice and destroys much of it. A secret force is unveiled and made into a weapon to kill Gojira. The brilliant young scientist commits suicide in the course of killing Gojira with the weapon he had created. End of story.

The love plot is simple as well. Boy and girl are in love. But the girl is betrothed to another man. Attempts by both the boy and the girl to inform the father of their love, and their intention to marry, fail because everyone is distracted by this monster, Gojira, that’s threatening to destroy the world as we know it. The girl’s betrothed dies while killing Gojira. The end.

Can't We All Get Along?

Eileen Joy has made a plea for more generosity in (academic) conversations: This is Not My (or, Our) Time, so Please Take Ecstasy With Me: The Necessity of Generous Reading. Here's a comment I made:
Hmmm…. Though I forget the thinker's name, there is a classic line of thought in the sociology of knowledge dating from the first half of the 20th Century concerning the conditions under which ad hominem arguments become prominent. As I recall, the notion was that such arguments become prevalent when the overall field of discourse has become uncertain. So, people have differences, but it's not at all clear how one articulates and adjudicates those differences, so you attack someone's motives rather than their positions.

I'm wondering if we're not in a similar state now? Were people making calls for generosity and charity even ten years ago? I entered the blogosphere in the middle of 2005 (though I'd been online for a decade by the time), making comments at The Valve – to posts in the symposium on Theory's Empire. There may have been some talk of charitable readings back then, but there seems to have been an upswing since then.

In fact, I almost wonder if the (academic) blogosphere is partly responsible for creating the conditions under which calls for generosity seem necessary. Discourse can "flow" at a more rapid pace than was possible in the print world and yet it retains that impersonality, which disappears in face-to-face conversation at conferences and seminars.

And then there's this very particular conversation over at Crooked Timber about aggressive argumentation and gender within the discipline of philosophy: Speech-and-Debate vs. The Agon of Authenticity: How Least Badly To Fight, in Philosophy?
Also, this post: To Jeff Turpin: Stop Whacking the Post-Struturalists, They're NOT the Problem.



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Communication, Coupling, and Criticism

All too often literary interaction between author and reader is thought of as the author sending a message to or conveying information to the reader. Of course there is a lot of writing that is more or less like that. When you read a newspaper you expect to be informed about things you’d not been aware of. When you read a recipe you expect to receive instructions on how to do something you otherwise didn’t know. And so forth.

Literary action isn’t like that. To be sure, until you’ve read, say, Pride and Prejudice, you didn’t know anything about this imaginary family, the Bennetts, and their imaginary relatives and acquaintances. But purpose of the narrative is not primarily to inform you about those imaginary people and events. It is something else. What that something else is, well that’s something of a puzzle. And I want to push most of that puzzle to the side for the moment.

In this post I want to present some simple diagrams and use them to say a bit about how I think about literary interaction and then make a few observations about naturalist and ethnical criticism.

In the diagram below I have three highly abstracted and stylized individuals, A, B, and C. The red, blue, and green objects represent things in their brains, each might be a specific brain region, or a bundle of fibers, or perhaps a connected set of synapses, whatever. Each brain will in fact contains 100s of 1000s of such things.

coupling 1
In the next diagram we see the three individuals reading the same text. While they might be in the same place at the same time and so be reading off the same physical text, that’s not necessary. They could just as easily be reading different instances of the same text at different times and in different places.

Gojira in Neon


Frye on Comedy and Tragedy

First some notes on my encounter with Frye, and then some passages from the Anatomy on comedy and tragedy.

* * * * *

I believe that I have read through Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, beginning to end, twice, once as an undergraduate and once as a graduate student. I don’t recall the circumstances of my undergraduate reading, but I was no doubt in connection with a course taught by Dick Macksey; I don’t recall whether it was required or optional. The graduate reading would have been in a seminar taught by David Hays, in linguistics, where we read a number of major works in various fields, some suggested by the students, some by Hays. We also read Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, for example.

My copy is heavily notated. The title page has a handwritten list of page numbers and associated topics written in blue and red ink. The body of the book has underlining in red and blue along with marginal notations and cross-references to other pages.

One of a small number of things that sticks with me, and about which I have thought time and again over the years, are some remarks Frye made about the curious kinship between comedy and tragedy. Crudely: comedy is a triple form; you lop off the third section and you get a tragedy.

That’s one reason I’ve been so attracted to Much Ado About Nothing and Othello. One is a comedy, the other a tragedy. While the comedy has a double plot, as Shakespeare’s comedies do (if not triple), the plot that gives the play its shape is set in motion in the same way as the plot in the tragedy: in both cases a man (Claudio, Othello) wrongly accuses his beloved (Hero, Desdemona) of being unfaithful. Thus we have a natural experiment on which to “test” Frye’s observation. I’ve written an essay on that and, though I do like that essay, the results are inconclusive.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ring Form, A Computational Approach

When I first discovered the structure of “Kubla Khan” I immediately began thinking in computational terms. Here’s the grouping structure for the first 36 lines of the poem:

1 tree

Those triple branchings looked like some kind of nested loop control structure was a work. THAT is sort of thing, of course, that you find in computer programs.

