Essays on cinematic narrative. The focus is a set of dynamics collected under the concept of folding, a related system of techniques to model agency and causality.

Some Underlying Methodology

Published: 7 May 2012

We’ve approached this project with a few goals, one of which is to model cinematic and narrative dynamics in such a way that we can effectively communicate the ideas. The idea is for FilmsFolded to contain meaningful essays that at least have the potential to matter. We want to do this so that we can use some visual language, perhaps somewhere between concepts that are communicated in writing and those that are communicated cinematically. But the most challenging benchmark is that we want to build a cinematically, narratively aware community of agents. In other words, we want to build what has eluded some very smart, well funded folks: build a system that can fall in love.

This note describes a central concept that gives us some leverage that others don’t have. Behind this idea is a whole lot of formal mechanisms, logical and mathematical. Here, we just outline the big idea in terms that we hope a general reader can access.

The idea is simple and can be expressed as understand first; abstract second. It is based on the obvious notion that the world is not logical — at least not logical in the sense we normally think of logic. Some elements do seem to be: those that involve simple chemistry and physics. But even in physics most of the stuff that actually happens has to be modeled by a different set of rules that go far outside the bounds of ordinary logic. Human dynamics, love and art in all their rich dimensions, for example, are in our lives and we ‘get it.’

In fact, a case can be made that hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution has shaped our cognitive machinery to work in some deep, subtle ways. The relatively recent invention of logic helps us structure our language to communicate, not to reason internally. Our minds don’t use it except when we explain, and once we get into the real stuff of life — all the important stuff that good films swim in — it just won’t do.

So a common error is to think of the world as if it were intrinsically logical and that all we have to do is find the rules, the laws, of that logic. This is an idea in fact that we find in our detective genre behind noir. The assumption has its roots in the Sherlock Holmes era, when it really did seem that everything in the universe would succumb to the scientific method. Darwin appeared to give some solid scientific shape to creation. Freud was proposing a scientific approach to the mind and urges. Many scientific groups (including the author of the Holmes stories) were formed to ‘explain’ such things as ghosts, angels and telepathy. A series of systems also emerged to explain god, sometimes referring to lost science of the ancients; I have a study of one such system in the GeoKabbalitter History Area that has historical significance.

This wrongheaded idea — in terms we will use here — is that the world exists and works; that it can beabstracted into logic; and that the resulting models will give us insight and perhaps some control over parts of the world. In other words, abstract first (into logic) and understand second.

Newton, forexample, abstracted the behavior he saw into the laws of gravity, using some logic-based tools he invented (integral calculus), and we have since then worked with his abstractions as if they gave us deep insight into the way the world works.

New Logics

Passion, logic and experience first.

Edited on 10 Dec 2013: to correct Abramsky's name.

Now as it happens, the better scientists have known this is a problem for a long time. Ordinary logic was apparently invented by Greeks. It is simple, attractive machinery, but just not good enough so the theory goes. So we need better, or more expanded logic. It has been almost 80 years since this notion was clearly stated and some very bright folks have been working to create some new abstraction tools to help us. Some of these involve sophisticated notions of geometric logic, something that can be called a logic of logic (category theory) and ways to integrate probability in to the logical abstractions.

This is way cool stuff. But the basic problem — why I think we have seen no progress — is that the method still assumes that you get the abstractions right first (guided by problems in what you observe); you abstract the world into this new abstract machinery and that helps you understand it. It is this food chain that is wrong: invent abstractions, abstract the world, use that to understand.

Our trick is simple, and it assumes that our minds are powerful enough to understand subtle parts of the world, even if we lack the means to completely communicate what we get. This is what art is all about: good artists present the world in ways that we obtain some experience, some greater expansion. For instance we can be moved by dance and even say something about the dance and being moved, but our experience registers.

So we propose a reversal of the usual approach. We think we can understand some things directly, without going through the filter of logic. Once these genuine understandings have been registered, then we use the best formal tools to come up with new logics, or something that stands in the place of logics. That is because these experiences have agency and can cause things to change, both in the initiator of the experience (like an artist), and the receiver, but also among the experiences themselves, depending on the order of the experiences.

What does this mean for FilmsFolded?

Well, it means three things.

  • It means that we approach films for how they touch us in our most human places. We open our selves to the experience, sometimes taking risks and going much deeper than the filmmaker may have intended (or even understood). I suppose this is a bit like a pharmaceutical researcher experimenting on herself to see how she changes. But I know of no other honest way to work with these dynamics but to digest them.
  • It means that there has to be an extraordinary level of introspection concurrent with the development of tools to see ones self. For this to work, there have to be some associated means to express these observations. It is not enough to feel, and to know something about the feeling; there needs to be a channel from me to you (and possibly back) not unlike the channel from the filmmaker to us. The IMBD comment experience has largely been an exercise in this. A connected development is that my collaborator in the development of the narrative dynamics has become my lover, and we invest the introspection with passion.
  • And finally, it means we hope to produce something useful to feed this novel food chain: effect, insight, structured abstractions. We’ll do that with concepts here in FilmsFolded. In the Kutachi Project area we will look for ordered visual means to express some of those insights and we may use some simple graphics here. The Topoiesis Project works on the mathematical and programming code side. All of this together may — if we are lucky — instance in an online tool in the tool area.

We are not the first to suggest this reversal of the usual approach. It was suggested by collaborator (the late) Jon Barwise and is now practiced by Samson Abramsky at Oxford, but only in the limited scope of a better approach to physics. If you wish to follow some history and contemporary context, check out our note on Quantum Interaction in the Kutachi Area.

The standard story on Nash is that he was genetically a schizophrenic and also a brilliant mathematician. The one imposed on the other tragically, in the same way that Stephen Hawking is cursed. This was underscored by the recent movie and the inaccurate but appealing book on which it is based.

My own opinion is quite different. I did take a Nash class when at MIT, but I cannot say it informed this opinion. It was taught by one of his grad students, possibly a lover, when Nash was in the crazy lockup. The opinion instead comes from discussions with his peers, and some study of the phenomenon.

I believe he had extraordinary control over his vision, so much control that he was able to take it beyond the limits of safety we have devised over the eons. You take enormous chances with this, insight for risk. If you press and press and press, the mine will collapse at some point. I believe that this is what happened to Nash, complicated by his failure to abandon his quest and the crude electrical and chemical brain traumas the doctors applied.

It was a tragedy of imagination, and one I thought I saw underway with Dick.

Actually, even this very clear example shows the problem. So-called Newtonian mechanics work for most people 100% of the time, and nearly so for rocket scientists. Two unhappy facets of reality impinge. One is that so far as most of the universe is concerned (in the very large and the very small) these abstractions are wrong and have to be fixed by a whole new set of abstractions associated with quantum mechanics and relativity. Even those don’t work some of the time.

More vexing is that even with our best tools we can only describe the effects of gravity. We have no idea — none whatever — of what gravity actually is, what causes it. Our mental apparatus is all about cause, and much of the best science is. We have some good abstractions for causality in other areas of the world. That we cannot relate these to gravity is the troubling ‘unified field theory’ problem.

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© copyright Ted Goranson, 2012