Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Spring 2021

Volume 47 Issue 3
    • 425Lydia H. Liu
    • This article brings to light how AI research has benefited from post-Wittgensteinian philosophy. My research shows that Wittgenstein’s work began to engage the attention of AI researchers not only in the 1970s down to the present but right from the early beginnings of computational research in the 1950s. More specifically, his later philosophy inspired a group of researchers called the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU) to start one of the first programs in machine translation, information retrieval, mechanical abstracting, and knowledge representation technologies in the early 1950s, all of which have later been claimed for AI and cognitive science. I focus on the philosophical work of CLRU founder Margaret Masterman and her extraordinary but forgotten contributions to ordinary language philosophy.

    • 456Joshua Kotin
    • “Poems That Kill” examines the connection between poetry and revolution in Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” (1965) and in general. The article tracks how Baraka uses poetry to start or advance a revolution in his own life, in the lives of his contemporaries, in poetry, in our present moment, and in the future. The article also discusses poetic address (how poems address readers), sincerity, ambiguity, and hate speech.

    • 477Marjorie Garber
    • Paul Robeson was a remarkable singer, a brilliant actor, and an engaged political activist. In his college years he was a football star. Throughout his life he campaigned for the rights the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. His most famous theatrical role was Othello; when he played the part in London and in New York he was one of the first black actors to do so. The New York production ran on Broadway longer than any other William Shakespeare play had done. But Robeson’s life, which included political and racial attacks, the loss of his US passport, and claims that he was “un-American” (he visited the Soviet Union and compared its treatment of minorities favorably to that of the United States) led to a series of encounters in which Othello, both the role and the play, was in effect reenacted in public, culminating in Robeson’s eloquent testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This essay traces the connections, and the sometimes-uncanny crossovers, between Robeson’s life and Shakespeare’s play.

    • 502Robert Hullot-Kentor
    • Aesthetic form is a figure moving through a rain storm, an image perhaps from Susanne Langer, one illuminatingly apposite to Theodor W. Adorno’s concept of form, drawn from the idea of determinate negation—though Adorno never would have provided so open-handed an image. But Langer and Adorno’s thinking in any case derives ensemble from what is a secret to no one who has ever thought about it, as is easily documented in a pinch by thousands of years of Neoplatonists. And if that one insight is commonly given with or without philosophical qualification, the problem of the perception, presentation, and comprehension of that movement—which is anything but a fact, except in the etymological sense of being a deed, and may not be there to be seen at all—its critical discernment, hardly amounting to yea or nay, inevitably runs up against the puzzle that it can neither be imitated or simply discussed. Though without an element of each, and not as if they might just be stirred together, what is at stake is failed. But whatever the difficulties involved, and they are necessarily insuperable, what is first of all important, so far as this commentary on Samuel Beckett’s What Where is concerned, is that Beckett himself found this, his last work for the theater, on stage a failure. All the same, the sense in which this work is Beckett’s Tempest is the reason for this close commentary of the work’s stage script. The intention here, then, is the reverse of Adorno’s essay on Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, which was a labor in the disillusionment of a reputed masterpiece (Alienated Masterpiece). It should be noted, incidentally, that the discussion of the Westminster Chimes, which here figures centrally, is not a claim to establish the work’s origins but an aspect of that problem of presentation, already mentioned. So far as the origin of this essay goes, however, it is written in memory of Rolf Tiedemann (1932–2018) in appreciation of his magisterial editions of the collected works of Adorno and Walter Benjamin, his life work.

    • 525Evan Kindley
    • This article explores the concept of the network as it appears in the early writing of the literary scholar Hugh Kenner. Anticipating the widespread use of network in the humanities today, Kenner adapts the term from Marshall McLuhan and uses it throughout the 1950s and ’60s to think about intellectual networks, little magazines, and academic communication. The network concept is also considered in light of Kenner’s political conservatism and his participation in the midcentury movement of conservatism.

    • 544Louis Sass
    • This essay argues for the necessity of a phenomenological perspective on mind and mental disorder while also emphasizing the inherent difficulty of adopting such an orientation. Here I adopt a via negativa approach—by considering three forms of error that the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty recognize as needing to be guarded against, lest they subvert the project of attaining an adequate understanding of consciousness or subjectivity: namely (1) prejudices deriving from theory and common sense, (2) distorting effects of reflection, and (3) what Heidegger termed the forgetting of the ontological difference. Phenomenology insists on the importance of studying subjective life while also acknowledging the epistemological paradoxes inherent to this domain—a domain whose very self-evidence is inseparable from mystery, whose visibility conceals a deeper invisibility. I consider these issues in light of phenomenology’s relevance for certain issues in psychopathology and literary representation.

    • 565Josh Ellenbogen andAdam Jolles
    • This article examines the emergence and flowering of visual-literacy discourse in the 1960s, locating it in the photographic milieu of Rochester, New York, whose high-profile institutions—the Kodak Company, Aperture magazine, and the George Eastman House—made significant use of the term. As these institutional actors deployed the term, they also harnessed it to practices involving sequential photography. In doing so, we argue that they established a set of concerns by which photo critics entered into dialogue with photographers and curators, developing perspectives that helped shape photography well into the following decade.

    • 592Mingyi Yu
    • The word algorithm has become the default descriptor for anything vaguely computational to the extent that it appears synonymous with computing itself. It functions in this respect as the master signifier under which a spectrum of sense is subsumed, less a well-defined and stable expression than the vehicle through which innumerable concerns are projected. Commenting on this nebulous quality, Massimo Mazzotti has dubbed the term “a site of semantic confusion.” Yet, rather than “engaging in a taxonomic exercise to norm the usage of the word,” Mazzotti proposes that a more generative approach would “consider its flexible, ill-defined, and often inconsistent meanings as a resource: a messy map of our increasingly algorithmic life”—that is, he attempts to take “the omnipresent figure of the algorithm as an object that refracts collective expectations and anxieties.” Similarly, this study has little fondness for semantic discipline. Unlike Mazzotti, however, my focus here is primarily historical: How did the algorithm come to be such an “omnipresent figure”? What was at stake in aligning the computational with the algorithmic?