Modernist Times Symposium – November 2014, UWS
On November 20 & 21st 2014, I attended the Modernist Times Symposium at University of Western Sydney, Bankstown Campus. It changed my life.The event, organized by James Gourley and Suzanne Gapps of UWS, was the best literary symposium I’ve attended – and was also the outstanding highlight of my academic career to date – as the keynote speaker was Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd. For those who may not know, Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd is the world’s leading expert and scholar on the author and scientist Vladimir Nabokov, an author who many (including, also, myself) see as `The Shakespeare of novelists’. (It has been estimated that Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, has sold over 50 million copies, and is regarded as both critical and commercial canon, a very rare feat indeed.)
Brian’s fascinating keynote lecture examined various elements of time within Ada (1969), including the various time-frames of narrative within this astonishing novel itself, and discussing Nabokov’s theory of time, as it appears in Ada.
The recorded audio of Brian’s fantastic keynote lecture at the 2014 Modernist Times Symposium will be available online, at the UWS Writing and Society Research page.
And – for more of Brian’s past research and scholarship on Nabokov, see Brian’s academia webpage.
I also was fortunate to attend the Masterclass on Evolution and Literature that Brian conducted at the symposium.
Just in my own view, Brian’s epic and sweeping vision for the study of literature, cognition, fiction and the arts is a wonderful answer to the current `problem-situation’ (as Karl Popper, and indeed Brian Boyd might say) of the Humanities in crisis. (As an aside, in my view Professor Anthony Uhlmann wrote a truly terrific article in 2013 on The Conversation regarding the situation in English, and indeed the Humanities and Communication Arts.)
There is also much more on that subject, here.
Brian’s class focussed on certain key elements from Brian’s evolutionary (and indeed, revolutionary) approach to studying literature and art, from his excellent On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009), including:
- The idea of play – or, Art (including, fiction) as `cognitive play with pattern’ (primarily, since the brain works on pattern-recognition)
- Examining the cultural expression of emotions (for example, in literature, and the other arts)
- Examining the creation, transmission, interpretation, and reception of artworks
- Examining local differences, and also, the results of sexual differentiation (including the `differential parental investment’ of males and females. With females (namely in humans), around 60 offspring is the limit, but Genghis Khan apparently fathered thousands of offspring) …
- Noting key differences between `splitters’ and `lumpers’; the differences in `human nature’ are smaller than the commonalities in human nature (within the evolutionary view) [Brian describes himself as more of a `lumper’, in these `evolutionary-view’ terms]
- A multilevel model of evolutionary explanation, when examining cultural texts – including, the 5 levels of:
- Universals (such as behaviours and emotions)
- The Local
- The Individual
- The Particular
- The Detail
- [In On The Origin of Stories (2009), Brian expertly analyzes Homer’s Odyssey and also Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who! using this same 5-level evolutionary model of explanation]
- Examining various trade-offs in `cost-benefit ratios’ – for both artists and audiences (in maximizing attention, and, in audience satisfaction). [For more, see also, Brian’s excellent chapter on Art Spiegelman’s The Narrative Corpse in Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader (2010) for more on `cost-benefit ratios’, for both artists and audiences.]
- Noting also that: evolution is not all about competition, but also, emphasizing `the riddle of the evolution of co-operation’ (including: altruism, i.e. It’s not all just about `The Selfish Genes‘…)
- On the evolution of the social emotions (and not just in humans, of course), such as:
- (and so on)
- Noting Theory of Mind (ToM) in evolutionary psychology, namely, that we are cognizant that other humans (and animals) also have desires, beliefs, intentions, and so on… we can also infer that in childhood, we develop – and, often share – the same emotions, beliefs, and intentions as others.
- On Sir Karl Popper, the founder of evolutionary epistemology, and `the artistic and creative problem-solving model’, including key questions around `attention’ for artists – namely, that artists and writers need to attract – and then, continually engage – the attention of their audiences throughout the artwork… and, conversely, that sometimes people may well walk out of, a (boring, or a `bad’) movie – or may abandon reading an unengaging novel, and so on.
- It also follows that, whenever we attend to a work of art, we thus forfeit other opportunities for doing something more practical…
- One key question for artists thus becomes: Whose attention should I attract?
- Issues around some common misconceptions (or, misunderstandings, and certain faulty assumptions) to do with: Social Darwinism, Sociobiology, and Evolutionary Psychology (wherein, many misunderstandings about the evolutionary view can abound…)
- Certain currently-grey areas in `cultural evolution’, such as: gene-culture co-evolution, and, Richard Dawkins’ (1976) theory of memes (or, units of culture), and including Pinker’s note that someone first designed the memes (ideas, processes, and products) that subsequently attract attention, and also, Peter Kropotkin‘s work on evolution
- The importance of literature for social cohesion…
Brian also noted that there are clearly some things in art which transcend context – showing us some Paleolothic artwork, an ibex spear-thrower:
In the fascinating masterclass, we examined some of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus using the evolutionary view, as outlined above.
Brian also noted that comics are a `low-cost’ mechanism with which to convey information, and can be seen to be designed around our evolved visual and linguistic predispositions…
Also – for those who may not know – MetaMaus is a study of – and, collected interviews with – Art Spiegelman, the editor of legendary `underground’ comic RAW, and also a winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his holocaust comic, Maus. (Maus was also the first graphic novel – or, comic – to win a Pulitzer. It can therefore be argued that it qualifies as `serious literature, for anyone who is wondering `why study comics?’. I can also recommend Scott McCloud’s work on Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics.)
In the masterclass, we also examined Shakespeare’s sonnets 73 and 74, using Brian’s Evocriticism perspective. Brian also has a recent (and – thoroughly excellent) book called Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Boyd 2012) which examines the sonnets in detail, using the evocriticism view.
There is also an interesting article here, about Evocriticism, on The Millions website.
As a `one-book’ answer to `What is Evocriticism?’, in 2009, Brian published the monumental work of evolutionary literary analysis, On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Boyd 2009).
Here is the blurb for the book, from Amazon:
`A century and a half after the publication of Origin of Species, evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects—anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling. Brian Boyd explains why we tell stories, how our minds are shaped to understand them, and what difference an evolutionary understanding of human nature makes to stories we love.
Art is a specifically human adaptation, Boyd argues. It offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among more intelligent animals. More particularly, our fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity.
After considering art as adaptation, Boyd examines Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! demonstrating how an evolutionary lens can offer new understanding and appreciation of specific works. What triggers our emotional engagement with these works? What patterns facilitate our responses? The need to hold an audience’s attention, Boyd underscores, is the fundamental problem facing all storytellers. Enduring artists arrive at solutions that appeal to cognitive universals: an insight out of step with contemporary criticism, which obscures both the individual and universal.
Published for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, Boyd’s study embraces a Darwinian view of human nature and art, and offers a credo for a new humanism.’
I can recommend the book in the highest possible terms, and, it has certainly been a huge influence on my own doctoral thesis on movies. (Specifically, on: Why some movies are successful, and others are not.)
Some years ago Brian’s thesis was on Nabokov, and after reading it, Nabokov’s widow, Vera Nabokov invited Brian to examine Nabokov’s works. Brian has since published numerous canonical works on Nabokov and all serious Nabokov scholars reference Brian Boyd’s work at some point..
Dr James Gourley and Suzanne Gapps organized the two days of proceedings, and James also chaired this landmark Modernist Times Symposium, with support from the renowned Beckett scholar, Professor Anthony Uhlmann, and the UWS Writing and Society Research Centre.
Professor Uhlmann is also the author of the excellent Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf and Nabokov (2011).
The Symposium featured a wonderful selection of papers, organized around the theme of Modernist Time. As the conference summary explains:
`The modernists were the most temporally-aware of artists. The innovations of Woolf, Mann and Joyce were focused on time: its elasticity, manipulability and centrality to human experience. In this two-day symposium, we ask why time has re-emerged as a focus of art and theory in the 21st century. We trace the diversification of theories of time beyond the very literary temporality of high modernism. Yet even in this diversification, something of the spirit of modernist time remains; it is this temporal residue we will consider.’
One potential contributing reason advanced for this (across various of the symposium papers, and elsewhere) is that Einstein’s publication of the theory of Relativity may (possibly) have led Modernist authors to consider time (and related issues of memory) as a theme, and/or, even an organizing principle in their work, including Nabokov, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann (and of course, many others)…
In case you are reading this, and are unaware of what Modernism is, there is a Wikipedia article on `Literary Modernism’ here, and the executive summary is that: Literary authors were influenced by the works (or, ideas, or even the memes) of Darwin, Einstein, Nietzsche, Mach, Freud, Bergson, and others. (This also would be a case of cultural evolution, or evolutionary epistemology)…
Day 1 of the Symposium – was launched with three fascinating and deeply thought-provoking papers from literary scholars Lou Jillett, Arka Chattopadhyay, and Don Johnston:
Lou Jillett’s paper centred on her ongoing study of colour in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, and also on James Joyce’s use of colour in Ulysses. Lou’s work includes very impressive empirical research and `colour-wheel’ colour-palette visualizations of the different compound-word colours in both Suttree and also Ulysses.
During Lou’s fascinating paper, I was also put in mind of “the wine-dark sea” in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which of course reminded me of Jon Gottschall’s (evolutionary) study of the Iliad in his PhD thesis, and also brought to mind Brian Boyd’s analysis of color in his On The Origin of Stories (2009):
`Since some peoples have only two words for color (the equivalent of light and dark or white and black), and since most cultures did not develop perspectival drawing, color and perspective, for instance, have been claimed as arbitrary and conventional.
In the mid-twentieth century, tribesmen not previously exposed to Western culture were said to be unable to interpret photographs because of their Western “conventions” (perspective, black-and-white) – a typically insulting and offensive consequence of the denial of human nature.
In fact even pigeons can read photographs and recognize human individuals from them. Whatever their language, people see the same things, agree on the same colors as central to particular hues, and so on.’
I was also – of course – put in mind of Goethe’s colour theory, (Newton’s scientific work notwithstanding) a graphic of which, Lou adroitly used for her opening PPT title slide…
So – I for one can’t wait to read (and, hear) more about Lou’s research in this fascinating area (not least, as colour-theory fascinates me as a filmmaker)…
See: World’s First Colour Movie Pictures Discovered (2012)
And see also: Some random answers on Quora: What Films Make The Best Use of Colour?
Then Arka Chattopadhyay’s paper on Paul Auster’s Man In The Dark and John Banville’s Ancient Light was likewise a fascinating exploration of the notion of time, including insights into Banville’s symbolic image representing time as a pinhole camera – in turn, also reminding me of Stephen J Hawking’s diagram of time on p. 28 of A Brief History of Time (Hawking 1988, 1990).
Don Johnston’s paper on Sudanese-Arab writer Tayed Salih’s Bandershah was likewise fascinating, with insights into Salih’s prophetic writing, and noting certain parallels to prescient elements of Kafka’s writing.
During Don’s excellent paper, I was also reminded of one of my top-ten favourite books, namely the Sufi wisdom volume, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin,
And – although the Mulla himself is indeed `incomparable’, I am now going to compare him to Don Quixote. (There. I have finally, officially, achieved the impossible.)
Just to utilize a narrative ellipsis – exactly 24 hours later – after all of these illuminating half-hour sessions (above), we all enjoyed a sumptuous lunch….
And then precisely 1 day earlier, we all enjoyed the wonderful Evolution and Literature Masterclass with Brian Boyd.
FLASHBACK (relatively speaking):
And then suddenly, 12 hours later…
At almost precisely Midday of Day 2 of the Symposium – assuming an inevitable `Eternal Return’ – we exprienced Brian’s excellent lecture on time in Nabokov’s Ada.
[ sound of a stylus tearing through vinyl ]
More excellent papers on Day 2 of the Symposium included papers by Sean Pryor, Mark Steven, and Kate Montague:
Sean’s paper was a fascinating examination – and, one possible interpretation of – a paragraph by Karl Marx, from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I was very much also put in mind of Eco’s chapter in On Literature on Style in The Communist Manifesto, which I believe supports Sean’s thesis, as advanced in his admirable paper.
Mark Steven then presented a fascinating paper on modernist time in cinema, examining classic film works such as Strike! (1925), Chaplin and the famous clock-fixing scene, Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! and also `slow cinema‘ including illuminating examinations of Tarkovsky’s work, Béla Tarr, and other `slow cinema’ masters .
On re-viewing an excerpt from Eisenstein’s Strike! (1925) as part of Mark’s presentation, I was also reminded of the climax of Kurtz’s intercut `assassination scene’, in the film Apocalypse Now (1979), and which reminded me of my own thesis on a systems analysis of creativity in the international movie industry.
During Mark’s engrossing paper I was also reminded of David Bordwell’s – and also, Barry Salt’s – insightful research work on Average Shot Lengths (or ASLs) in cinema, and the evolution of movie pacing over time.
Interestingly, Gunars Civjans (and Yuri Tsivian) created CineMetrics, a software tool for tabulating and analyzing ASL (or: Average Shot Length) in Movies. As a knowledge-base compiled via crowd-sourcing, anyone (including even you!) can contribute to this body of knowledge, by downloading the free CineMetrics app, watching a movie (probably, ideally on DVD), and pressing [spacebar] whenever a cut occurs, and then uploading your results to the international CineMetrics database.
If of interest, see also, the CineMetrics database of collated films to date.
Finally, Kate’s excellent paper was on Anachronism and the Aporia of the style of William Gaddis (The Recognitions, 1955), noting fascinating parallels and correlations in post-war American literature.
Immediately following (or, indeed preceding, if the arrow of time were reversed) was Brian Boyd’s amazing lecture on Ada and time.
Due to a temporal disjuncture-anomaly, many thousands of years passed, but fortunately time rewound – and there was just time for three more excellent papers by Paul Sheehan, James Gourley and Mark Byron.
Paul’s excellent paper noted Einstein’s impact (regarding time and relativity) on Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
James Gourley’s excellent paper examined Nabokov’s theory of time in `Spiralling Influence: Nabokov and Pynchon’ including an examination of whether Pynchon actually attended Nabokov’s famous Cornell classes! (a potentially-controversial and thus fascinating claim…!)
Within Dr Gourley’s examination of the Nabokovian `spiral of time’ theory, I was reminded of Walter Garstang’s (1922) evolutionary spiral of time, which Arthur Koestler (The Ghost In The Machine, 1967) also adapted to the evolutionary spiral of ideas, within evolutionary epistemology and cultural evolution…
And finally, Mark Byron’s excellent and entertaining paper `Modernism’s Shaggy Sea Monsters’ dealt with time in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Banville’s The Sea.
In summary – a fantastic Symposium on Modernist Time – and, a credit to the UWS Writing and Society Research Centre and all organizers, presenters and attendees. – Bravo, and Encore.
– As a side note, Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd also has a recent (co-edited) book, on Nabokov:
And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:
StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)
And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:
StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication
Comments, always welcome.
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.