Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

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

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable

Posted by Bill Benzon on 03/23/10 at 04:55 PM

This is about computational thinking. It’s a style of thought, a way of looking at the world. Alas, the most familiar example of computation, arithmetic, is not a very good way to get a feel for the style, not as you need it to investigate literature. This post is a brief guide to THAT style.

It has long been obvious to me that the cognitive sciences are what happened when the computation and the computer hit the behavioral sciences as a source of models and metaphors. And that is what is missing from almost all of the work I’ve seen in cognitive approaches to literature. In this post I list and annotate four modest books that can help restore the sense of computation, and the constructive, that’s otherwise absent. I list them in order of suggested reading, starting with a comic book about comic books. After that we have a bonus section, a parable about computation based on passages from Simon about a drunken ant walking on the beach.

(1) Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.

In some odd, but wonderful, ways this may be the best single introduction to the cognitive study of literature. It’s not an academic book; there’s no scholarly apparatus. But it yields a superb sense of what it is like to think about story-telling from a cognitive point of view. It takes the form of a comic book, words and images in panels cover every page - McCloud is a cartoonist. The pictorial form is what makes it so effective. So, McCloud has the reader thinking about visual objects and how they’re constructed and how those constructions are organized into stories. It conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction which is very important and which is missing in much of the current literary cognition literature. It gives the reader a whiff of mechanism without the pain involved in understanding the computational models of the cognitive sciences.

(2) Valentine Braitenberg (1999). Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This is a cumulative series of thought experiments, 14 of them in the first 83 pages. Braitenberg asks us to imagine a simple (artificial) creature in a simple environment. Here’s how he begins to describe the first one: “Vehicle 1 is equipped with one sensor and one motor. The connection is a very simple one. The more there is of the quality to which the sensor is tuned, the faster the motor goes” (p. 3). He then works out the consequences of this very simple creature, how it moves about. In the second chapter he gives the vehicle two sensors and two motors and from that constructs primitive fear and aggression. And so it goes for the rest of these 14 chapters. In each chapter he adds a little bit to the vehicle from the previous chapter and explores the behavior consequences, e.g.: love (vehicle 3), concepts (#7), getting ideas (#10), egotism and optimism (#14). The last 50 pages contain biological notes on the vehicles, thus relating to the real nervous systems of real animals. Like the McCloud, it conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction that is essential to the cognitive science.

(3) Herbert A Simon (1981). The Sciences of the Artificial, Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Trained in political science, Simon became one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, computing, and cognitive science during the 1950s and 60s. This is a relatively informal collection of essays that has been widely, and justly, influential. From the preface (xi): “Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned, not with how things are but with how they might be—in short, with design. . . . These essays then attempt to explain how a science of the artificial is possible and to illustrate its nature. I have taken as my main examples the fields of economics (chapter 2), the psychology of cognition (chapters 3 and 4), and planning and engineering design (chapters 5 and 6).” Chapter 7 is entitled “The Architecture of Complexity” (originally published in 1962) and takes up the problem of biological evolution. The bonus section of this post is based on a thought experiment or parable from chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature.”

(4) John von Neumann (1958). The Computer and the Brain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Von Neumann was an mathematician who made contributions in many fields. But he is best known for his work in computing. This slender volume (82 pages) is the last project he worked on and is incomplete. Brain cancer took him before he could finish. It is about two ways a computing process can be embodied in physical matter, the analog and the digital, and addresses, among other things, the limitations these modes impose on the process. Though the book contains no math, it is quite abstract, its details at some remove from all the complex details about existing computers (then and now) or the messy wetware of the brain. That is to say, it is about the essential. Forget about the fact that computers are now quite different from those von Neumann knew, and forget about the fact that most of what we know about the brain was discovered since von Neumann’s death. In this book first class mind grappls with deep questions in simple, if abstract, terms. Reading it is a good work out.

Bonus: Simon’s Ant and Slocum’s Pilot

Think of this as a parable about computation, about how computational requirements depend on the problem to be solved. Stated that way, it is an obvious truism. But Simon’s thought experiment invites you to consider this truism where the “problem to be solved” is an environment external to the computer – it is thus reminiscent of Braitenberg’s primitive vehicles.

Think of it like this: the nervous system requires environmental support if it is to maintain its physical stability and coherence. Note that Simon was not at all interested in the physical requirements of the nervous system. Rather, he was interested in suggesting that we can get complex behavior from relatively simple devices, and simplicity translates into design requirements for a nervous system.

Simon asks us to imagine an ant moving about on a beach:

We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. he moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dunelet, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. Thus he makes his weaving, halting way back to his home. So as not to anthropomorphize about his purposes, I sketch the path on a piece of paper. It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments--not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal.

After introducing a friend, to whom he shows the sketch and to whom he addresses a series of unanswered questions about the sketched path, Simon goes on to observe:

Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant’s path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant. On that same beach another small creature with a home at the same place as the ant might well follow a very similar path.

I want to consider a variation on his parable. What would happen if we put the ant on an absolutely featureless surface and let it walk about? What kind of paths would it trace then? As that surface lacks any of the normal cues in the ant’s environment I would imagine the ant would either not move at all or move in a genuinely random or perhaps a rigidly stereotypic way (e.g. around and around in a circle). Or perhaps the ant would hallucinate.

Simon, of course, was not particularly interested in ants. He only told that story to make a point he wanted to apply to the human case. So let us continue on and consider the human case. What happens to us when we face a blank world, a world that does not support our intentionality? What happens is that the mind becomes unstable.

Early on in The Ghost Dance, a classic anthropological study of the origins of religion, Weston La Barre considers what happens under various conditions of deprivation. Consider this passage about Captain Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world alone at the turn of the 20th Century:

Once in a South Atlantic gale, he double-reefed his mainsail and left a whole jib instead of laying-to, then set the vessel on course and went below, because of a severe illness. Looking out, he suddenly saw a tall bearded man, he thought at first a pirate, take over the wheel. this man gently refused Slocum’s request to take down the sails and instead reassured the sick man he would pilot the boat safely through the storm. Next day Slocum found his boat ninety-three miles further along on a true course. That night the same red-capped and bearded man, who said he was the pilot of Columbus’ Pinta, came again in a dream and told Slocum he would reappear whenever needed.

La Barre goes on to cite similar experiences happening to other explorers and to people living in isolation, whether by choice, as in the case of religious meditation, or force, as in the case of prisoners being brainwashed.

Imagine, now, that when you step away from the world, you fill the void with a work of imaginative literature. How does that work support the operations of the nervous system, giving them resistance and structure so they don’t flail into chaos?


Several blogs have recently asked their readers about books that influenced them personally. I kept waiting for somebody to list the Braitenberg and Simon books. Incidentally, Simon was particularly proud of the ant sketch, though I don’t know if he would have been entitled to list Sciences of the Artificial on a list of the works that influenced him the most.

There’s a much more obscure book that I’d like to add to Benzon’s list, Niche Construction by Odling Smee. Smee explores the ways in which living things create the environments that in turn create them. Though it isn’t about cognitive science per se, the book addresses the more general question of how order comes to be in the world.

By Jim Harrison on 03/23/10 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, err, Jim, right next door you see influence lists by 10 Valvologists:


I started it off, but none of the books here is on that list, mostly because I came to them too late to be deeply influenced by them. It’s not so much that I was set in my ways as I’d already absorbed much of the conceptual style on offer in the books.

By Bill Benzon on 03/23/10 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just googled “simon’s ant" and got a bunch of hits. I didn’t check more than 15 or so, but many of those were references to Simon’s little story. People seem to find it a very useful tool for thinking, as well they should.

By Bill Benzon on 03/23/10 at 08:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From the Cognitive Literary Association listserve:

And if I may add:

Ray Kurzweil (1999).  The Age of Spiritual Machines.  New York:  Penguin Books.  Begins literally with the origin of the universe and moves on assuming only a modicum of specialized knowledge in the reader.  The cybernetics timeline is especially useful.

Neal Gill
Purdue University

* * * * *

On timelines, here’s one locally:

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology

This is a brief chronology in which I list important or representative publications in cognitive science and literary theory from the mid-1950s into the 1990s. The comments augment the list in useful ways.

By Bill Benzon on 03/26/10 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Brief listing as it were.People seem to find it a very useful tool for thinking, as well they should

By Nollywood on 03/26/11 at 04:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: