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Posts Tagged ‘theater

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

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“A picture is a poem without words”*…

Truth, trend.

A collection of pithy illustrations…

Generalist, specialist.
Numbers obscure nuance.

Many more artistic aphorisms at Visualize Value.

* Horace

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As we picture it, we might send aesthetic birthday greetings to Rene Ricard; he was born on this date in 1946. A painter, poet, actor, and art critic, he was a seminal figure in the New York art scene of later 20th century. After dropping out of school in Boston, he moved to New York City, where he became a protégé of Andy Warhol (and appeared in the Warhol films Kitchen, Chelsea Girls, and The Andy Warhol Story). He was a founder of Theater of the Ridiculous (with John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam). He was a regularly-published poet. And from the early 90s, he was a widely-exhibited artist. But he was perhaps ultimately most influential in his art criticism (and his contributions to gallery and exhibition catalogues)– especially a series of essays he wrote for Artforum magazine in which (among other impacts) he launched the career of painter Julian Schnabel and helped bring Jean-Michel Basquiat to fame. Andy Warhol called Ricard “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side, the Rex Reed of the art world.”

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“I shall have more to say when I am dead”*…

Brian Brodeur reassesses an unjustly-forgotten modernist…

On December 22, 2019, the sesquicentennial of a writer Donald Justice referred to as “the first modern American poet” passed without a whimper. Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) would’ve found this critical neglect fitting; obscurity was one of his perennial subjects. Though he won three Pulitzers and was a favorite poet of Theodore Roosevelt, Robinson, whose own mother waited seven months to name him, was attracted to characters few people acknowledged, cared about, or understood.

Before Robinson, very little lived experience had crept into the lines of late Victorian American poetry, which included the likes of rightly forgotten Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) and Robert Underwood Johnson (1853–1937): parlor versifiers Whitman famously dismissed as “tea-pot poets.” Rather than saturating his work with overblown symbols, hackneyed aphorisms, and hollow moralism, Robinson relied on the more sophisticated techniques of understatement, irony, and sparse detail. He also confronted such 19th-century taboos as alcoholism, homelessness, and assisted suicide.

So why has Robinson’s Collected Poems remained out of print since the 1970s? Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), another virtual nonperson for most 21st-century readers, Robinson is often overlooked as being insufficiently modern, unfashionably didactic, and even culturally problematic. Though this latter description might be justly applied to Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which perpetuates stereotypes of Native American life, none of these epithets accurately describes Robinson.

Understanding this collective lapse in critical judgment begins by acknowledging that Robinson continues to challenge dominant literary conventions. To begin with, his poems almost always tell a story, almost exclusively in meter and nearly always in rhyme; he also valued clarity of style and rationality of thought over the experimental fragmentation of many high modernists, and, unlike the Confessional poets who came later, hardly ever wrote about himself explicitly. Another reason for his neglect involves a commonly held misconception about literary history. Though Robinson was born nearly 20 years before Ezra Pound (1885), many consider him a peer of the much younger modernists who are often lumped together with him in anthologies of modern American poetry. Robinson broke new ground in his best books, which were published between 1897 and 1925, but his poems can sound antique when compared to The Waste Land (1922) and The Pisan Cantos (1948).

Yet it serves to remember that art has no present without its past. Acknowledging practices of earlier periods gives poets the knowledgeable freedom to experiment in their own time. Robinson’s best work offers contemporary practitioners options, ways of writing largely ignored by 21st-century American poets…

An appreciation: “‘The Flicker, Not the Flame’: E. A. Robinson’s Narrative Compression,” from @bbrodeurpoet in @LAReviewofBooks.

* Edwin Arlington Robinson

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As we give credit where credit is due, we might spare a thought for Maya Angelou; she died on this date in 2014. A poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, she published several books of poetry, seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows through a career that spanned over 50 years.

Her autobiographical work drew on her experiences as a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She went on to work as an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Then, in 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton (making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961).

Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer and the Tony, won three Grammys, and was awarded over 50 honorary degrees. She won the Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. And in 2022 she became the first Black woman to be depicted on a U.S. quarter.

Angelou at the Clinton inauguration [source]

“I resemble that remark”*…

Swiss linguist and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure articulated the modern version of a belief that dates from Plato, and extended through Locke to modern linguistic scholarship…

… that the letters and words in many writing and language systems have no relationship to what they refer to. The word “cat” doesn’t have anything particularly cat-like about it. The reason that “cat” means cat is because English speakers have decided so—it’s a social convention, not anything ingrained in the letters c-a-t. (According to Saussure, a language like Chinese, where each written character stands for a whole word, was a separate writing system, and his ideas were directed towards writing systems made up of letters or syllables.) 

But new research calls this foundational assumption into question. “The Color Game,” created by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History to study the evolution of language, suggests that there may be a representational relationship after all…

…the idea that words, or other signs, do actually relate to what they’re describing has been gaining ground. This is called iconicity: when a spoken or written word, or a gestured sign, is iconic in some way to what it’s referring to…

… research now suggests that our languages are riddled with iconicity, and that it may play a role in language evolution, and how we learn and process language. Along with this evidence from The Color Game, in the last decade and a half, an increase in cross-cultural studies has re-upped the attention on iconicity, and pushed back against the doctrine of arbitrariness. 

“It is now generally accepted that natural languages feature plenty of non-arbitrary ways to link form and meaning, and that some forms of iconicity are pretty pervasive,” said Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at Radboud University, who said that he too learned in Linguistics 101 that “the sign is arbitrary.” “Iconicity has become impossible to ignore.”…

Iconicity has always been around. One familiar example is onomatopoeias, like “ding-dong,” “chirp,” or “swish”—words that sound like what they’re referring to. Those words aren’t random, they have a direct relationship to what they represent. Yet, onomatopoeias were thought to be the exception to a wholly arbitrary set of signifiers, said Marcus Perlman, a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Birmingham. This belief persisted despite hints that other words might have some connection to what they signified…

There could also be iconicity in what the letters themselves look like, and not just the sounds or gestures of words. In 2017, linguists Nora Turoman and Suzy Styles showed people who spoke unfamiliar languages different letters and asked them to guess which made the /i/ sound (“ee” in feet), and which was /u/ (“oo” sound in shoe). The participants were able to do so better than chance just by looking at the shape of the letters…

Language is most likely a mix of arbitrariness and iconicity, Perlman said, along with something called systematicity, when relationships form between words and meaning that aren’t necessarily iconic. (An example is words that start with gl- in English often are related to light, like glisten, glitter, gleam, and glow. There’s nothing necessarily light-like about the sound gl-, but the relationship is still there.)

Morin thinks of iconicity as the “icing on the cake” of language. It makes words more intuitive, more easy to guess. Iconicity might make languages easier to learn; Kim said there’s a saying about Hangul, that: “A wise man can learn it in a morning, and a fool can learn it in the space of ten days.”…  

Rethinking our most fundamental tool, as new research reveals a connection between what words look and sound like, and what they mean: “Why Are Letters Shaped the Way They Are?,” from @shayla__love in @motherboard.

* Curly, in The Three Stooges’ “Idle Roomers

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As we reflect on resemblance, we might spare a thought for a champion of a different sort of mimesis: James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894.  A well-known theatrical actor, dramatist, producer, and scenic innovator in his time, he is best remembered for his revolutionary contributions to theatrical design.  MacKaye opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes.  MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity.  And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats.  In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.

