Culture Magazine

My Plate is Full! – What I’m Up To as the Year Comes to an End

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
As the year comes to an end I find myself with fingers in a number of pies – or, if you will, trying to keep a half-dozen or more balls in the air. There are several relatively small projects which I want to complete within a few weeks, and a number of more ambitious projects. I figured I’d just ramble on about them and see where I come out.
About Conflict in Blog Commentary
I’ve just been participating in a conversation the John Holbo at Crooked Timber, Hazards of Evolutionary Psychology, Royalty Edition, that got pretty contentious, with one commenter informing me about the proper rules of the game. I then pointed out that those rules didn’t work very well.
At this point I’ve pretty much drafted a post in which I elaborate on what I said in the discussion and then compare that situation with the best intellectual venue I’ve ever experienced, David Hays’s research group at SUNY Buffalo. I don’t see anything particularly deep going on, just some useful observations of a fairly standard kind. More data points.
Comment on Sidney Lamb’s Paper
Sidney Lamb has a paper up for comment in a new online journal, Linguistic structure: A plausible theory, Language Under Discussion, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2016), pp. 1–37. I would be commenting on Lamb’s paper (others have done so already). This would be a formal academic paper, but not article length. Lamb will reply to all the comments sometime next year.
This is something I very much want to do as I’m quite fond of Lamb’s stratificational linguistics. It’s just a matter of figuring out what to say. I’m leaning toward something more philosophical than detailed. I’m currently working on a blog post about Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment as a warm-up to commenting on Lamb. In the Lamb comment I think I want to look at what his theory might have to say about conversation and about meaning in conversation.
The interesting thing about Lamb’s relational networks is that the meaning of an item is a function of its place in the network as a whole. And Lamb has explicitly defined his network as a high-level view of the brain, which means that it is hooked up to sensory and motor processes. So, we have a person looking at some object, an apple, a bicycle, a tree, a cloud, whatever. The meaning of that object (to the person) is a function of the process it sets off in the network. That’s what I want to talk about and use that as a way of bootstrapping semantics into the system – something I’ve done a bit of informal work on under the rubric of attractor nets – and say something about conversation.
Not much. Just something. Is it doable? I’m not sure. Perhaps I’ll know better once I’ve finished the Chinese Room blog post (which is well under way).
Direction of Cultural Evolution
I want to write up a short working paper that would be directed toward the newly formed Society for Cultural Evolution. This – the direction of cultural evolution – is an old topic of mine, and I’ve already written a short blog post to this end. This is prompted by the new paper by Morin & Acerbi on a two-century decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction. They don’t appear to be aware of relevant work in digital humanities, and, correlatively, the DH folks aren’t aware of them.
The basic purpose of this piece is to make some conceptual and theoretical connections – I’ve already done a flurry of emails and tweets to get these folks connected with one another. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that cultural evolution has direction, but it’s a tricky topic. 
Rejected by NLH
In late September of this year I’d submitted a paper (Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature) to New Literary History, my first formal submission to a literary journal in a decade or so. The paper has been flat-out rejected. That’s not terribly surprising, though obviously it’s not what I wanted or even expected. And the terms of rejection – I’m thinking of the reviewer’s report – are familiar, with echoes of the rejection of my first “Kubla Khan” paper three decades ago.
What do I make of this rejection? I does seem I misjudged the receptivity of NLH, so that’s one thing. While the journal is actively looking for “new things” perhaps not this new. So I want to think about that.
But why think about it in public? Why not? This is not the academic world of old.
Here’s what I’m thinking. First I say what I got out of the article. Most of it is old stuff. What struck me about the final draft was simply the contrast between my ring-form analysis of Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney and the comments I’d quoted from Glenn Loury. That speaks to the difference between naturalist criticism and ethical criticism. Then I’ll recap the initial rejection of by “Kubla Khan” paper, quoting from the referee’s report.
That sets things up to consider the referee’s report on my submission. Here I’ll quote it at least in part, if not in full (it’s not very long, two paragraphs). I suppose this isn’t kosher, but I don’t know who the referee was, so I’m not giving up anyone’s secrets. I’m most interested in pointing out the similarity between this rejection and the old one. That’s important as that speaks to what the profession is and is not willing to consider.
And then I’ll say something else, though just what I don’t know.
Other things
That’s four short term projects of limited scale. But of course I’ve got other things on my mind. For one thing, what do I do with the rejected article? Do I submit it elsewhere or revise it and submit elsewhere? At the moment, I’m not favoring this, it’s a bit too long for most venues and the things that made it unattractive for NLH will weight against it elsewhere. Perhaps I’ll take a crack at an article on ring-composition. We’ll see.
What about Hamlet and ring-composition? Perhaps I validate the existing ring-form analyses – by Mark Rose and James Ryan – against the Second Quarto text. If that works out I definitely want to publish it in the formal literature, though more likely as a chapter in a book on ring-composition than as a free-standing article. Simply reading the text and doing the validation, if only in the form of notes, is a chunk of work. Not a big chunk, but not something I can simply fit in on an open afternoon or three. If I do that much I’ll likely want to write it up as a blog post or even a working-paper. Then I can think about checking the other two Hamlet texts.
Then there’s the possibility of a book on cultural evolution – a publisher is interested. This would give me a chance to collect a bunch of my work over the past several years. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to edit existing texts into the book or whether it might be best to write a new next more or less from scratch, but most of it closely based on existing working papers. The general idea would be to argue the expressive culture is itself a force in history – Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators. We’ll see.
And then there’s the Bergen Arches Project. This is not an academic project at all. It is a long-term effort, a decade or more, but only part-time. Now and for the foreseeable future the project is public awareness and education. If that goes well, then it will become a focused political effort resulting in construction and landscaping.
The Bergen Arches is the local name for the Erie Cut, which is a mile-long trench blasted through Jersey City in the early 20th century. I carried for railroad lines through the city to the Hudson River. It was abandoned in the mid-1960s and now is all-but-forgotten. It could be turned into a spectacular park that would have a major impact on Jersey City.
I think of it as my Faust project. Faust started his career seeking the secrets of the universe. He ended up in land development. Interesting trajectory.
Interesting times.

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