28 August 2008

Doubting Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic Split

Filed under: First Lines, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:11 pm

“What will you do with all that I say? Will you record it on a little thing and organize soirées by invitation only? — Hey, I’ve got a tape by Lacan!”

Lorenzo Chieza begins his 2007 book Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan with this funny little remark from Lacan’s Seminar XVII. Even the act of numbering the seminars with Roman numerals reveals a kind of reverence reserved in America for only the most momentous of events, like the Oscars and the Super Bowl. Lacan would seemingly have been in an excellent position to acknowledge the importance of the other’s gaze in establishing self-image. I want to write maybe two or three posts about this book before sending it back to the library along with whatever memories I might have retained of it.

Though Lacan’s description of the etiology of self-image diverges from empirical evidence (1), his contention that self-image begins as a reflection of others’ image of the self is well-supported by the research (2). What I have a hard time grasping is Lacan’s radical distinction and split between the Imaginary and the Symbolic in the formation of the self. Recognizing one’s image in a mirror depends on the very same sort of identification with the perspective of the other that’s foundational to language acquisition. Adopting others’ perspective on how they see you is of a kind with adopting how others talk about you. Visual images may affect the viewer in ways that may elude conscious awareness or verbal description. But the same could be said for mood or body language or tone and volume of speech. For that matter, it’s possible to listen to speech, to understand its meaning, and to respond with intelligible verbalization of one’s own, and still the personal impact of the other’s words may resonate at a level beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.

The difference, presumably, is this: the Imaginary presentation of self-as-reflection creates the illusion of one’s wholeness and completeness, whereas the Symbolic representation of self-as-description cuts the self up into a multitude of separate verbal signifiers. Also presumably, the creation of the Imaginary whole self precedes the symbolic castration that resolves the Oedipus complex and embeds the self in the social and linguistic order dominated by the name-of-the-Father. Language separates the self from its idealized self-image and shatters its unity into a multiplicity of words. At the same time, the self attempts to restore its lost wholeness in part by assembling an ego-ideal: a collection of features, and the words for describing these features, that project (to oneself and to others) the semblance of wholeness within the Symbolic order. Of course there’s always something missing, not least because language itself is a radical divider of wholeness, and so the self continually strives to restore this lost and irretrievable ideal self-image through a variety of futile efforts.

As I noted in the prior post, children typically don’t recognize their own reflection until after they’ve already begun both understanding and speaking language. And as shown in a recent experiment, magpies demonstrate their ability to recognize themselves in the mirror not by preening proudly before an idealized self-image, but by trying to remove the splotch of paint that makes the image less than perfect. I would expect that a child or a magpie would first recognize herself not by seeing in the glass an Imaginary ideal and applying it to herself, but by noting how performing discrete physical movements of individual body parts result in the same movements being performed by the reflection’s corresponding body parts. In other words, recognizing one’s reflection depends on discriminating parts from whole.

Now of course it wasn’t mine to experience, but I observed no evidence of trauma associated with my daughter’s learning to use language. She seemed quite eager to demonstrate her understanding of others’ words and especially her newfound ability to make herself understood verbally. Like other infants she added words rapidly to her vocabulary. It’s true that her first spoken word was “Da,” by which she firmly and forever established herself in my personal Symbolic order. But her second word was “green,” from which I’m unable to derive any sort of general psychological insight. Much of this early language facility seemed unrelated to her issuing demands for getting her needs met. Of course language acquisition followed hot on the heels of her ability to crawl/walk/run, her increasing adeptness at manipulating physical objects, her imitative ability, her ability to perform increasingly complex tasks, and so on. Language emerged in her repertoire, on developmental schedule, as one of the many skills every normal human acquires at an early age. And she seemed very pleased indeed with her ever-increasing competence.

At the same time, each of these skills didn’t arise fully formed: a lot of repetition was involved, a lot of trial and error. Learning to walk means falling down again and again. It’s sometimes painful, more often frustrating — a consistent source of negative feedback debunking one’s perfect and complete self-image even before language acquisition begins. But little kids seem to exhibit surprisingly little frustration in learning to speak. Our daughter demonstrated admirable tolerance of her parents’ persistent inability to understand what she was telling us. Patiently she would repeat herself again and again until at last we got it; then she seemed just as pleased with our learning as we were with hers.

In short, the Ideal-Symbolic split, the Oedipal castration, the loss of completeness — none of our daughter’s supposed early trauma made itself manifest to us, none of it seemed to make her unhappy. Instead, she seemed quite pleased with herself and her ever-expanding human competency. I don’t recall her spending much of her early childhood developing self-discourses intended either to describe or to repair her shattered Ideal ego. That didn’t happen until, oh, about ten years later.

