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ENGL 131

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Showcase
    1. Researchers Propose Exciting New Interpretation of Neural Networks
    2. Muddle or Muddle? Shostakovich’s Second Symphony
    3. The Happy Nihilist
  3. Reflection
  4. Grade Report
    1. Final Portfolio Components
    2. Course Assignments
    3. Extra Labor
    4. Final Calculation


I am deeply interested in the epistemology of both human and nonhuman intelligences. To this question - my work in both documenting and exploring deep learning technologies gives me a technical and mathematical-computational perspective; my early-stage study of philosophy gives me an abstract-theoretical perspective; my love as a performer and consumer of the arts gives me an aesthetics perspective. In some way, I attempt to identify and explore a small component of this overarching question in my writing.

Later, I will repeat this phrase - I am a strong believer that syntactics shapes semantics. Thus, the very act of writing is a process of thinking, of translating the bizarre and amorphous clouds of thought residing within our incredibly complex brains into an externalized, discrete, symbolic, and sequential system of (English written) language. Moreover, writing is incredibly slow - even with digital tools like computers - compared to the speed of thought and reasoning our minds can accomplish. My goal in writing is to better understand the relationship between the syntactics and semantics of thought, and to become an improved navigator of the two - to uncover what the very act of writing can do to advance our ways of knowing, both for myself and for others.

This portfolio is a curation of my work for the ENGL 131 class, along with accompanying revisions and framing statements. The pieces span a wide range of topics and ideas. The portfolio is published here, on my University Notes (‘Uni Notes’) project page. The Uni Notes project attempts to carry on the spirit of open-source software with the knowledge delivered in university classes by making notes on relevant resources publicly and widely available to all that might be interested in studying the subject or are taking the class. Even though it is public, I am confident few people will read this. I had not written the writings with the intention of publishing them on this site, but I do believe in the open-sourcing of ideas - regardless of how many fractions of baked-ness they might be - and decided just before submitting the portfolio. In a sense, this portfolio is a genuine intellectual nakedness, writing not written to be public but that is public nonetheless.


Researchers Propose Exciting New Interpretation of Neural Networks

Written for the genre translation assignment.

Framing Statement. I am someone who both consumes and contributes to (in a small way, at least) machine learning and AI literature. The objective of this essay was to write a popular-science type article appealing to those that may have an interest in the field but aren’t directly involved within it. My first version consisted only of text. In the revision, I added more varied multimodal elements, including quoted main-idea re-iterations, images, and GIFs - with the goal of better placing the writing within its desired genre and to make it more effective at communicating ideas to the audience, which inevitably requires a transcendence of a monopoly on the text form.

Neural networks are computational structures formed by linking together large quantities of individual perceptrons, which are lightweight and simple mathematical processing units. Each perceptron contains a bundle of parameters, or weights, that determine the individual perceptron’s behavior. Modern neural network architectures use hundreds of millions or even billions of perceptrons or perceptron variants. When all the parameters in the network are simultaneously optimized, neural networks can learn to exhibit astonishingly sophisticated behavior, like human-level image recognition, creating art, and generating text. These modern neural network architectures are the largest information systems capable of ‘learning’ that humans have created – some models take weeks on supercomputers to fully optimize – and the size of state-of-the-art models are constantly increasing as the state of computing power advances.

Plotting the number of parameters (size) of groundbreaking language models in recent years on a logarithmic scale. Source: arXiv vanity.

Recently, however, researchers have been investigating if models need to be so large.

The answer, interestingly, is no! Research in model compression, which is the study of reducing the number of parameters in machine learning models without damaging the model’s effectiveness, demonstrate that 80 to 90 percent of the parameters in a deep learning model can be removed with little damage to accuracy using a clever method called pruning. With pruning, a small fraction of the smallest (and thus most insignificant) parameters is removed, and the model is optimized on the new, slightly modified architecture. These two steps are repeated, resulting in a large decrease in parameters over time. However, oddly, it has been empirically observed that training a very large model first and pruning into a small model second reliably outperforms training a small model directly. Somehow, the seemingly redundant process of deflating a network after inflating offers something valuable. One explanation to this bizarre phenomenon, it turns out, better helps us understand the fundamental nature of neural network optimization.

Pruning can remove 80 to 90 percent of the parameters in a deep learning model with little damage to performance.

Jonathan Frankle and Michael Carbin of MIT CSAIL published the paper “The Lottery Ticket Hypothesis: Finding Sparse, Trainable Networks” in 2019 and was awarded the prestigious Best Paper title at the International Conference for Learning Representations. In attempting to explain the inflating-deflating phenomenon, Frankle and Carbin propose the Lottery Ticket Hypothesis, a novel framework for understanding how neural networks ‘learn’ knowledge representations from datasets.

