Monday, December 15, 2014

Cultural Beings, the Ontology of Culture, and a Return to Books and Blues

I haven't forgotten my on-going series of posts on the direction of cultural evolution; you know, the one that started with Matt Jockers' Macroanalysis? But I've been busy with other things. Here's another post to add to that pile. I’m not yet burned out on culture, but lordy lordy I’m gettin’ there. But there’s a few more ideas I’ve got to get out there before I can hang up these particular shoes. If only for awhile.
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What do I mean by cultural beings? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Let’s start by being conservative about it – though just what “conservative” means amid this kind of intellectual craziness is a curious question – let’s say that novels, like those Jockers considered, are cultural beings. So are musical performances, like those driving American culture; they’re also cultural beings. Cultural beings are things like THAT, but note that THAT ranges over culture in general and not merely so-called high culture. After all, most of Jockers’ novels and most of those musical performances are not high cultural phenomena. Many are distinctly low and vulgar, while others are merely middlebrow.

I am using “cultural being” as a term of art. It designates not merely the cultural artifact, whether it is a long narrative imprinted in a codex, a musical composition inscribed on score paper, or even a performance merely floating in the air and then gone forever, except for memories of it. Those physical things are just packages or envelopes, other terms of art I’m hereby proposing. And those packages or envelopes “contain” coordinators, the cultural analog to biological genes.

When we read texts or listen to (even participate in) performances, the coordinator packages elicit phantasms in the mind/brain. It is the phantasm that gives pleasure, and so leads to a desire for repetition, or not, in which case the package that elicited it is forgotten. Those phantasms belong to cultural beings as well. If you will, the package of coordinators is the body of a cultural being while the phantasm is its soul.

The Ontology of Culture

When I talk about the ontology of culture, then, I mean these entities and the relations between them: cultural beings, packages or envelopes, coordinators, and phantasms. The relations between them are complex and subtle and I don’t pretend to grasp them, though I’ve been writing and thinking about the at least since my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, if not longer.

The overall relationship among them, however, is given by the evolutionary dynamic of blind variation and selective retention:
The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of phantasms.
But what does it mean to retain a phantasm? Phantasms are (collective) mental events. They come and they go. How can they be retained?

They can’t. But they can be remembered and if the memory is compelling, one can re-create the phantasm. How do you do that? You re-experience the package of coordinators that gave rise to the phantasm in the first place. And so we have this modified formulation:
The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of packages or envelopes.
Will that work? Will it do the job? I don’t know. I just thought it up.

Let us remember, however, that phantasms are the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. And what is retained in biological evolution is not the individual phenotypes. They all die and the matter of which they were composed rots. What’s retained is the phenotypic scheme, the Bauplan that emerges from a developmental process regulated by the genotype.

With that in mind, let’s move on.

Sharing Truth, Love, Beauty, and Justice

What then, guides the morphology of these cultural beings? I have previously (in Culture as a Force in History: the United States of the Blues) argued that anxiety, or rather the desire to avoid or defeat anxiety is the driver behind cultural evolution. That, of course, looks a bit like the Freudian pleasure principle, though Freud proposed it as the motive for individuals. But then, culture is implemented in the minds of individuals, no?

Rather than Freud, however, let’s turn to William Powers, a control theorist whose 1973 book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, had an informative influence on me and on my mentor, David Hays. Here’s what I say about Powers in my 1996 paper, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena:
To get just a little more specific about the nature of this inner cultural "space" I propose that it is a very abstract space whose dimensions and structure are given by what William Powers (1973, pp. 177-204) has called the intrinsic reference levels of the brain. The most concrete of these reference levels concern physiological variables on which the organism's survival depends, things like the presence of various kinds of chemicals indicating whether or not the organism is getting enough to eat, drink, breath, and reproduce. If the detected values of these quantities stray away from genetically specified levels, then the organism reorganizes its neural programming until the values return to specified limits. The effect of such reorganization is that the organism behaves in new ways. An effective reorganization will bring the organism closer to an environmental source of satisfaction. An ineffective reorganization will simply waste time.

