Thinking Through Skelton (2)

In the first post in this exciting series, here, I wrote about Skelton’s poetry in relation to the cognitive science of Predictive Processing. I argued that Skelton plays with the distinction between stimuli that should change our predictions about the world, and stimuli that are just background noise. In this post, a different tack, although this idea of ‘noise’ remains relevant, in mutated form.

Here’s the background bit, which I’ll put in every post in this series. John Skelton wrote in the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He was a renowned scholar who had various jobs, including tutor to the future Henry VIII and Rector of Diss in Norfolk. Most of his poetry is satirical. It demonstrates his learning with lots of classical and Biblical references, and lots of ingenious wordplay. However, it also involves wild personal attacks, rough language, voices coming from the streets and taverns as well as the wealthy households and institutions of the day. Some of it is written in a short, sharp metre referred to as ‘Skeltonics’. This in itself gets across the unusualness of his writing: while there are many interesting comparisons in writings of his time (and others), there’s something unique about him. You can read a lot of his work, with helpful notes, at http://www.skeltonproject.org/. Because that resource is available, I won’t do any more than essential annotation of the bits I am discussing. I’ll be quoting, though, from John Scattergood’s edition published by Liverpool University Press, which is an updated version of his classic Penguin Classic. If you ask me, Skelton is at his best in ‘Speke Parott’, ‘Collyn Clout’, and ‘Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?’. Another poem not to be missed is ‘Ware the Hauke’.

PART 2: PUTTING THE WORDS BACK INTO YOUR MOUTH

A while ago (nearly three years ago!), I revelled in a particular theme: word aversion, the evidence that some words (‘moist’ was a key test case) provoke widespread negative responses. Happy times here, then here, and last of all here: Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman, puns, comedy clips, the lot. The science pointed towards semantic reasons for this. I thought about adding something to the mix by talking about the way that certain combinations of phonemes might make us think about words as things that are made with our mouths. That is, they seem like things that are formed by the body, lingering in a wet and sticky way, rather than things that are just passing through.
      Now, Skelton is an interesting case. There are words that might count as aversive, words that are lavishly redolent of all the disgust they try to convey. There also words that are positively delicious, rich parcels of etymological extravagance. Most pertinently for what I am getting at here, Skelton’s tricks with rhyme, multiple languages, and concatenating sequences, result in plenty of moments where we get to experience words as phonemes-in-formation, and as things that keep forcing lips and tongues and teeth and palates into specific shapes.
      So here’s a little extract from ‘Ware the Hauke’, which is a vigorous complaint about the behaviour of a priest, who let his pet hawk hunt in Skelton’s church. At this point in that extraordinary poem, Skelton is (partly) setting out some details:

      On Saynt Johan decollacyon
      He hawked on thys facyon,
      Tempore vesperarum,
      Sed non secundum Sarum
      But lyke a March harum
      His braynes were so parum. (100-105)

So, the event took place on the feast of the beheading of St John the Baptist (August 29th, ). He says it was at the time of the Vespers service, but not ‘secundum Sarum’, i.e. not according to the Sarum (Salisbury) code of practice, widely in use in the English church. I take this to be ironic punctiliousness. Then he says that the offending priest was mad, like a March hare, but ‘hare’ becomes ‘harum’ to keep the rhyme going. ‘Harum is actually a Latin word — a pronoun — but that doesn’t seem to add much except in that the Latinity partly continues. And then he insults the priest for having a tiny brain (‘parum’ is usually an adverb in Latin, but it might be an alternative form of the adjective ‘parvum’).
      I think the narrative purpose gets swept up in the repetition of ‘-um’. The meanings of the words and the linguistic play are important, but it also matters that each word finds its way of stopping on the reader’s lips. There are things to be said about the visual effect too, I think, and the extent to which all reading does or does not engage with sound, but it still seems alright to say that the physical formation of the ‘-um- sound is part of what is going on here. I might call Skelton’s poems ‘visceral’, and by that I would mean that they seem to involve the physical body, not only the guts, in the energy they create. But perhaps it would be interesting to get back to those studies of aversive language, and to think more about how they may be labial, dental, glottal, alveolar, and so on.

as Wikipedia tells me
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Thinking Through Skelton (1)

I’ve been fretting about this one. I suppose it’s because this decision to write some blog posts about Skelton involved me reading the whole of his poetry, and that took a while, and gave me a lot to think about. Also, I have been trying to fathom Skelton ever since I first read him. He has some excellent critics: recently I’ve been reading Jane Griffiths, and Greg Walker, and John Scattergood. They do such a good job. And yet… there’s something about his voice and style that keep pushing at my thinking and shaping my responses, and it makes me think (i) that there must be ways that cognitive science can offer insights into what Skelton’s poems are doing, and (ii) Skelton must have known some things about our brains. So here goes.

