Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Problem with Close Reading: GIGO

I've bumped this old post (7.31.2011) to the top, as critical methodology is much in the air these days.

And there is no universally agreed standard as to what constitutes garbage

You had to be there.

This (down ⤋ there), or something very like it, was originally published in the News-Letter, the student newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University, on March 7, 1969. It caused a minor scandal and set tongues a-wagging in the faculty dining room the Friday of publication. Other than an aura of sophomoric virtue and some verbal excess, it is hard to see why it was deemed scandalous.

As I said, you had to be there. This was 1969, before the culture wars, before skin mags came out of the backroom and onto the front racks, before porn on the internet. Before the nation had pulled its sorry ass out of Vietnam.

And before post-structuralism had morphed into deconstruction and sired Theory on the various political criticisms that proliferated in the wake of anti-war, civil rights, and feminist protests. Back then the New Criticism was still flying high in the academy and truth was still the earnest object of literary criticism. This little gem made a mockery of that. That, I suspect, was the core of the scandal; the sexually circumspect, but nonetheless obvious, language was merely a convenient foil on which to hang a bit of righteous indignation. The piece was silly and vulgar, so what?

I’ve reprinted it—it was written by my younger self—as a contribution to the discussion of close reading that has sprung up on the web at Arcade and now Crooked Timber. Who’s next? I’ve made a number of changes, some minor, some not so minor. Should you care about such matters, you can check this version against a somewhat tattered and smoke-damaged copy of the original, which I have archived here (PDF).

As a point of information, without which some of the language is likely to seem excessive even for satire, back in those days condoms were routinely called prophylactics. Also, there was a lot of student unrest and doubt about the university’s mission. A lot.

* * * * *

Of Socks, Prophylactics, and Other Matters Sublime and Heroic

by Carl Jakob Joachim Benzon

In view of the growing student unrest concerning the relevance of the real world to the concerns of the university, I thought it might be relevant to show how the real world is indeed relevant to our universal concerns and thus give a point of fixity upon which young and anxious minds can fix their earnest gaze and which will serve as a North Star by whose light they can chart their course through the treacherous seas of life. Accordingly I have decided to give a close textual analysis of a rather well-known piece of popular verse:
In days of old when knights were bold,
And rubbers weren’t invented,
They wrapped a sock around their cock
And babies were prevented.

Origami cranes in flight, Maplewood, NJ


African Music in the World

Another working paper available at

Title above, abstract, table of contents, and introduction below.

* * * * *

Abstract: Sometime in the last million years or so a band of exceedingly clever apes began chanting and dancing, probably somewhere in East Africa, and thereby transformed themselves into the first humans. We are all cultural descendants of this first African musicking and all music is, in a genealogical sense, African music. More specifically, as a consequence of the slave trade African music has moved from Africa to the Americas, where it combined with other forms of music, from Europe but indigenous as well. These hybrids moved to the rest of the world, including back to Africa, which re-exported them.

Canceling Stamps 1
African Music 1
The Caribbean and Latin America 2
Black and White in the USA 3
Afro-Pop 5
Future Tense 6
Acknowledgements 7
References 7

Canceling Stamps

In 1975 an ethnographer recorded music made by postal workers while canceling stamps in the University of Ghana post office (Locke 1996, 72-78). One, and sometimes two, would whistle a simple melody while others played simple interlocking rhythms using scissors, inkpad, and the letters themselves. The scissors rhythm framed the pattern in much the way that bell rhythms do in a more conventional percussion choir.

Given the instrumentation and the occasion, I hesitate to categorize this music as traditional; but the principles of construction are, for all practical purposes, as old as dirt. What is, if anything, even more important, this use of music is thoroughly sanctioned by tradition. These men were not performing music for the pleasure and entertainment of a passive audience. Their musicking—to use a word coined by Christopher Small (1998)—served to assimilate their work to the rhythms of communal interaction, thus transforming it into an occasion for affirming their relationships with one another.

That, so I’ve argued at some length (Benzon 2001), is music’s basic function, to create human community. Sometime in the last million years or so a band of exceedingly clever apes began chanting and dancing, probably somewhere in East Africa, and thereby transformed themselves into the first humans. We are all cultural descendants of this first African musicking and all music is, in a genealogical sense, African music. That sense is, of course, too broad for our purposes, but it is well to keep it in mind as we contemplate Africa’s possible futures.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jakobson’s poetic function as a computational principle, on the trail of the human mind

Not so long ago I argued that Jakobson’s poetic function could be extended beyond the examples he gave, which came from poetry, to other formal features, such as ring composition [1]. I now want to suggest that it is a computational principle as well. What I mean by computation [2]? That’s always a question in these discussions, isn’t it?

When Alan Turing formalized the idea of computation he did so with the notion of a so-called Turing Machine [3]: “The machine operates on an infinite memory tape divided into discrete cells. The machine positions its head over a cell and ‘reads’ (scans) the symbol there.” There’s more to it than that, but that’s all we need here. It’s that tape that interests me, the one with discrete cells, each containing a symbol. Turing defined computation as an operation on the contents of those cells. Just what kind of symbols we’re dealing with is irrelevant as long as the basic rules governing their use are well-specified. The symbols might be numerals and mathematical operators, but they might also be the words and punctuation marks of a written language.

Linguists frequently refer to strings; an utterance is a string of phonemes, or morphemes, or words, depending on what you’re interested in. Of course it doesn’t have to be an utterance; the string can consist of a written text. What’s important is that it’s a string.

Well, Jakobson’s poetic function places restrictions on the arrangement of words on the string, restrictions independent of those made by ordinary syntax. Here’s Jakobson’s definition [4]:

The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.