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“Comedy too can sometimes discern what is right”*…

What’s old is new again…

When​ Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released ‘WAP’ in August 2020, ‘conservative’ commentators such as Tucker Carlson expressed outrage that the song might corrupt ‘your granddaughters’; Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post celebrated it as an ‘ode to female sexual pleasure’. The video featured the two long-lashed goddesses twerking their way through a gilded McMansion in fabulous candy-coloured outfits, like bethonged Disney princesses. The lyrics create a cluster of ambiguities: are the speakers supposed to be sex workers struggling to pay their college tuition and running in fear from ‘the cops’, or wealthy A-list celebrities? Or are they, as Black women in a white man’s world, both? Do they really want anyone but each other? Do they own the house through which they strut? The song mocks its listeners and viewers for yearning for these superior beings in their state of limitless desire. At the same time, its sly laughter invites us to feel, for a couple of minutes, part of their glittering, multicoloured world.

The song’s genius lies in its inventiveness: its mastery of rhythm, and its innovative abundance of metaphors for the ‘wet-ass pussy’ of its title. You come for the nasty, but you stay for the poetry. The two artists celebrate the power of their bodies to express desire and joy, but more fundamentally, they celebrate their gushing waterfalls of linguistic ‘flow’. The joke of the title hinges on the fact that language is both literal and metaphorical: one body part is used as a linguistic modifier for another. The most memorable lines contain no words that would be unsuitable for a nursery school sing-along, but provide brilliantly funny images: ‘Swipe your nose like a credit card’, ‘Get a bucket and a mop’, or – climactically – ‘Macaroni in a pot’. It’s wild and down to earth at the same time, and for ever changes the way you think about cooking spaghetti.

Ancient Athenian comedy of the fifth century BCE – mostly known to us through the work of Aristophanes – can be usefully compared to a number of different modern genres. Like traditional TV sitcoms, it featured typical or stereotypical characters, and showcased their ridiculous lust, avarice, stupidity and ambition. Like modern stand-up comedians or late-night TV hosts, comic poets included speeches in their plays in which they railed at the audience about the state of society and their personal grievances. Like Saturday Night Live, comedy in fifth-century Athens included caricatures of people who might well have been in the audience – such as Socrates, Euripides or the politician Cleon. Like The Simpsons or 30 Rock, the dialogue had a high rate of jokes per minute, and catered to multiple different audience sensibilities, including a taste for lavatory humour. As in Broadway musicals or on the Disney Channel, characters in lavish costumes were liable to burst into song and dance at any moment – although, unlike on Hannah Montana, the male characters wore large strap-on phalluses. Old Comedy anticipated modern sci-fi, and shows like The Good Place, in its willingness to carry out fantastical thought experiments (talking frogs, a city of birds, a singing chorus of metaphysically inclined clouds, or, weirdest of all, women with real political power), and considered their social and political repercussions. Like pantomime or Punch and Judy, it included formulaic riffs on falling over, violence and cross-dressing.

But the lush comic hip-hop of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B is one of the most useful modern analogues, because it illustrates the core element of Old Comedy that is most often obscured in contemporary Anglophone translations – the flow. Aristophanes, like the creators of ‘WAP’, was a musician, songwriter, choreographer and poet, and his linguistic effects depend, like theirs, on the artful manipulation of rhythm and sound in words and imagery. The poetic affinity between rap and Old Comedy is explored in Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, a hip-hop adaptation of Lysistrata set on the South Side of Chicago…

Aristophanes and rap: “Punishment By Radish,” from Emily Wilson (@EmilyRCWilson), the translator of a wonderful edition of The Odyssey.

* Aristophanes

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As we LOL, we might we might send dramatic birthday greetings to Nathan Field; he was born on this date in 1587. A contemporary and colleague of Shakespeare, Field was– like the Bard– both a dramatist and an actor.

As an author, Field wrote alone (e.g., the comedy A Woman Is a Weathercock), and in collaboration with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger (e.g., the tragicomedy The Knight of Malta). As an actor he ended his career in the Kings Men, working alongside Shakespeare, where he appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and in Ben Jonson‘s Volpone and The Alchemist, among other productions.

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