Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Poetry, Conversation, Translations, In-Form-a-Tion, Etc

In an interview about his book of poetry titled Uselysses, Noel Black recalls a time with Harry Mathews at a San Francisco art school, and I like this passage because it sheds light on my two previous blogspews on "translation":

Harry Mathews came and gave a lecture to a class I took at New College, and I had this amazing conversation with him afterward about the “I” and “self” and that whole labyrinth. I’ll never forget what he said to me because it was so freeing. I’m paraphrasing here, but what he said is that Americans, because most of us only speak one language, have a tendency to believe that language comes from within us out of some sort of linguistic font of self, which leads us to this “I” to which we cling. For a lot of Europeans, on the other hand, many of whom are polyglots, language is something external that’s not only mutable, but easily rearranged and manipulated and only loosely regarded as any part of a fixed self. By that measure, he had concluded after many years of living abroad, that you could only know yourself with the shared language you were using with another person, i.e. you are creating a different self with each different person you’re with in whatever common language you happen to share. I loved that idea so much because what it says is that the I is always in relationship, that it’s a conversation, a community.
-gleaned from this Levi Rubeck interview with Noel Black

It seems what Noel Black is getting from Harry Mathews here supports what Lera Boroditsky has been arguing in her academic career. But then, beware: this is me, today, interpreting/translating/fumbling to explain to my Dear Reader what I think is going on. Lots may get lost in my grapples with Boroditsky's  thought, with what Noel Black seeks to remember ("I'm paraphrasing here...") from his time with Harry Mathews, what Mathews thinks "makes sense" vis a vis European polyglots and language and the "self" versus what monolingual Unistatians think about where language comes from, how it relates to a "self," etc, etc, etc.

I'll return to Noel Black's poetry later, but want to try and haul in some things about interpretations, translations, and Information Theory.

                                     How ordinary my having a blog seems!

One of my own spiritual fathers, Robert Anton Wilson, often wrote and talked about the acceleration of information. In his cosmic intellectual goofy-sufi-like humor, he eventually dubbed this mathematical doubling the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon, and if you don't know what it is, the first paragraph in this link gives the inkling. RAW took this stuff seriously, if not siriusly, and he actually has quite a lot to say about the statistical mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, and the social, personal, political and philosophical implications of it. Terence McKenna had some similar things to say on this topic, although they seemed more teleological and metaphysical in bend than RAW's. If one looks at Ray Kurzweil's work, particularly the fat The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil seems to have picked up from RAW and his influences on information doubling and logarithmically taken it to another level, but that's for The Reader (and future history?) to decide.

There's also quite an abundant literature that seeks to determine boundary distinctions and interactions between types of knowledge, and, more fascinating to me, the differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. I have found nothing but vast abstruse disagreements here. Which is fine with me.

RAW, in his widely dispersed writings on information doubling in history, touched on the qualitative aspects therein, but any reader can easily miss that in favor of what I see as - wild and ironically - a Platonified view of how information works. If Claude Shannon's and Warren Weaver's and John Von Neumann's and Norbert Wiener's and Gregory Bateson's and...all  the others mentioned in James Gleick's marvelous 2011 book The Information - the information that can be quantified and more or less given a relatively thick description as to how it worked within a scientific/technological sense - THAT information...then yes. Maybe. But I wonder about our brain's unrealistic expectations of information transformation, mostly because I played, at childhood birthday parties, the game of Telephone...and never stopped thinking about what it meant. (Huh? WTF is the OG onto now?)

I remember how funny it was that, what went into the first kid's ear turned out, after the 16th iteration, to be shorter and weirder and having almost no resemblance to the original. Why was it funny?

Well, humor may be a way to let our guards down and admit we're not perfect. We seem not even close to perfect. And that it's okay, because being human? We're far too complex to get strings of information exactly right, using our wetware. (I didn't think this stuff about Telephone until the last couple years.) Getting data and memory 100% is not something we do well in these embodied minds of aggregated replicators and evolutionarily legacy-ed mind-software. But what about other implications?

One of the "reasons" the market tanked in 2008 was "we" ("quants" and others) had written algorithms into very posh hi-powered computers that took in data about either buying or selling, and in microseconds, made "decisions" on whether it was buy or sell time. And the data/information the algorithms were working on was extensive. But it was based on earlier data strings that supposedly represented something in the Actual World that you or I would care about...like buying a house. But again: this data string was based on decisions made in microseconds from other data strings. It was like Telephone, only these algorithms were making buy/sell decisions without any human minds interposed. And yet, all you needed was one bit of some "interpretation" (can robotic algorithms, no matter how complex, be said to interpret?) that the algorithm "thought" was okay...to be wrong in some way. And then we had a sort of Telephone-like iteration which resulted in something that was not given to the same mirth of a children's backyard party and something rather like a Worldwide Economic Depression. Oh, humans, talking amongst themselves, playing by what the "rules" allowed, made bad decisions too...

Were there unethical, even criminally negligent decisions made? You betta you ass there were.

                            There's a LOT missing in this basic schematic, no?

Why do we allow complex mathematical formulae, worked over at blinding speeds by hi-powered computers, to make "decisions" about what are basically human values? Because it seemed/seems like a cost-efficient or "neat-o" idea? I read about this stuff and the FOLLY angers me. (Hence the Robin Hood Tax seems like a very sound idea to me.)

Now, I'm writing this based on my best understanding as a Generalist, some dude reading books, and maybe I've missed something? Maybe the authors I've read missed something? Maybe I misread some tiny bit based on some tiny bit someone, who I trust KNOWS something...errr...missed? Hey, that's life.

It's not at all convincing or clear to me that higher levels of abstracted information make for something healthier, to borrow from a hippie slogan, "for children and other living things." Too many artifacts and errors creep. We must always have something like an attempt of wise humans refereeing. It seems far too many Geeks and policy makers do not get this.

And that's my point. Information transfer from brain to brain or from algorithm to algorithm of from algorithm to brain is not a Platonically perfect dealio, ladies and germs. And the repercussions are not academic; they come packing a world of hurt at times.

Back to Black...

Noel Black's Uselysses
Gawd, what a delightful, funny book of poetry. This alone should be enough to pique you, but maybe my taste is not close enough to yours, so I'll say a few things about why I like the book.

Black remembered someone calling themselves a "depressionist," and, being an artist in today's Unistat? It's easy to feel useless, no matter how much effort and soul-bearing you do. For a punster  - who prefers portmanteau to pun, as Joyce preferred the portmanteau as stylistic device -"uselysses" can describe the interior feelings of many an artist in this day and age.

He's steeped in the poetic tradition, but feels its weight, Whitman appearing at odd times throughout the book, laying his body down along the entire stretch of road one might drive from New York to San Francisco. And, steeped in the art school/academic and especially San Francisco poetry scene (where certain, say LANGUAGE poets live in their own poetic fiefdoms while poets of Other Schools theirs), he had to leave, go back to Colorado Springs, where he was brought up by a gay father who died of AIDS, and a lesbian mother. He goes back to evangelical right wing hotbed Colorado Springs to reclaim it, in some Whitmanian sense, for Art.

Another of the younger poets who draw upon and allude to TV and pop culture (almost) as much as anyone, Black's surrealistic sensibility and sense of the cosmic absurdity of his own fleeting thoughts in the mundane get worked over into something truly artistic and human and hilarious. Aside from a very witty section of short poems all based on how some famous poets died, he's perhaps best-known as the author of a chapbook (contained in Uselysses) called Moby K. Dick, (an odd concatenation of Philip K Dick's book Ubik and Melville's masterwork) in which he takes books he's loved and combines their deeper structures, has a sort of ethereal chat between both books (or book/another author), and neither book comes to the reader in bold relief; rather, the odd intertwining essence-ish-ness of each book speaks in the short poems, variously titled "Lord Jim Thompson," "Paul Austerlitz," "Watchmen in the Rye," "Huckleberry Finnegans Wake," "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Blood," you get the idea.

If you're a Joycean looking for something in, say, "Huckleberry Finnegans Wake" you're unlikely to come away with anything, save for the idea that a poet drew, in some odd way, on Finnegans Wake. Black's purpose here seems closer to William Burroughs's use of the cut-up method, only Black is cutting up general feelings - interpretations - in his mind about the two books, how his sense of himself was subsumed while reading those books, and how his made-meanings of texts dreamily interposed in the overnight "dialogue" between both books as they sat on his shelf.

But this is Black at his artsiest. The Noel Black I had most fun with was the one who wanted to write poetry again because it was FUN, and he had calendrical time and geographic distance from two places he'd tried to make it, San Francisco and Brooklyn. Colorado Springs seems to suit him fine. Here are some lines from a poem that, to me, depict my favorite aspects of Black. From "Poem of Carl Sagan":

It must be confusing for Christians
who arrive in Heaven
to find Carl Sagan seated at the right hand of God,
which is a gigantic, glowing vagina
floating above the Captain's chair
on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.

"It's interesting - and I never imagined this - "
says Carl, using the weirding voices of Science to soothe the recently dead,
"that the Universe is merely an emanation of the brain,
which as we look into it, tricks us into believing 
that we are gazing into an unfathomable outward expanse
that is but the unknowable inner reaches of our own minds. Now,
who would like to be reborn?"

Vaginal wormholes, C. S. Lewis perturbed by it all, Star Trek's spaceship as the Holy Ghost, telling someone they'll understand heaven a lot better if they re-read Dune, then here's Carl Sagan again:

Then he unzips his burnt-orange windbreaker
and a laser of love shoots out
from the spectral Starfleet logo upon his heart,
zapping them all into the raptures of wordless knowledge
as God folds their souls into dream.

If this all sounds vaguely like you and your funny friends, high in college, your parents split up or dead, listening to the Scorpions in someone's mom's basement in Unistatian suburbia in 1981, then yea: you probably have something in common with Noel Black. And you can either confirm or deny this by reading this book, but ESPECIALLY the last part, a rather long poem called "Prophecies For The Past," which was, to me, one of the most moving poems I've read by a currently living poet. I found Uselysses in my public library, but will buy the book if only for "Prophecies For The Past," which articulates a living reality for so very many of us, growing up in broken homes in cultural poverty pockets or suburban white America, last 30 years of the 20th century.

Noel Black, family man, seems wonderfully jester-wise and nutty, wears his resilient heart on his sleeve, which I picture as paisley right now, for some reason. I loved this book.


Eric Wagner said...

Great blog as usual.

Many monolingual folk live in Europe, and many polylingual folk live in the U. S. of A.

Have I ever talked with you about the Rebounding Jesus effect?

If want to understand information theory, what do you recommend I read and in what order? I had contempated starting with The Mathematical Theory of Information in, say, 2014, but I'd love some suggestions.

Eric Wagner said...

Phew, I thought my first comment didn't post, and I couldn't remember what I said. I had forgotten that I saw Carl Sagan speak back in the 80's. I remember reading after he died that he loved smoking pot.

So much to read. Thanks for the recommendation. I did just download Ulysses to my Kindle, and I read the first paragraph, my first Kindle reading experience. An acquantance kindly gave me the Kindle.

Last night my father-in-law went to the emergency room. He felt better when we drove him home. While hanging out at the hospital I read a little of Faust Part II, Finnegans Wake, The Charterhouse of Parma and The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. That seems like a paradigm of my life right now.

michael said...

@Prof Wagner: You have neglected to tell me about the Rebounding Jesus effect. Have at it, man!

Indeed sombunall Unistatians have polyglot abilities, and many non-City-dwellars in the Euro Union are in mono. But Eng still seems the Linga Franca, ironically. I often ride my bike through UC Berkeley and overhear students talking to each other and it's usually Chinese these days. But I've heard French, German, things that may or may not be Italian, Arabic-sounding stuff, and non-German/non-French northern E. sounding stuff.

There are some terrific passages in books about information theory that have influenced me, and many of them I derived from RAW mentioning them.

But there's an old (1982) popularization of info that I still really like and think mostbunall who want an intro would like too: Grammatical Man, by Jeremy Campbell. See what you think. Info/entropy/language...

For an interesting, sort of "conservative" take on information and "reality" I found Albert Borgmann really stimulating. His book was called Holding On To Reality.

Three Scientists and Their Gods by Robert Wright: there's an audio talk on the Net of Leary riffing on this. Fredkin's ideas about info greatly infl. Kurzweil's. If you want to bone up on a close cousin of Jumping Jesus, read the first 110 pages of Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near. Wright also wrote a history of the "god" idea, and I remember RAW really liked his Non-Zero.

Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, Power, by Ron E. Day (the name stuck with me). It's short, but dense, and talks about literature and info. Campbell's does too. He talks about the info-density of FW, smatterfact.

I mentioned Gleick's The Information in my blog post. I have read a lot in it but have not read it cover-to-cover. It approaches the "magisterial," methinks. But I'm partial to potent generalizers. He makes info theory lucid for the interested layperson.

Schrodinger's What Is Life? may be the starting point for erudite talking about info and the linkage between thermodynamics, biology, quantification and communications, etc. There's a version of it that came out in the 90s that includes Mind and Matter and some autobiographical tidbits from ES.

In the last 20 years there's been an explosion of books that are very technical about info theory and library science and search, cellular automata, coding, chemical thermodynamics, complex network statistics, quantum processes, computability, etc. I have to develop a nose for finding the readable-for-a-generalist-stuff.

In the 1960s there were a bunch of books that sought to describe esthetic preference in terms of info theory. I think that idea has become EMBEDDED in various thicker discussions of info theory.

michael said...

Someone gave you a Kindle? Wow. You've gone over to the Dark Side? (I have a futile, tilting-at-windmills running war with reading non-dead tree books, which I'll elaborate on soon.)

Sorry to hear about your father-in-law. I hope he makes a full recovery.

Re: Sagan and pot: Lester Grinspoon (love the name!) of Harvard wanted to publish a book in 1970 called Marihuana Reconsidered. He drew upon mostly anonymous testimonies of people who found pot a positive force in their lives. One "Mr X" was included in his data. Written in 1969, here's Carl Sagan, stellar pothead: