A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics


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On Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

I meant to do this a while ago as a contrast after the series on Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation. If you are unfamiliar, Susan Sontag was a well-known cultural critic and essayist (among other things). She started publishing in the mid 60’s and continued all the way into the 2000’s. “Against Interpretation” was published in 1966.

The context here is interesting. Hirsch reacted to the New Criticism as somehow being too loose. You could make anything mean anything through a close reading. He wanted only certain narrow, well-justified interpretations to be valid. In “Against Interpretation” Sontag also reacts to the New Criticism, but in the opposite direction: the whole idea of interpretation is wrong-headed.

She begins by lamenting for a time when we weren’t so inundated with theory. She argues that we’ve become too obsessed with content. We tend to approach a work of art ready to interpret and extract its content. We start pulling out symbols and translating these into some meaning before we even have a chance to experience the work.

Art is supposed to be messy, complicated, and uncomfortable at times. The act of interpretation clears out the mess, simplifies it, and makes it comfortable. We often feel an overwhelming urge that works of art must be about something. How often do you hear, “I’ve heard of that book. What is it about?”

It is even possible that the artist intended certain objects to be interpreted as symbols, but the meaning is not what gives art its merit. Abstract art tries to be all form and no content in order to resist the destruction of interpretation. But artists shouldn’t have to flee from interpreters in order to escape.

In the seventh section of the essay, Sontag makes a startling prediction. “The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.” I think from our vantage point, 50 years later, we can say she was correct. Open any newspaper or go to a film blog or find an academic journal of film studies. Cinema gets dissected through interpretation as much as any other art form.

She ends the essay with a solution to this problem of over-interpretation. Commentary and criticism are both possible and necessary. We need to switch from our obsession with content and talk more about form. She points to Barthes and others for people who have given solid formal analysis. We could also try to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” We can focus on description rather than on what you think the description means.

When we interpret, we take the sensory experience for granted. The purpose of art is to be experienced, not over-analyzed. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” The goal of criticism should be to make works of art more real to us. “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”

Now that I’ve summarized the essay, I’ll comment on it. I think this is in some sense an overreaction or maybe even a straw man argument. For example, Hirsch, who values the author’s intent, would probably say that if the author intended for the work to be a purely visceral experience with no excess symbolism in it, then to read that symbolism in it would be an invalid interpretation.

More specifically, genre matters. Some genres call for detailed, complicated interpretation and some call for no interpretation. Sontag’s essay seems to call for a complete rejection of interpretation whereas the other side seems to argue that if you want to interpret, then here are some tools for it.

Maybe this is the 50 year gap, but I don’t know anyone that calls for always interpreting all the time. Even the most analytic of critics would admit that it is perfectly valid to just experience a work sometimes. So I guess I’m somewhat confused at what this essay is really arguing against.

On the other hand, I fully agree that we often over-analyze and reach for interpretations without first experiencing a work. I absolutely hate the question: what is that about? Romance novels can be about something. A TV sitcom can be about something (or in a particularly famous case about nothing). Essays can be about something. Great art stops being art if you try to reduce it to some five sentence plot line. The thing that it is about is not the thing that makes it worth experiencing.


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Thoughts on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been trying hard to get a post out every Wednesday. I also haven’t done any book reviews in a long, long time. This is because I’ve been trying to keep everything organized on goodreads, so when I finish a book I write a quick review and give it a rating there.

This week I drew a blank for a post. I recently finished William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, so it seemed fitting to say a few words about it here. To set the stage, here’s a quick plot synopsis. A girl named Cayce has the skill to identify logos that will succeed in advertising.

You should think of this as a speculative fiction thing and not an intuition she has developed through years of practice. For instance, her parents discovered it when she was a child and had a violent nauseous reaction to some particularly bad logos. Now she consults with firms as a freelancer. She has the ability to “recognize patterns” in culture.

