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Saturday, 17 November 2018

Review: Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, Philosophy and Conceptual Art

When I reviewed Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking on this blog ( 22 April 2018) it got me thinking again about conceptual art, something I hadn’t really done for twenty years – my last serious engagement, a long piece I wrote in response to the 1997 Turner Prize exhibition, the prize won by Gillian Wearing:

So now I wrote a short essay setting out my principal (and non-original) objection to conceptual art, that you don’t need to experience it first hand to talk about it – a fact which makes all the expenditure of time and effort and use of (expensive) gallery space seem rather pointless. A version of this essay appears in the bi-monthly Philosophy Now (Issue 129, December 2018/January 2019).

Then I thought I ought to find out what others had been thinking since I did my thinking in 1997 and Amazon pointed me towards the 2007 book I am now reviewing. For a collection of essays by professional philosophers, it’s really quite readable. Most contributors proceed charitably, trying to find a way or ways to accommodate conceptual art (whether narrowly or loosely defined) within the traditions of mostly gallery-based visual art. If anything, they bend over backwards to give it legitimacy.

If it is accepted that conceptual art is an art of ideas, then for example it’s possible to argue that the ideas have aesthetic value rather in the way that a mathematical proof can be elegant or a chess move beautiful – this is an argument developed by Elisabeth Schellekens (page 85 for the specific examples I have given). But this leaves the question open, Why do we need anything more than the ideas? Why do we need the installation or the performance, the bit that costs money and takes up our time and  a gallery space?

Schellekens uses the word “boldness” and another contributor speaks of the audaciousness of conceptual art. The founding work for conceptualism, Duchamp’s Fountain (a male urinal) is endlessly talked about, even now, because it took nerve and cheek to put the urinal into an art gallery, and nerve and cheek often get us talking. Lots of people could have had the ideas which conceptual art occupies itself with; very few people would have dared do anything about them in the fashion done by conceptual artists. So the embodied bits of the ideas are provocations, though it may be very unclear what they are meant to provoke. In contrast, an anarchist who throws a bomb or a terrorist who plants one usually has a clear idea of what they want to provoke.

The invocation of boldness and audaciousness is meant to give point to the installations and the performances. But Schellekens realises that this move effectively links conceptual art to things like jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86) and Margaret Boden references (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the 20th century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.

I think the Allais case allows a different take on conceptual art. I think most of it belongs in the broader category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institutition. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be grouped into a distinct sub-category of pranks  by two important features:

(1)   Humourlessness
(2)    A sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space

So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery, but conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art , which is also used  several times in this volume as justification for treating conceptual art as art (for example, by Lopes at page 241).

The obvious counter-example to my claim (1) would be Banksy’s recent auto-destructive prank at Sotheby’s which was indeed very funny. But that is in great contrast to most of the stuff the contributors to this book are labouring over.
My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.

That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.

It is notable that in this collection, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most  works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, some of which ends up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue what they are doing. For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Academic Publishing in Olden Times - and Now

I suppose everyone remembers their first time. Mine was in the pages of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research which in 1973 printed my first CV- citeable academic journal publication. Its title is perhaps indicative of how they did things differently then, “The Experience of Politics”.  I find it hard to imagine that anyone would get away with anything like that now.

Let me remind younger readers of olden times. You or your secretary typed up the paper and you (or your secretary – I had one at the age of 23, a temporary university lecturer) put it in an envelope and posted it off to the Editor, in this case at SUNY Buffalo. The journal published no guidelines for submission, other than to note that “Papers submitted for publication will not be returned unless accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope, or return postage …”. Yes, that was it. But in April 1971 I did receive an acknowledgement of safe receipt and in July 1971 an acceptance – “there will, however, be a considerable period of unavoidable delay …” Not yet used to such delays, I wrote impatiently in March 1973 to enquire about date of publication; I was scheduled for June and would soon be receiving a galley proof. And June it was, calloo, callay.

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research was I thought a mid-ranking philosophical journal. (It still exists). It was indexed in The Philosopher’s Index at Bowling Green University. Since my article appeared without an abstract, I was asked to provide one for the Index and still have their proof of my text. It ends “It’s quite a good paper, if I may say so”. It had not been edited out, so I assumed my Abstract had gone unread. (I ran these little experiments in those days and have just started up again: see the Blog post on this site dated 11 September 2018 ).

 Click on Image to Magnify

I would like history to be my judge, but Google Scholar does not index this quite good paper. It may have been cited somewhere, but in all probability, not. I have no correspondence relating to it.

This I now understand has nothing to do with me; it is a quite general problem. 

The other day, I looked at one of the Word docs. on my desktop and thought it might make an academic journal article. I prospected but rapidly gave up. The whole process of submission seems to have been bureaucratised to the nth degree and I set that fact (which would raise my blood pressure if ignored) against a couple of others. Even if accepted, it is highly unlikely that the Word doc. would find any new readers, even more unlikely that it would end up being cited. I googled and the consensus seems to be that in the humanities, about half of all published articles go completely unread and about eighty percent will go uncited by anyone, not even the author’s Facebook friends. Since in retirement I am not trying to build a CV, why bother? I have no answer to that question other than, Why indeed?

And why would anyone bother, unless to build a CV? Well, there is of course a gambler’s chance that your article will be one of those that gets read and a smaller gambler’s chance that it will be cited – though, of course, there is only a fifty-fifty chance that anyone will see the citation and, worse, one of my online sources makes it the criterion for an article having been read by anyone that its first two pages should have been read. That’s tough on the citations.

There is a further reason why I baulk at the academic journal. In the past and even now, the journal took copyright. Oh, we were told that it relieved you of the burden of negotiating permissions and they threw in promises of profit-sharing. But there are two big practical disadvantages, as I have discovered. First, when putting together anthologies, editors apply to copyright holders not authors. This can mean, to give an example from my own experience, that an editor may pick an early version of something and miss out on the fact that there exists a later, more polished attempt on offer. You could have told them, if asked. Second, when in retirement you put together  a collection of your own work and try to do the dutiful bit of obtaining “kind permission” (obs. “without charge”), you discover that your journal is now owned by some conglomerate using an online permissions program which doesn’t even recognise the journal, now defunct, which it owns. More blood pressure problems.

As a result, you will find this recent would-be article on this Blog for 11 September 2018. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Review: Ali Smith, Winter

This is one of those books I picked up from the Waterstones table. I knew the name Ali Smith but had not read any of her work; nor did I know anything about her other than that she was well-known (and even then that may merely have been an association created by linking A. Smith to Z. Smith).

So before sitting down to write this review, I thought I should find out a bit about A.Smith. Literally the first thing Wikipedia tells you is that Ali Smith is Ali Smith CBE FRSL – Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In other words, a subscriber to the curtseying side (as opposed to the bowing and scraping side) of the British Establishment. It will affect how this review turns out, since it was originally conceived in the naïve belief that author and reader were more or less on the same side, unwilling either to curtsey or scrape.

In most respects, Winter is a fine novel, full of wonderful images and startling prose. A large part  could be considered a sustained riff on A Christmas Carol taking us first into Christmas Present, then into Past, and very tentatively into Future. The novel is a four-hander and after an opening nod to Dickens (“God was dead: to begin with” page 3) introduces one of the main characters, Sophia, hallucinating “a disembodied head. It was the head of a child, just a head …” (page 7). I am afraid that from this point on I sustained myself through the folie à deux between Sophia and the head with an image from A Muppet Christmas Carol which boasts an ethereal Spirit of Christmas, a child with a child’s voice, whose business it is to address Scrooge. If anyone in this story is Scrooge, it is Sophia. I may have missed something, but the image in my muppet head helped me through the magical realism passages.

Sophia’s son Arthur (Art) is visiting his mother for Christmas and having split up with Charlotte, the girl-friend he has promised to introduce, employs for a thousand pounds a homeless person, Lux (who I want to call a street urchin but she’s about nineteen), to accompany him as a pretend Charlotte – this enables hints of pantomime comedy. It is Lux who realises that Sophia is in a bad way and persuades Arthur to summons his mother’s estranged sister, Iris, to join the Christmas party. Thus are the actors assembled.

Smith characterises each of them in different and striking ways, partly through flashbacks to Christmas Past. I guess that no one will spontaneously Favourite Sophia or Arthur; after that Likes will split between Iris and Lux. My click goes to Lux, who of course, turns out to be much more than a street urchin. She has bags of empathy, is very funny, and has an excellent knowledge of English Language and Literature, despite being Croatian ( a choice primarily designed to bring in a very Stranger to the story, but secondarily to enable a small riff about Brexit and the insecurity felt by EU citizens in a hostile environment).

Lux has a wonderful set piece at pages 198-99 where she delivers a child’s and then and then and then plot summary of Cymbeline. "Phew! Iris says” at the end of it, to which Lux replies “And that’s only half the story”, which as stand-up comedy would bring the house down.

So, anyway, I’m hearting it for Lux though I know full well that I’m not in with a chance because she’s a lesbian, though that bald fact really plays no part in the story.


Now, the difficult bit. Ali Smith introduces Politics into her novel in a very direct, chunky and wilfully clunky way. Sometimes the narratives are quite general; at other times they are very precise and very local. Sir Nicholas Soames (who he?) gets into the story (pages 89 – 91 where the voice is authorial) as does Theresa May (pages 233 – 34 where the voice is that of Iris). This choice in favour of Politics is discussed, briefly, at pages 317 – 18 where Arthur asks Sophia and Iris for their answers to the question, “What’s the difference between politics and art?” and gets two versions of Keats for an answer.

