Monday, October 31, 2011
Plus Zombies, Bicycles, and Fat Cats
John McWhorter and Glenn Loury have an interesting discussion, mostly about Occupy Wall Street. McWhorter went down there the other day and noticed that it’s small.
Yes it is. Was there yesterday afternoon (Sunday 30 Oct) and it IS small. A whole city block, yes, but a small block. And crowded with tents. It’s large in the imagination, but physically small.
And jammed with people taking photos, shooting videos, and doing interviews. Which surely is the point, get in the media however possible.
The crowd, more diverse than some reports suggest, though it’s hard to tell the OWSers from the one-time visitors. Some folks, of course, visit time and again. I got an armband of orange mesh—just like the police use to corral people—from an older couple who were helping out. I also saw some seminary students offer a sympathetic ear as Pastors for Occupy Wall Street (something like that, I forget the exact banner they flew under). Yes, lots of young folks, but also middle aged and old. Women as well as men, and a child singer playing a pink guitar in one placer, a child drummer in another. Black white yellow, probably red too.
No, I’ve not found it, but I think I know where to look. And I figured that out while hanging out in the bathtub, where I do some of my best thinking.
What’s been puzzling me ever since Tim Morton seduced me into thinking about object-oriented ontology (OOO) is simply: why? Why me philosophy now because I abandoned philosophy way back when and have to intention to take it up again but, damn it! this stuff IS interesting, why? Specifically, what, if any, is the relationship between my deep and abiding interest in ontological cognition and OOO? Well, I think the connection goes through description, another deep and abiding interest of mine, one I apparently share with Latour.
But I don’t want to go there now, not directly, if only because, as you’ll see, I’m not going to get there by the end of this post. But I DO think that’s where to look.
But we’re not in Kansas, anymore, Toto. So take off your red shoes, kick back, and relax.
Early Morning House Keeping
I got up at 5AM last Saturday (28 Oct 2011), pretty standard these days, plus or minus an hour, poured a Diet Coke, and sat down to the computer. What am I going to post this morning? I thought, as I do every morning.
I decided to sort through some stuff. I knew the post would be something on OOO, but just which of one or two possibilities, or, rather, just how to realize the most likely possibility, that wasn’t clear. So I opened up my main OOO file and puttered around, examining, re-arranging, house cleaning.
I decided to take my Graham Harman stuff out of that file and put it in a separate file. I’ve been reading and re-reading his recent ASK/TELL interview and finding more and more in it. I decided to copy the whole thing into a Word file. But sticking that in my main OOO file violated my sense of what should be in THAT file. So, I decided to put the interview in a file of its own. And, if I’m going to do that, why not also create a file for my Graham Harman posts and notes? as that material’s growing.
That’s what I did.
Then I decided to do some clean-up on the blog (New Savanna, not The Valve, which is technologically resistant to such things). I added a “Harman” label to my label set. Well, might as well add a Bennett label and a Morton label too. Which I did.
It’s easily done, though a bit tedious. But, and here’s the thing, to do it I had to look at the titles of a bunch of recent posts. Which meant that all that stuff passed ever so lightly in review, just like looking through my OOO file for the Harman related posts. No sustained thinking about any of it, just noting it’s there.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
This NYTimes article by Daniel Kahneman, Don't Blink! The Hazards of Confidence, is interesting throughout. Kahneman starts by telling a story about his experience in the Israeli military. He was assigned to a job evaluating candidates for officer training. He and a colleague would have candidates perform certain challenges—he describes one in some detail, "the leaderless group challenge"—and evaluate the men on the basis of their performance on the challenges. They were quite confident in their evaluations.
But, alas, their evaluations were wrong, more often than not.
Every few months we had a feedback session in which we could compare our evaluations of future cadets with the judgments of their commanders at the officer-training school. The story was always the same: our ability to predict performance at the school was negligible. Our forecasts were better than blind guesses, but not by much.
We were downcast for a while after receiving the discouraging news. But this was the army. Useful or not, there was a routine to be followed, and there were orders to be obeyed. Another batch of candidates would arrive the next day. We took them to the obstacle field, we faced them with the wall, they lifted the log and within a few minutes we saw their true natures revealed, as clearly as ever. The dismal truth about the quality of our predictions had no effect whatsoever on how we evaluated new candidates and very little effect on the confidence we had in our judgments and predictions.
Kahneman elaborates on this in various ways, including some discussion of self-confidence in the world of investment and, you guessed it, there seems to0be plenty of unwarranted confidence in the ability to pick smart investments. The moral of the story (boldface mine):
As I first learned on the obstacle field, people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.
True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes.
H/t Rich Fritzson.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
A great deal of literary criticism, especially that associated with so-called Theory, but by no means confined to those brands, is about finding hidden meanings in the text. Such criticism seeks to pass through the text itself, its sounds, syntax, and semantics, and into some hidden realm where the real action is. Once that real action is discovered for any one text, well . . . No critic would actually own up to discarding the text itself, no would any critic actually do so. But, it sure seems like it.
There’s the problem: If the real meaning is hidden in the text, what do we then do with that TEXT once we’ve chased MEANING out of its lair? Do we decorate it? Destroy it? Take up residence? What?
Preparatory to thinking about those problems, consider some observations Graham Harman makes his in recent ASK/TELL interview:
There is a widespread tendency to think that if anything is moved in any way by ulterior impulses, then it must be entirely corrupted by those impulses. For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame came to lecture in Cairo six years ago. He was presenting himself to some extent as a hero for turning on the Nixon people and testifying against them in Congress. A rather cynical friend of mine said: “So what? He only did it to save his own skin.”
To which I should have replied: “So what to you too?” The fact that something is guided initially by self-interest does not reduce it utterly to that aspect. For example, the initial reasons for St. Thomas Aquinas becoming a Catholic may have been something petty like the wish to please his parents and be treated as a good boy. Well, that hardly matters, does it? The origins of a thing do not always contain its truth. Supposing young St. Thomas wanted to please his parents, then enjoyed the praise he received during his studies, who cares if these were his original motives for extreme piety? Over time, it became something much more. We could say that the original incentives lured him into the profession, but then the profession became much more to him than the original lures.
A bit later he continues in the same vein:
Friday, October 28, 2011
Back in 2007 Pinker was touring to promote The Stuff of Thought. I heard him at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan and, as I explain below, decided to elaborate some of his remarks into an account of why we tell stories. I put that account into a letter and added some remarks on the recent history of literary criticism (starting with the 1966 structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins) with a view to helping him understand why it wasn't the work of willful fugitives from rationality. I then posted the letter to The Valve and sent Pinker a link. He responded with a brief note, and gave me permission to publish it, which I did. Note that he expresses despair at the fate of interdisciplinary work in the university. I wonder if he's changed his mind on the score?
I'm now republshing both my original letter and Pinker's reply.
Last Friday I went to hear Steven Pinker speak about his new book, The Stuff of Thought. On the way home I began thinking about that talk and about his recent essay-review of The Literary Animal (PDF). In that review he expressed deep skepticism about various suggestions that have been made about how and why the arts are biologically adaptive. He pointed out that such an account “can't be a kind of psychology; it must be a kind of engineering - an attempt to lay down the design specs of a system that can accomplish a goal (specifically, a subgoal of reproduction) in a particular world (specifically, the ancestral environment)” (170). It seemed to me that his talk contained the seeds of just such an account of literature, though he doesn't appear to have had that in mind.
I decided to write him a note and email it to him. As I began to think about it, however, the note, like Topsy, just grew and grew. I then decided it made more sense to publish it as an open letter. Here's a downloadable version, with several new attachments: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism.
First, I'd like to reiterate how much I enjoyed your talk at Barnes and Noble last Friday. I must confess, however, that I suspect that you wrote The Stuff of Thought primarily so you had good reason to tour around saying George Carlin's seven words - and their many variants and synonyms - in public places surrounded by mixed company.
More seriously, as I was riding the subway home, I began to think that, between the cuss-words portion of your talk and the last, on language and social relations, you had the seeds of an account of why we tell stories. Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures. The purpose of those stories is to create mutual knowledge of fundamental matters that are otherwise difficult to talk about, either because they are taboo - as in the excretory, sexual, and sacred things you talked about - or because they are difficult to verbalize under any circumstances. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself, as that's not how my thinking began.
I began by wondering whether or not a story told in a public setting - similar to your talk, for example - constitutes shared knowledge or mutual knowledge. It is certainly shared knowledge, as everyone present now knows the story. But does that make it mutual in your sense? As I understand it, where knowledge is held mutually among people, not only is the knowledge shared but, additionally, everyone knows that everyone else knows.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) shows how one can activate the tension between patterned color forms and the objects they represent.
In pursuit of an object-oriented aesthetics of photography, I want to quote one of Graham Harman’s remarks in his ASK/TELL interview. Early on he notes “For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond.” He later goes on to talk about installations, which are, of course, visual, but perhaps tactile, haptic, and kinesthetic as well.
The Perils of Representation
I want to remain with the visual mode, but I want to talk about two-dimensionsal (2D) art: paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs, collages, whatever. One could certainly write a history of Western 2D art in terms of the “tension between objects and their qualities” (a phrase Harman uses later in the interview), that, BUT ALSO the tension between the 2D medium and its 2D and/or 1D images, and the manifold qualities of the objects represented through that medium. Such histories, I’m sure, have been written, though perhaps not quite in those terms.
I’m thinking in particular of Ernst Gombrich’s magisterial Art and Illusion which, though it isn’t a history, certainly has a historical flavor. Gombrich was interested in the conventions and techniques that were developed for representing objects and scenes on 2D surfaces. Gombrich’s point is that, while pictorial realism was the representational objective for several centuries, art is fundamentally an act of making, and only secondarily one of mimesis. The mimetic project, he points out time and again, always fails in some respect, even if the making succeeds.
During the decades of the transition to the 20th century the realist project collapsed, in part, at least, under the inherent impossibility of ever achieving a fully realistic image. You simply can’t ‘squish’ 3D reality onto a 2D surface nor can you compress, WITHOUT LOSS, the full dynamic range of visible light into the much narrower range possible with reflected light.
In the wake of this collapse many other forms of painting and drawing emerged. Some of them, e.g. surrealism, still depicted objects and scenes, but simply discarded the requirement that they be (potentially) real. And some forms abandoned representation entirely, post-WWII abstract expressionism being perhaps the best-known school.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
I learned something about religion this past Sunday. Or, if you will, I gained a richer and subtler appreciation for things I’ve know for some time, thing’s I’ve known because I’ve read them in books and articles, many of them quite good. But even the best of them must necessarily abstract away from concrete reality, and concrete reality is what I experienced on Sunday.
I went to church for the first time in years and years. I had a specific reason for going to church, and to THAT particular church. I wanted to check out Rev. Smith—not his real name, BTW. While I wouldn’t be violating any confidence by using the man’s real name, nor by telling exactly which church I went to, the fact is that I didn’t go into that church telling people that, as a reporter, ethnographer, or some other kind of thinker-about-religion, I would be writing about the service on my blog. Thus I DO feel that it would be ever so slightly out of place for me to name names.
I’d met Rev. Smith a week and a half ago at an emergency meeting of three neighborhood associations. Two bus lines were about to be discontinued, leaving many in the neighborhood without access to the outside world. So the leaders of these three associations called a meeting. Rev. Smith spoke briefly during that meeting, saying that he was starting up a new organization for empowering people in various neighborhoods. He only spoke for a minute or two but, oratorically, he went from zero to sixty in about 4.3 seconds. Zooom!
I chatted with him after the meeting, as did several others, and gave him my card after expressing interest in his new venture. I also figured I ought to check him out on his home turf, which is why I went to his church this past Sunday.
Yes, to the extent that I had expectations about his preaching style, the sermon he preached satisfied those expectations. Rev. Smith didn’t deliver the sermon from a raised pulpit. He put a lectern front and center, level with the pews. That was his home base. He had a Bible on the lectern, seemed like another book as well, and perhaps some notes. But he mostly winged it, referring back to scripture every once in awhile. He had a wireless mic so he could move freely, which he did.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Osamu Tezuka. The Book of Human Insects. Translated by Mari Morimoto. Vertical, Inc. 2011.