Anyway, a mysterious collection of short video clips keeps getting found on the internet and a cult following happens. No one knows where they came from, how people are finding them, or who is making them. A key point is that they are universally appealing and moving works of art.

These video clips lead us to one of the major themes of the book. If we abstract the video clips, this gives us the major thematic questions: In a digital age, bombarded by information, how can we know who is creating what we see/read? Is it part of a larger set of data and being selectively skewed to bias us? How do we know where to go to get “real” information?

Cayce is approached by an ad agency to investigate who is producing the video footage. This adds to those earlier questions, because where some people see untarnished art, other people see an opportunity to skew and manipulate using it. If that ad agency succeeds, can we ever tell? I think this is an important and difficult question for our time (and note that he published the book in 2003 before internet tailored advertising was “a thing”).

Overall, I found the premise of Cayce’s skill and the spot on cultural commentary to be the high point of the book. It kept me interested and brought to the forefront of my thoughts important questions. Let’s move on to the points I didn’t like as much.

At first, I found the style of the book to be clever, fast-paced, and ultra-modern. Gibson uses the present tense, and he “evolves” the language to drop the subject of the sentence when understood. This fun style didn’t stay fun for long. It turned choppy and grating. I assume the intent was to create a sense of fast-paced, forward motion, but in the long run it did the opposite.

Somewhere along the way, the plot turned to a huge Pynchonesque ultra-conspiracy as Cayce uncovered more and more information. I’ll admit that it plays in with the theme that we never know who is controlling our media, but overall it wasn’t convincing.

It works in Pynchon, because his style is so complex and intense that it plays into the mindset of uncovering the conspiracy. As I pointed out already, Gibson’s style is the opposite. It is simplistic to the point of creating sentence fragments.

By the end of the book, I had to will myself to read it. The style plus the conspiracy plot points made it a slog. Overall, I enjoyed it and gave it a 4/5 on goodreads. It is inventive and original and raises lots of important questions. But I have to recommend it with reservation (I’ll probably do a top 5 books I read this year with my real recommendations).


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Composers You Should Know Part 2

Obviously this series could go on every week for the next year, so I’ll have to determine how far to take this. Recall that I’m trying to expose people to important living and working composers they may never have heard of. I’m not so sure about today’s choice, because in my circles he is a name people know.

Aaron Jay Kernis is someone you must familiarize yourself with if you haven’t heard of him. He studied under John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory and with several other people at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music. He has won more prizes, awards, and commissions than anyone I know of.

Let’s not focus on that stuff and instead get to the music. Stylistically he is often said to be neo-Romantic or post-Romantic with some minimalist influences. I’m not sure I agree, or could even explain what that is supposed to mean exactly.

The key thing I love so much about his music is how unfamiliar and original the chord progressions and melodies are without losing musicality. You could always create something new by using some random process to make the note choices for you, but that is the furthest thing from what is happening here.

Despite being engaging and interesting from the originality standpoint, the music still can be moving or heartrendingly beautiful. This is remarkable, because so much of music composition is setting up expectations and using familiar ideas to elicit certain responses in people. Kernis has the ability to do this after throwing away the conventions.

He is a magnificent orchestrator. He often produces wonderful and strange textures that are in constant flux and propel the music forward. The piece I’d recommend to hear all of these aspects is the second movement of the Second Symphony. It is moving, beautiful, and utilizes the orchestral textures while simultaneously being ominous and unfamiliar.

With how good his orchestral works are, I still think that his chamber works are where he excels the most. His second string quartet made him the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer. That piece is magnificent, but my favorite work of his of all time is still the first string quartet.

The first string quartet is usually listed under Musica Celestis if you want to find it. I think the Lark Quartet might have the only recording. I used to listen to this piece on repeat when I was in high school. It was without question one of the definitive pieces that made me want to be a composer. I’ve listened to it probably hundreds of times.

