Monday, September 25, 2017

Over the weekend the Nacirema Nationals trounced the Trumptastic Bombers

Sunday was the most important sports day since Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam.
–Richard Lapchick, Director
Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 

The Trumpistas went up against the Nacirema and were creamed. How's this going to work out? What makes the question an interesting one is that many Trumptistas are also partisans of the Nacirema ( = "America" spelled backward). I grew up in Western PA, Trump country, but also football country. It'll be interesting to see how this works out. Will Trump double-down after his defeat by the NFL? Will the players persist? What of the owners, many of whom are Trump partisans?

Across the Nation

On three teams, nearly all the football players skipped the national anthem altogether. Dozens of others, from London to Los Angeles, knelt or locked arms on the sidelines, joined by several team owners in a league normally friendly to President Trump. Some of the sport’s biggest stars joined the kind of demonstration they have steadfastly avoided.

It was an unusual, sweeping wave of protest and defiance on the sidelines of the country’s most popular game, generated by Mr. Trump’s stream of calls to fire players who have declined to stand for the national anthem in order to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.

What had been a modest round of anthem demonstrations this season led by a handful of African-American players mushroomed and morphed into a nationwide, diverse rebuke to Mr. Trump, with even some of his staunchest supporters in the N.F.L., including several owners, joining in or condemning Mr. Trump for divisiveness.
However:
But the acts of defiance received a far more mixed reception from fans, both in the stadiums and on social media, suggesting that what were promoted as acts of unity might have exacerbated a divide and dragged yet another of the country’s institutions into the turbulent cross currents of race and politics.

At Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, videos posted on social media showed some Eagles fans yelling at anti-Trump protesters holding placards. At MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., before the Jets played the Dolphins, many fans, a majority of them white, said they did not support the anthem protests but also did not agree with the president’s view that players should be fired because of them.
Moreover, there is a rule:
The Steelers, along with the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks, who were playing each other and similarly skipped the anthem, broke a league rule requiring athletes to be present for the anthem, though a league executive said they would not be penalized.
In other sports:
In a tweet Friday, Mr. Trump disinvited the Golden State Warriors, the N.B.A. champions, to any traditional White House visit, after members of the team, including its biggest star, Stephen Curry, were critical of him. But on Sunday, the N.H.L. champion Pittsburgh Penguins said they would go to the White House, and declared such visits to be free of politics.
Nascar team owners went a step further, saying they would not tolerate drivers who protested during the anthem.

American Ritual

If you google “football as ritual” you’ll come up with a bunch of hits. It’s a natural. It’s played in special purpose-build facilities and the players wear specialized costumes. The teams have totemic mascots and the spectators will wear team colors and emblems of the totem. Ritual chants are uttered throughout the game and there’s lots of music and spectacle. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. When anthropologists go to faraway places and see people engaging in such activities they call it ritual. We call it entertainment. It’s both.

While not everyone actually plays football, a very large portion (mostly male) of the population has done so at one time in their life. When I was in secondary school touch football was one of the required activities in boys gym class. Those who don’t play the game participate vicariously as spectators. The game is associated with various virtues and so participating contributes to moral development.

Other sports are like this as well and other sports have been involved in anti-Trumpista activity. But let’s stick to football as that’s where most of the action has been so far.

Hoboken Arts & Music Festival Fall 2017, from the Garden St. School of the Performing Arts

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Extended Adolescence – Adulthood Revised?

An analysis by researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College reports that today’s teenagers are less likely to engage in adult activities like having sex and drinking alcohol than teens from older generations.

The review, published today in the journal Child Development, looked at data from seven national surveys conducted between 1976 and 2016, including those issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Together, the surveys included over eight million 13- to 19-year-olds from varying racial, economic and regional backgrounds. Participants were asked a variety of questions about how the they spent their time outside of school and responses were tracked over time.

