Thursday, October 31, 2019

We're really quick to recognize familiar music

Halloween Birthday Bear with naked man and strange creatures [from the Wayquay vault]

Why computation, what does it, mostly the idea, bring to literary study?

Connection: It is a means of linking literary investigation to a wider intellectual world.

Bear with me for a moment, I’ll get there.

Let’s start with the so-called New Criticism and its formalist assertion of textual autonomy. That is, these critics were not particularly interested in analyzing and describing for as such. Rather, they invoked it, and gestured at some of its textual features, as a way of severing the text from context, that is, from readers, writers, society, and history. This resulted in a critical practice in which it is just the critic and the text (in conversation), no literary history, no psychology of any stripe, no sociology, or even philosophy, except what is present in common educated discourse. No special intellectual apparatus is needed to do such criticism. (That, incidentally, made it attractive as a pedagogical approach in the mid-20th century; but let’s set that aside.)

And it is precisely for that reason that no special effort was needed to link academic literary criticism to the wider world, not necessarily the academic world, but the world generally. To the extent that the work was carried out with a commonsense critical armamentarium, anyone could read this criticism – most especially, other critics and academics more generally, and link it to the larger world. There was one problem, however. Critics did not agree on their close readings. Could one text mean different things to different people? Was this an objective intellectual activity, or simply high-flown subjectivity on display?

And so that enterprise was put to the test in the 1960s and 1970s and found wanting, at least by many critics. This gave rise to various forms of contextual criticism. The New Historians employed cultural, social, and political history to insert texts into their historical context and Foucault linked their discourse to broader intellectual currents. Theory, as it came to be called, whether via Derrida, Lacan, Habermas, Kristeva, Deleuze, Spivak, and so forth, was a medium through which literary critics could interact with the larger intellectual world. Evolutionary psychology and (second generation) cognitive science served the same role for various critics who emerged in the mid-1990s. None of these critics, of course, needed formalism as a device to authorize a certain critical approach nor, for whatever reason, were they particularly interested in literary form as an object of description and analysis (Jamison notwithstanding).

And yet, literary works do have very interesting formal features, features well worth describing and analyzing. And there have always been critics who focused on those features via poetics and/or narratology. But this work has been secondary in the American academy. Could it be in part because there seemed to be no way to connect these interests with larger intellectual currents? Perhaps.

That is, various critics may well be fundamentally interested in form. But the imperatives of the existing discipline don’t allow the full flowering of those interests. And so they wither and all but die.

* * * * *

In my own case, its clear that I’ve always found formal analysis interesting. In my sophomore year, I believe it was, I took a cue from Lévi-Strauss and used a feature table in one of my papers. And it was an intuition about form that got me interested in “Kubla Khan” in my senior year. It seemed to me somehow that the two parts of the poem, the first 36 lines and the last 18, had the same structure. It took me a couple of years to figure that out, and when I’d done so, it set the general direction my intellectual career would take.

Some formal features in the first 36 lines of “Kubla Khan”

I pursued “Kubla Khan” in that way because it interested me. Once I’d found that form, then I recognized the trace, the smell, of computation in it. That’s when I decided to study the cognitive sciences, and that’s why I apprenticed myself to David Hays in graduate school. I wanted to know where that form came from, and how.

When I’m doing practical criticism, describing and analyzing a text, whether written or film, I’m not thinking about computing. That is, I’m not thinking about Turing machines, algorithms, data structures, flow of control, any of that. I’m thinking about patterns in the text. Computation is how I link those patterns to a larger intellectual enterprise. That’s what I was up to in my major methodological and theoretical paper:
Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. August 2005, Article 060608.
Here are the nine propositions:
  1. Literary Mode: Literary experience is mediated by a mode of neural activity in which one’s primary attention is removed form the external world and invested in the text. The properties of literary works are fitted to that mode of activity.
  2. Extralinguistic Grounding: Literary language is linked to extralinguistic sensory and motor schemas in a way that is essential to literary experience.
  3. Form: The form of a given work can be said to be a computational structure.
  4. Sharability: That computational form is the same for all competent readers.
  5. Character as Computational Unit: Individual characters can be treated as unified computational units in some, but not necessarily all, literary forms.
  6. Armature Invariance: The relationships between the entities in the armature of a literary work are the same for all readers.
  7. Elasticity: The meaning of literary works is elastic and can readily accommodate differences in expressive detail and differences among individuals.
  8. Increasing Formal Sophistication: The long-term course of literary history has been toward forms of increasing sophistication.
  9. Ranks: Over the long-term literary history has so far evolved forms at four successive cognitive ranks. These are correlated with a richer and more flexible construction of the self.
Propositions 3, 4, 5, and 6 are explicitly stated in terms of computation, and computation is implied in 8 and 9, where computation is the means that allows the formal sophistication that, in turn, eventuates in more or less distinct ranks, with the concomitant structuring of the self.

And now we’re back where we began. What does the idea of computation bring to literary study? Connection: It is a means of linking literary investigation, in particular, the description and analysis of form, to a wider intellectual world.

More later.

Brain-to-brain communication over the internet

Linxing Jiang, Andrea Stocco, Darby M. Losey, Justin A. Abernethy, Chantel S. Prat & Rajesh, BrainNet: A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains, Scientific Reports 9,  Article number: 6115, 16 April 2019,
Abstract: We present BrainNet which, to our knowledge, is the first multi-person non-invasive direct brain-to-brain interface for collaborative problem solving. The interface combines electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain signals and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to deliver information noninvasively to the brain. The interface allows three human subjects to collaborate and solve a task using direct brain-to-brain communication. Two of the three subjects are designated as “Senders” whose brain signals are decoded using real-time EEG data analysis. The decoding process extracts each Sender’s decision about whether to rotate a block in a Tetris-like game before it is dropped to fill a line. The Senders’ decisions are transmitted via the Internet to the brain of a third subject, the “Receiver,” who cannot see the game screen. The Senders’ decisions are delivered to the Receiver’s brain via magnetic stimulation of the occipital cortex. The Receiver integrates the information received from the two Senders and uses an EEG interface to make a decision about either turning the block or keeping it in the same orientation. A second round of the game provides an additional chance for the Senders to evaluate the Receiver’s decision and send feedback to the Receiver’s brain, and for the Receiver to rectify a possible incorrect decision made in the first round. We evaluated the performance of BrainNet in terms of (1) Group-level performance during the game, (2) True/False positive rates of subjects’ decisions, and (3) Mutual information between subjects. Five groups, each with three human subjects, successfully used BrainNet to perform the collaborative task, with an average accuracy of 81.25%. Furthermore, by varying the information reliability of the Senders by artificially injecting noise into one Sender’s signal, we investigated how the Receiver learns to integrate noisy signals in order to make a correct decision. We found that like conventional social networks, BrainNet allows Receivers to learn to trust the Sender who is more reliable, in this case, based solely on the information transmitted directly to their brains. Our results point the way to future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem solving by humans using a “social network” of connected brains.
Brain-to-brain interfaces also span across species, with humans using noninvasive methods similar to those in the BrainNet study to control cockroaches or rats that had surgically implanted brain interfaces. In one report, a human using a noninvasive brain interface linked, via computer, to the BCI of an anesthetized rat was able to move the animal’s tail. While in another study, a human controlled a rat as a freely moving cyborg.

The investigators in the new paper point out that it is the first report in which the brains of multiple humans have been linked in a completely noninvasive manner. They claim that the number of individuals whose brains could be networked is essentially unlimited. Yet the information being conveyed is currently very simple: a yes-or-no binary instruction. Other than being a very complex way to play a Tetris-like video game, where could these efforts lead?

The authors propose that information transfer using noninvasive approaches could be improved by simultaneously imaging brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to increase the information a sender could transmit. But fMRI is not a simple procedure, and it would expand the complexity of an already extraordinarily complex approach to sharing information. The researchers also propose that TMS could be delivered, in a focused manner, to specific brain regions in order to elicit awareness of particular semantic content in the receiver’s brain.

Meanwhile the tools for more invasive—and perhaps more efficient—brain interfacing are developing rapidly. Elon Musk recently announced the development of a robotically implantable BCI containing 3,000 electrodes to provide extensive interaction between computers and nerve cells in the brain. While impressive in scope and sophistication, these efforts are dwarfed by government plans. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been leading engineering efforts to develop an implantable neural interface capable of engaging one million nerve cells simultaneously. While these BCIs are not being developed specifically for brain–to-brain interfacing, it is not difficult to imagine that they could be recruited for such purposes.
Color me skeptical,  Why we'll never be able to build technology for Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication. Yes, such tech IS being built, but how far can it go?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Camp Meetings, Music, and the Civil War: Some Quick Notes on Culture as a Historical Force

According to Robert Fogel (The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism) what we might call the “spiritual capital” needed to fight the Civil War originated in camp meetings in the first quarter or so of the 19th century and was then maintained and amplified in a variety of ways (including continued camp meetings). Anecdotal evidence suggests that some, perhaps many, of those meetings were biracial and involved vigorous song of the sort we associate with fundamentalist/charismatic churches, black and white. These meetings typically took place over a period of days, even a week, and generally were rural, as was most of the country.

So, farmers and villagers would hitch up a wagon, load in their families, and travel tens of miles or more to some central location and set-up camp. They then spent a week listening to vigorous preaching, participating in vigorous song, got saved, witnessed others getting saved, and discussing religion and whatever else with their fellow Christians. This is where the abstract notions of freedom and equality came down from the rational ether to become embodied in felt imperatives for living.

If these meetings had been nothing more than polite lectures followed by polite discussion they wouldn’t have had much of an effect. In fact, if that’s what they had been, very few would have attended them, because such activities required a rather refined sensibility, more refined than most farmers, artisans, and their families had in those days.

Thus, music was a major component of the engine that made these meetings work. No music, no meetings. And without those meetings, there would have been little sense among white people that slavery was evil. It’s that sentiment that drove the Abolitionist movement.

Without that movement, the South wouldn’t have had any reason to rebel. If the South hadn’t rebelled, there’d have been no Civil War. That war was fought over a cultural issue that became a political force through cultural means, camp meetings.

In this case, then, culture became a historical force of considerable power.

The Hallucinated City: Sandy + seven

In the case of Harold Bloom [overrated/underrated]

I haven’t really followed reactions to the death of Harold Bloom, who was for the last few decades, after all, perhaps the most widely known literary critic outside the academy. But I’ve read a few things, all of them admiring and even adulatory. That’s what I’d expect from, say, a NYTimes obit. But I’ve also read such reactions from critics who, I thought, would have known better. I am thinking, for example, of this piece by William Flesch in n+1, who had studied with Bloom.

And THAT explains something. I have little doubt that he was a charismatic teacher, in his own style. He had a prodigious memory. He seems to have read damn near everything, or at any rate, quite a bit, and could and did quote it all. That is impressive – I saw, and admired, a somewhat different version of it in Dick Macksey. Macksey, however, published relatively little, though that little includes being co-editor of The Structuralist Controversy (1970), one of the most important books in academic literary criticism in the last half century. Bloom published a lot, I mean a whole freakin’ lot. Some of it academic, most of it not.

I don’t know how that will shake-out over the next few decades. I suppose The Anxiety of Influence (1973) is his best known academic book, known, of course, within the academy. I read it not so long after it came about and, though it certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, I found it rather interesting. I even mentioned it in a letter to Dick Macksey, saying I thought we needed more or this kind of criticism. But I’ve now all but forgotten the book and have scarcely an idea whether or not Bloom himself, much less anyone else, has written more of that. And, oh yes, the arcane terminology! Did any of those terms catch on? But I don’t think that book and its sequels and companions will support much of an enduring reputation within the academy. The world is changing.

Many years later I read, more or less on a whim, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992), where he talked about camp meetings attended by both blacks and whites  who would, on the last day, join together in song and praise. I found that very interesting indeed and cited it in an article I wrote on the enduring influence of African-American music in American culture, Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues (1997). That book, for what it’s worth, struck me as riding the fence between academic and general audience – a good fence to ride. Beyond that, I’m sure I read a review or two of his book on the Western canon, perhaps even leafed through it in the library, the same for his Shakespeare book (read pages here and there while standing in a bookstore), and this and that here and there. But I made no attempt to follow his work.

Has he made an important contribution to public discussions of literature? Perhaps he has, but I’m not the one to ask. Will that contribution endure? As I said, I’m not the one to ask, but, really, can anyone say at this point? Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be through his students, and their students, even when the name “Harold Bloom” has been forgotten.

