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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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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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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Fictional Characters 4: Much Ado about Simulation

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/05/06 at 04:21 PM

I now want to look at the individual reader as he or she apprehends a text and thus (re)creates the lives of the fictional characters in the text. It is common to say that we come to identify with literary characters. But, as Norman Holland pointed out in The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968, pp. 262 ff.), it is by no means clear just what we mean by identification in this context. Still, in order to get this discourse on the road, we need some word for the relationship a reader establishes with a character. If not “identification,” then what?

Keith Oatley has been writing about fiction as simulation of the world (Word doc):

Shakespeare’s great innovation was of theatre as a model of the world. The audience member constructs the simulated model in the course of the play, and thereby takes part in the design activity. So fiction is to understanding social interaction as computer simulation is to understanding, perception and reasoning. Shakespeare designed plays as simulations of human actions in relation to predicaments, so that the deep structure of selfhood and of the interaction of people who have distinct personalities becomes clearer.

Oatley has the notion of simulation from computing, where computers are used to simulate a wide variety of phenomena - traffic patterns, explosions, fluid flow, and so forth. He proposes that simulation is just the notion we need in order properly to interpret the Greek mimesis. Stories are “the kind of simulation that runs on minds rather than on computers.”

I find Oatley’s proposal to be plausible, but things get tricky when one starts to think about just what’s being simulated. Thus much of what I say will be a critique. I am not particularly happy about this mode of proceeding as I would prefer simply to set forth a proper account based on the appropriate conceptual foundations. Alas, I am not aware of such an account and so must be content with a crude demonstration by via negativa.

A Scene from Shakespeare

I would like to discuss Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, focusing on the first scene of Act IV. I have two reasons for choosing this scene: 1) Eight major characters are on stage and most of them have substantial speaking parts in the scene. 2) The scene is emotionally rich, with the characters having distinctly different interests in the action. Whatever it means for a reader to simulate an imaginary world, the complexity of this scene taxes that capacity.

Here’s what’s going on:  The characters have gathered for the wedding of Claudio and Hero, the arrangement of which has been accomplished in one of three plot lines intertwined in the first three acts. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is another of those plot lines. While the third is Don John’s scheme to destroy the wedding. Don John’s notion has been to deceieve Claudio into believing that Hero is a woman of loose morals who has deceived him even after having accepted his proposal. Thus, while the other characters, save Don John, believe they are about to witness a wedding, Claudio intends to denounce Hero before the assembled group.

And that’s what he proceeds to do, within thirty lines of the scene’s opening. Hero doesn’t say much, but she does deny the charges. She then faints and is taken for dead. At that point Don John, Claudio, and Don Pedro leave. Hero then revives and those who remain plan a course of action that will, they hope, clear her name.

My first issue is this: Is it physiologically possible for one person, one nervous system, to simulate the actions and emotions of all the characters in this scene? Different emotions are mediated by different neural and physiological systems. In particular the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are important in motivation and emotion and they are antagonists, pulling physiological processes in opposite directions. Claudio’s aggressive anger - perhaps with overtones of hatred - would be sympathetically driven while Hero’s protective faint would be parasympathetically driven. Can a single nervous system simulate both of those states, either simultaneously or in close succession? That seems highly unlikely. And those are only two characters in the scene. What of Hero’s father, Claudio’s patron, of Beatrice and Benedick, the Friar? And what of Don John? Is he feeling pleasure, perhaps even triumph - albeit concealing these feelings from the others - at seeing his plotting bear fruit?

It seems rather unlikely that a reader would be able to simulate these various feelings and attitudes within the relatively brief compass of a few minutes. Beyond the difficulty of simultaneously activating mutually exclusive neuro-physiological systems, we have the fact that these hormonally rich systems change state more slowly than perceptual and cognitive systems. Even if we simplify the reader’s problem by asserting that the reader only need simulate the character who is speaking, we have the problem of switching from one character to the next, which could be daunting where three or four characters switch back and forth within the compass of only a dozen or two lines.

So, perhaps the reader does not simulate these feelings and attitudes in any very deep way; in particular, perhaps the slower acting hormonal systems are not recruited into action at all. Or perhaps the reader is not simulating the emotions of any of the characters in the scene. Rather, the reader is simply reacting to the actions and words of people whom the reader “knows” and toward which the reader has various attitudes, both positive and negative. That is, if the reader is simulating anyone, it is a person watching such a scene. I am imagining that the reader is simulating someone in attendance at such a wedding, but not participating in them in any way.

And this is not so far from imagining the reader to be in the audience of a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. In this situation each actor has responsibility for simulating the words and actions of a character, and only one character. The playgoer need only react to the play.

