Saturday, August 31, 2013
I originally posted this in November of 2011. I’m reposting a somewhat revised version. I’ve added more discussion of the intermission and some speculation that Fantasia is a case of center point construction.
I began my exploration of Fantasia with an essay arguing that it was a masterpiece of 20th century art. That argument was about the range of material depicted within the relatively narrow compass of two hours. Disney, in effect, said: This is human life in the universe.
I now want to return to the whole film, but with a different question in mind. I want to look at the episode order. This is an issue that doesn’t arise in a film that tells a story, or, at least, at arises in a different way. The incidents in the story have an inherent order that must be respected, though foreshadowing and flashbacks are possible.
Fantasia isn’t like that. It tells no story. It tells no story. There is no inherent order between the separate episodes. Abstractly, then, Disney could have determined the order by tossing a coin. But one can’t imagine him doing that. I assume that he and his team thought about the order and chose this particular order because it was somehow ‘the best.’
What guided their choice?
I don’t know. I’ve not seen the Disney archives so I’ve not examined any relevant records. But I’m willing to hazard a guess based on an analysis of the episodes themselves.
This problem is hardly novel. It’s been faced hundreds of thousands of times by musicians putting on a concert or organizing a set list for club performance. One principle, for example, is that you want to open strong. If you don’t get your audience’s attention at the very beginning of the performance, you may never get it.
By that principle alone, the episode order in Fantasia is a mystery. To be sure, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens very dramatically. Those opening cascades DO grab your attention. But that’s about it, at least for Disney’s middlebrow audience, people for whom “the classics” were unfamiliar and perhaps even forbidding territory. The toccata grabs you, but the subsequent fugue lacks the tunefulness that was central to popular music of the time—hip hop was WAY in the future. Further, the abstract visuals were just STRANGE. No funny animals, no people, no cars, no flowers, no nothing. Just violin bows and squiggles.
The fact is that this episode was so very strange that it was dropped from a 1942 theatrical re-release, though it was restored for subsequent releases. How could Disney and his team made such a mistake?
Perhaps they’d become so absorbed in the film that they couldn’t see the problem. But perhaps they had something else in mind, perhaps not consciously and explicitly, but tacitly, intuitively.
Form and the Mind
That’s the notion that I’m going to explore. And I’m going to explore it by offering an explicit hypothesis about what that tacit order is. It’s about the mind.
One of our oldest ideas about the mind is that it consists of a collection of more or less specialized faculties, vision, hearing, reason, passion, language, and so forth. In its most recent incarnation the faculties have been called modules. While the idea of mental modules is controversial—I’ve got problems with it myself—it is good enough for my purpose, which does not require a great deal of rigor and precision. However, I will revert to the older term, faculty, by way of indicating that I am not offering a strong proposal about so-called mental modules in perceiving and understanding Fantasia.
My hypothesis is this: The basic idea is to organize the episodes in such a way that the mental faculties required in episode N are retained in use for episode N + 1, and other faculties are added to the mental mix. This implies that, as we move though the film, more and more faculties are called upon.
Friday, August 30, 2013
Over the last decade, the city, like many dense metropolises around the world, has become a paradise of art on the streets, a legacy — sometimes directly, sometimes in spirit only — of the graffiti movement that took root in New York in the 1970s and ‘80s more powerfully than anywhere else, spawning a new American art form.
That legacy has, of course, always been deeply contested, even as graffiti has sunk deeply into the DNA of 21st-century visual culture. At its heart, it is still an outlaw form, deriving much of its power from its surreptitious creation, under cover of darkness, in places where some people have no interest in seeing it and might need to spend thousands of dollars to remove it. (“It’s everywhere,” one official in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a new graffiti mecca, recently told The New York Times. “It’s epidemic.”)But alongside unauthorized and highly ephemeral street art — a world that now includes not only paint and wheat-paste paper pieces but also materials from knitted yarn to tile to Lego parts to hacked digitized road signs — the city now boasts more or less officially enshrined works scattered throughout the boroughs. There are commissioned murals, memorial murals, city-supported painting projects, ambitious pieces that serve as signs for stores and restaurants, and hundreds of so-called permission walls, in which more free-form work goes up with few objections.
This is another post from Ye Olde Valve, my second as I recall. I was still in my audition period, strutting my stuff so the Valvists could see whether they'd let me join their ranks. It appeared in early December of 2005.
While Culler’s 1975 Structuralist Poetics was obviously influenced by structualism and semiotics, it was also influenced by Chomskyian linguistics. Thus the book’s first chapter is entitled “The Linguistic Foundation.” It ends with the assertion: “Linguistics is not hermeneutic. It does not discover what a sequence means or produce a new interpretation of it but tries to determine the nature of the system underlying the event” (p. 31). I think that Culler is correct, even if we allow for a linguistics with a robust semantics. It’s not clear that we have such a linguistics, but considerable work has been done on it since Culler wrote his book.
But, as the book was being published, structuralism was giving way to deconstruction and other post-structuralist methods. From my point of view, that is to say, in view of my particular intellectual interests, that was a choice in favor of continued hermeneutics and against the prospect of a non-hermenutic study of literature. That last is what I’ve been up to.
But it’s one thing to say that “linguistics is not hermeneutic,” it’s quite something else to understand what that means, what it entails as an intellectual practice. That’s not what I’m trying to do right here and now. Here and now I want to look at hermeneutics, perhaps so the space of a non-hermeneutic criticsm can emerge through opposition.
Frye, Hartman, and the Buffistas
Just what is the relationship between critic and text? What is the relationship between the critic’s commentary on the text and the text itself? What are we trying to achieve through criticism?
And so forth.
Mr. Martinka, a retired state wildlife biologist and an avid bird-watcher, is part of the global ornithological network eBird. Several times a week he heads into the mountains to scan lakes, grasslands, even the local dump, and then reports his sightings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a nonprofit organization based at Cornell University.“I see rare gulls at the dump quite frequently,” Mr. Martinka said, scanning a giant mound of bird-covered trash.Tens of thousands of birders are now what the lab calls “biological sensors,” turning their sightings into digital data by reporting where, when and how many of which species they see. Mr. Martinka’s sighting of a dozen herons is a tiny bit of information, but such bits, gathered in the millions, provide scientists with a very big picture: perhaps the first crowdsourced, real-time view of bird populations around the world.
Here's a link to a video.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
This is currently the fifth most popular post at New Savanna. I originally published it in The Valve in August, 2006; I then republished it here in November, 2010. It's about why Fantasia is one of the great works of 20th Century art. The first time I formulated that thought to myself — that Fantasia is one of the great works of 20th Century art — it took my breath away. But in time I got used to the idea. Almost.
The argument in the post, however, is at most only half the argument. It's about what happens in Fantasia, what phenomena Disney chose to represent. The other half of the argument is, it seems to me, rather more difficult to state, for it is about how things look on the screen. If the film doesn't look good, well, the representational content is not in itself enough to make compelling art. I believe, of course, that it does look good. This post on The Nutcracker Suite is part of that argument, as is this post on Dance of the Hours.
April 27, 2014: It's now the 4th most popular post. Another Fantasia post, Two Rings in Fantasia, is 3rd.
In 1938 Walt Disney decided to bet the farm on an extravaganza originally entitled The Concert Feature. Disney's intention was twofold. On the one hand he would use the power of animation to present Classical Music to the Masses. Get it out of the concert hall, into the movie palace, and dress it up to make it more approachable. But also, showcase the powers of this new medium - one in which Disney had a considerable investment, both in time and imaginative effort and in money - in a way that had never been done before.
Disney secured the collaboration of Leopold Stokowski, the best-known conductor of the day (who had already been parodied in a cartoon or two) and devoted the full resources of his studio to the effort. The film premiered in late 1940 under a new name, Fantasia, and received mixed critical notices. Music critics were offended, film critics didn't quite know what to think, though some liked it. The public, for the most part, did not. The film was a financial failure, though it finally managed to break-even in the late 1960s, after Disney had died.
Fantasia is highly regarded among students of animation and has sold well in videotape and DVD. I have little sense of where it stands among more general arbiters of culture. I'm convinced it is a masterpiece. But a masterpiece of what?
In 1976 Edward Mendelson published an article on “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon” (MLN 91, 1267-1275). It was an attempt to define a genre whose members include Dante's Divine Comedy, Rablais', Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Melville's Moby Dick, Joyce's Ulysses, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Somewhat later Franco Moretti was thinking about “monuments,” “sacred texts,” “world texts,” texts he wrote about in Modern Epic (Verso 1996). He came upon Mendelson's article, saw a kinship with his project, and so added Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung's (note, a musical as well as a narrative work), Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a few others to the list. It is in this company that I propose to place Fantasia.
On the face of it, the idea is absurd. For one thing, the works Mendelson and Moretti discuss are securely ensconced in the Western Canon of High Art, Fantasia is a cartoon. Perhaps it occupies a significant place in popular art of the 20th century, but how could it possibly be anything more?
I'm not sure what kind of consideration this is. But I'm just going to ignore it.
The fact that Fantasia is not even a narrative - it tells no connected story from beginning to end - is a more serious matter. If genres are to be defined by intrinsic characteristics, then Fantasia fails. In a footnote Mendelson indicates that Frye discusses various encyclopedic forms in his Anatomy of Criticism, namely Menippean satire and anatomy. But Fantasia doesn't fit there either. Perhaps it is sui generis.
What is important to me is simply the encyclopedic scope of these various works. All of them seek to encompass the entire world as it was known at the time.
So does Fantasia. In the brief compass of two hours Fantasia traverses an astonishing range of . . . of what? “Human experience” would be a good phrase here, but one major segment, The Rite of Spring, concerns things which no human being could possibly have experienced. Human experience, yes. But more generally, the world.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
And has the distinction of having studied linguistics with Noam Chomsky and poetics with Roman Jakobson. John Lawler has assembled an online index of Haj's shorter works, the ones that are online. I especially recommend the ones on poetics. Anyone who cares about the craft of describing literary works needs to read some Haj Ross.
Yesterday I put up a post (A Note on Memes and Historical Linguistics) in which I argued that, when historical linguists chart relationships between things they call “languages”, what they’re actually charting is mostly relationships among phonological systems. Though they talk about languages, as we ordinarily use the term, that’s not what they actually look at. In particular, they ignore horizontal transfer of words and concepts between languages.
Consider the English language, which is classified as a Germanic language. As such, it is different from French, which is a Romance language, though of course both Romance and Germanic languages are Indo-European. However, in the 11th Century CE the Norman French invaded Britain and they stuck around, profoundly influencing language and culture in Britain, especially the part that’s come to be known as England. Because of their focus on phonology, historical linguists don’t register this event and its consequences. The considerable French influence on English simply doesn’t count because it affected the vocabulary, but not the phonology.
Well, the historical linguists aren’t the only ones who have a peculiar view of their subject matter. That kind of peculiar vision is widespread.
Let’s take a look at a passage from Sydney Lamb’s Pathways of the Brain (John Benjamins 1999). He begins by talking about Roman Jakobson, one of the great linguists of the previous century:
Born in Russia, he lived in Czechoslovakia and Sweden before coming to the United States, where he became a professor of Slavic Linguistics at Harvard. Using the term language in a way it is commonly used (but which gets in the way of a proper understanding of the situation), we could say that he spoke six languages quite fluently: Russian, Czech, German, English, Swedish, and French, and he had varying amounts of skill in a number of others. But each of them except Russian was spoken with a thick accent. It was said of him that, “He speaks six languages, all of them in Russian”. This phenomenon, quite common except in that most multilinguals don’t control as many ‘languages’, actually provides excellent evidence in support of the conclusion that from a cognitive point of view, the ‘language’ is not a unit at all.
Think about that. “Language” is a noun, nouns are said to represent persons, places, or things – as I recall from some classroom long ago and far away. Language isn’t a person or a place, so it must be a thing. And the generic thing, if it makes any sense at all to talk of such, is a self-contained ‘substance’ (to borrow a word from philosophy), demarcated from the rest of the world. It is, well, it’s a thing, like a ball, you can grab it in your metaphorical hand and turn it around as you inspect it.
An interesting profile by Boris Kachka follows Pynchon from his childhood on Long Island though his sojourn in Mexico on up to his present life on Manhattan's upper West Side. Some not so random, but nothing in particular, paragraphs about how he got from the California coast to Manhattan in the late 1970s:
H/t Tyler Cowen.But that book wasn’t one of the two he was contracted by Viking to write. Those were Mason & Dixon, about the surveyors, and a never-written novel about an insurance adjuster flown in to Japan to assess the damage done by Godzilla. Viking had granted him a $1 million advance, beginning with $50,000 a year for three years. In his first experiment with reclusion, Pynchon had made do on $1,000 in Mexico; now he was living on a doctor’s salary in a glorified lean-to, years out from a finished book. Having eluded the media and the narcs but not his own paranoia, Pynchon had succeeded in eschewing the machine; now what about sloth?
It took the love of Pynchon’s life to flush him out of the wilderness and back to writing, family, and New York. Melanie Jackson was a sharp and ambitious young literary agent (“the prettiest girl in publishing,” remembers an editor) when she came to work for Candida Donadio. She was also a great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt (Tom Sr.’s fellow churchgoer) and a granddaughter of a Supreme Court justice—a pedigreed Protestant from a town that neighbors Oyster Bay.
Like all good agents, Donadio had been the enabler of Pynchon’s life, the most important station on his underground railroad. Donadio told others Pynchon had been staying in Donadio’s apartment (platonically) when he began dating Jackson. A dispute between Jackson and Donadio resulted in Jackson’s leaving the agency in late 1981. Her first solo client was her boyfriend, Thomas Pynchon.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
If you are familiar with Liberty State Park in Jersey City, then you will probably recognize the scene in the above photograph. It’s the walk way along Audrey Zapp Drive leading into the park, with lower Manhattan in the background. If you aren’t familiar with the park, then that photograph gives you an idea of what you might see when you visit that part of the park.
What of this photograph:
Yes, I DID take that photo when I was in the park. But I don’t remember where I was standing when I took that photo and have no more than a vague idea of how to get back there. That photograph is so very specific as to exact time and place that there is almost no change that that scene could be duplicated in another photograph. One could surely photograph another scene more o less like it in the park. But one could also take a similar photograph in any of thousands of other places. And yet that is a photograph of Liberty State Park.
So, what does it make to take a photograph of Liberty State Park? One photo can be used to jog one’s memory of the place, or to set expectations of what you’ll set when you get there. The other is very specific, and it evokes a mood, a feeling, one you can find IN the park. But is it typical? Does that matter?
The next photo is like the first in that it shows a recognizable feature of the park, the Liberty Science Center:
And this one is like the second; it was taken in the park, but could have been taken any one of many places:
And then we have this photo:
When I began my most recent series of posts on memes, I did so because I wanted to think specifically about language: Does it make sense to treat words as memes? That question arose for a variety of reasons.
In the first place, if you are going to think about culture as an evolutionary phenomenon, language automatically looms large as so very much of culture depends on or is associated with language. And language consists of words, among other things. Further, historical linguistics is a well-developed discipline. We know a lot about how languages have changed over time, and change over time is what evolution is about.
However, words have meanings. And word meanings are rather fuzzy things, subject to dispute and to change that is independent of the word-form itself. Did I really want to treat word meanings as memes? That seemed rather iffy. But if I don’t treat word meanings as memetic, then what happens to language?
But THAT’s not quite how I put it going into that series of posts. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that words have forms and meanings. I don’t know whether it was my freshman year or my sophomore year that I read Roland Barthe’s Elements of Semiology (English translation 1967). That gave me Saussure’s trilogy of sign, signifier, and signified, the last of which seemed rather mysterious: “the signified is not ‘a thing’ but a mental representation of the ‘thing’.” Getting comfortable with that distinction, between the thing and the concept of the thing, that took time and effort.
That’s an aside. Suffice to say, I got comfortable with that distinction. The distinction between signifier and signified was much easier.
And yet that distinction was not uppermost in my mind when I thought of language and cultural evolution. When I thought of memes. When I approached this series of essays, though some papers by Daniel Dennett, I thought of words they same way Dennett did, the whole kit and caboodle had to be a meme. It was the sign that’s the meme.
That’s not how I ended up, of course. That ending took me a bit by surprise. Coming down that home stretch I was getting worried. It appeared to me that I was faced with two different classes of memes: couplers and the other one. What I did then was to divide the other one into two classes: targets and designators. And to do that I had to call on that thing I’ve known for decades and split the word in two: signifier and signified. It’s only the signifier that’s memetic. Signifiers are memes, but not signifieds.
It took me a couple of months to work that out, and I’d known it all along.
What does that have to do with historical linguistics? Historical linguistics is based mostly on the study of relationships among signifiers, that is, relationships among the memetic elements of languages. Which makes sense, of course.
Over a Language Log Mark Liberman takes a close look at hip-hop versification:
This exercise will clarify why transcriptions of the lyrics, even with bold-face indications of stress, are missing an important dimension. The lines' scansion depends not only on the syllable sequence and on where the performer puts phrasal stresses, but also on the alignment of the syllables with the musical meter. This alignment is not automatic or always obvious — it has artistically-relevant degrees of freedom beyond those available in most other genres of text setting.
He uses 1982's The Message as his example text, with video, sound, and illustrations. Would you believe polyrhythms?
Monday, August 26, 2013
Michael Sporn has posted the title sequence he did with Tissa David for Sidney Lumet's Garbo Talks. Sporn opens:
The initial rough/cut screening for Garbo Talks was a bit peculiar. I sat down and a woman sat next to me; I sort of recognized her. We said hello when she sat down. Somewhere midway during the film I realized who the woman was – Betty Comden, that half of the Comden & Green writing team. I realized she was playing the part of the older Greta Garbo in the film, without receiving credit. It was brilliant casting, but you could say that about all of Sidney Lumet’s movies.
He explains this and that about the production and shows the drawings and then the final title sequence.
The idea was to use the device that had been developed for TV in the 50′s & 60′s of the caricatured characters whisking through the sitcom titles. (See Bewitched or The Carol Burnett Show.) However, it was our intent to treat it in a serious way.Tissa David did a stunning, tour de force of a brilliant piece of animation. It was a dance that the character went through, and the credits played off the animation, which played off stills of Greta Garbo’s films.There was a small crew on the piece, which ran about 2 ½ minutes. Tissa animated, I did whatever clean up was left. Robert Marianetti single-handedly colored everything; Janet Benn and Christine O’Neill did additional I&P. Gary Becker filmed it, and Edith Hustead edited.
As I’ve said in a number of posts, I find the idea of a board game such as chess to be a useful way of thinking about the relationship between our biological endowment and the cultural elaboration of that endowment. Biology provides the game board, the pieces, and the rules of the game. But it is culture that discovers and accumulates the tactics and strategies underlying successful gameplay. In recent years Christopher Boehm and Alan Fiske have made interesting suggestions about the basic building blocks of social interaction. The next four paragraphs are slightly expanded from an old post, Hierarchy and Equality: The Essential Tension in Human Nature.
* * * * *
Let us consider Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), which speaks to issues of class and equality. Boehm is interested in accounting for the apparent egalitarian behavior of hunter-gatherer bands, the most basic form of human social organization. While individuals can assume a leadership role for specific occasions, e.g. a hunt, there are no permanent leaders in such bands. Boehm does not argue that such bands are egalitarian utopias; on the contrary, primitive egalitarianism is uneasy and fraught with tension. But it is real.
Boehm finds this puzzling because, in all likelihood, our immediate primate ancestors had well-developed status hierarchies. Boehm ends up adopting the notion that the hierarchical behavioral patterns of our primate heritage are overlain, but not eradicated or replaced, by a more recent egalitarian social regime. Other than suggesting that this more recent regime is genetic Boehm has little to say about it.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
I’ve been wrestling with a post on unity of being, of all things, in two films, Fantasia and Dumbo, of all films, and I round myself thinking psychoanalytic thoughts. Not particularly deep thoughts, and certainly not up on the latest ideas, whatever they might be, but psychoanalytic nonetheless. There’s nothing else in my conceptual repertoire that can do the job those ideas do.
I first found Freud in the basement of the house on Luther Road. There was a small closet in the corner and my father had a box or two of paperback books in it. I don’t remember but a few titles; in fact, I’m only sure of two: Wodehouse on Golf, which I never read, and 1984, which I most certainly did read, as it had a pulpy cover that promised sex – a buxom brunette in a tight blue jumpsuit emblazoned with “Women’s Anti-Sex League” – in THAT costume! Yowzah! Of course, the book wasn’t quite what the cover advertised, but that was OK. I may also have found Brave New World there, I’m not sure. Come to think of it though, that probably IS where I found War of the Worlds. So that’s three titles I’m pretty sure of.
I probably found some Bertrand Russell, too, though just exactly what, I can’t recall. I went on to buy a bunch of Russell, including his history of Western philosophy. I also found something by Theodore Reik, and went on to buy more of THAT. And I found Freud, perhaps Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality; after all, it has that magic word in the title: s e x.
In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Johns Hopkins I read The Interpretation of Dreams. Somewhere in there I picked up a five-volume set of The Collected Papers from my book club. I’ve still got them, though they’re in storage along with some other Freud. But I’ve still got Totem and Taboo, Civilization and It’s Discontents, and The Future of an Illusion on the shelves in my apartment. They’re slender volumes and so don’t take up much space & Civilization plays to my interest in cultural evolution.
But the book that really sold me on psychoanalysis was Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society. I read him in a developmental psych course taught by Mary Ainsworth. I found his account of the developmental unfolding (epigenisis) of the organ modes (oral, anal, etc.) quite compelling. Ainsworth also introduced me to the work of John Bowlby. I read the first volume of his Attachment and Loss series in typescript in 1967 or ’68, before it came out in 1969. His reworking of object relations theory using primate ethology and systems theory, I found that very compelling. And his remarks on defense and information processing in the final volume, Loss (which didn’t appear until 1980), seem and seemed quite promising.
There’s something in all this that’s indispensible and foundational. Just what, though, I’m not sure. If you look at my published work you won’t find much psychoanalytic thinking there – e.g. in At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation? or Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” – but it plays an essential role in those few publications and it pervades my thought in areas where its influence is too diffuse for meaningful citation.
Saturday, August 24, 2013
One of the most profound books I’ve ever read was written by William Powers: Behavior: The Control of Perception (1973). It received a positive review in Science, which is how my teacher, the late David Hays, learned about. He urged his students to read it and it became foundational to our thinking. In particular, when it came time to reconceptualize the cognitive model Hays had been developing over the years, he adopted Powers’s system as a model for the sensorimotor component of the system.
I don’t have time to go into Powers’s model in any detail. Suffice it to say that it was based on servomechanical control systems or the sort that Norbert Wiener popularized, at least in intellectual circles, in his Cybernetics. Powers’s innovation was to imagine a simple and elegant scheme whereby control systems were stacked one above the other, with higher level systems regulating the activities of lower level systems and lower level systems providing inputs to, and realizing outputs from, those same higher level systems.
In this note I’m interested in what Powers has to say about conflict. Here’s how he sets it up (pp. 253-254):
A person is said to be “in conflict” when he wants two incompatible goals to be realized at once. Since the time of Freud and no doubt for much longer than that, inner conflicts have been recognized as a major cause of psychological difficulties. Unresolved conflict leads to anxiety, depression, hostility, unrealistic fantasies, and even delusions and hallucinations. In fact as I have come to realize what inner conflict means in terms of this feedback model, I have become more and more convinced that conflict itself, not any particular kind of conflict, represents the most serious kind of malfunction of the brain short of physical damage, and the most common even among “normal” people.The reasons for the extraordinarily bad consequences of conflict are not to be found in specific behavioral efforts, although disruption of overt behavior certainly can make life difficult. Our model, however, tells us that mere practical consequences of specific conflicts are secondary to their major consequence, which is to remove parts of the brain’s organizations from action as effectively as if they had been cut out with a knife, yet without getting rid of their undesirable influences on the whole hierarchy [of control systems]. The worst aspect of conflict between control systems is that the higher the quality of the control system, the more violent and disabling is the result of conflict.
Friday, August 23, 2013
The Arabic calligraphy I do literally comes directly from the heart, the movement of my arm and the heartbeat work together. When I direct the brush, I stop breathing. This also limits the size of the calligraphy; a brush stroke cannot last longer than it takes my heart to beat. So most Arabic calligraphy is limited to a diameter of maybe one, two meters. If the writing becomes any bigger, it has to be constructed and thus it is not calligraphy anymore, but a design...When I painted a mural with the French graffiti writer Marko 93 – the only time I did try to do actual graffiti – I discovered the fluidity of the spray can, which suddenly allowed me to do a continuous gesture of five meters before stopping a stroke.
That is interesting, this distinction between “calligraphy” and “design.” Massoudy continues:
Arabic calligraphy and graffiti are two daughters of the same parents. Obviously both are about the use of letters and their alphabets, and their center of gravity is the beauty of writing. For both, a letter is more than just a letter and they fill them with emotions. The use of empty space and composition within this space is something else they have in common. The resemblance of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti is most obvious in tags, because here the tools – in and pen – are quite the same. Gestures are also done with the whole body and are in synch with breathing. The movement of writing graffiti leaves the restrictions of the paper – it is like a dance in front of a wall.
Again, this is interesting, the gestures done with whole body. I’m sure that’s how Jackson Pollock’s very different gestures were done, with the whole body.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Animals have had to negotiate their way in the world (wayfinding) for millions upon millions of years. Our navigational circuitry is both old and sophisticated. There's evidence now that using GPS devices degrades our ability to get around in the world:
One particular advantage of building these mental maps is that they allow people to be spontaneous and flexible in how they get around: “If all you know is, ‘I have to turn left at the church, then right at McDonald’s,’ then you can reproduce the route, but you are not able to very flexibly navigate from Point A to Point B,” said Frankenstein. That means you can never deviate from the route you know, look for shortcuts, or improvise if the situation calls for it.
With the arrival of personal GPS devices in cars or phones, the tough cognitive work involved in mental mapping was suddenly rendered less necessary. Gary Burnett, an associate professor in the engineering department at the University of Nottingham in England, wanted to know what effect that actually had on people’s ability to navigate. In 2005, he set up an experiment using a driving simulator in which test subjects were asked to complete a set of four routes. Half of them were given step-by-step instructions that guided them right to their destination, while the other half were given traditional paper maps. Afterward they were quizzed on what they’d seen, and asked to sketch a rough map of their route. The drivers who had merely followed instructions did significantly worse on all fronts. They even failed to recognize that they’d been led past certain places twice from different angles.
What GPS was doing, in other words, was letting people just pass their surroundings by, instead of assembling a picture of where they’d been.
From a NYTimes interview with Maria Conroy, founder of the "Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden, an eight-acre, $62 million, mostly open-air learning center" at the Dallas Arboretum:
I WAS STRUCK BY A PUBLIC REMARK YOU MADE : “MANY CHILDREN ARE AFRAID OF NATURE.” WHY DO YOU BELIEVE THAT?We see a lot of children here, and we have watched many times a butterfly come flying at a group of 10-years-olds, and they scream and duck because they’re afraid it’s going to sting or bite them. If you don’t live where there are flowers, you don’t see butterflies. They’re afraid of the squirrels running around. And they’re terrified of the bees. They don’t know why they’re on that flower and the difference between themselves and that flower, as far as that bee is concerned.
The first time I blogged about this topic, back in April of 2011, “Sex, Power, and Purity in Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll” was the most popular post on the blog, with 3,476 page views. It’s still the most popular, only now it has 27,338 hits. “Secrets of Pink Elephants Revealed” is now the second most popular, with 11,428; back then it was third at 1419 hits. With 6589 hits “Two Rings in Fantasia: Nutcracker and Apprentice” is third; it was sixth two years ago (for some reason I didn’t record the number of hits).
The most interesting change is that the second-place post from two years ago, “Naked Flicker Sex Erotic Bodies” at 1,464 hits has now dropped to sixth place, with only 4302 hits. What’s Popular, and Why is in fourth place with 4,814 hits. It didn’t even show in the rankings last time, of course, because it WAS the post. Truth be told, the popularity of that post is one reason I decided to revisit the topic.
These are the only two posts in the top ten that ARE NOT about animation (see list below). Four of the eight animation posts are about Disney features; three are about anime; and the last is about a Warner Brothers cartoon. That more or less tracks my interest levels in animation.
Twenty-three (23) of the top thirty-five (35) posts are about animation and other one uses a Road Runner cartoon to make a point about current affairs. Judging from those numbers you’d almost think that this is an animation blog. To be sure, I’ve written a good many posts about animation – I’ve tagged 148 posts with “animation” – but I’ve put-up over 1900 posts.
The research, which appeared in April in the journal PLoS One, centered on whether elephants understood hand gestures from humans. But by including the young people in the study, Joshua Plotnik, the lead researcher, was essentially conducting an experiment within an experiment: Can young students, with their fresh eyes and questioning minds, help unlock the inner workings of the elephant mind?“A 12-year-old kid is inquisitive, motivated, enthusiastic and extremely impressionable,” Mr. Plotnik said in an interview in Thailand, where he is a lecturer at Mahidol University and is helping design after-school activities for Thai students on elephant conservation. “They can think about it from simple but important ways.”
Mr. Plotnik and the students devised a number of experiments on elephant behavior. The one that led to the published article involved seven captive elephants in northern Thailand who were shown two buckets, only one of which contained food. Mr. Plotnik or the elephant’s handler, known as a mahout, stood behind the buckets, pointing to the one with food.Mr. Plotnik filmed the experiments and sent video to the students in New York, who analyzed and suggested refinements. He would also communicate with the group periodically via Skype to discuss the research.“I’m not going to say that middle schoolers had the most influence on how the experiment ended up,” said Dannah Seecoomar, who was in the sixth grade when the project started. “But we were able to make a contribution. It’s always a great feeling to know that you’re involved in something bigger than yourself.”
Here's the abstract of the article, Visual Cues Given by Humans Are Not Sufficient for Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) to Find Hidden Food which is published in PLoS ONE:
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
"Since the start of the Arab uprisings the Middle East has seen an unparalleled explosion of graffiti. Many slogans which were later sung by the people on the streets first appeared on walls from Tunisia to Bahrain. Egypt has played a remarkable role in this phenomenon. Even when the army tanks rolled onto Tahrir Square in Cairo, they were immediately adorned with graffiti. Along with people from all walks of life, artists, calligraphers and designers took over the public space. In no time a vital and now globally acclaimed street art scene emerged."
See older post, Arabic Graffiti.
See older post, Arabic Graffiti.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
In the late 19th Century a canal was cut from the anthracite region in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania across northern New Jersey to New York Bay: the Morris Canal. The canal has long since fallen into disuse and been filled-in. The place where its eastern terminus feeds into New York Bay has become the Liberty Marina.
The yellow boat in the center is a ferry boat:
Monday, August 19, 2013
Artists have been at odds with the gallery and museum scenes since Impressionism emerged in the late 19th Century. But the aesthetic potshot heard round the world was undoubtedly Duchamp’s infamous urinal. He took a porcelain urinal, turned it on its side, called it Fountain, and submitted it for display in the 1917 show of the Society of Independent Artists in New York City. The society refused to display it.
