Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sparkychan and Gojochan chewin' the fat outside their bunker

And another thing

Survivalism among the super-rich, the 1% of the 1%, and they're running scared

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on survivalism among the super-rich. They're making preparations for the time when society collapses and it's everyone for themselves. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linked-In:
I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”
On the East Coast, Robert A. Johnson, head of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.:
By January, 2015, Johnson was sounding the alarm: the tensions produced by acute income inequality were becoming so pronounced that some of the world’s wealthiest people were taking steps to protect themselves. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Johnson told the audience, “I know hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.” [...] As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
Apocalypse in America, now!

Sometimes David Brooks Makes Sense: After the Women's March

In the first place, this movement focuses on the wrong issues. Of course, many marchers came with broad anti-Trump agendas, but they were marching under the conventional structure in which the central issues were clear. As The Washington Post reported, they were “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change.”

These are all important matters, and they tend to be voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities.
Alas and alack:
But this is 2017. Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.

All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order. If you’re not engaging these issues first, you’re not going to be in the main arena of national life.
There it is again, the problems of the nation-state.

Now he gets down to the nitty-gritty:
Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. ... It’s significant that as marching and movements have risen, the actual power of the parties has collapsed. Marching is a seductive substitute for action in an antipolitical era, and leaves the field open for a rogue like Trump.
Alas, he's right: "Identity-based political movements always seem to descend into internal rivalries about who is most oppressed and who should get pride of place." But I'm not at all sure about Brooks's prescription:
If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.
Can "the nation" be repaired in that way? Color me skeptical.

The way up...and the way down


Derrida and Writerly Criticism

For some time now I’ve been arguing that academic literary criticism is (often) intrinsically free of diagrams, tables, graphs, and so forth, rather than incidentally so [1]. Most prose that is free of non-linguistic elements is incidentally so. It is written for some purpose, to make an argument, to explain a some phenomenon, or even to narrate some events, where non-linguistic elements are not needed. Where they are useful, as in writing about a geographical location or a trip, or even necessary, as in giving instructions on using some device, and so forth, they are included without comment.

Initially it would seem that literary criticism is like that. You are writing about poems, plays, novels, and stories, and have no need “visual aids”, as they are sometimes called. And when they are needed, as when explaining the physical layout of Shakespeare’s theater, for example, they are included without comment. But then you have peculiar cases like Mark Rose’s 1972 Shakespearean Design, where he needs simple diagrams to make his point. Strictly speaking, the diagrams aren’t necessary, but they make his point much easier to grasp. And what does he do in his preface? He apologizes for those diagrams [2]. Why?

Well, if by that time academic literary criticism had come to conceive of itself as inherently written, as something that cannot be done but in language, then the use of non-linguistic devices would violate that understanding, that critical contract, and so call for an apology. Is that what’s going on?

I’ve already said all of this, though not in quite those words. I now want to add something else into the mix, the prose style of Jacques Derrida. He burst into the North American critical scene in 1966 when he delivered the coupe de grace to structuralism at the Johns Hopkins structuralism conference, though it took awhile for the corpse to realize it was dead. And it would be a couple years before his work would be extensively available in English translation.

By that time academic critics had begun eliding the distinction between ordinary reading and explicit critical reading – putting it under erasure? – and that elision rather forces non-linguistic elements out of critical prose. If critical writing is really just a genre of ordinary reading, then there better not be anything in there that can’t be read (in the ordinary manner).

It’s in that emerging disciplinary context that Derrida was received. And his is a very writerly prose style – by analogy with the notion of a painterly style, a painter who emphasizes brushwork so you cannot miss the fact that this is a painting. Not only is his language is highly allusive, figurative, and punning (not to mention cunning), but he likes to play games with typography and layout. His is a discourse that cannot be but written.

And it is my impression that deconstructive critics took up some of these writerly mannerisms. I say “my impression” because, by that time, my interests were elsewhere and I wasn’t reading a lot of literary criticism. But allusions and figures have always been there, for they are ordinary features of literate discourse. But I’ve also seen, here and there, the use of crossed out words and, of course, there’s been plenty talk of Derrida’s style.

I wonder if there was in fact an increase of writerly criticism associated with the rise of deconstruction. Is this something that could be investigated with modern computational methods?

