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Arts & Culture

Man in Hole II: Man in Deeper Hole

March 19, 2015 | by

Assigning emotional values to words.

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Last month I wrote about Matthew Jockers’s research on the shapes of stories, which has since met with a welter of reactions within and without academe. His critics ask two questions, essentially: Is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?

A rough primer: Jockers uses a tool called “sentiment analysis” to gauge “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction”; algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values he’s able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening. Ultimately, he derived six archetypal plot shapes. (To his credit and my chagrin, he’s refrained from giving them catchy names.) Here’s an example: Read More »

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Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »

Look and Look Away

February 27, 2015 | by

On Songbook, Alec Soth’s new photobook.

Williston, ND, 2012, black-and-white photograph.

Customers waiting for Walmart to open. Williston, ND, 2012, black-and-white photograph.

If you follow the gaze of every shopper pictured in Alec Soth’s photograph of a crowded Walmart in North Dakota, you end up nowhere. The scene of big-box-store mayhem would have you think it’s Black Friday or Super Bowl Sunday morning or the peak of the shelf-clearing shopping spree that is sure to precede doomsday. But in Williston, the city at the center of the oil boom that has afforded North Dakota the lowest unemployment rate in the country, this was just commerce as usual. It was a national story a few years ago: word spread fast that some incarnation of the American Dream was up for grabs in North Dakota, and scores of men and women from all over the U.S. loaded up the family van and set course for the Peace Garden State. 

With this mind, it can be tempting to read Soth’s photograph—the empty shopping carts, the sweatpants in public, the claustrophobia-inducing crowd—as acutely tragic. The journey to a new and better life ends here? There are consumer traffic jams in the promised land? The streets aren’t paved with gold but with some sort of linoleum-vinyl composite? Read More »

Objects Are What We Aren’t

February 26, 2015 | by

Carl Andre’s sculptures are “plainly, inescapably there.”

“Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,” installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Art © Carl Andre/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

The train ride upstate to Beacon, New York, is all geometry and noise, lines cutting through the countryside so that materials—wood, iron, steel—can do their churning work. From Grand Central Station, that palatial space with marble floors and walls of artificial stone, it’s an hour-and-a-half trip to Dia:Beacon, an art museum in a former cardboard-box factory. Through the window, ice flows, steam billows from a nuclear plant, and craggy rocks rise up across the Hudson River. Inside is a mass of plastic—vinyl seats creaking with every clack on the tracks.

It’s wise to be mindful of materials while en route to see art by Carl Andre, whose sculpture occupies Dia:Beacon in a monumental retrospective, “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,” through March 9. Materiality is the matter at hand, even in pieces that suggest otherwise. There’s materiality and then more materiality, abetted by still more materiality for good measure. 

The effect is not as abstract as it might seem, though matters of the mind play a part in the whole of the show. It’s more an open invitation to look and reflect—to wonder at what might be at work in an experience as elemental as observing objects in space.  Read More »

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Glass Hat

February 11, 2015 | by

Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.

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From the cover of The Whites.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …

Let’s start over.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed. Read More »

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Man in Hole

February 4, 2015 | by

Turning novels’ plots into data points.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern. His research was spurred by a concept called syuzhet, one of a pair of terms coined by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. As Jockers explains, Read More »

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