Archive for January, 2005

L’ART

Monday, January 31st, 2005

A man in a blue suit left the Italian restaurant just four paces in front of me, turning right to walk the same direction as me. I was already gaining on him, I walk fast because I like to get where I’m going with a minimum of extraneous detail. He was about fortyish, stocky with black hair coiffed and gelled. Approaching to pass on the left, just a pace behind him, he peels off a long quacking fart, obviously saved up during the big meal. I giggled the rest of the way to the video store. Am I retarded?

But seriously, have you ever pondered the true nature of art? What is art? Why do we do it, whatever it is? If martians came down and watched us, would they get it? If art were a flavour of ice cream, which would it be? If art just went away, would you notice or care? What can scientists tell us about art?

The last question and also the one about the martians are discussed in this excellent series of posts at Mixing Memory. I found them interesting, especially the first one about the foundations and justifications for studying art via neurology.

The neuroscientist Zeki wrote, “Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain.” I guess that depends what it means to obey a law of the brain. Law or tennis or marriage obeys the law of the brain in the sense that only things with brains can engage in those activities. This seems trivial to me, like the claim that it’s really just atoms all bumping and bonking around, or turbulence in the quantum foam. Since I reject all supernatural shenanigans, I guess I agree. Metaphysics: solved.

Onto the epistemology, where Chris (of Mixing Memory) follows the Zeki quote with:

If art, both in its creation and appreciation, is a product of brains, then it stands to reason that we may gain valuable insight into the nature of art by understanding how it acts on our brains. Specifically, we may be able to utilize our knowledge of the workings of the visual system, and its connections to emotional centers of the brain, to understand why certain themes, forms, and schemes can be found in art across cultures, and why some works of art are more aesthetically pleasing than others.

The explanation is backwards. It seems blatantly ridiculous to use our understanding of the visual cortex which, while being the most thoroughly mapped and understood part of the brain, is understood hardly at all, (to say nothing of the areas responsible for emotion), to ‘ground’ visual art which has been produced, criticized and discussed extensively for quite some time now.

Rather, what Zeki and Ramachandran and others are doing is using the data of cross-cultural visual art preference to test their neural theories. If the latest visual cortex schematic was unable to account for commonalities in visual preferences, the neurology would be revised, not art. Broad aesthetic generalizations are being used to inform our view of visual processing, not the other way around. This may give us a great deal of insight into neurology, but it’s unlikely to change our feelings about Picasso to be told that the multiple combined perspectives of cubism causes a pleasant increase of activity in the face-recognition area of the brain.

The neuroscientists are modest in their aims. They don’t think they can explain all of art, that would be foolish, just roughly 10% of it. My guess would be more like 1%, but that’s kind of a wierd thing to say anyways. What proportion of art is currently explained? What happens when we’ve explained 100% of art?

At the video store, I rented “How to Draw a Bunny,” an excellent documentary about the artist Ray Johnson. Here we see the other 90-99% of art in action. Ray Johnson was a true zen master, for whom ‘art’ was something more akin to religious devotion than ‘visual aesthetic pleasure’. He lived his art with full seriousness and total irony. One scene shows Ray at a backyard party conversing with two bemused young artists, explaining to them he was a performance artist who is presently engaged in a performance of the serious artist who is discussing his work. This scene explicitly captured the sense in which his art was not just visual depictions on a flat surface, but were self-reflective comments upon themselves. His work contains frequent self-references to the visual, social, cultural and commercial roles played by the works themselves, and his own role as an artist. In stark contrast to the infantile mockery of most absurdist art, what is remarkable about Ray Johnson is how he embraces these roles with honesty, wit and gravity even while demonstrating their absurdity.

He was an artist full-time. His collages, called “moticos”, and performances, called “nothings”, (and include such diverse works as whipping a cardboard box with his belt and showering Manhattan with foot-long wieners thrown from a helicopter), were not his occupation, retired from in the evenings and weekends to take part in normal life. Like a zen master, he was able to live life with grave seriousness and utter dedication and self-mastery, while at the same time never ceasing to actively create brilliant nothing.

His art cannot be explained by reference to the goings-on in the temporal lobe of the viewers of his paintings, and it remains unclear to me in what way the neural facts ought to “ground” the discussion. Nobody will ever whip a cardboard box with a belt like Ray Johnson could, just as no one will ever sit silently on a piano bench as masterfully as John Cage.

