December 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31          

Blogs & Sites We Read

Blog powered by Typepad

Search Site

  • Search Site



  • Counter

Become a Fan

Cat Quote

  • "He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life, a rat."

« 3 Quarks Daily "Politics & Social Science" Prize Finalists | Main | Homo narrans (Sujatha) »

December 13, 2011


Glad you like this, Norm. This is one of Stevens' most Keatsian poems, at least on the surface. "Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs / Hang always heavy in that perfect sky..." Sounds like an ode to me. It closes with an Ammons-like observation of "ambiguous undulations," a pattern in nature that suggests or reveals what could be a larger pattern of ambiguity and ebbing and flowing. But our intense momentary focus on the image of flocks of casual pigeons blinds us to the bigger picture, so to speak.

It's fair to hear the religious and the pagan here. One thinks of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ("a ring of men / Shall chant in orgy...").

For two guys who claim to have no (or diminished) ear for poetry, Norm and Dean are sure going hammer and tongs at it. Anyway, can I say that the poem sounds rather "Hindu" to me despite the references to Palestine, Jerusalem and Jesus? I guess for the same reasons that Norm's friends found it Pagan. (Unlike Dean though, I found the cadence of Jim Culleny's poem that Norm had posted earlier, the one that began the discussion about poem and religion in his mind in the first place, quite charming and natural).

And no, for an atheist or a skeptic, poetry or any other form of literary writing is not (or should not be) spoilt by the mere mention of god, religion or religious allegories. The enjoyment is dampened when the poetry is bad or it is composed self consciously to serve solely as a "religious" poem where no other interpretation is possible. I think most irreligious or religiously indifferent readers with a penchant for literature do enjoy religious themes in literature taken in the proper context of history and the human experience. Otherwise there would be very little for them to read.

I have had this conversation before with Dean many, many times but I don't think that I have been able to convince him. Just as the commenter found the reference to "lord" in Jim's poem off-putting, I find it equally puzzling when someone argues the converse - that there can be no place for art or poetry in science even when a scientist honestly declares (as many have) that what they experience in the midst of the scientific milieu is often very much like a spiritual experience or poetry! I think that orthodoxy and cultural gate keeping by the high arts against science and technology are not very attractive traits, just as knee-jerk snarkiness against any allusions to religion in the arts by skeptics is not.

For what it is worth, my scientist husband whose occupation requires him to churn out prosaic numbers and data filled writings on a daily basis, surprised me the other day by saying that he would find it much easier to convince NIH reviewers if he could present his research data in verse; he finds it easier to convey his thoughts in poems than in prose. Go figure!

I do not argue that there can be no place for art in science. Nor do I accept the converse. I referred to A.R. Ammons in my comment above. His poetry often riffs on the natural sciences, in a way that is pleasing and new. What I don't stomach is the cruder variety of scientific urge to explain poetry, or to explain it away. As I've tried to clarify in the past, I'm not even opposed to efforts to explain how our minds process art and poetry. It's the hubris of assuming one can take the next step that galls me, the notion that once we've explained what happens when we (some of us? all of us? only expert readers and viewers?) read poetry and view art, we can then satisfactorily and more cheaply find a substitute for those operations.

That said, I do get a bug up my butt when some loopy mathematician or astronomer or neuropsychologist feels compelled to declaim the "beauty" of his or her respective field's discoveries. That's mostly because they end up sounding cheesy and "soft," qualities that ultimately associate with the arts, rather than the sciences.

That said, I do get a bug up my butt when some loopy mathematician or astronomer or neuropsychologist feels compelled to declaim the "beauty" of his or her respective field's discoveries. That's mostly because they end up sounding cheesy and "soft," qualities that ultimately associate with the arts, rather than the sciences.
I actually meant just that. There is a lot of art and poetry “about” science by artists and poets. I was referring to your objection to scientists themselves seeing beauty and poetry in their work. I find that as bad and absurdly snobbish as the neuroscientists trying to set formulas for the totality of human aesthetics based on rather thin data.
On what authoritative definition of beauty can you assert that a scientist does not or should not find beauty in the intriguing nature of atoms, the rhythm of the creation and decay of organic matter, the amazing galactic activities millions of miles away or an elegant mathematical proof? Or that when they do see poetry in their work, that makes them cheesy or loopy? Who set the standards of beauty? Your disdain for "scientific beauty" and arbitrary limitations on "true" aesthetics notwithstanding, scientists will continue to see poetry and beauty in their works and hurray for that.

I fail to see why a scientist declaiming the 'beauty' of his/her field's discoveries should be chastised for doing so. Would you have scientists totally divorced from any sense of the numinous that their work may engender? How mean of you, Dean ;)
Scientists are human, and by extension you cannot take away their right to behave like humans instead of robots.

I agree that the 'scientific' study of why poetry is beautiful, or why a gorgeous sunset can evoke near mystic feelings in humans ( hey, what about other animals?) is too reductionist in approach. I suppose it is a sad necessity that every such bit of research has to be couched in terms of what eventual 'commercial application' the results may lead to, just in order to justify the request for funding. It's a case of pre-funded departments where their sole object may be to think, rather than come up with saleable ideas that are promptly applied in the marketing of the 'next big thing'.

The last statement should have been "It makes the case for pre-funded departments where their sole object may be to think, rather than just come up with saleable ideas that are promptly applied in the marketing of the 'next big thing'.

Hmm. I know plenty of people object to scientists explaining music or poetry or whatever, arguing that scientific explanations are reductive, and explain away when they explain etc etc. That's well known and worn terrain, and there's no changing anyone's views on that. But the view that scientists shouldn't -find- beauty in their -own- disciplines, this one's new to me. When I look at an well proportioned building, I feel it resonate with me. That's fine right? When I listen to some beautiful but non-programmatic music, the patterns and ideas are affecting in some way (which is hard to nail down, except with vaguely non-emotional weasel words like exalting or sublime or serene or calming.) Again, this is fine, yes? Similarly I can look at a chess game and enjoy a beautiful, subtle, simple but deep move. Again, no problem correct? So what's wrong with me finding a proof or equation beautiful?

I'm not even sure I understand what is being said. Suppose I'm Wrong in finding, say, the proof that square root 2 is irrational, beautiful. Fine, maybe I was dropped on the head as a baby, but just what is it I'm supposed to be doing wrong here? Is my brain "wired wrong" for producing conscious responses in me similar in some respects - re beauty I mean - between proofs and songs? But "wrong" how? Free verse does nothing much for me, while others enjoy it. I like Philip Glass. Many don't. Why is this case different? Maybe it's like someone with synesthesia finding triangles salty? It's an odd thought, but why not, I guess. Still seems like a strange thing to get miffed over. After all, having access to an extra source of beauty seems like a pretty blessed sort of wrongness, like with those who're wired to orgasm when they brush their teeth :)

Am I instead, as I introspect, mis-analogizing my conscious states in the proof case by finding them similar to those in the music case? But why would anyone assume this? It certainly seems to me like what proof does to me resembles what music does to me. What reason to think I'm misrepresenting to myself or others?

Is it rather a linguistic mistake because something about the word 'beautiful' as commonly used excludes this usage based on subject matter, not content? But Dean seems to be railing against a pretty widespread usage, not reporting linguistic facts of a sort either google or a usage maven would endorse.

Pretty baffled, really...

I don't object to scientists appreciating the beauty of nature or of their work or of rarefied concepts. Hurray for them. I object to trite, cheesy, fulsome expressions of that appreciation. What's more, I object to efforts by trite, cheesy, fulsome spokespeople for the sciences to colonize the arts, or to appropriate the distinct value of the arts for their fields.

There is a wildly popular interview with Richard Feynman commenting on a "nutty" artist friend who laments the tendency of scientific explanation to take the fun out of the marvelous in art. Feynman pretends not to understand what concerns his friend. (Nobody should get away with that move. It is itself a well-worn complaint.) He goes on to explain how science can produce findings so interesting that they, too, produce even more sources of aesthetic wonder akin to "the beauty of a flower." Feynman thinks science "adds" to the array of potentially beautiful objects and ideas. So it does. (So do auto repair, tax accounting, and bad banjo strumming, I'd add.) Feynman adds, "I don't understand how it subtracts." There's the crux. He can't possibly not understand how the clinical appreciation of a work of art or natural object might distract from our tenuous, wholly human ability to enjoy it as it is and where it is. (I could go on here. That clinical appreciation might indeed improve, but also vastly change, our admiration for the object.) But more: he seems unable to appreciate the beauty in subtraction, in removing details and distilling an object or an idea to a particular example.

As a scientist he claims to see "more of the flower" than his artist friend sees. His friend's take on the flower, he concedes, might be more "refined aesthetically," but he gives little weight to that rather question-begging quality. This is what I mean by colonization and appropriation.

Prasad's comment preceding the last one by Dean had gone to the spam filter. I have just published it.

@ Dean:

I was thinking of the same Feynman interview. I'll have to watch it again.

Timely, this post just now on Slashdot, featuring "one of the most staggeringly beautiful Hubble pictures ever taken...a gorgeous picture..." Turn to the source article. The headline is spectacularly good, but some of the commentary is effusive and--here goes that word again--cheesy: "insanely amazing," "devastatingly beautiful." Alright, and I bet you enjoyed all those miserable Star Wars movies, too. The story itself is very good, and I get the awesomeness of the phenomenon and, more to the point of this thread, I get the immediately affecting splendor of the image as captured by Hubble. What I don't get is the over-the-top insanity talk.

Feynman thinks science "adds" to the array of potentially beautiful objects and ideas. So it does. (So do auto repair, tax accounting, and bad banjo strumming, I'd add.)

Is "art" in a place separate from the above human enterprises? Who said so? Art is nothing special. When done well, it is good and when it is bad it is "cheesy." Just like anything else.

It is the hubris of the elitists (I call them gatekeepers) who insist that someone can "spoil" their pristine appreciation of art, music or literature (as only they know how to enjoy) by crossing strictly defined (by them) laws of aesthetics. Why is Feynmann's blather any more offensive than the snooty commentary of an art critic? Is he or she not "colononizing" my personal aesthetic territory by high mindedly telling me what art is kitsch and what masterpiece I should gasp at?

He can't possibly not understand how the clinical appreciation of a work of art or natural object might distract from our tenuous, wholly human ability to enjoy it as it is and where it is.

So explaining the nature of the sun, moon, stars, (heck, we even landed on the moon!)the constitution of living matter must have deprived us of our ability to enjoy the natural beauty of the sun, moon, stars and the entire animal and plant world? Ignorance must indeed be bliss.

And now you say, "What I don't get is the over-the-top insanity talk."

You mean you've only heard the science and technology types talk like this? Not the foodies, not the literary / artsy types or the music mavens? Come on! I have had this conversation with you several times. Your anger is disproportionately focused on science and scientists. You just can't believe that those eggheads may appreciate beauty in art, music, poetry and yes, in science as the non-science ethereal humans with distilled tastes of "beauty" do. Sorry, not true.

Let's see if I can bypass spam this time!
Dean -
- I actually agree knowing more or less about a thing can make it more/less/differently beautiful. Sure. What I still find weird is your valorization of the ignorance-is-bliss mode of operation.
- In fact, I think you're missing the rhetorical power of remarks like Feynman's (Dawkins has done similar things, as has Sagan etc etc). I think the point being made is something like, "you really want to say a flower can be beautiful only if you don't know what it is? What a depraved, stultified, mulish attitude to take." He's asking people to grow up, be less like the pig and more like Socrates, to learn to care how things are, and experience the higher/more complex pleasures of adult reality instead of holding on to childish, unreflective whimsy. And yes, an adult view of things includes and incorporates scientific discoveries. He isn't, except rhetorically, failing to grok the mindset of his (strawman? dunno, i've often seen people like this.) artist friend as you suggest. He's calling that man out, deeming him an infantile seeker after childish sop, daring him to actually explain *why* knowing something Darwinian perhaps about flowers makes them less lovely than thinking them, I dunno, angel snot. Most obvious responses seem intellectually, (and quasi-morally) reprehensible to me.
- Finally, on the Phil Plait astronomy post. He's just excited about his area of work! Honestly. He isn't even talking about art, or cinema, or whatever. He thinks that picture is freakin cool, and thinking about that stuff being out there blows his mind, and looks awesome! As Ruchira says, your actual words would seem to banish all excitement and enthusiasm from the world, and seem to have no particular connection with science or technology or math specifically. It all sounds incredibly churlish.

The Phil Plait astronomy post suffers from the same effusiveness that I call 'astroporn': pretty pictures on the HD TV screen, eerie or 'aaawwwwy' celestial music to match, voiceovers talking about the immensity or the brightness of a billion suns, etc. That would tire me out in about 30 seconds flat.
That's not beauty, it's overmarketing. And it feels fake, having it hammered into your head for 24 hours should you wish to linger on that channel isn't going to drive you any closer to the source of that beauty.

Sure, Sujatha. But astronomers are not the only ones doing this. Depends on what the forum is. Compare the financial news on PBS and Bloomberg with that on CNBC or network news (mostly) with that on cable. Similarly, the science and nature shows on PBS, Discovery and Smithsonian channels are as sober as their art / history /music broadcasts. The Internet of course is the worst offender with everyone trying to be heard above the din. I don't think scientific news is especially prone to to being "news porn."

I agree: art is nothing special. (Ruchira said that, prasad, if you're worried about depletion of excitement and enthusiasm.) But our discussion pertains to a specific formulation involving art and science, namely, that science can add to the appreciation of art in a unique way. My point was that other realms as well have the capacity to add to its appreciation, the implication being that art takes the world for its subject, and not just the natural world as authoritatively defined and explained by the sciences. Feynman, it seems to me, is arguing for something of that sort. If he's trying to call out his childish friend, he has a childish way of doing it: "I have more pretties than you!" If Feynman does understand the rather mundane critical response of his artist friend--akin to the complaint that the explanation of a joke doesn't usually make it more funny, at least not right away--then why, prasad, do you take him to find the artist's attitude depraved? Is it that Feynman's grand authority is capable of grokking a mere artist's eccentric observations? That Feynman's understanding leaves no room for sympathy, because sympathy is a symptom of a stultified attitude?

Put another way, ignorance of what, precisely, would afford bliss? I didn't suggest we must remain ignorant of explanations of natural phenomena in order to fully appreciate their beauty. In fact, I said the opposite in a parenthetical. A flower is food, a symbol, a design, a weed, an allergen... Some appreciations of the beauty of a flower might be enhanced by knowledge of one or more of these facts; others would not. Feynman's insights about flowers may very well be helpful, too. Some elitist gatekeepers nevertheless add their own value. But some don't. Full appreciation of some art does not require the imprimatur of scientific authority.

Dean, I thought we were talking about beauty, not art-the-profession, which doesn't exhaustively speak about the subject - least of all when we're talking about the beauty of the natural world. I also don't think we're going to agree on the Feynman video. I don't think he's saying scientists alone or uniquely understand flowers, though I daresay they (like many others, as you note - economists might see things in tulips that landscape painters don't) have their own distinctive perspectives to bring. At any rate, I don't think either Feynman or the artist sees in the flower a super-set of what the other sees. Neither needs the other's imprimatur when discussing floral prettiness. (If nothing else, they're people, not representin' gunny sacks filled with archetypical viewpoints - which views themselves presumably need only to cohere, not to exclude/eliminate each other )

In the video, unless I'm wildly mistaken, Feynman's bashing the famous romantic unweaving-the-rainbow viewpoint - surely the particular example is chosen for a reason. *That* specific complaint (something over and above the notion that one's state of knowledge affects one's perception of the thing, which seems uncomplicated) does in fact seem morally depraved to me. What I mean is, if indeed learning how flowers are leaves or whatever makes Feynman's friend see them as less wonderful, then, given this unfortunate (or batty) perspective, he should bloody well learn to live in an uglier world, not excoriate others for tampering with his nectar-fix. Feynman's possibly imaginary artist friend needs to acquire backbone, so to speak. I'm not going to try to persuade anyone of the rightness of that view...typically it's either bloody obvious or bloody obviously wrong, depending on who you ask.

prasad, You are correct to observe that I've been using "art" sloppily to refer to the perception of beauty in both works of art and of nature. There is a difference between the two. The Hubble photo story illustrates this in a convenient way: What is admired as "devastatingly beautiful" is the photograph, arguably a work of art, of a natural phenomenon not so easily perceived. In fact, it must be perceived by proxy, in highly technical terms. Still, I think this doesn't have bearing on my point, which is that a scientist's deference to her authority as a scientist as a basis for proclaiming how much beauty there is and where it resides is a mistake. Feynman does claim to see a superset of what the artist sees. "I don't understand how it subtracts" means exactly that. Suppose Feynman had said, "My friend complains that analysis sucks the life out of a beautiful object. I get his point. But he misses the more important point that the work of science can reveal data about the object of admiration that can add to its excitement and mystery and awe." I'd have no gripe. But that's not what he says. He says, "There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts." Ergo, his friend is nutty.

@ Dean and Prasad:

I believe Feynman's nutty artist friend, to whom he refers, is a very close and longtime friend, whose name I do not recall. They struck up a lifelong friendship when he moved out to California (Stanford?). The artist was quite accomplished and 'specialized' in the nude female form. "Nutty" should be understood as a term of endearment which they both used to describe the others limited views about what is beautiful in art, and who should be the arbiter.

Each had a great interest in the other's profession. Feynman proposed that they exchange, free of charge, lessons in their chosen profession. On alternating weeks, Feynman would receive art lessons, and the artist would learn about quantum physics. They did this for a very long time. The artist complimented Feynman on become a very good artist in a limited range of subjects and mediums - sketching nude women.

I'm not even sure I understand what is being said

The comments to this entry are closed.