* * * * *

Addendum: 11.31.19:  In going through my notes I found a remark that one Lenard Davis made in an article, "Edward Said's Battle for Humanism", published in The Minnesota Review:
His model of knowledge was not the Deleuzian notion of impersonalized rhizomatic knowledge, nor so much Foucault's anonymous discursity, but a pantheon of great human minds, each replete with a colorful and engaging personality. As Said put it, “the relationship between reader-critic and the text is transformed from a one-way interrogation of the historical text by an altogether alien mind at a much later time, into a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures who are able to communicate with each other as friendly, respectful spirits trying to understand each other” (16). Humanism is a long conversation between reader and author about the fate of the world.
That sounds like how Bloom conceived of himself and his role. Such a view is an outcome of a critical culture that places great emphasis and pressure on the encounter between the critic and the text, as though the library were the critic’s personal preserve to be used for his purposes, whatever they might be. The encounter may be taken as an opportunity for brilliant intellectual display, personal soul searching, or reflecting on the possibilities of human liberation from oppression, but however taken, it’s a very personal and individualistic modus operandi.

* * * * *

Note: Overrated/underrated is an intellectual game invented, so far as I know, by Tyler Cowen. It shows up in the second half of his many "Conversations with Tyler."

Rising expectations...protests...progress?

By the numbers, things in Chile look good. so why the protests?

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution:
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Second, a protest against poor conditions is not the same as a protest against inequality. Many Chilean complaints revolve around the pension system, health care, water rights, public transportation, schools and corruption. Are Chileans upset that their transport options aren’t better? That’s a complaint in absolute terms. Or are they upset that they are riding the subway while many of the wealthy have private cars with drivers? That’s a relative complaint.

The answer will depend on the protester, and in virtually all protests around the world there will be those with both motives. But some North American commentators try to equate these two grudges and subsume them all under the heading of inequality. That just won’t wash.
And don’t forget this:
In the case of Chile, it has the highest real wages in Latin America, income inequality has mostly been falling, and life expectancy is above average for the region. By Latin American standards Chile has a low rate of crime and a high degree of public order. Chile has had open and honest elections, and peaceful transfers of power, since 1990.
So high expectations may be more relevant than either “inequality” or “neo-liberalism” per se, at least for many of the protestors.
Ah, high expectations, classic: Things improve, leading people to expect further improvements, but, alas, those expectations outpace the actual improvements, leading to greater discontent. I believe that it is de Tocqueville who introduced that mode of explanation into social science, back in the mid 19th century. I read about it in The Old Regime and the Revolution in my intro to sociology class as an undergraduate.

And, to the extent that at least some protests are fueled by this mismatch between expectations and accomplishment, we might see protests as an indicator of PROGRESS.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

About those California wild fires...

See earlier post, Does it make sense to see the California blackouts as an effect of inequality, as a tax the 1% is imposing on the 99%?.

H/t Tyler Cowen.


Description and the Teleome, Part 2

To see why I'm bumping this seven year old post to the top of the queue, read its companion, linked in the first paragraph below.

* * * * *

In a previous post, Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description, I argued the rich descriptions of art objects—literary texts, musical compositions and performances, paintings, and so forth—are reasonable proxies for what theoretical psychologist Mark Changizi has called the teleome:
the ultimate catalog of an animal’s what-it-does-es. The teleome is something along the lines of the set of all the capabilities our brains and bodies were selected to carry out. It is our set of powers, or the set of things we can do, or our function list.
I now want to say a bit more about why I think the careful study of art is central to arriving at an understanding of the human teleome.

Perception and Cognition in Context

I note first that Changizi has defined the teleome with respect to all animals and that, in his work he has considered a wide range of animal species. Thus, for example, in his work on binary vision (The Vision Revolution, chapter 2: “X-Ray Vision”), he surveyed information on eye position and orientation (side-facing or front-facing) in a wide range of species to reach his conclusion that binary vision isn’t about depth perception, it’s about seeing ‘through’ occlusions (grass, leaves) in front of the face. That is, he considered the visual system in the context of its use. It’s not merely that the eye-brain system evolved to see, but that it evolved to see in particular environments and so has become adapted to the visual affordances of those environments.

What then is the context for human artistic expression? Other people, that’s what. This is so obvious that it amounts to a truism. But in the context of 20th century academia, which, of course, is hanging on in this 21st century, that truism has a bit of a punch. In the case of literary criticism, my “home” discipline, the intellectual culture has been molded by an implicit core belief that criticism is an intimate “conversation” between the critic and the text in which the critic explores the recesses of his or her soul. The critic would then, of course, publish his or her reading and so enter into scholarly communion with other critics using literary texts to explore the recesses of their souls.

Now, few critics, living or dead, would actually subscribe to those words; most, I suspect, would object to them, and vigorously. After all, isn’t a lot of criticism about how texts form and mis-inform the minds of whole friggin’ societies? Yes, but, in my view, such moves are like the cycles upon cycles Ptolemaic astronomers had to employ to resolve the gap between their observations of planetary movement and their model, which put the earth at the center of the system. The center of academic literary criticism is the Cartesian subject, the lone mind in search of the external world and of other minds.

Given that starting point, the business of figuring out what the text means—a text, after all, that is external to the critic—is deeply problematic. It is from that difficulty that academic criticism developed a rich and elaborate array of conceptual epicycles.

Art is for Groups

When I set out to do a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I simply tossed that Cartesian starting point to the winds. I didn’t even bother to mount much of an argument that against it. I simply declared that it’s not going to get us anywhere and dropped it.

I replaced it with the assertion that, when a group of people are making music, the sounds that they all perceive in common serve to couple their minds into a single dynamical system, one distributed over several physical bodies. At that time I also made the obvious generalization that all art is like that. But I did so only in my mind and my notes, not in the text of Beethoven’s Anvil. Why not go for the generalization in public? Because my specific argument about music was cut to fit the physical circumstances of music making. Any generalization would require work to refit the model to the different circumstances of, say, story telling, reading a book, looking at a painting, and so forth.

I still haven’t done that work nor, as far as I know, has anyone else. One issue, is that (films and the like excepted) visual arts are not arrayed in time. One, of course, views them in time, but the work itself doesn’t dictate the course of the viewing in the way that a musical performance does. Another problem is that, once a work has been inscribed in some more or less permanent medium (written text for verbal art, recordings for music, visual art, of course, is created in a more or less permanent medium) people can view it at different times and places. That being the case, how can we say that the work couples all those people into a single dynamical system? But, for the purposes of this post, I’ll overlook these issues.

You might, however, want to read the account of oral story telling I offer in, e.g. this post: Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker.