Beyond just a drop in alcohol use and sexual activity, the study authors found that since around 2000, teens have become considerably less likely to drive, have an after-school job and date. By the early 2010s, it also appeared that 12th graders were going out far less frequently than 8th graders did in the 1990s. In 1991 54 percent of high schoolers reported having had sex at least once; in 2015 the number was down to 41 percent. What’s more, the decline in adult activity was consistent across all populations, and not influenced by race, gender or location.
Affluence:
The analysis found adolescents were more likely to take part in adult activities if they came from larger families or those with lower incomes. This mirrors so-called “life history theory,” the idea exposure to an unpredictable, impoverished environment as a kid leads to faster development whereas children who grow up in a stable environment with more resources tend to have a slower developmental course.

In families with means there is often more anticipation of years of schooling and career before one necessarily has to “grow up”—there’s plenty of time for that later. As Twenge and Park conclude, despite growing income disparities, a significant percentage of the U.S. population has on average become more affluent over the past few decades and are living longer. As a result, people are waiting longer to get married and have children. We’re also seeing a higher parental investment in fewer children—or, in the parlance of our times, more “helicopter parenting.”
Erik Erikson talked of adolescence as a “psychosocial moratorium”, however
Yet many child psychologists believe today’s children seem to be idling in this hiatus period more so than ever before. “I'm keenly aware of the shift, as I often see adolescents presenting with some of the same complaints as college graduates,” says Columbia University psychologist Mirjana Domakonda, who was not involved in the new study. “Twenty-five is the new 18, and delayed adolescence is no longer a theory, but a reality. In some ways, we’re all in a ‘psychosocial moratorium,’ experimenting with a society where swipes constitute dating and likes are the equivalent of conversation.”
See these posts for further discussion on extended adolescence:


Is but one aspect of a new mode of life? You may recall that, in Western history, childhood wasn't recognized as a distinct phase of life until the early modern era (Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood) and adolescence itself didn't emerge until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Contrasts: From yesterday's shoot

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Too good to last, the New Savanna hit streak is over

Back at the end of January 2017 I’d noticed that traffic was up, with some days topping 3K or 4K. On August 11 New Savanna got 11,109 hits and on August 20 hits seemed to be averaging well over 4K per day since then. And then there was a drop

Was it an end of summer slump or more permanent?

It appears to be more permanent. I’ve been logging daily hits for the last month. We’ve averaged 834 hits per day over the last 30 days, with only five days over 1000; the highest was 1369. This is how traffic looks over the life of the blog:

Sept 23 8PM year

The six-month high period is obvious and over there at the right you can see the drop. I expect there will be a visible leveling-off in the graph in a couple of month.

But what was that six-month run about?

The hermeneutics of Ta-Nehisi Coates

The thing is, he seldom makes arguments in the sense I understand that term. There isn’t extended reasoning through assumptions and implications or careful sifting through evidence to see which hypotheses are supported or disconfirmed. No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it. He is obviously a man of vast talents, but he uses them the same way much less refined thinkers simply bloviate.

But that raises the question, why is he so influential? Why does he reach so many people? What’s his secret?

No doubt there are multiple aspects to this, but here’s one that just dawned on me. Those who respond to Coates are not looking for argumentation—they’re looking for interpretation.

The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture. This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports. Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism. A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism. There’s nothing wrong with this. I read criticism all the time to deepen my engagement with music, art, film and fiction.

But criticism jumped channel and entered the political realm. Now events like elections, wars, ecological crises and economic disruptions are interpreted according to the same standards developed for portraits and poetry. And maybe there is good in that too, except that theories about why social, economic or political events occur are subject to analytical support or disconfirmation in a way that works of art are not.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Military ontology

Thank you, Ladies of NCIS [#NCIS]

Pete Turner, colors – the world


Richard Sandomir writes his obituary in The New York Times:
Altering reality was nothing new for Mr. Turner. Starting in the pre-Photoshop era, he routinely manipulated colors to bring saturated hues to his work in magazines and advertisements and on album covers.

“The color palette I work with is really intense,” he said in a video produced by the George Eastman House, the photographic museum in Rochester that exhibited his work in 2006 and 2007. “I like to push it to the limit.”

Jerry Uelsmann, a photographer and college classmate who specializes in black-and-white work, said in an email that when he saw Mr. Turner’s intense color images, he once told him, “I felt like I wanted to lick them.”

On the lookout

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I'd be wary of Ken Burns. His jazz documentary stretched the material to fit his myth of America.

Ken Burns has a new Vietnam documentary out. I'd be wary of it. I've only seen one Burns extravaganza, the one on jazz, and that one made me a Ken Burns skeptic. Why? Because I know the history better than Burns. I bought the 10-DVD boxed set to get the archival footage. Otherwise...Here's a note I sent to my old teacher, Bruce Jackson, while I was watching the series on TV.

* * * * *

Dear Bruce,

If you've been watching Ken Burns' Jazz, I'd be interested in your reactions.

Of course, this has come to us with lots of hype and counter hype as well, much of the latter centered on the aesthetically conservative scope and selection of material. I'm quite sympathetic to this line of criticism, but don't want to pursue it here, at least not directly. The following caveats would remain even if he hadn't bought the Marsalis/Crouch/Murray line pretty much wholesale.

I find it to be a somewhat mixed bag. The documentary material is often quite fine -- I'm particularly struck by the scenes of dancers, though I've seen that sort of stuff before. However, he often mixes images, especially stills, from distinctly different eras without really telling you that. If you know the faces well, and even the instruments (e.g. Armstrong played distinctly different horns at different periods) this is obvious. I'm not sure how obvious this would be to someone who's new to the material. I suppose this is a nit-picky issue, but in an overall scheme that's chronological, this tends to lift the major figures out of history and into the eternal ether, which is surely one of the things going on here.

Then there's the talking heads, the authoritative commentators. I'm not quite sure what role these folks and their words play/will play in the overall impact of this work. The images and sounds are quite powerful.

In any event, what I find interesting is that the words we hear, whether in voiceover or from a head we see, are a mixture of things, but, with one exception, not signaled as such. The exception is where, in voiceover, we get a fragment from a contemporary source (newspaper, magazine, biography, etc.). That is always identified, as such, but only after it has been read. The other commentary includes identification of materials, names and dates & other straight history, how-jazz-works (mostly from Marsalis so far), interpretation, exaggeration, and unverified lore. What bugs me is that all this is presented on pretty much the same footing, on pretty much the same authority.

And it takes a pretty sophisticated person to recognize what's going on and to even begin to sort this out; more intellectually sophisticated and knowledgeable about jazz, I'd guess, than Ken Burns. I've never done any serious oral history or ethnography, but I've talked to many musicians and I've read lots of interviews and I know that you simply cannot take their words at face value. While it's possible that they may be deliberately playing you, that's really the least of your problems in dealing with what they say. They can only speak in the categories they know, and if those categories are poor -- and they certainly have been and still are for this music -- then the commentary will be poor as well. Beyond that, memory simply isn't reliable. Etc.

So that's an issue. And I'm not sure how you deal with it. I mean if you're going to interview 90-year-old Milt Hinton about what happened when he was twenty you pretty much have to present what he says. You can't give him a lawyerly grilling nor can you stick a little reliability meter there in the lower left hand corner. Now, if it is your explicit intention to do an oral history, then it's all talking heads and you frame it as an oral history and everyone knows it for what it is. But that's not what Burns is doing. He's presenting....well, just what is he presenting? that's the question. I think it's a nationalist myth, a rather attractive one, but still a myth.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bus in motion

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Deep Learning through the Information Bottleneck

Tishby began contemplating the information bottleneck around the time that other researchers were first mulling over deep neural networks, though neither concept had been named yet. It was the 1980s, and Tishby was thinking about how good humans are at speech recognition — a major challenge for AI at the time. Tishby realized that the crux of the issue was the question of relevance: What are the most relevant features of a spoken word, and how do we tease these out from the variables that accompany them, such as accents, mumbling and intonation? In general, when we face the sea of data that is reality, which signals do we keep?

“This notion of relevant information was mentioned many times in history but never formulated correctly,” Tishby said in an interview last month. “For many years people thought information theory wasn’t the right way to think about relevance, starting with misconceptions that go all the way to Shannon himself.” [...]

Imagine X is a complex data set, like the pixels of a dog photo, and Y is a simpler variable represented by those data, like the word “dog.” You can capture all the “relevant” information in X about Y by compressing X as much as you can without losing the ability to predict Y. In their 1999 paper, Tishby and co-authors Fernando Pereira, now at Google, and William Bialek, now at Princeton University, formulated this as a mathematical optimization problem. It was a fundamental idea with no killer application.
But, you know, the emic/etic distinction is about relevance. What are phonemes, they are "he most relevant features of a spoken word".

To the most recent experiments:
In their experiments, Tishby and Shwartz-Ziv tracked how much information each layer of a deep neural network retained about the input data and how much information each one retained about the output label. The scientists found that, layer by layer, the networks converged to the information bottleneck theoretical bound: a theoretical limit derived in Tishby, Pereira and Bialek’s original paper that represents the absolute best the system can do at extracting relevant information. At the bound, the network has compressed the input as much as possible without sacrificing the ability to accurately predict its label.

Tishby and Shwartz-Ziv also made the intriguing discovery that deep learning proceeds in two phases: a short “fitting” phase, during which the network learns to label its training data, and a much longer “compression” phase, during which it becomes good at generalization, as measured by its performance at labeling new test data.
However:
For instance, Lake said the fitting and compression phases that Tishby identified don’t seem to have analogues in the way children learn handwritten characters, which he studies. Children don’t need to see thousands of examples of a character and compress their mental representation over an extended period of time before they’re able to recognize other instances of that letter and write it themselves. In fact, they can learn from a single example. Lake and his colleagues’ models suggest the brain may deconstruct the new letter into a series of strokes — previously existing mental constructs — allowing the conception of the letter to be tacked onto an edifice of prior knowledge. “Rather than thinking of an image of a letter as a pattern of pixels and learning the concept as mapping those features” as in standard machine-learning algorithms, Lake explained, “instead I aim to build a simple causal model of the letter,” a shorter path to generalization.
On 'deconstructing' letterforms into strokes, see the work of Mark Changizi [1].

For a technical account of this work, see Ravid Schwartz-Ziv and Naftali Tishby, Opening the black box of Deep Neural Networks via Information: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.00810.pdf

[1] Mark A. Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo, The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes, vol. 167, no. 5, The American Naturalist, May 2006
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/502806

Cheap criticism & cheap defense: Can machines think?

Searle’s Chinese room argument is one of the best-known thought experiments in analytic philosophy. The point of the argument as I remember it (you can google it) is that computers can’t think because they lack intentionality. I read it when Searle published in Brain and Behavioral Science back in the Jurassic Era and thought to myself: So what? It’s not that I thought that computers really could thing, someday, maybe – because I didn’t – but that Searle’s argument didn’t so much as hint at any of the techniques used in AI or computational linguistics. It was simply irrelevant to what investigators were actually doing.

That’s what I mean by cheap criticism.

But then it seems to me that, for example, Dan Dennett’s staunch defense of the possibility of computers thinking is cheap in the same way. I’m sure he’s read some of the technical literature, but he doesn’t seem to have taken any of those ideas on board. He’s not internalized them. Whatever his faith in machine thought is based on, it’s not based on the techniques investigators on the matter have been using or on extrapolations from those techniques. That makes his faith as empty as Searle’s doubt.

