Wednesday, August 31, 2016



Description, Interpretation, and Explanation in the Case of Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

I want to continue the discussion in my previous two posts, Yet Another Brief for Description (and Form), and, Why Ethical Criticism? or: The Fate of Interpretation in an Age of Computation. I want to take a quick and dirty look at description, interpretation, and explanation with respect to Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney as I discussed it in “Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation” [1]. In that (draft) article I first present a (toy) model of the computational analysis of a literary text (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129) and then discuss form, arguing for a computational conception. Then I take a look at Obama’s performance (which is readily available in video form) followed by a demonstration that the text is a ring-composition [2].

The ring-composition analysis is fundamentally descriptive. To be sure, I have to do some low-level interpretation to divide the text into sections. For example, I assert that in paragraph 17 the topic shifts from Rev. Pinckney and his relations to the nation and the black church’s role in it. How do I know that? Because that’s the first paragraph where the word nation occurs; then paragraph 18 talks of the role of the black church in the Civil Rights Movement. This sort of thing seems obvious enough.

But what’s there to explain? I can imagine that, in principle, the kind of computational model I created for the Shakespeare sonnet could be created for the eulogy. That might help us to explain just how the eulogy works in the mind. But I can’t see creating such a model now; we just don’t know how. That is to say, the eulogy’s ring-form design is something that needs to be explained by an underlying psychological model. And computation will be an aspect of the model.

What I don’t do is invoke the special terminology of some interpretive system: deconstruction, Lacanian analysis, Foucaultian genealogy, and so forth. I don’t offer a “reading” of the eulogy. I don’t, for example, offer remarks about the underlying theology, which seems to invoke the notion of the Fortunate Fall in its central presentation of the mysterious was of God’s grace.

* * * * *

Nor do I address an observation Glenn Loury made in conversation John McWhorter [3]. Loury is remarking on the fact that Obama took on the role of a black preacher and drew on the tropes and stylistic moves of black vernacular preading. They are remarking that, of course, this was a performance. But not an inauthentic one, though Obama was not himself raised in the black church. Loury says:

A mask, a face has to be made. A way of being has to be fashioned. It’s gotta’ be practiced. You could see him standing in front of the mirror. John, we should write the novel John. […]
It just resonates in my mind so deeply. Because what does it mean for a people, I speak now of black Americans 30-40 million, to have the embodiment of their generational hopes, personified by a person who must adopt artifice, and manufacture, in order to present himself as being of them. What does it say of such a people.

No no no. I think this is historic profound. Excuse me if I, you know, I mean I’m just saying, here we are. Because think about it, think about it, OK, the stigma of race, slavery, OK, Orlando Patterson just brilliantly analyzes this, I think. Slavery has to be, you’re putting the slave down. The slave must be a dishonored person. OK so honor, honor becomes central to the whole quest for equality.

And having the Chief Executive of State, be of you, or at the very least, be a person who when in a position of choice, chose to be of you, is countering the dishonor in a very deep way. But perhaps the only way that the state’s symbolic power could be married to your quest for honor is through the President of someone who wasn’t quite fully of you. Your stigma still resonates even in the workings of history, that are intended to elevate you.
Those remarks are certainly worth elaboration, and that elaboration will necessarily be interpretive in the fullest sense of the word.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why Ethical Criticism? or: The Fate of Interpretation in an Age of Computation

Why is it that I am so insistent that interpretation be kept separate from reading? Why is it that I think that the profession’s desire to elide the difference between the two, to believe – heart and soul – is now counterproductive? Yes, I want to clear conceptual space for the description of formal features and for computational and otherwise mechanistic models of literary processes. But I also want to clear space for a forthright ethical criticism.

It is clear to me that textual meaning is something that is negotiated among critics (and their readers) through the process of interpretation. Such meaning cannot be objectively determined – though textual semantics could, at least in principle, be objectively modeled (but not yet, we don’t know how). In this usage, semantics is a facet of a computational model of mind while meaning is what happens in a mind that is articulating its encounter with a text. Yes, that’s a bit obscure, but I want to move on.