Was it art or not? If so, why? Those questions are with us to this day.
If one is going to declare that Fountain is art, one must give reasons, no? Traditionally those reasons have to do with the intrinsic properties of the art object, that it is beautiful, that it somehow captures the essence of something important and ennobling. But how can that be true of an ordinary urinal? If a urinal can be considered beautiful, and thus worthy of being displayed in an art gallery or museum, then doesn’t that open the way to declaring just about anything to be a work of art?
Friday, August 16, 2013
Almost two months ago I saw the Nobuyoshi Araki exhibit at Mana Contemporary, in the post-industrial hinterlands of Jersey City (and subsequently blogged about it). I walked into the gallery and found myself surrounded by large photos of Japanese women, some in traditional dress, some naked, some in schoolgirl sailor suits. Most of the poses were erotic, some with legs splayed wide open. Many of the models were elaborately and precisely bound. Some were suspended from the ceiling.
I was...well “shocked” isn’t quite the word, certainly not “horrified”, nor does “surprise” quite fit, though I wasn’t expecting what I saw, heck, I had no particular expectation at all beyond checking out Mana Contemporary. Whatever mental state I was in, once I was able to set it aside, one question emerged: How did Araki work with his models?
Does Araki objectify women? Sure. Are the photos sexist? Why not? Is he playing to male fantasies of domination? Undoubtedly.
But, in order to get those photos, Araki the photographer cannot dominate his models. I suppose he could try, but it wouldn’t work. Why not? Because the models cannot dominate themselves, not in a way that yields those poses. The mind and body don’t work that way.
For example, the mind can order the face to smile. And the face will obey, after a fashion. But such a deliberate forced smile is different from a spontaneous smile. Anyone can see it. The camera would pick up on it.
Not that smiling is particularly germane here; most of the the women weren’t smiling. But the principle applies. Araki may or may not have a specific expression and attitude in mind for a particular shot, but he cannot order the model to assume some specific expression, even if he had the words. Nor could she order herself to assume it.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
By now zillions of atoms have be scattered on the internet to the end of explicating Breaking Bad. I've read some of that, but not much. Breaking Bad's Moral Lesson to Civilians, by Alex Horton, is the best that I've read.
While I've found the show compelling, sometimes more, sometimes less, I couldn't make sense of it. Yeah, it's one of those new-fangled high-quality TV series, like The Sopranos, that's, you know, dark. The other "dark" shows that I've seen (say, Deadwood or The Wire) nonetheless managed to make sense to me. Breaking Bad, compelling, but why?
Horton offers a compelling reason:
Walter, along with several of the Breaking Bad characters, exhibits a term many of us in the military and veterans community have come to understand as a moral injury, and the show profoundly explores the concept in a way previously unseen in film and television. Of course, virtually no troops or veterans have much in common with the criminals in the show, but the reaction to traumatic events is universal, be it in war or a fictional universe.
To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it's an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It's different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn't stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse's troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.
As he chokes the life from Krazy-8 with a bike lock [early in the first season], Walter enters a distorted moral universe where killing and death become the currency of his trade.
That I can understand. It makes sense.
The photographs I’ve placed in this essay have two things in common: 1) I was standing in Jersey City when I took each of them, and 2) the Empire State Building, one of the world's most iconic buildings, appears somewhere in each photo. It is small in some while in others it is large, even dominant.
In the weeks since his (historic) election, Mayor Fulop has talked about the need to “rebrand” Jersey City. His team’s transition report made the same point; though, curiously enough, that recommendation was tucked away in the report of the information tech committee. Jersey City is not, as one well-known moniker has it, New York City’s “Sixth Borough.”
“I think that we are going to need to change how people in New York view Jersey City and people around the state. It has really changed into this arts and culture hub actually and there’s a lot of young families and we have an improving school system,” Fulop said. “But people don’t realize that. So, part of my job is to focus on the branding of the city and to really market the city as a great place to move your business, as a great place to raise your family, and a great place that one can live for a long, long time.”
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Here's another collection of posts, this time on description. You can download the PDF HERE. The abstract and an introduction are below.
Abstract: This is a series of notes in which I argue that better descriptive methods are a necessary precondition for more sophisticated and objective literary criticism. Description, though it does not give unmediated access to texts, requires methods for objectifying texts, methods which must be discovered in the doing. By way of comparison I discuss the role of description in biology and I discuss the use of images and diagrams as descriptive devices. Lévi-Strauss on myth and Franco Moretti on distant reading, though quite different, are up to the same thing: objectification.
Introduction: Description Dawns on Me
Ever since my undergraduate days I have considered myself to be a theorist; I want to know how things work; I want to explain them. It is only in the past fifteen years or so that I have realized the importance of description in my work, and yet it has been important from the beginning.
My Master’s Thesis on “Kubla Khan” was fundamentally an act of description. But I didn’t see it that way, nor could I have done so. Description simply wasn’t high on the intellectual agenda back in those days, the late 60s and early 70s.
But theory was. As I explain in the post, Into Lévi-Strauss and Out Through “Kubla Khan”, I started out with the intention of cobbling together bits and pieces of semiotics, phenomenology, developmental psychology, linguistics, and whatnot to create the kind of theory that poem required. I ended up describing structural patterns in the poem unlike any I’d seen other critics describe, not only in that poem, but in ANY poem. But then “Kubla Khan” is a poem like no other, no?