Thus, as I’ve said above, the context of artistic expression is other people. The art work, whether it’s a musical performance, a poem, a story, a play, a painting, a drawing, a piece of sculpture, whatever, a work of art couples people’s minds and bodies into a single dynamical system. Given that, the question we must ask, then, is: What features must the work have in order to facilitate that coupling?

My interest in describing works of art follows directly from that question. I want to craft descriptions that set forth the various features, the affordances if you will, that allow the art work to be a medium for coupling between physically distributed minds. In the case of music the single most important feature, but certainly not the only one, is music—which I explicated at some length in Beethoven’s Anvil.

Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description

From seven years ago, I'm bumping this to the top because the topic is on my mind these days: Why do the human sciences need rich, and objective, descriptions of aesthetic objects (poems, novels, paintings, musical performances, and so forth)? I sketch and answer to that in this post and in its companion, Description and the Teleome, Part 2.

* * * * *

Just the other day The New York Times’ John Markoff published an article on recent and apparently dramatic success in artificial intelligence: Scientists See Promise in Deep-Learning Programs. I skimmed the article—which said almost nothing about the techniques of this deep-learning—and wondered whether or not we’re being set-up for another fall. Markoff mentions the so-called “AI winter” of the mid-1980s that froze out entrepreneurial dreams of riches through practical AI when the practical proved impossible. He doesn’t mention that something similar happened to machine translation and computational linguistics in the early 1960s when Federal funding disappeared.

Stalking the Wild Teleome

So, with wonder in hand, I went over to Changizi and asked: “What do you think, boom or bust?” Mark pulled out his post: What Should We Unravel Next, After the Genome? Answer: The Teleome. He sets the stage:
Imagine that you find some mysterious device under your bed. What’s your next thought? It’s to wonder what the device does. Could it be a hand vacuum, a kid toy? …a bomb? Notice that your first thought does not concern how the device works. It’s premature to get to the “how it works” without having figured out the “what it does”. Obviously!

In much of the biological and brain sciences, however, there appears to be something of an inversion to this. In many scientific circles questions about “what it does” are deemed intrinsically unscientific or meaningless, and explanations in that domain are necessarily “just so” stories rather than science. Only questions concerning the biological mechanisms — i.e., concerning “how it works” — are truly kosher. And this attitude is reflected in funding priorities: ”how” funding dominates the “what it’s for” funding by a mile.
On the one hand, yes, sure, I agree. On the other hand, just a minute there. As you know I study literary texts, among other complex cultural objects such as movies, music, and graffiti. Not so long ago I found myself hip deep in nonsense about the adaptive purpose of art: it’s all about mating, no it’s about useful stories, no no no it’s about figuring out what to do with hyperactive intelligence, and so on. That is, they seem to be taking Changizi’s advice and are trying to figure out what it’s doing when the brain’s pumping out art and such. They’re looking for purpose, for what the design is supposed to accomplish.

On the other hand, though I have in fact given some thought to the question of just why, biologically, we make art (e.g. Emotion Recollected in Tranquility), I’ve been more compelled by the question How does it work? So I seem to be taking the wrong side of Changizi’s argument. Changizi argues we’re not going to figure out how it works until we know what it’s trying to do:
We need a “teleome,” the ultimate catalog of an animal’s what-it-does-es. The teleome is something along the lines of the set of all the capabilities our brains and bodies were selected to carry out. It is our set of powers, or the set of things we can do, or our function list.
Now, I rather doubt that Changizi would be enlightened if someone told him that, among the many powers of human brains and bodies, are the powers to make poems, music, and images. I mean, he already knows that, just as he knows that human brains and bodies fight wars, negotiate treaties, and even, on rare occasions, go boldly where no man has gone before. These proposals are chosen from the wrong conceptual universe; they don’t quite mesh with the conceptual materials of the cognitive, behavioral, and neurosciences.

A bit later in his post Changizi more or less addresses this issue: “it is not yet clear what [the teleome] would even look like. Surely it would not simply be a list. Instead, it would probably be a hierarchically tiered structure of some kind, with powers built out of sub-powers, and so on.”


Hierarchically tiered structure.


Powers built out of subpowers.


Describing, for example, a poem

So what’s this have to do with the humanities and poems and things like that?

Well, let me assert that, to a first approximation, writing a poem or telling a good story engages a wide range of human capabilities in an integrated fashion. Keith Oatley argues that literary texts are simulations, in the computer science sense of the term, of living life—and a half century ago Susan Langer (Feeling and Form) talked of the arts as providing virtual (her word) experience. Whatever the mind’s mechanisms are, a whole bunch of them are in use when making or comprehending art.

Pansies [thanks for the memories]

Does it make sense to see the California blackouts as an effect of inequality, as a tax the 1% is imposing on the 99%?

I wonder how many of the executives (and board members?) who made this decision will feel the effects themselves?

Two days ago Tyler Cowen had a post, The economics of California power blackouts. He began by quoting from a NYTimes article [1]:
“When you turn the lights out on 3 million people because you have to keep the power lines safe then there’s no reason you should be allowed to continue,” Mr. Court said.

Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said the issue was safety.

“We would only take this decision for one reason — to help reduce catastrophic wildfire risk to our customers and communities,” Mr. Lewis said in a statement.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January after amassing tens of billions of dollars in liability related to two dozen wildfires in recent years. As speculation grew that its equipment might be the cause of the Kincade Fire, its stock price plummeted about 30 percent on Friday to $5.08, a small fraction of its 52-week high of $49.42.
He then went on to observe:
I would think the market expectation is that if PG&E is allowed to continue, as is likely to be the case, that it slowly will claw its way back to profitability, given that this is a highly regulated sector with barriers to entry. So the company is afraid of losing its expected remaining profit from further liability, and thus it plays it safe with power, too safe because they don’t suffer so much from the power blackouts. Sadly, the retail customers do not have many other options.
The rest of his column is about how this situation might better be handled. Let's set that aside. What interests me is just what's set forth above. It looks like the 1% who are making PG&E's are protecting their own financial interests rather than the interests of the 99% who they are supposed to serve, not out of good will mind you, but because they are customers. They are paying for power, but not getting it in this instance.

Cowen has a more recent post in which he laments that economists are all over it when it comes to opining on Big Issues, but when it comes to "designing a better incentive model for California power utilities — a concrete problem for which economics is remarkably well-suited — there has been close to complete silence." Whoops!

* * * * *

[1] Cowen's link points to a running compilation of reports; that particular one is no longer in the compilation. But this NYTimes article, PG&E Warns It Could Cut Power to California Users Again, contains the relevant statements (from Lewis) and information (about the bankruptcy filing).

How we move reveals who we are: Movement signatures

Gretchen Reynolds, Something in the Way We Move, NYTimes, Oct 23, 2019:
Each of us appears to have a unique way of moving, a physical “signature” that is ours alone, like our face or fingerprints, according to a remarkable new study of people and their muscles. The study, which used machine learning to find one-of-a-kind patterns in people’s muscular contractions, could have implications for our understanding of health, physical performance, personalized medicine and whether and why people can respond so differently to the same exercise.

Intuitively, most of us probably know there is something in the way we move, and that that something defines us. In studies and daily life, most people can pick out their friends and loved ones, based solely on how they walk. At least one surveillance company also claims to be able to identify and track people using their gaits.

But those identifications, whether fond or creepy, rely on external cues about how we look in motion and depend on anatomical features, such as height, limb length or how we swing our arms, which may not be stable. Wear heels, develop sore feet, limp, and you could move differently.

Some scientists have speculated that other subtler, interior movement patterns, such as the ways in which our muscles fire in choreography with one another when we will our body to move, might be particular to each of us and relatively constant. But little research had delved into what our muscles are up to when we move.

So, for the new study, which was published this month in the Journal of Applied Physiology, French and Australian researchers decided to turn to algorithms to ferret out whether unique, personal muscle patterns exist.
They recorded the muscle contractions from eight muscles on each of 80 volunteers as they rode stationary bikes and walked on treadmills in a human performance lab. They then fed the measurements to a machine-learning program in a supervised learning design. Once the system had been exposed to identified measurements it was then given unidentified measurements, which it was able to identify with 99 percent accuracy on the basis of readouts from eight muscles. Accuracy dropped to 80 percent with readouts from only two muscles.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Retrograde sentiments [found in a demolished building in Jersey City]

Blacks, Blues, and Soul Sickness: Lynching and Racism in the USofA

I'm bumping this to the top of the queue, 1) to reinforce in my mind the name John Dollard (see below), and 2) in general principle. It's good to keep these things before the mind.
* * * * *
[11.18.14] I've posted this before, about a year ago, but I'm bumping to the top in view of yesterday's 3QD piece about America's cultural psychology. In that piece i talked about the empath dynamic (named after an episode of Star Trek) whereby white America has made black America suffer for its sins.
Here's two (incomplete) sections from my (incomplete) draft of the opening chapter of an unsold (and therefore unpublished) book on the interaction of blacks and whites in the creation of American musical forms – and expansion of my longish article, Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues. The first section is a rather graphic and grim piece about lynchings. If you thought that lynchings were mostly carried out in the middle of the night by a few drunken good ol' boys, well think again. Some of them were like that, but then some were also elaborate public spectacles. They even had photographers there who took photos and put them on postcards (you can find images of some by conducting a google search).

You might just want to skip over that section and go straight to the second, which is about the psychology of lynching. Not so graphic. But just as important.
Paris Burns: The Immolation of Henry Smith

In one of the songs most closely identified with her, “Strange Fruit,” Billy Holiday sings of “black bodies swinging from the cottonwood trees.” With over three-thousand black (and seven-hundred white) victims, lynchings plagued this country for a fifty-year period straddling the turn of the 20th century and are a telling example and symbol of racist violence. One doesn’t have to examine them too closely to suspect more than we are even yet prepared to acknowledge about the cultural psychodynamics of racism.

We must be quite clear on this point: as horrible as the beating of Rodney King was, the lynchings were much worse. The national outrage which followed the broadcast of that beating is a sign of how far we have advanced in the last sixty or seventy years. One way to appreciate that advance is to confront the enormous pain, horror, and evil of those lynchings.

Consider the case of Henry Smith as described by Joel Williamson in The Crucible of Race. In 1893 Smith was alleged to have raped and murdered three-and-a-half year old Myrtle Vance in Paris, Texas. As there was no trial, kangaroo or otherwise; there was no legal judgment of guilt, but Williamson says nothing to suggest that Smith was innocent of the crime.

While two-thousand men spent four days hunting their prey, special trains brought people to Paris so they could take part in the grand ritual. Smith was finally tracked down and brought back to Paris. Thousands cheered as he was taken from the train, tied to a chair on the bed of a large wagon designed to haul cotton, paraded through town, and then taken to a ten-foot platform where 10,000 people, men, women, and children, had gathered to witness final retribution. Smith was tied to a stake thrust up through the platform and then tortured by the girl’s father and male relatives. A photographer took pictures and it has been said that someone made a gramophone recording of Smith’s cries. At the end, Smith, stake, and platform were piled with fuel, soaked with oil, and burned. When the ashes had cooled a day later, people raked through them looking for teeth, bones, and buttons, not exactly pieces of the true cross, but relics of a similar ritual.

The torture and death of Henry Smith was a very grisly business, but not wildly atypical. Torture was common and so were mass mobs, though this one was unusually large. As in the case of Henry Smith, most of the lynching victims were black men and many were accused of some sexual offense against a white woman; in some cases the offense was real, in many it was not. Many lynchings were elaborate public exhibitions, having about them the extravagance of the Inquisition’s autos-de-fé (acts of faith) where penitents would confess their sins, profess their faith, and be immolated to purify their bodies; or one of those old Roman entertainments involving Christians and lions or; a bit closer to home, a New England witch burning.

In a detailed study of lynchings occurring between 1880 and 1930 in Georgia, representing the deep South, and Virginia, representing the borderline South, W. Fitzhugh Brundage shows that lynchings were committed by several types of group, the terrorist mob, the private mob, the posse, and the mass mob (Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930). Terrorist mobs were relatively small, generally less than fifty people, and consisted of members of groups organized to maintain white supremacy through intimidation and violence; the Ku Klux Klan is the best-known of these groups. Private mobs were also relatively small, but were convened only to avenge or punish specific alleged offenses, and then dispersed. Posses were quasi-legal bodies constituted to capture criminals. However, they frequently overstepped their charge and lynched the criminal.

Mass mobs, such as the one that executed Henry Smith, were responsible for the largest number of lynchings, 34% in Georgia and 40% in Virginia. These were also the most spectacular lynchings and involved hundreds or even thousands of people from all strata of Southern society, from top to bottom. These were the most highly ritualized lynchings, a matter emphasized by both Brundage and Williamson, who talk as though these mobs did their work according to written standards and practices.

When the victim had been captured, he (or, in some cases, she) would be given an opportunity to confess and to pray. Then he was hung, sometimes with a drop so as to break the neck, other times there was no drop and the victim just strangled, or died from gunshots. For particularly heinous offenses the victim was tortured prior to hanging—something mass mobs were more likely to do than posses, terrorist mobs, or private mobs. Once the victim was hung, tradition often dictated that all present should shoot a bullet into the dead or dying body. All those shooting, in effect, took responsibility for the death, thereby making the community responsible, not just a few individuals. In some cases the firing was done with military precision, with rank upon rank firing in turn. Thus a hundred, two hundred, or more men would have the opportunity to register their anger and hatred, disguised as justice, on the bodies of black men. It is as though these bullets had some cleansing magic, transferring mental pain from angry whites to the bodies of helpless blacks.

When the victim was well and thoroughly dead, and perhaps mutilated as well, a sign might be hung on the body—Brundage notes a sign that requested “Please do not wake him.” The body often remained on display for hours or even days and people would often take relics, pieces of rope and chain, or even fragments of the victim’s body. Finally, a coronor’s jury would be convened to determine the cause of death, often set down to death by “unknown parties.” In fact, nothing was unknown. Everyone in the community knew who did what, and there were often photographs to prove it. According to Brundage:
What is paradoxical is that coroners’ juries would adhere to the process of the law when they carried out bogus investigations of violence which, however much it violated the rule of law with impunity, they had no intention of condemning. In reports typically written out in crude longhand on any convenient piece of paper the most horrifying details of mass lynchings were recorded. The juries had little difficulty in finding witnesses who could describe events in detail. But even when the witnesses mentioned specific names, juries, which in many instances included men who had participated in the lynching, either exonerated the community of all involvement in the lynching or else openly applauded the mob violence. . . However token the process, in the eyes of white southerners the investigations by coroners’ juries and grand juries were testimonials to the rule of law.
And that, presumably, was the function of the coronor’s jury in these cases—to exonerate the community of any wrong-doing. Mass mob lynchings didn’t represent violations of community standards. Rather, they expressed those standards.

However savage the violence in a mass mob lynching, the ritualized nature of that violence means that the lynchings were not simply wild outpourings of anger and hatred. Rather, they represent culturally sanctioned and rehearsed expressions of attitudes. This ritualized violence is one way that people were able to affirm their communal life.

Many lynchings were occasioned, if not by rape, then by allegations of rape, but not the majority of lynchings. According to Brundage, murder was the offense alleged in 46 % of Georgia lynchings and 44% of Virginia lynchings while sexual offenses were alleged in 28% of Georgia lynchings and 46% of Virginia lynchings. The remaining lynchings, 25% in Georgia and 10% in Virginia, were for a variety of offenses, such as theft, arson, or insulting a white person in any of the numerous ways whites perceived insults from blacks. In contradiction of these facts, the general perception of lynchings in the South was that they were occasioned by rape. Sex is what was on people’s minds.

Why Lynching? Why Racism?

Why, we would like to know, did reign of extralegal violence straddling the turn of the twentieth century? John Dollard addressed this question in his classic 1937 study, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, which “redirected the study of southern race relations in general and lynching in particular” by asking a simple question: Why do people need racism? The question implies that mistaken beliefs about others are symptoms of racism, not its cause. Racism has some useful function in the individual or collective lives of racists. What function could that be? Dollard’s answer was, in effect: to keep the peace.

Given the practices standard to lynchings one could imagine a lynched man bedecked with a sign saying that “He’s at peace.” But that man’s friends and family were certainly not at peace. On the contrary, they were likely both grief-stricken and terrified. But, one can imagine that the community of racists was, for awhile, unusually united and more conflict-free than normal — though I don’t know of any studies which have attempted to verify this. That’s the peace Dollard had in mind, the peace of a community righteously united against a common enemy.

Plasma Sluggs was here

What is computation? That is to say, what do I mean by computation? [putting things in order]

As far as I know, the nature of computation is still under investigation. I’m not really qualified to or in fact interested in addressing the question in its full scope and generality. I’m interested in a more limited question – though not, as these things go, all that limited – of the computational aspects of the human mind. And within that, I’m particularly interested in language, and in literature, which of course includes language, but more as well. How much more...who knows?

So, I start out with the abstract idea of computation, then introduce the idea of implementing computation in a physical system and conclude by observing that the computational simulation of a system is not to be confused with the thing itself.

Abstract computation

Abstractly considered, Turing defined computation in terms of a machine that had, 1) a set of symbols, 2) a paper tape on which symbols could be written and from which they could be erased, 3) a device that read from and wrote to the tape, and 4) an instruction set defining relations between the symbols and specifying writing to and erasing from the tape. We need not go beyond that. My point is that we do have a well-known and thoroughly explored account of computation, and that that account is stated in terms of an abstract machine.

Real computation requires physical implementation

I’m not interested in abstract computation on an abstract machine. I’m interested in real computation on a real device of some kind. Given some device, how can we implement computation on that device. It is the idea of implementation that is key.

The device that interests me, of course, is the human brain. And the conclusion I’ve reached over the past few years is that natural language is the simplest activity that requires computation. Language cannot be explained and understood without reference to computation. By implication then we should be able to understand, for example, visual perception without reference to computation. This implies that the full powers of an advanced primate brain are necessary for implementing computation. I suppose that’s the take-out from a paper David Hays and I published in the 1988:
William Benzon and David Hays, Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence, Journal of Social and Biological Structures, Vol. 11, No. 8, July 1988, 293-322,
We didn’t quite put things in those terms, but that paper justifies them. We need not going into the details here.

And so, going back to March of 2016, I’ve written a series of posts on that theme. I’ve collected them under the label, “computational envelope”. This, of course, is another post in that series.

Simulation is not the thing itself

Now we need one more idea, that of simulation. Digital computers can be, have been, and are being used to simulate all sorts of things. But the simulation of a thing is not to be confused with the thing itself. A simulation of an atomic explosion is quite a different phenomenon from a real atomic explosion. And so it is for many other things as well.

And then we have the brain, of any animal, and the human mind. In this case there seems to be some difficulty in distinguishing between a simulation of the thing and the thing itself. It’s not that anyone is confused about the difference between a digital computer, but rather that there is a suspicion that, if we simulate mental processes on a digital computer with sufficient precision and power, then perhaps that computer is not merely running a simulation of a mind, but is in fact a mind. I say let’s set that one aside until we actually confront the situation. So far, we are no where near that.

Now we’ve arrived at the point of this post, a passage from a most interesting book by Peter Gärdenfors, Conceptual Spaces (MIT 2000) p. 253:
On the symbolic level, searching, matching, of symbol strings, and rule following are central. On the subconceptual level, pattern recognition, pattern transformation, and dynamic adaptation of values are some examples of typical computational processes. And on the intermediate conceptual level, vector calculations, coordinate transformations, as well as other geometrical operations are in focus. Of course, one type of calculation can be simulated by one of the others (for example, by symbolic methods on a Turing machine). A point that is often forgotten, however, is that the simulations will, in general be computationally more complex than the process that is simulated.
I rather suspect that all of these kinds of processes take place in the human brain. Only the symbolic level processes however, are irreducibly computational as implemented in the human brain. The other processes are implemented in some non-computational way.

Pattern recognition and transformation might be implemented in neurodynamics while coordinate transformations might, in part, be carried out by the physical structure of region to region mapping in the brain. Whatever. But the scientific investigation of human perception and cognition may require us to simulate any and all of these processes in a computer – as indeed, Walter Freeman has implemented dynamical processes in understanding how odors are recognized and remembered. The fact that we can simulate these processes computationally does not, of course, imply that they are computational in the brain.


It is my impression that a have of confusion has arisen through a failure to distinguish between the need for implementation on the one hand and the difference between simulation and reality on the other. That’s more than I want to go into here and now.

Three Godzillas in Jersey City

Enchanted by meaning – That’s been the fate of American criticism, but elsewhere?

Though, to be blunt, in my more polemical moods I’m inclined to think that “besotted” is a better word to characterize academic literary criticism’s engagement with the search for meaning, at least in America. It wasn’t always thus; there is a history here. And in the rest of the world? Has that enchantment taken hold, or is there a bit of distance, even resistance? That’s what I’m wondering about.

This enchantment had all but taken hold by the time I’d become an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1960s. But I did see hints of and hear echoes from other modes of literary study. And I noted the transformation of the meaning of “reading” from common sense word into a term of professional art. As a common sense term it meant simply “to read”, as any literate person does with a text of any kind, whether a greeting card, the daily newspaper, a technical report or user’s manual, or, yes, a literary text. As a term of art it meant “to interpret, to explicate”, a mostly written activity in which one comments on the meanings inherent in (in one formulation) or one finds in (a somewhat different formulation) a literary text. For anyone entering literary study, however, a decade or so later, and whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, those hints and echoes would have been gone. Reading, that is, interpretive reading, had become the focus of literary study and, for all practical purposes, it had always been thus.

But, as I’ve said, there IS a history there. According to Gerald Graff in Professing Literature (1987) interpretive criticism, in the form of so-called close reading, was a response to a demographic shift in higher education after World War II. While close reading has pre-war roots but became particularly attractive as a pedagogical tool when college enrollment increased after the war and it thus became necessary to educate large numbers of undergraduates from disparate backgrounds. This educational imperative was, if anything, more ethical than merely cognitive, where by “ethical” I mean to invoke ethos, which my dictionary glosses as “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” Close-reading was a means by which large numbers of undergraduates could be imbued with the values of American culture, indeed, of Western civilization. Close-reading’s assertion of textual autonomy meant that it was not necessary to be steeped in historical knowledge in order to think and write about literary classics. One merely had to learn how to attend to the text.

And if close-reading was to become a pedagogical technique, well then the pedagogues themselves had to master it. So they did, and in the process close reading became the focus of post-war literary criticism. By the mid-1960s, however, critics began to notice and wonder about the fact that different critics arrived at different meanings for the same text. How could this be? If criticism is a form of knowledge, then shouldn’t we all agree on textual meaning? Otherwise criticism would seem to be little more than personal opinion decked out in often high-flown rationalizations. And so the profession entered a period of methodological reflection that lasted, let us say, through the 1970s and into the 80s. It is during this period that both structuralism and linguistics were considered as means of textual commentary that didn’t necessarily focus on decoding textual meaning, but were concerned with techniques and forms of construction.

Both, however, were discarded. Not completely, to be sure, narratology has persisted, and a bit of poetics and even linguistics. But they were not regarded as central to the discipline. They have little presence in mainstream journals such as PMLA, Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and so forth. During the mid-1990s both cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology entered the scene, but both were firmly subject to the reigning focus on meaning. They provided new interpretive vocabularies and little more.

And that, more or less, is where the profession is today. Yes, there is computational criticism, which is a whole different ball of wax. But it seems to me that, whatever its potential, it still functions, or valiantly attempts to function, under the sign of meaning.

That’s academic literary criticism in the United States. What’s going on elsewhere? I have the distinct impression that narratology and even linguistics have received more play in (Continental) Europe than they have in the United States. Is that the case, or am I imagining things? What about elsewhere in the world? For example, I’ve got a post where I excerpt an exchange between J. Hillis Miller and Zhang Jiang, a senior critic in the People’s Republic of China. That conversation is about interpretive criticism, specifically deconstruction. I’ve got another short post in which Hollis Robbins talks about Chinese scholars’ knowledge of literary theory, that is, (advanced) interpretive criticism? Is that all that the Chinese have taken Western criticism. What about narratology (from Europe)? And so I wonder about Japan, India, and the rest of the non-Western world. For that matter, what about native intellectual traditions?

All of which is to say: Is interpretive criticism all that there is in the academy? If so, we’re in deep trouble, for interpretive criticism has bottomed out. There’s nothing left but new variations on old themes.

On the other hand, here’s an opportunity. If some body of scholars out there in the wider world were to latch on to the best of computational criticism and combine it what what I have been calling naturalist criticism and within an intellectual generation, perhaps two, they could show those backward Westerner’s a thing or two.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Friday Fotos [now on Sunday]: The Hallucinated City ['original']

I'd originally posted this five years ago, on October 24, 2014 – five years ago for those shaky-cam photos (1, 3, and 5), and for the interior of what I called the "urban design laboratory" (2) ?! – but I'm bumping this to the top of the queue. I like that as a rubric for a set of photos, The Hallucinated City, and plan to do more of them.

* * * * *







The value of knowing that something is possible, even if you don't yourself know how

I think one kind of knowledge is particularly important in climbing – and maybe in other areas of human endeavour, too. That’s simply the knowledge that something has already been done – the existence proof that a feat is possible. Guidebooks record that a climb has been done and where it goes, though not usually how to do it. To know in advance the physical details of how a climb is done – what climbers call “beta” – is considered to lessen the achievement of a subsequent ascent. But simply to know that the climb is possible (and have some idea of how hard it is going to be) is an important piece of information in itself.
Yes!! That's very important.

And yes in other areas as well. If you KNOW that it has been done, then you know the boundaries of the space you must search and won't waste time trying the enlarge the boundaries. Instead you'll confine your search to the known, the existing space.

Kurtz as MacGuffin, or: Why trash him before we meet him?

But, and this is crucial, he wanted us have a précis of Kurtz’s story before we finally meet him in the last installment. [Why? Good question, but let’s leave it alone for now.]
That’s where I’m going, to answer the question I posted in brackets. But before we get there I want to take up a matter that Samuel Delany has been emphasizing in discussions at Facebook: It’s not about Kurtz; he’s only a subplot, if you will.

Kurtz as MacGuffin

You might object, But he’s the central character in the story. He’s why Marlow went up the Congo. He’s what the story’s all about. No?

No. Yes, he is the central character and, yes, he is why Marlow went up the Congo. But is he really what the story is all about? Is it about his thoughts and desires and how he’s changed in the course of the story? Think about it.

First, over half of the narrative goes by before we learn anything about him other than his name. We get a précis of his life story in one long paragraph – the good, the bad, and the very bad (“Exterminate all the brutes!”), then he’s carried onto the steamer, sees his African mistress gunned down, and then he dies, well before the story concludes with a conversation between Marlow and his Kurtz’s fiancée. He doesn’t do much of anything. Whatever doing he’s done is in the past. In this story he just gets carried to a watery grave.

I submit that Kurtz is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, the object in a spy story or a detective story that motivates the action. The black ceramic bird at the center of The Maltese Falcon is a good example. It turned out to be of little or no value (the statue was a fake), but people thought it was valuable and so they made all this fuss over it.

The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I'm convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that's raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, "What does he do?" The counterintelligence man replies, "Let's just say that he's an importer and exporter." "But what does he sell?" "Oh, just government secrets!" is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!
To be sure, Heart of Darkness is not a spy story or a detective story. It’s a stripped down African adventure story. But the concept is still apt.

Consider Steven Spielberg’s enormously successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the highest grossing films of all times. In this case the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant, a religious object of great value to Christians and Jews, but otherwise just an old relic with unspecified powers. But what does the Ark actually do in the film? What purpose is accomplished through the agency afforded by the Ark? Nothing, really. Yes, at the end, the Nazis look at it when it is opened and are thereby incinerated, but the plot was never about defeating Nazis. It was about finding this object, this MacGuffin. And what happens to it? It ends up in a government warehouse in the middle of nowhere.

The Ark and its surrounding aura is the focus of an exotic adventure set in the Middle East, but that’s all it is. And so it is with Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. He’s the focus of a story about a voyage up the Congo in which an African helmsman is killed by other Africans and an African woman is killed by European “pilgrims”, but he does nothing in the story and facilitates no larger purpose. He’s a pretext.

A pretext for what? Delany argues that the real story is in all the delays in the journey, delays caused mostly by colonialist incompetence. That is surely part of it; these imperialist lords are shown to be incompetent as well as greedy. But that doesn’t quite account for Marlow’s final conversation with Kurtz’s Intended. It is in the course of the conversation that we learn why Kurtz went into the Congo (paragraph 171):
"I listened. The darkness deepened. I was not even sure whether he had given me the right bundle. I rather suspect he wanted me to take care of another batch of his papers which, after his death, I saw the manager examining under the lamp. And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink. I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn't rich enough or something. And indeed I don't know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there.
That revelation points at the heart of European social order, the bourgeois family, and reveals it to be a sham. That revelation in turn cascades up to a meta-level and becomes a comment on the European novel, which had been obsessed with marriage and family throughout the 19th century.

Why that long paragraph, that précis?

Now we’re in a position to answer that question: Why give us a précis of Kurtz’s story before we finally meet him in the last installment? Because we need the précis in order to understand the very end of the paragraph. What happens at the end? As I have pointed out before (e.g. in The Heart of Heart of Darkness) at the very end of that paragraph Kurtz compares Kurtz to his helmsman, who had just been killed, and finds him wanting. Conrad had to give us the précis in order to make the comparison meaningful. Marlow had already told us quite a bit about the incompetence of his African crew; now we also know that Kurtz himself was morally bankrupt.

Now that we know enough about both Kurtz and the helmsman to make the comparison meaningful, and Kurtz comes up short, what then? Imagine a somewhat different version of Raiders of the Lost Ark where, at some point a bit after the middle, and well before we’re sure the Ark has been discovered, Spielberg engineers a flash-forward in which we see the Ark being trundled into the warehouse, perhaps with some workers talking about all the time and expense wasted in finding that old piece of junk. That would pretty much empty the rest of the story of its life. All this work – for that’s what this grand adventure has become, mere work – is for pretty damn little.

That long paragraph does two things. In the first place it removes all the mystery that has surrounded Kurtz. We have nothing to look forward to when Marlow finally finds him. Secondly, it robs the journey of any moral value. Up to this point in may have seemed as through this journey up the Congo was but a long tedious slog through the charnel house of European imperialism. Now we know that’s all it has been.

And this in turn sets us up for the story’s penultimate horror, the slaughter of Kurtz’s mistress. The ultimate horror, of course, is the story’s final lie (paragraphs 188-197):
"'Ah, but I believed in him more than anyone on earth—more than his own mother, more than—himself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, every glance.'

"I felt like a chill grip on my chest. 'Don't,' I said, in a muffled voice.

"'Forgive me. I—I—have mourned so long in silence—in silence. . . . You were with him—to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .'

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.

"'Repeat them,' she said in a heart-broken tone. 'I want—I want—something—something—to—to live with.'

"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'

"'His last word—to live with,' she murmured. 'Don't you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!'

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

"'The last word he pronounced was—your name.'

"I heard a light sigh, and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it—I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether. . . ."
Notice how Marlow was thinking of Kurtz’s last words – 'The horror! The horror!' – words Kurtz most likely (surely?) uttered in reference having seen his mistress slaughtered, as he, Marlow, prepared to deliver his lie. Think of the social structures, and the history, bound together by those words and rendered into dust though that lie.