Originally serialized in Japan as Ningen Konchuuki in 1970-71, Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects deals with themes and motifs that have been present in his work from the beginning, but presents them to an audience more mature than we normally associate with Astro Boy, though we would do well to remember than many adults eagerly followed Astro’s adventures. Just how mature, that’s a judgment call, but The Book of Human Insects presents us with genuine violence, with thugs, gang bosses, overly ambitious industrialists, and with explicit, though not pornographic, sex, including an encounter between two women. If I hesitate to call it lesbian or gay sex, well, that’s because what’s going on in that relationship is, well, not so complicated, but it doesn’t fit into neat socio-sexual categories either. Not American categories at any rate.
One woman in the encounter is the private secretary, assistant, and mistress of one of the above mentioned industrialists, Kiriri Kamaishi. She’s being fooled and exploited, and by a woman she’s supposed to watch and follow. That woman, and the party to sexual relationship, is Toshiko Tomura, Kamaishi’s new wife in a match that’s explicitly constructed as a competitive wager. Tomura is our protagonist. The wager takes the form of a marriage contract between them that places heavy restrictions on Tomura’s actions, but which also has one clause that Tomura herself added: “Any unilateral divorce will not be recognized. And if either spouse should happen to violate any of the these terms, all of their assets shall be transferred to the other.”
There’s a certain logic to fiction that pretty much betrays how this wager is going to work out. Further, the rather absurd nature of the covenant gives this segment of the story, “Longhorn Beetle”—the third of four—the feel of parable. But then, the whole story has that feel, a feeling that ebbs and flows as the story twists and changes. The point of this extended parable, however, is nothing so simple as a lesson. Of perhaps it is, and the lesson is: what is, is.
Over at Ecology without Nature Tim Morton references Graham Harman's suggestion that we need philosophy installations. In an interview with Tom Beckett at ASK/TELL Harman observes:
And here comes Harman's call for philosophy installations:
For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond. As I see it, they come in either four or ten forms, depending on how you count them. In this sense, aesthetics is first philosophy; aesthetics is not lipstick and jewelry worn by sober truths that can otherwise be stated as discursive propositions. ... But in fact, not even science or philosophy are doing their jobs properly if they dish out nothing but straight literal propositions. The world is not made of propositions, but of animals, chemicals, sports teams, and bombs.
None of these things can be translated into words or perceptions without significant energy loss.
Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.
My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.
Now, the thing is, in some ways, though not a philosopher, I am very much a thinker of the "precise" and "clear" type. That's one aspect of my early break from thinking about literature through continental thought and my flight to cognitive science. But I am also a musician and, back then, a painter and drawer.
These days I take photographs. It started when, in the summer of 2004, I was going to Chicago to give a paper at the LACUS meeting (Linguistic Association of Canadu and the United States, I believe, is how you unpack it). I was looking through the NYTimes and noticed the Millennium Park had just all but opened. "Freakin' awesome," says I to myself, "I gotta' see it."
Sunday, October 23, 2011
One notion that persists in various accounts of mind and brain is the notion of an executive, a highest-level function that controls all the rest. That such a function seems necessary, that it is logical to interpret this or that brain system (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) as being the executive, this, I suggest, has more to do with a culturally driven bias toward hierarchy than with the requirements of behavioral organization, much less with the ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ way of interpreting observations about this or that brain system.
It is just as ‘natural’ to conceive of behavioral control as anarchic and opportunistic. Moreover, the age-old struggle between passion and reason tells as that, if there IS an executive, it’s NOT reason, because reason gets constantly over-ridden by passion. No, the top-down brain is an ideological fantasy, not a behavioral necessity.
The purpose of this post is to outline a somewhat different view of these matters that David Hays and I cooked up some years ago.
Warren McCulloch’s Heterarchical Brain
But let me start with one of the grand old men of neuroscience, the late Warren McCulloch. Back in 1945 he published a paper, “A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets” in which he argued for a structure in which one can have behavioral sequences and neural structures such as: A controls B, B controls C, and C controls A. If you will, rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper covers rock. Some years later he collaborated with W. L. Kilmer on a model of the reticular formation that embodied such a heterarchical system, “A Model of the Vertebrate Central Command System.” In this model there is no one behavioral mode that dominates all others and thus is in a position to be an executive planner. 
When Hays and I incorporated McCulloch’s model into our a scheme for neuro-behavioral organization (Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence), we called it the modal principle and explained it as follows:
Definition. Modal choice feeds the results of calculation back into the biological realm, activating brain regions and selecting programs of operation which commit the organism to an interpretation of its world.
The concept of modal control has been explicated by Kilmer, McCulloch & Blum (1969) in an account of the reticular formation. They argue that animals must always be in one of several mutually exclusive modes of behavior and that the reticular formation, with its extensive afferent and efferent connections to the rest of the nervous system, is the obvious structure for implementing that commitment. The reticular formation facilitates activity in those brain regions which are most important for the current mode (see Fig. 1), while the actual behaviour of the organism when it is in the mode will be regulated by other brain centres and systems.
Kilmer et al. list 15 different modes, including, for example, sleeping, eating, fighting, hunting and grooming (see also MacLean, 1978). We are not interested in attacking or defending this particular list; what is important is recognizing that there is some small finite list of behavioural modes.
The thing about the reticular formation is that it is all-but the most primitive structure in the brain. You may be familiar with Paul McLean’s metaphor in which a reptilian brain is overlain by an old mammalian brain which is in turn overlain by the new mammalian brain. Well the reticular formation is, in effect, the chordate (worm) core of the reptilian brain. It is the oldest of the old.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Graham Harman has recently offered some reflections on Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi’s second son and often thought to have been his heir apparent.
I’ve mentioned before that I saw Seif lecture in Cairo maybe 18 months ago. He showed his true colors in the spring of 2011 with his violent television speech, but I’m afraid he had me pretty well fooled during his Cairo speech (which wouldn’t have happened if I’d bothered to research some of his previous public statements ahead of time). It was a smooth, likable, progressive-sounding talk about the future of Libya and of all Arab countries–and obviously complete bullshit, in retrospect.
I’m not so sure.
I have no direct knowledge of Saif, but a friend of mine did, Ned McClennen. Ned had admitted Saif to a Master’s level philosophy program he ran at the London School of Economics (LSE) and had worked with Saif in creating a new constitution for Libya, drafting both a bill of rights and a preamble. Critical Inquiry recently asked Ned about his experience with Saif. Here’s the long penultimate paragraph:
Friday, October 21, 2011
It has just occurred to me that Latour’s interest in description in his domain—“No scholar should find humiliating the task of description“—and my interest in description in mine stem from the same root, the need for objectification. Description is a way of providing objects for one to think about. Mathematics can do this as well, that is, whatever mathematics may be to the pure mathematician, other thinkers use is as tool for description.
The trouble with language is that it can nominalize anything, but that does not mean that conceptually useful objects are associated with every noun or noun phrase. It all depends: Just what do you want to do with the concept? Ordinary language has useful tools for dealing with macro-scale physical objects, from, say, grains of sand, hairs, and aphids to mountains, oceans, and planets. We can name them and characterize them in many ways, if crudely.
But what of the state, by which I mean a socio-political object? Surely states exist: Monaco, Norway, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Brazil, and so forth. But what are they? They are abstract objects, no? Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and philosophers have devoted considerable effort to the objectifying the state.
And then we have, for example, memes, those cultural objects named by Richard Dawkins. The term has become common, and there’s been a fair amount of pop science speculation about memes in cultural evolution. But I don’t know that anyone has provided a conceptually useful and widely accepted account of memes such that one can identify and describe individual memes and the processes in which they participate. That’s the basic substance of my critique of Dawkinsian memetics: no useful descriptive tools.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Let Occupy Wall Street become a permanent well of political discontent.
Occupy Wall Street HAS changed political discourse in America. It remains to be seen, however, what fruit will come from this change, if any.
That the OWSers have yet to come up with a set of concrete demands has often been noted. On this I side with those who do not see this as a problem. On the one hand, as many have noted, it’s not as though their central issue—massive income inequality—hasn’t been obvious for years, if not a decade or two, and it’s not as though it is difficult to come up with proposal after proposal that addresses the problem.
Everyone Must Eat
It is more important, at this point, simple to recognize the problem and to see it as deep and fundamental.
America, with all our problems, remains the world’s richest nation. That being the case, it is disgraceful that anyone should lack the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, education, and health care. Everyone, WITHOUT qualification, MUST have access to the means of living a decent life. Just how that is to be done, yes, that is a problem. But let us first state, and accept, the principle:
Everyone, WITHOUT qualification, MUST have access to the means of living a decent life.
It is not the OSW movement’s job to come up with proposals to achieve that end. That is a job for think tanks, Congressional staffers, lobbyists, and universities.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Last month Jane Bennett gave a talk at New York’s New School entitled “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”. She was interested in the question of whether or not compulsive hoarders have a particular affinity for matter, specifically, the matter of/in the things they so assiduously collect. The purpose of this post is to ask a similar question about trumpet players and their mouthpieces. Some have only a few, while others have hundreds.
From Owners to Hoarders
In launching her inquiry Bennett posited a continuum with ownership on one end and hoarding on the other. There were a number of positions in between, but I only remember two of them, connoisseur and collector, and there I’m not sure of the order. The point is that owners have a purely pragmatic attitude toward things and so only new one or two, whatever, of each, whatever is sufficient to get the job done. Collectors, however, have more than is functionally necessary; they are interested in the objects themselves, and in the differences among them. In extreme contrast, hoarders, acquire objects to the point where they are overwhelmed by those objects, which come to dominate their living space.
In thinking about Bennett’s presentation I was reminded of a similar phenomenon among trumpet players. The mouthpiece is physically separate from the trumpet itself, thus allowing one to use different mouthpieces with a given trumpet. As I said up top, trumpet players have only one or two or relatively few mouthpieces while others have tens and even hundreds of mouthpieces. What’s the difference? Why are some trumpet players satisfied with only a few mouthpieces while others must have many?
The point of this post is to see whether or not trumpeters’ mouthpiece behavior sheds any light on hoarding. This discussion must be provisional if only because I didn’t take notes during Bennett’s presentation and so have only a vague recollection of it. With that in mind, what’s important are the terms of the comparison.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Yeah, Dylan was cool. But today we have marchin’ music that would burn his protestin’ butt.
Last Saturday Salon published an article by Stephen Deusner on protest music: Will a new Dylan emerge from Occupy Wall Street? For better or worse it struck me as a bit of a lament for the Good Old Days when they had Good Old/New Protest songs, but, alas, kids today don’t write ‘em like they used to:
As Occupy Wall Street has gained momentum, it has been compared to the anti-war and civil rights protests of the 1960s by commentators as diverse as comedian Dick Gregory, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and scores of newspaper columnists. Yet, as Mangum’s performance demonstrates, they are very different in at least one regard, however minor: Music is not quite the central force today that it was 40 and 50 years ago, when a song like “We Shall Overcome” or “Fixin’ to Die Rag” could communicate certain motivating ideals and reinforce solidarity among a great throng of participants. Instead, it remains peripheral.
Things get moderated toward the end:
The lesson of the 2000s seems to be to approach politics obliquely instead of head-on, to make it one concern among many. If protest songs are largely absent from Occupy Wall Street, it’s not that they aren’t being written. It’s that they no longer serve the same purpose they once did — and are so spread out across genres and audiences that they don’t register as broadly as they once did. ...
On the other hand, protests inspire music, not vice versa. Perhaps the artists participating in or even just witnessing the Occupy Wall Street gatherings will be moved to write about their experiences. Perhaps the next great wave of radicalized pop is just a few months or years away.
But I have a somewhat different take on the whole business. Back in the day the most important music was the music sung in black churches, mostly traditional hymns and gospel. That’s the music that summoned, organized and energized the civil rights movement. The anti-war movement was a different group of people and, of course, a different issue, but it emerged in a public arena that had been activated by the civil rights movement.
Monday, October 17, 2011
I’d thought that, with Vitalism, Computation, and Mechanism, I’d said all I wanted to say about vitalism. A half-hour’s contemplation in the bathtub convinced me otherwise.
Let’s start with my first post in this series, Vitalism and Mechanism: Bennett and Bryant, where I asked: “What the heck can I make of wave/particle matter/energy non-local backward jaunting swiss-cheesy stuff?” That’s a far cry from classical dead matter whose major property was its extension in space (res extensa). Whatever it is we’re up to, for example, we’re NOT trying to figure out how life evolved from res extensa. To the extent that a vital principle has been invoked to explain THAT, we may not need it, because THAT’s not our starting point.
That is, we’re not trying to figure out how life could possibly evolved from what is, in effect, sterilized beach sand. Whatever the substrate was, it wasn’t that. Even in the case of beach sand, at the quantum level it’s strange stuff, and not like classical res extensa.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s one thing to say that a vital principle inheres in the universe as a whole, another to say that it inheres even in beach sand. David Hays and I pretty much agreed to the first when we agreed that the universe is fecund, evolving up multiple realms of being. Bennett seems to be arguing for the latter in her “Chapter 4: A Life of Metal.” One can imagine the first being true without the second being true, but it’s hard to imagine vitality in sand without it being inherent in the universe as a whole.
The Properties of Objects
Now let’s turn to my second post, Vitalism, Computation, and Mechanism, where I argued for distinguishing between two kinds of computation and mechanism, classical and chaotic. Both are fully deterministic in that future states of a system depend on its initial state. But the mechanisms evolving the system from one state to the next are different in ways that seem to require different mathematical description and different computational realization.
We know that classical systems, such as coupled pendulums, are capable of self-organized periodic behavior. That does not distinguish them from the chemical clocks that Levi Bryant mentioned in his original post. That is to say, mere periodicity is not in itself diagnostic of chaotic mechanism. I presume that the mechanism driving the chemical clock operates at the atomic level and does not involved classical-mechanical resonance. Hence it must be an example of chaotic mechanism.
What about synchronization among fireflies? That’s a well attested phenomenon. I do know whether or not the neural circuitry has been worked out though I believe that some of the biochemistry and genetics are known. Will the chaotic mechanisms that explain chemical oscillators be sufficient to explain firefly synchronization? I do not know.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Last Friday afternoon I was walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue when I was passed by a man and a woman, each in zombie dress and makeup. Since I’d heard there was a zombie makeup booth down at Liberty Plaza (that is, Zucotti Park as renamed by Occupy Wall Street), I wondered whether they were coming from there. A couple weeks earlier I’d been to an anti-nuke rally where a woman was applying zombie makeup. Economist John Quiggin’s written Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us and political scientist Dan Drezner has written Theories of International Politics and Zombies.
What’s up with zombies?
Yes, there’s all the movies. But we’re not talking about movies now. We’re talking about non-fiction books by ‘serious’ authors and we’re talking about people going about at least part of their lives in zombie drag.
Don’t really know, but I’ll chalk it up to chaotic times.
Now, look at this chart from Google’s Ngram Viewer (you can view the full chart here):
The red line tracks the occurrence of the word “zombie” and the blue line tracks the occurrence of “voodoo”. As you know voodoo is the Louisiana member of a family of New World religions that combine elements of West African animism with elements of Christianity. As such it is closely related to Santaria (Cuba) and, of course, Voudou (Haiti).
Saturday, October 15, 2011
This continues the line of thinking developed yesterday in Vitalism and Mechanism: Bennett and Bryant.
Let us start with an unassuming passage from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. This is near the beginning of Chapter 5: Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism (p. 63):
Nature was not, for Bergson and Dreisch, a machine, and matter was not in principle calculable: something always escaped quantification, prediction and control. They named that something élan vital (Bergson) and entelechy (Driesch). Their efforts to remain scientific while acknowledging some incalculability to things is for me exemplary.
I want to look at the notion of calculation and distinguish between analytic predictability and numerical simulation, for they are very different forms of calculation and the latter was, as far as I know, unknown to Bergson, Driesch, and their contemporaries.
Let us consider a physical system of a type whose laws are well-known in the sense that they are expressed in appropriate equations. What we want to do is to predict the future state of this system. The idea is that we know the current state of the system and want to use the laws to predict its state a some future time.
If the system is analytically predictable, as classical systems are, we can do so directly. We describe its current state in the appropriate form and then we simply solve an equation or equations to determine the positions and velocities of the components at the desired future date. Imagine a ball moving along a flat surface. It’s moving in a straight line at a constant rate of 10 miles per hour. It’s a certain point on, say, 10 PM July 23, 2012, and is moving directly East. Where will it be at 11:33 PM that same day? We simply multiply the speed, 10 mph, by the elapsed time, 1.55 hours, and learn that it will be 15.5 miles further East, wherever that is.
Lots of systems are like that, though the calculations may be considerably more complex. The point is that we can determine the future state through what is basically one calculation.
Friday, October 14, 2011
Levi Bryant recently expressed reservations about Jane Bennett’s measured vitalism in Vibrant Matter: “The Lucretian materialist in me is extremely uncomfortable evoking agencies and principles that are not susceptible to materialist explanation.” I expressed some reservations, saying, in effect, that it wasn’t clear to me that his position was so very different from Bennett’s. He, in turn, expressed some exasperation with my admittedly rather sketchy comments: “It’s also rather difficult to have a discussion with you on this matter as you’re taking up no position of your own so I’m unable to know what alternative you’re proposing.”
The purpose of this post is to explain why I’m taking no position of my own.
In short: because I don’t know what matter is and so I couldn’t possibly know the proper forms of material explanation.
How could you not know what matters is? you ask. Surely that’s just some sort of rhetorical ploy.
I suppose there is a bit of a rhetorical ploy. But my puzzlement about matter is real, though perhaps of an odd type. It’s an extension of one of my standard examples, the difference between salt and sodium chloride.
But they’re the same, aren’t they?
Materially, almost, but not quite the same. Conceptually, not at all.
What do you mean by conceptually?
The notion of sodium chloride, NaCl, is embedded in an atomic theory of matter that emerged in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s when people, a very small group of people, first conceptualized ordinary salt as a compound consisting of molecules containing a single sodium atom and a single chlorine atom. Prior to the creation of this theory no one conceptualized salt in that way.
OK, I think I follow. But what do you mean that salt and sodium chloride are not quite the same material when that theory defines them to be so?
Thursday, October 13, 2011
No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement.—Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Here then is a series of notes (downloadable PDF at SSRN) I made over the course of a month and a half in which I worked my way through Reassembling the Social (RS) and then, at the end, Latour’s manifesto on compositionism. For the most part I’ve gathered the notes in the order in which I posted them. But not completely.
The first set, RL0, contains my (provisional) thoughts on compositionism, suggesting that it has various precursors, including the cognitive science movement. I conclude those notes by suggesting that the future of compositionism lies precisely in redrawing the boundaries between psychology and sociology, which Latour calls for in RS, but does not deliver in a deep way.
And that, in turn, sets the stage, it seems to me, for what I was up in my sets of notes. On the one hand, yes, I was reading RS and commenting on it. But I was also assimilating it to my own work, and my work to it, though an extensive series of reflections on graffiti. Graffiti and its culture is just the sort of phenomenon for which Actor Network Theory (ANT) was devised. It is a relatively new phenomenon—dating only back to the early 1970s—and it is not yet fully institutionalized. It is in flux.
My descriptive notes on graffiti stay, for the most part, within the social sphere. Where I talk of cost-benefit calculations, of the significance of so-called ‘pieces’, and about stylistic fidelity (RL3), however, I move into psychology. Those notes are about how graffiti writers think about their work. Later on I move more deeply into psychology with discussions of cognitive science, music, and literature. Accordingly, the following listing shows the ‘intrusions’ of other material into observations directly on Latour’s ideas. Collectively, this other material suggests ways of extending Latourian analysis and description of society to and through psychology to culture.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
(Revised 12 Oct 2011)
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.
An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”, New Literary History, 2010, 41: 471-490.
Though it’s not so long ago that I decided to read Latour, I don’t recall the exact route that led me to his work. It might go like this: I was intrigued by the notion of Latour litanies, read a post by Graham Harman where he referred to one he’d quoted in his study of Latour, Prince of Networks, and so downloaded that book, as it was available as a free download. Once I got the book I looked up the specific passage Harman had mentioned, a quotation from Richard Rhodes on p. 103, and then looked around in Harman’s book, finally deciding I needed to read Latour himself.
I suppose I choose Reassembling the Social both because it is relatively recent (2005) and for the systematic exposition promised by its subtitle, An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. What I read struck me as a fascinating and brilliant, if slightly odd, treatise on method:
To describe the social world, this is what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.
The many examples Latour gave were interesting but, given what he was saying, individually a bit thin (I assume he has thicker descriptive work in other books), as were the specific how-to-do-it suggestions. There was some talk of notebooks in one chapter, but that was as much a thought experiment as a practical suggestion. It’s as though the methodological flavor served as an elaborate metaphor for something else, indicated in the whys. And that something else is philosophy, more specifically, ontology.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Look at those huge buildings. What do they say? What do they express?
Only one of them, the smallest one, at the lower right, has any articulation (detail, action) on its surface. The others, smooth, glassy, slick.
Those buildings are in New York City’s financial district (aka Wall Street). That’s where the captains of finance manipulate our world while playing ‘King of the Hill’ against one another. They’re keeping score with our money, while we go without healthcare, without pensions, without hope for our children and grandchildren.
The design of those buildings speaks volumes. Clean and slick, very smooth and efficient. But completely out of scale with human life. That’s what the lack of articulation in the surface says, nothing at human scale.
We don’t have to wait for the future in which the machines take over. They already have.
Those buildings are the machines. They are the Borg. We ARE living in The Matrix. We are nothing but feedstock for the adolescent games those machines play with one another.
See those people down front, left of center? That’s us, the 99%, the feedstock, as it were. See the foliage, the foliage that breaths life into the air by transforming the sun’s energy into bioenergy? More feedstock for the Borg Buildings.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
John Horgan talks with Steve Pinker on blogginheads.tv about Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. There’s a brief segment where they talk about how nonviolence as a tactic (e.g. as Gandhi advocated) is more effective than violence. In particular, Pinker mentions a study that showed that nonviolence insurrections succeeded about 2/3s to 3/4s of the time while the violent ones only succeeded about a quarter to a third of the time.
Lately I've been having vague thoughts about an artist's responsibility to the culture from which they draw their 'memes.' These vague thoughts have arisen specifically in the context of current thinking about how copyright has gotten out of control and should be trimmed back, if not entirely abolished. This post is a vague and rambling toss in that general direction. It’s thinking outloud.
* * * * *
So, if one is going to make an ethical case for releasing piles of materials from bondage to copyright, as people are doing these days, one needs to think about one’s obligations to make ethical use of that material. Perhaps the issue will take care of itself, whatever the issue is. But, if we drop the notion of the artist as protean creator, then it’s NOT simply an issue for the artist. And it’s not at all clear to me that we can simply say that the artist’s use will be ‘taken care of’ in post facto reception of their work.
* * * * *
As far as I can tell, the culturally dominant idea of the artist is still the romantic one of the protean creative genius. Such geniuses are obligated ONLY to their protean creativity, to which they must be true. As that two-faced SOB Polonius says in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true." The genius gets nothing from his culture and owes nothing to it.
What happens when you drop the notion of the creative genius while at the same time acknowledging the artist's dependence on existing cultural practices?
Friday, October 7, 2011
"...someone who was as much a symbol as a man."
Charle Duhigg, With Time Running Short, Jobs Managed His Farewells, The New York Times.
On Thursday, as online eulogies multiplied and the walls of Apple stores in Taiwan, New York, Shanghai and Frankfurt were papered with hand-drawn cards, the S.U.V.’s were removed and the sidewalk at his home became a garland of bouquets, candles and a pile of apples, each with one bite carefully removed.
“Everyone always wanted a piece of Steve,” said one acquaintance who, in Mr. Jobs’s final weeks, was rebuffed when he sought an opportunity to say goodbye. “He created all these layers to protect himself from the fan boys and other peoples’ expectations and the distractions that have destroyed so many other companies.
“But once you’re gone, you belong to the world.”
Mr. Jobs’s biographer, Mr. Isaacson, whose book will be published in two weeks, asked him why so private a man had consented to the questions of someone writing a book. “I wanted my kids to know me,” Mr. Jobs replied, Mr. Isaacson wrote Thursday in an essay on Time.com. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”
Labels: American myth
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Samuel Taylor Coleridge read voraciously and took notes on everything. Early in the 20th century one John Livingston Lowes examined books Coleridge is known or likely to have read – either because it is explicitly referenced in Coleridge’s notes or because it is very much like something Coleridge has referenced and was likely available to him at the time – and found passages similar to lines and phrases in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and in “Kubla Khan.” Lowes then reproduced these passages, some at considerable length, and provided suitable contextual and connective tissue relating them to Coleridge’s interests and habits and, of course, to his poems. He published the results of his labors in The Road to Xanadu. I agree with the modern judgment that Lowes’ investigation into Coleridge’s notebooks and library tells us relatively little about how Coleridge’s poems work in our minds and hearts, nor is his loose associationist psychology very convincing.
Nonetheless, I find Lowes’ work quite fascinating. What interests me is what interested Lowes, that fragments of ideas and wording somehow found their way from texts dating back to the 17th century and into Coleridge’s poems. Those poems then served as a vehicle for further dissemination of some of those fragments. We can thus think of them as memes in Richard Dawkins’ rather casual and controversial formulation.
I herewith present the text to “Kubla Khan,” followed by putative sources from Lowes, and end with the lyrics to a rock anthem, “Xanadu,” by Rush. The rock tune is clearly indebted to Coleridge’s poem. The actual order of transmission is, of course: sources to Coleridge to Rush. Beyond this I note that the garden meme is older than language. Without it there would be no Xanadu.
I've done a web-based study of the distribution of the /xanadu/ meme where I argue that, once Coleridge had introduced the word into early 19th century Europe, there were three major dispersal events: the film, Citizen Kane; Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu; and the movie, hit song, and now Broadway musical, Xanadu. Here's a detailed analysis of Coleridge's poem.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
I take a lot of photographs that have no obvious focal point. There’s nothing, or very little, in the center. They are thus radically unlike portraits, when a human face is always in the center. And they’re unlike landscapes that may focus on a mountain, or a tree, perhaps a lake, or a bird. They may even have weak overall composition. No obvious visual masses.
They’re just stuff. They get little attention on my Flickr site. Which is not surprising.
But I love them. I may snap them quickly, or perhaps in thoughtful deliberation. Either way, I know what I’m doing.
Here’s a recent example:
Obviously, there’s the tree to the right of center. There’s nothing special about this tree, it’s not of an exotic kind, nor an exotic shape. It’s a tree, and its bark contrasts with all the green around it. That’s what gives it its noticeable non-presence. It parallels a tree at the left, obscured behind the foliage. In the front, spanning the lower half, large leafy plants of some sort. No one or three or eight of them stand out. They’re just there. As for the rest, green, leafy, twigs, light.
That’s it. But it’s very full. Bustling with life.
And you have to find your own way around in it. The lack of focus and composition forces that on you.
Or, Compositionism in the Pluriverse
As I’ve indicated several times before, one of the reasons I’m finding object-oriented ontology (OOO) and Latour so congenial is that I’ve had similar ideas, often in conjunction with the late David Hays. But we arrived at those ideas, not through immersion in continental philosophy and thought, but through the cognitive and neurosciences. In that we have been a bit like Latour in that we’ve mostly been trying to figure out how things work out there in the world, not trying to do philosophy. But we did some, if not philosophy, philosophy-like thinking.
Thus we came to believe that reality is inherently complex and that, consequently, the way to empirical truth was not through dispersing phenomenal complexity in favor of a deeper underlying simplicity. We came to talk of a universe that not only has spawned multiple Realms of Being, but that might well spawn more of them. Had we known William James’ term pluriverse I’m sure we would have adopted it.
We didn’t and so we couldn’t. Instead we talked of the universe as being fecund (Hays proposed the term), with later Realms of Being implemented in ones that had evolved earlier. Our notion of implementation, which derives from computer science, seems kin to Latour’s notion of composition. Objects of one kind can be said to be implemented in, composed of, objects of some other kind. But the implemented/composed objects cannot be reduced to the objects of which they are composed/implemented.
We never attempted a systematic exposition of this notion, but I did outline it briefly in a review of John Horgan’s The End of Science. You can download a PDF of the complete review from my SSRN page, here. I have reprinted the discussion of fecundity and implementation below.
Note that it is not at all clear that where Hays and I talk of Realms of Being that we are talking of Being in the sense of object-oriented ontology. Most likely we’re not. But this is a matter of mere terminology, not fundamental conceptualization.
* * * * *
And how a lady cartoonist has out-gunned them all
Writing in Salon on the eve of the announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature (coming Thursday), Alexander Nazaryan has an interesting critique of American literature, finding it as self-centered and provincial as American foreign and industrial policy. Henry Luce famously declared the 20th century to be the American Century. This is not the 20th century, it's the 21st. Time for America to grow up and take its place in the world as a state among other states rather than playing king of the mountain time and time again.
We’ve become an Oldsmobile in a world yearning for a Prius. Our paint is flaking. Nobody wants our clunkers.
Stockholm has been trying to tell us this for a long while, and we would do well to listen. Between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male. Between 2000 and 2009, three women won the prize, as well as five non-Europeans. They have given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists. An American-born male hasn’t won since John Steinbeck in 1962. The last white American male to win the prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987 — and though he wrote in English, his poetic training and intellectual sensibility are purely those of the Soviet émigré he was. Saul Bellow was born in Canada.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Nina Paley has announced another Kickstarter Project, a film about the Exodus story using the multiple narrators technique she explored in the shadow puppet commentators in Sita Sings the Blues. I’m supporting it (#50, half way to 100) and I’m asking you to do so as well. As the project only has five days left to reach its funding goal of $3600, and is $247 short as of this posting, I urge you to go to Kickstarter now and sign up.
I should say, however, that my decision to support this project came hard, and I need to tell you why. As you know, I gave Sita Sings the Blues an enthusiastic review in 2009 and have since written a series of articles about it and published an extensive review I conducted with Paley. I think she’s a major artist.
Thus I was delighted when she first explained the project to me and Gordon Fitch, who’s known her for some time, at one of the weekly Frunches (Free Culture Lunch) Paley’s organized in New York City. The idea was simple: record a bunch of Seders, start to finish, and then use those recordings as the basis for a retelling of the Exodus story.
Brilliant, says I to myself, freakin’ brilliant.
So, when she sent around an email (or maybe it was a Facebook post, I forget which) announcing the project I high-tailed it over to Kickstarter and . . . . CRASH! THUD! SPLAT! went my heart as soon as I saw the title: Seder Masochism: A Self-Hating Haggadah. My heart fell to the ground and rolled under the desk. It took me a tense moment or two to find it and put it back in my chest.
Labels: Nina Paley
Once I’d posted my previous Wittgenstein → OOO piece I realized that I’d pretty much glossed over the middle of the Tractatus. What’s in there? I wondered, and how would that affect my proto-OOO reading of the opening section?
Well, what’s in there seems to be a form of correlationism, as it’s about the relationship between language and the world, moving toward the self and the world:
5.63 I am my world. (The microcosm.)
5.64 Here it can be seen that solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it.
Wittgenstein’s interest in (Newtonian) mechanics, which I glossed in the previous piece, stems in part from the peculiar conception of language he advances, namely language as logical form. In classical mechanics Wittgenstein found a robust physical theory that was so constrained that one could plausibly argue that it can be characterized by math&logic.
Of course, Wittgenstein would subsequently abandon this approach to language. Perhaps that was because he came to realize that, if THAT’s how language works, then not only must we pass over aesthetics and ethics in silence (6.421), but, in the end, pretty much everything else as well. Thus his great final proposition (Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. / What we cannot speak we must pass over in silence.) becomes something of a demonstration of the world’s status as ever withdrawing object/objects. If you will, Wittgenstein has taken the via negativa to demonstrate reality.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
William “Upski” Wimasatt is the son of a philosophy professor who grew up in the streets of Chicago and painted graffiti (hence hisnick name, Upski, which derives from graffiti slang where “to get up” means to paint. His dance with graffiti got him a dance with the juvenile authorities, yet somehow he made it to college and came out the other side as a youth organizer. And a successful one at that (Google his name).
Last year he published a book, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs (Akashic Books 2010), which is part autobiography, part manifesto, part organizing manual, and all call to action. I’ll be saying a bit more about the book later on, but I wanted to blog some brief remarks about Obama.
On a trip back to Chicago Upski, who now lives in NYC, hooked up with some old friends who chatted about Obama (pp. 109-110):
Chris remembers in the 90s as Michelle’s somewhat ordinary husband who struggled to quit smoking and didn’t appear to be in any way her equal. My friend’s brother went to high school with him in Hawaii as a teenager. He said: “No one would have believed that Barry Obama would go on to become president of the United States.
This is someone who one night slept outside on the streets of New York City. This is someone who went door-to-door in the projects, who spent time collecting petitions at a community college.
I've heard about Robert Bellah, and I've occasionally read about bits and pieces of his work. Now, at the age of 84, he's produced his magnum opus, Religion in Human Evoloutions: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard University Press), reviewed in The New York Times by Alan Wolfe. He characterizes the book as "magisterial" (his quotes, not mine)—"The sheer amount this man knows about religion is otherworldly"—but finds the evolutionary approach unconvincing. Not having read the book, I'm in no position to judge, but I note that Bellah draws heavily on the work of Merlin Donald (Origins of the Modern Mind), an evolutionary cognitivist, whom I regard as a very substantial thinker. Wolfe also notes that Bellah "emphatically rejects the hostility toward religion expressed by Richard Dawkins."
While the books starts with the origins of the universe and works its way through human biological evolution (after all, it's 746 pages long), it
is primarily concerned with what, following the philosopher Karl Jaspers, can be called religion’s “axial age.” During the 500 years that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ, four great religious civilizations flourished: ancient Israel, classical Greece, Confucian China and Buddhist India. The fact of their simultaneity is remarkable enough. All four societies also witnessed greater tension between religious and political authority than those that preceded them. Perhaps for this reason, the religions of the axial age promoted philosophical speculation as well as offering spiritual comfort. As a result, they appear to us as surprisingly contemporary. “Our cultural world and the great traditions that still in so many ways define us,” as Bellah points out, “all originate in the axial age.”
Saturday, October 1, 2011
A few days ago I did a post on clave playing, Instrument Matter in the Musician’s Mind: Part 1, Loosen Up. At the end I promised a follow-up, How to Construct a Spirit. I’m still working on it and this post is part of that effort. Just when I’ll get there, I cannot predict.
Note: I've edited this post at 6:30 PM 1 October 2011.
One of the few things I still remember from having read Marshall McLuhan years ago is a remark on time, something about living in a culture—I forget which—where time is marked by burning sticks of incense. How different that must be from our culture.
And how strange we are, wearing, as most of us do, electromechanical amulets that mark the passage of time down to the second, if not less. The time we so mark is, in some contexts, known as clock time. Certainly, in this context that is how we call it.
These amulets are conceptually linked to a scheme that conceives of time as linear, and the line extends back into the past to the beginning of the universe and forward until . . . . whenever. Time is a line, moment after moment after moment, etc.
At the same time, there are these myths and stories of time as circular, not to mention Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return. But what if time really were circular? Or, at least, not linear? How could that be? Could the presence of those linearizing amulets make us insensitive to temporal circularity.
That question became very real to me when I was working on Beethoven’s Anvil. There I had to think about the brain and its states. And THAT’s very tricky.
I had decided to follow Walter Freeman’s approach to neurodynamics. Freeman thinks about brain states like a physicist thinks about the state of, say, a volume of gas. In this way of thinking the state of a physical system is a function of the state of each component of that system. So, the state of some volume of gas can be specified by noting the position and velocity of each molecule. If there are 100 trillion molecules in some volume, then you need the position and velocity for each of those molecules. Well, actually you don’t; as a practical matter you can’t get that information. But the underlying math is about that kind of object, position and velocity for each particle.
Now, let’s do that for a brain. What will serve as our molecular component? The individual neuron usually plays this role, but one might choose, instead, the synapse. For our purposes it makes no difference. Either way, there are lots of them. The Wikipedia puts the number at 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. That’s a lot.
To specify the brain’s state at a given moment in clock time we need to know the state of each molecular component, say of each neuron. One convenient way to do this is to say that a neuron is either firing or it is not. So it can have two states. But neurons are complicated things; each is a living cell with the full complement of machinery that that requires. There’s a lot more to a neuron that whether or not it’s firing.