Category: aesthetics

The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.

Twilight of the Artistic Mind

Deep Dream Generated Image: deepdreamgenerator.com

Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, co-authored a paper on using deep learning neural networks in her new movie that she is directing. The basic idea is very old but the details and scale are more recent. If you take an artificial neural network and have it autoencode the input stream with bottlenecking, you can then submit any stimulus and will get some reflection of the training in the output. The output can be quite surreal, too, because the effect of bottlenecking combined with other optimizations results in an exaggeration of the features that define the input data set. If the input is images, the output will contain echoes of those images.

For Stewart’s effort, the goal was to transfer her highly stylized concept art into the movie scene. So they trained the network on her concept image and then submitted frames from the film to the network. The result reflected aspects of the original stylized image and the input image, not surprisingly.

There has been a long meditation on the unique status of art and music as a human phenomenon since the beginning of the modern era. The efforts at actively deconstructing the expectations of art play against a background of conceptual genius or divine inspiration. The abstract expressionists and the aleatoric composers show this as a radical 20th Century urge to re-imagine what art might be when freed from the strictures of formal ideas about subject, method, and content.

Is there any significance to the current paper? Not a great deal. The bottom line was that there was a great deal of tweaking to achieve a result that was subjectively pleasing and fit with the production goals of the film. That is a long way from automated art and perhaps mostly reflects the ability of artificial neural networks to encode complex transformations that are learned directly from examples. I was reminded of the Nadsat filters available for Unix in the 90s that transformed text into the fictional argot of A Clockwork Orange. Other examples were available, too. The difference was that these were hand-coded while the film example learned from examples. Not hard to do in the language case, though, and likely easier in certain computational aspects due to the smaller range of symbol values.

So it’s a curiosity at best, but plaudits to Stewart for trying new things in her film efforts.

Artsy Women

Victoire LemoineA pervasive commitment to ambiguity. That’s the most compelling sentence I can think of to describe the best epistemological stance concerning the modern world. We have, at best, some fairly well-established local systems that are reliable. We have consistency that may, admittedly, only pertain to some local system that is relatively smooth or has a modicum of support for the most general hypotheses that we can generate.

It’s not nihilistic to believe these things. It’s prudent and, when carefully managed, it’s productive.

And with such prudence we can tear down the semantic drapery that commands attention at every turn, from the grotesqueries of the political sphere that seek to command us through emotive hyperbole to the witchdoctors of religious canons who want us to immanentize some silly Middle Eastern eschaton or shoot up a family-planning clinic.

It is all nonsense. We are perpetuating and inventing constructs that cling to our contingent neurologies like mold, impervious to the broadest implications and best thinking we can muster. That’s normal, I suppose, for that is the sub rosa history of our species. But only beneath the firmament, while there is hope above and inventiveness and the creation of a new honor that derives from fairness and not from reactive disgust.

In opposition to the structures that we know and live with—that we tolerate—there is both clarity in this cocksure target and a certainty that, at least, we can deconstruct the self-righteousness and build a new sensibility to (at least) equality if not some more grand vision.

I picked up Laura Marling’s Short Movie last week and propagated it to various cars. It is only OK, but it joins a rather large collection of recent female musicians in my music archive. Indeed, the women have outnumbered the men at this point: St. Vincent, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom, Hole, P.J. Harvey, Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love (sans Hole), Ani DiFranco, Joan Armatrading, Lily Allen, Valerie June. I’m particularly fascinated by female artists because they are unspoken or underrepresented in our brief human history, and maybe also because my wife is one. But more than some progressive political commitment, female voices simply discuss things in different ways than male voices do.

Where there is perhaps an evolutionary inevitability for a perspective of pursuit and desire from men, for women there is the rage against social and familial expectations, of abuse, of being pursued, and of the complex relationship with the power of men. These aspects make for new thoughts that would not arise in male arts.

 

Word Salad Wednesday: Ergodic Cybernetic Textuality and Games

Salad with catsWell the title is a mouthful, yet it relates to an article in The Guardian concerning the literary significance of role-playing games. Norway’s Aarseth coined the term “ergodic” to describe literary systems that evolve according to the choices of the reader/player.

First, this is just incorrect. Ergodic has a very specific meaning in thermodynamics. Ergodic means that the temporal evolution of a system will be random and irreversible. Aarseth takes the Greek meanings too literally choosing to equate the ergo (work) and hodos (path) with the temporal evolution of hypertexts (where one chooses the next step) or RPGs (where players choose the next steps but there may be random decisions dictated by dice roles). He also likes the term “cybernetic” which was literally “pilot” and was given its modern meaning by Norbert Weiner wherein it refers to autonomous control of a system to stabilize against environmental signals.

Neither of these relate to RPGs or hypertext per se, nor to the general class of reader/engager-based control of media access or fiction. The concept of generative art might be more apt, though it should be modified to include the guidance of the reader. Oddly, guided evolution or change might be the best metaphor altogether leading us to something like Lamarkian Literature (though that is too culturally loaded, perhaps).

Or we could just say “games.” After all, these are games, aren’t they?

The Great Crustacean

little-lobster-costumeDavid Foster Wallace’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster is worth reading for nothing else than the following two paragraphs:

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible—[Dostoevsky]’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation. The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics—maybe even metaphysics—and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.”

I miss him when I read him now. But being serious in the age of irony needs moral issues that are worthy of engagement rather than distancing; take Romeo and Juliet—the family rivalries are actually antiquated and quaint. The strangled universality is that love might triumph but people are crappy. Antiquarian moral conundrums may be translatable to our era but there is no guarantee that it will be so. Whale hunting is just dumb and cruel—not a great human drama. And that leaves open the possibility of the conversion of the aesthetic distancing to re-converge with everyday life. Too bad we lost a champion of the cause.

Marshlands

MarshlandsIt is purely by chance that I discovered a remarkable note, penciled in a deliberate cursive, on page one hundred something of a secondhand copy of Borges’ Labyrinths. The Huns were clashing about and trampling books, but one survived—that sort of chance or magical thing—and an arrow crawled up from the text and declared “all great civilizations are built on marshes,” seemingly in praise for the despoiled monastery and its now collapsed civilization, or perhaps referring to the banks of the Danube or the arc of historiography that passed from Athens to Rome later in the page.

Regardless of the minutiae of the referents, the statement remained in my head for days as I shuffled about through my ordinary occupation and preoccupations with information theory, intelligent machines, and some spectral analysis of the statistical distribution of gut bacteria/eukaryotes. Google was fragmentary in its responses to the phrase as a query and I quit before the end of the first page, anyway, distracted by other thoughts about why marshes would be so attractive for building a civilization. The fishing should be good, admittedly, as well as the availability of reeds for various structures, but the shifting nature of land and the threat of mosquito infestation struck me as negatives. And wouldn’t clean, fresh water be better served by a mountain stream? All great cultures should be at the base of a non-volcanic snowpacked mountain.

I returned to Borges later in the week and found myself fanning through the pages like a schoolboy watching a stickfigure animation until, seventy-five pages further, below the tail of an essay on Cervantes and the inversion of authors and characters and readers, there was another brief flash off a curlicue of lead embedded in the page. I hoped for an existence proof for the previous annotation, but instead it was merely the phrase “literature of Exhaustion,” the E looking like an enlarged epsilon prefacing the remainder of the third word, as if to call it to special attention and emphasize the aspiration through the second syllable, exhaust itself onomatopoeic of loss and finalization.

So here was the connection that pulled Borges and some last reader of this copy together, this framing of the future of literature in some upstate New York professorial office, the pepperspray of revolt wafting in over the trucked-in tumulus of infill as intermedia and intertextuality began to break through the sensibility of realism. Exhausting themes, exhausting theses, exhausting all convention, even exhaustingly lifting one leg before another through those sucking marshes as the lilypads sink and re-emerge upon passing.

There was only one remaining pencil stroke I could find, I’m sorry to say, several dozen pages later, imperfectly underlining the final sentence “I do not know which of us has written this page,” but with two lines under “this,” again drawing attention to a part of the whole and emphasizing only the single page which, strangely, was only a quarter of the essay in translation that was splayed across two facing pages in my book.

Trees of Lives

Tree of LifeWith a brief respite between vacationing in the canyons of Colorado and leaving tomorrow for Australia, I’ve open-sourced an eight-year-old computer program for converting one’s DNA sequences into an artistic rendering. The input to the program are the allelic patterns from standard DNA analysis services that use the Short Tandem Repeat Polymorphisms from forensic analysis, as well as poetry reflecting one’s ethnic heritage. The output is generative art: a tree that overlays the sequences with the poetry and a background rendered from the sequences.

Generative art is perhaps one of the greatest aesthetic achievements of the late 20th Century. Generative art is, fundamentally, a recognition that the core of our humanity can be understood and converted into meaningful aesthetic products–it is the parallel of effective procedures in cognitive science, and developed in lock-step with the constructive efforts to reproduce and simulate human cognition.

To use Tree of Lives, install Java 1.8, unzip the package, and edit the supplied markconfig.txt to enter in your STRs and the allele variant numbers in sequence per line 15 of the configuration file. Lines 16+ are for lines of poetry that will be rendered on the limbs of the tree. Other configuration parameters can be discerned by examining com.treeoflives.CTreeConfig.java, and involve colors, paths, etc. Execute the program with:

java -cp treeoflives.jar:iText-4.2.0-com.itextpdf.jar com.treeoflives.CAlleleRenderer markconfig.txt

Algorithmic Aesthetics

Tarbell art

Jared Tarbell’s work in algorithmic composition via processing.org continues to amaze me. See more, here. The relatively compact descriptions of complex landscapes lend themselves to treatment as aesthetic phenomena where the scale of the grammars versus the complexity of the results asks the question what is art and how does it relate to human neurosystems?