Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Karnofsky residence – Louis Armstron'gs 2nd home – was destroyed by Ida

Monday, August 30, 2021

Criticism in an age of delirium: Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

Once again I'm thinking about form, so I'm bumping this to the top of the queue, which is about a book that is NOT about literary form, though it pretends otherwise. That is, if literary texts are made up of words, and literary form is about the arrangement of words, then Levine's Forms is not about literary form because it has relatively little to say about the arrangement of words in texts, though it makes noises in that direction in the introduction. Rather it is about forms of social life and organization that can be represented in literature, which is interesting, but not a matter of literary form. FWIW, Derek Attridige is skeptical about the book on similar grounds.

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I don’t know when I first learned of Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015), but it was some time after it had won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for an outstanding work of literary scholarship. That put it on my radar screen, the conjunction of form as its topic and winning the prize. I hoped, you know, for an actual discussion of form, but wasn’t really expecting one. Alas, my expectations were fulfilled, my hopes, not.

I read some of the book with great care, and even thought about writing a blog post or two explaining my misgivings. But this or that seemed more important and I simply forgot about the book. And then yesterday this showed up in my Twitter feed:

Not only was I reminded of the book, but I also learned that PMLA had devoted a symposium to it.

So I’ve decided to post, briefly. The first of passages:
The relationship between materiality and form has long been of interest in literary studies. Critics have often assumed that the materiality of a text’s content lends itself to certain literary forms: patterns of labor or rhythms of the body yielding certain repetitions in poetry, for example. [...] Literature is not made of the material world it describes or invokes but of language, which lays claims to its own forms—syntactical, narrative, rhythmic, rhetorical—and its own materiality—the spoken word, the printed page. And indeed, each of these forms and materials lays claim to its own a affordances—its own range of capabilities. Every literary form thus generates its own, separate logic. (p. 10)
Levine’s contrast between the materiality of a text’s content and its materiality as a string of words is promising. A bit later this theme continues:
I will make the case here that no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others. This means that literary forms can lay claim to an efficacy of their own. They do not simply reflect or contain prior political realities. As different forms struggle to impose their order on our experience, working at different scales of our experience, aesthetic and political forms emerge as comparable patterns that operate on a common plane. (p. 16)
And yet there is an ominous note here, politics. This is a book about politics, at least politics as it is understood by literary critics, which has only a tangential relationship with how politics works in the flesh-and-blood world.

Hence the title of this post, criticism in an age of delirium, an age where wish, desire, and dream are readily confused with reality. Only a literary critic would think that analyzing organizational forms (the “Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network” of Levine’s subtitle) as they appear in works of literary and video art is tantamount to examining them in the world of blood, sweat, tears, and rubber on the road; and only a literary critic would think that such conceptual analysis is a political act. No wonder the humanities are threatened; literary critics treat politics as form of ghost dancing [1].

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I quite agree that literature is made of language, that each “form thus generates its own, separate logic” and that “literary forms can lay claim to an efficacy of their own”. But this is NOT a book about language and the forms it takes in literature. It is a book about ideas expressed in that language. And if it is not about the actual language of literature, how can it possibly speak about the “affordances”, the “capabilities”, or the “efficacy” of that language? This is a book that’s blind to its ostensible subject.

This is most obvious in its final chapter, devoted to The Wire, where Levine weaves together the forms she’d discussed in previous chapters: whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network. The Wire, of course, is not a literary text; it’s a TV show and it ran for four seasons. There isn’t a single frame grab in the chapter. Moreover, it is easy to read the chapter and forget that it’s about a TV show, not a novel. The materiality of her text is irrelevant to Levine.

And that implies that she hasn’t the foggiest idea about the forms these texts take. She’s not interested in the texts, as such, but only in the worlds represented in those texts.

I suppose I could be accused of lacking critical generosity, criticizing Levine for failing for failing to do something she obviously has no interest in doing. So be it.

But it’s not really Levine that I’m criticizing. It’s the profession of academic literary criticism. There’s the source of failure. Within that circumscribed context this is an excellent book. In a way, it may even be a book of the highest and best kind, a book that remains within the established conceptual boundaries of the discipline while finding surprising new things to do within those boundaries. If academic literary criticism is to remain viable, however, those boundaries must be redrawn so that the profession no longer words in a state of epistemic delirium. I fear that the profession is incapable of doing this. It lacks the requisite self-awareness and honesty.

Alas, words do have meaning [2]. When you describe texts as being materially constituted of language, make that your subject, and then fail to attend to that very language, you are abusing language. The fact that this particular abuse is authorized within the profession doesn’t justify it. It simply papers over the problem. It’s a form of denial. Of delirium.

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[1] See my old post, “Ghost Dancing in the USA”, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/05/ghost-dancing-in-usa.html

[2] I’m thinking of a Jerry Seinfeld bit, which I analyzed in “Seinfeld through the Donut Hole”, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2016/03/seinfeld-through-donut-hole.html

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Adam Savage builds a Totoro costume [What costume are you building for the next major festival?]

Adam Savage is an experienced special effects designer and fabricator who has a YouTube channel where he shows how to build stuff. In this video he is building a Totoro, one of the creatures from Hayao Miyazaki’s film, My Friend Totoro. The video is fascinating. Note several things: 1. He is very experienced in doing this kind of thing. 2. He has a well-equipped shop, lots of tools and materials. 3. He works without a plan, so he has to figure out how to do it. 4. He improvises a lot.

Why am I posting this video? In the first place, how people make things interests me. Beyond that, I’m thinking about a more playful future.

If we’re going to be living in a world where we only have to work 15 hours a week, we need to fill a lot of time. We are going to be spending a lot of time playing, in one way or another, and preparing for play. Why not build costumes?

Of course, Americans have one annual costume festival, Halloween. But for the most part we regard costumes as being for kids, though adults have costume parties as well. This or that community may celebrate a Victorian Christmas, where people get decked out in Victorian ware. And so forth. But only the well-off can afford to have really nice costumes.

Why not a world where everyone has, say, one bespoke costume a year? I’m not imagining that everyone would make their own. Few people have the time to work up the skills Adam Savage has, nor does it make sense for every family to have such a well-equipped shop. But I’d think that in a world arranged for different (more playful) purposes such skills would be more widely distributed in the population and well-equipped community workshops would be common.

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Addendum: Multiple Totoros at Comic-con!

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Reading Spacecraft 7: Muppet Star Wars

This is a documentary about creating digital characters where there had been puppets in Star Wars. Naturally, they spend a fair amount of time on Yoda. At about 43:22 Lucas is talking with a couple of the animators about digital Yoda. Observing that Yoda is a frog-like creature, Lucas wants to combine the movement styles of Kermit and Miss Piggy in Yoda for the big light saber battle – “the illegitimate child of Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy.” Lucas continues (c. 33:49): “We’ve never discussed this before, and don’t let it get out because if that hits the National Enquirer we’re all dead.”

That pretty much confirms Morton’s intuitions about the deep continuity between the Muppets’ universe and the Star Wars universe.

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Other posts in this series about Tim Morton’s Spacecraft.

Pat Metheny discusses music with two neuroscientists

Interesting, but not as interesting as it could have been if, for example, the neuroscientists had deeper practical experience with musical performance. I"m sure Metheny has had experiences I'd want to add to my collection, Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance. He gets to the edge of that territory several times, but quite crosses over.

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At some point one of them asks Metheny about "emotion" and when he's playing his best. Metheny says something to the effect that, at that time, he 'filled up' with the music and doesn't have room for anything else. While I know what "emotion" means, I wonder if Metheny's being asked about crying, or nearly so, as that comes up as a response to music. I wish they'd have pushed him more specifically on that. Anyhow, I have some passages on crying while playing in the "Emotion and Magic" document:

Daniel M. Neuman. The Life of Music in North India. Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press 1990.

p. 61: Some musicians claim to have had religious experiences through their music, but these all have the characteristic of happenstance. Such experiences can also occur in seemingly unlikely context:

One day I was playing in Studio One [at All India Radio] with no one around. I felt myself crying, tears flowing down my face. I did not know why; but all of a sudden I realized this was something Divine. I said "O God, this is the time you have done something for me. You have given me the power to create this music."

p 62: Wahid Khan insisted that he could sing and that if his father, who was also his ustad, would pray for him, he would surely be successful. He climbed onto the dais and faced the direction of Nizamuddin Auliya's tomb . . . and started with an alap (introductory movement), which he continued for forty-five minutes. After that he gained control of his voice and started the khayal in rag Gujari Todi called "Meri maiya par karo, Ustad Nizamuddin Auliya" ("Let my boat cross, Ustad Nizamuddin Auliya"). After that his music was so inspiring that "ninety-nine percent of the audience was moved to tears. Everyone was equally affected, irrespective of their taste and attitude towards music."

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Alex Bilmes, Paul McCartney Opens Up About Lennon, Yoko, and More, Esquire Magazine, July 6, 2015 @ 11:42 AM

http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/interviews/a36194/paul-mccartney-interview/

ESQ: So you don't find yourself moved, in the way the crowd is, by the emotional content of the songs?

PM: Not all the time. You wouldn't be able to sing. You'd just be crying. But yeah, there are moments. I think it was in South America. There was a very tall, statuesque man with a beard, very good-looking man. And he had his arm round what was apparently his daughter. Might not have been! No, it was, it was clearly his daughter. I'm singing 'Let it Be' and I look out there and I see him standing and she's looking up at him and he glances down at her and they share a moment, and I'm like, "Whoa!" [He shivers.] It really hit me. It's hard to sing through that. You see quite a bit of that. If I ever spot anyone crying during 'Here Today', that can set me off. I mean, on one level it's only a song and on another it's a very emotional thing for me. And when I see some girl totally reduced to tears and looking at me singing it catches me by surprise. This really means something to her. I'm not just a singer. I'm doing something more here.

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Interview by Josephine Reed for the National Endowment for the Arts, 201X. Odadaa! is Yacub Addy’s ensemble. Amina Addy is Yacub’s wife.

https://www.arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/yacub-addy

NEA: Yacub, what was that first performance in Congo Square like?

Addy: It's hard to talk about. Even when I arrived at the airport in New Orleans, I got shivers, and I made prayers for all those who had died in the storm. When I arrived at the park the day of the premiere, I was thinking about all the slaves and free people who had played there so many years ago and passed away. And I thought about all those who had died in the recent storm. I walked over to the statue of Louis Armstrong with a couple of the guys in Odadaa!. We made prayers there. Congo Square was a center for African religion, as well as music and dance, so I asked the jinn to let us do our concert there that day. It was a very hot day, but I was chilly. I asked the guys if they heard something. They said they didn't hear anything. But I heard something like whispers. I went to our trailer dressing room. I didn't feel like myself and I was very cold. Before I went on the stage, I went back to the statue by myself and prayed again. When I came on the stage, the voices became louder, telling me to drum. When I started drumming, they went away. The crowd was so responsive. The music was still developing, but the spirit of all the artists was so strong that day. It is love that made Congo Square work. If Wynton and I did not love each other, the music would never have worked.

Amina Addy: Later, on tour in North Carolina, Yacub was overcome with feelings on stage during the first half. It started during "Timin Timin". Tears were streaming down his face and he was playing like he never played before. Only Wynton, Imani, our vocalist, and I, saw what was happening. Imani and I walked him to his dressing room for intermission. I helped him change his outfit for the second half and gradually he came back to us. Many artists have had experiences like that.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Let's dance

Reclaiming the future from technology in favor of humans [from Homo ludens to tango therapy]

Back at the end of June Ezra Klein interviewed James Suzman on the subject of work, which prompted me to write a blog post in which I excerpted the interview, Why are we as a culture addicted to work? [Because we have forgotten how to play.] (July 2, 2021). Is anyone thinking about a future in which we work less and play more? Toward the end of July I followed with a post, When did the future become a site for human habitation like, say, crossing the ocean to colonize the New World? (July 29, 2021). The point of that post is that thinking about the future centered on the perfectibility of humankind in the late 18th century and then became co-opted by technological progress in the 19th century. And that’s where mainstream thinking about the future is today.

That’s what the Progress Studies movement is about: How can we ramp up technological progress to fuel economic growth in the future? There’s little thought about what we’re to do with that growth beyond eat, work, and sleep more comfortably.

Earlier this week Klein had another interview that got me thinking about the future. He interviewed Bessel van der Kolk on the nature of trauma, which I excerpted in a post yesterday, The devastating effects of trauma [and the return of Freud, albeit unnamed?] (August 26, 2021). That got me thinking about a future in which we have much more effective means of helping people deal with trauma. Van der Kolk talked about the use of psychotropic drugs in treatment (e.g. MDMA, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD) but other things as well. Thus he said:

And I wish that in every classroom in America they would teach the four Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic and self regulation, from kindergarten through 12th grade, of what can we do to calm ourselves down, to stay focused? What sort of activities can we engage in to feel in control of ourselves?

And so that we get away from this culture of, if you don’t feel right you take a drug, instead of if you don’t feel right you go for a bicycle ride. If you don’t feel right you go to yoga class. If you don’t feel right, you may need to do some body work to help your body to calm, or you need to go to do some tango dancing, or you need to do something to rearrange your relationship to your internal physiological state. [...]

I’m still waiting for the study of comparing tango dancing with cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m a scientist, it’s an empirical question. But I put my money on tango dancing over C.B.T., by and large, for some people. So I think we need to explore much more.

Now we’re getting somewhere. He also talked of the importance of play for children AND adults:

EZRA KLEIN: Moving together with other kids, dancing together with other kids, playing with other kids, exploring the world with other kids, is so at the core of what creates a healthy mind and a healthy brain. That means that there is space, and that people can actually explore things safely. You can actually go out with your friends and try things out, so you don’t live in an environment where there is so much danger outside the door, or inside the door, that you cannot play anymore.

