Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Problem with Close Reading: GIGO

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

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

You had to be there.

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Of Socks, Prophylactics, and Other Matters Sublime and Heroic

by Carl Jakob Joachim Benzon

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

Origami cranes in flight, Maplewood, NJ


African Music in the World

Another working paper available at

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

* * * * *

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

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

Canceling Stamps

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Autumn leaves, rendered flat


LitCrit: Getting my bearings, the lay of the land

Another quick take, just a place filler.

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

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

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

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

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

As always, more later.

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Skippy ponders the eternal verities


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

I’ve got another post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Donald Trump is no Leroy Jethro Gibbs:

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

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

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

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

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

The Rejection of Falstaff

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017



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

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

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

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

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

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

More later.

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

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

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

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

Two observations on wealth

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The city-state redux

Until the mid-19th century, most of the world was a sprawl of empires, unclaimed land, city-states and principalities, which travellers crossed without checks or passports. As industrialisation made societies more complex, large centralised bureaucracies grew up to manage them. Those governments best able to unify their regions, store records, and coordinate action (especially war) grew more powerful vis-à-vis their neighbours. Revolutions – especially in the United States (1776) and France (1789) – helped to create the idea of a commonly defined ‘national interest’, while improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. There are now 193 nation-states ruling the world.

But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world.
Maybe Trump was right"
On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century.
Tough, of course, The Donald doesn't believe in climate change.

Graffiti in winter with chair


Friday, September 15, 2017

Zero dated to 3rd century CE

From Oxford:
Although a number of ancient cultures including the ancient Mayans and Babylonians also used the zero placeholder, the dot’s use in the Bakhshali manuscript is the one that ultimately evolved into the symbol that we use today. India was also the place where the symbolic placeholder developed into a number in its own right, and the concept of the figure zero as it exists today, was born.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

Jamming for Peace

This is 14 years old, but worth re-posting. It's about the power of music to make strangers into a community.
It was Saturday, March 22, 2003, the day of the big peace demonstration. I got off the PATH train in mid-town Manhattan at about 12:30. Five minutes later I was in Harold Square, home of Macy's, checking out the demo. I’d agreed to hook up with Charlie between 1 and 1:30, so I had a few minutes to get a feel for the flow.

People filled Broadway from side-to-side for block after block. Here and there I heard drums and bells and a horn player or two, but no organized music. Shortly after the Sparticists passed (they’re still around?) I noticed a trombonist standing on the sidewalk. Just as I was about to invite him to come with Charlie and me he headed out into the crowd. I let him go his way as I went mine.

I arrived at 36th and 6th – our meeting point a block away from the demo route – at about 1. Charlie arrived about five minutes later, with two German house guests. We were to meet with other musicians and then join the demo, providing some street music for the occasion. None of the other musicians had arrived by 1:45, so we waded into the crowd searching for the drummers we could hear so well – one of our musicians arrived about ten minutes later and managed to find us in the demo. We made our way to the drummers and starting riffing along with them, Charlie on cornet and me on trumpet. I could see one guy playing bass drum, another on snare, a djembe player or two, and various people playing bells, a small cooking pot, plastic paint cans. Then I heard some wild horn playing off to the left. I looked and saw the one-armed cornetist I’d seen playing in Union Square in the days after 9/11. Charlie and I made our way toward him and joined up. Then I noticed two trumpeters and a trombonist a few yards behind us.

So there we were, a half dozen horns, perhaps a dozen percussion, all within a 20-yard radius. We’d come to the demo in ones, twos and threes, managed to home-in on one another’s sounds, and stayed in floating proximity for the two or three mile walk down Broadway to Washington Square. Sometimes we were closer, within a 5 or 6-yard radius, and sometimes we sprawled over 50 yards. The music was like that too, sometimes close, sometimes sprawled.