In the Fall of 1973 I set off to graduate school in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo where I studied cognitive theory with David Hays in the Linguistics Department. I wrote papers on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Wuthering Heights, and “The Cat and the Moon,” all of which had strong descriptive elements, though it was always theory that was uppermost in my mind, except for my paper on “The Cat and the Moon,” which was heavily descriptive.
The Coming of Cognitivism
It wasn’t until long after I’d left graduate school and published a number of papers on a variety of topics that I came to focus on the descriptive aspect of my work in literary criticism. This happened in the mid-1990s when I noticed that: A) literary critics were at long last beginning to turn to the cognitive sciences, but that B) they knew nothing of the work I’d done and published during the 1970s and 1980s, and C) the work that they were doing was nothing like what I’d done.
This is a graduate school exercise that I once tarted up for a special Yeats issue of Some Journal. It was rejected by Some Journal. After which I too rejected it, allowing it to languish in my files. But always with the thought of someday doing something with it.
Well now’s that day. I’ve dusted off the old typescript, run it through the scanner. And de-tarted it.
As the title indicates, this is analysis of Yeats’s “The Cat and the Moon.” It displays my characteristic obsessions with form and descriptive detail. Which means you may find it a bit of a slog; paying attention to those details can be, well, a bit tedious. On the formal side, I look at the way lines are grouped by rhyme frames and by sentences. On that matter alone the poem can be divided into three sections: 11. 1 – 8, 9 – 16, and 17 – 29. In the middle section rhyme grouping and sentence grouping are at cross purposes; rhyme and sentence groupings are consistent in the first and third sections (cf. my remarks on structural instability and my work on “Kubla Khan”). There’s more to the analysis than that; I do look at what the poem actually says. But that’s the skeleton.
I’ve included a full text at the end of the essay.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
About a month ago I posted a bleg in which I asked whether or not anyone knew of any critical work which looked at Wuthering Heights in relation to contemporary lore and literature on feral children. In that bleg I quoted this important description of Heathcliff from chapter 10 in which Heathcliff is likened to a wolf:
Nelly, help me to convince her of her madness. Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. I’d as soon put that little canary into the park on a winter’s day, as recommend you to bestow your heart on him! It is deplorable ignorance of his character, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He’s not a rough diamond--a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.
The wolf, of course, is biological cousin to the many forms of domestic dogs, and various forms of dogs do appear throughout Wuthering Heights. In particular, violence between dogs and humans takes place at important transition points in the novel. I’ve collected five such passages in this post and italicized the dog references within each passage.
I first published this in The Valve on December 7, 2009. This piece tells the story of how, in the early 1970s, I came to abandon "traditional" literary criticism and set sail for cognitive science. I'm reposting it here and now because it is also about description, for the core of my work on "Kubla Khan" WAS descriptive, not theoretical as I'd set out to do. I've also published this post as part of a working paper, Lévi-Strauss and Myth: Some Informal Notes (PDF).
* * * * *
Previous posts in the series (links to The Valve):
* * * * *
My recent posts about Claude Lévi-Strauss are about his ideas on myth, but they are also about the influence of those ideas on me. They are stories in my intellectual autobiography. I would like to continue with that autobiography and say more about how, for better or worse, I moved through Lévi-Strauss to cognitive science.
That could not have happened unless I had become interested in the cognitive sciences even as I was investigating Lévi-Strauss. For Lévi-Strauss & Co. was not all that caught my undergraduate interest when I was at Johns Hopkins in the 60s. I studied psycholinguistics under James Deese and thereby discovered Noam Chomsky’s transformational generative grammar (& how it wiped behaviorism off the map). I learned about Jean Piaget under Mary Ainsworth, who also introduced me to John Bowlby and to primate ethology. Other thinkers were important as well, including Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, the early Wittgenstein, and, in a way, Philippe Ariès, though that influence is not so germane to this particular story.
What brought it all together, or, in a way, forced me to tear it apart, was a poem, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (text available here). I became interested in “Kubla Khan” during my senior year at Johns Hopkins in a course taught by the late Earl Wasserman. As you know, Coleridge had declared “Kubla Khan” incomplete: It came to him in an opium-induced reverie (opium was the aspirin of the time); he was interrupted by a man from Porlock; the reverie was dissipated and, with it, most of the poem vanished. The text was oh! so incomplete. I sensed that the two sections of the poem—the first, about Kubla and his pleasure-dome, the second, about a poet and his vision of the damsel with a dulcimer—had the same structure. I also believed that “Kubla Khan” became complete by asserting its own incompleteness: “Could I revive within me . . .” But he couldn’t, and so this incomplete poem asserted its own fragmentary nature, from within itself, thereby recursively attaining closure. It was a trick of the times.
I wrote that paper and, while I thought it was a good one, it didn't come close to exhausting my interest in the poem. I decided to continue that work into a Master's Thesis at the Humanities Center, with Dick Macksey as my director. (Of course I addressed him as “Dr. Macksey” at the time.) This was a few years after Macksey and Eugenio Donato had organized the 1966 structuralism conference that is generally given as the starting point of the intellectual shake-up that has since devolved into Theory. Though I was on campus at the that time I didn’t attend any of the sessions. But I took several courses with Macksey and an independent study as well.