Monday, July 28, 2014

Something Missing

Narrative is important in giving meaning to life. In some narratives the meanings seem complete, but in others something seems to be missing. It may have been this sense of something missing that, in medieval times, sent people off on pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Canterbury, and still today sends people off on literary pilgrimages of a kind I have made recently, to the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva and to the grave of Marcel Proust in Paris. My visit to Proust's grave gave me some of this missing sense, something like: “So he's not just an idea. He's really here."

I experienced something of the same sense when I recently visited Bletchley Park, Britain's code-breaking centre during World-War II, with a main purpose of finding out more about Alan Turing, who worked there throughout the War. As a vacation job (in 1960, I think, when I was an undergraduate) I worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where Alan Turing had worked after the War. I assisted in programming one of the world's first computers, the Turing-designed Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). The person whom I was assisting was writing a program to do cross correlation in a tracking task: now just a few lines of code but then, in ACE machine code, it needed an elaborate arrangement of ones and zeros and weeks of debugging. My first job after I got my PhD was again at the National Physical Laboratory, and it was then that I came across Turing's work on the foundations of artificial intelligence. The work that he did at Bletchley Park during the War, to decipher messages sent by the German Enigma machines, was among the most important contributions any individual made to the Allied cause. It fascinated me. In the hut that had been converted to an entrance to Bletchley Park, I found tears coming to my eyes, an indication of being in the presence of something larger than my own day-to-day concerns, and again an indication of the something that can seem missing from purely narrative accounts.

Being at Bletchley Park afforded me another episode of, "So it really happened."  The whole place was much larger than I had imagined, with not just a few huts, but many. By 1945 there were 9000 people working there on decipherment, 75% of them women and all, until recently, keeping the secret of their wartime work for decades afterwards. And there, too, at Bletchley as well as reconstructions of the machines that he helped to develop, is a narrative of Turing's contributions, as well as a fine statue of him by Stephen Kettle.

Although it's wonderful to see the reconstructed computing machines at Bletchley Park, the narrative explanations of what they did could, I thought, have been better. One principle that could have been explained (which I was able to bring with me on my pilgrimage there) was fundamental to the decipherment processes at Bletchley Park, and later became central to cognitive science (the discipline on which our work on fiction is based). It is that of making conceptual models then systematically searching the space of possibilities the models can generate, and then working out how to reduce the search space. Turing and his colleagues built conceptual models of the Enigma machines (and other coding machines used by the Germans) and then for each coded message, used the high speed machines they had built to search through settings of their conceptual models to find possibilities consistent with the structure of the German language, and with topics about which messages were sent. Nowadays, if we talk of fiction as a kind of simulation, it's again as a conceptual model, with fiction enabling us humans to search through the possibilities of lives we can live mentally by identifying with literary characters.

But is there still a more personal part that can go missing? Erasmus wrote about pilgrims who went to visit the shrines of saints (I paraphrase): "Why do they make these elaborate journeys? Why don't they read what the saints have written?" There are, I think, two answers. The first is that until Gutenberg's invention of the European printing press, and until Erasmus himself started to make knowledge widely available in printed books, almost no-one could read. The second, perhaps, is the sense of being there, that I experienced at the grave of Proust, and in the huts of Bletchley Park.

Image: Hut 8 at Bletchley Park, where Turing worked.
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Research Bulletin: Can a Story Change How We See Ourselves?

We often speak colloquially about how a piece of fiction can be life-changing, but what exactly do we mean by this? In many cases we mean that reading a particular book has permanently altered the way we see the world. A book that vividly describes the life of impoverished and homeless youth might make us view street people in a new light, for example. In addition to changing our perspective on the world, books might also change how we see ourselves. Tobias Richter (University of Kassel) and his colleagues examined just this question. More specifically, they were interested in whether women would perceive themselves as more or less feminine after reading a first-person narrative describing the life of a young mother. By way of comparison, a second control text was read by a different group of women. This control text described from a first-person perspective life in an urban context and made no reference to the gender of the protagonist. The researchers hypothesized that readers randomly assigned to read about the young mother, a protagonist with a more traditional female gender role, might come to view themselves as more feminine by way of identification with the character. In contrast, those who read the control text should show no such change in self-concept. This was largely what they found. Women who read about a young mother tended to rate themselves higher in femininity on a self-report questionnaire than those who read the control story, but only for those who were highly engaged in the story. Interestingly enough, across conditions, women who were parents in real life did not rate themselves higher in femininity and these parents also did not appear to be influenced by the story of the young parent. It was only women who were not parents, and who were deeply engaged by the story, who rated themselves as more feminine in response to the story of the young mother, compared to those who read the control story. This finding demonstrates that exposure to short narratives can change how we perceive ourselves along important dimensions. 


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Monday, July 14, 2014

Research Bulletin: Child Morality Tales and Honest Behavior

A great deal of the interest in whether reading can boost empathic abilities lies in the possibility that greater empathy toward others will result in more prosocial behaviour. Reading may influence behaviour in more direct ways, however, through the explicit depiction of prosocial themes for example. This might be especially true for children’s literature, which often includes the goal of moral education. Dr. Kang Lee (University of Toronto) and his collaborators recently examined whether exposure to a storybook could reduce lying behaviour in children aged 3 to 7 years of age. In their study, a researcher presented a desirable toy then told the child to turn around and not peek at it while she left the room to get a storybook. Hidden cameras recorded whether the child was able to resist temptation and avoid peeking at the toy. When the researcher returned, she read the child one of 4 possible stories: (1) The Tortoise and the Hare [The control story], (2) Pinocchio, (3) The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or (4) George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The latter 3 stories all deal with themes related to lying. After reading the story, the child was asked whether she or he had peeked at the toy while the researcher was out of the room. Based on the hidden camera footage, Dr. Lee and his colleagues knew which children had peeked, and of these children some admitted to peaking while others chose to lie. The researchers were therefore 
able to assess whether the children who were read a story related to lying were less likely to lie compared to those who were read the control story. Surprisingly, only children who were read the story about George Washington were less likely to lie. Children in this condition were over 3 times less like to lie compared to those who were read the control story (The Tortoise and the Hare). Dr. Lee suspected that the reason why George Washington was effective whereas the other two stories about lying were not might have been because it is made clear in the former case that the character benefits from his honesty. A follow-up study presented a different version of the George Washington story in which the main character is punished for lying and in this case children lied at about the same rates as in the control condition. From these studies it appears that children’s stories can affect moral behaviour, at least in the short-term directly after being exposed to a story and when the story highlights the positive consequences of good behaviour. 

Lee, K., Talwar, V., McCarthy, A., Ross, I., Evans, A., & Arruda, C. (in press). Can classic moral stories promote honesty in children? Psychological Science

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Species of Pride: Postmodern Taxonomy, Moral Ecology, and Pleasure in Work

"Take pride in ...," "pridefulness," "class pride" -- on the occasion of Pride, I have spent the week reflecting on different species of pride. These three forms above that pride might take demonstrate some of the ambivalence associated with pride -- and since I am fascinated by the role that dissonant, ambivalent, and boundary-crossing concepts play in social ecologies, I would like to trace what pride could look like in some situations I see people working to be proud of. 

In fields like literary criticism and cultural geography, this kind of work on something like a taxonomy of pride might seem hopelessly modern. And part of what makes modernity hopeless, from a postmodern perspective, may be overconfident pride in being able to figure things out. So with lessons learned about humility in the face of complexity and relationships, a postmodern taxonomy tries to understand something more like engaging as part of a social ecosystem. Pride is often understood as differentiating from a social norm -- and perhaps just as often is treated with suspicion. But differentiating is hard work -- and a hopefully just as common response is celebration: pride in creative exploration navigated and work well done, and pride in carrying out the various practices that form and maintain relationships. This celebratory reaction is powerfully generative. The things people do to celebrate help people to share meaning making.

This kind of pride is powerful. This seems important to establish, as I am easily frustrated by radical homemaking claims that are easy to interpret as radically constraining domains of agency such that they are easier to improve and feel better about. In this context, maybe we can better sympathize with condemnations of "pridefulness"; you want people to tell their stories of what they've been doing, field questions, and adapt in ways that continue to regenerate their society-environment contexts. But pride seems much more interesting in our culture as a weapon of the weak: a reclaimed satisfaction and identification that often pushes back on attempts to modernize. As cultures of social justice, feminist workerism, hipsterism, and rural renaissance converge around particular practices -- I particularly notice those around food and agriculture -- there are certain ways that people are working to be proud. 

I would detail these kinds of work -- and I doubtless will, over the rest of my project to map food knowledges and epistemologies -- but given my summer's work on the foodwords.org translational field guide, I want to leave this particular taxonomy open to your experience. I notice my friends and colleagues and family navigating which things they can be proud of in their food chain. I notice people figuring out how to arrange time to do the things they find meaningful enough to be proud of. I am curious about what kinds of stories they tell to reproduce and widen their ability to be proud of what they're doing. And I'm curious about what kinds of social and environmental relations support enough pridefulness to enjoy it, and enough power in pride to support a positive read of pride in addition to the power of the resistant kind.


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Monday, June 30, 2014

Yeast ethics and social space (Stretch beers for Valentine)

(Canada Day Eve)
[image of stretch beers at end]
After a month’s worth of conferences about food and land and society (a year of not traveling led to some overenthusiastic planning of meeting sessions), I am developing an appreciation for yeast.

Scholarly meetings give you many chances to think closely about mass-culture baked goods. Breakfasts, the one meal served at the CanadianAssociation for Food Studies meeting at Brock, had a lot of white bread, and bicycling around Sweden for the Relational Landscapes meeting (during a rail strike), I encountered many store-bakery versions of a cardamom bread I grew up making. And at the joint meetings of the Agriculture, Food, and Human ValuesSociety and the Association for the Study of Food and Society in Burlington, the Co-op had a fascinating spatial divide between extraordinarily artisanal breads and the plebian buns of the masses. (I allayed the anxieties of a bread-seeker agonizing over the ingredients of the hot dog buns I was looking for by pointing him toward the good bread section.)

