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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Last Night
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Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
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the Diaries of Franz Kafka
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What Now?
William Gibson

About Bill Benzon

Bill Benzon is an independent scholar who has been working and publishing on the 'newer psychologies' and culture for three decades. He is also a trumpeter who has opened for Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, and Al Grey.

More Bio:

I was educated in the heart of Theory country, but turned away from it. I did my undergraduate and master’s work at Johns Hopkins in the late 60s and early 70s and then went off to SUNY Buffalo for my Ph. D. I was OK with the notion that, for example, Western metaphysics was in trouble, but I didn’t think that Derrida & Co. knew what to do about it. Plus I just didn’t like that intellectual style. I liked the quasi-mechanistic style of linguistics, and I liked developmental psychology, and Karl Pribram had just written a fascinating article on neural holography in Scientific American.

So, when I was in Buffalo I hung out in the Linguistics Dept. with one David Hays and went deep into cognitive science, ending up writing a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory.” I figured cognitive science was up and coming and I would be the literary point man for it. And perhaps I was, but no one was listening back then.

Email Address: bbenzon@mindspring.com
Website: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/


Posts by Bill Benzon

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Standard Eye Play

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/19/12 at 08:12 AM


This photo doubles the mystery, I suppose. The basic mystery is, of course, that eye, against the black background. Who? What? Why? Male or Female? Merely curious or Homeland Security?

The photo increases the mystery by providing a background that situates the eye and its immediate background. But the situation is a bit of a mystery. A city, yes (just which city doesn’t much matter, does it?), but now, still, almost more than ever: What? Why? It could almost be a composit of two photos, and a crude one at that.

And thus a stunt. Always a stunt. Decontextualized eyes are alway stunts, metaphysical stunts. But whose the orchestrator?

All is revealed below the fold.

Continue reading "Standard Eye Play"

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Objects and Graeber’s Debt

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/14/12 at 06:10 PM

I’ve been reading my way through David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I’m beginning to think it’s a major book, one important outside its ostensible subject matter, which, I assume, is something like the history of economics. I’m thinking, for example, that he has discussions which would interest the object-oriented ontologists, though ontology is not at all his subject. But money is, as is debt, and the mystery is whence this stuff? this money, which levels everthing, a leveling that starts long before the dreaded capitalism. He talks of slaves as being people existing without (essential) relations with other people; it’s the lack of relations that renders them somehow less than fully human. And he talks of how institutions such as bride-price and wergild set up equivalences between humans and mere physical stuff.

It’s one thing to take all this at face value, but accepting received summarization of the historical record. But Graeber wants to know how and why these usages came about?

It’s a long book, with lots of stories and examples, from various cultural traditions (Vedic, Islamic, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Norse). While it’s relatively free of technical terminology, it has its own density. It’s to be savored.

Here’s a passage, not chosen at random at all, but simply the passage that prompted me to write this note (p. 198):

In Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power of that person over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems. First of all, it’s not clear what it would mean for a human to have a “ relation” with an inanimate object. Human beings can have relations with one another. But what would it mean to have a “ relation” with a thing? And if one did, what would it mean to give that relation legal standing? A simple illustration will suffice: imagine a man trapped on a desert island. He might develop extremely personal relationships with, say, the palm trees growing on that island . If he’s there too long, he might well end up giving them all names and spending half his time having imaginary conversations with them. Still, does he own them ? The question is meaningless. There’s no need to worry about property rights if noone else is there.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Music and ADD

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/12/12 at 04:43 PM

Stanford University recently held a symposium on music therapy that focused on musical rhythm. Some of the work dealt with ADD (attention deficient disorder):

Harold Russell, a clinical psychologist and adjunct research professor in the Department of Gerontology and Health Promotion at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, used rhythmic light and sound stimulation to treat ADD (attention deficit disorder) in elementary and middle school boys. His studies found that rhythmic stimuli that sped up brainwaves in subjects increased concentration in ways similar to ADD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. Following a series of 20-minute treatment sessions administered over several months, the children made lasting gains in concentration and performance on IQ tests and had a notable reduction in behavioral problems compared to the control group, Russell said.

“For most of us, the brain is locked into a particular level of functioning,” the psychologist said. “If we ultimately speed up or slow down the brainwave activity, then it becomes much easier for the brain to shift its speed as needed.” ...

Thomas Budzynski, an affiliate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, conducted similar experiments with a small group of underachieving college students at Western Washington University. He found that rhythmic light and sound therapy helped students achieve a significant improvement in their grades.

I’ve posted some notes on Music and the Prevention and Amelioration of ADHD here.

Mad Men

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/12/12 at 04:26 PM

A couple of years ago the cool kids began talking about this TV show, “Mad Men.” It sounded interesting but, as I did not (and still do not) have cable TV, I couldn’t watch it. But I do have a Netflix account and have just watched the first three episodes of the first season. Interesting. I’ll watch more.

It’s only in the last few years that I finally got rid of those narrow ties that I bought in the mid-60s, as narrow as the ties worn by Draper and others. And I remember how the house at the corner of Mayluth Road and Cherry Lane was owned by a divorcee, who ran (owned?) a women’s clothing store. She was an anomaly in the neighborhood, though she didn’t drive a Volkswagen like Helen Bishop. As far as I know, my family was the first one in the neighborhood to get a VW bug, which my father bought as a second car. His company, Bethlehem Steel, disapproved, as it was foreign, made of foreign steel.

I don’t remember any particular cattiness about the local divorcee, but then those conversations wouldn’t have happened in my presence. I do, however, have the sense that this or that woman was know to take an extra drink or two.

All of which is to say that I remember that world. I’d guess I was half a dozen years older than Draper’s daughter, more or less. What I’m wondering is how the show is going to lean on the difference between the world back then and the world now. And, to the extent that it leans, in what direction?

* * * * *

Meanwhile, ”Mad Men” showed up in a New York Times piece about Mimi Beardsley (now Alford). In 1962 she was a 19 year old intern in the White House press office who was promptly seduced by President Kennedy, beginning an 18-month affair.

... she associated the White House not with Camelot but with the sexy, deceptive dystopia of television’s “Mad Men,” in which comely young women service their married bosses, as glasses clink, ashtrays fill and everyone keeps mum about the misbehavior.

“God, I love ‘Mad Men,’ ” Ms. Alford told me. “All of it is exactly what was going on.” When she arrived at the White House as a teenager, she said, she “wanted to be Peggy” — an ambitious “Mad Men” character. But the part she ended up playing was closer the frustrated wife of the lead character, Don Draper. “I think I probably relate most to Betty Draper,” she admits.

I wonder if watching “Mad Men” has helped her think about those years? Perhaps they’re so long ago that she doesn’t need any help. But then, why would she love the show?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Strange Views, Not so Strange: Cities, Green, and the Rest

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/10/12 at 01:29 PM


Whatever’s going on in this photograph, it seems to me, is entirely obvious. It’s not usual, of course, for the foreground to be out-of-focus, nor for the blurry foreground objects to all but obscure the in-focus background objects. In fact, you have to look a bit to see anything in the background at all. There’s more grass, it looks like some trees, and a building.

As for that building, I’m crippled in seeing it because I know what it is, and I also know that it’s the tallest building in New Jersey. Which is, of course, irrelevant. But, if you don’t know what building it is, what do you make of it? Do you even know it’s a building? I mean, it could be some concrete marker post, couldn’t it?

And why take such a photo? Such a non-image, which is, upon reasonable inspection, obvious, is it not? We take many photographs so that we can remember something, whatever it is in the photo. This photo can hardly be about rememberance, can it?

