Structuralist and Post-structuralist analysis of survey below

First of all, one may argue with each of the opinions that responders voiced in my survey. This is not post-structuralist deconstruction yet, but it is a place to start. The scary terms in the title will be defined shortly.

  • “Grad students with minimal income and no family” – there are tons of professions that live basically on minimal wage, unless you hit the jackpot. Music journalists, movie actors, standup comedians, aspiring writers, software engineers and traveling salesmen. We’re in a good company. A structuralist approach will claim that feelings of people in all above groups are essentially the same, but more on that below.
  • “Talking to people … not… interesting. If they come and talk to us, of course we would keep the conversation” – there’s an inconsistency right here! This is more of a deconstruction – we find flaws in the text by careful examination of it, not even bringing in external evidence.
  • “A movie star!” – is an interesting substitute for real people who have to struggle with real problems, maybe very different from ours. It is somehow easy to think about movie stars.
  • “You meet a lot of people when you’re young, but then it shrinks to your coworkers and friends.” – that’s only true for introverts, as another voice pointed out.
  • “We can’t talk to people – in one minute we’re back to talking science.” – that’s just a TV trope, we’re not actually like this.
  • “There was a sci-fi book” which was obviously intended to be popular among scientists, thus exploited the stereotypical thing we can relate to.
  • “Extroverts are not in gradschool” – well, there was one right in that room, and the last two responses are from him.

The takeout message from the common sense approach is that grad students indeed perceive isolation from other sides of life, but are not very good at explaining the reasons for it. The attitudes fall into three categories: personal choice (this is interesting for me thus I’m here), born like this (I’m talented in this field not in others thus I’m here). The third category is not voiced easily, but shows up in the tone and details of responses: unfair rejection (they won’t talk to me so I’m here). Imagining that “a movie star won’t talk to you” is one of the examples.

Now lets look at the same text using structuralist tools. The term means for our purposes: we expect to find the same structure in the text as in other texts coming from seemingly unrelated sources. Or we split the text in pieces and use the templates already developed by famous structuralists for individual pieces of other texts.

Unfortunately we don’t have access to similar surveys made in closed groups like IT support, undergraduate students, students of other departments or less-known theater companies. We expect them to have the same uncertainty about how other people see them, the same societal pressure about low income and no way to support a family. They may have hard time talking to people who don’t know the inside jokes of their group.

What about monasteries? The book mentions a postapocalyptic version of them, where scientists are kept inside by force. In the real world it’s more of a conscious decision. The religious culture makes them hide away any regrets they may have about joining the monastery, so a similar survey may have only silence as an answer. Yet even our free and witty grad students hesitated about voicing their regrets, so the structure holds.

Let’s use a simple structuralist template signifier-signified to keywords in the responses.

  • “Hollywood” signifies “being born white and winning in random talent contest.”
  • “Gradschool” signifies “a way of avoiding real life for a few more years. And maybe, indefinitely.”

So what does “real life” signifies? It is just our impression about how other people are. And it is the key concept in structuralist psychoanalysis – from their point of view, all our problems stem from inconsistencies in our models of other people, and our desires for them.

The other is very flexible: its signifieds range from “people from other departments” to “Hollywood stars” to paternal figures of our subconsciousness. The famous discoveries made by structuralists are often about how the signified is shifting dynamically or even becomes a signifier-signified pair itself. An example of this kind of nesting is a flower on Valentine’s day which signifies just giving a flower which signifies passion. This kind of nesting is (arguably) in the other that responses mention. We think it signifies actual other people that we don’t know, but instead it signifies our model of them. The actual other people are likely not even aware that grad students living next block are feeling themselves isolated.

Another structuralist tool is to observe that a relation between the two parts A and B is the same as relation between C and D. It is very impressive for a non-math person to come up with a functor this way. I don’t see any functors in replies, maybe only between the surveys of different groups.

Finally, time for a Post-structuralist deconstruction. It basically starts with getting personal and points out that

  • I was concerned about forgetting how to talk to normal people, but not so much so after I stopped  dating a non-physics girlfriend.

can be read in two ways: is it the girlfriend that was leading to the concerns about how to talk, or the concerns about ‘nothing to talk’ led to stopping to date. In fact, the first thing that deconstruction notices is that the question “who we are” cannot be satisfactory answered. That is in the original books by Derrida. The self is impossible to pinpoint, there is always something unclear about the answer. We noted that indeed most of the responders hid their real feelings about the unfair rejection, societal pressure and a barrier before talking to other people (instead saying that it is uninteresting).

We assumed a working model of other but in fact it is all over the place. We would think of Hollywood stars instead of normal people, we wait for them to come talk to us, we can’t even explain how come we had a girlfriend in the first place! So a flaw in the imaginary model of other cannot by itself be our important finding – there are always flaws in one’s model of other, unless you talk to Sherlock Holmes.

Instead, our conclusion will be that there are easily falsifiable flaws in the way we think about our grad school, and for some reason our mind suppresses ways of thinking that may notice the inconsistensies. Like that there was an extrovert in the room. Note that the conclusion is on the meta-level compared to the “common sense” conclusion. We still do not know if it is a good idea to point out these inconsistencies to people, or it will just be irritating for them.

A valuable lesson on rejection

In a movie to come out about high school a teacher is encouraged by his students to hit on another teacher. When he approaches her, he asks her instead to slap him to “teach the kids a valuable lesson in rejection”

So I realized that one of the things that makes me who I am (a shut-in) is a still-present fear of rejection. It is so strong, that I put huge efforts to make “safe” the actual situations where I need to talk to strangers. That is, even if I need to ask directions, I can only ask it if I’m sure the person will reply. I won’t ask a person with headsets on, who is facing away from me, because I’m not sure I’ll successfully attract their attention to start talking. And the situation when I tried and failed is so scary, that it discourages me from trying. Obviously rejection isn’t that scary, but how to explain it to my subconsciousness?

(this post is inspired by Scott Aaronson’s speculation that his own teenage fears were coming from bad counseling and extreme stygma against having sexual attraction to girls)


I was reading this manga about a Japanese girl exploring magical Britain. And I realized that I’ve always wanted to write something like it. So that there is magic, without any explanation but with a lot of new world to explore. And a curious character that goes on adventures using the magical items available to him/her. (btw, the manga passes the test 1. are there more than two women characters? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do they talk about anything but men?)

But with my analytical mind, I just cannot think about a magical world without first defining a global reason to have magic, a global principle, if you wish. And some of my friends from humanity side of life seem to have the same problem. So below there are some unwanted speculations on the nature of magic (what I really want is to stop the lengthy explanations and just run away and explore!)

Continue reading “Futurology”

Arts as a way of fulfillment

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Let’s face the hardest of questions: whether I am an expert in any worthy part of human culture. I’m not, obviously. Moreover, the level of my ignorance could shock innocent bystanders if they were to know. Let’s start with pop-culture. I know a lot of music videos, but don’t differentiate them by genre, and often don’t remember the name of the singer. I like the dance moves. I can kind of differentiate the genre of a dance performance. I even heard somebody’s rant about contemporary dance vs. contemporary ballet. I’ve learned from dance majors and minors of different kind, so I vaguely know what “isolation” means. I want to join a hip-hop class next year, because apparently that is a thing to do in LA.

The classical and modern art: painting, sculpture, and other vague “installations”. I’ve always enjoyed going to the art galleries. I often don’t remember the name of the artist. I can vaguely differentiate the genre of a painting. Paintings don’t “move” me, but I find certain things about them curious. I can feel the difference between taste and no taste, but I can hardly apply it in practice. I never buy, that is. And if I make something myself, I’m usually much less devoted to the process of creation, than an artist would be. So even my good taste decisions do not reach completion. The out product is unsightly (my poster/slide presentations, postcards).

In general, I think most of the art is not coherent enough to actually address any of the serious problems, it just slowly changes your emotional palette. What about photos on Facebook? I own an old camera, and I don’t carry it around too much anymore. I’m trying to fight with Amy about not taking the “pose” photos, but taking “slice of life” photos instead. I’m very much behind any people who are still trying to capture the reality artistically. Here’s my more stubborn friend’s photostorytelling.

I’m more or less acquainted with internet culture, since that is where I spend most of the time. Maybe my knowledge are not so useful, but it makes me smile.