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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.

Mine is the poor girl's Mondrian dress. Chain store, polyester, the shoulders not quite wide enough, not-quite-right placement of the stripes (why not a white stripe on the back as well as the front? Was white in short supply?) It also hangs lower in front which just looks bathetic.

But it gets compliments every time I wear it (my friend calls it 'dollybird librarian'.) It reminds people of an upcheering moment in art and design, whether they remember the particular moment and enjoy the reference or not. And this is what interests me - that an idea can have such wide appeal independently of its historical context.

I don't think it's just that it reminds people of Sixties optimism and simplicity, although it does make me feel like Agent 99 when I'm zipping around in it. The dollybird librarian effect. Nor is it all that unusual a sight these days. It's one of the most copied dress designs ever, and neither black and white, nor bright colours, nor the A-line shift, have ever really disappeared. No, it's something in the design itself.

And while mine's just black and white ('so Mod!'), most people who could afford it got them in colour:


This is the ur-form, the Platonic ideal:


Well no, actually. That's the ur-form of my dress, fifty-odd years and a billion adaptations, copies and downright travesties later than the 1965 YSL design. But it actually isn't the Platonic form. Our Yves took his idea from fifty-odd years before that.


Piet Mondrian's neo-plasticity (or De Stijl if you prefer) is one of the early movements in twentieth-century abstractionism. It was based on a set of somewhat Neoplatonist principles, expounded by Mondrian in his essay "Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art", influenced by the entrancingly bonkers Mathieu Schoenmaekers' principles of 'plastic mathematics':

i) the material world is a confused or 'veiled' form of an eternal 'cosmic motion', which is expressed through opposites including horizontal and vertical lines. The whole cosmic motion could be reduced to the form of a cross or 'Tao'.

ii) black and white and the primary colours blue, red and yellow are the only pure colours.


The rest, as they say, is noise.

Schoenmaekers also stated that 'thought cannot exist independently of perception'; that ideas need to be visualised to be understood. Which is where art comes in.

Much as I just called Schoenmaekers bonkers, there seems to be something in this dynamic eternal idea. The grid of horizontal-vertical and the effect of the proportions make even black and white look somehow bright.


It's an idea visualised well enough not just to inspire, but also to withstand, a gazillion imitations, including mine. The eternal dynamic.

My mother said that part of the reason these A-line shifts were so everywhere in the sixties was that every ordinary teenage girl, not necessarily good at sewing and without much pocket money, could still do it. Borrow the pattern from Brenda and Rhonda on the way home from school and wear it out that night. It must have been exhilaratingly liberating after a culture of stuffy, fussy, details-are-important, nuns will rap your knuckles with a ruler if you don't ensure invisible stitches on the back too sort of clothes. Yes Dad, it's short, I don't have to care what you think. No mum, don't need any help thanks. Perhaps the latter was the most liberating; it's always good to be able to make something on your own, and especially if it's not your strong point. Reminds me rather of the current UK #thisgirlcan campaign in some ways. It would have helped a lot that most girls were taught the basics of sewing, whether or not they were much good at it, and there was a culture of women who couldn't afford bespoke tailoring doing their own, but still. Double edged sword. Or needle.

On the other hand, I think it mattered more then if Brenda and Rhonda said your knees looked fat in your new creation (no boys in any generation could have cared less.) Today's youngsters seem more able to flip 'em the bird and go out dancing or surfing- not just the Miley Cyruses with glamour and chutzpah, but anyone. It's lovely.

Ceci n'est pas une hors-texte

If I ever have a couple of King Charles spaniels, I'm gonna call them Deleuze and Guattari. In the meantime I'm just gonna think of Deleuze and Guattari as a couple of King Charles spaniels.

'It is, as Deleuze and Guattari have called, a “becoming-animal” or an ideal deterritorialisation from the shackles of time, space, identity, et cetera.'


Source and discussion here.

What, indeed.

Or as the man said, 'The postulate or common understanding involved in speech is certainly coextensive, in the obligation it carries, with the social organism of which language is the instrument, and the ends of which it is an effort to subserve.'

P. G. Wodehouse wrote that, in Jeeves Takes Charge.

And you know what Jeeves would call his spaniels.

Imitative Anachronisms, part 1

High Renaissance, Renaissance versus Early Modern, and other terms can be used as intellectual currency to draw students and visitors, to signal membership of a group, or to sell books, but such terms need to be used advisedly.

There is in historical circles some conflation of ‘periodisation’ and ‘stylistic characterisation’, as Jill Burke addresses in her introduction to Rethinking the High Renaissance: The Culture of the Visual Arts in Early Sixteenth-Century Rome (p. 2). For example, not just fifteenth-century English and French sources, but the fifteenth century itself in England and France is usually classified as medieval, in Italy as Renaissance. This is an understandable result when authors and readers are looking for characteristics of a period with which to construct larger narratives and critical analyses and deconstruction of those narratives. The question, and it may be an increasingly common question (since deconstructionism?), seems to be whether such labels determine the parameters and directions of scholarship anachronistically.

The consensus at the Monash Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies last week, insofar as a consensus registered on the Richter scale of such things, was that periodisation labels are allowable if defined, or better, juxtaposed in such a way as to remind the audience that X did not exactly succeed Y.

This is rather reminiscent of the principle of imitatio, which was a much discussed characteristic of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century European arts and literature. It encompasses something like the modern idea of adaptation or extension of the original, as well as amalgamation and pastiche from many authors - although it didn't have the pejorative overtones that pastiche does now because they had a different idea of what originality was. Dionysius, followed by Quintilian, Erasmus and therefore most sixteenth-century schools of thought, saw imitatio as the way in which literature progresses. So somewhat important. Imitatio also included the notion of imitation in the more familiar modern sense of copying either nature or earlier authors for practice or other reasons. A good author for those as fascinated by the subject as me, is Martin McLaughlin. Another is Erasmus (De Copia Rerum.)

Imitatio was an ideal and certainly a ‘hot topic’ from 1494 (pp 1,18). Burke therefore proposes it as an alternative way of thinking about the sixteenth century. But why only from 1494? Burke is arguing for multivalence as a telling development here, but multivalence is certainly nothing new. Is not this just another periodisation by stylistic characterisation? The Age of Imitatio, from the exile of the Medici to the dissolution of the monasteries?

Possibly. And possibly the use of imitatio itself, as an organising principle, is predetermined by the course of historiography, which let us not forget is historically determined. For example history of ideas is largely history of science, and as Constant Mews observed, therefore always Early Modern, never Renaissance. One thing I always enjoy about these accidental teleologies is that they engender questioning and redrawing of the chronologies (cf. R. W. Southern’s ‘Medieval Humanism’) or, less often, the terms (Erwin Panofsky’s ‘Renaissance and Renascences’ or J. H. Parry’s ‘Age of Reconnaissance’.) This is precisely what imitatio does.

As an undergraduate it always seemed better to me to be driven by the parameters in the primary sources than by those of the historiography, more ‘engaging with the text’ to use internal rather than external frameworks. But is it? The value of external conceptual frameworks is that they provide an alternative, not to replace or to choose in preference to the internal ones, but to juxtapose with them as the Renaissance painters depicted classical deities in contemporary dress.

And yet, some apparently ‘external’ conceptual frameworks are arguably born in the times they describe. They include the ‘High Renaissance’ ‘moment of genius’ framework, still used in exhibitions in many of the world’s best galleries, in which Raphael and Michaelangelo bloomed briefly and brightly and most important, approachably, between the stylised flatness of the medieval and the overblown mannered hothouse of the baroque.* The moment is generally dated between about 1500 and about 1530, although your mileage may vary.

It has been noted that this model seems to necessitate a narrative of ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’ in intellectual and artistic worth, in ‘culture’ in the broadest sense, and in history-worthiness. The idea of a ‘renaissance’ to characterise a period of unusual talent necessitates finding other, earlier or later ‘renaissances’. Thus we have an eighth-century renaissance, a twelfth-century renaissance, and so on, each of which must degenerate into decadence and decline in order to contrast properly with the next renaissance.

However, Burke does note that the High Renaissance ‘has been seen as a kind of escapism from the prevailing mood of the time’, like 1930s ‘Golden Age’ cinema. And like 1930s cinema, the same phenomenon can be both rule and exception.

*I blame that sort of sentence on the fact that my bedtime reading of late is a heady combination of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Dylan Thomas. The point still stands.

Found this perfectly true sentence in a screed of slightly alarming ('Victimization side support to place blade width on throwaway saw for cutting front man of The assembled plinth.') spambot-generated prose when looking for something else.

It doesn't entrance me quite as much these days as it once did; being able to see the joins, and even occasionally recognise sources from snippets, takes away some of the magic. A few combinations of even fewer words appear in, shall we say, LAZY ILLITERATE AND I WILL SMACK YOU AND FAIL YOU copywriting so often that the combinations are translated* into the spam-generating algorithms. That's perpetuating the banal to the extent that even inanimate typewriter-monkeys are infected, and so it continues. Profoundly depressing.

Which is a shame, because linguistic serendipity is one of the largest and most reliable consolations in life. We all have a more or less flimsy collection of reasons for not dying and the pleasure of the newly-coined sentence is not the flimsiest of mine.

That being so, maybe I shouldn't read so much spam, especially in combination with Latin pulp fiction*** and bad theses and reports. It does neither my vocab nor my grammar any favours.

*(in the literal, which is to say the metaphorical sense**)

**Translation literally means carrying across, which is a metaphor. All in this, which I'm also reading. Couldn't go past a manifold pun title if I wanted to.

***Life of Apollonius. The appeal of cathartic potboiler trash is an old appeal. The hero is unbearable, in that Charlton Heston you-could-strike-matches-on-his-chin-and-I'm-tempted-to-do-it way, but at least it inclines us to do OTT voices when reading.


Supermarket philosophy


One of the reasons I find action so difficult, other than a rampaging lazy streak, is not fear of shaking things up or for the sake of some day easing my fit into a mould (what mould, anyway?), but the pleasure of the melancholy contemplation that precedes any kind of will asserting itself. Note that the comic is not about 'choose a thing and go after it', it's about how many possible things there are. I just moved back near where I used to live and have been happily going for long solitary winter walks, noting what is different and what is the same, what is lingering from autumn and what is pushing into spring, who's put their prices up in the last 10 years and who hasn't, that the café I briefly* waitressed in when I was eighteen is considerably emptier than it was, maybe because of its underworld connections. Pissing on fenceposts, as it were.

The local supermarket is one I worked in 10 years ago, when the shopping centre was untidier and less prosperous-looking than now, but also less bleak in that shiny, plate glass and chain store way that has supposedly ruined most English towns (it's a staple tabloid rant). I was a little bit excited to go back, remembering many a pleasant conversation when I worked there with the liquor manager, who was a self-educated, curious kind of guy. He was there, but he didn't see me and of course I didn't say hi. Just got my stuff and walked home. The long way. Because human interaction is like hot chips: cheap, sufficiently readily available to give the illusion of being universally available, and the idea is often more exciting than the reality (do you not find with hot chips?) All of which completely succeeds in lulling me into a 'meh, mañana' attitude to life.

Harvey Pekar didn't have all the answers any more than Randall Munroe, but he did say why we prefer not to see the full panoply of possibilities (because the total perspective vortex does stagger the mind) and in the process, he depicted the pleasure of standing looking at it without going in. Look how huge the thought bubble gets after that little signalling scrap of paper drifts by. It's music. It refreshes the spirit. It is, in fact, sublime.

Stephen Fry knows the answers:

Should have said hi.

*Briefly because I was a terrible waitress, nothing to do with the underworld connections.

The point of Tumblr.

For those who have not seen it (_inbetween_?), The Gallifreycrumb Tinies is a thing.

Children's books I got around to just now: Bridge to Terabithia, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Currently deep in The Gnole, alternating with Anna Karenina and Tarka the Otter. One day I will get around to the GTs.


High on a surprising moment of efficiency, and the after-effects of uncertainty-induced insomnia, our heroine broke a personal rule and bought
twoCollapse )dressesCollapse )

off the internet, where you can't try things on. Will it make any difference? Which was the encouragement award and which was the prize? Will I watch any cartoons over the next fortnight, being as how the pub trivia theme is going to be about cartoons? If it couldn't be considered homework (in some universe. If you squint so hard you see supernovae for an hour. Tonight's theme was indeed space, yes, full points there) would I have been watching cartoons a lot for no reason? These things remain to be seen.

My friend is going home for the summer. She is an unusually strong* and gracious lady and I am glad to have made her acquaintance. Will I profit by the example? This also RTBS.**

*Mentally, I mean. I've no idea what she can bench press.

**In my off moments I am tempted to file my reports under that title, but I fear that only a small section of the computer science department would appreciate such behaviour, if them. So better judgment prevails, as Nick Carraway might say if he were more like Judi Dench.***

*** So = in such a way, not so = therefore, of course. Which is pretty much why I like that novel. It's in the intonation. Mooood.

Good lord. There may be thousands, even millions, of readers, who mentally read 'So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past'. For decades, for all I know. And taught it, and said it like that on screen.
Mm. In the words of Frank Zappa, I, for one, care less for them.

Alright that's probably enough comma abuse until next time.