Monday, August 31, 2015

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 5: It’s Time to Leave the Sandbox

Note, Sept 1, 2015: I've added three paragraphs about theory to a section, Characteristics of the Critical Sandbox.
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The child is father to the man.

– William Wordsworth

Despite the wide range of literary study that has taken place under the rubric of the newer psychologies – cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience – these initiatives remain impoverished by their instance on functioning as a form of hermeneutic literary study. Since World War II academic literary criticism has used literature as a vehicle for the investigation of the human condition as seen across half the departments of the modern university [1]. All the cognitivists and evolutionists are doing is inviting more disciplines to the party. But it really is the same old party, not the new ones the evolutionists, on the one hand, and the cognitivists, on the other, are proclaiming.

Text as Sandbox

After World War II all academic literary criticism, at least in the American academy, came to agree on one basic modus operandi: The literary text is a mental sandbox in which the critic plays with his or her favorite conceptual toys. The New Critics used the idea of form to isolate the text from external influences, authorial intention, reader affect, and history. Because their conceptual toys – the ideas of ambiguity and paradox coupled with humanism (secular or Christian) – were invisible as such, they could present this as an act of austere purification in which messy value judgments and textual entanglements could be left behind.

Once the New Critics had thus transformed the text into an intellectual testing ground, a sandbox, other critics brought in more obtrusive toys: psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, feminism and the other isms, and now cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. The new historicists have been fighting a highly successful rear-guard action by bracketing all theory toys and privileging a somewhat different set of toys, non-literary texts roughly contemporaneous with the texts under examination. At various points along the way the new set of toys would be brought online through a rhetoric of revolution and renewal, but the basic procedure remained the same: declare the sandbox to be liberated, toss out the old toys and bring in the new. Same sandbox, new toys.

This modus operandi was underwritten by a tacit agreement that any reading of a text was legitimate as long as it was supported by a suitable rationale, of which there are now many kinds. This professional courtesy inevitably led not merely to a multiplicity of readings, but to divergent and contradictory readings. Some critics saw this as evidence of the richness of canonical literary texts while others saw it as evidence of epistemological and methodological inadequacy. The latter have argued their case from time to time, but have yet been able to inspire a discipline-wide austerity program that has narrowed the range of legitimate readings to one per text. They’ve had little choice but to agree to the same old unwritten tacit agreement: Let 10,000 flowers bloom.

Thus much of the practical criticism produced by these most recent revisionists reads like 1950s humanist criticism but with a different set of tropes, motifs, and themes. Thus, in a review of an anthology of Darwinist literary criticism [2] Steven Pinker offered this observation about Joseph Carroll’s analysis of Pride and Prejudice [pp. 166-167]:
Carroll dissects the novel with skill and verve, and will make many readers wish that they had had him as their college English prof. Nonetheless, one is left wondering how essential the evolutionary biology is to his insights. The mating criteria that obsess the Bennett women may reflect universal impulses, but the specifics of the novel depends on the way that these impulses were exaggerated and codified in their time and culture. Today, a depiction of a contemporary middle-class family that worried aloud about finding wealthy husbands for the daughters, and about their being disgraced by a daughter running off with the son of a steward, would elicit guffaws, not a flash of recognition. In Pride and Prejudice, to be sure, these worries are set in tension with other concerns, but a skeptic could say that the tension is between individual and cultural demands, not individual and evolutionary ones.
That certainly accords with my own impression of Carroll’s work, and that of others as well, such as Brian Boyd’s treat of Iliad and Horton Hears a Who in The Origin of Stories [3].




Sunday, August 30, 2015

Signifiers, the Material Text, and the Digital Critic

Why do I find digital criticism so congenial? It’s true that I studied computational linguistics early in my year and developed a computational semantics model that I used in analyzing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. Thus, I’m not computer phobic, but that’s just baseline stuff. And digital critics have little to no interest in the computer as a model for the (mind), which is what I was up to back then, and still am.

However, in computational linguistics you take language as signifiers and actually do stuff, with the “dumb” signifiers themselves. While I never actually programmed such models, I learned quite a bit about how the worked and became comfortable thinking about the ‘machinery’ required to computer over those mere signifieds.

It’s one thing to know that language involves phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. It’s another thing to see such systems worked out in detail and linked together into working software. When you’ve seen that the linguistic mind becomes REAL in a way that it otherwise isn’t.

Once the linguistic mind is REAL, then so is literary form, the shape of the text. For you see the shape, not simply as a physical shape, but a computational shape, the direct trace of mind. That’s what I see when I describe literary form in terms of the ‘dumb’ signifiers.

THAT’s where I meet digital critics. For they too work with the ‘dumb’ signifiers. That’s all their programs ‘know’ about, just the word tokens. Their programs can count them, compare then, sort them, group them, and so forth, all without knowing what any of them mean.

And so I can describe a text and be (provisionally) content with the description. I know there’s a mechanism behind it, and I want to understand that mechanism. But I’ve learned patience. I can wait for that understanding. The description is sufficient in the here and now. I know that the pattern captured in the description is significant because it was made by a mind.

The digital critic knows that they patterns they find in a corpus are significant because that corpus was created by thousands of people or more over decades or more. We have the direct creators, the writers, but we must also recognize the readers even if we know nothing directly about their actions. For it is their reading that ‘draws the texts’ from the writers over the decades. So a given corpus will reflect that.

What I have in common with digital critics is that I seek patterns in ‘dumb’ signifiers. Our methods are different and the patterns we discover are different. But we read them as traces of mind.

Other critics, I’ll call them ‘conventional’ critics somewhat tendentiously, other critics talk about signifiers, and the gap between signifiers and signifieds, but in the end they’re more interested in the gap than the signifiers.

When I argue that digital criticism is The Only Game in Town, that’s why. They’re the only group of critics committed to the signifier, to the text. They’re the only critics committed to a material understanding of literary phenomena. They may be skittish about computation-as-a-model of the (literary) mind, but in the long run that’s the only way they’re going to come to terms with the results they getting.

From last evening's shoot




Saturday, August 29, 2015

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 4: The ‘Middle Way’, What It Can and Cannot Do

Literature is not made out of consciousness, it’s made out of words.
– J. Hillis Miller

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

What do I mean by the ‘middle way’ and why is the term in scare quotes? The second question is easy: because I’m not quite serious about it, a little serious, but not all the way serious. As for what that middle way is, it includes the various approaches to literary criticism Alan Richardson had in mind in the essay review that prompted these posts, plus those approaches that favor evolutionary psychology. So this middle way is a sprawling mess of literary criticism and not internally unified.

In what sense are they in the middle? What’s on either side of them? Well, to one side you have the ‘hard core’ cognitive science that I embraced early in my career and that I discussed in my second post, What I Learned When I Walked off the Cliff of Cognitivism, while the formal description that I discuss in my third post, The key to the treasure IS the (form of the) treasure, is on the other wide. These middle way criticisms have little or no interest in literary form nor are they interested in computational mechanism (some of them even explicitly disavow computation as belonging to “first wave” cognitive science). Thus they work in between the kinds of things that have absorbed my professional attention.

Whether or not this middle way can serve as a bridge from one to the other, well – that’s an interesting question. A bridge does need to be built, but it is not going to be built by thinkers who don’t recognize that either explicit models or formal description are important intellectual activities.

The creation of explicit computational models can only be done by people with the appropriate technical expertise. Those people can be found in various disciplines, but few of them are literary critics. Is there anything literary critics have to offer those thinkers? Yes, formal analyses of literary texts. And the middle way people, do they have anything to offer? Well, I suspect they might object to the question. But that, after all, is not so different from the issue that Richardson posed in his review: Is there anything cognitive critics have that the psychologists and neuroscientists need?

My position is that they need, they can make good use of, those formal analyses, though they don’t know yet know it – in part because they don’t know that such things exist and so haven’t had a chance to examine them. It’s not at all clear to me that they can make much use of middle way criticism, though, as always, I could be wrong. But that’s what this post is about: to explain these things.

In the first section I revisit the idea of computation and argue that the “embedded” cognition of the so-called “second cognitive revolution” presupposes and would be nothing without the computational ideas of the “first” cognitive revolution. Then I use the metaphor of a building (such as a cathedral) and its materials to indicate why current cognitive criticism will necessarily fall short of a robust understanding of literary phenomena. What’s the answer to that problem? You guessed it, the study of literary form, to which I return in the third section, where I also argue the literary form is a way to link up with a Latourian view of social process. In the final section I argue that we free literary interpretation from the pretense of objective knowledge so that it become an openly ethical criticism in the sense that Wayne Booth has advocated.

Computing and Embodiment

The cognitive critics believe that they’ve left computation behind, as we can see in a passage that Alan Richardson and Francis Steen wrote in response to an essay by Hans Adler and Sabine Gross (152):
As Adler and Gross (ibid.: 197) themselves note, in fact, a “more comprehensive notion of human cognition” has over the past decade or so largely displaced the narrower, more exclusively computational, and effectively disembodied notion that the term cognitivism now conveys for many cognitive theorists and researchers (Varela et al. 1991: 71). More recent theories of cognition instead seek to acknowledge the bodily instantiation (if not basis) of mind, the emotive aspects of cognitive activity, and the social embeddedness of cognitive development and functioning.
This, I believe, is a reference to a so-called “second cognitive revolution” and which is, I believe, a bit misleading. I’m particularly skeptical about the effect that phrase “effectively disembodied” has in conjunction with computation, though that conjunction certainly is out there and has been and is influential. It is also superficial.

I supposed that “effectively” allows them to discount computing while still acknowledging that, yes, computers are physical systems and computing is a physical process. Whatever it is that computers do it is thereby in that sense embodied. But there is more to computational mindset than the mere fact of computing. It is a very explicit way of thinking about how mind-like systems are organized and constructed. That explicitness, that sense of design and construction, is somewhere between weak and missing in much of this second-revolution thinking.

Let me say it again: Computation was at the heart of the co-called cognitive revolution. No computation, no cognitive revolution. It was computation that allowed cognitive science to displace behaviorist psychology from the center of the academy. It made the mind real in a way it hadn’t been before.

Once those ideas had settled in it became professional respectable to think about the mind without having explicit computational models. And so we have this “second cognitive revolution,” but if you look closely you’ll see that computation still hangs around in the corners. Those ICMs (idealized cognitive models) that the cognitive linguists are fond of, many of them are computational models. That is one kind of embodiment and without it nothing else matters.

Turn Turn Turn

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Neural structures involved in reading fiction to understand actions vs. minds

Nijhof AD, Willems RM (2015) Simulating Fiction: Individual Differences in Literature Comprehension Revealed with fMRI. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0116492. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116492

Abstract: When we read literary fiction, we are transported to fictional places, and we feel and think along with the characters. Despite the importance of narrative in adult life and during development, the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying fiction comprehension are unclear. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how individuals differently employ neural networks important for understanding others’ beliefs and intentions (mentalizing), and for sensori-motor simulation while listening to excerpts from literary novels. Localizer tasks were used to localize both the cortical motor network and the mentalizing network in participants after they listened to excerpts from literary novels. Results show that participants who had high activation in anterior medial prefrontal cortex (aMPFC; part of the mentalizing network) when listening to mentalizing content of literary fiction, had lower motor cortex activity when they listened to action-related content of the story, and vice versa. This qualifies how people differ in their engagement with fiction: some people are mostly drawn into a story by mentalizing about the thoughts and beliefs of others, whereas others engage in literature by simulating more concrete events such as actions. This study provides on-line neural evidence for the existence of qualitatively different styles of moving into literary worlds, and adds to a growing body of literature showing the potential to study narrative comprehension with neuroimaging methods.


Narratives play an important role in human life, and it is more and more acknowledged that fiction is a powerful player in human development as well as in adulthood (e.g. [1,2,3]). Despite its importance, it is largely unknown what the brain networks are that support our unique ability to move into a fiction world. While it is uncontroversial that people are moved into fiction worlds [4,5], it is unclear how readers do this. People differ greatly in how they engage in fiction (e.g. [6,7–11]), but the neurocognitive mechanisms behind narrative engagement remain unclear (see [12] for related work on theatre). Here we use neuroimaging to investigate individual differences during the comprehension of literary fiction stories.

Friday Fotos: Crucifix Caravan

Madam Wayquay's museum for the preservation and restoration of spirits lost in space just got a shipment of religious items, including a variety of crucifixes. So I decided to photograph some at a low angle and then run some variations on the result.


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Thursday, August 27, 2015

J. Hillis Miller on the Profession: “Literature is … made out of words”

Another working paper. Title above, information below.

* * * * *

Abstract: In three recent pieces, one article and two interviews, J. Hilis Miller looks back over the five decades of his career, affirms the continuing importance of ethical education in literary studies, but also the need to literary studies to change as other media take the role that writing once played. Critics must find patterns in texts and explicate them.

Introduction: “Literature is made of words”
J. Hillis Miller: Bildung and Wissenschaft
The Early Years
Kids These Days
How to Notice Things in Texts
J. Hillis Miller on Burke and Derrida
Scott Eric Kaufman on Freud
Neural Weather (Slight Return)
Escape from Flat Earth: J. Hillis Miller and the evolution of a critic’s mind
Flat Earth
J. Hillis Miller: English Lit as Postcolonial Artifact
Critical Escape Velocity

Introduction: “Literature is made of words”

During my first semester at Johns Hopkins I took a course on the British Novel. I liked to read, loved it, and I had to have some literature to satisfy distribution requirements. So, the British Novel? Why not? It was probably the modern novel, which meant the first half of the 20th Century. Anyhow, that’s how I came to study with J. Hillis Miller in the fall of 1965, a year before the French landed in the (in)famous structuralism conference.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say I was a rube from the country. I wasn’t. I was from the suburbs. Nor was I exactly a rube. But I’d never heard anything like whatever it was that Miller was saying in those lectures. The Secret Agent, A Passage to India – those are the only two books I’m sure were in that course, there must have been others, obviously, but I don’t remember what they were.

That was my introduction to the art of literary interpretation. The year before my high school English teacher had, after class one day, asked me what I thought some poem – Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” perhaps? – meant. Mean, what do you mean what does the poem mean? – I rather doubt that I said that, but it’s what I was thinking. The question baffled me.

And now, at Hopkins, I was listening to lectures given by scholars who weren’t baffled by that question. It’s not that they KNEW what poems and novels meant, or even that they knew what the question meant, all the way through; but they could sure spin interesting and compelling interpretations, “readings” they called them.

It took me several years of learning from such men – they were all men at Hopkins back in those days – before I was comfortable with the process, before I could think for myself rather than be in thrall to the last lecture I’d heard on a text, or the last article. When I went off to Buffalo to get my Ph.D. I had a master’s thesis in hand in which “Kubla Khan” and I had burned through much of what those men had taught me. Even as deconstructive criticism was emerging from the ashes of phenomenology and structuralism I was moving toward the cognitive sciences.

Thus, though J. Hillis Miller had been an important teacher, I’ve never read much of his criticism. It simply hasn’t been relevant to my own pursuits. But I’ve never been dismissive of deconstruction in the way many cognitive literary critics, not to mention the literary Darwinists, have been. It’s not simply that I’d been taught by these men and I knew them to be men of good will, to be sane and not at all frivolous. It’s that I also knew them to be right on one fundamental matter. The meaning of literary texts REALLY is indeterminate, though I prefer the term “elastic.”

One of my favorites, Liberty State Park Looking at the Goldman Sachs Building

IMGP4941rd: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 3: The key to the treasure IS the (form of the) treasure

As I was planning this series of posts I thought I’d follow my personal history by returning to the standard-issue cognitivism in Richardson’s essay-review and say a bit more about it than simply that it fails to deal with computation, and therefore yadda yadda. Then I’d move on to say a bit more about how the analysis of literary form relates to computation without, however, requiring that the analyst spend a couple of years reading the psychological literature before digging in. I’ve decided to reverse that order.

In this post I give three abbreviated examples of descriptive work. I pick up “Kubla Khan” from the previous post and say a few words about how that analysis relates to computation. I follow with some remarks about Heart of Darkness, and offer President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney as my third example. I chose that text – despite the fact that it’s not what we ordinarily think of as a literary text, much less being a canonical text – because it has strong formal similarities with the other two texts and because we have a videotape of it and so can examine the ebb and flow of audience response. Despite their different genres, a lyric poem, a narrative, and a sermon, these texts share profound formal similarities. Perhaps those similarities are a clue to nature of the underlying mental processes. I conclude with some general remarks about literary form.

“Kubla Khan” – Three in Three

While the poem has been published with two, three, and four stanzas (as in the appendix I’ve attached), a cursory examination reveals it to consist of only two large movements. The first consists of 36 lines; is set in an exotic Orientalist landscape and has only four personal pronouns. The second, which has only eighteen lines; has no clear physical locus, but consists of a sequence of mental acts (remembering, hypothecating, imagining) and has sixteen personal pronouns. Despite these differences, both movements have the same overall structure.

While discovering these structure trees took care and attention to detail, it wasn’t rocket science. Much of the structure falls out of line-end punctuation, where periods dominate a colon (where present), colons (where present) dominate semicolons, and semicolons dominate commas. That will get you most of the tree structure, especially in the first movement.

Here’s the first movement:

1 tree

Note first of all the red-colored tree branches. The movement consists of three components (which are sometimes printed as separate stanzas); the middle of those in turn consists of three components; and the middle of those, again, has three components. Kubla Khan is introduced into the poem in the first line and his decree dominants the first 12 lines of the poem. The fountain appears in the middle (ll. 17-24) of the middle of the middle of first movement; it provides the agency that dominates that section of the poem. Neither Kubla nor the fountain is directly present in the last six lines of the first movement, which ends with the emblematic line: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”

Crane and Clouds


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

RESET on Coates, Reparations, Wisdom

Over at Crooked Timber thehersch suggests a reading of Coates on reparations that hadn’t quite occurred to me. The reading is of this line:
More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
As you may recall, I was taken up short by that line because the founders in question accepted slavery in the union and many of them were slave holders. What kind wisdom is that?

Thehersch suggests that wisdom there is to be interpreted as “a current-day wisdom worthy, retrospectively, of the founders”. It’s not the founders wisdom, it’s our wisdom, about them, about the nation they founded, about us.

I hadn't thought of that. But if that's what Coates is up to, well, it feels like something he discovered in the course of writing that essay and hasn't fully assimilated. I note further that it's not so far from the reading I give his essay in, Felix Culpa: The Judeo-Christian Underpinnings of Coates’ Reparations Argument.

If I'd been Coates’ editor, I'd have asked for changes. Given all the criticism he has laid at the founders’ feet in that essay his statement as published isn't as clear as you think it is. Clarification would be helpful. I might have been satisfied with something like this:
More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of a childlike myth of its innocence into a hardwon wisdom worthy of the struggles of the founders.
But I'd have been happier with a bit more:
More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of a childlike myth of its innocence into a hardwon wisdom worthy of the compromises the founders had to make. Their understanding of humankind was inadequate and their need for agreement was urgent. They did the best they could. We have seen and suffered with the results of their decisions and our knowledge of humankind is deeper. To redeem their mistakes and validate the efforts they took to found the first modern democracy we must...
And there's the rub. We must what, exactly? Make reparations? But that's what the whole essay's been about. And all Coates has to say about that is that we should pass Conyer's bill, have this Congressional conversation, and maybe we'll write some checks, and maybe we won't. But we'll have aired the issue in an official way.