All of these breads are enough to make one appreciate yeasts, and I made sure to feed my current resident starter as soon as I returned home. I am indebted to my Montreal colleague David Szanto for my current cultivation of this yeast community: it was the starter of his recently deceased dear friend Gigi, a starter for unpretentious and very flavorful bread. And it is promiscuously bubbling with my kitchen yeasts now, growing out in a warm metal bowl not long after midsummer, becoming part of the ecology of my home, and making me think about the disparity between the crucial function of yeasts and the prevalence with which we rely for functional metaphors on the extraordinarily available everyday functions that underpin bread and beer!

As I understand it from my insistent if gentle interrogation of my colleagues in the flour arts, although it is culturally allowable to widely mock Wonder Bread for its Modern replacement of Ecological Process with Technological Progress (yeastiness is added for flavor, not function, as the bread structure is wondrously machine-built), we have not built a particularly patient culture for yeastly function. My wonderful baking colleagues assure me that they recognize the superiority of wet-fermented breads (in which yeasts and flours develop fuller flavors in not entirely predictable relationships with humidity, heat, and weather) but cannot find adequate markets for them (an assertion I cannot believe, given how much more interesting they taste). But the less flavor-cultivating “double-acting” quick yeasts are the standards in almost all recipes I grew up with. As part of my ongoing experimentation to reverse engineer the recipes of my childhood to their pre-industrial versions, I have renovated most of these recipes into wet processes, and even when using commercial yeasts, I enjoy allowing them to co-exist with the feral ones.

As soon as I consider what it might take to develop yeast communities toward different qualities, I am struck by the need for an ethic of culture. With yogurt culture, I feel more like a herder: I can watch and feel as the bacterial community in my batches tends toward the gelatinous or the stringy, wait until things get just too Finnish and pull them back toward the palate of the Midwest. But with yeasts, I have always thought of them more like pets—a thought that feels illegitimate yet perhaps appropriate as I think about the qualities of inheriting, from a friend, a piece of a living community shared to become cyborg with different places’ airbornes. Am I stewarding a pet as I would a beloved but dependent animal? (What kind of class performance is staged by the yeast of someone from the gastronomic sciences? Beagle? Bird dog? Doodle? Laying fowl?) Or is this more of a collaboration, a wild symbiosis with my kitchen air, a potentially fraught if amicable relation of sustanance?   

Maybe a collaboration with microbiota is too dauntingly complex and frighteningly unknown to make people want to build metaphors with it. Maybe there was a whole yeasty vocabulary sanitized by white purity. Maybe, with Canada Day looming tomorrow, and my longtime friend and neighbor Chef Melanie Dunkelman visiting from Toronto for some food and socializing, I may even be able to expand my beer appreciation to new social organizations of yeasts.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Morality at the Movies


Going to a feature film or watching a television drama is a moral activity. So says Carl Plantinga in a talk he gave to this year’s meeting of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, and in a book he is writing with the tentative title: Spectator Judge: Affect and Ethics in Narrative Film and Television. The Society meets annually, and this summer the meeting was at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was ably and agreeably hosted by Dirk Eitzen.

Plantinga argues that film and television narratives are ethically significant because they play a role in the construction of our systems of morality at both personal and cultural levels. First, his argument goes, narrative films cue us to judge, believe, and feel emotions in various ways. Second, they offer us representations that are particularly vivid, as to why we should make judgements, exercise beliefs, and experience emotions. Third, one of the ways in which films have this effect is by offering us various pleasures and enjoyments. Fourth, they invite us to transfer judgements, beliefs, and emotions from the realm of fiction to the real world.

Fiction films and television dramas, in other words, are persuasive devices. One might say that although analysis of film has largely been thought of as a branch of poetics, according to Plantinga’s argument it should better be seen as a branch of rhetoric. The spectator is typically invited by a film into the position of making judgements about characters and their actions, and this immediately makes film a moral activity. Film therefore offers a sentimental education, teaching people about emotional scripts and structures of feeling. It invites us into a state of transportation and engagement, and we are pleasurably rewarded by the moral and evaluative emotions we experience, carefully specified for us by writers and directors. For instance, we feel empathy and sympathy for a protagonist, and this will lead to relief and satisfaction in the promise of justice. In response to cruel or contemptuous behaviour of a character, we feel anger and disgust, and we are pleased to see wrong-doers punished. We recognize sacrificial acts, which induce states of admiration.

I think that Plantinga is right about film and television dramas being about moral and ethical matters. This is seen, for instance, by the reflection of values of the societies in which they are made. In the West, for instance, we place great value in individual experience and in each individual life. It seems to me, however, that, in film and television dramas that are art rather than just entertainment, room is left for us as spectators to make not just judgements that we are persuaded to make by writers and directors, but our own judgements. Here, perhaps, film and television dramas attain their most important moral significance.

Image of the Spectator Judge (from Carl Plantinga’s slide show).
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