Pretentiousness comes from modern art comes from Plato

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Ross James just posted a great essay, Annihilation — on Pretentiousness in Media. I feel like he’s saved me a blog post; I would’ve had to have written something similar eventually.

It’s on his Patreon site, but if I’m reading the tags right, it’s free to read. Some excerpts:

… if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’. … The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work. …

A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. [Analyzing?] Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.

In other words: If you’re spending more effort trying to figure out what the story said than you are re-evaluating your beliefs in light of what the story said, the story may be pretentious. If the story is difficult because the subject matter is difficult, that’s legit, but if it’s difficult because the author didn’t try to make it clear, or deliberately made it unclear, that’s pretentious.

(I’m okay with the spinning top in Inception, because the question left unanswered, as to whether the final world is real or not, is a question the characters are themselves asking. It’s not something you have to answer to interpret the story; it’s part of the story.)

James’ essay elaborates on this. He doesn’t, however, explain where this trend over the past century for “great” art to be pretentious came from. It’s actually deliberate.

Persian Flaws

There’s supposedly an old Persian tradition that every carpet made must have a deliberate flaw in it, because “only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah.”

Hopefully you see the flaw in the reasoning: If only Allah makes things perfectly, you don’t have to worry about creating something perfect. This alleged tradition has always struck me as tremendously arrogant–an artist supposing she or he could create a perfect work.

Modern (20th-century) art and literature suffers the same arrogance. We see this first in the great stress that modern artists and modernist writers placed on reminding the viewer or reader that their art was not reality, but just a picture of reality.

Caption: “This is not a pipe”

The most-common justification for this obsession was the idea that art was a tool of the bourgoisie, used to suppress the proletariat by showing them false images of reality. Creating revolutionary consciousness required first making people aware that the paintings they looked at weren’t actually real things, and that the novels they read weren’t true life stories. You can find examples of this argument in Bertolt Brecht’s director’s notes for The Threepenny Opera (1928), in Lennard Davis’ 1987 book Resisting Novels, and an especially paranoid lunatic version of it in Theodor Adorno’s 1944 “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

So many modernist writers add deliberate “flaws” to their works, disruptive elements to break the reader’s immersion and keep the reader detached and at a distance.  In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht broke up the play’s continuity and immersiveness by having actors intersperse narration with raised billboards, of the type that separated scenes in silent films, by using these billboards to break dramatic tension by telling the spectator what was going to happen, and by directing the actors to act in a manner meant to break the fourth wall. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up… Thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play,” he wrote. “The spectator must not be misled along the path of empathy.”

In other modernist literature, breaking the reader’s immersion is done by breaking up and re-arranging the story in ways that confuse the reader and destroy rather than heighten drama, such as the tedious circling about the actual story, bouncing back and forth between past and future, in Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, or the way David Mitchell split all his stories in two and inserted the pieces inside each other in his critically-acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004).  You would be hard-pressed to find a critically-acclaimed novel from the past 20 years that told a straightforward story using a traditional structure that was meant to heighten rather than dispel drama. Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard’s 1982 Living By Fiction, “Fiction in Bits”, is about this phenomenon, as is much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001).

One modernist technique for breaking immersion and creating distance is ambiguity.

Ambiguity

I’m not complaining about the kind of ambiguity where you can’t decide whether an artwork’s message is right or wrong, or the kind where the subject is difficult, or the kind where the subject is ambiguity itself. I mean ambiguity that is added to the story to obstruct your attempts to figure it out. That’s the kind of ambiguity Ross James is calling pretentious: ambiguity that makes you argue over what a work of art is trying to say, rather than about the thing it’s saying. The claim that this sort of ambiguity is good comes from modernist philosophy.

The informational content of a work of art, like the information in a sentence, comes more from how its parts are combined than from the meanings of the individual parts, e.g., “the dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog”.

But Modernism is based on ancient Platonist metaphysics, which claims that meaning exists only in the essences of individual things, not in how those things are combined. So modernists have difficulty conceiving of the information content of a representational work of art as being significant. They tend to think the significance of a representation is just the sum of the significances of the things represented. A representational work of art only shows you a collection of things you’ve seen before; therefore, it contains no new essences, and (they would argue) you can learn nothing from it.

This is why modernists imagine they could produce perfect art if they wanted to; they’re blind to the art part of a work of art, and see only the technique. They’re reverting to the medieval and ancient Greek conception of “art”, which meant about the same as our “craft” or “technical skill”. (You can read a post-modernist whining about how the Enlightenment led people to invent the artificial concept of “Art” in Larry Shiner’s 2001 The Invention of Art.)

To make a work challenging or interesting, dedicated modernists believe it must do one of these things:

– It must give us new views of essences.  This means either giving direct access to transcendental essences never perceived before, or depicting essences more truly than they have been depicted before.  Either option requires not using a realistic style. This is the primary purpose of modern art. You can find this spelled out in, for instance, various writings by Cubist painters circa ~1920, e.g. (Gleizes & Metzinger 1912 p. 195).  The description of cubism in ancient and primitive art in (Boas 1927 p. 351) gives the same explanation.

– It must use a new style or technique.

– The challenge can’t lie in the meaning of a work of art, but it can lie in the challenge of discovering that meaning. That is, art can’t lie in the interpretation of a work of art–an interpretation merely spells out what is being represented–but it can lie in the difficulty of discovering an interpretation. Nothing the artist has to say can be very interesting, but figuring out what the artist is saying–or producing your own meaning from a Rorschach-blot-like work of art–can be fun and interesting.

The Alleged Insufficiency of Language

Another theme of modern literature and philosophy is that language is incapable of communicating meaning, and actually serves to mislead people more than to enlighten them. You find this, for example, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which he said that “Language disguises […] thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.” You also find it in Derrida’s “infinite chain of deferral of meaning” (Derrida 1967). This belief comes not from any actual failure of language, but, again, from Platonist metaphysics, which says that meaning resides in a transcendent realm which words can never reach.

In modernist literature, this sometimes results in authors trying to prove that language can’t communicate meaning by writing stories which fail to communicate clearly.

William Faulkner is a good example. Just today I heard a lecturer (David Thorburn, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, lecture 21, “Faulkner’s World–Our Frantic Steeplechase”) say that one of Faulkner’s themes was “the treacherous limitations of language as an instrument for describing and understanding experience.”

But Faulkner never demonstrated this legitimately, by showing a failure of language. He deliberately obscured his meaning, for instance, by using phony stream-of-consciousness in which he imagines that the interior thoughts of a mentally subnormal person, or of a child, are simply the things that person or child might say out loud if asked about his thoughts. Or, in many instances in As I Lay Dying, by again using stream-of-consciousness dishonestly, having a character’s interior monologue not say things that the character already knew–always the most crucial elements in figuring out what that character was thinking about–to give the impression that true inner experience was incommunicable.

A survey of modernist literature would turn up more instances of stories written in a deliberately obscure style specifically to prove that language is incapable of communicating meaning. I’ve given at least one example in a previous blog post, but I don’t remember what it was right now.

Conclusion: Blame Plato

So ambiguity of interpretation–what Ross James calls “pretentiousness”–came to be seen as inherently good, because people can argue over the meaning of an ambiguous work of art, and because ambiguity “proves” that language can’t communicate meaning and that we need to find a transcendent source of meaning. It’s deliberately cultivated by modernists, as a consequence of their belief that representational content is unimportant and the real (physical) world is unimportant, as a consequence of their Platonist metaphysics.


Franz Boas, 1927. Primitive Art. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. Page numbers reported from Dover 1955 reprint.

Bertold Brecht, 1928, transl. Eric Bentley 1949, exigesis Eric Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. First performed in Berlin. New York: Grove Press.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Jacques Derrida, 1967, transl. 1976. Of Grammatology. Extracts in Leitch 2010 p. 1688-1697.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living By Fiction. NYC: Harper & Row.

Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, 1912. “Cubism.” In Harrison & Wood 1992, p. 187-196.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., 1992. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno 1944, transl. 2002. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford U. Press, 2002.

Vincent Leitch et al., eds. 2nd ed. 2010, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton.

B. R. Meyers, 2001. “A Reader’s Manifesto”. The Atlantic, July/Aug 2001.

Larry Shiner, 1990. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. U. of Chicago Press.

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Near and Far–Construal and Psychological Distance

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Near and Far

A current area of research in psychology called “construal-level theory” (CLT) is—I promise—relevant to literature.  It talks about a very general phenomenon called “psychological distance”.  In popular accounts, it’s called the “near / far” distinction.  Robin Hanson summarized it on Overcoming Bias.  The more-detailed review (Trope & Liberman 2010) calls these things Near and Far:

Abstraction and idealism appear to make up the dominant dimension:  Far things are more abstract and more idealized.  Distance seems to me peripheral; only near / far in space and in time relate to distance [1].

CLT claims that:

  1. Every object of thought has many different attributes (rows of the table) which distance can be a metaphor for.  Distance itself, of course; and distance in time is similar.  More metaphorical distances include level of familiarity (familiar = near, strange = far) and abstraction (detailed = near, abstract = far).  The distance metaphor has even been stretched to include color (red = near, blue = far) and transactional direction (buy = near, sell = far), though I’m not convinced.
  2. In all [2] experiments reported in (Trope & Liberman 2010), being shown anything from the Near column of the Near / Far table makes people think in Near terms for every other row of the table. Similarly for things from the Far column. For example, subjects asked to mark points far away from each other on a graph, and then asked how close they were to their family, reported being “farther away” socially from their families than subjects who were asked to mark points that were close together on the graph (Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 443).  Many experiments used a Stroop-effect task to show interference (longer reaction time) when the priming attribute was near (far) and the tested attribute was far (near).
  3. Therefore, near / far is, or can be regarded as, a single mode of human thought.  Perceptions of nearness of one attribute are not merely correlated with perceptions of nearness of other object attributes; they cause other attributes to be perceived as near, or to be approached or thought about (construed) in the manner one would if they were near.  Near / far is thus a mode of human thought, and while a person can be in a mode between near and far, a person cannot perceive some attributes of a mental object in far mode, while simultaneously perceiving other attributes or other mental objects in near mode.

Near and Far in Art & Culture

I claim, additionally, that Near and Far characterize not just how individuals think at a given moment, but characterize artistic movements, literary genres, and entire cultures.  These works, artists, genres, and cultures can be classed as usually endorsing or displaying either Near or Far values:

Far: The AeneidBeowulf, Chaucer’s Troilus and CriseydePilgrim’s Progress; John Milton; heroic fantasy, superhero comics; Christianity, Nazism

Near: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler; realist and naturalist novels, hard-boiled detective fiction; empirical science

The history of European art, science, and culture from 1300 up until 1900 was, excepting the 18th century, one of moving gradually from Far to Near mode.  The first-person POV in fictional narrative was (I think) an invention of the 18th century, and the 20th-century dictums “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are both commands to write in near rather than far mode.

The novel that began Modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is all about confusing the Near and the Far.  It takes a narrative that is very, very Far—an Archaic Greek epic poem about an idealized, overconfident, noble hero—and superimposes it on a protagonist who is very Near—an irreligious Irish Jew whose mundane, pathetic, and comical inner thoughts and bodily functions are described in more detail than anyone had ever described any character’s before.

Near and Far will be important concepts in understanding the history of art and culture.  They are so important that they were discovered independently several times before.

Using Near and Far in Writing

Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which I think is pretty awful.  She tried to pin down what made something fantasy rather than ordinary fiction with dragons and swords, and she started out right—

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

The phrase “get in touch with reality“, used to talk about something that is definitively unreal, is instantly diagnostic of philosophical realism, also called Idealism.  That’s the belief that reality isn’t real, but instead some fantasy world of yours, an imagined ideal world such as Plato’s cave, is real.  Plato, Jesus, Hegel, and Heidegger are probably the most-famous Idealists.

Idealism is indeed the basis of classic heroic fantasy, although now, in the age of democracy, we’ve got hobbits as heroes.  Idealism seems to mean nearly the same thing as Far mode.

However, she goes on to say…

What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style.

Not heroism, idealistic principles, or karma in the world, as Tolkien would have said.  No; LeGuin says true fantasy is anything written in a genuine phony archaic style.

I think style is certainly not the causative or definitive feature we want to find, but it is not as useless a conclusion as it first appeared to me. For a style specifies how one approaches the objects one writes about.  Does one describe them concretely or abstractly? Does one focus on the physical details, or on purposes and meanings? Does the wording create distance or intimacy?  All the choices presented in the “Near / Far” table could be called stylistic.  A style, then, positions a text on the Near / Far continuum.

Knowing what is Near and what is Far will therefore help you keep your style more psychologically plausible, by not mixing Near and Far stylistic elements.

