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.
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.
Posts by Bill Benzon
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
OOO is Very Abstract, but so is KR
Over the past several months I’ve been reading around in object-oriented ontology (OOO)—I’m currently reading an interview with Levi Bryant—and I note that it’s a very abstract way of dealing with the world. Here, for example, is a passage from that Bryant interview:
Is use the term “withdrawal” in a somewhat different sense than Harman. For Harman, withdrawal means that objects are independent of all their relations such that they never touch or relate to one another. For me, by contrast, objects are capable of relating, but are also external to the relations in the sense that they can break with current relations and enter into new relations. With Harman I thus hold that objects are independent in the sense that they are not constituted by their relations, while contrary to Harman I hold that objects can enter into relations with other objects. For me, withdrawal thus means two things. On the one hand, withdrawal refers to the virtual dimension of objects. The virtual dimension of objects or their powers is forever withdrawn from other objects. Not only do objects have all sorts of powers that may or may not ever lead to manifestations or actualizations (a person might never get a tan because they live their entire life locked in a dungeon), but also powers as such are never themselves manifested. That is, the qualities an object manifests never resemble the powers that it possesses.
It’s all about JUST objects and relations, and powers, and qualities too. Very abstract.
There’s nothing surprising about that. That’s how philosophy tends to be. And I knew that going in.
What strikes me, however, is that this level of abstraction feels akin to knowledge representation (KR), the discipline in cognitive science and artificial intelligence about representing human knowledge in computational form. KR has many specific formalisms, but one can think of them as being about objects and relations, powers and qualities. If you’re building an expert system for medical diagnosis, well, what objects, relations, powers, and qualities do you need to have in your system in order to represent some body of medical diagnostics? If you want to be able to recognize stories about going into food establishments and ordering a meal, what objects, relations, powers, and qualities do you need to have in your system in order to do that? So, the study of KR is the study of how to deploy objects, relations, powers, and qualities in representing bodies of knowledge.Continue reading "OOO is Very Abstract, but so is KR"
Russell Hoban: Disappearances
Was the late Russell Hoban an object-oriented ontologist? How’s this sound?
More and more I find life is a series of disappearances followed usually but not always by reappearances; you disappear from your morning self and reappear as your afternoon self; you disappear from feeling good and reappear feeling bad. And people, even face to face and clasped in each other’s arms, disappear from each other.
H/t Michael Sporn.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Nina Paley’s started background research for her Exodus project (aka Seder-Masochism). One aspect of her research has been to immerse herself in recordings of the theme song from Exodus, a hit movie from 1960 about a shipload of Holocaust survivors after World War II. The theme song became a hit in an instrumental version by duo-pianists Ferrante and Teicher and was covered in many other instrumental versions. Pop star Pat Boone wrote lyrics and vocal versions multiplied like rabbits, many of which are available on YouTube.
Paley singled out one version for special mention on her Facebook page, a version by one Alenka Pinterič, which she introduced with this sentence: “But I just came across this one, which is...special. Like, Trolololo special. It has viral potential.” That reads like Paley had her tongue in her cheek. And when you hear it, well . . . . The thing is, a day later she reposted that same version, remarking that it “is the only version of “Exodus” that gets BETTER every time you play it.” No tongue in cheek. In comments she says: “What makes it great is her palpable joy and confidence.” She’s right. I’m not sure that “great” is the word, but “palpable joy and confidence,” yes. Here it is:Continue reading "Alenka Pinterič"
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Community Bands in America
In 19th century America, the community band was at the center of community life. Here’s a documentary about them:
Meet The Band, a Hindsight Media production, is a one-hour documentary tracing the history of community bands n the United States. We profile four very different bands from around the country and takes us through the American Revolution, the Civil War and the 20th century.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
New coinage: “Assholocracy”
Over at Language Log Geoffrey Pullum is arguing for “assholocracy” as a new addition to the English language. Donald Trump is his favored instance of the assholocrat, but examples are legion:
The whole Arab Spring has been a process of bringing down assholocracies. Italy suffered under one until recently. Russia and Syria are now protesting against their own crooked assholocracies, and the only reason North Korea and Zimbabwe don’t do the same is that they daren’t, they could be killed. We in the West are going to need a term for being ruled by assholocrats, because they continue to threaten to exercise power over huge parts of the earth’s population even if not (yet) over us.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Tank Tankoro, by Gajo Sakamoto
Gaja Sakamoto. Tank Tankuro: Prewar Works, 1934-45. Presspop, Inc. 2011.