27 August 2008

Linking Empirical and Philosophical Psychologies

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:25 am

In a prior post I contended that empirical psychology is continually constructing a vast and intricate Correlational Matrix that occupies a middle ground between the Real and the Theoretical. The Matrix is a sort of language composed of variables linked together by statistical associations. Psychological researchers operate inside this Matrix, traversing it, extending and tightening it, talking about it as if it were an autonomous structure of signifiers having no reference outside of itself. However, it’s possible to subject the Matrix to systematic transformations that move it closer either to the world of raw phenomena or to the realm of ideas for understanding phenomena. The Matrix of empirical signifiers, seemingly suspended in midair, is anchored on both sides of the divide between the physical and the mental.

But what does the Correlational Matrix tell us about human psychological phenomena? How are we to interpret the information it contains? For example, a section of the Matrix might show statistical correlations of varying strengths between children’s verbal ability, age, social role-taking, parents’ responsiveness to children’s attention, parents’ intelligence, and school success. Are these variables connected to one another in a deterministic and causal fashion, like the Law of Gravity? No: the connections are probabilistic. Typically in psychological research the statistical correlation between variables is a weak one, exceeded by the unexplained and apparently random variation between individuals. Also, the causal directionality of the statistical associations between variables isn’t always direct or easily demonstrable. Rather than a tight and elegant construct, the Correlational Matrix is a loose and complex tangle held together by a multitude of weak and tenuous connections.

Does the seemingly haphazard state of the Correlational Matrix reflect the haphazard state of empirical psychology? Is it a sign of immature theorization or inadequate methodology that the Matrix doesn’t tighten itself up? Or does the Matrix accurately describe the messy and indeterminate Real of psychological phenomena? If so, is it possible that the Matrix needs to get even bigger and more intricately interconnected than it already is? I’d say that’s the general historical trend in empirical psychology. Broad general paradigms and simple causal relationships rarely serve as well as specific, complex, multivalent explanations. Here again the Matrix is like a language: the vocabulary, grammar and syntax don’t gradually lead to a convergence onto a smaller and smaller number of sentences that people speak to one another; instead, the elements and rules of structuration afford an ever-increasing divergence of what people potentially can and actually do say.

Because empirical psychology functions as a language, enabling researchers to think and to talk to one another about phenomena, it should be possible to translate this language into terms that non-psychologists can understand. After all, the theory of gravity can be stated as a mathematical equation linking precisely-defined constructs describing physical reality, but the theory can also be stated in ordinary English sentences. Shouldn’t we expect as much from scientific psychology?

Suppose a psychologist were to say that children’s social role-taking ability accounts for 50 percent of the variance in the age at which they first recognize their own reflection in a mirror. How would a non-psychologist make sense of this assertion? Is it that role-taking causes self-recognition? Not necessarily — both might be caused by some other variable, and even so the connection between the two variables is far less than 100 percent. Is it that role-taking plus one or more other variables fully predicts age of self-recognition? Not that either: the other causal variables may not be known, and they probably intercorrelate with each other, so that no matter how many causal variables are added, the statistical model never really approaches 100% explanatory power. Even if it did, how would we understand the unique contribution of one predictive variable among many? Are they directly additive, such that role-taking plus a few other abilities combine into the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror? No: the statistical relationships are usually much more intricate than that. Not only that, but the specific relationships among variables differ from one individual to the next, both in their statistical interconnections and in their combined predictive power.

Perhaps the best one can do is to assert that, say, the age at which any given child is able to recognize itself in a mirror is an idiosyncratic combination of a variety of other competencies that can be identified, in varying degrees and combinations, in all children. The psychological variables account both for individual differences and for common features across humanity, but in a complex and non-deterministic way. One could regard the variables as immanent vectors flowing within each human and between all humans. These vectors intertwine complexly with countless and probably uncountable other vectors, serving simultaneously as sources of individuation and as strands that link people together to a greater or lesser degree. It’s possible to trace the trajectories of these psychological vectors as they flow within and between us, combining with one another in ways that add structure to individual and collective experience. At the same time this structuration is immanent and indeterminate and complex, manifesting itself in any number of ways that might not have been anticipated and that might not be readily accessible to conscious awareness.

Further, because we’re talking about human psychology, we acknowledge that some of these immanent vectors combine in a way that generates sentience and agency. As a consequence, humans can become aware of the vectors flowing through them and can willfully deflect and channel those vectors to some degree, further confounding any attempts to develop fully deterministic scientific models.

Considering the Correlational Matrix in this way — as a specialized language for describing the immanent vectors of individuation and commonality, and for tracing their trajectories and complex interconnections within and between people — it’s easier to see the correspondences between empirical psychology and the more philosophically-oriented psychologies of Freud and Lacan and especially of Deleuze and Guattari.

25 August 2008

The Lives of Others, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 7:53 am

From Wikipedia:

Donnersmark’s parents were both from East Germany. He has said that, on visits there as a child before the Berlin Wall fell, he could sense the fear they had as subjects of the state. He said the idea for the movie came to him when he was trying to come up with a movie scenario for a film class. As he listened to a piece of music, he recalled Maxim Gorky’s anecdote about Lenin listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata:

“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!” Wrinkling up his eyes, Lenin smiled rather sadly, adding: “But I can’t listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm—– what a hellishly difficult job!”

Donnersmarck told a New York Times reporter: “I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment.”

23 August 2008


Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:26 am

I’m not always fully up to speed on political issues, but I think I’ve got this right. Biden was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Congress authorized the invasion of Iraq. Presumably he had access to the same intelligence that Bush and company did, most of which seemed bogus even as Powell trotted it out on the UN floor. Yet Biden voted in favor of the war. He has continued voting in favor of war appropriations, arguing mostly that the Administration had failed through mismanagement and underdeployment of troops. Obama distinguished himself publicly from Hillary Clinton by virtue of his having voted against the war from the beginning. And now he chooses Biden as running mate?

22 August 2008

2046 by Wong, 2004

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:09 pm

2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, on which I posted previously. The cinematography is exquisite, affording plenty of striking screen shots, but I’ve included only two (I can put up more if anybody wants to see them). The dialogue is spoken in Cantonese, and I happened to click two images while the subtitles still appeared on the screen. Presented this way, as static shots with the words written beneath, one gets the sense of looking at still photographs with their accompanying titles. What would it be like if a film were built this way: shoot the film first, then assign dialogue to the images after the fact? It would be like returning to the silent movie era, where words are completely dependent on and secondary to images. It’s also like writing a tune and then adding the lyrics later, which I expect is the way it’s usually done. I have no idea how many contemporary movies are constructed by envisioning it visually first, in its entirely, and only afterward writing the script. Not many, I’m guessing.

21 August 2008

Magpie Self-Reflection

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:39 am

I’ve posted about mirror self-recognition before, both to illustrate Tomasello’s usage-based theory of language acquisition as a social role-taking skill and to present empirical evidence conflicting with Lacan’s theory of the Imaginary. Now researchers in Germany have demonstrated experimentally that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror.

The experimental protocol is very similar to the one used by developmental psychologists to demonstrate self-recognition in human infants. A bit of colored paint is placed on the magpie’s feathers in a place where the bird can’t see it. The bird is placed in front of the mirror. If after seeing its own reflection the magpie begins attempting to remove the paint from itself, it can be inferred that the bird recognizes itself in the mirror. And this is precisely what the researchers discovered. This link to the study summary contains video clips of the magpies viewing themselves and attempting to remove the paint. Watching Gerti’s vigorous yet futile efforts to peck, scratch, and rub the offending mark off her feathers offers compelling testimony that she understands that it’s herself she sees in the mirror.

Researchers chose magpies for their investigation because other research had found magpies and related species (crows, ravens, jays) to be unusually intelligent. They have unusually large brains relative to their body mass. They’ve been observed in the wild modifying found objects for use as tools for obtaining food. And they’ve shown exceptional social intelligence, being particularly adept at picking up social cues from others. Magpies who rob other birds’ stashes of food take more trouble when hiding their own, a behavior suggesting that they expect their fellows to share the same larcenous intent they themselves have. When a predator encroaches on a magpie flock’s territory, for example, the first magpie to spot it will take up a position near but out of reach of the predator, emit its warning cry, and point its beak in the direction of the predator. When other magpies heed the warning and arrive at the scene, they too will point their beaks. If they pointed in the same spatial direction the original magpie was pointing, they would be showing imitative behavior (impressive enough in its own right for a bird brain). But it turns out the other magpies, arrayed at varying angles relative to the first bird, all point their beaks toward the predator, despite the fact that their eyes, placed on either side of the head, make it impossible to see the predator while pointing at it. By warning one another through pointing, magpies demonstrate that they understand the communicative intent of their own and their associates’ gestures.

In order to understand the other’s pointing gesture, a creature must be able to regard the other as similar to itself, with similar kinds of intentionalities. To follow the pointing finger or beak, the creature must be able to see the world from the other’s perspective, following the other’s line of sight to the object of attention. This intentional social role-taking ability is regarded as an essential prerequisite to language acquisition in humans: eventually the physical pointing is replaced by intentionally gazing directed toward the object of joint attention, and eventually by speech, in which the words are used as symbolic pointers directing the hearer’s attention to the referential object.

Social role-taking is also regarded as a prerequisite to recognizing one’s own image in a mirror. If the other points in my direction, I need to be able to understand that I am the object of the other’s attention. I thus need to objectify myself in order to understand the other’s communicative intent. By regarding myself as an object of the other’s attention, I’m also able to regard myself from outside myself, as if I were looking at myself from the other’s perspective. This self-objectifying ability is presumably what’s required if I’m going to recognize myself in a mirror — an act that requires me to see myself from a distance, as others see me.

Most higher primates, dolphins, and elephants can do it. Some breeds of dog — a subspecies of wolf bred for sociability with humans — can do it. Monkeys and other mammal species apparently cannot. Remarkably, it turns out that at least one species of bird can do it.

20 August 2008

DF Wallace on D Lynch

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:16 am

Here are some excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s 1995 journalistic essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” based on his experiences on location during the filming of Lynch’s Lost Highway.


You almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to ‘entertain’ you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish (we’re defenseless in our dreams, too).

This may, in fact, be Lynch’s only agenda: just to get inside your head. He sure seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he’s in there. Is this ‘good’ art? It’s hard to say. It seems — once again — either ingenious or psychopathic.


It’s already been observed that Lynch brings to his art the sensibility of a very bright child immersed in the minutiae of his own fantasies. This kind of approach has disadvantages: his films are not especially sophisticated or intelligent; there is little critical judgment or quality-control-type checks on ideas that do not work; things tend to be hit-or-miss. Plus the films are, like a fantasy-prone little kid, self-involved to the extent that’s pretty much solipsistic. Hence their coldness.

But part of their involution and coldness derives from the fact that David Lynch seems truly to possess the capacity for detachment from response that most artists only pay lip-service to: he does pretty much what he wants and appears not to give much of a shit whether you like it or even get it. His loyalties are fierce and passionate and almost entirely to himself.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this kind of thing is wholly good or that Lynch is some kind of paragon of integrity. His passionate inwardness is refreshingly childlike, but I notice that very few of us choose to make very small children our friends.


Lynch’s movies, for all their unsubtle archetypes and symbols and intertextual references and c., have about them the remarkable unself-consciousness that’s kind of the hallmark of Expressionist art — nobody in Lynch’s movies analyzes or metacriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything, including Lynch himself. This set of restrictions makes Lynch’s movies fundamentally unironic… What he is is a weird hybrid blend of classical Expressionist and contemporary postmodernist.


I’m going to claim that evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about, and that Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are, if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true. I’m going to submit that the real ‘moral problem’ a lot of us cineastes have with Lynch is that we find his truths morally uncomfortable, and that we do not like, when watching movies, to be made uncomfortable…

The fact is that David Lynch treats the subject of evil better than just about anybody else making movies today — better and also differently. His movies aren’t anti-moral, but they are definitely anti-formulaic. Evil-ridden though his filmic world is, please notice that responsibility for evil never in his films devolves easily onto greedy corporations or corrupt politicians or faceless serial kooks. Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He is interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face.

…Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e., people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed… The bad guys in Lynch movies are always exultant, orgasmic, most fully present at their evilest moments, and this in turn is because they are not only actuated by evil but literally inspired; they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person…

Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are — at least potentially — everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time — not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc. In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is ‘implied by’ good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it. You could call this idea of evil Gnostic, or Taoist, or even neo-Hegelian, but it’s also Lynchian, because what Lynch’s movies are all about is creating a narrative space where this idea can be worked out in its fullest detain and to its most uncomfortable consequences.

18 August 2008

Empirical Psychology as a Language

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:41 am

That the knowledge base of empirical psychology is built, study by study, on the interplay between cumulative mean and individual deviation (1); that collectively the field consists of a vast Matrix of variables and their statistical intercorrelations having indeterminate relationship both to the Real world of phenomena and to pure Theory intended to explain these phenomena (2) — together these observations suggest that empirical psychology is something like a language. The variables are the nouns; the statistical associations are the verbs linking subject and predicates; the research methodology provides the grammatical rules for generating well-formed sentences.

In a structuralist construal, the language of empirical psychology would be a self-contained system, insulated from the Real, imposed from the top down on the society of psychologists and those who pay attention to their work. There would be no basis for asserting that psychology signifies anything about the Real; rather, network of constructs and variables derive their meaning only from one another. E.g., “depression” and “altruism,” “numeracy” and “effort justification” make sense only with respect to the other psychological variables in the matrix. Unlike natural language, the empirical language of psychology quantifies the strengths of the connections among the elements of the language, but the idea is the same. In natural language the strengths of interconnections could in principle be quantified by analyzing patterns of word use among networks of language-speakers or strength of neural connections in the brains of individual language-speakers — in other words, by subsuming natural language within the language of empirical psychology.

From the structuralist perspective, the language of empiricism speaks the psychologist. The specific sentences the researcher generates — i.e., what studies s/he conducts, on what variables, using what data collection and analysis methods — are determined by the structure of the Correlational Matrix itself. And certainly this is true to a considerable extent: the accepted theoretical paradigms and the array of relevant variables to which these paradigms might apply together suggest fruitful lines of future inquiry. One could imagine building an AI program which would, by systematically traversing the Correlational Matrix, spit out lists of research studies likely to generate statistically significant results, much as pharmacological AI programs identify specific molecules that might offer greater-than-random likelihood of proving clinically efficacious.

Even more distinctively than in its formal and quantitative structure, the language of empirical psychology differs from natural language by virtue of its rapid expansion. Virtually the entire vocabulary and grammar of the Correlational Matrix came into existence within the last hundred years. And while from the outside empirical psychology may seem static and self-enclosed, researchers are continually adding new variables to the Matrix. To an extent the Matrix expands itself: variable A always tacitly contains its opposite, a synthesized variable that combines A with X also suggests combining A with Y and Z. But for the most part researchers expand the Matrix consciously. One psychologist wants to extend Theory into previously unexplored territory; another becomes conscious of some aspect of the Real that hasn’t yet been subjected to the sort of systematic operationalization required for plugging it into the Matrix. The language of empirical psychology is continually expanding outward from the surface of contemporary use, creating an ever-broader platform from which to extend itself ever farther.

In its dynamism, empirical psychology illustrates something that structuralist accounts often fail adequately to acknowledge: languages grow. To say that languages “evolve” is to ignore their intentionality. People use language to describe something about the world to others. New linguistic elements may catch on in a spontaneous emergent way that looks like evolution, but they catch only when language users use them while communicating intentionally with one another. If the intent were merely to keep the conversation going, to sustain the interpersonal matrix without regard to the Real, then there might be no need to add words to the vocabulary. But if communicators want to talk about something, then it’s important to get the words right. And if they want to talk about something new, they’ll need to come up with new words. In a dynamic, usage-based context, all language maintains contact with the Real. And it’s in attempting to expand this contact within the intentional interpersonal realm of empirical psychology that the Correlational Matrix maintains contact with the Real of human experience.

17 August 2008

Batman Begins, 2005

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 12:43 pm

“You’re not the devil. You’re practice.”

“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man… if you devote yourself to an ideal… and if they can’t stop you… then you become something else entirely.”

“Which is?”

“Legend, Mr. Wayne.”

* * *

“The training is nothing! Will is everything!”

“Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.”

“Only a cynical man would call what these people have ‘lives,’ Wayne. Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance… Time to play. I took away your fear, and I showed you a path. You were my greatest student. It should be you standing by my side, saving the world.”

“I’ll be standing where I belong. Between you and the people of Gotham.”

“When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural. Tomorrow the world will watch in horror as its greatest city destroys itself. The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time.”

“You attacked Gotham before?”

“Of course. Over the ages our weapons have become more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens, such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped along ever since. We are back to finish the job, and this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.”

This Batman movie is even more explicit than the next one.

16 August 2008

Between the Real and the Theoretical

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:56 am

Statistical analysis is the most important mathematical tool used in psychological research. Mean, standard deviation, correlation coefficient, and so on: these are ways of summarizing empirical data in ways that are more readily amenable to testing hypotheses. If someone were to say that, on average, people raised in wealthy households make more money than those raised in poor or middle-income households, this isn’t a theory; rather, it’s the generalization of a statistical regularity calculated from specific data sets.

It’s possible to propose any number of reasons why a statistical association consistently turns up in the data. Causal relationships can be proposed, and data collection protocols will be designed to evaluate whether, over time, changes in one variable are followed by changes in the other variable. Perhaps other variables account for the statistical association — inherited wealth, social class, social networks, intelligence, quantity/quality of education, parental expectations, self-confidence, goal-orientedness, external locus of control, etc. These intervening variables too can be measured and evaluated statistically to see whether they account for some or all of the observed relationship between the original variables. Still, what you get in the end is a larger and larger matrix consisting of an array of variables interlinked by statistical relationships of varying strengths.

If they think about it, psychological researchers probably regard this Correlational Matrix as occupying a middle ground between the Real world and Theory. Between the Real and the Matrix are the gaps between the thing itself and how the thing is presented to the scientific observer. Ways of formalizing the definitions of things, of assigning specific data elements to them, of collecting the data, of summarizing the data arithmetically, of drawing inferences statistically — each of these moves, crucial to empirical research, interposes something between the Real and how the Real is perceived and conceptualized by human beings. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to specify the size of these gaps between the Real and the empirical. Perhaps the distance traveled is too great, leaving the Correlational Matrix of empirical psychology completely isolated from the Real, a vast and intricate structure of signifiers that’s entirely disconnected from what, with the systematic discipline imposed by scientific method, they’ve been constructed to signify.

On the other hand, the Matrix of variables and statistical associations isn’t Theory either. Theory is an abstract conception of entities and forces, of causes and effects, intended to explain the world as it presents itself to us. Popper taught us that theories can never be directly verified by empirical observation. But they can’t be directly falsified either. In order to enter the empiric fray a Theory must be transformed into a scientifically testable hypothesis, in which the abstract concepts and relationships are framed in material, observable terms. The abstract idea of intelligence must be defined in concrete terms: the score on a self-administered intelligence test, say, or the speed and diffusion of neural activity in response to specific stimuli as registered on some sort of MRI scanning device that hasn’t been invented yet. The theoretical relationships between abstract concepts must also be specified concretely; e.g., the magnitude of the statistical correlation between IQ test results and annual gross pre-tax income as documented in federal tax forms gathered from a systematically sampled representative subset of the population. Theorized causality must also be stated in empirical terms, for example through repeated measures over time subjected to time-series analyses and causal modeling statistics.

The connection between Theory and its empirically-testable concretization can become extremely attenuated. When empirical results don’t support the hypothesis, the researcher is apt to reject the hypothesis not because it has been refuted empirically but because the hypothesis was an inadequate expression of the Theory from which it was derived. So it is that Theory can survive any number of empirically mediated, presumably adverse encounters with the Real. When this sort of thing happens, one begins to wonder whether the Correlational Matrix actually occupies a middle ground between the Real and the Theoretical. Maybe it’s something else altogether: not the midpoint on a line but the third point of a triangle.

14 August 2008

Prop O’Gandhi by Doyle

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:51 pm

At quarter to nine in the morning Prop O’Gandhi went into his Laboratory and turned on the lamp. Prop liked to crank the 3-way bulb all the way up to 200 watts. Sometimes he’d stop at 150 watts, especially when he was worried about the electric bill. Sometimes one of the filaments would burn out in the 3-way bulb, marooning him in a world of 50 watts. Then he would go to the utility closet, once again find that he had no spare 3-ways in there anyplace, and once again wonder what happened to the extra one he’d bought the last time he went to the superstore. Prop O’Gandhi would return to his Lab and think in embittered darkness. He could never stand it for more than two or three days, though. Annoyed but resigned, he’d get in the car and head to the superstore for a replacement 3-way bulb, plus the spare that never seemed to be in the closet when he needed it.

This is the first paragraph of my unpublished novel Prop O’Gandhi. Patrick Mullins is now reading it, and he suggested that we discuss his reactions to it here at Ktismatics. Though no one other than Patrick will have read the book, perhaps the conversation will pique the casual reader’s curiosity. Patrick’s commentary begins thusly:

* * *

“I started ‘PROP O’GANDHI’, and now realize why it took me so long to get started: Once you find out why Ulrich Daley chooses this alternate name, it makes sense within the text, and becomes very charming and funny. But as a TITLE–use it if you feel that strongly about it, but it does not come across there as ‘charmingly eccentric’, but rather tacky, like a kind of entry name into a contest for a new name for peanut butter or something. I can’t say much more now, because it’s going to develop, and I’ve just gotten to the coffee break part. But the character’s ‘loser-identified’ status thus far will be all the clearer with a number of words and sentences and phrases that are sleeker, smarter and sharper–these are somewhat related to what I’ve described about the title, so that we finally have one thing to thank Michel Houellebecq for, who is good about writing about depression and dingy places of torpor and dark intertia, but in a style where it lasts at least for the duration of while you’re reading it. These are not extensive revisions I’m talking about, and think it flows along very nicely. I’m going to be interested to see how it moves INTO something portalic or not. Thus far, it is talking about doing that but not quite getting there, unless Prop O’Gandhi in itself is already the beginning of the portal. An example of what I meant to make it sharper is that there is one false sentence even within the matter of its being fiction: that about the patronage system and Mozart being dead. This does not render it ‘neither here nor there’, but rather was once the answer and now maybe there is another answer, these alternatives of going in to choose from musical objects, some of which were not usable (this was very clever), but the word ’songs’ is not, for example, good after using a sophisticated term like ‘musical object’. Until you find the right one, even just ‘piece’ would do. Otherwise, it is like when I played the first of the Bach 3-Part Inventions at an offertory at church when I was visiting once when I was about 22, and my beautiful but half-educated cousin Mary Helen, of honeyed Southern belle tones, came up to me and said ‘Pay-att, I liked your song…’ You know, things like that. It becomes funnier when the wife and daughter come into it, and the fact of the LAB’s haphazard structure within your house is hilarious. You are an interesting kind of weird-oh, and all I can do for it is suggest ways to ’spiff it up’ if you happen to want to. What you do to make it public after that I am not sure. You may have to find some sort of hand-in-glove situation such as I have with Christian. While I did send a few things out in the ‘pavenment-pounding’ way early on, the very idea of what I think you meant by ‘portalic’ precludes expecting that to be much more likely to succeed in terms of targeting markets than just driving on the freeways endlessly and getting a narcosis from it.

“But this is already one movement, and you can mention whether others have read it and what suggestiong they have made if they have made them. I’m apparently the first that demanded a printed copy, and this already ‘publishes’ it–from the moment you printed it out–beyond what it was just sitting here in all the grease of the internet. Another step was taken by me when I intuited that I must read the autobiography of Edith Evans in order to read your book with ME reading it. That turns out to have been right. It also helped me get over the dread of reading something with a title like that. This title made me think the book would not be very good. Where it goes I don’t know, but there is already much that is good in it. The Mozart concerto probably needs a fuller traditional description–just a few extra pieces of informantion, like the key, not just Kochel numbers, characters of the different movements, why it stands out somehow from the others that the character would have also heard, etc. And things like ‘the world’s coffee’ don’t have quite the right sound, but those are the kind of details that take only the smallest alteration to make sparkle. Again, like Houellebecq, whom I do not otherwise like, you want to get a sharp picture of the shabby (when it is) as well as a sharp picture of the sharp (if it becomes more so, although there may be a subtext of non-publication that afflicts you and/or the character), rather than a shabby picture of either. But most of it is not shabby, and I was able to see the connection between your blog-writing and this more formal writing–it’s often very silvery, and so therefore especially here, it all needs to be that way.

“You could possibly use ‘prop o’gandhi’ in a subtitle, or ‘the story of Mr. Prop O’Gandhi’, etc., which is better than without the ‘Mr.’, because it is the pun status of the invented name by itself that is going to annoy with its identification with ‘propaganda’, unless you want people to be wondering when the propaganda comes in at some point, or if that is, in fact, all of what the text is.”

* * *

Patrick’s ongoing commentary and related conversation about the book continue in the comments…

12 August 2008

Shadow of a Doubt by Hitchcock, 1943

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 3:30 pm

Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it’s different. Middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working, and then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do,these useless women? You see them in the best hotels every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewellery, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.

(Charlie) But they’re alive! They’re human beings.

Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human, or are they fat, wheezing animals? Hm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know. So much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every day and know there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day. At night, you sleep your ordinary sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did l? Or was it a silly, inexpert, little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something!

11 August 2008

Laura by Preminger, 1944

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:15 am

9 August 2008

The Movies We Deserve?

Filed under: Culture, Movies — ktismatics @ 10:32 pm

It is of course undeniable that television is an example of Low Art, the sort of art that has to please people in order to get their money. Because of the economics of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidized entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field tests in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible. TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar or dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.

– David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram,” 1993

What Wallace says about television applies equally to cinema. It’s striking how many of the top-grossing movies are cartoons, fantasy/scifi, and adaptations of superhero comic books. I started liking this sort of entertainment when I was a little kid, and I suspect that for most people the taste for it develops early or not at all. Fantasy lets the movie-maker exploit what the big screen does best: depict spectacularly the kinds of adventures that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. You’d think Audience would grow out of it, and certainly some do. But as Wallace notes, more sophisticated tastes tend to diverge and to become less predictable, commanding smaller audiences. Besides, high-art tastes are often built on low-art foundations: the gourmet probably still enjoys a burger now and then, while the habitual burger-eater might find haute cuisine not at all to his liking even if he could afford it. Ensure as much watching as possible: that’s the goal. Offhand I can’t think of a big fantasy movie that hasn’t been a huge success.

In brief, I had fun watching the new Batman movie, and I’d probably have had even more fun if I wasn’t so busy trying to analyze it and my own reactions to it. While it might be overlaid with fascism and informed by queer theory and the generator of enormous profits for the already-rich investors, it’s still just a freakin’ comic-book movie.

There’s a convergence between what people want to see at the theater and what the movie business sells them. So is the marketplace working effectively, spontaneously and in the aggregate selling us the movies we deserve? I’d be more prone to believe it if the production companies weren’t spending so much of their budget on advertising. Why not just make the films, distribute them to the theaters, and see how they do? Presumably the companies wouldn’t spend the money on expensive ad campaigns if they weren’t effective in driving traffic to the ticket counter. The invisible hand moves in a vicious circle: the most expensive movies to make also carry the most expensive ad campaigns. One might expect things to work the other way around: it takes money to turn out a superior product; cheaply made movies aren’t as good, so they need more push from the marketing department to fill the seats. But it doesn’t work that way: the most expensive movies are usually Low Art genre productions deemed mediocre by the critics, AND these same movies spend the most on advertising, AND they get the biggest crowds. It begins to appear that the separation between production and marketing is an artificial one — that the ad campaign is part of the production, part of the movie-going experience.

Here’s a movie concept: what if Hollywood suddenly went sort of socialist? Instead of being owned by investors and run so as to maximize profits for the investors, what if the movie workers — writers, directors, actors, etc. — owned and controlled the means of production? And what if the highest-paid workers (studio executives, big movie stars) could earn at most, say, ten times as much as the lowliest production assistant? And what if there were limits on how much money the movie production companies could distribute as profits to the worker-owners? And what if the whole American economy worked this way? Would the production companies still turn out the same lowbrow mediocre movie spectaculars; would they still put the same kind of money into promotion; would the movie-going public still want to see them?

Then comes the sequel: Hollywood Goes Socialist II. Movies are regarded not as commodities but as national cultural resources. Now movies are distributed freely, so any theater or individual can download any movie without paying a fee. The public pools the money it’s prepared to spend on new movies. There’s some sort of collective purchasing co-op that decides on behalf of the public which movies it wants to buy and distribute, allocating the pooled money accordingly. Maybe there are a lot of coops around the country making these decisions, or maybe there’s a single centralized coop for the whole country…

6 August 2008

Normalcy and Deviation

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:52 pm

The most decisive conceptual event of twentieth century physics has been the discovery that the world is not deterministic. Causality, long the bastion of metaphysics, was toppled, or at least tilted: the past does not determine exactly what happens next… A space was cleared for chance.

– Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, 1990

In doing empirical psychology, the researcher attempts either to extend the applicability of a new or existing theory to a new range of phenomena. The researcher proposes a concrete hypothesis by adapting the abstract general theory to the specific empirical situation under study. Does the researcher’s hypothesis provide a better explanation of the data than the generally-accepted alternative explanation? This question is usually evaluated statistically, by investigating whether the pattern of empirical results varies significantly from what would be expected if the hypothesis were not true.

It’s often the case that the psychological researcher is exploring new territory: the kind of data s/he collects hasn’t previously been investigated scientifically. In that case the generally-accepted alternative is known as the “null hypothesis.” Usually the null hypothesis doesn’t take the form of a precise prediction about how the results will turn out; rather, it states that the results will not deviate from what one might expect to find by chance alone, unaffected by the theoretical forces which the researcher claims will affect the results in some predicted way. But “by chance alone” doesn’t mean unalloyed randomness; rather, it means that the results are expected to conform to the statistical distribution typically found in similar kinds of data sets. This is the normal distribution, better known as the bell curve, in which most subjects cluster around the arithmetic mean while the rest tail away toward the right and left of the mean. So if the mean for one group of subjects differs significantly from that of another group as predicted by the researcher’s hypothesis, taking into account the observed amount of random variation in the bell curve, then the null hypothesis is rejected: statistically it’s very likely that something other than randomness is affecting the results.

Why is it that, for so many measures of measurable human performance, randomness takes the shape of the normal distribution? In grad school and in subsequent practice I don’t recall that anyone ever really asked this question, let alone answered it satisfactorily. Here are some quotes from famous statisticians related to the issue, as cited by Ian Hacking in his fascinating book on the history of statistical thinking.

In a given state of society, a certain number of persons must put an end to their own life. This is the general law; and the special question as to who shall commit the crime depends of course upon special laws; which, however, in their total action, must obey the large social law to which they are all subordinate. And the power of the larger law is so irresistible, that neither the love of life nor the fear of another world can avail anything towards even checking its operation. (T.H. Buckle, 1857)

The irrational approval given to the so-called Calculus of Chances is enough to convince all men of sense how injurious to science has been this absence of control. Strange indeed would be the degeneration if the science of Calculation, the field in which the fundamental dogma of the invariability of Law first took its rise, were it to end its long course of progress in speculations that involve the hypotheses of the entire absence of Law. (August Comte, 1851)

‘By chance’ — that is the most ancient nobility of the world, and this I restored to all things: I delivered them from their bondage under purpose. (Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra, 1884)

Collective tendencies have a reality of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces, though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, by the uniformity of effects. (Emile Durkheim, 1897)

I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by ‘the law of error.’ A savage, if he could understand it, would worship it as a god. It reigns with severity in complete self-effacement amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the mob the greater the anarchy the more perfect is its sway. Let a large sample of chaotic elements be taken and marshalled in order of their magnitudes, and then, however wildly irregular they appeared, an unexpected and most beautiful form of regularity proves to have been present all along. (Francis Galton, 1886)

Galton turning over two different problems in his mind reached the conception of correlation: A is not the sole cause of B, but it contributes to the production of B; there may be other, many or few, causes at work, some of which we do not know and may never know… This measure of partial correlation was the germ of the broad category — that of correlation, which was to replace not only in the minds of many of us the old categories of causation, but deeply to influence our outlook on the universe. The concept of causation — unlimitedly profitable to the physicist — began to crumble to pieces. In no case was B simply and wholly caused by A, nor indeed by C, D, E, and F as well! It was really impossible to go on increasing the number of contributory causes until they might involve all the factors of the universe… Henceforward the philosophical view of the universe was to be that of a correlated system of variates, approaching but by no means reaching perfect correlation, i.e. absolute causality. (Karl Pearson, 1914)

Chance itself pours in at every avenue of sense: it is of all things the most obtrusive. That it is absolute is the most manifest of all intellectual perceptions. That it is a being, living and conscious, is what all the dullness that belongs to ratiocination’s self can self can scarce muster the hardihood to deny. (C.S. Peirce, 1893)

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