22 April 2013

I Like My Similes Like I Like My Metaphors

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:57 am

[I’m about two-thirds of the way through the current book. This excerpt comes from the immediately preceding one.]

“Hey Lois,” he shouted out the open office door as he veered toward the flipchart. “Go get us a round of beers if you would.” He studied the top sheet for a few seconds before ripping it from the pad and tossing it to the floor. Uncapping the black marker he began writing something at the top of the page. The marker was nearly out of ink and Karas flung it across the room, its tip making a short grey smudge on the wall between two of the taped-up sheets before caroming onto the hardwood. He snatched up the red marker and began again:


“This is the progression, yes?” But Karas wasn’t waiting for the Courier to keep up with him now. “We’ve always thought – I’ve always thought about the progression in individual terms. A man becomes a mighty man becomes a god. Pilgrimage as decisive and extreme movement away from the norm, from the collective. The outlier becomes a double outlier, and maybe finally a triple outlier. Instead of waiting for the one in a million to come along we would accelerate the difference engines, turbocharge the thrusters, propel more of the exceptional people out of orbit. Some of them might shoot out of sight altogether, never to be heard from again. But others – well, instead of launching one revolution at a time they might catalyze simultaneous cascades, multiple singularities in art, science, economics, warfare…

“Still, there has always been the statistical underpinning. Difference relative to the norm, stretch out the axes of deviation. We’ve always speculated that a society of outliers might emerge, reticulated through the Portals via some unknown and perhaps unprecedented mechanisms exceeding mere empathy and cooperation. We didn’t want the Stations to be seen as anything more than termini linking the Trails, transient nexuses for Pilgrims passing through as each by each they pursued their separate trajectories into exceptionalism.

“But now we face the empirical facts: most of the Pilgrims are going nowhere fast. Money, power, sex, prestige – the vectors and endpoints are all so fucking predictable. Sure there are exceptions, and exceptions are what we prize above all. Maybe our project is doomed from the start, but we wanted to establish the preconditions and the apparatus and the impetus for cultivating a whole host of exceptions. Hey, we should make that our new motto.” Karas turned back to the flipchart and printed in large block letters, filling the sheet:


Lois brought in two tall tapered glasses of cloudy beer with a skim at the top. “Belgian blond lambic,” she announced as she placed one of the glasses on the conference table in front of the Courier.

“I like my beer like I like my women,” Karas insinuated archly as Lois handed him the other glass.

“Cold and flat and murky?”

Karas watched Lois walk back out to the antechamber.

21 February 2013

Elohimic Systems Engineering

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 5:06 pm

[Just having a little fun now, writing along this afternoon on the current fiction, working title The Scriptorium…]

…There was a software engineer who before setting up residency had built a couple of automatic holy-poem generators that attained immediate popularity among the Pilgrims to whom he had demonstrated them over drinks along the Trails. Once he got settled in at the Scriptorium the engineer quickly got to work on what he termed an old-school elohimic expert system. From interviews with theologians, gurus, cabalists, and prophets he extracted a substantial body of godly insight, which he compiled as textual aphorisms and brief enigmata that he then programmed into the system’s knowledge base. In response to fairly complex Q-and-A sessions with spiritual seekers the elohimic expert system would automatically string together its fragmentary wisdom into multiple paragraphs of polytheistic revelation. It’s like a sophisticated Magic Eight Ball, the engineer scoffed as he scrapped the device, which had immediately attracted a strong following among the Pilgrims who had beta-tested it.

Next the engineer set about building an object-oriented elohimic system, or OOES. Instead of propagating the so-called sensual properties of hierophantic loci with which votaries typically interacted – words of holy texts, pictorial images of icons, architectural and topographic layouts of sacred spaces – the OOES was designed to manipulate the withdrawn essences of these spirit-objects. Almost invariably the user interacting with the OOES would receive in response to queries neither direct answers nor enigmatic ones but silence. Some Pilgrims spent weeks contemplating the system’s apophatic non-pronouncements; most headed on down the hallway after fifteen minutes or so…

15 December 2012

The Bisexual Allure of Objects

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:14 pm

To test whether grammatical gender really does focus speakers of different languages on different aspects of objects, we created a list of 24 object names that had opposite grammatical genders in Spanish and German (half were masculine and half feminine in each language), and then asked a group of native Spanish speakers and another group of native German speakers to write down the first three adjectives that came to mind to describe each object on the list. The study was conducted entirely in English, and none of the participants were aware of the purpose of the study. The question was whether the grammatical genders of object names in Spanish and German would be reflected in the kinds of adjectives that Spanish and German speakers generated. All of the participants were native speakers of either Spanish or German, but both groups were highly proficient in English. Since the experiment was conducted in English (a language with no grammatical gender system), this is a particularly conservative test of whether grammatical gender influences the way people think about objects.

After all of the adjectives provided by Spanish and German speakers were collected, a group of English speakers (unaware of the purpose of the study) rated the adjectives as describing masculine or feminine properties of the objects. The adjectives were arranged in alphabetical order and were not identified as having been produced by a Spanish or a German speaker.

As predicted, Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine. Because all object names used in this study had opposite genders in Spanish and German, Spanish and German speakers produced very different adjectives to describe the objects. For items that were grammatically masculine in Spanish but feminine in German, adjectives provided by Spanish speakers were rated more masculine than those provided by German speakers. For items that were grammatically masculine in German but feminine in Spanish, adjectives provided by German speakers were rated more masculine than those provided by Spanish speakers.

There were also observable qualitative differences between the kinds of adjectives Spanish and German speakers produced. For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

– Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips (2003), “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics.”

5 December 2012

The Mailmen of Truth

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 11:16 am

The unitary or dominant way of thinking is that of a generalized hermeneutics, a hermeto-logy… The unitary philosopher (the philosopher of Being, then of Difference) was always a representative, emissary, and civil servant of the Postal and Telecommunication ministry; a transmitter and decoder of hermeto-logical Difference; an agent of postal ingenuity. He exploits confusion, the ambiguity of the secret and of censure. Nearly all philosophers were the mailmen of truth, and they diverted the truth for reasons less to do with the secret that with authoritarian censure. Meaning, always more meaning! Information, always more information! Such is the mantra of hermeto-logical Difference, which mixes together truth and communication, the real and information. The most extreme version of this hermeto-logical ambiguity is the Hegelian and Nietzschean principle: the real is communicational, the communicational is real. it is in the omnipresent effectivity of communication that hermeto-logy itself deteriorates.

– François Laruelle, “The Truth According to Hermes,” 2010

This is important to me, but I can’t tell you why.

Okay fine, I’ll say a little bit about it. I just read The Infinities, a John Banville novel narrated primarily by the Greek god Hermes. He is the divine messenger, interpreting the gods to men and vice versa. But at some point Banville’s Hermeneutical narrator acknowledges that, for the gods, watching mortals engaging in the material world is like looking into a mirror: try to reach in, to make direct contact, and the mirror breaks. Even for this narrational Hermes, then, the world of men is sealed off from the gods. This got me thinking about the other Hermes, Trismegistus, the purported author of the ancient esoteric Hermetic Texts. Was he god or man? I don’t know. He is credited with using his alchemical knowledge to make an airtight seal on a glass tube, hence “hermetically sealed.” Plato alleged that some Egyptian temple contained a secret library of Hermetic texts dating back 9 thousand years. I don’t know much about his writings, but I presume that this other Hermes claimed access to hidden knowledge. Evidently Banville’s hermeneutical narrator didn’t have access to the hermetic keys for unlocking the material world.

It turns out that I recently finished writing a novel called The Courier, about a guy who transmits packages and messages. I didn’t explicitly link the titular character to either Hermes, but he is both. As carrier of messages he is a hermeneutician; as one who does not break the seals on the messages he carries he is hermetic.

Yesterday I happened to come across Laruelle’s essay; I know it was referenced by one of the theory blogs, either Agent Swarm or An Und Fur Sich or Ecology Without Nature or Archive Fire. Laruelle’s idea of the philosopher as general-purpose hermeneutician, as “mailman of truth,” suits my fictional Courier nicely. Earlier Laruelle writes:

Next to the unitary and authoritarian Hermes, there is another Hermes. He defines the essence of truth as a secret, but as a secret that in order to exist and to be made known needs none of the light of logos, none of the tricks of meaning, the strategies of interpretation, the horizons of the World, or the transcendent forms of appearance. Truth as secret exists autonomously prior to the horizontality of appearance. The secret enjoys an absolute precedence over interpretation; it is itself the Uninterpretable from which an interpretation emerges. It is the invisible that has never been visible because it is known from the outset to be invisible. The essence of the secret does not reside in a rupture or redrawing that de-limits presence via some kind of withdrawal or “retrocession.” That the secret has never appeared in the horizon of presence is simply an effect, the effect of its positive essence.

And that works for my Courier too, in his hermetic mode: some parcels can never be opened. Not that I necessarily believe that Laruelle’s discussion of truth is itself true…

6 April 2012

Robbe-Grillet and the Refusal of Intentionality

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:39 am

Thinking abstractly about The Argument from Neuropath, discussed in the preceding post, which is the theory that human intentionality is an illusion, that humans are always only caused to do what they do by forces inside and outside of themselves… It should be possible to write a story in which characters’ motives are never acknowledged: they just say and do things. This need not even be an imaginary story. After all, we never directly observe the reasons why people do and say what they do: we infer their motives, or take their word for it. Hemingway gets close to this sort of cause-effect observational account of people’s actions, though he expects his reader to infer the characters’ motives.

Robbe-Grillet takes the experiment, or The Argument, even farther. Here’s a passage from Jealousy, selected by randomly opening the book, which in this instance caused me to land on page 119:

“The lady, she is angry,” the boy says.

He uses this adjective to describe any kind of uncertainty, absence, or disturbance. Probably he means “anxious” today; but it could just as well be “outraged,” “jealous,” or even “desperate.” Besides he has asked no questions; he is about to leave. Yet an ordinary sentence without any precise meaning releases from him a flood of words in his own language, which abounds in vowels, particularly a’s and e’s.

He and the messenger are now facing each other. The latter listens, without showing the least sign of comprehension. The boy talks at top speed, as if his text had no punctuation, but in the same singsong tone as when he is not speaking his own language. Suddenly he stops. The other does not add a word, turns around and leaves by the same route he came in, with his swift, soft gait, swaying his head and hat, and his hips, and his arms beside his body, without having opened his mouth.

After having set the used cup on the tray beside the coffee-pot, the boy takes the tray away, entering the house by the open door into the hallway. The bedroom windows are closed. At this hour A . . . is not up yet.

She left very early this morning, in order to have enough time to do her shopping and be able to get back to the plantation the same night. She went to the port with Franck, to make some necessary purchases. She has not said what they were.

Once the bedroom is empty, there is no reason not to open the blinds, which fill all three windows instead of glass panes. The three windows are similar, each divided into four equal rectangles, that is, four series of slats, each window-frame comprising two sets hung one on top of another. The twelve series are identical: sixteen slats of wood manipulated by a cord attached at the side to the outer frame.

The sixteen slats of a series are continuously parallel. When the series is closed, they are pressed on against the other at the edge, overlapping by about half an inch. By pulling the cord down, the pitch of the slats is reduced, thus creating a series of openings whose width progressively increases.

When the blinds are open to the maximum, the slats are almost horizontal and show their edges. Then the opposite side of the valley appears in successive, superimposed strips separated by slightly narrower strips. In the opening at eye level appears a clump of trees with motionless foliage at the edge of the plantation, where the yellowish brush begins.

In describing the blinds in such painstaking detail, it’s as though Robbe-Grillet is designing a set for a film noir. Next he would specify the angle and width of the alternating stripes of white and dark shining off the furniture in the bedroom. But he never specifies the mood he intends to instill in the viewer by the carefully engineered lighting effect: he merely describes the surfaces and structures. The only place intentionality appears in this extract is in the woman’s early morning excursion: she left “in order to…” Even so, our reporter doesn’t know what it is she intended to buy. Hemingway mistrusted adjectives, probably because they took away the reader’s freedom to interpret meaning and motive. Robbe-Grillet’s observer mistrusts the boy’s adjective because it doesn’t really explain anything. Ultimately even language must be described only at the level of its component sounds.

I turn to the introduction to my paperback edition, which cost $7.95 new but which has a price of $3 written by hand on the frontispiece: that must be what I paid for it at a used book store. In this essay, first published in a 1958 French journal article and reprinted in this 1965 paperback, Bruce Morrissette alludes to a satirical book by Jean-Louis Curtis entitled À la recherche du temps posthume, in which Marcel Proust, returned from the dead, investigates the current state of French literature.

In the milieu where the master of the psychological novel had expected to hear discussions of Henry James and his disciples, Marcel is astonished to find even Gilberte Swann agreeing that “today we ask something quite different of the novel,” and that “psychology nowadays is out of style, obsolete, no longer possible,” since modern readers have only scorn for the sacrosanct “characters” of the modern novel. To prove to Marcel redivivus that the modern novel “can no longer be psychological, it has to be phenomenological,” Mme. de Guermantes introduces him to Robbe-Grillet.

Robbe-Grillet saw no need for surgically removing intentionality from his characters, or from his inquisitive narrator. The narrator simply reports what he sees and hears going on around him.

14 March 2012

Hemingway Jazzes the Mirror Neurons

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:26 am

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enters into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.

– Ernest Hemingway, “On Writing in the First Person,” in A Moveable Feast

8 March 2012

Neural Imitation of Life

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

Recent neural imaging research has demonstrated that, when watching someone else perform a particular action, the viewer experiences neural firing patterns in the brain that are similar to those associated with actually performing the action. It has been proposed that these “mirror neurons” serve as the structural and functional underpinnings for mutual empathy, understanding, and imitation. In effect we unconsciously simulate others’ actions, and the intentions motivating those actions.

As a side benefit, mirror neural activity enables the observer to live vicariously through those they observe. It’s one reason why movies and TV are so engaging: what we watch characters doing on-screen we simulate neurally as if we ourselves were doing it.

It turns out that the mirror neurons are activated not only when watching. Reading works too.

Here’s the abstract from this 2009 article by Speer et al., informatively entitled “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences” (emphases mine):

To understand and remember stories, readers integrate their knowledge of the world with information in the text. Here we present functional neuroimaging evidence that neural systems track changes in the situation described by a story. Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. These results support the view that readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change.

In the study, 28 native English speakers read excerpts from One Boy’s Day, a nonfiction observational account of the everyday activities of Raymond, a 7-year-old boy. In the four excerpts, ranging from 8 to 11 minutes, Raymond wakes up, plays before going to school, performs an English lesson at school, and participates in a music lesson. The text was displayed on an LCD screen. The experimental subjects were hooked up to a functional MRI machine, which recorded their brain activity while reading. And it turned out that the readers’ neural patterns changed simultaneously with their reading about Raymond’s activities changing. The subjects’ fMRIs lit up in the same areas of the brain that would be activated if they themselves had been performing the activities instead of textual Raymond. The study authors summarize their key findings:

These results suggest that readers dynamically activate specific visual, motor, and conceptual features of activities while reading about analogous changes in activities in the context of a narrative, while reading: Regions involved in processing goal-directed human activity, navigating spatial environments, and manually manipulating objects in the real world increased in activation at points when those specific aspects of the narrated situation were changing. For example, when readers processed changes in a character’s interactions with an object, precentral and parietal areas associated with grasping hand movements increased in activation. Previous studies of motor execution and motor imagery provide strong evidence that the portion of premotor cortex identified in this study performs computations that are specific to motor planning and execution (Ehrsson et al., 2003; Michelon, Vettel, & Zacks, 2006; Picard & Strick, 2001). These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing.

They conclude:

Overall, these data make a strong case for embodied theories of language comprehension, in which readers’ representations of situations described in language are constructed from basic sensory and motor representations (Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997; Zwaan, 2004). However, the use of perceptual and motor representations to guide story comprehension may be an example of a more general, fundamental principle of cognitive function. Brain regions involved in motor function are active when viewing another person execute an action (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). When viewing a movie, somatosensory and motor cortices increase in activity during scenes showing close-ups of features such as hands and faces (Hasson, Nir, Levy, Fuhrmann, & Malach, 2004), and similar correspondences exist between the regions involved in perceiving and later remembering auditory and visual information (Wheeler & Buckner, 2004). Thus, the use of sensory and motor representations during story comprehension observed in the current study may reflect a more general neural mechanism for grounding cognition in real-world experiences. Language may have adopted this general mechanism over the course of human evolution to allow individuals to communicate experiences efficiently and vividly.

Now doesn’t that just set your readerly and writerly neurons aquiver?

7 March 2012

Show Don’t Tell?

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:44 am

A printed text can neither show nor tell.

An audiotape or radio program can tell, but it cannot show.

A photograph or painting can show, but it cannot tell.

A movie or TV show can do both.

6 March 2012

Engaging with On-Screen Fictional Characters

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:15 am

I’ve been giving some thought as to whether engagement with fiction isn’t more easily triggered by movies and TV shows than by texts.

People are embodied: they confront the world from a particular physical locus within the world. Each of us sees the world literally from a particular point of view; i.e., from the vantage point afforded by our eyes, which swivel and focus on the world from atop a moving platform. So too with sound: we hear the world via the sounds that our ears pick up. Cameras and microphones provide a much closer simulation to the subjective experience of being-in-the-world than do written words describing sights and sounds.

Empathy, perspective-taking, simulation: these are some of the means by which humans understand one another’s points of view. Humans encounter other humans not as disembodied minds or emotions but through embodied physical encounters with other embodied beings more or less like themselves, through touching their bodies, looking at their faces, watching their actions, jointly participating with them in the world.

And through hearing what they have to say. The species continued to evolve genetically even after spoken/aural language began to emerge as a human capability, so the nearly irresistible aptitude for becoming adept users of the cultural artifact that is spoken language is built into the genes. Young children acquire language competence in the context of interpersonal encounters, specifically those types of encounters characterized by joint attention to and engagement with some aspect of the world. Being able to understand what someone else has to say requires the ability to infer the speaker’s intent to communicate, as well as the ability to adopt the speaker’s point of view. Language acquisition thus depends on an already-developed capacity for interpreting others’ facial expressions, gestures and intentions, as well as on the intrinsic motivation and capacity for imitating them. Empirical research demonstrates that these proto-linguistic human capabilities rely on innate neural capabilities that gradually become honed through repeated direct experiences with other language-users as together they explore the shared physical environment. This fine-tuning of a child’s innate ability to participate in a linguistic interpersonal environment develops instinctively, unconsciously, outside of self-awareness.  Again, the characters who walk and talk in the world projected onto the movie or television screen present a reasonable simulation of this real-world linguistic environment. So it seems likely that on-screen dialogue spontaneously triggers in the listener those same unconscious empathic and role-taking connections with the speakers that occur in real-world conversation.

Written language is a cultural artifact that appeared very late on the prehistorical scene — too recently to have affected the human genome. It’s not universal: many cultures never developed a written form of their language, even though people born and raised in those cultures possess the intellectual capabilities required for developing competence in reading and writing. Even in cultures with rich and deep textual traditions, kids always become quite fluent with spoken language before they acquire even the rudiments of written language. Reading and writing are skills more like riding a bike than like understanding spoken language. These skills are built on a scaffolding that’s innate, and once honed through repeated practice the skills become second nature. However, learning them in the first place demands conscious attention.

Back to fiction. On screen we watch people doing things in an environment, formulating and pursuing intentions in a world, scheming and fighting and fucking and talking with each other. Let’s presume that our engagement with fiction depends on triggering our abilities, genetically transmitted and honed through interpersonal experience, to empathize with and to simulate other people as they engage intentionally in the physical and interpersonal environment. The on-screen bodies and faces and actions and voices aren’t physically there in a material world you share with these characters, but you do watch them with your eyes and hear them with your ears. They are closer to embodied beings than are characters who appear in fictional texts, characters whose physical appearances are not seen but described, whose actions are not watched but recounted, whose dialogue is not heard but read.

Since texts did not comprise part of the evolutionary environment, and since the ability to read depends on conscious attention, it seems likely the reader’s engagement with fictional characters rendered in textual form is less instinctive than it is with characters in movies and TV shows. As a simulation, on-screen activity certainly lacks the physical tangibility of our real-life engagements with people in the world. Still, on-screen fiction offers a much closer approximation to material reality than does written fiction — a visual and aural simulation that is arguably more likely to trigger our unconscious visceral engagement with unreal other people in an unreal world.

23 February 2012

Interpreting the Alien Zombie Within

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

In the campy cult movie Evil Dead 2, the protagonist’s right hand takes on a mind of its own and tries to kill him. The scene degenerates into a rendition of what you might find on a sixth-grade playground: the hero uses his left hand to hold back his right hand, which is trying to attack his face. Eventually he cuts off the hand with a chain saw and traps the still-moving hand under an upside-down garbage can. He stacks books on top of the can to pin it down, and the careful observer can see that the topmost book is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

As preposterous as this plotline may seem, there is, in fact, a disorder called alien hand syndrome. While it’s not as dramatic as the Evil Dead version, the idea is roughly the same. In alien hand syndrome, which can result from the split-brain surgeries we discussed a few pages ago, the two hands express conflicting desires. A patient’s “alien” hand might pick up a cookie to put it in his mouth, while the normally behaving hand will grab it at the wrist and stop it. A struggle ensues. Or one hand will pick up a newspaper, and the other will slap it back down. Or one hand will zip up a jacket, and the other will unzip it. Some patients with alien hand syndrome have found that yelling “Stop!” will cause the other hemisphere (and the alien hand) to back down. But besides that little modicum of control, the hand is running on its own inaccessible programs, and that’s why it’s branded as alien — because the conscious part of the patient seems to have no predictive power over it; it does not feel as though it’s part of the patient’s personality at all. A patient in this situation often says, “I swear I’m not doing this.” Which revisits one of the main points of this book: who is the I? His own brain is doing it, not anyone else’s. It’s simply that he doesn’t have conscious access to those programs.

What does alien hand syndrome tell us? It unmasks the fact that we harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions — from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee — are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems. (I use these terms interchangeably: zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.) Some alien systems are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry. When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Alien hand syndrome also tells us that under normal circumstances, all the automated programs are tightly controlled such that only one behavioral output can happen at a time. The alien hand highlights the normally seamless way in which the brain keeps a lid on internal conflicts. It requires only a little structural damage to uncover what is happening beneath. In other words, keeping the union of subsystems together is not something the brain does without effort — instead, it is an active process. It is only when factions begin to secede from the union that the alienness of the parts becomes obvious…

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. Thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea”), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

To bring this sort of fabrication to light, we need only look at another experiment with split-brain patients. As we saw earlier, the right and left halves are similar to each other but not identical. In humans, the left hemisphere (which contains most of the capacity to speak language) can speak about what it is feeling, whereas the mute right hemisphere can communicate its thoughts only by commanding the left hand to point, reach, or write. And this fact opens the door to an experiment regarding the retrospective fabrication of stories. In 1978, researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left hemisphere of a split-brain patient and a picture of a snowy winter scene to his right hemisphere. The patient was then asked to point at cards that represented what he had just seen. His right hand pointed to a card with a chicken, and his left hand pointed to a card with a snow shovel. The experimenters asked him why he was pointing to the shovel. Recall that his left hemisphere (the one with the capacity for language) had information only about the chicken, and nothing else. But the left hemisphere, without missing a beat, fabricated a story: “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” When one part of the brain makes a choice, other parts can quickly invent a story to explain why. If you show the command “Walk” to the right hemisphere (the one without language), the patient will get up and start walking. If you stop him and ask why he’s leaving, his left hemisphere, cooking up an answer, will say something like “I was going to get a drink of water.”

