Tuesday, June 15, 2021

contextual disintegration supplement: MAD and The Simpsons

The last post was originally going to be more generalized, examining the "contextual disintegration" of media artifacts (for lack of a better term) across a few different fields. It ended up being too broad a topic for a short blog post, so I settled for focusing on the particular case of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which had anyway inspired the idea. I did jot down some notes regarding a couple of other specific instances, which I'll expand upon here. Just for fun.


My father bought me my first copy of MAD in 1993. For the next several years, I'd greedily seize new issues and specials off the magazine rack whenever they appeared. I was hooked. Even though I'd seen almost none of the movies or TV shows satirized in each issue, I could spend hours studying Mort Drucker's illustrations; the man was a virtuoso. Just looking at Tom Bunk and Rick Tulka's illustrations was enough to make me burst out laughing. Don "Duck" Edwing wasn't exactly Don Martin (Duck's mentor/collaborator, and my father's favorite MAD artist, whom I wouldn't discover until picking up a few reprints and specials), but his idiosyncratic themes and macabre vaudeville were always good for a chuckle. I wasn't sure whether I should find Bill Wray's "Monroe" relatable or appalling, but when it became a monthly feature in 1997 it was one of the first things I'd look for when opening a new issue. And, yeah, I became a little more informed about the way the world works from articles like "A MAD Look at the Real 'Clinton Coalition,'" "MAD's 1993 Washington Lobbyist All Stars," and "The Republican Party's 'Contract with America' (TRUTHFUL Post-Election Version!)" were much more educational than the Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop comics I was reading in Disney Adventures.

Cover of MAD #319 (June 1993)

Only much later did I understand that the 1990s were the beginning of MAD's slow decline after four decades of publication. Even though MAD's cultural influence had long since peaked, it remained as spry and incisive as ever through most of the 1990s. But the media ecosystem in which it was able to thrive was on the verge of a cataclysmic transformation.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

contextual disintegration: on Mystery Science Theater 3000

Though I'd occasionally watched and enjoyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its original run in the 1990s, I became a fan—an "MSTie"—only in the last decade. For months at a time, I'd draw, work on math problems, sleeve the contents of a coin jar, and put together IKEA furniture with a YouTube upload of a taped television broadcast running nearby. I've tuned into every online Turkey Day marathon since 2012; I've got a definite opinion on the Joel versus Mike question; I'm genuinely fascinated by the filmography of Coleman Francis; Kevin Murphy shouting SLEEEP! and Trace Beaulieu's Rocky the Flying Squirrel impression ("again?") will never not make me laugh. I love MST3K.

I've tried to pass this love onto Shirley, but to no avail. She and I have very different tastes, it's true. She reads manga that she really ought to have aged out of by now; I read superhero comics that I really ought to have aged out of by now. She likes movies I consider stupid; I like movies she finds boring. She listens to K-pop and I, uh, don't. Nevertheless, I've sold her on classic Simpsons, The X-FilesDr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and Best of the Worst. Mystery Science Theater, however, is still something she'll only watch in order to humor me, and I've taken the hint and given up trying to get her to sit through ninety-minute sub-B-movies or awkward 1950s educational films with commentary tracks.

The fact is that Mystery Science Theater has not aged well. Yes, certainly, the effectiveness of any number of quips made in the late 1980s or early 1990s depends on the viewer's familiarity with pop culture references that are now practically ancient, but that isn't the problem. For every one obscure reference in a given episode are a dozen riffs that require no arcane, period-dependent knowledge to appreciate. The style of humor isn't the problem. Nor is MST3K an instance of outsized retrospective valuation of something that wasn't very good to begin with.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a product of a particular moment in the development of media culture—created, produced, aired, and viewed in a sui generis context. And outside of that context, viewed by somebody who has no experience of it, the show just doesn't make much sense.¹

Friday, May 7, 2021

relational frame theory on prejudice; implications for anti-racism

Rene Magritte, The Psychologist (1948)

Responding to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953) from the perspective of Skinnerian behaviorism was an exercise in assessing my comprehension of Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957), which I read during the early stages of last year's lockdown. Probably the most substantial token of the exercise's success was my discovery that there were situations I couldn't give satisfactory accounts for, even after leafing through my copy of Verbal Behavior for an hour or longer and cross-referencing my notes with Science and Human Behavior (1953) and About Behaviorism (1976). I came to suspect the problem wasn't my understanding of the literature, but conceptual knots in the literature itself. The problem of reference, for instance: Skinner insists that verbal events do not refer to anything; the spoken word "chair" does not communicate a mental image of a chair, but is a conditioned response strengthened by a stimulus class. But in speaking of rule-governed behavior, he states that rules are verbal stimuli which specify contingencies—which seems to violate his own strictures against reference, and makes a functional description of rule-governed behavior a confused, onerous affair.

