Monthly Archives: July 2017

Medusa

They say that Medusa was the most horrifying woman ever known.

According to legend, she was so terrible to behold that a mere glance at her viper-enshrined visage was enough to render the seer stone. She was so ugly, so terrible to look at, that one could not even survive the horror.

The hero Perseus caught off her head – a just fate, it appears, for such a monster – whereupon he seems to have kept it safely secured to be used as a weapon against unsuspecting foes. I imagine him carrying it around a dirty burlap sack, periodically proudly displaying the dead woman’s head, even in death using her as a tool to defeat foes far greater than he.

In early mythology, Medusa and her Gorgon sisters were born that way – monsters, if you will – with wings and entwined snakes for hair.

This story proved uninspiring, I suppose, because it eventually changed form.

Medusa wasn’t born a monster, no, she was born beautiful. The most beautiful woman you can imagine.

Too beautiful.

Ovid allows Perseus to tell her story:

…Beyond all others she
was famed for beauty, and the envious hope
of many suitors. Words would fail to tell
the glory of her hair, most wonderful
of all her charms—A friend declared to me
he saw its lovely splendour.

Nothing good happens to beautiful women.

Perseus continues:

…the Sovereign of the Sea attained her love
in chaste Minerva‘s temple.

This was a terrible wrong – Poseidon’s forceful attainment of the beautiful Medusa.

Minerva was enraged.

…she turned her head away and held her shield
before her eyes. To punish that great crime
Minerva changed the Gorgon’s splendid hair
to serpents horrible. And now to strike
her foes with fear, she wears upon her breast
those awful vipers—creatures of her rage.

And thus, on Ovid’s telling, Medusa was rightfully punished. For the actions of Poseidon. For being just too beautiful.

Chastised so with awful vipers, men could never again look upon her.

And then brave Perseus sneaks in, finds her asleep, and cuts off her head.

Nothing good ever happens to ugly women.

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Everyone is Talented

László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who joined the Bauhaus as a professor in 1923, was known for his philosophy that “everyone is talented.”

By this, he meant that, “every human being is open to sense impressions, tone, color, touch,spatial experience, etc. The structure of a life is predetermined in these sensibilities. But only art – creation through the senses – can develop the these dormant, native faculties towards creative action.”

Moholy-Nagy further argued that “any health man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks he is a ‘speaker’.”

As Éva Forgács describes in her book, Hungarian Art, this philosophy was similar to the post-expressionist view of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In his Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius argued, that “art cannot be taught.” That’s not to say that art is an intrinsic skill relegated to a select few, but rather that “the world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

As Forgács argues, both artists’ philosophies replaced the classic concept of “the artist who expresses individual concerns” with “the vision of a new type of creative man who was more of an engineer and designer of the world.”

If art cannot be taught, it not because some people are unable to learn, but rather art should be more accurately seen as a way of living and existing in the world.

This vision is strikingly similar to that of deliberative democrats; of John Dewey’s claim that “democracy is a way of living.” A philosopher and educator, Dewey was an American contemporary of the Bauhaus, which perhaps points more generally to the egalitarian optimism of the interwar period.

After the ruinous war to end all wars, our world needed to be rebuilt – a task that could not be left to the same aristocratic interests which had led us down the path to global conflict. We needed to rebuild the world. And we – each and every one of us – had the ability to do it.

Forgács concludes that “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.”

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Summer Days

I love how summer days roll by.

I love long summer days and warm summer nights. I love the feeling of possibility, as if everything will be sunny and relaxing forever.

I love sitting outside and reading a good book.

***

I hate how summer days drag on.

I hate how hard it is to focus, to really tackle a task. I hate how much longer everything takes, how everyone’s vacations are at different times.

I hate that it gets so hot I’d rather sit in air conditioning to read a book.

***

In the end I’m not sure, I suppose, whether I love or hate summer days after all. But I do know this –

They do go on.

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Knowledge Structures

I’ve been reading educational psychology literature on knowledge structures – a “representation of a person’s knowledge that includes both the definitions of a set of domain-specific concepts and the relations among those concepts,” as Dorsey defines it.