So, if these guys aren’t arguing about specific techniques, what ARE they arguing about? Inanimate vs. animate matter? Because it sure can’t be spirit vs. matter, or can it?

I think like a Pirahã (What's REAL vs. real)

Something I'd recently posted to Facebook.

I just realized that in one interesting aspect, I think like a Pirahã. I’m thinking about their response to Daniel Everett’s attempts to teach the Christian Gospel: 
Pirahã: “This Jesus fellow, did you ever meet him?” 
Everett: “No.” 

Pirahã: “Do you know someone who did?” 
Everett: “Um, no.” 
Pirahã: “Then you don’t know that he’s real.”
As far as the Pirahã are concerned, if you haven't seen it yourself, or don't know someone who has, then it's not REAL (upper case).

This recognition of the REAL takes a somewhat different form for me, after all, I recognize the reality (lower case) of lots of things of which I have no direct experience and don't know anyone who has. Thus, to give but one example, I've not set foot on the moon and I don't know anyone who has. But I don't believe that the moon landings were faked. Yada yada.

But I’ve been thinking about the REAL for awhile. One example, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the millennium. For someone born in 1990, say, that’s just something they read about in history books. They know it’s real, and they know it’s important. But it just doesn’t have the “bite” that it does for someone, like me, who grew up in the 1950s when the Cold War was raging. It’s not simply events that appeared in newspapers and on TV, it’s seeing Civil Defense markers on buildings designated as fall-out shelters, doing duck-and-cover drills in school, reading about home fall-out shelters in Popular Mechanics and picking a spot in the backyard where we should build one. I fully expected to live in the shadow of the Soviet Union until the day I died. Some when it finally collapsed – after considerable slacking off in the Cold War – that was a very big deal. It’s REAL for me in a way that it can’t be for someone born in 1990 or after (actually, that date’s probably a bit earlier than that).

[Yeah, I know, I didn't see it with my own eyes. But then is something like the Soviet Union something you can see? Sure, you can see the soil and the buildings, etc. But they're not the Soviet Union, nor are the people. The USSR is an abstract entity. And I can reasonably say that I witnessed the collapse of that abstract entity in a way that younger people have not. That makes it REAL. Or should that be REALreal? It's complicated.]

This sense of REALness is intuitive. And I’d think it is in fact quite widespread in the literate world, but mostly overwhelmed by “book learnin’”. 

Another example. Just the other day I read a suite of articles in Critical Inquiry (an initial article, 5 comments in a later issue, and a reply to comments). It was about the concept of form in literary criticism, which is very important, but also very fuzzy and much contested. What struck me is that, as far as I can tell, only one of the people involved is old enough to have been thinking about literary criticism at the time when structuralism (a variety of thinkers including Lévi-Strauss and, of course, Roman Jakobson) and linguistics (Chomsky+) was something people read about and took seriously, as in: “Maybe we ought to use some of this stuff.” That phase ran from roughly the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Any scholar entering their 20s in, say, 1980 and after would think of structuralism as something in the historical past, as something the profession had considered and rejected. Over and done with. 

For those thinkers structuralism and linguistics aren’t REAL in the sense I’m talking about. They know that work was done and that some of it was important; they’re educated in the history of criticism. They know that linguistics continues on, and they’ve probably heard about the recursion debates. But they’ve never even attempted to internalize any of that as a mode of thinking they could employ. It’s just not REAL to them.

Why is this important in the context of that Critical Inquiry debate? Because linguists have a very different sense of form than literary critics do. The spelling’s the same, but the idea is not. Yet literary critics are dealing with language.

A brief note on interpretation as translation

I’ve come to think of interpretation as a kind of translation, and translation doesn’t use description. When you translate from, say, Japanese into English, you don’t first describe the Japanese utterance/text and then make the translation based on that description. You make the translation directly. So it is with interpretation. I’ve come to think of the devices used to make the source text present into the critical text (quotation, summary, paraphrase) as more akin to observations than descriptions. Of course, we also have a descriptive vocabulary, the terms of versification, rhetoric, narratology, poetics, and others, but that’s all secondary.

Hence the longstanding practice of eliding the distinction between “reading” in the ordinary sense of the word and “reading” as a term of art for interpretive commentary. We like to pretend that this often elaborate secondary construction is, after all, but reading. Even after all the debate over not having immediate access to the text we still like to pretend that we’re just reading the text. Do we know what we’re doing? Blindness and insight, or the blind leading the blind?

Friday Fotos: KidZ!

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

The effects of choir & solo singing

Front. Hum. Neurosci., 14 September 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00430

Choir versus Solo Singing: Effects on Mood, and Salivary Oxytocin and Cortisol Concentrations

T. Moritz SchladtGregory C. Nordmann, Roman Emilius, Brigitte M. Kudielka, Trynke R. de Jong and Inga D. Neumann


Abstract: The quantification of salivary oxytocin (OXT) concentrations emerges as a helpful tool to assess peripheral OXT secretion at baseline and after various challenges in healthy and clinical populations. Both positive social interactions and stress are known to induce OXT secretion, but the relative influence of either of these triggers is not well delineated. Choir singing is an activity known to improve mood and to induce feelings of social closeness, and may therefore be used to investigate the effects of positive social experiences on OXT system activity. We quantified mood and salivary OXT and cortisol (CORT) concentrations before, during, and after both choir and solo singing performed in a randomized order in the same participants (repeated measures). Happiness was increased, and worry and sadness as well as salivary CORT concentrations were reduced, after both choir and solo singing. Surprisingly, salivary OXT concentrations were significantly reduced after choir singing, but did not change in response to solo singing. Salivary OXT concentrations showed high intra-individual stability, whereas salivary CORT concentrations fluctuated between days within participants. The present data indicate that the social experience of choir singing does not induce peripheral OXT secretion, as indicated by unchanged salivary OXT levels. Rather, the reduction of stress/arousal experienced during choir singing may lead to an inhibition of peripheral OXT secretion. These data are important for the interpretation of future reports on salivary OXT concentrations, and emphasize the need to strictly control for stress/arousal when designing similar experiments.

What interests you, or: How’d things get this way in lit crit?

This isn’t going to be another one of those long-form posts where I delve into the history of academic literary criticism in the United States since World War II. I’ve done enough of that, at least for awhile [1]. I’m going to assume that account.

Rather, I want to start with the individual scholar, even before they become a scholar. Why would someone want to become a professional literary scholar? Because they like to read, no? So, you take literature courses and you do the work you’re taught how to do. If you really don’t like that work, then you won’t pursue a professional degree [2]. You’ll continue to read in your spare time and you’ll study something else.

If those courses teach you how to search for hidden meanings in texts, whether in the manner of so-called close reading or, more recently, the various forms of ideological critique, that’s what you’ll do. If those courses don’t teach you how to analyze and describe form, then you won’t do that. The fact is, beyond versification (which is, or at least once was, taught in secondary school), form is hard to see.

Some years ago Mark Liberman had a post at Language Log which speaks to that [3]. He observes that it’s difficult for students to analyze sentences into component strings:
But when I first started teaching undergraduate linguistics, I learned that just explaining the idea in a lecture is not nearly enough. Without practice and feedback, a third to a half of the class will miss a generously-graded exam question requiring them to use parentheses, brackets, or trees to indicate the structure of a simple phrase like "State Department Public Relations Director".
In that example Liberman is looking for something like this: [(State Department) ((Public Relations) Director)].

Well, such analysis, which is central to the analysis of literary form (as I conceive and practice it), is difficult above the sentence level as well. If you aren’t taught how to do it, chances are you won’t try to figure it out yourself. Moreover, you may not even suspect that there’s something there to be described.

What we’ve got so far, then, is this: 1) Once you decide to study literary criticism professionally, you learn what you’re told. 2) It’s difficult to learn anything outside the prescribed path. There’s nothing surprising here, is there? Every discipline is like that.

Let’s go back to the history of the discipline, to a time when critics didn’t automatically learn to search out hidden meanings in texts, to interpret them. Without that pre-existing bias wouldn’t it have been at least possible that critics would have decided to focus on the description of form? And some did, in a limited way – I’m thinking of the Russian Formalists and their successors.

Still, formal analysis is difficult, and what’s it get you? Formal analysis, that’s what. The possibility of formal analysis is likely not what attracts anyone to literature, not now, not back then. You’re attracted to literary study because you like to read, and your reading is about love, war, beauty, pain, joy, suffering, life, the world, and the cosmos! THAT’s what you want to write about, not form.

And, sitting right there, off to the side, we’ve got a long history of Biblical hermeneutics stretching back to the time before Christianity differentiated from Judaism. Why not refit that for the study of meaning in literary texts? Now, I don’t think that’s quite what happened – the refitting of Biblical exegesis to secular ends – but that tradition was there exerting its general influence on the humanistic landscape. Between that and the ‘natural’ focus of one’s interest in literature, the search for literary meaning was a natural.

So that’s what the discipline did. And now it’s stuck and doesn’t know what to do.

More later.

References
[1] See, for example, the following working papers: Transition! The 1970s in Literary Criticism, https://www.academia.edu/31012802/Transition_The_1970s_in_Literary_Criticism
An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism,  June 2017,  24 pp. https://www.academia.edu/33589497/An_Open_Letter_to_Dan_Everett_about_Literary_Criticism

[2] I figure we’ve all got our preferred intellectual styles. Some of us like math, some don’t and so forth. Take a look at this post: Style Matters: Intellectual Style,  March 18, 2017, Style Matters: Intellectual Style,  https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2012/06/style-matters-intellectual-style.html

I make the following assertions: 
1.) In anyone’s intellectual ecology, style preferences are deeper and have more inertia than explicit epistemological beliefs.
2.) Some of the pigheadedness that often crops up in discussions about humanities vs. science is grounded in stylistic preference that gets rationalized as epistemological belief.
[3] Mark Liberman, Two brews, Language Log, February 6, 2010, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2100
See also my blog post quoting Liberman’s post,
Form is Hard to See, Even in Sentences*, November 29, 2015, http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/11/form-is-hard-to-see-even-in-sentences.html

Ring of posies

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The origins of (the concept of) world literature

On the afternoon of 31 January 1827, a new vision of literature was born. On that day, Johann Peter Eckermann, faithful secretary to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, went over to his master’s house, as he had done hundreds of times in the past three and a half years. Goethe reported that he had been reading Chinese Courtship (1824), a Chinese novel. ‘Really? That must have been rather strange!’ Eckermann exclaimed. ‘No, much less so than one thinks,’ Goethe replied.

A surprised Eckermann ventured that this Chinese novel must be exceptional. Wrong again. The master’s voice was stern: ‘Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese have thousands of them, and had them when our ancestors were still living in the trees.’ Then Goethe reached for the term that stunned his secretary: ‘The era of world literature is at hand, and everyone must contribute to accelerating it.’ World literature – the idea of world literature – was born out of this conversation in Weimar, a provincial German town of 7,000 people.
Later: "World literature originated as a solution to the dilemma Goethe faced as a provincial intellectual caught between metropolitan domination and nativist nationalism."

