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Ultimately, when we concern ourselves with language, we are always and without exception really talking about translation. That is, everything that we say about language is really a statement about a subfield of translation, which is the truer subject of study. Translation in the usual sense means converting the meaning from one arbitrary set of symbols to another. But the symbols portion of the definition is not a necessary condition, just a usual one. Rather, translation can be broadened to be seen as the art of focusing meaning from a more ambiguous source to a lesser one. But we will get to that.
Translation in the usual sense is something natural language processors are very concerned with. How, after all, do we get a computer program to recognize language? Developing software that breaks sound waves down and identifies the phonetics of the wave is the easy part. Encoding the complexities of a system with recursion and, worse, sophisticated senses of humor would stymie even the greatest of programmers– and indeed do on a regular basis.
Turing believed that we would know we had succeeded at the task when a machine is able to fool us into thinking it was a human through conversation. As a matter of odds, that means that when one speaks to a machine that can fool us, that we believe there is a roughly 50% chance it is a machine– even odds, in other words. A particularly entertaining RadioLab for me, Season 10 Episode 1 entitled “Talking to Machines” deals with different types of machines that seem like they’re communicating with us and the obvious question, “Are they aware?” This is a little bit of a different concern than Turing’s because Turing posited that a machine that could fool us would be aware of itself, but this is not necessary as a matter of logic.
In the episode, there are programmers who make profiles on sites like Match.com, and many many others, designed to try and fool regular humans. These bots respond to messages and keywords, often times fairly realistically. So much so, in fact, that many are regularly fooled. Now, if one expects this type of ruse, one might not so easily fall for it, especially when the tell-tale signs of the deception are revealed in the RadioLab episode. But for the trusting and/or unsuspecting, it is a different story. For the programmers, their experiment is easy to explain. What is more difficult is showing the technical methods they employ to achieve their results.
One method is to store words as matrices. Why matrices?
The Structure of Artificial Thought
Because matrices are very simple and flexible: they are easy to manipulate. This means that we cantranslate information into matrices and play with that information by performing operations on it, any kind of operation, in however many dimensions.
Let’s look at an example. Assume that I can create a database of all the current words in the English language, a snapshot. It would of course only reflect the language at a given time, seeing as how English changes so quickly. (We need not quibble with the different forms of English, sociolinguistics, and so on at this point.) I might accomplish this by storing each word as a matrix. For the sake of simplicity, let us say that verbs have a certainmxn matrix structure, and nouns and adjectives have different mxn structures.
The present tense form of the verb ‘to run’ is ‘run’ and that present tense verb can be stored with some arbitrary values in its matrix form:
[ 0 ]
[ 1 ]
[ 2 ]
There’re 3 rows, 1 columns in this matrix, a 3×1 matrix. Let us say that the matrix form for the past tense ‘ran’ is the following matrix:
[ 0 ]
[ 1 ]
[ 3 ]
In this example, the only difference is the last value. Assuming that the number of potential values which could slot in there is infinite, these words mean largely the same thing by arbitrary values stored in the matrix, the only difference is the last value which obviously determines tense in this type of structure. But this is just a very very brutally simple example of what the most sophisticated natural language processing models actually look like. The matrices usually are much larger and potentially infinite in size.
The Structure of Artificial Meaning
These matrices have many special properties. One of them is that we must be able to structure the matrices in a way so that we can perform regular types of operations, which would be analogs for syntactic interactions. Again, as a simple example, a noun might be, let us say a 3 x 3 matrix. The word ‘I’ could be:
[ 10 11 12 ]
[ 13 14 15 ]
[ 16 17 18 ]
We could generate in our matrix system / representation of language a system whereby we know a sentence is grammatical only if the matrix product of the noun phrase (NP) and verb phrase (VP) was a 3 x 1 matrix. The matrix product of ‘I’ and ‘ran’, that is, a NP and a VP, would form a 3 x 1 matrix:
We are not as concerned with the values of the product as of the form at this point. Since language is so complex, the form must obviously become more complex as well, without losing its flexibility. The reality is that while some core portions of the matrices by word types would have to have some kind of values for us to understand what they mean, have a frame of reference, and perform meaningful operations on them, many values may be variables– that is to say, they may be ambiguous.
The Structure of Ambiguous Meaning
While words like ‘love’ and ‘justice’ may be highly ambiguous and contextual in meaning, there are some words like ‘neutron’ or ‘hydrangea’ that are fairly specific. But even with these words, there is one way of changing their meaning. The meanings for their spoken and written forms is different. They necessarily must be– always.
Let us consider a 100 x 100 matrix that stores the meaning of ‘neutron.’ The core of the word might be stored in the 100×98 portion and then the 100×2 fragment at the end could be the contextual meaning that comes from the form the word is expressed in. For the spoken ‘neutron,’ it would be values that reflect the emotion of the voice, the tone, the pacing, the accent, the education, all kinds of things that might come out through pronunciation of a word. For the written ‘neutron,’ the 100×2 fragment means the most at time zero, when it is initially written. If the word is written at that time, a reader still has a very good proxy for what an author intended, but still is not privy to as much information as what the listener of the spoken ‘neutron’ is. This means two things. (1) The values in the last 100×2 fragment will be different, not necessarily entirely or even mostly so, but necessarily so in part; (2) The meaning of the written is more ambiguous due to the uncertainty of what an author meant to communicate. There is always a tone, even for a written word, but it is far more subject to fancy and therefore obviously more ambiguous. Variables of a sort will be needed in the written 100×2 fragment.
In my book Cultural Entropy, I devote some time to information theory, for the concept of entropy is impossible to explain without it. Likewise, attempting an explanation of cultural information, particularly the language subset of it, without entropy, is impossible. In reading various sources about information and language, I am struck by how excellent and simple the older texts are and how confusing or negligent are the newer texts. Language Files, which is a standard text for introductory linguistics courses, shows nothing, though it does discuss pragmatics.
But before the field was called pragmatics, and when linguistics had a little more perspective, the most common linguistics textbook was An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics by H.A. Gleason (1955, 1961). This latter book, in particular, also forms an excellent foundation for a linguistics novice introduced in Field Linguistics, which I often analogize to amphibious warfare: the process of starting with zero firepower ashore and proceeding to dominance of the field. Field Linguistics as a practice is quite similar. A linguist arrives to a place s/he has never been, perhaps a village in remote Papua New Guinea, beginning with close to zero knowledge of the language and necessarily proceeding to learn everything, discerning a grammar, phonetic inventory, and all manner of other information. It is, in other words, a supremely practical art. Just so, Gleason’s textbook.
