A blog about belief

Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

The Ontic Web

In Computer Science, Culture on August 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Recently I’ve been reading about RDF, which is an attempt by the World Wide Web Consortium to create a standard way of representing information about “resources,” which is the word that they use for things.  I’m no fan of XML—a relative of RDF that provides a way to store every type of information in the same horrible HTML-like syntax—and RDF certainly shares its tendency to complicate people’s jobs.  But although the broadness of RDF’s goals all but guarantees its unwieldiness, I’m beginning to think that there is a need for a computer-processable way of writing “ontologies” beyond the interoperability concerns that motivated the RDF project.

It’s almost too easy to do the postmodernist critique of totalizing schemes with systems like RDF.  The example used in the primer for the OWL 2 Web Ontology Language, a commonly-used extension to RDF, is a system for describing family relationships.  Using OWL’s vocabulary for talking about the types of relationships that can hold between things, they define what it is to be a parent, a sibling, and so forth, in statements like this:

EquivalentClasses( :Person :Human )

The authors claim that they do not

intend this example to be representative of the sorts of domains OWL should be used for, or as a canonical example of good modeling with OWL, or a correct representation of the rather complex, shifting, and culturally dependent domain of families. Instead, we intend it to be a rather simple exhibition of various features of OWL.

Sure enough, we get to the zinger a few sections in.

Frequently, the information that two individuals are interconnected by a certain property allows to draw further conclusions about the individuals themselves. In particular, one might infer class memberships.  For instance, the statement that B is the wife of A obviously implies that B is a woman while A is a man.

Even when they’re only used as examples, categorization schemes tend to turn into power plays.  Think how a person who just married her girlfriend would feel reading that.

But information modeling isn’t all retrograde.  There’s an admirable example in Sam Hughes’s very funny essay about how database engineers will have to adapt to gay marriage.  And there is more to RDF than what I would Heideggerianly call ontics—the description of categories and subcategories of things.

One type of program that people have developed for RDF is the inference engine, which attempts to mimic human reasoning by drawing conclusions from the knowledge represented in files.  Whether or not they will lead to a serious AI, people have put these tools to use straightaway for a quite different purpose, that of checking the consistency of their work while putting ontologies together.  This is a different application of the technology from that of defining standard vocabularies to enable different software systems to work together, which is where RDF has found the most application (and which is admittedly very important).  It has less to do with the finished product (the ontology file) than with what we learn in the process of writing it, and with the input that the computer is able to give to the writer as revision proceeds.

Debunking vs explaining

In Art, Philosophy, Science on October 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I’m often surprised how many smart people I encounter who think of science as some kind of beauty-destroying machine.  This is a particularly common reaction to the attempts of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to understand how people relate to art.  I appreciate the need for different ways of talking about things, particularly when it comes to things as slippery as aesthetic responses, but there’s an anti-intellectualism I can’t abide in the idea that coming up with an explanation for something diminishes it.  There is no reason why our more subjective ways of thinking can’t stand alongside scientific theories, although perhaps science might prod us to adjust them a bit so that they’re less likely to lead us to bad decisions.  If science finds a way to reduce spiritual feelings to the workings of our brain, that doesn’t invalidate them or drain them of their power.  If anything, it validates them by providing evidence for their consistency with the way of looking at the world that’s proven most practically successful for us.

In that last statement I have tacitly given science a privileged position over other forms of knowledge.  I will not recant on this point, but I stop short of imputing that spirituality needs the validation of science.  That, I admit, gets us into worrisome territory.  I do suspect that some people who claim they’ve had a spiritual experience are kidding themselves, but there is a major ethical problem in calling someone else’s claim to have had such an experience bullshit, even if we’ve got MRI scans to back us up.  If someone says they’re experiencing a vision and our cognitive models of spirituality say otherwise, that means that either their claims are false or our models are flawed, and there’s no clear way to decide this.  The scientific standard of truth and those proper to spirituality need not overlap, and an attempt to use a scientific model to debunk something that was developed to sufficiently different ends can be backed up by nothing other than power.

That is, I suppose, the standard postmodern criticism of science.  But using theoretical models in the way I’ve described is not doing science.  Despite the popular image to the contrary, the driving purpose of science is not to debunk.  It is to explain.  Debunking only comes into play when the ideas in question contradict the best scientific models with respect to predictions that can be objectively tested; in that case and only in that case is it in science’s province to investigate who’s right.  Homeopathic medicine is something that’s ripe for refutation, and that’s good, because it causes objective harm.  Sudden irruptions of spiritual knowledge are generally not something that science could coherently debunk, and that’s great, because that sort of experience has resulted in some of the most astounding poetry humans have produced.

It’s because of this that I don’t think scientific investigation is anathema to art, even if we direct it towards art – even, further, if we direct it towards our apprehension of those spiritual sorts of truths that science can’t make heads or tails of.  If we approach the phenomenon of spiritual knowledge empirically, which I think we might as well, we cannot rightly treat that spiritual knowledge as a rival theory to science; instead, we must treat it as something to be explained.  The fact that it has to do with truth of another sort doesn’t mean that science can’t deal with it in that way, and the fact that science might be able to fully explain it doesn’t mean that it can’t still serve as an explanation in its own right.


In Art, Literature, Philosophy on September 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm

I used to claim that there was no such thing as self-expression in art. That’s not something I’d say any more, but not because I’ve changed my mind. Quite the opposite; I’ve gotten even more dead set against the dualism underlying the popular conception of self-expression than I was a couple years ago. I think it’s a worldview that makes an ideal of an empirical falsehood, causing a great deal of misery. But I’ve realized that a true materialism, one that really frees itself from that falsehood, can’t work entirely by negative definition. If the concept of the “true self” that was the fixation of the Modernists is incoherent, and I think that it is, then so is the statement that “there is no true self” with “true self” meant in that way. Reveling in superficiality as a response to Modernism’s failure is, to torture an expression, throwing out the baby and then taking a big drink of bathwater. What we need to do us come up with a new definition of self that isn’t at odds with materialism. As we do so, popular ideas like self-expression will be things we need to account for, not things we need to deny.

One reason I think that negativity has become so popular among literary scholars is that it’s associated, in no small part due to Hegel, with historicism, a philosophical approach that lends itself particularly well to supporting the importance of literature as an object of study. But I don’t want to discount the ethical case against the positive. One can find ample evidence in any history book that positive definitions of what it is to be human or American or a member of society can oppress. There is an ethical onus on the head of anyone who speaks positively about the human, to be sure. But ethics can be a problem for negative approaches as well, and I suspect that it is partially due to institutional constraints in the field of literary scholarship that the ethical arguments made in English departments have been skewed against the positive. A good epistemic standard is not all it takes to be responsible, but sticking to one generally is a prerequisite, and this is quite simply more difficult to do when speaking positively. Oftentimes to really back up a positive claim about the world takes experimental study, and for the most part the institutional support for serious experimental studies is not there in English departments.

This is something that I hope will change as technology makes empirical humanities more practical. Positive statements about culture and the “human” are not going to disappear, and denying them legitimacy in the intellectual world only insulates them from scrutiny. The U.S. is wanting for an institution that could serve as a legitimate place for such claims, where standards of responsibility can be entrenched as, if not explicit points of policy, at least norms of professionalism. If the right is trying to tear down the academy, that means it’s time to start building.

Lot 49

In Literature, Music on July 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I guess I should be glad that my favorite author is being forced upon tens of thousands of undergraduates, but I’m worried that a lot of them are getting the wrong impression of Thomas Pynchon from The Crying of Lot 49. I can’t help but feel a fondness for the book, but I’m fond of it mainly insofar as it represents an interesting dead end from which Pynchon had the good sense to retreat.

If he is a postmodernist writer, Pynchon generally stays closer to the early form of postmodernism that emphasized the “ethical turn” against systematization in response to the Holocaust than to their followers who blathered on endlessly about “surfaces.” The Crying of Lot 49 is unique among his novels in that its critique of systems of meaning takes on an air of inevitability. Crying depicts a world in which it is actually impossible to believe in anything without falling into insanity. Absent are fearsome figures like Weissman (from V. and Gravity’s Rainbow), who are threatening beyond anything in Crying because of the extent to which they’ve successfully actualized their murderous belief systems. Instead we are presented with an Umwelt so overloaded with evidence of underlying meanings that the protagonist must be in constant doubt of whether or not her beliefs are the right ones. The only way to believe something without being driven mad by this evidence is to withdraw from the world altogether and live in fantasy; Oedipa ends up alienated not because she’s afraid of the violence that has been committed in the name of grand purposes, but because she can’t get over the idea that there might be a grand purpose for her to be alienated from.

Armchair sociologists have mused that young people can no longer understand the appeal of Crying because the paranoid alienation of Oedipa Maas has become their normal way of looking at the world. To the extent that the present-day person does look at the world in an alienated way, it is only because of the constant repetition of statements like this. For all its supposed rejection of Modernism, postmodernism continues to define alienation in terms of a Modernist concept of the self based on authenticity. Because the epistemic standards of “authenticity” have always been unclear, asking someone whether or not their experience of life is authentic is more likely to start them worrying about whether or not it “really” is than to get you a truthful answer.

The fact is that modern life never was characterized by alienation for more than a small class of highly-educated Westerners who thought themselves into it. The problem with Crying is that it inhabits the alienated state too fully, and with too little counterweight, to be meaningful to someone who hasn’t already bought into that line of thought. As such, it implicates readers in the paranoia that it seems intended to criticize.

One positive thing Crying does do for me, though, is give me the chance to get a thrill of inclusion whenever I see scrawled on a bathroom wall or cut into a park bench a loop, triangle and trapezoid, thus:

Muted post horn

The critical consensus is surely right that if we look for meaning in Pynchon’s works by trying to interpret them, all we get is: looking for meaning in texts is madness. But that’s not all there is to the novels. The purpose of art is not to say something about our world; it’s to become part of our world, and for at least the small group of people who constitute Pynchon’s core audience his work serves much the same goal that Bob Dylan sets out for himself in “Tombstone Blues”:

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Rather than looking for meaning in the “text” of Pynchon’s novels, then, why not think about what they do for their fans? It is, I think, quite a lot.

I consider myself a Pynchon fan before a Pynchon scholar. I discovered Pynchon’s work well before I knew about postmodernism or had any thought of studying literature seriously, and, for what it’s worth, though it had an enormous impact on me, the effect of the encounter was not to instill in me an “incredulity towards metanarratives.” I read Pynchon’s greatest novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, over the course of about a month when I was 19, having known nothing about it going in, and the three months that followed were defined by my obsession with what I had just (not always pleasurably) forced my way through. I emerged from this period more assured than I ever had been in my political ideology, and ready to take action from within it in a more structured and positive way than the futile jabs at authority figures that had constituted my political life up to that point. I don’t think my experience was an anomaly, and while I’m not going to claim that Pynchon is not a postmodern writer, I do think that looking at him in those terms ill equips the critic to explain what he did to me, and what I suspect constitutes the appeal of his writing for a lot of his most earnest admirers.