I am not convinced either by Smith’s handling of her material or by her choices, but even more so now that I discover that Ali Smith CBE FRSL  and I are not on the same side after all. The moment you accept to be a Commander of their Order of their British Empire, you lose your authority to say in a convincing authorial voice some of the things Ali Smith says. That is why authors should always think twice before accepting to wear chains round their necks, they weigh too heavily. I wait to see what happens to Kazuo Ishiguro's prose now that he is both Nobel and Knight.

As for the handling, I can see that the deliberate clunkiness is a way of locating us in that everyday situation where even our best thoughts are distracted by the latest News and sent off in angry or frustrated directions. But I’m still not sure I would do Clunk very often. 

As for the content, I think as a general rule one should avoid local bit players. Think of all those countries which have (or had – like Italy in the last century) new Prime Ministers every five minutes, none of whom you or I could name. Theresa May is really in the same league. God may see the meanest sparrow fall, but he isn’t watching Theresa May at all. She’s just another one among many cardboard illustrations of the fact that the Church of England was always a bad idea. The fact that she is probably worse at curtseying than Ali Smith does not tip any balance in Ali Smith's favour.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Review: Jean Baudrillard The System of Objects

This book was published fifty years ago in 1968 as Le Système des Objets. It was a doctoral dissertation, examined by Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Henri Lefebvre. That fact is surprising since the book is written in the style of (French) higher journalism or belles lettres – think Roland Barthes Mythologies – with no bibliography or index and very few footnotes. Maybe the dissertation was made suitable for popularisation by taking out all the usual apparatus. Most of the few footnotes refer to American works of the 1950s and 1960s which address themselves to the understanding of “consumer society” and which Baudrillard had read in English – in itself, rather unusual at the time. Vance Packard figures prominently.

Vance Packard was an author I was given as supplementary reading in 1963 - 64 as a sixteen year old grammar school pupil in England. I have found my  handwritten review of The Hidden Persuaders which lists its implications for neo-classical economics. So advertising seeks to make demand less income and price elastic, thus raising average revenue curves (I summarise); advertising also makes Says Law (“supply creates its own demand”) true and postpones indefinitely the onset of diminishing marginal utility; advertising distorts resource allocation, distorts consumer choice, and undermines consumer rationality.

Though these may be implications of Packard’s work, Packard was writing popular social psychology / sociology not economics. I have simply put his book into relation with my “A” level Economics syllabus and re-framed the material.

Baudrillard puts Packard through the laundry of Parisian thought. The result is sometimes straightforwardly derivative, notably of Roland Barthes (who is very occasionally cited). For the rest, the washing powder is provided by a very generalised “Freud and Marx” who are rarely named and maybe only once (page 203) more precisely referenced. A cultural collusion between author and presumed reader exists in the very simple assumption that everyone will know what you are talking about and that everyone will assume with you that it is all true. A reasonable assumption in 1960s Paris. That it is now a period piece is perhaps attested by the fact that this 1996 translation was financially assisted by the French Ministry of Culture.

The trouble with the laundry work is that the result is a very diffuse and essayistic text. It’s undoubtedly full of ideas but you would need an eight week seminar course to go through it, pick out main themes, and subject them to scrutiny to see if they stand up and cohere. I’m not going to do that here.

At some point in the distant past I owned copies of the French paperback of this book (with a flat iron on the cover) and of its successor Pour Une Critique de l’Economie Politique du Signe (1972). In the early seventies, Penguin sent me a copy of one of these books – I forget which though I suspect the latter – and asked my opinion on whether it was worth translating. I can’t find my report, but I know that I answered “No”. 

Nearly fifty years later, I can see that the wide sweep of this book has many merits and that along the way Baudrillard does in fact italicise numerous fairly precise claims that he wants to make. Baudrillard is making a serious attempt at understanding what is distinctive of “consumer society”, how it changes human relationships towards objects, how objects move from having primarily use value to having primarily exchange value – not monetary exchange value but exchange value as signs within systems of signification – and how those signs connect to desires and libidinal drives about which Baudrillard is insistent (and in a way which I think would now be less fashionable in a more prudish society).

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Review: Jacqueline Yallop, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves

This is an interesting, well-written book about top end collecting in Victorian England, nicely presented with big print and proper spacing. The arguments are developed through case studies of five wealthy and determined collectors and particular emphasis is given to the developing relationships between private collectors and public collecting institutions (museums, art galleries). Two of Yallop’s collectors double as public servants and one as a dealer. The chapter on Charlotte Schreiber is the most interesting, especially when it develops a modest but well-grounded account  of how and why some forms of collecting were consistently regarded as the preserve of men but some niches were offered to female collectors in areas like chinaware. I would have thought a monograph could be made out of this chapter. There is no discussion of lower forms of collecting and though this is a book about Victorian England, the words “stamp collecting" nowhere appear.

The title is misleading. All of her subjects move away from magpie collecting towards a more informed and structured approach. None are hoarders in any pathological sense. Though they benefit from the proceeds of Imperial looting expeditions, they generally display a high degree of probity in their actions.

There is one puzzling discussion of fakes in chapter 17 where the example chosen (a bust of Flora attributed to da Vinci) is not in any obvious sense a fake or a forgery, just work someone has done to amuse himself; no one appears to pass it off as a da Vinci. The narrative offered supports only the conclusion that the work was misattributed; no one seems to have had any intent to defraud. Indeed, the principal victim is the expert who attributed it in the first place.

I noticed a couple of mistakes. At page 264, “George III” should read “George IV”. At page 281 a mid-century transatlantic crossing time of fifty days is given. With the introduction and development of steamships, crossing time dropped from about ten days in the 1850s to about seven days in the 1880s.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Change

I am being a bit cheeky. The long academic essay below does not belong here, but I am parking it here on 11 September 2018 as an experiment. I will report on any interesting results.

Update 1: As at 12 October 2018, this page has had 27 visits; on Google, when placed in inverted commas "A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Change" returns only this page.
Update 2: At 4 November 2018, 43 visits; see also the Blog on this site for 4 November 2018 which gives a bit of explanation of what I am doing.

A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Change
Trevor Pateman

Abstract: An atttempt to demonstrate how and why cultural change occurs continuously and  independently of any social dynamics and simply as the result of the working of ordinary cognitive processes understood here without recourse to specific versions of cognitive theory. 


The past is a lost world. We know so little about it. Of all the trillion upon trillion conversations, speeches, sermons, invocations, recitations, chants, songs, concert performances, which took place before the 1870s (at the earliest) hardly a trace remains. Their sound is recorded nowhere; the memory traces which they left are gone because everyone born before the 1870s is dead. Only where something was written down in a musical score, the text of a play or a prayer, or an entry in a diary, does something remain. The farther back in time we go, the more reconstructive (and hence at least partly speculative) is any attempt to reproduce the sounds and gestures of the past. We can reconstruct the conversation at a nineteenth century country house dinner table guided by what we read in Jane Austen; an eighteenth century concert fit for a king guided by a musical score; a seventeenth century theatrical performance guided by all that Shakespeare researchers can tell us; a sixteenth century speech by Queen Elizabeth the First as handed down in the history books …. but in the end only one thing is certain, that somewhere we will have got it wrong. We are guessing – we are theorising and we are improvising. There are no Big Data such as we now possess in sound and visual recordings and even those, I will later argue, are fraught with problems.

I am making an important assumption. Surely, you might say, there is at least a possibility that person B who heard it from person A passed it to person C who then passed it on to person D, and so on down the line so that a twenty first century rendering of a prayer may be sounded out in pretty much an identical manner to the way it was sounded out ten or twenty generations ago.  I don’t believe this is true and rather than just say Haven’t you heard of Chinese Whispers? I want to use this essay to argue that case.
In logic, if A implies B, and B implies C, and C implies D … all the way through to Y implies Z, then it follows that A implies Z. Logical implication and entailment just is a transitive thing.
But if I understood my mother when she talked to me, and she understood her mother when she talked to her, and that mother understood her own mother …. it does not follow that I would understand my 26th great grandmother if she were still alive to talk to me. Indeed, it is at least very likely that I would not understand.  There will be a failure of transitivity.

Such failures arise in two main ways. First, the things I want to speak about are different to those my 26th great grandmother wanted to speak about. My vocabulary is different, full of words which would be to her incomprehensible neologisms. Likewise, her vocabulary included words which have fallen completely out of use and which can now be found, if at all, only in specialist dictionaries. It is a perfectly general truth that the world we inhabit changes and the words we use to talk about our world change with them, sometimes very rapidly, sometimes more slowly.

Second, the way we speak changes over time under both external and internal pressures. Pronunciation, accent, intonation patterns, all change – indeed, are changing all the time, never stop.

These simple ideas can be given expression in terms of very simple set theory. There is a set (almost certainly fuzzy at the edges) of all the possible utterances which I can passively understand should they be addressed to me. That set changes over a lifetime – in my late teens I could understand utterances in Swedish because I had learnt some Swedish but which I would no longer understand because I have forgotten what I learnt – but importantly the set includes most (perhaps all) of the utterances which my mother ever addressed to me. But my set does not perfectly overlap with her set, not least because the world has changed a great deal and now includes the internet, emails, and so on indefinitely. Included in her set were most (perhaps all) of the utterances which her mother addressed to her, none of which were ever addressed to me because this grandmother was dead before I was born. Probably there were things which my grandmother said which I would not understand if by some extraordinary means I could hear them now.