The sequence, of course, is our string. As for the rest of it, that’s a bit obscure. But it’s easy to see how things like meter and rhyme impose restrictions on the composition of strings. Jakobson has other examples and I give a more careful account of the restriction in my post, along with the example of ring composition [1]. Moreover, in a working paper on ring composition, I have already pointed out how the seven rules Mary Douglas gave for characterizing ring composition can be given a computational interpretation [5, pp. 39-42].

* * * * *

Autumn leaves, rendered flat


LitCrit: Getting my bearings, the lay of the land

Another quick take, just a place filler.

I’ve been playing around with this chart. Nothing’s set in stone. Terms are likely to change (especially the first column), move about, add another line, etc.

Observe the Text
Translation/ Interpretation
Object of Observation
Grounding Metaphor
Space (inside, outside, surface, etc.)
Source of Agency
Human Subject
Psychological Mechanisms
For the Agent
Advice/How do we live?
Explanation/How do things work?

The point, of course, is that ethnical and naturalist criticism are different enterprises, requiring different methods, different epistemologies, and different philosophical accounts. The discipline (literary criticism) as it currently exists mixes the two and is skewed toward ethical criticism. Ethical criticism addresses itself to the human subject, which is why it is all-but forced to employ the thin spatial metaphors of standard criticism and why it must distance itself from the explicit (computational) mechanisms of linguistics and of the newer psychologies. That is also why, despite the importance of the concept of form, it has no coherent conception of form and cannot/will not describe formal features of texts beyond those typical of formal poetry and a few others.

The recent Critical Inquiry mini-symposium [1] inevitably mixes the two but is, of course, biased toward ethnical criticism (without, however, proclaiming its ethical nature). All contributions assume the standard spatial metaphors while the world of newer psychologies, much less that of linguistics (computation and psychological mechanisms in the above chart) doesn't exist. Post-structuralism/post-modernism is the (tacitly) assumed disciplinary starting point. My guess is that, except for Marjorie Levinson [2], none of the participants is old enough to remember when structuralism was a viable option. Linguistics, cognitive science, etc. simply aren't real for most of these scholars. They belong over there, where those others can deal with them.

It is strange, and a bit sad, to see a discipline that is centered on texts to be so oblivious of language itself and of its study in other disciplines.

As always, more later.

[1] Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, Form and Explanation, Critical Inquiry 43 (Spring 2017).  Five replies in Critical Inquiry 44 (Autumn 2017).

[2] Marjorie Levinson, Response to Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, “Form and Explanation”, Critical Inquiry 44 (Autumn 2017).

Monday, September 18, 2017

Skippy ponders the eternal verities


Trump, Gibbs & NCIS, and the Queen @3QD

I’ve got another post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Donald Trump is no Leroy Jethro Gibbs:

The title tells it all, I measure Trump against the central character of one of the most popular scripted shows on network television, ever. Trump comes up short.

After establishing a sense of NCIS I focus on the distinction between one’s interests as a private person and one’s interests and duties in an organization. In Trump’s case that organization is, of course, not merely the Federal Government, but the nation. That distinction is real for Gibbs, but doesn’t exist for Trump.

But how do you dramatize that distinction? It’s easy enough to assert it, and one can write about it at considerable length. But making it REAL in a dramatic medium is different. You can’t have characters giving lectures on political and legal theory. Well you can, but it would be very boring.

For the most part NCIS leaves the distinction unstated. It’s there in Gibbs’s actions, and the actions of other characters, but they don’t philosophize about it.

I then give an example from the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. The distinction between private interests and public duty is central to that show, and there is considerable talk about it. I present one such example, but without comment. In this post I want to comment on that example. Before that, however, I want to present a speech from Shakespeare.

The Rejection of Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff is one of the most beloved characters in Shakespeare. He’s a down-and-out knight who spends his time drinking with his pals and trading in petty crime. Prince Hal, heir apparent to the throne of England, is one of those pals. When Hal ascends to the throne, becoming Henry V, Falstaff approaches him at the coronation, gleefully anticipating good times to come now that his boon companion, good old Hal, rules the land. He addresses the King as “Hal” and is severely, unexpectedly, and very publically reprimanded (Henry V, Part II, Act 5, scene 5)
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform'd the tenor of our word. Set on.
Notice how Hal explicitly distinguishes his two selves, the private person (“the thing I was”, “my former self”) and his new status as king (“our person”, “we hear you”). As a consequence of this distinction the King must necessarily have a different relationship with Sir John than Hal did.

Such a speech is natural to the occasion, the coronation of the King. For it is in that ceremony that a person leaves one social status (a term of art in the social sciences) and assumes another, that of monarch. This is a type of ceremony that anthropologists call a rite of passage. Christenings, baptisms, bar/bat Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and graduations are other examples of rites of passages. In each case a person leaves one station in society and assumes another. Depending on various factors, such ceremonies may be simple, with few present, or complex and staged before a large audience.

A complex ceremony before a large audience is a kind of theater. As such, it is a natural way for a dramatist to explore and present, at some length, the distinction between private and public person. That is what Shakespeare did in Henry IV, Part II.

Sunday, September 17, 2017



Literary Criticism: A short note on the current state of the art

Just a place-holder, really, I’ve got other things I’ve got to do.

A meaning-centric criticism takes translation as its first principle. A naturalist criticism takes description as its first principle. The existing academic discipline focuses on the first and neglects the second. That’s why the discipline cannot deal coherently with form, though form is one of its central concepts. And that’s why the current interest in description is deeply problematic, for it’s not clear what the targets for description for a meaning-centric literary criticism. Oh sure, there’s versification and such, that’s been around a long time; it can be avoided. But it’s peripheral to the discipline. Putting that aside, how do you describe meaning?

