Tuesday, April 29, 2008

new blog: Jim Davies Identifies These Things As Cool

This blog is mainly for my ideas, and I found myself wanting a forum to communicate other people's ideas I was excited about. For this purpose I have started a new blog.

Introducing "Jim Davies Indentifies These Things As Cool"


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Writing So Beautiful It's Bad

I blogged once about why you should be skeptical of good writers:

I have more to say about the subject.

I recently picked up a book called Powers of Horror by Julia Kristeva (1982). I could not get through more than a page and a half of it, but what I read seemed to be a great example of what I'm talking about. It starts:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.

I won't bore you with any more, but it goes on like that for a least another page or so.

I asked the person from whom I'd borrowed the book what it was supposed to be about, and it's about, among other topics, something rather interesting: how under certain contexts we find things like saliva disgusting (when spit on a wall) and at other times attractive (when kissing.) So I am not saying that what the book is trying to communicate is bad. I'm saying that the way it's written obfuscates the meaning.

The book is written so beautifully that its comprehensibility suffers.

I don't want to say that writing should not be beautiful. I think, for example, Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is beautifully written. And certainly one can write prose so ugly and boring that its comprehensibility suffers. But beauty can go too far.

Poetry, ideally, is very beautiful writing, or at least very interesting writing. I didn't understand poetry for a long time. When I'd try to write it, I'd think of some idea I wanted to communicate, and then poetize it! That's short for making it obfuscated and beautifully written. I could have just written the idea itself, and been perfectly clear, but then it wouldn't be much of a poem, would it? Ideally, the meaning of a poem should be subtle: it's meaning comes out through the subtle connotations and meanings of the words in their particular arrangement.

When asked about the meaning of their works, I've heard some artists say that if they could explain it in simple words, there would have been no reason to make the art in the first place. The work of art requires interpretation. The act of interpretation by the audience is part of the artistic appreciation. A good work of art (IMHO) affords different interpretations by different people in different contexts.

But this passage is not poetry. This passage is trying to make psychological claims. It should not be written like poetry, so that it's open to interpretation. If this were turned in as a paper to any of my philosophy professors it would not even be graded-- it would be sent back. Kristeva would have done the assignment wrong.

When you're trying to help someone understand something, or trying to communicate something important about the world, don't mess around. It's too important. Write clearly. Write so that you're maximally effective.

The book might get better; I admit I didn't give it much of a chance. But my criticism still holds for the first two pages. The beginning sets the tone, and (one hopes) grabs the reader and makes him or her want to go on.

Is it fair that I'm judging it from the perspective of philosophical and scientific writing? Yes. Is it fair that I judge the English version of this book, given that it was originally written in French? Probably; French literary stuff like this is famously obscure. And even it it's not, I'll just shift the blame to the translator instead of the original author. Some number of people are to blame. Shouldn't I be judging it by the standards of the field in which it's written (literary criticism and psychoanalysis)? No. If she's trying to say something true about the world, as opposed to making art, then I'm in the right here. If this is the kind of writing that's considered good in those fields, then FSM help those fields. Their insights are like scientific experiments conducted but never published-- uncommunicated, destined never to have impact.

I'm not going to go into the details of what's wrong with the quoted passage. I'm tempted, as a professor, to get out my red pen and tear it to shreds. But I have student papers to correct.

There's still hope for them.


Thanks to Vanessa Corcoran, Daniel Saunders, and Anthony J. Francis for their comments on this essay.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror. Translated from French by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press.

Pictured: Kristeva. At least she's a good dresser.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Theater and Film

This is in response to the following blog post about plays and films/TV shows:
(You can also see there later comments by the blog author and my stage director friend Montica Pes.)


I think you're misrepresenting what theater has going for it over film a bit, which you say is "essentially, the ritual of the actors being in the same space."

One thing that theater does really well is deal with symbolism and ambiguity. This difference with film can be clearly seen when plays are adapted to movies.

For example, the play Equus, the main character stabs horses in the eyes. The blood rom the eyes can represented with streams of fabric; the horses can be shiny metal horse heads. This does not work on film, because of the audience's expectations of realism. Having actual horses and actual blood makes the scene more about gore and emphasizes less the ritualistic aspect of it. I'm not saying film can't find this meaning in other ways, but it has a hard time doing it in this way.

Very few films try to do what theater does in this way-- "Dogville" is one example. And it's so weird to see it on film, but it would not have been at all weird in a play.

I think this is the reason that the diagetic/non-diagetic concept is basically absent in theater. There's too much symbolism, which walks the border between them.

Of course there is symbolism in film, television, and in novels, but it's of a different kind. The sword in a film might symbolize ambition, for example. That's easy to do in film. But in a play, you can have a broom represent a sword, or a wheelchair represent a car, or a two actors holding hands represent a door to a saloon, a piece of masking tape can be the horizon. These choices have effects on the meaning of these things in the mind of the audience. You can get these beautiful, subtle flavors of meaning.

As a playwright, I try to ask myself "why does this need to be a play?" If it's better as a book, or a screenplay, or a painting, then I'll try to do that.

I think there is no better demonstration of the differences than Julie Taymor's DVD commentary on "Titus," which she adapted from a her stage version of the same script. You hear her say "well, we did this in the play, but that wouldn't work in a movie, so we..." Fascinating!


Friday, April 11, 2008

Choosing Preferences

In Ray Kurzweil's fascinating book "The Singularity
is Near" (2005) he predicts of the future of humanity, and I
feel like my mind is bigger. Expanded. It's wonderful. I highly
recommend it.

He's very optimistic about the future of technology, and if he's right
then within my lifetime it might be possible to alter your brain and
mind in very exacting ways. It got me thinking about preferences, and
under what circumstances one would want to change them. My question to
you is this: if you could change your preferences and opinions, which
would you change?

Currently, we can sometimes change our preferences, but it takes work and
time. Growing up I didn't like coffee, but sometimes it was the only
thing around to drink. I really wanted to like coffee, so I just
started making myself drink it. It worked! Now I can tolerate a cup of
coffee, and even enjoy it if it has enough milk and sugar in it (to
quote my man Ad-Rock "I like my sugar with coffee and cream."). I
don't want it every day, but at least now I can go to a coffe shop and
find something on the menu I can stomach.

Back to rapid change...Here are some examples of things people might
want to do:

  • Make yourself enjoy broccoli as much as you currently like chocolate
  • Make yourself find your spouse the most attractive person in
    the world, for as long as you're with him or her
  • Make yourself find funny things about twice as funny as you do now
  • Make yourself love jazz
  • Make yourself dislike video games

It's interesting to think about, because on the one hand our
preferences are part of what makes us who we are. For example, I adore
Reece's Pieces Sundaes from Friendly's. If I changed my adoration for
them, I think, in a small way, I would be less "me." I might be a
better me (if you believe in nutrition), but I'd be different.

There are some things I really don't like, such as most alternative
rock music from the 90s (e.g. Green Day and Nerfherder). I have
temptations to be proud of my dislikes. I often get a laugh when I
refer to a band as "some asshole with a guitar." But ultimately I'm
surrounded by this stuff, and it just hurts me overall that I don't
like it. I can say pretty confidently that if I could just flip a
switch and suddenly appreciate that whiney whiteboy crap, I would.

People who knew me would be all "Jim, I thought you hated that stuff!"

To which I would reply "That was before I flipped this awesome

One thing that's disturbing about it is that once you like something,
you usually don't want to give it up. For example, I love hip hop
music, in spite of (not, mind you, because of) the sexism that's
rampant in it. I feel like if I suddenly didn't like it anymore, I
would lose a huge part of life that I now enjoy. I probably would
feel similarly about alternative rock if I found myself liking
it. This means that the trend would probably be toward liking more and
more things, because you probably would not decide to turn back once
you've appreciated something.

Now there are bad habits too, and such a switch would be great for
people with addictions or other bad habits. You might wish you hated
picking your nose or gambling.

It's uncharted waters. Changes that might happen probably would, in
the short term, have unseen consequences. For example, if you changed
yourself so that you liked yourself more, then it might have the
inadvertant effect of making you not want to change anything else
about yourself!

The scariest part about it is just that: changing yourself so that
your preferences about changing yourself are changed. Maybe you'd
change yourself to be more open to change, which might lead to more
changes in yourself. Or maybe you'd change yourself in some way that
would make you want to stay very much the way you are. I can imagine
scenarios in which both would hurt you.

I'm reminded of some cults who have instructions in place to keep
people from leaving the cult. E.g. don't talk to anyone outside the
cult, don't think about questioning the cult, etc. Such things help
the cult's success by insuring the cult stays legitimate in the mind
of the individual. (Seductive Poison, by Deborah Layton, is a
fascinating memoir about living in the Jonestown cult. It gave me a
lot of insight into the cult mindset and lifestyle.)


Anyway, it's interesting to think about your preferences, how you
might want to change them, and what that means for your
identity. Someday we might have the power to change them

Some react strangely to the question. If you want something, why would
you want to change that? Dennet in his book Brainstorms distinguishes
between first and second order desires: What we want and what we want
to want (1981).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder makes this difference very clear. The
victims want to wash their hands because it gives them temporary
relief to their compulsive urges. But they don't want to want those
Indeed, those urges can ruin their lives (Rappoport, 1989).

What preferences would you change?

Pictured are me and my fellow improvisor Mitch in a recent improv show.


Dennet, D. (1981). Brainstorms. MIT Press.

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is Near. Penguin books.

Rappoport, J. L. (1989). The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing: The
Experience and Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
. Plume,
Penguin Books, Markham, Ontario.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Calligraphy: Mystery, Dare

I've recently completed some new calligraphy. You can see other works of my calligraphy at

Above is Dare. The text says

Dare we press fiercely against the boundariesof isolation? Does something burn
between us?Have we intimations of ourselves together? ...Canwe leave forever
unexhumed the dream of whatwe will do together, you and I, if we dare? (Carter

This one is called Mystery. The text says:

I step into the day, I step into myself, I step into the mystery
(Anishnabe Morning Prayer)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

My dog's only trick: Howling

I want to this blog to be primarily my professional voice, so I try not to put a lot of material up here about my pet. However, what my pug can do is so amazing, and so cute, I figured had to put up something.

I figure I can give her maybe one post per year while still maintaining the intellectual integrity of the blog. So here you go, 2008...

My pug howls on command. When I howl mylself, or especially if I squeal "Where's my puuuuug?" she howls back.


Cinematography by Catherine LeBel.

Note that the dog cannot follow any other commands, including "sit" nor, more annoyingly, "come."