And so I have, at various times, played around with writing pseudo-computational procedures – they’re not even pseudo code – that would produce that result. But I’ve never been able to come up with anything that was even halfway plausible. It always seemed like an empty pro forma exercise.

I’m ready to try again. But not with “Kubla Khan.” First I give a completely made-up nonsense example. Then I look at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment from Disney’s Fantasia. I conclude with some discussion of Apocalypse Now.

Photo Ontology 2

Five photos, each distinctly different from the others, together they suggest a world.






Preview: Ring Form Opportunity No. 4: Gojira

Prompted by David Bordwell’s comment about King Kong being a candidate for ring form, I’ve decided to look into Gojira, the 1954 Japanese film that we drastically re-edited, with additional footage, to become Godzilla in America in 1956. Why am I analyzing Gojira? Simple, like King Kong, it’s a monster film.

And it’s one I’ve already worked on. And I’ve already got a candidate for the central scene, one I discuss in my essay-review of Gojira. This is the scene where Ogata, the Handsome Young Man, is going to tell Yamana, the Imperious (but kind) Father, that he and Emiko, Beautiful Daughter, are in love. It’s a tricky business because Emiko had been betrothed to Serizawa, the Brilliant Young Scientist, in childhood. Thus not only is he asking for Emiko’s hand in marriage, but he’s also asking to break a traditional arrangement, the childhood espousal.

5 gojira roars.jpg

It does not go well. As soon as Ogata arrives at the house, he and Yamana get into a bitter argument, not about Emiko, but about Gojira. Yamana, who is a scientist, wants to capture Gojira and study him. Ogata wants to destroy him, as he is so very dangerous and destructive. The two get into a quarrel and Ogata leaves without ever having brought up his relationship with Emiko, the Beautiful Daughter.

Immediately after this scene Gojira attacks Tokyo, for the second time. But this attack is much worse than the first and lasts over 10 minutes on film (out of a total 98 minutes), making it by far the most sustained sequence in the film.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cece’s Drum Lesson: Differentiated Control

This is a follow-up to Cece’s Jam. It’s about her drum lesson, that part that I saw when we re-entered the studio. Mitch was teaching her a basic drum beat. He’d put together another traps set-up in the studio and they faced one another.

What made it tricky was that it involved three different limbs, the two arms and one foot. The foot was playing the bass drum with a kick pedal; the right hand was playing a cymbal; and the left hand played the snare drum.

The right hand played a steady uninterrupted stream of (eighth) notes. The kick drum was on the first and second beat, the snare on the third. The ear picks up the kick-snare pattern as the rhythm while the stream of eighth notes on the cymbal is background. Here’s a crude depiction:

drum pattern

I couldn’t really hear what Cece was doing with the kick drum, but it was obvious she was having trouble keeping the motions of her two hands – actually, the whole arm – separate. Abstractly, you’d think that would be easy since the left hand had only one hit while the right hand had eight. But the one left-hand hit had to be exactly timed with the correct one of those right-hand hits, and the same for the two foot kicks.

Keeping those things separate the first time is tricky. The tendency is to strike everything on every beat. I’ve had similar problems in playing the tongue drum, and that only involves two limbs (see this post on three against two and this one on free drumming). Adding a foot into the mix makes things even more complicated.

Artifactual Intelligence

Sigma 128.67 red lips2-nosig.jpg

Ring Form Opportunity No. 3: Shakespeare

One book I discovered in R. G. Peterson’s “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature” (PMLA, 91, 3, 1976, 367-375) is Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design (Harvard 1972). From Rose’s preface (p. viii): “My primary interest, however, is not in offering new readings of the plays but in describing the way they are organized.” And that, of course, is a matter of form.

On the next page Rose tells us that he does not cover all of Shakespeare’s plays – at 190 pages including notes the book is short – and that he has passed over the comedies “in favor of the histories and tragedies, which are, from my point of view, more interesting.” That’s very interesting, why should that be?

The comedies have “happy” endings, with He and She destined to get married. The tragedies do not end so well, & the histories are a bit different from both. Is it that the lack of an end-of-play marriage cascades through the whole play and forces certain designs on the playwright, the kind of designs that interest Rose? That is, is ring form a thematically neutral form in which one can tell any kind of story, a frame any kind of lyric (remember “Kubla Khan”) or does it have an affinity for certain kinds of material?

For Rose also suggests that Shakespeare’s principles of form, of design and construction, “are not unique.” He finds them throughout Elizabethan drama, but (p. ix) “no one before Shakespeare appears to have been sufficiently in control of the overall structure of his plays to apply the principles of scene design to the play as a whole.”

And that’s where Hamlet comes in, for Rose devotes a whole chapter to the play, analyzing it in terms of units he calls scenes, which don’t necessarily line up the units marked off as scenes in Shakespeare’s texts. But those texts, he reminds us, aren’t really Shakespeare’s. The earliest texts we’ve got have already been edited from whatever Shakespeare himself put on paper, in particular, we have no reason to believe that Shakespeare divided his plays into five acts.

