Penalty Kicks and Distributed Movement

Gabriel Dias, graduate student at RPI, has recently modeled the way in which penalty kickers move their bodies as they prepare for a shoot. His findings suggest that there are several “tells” – for example, the angle of the hips, or the position of the planted foot – which predict the ultimate direction of the shot. In the PBS interview that I’ve linked to above, he alludes to the existence of “distributed” movements which show the physical commitment of the kicker to one outcome or another. I hear the word distributed and I immediately think, “integrated physical system,” like a body that is constrained to do certain things because of the way its different parts interact. We see this integration in the competitive world of athletics and the expressive realm of dance. (Perhaps the adjectives here should be reversed?)

In our analysis of texts, we have also find distributed movements of a sort. We find, that is, that certain types of words tend to move with each other in some genres, and others move away from one another. Does this mean that genre is a physical system like penalty kicking, and that our explanation of these distributed movements – of words rather than points on a body – are themselves grounded in a physical reality? I have myself offered analogies to describe this “commitment of weight” in the process of using words to do certain things: if you want to write a Shakespearean comedy, there are certain things you are likely to do: you will tend to use more first and second person singular pronouns and less description than you would in, say, a history play. If Docuscope is the goalie/keeper, it may need only 30 or 40 lines to decide that the ball is going to go toward comedy rather than history. Other things will be ignored as incidental. If say that tagging a play and watching how its “points” move in a mathematical space is like biotagging a kicker and studying his or her movements, I am proposing an analogy. Like kicking, writing is a behavior. In certain situations (penalty kicking, writing for the stage), some aspects of this behavior are signal or cardinal — position of hips, use of pronouns –while others are inessential, like the curve of the kicker’s index finger. (Actually, given the dynamism of the human body, I would be surprised to find out that there is not, on some level, a connection between finger position and kick.)

So, does this mean I am advocating an essentially structuralist account of genre? Am I saying that, because language use is a behavior, then writing in a particular genre is also a behavior with certain “tells” that are, in a sense, built into the physical system of writing? I think people who are doing iterative criticism need to have an intelligent answer to this question, complete with an analysis of its underlying analogy. My answer would be that writing fiction in a historically bound literary field does, like penalty kicking, count as a behavior and that such behaviors will exhibit coordination. There is as much connective tissue in language, grammar, plot and audience expectation as there is in the fabric of the human body. But this is not the same thing as saying that there is an essential structure to particular types of writing – that the existence of a tell implies an underlying recipe, essence or structure that is genetically dictating the behavior of the writer.

Why doesn’t structuralism follow from linguistic integration? First, writing is not like penalty kicking. Dias chose penalty kicking because it is a binary physical outcome. With respect to the standing keeper, the ball goes left or right. Language, on the other hand, is like a flock of birds: it can break any way, 360 degrees, and is doing so dynamically at all times. “Yet the flock shows direction,” you say. “Individual birds may be wobbling left and right, up or down, but there is a recognizable trajectory within the group.” Perhaps there are deterministic ways of saying where this group is going to go next, but I doubt it. The total behavior is distributed, immanent: it has massive integrity as an aggregate, but the existence of that integrity does not imply some non-negotiable locus of control. Another way of saying this, and now I am channeling Whitehead, is to say that the direction of the flock is a continuously unfolding event or “society” of actual occasions. Thus, the penalty kicking example is good for showing entailment and distributed connection in the elements of literary linguistic analysis, but bad as a model for the errant and multiple trajectories of writing.

The existence of the tell essentially pushes back the timeline of intelligibility of the direction of the ball. A good keeper or student of physiology – like a good literary critic – will know earlier than most what kind of behavior is being exhibited. But unlike a keeper in a football game, the critic is not looking for a binary outcome. Rather, the critic or spectator is comparing the unfolding action onstage to any number of possible theatrical “types” of entertainment and generic conventions. Shakespeare takes five penalty shots at a time, all the time. If you are interested in this aspect of the play – its participation in comic conventions – yes, there will be “signal” or orienting linguistic events at the level of the line which you could consult to predict what he is about to do. But you don’t have to consult the tells and this is not a penalty kick: you already know what is going on and, indeed, are a better judge of the texture and generic tonalities of the play as it unfolds than a keeper who has to wait for the ball to be kicked. (Docuscope really is a keeper; it knows nothing until the event happens.) As we have seen in our research, human beings are massively sensitive to variations and distributed cues in linguistic behavior. We make an astonishing number of connections between the kinds of variation we see among the plays and texts we have encountered. Finding out that there is a linguistic “tell” for comedy doesn’t then mean that comedy essentially or structurally “is” the series of tells we reliably find for it. The “tells” here are a parallel description — and this, after the fact — of a perceptual reality that we render qualitatively and immediately, in our feel for certain types of writing or stories.

I have used the words “signal,” “cardinal” and “orienting” to describe the types of tokens that serve as good landmarks for genre in this alternative descriptive universe. I do not use “essential.” As we work further through this analogy between physical and linguistic behaviors, I think we should adopt Spinoza’s metaphysical position from the Ethics, that there is a parallelism between the twin domains of thought and extended physical beings. Neither has priority. When understood as a species of behavior, theatrical writing or literary production must obviously exhibit certain empirical regularities: it takes place on the fleshy platform of human consciousness and is constrained by the physical limits of our bodies, environment and history. As critic, I would want to insist that no material factor – the practices and limitations of stagecraft, the documented or remembered history of past performances, the politically charged distribution of resources and cultural actors – can be a priori excluded as unexpressable in the behavior that is writing. All constraints are summed and expressed, but in different amounts. But I would also want to insist that– whatever the behavior is that we are tracking – there has to be in place a certain set of agreements to make sense of the “movements” in this system as such. I have to want to count “these types” of words and not those. I have to search for significant coordination of these counted things with respect to “this type of outcome” and not another. Someone has to have the desire to study penalty kicks, for example, or authorship, or genre: behaviors don’t simply want to study themselves.

The tell is a “sign” that speaks for the kicker, and speaks early. It is a signal event worth attending to if you are a keeper. It is simultaneously an element in a causal sequence, constrained by events prior to it, and a negotiable sign or expression of an intention to do something. It is a physical way of saying, “I mean to kick the ball this way.” The point of the parallelism is that you never get to dump one half of the phenomenon. Leaning to the left, we acknowledge: all physical tells may be redescribed as expressions of an intention, and so tokens of meaning. But inclining to the right, we say: all tokens of meaning are, on some level, also indexes of empirical constraints. The keeper has to dive both ways.

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