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Actually I never got round to the question of avoiding mixed metaphors [Dec. 4th, 2014|03:26 pm]
Nails and Hammers and Unmixed Metaphors


Some time ago, when I was telling a friend about the neuroscience students who were looking at Bethany Collins’ blackboard-like panel of white-lettered words breaking apart and collecting into piles of letters, which reminded them of how memory and language-formation function, he said, “To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” to which I retorted. “No, no, they got it! That was why I put it in the ‘From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again’ show! —because it wasn’t just about the political concepts in the words, it was about how the concepts form and fall apart in our minds and our societies!”

Actually, I didn’t say much beyond “No, no, they got it!” but we all know about pensées de l’escalier. (Or “That was what I shoulda said.”)

I so, however, keep having new and ever more horrifying realizations of how we actually do interpret the whole world in terms of the tools we have with which to interpret it; more accurately, we interpret and judge other people’s tools in terms of the ones we know how to use, and we interpret other people’s interpretations in terms of the tools we know how to use.

The computational model of consciousness is a case in point. Anyone who studies humankind’s cultural creations realizes that there is a much more complex set of responses to the environment than pure computation, but how germane to actual consciousness are the complex responses? We are, after all, getting better at creating systems like Siri in which algorithms mimic at least the standard tropes for reacting to reports of others’ emotions and sensations, from pain and hunger to fear and sexual desire. (“I am sorry to hear that. I am sad that there is nothing I can do to improve your situation.”)

So a good many everyday behavioral or pragmatic tools for navigating existence are purely mechanical, a more sophisticated form of “How are you?” “Fine, thanks, how are you?” “Fine, thanks.” or “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” And as the linguistic philosophers pondered three-quarters of a century ago, it is quite possible for the “Fine” exchange to contain not a syllable of accuracy concerning the respondents’ inner emotional or physical condition, since it exists for other purposes than information.

But we end up, vis-à-vis such questions as the computational model of consciousness, in messy issues of what it means to have a body or to be a body and what it would mean not to be a body or to exist as a conscious being without having a body. And people whose particular emotions and mental skills lead them to acquire expertise in one academic field are likely to have a completely different way of putting the problem into words, or of understanding the problem intuitively, from those whose expertise is formed from different skill sets.

In principle, we should all be able to comprehend what it would mean to understand a problem using a different set of acquired skills. But because our comprehension of that question is partially determined by who we are as embodied beings with a personal history, we don’t even understand what it is we don’t understand, as I have quoted so often from The Wisdom of Charlie Brown.
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What to leave in, what to drop out [Nov. 19th, 2014|10:00 am]
Having been reminded, nearly two years later, to look it up, I am delighted to find that I have once again created the only Google-search citation for a quotation, one which I acknowledged at the time was probably an ill-favored misquotation, but mine own.

Item: Samuel Johnson's "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Which I rendered, on January 13, 2013, as "The sure knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind most wonderfully."

It was pleasant to rediscover that post, and to delete some wondrously unconcentrated spamming comments that didn't add enough surreal content to make them worth retaining.
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Muddling Through on the Day of the Dead, But Not Posted Until the Day After [Nov. 3rd, 2014|11:42 am]
It’s a kind of [devastated-landscape] ugliness that can be achieved anywhere, I suppose, but it’s most easily found on the borders where cultures clash....

...among the handlers, I had learned not to dismiss anything as meaningless. Mystery, I’d read somewhere, isn’t the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.
---Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

I wonder what he meant by that? ---punch line of joke in which the psychoanalyst is referring to a colleague’s pleasant “Good morning.”

Why haven’t I seen this before? ---Walter Pidgeon as Edward Morbius in Forbidden Planet



I find myself reading Salvation on Sand Mountain after twenty years in which I never quite felt the need to do so, and am finding it unexpectedly resonant.

The remark about the ugliness of borders where cultures clash (in Appalachia, places where mountains are leveled both for strip mining and to provide a space for a new Holiday Inn) suddenly illuminates for me—because different cultural expectations have real material effects in life and landscape—the dubiousness of most attempts to disentangle material and spiritual/psychological factors. (This last remark would be easier to make in German, where the word Geist serves for both “spirit” and “mind.” German, however, has had to go to “spirituelle” rather than “geistig” to translate “I’m spiritual but not religious,” if Google Translate is to be believed. “Geistig” still means both “spiritual” and “mental,” however.)

As I have written so often before, it is pointless to try to derive cultural characteristics solely from economic substructures, as pointless as to try to insist that only the spirit matters, matter doesn’t matter. (As in the intrinsically untranslatable old British joke, “What is matter? Never mind. What is mind? No matter.”)

As Election Day nears in a couple of places, and has just passed in a few others, I find myself thinking about the persistence of cultural preferences in the midst of changing economic circumstances, and how cynics can play upon regional psychologies to attain their own ends, ends which may be either economically or culturally based. Leaders, too, are prepared to sacrifice their own best material interests for the sake of the ideals that stir their souls most deeply.

The best outcome would be one in which material and spiritual goals were not muddled up together, or mistaken one for the other.

As Captain Obvious said once, I believe.

The problem, and I have written more than a few thousand muddled words about this, is how to extract meaning from the muddle.

I wish I could remember which character in fiction said, “I love mystery, but I hate muddles.” It seems like it came out of a Charles Williams novel, but it is such a British-English thing to say that it could equally well be something as embarrassing as Agatha Christie or as differently embarrassing as Robertson Davies.

None of the above...a very modest amount of websearching attributes the quotation to Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, which is rather appropriate to my original topic of borders where cultures clash. Adele: “I dislike [mysteries] not because I’m English, but from my own personal point of view.” Mrs. Moore: “I like mysteries, but I rather dislike muddles.” Fielding: “A mystery is a muddle. ... A mystery is only a high-sounding term for a muddle.”