And then we have the New Historicism, which has different intellectual roots, but which is very much a text-oriented discourse. Now you have the juxtaposition of literary texts with contemporary non-literary texts where the ideas almost seem to leap of the (critical) page and hover in the air between the literary and the non. Is this too a writerly style?

* * * * *

[1] Most extensively in a working paper, Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism, November 2015, https://www.academia.edu/17168348/Prospects_The_Limits_of_Discursive_Thinking_and_the_Future_of_Literary_Criticism

I updated some of those ideas in a recent post, Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975, January 20, 2017, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2017/01/rejected-nlh-part-3-party-like-its-1975.html

And I’ve edited that post into a working paper, Transition! The 1970s in Literary Criticism, January 2017, https://www.academia.edu/31012802/Transition_The_1970s_in_Literary_Criticism

[2] I discuss this in “Pardon these anti-humanistic intrusions, Madam”, New Savanna, September 30, 2016, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2016/09/pardon-these-anti-humanistic-intrusions.html

[3] For example, see remarks here and there in Richard Jones, “Sing Doo Wah Diddy With Derrida”, VQR, Winter 1994, http://www.vqronline.org/essay/sing-doo-wah-diddy-derrida

Monday, January 23, 2017

Liminal Light


Rejected @NLH! Part 4: Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History

I’ve been discussing a manuscript of my that was rejected at New Literary History:
Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, https://www.academia.edu/28764246/Sharing_Experience_Computation_Form_and_Meaning_in_the_Work_of_Literature
In previous posts I’ve laid some groundwork, first discussing why I decided to submit to NLH, then positioning the article within my larger intellectual project, and, most recently, recounting the history of literary criticism in the 1970s as it moved from openness to closure.

That brings us to 1980, when I decided to submit an essay about “Kubla Khan” to MLN. It was turned down on the basis of a deeply conflicted set of reviewer’s comments. Some of those comments are resonant with comments made by the reviewer who rejected the current essay for NLH. It’s that resemblance that, in part, prompted me to once more re-examine the 1970s and to write this series of posts.

In this post I begin by telling the story of being rejected at MLN. Then I discuss my rejection at NLH, in two parts. In the first part I discuss the similarities between the two rejections. In the second part I suggest that the NLH reviewer is skeptical about computing for reasons that seem more ideological than the result of well-informed study.

“Kubla Khan” – Rejected at MLN

In 1972 I filed a master’s thesis with the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. I forget the exact title, but it was a more or less structuralist analysis of “Kubla Khan,” the work that prompted me to go all-in on the emerging cognitive sciences (though the term, “cognitive science”, wasn’t coined until 1973). It wasn’t until 1980 that I decided to publish that work. I deleted a lot of the philosophical discussion, added some new diagrams of a style owing more to cognitive science than structuralism, and sent it out under the title “Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of ‘Kubla Khan’.” By that time I’d ceased thinking of myself as a structuralist, after all I written a 1978 dissertation entitled “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory”, but I presented the paper that way because I figured that a literary audience would at least recognize structuralism.

But where should I submit it? No one was publishing essays like that.

I decided to submit to the comparative literature issue of MLN. The basic reason was simple; Richard Macksey edited that issue and he’s the one who directed that master’s thesis. Moreover the comparative literature issue publishes theoretical pieces, which this more or less was. And, of course, MLN had published my first cognitive networks piece in the special Centennial Issue, “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics” (MLN 91: 952-982, 1976).

So I submitted the piece to MLN. Macksey had to turn it down because the reviewer’s report was unfavorable. The reader noted that “I found myself teetering on the edge of Kubla’s girdling wall, uncertain whether to tip one way and fall into Benzon’s enchanted ground, or the other way and run from his tables and charts”. Note the reviewer’s alarm at the diagrams [1], which were somewhat more complicated than the one’s that Mark Rose had apologized for in Shakespearean Design back in 1972 [2]. The reviewer goes on to register “surprise at encountering a straightforward, unembarrassed structuralist analysis” in the deconstructive era.

Yet the reviewer acknowledges that those same charts “have a real value in coming to terms with the text, and I will no doubt refer to them when I teach the poem.” That strikes me as a very strong positive remark, a clear statement of his approval. After all, you don’t – at least I didn’t – ordinarily base your teaching on far-out crazy ideas; you are conservative in what you present to students. The reviewer went on, however, to complain that the essay “ought to argue with itself, to put into question some of the patterns it establishes – or better, perhaps to let the poem talk back.” And after this that and the other, they [yes, I know, but I prefer that usage to the more awkward “his or her”] flatly recommend against publication, no chance for revision.

It was a strange and conflicted review. The analysis seems to have made sense to the reviewer but did so in terms so at odds with their sense of the proper (deconstructive) way to approach a poem that they were in the grip of cognitive dissonance. It shouldn’t have made sense at all. But it did, gosh darn it! What to do? The easiest way to resolve that dissonance was simply to wish my article out of existence, that is, to reject it. Whatever Macksey himself may have thought about the article, he had little or no choice but to follow the reviewer’s advice and reject it.

And you know, come to think of it, since I knew Macksey personally, I called him up and we discussed the rejection. I don’t recall the discussion in any detail, though I remember that his wife, Catherine picked up the phone, but it was amiable. Macksey acknowledged the review was strange, but I didn’t push him on it. And that was that. But I’m not in a position to call Rita Felski, the editor of NLH.

Rejection at NLH

The reviewer at NLH didn’t express any such conflict or ambivalence. The rejection was firm and unequivocal. That’s quite clear. Beyond that, however, I’m a bit up in the air since I don’t know who the reviewer was and so have no sense of what they know. In particular, what do they know of computing, which is how I framed by article?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Optimist: Water Activities & Rentals


Fictionality as an intelligible and stable category of discourse

This article makes a very different claim, one that is based on observing a great deal of instances in which individuals have engaged in fictional or non-fictional writing over the past two centuries. Seen from this perspective, fictionality emerges as a highly legible category at the level of linguistic content ("lexis" in Aristotelian terminology). Such legibility is what allows us to build predictive models that can identify works of fiction with greater than 95% accuracy, and it should be added, that allow human readers to do the same (as in my initial experiment above). Contrary to the beliefs of the philosophers of language or different schools of literary critics from poststructuralists to postclassical narratologists, truth claims in language (or their opposite fictionality) are a highly recognizable linguistic aspect of texts. What appeared to be the case at the level of the sentence or "utterance" (what Searle rather vaguely called a "stretch of discourse"), no longer holds when we observe writing at a different level of scale. Placing all of the emphasis on the reader's activity, whether as cognitive predisposition or interpretive freedom, overlooks the powerful and extensive ways that texts mark themselves for their readers according to their fictional nature.

Not only does the research here suggest that fictionality is a highly legible category, but it also appears to have been surprisingly stable for at least two hundred years. While there have undoubtedly been significant changes to the way we tell stories, when we use learning algorithms trained on nineteenth-century texts we can still recognize contemporary novels with an impressive degree of accuracy (about 91%), even if that performance does decrease (history still matters). Indeed, the very features that seem to indicate the uniqueness of novels in the nineteenth-century, for example, appear either to be increasing over time or largely holding steady, even among a diverse range of genres into the twentieth and twenty-first century. While it remains an open question as to the extent to which different genres exhibit these features of fictionality to a similar degree, my initial research suggests that there is a surprising degree of commonality across very diverse types of fictional writing. Such continuity has important and still largely unaddressed implications for how we think about both genre and literary periodization.

Note, I've not yet read the article. I'm just skimming it. And I spotted this:
Indeed, imagining people as people may be fiction's most important role. If we remove dialogue from the sets above, including the pronominal expressions that accompany them (she said, he cried, etc),27 we see how third-person pronouns emerge as one of the strongest indicators of fictionality along with references to family members and bodies (Table 5). There is over a three-fold increase in the average number of she/he pronouns in fiction versus non-fiction outside of dialogue, with just these two words alone accounting for more than five-percent of all words in the text (or roughly 5,000 instances for a medium-length novel).
This speaks to my hobby horse about how we as critics have to learn to think and talk about characters as characters, not as people (who just happen not to be real).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Transfer of Power

the sun and the moon sustain
the earth this life revolves by
sea & sky of (tw)heated warnings: sounds the click-back heard from whales whose prey
gut our false light of harmony

by Sally Benzon

Friday Fotos: Trees of Longwood Gardens, December 25, 2016






Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975

This is the heart of the story because it is during the 1970s when who knows? the discipline of academic literary criticism might have gone another way. But it didn’t. I came of age in the 1970s and headed in one direction while the discipline sorted itself out and went off in a different direction.