Powers also admits the possibility of reference levels concerned, not with the physical and reproductive state of the organism, but with the more abstract matter of the intrinsic properties of the neural processing system (e.g. the brain) itself (Powers 1973, pp. 195-97): are its procedures internally consistent, elegant, beautiful? A reference level regulating the body's water content can be kept in-bounds by any set of programs that gets the organism to drink enough to balance water use and loss. A reference level for behavioral or perceptual elegance will be kept in-bounds by reorganizing current behavioral or perceptual schemata. That is, it will be kept in-bounds by learning. Now, as David Hays has pointed out to me in personal conversation, the conditions that are most favorable to flow are exactly those conditions that are most favorable to learning. Flow would thus seem to be the general experiential mode for the various reference levels concerned with reorganizing our neural machinery. Thus flow would seem to be a general property of the system that regulates learning regardless of just what is learned.

Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19 (4): 1996, 321-362:
It is to those more abstract matters, to overall neural flow, that I want to turn.

But we’re going to have to take a short detour through the work I did with David Hays back in the 1970s and 1980s. As the quoted passage suggests, we’d adapted a model from William Powers. He had imagined the mind as being organized in a hierarchy of control systems where higher level systems set goals for lower level ones, thus (Powers had imagined nine levels in 1973, but the diagram shows only three):

Powers stack

In Cognitive Structures (1981 HRAF Press) Hays adapted Powers’ scheme in broad outline, but substituted a cognitive network for the upper levels of Powers’ stack. I retained that arrangement for my 1978 dissertation and we more or less kept it for our paper on the brain, Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence (1988). Informally we speculated that the highest level goals for the mind/brain are truth, love, beauty, and justice. Hays was unable to craft what he regarded as a good argument for that scheme nor have I done so in the two decades since he died – I’ve not even tried.

Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence, Journal of Social and Biological Systems 11, 293 - 322, 1988.

Still, I think our general approach was a good one and I’d like to outline it here. The BIG POINT, however, is that we regarded the desire for truth, love, beauty, and justice as inherent in the human nervous system and not to be reduced to something else, like self-interest, or even enlightened self-interest. In the context of my current argument about cultural evolution I would say that truth, love, beauty, and justice are high-level goals for the construction of cultural beings, as I’ve been defining them here, and that they are thus predicated on sharing these beings with others. These are the intrinsic goals by which groups of people shape their minds / brains to the demands of their local culture.

Neuroplasticity has been much written about in the last two decades. The brain is plastic; its structure is much open to “sculpting” by the environment. For humans that environment is shaped by culture. The brain, however, does not mature all at once. Rather, it matures gradually over the first two decades of life, with the most dramatic maturation in the first decade. The highest-level brain structure is the neocortex. It is the most recent structure phylogenetically, and it is the last one to mature. The neocortex is divided left-and-right and front-and-back, giving it four quadrants.

With that in mind, here is our scheme as Hays discussed in in endnote 14 to The Evolution of Expressive Culture:
Although the argument for assigning particular goals to particular quadrants is still beyond me, the reader may be comforted by a few remarks about known properties of cortex.

The left-right differences are widely discussed at present. The left is more effective with digital, logical operations; language is largely supported there. The right is more effective with physiognomic, figural operations; facial recognition and spatial orientation are supported there.

Front-back differences have been known for longer. The front is the motor region, and supports planning of complex operations. The rear is the perceptual region. In language, Roman Jakobson said that the front is syntagmatic (grammar), the rear paradigmatic (thesaurus).

Thus we have

LEFT: Linguistic, digital RIGHT: Spatial, physiognomic
FRONT: Motor Truth; play Love
REAR: Perceptual Justice; work Beauty; adventure

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga describes as play many activities that I classify as adventure.
Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 15 (2) 1993, 187-215:

I elaborate on that scheme in endnote 3 of Culture as an Evolutionary Arena:
In his discussion of "The Evolution of Expressive Culture" David Hays suggests that the highest level cortical reference levels are for truth, love, beauty, and justice (1992, pp. 209-210). While Csikszentmihalyi is not aware of this work, his popular account of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) contains four chapters which discusses categories of flow experience which are consistent with Hays's scheme. Thus chapter 5, " The Body in Flow" is concerned with beauty, chapter 6, "The Flow of Thought" is about truth, chapter 7 "Work as Flow" deals with matters Hays and I have discussed under the aegis of justice, while chapter 8 "Enjoying Solitude and Other People" is about love.

Hays and I imagine that truth, love, beauty, and justice are, in this technical sense, distinctly different modes of brain activity (Benzon and Hays 1988). A mode is a particular pattern of brain activation suited to a particular task. If one is reading, for example, certain areas of the brain must be active and communicating with one another in order to comprehend the written text. If one is performing a musical composition, a different pattern of brain activation is required while doing sums in one's head requires still a different activation and organization of neural resources.

