Tuesday, December 12, 2017
As far as I can tell literary studies will remain committed to pre-computational intellectual formations for the foreseeable future and will do so from a position of quasi-aristocratic superiority over crass calculation, of which it will remain fitfully ignorant.
One might say that my participation in the academic blogosphere is framed, for the moment, by engagement with the work of Franco Moretti. It began with a so-called book event at The Valve, a now dormant group blog I joined late in 2005. Jonathan Goodwin had organized an online symposium about Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. It went live on the web on January 2, 2006 and had contributions by 15 people. Eight of us were Valve contributors: John Holbo, Ray Davis, Matt Greenfield, Amardeep Singh, Adam Roberts, Bill Benzon, Jonathan Goodwin, and Sean McCann. There were guest appearances by seven: Franco Moretti, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Timothy Burke, Eric Hayot, Steven Berlin Johnson, Jenny Davidson, and Cosma Shalizi.
I have no idea how many people contributed comments to those discussions, which unfolded over a period of three weeks. Most, but not all of these authors held academic posts (I did not). Two, I believe, did not have doctorates. The contributors came from all over the place and I wouldn’t hazard a guess about their backgrounds. Some were academics, I’m sure, and some where not. The symposium eventually became (self-published) book: Jonathan Goodwin and John Holbo, eds. <i>Reading Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Responses to Franco Moretti (Glassbead Books 2009).
That was over a decade ago. It was a collective event that took place outside the ordinary confines of the academic world – my use of confines is, of course, quite deliberate.
At the time Moretti was talking about distant reading. He had not yet become involved with computing and, necessarily, with people who know how to program then. He formed the Stanford Literary Lab in 2010 with Matthew Jockers, who had computer skills that he did not. The Lab issued its first pamphlet in, I believe, January of 2011: Quantitative Formalism: an Experiment. It was signed by Moretti and four others: Sarah Allison, Ryan Heuser, Matthew Jockers, and Michael Witmore. The most recent pamphlet, no. 16, was issued in November of this year: Totentanz. Operationalizing Aby Warburg’s Pathosformeln, by Leonardo Impett and Franco Moretti.
That first pamphlet had been submitted to a prestigious journal but was turned down in terms that suggested that the intellectual method itself was being rejected, not just that particular argument. And so the group decided to sidestep the world of formal academic publication and publish its work in the form of stand-alone pamphlets. This is common enough in technical disciplines, where work will be published in the form of technical reports – though that work will sometimes/often then by published in journal form as well; but it was unheard of in the humanities.
My point, then, is that the literary lab has worked at the edge of the academic world. It is located at a prestigious university, and its pamphlets bear the imprimatur of that university. But they do not exist in the world of formal academic publication.
Moretti, who is now retired from Stanford, and the lab have now gathered eleven of those pamphlets into a book:
Canon/Archive: Studies in Quantitative Formalism by Franco Moretti (Author, Editor), Mark Algee-Hewitt, Sarah Allison, Marissa Gemma, Ryan Heuser, Matthew Jockers, Holst Katsma, Long Le-Khac, Dominique Pestre, Erik Steiner, Amir Tevel, Hannah Walser, Michael Witmore, and Irena Yamboliev, published by n+1.
Note the term, quantitative formalism. Moretti now refers to this approach as computational criticism rather than distant reading, though some in the field use the latter term.
I have written an essay/review about the book and published it in 3 Quarks Daily, December 11, 2017, which is not an academic journal: Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab: Computational criticism in two senses and the prospect of a new approach to literary studies.
The epigraph to this post is the final sentence of that essay/review.
Will the future of literary studies unfold outside departments of literature and their associated societies and journals?
I don't quite know what I think of this (NYTimes):
WASHINGTON — At a time when China is working on an ambitious lunar program, President Donald Trump vowed on Monday that the United States will remain the leader in space exploration as he began a process to return Americans to the moon.
"We are the leader and we're going to stay the leader, and we're going to increase it many fold," Trump said in signing "Space Policy Directive 1" that establishes a foundation for a mission to the moon with an eye on going to Mars.
"This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars," Trump said. "And perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond."
Back in June, China's space official said the country was making “preliminary” preparations to send a man to the moon, the latest goal in China’s ambitious lunar exploration program.
Trump's signing ceremony for the directive included former lunar astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt and current astronaut Peggy Whitson, whose 665 days in orbit is more time in space than any other American and any other woman worldwide. [...]
"And space has so much to do with so many other applications, including a military application," he said without elaboration.
The militarization of space? No. Though obviously that's already started with spy satellites in earth orbit.
Space exploration is expensive, and Trump wants to give a big fat tax break to his wealthy buddies. No.
And space ought to belong to all humankind and not be the object of nationalist competition.
Still, tentatively, Yes.
See my post, A Child of the space Age.
Monday, December 11, 2017
Not only that, but it leaves records of its unfolding in the form of texts. Our task is to "reverse engineer" the activity by analyzing the texts. Something more easily said than done. My most recent attempt: Calculating meaning in " Kubla Khan " – a rough cut (Version 2).
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Neuron. 2017 Feb 8;93(3):480-490. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.12.041.
Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias.
- PMID: 28182904
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In my 1978 dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory, I asserted that the project of cognitive science was to investigate a five-way correspondence between: 1) neuroanatomy (micro and macro), 2) behavior, 3) computation 4) ontogeny, and 5) phylogeny. Of course, that's not so much cognitive science as it is psychology, and I knew it at the time.
Andrew Reiner, "The Power of Touch, Especially for Men", New York Times:
See my old post, Bleg: When Did Male Friendship Lose Its Warmth?Of course, it would not be surprising if recent allegations of sexual assault by public figures make people even more skittish about initiating or receiving physical contact.Indeed, many men self-police their hands around each other. In younger men this manifests in the ubiquitous “No homo!” response if they accidentally touch another guy, and in older men it translates into the same awkward discomfort (read: fear) that I, and many men, experience when faced with reaching out to another male, even an intimate. Yet these reactions are a relatively modern phenomena. Men shared the same bed with strangers in early American taverns, and scholarship is unearthing letters — including ones from Abraham Lincoln — revealing how men sometimes nurtured same-sex friendships that were more emotionally and physically intimate in nonsexual ways than the relationships they shared with women. Some 19th-century tintypes, such as those collected in the book “Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection,” illustrate this.The psychologist Ofer Zur notes that for most 20th- and 21st-century American men, physical contact is restricted to violence or sex. As the sociologist Michael Kimmel, who studies masculinity, said in an email, touch between straight men can occur only when physical contact “magically loses its association with homosexuality” — as happens in sports.The fear that girds the lack of platonic touch among American men also fuels the destructive force of their hands, a 2002 study in the journal Adolescence found. Dr. Field was the lead author of the study, which looked at 49 cultures. “The cultures that exhibited minimal physical affection toward their young children had significantly higher rates of adult violence,” she said. But “those cultures that showed significant amounts of physical affection toward their young children had virtually no adult violence.”
Ross Douthat in the NYTimes, "The Baker and the Empire":
The United States has the rules of a democratic republic but, increasingly, the cultural divisions of a sprawling Old World empire. We are governed by a Constitution, by the power of national majorities (or minorities with good luck in the Electoral College), and our laws are basically uniform across the land. But the scale and diversity of our country is vast and wild, encompassing immigrants from every part of the world and a native population riven by racial divisions, ideological wars, and a widening religious chasm.Democratic life requires accepting that your own faction may be out of power roughly half the time. But in a culture this diverse and divided we trust our fellow citizens less, we share less with them, and we fear that any political defeat will leave our communities at their mercy, that if we lose power we will be routed and destroyed.Meanwhile because we are so distant from our rivals, we cannot recognize that they share the same fears about what will happen if power is in our hands — or else we dismiss those fears as the pleadings of a wicked claque whose destruction is entirely merited.As a conservative Catholic who works in a liberal milieu, I watched this happen after Obergefell v. Hodges. For its opponents, the same-sex marriage ruling was less frightening for what it did than for what they feared might follow: not just legal same-sex nuptials, but a sweeping legal campaign against the sexual revolution’s dissidents, in which conservative believers would be prodded out of various occupations, while their schools and hospitals and charities would be fined and taxes and regulated and de-accredited to death.And liberals who felt ascendant in the Obama years simply couldn’t accept this fear as something to be managed and assuaged; to them, it was either ridiculous alarmism or a cloak for bigotry. [...]This kind of cycle of incomprehension and aggression tends to destroy republics if it isn’t broken, if leaders can’t compromise ideological principles to maintain civic peace, if partisans can’t imagine how the world looks in communities vastly different from their own.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
The basic linguistic process is the binding of word forms to structures of meaning. I think that is an irreducibly computational process. Just how that computation works, that’s unknown. I note that the semantic system is richly structured and that much of syntax derives from that.
It is not necessarily the case that all the processes involved are themselves computational. The fact that we can simulate a neural net, at various levels of detail, on a digital computer does not mean that the neural net is itself computational, any more than simulating an atomic explosion implies that such explosions are computational.
Finally, I note that, when David Hays and I wrote “Principles and development of natural intelligence” (abstract below), we asserted that indexing is what transformed apes into humans. It was indexing that gave us language as we now know it.
