Today (and over the next few posts) I want to talk to you about work that my friend Peli Grietzer has been doing. But don’t worry, I’m still going to talk almost exclusively about myself.
Peli’s work, for me, is like my mother-in-law’s blue cheese gnocchi. I despise blue cheese and I despise gnocchi. Yet somehow what she made was delicious. So, if you like blue cheese, great! If you like gnocchi, even better! (If you like both, uh, you shouldn’t be here, because you should be reading the source materials.) But if you hate them both, I’m here to show you why you should please try it anyway, because it is delicious.
The Blue Cheese
Machine learning. Artificial intelligence. Neural networks. Oh my, do I hate this stuff (sorry, Peli!). I mean okay, it’s not that I hate it hate it. It’s that I am disinterested in (and overwhelmed by) the details and terrified of the implications. I have a complete distrust of artificial intelligence and an old-school fear of the inevitable robot takeover. (Okay actually what I distrust is humanity. I do not trust humans not to make some great technological advance that will kill us all. It could be robots. It could be capitalism. Whatever.) Peli’s work relies on the ideas and mathematics of autoencoders which are machine learning thingies (more later) and it turns out that what they do (when talked about gently, without what I assume is a daunting amount of detail) is actually quite interesting as long as I pretend that they don’t actually exist.
Literary criticism. Okay, so I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but Peli was in the comparative literature department. (Hey, funny story, it turns out that “comparative literature” means more than “comparing literature.”) So while the part that makes the most sense to me is the mathematics of autoencoders (I’m looking at you, submanifolds), all of that is actually applied to the discussion of literary aesthetics. Fair warning: I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. He builds his ideas of aesthetics in reference to other things I’ve obviously never heard of and haven’t bothered to learn about, so I’m probably not going to talk about those things. And honestly what interests me is not really where his ideas fit in with other people’s ideas about the meaning or value (or ?) of various works of literature. I am interested more as a reader of words. As someone whose brain struggles to turn individual words into concepts and who fights with concepts to communicate them as individual words. Like I said, everything I write is ultimately about myself.
Putting it Together
Peli’s PhD thesis and subsequent writings use the mathematics of a specific type of machine learning dohickey to explain how when we learn the-way-that-a-work-of-literature-is (through its aesthetics) we are learning something about the world, and we are learning it in a provably most-efficient way. Peli calls this way of learning “ambient meaning,” and the things we learn “vibes.”
Why it’s delicious to me
Here’s where I break my analogy. I have no clue why my mother-in-law’s blue cheese gnocchi was delicious. It was not some kind of turning point in my life. I continue to think that blue cheese tastes like crumbly life mistakes, and I still feel like gnocchi is like if pasta decided to be an oral adhesive for Halloween. But I can tell you exactly why I love Peli’s work:
1. It’s cool. Okay don’t fact-check this, but I’m pretty sure that putting ideas from completely different worlds together to make something new is basically the definition of cool.
2. OMG I LOVE ANALOGIES!!!
something else and this is how you can trap me forever.
The practice of using one scenario to understand a completely unrelated scenario, mapping framework to framework, brings me pure joy. And if you can actually produce new knowledge as a result?
I’m going to be way explicit with the analogies because you can’t tell me how to live my life.
3. I’ve got a thing for vibes.
This is personal to me. I love things. Not stuff, not junk, and not consumerism. But I love things. Objects. The set of items loved by someone. The set of things that make someone irrationally angry. The shoes and jackets and books you absolutely will not be parting with. I love how a table setting can tell you about a person’s priorities. Or how walking down a narrow street on a rainy day might instantly remind you of Paris. Of course, it’s not really the objects I love. It’s the words I imbue them with. I have a long and complicated relationship with words or, really, with meaning. I taught myself to read in or by pre-school, but I was always “bad at reading comprehension.” I excelled at French and Italian grammar but never became fluent in them. Growing up, the patterns of doing math basically fell into my brain effortlessly, but when I showed up unprepared at graduate school, I found that there was something profound and seemingly unidentifiable that I was missing. I would have the requisite knowledge, and I’d have the accurate definitions, but there would be no meaning.
When Peli talks about the vibe of a work of literature, he’s talking about that (real world) meaning that is extra from the things in the work itself. And the interesting thing about autoencoders is how they turn a set of inputs into a system of meaning that is better (more efficiently computed) than the initial data-set. This, of course, is not going to make me fluent in French or math, but these ideas are just very dear to my heart. (Also, when somebody asks me why I don’t like such-and-such-book-whose-content-I-am-obviously-interested-in I can confidently report “Sorry, I’m a vibe-snob, and this just doesn’t cut it for me.” That was something I have desperately needed, as anyone who knows what kind of books I do read will attest to.)
My plan here is to explain my understanding of Peli’s work which is going to be different from the work itself because I am a weirdo. His dissertation was split into three parts, and that’s what I’ll do: Autoencoding, Things, Meaning.
Relevant writings of Peli Grietzer
Theory of Vibe: a recent article in Glass Bead (a good summary of everything)
Deep Learning, Literature, and Aesthetic Meaning, With Applications to Modernist Studies: Précis of May ’17 HUJI Einstein Institute of Mathematics talk (a lecture aimed at math people)
From ‘A Literary Theorist’s Guide to Autoencoding’ (an excerpt from the first chapter of his PhD thesis, introducing autoencoders)
Ambient Meaning: Mood, Vibe, System (the Phd thesis)