The conventional understanding of neural network learning is that models learn by starting from a ‘bad guess’ and progressively improving their predictions based on feedback from the ‘real answer’. More specifically, models begin with randomly initialized parameters. When the model makes a prediction with these freshly initialized parameters, the output is a garbled mess. Using the loss function and a clever algorithm known as gradient descent, the model updates its parameters in the optimal direction by the optimal amount to improve the output. By this conventional understanding, a model iteratively improves its internal parameters.

image Our traditional understanding of how machines learn, informed by low-dimensional statistical modeling paradigms.

Frankle and Carbin’s framework paints a different picture: instead, neural networks learn by running a massive ‘lottery’. Each ‘lottery ticket’ is a subnetwork, or a set of parameters inside the complete collection of parameters that comprise a full neural network. When a neural network is initialized, the ‘ticket numbers’ are written: many subnetworks with random parameters exist. Some of them are more promising than others, and subnetworks conveniently initialized with the right set of values are ‘winning tickets’. During the iterative optimization process, these ‘winning’ subnetworks are developed to play a prominent role in the network, while ‘losing’ subnetworks are downplayed. Thus, the process of neural network training is one of discovery – finding a few promising subnetworks in a huge lottery of possibilities – rather than improvement.

Neural networks learn by running a massive ‘lottery’. Each ‘lottery ticket’ is a subnetwork. When a neural network is initialized, the ‘ticket numbers’ are written.

The Lottery Ticket Hypothesis in action: a neural network is initialized, trained, and pruned until a winning ticket is discovered. Source: Robert Lange.

This theory explains the previously observed phenomena on the significance of inflating, then deflating a network. When we increase the number of parameters in a neural network, the number of possible lottery tickets increases. A higher number of lottery tickets increases the probability that any one of the tickets is a winning ticket. Pruning deflates the network by removing losing tickets, leaving behind the winning tickets.

The Lottery Ticket Hypothesis is a huge advancement for neural network learning theory. Even though neural networks have become an incredibly popular target for research and development as the foundation of modern Artificial Intelligence applications, they operate in such complex spaces that researchers still don’t have a good idea of why and how neural networks work. When a more complete picture of how neural networks learn is constructed, we’ll be able to build more powerful, responsible, and robust network designs and mechanisms – further accelerating development in the field.

Muddle or Muddle? Shostakovich’s Second Symphony

Written for the rhetorical analysis assignment

Framing Statement. I find Shostakovich one of the most interesting and important composers in modern musical history. Tremendous discussion and research has been directed towards his famous works, with the most well-known realization by Western critics and scholars being the usage of quiet subversion and double meaning in works that may otherwise seem acquiescent to Soviet censorship guidelines. This analysis is relentlessly applied to almost all of his music, which is both understandable - Shostakovich’s music is, in a sense, inextricable from politics - but also problematic because certain compopsitions that don’t conform to the analysis are ‘discarded’, thrown into the wastebin of discourse and forgotten. The Second Symphony, one of Shostakovich’s most explicitly socialist pro-Lenin works, is one of these ‘wastebin works’. This essay is revised to fix clarity and grammar issues, as well as re-formatted with more paragraphs and quotes.

Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович (Anglicized: Dmitri Dimitrievich Shostakovich) was an influential Soviet composer; Шостакович’s music experiments with avant-garde compositional techniques like atonality, serialist rows, and percussion as an equal contender to melody in musical substance. For this reason, much of his music evokes comparisons with other composers of the time pioneering the “new school of music”, like Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg, upon first listen. However, Шостакович’s music is colored by another crucial perspective: politics. While most notable composers have written their music under relative societal stability – like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff (this is not to diminish their personal struggles) – Шостакович entered the music world at the same time that Stalin rose to power and the Soviet control of art began to take hold. Шостакович’s music could not be too avant-garde as to border on bourgeois superfluidity and experimentalism, but not too traditional as to harken upon the classical era of harsh class repression and the supremacy of nobility. Шостакович’s music had to reflect Stalin’s vision for the Soviet Union’s political and social future. If he failed to comply, he would disappear into the labor camps or exile, as so many of his family members and artistic colleagues did.

Throughout his musical life, Шостакович lived in cosntant fear. This fear is etched into his more intimate works, the fifteen string quartets and the twenty-four piano preludes and fugues. These solo works were considered to be less influential by the Soviet authorities and therefore regulated less strictly. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa said in response to critics of Шостакович’s musical pessimism and bleakness:

“People who complain about Шостакович’s ‘modern’ language don’t think of how one can write of witnessed death and destruction by composing pretty tunes… Shostakovich didn’t have the solace of believing in God, or anything… He went through so many horrible things in his life that he faced the same question as so many people did before and after: how come there is so much evil in the world if there is something divine above us?”

Шостакович’s personal writings and comparatively transparent solo and chamber music works have allowed musical critics in the West to better understand the role of double meaning and quiet subversion in Шостакович’s more public symphonic works. His Symphony 5 in D minor is one of his best-known symphonies. Шостакович composed the fifth symphony after the catastrophic failure of his first opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk. Shortly after Stalin had attended one of opera performances and stormed out in the middle, a scorching public denunciation appeared in the official newspaper Pravda entitled “Music or Muddle?”, condemning Шостакович for embracing the “perverted taste” of the bourgeois with “fidgety, neurotic music”. Composed under these threatening conditions, the fifth is acquiescent to Soviet music standards upon first encounter – but clearly subversive and resentful upon a more well-informed listen. A commonly highlighted moment is the finale passage (listen from 48:50), in which the strings continue to belt out the same repeated ‘A’ until the end amidst a deceptively triumphant brass A major. Leonid Gesin, violist in the San Francisco Symphony, said of this finale: “it looks like somebody beat you [sic] with a stick… and tell you, ‘Really, enjoy this.’” Although Шостакович committed to a public image as a loyal Communist and cultural icon of the Stalin era – one major reason why Шостакович was, at times, criticized in the West during the time he was alive – it is well established that closer looks at his music and life reveal otherwise.

Шостакович’s more famous symphonies – the fifth, the seventh (“Leningrad”), and the eleventh (“The Year 1905”) – have been analyzed and recognized by musical critics of the West as a delicate balance between personal subversive expression and forced acquiescence to Soviet artistic guidelines. Interestingly, however, the same recognition has not been applied to Шостакович’s second symphony in B major, “To October”. The work is a symphonic poem, with the last movement set as an orchestration to Alexander Bezymensky’s text “To October”. This last movement waxes about the glories of Lenin and socialism, and was written at a moment, both historical and personal, in which the content of the symphony could not be easily attributed to Stalinist artistic repression. One can reasonably speculate that this ambiguity threatens modern Western critics’ laboriously built image of Шостакович as a quiet rebel to Stalinist socialist rule and implicitly ally to the West, and thus is rarely discussed or played in the musical institutions of the West. The lack of critical discussion on Шостакович’s second symphony has led what little discourse on the work to consist of two binaries: the surface-level understanding that Шостакович was a socialist committed to upholding the culture and politics of the new Soviet Union, or the extrapolative understanding that Шостакович never believed in the content of his symphony but instead weaved ungenuine music as not to violate artistic regulations.

October! Herald of the longed-for sun. October! Will behind the rebellious years. October! Work, joy and song. October! Happiness in the fields and the hum of machines.

  • Alexander Bezymensky, translated by Richard Bannerman

The truth, as it exists in relationship with most binaries, is more complex. Шостакович was commissioned to write a symphonic piece, but was not expected to write a propagandistic symphony but decided to regardless. Despite this, he privately noted that he considered the Bezymensky text “abdominable”, and indicated in confidential communications that he had tremendous creative difficulty composing the last movement. The symphony is also one of Шостакович’s shortest at twenty minutes, and at the time – just a few years after the end of Lenin’s death – he was under relatively less political pressure to produce serious propagandistic works. Several years later, he would revisit this subject material in this twelfth symphony, entitled “The Year 1917”, which is a significantly longer forty minutes and more seriously developed. From a historical perspective, the clearest conclusion is that Шостакович took the shortest and easiest path towards creating a propagandistic work for the sake of completion, and that an ideological analysis is less fitting than an analysis of creative effort.

This assertion manifests itself into the rhetorical presentation of the last movement. At the beginning of the last movement, a factory siren aimlessly wails, and a group of men begin singing in Russian: “We marched, we asked for work and break. Our hearts were gripped in a vice of anguish… Silence, suffering, oppression.” Soon after, Шостакович employs a musical cliché: after much heaving and hauling, coinciding with a hopeful lift in the text semantics, the brass and strings erupt into a shimmering major key with a burst of choral activity. This cliché is used repeatedly in the remaining of the approximately 6-minute final movement. Compared to Шостакович’s neighboring first and third symphonies, this demonstrates a clear musical ‘laziness’ – a creatively bland, copy-paste composition to suit Шостакович’s opinion of the Bezymensky text. In the final choral component of the symphony, Шостакович indicates on the score for the choir merely to chant the final verses with no orchestral background; after the recitation, one final ‘shimmer’ cliché is employed to quickly bring the symphony to an end. The final note is a short staccato, whereas almost all of Шостакович’s other symphonic works feature extended concluding notes. It is like the conductor is off to catch a train and attempts to bring the piece to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

The brevity of Шостакович’s second symphony reflects its inherent rhetorical purpose, being to write an easy, politically welcomed piece of music in response to a commission request. We can understand the Second Symphony’s rhetorical effectiveness as something other than the binary possibilities of being either an earnest and enthusiastic endorsement of the Leninist-socialist politics or a bold subversion of it. Rather, it is deliberately mediocre and cliché - a piece in which an analysis of Шостакович’s intentions can go no deeper than shallow waters.

The Happy Nihilist

Written for the argument assignment.

Framing Statement. This is primarily a personal essay, an attempt to represent ideas in the discrete, symbolic, externalized form of language. It is an argument for a reconciliatory vision of nihilism, what we may term ‘cyborg nihilism’. The essay is, like Donna Haraway’s manifesto of the Cyborg, experimental and intellectually playful - in the tradition of “don’t take what is written too seriously.” Rather than serving as an exact and explicit intellectual blueprint, the objective is to introduce an abstract concept - fully with its embedded contradictions and intellectual petty crime - that has guided me towards better places by externalizing it into this essay. The essay is intentionally structured into long paragraphs without break. As I write in the reflective memo, “The true weight of the thesis, I believe, is only made clear at the end. It is invariably true that syntax affects semantics, and I think that the traditional academic format would not suitably reflect the thoughts I sought to communicate. The last paragraph… is summative, a pinnacle of all the thought that has come before it, the moment at which abstract philosophizing and theorizing becomes embedded and unified into an interpretation of happiness and purpose.”

He asked me directly – “Do you think you’re a happy person?”

At that moment, I did not know what to say – not because I haven’t thought about it but rather because being asked so sincerely and abruptly if I thought I was happy by someone I had expected to have a lighthearted conversation with seemed to render all the answers I had told myself in years of internal reflection as quite stupid. I had suggested to myself that I didn’t need happiness, or that I wasn’t particularly unhappy, or that my work made me happy, or that I wasn’t happy now but I would be once I reached my goals – all in an attempt to explain away my undeniable tendency towards relentlessly burying myself in work. After a pause, I replied that I didn’t think I was a very happy person, with a poor explanation – incoherent both in expression and meaning – a clumsily added note that I would perhaps like to be happier.

In turn, I asked him if he thought he was a happy person. He responded with little hesitation that he thought he was. As we talked more, I learned: he didn’t believe in God; he confidently believed machines could think (and correspondingly thought nothing particularly sacred or unique about human intelligence beyond replication by machines); he didn’t believe in the existence of the soul as an entity transcendent from the material world; he wasn’t troubled by the thought of death – he believed in almost none of the traditional consolations of happiness, yet he was happy (or so he claimed). I felt then that he was truly happier – more fulfilled – than almost all people I have met.

This essay is an inspiration from that conversation, an attempt to argue for a broad, personal, and reflective interpretation of the value of purpose, meaning, and happiness. The title of the essay is perhaps deceiving, because I do not think this philosophy is necessarily an inherently happy philosophy, nor necessarily a nihilist one1. Rather, it is a reconciliation between nihilism and happiness, which seem to have had relationship troubles as a couple; as couples do when they unite after disagreements, perhaps we must compromise how we think about and understand nihilism and happiness. When we do so, we may move towards a more sustainable, enjoyable, and liberated form of existence.

It is a great cliché to pull definitions from a popular source as a means of introducing a term or concept, but I will commit it once again for the purpose of demonstrating how nihilism is perceived and understood in the common sense. Consider the following assortment of definitions:

Definition 1. a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless; b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth, and especially of moral truths. – Merriam Webster Dictionary

Definition 2. Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.
– Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Definition 3. In the 20th century, nihilism encompassed variety of philosophical and aesthetic stances that, in one sense or another, denied the existence of genuine moral truths or values, rejected the possibility of knowledge or communication, and asserted the ultimate meaninglessness or purposelessness of life or of the universe.
– Britannica

Even within this small sampling of definitions, we observe philosophically gnashing differences. 1 suggests nihilism is the disbelief in traditional values, whereas 2 suggests it is rather disbelief in all values; 2 proposes the possibility of a ‘true’ nihilist as one who believes in nothing (among other tenets), which immediately raises the unresolved question of if a true nihilist believes in nihilism. Definition 3 is, I believe, most useful to adopt in this context because it is the most moderate – moderation being key to reconciliation. This definition notes that nihilism denies the existence of genuine moral truths or values: we may observe moral truths and values that exist, but that are ‘not genuine’ in the sense of being embedded in an amorphous, auxiliary, abstract space of supreme or established morality instead of a material one (‘the fabric of the universe as it exists in objective space’). Nihilism rejects the possibility of knowledge or communication, in the sense that we can never truly know – not necessarily that we cannot strive to know or obtain approximations of knowledge or communication. Nihilism asserts the ultimate meaninglessness of life or of the universe: ultimate in the sense of the supreme, the omnipotent, the transcendent. Nihilism – the nihilism that we seek to move forward with, that is – is chiefly concerned with doubting the traditionally rigidly upheld relationship between one and the world around oneself – between one and God, between one and the State, between one and the Other, between one and the Outside. The world around oneself inextricably forms and shapes the concept of the Self in conscious and unconscious manners, and thus nihilism also becomes a process of doubting one’s relationship with oneself.

Nihilism has been one of the more criticized philosophical and aesthetic movements in modern cultural history. Seven out of ten Google Search autocompletes for the query “why is nihilism…” are pejorative – a sampling include “why is nihilism bad”, “why is nihilism wrong”, “why is nihilism dangerous”, “why is nihilism so hated”. Nietzsche and his philosophical and cultural colleagues played key roles in questioning and, in some part, crippling the then-dominant institution of religion, leading to a wider adoption and understanding of nihilist or quasi-nihilist philosophies. Some – mainly those of religious faith – have argued that atheism must be nihilism on the premise that religion (religion of any sort, including communities and faith systems beyond the traditionally understood set of religions) provides an irreplaceable sense of purpose and meaning to the human spirit and psyche. In turn, many have argued that atheists can find alternative forms of deep purpose and meaning aside from the existence of a God or gods and divinity. However, the focus on the existence of purpose and meaning is fraught in and of itself. We often describe purpose and meaning as heavenly entities to obtain or strive towards – ideals floating in abstract space that give us fulfillment and happiness, a bit like a piñata that we stumble our way through life to find and bash open. This is true both of most subscribers to both religious systems and atheist ones. While purpose and meaning do provide us fulfillment and happiness, the ‘abstract piñata’ understanding of purpose and meaning is an illusion. When one says that they are “searching for purpose” or want to “find meaning in life”, they delude themselves by conjuring some telos of purpose in order to feel purposeful in the journey to it – a cycle with no independence. Nihilism suggests, perhaps confusingly to some, that there is no concept of the purpose or an ultimate meaning that is meaningful enough to exist itself2. This position is not (merely) a product of esoteric philosophizing, but rather informed by a confluence of modern and postmodern sociological, literary, and biological-technological developments. When we understand what nihilism is and can be through these lens, we may understand that the destruction of the telos of purpose results in the liberation and empowerment of the Self.

Standpoint epistemology shares more features with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist epistemology than the initial pairing may evoke; in turn, both may inform how we understand purpose and knowing in relationship to a reconciled nihilism. Sandra Harding, one of the prominent scholars of standpoint epistemology (and particularly feminist standpoint theory), writes that Standpoint epistemology supports the concept of ‘Strong Objectivity’, proposing that an objectivity may exist but only if it is informed by perspectives that have been suppressed in the traditional making of objective knowledge (i.e. ‘Weak Objectivity’), for instance in the historical lack of women in the reproductive sciences. While we can communicate abstract experiences with limited understanding, one can only truly know one’s ‘own’ standpoint and one’s ‘own’ experiences. Rand’s Objectivist epistemology places perception as the root of all knowing, proposing that while our interpretation and cognition of perceived measurements may be faulty, perception itself is incapable of error. Objectivism denies the possibility of the psychic and the transcendent, and prioritizes rational cognition – which itself is a continuously developed product of previously perceived knowledge, or ‘abstraction of abstraction’ – over judgement by feeling. Rand’s philosophy, as Rand noted herself, battles against the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy by arguing that empiricism informs rationalism, which shapes the development of one’s empiricism; both are key processes in knowing. Both the epistemology of Standpoint Theory and Objectivism contend that individuals act as agents, interacting with the objective world through their faculties of perception – with the mode and means of perception varying by individual – and compiling measurements into abstract knowledge of the world. While Rand and Harding undeniably diverge on how to interpret and apply the core tenets of their epistemologies to sociological and political contexts, they share this foundation more or less in common – and it is this foundation that is all we need. Regardless of how we may perceive, in our process of epistemological knowledge-making, our knowledge and cognitive facilities are limited to what we experience. In the grand scheme of history and the universe, or even of human knowledge, we have experienced nothing – and thus our knowledge will always be partial, always incomplete. We can never truly know in a useful sense. Rand suggested that we can know from perception – and indeed we can know the perceptual truths, which exist as a direct path between the perceptive machinery and the cognitive processes as a mapping. Standpoint epistemology, however, is more concerned with abstract truths, which exist as an ambiguous and complex collection of perceptual truths formed into abstractions. Rand herself did not necessarily deny the ambiguity of knowing abstract truths as a set of abstractions so abstracted from the perceptual truths that errors or discrepancies in understanding perception are significantly propagated. Thus, we may know that the water bottle is blue – but that is not as useful as the set of abstract truths that we can never truly know. The concept of purpose and meaning resides within the domain of the abstract truths, and thus we may grasp at concepts of purpose and meaning but will never grasp it. Our sense of purpose and meaning, informed by our epistemological perception and knowledge-making, is always partial – never supreme nor omnipotent, regardless of how much we may insist, cry, and scream that it must be.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a seminal literary work in the study of purpose and happiness. In the society of the World State, children are born by a mechanized process rather than human sex; from birth, humans are categorized into one of five classes – alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and epsilon – via oxygen deprivation, determining their social rank and thus their purpose in society. The drug soma is widely distributed and consumed to alleviate all pain and discontentedness in the experience of living. The common interpretation of Brave New World is one of dystopia; SparkNotes, an authoritative source on what most students reading important novels invariably end up thinking about the work (and implicitly carrying, adopting, and passing on), writes that “…Huxley imagines a genetically engineered future where life is pain-free but meaningless.” While life in Brave New World may be meaningless, it is most certainly not purposeless. Each individual in the World State is content with their existence serving their work and purpose, a process which is facilitated by soma but more broadly embedded into the structure of the World State society. The alpha class obtain their purpose from power and responsibility as the heads of society, whereas the epsilon class enjoys performing the brunt and low-level work (and relieved to not be tasked with the difficult responsibilities of the alpha class). The caste system is one of the most shocking features to first-time readers of Brave New World, primarily because we ourselves have been instilled with our own conflicting ideological understandings of what is ‘right’, namely that egalitarianism, equality, and democracy are the true mandates of the transcendent being (the ‘eternal truth’, ‘the way things should be’, the ‘true system’). In the World State, however, there is no jealousy and no desire for egalitarianism, no ‘hatred of the Strong’ (from Rand). The world of Brave New World is simply one in which power hierarchy – which has emerged in every sufficiently large society, from the capitalist to the socialist, and therefore must be somehow embedded implicitly into the human mind – is genetically encoded in addition to being socially and economically encoded. When a reader asserts the meaninglessness of the lives the individuals in the World State live, they assume the existence of an ultimate or just meaning – that the individuals would live more meaningful lives if they pursued purpose on their own volition. The reader may then put down the book and go to church, in which they are told by a God or gods what their purpose should be and how to be fulfilled. Or, they may divert their attention to their medical textbooks in an effort to become a doctor, which they were pressured by their family to pursue. Alternatively, they go to meet with their friend or romantic partner, which they met several years prior by total coincidence but are nevertheless happy with. Is any mortal purpose we can grasp and set our mind to genuinely organic, truly transcendent? Brave New World only makes explicit what is implicit in our understandings of purpose and meaning – that we will never be able to live meaningful lives in the sense of existing independently or transcendently from the world (this discussion carrying on from that of Harding and Rand’s epistemological theory), but that we may nevertheless find fulfillment in a purpose that has no grander purpose.

Biological developments are key to Brave New World; scientific advancements in how we think, know, and exist have challenged traditional institutions like religion and spiritualism because they question concepts of the transcendent. These findings are often the largest sources of entering nihilist thought – being uncomfortable with the empty void of space, the development of humans from evolution, the randomness of the universe. To many, understanding the biological insignificance of the individual and an individual’s demarcation from the universe triggers existential crises, primarily relating to identity and purpose. An individual may wonder why they exist, why they exist, and why they exist (these being three different questions). Ultimately, this suffers from the same fallacy as readers of Brave New World that condemn the lives of individuals in the World State as meaningless – readers fail to think critically on a meta-level about their own faculties of perception and their epistemology. The notion that there should be a reason for existence and that there is a designated identity or reason for one’s existence is itself the relic of culturally or societally instilled religious and spiritual thinking. That even many atheists suffer from these questions demonstrates the deep permeation of thousands of years of spiritual intellectual development. Ayn Rand writes persuasively about the phenomenon of implicit and unconscious ideological/philosophical/pyschological instillation in her essay “Philosophy: Who Needs It?”:

You might claim – as most people do – that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure – nobody can be certain or anything.” You got that notion from David Hume… Or: “This was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got that from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got that from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got that from Kant… Some people might answer: “Sure, I’ve said those things at different times, but I don’t have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it’s not true today.” They got it from Hegel… Now ask yourself, if you are not interested in abstract ideas, why do you (and all men) feel compelled to use them? The fact is that abstract ideas are conceptual integrations which subsume an incalculable number of concretes – and that without abstract ideas you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems… You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles…

While Rand’s specific short-form attributions of common thought patterns and adages to certain thinkers may not be accurate in all cases, she carries in the tradition of Harding and Huxley in identifying the implicit formation of thought as informed by external influences. The external is in the internal, and the aggregate internal is the external. We understand from developments in biology and neuroscience that we cannot discretely separate the individual from the environment, nor the thought or soul from material matter. While this is not an argument for biological or material determinism, it is an argument for inevitable biological and material interlinkage and inextricability. The long hands of biology and the material world reach deep into what we think, how we think, what we are gifted and stunted with, how we develop, how Ayn Rand’s concept of the perception is formed, how a less deliberate biological caste encoding of the World State is executed, how the standpoint with which we build our epistemology comes to be, and the myriad of factors that contribute to the illusion of an isolated or individuated purpose.

From these perspectives, we can understand that the concepts of purpose, meaning, and happiness cannot exist within an independent and isolated abstract space – the dominant view that people have when they attempt to reform their life into a happier or more purposeful one. It is the application of the epistemological concept of a necessary origin and accompanying conclusion – a telos – that is problematic, because it masks the true nature of purpose and meaning with a cloak of individuated glamor, forming the embryo of a jagged misalignment that is bound to rupture the surface of reason and sanity. Depression, job-quitting, mid-life crises, anxiety, drug abuse, and other dominant trends of existential and emotional turbulence are, I speculate, symptoms of this rupture manifesting itself across communities and societies. We spend our life working towards an imaginary target that we come to realize does not exist; we stagger, fall, then collapse into the void of nothingness that opens up beneath us. It, however, does not need to be this way. We can become cyborgs, Donna Haraway’s vision of the postmodern creature that rebels against discrete structures, transgresses boundaries, knows no origin and no telos – or, at least, semi-cyborgs. The cyborg is an intellectual product of sociological, literary, and biological-technological developments – just like our understanding of purpose and meaning. We can understand purpose and meaning not as individuated and abstract positions offered by a deity or grand plan obtained through work, faith, or community; nor as completely useless and nonexistent concepts (as some extreme nihilists may propose); but rather as a cyborg entity that hovers. Purpose and meaning, while having no legitimate independent existence in its own abstracted conceptual space, do exist within us in that we can experience and feel them. We feel purposeful when we graduate college; we feel purposeful when we complete all our work for the day. It hovers within us because the externalized society inevitably hovers within us. The key realization is that we may do with purpose and meaning, at root within us, what we want to do with it – as a cyborg entity, the concepts and emotions of meaning are meaningful in the ways we allocate and understand meaning to it; it is free to transgress what it desires to transgress. When we recognize the ultimate role of purpose and happiness not as a telos, an end, an abstracted ideal in individuated and isolated space, we become liberated from the burden of the externalized world. Consider a large boulder. The extreme nihilist concerns themselves with hypothesizing the ultimate meaninglessness of the boulder. The objectivist pursues meaning in the existence of the boulder, spending several days of frustrating physical exertion to move it aside. The cyborg nihilist considers the boulder as a hovering entity with a meaning corresponding to whatever meaning they will upon it; they identify the source of meaning and purpose as within them rather than externalized to the boulder. After examining and prodding the boulder, they determine it is too heavy to move and continue with their existence. The material boulder may exist, but the medium of perception and meaning through which it has long been known that humans interact with objects is in control of the cyborg nihilist. The cyborg nihilist is the maker of their world, as they see it; everyone has the facilities to do so, but few realize it. Consider a student that performs poorly on an important final exam. The extreme nihilist executes a deep, far-reaching analysis of the meaning of exams to society and concludes that education is meaningless. The objectivist enters a deep state of panic, anxiety, self-doubt, and worry. The cyborg nihilist considers the exam score as a hovering entity with a meaning corresponding to whatever meaning they will upon it; they identify the source of meaning and purpose as within them rather than externalized to the exam score. They may study harder; they may watch a movie. Whatever their choice, they retain grasp of their purpose and meaning because they ascribe to it what they will. Existential problems like climate change and wars in foreign lands can be consciously ignored, or consciously considered3. Our reconciliation between nihilism and happiness is as such: nihilism suggests that an externalized interpretation of happiness is an illusion, and thus we embrace the illusion – we become agents of our happiness and purpose, rather than imaginary abstracted entities of happiness and purpose dominating our agency. One balances the walk between every form of knowing and not knowing, of being and not being, and is content with it. One wakes up each morning with a smile and thinks, “I simultaneously think and do not think, therefore I am, or I am not. How beautiful it is to reside on the continuity, to be shaped and to shape, to live liberated by my ignorance.”


The ENGL 131 course outlines four objectives:

  1. To compose strategically for a variety of audiences and contexts, both within and outside the university;
  2. To work strategically with complex information in order to generate and support inquiry;
  3. To craft persuasive, complex, inquiry-driven arguments that matter;
  4. To practice composing as a recursive, collaborative process and to develop flexible strategies for revising throughout the composition process.

I argue that my work demonstrates that I have met these four objectives.

Objective 1. The three pieces of writing shown in the showcase represent a wide range of audiences and contexts. The first is written in a popular science context for a general technical audience interested in advancements in Artificial Intelligence; the second is written as quasi-academic analysis for a more pedantically inclined audience interested in thinking about how the identification and amplification of historical and artistic elements in music distort our post-hoc interpretations of them; the third is really written for no one in particular except for me, but also for everyone who is willing to come forth and to read it - in the sense that the concept of a ‘me’ or ‘self’ is really quite finnicky when seriously thought about, in which the hippie adage ‘I am one with the universe’ becomes undenibly somewhat true (e.g. theoretical - Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Creation of Self”; literary/aesthetic - Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”). I think it is a piece in which a specific audience and context ceases to become useful, which in and of itself is a certain form of audeine and context. Each piece demonstrates components of that audience or context (i.e. the ‘strategy’); the first, for instance, employs extensive use of formatting and imagery to assist with communication of technical information.