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William L. Benzon and David G. Hays. Principles and development of natural intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 11, 1988, pp. 293-322. https://www.academia.edu/235116/Principles_and_Development_of_Natural_Intelligence
Abstract: The phenomena of natural intelligence can be grouped into five classes, and a specific principle of information processing, implemented in neural tissue, produces each class of phenomena. (1) The modal principle subserves feeling and is implemented in the reticular formation. (2) The diagonalization principle subserves coherence and is the basic principle, implemented in neocortex. (3) Action is subserved by the decision principle, which involves interlinked positive and negative feedback loops, and resides in modally differentiated cortex. (4) The problem of finitization resolves into a figural principle, implemented in secondary cortical areas; figurality resolves the conflict between pro-positional and Gestalt accounts of mental representations. (5) Finally, the phenomena of analysis reflect the action of the indexing principle, which is implemented through the neural mechanisms of language.
These principles have an intrinsic ordering (as given above) such that implementation of each principle presupposes the prior implementation of its predecessor. This ordering is preserved in phylogeny: (1) mode, vertebrates; (2) diagonalization, reptiles; (3) decision, mammals; (4) figural, primates; (5) indexing. Homo sapiens sapiens. The same ordering appears in human ontogeny and corresponds to Piaget's stages of intellectual development, and to stages of language acquisition.
Saturday, December 9, 2017
Writing in Musicology Now, the blog of the American Musicological Society, Kristi Brown-Montesano takes a look at Mozart's Don Giovanni, an opera about a sexual predator and rapist. She concludes:
H/t Tyler Cowen.Many of the acclaimed men who are now facing serious consequences for sexual harassment and assault have long operated in a culture that preferred to look the other way, not least because corporate employers and board members saw these men as too big to fail. Their brand was more important than the rights of alleged victims. The classical music world is no less implicated in this gentleman’s agreement. There have long been rumors and “open secrets” around conductors and applied teachers, who are often gatekeepers to major career opportunities. And few such secrets have been more open than those around James Levine, operating at the very heart of opera culture in this country. The self-interested and institutional protections around these men are finally--finally--toppling under the broad societal pressure for serious investigation.Don Giovanni falls into a parallel category: an art product whose aesthetic value and guaranteed box-office receipts have deflected critical charges against the main character. My program note for Bilbao drew a hard line: the only way to make Don Giovanni worthy of our time, if indeed that is possible at all, is to listen more closely to the women. And if we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.
Friday, December 8, 2017
In the spring of 1969 I became interested in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan". In the fall of 1970 I began drafting a master's thesis on the poem, hoping to create the kind of theory necessary to make sense out of its underlying logic. The theory didn't happen, but I discovered that the poem had an elaborate structure, one that (extensive) prior criticism had utterly failed to notice. In the fall of 1973 I went off to graduate school, hoping to create the theory I had been unable to create for my master's thesis. While the work I did with David Hays in linguistics was deeply satisfying, it wasn't the theory "Kubla Khan" required.
But that time the poem had become the touchstone of my intellectual life. I returned to it from time to time, thinking about it often and publishing on it in the the late 1980s and then again in the early 2000s. That last article was an advance over the previous one, but still not what the poem required.
I now believe I know what the poem requires and have posted a sketch under the title of this post. Here's the abstract:
Abstract: "Kubla Khan" and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" are constructed on utterly different schemes, though they share some of the same underlying components. "Kubla Khan" is ontological and impersonal in character and makes extensive use of convolution in calculating meanings. It reveals the structure of Being. "Lime-Tree Bower" is narrative and personal and makes little or no use of convolution. It reveals the unfolding of subjectivity in Time. The two poems also differ in their versification, a differences which is related to their different strategies of meaning.
You can download the article here: https://www.academia.edu/35379665/Calculating_meaning_in_Kubla_Khan_a_rough_cut
If you're interested in discussing it, you can do so here: https://www.academia.edu/s/431cfa649a/calculating-meaning-in-kubla-khan-a-rough-cut
When I say, I know what the poem requires, what does that mean? It means that, as far as I can tell, the conceptual space we need for understanding that poem is now "closed". The article outlines the nature of that closure. It will require a book to do significantly better, a book that integrates the ideas in this article with my previous work. The task of actually constructing a deep and satisfying account of the poem within that conceptual space will require the work of investigators having intellectual skills that I lack.
Competition with Comm / Media Studies could lead English to: 1) Make our engagement with contemporary society more rigorous, or 2) Just cut the anchor connecting us to the world before 1900. If you ignore long-term consequences, (2) will look easier.— Ted Underwood (@Ted_Underwood) December 8, 2017