Anyhow, to Hamlet. This is what Peterson says about Rose’s discussion (p. 372):
There is, I believe, a possibility that all of Rose’s eighteen scenes in Hamlet form a concentric pattern over the whole, with a center, significantly empty, between the prayer scene (III.iii) and the closet scene (III.iv-IV.i); but whatever the modifications occurring to different readers, Rose has illustrated the value of looking for symmetrical patterns and midpoints, and his suggestion that Shakespeare may have built his plays around them is at least plausible (p. 126).
The play within the play is 8th in Rose’s 18 scene analysis. Was Shakespeare a master of ring form, or of center point construction?

Two Problems for the Human Sciences, and Two Metaphors

My first post for 3 Quarks Daily is out (same title as this post). The post started out as a defense of the humanities, and I suppose it still is that. But I framed it differently, as two problems to be solved by the human sciences in general.

In a way, though I didn't say this, more and more I'm thinking of the humanities as the advance scouts of the human sciences, the first ones into the new territory. Recently, though, we've come up against some strange problems, and many of the others have tuned out and started complaining, hence this line near the end:
To put it bluntly, when it comes to mind and culture, the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about and the humanists haven’t quite figured out how to talk about what they know.
The two problems: wouldn't you know it, ring form and literary history (as represented by the "break" between Shakespeare and the novel). The two metaphors: chess, for the relationship between biology and culture, and a cathedral, for the relationship between the humanities (represented by literary criticism) and the newer psychologies and such (cognitive science, evolutionary psych, the neurosciences, and this and that).


There's a funny thing about the cathedral metaphor, though. The cathedral itself presents the same problem for which I use it as a metaphor: What's it all about? Curious.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Portrait of the Photographer as a Ghost in the World




Top 10 Words for 2013

The folks at Mirriam Webster keep track of how many time words are looked up in their online dictionary. That, in turn, means that they can compare lookups this year with lookups last year and see which words have been naughty, and so get fewer lookups, and which have been nice, and get more lookups. Here's a list of the top ten nicest words, the ones with the greatest increase in lookups:
1. science – 176
2. cognitive – 158%
3. rapport – 145%
4. communication – 139%
5. niche – 138%
6. ethic – 134%
7. paradox – 130%
8. visceral – 130%
9. integrity – 127%
10. metaphor – 124%
H/t Language Log; full article in Time: Word of the Year: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary's Choice Is 'Science'.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Literary Criticism in the Contemporary Intellectual Milieu

All of which is to say that literary studies cannot effectively enter into dialogue with the newer psychologies by simply by adopting them as tools in the way that it has previously adopted psychoanalysis, Marxism, cultural anthropology, and so forth. Why can’t it do this? Because the newer psychologies don’t have concepts directly applicable to literary issues. Psychoanalysis and Marxism did.

Rather, literary studies must rethink its own problems in terms that are commensurate with these newer psychologies but not otherwise beholden to them. This condition is at once minimal and moderately rigorous.

On Deciding that Cognitivism is of Limited Value in Literary Criticism

Ripeness is all.

Research in artificial intelligence (AI) has always been torn between two poles: On the one hand there is the desire to understand how the human mind works. On the other hand there is a desire to do something of practical value. If we in fact knew how the human mind worked, these might not be so very different: Just code-up a model of the human mind and give it some practical job.

Alas, we don’t know how the mind works.

We know, for example, that our ability to read the newspaper depends on 10s of thousands of pieces of background knowledge we’ve got stored away, knowledge we’ve picked up throughout our lives. We also know something about coding such knowledge into software – there was a great deal of research on this a couple of decades ago – but it is very difficult, takes a lot of time, and, while it is interesting as a research project, it hasn’t proved terribly effective in practical applications.

Starting about three decades or so, however, AI researchers began developing statistical techniques that turned out to be very effective in producing practical results – provided, of course, that they have access to boatloads of data and lots of computing horsepower. Such software sorts the mail and handles routine phone messaging. It is also the kind of software that powers IBM’s Watson, the system that beat human Jeopardy champions.

While winning at Jeopardy makes for good TV, that particular task has little practical value. But the same software can be, and is being, trained to assist physicians in making diagnoses. That’s very practical indeed. But no one believes that Watson “thinks” like human beings do.

The Watson project was headed by David Ferrucci, who’s been interviewed a zillion times since Watson made its TV debut, and who recently made these remarks about his decision to side-line the search for the machinery of mind and, instead, to use computational techniques known to produce results:
“I have mixed feelings about this,” Ferrucci told me when I put the question to him last year. “There’s a limited number of things you can do as an individual, and I think when you dedicate your life to something, you’ve got to ask yourself the question: To what end? And I think at some point I asked myself that question, and what it came out to was, I’m fascinated by how the human mind works, it would be fantastic to understand cognition, I love to read books on it, I love to get a grip on it”—he called Hofstadter’s work inspiring—“but where am I going to go with it? Really what I want to do is build computer systems that do something. And I don’t think the short path to that is theories of cognition.”
What interests me about that remark is that I made a similar decision, but I did it so that I could continue to think about how the human mind works.

Portrait of the Mind as an Artificial Enigma

Imagine That – MacPaint digital image, 1985

reality engine subassembly 764 BSQT 77.jpg
Inside a MacIntosh Computer – Inhanced Digital Photograph, 2006

walkway along the hudson RGB 2nd mix.jpg
Along the Waterfront –Enhanced Digital Photograph, 2007

Thursday, December 12, 2013

To Jeff Turpin: Stop Whacking the Post-Structuralists, They’re NOT the Problem

A few days ago I sent out a broadcast email on the topic, Ring Form and the Importance of Description in Literary Studies. I had no idea what response I’d get, if any. One critic, Jeff Turpin, did respond, and I replied on-list. After thinking about it, though, I decided that I had more to say. And that response, in turn, grew and grew. So I’ve decided to turn it into a post.

Roll Your Own

Here’s a snippet from Jeff’s response – I hope you don’t mind, Jeff:
And at least for post-structuralists, the text is whatever you say it is, so there are potentially infinite descriptions. … even for literary Darwinists a good story is a cornucopia. In archeology, as above, an artifact description is well-defined, and very brief, and most of the descriptive units are inarguable. In Shakespeare studies, not so good.
I’d like to say a bit more about this. I think that your use of post-structuralists here is something of a straw man. Whatever various post-structuralists may seem to say in sound bite excerpts, they don’t really believe that anything goes, or no more so than many others in the profession.

In focusing on the indeterminacy of the meaning of the text they simply provided philosophical cover for what was and pretty much remains the profession’s default position, namely that any reading is legitimate (“roll your own”) providing some (half-way) plausible case is made for it. This has been legitimized by the bromide that the multiplicity of readings testifies to the “richness” of the text–a cliché that was firmly in place before the French stormed ashore in Baltimore in the fall of 1966. The reader response theorists, of course, provided a somewhat different cover but still, in the larger context of the profession’s basic practice, that’s what it is, intellectual cover for what people were in fact doing.

Second, as I’ve said before, these arguments are about meaning, not about form. And the description of form is where I’m pitching my tent. That’s not really been done on a systematic basis. To be sure, the Russian Formalists WERE very much interested in form – it is to them we owe the now commonplace distinction between story, the temporal ordering of events in a narrative, and plot, the order in which events are introduced into a narrative. But what has been called formalism in Anglo-American criticism did not take the analysis and description of form as a central concern. Rather, it used the idea of form as a way of arguing for the autonomy of the text, thus making biographical and historical arguments irrelevant. (I suspect, incidentally, that once that had happened, deconstruction was inevitable, but that’s a different argument. Still, see this old post that Daniel Green contributed to The Valve.)

Ring Form Opportunity No. 2: The (Classical) Chinese Novel

While working on another post I took a quick stroll through Franco Moretti’s pamphlet, Network Theory, Plot Analysis. I found this paragraph (p. 8):
An aesthetics of symmetry is on the other hand very present in Chinese literary culture, where readers of novels expect, writes Andrew Plaks, that “the overall sequence of chapters (...) will add up to a round and symmetrical number, typically 100 or 120. The pronounced sense of symmetry (...) provides the ground for a variety of exercises in structural patterning. Most noticeable among these is the practice of contriving to divide an overall narrative sequence precisely at its arithmetic midpoint, yielding two great hemispheric structural movements.” Hemispheric movements ... Think of the rhymed couplets that serve as chapter epigraphs in classical Chinese novels: “Zhou Rui’s wife delivers palace flowers and finds Jia Lian pursuing night sports by day / Jia Bao-yu visits the Ning-guo mansion and has an agreeable colloquy with Qin-shi’s brother”. A does this and meets B; C does that and meets D. As if the two halves of the chapter mirrored each other perfectly: “A very earnest young woman offers counsel by night / And a very endearing one is found to be a source of fragrance by day”. “Parallel prose”, as Chinese aesthetics calls it.
Sounds suggestive, no? Surely some of those texts will turn out to have center point construction, if not full rings.

Ring Form


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Testimonial: The Tantric Trumpeter Toots His Horn

This is a short companion to my earlier story about Fitzhugh Regensberg, horn maker to the American Dental Association and offers further testimony on the salutary influence of Eastern philosophy on the fine art of blowing one's own horn.
A friend of mine – whose modesty forbids the use of his name – has just designed a portable trumpet-playing environment he calls the Rama Taj Room. You can control the Rat Room's atmospheric pressure, temperature, and humidity precisely. The Rat Room II will even allow you to control the exact composition of the atmosphere. The idea is that maximum music requires maximum comfort. Comfort is what the Rama Taj is all about.

Of course, each Rama Taj Room comes with a top-notch microphone and sound system to pick up your sound and project it outside the room. Otherwise there wouldn't be much point to it.

If two or more players on the same gig decide to use Rats there's a special Tantric Energy Coupler (TEC) available so they can hear one another directly. For maximum efficiently you should stick a wadded gum wrapper (the tinfoil is crucial) up your left nostril when using the TEC.

Each Rama Taj is custom-built for a particular player using a particular horn. This is necessary in order to adjust the interdigital overlap of the nodal points of the sonic dispersion function. Adjustable eccentric waveguides are available for those who like to perform while standing on their head (to optimize blood flow). The waveguides perform dense wave multiplexing to realign the Lafayette metric of the inner distribution of wavelet eigenvalues.

Rectify THAT!

Tile illusion


Sushi Ecstasy

I am willing to believe that the sushi was THAT good. But I'm sure this writing is ripe for parody:
I remember precisely the dull luster of Mr. Nakazawa’s mackerel and the way its initial firmness gave way to a minor-key note of pickled fish and a major-key richness that kept building the longer I chewed. I can feel the warmth of just-poached blue shrimp from the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, which had a flavor that was deep, clean and delicate at the same time. I can tell you about the burning-leaf smell of skipjack smoked over smoldering hay until it becomes a softer, aquatic version of aged Italian speck.
About Mr. Nakazaw, the chef:
In the movie [Jiro Dreams of Sushi], Mr. Nakazawa was the young apprentice who cried when Mr. Ono conceded that he had finally made an acceptable egg custard. With his shaved scalp, bowed head, downturned eyes and meek acceptance of Mr. Ono’s criticisms, he gave the impression of a novice Zen monk who was accustomed to abuse in the name of enlightenment. (He also gave you the idea that Jiro could be kind of a pill.)
But there ARE interesting questions here: Can food preparation be made into a high art, comparable to music or poetry? Has it, in fact, been done? It's not a matter of mere excellence, in the way that a well prepared steak is better than a fast food burger, but better even than THAT. It's a matter of a different kind of gustatory experience. 

Ellis Island and One World Center


One is a symbol of opportunity, freedom, and dignity. The other a symbol of vanity, greed, and corruption. One is a museum of things past, the other, alas, has yet to come fully alive.

Will the monster devour us?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Center Point Construction and the Computational Mind

Edit (12.12.13): Jim Hoagland pointed out that my discussion of the basic symbol sets of arithmetic and natural language was wrong. I've corrected the problem (I think).
I was looking at Mary Douglas’s checklist for ring forms and realized that each item on it had a plausible interpretation in the domain of computation. So that’s where I’m going in this post. But that’s not where I start. First I want to talk a little about computation, then another look at Tezuka’s Metropolis, and then the Douglas checklist.

What is Computation, Anyhow?

If, when you think about computers and computation, you mostly think about numbers and arithmetic, then you’re likely to be puzzled, if not horrified, at the idea that literature is somehow computational. Literature, after all, is not about numbers – though the pages and chapters of books may be numbered.

But then, computation isn’t necessarily about numbers either. It depends on how you think of it.

“625” and “six-hundred and twenty-five” are strings of characters and each represents the same number. The first string is of the sort used in arithmetic calculation while the second is not, though not for any inherent problem. It’s a simple matter of convenience; the string of numerals is more compact, and hence more convenient, than the string of words. Note, however, that when “625” is read aloud it might sound the same as “six-hundred and twenty-five”, though it might also be abbreviated to “six-twenty-five”.

When you learn arithmetic you learn the tables for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. These tables consist of basic propositions about numbers and how they behave under those four operations. You also learn a handful of simple rules to be used in applying those operations to multi-digit numbers. What you are learning – and practicing, hour upon hour – is symbol manipulation, but symbol manipulation of a very restricted kind.

Ordinary language use, after all, is also symbol manipulation. And, while there are restrictions, and lots of them, the proper manipulation of the symbols of ordinary language is open ended in a way the arithmetic calculation is not. Perhaps the most fundamental difference has to do with the set of symbols used to spell the names of the entities.

For both arithmetic and natural language is finite and quite small. For arithmetic the set consists of ten numerals (0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9), four operators (+ - * /), and an equals sign (=). The symbol set for any natural language is complicated by the fact that, for written languages, there may not be a one-to-one relationship between the symbol set for the written and spoken versions. There we would have to have separate discussions for alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems. And in either case, the spoken language has prosodic features that are not well represented in the written language.

Consider written English. We have the 24 letters of the alphabet and a handful of punctuation marks. That’s finite and small. However, letter combinations are used to form words, but the way they are combined to do so is completely arbitrary with respect to what the words mean and how they are used. That gives rise to what linguists call duality of patterning; the fact that language is patterned with respect to sound (phonetics and phonology) and with respect to meaning (semantics and syntax).

That isn’t the case with arithmetic. There is a systematic relationship between how a number is spelled and the value of the number designated by its name. Thus the spellings tell us that, of “478”, “829”, and “321”, 829 is the largest and 321 is the smallest. But the spellings of “dog”, “dot”, and “elephant” do not tell us which, if any, are living creatures. In particular, of the two that have similar spellings, one is living, the other is not. The third (“elephant”) is also a living creature though its spelling shares no letters with “dog”.

Glass Arrangement


Three Notes on Literature, Form, and Computation

This post is a concatenation of three older posts, all dealing with (the idea of) the actual process of computation. These notes are intended for people who find the idea of literary form as computational form somewhere between odd and morally repulsive. If yo lean toward the repulsive end of that continuum there's probably nothing I can say that will change your mind, but these comments are relatively brief. Read them; what do you have to lose? If you're more inclined to find the conjunction of literature and computing merely odd – perhaps even edging over into intriguing (rising tone), then these notes should be useful.

Computing = Math, NOT 

Everyone knows that computers are about math. And that may be one source of humanistic resistance to computational research techniques, especially in the use of corpus technique for examining large bodies of texts of historical or literary interest. So: Computers are math, math is not language, literary texts ARE language; therefore the use of computer in analyzing literary texts is taboo as it sullies the linguistic purity of those texts. QED

Except that digital computers aren’t about math, at least not essentially so. To equate computers with math is to mis-identify computing with one use of computing, the calculation of numerical values. That equation also mis-identifies mathematics with but one aspect of mathematics, numerical calculations.

* * * * *

The contrast between math and language is, of course, deeply embedded in the American educational system. In particular, it is built into the various standardized tests one takes on the way into college and then, from there, into graduate school. One takes tests that are designed to test verbal abilities, one thing, and mathematical abilities, a different thing. And, while some people score more or less the same on both, others do very much better on one of them. The upshot is that it is easy and natural for us to think in terms of math-like subjects and verbal-like subjects and people good at either but not necessarily both.

The problem is that what takes place “under the hood” in corpus linguistics is not just math (statistics) and natural language (the texts). It’s also and mostly computation, and computation is not math, though, as I said up top, the association between the two is a strong one.

When Alan Turing formalized the idea of computing in the idea of an abstract machine, that abstract machine processed symbols—in a very general sense of both "symbol" and "process". That is, Turing formalized computation as a very constrained linguistic process.

Sets of symbols and processes on them can be devised to do a great many things. Ordinary arithmetic is one of them. To learn arithmetic we must first memorize tables of atomic equivalences for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Thus:
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
1 + 3 = 4
. . .
9 + 7 = 16
9 + 8 = 17
9 + 9 = 18
And so on through subtraction, multiplication, and division. To these we add a few simple little recipes (aka algorithms) for performing calculations by applying these atomic equivalences to given arrangements – the arrangements themselves are part of the process – of numbers.

Sage with eyebrows and yarn


Ring Form Opportunity: King Kong – and some notes on how to do it

David Bordwell just sent me the following note:
Long ago I remember the French critic Thierry Kuntzel giving a talk (which he never published, I think) on KING KONG arguing that it had such a construction, which he compared to an opened book, and the discovery of Kong as the 'gutter' (we'd say) between two pages, before and after. I've never checked to confirm this, but maybe it would fit too.
Are there any takers? I have seen the original, as well as the more recent remake, but this is not something you can do from memory. You need to watch the film and take notes. Judging from my experience, it should take at least half-a-day to do this.

And you start with a leg-up. In the first place, you have a reason to think the film might be a ring form, so you're looking for something specific–remember Mary Douglas's check list? Further, you've got a candidate for the central episode; that makes things much simpler.

Now you're trying to verify whether or not that episode is the center of a ring. Without that start you might have to test several episodes for centrality. And – obviously – when you're looking for ring form, the first thing to look for IS that central episode. In the cases of both Tezuka's Metropolis and Heart of Darkness, I started with a suspicion about what the central episode was.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Myth: From Lévi-Strauss and Douglas to Conrad and Coppola: A Working Paper

I've uploaded another working paper to my SSRN page. It is edited from two blog posts, From Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now and Lévi-Strauss and Contemporary Myth: Heart of Apocalypse. I have removed some redundant material and shifted emphasis here and there.

Here's the link to the full working paper. The abstract and introduction are below.

* * * * *
Abstract: Heart of Darkness (HoD) and Apocalypse Now (AN) both exhibit center point construction. Each narrative is constructed about a central incident that is, in effect, a précis of the whole. In HoD that incident is the death of the helmsman, into which Conrad inserted a long paragraph giving Kurtz’s history. In AN that incident is the (needless) massacre of the crew of a sampan. The two narratives, however, are thematically different. HoD is about European imperialism while AN is about the American state. These differences are reflected in differences in the ways the two narratives utilize center point construction.
* * * * *

I have had two anthropologists standing over me as I’ve worked on these two texts, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. I was influenced by both of them, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas, early in my career. It is Lévi-Strauss who inspired my overall approach to (literary) texts and it is Douglas who gave me the structural clue I’ve followed in these two texts. Let me think about Douglas in this introduction. I’ll turn to Lévi-Strauss later on.

Given my interest in form, it was easy for her to enlist me in her inquiry into ring forms, which I have since broadened into an inquiry into what I have been calling center point construction. But we differed on one issue. She believed that the writers of ring form texts knew what they were doing whereas I was and am skeptical. Certainly, they worked with skill and deliberation. But it is by no means obvious to me that they deliberately set out to craft such forms. I find it plausible that such tales are the emergent result of other factors.

Let Me Tell You about the Journey I Took

Consider a simple story. Louise Crimson travels from her home in Townsville to visit her Grandma in Centerville and then she returns by the same route, thus:
A. Louise Crimson travels to Townsville to visit Grandma.
B. Louise arrives in Little Glenn.
C. Arrives in Corner Cove.
D. Arrives at Grandma’s in Centerville. Grandma bakes her a peace cobbler
C’. Louise travels back to Corner Cove.
B’. And then on to Little Glenn. After a little rest she departs…
A’. …and arrives home in Townsville in time to share the last bit of peach cobbler with her best friend Ruth.
He route is symmetrical and any story she told about that journey would most naturally take the form of a canonical ring. Yet, in telling her story, Louise did not set out to produce a ring-form. Rather, it came about as a consequence of the route she travelled, on the one hand, and of the normal mode of story telling–list the incidents in chronological order–on the other.

Warhol Variations & the evolution of Macintosh graphics over 20 years

The Warhol, of course, is Andy Warhol. And the influence should be obvious, even if the tools are not. He used silkscreen printing to produce various versions, often brightly colored, of the same source image, often a famous person, such as Marilyn Monroe or Mao Tse-Tung. My source, which I'll reveal shortly, was somewhat different, as should be apparent in the image itself.


And I didn't have color available to me. I did that in MacPaint back in 1986. All I had to work with was a rather coarse bitmap that gave me either white, or black, but nothing in between. So I had to substitute texture for color in order to produce the requisite variations.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Center Point Construction: Description and Objectivity

No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement.

—Bruno Latour

...we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher...
– Plato

This post follows upon my earlier post, Center Point Construction: Coleridge, Tezuka, Conrad, and Coppola, and presupposed knowledge of it. I want to discuss the method I employed in making that argument and, in particular, I want to argue that it is possible for the profession to obtain objective knowledge of such matters.

I am aware, of course, that objectivity has taken a beating in the past few decades. Nonetheless I persist. I do not think that objectivity is a matter of unmediated access to the world. That doesn’t exist. Nor do I think that a pure heart and a clean mind are adequate to the job.

Rather objectivity is a matter of proper method, of construction or, to use a word from Latour, of composition. Our picture of the objective world is one we compose. And I offer ring form as one of those conceptual objects that we can compose in an objective manner.

The simplest form of objectivity is simple intersubjective agreement. It was when critics discovered that they could not attain intersubjective agreement on matters of interpretation, of meaning, that we began to question our activity, to theorize the discipline. My suggestion is that we bracket meaning and concentrate on describing form. There is where we can attain intersubjective agreement.

That is what I did in arguing about center point construction in “Kubla Khan”, Tezuka’s Metropolis, Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now. I note that in talking of description I am not asserting that description, unlike interpretation, is in some mysterious way, unmediated. Description requires its terminology, such as ring form or center point construction, such as center loading, and so forth. But that terminology is about form, not meaning. These statements are descriptive, not because they are unmediated, but, in effect, because that is all that they do: describe. One would, of course, like to know how it is that the mind constructs such things, and why the mind takes pleasure in them. Description will not provide answers to those questions. But I see little hope of constructing answers if we do not start with good descriptions.


Before getting down to it, though, I want to show that I really mean it when I say that I am not presupposing that description is equivalent to having unmediated access to our object texts. Let’s sharpen our knives on Stanley fish.

Tell me, how's that imperialism thing been working for you lately?


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tim Burke on Nelson Mandela

Tim Burke is a historian on the faculty at Swarthmore. He studies Africa in the 20th Century and has done fieldwork in Zimbabwe. Of Mandela he observes:
Or indeed, most of all the leaders of his time in this respect: to keep a long view of the world he ultimately thought his people, all people, should live in. He is the head of his class on a global scale, standing tall not just above his African contemporaries but above most other nationalists and certainly above the neoliberal West, whose leaders seem almost embarrassed to have ever thought about politics as the art of shaping a better future for all.

I suppose as a historian that my knee should jerk at any invocation of the great-man theory and cite the masses and parties and structures that brought Mandela to power. And as a lightly depressive middle-aged man attached to my comforts, I should embrace my friend’s warnings against having heroes. At least Mandela can no longer disappoint anyone who lionizes him, not that he ever did...

But that knee won’t jerk and perhaps I can still have a hero or two. The problem with the wave of admiring appraisals of Mandela as hero and great man is not that he was not a hero or great man. The problem with those celebrations (even before Mandela’s death) is that few of them oblige the people offering them to rethink anything at all about their own times, their own lives, their own mistakes. At best, they occasion the grudging admission, “I thought he was a terrorist or a revolutionary, but it turns out he was a great man.” But put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door: the next step might be to recognize that he was a terrorist and a revolutionary and a great man.

The IBM Watson Team: Collective Creativity

The team that built IBM's Jeopardy-winning Watson was put together by David Ferrucci. This is from an article he wrote for the NYTimes last January:
From the first, it was clear that we would have to change the culture of how scientists work. Watson was destined to be a hybrid system. It required experts in diverse disciplines: computational linguistics, natural language processing, machine learning, information retrieval and game theory, to name a few.

