Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Rejected! @ New Literary History, with observations about the discipline


I've now taken my posts on being turned down at NLH and uploaded them as a working paper:

Abstract, table of contents, and introduction below.

* * * * *

Abstract: The author submitted an article entitled “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” to a top tier journal, New Literary History (NLH). The article was rejected. This working paper reads that rejection as a rejection of computational thinking that is ideological in nature rather than being grounded in any sophisticated understanding of computation. Back in the 1970s there was a brief window of intellectual opportunity when literary critics where open to the emerging cognitive sciences, but that had closed by the end of the decade. The discipline now recognizes that it needs new ideas but 1) has yet to figure out how to re-connect with the possibilities that were bypassed three decades ago, and 2) doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.


Introduction: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal 2
Outside looking in on the critics’ table 7
What I got out of writing the article 12
Party like it’s 1975! 19
Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History 35
What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over 42
Appendix 1: The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over 50 years 51
Appendix 2: Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds 55

Introduction: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal

Early last fall I submitted a paper for publication in New Literary History: “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” (PDF). Not only did I have high hopes. I actually had high expectations, which of course is quite different. I really thought this piece would be accepted. And yet when I got news of rejection, I was not surprised. Disappointed, certainly. Surprised, not really.

Now that just doesn’t make sense. If I really thought it would be accepted, then rejection should have surprised me, no? But it didn’t.

What’s going on? The human mind, that’s what. A strange beast. And yet it is precisely because I thought hard about the article and had specific ideas about why I would be attractive to New Literary History, ideas I’ll discuss in a later on, that it becomes both imperative and possible for me to learn from the rejection. I’ve got to revise those ideas somehow.

Thus I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out not only why the paper was rejected but why and how I misjudged things. Sure, I received comments from a reviewer. They were quite dismissive. As far as I can tell, if I wanted to wrtie something that would please that reviewer, I would have to abandon just about everything in the essay. Not very helpful.

Why not? And yet the fact that they weren’t helpful, that fact is itself helpful, for it tells me that we live in different conceptual worlds, that reviewer and me.

But Why Go Public with These Thoughts?

One does not generally make a public statement about having an article rejected at a journal. That’s private business. And it’s only quite recently that making a public statement would even have been possible. Without the internet there’d be no way to do it.

Still, what’s the point? I suppose there’s an element of vanity involved, as though my rejection would interest others. But it’s not about me; it really isn’t. It’s about the ideas. For the last four decades I have been pursuing ideas that are significantly different from those that have developed within the profession. I’ve published many of these ideas in various places. In fact, some of the ideas in the manuscript NLH rejected were first published in MLN (Modern Language Notes) four decades ago. But for the most part, these ideas are at best marginal. I was hoping that by publishing them in NLH, they would get broader exposure.


It is widely recognized that the discipline of literary criticism is in trouble; NLH certainly recognizes it. New ideas are needed. And that’s what I’ve got, new ideas, albeit some of them are several decades old.

This is about the what we might call the “possibility space” of literary studies. The discipline has explored a certain range of intellectual spaces over the past century or so. What new possibilities are open for exploration? I’ve explored spaces that few others have explored and I laid out some of that work in the article I submitted. In effect, I sent a test “probe” into “the discipline” and it said “NO”.

What has that “no” told me about the discipline? That’s not an easy question to answer and any answer I come up with will necessarily be highly uncertain. That’s just how these things are.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Will the real Rachel Dolezal stand up?

Do you remember Rachel Dolezal, the white woman and black activist who was outed two years ago for passing as black? The Guardian has a fascinating article about her. Her life has been all but destroyed: "Today Dolezal is jobless, and feeding her family with food stamps. A friend helped her pay this month’s rent; next month she expects to be homeless. She has applied for more than 100 jobs, but no one will hire her, not even to stack supermarket shelves." She got a scholarship to study art at Howard University, but she lost that after a year. She was pregnant, her marriage was in trouble and this and that.
At Howard she had been introduced to the idea that racial identity was “an invention of human beings”; an arbitrary classification devised by colonial whites to justify their power and privilege. “It’s socially constructed as a world view, and people operate within it, but that also means that it can be reconstructed or deconstructed. And this was a great awakening for me, because it meant I wasn’t forced to own whiteness. It wasn’t like the honest thing to do is say, ‘I’m white’, because race is a social construct. And this gave me this great sense of internal freedom: I wasn’t actually all fucked up. I was actually on to something this whole time.”

Newly divorced, she reached a decision. “For the first time in my life, I really decided consciously to be free from the repression, and free from feeling like I had to do things in a way that was acceptable to other people. I had the courage to be exactly who I was.” From that day on, Dolezal would be unambiguously and publicly black, and remains so to this day.

It was surprisingly easy. She sunbathed, styled her hair into braids or dreadlocks or weaves, and applied bronzer when her tan faded. She stopped going to church, began dating men and women, ticked the box marked ‘black’ on medical and employment forms (she still does today), and when anyone asked about her ethnicity, she would say she was “mixed”. If asked which parent was black, she would say her mother was white. She made extra income by braiding hair.

Wasn’t she lying? “The times that I tried to explain more, I wasn’t understood more. Nobody wanted to hear, ‘I’m pan-African, pro-black, bisexual, an artist, mother and educator.’ People would just be like, ‘Huh? What? What are you talking about?’ So I felt like by not talking about my biological ancestry, I gave people the opportunity to relate to me as an individual, not part of a group.”
The whole thing is worth at least a quick read.

Truth be told, while I think what Dolezal did was wack, I understand and sympathize with it. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Numerosity areas in the brain

A network of topographic numerosity maps in human association cortex,
Ben M. Harvey & Serge O. Dumoulin
Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0036 (2017)


Sensory and motor cortices each contain multiple topographic maps with the structure of sensory organs (such as the retina or cochlea) mapped onto the cortical surface. These sensory maps are hierarchically organized. For example, visual field maps contain neurons that represent increasingly large parts of visual space with increasingly complex responses. Some visual neurons respond to stimuli with a particular numerosity — the number of objects in a set. We recently discovered a parietal topographic numerosity map in which neural numerosity preferences progress gradually across the cortical surface, analogous to sensory maps. Following this analogy, we hypothesized that there may be multiple numerosity maps. Numerosity perception is implicated in many cognitive functions, including foraging, multiple object tracking, dividing attention, decision-making and mathematics. Here we use ultra-high-field (7 Tesla, 7T) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and neural-model-based analyses to reveal numerosity-selective neural populations organized into six widely separated topographic maps in each hemisphere. Although we describe subtle differences between these maps, their properties are very similar, unlike in sensory map hierarchies. These maps are found in areas implicated in object recognition, motion perception, attention control, decision-making and mathematics. Multiple numerosity maps may allow interactions with these cognitive systems, suggesting a broad role for quantity processing in supporting many perceptual and cognitive functions.

Networks and cumulative culture among hunter-gatherers

Characterization of hunter-gatherer networks and implications for cumulative culture,
A. B. Migliano, A. E. Page, J. Gómez-Gardeñes, G. D. Salali, S. Viguier, M. Dyble, J. Thompson, Nikhill Chaudhary, D. Smith, J. Strods, R. Mace, M. G. Thomas, V. Latora & L. Vinicius
Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0043 (2017)

Social networks in modern societies are highly structured, usually involving frequent contact with a small number of unrelated ‘friends’. However, contact network structures in traditional small-scale societies, especially hunter-gatherers, are poorly characterized. We developed a portable wireless sensing technology (motes) to study within-camp proximity networks among Agta and BaYaka hunter-gatherers in fine detail. We show that hunter-gatherer social networks exhibit signs of increased efficiency for potential information exchange. Increased network efficiency is achieved through investment in a few strong links among non-kin ‘friends’ connecting unrelated families. We show that interactions with non-kin appear in childhood, creating opportunities for collaboration and cultural exchange beyond family at early ages. We also show that strong friendships are more important than family ties in predicting levels of shared knowledge among individuals. We hypothesize that efficient transmission of cumulative culture may have shaped human social networks and contributed to our tendency to extend networks beyond kin and form strong non-kin ties.

We studied in-camp proximity networks (within and between households) as a proxy for social interactions in two hunter-gatherer populations from Africa and southeast Asia. We developed a portable wireless sensing technology (motes; Fig. 1) to record all dyadic interactions within a radius of approximately 3 metres at 2-minute intervals for 15 hours a day (05:00–20:00) over a week, in six Agta camps in the Philippines (200 individuals, 7,210 recorded dyadic interactions) and three BaYaka camps in Congo-Brazzaville (132 individuals, 3,397 dyadic interactions; see Supplementary Table 1 with descriptive statistics for all camp networks). We built high-resolution proximity networks mapping the totality of close-range interactions within each camp. In hunter-gatherers (who lack technology-aided communication), close proximity is an indicator of joint activities such as foraging, parental care and information exchange.

Spot the windows


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bourdain talks at Google, New York

Looks like I've got a Jones for Anthony Bourdain. I've been watching mostly Parts Unknown, but also A Cook's Tour, and I've even gone scouting for stuff about him on Google Scholar. And, yes, there is an academic literature on cooking shows and travel shows and he's discussed in it. But that's not what this is about. I just wanted to share this interview with Bourdain and three of the production team, Tom Vitale (Producer/Director), Zach Zambonie (Director of Photography), and Todd Liebler (Director of Photography). As you might imagine, there's lots of Bourdain interviews out there, and I've seen a few. I'm posting this one because it's not just Bad-Boy Tony.

BTW, if Bad-Boy Tony were to be reincarnated, he'd like to come back as a kick-ass funk bass player, like Bootsy Collins.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ezra Klein interviews Elizabeth Drew about Trump

This is a superb interview. Well worth listening two, all 73 minutes of it.

Elizabeth Drew is the author of Washington Journal, one of my favorite books about Watergate. Drew covered the story as a reporter for the New Yorker, and the book emerges from the real-time, journalistic diary she kept amidst the chaos. As such, it does something no other Watergate book does: tells the story not as a tidy tale with a clear beginning and inevitable end, but as an experience thick with confusion, rumors, alarm, and half-truths.

Of late, I've heard a lot of people comparing the early days of Donald Trump's administration — with the strange scandals around Russia, the fast resignation of Trump's national Security Advisor, and the mounting pressure for investigation — with Watergate. And so I asked Drew, who is now a writer at the New York Review of Books, to provide some perspective on whether that comparison makes sense, and how to think about the Trump scandals that are unfolding, slowly and haltingly, right now.

-Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America
-Andrew Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson
Drew emphasizes that, whatever Trump is, it's something we've not seen before, so comparisons with Watergate are of relatively little value. Her sense is that it, whatever it is, can't be sustained for four years. But she's unwilling to speculate about what will bring it to a stop. We've got to let it unfold. Not that we should be passive, but simply that we cannot prejudge how to act and react. It's a new phenomenon.

Shakespeare and his collaborators?

In 1989, a young professor named Gary Taylor published “Reinventing Shakespeare,” in which he argued that Shakespeare’s unrivalled literary status derives less from the sheer greatness of his plays than from the cultural institutions that have mythologized the Bard, elevating him above equally talented Renaissance playwrights. “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy,” Taylor wrote. [...]
Late last year, Taylor shocked readers once again. The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which Taylor serves as lead general editor, is the first edition of the plays to credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. It lists co-authors for fourteen other plays as well, ushering a host of playwrights—Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, along with Marlowe—into the big tent of the complete works. This past fall, headlines around the world trumpeted the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection, and spotlighted the editors’ methodology: computer-aided analysis of linguistic patterns across databases of early modern plays. “Shakespeare has now fully entered the era of Big Data,” Taylor announced in a press release.

It’s no longer controversial to give other authors a share in Shakespeare’s plays—not because he was a front for an aristocrat, as conspiracy theorists since the Victorian era have proposed, but because scholars have come to recognize that writing a play in the sixteenth century was a bit like writing a screenplay today, with many hands revising a company’s product. The New Oxford Shakespeare claims that its algorithms can tease out the work of individual hands—a possibility, although there are reasons to challenge its computational methods. But there is a deeper argument made by the edition that is both less definitive and more interesting. It’s not just that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, and it’s not just that Shakespeare was one of a number of great Renaissance writers whose fame he outstripped in the ensuing centuries. It’s that the canonization of Shakespeare has made his way of telling stories—especially his monarch-centered view of history—seem like the norm to us, when there are other ways of telling stories, and other ways of staging history, that other playwrights did better.

* * * * *

Out of curiosity, I took a look at The New Oxford Shakespeare. They're offering, not one, but two versions of the complete Shakespeare. One version, Modern Critical Edition, seems to be a standard critical edition consisting of eclectic texts with supporting apparatus. The other version, Critical Reference Edition, is for hard-core Shakespeare scholars:
  • A two-volume Complete Works that assembles primary resources in one place
  • Presented with original spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, typographical contrasts, ambiguities, and inconsistencies
  • Footnotes identify and discuss any editorial corrections in the early documents
  • Marginal notes record press variants and key variants in different documents
  • Songs are presented with the original musical notation, when available
  • Cast lists identify the length and type of each role, discuss potential doubling possibilities, and note essential props

Sunday, February 19, 2017





An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

If you’ve heard of Dan Everett at all, most likely you’ve heard about his work among the Pirahã and his battle with Noam Chomsky and the generative grammarians. He went into the Amazon to live among the Pirahã in the mid-1970s with the intention of learning their language, translating the Bible into it, and converting them to Christianity. Things didn’t work out that way. Yes, he learned their language, and managed to translate a bit of the Bible into Pirahã. But, no, he didn’t convert them. They converted him, as it were, so he is now an atheist.

Not only did Everett learn Pirahã, but he compiled a grammar and reached the conclusion – a bit reluctantly at first – that it lacks recursion. Recursion is the property that Chomsky believes is irreducibly intrinsic to human language. And so Everett found himself in pitched battle with Chomsky, the man whose work revolutionized linguistics in the mid-1950s. If that interests you, well you can run a search on something like “Everett Chomsky recursion” (don’t type the quotes into the search box) and get more hits than you can shake a stick at.

I’ve never met Dan face-to-face, but I know him on Facebook where I’m one of 10 to 20 folks who chat with him on intellectual matters. Not so long ago I reviewed his most recent book, Dark Matter of the Mind, over at 3 Quarks Daily. I thus know him, after a fashion.

And so I thought I’d address an open letter to him on my current hobbyhorse: What’s up with literary criticism?

* * * * *

Dear Dan,

I’ve been trying to make sense of literary criticism for a long time. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out why literary critics give so little descriptive attention to the formal properties of literary texts. I don’t expect you to answer the question for me but, who knows, as an outsider to the discipline and with an interest in language and culture, perhaps you might have an idea or two.

I figured I’d start by quoting a fellow linguist, one moreover with an affection for Brazil, Haj Ross. Then I look at Shakespeare as a window into the practice of literary criticism. I introduce the emic/etic distinction in that discussion. After that we’ll take a look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the course of which I introduce the question, What would I teach in a first level undergraduate class? I find that to be a very useful way of thinking about the discipline; I figure that might also appeal to you as a Dean and Acting Provost. I conclude by returning to the abstractosphere by distinguishing between naturalist and ethical criticism. Alas, it’s a long way through, so you might want to pour yourself a scotch.

Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics

Let’s start with the opening paragraphs from a letter that Haj Ross has posted to Academia.edu. Of course you know who Haj is, but I think it’s useful to note that, back in the 1960s when he was getting a degree in linguistics under Chomsky at MIT, he was also studying poetics under Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and that, over the years, he has produced a significant body of descriptive work on poetry that, for the most part, exists ‘between the cracks’ in the world of academic publication. The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
You’ll have to read the whole letter to find out what he meant by that one-line abstract, but I assure you that it’s both naïve and deep at one and the same time, mentioning, among other things, the “joy of babbling” and the role of the tamboura in Indian classical music. At the moment I’m interested in just those two opening paragraphs.

While I got my degree in literary criticism and understand the drive/will to meaning, I also understand Haj’s attraction to verifiable pattern/structures and his willingness to pursue that even though he cannot connect it to meaning. Yes, meaning is the primary objective of academic literary criticism and, yes, justifying proposed meanings is (deeply) problematic. I also know that the academic discipline of literary criticism was NOT founded on the activity of interpreting texts. It was founded in the late 19th century on philology, literary history, and editing – that is, editing the canonical literary works for study by students and scholars. Roughly speaking, the interest in interpretation dates back to the second quarter of the 20th century, but it didn’t become firmly institutionalized until the third quarter of the century. You can see that institutionalization in this Ngram search on the phrase “close reading”, which is a term of art for interpretive analysis:

close reading
Figure 1: "Close reading"

And that’s when things became interesting. As more and more critics came to focus on interpretation, the profession became acutely aware of a problem: different critics produced different interpretations, which is the correct interpretation? Some critics even began to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as the correct interpretation. We are now well within the scope of the problem that bothered Haj: How do you justify one interpretation over another?

That’s the issue that was in play when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. Though I had declared an interest in psychology, once I’d been accepted I gravitated toward literature. Which means that, even as I was working as hard as I could to figure out how to interpret a literary text, I was also party to conversations about the problematic nature of interpretation. As I have written elsewhere about those years at Hopkins [2] there’s no need to recount them here. The important point is simply that literary critics were acutely aware of the problematic nature of interpretation and devoted considerable effort to resolving the problem.

In the course of that problematic thrashing about, literary critics turned to philosophy, mostly Continental (though not entirely), and linguistics, mostly structuralist linguistics. In 1975 Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, which garnered him speaking invitations all over America and made his career. For Culler, and for American academia, structuralism was mostly French: Saussure, Jakobson (not French, obviously), Greimas, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. But Culler also wrote of literary competence, clearly modeled on Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence, and even deep structure. At this point literary critics, not just Culler, were interested in linguistics.

Here’s a paragraph from Culler’s preface (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.
However much critics may have been interested in this book, that interest did not produce a flourishing poetics. Even Culler himself abandoned poetics after this book. Interpretation had become firmly established as the profession’s focus.

As for the problem of justifying one interpretation over another, deconstructive critics argued that the meaning of texts was indeterminate and so, ultimately, there is no justification. Reader response critics produced a similar result by different means. The issue was debated into the 1990s and then more or less put on the shelf without having been resolved.

I have no quarrel with that. I think the basic problem is that literary texts of whatever kind – lyric or narrative poetry, drama, prose fiction – are different in kind from the discursive texts written to explicate them. There is no well-formed way of translating meaning from a literary to a discursive text. When you further consider that different critics may have different values, the problem becomes more intractable. Interpretation cannot, in principle, be strongly determined.

What, you might ask, what about the meaning that exists in a reader’s mind prior to any attempt at interpretation? Good question. But how do we get at THAT? It simply is not available for inspection.

What happens, though, when you give up the search for meaning? Or, if not give up, you at least bracket it and subordinate it to an interest in pattern and structure as intrinsic properties of texts? Is a poetics possible? Let’s set that aside for awhile and take a detour though the profession’s treatment of The Bard, William Shakespeare, son of a glover and London actor.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Greatest Man in Siam

This is one of my favorite cartoons. I've blogged about it quite a bit, and have packaged those posts into a working paper. About 3/4 of the way though there is a dance sequence that is one of the most joyous bits of film I've ever seen. The animation is superb, and so is the music. Given the date, 1944, the music is big band music, and this band plays like it's playing for live dancers. And the trumpet soloist, he plays like it's the third set of a good night.

And yes, sure, the cartoon is Orientalist, sexist, patriarchal, racist and a few other things as well. After you've gotten over that, look at the eyes and ask yourself, Why does the trumpet player get the girl? The cartoon's premise is that men are competing for the king's daughter. Why do the first three lose and thaelast one win? As I said, look at the eyes. What's that about? What values?

A bird and the city


The rise of interpretive literary criticism

In various posts I've pointed out that interpretation didn't become central to academic literary study until after World War II. We can see that in the following Google Ngram chart on the phrase "close reading", which is the term of art for interpretation:

close reading

This comparison with "hermeneutic" is instructive:
close reading hemeneutic

They rise at roughly the same time, but the more technical "hermeneutic" quickly out paces "close reading". Why? Is this evidence for "physics envy" leading to the intellectually useless proliferation of technical jargon? Well, if you believe that literary criticism has no need of a theoretical infrastructure, then, sure, why not?

But I don't believe that. I may not like the theoretical instruction literary criticism has created for itself, but that doesn't mean I think it is best done without such an infrastructure. And the steep rise of "hermeneutic" seems to reflect the general rise of a theoretical infrastucture. Without any particular evidence at hand, the term strikes me as being more useful in general theoretical discussion. Close reading is something a critic does; hermeneutics is something critics talk about.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Donald Trump: Pop Star as President

If Elvis Presley had been elected President of the United States, what kind of president would he have been? We now know: Trumpian. If Michael Jackson had been elected President of the United States, what kind of president would he have been? We now know: Trumpian. As far as I know these two musicians never had political aspirations – though a pill-addicted Presley once tried to cajole Richard Nixon into appointing him as anti-drug ambassador to the nation’s youth – but, like Trump, they lived in the public eye and they lived within an entourage of associates and ‘minders’ who kept the world at bay.

Secure in this circle, the star could do whatever he wanted, as long as the money kept coming in. For Presley and Jackson the money was driven by record sales and ticket sales. THAT was the connection with the world at large. They gift the world with music and the world gifts them with money. As long as those things are roughly in balance, the beat went on, more or less. Sure, there’s also the personal quirks, indulgences, and localized craziness that fueled the gossip rags of all media. But as long as the money train stayed on the rails the rest was just noise. The entourage could handle it. Until the drugs got out of control and the entourage was useless.

Pre-Presidential Trump is a more complicated case. Initially, and with the help of Daddy’s money and contacts – little Donald was born to an entourage – he made his money in real estate development. He did deals, face-to-face. Then, over time, he transitioned to a franchise operation and a TV star. Showbiz! But, as with Elvis and Michael, as long as the money came in, nothing else mattered. A little scandal here and there – and as far as we know, The Donald has never been into anything comparable to Elvis’s pill habit or Michael’s cosmetic adventurism and child fetishism – but it’s just noise.

Now that he’s President, things have changed. Drastically. Money is no longer his connection to the world. To be sure, he’s still holding on to his vast business empire – Yuge, I tell you, Yuge! The best! – though he’s distanced himself from it by the length of a pinky. But, and here’s the crucial point, that business empire is no longer his lever on reality. That’s not how he judges his personal efficacy any more. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: That’s NOT how he judges his PERSONAL sense of efficacy.

Now that he’s president his personal sense of efficacy is linked to his acts as president. And that’s not working out so well. He’s finding out that, at every level and in every way, the world is not willing to jump at his command. In particular, the media isn’t presenting a picture of his actions and efficacy that is consonant with his intentions. All of a sudden we have a comedian (John Oliver) placing educational ads on his favorite TV shows – fake commercials full of true facts! Trump’s image in the media was one thing when his world centered on his ability to generate a money stream; in that context it played a secondary and subsidiary role – all PR is good PR. Now that that income stream has been shifted into a secondary role, all he’s got left is the media flow.

He signs executive orders and he expects the media to show him how dynamic, forceful, and all-around-wonderful he is. And, remember, this is now the main event. When the media doesn’t comply. What does he do? He goes on TV and delivers a 77 minute rant against media.

How long can he keep this up?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Fathers and sons

This is a fascinating little video. It's an interview with Paul Cohen, who played lead trumpet for Count Basie for years and years. The two men were very close; Cohen thought of Basie as a father. But there came a time when Basie "rejected" Cohen and Cohen left the band. Cohen's playing on "Poor Butterfly", which plays in the background during the interview, is gorgeous.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Distort in context

This photo just got a 'favorite' at Flickr:


I'm pretty sure the 'fav' had more to do with Distort than with the photograph itself. I'm fine with that.

Preview: Meaning in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Here's another draft fragment from my open-letter in progress. This fragment centers on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

* * * * *

Now I want to look at a particular example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is one of the texts most frequently taught in undergraduate courses. Why? Well, it’s relatively short, 40,000 words, which is a consideration, albeit a minor one. Surely it’s the subject matter – roughly, European imperialism in Africa – and, secondarily, Conrad’s impressionist style. Still, why, why do those things matter?

Let’s look at a short statement by J. Hillis Miller, a senior and very respected literary critic. He is old enough to have gotten his degree at Harvard at a time when, in his view, when few in the English Department there were much good at interpreting texts and his is one in the first generation of deconstructive critics. Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Association of Departments of English honored him for his fifty years in the profession. Of his early days as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, the 1950s and 1960s, Miller tells us:
English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. [3]
Which is to say, literature is taught as a vehicle for cultural indoctrination. Of course you know that; you don’t need Hillis Miller to tell you that. But I just wanted to get the idea explicitly on the record along with that little irony about English literature in the United States (Miller had earlier pointed out that, at the time, American literature was marginal in the academy, at least at Hopkins).

Just a bit more about Heart of Darkness, which is a relatively simple story. A pilot, Charles Marlow, needs a gig. He calls on an aunt who gets in an interview with a continental firm, which hires him to pilot a steamer up the Congo River to a trading station that has gone incommunicado. Marlow’s job is make contact with the agent of the Inner Station, named Kurtz, and recover the ivory that Kurtz has, presumably, been accumulating. Marlow is our narrator. Actually, he tells the story to an unnamed third party, who then tells it to us, but we can skip that detail for awhile. That third party presents the bulk of the story to us as Marlow’s own words. Marlow’s steamer is crewed by native Africans and, in addition to personnel from the trading company, there are pilgrims on board.

Marlow is presented as a brilliant and talented man who went to Africa to earn enough money to make him worthy of his Intended; we don’t learn this detail until late in the story, nor are we ever told her name. We’re also led to believe that he has gone mad, setting himself up as a demi-god to the natives and taking a native mistress. As for those natives, it is clear that they have been badly treated by the Europeans.

Whatever else is going on, Heart of Darkness is an indictment of European imperialism in Africa. And yet in 1975 Chinua Achibe, the Nigerian novelist, set off bombshells when he delivered a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” [4]. How could Heart of Darkness be racist, people objected, when the text obviously condemns imperialism? Easy, goes the rejoinder, for Conrad deprives Africans of agency, depicts them only as victims, and never has even one of them speak. Now, NOW, we’ve got something to think and talk about. Heart of Darkness may be over a century old, but the issues it embodies are very much alive in this, the 21st century.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Another shout-out to Anthony Bourdain

I've enjoyed both the episode on Tokyo, and that on Detroit, episodes 7 and 8 in season two of Parts Unknown. Tokyo:

Like a lot of non-Japanese, obsessed with Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, I've always been amused, occasionally appalled and always befuddled by the more lurid aspects of Japanese fantasy, pop culture and expressions of fetishistic desire. Popular comic books (manga), toys, films, advertisements and entertainments are loaded with images of bondage (shibari), hyper-sexualized school girls, rape, homoeroticism, violation by demons and tentacles – and more (all generally referred to as "hentai"). The honky-tonk Shinjuku district of Tokyo seems to promise galaxies of gratification – for flavors of desire that range from the simply eccentric to the absolutely horrifying. [...]

On one hand, the Japanese seem to have a much more open, nonjudgmental, less puritanical view of sex. Attitudes toward women's roles in the workplace and elsewhere, however, remain largely mired in the long-ago past. Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in. Even from close-up. [...]

So in many ways, this show is about fantasy – as much as anything else.

I hope this news will temper, slightly, the reaction of the more easily offended who watch this episode, as it contains images and subject matter of a decidedly "mature" and even offensive nature.

This is a "difficult" show. And I hope it doesn't frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience and learn a little about on earth.
Bourdain claims that "it's easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we've ever done." I can believe that. My one reservation is that it leaves the impression that manga is mostly about kinky sex. While you can certainly find manga that feature kinky sex, you can find manga about pretty much anything, appropriate for pretty much any audience. Kinky sex is just part of the mix.

Once upon a snow day


Preview: Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

I’m currently working on another open letter. I thought I’d publish some draft text while continuing to work on the full letter. It’s going to be a long one. First I have a couple paragraphs from a letter by John Robert ‘Haj’ Ross, who got a linguistics degree under Chomsky back in the mid-1960s but who also went across the Charles River and studied poetics with Roman Jakobson at Harvard. That sets things up. Then I have the section on Shakespeare.

Haj Speaks

The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it to Academia.edu with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
That’s the contrast that interests me, meaning versus structures, patterns, whatever. If you will, interpretive criticism (meaning) versus poetics (structures, patterns). By an large academic literary criticism has focused on meaning and is interested in patterns and structures only to the extent that the critic knows how to subordinate them to meaning.

Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

Shakespeare is arguably the center of the Anglophone literary universe, the Greatest and most Important Writer Ever. While there was undoubtedly a real William Shakespeare back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the exalted author, The Bard, is a cultural construction of considerable sophistication and complexity. That complexity exceeds my knowledge, but I want to at least indicate its outlines.

So, imagine you attend a performance of some Shakespeare play. This performance is an “standard” performance, no Shakespeare in modern dress, no avant-garde scenery, no fancy lighting. Just Shakespeare the “old-fashioned” way. The text, though, will be spoken with modern pronunciation, not Elizabethan, which would be something of a specialty item in any event, so special that it would likely qualify as avant-garde. Moreover, whatever edition the director chooses is likely to have bits cut here and there. Why? Because most Shakespeare plays run a bit long play and it’s standard to cut parts out. Thus whatever you see is not quite going to be what played in Shakespeare’s London. Moreover, it’s likely to have scenery, which will, in turn, require breaks to change it. The Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery, hence no breaks for changes, and things moved along at a quicker pace.

As for that text, the one the director cut, where’d it come from? Not Shakespeare, not quite. The spelling will be both modernized and regularized, but that’s relatively minor, though not without consequence, as we will see. Of more consequence is the fact that we have no manuscripts by Shakespeare and no explicit connection between the man we know to be a glover’s son and an actor and the printers who published the plays. The only thing that connects them is the name and various circumstances; hence there is a minor industry devoted to figuring out who the real Shakespeare is. Why not the glover’s son? you ask. Well, so the story goes, whoever wrote the plays was well educated, but that glover’s son was a mere commoner. And so it goes. I have little interest in that industry and mention it only to indicate how iffy our knowledge is.

Of even more consequence is the fact that each play exists in two or three early versions. So the text that gets acted or that one reads will have been edited from those early texts. In some cases the differences between the texts are relatively minor, but that’s not the case with Hamlet, which is at the center of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. We’ve got three texts. One is roughly half the length of the other two, which differ from one another in 10% of their lines. Differences of that magnitude cannot be called minor. So the Hamlet you see acted on the stage is likely an eclectic text based on one of the two longer versions with appropriate modifications made by an editor. And, until fairly recently, the editor’s objective would have been to produce the one true text, the best version, the real Hamlet intended by Shakespeare himself.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The cost disease, e.g. education and health care cost more, but teachers, doctors, and nurses don't earn more

So, to summarize: in the past fifty years, education costs have doubled, college costs have dectupled [10 times], health insurance costs have dectupled, subway costs have at least dectupled, and housing costs have increased by about fifty percent. US health care costs about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries; US subways cost about eight times as much as equivalent subways in other First World countries.

I worry that people don’t appreciate how weird this is. I didn’t appreciate it for a long time. I guess I just figured that Grandpa used to talk about how back in his day movie tickets only cost a nickel; that was just the way of the world. But all of the numbers above are inflation-adjusted. These things have dectupled in cost even after you adjust for movies costing a nickel in Grandpa’s day. They have really, genuinely dectupled in cost, no economic trickery involved.

And this is especially strange because we expect that improving technology and globalization ought to cut costs. In 1983, the first mobile phone cost $4,000 – about $10,000 in today’s dollars. It was also a gigantic piece of crap. Today you can get a much better phone for $100. This is the right and proper way of the universe. It’s why we fund scientists, and pay businesspeople the big bucks.

But things like college and health care have still had their prices dectuple. Patients can now schedule their appointments online; doctors can send prescriptions through the fax, pharmacies can keep track of medication histories on centralized computer systems that interface with the cloud, nurses get automatic reminders when they’re giving two drugs with a potential interaction, insurance companies accept payment through credit cards – and all of this costs ten times as much as it did in the days of punch cards and secretaries who did calculations by hand.
I don’t have a similar graph for subway workers, but come on. The overall pictures is that health care and education costs have managed to increase by ten times without a single cent of the gains going to teachers, doctors, or nurses. Indeed these professions seem to have lost ground salary-wise relative to others.

I also want to add some anecdote to these hard facts. My father is a doctor and my mother is a teacher, so I got to hear a lot about how these professions have changed over the past generation. It seems at least a little like the adjunct story, although without the clearly defined “professor vs. adjunct” dichotomy that makes it so easy to talk about. Doctors are really, really, really unhappy. [...] Read these articles and they all say the same thing that all the doctors I know say – medicine used to be a well-respected, enjoyable profession where you could give patients good care and feel self-actualized. Now it kind of sucks.