For the purposes of my discussion here, Descriptive Linguistics rises to the occasion as well. We begin with definitions:
The amount of information increases as the number of alternatives increases. […] Information is measured in units called… bits. By definition, a code with two alternative signals, both equally likely, has a capacity of one bit per use. A code with four alternatives is defined as having a capacity of two bits per use…. […] The amount of information in any signal is the logarithm to the base two of the reciprocal of the probability of that signal.
This about sums up the useful parts for any schema of quantifying meaning that we might wish to undertake 50 years after the text was written. Focus on the point about alternatives. In a world with two machines communicating to each other, but only ever saying 1 or 0 back to each other and only once before responding, then the machines have only has two choices and they are both equally likely. The capacity is one bit. The machine might send its transmission in the following form:  or . A code with four alternatives between the machines might look something like this: [0 0], [0 1], [1 0], or [1 1]. In fact, these would be all four of the alternatives and it’s a capacity of two bits being used.
Most human communication doesn’t look like this at all. True, we do often communicate in ways that necessitate or at least allow for either/or answers that might look like  or . But most human utterances and writing look more like what you’re reading in terms of expressing ideas, narratives, and concepts, not just yes/no or either/or responses. An example of something slightly more complicated would be the set of alternatives to the question: which U.S. President from 1980 – 2011 has been the best? You have six choices: Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama. The response, therefore, could be encoded as simply as , , , , , or  depending only on which number referred to which President. Another step up in complexity would be the set of alternatives to the question: which color is the best? As a technical matter, given the number of frequencies visible to the human eye, the answer is theoretically unlimited. There is, however, a practical limit: language. Every language only has so many recognized color words at any given moment. Some have as few as two, it is believed, while others have somewhere between 3 and 11, and a good many others have considerably more. English certainly falls into the last category and every 64 or 128 pack of crayons you see in the store proves it. There are many alternatives to choose from here.
Something that has been avoided by many linguists and information theorists until recently has been quantifying the amount of information that is actually transmitted, beyond the rote logical numerical answer suggested by Gleason in his textbook. In a response to the presidential question, if someone responds “Carter,” much much more information is transmitted to a listener than just the information that Carter is the best President. Any listener will assign a probability to that outcome, meaning reflexively that probabilities have been assigned to all other outcomes, but it will also say something about who the person is and their beliefs. But most of his other information could be called “peripheral information” as opposed to the “core information” transmitted by the response. Peripheral information is highly contextual.
Obtaining a kind of precision in expression has previously been the purview of mathematicians, logicians, statisticians, and those who use symbols to express the barest minimum of relationships amongst the most pure of concepts. Ambiguous words are (or should be, as a professional matter) as foreign, and as luxurious as the sweetest Dulce de Leche ice cream served at a zero depth pool in a hidden Bali mountain is for us.
But precision of expression is more important than most people think and precision varies enormously by form. When someone says, “The Gators won the football game,” the meaning is different than when someone writes it on a piece of paper. These two prior forms are still different from when it is typed and sent over email and these three prior forms are yet different from those words when painted on a canvas, or spray painted on a wall. The meanings are not so different that we cannot fathom the gaps, so I don’t mean to belabor the point. Rather, I merely want to point out that form matters. I’ll say more about this later.
My goal in this short series of posts will be to lay out a method for articulating differences in meaning, as well as comparing meanings, distinguishing levels of ambiguity in meaning, and why all these things are important. Finally, I will summarize what all of this means for the always growing, always diminishing set of cultural information we use as humans.
Lady Gaga, known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta until quite recently, is a phenomenon. Although only 24, she already has six number one songs from two albums, The Fame and The Fame Monster. She has toured the United States and world as a conquering pop hero, whose ascent occurred at exactly the right time with exactly the right trajectory to propel her into superstardom. Gaga is not the only vocal artist to meet this kind of success. She is preceded by the likes of Madonna, Mariah Carey, Beyonce Knowles, and, to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. But as of the writing of this post, Gaga has something that none of her predecessors had: The Method.
Markets in Music
In the past 100 years, markets have developed widely differentiated markets to satisfy an ever-more sophisticated melange of tastes on the part of humans. Before the 20th century, musical styles may have changed relatively slowly and catered towards small groups of elites and particular localities. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, the decreasing cost to the transmission of information along with increasing standards of living fostered a vastly increased consumption of music. People consume music in the sense that they listen to it and know it, but prefer more music to less, just as with any other good, all things being equal. Discarding old music is not a condition to further consumption, only the unsatiated appetite for more is.
In recent years, several notable artists have been able to maintain their position on the top of the charts by providing music that people demand. In some cases, their styles have changed to fit so as to please shifting preferences in the market. The most notable of this group of artists is Madonna and Mariah Carey. Mariah, whose traditional path to pop supremacy leaves little in common with Gaga’s, need not be addressed in this post. But in many ways, Madonna is Gaga’s most similar predecessor. Her example helps inform the path Gaga will take. Madonna burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s with music that was as catchy as it was interminable– I, for one, cannot get “Borderline,” “La Isla Bonita,” or “Like a Virgin” out of my head if I try upon hearing it. Within a matter of years, as she attempted to evolve artistically, she fell out of favor with the public. Madonna’s concerted effort to change her image into a sexually liberated dominatrix in her album Erotica and book Sex did significant damage to her brand. As her songs fell off the charts, Madonna’s increasingly desperate bid to remain in the public eye almost completely destroyed her. But Madonna was nothing if not resilient, and she learned from her mistakes. She remade herself for Ray of Light and never strayed too far from the cultural mainstream again.
By the time of 2008, pop music in the United States had become moribund with the same acts, being replenished only by American Idol contestants who were successful not because they rocked the boat, but because they excelled at traditional artistic convention. The market was saturated with typical romantic ballads, rap self-aggrandizing, and both gritty and soft country songs. The pop music segment, which consists mostly of young people whose tastes have not hardened fully yet, had consumed enough of the old. The time was ripe for something new.
Lady Gaga literally burst on to the scene. With the market so ready for something different, all it would take was a little “going gaga” to light a real fire. Her sartorial splendor ratcheted it up a notch. Was it just a temporary act? Nope: her music videos doubled down on the schtick and she rarely broke character. In fact, she told one source that she’s “Gaga 24/7.” She told another to never call her by her real name again: it’s Gaga from now on. From the impractical, yet somehow aesthetically interesting hairdos to the occasionally unflattering but always interestingly shaped dresses, Gaga’s method was simple and pure. She would push every superficial boundary right up until the breaking point while offering up pleasing, aggressive, strongly sexually suggestive music.
The most important element of The Method is not going past the breaking point. How would she know what it is? She doesn’t have a team of market analysts and economists looking for this mythical breaking point. She knows because we’ve already seen it: Madonna’s Erotica phase.
Madonna made the mistake of getting too personal. The market readily consumed her music, and even her behavior: she was young, after all. But they would not go for boundary-pushing content that seemed authentically representative of Madonna herself. Too personal, the material was perceived as representing the genuine sexual deviant she always was. There’s no faster way to stigmatize one’s self to the broader market to which, in reality, she wished to appeal. Indeed, she only became a hero to various small groups of people by unwittingly sacrificing broad appeal. She did not intend this. We know this because of how fast she dropped the routine. I suppose it is possible that Madonna converted to that phase out of commercial calculation, but whether she did or not is not as relevant as how it was perceived by people.
Gaga has not made any mistake like this. When she became a national figure in fall of 2008, she studiously avoided campaigning for her choice for President on national radio, saying that while her preference was well known, she would not say it to Ryan Seacrest on air, presumably because it would peel away a layer from the extraordinary artifice she had devised. Nothing personal to her previous identity, Stefani Germanotta, remains. What was Stefani Germanotta like? Check out this 2005 appearance by her on MTV’s Boiling Points.
Not too different from the rest of us, but a far cry from the Lady Gaga we know and… well… appreciate today. Our Lady Gaga has platinum blonde, dirty blonde, or bizarro color hair depending on the theme of the evening. A day dress? Try trash bag couture, the devil version of 1990’s chic, or geometric glamo-sportswear on for size. Virgin Media did us a favor by putting her “worst outfits” on display here. My favorite is her red lace outfit from the MTV Music awards, shown earlier, but focused on below.
There is something so revolting about this outfit. And yet, it is partly because of this, partly because of its newness, that I cannot turn away. The most compelling part about it is that it gets me using my imagination. Why did Gaga choose this? Can she see from under there? Whatever we say about the garment, it’s not uninteresting. Not only do we talk about it, we want to see more. It’s instructive to compare this to Madonna, and in more recent times, Adam Lambert. Madonna is sublime at what she does, while Adam Lambert is actually pretty good himself. But when Madonna gave us Erotica, it was hot, when it should have been cool. What I mean by that is that it seemed to represent her real personality. Adam Lambert’s 2009 appearance on Good Morning America was cancelled after a male performer simulated giving the singer fellatio at an MTV performance. It’s not just the homosexuality that bothered people. It’s that he warmed up to us too soon. We don’t know him. Maybe now we don’t want to know him. America’s okay with certain types of sexuality as long as it’s genuine, distanced performance.
This is what Gaga has mastered in her method. None of her outfits represents who she really is. Not her name, not her hair, not her food preferences, not what kind of animals she really likes, her hopes, dreams- nothing- all barred from us. Here are some of her lyrics from “Bad Romance”:
I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it’s free
I want your love
Since we cannot possibly take these lyrics entirely literally, we are forced to take them figuratively, metaphorically. Again: thought-provoking, but this is not authentic personal expression. She may say otherwise, that this is who she really is, but it isn’t true. It’s a well-crafted commercial persona for our consumption. She’s smart enough to stay in character, too. Whereas Madonna broached controversial Catholic imagery in her “Like a Prayer” video, Gaga is light-years away from taking on religion or war. Madonna discovered The Method too, but at a later stage in her career. Gaga knew it going in. Gaga is Stefani Germanotta’s avatar, in every sense of the word. And there’s nothing threatening to people about it because it’s purely play. She’s in on the joke.
Evidence for The Method
Recently, Lady Gaga and Beyonce unveiled their long-awaited 9 minute music video for the song “Telephone,” which is currently dominating your airwaves. The video is a terrific piece of circumstantial evidence that The Method is not something intrinsic to Lady Gaga, but something that can be replicated. Here is the video:
The first 5 minutes of the video aren’t particularly interesting and seem intent merely on connecting it to its prequel, “Paparazzi,” in which Gaga gets arrested after poisoning her boyfriend. But the last 4.5 are extraordinary. Beyonce also begins wearing Gaga-esque outfits and behaving like a “monster” as Gaga might say. Unfortunately for Gaga, Beyonce is the real star of the video, and as with their joint effort in “Videophone” (also a prequel perhaps judging by similar 1940s-ish wardrobe/hair in particular scenes), steals the show. But what I wish to draw your attention to here is the complete Gagafication of Beyonce. Beyonce adopts similar personality artifice, actually out-Gagaing Gaga herself. I love it.
There is another subtext here. Beyonce’s last album was called “I Am… Sasha Fierce.” This album is her best by far (so far), featuring “Halo,” “Sweet Dreams,” “If I Were a Boy,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” The album title referred to Beyonce’s long-lived (though now deceased) alter ego, Sasha Fierce. According to Beyonce:
Sasha Fierce is the singer’s sensual, aggressive alter ego, but don’t expect her to surface anywhere but the stage. “Sasha Fierce was born when I did ‘Crazy in Love.’ People, when they meet me, expect that all the time, but that person is strictly for the stage.”
This implies that we don’t really know the real Beyonce very well either. As noted in my “Siren Paradox” post, we haven’t seen her real hair, or much of her real preferences and beliefs. She performed at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, but she also performed with Destiny’s Child at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush. Yes, one more likely represents her genuine vote preference, but things may not always be as they same. Beyonce is notoriously guarded about her private life. The artistic synthesis between Gaga and Beyonce, both using the method through completely detached, methodical commercial targeting is a beautiful thing to behold.
But you know what they say: all good things must come to an end. I suspect that at some point Gaga’s exterior will begin to crack. She might have a marriage, a child, or late-night hotel altercation. She might get drunk, express a serious political theory, or get into a public personal bout with a rival. I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon, but she, like everyone else, has multiple desires in life that may shift in priority depending on her income.
To make an analogy, in economics there is the backward bending supply of labor curve. Above the reservation wage and halfway up, people tend to work more as they make higher wages. For this phase of the curve, we say that the substitution effect is greater than the income effect, which both continuously operate within us, but shift in priority as incentives as our wealth changes. At some point, they switch in importance, with the income effect overwhelming the substitution effect in our mind. That is, we no longer wish to work more hours at these higher wages, we wish to use more of our time for leisure. We just bought that 200 ft yacht and by gosh we’re going to use it, even if it costs $40,000 to fully gas!
Just so, at a certain income level, the odds are that Gaga will care less about appealing to the broad market and risk revealing herself more. At this point, she will probably never make quite as much money as she used to, but she will be more personally satisfied and the cost of her constant vigilance in obeying The Method will be relaxed. Let us hope that when the time comes, if it comes, that she can still stay in on the joke and, even if pursuing some random social justice issue, she does not take herself too seriously, as so many others have failed in doing.
Some may remember my review of Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Like everyone else, I adored her book and really took to her method of translation. Recently, I decided to investigate a little bit more about this talented artist and scholar. I found that If Not, Winter is hardly anomalous as a representative work.
In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” published in a 2008 edition of A Public Space, she confronts the boundary between linguistics and literary theory, hoping to develop a kind of a theory of silence. She doesn’t need more space than what she uses in the essay to do so.
The motivation for the essay has its roots in the art of translation. According to Carson, there are two kinds of silence to be reckoned with by the translator. Physical silence occurs where something the author intended to be there is missing, as with many of Sappho’s poems, largely lost to posterity. Carson deals with this by using brackets where the author’s intended expressions are missing, but she says translators may be as justified in some cases to extrapolate expressions. The other kind of silence is “metaphysical” silence, wherein “a word… does not intend to be translatable. A word… stops itself.” Carson gives an example from the Odyssey:
In the fifth book of the Odyssey when Odysseus is about to confront a witch named Kirke whose practice is to turn men into pigs, he is given by the god Hermes a pharmaceutical plant to use against her magic:
So speaking Hermes gave him the drug
by pulling it out of the ground and he showed the nature of it:
at the root it was black but like milk was the flower.
MOLY is what the gods call it. And it is very hard to dig up
for mortal men. But gods can do such things.
MOLY is one of several occurences in Homer’s poems of what he calls “the language of gods.” There are a handful of people or things in epics that have this sort of double name. Linguists like to see in these words traces of some older layer of Indo-European preserved in Homer’s Greek. However that may be, when he invokes the language of gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them. You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or Google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to gods, the word stops itself.
These silences occur with words that are a subset of unknown size of the words that must be borrowed from other languages as opposed to translated. Translators must make several difficult decisions in their work from artistic and linguistic standpoints, but it is the latter that is the most important here because there is a “spectrum of translation” they must always employ. On one end are single words that translate with virtually 1:1 correspondence to words in the other language. ‘Book’ is ‘libro’ in Spanish without much confusion. Then there’re words like ‘nose’ in English that translate with but the slightest difference into 鼻 (hana). In Words in Context, Takao Suzuki shows that the area American English speakers consider the nose covers a different portion of the face than the Japanese word, although both of course include the most important functional parts. Likewise, as discussed on this blog, Paul Kay (Berkeley) has shown that speakers of almost all languages consider the best example or shade of the word red as the same, despite differing ranges of shades that could be considered red. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, a single word translation will do. Next we have compound and composite word translations. The word ‘television’ seems like it translates quite cleanly to 電視 (dian4 shi4) for Mandarin (or Taiwanese if we’re being cute). But there are a few issues here: 電視 is actually a composite word, much like the original, made from two morphemes that indicate ‘electricity’ and ‘being looked at’ respectively.
At this point, we can see that for much translation, there are words that some languages possess which will be difficult to translate with the same economy. From here until the middle of the spectrum, words are translated with progressively more and more morphemes in the destination language. But when a translator is faced with the problem of translating one word into a paragraph, that might defeat so much about the original: pacing, essence, and so on. And then, of course, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Language, which suggests that the more words we use to describe the word to be translated in order to most closely approximate the original meaning, the more its essential meaning, in addition to other connotations, is missed. Locking down the expression so rigidly pushes out meaning. Therefore, there comes a point on the spectrum where translators must seek different methods of translation besides seeking the complete and rigid expression for it.
Carson is a master of this, as I have pointed out before. In her book of Sappho poetry, If Not, Winter, she uses words such as ‘songdelighting’ and ‘radiant-shaking.’ Instead of writing out the complete expressions, she chooses innovation. She creates novel words using standard word formation rules in the destination language that may contain more of the original meaning than an attempt at complete expression might.
The second to last point on the spectrum of translation is when a word is just borrowed without further elaboration. Carson highlights the borrowing (outright theft, I’d think) of ‘cliché’ from French. She writes:
It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable.
The latter is a good reason for borrowing a word from another language. Another reason is that a speech community possesses significant demand for a word that it does not yet have. For example, French speakers started using the word ’email’ because no word in French concisely described such a concept and its word formation rules would likely not have led to such an economical word either. (The Academie Francaise has tried to stifle the use of this word in favor of ‘courriel’ and I do not know the extent of its success.) A better example is the English borrowing of ‘schadenfreude’ from German which means “taking delight in others’ misfortune.” Although I have only really heard Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of the Wall Street Journal, use the word, I have read it on several occasions from other writers. Just beyond these words are similar words for whom some meaning can never be discovered or reclaimed without being a native speaker of the language. Multilinguals know of many such words. Some brag about them. Some keep their knowledge locked away. Some of these words also depend crucially on shared temporal experience, as ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ mean so much more to many Czechs than most American English speakers can understand — though they can try if they read Havel, Seifert, Kundera, and maybe some Poles as well. This is a story worth telling in another post someday.
Finally, we arrive at the end of the spectrum, yet there is no guard rail or barrier, and we stand at a precipice beyond which we cannot see anything precisely: only the bright and ineffable, like MOLY. These words land in our language with a form bearing no relationship that we can trace back to any meaning. Morphological analysis stops because it can never start. Syntax? Phonology? Save yourself because the tracks have all been covered. Carson shows several examples of the bright, ineffable silences: they are all places that we cannot go. These silences may be uttered by our inner angels, the angels above, or from even more inexplicable origins. Our choice to explore them creates possibilities that we never before considered.
In the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, I chanced upon “His Transatlantic Progeny” by Judith H. Dobrzynski. She’s writing about an exhibition called about an exhibition highlighting Cezanne’s relationship to American Modernism taking place at the Montclair Art Museum through January. It seems like a nice enough event.
What struck me was this passage, however:
Jozef Bakos and Willard Nash… demonstrate that they too are descended from Cezanne, even though they never traveled to Europe or to American art centers where the master’s works could be seen. They heard how Cezanne, instead of producing a naturalistic representation of his subject, analyzed and rebuilt it on canvas in a flattened perspective, using fractured, sculptural forms composed of patches of color instead of conventional light-and-shade modeling. They learned about his thinking– sometimes described as a fusion of intuition and intellect– from reproductions and from teachers such as Andrew Dasburg…. Dasburg had traveled to Paris… and, upon discovering Cezanne’s work, divided his art into “before” and “after.”
In those days, painters adapted a style to their own by learning the thinking and methods of others before them. In essence, they sought to learn how to encode information the way that the other painters did. They would achieve this by learning such things. However, these days, in order to accomplish this simply on a visual basis, one need only turn to Adobe Photoshop and its many filters. The talented engineers and mathematicians at Adobe understood the essence of the story themselves, encoding many different filters and transformations by which you could turn one representation into another. It’s all very mathematical. For example, I am not sure it has been resolved yet whether or not Shepard Fairey composed his Obama Hope paper from scratch in some medium or whether he just transformed the original AP photo in Photoshop, but it would not surprise me if he pulled it off with the latter.
The interesting thing about the passage is it reflects how information used to travel. Styles could be transmitted without knowing the master, but by figuring out and learning technique. In those days techniques cost much more to develop in time and opportunity cost of style. In other words, the time spent adapting to a new style would have to be worth it from a personal and market benefit standpoint because it was a huge investment. Once you have missed a movement, you’ve missed it for good. In the old days, such profound changes could lead a transformative artist to label his prior work “before” and then “after.” I wonder if the same could be said of artists like that today. I’m tempted to put Yayoi Kusama in this category. She’s done all kinds of things, mostly thanks to the economics that make her productions and antics viable.
For a time, new content startled us in art. As time went by, the shock faded, and artists shifted to new forms with content, then new forms with none, and then old forms with none. The transformations gradually became more and more devoid of meaning. And the fate of a truly authentic and meaningful expression? Rage? Love? Passion? Jealousy? Hatred? Awe?
Introduction to the Siren Paradox
Beyonce Knowles has already become a star for the ages. She’s the most popular solo female artist of this decade, a member of the most successful female group of all-time, the wife of rap mogul Jay-Z, and is probably considered one of the most beautiful women alive. Like any such star, she is not without her critics. In this post, I will discuss what I call “the siren paradox,” which is the simultaneous societal appreciation of an ideal and the revulsion at its consequences and costs.
The term “siren paradox” alludes first to those mythical creatures encountered by Ulysses who had top halves of women and bottom halves of birds. Although it doesn’t sound entirely appetizing today, the term “siren” retains its essence: a beautiful and unavoidable, yet dangerous woman. Beyonce Knowles can be considered thus in light of her relationship with society. We perceive her radiant beauty and value it as an ideal deserving of female aspiration. But the consequences of the aspirations engendered from these perceptions may be minimized, though they are many. Generally speaking, in order for any random woman to become more like Beyonce on a superficial level (that which is mostly perceived), she must buy certain hair care products, make-up, possibly hair extensions, fake eye lashes, and fake boobs, to say nothing of short sexy dresses and four inch platform heels. No, the image of Beyonce is not a cheap one to produce, even though she is naturally endowed with extraordinary beauty.
Klein vs. Postrel
Indeed, some, like Naomi Klein, believe that the consumer culture of the West uses Beyonce for its ruthless ends: profits. That is, they hire a respected, beautiful person like Beyonce and imply that if you buy their products you can be more like her. And isn’t that what you want? The underlying thesis is that without advertisements constantly telling you that you need this hair product and that eyeliner to really be beautiful, you would be healthier, wealthier, and happier. Unfortunately for the persons who believe this, they are only looking at a very narrow part of the picture, with almost no basis in real cause and effect. As Virginia Postrel shows in her excellent book The Substance of Style, absent advertisements, the freed women and men of Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 quickly learned to appreciate beard shaving, haircuts, less strict clothing, and beauty products. In Iran, Tehran was and remains a haven for skirts and lipstick. The best argument Postrel wields is her discussion of the marginal. In absolute terms, yes, certain people might be better off pursuing needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy. But consumers face decisions on the margin, and if someone in Afghanistan has the equivalent of $3 USD to spend, they’re well fed for the time being, the possibility of being able to get security with the $3 USD is very low, the possibility of getting insurance for this season’s crop is even lower, then that $3 USD might be better spent according to the consumer on a deeply personally satisfying beauty product.
True, at this point, we have not entirely refuted Klein. The beauty products still likely have some prestige qualities attached to them that stems from their use in the West. Even the uneducated of modern Kabul or especially Tehran are not strangers to the idea of our customs. The evidence goes deeper, though: every society has some standards of beauty as well as accoutrements that facilitate transmission of certain qualities of beauty. Whether it is some primitive type of piercing through the ear, some tattoo, a particular garment, or even a dance, there is always some thing whose purpose is to signify or augment beauty. Furthermore, beauty goes beyond even social constructions, for it is biologically rooted in us as we search for mates. It has been often claimed that we prize symmetrical faces, certain hip sizes, and other physical qualities. It should come as no surprise that many of the instruments used to improve beauty as seen in the eye of most beholders cater to those biological tastes in some way.
At this point, we can proudly proclaim that Klein’s main points have been vanquished. Beauty is an inextricable part of the human equation, and a big part of our relationship to it, for most of us, is appreciating it in the physical qualities of other human beings. Now just because something is an instinct doesn’t mean that it cannot be fought if necessary. It has been said, though it has also been recently challenged, that we humans are savages with the blood of a million years on our hands, but that we have a choice to kill and all we have to do is choose not to kill today. The same could be said about using beauty products. There’s just one little problem. Killing imposes costs on others without their choice. When someone chooses to use beauty products, that person imposes no cost on others without their choice. And the women and men who do choose to do so are not all brainwashed. They value improving their appearance by society’s standards. Absent any form of advertising, humans still have perception and will always distinguish differing degrees of beauty. We can no sooner stop doing so than we can tear a limb off our body.
Markets in Beauty
When you see someone look at a stranger from head to toe, or for a very long time, there is a significant chance that person is determining that stranger’s “price.” Assessing the stranger’s physical qualities is an excellent, though not perfect, method for determining the price. Other factors include personality, compatibility, and to some degree an independent evaluation of wealth, but the physical qualities are an easy threshold measure and proxy for overall price. What do I mean by this? A woman analyzing a man’s body, size, weight, height, hair, eyes, shirt, shoes, muscles, and posture will be able to determine the mating market demand for that man to a fairly close degree. When that woman then proceeds to analyze the girlfriend of that man, she can determine all kinds of useful information. For example, does the girlfriend represent an “underbid?” If so, the woman’s qualities might enable her to bid higher for his services. Looking at a lot of other price signals helps determine the demand for yourself, too.
When used in taste generally accepted by large portions of the market, beauty products raise one’s price signals. One’s use of these products, whether it’s more expensive dress shirts (signaling precisely nothing to Klein, but everything to many others), cologne/perfume, nice shoes, or earrings, may be revealing about both underlying asset value and internal motivations. But there’s nothing sinister in the process, for we would not possibly begrudge someone wanting to trade up in a market that has been biologically determined to be important for us. ( On a side note: websites like eharmony and match.com reduce our search costs, making it easier for us to match based on interests as well as threshold physical qualities. It may even reduce relationship costs! )
There’s actually some rather significant evidence that we have these markets. The first important thing to understand is that markets can exist absent a formal currency issued by a bank or government. All you need to be able to do is trade one thing for another. Currencies are only useful for quantifying to a more precise level the demand for something. The subject of markets in beauty has been a popular topic lately in some corners of the economics blogosphere, notably Marginal Revolution and one of my must-reads, The Perfect Substitute. In “Theories of Beautiful Women,” Indiana University professor Justin Ross argues that there is an inverse relationship between economic freedom and success at the Miss Universe pageant, meaning that the less free a country is, all things being equal, the better it generally performs in the pageant. A quick and dirty econometric model by Ross and Auburn’s Bob Lawson shows that this inverse relationship likely exists, though it lacks significance at the ten percent confidence level, indicating a weak finding.
Much more interesting, with much more direct impact on the thesis here, is the relationship between male-to-female sex ratio and “sociosexuality.” According to GMU economist Alex Tabarrok:
Sociosexuality is a concept in social psychology that refers to how favorable people are to sex outside of commitment. It can be measured by answers to questions such as “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying “casual” sex with different partners” (agree strongly to disagree strongly) or “Sex without love is ok,” as well as with objective measures such as the number of sexual partners a person has had. A low score indicates subjects who favor monogamous, long-term, high-investment relationships. […] Why might female sociosexuality scores vary? One hypothesis is that in cultures with low operational sex ratios (the number of marriageable men/number of marriageable women) female sociosexuality will be higher. The argument is that when the relative supply of males is low, competition for mates encourages females to shift towards the male ideal, i.e. when supply is scarce the demanders must pay more. (Note that this theory can also explain trends over time, e.g. Pedersen 1991).
Enter Brian Schmitt, whose “Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2005) tests this hypothesis. You can see that the relationship between a country’s sex ratio and “sociosexuality” is fairly robust:
As you can see in the chart, countries with many more females to males, such as the eastern European countries, have a much higher sociosexuality. Physical beauty matters primarily as a biological imperative, secondarily as a social imperative, and finally as a personal one. Competition and attempts to improve one’s signaling have always been present, suggesting that those who use beauty products are just as natural and authentic as those who choose not to use them. Society merely abhors excess: when one uses too much, it is indicative of an attempt to mask very weak intrinsic value. This is not the worry with Beyonce Knowles.
The Market for Beyonce
Although she can hardly be criticized for the power of her voice, or her talent, virtually anything used to excess will challenge good taste. Accordingly, she is occasionally accused of “oversinging.” She is also accused of being fake. One friend of mine laments that we have never even see her real hair. I have already addressed the “authenticity” argument. As to the content of her singing, and the authenticity there, that is for another post.
It seems to me possible that Beyonce, and some other women with a similar skin tone, be they black, white, Indian, mixes, or what have you, were simply blessed as a matter of phenotype to have physical attributes so close to her society’s ideal. There are large markets for a firm that is able to design a product catering to the so-called “least common denominator.” One can make more money from that market than by catering to small, niche markets in the absence of many substitutes. Beyonce has a skin color that may represent a composite of all U.S. skin colors averaged. As such, it is a color desired by most communities in the United States. Whites typically prefer to be darker. Blacks typically prefer to be lighter. Her body has a definite American sensibility to it: not too slight, not too large, but in many other countries she might be considered a little big in the hips. Not in the United States. The rest of the enhancements simply cater to cross-cultural biological tastes: redder lips, longer hair, higher heels, shorter skirts, suggestive dances (see: “Sweet Dreams” video at 1:30, 3:18) longer eyelashes all serve to distinguish from others while alluding to various instinctive preferences in mates thereby increasing their price. The intrinsic Beyonce is what pushes her to the top, even though she remains assiduous in maintaining all facets of her image.
Fighting against the beauty of Beyonce is akin to banning certain financial assets or derivatives. If someone wants to hedge against credit risk by purchasing credit default swaps, they should be able to, and such swaps have proved indispensable for many responsible institutions. If someone wants to dress or look more like Beyonce thereby increasing their price in social markets, not only including mating markets, they should be able to do that as well. Although it costs those persons income to do so, it is a decision that they find personally satisfying and brings them happiness. To do otherwise would cost them more in terms of anxiety, possibly lost opportunities, and certainly happiness. This is not to say that those who don’t use them suffer from those negative aspects — it is all a matter of personal preference and choice. Indeed, natural self-confidence, charisma, or legendary deeds often may account for much more, overwhelming benefits even brought by make-up.
Perhaps there is more to the siren paradox here than meets the eye. Like the mythical sirens of The Odyssey, Beyonce has a certain mystery about her. Her image was as carefully crafted as it has been maintained. Her privacy has been inviolable, even after marriage to fellow superstar Jay-Z. Sirens were not friendly to sailors, for the sailors were lured into their death by the sirens’ song. Of course, we never found out just what Ulysses heard as he was tied to the mast, that is, until Margaret Atwood revealed it in “Siren song“:
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
Possibly some women because of Beyonce, and some men because of male models, fall into this trap like the sailors did for the sirens. Led on by promises of better lives and better mates, they fatefully discover that all was for naught. The antidote to the siren paradox, unlike the siren song, is not restricting one’s free will. It’s prudent execution and healthy moderation.
This will be my final entry in my series of posts devoted exclusively to The Art Instinct and the thoughts they provoke, though I may post a condensed summary review later. Here I wish to discuss what I said I would discuss two posts ago: virtuosos. The author of the book, Professor Denis Dutton, is obviously a lover of the arts. Partly, it’s because he has the ability to appreciate truly great works of art and if you read the book, you too will gain a fuller appreciation of the finest of fine arts.
He starts out his last chapter, devoted to “greatness in the arts,” with four assertions. I have nothing to say about them except for the second assertion: “the arts are not just crafts.” His ground for this assertion? Apparently: “the craftsman knows in advance what the end product will look like.” Yet, when the prototype of a product is developed, the craftsperson knows just as much about its exact finished form as Vermeer knew about The Girl With the Pearl Earring or Annie Leibowitz knows about Queen Elizabeth II when taking the picture. Indeed, the craftsperson actually knows a lot less about the finished product. It’s not even a true assertion. True, Leonardo had a great deal more imaginative in his works than those examples, but craft cannot logically be distinguished on these grounds from art. Indeed, I am reminded of a fun passage in Cryptonomicon, the exciting 1000 page parallel timeline thriller by Neal Stephenson. A dentist has a particularly challenging job ahead of him and he is unsure about whether he can pull it off. Through hours of labor, witnessed by no one except for perhaps a few attendants, the dentist summons every ounce of creativity and skill to the job: and succeeds. As the author writes, the dentist is proud, but not too comforting to his patient because he’s left with the knowledge that his virtuoso achievement will forever be trapped away in the operation room, never to see the light of day. Although Dutton warns us against making too much of these achievements, and I probably do so, there must be some middle ground here.
The question is actually far from academic here, too, for it has been litigated ad nauseum in U.S. courts. The reason why is because the U.S. maintains a massive catalog of tariffs for each category of goods. So every good that could possibly be traded fits into some category, the system of which is now called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Although very scary to a free trader like myself, it has well served special interests in this country since its inception. In 1892’s United States v. Perry case, a church tried to get stained glass windows into the U.S. under the duty-free category of paintings. Instead, the court found them subject to a 45% duty (think about how much that is for a second) by lumping them in with objects that had both merely ornamental and useful purposes. Because some carved marble seats had some useful value in 1916’s United States v. Olivotti & Co., they too were subject to higher duties. The ornamental purpose of a work of art finally triumphed for classification purposes in Brancusi v. United States for a sculpture that was highly abstract.
A lawyer is entitled to his digressions. In any event, there is no stipulation that craftspersons may not also demonstrate uncommon skill or virtuosity. And it is of virtuosity which Dutton seeks to speak. He ambitiously tries to “sketch the central characteristics that inhere in the very greatest works of art, the masterpieces that have withstood Hume’s Test of time….” The first characteristic is “complexity.” “Complexity does not mean sheer complicatedness but rather the densely significant interrelations of, say, poetry, plotting, and dramatic rhythm in a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear.” I can buy this. The second characteristic is “serious content. The themes of great works are love, death, and human fate.” Okay. The third characteristic is “purpose.” Dutton favors the opinions of Charles Murray (apparently a libertarian like me and I think Dutton) and Leo Tolstoy:
Murray [believes] that “great accomplishment in the arts depends upon a culture’s enjoying a well-articulated, widely held conception of the good” and that “art created in the absence of a well-articulated conception of the good is likely to be arid and ephemeral.” This falls in line with Tolstoy’s view that artistic value is achieved only when an art work expresses the authentic values of its maker, especially when those values are shared by the artist’s culture or community.
But he tempers this with a focus on the individual, again worth quoting at length:
Nevertheless, absolute seriousness of purpose comes ultimately from an individual, not just a culture, and most great artists, musicians, and writers demonstrate a rare and often obsessional commitment to solving artistic problems in themselves. With Shakespeare, Beethoven, Hokusai, and Wagner we have artists for whom the art itself is the transcendental good and not a reflection fo anything else.
It seems fair to say that the great works have been animated by purpose. Fourth, Dutton highlights “distance” and explains thusly: “the worlds [great works of art] create have little direct regard for our insistent wants and needs; still less do they show any intention on the part of their creators to ingratiate themselves with us.” The author wastes no time in revealing this statement for the broadside against the Dadaists he has fought elsewhere in the book and an entire fusillade follows against the kitsch they have engendered. The short discussion on kitsch is excellent, the best summary I have read. Still, the normally reserved Professor unleashes vituperative that can only come from a man who dearly loves the classics:
Kitsch shows you nothing genuinely new, changes nothing in your bright shining soul; to the contrary, it congratulates you for being exactly the refined person you already are. …readymade knockoffs such as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde smell suspiciously of kitsch, as does the turgid prose of critics who take them seriously. But then kitsch, money, flattery, and careerism are inevitably linked in the art world. Kitsch as pretentious, self-serving tripe can show up anywhere….
I love it. I think that the sad reality is merely as I have stated in previous posts: the market in traditional art forms, due to Dutton’s numerous arguments from “seriousness of purpose” to “cross-cultural aesthetics,” will always remain larger than the kitschy stuff. But kitsch has a place. It can help illuminate the very levels of intentionality Dutton discussed in the “uses of fiction” chapter: how many levels are we willing to tolerate or consider? Is that related to how much computation we are willing to do on price tags (in other words, why they usually end in .99 or .95)? It also is subversive in ways that can help us consider our relationship to art. I suppose the middle ground here which makes sense is: kitsch is interesting and important, but will never rank amongst the works that lift us to sublime heights.
This is a bit of an aside regarding The Art Instinct. There’s an interesting note in the book regarding the relationship between the form of art works and our senses. Dutton argues that “not every human sense organ provides a sensory basis for a developed art form… and… why some sensory experiences developed into high arts may remain forever unknown to us.” The prime example of the former is smell. Although our “sense of smell is acute and highly discriminating” and “there is for human beings more potential cognitive information in a single smell than you’d normally expect from a single color or a single sound,” smell has never given us any “grand art tradition.” Dutton argues primarily that it is because repeatability, balance, and pattern. Further, that this precludes smell from giving us any kind of imaginative stimulation.
I really think the argument here is a mixed bag. Much of what Dutton says is doubtless true, but I think it has more to do with cost of production than demand. ( You guessed it: I think a microeconomics explanation works best. ) We are not exactly sure what the demand for aesthetic smells are, beyond the very wide and expanding market for colognes and perfumes. But I am reminded of a presentation I coordinated in 9th grade when I sought to engage all the senses of the viewers by also bombarding them with smell. The main problem? Cost. Purchasing enough of the substances I wanted to create the smell was way beyond our budget. The same would go for aesthetic smell “performances” in the Pleistocene as it would today. Back then, the opportunity cost of devoting time, energy, and possibly very scarce resources to such performances would be massive — possibly including developing skill with some rudimentary musical instrument or epic poem / story-telling memorization. Further, it is not hard to imagine an artist in the future taking advantage of substantially decreased costs of production to develop strictly smell aesthetic performances or indeed to complement masterful orchestral compositions with them.
Dutton has another problem for smell’s capacity to be used aesthetically: “[Smell’s] failure to evoke or express emotions beyond those of personal association and nostalgia.” And yet, just accepting the assertion as true for a moment, the domain of experiences of personal association and nostalgia are limitless in the human mind, so it proves very little. I’m really not sure that the imaginative sense is best limited to transporting one into some sense of the other. Much art resonates with people precisely on the grounds of association and nostalgia, or memory. Now, I’m not saying I’d pay $7 for a smell performance when I could go see Star Trek again at the theater… I shudder to think. I merely say that nothing is proved here and indeed, as costs go down, there may be an entire aesthetic universe awaiting exploration.
Dutton believes that “every known medium that can be manipulated, utilized, or adapted to the basic requirements of an art form has already been turned toward making art.” I sense a little bit of fine arts myopia here. This cannot be true, for it could logically be shown that technology improvements and decreasing costs have fostered new mediums for art forms and that they may do so again. Economists cannot predict the exact form of the future, but at the very least, they can explain obvious cause and effect, such as when the minimum wage goes up, employers must discriminate against workers with the least valuable skills and therefore workers with the least valuable skills suffer from the minimum wage. Just so, if costs to the production of smell sense-data goes down, the chances of being able to get repetition, balance, and pattern in smell performances goes up.
You know what else I realized by the end of The Art Instinct? It isn’t terribly important whether you accept Dutton’s thesis or whether you think I’m on the right track with my own thoughts. Dutton proved that, not only is art a very much cross-cultural concept, but that tastes in art may also be cross-cultural. This last point isn’t really evidence for an art instinct, but it is evidence that biology matters for culture and that the counter-revolution Dutton fights on a daily basis, and with relish in The Art Instinct (never have “Dadaist experiments” been so scorned) and on Arts & Letters Daily, will ultimately prevail. Indeed, it seems to me that the animating purpose of the book is to cut down the cultural relativists who held away in the humanities and anthropologists beginning in the 1950s. I suspect that, although they already are in retreat, this book will make searching for refuge all the more difficult.
But a difference that does matter is how we define art. As exhaustively chronicled in my first few posts in this pathetically self-aggrandizing book review series, Dutton has a “cluster criteria” for categorizing art. These criteria exist both to set standards on how to judge particularly extraordinary art and to say what is not art at all. It’s an odd thing to me. I recognize the value in fighting the extremist postmodernists, but this does not seem to me to be the best way. We could cede that everything is art, yet categorize based on its relative utility for us, as I argued in Art Instinct Thoughts, Part II, or on any other categories. But the postmodernist experiment would not have been possible without the change in the costs of production and information transmission and we must now address what these changes reveal both for our concept of art as well as for aesthetics in general.
Reducing the cost of information transmission, which is the fundamental purpose of language, fiction-making, or art (even if it is to be an end in itself), means that all kinds of new art can arise. Where there were once epic poems, novels and other broad texts arose. “Non-fiction” took a piece of their pie, and now new media, such as blogs, come on the scene. Where there were once radio shows, television shows abound. Although each new form may cut into the old form a bit, the pie of information transmission itself is growing ever larger, meaning we humans are ever better educated.
It might be worth explaining the importance of these fictions in the context of information transmission a bit more. In the case of novels, it has been argued that they are dying an ignominious death. It is true, they are increasingly less popular, but there will always be a niche market for them as Mario Vargas Llosa argued:
In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised as something that it is not. […] Men are not content with their lot and almost all of the — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from the one that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without. Within each novel, there stirs a rebellion, there beats a desire. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is their lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.
How many emotions do we experience, through simulation, for the first time by reading a novel? The more important question: how many are best expressed given current technology by a novel? I can tell you that I can find no other medium would allow me such a full nostalgia for Hong Kong as a novel. Only a novel would adequately give me the heightened sense of drama, the sense of triumphal capitalism, tying together many seemingly unrelated cultural, personal, and financial strands. No new media, such as a blog, could replace Noble House.
The same human race that cross-culturally loves art is the same human race that must always act and never stands still. Through its infinite wants, and its inability to tangibly achieve these wants, sometimes simulacrums will do. And yet, the prevalence of various types of fiction has changed in the past several hundred years and is changing more still. But in order to explain some of the shift, in terms of information transmission costs, from novel to non-fiction, I wrote in “The Death of Angels” the following:
Simply, there are two related problems for novels. One, other media (journalism, non-fiction, television, etc.) now tell the tales once told by novels more succinctly, which appeals to the West, a world in which the opportunity cost of time has quickly risen just as surely as information costs have precipitously dropped. The value of a tale as long and convoluted as War and Peace no longer seems as great as the value of reading three books on completely different subjects or more relevant NYT bestsellers or learning three foreign languages (which is probably what I could have done in the time it took me to deal with Tolstoy). And are we really that interested in realist fiction? No. What does it do for me that these new media don’t do better? [Edited: Precious little, though there is that niche.] Two, the subject matter of novels that may best belong to novels — long tales of love, heroism, adventure, tragedy, romance, and even science fiction — can only be done so many times in so many ways before the demand in the market decreases. Now, of course the novel is not going anywhere and it is not really dead. This is what I meant by the exaggeration of the claim in terms of scope. However, as a percentage of the total fiction being created, the percentage must have waned over the past few years. There is nothing to suggest it will stop.
And yet, as the pie of total information transmitted expands, more and more different needs become supplied. The terrain for the most important story types is saturated with artists trying to supply the demand: romance, adventure (sci-fi/western/Dan Brown), or even using the Booker list from The Art Instinct: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth stories. These markets are saturated. Economics suggests that artists should find new markets. In order to do that, artists must assess where there are demands not being met. You would expect lots of different types of stories to come about, and I’d argue that boring existentialist stories were one of the first key indicators of this. But God bless the French, they love em! Now we have all kinds of anti-heroes, anti-stories, and off-kilter narratives like the Watchmen that you don’t know what to make of. This is all perfectly understandable.
But now you also factor in the decreasing costs of production. Although many continue to argue that real wages have stayed merely constant since the 1980s, we could accept this (though I do not) but proceed to explain, yes, but most goods are much cheaper now so the actual purchasing power, and therefore the standard of living of everyone, has risen enormously. Consider this post from Carpe Diem. Now let us remember that certain terrains (landscape and portrait painting, for example) will be in a condition of extreme competition already. Given the assumptions (1) decreasing cost of info transmission and (2) decreasing cost of production, what are the consequences? We would expect the following, in roughly this order:
- With lower barriers to entry, more artists enter the market.
- When one type of art market is saturated, new markets arise. Some new markets will exist because decreasing production costs makes new art forms feasible.
- Competition heats up in traditional art markets, fostering innovation with old forms.
- New art forms become accepted as they cater to niche demands that cannot be fulfilled by old art forms.
One graphical way to look at this is to consider a very traditional microeconomics style supply and demand graph. First, we will look at a very much simplified hypothetical market for art in 1800, then the same for 2009, and discuss the differences. The change that occurs between the two is the decreasing production costs (which includes, in reality, the decreased info transmission costs).
Hypothetical (and totally fictional) prices are on the vertical axis, while equally fictional quantity is on the horizontal axis. In 1800, about 1000 art objects are created and sold for $5 a piece. This hypothetical market is a composite of the wide bazaar type markets, where goods are much cheaper and plentiful, and the insanely expensive market populated by rich patrons and their supremely talented artists. As technology improves, production costs decrease, and the supply curve shifts rightward. Assuming that the same demand for art exists (art is a cross-cultural universal, the demand for which may lie dormant within) two hundred years later, more art is now produced and for a cheaper cost to the buyer. Notice that this extra 100 objects sold in 2009 would, according to my argument, include both innovative art in the old forms as well as art in the new forms. Whether counterrevolutionaries like Professor Dutton appreciate it or not, much of the Dadaist experiments and postmodern drama making have been in these new forms.
These innovations should be appreciated as works of art, but seen for what they are: less popular and less useful to humans. Due to Dutton’s contribution in The Art Instinct, we finally understand why they are also less meaningful on many levels.