“Boum,” said the Malabar Caves.
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the rest is silence [Oct. 18th, 2014|02:05 pm]
But once again, not Prince Hamlet's. I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.
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unintended consequences [Oct. 18th, 2014|02:02 pm]
And as Franz Kafka sort of put it once, I bet this too invites unintended feelings of offense.
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no good deed goes unpunished [Oct. 18th, 2014|02:00 pm]
I am left with the feeling that in my present season of the soul, my best-intended efforts are going to offend in some way I cannot imagine (otherwise I wouldn't be making the efforts with the unintended consequences, now would I?).

This is yet another reason I have abandoned a good many of my usual topics in spite of a plethora of published articles that constitute temptations to mouth off about them.
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Karl Kraus and [Aug. 14th, 2014|10:31 am]
Karl Kraus withheld publication of Die Dritte Walpurgisnacht for fear of recrimination against friends, and famously wrote only that "Gewalt kein Objekt der Polemik, Irrsinn kein Gegenstand der Satire sei." (Those unable to parse this could paste it into a reputable translation program as I did to make sure I was understanding it rightly.)

The times are not propitious for writing about many of my favorite topics, and have not been for some time now. So I have written a number of posts and then chosen not to post them.

But I must remark that I feel at the moment as though I have fallen into a condensed version of John Crowley's Ægypt cycle: we have learned thanks to current events that the Gnostics are beleaguered both as supporters of repression and victims of it. The secretive Cult of the Peacock Angel is a topic of daily newspaper headlines, except that many of its practitioners have cellphones and wear T-shirts bearing contemporary slogans, making one speculate whether secularity has eroded religious passion among its practitioners as it has in so many other religions. The sense of social instability that accompanies this, when reinforced by economic instability, makes a revived fundamentalism seem plausible to multitudes. (And this insight also is found in Crowley's four Ægypt novels, exercises in fantastic realism with an emphasis on the "realism.")

I would say, as Kraus did, that all this brings nothing else to mind, but it would not be true, as he knew it was not for him when he made the statement.
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more notes on the imagination [Mar. 13th, 2014|11:39 am]
More Mildly Entertaining (Or Not) Notes On the Human Imagination


Re-reading various theoreticians who quarrel fatally with one another, I wish more than ever that we had a more comprehensive model of how the cultures into which we are born shape our psychological preferences. A concurrent perusal of my Facebook news feed, Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, my cousin Mary Stricker’s blog about fantasy Grimmella , and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s reconstruction of his youthful self’s peregrinations round the Black Sea in The Broken Road reveals parallel narrative and emotional structures that are modified by the time frame and gender-and-class conditions in which the parallel structures are being constructed by the human imagination. In other words, very different kinds of folks fall again and again for the same sorts of things, only different. And it matters very much whether we look more at the sameness or the difference, when we ought to be looking at both together, and looking both at what people love and what they hate.

We have a huge amount of academic fustian and intellectual obscuration taking place in unreadable journals, all discussing phenomena of the human condition that the academicians are examining in too small a sample, in too limited a geographical and historical circumstance, looking at too few variables.

Likewise, people in general like what they like, and know a great deal about the stuff they like, and do not think very much about why they like what they like, and why, under different circumstances, they happen to like something else.

I could try to struggle on for a few thousand more words on this topic, but you would stop reading after about one more paragraph, anyway.

This re-realization (it’s another one of those topics I rediscover about twice a week with the same sense of surprise each time) makes me feel like finally taking the time to work all the way through D. Fox Harrell’s Phantasmal Media, a new book to which I refer with monotonous regularity, simply because Harrell is trying to synthesize a good many theoretical approaches. It is possible to extract a number of different lessons from Harrell’s narrative even though his primary interest is how to make relationships of power and ethnic identity visible through digital media—or how to create politically and socially efficacious video games. Since he focuses on “how to understand and create evocative story worlds, poetic metaphors, critical conceptual blends, haunting visions, and empowering cultural experiences using the computer,” we can extrapolate beyond the “using the computer” part and look more broadly at that piquant juxtaposition of “haunting visions,” “empowering cultural experiences,” and so forth. Most of the people writing about one or two of those topics wouldn’t know the other topics if they performed the usual American-slang cliché on their posterior regions. (For my non-U.S. readership, that’s “if they came up and bit ‘em in the ass.”)
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further notes on the fantastic, visual art and John Crowley department [Mar. 7th, 2014|01:35 pm]
I have found another convert for the fiction of John Crowley—Joe Elias Tsambiras, (http://www.kailinart.com/2014/02/the-art-of-joe-elias-tsambiras/) whose artwork is Crowleyan without knowing it, but using a different visual vocabulary from the art John Crowley most admires (which means Mr. Crowley may not approve of it). Although I recommended Little, Big and the Ægypt cycle without further citation or explanation, it was the 2009 interview in The Believer (http://www.believermag.com/issues/200905/?read=interview_crowley ) that made a believer out of him, perhaps because so much that Mr. Crowley says in that interview would also apply to the art of Joe Elias Tsambiras.

Unfortunately Tsambiras is acquiring particular editions according to the cover art he finds most relevant and appealing to him, so I can’t guarantee the purchase of new copies, which of course matters a great deal to a living writer.
more?Collapse )
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a footnote most of my readership will not need [Mar. 7th, 2014|01:17 pm]
I am stunned to find that the annual conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts has a roster of academic papers and participating academicians that puts the American Academy of Religion to shame in terms of quantity: and this is only on one interdisciplinary topic, even if it is explored from many different perspectives.

http://iafa.highpoint.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/35th-Annual-ICFA-Program-Draft-v2.pdf
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