Wednesday, June 21, 2017

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism (PDF at Academia.edu)

I’ve finally PDF’ed my Open Letter to Dan Everett and uploaded it to Academia,edu:

https://www.academia.edu/33589497/An_Open_Letter_to_Dan_Everett_about_Literary_Criticism

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Abstract: Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguistics, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics). Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).

Dan Everett & Me . . . 1
Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics . . . 1
Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up . . . 4
Meaning in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . . . 8
Pattern in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . . . 13
Contexts of Understanding: Naturalist Criticism and Ethical Criticism . . . 21

Wonder Woman: A Quick Take

After reading the rapturous reviews and reading about young girls exiting the theaters pulling swords from their dresses and spinning lariats of glowing gold I decided to see Wonder Woman. And, yes, it was a good film. And, yes, it was still a superhero comic-book film, albeit with a grrl in the lead.

One of the fight scenes – I believe it was the first one – had me chuckling with glee. Gal Gadot was spectacular; hope she gets a raise for the next one, and profit participation. The trench warfare was appropriately grim – the War to Win All Wars, ha! And the film played nicely with Diana’s expectation that she would be fighting Ares. Her male sidekick tried to tell her it’s only a metaphor – which is surely what much of the audience was thinking as well. But, no, Diana insisted that he was real and that she’d fight him. And the film obeyed, pulling Ares out of leftfield for a final super-spectacular battle sequence (in the course of which boy sidekick sacrifices himself for the good of the cause).

And then there’s that final scene, back in the present, with Diana Prince in her office at the Louvre looking at a photograph sent to her by Bruce Wayne. It’s a photo taken at the front with Diana, male sidekick, and the others in their rag-tag gang. She’s thinking that only love can save the world.

She no doubt believes that. It may well be true. But that’s not what this movie is about. As contrarian economist Tyler Cowen observed, “Yet, immediately beneath the facade of the apparently rampant feminism is a quite traditional or even reactionary tale of martial virtue being inescapable.”

If you’re looking for a heroic woman warrior who fights with love, might I suggest Miyazaki’s Nausicaä? She’s good with a sword, but she also speaks with the animals and she’s a scientist. And, yes, she does save the world.

nausicaa-3nausica-walk

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jabba the Hutt, or How We Communicate

This post is now over six years old, but it's one of my favorites.

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(10.23.13) They're having an interesting discussion of conversational turn-taking over at Language Log (see the comment HERE). So I thought I'd dig out this three year old post which suggests that conversation is a bit like kids playing in a sandbox, or with blocks, or dolls. Everything is visible to everyone at all times. The trick is to coordinate movements as you move the toys around.

* * * * *

From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that.

That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole.
I don’t know how long ago I saw that program, it may well have been pre-WWW, but certainly not pre-internet, which is older than Star Wars, or at least it’s precursor, ARPAnet, is older than Star Wars. In any event, you can now read about the puppetry behind Jabba at the Wikipedia and elsewhere (scroll down to Behind the Scenes). The above description is accurate enough for my purposes.

And that purpose is to provide a metaphor, not just for music-making, but for communication in general. In particular, for speech communication. The idea is to provide an alternative that thoughtful people can use to over-ride the pernicious effects of the so-called conduit metaphor, which Michael Reddy* analyzed as a pile of lexical habits we employ when talking about language. These habits presume that we communicate by sending meaning through some kind of conduit, whether real (e.g. a telephone line) or virtual (e.g. that air between two people talking). The person at one end of the conduit puts the meaning into a packet of language, sends the packet through the conduit. The other person takes the packet from the conduit and then takes the meaning out of it.

It doesn’t work that way, not the meaning part. What does go through the conduit is a speech signal, vibrations in air, analog or digital signals through electrical lines, characters written or printed on paper, and so forth. But the meaning isn’t actually IN the signal. If it were, then we could understand any language with ease because the meaning would be in the physical signal itself. Alas, that’s not the case. Meanings are linked to segments of the signal by hard-learned linguistic conventions; and the conventions are different for each language.

What happens, then, is that the listener construes the meaning of the signal according to their understanding of the overall context and their understanding of the governing linguistic conventions. The may or may not get it right. And there’s likely to be a bit of conversational negotiation before the speakers agree on whatever is at issue.

And that is what the Jabba metaphor is about. Everyone stands in the same relationship to what appears on the TV monitor showing Jabba’s movements. In the case of a musical group, each person is playing their own part – the drummer, bass player, tuba, glockenspiel, sitar, nose flute, pipe organ, whatever – and is aware of it and what they intend next. The monitor gives them the whole, in which their part must fit.

The case of speech is trickier, for one person speaks while the others listen. The Jabba metaphor suggests that the speaker doesn’t actually know what he or she is saying until he or she actually hears it spoken. And that just doesn’t make sense.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tickle! Tickle! Magenta!

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Extra! Computational Criticism Breaks with Tradition! Sky Remains Overhead

Andrew Goldstone has decided that perhaps so-called distant reading is not reading at all. The document is relatively short, “The Doxa of Reading” (PDF), and will appear in PMLA for May 2017. Goldstone takes “doxa” from Pierre Bourdieu (whom I’ve not read) who regards it “as what participants in the literary field take for granted.” What critics take for granted is “the assumption that the primary activity of academic literary study is textual interpretation.” Though Goldstone doesn’t say so, this wasn’t always the case, though it has been the case for the last five or six decades.

Bourdieu also allows for orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which stand in opposition to rupture. In Goldstone’s analysis–I refuse to call it a reading–the term “distant reading” functions as a heterodox form of reading and does so, in effect, to ward off the realization that it is not a form of reading at all but a rupture from reading. Goldstone’s analysis is both subtle and complex, just enough so that I’m not sure where he stands. But his penultimate sentence seems clear enough: “If we cease to regard the different versions of distant reading as a singular project [...] we gain a wider sense of the possibilities for scholarship.” I take that to mean in some version distant reading computational criticism really does point beyond “reading” and so to new modes of literary investigation.

In the course of his argument Goldstone considers the visual objects that have become a signal feature of so much work in computational criticism:
Looking back on the work of the Literary Lab in a recent pamphlet, Moretti asserts:
Images come first, in our pamphlets, because–by visualizing empirical findings–they constitute the specific object of study of computational criticism; they are our “text”; the counterpart to what a well-defined excerpt is to close reading. (“Literature, Measured” 3)
As an account of a quantitative methodology, this is a strange statement: visualizations are powerful exploratory tools, but they should be considered provisional summaries of the data of literary history, not primary objects. As a description of argumentative rhetoric, however, Moretti’s analogy between visualization and excerpt is illuminating. It positions the “computational critic” as an expert interpreter of visual texts, a heterodox version of the close reader.
He is correct. Those visual objects are not the “primary objects” of investigation. Yes, they are “exploratory tools”.

It seems to me that they have the character of observations (of the primary object of investigation). Think of the images created in radio astronomy; they make look rather like optical photographs, but they aren’t. The process through which they are constructed is different. The visual objects of computational criticism don’t look like photographs; they look like the charts and graphs that are ubiquitous in so many quantitative disciplines. But they have the same status in the intellectual process as those images of radio astronomy, that of observations.

It is through observations that a phenomenon of interest enters the investigative field. Observations as well have something of a descriptive character. Wouldn’t you know, description has recently become of interest in discussions of critical method and practice, along with “surface reading”.

And with that I want to turn to the aborted structuralist moment in the history of literary criticism. Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics in 1975. In his preface he observed (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning.
Culler himself never followed up on the poetics he proposed, nor did others take him up on it. To be sure, we have narratology, a poetics of the narrative. But it is hardly central to the discipline as it has been practiced over the past half-century or so.

A turn to poetics would have been a rupture from emerging interpretive practices (aka reading). But then those practices themselves constituted a rupture from the practice of a discipline rooted in philology and (traditional) literary history. While interpretive criticism has its roots before World War II, it isn’t until after the war that it became the center of critical activity. As that happened interpretive practice became the focus of scrutiny, scrutiny that led, among other things, to the (in)famous structuralism conference that took place at Johns Hopkins in 1966. But the rupture that actually happened, was not a turn to poetics, but a turn to deconstruction. And if deconstruction was noisy and obstreperous at the time, in retrospect it is clear that it was not a rupture at all, but just a further variation on interpretive reading.

It remains to be seen whether or not computational criticism will flourish as a genuine rupture from interpretative reading, though not so much as a replacement as a supplement. If so, will it find common cause with a new poetics, one based on surface “reading”, description, and perhaps even the newer psychologies (cognitive, neuro-, and evolutionary)? Can we move beyond reading, not only in the analysis of large corpora, but in the analysis of single texts? And can we move beyond a meta language centered on notions of reading and space (close, distant, hidden, surface) to one based on the intellectual operations involved (among others, description, analysis, interpretation, explanation)?

* * * * *

Of course I've addressed these issues endlessly here and in my working papers. For a start, see this post from 3 Quarks Daily, “The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age”, and in numerous blog entries and working papers (e.g. these working papers on description).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Does "distant reading" presage a return to poetics?

By all means, read the piece Goldstone links to in the first tweet,"The Doxa of Reading" (accepted for publication in PMLA).

See this piece from 3 Quarks Daily (5 may 2014), The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday Fotos: Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, June 2017

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Kenan Malik asks some questions about culture and cultural appropriation


Cf. my earlier post in which I quote from his NYTimes op-ed.

H/t Jerry Coyne.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jomny Sun – OOO tweeter


From the NYTimes profile:
Sun had just emerged from the “cave” of finishing the book’s illustrations. He spent a year completing 180 drawings, pen on vellum, and managed to damage his shoulder in the process. It was his attempt to bring a sensibility reminiscent of some of his favorite writer-illustrators — Bill Watterson of “Calvin and Hobbes,” Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak — into the social-media age. In the book, an alien comes to Earth and encounters animals and trees, which he assumes are people. There is an otter that spouts art theory. An egg enduring an existential crisis. A melancholic tree. A bee who offers therapy to a bear. The story lines intersect, vanish, reappear.
Cf. My current post on Tim Morton.

Matryoshka dolls

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Timothy Morton in the Guardian – "the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene"


Morton in the art world:
Over the past decade, Morton’s ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Morton’s books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Morton’s correspondence with Björk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Some of his ideas:
His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.
And so:
We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true.
Apocalypse now:
Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.
Which is to say, the apocalypse is already with us:
Morton means not only that irreversible global warming is under way, but also something more wide-reaching. “We Mesopotamians” – as he calls the past 400 or so generations of humans living in agricultural and industrial societies – thought that we were simply manipulating other entities (by farming and engineering, and so on) in a vacuum, as if we were lab technicians and they were in some kind of giant petri dish called “nature” or “the environment”. In the Anthropocene, Morton says, we must wake up to the fact that we never stood apart from or controlled the non-human things on the planet, but have always been thoroughly bound up with them. We can’t even burn, throw or flush things away without them coming back to us in some form, such as harmful pollution. Our most cherished ideas about nature and the environment – that they are separate from us, and relatively stable – have been destroyed.

Morton likens this realisation to detective stories in which the hunter realises he is hunting himself (his favourite examples are Blade Runner and Oedipus Rex). “Not all of us are prepared to feel sufficiently creeped out” by this epiphany, he says. But there’s another twist: even though humans have caused the Anthropocene, we cannot control it.
And so, believe it or not, we must rejoice:
That might sound gloomy, but Morton glimpses in it a liberation. If we give up the delusion of controlling everything around us, we might refocus ourselves on the pleasure we take in other beings and life itself. Enjoyment, Morton believes, might be the thing that turns us on to a new kind of politics. “You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure,” the tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter timeline reads. “Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.”
And, wouldn't you know, he's been "convening with members of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to contemplate the kinds of messages we should be sending into space on a potential reboot of the Voyager mission."

Of course, not everyone is enchanted:
The Morton detractors with whom I spoke accused him of misunderstanding contemporary science, like quantum mechanics and set theory, and then claiming his distortions as support for his wild ideas. They shared a broad critique that reminded me of the sceptical adage, “If you open your mind too far, your brains will fall out.” The slurry of interesting ideas in Morton’s work doesn’t hold together under scrutiny, they say.
And, yeah, I can understand that. But:
Morton’s defenders, however, see him as something of a Ralph Waldo Emerson for the Anthropocene: his writing has value, even if it doesn’t always stand up to philosophical scrutiny. “No one in a philosophy department is going to be taking Tim Morton seriously,” Claire Colebrook, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has worked extensively on the Anthropocene, told me. But she teaches Morton’s work to undergraduates and they love it. “Why? Because they’re like, ‘Shut up and give me an idea!’”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is Shelley’s Frankenstein a Ring-Form Text?

I’ve not read Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, but I’m told that it has a complex narrative structure. Dorothea Wolschak explains:
In the core of the novel the Creature's story is presented to us framed by Victor Frankenstein's story which itself is enframed by Robert Walton's epistolary narrative. The overall structure of the novel is symmetrical: it begins with the letters of Walton, shifts to Victor's tale, then to the Creature's narration, so as to switch to Victor again and end with the records of Walton. In this manner the reader gets different versions of the same story from different perspectives. Mary Shelley's rather atypical approach not to stick to only one narrator and one defined narrative situation throughout the book creates various impressions on the reader of the novel.
Thus we have:

Walton (Frankenstein ((Creature)) Frankenstein) Walton

That looks like a ring-form. Until I’ve actually read the text I can’t say whether or not it functions in that way. It’s on my list.

H/t Giorgina Paiella

Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man in 19th century America

Tyler Cowen was a wide-ranging interview with Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and writer for The New Yorker. The whole thing is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this bit:
LEPORE: There’s this lovely series of lectures that Frederick Douglass gives in the 1860s. They have different titles, but one of them is called “Pictures in Progress.” Douglass, when he escaped from slavery, 1838, he was 20, the year before the daguerreotype comes to the United States. He sits for a daguerreotype in 1841, and he’s really transformed by what it is to see himself in a photograph.

In the 1860s, he writes all these essays about photography in which he argues that photography is the most democratic art. And he means portrait photography. And that no white man will ever make a true likeness of a black man because he’s been represented in caricature — the kind of runaway slave ad with the guy, the little figure, silhouette of the black figure carrying a sack. And, as historians have recently demonstrated, he’s the most photographed man in the 19th century. Douglass just makes a big commitment to being photographed.

COWEN: More than Lincoln?

LEPORE: Yeah, he is really obsessed with photography because what it means to have a black man represented is the kind of “I am a man” speech that you know from the 1960s, these kind of black protests, that slogan “I am a man. I’m not a caricature; I’m not less than a man.” And he writes this essay about photography, why it’s so important, and why it’s basically, although not a natively American art, is the sort of de facto American art form because even the poorest servant, even the poorest cook-maid, can afford a photograph of herself and of the people that she loves.

In previous ages, when it would be kings and bishops who were portrayed, that everybody can see themselves and can see one another and, therefore, we can understand our equality. He has this whole technologically deterministic argument about photography and progress, and it’s very much bound up in 19th-century fantasy, notions of progress. But it’s a little heartbreaking to read because that’s not what happens with photography, right?

Guitar and blue denim

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Kenan Malik defends "cultural appropriation"

Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy. 
The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy. It’s the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not appropriated by others.
Earlier in the op-ed Malik had mentioned several current examples of protests against such "appropriation", including:
Earlier this year, controversy erupted when New York’s Whitney Museum picked for its Biennial Exhibition Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Many objected to a white painter like Ms. Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history. The British artist Hannah Black organized a petition to have the work destroyed.
Malik's penultimate paragraph:
To suggest that [Schutz], as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam. In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Monday, June 12, 2017

How long before we see the cabinet members kissing the Presidential ring?

Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett

This is the final post in a old series (from four years ago) on memes, cultural evolution, and the thought of Daniel Dennett. You can download a PDF of the whole series HERE. The abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.

* * * * *

Introduction: Taming the Wild Meme

These notes contain my most recent thinking on cultural evolution, an interest that goes back to my dissertation days in the 1970s at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978), included a chapter on narrative, “From Ape to Essence and the Evolution of Tales,” (subsequently published as “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self”). But that early work didn’t focus on the process of cultural evolution. Rather, it was about the unfolding of ever more sophisticated cultural forms–an interest I shared with my teacher, the late David G. Hays.

My current line of investigation is very much about process, the standard evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention as applied to cultural forms, rather than living forms. I began that work in the mid-1990s and took my cue from Hays, as I explain in the section below, “What's a meme? Where I got my conception”. At the end of the decade I had drafted a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), in which I arrived at pretty much my current conception, but only with respect to music: music memes are the culturally active properties musical sound.

I didn’t generalize the argument to language until I prepared a series of posts conceived as background to a (rather long and detailed) post I wrote for the National Humanities Institute in 2010: Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities (PDF HERE). But I didn’t actually advance this conception in that post. Rather, I tucked it into an extensive series of background posts that I posted at New Savanna prior to posting my main article. That’s where, using the emic/etic distinction, I first advanced the completely general idea that memes are observable properties of objects and things that are culturally active. I’ve collected that series of posts into a single downloadable PDF: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2.

But I still had doubts about that position. Though the last three of those background posts were about language, I still had reservations. The problem was meaning: If that conception was correct, then word meanings could not possibly be memetic. Did I really want to argue that?

The upshot of this current series of notes is that, yes, I really want to argue it. And I have done at some length while using several articles by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as my foil. For the most part I focus on figuring out what kinds of entities play the role of memes, but toward the end, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”, I have a few remarks about long-term dynamics, that is, about cultural change.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Blue and Green (flowers)

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Notes Toward a Naturalist Cultural History

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley 

I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify.

–Edward W. Said

This post is something of a pastiche, a bit of bricolage assembled from flotsam and jetsam floating around here and there. My ultimate target is human history, which I believe to be driven by culture or, perhaps more precisely, by human cultural aspirations. It’s an old and somewhat discredited idea. My proximal target is the New Historicism, as it is called in literary circles.

And my method is, well, Shandyian, progression through digression. First, I quote from the famous archaeology passage in Lévi-Strauss’s travelogue and intellectual biography, Tristes Tropiques. Then comes a parody of New Historicist practice that I introduced into a discussion around the corner at Language Log. Responding to an objection by Geoff Nunberg, I responded with a somewhat longer and more substantive comment. With a bit of editing that has become Reflective Abstraction in the History of Mentalities, in which I argue for directional change in that history, and do so using an example of my own (from Amleth to Hamlet) and two examples from Stephen Greenblatt. I conclude with a statement about culture as a driving force in history. That statement is lifted from an early, and unpublished, draft of Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, which is my major methodological statement to date.

Lévi-Strauss: History as Archaeology

Tristes Tropiques, published in 1955, established Lévi-Strauss as a figure to be reckoned with. This well-known passage is from Chapter 6, “The Making of an Anthropologist” (Atheneum, 1974, p. 57):
When I became acquainted with Freud’s theories, I quite naturally looked upon them as the application, to the individual human being, of a method the basic pattern of which is represented by geology. In both cases, the researcher, to begin with, finds himself faced with seemingly impenetrable phenomena; in both cases, in order to take stock of, and gauge, the elements of a complex situation, he must display subtle qualities, such as sensitivity, intuition and taste. And yet, the order which is thus introduced into a seemingly incoherent mass is neither contingent nor arbitrary. Unlike the history of the historians, that of the geologist is similar to the history of the psychoanalyst in that it tries to project in time – rather in the manner of a tableau vivant – certain basic characteristics of the physical or mental universe . . . Following Rousseau, and in what I consider to be a definitive manner, Marx established that social science is no more founded on the basis of events than physics is founded on sense data: the object is to construct a model and to study its property [sic] and its different reactions in laboratory conditions in order later to apply the observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings, which may be far removed from what had been forecast.
Note three things: First the references to Freud and Marx. These would become to go-to theorists on Continent-influenced literary study in the latter half of the 20th Century though, of course, their ideas would be refracted through, reflected from, and combined with those of other thinkers, earlier and later. Second, note the geological metaphor, and the stratigraphy implicit in it. Lévi-Strauss had set that up in a previous paragraph (p. 56): “A pale blurred line, or an often almost imperceptible difference in the shape and consistency of rock fragments, are evidence of the fact that two oceans once succeeded each other where, today, I can see nothing but barren soil.” Third, “construct a model”, yes; but just how do we study history’s “different reactions in laboratory conditions”?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On the shore

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Trump, the person (DJT) versus the role (POTUS)

Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic has a new post up, A New Jurisprudence for an Oathless Presidency, in which she considers, as she has in earlier posts, the judicial fate of Trump’s travel ban. Her discussion turns “on whether the judiciary can permissibly consider off-the-cuff statements made by Trump and his associates as evidence of religious animus in the drafting of the executive orders,” a matter which may soon end up before the Supreme Court. The issue is the intent of the order and what constitutes legitimate evidence of that intend.

Heretofore the practice has been to ignore such “off-the-cuff statements” (including Presidential tweets) because, in effect, they are merely personal statements and cannot be taken to reflect the intention of actions taken in the name of the Presidency. For reasons Jurecic has stated before and reiterates here, the courts are now allowing such statements to be taken into evidence. There is the opinion that Trump himself does not make a firm distinction between his personal interests and opinions and the Presidency and therefore the courts cannot treat his actions in the ordinary way.

And so Jurecic ends up here:
And examining Trump’s campaign-trail and presidential statements on the travel ban—an examination the majority considers permissible under McCreary—the court finds the national security rationale behind the travel ban to have been proffered in bad faith. (In her concurrence, Judge Stephanie Thacker reaches the same conclusion only on the basis of post-inauguration statements by Trump, having reasoned that candidate Trump’s comments are not appropriately considered.)

There are certainly disagreements to be had with this analysis. (Judge Niemeyer, for example, argues that it substantially misapplies both Mandel and Din. On Lawfare, Peter Margulies and Josh Blackman have made similar points.) But if the courts are going to write a new jurisprudence for an oathless presidency into the law, Mandel and Din actually make for a very natural place to start. Both literally concern the question of “bad faith,” the same question raised by whether the courts can trust Trump’s fidelity to his oath. To put it another way, the cases are an expression of the “presumption of regularity,” the idea that we can usually trust public officials to do their duty. And as the Trump administration is discovering, that presumption of regularity is only a presumption, which courts can waive in extraordinary circumstances.

If the majority—along with the number of other courts that have ruled against both the original and the revised travel ban—is crafting a new body of law for a new kind of presidency outside the presumption of regularity, why not say so explicitly? I suspect that many onlookers sympathetic to the plaintiffs but concerned by the charge into uncharted legal territory might be comforted by a direct acknowledgement of the dynamics at work here, but the rhetorical signposts of blindness and sight may be as close as the courts can comfortably get. It may be a question of wanting to step lightly or to avoid further accusations of making up law from whole cloth. Or perhaps some of the judges ruling against the ban are seeing through a glass darkly, and may not themselves be entirely aware of the implications.
That’s what’s interesting, that the judges may be “crafting a new body of law for a new kind of presidency” and this is being done is full view of the public. At the center of this action we have the distinction between a person, in this case Donald J. Trump, and the status that person occupies, the presidency of the United States.

That distinction, of course, is quite general and applies to all manner of organizational life, both public and private, and not just to the presidency. The idea of a meritocracy, for example, depends on the distinction. One succeeds in an organization based on one’s competence and accomplishments, not on one’s attachments to kith and kin. Is the Trump presidency going to unfold as a morality play about that distinction?

Jurecic concludes:
Courts regularly rely on legal fictions and simplifications, which are what make it possible to map the reasoned structure of law onto a chaotic and unreasonable world. There is nothing wrong or unusual about this. The difference here is that the bizarre facts of the travel ban cases and the bad faith at the core of Trump’s presidency have exacerbated—to the point of absurdity—the gap between the abstract legal questions at play under existing doctrine and the facts at the ground. The situation recalls Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific crisis, in which an existing paradigm of thought begins to lose its ability to explain and predict the shape of things. We may be at that point now—where the paradigm of deference to the executive in national security without reference to the integrity of the president’s oath is clearly faltering but the jurisprudence of an oathless presidency has yet to fully emerge.

* * * * *

You might want to look at an earlier article by Jurecic, Body Double: What Medieval Executive Theory Tells Us About Trump’s Twitter Accounts, where she says:
The astute reader will instinctively see what I’m driving at here: President Trump’s two Twitter accounts. Indeed, I want to propose here almost entirely with a straight face that the relationship between the @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump accounts is the new manifestation of a very old dynamic. That is, the distinction between @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump is the distinction between the office and the person who fills it, what we might call the President’s “Twitter politic” and his “Twitter natural.”
You might also want to review a post I made shortly after the election, The Crown and the Presidency, 2016, in which I discuss the Netflix series, The Crown, and point out that one of the central themes of that series, at least in its first season, is the distinction between the person, Elizabeth, and the status she came to occupy, Queen of England.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Synchronization through coupled oscillation

I've put coupled oscillation at the center of my thinking about music, mind, and human sociality. One reason for that is that it is a phenomenon that can happen in relatively simple physical systems. It doesn't require "intelligence" or even "intention" to bring about synchrony. Here's a demonstration:



In this case the oscillators (the metronomes) are coupled by the (movable) surface on which they all rest.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Nation State as an Agent of War

Tyler Cowen has a recent post consisting of the abstract to a working paper by Alberto Alesina, Bryony Reich, Alessandro Riboni, "Nation-Building, Nationalism and Wars". Here’s that abstract:
The increase in army size observed in early modern times changed the way states conducted wars. Starting in the late 18th century, states switched from mercenaries to a mass army by conscription. In order for the population to accept to fight and endure war, the government elites began to provide public goods, reduced rent extraction and adopted policies to homogenize the population with nation-building. This paper explores a variety of ways in which nation-building can be implemented and studies its effects as a function of technological innovation in warfare.
Here’s a link to an ungated version of the paper.

Does this imply that as long as the nation-state is the focal-point of political organization we will be fighting wars? Is that why that United States has managed to engage itself in useless and immoral wars since the end of World War II? Perhaps it’s time we create other ways to organize our political life.

Here’s several opening paragraphs from the paper:
The interplay between war and the fiscal capacity of the state is well known. However, guns are not enough to win wars; one also needs motivated soldiers. In modern times, the need for large armies led to a bargain between the rulers and the population. The elite had to make concessions to induce citizens to comply with war related demands. Rulers promoted nationalism to motivate citizens and extract “ever-expanding means of war - money, men, materiel, and much more - from reluctant subject populations” (Tilly, 1994; see also Levi, 1997).

The “ancient regimes” in Europe used to fight wars with relatively small armies of mercenaries, sometimes foreigners, paid out with the loots of war. As a consequence of the evolution of warfare, countries changed the conduct of war, switching from mercenaries to mass armies recruited or conscripted almost entirely from the national population. Roberts (1956) explained how warfare underwent a “military revolution” starting between 1560 and 1660 and reaching a completion with the “industrialization of war” (McNeill, 1982) that occurred in the nineteenth century. The source of this revolution was due to changes in tactics and weapons, such as, the use of gunpowder technology and the invention of new styles of artillery fortification, higher population growth, changes in communications and transport technology which allowed states to put a large army in the field, and the adoption of techniques of mass weapon production. The electromagnetic telegraph, developed in the 1840s, allowed the deployment and the control of the army at distance. Steamships and railroads moved weapons, men and supplies on an entirely unprecedented scale (Onorato et al., 2014). In the middle of the 19th century, the adoption of semiautomatic machinery to manufacture rifled muskets made it possible, and relatively affordable, to equip a large number of soldiers (McNeill, 1982, p. 253). As a result, the size of armies increased and, as Clausewitz (1832) put it, “war became the business of the people”.

This paper examines nation-building in times of war. Mass warfare favored the transformation from the ancient regimes (based purely on rent extraction) to modern nation states in two ways. First, the state became a provider of mass public goods in order to buy the support of the population. Second, the state developed policies geared towards increasing national identity and nationalism. In particular the states had to hold in distant provinces to avoid the breakdown of the country, which would have interfered with war effort, and to motivate soldiers and civilians located far away from the core of the country. In addition, nation-building in times of war also included aggressive negative propaganda against the enemy and supremacy theories.

When the armies had to increase in size, the elites needed to build tax capacity. This is a well studied point as we argued above, and we return to it at the end to close our argument. We focus here on a different issue, the selection on how to spend fiscal revenues to motivate the population to endure wars. The composition of spending is quite relevant. For instance Aidt et al. (2006) argue that total spending as a fraction of GDP did not increase that much in the 19th century up until WW2. What mostly changed was the composition of the budget: in the 19th century and early 20th century, spending on defense and policing was partly substituted by spending on public services (transport, communication, construction) and later on public provision of public goods (education and health).

Organic textures

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Five epochs of energy and evolution

Olivia P. Judson, The energy expansions of evolution, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0138 (2017)
doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0138

Abstract: The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Free energy is a universal requirement for life. It drives mechanical motion and chemical reactions—which in biology can change a cell or an organism1,2. Over the course of Earth history, the harnessing of free energy by organisms has had a dramatic impact on the planetary environment3,​4,​5,​6,​7. Yet the variety of free-energy sources available to living organisms has expanded over time. These expansions are consequences of events in the evolution of life, and they have mediated the transformation of the planet from an anoxic world that could support only microbial life, to one that boasts the rich geology and diversity of life present today. Here, I review these energy expansions, discuss how they map onto the biological and geological development of Earth, and consider what this could mean for the trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Sapolsky on good and evil (sorta’)

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford biologist who’s just published an 800-page book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Sean Illing interviews him in Vox.

On violence:
Sean Illing: You write that “our species has problems with violence.” Can you explain this complicated relationship? 
Robert Sapolsky: The easiest answer is that we're really violent. The much more important one, the much more challenging one, is that we don't hate violence as such — we hate the wrong kind of violence, and when it's the right kind of violence, we absolutely do cartwheels to reinforce it and reward it and hand out medals and mate with such people because of it. And that’s part of the reason why the worst kinds of violence are so viscerally awful to experience, to bear witness to. But the right kinds of violence are just as visceral, only in the opposite direction. 
The truth is that this is the hardest realm of human behavior to understand, but it’s also the most important one to try to.
Sean Illing: What is the wrong kind of violence? What is the right kind of violence?

Robert Sapolsky: Of course that tends to be in the eye of the beholder. Far too often, the right kind is one that fosters the fortunes of people just like us in group favoritism, and the worst kinds are the ones that do the opposite.

Sean Illing: Violence is a fact of nature — all species engage in it one way or other. Are humans the only species that ritualizes it, that makes a sport of it?

Robert Sapolsky: That does seem pretty much the case. Certainly you see the hints of it in chimps, for example, where you see order patrols by male chimps in one group, where if they encounter a male from another group, they will kill him. They have now been shown in a number of circumstances to have systematically killed all the males in the neighboring group, which certainly fits a rough definition of genocide, which is to say killing an individual not because of what they did but simply because of what group they belong to.

What's striking with the chimps is that you can tell beforehand that this is where they are heading. They do something vaguely ritualistic, which is they do a whole bunch of emotional contagion stuff. One male gets very agitated, very aroused, manages to get others like that, and then off they go to look for somebody to attack. So in that regard, there is a ritualistic feel to it, but that's easily framed along the conventional lines of nonhuman animal violence. By that, I mean when male chimps do this, when they eradicate all of the other males in a neighboring territory, they expand their own; it increases their reproductive success.

I believe it is really only humans that do violence for purely ritualistic purposes.
And the future?
Sean Illing: Has civilization made us better?

Robert Sapolsky: Absolutely. The big question is which of the following two scenarios are more correct: a) Civilization has made us the most peaceful, cooperative, emphatic we've ever been as a species, versus b) civilization is finally inching us back to the level of all those good things that characterized most of hominin hunter-gatherer history, preceding the invention of agriculture. Amid mostly being an academic outsider to the huge debates over this one, I find the latter view much more convincing.

Sean Illing: You say you incline to pessimism but that this book gave you reasons to be optimistic. Why?

Robert Sapolsky: Because there's very little about our behaviors that are inevitable, including our worst behaviors. And we’re learning more and more about the biological underpinnings of our behavior, and that can help us produce better outcomes. As long as you have a ridiculously long view of things, things are getting better.

It’s much nicer to be alive today than it was 100 or 200 years ago, and that’s because we’ve progressed. But nothing is certain, and we have to continue moving forward if we want to preserve what progress we’ve made.

The true nature of reality is strange

I’m a regular reader of Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution (which he runs along with Alex Tabarrok). As some of you know, Cowen is a libertarian economist with various and capacious reading habits, a foodie, and a collector of Haitian art. He’s just published a post entitled “Why I don’t believe in God”. I’m sympathetic with some of his points.

Thus:
2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.” It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs. I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated. Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

I would especially mention that first clause, “The true nature of reality is so strange…” We do almost all our thinking within circumcised boundaries. Those boundaries may be more or less well defined of they may be fuzzy, but they are boundaries and most of the world is outside them. But when we try to think about it all, things just go wonky.

Coming to the end:
6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

7. I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims. In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that.
Personal experience, that too is strange. Music is friendly to such experience. Drugs too.

Will those post-singularity computers have such experiences? Is that what we are, a mystical experience in the mind of a post-singularity computer?

How strange.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell

This experience has had a profound effect on how I think about music. I used a reworked version to open the second chapter of Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. One of my all time favorites.

Introduction: Together on the One

Interpersonal synchrony, moving, precisely, to the same beat as your fellows, is the core of social experience. The thrusts and jerks of an infant’s limbs, the timing of glances and twists of the body, will follow the speech rhythms of someone talking to the infant. Couples casually strolling in the park walk in step. People at a ball game make a “wave” in support of their team. All societies have rituals where people gather together and synchronize their movements, and thereby their hearts and minds, in affirmation of the central values of their culture.

I want to consider an example which is immediately familiar to me. This happened when I was living in upstate New York, which is as familiar to me as Africa was to the original African-Americans. It involves bell playing based on traditional African techniques.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Crumpled Irises

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Can't we all get along? Russia and the USofA

Bottom Line: Perhaps we should reset our relationship with Russia. Alas, 45 and company are more interested in oil money than peace and they're incompetent at governance. But what we're seeing in the news – Comey  etc. – is a distracting sideshow of bureaucratic and partisan infighting.

Here's the beginning of a 22 minute interview posted at Naked Capitalism:
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that a memo written by James Comey states that President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into General Flynn. Now, this was all about Flynn’s contacts with the Russians. [...]

Now joining us to talk about the Comey affair, the Trump affair, and just what is the issues in terms of the US-Russia relationship, is Robert English. Robert is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He specializes in Russian and post-Soviet politics, US-Russian relations, and national security policy. He formerly worked for the US Department of Defense and the Committee for National Security, and has published widely in both academic and policy journals. Thanks very much for joining us, Robert.

ROBERT ENGLISH: Happy to be here.

PAUL JAY: Okay, so every day another storm, another drama. First of all, what do you make of … Maybe the most interesting thing in all of this Comey thing today isn’t Trump asking him to stop the investigation; that’s not a great shocker. The more interesting thing is somebody at the FBI who has access to the Comey memo reads it to a journalist at the New York Times. There’s a lot of people out to get Trump here.

ROBERT ENGLISH: Yeah, you’re pointing to this larger problem, which is this chaos, this infighting, and not just in a sort of careerist bureaucratic way, but a kind of serious pitched battle between different factions — in this case, between those in the Trump administration who seem to want a fresh start with Russia, to try to begin cooperation on things like Syria, terrorism, and so forth, and those dead set against it, who are now using leaks and so forth to … In part, to fight their battles. And so the bureaucratic, the nasty, the backstabbing, the leaking, is one area of issues, but you’re pointing to this larger fundamental. Can we get along with Russia? Is it worth trying to reset relations? And even if he’s not the best executor so far — and he’s not — is Trump’s basic idea of “We can get along with Russia, let’s give it a try” a good one? And I happen to think it is; it’s just being carried out awfully clumsily.

PAUL JAY: Yeah, I think one needs to separate the intent of Trump for wanting better relation with Russia, which one can analyze, and the policy itself. The policy of having a détente, although why there even needs to be a détente is kind of a question mark … But why is so much of the American foreign policy establishment, the political class, the military leadership, the vast majority of that whole stratum wants to maintain a very antagonistic position towards Russia, and why?

ROBERT ENGLISH: You know, four or five reasons that all come together, pushing in this Russophobic direction. We’ve always had sort of unreconstructed Cold Warriors, people who never were easy with the new Russia, right? Zbigniew Brzezinski and people of that ilk, who wanted to just push Russia in a corner, take advantage of its weakness, never give it a chance. Then you have people in the military-industrial complex, for lack of a better term, whose vested interests lie in a continued rivalry, and continued arms-racing, and continued threat inflation. You have other people who normally would be liberal progressive, but they’re so angry at Hillary Clinton’s loss, they’re so uncomprehending of how someone they see as vulgar and unqualified as Trump could get elected, that they’re naturally unwilling to let go of this “the Russians hacked our election, the Russians got Trump elected” theme, and therefore, Russia is even bigger enemy than they would be otherwise. These and other strains all come together in a strange way. Some of this is the hard right, all right? Some of it is from the left, some is from the center. And across the board, we have ignorance. Ignorance of Russia. [...]

You don’t have to go back to the ’50s or ’40s. You can go back just to the ’90s, when we interfered in Russia, when we foisted dysfunctional economic policies on them, when we meddled in their elections repeatedly, and basically for an entire decade, we were handmaidens to a catastrophe — economic, political, social — that sowed the seeds of this resentment that continues to this day.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A history of the world in 20 entertaining minutes


H/t Vox:
Thankfully, you don’t have to be around for billions of years to understand how that happened and how you got here. In a new video, YouTube creator Bill Wurtz manages to capture the history of the world in a bizarre but highly entertaining 20 minutes.

Wurtz starts with a simple observation: “Hi. You’re on a rock, floating in space. Pretty cool, huh?” From there, he goes into a deep dive of world history: the formation of the universe; the development of our solar system and Earth; the evolution of species, including humans; the dawn of civilization; the creation of religions; wars; the explosion of technology — and the global population — in the past two centuries; and much, much more.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is Trump Out of Control?

I don’t know. I simply don’t know what to make of events for the last week so.

The Comey firing was a debacle. While I have no love for the man, it seemed pretty clear that when the announcement came last Tuesday that Comey was being fired because over the FBI’s investigation into the interaction between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The pretext given, that it was about his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, was laughable. No one bought it and the firing blew us in Trump’s face. So what does Trump do? He admits that, yes, he fired Comey over the Russia investigation – thus making his subordinates looking like fools for covering for him.

Meanwhile, the day after the Comey firing Trump met with Russian officials, Lavrov (foreign minister) and Kislyak (ambassador to the US), and gave them highly sensitive intelligence information about ISIS, information that had been supplied to the United States by a third party (now known to be Israel) with the understanding that the US would be very circumspect about sharing it. While such an action is within the authority of the President, it is, for reasons laid-out in full in this post at Lawfare, a stupid and foolish thing to do. We only learned about this yesterday (Monday 15 May).

We’re still processing this. By “we” I mean you, me, and anyone else. But also Trump, and those who serve him and must cover for him. What’s it all mean?

David Brooks, by no means a favorite of mine, argues that Trump is a child:
But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.
Trump himself or the people around him or his loyal base of supporters [will] continue to insist on his retention of authority despite the fact that he’s impaired. We lurch from crisis to crisis, descending every day deeper into shared delirium. That happens too in history, is happening right now here and there around the world: people closest to the void at the heart of political power decide that they themselves are safest if they embrace that void, and amplify its capricious, random perturbations in all directions. We the People, already both mad and slightly maddened ourselves, become caregivers and captives of a mad king.
Is this what we’ve got, a mad king leading the most powerful nation on earth?