Sunday, April 29, 2012

Moby Dick, the Oil Industry, and America

That’s right, Moby Dick, the 19th century novel by Herman Melville, one of the great novels. Of course we’re beyond it, it was published in 1851. Whales were hunted for their oil, which was used for lubrication, and, above all, lighting. Though whaling began to die out a decade after Moby Dick was published—oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859—it was big business when Moby Dick was published, and America’s whaling fleet was the largest in the world.

Rather than continuing on with my own observations, however, I thought I give you Martian interpretation of the book. Well, not real Martians, a fictional ones, a pair invented by Margaret Atwood and plopped into a New York Times op-ed:
“‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor. Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.

“Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”
Seems about right.

A Rare African Flower, Saved

Here's another post about Rider Haggard, also from The Valve, from 28 May 2009.
When flowers are not being flowers, they are sometimes put to use as symbols. I’m interested in one such usage, in Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, though I don’t think it’s quite symbolic. Or rather, yes, it is easy to read it as symbolic, but to say so would be to paper over the fact that I don’t really understand how this usage works.

Regardless of exactly how the flower imagery works, it is being recruited to sexual service as suggested by the word “deflower,” but the potential victim is a 10-year old girl. While the girl escapes unharmed, Haggard has her in jeopardy for three chapters, three chapters where the reader doesn’t know what has happened or what might happen to her. Why does Haggard put the reader through this?

First I tell this girl’s story absent almost all of the flower imagery. Then I go back and present that imagery, not to analyze it in detail, but just to lay it out, to show how much of it there is and how specifically it is connected to the girl and her plight. Finally, I confront the question: Why?

Flossie Saved from the Masai

Allan Quatermain (1887) is a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1885), with the same three men – Allan Quatermain, Capt. John Good, and Sir Henry Curtis – traveling to a lost world deep inside Africa. The story opens in England three years after the trio had returned from the mines with a small pouch of diamonds and a large stash of adventuresome memories. They’re bored with civilization and itching for adventure. As Quatermain told himself:
And so in my trouble, as I walked up and down the oak-paneled vestibule of my house there in Yorkshire, I longed once more to throw myself into the arms of Nature. Not the Nature which you know, the Nature that waves in well-kept woods and smiles out in corn-fields, but Nature as she was in the age when creation was complete, undefiled as yet by any human sinks of sweltering humanity. I would go again where the wild game was, back to the land whereof none know the history, back to the savages, whom I love, although some of them are almost as merciless as Political Economy.
And so, acting on a vague tale about a lost white race, the trio returns to East Africa, heading toward Mt. Kenya by way of the Tana River. Their immediate goal is a mission station run by a Scotsman, Mr. Mackenzie, whom they believe may have more specific information about this lost race.

They arrive at the mission after the usual dangers, which included a bunch of Masai warriors who had been set upon them to settle a score. They escape the Masai – which means that the score has not been settled. The Masai will return.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dueling Watsons

Language Log has a post telling us that, just as IBM has a speech understanding system named Watson (after the first president of the company), so AT&T has a somewhat older system named Watson (after Alexander Graham Bell's assistant). In a comment, Jon Weinberg further informs us:
Each company has filed for U.S. trademarks — IBM for "IBM Watson" and AT&T for "AT&T Watson". The requested trademarks haven't issued. IBM's applications have been kicked back by the examiner, and AT&T's application was opposed by IBM in a proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board; the two companies are in settlement negotiations

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Richard A. Macksey

Here's a short vides (9+ minutes) about Richard A. Macksey, who recently retied from The Johns Hopkins Universty:

I took I don't know how many courses with him as an undergraduate, and an independent study too, thought in just what, I forget. I did my MA Thesis on "Kubla Khan" under him. Dick gave me the room I needed to complete two degrees and Johns Hopkins and confirmed my love of making connections.

Friday, April 13, 2012

From Fish to Latour, Really

Stanley Fish has made a NYTimes post that brought Latour to mind, specifically, actor-network theory (ANT). Not immediately, but upon thinking about it, I ended up with Latour.

The topic of Fish’s post, Evidence in Science and Religion, Part Two, invites controversy, which, of course, is just fine by Stanley Fish. The post generated 451 comments before comments were closed (I’ve not read any of them). I more or less agree with Fish on this one, as far as it goes. But the argument Fish makes really needs to be extended in a way one can at least begin to imagine by thinking in terms of Latourian networks.

Assumptions, Assumptions, Everywhere

Here’s how Fish sets things up:
In the post previous to this one, I revisited the question of the place of evidence in the discourses and practices of science and religion. I was prompted by a discussion on the show “Up w/ Chris Hayes” (MSNBC, March 25) in which Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins stated with great force and confidence that a key difference between science and religion is that the conclusions of the former are based on evidence that has emerged in the course of rigorous rational inquiry publicly conducted, while the conclusions of the latter are based on dogma, faith, unexamined authority, subjectivity and mere trust.

In response, Hayes observed that as laypersons, with respect to most areas of science we must take on trust what practitioners tell us. I took Hayes’s point further than he might be willing to take it, and suggested that because trust is common to both enterprises, the distinction between them, at least as it is asserted by Pinker and Dawkins, cannot be maintained.
Fish then informs us that his post got him in a heap of trouble with his readers—surprise, surprise! He clarifies, pointing out that he’s not asserting that the standards of science and religion are equivalent, rather:
What I do assert is that with respect to a single demand — the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions — science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).

This means that all standards are equivalently mediated, not that all standards are equivalent in every respect.
Well . . . that remains to be seen. One might wonder how you establish “equivalence” of mediation, though I suspect Fish may mean nothing more rigorous than “they’re all mediated” rather than asserting some comparison between modes of mediation. But let’s allow Fish to have his way a bit more. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Method in Cartoonology, It Takes a Village . . .

Opera 12 dance

In the process of posting a link to some of my cartoon commentary [Thanks! Mike] Michael Barrier made some qualifying remarks:
I sometimes feel when I read Bill's pieces that he is taking a long way around when a more direct route is available, but what the hey, he's doing intellectual work that almost no one else writing about animation is doing. I've just read through his What's Opera, Doc? postings, and my reaction could be summed up as impatience, followed by second thoughts along the lines of, wait a minute, there are some ideas here that really deserve a careful look.
I don’t know quite what he has in mind when he refers to “taking the long way around”, but I do know what impatience is and I can certainly see why Mike, or anyone else, would react to my work in that way. For better or worse, “a more direct route” is unavailable to me.

So let me say a thing or two about what I’m up to.

Anyone who reads my stuff sees that I spend a lot of time simply describing what happens. If you know the cartoon I'm working on—and Mike certainly knows these cartoons, very well—that descriptive work is going to seem obvious and so may be a bit irritating—I know, I know, I've watched the cartoon! I’m looking for a pattern, or a detail or two, and these things may not spring into relief until the cartoon has been described in some detail (think, for example, of my discussions of ring form in Fantasia and Heart of Darkness). And, often enough, I don’t even spot the pattern or detail until I’ve sunk knee-deep in description. I start with some vague idea that something’s there, but it takes a bit of work actually to see it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What’s There, Spring


I suppose this looks almost posed, what with that vine-entangled tree in the middle. Then there’s that slender branch looping up from the lower left.


I wonder how long before those birches disappear behind the curtain of vines, which have not yet grown leaves? Those leaves create so many spaces interior to the forest, invisible from outside.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Comments on Alex Reid on Digital Humanities

I’ve taken a passage from a post by Alex Reid (ancestral data: practicing the digital humanities #dhdebates) and interpolated comments. Reid’s words are in italics, mine are not.

Thus perhaps we are left with pondering what Meillassoux's claim that "what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible" means for digital humanities. At some point, would one want to claim that digital humanities scholarship produces knowledge that is ontologically different from that offered by conventional criticism, in that, like the ancestral scientific knowledge Meillassoux describes, it describes conditions outside correlation?

Not having read Meillassoux there’s an obvious facet of this I can’t address, but I note the mention of mathematics; Chomsky made a certain use of mathematical argument to precipitate a revolution in the study of language.

But, sure, why not make such an ontological claim about the product of digital humanities scholarship (at least some of it)? It’s clear to me on the face of it that it yields a different KIND of knowledge (see my recent post, Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti). But it hadn’t occurred to me state this difference as one of ontological kind. THAT is a most interesting suggestion. Note, that while we’re talking of knowledge, the suggestion is about the ontology of knowledge, not about epistemology.

I'm not sure what the answer is to that question. Neither is Witmore. However, I think it might turn the complaint about the lack of theory in digital humanities on its head.

I should think so, yes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sight and Sound in Long-Haired Hare

Just a quick note on Long-Haired Hare, a 1948 Bugs Bunny cartoon directed by Chuck Jones. No screen shots. Sorry.

The premise, as you may recall, is a simple one. Bugs is hanging out in his hole happily singing a song. Not so far away Giovanni Jones, an operatic tenor, is practicing. He hears Bugs, is annoyed, he clobbers Bugs, Bugs gets revenge. The End.

Now, it’s not merely that he hears Bugs while he’s trying to practice. The music Bugs is playing actually invades his body so that he sings the tune Bugs is singing and he moves to the beat. He can’t help himself. Bugs doesn’t know that Jones exists. He’s singing for his own pleasure.

So, as I said, he clobbers Bugs. Bugs declares war. And shows up at Jones’s concert that evening. After pestering Jones in this and that way, Bugs dresses up as Leopold Stokowski and mounts the podium. He destroys the baton the conductor had handed him, as Stokowski never used a baton. He conducted with his hands.

And so Bugs proceeds to conduct Jones with his hand. He raises his hand; Jones ascends. He lowers his hand; Jones descends. He holds his hand high in the air; Jones holds a high note. Bugs keeps his hand up there, at one point removing his hand from his glove and allowing the glove to stay up all by itself; Jones keeps holding the note until he falls over.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading Reading

This post includes major sections from two posts I wrote in 2005 when I first began writing for The Valve: Learning to Read & the Need for Theory and Beyond Reading. The first generated extensive discussion that’s worth reading if you want to puzzle through the difference between reading a literary work and writing criticism about it.
Having expressed misgivings about the notion of distance in “distant reading”, I now want express misgivings about the other term in the phrase, “reading”.

I think it was a mistake of academic literary criticism to allow the term “reading” to elide the distinction between the ordinary activity by which John, Jane, Suzy, and Timmy Smith read texts and the specialized activity of creating written explications of texts. The effect of such elision is to enable the belief that the two processes are basically the same, but that what the professional critic is doing is deeper and more rigorous than what John, Jane, Suzy and Timmy are doing and the Smiths really ought to tighten up their act.

Think about that for a moment or two and you realize that, on that view, Will Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and Murasaki Shikibu were really little more than very skilled chimps and they ought to get themselves to the nearest Summer School for Criticism in order properly to be able to “read” the texts they wrote.

Learning to Explicate

When I was in my middle teens I picked up a copy of Howard Fast’s historical novel, Spartacus (I don’t remember whether this was before or after I had seen the movie). It was a rather long book, but, as I recall, I read it in a single session that took me through the night. No doubt my mind was making all sorts of inferences while I was reading. When I was done I no doubt had some recollection of the story and could recount it, or fragments of it, and could answer questions about it. But I could not have done anything approaching an acceptable "reading" or "interpretation" of the book. I simply didn’t know how to do that.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Latour Modern, Not: A Prolegomenon to a Rhetorical Analysis

I am reading Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. And, yes, it is, as Graham Harman has often said, a remarkable book. But what KIND of a book is it?

An answer from Latour, p. ix: “Having written several empirical books, I am trying here to bring the emerging field of science studies to the attention of the literate public through the philosophy associated with this domain.” So it is philosophy. I guess I expected that, as Harman says Latour is a philosopher, considers himself to be one, and wishes others to think him one. But it is like no philosophy I’ve read, a statement, not an opening for critique. And the level of generality and scope—the relations between humans and things in the world—is of philosophical caliber.

It is for the “literate public”—so this is not, then, a book for specialists. Of philosophical caliber, but not (necessarily) for the professional philosophers. In fact, one has the impression that Latour feels that all too many professional philosophers have covered themselves in such shame that their arguments should not be given the dignity of detailed consideration. Which is perhaps one reason why the book is so short, less than 150 pages.

Philosophy, but not for philosophers. Nor is it a journalistic popularization or a textbook exposition. This is basic stuff, original exposition and argument. New ideas here, never before published in the technical literature of whatever discipline: anthropology, sociology, history, political science, philosophy.

* * *

I can imagine another reason for the short book, an active reason, a rhetorical one. Perhaps Latour thought the ideas would hold together more effectively if you could read through them expeditiously.

Cartoon Shorts Index

I've done posts on a number of cartoon shorts. Here's a quick index to them:

Staging the Audience: Magic Tricks

Perhaps the most prevalent assumption about filmed stories is that we the audience are looking in on, observing, actions and events taking place in some other world “over there” and that the people in that world have no idea that we exist. Sometimes such stories are provided with voice-over narration. The narrator speaks to us, but need not address us directly, and usually doesn’t.

Then we have “breaking the fourth wall,” where a character in a movie will speak directly to us, the audience. It is relatively rare, but it does happen. This, of course, temporarily destroys the illusion that we’re watching actions made by people off in some other world and who are oblivious to us. That’s why it isn’t done.

And then we have these cartoon shorts that are based on gags and that also seem relatively hospitable to, permeable to, breaking the forth wall. Characters will address us a half dozen or more times in a single seven minute short. As for as I can tell, audience address isn’t required in these shorts, it’s not inevitable, but it’s frequent and doesn’t destroy any illusion. The question is: Why?

As a comparison, consider a magic act. The magician, of course, must address the audience. He’s playing to us; that’s how stage acts work. The magician may even ask people in the audience to participate in the act in some way. Well, in the cartoon, we have gags instead of magic tricks. And we don’t know just when the gags will happen is just what they’ll be.

Now, a magic act may take place on stage, but it’s fundamentally different from a play. It’s playing with our sense of reality in a way that stories ordinarily do not. Something like that’s going on in the gag-based cartoon. They play with our sense of reality and the address to the audience is simply part of that play.