The empathetic humanities have much to teach our adversarial culture

By Alexander Bevilacqua, Aeon, January 15, 2019

As anyone on Twitter knows, public culture can be quick to attack, castigate and condemn. In search of the moral high ground, we rarely grant each other the benefit of the doubt. In her Class Day remarks at Harvard’s 2018 graduation, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed the problem of this rush to judgment. In the face of what she called ‘a culture of “calling out”, a culture of outrage’, she asked students to ‘always remember context, and never disregard intent’. She could have been speaking as a historian.

History, as a discipline, turns away from two of the main ways of reading that have dominated the humanities for the past half-century. These methods have been productive, but perhaps they also bear some responsibility for today’s corrosive lack of generosity. The two approaches have different genealogies, but share a significant feature: at heart, they are adversarial.

One mode of reading, first described in 1965 by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur and known as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’, aims to uncover the hidden meaning or agenda of a text. Whether inspired by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud, the reader interprets what happens on the surface as a symptom of something deeper and more dubious, from economic inequality to sexual anxiety. The reader’s task is to reject the face value of a work, and to plumb for a submerged truth.

A second form of interpretation, known as ‘deconstruction’, was developed in 1967 by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It aims to identify and reveal a text’s hidden contradictions – ambiguities and even aporias (unthinkable contradictions) that eluded the author. For example, Derrida detected a bias that favoured speech over writing in many influential philosophical texts of the Western tradition, from Plato to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The fact that written texts could privilege the immediacy and truth of speech was a paradox that revealed unarticulated metaphysical commitments at the heart of Western philosophy.

Both of these ways of reading pit reader against text. The reader’s goal becomes to uncover meanings or problems that the work does not explicitly express. In both cases, intelligence and moral probity are displayed at the expense of what’s been written. In the 20th century, these approaches empowered critics to detect and denounce the workings of power in all kinds of materials – not just the dreams that Freud interpreted, or the essays by Plato and Rousseau with which Derrida was most closely concerned.

They do, however, foster a prosecutorial attitude among academics and public intellectuals. As a colleague once told me: ‘I am always looking for the Freudian slip.’ He scours the writings of his peers to spot when they trip up and betray their problematic intellectual commitments. One poorly chosen phrase can sully an entire work.

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Macaques take turns in conversation

Science News reports:

The researchers analyzed 64 vocal exchanges, called bouts, between at least two monkeys that were recorded between April and October 2012 at the Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto, Japan. The team found that the median length of time between the end of one monkey’s calls and the beginning of another’s was 250 milliseconds — similar to the average 200 milliseconds in conversational pause time between humans. That makes the macaques’ gaps between turns in chattering one of the shortest call-and-response pauses yet measured in nonhuman primates.

The quick response time suggests the macaques are not calling out in habit, but are taking turns and coordinating their vocalizations, says Isaac David Schamberg, a primatologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study.

“Monkey vocalizations are not static and automatic; they’re dynamic and conversational,” Schamberg says. [Continue reading…]

The value of well-crafted language

Greg Laden writes:

Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words.

Joe Rom’s Book How to go viral and reach millions. Greg Laden’s BlogToday we are engaged in a great battle between those who respect, even demand, the truth, and those who care more about partisan power than advancing or even using knowledge.

Perhaps this is why we tend to quote the dead more than ever. During the current election season, I’ve heard the late great Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) quoted at nearly every meeting of loyal Democrats. “We all do better when we all do better.” “The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”

We remember the inspiring words of JFK. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” “A child miseducated is a child lost.” “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”

To turn to the living for one moment, Gloria Steinem. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”

What do these memorable, moving, or emotive missives have in common? They all rely on rhetorical practices that have been part of language since, possibly, some ancient early stage of this unique human ability. Alliteration, Allusion, and Analogy are to language what a good set of planes and saws it to a carpenter. Parallelism, balance, and anaphora are used repeatedly. It is not hyberbole to suggest that metaphor underlies all of these statements. Human language, when used well, can shape minds, steer conversations, and cause more change than any military weapon. [Continue reading…]

How emoji are changing the way we communicate

Wired reports:

Two years ago, Sanjaya Wijeratne—a computer science PhD student at Wright State University—noticed something odd in his research. He was studying the communication of gang members on Twitter. Among the grandstanding about drugs and money, he found gang members repeatedly dropping the ⛽ emoji in their tweets.

Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of ⛽ jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

At Stanford University this week, a collection of linguists, data scientists, computer researchers, and emoji enthusiasts gathered for the International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media, itself a smaller piece of the AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. They brought with them research on how emoji are changing the way we communicate online, how gender and political affiliation are reproduced online through emoji, and the challenges emoji pose for natural-language processing in computers. The assembled academics also debated basic questions about the nature of emoji: Like, if emoji is something akin to a language, why can’t anyone agree on what individual emoji mean? [Continue reading…]

To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms

Rachel Nuwer writes:

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”

“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.” [Continue reading…]

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The way humans point isn’t as universal as you might think

File 20180220 116368 j2k6gq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The universal sign for ‘Look over there!’ isn’t so common in some cultures.
Helena Ohman/Shutterstock.com

By Kensy Cooperrider, University of Chicago

Octopuses have long arms and plenty of smarts, but they don’t point. Nor do chimps, gorillas or other apes, at least not in the wild.

Humans, on the other hand, are prodigious pointers. Infants use the gesture before they can talk, often around 1 year of age. By 2, they’ll waddle around, their forefingers sweeping over the world like searchlights.

Pointing seems to be in our nature: When people want to draw attention to something, we instinctively extend an index finger. This gesture has been observed across the globe, suggesting that it’s a universal human impulse, perhaps like yawning or laughing.

But research my collaborators and I recently published shows that pointing is not simply a matter of human nature. How we point is also a matter of culture. These findings suggest that cognitive scientists still have a lot to learn from other cultures about why humans behave in the ways that they do.

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Pistachio trees ‘talk’ to their neighbours, reveals statistical physics


Philip Ball writes:

The number of nuts on pistachio trees in any given year could be explained with a model from statistical physics that is normally used to study magnetic materials. That is according to researchers led by Alan Hastings, a mathematical ecologist from the University of California, Davis, who have used the “Ising model” to analyse the yields of pistachio trees in one particular orchard in California. Their work explains why the orchard does not always have a uniformly good crop one year followed by a uniformly bad crop the next, arguing that the patchiness in nut production in certain years is due to interactions between neighbouring trees.

It might seem odd there should be a link between pistachio trees and magnetic materials. But the statistical physics developed to understand systems like magnets or liquid–vapour transitions has been found to apply to a wide range of biological systems, from the flocking of birds to patterns of neural activity in the brain. In particular, various biological systems seem to operate close to a critical phase transition like that in iron when the spin magnetic moments switch from a disordered to an ordered orientation as it is cooled below the Curie temperature.

Close to the magnetic critical phase transition, each spin in the material becomes acutely sensitive to the orientation of the others, with their alignment exhibiting long-range correlations. Patches of aligned spins can therefore develop on all length scales from just a few neighbours to the entire system, making the patches “scale-invariant”.

Critical behaviour might be useful in biological systems because it leads to extreme sensitivity to external influences, with the long-range correlations meaning that a small disturbance can spread rapidly through a system. The system therefore has access to many different configurations and will not get trapped in a particular arrangement. Indeed, biological systems might deliberately sit close to critical points to benefit from this responsiveness – a flock of animals, for example, could then quickly adapt to the presence of a predator. [Continue reading…]