Author Archive

July 15, 2017

The Cynical Certainties of Soap

by dyketheelder

Last night I watched THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. Excuse: Carl’s mom was off at Slow Farm visiting Carl, a new biography of Ava Gardner was highlighted on the MSN front page, and the disc hadn’t been taken out for a walk in years. It’s a remarkably boring film, and ranks with the most cliched films ever made; but Bogart is pretty good, Edmund O”Brien got his Oscar for his supporting role; and there are a few morbid fascinations worth exploring at modest word count. Chief among them is the issue of cliche itself.
“Cliche” is what we call a component of a classic and thoroughly familiar narrative when we want to disparage it. The vehicle for cliche in this instance is what we should call the “A Star Is Born” narrative. There are probably more of these vehicles in the Hollywood ouevre than there are used Chevys in all the used car lots in LA. TBC is a contribution to the inventory by Joe Mankiewicz, who also provided the better known All ABOUT EVE. Thus the cookie is cut.
In TBC, Ava Gardner is the axis around which the drama turns. (The ball bearings are a couple of uncredited guys playing Spanish/and or Gypsy peasant/dancers.) Bogart, O’Brien, Rossano Brazzi, et al are the standard array of movie moguls, publicity hucksters, directors, and so on — with the exception of Brazzi, who is a classically redundant Italian Count, to be contrasted, in salient respects, to the gypsy dancers.
That brief list, you’ll notice, already floods the field with cliches. There are others of more interest. The reigning genre here always offers the opportunity for critique or expose’ of the institutions, mores, etc. of very medium of the critique. The genre is hopelessly narcissistic, not to mention hopelessly productive of masochistic thrills. The cliches that dominate Mankiewicz’ contributions include the contrast between natural and contrived, and innocence and corruption. Notice that it’s all about EVE, and the Contessa is Maria. (Leone gives us Marisol, who’s son is ….) Old/New Testament parallels are a genre in themselves. The expulsion from paradise is, as savants dutifully point out, the dominant master narrative in our cultural history. Equally cliched is the contrast between the barefoot and the shod: the noble savage and the saintly civilized. The sudsy resources of the cinema offer endless opportunities for casting and recasting the narrative. In this case, Mankiewicz’ cynicism suggests strongly that those who try to embrace both the natural and the civilized are doomed.
I could go on. And on. But the obvious prevents me, for it must have occurred to you that this post is in precisely the same boat as its subject content: a cliche-ridden contribution to a now cliched genre: the smarmy oration from the Olympus of the learned.
Am I alone in feeling (fearing) that I’m living out a cliche? That, say, the “politics” swarming around me are the sleepwalking remake of a narrative become cliche? That Hillary and Donald aren’t to be added to the Eves and the Marys (or the Anne Baxters and Ava Gardners — it gets harder and harder to distinguish the actors from the roles)? It’s harder and harder to distinguish the real from the fake. Hollywood (as the inheritor of the creation of narrative illusion) has lived off that difficulty in full understanding of what it was doing. Also sprach Zaratustra.

April 27, 2017


by dyketheelder

I essentially never play Scrabble any more. I refuse to play with anal retentives, and the people who want to play are characteristically thus. It will come as no surprise to DV’s if I say that I love words — as objects of both work and play. So, in some ways, I lament not playing Scrabble,

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that I do love words. It delights me beyond reason, for example, that Claude Hopper is a big cheese in the world of white Gospel, and a protege of Jesse Helms. At any rate, I hate to see words mistreated. Scrabble is designed to degrade and denigrate words — in the service of venal gain. I want to choose and use words in terms of quality: expressivity, melifluity, strength, suggestiveness, goofyness. I love words whose history has thrust connections upon us that are by now thoroughly bogus, but open horizons to understanding nonetheless. A couple such that showed up in my reading yesterday were “cosmology” and “cosmetics”. Turns out, of course, that the ruptured link is that between beauty and order. For the ancients it was a serious question whether the universe they lived in was a cosmos. (Was fur ein question is that for us now?)

Scrabble encourages mingy Caledonian pursuit of quantitative profiteering. “How much is that word worth?”, we ask, and move a letter to see if there’s a double score sign under it. Worse, the game is competitive, so there’s profit in making it difficult for your opponent to make a good word, and loss in allowing him access to a doubling space of his own. The board fills with crabbed dead ends. Where’s the elegance in repressive denial? Nuff said.

As to my lament, I’ve actually thought about what could be done to get me to the Scrabble board. It may not be hopeless. Think of what you could make out of the materials you have at hand: a wonderful woven tapestry of beautiful words. Of course you’d create it cooperatively with the other players. The challenge of making something out of the random assortment you have at each move would be the same. However, the dominant strategy would be the creation of enabling conditions. Everyone would be concerned to give the best opportunity to the next player, given that her assortment would be limited too.

Evaluating the outcome of the game will be tricky — qualitative judgments always are: that’s traditionally one of the reasons why people seek to quantify them. But if you can do it in the arts, you can do it here as well. After all, there’ll be no issue of who wins or loses: everybody wins, or everybody loses any particular game. Finding a way to keep score is the road to ruining the game.

For those who need the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat to motivate them, it would be possible to rededicate the numbers on the tiles and the instructions on the special squares. For instance, you could set up efficiency objectives: the most beautiful tapestry at the minimal cost. “Triple word score” would be a pit of doom much to be avoided. But maybe not to be avoided at any cost, for there’s the existential thrill of the sacrifice move to consider. A really good word at a suicidal price.

Anyway, I think that this version of Scrabble could be elaborated. I doubt that it will be though. Were almost certainly have to carry on our affair with words elsewhere. Current politics is a promising possibility. Fantastic opportunities to join the goofy play of words are offered up to us daily. I’m sure the suggestion will send a cold chill up straight and rigid spines, but opportunity isn’t to be found just anywhere, and “Guignol” is a really neat word.

January 5, 2017


by dyketheelder

We stir, mix, knead, and blend all the time when we’re cooking (or painting, for that matter). We do it to produce uniformity, homogeneity, smoothness, and so on. If you want your pea soup with lumps of ham, and maybe carrots, in it, don’t put it through the blender. If you want a marbled loaf of bread, don’t stir the two batters together too much; just enough to get the fractal dimension of marbling you want. If you want nice smooth gravy, blend it.

If you want nice scrolls and whorls in your Belusov Zabotinski reaction. don’t stir it. If you want a nice smooth martini, stir (or shake) it.

If you don’t want a uniform sea of blank faces in your classroom, don’t impose a system of homogeneity producers in your prerequisites and in your required assignments.

If you want the distinctiveness of your state to make a difference in a presidential election, elect through an electoral college, not a nationwide popular vote.

Everywhere and always there are reasons and pressures to stir, mix, knead and blend, and reasons not to do so. A humble epitome of the nonlinear dynamics we live by.

November 15, 2016


by dyketheelder

In some classroom, at some point twenty or thirty years ago, undoubtedly with the catalytic aid of some students, I invented the concept of the ego condom. Things like that happen when your classroom is relaxed and free flowing.  For instance, in a similar way in a similar setting (with the aid (goading) of Amy and Janelle, as I remember) the concept of the sexual outyowindow emerged. Amy: “Was that a sexual innuendo? Reply: “No, that was a sexual outyowindow.” Far too gross and blatant to be an inyowindow — however unintended.  Not very profound, but I’ll get back to it later. Meanwhile back to the ego condom.

An ego condom is a device for protecting a vulnerable ego from socially engendered damage. When fully understood, and generalized, it turns out that ego condoms are so plural and so ubiquitous that the concept spins off into virtual vacuity. In fact, they’re major staples of human personality. However, the concept was invented in the context of the philosophy of science, and in that context the concept can do some work. That is, the concept fits a particular sort of situation — such as the following:

Carl and I are currently reading Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. Without going into the details, the book is a work of advocacy. It proposes to insert chemiosmosis, Peter Mitchell’s theory of bioenergetics, into the core of evolutionary theory, now dominated by replication and information. Mitchell received a (1973) Nobel for the theory, but it has never gained the general ascendancy of the post-Watson and Crick lines of thought. Now, I first ran into Mitchell’s theory in the ’80’s. Bruce Weber, a friend, writing colleague, and biochemist, was a strong advocate for Mitchell. A group of us talked a lot about how Mitchell’s discoveries might find a central place in evolutionary thinking. I remember it being pretty hard going, especially for me at that particular stage of my ignorance. At any rate, at the time, and for a long time, Mitchell’s views remained essentially unnoticed in evolutionary discourse. In reading Lane’s book I thought again, for the first time in a long time, about how and why Mitchell’s views could be ignored.

That sort of question always leads to a plurality of intersecting hypotheses, some subset of which eventually stand as a sort of answer. Within the subset ego condoms insinuate themselves. My own advocacy here is to urge that when confronted with such questions, ego condoms are a profitable component of the search for answers. Hunt for them, and you get a long way toward understanding the dialectical structure of science. They never by a long shot ever give you a full answer, but they help “deconvolute” the tangle of answers you end up with. And it almost always is a tangle, since ego condoms are never orthogonal to more “scientific” factors, but live in these factors like viruses. In Cosmopolitics Isabel Stengers works out these issues very elegantly with respect to the fate of Prigogine’s theories.

Well, then, give us an example of an ego condom.

I’ve hoped that you might have thought of some candidates of your own, by now, but I’ll take a look at one of the most obvious and ubiquitous: dick waving. Of course in these days we’ll have to find another identifying phrase, what with the emergence of more and more high quality women at the forefront of science; and ego condoms turn out to be unisex. (The image of Leslie Nielsen keeps flashing, as it were, into my mind.) “Dick waving”, incidentally, is an obvious example — at least in this context — of a sexual outyowindow. As I said, we’ll get back to that. Meanwhile, one of the most common formulae of dick waving is “We scientists …”. I’m pretty sure that the ego condom first emerged in my Cosmology class, and with respect to Brian Greene, a chronic dick waver. The issue is the reversibility or irreversibility of cosmological dynamical equations — a central issue for Prigogine and Stengers, of course. Greene is a champion of reversibility.  He has lots of company. He also is aware of the sensitivity and instability of his position. So in one of his books (one of the many versions of his book, all re-titled) he defends reversibility by a “We scientists …”.

As Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean “we”, white man?” Greene is cuddling his ego in an orthodoxy that he deems or hopes is strong enough to protect him in his position; but in my “Prigoginian”view, he’s succeeded in making the instability, hence his vulnerability, more obvious. If you want to understand current cosmological theory, it’s good to see that. It opens questions and problematizes issues that might otherwise be swept under the rug.

Now, as tacitly promised, political correctness: the hegemony of the Puritan constabulary. I think that’s a disease we could all die from. Recent politics confirms me in that judgment. The attempt to sterilize social and political discourse is the ultimate ego condom. The establishment of mutual respect and understanding is a, if not the, major problem we face. I don’t think that mutual understanding and respect can live very long in the face of the sterilization of our available discursive space. I know for a fact that any education that conduces to mutual understanding and respect can’t live under that regime. It may sound trivial to say that we need classroom climates where “sexual outyowindow”, and “ego condom”, and “dick waving as a rhetorical strategy” can emerge, but intellectual freedom and productive pathways to answers depend on exactly that climate. If you think that some people are hurt, and many others made uncomfortable, in that climate, you’re right. In fact, it’s traditional; and the reason the tradition must be promoted and defended, for the alternative is not only painful, but deadly. Ironically, Donald and the millions he has captured show us just that. Matched against a gutless, self-protective alternative, they showed us the result of generations of denial and self-sanctimony that have denied space for converting festering disagreement and resentment into any sort of mutual project of understanding and respect. The prime minister of Malaysia epitomized the election as the rebellion of those who were left behind. Obviously they weren’t just left behind, but also actively excluded by those with a deep grained sense of their own superiority. But that sense of superiority among the educated while elite is hard to defend in the world that’s emerged from colonialisms internal and external, so default to preventive sterilization — intellectual eugenics. Intellectual space has more and more been taken over by ego condoms. As in the case of the sciences, the recognition of these protective devices, and especially their fragility, can be helpful.