So I would say the most important thing for traumatized kids is to go to places where they can play. And that is, even in some very well known children’s institutions, there are hardly any places to play. Hardly any place to move around. To sing, to play, to dance, to run. So kids are supposed to really move. And move with other kids.

And basically, our systems are made to move in synchrony with the people around us. When you get traumatized, you get out of sync on every most elementary level. What does the military do? They have people move together and march together, to get them back in sync with each other.

EZRA KLEIN: And it sounds to me like you think the same is actually true for adults, that you need space to play, to move, to be in synchronicity with others, to sing, to dance, to have what gets called collective effervescence.

BESSEL VAN DER KOLK: Absolutely. Of course, you get more frozen as we grow older. But cooking with people, serving meals to people, pouring that wine to other people, still that moving together is a terribly important way of feeling our communality with other human beings.

Earlier Klein had remarked:

I had the journalist Anna Sale on the show a couple of months ago for her book about having difficult conversations, and something she says in that book is that we used to have more institutions, and rituals, and conventions, and structures that guided us through the hard conversations, and hard parts of life.

I mean, things like churches and civic organizations. There is a lot of singing in those places, there is a lot of dancing in those places. I mean, you go to a Jewish synagogue, a lot of singing and dancing. And one point she was making is that as some of these institutions have faded in American life, we’ve been left without a template for these conversations.

But reading your book made me think of it on another level, too. I mean, a bunch of the modalities you just talked about, like capoeira or qigong, I don’t want to suggest they don’t have therapeutic roles, but they’re not primarily seen as therapeutic. They’re just a bigger part of those cultures.

And I wonder if you think that one of the issues with trauma in America is that we have lost institutions that were comfortable with ways of being embodied, even if they didn’t frame them in a “the body keeps the score” kind of framework that we used to have. And so they were playing roles that maybe they framed themselves as religious, or civic, or something else, or communal or ritual, but they were also doing things for how we process difficult issues or allowed us to get in touch with our emotions, that they had these side benefits that we didn’t understand and never knew how to measure.

I’m beginning to see a future where both children and adults have more time and opportunity for play, children among themselves, adults among themselves, but also children and adults together.

What’s it going to take to spell how a we can organize a vision of the future around that?

I supposed that’s what I had in mind when I posted Kisangani 2150, or Reconstructing Civilization on a New Model (July 10, 2019). “Kisangani 2150” is a play on the title of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a science fiction novel set in New York City in the year 2140. I’m imagining that same world, ten years later, and centered on Kisangani in the Congo. Kisangani 2150 would depict a world in which music, story-telling, and other forms are play were central to everyday life. And everyone is an active participant. Music, dance, acting, story-telling, performing in general, aren’t the exclusive occupation of full-time professionals – though we’d still have those – but are elements in everyone’s behavioral repertoire.

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Posts about the future, about Kisangani 2150.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Martin Kay, pioneering computational linguist, has died

He was brought to this country (USA) from England by my teacher and colleague, the late David Hays. Hays was leading the RAND Corporation's effort on machine translation and he hired Kay, I believe, as a programmer (among other things). I never met Kay, but I worked with him indirectly in the 1970s when I was preparing bibliography for the American Journal of Computational Linguistics (now simply Computational Linguistics). He was working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center at the time and so had access to their laser printers. Hays and I would prepare copy on Hays's IBM Selectric typewriter and Kay would have it keyed into an Alto and printed on a laser printer. 
 
Here's a brief notice via the Association for Computational Linguistics:

Vale Martin Kay

August 22, 2021 | BY webmaster

It is with a profound sense of loss that, on behalf of the ACL Exec, I announce the passing of Martin Kay on August 7, 2021.

Martin was a pioneer and visionary of computational linguistics, in the truest sense of those terms. He made seminal contributions to the field in areas including parsing, unification grammars, finite state methods, and machine translation.

Martin was educated at the University of Cambridge, before moving to the USA and working at Rand Corporation from 1961 to 1972. He was Chair of the Department of Computer Science at University of California Irvine from 1972 to 1974, before moving to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In 1985, he took up a position as Professor at Stanford University, and split his time between Xerox PARC and Stanford until 2002.

Martin was awarded the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and was Chair of the International Committee for Computational Linguistics from 1984 to 2016. But perhaps equally for those who had the good fortune of knowing him personally or attending an event that he spoke at, he was a warm, generous, extraordinarily funny, disarmingly down-to-earth man whose loss is felt keenly.

Tim Baldwin

Kay was given a life-time achievement award by the ACL in 2005. He recounts his career in an address he delivered on the occasion, A Life of Language (PDF).

Blaze away

The devastating effects of trauma [and the return of Freud, albeit unnamed?]

Ezra Klein, This Conversation Will Change How You Think About Trauma, NYTimes, Aug 24, 2021.

Klein interviews Bessel van der Kolk about his book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014). I've not yet read the interview, but Klein's introduction makes the book sound very Freudian without mentioning that (dreaded) name.

I’ll be honest of my own history of it here. “The Body Keeps the Score” is one of those books people have told me to read for a long time. But I thought I knew what it was about. I’d heard it discussed so many times, and I’d read it written about. So even though I hadn’t read it, I thought I knew it: trauma lodges in the body, we carry a physical imprint of our psychic wounds, it’s all very hard to heal. Got it.

But I was really wrong about that. The core argument is — I want to use the word “subversive” here. Certainly subversive in how it will leave you thinking about yourself and those around you. It is about traumatic experiences: sexual assault, incest, emotional physical abuse, war and much, much more. They can disconnect our body and our mind. That is when an experience becomes a trauma — when it disconnects us.

And this is a part I didn’t understand from the way the book is talked about. The devastating argument it makes is not that the body keeps the score, it’s that the mind hides the score from us. The mind — it hides and warps these traumatic events and our narratives about them in an effort to protect us. Human beings are social animals. And our minds evolve to manage our social relationships.

So when we face an event that could rupture our relationship with the community or the family, particularly for children of the family that we depend on, the mind often talks us out of it. It obscures the memories or convinces us our victimization was our fault or it covers the event in a shame so thick, we refuse to discuss it. But our body — and that’s an imprecise term here. But the parts of us that are more automatic that manage and respond to threat — our body doesn’t forget that. Our mind can’t talk that part of us into feeling safe again. And it’s this disconnection of mind and body where trauma lives.

From the beginning of the interview:

EZRA KLEIN: You have this very powerful line in the book from the writer Jessica Stern where she says, quote, “Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative. Mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does — it interrupts the plot.” Tell me a bit about how trauma interrupts the plot.

BESSEL VAN DER KOLK: Well, trauma is really a wound that happens to your psyche, to your mind, to your brain. Suddenly you’re confronted with something that you are faced with horror and helplessness. That nothing prepares you for this and you go like, oh, my God. And so something switches off at that point in your mind and your brain. And the nature of trauma is that you get stuck there. So instead of remembering something unpleasant, you keep reliving something very unpleasant.

So the job of overcoming trauma is to make it into a memory where your whole being knows this happened a long time ago, it’s not happening right now. But the nature of traumatic stress is that you keep reacting emotionally and physiologically as if these events are happening right now.

More later, possibly.

Later:

EZRA KLEIN: Tell me a bit about the conditions under which an event that could be traumatic becomes a trauma. And in particular, I was very struck by how much of your research suggests that trauma is an event plus a kind of instigated social crisis. There are objectively catastrophic events, like 9/11, that were less likely to cause trauma because they were shared by the community. Where, on the other hand, things like child sexual abuse is very reliably traumatic because it disconnects you from your family. So could you talk a bit about the social structure of trauma?

BESSEL VAN DER KOLK: Yeah. So what we tend to leave out of most of our discussions about human functioning is to what degree we are primates. We have brains in order to get along with each other, to be with other people, to connect with other people. That’s really what we are fundamentally all about. And so, much of trauma is about a rupture of the safety of the people who are supposed to protect you and the people who are supposed to come to your help.

So basically, the way that we are wired is that we are wired to not be able to do everything by ourselves, but to be able to look for help and for other people to take over when we can no longer do the job ourselves. And that’s perfectly normal. But if, at that point, the people you can count on most are not there for you, let you down, have been killed, or whatever, then it’s entirely up to you. It’s a much harder thing to deal with terrible situations. [...]

And sometimes, in order to survive, you need to keep your realities [INAUDIBLE] the people around you. And so when you go through a terrible reality like 9/11 in New York or terrible natural disasters, oftentimes people get very close together because it’s out there, everybody can see it, people help each other. Part of our nature is to be altruistic and to be generous when people are in distress.

But if your feelings conflict with your loyalty — let’s say, if your own mom or dad beat you up and you don’t feel safe with them — you cannot tell other people about it either because you’re supposed to love your mom or dad. And so you need to keep it to yourself. And then it starts festering inside of you. So the reason why you do psychotherapy is mainly to help people to find words for the reality that they have dealt with. And oftentimes, those are realities that are not acceptable for the people around you. [...]

So the issue there is that we need our parents or caregivers to take care of us. And so the moment we give up on our caregivers as little kids, we’re done for. And so the way the child is wired is to stay as close to the people who are supposed to take care of them as possible. And with that, they will deny the reality of being beaten. Or the imprint is very much like, I’m being beaten or I’m being molested because I’m a bad person. I must deserve it.

So your identity becomes basically, I’m fundamentally a bad and flawed human being. And if I had been a nicer child, people would have loved me and taken care of me.

A bit later Van Der Kolk mentions John Bowlby, who was trained as a psychoanalyst:

But the great hero here is John Bowlby, attachment researcher, who really showed how children really need to cling to their caregivers and will do anything they can to keep a semblance of connection going so they don’t die or get totally abandoned. And the price they pay for that is very much this very profound sense of self loathing, oftentimes despising yourself, getting into a lot of difficult behaviors because I’m no good anyway. And it’s a deep sense of, I may as well put myself in danger, I may as well take drugs because I’m no good anyway.

Therapy:

EZRA KLEIN: We’re going to go through a bunch of these therapies. But one thing I want to ask about them as a group is that one thing lurking around your book, and certainly that I felt reading it and that I felt in my own life as I’ve looked at various modalities for things that I’ve struggled with, is that there’s a hierarchy of status to different treatments. So it’s very accepted at this point, very rational, to take a pill for depression or anxiety. Talk therapy has a very long history. Nobody looks askance at that. That’s something intellectuals do in New York, and they sit in a chair and talk about feelings. And I don’t want to say anything bad about either of those. But then you start looking some of these other things, like E.M.D.R. which we can talk about, or dance therapy or yoga. And it feels soft. You’re like, well, that’s silly, that’s holistic, that’s — and something I think the book is trying to get at is that maybe we have come to overweight certain kinds of approaches to how we feel and underweight others. So before we get into how these therapies work, can you talk about that meta level of coming to respect therapies that maybe don’t have a lot of social status right now?

BESSEL VAN DER KOLK: Very important point you make. It’s a cultural issue. You hear from my accent, I’m northern European, and North America is still very northern European. The world and northern Europe developed two ways of dealing with bad stuff. One of them was to drink. And so taking a pill is a respectable thing in Western culture to do, and normal people ingest stuff to make themselves feel better.

Nobody feels bad about it. Other places in the world may say, that’s weird. Then the other thing that Western people are very good at is talking. We’re not very good in singing together and moving together. You go to China after a disaster and people are doing qigong together, and so that’s interesting, or tai chi.

And you go to Brazil in [INAUDIBLE] area, and you see people practice capoeira. You go, are they practicing capoeria because it looks good to the tourists, or are they practicing capoeira because it does something to the way they relate to their bodies and their sense of self-control?

So I think to some degree, we are trapped in this post- alcoholic paradigm that the only way to change is through taking pills or by talking. But of course, once you raise kids and you hang around with kindergarten teachers, they don’t do a lot of talking. They’d also do a lot of singing together, and a lot of moving together, and a lot of tossing balls together. And a lot of things that help you get in tune and in rhythm with each other.

And that’s not really the strong point of Western culture. So it all depends on the cultural assumptions you have about what’s helpful to people.

EZRA KLEIN: This part of the book made an interesting connection for me. I had the journalist Anna Sale on the show a couple of months ago for her book about having difficult conversations, and something she says in that book is that we used to have more institutions, and rituals, and conventions, and structures that guided us through the hard conversations, and hard parts of life.

I mean, things like churches and civic organizations. There is a lot of singing in those places, there is a lot of dancing in those places. I mean, you go to a Jewish synagogue, a lot of singing and dancing. And one point she was making is that as some of these institutions have faded in American life, we’ve been left without a template for these conversations.

But reading your book made me think of it on another level, too. I mean, a bunch of the modalities you just talked about, like capoeira or qigong, I don’t want to suggest they don’t have therapeutic roles, but they’re not primarily seen as therapeutic. They’re just a bigger part of those cultures.

And I wonder if you think that one of the issues with trauma in America is that we have lost institutions that were comfortable with ways of being embodied, even if they didn’t frame them in a “the body keeps the score” kind of framework that we used to have. And so they were playing roles that maybe they framed themselves as religious, or civic, or something else, or communal or ritual, but they were also doing things for how we process difficult issues or allowed us to get in touch with our emotions, that they had these side benefits that we didn’t understand and never knew how to measure.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

From reader response theory to intentionless free speech [AI and intentionality]

Lisa Siraganian, Against Theory, now with bots! On the Persistent Fallacy of Intentionless Speech, Nonsite, August 2, 2021.