The first movement is aptly named “Flowing,” because the main first theme is a soaring, flowing melody. The piece is extremely dense and chaotic at parts. As I said before, it will feel very unfamiliar in terms of melodic lines, chord progressions, and even form, but it is more in an originality way rather than alienating. It still sounds natural.

The second movement “Adagio” is the movement I listen to the most. It starts slow and beautiful with long sustained, open chords. This is one of those deeply moving pieces. In the middle, the climax is shocking in its power.

He starts a low ascending pattern that climbs up higher and higher, getting faster and faster, to an intensity that is almost unbearable. Then the opening, chilling chord progression comes back while the intensity in the first violin lingers just a tad too long. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and I found the effect so amazing that when I was younger I often tried to imitate it myself when I wrote pieces.

It only works if the performer is ready to fully put themselves out there. If you don’t go for it one hundred percent, then it will sound awkward because of how exposed it all it. Luckily, the Lark Quartet pull it off perfectly, and they will leave you with chills at the end of it.

One of the remarkable things about the string quartets is how large they can sound. He writes in a way that maximizes the medium’s potential. At times it is hard to tell whether it is a full string orchestra or just a quartet (there is a string orchestra version of the Adagio I just wrote about, but I think it isn’t as good, because the exposedness of that section needs to be one on a part to feel that way).

Anyway, I could go on like this all day about his music. If you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely check out some of his works, especially the first string quartet.


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Video Games as a Solution to the One-Sided Problem of Art

In October I wrote a post in defense of gaming in which the central argument is a claim that any person who takes experiencing art as an important human experience should consider certain types of games as a worthwhile use of time as well. Some games are basically interactive films, but some are much more interesting and original forms of interactive art. If you close yourself off from this world, then you close yourself off from deep artistic experiences that you can’t get elsewhere.

A few months ago I did two posts on David Foster Wallace, his philosophy of art, and how to get the most out of Infinite Jest.

One of DFW’s central concerns in art was the one-sided nature of art. The artist puts in hundreds of hours of work, and the viewer/reader/whatever passively experiences the work. He thought of the artist/viewer relationship as an honest relationship. If it is completely one-sided, then it is a defunct relationship and you won’t get much out of it for very long. To have a successful relationship, both sides have to be putting in reasonable amounts of work.

This is one way people justify postmodernist writing. You have a bunch of endnotes or footnotes or you pull the reader out of the reading experience in other ways by drawing attention to the fact that they are reading something. You write in stream of consciousness from points of view that change every couple of pages, so that the reader can’t immediately tell what is happening. Whatever the literary device, the idea is that the reader has to put in work.

The point is that the more work the reader puts in, the more they will get out of the experience. Just like in a relationship, the reader has to invest something if they want a meaningful experience. Of course, the relationship becomes one-sided on the other side if the author just uses a random word generator and plops nonsense on the page for the reader to spend months trying to decipher. It needs to be a symbiotic relationship where neither side carries too much of the burden.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this problem is a real problem, and what writers, filmmakers, artists, etc have come up with so far merely mitigates the problem. There hasn’t been a really good way to get the viewer to truly participate in and invest in the work of art … until the fairly recent paradigm shift in thinking about games as art.

I’m definitely not the first to propose this, so I won’t spend a lot of time making this into a long post. Now that I’ve blogged around this topic a few times without actually addressing it I thought I would just point out that games are one obvious solution to the problem. They provide an interactive experience where the “player” has to fully invest in the work.

In fact, if artists are scared of the idea that their art will be “played” and hence will not qualify as “serious” (two notions that are extraordinarily hard to define or separate), then they should check out some recent games like To the Moon. The game play is extremely minimal. The player experiences a moving story by progressing through the game. The game play consists of moving around to collect some items and at the end of certain segments of collecting you “solve a puzzle” (sometimes only 2 or 3 clicks of the mouse). Still, this level of interaction is vital to fully immersing you in the story as if you were really the main character. This interaction is impossible with film or literature.