I was browsing in Jim Hanley’s Universe* a few weeks ago and saw a handsomely slipcased volume by someone I’d never heard of, Gajo Sakamoto, about a character I’d never heard of, Tank Tankoro. That I’d never heard of either means nothing, of course. The fine print on the label pasted to the cellophane wrapper indicated that this Tankoro character was “the preeminent robot superhero manga from pre-WWII Japan” and that it had somehow gotten lost even in Japan and wasn’t rediscovered there until the 1970s, at which point it was republished to much joy and acclaim.
A very convincing sales pitch and, as I said, the slipcasing was very handsome. But I didn’t buy that first time. But two weeks later . . . then I bought. I ripped off the cellophane wrapper, took the book out of its case and started leafing though. Good paper, high quality printing, I thought, and funny.
I leafed through to page 73 and noticed a bunch of guys and a canon, but no ammunition. I turned the page and saw a nice two-page spread (74-75), in four color printing (the earlier pages had been only black and red). On the right-hand page some guy had a basket stacked high with octopi while on the left-hand the guys with the canon were wondering “What’ll we do with them?”
Of course, I new exactly what they were going to do with them, and started chuckling at the notion of using octopi as canon balls (while also thinking that that wasn’t too kind to the octopi). And, yep! that’s what happened on pages 76 and 77. And then 78 and 79 formed another two page spread, which you can see on the web, here (page 78) and here (page 79). The octopi formed a chain stretching from Tankuro up there in the air down to the guys on the ground, who were trying to reel him in: “It’s like beach net fishing.”
What an utterly absurd and wonderful conception. Of course, it didn’t work. Tankuro freed himself, because he’s the hero. I was hooked.Continue reading "Tank Tankoro, by Gajo Sakamoto"
Friday, December 09, 2011
David Graeber Interview: Anarchism, Debt, and Militarism
The White Review has a far-ranging interview with David Graeber, economic anthropologist and OWS theorist. Here he talks about how US overseas military arrangements and foreign debt amount to empire under a different set of names (paragraphing mine):
Continue reading "David Graeber Interview: Anarchism, Debt, and Militarism"
Since 1972 when Nixon went off the gold standard, the world reserve currency has been the US dollar, but what ultimately backs the US dollar? People say nothing, it’s ‘fiat money’ but I don’t think this is true. It’s a credit system based on the circulation of debt.
Of course the US has the enormous advantage of being able to write checks that are never actually cashed: US treasury bonds have become the basic reserve currency for the central banks and as Michael Hudson originally pointed out, most of these American treasury bonds are never really cashed in. They’re rolled over year after year to buy new ones, and these holders are taking a loss on them as they pay interest lower than inflation. So why are they doing that?
Well, if you look at the size of US deficit it corresponds almost exactly to the real saw [sic] military budget. If you look at graphs showing the growth of the US deficit, and the percentage of it held overseas, and the US military spending—basically, you see almost exactly the same curve. So basically, foreign governments and institutional lenders are buying US treasury bonds and paying for this enormous military spending.
So, who are the guys doing it? Well during the cold war it was especially West Germany, now, apart from China, the most important are places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Gulf states. What do these states have in common? They’re all covered in US military bases, or under US military protection. The US is borrowing the money to create these military bases from the very countries that the US military is sitting on top of.
In the past, such arrangements were called ‘empires’ and the money sent over was referred to as ‘tribute.’ Now apparently your not allowed to use that language, so it’s called a ‘loan.’ Nonetheless, that link between the military and the core of the financial system remains, it’s the thing we’re not supposed to think about.
Thursday, December 08, 2011
What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?