June 6, 2015

conversations with Hesiod

by dyketheelder

Yrjo Haila (a large Finn, but not a white shark) and I are working on (playing with) an ongoing conversation anchored in Hesiod’s WORKS AND DAYS. It wouldn’t hurt to get some Volian commentary if we could. On the not-very-safe assumption that I can figure out how to do it, I’ll send along a short introduction that explains the project; and two short, typical, and connected contributions that you might like. If I fail, I’ll get Carl to provide them.



The house that Jack built

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:


At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

September 17, 2013

Deacon deepening

by dyketheelder

“One theme of this book is that the planet, and indeed the cosmos, is replete with self-organizing, spatiotemporal systems flowing at different speeds, levels of sophistication, and degrees of staying power. These impersonal systems are open to some degree and never in perfect equilibrium; they interact, with each having a degree of entanglement with several others. … The biosphere itself is an open, thermodynamic system, driving heat into space and contributing to the condition of life on Earth. Such a perspective does not deny self-organizing power to economic markets. It does, however, suggest that these systems are much more fragile, interdependent, and volatile than their fervent supporters imagine, partly because they are closely involved with other self-organizing systems operating at various scales and tempos.”
That’s from the first paragraph of the chapter “second interlude: modes of self-organization” in William E. Connolly’s new book THE FRAGILITY OF THINGS: SELF-ORGANIZING PROCESSES, NEOLIBERAL FANTASIES, AND DEMOCRATIC ACTIVISM Duke UP. The rest of the chapter does a halfway interesting job of spelling out some of Deacon’s apparatus (he calls it “teleodynamism) and applying it in a preliminary way to financial markets and their social consequences. I haven’t read any other chapters except at a glance — I’m real busy at the moment — but the book looks to be pretty wide-ranging (Sophocles, Kant, Whitehead, among others). I’ll certainly get to it when I have the time.
For me, Connolly is a blast from the past. He was one of the more or less Marxian political scientists active in the 60’s (Peter Bachrach and Steven Lukes were others), and I read some of his stuff then. He went completely off my screen for about a half century, and now he’s back. Lo and behold, he’s traveled some of the same ground I have, and we meet at Deacon. Those of you who see promise in Deacon’s approach may want to look at its use by an old lefty with a real track record.

July 22, 2013

Hello Hollywood

by dyketheelder

Carl and Frau arrived rather unexpectedly for a short in-transit visit. A real treat: you voles have some sense of the relationship between Carl and me by now, but Rachel and I are also compliciters in a number of projects. (Actually, you know that too.)
We got heavily into Roger Corman. Attack of the Crab Monsters on Thursday, and on Friday the Roger Corman volume in AFI’s Director series, plus the documentary “A salute to Roger Corman”. My interest in sci-fi doesn’t begin to match Carl’s. Mine is pretty much confined to “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto,” Krell metal, and Q. But Roger Corman is another matter. Not only did he produce and direct Little Shop of Horrors, a far more finely crafted movie, in my estimation, than, say, Gone with the Wind, but he was the most important teacher/mentor in the 20th Century film world. It’s the latter that Carl and I hermeneutered ‘til midnight.
James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard are just a few of the many movie makers given their important start by Corman. It would be hard to think of another teacher with that kind of lineup of grads – maybe Wheeler at Princeton: he gets to start his list with Dick Fineman – but I can’t think of another in any field. So of course Carl and I were afforded the opportunity to ruminate on what Corman actually did, and how he did it.
For me and my generation, I’ve found in retrospect, Corman’s initial importance was his affording us the opportunity to have our socks knocked off, at an impressionable age, by Rashomon, The Magician, Wild Strawberries, the Seventh Seal, and La Strada. He’s the one, as Janus Films, who was responsible for the US distribution of the great “foreign” art films of the period – en passant with respect to his career, punctuational with respect to mine. Others owe Corman for many (potentially hundreds of) thrilling nights at the local drive-in.
But what Carl and I were after was the understanding of Corman as teacher/mentor. What can we learn from him to get better at doing what we do when we do what we do? The conversation pretty quickly homed in on providing opportunity. Corman was a genius at recognizing talent when he saw it, gave it the chance to show itself and develop, and shoved it into a challenging place, very often the chance to direct a first movie. (The catch phrase in the tribe was Corman’s “If you do well with this, you’ll never have to make a film for me again.”) Tough love and a boot out the door to opportunity.
Two important words showed up: “trust”, and “risk.” Corman trusted both his own judgment, and those about whom he made the judgment. Of course trusting them entailed a certain amount of risk, a failed movie, and so on, but Corman was smart enough to buffer the risk, and keep it under control. Carl’s way of putting it was that Corman found a place in the movie biz where you didn’t have to hit a home run every time at bat. He was the greatest singles hitter in film history. If you get to a place where you have to make a multi-million dollar blockbuster (as, ironically, Cameron certainly did), the risk is stultifying. If you were knocking off Bucket of Blood, or The Wasp Woman in five days or so (or Little Shop of Horrors in two) for a few thousand bucks, the risk was negligible – and exhilarating fun to boot. The immediate consequence was the space to afford all those wonderful opportunities. Ask yourself, is your course (or your current project) tangled up in the ethos of megabuck homerun hitting, or would a good solid base hit get the job done? Cameron, in his interview, counts what he learned about attitude toward risk with Corman as one of his formative lessons. The only thing I’d add to Carl’s image is that sometimes you don’t even need to get a base hit. Success may mean bunting somebody into scoring position, something Corman did over and over again.
“Afford” keeps popping up. It’s a funny word, usually showing up when you ask yourself if you can afford a new Mercedes, or some such. But as it’s appeared here, its meaning has flipped. Corman’s affordances were largely the result of what he couldn’t afford. Affordances as opportunities needn’t be tied to affordances as resources, especially financial resources. In fact, Carl and I fell into talking a lot of this through in terms of the concept of affordance, a concept we’ve come to use a lot (and was showing up in DV long before I was). Corman just turns out to be one of the best conversation platforms for affordance since Miu lib.
In any case, I’d been thinking about affordance again over the last couple of weeks in pursuit of a project some of you have dealt with at an earlier stage. Vis. I hacked my way back into the jungle I’d created “in defense of” Terry Deacon and his terminological terrorism. In particular, I pulled out the stuff on his concept of “ententionality” – a discussion I’d couched in terms of soil fertility as ententional. The old paper had been shot down somewhere over the Zuider Zee, and I wanted to see if I could locate any survivors who could live on in another context. Deacon and I both still like my take on entention.
So I recontextualized, and submitted (electronically, of course) elsewhere. I’ve never gotten such good service. The rejection was in my e-mail the next time I looked at it. But meanwhile, I’d sent the new version to Tony Chemero, who some of you might have run across: e.g. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, out of MIT. Tony’s interest in, and understanding of, Deacon is very close to mine. But the roots of his work are with John Gibson’s ecological psychology (E.g. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception), and Gibson is the originator of the best known industrial strength concept of affordance. In fact, lacking as always in good sense, I’d mentioned (parenthetically) in the new version that the whole discussion of the ententionality of soil could be re-written in terms of affordance. (I’m somehow bound to shove awkward connections down the throats of people who don’t want to make any connections at all.)
Chemero liked the paper, lamented its misfortunes, and suggested that if I actually worked out the connection to affordance a bit, Ecological Psychology, the Gibsonian journal, might publish it. So that’s what I’m working on.
I think I’d better do it without raking in Roger Corman. But for DV there’s lots more to be said about Roger and his affordance machine.