The basic premise here is that people not only store various concepts they’re familiar with, they store an entire network structure detailing the inter-relations between those concepts. Storing information in this way provides valuable heuristic short-cuts when it comes time to retrieve that information.

This claim has direct implications for education and what it means to “learn.”

As Dorsey argues:

…Human knowledge embodies more than just declarative facts…the organization of knowledge stored in memory is of equal or greater significance than the amount or type of knowledge. The construct of knowledge structures implies that the relation between knowledge acquisition and performance in many domains requires not just a set of declarative facts, but a framework or a set of connections that leads to an understanding of when and how a set of facts applies in a given situation.

Having knowledge stored in network form not only allows for easy retrieval, it lays the foundation for problem-solving in the face of new challenges.

As Collins and Quillian argue, “it is by using inference that people can know much more than they learn.”

Interestingly, a core element of these systems is that they are self defining: “Many words acquire most of their meaning through their use in sentences,” Preece argues, “In this respect, word meanings, or concepts, are like mathematical points: They have few qualities other than their relationships with other concepts.”

Shavelson similarly insists on a somewhat tautological definition, writing, “a concept, then, is a set of relations among other concepts.”

And Collins and Quillian argue:

An interesting aspect of such a network is that within the system there are no primitive or undefined terms in the mathematical sense; everything is defined by everything else so that the usual logistical (axiomatic) structure of mathematical systems does not hold. In this respect, it is like a dictionary.

In many of the papers I’ve been reading, these networks are elicited through word association: researchers provide subjects with a word and subjects provide as many associated words as possible.

Shavelson does this experiment with physics terms and compares the development of physics students and non-physics students. Over the course of the semester, the students in a physics class increased the number of words they could associate with a root physics term.

Shavelson also finds a sharp increase in the number of “constrained responses” – e.g., “if the term used in the response was an element in the defining equation for the special stimulus word. For example, the response term ‘mass,’ was scored as a constrained response to the special stimulus ‘force,’ since force equals mass times acceleration.”

Validation of these networks is, of course, a non-trivial process. But scholars have been chipping away at this question for decades. It’s still not clear how to best way to capture or model these knowledge structures, but the body of literature that exists in this space so far indicates that this is a meaningful way to approach human learning and understanding.

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Language and Communication

Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?

This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.

So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.

Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.

I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.

But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.

And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.

Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.

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Hungarian Art and Weltanschauung

Inspired in part by my recent trip to the Hungarian National Gallery, I’ve been reading Éva Forgács excellent book, “Hungarian Art.” Forgács frames the arc of Hungarian art through the lens of an ongoing tension between “European” art and culture and distinctively “Hungarian” art and culture.

In the late 19th century, for example, artists and scholars such as Károly Kernstock, György Lukács, and Béla Balázs sought to “integrate Hungarian painting into contemporary European art.” As Forgács argues, they “thought that the time had come to present an argument for synchronicity between new Hungarian achievements and those of Western culture, and thus validate their work in the eyes of a rather reluctant Hungarian audience. They were apparently unaware that the segments of the Hungarian audience that hesitated to accept them did so exactly because of the painters’ European orientation.”

On the other hand, “cultivation of the ‘national genius’ was, through the greater part of the twentieth century, a sub-current in Hungarian art and culture, addressing deeply ingrained, suppressed reservoirs of what was perceived as genuinely Hungarian…However, ‘genuine Hungarian’ artworks had failed to constitute a mythical meta-narrative; they lacked the potential to be come official or mainstream art, or even a decisive trend in counterculture.”

Of particularly interest to me in this debate is the frequent use of the German word Weltanschauung, roughly translated as “worldview.” Lukács wrote that through the work of European-oriented Hungarian artists, “a new Weltanschauung appeared, which aspired to a higher truth than the ephemeral world of appearances of impressionist painting.” Forgács further argues that following the second world war, the European School saw themselves as “constructing a new, post-war, post-holocaust Weltanschauung.” Work that had “an almost revolutionary aura.”

While “worldview” is a passable translation of Weltanschauung, the word itself is much richer than its translation allows. It means not only “worldview,” but implies a shared worldview – a sort of cultural unity without deviation.

The very idea of a “Western” culture or an “Eastern” culture rests upon the concept of Weltanschauung; upon the argument there is something distinctive which binds members of these cultures together.

Wittgenstein, who was particularly interested in how people communicate and share ideas, often refers to Weltanschauung, perhaps most notably asking in Philosophical Investigations: “The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a ‘Weltanschauung‘?)”

Though he never answers the question he raises parenthetically, Konstantin Kolenda points to the similarity in a Wittgenstein passage from his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Everything that can be said can be said clearly.”

If, indeed, everything can be said clearly, that is arguably because of Weltanschauung – because words and symbols have a shared meaning which can successfully be conveyed from me to you.

I think also of the computational models of “cultural systems” undertaken by Spicer, Axelrod, and others. In these models, individuals with distinctive characteristics gradually take on the characteristics of their neighbors – eventually leading to balkanization between communities of identical individuals.

 

And this is what I find so interesting about the struggle in Hungarian art; about the constant tension artists feel between a European and a Hungarian Weltanschauung; about the sense of building a new Weltanschauung.

Weltanschauung is problematic in its unity; in its insistence that all of a culture’s people must share characteristics – or, perhaps, conversely, that a person who does not share certain cultural aspects can be naturally derided as an outsider.

In studying Hungarian artists’ search for Weltanschauung, Forgács engages the divergent approaches as not entirely contradictory, but as trying to seeking out a shared path; to transcend the tension and to build something new. To move beyond the confines of existing Weltanschauung and to truly create.

 

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The ego of public life, part II

Almost exactly four years ago I began writing publicly every day.

In recent months, I’ve allowed myself a great deal of leniency in the “every day” portion of that commitment. But, in the broadest possible sense, I have developed and maintained public writing as a habit.

It has never been easy.

People often ask me what my greatest challenge is: How do I find the time? Where do I get ideas?

Those are challenges, to be sure, but they are the mere details; the logistical flourishes that transform theory into action. The greatest challenge, I think, is one which I outlined in my first post:

…my struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” 

…I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute. There’s something fundamentally egotistical about that belief.

This is not to say that egoism is bad – but it should be acknowledged as a capacity required for engagement in public life; a capacity which is spread heterogeneously throughout the population. Some people, you may have noticed, have far too much ego; while others, I’m afraid, have internalized from consistent silencing the perspective that their voices do not matter.

I once was one of those people. I suspect I still am in many respects.

But a lot has changed for me over the last four years.

When I started this experiment in public writing, I had built a career out of shadow writing; using my words and my efforts to make other people look good. I was reasonably satisfied with this path: I enjoyed the art of word craft and the strategy of presentation, but I preferred to hide behind those who were eager to take the credit. Acknowledging my contributions just ruined the magic; and I was a nobody anyway.

Four years ago I was just beginning to emerge from the year-long stupor that followed my father’s death. I was just beginning to think about graduate school; just beginning to realize that, yes, I just might be a human person capable of pursuing a Ph.D.

A lot has changed since then.

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

So public writing seems more egotistical, but also less necessary – I declare every day that my voice has value.

And then, of course, there are the practical concerns. Writing does take time, and it requires a sort of mental energy I now need more for my daily work. Many days, I just don’t have it in me.

For now, I plan to continue public writing. Perhaps not with the daily fervor I committed to when I was four years younger; but with a similar sense of rebelliousness for choosing to share my voice with the world.

And that, of course, is the thing; why I choose to share my private journey with my public voice. Because too many people are convinced that their voices and perspectives don’t matter; too many people are taught to believe that through slights and silencing faced every day.

I consider myself a deliberative democrat: I believe that we – every single one of us – has a role to play in collectively and collaboratively building our shared world. You may find something annoyingly optimistic in that vision; but I see something radical and rebellious – a bold truth-claim regarding who has the right to govern and the capacity to participate.

That is to say, I choose to share my public voice because, ultimately, it is not at all about me. I am still just a nobody; a particle picked at random. I share my voice not because it is my voice that matters, but rather because all our voices matter.

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