Thursday, July 29, 2021

Twelve Rounds with Kant (Part 9)

Roberto Montenegro, The Double (1938)

Picking things back up from a month ago...

The Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7) left me in awe, regardless of all the points on which I disagreed with Kant. Its ideas, insofar as I can say I understand them, continue to tantalize me.

What about the Critique of Practical Reason (1788)?

I began reading the first Critique with a sense of curiosity and fascination. My overall mood when delving into the second was one of excitement, even hope.

I'll be honest. I don't want to be an atheist, but I can't slot humanity in a position of teleological significance to the world, nor can I anthropomorphize the cosmos. At the same time, I can't deny the spiritual anemia I feel as a nonbeliever among other nonbelievers in a society that considers humanity the sole end in a universe of means and mere incidentals. I also would prefer that the facts didn't place me in the situation of assuming a hard determinism with regard to human behavior, but that's what seems most plausible. I can't simply will myself to believe something that's incompatible with everything I've come to recognize as fact. Even before reading the first Critique's exposition of the transcendental ideas as products of coherence-seeking behavior forming relations with objects that can never be given to human experience, I had an inkling that if I was ever going to come back again to believing in God and free will, I would have to be convinced of the necessity of those beliefs on the basis of their following from some other body of propositions I'm constrained to hold as true, at least provisionally.

And there are very good reasons to believe both. Studies suggest that religious people are happier, less isolated, and at least more generous than nonbelievers. A person fully convinced of the autonomy of his will is better equipped to take charge of his life than someone who has internalized the belief that he is completely at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Optimism can make a practical difference in one's affairs.

Sure, yes, the old criticisms are still warranted. Religion can be a hothouse for imbecilic textual literalism, sectarian groupthink, and the rejection of data in favor of dogma; the sanctity in which American culture holds the amorphous ideal of "freedom" was instrumental in eroding any sense of social responsibility or serious consideration for the collective good in the United States. But religion can also inspire humility and purpose, while the idea of freedom is a prerequisite for the concept of agency.

I went into the Critique of Practical Reason with the same hope that sold me on Hartshorne's Beyond Humanism (1937), sight unseen. I was looking for an loophole by which I could, at least for myself, reconcile the apparently incontrovertible facts of the situation with certain subjective necessities of belief. Hartshorne, as we've seen, left something to be desired. What about Kant?

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

night notes

The pier at Ocean City, MD. (Not my pic.)

I've been visiting the shore towns of southern Delaware since before I could walk on my own. Even though I've become enough of a cynic in my old age to recognize the gauche avarice on which coastal resort towns are built, I retain a soft spot for them. I still visit Fenwick Island from time to time, and recently took a four-day vacation there with Shirley. I think we had more fun chasing ghost crabs across the beach with a flashlight after dark than playing miniature golf and meandering around the curio shops during the day.

There's a dichotomy in the region that's most apparent at night. It first struck me years ago as a teenager visiting the Ocean City boardwalk—a place which, to my imagination, encapsulates the ugly side of the American character as much as Las Vegas did for Hunter Thompson. Despite all the sand sculptures of Jesus and the youth groups lip-syncing and performing awkwardly synchronized dance routines to Christian rap numbers, this place is Babylon in miniature: a three-mile bazaar teeming with hucksters, hicks, baleful teenagers, middle-aged adults debased by drudgery and cable television, and children who ought to be too young for obesity, all hawking and consuming garish tchotchkes, warm and technically edible congealed grease, margaritas in soda cups (on which the myriad tattoo parlors depend for their business), T-shirts too déclassé for Spencer Gifts, and hermit crabs who've got to believe their Chesapeake cousins being devoured en masse in the seafood restaurants down the street got off easy. It could be anthropomorphized as a circle of faceless men made of neon signs, fried dough, unwinnable SpongeBob plushes, seagull dung, blaring Top-40 tunes, and lobster claw grabber toys ejaculating on the despondent face of human decency.

Don't get me wrong, it's a fun place to visit—provided you hold no strong opinions about the reality of social and/or spiritual progress.

Monday, July 12, 2021

notes on video games and my relationship with them

Sometimes I use Twitter. I'm not sure why.

The other day, I tweeted:

At age seventeen, I was still listening to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails on a regular basis. I was just getting into Skinny Puppy, and was dabbling in Leæther Strip, the Electric Hellfire Club, Birmingham 6, and Wumpscut. All of it loud, abrasive, clanging, screeching, thumping music with an antiheroic (if not outright villainous) lyrical charisma, embracing the tacit philosophy that music ought to be a contact event. I suppose I understood then that a lot would necessarily change in two decades—but the insinuation that I'd somehow get to a point where most of the music I chose to listen to would be recordings of people from India playing the sitar and occasionally singing in a language I didn't understand might have been a bridge too far.

A longtime internet acquaintance pointed something else out:

Yes, well. Let's see here. When I was in my twenties I made a (relatively) long-running webcomic from ripped NES sprites and wrote (and rewrote) a series of essays about Final Fantasy. I haunted gaming message boards and IRC channels. I racked up hundreds of hours in Disgaea and Makai Kingdom, and probably even more playing online matches of Street Fighter III: Third Strike. I routinely drove forty-five minutes to play King of Fighters XI at an arcade in Wayne, New Jersey. I bought and played through seven—SEVEN!—.hack games, despite knowing in my heart that they were trash. I'm not certain if I ever self-identified as a gamer, but video games were more than just a hobby. They were my touchstone.

But I never stopped playing them! Why, just a few months ago, I wrote about the Valiant megaWAD. Last year I ploughed through Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (and had nothing but good things to say about it), finally played and finished Cuphead, and fondly revisited Einhänder. Early into the lockdown, I kept the anxiety at bay with Lumines. And right now I'm feeling like it's finally time to try out Black Mesa, which Shirley's PC can apparently run (though my laptop falls far short of even the minimum requirements)—but I'm going to wait until the fall or winter.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Twelve Rounds with Kant (Part 8)

Ohohoho. Hoh ho hah. Hahahaha...hah.

So we're back to Immanuel Kant again. I'm going to commit a blogging faux pas right off the bat and not provide any links to the first seven posts on the Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7), partially because I'm lazy (just use the archive and look around the fourth quarter of 2020), and partially because those posts embarrass me somewhat. I spent so much time trying to come to terms with the Transcendental Aesthetic and Analytic that I had only enough energy and patience to give the Transcendental Dialectic (the longest and really the most important section of that book) a undeservedly sketchy treatment. But there's nothing to be done now.

I won't claim to completely understand the Critique of Pure Reason, nor am I close to substantially internalizing its schematics—but my admiration and fascination with it have not diminished since I set it aside for a while (but never for a very long while). And I suppose in some not insignificant respect I've accepted at least a few of Kant's main points: during a discussion with a coworker who was bouncing some of his metaphysical ideas off me, I heard myself saying that the concept of the human soul, considered as an indestructible and eternal object existing in a continuum where past, present, and future exist as a singular unity, lies so far beyond the bounds of possible experience that there's nothing to be gained by elaborating on the idea or imagining that it has any implications we can reasonably explore.

I waited several months after finishing the first Critique before opening the second, the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). As a mere book, the second Critique is far less intimidating than the first: not taking  into consideration the print size and trim of each edition, the Critique of Pure Reason runs over 600 pages, while the Critique of Practical Reason is a comparatively scanty 130. I smiled when I first held it in my hands. "A featherweight," I told myself. "This will be a breeze."

Hah. Ha ha ha ho heeheehee heheheh heh hah hoohoo hah haaah. 


So here's what we're going to do. In this post, I will summarize the Critique of Practical Reason. I am not doing this with a reading audience in mind; I'm perusing the text, taking notes, and writing them out so as to better understand this dense motherfucker of a book. If you want to follow along, well, the more, the merrier—though I would strongly advise against quoting me on anything here. I am a humble student, and prone to misinterpretation and/or missing the point. There are plenty of experts who can provide synopses and commentary far more informed than mine.

Also: I will abstain from expressing any reservations I might have about Kant's premises, methods, or conclusions, at least for now. Before I argue with him, I feel I ought to make a concentrated effort to comprehend what he's saying.

As before, I will intercalate paintings in order to give us all an opportunity to relax our eyes between slabs of text. There isn't much of a thematic connection between Kantian ethics and late nineteenth-century American still life, but the pairing somehow feels right. Perhaps it's the intimation of mustiness.

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.