(Trope & Liberman 2010) mentioned some research on Near vs. Far style.  Here “dispositional” means saying someone did something because of their character, versus “situational”, which means saying someone did something because of the situation they were in.

It has been shown, for example, that personal memories of behaviors that were recalled from a third-person perspective (e.g., “try to remember your first day at school, as if you are now watching the kid you were”) rather than from a first-person perspective (“try to remember your first day at school, as if you are a kid again”) tended to use dispositional (as opposed to situational) terms (Frank & Gilovich, 1989; Nigro & Neisser, 1983). In a similar vein, Libby and Eibach (2002, Study 4) found that imagining performing an activity (e.g., rock climbing, playing drums) from a third-person perspective produced less vivid and rich reports of the activity than imagining the same activity from a first-person perspective. In terms of CLT, this means that a third-person perspective, which imposes more distance than a first-person perspective, induces a higher level of construal. Indeed, Pronin and Ross (2006) showed that taking a third person perspective rather a first-person perspective on one’s own behavior promoted attribution of the behavior to personality traits rather than to specific situational factors.  — Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 447-8

All this means that your choice of first or third person point of view should take into account the construal mode you want to invoke in your reader.  If you want to work in high fantasy, and have your reader concerned with romantic ideals and to see codes of ethics as absolute and inviolable, you should write in third person.  If you want to confront your reader with unpleasant or messy truths and shake them out of dogmatic complacency, or bring them into close empathy with a unique individual, first-person would do better. This is why Tolkien and LeGuin’s fantasies are in third person, while Glen Cook’s Black Company and Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, both subversions of heroic fantasy, are in first person. It’s also why Raymond Chandler’s gritty, cynical detective novels are in first person.

These are not absolutes. Third person is extremely flexible.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is in a third person that is so close-in to the protagonist that it might as well be first-person. Hemingway’s third person is so objective and concrete, and carefully stripped of Far-mode subjective judgments and abstractions, that it probably puts the reader in Near mode rather than Far.


[1] Even many of the experiments that attempted to measure distance also measured familiarity and abstraction, as they contrasted  a nearby, well known place with a distant, unknown place which the subjects could only envision abstractly.  So we should really call this the concrete / abstract dimension.  But near / far is a more concrete way of describing it.

[2] Trope & Liberman report on about 100 experiments, and in every case the results agreed with the predictions. This is literally too good to be true.  Either the authors, the journals, or the reviewers consistently filtered out all adverse results.  One important study has been retracted for being fraudulent.


References

Yaacov Trope & Nira Liberman, 2010. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological DistancePsychological Review117(2): 440 – 463.

On Writing Comedy

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I recently wrote a short story for a writer’s workshop I’m in that was meant to be funny, and that I’m told was, in fact, funny.  The thing is, it didn’t make me laugh.  I don’t think I smiled while writing it.  What was in my head while writing it was a series of calculations along the lines of “HUMANS WILL LAUGH AT THIS WITH PROBABILITY 0.57.”

Partly I felt the story didn’t have enough funny lines–look at a page from Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and you’ll see nearly every paragraph is funny.  Partly I didn’t like the flow / pacing / transitions between topics / lack of story structure.

There are some lines I think I would have laughed at if someone else had written them, but plenty that I don’t know if I would have ever found funny.  I was definitely not consciously writing for myself.

It was a rushed job.  I still find myself not knowing whether it’s not funny, funny but not my thing, funny and my thing but I can’t laugh at it because I wrote it, or funny and my thing but I’m suppressing that knowledge.

But that’s usually how I feel when writing comedy.  Even if something is funny at first, it stops being funny after I’ve read it 10 times.  A stand-up comedian isn’t laughing at his own material; he’s laughing at the game he’s playing with the audience.  Writing comedy is like taping a stand-up comedy routine with no audience.

I felt a little better about this when one of the speakers at the 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conference said that writing comedy was so hard because, unlike all other kinds of writing, you can’t tell from your feelings whether your comedy is any good.  Comedy shows are written in a “writer’s room,” a big room with a round table and several comedy writers throwing lines and ideas at each other.  This speaker said he had never been in a writer’s room for a comedy show where the writers were laughing.

If you write something sad, you know it’s sad if it makes you cry [1].  If you write something uplifting, it makes you feel good.  But comedy relies on surprise, and you’re not surprised after the first moment a joke occurs to you, and the joke isn’t quite right the first moment it occurs to you.  The wording is wrong, the context is wrong, and you have to fiddle with it until it can sound funny, and by then it doesn’t surprise you anymore.

Postscript:

Maybe dividing our feelings into neat categories–comedy, tragedy, romance–is a modern thing.  The separation of reason into the rational and the emotional is a thing that happened at least twice in history, first in Plato, then again in the 18th century.  The Elizabethans, like Shakespeare and the “metaphysical poets” like John Donne, united rationality and feeling in their writing.  The phrase “metaphysical poet” almost means “a poet who uses a precise, scientific metaphor to convey passionate feelings”, as in Donne’s Valediction.

This includes comedy.  Shakespeare wrote a bunch of “problem plays” which people don’t know how to deal with now, because they aren’t strictly comedy or drama.  A few years ago I wrote on this blog that Shakespeare used cheap alternations between the comic and tragic, but that’s not always right.  The gravedigger/Yorick scene in Hamlet, or maybe some scenes with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, are funny, but in an almost cruel or ironic way that we don’t write humor anymore, a way that you might need to be less “Enlightened” to appreciate.


[1]  Not me, of course.  Super villains never cry.  That’s just eye-venom leaking out.

The Principal Dimensions of English

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I want to talk about the principal dimensions of theories of art, but to do that, I must explain what I mean by “principal dimensions”. Besides, you should learn this stuff anyway.

How to Recommend Stories if you’re a computer

Suppose you want to decide, after reading the first thousand words of a story on your kindle, whether to recommend that Bob read it. Also suppose you’re a computer, so you must summarize the story in numbers. You can list some numbers for each story: its number of words, if it’s a series whether it’s complete (1) or incomplete (0), whether it listed in the romance genre, the action/adventure genre, etc., how good the style is on a scale from 0 to 10, and how often the words “kiss”, “snuggle”, “sesquipedalian”, and “bloody” appear.

You end up with tens of thousands of numbers about the story. What do you do with them?

First, you make up terminology. Let N  be the number of numbers (say, 23724). Call each of the things being counted a “dimension”, and the whole set of N numbers a “point” in “N-dimensional space”. (Don’t worry that you can’t picture N-dimensional space. Nobody can.)

Next, you need to get similar sets of N numbers for a bunch of other stories. Then, you need to know which of those stories Bob likes. Then, you recommend Bob read the story if its values for those numbers are similar to those for the stories Bob likes.

But you might only know 100 stories that Bob likes. Hardly enough to determine exactly how he feels about the word “sesquipedalian”.

What you could do is look at the other stories, and group counted things together that seem to go together most of the time. So, you might notice stories that use the word “snuggle” a lot also use “kiss” more than the others, but use “wart” and “angst” less often. So you make a single new, fake dimension, which for the benefit of any humans reading this I will call Kissiness, like this:

Kissiness = 30*Romance – 10*Dark + 3*count(kiss) + 3*count(cuddle) + count(close) + count(smooth) … – count(angst) – 2*count(wart)

You make some other fake dimensions that group together words that seem more or less likely to be found together:

Sexiness = 30*Sex + 10*Mature – 300*Everyone + count(grope) + count(hard) + count(soft) + 3*count(erect) + …

Violence = 10*Gore + 5*Mature + 3*count(bloody) + 5*count(battle) + count(hard) – count(soft) – count(fuzzy)

Second_Person = 10*count(you) + 5*count(your) – 10*count(I)

Superheroics = 5*count(power) + 2*count(mighty) + 3*count(evil) + count(cape) + 3*count(costume) + 2*count(mask)

Obscenity = count(@$!) + 5*count(@#$@#$) – count(fudge) – count(hay)

Bigwordiness = count(assiduous) + count(voracious) + count(punctilious) + …

(I’ve listed several words each, but more realistically there would be hundreds making up each fake dimension.)

Then you can build categories using just the fake dimensions.  In fact, I think this is very similar to what your brain does for you.

Principle Component Analysis (PCA)

There’s a signal processing technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) which is one of the Deep Insights into Everything that philosophy students should study instead of Plato’s forms. It does all this for you automatically, optimally, for any category of things described by points in an N-dimensional space. It looks at a whole bunch of such things, then figures out the one single best fake dimension that gives the data the widest spread [0]. Then it removes that dimension from the data, and does the same thing again, figuring out the second-best summary dimension. Do that 10 times, and you get 10 summary dimensions. Compute the values along those 10 dimensions for all the points in your N-dimensional space, throw away the original points, and you’ll still have most of the information that was in the original N dimensions. [1]

Then, predict that the probability that Bob will like a story is the probability that he likes other stories near it in 10-space.

This is the technique that won over all other approaches in the $1,000,000 Netflix contest, which was probably the biggest experiment in predicting ratings ever. The key innovation in the contest was using a fast way to approximate PCA [2]–a way which, incidentally, can be done by neurons.

Plus, once you’ve got the things you’re dealing with down to 10 dimensions or so, you can use logic or computation on them. You can have complex rules like, “If each line of the story has a similar repeated pattern of stresses, it’s probably poetry” if your analysis has discovered dimensions corresponding to “trochee” and “spondee” [3]. (Which it might, if your training stories had a lot of poetry in them.)

A lot of what cultures do, and what your brain does, is basically PCA followed by categorization and then thinking with those categories. All this crazy high-dimensional stuff happens, and people try to come up with concepts to simplify and explain it. The intermediate-level concepts produced, like “pretty”, “harmonious”, and “cruel”, are not real things. They are fake summary dimensions, each a sum (or function) of lots of real dimensions, that capture a lot of the differences between real things.

Then people build more concepts out of that smaller number of intermediate concepts. Because there are fewer of them, they can use more-powerful ways to combine them, like logical rules or lambda functions, to say whether something is “just”, “virtuous”, “beautiful”, or “sublime”. [4]]

Finding Data Points in the Real World

If you don’t have the N-dimensional data for all your objects, don’t worry. You don’t need it. If you can take any 2 objects and say how similar or different they are, or even just whether they’re similar or different, you can jump straight to the lower-dimensional space that PCA would produce. Call it M-dimensional space, M << N. Here’s how:

Compare a bunch of object pairs.  Say for instance difference(kind, compassionate) = 1, difference(kind, hurtful) = 6. Then use the differences between them as distances in a low-dimensional space. Start each of the objects at a random point in M-dimensional space (a popular choice is to distribute them on the surface of an M-1 dimensional sphere around the origin), then repeatedly push pairs apart if they’re too close, and pull them nearer each other if they’re too far (keeping them on the surface of that sphere if you’re doing it that way), until most pairs are about as far apart in your M-dimensional space as the distance says they should be.

(How do you choose M? You make it up. Everything left over gets mashed together in the Mth dimension, so if you want 10 meaningful dimensions, set M = 11.)

The principal dimensions of English

In fact, we can just do this with the English language, using lists of synonyms and antonyms, and see what our M summary dimensions are. In fact, somebody already did. Given some reasonable assumptions and one particular thesaurus, the 10 most-important dimensions of the English language are, roughly:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open/free vs. finish/close/constrain

4.  Peripheral vs. central

5.  Essential vs. extra

6. Pull vs. push (sort of)

7. Above vs. below

8. Old vs. young

9. Normal vs. strange

10. Specific vs. general

I call these the principal dimensions. If we were doing PCA, we’d call them the principal components. Same thing. [5]

By contrast, if you do the same thing for French with a French thesaurus, these are the first 3 dimensions:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open vs. finish/close

Whoops! Did I say by contrast? They’re the same. Because the dimensions that fall out of this analysis aren’t accidents of language. Languages develop to express how humans think. And that’s how humans think, at least Western Europeans. [6, 7, 8]

…but you said this had something to do with art

Here’s how all this is relevant to art: I want to claim I’ve discovered the first principal dimension of theories of art. I’m going to show (hopefully) that the position of different cultures on this dimension predicts something important about what type of art they value. But you need to understand what I mean by their position on this dimension, and what I mean by a type of art.

A type of art is like a mental disease. You diagnose it by noting that it contains, say, any 5 out of a list of 12 symptoms. The art type, or disease type, is a category. Its “symptoms” are measurements on summary (principal) dimensions. The actual data for a culture are going to be things like the degree to which power and wealth are centralized, the level of external threats, the heterogeneity of social roles, and the education level. [9] The principal dimension I’m going to talk about is not a real thing-in-the-world, though it is real. It’s determined by a statistical correlation between actual things in the world.


[0] Technically, the largest variance.

[1] There are many ways of doing PCA, and many related dimension-reduction techniques like “non-linear PCA” and factor analysis. Backpropagation neural networks are doing non-orthogonal PCA, though this wasn’t realized for many years after their invention.

[2] Except that they didn’t technically do PCA because they didn’t have the N-dimensional points. They assumed that each movie was described by an N-dimensional point, and that each user had an N-dimensional preference vector saying how much he liked high values on each dimension, and that their ratings were the dot products of these two vectors. Then they used singular value decomposition (SVD) to construct low-dimensional approximations to both kinds of vectors. So they ended up with the low-dimensional points without ever knowing the “real” original N-dimensional points. If anyone understands how to do this with PCA, please tell me.

[3] If all you want to do is recommend stories to Bob, it turns out it isn’t helpful for a computer program to construct the final genre categories.  It’s already got the point in N-space for a story; saying which genre that point lies within just throws away information. Just do your PCA and predict whether Bob likes that point in N-space. (Reference: The Netflix contest winners and losers.) But if you want to use logic to reason about genres (say, what themes are common in which genres), then you’ll have to categorize them.

[4] Many of the supposed proofs that meaning cannot be compositional (compositional: a term can be defined without reference to the entire dictionary) stem from the fact that philosophers don’t understand that first-order logic is strictly weaker than a Turing machine (lambda functions). “Logic” is a weak form of reason compared to computation.

[5] The fact that you can reconstruct these dimensions, and will get the same answer every time even with significant changes in the data, refutes the cornerstone of post-modern philosophy, which is that scientific theories, social structures, and especially language, are underdetermined by the world. That is, they claim that any one of an approximately infinite number of other ways of doing things, or categorizing things, or thinking about things, would work equally well, and the real world underlying the things we say can never be known. But in fact, casual experimentation proves that language is astronomically overdetermined. (The number of constraints we get from how linguistic terms relate to each other and to sense data is much larger than the number of degrees of freedom in the system.)

[6] Contrary to what Ferdinand de Saussure said, and post-modern philosophers after him assented to, thought came first, language, second. We can excuse him for making this mistake, because he was writing before Darwin’s theories were well-known, except oops no he wasn’t.

[7] Some “synonyms” are words that are opposite on one dimension, and the same on all the others, allowing people to invert a particular dimension. Examples: challenge / obstacle, abundant / gratuitous (differ on good/bad), tug / yank (on easy/hard, funny / peculiar (on normal/strange).

[8] If you feed the algorithm radically different data, you’ll come up with different dimensions after the first few dimensions, as I suppose they did for French in that study.

So what happens if two people had different life experiences, and their brains came up with different principal dimensions?

It turns out we have a word for this, an old word that predates the math needed to understand it this way: we say they have different paradigms. They classify things in the world using a different set of dimensions. When they think about things, they come up with different answers. When they talk to each other, they each think the other is stupid. This is why political debates rarely change anyone’s mind; the people on opposite sites literally cannot understand each other. Their brains automatically compress their opponents’ statements into dimensions in which the distinctions they’re making are lost.

This is, I think, the correct interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s observation that scientists using different paradigms can’t seem to communicate with each other.  It doesn’t mean that the choice of paradigm is arbitrary. Different paradigms are better at making distinctions in different data sets. Someone who’s grown up with one data set can’t easily switch to a different one; she would have to re-learn everything. But, given agreement on what the data to explain is, paradigms can be compared objectively.

[9] Yes, it turns out I’m a literary Marxist. Sorry.

Writer’s Block

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What I mean by “writer’s block” is when someone stares at the paper / screen & can’t think of what happens next.  This should never happen.

If you’re ever reduced down to just one interesting thing that could happen next, it means you’ve written your story onto train tracks, and your story is now boring, because only one interesting thing could happen next.

If you’re down to zero interesting things, that means you didn’t stop when you had just one interesting thing.  You need to back up at least to the last point where you had to choose between two interesting things that could happen next, because everything after that point is no good.

But even focusing on what happens next is weird.  Why are you staring at the last word on your page?  What about the setting of scene two–should it move to a different location to symbolize progress from scene one?  Is the level of omniscience you gave character A in scene 3 inconsistent with her puzzlement in scene 1?  If your story isn’t finished and you don’t still have a dozen different issues to reconsider, something has gone wrong.  Either your story is too simple, or you’re an incomparable genius, or you’re not being demanding enough.  Stories don’t drip out of the pen in an ordered, final state.  It just can’t happen that you’re stuck on the last word you wrote, yet have no questions about anything that came before or will come after it.  There should always be problems throughout the story all shouting for your attention.  The particular point in the story where you last stopped writing should not be so prominent in your mind.

Why are you writing the story from start to finish?  Seriously–why would anybody do that?  Do you not know how it’s going to end?  That means you’re not writing a story, because you don’t yet have a story idea.  A scenario is not a story.  If you don’t know which direction to go in because you don’t know where you’re going, I don’t think we should dignify that with the term “writer’s block”, as if it were an aberration rather than exactly what you’d expect to happen.

The normal state of writing is not staring at the last word on the paper and wondering what could happen next, but thinking about the entire story, the entire set of possible stories, characters, and events you considered while writing it, and choosing where to strike next, what to change, and which alternative to use, to hammer the thing into one unified story.  The normal state is to have too many possibilities, not too few.

If I have a dozen scenes that need to take place then I should be able to work on them in any order.  I could have written scenes 2, 6, and 1, in that order, because those are the longest scenes, (and it’s easier to start with scenes that have some meat to them.)  Even then I might have a lot of issues up in the air:  How much should Character A know about what’s going on?  How much humor do I get from her being oblivious versus being sweetly nefarious?  Same question for Character B.  Should Character C appear in the scene related to her interests, or should Character B stand in for her?  Have I got too many people in scene 1?  I have a weak transition marked in the middle of scene 1, around a joke that doesn’t really work.  Can I punch it up and make it funnier, or rip it out?  Can I substitute a similar joke?  Can I delete the entire opening and so not need that transition?  Is scene 6 too long — it should be picking up steam as we head into the final scene, not dragging out its joke.  Etc.

My point is that even though this hypothetical story is a very short one, I could easily reel off twenty issues in the first 2,000 words demanding my attention.  Issues that any story is going to have and any writer should be thinking about.  If I were stuck, I’d start working on these 20 issues, and I guarantee that at least one of them would open up a path forward where I was stuck.  To get writer’s block, first I’d have to resolve all these issues to my satisfaction, and that never happens.

There are always dozens of issues that could go another way in a story, even when it’s “done”.  If you’re staring at the screen and don’t have even one issue demanding your attention, something went badly wrong long before you got to that point.