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In Defense of Gaming

It’s been over a month, so I decided to do a post that I’ve had in the bag for awhile, but don’t think adds anything to the discussion. This is what happens when you are taking classes, teaching classes, writing things up, and applying for jobs I guess.

Are video games art? What a bizarre question. It has been debated through the years, but I’m not sure there is anyone out there that has seriously thought about the question and is willing to defend that they are not. The debate seems over and the conclusion is that video games are art.

The one notable opposition is Roger Ebert, but his position boils down to a “no true Scotsman fallacy.” It is such a classic example that it should probably just start being used to illustrate what the fallacy is. He says games cannot be art. Then when shown a game that he admits is art he says, “But that isn’t a real game.” That would be like arguing novels cannot be art by just declaring that any novel that could be considered art is not a real novel. It is a silly argument that doesn’t need to be taken seriously.

First, we should notice that there is a “type error” (as a programmer would say) in the original question. No one would think “Are books art?” is a properly phrased question. What does that mean? If you find one book that is not art, then is the answer no? Do you merely need to give one book that is art to answer yes? The answer isn’t well-defined because “book” encompasses a whole class of objects: some of which are art and some of which are not.

For our purposes we’ll say a medium (like video games) “is art” if an artist can consistently use the medium to produce something that can be broadly recognized as art. This brings us to the difficult question of how to determine if something can be broadly recognized as art. Some things that come to mind are aesthetics/beauty, the ability to make a human being feel something, the ability to make someone think deeply about important questions, originality, and on and on we could go. Any given work of art could be missing any or all of these qualities, but if something exhibits enough these qualities, then we would probably have no problem calling it art.

In order to argue that games can be works of art, I’ll take two examples that are relatively recent from the “indie game” community. These are both games in a sense that even Ebert could not deny. I’ll stay away from controversial examples like Dear Esther or Proteus (which are undeniably works of art but more questionable about being games).

The first is Bastion. The art direction and world that has been constructed is a staggering work of beauty on its own. Remove everything about this game except just exploring this universe and I think you would find many people totally engrossed in the experience:

bastion

We already have check mark one down. But there’s more! The music is fantastic as well. But let’s get to what really sets this game apart as a work of art. The story is fantastic and is mostly told with great voice acting through a narrator. I won’t spoil the ending in its totality, but I’m about to give away a major plot point near the end.

Your good friend betrays you and comes close to destroying everything (literally the whole world) in the middle of the game. It hurts. Then near the end he is going to die and you have the choice to save him. The game branches and you can either keep your weapons and safely fight your way to the end of the game, or you can carry this traitor through a dangerous area possibly sacrificing your own life for him.

Books and movies can’t do this. You have to make this choice and it affects how the story progresses. It reveals to you what type of human you are. You have to live with the consequences of this choice. If you save him, then you slowly walk through an area where your enemies shoot you from afar and there is nothing you can do. When they realize what you’re doing they stop in awe and just solemnly let you pass. The visuals plus the music plus the dramatic climax of this moment brings many people to tears.

I know this because you can just search discussion boards on the game. Gaming discussion boards are notorious for being misogynistic and full of masculine one-up-manship. No one makes fun of the people who say it brought them to tears and usually there will be a bunch of other people admitting the same. If this sort of emotional connection isn’t art, then I don’t know what is. Not only that, but this type of connection can only really happen through games where you are wholly invested because you’ve made these decisions.

Maybe Bastion isn’t your thing, because it is a “gamer’s game” with a bit of a barrier to entry since it involves experience points, weapons, items, leveling up, and real-time fighting of monsters and bosses. That could be a bit much for the uninitiated. We’ll move on to a game that every person, regardless of gaming experience, can play and really see how elegantly simple an “art game” can be.

Thomas Was Alone is extremely simple. Thomas is a rectangle. You move him to a rectangular door. End of level. The game is in a genre called a “puzzle platformer.” As the levels progress you get different sized rectangles to move and moving and jumping in various orders will help you get to the end. This is the “puzzle” aspect, because you have to figure out the correct order to do things otherwise you’ll get stuck.

Why is this art? Well, why is writing a book about some animals on a farm art? Because it isn’t really about animals on a farm. The same is true here. The game is a huge metaphor. A deeply moving one at that. I consistently had to stop playing at parts because of how overwhelmed with the concept I became when I allowed myself to think about it.

Just like Bastion, this game is truly magnificent visually. The style is opposite. It has minimalism and simplicity as the guiding aesthetic virtue:

thomas

The music is perfect for the mood, and the narration which tells the story is beyond superb. You grow attached to these rectangles which have such nuanced personalities. What is the metaphor? Well, there are all these obstacles in your way, and you can’t get past them without working together. The whole idea is that there are seemingly impossible obstacles in life, but when humans cooperate and work together they can get past them.

The thing that makes the game so moving at parts is that your rectangle friends are so humanly flawed. They get upset at each other for such petty reasons. They have crushes on each other. They hate each other. But in the end they overcome those differences to work together and accomplish great things. If you haven’t experienced it, then this probably sounds totally absurd.

Again from discussion forums, I quote, “I just finished the game and a group of coloured quadrilaterals made me cry.” Or “Everything about this game makes me feel incredible. I feel as if I can achieve things I could never think of being. This is the best thing I could have experienced, and it’s worth everything…This game makes you love and cry over shapes.” When people have these reactions, that is without question the definition of art.

I think we’ve firmly established that games can be art. I thought I’d just bring up a few cultural tidbits right at the end here. Some famous art galleries across the world have started to recognize the importance of including works of art in their collection that happen to be games. MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in NY) has a collection of 14 games in its collection currently. Paris had an exhibit that included Fez. The Smithsonian American Art Museum had one last year. There have been many others too.

I’ll try to wrap up now. If you’re the type of person that reads literary novels and goes to the symphony because you think experiencing art is an important and enriching experience, then you probably also write off video games as a mindless waste of time. This is partially warranted because so many of the most popular games today are mindless wastes of time (just like most popular music and movies are too).

I hope that after this maybe your mind has changed a little. If you are willing to make time in your schedule to read a book or go to an art gallery, then I’d argue that you should also be willing to make time in your schedule to experience great games. The medium has all the same artistic qualities as a great film, but has added value given by the interactivity you have with the medium.


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An Avant-Garde Movement for Math

This idea has been tossing around in my head recently, since I’ve been reading the book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. I know I’ve done the art/math comparison before. I think I’ve even done the math education/art education comparison before. But I want to re-cap it and go one step further this time.

I don’t really want to make the arguments that math is an art form. It is a rather easy argument to make (the hard parts are creating an aesthetic theory, etc). The comparison this time is that of education. I find it extremely disconcerting that math and science are taught so differently from art. Art education tries to bring out the original ideas in the student so that new and exciting progress can be made, whereas math and science education tries to squash creativity and teach that there are only right and wrong answers (at least in the American primary/secondary/undergraduate system).

Now I hear the complaints already, “But there are right and wrong answers in math. There is no such thing as right and wrong in art. Anything goes.” And so on. But hold on a minute. The person that makes these claims has certainly never taken music lessons. There are just as many black and white correct and incorrect ways of doing things. The rhythm is either right or wrong. You’re either in tune or you aren’t. You are either playing the right note or you aren’t. You must rigorously train all of these mechanical techniques just as mathematicians must train the mechanical techniques of symbol manipulation and logical argument.

The problem is that in art education, the student is constantly reminded that these mechanics must be learned, but they are not the art itself. Once you’ve internalized the mechanics you must transcend them in order to create new original art, but it is only after the necessary evil of these basics that one can do this.