Continue reading "Strange Views, Not so Strange: Cities, Green, and the Rest"

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Geoffrey Harpham: In Praise of Pleasure

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/08/12 at 10:49 AM

For the past few years the National Humanities Center has been running an online colloquim on the relationships between the humanities and various sciences. That colloquim is coming to an end with a defense of pleasure and the autonomy of humanistic inquiry by Geoffrey Harpham, director of the center. Here’s a paragraph from his essay:

But I confess that I have developed a stubborn resistance to the cause of the unification of knowledge and would be disturbed if that cause were advanced as a consequence of all our work. One of the few convictions I have that has been hardened rather than softened as a consequence of “On the Human” and its progenitor ASC [Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity: The Human and the Humanities] is that the difference between the various disciplines enables rather than hinders the advance of knowledge, and that the humanities in particular represent a precious resource that must not be subordinated to an imperial science. This view has had some support among those who have participated in ASC and OTH, but it has not been a majority position. My immediate predecessor in this space, Alex Rosenberg, has just published The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, and in this and other writings, he has taken a very hard pro-scientific line, arguing that science produces the only knowledge worthy of the name, and that the humanities contribute little more than tissues of meretricious fantasy that might yield some distracting, momentary, and decidedly mere “pleasure,” but are, as he says at the end of his (in my view misguided) Guide, “nothing we have to take seriously,” nothing that qualifies as “knowledge or wisdom.”

There’s a list of colloquium essays here. Here’s a direct link to my own contribution, which is about cultural evolution.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/05/12 at 04:08 PM

I just watched The Dirty Dozen, a 1967 war film with an ensemble cast headlined by Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, and Telly Savalas. The premise is simple, if a bit implausible: Marvin is hard-as-nails Major with guts and an attitude who’s tasked with leading a team on a Very Important Mission, one that’s also risky and likely to kill most of the team. His team consists of men convicted of capital offenses and sentenced either to long prison terms or to die. The mission is to destroy a chateau that serves as a rest and conference center for high-level German officers.

Most of this two-and-a-half hour film is devoted to training and a dry run at some war games. The actual mission only takes the last 45 minutes of the film. Of course the mission is a success, and most of the men die. There’s a fairly well-known scene in which Jim Brown, recently retired from a spectacular football career, does some broken field running while stuffing hand grenades down ventilation shafts for a large underground bunker, which was filled with German officers and their women, mostly prostitutes and mistresses I’d guess. As Marvin and his team had already poured gasoline down those shafts we assume that the officers and women were incinerated, though we don’t see and fire in the bunker.

That implied immolation scene was mentioned in one of the DVD extras, perhaps the voice-over commentary, perhaps Ernest Borgnine’s intro, I forget which, as possibly costing the director, Robert Aldrich, an Oscar; otherwise the film was nominated in four categories (supporting actor, editing, sound, and sound effects) and it won for sound effects. It was the top money-maker of 1967. All things considered, it was a BIG DEAL.

Continue reading "A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

ADD: Drugs Don’t Work Long Term

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/29/12 at 07:53 AM

L. Alan Sroufe has an oped in today’s NYTimes on the use of drugs to treat ADD (attention Deficient Disorder) in children: Ritalin Gone Wrong.

Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems. The drugs can also have serious side effects, including stunting growth.

Sadly, few physicians and parents seem to be aware of what we have been learning about the lack of effectiveness of these drugs.

He suggests that experience may be the cause:

Policy makers are so convinced that children with attention deficits have an organic disease that they have all but called off the search for a comprehensive understanding of the condition. The National Institute of Mental Health finances research aimed largely at physiological and brain components of A.D.D. While there is some research on other treatment approaches, very little is studied regarding the role of experience. Scientists, aware of this orientation, tend to submit only grants aimed at elucidating the biochemistry.

Thus, only one question is asked: are there aspects of brain functioning associated with childhood attention problems? The answer is always yes. Overlooked is the very real possibility that both the brain anomalies and the A.D.D. result from experience.

Here’s some informal notes I did some years ago on the experience angle: Music and the Prevention and Amelioration of ADHD: A Theoretical Perspective:

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.

Friday, January 27, 2012

More Fishy Business

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/27/12 at 09:53 AM

Mark Liberman has a run at Stanley Fish‘s recent fusillade against digital humanties, which turns on a pair of plosives in a paragraph in Milton’s Aeropagetica. Fish makes a big deal of Milton’s p’s and b’s while Liberman does a statistical analysis of their occurence in the text and concludes that Fish’s argument is much ado about nothing.

Which translates rather easily into much ado about Stanley Fish, opportunist extraordinaire. In the spirit of my own brief post from a couples days ago, I made the following comment to Liberman’s piece:

It’s difficult to know just how seriously to take this little performance, but it’s worth setting it in the larger context of Fish’s career as a theorist of methodology. Back in the dark and benighted times of the 1970s he wrote some take-downs of linguistic and statistical methods in stylistics which were included in his very influential 1980 collection, Is There A Text in This Class? Elsewhere in that collection he argued his version of the notion that the meanings critics find in texts are the meanings that they themselves put there (as authorised by their local ‘interpretive community’). It was his ability to argue that point that put him on the map as a BIG THEORIST.

That, of course, is rather different from the position he’s now claiming in this piece, namely that the meaning is put there by the author and that it’s the critic’s job to find it through arguments that can be right, a good thing, or wrong, not so good. THAT was the mainstream position at mid-20th century; that was the position Fish and others were then deposing.

So perhaps he’s changed his mind. Though I note that only a few years ago he was arguing that what critics, such as himself, do is pretty much play around with texts in a way that is unfettered by utility in any way, shape, or form. And that’s the glory of it all.

And that DOES seem to be what Fish was doing in his plosives palaver in this piece, playing around.

I note that in one of his excursions in the current piece, Fish argues against one Stephen Ramsay, who “doesn’t want to narrow interpretive possibilities, he wants to multiply them.” That is, Ramsey seems to view digital explorations of texts as a means of playing around even more, a comfortable demodernist postconstructive recouperation of post-industrial capitalist technology. So, if Fish is going to position himself against THAT, well, what better position to assume than arguing for truth, justice, and the old intentionalst way?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fish Argues Against Interpretation Via Digital Humanities

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/24/12 at 05:19 PM

He’s at it again. Fish has another post contra-digital humanities, this time centering on interpretation. Not surprisingly, he’s opposed, which is consistent with remarks he made about stylistics, including computational stylistics, in one or two of the essays in Is There A Text in This Class? What IS surprising, given the arguments in that—arguably ancient—book, is his final paragraph:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.

When did he revert to the beliefs he so strenuously argued against in that text, the beliefs that made him a Major Theorist?

But, of course, he’s allowed to change his beliefs. We all are. For that matter, some of the positions he’s arguing against aren’t terribly attractive to me, at least as he presents them. But that’s neither here nor there.

My major problem is that he’s implicitly asserting that digital humanities stands or falls on its service to interpretation. It doesn’t. And, heretical though though the idea may seem, interpretation need not be the central activity of literary criticism. We’ve been too long too greedy after meaning. Understanding how texts work is not at all co-extensive with figuring out, case by case, what this or that text means. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Conversation Continues: What is Graffiti?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/17/12 at 05:30 PM

My meeting with the Semiotics Workshop at the University of Chicago went very well, very well indeed. As you may recall, I was asked to present a paper: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: What is Graffiti? It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had in an academic setting. The workshop coordinators, Britta Ingebretson and Chris Bloechl, had distributed my paper to participants ahead of time so: 1) everyone had read it and had a chance to think about it, and 2) I didn’t have to make a formal presentation. Instead, 3) we could devote our time to discussion. To get things started Joseph Weiss made some brief remarks about my paper and then the floor was opened for discussion.

That discussion, as I said, went very well. It continued through dinner afterward. And I’ve continued thinking about issues raised.

What’s a Site?

Britta Ingebretson wanted to know how I determined the boundary of a site, but, as things unfolded, I never got a chance to answer. The question is important because I’ve argued that the site is an important locus for analytical and explanatory attention. The site isn’t simply where the graffiti happens to be, but it somehow plays a contributory role in graffiti culture.

At one level the question is relatively simple, relatively, but not completely. I’ve organized my online photos by site, and I’ve even marked up a Google Earth map with outlines of those sites:


The pushpins indicate buildings (green = my apartment, blue = a high school, red = entrance to/exit from the Holland Tunnel) while the yellow rectangles bound sites. While there are tags on street signs and dumpsters all over, the pieces tend to be within the yellow boundaries. They are not, however, uniformly distributed within the boundaries. The exact distribution varies from site to site. The large rectangular site, HC (Holland Corridor, right of center), however, is a bit different. It is not densely packed with pieces, but pieces are here and there within the boundaries, though many are now gone as the buildings themselves have been demolished. 

Continue reading "The Conversation Continues: What is Graffiti?"

Monday, January 16, 2012

Listening is All

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/16/12 at 06:19 PM

One of the motifs that returns again and again in these “Inside the Actor’s Studio” interviews is listening. Most recently, the interviews with Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, and Juliette Binoch. Listening is all, listening is everything.

The first time I heard that it surprised me. And then became utterly obvious. I am, after all, a musician. To perform music, you must listen to your fellow performers. And it makes no difference whether the performance is more or less fully notated on a score or there is no score at all. In either case you MUST listen to your fellow performers.

For that matter, you must listen to yourself as well. The point of practice and preparation, in a sense, is that that, in performance, you play your instrument, sing, speak, by intending to HEAR something. The muscular stuff is subordinated to what you hear.

Now, I suppose I don’t have anything very specific in mind when I’m wishing that literary critics listen to actors talking about their craft. The thing is, if you take that actor talk seriously you have to accept that there is a deep and subtle process involved in simply speaking the words “as they are written.” And coming to grips with that process, whatever it is, is what we must do as critics.

And it is precisely what WE EVADE when we look for meaning. Whatever actors may think about if and when they think about meaning, they cannot be thinking about THAT when they’re listening to another actor, or actors, and summoning their lines in response to what they’re hearing.

That is, this actor talk is a way to get some sense of a process involved in simply and only speaking the words as they’re written. No hidden meanings required. The only other way to get that sense is to go more deeply into the cognitive sciences than, as far as I can tell, any of the literary cognitivists have been able or willing to go. You have to think, explicitly, formally or almost so, about computational process.

Continue reading "Listening is All"

Sunday, January 15, 2012

As Actors Prepare, so Should Critics Learn

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/15/12 at 05:41 PM

Every once in awhile I like to listen to a bunch of James Lipton’s interviews with theatre and film people, mostly actors. They’re all over YouTube; just google “Inside the Actors Studio.” I’ve been doing so this weekend.

What I enjoy is the nitty-gritty sense of craft, of what actors do to prepare a role. For example, in this interview, starting at roughly 17:30 or so, Jeremy Irons talks about playing twin brothers in Dead Ringers about playing twin brothers in Dead Ringers (a film I’ve not seen):

He says that, in order to differentiate the two, he thought in terms of “energy point” (his term), acting one brother from the forehead and the other from the throat—but, note, that Irons didn’t use those terms. Rather, he pointed to the points on his body. I don’t know whether or not he was using “energy point” as a synonym for “chakra,” but I’d guess the idea is the same. In any event, his remark was immediately and intuitive to me, perhaps because I’m a musician and, as such, understand something of what’s involved in performing.

Whatever you think, however you think, it all MUST come out in how you use your body. Performance is physical. It’s easy enough to talk about embodiment—such talk has been fashionable in a number of disciplines for over a decade—but you can’t merely talk a performance. You must execute it.

More and more I think listening to such interviews could be more important for academic literary critics than learning philosophy or psychology or even literary theory. That’s all abstract, learning it always moves you away from the work, from the text, off into greedy meaning and abstraction. That’s easy and, at this point, it’s in the way of making intellectual progress.

Critics need a much stronger sense of literature as craft, of texts as things constructed, to precise and rigorous, if flexible, standards. Listening to good actors talk about their craft, and figuring out how to take such talk seriously, deeply, that might begin pushing our minds in the right direction.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: What is Graffiti?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/31/11 at 09:02 AM

I’ll be at the University of Chicago next Thursday talking about graffiti in their Semiotics Workshop (details here). The presentation will be informal and is based on a number of slightly revised blog posts. I’ve written the following introductory remarks to the posts.

* * * * *

Graffiti: Some Parameters

What is graffiti? That’s the question. Well, actually, it’s two questions. One is relatively easy to answer, though the answer is, inevitably, a fuzzy one. The other is difficult to answer, perhaps even, at this time, impossible. Impossible because we may not have the terms in which to state an answer. But perhaps impossible as well because graffiti is still in a state of becoming and, as such, has not yet settled into being some one thing or several delimited things. It’s the second question that interests me, but I can’t get to it until I’ve provided an answer to the first.

Names: Tags, Throwies, Pieces

On the first question, by graffiti I mean an expressive tradition that seems to have started in North Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which spread out from there. It’s now all over the world, with visible stylistic links back to the 1970s graffiti in the Northeastern USofA.

Graffiti’s about the name, the name a person takes when they decide to write graffiti: Taki183, Snake, Dondi, Blade, Seen, to name a few names. The word “graffiti” has been externally imposed, though it’s long been accepted within graffiti culture. Since the form is about the name, the people who do it think of it as writing, and of themselves as writers. They write graffiti. A writer may write under two or more different names, nor is it uncommon for a writer to get up (that is do graffiti on a wall) under the name of another writer in his crew.

The tag is the most basic form of graffiti, but it can, in some hands, take on the grace of a master calligrapher. Tags can be done quickly. Throw-ups or throwies are more elaborate, generally taking the form of block of balloon letters with outline and fill in contrasting colors. They cover more space that tags and take more time to do. Tags can be done in, say, a minute or less; throwies take several minutes. [When you’re avoiding the police, time to execute is important.]

Pieces, aka masterpieces, are the most elaborate of the basic graffiti forms. A piece is likely five or six feet high, maybe eight or ten, and can be 15 to 20 feet wide. The design of a piece may be worked out beforehand in a black book. Pieces may be multi-colored and may feature various kinds of representational art. If executed in so-called wild style the name may be so distorted and elaborated as to be unreadable.

But What IS it?

When Norman Mailer wrote his 1974 essay, “The Faith of Graffiti,” he declared it to be art, perhaps the first to do so. But many New Yorkers – most? – thought it was vandalism. After all, it was illegally done. So, is it art or vandalism?

They aren’t exclusive categories. Remember, however, that those original graffiti writers did not come up in the world of art schools, galleries, and museums. They operated outside of it. And getting away with vandalism was important to them. It still is. That is, the illegal nature of the work is not an incidental fact of its production. Even those among the very small number of writers who make a living working with design firms will still keep up their street cred by doing illegals.

A taq sprayed on a moveable board is just a tag. But it earns the writer no street cred. A tag on the back of a stop sign, or on the side of a water tower, that tag is illegal and earns points. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it’s identifiably the tag of a named writer: Ceaze, Tdee, KH1, Sol, Werds, to a name a few that have gotten up in my neck of the woods. Aesthetics counts, but just where and why and how much, that’s tricky.

Continue reading "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: What is Graffiti?"

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Peregrinations of Agency vis-à-vis the Text

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/23/11 at 09:01 AM

Back in the ancient days of the 1950s the intentional fallacy was invoked to separate the text from the author, indeed, it was invoked to separate any work of art from its creator. Agency was thus invested solely in the text itself, the autonomous text. It was the critic’s job to interrogate the text and thus discern its meaning.

As a practical matter, it turned out that texts spoke differently to different critics. For some this was evidence of the richness of texts, that they should support so many meanings. For others it was a problem.

The problem tried out various solutions. One line of thinking restored authorial intention, subordinating textual meaning to that intention, thus locating agency in the author. Another line of thinking killed the author and located meaning in codes variously linked to social structure or to the unconscious. Agency was thus denied to author, reader, and text and invested in those codes and the nebulous structures placing them on offer. Yet another line of thinking located agency in the reader.

So: text, author, codes, reader. What else could there be?

Now the speculative realists and object-oriented ontologists are investing the text with agency—see, for example, this Twitter lecture by Eileen Joy and this commentary by Levi Bryant. Is this but a return to an old position albeit encased in new terminology? Or will something new emerge?

Who knows? I note that Bryant ends by suggesting that we “allow the work of art to transform how we sense”—a old idea, tried and true: make it new.

I further note that Joy begins by asking: “First, what happens when we consider that literary characters are not human beings, but more like mathematical compressions of the human?” Indeed, literary characters ARE NOT human beings. Could we perhaps arrive at some understanding of just how they are “mathematical compressions” and of how we understand such compressions?

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