Most likely, the problem is either

(A) you don’t know how the story ends, or

(B) you’ve eliminated tension by closing off too many possibilities earlier in the story, or

(C) you haven’t got enough awareness of craft, technical issues, and how life works to detect the problems in what you’ve already written, and to focus your attention on what the unwritten sections of the story need to accomplish and to avoid.

Brooks & Warren, The Scope of Fiction

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Remember when I plugged one of Brooks & Warren’s books about what stories do & how they work, Understanding Fiction?

Last week I discovered they published a condensed version in 1960 called The Scope of Fiction.  This is based on the 2nd (1959) edition of Understanding Fiction.  The chapter list below has stars next to the ones included in The Scope of Fiction.  Each chapter has about 2/3 of the stories given in that chapter in the bigger book.  It includes the opening commentary for each chapter, which are all slightly different than in the 3rd edition.

   1. Intentions & elements of fiction

* 2. What plot reveals

* 3. What character reveals

* 4. What theme reveals

5. The new fiction (metafiction)

6. Fiction & human experience (writers write about how they developed their stories)

7. Stories for reading (great stories without comments)

IMHO the only important stuff missing from The Scope of Fiction is chapters 1 & 6.  Chapter 1 is more basic than 2-4, so you can probably do without that, too.  Chapter 6 was in the 2nd but not the 1st edition, which had “Special Problems” and “Technical Problems & Principles in the Composition of Fiction” instead.

Best of all, right now Amazon has 34 used copies for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping!  There are also 37 copies of the full Understanding Fiction, 3rd edition for $3.70 right now.

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 3: Sub-genres, conclusions

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(continued from part 1 & part 2)

The Sub-Genres of Mystery

Notice now that the only examples that don’t fit A, B, C, or D are Stephanie Plum, the cozy mysteries, and the two cross-cultural mystery series by Tony Hillerman and Alexander McCall Smith. At this point I’ll pause and divide mysteries into sub-genres. These sub-genres may have different core narratives, or we may see the same narrative components appear in different ways in the different sub-genres, or be inverted. I stole the attributes of the first 2 from The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which stole them from T.J. Binyon’s Murder Will Out: The detective in fiction:

– The genteel private detective, e.g., Sherlock Holmes:

– Detective is hired to solve a crime

– There are a limited number of known suspects

– The police are honest

– There may or may not be one or more violent scenes

– There is no sex

– First-person POV of the Watson

– The hard-boiled private eye:

– Always in a big city

– Hired to investigate something relatively trivial, which unravels the web of a major crime

– The web of suspects grows over time; everything is connected to something else

– The police are corrupt

– There is constant violence throughout the story

– Sex is omnipresent, but the hero abstains from it

– Lots of alcohol

– First-person POV of the PI

– Cross-cultural mysteries

– May be rural or urban

– Detective (or team) may be a cop

– Detective/team and the crime both span two cultures, one of which is dominant

– The mystery requires respect for the less-dominant culture to solve

– Third-person interior POV

– Romance mysteries

– I’m only familiar with Stephanie Plum

– Many “romance novels” are mysteries, like Key of Light by Nora Roberts

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Cozy mysteries:

– Female hobbyist crime-solver

– Commonly involve cats, cooking, tea, sewing

– No violence except perhaps for the crime

– Solving the crime requires talking to lots of people

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Solvable mysteries:

– Solvable mysteries follow rules of fairness so that the reader has a good chance of solving the mystery before the detective reveals its solution

– I haven’t thought of any famous examples of these! Interesting.

Conclusions

I will ignore romance and cozy mysteries from here on. In light of the literary insignificance of solvable mysteries, I will draw my first conclusion:

1. The purpose of mysteries is not to give the reader a chance to solve the mystery.

I have a very small sample of cross-cultural mysteries, but I notice they don’t include any magical detectives. What is it with these magical detectives?

I think they’re a variant of “Book smarts, but no street smarts” (BS-no-SS). Call it “High IQ, low social/emotional intelligence” (Hi-IQ/low-EQ). The detectives are (allegedly) brilliant logicians, yet they’re single, have at most one friend, and are seldom financially successful.

I think Hi-IQ/low-EQ will come from the same angle as BS-no-SS: told to reassure an insecure audience that their lack of some ability is unimportant, and maybe even a virtue. I’ll draw another conclusion:

2. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that human relationships and human society cannot be analyzed logically.

The mystery narrative tries to deal with the evident fact that scientific analysis produces much knowledge that makes us intensely uncomfortable by making a “separate magisteria” rebuttal: The detective can use scientific analysis to solve crime, but not to solve his own life problems.

If we think about superhero stories as offshoots of detective stories, the core narrative for them becomes: Human relationship problems can’t be solved with force.

I originally argued for the possible alternative

2b. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that neither logic nor feelings is sufficient by itself to deal with all of life.

This casts the story as the kind of dialectical, tension-filled structure that literary critics (not just post-modern ones) are fond of. We can certainly view (2) as (2b). But it feels dishonest to me. All it does is take the statement in (2) and add the statement “Logical analysis is good for solving crimes”, which is neither controversial nor interesting, to come up with a phony claim to be a dialectic. The only claim of interest is that logic is not helpful in everyday life.

Why magic instead of logic? The simplest theory is that writing logic is hard, and writing magic is easy. I’m not satisfied with this theory, because some of our detectives don’t just use unrealistic logic, they’re often downright idiotic. Their stupidity and trust in luck strikes me as too excessive to be accidental. (It may be literally accidental from the point of view of the writer; it could easily happen that a thousand writers write mysteries, and the detectives that become famous all have some crucial property, which the writers each wrote by accident. But that crucial property, while an accident of the writer, has an effect that is not “accidental”; it is consistent across stories. That’s what I expect to find in a core narrative: a structure that has evolved by random story creation and reader selection.)

Here’s another theory: If the detective were merely super-humanly smart, he might apply his logic to his personal problems and solve them. If he’s magical, intuitive, or lucky, there’s no obvious way for him to make his magic or intuition apply to his own problems. (The magician who can do magic only for others feels like it ought to be a trope, though no examples come to mind.)

This would make the use of magic the kind of straw-manning you’d find in BS-no-SS. Fitting mysteries to the same pattern would be nicely parsimonious. But I’m not happy with this theory either, because very smart people often are socially stupid and have screwed-up lives. There’s no need to fake it.

