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Ch. 3: Universal Acid 
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
DWill wrote:
I'll refer to the universality idea in literature, whereby the writer has appealed across time and culture to human beings who would appear not be be living the same lives as the writer did. But the connection is made, and often (usually, always?) in a seeming paradox the reason is that the writer has nailed down some particularity, showing perhaps that the particular will always (?) be the road to the universal.

Particularity has more than one virtue. The first that comes to my mind is "realism." Life is full of particulars, and without lifting out some particulars, the hazy globular remains have no sense of real life to them.

The second to my mind is "complexity." In a book about a painting, "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," author Tracy Chevalier has Vermeer ask the clever model to note the colors she actually sees in a complex shimmer of colors (water? oil on water? I forget the context.) The girl sees, to her own surprise, that she sees a greenish patch within a red (?) field. Vermeer explains that seeing what your eye really sees is not an easy trick. The mind glosses things to make them all one color. The simplifications provided by the brain need to be unpicked to get at life as it is lived.

Similar to realism, but going in a kind of opposite direction. The first is the realism of attention fixing on things, the second is the hidden aspect of reality in containing too many things to actually fix on. I'm guessing that the mind has to move in both directions: toward "the telling detail" and away from "trying to know how things work", each at some point in the process of "suspension of disbelief" or particularity will be unable to do its work.

DWill wrote:
Or maybe this is not a good generalization. I think of Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," which though anthologized everywhere is certainly less particularized than "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame," one less popular due to its savage rawness, and one that does not necessarily make a reader say, "Me, too." Yet is the latter poem not the higher achievement of art, precisely because it does seem to issue from a personality and be entirely genuine and frank?


Well, appealing to more people has never been a reliable indicator of quality! But "richness of emotional honesty" is certainly a wonderful quality, and though it has less crowd appeal than "richness of emotional affirmation", they surely both need some particularity to come alive. An interesting comparison. Makes me want to go exploring the Bard.



Fri Mar 17, 2017 5:17 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
geo wrote:
I think this is the power of literature, that it connects us as human beings, sometimes over many centuries.
I really enjoyed Humphrey's passage because it highlights the crucial difference between objective knowledge, illuminated by science, and subjective meaning, provided by the arts. Shakespeare touches on the human condition and helps us explore common human values that transcend culture, which is why the Bard still resonates with us, and connects us emotionally as human beings.


Two comments. One, "connection" is said to be the essence of religion, by some commentators. "ligio" is the root of ligament and liaison. Which suggests that literature (with origins in the tales around the fire and in the religious festivals of ancient Greece) and art in general, is gradually becoming the linking force, the source of feelings of commonality, in modern culture.

Second, it is interesting how particularity makes this happen. Richard Rorty puts forward the idea of narrative as a source of empathy, a powerful observation that goes back at least to Tolstoy's observation that the noblewoman was reduced to tears by the sight of a peasant's plight on stage even while her footman froze to death waiting by her carriage outside the theater.



Fri Mar 17, 2017 5:25 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
geo wrote:
As Harry says, we might not choose to read Chaucer much these days, but we still owe a debt of gratitude to him and others, who remain beacons of light through the murkiness of time.

I think Humphrey chose Chaucer and Shakespeare precisely because they are considered irreplaceable treasures by at least a minority of informed people. Even though we don't read Chaucer today, the Canterbury Tales and "Troilus and Cressida" are considered to be masterpieces. What if Humphrey had chosen, instead of Chaucer's work, something else from the period, such as Gower's Confessio Amantis. No one but a few scholars pays any attention to it today, but it's still a unique and irreplaceable product. I would nevertheless surely be in favor of losing it over The Origin of the Species, even though I believe that natural selection would have been elucidated by someone else.

Dennett appears to think that in all matters of culture, Darwinian evolutionary concepts apply, but I'm closer to thinking that in regard to Shakespeare, Dickens, Keats, Picasso, et al, they're irrelevant. He's good at showing how ideas gathered force from many sources in "Design Space" and thereby developments such as natural selection acquired some inevitability and became standardized and reduced. He concedes that no such standardization and reduction occurred in the works of Shakespeare (indeed, that fact accounts for their high value), but I get the feeling that he does think that Darwin's dangerous idea lays claim to "Ode to a Nightingale." I don't think it really does. We can talk all we want about antecedents to Keats's themes, borrowings, and stylistic influences--and this is all interesting--but it doesn't give us a new theoretical base, doesn't enable us to see the poem in different ways. The selection involved in Keats's composition is not, really, very much like natural selection.



Last edited by DWill on Sat Mar 18, 2017 2:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Mar 18, 2017 2:22 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
DWill wrote:
No one but a few scholars pays any attention to it today, but it's still a unique and irreplaceable product. I would nevertheless surely be in favor of losing it over The Origin of the Species, even though I believe that natural selection would have been elucidated by someone else.
I guess my strongest reaction to this question is the artificiality. I am fine with giving more attention to cultural artifacts like the Eiffel Tower which embody choices and creative aspiration than to discoveries of "inevitable" principles. But too often those kinds of differences get turned into stark and highly reductionist "forced discarding": what book would you take with you to a desert island, etc.

And yet I have to admit that particularity is all about that exact kind of forced discarding. You can only say the poem one way, because there is no room for two versions. The exceptions, like cover versions of a song which manage to compete with the original, prove the rule. You could list on the fingers of one hand (there we go again) the songs which have two different versions which both are known by the general public.

So I guess the business about the library of Babel is not entirely useless. We do want to know what is up with particularity - when "all possible versions of the same essential thing" follow the rules of prose, in which "synonyms" for functional units can be substituted, and when they follow the rules of poetry, so that any change produces a qualitatively different thing.

In footnote 6 of chapter 5 Dennett refers to a game of seeing how large an effect can be created by a single typographical change. It's kinda fun: "Who woods these are, I think I know, his house is in the Village, though." "Am I my brothel's keeper?" and, following Hobbes, "the wife of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short." The substitutions are hardly "synonyms" but they do demonstrate a kind of incongruous "closeness".

DWill wrote:
Dennett appears to think that in all matters of culture, Darwinian evolutionary concepts apply, but I'm closer to thinking that in regard to Shakespeare, Dickens, Keats, Picasso, et al, they're irrelevant. He's good at showing how ideas gathered force from many sources in "Design Space" and thereby developments such as natural selection acquired some inevitability and became standardized and reduced. He concedes that no such standardization and reduction occurred in the works of Shakespeare (indeed, that fact accounts for their high value), but I get the feeling that he does think that Darwin's dangerous idea lays claim to "Ode to a Nightingale."
Rorty (I am reading him for another purpose) seems to claim that there is a fundamental difference between studying something for which nature makes the final arbitration, like science, versus something for which nature cannot decide for us. The latter is like utopian politics, he claims, which, in the aftermath of the French Revolution treated the space of possible political systems as the whole range available for human aspiration. If we can imagine it, we can propose choosing it.

In subsequent chapters Dennett is going to get into this issue, looking at whether practical limits on what is "possible" must be taken to constrain what is "possible" to the imagination. Is it "possible" to get to a regime in which all corporations are run as political institutions? Or are the forces of reaction too strong, and the people who run things through corporations too smart and influential to allow such a change? Or, more fundamentally, is such a system so unworkable that no society would tolerate it for long? The "ought and can" variation on "ought vs. is" again.

DWill wrote:
I don't think it really does. We can talk all we want about antecedents to Keats's themes, borrowings, and stylistic influences--and this is all interesting--but it doesn't give us a new theoretical base, doesn't enable us to see the poem in different ways. The selection involved in Keats's composition is not, really, very much like natural selection.
I very much agree that the selection processes involved are very different, but I think that may be your question, not his. I think Dennett's interest in the matter may be limited to whether there is a physical process involved in creating such a sublime piece of art, or whether it is necessary to evoke a force of "mind" which cannot be accounted for materially.

I find that materiality question pretty stale. Even when you morph it into AI, so that the question becomes, "Can we program a computer to produce poems with the force and beauty of "Ode to a Nightingale"?" I find myself turning to "should we?" long before "can we?" is settled. But we have this sneaking suspicion that the two are related intimately.



Sun Mar 19, 2017 9:16 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
Harry Marks wrote:
In subsequent chapters Dennett is going to get into this issue, looking at whether practical limits on what is "possible" must be taken to constrain what is "possible" to the imagination. Is it "possible" to get to a regime in which all corporations are run as political institutions? Or are the forces of reaction too strong, and the people who run things through corporations too smart and influential to allow such a change? Or, more fundamentally, is such a system so unworkable that no society would tolerate it for long? The "ought and can" variation on "ought vs. is" again.

Thanks for all of your comments, by the way. In the first sentence above, are you thinking of Chapter 6, "Threads of Actuality in Design Space," where Dennett talks about "forced moves in Design Space," wherein vision or a bilateral arrangement of a body, for example, may have emerged just because they were bound to? Faint echoes of purpose, or at the very least of non-randomness?

Chapter 6 had some salient points for me. I wonder if it's time to go there. I don't want to get too "random" in my own process with this book.



Mon Mar 20, 2017 4:47 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3: Universal Acid
DWill wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
In subsequent chapters Dennett is going to get into this issue, looking at whether practical limits on what is "possible" must be taken to constrain what is "possible" to the imagination. Is it "possible" to get to a regime in which all corporations are run as political institutions?

are you thinking of Chapter 6, "Threads of Actuality in Design Space," where Dennett talks about "forced moves in Design Space," wherein vision or a bilateral arrangement of a body, for example, may have emerged just because they were bound to?
I was still on Ch. 5 when I wrote that, but some of the issues of accessibility and constraints from either embryological or physical possibility, combined with my reading of Rorty, had me thinking about these issues in the context of politics and economics.
DWill wrote:
Chapter 6 had some salient points for me. I wonder if it's time to go there. I don't want to get too "random" in my own process with this book.
Yes, I think Ch. 6 is an important way station and deserves a little rumination. I am not quite finished with it, but please go ahead.



Thu Mar 23, 2017 8:05 am
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