As I have articulated time and again, the creation of textual meaning through the interpretive process is a relatively new practice, dating back to the middle of the previous century, roughly speaking. We must understand it as new, not so we can supplant it with something newer still, but so that we can cultivate it without it having to bear the burden of being the central focus of the encounter between knowledge and art (as beauty, love, adventure). Naturalist criticism needs to be freed of interpretation so that it can pursue the description of form and the creation of psychological and neural models.

By the same token, ethical criticism needs the freedom to explore new ways of being human, ways that can be discovered through full responsiveness to literary texts (and other aesthetic objects). Interpretation is a vehicle for ethical response. Interpretation articulates possibilities of feeling and action. Evaluation passes judgment on whether or not these possibilities are to be pursued and even amplified.

Human “nature” IS NOT closed by human biology. Human biology leaves our nature open to cultural specification and elaboration. That’s where interpretation and evaluation come into their own, And THAT’s why I want to acknowledge that interpretation is different from (mere) reading. Interpretation must be acknowledged and developed as being essential to this enterprise.

That can happen ONLY when academic critics stop insisting, against all reason, that interpretation is really just reading on steroids (or something like that). It’s not. It’s new mode of knowing, a new mode of reading intersubjective agreement. It must be cultivated as such.

RGB on the pastel side

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Vector-based representations of word meaning (& human bias)

Mark Liberman at Langauge Log has a useful post on a piece that's been making the DH rounds, Arvind Narayanan, "Language necessarily contains human biases, and so will machines trained on language corpora", Freedom to Tinker 8/24/2016:
We show empirically that natural language necessarily contains human biases, and the paradigm of training machine learning on language corpora means that AI will inevitably imbibe these biases as well.
Liberman continues:
This all started in the 1960s, with Gerald Salton and the "vector space model". The idea was to represent a document as a vector of word (or "term") counts — which like any vector, represents a point in a multi-dimensional space. Then the similarity between two documents can be calculated by correlation-like methods, basically as some simple function of the inner product of the two term vectors. And natural-language queries are also a sort of document, though usually a rather short one, so you can use this general approach for document retrieval by looking for documents that are (vector-space) similar to the query. It helps if you weight the document vectors by inverse document frequency, and maybe use thesaurus-based term extension, and relevance feedback, and …

A vocabulary of 100,000 wordforms results in a 100,000-dimensional vector, but there's no conceptual problem with that, and sparse-vector coding techniques means that there's no practical problem either. Except in the 1960s, digital "documents" were basically stacks of punched cards, and the market for digital document retrieval was therefore pretty small. Also, those were the days when people thought that artificial intelligence was applied logic — one of Marvin Minsky's students once told me that Minsky warned him "If you're counting higher than one, you're doing it wrong". Still, Salton's students (like Mike Lesk and Donna Harman) kept the flame alive.
Mark goes on to discuss Google's "PageRank", "latent semantic analysis" (LSA), and more recent models. Liberman notes:
It didn't escape notice that this puts into effect the old idea of "distributional semantics", especially associated with Zellig Harris and John Firth, summarized in Firth's dictum that "you shall know a word by the company it keeps".
He then turns to Narayanan's post.

Sunday, August 28, 2016



The A.D.H.D. Industrial Complex

The boundaries of the A.D.H.D. diagnosis have been fluid and fraught since its inception, in part because its allegedly telltale signs (including “has trouble organizing tasks and activities,” “runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate” and “fidgets with or taps hands or feet,” according to the current edition of the DSM) are exhibited by nearly every human being on earth at various points in their development. No blood test or CT scan can tell you if you have the condition — the diagnosis is made by subjective clinical evaluation and screening questionnaires. This lack of any bright line between pathology and eccentricity, Schwarz argues, has allowed Big Pharma to get away with relentless expansion of the franchise.

