Info Round-Up

I don’t really do blogrolls or round-ups, as part of the point of this blog is my own analysis (and the process of making that better and clearer, which means you the audience suffers a little bit in the reading, I’m sure). But, there’s been small snippets lately that have caught my attention, but I don’t really have a lot to say about them, so I can’t justify a post about just one topic. So here’s several!

Understanding Shakespeare: Towards A Visual Form for Dramatic Texts and Languages
The project’s purpose is “to introduce a new form of reading drama to help understand Shakespeare‚Äôs works in new and insightful ways and to address our changed habits of consuming narrative works and knowledge through the capabilities of information visualization.” I’ve linked to the page with videos, so you can see impressive visual flow of this process. While each page is an assortment of text from different plays, and not an analysis of one particular play, it’s very affecting in its rapidity, and in the shapes used. I particularly liked the first one, since it looked like a dance between three people; the fourth one, with snippets of words that set my imagination on fire, trying to figure out what the next bit would be; and the fifth one, which reminded me of a horror movie, and could be a particularly useful visualization for Shakespeare’s more horrific plays.

And speaking of language …
Does Your Language Shape How You Think?
I am so, so glad that the writer reminded the reader, right there in the beginning, that this recent study is not about how language limits how we think, because it doesn’t. The study of language’s influence on the mind had a sordid history, featuring a lot of racism and a bit of sexism as well. Instead, Deutscher is quick to point out that our thoughts are free, despite limitations to our words. In an article I wrote for ModernPoly.com about a month ago (not yet posted), I pointed out that part of our limitation in the English language is our lack of words for different kinds of love. While we understand, basically, the concepts of eros, philios (friendship), romance, etc, we linguistically lump them all together in one big pile — “love.” But they are separate feelings of closeness/attraction. The NY Times article goes deeper into, for example, Romance languages’ necessity of assigning gender to everything, even inanimate objects. Deutscher also discussed a rare Aboriginal language and its use of cardinal directions instead of egocentric directions — there’s no “left,” “right,” “in front,” or “behind.” They always use north, south, east, and west. This is not to say they do not understand the concept of something being behind them, they just don’t speak of it in the same way we do.

I would also point out that our understanding of someone else is pretty much always colored by our minds — and our minds are formed by a combination of genetics and experience that we are only beginning to understand. But your interpretation of my blog, for example, will be tinged by your own lens. In person, words are informed by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, so that the meaning of “I love you” can change drastically. Our expectations and neuroses tend to lend a hand when we interpret emails or letters (the passive-aggressive smiley face emoticon is a perfect example of this — the writer might well mean no harm, but if the reader is pissed off, it can be wildly misinterpreted).

So, the human brain is a complicated thing. What happens when we start to reprogram it?
A novelist and two neuroscientists came by Big Think’s offices this past week.
There’s this website called BigThink.com that I know about via PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula. Apparently they are most well-known for their annual month of blogging about controversial ideas, like taxing fat people (we have that in Seattle already, sorta — there’s a sin tax on candy), or repopulating the Midwest with megafauna, or something close to. I’m always interested in what science nerds put in their “Arts and Culture” section and discovered this article, which has an interesting teaser of a second paragraph. “The director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Shelby Freedman Harris is an expert on sleep disorders. She explained Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), the therapy she uses help patients combat persistent nightmares, often associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. By rehearsing nightmares in their conscious minds (and working to change the scary aspect of the dream to something pleasant), Harris’s patients are often able to overcome these nightmares without any sort of medication. Harris also discussed other bizarre disorders like sleep paralysis and REM Behavior Disorder.” Here, folks, we have the power of an active imagination at work. I mentioned a few paragraphs up that neuroses often inform our interpretation of things, which is an example of the downside to having an active imagination. Shelby Freedman Harris is using the upside of an active imagination. And, frankly, I don’t think I need to cite any other examples (although I probably will) of why art is so good for us. Art is one among many human languages, expressing our world, and obviously it can be used to reinforce good, bad, normal, or unexpected worldviews. You can see your surroundings in a whole new light, or you can have your comfortable beliefs reinforced. I’m not passing any sort of value judgments on these things, as I think they all have their time and place. My point, though, is that this proves the importance of having art in school (an exercised imagination, like an exercised body, can help ward off disease), and the importance of having all kinds of art in your daily life.

And then there’s this disappointing, hurtful article on other ways to judge art and entertainment:
Theatre Talkback: How Do You Measure A Hit?
This article is infused with yet more typical American panic about money and Broadway. Theatre loses money, investors in theatre basically never make back the money they put in. There’s some borderline interesting discussion about how smaller plays generally do better at recovering costs than large plays, irrespective of ticket price or media hype. My problem with this article, of course, is that Zinoman, the author, conflates the value of art and entertainment with its financial and commercial value, without saying anything about any other kind of value to society at large. Granted, the discussion centers around modern Broadway hits, which are obviously only about franchising, money, and advertising. They’re about stupefying the audience long enough to make them feel like spending $200 on tickets was justified — I mean, just look at how many sparkly, revealing costumes the main female character changed into! Money well spent. I can’t really justify using art to anesthetize the population, although the trend was started way early in our history with Greek theatre (and, since opera is based on a reinterpretation of Greek theatre, and American musicals are a reinterpretation of opera, the continuum makes perfect sense). But I think this article is sad proof that Western culture just doesn’t have a good way of talking about the actual benefit of art, nor do we have a good way of defining art. We still talk about its benefits in Victorian terms, that its good for us just because its art, that “high” art is better than pop culture, etc etc. We’re living in the Age of Science, people! Let’s look at those statistics, let’s do those experiments, let’s show how brains change in reaction to language and visual stimuli. Then lets apply that to our art.

Of course, I guess we’ll need to beef up our math and science programs for real before we can have scientists who think like that. Which means we’ll need to stop making our culture stupid with awful shows like “Spiderman: The Musical.” Fortunately, I read enough and see enough geeks in the counterculture who are finding their own way to their own affective art, in a smart way. So, I suppose I shouldn’t be too worried. I think the age of the dumb Broadway musical will be over soon.

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