Alva Noë & Baseball

I do not watch baseball, though many of my favorite passages and anecdotes are inspired by the sport. There is DeLillo, of course, in his prologue to the monumental Underworld, whose opening line — He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful. — remains one of the best ever written.¹

And there’s the wonderful paragraph in Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning…. Was the Command Line, describing Ronald Reagan’s early career as a radio announcer:

…[Reagan] used to call baseball games that he did not physically attend by reading the terse descriptions that trickled in over the telegraph wire and were printed out on a paper tape. He would sit there, all by himself in a padded room with a microphone, and the paper tape would creep out of the machine and crawl over the palm of his hand printed with cryptic abbreviations. If the count went to three and two, Reagan would describe the scene as he saw it in his mind’s eye: “The brawny left-hander steps out of the batter’s box to wipe the sweat from his brow. The umpire steps forward to sweep the dirt from home plate,” and so on. When the cryptogram on the paper tape announced a base hit, he would whack the edge of the table with a pencil, creating a little sound effect, and describe the arc of the ball as if he could actually see it.

Reagan, here, is generating tension, suspense, climax, emotional involvement, all from a stream of sparse details, narrative constraints. He is telling stories from prompts; in short, he is writing fiction.

And the prompts, printed out and demanding improvisation, originate with a scorekeeper.

*

Alva Noë’s Strange Tools is a book — as many commentators have already pointed out —in the tradition of Dewey’s Art as Experience. It is written by a philosopher instead of an art historian. It is pragmatic; it avoids the vestiges of structuralist and post-structuralist style (in other words, is eminently readable); and it addresses the arts inclusively, from choreography to literature, music, fashion, and the visual arts.

His central argument, if I am not unknowingly misrepresenting it, is grounded in his concept of “organized activities,” a term encompassing such diverse phenomena as interacting at a dinner party, interviewing for a job, driving a car, and dancing at a wedding. Noë sets out some parameters of what specific characteristics organized activities possess:

  1. Organized activities are biological,² ritualized, and cognitively involved interactions (“cognitively involved” in that they affect and require the diverting of attention; “interactions” in both the interpersonal and non-interpersonal sense).
  2. Organized activities are always structured temporally. They are a negotiation between parties, and they both orchestrate and are orchestrated by participants. There is a script and a structure which influences, constrains, and inspires action.
  3. Actions within activities are neither fully, deliberately conscious nor originating solely in the nervous system; they occur at an “embodiment level,” a kind of consciousness exemplified by a jazz pianist improvising a solo. There is a structure within which the pianist is operating, a chord progression which guides his musical decisions, and while some (especially macro-level) musical judgments will be consciously decided while or before soloing, many of the keystrokes will come spontaneously, as if possessed.

As much as we dance, we are danced. Successful engagement involves giving into a pre-existing structure, the known norms of the organized activity which is dance. And art, crucially, is a way of modeling and responding to just such an organized activity, of inventing, exemplifying, perfecting, evolving, and (especially) interrogating or challenging elements of the activity. It organizes and reorganizes our biologically-originating behavior, a sort of mapmaking or sense-making of a structure within which we, as humans, are embedded, and which is therefore, to us, invisible.

Responding to an organized activity, of course, requires engagement on art’s part with said activity, creating a constant feedback loop between the two. Choreography is shaped by the biologically originating activity which is dance, but it also bears considerable influence on how dance evolves.

(I think it is worth asking, at this point, how much utility is gained from using the term “organized activity” instead of the word “culture” — and whether, if it is in fact the case these terms are interchangeable, Strange Tools is moving past the obvious.)³

For writing and speech, a “dense, historical, many-layered scriptural-linguistic structure, caused by “the availability of… [an] image of language,” emerges. The image is the art form of written or literary text, and the way everyday conversation is conducted is influenced — despite their innumerable differences in form — by the written word. Moreover, the written word, to Noë, is not merely or even primarily a way of representing speech. It is a way of reorganizing the organized activity that is thinking, a mode of idea notation which only additionally began to be used to transcribe speech. “The best theories of the origins of writings,” Noë writes in defense, “suggest it derived, originally, from techniques of making for the purpose of counting. Writing was literally scoring at the beginning. The first writers were bookkeepers and they wrote not to represent their speech but to keep track of goats and bushels and transactions…”

Which brings us again to scorekeeping.

*

From Strange Tools,

…let’s return, once again, to writing in the case of written language. We can gain insight if we consider what might seem like a fringe and esoteric graphical practice, score keeping in baseball.

A baseball game lasts about three hours and consists of a messy and complicated stream of activity… Given the fact that there are an open-ended number of ways to individuate events, there is a practical infinity of movements, actions, and events that can occur in a baseball game. But there is a special activity known as keeping score… Keeping score at the simplest level is keeping track of who’s winning. But at a more sophisticated level it means keeping track of what happens more broadly.

Scorekeeping will often include things like batting order, balls and strikes, foul balls, stolen bases, home runs, and outs. And of course, these individual events add up to points, to victories or losses. Scorekeeping allows you to “replay the game” to some extent, as Noë writes (also in scare quotes), but there will always be losses in fidelity. Some scorekeepers may keep track of smaller details, like the speed and style of a pitch, or else the angle and distance of a batted ball. But they cannot possibly chronicle every detail: the individual ripple of each wave of grass as wind sweeps over the diamond; the headspace of the shortstop after a botched play. Which makes scorekeeping an act of incredibly lossy compression, an attempt to capture something which in its entirety is uncapturable.

This kind of compression, the intentional neglect of details, is an act of extended, (and in the case of scorekeeping, real-time) curation. Like all curation, decisions are made based on the importance or relevance of informational bits. “Important” requires a subject, a priority, or an organizing principle, of course — important to whom? to what end? within what values system or hierarchy? The exact same is true of attributes like “relevance,” or any other curatorial filters.

Lossy compression is not just the essential characteristic of scorekeeping but of all representation, including language. It is curative, it is eliminative, it prioritizes.

And here we approach truism.


[1]  From the rest of Underworld‘s first page:

It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom. He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it’s hard to blame him — this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains… and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day… going to a game.

[2] “Both philosophy and choreography take their start from the fact that we are organized but we are not the authors of our organization”; in other words, there is a biological basis for the organized activities, and art is our attempt to either reorganize or make sense of it.

[3] One of Strange Tools‘ more interesting arguments is that this instinct to art is a brand of autopoiesis, a way of orienting and regulating and maintaining the boundaries of the self: “Living matter is organized toward its own self-maintenance and self-production in the face of physical processes that enfold and threaten to dissolve it”; art is a protection against our dissolution.

Post-Ritual Space: Berghain

“To pilgrims and many expats, it is a temple of techno, a consecrated space, a source of enchantment and wonder.”

Nick Paumgarten, “Berlin Nights

Is ritual still possible in contemporary society? This essay is one in a series which will examine those spaces which facilitate ephemeral and loosely structured (rather than repeated, highly structured, and strictly observed) events. Such spaces are communal but not socially mandatory; they are spiritual but derive transcendence from ecstasy instead of trial or mundanity.[1]

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Ulysses, Wilde, and a Theory of Literary Compression

“He looked at the cattle, blurred in silver heat. Silvered powdered olive trees. Quiet long days: pruning ripening. Olives are packed in jars, eh? I have a few left from Andrews…

A cloud began to cover the sun wholly slowly wholly. Grey. Far. No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea… Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain.”

Ulysses, 4.200-221

An introduction to this text can be found here.

The mobilization of Ulysses and Earnest is purposefully audacious and inevitably missteps. The overarching tone, and parts of the analysis, I would characterize as understandably wrong.

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Text, Telos, and Ritual

I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
To the memories of yesterday’s clouds
I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
And now I’m set free
I’m set free to find a new illusion

— “I’m Set Free,” The Velvet Underground

“As time goes on… the universe becomes more and more what experience has revealed, less and less what imagination has created, and hence, since it was not designed to suit man’s needs, less and less what he would have it be. With increasing knowledge his power to manipulate his physical environment increases, but in gaining the knowledge which enables him to do so he surrenders insensibly the power which in his ignorance he had to mold the universe.”

— Joseph Wood Krutch

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Generic Fit

“This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which a listener imposes himself upon the text, or transforms the text from generic to specific, shows that listener something about himself. He learns his yearnings, his sadnesses, his loves; he recognizes an emotional life which is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state which is otherwise ephemeral.”

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Every Little Star

I.

I filled in a long-standing gap in my cultural knowledge recently and watched Lynch’s 2001 noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive. That’s the sensation, right? Where listening to records or watching films in an era of unprecedented access begins to feel a bit like doing homework.

Except Mulholland Drive is, itself, an almost unprecedently interesting film, one capable of arousing sensations in the viewer which he was previously unaware existed.”Uncanny” is used frequently to describe a Lynchean landscape, a place where things are simultaneously banal and extraordinary, both incredibly familiar and unnervingly off.

There’s a scene in the film during which one of its central protagonists, a successful Hollywood director, auditions lead actresses for his screenplay. Shadowy organizations are pulling strings behind the scenes so that the casting decision is essentially out of his hands, but he cycles through the motions regardless, asking several of the actresses to perform different 50s pop hits in a mock-up recording studio. One of these (diegetically) auditioned actresses is played by (real life) Melissa George, singing the rendition of “I’ve Told Every Little Star” shown in the footage below.

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A D Jameson & the Avant-Garde

I.

  1. I’ve been writing exclusively in long-form the past twelve months and become exhausted. Simultaneously, my writing has become more self-conscious, self-reflexive, and unwieldy, constant over-qualifications and anxious tangentials interrupting its focus. The list format used here, inspired partly by HTMLGiant’s trademark bullet-point style, is both a way to relieve this long-form burnout and to approach meaningful topics without bulking out this piece in all the wrong places.
  2. Part of this issue, I think, stems from a fairly universal anxiety over being misunderstood by a hypothetical reader: hyper-clarity, in an attempt to quell this anxiety, can paradoxically lead to bloated writing. It’s a phenomenon the critic A D Jameson demonstrates with his concept of “dictionary expansions” as text-generating. Beckett’s “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” transforms into “A self-luminous heavenly body shed or cast light, possessing no possible or remaining course or choice, on something of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.; having but lately come or been brought into being…” Hyper-clarity might even be the wrong term, because the latter iteration (“A self-luminous heavenly body…”) is significantly less clear than Beckett’s original. Qualification, hedging, and the addition of nuance can, in moderation, prove invaluable, but when overdone lead quickly to this “bogging down” effect, an inappropriately dense style that’s unenjoyable to read.
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