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Now We Are Six

"Small children sometimes behave in stunningly unfair and shocking ways: they scream at the person who is looking after them, angrily push away a bowl of animal pasta, throw away something one has just fetched for them. But we rarely feel personally agitated or wounded by their behaviour. And the reason is that we know not at once to assign a negative motive or mean intention to tricky phenomena. We reach around for the most benevolent interpretations we can pull together...

It is not an aberration or unique failing of one’s partner that they retain a childish dimension. It’s a normal, inevitable, feature of all adult existence. Adulthood simply isn’t a complete state; what we call childhood lasts (in a submerged but significant way) all our lives. Therefore, some of the moves we execute with relative ease around children must forever continue to be relevant when we’re dealing with another grown-up.

Our ability to continue to be loving, and to keep calm, around children is founded on the fact that we take it for granted that they are not able to explain what is really bothering them. We deduce the real cause of their sorrow from amidst the external symptoms of rage – because we grasp that little children have very limited abilities to diagnose and communicate their own problems...

We can summon up the energy to be charitable to the inner three-year-old of the other – in part because we know that soon enough we are going to need them to do the same for us."

(from http://www.thebookoflife.org/love-as-generosity/)

Oddly enough, it seeems playing with a three-year-old stops them having (anything like so many) tantrums. 'Doing other stuff with them is great, but doesn’t count'.

Advanced technologies in English thought

Hammering out a report yesterday, I decided to just change 'Advanced technologies in English thought' into 'Advanced Technologies (taught in English)'. Much as it pains me to make the world a little less fantastic, I can reverse-engineer to account for autocorrected ESL written on an ipad on a train while exhausted. Which basically is accounting for the intrusion of advanced technology in English thought.

The phrase 'Advanced technologies in English thought' was so wonderful I didn't want it to just vanish from the earth's linguistic geology, and I was a bit proud of myself working it out.... so I posted it on social media. I felt clever, but also small-mindedly smug. Look everyone! There's a thing that comes naturally to me! To prove my unique worth as a human being, I'm going to publicise the typos of people who have better things to do than obsessively and compulsively proofread everything they write ever!

And then I read this.

The significance of beauty

Some time ago I was enthusing about the ability of a genius aesthetic idea to withstand a gazillion adaptations, imitations and downright knock-offs without losing the essence that made it striking.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is about that. Full of art crime, art collection and art loving on the part of people who came to experience said art through fairly arbitrary accidents, without being at all, as some people used to say, ‘brought up to it.’ In one scene one of these autodidact characters, an expert antiquarian furniture restorer who makes what he calls ‘Frankenstein’ pieces for fun and knows more than most people in New York about the history of furniture, states matter-of-factly that ‘significance doesn’t matter.’

For anyone in the museum world of art and artefacts, where significance (the accumulated provenance and history of a piece), is part of the piece itself, that is an amazing statement. There are plenty of characters in the novel who trade solely on significance, from sharks who prey on the elderly of the Upper East Side to the drug and human traffickers who drift through the world using stolen art as collateral, and some of whom know and love what they are smuggling.

There are very few instances of the untrained eye, though, despite the many scenes of paintings’ undeniable beauty shining out of unexpected contexts, and no instances of characters being drawn to ‘bad’ art. The furniture dupes are quite happy with their Frankenstein pieces, although the pieces’ maker is distressed at their deception.

While the author posits a throughline of beauty from Carel Fabritius’ Delft through the accidents of history to the Met, to a pillowcase taped to the back of a bedstead in a house on the sandy outskirts of Las Vegas, to a filthy Upper West Side squat, to the boot of a car in Amsterdam and back again, the characters who could never mistake one painting for anything else have all been educated to know and love beauty when they see it. Proportions and lines and colours and grains and the weight and texture of objects are part of their experience of the world.

Critics found it a strikingly unoriginal central thesis that art transcends human perspective, and of course, it is a historical commonplace. Humans have made art to transcend human perspective for as long as humans have existed. The accidental education people receive is part of the transcendent throughline of beauty.

So if that can be called ‘significance’, then The Goldfinch is a manifesto that significance does matter.

By the way, here's a really handy guide to the art mentioned in the book.

And here's something else I wrote about birds and art:

I found this interesting. I'll wait while you read it.


So I'm guilty of showing off, and I didn't know it. I choose what to buy and what to keep based partly on what I intend to read one day, what I want to read again and again and again over many decades, how hard it is to find... and partly on how I want people to think of me. I judge people more on what reading matter they own than on what I see them actually reading, which is obviously stupid. (I'm not as sad as Dostoevsky/ I'm not as clever as Mark Twain/ I'll only buy a book for the way it looks/ And I'll stick it on the shelf again.)

I'm also guilty of sentimental wankery - my high school copy, with my high school marginalia. The first copy I read of a book I've read over and over (unless the typeface or format were ugly). The copy my friend gave me. The edition with the typeface/ illustrations/ paper/ size/ weight/ smell that pleases me.

The books you choose to buy and choose to keep reflect the same things about you. So I will ask you about the Mark Twain and the Dostoevsky and the Fontana Lions on your shelf, and even if we can't talk about what you thought of them, we can talk about your tastes and memories. It's still autobiographical.

My housemates and most of my friends have travelled enough that they've got over this a long time ago, and just read whatever they read until they're done and then either return it or give it away. I wouldn't mind developing a bit of that sort of self-assurance and pragmatism.

But there is a counter-case. I am not going to get rid of and then re-buy books unless it makes practical sense, any more than I'm going to buy a book without knowing I want to own it. Yes, plenty of books will only be read until the book club meets or until deadline or until next semester, or until my tastes change. That's what libraries are for. If I only want a chapter or two, that's what scanners and printers are for. If I'm more likely to read it on a screen than on paper, I can do that for free. But if I'm more likely to actually read it in codex format, and the few dollars second hand is less than the library fines I'm likely to pay, then yes, I will buy it. And if I want to own it for any of the above reasons, I keep it.

I moved two years ago with 19 boxes of books, and my room is now lined with them. I wake up every day surrounded by my experiences, thoughts and dreams.



So my coworkers keep telling me I should see this film, 'if only for the clothes.' I haven't seen it yet but I see what they mean; I would wear either of these ensembles to work and frequently wear similar. Oh those cuffs!

(click for larger image with better light)

This is obviously a moment of frisson; lust before it dares to declare itself, with an added layer of stigma and fear because they're both women and all that. Uncertain and even forbidden. Mmhm. This stage is an adrenalin kick, for sure. But I must say, I think the most shockingly hot moment of the film was at a premiere:

Two people completely at ease in each other's personal space and beaming joy at each other. That is love. And that is truly daring.

(So can we have marriage equality worldwide already? For some of my bravest, kindest, and most intelligent friends; because love is a human right that is self-evident, nobody earns it, and everybody celebrates it; and because it is unbelievable we left it this late.)

(And hey, Hollywood and publishers. Could we stop with the one innocent ingenue and one world-weary sophisticate now please? Not every couple is. And we can tell the protagonists apart without - honest! Thanks.)

Feminist rant: On the non-apology

The other day a woman knocked me with her bag as she went past me through a doorway. 'sorry', she muttered, without turning her head or looking at me.
No you bloody aren't, I thought. And the non-apology is more of an insult than barging past.
And then I was overcome with shame because I do that exact same thing, and it is absolutely infuriating. We're all adults. We all know how to behave.

This post was going to be a reminder mostly to myself about how women apologise for things that aren't wrong, aren't their fault, and/or that they're not actually sorry about, far too much, and how this sort of punch-pulling and hedging and qualifying and not actually saying it, drives ourselves and everyone else mad and we all need to stop it immediately. But I think I will make it about the habit rather than about who does it and why that might be, because that has been covered - besides women, over-apologising and/or passive-aggressiveness is also ascribed to Midwesterners, British people, the bourgeoisie, teenagers... social groups who value social harmony quite highly. So, most people. But there is an interesting psychological thing going on with this habit.

When I was twelve I read this book, and identified so much that I just assumed I would grow up to (continue to) be like Lizzy. Twenty years later and while I still identify all over the place, I can only hope that I find it in myself the next times I need to. In the face of a real threat to her livelihood -the equivalent of 'you'll never work in this town again' from someone with a lot of power and influence, when she has none- our heroine manages to be logical, but also sassy, but also civil, but also unflinching.

This is a combination of behaviours that come from very different moods. I can hardly imagine saying 'I will be heard.' without thumping the table. And I can't imagine saying 'I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable.' other than calmly.*

We all do know how to behave, but assertiveness, and humility too, does not generally come from a combination of different moods. They're considered, practiced... practices. Which means they are generally not something that can be expressed in the moment. That's why longer sentences ('I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable.'; 'Excuse me, I didn't see you.') help. It's also why they are so rare in those kinds of split-second-reaction-time circumstances.

So I think I'm going to try to spend the rest of the week (it's Thursday, but I know my attention span) making every apology a complete sentence. If I can't come up with a sentence, then no apology: I'm not sorry, or it wasn't wrong, or it wasn't my fault. Or I really mean 'thank you' or 'excuse me'.

*Actually, I can't imagine saying 'I will not be initimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable.' at all, but I have certainly been in situations where it would have had a great effect (my coworkers would have been less exploited, the whole pub would have gone silent and then cheered, that sort of thing) and I am in high hopes that one day soon I will say it.

A graduate conference in medieval and early modern studies, NYU, September 24-25, 2015

With six plenaries and twelve student papers in one room over two days, this was small, intense, or perhaps I should say intensive, and very well-formed. The format of three papers and a respondent, or one-hour plenary and respondent, allowed for some helpful examples of ways to think about each paper, as well as ways to think about how to respond to any paper, while not prescribing responses. A very diverse array of exciting and vivid sources and discussion was thus tied to some persistent themes. Without presuming to summarise or recast the papers, for which I highly recommend looking up the authors' work, two themes seemed to persist throughout. One was the slippery relationship of metaphor to puns, duplicity, and dissimulation. The other was metaphor's particular capacity to express more than one thing at once. Right from the beginning a high standard was set, with Jacques Lezra's plenary tying translation to 'the philosophical bases for political economy in early modern Europe' with a lively and entertaining discussion of the Península Barataria episode in Don Quixote, invoking Spinoza's 'Deo sive nature' where 'sive' means 'or' not in the sense of 'either/or' but in the sense of 'by another name'. Barataria means to cheapen by substitution, in a commercial context substituting an inferior article for that advertised. This has obvious connotations for the now unfashionable substitution theories of metaphor. It was one of the big surprises of this conference that metaphor theories, either historical or contemporary, were not discussed or interrogated, although the occasional technical term suggested that people knew them. The place of unconscious or deliberately comic substitution was discussed, however, in an entertaining collection of garbled oaths and mistranslations of the episode on the stage. This flagged the question of unconscious or deliberately comic dissimulation.

The first panel, on the theme of Opacity, broadened the discussion of different kinds of doubleness. Clio Doyle's paper explored the definite versus indefinite article in Piers Plowman, and by extension physical and metaphysical 'land' and the close relationship between 'nation', 'earth' and 'kingship'. Ruby Lowe, in an interesting introduction (for me at least- I came away from this conference with a long reading list) to Milton's Areopagitica, discussed the special standing of speech versus writing and what each might signify, looking at Milton's blindness and the title's reference to incapacitated rhetoricians through the lens of Foucault. Learning that the Areopagitica, while a written text, was called a speech, and remembering that rhetoric was originally oral, I can only offer the somewhat facile remark that Foucault, with his elegant nested relative clauses out of which the reader pops with a satisfying sense of authorial long-range planning, is writerly, whereas Derrida is loudly and insistently oral. The irony on which Areopagitica rests, and the ramifications of that irony for seventeenth-century sovereignty, is only possible because speech is not writing. Dissimulation relies on its referents being established as separate ideas, as does metaphor. Rachel Dunn brought romance into politics with an exhilarating discussion and diagram of John Barclay's Argenis (1621) and its multiple plot lines versus Lady Mary Wroth's The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania. Having, as Dunn said, 'no sense of a grand narrative', together with Fortune being shown as blind in the image of humankind, flagged the theme of periodisation in literature and its effect on concepts of history, which was interesting in the context of Kathleen Davis' plenary after lunch- an admirable piece of programming on the part of the convenors, Ruby Lowe and Gina Dominick, who are to be congratulated for the truly collegiate atmosphere they created: a courteous, congenial, challenging, and deliciously well-catered two days.

Kathleen Davis' plenary, as she thoughtfully indicated early on, was one of the more abstract and broader of the conference, passionately and sensibly addressing the place of the medieval and its metaphors in shaping contemporary thought, particularly contemporary political thought. She made the excellent point that there are grand narratives in which people don't believe, but which they go by anyway, borne back ceaselessly into a past which never existed and which excludes certain participants in it. Describing this phenomenon Davis introduced the phrase 'the simplex of the pre-', which was taken up by Carla Thomas in her response as 'an authorising non-presence'. It is something academics of all kinds need to be more wary of (and Davis gave some sobering evidence of its effects in contemporary international politics), although personally I don't think Davis' tentative suggestion that topic histories of art, medicine, etc are the answer, coming as they do with teleologies and exclusive periodisations of their own. The word 'Whiggish' for a certain grand narrative has at least the advantage of drawing our attention to its Enlightenment roots, as the word Renaissance (and the word Enlightenment) do not- although as Davis noted, neither is ideal. My current favourite metaphor for historiography is pixelation.