When I first got interested in object-oriented ontology (OOO) I wondered just what qualified as an object, metaphysically speaking. I suppose the question was particularly acute because, at that time, I was reading Tim Morton’s early thinking on hyperobjects, which presupposed ordinary metaphysical objects and seemed to extend it in some (possibly strange) way to some special class of objects, objects, Tim, said, that were massively distributed in space and time. Such as global climate change. What’s to be gained, I wondered, by saying that climate change is an object, as opposed, say, to a process?
And that question—what IS an object?—was still very much on my mind at the OOO meetings in New York City in mid-September. A brief exchange between Graham Harman and Levi Bryant clarified that at bit. I forget just what they were talking about, but they decided tnat, no, it wasn’t an object, it was a set, an arbitrary collection of objects. So, (metaphysical) objects are one thing, sets another. We’re getting somewhere.
Then I discovered, perhaps in reading The Quadruple Object (which I’m still studying, it’s a dense little book) that imaginary objects are as much under consideration as, well, real objects. Except, you see, that imaginary objects are real objects, don’t you see? but not real in the way that real objects are. Now, of course, that’s not what Harman says, nor is it quite what I was thinking or am now thinking, but it’s a useful index of potential confusion.Continue reading "What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?"
Monday, December 05, 2011
Conference on Psycho-Ontology
There’s a conference on that topic at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem on 11-15 December of this year, with David Chalmers, Steven Pinker, Lera Bofoditsky and Jesse Prinz headlining. Here’s how the conference bills itself:
Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality? Philosophers such as Hume, Kant, James, Bergson, Husserl, Kuhn, and Goodman have, in different ways, seemed to believe this question should be answered in the affirmative. Yet as disciplines, cognitive science and metaphysics are usually conducted without reference to one another.
“Psycho-ontology” can be defined as the investigation of the relationship between human cognition and features of reality: We do psycho-ontology when we study the way perception, thought, and emotion play a role in helping constitute the world we inhabit. But psycho-ontology can also move in the opposite direction: It can involve studying the fundamental features of reality in order to gain insight into how human cognitive processes work.
It’s a subject of some interest to me, what with my long-standing interest in psychology of ontological cognition.
However, in looking over the program a bit, I suspect it may miss the point as far as object-oriented ontology (OOO) is concerned. The blurb for Chalmers gives it away: “What is the minimal vocabulary that Laplace’s demon would need in order to know all truths about the world?” That’s not what OOO is about nor is it quite what I’m about. For my part, I fear that the notion of a fixed vocabulary is somehow adequate to all truths is somewhere between deeply problematic and hopeless one. But the broader point is simply that Chalmers seems concerned about enumerating the kinds of things in the world, which is what ontology seems to mean for this conference.Continue reading "Conference on Psycho-Ontology"
Thursday, December 01, 2011
How Many Tables?
Graham Harman has a recent post in which he wonders about tables:
Because of something I had to write I was going over A.S. Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (or over the Introduction, anyway, which was the relevant part for my purposes). This Introduction is famous for its discussion of the “two tables”: the scientific table that is mostly empty space and made up of rushing subatomic particles, and the table of everyday life (which Eddington confusingly names the “substantial” table, but never mind that).
I find that I have no sympathy for either of those two tables. The real table is the third table that is neither scientific nor everyday.
Under Eddington’s schema, both tables are dissolved into nearby sets of relations– either into their tiny little components detectable by the sciences, or into their effects on humans.
I’ve not read Eddington’s introduction, but only the single page that shows up in the Google Books preview. But that leads me to suspect that the situation is worse the Harman’s suggested.
The scientific table seems to be the quantum-mechanical table of sub-atomic charged particles, where those particle are not little itty bitty grains of sand, but even smaller; they’re something else. I suspect that Eddington’s “substantial” table is a conflation of all those various appearances (sensual objects in Harman’s terminology) the table presents to human perception and action with the classical table as defined in various respects by Descartes, Gallileo and Newton. It’s the table of classical mechanics. If we count all those appearances as one table, that gives us three tables, two scientific tables (quantum and classical) and one everyday table (appearances). Harman’s real table is a fourth. It, presumably, is what holds those other tables together or, if you will, it is what spawns them.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Fantasia and Me
I grew up watching Fantasia episodes on Disney’s TV program and I saw it in theatrical release in 1969. It fascinated me as a child but as a young adult, eh, it’s not all that. Then I picked up a DVD in August 2003 in connection with a now-abandoned book project: WHAM! I was stunned.
