Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Quick Note on Description: It’s not just words

I’ve been thinking explicitly about description for at least a decade – my manifesto, as it were, Literary Morphology, talks of description and it was published in 2006 – and it’s been a steady topic a New Savanna since 2011. All this time it’s been obvious to me that description is not merely verbal, that one uses visual devices as well. I suppose that’s obvious because that’s been my practice for four decades, but I’m not unique there.

But, as far as I can tell, the emerging discussion of description in literary criticism hasn’t gotten that far yet – I’m thinking particularly of the Representations special issue (Summer 2016) and Sharon Marcus’s recent article, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of ScaleMLQ, 2016, 77(3): 297-319). This is natural, I suppose, not simply because literary scholars would be partial to words, but because that’s what you find in dictionaries, e.g.: “a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event”.

But it’s limiting and won’t get literary criticism very far. It will keep the discipline imprisoned in its discursive box.

Consider this observation by Sydney Lamb, a linguist of Chomsky’s generation but of a very different intellectual temperament. Lamb cut his intellectual teeth on computer models of language processes and was concerned about the neural plausibility of such models. He is one of the first thinkers to use networks as representations of language structures and processes. In his major systematic statement, Pathways of the Brain: The Neurocognitive Basis of Language (John Benjamins 1999) remarked on importance of visual notation (p. 274): “... it is precisely because we are talking about ordinary language that we need to adopt a notation as different from ordinary language as possible, to keep us from getting lost in confusion between the object of description and the means of description.” That is, we need the visual notation in order to objectify language mechanisms.

Franco “distant reading” Moretti has made a similar observation. This is from the Literary Lab’s Pamphlet 2 (May 2011), Network Theory, Plot Analysis (PDF) (p. 4):
Third consequence of this approach: once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead: you reduce the text to characters and interactions, abstract them from everything else, and this process of reduction and abstraction makes the model obviously much less than the original object – just think of this: I am discussing Hamlet, and saying nothing about Shakespeare’s words – but also, in another sense, much more than it, because a model allows you to see the underlying structures of a complex object.
By drawing a network of character relationships one has created a model that is clearly distinguishable from the (physical) text itself. One has objectified an (aspect of an) underlying mechanism.

Alas, there it is, that nasty word, “objectified”. But really, much current criticism is so “far” from any text that quibbles about objectification are just that, quibbles.  The fact is, the clean separation between the investigator’s writing and the language under investigation that is valued by Lamb and Moretti gets in the way of the illusion of reading so valued by literary critics. Thus Tony Jackson will assert (“Literary Interpretation” and Cognitive Literary Studies, Poetics Today 24 (2) 2003: 191-205):
That is, a literary interpretation, if we are allowed to distinguish it as a distinct kind of interpretation, joins in with the literariness of the text. Literary interpretation is a peculiar and, I would say, unique conjunction of argument and literature, analytic approach and art form being analyzed. [p. 202]
Just what that means is not at all clear, though Jackson goes on to quote J. Hillis Miller as asserting (here he is quoting Miller) “the one who interprets fictions becomes a fiction and a maker of fictions” (203).

The desire that the critic somehow merges seamlessly with the text is obvious. It is a trope, a way of speaking and thinking, of contemporary literary criticism. It is a pretense and everyone knows it.

Why not drop it?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Precision grip


The New Critics: Beyond understanding Brooks and Warren

It goes without saying that the New Critics have had a strong influence on the practice of literary criticism in the American academy. Obviously thought it is, I’m saying it anyhow. But their influence on me has only been indirect. I’ve only read bits and pieces of their work, and that pretty much after I’d learned my basic critical craft.

After reading Nicholas Gaskill’s excellent article, The Close and the Concrete: Aesthetic Formalism in Context (NLH 47, Autumn 2016, 505-524), I’ve decided to take a closer look, but not at their theoretical and methodological writing. They gained their purchase on the American academy through pedagogy that was embodied in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, a collection of poems and notes intended for the undergraduate classroom. Accordingly, I picked up a copy of the first edition, published in 1938. This particular copy had belonged to one Eleanor Duncan and was printed in 1944, near the end of World War II and thus subject to “regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials”.

The book opens with a “LETTER TO THE TEACHER”. Here’s how that letter begins:
This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:

1. Paraphrase of logical and narrative content.
2. Study of biographical and historical materials.
3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation.

Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.

When, as a matter of fact, an attempt is made to treat the poem as an object in itself, the result very often is, on the one hand, the vaguest sort of impressionistic comment, or on the other, the study of certain technical aspects of the poem, metrics for instance, in isolation from other aspects and from the total intention.
The phrase, “should be considered as means and not as ends”, that’s Kant, no?

What I hadn’t quite realized until I read Gaskill’s article, though it seems obvious in retrospect, is that the New Critical effort is one of cultural and conceptual construction. They are attempting to create what it means to “grasp the poem as a literary construct” as though that had not been done before, as though, prior to the second quarter of the twentieth century, no one knew how to do that.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Scienceandtechnology, or, Engineers Rule!

I'm thinking about method these days, and whatever method I've got is more like engineering than science, so I'm bumping this to the top of the queue.
There was a time when I thought of one entity: scienceandtechnology. This entity was all mathy and computery, and that differentiated it from, say, the humanities, which were not and are not at all mathy and computery.

In fact, I’m sure many people believe in this scienceandtechnology thingy.

So it came as something of a shock to realize that, no, scienceandtechnology is not one thing. It is two, science on the one hand, and technology on the other. Yes, they’re both mathy and computery, but they’re otherwise quite different.

And the difference is important, not simply for engineers and scientists, but for those of us in the human sciences who are trying to advance our knowledge of the human mind, human society, and human culture. Perhaps as a crude start, engineering is to rhetoric as science is to interpretation.