Numerous studies have shown, for example, that the youngest children in a classroom are more likely to be diagnosed with A.D.H.D. Children of color are also at higher risk of being misdiagnosed than their white peers. One clinician quoted in the book more or less admits defeat: “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

Schwarz has no doubt that A.D.H.D. is a valid clinical entity that causes real suffering and deserves real treatment, as he makes clear in the first two sentences of the book: “Attention deficit hyperactivity is real. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” But he believes that those who are disabled by the condition deserve a wider range of treatment options than an endless litany of stimulants with chirpy names like Vyvanse and Concerta.
And Big Pharma has been using ADHD to push pills:
While other books have probed the historical roots of America’s love affair with amphetamines — notably Nicolas Rasmussen’s “On Speed,” published in 2008 — “ADHD Nation” focuses on an unholy alliance between drugmakers, academic psychiatrists, policy makers and celebrity shills like Glenn Beck that Schwarz brands the “A.D.H.D. industrial complex.” The insidious genius of this alliance, he points out, was selling the disorder rather than the drugs, in the guise of promoting A.D.H.D. “awareness.” By bankrolling studies, cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with psychopharmacologists at prestigious universities like Harvard and laundering its marketing messages through trusted agencies like the World Health Organization, the pharmaceutical industry created what Schwarz aptly terms “a self-affirming circle of science, one that quashed all dissent.”
Over a decade ago I wrote up some notes of my own: Music and the Prevention and Amelioration of ADHD: A Theoretical Perspective. Here's the abstract:
Russell A. Barkley has argued that ADHD is fundamentally a disorientation in time. These notes explore the possibility that music, which requires and supports finely tuned temporal cognition, might play a role in ameliorating ADHD. The discussion ranges across cultural issues (grasshopper vs. ant, lower rate of diagnosis of ADHD among African-Americans), play, distribution of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, neural development, and genes in culture (studies of the distribution of alleles for dopamine receptors). Unfortunately, the literature on ADHD does not allow us to draw strong conclusions. We do not understand what causes ADHD nor do we understand how best to treat the condition. However, in view of the fact that ADHD does involve problems with temporal cognition, and that music does train one’s sense of timing, the use of music therapy as a way of ameliorating ADHD should be investigated. I also advocate conducting epidemiological studies about the relationship between dancing and music in childhood, especially in early childhood, and the incidence of ADHD.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Faces: JC African-American Cultural Festival 2016

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Yet Another Brief for Description (and Form)

These remarks are prompted by Ted Underwood’s tweets from the other day:
Those tweets triggered my own long-standing puzzlement over why literary criticism has neglected the close and attentive description of literary form.

* * * * *

Let’s go to the text Underwood is referencing (see the link in his first tweet), Sharon Marcus, “Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of Scale” (Modern Language Quarterly 77.3, 2016, 297-319). She uses description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation as her analytic categories (304). And, while her discussion tends to circle around a ‘dialectic’ of description and interpretation, she also emphasizes Auerbach’s use of evaluative language: “Mimesis may owe its lasting allure to Auerbach’s complex relationship to the language of value” (300). And then (301):
Certain adjectives have consistently positive or negative valences in Mimesis: rich, wide, full, strong, broad, and deep are always terms of praise, while thin, narrow, and shallow always have negative connotations. Tellingly, Auerbach’s values are themselves related to scale; his epithets suggest that he prefers what is large and dense to what is small and empty, the river to the rivulet.
Such evaluative terms link Auerbach’s criticism to the existential concerns that, in the conventional view (which I do not intend to contest), motivates our interest in literature in the first place. Those concerns are ethical and aesthetic, but, as Marcus notes, such evaluative matters where bracketed out of professional consideration back in the 1960s though they have returned in the form of critique (306). Auerbach was writing before that dispensation took hold and so was free to use evaluative language to link his discussion, both at the micro-scale of individual passages and the macro-scale of Western literary history, to his (and our) life in the here and now.

Distant reading, however, is fundamentally descriptive in character, as Underwood notes. Moreover, as Franco Moretti has asserted in interviews and publications, he pursues distant reading because he seeks explanations, not interpretations. That is, he sees an opposition between interpretation and description. And this is where things begin to get interesting, because I suspect that Underwood would prefer not to see things that way and Marcus seems to be resisting as well. That is, they would prefer to see them working in concert rather than opposition.