And then we have a passage from The Communist Manifesto (1848):
In a stunning paragraph from that text, the two authors celebrated the bourgeoisie for their role in sweeping away century-old feudal structures:
By exploiting the world market, the bourgeoisie has made production and consumption a cosmopolitan affair. To the annoyance of its enemies, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. … These industries no longer use local materials but raw materials drawn from the remotest zones, and its products are consumed not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. … In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have commerce in every direction, universal interdependence of nationals. And as in material so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become increasingly impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.
World literature­. To many contemporaries, it would have sounded like a strange term to use in the context of mines, steam engines and railways. Goethe would not have been surprised. Despite his aristocratic leanings, he knew that a new form of world market had made world literature possible.
Rolling along:
Ever since Goethe, Marx and Engels, world literature has rejected nationalism and colonialism in favour of a more just global community. In the second half of the 19th century, the Irish-born critic Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett championed world literature. Posnett developed his ideas of world literature in New Zealand. In Europe, the Hungarian Hugó Meltzl founded a journal dedicated to what he described as the ‘ideal’ of world literature.

In India, Rabindranath Tagore championed the same idealist model of world literature. Honouring the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great Indian epics, Tagore nevertheless exhorted readers to think of literature as a single living organism, an interconnected whole without a centre. Having lived under European colonialism, Tagore saw world literature as a rebuke to colonialism.
After World War II:
In the US, world literature took up residence in the booming post-war colleges and universities. There, the expansion of higher education in the wake of the GI Bill helped world literature to find a home in general education courses. In response to this growing market, anthologies of world literature emerged. Some of Goethe’s favourites, such as the Sanskrit play Shakuntala, the Persian poet Hafez and Chinese novels, took pride of place. From the 1950s to the ’90s, world literature courses expanded significantly, as did the canon of works routinely taught in them. World literature anthologies, which began as single volumes, now typically reach some 6,000 pages. The six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature (3rd ed, 2012), of which I am the general editor, is one of several examples.

In response to the growth of world literature over the past 20 years, an emerging field of world literature research including sourcebooks and companions have created a scholarly canon, beginning with Goethe, Marx and Engels and through to Tagore, Auerbach and beyond. The World Literature Institute at Harvard University, headed by the scholar David Damrosch, spends two out of three summers in other locations.
And now:
oday, with nativism and nationalism surging in the US and elsewhere, world literature is again an urgent and political endeavour. Above all, it represents a rejection of national nativism and colonialism in favour of a more humane and cosmopolitan order, as Goethe and Tagore had envisioned. World literature welcomes globalisation, but without homogenisation, celebrating, along with Ravitch, the small, diasporic literatures such as Yiddish as invaluable cultural resources that persevere in the face of prosecution and forced migration.

There is no denying that world literature is a market, one in which local and national literatures can meet and transform each other. World literature depends, above all, on circulation. This means that it is incompatible with efforts to freeze or codify literature into a set canon of metropolitan centres, or of nation states, or of untranslatable originals. True, the market in world literature is uneven and not always fair. But the solution to this problem is not less circulation, less translation, less world literature. The solution is a more vibrant translation culture, more translations into more languages, and more world literature education.

The free circulation of literature is the best weapon against nationalism and colonialism, whether old or new, because literature, even in translation, gives us unique access to different cultures and the minds of others.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Problem with Close Reading: GIGO

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

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


You had to be there.

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Of Socks, Prophylactics, and Other Matters Sublime and Heroic

by Carl Jakob Joachim Benzon

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

Origami cranes in flight, Maplewood, NJ

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African Music in the World

Another working paper available at Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/34610738/African_Music_in_the_World

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

* * * * *

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

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

Canceling Stamps

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Autumn leaves, rendered flat

IMGP4824rdflat

LitCrit: Getting my bearings, the lay of the land

Another quick take, just a place filler.

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


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

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

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

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

As always, more later.

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Skippy ponders the eternal verities

IMGP6374

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

I’ve got another post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Donald Trump is no Leroy Jethro Gibbs: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2017/09/donald-trump-is-no-leroy-jethro-gibbs.html

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

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

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

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

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

The Rejection of Falstaff

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

SK8!

20150705-_IGP4891

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later.

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

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

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

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

Two observations on wealth