So it would be with the pursuit of truth, love, beauty, or justice. In our view each of these is the reference level of a particular quadrant of tertiary cortical tissue. While in one of these modes all other neural activation is subordinate to satisfying the cortical reference level. Obviously, the pursuit of beauty through music is going to involve different sensorimotor channels from the pursuit of beauty through painting, thus the overall pattern of neural activity will be different in these two cases. But, in both cases, the organization of the activity in those different channels will be subject to requirements set by the "beauty quadrant" (which seems to be right-rear).

Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19 (4): 1996, 321-362:
Csikszentmihalyi’s flow is just what we need for phantasms. Flow happens in the mind / brain – it is OF the mind, which is implemented IN the brain. When the flow is right, the activity that occasioned it will be repeated and thus the phantasm will be re-created. When the flow is wrong, that is, when it has either the quality of anxiety or simply no quality at all, that is, when it is boring, there will be no impulse to re-create it.

Notes on Books and Blues

What, then, has any of this to do with either books, the evolution of literary culture in the 19th century British and American novel, or the blues, the evolution of popular musical forms in 20the century America? The first thing we must do is to identify the cultural beings, which are somewhat different as between books and blues.

Let’s start with the books. In the parlance of literary criticism, novels are texts, as are poems, and dramas. Even the performance of a drama can be regarded as a text, as can the performance of an oral tale. In the most extended sense, practically anything can be regarded as text. That is to say, as the term is actually used, the notion of a text is both subtle and capacious.

Let us, as a matter of convenience if nothing else, toss out the most generous meanings and confine our attentions rather narrowly to the texts that Jockers used in his work. There’s still some trickiness left. Certainly when literary critics talk of the text, we mean the signs on the page, that is, the coordinators and their containing package. But we often mean the associated phantasms as well. That’s when things get tricky.

Just how is it that one can talk about those phantasms? These days one can, in fact, talk about brain activity while reading a text. And I don’t mean this as a matter of principle. That is, the brain is active when we read a text, so sure, brain activity, why not? That’s not interesting. These days we can actually measure what happens in people’s brains when they read literary texts, as, for example, was done with a chapter from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Let us set such investigation aside, however. They will matter a great deal in future literary research, but they’ve had little to do with how literary critics talk about phantasms.

Reading Harry Potter: Wehbe L, Murphy B, Talukdar P, Fyshe A, Ramdas A, et al. (2014) Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses. PLoS ONE 9(11): e112575. doi:10.1371/journal.pone. 0112575

How DO we talk about them? We talk about them by trying to figure out what they mean. We interpret them. The major controversy in literary criticism in the 1960s and on into the 1980s, shall we say, was about meaning? Is the meaning of texts determinate? If so, how do we determine it; what’s the best method? As far as I can tell, those arguing that, on the contrary, textual meaning is indeterminate, they won the day.

If only by default. The issue is no longer one of profession-wide debate. Many critics explicitly affirm the indeterminacy of textual meaning, while others grumble in protest. As a practical matter, practical criticism proceeds as it has always done, with each critic “rolling their own” interpretation according to their methodological preferences.

We should note two things, however. In the first place, while the interpretation of sacred texts, e.g. the Judeo-Christian Bible, is an ancient practice, the interpretation of literary texts is quite new, only coming into flower in the academy after World War II. The 19th century readers of all those novels that Jockers has analyzed did not interpret them. They may have discussed whether or not they liked the books, or this or that character, they may have worried about the morality of people’s actions, but they didn’t interpret those texts. Thus the Western literary tradition managed to get along without benefit of interpretive commentary for most of its history.

Second, interpretation is a secondary activity and the relationship between any given interpretation and the text it interprets is itself something of a mystery. Just what is the relationship between an interpretation of Hamlet and the phantasm arising in the critic’s mind while attending a performance of the play? We don’t have the foggiest idea.

Obviously, though, it involves creating cognitive machinery purpose built for the task. David Bordwell has argued that point with respect to film in his book, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard 1989). As far as I can tell, the arguments he’s made for film apply to literature as well. One learns a body of concepts about literary texts, one learns how to identify textual features picked out by those features, and one learns how to construct a reading in terms of those concepts and those textual features.

Where does that leave us? As I’ve already indicated, at the very least, texts are collections of coordinators organized into a string in an envelope. That’s what Jockers examined. Not only that, but because the critical first step in his examination is an elaborate computational one, his methods involve only the coordinators – that is the written signifiers – and not the phantasms. Those are beyond the reach of his computational activity. But, of course, what Jockers is interested in, what we’re all interested in, are the phantasms. Consider this graph (Figure 9.3 from Macroanalysis, p. 165, color version from the web):


It depicts relations of similarity among some 3300 packages of coordinators as measured by very sophisticated computational procedures. It interests us, however, because we see is as a proxy for a very large meshwork of phantasms in the minds, ultimately, of millions of 19th century readers.

I don’t think we know how to think about that kind of object. It will require intensive work by a generation or two of scholars to run that one to the ground. But let’s forget that whole thing, which is, for all practical purposes, a proxy for the 19th century Anglo-American zeitgeist, and think about a somewhat simpler question:
What are the cultural beings associated with all of those texts, where by “text” I mean an envelope of coordinators?
I would think we have a full-fledged cultural being when one person has read one text. The physical text object is the envelope of coordinators and a phantasm emerges in the reader’s mind as she moves through the envelope. But what of a cultural being that we define as a package, on the one hand, and the collectivity of all the phantasms it has supported on the other? What of that? Is it a coherent object? If so, how do we think about it?

I don’t have an answer to those questions, but they are implied by Jockers’ graph. Each node in that graph is a package, but which phantasm is to be associated with it? There is a fairly traditional sort of literary criticism that has an answer to that question: the author’s phantasm – though that traditional critic would not talk of “phantasms.” Rather, intention is the word. But that won’t do, because we don’t have access to the authorial phantasms. On the other hand, it is that collectivity of phantasms that is the ongoing “footprint” of the text in society.

I see little point in discussing that problem any further. I note only that I’ve raised the issue before, in somewhat different terms, in two posts at New Savanna:
Now let’s turn our attention to the blues or, more accurately, the evolution of popular music in American society during the 20th century. In particular, I’m interested in the relationship between African American music and European American music, as discussed in section 3 and 4 above. The same issues of identifying the appropriate cultural entities arise, though in somewhat different terms. We are not, for the most part, dealing with printed texts. Rather, we’re dealing with live performances, radio and television broadcast of those performances, and sound and filmed/video recordings of those performances. Those are the packages of coordinators we’re dealing with. As for the phantasms, the interesting thing here, of course, is that in many cases we have a number of individuals in the same room sharing their experience of the same performance (that is, package of coordinators). It may only be two or three people in a room listening to a radio broadcast or a recording, or it might be hundreds of people at a dance in a ballroom or a high school gym, or even tens of thousands of people at an outdoor stadium performance. What’s the extent of the cultural beings in each of those cases?

But I don’t want to run through that litany again. It needs to be done, but not here and not now. I want to take up a different question. We’re dealing with two different populations of individuals sharing more or less the same body of packages. More accurately, we have a large body of performances, some of which exist exclusively for a black audience (think of black churches), some of which exist exclusively for a white audience, and some of which involved a mixed audience. Some of those whites-only performances, however, involved black musicians; that’s how it was in the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, and there were many clubs like it. How do we think about that?

Again, I don’t really know, though I’ve though about it a great deal, and published on it, both in article form and in the final chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil. But I will offer some informal observations. The first comes from my childhood music teacher, Dave Dysert. I cam to him for trumpet lessons when I was 12 or 13, but I also studied piano with him along with jazz interpretation and keyboard harmony. He once told me that when he was in the Army, the hardest thing he had to do was to teach “legit” musicians how to place jazz. But this he didn’t mean how to improvise. Rather, the problem was in playing written music with the proper rhythmic feel.

Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues, in Leading Issues in Afro-American Studies, Nikongo Ba'Nikongo, ed., Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, pp. 189-233, 1997. URL:

That’s a well-known problem and by that time – the early 1960s – one approach that had been developed was to try notating the rhythms more accurately. That helped a bit, but not a lot. The feel was still off.

One aspect of this has to do with how one experiences the relative emphasis of the four beats in a four-beat measure of music. When black audiences clap along with black music, they’ll clap on the off-beat – beats 2 and 4 of a four beat measure – while white audiences tend to clap on the on-beat – beats 1 and 3. This is a very simple matter, very easy to hear, but it’s not so easy to change.

The problem seems to be fairly general. Jazz rhythm is one thing; classical rhythm another. But rock is a bit different from either or them, as is salsa. Someone who has been raised in one and only one musical tradition has a difficult time picking up the rhythm of a different tradition.

This seems to be similar to a well-known problem with languages. Unless you learn a language in childhood, it is very difficult to get the accent right. Time and practice will get you syntax and semantics, but the accent, the sounds of the language, will be off. For some reason that’s not well understood, the ability to pick up an accent drops off quickly after puberty. To be sure, a label has been stuck on it – neuroplasticity, the neural tissue for the phonological system is no longer plastic – but we don’t know just why that plasticity is lost.

On the surface this seems to be problem with low-level coordinators, the phonemes of language, the beat of music. But if that is a problem, then how can people with a European musical background hear African-inflected music well enough to be attracted to it?

There’s no reason to think that this is the only phenomenon in play in the difference between African American and European American music. But it is one of them, and perhaps the most obvious one. Another phenomenon has to do with the difference between instrumental music and vocal music. White instrumental musicians were playing well-conceived rhythmically subtle jazz certainly by the early 1930s if not earlier. Vocal music is different. While the earliest recorded blues is by a white man, once the tradition developed it was almost exclusively black until the last quarter of the twentieth century. For that matter, the same appears to be true of the melisma inflected styles of gospel music and the closely related secular form, soul music. Why did the nuances of African American instrumental technique crossover into European America more easily than the nuances of African American vocal technique?

This would seem to be a distinctly different set of issues from those involved in sections 3, 4, and 6 above. “Where’s the sex?” you ask, “Where’s the sex?” On the one hand, take the difference between what I’m saying here and what I said back there as an indication of what we don’t know. We have A LOT of work to do establish full and detailed connections between the details of literary texts and musical performance, on the one hand, and the long-term course of cultural development, on the other.

However, in the case of music, we are not that far away. In Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 99 ff.) I drew on the work of Manfred Clynes to argue that a number of affective states can be expressed directly in the sonic nuances of music: anger, joy, sex, awe, love, hate, and grief. Of course, that connection needs further verification through further experimentation, and work of an undetermined nature needs to be done to connect these ‘low level’ expressive micro-features with cultural attitudes and behaviors.

Clynes: Some of his publications are listed at his website (note that some are available online):

And some of that work will take us in the direction I explored in my remarks on the novel. Those remarks concerned two things: 1) the description of sexual activity, which was confined to pornography until the 20th century, and 2) the social context of sexual activity. Though in the more or less ‘official’ morality of Western culture sexuality is something that is to be confined to marriage, sexual activity began showing up in the novel in extramarital contexts, e.g. Lady Chatterley and her grounds keeper.

The evolution of popular American music involves various contexts. In the first place, we must realize that that the passionate expressiveness of black music is grounded in the ecstatic and quasi-ecstatic practices of ‘down-home’ church services. The sexual morality of conservative Christianity is, of course, strict. Sexual activity belongs in marriage and nowhere else. The same expressive style that is experienced as powerfully erotic and sensual in secular musical performance is experienced quite differently in the protective and sacred precincts of the church. That is one thing. And then we have the contortions that segregation placed on musical performance. For half the previous century or more secular black music was performed in different venues than white music and, in particular, we have those very peculiar venues where the performers were black and the patrons were white. It is as though there was no ‘danger’ of the white patrons being ‘infected’ by blackness as long as it was confined to the stage. But let blackness onto the nightclub floor and who knows what might happen. It might be the end of Western Civilization.

And, who knows, maybe it has been. But that’s a larger story than I’m willing to venture within the confines of this set of posts. It’s bad enough that I have to speculate about the nature of time and the cosmos (section 7), but to speculate about the deliquescence and dissolution of Western Civilization – not with a bang, but a whimper – that’s too much.

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And so we’ve got one more move to make to finish this series. I wish once again to talk explicitly about the group, the mesh, and the phenomenon of flow through the mesh. For that purpose I will introduce a metaphor, that of a hyperfluid, one that has varying levels of viscosity. One component is maximally thick, having very high viscosity. This component “cradles” what we think of as the basic “nature” of a culture. We can think of it as very “deep,” like the slow moving sediment at the bottom of a river. This component persists on a scale of centuries, perhaps longer. In contrast there is another component that is very thing, with low viscosity. It is constantly changing. It is so thin we might think of its activities as measurable on a scale of days, if not hours – think of “going viral” on the web. There are other layers in between. We need not attempt to count them. All that matters is that they’re there, and that their relationship with one another is complex.

1 comment:

  1. The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of packages or envelopes.

    when the eight slaves sing.