Meanwhile, I also see articles like this piece from NPR saying teachers are experiencing historic stress levels and up to 50% say their job “isn’t worth it”. Teacher job satisfaction is at historic lows. And the veteran teachers I know say the same thing as the veteran doctors I know – their jobs used to be enjoyable and make them feel like they were making a difference; now they feel overworked, unappreciated, and trapped in mountains of paperwork.
And we don't know why this is happening. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Anthony Bourdain on TV (Congo)

A couple of days ago I posted a couple of passages from a New Yorker profile of Anthony Bourdain. I became intrigued, so I've been watching two of his shows that are streaming on Netflix, "A Cook's Tour" (2002-2003), his first I believe, and "Parts Unknown" (2013-present), his current series. I like them. He's created an interesting person, a profane chef-adventurer, and he plays it well.

I was particularly impressed with an episode from the first season of "Parts Unknown." Bourdain visited the Congo, going in from the eastern side through Rwanda, making his way to the Congo River, and taking a boat on it four a couple days.

They make their way to a remote station that had once been a biological research institute:
At the remote Yangambi Research Station, a hundred kilometers downriver, the chief librarian and his clerks also show up to work every day at the powerless library, the showpiece of a once-massive complex of modernist buildings – now without electricity or running water, of course – and do their best to fight the ravages of moisture, mold and age on the thousands of volumes of botanical and agricultural knowledge.

They too are proud and living in some kind of hope. Waiting for something.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the Congo is "too black and too sad" and certainly too complicated to ever attract the attention of the world, much less television audiences.

Yet it is also magnificently beautiful.

It is – gorgeously – like "going back to the earliest beginnings of the world" and just as gorgeously (if tragically) post-apocalyptic, whole cities, once-grand hotels, lovely buildings, a whole society (albeit a cruel, exclusive and oppressive one) receding into nature.
His voice-over explicitly references Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the soundtrack references Apocalypse Now (not to mention that he "names" the boat after Captain Willard), which, as you know was based on Heard of Darkness. In this episode the food was almost, but not quite, incidental to the adventure (and the commentary implied in that adventure).

Which text is real?

Matthew Kirschenbaum has an interest post on the nature of the codex in a digital world. Once it's been printed to paper it's much like a codex in the world of hand-set lead type, say. But before that it's a bunch of files, and that has implications, which is what Matt's post is about.

In the course os spelling out some these implications Matt offers this anecdote:
And make no mistake, the challenges are real. Last year our colleague Martin Paul Eve received considerable attention for his revelation that there are some rather startling textual differences between the US and the UK editions of David Mitchell’s bestseller The Cloud Atlas. The explanation, which Eve received in an email from Mitchell himself, turns out to be unremarkable and will not surprise anyone familiar with the social dimensions of textual production: the manuscript had had two different editors at two different times in the New York and London offices of two different publishers, and no one had ever bothered to reconcile the changes, certainly not Mitchell himself, who had other things (like writing his next novel) on his mind. But the variants now immortalized in print (and in pixels) have genuine implications for how the text is read and interpreted, in ways Eve goes on to convincingly detail.

It’s nice that David Mitchell is still with us and was willing to answer a professor’s email. The author is not dead, yet. But once the author is, what recourse would a scholar such as Eve have had? Absent the author or some other individual with firsthand knowledge of the situation, a bibliographical explanation for the variants could only have been arrived at through an examination of the material evidence, which would have to include the digital files the different editions of the book were set and printed from. And where are those files? Well you might ask; they are perhaps in someone’s cloud somewhere, but no atlas exists to help us find them.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Looking thru an empty window, or perhaps a doorway

IMGP6431rd - V2bw

Laughter in Infants

Gina Mireault has an article about infant laugher in Aeon. Infants show laughter about about four months. And then they use it:
For example, infants can employ fake laughter (and fake crying!) beginning at about six months of age, and do so when being excluded or ignored, or when trying to engage a social partner. These little fake-outs show that infants are capable of simple acts of deception much earlier than scholars previously thought, but which parents knew revealed infants’ cleverness. Similarly, the psychologist Vasu Reddy of the University of Portsmouth has found that, by eight months, infants can use a specific type of humour: teasing. For example, the baby might willingly hand over the car keys she’s been allowed to play with, but whip her hand back quickly, just before allowing her dad to take possession, all the while looking at him with a cheeky grin. Reddy calls this type of teasing ‘provocative non-compliance’. She has found that eight- to 12-month-olds use other types of teasing as well, including provocative disruption, as in toppling over a tower someone else has carefully built.

Teasing is the infant’s attempt to playfully provoke another person into interacting. It shows that infants understand something about others’ minds and intentions. In this example, the infant understands that she can make her father think that she will relinquish the car keys. The ability to trick others in this way suggests that infants are maturing toward a Theory of Mind, the understanding that others have minds that are separate from one’s own and that can be fooled. Psychologists have generally thought children don’t reach this milestone until about four and a half years of age. Infants’ ability to humorously tease reveals they are progressing toward a Theory of Mind much earlier than previously thought.

Memory and mental maps (time and space)

Kate Jeffrey and a fascinating article in Aeon. It's about mental maps, the neural structures that organize our spatial experience. They're also memory structures. Here's the concluding paragraphs:
Grid cells were discovered in 2005, and more than a decade later we still don’t know exactly what they are for, but they are believed to be the brain’s equivalent of the grid reference on a map. Whatever their function, their existence does prove, however, that these structures in the brain – hippocampus, entorhinal cortex and a host of their neighbours – collaborate in forming a metric representation of space. This is a real map. It might not look like a conventional map because it’s not written on parchment and isn’t labelled with printed text and a compass rose. However, the neurons in these regions respond in a way that shows that they are somehow stimulated, not by bells and food, as the Behaviourists believed, but by abstract properties of the animal’s experience, such as how far it has walked and what place it has reached. The discovery of grid cells confirmed O’Keefe’s cognitive map proposal, and the Mosers and O’Keefe together shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ‘for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain’.

But where does this leave memory? This is where research in the hippocampus began: do place cells have anything to do with memory?

Yes, we think they do, and research now aims to uncover precisely what. One of the most important implications for humans, arising from study of the hippocampus, is its involvement in Alzheimer’s disease, which begins in the entorhinal cortex (where the grid cells are) and spreads throughout the hippocampus and thence to the rest of the brain. The first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is often disorientation (eg, getting lost on the way back from the shops), but this progresses rapidly to a more general amnesia. Scientists now know that the hippocampus is both a map and a memory system. For some reason, nature long ago decided that a map was a handy way to organise life’s experiences. This makes a lot of sense, since knowing where things happened is a critical part of knowing how to act in the world. The quest now is to understand how memories get attached to this map. Armed with this knowledge about memory, we might one day be able to study memories directly, and even, perhaps, manipulate them – to soften traumatic memories, for example, or repair damaged ones such as those affected in Alzheimer’s disease.
H/t Faculty of Language

Where have all the MOOCs gone?

I assume that they're still around, but you don't hear much about them anymore. Have they simply disappeared into the woodwork? Are they not so successful as the revolutionaries had hoped they would be? Bill McKibbon hs a few words on the subject in a review of a new book, David Sax, Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. He's writing in The New York Review of Books:
The notion of imagination and human connection as analog virtues comes across most powerfully in Sax’s discussion of education. Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.

Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”
He also notes the vinyl records are coming back.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Growing in Jersey City Interviews Me (WLB) about Graffiti and the Bergen Arches Projects

Anthony Bourdain has dinner with Obama, picks up the $6 check

The New Yorker has a portrait of Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic foodie. Here he is having dinner with Obama in Hanoi:
As a White House advance team planned the logistics for Obama’s visit, an advance team from Zero Point Zero, the company that produces the show, scoured the city for the perfect place to eat. They selected Bún chả Hương Liên, a narrow establishment across from a karaoke joint on a busy street in the Old Quarter. The restaurant’s specialty is bún chả: springy white noodles, smoky sausage, and charred pork belly served in a sweet and pungent broth.

At the appointed hour, Obama exited the Beast and walked into the restaurant behind a pair of Secret Service agents, who cleared a path for him, like linemen blocking for a running back. In a rear dining room on the second floor, Bourdain was waiting at a stainless-steel table, surrounded by other diners, who had been coached to ignore the cameras and Obama, and to focus on their bún chả. Like many restaurants in Vietnam, the facility was casual in the extreme: diners and servers alike swept discarded refuse onto the floor, and the tiles had acquired a grimy sheen that squeaked beneath your feet. Obama was wearing a white button-down, open at the collar, and he greeted Bourdain, took a seat on a plastic stool, and happily accepted a bottle of Vietnamese beer.

“How often do you get to sneak out for a beer?” Bourdain asked.

“I don’t get to sneak out, period,” Obama replied. He occasionally took the First Lady to a restaurant, he said, but “part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere, and too often we end up getting shunted into one of those private rooms.”

As a young waitress in a gray polo shirt set down bowls of broth, a plate of greens, and a platter of shuddering noodles, Bourdain fished chopsticks from a plastic container on the table. Obama, surveying the constituent parts of the meal, evinced trepidation. He said, “All right, you’re gonna have to—”

“I’ll walk you through it,” Bourdain assured him, advising him to grab a clump of noodles with chopsticks and dunk them into the broth.

“I’m just gonna do what you do,” Obama said.

“Dip and stir,” Bourdain counselled. “And get ready for the awesomeness.”

Eying a large sausage that was floating in the broth, Obama asked, “Is it generally appropriate to just pop one of these whole suckers in your mouth, or do you think you should be a little more—”

“Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world,” Bourdain declared.

Obama took a bite and let out a low murmur. “That’s good stuff” he said, and the two of them—lanky, conspicuously cool guys in late middle age—slurped away as three cameras, which Bourdain had once likened to “drunken hummingbirds,” hovered around them. Noting the unaffected rusticity of the scene, Obama was reminded of a memorable meal that he had eaten as a child, in the mountains outside Jakarta. “You’d have these roadside restaurants overlooking the tea fields,” he recalled. “There’d be a river running through the restaurant itself, and there’d be these fish, these carp, that would be running through. You’d pick the fish. They’d grab it for you and fry it up, and the skin would be real crispy. They just served it with a bed of rice.” Obama was singing Bourdain’s song: earthy, fresh, free of pretense. “It was the simplest meal possible, and nothing tasted so good.”

But the world is getting smaller, Obama said. “The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left.” He added, wistfully, “I don’t know if that place will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel. But I hope it is.” The next day, Bourdain posted a photograph of the meeting online. “Total cost of Bun cha dinner with the President: $6.00,” he tweeted. “I picked up the check.”
And then there's this, much later in the article:
In 1998, Les Halles opened a Tokyo branch, and one of the owners, Philippe Lajaunie, asked Bourdain to spend a week there, mentoring the staff. Bourdain fretted over how he’d survive the thirteen-hour flight without a cigarette, but once he landed in Tokyo he was exhilarated. “This place is like ‘Blade Runner,’ ” he wrote to Joel Rose, in an e-mail. “I’m speaking French, hearing Japanese, and thinking English all while still horribly jet-lagged, crazed on iced sushi, jacked up on fugu, and just fucking dazzled by it all.” He described the thrill of walking into the most uninviting, foreign-seeming, crowded restaurant he could find, pointing at a diner who appeared to have ordered something good, and saying, “Gimme that!”

Standing watch amid civilization



Some Parables at 3QD

That’s my current piece at 3 Quarks Daily, Monday, February 7. It starts with me getting stuck in traffic trying to across the Hudson River by going through the Holland Tunnel, which runs between Lower Manhattan and Jersey City. Depending on when you make the crossing it may take you half-an-hour to an hour or more, and such delays are not at all unusual. All of the Hudson River crossings near New York City are like that. There aren’t many of them, a half-dozen or so, and hundreds of thousands of people use them every day. It makes no sense.

No one would set out to create a city with so many transportation bottlenecks. And no one didn’t. It just happened. It has always been possible to make things a bit better by making incremental improvements to existing arrangements. And the cumulative effect of these improvements is to make the overall situation worse and worse by allowing it to grow and grow. That’s what the post is about.

That’s last months 3QD post, Monday, January 9. As you may know, at the beginning of each year super-agent John Brockman has his stable of authors and friends present answers to a question, which he then collects and publishes, first to the web, and then as a hardcopy book. The question for 2017: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? For my post I chose three concepts and fleshed them out a bit:

  • Prediction error minimization, suggested by Andy Clark.
  • Bayes’ Theorem, suggested by Sean Carroll, and
  • Attractors, suggested by Kate Jeffery.

There were a number of others I would like to have discussed. For example, Ross Asby’s Law of Requisite Variety, suggested by John Naughton:
His “Law” of Requisite Variety stated that for a system to be stable, the number of states that its control mechanism is capable of attaining (its variety) must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled.

... In colloquial terms Ashby’s Law has come to be understood as a simple proposition: if a system is to be able to deal successfully with the diversity of challenges that its environment produces, then it needs to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems thrown up by the environment. So a viable system is one that can handle the variability of its environment. Or, as Ashby put it, only variety can absorb variety.
That’s an interesting way of thinking about the human mind, and the mind in society. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to link it up with the three ideas that I did discuss in my 3QD post. For extra credit you link discuss the relationship between last month’s post and this month’s.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A bit of grass


Rejected @NLH! Part 5: What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over

The Romantic hayride I have in mind is an opposition to scientific thought dating back to the Romantics and that played a role in the way the New Critics conceptualized “close reading”. Some version(s) of this opposition remains alive and well in the humanities, though I rather suspect it’s a minority affectation, albeit an influential one. Still, this is the 21st century and this reflex is getting old.

I have no particular reason to believe that my reviewer at NLH harbored Romantic anti-science ideas. But his rejection of my discussion of computation was quasi-ideological in kind – by which I mean that, as far as I can tell, it was unreflective and uninformed by significant knowledge about computation. Come to think of it, though, that rejection may not have been fundamentally a rejection of computation. Rather, it may simply have been a rejection of any kind of thought that interferes with the conflation of interpretive criticism with reading. The diagrams I used certainly did that, but so did the discussion of Obama’s performance of the eulogy, and the audience response.

What I want to do in this, the last episode in the series, is make the point is that it is not about me, for the kinds of ideas and methods I wish to advance are hardly mine alone. Thus I want to present a passage by Haj Ross, a linguist with a long-standing interest in poetics, and move from there to a more general discussion of description, with a particular focus on ring-composition. Then I’ll take up the new kid in town, computational criticism (aka digital humanities), and return to Jonathan Culler for the conclusion.

Haj Ross and poetics

I want to step aside and look at a passage by John Robert “Haj” Ross. Ross got his Ph.D. in linguistics at MIT in 1967 under, of course, Noam Chomsky. He was and is expert in those modern ‘rithmatics that Geoffrey Hartman found so problematic because they “widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing” [1]. While studying generative grammar under Chomsky, however, Haj also crossed the Charles River to Harvard where he studied poetics with Roman Jakobson. As his career moved along, and he sojourned in Brazil for awhile, he devoted more and more time to analyzing poetry and has produced a dispersed body of analytical and descriptive accounts of poems.

Here’s the opening two paragraphs of a letter he addressed to a friend [2]:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
I’m not as mystified by the discussion of meaning as Haj is. After all, I was trained to sniff out meaning and I enjoy doing so. But I understand Haj’s misgivings and I share them. It’s the problem of justifying interpretations that precipitated the disciplinary soul-searching of the 1960s and after (which I discussed in the episode, Party like it’s 1975!). But let’s bracket that.

What interests me is that Haj was arguing for the description of patterns in poems, patterns of identifiable, even countable, features in poems. I am interested in those as well. When, in my rejected article, I demonstrated that Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was a ring-composition, that was an act of description, not quite like what Haj has done with poems, but descriptive nonetheless. It doesn’t tell you want a passage or a text means. It tells you something of how it was put together, of the relationships among some of its constituent pieces.

What’s at stake in description

So let us look at description. Not only did I describe Obama’s text as a ring-composition, but I also examined the publically available video record of the event. And I pointed out that the structural center of the text was also the first time in the performance that Obama got a strong response from the audience [4]. Thus there is a specific correspondence between the group process that was Obama’s performance and the structural features of the text. That, it seems to me, is not without interest. But I was also specifically interested in the fact that the eulogy was a ring-composition and that’s what I want to focus on here.

Though I’d read about it in a 1976 essay in PMLA by R. G. Peterson [5], I didn’t think much about it at the time. It wasn’t until I’d entered in to correspondence with the late Mary Douglas that I began thinking seriously about it. She had become interested in the form in the process of studying the Old Testament and had, for example, argued that the book of Numbers [6], exhibited the form. That is, the text was of the form

A, B, C … X … C’, B’, A’

where X is structurally central and the last element echoes the first, the next to last echoes the second, and so on. She went on to deliver the Terry Lectures at Yale in 2003, in which she summarized the literature on ring composition, which was mostly about classical and Biblical texts, presented more recent examples of the form, and argued that the form was grounded in the human mind. Those lectures became a slender book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring-Composition, in 2007 [7].

Having read (and blurbed) my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil [8], Douglas knew I had some knowledge of the neurosciences and wanted to know whether or not I knew of any plausible neural foundation. Alas, I did not, but she got me thinking. I quickly discovered that two episodes of Disney’s Fantasia exhibited the form [9] and that Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 Metropolis did as well [10]. Since then I’ve identified a variety of ring-composition texts and films [11].

Meanwhile James Paxson published a critique of ring-composition in 2001 [12]. In did actually demonstrate that any specific analyses were mistaken but rather argues that the enterprise represents a triumph of critical desire over, well, that’s not entirely clear, but here’s a typical passage:
But more telling is the primacy of that tectonic center in the ring text, a center often marked by an X in the notation, ABC...X... C’ B’ A’. Ring analysts look for such linear symmetries in brief, isolated passages that comprise epics, lais, romances, or novels, and they insist on coherent linear symmetry in entire narratives, prose or lyrical, however lengthy. Ring analysts look for such linear symmetries in brief, isolated passages that comprise epics, lais, romances, or novels, and they insist on coherent linear symmetry in entire narratives, prose or lyrical, however lengthy. Ring composition therefore speaks to the desire to find bilateral or biaxial symmetry, a symmetry that might seem at times, certainly to skeptical theorists, less than perfect, often too fanciful. But to the narratological ring analyst, intrinsically bilateral symmetry cannot be denied. Her enthusiasm might obscure less than perfect bilateral symmetry, revealing at times merely punctuated anaphora or redundancy. But the ringer’s tectonic enthusiasm, the rage for order, characterizes virtually all of these symmetry-seeking exercises in critical formalism. [p. 134]
Notice the word “ringer” in that last sentence, which Paxson will use again. It’s clearly playful in a way that deconstruction will try to be, and obviously pejorative; but it’s not evidence of anything except Paxson’s sense of superiority over these hapless “ringers”. Notice that Paxson also calls out ring form analysts for their use of quasi-mathematical notation, which he cites as evidence of scientism in other passages.

What are we to make of this? It is a fact that literary criticism is a difficult, messy, and imprecise business and there is little doubt that critics have a strong tendency to see what they’re looking for. Moreover, just as Paxson has not himself reanalyzed any of the “classical”, if I may, ring-form cases and shown where they are mistaken, I have not examined them and satisfied myself about their correctness. But I do think that Mary Douglas is correct in some, though perhaps not all, of the analyses she gives in Thinking in Circles (I’ve got questions about her treatment of Tristram Shandy) and I note, furthermore, that she has given explicit criteria for identifying ring-composition.