Corey Robins (at Crooked Timer) has said that Coates' current book, Between the World and Me, has no politics in it, that it makes no demands on the reader. Well, his case for reparations is pretty much like that. To the extent that it makes a demand of the reader it is (only implied) that you call your congressman and urge the passing of HR 40. That's not much of a demand, and it's not explicit. All that's really there is that we search our souls and have this national conversation on race in which we face up to the nation's flaws and contradictions.

Frankenstein, it seems, was born in a volcano

In today's NYTimes:
In April 1815, the most powerful volcanic blast ]Mt. Tambora in Indonesia] in recorded history shook the planet in a catastrophe so vast that 200 years later, investigators are still struggling to grasp its repercussions. It played a role, they now understand, in icy weather, agricultural collapse and global pandemics — and even gave rise to celebrated monsters.
The monsters in question were of the imaginary kind:
The story also comes alive in local dramas, none more important for literary history than the birth of Frankenstein’s monster and the human vampire. That happened on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where some of the most famous names of English poetry had gone on a summer holiday.

By 1816, Switzerland, landlocked and famously rugged, was beginning to reel from the bad weather and failed crops. Starving mobs stormed bakeries after bread prices soared. The book recounts a priest’s distress: “It is terrifying to see these walking skeletons devour the most repulsive foods with such avidity.”

That June, the cold and stormy weather sent the English tourists inside a lakeside villa to warm themselves by a fire and exchange ghost stories. Mary Shelley, then 18, was part of a literary coterie that included Percy Shelley, her future husband, as well as Lord Byron. Wine flowed, as did laudanum, a form of opium. Candles flickered.

In this moody atmosphere, Mary Shelley came up with her lurid tale of Frankenstein, which she published two years later. And Lord Byron hit on the outline of the modern vampire tale, published later by a compatriot as “The Vampyre.” The freakish weather also inspired Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness.”
All this is detailed in a book, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood,

Look closely at the night

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Monday, August 24, 2015

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 2: What I Learned When I Walked off the Cliff of Cognitivism

In the first post in this series I took a look at an essay-review Alan Richardson wrote about two recent books in literary cognitivism and asserted, in effect, that you can’t get there from here [1]. By “there” I mean a reciprocal relationship between literary study and “the mind and brain sciences” in which “methods, finds, or evidence from a literary field” (Richardson, p. 368) is important. And by “here” I meant cognitive literary criticism as it has developed over the last two decades or so. It’s not that I don’t think that such literary finds or evidence exist but that current literary methods enable scholars to find them and present them in a convincing way.

The problem, I asserted, is that the cognitive revolution was driven by the idea of computation and that neither the literary cognitivists, nor their twin, the literary Darwinists, have faced up to computation in a deep way. Until they do so, their efforts will be still born. No matter how widely they read in the newer psychologies, no matter how many findings, ideas, and models they incorporate into their theorizing, they won’t produce results that are compelling to thinkers in the mind and brain sciences.

The purpose of this post is to explain how I arrived at my belief computation must be dealt with. But the argument will be a strange one because it will tell the story of how my own journey computation semantics led to a satisfying failure and thereby forced me to reconceptualize what it means for a literary scholar to come to terms with computation. But I’ll save that reconceptualization for a later post.

From “Kubla Khan” to Computation

I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins when the French landed back in the Jurassic era of academic literary criticism. Though I didn’t attend the sessions of the famous 1966 structuralism conference, I fell into the orbit of one of its organizers, Dick Macksey. But I also studied with Earl Wasserman, Don Howard, and Don Cameron Allen, all of whom were more traditionally minded, each in his own way, and with J. Hillis Miller, who was a fellow traveler and who, as you know, went on to become one of our premier deconstructive critics. I was thus versed in New Criticism on the way to phenomenology, phenomenology giving way to structuralism and semiotics, and deconstruction bubbling up underneath it all. During my senior year I became interested in “Kubla Khan” and stuck around to do a master’s thesis on it. I read everything the Hopkins library had on the poem, threw all my critical tools into the fray and found myself walking in circles, getting nowhere.

And then, on a hunch, I decided to break the poem into pieces using the obvious markers, stanza divisions and line-end punctuation. Here’s one of my work sheets for the first part of the poem, 36 lines.


The tree structure to the left visualizes the result. Notice that we’ve got three sections at the topmost level; the middle of those is in turn divided into three; and the middle of that is again divided into three. All other divisions are binary.

It turns out that the poem’s second part, only 18 lines, has a similar structure. And now it gets really interesting. For the last line of the poem’s first part – “A sunny pleasure-done with caves of ice!” – is the middle, of the middle, of the middle of the poem’s second part – “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice” And that’s just a fragment of the elaborate patterning that exists in “Kubla Khan,” all there on the “surface” just waiting to be seen, analyzed, and described. But where did those patterns come from, what were they doing? [2]

And yet the literature I’d reviewed about “Kubla Khan,” one of the best-known and most-examined poems in English, knew nothing of this. And the body of literary and critical theory I’d absorbed, from New Criticism through structuralism and (a bit) beyond, had little to say about this kind of phenomenon. If I was going to figure out what that patterning was about, I was going to have to find the tools elsewhere or somehow create them myself.

The Way of the Buffalo, Rendered in Ceramic


A White Blackman @ 3QD

Nothing is more deeply American that white folks listening to, absorbing, learning, and then performing black music. I've published a bit of my own enactment of that story in 3 Quarks Daily. Here's the first three paragraphs:
The first time I heard the phrase – “white black man” – Zola Kobas was talking about me. He paid me that compliment after hearing me play the trumpet at a July 4th party hosted by a mutual friend, Ade Knowles. When, three-quarters of a life ago, I had originally become interested in jazz, I was simply pursuing music which moved me. That Zola, a political fugitive from South African apartheid, should see me as a white black man affirmed the African spirit, the joy, the freedom and dignity, I cultivated in the heart of jazz.

When I was a young boy learning to play the trumpet I looked for musical heroes. Rafael Mendez, a Mexican-American who made his living playing in Hollywood studios, was my first. I admired his virtuosity and expressiveness. I was particularly attracted by the Hispanic part of his repertoire, with its tone colors and rhythms which sounded so exotic, and sensual. Then I discovered jazz.

My first jazz record was A Rare Batch of Satch, which I had urged my parents to get through their record club. I had heard that this Louis Armstrong was an important trumpet player and thought I should check him out. At first I didn't quite understand why this man was so important. For one thing, this was an old recording and the sound quality was thin. I had to hear through that. For another, I’d never heard anything quite like it.
[Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947] (LOC)
By William Gottlieb, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, April 1947.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 1: Alan Richardson Makes a Case

I’m pretty sure that Richardson would be somewhere between puzzled and shocked at the idea that he believes literary cognitivism to be an impoverished enterprise. In making that odd statement I’m thinking about his current essay-review, "Once upon a Mind: Literary and Narrative Studies in the Age of Cognitive Science," in MFS Modern Fiction Studies [1]. That article ends by asserting, “The current richness, diversity, and sheer amount of work in the new field, along with the pronounced interest evident among younger scholars in particular, augers a period of further growth and institutional consolidation still to come. […] Let a thousand flowers bloom” (p. 368). That certainly doesn’t seem like an argument for poverty. On the contrary, it is an explicit affirmation of riches to come.

I take responsibility for the judgement of poverty, but the judgement is based on a criterion Richardson advances in this essay. The purpose of this post is to examine that essay and identify the fatal criterion. I will then offer a blunt preview of a different, non-fatal, way to go about things which I will explicate in future posts.

Two Books and Eleventy Reference Points

Richardson’s essay focuses on two recent books, Paul B. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain (2013) and David Herman, Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (2013). Richardson begins with three or so pages of preliminary orientation in which he outlines his own engagement with literary cognitivism going back to the late 1990s, mentions fourteen other important books that came out in 2013, tips his hat to Patricia Cohen’s 2011 coverage in The New York Times, and offers some observations about institutional weakness. He then begins to steer the ship toward the two books under review, noting that “a great deal of disagreement, including on fundamental issues, persists both within and among the various disciplines making up the cognitive sciences […] and when one adds neuroscience to this already factious mix, still more differences emerge” (p. 316). As he’s piloting the boat through the harbor Richardson pulls a rabbit out of that sow's ear by noting that the field nevertheless has common reference points – he lists about eleventy of them – and then ties the reins to the hitching post (p. 362):
A final gesture made by many cognitive literary scholars, again including both Paul Armstrong […] and David Herman […], concerns the status of the interdisciplinary project itself. As do most of us Armstong and Herman both want to see the relationship between literary and narrative studies, on the one side, and the mind and brain sciences, on the other, as a genuinely two-way exchange. The scientific side does not provide a master discipline for literary scholars to study and incorporate into their own work; the literary side does not simply provide a field for application, but procedures, methods, and special kinds of data that, so the argument goes, scientists would do well to study and profit from.
This “final gesture” is the criterion I have in mind.

Richardson spins out the guts of his essay and then, six pages later, delivers a crushing verdict in his penultimate paragraph (p. 368):
Neither [of the books under review], to my mind, makes a single clear and convincing case for a problem in the mind and brain sciences that can only be successfully addressed through partial adaptation of methods, finds, or evidence from a literary field. I believe that there are such problems – such as the current limitations of recent scientific work on the imagination – and I would like to see many more such issues identified and examined in detail.
I have no reason to doubt Richardson’s judgment on that issue, though I’ve not read the two books myself, and I assume it applies to the field as he knows it, otherwise he surely would have mentioned the exceptions to that pessimistic verdict.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Vicarious Experience, or How to Think Biologically about Literature

A couple of years ago I reviewed William Flesch, Comeuppance, for Twentieth Century Literature. I've now put that review online at

* * * * * *

Benzon, William. Altruism, Gossip, and the Vicarious Apprehension of Human Living. Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 55, No. 4, Darwin and Literary Studies (winter 2009), pp. 629-633.

Abstract: William Flesch devotes the first half of Comuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction to reviewing the relevant biological and evolutionary literature on cooperation, signalling, and altruistic punishment. His central point is that, when we experience fiction, we monitor the lives of fictional characters using the same bio-behavioral “equipment” we use in monitoring our fellows as we keep “score” of their “credits” and “debits” in the “group account.” The need to monitor our fellows gives us a vicarious interest in their actions, and that vicarious interest is emotionally charged. Flesch develops this notion of vicarious experience through reference to David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in particular, and Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The anger we feel upon witnessing transgression comes not through some identification with the victim or victims of the transgression, but belongs to the affective component of our social monitoring system. This anger is, in effect, a sentiment on behalf of the group. The pleasure we feel in just punishment or just reward, Flesh argues, is similarly vicarious and on behalf of the group, not some particular individual or individuals. Literature provides us with an invented form of such vicarious experience.

Friday Fotos: Dust to Dust [#GVM004}




It's time to create new adulthoods for the new worlds now emerging

Recently the NYTimes published an article on wage-slavery in the white collar ranks of Many of us reacted in horror at what we read. But there soon followed articles pointing out that, after all, that's not so different from other high-tech workplaces, which tend to brutally competitive and all-demanding. This was even offered as a defense of Amazon.

But perhaps what the article revealed is that the meritocratic ideal as realized in the Amazon workplace is toxic and embedded in a now unworkable conception of adulthood. Do we need to rethink adulthood?

For it turns out that the nature of adulthood, like childhood and adolescence as well, is not written in stone, nor inscribed in our genes. It's something we create. The world's changing and so we must reconceptualize adulthood.

That seems to be the burden of Susan Nieman's Why Grow Up?, reviewed by Tom Slater in Spiked!:
The lines between childhood, adolescence and adulthood are mutable, and have changed over time. Less than a century ago, childhood, as a time of pampered play and dependence, lasted barely a few years for the vast majority of the population. And when most young people were out of school and married by the end of their teens, adolescence – the rebellious grace period between Tonka trucks and 2.4 children – didn’t even exist.

Instead, Neiman presents adulthood as a process of coming to terms with the circumstances you find yourself in and then committing to changing them – reconciling the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. She situates this in the history of Enlightenment thought, in which the doomy realism of Hume clashed with the rugged idealism of Rousseau. ‘It would take Kant’, Neiman writes, ‘to appreciate the fact that we must take both seriously – if we are ever to arrive at an adulthood we need not merely acquiesce in but actively claim as [our] own’.

Kant’s concept of ‘the Unconditioned’, a point at which the world makes perfect sense, is central here. In order to develop into intellectual and moral maturity we must never lose sight of the idea of perfectible society – even as we come to recognise that the world is far from perfect.
Slater concludes: "This elegant, and accessible book is the philosophical kick up the arse my generation so desperately needs." Hmmm.

Secularization has all but won, even in the Islamic world

Oliver Roy has a fascinating article, The disconnect between religion and culture, in Eurosone.
There are many different ways to define secularization. As a social phenomenon, it is not an abstract process; it is always the secularization of a given religion, whose nature changes as secularization unfolds. Common definitions of secularization include three elements.

The first is the separation of state and religion, of politics and confession, without necessarily entailing a secularization of society. The United States is a good example: although there is a strong separation of church and state, levels of religiosity among the population are still high. The First Amendment of the American Constitution stresses both secularity and religious freedom. The second element in definitions of secularization is the decline in the influence of religious institutions in societies. Activities such as healthcare and education are now managed by the state or the private sector. In Europe, the churches have clearly withdrawn from the "management of society".

The third element in definitions of secularization is what Max Weber called Entzauberung – the disenchantment of the world. This does not mean that people become atheists, but that they care less about religion. Religion no longer plays a major role in our everyday lives, even if we still consider ourselves part of a religious community. In this sense, secularization corresponds to the marginalization of religion in society, rather than its exclusion.

In terms of the separation of politics and religion, all contemporary states are secular – including theocratic states. A secular theocracy might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is important to recognize that a secular state is one that defines what religion is, not vice versa. In one of the few theocratic states in the world today, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the head or the "guide" is a politically appointed figure; no such institution ever existed in Islam. The guide is elected by means of a complex constitutional process, not because he is the highest religious authority.
Read the whole article, which is relatively short, and which concentrates on the Islamic world.
As soon as one accepts the idea that religious belonging is an act of free will, one can accept democracy, and vice versa. In my view, this debate is now taking place in Muslim countries. The new Tunisian constitution is the first constitution in an Arab country to guarantee freedom of consciousness and freedom of religion. The latter is defined as a collective right, the former as an individual right.
H/t 3QD.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why IS Animal Culture So Thin, or, When & How did We Learn to Practice?

If by culture we mean learned behavior that is passed down from one generation to the next, then, certainly, animal culture exists. But why is it so thin? Why is the range of behaviors that animals can transmit so narrow? One cannot imagine, for example, that the behaviors animals have learned for the circus, would ever be passed on. Why not?

That question, it seems to me, answers itself. Because animals have no way of supervising the disciplined practice that such behaviors require. Humans can do that FOR animals, but animals cannot do it for other animals.

The types of behaviors that spontaneously arise in animal culture don’t require that kind of practice. Among monkeys and apes, potato washing and fishing for insects with twigs come to mind. Those are relatively simple behaviors, not at all like circus tricks or, for that matter, learning bits of American Sign Language. Bird song is different, and it does take some practice, but within fixed parameters.

The interesting thing about language is that it does and doesn’t require practice. Learning the phonology system requires practice. It’s what infants do when they babble, that’s phonological practice. And they do that spontaneously. Why? Why’s that possible? Once the phonology is in reasonable shape and the rest of the cognitive system is coming up to speed, why language is ‘simply’ absorbed.

Of course, developing various specific language skills DOES take practice. Story telling. Writing. And so forth.

It’s the practice that’s so difficult, no? Why?

So, what is it that motivated a bunch of clever apes to practice? And what is it that made it possible? Is that what hand axes are about, practice? Was practice invented so that we could produce finely crafted stone objects to specific models?

The genes can provide the substrate for only so many behaviors. You can imagine a long-term evolutionary regime that keeps on adding “one more”, but how long can that go on? Perhaps until the end of life on earth itself. But what it, somewhere along the line, a behavior is added that all of a sudden allows for ‘self-directed’ practice? One that’s happened, the result is a cultural regime that can outstrip any genetic regime.

Blue Relax


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Coates, Baldwin, Obama and Expressive Culture 2

My previous post in this series didn’t go quite where I wanted it to go. Scratch that, as I didn’t really know where I was going – which happens a lot and is a feature of the process, not a bug. But, though I like what I wrote and stand by it, there’s something more I was looking for. Time to try again.

First I want to drop in a passage from an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates where he tells us why he decided to write his book. Then I want to present passages from the three pieces by Baldwin, Obama, and Coates:
James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region of My Mind” (New Yorker Nov 17, 1962)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014.

Barack Hussein Obama, Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Delivered June 26, 2015.
Finally, I offer some remarks on the rhetorical machinery behind the scenes.

Coates on Why He Wrote the Book

"Between the World and Me": Ta-Nehisi Coates' Extended Interview on Being Black in the US, Wednesday, 22 July 2015 00:00.
AMY GOODMAN: You write it as a letter to your son, Samori. Tell us why.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I hate to disappoint you guys, but mostly as a literary technique, I began Between the World and Me after I finished the draft of "The Case for Reparations," and I was actually somewhat frustrated with that piece, because it’s a very, very empirical piece, very, very much based in the tools of journalism, reportage, very, very evidence-based. But I thought, at the same time, it made what it meant to live under a system that made reparations essential in the first place abstract. There was a distancing effect about talking about people as numbers, you know, about talking about people across history.

And what I wanted to do with this book is to give the reader some sense of what it meant to live under a system of plunder as an individual, to express that, to take it out of the realm of numbers and to take it directly into, you know, individual people. How does it feel every day in your life to live under such a system? How do you cope with that? How is it warping? What is it perverse? What sort of effects does it ultimately have on you? And how do you, you know, as much as possible, make your peace with it?
In the context of this post, what Coates is saying, in effect, is that he wanted to write like James Baldwin. He wanted to write personal observations about being black in America in the 21st Century, CE.

Pink Flower and Shadow Presence


Stephen Spender on the Last Good War, but We'll Never Know

From Bruce Jackson, The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

While a graduate student Jackson had occasion to drive Stephen Spender to the airport. On the way they chatted about this and that, including the Spanish Civil War, which had occasioned Picasso's Guernica and a good bit of Hemingway (pp. 41-42):
I didn’t tell Spender about my fascination with Guernica or my affection for the Weavers, but I did tell him about John O. McCormick and how he always referred to the war in Spain as the "last good war."

"I’m sure it was," Spender said in a voice that was dry and flat. He was silent for a while, then he said in a lower and different voice, "I’ll tell you about Spain.’"

I don’t know what I expected: a story about privation or a story about heroism or a story about blood and guts or a story about how the Brits who volunteered for that war were every bit as idealistic and true-hearted as the Americans who had volunteered for it. Whatever it was I had expected, I got something else.
A meeting was called by the officers of his unit, Spender said. There was discussion of that day’s battle and the casualties inflicted and suffered. That was followed by a description of the engagement planned for the following day. Then someone from a higher level of authority, a man Spender had never seen before, began talking about financial problems. Contributions from England had declined significantly, the man said. Something had to be done to get the con- tributions from England coming in again because that money paid for weapons and food and trucks and medical supplies.

Everyone agreed.

The British, the speaker said, were a sentimental people, so if the right pitch moved their hearts, they would be stimulated to contribute again.
Everyone, including Spender, agreed with that, too, and said so.

"We think," the speaker said, "that they would be deeply moved by the death of a young poet in combat; don’t you agree?"