So I picked up Hayes et al.'s Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (2001) to see what progress the field made five decades after the publication of Verbal Behavior. Relational Frame Theory is not an easy read, but it's very exciting. At least from the perspective of a dilettante, RFT shows promise: it closely adheres to the main tenets of radical behaviorism, it starts from simple first principles which allow for the emergence of complexity, and it appears to be testable. What separates it from Verbal Behavior is its centering of derived stimulus relations, which began to be studied in the 1960s.

The core concepts of RFT are lot more difficult to synopsize than the "stimulus-response-reinforcement" of twentieth-century behaviorism, and take much of Skinner's work as a given. Rather than offer a summary here, I can point you to an excellent rundown of RFT written for the lay reader, and also a more technical overview if you'd like to chew on something with more gristle. 

For now, we'll just provide five basic points to bear in mind:

1.) RFT posits that human beings are unique among the animal kingdom in that we're capable of learning to derive relations between stimuli (without direct training) as an overarching operant. "While 16-month-old babies readily show robust forms of mutual entailment," the authors write, "even 'language-trained' chimpanzees show no such thing."¹ Deriving stimulus relations, they often point out, is a learned behavior that affects the learning process itself.

2.) RFT uses a specialized redefinition of verbal behavior as "framing events relationally." In these terms, language (which consists of "arbitrarily applicable relational responding") is an outcome of verbal behavior, not the other way around.²

3.) A relational frame isn't a thing: it is the behavior of framing events relationally (responding to events in terms of other events) under the control of particular contexts. A relational network doesn't exist outside of the organism, nor really inside of it either: it is a pattern of responding.

4.) Our environment acquires verbal functions as its constituents participate in verbal networks—or, rather, as we respond to objects and events relationally, and these "networked" responses become ingrained in our behavioral repertoires.

5.) A major component of RFT is the transformation of stimulus functions across relational frames. For instance, a hiker might read a sign at a trailhead: CAUTION: ALL THE SNAKES IN THESE WOODS ARE POISONOUS. The likely effect will be that her responses to snakes on the trail will be augmented prior to her seeing one. This is unremarkable at first glance, but no other animal on Earth (so far as we know) is capable of modifying its behavior to a stimulus class prior to direct contact with its members as a consequence of another stimulus with no nonarbitrary physical relation to it.

Now: a while back, I wrote about the problems of curbing racist sentiment through shaming tactics. Anyone who's taken behaviorism 101 understands that punishment merely displaces objectionable behavior (and only temporarily), and can result in insidious, undesired side effects. Today we'll be looking at a passage from Relational Frame Theory which explicitly examines prejudicial behavior, with worrying ramifications for the "anti-racism" discourse that has become prominent in educational and business settings over the last year. Emphases are my own.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 1: "a methodical encyclopedia of the imaginary planet"

The book was written in English and contained 1001 pages. On the yellow leather back I read these curious words which were repeated on the title page: A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Vol XI. Hlaer to Jangr. There was no indication of date or place. On the first page and on a leaf of silk paper that covered one of the color plates there was stamped a blue oval with this inscription: Orbis Tertius. Two years before I had discovered, in a volume of a certain pirated encyclopedia, a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. All of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.
        —Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940)

Maybe it's because the job has been running me ragged these last few weeks. It could be that I've rolled into one of the troughs in my cycle of peaks and slumps. Possibly I'm experiencing some residual burnout from the protracted effort of composing—and thrice revising—a 700-page novel (which I would very much like you to read). But whatever the cause, focusing on writing lately has been like trying to flex a sprained muscle. I can only seem to exert myself in hour-long bursts, after which I come into a refractory period where all I can do is (re-)read X-Men comics.

Recently it occurred to me that maybe the comics are part of the problem. The instantaneous, tickling gratification of supernormal spectacle and soap operatics strikes a more aggressive claim for my time than the unaided inclination to stare at a blank page or empty text field and await the appearance of coherent sentences. So I downloaded a site-blocking app to bar myself from poring over the digitized pages of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men for the third or fourth time. Problem solved.

Then somehow or other I ended up at the Marvel Database (a facet of Fandom, née Wikia) and spent forty-five minutes reading about X-Men comics until I realized what was happening and added marvel.fandom.com to the list of blocked sites.

Not long after that, I was skimming the details on the new Magic: The Gathering expansion—and before I knew it, I was browsing the MTG Wiki. There went another half hour. Unfortunately, the way Fandom's wikis are indexed prevents a blanket block under fandom.com. A total self-ban would necessitate blocking every domain individually.