I can even give a sort of proof. Recently, going through things which belonged to this grandmother, I found the printed prayer which stood like a photo in a frame on her bedroom dressing table. I looked at the back where I found printed the words MOWBRAYS’ DEVOTIONAL GLAZETTES G 7. Well, I know that Mowbray is a big religious publisher confirmed by the later words A.R.MOWBRAY & CO Ltd. London & Oxford – something which has not stopped the company putting the apostrophe in the wrong place, useful evidence that the decline of civilisation did not begin last week. And I know the word devotional. But what about this glazette? I’ve never come across the word before. It sounds like it has some connection to gazette, but what connection? So I google and for the first time ever, Google really struggles. There is no definition of the word on offer anywhere but there are a handful of other uses which Google finds on ebay, including uses to brand-name early (1890s – 1910s) picture postcards which have a glazed surface – what we would now call a laminated surface. So here we have a word which my grandmother would have presumably known and understood but which, unaided, I did not. And here we are only talking about the very, very recent past.
It takes only a bit of imagination to see that over time, the sets of all possible utterances which a person in generation Z can understand have migrated so far away from those which a person in generation A could understand  that there is eventually minimal or no overlap at all. There is a more or less complete failure of transitivity. Or, to put it in the language of set theory, sets migrate. If this is true of language, then it will be true of many other forms of expression. That claim requires some fleshing out.

Why is it not possible for a singer in an oral culture to orally transmit a definitive version of a song to an apprentice singer who then in turn passes it on to the next generation apprentice, and so on, indefinitely?

First, and not at all trivially, a singer may not care at all about a definitive version and from performance to performance may vary in all kinds of ways the song they sing. The singer acts creatively, improvises, but is also affected by how much they have had to drink, how much they like the audience, and so on through an indefinite range of possibilities. So an apprentice has to somehow figure out what is essential to learning and reproducing “the song” and what is incidental. And there is no guarantee at all that all apprentices will figure out in the same way, even if they have never heard the expression “cover version”.

This is really a way of introducing the idea that in relation to cultural transmission or reproduction, there is always and inevitably an inescapable moment of interpretation. That idea can also be expressed in the claim which tells us that a theory (an interpretation) is always underdetermined by the data which support it. There is always more than one way to skin a cat.

Second, it is extremely rare for something like a song or a dance to have only a unique performer at any one moment in time and for that unique performer to have a unique apprentice. At any one time, the performances of a living group of performers are attended to by a group of apprentices. When a culture is dying, one way of showing that is to point to the fact that the group of apprentices is smaller than the group of established performers. But dying or expanding, the performances of current performers constitute a set (almost certainly fuzzy at the edges) of what constitutes the empirical reality of a particular song. When a couple of centuries ago (or less), ethnographers began to collect the words of folk songs one of the first things they had to cope with was the huge variation between versions of what were,  in some sense, renderings of the same song. The set which made up a song was not only fuzzy; it was positively indeterminate.

I once encountered a real-world near-demonstration of this truth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, men from the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland found employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada which traded with the Inuit population of the north. Some Orcadians also served on whalers which hunted in the Canadian north. These men left behind not just babies but fiddles and the knowledge of how to play them. Long after the Orcadians left, there continued to be Inuit fiddlers playing Orcadian music. In 1978, holidaying in Orkney, I found myself one evening attending a unique, first-time-ever gathering: a group of Inuit fiddlers had travelled to Orkney and they were going to play their fiddles. Then some Orcadian fiddlers were going to play theirs. Then, it was hoped, the two sets of fiddlers would play together. Well, they tried and they partially succeeded but you would not have called it a successful jam session. Cultural drift had taken Inuit and Orcadian fiddlers in separate directions and after a period which could have been no more than 150 years, they were playing differently from each other. But in between, sons had learnt from fathers in unbroken chains. The line of descent was there but the music had migrated enough to create quite a lot of  intransitivity.
But suppose there is just one performer and one apprentice, and suppose the performer is an obsessive about maintaining just one version of a song, a dance, a prayer and boxes the apprentice’s ears when they deviate ever so slightly from the standard? Surely this can stop the set from migrating, stop later versions from becoming intransitive with earlier ones.

I have six inter-connected arguments to offer against this possibility. One I develop through the concepts of foreground and background. That is connected to what I call the sample book problem. Then there is the important problem of forgetfulness. Then there is a problem of context which is often overlooked. There is a problem of finite intelligence. And, finally, there is the problem of unique experience.

Human beings, constructed as they are, can only attend to some things at any one time out of all the possible things which could be attended to at that moment. They can, in fact, only notice some things out of all the possible things that could be noticed. About these things to which they attend or which they notice, they can say at least something, though even then it may be sketchy and not very informative. Nonetheless, it is a whole lot more than can be said about all that was not attended to, was not noticed.

There is a foreground of experience - things we notice - and a background of things we don’t. Quite often, we can change our focus of attention in order to pull something out of the background and into the foreground. But not as often as we may imagine and quite often we only do it when prompted.

This is not just a fact or truth about perception. It is perfectly general. Everything we experience and everything we do is handled within the frame of foreground and background and there is no avoiding that fact. The consequences are multiple, not just for everyday life but also for things like artistic creation and political understanding.

The contrast of foreground and background is played out very obviously in relation to spoken and written language. Parents, teachers and ministers of education habitually foreground some bits of language as particularly important for children to learn. They emphasise bits of pronunciation, bits of grammar, bits of punctuation as things which are very important to get right. Quite often, these foregrounded features are selected with a view to stopping some incipient change occurring. They are conservative measures.

You can only practise so much vigilance. No ordinary parent or teacher or even minister of education can be googling all the time. As a result, some changes get past even the most vigilant defenders who are thus always in the position of King Canute, unable to turn back the waves. Change will happen even on those language fronts you have opted to foreground and defend.

Worse, there is the background of language use still to consider, all those things which aren’t being attended to. Here change happens unnoticed even by those who pioneer the changes. They just do it without knowing that they are doing it or why they are doing it. I will give an example from written language. Recently, I was reviewing articles and chapters I had written forty or fifty years ago. As I turned some of them into new Word documents, I realised there were things in them that I now write differently. Decades ago, I would have written U.S.S.R. and N.A.T.O. and B.B.C. and so on indefinitely. But nowadays I don’t do that. I write USSR, NATO and BBC and so on indefinitely. But there was no point at which I was conscious of dropping the stops and I did not know that I had indeed made this discontinuous change in the way I type until I got involved in reading my own old work. Likewise, there was that point when – like many people –I stopped speaking and writing Roumania or Rumania and switched to Romania. Don’t ask me when or why.

So in the background, even though it involves things which we do quite consciously – as when we sit down to type – changes happen which are not reflected on or brought into consciousness at the time they occur and may indeed not be noticed until much later. Historical linguists come into their own studying such changes but what is happening here is not specific to or confined to language. All things change, whether we like it or not or whether we notice it or not. And All does mean All, even those things we may imagine are under our own control. To return to language, if you think there is something called The Queen’s English or BBC English which does not change, just try listening to a fifty year old recording of a BBC radio broadcast or a fifty year old Queen’s Speech.

So far, the argument amounts to this. Everything we experience and think about is handled in terms of foreground and background. We have a bit more control over foreground but not enough to prevent change even when we are trying to prevent change. We have less control over background, often none at all, and background changes all the time and sometimes very fast. Change goes on in the background willy-nilly, as I have already suggested with the example of pronunciation. We are capable of changing things in the foreground and liable to change things left in the background. The dynamics of change are different in the two cases.

In the foreground, we are liable to influence from others (often massively so) but when we make a change it is often (perhaps always) of a discontinuous nature and involves a decision on our part, as when we decide to quit smoking and move from being a smoker to being a non-smoker which in turn makes us an agent within a broader cultural shift. But when something in the background changes, unknown to us, it often does so in a way which has a sort of continuous character. So we start to say “Hi” instead of “Hello” on a few occasions, without knowing why we pick those occasions, and then we start to use “Hi” more often and, perhaps eventually we move to a situation where we become a monoglot “Hi” user rather than a monoglot “Hello” user. But we didn’t decide to do this. We still understand what other people mean when they say “Hello” but we just stop using “Hello” ourselves.

(The contrast between continuous and discontinuous change is important. There is a long history of theorising about the contrast, with the science of geology having been a major site for the early discussion. Nowadays we are most familiar with the idea from the way we contrast analog with digital. Think of clocks).

How does all this apply to the single performer with a single apprentice? Suppose it is a singer and a song. The singer has a unique voice profile (as modern technology knows) and it changes through time: an old man does not sound like his younger self. The singer can’t do much about this and almost certainly discounts it and consigns it to the background when teaching an almost certainly younger apprentice. The singer can only foreground so much of the song and its singing and inevitably some things will pass unnoticed. Maybe the singer takes four minutes thirty three seconds (on average) to sing the song and the apprentice takes four minutes thirty one seconds. If you don’t notice and stop that, then the song has already changed. In contrast, when the singer foregrounds something, like a drawn out note or word, then that does mean that the apprentice may well get their ears boxed for getting it wrong.