I saw the film itself, yes, but though it I also saw the cumulated techniques of 3000 years of art history, Western and Eastern, and a large swath of the cosmos and of life on Earth. So I wrote a longish email about it, and more generally about cartoons and animation, to my colleague, Tim Perper. Tim had become interested in manga and anime so I figured he’d have some observations even if Disney and Fantasia didn’t particularly interest him.
I was right, Tim had things to say. He also got me interested in manga and anime, which have been a major part of my intellectual life since then. It’s been mostly the Japanese stuff, but I’ve also looked into some classic America cartoons, Winsor McCay, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, and classic Disney, Fantasia above all.
In August of 2006 a made a post at The Valve in which I argued that Fantasia was one of the great works of the 20th century. Back then the claim struck me as rather outrageous. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it still seems true, sorta’, but also beside the point—to which I’ll return in a moment.
When I made that post I didn’t intend to devote posts to each episodes. As a result of an email exchange with Michael Barrier I wrote a piece on Dance of the Hours in 2007 and that, I figured, was that. It wasn’t until the Spring of 2010 that I decided I might work my way through the entire film, starting with The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I’ve now written about every episode, including the intermission. I’ve also written a concluding piece in which I examine episode order, arguing that the episodes on an increasing range of mental faculties until, say, Dance of the Hours, at which point the episodes begin asking: Just what does it mean to be human?
As for Fantasia being one of the great works of the the 20th century, you can read my argument on that, and the rest of my commentaries as well. But I do wonder what the greatness game is about. In January of 2010 Frederick Turner argued that Hayao Miyazaki is the world’s best living filmmaker, a judgment I’m not prepared to contradict. Miyazaki, of course, is working in the same medium that Disney did, animation, though his work is quite different.
But the greatness game is not simply or even primarily a game played by individual critics offering up judgments. It’s an institutional game. While Disney had his successes and his fame, including honorary degrees, and certainly his fortune, we have no institution that endorses the greatness of his animation, nor, as far as I can tell, is Miyazaki’s greatness endorsed by any institution—John Lassiter’s enthusiasm not withstanding. The institutions that underwrite greatness are not interested in animation and I’m afraid that neither my enthusiasm, nor Fred Turner’s, is going to change that.
The question, it seems to me, is this: Is Disney’s finest work, and Miyazaki’s, along with much other work—is this work destined to sing into the past without leaving a trace or, on the contrary, will it turn out to be the foundations of new institutions in new worlds that are, at best, only now hinted at? Only time will tell.Continue reading "Fantasia and Me"
Monday, November 28, 2011
I’d been taking sunshots before I’d seen any of Terrence Malick’s films, but seeing The Tree of Life heightened my interest in such shots. Recently been shooting the sun through dense thickets of denuded twigs and branches, giving the shots a rather different feel. Here’s an example:
The bluish tinge is an artifact of the photography process, though I’m not quite sure what “artifact” means in this case. The implication is that it isn’t really there, that you wouldn’t have seen it on site. But on site you don’t really look at such things long enough to register much of anything; the sun’s too bright. What I saw through the viewfinder—I think—was mostly light.
Here’s a rather different example:
I really like how the sun appears as a hole burned through film. I’m not sure, however, that I like the fact that the photo has no in-focus area. I didn’t intend that, but it’s not an accident either. It’s something that happens.Continue reading "Sunshots 2.0"
Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind
I began my exploration of Fantasia with an essay arguing that it was a masterpiece of 20th century art. That argument was about the range of material depicted within the relatively narrow compass of two hours. Disney, in effect, said: This is human life in the universe.
I now want to return to the whole film, but with a different question in mind. I want to look at the episode order. This is an issue that doesn’t arise in a film that tells a story, or, at least, at arises in a different way. The incidents in the story have an inherent order that must be respected, though foreshadowing and flashbacks are possible.
Fantasia isn’t like that. It tells no story. There is no order linking the separate episodes. In theory Disney could have determined the order by tossing a coin. But one can’t imagine him doing that. I assume that he and his team thought about the order and chose this particular order because it was somehow ‘the best.’
What guided their choice?
I don’t know. I’ve not seen the Disney archives so I’ve not examined any relevant records. But I’m willing to hazard a guess based on an analysis of the episodes themselves.
This problem is hardly novel. It’s been faced hundreds of thousands of times by musicians putting on a concert or organizing a set list for club performance. One principle, for example, is that you want to open strong. If you don’t get your audience’s attention at the very beginning of the performance, you may never get it.
By that principle alone, the episode order in Fantasia is a mystery. To be sure, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens very dramatically. Those opening cascades DO grab your attention. But that’s about it, at least for Disney’s middlebrow audience, people for whom “the classics” were unfamiliar and perhaps even forbidding territory. The toccata grabs you, but the subsequent fugue lacks the tunefulness that was central to popular music of the time—hip hop was WAY in the future. Further, the abstract visuals were just STRANGE. No funny animals, no people, no cars, no flowers, no nothing. Just violin bows and squiggles.Continue reading "Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind"
Friday, November 25, 2011
Be It Ever so Humble, There’s no Place Like Elysium
A PDF of a complete set of posts on Disney’s Pastoral Symphony may be downloaded here.
I grew up watching episodes of Fantasia on TV, and saw a theatrical version in 1969, which didn’t impress me that much. It wasn’t THAT psychedelic. Then, for over three decades, nothing. I suppose I thought about the movie every so often, and perhaps recalled an episode or two, but I didn’t see it at all.
When, a few years ago, I picked to DVD, I was stunned by it, the variety of animation styles, the variety of subjects. It fascinated me. I liked some episodes more than others. The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring were immediate favorites. The Pastoral Symphony was my least favorite; I was almost embarrassed to watch it.
How come, then, that I’ve written more about it than any of the other episodes?
For one thing, by the time I got around to it, I’d learned a lot about describing and analyzing cartoons, not only from the work I’d done on the other episodes, but from work I’ve done on other cartoons as well: Miyazaki, Walter Lantz, Warner Brothers, other Disney (Dumbo), and some others here and there. I was better at my craft; I knew what to look for, and how.
Then there is the episode itself. It’s one of the longest in the film—only Rite of Spring is longer—and one of the most complex. In particular, it portrays a wider range of human social life than any of the other episodes, dealing, as it does, with child-rearing, courtship, celebration, and security (from the storm). Simply describing what Disney’s depicted and how he’s organized it, that takes time.
Now that I’ve been through it all I have a better sense of my embarrassment, which centered on Bacchus, though not entirely so (those centaurs are rather clunky, and that cherub’s bottom, what’s up with that?). Bacchus is given a complex job, perhaps more than he could handle. In the voice-over commentary to the version packaged with Fantasia 2000, historian Brian Sibley notes that the lead animator for Bacchus, Ward Kimball, came to think that he’d laid it on rather too thickly. Perhaps it did, but he had a tough job. As I read Bacchus, not only must he be a randy old man,, but he’s also a puddle-splashing infant. And somehow he must be both of those and be believable in the context of this movie.
Well, men are randy, old, and infants, but generally not within the compass of 10 or 15 minutes. It’s one thing to be each of those in its own context, isolated from the other, but to be them all, all at once, that just rather rubs one’s nose it the absurdity, the ridiculousity, if I may, of being human. Maybe Kimball didn’t go overboard at all. Maybe he was just doing his job, and doing it well, indeed.
Perhaps embarrassment was the necessary point. Whatever. In any event, I’ve made my peace with Disney’s Pastoral Symphony. I no longer find it embarrassing. Instead, I’m filled with wonder at what Disney attempted, and what he actually managed to accomplish.
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