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The Films of Makavejev [Nov. 25th, 2009|10:20 am]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

[Current Music |ACB Radio Treasure-Trove]

Terror and Joy: The Films of Dusan Makavejev
by Lorraine Mortimer

The Last Yugoslav
A Review by Richard Byrne

From "The Nation" magazine:

The chapter on WR couples the NATO bombing of the Serbian town of Novi Sad in 1999 with the fact that WR was produced in that city. The chapter on Innocence Protected opens with an extended meditation on a short film made by Srdjan Vuletic during the siege of Sarajevo and the wounds of the city and its citizens, and then leaps into discussing a disturbing scene from Makavejev's film of a child near death. There is even a six-page "Interlude" that tackles various aspects of the Yugoslav wars through anecdote and political history with no substantive reference to Makavejev's films at all. "I want to come back to the conception of the human being as indeed rational, a maker," Mortimer writes in that section, "but also mad, prone to delusion, both an undoer and a producer of fantasies with consequences ranging from the benign to the truly malignant." That doesn't leave much out at all. If Makavejev had kept making films about Yugoslavia after 1969, Mortimer's argument might be more convincing.

But precisely the opposite happened. Makavejev used his position as a filmmaker from Yugoslavia -- the country of the "middle way" -- to leap audaciously into a critique of the grand conflict of capitalism and communism. The WR in the title of that film stands not only for Freud disciple Wilhelm Reich but for world revolution. Makavejev sought -- and commanded -- an international stage. Both WR and his next film, Sweet Movie (1974), share a number of qualities: sexual frankness, political courage and a dazzling array of powerful and disquieting images that prove almost sacramental in distilling the era's competing ideologies into flesh-and-blood characters. Indeed, the two movies are so often linked -- and they do belong together, stylistically and thematically -- that it is instructive in some ways to examine their differences.

WR's power resides in its relentless interrogations of authority and its power to suppress freedom and dissent. Makavejev approaches Reich's theories -- and in particular, Reich's notion that humanity is corroded physically and enslaved politically and morally by its frustrated sexual urges -- as an avenue to investigate how power works to keep humanity in chains. What compels human participation in personality cults of a dictator such as Stalin? What happens when the Vietnam War is brought home through satire directly to Manhattan's office buildings? What is the relationship between sexual liberation and political power?

Makavejev provides no answers, just tantalizing clues in cinematic hagiographies of Stalin; the comic street theater of Tuli Kupferberg (founding member of the Fugs), who wanders through Manhattan toting a rifle and helmet; and a fatal romance between a liberated Yugoslav woman named Milena (who conveniently spouts Reichian maxims) and a Russian ice skater who decapitates her with his skate in a spasm of sexual excitement and repulsion. These elements and scores of others -- including a documentary on Reich -- are sliced and diced together, creating a riot of juxtapositions.

The outsized reaction against the film by Soviet and Yugoslav authorities in part served to obscure Makavejev's stinging critique of capitalism. Communism represses sexuality or channels it into a personality cult. But capitalism? Whether it is Kupferberg comically masturbating his rifle, or the crass commercialization of sex in pornography, or the fetishization of plaster casting, Makavejev's lens lays bare the priapism of war and commerce in American life.

And despite the savagery of his attack on Soviet communism, Makavejev's documentary on Reich slyly reminds us that it was not communism -- which the psychoanalyst embraced in the 1920s and '30s but then bitterly rejected -- that ultimately led to Reich's personal destruction. Rather, it was officials at the US Food and Drug Administration, egged on by doctors who believed Reich to be a quack. The chain reaction of bans and prosecutions ended only with Reich's death in jail in 1957 and the immolation of his books in two separate episodes by FDA staffers.

If WR is fueled by its relentless questioning, Sweet Movie has the air of a filmmaker who knows it all. Yet despite the controversy kicked up by Makavejev's taboo-busting in the film (urination, theatrical castration, a vigorous exploration of childhood sexuality), Sweet Movie is at its heart a simpler and much less complex film. Sweet Movie 's dual plotlines rigidly parallel the cold war siege lines. And though these narratives are laced with a succession of startling images (nakedness in chocolate, sex, sugar and blood), they are in fact simple and straightforward. Communism is a pirate boat with the face of Marx, piloted by the gorgeous, seductive and murderous Anna Planeta. The evils of capitalism are found in the rise and fall of the virginal Miss Monde 1984 (Carole Laure), who is married off to the fabulously rich but twisted Mr. Kapital (John Vernon, later Dean Wormer of Animal House fame) and then runs away into a succession of increasingly savage and demeaning escapades.

In any era, Sweet Movie would be powerful stuff. It was banned in even more countries than WR, including in Britain, largely because of Anna Planeta's clearly allegorical but very edgy seduction of four young boys and an unbridled scene filmed in the radical self-expression commune run by artist and therapist Otto Muehl. One almost gets the sense that Makavejev is trying to outdo WR and ends up somehow overdoing it. Even Sweet Movie 's bravest political moment -- Makavejev's use of Nazi footage of the exhumation of the Polish victims of a massacre by Russian forces in the Katyn forest, fourteen years before the Russian acknowledgment of the massacre -- feels more gestural than integral to the film. Sweet Movie's essential flaw is that it dilutes the complexities that make WR so effervescent. Communism seduces and kills. Capitalism degrades humanity and drives it mad. Instead of pursuing questions, the movie is content to rest on those answers.
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Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - My Blurb [Jun. 22nd, 2009|01:36 pm]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

[Current Music |Dr. Francis Collins - The Language of God]


Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren is still one of the best text books on how fiction works. Even though the book is old, I still, think it is essential to the young writer who must also seek to become a strong reader. I bought this book while I was still in high school and found it much more engrossing and thoughtful than any of my school literature texts and better certainly better than my high school teachers.
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Noam Chomsky on the economy and democracy [Mar. 30th, 2009|12:30 pm]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

[Current Music |Rhonda Vincent / Bananaphone]

Noam Chomsky on the economy and democracy
Pt1Chomsky: Plan is recycled Bush/Paulson. We need nationalization and steps towards democratization March 26, 2009
Pt2 Noam Chomsky: The best way to move forward is support unionization



PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. We're in Cambridge at MIT with Professor Noam Chomsky, who I think needs no introduction. Thanks for joining us.

CHOMSKY: Glad to be with you.

JAY: So a few days ago, the Obama administration and Geithner, they announced their plan for the banks. What do you make of it?

CHOMSKY: Well, there are several plans, actually. One is capitalization. The other, the more recent one, is picking up the toxic assets with a private-public coalition. And that sent the stock market zooming right away. And you can see why: it's extremely good for bankers and investors. It means that an investor can, if they want, purchase these valueless assets. And if they happen to go up, well, it makes money; if they go down, the government insures it. So there might be a slight loss, but there could be a big gain. And that's—one financial manager put it in The Financial Times this morning, "It's a win-win situation."

JAY: A win-win situation if you're the investor.

CHOMSKY: If you're the investor, yeah.

JAY: If you're the investor.

CHOMSKY: For the public it's a lose-lose situation. But they're simply recycling, pretty much, the Bush-Paulson measures and changing them a little, but essentially the same idea: keep the institutional structure the same, try to kind of pass things up, bribe the banks and investors to help out, but avoid the measures that might get to the heart of the problem—however, at the cost, if you consider it a cost, of changing the institutional structure.

JAY: What's the plan you would support?

CHOMSKY: Well, I mean, say, for example, take the bonuses, the AIG bonuses that are, you know, causing such anger, rightfully. Dean Baker pointed out that there's an easy way to deal with it. Since the government pretty much owns AIG anyway (it just doesn't use its power to make decisions), split off the section of AIG—the financial investment section—that caused all the problems, split it off, and let it go bankrupt. And then the executives can seek to get their bonuses from a bankrupt firm if they like. So that would pretty much take care of the bankruptcy problem, and the government would still maintain its large-scale effective control, if it wants to exert it, of what's viable in AIG. And with the banks, the big banks, like Bank of America, one of the big problems is nobody knows what's going on inside. You know, there are very opaque devices and manipulations which technically the government—. They're not going to tell you themselves. You know, why should they? It's not their business. In fact, when Associated Press sent journalists to interview bank managers and investment-firm managers and ask them what they've done with the TARP [Troubled Assets Relief Program] money, they just laughed. They said, "It's none of your business. We're private enterprises. Your task, the public, is to fund us, but not to know what we're doing." But the government could find out—namely, essentially, take over the banks.

JAY: Is all of this sort of machinations of policy because they want to avoid nationalization?

CHOMSKY: You don't have to use the word "nationalization" if it bothers people, but some form of, you know, receivership which would at least allow independent investigators, government investigators, to get into the books, find out what they're doing, who owes what to whom, which is the basis for any form of modification. I mean, it could go on to something much beyond, but it's not contemplated. It's not a law of nature that corporations have to be dedicated solely to profit for their shareholders. It's not even legislation. It's mostly court decisions and management rules and so on. And it's perfectly conceivable for corporations, if they exist, to be responsible to stakeholders, to the community, to the workforce.

JAY: Well, especially when it's all public money at this point that's running the system.

CHOMSKY: Look, fact of the matter is it's almost always public money. So take, say, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates. How did he become the richest man in the world? Well, a lot of it was public money. In fact, places like where we're sitting right now,—


CHOMSKY: —that's where computers were developed, the Internet was developed, fancy software was developed, either here or in similar places, and almost entirely on public funding. And then, of course, I mean, the way the system works, fundamentally—it's kind of an overstatement, but fundamentally, is that the public pays the costs and takes the risks, and the profit is privatized.

JAY: Which is what we're seeing now with the whole [inaudible] bailout.

CHOMSKY: Well, there's a lot of talk about it now because it's the financial institutions and it's very visible, but this happens all the time. I mean, as I say, computers and the Internet, the basis for the IT revolution in the late '90s.

JAY: So when you say "challenging the institutional structure," what would you like to see happen?

CHOMSKY: For a start, corporations, banks, and so on should be, I think, responsible to stakeholders. That's not a huge change. In fact, it's even been brought to the courts. It was an important case, highly relevant now. About 30 years ago, when the major steel companies wanted to destroy the Youngstown steel plants—major part of the steel industry, you know, the core of the community had been built up around it, and so on—and they wanted to move it or get rid of it. And the workers and the community wanted to keep it and felt they could run it privately. And in fact they brought a case up through the courts, arguing that the management rules ought to be changed so that stakeholders, rather than just shareholders, would have control over the corporation. Well, it lost in the courts, naturally, but it's a perfectly feasible idea. It could be a way to keep communities alive and the industry here.

JAY: So if you're looking at the financial system now and you take this principle, the representing the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, what would that look like in terms of policy?

CHOMSKY: First of all, to begin with, it would mean that the government would not just bail out the banks, pour capital into them, but would exercise control. And control begins with inspection. So we find out what they're doing. And then you keep the viable parts. And if they're viable, they might just vote it into public control. I mean, the government could probably have, you know, bought AIG or Citigroup for far less than what they're paying them now. I mean, in a democratic society, the government would meet the public, and then there should be direct public engagement in what these institutions ought to do and how they ought to distribute their money, what the terms ought to be, and so on. I mean, they could be democratically run by the workforce, by the community.

JAY: But doesn't it—whether you use the word or not, requires a kind of nationalization. I mean, does the bank then become a publicly owned institution?

CHOMSKY: They become publicly owned institutions which serve the public and where decisions are made by the public. That's a long way off. You have to approach that in steps. When you think of nationalization, you know, the doctrinal system, with historical reasons, associates nationalization with, you know, some Big Brother taking it over, and the public follows orders. But that's not necessarily the way it's done. There are many nationalized institutions that are run quite efficiently. In fact, take, say, Chile, which is supposed to be the poster child for, you know, Thatcherite/Reaganite free-market economics. A large part of the economy's based on a nationalized, very efficient copper producer, Codelco, which was nationalized by Allende, but was so effective that during the Pinochet years it was never dismantled. Actually, it's being sort of chipped away at now, but it still provides the—I think it's still the biggest copper producer in the world, provides most of the government income. And elsewhere too there are highly successful nationalized firms. But nationalization is only one step towards democratization. The question is who manages them, who makes the decisions, who controls them. Now, in the case of nationalized institutions, it's still top-down, but it doesn't have to be. I mean, again, it's not a law of nature that institutions can't be democratically run.

JAY: What would it look like?

CHOMSKY: What would they look like?

JAY: Mm.

CHOMSKY: The participation by workers councils, by community organizations at meetings, discussions in which policies are made—that's how democracy's supposed to work. I mean, we're very far from that, I mean, even in the political system. Just take, say, primaries. Okay, the way our system works, candidates running for office, his campaign managers go to some town in New Hampshire and they set up a meeting, and the candidate comes in and says, "Here's what a nice guy I am. Vote for me." You know. And people either believe him or not and go home. Suppose we had a democratic system that worked the other way around. The people in the town of New Hampshire would get together at conferences, meetings, public organizations, and so on, and they would work out the policies that they would like to see. And then, if somebody's running for office, he can come; if they want, they could invite him, and he would listen to them. They would say, look, here's the policies we want you to implement; if you can do this, we'll allow you to represent us, but we'll recall you if you're not doing it.

JAY: Well, as you say, this is far off in terms of today's politics.

CHOMSKY: It's not that far off. It happens.

JAY: But at the national level, it's—.

CHOMSKY: At the national level it's far off. But let's take what's probably the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere, although people don't like to think of it that way, Bolivia. It's the poorest country in the hemisphere. It's the poorest in South America. It's had elections in the last couple of years in which the large majority of the population, who happen to be the most repressed people in the hemisphere, the indigenous population, have for the first time in 500 years entered the political arena, determined the policies they want, and elected a leader from their own ranks, a poor peasant. And the issues are very serious—their control over resources, economic justice, cultural rights, the complexities of a very diverse multi-ethnic society. The policies are pretty much coming out of the public themselves, and the president is supposed to implement them. Now, you know, nothing works that perfectly, all sorts of problems, but that's kind of the basic theme. Okay. That's functioning democracy. It's almost the opposite of the way our system works.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk about the future of democracy, or what we might call it, in the United States. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Professor Noam Chomsky.



Noam Chomsky Interview (2 of 4)

Transcribed from file chomsky0324_pt02_maincam.MP3. Runtime 11:48 (SMPTE drop, 29.97 FPS).

PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We're at Cambridge at MIT with Professor Noam Chomsky. Thanks for joining us again. So, in the first segment of our interview, we talked about what a Chomsky-supported economic plan might look like, which has to do with considering the public stakeholders, I guess, and not just consumers, and what that might mean in terms of banking and democracy. And as we get into the issue of democracy, what do you think in fact is going to happen here? By that I mean the current plans for the financial sector, the auto sector, the general stimulus plan. One, do you think they're going to work? And if they're not going to work, what are we heading into in terms of the intensity of the crisis? And what does that mean in terms of American democracy?

NOAM CHOMSKY: I don't think anybody knows whether they're going to work. It's kind of shots in the dark. The general—and I don't have any particular insight—my guess is that it's not going to be the Great Depression, but that there may be some difficult years ahead and a lot of patchwork if the current policies are pursued. Now, the crucial core of current policies is keep the institutional structure stable: same structure to authority; domination, decision-making from the top. You know, public has a role. You know, it can be consumers. You can rent yourself to it—it's called getting a job.

JAY: And putting up the money to bail out.

CHOMSKY: And you can put up the money to bail it out, but you're not part of the decision-making apparatus. There's almost certainly—in fact, it's certain there will be some form of regulation. I mean, the deregulation mania of the past 30 years, based on really fundamentalist religious concepts about efficient markets, I mean, that's pretty much gone, and that went very fast. So take, say, Lawrence Summers, who's now the chief—practically the chief economic advisor, has got to rebuild the regulation system of the kind he destroyed a few years ago. He was in the lead in blocking Congress from regulating derivatives and other exotic instruments, under the influence of these pretty much smashed ideas about efficient markets and rational choice and so on. Alright, that much is really shattered, and there will be a reconstruction of some regulatory apparatus. But the history of this is pretty clear and understandable: regulatory systems tend to be taken over by the industries that they're regulating. That's the way it worked with the railroads and so on. And it's natural. You know, they have power, concentrated power, concentrated capital, enormous political influence—they pretty much run the government. So it ends up with them taking over control of the regulatory apparatus in their own interest. And it may work. You know. So, for example, during [what] many economists call the golden age of modern state capitalism, roughly 1950 to the mid-'70s, you know, there were no huge crises. There was a regulatory system, there was regulation of capital flows, exchange rates, and so on, and it led to the greatest peacetime growth in history. It changed in the mid-'70s when the economy moved towards deregulation and financialization, huge-amount increase in flows of speculative financial capital, mythologies about efficient markets. And there was growth, of course, but it was highly concentrated in a few pockets, and we've been through 30 years of relative stagnation in real wages for the majority of the population.

JAY: And how does any of that change? The stimulus [inaudible] stimulus plan [inaudible]

CHOMSKY: No. In fact, it's not—well, you know, it's interesting. There's a slight redistributive aspect in tax policy, very slight. I mean, it's called, you know, socialism, communism, and so on, but it barely gets back to where it was a few years ago. On the other hand, the best way to lead to a more egalitarian system would be, simply, permit unionization. Unions traditionally have not only improved the lives and benefits and, you know, working conditions and wages of workers, but they have also helped democratize society. They are one of the few means in which, you know, ordinary people can get together and make plans and influence public choices and so on. Now, that's not being pursued. In fact, it's kind of interesting: it's almost been driven out of our minds. There was a dramatic example of that a couple of weeks ago. President Obama wanted to show his solidarity with working people, so he went to Illinois and talked at an industrial plant. The choice was striking: he chose Caterpillar. Now, he had to do that over the objections of church and human rights groups because of the devastating effect that Caterpillar machines are having in the Israeli-occupied territories, where they're wiping out agricultural land and destroying all of the roads and villages and so on. But nobody, as far as I can see, noticed something even more dramatic. I mean, Caterpillar has a role in US labor history. Caterpillar was the first plant in generations to bring in scabs to destroy a strike. Now, that was, I think, 1988, sort of part of the Reagan attack on labor, but this was the first industrial installation to do it. Now, that's a huge, important fact. At that point, the United States was alone, along with South Africa, in permitting anything like this. And that essentially destroys the right of association for working people.

JAY: The Employee Free Choice Act, which is supposed to be something that's going to facilitate unionization, we haven't heard much about it since the election.

JAY: Didn't hear much about it. We didn't hear anything when Obama went to the plant, which is the symbol of destruction of labor by unfair practices, because this has been driven out of people's minds. The Employee Free Choice Act is always misrepresented. It's described as an effort to avoid secret elections. It's not that. It's an effort to allow workers to decide whether there should be secret elections, instead of leaving decisions entirely in the hands of employers, who can use card check if they want [inaudible] they can choose, you know, a secret election, but workers can too. That's what the act would now—. On the campaign trail, Obama talked about it, but it steadily receded into the background. And a much bigger step towards, you know, overcoming the radical redistribution to the top that took place in the last 30 years would simply be to ease the efforts at unionization. Now, you know, every recent president since Reagan has attacked this. I mean, Reagan straight out told employers, "We're not going to apply the law." So firing of workers—legal firing—for organizing I think tripled, according to Business Week, during the Reagan years. When Clinton came along it was basically a different device—it's called NAFTA. NAFTA provided employers with a wonderful means to prevent organizing: just put up a big sign saying "Mexico transfer operation." It's illegal, but if the government's an outlaw government, you can get away with it. And the Bush years we don't have to talk about. But you could reverse this, and that would be a significant step towards not only slightly reversing the enormous redistribution of income to the top, but also democratizing the society by providing mechanisms by which people can act politically in their own interest. But, you know, that's so far at the margins it's barely being discussed. And things like, say, stakeholder control of institutions, workers in the community, it's not much below the surface in people's minds. It is being pushed aside. Now, if you look back to the 1930s, when maybe the closest—it's not the same, but rather similar issues were arising, what really struck fear into the hearts of the business world were the sit-down strikes. That's when business started talking about the hazard facing industrialists and the rising political power of the masses and so on. Now, what's so threatening about a sit-down strike? Well, you know, a sit-down strike is just five seconds before the idea emerges, "Why should we sit here? Why not run the factory? We can do it, arguably better than the managers can, 'cause we know how it works." Now, that's frightening. And it's beginning to happen. Just a month ago there was a sit-down strike in a Chicago plant, Republic Windows and Floors, I think it was called. You know, the multinational that owned it wanted to close it down or move it somewhere or something. And the workers, they demonstrated it and protested, you know, and so on, but finally there was a sit-down strike. Well, they sort of half-won; they didn't completely win. A lot of them kept their jobs. A different company bought it. But it didn't move on to the next step. The next step is, "Well, why shouldn't we run the plant, along with the community, which cares about it, and maybe a broader community, which also cares, in the general public?" Well, you know, those are issues that really ought to be discussed.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let's take this conversation of what American democracy might look like in the next few years, especially if this economic crisis continues to unravel. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Noam Chomsky.

Jerry Monaco's Philosophy, Politics, Culture Weblog is
Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy, and Culture

His fiction, poetry, weblog is
Hopeful Monsters: Fiction, Poetry, Memories

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Learning, Recruitment,Computational Explanation [Mar. 25th, 2009|06:59 am]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

[Below is some criticism of Jerry Fodor's retreat from the computational model of concept acquisition as he expressed it in his update of The Language of Thought in LOT 2]

Everything we know about the evolution of human intelligence indicates that, in an allied manner, our brains display a remarkable ability to cobble together ancestral reasoning schemes for, say, route planning to serve novel ends such as abstract mathematical reasoning (most mathematicians heavily employ their "geometrical intuition" to guide their thinking even in topics that bear no evident resemblance to navigational plotting). To be sure, the hasty and imperfect conclusions reached through such "borrowed reasoning" techniques often need to be scrutinized by outside checks (allied monitoring requirements are commonplace within scientific computing applications as well). Nonetheless, our most productive flights of inferential fancy remain primarily driven by various complex routines that our distant forebears had developed for the sake of efficient hunting and foraging. Indeed, the swift expansion within evolutionary time of human reasoning capacity seems explicable only through this plastic reallocation of fixed computational resources.

In this cobbling together of pre-established routines for novel applications through rerouting, we witness a basic framework for "concept learning" that, pace Fodor, does not represent a simple matter of confirming hypotheses articulated in terms of physical meanings already locked into his postulated "language of thought." Indeed, the genius of this kind of "learning" lies precisely in the fact that it allows our ancestral brain vocabulary v1, v2, . . . to shed their original semantic associations for the sake of new adaptive applications. For reasons I do not fully understand, Fodor persistently assumes that our basic "language of thought" vocabulary will maintain fixed "semantic readings" in all of their tokenings, despite the wide variety of popular computer techniques where this constancy does not obtain. True, within any specific application each brain language computational registration s can usually be semantically interpreted as carrying pertinent physical information with respect to the application at hand, but this assignment will not remain constant across all tokened appearances of s and can be sensibly attributed to s only after considering the purpose of the larger computational package to which s presently belongs. This innocent concession to the role of "embedded context" suggests that certain flavors of what Fodor dismisses as "pragmatic considerations" will prove useful to the computationalist.

In much of his recent thinking, Fodor has waxed "purist" about "conceptual grasp" in a fairly standard apriorist manner that does not benefit the CTM program at all. When a student learns a "new concept" within physics or mathematics, what does she really do? Although some official "definition" for a term like "differentiable manifold" may be found in her textbooks, many excellent pupils prefer to have some adept draw them an assortment of suggestive sketches on a napkin so that they can gain an ample sense of what Oliver Heaviside called "the practical go of the affair." In doing so, the pupil typically cobbles together an assortment of "borrowed" geometrical routines that allow her to reach appropriate heuristic conclusions about MANIFOLDS swiftly. Such students typically attend to the official "definitions" in their texts only as an "after the fact" check upon the validity of their geometrically facilitated conclusions. Indeed, some very good mathematicians pass through life without absorbing "proper definitions" for their key concepts at all. In terms of practical conceptual success, it is plainly the accumulated raft of borrowed, imperfect yet physically effective inferential and applicational techniques that keeps a concept like DIFFERENTIABLE MANIFOLD afloat within its home discipline and allows it to "lock onto" (Fodor's term) a real world correlate as "semantic value." For such definition-eschewing thinkers, Fodor cannot plausibly claim that, in any straightforward acquisitional sense, "knowing that is prior to knowing how." True, such "borrowed search routine" skills inevitably leave applicational holes that can only be closed through proper definitions and, until such steps are taken, many sentences frameable within the underlying language will lack proper truth-values. In consequence, our definition-shunning pupils will not be able to deal with such sentences adequately (these unsettled swatches of grammar often prove relatively unimportant within the discipline itself). But none of this indicates that the central core of "conceptual mastery" within real life practice doesn't rely primarily upon a rich medley of "planning" skills of exactly the sort that Fodor dismisses as "conceptually irrelevant." I can appreciate why a philosopher interested in the "metaphysics" of "concepts" or "properties" should find the resulting truth-value gaps pertinent, but they seem improperly emphasized within LOT 2's orbit of psychological concerns.


Allied considerations suggest that Fodor's firm insistence upon the "compositionality of concepts" has been prematurely decided as well. Consider a favorite example of mine: "rainbow."[3] From a parsing point of view, children learn to respond at an early age to virtually any sentential prompt with an appropriate picture: "Draw me a brown rainbow that is approaching a little girl endways." There is little doubt that she compiles the desired artistic task through recursive assembly upon the sentential components presented. But that parsing skill alone, admirable and complex as it is, does not fully prepare the child to apply such sentences to the real world with any assurance that these grammatical units will gain appropriate truth-values. Her recursive parsing for the sake of artistry relies upon a faulty picture of how the term "rainbow" obtains its real life physical significance and she must learn more about the "practical go" of adult "rainbow" talk before she will be able to apply RAINBOW to atmospheric phenomena competently. Typically, we learn such improvements simply by absorbing a revised set of skills comparable in their pragmatic content to the routines that our definition-eschewing mathematicians acquire. After this adult mastery is achieved, our further educated child will recognize that her recursive parsing of the phrase "brown rainbow" had rested upon a wrong estimation of what the trait BROWN physically signifies and how it might fit with RAINBOW, for BROWN requires a figure/background contrast that is alien to most real life RAINBOW circumstances. In this sense, the physical semantic significance of "brown rainbow" will not straightforwardly obey the brute compositionality that Fodor posits, despite the fact that limited forms of recursive capacity form an initial component within the complex group of skills an agent must display before she can be judged fully competent in RAINBOW (we probably wouldn't credit someone with a complete grasp of RAINBOW if she couldn't draw the expected false picture with a brown crayon). Careful attention to scientific concepts often reveals allied behavior.

In short, the escape routes that allow CTM to evade Fodor's anti-localist anxieties should persuade computationalists to be more sympathetic to the "conceptual" relevance of "pragmatic" factors than Fodor recommends.

To me, the most surprising aspect of LOT 2 is how apriorist its argumentation has become; scarcely a single note of what I'd call "the computational complexity of everyday routine" enters its pages. The specific methods whereby our thought reaches semantic accommodation with the world are subtle and varied and careful attention to factors that Fodor dismisses as pragmatic ephemera will likely make up a vital part of the story. In attacking "concept pragmatism" in its lofty manner, LOT 2 runs the risk of encouraging doctrinal coagulations comparable to those against which LOT 1 valiantly argued.

[1] Christoph Sigwart, Logic, Vol. I, translated by Helen Dendy (London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., 1895), p. 248-9.

[2] Meaning, Knowledge and Reality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 412.

[3] For expansions of this example and the other considerations raised in this review, see my Wandering Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). The optical and psychological arrangements that sustain successful "rainbow" talk in real life are complicated and it is unclear whether unexpected natural circumstances might qualify the phrase "rainbow approaching endwise" as descriptively true.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2009-02-28 : View this Review Online : View Other NDPR Reviews

Jerry A. Fodor, LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited, Oxford University Press, 2008, 225pp., $37.95 (hbk), ISBN 9780199548774.

Reviewed by Mark Wilson, University of Pittsburgh

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Some Books on Altruism and Modeling [Mar. 25th, 2009|06:20 am]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco



Dugatkin, Lee Alan (1997) Cooperation among Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective. Oxford University Press.

Epstein, Joshua (2008) "Why model?" Santa Fe Institute No. 2008-09-040.

Seinen, Ingrid, and Schram, Arthur (2006) "Social Status and Group Norms: Indirect Reciprocity in a Helping Experiment," European Economic Review 50(3), 581-602.

Skyrms, Brian (1994) "Darwin meets The Logic of Decision: Correlation in Evolutionary Game Theory," Philosophy of Science 61(4): 503-528.

Wedekind, Claus, and Milinski, Manfred (2000) "Cooperation Through Image Scoring in Humans," Science 288, 850-852.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2009-03-27 : View this Review Online : View Other NDPR Reviews

Eckhart Arnold, Explaining Altruism: A Simulation-Based Approach and its Limits, Ontos, 2008, 310pp., $134.00 (hbk), ISBN 9783868380071.

Reviewed by Kevin J.S. Zollman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Noam Chomsky + Robert Trivers [Mar. 18th, 2009|05:43 am]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco



SEEDMAGAZINE.COM March 18, 2009 Subscribe to the magazine » RSS & Email Updates »

From the SEPTEMBER issue of Seed:

trivers_salon.jpg Robert Trivers   Credit: Julian Dufort

In the 1970s, a Harvard class taught by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers ignited a controversy that would escalate into the “sociobiology wars.” His papers provided a Darwinian basis for understanding complex human activities and relationships. Across town at MIT, revolutionary linguist Noam Chomsky had earned a reputation as a leading opponent of the Vietnam War. Throughout those pivotal years, and in the following decades, the two explored similar ideas from different perspectives. Long aware of each other’s work, they had never met until a couple of months ago, when they sat down to compare notes on some common interests: deceit and self-deception.

Noam Chomsky: One of the most important comments on deceit, I think, was made by Adam Smith. He pointed out that a major goal of business is to deceive and oppress the public.

And one of the striking features of the modern period is the institutionalization of that process, so that we now have huge industries deceiving the public—and they’re very conscious about it, the public relations industry. Interestingly, this developed in the freest countries—in Britain and the US—roughly around time of WWI, when it was recognized that enough freedom had been won that people could no longer be controlled by force. So modes of deception and manipulation had to be developed in order to keep them under control.

And by now these are huge industries. They not only dominate marketing of commodities, but they also control the political system. As anyone who watches a US election knows, it’s marketing. It’s the same techniques that are used to market toothpaste.

Seed Video Feature: Noam Chomsky + Robert Trivers

Eavesdrop on the conversation between the MIT linguist and Rutgers evolutionary biologist. (Click on below to see footage from the Seed Salon.)


And, of course, there are power systems in place to facilitate this. Throughout history it’s been mostly the property holders or the educated classes who’ve tended to support power systems. And that’s a large part of what I think education is—it’s a form of indoctrination. You have to reconstruct a picture of the world in order to be conducive to the interests and concerns of the educated classes, and this involves a lot of self-deceit.

Robert Trivers: So you’re talking about self-deception in at least two contexts. One is intellectuals who, in a sense, go through a process of education which results in a self-deceived organism who is really working to serve the interests of the privileged few without necessarily being conscious of it at all.
The other thing is these massive industries of persuasion and deception, which, one can conceptualize, are also inducing a form of either ignorance or self-deception in listeners, where they come to believe that they know the truth when in fact they’re just being manipulated.

So let me ask you, when you think about the leaders—let’s say the present set of organisms that launched this dreadful Iraq misadventure—how important is their level of self-deception? We know they launched the whole thing in a swarm of lies, the evidence for which is too overwhelming to even need to be referred to now. My view is that their deception leads to self-deception very easily.

NC: I agree, though I’m not sure they launched it with lies, and it’s perfectly possible they believed it.

RT: Yes.

NC: I mean, they had a goal—we don’t have a detailed record, but from the record we have, it’s as if they sort of cherry-picked and coerced intelligence to yield evidence that would contribute to that goal.

RT: Yes.

NC: And anything that conflicted with it was just tossed out. In fact people were tossed out—like the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

RT: Right, indeed.

NC: I mean, I think we all know from personal life, if there’s something you want to do, it’s really easy to convince yourself it’s right and just. You put away evidence that shows that’s not true.

So it’s self-deception but it’s automatic, and it requires significant effort and energy to try to see yourself from a distance. It’s hard to do.

RT: Oh, it is. I think in everyday life we’re aware of the fact that when we’re watching something on stage, so to speak, we have a better view than the actors on the stage have. If you can see events laterally, you can say, my god, they’re doing this and they’re doing that. But if you’re embedded in that network it’s much harder.

chomsky_salon.jpg Noam Chomsky   Credit: Julian Dufort

NC: In fact, you can see it very clearly by just comparing historical events that are similar They’re never identical, but similar.

Take the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the US invasion of Iraq—just take those three. From the point of view of the people who perpetrated these acts, they were each a noble effort and done for the benefit of everyone—in fact the self-justifications are kind of similar. It almost translates. But we can’t see it in ourselves; we can only see it in them, you know. Nobody doubts that the Russians committed aggression, that Saddam Hussein committed aggression, but with regard to ourselves it’s impossible.

I’ve reviewed a lot of the literature on this, and it’s close to universal. We just cannot adopt toward ourselves the same attitudes that we adopt easily and in fact, reflexively, when others commit crimes. No matter how strong the evidence.

RT: Not the overall crime.

NC: In fact, here’s another case like Afghanistan and Kuwait. Dick Cheney was recently somewhere in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, I believe. He was getting them to make sure to direct their pipelines to the West, so the US can control them.
And he said, control over pipelines is a means—these are tools for intimidation and blackmail. He was talking about if somebody else controlled them. Like if China controlled the pipelines, it’s a tool of intimidation and blackmail. But if the US controls the pipelines, it’s just benevolent and free and wonderful.

RT: Yes.

NC: And I was interested to see if anybody is going to comment on that. I mean, as long as he’s talking about somebody else’s control, then it’s intimidation and blackmail. The very moment he’s trying to get them to give us control, that’s liberation and freedom. To be able to live with those contradictions in your mind, really does take a good education. And it’s true in case after case.


RT: It’s the psychology of deceit and self-deception. When you start talking about groups, there are some very interesting analogies. Psychologists have shown that people make these verbal switches when they’re in a we/they situation, in a your-group-versus-another situation.

NC: Groups that are simply set up for the experiment, you mean?

RT: It can be. You can also do it experimentally, or you can be talking about them and their group versus someone that’s not a member of their group.

But you have the following kinds of verbal things that people do, apparently quite unconsciously. If you’re a member of my group and you do something good, I make a general statement: “Noam Chomsky is an excellent person.” Now if you do something bad, I give a particular statement, “Noam Chomsky stepped on my toe.”

But it’s exactly reversed if you’re not a member of my group. If you’re not a member of my group and you do something good I say, “Noam Chomsky gave me directions to MIT.” But if he steps on my toe I say, “He’s a lousy organism,” or “He’s an inconsiderate person.”

So we generalize positively to ourselves, particularize negative and reverse it when we’re talking about other people.

NC: Sounds like normal propaganda. Islamic people are all fascists. The Irish are all crooks.

We find repeatedly now—in wasps, in birds and in monkeys—that when organisms realize they’re being deceived they get pissed off. And they often attack the deceiver.

RT: Yes, exactly. Generalize a negative characteristic in the other. Another thing that comes to mind with respect to the Iraq case: There’s evidence suggesting that when you’re contemplating something—whether or marry Suzy, for instance—you’re in a deliberative stage. And you are considering options more or less rationally.

Now, once you decide to go with Suzy, you’re in the instrumental phase; you don’t want to hear about the negative side. Your mood goes up, and you delete all the negative stuff and you’re just, “Suzy’s the one.”

One thing that’s very striking about this Iraq disaster is there was no deliberative stage, unless you—

NC: —go back a few years.

RT: Yes, unless you refer to the 90s, when there were a couple of position papers by these same groups that said, “Let’s not go to war.”

But once 9/11 occurred, we know that within days, within hours, they were settling on Iraq and they went into the instrumental phase in a very major way. They didn’t want to hear anything of the downside.

NC: That was dismissed.

RT: It was dismissed entirely. And these firewalls were set up so there was no communication. And if someone came into Rumsfeld’s office and said, “Well, gee…” Well, [General] Shinseki got an early retirement plan.

And Wolfowitz comes in the very next day and says, “Hard to imagine that we’d need more troops to occupy than to knock over.” But that was established military doctrine; we’d known that for more than 50 years.

NC: Just didn’t want to hear it.

RT: Didn’t want to hear it. So, I’m trying to understand these phenomena at the individual level and also put them together in groups, since at times institutions act like individuals in the way they practice internal self-deception.

This was Feynman’s famous analysis of NASA and the Challenger disaster. I don’t know if you ever read the analysis—it was beautiful. He said that, when we decided to go to the moon in the 60s, there was no disagreement in the society, for better or worse. Everybody said, “Let’s beat the Soviets to the moon.” And the thing was built rationally from the ground up, and by god, before the decade was out we were on the moon and back safely.

Now, they had a $5 billion bureaucracy with nothing to do. So they had to come up with rationales for what they did. So they decided on manned flight because it’s more expensive, and they decided on the reusable shuttle, which turned out to be more expensive than if you just used a new shuttle every time. But they always had to sell this thing as making sense.

So, Feynman argued that the NASA higher-ups were busy selling this pile of you-know-what to the general public. They didn’t want to hear anything negative from the people down below. This was his analysis for how they came up with this O-ring nonsense.

They had a safety unit that was supposed to be involved in safety, but ended up being subverted in function, to rationalize non-safety. And the classic example is, there were 24 flights, I think it was 24, prior to the disaster. And of those, seven suffered O-ring damage—

NC: —detected.

RT: Detected, yes. In one of them the O-ring had been burned through—a third of the way through. Now, how did they handle this? It was statistically significant. They said, “17 flights had no damage, so they’re irrelevant”—and they excluded them. Seven had damage, sometimes at high temperature, therefore temperature was irrelvant.

Then they came up with real absurdities. They said we built in a three-fold safety factor. That’s to say, it only burned a third of the way through. But that, as you know, is a perversion of language. By law you are required to build elevators with an 11-fold safety factor, which means you pack it full of people, run it up and down, there is no damage to your equipment. Now you make it 11 times as strong.

NC: And all of this data was available.

RT: All of it was available.


RT: There’s an analogy here to individual self-deception. Information is often somewhere in the organism; it’s just well-hidden. It’s well down in the unconscious. And it’s often inaccessible because you build up firewalls against it.

NC: Are there any animal analogs to this?

RT: Well, I don’t know. I believe that self-deception has evolved in two situations at least in other creatures, and that it can be studied. I’ve suggested a way to do it, but so far nobody’s done it.

For example, when you make an evaluation of another animal in a combat situation—let’s say male/male conflict—the other organism’s sense of self-confidence is a relevant factor in your evaluation.

NC: And that’s shown by its behavior.

RT: Exactly—through its suppressing signs of fear and not giving anything away, and so forth. So you can imagine selection for overconfidence—

NC: —for showing overconfidence, even if it’s not real.

RT: Yes. Likewise in situations of courtship, where females are evaluating males. Again, the organism’s sense of self is relevant. We all know that low self-esteem is a sexual romantic turn-off.

So again, you can have selection—without language it seems to me—for biased kinds of information flow within the organism in order to keep up a false front.

NC: And it may be that the animal that’s putting up a false front knows it’s a false front.

RT: Yes, but it may benefit from not knowing—

NC: —because it’s easier.

RT: Easier to do it and perhaps more convincing because you’re not giving away evidence.

NC: Secondary signs.

RT: Exactly.

NC: Is there any evidence about that, or is it just speculation?

RT: What you heard is rank speculation.

NC: Can it be investigated?

RT: I do not know of anybody who is doing it on self-deception. There is excellent work being done on deception in other creatures.

Wolfowitz comes in the very next day and says, “Hard to imagine that we’d need more troops to occupy than to knock over.”  But that was established military doctrine; we’d known that for more than 50 years.

To give you just one line of work that’s of some interest: We find repeatedly now—in wasps, in birds and in monkeys—that when organisms realize they’re being deceived, they get pissed off. And they often attack the deceiver. Especially if the deceiver is over-representing him or herself. If you’re under-representing and showing yourself as having less dominance than you really have, you’re not attacked. And the ones that do attack you are precisely those whose dominance status you are attempting to expropriate or mimic.

It’s very interesting and it suggests some of the dynamic in which fear of being detected while deceiving can be a secondary signal, precisely because if you are detected, you may get your butt kicked or get chased out.

NC: There’s a name for that in the international affairs literature; its called maintaining credibility. You have to carry out violent acts to maintain credibility, even if the issue is insignificant.

RT: Right.

NC: It’s kind of like the Mafia.

RT: Yes, I know, I’ve heard that rationale used for odious stuff—we’re maintaining
credibility, maintaining street cred.

NC: That’s a common theme. It’s usually masked in some sense, so it’s the credibility of the West, or the Free World, or something or other.

___page break___


NC: Are there ways of studying self-deception?

RT: Yes, there was a brilliant study by [Ruben] Gur and [Harold] Sackeim, about 20 years ago—which was a very difficult one to do then, you could do it much more easily now—based on the fact that we respond to hearing our own voice with greater arousal than we do to hearing another human’s voice. In both cases we show physiological arousal—galvanic skin response is one such measure. There’s twice as big a jump if you hear your own voice.

Now, what you can do is have people matched for age and sex, read the same boring paragraph from Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolution,” chop it up into two, four, six and 12 second segments, and create a master tape where some of the time they’re hearing their own voice, but a lot of the time they’re not.

Then they’ve got to press a button indicating if they think it’s their own and a second button to indicate how sure they are. But meanwhile they have the galvanic skin response.

Now they discovered two interesting things. First of all, some people denied their own voice some of the time but the skin always had it right. Some projected their own voice some of the time, the skin always had it right.

The deniers denied the denial, but half the time, the projectors were willing to admit afterwards that they thought they’d made the mistake of projection.

NC: What do you think the reason for that is?

RT: The difference between the projectors and the deniers? Well, I don’t have a good way of putting it, Noam, but to me when you want to deny reality, you’ve got to act quickly and get it out of sight. The deniers also showed the highest levels of galvanic skin response to all stimuli. It’s like they were primed to do it. And inventing reality is a little bit more of a relaxed enterprise I suppose.

NC: It’s not as threatening.

RT: Yes, something like that. The final thing Gur and Sackeim showed was that they could manipulate it. Psychologists have lots of devices for making you feel bad about yourself, and one of them is just to give you an exam. They did this with university students. Then they told half of them, you did lousy, and half of them, you did well.

And what they found was that those who were made to feel badly about themselves started to deny their own voice more, while those who were feeling good started hearing themselves talking when they weren’t. Now since we didn’t evolve to hear our voice on a tape recorder, we have to interpret here. But it’s like self-presentation is contracting on your failure and expanding on your success.

But back to your question, among animals, birds in particular have been shown to have the same physiological arousal that humans do—arousal to their own species song, and more arousal to their particular voice.

NC: So higher for their species and still higher for themselves?

RT: Exactly.

NC: Is there any kin effect?

RT: That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer. In general, kin relations in birds are poorly developed—they often don’t even nest next to their relatives.
But in principle I thought you could run a Gur and Sackeim experiment on birds, where pecking could substitute for pushing the button on the computer. You would train them in a reward system to peck when they recognize their own song.

NC: So how do you get to self-deceit from this?

RT: Well, you would manipulate them once again by, for example, subjecting some birds to negative experiences like losing fights, which you could rig by matching them with animals that are somewhat larger than them. And similarly, others would get to win fights. And then you could see if there’s a tendency to deny self.

NC: You might be interested in a book that’s coming out by a very smart guy, James Peck, a Sinologist, who has a book coming out called Washington’s China, in which he does a very in-depth analysis of the National Security culture. It’s about the imagery of China that was constructed in Washington.

He went through the National Security Council literature, background literature and so on, and he does both an analysis of content and a psychological analysis. I was reminded of it the whole time you were talking.

Information is often somewhere in the organism; it’s just well-hidden, down in the unconscious. And it’s often inaccessible because you build up firewalls against it.

What he says is that there are elaborate techniques of self-deception to try to build a framework in which we can justify things like, say, invading or overthrowing the government of Guatemala, on the basis of some new objective. And it’s done by making everything simple. You have to make it clearer than the truth.

RT: Right.

NC: And as this picture gets created internally and built up by each group of National Security staffers, it becomes like a real fundamentalist religion, showing extraordinary self-deceit. And then you end up with the Cheneys and the Rumsfelds.

RT: I’ve been appalled lately when I pass a newsstand and there’s some article, “China, the Next Threat,” saying, “Now we’ve got to mobilize all our energy against China”—and they’re talking military.

NC: That’s interesting, because the threat of China is not military.

RT: Exactly.

NC: The threat of China is they can’t be intimidated—in fact it’s very similar to what you’ve described. Europe you can intimidate. When the US tries to get people to stop investing in Iran, European companies pull out, China disregards it.

RT: Right.

NC: You look at history and understand why—China’s been around for 4,000 years and just doesn’t give a damn. So the West screams, and they just go ahead and take over a big piece of Saudi or Iranian oil. You can’t intimidate them—it’s driving people in Washington berserk.

But, you know, of all the major powers, they’ve been the least aggressive militarily.

RT: No, the obvious threat—I mean, the obvious “threat”—is economic.

NC: And I think they plan it carefully. Like when President Hu Jintao was in Washington. When he left, he was going on a world trip. The next stop was Saudi Arabia. And that’s a slap in the face to the US. It’s just saying, “We don’t care what you say.”

RT: Right.

NC: I’m sure it was planned. That’s the kind of thing that intimidates. It’s a little bit like a gorilla pounding at its chest.

RT: Yeah, exactly. More power to them.

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On the Myth of Ape Language - Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matt Aames Cucchiaro [Mar. 16th, 2009|02:56 pm]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

[Current Music |Eu disse adeus a casinha]

On the Myth of Ape Language - Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matt Aames Cucchiaro
Electronic mail correspondence, 2007/2008
CUCCHIARO: As a prominent figure in the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of the 1950s, you were quite vocal in your criticism against Behaviorism—the dominant academic field of psychology at the time. In your Review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, you challenged his belief that language is acquired through training and in principle could be learned by other animals as well. Joseph Ledoux, neuroscientist at NYU, says that 'during the Behaviorists reign, for example, it was assumed that psychologists could study any kind of animal and find out how humans learn the things we learn. This logic was not only applied to those things that humans and animals do, like finding food and avoiding danger, but also to those things that humans do easily and animals do poorly if at all, like speaking.'

CHOMSKY: He's correct, dramatically so with regard to "radical behaviorists," like Skinner, but pretty much across the board. A curious fact is that they did not seem to realize how remote their doctrines were from serious biology.

CUCCHIARO: In Daniel Gilbert’s (Harvard psychologist) recent bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, he says that psychologists who’ve said that humans are the only animals who can use language were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs.’ I told him that you’d be interested to know about any examples of chimps using language, and he gave me a Wikipedia article to forward to you on ‘The Great Ape Language’.

CHOMSKY: Thanks. I'm well familiar with this work. It's an insult to chimpanzee intelligence to consider this their means of communication. It's rather as if humans were taught to mimic some aspects of the waggle dance of bees and researchers were to say, "Wow, we've taught humans to communicate." Furthermore, the more serious researchers, like Dave Premack, understand all of this very well.

CUCCHIARO: It seems that even after the numerous studies conducted in the 1970s -- and well beyond -- had clearly failed, the notion of chimps possibly learning language still persists. What do you think when researchers to this day, such as Susan Rumbaugh (ape trainer), claim that Bonobo chimps can draw signs and refer to it as language similar to humans’ ability?

CHOMSKY: It's all totally meaningless, so I don't participate in the debate. Humans can be taught to do a fair imitation of the complex bee communication system. That is not of the slightest interest to bee scientists, who are rational, and understand something about science: they are interested in the nature of bees, and it is of no interest if some other organism can be trained to partially mimic some superficial aspects of the waggle dance. And one could of course not get a grant to teach grad students to behave like imperfect bees. When we turn to the study of humans, for some reason irrationality commonly prevails -- possibly a reflection of old-fashioned dualism -- and it is considered significant that apes (or birds, which tend to do much better) can be trained to mimic some superficial aspects of human language. But the same rational criteria should hold as in the case of bees and graduate students. Possibly training graduate students to mimic the waggle dance could teach us something about human capacity, though it's unlikely. Similarly, it's possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes. That's the way the matter is approached by serious scientists, like Anne and David Premack. Others prefer to fool themselves.

CUCCHIARO: I don’t agree with your analogy using bees. Humans and chimps share almost entirely the same DNA [98.5%] and if a chimp had successfully learned ASL [American Sign Language] then wouldn’t it at least provide some wonderment into how language may be acquired?

CHOMSKY: I don't agree with you about the interpretation of the DNA figures, but if we assume you're right, then the absurdity of trying to teach apes language is even more obvious. Would it be of any interest to train grad students to more or less mimic apes? We would learn nothing about apes from the fact that grad students can be trained to more or less mimic them -- try to get an NSF contract to study that -- just as we learn nothing about humans from the facts that apes can be trained to mimic humans in some respects. Language is a notorious failure, exactly as any biologist and paleo-anthropologist would have expected. But if, say, Nim had succeeded, we would still have learned nothing about language acquisition, gaining neither more nor less wonderment, though we would have a biological problem. Namely, if apes have this fantastic capacity, surely a major component of humans extraordinary biological success (in the technical sense), then how come they haven't used it? It's as if humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them. Not inconceivable, but a biological problem, and about the only conceivable scientific consequence of the ape-language experiments, except what they might teach us about ape intelligence by training apes to deal with problems that are outside their normal cognitive range. This is all sentimentality of the worst sort.

CUCCHIARO: There’s a recent book out called Nim Chimpsky, chronicling the project in the 1970s where researchers were trying to disprove your theory that language is exclusively a human attribute. It’s an interesting read.

CHOMSKY: Interesting story about poor Nim. The experiment was carried out by a very serious experimental psychologist, Herbert Terrace. A convinced Skinnerian [student of Behaviorist, B.F Skinner], he expected that if an ape was brought up just like a human it would be a little human. He had some very fine assistants, including some excellent former students of ours, and others who went on to be leading figures in the field. The experimentation was done with meticulous care. There's a book, called Nim, which describes it, with great enthusiasm, claiming at the end that it was a grand success and the ape is ready to go on to great things. Then comes the epilogue. When the experiment was over, a grad student working on a thesis did a frame-by-frame analysis of the training, and found that the ape was no dope. If he wanted a banana, he'd produce a sequence of irrelevant signs and throw in the sign for banana randomly, figuring that he'd brainwashed the experimenters sufficiently so that they'd think he was saying "give me a banana." And he was able to pick out subtle motions by which the experimenters indicated what they'd hope he'd do. Final result? Exactly what any sane biologist would have assumed: zero. Then comes the sad part. Chimps can get pretty violent as they get older, so they were going to send him to chimp heaven. But the experimenters had fallen in love with him, and tried hard to save him. He was finally sent off to some sort of chimp farm, where he presumably died peacefully -- signing the Lord's Prayer in his last moments.

CUCCHIARO: You've been quoted as saying, 'It's about as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless birds waiting for humans to teach them to fly.' The book, Nim Chimpsky, remarks at the fact that Apes have been able to sign probably about as well as children first learning; the implication being that if we call what children do, ‘language,’ then why not have the same standard for apes and call what they do, ‘language’?

CHOMSKY: That's about like saying that Olympic high jumpers fly better than young birds who've just come out of the egg -- or than most chickens. These are not serious comparisons. For whatever reason, the study of human higher mental faculties is pervaded by a curious form of irrationality, foreign to the sciences.

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Badiou, Set Theory, Anti-pomo [Mar. 15th, 2009|04:37 pm]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco


Badiou is one of several French philosophers pilloried by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (1998). Sokal, of course, authored the sham 1996 Social Text article, concocted as a meaningless essay in high lit-crit-theoretic style, and buttressed by facile, often bogus or inconsistent, appeals to quantum physics or relativity, all undetected by the editors. The hoax was widely reported in the popular press and Sokal has since continued his manic crusade, though with much less panache and success. One of Sokal's "tests" for intellectual value is whether one can detect a difference in meaning if key words are interchanged, say "being" and "other," or "mediation" and "reification," or whatever -- sort of a Turing test for intellectual quality. For Badiou in Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal and Bricmont, as they so often do, just selectively quote him, rhetorically ask the reader if it makes sense (of course not, devoid of context), and then go on. The second trick could be applied to Number and Numbers, perhaps with some honesty, but I think ultimately unfairly, as explained below. Badiou's ontological narrative is allusive, poetic, and deeply metaphorically inspired by his understanding of modern set theory. And Sokal's "reversal" test also fails. Badiou's vision is a wholly consistent one, built indeed from a stimulating historical account of the treatment of number by Gottlob Frege, Guiseppe Peano, Richard Dedekind, and Georg Cantor.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2008-10-02 : View this Review Online : View Other NDPR Reviews

Alain Badiou, Number and Numbers, Robin Mackay (tr.), Polity, 2008, 240pp., $24.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780745638799.

Reviewed by John Kadvany, Policy & Decision Science/johnkadvany.com

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The Northern Italian Working Class and the Northern League [Mar. 6th, 2009|02:59 pm]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

[Current Music |Guilt]

The magnitude of the ensuing disaster exceeded all expectations. The centre-right crushed the centre-left by a margin of 9.3 per cent, or some three and half million votes, giving it an overall majority of nearly 100 in the Chamber and 40 in the Senate. Gains within the victorious bloc were made, however, not by the newly minted PdL (into which Forza Italia and AN had merged), which actually ended up with 100,000 votes fewer than the two had secured in 2006. The big winner was the League, whose vote jumped by 1.5 million, accounting for virtually all the total increase in the score of the centre-right. The PD, presenting itself as the party of the progressive centre to which all well-disposed Italians could now rally, proved a complete flop. With just over 33 per cent of the vote, it mustered scarcely more support – on one reckoning, less – than its component parts in 2006. Indeed, even this score was reached only with the voto utile of about a fifth of the former voters of the parties of the left proper, which this time had combined into a rainbow alliance and been wiped out when it fell below the 4 per cent threshold, with a net loss of nearly 2.5 million votes. Overall, the value-added of the Democratic Party, created to reshape the political landscape by attracting voters away from the centre-right, turned out to be zero.

The shock of the election of 2008 has been compared to that of 1948, when the Christian Democrats – this was before opinion polls, so there was little advance warning – triumphed so decisively over the Communists and Socialists that they held power continuously for another 44 years. If no such durable hegemony is in sight for today’s centre-right, the condition of the centre-left, indeed the Italian left as a whole, is in most respects – morale, organisation, ideas, mass support – much worse than that of the PCI or PSI of sixty years ago: it would be more appropriate to speak of a Caporetto of the left. Central to the debacle has been the left’s displacement by the League among the Northern working class. The ability of parties of the right to win workers away from traditional allegiances on the left has become a widespread, if not unbroken pattern. First achieved by Thatcher in Britain, then by Reagan and Bush in America, and most recently by Sarkozy in France, only Germany, among the major Western societies, has so far resisted it. The League could, from this point of view, be regarded simply as the Italian instance of a general trend. But a number of features make it a more striking, special case.

The first, and most fundamental, is that it is not a party of the establishment, but an insurgent movement. There is nothing conservative about the League; its raison d’être is not order, but revolt. Its forte is raucous, hell-raising protest. Typically, movements of protest are short-winded – they come and go. The League, however, is now the oldest political party in Italy, indeed the only one that can look back on 30 years of activity. This is not an accident produced by the random workings of the break to the Second Republic. It reflects the second peculiarity of the League, its dynamism as a mass organisation, possessing cadres and militants that make it, in the words of Roberto Maroni, perhaps Bossi’s closest colleague, ‘the last Leninist party in Italy’. Over much of the North, it now functions somewhat as the PCI once did, as rueful Communist veterans often observe, with big gains in one formerly ‘red’ industrial stronghold after another: the Fiat works in Mirafiori, the big petrochemical plants in Porto Marghera, the famous proletarian suburb of Sesto San Giovanni outside Milan, setting in the 1950s of Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers. This is not to say that it has become a party based on labour. While it has captured much of the working-class vote across the North, the League’s core strength lies, as it has always done, among the small manufacturers, shopkeepers and self-employed in what were once fortresses of the DC: the Catholic provinces of the North-East, now increasingly secularised, where hatred of taxes and of interference by the central state runs especially strong. Here resentment of fiscal transfers to the South, perceived as a swamp of parasitic ne’er-do-wells, powered the League’s take-off in the late 1980s. Immigration from the Balkans, Africa and Asia, which has quadrupled over the last decade, is now the more acute phobia, laced with racism and prejudice against Islam. The shift of emphasis has, as might be expected, been a contributory factor in the spread of the League’s influence into the Northern working class, more exposed to competition in the labour market than to sales taxes.

An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End
Perry Anderson
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Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know it All [Feb. 19th, 2009|01:29 pm]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco

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[Current Music |Cry A While]

Scientific American Magazine - February 19, 2009
Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know it All
A mathematical theory places limits on how much a physical entity can know about the past, present or future

By Graham P. Collins

Deep in the deluge of knowledge that poured forth from science in the 20th century were found ironclad limits on what we can know. Werner Heisenberg discovered that improved precision regarding, say, an object's position inevitably degraded the level of certainty of its momentum. Kurt Gödel showed that within any formal mathematical system advanced enough to be useful, it is impossible to use the system to prove every true statement that it contains. And Alan Turing demonstrated that one cannot, in general, determine if a computer algorithm is going to halt.

David H. Wolpert, a physics-trained computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, has chimed in with his version of a knowledge limit. Because of it, he concludes, the universe lies beyond the grasp of any intellect, no matter how powerful, that could exist within the universe. Specifically, during the past two years, he has been refining a proof that no matter what laws of physics govern a universe, there are inevitably facts about the universe that its inhabitants cannot learn by experiment or predict with a computation. Philippe M. Binder, a physicist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, suggests that the theory implies researchers seeking unified laws cannot hope for anything better than a "theory of almost everything."

Wolpert's work is an effort to create a formal rigorous description of processes such as measuring a quantity, observing a phenomenon, predicting a system's future state or remembering past information—a description that is general enough to be independent of the laws of physics. He observes that all those processes share a common basic structure: something must be configured (whether it be an experimental apparatus or a computer to run a simulation); a question about the universe must be specified; and an answer (right or wrong) must be supplied. He models that general structure by defining a class of mathematical entities that he calls inference devices.

The inference devices act on a set of possible universes. For instance, our universe, meaning the entire world line of our universe over all time and space, could be a member of the set of all possible such universes permitted by the same rules that govern ours. Nothing needs to be specified about those rules in Wolpert's analysis. All that matters is that the various possible inference devices supply answers to questions in each universe. In a universe similar to ours, an inference device may involve a set of digital scales that you will stand on at noon tomorrow and the question relate to your mass at that time. People may also be inference devices or parts of one.

Wolpert proves that in any such system of universes, quantities exist that cannot be ascertained by any inference device inside the system. Thus, the "demon" hypothesized by Pierre-Simon Laplace in the early 1800s (give the demon the exact positions and velocities of every particle in the universe, and it will compute the future state of the universe) is stymied if the demon must be a part of the universe.

Researchers have proved results about the incomputability of specific physical systems before. Wolpert points out that his result is far more general, in that it makes virtually no assumptions about the laws of physics and it requires no limits on the computational power of the inference device other than it must exist within the universe in question. In addition, the result applies not only to predictions of a physical system's future state but also to observations of a present state and examining a record of a past state.

The theorem's proof, similar to the results of Gödel's incompleteness theorem and Turing's halting problem, relies on a variant of the liar's paradox—ask Laplace's demon to predict the following yes/no fact about the future state of the universe: "Will the universe not be one in which your answer to this question is yes?" For the demon, seeking a true yes/no answer is like trying to determine the truth of "This statement is false." Knowing the exact current state of the entire universe, knowing all the laws governing the universe and having unlimited computing power is no help to the demon in saying truthfully what its answer will be.

In a sense, however, the existence of such a paradox is not exactly earth-shattering. As Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it: "That your predictions about the universe are fundamentally constrained by you yourself being part of the universe you're predicting, always seemed pretty obvious to me—and I doubt Laplace himself would say otherwise if we could ask him." Aaronson does allow, though, that it is "often a useful exercise to spell out all the assumptions behind an idea, recast everything in formal notation and think through the implications in detail," as Wolpert has done. After all, the devil, or demon, is in the details.

Editor's Note: This story was originally printed with the title "Impossible Inferences"
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