The chicken/shovel experiment led Gazzaniga and LeDoux to conclude that the left hemisphere acts as an “interpreter,” watching the actions and behaviors of the body and assigning a coherent narrative to these events. And the left hemisphere works this way even in normal, intact brains. Hidden programs drive actions, and the left hemisphere makes justifications. This idea of retrospective storytelling suggests that we come to know our own attitudes and emotions, at least partially, by inferring them from observations of our own behavior. As Gazzaniga put it, “These findings all suggest that the interpretive mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none — which leads it continually to make mistakes.”

This fabrication is not limited to split-brain patients. Your brain, as well, interprets your body’s actions and builds a story around them. Psychologists have found that if you hold a pencil between your teeth while you read something, you’ll think the material is funnier; that’s because the interpretation is influenced by the smile on your face. If you sit up straight instead of slouching, you’ll feel happier. The brain assumes that if the mouth and spine are doing that, it must be because of cheerfulness.

– David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 2011

16 February 2012

Ways of Worldmaking

Filed under: Fiction, Language — ktismatics @ 10:44 am

It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense — the world is one thing, words another — but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders. Think about what you do when you revise a sentence: You add something, you delete something, you substitute one tense for another, you rearrange clauses and phrases; and with each change, the “reality” offered to your readers changes. An attempt to delineate in words even the smallest moment — a greeting in the street, the drinking of a cup of coffee, the opening of a window — necessarily leaves out more than it includes, whether you write a sentence of twenty words or two thousand. There is always another detail or an alternative perspective or a different emphasis that might have been brought in and, by being brought in, altered the snapshot of reality you are presenting… Sentence writers are not copyists; they are selectors…

[W]hen we write a sentence, we create a world, which is not the world, but the world as it appears within a dimension of assessment… The skill it takes to produce a sentence — the skill of linking events, actions, and objects by a strict logic — is also the skill of creating a world. Philosopher Nelson Goodman calls this process of creative representation “ways of worldmaking.” We commonly call those ways “styles.”

– Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence (2011), pages 37-40

2 June 2011

On Bullshit by Frankfurt, 2005

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Language — ktismatics @ 2:56 pm

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.

[. . .]

Undoubtedly, much humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover, “pretentious bullshit” is close to being a stock phrase. But I am inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as its motive.

[. . .]

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.

[. . .]

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

[. . .]

The alternative to telling a lie is “bullshitting one’s way through.” This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involves a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.

On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. but the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberate than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”

[. . .]

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

[. . .]

For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. For the bullshitter it is in itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits oneself to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

[. . .]

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.

17 April 2011

Origin of Human Language?

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:46 pm

I’ve been thinking about the rationale behind the recently-released study by Quentin Atkinson tracing the original human language to southwest Aftrica. Atkinson predicated his work on the “serial founder effect” in biological ecology. When a small group splits off from a larger population of a species, that group carries with it only a fraction of the genetic diversity present in the entire species. When this fragmentation occurs frequently, relatively homogeneous divergent subpopulations of the same species arise. When the fragmentation occurs serially, then the diversity of each newly-budded subgroup is lower than that of its predecessor.

It’s known that the human species evolved in Africa and spread from there, and that the serial founder effect reduced the genetic diversity within human subpopulations branching off during this spread. Atkinson contends that the serial founder effect works not just with human genetics but with human language as well. Rather than looking at vocabulary or grammatical elements, Atkinson studied phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound used in building meaningful utterances (e.g., in English the “k” sound is a phoneme). It turns out that the languages of southwest Africa use the largest number of phonemes (including various clicking noises). Atkinson presents evidence demonstrating that the longer it took for any given subpopulation of humans to migrate from Southwest Africa, the smaller the number of phonemes there are in that subpopulation’s language.

Let’s assume that Atkinson’s findings stand up to subsequent empirical scrutiny. The question is why the serial founder effect would work for languages. I can see why a small group of migrants might between them use only a fraction of the vocabulary of their native tongue. Even so, wouldn’t they have occasion to use most if not all of the distinct sounds of their language? English has something like 45 phonemes. I suspect that even a 3-year-old knows enough words to use all of those phonemes. Why would even a very small subset of language-users drop start dropping their phonemic diversity? And how in the world did the Hawaiians, way out on the farthest frontier of the serial-founder dispersion from Africa, manage to lose all but 13 phonemes? Someone else reviewing Atkinson’s work cited Dave Barry’s hypothesis:

The Hawaiian language is quite unusual because when the original Polynesians came in their canoes, most of their consonants were washed overboard in a storm, and they arrived here with almost nothing but vowels. All the streets have names like Kal’ia’iou’amaa’aaa’eiou, and many street signs spontaneously generate new syllables during the night.

I came across a study suggesting two possibilities accounting for this phonemic erosion in subpopulations. Maybe the leaders of these splinter groups are so powerful that, if they get sloppy with their phoneme use, no one around them is likely to risk correcting them. Instead, the followers adopt the regressed linguistic practices of the leaders. Alternatively, maybe splinter groups are already so cohesive that they understand one another without having to enunciate their meanings and intentions clearly. As a consequence the language within the entire subgroup deteriorates. Both of these ideas presume that less complex social structures demand less complex language use, a proposition that is supported by another line of research showing that more widely-spoken languages tend to use more phonemes than languages spoken by smaller numbers of people.

If that’s the case, then why do the southwest African languages use twice as many phonemes as English, when English is clearly a more widely-spoken language? Maybe it’s because English is still a relatively new language. Maybe it took tens of thousands of years for the African languages to achieve their level of phonemic complexity. The phonemic deterioration resulting from the serial founder effect must be rapid, and the recovery slow.

Is this argument persuasive? Not to me it isn’t, though I might be missing something. Is the empirical evidence persuasive? I suppose I should actually read the original article in Science, but I’m sure this one study won’t stand without challenge in the field.

24 March 2011

Reasons Why v. Reasons For

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:59 am

In this video Daniel Dennett compares a termite mound with Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to illustrate the distinction between the reason why a creature does something and a creature having a reason for doing something.

There is a good reason why termite colonies build mounds: the mound gives the colony an edge in the struggle for survival. However, the termites don’t necessarily understand the reasons for their mound-building activities. Says Dennett:

“Natural selection is an automatic reason-finder which ‘discovers,’ ‘endorses,’ and ‘focuses’ reasons over many generations… Natural selection tracks reasons, creating things that have purposes but don’t need to know them. Natural selection itself doesn’t need to know what it’s doing.”

Dennett says that termite behavior exemplifies “competence without comprehension.” Humans make the mistake of attributing more competence to agents, more awareness of the reasons why they do things, than is justified by the nature of the behavior or of the agent. That’s because so much of human competence derives from and is produced by comprehension. Gaudí spent a long time planning his cathedral, thinking about theological symbolism, drawing diagrams, raising money, etc. before anybody actually started digging the foundation. People are competent to solve specific math problems because they have acquired a general mathematical comprehension. In contrast, says Dennett, a computer has competency without comprehension — an intelligence that’s more like that of a termite mound than that of a human.

So what about chimpanzees: are they more like termites or humans? Dennett thinks that they’re somewhere in between: apes “sorta” understand what they’re doing, “sorta” have reasons for what they do. In short, apes have “semi-understood, quasi-representations” of their own behaviors. What’s important to remember, says Dennett, is that humans’ ability to have reasons for what they do evolved from creatures who didn’t. In Dennett’s words, “comprehension is constructed out of competence.” There is a good reason for having comprehension: it gives humans greater and more flexible competence to do adaptive behaviors, thereby enhancing the survival possibilities of the individual, the “colony,” and the species. Comprehension is a product of an evolutionary process that discovers, endorses, and focuses competence.

What distinguishes humans from ape comprehension from human comprehension? Language, says Dennett. But then he runs out of time before elaborating on the language distinction.

[Grâce à Enemy Industry for posting the Dennett video.]

11 March 2011

Artificial Tears

Filed under: Fiction, Language — ktismatics @ 4:13 pm

Sometimes it’s tough being a fiction writer. Today at staff meeting I had to tell my characters that, as of this morning, they are no longer real. They are in denial, refusing to return to work until their full ontological status has been restored. Also, they have renounced Levi Bryant as a vampire.

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