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.

Excerpts from Alva Nöe’s Strange Tools

“Tools are useful only against the background of our needs and capacities. Let’s return to the doorknob. A simple bit of technology, yes, but one that presupposes a vast and remarkable social background. Doorknobs exist in the context of a whole form of life, a whole biology—the existence of doors, and buildings, and passages, the human body, the hand, and so on. A designer of doorknobs makes a simple artifact, but does so with an eye to its mesh with this larger cognitive and anthropological framework.” (99)
“Art that is very old—or from a remote culture—sometimes no longer shows up for us as challenging and difficult. This may be because it falls under the category “important art” and is brought to our attention under glass in the art archives. Or it may be that the work is unfamiliar and we don’t get what it is doing. In both cases, the works don’t engage, challenge, or affect us, which is just to say they don’t show up for us as art. Very often we find ourselves admiring old masters, for example, more or less solely for their decorative aspects, or because of their supposed historical significance or monetary value, or perhaps because they exhibit virtuosity in craftsmanship. And so of course it seems implausible that we admire works of this sort because of the way they subvert or undercut or abrogate the authority of what is normally taken for granted. After all, that’s just not what these works do for us, at least most of the time. They have expired. Or stopped being artworks. Until we learn to look again, that is.” (104)

“To get clear about this, 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. Players move about on the field; others warm up on the sidelines. The managers and coaches send signals back and forth to each other and to the players on the field. 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. Every baseball game has an official scorekeeper, and fans and enthusiasts may also keep 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. A half inning is over after three outs. Players bat one after the other, in a specified order, until there are three outs, and then it’s the other team’s turn. When a batter is at the plate, he faces the pitcher. Some pitches are good to hit; if he doesn’t hit them, they are strikes. Others aren’t good to hit, and if the batter “takes” them, they are balls, and they count in his favor. Four balls give him a base. Sometimes he hits the ball out of play; this may or may not count as a strike. But other times he puts the ball in play. This will be an out or an opportunity to run. To keep score is to record what happens. A well-kept “scorecard” allows you to know, for every batter, what happened when he was at bat, and for every inning, what took place. It allows you to “replay the game.” 

Two interesting points immediately come up. 

First, it isn’t easy to keep a scorecard. You need to understand what is going on and make judgments about, say, whether the runner advanced on a fielder’s choice, a stolen base, or whatever. People will disagree how to score a play. 

Second, when you score baseball, you can’t score everything that happens. Most scorekeepers notate every pitch: Is it a ball or a strike? Was it put into play? But I don’t think most scorekeepers notate the exact location of every pitch (high and inside? low and down the middle?), nor do they indicate the amount of time between pitches, or whether the pitcher scratched his ear or some other part of his body before throwing. As a result, the score doesn’t give you the resources to actually replay the game; it’s not like a videotape. It is, rather, a list, a digital encoding, of what happened, relative to a specific taxonomy for thinking about what happened and relative to one’s interests. The scorecard will indicate that the runner beat out the second baseman’s throw at first base, getting an infield single, but not, say, that the runner slid headfirst into the base. Sliding into first base headfirst for a single is, we might say, not a category that matters when keeping score. 

Of course it might matter for certain purposes! You might care very much about the health and safety of the runner; in almost every situation it is foolish to slide headfirst into first coming from home. So if I were the bench coach, I might very well want to note this sort of detail. But for more general purposes, there’d be no need to do this. It doesn’t particularly add to your understanding of what happened. 

This brings us to a third point: there is no one way to notate the game. How we notate depends on our interests. Some notate pitch locations. Some use colored pencils. Some use one kind of chart, others another. This said, there are shared, communal interests, there are conventions, and so, relative to the shared goals of a community, we can speak of doing a better or worse job. So now let’s ask: What is the point of scoring? What are we doing? What is this all about? One answer—it’s a way of recording what happened—is right, but superficial. A better answer is that keeping score is a way of thinking about and organizing our understanding of the play. It is a meaning-making activity. It is a kind of research. We write the game down to think about the game. 

With that said, we come to a telling further point. 

Keeping score is not, in fact, an activity external to the game. Very literally, how a game is scored defines what is going on in the game and so it matters to the players. 

Crucially, whether you take the trouble actually to keep score, playing baseball requires that you have a scorekeeper’s mentality, that you think of what is going on around you in the same terms as the scorekeeper would. How we score the game affects how a player feels or thinks about what he is doing, what situation he finds himself in, and so on. Players live in the scorekeeper’s reality.” (38)

— Alva Nöe, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature

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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A Few Types of Literary Compression

“And I said to Mabel, I said, ‘computational aesthetics, super-short. Jürgen Schmidhuber’s Theory Jürgen Schmidhuber, an AI theorist and theoretical computer scientist, has proposed a computational account of aesthetic judgments. In his view, a stimulus is judged to be beautiful or attractive by a subject T to the extent that the stimulus is compressible for T. Schmidhuber’s notion of compressibility is taken from algorithmic information theory, but concerns actual rather than ideal compression: it refers to the actual # of bits in T’s mental representation of the stimulus, bounded and fallible as T may be. Beholden to the limitations of T’s computational resources, two kinds of stimuli should be the most compressible: stimuli with evident internal structure (e.g. fractals or a chessboard), and stimuli with noticeable similarities to stimuli already stored in T’s history (e.g. English words or a the sight of a friend’s face). Experimental psychology supports both a preference for stimuli with internal patterns and a preference for stimuli with a similarity to past stimuli.”

— Peli Grietzer, Amerikkkkka
(website)

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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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Art As Engineering

A Conversation with Gabriel Duquette and Haley Thurston

Gabriel Duquette is a co-founder of Liposuction (tagline “aesthetics without all the fat”). He started the site with Haley Thurston, who studied art at Yale before contributing to Carcinistion and Ribbonfarm (her more casual art writing can be found at The Sublemon). Both are interested primarily in “retro-engineering” and applying “epistemic hygiene” to matters of taste and aesthetics. They write loosely within the community — and from the intellectual framework — of postrationalism (alongside critics like Sarah Perry and Venkatesh Rao).

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