The current discipline uses spatial metaphors (inside, outside, surface, hidden, deep, close, distant) to characterize the text and the relations between the text, the world, the audience, and the critic. A naturalist criticism considers the text a way the social-behavior scientist would – phonetics, graphemics, phonology, morphology, and so forth. Such a characterization is not utterly foreign to the meaning-centric critic, but it has little place in the critic’s practical criticism or even theorizing (such as it is).

The discipline had a brush with a naturalist conception back in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s what structuralism offered, a naturalist poetics. Structuralism was rejected, thus further entrenching meaning-centric criticism. A critic born in 1955 would have been 20 years old when Culler’s Structuralist Poetics was published. That critic might have encountered structuralism as a live possibility. Any critics born after 1960 would only know of structuralism as a thing of the past. My guess is that most critics currently active were born after 1960. These critics would know of the naturalist conception of language and texts, but it’s not something they are likely to have internalized in any degree; it's not something they’ve lived.

Computational criticism, however, is a different. On some level the computational critic has no choice but to approach texts as a naturalist critic would. Why? Because that’s how computers deal with texts. Computers deal with the signifiers (as opposed to the signifieds) that constitute texts. They have no access to semantics, to meaning. However, most (if not all) computational critics will have been trained in the meaning-centric spatial metaphors of conventional criticism. Thus they may well hold the naturalist conception of language, the one embodied in the software they use, at arm’s length. It is an unstable and delicate situation.

More later.

For extra credit: meaning-centric = logocentric (in Derrida's sense)?

Why identity politics? Because the left has given up on everything else.

Writing in the Guardian, Kenan Malik reviews Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. We've got a problem:
Between them, Lilla and his critics sum up well the impasse of contemporary politics on the left. Many of his critics cannot see that the politics of identity, far from defending the marginalised and the powerless, fragments the possibilities of meaningful social change. Lilla cannot see that the self-proclaimed “liberal centrist” politics he espouses has helped create the fragmentation of which he despairs. In Europe, too, debates about immigration and multiculturalism, about nationalism and federalism, expose a similar kind of deadlock. The roots of contemporary identity politics lie in the new social movements that emerged in the 1960s to challenge the failure of the left to take seriously the issues of racism, homophobia and women’s rights. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in providing a template for many other groups to develop concepts of identity and self-organisation. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and a left often indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups.
The left has lost its vision:
The erosion of the power of labour movement organisations, the demise of radical social movements, the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the church, have all helped to create a more fragmented society. These are the changes that have snapped social bonds and hollowed-out civic life.

That hollowing out has been exacerbated by the narrowing of the political sphere, by politics that has self-consciously become less ideological, more technocratic. The Democrats in America have discarded much of their old ideological attachments as well as their links to their old social constituencies.
Consequently, identity is all that's left for the left.
What Lilla fails to recognise is that the demand for “mayors not marchers” – for pragmatic politics over social movements – is a change that has already happened; and the consequence has been the kind of identity politics he rightly despises. The problem is not that there are marchers rather than mayors. It is, rather, that both marchers and mayors, both activists and politicians, operate in world in which broader visions of social change have faded. How to restore a sense of solidarity based on broader politics rather than narrow identities – that’s the real challenge we face.

Two observations on wealth

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The city-state redux

Until the mid-19th century, most of the world was a sprawl of empires, unclaimed land, city-states and principalities, which travellers crossed without checks or passports. As industrialisation made societies more complex, large centralised bureaucracies grew up to manage them. Those governments best able to unify their regions, store records, and coordinate action (especially war) grew more powerful vis-à-vis their neighbours. Revolutions – especially in the United States (1776) and France (1789) – helped to create the idea of a commonly defined ‘national interest’, while improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. There are now 193 nation-states ruling the world.

But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world.
Maybe Trump was right"
On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century.
Tough, of course, The Donald doesn't believe in climate change.

Graffiti in winter with chair


Friday, September 15, 2017

Zero dated to 3rd century CE

From Oxford:
Although a number of ancient cultures including the ancient Mayans and Babylonians also used the zero placeholder, the dot’s use in the Bakhshali manuscript is the one that ultimately evolved into the symbol that we use today. India was also the place where the symbolic placeholder developed into a number in its own right, and the concept of the figure zero as it exists today, was born.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

Jamming for Peace

This is 14 years old, but worth re-posting. It's about the power of music to make strangers into a community.
It was Saturday, March 22, 2003, the day of the big peace demonstration. I got off the PATH train in mid-town Manhattan at about 12:30. Five minutes later I was in Harold Square, home of Macy's, checking out the demo. I’d agreed to hook up with Charlie between 1 and 1:30, so I had a few minutes to get a feel for the flow.

People filled Broadway from side-to-side for block after block. Here and there I heard drums and bells and a horn player or two, but no organized music. Shortly after the Sparticists passed (they’re still around?) I noticed a trombonist standing on the sidewalk. Just as I was about to invite him to come with Charlie and me he headed out into the crowd. I let him go his way as I went mine.

I arrived at 36th and 6th – our meeting point a block away from the demo route – at about 1. Charlie arrived about five minutes later, with two German house guests. We were to meet with other musicians and then join the demo, providing some street music for the occasion. None of the other musicians had arrived by 1:45, so we waded into the crowd searching for the drummers we could hear so well – one of our musicians arrived about ten minutes later and managed to find us in the demo. We made our way to the drummers and starting riffing along with them, Charlie on cornet and me on trumpet. I could see one guy playing bass drum, another on snare, a djembe player or two, and various people playing bells, a small cooking pot, plastic paint cans. Then I heard some wild horn playing off to the left. I looked and saw the one-armed cornetist I’d seen playing in Union Square in the days after 9/11. Charlie and I made our way toward him and joined up. Then I noticed two trumpeters and a trombonist a few yards behind us.

