Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Description 2: The Primacy of the Text

I've uploaded another working paper to my SSRN site. As this post's title indicates, it's about description. Here's the link. I've appended the abstract and the introduction to the collection.
Abstract: These notes consist of five posts discussing the description of literary texts and films and five appendices containing tables used in describing to manga texts (Lost World, Metropolis) and two films (Sita Sings the Blues, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). The posts make the point that the point of description is to let the texts speak for themselves. Further, it is through descriptions that the texts enter intellectual discourse.

Introduction: Constructing Descriptions

This collection of posts about description is a bit different from my first collection, Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature. Those posts leaned toward the abstract and theoretical first ended with a nod to Mark Changizi’s search for the teleome, a catalogue of goals for behavioral systems. I argued that the purpose of works of art was to create a virtual coupling between individuals so that, in a sense, they became individual facets of a distributed him. In THAT context a description of a literary text, or a film, becomes something like the description and specifications for, say, an interface between two computer systems. That description doesn’t tell you how the computers work or what large tasks they’ll be performing through the interface; but it tells you how they connect.

The posts in this collection tend toward the practical, though they don’t begin that way. I end with four appendices, each a working descriptive document concerning a specific text, two manga, and two films.

The Posts

How to Notice Things in Texts, or The Key to the Treasure Really Is the Treasure

This post is based on an interview with J. Hillis Miller. He talks about how both Burke and Derrida influenced him. What’s important is that he emphasizes what they taught him to notice in texts. What they say about those texts is secondary to what they notice in them. And it is what we see in texts that we capture in description.

Comparison as Method in Description

Comparison is critical in description, whether we compare different components of one text, or compare different texts with one another. Comparison allows the texts to “speak” and, as such, stands in contrast to interpretation, where the critic speaks on behalf of the text.

Some example descriptions: two poems, a novella, two manga texts, and two films

Here I discuss some of the descriptive work that I’ve done. “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” are the two poems; Heart of Darkness is the novella. For manga and the films I’ve included appendices where I have tables that I developed to describe the texts. The manga: Lost World, and Metropolis, both by Osamu Tezuka. The films: Sita Sings the Blues, by Nina Paley; Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, by Mamoru Oshii.

From Bollocks to Lévi-Strauss on Myth

In this post I illustrate the problem of creating a grammar for myth by using one of those text generators that creates nonsense text to formula. In this case the generate spits out paragraphs purporting to be artist statements.

Topic Modeling as a Descriptive Tool

This is a bit more abstract. I discuss topic modeling, a statistical technique from corpus linguistics, and argue first of all that it is fundamentally descriptive in nature. The topics generated for a corpus of texts are a description of what is in that corpus. I then suggest that what is being described is not so much the body of texts, but something like a “collective mind” that has created those texts.

The Tables in the Appendices

As I’ve said above, the tables in these appendices are working documents. Though I’ve cleaned them up a bit, they are by no means polished and finished. I imagine that something like these tables would become components of handbooks for these works. As such they would have to be vetted by a number of experts. And I rather imagine that they would best be constructed as online documents that could readily be modified by further remarks and commentary. For example, in the cases of the films described in appendices 3 and 4 I could imagine descriptive commentary extending to the level of individual frames.

The second and third appendices make an obvious point. One needn’t attempt to capture everything in one descriptive pass. The second appendix covers all of Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, but at a very high level of generality. The film uses several distinctly different visual styles for different story lines. I wanted to see how those were arranged in the film. So I constructed a table that has a single row for each scene and simply told me what happened and what kind of visual style was used. In the third appendix I focused on one pivotal and complex scene. So I constructed a table for it alone.

There’s nothing deep or profound about these tables. Constructing such tables isn’t rocket science. But it’s not a trivial matter of bean counting either. You have to make decisions about what things to note and what to ignore. Those decisions are likely to change as you move through the text. If nothing else, constructing such a table forces you notice things you wouldn’t otherwise notice.

In the case of a very complex text, such as the Locus Solus sequence in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, it is just about the only way you can get a handle on what’s going on. In that sequence we see the same series of events occur three times. But it’s not exactly the same each time. I constructed the tables so I could get a handle on just how the different versions of the sequences differed.

Finally, the descriptions of the films say little about the sound track music. That too would be included in more extensive descriptive work.

Appendix 1: Descriptive Tables for Metropolis and Lost World

Appendix 2: The Overall Organization of Sita Sings the Blues

Appendix 3: The Agni Pariksha in Sita Sings the Blues

Appendix 4: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: Locus Solus Transit

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