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The Black Swan by Taleb

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Has anyone read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb? Here's a review by Chris Anderson, quoted from amazon.com:

"Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon warned that our minds are wired to deceive us. 'Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature.' Chief among them: 'Assuming more order than exists in chaotic nature.' Now consider the typical stock market report: 'Today investors bid shares down out of concern over Iranian oil production.' Sigh. We're still doing it.

Our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. And so we tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex thing we don't--and, most importantly, can't--know. The truth is that we have no idea why stock markets go up or down on any given day, and whatever reason we give is sure to be grossly simplified, if not flat out wrong.


Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless."

I wonder what this argument could contribute to a discussion about narrative and abstraction (random and orderly) in dance?

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I'm currently reading it and I'll offer some embarrassingly oversimplified, inadequate, and likely inaccurate interpretation as to application of NNT's ideas to dance...

The human need for narrative is obviously present in dance audiences. The fact that the overall trend is for ballets in general to become more abstract over time (à la Balanchine's leotard ballets vs. any Petipa) is no accident, nor is it odd that story ballets usually sell more tickets than abstract works. People like a story. Not much more elaboration is needed on this point.

PNB's performances of Forsythe's "One Flat Thing Reproduced," though receiving applause, also have caused practically vitriolic reactions (as a relative term for arts audiences, that is :( ): audience members walking out, complaining to house management, etc. The work's been described as "organized chaos," but the knowledge of certain so-called principles behind it (I'm speaking purely from anecdote here) i.e. awareness of Forsythe's conception of the extension of classical symmetry to asymmetry and awareness of the way in which the dancers react to one another's movement--in other words, the structure, the "narrative" of the work-- makes it much easier to watch. Even with such knowledge, though, it's a relief to notice the moments of unison that emerge seemingly out of the blue in "One Flat Thing." Each recognized connection, reaction, and/or chain of events makes the work that much more familiar, "narrated," and easy to watch.

How many times have you heard people around you say, "What was that about?" or "Explain to me what just happened," particularly after contemporary "plotless" work? Probably too many times to count. I could pat myself on the back for not longing for narrative as an audience member, but that would be ignoring the fact that as someone who's seen a lot of dance, I have my own "narratives" of recognition of, at the very least, choreographic structure that resembles what I've already seen, under the umbrella of references to other works, as well as, particularly in many contemporary pieces. My own expectations are in some way, met.

The end of "Artifact Suite" is immensely satisfying, practically a revelation. Perhaps it's because of the return of the familiar "narrative," the most simple, unison arm movements from a corps in an unmistakable formation.

One thing I can't leave off saying in any discussion of "The Black Swan" is that I'm stunned by NNT's accuracy in "predicting" the current financial crisis. He spells out in such clear terms precisely the way in which this problem has emerged and the failures of the structure of the markets that made them so very vulnerable to the "Black Swan" of home prices dropping.

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