SCHADENFREUDE

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005

Nice sweater.

“WHAT SCIENCE IS” (EPILOGUE)

Saturday, January 15th, 2005

In the nine preceeding chapters of this volume, I have succeeded in objectively and conclusively showing the careful reader exactly how it is that science gets hooked onto the real, by which I mean the really fucking robustly real, world, while non-science does not, or does so only by happy accident, (to be later verified, clarified and set straight by our newly disciplined scientific methodology). Now you’re ready to get out there and tell us who are the scientists and who are just “frontin'”, and who should therefore “step off”.

But wait! Before you fire up the Science Detector (see chapter 5) and get out there in the field to tell everyone what’s what, make sure it’s calibrated so that creationism, roughly the notion that some facts of the world are explainable only by appeal to agency outside of natural causation, doesn’t count as a scientific theory. That would be embarassing! This calibration is straightforward, in fact I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the scientifically “queer” entities in a soft lavender hue. You’d be surprised how many people neglect this simple procedure!

In this brief epilogue to my momentous contribution to intellectual history, I will discuss this blog post by John Wilkins, and share with you my uninformed and ill-considered thoughts about science and postmodernism. I’ve earned it!

First, I have to jump on the fact that he discusses modernism, in the sense of a precursor to post-modernism, while seemingly unaware of fact that it’s the name of a kind of literature. Here are some of it’s attributes. In particular, the first and fourth point are suggestive of certain qualitities often described as “post-modern.”

Perspectivism: the locating of meaning from the viewpoint of the individual; the use of narrators located within the action of the fiction, experiencing from a personal, particular (as opposed to an omniscient, ‘objective’) perspective; the use of many voices, contrasts and contestations of perspective; the consequent disappearance of the omniscient narrator, especially as ‘spokesperson’ for the author; the author retires from the scene of representation, files her or his fingernails (says Joyce).

[…]

Language is no longer seen as transparent, something if used correctly allows us to ‘see through’ to reality: rather language is seen as a complex, nuanced site of our construction of the ‘real’; language is ‘thick’, its multiple meanings and varied connotative forces are essential to our elusive, multiple, complex sense of and cultural construction of reality.

It’s easy to see the seeds of what is now called postmodernism in these literary developments, especially the attitude toward language and narrative as something to be played with, something non-representational, something with a life and structure all it’s own. When Wilkins, going on the working assumption that postmodernism is an outgrowth of modernism in architecture and fashion, says “[p]ostmodernism began, I suppose, on the assumption that buildings and styles need to be livable,” my top-hat literally flew off and began twirling around in the air a foot above my head. Literally!

Here’s another list, by the same professor, of some attributes of post-modernist literature, and showing roughly how it treated its ancestor, (very roughly indeed). Generalize these attributes from “literature” to all texts, including science, philosophy and math texts, and everything else under the sun; one gets, (in my almost totally uninformed opinion), a pretty recognizable picture of what people mean when they call an attitude “postmodern,” and also what people who see the pursuit of timeless truths as the only respectable intellectual endeaver find threatening. See, in particular,

  • a reaction to, refusal and diffusion of, the elements of modernist thought which are totalizing: which suggest a master narrative or master code, i.e. an explanatory cohesion of experience
  • parodies of all sorts of meta-narrative and master-code elements, including genre and literary form
  • the exploration of the marginalized aspects of life and marginalized elements of society
  • a crossing or dissolving of borders — between fiction and non-fiction, between literary genres, between high and low culture
  • a sense that the world is a world made up of rhetoric — of language and cultural constructs and images and symbols, none of which have any necessary validity

And so on. It’s not hard for me to get into Wilkins’ head and see how a “research programme” on the basis of these principles looks pretty ridiculous, like children playing a game of pretend, aping the jargon of real scientists doing real hard work uncovering totally goddamn true truths. It’s like working in an office where someone always just blatantly fucks around surfing web porn all day, but still keeps collecting pay and getting promotions, while you work your ass off like a good boy. The sense of being taken for granted that a lot of scientific researchers and hangers-on feel is similar but less justified, and not just because, hey, you could jerk off all day too if you wanted. They, (scientists and their philosophical cheerleading squad), resent the fact that they are tested by the world and become hard by it, while postmodernism allows “a sheltered workshop for intellectuals who did not want to engage science.” I don’t particularly see a problem with having shelters for unscientific intellectuals. Personally, I don’t blame them, the actual activity of doing science is extremely boring and tedious, and as a genre of literature, (as science is to the philosopher of science and other outside interpreters), it’s an acquired taste.

