Saturday, October 21, 2017

Acting white in the Trump-era

White people acting white have embraced the ethic of the white underclass, which is distinct from the white working class, which has the distinguishing feature of regular gainful employment. The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect.  
Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.

Halloween kitty


75% Americans are afraid of government corruption

For the third year in a row, corruption of government officials has topped the list—only this year it jumped 13 percentage points, from 60.6 percent of Americans identifying themselves as afraid of government corruption in 2016, to a whopping 74.5 percent being afraid of the same in 2017.

“Our previous lists had more to do with disasters and crime, and that naturally lent itself to the type of messaging [about crime] we’re doing,” Bader says. “The list this year is fundamentally different in the sense that it’s showing a great fear of some of the things happening in this presidency.”

Fear of North Korea using weapons came in at number nine on the list, with 44.9 percent marking themselves as being afraid. The survey has been asking about nuclear attacks since it first started; this is the first year North Korea was listed specifically. “It’s very difficult to curb people’s fears about North Korea when frankly, North Korea and how it’s being addressed is very scary,” says Bader.

Another first this year was environmental concerns appearing in the top ten list of fears, of which there were four: pollution of oceans rivers and lakes; pollution of drinking water; global warming/climate change; and air pollution. And the survey was conducted before Hurricanes Harvey and Maria and the ongoing California wildfire crisis, with questions sent out from June 28 to July 7. The researchers ascribe the increased environmental fears to media coverage of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as coverage of the lead in the tap water in Flint, Michigan.
H/t 3QD.

Ebert Defends Literature on the uncharted seas

Bumping this seven year old post to the top of the queue. The issues are still unresolved. Regert Ebert died on April 4, 2013.
* * * * * 

I’ve recently become interested in Roger Ebert. As I’ve indicated earlier, he’s long served me as a reference critic, someone I’d consult on movies that interest me. My current interest extends beyond that.

The nature of my current interest is not entirely clear to me. Oh, sure, Ebert is one of the most prominent intellectuals in America these days, and is readily available on the web. As is Stanley Fish. That Stanley Fish is an intellectual is obvious on the face of it. But Roger Ebert, he’s a film critic, no? Yes, and we don’t normally think of film critics as intellectuals. But there are film critics and there are film critics.

And Roger Ebert is more than a film critic. Perhaps he’s always been more than a film critic. But it’s his writing in his blog that interests me, and that’s what’s prompted me to think of him as an intellectual. Yes, I find it just a bit strange. But I’m going with it. He’s not the type of intellectual Stanley Fish is, but an intellectual he is. And, for what it’s worth, he’s more widely known.

And that’s worth something. Just what, I don’t know. But something, and that something is part of my attraction.

You may have heard that Ebert’s been kicking up a fuss about video games. He doesn’t think that they can ever be art. This little tempest in a teapot led him to Tweet and then blog a simple question: “Which of these would you value more? A great video game. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.” The answer came back 13,823 to 8,088 in favor of video games.

And so Ebert posted that result to his blog, while also admitting that there was nothing remotely scientific about his procedure. It’s just an informal question, with an answer that didn’t please him. And he launches into a defense and justification of literature without, however, saying anything more against video games. For the moment, that’s done and gone.

Ebert tells us that he first read Huckleberry Finn when he was seven – I believe I was a bit older than that when my father read it to me. He quotes Hemingway’s line about all modern American literature descending from Huck Finn. [He illustrates his post with scans from a Huck Finn comic.] And he quotes his favorite passage from the book: “Read it over a couple of times and then read it aloud to someone you like. It's music. Can you imagine a more evocative description of a thunderstorm?”

Here’s the nub of his concern:
I believe reading good books is the best way we can civilize ourselves even in the absence of all other opportunities. If a child can read, has access to books and the freedom to read them, that child need not be "disadvantaged" for long. What concerns me is that reading competence and experience has been falling steadily in America. Most of the adults I meet are not very "well read." My parents were.
And then:
Beyond a certain point, we take our education into our own hands. We discover what excites us intellectually, and seek it out. The world of books allows us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times and other places, who belonged to other races and religions. It allows us to become more humane and open-minded. In exposing us to prose of the highest level, it encourages us to think in a way that isn't merely "better" but is more fanciful, creative, poetic and expressive. It makes us less boring, and less bore-able.
This is all quite traditional. It could have been written fifty or sixty years ago. No doubt it was, by other intellectuals, in other words.

