in praise of "Statistically Improbable Phrases"



Truly, my heart leapt when I stumbled upon the notion “Statistically Improbable Phrases “ (SIP).

It was one of those delightful instances when a prosaic term hits the reader with full poetic immediacy.
“Statistically Improbable Phrases” … it has the pleasing lure of a seeming paradox: the phrase you are specifically looking for is statistically improbable in the whole wide universe of books, so therefore it is of course the perfect marker for this particular book in which it does occur.


Q: What distinguishes a book from the mass of other books?
A: Its Statistically Improbable Phrases.


Q: What constitutes the uniqueness of an individual?
A: Its Statistically Improbable Traits.



We have become so used to the despotism of the statistically probable, that it comes almost as a shock to realize that what is statistically improbable may be exactly what we are looking for, may be precisely what we value in a book, in an individual … (2)


And I felt it was particularly gratifying that I learned about these “Statistically Improbable Phrases” just when I was, well, “investigating” via Google an expression that had been nagging me for weeks. The kind of expression that disturbs and haunts because it’s not the usual stock-phrase which you can swallow without thinking, in other words: an indeed statistically improbable expression . The kind of “frozen thought” which possesses beauty and an intuitive appeal, but which you cannot grasp at once and, therefore, which you keep coming back to.


The expression was: the “melancholy haphazardness” of events … An expression ascribed by Hannah Arendt to Kant, while she discusses the “annoying contingency” of the facts and events that constitute our human realm. (3)


“melancholy haphazardness” … an expression so well suited to the human condition. As human beings we are the result of a chance combination of genes and furthermore influenced by circumstances beyond our control. And each day we start anew, making our way by trial an d error, often taking decisions of which we couldn’t possibly foresee the consequences, verily “not knowing what we do”. (4)


And yet, contrasting with this organic life full of sound and fury, with this haphazard state of flux are the immutable physical laws of our world, its rational truths , its abstract systems and concepts that seem to offer stability and clarity.
So we, as human beings, with our both halves of the brain, feel indeed the pull of two urges: the urge to empathy (organic life, emotions, …) and the urge to abstraction (systems, geometry, laws, …).


The above musings are obviously inspired by yet another statistically improbable “thought fragment” I’ve been mulling over for some time: “Abstraction and Empathy”
“Abstraction and Empathy”
…. : it’s the title of an art theory book by a Wilhelm Worringer – who tried to get to grips with the seemingly opposing tendencies in art throughout the ages and throughout the world: the naturalist, life-imitating tendencies versus the strictly formalist and ornamental tendencies. “Just as the urge to empathy finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic […] in all abstract law and necessity”.



And yes, looking at paintings or pictures (be it at The Louvre or on the Flickr photo sharing site) it’s a great couple of terms to approach an image with.
Where perhaps pictures at the pure “empathy” pole may slide in the mere anecdotical and hence become as transient as life itself, those at the purely “abstract” or formalist pole may lose their human relevance in a dull formalism. Not surprisingly, the best pictures often seem to be those that strike a happy balance between “empathy” and “abstraction”.

The photographer Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment” was nothing else than this statistically highly improbable but aesthetically oh so gratifying moment in which a rare harmony strikes the eye: a moment of being, a slice of life suddenly dignified by a formal, geometrical perfection.


So perhaps, what we expect of form or abstraction in art in general (music, literature, visual arts) is to give the “melancholy haphazardness” of life a semblance of formal necessity and stability. And, perhaps, in the process, gratify both parts of our brain ……



“words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness
” (7)




Here goes for another statistically improbable set of footnotes:
(1) In Amazon’s own words:
"Amazon.com's Statistically Improbable Phrases, or "SIPs", are the most distinctive phrases in the text of books in the Search Inside!™ program. To identify SIPs, our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside! program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to all Search Inside! books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.
SIPs are not necessarily improbable within a particular book, but they are improbable relative to all books in Search Inside!."

(2) food for thought: if you want to attract lots of “hits” on your internet-site do you need to post a lot of statistically probable stuff ( which not necessarily characterizes you, and which is already amply supplied by millions of other sites and blogs ) – or on the contrary, should you go for the scarily statistically improbable stuff (which distinguishes you, but for which no one at all may be looking)?
(3) Yes, I know. I keep referring to Hannah Arendt. Well, it’s just that that right now I’m plunged into her writings – that’s where I dwell right now, so obviously she now pops up in any report of mine
(4) “For facts have no conclusive reason whatever for being what they are; they could always have been otherwise, and this annoying contingency is unlimited […] the “melancholy haphazardness” of the sequence of events which constitute the course of this world”. From the essay “Truth and Politics”
(5) “forgive them; for they know not what they do”
(6)
Wilhelm Worringer “Abstraction and Empathy”
(7) TS Eliot Four Quartets – Burnt Norton


2 comments:

Phoenix said...

'a slice of life suddenly dignified by a formal, geometrical perfection.' spot on!

the question is am I just another I aiming to be statistically improbable in this great cosmic traffic snarl, while in reality, am just another statistic held up at the lights.

ffflaneur said...

that, indeed, is the anguishing question, dear phoenix

(and thanks for that statistically so improbable "cosmic traffic snarl")