But look at what Marcus says about explanation (305-306):
Explanation designates the operation by which literary critics assign causality, though explanation can also signify description and interpretation, as when we “explain” a poem. Literary critics tend to downplay causality — “why?” is not our favorite question — and usually refer the sources of a text’s meaning or form to disciplines other than literary criticism, such as history, biography, economics, philosophy, or neuroscience. Thus scholars often relate specific features of literary works to general phenomena such as modernity, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, or the structure of our brains. But because explanation is an undervalued operation in literary criticism, one seen to depend on the kind of literalism that leads many critics to reject description as impossible, the exact nature of the link between general phenomena and specific works often remains nebulous. Literary critics are more likely to posit the relationship between the realist novel and capitalism as one of homology, analogy, or shared commitments (to, say, individualism) than they are to trace a clear line from one as cause to the other as effect.
In practice, literary critics neglect precisely what Moretti seeks, explanation. When Marcus asserts the literary critics like to talk of “homology, analogy, or shared commitments,” she is in effect saying that they talk of interpretation.

That is, in terms of actual practice if not in abstract methodological terms, interpretation and explanation are, as Moretti sees, alternative forms of causal explanation. “Classically,” if I may, the cause of a text is the author; the classical critic seeks the author’s intention as the source of a text’s meaning. Why is the text what it is? How did it come into being? The author did it. Post-classically, the author got bracketed out in favor of social, semiotic, and psychological forces operating through the author. It is those forces that bring the text into existence and are the source of its meaning. The post-classical critic then smuggles evaluation in by way of critique, thereby completing the circuit and linking criticism to those existential concerns – what is the good? how do I live? – that motivate literature itself.

This is a nice trick, and it is “sold” by the ruse of calling interpretation “reading,” thus making it appear to be continuous with the ordinary activity of reading as practiced by those very many readers who have never taken any courses in literary criticism (or have forgotten them long ago) much less become proficient in one or more of the various schools of interpretation and critique. Interpretive proficiency does not come “naturally” in the way that learning to speak does. It requires years of practice and tutelage at an advanced level.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Fotos: Welcome to Eden: The Bergen Arches

Since it's Bergen Arches week in Jersey City I thought I'd bump one of my many Bergen Arches posts to the top of the queue.

The local name for the phenomenon, the Bergen Arches, is a bit well, odd. Yes, there are arches, five of them; two are bridges and three are short tunnels. You see them when you are there, but what you really see is the Erie Cut, a trench cut through Bergen Hill, which is the southern tip of the Jersey Palisades.


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The Cut is 85 feet deep and almost a mile long. It was cut into solid rock in the early 20th century to bring four railroad tracks to the port at Jersey City. Jersey City - like Hoboken to its immediate North (where “On the Waterfront” was set) - is no longer a port city; those tracks have been abandoned and only one of them remains. No one goes into the Cut except graffiti writers, historic preservationists, and other assorted miscreants and adventurers.

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Once you're in the Cut you're in another world. Yes, New York City is two or three miles to the east across the Hudson and Jersey City is all over the place 85 feet up. But down in the Cut, those places aren't real. The Cut is its own world, lush vegetation, crumbling masonry, rusting rails, trash strewn about here and there, mud and muck, and mosquitoes, those damn mosquitoes! Nope, it's not Machu Pichu and it's not Victoria Falls, but it's pretty damn good for being in the middle of one of the densest urban areas in the freakin' world.

Is Description [FINALLY!] Coming of Age in Literary Criticism? [AT LONG FREAKIN’ LAST!]

Description, of course, has been kicking around for awhile. It’s part of a critical quartet articulated by Monroe Beardsley in the 1950s: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Stanley Fish took it to task in Is There a Text in This Class? where he castigates Steven Booth for asserting that he was but describing Shakespeare’s sonnets (p. 353):
The basic gesture, then, is to disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text; but it is actually a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all. The claim, however, is an impossible one since in order “simply to present” the text, one must at the very least describe it ... and description can occur only within a stipulative understanding of what there is to be described, an understanding that will produce the object of its attention.
And that’s where things have pretty much rested until recently.

In 2010 Heather Love published an essay that got a fair amount of buzz, Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn (New Literary History, 41, No. 2, 371-391). After citing Bruno Latour on the importance of description, Love takes a look at Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but NOT to describe features of Morrison’s text. Rather, she’s interested in Morrison’s use of description IN her text. If Latour describes the phenomena that interest him, why doesn't Love do the same? Why does she displace her descriptive desire into Morrison's text?

More recently Sharon Marcus discusses description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation in the course of analyzing Auerbach’s method in Mimesis in Modern Language Quarterly. She notes (p. 298):
For the past several decades, the most celebrated literary critics have tended to value interpretation, connotation, and the figurative over description, denotation, and the literal, arguing that the latter set of terms names operations that are impossible to carry out. Literary critics often rally around the preferred terms by casting them as methodological underdogs in need of defense against an allegedly dominant empiricist positivism that no longer prevails even in the sciences.
She goes on to show the Auerbach makes frequent use of description while distinguishing it from interpretation (308) and to argue that we value Auerbach because of his use of description (309).

And now Marcus has conspired with Heather Love and Stephen Best to edit an issue of Representations (Summer 2016) devoted to description. What next?

Summer 2016 • Number 135

SPECIAL ISSUE: Description Across Disciplines
Edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best


Observable Behavior 1–10, page 22

The Point of Precision, page 31


Cloud Physiognomy, page 45

Description and 
the Nonhuman View of Nature, page 72

GEORGINA KLEEGE – Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications, page 89

Interpret or Describe? page 102


Description in the Psychological Sciences, page 119

No Problem, page 140

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dead Reeds in Three Views




The mystery of humanistic epistemology in 5 tweets and a link

The cognitive linguists like to talk about 'human scale.' One of the things that happens in conceptual blending, as they call it, is that phenomena can be repackaged from their own 'natural' scale to human scale. Is that what interpretation does that the descriptive methods of 'distant reading' don't do?

Election Special: The Blues House

Since it's a Presidential election year it's time to bring this out again, it's Dizzy Gillespie's stump speech from his 1964 Presidential  run. I wonder what he would have thought about the out-going President, Barack Hussein Obama?
Which is not at all the same as the House of Blues. No, the Blues House is what the White House would have been if John Birks Gillespie had been elected President back in 1964, when he ran for the office. John Birks Gillespie, of course, was better known as Dizzy. He was from Cheraw, South Carolina, and was one of the finest trumpeters and most important jazz musicians of the 20th Century.

His Presidential run was at one and the same time not entirely serious and completely and utterly serious. A certain amount irony was involved, which is perhaps why the lyrics to the theme song were set to “Salt Peanuts” - a tune Diz would one day perform in the White House with President Jimmy Carter.

He developed a standard stump speech which eventually made its way into his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop (Doubleday 1979 pp. 457-458). It's full of jazz references that will be obscure to those who don't know the music, and various contemporary references are likely to be lost as well. Though I never heard Gillespie give this speech, I've heard him speak on several musical occasions and his comic timing is superb. That is utterly lost in this transcription, though those familiar with his vocal patterns can - in some small measure - supply them as they read his words. Here they are.

* * * * *

When I am elected President of the United States, my first executive order will be to change the name of the White House! To the Blues House.

Income tax must be abolished, and we plan to legalize 'numbers' - you know, the same way they brought jazz into the concert halls and made it respectable. We refuse to be influenced by the warnings of one NAACP official who claims that making this particular aspect of big business legal would upset the nation's economy disastrously.

One of the ways we can cut down governmental expenditures is to disband the FBI and have the Senate Internal Security Committee investigate everything under white sheets for un-American activities. Understand, we won't take no 'sheet' off anybody!

All U.S. Attorneys and judges in the South will be our people so we can get some redress. 'One Man-One Vote' - that's our motto. We might even disenfranchise women and let them run the country. They'll do it anyhow.

The Army and Navy will be combined so no promoter can take too big a cut off the top of the 'double-gig' setup they have now.

The National Labor Relations Board will rule that people applying for jobs have to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won't know what they are until after they've been hired. The sheets, of course, will all be colored!

We're going to recall every U.S. ambassador except Chester Bowles and give the assignments to jazz musicians because they really 'know where it is.'