It’s as though the intellectual ferment that ripped through English departments in the 70s and 80s, ferment in which Stanley Fish was a major rabble rouser, it’s as though that had passed Ebert by. Ebert is writing as a traditional humanist in a world where the academic stewards of humanism have all but abandoned the tradition. The promising new ideas of the 70s and 80s have, indeed, changed the field of discourse. But the way forward is no longer apparent. We’re in a swamp, we have no map, nor compass, and so we don’t know where we’re going.

Yet Ebert defends reading in traditional terms as though Fish’s swamp didn’t exist. What’s particularly interesting is that it’s literature that Ebert is defending, not film. Literature is very important to him, but it’s film that he’s put at the center of his intellectual life. I don’t know what terms he’d use to defend film, though one could certainly say that it allows us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times and other places, who belonged to other races and religions. It allows us to become more humane and open-minded. In exposing us to prose of the highest level, it encourages us to think in a way that isn't merely "better" but is more fanciful, creative, poetic and expressive. It makes us less boring, and less bore-able.

Such words, once again, ignore Fish’s swamp. But they’re apt. Moreover it seems to me that we’re living in a world where film has the kind of importance that novels had in the 19th century. In fact, film may be less important now than it was 30, 50, 80 years ago. And video games, I’m told the video game market is bigger than the film market. Do video games allow us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times . . . . ? I don’t know, I don’t play them.

So, in consequence of an argument that video games aren’t and will never be art, Roger Ebert, a film critic, mounts a traditional defense of literature. That’s were we are today. That’s our uncharted sea.

Residential Ornaments


Friday, October 20, 2017

Borges redux: Computing Babel – Is that what’s going on with these abstract spaces of high dimensionality? [#DH]

If the eye were not sun-like, the sun’s light it would not see. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Thinking about corpus linguistics, machine learning, neural nets, deep learning and such. One of the thoughts that keeps flitting through my mind goes something like this:
How come, for example, we can create this computer system that crunches through a two HUGE parallel piles of texts in two languages and produce a system than can then make passable translations from one of those languages to the other WITHOUT, however, UNDERSTANDING any language whatsoever? Surely the fact that THAT – and similar things – is possible tells us something about something, but what?
As far as I know these systems have arisen through trying things out and seeing what works. The theoretical basis for them is thin. Oh, the math may be robust, but that’s not quite the same.

Understanding involves the relationship between text and world. That’s what we were trying to do back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, create systems that understood natural language texts. We created systems that had an internal logic relating concepts to one another so one could make inferences, and even construct new assertions. That effort collapsed, and it collapsed because THE WORLD. Yes, combinatorial explosion. Brittleness, that’s a bit closer. Lack of common sense knowledge, still closer, that’s knowledge of the world, lots of it, much of it trivial, but necessary. But these symbolic systems were also merely symbolic, they weren’t coupled to sensory and motor systems – and through them to the world itself.

And now we have these systems that utterly lack an internal logic relating concepts one to the other, and yet they succeed, after a fashion, where we failed (back in the day). How is it that crunching over HUGE PILES of texts is a workable proxy for understanding the world? THAT’s the question. Surely there’s some kind of theorem here.

The thing about each of the texts in those huge piles is that they were created by a mind engaged with the world. That is, each text reflects the interaction of a mind with the world. What the machine seems to be doing through crunching over all these texts is it recovers a simulacrum of the mind’s contribution to those texts and that’s sufficient to get something useful done. Or, is it a simulacrum of the world’s contribution to those texts? Does it matter? Can we tell?

THAT’s what I’m wondering about.

I think.

Think of the world as Borges’s fabled library of Babel. Most of the texts – and they are just texts, strings of graphic symbols – in that world are gibberish. Imagine, however, that we have combed through this library and have managed to collect a large pile of meaningful texts. Only an infinitesimal set of texts is meaningful, and we’ve managed to find millions of them. So, we crunch through this pile and, voilà! we can now generate more texts, all of which are almost as intelligible and coherent as the originals, the true texts. And yet our machines don’t understand a thing. They just crunch the texts, dumber than those monkeys seeking Shakespeare with their random typing.

THAT, I think, is what’s going on in deep learning and so forth.

If so, doesn’t that tell us something about the world? Something about the world that makes it intelligible? For not all possible worlds are intelligible.

The world Borges imagines in that story, “The Library of Babel”, is not an intelligible world. Why not? 

Remember, we’re using this story as a metaphor, in this case, we’re using it to think about corpus linguistics, machine learning, and the rest. In this usage each volume in the library represents an encounter between someone’s mind and the world. Most such encounters are ephemeral and forgotten. Only some of them yield intelligible texts. Those are the one’s that interest us.

The problem with the library as Borges describes it is there’s no way of finding the ‘useful’ or ‘interesting’ books in it. They all look alike. That world is, for all practical purposes, unintelligible. You’ve got to read each one of them all the way through in order determine whether or not it contains anything sensible.

Imagine, however, that each stack had a marking on it indicating whether or not there was a useful book somewhere in the stack. (Of course, someone, some agency, would have to do the marking. That would be part of the revised story.) If the stack had a red dot three centimeters in diameter on its upper right corner, that means the stack contains a useful book.

Few of the stacks, of course, would contain such a mark. You’d have to wander far and wide before you find one. But that’s surely better than having to examine each book, page by page, on each shelf in each stack. Now you only have to examine each book in the marked stack. But that’s an improvement, no? NOW the world becomes intelligible. One can live in it.

* * * * *

As for those humanists who worry about some conflict between “close reading” and “distant reading”, get over it. Neither is a kind of reading, as the term is ordinarily understood. Both usages are doing undisclosed mythological/ideological work. Drop the nonsense and try to think about what’s really going on.

It’s hard, I know. But at this point we really have no choice. We’ve extracted all we can from those myths of reading. Now they’re just returning garbage.

Time to come up out of the cave.

Friday Fotos: The Hudson River at Rhinecliff, NY [#AutumnExpress]






It's a small world (network) after all, and it arises through adaptive rewiring

Nicholas Jarman, Erik Steur, Chris Trengove, Ivan Y. Tyukin & Cees van Leeuwen, Self-organisation of small-world networks by adaptive rewiring in response to graph diffusion, Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 13158 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-12589-9
Complex networks emerging in natural and human-made systems tend to assume small-world structure. Is there a common mechanism underlying their self-organisation? Our computational simulations show that network diffusion (traffic flow or information transfer) steers network evolution towards emergence of complex network structures. The emergence is effectuated through adaptive rewiring: progressive adaptation of structure to use, creating short-cuts where network diffusion is intensive while annihilating underused connections. With adaptive rewiring as the engine of universal small-worldness, overall diffusion rate tunes the systems’ adaptation, biasing local or global connectivity patterns. Whereas the former leads to modularity, the latter provides a preferential attachment regime. As the latter sets in, the resulting small-world structures undergo a critical shift from modular (decentralised) to centralised ones. At the transition point, network structure is hierarchical, balancing modularity and centrality - a characteristic feature found in, for instance, the human brain.

Complex network structures emerge in protein and ecological networks, social networks, the mammalian brain, and the World Wide Web. All these self-organising systems tend to assume small–world network (SWN) structure. SWNs may represent an optimum in that they uniquely combine the advantageous properties of clustering and connectedness that characterise, respectively, regular and random networks. Optimality would explain the ubiquity of SWN structure; it does not inform us, however, whether the processes leading to it have anything in common. Here we will consider whether a single mechanism exists that has SWN structure as a universal outcome of self-organisation.

In the classic Watts and Strogatz algorithm, a SWN is obtained by randomly rewiring a certain proportion of edges of an initially regular network. Thereby the network largely maintains the regular clustering, while the rewiring creates shortcuts that enhance the networks connectedness. As it shows how these properties are reconciled in a very basic manner, the Watts-Strogatz rewiring algorithm has a justifiable claim to universality. However, the rewiring compromises existing order than to rather develop over time and maintain an adaptive process. Therefore the algorithm is not easily fitted to self-organising systems.