There is still a double problem. The poor apprentice has to understand what they have got wrong and find a way to correct it. Because of the ubiquity of the need for interpretation, the apprentice has first to correctly identify what the singer is so agitated about. The problem is analogous to that children have when their speech is corrected and they have to grasp what it is that it is being corrected. Not so long ago, I listened to a young child reciting numbers from one to twenty with complete accuracy. But at the end, his father intervened to say No, not twen-ee, it’s twen-tee. The child was completely baffled by this piece of linguistic correction which had absolutely no connection to the task he had set himself of reciting the numbers in correct order. How was the child supposed to know that though living in south east London he was not supposed to speak like south east London?

Even if he had been a budding theorist of cultural arbitraries, there would still be the problem of converting advice into successful practice. Children do often get it right in the end, though it probably has little to do with advice they are given, and as anyone who has ever learnt to drive a car will know, giving advice is more easy to offer than to act upon.

Worse is to come. In oral cultures, singers forget today what they prescribed yesterday or, perhaps to make it more plausible, they forget next year what they prescribed this year. They have no sample book outside their own heads and we all know that our memories are constantly re-organising themselves. They have no means of comparing the sample which occurs to them today with the sample which they were using yesterday, let alone last year and which is almost certainly completely forgotten.

But suppose there is a real sample book in the form of a voice recording, even a film which shows all the accompanying gestures and so on?

The very same problems recur even if they seem less severe. Eliminate the possibility that the singer says they were having an off-day when the recording was made, there is still a problem of determining what is foreground and what is background in the recording, what matters and what does not matter. If the singer looks up at a certain point, does that matter or is it just because a bird was flying overhead at that moment? Then again the apprentice has to convert what is available in the recording into a new performance which uses the apprentice’s unique voice rather than that of the recorded singer, and so on.

Sample books do not solve any problem in some automatic way; they have to be interpreted and a regress can only be stopped by making a decision: this is the way we will do it. And decisions, one might say, are fatal to the integrity of cultural transmission. The decision indicates what will be allowed to Pass and what will Fail. But on a different day, or with a different judge, it is entirely likely that the bar would have been set higher or lower.

Imagine the teacher listening to the apprentice and eventually declaring That’s it! or perhaps merely That will do! That’s a decision, not something completely grounded in the sample in the teacher’s head. Nor is there any guarantee that next time around the teacher will come down in favour of the same version; the teacher is capable of forgetting the sample used last time and also capable of unconsciously modifying it. The mind is always at work, in one way or another, and it is the mind at work which makes all culture unstable even in what we might think of as an otherwise unchanging world.
There is a further peculiar problem created by the fact that all our activities have a broader context.

Background and foreground are separated by temporary boundaries – things move in and out of focus, the change triggered for many different reasons. But even when something stays for a long time in background, even deep background, it exerts an influence on what goes on in foreground. I use a hypothetical example to develop the argument.

Imagine a culture in which it is expected that certain utterances will be produced in a voice which is loud, clear and decisive. Maybe when a prayer is spoken or a sentence handed down by a judge. But suppose that in the wider culture there is an unmonitored and untheorised drift towards quieter forms of speech. The explanations could be purely external and chance. Maybe people are living in a police state and fall into the habit of talking in whispers; maybe more and more people work in open plan offices or live in apartment blocks with flimsy party walls. Whatever, people are talking more quietly. In this situation, the priest or the judge who continues in the old way will begin to sound ridiculously loud rather than impressively loud. Quite unconsciously, but affected by what is happening all around, an officiant shifts towards dropping their voice by a decibel or two. Should their audience contain an old-school office holder in retirement, that person may be saying to themselves Speak up! Speak up! because they happen to be outside the loop of an ongoing, broader cultural change.

It is in such continuous contextual interaction that I think we may find part of the explanation of cultural changes which it seems no one intended but which have happened anyway. For example, if a broader culture gravitates towards greater informality of style, then that may provide a kind of push towards making things like weddings and funerals more informal, even though those are things which most people might be happy to regard as governed by tradition and to be kept going in their older forms. Context is not a sinister force, but it is a powerful one.
The fifth argument goes like this. Our brains aren’t big enough and the time available to us is so short that it’s not possible for every bit of cultural material to be given foreground attention. That implies that those who want to stop cultural change cannot win every battle because they can never have enough troops to deploy. There aren’t enough hours in the day for anyone to stay on high reflexive alert to more than a small number of things which may change if not attended to.

To write English properly, you are supposed to master apostrophe rules. As it happens, they have a rather complex and confused structure which make them very difficult to learn without a quite disproportionate expenditure of effort. Very few people master this glass bead game. In this case, there is a long-term dislocation between a set of rules which tell you what you are supposed to do and what is actually done. The most likely resolution is that the rules will eventually be abandoned.