Objective 2. I believe the third piece in the showcase, “The Happy Nihilist”, demonstrates this second objective. The essay is a pastiche of works that no intellectually respectable person would put next to one another - but I am not concerned with intellectual respectability so much as I am in that essay with playfully throwing and molding the ideas and concepts carefully shaped and articulated from a diverse set of thinkers onto a canvas and feeling - not so much analyzing - what comes of it. If I may say so, I believe it follows in the avant-garde intellectual tradition pioneered by Donna Haraway in “The Cyborg Manifesto”. Within that playground of ideas, I believe I understand and articulate the ideas of thinkers and philosophies with respect to each other in an attempt to build a reconciled foundation upon which a bridged vision of nihilism can stand.

Objective 3. This objective marks four key attributes of arguments that satisfy it: persuasive, complex, inquiry-driven, and meaningful (i.e. it ‘matter(s)’). I believe the second piece in the showcase, “Muddle or Muddle? Shostakovich’s Second Symphony” demonstrates this third objective. The first attribute - that the argument is ‘persuasive’ - really is a matter of whether the reader is persuaded or not, which is itself a matter of the reader’s thoughts, opinions, biases, experiences, understandings, and so on and so forth. It also seems pointless to persuade you - the reader of this text - that the piece is inherently persuasive. The persuasive quality of a text is not embedded within it but rather within its readers. I will say that I have persuaded myself of the thesis of the piece, which I believe is all I can confidently say about the persuasive quality of the writing. The second attribute - that the argument is ‘complex’ - is also itself quite fraught. The notion that arguments that are more complex are more advanced or move forward follows in the tradition of problematic cultural and societal philosophies like technological determinism. This is not to say that the objective is faulty, but rather that I will appropriate definitions. I believe the purpose of this attribute is primarily to serve as a check to ensure that essays written for the class are not trivial in the sense of not contributing meaningfully at all to any level of intellectual thought. For instance, turning in an essay about why I like chocolate ice cream may not qualify as complex. I believe that, like with almost all attributes of writing, most things are in the eye (/mind) of the beholder (not just beauty, which unfortunately is one of the only attributes to which the objectivist fiction is acknowledged as faulty); anything above this base level of simplistic argument qualifies as complex. Exactly what this simplistic argument is is a difficult question to answer - I feel it is like the Justice Stewart’s description of porn (“I know it when I see it”), which itself is a fraught way to carry out guidelines but will have to do for the purposes of this portfolio. I hold the opinion that my writing falls above that bar, and therefore I believe it satisfies complexity for the purpose of this course. The third attribute - that the argument is inquiry-driven - is demonstrated by my initial framing of Shostakovich’s s work and the question of why the rigorous anlaysis and attention devoted to his more famous and well-known works is not applied to that of his Second Symphony. The fourth attribute - that the argument matters - is, again, a matter of whether the implications of the essay impact the knowledge or social structures of the reader. Thus, I will apply a similar analysis to the attribute of being ‘complex’ and argue that my essay satisfies a certain base level of “you know it when you see it’ meaning and significance.

Objective 4. This final objective concerns revision. I have made revisions to the first two pieces in the showcase, which I believe improve the expression and communication of the writing in response to feedback by the instructor and peers. I also participated in the peer revision assignment, in which I provided feedback to one of my peers in the class and also received feedback on my third essay, which I incorporated into the essay to better capture flow, arrange ideas, and communicate arguments more effectively.

Overall, I believe that my work has demonstrated the four objectives of the course.

Grade Report

Final Portfolio Components

Revised Assignment 1 w/ framing statement  
Revised Assignment 2 w/ framing statement  
Assignment 3 w/ framing statement  
Final Reflection  

Course Assignments

Assignment 1  
Assignment 2  
Assignment 3  
Assignment 4  
Instructor Conference 1  
Instructor Conference 2  
Peer Review  

Extra Labor

Extra labor assignment complete.

Final Calculation

  • Missing Assignments: None
  • Extra Labor: Complete
  • Expected Final Quarter Grade: 4.0


  1. Not necessarily nihilist, that is, in the sense that most people understand nihilism. 

  2. This does not, however, imply that purpose does not give us fulfillment and happiness. It rather suggests that purpose has no independent existence. 

  3. Many will feel inclined to criticize this perspective as apathetic and ignorant on a sociological perspective. If the leaders of the Civil Rights movement or those serving in World War II adopted this ‘cyborg nihilist’ perspective, the lives of subsequent individuals they fought for would have been significantly worse. This is, indeed, a valid argument that cannot be resolved in the scope of this essay. The only response I may propose is that, as is with all ideological systems, this interpretation assumes certain priors; the priors in this context are that there are negligible or comparatively minor explicit and external existential problems, like immediate war, widespread disease, or persecution.