In self-organising systems, we propose, network structure adapts to use - the way pedestrians define walkways in parks. Accordingly, we consider the effect of adaptive rewiring: creating shortcuts where network diffusion (traffic flow or information transfer) is intensive while annihilating underused connections. This study generalises previous work on adaptive rewiring. While these studies have shown that SWN robustly emerge through rewiring according to the ongoing dynamics on the network, the claim to universality has been frustrated by need to explicitly specify the dynamics. Here we take a more general approach and replace explicit dynamics with an abstract representation of network diffusion. Heat kernels capture network-specific interaction between vertices and as such they are, for the purpose of this article, a generic model of network diffusion.

We study how initially random networks evolve into complex structures in response to adaptive rewiring. Rewiring is performed in adaptation to network diffusion, as represented by the heat kernel. We systematically consider different proportions of adaptive and random rewirings. In contrast with the random rewirings in the Watts-Strogatz algorithm, here, they have the function of perturbing possible equilibrium network states, akin to the Boltzmann machine. In this sense, the perturbed system can be regarded as an open system according to the criteria of thermodynamics.

In adaptive networks, changes to the structure generally occur at a slower rate than the network dynamics. Here, the proportion of these two rates is expressed by what we call the diffusion rate (the elapsed forward time in the network diffusion process before changes in the network structure). Low diffusion rates bias adaptive rewiring to local connectivity structures; high diffusion rates to global structures. In the latter case adaptive rewiring approaches a process of preferential attachment.

We will show that with progressive adaptive rewiring, SWNs always emerge from initially random networks for all nonzero diffusion rates and for almost any proportion of adaptive rewirings. Depending on diffusion rate, modular or centralised SWN structures emerge. Moreover, at the critical point of phase transition, there exists a network structure in which the two opposing properties of modularity and centrality are balanced. This characteristic is observed, for instance, in the human brain We call such a structure hierarchical. In sum, adaptation to network diffusion represents a universal mechanism for the self–organisation of a family of SWNs, including modular, centralised, and hierarchical ones.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The elusive face of time




The Hunt for Genius, Part 2: Crackpots, athletes, 4 kinds of judgment, training, and Cultural Context

I continue reposting my series on the MacArthur Fellowship Program. This time I take up the problem of identifying "genius"-class creativity by running through a variety of examples and ending on a brief discussion of the importance of cultural context. How do we bias our selection process toward the future, not the past? I've collected these posts into a working paper, The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before?, which you may download at this link:
* * * * *

Part 1 is my post on the misguided MacArthur Fellows Program. And I thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.

Now that I’ve gotten my brain revved up thinking about “genius”, whatever that is, I’ve got to think a bit more. The foundation is making judgments about people, judgments about the originality of their work, their ability to cross traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries, their need for support, and their potential for future contributions of an extraordinary kind. The program has been consistently criticized for picking too many fellows who don’t meet those criteria.

In that post I argued there is in fact a simple way to improve those judgments relative to those criteria: don’t give fellowships to people with stable jobs at elite institutions. The purpose of this post is to clarify my reasoning on that point.

I begin by pointing out that it’s possible for one person to be both a genius and a crackpot. Then I have a brief note on the Nobel Prize, where the point is that even giving awards for accomplishment is difficult. In the following two sections I step through athletic and musical performance as a way of outlining different kinds of judgments, which I’ve called objective, complex, incommensurable, and predictive. I return to the MacArthur Fellowship Program in the final section where I once again talk about the importance of cultural context.

Two for One: Genius and Crackpot in a Single Package

First, let’s think about, say, Isaac Newton, a prototypical scientific genius. We remember him for his work in physics (optics, mechanics, and gravity) and mathematics. No one cares about his work in theology and alchemy except historians, yet it meant a great deal to Newton himself. In the last century Albert Einstein was quickly recognized as a genius, mostly for his work on relativity and photons. He spent the last part of his career looking for a unified field theory. For a long time that work was considered to be a waste of time. Now that unified theory has made a comeback in physics I don’t know whether that work has been re-evaluated or not.

Were these guys working on half a brain when they did that misbegotten work? Were they drunk? I mean, what happened to the supernal abilities that allowed them to make profound and permanent contributions to science?