Science is about analyzing and describing to arrive at theories and models of how things work. The end result of a course of scientific work is an account of how some phenomenon can be explained within a given framework of laws and models. Such frameworks are likely to be elegant and compact. Newton, for example, had three laws of motion, not 57.

Engineering is quite different. Engineers use laws and models to analyze situations so that they can design a device to perform a certain task. The output of a course of engineering work is the description of that device and plans for its construction. To have any value those plans must specify something that can be constructed with known materials using known methods.

Thus when I was on the faculty at the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute I learned that the engineering curriculum had a design stem, a series of courses required of all engineers devoted specifically to design. That is, it was not assumed that engineering graduates would somehow magically figure out how to design buildable stuff once they’d graduated and taken jobs in the “real” world. They were taught, given practice in, designing and building things.

Science isn’t like that. Scientists may design experiments, but that’s mostly a matter of logic, not of constructing something piece by piece by piece, and so forth, for 10s, 100s, or 1000s or more pieces. And yes, scientists may construct apparatus. To the extent they are doing that, they are acting as engineers. For that matter, engineers will make observations and conduct tests as part of their design work. And so they will, on occasion, act as scientists. But the overall objectives and methods, the envelope, if you will, of a scientific enterprise is different from that of an engineering enterprise.

Why does this matter to the human sciences? Because we deal with complex heterogeneous systems of many parts, systems where design and function are crucial. Thinking about such systems requires a mentality that, if anything, partakes more of engineering than of science. Perhaps that’s why Bruno Latour talks of compositionism, for composition implies design and construction. The FAQ at his website notes that he’s taught engineers for twenty years.

If we in the human sciences are going to ape our techno-savvy colleagues—not necessarily a good thing, but not necessarily bad either—perhaps we should pay more attention to engineers than scientists. Their problems are more like the problems of writers, musicians, artists, or even politicians and bureaucrats. They have more to teach us than do scientists. We don't need humanists who secretly wish they were scientists. We need humanists who openly aspire to engineering.

ADDENDUM: See this recent column by Mark Changizi.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday Fotos: In search of beauty on September 12, 2011, at sunrise

On September 12, 2011 I got up early in the morning, as I usually do, got my camera, and went out to photograph the sunrise. That's not so usual, but it's not uncommon either. Of course, you don't alway get a nice sunrise when you're looking for one. I was fortunate this time. I went to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, where I was living at the time, went atop a low rise, and took this photo at 6:24 AM:


If you look closely near the bottom of the photo you'll see little white specks. Up close I rather imagine that each of them might look like this:


That, of course, is not a photograph. It's a frame grab from one of my favorite movies, Walt Disney's Fantasia. In particular, it's from the episode built atop "The Nutcracker Suite", one of the most beautiful film sequences ever made.

Here's another photo:


Look at the bottom. You can see the dew sparkling on the grass and you can see the out-of-focus dandelion heads. We're getting closer.

Now the dandelion heads are quite distinct:


I believe the building that frames the sun is on Ellis Island, which is quite close to Liberty State Park. I was probably on my belly when I took that shot.

As I was for this one:


I'm thinking that I'd like to get a shot of a dandelion silhouetted against the sun where the dandelion is crisply outlined. Camera's do not function well when pointed directly at the sun. (Neither do your eyes. Lots of blinking and spots before my eyes.) Maybe I'd have to put a neutral density filter on the lens to stop down the light. But that would affect the rest of the shot. No easy way.

These photos raise interesting issues about color. Just what is the real color, anyhow? As I've already explored the issue at some length, I'm not going to do so here. But if it is difficult to look directly into the sun with the named eye, and it is, then how can you tell what the real color is? And if you can't really tell, then what do you do with a photo taken directly into the sun?


Traffic's up at New Savanna

Lately I've been noticing an increase in traffic at New Savanna. Most days I get over 1000 hits and some days its 3000 or 4000. Here's traffic for the last seek:

week 12-27-17

Notice the regular spiking. Here's the traffic for the past month:

month 12-27-17

Yuu see fairly steady activity from the end of December though the first two weeks of January, then it goes up, though the increase is rather spiky. Here's all-time traffic:

all-time 12-27-17

We see a rise up through late September 2013 and then it holds steady up until this January.

What's going on? When I look at hits for individual posts I notice that the photo posts seem to be getting more action, 100 to 400 or 500 hits or more in a week or two whereas the other posts seem to be 150 or loess over the same period of time.

It'll be interesting to see how the year works out.

Protest marches aren't what they used to be: What does size mean?

A protest does not have power just because many people get together in one place. Rather, a protest has power insofar as it signals the underlying capacity of the forces it represents.

Consider an analogy from the natural world: A gazelle will sometimes jump high in the air while grazing, apparently to no end — but it is actually signaling strength. “If I can jump this high,” it communicates to would-be predators, “I can also run very fast. Don’t bother with the chase.”

Protesters are saying, in effect, “If we can pull this off, imagine what else we can do.”

But it is much easier to pull off a large protest than it used to be. In the past, a big demonstration required months, if not years, of preparation. The planning for the March on Washington in August 1963, for example, started nine months earlier, in December 1962. The march drew a quarter of a million people, but it represented much more effort, commitment and preparation than would a protest of similar size today. Without Facebook, without Twitter, without email, without cellphones, without crowdfunding, the ability to organize such a march was a fair proxy for the strength and sophistication of the civil rights movement.
Tufekci goes on to point out that, sure, organizing the Women's march took a lot of work, "However, as with all protests today, the march required fewer resources and less time spent on coordination than a comparable protest once did." She goes on to mention the anti-war protests of February 2003, "at that point, likely the largest global protest in history", and the Occupy protests of 2011, "held in about 1,000 cities in more than 80 countries". Both of these protests, and others, have had relatively little practical impact.
This doesn’t mean that protests no longer matter — they do. Nowadays, however, protests should be seen not as the culmination of an organizing effort, but as a first, potential step. A large protest today is less like the March on Washington in 1963 and more like Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of the bus. What used to be an endpoint is now an initial spark.
She then goes on to mention the Tea Party protests of 2009, noting:
But the Tea Party protesters then got to work on a ferociously focused agenda: identifying and supporting primary candidates to challenge Republicans who did not agree with their demands, keeping close tabs on legislation and pressuring politicians who deviated from a Tea Party platform.

Trump's plan for us

Even now his sons are buying potato futures.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Netherlands woos Donald J. Trump

The good part starts at 00:35. Among other things you''ll learn that the Dutch built the Atlantic Ocean and made the Mexicans pay for it. "If you screw NATO, you're gonna' make our problems great again. They're gonna be huge, they're gonna be enormous. It's true. Please don't."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Outside my window


How insular is literary criticism?

One reason I became a literary critic is that the discipline seemed like a good arena for intellectual synthesis. Moreover, I had the example of Richard Macksey [1], who had a broad and wide-ranging intelligence that he brought to bear on literature.

It was thus with some distress that I read an article in nature that indicated that literary criticism was, in comparison with other disciplines, quite insular [2]. The study was published in Nature, which is of course a science journal, and the raw citation data came from the Thomson Reuters Web of Science [3]: “The analysis shown here used journal names to assign more than 35 million papers in the Web of Science to 14 major conventional disciplines (such as biology or physics) and 143 specialties.” The Web of Science includes journals listed in Arts & Humanities Citation Index® and Current Contents®, Arts & Humanities. I don’t know this world well enough to have a serious opinion about how complete those lists are, but I did poking around in the journal lists and found the half dozen or so journals I searched for (PMLA, Critical Inquiry, Style, MLN, NLH, & one or two others), but it wasn’t easy to get a quick take on what was there. I’d guess 100s to maybe a 1000+ of literary journals.

The study has a number of aspects, one of which is citation practices: How often does a discipline cite articles outside the discipline? How often are articles in a discipline cited by articles outside the discipline? This is depicted in an interactive graph that shows all 143 specialties from 1950 to 2014. Literature doesn’t even show up as an independent specialty until 1975.

This chart shows all specialties for 1975. Humanities disciplines are light blue; the red arrow points to literature:

1975 all

The horizontal axis runs, left to right, from few citations going outside the home discipline to many citations going outside the home discipline. Articles in those disciplines left of center, such as literature, are citing more sources within the discipline than outside it. The vertical axis runs, bottom to top, from a low percentage of citations coming from outside the discipline to many citations coming from outside the discipline. Articles in those disciplines below the center, such as literature, thus receive fewer of their citations from outside the discipline.

This chart shows 1975, but only with humanities disciplines. Again, the red arrow points at literature:

1975 hum

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sparkychan and Gojochan chewin' the fat outside their bunker

and another thingv2

Survivalism among the super-rich, the 1% of the 1%, and they're running scared

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on survivalism among the super-rich. They're making preparations for the time when society collapses and it's everyone for themselves. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linked-In:
I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”
On the East Coast, Robert A. Johnson, head of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.:
By January, 2015, Johnson was sounding the alarm: the tensions produced by acute income inequality were becoming so pronounced that some of the world’s wealthiest people were taking steps to protect themselves. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Johnson told the audience, “I know hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.” [...] As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
Apocalypse in America, now!

Sometimes David Brooks Makes Sense: After the Women's March

In the first place, this movement focuses on the wrong issues. Of course, many marchers came with broad anti-Trump agendas, but they were marching under the conventional structure in which the central issues were clear. As The Washington Post reported, they were “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change.”

These are all important matters, and they tend to be voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities.
Alas and alack:
But this is 2017. Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.

All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order. If you’re not engaging these issues first, you’re not going to be in the main arena of national life.
There it is again, the problems of the nation-state.

Now he gets down to the nitty-gritty:
Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. ... It’s significant that as marching and movements have risen, the actual power of the parties has collapsed. Marching is a seductive substitute for action in an antipolitical era, and leaves the field open for a rogue like Trump.
Alas, he's right: "Identity-based political movements always seem to descend into internal rivalries about who is most oppressed and who should get pride of place." But I'm not at all sure about Brooks's prescription:
If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.
Can "the nation" be repaired in that way? Color me skeptical.

The way up...and the way down


Derrida and Writerly Criticism

For some time now I’ve been arguing that academic literary criticism is (often) intrinsically free of diagrams, tables, graphs, and so forth, rather than incidentally so [1]. Most prose that is free of non-linguistic elements is incidentally so. It is written for some purpose, to make an argument, to explain a some phenomenon, or even to narrate some events, where non-linguistic elements are not needed. Where they are useful, as in writing about a geographical location or a trip, or even necessary, as in giving instructions on using some device, and so forth, they are included without comment.

Initially it would seem that literary criticism is like that. You are writing about poems, plays, novels, and stories, and have no need “visual aids”, as they are sometimes called. And when they are needed, as when explaining the physical layout of Shakespeare’s theater, for example, they are included without comment. But then you have peculiar cases like Mark Rose’s 1972 Shakespearean Design, where he needs simple diagrams to make his point. Strictly speaking, the diagrams aren’t necessary, but they make his point much easier to grasp. And what does he do in his preface? He apologizes for those diagrams [2]. Why?

Well, if by that time academic literary criticism had come to conceive of itself as inherently written, as something that cannot be done but in language, then the use of non-linguistic devices would violate that understanding, that critical contract, and so call for an apology. Is that what’s going on?

I’ve already said all of this, though not in quite those words. I now want to add something else into the mix, the prose style of Jacques Derrida. He burst into the North American critical scene in 1966 when he delivered the coupe de grace to structuralism at the Johns Hopkins structuralism conference, though it took awhile for the corpse to realize it was dead. And it would be a couple years before his work would be extensively available in English translation.

By that time academic critics had begun eliding the distinction between ordinary reading and explicit critical reading – putting it under erasure? – and that elision rather forces non-linguistic elements out of critical prose. If critical writing is really just a genre of ordinary reading, then there better not be anything in there that can’t be read (in the ordinary manner).

It’s in that emerging disciplinary context that Derrida was received. And his is a very writerly prose style – by analogy with the notion of a painterly style, a painter who emphasizes brushwork so you cannot miss the fact that this is a painting. Not only is his language is highly allusive, figurative, and punning (not to mention cunning), but he likes to play games with typography and layout. His is a discourse that cannot be but written.

And it is my impression that deconstructive critics took up some of these writerly mannerisms. I say “my impression” because, by that time, my interests were elsewhere and I wasn’t reading a lot of literary criticism. But allusions and figures have always been there, for they are ordinary features of literate discourse. But I’ve also seen, here and there, the use of crossed out words and, of course, there’s been plenty talk of Derrida’s style.

I wonder if there was in fact an increase of writerly criticism associated with the rise of deconstruction. Is this something that could be investigated with modern computational methods?

And then we have the New Historicism, which has different intellectual roots, but which is very much a text-oriented discourse. Now you have the juxtaposition of literary texts with contemporary non-literary texts where the ideas almost seem to leap of the (critical) page and hover in the air between the literary and the non. Is this too a writerly style?

* * * * *

[1] Most extensively in a working paper, Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism, November 2015, https://www.academia.edu/17168348/Prospects_The_Limits_of_Discursive_Thinking_and_the_Future_of_Literary_Criticism

I updated some of those ideas in a recent post, Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975, January 20, 2017, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2017/01/rejected-nlh-part-3-party-like-its-1975.html

And I’ve edited that post into a working paper, Transition! The 1970s in Literary Criticism, January 2017, https://www.academia.edu/31012802/Transition_The_1970s_in_Literary_Criticism

[2] I discuss this in “Pardon these anti-humanistic intrusions, Madam”, New Savanna, September 30, 2016, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2016/09/pardon-these-anti-humanistic-intrusions.html

[3] For example, see remarks here and there in Richard Jones, “Sing Doo Wah Diddy With Derrida”, VQR, Winter 1994, http://www.vqronline.org/essay/sing-doo-wah-diddy-derrida

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Optimist: Water Activities & Rentals


Fictionality as an intelligible and stable category of discourse

This article makes a very different claim, one that is based on observing a great deal of instances in which individuals have engaged in fictional or non-fictional writing over the past two centuries. Seen from this perspective, fictionality emerges as a highly legible category at the level of linguistic content ("lexis" in Aristotelian terminology). Such legibility is what allows us to build predictive models that can identify works of fiction with greater than 95% accuracy, and it should be added, that allow human readers to do the same (as in my initial experiment above). Contrary to the beliefs of the philosophers of language or different schools of literary critics from poststructuralists to postclassical narratologists, truth claims in language (or their opposite fictionality) are a highly recognizable linguistic aspect of texts. What appeared to be the case at the level of the sentence or "utterance" (what Searle rather vaguely called a "stretch of discourse"), no longer holds when we observe writing at a different level of scale. Placing all of the emphasis on the reader's activity, whether as cognitive predisposition or interpretive freedom, overlooks the powerful and extensive ways that texts mark themselves for their readers according to their fictional nature.

Not only does the research here suggest that fictionality is a highly legible category, but it also appears to have been surprisingly stable for at least two hundred years. While there have undoubtedly been significant changes to the way we tell stories, when we use learning algorithms trained on nineteenth-century texts we can still recognize contemporary novels with an impressive degree of accuracy (about 91%), even if that performance does decrease (history still matters). Indeed, the very features that seem to indicate the uniqueness of novels in the nineteenth-century, for example, appear either to be increasing over time or largely holding steady, even among a diverse range of genres into the twentieth and twenty-first century. While it remains an open question as to the extent to which different genres exhibit these features of fictionality to a similar degree, my initial research suggests that there is a surprising degree of commonality across very diverse types of fictional writing. Such continuity has important and still largely unaddressed implications for how we think about both genre and literary periodization.

Note, I've not yet read the article. I'm just skimming it. And I spotted this:
Indeed, imagining people as people may be fiction's most important role. If we remove dialogue from the sets above, including the pronominal expressions that accompany them (she said, he cried, etc),27 we see how third-person pronouns emerge as one of the strongest indicators of fictionality along with references to family members and bodies (Table 5). There is over a three-fold increase in the average number of she/he pronouns in fiction versus non-fiction outside of dialogue, with just these two words alone accounting for more than five-percent of all words in the text (or roughly 5,000 instances for a medium-length novel).
This speaks to my hobby horse about how we as critics have to learn to think and talk about characters as characters, not as people (who just happen not to be real).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Transfer of Power

the sun and the moon sustain
the earth this life revolves by
sea & sky of (tw)heated warnings: sounds the click-back heard from whales whose prey
gut our false light of harmony

by Sally Benzon

Friday Fotos: Trees of Longwood Gardens, December 25, 2016






Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975

This is the heart of the story because it is during the 1970s when who knows? the discipline of academic literary criticism might have gone another way. But it didn’t. I came of age in the 1970s and headed in one direction while the discipline sorted itself out and went off in a different direction.

“The discipline” is of course both an abstraction and a reification. Literary criticism is not some one thing. It is a meshwork of people, documents, institutions, and organizations, all in turbulent Heraclitean flux. The discipline, then, does not speak with one voice. It speaks with many voices. And what those voices say changes by the year and the decade. Some themes and concerns are amplified while others are diminished. Here and there a new idea is voiced, while other ideas all but disappear.