Here’s the background bit, which I’ll put in every post in this series. John Skelton wrote in the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He was a renowned scholar who had various jobs, including tutor to the future Henry VIII and Rector of Diss in Norfolk. Most of his poetry is satirical. It demonstrates his learning with lots of classical and Biblical references, and lots of ingenious wordplay. However, it also involves wild personal attacks, rough language, voices coming from the streets and taverns as well as the wealthy households and institutions of the day. Some of it is written in a short, sharp metre referred to as ‘Skeltonics’. This in itself gets across the unusualness of his writing: while there are many interesting comparisons in writings of his time (and others), there’s something unique about him. You can read a lot of his work, with helpful notes, at http://www.skeltonproject.org/. Because that resource is available, I won’t do any more than essential annotation of the bits I am discussing. I’ll be quoting, though, from John Scattergood’s edition published by Liverpool University Press, which is an updated version of his classic Penguin Classic. If you ask me, Skelton is at his best in ‘Speke Parott’, ‘Collyn Clout’, and ‘Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?’. Another poem not to be missed is ‘Ware the Hauke’.

PART I: NOISE AND PREDICTION

Recently I posted about the idea of ‘predictive processing’ and the ‘free energy principle’. The point was that many cognitive scientists now believe that our brains constantly model what they expect to happen next (visual information, movement, behaviour of others) and then modify these predictions when they receive real data. This process is always aiming at the elimination of surprise. In the posts on this (here and here) I wrote about some ideas about what happens when this goes wrong.
      One thing that caught my eye was the question of ‘noise’. That is, we pick up lots of signals from our environments. Some of these require us to adapt our predictions (if, say, the friend we’re talking to doesn’t laugh at a joke), but some don’t (if, say, a car goes by while we’re talking to the friend). The latter category as just ‘noise’. Some kinds of psychosis, for example, could usefully be seen as resulting from problems in this process. One of the more interesting to me is the failure to see noise as noise: background signals don’t get ignored, predictions and response go awry because that car passing by can’t be tuned out.
      How would this work in poetry? Well, the prediction bit isn’t hard to bring across. Genre, verse form, familiar story structures, the rhythms of syntax, and so on, are some of the many ways in which we generate expectations that get modified as we go on. Noise is harder to define. There are few genuinely irrelevant things, but we could imagine adjectives or bits of direct speech or incidental objects that make little or no impact on what we think might happen next. There are interesting subtleties in fiction: if someone coughs in real life we’re often going to see that as noise, but if someone coughs in a soap opera we should probably never see that as noise: we should be expecting tuberculosis, imminently. Alongside this, the experience of surprise is often positively pleasurable, something we seek out, so the conditions of literature must be different from those wherein the generalisation about surprise-avoidance is valid.
      What about Skelton? Well, I think that in Skelton’s poetry his copious style produces a lot of noise. So often he puts three (or six, or fourteen) words where two (or one) would do. It would be typical of him to line up words that are mostly synonyms, or have etymological links, but to include one that isn’t such a synonym, or has a less clear etymological link. Where does the noise start, and the data finish? I think seeing Skelton in the light of ‘predictive processing’ helps highlight the way that he disorients us in relation to this boundary. He puts us on edge, maybe even replicates something of what it is like to predict the world around you when the mental mechanisms are awry. And thereby, Skelton tunes acutely in to how the judgements of his readers can be unsettled and awakened.

Time to illustrate this with a few examples. This is a bit of ‘Ware the Hauke’, an extraordinary poem that is prompted by, and often focuses on, Skelton’s anger that a fellow clergyman has had the temerity to let his pet hawk hunt in the poet’s own church. The poem is a tour de force, in the sense that it goes on quite a tour, and unleashes quite a lot of force. Its sense of direction and proportion are frequently in question, and it’s a good example of the phenomenon described above: at what point in the list below do the names become something like noise, things that don’t change our predictions about where the poem is going? We know he is listing lots of tyrants, showing off, and that none of these tyrants ever did anything so terrible as letting a hawk hunt in Skelton’s church. (In these extracts I may comment on a word or a line or two: just run your mouse, or device-equivalent, over any highlighted bits.)

      Of no tyrand I rede,
      That so far dyd excede;
      Neyther yet Dyoclesyan,
      Nor yet Domysyan;
      Nor yet croked Cacus,
      Nor yet dronken Bacus;
      Nother Olybryus,
      Nor Dyonysyus;
      Nother Phalary,
      Rehersyd in Valery,
      Nor Sardanapall,
      Unhappyest of all;
      Nor Nero the worst,
      Nor Clawdyus the curst;
      Nor yet Egeas,
      Nor yet Syr ;
      Nother ,
      Nor cruel Jesabell;
      Nor yet Tarquinius,
      Whom Tytus Lyvyus
      In wrytynge doth enroll;
      I have red them poll by poll;
      The story of Arystobell,
      And of Constantynopell,
      Whiche cytie myscreantys wan,
      And slew many a Chrysten man;
      Yet the Sowden, not the Turke,
      Wrought never suche a worke,
      For to let their hawkys fly
      In the church of Saynt Sophy;
      With moch matter more,
      That I kepe in store. (190-221)

Next, is a passage from ‘Why Come Ye Nat To Courte?’. As part of his attack on Wolsey, Skelton represents the troubled and fretful streets of London, and especially the hunger for news of corruption and calamity. In one great section, the cry ‘what newes?’ leads to various things, some of which must matter more than others: the designation of noise again becomes an issue.

      What newes? What news?
      Small newes that true is
      That be worth .ii. kues.
      But at the naked stewes
      I understande how that
      The Sygne of the Cardynall Hat,
      That inne, is now shyt up,
      With, ‘Gup, hore, gup! Now gup,
      Gup, Guilliam Travillian!
      With, ‘Jast you, I say, Jullian!
      Wyll ye bere no coles!
      A mayny of marefoles
      That occupy theyr holys;
      Full of pocky molys.
      What here ye of Lancashyre?
      They were nat payde their hyre.
      They are fel as any fyre!
      What here ye of Chesshyre?
      They have layde all in the myre.
      They grugyd and sayde
      Theyr wages were nat payde.
      
      Of the Scottysshe hoost.
      For all theyr crack and bost,
      Wylde fyre and thonder;
      For all this worldly wonder,
      A hundred myle asunder
      They were, whan they were next.
      This is a trew text!
      What here ye of the Scottes?
      They make us all sottes,
      Poppynge folysshe dawes.
      They make us to pyll strawes;
      They play their olde pranckes
      After Huntley Bankes.
      At the streme of Banockesburne
      They dyd us a shrewde turne,
      Whan Edwarde of Karnarvan
      Lost all his father wan. (233-71)

What I’ve tried to do here, then, is present Skelton’s particular style in relation to some ideas in the Predictive Processing field. If the goal is to limit Free Energy, to limit surprise and keep predicting smoothly, then Skelton makes that hard. He causes a kind of psychological edginess (not discomfort, necessarily; this is all pretty enjoyable) because we’re not sure when the significant bits start and end. He knows this, of course: these are experiments, undisciplined and control-free experiments, with no ethical clearance whatsoever, into how readers respond. In future posts I’ll say a bit more about why all of this might work as a satirical technique.

Scattergood’s note: ‘… the tyrannous giant heathen king of Alexandria who defied Charlemagne…’. Do we see some particular significance here, or is Skelton flashing names?
Scattergood’s note: ‘Why Zerubbabel appears here is not clear. He was entrusted by Cyrus with the rebuilding of the temple… Skelton may have in mind Haggai i 4-6, where Zerubbabel is criticized for not getting on with the work’. Again, do we see some particular significance here, and what are the rewards for knowing, or searching one’s memory, or looking up, who this is?
Skelton unsettles our sense of what’s noise and what’s not.
Scattergood wonders whether Skelton was remembering that some soldiers from Lancashire and Cheshire had reportedly fled the battle of Flodden some years earlier. Perhaps this is the sort of detail that people would have understood at the time, but which just cannot be recovered now. However, perhaps the ‘some sayde’ points somewhere else. Perhaps this is a meeting of the unconstrained invective of Skelton with the multi-faceted and undiscriminating voices of rumour. They meet in a kind of noise, where it’s hard to say what matters and what does not.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Something That Films Know About Your Brain

James E. Cutting and Kacie L. Armstrong, ‘Cryptic Emotions and the Emergence of a Metatheory of Mind in Popular Filmmaking’, Cognitive Science, 42 (2018), 1-28, doi: 10.1111/cogs.12586.

I’m just not ready to start writing blog posts about Skelton’s poetry yet. Give me another week. Maybe being on strike will make me feel more in tune with the urgency of the satirical voice. I don’t really expect anyone reading this to be engaged by this dramatic announcement, but there it is anyway.

*

Here’s something interesting. Cutting and Armstrong tell a story about the history of cinema with psychological ramifications. They are interested in reaction shots, and especially what they call ‘cryptic reaction shots’: ‘They depict a facial gesture that reflects a slightly negative and slightly aroused emotional state. Their use at the end of conversations, and typically at the end of scenes, helps to leave viewers in a state of speculation about what the character is thinking and what her thoughts may mean for the ongoing narrative’.
      Film-making, they say, ‘bootstraps from a large suite of psychological principles’, with ‘hard-won discoveries of framing, pacing, staging’ resulting from ‘trial and error’ and (crucially) some interesting ideas about our ways of understanding other minds seem to have ‘preceded systematic psychological study’. So they are advocating careful analysis of the history of film, because in order to make good work, creative artists have often had to have (at least) convincing and interesting ideas (may even good ideas, correct ideas) about how our thinking works.
      So that seems to be pretty close to what this blog is partly all about: the pursuit of insights into psychological subtleties that can be drawn out of the literary tradition. So, yes, I enjoyed reading this article!

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

More on Kidd and Castano

Rolf Zwaan, ‘A Replication With A Wrinkle’, https://rolfzwaan.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/a-replication-with-wrinkle.html

Oh dear oh dear I had planned to be posting about some of the stuff mentioned here by now, but it’s brewing a bit slowly. I don’t like to leave it too long between posts, so here’s one about some old friends.
      Kidd and Castano are getting to be legends on this blog, and rightly so. Their 2013 paper, arguing that reading literary fiction enhances our capacities to empathise with others, looks like a massive validation of my life choices. And yet, reluctantly, I find it hard to believe. So I have kept track of some ups and downs in its subsequent reception (e.g. here and here, and there are onward links to follow).
      This blog post by Rolf Zwaan links to two versions of a report on his attempt to replicate one key effect, where a difference was observed between literary fiction and non-literary fiction. In the Kidd and Castano paper, there was a difference between the empathy-bonus that resulted from reading proper serious fiction, and the one from just any old fiction. Wow, but don’t ask me to draw the line. In the first paper about his replication attempt, in Dutch, Zwaan et al. reported no effect of that sort; but in the second, written in English and after further analysis, they reported an effect.
      A strange and arresting scenario! The reason for the discrepancy, Zwaan explains, was a decision about what to do about the definition of reading. It seems reasonable to say that only those who had spent a certain amount of time looking at a passage could be described as having read it, and only those people should be included in the study. Zwaan et al. had set one threshold, Kidd and Castano another (actually a lower threshold, requiring less time per page); the former researchers applied the latter’s threshold to their own analysis, and got a new result.
      This is all very thought-provoking: about the subtleties of replication attempts, about the persistence of Kidd and Castano’s conclusions, but most of all, to me at least, about how you decide someone has read something properly. How long does it take to read a novel, after all? What relationship is there between the time taken and the benefits acquired, whatever they may be? The difficulty of answering that question seems like a reason why experience of fiction, or of any art, is an awkward basis for experiment. It seems right to hold each subject to some basic standards, but time, and place, and so on, may be experienced very differently by different people.

*

Also in replication news, I found this article interesting, a reflection on the current wave of replication attempts. It’s interesting, seeing different perspectives on the question ‘what are we doing to ourselves?’.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Movement in Renaissance Literature

Movement in Renaissance Literature: Exploring Kinesic Intelligence, ed. Kathryn Banks and Timothy Chesters (Palgrave, 2017)

So this book has suddenly arrived, and I have an essay in it. I keep drafting sentences which grow to resemble Pindaric Odes, not in a good way, as I praise and thank the editors and the contributors. The thing is, this is one outcome of a particularly happy phase in my research career (not over yet!), thinking about fascinating things with fascinating people. I don’t think my enthusiasm for the line-up is just a matter of friendship, though — with essays (in order of appearance in the book) by Terence Cave, Ulrich Langer, Timothy Chesters, Kathryn Banks, Guillemette Bolens, Dominique Brancher, Laura Seymour, Mary Thomas Crane, Evelyn Tribble, and Ellen Spolsky (and me too), this is a really good way into a cool field.

I have written about kinesic intelligence on the blog here, and a little bit here. The phrase denotes the way that we draw inferences from our sensorimotor responses. It has been shown that our brains mirror, or simulate (no metaphor is perfect) the movements of others, and it has been plausibly argued that this is a basis on which we engage with others, interpret their intentions, understand their motivations, and so on. In literature, for example in descriptions of apparently minor gestures in novels, this ability is awakened, tested, and thought over.
      My essay is about ‘Vital Signs in Shakespeare’. I focused on the signs of life that an audience might look for when characters in his plays — as they frequently do — are on the border between death and animation. We might look out for breath, warmth, the feeling of weight, stirring. I argue that in the theatre we look at these things as the incidental by-products of a character’s being alive, but also as the intentional actions of a skilled actor handling a difficult challenge in their work. In the Shakespearean theatre our kinesic intelligence is engaged by the most basic signs of life via a curious route: we learn something about what it is like to be alive by thinking about what it takes to pretend to be alive. It was fun to write, and now it’s part of a book I heartily recommend.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk