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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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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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What’s in a Name? “Pepper Spray”

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/24/11 at 07:04 AM

The police use of so-called pepper spray is much in the news and on the web these days, especially as a result of its use at University of California at Davis. According to The New York Times “Megyn Kelly on Fox News dismissed pepper spray as ‘a food product, essentially.” That same story also reports:

To the American Civil Liberties Union, its use as a crowd-control device, particularly when those crowds are nonthreatening, is an excessive and unconstitutional use of force and violates the right to peaceably assemble.

A food product? Excessive and unconstitutional? One and the same product.

I understand the name’s derivation, that the active ingredient—technically, oleoresin capsicum—is the chemical that causes the ‘bite’ in peppers. The use of THAT name, of course, automatically associates the spray with food. Not only is food innocuous, it’s necessary for life. So the name tells us that this agent is, at most, an exaggeration or amplification of something that’s good for us: “Eat your spinach, it’s good for you.” We don’t think that such an agent could put someone in the hospital or induce possibly permanent nerve damage.

How would these stories play out if the spray was known as ‘liquid pain’ or ‘torture spray’? How would the officers using the agent think of themselves and their actions if they thought of the agent as torture spray rather than as a food derivative?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pastoral 6: All Together Now: Nietzsche, Lorenz, Jakobson

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/23/11 at 12:08 PM

Toward a Compositionist Aesthetics in which Nothing is Hidden, All is Revealed

In the past several decades the standard modes of literary and film criticism have sought to find hidden meanings. The work was thus conceived as a device to smuggling various meanings though lines of conscious defense. When the critic had found those hidden meanings, his or her work was done.

Under such a critical regime the psychological patterns I’ve found in earlier posts—sexual in the first and third, oral in the fourth—are such hidden meanings. In that regime everything else I’ve looked—the treatment of sound and color, ring form, cuteness—all that’s just deceptive camouflage. Now that the critic—that’s me, but you as well—has penetrated it, it can be discarded in favor of the REAL meaning, that ‘hidden’ sexual stuff.

The major problem with such readings is that they, in effect, discard the artistry, treating the text or film as an odd species of argument that makes its point almost completely by indirection. Well, if that’s what’s REALLY going on, then why not make the argument directly and dispense with all the artistic window dressing?

It’s not a very convincing style of criticism, though it’s been the norm for half a century. I was trained in such criticism, among other things, and have come to believe we need something more. Just what isn’t entirely clear. But what I’ve been doing with the Pastoral episode—indeed, with all of Fantasia—is to explore other ways of looking at, in this case, film. In this regime, the one I’m making up, that psychological material is still there, but I don’t regard it as particularly hidden nor do I think that pointing it out is the ultimate goal of criticism.

That psychological material is just stuff, raw material, out of which the artist, or artists in this case, construct a work of art. Those other things, color, sound, form, cuteness, they too are stuff. The purpose of this post is to begin thinking about how all this stuff works together to create a work of cinematic art. As for what that work means, I don’t know and I don’t care. Not here and now. What matters is how it works. 

Continue reading "Pastoral 6: All Together Now: Nietzsche, Lorenz, Jakobson"

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nature Walk

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/22/11 at 01:44 PM


One takes a nature walk, I assume, to experience the natural world. It is not clear to me, however, just how deeply one’s experience of nature depends on a sharp division between nature and society, or nature and culture. To the extent that the nature walk depends on such a distinction it is, of course, problematic. For the walker is always, by definition, inextricably bound up in society and culture, no matter how long the walk nor how remote that place.


My nature walks do not take place in remote locations. I doubt that I’ve even been to a truly remote location, not when flying over the Grand Canyon in a small plane, not when walking in a deep wooded glen at summer camp near Altoona, Pa., nor when walking with a woman in a field near Laramie, Wyoming. For all of these places were within easy distance of roads, villages, and towns.

Continue reading "Nature Walk"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Intuition and the Real 2: On the March

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/20/11 at 08:53 AM

I’ve got another case to add to those in my earlier post on intuition and the sense of reality. This case arose in a long, and often interesting, discussion of the recent evictions of Occupy Wall Street encampments. The discussion has been taking place at Crooked Timber and has involved, among other things, a fairly extensive conversation between one Adrian Kelleher, about whom I know nothing, and Rich Puchalsky, whom I know from The Valve and CT.

Kelleher has been making long, detailed comments saying, more or less, “you’re doing it wrong, you can’t possibly succeed.” Puchalsky, who’s been working with the Occupy group in his neighborhood somewhere in in not-Boston Massachusetts, has been saying, “you don’t at all understand the Occupy movement.” In particular, Kelleher made two long comments, 333 and, particularly 334, which is about how OWS is swimming against “the tide of history.” Puchalsky responds in 341

Here’s my reply to Puchalsky:

Puchalsky: It’s possible for someone to have quite conventional political views and yet act quite differently within a social situation that is different.

BB: Bingo!

Puchalsky: When that failure happens, people in OWS will have friends that they can trust, people who they’ve worked with at a very elemental level.

BB: Bingo! Bingo!

BB: Let me invoke Marley’s Theorem, named after my old buddy Jason Marley: “If you want to know what it’s like to drive a car, you’ve got to sit in the driver’s set and drive the car.” Sitting in the passenger’s seat watching the driver won’t do it, nor will sitting in the back seat, and certainly not sitting at home in your den imagining what driving a car is like. You’ve got to be IN the car, making decisions about traffic, the road, and pedestrians. It’s that elemental.

That last paragraph is where we get the intersection with my earlier remarks about intuition. Puchalsky is IN the OWS movement and so understands it from the inside; he’s in the driver’s seat. Kelleher, apparently, is not.

Continue reading "Intuition and the Real 2: On the March"

Kiddie Lit

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/20/11 at 07:44 AM

Back in the middle of 2006 I’d blogged about Kiddie Lit. I’m republishing that post because it’s directly relevent to my recent series on Disney’s Fantasia and, in particular, to the issues of cuteness and familly presented by the Pastoral episode. I note also that I’ve been looking through Nocholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (2005).

* * * * *

Two or three years ago I read Kiddie Lit:  The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark (2003). I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, and graphic novels, and cartoons.

Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, America’s) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children’s literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either).  Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children’s books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

Continue reading "Kiddie Lit"

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pastoral 5: Ring Form Construction

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/18/11 at 11:05 AM

At the time when I’d finished my previous post about Disney’s Pastoral, on oral imagery, I figured that my next post would be my last. I was wrong. This, my next post, is not that one. This is something that had been brewing during the orality post and that I figured I could toss off as one section in the final post. But, as I thought about that last post, everything got larger and larger, but especially this topic.

So this has become a separate post. The topic is one I’ve already addressed, but in connection with a post in which I discussed both The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that of ring form. I’ve now come to suspect that the Pastoral episode has a ring form as well.

Looking for a Structural Center in a Temporal Work

The idea is that this episode has a section that is structurally central and that the other sections are somehow arranged around that. Why would I think that? Well, for one thing, the episode has five sections, which means that one of them is, numerically at least, central. That’s the Bacchanal. What would it mean for that to be structurally central?

Imagine for a moment that, instead of a film, we were examining a painting on five panels, perhaps an altar piece. Let us imagine that this central panel was larger than the others and that it depicts, say, Christ on the cross, or the Madonna and Child, well-known objects of veneration in Christian art. The other four panels have figures in them as well, and those figures are all looking toward the central image. All of that indicates that the middle panel is also compositionally and iconographically central. This is not, of course, a required feature of paintings spread over five panels. I have no trouble imagining a set of Chinese or Japanese painted screens with five panels where none of the panels is compositionally more important than the others. That’s a very different kind of composition. In that case the fact the one of the five panels is numerically in the middle is structurally irrelevant. That’s not what interests me.

What’s worse, what interests me is a work of temporal art, a film. In the case of a painting one can see all five panels at a glance and one can easily run one’s eyes over the panels in whatever pattern is interesting and convenient. One can grasp and examine the entire composition. That’s not possible with a film, which unfolds in time. One can see and hear only what’s unfolding at the moment, though one can recall previous sights and sounds and anticipate future ones. This pretty much means that, if there is some section that is structurally central, one is not likely to register it as such at the time for the simple reason that one doesn’t know what’s coming up and so has no way of assessing centrality.

Ring form works unconsciously. One discovers it only through deliberate analysis.

Continue reading "Pastoral 5: Ring Form Construction"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Intuition and the Feeling of Real

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/17/11 at 12:42 PM

This is not about either ontology or epistemology. I don’t think. It’s about one’s intuitions, one’s sense of things.

Example 1: graffiti site

An example: the graffiti site. I’ve blogged quite a bit about graffiti and, in particular, about the graffiti site. The notion of a graffiti site is ‘real’ to me mostly because I’ve documented (that is, photographed and made notes about) a handful of sites over several years. Many of the photographs are available on the web, as are my comments. But, to use an old old metaphor, what’s in those documents is only the 10% of the iceberg that floats above the surface of the water. Most of what makes those sites real to me is beneath the water, in all those hours of experience that I have not and even cannot transform into sharable documents.

For some purposes those public documents, taken in conjunction with other such documents, whether on the web or in many of the books and articles about graffiti, are sufficient. But not necessarily for all purposes. When I argue that the site itself is the proper object for study and analysis and, in particular, when I argue that the site is an agent, NOW I’m drawing on my intuition, on the submerged 90% of the iceberg.

How does my reader get access to that? Here I assume a charitable reader who’s willing to grant that I know what I’m talking about, that I’m a serious thinker. But if that charitable reader doesn’t have their own well of direct experience with graffiti sites, I’m not sure how ‘real’ my assertions can possibly be to them. This reader may well believe me, but . . . something’s missing, something vital to the sense of reality that I’m trying to convey.

I suppose what’s missing is a certain kind of direct experience with graffiti. Without such experience, my propositions, even if granted, are likely to seem hollow.

Continue reading "Intuition and the Feeling of Real"

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Big-Time Athletics and the Funding of Higher Ed

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/16/11 at 01:00 PM

Some informal reflections on the dynamics of money and college athletics. No details here, just a general sketch.

I don’t really know when college and university sports became big business, but I’d think the impetus was TV money. TV exposure, in turn, propelled traditional college sports rivalries into the national spotlight as entertainment for all. Thus a significant segment of college athletics became part of the entertainment business and operated outside or at least beside the normal institutional dynamics of colleges and universities.

I did my graduate work at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. When SUNY took over the University of Buffalo (UB) in the late 1960s it did so with the intention of turning it into “the Berkeley of the East.” The English Department was, for whatever reason, one of the first to be targeted for significant upgrading, which it had achieved by the time I got there. That’s why I went, following a newly established ‘pipeline’ between Johns Hopkins (my undergraduate school) and UB.

However, things were also heading into decline when I arrived at SUNYB in Fall of 1973. The student riots a couple of years earlier had panicked the local worthies and they put the brakes on SUNYB’s rise to academic greatness. Still, it took awhile for the English Deaprtment to loose its luster.

Anyhow, either at the very end of my years there or, more likely, some time later, SUNYB started discussing whether or not it should beef up its football program, which had been nothing special. In fact, it may have been on a multi-year losing streak, I forget the details. The logic of that discussion was simple:

But UB didn’t hire a Joe Paterno. I don’t really know how that plan went, though, of course, I am aware to the funding nonsense that’s recently been going on in the SUNY system as a whole.

Continue reading "Big-Time Athletics and the Funding of Higher Ed"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scandal at Penn State: Does not compute

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/15/11 at 03:38 PM

I don’t have much to say about the mess at Penn State, perhaps because I don’t understand it. But I’m not sure what understanding would get me. But I’d like to offer a simple observation andd a dumb and simple-minded comment.

One. Though Sandusky is the one accused of child molestation, we’re not discussing him. We’re discussing Paterno. It’s as though we know Sandusky’s story but . . . Whether or not we think we know Paterno’s story, he’s the man with the bigger than life reputation. So he’s the one who gets discussed.

Two. The Paterno discussion would be much easier if we put him through a Magnetronic Being Splitter that would turn him into four different persons: 1) Paterno the winningest coach in college football, 2) Paterno the benefactor of good things at Penn State, 3) Paterno the figure-head of PSU, and 4) Paterno the guardian of children.

If we could do that, then we could execute #4, burn #3 in effigy, give #2 a plaque in the lobby of the PSU library, and erect a statue to #1. Alas, the Magnetronic Being Splitter hasn’t been debugged yet, so we can’t do that. We’re stuck with having 1, 2, 3, and 4 in one indivisible person; and we don’t really have a way of making sense of such people.

The Paterno problem does not compute. It’s the sort of thing that, nonetheless, human beings somehow muddle through, but that causes super smart computers hell-bent on world destruction to explode.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pastoral 4: Orality and Mastery

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/14/11 at 11:38 AM

Pastoral 1 fawn playing pipes

While I emphasized sexual imagery, both explicit and implicit, in my first post on Disney’s Pastoral, the episode also has a good deal of oral imagery. That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

Oral imagery shows up well before any sexual imagery. It’s there at the beginning, albeit in a very special form, that of an on-screen character playing a musical line from Beethoven’s score. As I indicated before, this is the only episode in the whole film where that happens, and it happens several times throughout the episode. Further, the instrument is always a wind instrument, never a stringed instrument, though Beethoven’s symphony abounds in strings.