In math education, we face the problem that not only is the second step of the art not emphasized, but it is often never even mentioned. You must learn basic arithmetic and how to solve quadratic equations, but this is not math by any mathematician’s standards. In order to create new and original math, you have to transcend these basics just as the artist has to. This is much harder for mathematicians (in my opinion) solely due to this educational reason. We get indoctrinated with old methods and techniques, and never are explicitly reminded that new techniques need to be invented. It is the creation aspect of math.

I don’t want to dwell on that since I believe I’ve posted about it before (I could go on forever about it), but I did want to bring up those points again so that the main idea here has context. All other arts have had “avant-garde movements” in some sense. These avant-garde movements have essentially rendered it nearly impossible for truly original things to come out of the arts now. The rules have been followed, the rules have been completely broken, and now if you sit somewhere in between it can be said to be a conglomeration of the two. The importance of avant-garde movements should not be underestimated, though. The avant-garde has opened up the freedom to create precisely what you want, and it will have a context. Creativity for these arts is also now a two-way street and not just a one-way as before the movement. Creativity comes not only from pushing the limits of the rules, but also from toning down the lack of rules of the avant-garde.

This is what I propose. There has been no avant-garde mathematical movement (well, maybe…). One reason that it is hard to produce original math is that mathematicians constantly have to push out in creativity. An avant-garde movement always will open up the door for originality by toning down. It cracks open an avenue for incredibly new techniques that can produce lots of results.

So why did I write “well, maybe…”? I think there have been some potential quasi-avant-garde movements already, and they have been wonderfully fruitful as I said should happen. I think the idea of categorification, or category theory as a foundation for mathematics as opposed to set theory was a pretty radical shift in perspective. I think anytime a major shift in notation useage happens, this could boarder on the avant-garde as with string diagrams.

The one true avant-garde that first got me thinking of this, though, is Grothendieck. I truly am not qualified to talk about any of his work (I’ve only recently started learning about schemes even), but it completely revolutionized algebraic geometry, not because of the standard mathematical method of proving/improving theorems. Not because of the standard mathematical method of inventing new techniques and tools. But because he actually completely changed the way people view and think about the subject. In the way of the avant-garde he decided to throw out not just some, but all of the old rules and invent his own. Now this can be applied all over mathematics.

So when I call for an avant-garde movement in math, I don’t mean throw out all of the rules in the sense of logic and sound reasoning, I mean dare to think radically differently than your predecessors. After all, the avant-gardes of music still used sound and instruments, the poets and authors still wrote things using words and English, painters still used paint. Avant-garde doesn’t mean you stop using what foundationally makes your art identifiable, but it might render some branches as unrecognizable (I don’t think a pre-Grothendieck algebraic geometer would recognize current algebraic geometry as such).

Anybody in?


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Artistic Influences

I personally subscribe to the idea that art is meaningless without its context. The question I’ve recently been asking is: How important are specific influences to the context? I’ve been on a kick of reading books and listening to music that my favorite artists have said have been major influences. This is an attempt to better understand where they are coming from.

A weird thing has happened, though. I’ve started to change my mind about how important this is. It seems as if the non-major influences are more important. The stuff that has randomly seeped in from all over the place is sort of what makes it original.

Some examples. In The Broom of the System, not only does one of the main characters carry a copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations around, but the title also refers to an important aphorism in that work. Clearly you will have a hard time reading this without at least some peripheral knowledge of that work. This is a case where reading the influence is very important.

Panic at the Disco’s new album is supposedly a reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To me this reference is almost not worth noting. The band itself does note this influence, but truly the similarities are that the songs are upbeat and there is a brass section. If every band that used a brass section with their upbeat songs had to note the Beatles as an influence, then we would be missing the point of influences. The interesting parts are where they differ from this traditional pop sound. There are definitely folk and other non-pop influences like skipping beats on the lead in to the chorus. This is a case where major influences can safely be ignored.

Then there are in between cases where it is probably good to know what the tradition that the work is coming from is about, but the specifics aren’t necessary (like the Beat generation writers).

What do you guys think? How important are specific influences to interpreting a work of art?

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