At this point, however, the notion that a reader, or a playgoer, is simulating the action seems rather far away from what Oatley has been asserting, who talks as though the reader is simulating the characters from the inside. Though he doesn’t use phrases like “from the inside,” that seems to be what he is asserting. If, for the reasons I have asserted, that is difficult or impossible, then it is not at all obvious to me what simulation might mean. What could it mean to simulate a character from the outside? (Note that this problem doesn’t arise in computer simulation of physical phenomena.)

One way to deal with this problem would be to say something like: “Well, we don’t simulate all the characters. Just one or a small group of them.” Given that Oatley is arguing that such simulations help us understand ourselves and others, and thus help us negotiate our social lives, it is not at all clear that such a narrowing of scope is legitimate. But even if we accept it, difficulties remain.

The Foolish Protagonist

Let us return to Much Ado. Unlike Hamlet or Othello, the play doesn’t really have a single protagonist. But Claudio takes the active role in one plot and is obviously is a central figure in this drama.

Let us say that Claudio is motivated by anger in this scene. But the accusation motivating that anger is wrong, and the reader knows it. That knowledge effectively bars the reader from “identifying” with Claudio and so simulating his anger toward Hero. If the reader feels any anger at all in this scene - as this reader did - it is more likely to be directed at Claudio himself, perhaps against Don John as well, or simply at the whole bollixed situation. One sort of reader may also feel a bit of pity for Claudio, who, after all, was deceived; while another sort of reader may feel that Claudio was wrong not to have first broached the matter in private. But no reader is simply going to follow along with Claudio’s feelings and actions.

At this point, it seems to me that, if the notion of simulation is to be of much use, that we need to know considerably more about just how the brain does these things. Rather than speculate about what such knowledge might yield, I want to move in a different direction.

Some Hypotheticals

At this point, with the contrast between what the reader knows and the characters know, we have entered conceptual territory more familiar to discussions of the novel. So let’s wander about in that territory and imagine how this same story could be staged so that this particular episode would affect the reader in a different way.

Let’s imagine that Shakespeare had written the play in such a way that, during this scene, the reader knows no more about the situation than Claudio does. Thus, whether or not the reader thinks Claudio is right in taking this particular action - public denunciation - the reader believes that Claudio has a case and certainly must do something. I can imagine two ways of doing this.

One strategy would be to begin the play as Shakespeare does, but hide all of Don John’s plotting. One might, as well, actually show the scene where Claudio sees Hero with another man - Shakespeare doesn’t do this, but only has Conrade and Borachio talk about it. This would have to be done in such a way that the reader (or theater-goer) is as deceived as Claudio. In this version the reader would be more readily able to “identify” with Claudio’s actions in the wedding scene. Of course, the reader would also be privy to the plotting that transpires after Claudio leaves the scene along with Don John and Don Pedro. The truth about Hero would have to be revealed in subsequent scenes, which would require some arranging, but would certainly be possible.

Another strategy would be to open with the wedding scene. In this case the reader would have no prior knowledge of these characters and thus no prior commitment to any of them. With respect to the reader’s belief in what happens in the scene, this is not very different from my first proposal - though rather more back story will have to be revealed in subsequent scenes (cf. the way Sophocles staged the Oedipus story). In neither case does the reader know that Claudio has been cruelly deceived. But in this version the reader knows nothing about anything, but, experienced reader that she is, she also knows that the whole story lies ahead and so might be less inclined to take events at face value.

In neither case, however, does the reader absolutely know Claudio to be wrong. It thus seems to me that the reader’s experience of the wedding scene in either of these hypothetical versions will be very different from the reader’s experience of the scene in the play as Shakespeare wrote it. Yet the characters - their feelings, attitudes, desires, and actions - are, by definition, the same in each of the three versions. To the extent that we, as critics, analyze and conceptualize the action in a play as unfolding from the desires and motivations of the characters, the difference between these three different ways of telling the story is irrelevant. It has no bearing on what the characters are doing. That it does affect how readers experience the story is beside the point. The story is the story and that’s that.

Can we be satisfied with such a position? I think not. Then, what’s the point in telling the story one way, as opposed to another? That seems to me to be a subtle matter, one I’m not prepared to address at the moment. So I must rest content with the assertions that the difference does matter and that we’re not going to figure out how it matters by analyzing the characters. We must look to the interaction between the text and the reader.

Simulation, Again

Let’s return to the notion of simulation. Rather than thinking about reading as simulation, however, I want to think about how one might simulate a set of actions, such as those in Much Ado About Nothing, using a computer. I have no idea when, if ever, we will be able to do such a thing. But for the moment let us assume that we can do it.

The obvious thing to do is to treat each character in the play as an autonomous agent and to then develop a model for each character. When that is done one can then initialize each of these models to a state appropriate for the story in Much Ado About Nothing and run the simulation. The running of the simulation would consist of having the character simulations interact with each other until an end state is achieved. In such a simulation one is not going to write code that says that Claudio will fall for Hero when he sees her, Don John is going to plot a deception when he finds out, and so on. One writes models of characters and then has them interact on their own. No more, no less.

When we set the simulation in motion, however, we do not know how that characters will in fact interact. We’ve done our best to create the models so that, given the appropriate initial state, the simulation will take a certain course. But that course is not guaranteed. That’s the point of running computer simulations. We don’t know how a system will evolve given some initial state and so we create a simulation so we can explore the system’s state space.

Thus when we first run our simulation it might enact a different story. This, in fact, seems the most likely thing.  Perhaps the story is different in a minor way - Don John has Fred the Grocer play the paramour instead of Borachio. Or perhaps the difference is major: Don John’s plot is exposed before the wedding, which goes off without a hitch; but Don John elopes with Beatrice and Benedick hits on the Friar. If the difference is major, then we have to tinker with our models and with the initial conditions until we get a run that enacts the correct story. That might take quite a bit of tinkering. Presumably all that tinkering will teach us something.

This sort of simulation is quite different from what Oatley proposes. Of course, I’m talking about running a simulation on computers while he is talking about fictions as simulations running on brains. But, from my point of view, that is a minor difference. Why do I say it is minor? 

Well, if we have the computational capability for running the kind of simulation I propose, then we would also be able to simulate someone reading Shakespeare’s text. In this case, the characters in the play would not be autonomous agents interacting with one another. They would simply be simulations of whatever it is that happens when real people read real texts about imaginary characters. That’s all I want to know. No more, but perhaps I’ll be satisfied with only a crude approximation. 

So What?

Indeed. If I had a nice conclusion ready and waiting I would be writing a formal paper instead of putting some notes in a bottle and tossing the bottle into the blogosphere. I’m inclined to think that the way to proceed from here, given this particular example, would be to ponder the difference between the story as Shakespeare has staged it and the hypothetical versions I’ve suggested. Shakespeare’s strategy forces “distance” between the reader and a protagonist at a critical point in the story. Why?

Given a answer to that question, what then? This story is only one story, and Shakespeare’s play is only one version of it - as you know, almost all of his plays are but one version of a story that had been told in other versions. How do we get from this one case to the more general question of fictional characters?


Comments

Your discussion of simulating the characters of a play on a computer reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s play “The Surprise.” In this play, a playwright wishes that he could see what his characters would do if they had free will; but when he gets his wish he’s so disturbed by the “plot” they create, which is directly contradictory to the plot he wrote, that he ends up intervening in the action himself.

By Adam Stephanides on 08/07/06 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s authors for you. Can’t leave well enough alone. Just have to get the last word.

By Bill Benzon on 08/07/06 at 08:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[Intro Note: I’m in the trailing end of a move, and my ability to hop online is now occasional, not at whim. As such—considering recent posts—this is a couple of days old, and there may be conversations above that respond/refute/reconsider before this his the electronic press. But, better to post late than play catch-up, endlessly.]

First off, I’ll admit I am not heavily read up on cognitive science (broadly speaking). What I’ve read is hither and thither, and can’t be considered a survey in any sense of the term. But there is a reason why, however much I might find it interesting, that I don’t find it much to the point of my studies in literature or the aesthetic: essentially, the exceding majority of what I’ve read in and on the field is faulted by over-extending itself, to wit, from the material/rational into the immaterial/irrational. They are making the same mistake that Freud took a lifetime of work to slowly recognize: that is, they are trying to treat as a material, scientifically observable and quantifiable object something which is not. To say it again a third way (overly simply) – they do not account for – and can not account for because of the materiality of their science—the unconscious. My own response to Oatley’s essay is forehead-slapping laughter: he reads like the apocryphal 18th-century natural scientist writing intently, earnestly, and with great creativity about wombats, even though he has never seen one, never seen their environment, nor has ever come within four or five hands of direct information thereon. Why do cognitive scientists continue to equate the mind to computers when the great and findamental result of Deep Blue and those that followed it is that number crunching is not nor ever can be artificial intelligence?! It can simulate it (to wit), but it is not the same thing. Why? The mind, having an unconscious – nay, built upon the unconscious – has a different fundamental modality than the computer.

