Room 237 and Some Post-Modern Problems

I think everyone involved in academia should see Room 237 but for some strange reasons. The movie is a fascinating look at some people who, to put it mildly, are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. They’ve developed all sorts of theories about hidden messages in the film. Is it secretly a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans? Is it secretly about the Holocaust? Is it Kubrick trying to tell us he faked the moon landing for the government? Is it a subliminal message that Danny was abused by his father and then he kills him for it? Is it meant to tell us the entirety of human history and how to surpass it? Is it a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur?

I recommend you watch the movie with suspended disbelief to really try to get inside the heads of these people. It will make the movie much more fun. Once it is over you should then pop on over to David Segal’s New York Times article on it for a healthy dose of skepticism. But here’s the point. The movie should be used as discussion starter in academia on some issues that get swept under the rug, but used to keep me up at night (and now they do again after seeing this movie and it all came rushing back).

I’ll say up front that I’m going to open a big can of worms and not offer any sort of solution. If this is going to frustrate you, then you can stop reading now. To explain the issues, I’ll start in academic fields that are easiest to pick on like the fine arts and more specifically “critical theory.” Let it be known that since these issues are actually discussed there, I actually think they are in better shape for facing them. We’ll then discuss how they arise in “objective” subjects like math. Here it is much more dangerous because people will outright deny these same issues exist. I personally think these are issues that cut across every discipline in the university (except maybe the experimental hard sciences).

For the purposes of this post I’ll define post-modernism as the philosophical position that an interpretation of something is valid as long as it can be supported by a sound argument involving some type of evidence from the work being interpreted. Two things immediately spring to my mind with this definition. First, this idea is the bread-and-butter (at least at the undergraduate level) of what is taught in universities. We actually reward papers that take risks with original and maybe even controversial interpretations as long as the paper that gets turned in uses sound logic, is well-written, and supports its arguments with evidence. It is like we are training our students to make connections where none exist and become future conspiracy theorists.

This brings us to the second point. Even though on the surface post-modernism seems like a totally reasonable idea (again, all of academics seems based on it), Room 237 really brings to light why we might want to be a bit more cautious. Post-modernism tells us that every single one of those interpretations in the movie are valid. Just think about some student writing down the fake moon landing interpretation for an intro to film studies class. That student will get an A+ on that paper. As the New York Times article points out, basically all of the symbols and details that support that theory were mere accidents or conveniences.

Since this is a theoretical discussion, let’s do a thought experiment where we know beyond any reasonable doubt that Kubrick did not intend in the slightest to allow this interpretation. In what sense then is that interpretation “valid?” To put the problem much more bluntly, let’s take any work of art that is reasonably robust. If you have enough time, are well-versed in symbolism, and are fairly clever, then you can probably take any bizarre theory you want and connect the dots of the work to argue convincingly for that interpretation.

More specifically, if a work can mean anything, then the work means nothing. Someone might try to get out of this problem by saying that an interpretation is valid if in addition to the evidence from within the work some evidence from outside the work is provided to show some sort of plausibility that the interpretation could have been intended by the artist.

I think even pre-modern theorists probably rejected this “fix” as too narrow, because a work of art can’t have no valid meaning outside of the intent of the artist. Anyway, I think the problem in the fine arts departments has been addressed and I promised to point out how this cuts across all academic disciplines, so we’ll move on.

If we phrase the problem slightly differently it becomes clear how the problem translates. We’ll rephrase post-modernism to mean that a connection between two things is meaningful if a sound argument can be made showing how they are connected. We recover the art version of the definition by saying the two things are the work and the interpretation. When talking about math, the phrase “sound argument” should just be read as a proof that the two mathematical objects/theorems/ideas/theories/whatever are related.

I know at this point some mathematicians are scoffing. If you prove they are related, then of course they are related. Why care about such value judgments as whether or not it is “meaningful.” I don’t want to say whether or not we ought to care about such things, but the fact is that in current mathematical culture we do care about such things. Also, we could change the word meaningful back to valid to try to avoid value judgments, and I think the problem still exists. Here’s an example.

Mathematicians often use the term “deep.” This means roughly that the connection is both meaningful and difficult to establish. The term cannot merely mean difficult to establish, because with very little thought one can come up with an extreme example of a difficult to establish connection that would be written off as ridiculous and frivolous. For example, the proof might be exceedingly long and include steps that are totally arbitrary like adding 1 to every coefficient of some Fourier series to get a new function and taking the value of the function at 12 to get 145926144000 and noting that there is only one simple group of that order whose double cover is related to the Gaussian integers and so on.

Of course this is an extreme example, but now let’s just pare back the arbitrariness of this example or extend the length and number of somewhat unrelated steps of the “deep” theorem to get to a middle ground. It becomes much less obvious where the line should be drawn between something that is hard to establish and deep versus something that is hard to establish because it involves some arbitrary steps that cause it to lose being a meaningful connection. Arguably a lot of math (and other disciplines as well) do publish these papers establishing these tenuous connections. The publish or perish stress and threat I think exacerbate the problem.

Overall, here’s why I want people to watch Room 237. I hope that it opens up some much needed discussions in academia about these issues. The summary question is as follows. Suppose you notice some pattern or think there might be some connection in what you’re studying. You need another paper, so you over-analyze the situation until you see a way to force an argument for the relationship. You publish a paper on it. In what sense is this legitimate academic work and the moon landing theory is not? How can we tell the difference? I’m not saying there isn’t a good answer, but I think the lack of admitting that this could be a problem allows moon landing style theories to exist without any criticism about legitimacy from the university.

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Literature, Originality, Influence, and the Anxiety Thereof

I really do plan to get back to some math soon. I thought I’d share an argument that I first learned from the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” by John Barth. It is something that used to come up all the time when I was an undergrad music major. It usually comes up now in the form of literature. I’ll phrase it in terms of literature, since this is the form it appears in Barth’s essay, but it works for any art form.

The reason this came up recently is because I was watching an interview with Patrick Rothfuss. From what I’ve seen, he takes the craft of writing about as seriously as any author I’ve seen, and he really wants to better himself as an author in any way possible. He was asked what sorts of fiction he reads outside of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I was shocked to hear that he basically doesn’t. It reminded me of this argument. Similarly, the music composition students that I used to talk with had basically no interest in listening to or analyzing current living composers.

I can’t remember now, but I think I’ve made this argument on the blog somewhere before. It’s well worth repeating, since people always seem surprised by it when it comes up. There is this disconnect that because art is “subjective” it doesn’t build on itself. People seem to have the opinion that art just spreads off in random branches of originality and you don’t have to pay attention to what your contemporaries are doing. Some go so far as to claim that paying attention to your contemporaries blocks your ability to be truly original through subconscious influence.

Here is part of Barth’s argument. No one would ever dare to say this type of thing about any branch of science or math. You would be laughed at. Imagine saying you could do something completely original in physics by ignoring the last 50 years of research so you aren’t influenced. The obvious problem with this is that in order to do something new, you will have to completely reinvent all of the past 50 years of physics (at least in your area) before getting to the new part. What is the point of trying to do that when you could just intentionally learn it in a small fraction of the time and get on to your new ideas. In fact, even coming up with a new idea might be impossible without having seen the recent advances that open your mind to ideas that were inconceivable beforehand.

To put it bluntly, trying to make some awesome original art without being up-to-date on what has been done doesn’t make you a visionary. It makes you an idiot. The main objection to this is probably that in art as opposed to science you don’t have the same type of building. You don’t need to be completely current on what every contemporary author is doing in order to build off in some direction or try something new. This is in part true, but let’s try to put this in perspective.

If you were to take a one semester course whose primary goal was to expose you to as many significant advances in just some very narrow frame like American literature of the past 40 years it couldn’t be done thoroughly. This is with an intensive study by someone who knows what they are doing with this goal in mind. Think about how hopeless it would be to try to invent all these ideas yourself whenever you need one of them. It is just about as hopeless as the scientist who tries to ignore the past 40 years of science.

I claim that not only is it a good idea for a serious genre author to make an attempt to keep up with modern literature, but it is almost certainly the most important thing they can do to better themselves. Forget about the worries of being unoriginal due to influence. You are certain to be unoriginal if you don’t keep up, whereas if you know what people have been doing, then at least you have some chance of building upon it in a unique direction. It will not only improve your writing to have these modern techniques at your disposal, but it will make you a much more interesting writer as well. I quote Barth, “In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or the Chartres cathedral, if executed today, might be simply embarrassing ….”

Nothing is as frustrating as getting into these types of arguments with people who want to think that being a good artist is all about this lackadaisical, touchy-feely, everything goes attitude. That is just some romantic fantasy. All the great artists have put a lot of hard work and study into it, and part of that study is understanding what other great people in your craft have done. Don’t take my word for it. Try it out. You’ll probably find that not having to reinvent the wheel every time you need a particular technique actually frees up your energy to use on creating something that is actually new.

Examples: For anyone interested in these sorts of ideas you should check out The Friday Book by John Barth which has his essay in it. The ultimate example I’d have to say is Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence which is basically a book long case study of how some of the great poets influenced each other and overcame those influences to create something new (an impossible task if they weren’t reading each other I might point out).

I edited this post since it was too long already. I had included three interesting examples originally, but realized it almost hurts the argument to see examples. All the examples I thought of could be written off as singular, fringe cases, so I haven’t included them now. As a game, just take any of the hundreds of lists out there with names like “100 Best Novels” or whatever and try to find even one novel on that list that didn’t liberally borrow techniques from a contemporary. For you genre writers out there that think you can get away with staying within the genre, a quick glance at the Modern Library list and the Time Magazine list shows many great genre authors like George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, and more. Every one of these authors would have been severely hindered without being up to date on modern fictional techniques that mostly weren’t appearing in the genre.

The Whisker’s War of Currents

Today we’ll take a quick break from math. Also, we missed my blog’s birthday of two years last week! It’s time for an album review. I haven’t done one for awhile, but it is just necessary. Someone needs to get the word out. This post will be controversial in the sense that most of what I write will probably be contested by the band members themselves. Sometimes it takes an outside observer to point some things out about yourself that you don’t even realize, though.

When Pitchfork released their top 200 albums of the 2000’s they describe The Strokes album Is This It in the following way, “At the time, these guys were na├»ve enough (and good-looking enough) to firmly believe they were the best band in the world; and for a moment, it actually came true.” I’d like to make the exact opposite claim about The Whiskers. It is precisely because this band is so naive about how good they really are that makes them so great.

Sometimes when a band wants to do something original or make a new sound, you can tell. And let’s face it. That isn’t good. It sounds contrived, and it is weird for the sole purpose of being weird. It doesn’t flow. It doesn’t sound natural. Now I don’t know if The Whiskers are trying to make their own original sound or if they are just doing what feels right, but my guess would be the latter.

Some songs are short. Some songs are long. It just depends on what works for the song. That is the key to making great music in my mind. You have to do what feels right. You can’t force versus and choruses and song patterns. If you do that it won’t work. You’ll have some contrived, inorganic mess. Some of these songs, like Ornithopters, meander for 9 minutes never really settling on a well-defined genre. Slipping in and out of fast, slow, happy, sad, you name it, as naturally as anything I’ve ever heard. If the song wants to take them somewhere, then they don’t fight it.

I really wish more artists would adhere to this principle. To me it is the fundamental bottom line. Let’s move on to other things they did right. It reveals itself slowly after repeated listens. This only happens in good art in my experience. Mediocre art gets boring after repeated viewings or listens. Good art opens itself up and becomes more interesting as you shift through the layers.

One of these incredibly dense layers is the lyrics. The lyrics are for the most part fast. Boy are there a lot of them. They are cryptic. They are full of symbolism. This makes it really easy to miss incredibly emotional moments on the first several listens. Imagine my surprise at 5 minutes (probably 30 stanzas of poetry in) or so into a song with tons of lyrics when I heard the following out of nowhere:

Hold my eyes
Hold my hand
Leave a sign so I know where to land
When you call out to me and say

please come back to me
I pray
I’ll fly back fast
Fly back home

So you will not die alone
But I was too late

It is moments like these that I continue to listen to tons of crap just to find gems like this. I had chills all over.

If lyrics aren’t your thing, and you only care about fantastically beautiful layering of melody and chord structure, you won’t be disappointed here either. You’ll hear things you’ve never heard before, but won’t be able to imagine why, since they sound so perfectly natural. I get goosebumps everytime I listen to Marsh Blood. They layered vocals, and strings, acoustic guitar, slide guitar are a perfect combination. The lyrics contain such great wordplay as “This heart of gold getting stabbed by silverware is pumping iron ink on these magnetic skies”.

It should be noted that this is the first Whiskers album that I feel this way about. I’ve liked them in the past, but I think the maturity of creating a few albums really comes out in this one. They’ve stepped up from being a bunch of people that love making music to a band that has created a truly cohesive work of art. If you like original, creative, energetic, emotionally infused, carefully constructed music (and who doesn’t?) then this is the band for you. I don’t like to make early predicitions, but I have no doubt that this will still be one my favorite albums of the year in December. But don’t take my word for it. You can download it for $5 from Awkwardcore Records. I’d like to hear comments on what others think.