Here’s my favorite theory at this moment: You don’t want a clever reader to think he’s as smart as the detective! If the reader identifies with the detective, the Hi-EQ/low-EQ narrative would make the reader anxious instead of reassuring him. Therefore,

3. The genteel or hard-boiled detective is a misfit and a magical being in order to distance the detective from the reader, to avoid frightening the reader with the loneliness of the detective.

However, Poe spelled out his reason for making Dupin irrational in a long introductory essay to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and that wasn’t it. It was worse: He didn’t want to endorse logic at all! The whole story was a deliberate attack on science. (I didn’t realize this until after writing the first draft of this post, because the essay was cut from the condensed version of “Rue Morgue” that I had.)

That first essay contrasted chess with whist. A second essay in “The Purloined Letter”, given by Dupin rather than by the narrator, said the same thing, only instead contrasting math with poetry. In it, Poe tried to re-purpose both the words “abstract” and “analysis”, to exclude mathematics and to include… poetry. It sounds preposterous, but he was quite explicit about it, and at great length.

Poe attacked chess and mathematics as developing abstract skills that are useless for everyday life. It’s a bit confused, since he used the word “abstract” to mean what we would call the real and concrete, and called real life “abstract” as opposed to mathematics. He considered logic to be a system that could be applied to either kind of entity, and said it was useful for life only when applied to “abstract” (concrete) entities. This implies deep misunderstandings of both mathematics and logic. Yet his conclusion, that logic can in some way apply to all of life, is closer to truth than is the standard narrative of artists, which assumes that ordinary life cannot be represented in mathematics. In its particulars Poe’s position is most similar to Aristotle’s, which was that numbers are all well and good if you want to build a boat, but they aren’t logic.

A small excerpt from Poe’s second essay:

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”

“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”

… “The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra…. I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly [concretely] logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra are abstract [concretely applicable] or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability—as the world indeed imagines them to be…. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.

Edgar Allan Poe. Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Kindle Locations 6981-7013).

The Sherlockian narrative is a Hegelian dialectic between common sense and scientific thought, claiming neither mode is strictly superior. Poe was instead saying that poetic thought is strictly superior!

Poe’s mystery, written in 1841, tries to deny that quantitative analysis is analysis, or that it produces anything useful. Poe meant his Dupin stories as a last-ditch defense of conventional thought against mathematics and the scientific method, using instead psychological analysis and intuition. I did not expect this, since he published another mystery at the same time, “The Gold Bug”, which was largely mathematical.

Greg Sevik’s article “Enlightenment, counter-enlightenment– detection, reason, genius in tales of Poe+Doyle” (Clues v31n2) says that many critics have recently caught on to this anti-rational undercurrent in mysteries, but he doesn’t say that the genre is against reason.  He says the detective is a dialectic between the enlightenment and romanticism. The police represent the sterile “enlightenment” machine (e.g., the police in “The Purloined Letter”, who follow their logical procedures and fail). The police are merely rational; the detective uses reason dusted with his own mystic powers, to prove that reason must be guided by intuition or spirit.

To me, though, horse of the Enlightenment, saying reason must be guided by spirit is like saying it must be guided by the Church, which I would call being against reason. So Sevik’s article, which he framed to sound like the mystery is very even-handed about it, is to me even more anti-rational than just saying reason can’t solve your personal problems.

Anyway. Father Brown, Doctor Who, and Daneel Olivaw seem to belong in the genteel detective camp, but none of them fit the complete pattern. The Doctor is generally happy, and Daneel’s crime-solving ability can in no way be interpreted as the cause of his being a robot. Father Brown is also cheerful, and though he may be a “misfit” in society at large, he fits within the Catholic church far better than anyone can fit into modern society.

The keys to the Doctor must be those ways he diverges from the pattern: his lack of Sherlockian angst, the magical way the universe’s coincidences accommodate his lack of planning (rather than disrupting his plans, as it does most protagonists), his God-like status as protector of humanity and the universe, and most especially his embracing of conventional morality and virtue ethics over reason (unlike the other detectives!). Like a traditional detective, he holds up our culture for inspection. (This is why he spends so much of his time on Earth, rather than exploring new worlds, as is more common in science fiction.) But he doesn’t represent the logical, as Sherlock does. He represents the authors’, and the audience’s, ideal, the supra-logical God who has the right to judge humanity. He’s a Christianized Sherlock Holmes. He still functions to reassure us that our foolishness is wisdom. Not by contrast with it, but as the Platonic ideal of it, the wise fool who always wins.

That’s my theory today, anyway.

My memory of R. Daneel Olivaw is dim, but those stories certainly weren’t meant to reassure us about conventional morality. Humans were inferior to robots physically, intellectually, and morally. I think that Asimov was inverting the mystery narrative to fit it to the science fiction narrative: Knowledge is not bad, but good for us. The traditional mystery says logic and humanity are opposed, presumably because humanity is spiritual. Asimov’s stories say logic and humanity are opposed, because humans are stupid. Robots are more logical and as a consequence more spiritually developed.

Getting back for a moment to observations on the full set of genteel, hard-boiled, and cultural mysteries:

E. Mysteries comment on society

Most mystery stories include commentaries on society. Sherlockian detectives often reach their conclusions not by reasoning about the particular criminal they’re pursuing, but by applying a broad cognitive or cultural observation to the criminal.

– The solution to “The Purloined Letter” is that people won’t think of looking for something hidden in plain view.

– In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Holmes deduces that Irene Adler has hidden the letter in her own home partly because “women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting.”

– In “The Copper Beeches”, Holmes critiques country life: “It is my belief, Watson founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.”

– Father Brown mysteries sometimes hinge on dispelling the idea that a secular worldview is more logical than the Catholic one. The Father detects the thief in the very first Father Brown story (“The Blue Cross”) because the thief poses as a priest, and dismisses rationality as he imagines a priest might. Father Brown’s response is, “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

– Spade and Marlowe continually meditate on the corruption of society.

– Hillerman’s novels repeatedly contrast modern American and Navajo society.

Hillerman’s and McCall Smith’s books are in third person interior, and reveal the thoughts of the detectives as they proceed. I predict these cross-cultural books represent some variation on the pattern. In the standard detective novel, we have two worldviews: the conventional worldview, and the world of the detective. I expect that in the cultural mystery, the two worldviews are those of the two cultures coming into conflict, and the detective has one foot in each. The detective then doesn’t need to be especially odd, nor to stand outside both cultures.

In both cases, Sherlockian and cross-cultural, one of the worldviews is that of the reader. (Even in the South African mysteries, the dominant culture, while it diverged from Europe in the 19th century, is recognizably European.) I take it that the reader’s culture is the point of contact with the reader.

Putting all of the above together, I conclude that

4. A mystery scrutinizes the reader’s culture from the outside.

I’ll break the rest of my conclusions into 2 parts: detective mysteries, and cross-cultural stories.  (Remember my dataset for detective mysteries is all stories where there’s a single detective. Buddy-cop TV shows, forensic shows, procedurals, aren’t represented.)

Detective mysteries

Westerns also have an outsider who comes to town and “critiques” it, usually with lead. Hard-boiled detective novels differ from genteel detective novels, and resemble westerns, in their constant violence, and the need for a macho hero who will use violence against violence. They differ from westerns in their cynicism and widespread corruption.  Hookers don’t have hearts of gold. Crimes and suspects are gradually discovered by threads leading to other threads, to imply that all of society is complicit in all crime. I’ll summarize this as:

4a. Genteel detective novels study the reader’s culture, attempting to understand and systematize it, and criticizing individual cases of hypocrisy or moral weakness.

4b. Westerns criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt, and call for heroes to fix them.

4c. Hard-boiled detective novels criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable.

Post-apocalyptic novels are to westerns something like what hard-boiled detective novels are to genteel detective novels. They succeeded westerns (though later than private eyes succeeded genteel detectives), and they’re stories in which good people are few and the heroes can never save themselves.

Post-apocalyptic stories are post-modern in many ways, such as their total “mash-up” junkyard aesthetic. One way is that they’ve taken one more step toward the romantic, anti-rational, cleansing apocalypse:

4d. Post-apocalyptic stories critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, but after it finally destroys itself, its last ugly remnants can be washed away and a better society can be built.

Genteel detective novels came first, then westerns, then hard-boiled detective novels and movies, then post-apocalyptic stories. This suggests a gradual increase in cynicism from 1850 to the present. Logically, there’s just one more genre left to invent in our grand progression from the romantic, through the modernist, to the post-modern:

4e. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse story will critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, and the heroes must destroy it and wash away its last ugly remnants before a better society can be built.

Probably the heroes in the earliest ones will have to be forced reluctantly to destroy it in a morally ambiguous story. Once we’re over that hump, more and more stories will take it for granted that society ought to be destroyed.

Oh, snap.

There is definitely more judgement and moralism going on under the hood in westerns, hard-boiled detective novels, and superhero comics, but I haven’t parsed it all out. Here are some parting thoughts along those lines from The Thrilling Detective Web Site:

My personal take is that the private eye story is an American attempt to update the earlier cowboy mythos, placing them in a contemporary American urban setting. But it’s not that simple. The cowboy mythos is merely a frontier update of a much earlier tradition. Grab a piece of chalk, and trace a line from Three Gun Mack to Nick Carter to Sherlock Holmes to Wyatt Earp to Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, and then continue to Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and Lancelot and King Arthur et al. Draw another line from Hawkeye and Chingcachook (think of ’em as an early version of Spenser and Hawk) studying some footprints in The Last of the Mohicans to that scene where Holmes explains the significance of footprints to Watson.

Cross-cultural mysteries

In the cross-cultural novels, the contrasting culture is not kept mysterious; rather, the writer tries at length to explain it. Assuming that the contrasting culture serves the same basic function as the Sherlockian detective’s worldview, I infer that the detective’s thoughts are kept hidden in the latter kind of story not because the detective’s worldview must remain mysterious, but because authors who aren’t anthropologists aren’t capable of preserving a consistent alien worldview under close scrutiny. The Watson character was introduced to maintain the illusion that the detective was a legitimate outsider.

The Father Brown series has traits of both the Sherlockian and the cross-cultural, with the second culture being Catholicism. It keeps Father Brown’s thoughts hidden, but has a real and elaborate worldview behind them, which it tries to explicate in many stories.

5. The social function of a cross-cultural mystery is to contrast two cultures.

Hillerman and Smith’s mysteries are noted for the respect they show for Navajo and traditional Botswanian culture, not for the respect they show for Western culture. The Father Brown stories are meant to heighten respect for Catholicism.

Does a cross-cultural story necessarily praise the other culture? I could imagine a mystery similar to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which contrasted the writer’s society with medieval Europe, and concluded that the writer’s was much better. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie Chan mysteries cast Chinese culture in a dim light. In either case, though, I think the point would be to praise our society, not to write an entire book to critique some other society that the reader’s didn’t particularly care about. I will posit:

5a. The social function of an enlightenment cross-cultural story was to contrast an unenlightened culture with an enlightened culture, and praise the latter, likely invoking the march of progress.

Connecticut Yankee would be an example where the enlightened culture is our own. Stories like that don’t get published anymore. I bet they were common in colonial days, though. Another kind of story where the enlightened culture is our own is the dystopia, though typically the dystopia is an extrapolation from our own culture, to what it will be if those people the author doesn’t like keep getting their way. When the unenlightened culture is ours, we often have a utopia.

5b. The social function of a contemporary cross-cultural mystery is to contrast a “de-privileged” culture with a culture that now dominates it, and heighten respect for the former culture, negating the idea of a “march of progress”.

 

Genres: What good are they?

In this analysis, I ended up comparing the detective story to westerns and apocalyptic fiction, and contrasting the cross-cultural mystery with science fictional utopias and dystopias. The discussion in the comments brings up buddy-cop dramas, police procedurals, CSI, and swords & sorcery.

I’m beginning to think that there isn’t so much a thing called a “genre” as a set of common elements with different affinities for each other. “Figure out what happened”, “watch the misfit try to understand humans”, “the lone wayfarer”, “honest defenders of society fighting both the criminal and the bureaucracy above them”, “violence”, “moral decay of society”, “romance”, “the damsel in distress”, “street smarts”, “personal moral code”, “revolutionary consciousness”–these are strips you can weave together in many combinations. There’s a set that go together well, or at least frequently, to give us the closed-room mystery, and a set that gives us the western, and adding one or two more strips to the weave could give you swords & sorcery or a science fictional utopia. Stories that appear on the surface to belong to the same genre, like detective novels and cross-cultural mysteries, may on a deeper level be more closely related to stories from “different” novels: detective stories with superhero and western stories, and cross-cultural mysteries with utopias, dystopias, and other stories of cultural comparisons.

 

And… that’s all I got! Thanks for reading this far. I spent months writing this.