In the first case we see a faun playing pan pipes. He’s joined by other fauns, all piping and dancing away, and they’re joined by unicorns. Then one faun and one unicorn get to playing around. The faun climbs a pedestal and alternately plays a riff on the pipes and strikes poses, as though he were a statue, while unicorn attempts to make sense of it this harmless trickery. At the end of this back and forth the unicorn licks the faun on the face:

Pastoral oral1 lick the faun

Think of it as an oral link between a faun and a unicorn. We’ll see other such links.

Continue reading "Pastoral 4: Orality and Mastery"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pastoral 3: Come Dance with Me

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/13/11 at 01:05 PM

Let’s take a close look at the dance sequence in the Disney’s realization of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. As I indicated it ends with Bacchus kissing his donkey. I want to see how they got there.

The sequence starts with Bacchus in the middle of an opening in the forest, drinking away as the centaurs and centaurettes dance figures around him. He soon joins in, dancing with one centaurette after another (3rd, 4th, and 5th frame following, the centaurette in the 6th seems to be the same as the one in the 3rd).

Continue reading "Pastoral 3: Come Dance with Me"

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pastoral 2: Color and Sound

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/12/11 at 12:03 PM

It seems that I’m not done with Disney’s Pastoral. I want to think about Disney’s pallet in the Pastoral in this post and I’m planning another post on the dance sequence.

It’s not simply that the colors are often garishly saturated. They’re often unnatural as well, and the forms are highly stylized, as we see in the next five frame-grabs. The first two come quite early in the film, shortly after the establishing shot of Mount Olympus at dawn. The next two are near the end of the first segment while the last comes early in the courtship segment.

Continue reading "Pastoral 2: Color and Sound"

Friday, November 11, 2011

Another Withdrawal from the Being Bank

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/11/11 at 03:05 PM

Domestic Tranquility, NOT: Disney’s Pastoral

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/11/11 at 12:00 PM

Pastoral 29 mountain (beginning)

I’ve saved the most troublesome for last, Disney’s setting of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It was soundly criticized upon initial release, mostly, or especially, for Disney’s use and reworking of Beethoven. THAT doesn’t bother me at all. That kind of artistic license is pretty much the price of admission for Fantasia. No, what bothers me is the cuteness, but secondarily the pallete. Both are obvious enough, but it’s the cuteness I want to grapple with.

For THAT is one of the central criticisms of the Disney aesthetic, it’s too cute. This is certainly not the only episode in Fantasia where cuteness rears its ugly head. Yet it’s not bothersome in the dancing mushrooms, and it’s easily set aside in the goldfish and the baby dinosaurs. But it’s front and center in the Pastoral.

Moreover, the Pastoral is in the heart of Disney’s imaginative world, for it’s about family life. The first segment shows us a family of winged horses—inspired by Pegasus—mother, father, and children. One of the children takes its first flight before our wonderstruck eyes. Then see the little ones at play and the whole family parading majestically across the sky. That’s the heart of Disney country. And its followed by courtship, a rousing party, a storm that drives adults to protect children and males to protect females, and then the storm breaks, out comes the sun. Everyone’s happy. The sun sets. Bedtime.

Why all the treacle, in the character designs, in the actions, and in the palate?

Let’s work our way through it.

Continue reading "Domestic Tranquility, NOT: Disney’s Pastoral"

Thursday, November 10, 2011

OOO: Issues, Questions, Befuddlement, Stuff

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/10/11 at 05:03 PM

The universe consists of objects. What else?

Well objects have qualities, so they must be different from objects. How so? For example, we can say that red is a quality of a beach ball, a flame, or blood. But is there a ‘redness’ object? If not, just WHY not?

Objects can enter into relations with other objects, which may or may not yield new objects. So relations too are different from objects.

Can events, actions, and processes be objects? What of a race, for example? Perhaps the race where Usain Bolt first shattered the world record in the 100 meter dash. An object? Why or why not?

The hammer is an object, as is a nail and a plank of wood. But the act of hammering the nail into the plank, is that an object? If not an object, what is it? A set of relations? An action? Is an action a different kind of thing, alongside objects, properties, relations . . .

And sets, we know sets aren’t objects, as set membership can be arbitrary.

Continue reading "OOO: Issues, Questions, Befuddlement, Stuff"
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