When I talk about how the discipline changed during the 1970s, then, I am talking about a change in the mix of voices. My experience of the 1970s was dominated by my local environments, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They were not homogeneous, nor like one another. Yet all three were, each in its way, alive with possibilities for change. And, I believe, so were other places. But the changes that began settling in at as the 1980s arrived were not the changes that most excited me at Hopkins and Buffalo. And so 40 years later we have a discipline where the article I submitted to New Literary History, Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, is strange and obtrusive rather than being unnecessary because the ideas and methods are widely known.

This is a long piece, over 5500 words, and with pictures, (aka visualizations)! If you want a shorter version, read two recent posts:
The basic ideas are there. This post provides evidence and refinement.

First I take the long view, drawing on the recent study in which Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood examined the themes present in a century-long run of literary criticism. Then I look at some specific published in the 1970s to get a more fine-grained sense of attitudes. After that I look at the computational piece I published in MLN in 1976. The objective is to situate my work in its historical context, a time when the discipline was optimistic and energetic in a way that has disappeared...except, perhaps, for computational criticism, which we’ll get to in a later installment.

The triumph of interpretation (aka “reading”)

Roughly speaking, prior to World War II literary criticism in the American academy centered on philology, shading over to editorial work in one direction and literary history in a different direction. After the war interpretation became more and more important and by the 1960s it had become the focus of the discipline. But it was also becoming problematic. As more critics published about more texts it became clear that interpretations diverged. That prompted a couple decades of disciplinary self-examination and soul-searching.

What does it mean to interpret a text? What’s the relationship between the interpretation and the text? What’s the relationship between the critic and the text, or the critic and the reader? What about authorial intention and the text? And the reader’s intention? Can a text support more than one meaning? Why or why not? These questions and more kept theoreticians and methodologists busy for three decades. That’s the context in which Johns Hopkins hosted the famous structuralism conference in the fall of 1966.

The 1960s also saw the seminal work of Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace on the use of statistical techniques to identify the authors of twelve of The Federalist Papers [1] and the subsequent emergence of stylometrics in what was then called “humanities computing”. At the same time developments in linguistics, psycholinguistics and artificial intelligence were becoming more broadly visible and coalesced around the term “cognitive science” in the early 1970s.

With this background sketch in mind, let’s consult the study Goldstone and Underwood did of a century-long run of articles in seven journals: Critical Inquiry (1974–2013), ELH (1934–2013), Modern Language Review (1905–2013), Modern Philology (1903–2013), New Literary History (1969–2012), PMLA (1889–2007), and Review of English Studies (1925–2012) [2]. They use a relatively new method of analysis called topic modeling. This however is not the place to explain how that works [3]. Suffice it to say that the topic modeling depends on the informal idea that words which occur together across a wide variety of texts do so because they are about the same thing. Topic analysis thus involves examining the words in a collection of texts to see which words co-occur across many different texts in the corpus. A collection of such words is called a topic and is identified simply by listing the words in that topic along with their prevalence in the topic.

Goldstone and Underwood argue that the most significant change in the discipline happened in the quarter century or so after World War II (p. 372):
The model indicates that the conceptual building blocks of contemporary literary study become prominent as scholarly key terms only in the decades after the war—and some not until the 1980s. We suggest, speculatively, that this pattern testifies not to the rejection but to the naturalization of literary criticism in scholarship. It becomes part of the shared atmosphere of literary study, a taken-for-granted part of the doxa of literary scholarship. Whereas in the prewar decades, other, more descriptive modes of scholarship were important, the post-1970 discourses of the literary, interpretation, and reading all suggest a shared agreement that these are the true objects and aims of literary study—as the critics believed. If criticism itself was no longer the most prominent idea under discussion, this was likely due to the tacit acceptance of its premises, not their supersession.
That is, if criticism, by which they mean interpretive criticism, has its origins earlier in the century, it didn’t become fully accepted as the core activity of academic literary study until the third quarter of the century.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Snow jam?


What? The Humanities Center WON'T be closed!

What? The Humanities Center, NOT closed? I didn't even know it had been threatened with closure.

The Humanities Center in question is, of course, the one at Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work. This is the Humanities Center that launched a thousand chattering Frenchmen into orbit. Well, not exactly. But in 1966, its inaugural year, the Humanities Center sponsored the symposium on structuralism that now, for better or worse, serves as the notional inflection point for the revolution in literary criticism that had become Theory two decades later.

I found out about its non-closure when I visited the site of my alumni magazine and read: "An interdisciplinary committee tasked with making recommendations about the future of Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center has advised against closing the half-century-old academic center—a possibility that had prompted protests on campus and from alumni." The article didn't even mention Dick Macksey, who ran it for years and who was my undergraduate mentor. That absence strikes me as being a bit conspicuous, but I'm not really in touch with things at Hopkins. I was there 50 years ago, a different world, lots has changed, Macksey gave up the directorship years ago and has now been retired from the full-time faculty for a few years.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the fact that "interdisciplinary" work functions mostly as a beacon off there in the distance, beckoning us to a better future, rather than as a source of light in the present. I was only a sophomore when the Center was founded and its mission struck me as common sense. But then, what did I know? I was only a sophomore. I actually expected the academy to change. When I left Hopkins I went to the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, which was all but a small liberal arts college unto itself and apprenticed myself to David Hays in linguistics, who taught a course, "Linguistics as a Focus of Intellectual Integration." Disciplinary myopia never appealed to me  – one reason, no doubt, the academy eventually extruded me.

What I'd like to know is why these folks keep yammering about interdisciplinarity as a Good Thing when they clearly do not mean it. Is the institutional purpose of these humanities centers mostly to serve as a credible threat to the departments? If you don't toe the line, we'll dissolve you – something like that.

In any event, I suppose it's a good thing that Hopkins isn't closing the old Humanities Center. That gives them two interdisciplinary humanities centers, as they established a new one last year, The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute. No doubt the administration intends to play them off against one another, with the threatened closure of the ancient and venerable center of '66 as a credible threat of collapse into disciplinary monoculture if they don't toe the line.