So there we were, a half dozen horns, perhaps a dozen percussion, all within a 20-yard radius. We’d come to the demo in ones, twos and threes, managed to home-in on one another’s sounds, and stayed in floating proximity for the two or three mile walk down Broadway to Washington Square. Sometimes we were closer, within a 5 or 6-yard radius, and sometimes we sprawled over 50 yards. The music was like that too, sometimes close, sometimes sprawled.

Lawfare on impeachment in the context of the contemporary presidency

The presidency in its current form is, in many respects, something of a constitutional absurdity. We entrust the occupant to wisely exercise vast powers, but the barriers to entry into competition for this office have been virtually eliminated. Provided that he or she meets basic constitutional qualifications—for example, age—anyone can run. The aspirants are not required to submit to any formal screening or peer review. The political parties may have once performed a function like that, but now they do not: They host the event but have no control over the invitation list because a candidate wishing to participate can invite himself. Now it is largely up to the press and the operation of fierce political competition to ferret out disqualifying information, and to get this job done in the compressed period after a candidate becomes serious and undergoes the fullest, most sustained scrutiny. We hope for the best.

Even the availability of resources limits the field only so much. Often a little press buzz and a good showing in Iowa, in whatever order that occurs, are enough to launch a relatively low-budget and improbable candidacy well into the later stages of the primary election process—and sometimes all the way to the nomination.

So informal mechanisms for judging worthiness are all there is to go on, and these are only so reliable. It is precisely the candidate with little prior experience in public life and the scrutiny that goes with it who may stand the best chance—as an “outsider”—of advancing well into the process.
They didn't contemplate such things back in the 18th Century, when the Constitution was formulated and adopted as the foundational laws of the land:
While not a step to be taken lightly, or routinely, the “dreadfulness” of removal can be gauged only with reference to the office as it stands, in relation to the processes by which candidates compete for it. If someone not “viable” does slip through the crazy-quilt process, then the impeachment process is a safeguard, the use of which should not stand or fall on whether the new president committed his crimes and misdemeanors before taking the oath of office.

Of course, not all 18th-century assumptions and precedents built on them need be discarded, but there is also no virtue in disregarding the 21st-century realities of institutional and political change. And while impeachment might well remain an extraordinary remedy, it does not follow that it must be viewed as inevitably a constitutionally catastrophic outcome to be avoided if at all possible. In fact, the constitutional catastrophe could well be an entirely outdated understanding of impeachment. This is a useful question to be debated now, and it is an important one without regard to the specific case of Donald Trump.

We have met the enemy and the enemy is us

Friday Fotos: Urban pastoral with a painted elephant






Tim Morton’s Maxims

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey had moved through Houston, Tim Morton, who lives there, was interviewed for a Cultures of Energy podcast. During the interview he offered four maxims for living in the Anthropocene:
1. You're not guilty. 2. If you can understand it, you're responsible for it. 3. Try increasing pleasures. 4. We're all roughly the same.
That may seem a bit terse, but, yes, I do rather like them in that form, the way they rub up against one another and intermingle. But he did get some pushback about lack of context:

So, read the book (Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People) if you will, Tim’s a good writer, and witty.

But I’d like to think about the maxims in their naked decontextualized form.

What caught my eye, as you might imagine (& my heart), is #3 “Try increasing pleasures” (my toes too). If I were to give it a close close reading I’d note a mild ambiguity: we need more and more pleasure, but also, we need individual pleasures that build and build. Such is language.

It’s just the delicious irony of it, in America, home of earnest Puritan virtue, to hear of pleasure. From the mouth of a hurricane though, since the hurricane was moving away at the time, maybe it was from the other end. I gather Tim is one of Emma Goldman’s dancing r/evolutionaries.


#1: You’re not guilty. Guilty of what? Everything, life. I sometimes think that guilt is sometimes something we agree to assume in order that we may either do something we shouldn’t, not fail to do something we should. We may feel the guilt after the event, or non-event, but we allow and plan for it in advance. Guilt is a bargain we make so we can be naughty and self-righteous at the same time.

Guilt gets in the way, of pleasure certainly. But also, it clouds understanding & hence responsibility (#2) and is isolating, thus diminishing fellow-feeling (#4).

Changing direction a bit, we were born into this mess (the Anthropocene), we didn’t start it. (Seems very Christian. Adam & Eve.) The Anthropocene was launched during the Industrial Revolution, and they didn’t understand (#2) what they were doing. They couldn’t see. And neither could we until science & satellites & computers allowed us to look at the earth and the climate and see that, YIKES!, it’s getting warmer.

So, guilt gets in the way. They didn’t intend it and we didn’t deserve it – throw off the guilt! – but here it is. And now that we understand...

(#2: If you can understand it, you're responsible for it.)

... we’re responsible. Without guilt, we are FREE to be responsible. We can do something. Yes, we CAN. And by “we” we mean (“we” means Tim and you and me and everybody else) every body, which by OOO logic implies everything.

#4: We're all roughly the same. I suppose “roughly” as in “more or less, approximately”. Yet, as we’re all bodies, it might also be “smoothly”. So we’re smoothly the same, rolling around together here on earth, increasing pleasure.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Born to Groove


Appalachian Soul

From Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, Norton 2001, p. 156:
In 1933, George Pullen Jackson . . . published a book – White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands – about a remarkable tradition he had encountered among “plain folk” in the region. From the time he settled in Nashville in 1918, Jackson noticed a practice of sacred singing that was being carried on outside the churches. Gathering on weekends, groups of Southerners staged all-day “singings,” and they brought their own books: thick, oblong volumes of psalm and hymn tunes, and anthems set mostly for four-part chorus with the melody in the tenor voice. They seated themselves according to voice part . . . in a rectangle with an open space in the middle. Into that space stepped a succession of singers from the ranks, each leading the group in two or three pieces. . . . The sound of the singing . . . took some getting used to. The singers tended to vocalize full blast at all times, making no attempt to blend.
Crawford then goes on to quote from Jackson’s book where he describes a reception that followed a singing contest for children:
At first the happy children received merely a warm hand-shake and pat on the shoulder from the men and a kiss from the women. But by degrees the wave of emotion rose, swept on by this song and then by another one spliced on, and by the really parental joy in those children who had so beautifully proved that they could carry on their fathers’ and mothers’ beloved art – until the warm congratulatory reception became a veritable and ardent “love feast.” The little ones were smothered with kisses and hugs. Tears streamed down the cheeks of young and old. And one particular fat man, looking on, crying, laughing, seating, and fanning, shouted intermittently.

Automating Image Culture [#DH]

Lev Manovich, Automating Aesthetics: Artificial Intelligence and Image Culture:
Abstract: In the original vision of artificial intelligence (AI) in 1950s, the goal was to teach computer to perform a range of cognitive tasks. They included playing chess, solving mathematical problems, understanding written and spoken language, recognizing content of images, and so on. Today, AI (especially in the form of supervised machine learning) has become a key instrument of modern economies employed to make them more efficient and secure: making decisions on consumer loans, filtering job applications, detecting fraud, and so on.

What has been less obvious is that AI now plays an equally important role in our cultural lives, increasingly automating the realm of the aesthetic. Consider, for example, image culture. Instagram Explore screen recommends images and videos based on what we liked in the past. recommends the artworks similar to the one you are currently viewing on the site. All image apps can automatically modify captured photos according to the norms of "good photography." Other apps "beatify" selfies. Still other apps automatically edit your raw video to create short films in the range of styles. The App The Roll from EyeEm automatically rates aesthetic quality of you photos. (. . . )

Does such automation leads to decrease in cultural diversity over time? For example, does automatic edits being applied to user photos leads to standardization of “photo imagination”? As opposed to guessing or just following our often un-grounded intuitions, can we use AI methods and large samples of cultural data to measure quantitatively diversity and variability in contemporary culture, and track how they are changing over time?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Interpret THIS!




The limitations of an academic literary criticism centered on meaning, or, What will the future bring?

I have written extensively about the limitations of the current discipline of literary criticism [1]. The discipline is focused on interpreting the meaning(s) of texts, and has been that way more-or-less since the end of World War II. To be sure, the discipline does other things – edit texts, historical studies, teach writing – but that’s the focus. That meaning-centric discipline has become sclerotic, perhaps moribund, and, to the extent that we may reify it, the discipline knows it.

What to do? That implies two questions: What are the intellectual possibilities? What are the institutional possibilities?

Intellectually, the interpretation of meaning can no longer be the focus of the discipline. It is by no means obvious to me, however, that something else should become the focus. I have been advocating that the description of form is critical and that it be given more attention, much more [2]. But it is not obvious to me that that requires making formal description THE new disciplinary focus. Why should the discipline have a focus more specific than the study of literary phenomena?

I have been advocating a discipline that recognizes
  • ethical criticism
  • naturalist criticism
  • description, and
  • digital humanities.
I think that, intellectually, that’s a reasonable scheme [3].

The interpretation of meaning finds its home in ethical criticism while the newer psychologies and cultural evolution inform naturalist criticism. Description can readily serve both ethical and naturalist criticism. As for digital humanities, that’s a term whose range is so capacious as to be all but meaningless beyond the feature of computer use. I single it out only because, on the one hand it singles itself out and, on the other hand, everyone else points to it. DH provides infrastructure of various kinds and can contribute to the core intellectual work of description, naturalist, and ethical criticism as appropriate. Within DH I have, as you may know, a particular interest in computational criticism.

That answers the question about intellectual possibilities. What about the institutional possibilities? In an ideal world existing institutions would adjust to accommodate such a scheme. But this is not that ideal world.

In the world we’ve actually got, I can imagine that existing institutions – departments, journals, professional societies – will refuse to relinquish the meaning-centric focus – they did so before, in the mid-1970s. That creates two problems: What happens to those current institutions and what becomes of those who cannot find a home there?

On the second, either these investigators find other institutional support or they cease to function as productive intellectuals. On the matter of other institutional support, I offer an observation. During the pre-modern era in the West the Catholic Church was the center of intellectual life. That changed after the Reformation and the scientific revolution. Intellectual life is now centered on colleges and universities, which are, for the most part, secular institutions. We are in an era of cultural and social change of the same depth and magnitude as that experienced in Europe during early modern era. I would expect new institutions to evolve, indeed, we can see it happening. But I’m not going to speculate on where that might lead or how those institutions might create room to support literary researchers interested in description, naturalist criticism, or computational criticism.

That leaves us with one issue: What is likely to become of a meaning-centric literary criticism? It will lose its intellectual vitality. A purely interpretative criticism will strangle nascent interest in description, will not develop a robust study of form, and will reject computational criticism. It will simply cycle through the interpretive rubrics it has adopted over the past half century, mixing and matching to produce the superficial appearance of thoughtful activity. Theology didn’t disappear with the eclipse of the church nor will literary criticism disappear if literary critics refuse to change; but the vitality will be gone.

Like getting hit in the gut with a falling apple

His friends called him "Fig".

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Pro tip: Look at all the set-up that required. What's it doing? What's in doing in the mind, in the brain? And what was Germ's Choice doing with all those portmanteau's.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

No, I haven't forgotten the irises. Have you?



Virtual Reading: The Prospero Project Redux [#DH]

I've uploaded another working paper. Title above, abstract, table of contents, and introduction below. Note that it's a long way through the introduction, but there's some good stuff there.

Download at:

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Abstract: Virtual reading is proposed as a computational strategy for investigating the structure of literary texts. A computer ‘reads’ a text by moving a window N-words wide through the text from beginning to end and follows the trajectory that window traces through a high-dimensional semantic space computed for the language used in the text. That space is created by using contemporary corpus-based machine learning techniques. Virtual reading is compared and contrasted with a 40 year old proposal grounded in the symbolic computation systems of the mid-1970s. High-dimensional mathematical spaces are contrasted with the standard spatial imagery employed in literary criticism (inside and outside the text, etc.). The “manual” descriptive skills of experienced literary critics, however, are essential to virtual reading, both for purposes of calibration and adjustment of the model, and for motivating low-dimensional projection of results. Examples considered: Heart of Darkness, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, The Winter’s Tale.

Introduction: Prospero Redux and Virtual Reading 2
In search of a small-world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness 8
Virtual reading as a path through a multidimensional semantic space 11
Reply to a traditional critic about computational criticism: Or, It’s time to escape the prison-house of critical language [#DH] 17
After the thrill is gone...A cognitive/computational understanding of the text, and how it motivates the description of literary form [Description!] 23
Appendix: Prospero Elaborated 30

Introduction: Prospero Redux and Virtual Reading

In a way, this working paper is a reflection on four decades of work in the study of language, mind, and literature. Not specifically my work, though, yes, certainly including my work. I say in a way, for it certainly doesn’t attempt to survey the relevant literature, which is huge, well beyond the scope of a single scholar. Rather I compare a project I had imagined back then (Prospero), mostly as a thought experiment, but also with some hope that it would in time be realized, with what has turned out to be a somewhat revised version of that project (Prospero Redux), a version which I believe to be doable, though I don’t alone posess the skills, much less the resources, to do it.

The rest of this working paper is devoted to Prospero Redux, the revised version. This introduction compares it with the 40 year-old Prospero. This comparison is a way of thinking about an issue that’s been on my mind for some time: Just what have we learned in the human sciences over the last half-century or so? As far as I can tell, there is no single theoretical model on which a large majority of thinkers agree in the way that all biologists agree on evolution. The details are much in dispute, but there is no dispute that world of living things is characterized by evolutionary dynamics. The human sciences have nothing comparable (though there is a move afoot to adopt evolution as a unifying principle for the social and behavioral sciences). If we don’t have even ONE such theoretical model, just what DO we know? And yet there HAS been a lot of interesting and important work over the last half-century. We must have learned something, no?

Let’s take a look.

Prospero, 1976

Work in machine translation started in the early 1950s [1]; George Miller published his classic article, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” in 1956; Chomsky published Syntactic Structures in 1957; and we can date artificial intelligence (AI) to a 1956 workshop at Dartmouth [2]. That’s enough to characterize the beginnings of the so-called “Cognitive Revolution” in the human sciences. I encountered that revolution, if you will, during my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s, where I also encountered semiotics and structuralism. By the early 1970s I was in graduate school in the English Department at The State University of New York at Buffalo, where I joined the research group of David Hays in the Linguistics Department. Hays was a Harvard-educated cognitive scientist who’d headed the mamachine translation program at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s.

At that time a number of reasearch groups were working on cognitive or semantic network models for natural language semantics. It was bleeding edge research at the time. I learned the model Hays and his students had developed and applied it to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 (which I touch on a bit later, pp. 21 ff.). At the same time I was preparing abstracts of the current literature in computational linguistics for The American Journal of Computational Linguistics. Hays edited the journal and had a generous sense of the relevant literature.

Thus when Hays was invited to review the field of computational linguistics for Computers and the Humanities it was natural for him to ask me to draft the article. I wrote up the standard kind of review material, including reports and articles coming out on the Defense Department’s speech understanding project, which was perhaps the single largest research effort in the field (I discuss this as well, pp. 20 ff.). But we aspired to more than just a literature review. We wanted a forward-looking vision, something that might induce humanists to look deeper into the cognitive sciences.

We ended the article with a thought experiment (p. 271):
Let us create a fantasy, a system with a semantics so rich that it can read all of Shakespeare and help in investigating the processes and structures that comprise poetic knowledge. We desire, in short, to reconstruct Shakespeare the poet in a computer. Call the system Prospero.

How would we go about building it? Prospero is certainly well beyond the state of the art. The computers we have are not large enough to do the job and their architecture makes them awkward for our purpose. But we are thinking about Prospero now, and inviting any who will to do the same, because the blueprints have to be made before the machine can be built. [...]

The general idea is to represent the requisite world knowledge – what the poet had in his head – and then investigate the structure of the paths which are taken through that world view as we move through the object text, resolving the meaning of the text into the structure of conceptual interrelationships which is the semantic network. Thus the Prospero project includes the making of a semantic network to represent Shakespeare’s version of the Elizabethan world view.
But a model of the Elizabethan world view was “only the background”. We would also have to model Shakespeare’s mind (p. 272):
A program, our model of Shakespeare’s poetic competence, must move through the cognitive model and produce fourteen lines of text. [...] The advantage of Prospero is that it takes the cognitive model as given – clearly and precisely – and the poetic act as a motion through the model. Instead of asking how the words are related to one another, we ask how the words are related to an organized collection of ideas, and the organization of the poem is determined, then, by the world view and poetics in unison. [3]
We declined to predict when such a marvel might have been possible, though I expected to see something within my lifetime. Not something that would rival the Star Trek computer, mind you, not something that could actually think in some robust sense of the word. But something.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Seeds of Recursion in the Child's Mind

With the Everett/Chomsky recursion debate going hot and heavy, at least in some circles, I thought I'd bump this August 2013 post to the top of the queue.
Though it has roots in 19th Century mathematics, the idea of recursion owes most of its development 20th Century work in mathematics, logic, and computing, where it has become one of the most fruitful ideas in modern–or is it post-modern?–thought. By making it central to his work in language syntax, Chomsky introduced recursion into discussions about the fundamental architecture of the human mind. The question of whether or not syntax is recursive has been important, and controversial, ever science.

My teacher, the late David Hays, was a computational linguist and had somewhat different ideas about recursion. When I say that he was a computational linguist I mean that he devoted a great deal of time and intellectual effort to the problem, first of machine translation, and then more generally to using computer programs to simulate language processing. Back in those days computers were physically large, but computationally weak in comparison with today’s laptops and smart phones. Recursive syntax required more computational resources (memory space and CPU cycles per unit of time) than were available. Transformational grammars were computationally difficult.

Hays was of the view that recursion was a property of the human mind as a whole, but not necessarily of the syntactic component of language. In particular, building on Roman Jakobson's notion of language's metalingual function, he developed an account of metalingual definition for abstract concepts that allowed for the recursive nesting of definitions within one another (Cognitive networks and abstract terminology, Journal of Clinical Computing, 3(2):110-118, 1973).

Given that Hays was my teacher, it will come as no surprise that I favor his view of the matter. But I will also note that I had become skeptical about Chomskian linguistics even before I came to study with Hays, though I had started out as a fan.

It is in that skeptical spirit that I present excerpts from two papers, one a bit of intellectual biography (Touchstones) and the other a formal academic paper centering on an elaborate and sophisticated model of the cognitive underpinnings of personal pronouns (First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction).

Why I’m just now seeing a quickening in The Force (in lit crit, #DH)

A short time ago I posted the following tweet:

As you can see, I was replying to Ted Underwood, who was in turn replying in a thread initiated by Max Kemman:

But what do I mean by a quickening in The Force?

What I mean is that, at long last, we may see fundamental changes in the academic study of literature. Well, that’s not quite right. And getting it right will not be easy. New things have been appearing for awhile, after all, and calls for change are not at all new. But it’s not just any new things and any new calls that move me.

Let me explain.

Wires, and the red light



Experienced observation (& another brief for description as the way forward in literary studies)

My friend and colleague, John Wilkins, philosopher of biology extraordinaire, has just run-up a wonderful post, 50 words for snow, or conceptual confusion – and, no, he's not trying to revive or debunk that idea. He's up to something rather different. You'll have to read his discussion of various philosophies of science yourself. That discussion leads to this:
By focusing on the theory-observation dichotomy so exclusively, philosophers of science have tended to overlook the phenomenality of categories in both wider culture and science. Initially, when a field has no theory to speak of (other than ancillary theories in related or technical disciplines like optics), the guiding principle for categorisation is experienced observation. To illustrate with an anecdote or two:

A few years back I happened to host a world-renowned American bryophytologist in Sydney, so I took him to the location in the Blue Mountains where Darwin had gone while on his Beagle voyage. I expected naively that he would find the vistas breathtaking and the sense of history would be his focus. Instead, we hardly got out of the carpark, as he found some liverworts in gametophore stages. He thanked me profusely, much to my consternation, for taking him there. I could barely see them except as background plant-like things on the car park embankment.

A year or so later, a well-known coleopterist, specialising in a group of beetles that have many representatives in Australia, visited from the US, and so his host and I took him out into the bush. As we wandered, I was impressed that he not only knew where to look for the beetles, but that he could even see them in the undergrowth and litter. I couldn’t. To him, they leapt out in his field of vision – he had the search image in his head and literally saw them as patterns in the mess. In some ways, I was like James’ newborn child, in a blooming, buzzing confusion of experiences, while he was an expert observer, filtering out the noise to spot the targets. In a later trip I got to see something of how he did it, but not much. I lacked the professional and experience learning.

In many ways, this is like the ways a traditional hunter hunts. A trained hunter sees the prey even when camouflaged or obscured. They know where to look and what to look for. Successes in the past, and folk lore, reinforce those observational techniques that will find the natural types of things being hunted. A forager is the same: they see the indications of useful plants and animals that can be used for food, medicine and cultural purposes. If your living depends on getting the natural world (mostly) right, experience tends towards the right phenomena.

There is not much in the way of theory here. Neither is the observation naively empiricist, nor is it just evolved predispositions, or else I would have had no problems at least seeing the differences that identified these types. This is culturally-scaffolded and experienced observation that converges, out of necessity, on natural phenomena. There are several aspects here. One is that of course observation of any kind relies initially upon our evolved predispositions to respond to certain types, scales, and duration of phenomena. [...]

But that is not enough. No single set of observations or the experience of a single person is going to engage with enough of the world to develop what we might call “well-formed categories”. Evolution sacrifices false negatives on the altar of false positives (Wilkins and Griffiths 2013, Griffiths and Wilkins 2014). So a different process aggregates and selects out the experiences of many: cultural evolution. We are trained by our peers, and the expertise of others is passed on, sometimes as rules, yes, and definitions, but mostly as setting up the framework in which individual learning, trial and error, will home in on the “right” categories. Thus, three factors determine observing phenomena: biology, culture and individual experience.

Let me note a passage from Dan Everett's Dark Matter of the Mind (141-142):
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness.
The Pirahãs were very experienced observers indeed of their Amazon environment while Everett was, at best, merely experienced. He was no tourist, nor even an anthropologist in a year-long stay as participant-observer. He was in fact, a Christian missionary, but that's irrelevant here. Except that, in that role, he'd put in years among the Pirahãs. But years is not the same as born and raised here. His sensorium simply was as not sharply and deeply tuned to the environment as those of the Pirahãs.

And experienced observation is what, in my view, literary critics have to offer, both to the general public, but also to the world of specialized scholarship and investigation. Frankly, what academic literary critics have come to call Theory is rather thin when considered as a theory of literary phenomena, which is not how it's used. The varieties of Theory emerged as and are used as systems for interpreting the meanings of literary texts. That's where literary criticism has focused its energies since World War II. But that enterprise has run out of steam. 

The discipline is looking around for new places to go, new things to see. One possibility being explored, ever so tentatively, is description: Maybe we ought to think about this, elevate its status in our minds, maybe even within the profession – can you imagine, someone getting tenure because they do good description [the very idea!]. Yes, description, in particular, the description of form.

There is no substitute for experienced description. Everything else is built on it. Learning it takes time. You have to do it. In particular, knowing all the theory in the world won't get you around the need to observe observe observe. Without observational experience, theory is empty abstraction, airy nothings. Hence the valorization of "close reading" in literary criticism. Close reading is a method of observation. Classically, if you will, it has been in service of interpretation. Now it is time to put it in service of description.

And here I'll stop. I've got plenty of material on description, both here at New Savanna, and at

Note: I've added this post as an appendix to my working paper, Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature.

Sunday, September 10, 2017



Bleg: Beyond/Beneath the Nation-State

This stuff is much on my mind these days. If anyone has any suggestions, please pass them on.
Back in September, 2012, I put up a post in which I asserted, by the time-honored method of pulling it out of my arse, that
in the long run, more and more political action which shift to cities and thereby ‘hollow out’ the increasingly sclerotic system of nation states which governs the earth and the global level. In a century the nation states will be husks of what they are now and most of the world’s civic business will be conducted by shifting coalitions of cities and regions.
I’m interested in exploring that notion.


Anyone have ideas, suggestions for things to check out, etc.? Any relevant science fiction?

* * * * *

In that post I cited, as examples,
  • the Second Vermont Republic, a group of citizens who want Vermont to secede from the USofA,
  • the Transition Town movement, folks who are adamantly apolitical but who, in anticipation of peak oil, are working toward local self-sufficiency in food and energy and all that that implies, and
  • Mayors of Peace, an international organization of cities seeking to end nuclear weapons by 2020.
What else is there like that, where “like that” is interpreted generously?

Do sister cities programs belong here? The Wikipedia definition:
Twin towns or sister cities are cooperative agreements between towns, cities, and even counties in geographically and politically distinct areas to promote cultural and commercial ties.
And the charter cities movement? Again, the good old Wikipedia:
A charter city is a city in which the governing system is defined by the city's own charter document rather than by state, provincial, regional or national laws. In locations where city charters are allowed by law, a city can adopt or modify its organizing charter by decision of its administration by the way established in the charter. These cities may be administered predominantly by citizens or through a third-party management structure, because a charter gives a city the flexibility to choose novel types of government structure. Charter cities are similar in administrative structure to special administrative regions.
A special administrative region (SAR) is a provincial-level administrative division of the People's Republic of China, for which creation is provided by Article 31 of the 1982 Constitution of the People's Republic of China (while the administrative divisions are provided by Article 30 of the Constitution.) Article 31 reads "The state may establish special administrative regions when necessary. The systems to be instituted in special administrative regions shall be prescribed by law enacted by the National People's Congress in the light of the specific conditions".

At present, there are two special administrative regions, namely Hong Kong and Macau, which were former British and Portuguese territories respectively. Neither of them is part of any other administrative division.
Beyond that, will China be able to sit on Tibet forever? What about the Uyghurs in Zingjiang?

And then we have the curious legal status of Native American peoples within the United States:
Tribal sovereignty in the United States refers to the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States of America. The federal government recognizes tribal nations as "domestic dependent nations" and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments. The Constitution and later federal laws grant local sovereignty to tribal nations, yet do not grant full sovereignty equivalent to foreign nations, hence the term "domestic dependent nations".
The conventional money, of course, says that those are all just curious exceptions to the rule of the nation-state, which is here to stay. And perhaps it is. I note, however, that cities didn’t disappear when nations rose up around them. The nations may well stick around, but in somewhat reduced form.

The imaginative money notes several things. In the first place, many existing nation states are colonial constructions cobbled out of disparate peoples who have little more in common than they fact that they lived in contiguous territories ruled by colonial powers. Secondly, while many things no doubt contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with economic stress perhaps chief among them, it never really was a unified nation in the sense that America has been. Three, Vermont is by no means the only contemporary secession movement in the USofA. Indeed, the world is riddled with secession movements. Four, the European Union is looking mighty shaky. Will it hold, or break up?

Perhaps the biggest threat to national sovereignty comes from the large multi-national corporations, who can, among other things, deprive nation states of tax revenue by moving money around internally. Who rules the USofA anyhow, the citizens through their elected representatives, or the large corporations through their influence on the electoral process? One could make an argument that 100 years from now, or less, the international order will be dominated by these corporations rather than by nation-states.

Not a happy prospect.

Finally, over the long historical haul things change, radically and fundamentall so. The nation-state is a relatively new form of government, less than a millennium old. Why should it be eternal? Is there any reason to believe that humankind has run out of political imagination? I see none.

And so I see the possibility of radical change in the future, but based on principles and mechanisms not yet articulated.