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What Is A Weed

September 21, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

According to Merriam-Webster, a weed is either A) a plant that is not valued where it is growing, or B) an obnoxious growth, thing or person. In better understanding how we use the term “weed” and what it signifies, I want to demonstrate how categories perform in speech. (FYI, while I will not be discussing marijuana in this post, which is commonly known as “weed.” Though not addressed here, that discussion would likely add additional highlights to the problematic idea of categories.)

According to definition A, a weed may fall into two categories. In the right location, a weed may be prized (thus making it the opposite of a weed). In other cases it may be obnoxious, or growing over the more desirable plants, such as native plants or landscaped gardens. So definition A means that plants have a value in their specific place. Profundity of growth turns into a metaphor, which in definition B extends to more negative aspects of the term.

Weeds as a category are really interesting for no other reason than the fact that the category stems from something completely subjective. I learned to pull the weeds that my parents did not like. According to their neighbors, however, they may have misapplied the term. Take the dandelion, for example. It was brought to the United States by not one group, but at least three: pilgrims in the east, Spaniards in the west, and French through Canada. Often used in medicines and herbal teas, dandelions proved to be easy to grow and also helpful. However, they spread rapidly due to the seed’s ability to fly far. Though there is no major negative aspect to dandelions, many people today do not like their ability to overtake lawns. I find this idea of a perfectly manicured lawn ironic, too, though. Grass is also, more often than not, an invasive species. Both dandelions and grass grow rapidly and are quick to overrun other plants. In other words, it seems like we do not like weeds in our weeds! So instead, we pull dandelions in favor of grass. The point is, one weed is desired while the other is not. Why do we call grass “grass” instead of weed? Why do we call wild grasses weeds, but not grass? Are we aware of the preconceived notions which formed these categories?

This idea of removing a weed to save a weed is a particularly human construct. The label refers not to the uselessness of an object (either grass or dandelions can have utility, depending upon preference and needs). Rather, dandelions become a weed because they are ugly, aggressive, overabundant and out of control. There is a value system here that enlightens culture.

I live in a desert in which we have many, many natural grasses, but none of them typical lawn grass. Yet still, people often choose to grow a nice green lawn for various reasons, all of which requires a lot of effort. Lush green grass really does not thrive with little water and long, hot days. Instead, a cultural value has been placed upon the environment here. We value the cool, green, nicely trimmed lawn, but not wild grasses which grow tall and seed rapidly. What reasons can we give for this illogical behavior?

Some of Wittgenstein’s words on the power of language come to mind. In his Philosophical Investigations (#491), he writes, “Not: ‘without language we could not communicate with one another’ - but for sure: without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. And also: without the use of speech and writing people could not communicate.” In other words, whether we know it or not, language influences our decisions. Why do we have grass in our yards? Because we don’t want to live among the weeds.

Wittgenstein continues (in #499), “To say ‘This combination of words makes no sense’ excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.” Language, structured by grammar, is a sort of game which enables us to “play” on the same field. I want to emphasize Wittgenstein’s words that language draws boundaries, but doesn’t clearly state why the boundary exists.

This is important in parsing everyday speech where one can rely on a metaphor to make universal meaning. That meaning, however, is not universal, it just seems universal. Returning to our example, we cannot all agree on types and styles of weeds. We do not pull the same things out of our yards, some of us refer to sage and mint as weeds, while others let these grow. Are the words “weed” and “dandelion” synonymous? If I speak of weeds (and not dandelions, for example), am I stating something explicitly? If so, what? This example highlights differences between regions and cultures, but also difference in the term itself. It also highlights the fact that the mere idea of “weed” is useful in the English language. It fits into Wittgenstein’s game because it draws a boundary.

The idea of “weed” is useful in another way also. It clarifies a recent move away from a more classical theory of forms. In classical theory, categories were thought to be independent of individual human preferences. It was assumed that the form of a thing was also its essence. However, when discussing weeds, I am hard-pressed to find a universal form. Instead, this is a category that more closely resembles George Lakoff’s research into protoype theory. In Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, he writes that prototype theory “suggests that human categorization is essentially a matter of both human experience and imagination – of perception, motor activity, and culture on the one hand, and of metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery on the other” (8). Therefore, we can say something benign like “He grows like a weed” to indicate a child has grown quickly. Or, we can “weed a garden,” an action dedicated to the removal of unwanted things, or “weed out” the problems. While I have not thought through every weed-related example, I do see how those provided problematize classical categories. “Weed” itself is a haphazard collection of personal experience and emotion.

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I Speak Because I Can't

September 7, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Once upon two years ago, I met a gentleman who was raised selling illegal whiskey in the dry counties of Arkansas. I asked this man umpteen thousand questions, and he seemed genuinely pleased to answer them for his umpteen-thousandth audience. His recollections—of shootouts and stings and hideaway stills—were electrifying. As an adult, he’d made an honest career as the owner of an auto shop in Orange County, but he had also dabbled in the creative arts since leaving behind his ‘shining youth. When I leafed through a 350-page memoir of those danger-quenched days, my heart sagged. I found this account, after the oral regalia I had been treated to over calamari and vodka, comparatively sleepy. Of course, the narrative was the same: only the narration was different.

At every bookstore there’s a table dedicated to books like this: inexpensively printed paperbacks wherein first-time authors unfurl their triumphs in business or give the nail-biting blow-by-blow of an experience of miraculous survival. Some of these books sell a zillion copies and get movie deals and become megapopular Oscarbait. Others scratch in a couple thousand, and then stagnate within a certain radius of personal acquaintanceship with the author. These might be the last pages the author ever writes; if so, it’s probably because the author is not a “writer.” They were not spurred to the pen by an ineluctable need to express themselves with its black blood, but by a more basic desire to share with others the passages from their life that appear to be the most interesting.

Unless YouTube suddenly becomes pay-per-view, I suppose books are still the most feasible commercial medium for autobiography. They are the traditional medium, anyway, and most people looking to cash in on their best dinner party stories are not also looking to spark a stylistic revolution. This leads to a lot of books written by people who don’t know how to write. (Professional writers don’t necessarily “know” how to write either—there is no one way to do writing correctly. But career writers seem by some admixture of luck and labor to stumble on a so-called “artistic” style, or at least an above-average ability to make stories readable.) At worst, these tenderfoots aspire clumsily to an imaginary muster they believe all writing is supposed to pass. They think too much about the peculiar shape of writing. At best, they eschew any unlikeness between writing and talking, and transcribe the same words they might use aloud when telling their tale between mouthfuls of calamari. They hardly think about what’s peculiar to writing at all. Rarely does a singular literary “voice” emerge from a first-timer; most of the books on the memoir table read as if they were ghostwritten by a single, unstoppable eighth-grader.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, artistic success is equated with scholarly laud. The artists who achieve it are typically exemplars of the singular voice. They revel in the particular, the symbolic, the idiosyncratic. They are allegorists and poets. They can be found on many a “Best What-Have-You” list, but might not be widely identified with their actual work. They are recognized for their recognition. Elsewhere, success is defined by consistent efforts that are consumed and enjoyed by large numbers of people. (“Regular employment” is another definition of success in the creative dimension, but it may be synonymous with this one.) These artists are entertainers. They revel in the relatable and the emotional. They care about their audience sometimes with a saintly intensity. They might not be widely recognized at all, but their work certainly is. Obviously, there is tremendous crossover between these two camps, but it is fortunate when that eighth-grader madly typing all of our biographies leans more toward obsession with the story than toward the details of delivery.

The reformed moonshiner I met was at the time making his second sally into the written word. He hoped to refashion his memoir into a screenplay, which he figured would make a snappier sell to production companies than the unadapted book. If prose had been unfamiliar territory, scriptwriting was the surface of Neptune. (Professional screenwriters do know how to write: there is a correct, saleable way to write an industry-grade script. Paradoxically, virtually every script written exactly in this mold is terrible and never gets produced.) For guidance he had lately been “attending” the online MasterClass in screenwriting helmed by Aaron Sorkin. He complained at length about Professor Sorkin’s fumbling diction and awkward performance at the virtual lectern. I smiled: the idea of today’s Ben Hecht being anything but the most sure-footed of orators struck me as unexpected and funny. After all, this is a guy known foremost for his ability to speak well.

Except, that isn’t what Aaron Sorkin does. Aaron Sorkin makes other people speak well. He cannot be less intelligent than his famously gabby mental offspring, but that doesn’t necessarily make him as quick or as cogent. It’s Allison Janney’s job to make it look easy. Maybe to the writer the words don’t come so easily. Maybe they instead come through a long, careful, painstaking distillation of cerebral fluid. Isn’t writing a stone-squeezing sort of vocation? What is the point of cultivating a distinctive textual timbre and time signature if not to be able to conduct a communicative tunefulness that eludes one’s internal wind section? Joan Didion described herself as “neurotically inarticulate,” yet she’s produced some of the most praised language of at least five separate decades. This effort required a remove—a private buffer during the transubstantiation of thoughts out of the cognitive ether. (In my case, this means enough time to remember smart words.) Such a concession is seldom granted in face-to-face, real-time rapport, which affects the shy like quicksand. When words fail, you start to feel misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to sink into disconnection from your fellow human beings. A unique voice, in another medium, well-whipped and surely braided, can be the rope to pull yourself free.

These thoughts began to congeal after I watched the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The story is culled from Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling “failed experiment” in Gonzo journalism, a Frankenstein style of reportage that pursues the Truth (big T) through a self-aware refraction of events. The reporter steps into things and allows the mud on their boots to become part of the story. Thompson is the protagonist in this fact-tinged travelogue, playing the dual roles of boy-who-cried and wolf: he raises alarm over the meth-addled mange of Western society, and he does it by wearing that decay, almost proudly, on his own hide. Of course, he lathers on a lot of makeup and fiction (and, I hope, embellishes the amount of drugs involved).

The movie version has its fun visualizing this haywire carnival cruise, but loses some ineffable element that holds the book together. After the film I snooped through some of the DVD special features. A couple of these comprise Thompson riding around Vegas during production and grumbling like an ox on a motorcycle. I recognized that husky, clipped voice: for the last two hours I’d heard Johnny Depp mimic it precisely. I realized suddenly that his performance had been based on Thompson himself. Not the figurative Hunter S. who appears in the pill-popping Iliad, but the literal Hunter S. who merely inspired it (and wrote it).

Philosophically—in the name of gonzo science—this makes sense. Peeling away some of the disguise makes the underlying tension between fact and fancy all the more aggravating. But, aesthetically (which I guess means it’s a matter of taste) it just doesn’t feel right. The book’s narration has a perverse clarity that becomes garbled by Thompson’s intonation, which sounds like a sewing machine firing into a pillow. Depp lived in Dr. T’s basement for four months to absorb his mannerisms, and before this they were garrulous pen pals. One’d think this would give Depp a clement appreciation of the variables between written and spoken Thompsonese. Maybe it did. But when camera came to action, he opted to mix the dialects all up together, and that decision throws a monkey wrench in the gears of Fear. In trying to be faithful to his friend the good doctor, to teleport him intact into a story where he has already, in his own way, inserted himself, Depp denudes Thompson of the very trait that ever gave the story life: his real voice.

Now take someone like Chuck Wirschem, who wrote a book called HitchHiking 45,000 Miles to Alaska. His writing is casual and familiar, unaffected with obtuse adjectives and mindfully uncoiling syntax. It’s conversational, if not especially memorable. Excusing some extra tightness in the grammatical discipline, Wirschem’s style of writing probably does not fall far from his style of speaking, because he probably never pushed his writing to any extraordinary lengths, because he’s probably able to make himself understood with the first or second phrasing that he puts together. For other writers, there are astronomical units between their vocal loadouts. When one tongue is brought in to do the work of the other, things can bottleneck, and become a barrier to one’s ideas. Microsoft Word is then a necessary detour. But it can also be the scenic route, where even on the dourest, dampest, drizzliest of days, you might chance upon something beautiful, something one of a kind.

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The Audience as the Artist: LARP's Place in Media

August 31, 2018

Thanks to George Hickman, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

For most of us, we experience the role of an audience member far more often than we experience the role of an artist. On our daily commutes, our mood is at the whim of the radio or our playlist on shuffle. We leave the movie theater buzzing with conversation about the actors, the soundtrack, and the plot. We can't go to bed until we finish that chapter, or that episode, or that level. We are constantly put in the position of an audience member, asked to respond to all kinds of media. Though, as technology continues to expand into our lives, rarely are the audience member and the artist in the same room. For both the artist and the audience, there is a dissonance in this modern experience of entertainment. A large gap between the actor and the front row. But what happens when we are asked to do almost the opposite of this? What happens when we have a room full of audience and artists, constantly exchanging roles with each other?

The form of media called Live Action Role Play (LARP) has been around since the 1980s. In its essence, LARP is a cross between improvisational theater, video games, and escape-the-room. The members of the game build a story together, and in the same way that improv actors write sketches, some of the planning takes place before the game, and some of the planning takes place in the moment. There are two roles one can have when entering a LARP: players and staff writers. Players adopt the role of a character and react to events as their character would react. Staff writers plan the plot structure for the game, and appear as multiple characters throughout the story, in order to see that plot structure through.

While these roles are different, both roles play audience for each other. If I, as a staff member, create a museum heist plot, I will probably play the museum guard and two players might put together a plan to knock me out and steal the ancient treasure. In this scene, I will have some idea of what is going to happen: I probably placed the ancient treasure in the room ahead of time, I might even be able to predict which two players will find me in the museum, and I can make a guess as to how they might make sure I don't talk. But most of the components of this plot are unknown, they will be improvised, once the players arrive on the scene. Will they use brute force or will they charm me into keeping quiet? Did they hire a helping hand or will they show up in disguises? And most importantly, will they accomplish the heist successfully?

Considering this scenario, you can see that LARP distinctly troubles the notion of audience. Here, the staff writer and the players are all audience members for each other's performance. They not only feed off of each other's responses, but they require each other's responses to carry out a scene, to LARP.

In the essay "The Great Divide", Emily Nussbaum describes the divide of the audience when the 70's sitcom All in the Family first came on TV. Half of the audience understood Norman Lear's intent and saw that Archie Bunker was meant to be a satire of racism, homophobia, sexism, and plenty of other problems in American culture. Then, to Lear's surprise, the other half of America cherished Archie, and loved the way he spoke his mind. In the essay Nussbaum asks, "Can there ever be a bad audience member?" After all, she says, who wants to hear that they have been watching something wrong? Is it even possible to watch something wrong, or is the divided audience simply an indication of unsuccessful art? In asking these questions, Nussbaum places the role of the audience in quite a weighty position. The sitcom All in the Family wouldn't have been the success that it was, if it weren't a platform for playing out these tense political discussions in a comedic environment. To raise the question of the bad audience member, is to place the viewers and the writers in equal roles of importance when it comes to determining the meaning of an artwork. By placing the audience and the artist in equal roles of importance, Nussbaum dismisses the age-old image of an actor performing on stage while the audience simply listens and applauds.

Live Action Role Play takes the role of audience and turns it even further on its head. It could be argued that LARP eliminates the role of audience, or at least allows for a more nebulous definition of the word. Unlike an improv sketch, where an audience sits in addition to the improv performers, there are no boundaries that determine who is involved in any given scene. LARPers can be called to the spotlight at any time. You might think this scene is about your best friend and her girlfriend, but when the girlfriend turns and accuses you two of having an affair together, you are thrown in the center of the scene without warning!

LARP shows us that our audiences can be trusted with influencing or even creating the content of our art. Archie Bunker shows us that too, as the aura surrounding his character was determined as much by Norman Lear as it was by the families that sat around their television sets in 1971. Perhaps this equality between audience and artist is something that we see in other genres too. In webcomics, artists will post weekly updates to an ongoing story. In this time frame, fans have the chance to critique, speculate, or possibly even influence the trajectory of the plot. In video games, the player has an incredible amount of control over the trajectory of the story. My playthrough of Skyrim where I robbed an entire village of its sweet rolls and then became a famous bard is greatly different from my sister who joined the Dark Brotherhood and married a huntress.

Can other genres similarly learn to trouble the notion of audience? Like John Cage's "4'33", can music experiment with giving the audience control over its content? Like Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors, can film become a choose-your-own adventure? If being an audience member feels less like being a viewer and more like being an artist, what will we learn about ourselves as creators and listeners? Perhaps this shift in the role of the audience is a bigger movement, and LARP is only one branch of a much larger tree, but it is without a doubt one of the strongest examples of this phenomena. If other artistic mediums were to trouble the notion of audience within their own fields, perhaps this new collaborative wave of art could teach us something about the roles that we as consumers expect to find ourselves in.

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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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