Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Fotos: Rainbow Variations on a Blossom

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Cooperative hunting among the orcas?

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said.

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.
Sperm whales are getting into the act too. Here's a video of whales skimming a line:

"After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled."

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jeremy Lent on the Great Transformation


Imagining himself speaking in the year 2050, historian Jeremy Lent imagines how the world escapes climate catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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

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

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

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

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

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

Wonder Woman: A Quick Take

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jabba the Hutt, or How We Communicate

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tickle! Tickle! Magenta!

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Extra! Computational Criticism Breaks with Tradition! Sky Remains Overhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Does "distant reading" presage a return to poetics?

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday Fotos: Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, June 2017

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Kenan Malik asks some questions about culture and cultural appropriation


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

H/t Jerry Coyne.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jomny Sun – OOO tweeter


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

Matryoshka dolls

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is Shelley’s Frankenstein a Ring-Form Text?

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

Walton (Frankenstein ((Creature)) Frankenstein) Walton

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

H/t Giorgina Paiella

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

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

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

COWEN: More than Lincoln?

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

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