Postmodernism, as it’s hinted at above, would indeed be a devastating and absurd perspective from which to run a laboratory, or to accept in the dialogue of the professional scientist in the act of getting his science on. Postmodernism is not a way of pursuing consensus about the character of the natural world. In fact, it often rejects the very motivation behind seeking such consensus. It’s not a scientific theory. To say on the basis of this, as Wilkin’s does, that it is therefore “anti-science,” and categorize it with creationism, is obscene.

Creationists, and anti-science advocates of any kind, fail to appreciate [that science exceeds individuals]. To them, science is some corpus of beliefs that an individual has to accept, the way one has to accept the tenets of capitalism or the religion of humanism or whatever is their bête noir. They do not see that one can be a node in the scientific enterprise even if they do not share any beliefs with their fellows, so long as they treat evidence and inference the same way. One cannot do theology unless one accepts the core beliefs of that discipline. One can do science no matter what one believes.

Well, it’s not true that one can do science no matter what one believes. For example, if you’re a creationist who believes that truth and explanation consists in appeal to scripture and supernatural agency, you are barred from doing science. Rightfully so. Scientists are interested in theories which make predictions, which are then used to create devices for reliably controlling, and sometimes exploding, some feature of our environment. Scientists go about understanding the natural world by observing the results of controlled interactions, interpreting data, talking to other scientists in a community, making predictions, observing results, in an endlessly self-refining cycle. As soon as the creationist decides to admit observation as providing better evidence for truth than divine revelation, he can again take part in scientific activity.

Anyone can “do science” in the sense of making predictions and testing them on the basis of some model or theory, whatever one believes, true enough. Claiming this as the only worthwhile intellectual pursuit, the only way of getting at the really truly objective truth of the matter, is exactly the sort of pomposity that post-modernism was designed to ridicule. Postmodernists, while engaged in whatever activity this label suggests, have little interest in “treating evidence and inference the same way” as scientists.

TWERPS

Saturday, January 15th, 2005

“In order to bite the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, on why a person would insert a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his (or her) ass.

From Paris Review.

Unfortunately, you can’t read the whole Vonnegut interview online. The Dorothy Parker one is really great though. Her every thought and opinion is so clever and witty, people assume that the cleverness is the whole point, that she’s not serious or doesn’t mean what she says. Or at least she assumed that people assumed this, and she was probably right. It’s either that, or because she was, you know, female.

“A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it, wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

QUESTIONS

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005

I was sent a link to www.20q.com via the RHIZOME mailing list. It came with this paragraph of interpretation:

Most artists interested in the relations between media and consciousness are familiar with the ‘Turing test,’ a procedure which forces us to confront how an artificial intelligence might be able to pose as human. The ’20Q test’ may soon become just as important for media artists. Invented by Ottawa-based developer Robin Burgener, 20Q is a version of the traditional ‘twenty questions’ game in which an online intelligence reads a human player’s thoughts with startling accuracy. Working with some 10,000,000 synaptic connections, the website is even able to account for false steps in players’ reasoning. The more people visit 20Q, the better it gets at guessing, making startling connections based on a logic that transcends any one individual’s ideas (the site’s handlers even claim that it ‘seems to be developing a warped sense of humor’ all on its own.) The ’20Q test’ turns the ‘Turing test’ around. In the latter, an artificial intelligence can pose as authentic. In 2OQ, one experiences how ‘authentic,’ personal thoughts can be reduced to chains of connections that seem completely artificial

I guess that’s pretty cool. I have a sort of love/hate relationship with anything AI-ish these days, just because so much of it seems like a complete joke, and for a long while I was had. (FOOL ME ONCE CAN’T GET FOOLED AGAIN.) Well, maybe not a joke, there’s plenty of great AI out there behind the scenes, just nothing like the mechanical colleagues or slaves we all thought we’d be fraternizing with by now.

Fifty-five years ago, Turing thought that in fifty years we’d have machines that would be capable of enjoying the taste of blueberries and cream. (When you reflect on the fact that he was saying these things amidst the huge, hot mazes of vacuum-tube and wire that were the computers of 1950, his optimism is even more astounding.) Instead, we got folks writing quirky little knowledge bases like

BEER -> IS_WET;
BEER -> IS_DELICIOUS;

and then hooking it up to a query system and simple grammar parser to create dialogs like

Is beer wet?
> yes
Is beer like water?
> yes
Is beer delicious?
> yes
Is beer made with hops?
> PARSE ERROR 2838659!!!! ‘UNKNOWN OBJECT OR PROPERTY’

And then the authors says something like “Hey, it at least it knows that beer is wet and delicious! Now all I need to do is apply for grants to pay research assistants to type billions of objects and properties and relations into the database. Then we can ask it anything and, (as long as it can be answered through valid inference on stable, uncontroversial objects), it will tell us!” As a result you get CYC, a worthless bloated monstrosity to which graduate students are ritually sacrificed to feed it’s terrible hunger. Or so I’ve heard.

Anyways, 20Q reminds me of this research programme, only without the pretension to creating something useful as a result. It solves AI’s “tell me something I don’t know” problem by making the whole point to tell you something you do know. Very clever. It’s a neat little toy you can play with once and say “haha wow I WAS thinking of a banana!” and then forget about forever. This is the MIT Media Lab approach to AI, which has long given up on representationalist, knowledge-base AI, and instead devotes itself almost exclusively to creating art and novelties. A big improvement, for sure.

However, contrary to the author of the quoted passage above, I did not feel in the slightest as if my authentic, personal thoughts about a banana were being reduced to a chain of “artificial” connections. Truth be told, I wasn’t even thinking of a banana, I just answered the questions as if I were thinking of one. I was instead relying on the mysterious ability of sentences to be true of some things and not of others. Turns out, it doesn’t really make a difference.

I’ll be really impressed when someone comes up with a system which plays a reasonable game of “Questions,” from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That would be great.

VADER BABY

Sunday, January 9th, 2005

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to you in regards to, arguably, the world’s greatest Star Wars fan, Jeff Tweiten. This name may not mean anything to you, but you may recall his exploits: Jeff was one of the guys who waited in line for over three and a half months outside Seattle’s Cinerama for Star Wars Episode II.

Well now Jeff is at it again. As of January 1st, Jeff set his ass down on the concrete, and he’s been there ever since. He will be there, in fact, for over five months until ‘Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’ is released. I believe he allows himself ten-fifteen minutes a day to shower across the street at a Hotel (someone saves his space in “line”), but other than that, Jeff is Seattle’s latest fixture: an odd mix of devotion, philosophy, and human spectacle. Most people, of course, think of this stunt as ridiculous, and the knee-jerk reaction is always to write him off as some type of lunatic fanatic.

I am writing to you because this is not the case, and someone with prominence in the science-fiction/fantasy community needs to take notice of him. Briefly: Jeff is not an attention-seeker or a local media hound, he will continue his wait with or without any recognition from the wider world; rather, Jeff is someone who, as odd as it may seem to conventional society, feels deeply motivated by the idea of “waiting” for things of value, [I personally would have put the scare quotes around “value”, not “waiting”, which is literally what he is actually doing. –ed] and in a consumer driven, materialistic culture he sees as spiritually drained, this is where he’s putting his time and energy down as a worthy investment. All Star Wars fans are moved by how these films capture mythic themes of heroism, discipline, and inner strength, but I would wager that very few of them have been as thoroughly transformed by these ideals as Jeff Tweiten.

I can tell you this: I have had the pleasure of meeting many astounding and impressive spiritual ‘masters’ in my time – I have my Masters of Divinity from Columbia’s Union Theological Seminary, and I worked for many years with the Venerable Lama Pema Wangdak here in New York City and throughout India, but until the day I die, Jeff will be in my own personal top 5 list of the most creative and uniquely powerful individuals I have ever met. A successful artist from Bainbridge Island, Jeff’s genius comes not only from his talent, but from that unique ability to truly transcend the opinions of contemporary society in his path to let imagination re-create him. I recognize that this still sounds like a raving fanboy at best, and a complete lunatic at worst, but here’s the proof that Jeff’s the real thing. Are you ready? JEFF WAITED OUTSIDE IN LINE FOR A MOVIE FOR OVER FOUR MONTHS! And now he’s at it again!! I don’t think any of us can really have an accurate idea of what this entails. The elements, the mental and physical demands alone would surely weed out anyone who was simply crazy or posturing. Jeff is neither, and maintains his vigil with grace, compassion, and humor.

Remember: while I’m writing this, Jeff is out on the street. He’s out on the street while you’re reading this, too, and while you go for lunch, forget about all of this for a few hours, and then revisit it again in your mind, Jeff is still out there, right now, on the street, waiting for Star Wars. You may very well forget about this for months, and it won’t be until April that you’ll think about it again, but Jeff will still be there, constant, disciplined, a mad hatter bodhisattva manifesting as the one thing all the stuffed shirts out there will be sure to mock and look over: a sci-fi fanboy on crusade, a modern Don Quixote who is unimpressed by the siren appeals of modern culture, and instead has chosen to wait for something of true value and excitement. Whatever any of us – or him – feels about the Star Wars films, (I know his favorite is still ‘Empire Strikes Back’) is irrelevant, it is the ideals behind these images that moves him, and it is to these timeless and unpopular ideals that he has committed himself. [Actually, what I think of the new Star Wars movies is highly relevant to how big an idiot I think Jeff is (hint: a big one). — ed] Jeff is not without a sense of irony, and perhaps it is all the more appropriate that this seat of American monasticism finds its most dedicated and insulted hero waiting for a big-budget juggernaut blockbuster.

My point is this: people should sit up and take notice of this guy. Someone fantastic and funny is happening in our midst, and when we look back to tell the story ten years from now, do we want to be one of those ants who lacked vision and mocked him, or one of his fellow crickets who played the violin all winter with him, just out of the sheer joy of myth and fantasy? What are you waiting for? What are any of us waiting for? People should get the word out, write up a story or two, and show Jeff some support. You can reach him at superfan1138@waitingforstarwars.com.

Thank you for your time,

Michael Ellick, M.Div.

Yes what are any of us waiting for, hm indeed.

This is Jeff’s blog.

This is Jeff’s movie.

Here are a few inspirational poems in tribute to Jeff “Bodhisattva “Messiah” Quixote” Tweiten:

* * *

Jeffrey,
lonely cricket,
blind ants deride your faith.
Will you weep as the credits roll?
You should.

* * *

Waiting for Godot,
He sees only Chewbacca.
Laugh it up, fuzzball.

* * *

There once was a man from Seattle,
Who dreamt of a light sabre battle.
Five months long he waited
for this urge to be sated,
in a pose reminiscient of cattle.

* * *

MASTER GUTEI

Wednesday, January 5th, 2005

In ancient Japan, there was a zen master named Gutei. Every day he would walk through the village near his monastery, where he was a sort of local celebrity. During his walks the peasants would ask him about the nature of Zen, and he would reply, (with that look of serene mischief practiced by those who have knowledge of the Absolute), by raising his index finger. The folk found this reliably amusing, laughing at the absurdity of the no-liner. They were simple folk.

Eventually the local youths began to imitate Gutei, and one young man in particular, the son of a wealthy local merchant and a naturally gifted actor, became renowned, (amongst the few thousand illiterate peasants in and around his village), for being able to perfectly immitate the look of good-natured mystery and exact finger positioning utilized by the zen master, duplicating the precise height and angle of the joints, the location of the other four digits, the curl of the wrist, etc..

Hearing of this immitator, Master Gutei approached the youth one day and asked him the nature of zen. This new reversal of the old routine created a buzz of excitement among the villagers observing the exchange. When the young man responded to the master’s question by raising his finger in his carefully-studied way, Gutei seized him and sliced off his finger. The peasants stood agape in confused horror, and the young man clutched the bloody wound and let out a short gasping wail. Gutei picked up the young man’s severed finger and held it up, and the young man was enlighted.

And so the enlightened young man, through the pain and shock of his sudden disfigurement, adopted again his studied look of divine mystery and raised his middle finger to Gutei.

GOTTA GET MY STUFF DONE

Sunday, January 2nd, 2005

The latest blog craze sensation.