In the next panel, on Centers, Orlando Reade's paper was a return to the tricksy Milton, in Eikonoklastes. The theme of metaphor's ambivalence continued. Perhaps it would be more specific to say the theme of catachresis, 'turning argument against itself until its distance from the truth is felt', following Puttenham's definition. Discussing the way in which Milton turns the metaphor of Parliament as the king's mother into an Oedipus complex on the part of James I, Reade made the point that this figure is 'often defined as either innocent or ironic', and that revolution becomes a figure because of historical paradigms, rather than vice versa; following Christopher Hill, in the 1640s kingship was 'seen, ... not for the first time, in motion.' This raised the question of whether a metaphor can come from historical events, rather than vice versa. The history of these specific metaphorical senses of 'revolution' made me wonder about their appearance in other languages until the 1640s.

Ross Lerner examined agency in subject and object in Spenser's Faerie Queene, cracking open an interesting discourse between the ideas of grace and free will that illuminated some contemporary views of fanaticism. Lerner argued that fanaticism was 'alternatively guarantee and threat to sovereignty, demonstrating [a contemporary uneasiness] with divinely inspired action': and therefore with divine sovereignty? This question was also referred to in Maia Farrar's paper next day.

Dan Normandin addressed the microcosm as metaphor in his paper on Andrew Marvell's 'Upon Appleton House.' The poem addressed two conflicting imperatives, showing the house both as its master's retirement haven and 'an essential node' in Cromwell's expansionist policy. For me, the microcosm as metaphor and particularly the line 'his Bee-like cell' reminded me of another important seventeenth-century political trope, that of the world upside down. I first came across the phrase in William Mayne's 1954 novel for children by that name, where a natural camera obscura effect, where the world appears smaller and also upside down, occurring in a bees' nest on a ruined gentleman's estate, is used as a metaphor for Stuart politics. Listening to the talk, I had a view of the many-paned building across the street which broke reflections into a kaleidoscope of repeated tiny street scenes, each refracted differently so as to be almost unrecognisable as reflections; a useful(?) visual metaphor and at least a fitting setting for a discussion of mainly seventeenth-century metaphor and politics. As Normandin concluded of Marvell's poem, 'the reader is primed [by the chosen metaphors] to see' the house, and by extension the state, and by extension sovereignty, 'as representationally malleable.'

The double standard of idleness

An idle man is assumed to have chosen to be idle. He's a drifter, a hobo, a dharma bum. A romantic, in other words. Or if he's not the journeying type,

(click images for source and .gifness)

He has agency, and that gives him a certain (relative, to be sure) dignity.

Relative to who?

A woman doing the same thing is considered sad and desperate. She's wasting her life not by choice, but through either adverse circumstances or personal failing.

The woman who successfully Bildungsromans gets a particular extra note in the reception of her tale. She is seen to have overcome her circumstances or her failing, rather than just having made a choice to spend her time a certain way.The stakes are higher. It's not just a straightforward 'went into the desert and came back', it's like she's actually saved her soul.

Robyn Davidson's story (went into the desert and came back) made $4.9 million at the box office. Cheryl Strayed's, with a similar budget and plot (went into the desert and came back, but in doing so saved her soul - and there's a name to conjure with) made $52.5 million.

Just a thought.

Rortying the system

In The Philosophical Imaginary, Michèle Le Doueff takes issue with, and begins to investigate, the ways in which philosophy as a formal discipline has depended on and been shaped by images, such as Kant's island of reason in a sea of untutored illusion. As the example suggests, a large part of Le Doueff's 'research problem' (and in a more literal sense of the phrase than usual) is that imagery itself is denigrated as part of the sea of illusion. Residue from some 'eternal primitive' or 'eternal feminine' (hello Messrs Freud and Jung) which is not proper to proper thought, but which is necessary to communicate thoughts to the unlettered: primitive people, women and such.

Her argument, and the bit that interested me, is that so much philosophy is couched in imagery, that to a large extent the ideas that create our worldviews, and the course of those ideas' development, are actually determined by the images in which they're expressed.

Richard Rorty would agree. Or rather as his book was first, Rorty also said: 'It is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements, which determine most of our philosophical convictions.'*

In my limited experience, that's certainly true of at least a fair bit of Continental philosophy, although if you read that post the course of development that the images suggested to me might leave you wondering.

When I was younger and more arrogant, English lit seemed too much just a matter of establishing consensus on a few particular culturally determined meanings of metaphors, to the point where one could embroider them inventively (or not so inventively) in essays. For example, when we were doing Orlando. I hadn't read Orlando before the class on it, which I admitted at the beginning of class like the protestant I am, rather than kicking the brain into gear and getting ready to improvise like a real lit student. (What? That is the skill that lit syllabi teach, and a useful and virtuous one it is too.)  OK, so I hadn't read the book. But I knew we had been talking about the nature of the canon and who decides what is in it and what not, what purpose/s and what benefit/s there might be in having a canon at all, etc etc. So when we were discussing this passage -

He sighed profoundly, and flung himself - there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word - on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth's spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding, or the deck of a tumbling ship - it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard, for he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out. To the oak tree he tied it and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer's evening were woven web-like about his body.

- something like the following exchange occurred:

Tutor: Now, this might be a bit difficult to answer, but have a go. What do you think the oak tree represents?
Me: Well obviously the canon.
Tutor: You have read the book.
Me: No. I told you.

I was an uncongenial arrogant little chit, but I still think I was right to be disgusted that it boiled down to 'guess the sign I'm thinking of', and that that appeared to totally trump a close reading of the text's rhythms and vocabulary and syntax and context and all the other stuff we like about literature. In hindsight, I think the forest of symbols really is an attempt to render a given (con)text's rhythms, vocabulary etc, into a teachable taxonomy, and it does have some value, depending, but I still think it's pernicious. I did not deserve a point for correctly guessing the culturally determined meaning of a metaphor. I deserved a poke in the eye for being lazy and then coming to class and being obnoxious.

So I fell into history, which I was then and am now hopeless at, but where you got points if and only if you had actually read something and also formed some thoughts of your own about it.

If I seem to be straying into 'imagery is for illustrating ideas to the unlettered and is therefore stupid', I don't mean that. Imagery does appear to a) be cognitively necessary, whatever Plato may have said, and b) determine culture. It is that cognitive necessity, and the process by which imagery determines culture, that interest me. Le Doueff remarked that it is just as difficult to teach a metaphor to a final-year philosophy class as it is to teach a concept - in other words people don't instinctively understand a particular metaphor in a particular way, they have to be taught to do so. Anyone who teaches literature, and/or who has explained an idiom like 'one-upmanship' or 'sputare il rospo', will know what she's talking about. But it certainly does seem to be the case that even if particular culturally determined meanings of metaphors need to be taught, we do all think in metaphors. Anyone who has tried to explain a concept without using metaphors will know what I'm talking about. So, while different cultures are shaped by different metaphors, they are all shaped by some metaphors.

Or is this in fact a phenomenological necessity?
Is it just... a powerful conceptual metaphor?

On the process by which metaphor shapes culture, Tom Sorell said that Rorty 'thinks of the history of culture not as so many partially successful instalments in an enterprise unified by a global purpose, but as a series of enterprises with local purposes unified only by time, chance and the process by which metaphors at first disrupt a discourse and then settle down in it. [It is not clear whether the disruption-settling process is Rorty's or Sorell's view of the relationship between metaphors and the discourses in which they appear.] On this preferred view of culture its history has a lot in common with the evolutionary history of biological species, which we have also come to understand as a sequence of accidents. [A sequence of accidents is a bit of an oxymoron, but let it stand. It does rather well as a description.] I admit that if Rorty's view of culture is accepted, then there is a strong analogy between its evolution and biological evolution; but I do not understand why this analogy should seem liberating to Rorty. To the extent it seems to rule out a purpose that intellectuals perennially have in innovating as they do, the analogy seems disabling. However good they are at explaining how culture moves, time and chance seem insufficient for explaining how culture moves forward.'**

But, it is far from established that culture does move forward. Speaking of moving 'forward' in time is one of our favourite philosophical convictions that has been, arguably, determined by a metaphor. We speak of time lines, going forward and backward, progressing and regressing (which just literally mean going forward and going backward). Lakoff and Johnson cite it in Metaphors We Live By. In fact, the criticism that the analogy with evolution doesn't explain progress, is created by the presumption that there is (linear) progress. It's what we refer to as a circular argument, on the grounds that 'circular' means something that doesn't lead anywhere.

Now consider the concept of 'revolution'.

Incidentally, Virginia Woolf was born on this day in 1882. I kind of wish she had been teaching my eighteen-year-old self. I don't think she would have let me get away with it.

Works cited
The Philosophical Imaginary, Michèle Le Doueff (London: Continuum, 2002).
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton UP, 1979), 12.
Tom Sorell, 'The World from its Own Point of View', in Malachowski (ed.), Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Beyond (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 21.