Likewise, the scientists would have to reject an ego-driven perspective and embrace the distributed intelligence that the project demanded. Some were still looking for that silver bullet that they might find all by themselves. But that represented the antithesis of how we would ultimately succeed. We learned to depend on a philosophy that embraced multiple tracks, each contributing relatively small increments to the success of the project.

Technical philosophy was important, but so were personal dynamics. Early on, I made the unpopular decision to bring the entire team together in a war room, to maximize communication. The shared space encouraged people with wildly different skills and opinions to exchange ideas.
Whoops! Real-honest-to-god interdisciplinary cooperation rears its crazy head. Uncle Dave, you mean I have to talk to those guys?

The film business is the same way. See Walter Murch on Collective Creativity.

The Art Market: Chinese Up, Contemporary Up, Everything Else, Down

Mr. Moses said his data indicated that traditional Chinese art had gained a compounded annualized rate of return for the 10 years ending in 2012 of 15.5 percent. Postwar and contemporary art gained 11.6 percent. By contrast, old master paintings gained only 3.3 percent and American paintings just 1 percent. And the overall index gained 7.4 percent.

Some find the whole notion of an art market to be distasteful. Michael Findlay, author of “The Value of Art,” and a director at the Acquavella Galleries in New York, said: “What I believe in is the social and aesthetic value of art. We live in a society where everything is so monetized, the only way people can talk about art is in terms of money.”
And those high prices? Billionaires blowing smoke up one another's posterior vortices:
Contrary to the almost universal claim by art dealers and auctioneers that it’s impossible to overpay for quality art, “our research shows dramatically that high-purchase-price paintings underperform low-purchase-price paintings over time,” Mr. Moses said. “Art is very democratic. There’s a painting for every purse.”

Don't forget the flowers

What I did during my summer vacation.
July 13, 2010, on 11th Street in Hoboken, NJ.


Though it wasn't a vacation, really.
July 21, 2010, on 11th Street in Hoboken, NJ.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Center Point Construction: Coleridge, Tezuka, Conrad, and Coppola

This one's going to take awhile; it's got 5800 words, plus several tables. You might want to have some snacks ready and make sure the cell phone's been silenced.
Yesterday I declared the psychological “revolution” in literary studies to be stillborn. Neither the cognitive poetics born of the so-called cognitive revolution nor the Darwinian literary criticism born of evolutionary psychology has yet delivered a new criticism. Nor, for reasons I explained in the post, do I expect them to deliver a robust and insightful new criticism any time soon. As currently constituted, those psychologies can tell us something about the bricks and mortar of our texts, but they can say nothing about the designs.

This post is about design, one particular design that I call center point construction. I describe it – and that’s all I do, describe it – as I’ve found it in four texts, four texts of very different kinds: 1) “Kubla Khan”, a lyric poem, 2) Metropolis, a Japanese manga narrative, 3) Heart of Darkness, a novella, and 4) Apocalypse Now, a motion picture. That the last two should share the same formal armature, to borrow a term from Lévi-Strauss, is perhaps not surprising. But the form I’ve found in both of them has not, so far as I know, before been described in either of them. That the same form can be found in two other texts that differ as much from one another as either in turn differs from Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now, that seems worthy of our attention.

A psychological model that could account for the same form in those very different realizations would thereby be one of considerable interest. For it would have to deal with radically differences in temporal scale and presentation medium. I am willing to leave the creation of such a model to the psychologists: evolutionary, cognitive, and neuroscientific. While they’re working on that I plan to be describing more texts, some having center point construction, but others based on different organizing principles.

After some preliminary throat clearing I go through the texts in order: “Kubla Khan”, Metropolis, Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now. I’ve collected references to more detailed work on these texts at the end of the post.

Beyond “Kubla Khan”

As I’ve written in several posts, it was my early work on “Kubla Khan” that sent me down the path I’ve been traveling for the last four decades. However, I’ve always had a problem “selling” that work to others. “Kubla Khan” seems to be a one-off poem; there’s no other poem quite like it. Thus, however interesting its structure, it’s difficult to generalize from that work.

So, the poem’s got an interesting structure, what of it? It’s only one poem fer chrissakes!

Things began to open up a few years ago. The late Mary Douglas got me interested in ring form, where texts are organized like so: A, B, C…X…C’, B’, A’. The last episode mirrors the first, the next to last mirrors and second, and so forth around a central episode. While the two movements of “Kubla Khan” are symmetrical about a mid-point, they don’t appear to have other features of ring form and the poem as a whole doesn’t have a ring form.

Then I discovered that Osamu Tezuka’s manga, Metropolis, has a ring form. And, though it is a narrative not a lyric poem, it shares an important feature with “Kubla Khan.” It has an emblematic ending. Just at the first movement of “Kubla Khan” ends with a line that is an emblem for the whole poem – “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” – so Metropolis ends with an image that can stand as an emblem for the entire narrative – the central character, Michi, in effect becomes transformed into a statue.

What if I analytically decomposed the form of “Kubla Khan” into different elements such that each element is a formal device that can perform certain functions? Maybe those different devices can be found in other texts.