In and of itself, the lure of these wikis as a way of passively occupying the hours between sleep, work, and personal/familial/social obligations probably doesn't require any more explanation than the appeal of the media products their pages summarize. Behavior analysis could describe the attraction in terms of stimulus classes or relational frames; cognitive psychology might talk about mental connections, and so on. We gaze at the fan-sourced wiki about the thing because we like gazing at the thing. And of course, the attention-retaining interactivity of hypertext can't be discounted—nor can the well-established connection between screen-delivered "content" and dopamine pathway activity.

At any rate, the Fandom network attracted about 750 million visitors last month. Clearly I'm not the only one who gets a buzz from reading about the esoterica of proprietary fictional entities.

This isn't the first time we've idly pondered Fandom here, but I'm not finished chewing on it quite yet.¹ Its existence is unprecedented and utterly fascinating. The incomparable Borges dreamed up something resembling it in his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which the discovery of an encyclopedia containing the history, philosophy, and science of a fictitious planet precipitates the encroachment of that world's reality upon our own. Even if truth isn't really stranger than fiction in this case, it certainly isn't any less interesting.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 6)

Max Ernst, Compendium of the History
of the Universe

Whoops. I was having so much fun earning a wage and having a panic attack over a glitch in the cover text of The Reunion that went completely undetected for months that I forgot to post the final entry to this series. So: final comments on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953):

579. This feeling of confidence. How is this manifested in behavior?

How is it manifested otherwise? It's a safe bet that someone who spends most of his day lying in bed and staring at the wall wouldn't report feeling very confident.

Confidence is not a cause of behavior, but a product of it.

Monday, March 15, 2021

witch hazel & kigo

Outside the main entrance of the art museum I used to work at stands billowing shrub of vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis).¹ In the last days of February it wakes up with the snow drops and crocuses, putting out tasseled yellow flowers, coolly aromatic—"spicy" is the word typically used to describe its scent, but like most olfactory adjectives, it fails to communicate the particularity and subtleties of the witch hazel's suffusive fragrance. If you're positioned upwind from the the plant, the scent can find your nostrils from a fair distance.

Last year, when I still had the luxury of talking half-hour lunch breaks, and when it was still Shirley's job to stand outside the museum entrance, herding visiting school children and getting into fights with presumptuous motorists who dared to park in the bus lane, I often stepped outside to chat with her for a while. During the last week of February and the first week of March, I'd loiter outside a few minutes every afternoon, chatting with Shirley and whoever else might be around (usually a security guard, a member of the custodial staff, or someone from the education department) about this "coronavirus" thing and speculating as to what might come of it. My memories of my final days at the art museum are redolent with the aroma of witch hazel that attended these conversations.

Last week, when Shirley and I had coinciding days off from our new jobs, we took a walk past the museum and I made us take a detour to visit the witch hazel. After only one year, it became for me as much a signal pleasure of spring's approach as red buds at the tips of maple branches, robins marching in the grass, and the creaking voices of migrating grackles.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 5) ... and also a review of the Valiant megaWAD

watch it—my gf is a drooling supermutant

Today we're going to continue leapfrogging across Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). We're also going to go off on a big tangent about video games that will eventually turn into a review of a Doom mod. Because we can, and that is the spirit and joy of blogging.

547. Negation: 'a mental activity'. Negate something and observe what you are doing.——Do you perhaps inwardly shake your head? And if you do——is this process more deserving of our interest than, say, that of writing a sign of negation in a sentence? Do you now know the essence of negation?

549. "How can the word 'not' negate?"——"That sign 'not' indicates that you are to take what follows negatively." We should like to say: The sign of negation is our occasion for doing something——possibly very complicated. It is as if the negation-sign occasioned our doing something. But what? That is not said. It is as if it only needed to be hinted at; as if we already knew. As if no explanation were needed, for we are in any case already acquainted with the matter.

551."Does the same negation occur in: 'Iron does not melt at a hundred degrees Centigrade' and 'Twice two is not five'?" Is this to be decided by introspection; by trying to see what we are thinking as we utter the two sentences? 

First: negation is a feat of the verbal animal.

Consider the pigeon trained to peck at a button when it's colored red and not to peck at it when it's colored blue—even this description is a reification. Properly speaking, what "not pecking" means is "doing something other than pecking, but we don't specify what it is." The omission is expedient insofar as this is one of many occasions where we are solely concerned with whether X is or isn't Y.

"No I didn't read the email you sent me last night" is a more useful answer than "last night I watched YouTube, ate dinner, clipped my toenails, took five pisses, got drunk, jacked off, licked every doorknob in the house..." and so on until every act is accounted for, leading the patient inquirer to finally concludes that "read your email" didn't occur.

In verbal constructions of logic, which are often concerned with the relational frames in which any given entities or events might be situated, X is not Y is what we're left when we're restricted from specifying any characteristics of X and beyond their identities with regard to each other.

To dredge up the old aphorism "nature abhors a vacuum," nonbeing means nothing outside the context of the verbal animal's repertoire. Skinner writes: