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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
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
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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

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Underbelly, Big Art or What?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/09/11 at 11:48 AM

It’s only been a year since The Underbelly Project sprang from the pages of the The New York Times and the Times of London. From a certain point of view what’s interesting is that it embraced both graffiti and street art. That’s but secondary to the question of whether or not tUP is a PR stunt intended to set-up a nice cash payout or whether it is, for lack of a better word, real. [My posts on tUP are here.]

As someone who feels the mystery of dark places, hidden away, even illegal, I think it was conceived and executed in the grandest style of the The Real. Until the day of the Big Reveal. Then all hell broke loose and tUP ceased to be the property of PAC and Workhorse, the founders and curators, and the many artists who participated.

Just who put what down there in the hole and why, that’s become secondary to what gets made of it in our minds. That is, what gets made of the knowledge that it’s there and of whatever tangible evidence we have of it, photos, videos, and the like. Well, it seems that we’re in for an exhibition at Art Basel in Miami, a special edition book, and a serf’s edition of the same book to be released in February.

From my point of view, what matters most, and it’s almost the only thing that matters, is whether or not the importance of the site itself somehow survives this assault by Big Art. It’s the site itself that spawned the project, as though those abandoned tunnels called Workhorse and PAC into the ground so they’d conceive and execute the project. And it’s the site itself that’s effectively beyond reach.

Continue reading "Underbelly, Big Art or What?"

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Underbelly Rising

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/08/11 at 01:10 PM

The Underbelly Project is coming up for air, and, I suppose, a spot of cash and glory too. I just got an email from the project (you can sign-up on the web, here). Here’s more:

After taking time to reflect on The Underbelly Project, we felt it was important to share what it was like in the abandoned subway station. To show the work being created, to show the life that was happening on the dust lined tracks. To do this we will be holding an exhibition during Art Basel Miami. For this exhibition, time lapse videos will be shown of each artist creating their work, a video walkthrough of the station will show the entire station right after the work was completed, and photo documentation will help illuminate how the artists created their work . Unique artifacts from the abandoned station will give viewers insight into the process. It is our hope that this show will help convey what it was like in our dark corner of the world for that brief time.

In addition to the documentation of the project, we thought it was important to showcase new works created by artists from The Underbelly, outside of the physical limitations of the tunnel. To showcase work that was created in favorable conditions without the fear of being arrested or discovered. For this a sampling of the painters, sculptures and installation artists from the tunnel were chosen to represent the variety of talents that left their mark in this abandoned subway station.

That opening phrase—“after taking time to reflect . . .”—is, of course, bullshit. Which may well be OK depending on all sorts of things, including what actually happens at the installation at Art Basel in Miami this year.

Continue reading "The Underbelly Rising"

The Varieties of Descriptive Experience

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/08/11 at 11:51 AM

Or, literary hermeneutics as blind butchery

First, I note that I’ve blogged a number of posts dealing with description, either as a main or a subsidiary topic. In particular, there’s this post where. among other things, I note that a grammar is a description of language, specifically, that the Chomsky revolution in linguistics was about a certain way of describing a grammar. And there’s this post where I talk of abstract pictures (as descriptions), using the Watson/Crick double-helix model of DNA as my prime example. And then there’s this post, about the distribution of paragraph lengths in Heart of Darkness, again, description.

Those are very different kinds of description. Back in my days teaching technical writing I had students describe a mechanism in one assignment and a process in a different one. There we have two more kinds of description. In one case you’re describing something that’s static and in the other you’re describing something that unfolds in time.

Here’s a descriptive passage that’s of still a different kind. Technically, I suppose, it’s a description of an object. But the description is fundamentally expressive in nature, the concluding sentences from Mark Twain’s “Speech on the Weather”:

Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather--no language could do it justice. But, after all, there is at least one or two things about that weather (or, if you please, effects produced, by it) which we residents would not like to part with. If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries—the ice-storm:

when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top—ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice-beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles cold and white, like the Shah of Persia’s diamond plume. Then the wind waves the branches and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again with inconceivable rapidity from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold—the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence.