A moment in explanatory exploration, using not Oatley but a more elemental aspect of cognition: think of the three part system Freud posits in Interpretation of Dreams (and I’m quickly paraphrasing). There are three levels of awareness: the Unconscious, the Conscious, and the Perceptual systems. The critical part is the relationship: the perceptual is not equivalent to either the Conscious or Unconscious. An obvious but profound point, because it recognizes that that which is perceived is not that which is thought, and vice versa. There is an interpretation going on: one that is dominated and mediated by the unconscious, which is not a rational system. Bluntly: materiality exists in the mind only as thought, as experience, etc., and not as materiality.

An example from Fictional Characters 2:

Further, there is a variety of evidence indicating that when we imagine things we are activating the same cortical areas that are active when we are engaged in interacting with the real world. So the imagined puppy has the same “cortical footprint” as the real puppy. Thus when we read a text, we are reading “into” an elaborate imaginary world that we are actively maintaining in a way that seems to “shadow” what happens when we actually act in the world.

There is an assumption within this paragraph: thought is governed by materiality. Imagination happens according to ‘rules’ (so to speak) that are equivalent to the ‘rules’ that govern the material world. That is, the imaginative shadows the real world. But is it not more accurate that imagination shadows the individual’s response or perception of the real world? And is that perception determined by materiality? or is it an engagement with materiality?

And cognitive science? Everything I’ve read seems to me just another return to the limited ‘realism’ of rational materiality: “it all must be explainable in rational terms.” (John Holbo’s Rip-van-Winklism on the grand scale.) Yet, everything I’ve read in cognitive science – and, again, I admit limited reading – seems to fail in one respect: they make a huge argumentative jump at the border of the Perceptual and Conscious/Unconscious systems. The gross, underlying argument seems to me (1) the world is in its being a quantifiably material thing; (2) a person perceives that materiality in an equatably quantifiable process; (3) quantifiable materiality is the defines of thought, and thought is controlled by the modality of quantifiable materiality, rather than the other way around: the mind can exists before the perceptual system receives imput, and that input is ‘thought’ according to the ‘rules’ of the mind, not according to the ‘rules’ of materiality. (In its absolute simplest: the mind is a computer, based upon finite rationality.) By the time language appears in the presentation in “Fictional Characters 2,” it is already subject to the rule of materiality, and any presentation of character as a a-material phenomenon must first eliminate that assumption of materiality – of which this is such a gesture.

I do not think it is possible to eliminate the psychological from questions of literature. But I do not think that the psychological can at all be sustained in a purely material, qualitatably scientific manner. There is the unconscious to be dealt with. We are not turing machines.

As such, I agree with Bill’s last paragraph in “Fictional Characters 3”: I don’t believe cognitive science, etc., has any hope in explaining the literary. They are far too limited in their purview.

Though, I do disagree with who Bill includes in his list: Freud and Jung, and Lacan, do present (non-exclusionary!) systems that can be used to explain the literary: because they all accept the presence of the unconscious. (See, for Freud, Derrida’s “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” a persistent presentation of the fundamentals of the relationship between psychology and literature. For Jung, Campbell’s writings on Joyce make for an interesting presentation. And for Lacan – well, I’ll be a bugbear and say see also Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language.)

Looking back at Oatley:

Shakespeare’s great innovation, soon after the even more expansivist invention of printing, was his idea of theatre as a model of the world. The audience member constructs a simulated model in the course of the play, and thereby becomes part of the design process. One sees Shakespeare’s idea, and its aspiration to human universality, not just in his calling his theatre “The Globe.”

Besides the fact that this (that which precedes, and that which follows) gives me no confidence that Oatley has much understanding of Shakespeare-as-literature (especially and emphatically Shakespeare-as-aesthetic-object), the passage reeks of fixing the premise to fit the conclusion. The second sentence couldn’t be more glaring: speak of Shakespeare in given terms, then use that statement to show Shakespeare can be spoken of in the given terms.

But just after, we’ve the killer:

For instance, in computation there are two kinds of code. Some code represents aspects of the real world that is being simulated. Other parts are instructions to the computer about how to conduct the simulation.

See it? Two ‘types’ of . . . code. But both nonetheless CODE. Oatley’s idea is belly up and ick-covered before it ever finds the bubbling castle in the bottom of the tank.

I apologize for that metaphor.

Oatley’s argument – and the vast majority of that cognitive science that I’ve read – marches valiantly forth into a 17th century modality of understanding. His theory, however daring he believes his “artificial emotion” proposal is (something I find even more hilarious), stands in ignorance – or denial –of the last 150 years of philosophy, psychology, mythological studies, literary theory, and, most importantly, art, plastic and literary. (I do recognize that in the latter part of that century and a half of which I speak, the artists have themselves been working in denial – or ignorance – of those that precede them.) If you want to study the mind, don’t start with a computer, which is as far from a mind as can be, start with Gauguin, with Mahler, with Finnegans Wake. Start with Neitzsche, with Worringer, with Levi-Strauss, with Jung, with Derrida . . . . I’m getting carried away.