He was looking directly at Spender, so Spender answered him: "I certainly do. They would be very moved by that."

"So," the speaker said, "tomorrow, Stephen, you’ll go out with your unit but you won’t come back."

"Where will I go?" Spender asked.

There was, Spender told me, a curious silence in the tent. He later realized that everybody else had gotten the speaker’s point, and some of them, no doubt, had known of it beforehand. They all waited until Spender got it.

"You were supposed to go out and get killed?" I said.

"I was supposed to go out and get killed. And if I wasn’t successful, they would kill me."

"To increase British contributions?"

"To increase British contributions."

I said something totally inadequate, like "wow" or "Gosh." Then
I said, "So what happened?" At that moment we were approaching Indianapolis, Indiana, so it was obvious that he hadn’t gotten killed by foes or friends.

"That night," Spender said, "after everyone was asleep, I packed my things, and I left the camp, and I kept going until I got back to England. My war in Spain was over."

Monday, August 17, 2015

Speedboat on the Hudson


Amazon and the Borg vs. Shabbos and the People

Over the weekend I read two articles in the NYTimes that struck up a peculiar resonance in my mind. One of them, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, is a long article about life inside the retailing behemoth. You may recall that a year or two ago there were articles about the punishing work life of the gofers who cruise through Amazon warehouses fulfilling orders. This article is about white collar workers, mostly tech people and managers at various levels. It describes a highly competitive environment that pretty much asks employees to give their soul to the company and is merciless in its intrusion into their private lives.

The other is a somewhat different article by Oliver Sacks, Sabbath, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew in London. He described Shabbos as it was for him back then, how it was differentiated from every other day of the week in many different ways, and then notes that he became an adult as he was growing up. Then, late in his life, after he’d been diagnosed with cancer, he travels to Israel to visit a cousin and describes once again experiencing Shabbos.

I juxtapose these two articles because they exemplify two very different ways of being in the world, the way of humans, Shabbos, and the way of the Borg, Amazon. In the rest of this post I present, first, a bunch of passages from the Amazon piece, with a bit of commentary here and there, and then two passages from Sacks’ meditation on the Sabbath. I conclude with some observations.
Added Note: Bezos has replied to the NYTimes article, saying, "The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR." 
8.18.15: A piece in Slate by a programmer who's worked at Microsoft and Google suggesting that Amazon is no worse (for software people) than those two people. But it's really hard on the blue-collar people running around in the warehouses.
The Borg:

Here’s the opening of the Amazon piece (by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld):
On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)
In defense:
“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”
A secret fortress:
Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this article, declining requests for interviews with Mr. Bezos and his top leaders.

However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this. For one thing, I have little sense of standard corporate practice. The confidentiality agreements for low level employees strike me as excessive. I assume we’re told about the strictly limited access because the reporters thought it unusual. Every company has business secrets, of course, but this seems to go beyond this. I couldn’t help but think of the Church of Scientology. Are we dealing with a company as a quasi-religious cult?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Resonance 3

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The “Cultural Reticulum”, a Term in the Study of Cultural Evolution

I’ve long held the view that the environment to which cultural “things” must adapt is the human mind. But not the individual mind. Rather, a bunch of individual minds interacting in a group.

What’s a good term for that? For the most part I’ve just been using phrases like “the collective mind” or “the group mind”. But those things don’t feel right. “Collective mind” is just a bit too close to “the collective unconscious” and anyhow collective itself, well, it feels a little off. Same with “group”. I guess the problem is that these terms don’t imply enough play for the individual humans they gather together. And I do think we need some play for the individuals.

So what term could I use? Well, there’s network, and networks are all the rage these days. That in itself is a problem. “The cultural network” is just another network. “Web” and “mesh” have similar issues. I’ve also considered “matrix” and “lattice”. “Cultural matrix” does have possibilities, but it bumps into those SF movies about humans in vats living their lives in virtual reality.

And then it hit me, the reticulum, the cultural reticulum. I like that. “Reticulum” is a bit strange, even exotic, but it’s not a new term at all. So in adopting it I’m not violating my preference for avoiding neologisms. And it’s one of those terms that means network, more or less.

So, it’s got a suitable core meaning, but is new to the arena where I propose to use it. Which means I can give it the meaning I need for it, namely the ever shifting network of humans interacting in a social group.

The cultural reticulum, aka the reticulum.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Frog and Incense

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In Search of Literary Form

Literature is not made out of consciousness, it’s made out of words.
– J. Hillis Miller

This post is a proper response to the essay by Sandra Macpherson that I mentioned in yesterday’s post, On the Matter of Form: Three Language Games. First comes a bit of personal intellectual history in which I sketch my own search for literary form. Then I discuss Macpherson’s article. After that I offer my little formalism, starting with a plea for description,and ending with a Latourian suggestion about the function of literary form. I conclude with some cursory remarks about history.

A Little Autobiography

I don’t know just when I figured out that it was form that most interested me about literature and, correlatively, that description is what we must first do in order to understand it. I’m quite sure that it was my encounter with “Kubla Khan” that sent me in that direction in the early 1970s [1], but I certainly wasn’t there when I was doing my Ph. D. at Buffalo in the middle and late 1970s. I thought of myself as a theoretician. Cognitive science was my favorite kind of theory and I was using it to investigate meaning.

I think I maintained that belief up into the mid-1990s when I discovered, after having explored visualization and cultural evolution for a good decade or so, that at long last other literary scholars were becoming interested in cognitive science. Alas, they knew nothing of my early work — though it had been published in places like MLN and Language and Style – and what they were doing was so very different from what I had done that it was by no means clear to me that this interest afforded me an opportunity to get back into the game.

Still, I decided to play along. And it was in that process that I figured out that it was literary form and its description that most interested me. Looking through my notes, I seem to have arrived at that position by the first year of the new millennium (at about the time my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, came out). It was also obvious to me that the literary cognitivists had nothing to say about form and no one of any critical persuasion was interested in description.

I published a long methodological and theoretical statement in 2006 in the form of an article (20,000 words and 11 diagrams), Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form [1], and then set out to theorize the practice of description.

Meanwhile I’d detected rumblings of interest in both formalism and ‘surface reading’ from somewhere within The Profession. Are they getting warm yet? I asked myself.

Alas, surface reading, whatever it is, still seems to be a search for meaning, though I guess the existence of skepticism about ‘symptomatic reading’ is a mark of progress. As for the emerging interest in formalism, some kind of formalism has been around for a long time, but it is almost never an interest in, you know, the actual shape of literary works.

And now Sandra MacPherson, who’s actually read that recent literature, tells me I’m right to be skeptical about this renewed interest in formalism. Moreover she doesn’t much like it. Here’s her article:
Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 385-405.
She says she's looking for “for a genuinely formalist critical practice, a little formalism that would turn one away from history without shame or apology” (p. 385). What does she mean by form? She means “nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes” (p. 390). This is promising.

In an ideal world we’d sit down together in a room with a whiteboard and begin chatting. This isn’t that world. We’re a third of a continent apart so there’s no whiteboard before us in the near future. I’ll do what I always do: blog it.

What MacPherson is Looking For

MacPherson spends her first three and a half pages expressing her frustration with the current thinking about form. And then she offers (p. 388):
When I pick up a book like Form and Forces: Designing Efficient, Expressive Structures—a book with chapters on “Designing a Series of Suspension Footbridges,” or “Designing a Fanlike Roof”—I understand that “form” is something like the shape of a structure, and also (given that this is a text in structural engineering) the structure of a shape. Form and Matter: Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics was harder going, but even here I could glean that a strain of neo-Aristotelian philosopher, dismayed by the dominance of physicalism (roughly, a materialism derived from physics rather than biology), wants to resurrect Aristotle’s hylomorphism (his account of substance as form inhering in matter) to insist that form—universal kinds determining of but not identical with the particulars that instantiate them—plays a significant role in the ontology of the material world.
I’m not so sure about neo-Artistotelianism, but engineering I like. My father was an engineer and I’ve been thinking of my own work as a kind of speculative engineering.

Frontiers Jam Session on Music

The journals Frontiers in Psychology and Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology have a set of 14 articles on music. I've got excerpts from three articles below. Here's an overall statement:
Music and the embodied mind: A jam session for theorists on musical improvisation, instrumental self-extension, and the biological and social basis of music and well-being

"As animals our lives are marked by rhythms, and the rhythmical activities of ventilation and heart beat are tangible evidence of the life force in each of us", Taylor and colleagues write in their (1999) Physiological Reviews article on the cardiovascular and respiratory system. With this "life force" as a pulse reverberating deep through the body, it's as if our heart beat and breath breaks the silence of non-life as rhythms of nature that move us like music. One might ask: Are we not something akin to an instrument of music, our lives, something of an improvisation? What is the nature of the undeniably intimate relationship between music, the body and mind?

Concerns like these have been common to both scholars and performers alike. For instance, Einstein once reported that "I see my life in terms of music" and that "Life without playing music is inconceivable for me". In Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty discussed the "kinetic melody" of the body, while the great jazz musician and saxophone improviser Ornette Coleman explained his technique as one of "activating the idea that's going through my nervous system". Sally Ness (1992) further discussed "the dynamic mentality of one's neuromusculature" during her analysis of dance in Body, Movement, and Culture, and the saxophone inventor Adolphe Sax argued that the "true" musician and their music "exist through each other, and are but one". Advancements in the cognitive sciences have additionally enabled new evidence regarding the bodily basis of music perception, cognition, and action to come to light, inspiring fresh insights and more empirically informed theorizing.

Yet despite a wide and growing interest in the relationship between music, the body and mind, along with promising technological advances, relatively little empirical and theoretical work has been explicitly devoted to investigating the topic of music and the embodied mind, and what work does exist remains largely dispersed across different publication sources spanning different academic fields. Accordingly, the aim of this Research Topic will be to unite an interdisciplinary group of scientists, theorists, and performers to address several of the liveliest questions regarding music and the embodied mind.

Scientists working on music from all disciplines are encouraged to submit original empirical research, philosophers and theorists of music are encouraged to submit fresh hypothesis and theory articles, and musicians as well as dancers are encouraged to submit perspective and opinion pieces reflecting their first-person knowledge of these performing arts. The aim is for an integration of theory, empirical data, and first-person reports in order to better understand, and drive new research on, the topic of music and the embodied mind.

Articles of interest include, but are not limited to, those discussing musical improvisation, self-extension through musical instruments, the evolution and development of music, the biological and social basis of music and well-being, and conceptual frameworks for understanding the nature of music and the embodied mind more generally. Critical commentary will also be warmly received.
* * * * *

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Fotos: The Old Neighborhood





On the Matter of Form: Three Language Games (attn Sandra MacPherson)

Last evening I decided to avail myself of online resources available to me through my alma mater, Johns hopkins. I took a look through the recent journal literature and found a very interesting essay:
Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 385-405.
She says she's looking for "for a genuinely formalist critical practice, a little formalism that would turn one away from history without shame or apology" (p. 385).

She's singing my song. I think. Can't really tell, though, since she's operating within the conceptual parameters of contemporary literary theory and, as you know, I jumped from that ship years ago. And I jumped in part because it didn't foster a critical practice that attended to literary form in a robust way.

What does she mean by form? She means "nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes" (p. 390). I can live with that, but I'm not sure just what she thinks literary matter is and how it can be formed. While I'll say a vew things about her essay in another post, I thought I'd dig out an old post from The Valve, Back to Basics: Three Experiments in Language, as I wrote it to explore, in a preliminary way, literary matter. I posted it on March 27, 2010 and it engendered a lively discussion, which I recommend to you. This version is changed slightly from the original.

* * * * *

Game 1: A “found” poem

Every so often you come upon an exercise that goes like this: Someone selects some arbitrary hunk of prose, breaks it into lines of some appropriate length, and presents in on the page as a “found poem.” If the person doing this is a literary critic, the object might be to worry the distinction between literary and non-literary language. That doesn’t much interest me, not here and now. What does interest me is simply that a chunk of language that wasn’t created as a “poem” can be made to read something like a “poem” by such a simple and arbitrary procedure.

Let’s look at a simple example. You should read the following passage aloud with a slight pause at the end of each line (you know, like a poem), or at least imagine it in your mind’s ear. It’s from a recent diary by David Patrick Columbia:
Afterwards at dinner
at Swifty’s
(which was jumping
last night) Margo and I talked
about Norris and her new book.
I mentioned the
item this week on Page
Six about the woman
who has written
her memoir about her long
affair with Norman
Mailer. This was very upsetting
news for Norris when it broke
last year. What’s more
the woman was
making it known that she
was selling
her “papers” to Harvard
Somehow those line breaks, some of them at arbitrary positions with respect to the passage’s phrase structure, give the passage a different feel. You know, like poetry. Your mind wanders just a bit in those short intervals, seeking what’s otherwise not there. Among other things that aren’t ordinarily there are the unconscious mechanisms of language itself. In those intervals we can sense, if not quite see, them.

Just what are those mechanisms? And how do they work? That, of course is a matter of intense investigation. More than we can possibly attend to here and now.