The problems which arise from limitations of time and intelligence can be seen in comic form in the desperate, expensive and futile attempts which English schools make to make pupils conform to school uniform rules. The Deputy Head goes on offensive against jewellery but misses what is happening to finger nails; they switch to finger nails and miss what is happening to skirt hems; they focus on skirt hems …. The only sound conclusion available is that they never will succeed because they never can. To a disbelieving audience, King Knut proved that claim a very long time ago.
Last but not least, people do not share the same experience set, the set of things which happen to them and which provide the raw material for their minds to work over, interpret and act upon. Experience sets are unique to individuals. Every day and all over the world, many millions (maybe more) people use or hear used the word Heathrow but only a very strange fluke would ensure that over time they have identical sets of Heathrow experiences. In all probability, they hear the word pronounced in different ways and out of that experience they have to fashion their own pronunciation, much affected by the language context from which they are working – Cantonese, French, Russian…. Very few will head to the online forum where such things are discussed and even then the effect will not be decisive.

We do not have a Big Data set which harvests the sounds of each day’s token utterances of the Heathrow type. There is no central depository, only the experiences of millions of individuals. A linguist with a sample of all the utterances will be able to sort them into sub-types – for example, the sub-type HEATH-row with stress on the first syllable and the sub-type Heath-ROW with stress on the second. The linguist may be able to hypothesise that the distribution of sub-types has shifted over time, the first pronunciation (American) overtaking the second and original English pronunciation for reasons much connected to patterns of global aviation. So we have the beginnings of an account of cultural change. The only sure thing is that it would be absurd to suppose that the continuously updated pie chart breaking down Heathrow pronunciations into their variant forms could have remained unchanged even over the short period of time in which the airport has existed.
The lines of argument developed in this essay apply equally to the understanding of changes in beliefs, belief systems, ideologies. Those who wrote the religious texts on which many cultures have relied probably thought that they were settling things for the future. In fact, as everyone knows, they simply provided data for an indefinite number of ever-changing  interpretations. The human mind seems to like nothing better than the challenge of a text.  This inherent instability in what in some cases are presented as unchangeable belief systems has one major advantage. It also allows for scientific progress and revolution. Of course, there is also an external dynamic provided by migration, war, conquest and economic change. But even without that external dynamic to prompt it, human minds are always churning.

© Trevor Pateman 2018

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Review: Kapka Kassabova Border

It’s much easier to read a book about something you already know something about; harder when you are ignorant and so have to simultaneously read and store new information all the time. Knowing nothing about Thrace (Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish) I thought I would find this book hard, but most of the time it is very readable and at times moving. I struggled a bit with the constantly changing cast of characters.

In the most general terms it is a book about how people find it hard to get on with their neighbours, and quite often are forced to reject them even against their wishes, and how borders end up not just fortified with leylandii but barbed wire and machine gun posts. It’s also a book about how easy it is to turn young men into killers.

In this context a wonderful chapter about a hopelessly ecumenical Greek orthodox priest (a cadre not noted for ecumenism) is both beautifully written and deeply moving:

“ ‘Thrace without borders. Just as it should be,’ Father Alexander said when I first visited them at home, dropping in without notice. I hoped they didn’t mind, I said.
‘Mind?’ Alexander said and bit into a cheese pastry. ‘We only like guests who drop in without notice’” (page 154)

I can see how it merited its shortlistings and prize. I was a bit surprised to find a number of repetitions which are not stylistic but  failed copy and pasting – something which an editor should have picked up.

The Return of Radical Philosophy

I had a partner once who teased me whenever I informed her that I had worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased. Yesterday I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been resurrected. The old one was started up in the early 1970s and ran to two hundred issues before shutting up shop; the reincarnation is on issue number two. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy -  I had the thought (in my own head), Isn’t the expression radical philosophy a pleonasm?

All philosophy tries to get to the root/s of things, to get beyond repetition of conventional wisdom,  reliance on unchallenged assumptions, polite acquiescence in received ideas. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover that they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others with that fact, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar as to become too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick and you will find that it hurts you more than it hurts the root. (Apologies to Dr Johnson).

In any case, to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is a very limiting way of thinking. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book (the only one of his I have read) Changing The Subject and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s) that when a scientific revolution occurs, it’s not just a theory which changes. It is the questions asked, the bits of the world which seem in need of study, the definition of the subject itself. Geuss is casting the history of philosophy as having a similar dynamic. But in the case of both science and philosophy, that does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is “philosophical” art and literature which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or to persuade us that we would be better off if we shifted ourselves into a different world. Wordsworth seeks to refresh; Shklovsky and Brecht seek to shift, seek to tap into a sense that "something's missing". 

On the internet the other day I came across a Marxist writer describing me as a “one-time radical”. I smiled and retorted in my own head, You’ve probably been banging the same drum for decades. I’m sure it’s very comforting. But there’s a world out there which changes all the time and it’s quite important that we dig in the new places, not just the old familiar ones. The old songs are comforting but philosophy has never been a comfort zone.