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What to do when you've decided to be an artist

Recently, I came back across Walter Darby Bannard’s Aphorisms for Artists — 100 short “chapters” of observations, quips and warnings. They are meant to and indeed do inspire thinking about what is valuable in art, but they espouse a very particular conception of art. Bannard believes that art is a purely visual experience, and that the creation of art is almost solely about the materials. He’s an abstract expressionist painter, and post modernism is his enemy, where post-modernism is taken to include almost all of the art created by contemporary artists. I find this view peculiar and limiting, but I do enjoy living in it off and on. And I think that the contemporary approach to art making, which thrives on playing with meaning as much as materials, on mixing generes and media, and on voraciously devouring as much of the world for incorporation into art, will find much to use here.

Chapter 59. Making art is not risky.

Any true artist will immediately object to this. Why? because making art feels so risky. After all, you are putting heart and soul on the line.

When you are serious about your art, every perceived little success must be preserved, every perceived failure is a testament to your abject lack of talent, and every hesitant, anxious new stroke of paint betrays your meager ability and exposes you to ridicule.

Put a stop to this. When making art forget you are making art. Tell yourself you are working with a few dollars worth of disposable materials, trying to make something you and maybe some others will like to look at, something nice to pass the time.

It probably won’t work, but it’s worth a try.

I spent a couple of days reading through these, and during that time came across an interview of Ornette Coleman being interviewed by Jacques Derrida. As the pioneer of free jazz, Coleman is Bannard’s ally. As the de-facto inventor of post-modernist deconstructive analysis, Derrida is more or less his proclaimed nemesis. The interview was conducted in 1997, some 35 years after the release of Coleman’s first seminal works. It was conducted in English and published in French, but the original transcript was lost so this edition is the French translated back into English.

JD: Do you think that your music and the way people act can or must change things, for example, on the political level or in the sexual relation? Can or should your role as an artist and composer have an effect on the state of things?

OC: No, I don’t believe so, but I think that many people have already experienced that before me, and if I start complaining, they’ll say to me, “Why are you complaining? We haven’t changed for this person that we admire more than you, so why should we change for you?” So basically I really don’t think so. I was in the South when minorities were oppressed, and I identified with them through music. I was in Texas, I started to play the saxophone and make a living for my family by playing on the radio. One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I sara a woman get stabbed — then I though that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering. She replied, “What’s got hold of you, you want somebody to pay you for your sould?” I hadn’t thought of that, and when she told me that, it was like I had been re-baptized.

There’s something funny going on there at the end. The idea was either fuzzy to begin with, or likely it’s gotten mangled in re-translation. I do not mean to say that these two pieces are in any way two ends of a spectrum, or that they offer two diverging points of view, but merely that they signify an interval, and that there is something to be taken about their relationship to each other, and their mode of creation, and their ability to evoke something useful in the mind of the reader. As the saying goes, there’s a lot of reality in there.

Update: Franklin Einspruch and Walter Darby Bannard respond and clarify their positions. Franklin and I (with many many others) had a lot of debates about this stuff in the old days of Artblog. Good times. Needless to say that Franklin and Darby are much smarter about art than me, and spend a lot more time than me thinking about this stuff, and you will find their positions persuasive.

Also note that comments are fixed and re-enabled.

Posted: Thursday March 22, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

On Wikipedia and "The Truth"

wikipedia logo I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Truth. The impetus was John Siracusa’s two podcasts about Wikipedia, in which he argues that Wikipedia is fundamentally flawed, and that its flaw prevents it from being as good a source of knowledge as it might otherwise be. The crux is Wikipedia’s insistence on verifiability for facts that it includes (not that this rule is rigorously enforced) over what Siracusa calls “the truth.”

These two podcasts are about the closest I’ve ever heard a “normal” discussion come to facing the fundamental questions of epistemology. In the second of the two episodes, Siracusa addresses complaints from the first episode, who repeatedly use the word “verify.” Siracusa’s understood this word from Wikipedia’s perspective, where it often means “to cite another authority.”

I think that the folks writing to Siracusa meant “verify” to mean simply “confirm.” Fundamentally, that’s the problem with first-person accounts—they’re unconfirmed. But, you might say, can’t two first-person accounts confirm each other? Siracusa suggests a system of persistent identities and a system like Stack Overflow’s reputation system. I’m not sure, but I believe that system works because the scope of the site is fairly limited. What if someone on a Wikipedia-like site of knowledge has a high “reputation” earned by writing about software, and suddenly edits an article about politics? And if first-person accounts are allowed, wouldn’t most of the site tend toward being first person accounts (since Siracusa’s whole reason for talking about this is that he wants first-person accounts to be left in)?

Let’s look at an example. I was just looking at the Wikipedia page for John Gruber. It cites an interview with Gruber, along with other sources, for facts that are general common knowledge. They’re common knowledge because Gruber’s website is widely read, and those facts have appeared there. Why not just cite the blog directly?

This gets exactly to the heart of what “truth” means. Siracusa kept saying “Wikipedia is not trying to get to the truth!” But I think that’s putting it too strongly. Wikipedia is after something like “the consensus of human knowledge,” which is a reasonable definition of “truth,” I think. Sirucasa is after the actual, out-there-in-the-universe version of truth. But the problem is that that truth is unknowable. Until Galileo discovered that the Earth is not the center of the universe, there was no way to know the truth about it. What’s more, even after he made the discovery, the truth was knowable only if you believed him. If you found his arguments persuasive. Two kinds of people would have found Galileo’s arguments persuasive: those who had an understanding of science enough to see why he was right, and those who are just inclined to believe bizarre or unusual things they hear: people with a low threshold for truth. The fact that people who understood the science and knew that Galileo was correct had a vested intrest in not saying so doesn’t change the fact that the only way for a member of the general public to come to believe Galileo was for the experts to come around and admit that he’d been right all along.

And so it is with all non-trivial truth: we rely on authoritative sources to tell us which sources to believe. Is global climate change real? The consensus of climatologists is that it is. Does government stimulus policy decrease the effects of recession? The consensus of economists deems it so. Are ruffles the new black? A consensus of fashionistas says yes. “The consensus of human knowledge” is by definition the closest we can get to “the truth” in areas of human knowledge where we’re not experts.

An objection to this is that any person has the theoretical potential to become an expert in any topic. If something is controversial, couldn’t Wikipedia include both sides of the controversy along with the arguments for each? Two reasons to think this might not be a good idea. First, the reason Wikipedia exists seems to me to be to provide general information for non-experts. We can expect Wikipedia to provide you with the basics of the science of climate change, for example. Seems a bit much to expect it to be able to turn you into an expert on the subject. Second, if Wikipedia contains not just what can be cited (“verified,” “confirmed”) but anything and everything that is true (read: anything and everything that might be true), its entries will have no check on their growth. For example, the article on 4chan has over 5000 words and 136 citations. How long would this article be if un-cited facts were allowed? Who’d want to read more than 5000 words about 4chan, and should the level of sort knowledge they’re after be collected, for all possible topics, in one place on the internet. Maybe.

I’m hinting at how it is I think the rules of Wikipedia might have come to be what they are. I think intelligent people got together and spent a lot of time thinking, discussing, and experimenting with these rules, and Wikipedia is the consensus on which they arrived as the best vehicle for arriving at The Truth. It’s, as Sirucasa said, the worst way for arriving at the truth except for all the others. Maybe. I think so, anyway.

Posted: Thursday February 9, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

Libertarianism, slightly deconstructed

This is the old libertarian saw, stated by P.J. O’Rourke like this (only longer, better, and funnier): If your grandmother doesn’t pay her taxes, she’ll be fined. If she doesn’t pay her fine, she’ll eventually be put in jail. If she tries to escape from jail, she’ll be shot. So!: Anything that you agree the government should do, you should be willing to put a gun to your grandmother’s head and threaten to shoot her for. Something like that.

This is a pretty old libertarian saw (contrary to the folks who posted the video above, libertarianism doesn’t argue for a completely stateless society, just for a minimal state): the government should do the minimum amount necessary to keep a society functioning, and no more. This means enforcing minimal laws against harming others, and a small national defense system. Everything else, the argument goes, is better privatized. I’ve been a registered Libertarian since the day I registered to vote, so I’ve given these arguments some thought.

One day the libertarians may go off and create their dream society, maybe on a floating island. In the meantime, we have Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991.

So here’s the solution, and it has more than a little to do with game theory. Stuff that the government does is not like forcing some one individual to contribute to something. There’s a whole range of things that, if we weren’t all contributing, it wouldn’t make sense for an individual to give any money towards. Let’s start with the Libertarian’s example of national defense. It makes sense to have a national defense system only if everyone contributes. But it ends up that there are lots of things that directly or indirectly help everyone in a society. And while there are ways that a lot of these things could be accomplished by groups of private individuals, it makes sense for the government to do them. Would you shoot your grandmother for the interstate highway system? Probably not. But the highways unquestionably help our society in ways that a privatly-funded and tolled highway system would not.

The welfare system, public education, food safety inspections, drone strikes in foreign countries, eviction of protesters from public spaces, public healthcare, air traffic control. You probably agree that some of these things are good, and that some are bad. That’s not the point, though. The point is that they’re all things that a central government is in a unique position to provide, and that arguments exist that they are a net benefit. Once we’ve agreed to create the structure of the government, we’re all in it together, and we all need to decide together what we think are appropriate roles for that government.

It’s not that we need a system to make George help Oliver. It’s that we’re all better off if there’s a system that helps all those that need help, not just those that can find someone willing to help them.

Posted: Tuesday December 27, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

“The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—‘drugs‘—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use.”

— Sam Harris argues that experimenting with psychedelic drugs is ‘one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.’

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Slavoj Žižek on WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks cannot be seen in the same way. There has been, from the outset, something about its activities that goes way beyond liberal conceptions of the free flow of information. We shouldn’t look for this excess at the level of content. The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything. One of the first measures taken by the new Bolshevik government in 1918 was to make public the entire corpus of tsarist secret diplomacy, all the secret agreements, the secret clauses of public agreements etc. There too the target was the entire functioning of the state apparatuses of power.

From Slavoj Žižek’s essay about WikiLeaks, into which he weaves Socrates, The Dark Knight, Leo Strauss, and the obligatory double-scoop of Marxism. Via Fimoculous, which happily is back after a lengthy hiatus despite Rex’s insistence that it’d never be back.

Posted: Friday January 14, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

google maps images

What does it mean to have the whole world photographed? Here’s a collection of beautiful images culled from Google Maps Street View by Jon Rafman, including the scerene, the obscene, the shocking, and the delightfully ambiguous. (Via fimoculous, tho I eventually would have gotten to this in my RSS.)

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optical

 

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Why?

So, earlier in my high school career I’d done pretty well at chemistry and AP physics, so in the 12th grade I enrolled in the AP chemistry class. Well. I was out of my depth in a way I’ve seldom been since, and I transferred out of that class after the first week, and been generally humbled the memory of that week since.

I forget the teacher’s name, but there were two funny things that he’d say that have stuck with me. First, when someone got a correct answer, he’d tell them they probably made two mistakes. But even better was his rule that “we don’t answer questions that begin with the word ‘why.’”

Which after you think about it makes perfect sense in chemistry — atoms and molecules do what they do; to get into the reasons is to dive into a realm (particle physics) that is much more technical and difficult than chemistry when it’s understood at all, which often it is not.

But the truth is that “why?” is a funny question anytime. Contemporary psychology shows us that we rarely understand our own motivations for our actions, so even asking “why did you do that?” is an invitation to fabrication.

Well, earlier today Kottke posted Richard Feyman’s explanation for why trains stay on tracks (it ain’t what you think!), and I started clicking around watching all the other Feyman videos on YouTube, until I stumbled across one where the interviewer asks Feyman why magnets attract each other, sending him into a prodigious rant about why we don’t answer questions that begind with the word ‘why’!:

Posted: Tuesday July 7, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

“It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.”

— From Eliezer Yudkowsky’s twelve virtues of rationality (check out #12 — it makes no rational fucking sense!).

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Dan Ariely asks, Are we in control of our own decisions? See Listen also, Radiolab on choices.

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