Art (That) Works

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Art (That) Works

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Table of contents :
Beauty is Fit. Sarah Perry.
Chords and Maps. Gabe Duquette.
Generic Fit. Suspended Reason.
Art as Engineering. Gabe Duquette, The Sublemon.
Objectivity and Art. Mills Baker.
Compressiveness. Peli Grietzer.
Belonging > Innovation. Gabe Duquette.
A Letter About Art. Peli Grietzer.
But What Are Birds Really? Sam Rosen.
Voices on the Genius of the Bit Artists. John Nerst.
Culture Is Not About Esthetics. Gwern.

Citation preview

Beauty Is Fit

Sarah Perry

Chords and Maps

Gabe Duquette

Generic Fit

Suspended Reason

ART AS ENGINEERING Art as Engineering

Gabe Duquette, The Sublemon

Objectivity and Art Compressiveness

Mills Baker

Peli Grietzer

WHERE ARE WE NOW Belonging > Innovation A Letter About Art

Gabe Duquette Peli Grietzer

But What Are Birds Really?

Sam Rosen

Voices on the Genius of the Bit Artists

John Nerst

Culture Is Not About Esthetics


A R T ( T H AT ) W O R K S


A R T ( T H AT ) WORK S Mills Baker Gabe Duquette Peli Grietzer Gwern John Nerst Sarah Perry Suspended Reason Sam Rosen



WHAT IS FIT? Beauty Is Fit


Chords & Maps


Generic Fit


Sarah Perry

Gabe Duquette

Suspended Reason

ART AS ENGINEERING Art as Engineering


Objectivity & Art




G. Duquette, The Sublemon

Mills Baker

Peli Grietzer

WHERE ARE WE NOW? Belonging > Innovation


A Letter About Art


But What Are Birds Really?


Voices on the Genius of the Bit Artists


G. Duquette P. Grietzer

Sam Rosen

John Nerst

t Culture Is Not About Esthetics Gwern



This the first entry in what will hopefully become a series, each entry attempting to capture and preserve a subcultural conversation happening outside of traditional knowledge-work institutions, and to export that conversation beyond its original bounds. The aesthetics blogosphere is a loose network of bloggers on the perimeter of the rationalist and postrationalist scenes. They include The Sublemon, Gabe Duquette of Liposuction, Sam Rosen of Saner than Lasagna, and Peli Grietzer of Second Balcony. Other writers, whose body of work is not primarily about aesthetics but whose ventures have been discursively influential, include Sarah Perry, in her writings on mess, order, and wholeness; Owain Evans, in his work on compression; independent reserachers Kevin Simler and Gwern; and John Nerst of Everything Studies.[1] Many of these writers are united by an interest in the successes of traditional, evolved “anti-design” 5

approaches, where the discovery of working solutions builds and compounds on itself over generations; this in opposition to the modernist mode of revolution and reinvention—cults of failed planners and top-down interventionism buoyed by hubris or idealism, foisting non-working principles on their publics.[2] They argue that, whereas traditional design is voluntarily selected and transmitted over generations for its “fitness” with human life and flourishing, the modern emphasis on style, innovation for its own sake, and the persona of the genius inventor have led to misfit and ugliness in the modern built environment, from our cities to our visual arts. This skepticism of experimentalism as practiced—of its level of rigor, its success at generating and accumulating insight, its constant flights to cosmeticism or an aesthetics of “experimentation”—carries over into Rosen’s critiques of modernist painting, Duquette’s “Belonging > Innovation,” or Sublemon’s “How We Frame the Value of ‘Experimental’ Art Badly.” (Grietzer is more bullish on avant-garde work; see “A Letter About Art,” as well as his dissertation work on vibe in modernist literature.) Beauty is considered, explicitly and implicitly (as in the case of neuroaesthetics), as more objective, or at least less “subjective,”[3] than is typically assumed in mainstream or academic art discourse, in the sense of there being a regular, innate relationship between formal qualities and viewer experience. As Simler points out in his writing on the attraction of pollinators to plants,

or the intricate nests of the bowerbird, there is good evidence that an aesthetic sense is both biological and non-unique to human beings. The psychological, experiential dimension of aesthetic encounters is always at the forefront, allowing the spiritual humanism of Christopher Alexander and the information-theoretic ideas of Jürgen Schmidhuber to coexist—both being merely perspectives, or levels of zoom, from which to view the same phenomena. On the question of whether it is possible, or productive, to define art,[4] the essays are divided, some attempting to advance better or broader factorings, other renouncing the project entirely (see Rosen’s “But what are birds, really?”). Alexander and Schmidhuber are perhaps the two primarily intellectual sources of lineage here. Alexander, an outsider architect, believed that humans, like many other species, evolved patterns of architectural organization over millennia which were uniquely suited to human flourishing, and that these patterns have been largely left behind in the West in favor of modern prestige aesthetics. Strong design, to Alexander, comes down most centrally to a fitness between parts, an interrelation and harmony between components at many levels of scale, as Perry unpacks in the essay that opens this collection, “What Is Fit?” Schmidhuber, meanwhile, is a cognitive scientist best known for his essay “Driven By Compression Progress,” which theorizes that aesthetic beauty (along with jokes, creativity, science, surprise, attention) is a property of 7

compressability—an information-theoretic term referring to a certain predictable regularity of the data set. His work is perhaps most prescient for its anticipation of contemporary cog-sci theories of predictive processing; Peli Grietzer, most prominently, takes up Schmidhuber’s ideas here, though The Sublemon and Perry have both covered them at Ribbonfarm.[5] Lastly, these thinkers are irreverent and prestige-skeptical to an extent rarely found. (What gets branded as irreverence, in most cultural circles, is typically allegiance to an alternate order.) As much as they tear into the current regime of high-prestige aesthetics— what Perry calls “the tendency for high-status human domains to ignore fit with human nervous systems in favor of fit with increasingly rarified abstract cultural systems”—they also present a picture of a different visual and artistic culture with a clarity of purpose beyond our own. While many artists still insist their works are “experiments,” and critics are able to linguistically justify their attempts as “successes” or “failures” there remains very little consensus of what (or whom) the work, ultimately, is for. Nor has anyone been keeping track of what, precisely, has been learned and discovered by all this experimenting. In his 2014 auto-novella Amerikkkkka, Grietzer recounts Guy Debord’s assertion, on the “aesthete nihilism” of the novelist Robbe-Grillet, that “a hundred years would tell whether we were wrong.” Modernism’s long

been mainstreamed. James Murphy, knocking around the cowbell: “From this position, I can see the whole place. / From this position I totally get how the decision was reached... Advantages to each.” With luck, this is a modest start.

— ooo


Notes 1

Unfortunately, only some of these writers’ work is represented here owing to a lack of republication permission or a misfit of medium. Their omission is not a reflection of their quality or contribution.


See The Sublemon, “Christopher Alexander Is The Solution To High Modernism” (Sublemon, 2017) and Sarah Perry, “Tendrils of Mess In Our Brains,” as collected in Anthology (Not Nothing Spring ‘20).


See Baker’s “Objectivity and Art.”


See the discourse around Morris Weitz’s contention, in The Role of Theory in Aesthetics, and following Wittgenstein’s theory of “family resemblance,” that a singular definition is impossible.


Thurston, “A Better Art Vocabulary” (Ribbonfarm); Perry, “Cartographic Compression” (Anthology, Not Nothing).


Beauty Is Fit Sarah Perry

[E]very design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context. Good fit is a desired property of this ensemble which relates to some particular division of the ensemble into form and context. There is a wide variety of ensembles which we can talk about like this. The biological ensemble made up of a natural organism and its physical environment is the most familiar: in this case we are used to describing the fit between the two as well-adaptedness. But the same kind of objective aptness is to be found in many other situations. The ensemble consisting of a suit and tie is a familiar case in point; one tie goes well with a certain suit, another goes less well. Again, the ensemble may be a game of chess, where at a certain stage of the game some moves are more appropriate than others because 13

they fit the context of the previous moves more aptly. The ensemble may be a musical composition—musical phrases have to fit their contexts too: think of the perfect rightness when Mozart puts just this phrase at a certain point in a sonata. If the ensemble is a truckdriver plus a traffic sign, the graphic design of the sign must fit the demands made on it by the driver’s eye. An object like a kettle has to fit the context of its use, and the technical context of its production cycle. In the pursuit of urbanism, the ensemble which confronts us is the city and its habits. Here the human background which defines the need for new buildings, and the physical environment provided by the available sites, make a context for the form of the city’s growth. In an extreme case of this kind, we may even speak of a culture itself as an ensemble in which the various fashions and artifacts which develop are slowly fitted to the rest. Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, citations removed.

The concept of beauty in diverse domains has a unifying, definitive feature: it reflects the detection of fit between parts of a system. Beauty presents to us as a mystical quale; this is because a beautiful form is a solution to many simultaneous complex problems. Beauty in nature, art, music, architecture, mathematics, and even human faces is a response to the detection of fit.

Consider botany. There is a major divergence in beauty between plants that must attract the attention of insects and other animals, and those that are pollinated by the wind (or by animals without requiring their attention, such as burrs that stick in passing animals’ fur). Plants that must attract the attention of any species must fit themselves to the senses and nervous systems of these animals, for instance with bright colors and intense fragrances, and there is often a sort of leakage of beauty—nervous systems (such as those of humans) are often moved by the beauty of plants optimized to attract the attention of quite different species. Plants with no need to appeal to the nervous systems of organisms are generally dull in color and form with no appealing fragrance. Intelligence may be represented as the discovery of fit. Fit with the nervous system of appreciating organisms is one type of “fit” that beauty encompasses. This is the beauty of a ripe fruit, a symmetrical young face, a shady spot by a creek. This is similar to the “awareness and response to the environment” type of intelligence. The other type of “fit” that beauty encompasses is the fit of a part within a system, viewed from outside that system; the detection and creation of formal fit within systems is the type of intelligence involved in the useful compression of complexity. Mathematical beauty (see Gian-Carlo Rota, “The Phenomenology of Mathematical Beauty”) is the extreme form of this latter type of fit—forms with no appeal to insect or 15

ordinary mammal nervous systems, with only the most abstract form at all, are experienced as beautiful based on their fit within a complex system. Most human domains are at neither extreme, but balance both types of fit to achieve beauty; ignoring either type of fit leads to poor overall fit. Finally, beauty reflects fit with respect to other forms in the environment (as filtered through the nervous systems of perceiving organisms). Forms are sometimes beautiful because they are novel, or because they are familiar; the contributions of novelty and familiarity to beauty mean that beauty of form changes depending on the contents of the present culture. Fashion and tradition are poles of this dynamic. Nervous systems change through evolution, but they change very slowly compared to human culture. Forms with “timeless” beauty generally reflect fit with aspects of our system that do not change, such as our visual and auditory systems. Timeless beauty may also represent an elegant encoding of fit within an abstract system; though the text of Archimedes’ Method was lost for centuries, cultures having lost the tools to apprehend its meaning, the fit encoded within it remains beautiful. Ephemeral beauty, on the other hand, reflects fit within an ephemeral system; novel beauty or traditional beauty may be rendered less beautiful by an influx of similar or novel forms, respectively. To experience the beauty of the forms of a lost culture, we

must often come to understand the culture in depth. In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter imagines that a record of Bach’s sonata in F Minor for violin and clavier is sent up in a satellite and intercepted by intelligent aliens. The aliens might well be able to locate the “compelling inner logic” of patterns-within-patterns of the Bach piece; it contains beauty in the sense of fit within its own self-enclosed system. However, what if the record contained instead John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape no. 4”—chance music whose structure is chosen by stochastic processes? This “maximally surprising” music contains no patterns at all, and aliens without knowledge of the sociology of 20th century music would be unlikely to find any beauty in it. Maximally surprising music of this type is not beautiful, just as the beauty of a mathematical result is not reducible to its surprising nature. Rather, in both cases, the type of surprise that creates beauty is the (perhaps sudden) apprehension of usefully organized complexity (see Jürgen Schmidhuber, “Simple Algorithmic Theory of Subjective Beauty”) within the system—the apprehension, that is, of fit. Cage’s music is an example of the tendency for high-status human domains to ignore fit with human nervous systems in favor of fit with increasingly rarified abstract cultural systems. Human nervous systems are limited. Representation of existing forms, and generating pleasure and poignancy in human minds, are often disdained as solved problems. Domains 17

unhinged from the desires and particularities of human nervous systems and bodies become inhuman; human flourishing, certainly, is not a solved problem. However, human nervous systems themselves create and seek out “fit” of the more abstract sort; the domain of abstract systems is part of the natural human environment, and the forms that exist there interact with humans as symbiotes. Theorems and novels and money and cathedrals rely on humans for reproduction, like parasites, but offer many benefits to humans in exchange. Humans require an environment that fits their nervous systems, but part of the definition of “fit” in this case is the need for humans to feel that they are involved in some-thing greater (and perhaps more abstract) than this “animal” kind of fit. In summary, beauty is not a mystical, irreducible quale, but an ultimately com-putational feature of detected fit within systems. My fellow crab[1] has suggested that the “difference in creativity that can be generated algorithmically and that which presently can’t is measurable only in ‘frequency of apparent meaning or significance,’ not in vividness, complexity, or novelty.” Fit generated computationally may be even more satisfying than fit generated by human minds alone—and may be even friendlier to human minds. Carcinisation, 2014

Notes 1

Blue Traveler, Twitter July 27 2014.


Chords and Maps Gabe Duquette There are two ways art can “fit.”

In her excellent essay “Beauty Is Fit,” Sarah Perry redefines beauty as indicating a successful problem-solving strategy, saying it “has a unifying, definitive feature: it reflects the detection of fit between parts of a system.” In art, I’ve noticed two basic varieties of fit: aesthetic fit, which I call chords, and abstraction fit, which I call maps. Both take advantage of “the nervous system of appreciating organisms” but in importantly different ways. Chords are elements combined in a way that is appealing, but not because the combination describes reality. Chords exploit the many evolved sweet spots of the senses (see Salimpoor et al, “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music,” 2011). They can be comprised of “real” things but prioritize creation of an experience over transmission of knowledge. Chords

can be consonant or dissonant—the sum of their parts can elicit pleasure or irritation, or even revulsion. Chocolate and peanut butter fit better than chocolate and ketchup. Maps describe what exists. They exploit the evolved need to understand how reality behaves. They can be aesthetically pleasing but they put the task of abstraction first. Maps “fit” when they achieve compression—when they eliminate redundancies in a pattern of real-world relationships without sacrificing essential features. Poor map fit is usually due to bad compression (irrelevant information that feels like fat on the bone) or outright misrepresentation (features that don’t appear in the abstracted territory). The Wire fits better than unedited surveillance footage or CSI: Miami. Sometimes chords and maps are hard to tease apart. Fit feels like “yes, this is correct!” but doesn’t say why, so it’s easy to misinterpret a chord as a map and vice versa. Chords are sometimes confused with maps because of their power to trigger associations. Food may taste similarly regardless of where we grow up, but the experience of eating a particular food may be more or less complex depending on accumulated personal and cultural context. Given relevant experience, food can conjure thoughts of home, status, or events in one’s 21

life, but food by itself is generally incapable of triggering associations that aren’t already present. For both chords and maps, fit depends on the problem being solved. In much fiction, selective distortion of known patterns draws attention to features that don’t fit. The premise “everything is the same as real life except some people are telepathic” must respect facts about reality, but only enough to solve the problem of being entertaining. This map/chord hybrid is called “suspended disbelief ” and, handled properly, can be quite pleasurable. Maps can be more or less ambitious depending on how much they attempt to compress. Technically accomplished portraits and still lifes are less ambitious than realistic portrayals of human emotions in films. In turn, emotions are less ambitious than the compression of entire political systems. For example, films of the Person Without Lots Of Money Has To Make Difficult Choice genre (see Two Days, One Night) are often accurate maps of a single person’s experience, and as such, encourage a particular sympathetic reaction in the viewer. Rarely, however, do these films zoom out to see the protagonist’s role in multiple nested systems, a change that can make sympathy more difficult (see Tyler Cowen, “Two misunderstood movies, two Rorschach tests,” 2015).

Liposuction, 2016

Gene ric Fit Suspended Reason Genericism, oft derided, serves functions rarely acknowledged.

What is generic fit? The quality of being widely applicable, of being able to synergize with many different things or in many different contexts. Works of art, suit tailoring, and modes of communication are all capable of possessing high levels of genericism. The quality of wide applicability can be achieved in two different ways, distillation and averaging. Distillation is the process of boiling away all surface, non-essential details in order to yield common ground. The essence—what’s left over post-distillation—fits both well and widely because of its sweeping inclusivity and non-specificity. An example is the platitude or cliché; almost anyone can relate to The grass is greener on the other side as a true statement about how human perception and longing work. Platitudes in fact demand a high level of generic 23

fit as a precondition of their survival: to become a platitude, an observation has to be so broadly applicable, or else so broadly useful, that generation after generation of humans persistently passes it down (temporal genericism, or timelessness). Averaging is the process of finding, among a wide field of varying data points, a meaningful middle ground, a thing entirely different from a common ground. Middle grounds fit equally widely, but less well, as common grounds: the more deviations from mean along relevant axes an individual or context is, the worse it will fit with the center. Clothing sizes are a classic example of middle-ground fitness, as are virtually all commercial products. Even personal tailoring (counter-intuitively, since “bespoke” is essentially an antonym for “generic”) frequently exploits middle-ground genericism—cuts are altered to allow flexibility for future changes in body size or else evolving cultural fashions.[1] ii. Pop songs are an example of generic fitness in that their lyrics employ clichés and their musical choices are broadly familiar. I write in “Every Little Star” (Suspended Reason, 2016): The acclimation process [of a song “growing” on the listener] is almost certainly due to the

fact that the brain gets melodic and harmonic pleasure from anticipation: if the listener knows what’s coming at the apex of a big pop hook, knows exactly when or how it’ll drop and then ends up correct, zir neurons flood zer with dopamine. […] Hit pop records bank on this phenomenon of desirable familiarity, of established intimacy between audience and work, by employing a small and powerful collection of stock chord progressions. But they also rely on enormous libraries of obscure, never-before-heard textures and samples to lend its structure novel fillings. Billboard hits are, like Lynch’s films, the perfect hybrid of the familiar and unfamiliar (though they use this hybridity to achieve entirely different effects). In other words, if dopaminergic enjoyment of an artwork or art event largely hinges on the proper ratio of familiar to unfamiliar, predictable to unpredictable, aesthetic choices, then the most broadly applicable art will employ middle and common ground ratios in order to be enjoyed by the broadest audience base. Pop song chord progressions work off sequences and patterns of developments which humans appear to be both innately wired to enjoy—a common ground intrinsic in the brain—and socialized to anticipate—a middle ground, since everyone’s individual musical socialization and background will vary. 25

Mass-market paperbacks and eBook romance novels work in similar ways, writing in diction which is commonly understood and about scenarios which are—in an abstract, averaged, or distilled form— commonly experienced. “Template” romance novels—the budding genre in which so-called custom or “bespoke” novels can be commissioned for $500 or $1000—operate off of this phenomenon. Though authors of template novels change character names, surface details, and select passages with each commission in order to create new and “unique” works, the core plotline of each novel stays the same, managing to be effective for so many readers because of its broad, generic appeal. Wide appeal is the very purpose of popular art; intent is built in to the name itself; so those who see popular art—be it a pop song, a mass-market paperback, or a Thomas Kinkade—as “failed” or unsuccessful art, the product of less-than-skilled artists, are mixed up. (Andrew Barker writes in his review of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook: “Those who faulted its contrivances, its sentimentality or its heartstring tugging missed the point—in a Sparks story, those are features, not bugs.”) Execution cannot be conflated with intent, and whether or not popular art’s aims are valuable is separate from the ability of the artist to achieve them.

iii. Consider two quotations. One, from Jürgen Schmidhuber’s “Art & Science as By-Products of Search for Novel Patterns”: Good observer-dependent art deepens the observer’s insights about this world or possible worlds, unveiling previously unknown regularities in compressible data, connecting previously disconnected patterns in an initially surprising way that […] eventually becomes known and less interesting. And from Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, on Bourdieu’s Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste: [Bourdieu] notes that a once-refined or highbrow piece of music, such as the “Moonlight Sonata,” can be reassigned to middlebrow culture when it has become overly familiar. Indeed, both the platitude and “Moonlight Sonata” are good examples of generic fitness. What’s interesting about both of them is the evolution in their social or cultural currencies despite a maintenance of generic fitness. Obviously “Moonlight Sonata” has such broad appeal in part because we are socialized into its cultural context and norms. But it also became canonized because of its broad appeal, 27

some inherent common or middle musical ground it capitalized on which lead it to “catch on.” Consider, in the way of a middle ground, how the piece straddles the aesthetics of Adele and high art, making it a familiar enough work to be enjoyed by the audience bases of both. That Beethoven did not intend this straddling does not affect the reality of the work’s contemporary positioning. It’s only after others notice the generic, wide appeal of “Moonlight Sonata” that the piece begins losing its highbrow position as “fine art” and instead gains the reputation of “popular song” or “popular classical.” The very recognition of hybridity and averaging decreases its cultural standing: while “resonant across class and cultural divides” seems like the ultimate marker of artistic success, the resultant decrease in its strength as social signal works to counter, among some elites, this broad appeal. The platitude arguably works a similar way—an observation is made, or a pattern compressed (as Schmidhuber would put it), which has wide appeal. Its essence resonates broadly, at some universal or near-universal human level, which causes it to spread memetically. Eventually, like “Sonata,” its viral artistic success transforms its reputation into artistic failure. Important here as well is the disparity between perception and reality: consider again the template romance, and the way in which a story with high levels of generic fitness manages to appear bespoke to its

reader, helping make the story feel real and unique. iv. Normand Berlin on Beckett’s Godot: “Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation.”[2] Since popular (generic) and high art (specific) alike have survived and thrived side-by-side in contemporary society, they must both fulfill a purpose, perhaps differing or complementary ones. What exactly are the effects of being more or less generic? Without delving too far into the Theory Wars, it can be asserted that the more specific and detailed a text, the more self-determined its meaning. If we buy into ideas of (interminable) literary indeterminacy, we might say that even the most specific, detailed of texts has an infinite range of possible interpretations or meanings—but that range is still more constrained and limited than that of a more generic text. There are more impossible or improbable interpretations, each one ruled out by clarifying and qualifying details. Common ground texts, by contrast, have gained through the process of distillation more of what Wolfgang Iser would term “gaps.” Iser, in the seminal Prospecting, compares the written word to stars in a constellation, allowing different 29

possible interpretations: We have seen that […] the impressions that arise as a result of [the reading] process will vary from individual to individual, but only within the limits imposed by the written as opposed to the unwritten text. In the same way, two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The “stars” in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable. Because the positions of visible stars are arbitrary in relation to the shapes of real-world objects, they possess, like a generic text, an enormous amount of indeterminacy. As a result, we see a high level of variation in the types of constellations drawn up by different cultures. The Chinese and Greek constellation maps, for example, look entirely different: where the Greeks identified Big Bear, the Chinese instead saw a Mediator’s Court, the Three Steps, and the Honorable Old Man. Consider the widely applicable plot points, and the narrative gappiness, in The Crystals’ hit “Then He Kissed Me”: I knew that he was mine so I gave him all the love that I had

And one day he took me home to meet his mom and his dad Then he asked me to be his bride And always be right by his side I felt so happy I almost cried And then he kissed me The basic plot-points here are so general that they apply to almost every happily-married couple, or every adolescent girl aspiring to happy marriage, in early 60s America. In fact, they’re general and generic enough that they still apply to many adolescent romantic aspirations today. (Given the state and probable future of marriage, stripping marital developments from the lyrics might, like a wellplanned tailoring job, have increased the track’s longevity—though at the obvious cost of its temporally specific fitness upon release.) The cultural value and contribution of generic artwork is complicated, and depends on whether its genericism is derived from distillation or averaging. Generic products can ensure that everyone is covered, and without having to put the work in of discovering personal measurements. Picture the consumer of primarily popular art as the person who, upon traveling through a new and unknown town, decides it isn’t worth it to test out local eateries, and instead stops at a more established restaurant 31

chain, a predictable and generic source of food. This genericism comes from both distillation and averaging—the food’s appeal stemming both from its fitness with some near-universal human quality (the constraints and incentives built-in by our brain and taste buds) and the averaging of our personally varying preferences, be it the amount of grease in a burger or the grams of sugar in a shake. In explore-exploit models, exploration is costly; no one can explore thoroughly every avenue of possible consumption. We are forced to prioritize, and generic-fitting goods allow us to get value out of unexplored, non-prioritized areas. The literary critic might, knowing nothing of fashion, simply buy XL t-shirts and 36×30 jeans at a department store. The quality of “two legs of equal length” is a distilled property of pants which applies, purely and truly, to a very wide consumer base. For most people, there is no significant compromise of fitness in buying a pair of pants with two legs of equal length. Then there is the specific sizing and cut—the average of human proportions, from which most people vary, to varying degrees. This critic could get more value out of clothing which fits him more precisely, which is more suitable to his body type or skin tone (specific rather than averaged), but has decided that that particular cost-benefit analysis doesn’t pan out: the exploration time required to gain this marginal value (taking measurements, reading up on fashion

theory, or experimenting with new cuts) isn’t worth it. Nevertheless, there still exists a base value of owning pants and shirts or eating a meal: generic products provide this value without the cost of exploration. Moreover, the financial cost of a generic good is typically cheaper because of mass production, though with art this doesn’t always translate: mass-market paperbacks are certainly less expensive than niche-market, small-batch academic texts, but in cases like the ninety-nine-cent song standard, price normalization often just leads to pop stars getting exorbitantly wealthy. In a similar way, the pop song is there for almost any listener: its generic quality, pre-testedness, and meaning gaps jack up the probability that a listener will relate to or resonate with it. Like stars to constellations, texts with high levels of generic fitness are able to have meanings imposed on them, perhaps even necessitate the imposition of meaning or process of interpretation to be experienced, and the specific ways in which meaning is imposed (or interpretation drawn) tells us as much about the reader as constellations tell us about their respective cultures. This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which the listener reflects and sees himself in its text is a mode of self-knowledge. He learns his yearnings, his loves, his sadnesses; he recognizes an emotional life that is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state that is otherwise 33

ephemeral. The generic work of art reflects the self—though it might be more accurate to say that the generic in a work of art reflects the self, since texts are obviously composites of many components of varying specificity. All art is instrumental to self-knowledge, though it seems worth distinguishing the ways in which self-knowing occurs. The art song, if we’ll call it that, is specific and detailed, typically expressive. It tells us something about the artist: we learn about an other, and this recognition of an other—the commonalities and differences, the possibilities and constraints of human experience—allows us to recognize and learn about ourselves (it also, as Pinker and Singer alike argue, expands our capacity for empathy towards others). The folk song, meanwhile, passes along tribal or social knowledge, which in

turn informs the listener of his roles and heritage within a community. American slave spirituals are a good example, serving for generations to preserve heritages and important community knowledge (including how to escape north to Canada by following the North Star, or noting the growth of moss on trees).[3]

Suspended Reason, 2016


Notes 1 See Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian and Thomas Griffiths 2016, or the authors’ interview with Julia Galef for Rationally Speaking: Yeah, and Tom and I have talked about this from the perspective of buying a home, where you’re in some sense trying to optimize for the happiness of your 5-years-from-now future self, who is somewhat unknowable. I encountered the same thing recently when I bought a tuxedo. It’s funny to buy something where you feel like you’ll wear it 1-2 times a year for the next seven years. How do you optimize for something that is going to look good when you take it to a wedding in five years? Just to use this banal example of men’s fashion. Men’s pants are much tighter than they were 10 years ago, currently. When I look at the jeans that I wore in the mid 2000s, they were like twice as much fabric, or something like that. If I’m buying jeans, which is something where the use case of jeans is that you wear them almost every day for like 18 months and then they develop holes and you just throw them out or something. If I wanted to buy jeans I should buy tight jeans because that is the style of the mid 2010s. But if I want to buy a tuxedo, then I should deliberately get something that is looser in the leg, because I’m just assuming that men’s fashion is on this random walk. I don’t want to nail the current trend right on the button, because I know that it’s going to deviate from that later.


Godot, by virtue of being the script to a play, is predisposed to containing more of these blanks or gaps than might other literary forms: in proportion to the scope of its plotted events, it is significantly shorter in length than most novels or short stories, and this modest wordcount is itself dialogue-heavy rather than descriptive or illustrative; that is, it leaves out many of the visual elements and other sensory details which are key to a reader’s envisioning of the book’s setting (and function as instruments of specificity). Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for instance, allows for the interpretation of its central characters as both/ either Jewish and gentile. Consider that amateurish novelistic trope in which the protagonist by the first or second page has looked at himself in the mirror, describing his physical characteristics to himself as internal monologue. Salesman, however, serves as a mirror to the reader, reflecting the reader’s mind and self through his imagining of Willy (revealing, that is, the reader’s psychology and personal/cultural background through his unconscious filling-in of the descriptive blanks). Interestingly, Iser considers this quality of high indeterminacy evidence of admirable restraint and high artistry, though it’s worth considering that those very traits which make Godot and Salesman so indeterminate (short length, scant description, stories told by way of clues and sketch) are what also lend pop lyrics their often empty genericism.


For more on the art, pop, and folk classification trifecta, see Philip Tagg’s 1982 “Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method, and Practice.”












Art as Engineering Gabe Duquette & The Sublemon in conversation What would it look like to optimize art?

Reason: How did the community surrounding sites like Carcinisation, The Sublemon, and Lipoblog form? What are its ties to rationalist and postrationalist communities, or with publications like Ribbonfarm?[1] Duquette: I moved from LessWrong to Twitter in 2012 and started talking to Sarah [Perry] and [St.] Rev and Misha and a few others. Carcinisation is pretty dead; Sam Burnstein started it in the hope that we’d all blog more, but we were too flaky (with the exception of Sarah obviously). I don’t really read SSC but I respect Scott [Alexander] a lot. Same with Ribbonfarm and Venkat [Rao]. Sublemon: Gabe and I met in 2013 and he introduced me to his Twitter friends. I mostly started Sublemon to “find a voice” outside of academic styles of writings, and it’s deliberately quite casual 41

as a result. Carcinisation feels like it was a stepping stone before Sarah (and then I) began writing for Ribbonfarm.[2] Duquette: The shared priority between postrationalism and rationalism is caring about reductionism. Being reductive can be good, but it can also serve as a beacon to handwringers for useless nuance or, rather, not-as-useful nuance. I suppose if I gained anything from rationalist writings, it’s a keener sense of when words aren’t pointing to a thing in reality, or aren’t pointing to that thing as well as they could. Watching for circular definitions, unfalsifiability, etc. (“Art is the pursuit of beauty” or “art is the ineffable” being examples). Reason: “Art is the ineffable” being similar to the idea of aesthetic autonomy? The idea that there is something special about art inherently as art; that it cannot be reduced to social and economic factors. Duquette: This is where the rationalist side kicks in and I have to ask what “inherently” means. That seems like a religious exemption. Sublemon: Right, “inherent” sounds like a magical word to me. Art might be an unusual behavior, but it’s reducible in various ways. And not just social or economic ones.

Duquette: If we all agree that there’s no supernatural component, then aesthetic experience is a thing that happens in human brains. Reason: There seems to be a lot of value in bringing well-developed outside perspectives to a subject like visual art, where the conversation is dominated by a set of highly similar approaches and their shared assumptions. There are frequent accusations made against academic and critical schools of insularity, incomprehensibility, myopia, or widespread bias toward an existing set of “interesting” or worthwhile questions, which limits our cultural understanding. Besides merely being a secondary and outsider perspective, are there specific things you think the current art-critical mode lacks or could gain from a rationalist approach (and vice versa)? Do you ever feel the dangers of insularity in rationalist or postrationalist communities? I’m thinking a bit of Sarah Perry’s piece on semi-permeable boundaries, “Gardens Need Walls.” Duquette: It might be simpler to ask what in academic art discourse is worth preserving, and what specifically are the dangers of insularity. Reason: Well, you have the Galápagos effect, where insularity and isolation can lead to interesting, original evolutions of ideas. That’s the positive side. You also can lose grounding or reference points—there’s 43

no stabilizer, no outside force to “check” you. Without someone questioning macro-level priors, practices, and assumptions (because everyone in the community, via self-selection, agrees on them), it’s easy to imagine the ship steering unknowingly off-course. Sublemon: With jargon at least, there’s both value and danger. Words take on conceptual loads that allow for increased complexity and specificity; the tradeoff is accessibility and clarity (to others and to oneself). I think the main difference between Gabe’s and my approach (vs. the academic approach) is that our interest in criticism and philosophy is mostly practical. We both enjoy art that works. Reason: Practical to what ends? Works or is successful at doing what? Anything? Are there priorities in “ends” or “effects” that an art can do successfully/ work well at doing? Duquette: With Liposuction, I’m currently trying to build a new toolkit for people to identify problems in things they experience, so that feedback between makers and audiences can be more fruitful. As for what art can or should do, I think there are very very many valuable “engineering targets” or “ends” as it were. Probably not infinite but. Reason: It seems like contemporary artworld

thought is primarily oriented toward using art as a basis for thinking through (or more accurately, evoking and therefore “dealing with”) a relatively narrow but trendy set of ideas—that the critical role is complementary, one of completing the larger artistic/ philosophical/creative process through unpacking. This as opposed to trying to reverse-engineer how effective art “works.” Duquette: I see art as basically being about experiences and communication. I’d like to see a greater variety of experiences and high-fidelity communication, all accessible to everyone, and reverse-engineering successful art to find out what makes it “work” is essential to that project. Serious engineering isn’t, say, sitting around discussing the original Wright Brothers’ biplane Flyer I (as art historians and academics do with art)—it’s building modern planes that people can safely fly across oceans in. Reason: But the goal of engineering is to make planes fly faster, while the goal of art is just to explore a set of ideas through form. Duquette: “Exploring ideas through form” is a goal that one can be better or worse at optimizing for/ achieving. Sublemon: It’s great to know the history of how 45

things have been engineered before you start engineering something else, so they’re not completely incompatible pursuits, but definitely fundamentally different ones. I will say, though, that the only significant way I would change contemporary art criticism would be getting it to be more explicit about the rubric by which it’s judging. If criticism cared about only one thing (be it engineering or history etc.) it would be boring. I’d just like to see [critics] articulate what it is that they do care about, and why. Reason: So, reverse-engineer what successful art is doing, find trends between works, identify those common traits that make it successful and effective, etc., and all in the service of promoting “better art” in the future—“better” in the sense of artists having a better toolkit of techniques that allow them to achieve their intention? Sublemon: Yes, that sounds about right, though “better” also in the sense of artists having a better idea of what their intentions even are. Duquette: A successful end result would look something like more, and more diverse, Coca-Cola formulas or KFC original recipes. Unlike academic art, mass experiences have to work; they’re meticulously engineered accordingly. Precise emotional rendering in movies is another example, especially when it’s very hard to articulate the emotion (and

even better when the rendering is done with great economy). Reason: Do your aesthetic critiques include economic perspectives on art? To expand on that—the postrationalist discursive sphere, even outside of aesthetics, seems very interested in social currency and motivation, while economic motivations and their role are less present. Is this just a matter of, “we can only devote our energy to so many areas of inquiry, and that niche is saturated,” or is it a matter of believing financial value doesn’t significantly bear on artistic creation (at least as much as social value or prestige incentives)? Also, Gabe, you’ve used examples corporate success eg. Coke/KFC/ Chipotle. Isn’t there a degree to which marketing and money and financial incentives (cheap cost of fast food) are playing a larger role in incentivizing consumption than the actual aesthetic “success” of the food? Sublemon: If you’re referring to people in the postrationalist corner of the Internet in general, and not postrationalists who write about art specifically, then there are a lot who are interested in economics. I don’t want to claim anyone belongs to some kind of “identity” of postrationalism against their will, and I’ll rescind the association if they object, but I know Matt Simpson, Byrne Hobart, and obviously Venkat, for example, are all economics or business 47

people. Purely by virtue of overlap with the tech world it seems there are a lot of people in the community who know business. For me in particular, economics and how it affects art isn’t a primary area of interest (not because there’s nothing to be interested in there). It may well be that overhauling how studios decide what to greenlight, or figuring out how to get resources (time, money) into the hands of the talented-but-disadvantaged, would be a better way of getting more good art into the public eye than writing tetchy blog posts. In fact, that’s a pretty likely possibility which I may have to engage with at some point. In the meantime, I don’t have the authority to write about it. Reason: I’m curious your thoughts on a utilitarian or consequentialist art criticism, in which ideas about art and criticism maximizing societal good are explored. One might hypothetically believe that contemporary art culture has the best artistic minds working in insular experimental traditions which serve primarily to benefit a narrow academic and artworld establishment caught up in a novelty arms race. That the equivalent of a Sistine Chapel— and the utilitarian effects of beauty and religious awe which the Chapel inspires, which are of great value to human flourishing—is much less likely to be made today because of this insular “autonomy.” That the net effects of an art culture on its broader enveloping society should be considered in assessing

its value and whether it’s headed in a “good” or “bad” direction. Sublemon: I’m pretty hedonistic when it comes to art. If it makes people feel good then I’m glad it exists. I disagree with people about quality but I would never want someone to feel bad for liking what they like. As far as social good goes, I consider well-made things to be a social good. I consider truthful things to be a social good. Conveniently, I also consider truth and functionality to be aesthetically good. A beautiful building or a great computer usually improves the lives of those who interact with it. Similarly, art that is used for political action is flawed when it lies, and is good (or at least, not-flawed) when it tells the truth. Good both aesthetically and socially. Reason: Isn’t the implication here, though, that artistic value judgments are dependent on the ideological leaning of the critic? Even two reasonable, openminded viewers have very different ideas about what is politically & morally true or false. Is there a way to rise above ideological belief to evaluate the goodness of political art? (The alternative, I suppose, is that by “truth” versus “lie,” you just mean whether a person is genuine in their expression, but there are plenty of genuine personal expressions with little tethering to the territory.) Duquette: I evaluate it on the basis of how many 49

points of view it’s able to integrate. If an artist chooses to work in a medium that disincentivizes the integration of many POVs,[3] I more or less reflexively disregard it. It’s important to remember that one needn’t reckon with things just because they exist. Reason: I feel like a lot of art, and especially literature, has two sensibilities or artistic priorities that tend to vie with one another. There’s subtlety, which is prized above being literal, or obvious, or on-thenose. And then there’s clarity: if the author can’t communicate their basic ideas in language, they’re doing a poor job of communicating. Contemporary literary praise of subtlety seems similar to praising a skillful compression. Signaling and context play a role too, since the ability to “get it” or understand subtle communication makes you “in on the joke.” Sublemon: Subtlety to me basically means “more information.” Economy means “with less.” Clarity means “all the information was received.” Reason: Good compression is packing in as much information with as little material in a way that is still received by the audience. Duquette: And non-obvious signals can be economical and maximally evocative when chosen well. The skill of a world-class journalist is the skill of noticing

every detail or idiosyncrasy and then knowing which handful to pick for inclusion in the piece. These details being the tips of the iceberg that make it easiest to infer the shape of the submerged part and the whole (instead of tediously describing the entirety). Reason: There’s a nifty parallel here where the concept of compression is itself good compression (crystallizing real-world phenomena into a concept-handle). O.K., so here social context comes into play. Social contexts create shared understandings. Compression takes advantages of shared understandings; you’re guessing which details or metonymic parts will evoke the whole for a given audience of readers. So good compression for one audience can be terrible compression for another, if the audience is mismatched to the artist. Sublemon: I have a post on symbolism for Lipoblog that I’ve been sitting on for months, which talks about just that. Reason: Well, I’m curious then—cultural fragmentation seems to be a real phenomenon.[4] People are dividing up into subcultures and shared knowledge bases/sets of references are splitting up. This makes art production for large audiences much harder. Sublemon: Right. Though I want to move away from the line of thinking that, since communication 51

requires shared contexts, you shouldn’t even try to transcend subcultures. Reason: Okay, so let’s assume communication is still possible across subcultures with enough effort, using a combination of intuitive references with whatever shared knowledge bases still exist (there are currently many, who knows how many there will be). If we see good art as being subtle versus on-the-nose, or compressing well—where economy is seen as graceful and beautiful in the same way an efficient basketball play is beautiful—then even if it’s possible for art to communicate across many subcultures, is it possible for it to be seen as beautiful or good art? Duquette: You’re making that sound far-fetched to accomplish. I’m not sure why. Sublemon: Why wouldn’t it be possible? Reason: Well, for an example, Lena Dunham’s Girls—within the subculture that orbits this sensibility and lifestyle, viewers pick up that Dunham is parodying herself (and Greater Brooklyn). There is good, clear communication happening between subculture and subcultural artist, facilitated through subtle nods, and Dunham doesn’t have to over-satirize or put huge scare quotes around every scene in order to convey tone and meaning. But to, say, a non-millennial, non-urban viewer, Girls doesn’t

come across as parody—there’s an assumption that Dunham isn’t self-aware, that she really stands for the things her character does in the show, and there’s been a pushback against Girls by some who misread it. Now if Dunham were to put huge scare quotes and disclaimers all over Girls, every English-speaking viewer could know it’s a parody (see most NBC/ ABC comedies), and it would be purely a parody, instead of some in-between thing. It wouldn’t be “artful” or graceful or beautiful in the way that it currently is. Sublemon: To be fair I think a lot of people have difficulty judging the object/content of her satire. Reason: Well, maybe another, simpler example is the use of the sarcasm tag “/s” on online forums. Because it’s hard to know, especially with highly populated forums/threads, whether everyone reading your post is going to share your same priors/perspectives, you have to mark it clearly as sarcasm tag. But when you do this, even though everyone is on the same page about your post’s tone and intent, the joke gets killed; there’s no longer an artful subtlety. Duquette: The ability to detect subtlety is not evenly distributed. Also, people tend to use cultural goods socially foremost. So it’s partly about which “team” you’re on, not whether the thing works in other ways. 53

Sublemon: It’s true, some things will only seem beautiful to people with a niche, shared context. Though there are other kinds of shared context, so I don’t see why beauty wouldn’t be perfectly achievable in those other contexts. Duquette: I’m personally ambivalent about the atomization of culture. It’s a brain drain on the mainstream and it shows. But it’s ultimately a better use of scarce resources. Reason: Better use of scarce resources how? Duquette: People can get more bang for their buck, belonging-wise, since there are more communities and therefore more community roles. The absolute amount of artistic variety also increases, which slightly increases the absolute amount of high-quality art. But it mostly flattens everything into “pretty good I guess,” which means less low-quality art (unless you count libraries full of fanfic or whatever). Basically, nobody ever has to put up with anything they don’t like—ever. But people are often wrong about their own preferences, so the peaks get cut off. Sublemon: Regarding resources, there’s the resource of how much work you have to do to be understood in the compression way, and how much work you have to do to be accepted socially. As far as Gabe’s comment on preferences, I don’t know if it’s so

much that people are wrong about their preferences as it is they’re bad at imagining new things that will fall within their preferences (because being good at that requires, effectively, artistic talent).

Faux Pool, 2016


Notes [1] Thanks to Canada Choate for her contribution in the first portion of this interview. [2] Perry’s writings for Ribbonfarm between 2015 and 2019 are collected in Anthology (Not Nothing, Fall 2020). The Sublemon’s essays include “A Better Art Vocabulary,” “The Heroine’s Journey,” and “The Awe Delusion” (2015). [3] See Bakhtin’s carving of dialogic vs. monologic art, and Sublemon’s concept of artistic bandwidth. [4] See Gwern, “The Melancholy of Subculture Society.”

Objectivity and Art Mills Baker Establishing ends lets us optimize means.

As a Popperian, I believe that the distinction between the objective and the subjective (or the relative) has been misunderstood and hyperbolized. Perhaps nothing is objective, but that does not mean that all is subjective. Newton’s proposed laws of motion were, for centuries, “objectively” true; confirmed by all experimental tests, they formed the basis of thousands of discoveries in physics and other fields. These discoveries were themselves experimentally tested, and themselves led to thousands of discoveries in the exponential fashion to which we’ve become accustomed. But Newton was wrong; his laws were inaccurate. In David Deutsch’s terms, they were very, very good misconceptions, just as Einstein’s better ideas are very, very good misconceptions that will eventually be replaced by even better, more accurate, deeper ideas that explain more with less. This process 57

is progressive: science gets better and better, even though it is purely the creation of “subjective” human conjecture—imagination—tested against reality for utility. We might say that the history of human knowledge is one of conjectures which are never complete or objective but which are ever-improving. To be ever-improving, they must be moving towards something; if they cannot reach it, they approach it as a line does an asymptote. Science asymptotically approaches objective, complete truth, never arriving but getting closer and closer.[1] It is not objective—as the work of humans, how could it be?—but neither is it aimless or subjective. But what about art? We do not tend to think that art is progressive. Indeed, the attitude of the age treats art as a private utterance, as pure subjectivity, or at best as a personal religion of some entertaining use to others. One epistemological consequence of the democratic ethos, unmoored from axiomatic values, is that we struggle with the idea of objectivity in anything, although we incoherently exempt the sciences from our anxious doubt. But this is a temporary phase, a confusion. It is not the case that art is purely subjective, aimless, without teleology or purpose; it is rather the case that art, like science, improves over time because it asymptotically approaches something. It happens to be the same “something” that science hews to: reality.

Consider the following work of art from tens of thousands of years ago. From Chauvet, this depiction is among the earliest instances of art; it features a range of animals including, most prominently, cave lions. From tens of thousands of years later, in the 19th century, is the head of a lion painted by Théodore Géricault (pictured on the following page). It’s obvious that this is a better depiction, in part because we can reasonably assume that the intent of these two artists, across so much time, was similar: to capture and convey something essential about the lion. This intent was almost certainly inexplicit for 59

the ancient artist, and may have expressed itself in other ways which recur throughout the history of art. For example, artists have occasionally conceived of their mission in ceremonial, religious, or supernatural terms, imagining that by performing acts in concert with images they might control reality.[2] In later centuries, they might consider their art in more subtle religious, political, pedagogical, ideological, or emotional terms. But a sufficiently abstract definition might cover most cases: Art seeks to virtualize

phenomena for human benefit.

By “virtualize,” I mean only that what art offers us it offers on our terms. One can experience tragedy when a loved-one dies; one can know the awe and power of the lion when one sees it enter a cave in which one’s family is camped. Art seeks to make these phenomena, and the meanings they provide, available to you apart from the uncontrollable and contingent world, for a variety of reasons. Through art, we are enriched by experiences with less risk of suffering or injury; experiences are made more portable and reproducible, and are freed from temporality; we can begin at least to portray what we imagine, even if we cannot yet build it; and so on. Art, then, supports the same accelerated development of knowledge that consciousness, metaphor and language, and reason support, and all are related. Whereas we once built knowledge accidentally and slowly, when the inexplicit knowledge of environment and utility embodied by genes would lead to those genes’ replication and spread, we now have a range of means for building knowledge rapidly and at little cost. We can, at our discretion, experience alternative modes of being, the lives of others, worlds we’ve never seen; we can be taken deep within ourselves or so far away that we can no longer remember our names. And from this, we learn. From art, from the virtualization of phenomena far removed from our practical realities, we derive values, politics, and 61

purposes, in addition to whatever assortment of facts and information the art carries with it. Some essential values we seem incapable of arriving at any other way, especially in the absence of axioms or authority: compassion and empathy, for example, depend on the recognition of the humanness of others but are hardly logically compulsory propositions; art is unparalleled at conveying, in experiential and therefore broadly-intelligible terms, the bases of such moral notions, even to the ignorant and resistant.[3] Art is where we find meanings we cannot reason and experiences that we cannot otherwise have; that we recognize the value and utility of these experiences and meanings but cannot yet rationally justify them doesn’t mean that they’re purely subjective. The fact that our ancestors didn’t understand the stars by which they navigated didn’t make those stars subjective either. They were simply little-understood, but their utility was evident to all. The same is true of art and culture, emergent phenomena we dismiss because of weaknesses in our contemporary philosophies. What we cannot reduce we pretend doesn’t exist (see qualia).

The consequences of purpose If we say that “art seeks to virtualize phenomena for human benefit,” we can begin to critique art apart from distracting historicisms. This liberates us from, among other traps, referentiality and academic

preoccupations. We can attempt to discuss art concretely in terms of its aims: ϭ Does the work virtualize phenomena well? Does it use the best forms for the phenomena it pursues? Does it use effective available techniques for their virtualization? Are the relevant parts of the phenomena captured and expressed? Does the work have a purpose, and are its aesthetic choices suitable for that purpose? ϭ Is the work novel? If it isn’t, it won’t “work,” for just as sound science that discovers what science already knows is redundant and contributes nothing, repetitive art with clichéd expressions, moribund forms, or a derivative purpose is redundant and contributes nothing. Novelty is what permits consciousness to attend to phenomena, and is therefore a foundational value in art. ϭ Do humans benefit? The benefit may be to the artist alone, which is perfectly fine but should be understood as an extremely narrow sort of aim, like a scientific discovery that extends the life of a single human. The tension between an artist’s desire to express himself purely and without calculations about reception and the fact that art must benefit humans or be pointless is irreducible and beneficial, itself a metaphor for the 63

paradox of selfhood. ϭ Art that is about art is as science about science: useful for practitioners but insufficiently universal in scope. Art that is about artists is as science about scientists: likely to be worthless where it cannot be generalized, and where it can it is hardly about individuals anyway. An important note: art makes virtualized reality possible both for external sense experiences like seeing a lion or a landscape and internal, phenomenological experiences like emotional states or even qualia. The virtualization of meaningful human phenomena might involve nothing representational—music often does not—or taken from the world outside of us. A work of art which captures, provokes, or explores something like sorrow, hope, love, or fear might be highly abstract, impressionistic, or unusual, just as our internal life is.

Artists are technologists I’ve mentioned qualia twice, once implicitly noting that some do not believe they exist and once by noting that art captures them well. Qualia were first described by C.I. Lewis in 1929: There are recognizable qualitative characters of the given, which may be repeated in different

experiences, and are thus a sort of universals; I call these “qualia.” But although such qualia are universals, in the sense of being recognized from one to another experience, they must be distinguished from the properties of objects. Another way of putting it: when you look at a red sign, the “redness” you see doesn’t exist anywhere. The sign is an almost entirely-empty latticework of vibrating particles. Photons bounce off of some of these and enter your eye at a wavelength, but that wavelength is a mathematical description: it has no color in it, and photons themselves are colorless. Your mind experiences “redness,” but you might also say that it “creates” or “invents” redness when prompted by certain light phenomena which themselves have nothing to do, now or ever, with “redness,” which doesn’t exist. Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist, put it thus: The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of lightwaves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so. That one of the founders of modern physics didn’t 65

believe a physical or physiological explanation for qualia would be forthcoming is arresting. But more to the point, while scientists and philosophers try to determine what “redness” or “sorrow” really is, as a quale, artists are virtualizing qualia and catalyzing them in audiences. Indeed, much of the personal quality that art has consists in its relationship to deep, individuated qualia we ourselves hardly comprehend. For millennia art outstripped the sciences in its ability to understand and recreate qualia, virtualize reality, and provide ennobling, edifying, educational, and entertaining simulations for humans. Indeed, art pushed science, demanding better technologies which required deeper understanding in dozens of fields. The demands of art pushed architecture, and therefore engineering and chemistry and materials sciences; art required new resources for colors and sculptures, shaping societies economically; the musical arts were constrained awfully until technology turned music from vanishing performances into enduring, widely distributed works. All of which is to say: artists are natural technologists. Historically, they’ve pursued the newest and best techniques, materials, and forms. When the methodology for achieving perspective became clear, few resisted it on the basis of a calcified iconographic style considered to be “high art,” or if

some did they’ve been suitably forgotten. And had new inks, better canvases, or some unimaginable invention given superior means to the impressionists to capture washes of light and mood—like, say, film—they’d have used whatever was available. The purpose of painting isn’t paint, after all; nor is the purpose of writing a book.[4] The purpose is instead to virtualize phenomena for the benefit of humans. The best techniques for doing so do indeed change; the schools of thought that shape artists wax, wane, wear out; intellectual movements, critical and popular reaction, and technology are all part of the contingency in which we work. But the orientation of art should not be towards the ephemeral (except in exploring ephemerality itself, permanent and vexing) but towards deeper, universal, clarifying aims. In elementary school, we were taught about Europe’s cathedrals. Centuries of fatality- and error-filled construction and engineering innovation on the edge of recklessness produced spaces intended to virtualize the experience of heavenly light, spiritual elevation, credence in the sacred. A peasant from the fields could enter one and immediately understand; he’d not know Suger’s theories or the tradeoffs involved in the buttresses, but the purpose and effect of the art were somehow not lost on him. The same would likely have been true had he seen 67

Michelangelo’s David or been permitted to hear Mozart or Hildegard of Bingen. With exceptions, of course, art has aspired to universality. The extraordinary present circumstance in which art is not expected to be intelligible, to have any “benefit” beyond the meaninglessly subjective “enjoyment” of the “consumer” is an aberration. That art is denied its progressive success at virtualizing greater and greater parts of reality, conveying ever-more phenomena with ever-greater fidelity to ever-more people, is the result of a philosophical disruption and a subsequent error. We found God dead; we asked what had god-like authority and reeled to realize that nothing can. But we’ve accepted that somehow, science exceeds merely moody paradigms. It works. It gives us control over the universe and ourselves, reduces contingency and accident, allows us to be what we think we should be. Art is part of the same process, and can be evaluated similarly. In allowing us to virtualize and experiment with realities and phenomena, and, gradually, to live in those realities, it is part of the same epistemological and creative process as science. We are simply at an earlier stage, and just as someone might have surveyed the globe in 500 CE and concluded, “There is nothing objective about the so-called sciences; it appears that every culture and every society simply invents its own ideas and none is really any better

than the rest,” so we now struggle to understand how aesthetics and morality might someday be understood teleologically, not as expressions of “taste” but as forms of knowledge-generation, experimentation, and even reality-building. Perhaps we are transitioning from artists-as-depictors and artists-as-catalyzers[5] to artists-as-world-makers. To create something, you must first understand it; to create a world for humans to experience, you must first understand how humans experience the world. Once you can reliably replicate any sense-perception, you must think of how such sense-perceptions are experienced in the mind: as qualia. Then you must think of how to generalize or objectify qualia, or how to catalyze them. This is not a task for science alone, though whether it is not yet or not at all I cannot say. It will involve art, however, particularly in the form it takes when it wants to extend itself into life: design. Design is art which cannot ignore the outcome it pursues, which uses every technology or tool it can conjure to succeed, and which accepts the judgement of audiences. In this way, one can understand why so much of the vitality of art now resides in the commercial space: there, the artists still care about audiences, still have aims apart from themselves, still seek resonance, utility, universality. My anxieties about art stem mostly from this concern: 69

if purposive, deliberate, universal art becomes the province of commercial design, art’s values will gravitate towards market values. The hope: those values will evolve intelligently through self-correction. But it seems safer to me to have a cultural space which accords art precisely the same sort of respect we pay science so that the arts can pursue their ends purely—ends far deeper than markets, capitalism, and historicism, incidentally—just as science exists apart from technology and its commercialization. But I doubt whether such a space is possible so long as we insist that all art is subjective, no teleology is imaginable, and there is no such thing as progress. Such an insistence is, in my view, both materially incorrect and snobbish, arising more from nostalgia for older forms or aristocratic art-culture than any real analysis of the present. We live in a world in which more people read, listen to music, and experience works of art than ever before. This is both art’s triumph and a prelude to its expanding role. From its earliest efforts to virtualize reality through its portrayal and later attempts to produce specific experiences in audiences, art aspires to the creation of worlds. As it converges with technology—in video games, for example—these worlds will grow to support the range of experiences and meanings humans desire, as art always has. Meta is Murder, 2012

Notes 1

Much of the confusion about subjective and objective sorts of knowledge comes from this simple fact: that we cannot have authority in knowledge means that nothing can be “final”; nothing is beyond interrogation, nothing is exempt from revision and improvement. That does not mean that all is equivalent, comparable, meaningless, a matter of preference. There are “criteria for reality,” in Deutsch’s terms, and they’re perfectly adequate to the actual epistemological tasks at hand, particularly in the sciences, where academics haven’t managed to confuse everyone’s sense of purpose yet.


As it happens, using virtualizations of reality to control reality seems likely to play an important role in humanity’s future.


The invention of new therapeutic diagnoses for the insufficiently empathetic, and their subsequent ineffectual medication, is a likelier course of action for our society.


The mistaking of a temporary medium—and all media, even those that endure for thousands of years, are temporary—for the purpose of art itself is precisely the sort of confusion that happens when ends vanish and means must suffice. If you cannot believe that art has a purpose deeper than its forms, its forms seem really important. But if you think the purpose of art is to virtualize phenomena for the benefit of humans (or the glorification of God or Marx), it’s not hard to accept that we might read off of screens or never care about painting again. If art matters, the texts on screens will do for us what oral traditions did for the Greeks and tomes did for the Enlightenment. The chapter of visual art obliged 71

by technological-limitation to ignore movement will come to an end, or, if it can still open us to experience, teach us, console us, will continue. 5

Perhaps the mayhem of the successive schools of non-representational art can be understood both in terms of internecine disorder during the revaluation of values and as the working-out of experimental methods and techniques for orthogonal approaches to virtualization. Experimental art can, of course, be vitally useful.

Compressiveness Peli Grietzer Art as the abstraction of life.

Jürgen Schmidhuber’s Theory Jürgen Schmidhuber, an AI theorist and theoretical computer scientist, has proposed a computational account of aesthetic judgments. On 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 history1 (e.g. English words, or the sight of a friend’s face). Experimental psychology supports 73

both a preference for stimuli with internal patterns and a preference for stimuli with a similarity to past stimuli. There are obvious problems with this account if we take it as a full account of beauty. A chessboard, while very simple, would rarely be called beautiful. Moreover, it seems that the most profound aesthetic experiences often come from complex stimuli: the city of Rome, the philosophy of Plato or Wittgenstein, art by Picasso, Joyce or Stravinsky. Schmidhuber argues for explaining beauty as compressibility, but it may be better to identify compressibility with attractiveness, pleasantness, or niceness. Schmidhuber explains the lack of strong preference for very simple stimuli by their not being interesting. Schmidhuber gives interestingness a simple formal analysis in terms of compressibility. Whereas beauty (or attractiveness, etc.) is the subjective compressibility of a stimulus, interestingness is the rate at which the subjective compressibility changes over time as T processes the stimulus: Beauty (etc.) of stimulus S for subject T = -# bits in T’s mental representation of S Interestingness of S for T = rate of change in the # of bits used to represent S by T over time = d(Beauty) / d(Time).

Extending Schmidhuber: Art, compressibility, & compressiveness I think that “interestingness” puts Schmidhuber on the right track, but that considering a stronger property

relating a stimulus to compression progress can further contribute to our understanding of aesthetic objects in art, math, philosophy and music. Recall that (if you accept Schmidhuber’s basic approach) when a subject T encounters a novel stimulus S, T searches for ways to encode S on the basis of the extant objects in her history. (We say that an object x can be used as a basis for encoding S if the length of the shortest code for x+S is smaller than the sum of the lengths of the shortest code for x and the shortest code for S. This relation doesn’t guarantee that every history containing x can be used to effectively compress S, but this further fact should hold whenever specifying a pointer to x in the history is sufficiently cheap.) Could this search have implications beyond determining the length of T’s representation of S? I believe it can: If T’s search reveals multiple different effective ways to compress S using (respective) different objects in her history, this may give T indication that she can use S to improve the compression of her extant history.2 In the strongest case, it may indicate that T should use S to encode the various objects that could have each been used to encode S. More modestly, it may indicate that there is an unexploited compressive relationship between the various objects that could have each been used as a basis for encoding S. We can define a property called “compressiveness” to formalize the above idea.3 Vitanyl et al. present a 75

metric called the normalized information distance (“NID”) between two strings, defined by NID (x,y) = max {K(x|y),K(y|x)}/ max{K(x),K(y)}, where K(x) is the Kolmogorov complexity of x. Let us define SK(x) as the subjective complexity of a string x, s.t. SK(x) is the length of the subject’s actual program for generating string x. Let us then define a subjective normalized information distance, SNID, by replicating NID in terms of SK. We can now use SNID to define compressiveness4: A stimulus z is compressive for a subject T if it violates the triangle inequality SNID (x,y) ≤ SNID (x,z) + SNID (z, y) for some objects x, y in the subject’s history. The idea is the following: Because the triangle inequality always holds for the objective NID (Vitanyl et al.), if T detects that her SNID violates the triangle inequality for z, T learns that there are unexploited patterns in her history, and that z is the “key” to these patterns. Compression gains reducing SNID (x, y) to SNID (x, z) + SNID (z, y) or below follow under plausible assumptions. (Prima facie, compressiveness is a stronger property than Schmidhuber’s “interestingness”: exposure to compressive stimuli constitutes a net reduction in the absolute # of bits used to represent one’s history.) Informally, a novel stimulus S is “compressive” for T if S is tractably (for T) related to multiple other objects whose relation to

one another was not independently tractable (for T). We might think of compressive stimuli as previously undiscovered “prototypes” for objects in T’s history of stimuli, allowing the construction of new prototype-based concepts that cluster previously disparate objects together. (Compare with Poincaré: “The [beautiful]5 mathematical facts are those which, by their analogy with other facts, are capable of leading us to the knowledge of a mathematical law. […] They are those which reveal to us unsuspected kinship between other facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another. […] Among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.”) I suggest that compressive stimuli have a key role in aesthetics. A major part of modern aesthetic discourse concerns stimuli that “resonate” with many previously disconnected things one has encountered, felt or thought, and in so resonating reveal new affinities between these previously disconnected things. One often praises an artwork for being “uncanny” or “strange yet familiar,” or for being “richly evocative,” or for “concentrating a very great number of experiences” (cf. Eliot) or “revealing the before unapprehended relations of things” (cf. Shelley). These aesthetic merits are often understood to be closely related to the capacity of art to define new concepts via prototype (cf. 77

Shelley, Coleridge, Carnap, Dilthey): when the novel affinities revealed by an artwork are sufficiently strong, one talks about an artwork “articulating” a general phenomenon or pattern that is otherwise hard to pin down, or about an artwork serving as the prototype that defines a category that is hard to otherwise define. (E.g. “Kafkaesque experience,” “Pinteresque conversation,” “Orwellian society.”) The idea of compressiveness thus seems strongly implicit in certain aspects of modern aesthetic discourse, both in aesthetic theory and in the practice of literary criticism. One sees a particularly strong connection to the role of indeterminacy, hybridity, and abstraction in Modernist art and literature: the ideal stimuli for “breaking” the triangle inequality between two objects are the minimal—i.e. the most compressible—exemplars of a structure common to both objects (or of a structure closely resembling the respective structure of each object.) For example, it is often stated that Kafka’s short stories capture a structure of experience—the “Kafkaesque”—that one finds in a range of disparate experiences (or conceptions of experiences), making a Kafka story equally evocative of e.g. the experience of going to the bank, the experience of being broken-up with, the experience of waking up in a daze, the experience of being lost in a foreign city, or the experience of a police interrogation. It’s plausible that hybrid elements—mixtures of elements from different scenarios—work together with the structural resonance

of the text to draw out these respective scenarios as candidate bases of reference, whose fitness to function as bases of reference a compression-test then confirms. The story thus functions as a nearly minimal concrete model of the abstract structure shared by the disparate experiences that fall under the predicate “Kafkaesque,” allowing us to group together experiences that embody this structure at whatever level of abstraction. Parts of the text are taken from shared work with Owain Evans, MIT.

Second Balcony, 2014


Notes 1

We can define a basic “programming language” L for T and then define the compressibility of a stimulus S as T’s shortest known efficient program (in L) for generating S given use of T’s stored history of stimuli, or we can regard T as constantly optimizing her “programming language” to match observed probabilities and define the compressibility of S directly as T’s shortest known efficient program for generating S.

2 Joint algorithmic complexity is symmetric up to an additive constant, so K(x,S) doesn’t determine K(S,x) but does put a bound on it. 3

Of course, this only applies to imperfect compressors like humans. An optimal compressor would simply come up with S a priori.


Notice that a drive to discover compressive stimuli is already implied by Schmidhuber’s “compression progress drive,” which we accept without modification. We differ from Schmidhuber in differently relating the compression progress drive to aesthetic judgments of stimuli, by distinguishing compressive stimuli from merely interesting stimuli as the class of stimuli whose relation to compression progress corresponds to aesthetic beauty.


Poincare originally writes this of “the mathematical facts worthy of being studied.” Later, Poincare writes: “The only mathematical facts worthy of fixing our attention and capable of being useful are those which can teach us a mathematical law. So that we reach the following conclusion: The useful combinations are precisely the most beautiful.”










Belonging > Innovation Gabe Duquette For the past 3-5 years, I’ve been noticing a shift in the quality of culture. I wouldn’t say everything has gotten worse; rather, there seem to be fewer peaks and troughs. Movies, TV shows, and music are all trending toward a sort of stable, vaguely satisfying mediocrity. Probably books too, but I pay less attention to them. I have a foggy, pre-verbal sense of why this is happening, but I can’t quite see the big picture. The primary drivers seem to be stagnating innovation—likely due to a dearth of aesthetic problems that require new, innovative solutions—combined with an explosion of new ways to belong. Here are some of the symptoms I’ve noticed: Fake experimentation: Going through the motions of experimentation, but without a failure condition. The veneer of “being experimental” is itself more important than success—that is, whether or not a new, widely useful artistic invention is discovered—in part 83

because it is harder than ever to invent anything truly new. Luckily, the aesthetic of experimentation enables membership in a similarly minded group. This is easy to find at any basement show in America. Recycling: If the need to use cultural objects for social differentiation exceeds the number of unclaimed cultural objects, and creating new things is too hard (because they lack built-in brand recognition or because there simply isn’t anything to invent), it becomes necessary to “purify” existing objects so they can be reused. One way this is done is by adding irony to cliches, à la Rick and Morty. It’s also a component of fake experimentation. By “fixing what ain’t broke,” resources are stretched by making them ugly so they’re undesirable to outsiders. Unbundling: Elements formerly only available as part of a unitary object are now sold separately, like nutritional supplements instead of food. Those who only want the competence porn aspect of science fiction (without, say, the romance or character development) can get it from The Martian. Unbundling is evidence of stagnation because “new” demand is for partial versions of already-existing works. It isn’t really new at all. Nonetheless, each unbundled interest equals a new form of belonging in the form of subcultures and fandoms. Downsides of better sorting: Before the Internet, the

luminaries of a geographically local “scene” might remain in that scene longer, strengthening it by inspiring peers. Now talent has no place to hide, and usually prefers not to anyway. Instead, it is snapped up early and put to use by larger entities, leaving the dregs behind to engage in… Mutually reinforced hobbyism: Easier access to tools (via plummeting cost of gear and software) plus way less low-hanging fruit (no clear path to originality) means almost everybody wants to go through the motions of creativity just enough to be part of a community where they have a defined role. So most cultural abundance looks like “I won’t point out your weak shit if you don’t point out mine.” Socially stable but more ritualized than innovative, it’s the less hip version of fake experimentation. Tight feedback loops: The Internet doesn’t just connect big fish to bigger ponds, it also connects everything to everything else. This means more community (and consequently closer competition around more specific targets) but less random tinkering in isolation. It also grants access to anything anybody ever made, including a much better version of that thing you’re working on. As it turns out, this is somewhat discouraging. Voice > exit: There has been a cultural shift away from exit as a response to aesthetic dissatisfaction. It remains to be seen whether this change is due to a lack 85

of aesthetic real estate to exit to, or a broader trend in conflict resolution, or both. Regardless, the trend is toward appealing to existing institutions for desired changes (“Thor should be a woman now”) rather than leaving to do one’s own thing.

Liposuction, 2016

A Letter About Art Peli Grietzer There are two commonplace “pictures” of what art is that we use to justify the pursuit of art. One picture says that great art describes the human condition, or expresses our innermost experiences, or connects us to our unattended thoughts and feelings, or allows us to reflect on our life and memories and circumstances, or to empathize with others or to commune with the cosmos or to understand material conditions of life or whatever. Apart from being kind of old and uncool, this picture’s inconsistent with how crucial “gaming” the cultural moment is for making good art. Or, at least, it’s inconsistent with how crucial gaming the cultural moment is for making good art in spheres like pop music, visual art, film, and avant-garde literature—there are also spheres like literary fiction, or lyric poetry, or off-Broadway theater, where gaming isn’t as important and the “express human condition” picture sort of holds, but weirdly these spheres seem less deep, not more deep, than the spheres where gaming is the life-blood of good art. This is where the second commonplace picture of what art is comes in: 87

the second picture says that there’s a thing called “culture,” which is a sort of social structure that’s formed out of the interaction of everyone’s world-views and desires and beliefs and in turn structures the evolution of everyone’s world-views and desires and beliefs, and making art is a way of intervening in that structure. So in this picture art is a form of politics, in the sense that making art is making a historical intervention in a collective structure (“culture”). On this picture, it makes perfect sense that whether art is good or not depends on how it games its cultural moment—the meaning of the work of art is the dent it makes in culture. But this picture’s not consistent with the fact that most of the really crucial gaming happens at the level of choosing what reverb to use, or one-upping every other rapper by making a rap track with no drum loop: aesthetic gaming might be a historical intervention in culture, but it mostly intervenes in the art part of culture, so if we don’t have anything to say about what the significance of art is other than as “intervention” we get weird closed-circuit masturbation. (In the visual art world and the avant-garde literature world people deal with the short circuit of the second picture by proposing that aesthetic form has sympathy, in almost the alchemical sense,with the most abstract, long-term aspects of politics, so keeping your shit aesthetically restless is crucial for the longterm possibility of utopian political projects. I respect this but don’t buy it enough to, like, base my life on it.) When I said at lunch that the way cultural elites treat art became

more “zoomed out” I meant that years ago the first picture dominated how overeducated young people talk about art and nowadays the second picture dominates. I think the second picture gets something deeply right—the artworks I admire the most put their gaming front and center—but gets muddled by the instinct to equate “gaming” + “meaningful” with “political,” like in order to explain how something can be both gaming and not-just-a-trend we have to say “by being politics” cause trends and politics are the only two kinds of intrinsically gaming things we can name. Shockingly, the true picture is revealed to be a synthesis of the two imperfect pictures. Basically I think that gaming in art is a lot more like mathematical progress than like political progress. Terrence Tao: As we can see from the above case study, the very best examples of good mathematics do not merely fulfill one or more of the criteria of mathematical quality listed at the beginning of this article, but are more importantly part of a greater mathematical story, which then unfurls to generate many further pieces of good mathematics of many different types. Indeed, one can view the history of entire fields of mathematics as being primarily generated by a handful of these great stories, their evolution through time, and their interaction with each other. I would thus conclude that good mathematics is not merely measured by one or more of the “local” qualities listed previously , but also 89

depends on the more “global” question of how it fits in with other pieces of good mathematics, either by building upon earlier achievements or encouraging the development of future breakthroughs. Of course, without the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to predict with certainty what types of mathematics will have such a property. There does however seem to be some undefinable sense that a certain piece of mathematics is “on to something,” that it is a piece of a larger puzzle waiting to be explored further. And it seems to me that the pursuit of such intangible promises of future potential is at least as important an aspect of mathematical progress as the more concrete and obvious aspects of mathematical quality listed previously. Thus I believe that good mathematics is more than simply the process of solving problems, building theories, and making arguments shorter, stronger, clearer, more elegant, or more rigorous, though these are of course all admirable goals; while achieving all of these tasks (and debating which ones should have higher priority within any given field), we should also be aware of any possible larger context that one’s results could be placed in, as this may well lead to the greatest long-term benefit for the result, for the field, and for mathematics as a whole. Art as a whole is valuable because of the non-gamey things we praise works of art for—the things from the

“first” picture of what art is, and some cooler things involving vibes and relations between vibes—but our sense that a work of art is “nailing it” isn’t just about whether a work is doing these valuable things, but about whether its game catalyzes windfalls of artworks (that catalyze windfalls of artworks that catalyze windfalls of artworks) that do these valuable things. Or at least this is an OK proxy for what this sense is a sense of—it’s probably not so much about the expectation that good things are coming in and of itself as it’s about the panoramic look you’re getting at their silhouettes on the horizon. Or, at least, that’s my philosophical best-case scenario.

Second Balcony, 2014


But What Are Birds Really? Sam Rosen Contemporary visual art isn’t nearly as challenging, incisive, or innovative as it thinks it is.

I’m bored with artists thinking their main job is “exploring what art is.” This wouldn’t be acceptable in any other field. I don’t want my plumber “exploring the concept of what being a plumber is.” But what is plumbing really? Who are you to say putting your toilet on the roof isn’t plumbing? There’s been a lot of progress in philosophy and psychology on how concepts work. The classical idea—that concepts have strict necessary and sufficient conditions—is pretty dead. The philosopher Wittgenstein came up with the idea of “family resemblance” models of concepts; the psychologist Eleanor Rosch came up with prototype theory. In short, many/ most concepts have a cluster of correlated features none of which is necessary or sufficient. Concepts have gradients: Penguins are less birdlike than sparrows to most people.

So, how does this relate to art? People value a lot of different things in art: direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, novelty and creativity, representation, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, imaginative experience, veneration.[1] (This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some central ones.) And these things can come apart! For example, I can have a novel thing that isn’t pleasurable, or I can have a pleasurable thing that doesn’t require talent. It isn’t hard or particularly interesting to create a piece of art that has some but not all of the features that commonly correlate with art. You can do this with basically any category: Wait, you mean a paper bag on your foot is kind of like a shoe and kind of not like a shoe? Wait, you mean breakfast cereal mixed with 93

sawdust is kind of like food and kind of not like food? Above is Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. It has some features of our art concept while lacking others. It’s a painting, on a canvas. Yet it doesn’t demonstrate skill and virtuosity, it’s not particularly beautiful, it’s not emotionally evocative, and it doesn’t generate vivid imaginative experience. Oh, you mean you can make a thing that’s in the grey area of art and non-art? Woah. This is aggressive banality. Makers of this type of art might claim they are doing an important intellectual task, namely, making us analyze our concept of art. But thinking one non-prototypical piece of art can give us deep insight into “what art is” relies on an outdated, black-and-white view of how concepts work. Besides, there are far more fruitful ways to do conceptual analysis of art: ϭ Experimental philosophy ϭ Philosophy ϭ Psychology ϭ Art history/anthropology of art ϭ Big data

If a research team systematically gave people different quasi-arts, and had them rate them in terms of “art-likeness”, to find out, statistically, what features most correspond to people’s art concept, I’d be in favor of this! But, having a singular quasi-art is simply not informative as a concept exploration tool. ii. When people object to art like Black Square, defenders will often accuse them of not understanding the piece, or being otherwise unsophisticated. More plausibly, people object to this type of art because it’s not giving them the things they want out of their art-concept (like beauty, technical skill, and imaginative experience). If I wanted to go to a national forest, and the tour guide took me to see a couple trees in the back parking lot of a New Jersey Denny’s, I think you’d agree that it would be appropriate to object. It would be boring for the tour guide to say, “You don’t understand my concept of national forests. I’m expanding the definition of national forests. I’m helping you understand the definition of national forests.” So stop doing that with art. Of course, it’s sometimes useful for people in professions to take a step back and ask questions about the norms and traditions of their trade. I can imagine a doctor usefully analyzing how involved in a patient’s personal life one should be. But when your primary focus is the meta-discussion about the concept of art, 95

you are doing mostly philosophy and psychology, not art. So if you want to have that meta-discussion, then study psychology. Study philosophy. Study art history. Don’t boringly make art that’s in the grey area between art and non-art and think you’ve learned anything interesting. iii. Some people have misunderstood my argument. They have thought that because I wanted less analysis of the concept of art, that I was against creativity and exploration in art itself. But no, that’s not what I meant at all. An analogy with food is useful here: I think it would be unproductive for chefs to explore the concept of food, but I am all for creativity and exploration in cooking itself. I want chefs to explore all the delicious food possibilities out there. I want people from different culinary traditions to rub shoulders and create novel food combinations. I want new flavors to be invented. Food experiments! But, here are some culinary questions that I think would be less interesting to explore: ϭ Does “food” need to be ingested via the mouth? Food goes to the stomach ultimately. The stomach is what Aristotle would call the “natural place” of food. Why all this focus on the mouth? We have 21st century surgical technology. Why not explore

new plate-stomach avenues? We shouldn’t be blinkered by tradition and think that the mouth is the only plate-stomach avenue. ϭ Does “food” have to not poison you? We assume that food has to be healthy. But Camus was right when he said that suicide was the only serious philosophical question. Who says cuisine can’t help tackle the deep questions of human existence? ϭ Does “food” have to taste good? Maybe our concepts of “food” have taken for granted the dogma of food needing to be delicious. Great food challenges us. Some challenges become pleasurable with time—acquired tastes. But a greater challenge is food that never rewards, and the greatest challenge is food that is consistently repellent. ϭ Does a finely garnished, empty plate served at a fancy restaurant count as “food?” We are stuck in a Western, dualistic metaphysics where content is distinct from form. But if you adopt a more Buddhist attitude towards form, and see that objects are inseparable from their contexts, you see that the food/non-food distinction is vacuous. There are people who will find such questions interesting. Most people won’t. Being against stale philosophizing about the concept of food is not to be against food creativity. I’m all about exploring new 97

roads, but not all roads are equally likely to take you to something interesting. If you don’t agree with that, remind me never to go on a hike with you.

Saner Than Lasagna, 2015

Voices on the Genius of the Bit Artists John Nerst When I visited one of my artsier friends a few weekends ago I didn’t anticipate bringing one of my new favorite books home with me. My friend lent me his copy of Legacy of the Bit Artists, and I read it voraciously on the train to and from work over the next week. Legacy is a collection of essays where academics and critics discuss the meaning and impact of a short-lived artistic movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s— the Bit Artists. There were two of them, specifically. Maurice Castanviér, who ignited the movement in 1979 with the first Bit work (entitled 1), forms what is usually referred to as the “French flank.” Katerina Valedovna became the “Russian flank” (despite living in Switzerland for most of her life) when 0 was released in late 1981. By most accounts, her work represents the movement’s high point, after which there were no major contributions. 99

The book’s contributors make accessible the greatness of these works, works that felt rather underwhelming to me in the beginning. (The titles say everything.) Situating the works (and the movement as a whole) in their historical context, Legacy shows how they embodied unprecedented depth of meaning and interpretive richness. Because this depth isn’t obvious, the volume kicks off with an introductory polemic against skeptics called “Those Who Don’t Get It,” written by editor Poe Hihtad. In it, he reiterates the well-known truth that those who fail to appreciate avant-garde art in general—and bit art in particular—suffer from a misunderstanding regarding what art is supposed to be. Laypeople, from which skeptics of bit art and indeed, of contemporary art as a whole, tend to come, are artistically conservative, even reactionary. Stuck in a traditionalist objet-centered paradigm where the semantic center of gravity is located at the physical manifestation of the artist’s intent, of course they see nothing. Their minds are not ready to do their part. Outdated notions of art as communication, the transmission of ideas, thoughts and feelings stand in the way of appreciating that the artist is dead, the artwork as a discrete entity removed from phenomenological context is dead and the experience of encounter is constitutive of the piece—and that is truly the greatness of the bit works: they make

the participatory role of the encountering subject more dominant and significant than anything before them. Hihtad goes on to argue that skeptics lack the cognitive architecture necessary to comprehend these works, and as a result tragically experience nothing in the face of great art: [T]hey simply do not react, except with derisive blankness they falsely attribute to the art because they are unable to perceive what is not spelled out, unable to see what is not there. They lack the education, the cultivation, indeed the taste required. They want to know what is there, what the point is, what it all means, what is the message? They want to be spoon-fed a predetermined conclusion about that in which their own reaction is an indispensable part, creating the boundless multiplicity of meaning that separates art from mere artifact. At the end, Hihtad writes that it’s the unprecedented interpretive flexibility of their works that will ensure Castanviér and Valedovna a place in the pantheon. The truly great works of literature, art, and music survive because they speak to us through the ages and lend themselves to recontextualization and reinterpretation again and again. [The bit artists] take this maxim to its natural 101

conclusion to produce works whose flexibility and boundless generativity renders them timeless, eternal, indeed, immortal. They can and will be reinterpreted forever and ever, when they awaken from their rest, ready to activate meanings anywhere, everywhere. If we judge meaningfulness by the richness of meaning a work can potentially elicit, they are the most meaningful works in the history of humankind. With a better understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of bit art, I was in a better position to understand the fascinating, original questions the bits raise (for example, “What is art?”). Jordy Babbárien of The Pierre Brassau Institute of Art discusses in his essay how the bit artists made their contribution to this long-standing conversation in the art world: 1 is undeniably the affirmative, and with his work Castanviér equally undeniably gave the answer to the question the world has been asking itself for so many years: “Is this art?” Castanviér says OUI, without hesitation, exception or qualification, and thereby states that anything can be art. This renders Valedovna’s work especially interesting in relation, not as a denial of Castanviér’s point— no, the works are complementary, and Valedovna urges us to, in addition to Castanviér’s focus on the front and center, fix our gaze on the between: what we have not yet recognized as art, the places

we do not think of as places, the sounds we do not call music, and the interstitial moments we do not call life. The historical context is obviously central. James Wilkins, senior research fellow at the Northumbria Institute of Technology and Culture, writes in his essay “Harbingers and Echoes” that bit art could not have existed at any other point in history; it exists at a unique nexus of past, present, and future. It emerged at the spring of the electronic age, at an inflection point in our relationship to technology that manages to look back and forward at once. He writes: The bits arrived when consumer electronics started to make inroads in our everyday lives, and with them not only the ubiquitous “power” button—signified with an interwoven “1” and “0” in a graphical representation of our own limitless Power over inanimate objects, who come alive only to serve us until the button turns them back into nothing so we can put them out of our mind (itself a powerful criticism of our history of slavery and dehumanization)—but also the deeper underlying foundation for the computing revolution that was soon to reform the world. After discussing how bit art relates to the breaking down of reality in tiny yet definite technical distinctions, he ends with a warning: 103

Castanviér and Valedovna showed the world the past, the present, and indeed the future: a world of rules all boiling down to “1” and “0,” all of us ruled by the electronic arbiters of Yes or No, This or That. Essayist and sociology grad student Katja Nagy is more direct and gloomy in her assessment of the movement’s legacy in her piece “Digital Tyranny Unmasked”: It is beyond dispute that the “1” and the “0”, taken together form a microcosm of contemporary digital technology’s agenda of assimilating the world into its paradigm. Human experiences, human relationships and human identities are subtle and rich, thick with connotation, meaning and context. Digital technology—exemplified by its 1-0 thinking, its sorting of everything into this and that, into separated, atomized objects to be catalogued, indexed and machine-read, stripped of its subtleties, vagaries and humanity—is an imperial power advancing on the human spirit in a more ruthless and efficient way than any force in history. Its relentless, reductive deadening of life traces its lineage back to Aristotelian logic and its fierce denial and erasure of unconquerable nuance, more recently manifested in the inhumanity of the bureaucratic state and its mechanical adherence to rules, and of course capitalism with its reshaping of human interaction into transaction:

measured, readable, formalized and interchangeable, in which we are all replaceable parts in a mechanism, and genuine human connection is an unwanted, unaccounted for, liability—a discarded remainder left out of the books. The bit artists’ work stands unique as an unequivocal repudiation—by naked exposure—of the dominant destructive pattern with which civilization simultaneously constructs and destructs our boxed-in subjectivity. An ongoing theme throughout the collection is how bits “designate designation” and “signify signfication”—in the words of critic Charles Grass. They represent how we are in thrall of concepts, by the boundaries that inevitably result (the “originary differentiation of différance” as Grass calls it) from having a mind that classifies (the article from a researcher on the neuroscience of art goes into great detail on exactly this)—indeed, how the erection of boundaries itself creates the objects it serves to separate. One central such classification, that of gender, obviously get extensive treatment, some of which really opened my eyes for how much gender normativity the bit works really contain. Paulina Mikkelsen, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Art at NYU, tells the story: Castanviér’s statement on sexual politics was 105

nothing short of shocking. While artists habitually coat their political messages in a modicum of ambiguity, his work remains to this day the most naked assertion of male power in the modern era. The selection of “1,” the quintessential, archetypal phallic symbol incarnated in the straight and rigid line, represents the continuing privileging of the male over the female: piercing aggression over its edgeless counterpart and its smooth, inoffensive curves. Not to mention how the “1” on a conceptual level represents all male-coded properties like agency, activity, capability and freedom. Some critics suggest that Castanviér should have chosen the “0” to kick off his movement, and by that give voice to the voiceless—women, ethnic minorities, the differently abled, the marginalized, subaltern communities who, like the “0,” by erasure appear to be nothing at all, and thusly denied their rights to be on equal footing with their counterpart. But I can’t agree with this criticism. Castanviér fulfilled his function as well as he could; as a white, straight male of Christian, bourgeois heritage the “1” was the only bit open to him. Pulling the “0” off as a genuine expression of his own lived experience would have been laying claim to territories he had no right to. No, “0” could only have been authentically created by a woman. In Valedovna’s eminent hands, “0” came to represent Woman from the inside, as a

container of thoughts and dreams and the unbroken original shelter of new life, instead of the circular “entry point” or disembodied breast it would’ve undoubtedly become if realized from the objectifying viewpoint of the heterosexual man. Hihtad certainly made an interesting choice when pairing Mikkelsen’s convincingly argued piece with the controversial Professor Uda Nál’s “Regendering the 1,” making an entirely different case: Interpreting the “1” as the Male is symptomatic of the half-educated, and the critics mindlessly repeating this first-year-student level take ought to read more Marle or Glenkiss instead of jumping on the first thing that crossed their minds. Castanviér was cleverer than all of them and his work deserves better. The choice of “1” is subverting hegemony, not reinforcing it. Hegemony rests in the negative space, between what we see and what we don’t see. What we do not see does not become an image, it is not looked upon, it is where we stand to look, as subjects, not objects. The “1” is marked, it is seen, it is what we refer to with a label instead of take as a given, immobile part of the background. Naturally, Man is “0” and Woman is “1” and what Castanviér did was to ironically point out what has always been pointed out, fooling the audience in the process. This is obvious, since “0” as male goes back to 107

the beginning of life itself. “0” is emptiness, the Nothing, while the “1” contains. It is fertile, carrying promises of more, it beckons, leads forward, away from the stasis of the sterile “0” towards a future, towards higher numbers. It is the first step in what never ends. Both biblical and Freudian readings confirm the “0” as the true symbol for the Male. It is circular, without end or beginning, an avatar of the ultimate, perfected being, the fully developed ego that Freud’s Woman would never reach. The “1”, in contrast, standing on its edge, is unstable and precarious, potentially hysterical and ready to tip over. The feminine chaos it is, a constant source of male confusion and resentment ever since Adam, the “0” extraordinaire, by way of his rib (a straight line, could it be more obvious?) gave rise to “0”’s first successor. Discussions of gender crop up in several of the book’s individual parts, and often there are interesting takes. Jonathan Steigerbaum-Holtz-Kamfer, critic for the Munich Contemporary Art Review, spends his twelve pages discussing the meaning of specifically Valedovna’s work as it relates to late capitalism and the coming obsolescence of emergent hierarchy as a result of forced competition (his argument is long and technical, but in short he argues that the “0,” unlike the “1” that Castanviér produced, stands outside the set of numbers used for ranking (which starts with “1” and goes up) and thus represents the desire and capability to

withdraw from competition, comparison, and capitalism as a whole), but still manages an interesting aside on gender that offers yet another interpretation of these remarkably multifaceted works: On the topic of sexuality, I can only react to Valedovna’s work with a sense of profound loss. 0 represents a missed opportunity of classically tragic proportions to subvert gendered expectations. With 0 she rearticulates both her own gender role and the heterosexist assumption that opposites belong together; she allows her choice and herself to be defined by the actions of a man, instead of, in a radical, bold move, replicate 1 altered in meaning by a transsubstantiation of sorts, through her own authorship, into a rejection not only of heteronormativity encoded into the nature of the bit itself, but her own imposed role as a subservient follower. While gender might be the most prominent theme in the book as a whole, next to its status as the “symbol of the symbol” (Charles Grass again), not everyone shares the view that this is what bit art is fundamentally “about.” Noted cultural critic, philosopher, and novelist Barnard Cornwallis III closes the collection with a few poignant paragraphs: Bit art embodies, in its most elemental form, that of bifurcation, the entirety of possibility, 109

the mediator that turns potentiality to actuality and thereby creates it. To the human, possibility represents the reality of choice, of free will, that quality of spirit that renders us, ultimately, significant, to God and each other. On that score, the work is a devastating rebuttal of scientistic, mechanistic reduction. Castanviér and Valedovna, by making their choices, deftly invoke the existentialists by insisting on human choice when contemplated as a synecdoche of possibility and contingent future—the defining feature of life—but choice when made as a symbol of death (they undoubtedly take inspiration from Frost and Plath here), as potentiality lives only a brief life, destined to collapse into mere actuality as if it never were, erasing the distinction that bit art aims to keep alive. That death binds us, it forces us into anguish, into guilt, contemplating what we must inevitably snuff out and wonder if it ever was. By this [the artists] superimpose another layer of duality by treating both the Western religious tradition and secular existentialist thought as inevitable outgrowths of their work—this dual duality itself fractally mirrored in the structure of the works themselves. 1 and 0, in concert, seen as a whole, as yin and yang if I may be so banal, represent nothing less than what it means to be human. I’ve come away with a new respect for my friend after

our dinner together. Not only has he got impeccable taste in art, he’s a magnificent cook too—I never knew stone soup could be so delicious. Next week I’m trying a granite recipe.

Everything Studies, 2018


Culture Is Not About Esthetics Gwern Aesthetically and economically, maybe there is too much new art.

The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced. —Randall Jarrel, Daedelus The Amazon Kindle has ignited the e-book market by providing an e-ink interface which is visually competitive with paper, and easy access to a remarkable fraction of Amazon’s inventory. It’s very nice. The pricing of e-books is controversial (see Washington Post, “E-books spark battle inside the publishing industry,” Dec. 2009); why should an e-book cost as much as the printed book? The Kindle’s e-books are small digital files, as opposed to multi-pound slabs of exactingly manufactured wood and cloth.[1] The

former is delivered wirelessly, while the latter requires globe-spanning transport networks. Surely there is vast overhead for the paper, and e-book prices should reflect their marginal cost of production of zero cents? Not many expect e-books to be priced in cents, since the author expects to be paid a fair bit for her writing, and the publisher expects to be paid for editing & formatting it, and Amazon is there discreetly coughing for its share.[2] So it won’t be zero cents, but why not $3 or less? the price is not right

In a sense, this is a very easy question. The right price for e-books is whatever the market will bear. If $3 is not the right price, then consumers will not buy, and the price will continue to fall until they do. In another sense, it’s a difficult question as some people seem to be thinking in medieval terms with the moral concept of the just price, which is inapplicable to books. (Just prices are easy to set for necessities—e.g. if anybody is starving to death, then the price of food is not at the just price—but this doesn’t work for luxuries. And most of Amazon’s merchandise must be classified as a luxury. One is not going to die without the latest Madden NFL video game or James Patterson novel.) 113

Subsidies But the presupposition of a discussion of how to ensure a profitable price level mutually acceptable to consumers & corporate publishers is that the publishers should survive. That is: if books are not economically sustainable at natural e-book prices (e.g. $3), will society be worse off? Should publishers or novelists be subsidized?[3] They certainly are subsidized in many ways direct & indirect. Some areas of artistic endeavour seem to try to prove that art is worthless and a joke; it’s a little hard to explain some areas of modern or post-modern art in any other way, and who are we to disagree with them? But that’s a cheap way out. What about art that is quite serious and aspires to the age-old goals of art? The more I think about it, the harder I find justifying any subsidy. We value high author royalties because this allows authors to specialize in being authors; specialization is a good thing because it allows authors to produce more than they otherwise would; and higher production is good because we value the fruits thereof. But higher production isn’t always good; production can be misguided or wasted (see broken window fallacy). And strengthened copyright law may not be an effective subsidy regardless.[4]

one hundred apples in the barrel

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain / For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain. —Shakespeare, Richard II Suppose we all have 100 apples. Our lives do not revolve around apples, though we like them well enough. But still, 100 is too many; even if we ate five a day, the rest would go bad before we ate them. And of course, it’s unlikely that any of us will go to the greengrocers and buy more. Our marginal utility of apples has plunged to zero. From our perspective, the farmer bringing a truck of apples to the greengrocers has wasted his labor. Let’s hope he’ll find something to do with those surplus apples so the resources that went into making them were not wasted—maybe bake some apple pies, or compost them all. Now suppose this wasn’t a one-time gift. We live in a magic world where everyone gets 100 apples a week. Here the farmer’s entire career is wasted. Isn’t he wasting his life? He’s a smart fellow; no reason he couldn’t go do something more useful. We could invent ways to employ this farmer. Perhaps 115

every week he breaks into everybody’s kitchens and steals their apples so they have to buy apples from him. Perhaps he’ll run a large marketing campaign to convince everyone that his apples are superior to the magical apples. Perhaps some people get Granny Smith but really wanted Red Delicious, and he runs an apple-trading hub, filling in deficits with his apples. Perhaps he lives on government subsidy checks & farms apples as a hobby. But nevertheless, these apple-farmers represent a dead-weight loss. one hundred books on the shelf

Do technology and economic growth create problems? Certainly. But as Maurice Chevalier said about the disadvantages of growing old, consider the alternative… if you chose to live in Renaissance Florence you would not be able to enjoy Cézanne and Picasso. In Johnson’s London, you would not be able to listen to Beethoven or Brahms. In La Belle Époque, you would not be able to read Joyce or Faulkner. To live in today’s world is not only to have access to all the best that has come before, but also to have a breadth and ease of access that is comparably greater than that enjoyed even by our parents, let alone earlier generations. —C. Murray, Human Accomplishment

Now, can we apply this analogy? I don’t have 100 apples, but perhaps I have 100 novels. Not any novels, but science fiction novels. Nor any 100 sci-fi novels, but the winners of the two most prestigious SF awards for the last 50 years: the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Reading Them …in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it… A relatively straightforward way of measuring how much scarce resources a message consumes is by noting how much time the recipients spends on it. —Herbert Simon, Designing Organizations For An Information-Rich World Suppose I read the 100 at the rate of one a week, or 52 a year.[5] I will finish them in about two years. It will take an appreciable fraction of my life to read 117

a vanishingly small fraction of one small fiction genre, that itself has existed for less than two centuries and been written almost exclusively in two countries.[6] And what if I want to read the prequels and sequels? Not all winners are as prolific in sequels & prequels as Dune, but these winners include many duologies and trilogies (or more).[7] I can probably expect to lose another two or six years to them. Certainly, I can expect it to take another four years to read the two top runner-ups for each award. And did I mention that these awards have multiple categories? Many of SF’s greatest works are short stories or novellas, which compete for different Nebula & Hugo awards. And of course, it’s not like the Hugo & Nebula awards are the definitive list of SF books to read: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction treats hundreds of writers, and mentions thousands of works; The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has more than 4000 entries. Like Mandelbrot’s fractal coast of England, the more thoroughly I search, the longer my reading list becomes.

New = Bad It is worth serious consideration how great an amount of time—their own and other people’s— and of paper is wasted by this swarm of mediocre poets, and how injurious their influence is. For the public always seizes on what is new, and shows

even more inclination to what is perverse and dull, as being akin to its own nature. These works of the mediocre, therefore, draw the public away and hold it back from genuine masterpieces, and from the education they afford. Thus they work directly against the benign influence of genius, ruin taste more and more, and so arrest the progress of the age. —Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation The list is now eight years in length; if the SF industry had imploded the day I started, I would not have noticed. I would be better off, actually, if the industry did implode! The last SF or Fantasy I read was Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. It was good, but I know there are better. My reading time is finite, and reading Mistborn pushed out reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun tetralogy, which I ultimately enjoyed more. If the industry had imploded before Mistborn was published, I would have read Long Sun instead. It wouldn’t be difficult to spend the rest of my life reading only SF published before 2009, and it would be more efficient, as time is the keenest critic.


The connection to other aspects of modern life and akrasia is apparent: there’s a Gresham’s Law whereby cheap yet unsatisfying works will push out more satisfying but more demanding entertainment. Humans suffer from hyperbolic discounting; we may know that in the long run, Mistborn will be forgotten when Long Sun is remembered, and that once we get started, we will enjoy it more. Yet when the moment comes to choose, we prefer the choice of immediate pleasure. Why is this? For that matter, why do so many discrete subcultures flourish around fiction and seem to outnumber subcultures based on nonfiction topics like guns? Why does fiction seem to sabotage effectiveness in real life? Rather than enhance it as seems plausible and as it could very well do since interactive fiction is capable of slipping enormous amounts of information into one’s mind (e.g. “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy,” Gee 2003). Right now, we can only speculate; I suspect the answer lies at the convergence of highly abstract interpretations of creative experience, modern video-game instantiations of addictive token economies, and the neurology of fiction.[8] Robin Hanson suggests, based in part on an analysis of 201 major British novels, that fiction is closer to signaling and wish-fulfillment—serving to educate us about group membership or interaction, and sending messages about what groups one is in (it’s hard to fake a real knowledge of The Silmarillion, e.g.) It’s an interesting area, but not strictly relevant to the topic

of whether new fiction should be subsidized and its merits compared to old (existing) fiction.

Generalizing This Reading anything less than 50 years old is like drinking new wine: permissible once or twice a year and usually followed by regret and a headache… I definitely have followed that dictum. Maybe a little too much so, in that I rarely read anything modern at all. When it comes to books. I don’t follow that rule when it comes to music or movies or blogs. But on the level of books, there is so much good stuff out there that has stood the test of time, I don’t run out of interesting things to read. —Robert Ghrist But reading only SF is impoverishing. I always wanted to get into mysteries and French literature. But those will take at least two decades. Now I’m in my 50s. I’d better hurry if I ever want to read English or Chinese literature, or any nonfiction! So, why do I care what happens to the SF market? How does it concern me that the short story magazines are collapsing and will train no new writers? I have no need of them. I already have 100 apples. 121

Music Or how about the genre of classical music? I once saw a complete collection of J.S. Bach in 160 CDs. I’ve no idea how many hours of music that is, and am too frightened to calculate it. And how many listens would it take to reasonably appreciate it? A lifetime perhaps. Why should I care about some publisher trying to record another CD of the Brandenburg Concertos? I’m not a conductor, I will hear no improvement. To me, there is no difference between the world’s greatest violinist and the 10th-greatest.

Movies Or consider another medium: movies. Have you seen the IMDB’s Top 250 movies? There are excellent movies in there. Some are profound, others moving, and not a few profoundly moving. Why are you going to watch Transformers 2 or Ice Age 3? For entertainment value? But there are movies in that list which are far more entertaining, I assure you. Even if you’ve seen the top 50, there’s another 200 to choose from. If you think the IMDB is too faddish and Internet-centric, there’s no shortage of other lists—the New York Times would be happy to tell you all about The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (6 years at three movies a week). And what about television? If we ask

IMDB about movies by year or all the movies and TV episodes it knows about, it’s happy to tell us: 1,111,244 episodes; 263,524 movies; and 1,920,757 works in total (as of 28 June 2011). We can also look at movie production over time, where we find that as early as 1917 there were 5,490 movies made. (A current estimate for the EU is 1100 features and 1400 shorts per year.) So even if we got in at the beginning, we never had a chance at watching so much as a small fraction. Here’s a thought problem: suppose an intensive study revealed, authoritatively, that removing all subsidies and intellectual property rights would cause movie production to fall by 95%. Would you regard that as a disaster, something to be decried and abhorred and legislated against? I suspect so. Suppose the study found that, specifically, this 95% fall was composed partially of movies never getting made, but also partially of movies getting made and then lost or never distributed or never shown at all (perhaps because in the absence of copyright, pirates would undercut them and take all profits); would this change your opinion much? Probably not for the better—if anything, it’s even more horrifying, in the same way almost winning the lottery but missing by 1 number is more saddening than missing it by two numbers. But the interesting thing is that this is already happening: less than 5% of movies are available to the public, and only around 10% of silent films survive 123

in any sense anywhere. So that 95% fall has already happened; civilization seems to have survived. (A reflection on the movie canon: if you believe the canon is aesthetically invalid and has not successfully picked out the best movies made, then that implies anywhere up to 90% of the best movies ever made are lost forever to you.)

Genres in General When will we realize that the fact that we can become accustomed to anything, however disgusting at first, makes it necessary to examine carefully everything we have become accustomed to? —George Bernard Shaw Any field over a century old has built up a stock of masterpieces that could fill a lifetime.[9] Fields that are new, or still technically developing, may not have enough. For example, video games—even the greatest arcade games from 20 or 30 years ago such as Pac-Man or Space Invaders has a hard time competing against mediocre contemporary games. Something similar may be true of modern television programs (although presumably the development and sophistication is finished in still other modern formats like movies, which draw the most capable and the most money).

Granting that new/developing argument, one only delays the day of reckoning, and as time passes, new fields are necessarily an ever-smaller fraction of the general surplus of art. After all, while we may not be able to divide up all art into categories of painting or Russian novel, there is something we can count and which is absolutely crucial to the argument: time. Our lives are only so long, and they are denominated quite precisely, second by second. We have 500,000 hours. Does it matter whether it’s a ballet or a novel if we devote three of those hours to it? Artworks may be as non-commodified or incomparable or subjective as we please, but we can’t get around our own limits. For our finite lives, it’s good enough if we call it art. And we don’t necessarily need to assume substitution of works across genres; given enough time, any genre will outrun your lifespan. As genres multiply, it becomes ever more difficult to argue that some new and small genre is the only one that can satisfy and merits subsidy. (And yet, despite the scarcity of our attention, we fritter it away and value our time at next to nothing: someone watching an hour of TV is so worthless that after nearly a century, the most an advertiser can afford to pay the TV station for that person’s attention is 20 cents.)

Media Shock The soul has no assignments, neither cooks / Nor referees: it wastes its time. It wastes its time. 125

/ Here in this enclave there are centuries / For you to waste… / The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly. —Randall Jarrell I hope I’ve made my point: we live in an age of utter media abundance. Like none before us, we can partake of the greatest works in all mediums of all ages. We do not sip from a fountain laboriously supplied by hard-working artists & authors, nor even guzzle from a firehose hooked up to a printing press; we are being shot off Niagara Falls. The impact alone will kill us. This has been true for a very long time. Even mediums dismissed as dead produce astounding quantities; the American magazine Poetry receives 100,000 poem submissions a year. The Bodleian Library has been running out of space since the 1970s; it ordered a 13-acre warehouse with 153 miles of high-density shelving, and expects this to suffice for just 20 years. This abundance may have been invisible to most people before the Internet. The largest collection a person would ever run into would be his local library, and that is reassuringly small. It has a few dozen thousand volumes, perhaps, of which someone will want to read only a small fraction. A good reader could get through 1 book a day on average, and so one could encompass the whole in a lifetime. Who visits the Library of Congress and is struck by the physical reality of dozens

of millions of items? No one. Between 2002 and 2009, publishing analyst R.R. Bowker estimated 6,785,915 ISBNs were assigned.[10] (Google Books estimates there are >130 million books.) One couldn’t hope to buy more than one could consume either, as books and media are expensive per hour. (Niche consumers can expect even worse prices; at one point, American anime fans were paying more than $40 for 123, 7 of Aeschylus’s 90, 19 of Euripedes’s 92), and what survived were not always the best works. And literature is favored as words can be reproduced; the Greek music Plato & Aristotle considered so important, or the Chinese music Confucius considered equally vital? Gone. Greek art is little better—who even knows that Greek statues were not austere marble but painted? But can we assume that there’s a common valuation for how enjoyable all books are? Moby Dick is quite different from The Importance of Being Earnest. Alice may value the former much less than the latter, while Bob wants a nautical drama & not a comedy of manners. In this case, because both works exist, both Alice & Bob can be satisfied and we reach an optimum. But what if the book Bob desires hasn’t been published, but would be soon if there were a market? He will be saddened to have to read of butlers and harpooners instead of the shadow war of Pirates vs. Ninjas. 143

In this binary case, Alice will still be fine, but Bob will be worse off. The full example is not so bad for us, though. It’s plausible that Bob would enjoy Pirates vs. Ninjas: The Stabbening more than Moby Dick if those were the only 2 choices. But there are over 32 million books in the Library of Congress; is Bob so extraordinarily picky that not a single existing book would be as or more enjoyable than Pirates vs. Ninjas? This is not so implausible; American culture stagnated in many ways during the 20th century. The economist Tyler Cowen considers a reader’s thought experiment: …what if the law said we couldn’t make any new art (movies, novels, music etc.). And perhaps said we ought to rerelease each year the art that first appeared 50 or 30 years ago. How would people’s leisure activity and society’s cultural evolution change? And replies: After the adjustment process, I believe that matters would settle in an orderly fashion, although whether we pick the art from 30 or 50 years ago would make a big difference in terms of the required rejiggling of our aesthetic sensibilities. We would pick out bestsellers from 30 or 50 years

ago and some of them would be in demand, if only because people wish to share common cultural experiences. Overall it is the more obscure books from that era that would likely rise to be the bestsellers today. 1979 is barely an aesthetic leap; could not The Clash be a hit today? How about Madonna? Is it so ridiculous to think that people still might go hear The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney in concert?[35] In the same vein, John Taylor (bassist for Duran Duran), who is unhappy with the “slow down” of “innovative culture”[36] (and music in particular), admits that: Most students I know have an extremely broad appreciation of music… My stepson is at New York University (NYU) and he was telling me how he’s currently into Cole Porter, music from the 1920s and swing music from the 40s. So the availability and accessibility of music on the internet today is truly incredible, and I applaud anything that can inspire interest or curiosity in anyone. But this also means that those of us who before would have been looking towards the current culture for inspiration are now often to be found, like my stepson, in various backwaters of older music. This relative lack of need for current, innovative culture can cause, has caused, is causing—maybe—the innovative culture to slow down, much as 145

an assembly line in Detroit slows down and layoffs have to be made when the demand for a new model recedes.[37] Pejorative language aside (Cole Porter is a backwater?), does Taylor’s grandson sound unhappy with old music? Would he be unhappy if his choices were universalized and less new music were created as a result?

In-progress Works But, you say, Herbert & Wolfe are fine, but dammit you have a hunger for some Cory Doctorow, and can’t help but be curious as to how the deuce The Wheel of Time will end. OK, fine. There are ~300 million Americans who couldn’t care less if a market dissolution balked you. And of course, the problem of works-in-progress is a problem that solves itself: Doctorow must one day die, and if he shuffles off the mortal coil tomorrow, then your situation was the same as mine—except with a slightly higher upper bound. And even if you were balked, or in-progress series permitted to finish, that’s a fixed one-time cost. It may cost quite a bit to liquidate all the companies and shift their assets into more productive occupations; some people will never shift. But that’s creative destruction for you: the long-term benefits win in the long run.

New Book Smell Maybe there’s something intrinsically better about new books. Not that they deal with new subjects—we addressed that earlier—but perhaps it’s about the style, or appearance, or apparent novelty. Maybe when one looks at Tom Jones, the antique language instantly subtracts 10 utilons even if it’s still comprehensible. But the language can’t be the reason. Maybe Shakespeare and Chaucer aren’t as enjoyable and this explains why they aren’t as popular as they should be given their eminence, but for this to explain why books from the 50s or 60s are very unpopular or why books from the 00s sell better than books from the 90s—despite them all reading much the same, we need to posit large penalties and attribute to readers remarkable powers of discrimination. (And we could argue that the existing relatively low level of support for new works compared to other forms of recreation like professional sports indicates that new book smell is even less valuable than one might expect just from sales.[38]) Could it be due to spoilers? Some spoilers, like King Kong dying or Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father, are so universal as to “spoil” pretty much anyone who would watch those movies. A new work, however, has a long lag before spoilers escape into the general population, and so if spoilers destroyed the pleasure 147

people take in works, one would naturally expect people to gravitate towards newer works. While commonly voiced, this suggestion can only be part of the picture. Only the very most prominent works can be spoiled inadvertently; “Snape killed Dumbledore” or “Aeris dies” were successful spoiler memes only because the book and video game (respectively) sold millions of copies and were major cultural events. By definition, there are only a small number of such works. Perhaps a handful of such books or movies or games would be involuntarily spoiled each year, leaving thousands of other new works being produced despite no anti-spoiler advantage. Further, if this were the sole reason for new works, we would have the odd situation that people apparently are willing to spend many billions to encourage production of as-yet-unspoiled works, but will do nothing else to stem the spread of spoilers—even though a negative externality in the billions calls out for prevention or regulation of some sort. Society quite successfully stems the spread of other categories of undesirable information like private information or information on weapons of mass destruction or child pornography, and spoilers would seem to be far easier to suppress than any existing category of information. Finally, and most damning, the minimal research on the topic of spoilers suggests that the net displeasure caused by spoilers is unclear, with one study finding benefits to being spoiled[39] and another finding harm.

If there is a new book smell, and it can explain why books from the recent past are less popular than new books, then that means it is nothing intrinsic about the books themselves. Which suggests that it’s a matter of consumer perception; marketing has a long history of altering consumer perceptions for fun & profit. There may be no new book smell at all: it may simply be that new materials “crowd out” previous publications in catalogs or locations with limited space.[40] This would then feed into the habit-formation or introspective views of fiction consumption: one either hardens into liking only the music one heard as a teenager, which is a tiny (commercially-driven) selection of the total corpus, or one is similarly locked into a small subset of works because they are the ones previously consumed and give the proper subjective experience (regardless of aesthetics).[41] If new books ceased to be written, then the publishers of the existing books would have to compete on other grounds, such as price and marketing—which would include faking new book smell. If people are so frequently mistaken about what they would enjoy most now, surely they can be mistaken in the future about new book smell. The modern success of Jane Austen and of lightly edited versions such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies demonstrates that the centuries need be no bar.


The Experimental Results Existing research on things like the mere exposure effect suggest that much of esthetics might be trained and essentially arbitrary: In a 2003 study, psychologist James Cutting (2003, 2006) briefly exposed undergraduate psychology students to canonical and lesser-known Impressionist paintings (the lesser-known works exposed four times as often), with the result that after exposure, subjects preferred the lesser-known works more often than did the control group. Cutting took this result to show that canon formation is a result of cultural exposure over time. He further took this to show that the subjects’ judgments were not merely a product of the quality of the works. “If observers were able to judge quality alone in the image pairs, their judgments should not have been contaminated by appearance differences in the classroom. To be sure, quality could still play a role, but such an account must then rely on two processes- mere exposure and quality assessment (however that might be done). My proposal is that these are one-process results and done on the basis of mere exposure inside and outside the classroom” (Cutting 2003).[42] A followup found that in some cases, exposure to art decreased liking[43] (a result seen in some of

the mere-exposure effect studies): exposure to lower-quality formats can cause the development of active preference for the artifacts of the lower-quality, a phenomenon we may be seeing with the MP3 audio format,[44] and one wonders how much social pressures play a role in perception, given historical anecdotes like Edison’s phonographs being hailed as indistinguishable by (his contemporary, not modern) audiences.[45] Other studies demonstrate specific connections to such contingent properties as perceived prestige; we’ve all heard of the many hilarious wine-tasting results where even individual judges flatly contradict themselves, but there are more value-neutral examples like the McGurk effect where what you expect is what you get. And fMRI studies are revealing interesting things like the neural correlates of pleasantness increasing with price, or spikes in value-assessment regions and increased activation in regions which look like subjects trying to find something to criticize and justify their prejudice.[46] But we can to some extent get a handle on what degree popularity or rankings correspond to any intrinsic esthetic quality by running experiments using very obscure works. If there is a very close connection between quality and popularity, then that undermines my case: new works are extremely popular and often ranked very high (as a percentage of all works), so any reduction in new works would come at a corresponding esthetic losses. But conversely, the more random 151

and unconnected to quality our ratings are, the less we should care about producing new works. We don’t know what quality is, or don’t care, or have some sort of self-discipline problem and can’t make ourselves prefer what we ought to, or something. What do we find in the experiments? We find the results are not completely random, but they’re pretty close. The 2006 Salganik et al., “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market” (and also Salganik & Watts 2009), took 14,300 online participants and presented them with a screen full of songs and asked them to rank them. Half were presented with information on how popular a song was (as measured by downloads after listening), and half were not. The rankings differed drastically between the two groups. This is a major blow to any belief that the jewels will rise to the top, since both groups can’t be right. But which? The researchers were clever, and further subdivided the 7,000 shown the popularity information into 7 subsections, which were shown the popularity information for their own particular subsection (each subsection starting with 0 downloads for each song); each subsection popularity ranking clashed with all the others. In other words, the social-influenced rankings were substantially random. They disagreed with the aggregated independent rankings of quality, and with all the other social-influenced rankings. (If 2 contradictory rankings

cannot be correct, what about 9?) The most assurance the authors can give us is that “The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.” This matches well with randomized models of cultural diffusion. A 2008 followup, “Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market,” found that with a subsequent 12,000 participants, songs could be made popular just by lying to participants that they were popular (although again the best songs tended to recover somewhat). One might hope that cultural experts like literature professors and critics would give us true rankings of quality, and so we could at least trust the canonical rankings, but that seems quite desperate; such experts have more social pressures available than a mere download count, professional pressures, etc. If ethicists are not more ethical, why would we expect critics to be more critical? There is a fundamental tension in these discussions, between the revealed preferences of people and a claimed enjoyment or esthetic factor; if the latter really are greater for older works, why do people choose the inferior goods? One general observation is that people in general may not benefit from additional choices, as they suffer willpower depletion. This ties into the observation that some studies point to an paradigm in which people do not evaluate choices based on the 153

total benefits each choice delivers (with a fixed time penalty, exponential discounting), but rather based on a constantly mutating time factor which short-changes the future for the present (hyperbolic discounting); with hyperbolic discounting, an otherwise rational agent can know he would receive many more utilons from reading his Dickens novel, but because Dickens would pay off slowly, he would choose the trashy magazine, again and again, winding up with a lower total utilon score—by his own reckoning!—than if he had just sat down to Dickens.[47] An imaging study found that they could predict sales data for songs by measuring activation in the ventral striatum (a very low-level part of the brain, strongly linked with emotions & weakly linked to instincts), and predict better than asking the participants what song they liked.[48] All this suggests to me that esthetics is one of the rare situations where taking away choices can make people better off. at the end of the day

There is nothing so absurd but that some philosopher has said it. —Cicero The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, & to end with something so paradoxical that no one will

believe it. —Bertrand Russell But I had become aware, even so early as during my college life, that no opinion, however absurd and incredible, can be imagined, which has not been maintained by some on of the philosophers; and afterwards in the course of my travels I remarked that all those whose opinions are decidedly repugnant to ours are not in that account barbarians and savages, but on the contrary that many of these nations make an equally good, if not better, use of their reason than we do. —Descartes We’ve covered quite a bit of ground here. There are a number of different theses I’ve tried to argue for: ϭ There’s more fiction than anyone could hope to consume. ϭ People would be happier reading only the best fiction. ϭ It’s easier to figure out what the good old fiction is, than it is new fiction. There’s also more good old fiction than good new fiction. 155

ϭ People write too much new fiction. ϭ They also read too much. ϭ Society shouldn’t subsidize economically inefficient things like new fiction. ϭ We might go so far as to suggest a Pigovian tax[49] on new works because they encourage their own consumption. ϭ The uses of fiction are much less than one might think, and many of those uses are propagandistic, dangerous, or both. ϭ Subsidizing the nonfiction market may be justifiable. I hope you’ve been convinced of at least 2 or 3 of these theses. I want to reject the idea that new works should not be encouraged, but the only class of objections that can hold any water is the non-substitutability one, and I don’t see any solid arguments there. People are better off reading the best books, and the best ones are predominately the ones that already exist, there is more than can be read, and new books have no compelling advantage over the classics. The economics place me against new fiction. And when I remember how people are beguiled by new fiction into

reading crap, I find myself placed against new fiction on esthetic grounds as well. I have started with common-sense grounds and wound up somewhere strange.


Notes 1

Only about 10% of the publisher’s final wholesale price, and shipping isn’t much more. The money is going into other things. The New Yorker breaks the costs down as follows: Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. A simplified version of a publisher’s costs might run as follows. On a new, twenty-six-dollar hardcover, the publisher typically receives thirteen dollars. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price; this accounts for $3.90. Perhaps $1.80 goes to the costs of paper, printing, and binding [$1.80 of $26 is ~7%], a dollar to marketing, and $1.70 to distribution. The remaining $4.60 must pay for rent, editors, a sales force, and any write-offs of unearned author advances. Bookstores return about thirty-five per cent of the hardcovers they buy, and publishers write off the cost of producing those books. Profit margins are slim.


I suspect, as does author Charles Stross (“Why the commercial e-book market is broken”), that book publishers and Amazon are taking a considerable percentage of the e-book revenue, since in this New Yorker article, Amazon expected a newspaper publisher to agree to give Amazon 70% of the subscription fees; Amazon has monopoly control over the Kindle, and it is reasonable to think that they are similarly demanding of book publishers. A Slate article takes the opposite view: that Amazon is losing a great deal of money on each e-book: Amazon pays the same wholesale price for Kindle books

as it does for real books—generally 50% of the list price. For a typical hardback that retails for $26—say, E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley—Amazon pays $13 and then sells it for $9.99 on the Kindle, taking a $3 loss on each sale. (The longer-term strategy, publishers fear, is that once the Kindle gains [substantial] market share, Amazon will negotiate lower wholesale prices for digital versions.) 3

I’m using “subsidy” in a broad sense. Intellectual property laws are subsidies; stronger IP law or more vigorous enforcement is more government subsidy of the protected rentiers; universities hiring professors of creative writing or English and enabling them to write their books on sabbaticals or summer vacations, and publishing them at or below cost—those are subsidies as well. Tax breaks are subsidies, etc. IP has other effects, some of which directly reduce artistic production, since so much art is based on existing art. This point has been made at length by many authors such as Lawrence Lessig, but a short example from Tyler Cowen’s Good and Plenty: Legislation in 1976 brought copyright protection to new extremes, namely the life of the author plus fifty years, and for a company seventy-five years from publication or one hundred years from creation, whichever is sooner. The renewal process was eliminated altogether. Over time the large corporations of the entertainment industry have captured Congress in this matter, and the copyright period has now been extended eleven times in the last forty years. The most recent extension was the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which expanded copyright protection to the life of the creator plus seventy years, rather than fifty. Corporate 159

copyrights also were extended twenty years to a total of ninety-five years, as were copyrights for all works produced before 1978. The campaign to change these laws was led by Disney, which had feared the forthcoming expiration of copyright on Mickey Mouse and other lucrative cartoon characters. Copyright can restrict output in other ways as well. Many artists borrow heavily from each other, often without paying royalties or receiving permission. Disney characters are frequently drawn from European fairy tales or American folktales, without payment of any licensing fee. Some of Bob Dylan’s songs are so close to the works of Woody Guthrie that Dylan would lose a lawsuit, had Guthrie received contemporary copyright protection. Of course Guthrie borrowed heavily as well, most of all from blues musicians. This did not stop Dylan, once a populist 1960s radical, from joining the lobbying effort in favor of copyright extension. Copyright also makes it harder for rap artists to sample music. Looking back into history, many Shakespeare plays draw their plots from other works; Hamlet, for instance, was based on Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Large sections of Chaucer’s poetry are borrowed from other writers, through either translation or paraphrase. Blues, jazz, country music, and rap are all based on widespread borrowing of melodies and riffs, usually without any acknowledgment and certainly without any payment of licensing fees. It is debatable whether these artistic forms could have developed as we know them, had today’s copyright laws been enforced all along. 4

The academic literature is mixed; for example, some find little to no detrimental effect to Internet-borne copyright infringement: from “File-Sharing and Copyright,” Oberholzer-Gee & Strumpf 2010 (media coverage): Data on the supply of new works are consistent with our argument that file sharing did not discourage authors

and publishers. The publication of new books rose by 66% over the 2002-2007 period. Since 2000, the annual release of new music albums has more than doubled, and worldwide feature film production is up by more than 30% since 2003. At the same time, empirical research in file sharing documents that consumer welfare increased substantially due to the new technology. 5

A rate which, if surveys are to be believed, puts me in a quite rarefied percentile, e.g. “One in Four Read No Books Last Year” (The Washington Post), and mentions the average for Americans was 4 books a year, and the median among those who read at least one book was 7, roughly 1 every 7 weeks.


America, and Great Britain. France contributed a little to SF with Jules Verne, and Japan’s SF is copious (but uninfluential). Besides that, further sources of SF can be named on one hand. Poland offers us Stanislaw Lem, Russia has… someone, no doubt. And that’s about it. SF isn’t prolific even in the Anglophone First World, much less the rest of the globe.


By a rough count of the Nebula Award for Best Novel, 14 of the 43 winners were part of some franchise or series of works. To account for Hugos, we double that to 28 for the 2 awards; if each is part of a trilogy, we need to add 84 more works to our reading list, for another 2 years.


“Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul 2012, NYT: Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study, led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of 161

participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg. The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction—with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions—offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. …Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals—in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009 [see also their 2008 review], that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind—an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.) Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.” (See also Kidd & Castano 2013 but note that it has failed to replicate in the large Panero et al. 2016, which strongly supports self-selection as the mechanism.) Justifying fiction on practical benefits is a powerful justification—if it’s true. But these claims of benefit are a little questionable, being largely correlational. More generally, the question is one of “transfer of learning”: the typical result in psychology is that if you spend time learning or training on something, you will improve substantially on that, improve a little or moderately on 163

things which resemble that closely (“near transfer”), and improve hardly at all on anything else (“far transfer”). So no matter how much of a mental workout you get playing chess, it won’t “transfer” to, say, learning English vocabulary. Anything which might cause far transfer would be unusual and exciting (such as dual n-back), but the task is tantamount to increasing IQ in normal healthy people—a holy grail which remains out of reach half a century later. (Even years of schooling, spending hours a day on a variety of subjects, fails to increase childrens’ IQ more than a few points at best.) So, what does reading fiction transfer to? Does it only lead to “near transfer” like higher WPM or appreciation of literature, or does it also lead to more “far transfer” like better theory of mind and real-life social skills? 9 This seems to go unrecognized sometimes in literary fields, with its close attention to the rare landmarks of literary history; Franco Moretti remarks in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005): …what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than 1% of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows—and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so. 10 Their 2010 report is provisional about the 2010 ISBNs, and so I exclude them. Over 2002-2009, the number of ISBNs per year increased dramatically: 247,777; 266,322; 295,523; 282,500; 296,352; 407,646; 561,580; 1,335,475; and 3,092,740. Nearly half the total came just from 2009! In a remarkable testament to the growth of electronic and print-on-demand publishers, Bowker estimates for 2010 that BiblioBazaar accounted for 1=461,918 ISBNs.

11 Not unreasonable a figure, given how many albums and other works are released every year; from OberholzerGee & Strumpf 2010: While album sales have generally fallen since 2000, the number of albums being created has exploded. In 2000, 35,516 albums were released. Seven years later, 79,695 albums (including 25,159 digital albums) were published (Nielsen SoundScan, 2008). Similar trends can be seen in other creative industries. For example, the worldwide number of feature films produced each year has increased from 3,807 in 2003 to 4,989 in 2007 (Screen Digest, 2004 and 2008). Countries where film piracy is rampant have typically increased production. This is true in South Korea (80 to 124), India (877 to 1164), and China (140 to 402). During this period, U.S. feature film production has increased from 459 feature films in 2003 to 590 in 2007 (MPAA, 2007). 12 See also Robin Hanson’s brief essay. “The Myth Of Creativity: Innovation matters, but releasing your inner bohemian isn’t the answer.” 13 From Wikipedia: “The attractive nuisance doctrine applies to the law of torts in some jurisdictions. It states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children. The doctrine is designed to protect children who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object, by imposing a liability on the landowner. The doctrine has been applied to hold landowners liable for injuries caused by abandoned cars, piles of lumber or sand, trampolines, and swimming pools. However, it can be applied to virtually anything on the property of the landowner.” 14 From Wikipedia: “In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a third party who did not choose to 165

incur that cost or benefit. Externalities often occur when the production or consumption of a product or service’s private price equilibrium cannot reflect the true costs or benefits of that product or service for society as a whole. This causes the externality competitive equilibrium to not be a Pareto optimality.” 15 Robin Hanson has a number of good articles on how fiction can very easily mislead us, and that this may be a fundamental fact about the human brain (the “Near/ Far” psychology paradigm): “Biases of Science Fiction,” “What Insight Literature?,” “Disagreement is Near-Far Bias,” “Beware Detached Detail,” “BSG is Detached Detail,” “Against Propaganda.” It’s worth noting that one of the standard “jobs” for prominent science-fiction authors is consulting and helping “visualize” particular scenarios and futures for think-tanks and corporations and government agencies; David Brin has mentioned doing this on more than one occasion, and Karl Schroeder has a degree in that. From his “Science Fiction as Foresight” post: For about ten years now I’ve been periodically hired to write fictionalized versions of foresight findings. It works like this: mysterious government group A approaches me and tells me they’ve just spent six months researching the future of X (where X is something like “farm equipment” or “Alternatives To The Syringe”). What they’ve got is one or more scenarios, which are basically alternative plotlines for future events. They’d like me to turn these into actual stories, which I’m happy to do. (The most extreme example of this is the book Crisis in Zefra, which I wrote for the Canadian army back in 2005)… Curiously, when I write scenario fictions I’m not trying to generate new ideas of my own, but rather to represent the ideas that some set of futurists, subject experts, or public panels has already developed. This makes scenario fictions different than SF prototypes…Science

fiction is more than just a genre of fiction. Hell, it’s more than just fiction. It’s a mode of thought; because our brains are hardwired and optimized to think in narratives, SF can be seen as a primary means by which we make sense of and plan for the future. By understanding how this process works, we have an opportunity to grow a new branch of SF parallel to but not replacing or displacing the traditional arm—a branch that’s rigorous and methodical and deliberately used to help solve real-world problems. In fact, that’s been happening for a while now (see Johnson’s book); I’m delighted to have found myself in a position to be able to help make it formally recognized. It’s worth noting that when it comes to anecdotal evidence (like stories) versus factual evidence (like statistics), statistics are preferred when they reinforce one’s current beliefs but anecdotes work better than statistics when the message contradicts one’s current beliefs (Slater & Rouner 1996). As one would expect, the less analytic one is, the more one weights random comments and anecdotes (Lee & Jang 2010); one wonders if heavy fiction consumers are more likely to be highly analytic or not… To the extent that statistics are vastly more trustworthy than pre-selected anecdotes of dubious veracity, this is a very troubling observation: if there must be an interaction with one’s beliefs, the opposite would be much preferable! 16 See Yudkowsky, “Do We Believe Everything We’re Told?” Less Wrong 2008. 17 See Gilbert et al., “Unbelieving the Unbelievable: Some Problems in the Rejection of False Information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1990, as well as “You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read” 1993. 18 See Chapman & Johnson, “Incorporating the Irrelevant: 167

Anchors in Judgments of Belief and Value,” The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, 2000, as well as Meyvis & Janiszewski, “Consumers” Beliefs about Product Benefits: The Effect of Obviously Irrelevant Product Information,” Journal of Consumer Research 2002. 19 Fitzsimons & Shiv, “Nonconscious and Contaminative Effects of Hypothetical Questions on Subsequent Decision Making,” Journal of Consumer Research 2001. 20 Laham & Kashima, “Narratives and Goals: Narrative Structure Increases Goal Priming,” Social Psychology 2013. 21 Kramer et al., “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” PNAS 2014. 22 See Yudkowsky, “Priming and Contamination,” Less Wrong 2007. 23 Morewedge & Norton, “When Dreaming Is Believing: The (Motivated) Interpretation of Dreams,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2009. 24 Markus Appel, “Fictional Narratives Cultivate JustWorld Beliefs,” Journal of Communication 2008. 25 O’Guinn & Shrum, “The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality,” Journal of Consumer Research 1997. 26 Slater et al., “Television Dramas and Support for Controversial Public Policies: Effects and Mechanisms,” Journal of Communication 2006. 27 Jonathan Cohen, “Parasocial break-up from favorite

television characters: The role of attachment styles and relationship intensity,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 2004. 28 See Derrick et al., “Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 2009, as well as Bruni & Stanca, “Watching Alone: Relational Goods, Television, and Happiness” 2005. 29 La Ferrara et al., “Soap operas and fertility: Evidence from Brazil” 2008. 30 Kearney & Levine, “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 And Pregnant on Teen Childbearing” 2014. 31 Kaufman & Libby, “Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2012. 32 On the other hand, Switzerland is, adjusted for size, one of the most scientifically prolific countries in the world. 33 See Ramage, “Which universities lead and lag? Toward university rankings based on scholarly output” 2010. 34 Various disciplines have many papers and essays arguing that researchers deliberately inflate their paper counts to meet publishing requirements, pursue unproductive but publishable avenues, and are so lacking in rigor that many (or even most) results are wrong—so it would be difficult to offer any citations for such a broad claim. Mencius Moldbug has written a meandering & funny essay/blog post about what is wrong with the field of computer science (“What’s wrong with CS research,” Aug 1 2007), however, that conveys this general vein of 169

thought. Nor are papers/articles the only scholarly productions which have extremely small audiences; conferences and monographs do not draw very many participants. From “University Presses: Balancing Academic and Market Values,” (Mary M. Case, ARL: A Bimonthly Report August 1997): Since libraries are the main market for scholarly monographs, the decline in the number of books purchased triggered university presses to reduce print runs. While print-runs of 1,000 to 1,500 copies were standard ten years ago, presses are now confronting sales of 400500 copies. While sales do vary across disciplines and sub-disciplines, these low numbers hold true for even award-winning books in the less “popular” fields. “Reflections on University Press Publishing,” Bill Harnum: The numbers are hard to quantify, given the wide variety of subject areas involved, but a fair estimate would be that the average sale of a scholarly monograph has shrunk from 600-700 copies in the 1980s to 300-400 copies in 2007. This reduction in sales units has led some publishers to increase their number of titles published annually as a means of maintaining their revenues. The phrase, “Flat is the new up” seems to be in vogue, meaning that no sales increase from year to year is the equivalent of the increases we have seen in the past. Alex Reid, “On the value of academic blogging”: “In my experience, the average audience for a conference presentation is