Nothing happened to those abilities. There’s no reason to think that they weren’t firing on all cylinders when they did that work. The work just doesn’t fit very well with other knowledge of the world. Think of ideas as keys. What do we use keys for? To unlock doors. Some of the keys these geniuses crafted unlocked real doors. Other keys don’t unlock real doors. Whether or not a key unlocks a door is not a matter of how well the key is crafted. The most exquisitely crafted square peg is not going to fit into a round hole.

Well, it turns out that some of the locks these guys had in mind when crafting keys weren’t real. They were figments of their imagination. Just because the lock was imagined by a genius doesn’t mean it is real.

And so forth.

The point is that ability is not enough. That ability has to be fitted to context.

The search for genius, however, is always conceptualized as a search for ability. This is most obviously the case when genius is defined in terms of a score on some standardized test, an IQ test. If you score high enough on the test you’re a genius – as defined by the test. Otherwise, no.

Now, I rather doubt that anyone involved in the MacArthur Fellows program cares about scores on IQ tests. Whatever it is they’re looking for, it can’t be identified by an IQ test. If it could, then running the Fellows Program would be trivially easy. If tests did the trick there’d be no need for the program. The geniuses would be identified by the standard testing programs undertaken in schools. They aren’t.

So, how do you find a genius?

Nobel Prizes: Even Post Facto Judgments are Difficult

What about Nobel Prizes? They, of course, are awarded for accomplishment, not for promise. And so the prize is not conceived of as one given for ability, though we all assume that Nobel Laureates must have extraordinary ability in order to do whatever it is that got them the award.

And yet the fact that these prizes are awarded for accomplishments visible to all doesn’t insulate them from criticism. I’m sure if I were to did around in what’s written about Nobels I’d find lists of people who got them, but shouldn’t (e.g. Obama or Kissinger for the Peace Prize) and other lists of people who should have gotten them but didn’t. Judging the value of accomplishments such as these is not easy.

So, let’s start by thinking about some kind of ability where the tests are straightforward.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What WAS I thinking when I snapped this photo? Not the Beatles and not Abbey Road


If you are of a certain age and a certain inclination you can’t help by think of the album cover for Abbey Road, released by the Beatles in 1969. That’s certainly what I thought when I looked at the photo on my computer.

But that’s not what I was thinking when I took the photo. I had come out of New York City’s Penn Station at a bit after 5PM on Saturday, October 14, 2017. I was taking photos to document the day – a train ride my sister had gotten for us in celebration of my upcoming major birthday – and snapping shots in front of the station. Traffic was busy, making photography a bit tricky, everything moving, shots materializing and disappearing just as quickly.

It was shoot or die. I saw those people walking across street and my mind flashed there’s a photo there, but not in so many words. It was just a realization that I had to point and shoot NOW or lose it. So I took the shot.

And moved on, taking other shots.

But I’m sure that intuitive decision had been primed by that album cover I saw so many times over the years, but not, say, in the last five or six, perhaps more, years.

And, you see, when you shoot quickly, sometimes things don’t quite work out. Sometimes that’s OK.


Can you learn anything worthwhile about a text if you treat it, not as a TEXT, but as a string of marks on pages? [#DH]

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published a drive-by take-down of the digital humanities. It was by one Timothy Brennan, who didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t know that he didn’t known, and more likely than not, didn’t care.
Timothy Brennan, The Digital-Humanities Bust, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 2017,
Subsequently there was a relatively brief tweet storm in the DH twittersphere in which one Michael Gavin observed that Brennan seemed genuinely confused:

“Lexical patterns”, what are they? The purpose of this post is to explicate my response to Gavin.

The Text is not the (physical) text

While literary critics sometimes use “the text” to refer to a physical book, or to alphanumeric markings on the pages in such a book, they generally have something vaguer and ore expansive in mind. Here is a passage from a well-known, I won’t say “text”, article by Roland Barthes [1]:
1. The text must not be understood as a computable object. It would be futile to attempt a material separation of works from texts. In particular, we must not permit ourselves to say: the work is classical, the text is avant-garde; there is no question of establishing a trophy in modernity's name and declaring certain literary productions in and out by reason of their chronological situation: there can be “Text” in a very old work, and many products of contemporary literature are not texts at all. The difference is as follows: the work is a fragment of substance, it occupies a portion of the spaces of books (for example, in a library). The Text is a methodological field. The opposition may recall (though not reproduce term for term) a distinction proposed by Lacan: “reality” is shown [se montre], the “real” is proved [se démontre]; in the same way, the work is seen (in bookstores, in card catalogues, on examination syllabuses), the text is demonstrated, is spoken according to certain rules (or against certain rules); the work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only when caught up in a discourse (or rather it is Text for the very reason that it knows itself to be so); the Text is not the decomposition of the work, it is the work which is the Text's imaginary tail. Or again: the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production. It follows that the Text cannot stop (for example, at a library shelf); its constitutive moment is traversal (notably, it can traverse the work, several works).  
And that is just the first of seven propositions in that well known text article, which has attained, shall we say, the status of a classic.

I have no intention of offering extended commentary on this passage. I will note, however, that Barthes obviously knows that there’s an important difference between the physical object and what he’s calling the text. Every critic knows that. We are not dumb, but we do have work to do.

Secondly, perhaps the central concept is in that italicized assertion: “the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production.”

Finally, I note that that first sentence has also been translated as: “The Text must not be thought of as a defined object” [2]. Not being a reader of French, much less a French speaker, I don’t know which translation is truer to the original. It is quite possible that they are equally true and false at the same time. But “computable object” has more resonance in this particular context.

Now, just to flesh things out a bit, let us consider a more recent passage, one that is more didactic. This is from the introduction Rita Copeland and Frances Ferguson prepared for five essays from the 2012 English Institute devoted to the text [3]:
Yet with the conceptual breadth that has come to characterize notions of text and textuality, literary criticism has found itself at a confluence of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, history, politics, and law. Thus, for example, notions of cultural text and social text have placed literary study in productive dialogue with fields in the social sciences. Moreover, text has come to stand for different and often contradictory things: linguistic data for philology; the unfolding “real time” of interaction for sociolinguistics; the problems of copy-text and markup in editorial theory; the objectified written work (“verbal icon”) for New Criticism; in some versions of poststructuralism the horizons of language that overcome the closure of the work; in theater studies the other of performance, ambiguously artifact and event. “Text” has been the subject of venerable traditions of scholarship centered on the establishment and critique of scriptural authority as well as the classical heritage. In the modern world it figures anew in the regulation of intellectual property. Has text become, or was it always, an ideal, immaterial object, a conceptual site for the investigation of knowledge, ownership and propriety, or authority? If so, what then is, or ever was, a “material” text? What institutions, linguistic procedures, commentary forms, and interpretive protocols stabilize text as an object of study? [p. 417]
“Linguistic data” and “copy-text”, they sound like the physical text itself, the rest of them, not so much.

If literary critics were to confine themselves to discussing the physical text, what would we say? Those engaged in book studies and editorial projects would have more to say than most, but even they would find such rigor to be intolerably confining. The physical signs on the page, or the vibrations in the air, exist and come alive in a vast a complicated network of ... well, just exactly what? Relationships among people to be sure, but also relationships between sights and sounds and ideas and movements and feelings and a whole bunch of stuff mediated by the nervous systems of all those people interacting with one another.

It’s that vast network of people and neuro-mental stuff that we’re trying to understand when we explicate literary and cultural Texts. As we lack really good accounts of all that stuff, literary critics have felt that we had little choice by to adopt this more capacious conception, albeit at the expense of definition and precision. Anyhow, aren’t the people trying to figure out those systems, aren’t they scientists? And aren’t we, as humanists, skeptical about science?

And then along came the computer.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Three from the window of a moving train




Out of the ground with your hands, my summer in coal @3QD

I’ve done a little editing to a recent post and reposted it at 3 Quarks Daily under the title, slightly changed from the original, My summer job working in coal – or, how I learned about class in America:

It would be a bit strong to say that coal pervaded my life growing up, but I was aware of it and thought about it, in one way or another, almost, perhaps, likely, daily – steel too. After all, my father was in the business and took frequent trips to visit coal mines and cleaning plants. I remember waiting for him to come home, staying up late a night they day of his return, and getting the little gifts he’d bring me and my sister from whatever exotic place he’d visited. I remember the hard hats he wore when on site.

And I remember talking with him about his work. I remember him telling me about dead plant matter turning into peat, peat into lignite and lignite into coal. Coal was once living matter.

Coal is elemental. It’s a fuel, a dirty fuel. A dirty fuel that gave us the iron and steel industries. Coal fires gave us the Anthropocene.
Ashes to Dust
Life to Coal
Coal to Ashes
Dust to Life

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stairway to Penn Station, NYC



Another (strenuous) take on what went wrong with literary criticism, John Searle and Geoffrey Hartman edition

Yeah, I know. But it’s important to get this right.

Once again I’m going to review that Geoffrey Hartman statement I find so characteristic of the mid-1970s rearward shift in academic literary criticism, the one about ‘rithmatic and distance. But this time I want to put it in the context a discussion of the ontological and epistemological senses of objective and subjective that John Searle makes in The Construction of Social Reality, Penguin Books, 1995.

Searle: Ontology and Epistemology

After some preliminary discussion, some of which I’ve appended to this post, Searle concludes (p. 7):
Here, then, are the bare bones of our ontology: We live in a world made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force. Some of these are organized into systems. Some of these systems are living systems and some of these living systems have evolved consciousness. With consciousness comes intentionality, the capacity of the organism to represent objects and states of affairs in the world to itself. Now the question is, how can we account for the existence of social facts within that ontology?
How indeed.

Searle then observes (pp. 7-8):
Much of our world view depends on our concept of objectivity and the contrast between the objective and the subjective. Famously, the distinction is a matter of degree, but it is less often remarked that both “objective” and “subjective” have several different senses. For our present discussion two senses are crucial, an epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction and an ontological sense. Epistemically speaking, “objective” and “subjective “ are primarily predicates of judgments. We often speak of judgments as being “subjective” when we mean that their truth or falsity cannot be settled “objectively,” because the truth or falsity is not a simple matter of fact but depends on certain attitudes, feelings, and points of view of the makers such subjective judgments with objective judgments, such as the judgment “Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam during the year 1632.” For such objective judgments, the facts in the world that make them true or false are independent of anybody’s attitudes or feelings about them. In this epistemic sense we can speak not only of objective judgments but of objective facts. Corresponding to objectively true judgments there are objective facts. It should be obvious from these examples that the contrast between epistemic objectivity and epistemic subjectivity is a matter of degree.

In addition to the epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction, there is also a related ontological sense. In the ontological sense, “objective” and “subjective” are predicates of entities and types of entities, and they ascribe modes of existence. In the ontological sense, pains are subjective entities, because their mode of existence depends on being felt by subjects. But mountains, for example, in contrast to pains, are ontologically objective because their mode of existence is independent of any perceiver or any mental state.
Word meanings, in this sense, are ontologically subjective, which I’ve previously argued [1]. And so are the meanings of texts, even texts about objective facts. Hence textual meaning can be subject to endless, and often fruitless, discussion, especially when intersubjective agreement on the meanings of crucial terms is lax.

Continuing directly on from the previous passage, (pp. 8-9):
We can see the distinction between the distinctions clearly if we reflect on the fact that we can make epistemically subjective statements about entities that are ontologically objective, and similarly, we can make epistemically objective statements about entities that are ontologically subjective. For example, the statement “Mt. Everest is more beautiful than Mt. Whitney” is about ontologically objective entities, but makes a subjective judgment about them. On the other hand, the statement “I now have a pain in my lower back” reports an epistemically objective fact in the sense that it is made true by the existence of an actual fact that is not dependent on any stance, attitudes, or opinions of observers. However, the phenomenon itself, the actual pain, has a subjective mode of existence.
I argue, though Searle might disagree, that the meanings of the words in that statement – “I now have a pain in my lower back” – are themselves ontologically subjective, despite the fact that the statement itself, in context, is ABOUT an epistemologically objective fact (where that fact is about something ontologically subjective, a pain).

It’s confusing, I know. Alas, it’s going to get worse.