Shakespeare not as lone genius but product of an art world

Howard Becker’s famous idea of an “art world” sounds like it could well apply to the success of William Shakespeare:

Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.

His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.

To sum up:

A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone.

Just because Shakespeare was not a lone genius does not diminish his work. Indeed, perhaps it is even more remarkable in this light: while there were plenty of other people who could have drawn upon the same resources and were engaged in similar activities to Shakespeare, they were not able to do the same thing.

Even though I teach about this topic from the sociology of culture fairly regularly, the idea of a lone genius is difficult for students to overcome. Not only do they want to give credit for success to a single person, they sometimes do not see “remixing” or approaching existing materials in new ways and with editing as examples of creativity. Yet, many of the social changes we see as monumental did not require the development of a completely new idea but rather a reapplication or reuse of existing concepts.

This reminds me: I should do a better job in the classroom of explaining how sociological work comes about. When you see a final product – article, book, other publication – it is easy to just see the author(s). But, there is often a significant backstory involving multiple people, institutions, and ongoing discussions within an academic field. For example, this blog post could be examined further for where the ideas came from. The typical acknowledgements section of a publication does not provide enough space to truly acknowledge the intellectual debts of the author(s) – and it is debatable whether readers would want to dig into this further.

Using humorists to predict the future because they can push beyond plausibility

Predictions made by experts are often not very good so why not let humorists try their hand at looking at the future?

This is not because “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to “The Simpsons.” So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year’s predictions went, I’d like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.

The writers of “The 80s” would not have won one of Philip Tetlock’s forecasting competitions: The great majority of their “predictions” were wildly wrong. Congress didn’t ban the consumption of meat, Muhammad Ali didn’t become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Disney didn’t buy the United Kingdom, a musical version of “1984” starring Leif Garrett, Tracy Austin and Marlon Brando (as “Big Brother”) did not become the movie of the decade, cancer was not cured with “a substance secreted in the cranium of the baby harp seal when its head was struck repeatedly.” But given that the aim of the book was not to make predictions but to entertain, that was OK. It’s like with “The Simpsons”: You’re not watching it to get a rundown on the world to come; the fact that you sometimes do is a happy bonus…

The humorist’s approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute. Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organization can adapt to them. It’s not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities.

To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they’re not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few “serious” forecasters will have predicted them. The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously. So it was left to the jokers.

Looking into the future is a difficult task since the future is a complex system with many variable at play. Even with all the data we have at our disposal these days, future trends do not necessarily have to follow in line with past results. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s writings from The Black Swan and onward: there are certain parts of reality that are fairly predictable, other areas that complex but more knowable, and other areas that we do not even know what we do not know. See this chart adapted from Taleb by Garry Peterson for an overview:

Taleb's quadrants

This also gets at an important aspect of creativity: being able to think beyond existing realities.

Another bonus of looking to humorists to think about the future: you might get some extra laughs along the way.

Cities get creative in finding ways to resolve bankruptcy

As more cities face dire financial straits, here is a quick overview of the means by which different American cities have escaped bankruptcy:

When Bridgeport, Connecticut filed for Chapter 9 in 1991, they received help from a state oversight board, and also convinced Chase Manhattan to keep its Connecticut headquarters in Bridgeport which helped. There were other approaches, too, one part of which was arranging for Donald Trump to buy out 100 acres of publicly owned property to develop an amusement park and motor race track, though that never came to pass. In 1992, The New York Times reported that there were also “measures including a plan to recover delinquent property taxes by selling tax liens to a private collection agency,” as well as acquisitions for aid from the state, and “concessions from the city’s unions.”

Among the more colorful approaches in recent years was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s. In 2011, having been huckstered by a corrupt company to build an up-to-code (and ultimately faulty) trash-to-energy incinerator, the Keystone State’s capital city petitioned for Chapter 9. They sold the incinerator for $130 million, as well as auctioned off a collection of Wild West artifacts owned by a former mayor which brought in nearly $4 million. It also monetized its parking assets, which included privatizing garages, in effect doubling the price of city parking which, for virtually the first time, they began enforcing…

[Jefferson County, Alabama’s] exit from bankruptcy? They cut their payroll, as well as almost a quarter of the workforce. They shut down many of their satellite courthouses in the suburbs, in addition to a number of “nonessential” services: A nursing home sold to a private operator (to the tune of $8.3 million), a public hospital shut down, and the closing of a massive county laundry facility. Patrick Darby, who represented Jefferson County in its bankruptcy filing, said “I have to say in all fairness, what we did here is easier than it would’ve been in California or up north because we don’t have unions… we don’t have public sector unions and so we don’t have to fight that if we want to lay people off.”

So what does this all mean? Every municipality comes up with its own unique solution, and in the case of Jefferson County that meant shutting down a “charity hospital;” in New York that meant laying off 6,000 school teachers who’d leveraged their pensions; and in Vallejo that meant making it possible for the courts to compel unions to break their collective bargaining agreements, a ruling which now extends to the rest of California, and, having some of the strongest labor unions in the country, seems plausible that it could extend to other states, too. And if we’re going to talk about rhetoric, unions are the group often identified as the primary problem behind fiscal insolvency—when, rather, it’s other underlying fiscal crises that make it impossible for those municipalities to fund the pensions they’d committed to long ago. As Marc Levinson says, “It’s just that we’ve made these promises to people who’ve given their lives in service based on this promise and now we can’t afford it!”

As the article notes, “the leniency of the U.S. bankruptcy code” helps allow this creativity. But, I wonder if this kind of creativity ever runs out – what if there is a bankruptcy that is simply too big (though it is hard to imagine one bigger than New York City in the 1970s) or there are too many at once (imagine three or four major cities going through bankruptcy at the same time or within a single state, like California) or creditors and local groups are simply unwilling to budge? What happens then? We haven’t reached that point yet…

The “fantastical anthropology” of taking photographs of beach “tribes” in Spain

One photographer has taken a unique approach to documenting life on Spain’s beaches:

Sitting there in the sand, mostly naked, with chairs, towels and belongings delineating territory, beach goers tend to form small fiefdoms with their friends and families. It’s a phenomenon that Spanish photographer Lucia Herrero has exploited in her excellent portrait series, appropriately titled, Tribes

“It was like an anthropological revelation,” she says. “Suddenly it was like, ‘I have it!’”

For two summers, 2009 and 2010, Herrero traveled along the entire Spanish coast, both the Mediterranean and Atlantic, shooting hundreds of pictures of Spanish families that, combined, make up what she calls a sort of collective portrait of Western and Spanish middle class society…

Not only does Herrero view her work as an observation of human behavior, but she’s coined a term for her style: “Antropología Fantástica,” or fantastical anthropology.

Herroro says she purposely constructs a kind of fantasy world, or theatrical production, by shooting into the sun, creating a darker than normal backdrop, and then lighting the families in the portrait with a 1000 watt strobe, resulting in a surreally contrasted photo. Using a strobe to obtain this effect is nothing new, but it’s only a small part of Antropología Fantástica that allows Herrero to take a “banal situation and [elevate] it to a state of exception.” While arranging the shoot, for example, she says she likes to direct the families but never gives them direct instructions on how to pose. As a result the stances and groupings she captures are sort of arranged but also infused with a tinge of chaos.

How much would it take to make this a more traditional ethnographic project? The photos would certainly get people’s attention and then if this project also included observations, interviews, and background information, this could make a fascinating study.

I’ve written before about the idea of “performative social science.” I know the primary currency in American sociology today is statistics but I’ve continued to mull over the idea that such research findings or methodologies could find space for more artistic elements. Perhaps this is a continuation of my enjoyment in watching the music jam session at ASA 2012. At the least, putting our research findings into more “popular” venues, such as art, music, film, documentaries, and stories might help us reach an American culture that is not well-versed in how to read, understand, and care about social science.

Another call for the need for theory when working with big data

Big data is not just about allowing researchers to look at really large samples or lots of information at once. It also requires the use of theory and asking new kinds of questions:

Like many other researchers, sociologist and Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts performs experiments using Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that allows users to pay others to complete tasks. Used largely to fill in gaps in applications where human intelligence is required, social scientists are increasingly turning to the platform to test their hypotheses…

This is a point political forecaster and author Nate Silver discusses in his recent book The Signal and the Noise. After discussing economic forecasters who simply gather as much data as possible and then make inferences without respect for theory, he writes:

This kind of statement is becoming more common in the age of Big Data. Who needs theory when you have so much information? But this is categorically the wrong attitude to take toward forecasting, especially in a field like economics, where the data is so noisy. Statistical inferences are much stronger when backed up by theory or at least some deeper thinking about their root causes…

The value of big data isn’t simply in the answers it provides, but rather in the questions it suggests that we ask.

This follows a similar recent argument made on the Harvard Business Review website.

I like the emphasis here on the new kinds of questions that might be possible with big data. There are a couple of ways these could happen:

1. Uniquely large datasets might allow for different comparisons, particularly among smaller groups, that are more difficult to look at even with nationally representative samples.

2. The speed at which the experiments can be conducted through means like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk means more can be done more quickly. Additionally, I wonder if this could help alleviate some of the replication issues that pop up with scientific research.

3. Instead of having to be constrained by data limitations, big data might give researchers creative space to think on a larger scale and more outside of the box.

Of course, lots of topics are not well-suited for looking at through big data but such information does offer unique opportunities for researchers and theories.

Genius and creativity = “a probabilistic function of quantity”

I was recently reading a Malcolm Gladwell article about the invention of the computer mouse and came across this statistical definition of genius and creativity:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well”—meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too.

To put this in graph terms: as time increases, a creative person has an increasing number of ideas, a line with positive slope. Underneath this overall line of ideas is another positive line tracking the unsuccessful ideas and below that, increasing steadily but perhaps at a slower rate, is the line of successful ideas. In other words, the more overall ideas someone has, the more failures but also the more quality ideas.

The rest of the article is about creating the right structural environment to take advantage of ideas. Most groups and organizations won’t recognize all the best ideas but innovative organizations find ways to encourage and push the good ideas to the top. Indeed, the clincher at the end of the article is that Steve Jobs, supposedly one of the best innovators America has had in recent decades, missed some opportunities as well.

Improving sociological writing by putting in the form of a famous poem?

Academics are sometimes criticized for dense and jargon-laden prose. Here is one way to get around this: adopt the form of a well-known poem.

An academic has written a damning report on the shipping industry in the form of Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Professor Michael Bloor, of Cardiff University, spent 12 years, researching the conditions of maritime crews, including a month on a supertanker.

His study, called The Rime of the Globalised Mariner, is published in the academic journal Sociology.

He said he hoped the poetry would have more effect than “sociological prose”.

It would be interesting to get the inside view of the review process for this paper.

While I don’t envision a large number of academic studies now being written in poetic form, this does seem like it could be a useful exercise: see if you can express the same ideas in a different way. Perhaps this isn’t too different that asking students to write an exam essay paper in the form of a speech or to express some concepts in a skit: the process of “translating” the information into an extra form could aid retention as well as boost creativity.

As I noted in my notes on ASA 2012 in Denver, seeing sociologists express themselves (and I imagine participating in this as well) in different forms is rewarding. While we will continue our more scientific standards for most output, why not think more broadly and express ideas in ways that are more familiar to the general public?