One cannot make the words too strong.

I suppose we could go on and on cataloguing various kinds of description. And perhaps someone has done so.

Continue reading "The Varieties of Descriptive Experience"

Parable of the Reeds (You Figure it Out)

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/08/11 at 10:07 AM

I’m quite fascinated by reeds. And these reeds are tall, five, six, seven feet and more. I like to take closely bunched shots.

Here, notice that leaf just to the left of center:


There it is again, a bit further away:


But not really. I’m standing in the same place. Just changed focus.

Continue reading "Parable of the Reeds (You Figure it Out)"

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Three Objects, All Real

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/06/11 at 05:30 PM

Or, There’s an Aesthetic in this Photo


By three objects I mean, of course, the two trees and the lens flare. One could, I suppose, quibble with my counting. Maybe it’s three trees, counting the shorter one at the lower left corner. And perhaps the one tree should be counted as a tree enwrapped by a vine, upping the object count still further. Nor is the lens flare a single object, and maybe we should also count the sun itself as it does appear to cut the rightmost edge. But all that’s secondary.

What matters is counting the lens flare as real right along side the trees. That is, I’m discounting the obvious fact that lens flare is an artifact of the photographic process. I didn’t see it with my eyes before, during, and after I took the photo. I didn’t even guess that it might show up when I took the shot. I just took the shot and there it is. Which is fine by me.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s real. And it REALLY is. Moreover, it’s compositionally useful. If it weren’t there I might well have cropped the right side of the photo a bit. Or not, as I don’t mind asymmetry. It’s hard to tell about these things.

Fact is, though, the lens flare did show up. And its presence does make for three STRONG objects in the photo. that, in turn, counts as a visual realization of my attitude about these things.

that is



no sweat

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/05/11 at 08:59 AM

The OWS movement recognizes that America is divided into a ruling class and a class of servants.

Yes, America DOES have a ruling class. It’s not a hereditary ruling class, like the old European aristocracies. It’s permeable. One can enter it from below, and one can be thrust out of it too.

Of course the existence of this ruling class contradicts official doctrine, which says that American is ruled by the people and for the people. Members of this ruling class, therefore, will deny its existence. Certainly, the politician members MUST deny it.

Just what these rulers say among themselves, at the Bohemian Grove, in board meetings of for-profit corporations (e.g. General Motors, Goldman Sachs) and not-for-profit (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Ford Foundation), in private clubs of various kinds, that’s a different matter. On that, I suspect, some are frank about being among The Rulers while others persist they are still of the people.

Nor do non-member Americans recognize the existence of this ruling class. Well, some of us do, some of us don’t. It’d be interesting to see whether recognition of the ruling class is stringing among non-voters than among voters. After all, if you do see that there’s a ruling class, what’s the point of voting? You vote doesn’t matter. At the same time, one might vote out of identification with and affirmation of that very same ruling class. After all, maybe you too will be tapped to enter into the sacred halls of the ruling class.

All of which is to say that, while a ruling class exists, though not a classical ruling class, class consciousness is weak, on both sides of the divide.

Outing the Class Divide

And THAT’s the biggest service that is being performed by Occupy Wall Street: identifying the class divide in America. The 1%, that’s the ruling class. The rest, no matter how many things otherwise divide us, we are the 99%.

Continue reading "Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class"

Friday, November 04, 2011

Objects, Intuitions, the Imaginary, and Language

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/04/11 at 08:24 AM

I’m heading toward language, imaginary objects, and the cognition of ontology. But I’m not ready to go there, not yet. There’s some preliminary hemming and hawing I want to do, so bracketing, as it were.

What’s with Withdrawal?

I’m thinking intuitions and how they inform our understanding of this, that, and the other—one of my current hobby horses. In one of the sessions at the recent Object-Oriented Ontology meetings in NYC someone asked Graham Harman, more or less: “What’s this about objects withdrawing? How can they do that? Who’s doing the withdrawing?” Those aren’t the exact words, but I believe they’re a reasonable rendition of the (vague) sense of the question.

Harmon, of course, was stumped. He’d been asked to explicate perhaps the originating metaphor behind his philosophy. Harmon knows very well that there’s no agent in the, e.g. hammer, that’s somehow how pulling it back from someone who sees it, grasps it, or hears its impact. That’s not it at all. But . . . What could he say? There’s nothing behind the metaphor beyond the sense that, no matter what one does to or with a physical hammer, there’s always more. Always.

It’s like someone who’s learning chess. They say to the teacher: “Tell me why bishops move diagonally and castles move rectilinearly or I won’t play.” The only answer to the question is: “Convention.” If that’s not good enough, then asking the question amounts to a refusal to play the game. So it is with: “What’s this withdrawal stuff?” If you want to play the game, if only out of curiosity, then you MUST accept the language at face value and see where it leads you.

Which is what I’ve been doing for these past several months. Now I want to ‘push back’, as the current idiom has it. Just a little.

While I’m willing to accept the foundational language of ‘withdrawal’ and so forth at face value, I’m not quite sure what the implications are.

Objects and Objects

Let me explain. The rock bottom intuition on which Harman builds his metaphysics is the distinction between real and sensual objects. He begins the first chapter of The Quadruple Object by observing (p. 7): “On my desk are pens, eyeglasses, and an expired American passport. Each of these has numerous qualities and can be turned to reveal different surfaces and uses. Furthermore, each object is a unified thing despite its multitude of features.” And he goes on from there to mention Egypt, an ideal sphere, and a unicorn, among a dozen or so others. They too are objects, but I’m not entirely sure how to take intuitions developed through thinking about, say, a hammer (Harman devotes two chapters to Heidegger’s tool analysis) or an apple, which seems to be my own default example, and apply those intuitions to those other often very different kinds of objects.

Continue reading "Objects, Intuitions, the Imaginary, and Language"

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Occupy the Library

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/03/11 at 04:01 PM

I’ve just read this very interesting article about libraries at various Occupy X sites, including Wall Street, Boston, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), and Halifax:


I’ll be donating a copy or two of my book, Beethoven’s Anvil, to the Wall Street library. I’m figuring other BSers would be interested as well. So pass the word.

Jamming the Soundtrack: Fantasia’s Intermission

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/03/11 at 10:49 AM

Fantasia was conceived as a concert; indeed, its working title was The Concert Feature. Concerts of classical music had, and still do have, intermissions. It follows then that The Concert Feature had to have one as well.

But Disney conceived of his intermission as more than just a break in the program where people could stretch their legs, go to the restroom, or chat with companions. He also provided a film segment that played the role of intermission. This comes between the fourth and fifth musical selections on the DVD. When Fantasia was first shown in theatres it came, I presume, after the actual break, which would have been at the same point in the program.

People are sitting in their seats, the curtain opens, and the film rolls. What the audience sees is pretty much what they saw at the beginning: an empty stage with a podium, music stands, and risers. Gradually, as at the beginning, musicians enter and take their places. There’s a bit of tuning up, and then things become quite different.

Before Deems Taylor appears, and certainly before Stokowski mounts the podium, a bass player sets a riff, plucking the strings rather than bowing them: 

Fant Inter 1, bass

He’s quickly joined by a clarinetist and a violinist:

Fant Inter 2 clarinet fiddle

Pretty soon most of the orchestra’s merrily riffing away, playing a little swing music, the popular music of the day.

Disney’s now waltzed into one the standard tropes of films and cartoons from the 30s into the 50s, the tension between classical and popular music. Any number of cartoons and live action films were built on this conflict. Fantasia, of course, is grounded in it, if only obliquely. The music, except for this little bit, is classical. But the film medium itself is popular; the notion of film as high art was a bit in the future.

Continue reading "Jamming the Soundtrack: Fantasia’s Intermission"

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Emotion Recollected in Tranquility

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/02/11 at 12:16 PM

I originally published this in The Valve in May of 2009. Keith Oatley elaborated at OnFiction, citing relevant empirical studies.

* * * * *

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

—William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

In his 1997 best-seller, How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker suggested that, however important art may be to humans, it is not part of our specifically biological nature:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. Pornography is another pleasure technology. In this chapter I will suggest that the arts are a third. (p. 525)

This triggered a backlash of arguments asserting that, no, the arts are not mere mental cheesecake, they are an essential component of human nature, our biological nature.

I was somewhat bemused by the whole fracas. While I have a long standing interest in the neural basis of the arts, I find thinking about biological adaptation to be frustratingly difficult, something I’d prefer to ignore. My editor for Beethoven’s Anvil, William Frucht, however, thought otherwise. And so I dutifully joined the parade of those who shilled for the biological bona fides of art and argued that music was indeed biologically adaptive. Specifically, music reduced anxiety in the group and thereby made it more fit to encounter real challenges and dangers. More recently, and inspired by Pinker’s own The Stuff of Thought, I argued that story-telling allows us to share perceptions, feelings, and values that we cannot talk about.

I now have another proposal to offer, one based in a line of thinking I began entertaining in the mid-1970s when I learned about state-dependent memory. I first learned about state dependence when I read a review of the literature on altered states of consciousness in which Roland Fischer reported an experiment originally performed by D. Goodwin (“The Cartography of Inner Space” in Hallucinations, Siegel and West, eds. 1975, p. 199). Subjects were first made drunk and then asked to memorize nonsense syllables. When their recall was tested while sober they performed poorly. Their recall dramatically improved, however, if they once again became drunk. More recently, Daniel L. Schacter has written of mood-congruent memory retrieval: “Experiments have shown that sad moods make it easier to remember negative experiences, like failure and rejection, whereas happy moods make it easier to remember pleasant experiences, like success and acceptance” (Searching for Memory, 1996, p. 211). Recall of experience is best when the one’s brain is in the same state it was in when one had that experience. That is what is meant by state dependence.

Continue reading "Emotion Recollected in Tranquility"

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Again, Reflections on Color and Light

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/01/11 at 09:21 AM

Or, Reality is a Construction and that’s OK

Let’s wade right in. Here’s a digital photo more or less as it comes out of the camera:


That’s NOT what I saw, it’s what the camera ‘saw’, more or less. The camera shoots in so-called ‘raw’ mode, which contains more information than any monitor can display or than an printer can print. So some information has to be tossed out in the process of converting it to any one of a number of viewable formats. I chose jpg, and that’s ALL I did in creating that image. Photoshop ‘chose’ what information to toss.

Now, that image is VERY MUCH UNLIKE what I actually saw. The sky wasn’t that dark. It wasn’t dark at all. It was fairly bright, though not so bright as a high-noon sky on a bright day. I assume THAT’s what happens when you point the camera directly into a bright light source and the electronics has to cope with the dramatic difference between light directly from the source and light at the periphery. It damps down all over, but the source, that is, the sun, is so very bright that it’s still bright in the image while everything else is dark.

For the next two images I exercised some control over the raw-to-jpg conversion and, most of all, I did some manipulation in Photoshop:


Continue reading "Again, Reflections on Color and Light"

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bathtub Philosopher: Objects, Secondary Qualities, Memes, Description, Ontological Cognition

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/31/11 at 10:38 AM


No, I’ve not found it, but I think I know where to look. And I figured that out while hanging out in the bathtub, where I do some of my best thinking.

What’s been puzzling me ever since Tim Morton seduced me into thinking about object-oriented ontology (OOO) is simply: why? Why me philosophy now because I abandoned philosophy way back when and have to intention to take it up again but, damn it! this stuff IS interesting, why? Specifically, what, if any, is the relationship between my deep and abiding interest in ontological cognition and OOO? Well, I think the connection goes through description, another deep and abiding interest of mine, one I apparently share with Latour.

But I don’t want to go there now, not directly, if only because, as you’ll see, I’m not going to get there by the end of this post. But I DO think that’s where to look.



But we’re not in Kansas, anymore, Toto. So take off your red shoes, kick back, and relax.

Early Morning House Keeping

I got up at 5AM last Saturday (28 Oct 2011), pretty standard these days, plus or minus an hour, poured a Diet Coke, and sat down to the computer. What am I going to post this morning? I thought, as I do every morning.

I decided to sort through some stuff. I knew the post would be something on OOO, but just which of one or two possibilities, or, rather, just how to realize the most likely possibility, that wasn’t clear. So I opened up my main OOO file and puttered around, examining, re-arranging, house cleaning.

I decided to take my Graham Harman stuff out of that file and put it in a separate file. I’ve been reading and re-reading his recent ASK/TELL interview and finding more and more in it. I decided to copy the whole thing into a Word file. But sticking that in my main OOO file violated my sense of what should be in THAT file. So, I decided to put the interview in a file of its own. And, if I’m going to do that, why not also create a file for my Graham Harman posts & notes? as that material’s growing.

That’s what I did.

Then I decided to do some clean-up on the blog (New Savanna, not The Valve, which is technologically resistant to such things). I added a “Harman” label to my label set. Well, might as well add a Bennett label and a Morton label too. Which I did.

It’s easily done, though a bit tedious. But, and here’s the thing, to do it I had to look at the titles of a bunch of recent posts. Which meant that all that stuff passed ever so lightly in review, just like looking through my OOO file for the Harman related posts. No sustained thinking about any of it, just noting it’s there.

Continue reading "The Bathtub Philosopher: Objects, Secondary Qualities, Memes, Description, Ontological Cognition"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Blink not lest ye be judged a fool

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/30/11 at 08:18 AM

This NYTimes article by Daniel Kahneman, Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence, is interesting throughout. Kahneman starts by telling a story about his experience in the Israeli military. He was assigned to a job evaluating candidates for officer training. He and a colleague would have candidates perform certain challenges—he describes one in some detail, “the leaderless group challenge"—and evaluate the men on the basis of their performance on the challenges. They were quite confident in their evaluations.

But, alas, their evaluations were wrong, more often than not.

Every few months we had a feedback session in which we could compare our evaluations of future cadets with the judgments of their commanders at the officer-training school. The story was always the same: our ability to predict performance at the school was negligible. Our forecasts were better than blind guesses, but not by much.

We were downcast for a while after receiving the discouraging news. But this was the army. Useful or not, there was a routine to be followed, and there were orders to be obeyed. Another batch of candidates would arrive the next day. We took them to the obstacle field, we faced them with the wall, they lifted the log and within a few minutes we saw their true natures revealed, as clearly as ever. The dismal truth about the quality of our predictions had no effect whatsoever on how we evaluated new candidates and very little effect on the confidence we had in our judgments and predictions.

Kahneman elaborates on this in various ways, including some discussion of self-confidence in the world of investment and, you guessed it, there seems to0 be plenty of unwarranted confidence in the ability to pick smart investments. The moral of the story (boldface mine):

As I first learned on the obstacle field, people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes.

H/t Rich Fritzson.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Explicating Literature in Light of Object-Oriented Ontology

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/29/11 at 11:10 AM

A great deal of literary criticism, especially that associated with so-called Theory, but by no means confined to those brands, is about finding hidden meanings in the text. Such criticism seeks to pass through the text itself, its sounds, syntax, and semantics, and into some hidden realm where the real action is. Once that real action is discovered for any one text, well . . . No critic would actually own up to discarding the text itself, no would any critic actually do so. But, it sure seems like it.

There’s the problem: If the real meaning is hidden in the text, what do we then do with that TEXT once we’ve chased MEANING out of its lair? Do we decorate it? Destroy it? Take up residence? What?

Preparatory to thinking about those problems, consider some observations Graham Harman makes his in recent ASK/TELL interview:

There is a widespread tendency to think that if anything is moved in any way by ulterior impulses, then it must be entirely corrupted by those impulses. For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame came to lecture in Cairo six years ago. He was presenting himself to some extent as a hero for turning on the Nixon people and testifying against them in Congress. A rather cynical friend of mine said: “So what? He only did it to save his own skin.”

To which I should have replied: “So what to you too?” The fact that something is guided initially by self-interest does not reduce it utterly to that aspect. For example, the initial reasons for St. Thomas Aquinas becoming a Catholic may have been something petty like the wish to please his parents and be treated as a good boy. Well, that hardly matters, does it? The origins of a thing do not always contain its truth. Supposing young St. Thomas wanted to please his parents, then enjoyed the praise he received during his studies, who cares if these were his original motives for extreme piety? Over time, it became something much more. We could say that the original incentives lured him into the profession, but then the profession became much more to him than the original lures.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Seven Pinker

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/28/11 at 12:16 PM

Four years ago Pinker was touring to promote The Stuff of Thought. I heard him at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan and, as I explain below, decided to elaborate some of his remarks into an account of why we tell stories. I put that account into a letter, added some remarks on the recent history of literary criticsm, starting with the 1966 Structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins, with a view to helping him understand why it wasn’t the work of willful fugitives from rationality, and posted the letter to The Valve. He responded with a brief note, and gave me to publish it, which I did. Note that he expresses despair at the fate of interdisciplinary work in the university. I wonder if he’s changed in mind on the score?

I’m now republshing both my original letter and Pinker’s reply.

Last Friday I went to hear Steven Pinker speak about his new book, The Stuff of Thought. On the way home I began thinking about that talk and about his recent essay-review of The Literary Animal (PDF). In that review he expressed deep skepticism about various suggestions that have been made about how and why the arts are biologically adaptive. He pointed out that such an account “can’t be a kind of psychology; it must be a kind of engineering - an attempt to lay down the design specs of a system that can accomplish a goal (specifically, a subgoal of reproduction) in a particular world (specifically, the ancestral environment)” (170). It seemed to me that his talk contained the seeds of just such an account of literature, though he doesn’t appear to have had that in mind.

I decided to write him a note and email it to him. As I began to think about it, however, the note, like Topsy, just grew and grew. I then decided it made more sense to publish it as an open letter.

* * * * *

Dear Steven,

First, I’d like to reiterate how much I enjoyed your talk at Barnes and Noble last Friday. I must confess, however, that I suspect that you wrote The Stuff of Thought primarily so you had good reason to tour around saying those seven words - and their many variants and synonyms - in public places surrounded by mixed company.

More seriously, as I was riding the subway home, I began to think that, between cuss-words portion of your talk and the last, on language and social relations, you had the seeds of an account of why we tell stories. Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures. The purpose of those stories is to create mutual knowledge of fundamental matters that are otherwise difficult to talk about, either because they are taboo - as in the excretory, sexual, and sacred things you talked about - or because they are difficult to verbalize under any circumstances. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, as that’s not how my thinking began.

I began by wondering whether or not a story told in a public setting - similar to your talk, for example - constitutes shared knowledge or mutual knowledge. It is certainly shared knowledge, as everyone present now knows the story. But does that make it mutual in your sense? As I understand it, where knowledge is held mutually among people, not only is the knowledge shared but, additionally, everyone knows that everyone else knows

Continue reading "Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Seven Pinker"
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