* * * * *

See my old posts, Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out, and Interdisciplinary Research.

Trump and the end of the administrative state

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henniger asks the question of the decade, "Will the Trump presidency produce order or merely more disorder?" Correlatively, if it does produce a new order, will that be an improvement? On that question, I suspect Henniger thinks differently than I do. He continues:
It is said that the Trump electorate wanted to blow up the status quo. And so it did. The passed-over truth, however, is that the most destabilizing force in our politics wasn’t Donald Trump. It was that political status quo.

The belief that Hillary Clinton would have produced a more reliable presidency is wrong. Mrs. Clinton represented an extension of the administrative state, the century-old idea that elites can devise public policies, administered by centralized public bureaucracies, that deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. [...]

Today, that administrative state, like an old dying star, is in destructive decay. Government failures are causing global political instability. This is the real legitimacy problem and is the reason many national populations are in revolt. Some call that populism. Others would call it a democratic awakening. [...]

The idea of placing national purpose in the hands of these elites lasted because it suited the needs of elected politicians. They used the administrative state’s goods to mollify myriad constituencies. So they gave them more. And then more.

The state’s carrying capacity has been reached.
I'm certainly sympathetic to that. He goes on go assert: "Donald Trump’s nominations of Scott Pruitt for EPA and Betsy DeVos at Education are a brutal recognition that the previous order has reached a point of decline." Brutal, yes. But I can't imagine that either or them will improve matters. Henniger seems too satisfied with Trump's dismal cabinet: "One wonders if the hard, daily work by his colleagues to restore world order or a proper constitutional relationship between governing elites and the governed will be hampered by the turbulence of the Twitter storms." 

Frankly, the new order Henniger hankers for seems to be one where a corporate elite is allowed to shape the world to its own ends unchecked by any counterforce at all. That's not an improvement.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Kittens, Flickr Commons, Library of Congress

Fond this photo on Flickr (H/t John Holbo):

Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

Here's the caption The Library of Congress supplied:
Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

The Commons launched exactly 9 years ago on January 16, 2008 with the Library of Congress account. We’re celebrating with a 10 candle cake for kittens– 9 lives and 1 to grow on.

Just a glimpse of the unusual pictures you’ll find in the Commons where institutions from all over the world are sharing photos.
The birthday cake. Photograph by Harry Whittier Frees, 1914.

Higher resolution image is available (Persistent URL): hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04028

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do I want to see La La Land?

The movie's been getting a lot of press. And I certainly have taken pleasure in movie musicals. So I've been wondering whether or not I want to see this one. Geoff Nelson argue's that its politics are dubious:
Which brings us back to La La Land and its longing. What Gosling’s Seb and Stone’s Mia share is a commitment to the past—a place where, supposedly, dreamers dream their dreams awake. But which dreamers dreaming what dreams? Why do white Americans (in politics and film) often so wistfully return to the era before federally mandated desegregation, voting and civil rights? (Would La La Land ever have been made with two leading actors of color? Obviously not.) The film only functions as an ode to a lost era of white supremacy, and its viewers, consciously or unconsciously, participate in the delusion. The film’s politics of nostalgia and whiteness are inextricable.

La La Land contains other more explicitly problematic politics—in fact, Gosling’s “white jazz savior” narrative has been unpacked well by MTV’s Ira Madison III. John Legend’s Keith is cast as a sell-out to “pure jazz,” which Gosling promises to successfully save by the movie’s end. The movie concludes with Gosling taking over the piano from a black musician: The erasure of black art is complete. Madison documents the opening number, full of the many diverse faces of Los Angeles, only to see the film retrench into the middle-class bourgeois love affair of two white people. That one of them drives a Prius and the other a drop-top convertible seems to be the extent of the film’s commitment to diversity.

However, Chazelle, Stone and Gosling are almost certainly not racists, if judged by the metric of personal unkindness. Their missteps lie elsewhere in the blurry discourse of cultural hegemony, the degree to which dominant ideological and political structures of oppression—like a longing for the past—must be consistently affirmed and reified. In portraying the romance and escapism of watching two beautiful people mourn the past by returning to it, Chazelle suggests viewers might enjoy this transportation, that these stories are universal. Considering the long history of racism in Los Angeles, it’s uncertain which part of the past would provide a comfortable landing spot for the viewer.
Doubtful politics, of course, is not necessarily a reason to avoid the film. For someone of my interests, it's a perfectly good reason to see the film. Still...Politics aside, is it good? Do the musical numbers work?
Chazelle and his movie will receive much deserved acclaim. The film is an achievement of a sort—it’s beautiful and charming, if one doesn’t think too hard. He’s even done the work to feature a few characters of color at the margins of the action, a gesture that insulates the film from the outright racial ignoarance of the musicals to which Chazelle pays homage. But these efforts at contemporary posture, quite literally, pale in the face of the film’s white nostalgia.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 2: What I got out of writing the article

So, I ended the previous episode of Rejected @NLH! circling the periphery the discipline, thinking about sending an article in over the transom. Well, of course, I did so, and here it is:

Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature,

What did I get out of it beyond – sigh – rejection? What did the writing do for me independently of its reception?

What’s in the article

For the most part the article was assembled from existing materials. Here’s a list of the section headings from the typescript I submitted:
Introduction: Speculative Engineering
Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour
Computational Semantics: Network and Text
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance
Meaning, History, and Attachment
Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text
If I had to I could go through that typescript section by section and identify pre-existing stretches of text that contributed to any given section. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that I simply edited the final piece out of those pages, paragraphs, and sentences – as though someone else could have done pretty much the same thing given those materials. But, except perhaps for the section on form, it would also be a bit of a stretch to say that I had to develop any new ideas or conceptualizations for any section.

No, what I got from the article emerged from seeing those various materials assembled in one place. What is it that holds them together? That’s a tricky question, as each section has its own distinct character. Whatever this article is, it is not a single argument sustained within a single conceptual framework.

If it’s not a continuous argument, what is it?

Let’s go through the list again, this time with brief commentary on each one. Here’s a list of the section headings from the article:
Introduction: Speculative Engineering – Engineering is about design and construction, form and function.

Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour – Macpherson and Attridge are literary critics who have addressed themselves to form. Latour is an anthropologist and philosopher, shall we say, whose work is increasingly interesting to a variety of humanists, but he has little to say about literature or form. I argue that form is an intermediary (between individuals) in Latour’s sense while meaning is a mediator (between individuals).

Computational Semantics: Network and Text – Hardcore cognitive science about the relationship between (computational) models of the mind and the process of reading a text. I use Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 as an example text.

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text – Describes the overall form of Obama’s text and characterizes it as a ring-composition. Note, however, that such description is not a standard activity for literary critics.

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance – Gathers a variety of material from recent work in the cognitive and neurosciences and applies it to Obama’s performance of the eulogy (which we have on video tape).

Meaning, History, and Attachment – This centers on remarks Glenn Loury and John McWhorter made about Obama’s eulogy and performance. This is the kind of material that constitutes current literary and cultural criticism.

Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text – Since Obama’s eulogy was a public performance I concluded with some remarks about how arguments about that public situation can be extended to the situation of individuals reading shared texts in private.
Leaving out the introduction and the coda, this is how I see those pieces fitting together:

article flow 2

Snow on the tracks


Friday, January 13, 2017

"Renaissance man", the learned and practical traditions, and crossing social barriers

This article, alas, behind a paywall, looks interesting and important.

J. V. Field, The Unhelpful Notion of ‘Renaissance man’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Volume 41, 2016 - Issue 2-3: Some Significances of the Two Cultures Debate, pp. 188-201.

Abstract: The current journalistic use of the term ‘Renaissance man’ to describe someone whose work straddles boundaries between today's specialisms is a hindrance to understanding almost any aspect of the culture of the Renaissance — a culture within which both ‘art’ and ‘science’ had meanings different from those they have now, the most significant intellectual division being between the learned and the practical traditions. We look first at the learned tradition of the universities (where teaching was in Latin). The people considered include William Harvey, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Regiomontanus and (very briefly) Isaac Newton. Within the practical tradition, centred on workshops, we consider the state shipyards in Venice (where Galileo claimed to have learned much), workshop practices in general and the emergence of the notion of ‘Fine Arts’. The individuals considered include Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael, as well as the famous clockmaker Jost Bürgi (who taught Kepler about algebra). We conclude by considering the transfer of skills between these two traditions. There are several areas of overlap, but here we concentrate attention on the story of algebra. Algebra was invented by al-Khwarizmi (whose name gives us the term ‘algorithm’) in the ninth century, within learned mathematics, in Baghdad. In the West, elementary algebra, derived from al-Khwarizmi's work but in the simplified form of problems, became part of ‘practical mathematics’. Slowly, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, developed forms of algebra crossed over into the learned tradition. This is as much a matter of crossing social barriers as of crossing intellectual ones. Eventually, the practical tradition as a whole became absorbed as an elementary part of the learned one.

You can build your own fallout shelter

fallout shelter.jpg
I took this photo in Jersey City on September 15, 2007. Notice the "Fallout Shelter" sign at the upper right. This building, now destroyed, was near the Holland Tunnel entrance/exit.

Every now and then I'll talk about growing up in the 1950s and how I even thought about just where to place the family fallout shelter. That was the height of the Cold War and the possibility of getting bombed to kingdom-come seemed real. Well, I war cruising the web, making my rounds, and came across a link to and old issue of Popular Mechanics. Seems that the good folks a Google have a whole bunch of them just sitting out there in the web. So I did a search on "fallout shelter" and bingo! up popped a bunch of articles. Just follow the link and look at those articles. You'll find everything you need to build your own fallout shelter.

A bomb is dropped on a key target. But who cares, you live lies away. Fallout can't reach you. but soon you and your family become ill, dangerously ill. Now you wish you had heeded the importance of a family fallout shelter. If you decide to build one, first consult your local building code and the Civil Defense authorities.

Here's an article about fallout shelters in New York City back in the 1950s and 1960s:
Decades after the end of the Cold War, ominous black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs still mark buildings across New York City’s five boroughs. The actual number of designated fallout shelters in the city is difficult to discern. What is known is that by 1963, an estimated 18,000 shelters had been designated, and the Department of Defense had plans to add another 34,000 shelters citywide.

While the presence of a fallout shelter in one’s building may have given some residents peace of mind in an era when nuclear destruction seemed imminent, in reality, most of New York’s fallout shelters were little more than basements marked by an official government sign.

A small percentage of shelters were fortified underground bunkers stocked with emergency supplies, but these were rare and primarily built for high-ranking government officials. The majority of shelters, including nearly all those that were visibly marked, were known as “community shelters,” and by all accounts, they offered little special protection. Inspector guidelines simply indicated that “community shelters” should be kept free of trash and debris and have a ventilation system that can provide a “safe and tolerable environment for a specified shelter occupancy time.” Regulations for the ventilation systems appeared to be open to interpretation, leaving individual inspectors to determine which of the city’s windowless basements would ultimately make the cut.

“Anchor” – Another term in the study of cultural evolution

Some time ago I decided to drop “meme” as a term for the genetic element in cultural evolutionary processes. 1) It has too much baggage attached to it. 2) The connotations are misleading. Instead, I choose “coordinator” and have defined three kinds of coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators. I’ve decided I need to recognize a fourth kind of coordinator, anchors.

I came to this conclusion after reading:
Dan Everett. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Everett tells us of two incidents:
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness. (141-142)
The Pirahãs live in the Amazon and can see its creatures clearly. But Everett, though he spent years in the Amazon among the Pirahãs, had not been raised there. His visual system had matured long before he entered the Amazon. He could not see its creatures so well as those who’d been raised among them.

By anchor I mean those features of the physical world to which one becomes acclimated by virtue of having become “at home” in that world. The Pirahãs had developed a rich set of anchors in the Amazon but Everett had not, though he lived there for many years. The Pirahãs were born and raised in the Amazon; Everett was not.

Though I have not thought this through, it seems to me that some anchors might well be targets as well. It’s not clear to me whether or not I want to extend the usage to couplers and designators, all of which, of course, are physical features on some substrate.

Note that we could talk of animals as having anchors as well.

Friday Fotos: The Green, Longwood Gardens, December 25, 2016

Two weeks ago it was white flowers from Longwood Gardens. Last week it was colored flowers. This week it's greenery.






Is generative grammar moving to the “we knew it all along” phase?

As you may know, for the last few years the linguistics world has been transfixed by a cage match between Daniel “The Pirahã Whisperer” Everett and Noam “The World’s Greatest Intellectual” Chomsky over the nature of language. Chomsky claims, has claimed for years, that recursion is the central defining feature of human language, where syntax is the central ‘organ’ of language. Everett, on the other hand, claims that while recursion is central to human thought, it is not a necessary component of language. The argument centers on whether or not the language spoken by the Pirahã has recursive structures. Everett says “no” while Chomsky says “it has to.”

Everett has recently published an informal account of the controversy in Aeon, “Chomsky, Wolfe and me”. In his article he quotes Schopenhauer as saying “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I think the generativists are about to enter the third stage.

For the last few years I’ve been following, albeit at a distance, Faculty of Language, a blog devoted to generative grammar (GG). On January 6 Norbert Hornstein posted “Inchoate minimalism” and that post reads like the third stage is about to begin. As you may know minimalism is the latest version of Chomsky’s theory. He quotes a passage from Chomsky’s 1968 Language and Mind, arguing that it presages the minimalist program. Here’s the passage followed by Hornstein’s gloss:
Here’s the quote (L&M:182):
I would, naturally, assume that there is some more general basis in human mental structure for the fact (if it is a fact) that languages have transformational grammars; one of the primary scientific reasons for studying language is that this study may provide some insight into general properties of mind. Given those specific properties, we may then be able to show that transformational grammars are “natural.” This would constitute real progress, since it would now enable us to raise the problem of innate conditions on acquisition of knowledge and belief in a more general framework....
This quote is pedagogical in several ways. First, it does indicate that at least in Chomsky’s mind, GG from the get-go had what we could now identify as minimalist ambitions. The goal as stated in L&M is not only to describe the underlying capacities that make humans linguistically facile, but to also understand how these capacities reflect the “general properties of mind.” Furthermore, L&M moots the idea that understanding how language competence fits in with our mental architecture more generally might allow us to demonstrate that “transformational grammar is “natural”.” How so? Well in the obviously intended sense that a mind with the cognitive powers we have would have a faculty of language in which the particular Gs we have would embody a transformational component. As L&M rightly points out, being able to show this would “constitute real progress.” Yes it would.
Could those “general properties of mind” include recursion? Is that where this is going? Inquiring minds want to know.

Here’s Hornstein’s next paragraph:
It is worth noting that the contemporary conception of Merge as combining both structure building and movement in the “simplest” recursive rule is an attempt to make good on this somewhat foggy suggestion. If by ‘transformations’ we intend movement, then showing how a simple conception of recursion comes with a built in operation of displacement goes some distance in redeeming the idea that transformational Gs are “natural.”
Hey, Dan! Get ready. You’re about to be mugged!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Metaphor Deeper than Mere Metaphor

Came across this old post when I went looking for the Thoreau quote, which is about steam engines, and thought I'd bump it to the top of the queue. It's about how we use metaphor to lay claim to the world.
I’m interested in figurative language in this post, but not the sort of figurative language that excites the cognitive metaphor people. Those figures, those metaphors, have become so naturalized that their figurative nature is no longer apparent. Their meanings have become so settled that they’re regarded as literal, not figurative.

No, I’m interested in figures that have new work to do. Actually, I’m interested in one particular figure, one that I’ve been using. It interests me both in itself, for the work that it has to do, but also as an example of the more general phenomenon.

That figure is one I’ve been using to talk about graffiti sites. While I know that the graffiti is put on the walls by particular writers at particular times for whatever purposes they may have, I find it useful, perhaps in a sense indispensable, to talk of the graffiti as an expression of the spirit of the place, for which I also use the Japanese word kami. No, I don’t think there is actually a ghostly creature at the site who’s somehow directing graffiti writers, but . . . .

Let’s set that aside and consider one of my touchstone passages, which I’ve used in a post about ontology. This is a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Sound” chapter in Walden (1854):
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion . . . with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in gold and silver wreaths . . . as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.
There’s quite a bit of figurative language in that paragraph, but I’m interested in two metaphors, iron horse and fiery dragon. The iron horse is a well-known metaphor for a steam locomotive, perhaps from all those old Westerns where Indians use the term. Fiery dragon is not so common, but it’s use in that context is perfectly intelligible.

What was Thoreau doing when he used those figures? He certainly recognized them as figures. He knew that the thing about which he was talking was some glorified mechanical contraption. He knew it was neither horse nor dragon, nor was it living.

Or was it? Did he really know that it wasn’t alive? Or did he think slash fear that it might be a new kind of life? We live in a world where everyone is familiar with cars and trains and airplanes from an early age, not to mention all sort of smaller self-propelling devices. We find nothing strange about such things. They’ve always been part of our world. And so, as we learned to talk, as we learned to think, we made places for these things in our worldview, along with rocks, a dandelions, raccoons, the wind, and other humans.