“The discipline” is of course both an abstraction and a reification. Literary criticism is not some one thing. It is a meshwork of people, documents, institutions, and organizations, all in turbulent Heraclitean flux. The discipline, then, does not speak with one voice. It speaks with many voices. And what those voices say changes by the year and the decade. Some themes and concerns are amplified while others are diminished. Here and there a new idea is voiced, while other ideas all but disappear.

When I talk about how the discipline changed during the 1970s, then, I am talking about a change in the mix of voices. My experience of the 1970s was dominated by my local environments, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Buffalo, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They were not homogeneous, nor like one another. Yet all three were, each in its way, alive with possibilities for change. And, I believe, so were other places. But the changes that began settling in at as the 1980s arrived were not the changes that most excited me at Hopkins and Buffalo. And so 40 years later we have a discipline where the article I submitted to New Literary History, Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, is strange and obtrusive rather than being unnecessary because the ideas and methods are widely known.

This is a long piece, over 5500 words, and with pictures, (aka visualizations)! If you want a shorter version, read two recent posts:
The basic ideas are there. This post provides evidence and refinement.

First I take the long view, drawing on the recent study in which Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood examined the themes present in a century-long run of literary criticism. Then I look at some specific published in the 1970s to get a more fine-grained sense of attitudes. After that I look at the computational piece I published in MLN in 1976. The objective is to situate my work in its historical context, a time when the discipline was optimistic and energetic in a way that has disappeared...except, perhaps, for computational criticism, which we’ll get to in a later installment.

The triumph of interpretation (aka “reading”)

Roughly speaking, prior to World War II literary criticism in the American academy centered on philology, shading over to editorial work in one direction and literary history in a different direction. After the war interpretation became more and more important and by the 1960s it had become the focus of the discipline. But it was also becoming problematic. As more critics published about more texts it became clear that interpretations diverged. That prompted a couple decades of disciplinary self-examination and soul-searching.

What does it mean to interpret a text? What’s the relationship between the interpretation and the text? What’s the relationship between the critic and the text, or the critic and the reader? What about authorial intention and the text? And the reader’s intention? Can a text support more than one meaning? Why or why not? These questions and more kept theoreticians and methodologists busy for three decades. That’s the context in which Johns Hopkins hosted the famous structuralism conference in the fall of 1966.

The 1960s also saw the seminal work of Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace on the use of statistical techniques to identify the authors of twelve of The Federalist Papers [1] and the subsequent emergence of stylometrics in what was then called “humanities computing”. At the same time developments in linguistics, psycholinguistics and artificial intelligence were becoming more broadly visible and coalesced around the term “cognitive science” in the early 1970s.

With this background sketch in mind, let’s consult the study Goldstone and Underwood did of a century-long run of articles in seven journals: Critical Inquiry (1974–2013), ELH (1934–2013), Modern Language Review (1905–2013), Modern Philology (1903–2013), New Literary History (1969–2012), PMLA (1889–2007), and Review of English Studies (1925–2012) [2]. They use a relatively new method of analysis called topic modeling. This however is not the place to explain how that works [3]. Suffice it to say that the topic modeling depends on the informal idea that words which occur together across a wide variety of texts do so because they are about the same thing. Topic analysis thus involves examining the words in a collection of texts to see which words co-occur across many different texts in the corpus. A collection of such words is called a topic and is identified simply by listing the words in that topic along with their prevalence in the topic.

Goldstone and Underwood argue that the most significant change in the discipline happened in the quarter century or so after World War II (p. 372):
The model indicates that the conceptual building blocks of contemporary literary study become prominent as scholarly key terms only in the decades after the war—and some not until the 1980s. We suggest, speculatively, that this pattern testifies not to the rejection but to the naturalization of literary criticism in scholarship. It becomes part of the shared atmosphere of literary study, a taken-for-granted part of the doxa of literary scholarship. Whereas in the prewar decades, other, more descriptive modes of scholarship were important, the post-1970 discourses of the literary, interpretation, and reading all suggest a shared agreement that these are the true objects and aims of literary study—as the critics believed. If criticism itself was no longer the most prominent idea under discussion, this was likely due to the tacit acceptance of its premises, not their supersession.
That is, if criticism, by which they mean interpretive criticism, has its origins earlier in the century, it didn’t become fully accepted as the core activity of academic literary study until the third quarter of the century.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Snow jam?


What? The Humanities Center WON'T be closed!

What? The Humanities Center, NOT closed? I didn't even know it had been threatened with closure.

The Humanities Center in question is, of course, the one at Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work. This is the Humanities Center that launched a thousand chattering Frenchmen into orbit. Well, not exactly. But in 1966, its inaugural year, the Humanities Center sponsored the symposium on structuralism that now, for better or worse, serves as the notional inflection point for the revolution in literary criticism that had become Theory two decades later.

I found out about its non-closure when I visited the site of my alumni magazine and read: "An interdisciplinary committee tasked with making recommendations about the future of Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center has advised against closing the half-century-old academic center—a possibility that had prompted protests on campus and from alumni." The article didn't even mention Dick Macksey, who ran it for years and who was my undergraduate mentor. That absence strikes me as being a bit conspicuous, but I'm not really in touch with things at Hopkins. I was there 50 years ago, a different world, lots has changed, Macksey gave up the directorship years ago and has now been retired from the full-time faculty for a few years.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the fact that "interdisciplinary" work functions mostly as a beacon off there in the distance, beckoning us to a better future, rather than as a source of light in the present. I was only a sophomore when the Center was founded and its mission struck me as common sense. But then, what did I know? I was only a sophomore. I actually expected the academy to change. When I left Hopkins I went to the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, which was all but a small liberal arts college unto itself and apprenticed myself to David Hays in linguistics, who taught a course, "Linguistics as a Focus of Intellectual Integration." Disciplinary myopia never appealed to me  – one reason, no doubt, the academy eventually extruded me.

What I'd like to know is why these folks keep yammering about interdisciplinarity as a Good Thing when they clearly do not mean it. Is the institutional purpose of these humanities centers mostly to serve as a credible threat to the departments? If you don't toe the line, we'll dissolve you – something like that.

In any event, I suppose it's a good thing that Hopkins isn't closing the old Humanities Center. That gives them two interdisciplinary humanities centers, as they established a new one last year, The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute. No doubt the administration intends to play them off against one another, with the threatened closure of the ancient and venerable center of '66 as a credible threat of collapse into disciplinary monoculture if they don't toe the line.

* * * * *

See my old posts, Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out, and Interdisciplinary Research.

Trump and the end of the administrative state

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henniger asks the question of the decade, "Will the Trump presidency produce order or merely more disorder?" Correlatively, if it does produce a new order, will that be an improvement? On that question, I suspect Henniger thinks differently than I do. He continues:
It is said that the Trump electorate wanted to blow up the status quo. And so it did. The passed-over truth, however, is that the most destabilizing force in our politics wasn’t Donald Trump. It was that political status quo.

The belief that Hillary Clinton would have produced a more reliable presidency is wrong. Mrs. Clinton represented an extension of the administrative state, the century-old idea that elites can devise public policies, administered by centralized public bureaucracies, that deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. [...]

Today, that administrative state, like an old dying star, is in destructive decay. Government failures are causing global political instability. This is the real legitimacy problem and is the reason many national populations are in revolt. Some call that populism. Others would call it a democratic awakening. [...]

The idea of placing national purpose in the hands of these elites lasted because it suited the needs of elected politicians. They used the administrative state’s goods to mollify myriad constituencies. So they gave them more. And then more.

The state’s carrying capacity has been reached.
I'm certainly sympathetic to that. He goes on go assert: "Donald Trump’s nominations of Scott Pruitt for EPA and Betsy DeVos at Education are a brutal recognition that the previous order has reached a point of decline." Brutal, yes. But I can't imagine that either or them will improve matters. Henniger seems too satisfied with Trump's dismal cabinet: "One wonders if the hard, daily work by his colleagues to restore world order or a proper constitutional relationship between governing elites and the governed will be hampered by the turbulence of the Twitter storms." 

Frankly, the new order Henniger hankers for seems to be one where a corporate elite is allowed to shape the world to its own ends unchecked by any counterforce at all. That's not an improvement.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Kittens, Flickr Commons, Library of Congress

Fond this photo on Flickr (H/t John Holbo):

Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

Here's the caption The Library of Congress supplied:
Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

The Commons launched exactly 9 years ago on January 16, 2008 with the Library of Congress account. We’re celebrating with a 10 candle cake for kittens– 9 lives and 1 to grow on.

Just a glimpse of the unusual pictures you’ll find in the Commons where institutions from all over the world are sharing photos.
The birthday cake. Photograph by Harry Whittier Frees, 1914.

Higher resolution image is available (Persistent URL): hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04028