I believe the arguments here in Part 4 suffer from giving Oatley any benefit of the doubt as concerns validity: it is arguing in counter to an argument that should not be countered but refuted from within. By engaging Oatley’s argument as though it may have validity, the argument above brings into itself the fallacies that plague his: and give legitimacy to a boat that can’t float. The Oatley argument should be revealed as internally fallacious: not, say, be shown as drawing a weak conclusing from a set of provable (but mis-read) facts.

But there is one point I want to directly approach Bill’s words:

Yet the characters - their feelings, attitudes, desires, and actions - are, by definition, the same in each of the three versions. To the extent that we, as critics, analyze and conceptualize the action in a play as unfolding from the desires and motivations of the characters, the difference between these three different ways of telling the story is irrelevant. It has no bearing on what the characters are doing. That it does affect how readers experience the story is beside the point. The story is the story and that’s that.

Nonsense. To say the above, especially the first sentence, is to speak of the play as reportage of a fixed event. But that is not the case! (Again, I’ll fall cite Kermode’s Sense of an Ending as a more-than-worthwhile discussion.) As I said earlier in my earlier post, the characters do not exist. They do not exist despite the words of the text, they exist only within the reading of the words of the text. If those words are different, then the reader’s reading of the text will be different. “That it does affect how readers experience the story” is exactly the point, because the characters only exist within that experiencing of the text. The characters – nor feeling, attitudes, desire and actions, and the story itself – do not exist except for the text, except within the reading of the text, except within the field of ideas that are generated by way of the text.

(Interestingly, crossing over to the Delany post, to say “the story is the story and that’s that” is, quite succinctly, the argument of Knapp and Michaels.)

A character – or any other element of a text, including story – is not a thing as it might exist in the real world, only once removed from the experience of the reader through reportage. A text is best understood as an ideational cosmos, a system. Galaxies within galaxies, as Neitzsche would describe it. It is not finitely rational, but a system, whose elements are parts of the system and can not exist outside the system. But it is not a real cosmos, it is a thought-cosmos. And a character, or any other element, can be best thought of as a cathexis: as a clustering of energies, of ideas, of thoughts, within the system.

“Telling the story one way, as opposed to another” is has little consequence when the ‘story’ is being read as reportage: as the relating of a real event. But in the aesthetic-literary – and most definitely this includes Shakespeare – the ‘story’ is not to be consumed as reportage, and is written to permit the ‘story’ to be read aesthetically, as a Text (in Barthes’s terms, see “From Work to Text”). That is, as a system of ideas created out of words. And any substantial variation, as Mallarmé could have told you, creates a different system: which means different characters, different story, different everything.

Shakespeare’s play is not but “one version” of a story. That is to reduce a text to it’s most banal, naïve state: that of reportage. Shakespeare’s play is a thing unto itself. Any reduction of the text to ‘a story’ is committing the same error Oatley is committing: reduction of the mind to “code.”

By on 08/10/06 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(1) Somehow, Andrew, you manage to convict me of a position I’m arguing against. After quoting a passage from my post you say: “Nonsense. To say the above, especially the first sentence, is to speak of the play as reportage of a fixed event. But that is not the case!” I quite agree with that. What (I thought) I was arguing in the passage you quoted is, in effect, that a criticism which concentrates its explanatory energies on characters, their feelings, desires, motives, actions, and so forth, such a criticism, as you say, treats “the play as reportage of a fixed event.” The reason I went to the trouble of entertaining different strategies for staging that one scene was to make the point the differences between those strategies (including the one Shakespeare actually used) are important. 

(2) FWIW, cognitive scientists seem quite convinced that perceptual and cognitive processes are mostly unconscious.

(3) A meta-comment about cognitive science: It’s not a discipline. It’s a loose congeries of research programs from psychology, linguistics, philosophy, neuroscience, computing, anthropology, and whatever else. I’m not sure there’s any such thing as THE cognitive science position on anything. If you want to argue that perception is “an engagement with materiality” you can do so with evidence from the cognitive sciences. I’d start with Walter Freemen, though, who’s a neuroscientist who thinks cognitivism has passed its expiration date. Freeman talks of intentionality, and traces the idea back to Aquinas, and reads Derrida. Some titles: How Brains Make Up Their Minds, Societies of Brains. Come to think of it, I’ve got an Amazon list: neuroscience for the humanist.

By Bill Benzon on 08/10/06 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(1) Somehow, Andrew, you manage to convict . . .

I had that thought myself that I might be reading you backward. But the overall read gave me the feeling that though, in the moment you may have been arguing as you state, that argument was localized, and you did agree to the statement in gist if not in the immediate conception.

(2) FWIW, cognitive scientists seem quite convinced that perceptual and cognitive processes are mostly unconscious.

It seems that way on the surface. But every time I read them (inc. the Simon piece) their concept of unconscious is mostly ‘in the background’: like a shell program. What they never admit—probably because it’s too damning to their project, or they don’t realize it exists (far more likely)—is that the modality of the human unconscious is not the modality of their ‘unconscious’. Their’s is still quantitative and rational.

Years ago—while rereading _Interpretation of Dreams_— I came upon the recognition that the shift from analog to digital will end with a shift back from digital to analog (or, a newer version thereof). That is, a shift back from discrete quanta to fields.

In this is the core of why I don’t see cognitive science as being very helpful or—in the long run—fruitfull (except as a study of how to make digitally based computers more effective and powerful). They may speak of an unconscious; they may claim to have read Derrida, etc. But when they speak of Derrida et al it isn’t in terms of the modality of the always already (to perhaps over-opportunely use the phrase). It’s the modality of discrete quanta.

But then I can’t condemn cognitive science for the mistake: the error underlies much of 20th century thought (in truth, underlies the history of thought). New criticism is, in the end, looking at modernist (inc. symbolist, etc.) art and literature, which is arguing the field modality, through the language and thought of the modality of discrete points of brute fact. And Greenberg? Pah!! A 20th-century scholastic that did more damage to the arts, singlehandedly, than WWII. Thank him for the pablum that fills the last 50+ years of plastic (and literary) art. All because of the inability (or refusal) to admit the modality of the unconscious—that is, the modality of free play.

I think I’ve circled about.

By on 08/11/06 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . and you did agree to the statement in gist if not in the immediate conception.

Not from where I sit. But I suspect we have rather different ways of approaching the problem of how readers construe characters. And that may be what’s throwing you off.

Signs, in a standard formulation, have a dual nature: the signifier, the physical sound or image, and the signified, whatever it is in the mind that holds meaning. In the second post in this series I indicated some of the ways the newer psychologies conceptualize the realm of the signifiers. I have little sense of how you conceptualize that realm, except through negation: it is not rational, not conscious. Is it anything at all?

By Bill Benzon on 08/12/06 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“they are trying to treat as a material, scientifically observable and quantifiable object something which is not. To say it again a third way (overly simply) – they do not account for – and can not account for because of the materiality of their science—the unconscious"

Assumptions of materiality, of a common ground to science and psychology and literature, should not be dismissed because they don’t appear to jibe with french aesthetics or theology or the “unconscious.” The tradition of empirical, quantifiable psych., of Thorndike, Wm. James, to Watson and Skinner, relies on observation, on environment, on what humans do in certain circumstances. The relation of human biology to psychology--say vision and perception to ‘mind” or schema--is not some trivial matter, either: even Freudians acknowledge a certain biological realism, although that realism is not so cortically centered...There can hardly be any doubt that consciousness, and “qualia,” are bio-dependent, or at the very least mediated by the brain and neural structure: lobotomies indicate that bio-dependency as do, really, psych. meds, if not a pitcher of margaritas.

Cog. sci. is a relatively young field of research, and though there may not be adequate explanations for the more metaphorical, “holistic” or apparently unconscious brain processes, that is not to say there will not be any such rational, quantifiable explanations of those processes, or that those explanations will demand some theological or immaterial account. Descartes: C’est mort

By on 08/12/06 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

William: There can hardly be any doubt that consciousness, and “qualia,” are bio-dependent, or at the very least mediated by the brain and neural structure:

Indeed. But the error that must be guarded against, and too much is not so, is that knowledge of the biological will dictate the understanding of the psychological. Why not the other way around? My answer is that the material, the rationally scientific, is given, in the West, precedence—and that precedence creates a fallacy that weaves through the whole of the subsequent discourse.

Assumptions of materiality, of a common ground to science and psychology and literature, should not be dismissed because they don’t appear to jibe with french aesthetics or theology or the “unconscious.

Likewise, I agree. But, the reverse is also true. What is interesting with the conflict between (again I’ll collapse to two words in representation of much broader groups) is that, say, post-structuralist thought does not negate, say, a Marxist hermeneutic. It rather recognizes it as a part of the issue I’ll here label ‘language.’ The reverse, however is not true. Classical Marxist thought—that is, outside of Althusser et al (and this includes Adorno)—does not recognize free-play. That does not mean Jameson’s arguments in The Political Unconscious are incorrect. They are incorrect only when they claim to cover all of thought. The ideas in the book, however, are (for me) right on as they apply solely to the hermeneutic (to the logocentric, to ideology and conventionality).

The example I use always is Jameson’s treatment of the Caduveo. He eliminates from the discussion those symbols painted on the body for individual reasons. And rightly so, because his discussion is about mass thought, not individual thought. But the book errs in thinking those symbols do not possess meaning-production abilities. It is simply that “meaning,” as the word might be applied to them, is not the same modality of meaning as would be applied to the group symbols. Meaning for the group is the logocentric hermeneutic. Meaning for the individual symbols is an aesthetic engagement.

Quick qualifier to solve an error that may or may not here be caused: every text is, simultaneously, both hermeneutic and aesthetic. [Note I’m labelling again.] Jameson is concerned only with the hermeneutic. His error is to say the aesthetic doesn’t exist. It does. Picasso’s Demoiselles can be spoken of hermeneutically. But they can also be spoken of aesthetically: as an engagement outside of rational meaning. In fact, to not engage the painting outside the rational is to miss the entirely of the modernist argument. But, there I go bashing Greenberg again.

Finally:

Bill: I have little sense of how you conceptualize that realm, except through negation: it is not rational, not conscious. Is it anything at all?

To the crux. The fallacy is the assumption that if not rational then it doesn’t exist. But, as said elsewhere, the history of thought is refutation of that assumption. Bruno, who can be considered (in the way such things are considered) the highpoint of aesthetic (that is, non-solely-hermeneutic) thought in the Renaissance loses out to the rationality of science. But that does not disprove the validity of his thought—or the line he descends from (through da Cusa, the Neo-Socratics, the Gnostics, etc.) nor the line that follows him (that which leads through Symbolism to Post-structuralism). (See Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance

(To note, the current fight over Bruno as the fatheer of science is an example of a hermeneutic fight over the non-hermeneutic. Neither side recognize that Bruno would not suit himself with either side, since he would not suit himself as a scientist in the manner that either side wishes him to be or not to be. He understood the world as aesthetic: the hermeneutic science was to be understood within the greater context of cosmos that can not be understood wholly in the rational. It must also be understood symbolically (in the use of the term by the symbolists, not that by the semiologists).

What astounds me continuously is that the other modality of thinking, which I call the aesthetic, which Jung calls the intuitive, which Levi-Strauss call the mythic, which etc. etc. etc. is continually ignored simply because it doesn’t fit the rational paradigm. Even though it is continually presented, argued, demonstrated—it is yet subsequently ignored. But then, and I speak here out of the discipline of literature as taught [*** rest of paragraph edited by author for being delivered from a soap box. ***]

Of course, the single, irrefutable refutation of “if not rational, then nothing” is Finnegans Wake, but that’s another can of beans altogether.

By on 08/12/06 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Forgot a couple bits:

1: I believe the Couliano book is the work of which I’m thinking. It might also be (and is in conjunction) Cassirer’s The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy.

2: For the Bruno fight, see, for example, Gatti, Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science and Westman . . . . well, can’t find the essay at the moment. Sorry about that.

3: as for the aside with Adorno, see his comments and essays on Beckett, as in Aesthetic Theory and “Trying to Understand Endgame,” and also, if I remember, his comments on Kafka in the former.

Now I’m dropping names dusty enough I hope no one picks them up.

By on 08/12/06 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Levi-Strauss worked mightily to demonstrate an order to mythic thought. Not a rational order, perhaps, but order nonetheless. And Finnegan’s Wake is not the sort of thing one gets by putting words on a page in random fashion. There is order here, and even order regenerating beyond Joyce’s designs. Are these orders merely negations of the rational, or are they something else, something positive in a different light?

By Bill Benzon on 08/12/06 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“What astounds me continuously is that the other modality of thinking, which I call the aesthetic, which Jung calls the intuitive, which Levi-Strauss call the mythic, which etc. etc. etc. is continually ignored simply because it doesn’t fit the rational paradigm.”

The term “rational” though, has sort of built-in connotations itself, however-- does it not? However much one might object to applied Marxism, one could refer to a few select passages of say the German Ideology where Marx undermines german idealism and Kantian rationalism--if not theology--with a few bon-mots (though I would say Thomas Hobbes had mostly finished the job in 1660 or so). There is no unconditioned, a priori subject--there is a body/object, and yes nature/objects. That doesn’t imply a Lockean tabula rasa, but merely that people are born into specific economic and social arrangements and have, yes, certain biological needs and requirements that must be attended to--the early Marx is really quite close to a sort of Darwinian naturalism/determinism, however “vulgar” that seems to literary people. I think the dialectic and marx’s sort of lingering Hegelianism essentially separates humans from mere animality--a “subject” does develop--, and in material terms ( I cribbed some of this from a few notes of Gramsci), Marx does hold that humans possess to some degree a measure of “freedom"--though that does not suggest a metaphysical or theological soul( does it?); they can respond to “nature,” conceptualize, reason and be logical/mathematical, but those conceptualizations--and some conceptualizations are “more equal than others”, i.e. useful,--are constrained by various factors: economic/class standing, biological necessity, and really one’s social existence. (and a history of math. quickly demonstrates how many math. functions/concepts arose from agriculture, architecture, military issues, etc.--to the dismay of platonists throughout the ages). Thus aesthetics (another type of conceptualization. along with mathematics), including literary works (or better,the functionality of literary works) falls and is subsumed within the broader categories of economic and political reality, as primitive sorts of social realists, darwinians, and even a Fred Jameson might agree.

By on 08/12/06 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Final comments:

Bill: And Finnegan’s Wake is not the sort of thing one gets by putting words on a page in random fashion. There is order here, and even order regenerating beyond Joyce’s designs. Are these orders merely negations of the rational, or are they something else, something positive in a different light?

Yes, the Wake has order: but it is a non-rational order. The natural relation of the two words makes it a difficult use—that’s why it’s better to use system. Order/structure vs. system.

What could be considered the elementary system of the Wake is Joyce’s use of two thinkers: Vico and Bruno. They’re use is a conscious choice: Vico presents a rational order of history: the masculine side of the equation. Bruno presents a system—a thinking of the cosmos that recognizes the irrational, the feminine. In the Wake, Bruno acts as the feminine principle, upsetting the rational ordering structure by desedimenting it in the flowing waters of Bruno’s thought.

The main point—it is self limiting to think that for there to be a system it has to be rational. The entire history of high art stands in argument against that.

In no way am I speaking of system as a negation of the rational. (As it is false to think of post-structural thought as a negation of the hermeneutic.) To argue by title: Worringer’s work is Abstraction and Empathy: they are both at play. Why must we eliminate the feminine side of the question merely because it’s not ‘rational’?

William: Thus aesthetics (another type of conceptualization. along with mathematics), including literary works (or better,the functionality of literary works) falls and is subsumed within the broader categories of economic and political reality, as primitive sorts of social realists, darwinians, and even a Fred Jameson might agree.

Actually, I don’t disgree. There’s obvious problems in using the words art and aesthetics: there is no single, primary definition. Generally, I try to avoid the use of the former as being so corrupted by pop-concepts that it’s essentially unusable as a theoretical or critical term. The latter, though, is more difficult—it still demands use, but needs to be cleaned up, or defined, in any use. Myself, here, because of brevity, I’m trying to both limit it to its basic definition—the study of beauty—and let that basic definition find substance within the system of the argument.

I would agree that aesthetics has economic and political reality: but I would point out the careful redefinition of the term that is happening in that phrase. Aesthetics there no longer means the study of beauty, it means the economic/political material studies of beauty, or the economic/political materiality of the objects considered aesthetic.

To rephrase: I can speak the discourse of aesthetics is it concerns beauty. I can also speak a different discourse that establishes a materiality to the discourse of aesthetic and explore the economic/political reality of that materiality.

That is, I can speak of the Demoiselles in terms of its beauty. Or I can speak of the work in terms of politics/economics. But just because it can be spoken of in the latter does not mean that it cannot be spoken of in the former. Same point, essentially, as with Bill above. Just because it’s not rational, doesn’t mean its nonsense. (Actually, not a bad point to drop Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense as yet another iteration of the two modalities of language/thought.)

The key question is: Where are the two separate? The answer, I believe, is found in the nature and modality of the discourses themselves. In the vein of my discussion in these threads, if you speak within a political/economic modality, it will be an economic/political discourse, and the objected brought in so defined. If you speak within an aesthetic modality, then an aesthetic discourse, and the objects within so engaged. That looks circular but is not.

Quick response, which can be wrapped up by example: Adorno’s thoughts on Beckett are pointing at the aporia in Marxist thought that opens the gate for aesthetic considerations outside the political/economic.

Second example, Derrida’s Dissemination is an aesthetic discourse. Jameson’s The Political Unconscious is not. (And the moment with the Caduveo reveals the aporia that shows the limits of that discourse.)

By on 08/15/06 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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