Opening paragraph:

If Siri responded to your questions with QAnon conspiracy theories, would you want her answers to be legally protected? Would your verdict change if we labeled Siri’s answers either “computer generated” or “meaningful language?” Or as legal scholars Ronald Collins and David Skover ask in their recent monograph, Robotica: Speech Rights and Artificial Intelligence (2018), should the “constitutional conception of speech” be extended “to the semi-autonomous creation and delivery of robotic speech?”1 By “robotic speech,” they don’t mean some imagined language dreamed up in science fiction but the more ordinary phenomenon of “algorithmic output of computers”: the results of Google searches, instructions by GPS navigational devices, tweets by corporate bots, or responses by Amazon’s Alexa to a query about tomorrow’s weather. And by “the constitutional conception of speech” they are invoking the First Amendment’s fundamental prohibition declaring that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”2 Collins and Skover deliver their verdict: the U.S. Constitution should recognize and protect so-called “robotic expression,” the computer-generated language of your iPhone or like devices (40).

A bit later:

But more unexpected is Collins and Skover’s approach. Rather than justifying their defense of “robotic expression” (free speech rights for algorithms) primarily with legal precedent or theory—both of which other legal scholars have done—their basic premise is literary theoretical and interdisciplinary.7 Specifically, to argue for the First Amendment rights of computer content, Collins and Skover adapt Reader Response literary criticism from the 1970s, as well as related debates about literary meaning from the 1980s, to develop an idea they call “intentionless free speech” (40). As they explain it, the current legal debate over robotic free speech “significantly mirrors yesterday’s debate among schools of literary theory over textual interpretation and the reader’s experience,” yet “the importance of the lessons from reader-response criticism and reception theory” have gone unrecognized in legal scholarship (41–42). They summarize how the decades’ past criticism of Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Wolfgang Iser, and Hans Robert Jauss reveals that the “real existence” of a text is imparted by the reader, not by the intention of the author (38). For them that means that your iPhone’s or Amazon Echo’s lack of an intention should not bar a court finding its “message” to be meaningful because the iPhone’s owner makes those messages mean. “Meaning resides in the receiver of information,” they write, thus the receiver’s use of that information is the ultimate determinant of an expression’s value (45). Their “theory of ‘intentionless free speech’ is solidly grounded in those lessons” of reader-response criticism (42). As Collins and Skover write, “the receiver’s experience of speech is perceived as an essential dimension of the constitutional significance of speech, whether human or not, whether intended or intentionless” (45).

Siraganian doesn't buy it, nor do I (do I?). What interests me at the moment is simply that the argument is being made.

Still later:

... Robotica is really part of a broader trend, beginning much earlier in the twentieth century, of extending free speech rights as well as many other rights and privileges to entities like corporations that previously were considered out of bounds for such protections.11 Most notoriously, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), equated money to free corporate speech by relying, in part, on the argument that corporations have the legal status of persons and money is their way of speaking. As many commentators have noted, the stakes of these developments are significant and disturbing.

Do AI engines possess intentionality? No. But how do we know?

There's much more at the link.

Pier 13, Hoboken

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Chair (How many women were on the faculty of the English Department at Johns Hopkins at the time of the structuralism conference?) [Media Notes 62]

Having watched The Chair in a single sitting, I suppose I should say something. But I don’t have much to say. For one thing, I haven’t been in a classroom in 35 years, so I have little way to gauge student activism beyond what I see reported here and there. I did read an interesting series of discussions of the program in The Chronicle of Higher Education; the discussants are all current academics. Someone remarked that, whatever its deficiencies as a representation of campus life and politics, it does seem to be a reasonable depicture of public anxieties about higher education – a reasonable remark.

Some quick remarks

Beyond those preliminaries:

1. It was better than I’d expected. A low bar, I suppose, but worth something.

2. Having been at three schools that started in the 19th century (Johns Hopkins, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, State University of New York at Buffalo; see a link in Further readings) I recognize the architecture, especially the paneled rooms.

3. It was unfortunate to see old male faculty depicted as doddering incompetents, but then, as a 73 year old, I’m biased. I was no more pleased to see that self-involved jack-ass of a middle-aged “star”, as I have little love for academic stardom. Are they really that ridiculous? Perhaps so, see my working papers on Avital Ronell and Houston A. Baker, Jr. But the guy was good with the Ju Ju (daughter of Ji-Yoon Kim, the titular chair) and that’s something.

4. The student protest seemed way too superficial to me, even allowing for my skepticism about so-called cancel culture. The discussants at The Chronicle seem to agree on that.

5. Research had very little presence in the series. But then how do you dramatize an activity that takes place mostly in the mind and on paper? Criminal forensics, from Sherlock Holmes to the various CSI-type shows, seems to be the primary fictional vehicle for depicting abstract thought. Oh, and there’s the mad scientist.

Dan Everett on University Life

The linguist Daniel Everett has been department chair, dean, and acting provost. He’s made some remarks at Facebook about academic life.

Composition of the faculty

The gender composition of the faculty was one of the show’s central issues. Though I didn’t count, the English Department appeared to have about a dozen members, only three of which were women. Two of those were people of color, one East Asian (Korean) and one African-American.

As I will explain shortly, that proportion is higher than what I experienced at Johns Hopkins, but I believe that things have improved since then. Still, one in four seems low. As I said, though, I haven’t been on campus in years and I don’t follow statistics on these things.

But, to answer the question in my title, the English Department at Johns Hopkins had about 15 members in the mid-1960s; none of them were women. As far as I know, the entire faculty at Johns Hopkins had only five women, and I took courses with three of them. In particular, I took an introduction to developmental psychology and did an independent study with Mary Ainsworth. She is one of the founders of attachment theory and that was the topic of my independant study. The undergraduate student body was still all male, though there were women as graduate students. Women were admitted to the undergraduate school in 1970. Male faculty would openly date female graduate students. I know of two marriages resulting from such dating.

As for POC on the faculty, I'm sure the math department had at least one man of East Asian descent, Jun-ichi Igusa; a roommate of mine studied algebra with him. The philosophy department had a young guy named Edward Lee; I took two courses with him. I don't believe there were any African-Americans on the faculty. One joined the undergraduate student body in, I believe, 1969. The Humanities Center brought in Frank Moorer as a graduate student in the early 1970s; he remains there on the faculty.

And then there's the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, where I got my PhD (73-78). It was a large department, 70+. I can think of women who were on the faculty when I arrived, Diane Christian (who'd been a graduate student at Hopkins), and Mili Clark (a medievalist). One woman was hired while I was there, Claire Kahane. There were no African-Americans on the faculty (nor do I remember any graduate students, but there were many of us and I certainly didn’t know them all), but both Ishmael Reed and Chip Delany held visiting appointments during that era, though not when I was there. Male faculty openly dated female graduate students.

I had my first and only faculty post at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school. I was in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication (LL&C), which encompassed English literature, composition and technical writing, French and German languages, and communication (as a social science discipline). The faculty had, perhaps, 20 or so members. There was one woman when I arrived in the fall of 1978. Three were hired while I was there; I believe one of them replaced another, and then she left as well. There were no people of color. There were women in both the undergraduate and graduate student bodies. I was unaware of any male faculty dating female graduate students in the department.

Further commentary on the academy

Old School: Torpor and Stupor at Johns Hopkins, 3 Quarks Daily, Nov, 13, 2017, https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2017/11/old-school-torpor-and-stupor-at-johns-hopkins.html. This is about the literary society at Johns Hopkins.

“It got adults off your back” • Richard Macksey remembered (2019), 7 pp., https://www.academia.edu/40040691/_It_got_adults_off_your_back_Richard_Macksey_remembered. This is about a highly regarded humanist at Johns Hopkins who was very important to me.

The Hunt for Genius, Part 5: Three Elite Schools [RIP #RichardAMacksey], July 23, 2019, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-hunt-for-genius-part-5-three-elite.html?fbclid=IwAR0BnJkdB69TmaQ0Kt6kI0qswPkyEnW0dq_1K-KZYhocpwqTAJk2LYXy92Y. Quick sketches of the three schools I went to, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and RPI.

A hill and a beach somewhere in New Jersey

Reading Spacecraft 6: The child is father to the man

Morton begins Spacecraft by talking about his childhood as an eleven year old boy coming from a family of limited means and walking to school in the morning, going “toward the ... alienating land of a very posh private school” (p. 1). In that context he took comfort in “making up spacecraft. I would inhabit them in the cockpit of my mind, describing their specifications to myself, under my breath.” When I first read those words I merely read them on the way to what came next, which was about seeing Star Wars and, a bit later, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – both came out in 1977, when he was nine – about his collections of models, and books.

Yet, as I read Morton’s account of his childhood engagement with space flight, I thought of my own, which was a bit different as I am a generation older. For me the movie was Forbidden Planet, which came out in the same year as Godzilla King of the Monsters, 1956. I spent hours drawing pictures of flying saucers and robots. But the definitive event came early in October of 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space, thereby launching the so-called “space race” into overdrive. That’s when my personal imaginary met world history. I didn’t think in those terms at the time, that formulation came to me only in retrospect.

I’m wondering whether or not Morton’s childhood encounter with space-themed science fiction had a similar valence for him. And not only for him, but for many other children as well. Thus, after recounting that aspect of his childhood, Morton observes (p. 2):

I was using space craft as protection and escape vehicle in my head. And so, to this day, I’ve wanted to explore what that was all about. In particular that’s because I’m sure I’m not the only one.

No, he’s not. How many of us are there? Morton continues in the next paragraph:

This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in Apollo or the Space Shuttle, or Soyuz, or Sputnik. Far from it. The whole point about those vehicles is that they also originated in some dream of a human being. The Space Shuttle bears a vivid resemblance to the shuttle as imagined by Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And to design real spacecraft you need a big imagination.

When I was young science fiction was a relatively minor genre, both in film and on television (not to mention prose fiction). The Western was much more important. I’d guess that the Western wouldn’t have been so important in Britain, especially on TV, but I have no idea what the British equivalent would have been. My point, though, is that however much I loved Westerns, and I did love them, and how much time me and my friends played at “cowboys and Indians” – not to mention that I wanted to be an Indian when I grew up – they were set in the past. There was almost no way I could forge an adulthood around one of the typical characters from a Western. I wasn’t going to be a cowboy, much less an Indian.

But an astronaut, that’s different. That had possibilities. I thought about that. But gave it up in favor of being a scientist or an engineer. But for whatever reason, I declared a psychology major when I went off to college; graduated with a degree in philosophy; and then went off to get a doctorate in English Literature. Still, about a decade after getting the degree I did manage to spend a summer working with NASA on a project involving artificial intelligence.

I digress. In pursuing Morton’s childhood (and mine), I’m not attempting to shoehorn Spacecraft into old-fashioned biographical criticism whereby one seeks to explain a text by finding its secrets in the author’s autobiography. There’s nothing secret of hidden about Morton’s childhood introduction to spacecraft. He tells us about it the very first thing. It’s part of the story he’s telling. And that, he later tells us, is a story common to many children whose imagination has been fired with visions of space travel. It’s a story born of a specific cultural imaginary common among children of the last decades of the previous century.

Such children couldn’t have existed prior to the second half of the twentieth century. Why not? Because the culture didn’t provide the materials on which such an imagination could feed itself. Sure, science fiction novels existed before then, as did magazines build on science fiction stories, and some science fiction stories did show up in the movies, But they weren’t so pervasive and readily available to children as they became in the 1950s. Nor did they exist in the context of an international competition, the Cold War, that made the conquest (a word I chose deliberately) of space a matter of national and international importance.

That competition reached an inflection point in the late 1960s, at about the time Morton was born (in 1968). Stanley Kubrick redefined science fiction when he released 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. The special effects were a quantum level superior to those in any prior science fiction films and, by starting the film in the ancient past, when there were no humans on earth, Kubrick situated the mythos of spaceflight in the history of life on earth. Thus, with the help of Arthur C. Clarke, who collaborated on the script, Kubrick situated space flight in the mythos and imaginary of the human, thereby freeing it from the trapping of the late industrial revolution.

A year after that NASA landed Apollo 11 on the moon. What Kubrick had depicted in fiction, in imagination, in one of the most important science fiction films ever made, NASA had made real. Space travel was no longer something that happened only in the cultural imaginary. It had entered the realm of the Real, of what Morton called the “future future. Futurality is the possibility that things could be different” (p. 73). Space travel is more than rockets and phasers, super-smart computers, aliens, and the possibility of faster-than-light travel. It is the possibility of radical transformation. As Morton says at the beginning of his last paragraph (pp. 110): “The millennium (as in falcon) is hyperspace, that post-apocalyptic moment at which a more just world is established.” NASA may have been funded out of a desire to score points against the nation Ronald Reagan would come to call an evil empire (1983), but it was never captive to, subsumed by, that intention. It played on a much larger stage.

But I want to go back to childhood. The late-60s conjunction of Kublick and NASA also saw the original Star Trek on television (1965-1969). A decade later The Muppet Show ran on British and American television between 1976 and 1981. It had a running segment entitled “Pigs in Space,” which was a parody on 1960s and 1970s space operas. That is to say, by that time space travel was established well enough that it could evoke and support parodies in a television show aimed at children (the kind of children’s show that appealed to adults as well). Morton watched it “all the time” he tells me (I asked him in the Twitterverse). And though I didn’t ask him whether or not he watched Doctor Who, I assume that he did so, because 1) it started in 1963 (and has been on television ever since), 2) he mentions it fairly often in the book.

That brings us to our Wordsworthian subtitle: “The child is father to the man.” Just what we’re supposed to do with it, I’m not sure. Contemplate it? Re-read the post?

I know what I want. Hegel had a word for it: Aufhebung. Uttering the word is easy enough. Performing the act, allowing it to perform you. That is not so easy.

‘Till next time.

* * * * *
 

120 years of faking space travel for the movies

Starting at about 2:42: "Take this shot of a flying saucer in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). It's clearly just a toy on a string. But that would all change drastically in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now that humans had actually gone to space, Stanley Kubrick needed to redefine what futuristic life in space would look like, and he did so by pushing the limits of visual effects."

Has the pandemic made American's less willing to tolerate bullshit jobs?

Paul Krugman presents data that indicating that American's are refusing to go back to work: Workers Don’t Want Their Old Jobs on the Old Terms, NYTimes, August 23, 2021. Why is that?

But if it wasn’t government benefits, what explains the reluctance of some workers to return to their old jobs? There may be several factors. Fear of the virus hasn’t gone away, and it may be keeping some workers home. Child care is also an issue, with many schools still closed and day care still disrupted.

My guess, however — and it’s just a guess, although some of the go-to experts here seem to have similar views — is that, as I suggested at the beginning of this article, the pandemic disruption of work was a learning experience. Many of those lucky enough to have been able to work from home realized how much they had hated commuting; some of those who had been working in leisure and hospitality realized, during their months of forced unemployment, how much they had hated their old jobs.

And workers are, it seems, willing to pay a price to avoid going back to the way things were. This may, by the way, be especially true for older workers, some of whom seem to have dropped out of the labor force.

To the extent that this is the story behind recent “labor shortages,” what we’re looking at is a good thing, not a problem. Perversely, the pandemic may have given many Americans a chance to figure out what really matters to them — and the money they were being paid for unpleasant jobs, some now realize, just wasn’t enough.

Monday, August 23, 2021

14th and Washington, Hoboken

Reading Spacecraft 5: The Millenium Falcon is a mirror ball in your front room

Here, I believe, is my first public remark about Spacecraft:

I still believe it, more or less. While Morton makes many and various assertions about spacecraft, and closely related matters (e.g. hyperspace), they don’t take the form of an argument. They delineate a world, the world of spacecraft. How Morton goes about that is as important as what he says, if not more so.

Here and there Morton makes explicit philosophical statements – references to philosophers, Husserl for example, and uses philosophical terms of art, phenomenology, circlude, and so forth. They serve two purposes, to indicate intellectual sources, and to motivate certain assertions. I wonder whether or not he needs them? Could those assertions stand on their own simply by affordances of his language? Perhaps not. Still, it would be interesting to see whether or not the marionette can dance without any one manipulating the strings.

* * * * *

When the fourth and last chapter, “Anyone,” is well under way, Morton brings back a conceit he used in the introduction, a comparison between the Muppets and Star Wars. As you may recall, The Muppet Show, had a running segment featuring Miss Piggy, “Pigs in Space.” That’s one source of motivation for the conceit. Another comes from the fact that, as actors, Muppets are hybrid creatures (electromechanical devices with human operators) like R2D2, and many of the aliens, including Jabba the Hutt, and can serve as weird mediators between fictional objects and real objects – in a domain, of course, where all objects are equally real so that the distinction between fiction and real is a secondary one. And then we have Frank Oz, operator and voice of Muppets and of Yoda. All of that AND... the conceit serves Morton’s sense of whimsy.

Anyhow, he’s brought it back in the final chapter, worked with it a bit and then says (p. 108): “I will cease this line of thought because, really it’s way too far out, even for me. But it’s an interesting game, isn’t it? Can you match characters in Star Wars with Muppets?” He continues on doing so. But that’s beside the point, what’s interesting is Morton’s assertion that this “interesting game” has gone “way to far out, even for me.”

Is that his mode through the whole book, game mode? Start with the Millennium Falcon and see where it leads, by association, generalization, abstraction, conflation and whatever else. With the Falcon at the center of the web, how far can you extend it through spacecraft to matters of social and political organization and action, of work and play. Is the game a meditation on the Millennium Falcon?

* * * * *

Is THAT what Spacecraft is about? Is the Millennium Falcon the mirror ball that transforms a room into a disco?  Is ecological tuning the way one enters hyperspace? 
 
Enquiring minds want to know.
 
* * * * *
 

Work isn't all it's cracked up to be [more naps!]

Cassady Rosenblum, Work is a False Idol, NYTimes, Aug. 22, 2021.

The lying flat movement, or tangping as it’s known in Mandarin, is just one expression of this global unraveling. Another is the current worker shortage in the United States. As of June, there were more than 10 million job openings in the United States, according to the most recent figures from the Labor Department — the highest number since the government began tracking the data two decades ago. While conservatives blame juiced-up pandemic unemployment benefits, liberals counter that people do want to work, just not for the paltry wages they were making before the pandemic.

Both might be true. But if low wages were all that’s at play, we would expect to see reluctant workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and content workers at the top. Instead, there are murmurs of dissent at every rung, including from the inner sanctums of Goldman Sachs, where salaries for investment bankers start at $150,000. According to a leaked internal survey, entry-level analysts at the investment bank report they’re facing “inhumane” conditions, working an average of 98 hours a week, forgoing showers and sleep. “I’ve been through foster care,” said one respondent. “This is arguably worse.”

In the United States, Black activists, writers and thinkers are among the clearest voices articulating this spiritual malaise and its solutions, perhaps because they’ve borne the brunt of capitalism more than other groups of Americans. Tricia Hersey, a performance artist and the founder of the Nap Ministry, an Atlanta-based organization, is one of them. Ms. Hersey says she discovered the power of naps during a draining year of graduate school at Emory University, an experience that inspired her to bring the gospel of sleep to fellow African Americans whose enslaved and persecuted ancestors were never able to properly rest.

Note:

But it’s worth noting that Mr. Luo acknowledged the necessity of making a living, and @hollabekgrl didn’t say she never wanted to work at a job or hone a craft; she said she doesn’t want a “career,” a corporate-flavored word that conjures images of PowerPoints and power suits. While jobs are sustenance, careers are altars upon which all else is sacrificed.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The normalization of violence in commercial kitchens via food media

Meiser ET, Pantumsinchai P. The Normalization of Violence in Commercial Kitchens Through Food Media. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. April 2021. doi:10.1177/08862605211005138

Abstract: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 2.53 million cooks and chefs in the United States. Of those, one in four reports experiencing physical violence in the workplace—roughly 632,500 victims. While shocking, this figure fails to account for the psychological and sexual violence that also plagues commercial kitchens. Workplace harassment and bullying is not limited to the United States and has been documented in Scottish, English, Scandinavian, French, Malaysian, Korean, and Australian kitchens. Why is violence so prevalent in kitchens, and how has it become a behavioral norm? Using data from 50 in-depth interviews with kitchen workers and analysis of food media, this article shows that while kitchen workplace violence can be attributed to typical causes, such as occupational stress, there is an overlooked source: the normalization of violence through food media. By exploring television shows, like “Hell’s Kitchen,” and chef memoirs, like Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, readers will see how bullying and harassment are romanticized in these mediums, glorified as a product of kitchen subculture, and consequently normalized in the kitchen.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Elon says we should have fewer (smart) people in law and finance and more actually making stuff

Rise and shine

What happened to story grammars? [and other things, from a primer on AI story generation]

Story grammars existed in cognitive science (AI and computational linguistics) for about a decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

Here's what Mark Riedl has to say about them in his useful "An Introduction to AI Story Generation", The Gradient:

Computational grammars were designed to decide whether an input sequence would be accepted by a machine. Grammars can be reversed to make generative systems. The earliest known story generator (Grimes 1960) used a hand-crafted grammar. The details are largely lost to history.

In 1975, David Rumelhart (1975) published a grammar for story understanding. It was followed by a proposed story grammar by Thorndyke (1977).

Black and Wilensky (1979) evaluate the grammars of Rumelhart and Thorndyke and come to the conclusion that they are not fruitful for story understanding. Rumelhart (1980) responds that Black and Wilensky misunderstood. Mandler and Johnson (1980) suggest that Black and Wilensky are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Wilensky (1982) revisits story grammars and doubles-down on his critique. Wilensky (1983) then goes on to propose an alternative to grammars called “story points”, which resemble schemata for plot points (see next section) but aren’t generative. Rumelhart goes on to work on neural networks and invents the back-propagation algorithm.

The full article also covers narratology and the psychology of narrative, story planners, and more recent machine learning approaches, including neural networks.

From the discussion of neural techniques:

One of the main limitations of neural language models is that they generate tokens based on a sequence of previous tokens. Since they are backward-looking instead of forward-looking, there is no guarantee that the neural network will generate a text that is coherent or drives to a particular point or goal. Furthermore, as the story gets longer, the more of the earlier context is forgotten (either because it falls outside of a window of allowable history or because neural attention mechanisms prefer recency). This makes neural language model based story generation systems “fancy babblers” — the stories tend to have a stream-of-consciousness feel to them. Large-scale pre-trained transformers such as GPT-2, GPT-3, BART, and others have helped with some of the “fancy babbling” issues by allowing for larger context windows, but the problem is not completely resolved. As language models themselves they cannot address the problem of forward-looking to ensure they are building toward something in the future, except by accident.

Story grammars come from the "old school" world of symbolic systems. Learning and neural techniques are from the more recent 'sub-symbolic' approaches. Can we combine the two?

One of the issues with neural language models is that the hidden state of the neural network (whether a recurrent neural network or a transformer) only represents what is needed to make likely word choices based on a prior context history of word tokens. The “state” of the neural network is unlikely to be the same as the mental model that a reader is constructing about the world, focusing on characters, objects, places, goals, and causes. The shift from symbolic systems to neural language models shifted the focus from the modeling of the reader to the modeling of the corpus. This makes sense because data in the form of story corpora is readily available but data in the form of the mental models readers form is not readily available.

Assuming the theories about how reader mental models can be represented symbolically are correct, can we build neurosymbolic systems that take the advantages of neural language models and combine them with the advantages of symbolic models? Neural language models gave us a certain robustness to a very large space of inputs and outputs by operating in language instead of limited symbols spaces. But neural language model based story generation also resulted in a step backward from the perspective of story coherence. Symbolic systems on the other hand excelled at coherence through logical and graphical constraints but at the expense of limited symbol spaces.

Reidl's conclusion:

The field of automated story generation has gone through many phase shifts, perhaps none more significant than the phase shift from non-learning story generation systems to machine learning based story generation systems (neural networks in particular).

Symbolic story generation systems were capable of generating reasonably long and coherent stories. These systems derived much of their power from well-formed knowledge bases. But these knowledge bases had to be structured by hand, which limited what the systems could generate. When we shifted to neural networks, we gained the power of neural networks to acquire and make use of knowledge from corpora. Suddenly, we could build story generation systems that could generate a larger space of stories about a greater range of topics. But we also set aside a lot of what was known about the psychology of readers and the ability to reason over rich knowledge structures to achieve story coherence. Even increasing the size of neural language models has only delayed the inevitability of coherence collapse in stories generated by neural networks.

A primer such as this one makes it easier to remember the paths that were trodden previously in case we find opportunities to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water. This is not to say that machine learning or neural network based approaches should not be pursued. If there was a step backward it was because doing so gave us a powerful new tool with the potential to take us further ahead. The exciting thing about working on automated story generation is that we genuinely don’t know the best path forward. There is a lot of room for new ideas.

As always there's much more in the full article.

It's clear to me, and has been for some time (dating back to the Jurassic Era actually, that is, the late 1970s and early 1980s), that the human mind has both symbolic and sub-symbolic processes. Thus I am firmly of the belief that the future lies in combining the two regimes. Just how that is to be done, that's open to investigation. I assume that various methods will prove useful for different purposes.

For some recent thoughts on such 'hybrid' systems see:

Friday, August 20, 2021

Nam June Paik, King of all haiku

OpenAI's Codex demo [machine learning in its natural environment]

Interesting. A major weakness of these various machine learning systems is that they have, at best, limited access to the real world, and so they cannot learn in the context in which humans ordinarily learn. We're born primed to deal with that world with millions of years of evolutionary history behind us. Machines, alas, are a blank slate. The obvious place to apply machine learning, then, would be the world of computation. That, after all, is the NATURAL world for computers, their native environment. That, apparently, is what Codex has done.

As I noted last year, when giving my initial quick take on GPT-3:

Think AI as platform, not feature (Andreessen). Obvious implication, the basic computer will be an AI-as-platform. Every human will get their own as an very young child. They're grow with it; it'll grow with them. The child will care for it as with a pet. Hence we have ethical obligations to them. As the child grows, so does the pet – the pet will likely have to migrate to other physical platforms from time to time. [...]

So, the AGI of the future, let's call it GPT-42, will be looking in two directions, toward the world of computers and toward the human world. It will be learning in both, but in different styles and to different ends. In its interaction with other artificial computational entities GPT-42 is in its native milieu. In its interaction with us, well, we'll necessarily be in the driver's seat.

Where are we with respect to the hockey stick growth curve? For the last 3/4 quarters of a century, since the end of WWII, we've been moving horizontally, along a plateau, developing tech. GPT-3 is one signal that we've reached the toe of the next curve. But to move up the curve, as I've said, we have to rethink the whole shebang.

We're IN the Singularity. Here be dragons.

My first thoughts on AI-as-platform, though I didn't use that term, can be found in a working paper containing ideas dating back to January of 2006, PowerPoint Assistant: Augmenting End-User Software through Natural Language Interaction, https://www.academia.edu/14329022/PowerPoint_Assistant_Augmenting_End_User_Software_through_Natural_Language_Interaction. Here's the abstract:

This document sketches a natural language interface for end user software, such as PowerPoint. Such programs are basically worlds that exist entirely within a computer. Thus the interface is dealing with a world constructed with a finite number of primitive elements. You hand-code a basic language capability into the system, then give it the ability to ‘learn’ from its interactions with the user, and you have your basic PPA.