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December 16, 2002

New Ideas: Drawing Blind, Cheap Movies, Evo Lit Crit


About once a month I seem to spend a sleepless night caused by middle-aged problems too mundane to mention here. While this is a bit of a problem on several fronts, it does allow me to get some reading done. As a result I went rummaging through the Sunday New York Times about 3 a.m. last night looking for something to read in a hot bath, and was grateful to come across their magazine, which this week is given over to “The Second Annual Year in Ideas.” Several of their stories would seem to be of interest to our readers:

The first story “Even Blind People Can Draw,” showcases the work of Professor John M. Kennedy of the University of Toronto, who has been asking blind people to make drawings. (The blind people in question have been blind from infancy, so they’re not relying on skills developed during a period of sightedness.) Interestingly, from the standpoint of various artistic arguments that have been waged over the years, they make line drawings. The lines are of two types—lines separating figure/ground interfaces (outlines) and “axial” lines where two planes come together (contour). Very interestingly, they also make drawings in perspective! I believe some blind people are better at this than others, but the same could be said about the sighted. As Professor Kennedy notes:

Can blind people draw, using outline? Yes, often somewhat recognizably and at times quite well. Further, occasionally vantage points are explicitly noted. Familiar complex objects such as dogs are difficult for the blind—but they are for the sighted too. And at least one person can draw such objects quite competently.

Granted, mathematical perspective isn’t technically dependent on vision, but it does require knowing where items are in three dimensions—the surprise here is that blind people are capable of determining such coordinates quite accurately by touch, something that appears to have caught the cognitive science community by surprise. For the comfort of the non-academic draftsmen among us, the blind are also capable of deliberate distortion, if they are trying to emphasize some element of the drawing (for example, by putting it in another location than it is “in nature”or to make it larger or smaller relative to the rest of the drawing.) You can read the NY Times article here and an excerpt from Professor Kennedy’s “Drawing and the Blind” here.

The second story concerned the rise of digital filmmaking, headlined “Escape from Turnaround, The.” Of course, the chief attraction of such digital productions currently is their low cost, but—putting my business hat on—low cost is low risk, and low risk allows for a lot more experimentation. One firm profiled briefly in this story is InDigEnt, which produces digital films. Apparently their most successful production was “Tadpole,” which was made for $250,000, shown successfully at a film festival, and then sold to Miramax, which spent $5 million distributing the “film” to theaters. I never saw “Tadpole” and probably never will—for all I know it could be the worst movie ever made—but the implications of this type of movie production are very interesting if one enjoys movies other than studio blockbusters. There are probably less than 10 organizations in the U.S. that can really afford to make $25 million movies and have any interest in doing so; there are undoubtedly hundreds or thousands that could make movies for $250,000. Some of these organizations must possess or be able to hire some genuine talent. You can read the story here.

The third story is “Darwinian Literary Criticism” which you can read here. Regrettably the author of the profile seems fundamentally disdainful of the insights that evolutionary biology can offer (but hey, that’s the New York Times for you—a highly conservative organization that works hard to make itself seem cutting edge.) Sample passage:

…in its current infant form, literary Dawinism is not always as sophisticated as the texts it seeks to critique. For one thing, like Darwinism itself, it posits that characters operate from a small set of shared drives—whereas novels interest us because they emphasize the idiosyncrasy of human behavior.

Of course, that would serve equally well as an argument against any critical methodology that lacks a specialist vocabulary sufficiently daunting to overawe armchair critics. I mean, what exactly is so sophisticated about the view of human nature presented in Marxist literary criticism? But I wander; after all, who am I to question the opinions of such an august literary mind? The real issue is that this trend is making large enough waves to get written about at all.



posted by Friedrich at December 16, 2002


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