Monday, 31 August 2009

Walking with Capital

I make myself go out walking for exercise but where I can walk round here I'm pretty bored with so the iPod helps. I mainly play not music but radio programmes and podcasts I've downloaded.

This morning I've been enjoying a rare academic pleasure, listening to a terrific university lecture, the first of David Harvey's course (not sure where he's giving it), called Reading Marx's Capital. It's the first of 13 lectures on just Volume 1 of Capital and it's a course Harvey's been giving every year but one for thirty years, and it reminds me how stimulating a good lecture can be.

It's here but I got it from iTunes.

Harvey exactly recognises my predicament as someone who read the first few chapters and got hopelessly bogged down. He explains why it's difficult: the foundation concepts that you need to understand the whole are introduced at the start but you can only understand them when you've read the lot; in some ways, he suggests, it might make more sense to start at the end.

The lecture's a good introduction and I particularly appreciated Harvey's explanation of Marx's method. First, his scientific method: talking three major existing blocks of concepts -- political economy, German philosophy and utopian socialism -- and banging them together 'to make revolutionary sparks'.

Second, his writing method: in making knowledge you start with experience and phenomena and one way and another arrive at the ideas that will allow the reality behind the surface to appear, but in 'writing it up' you present the understanding you've ended up with and in so doing are bound, misleadingly, to give the impression that those ideas were a priori, there before you started. Since the long and messy process of discovery is concealed, the reader is inclined to react, 'Where did that come from?'

So -- my gloss -- the reader almost has to reinvent the process of discovery for him/herself, to each statement saying, 'To what question was that the answer?' I think understanding that that's what you have to do is one of the main secrets of studying.

Harvey reminds me that I did enjoy reading Capital. Marx is a lively and witty writer; what stopped me was the conceptual difficulty. I needed perhaps to study it rather than just read it on trains and buses.

Not definitely promising to try again, though. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Gateposts in Brittany

(More pics that I thought were lost.)

Architects use the term 'characters' for building elements that have an individual presence and are experienced as entities in themselves as well as for the part in the building as a whole. The gateposts of farms in Brittany are plausibly regarded as characters; you almost feel you should shake hands with them as you enter.

Partly it's their obvious human form: upright, freestanding, with distinguishable body and head (or at least separate top components; it doesn't do to push the analogy to the point of saying it's the ball or the entire upper thing that's the head. One could argue, equally, that the whole top is a body and a head, and the main column below just a plinth). Gateposts, I suppose, are columns, which on Greek temples had been sculptures and before that, in one theory, actual captives. (I've been meaning for years to read -- or at least look at -- Joseph Rykwert's classic, The Dancing Column.)

As they stand there confident in their unmistakeable form they seem to have a secret. They read as enigmas, as signs of something. They know something we don't. (Some gateposts in a London park in a photograph in Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory give me the same feeling.)

Irrespective on any heraldic significance the motifs may have (rope, ball), the number and configuration of the layers of the complex top clearly conform to some model of propriety. There would be a right way of doing it. Behind the shaping of the gatepost is some social order that knows what it's doing.

Clothing and hair styles in modern urban subcultures have the same effect. In the '60s Mod the width and shape of lapels, the length of hair on the neck, the size of the tie knot, the presence or absence of a shirt pocket collectively struck one as having a meaning: they were manifestations of some secret of life to which I had no access. Hence the confident self-sufficiency of his bearing.

The gateposts, by the way, are often double like this in Brittany. The gap between the pair of posts was obviously for people to walk through when the gate (now long gone -- these aren't working farms any more) was closed, but we never found out what that strange sill was for that you see in the top photo. It wouldn't keep cattle out or dogs or foxes or rats. Snakes, perhaps, adders being a problem in those parts?

Saturday, 22 August 2009

No, but they're there all right

( the question, Do you believe in ghosts?)

"Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of [Niels] Bohr's country house, a visiting scientist said he didn't believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: 'Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn't believe in it.'" [Slavo Zizek, 'Berlusconi in Tehran',
London Review of Books, 31 (14) 2009]

So perhaps with transcendence in poetry? Of course there isn't another order of reality behind this one, one of which we're occasionally vouchsafed a glimpse through art or liminal experience, a surreality beyond reality. But because poetry states nothing and makes no claims (its sentences are only playing at being statements, like statements being quoted at us) it can have its cake and eat it: it avoids condemnation for superstitious belief but enjoys the benefit of experiencing superstition as reality. It's saying nothing that's untrue but it isn't in the business of saying at all; it claims no truth so can't be lying; but it nevertheless puts into our consciousness awareness of the very thing it's escaping the accusation of superstitiously believing.

So in its woods there spirits, in its deserted towns a brooding presence, over its vast waters a universal Something. And for us they're there all right, but who could ever accuse us, we who explain so dispassionately in our essays 'How Yeats creates the effect of...'?

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Topographical universals

People must have written about this but I can't think of any examples, though Gaston Bachelard would be a likely person.

I'm aware that for me there are topographical universals, recurrent environmental or landscape conditions that have perennial phenomenological significance. They are recurrent themes that I feel I recognise in the specifics of particular locations and views. The most poetic incorporate hills.

One such universal would be approaching the top of a rise over which the roofs of houses can be seen. (That's the Breton flag.)

Another is entering a village:

-- in this case Plogoff, Brittany.

Another is leaving it (the same way):

The distant view is towards Audierne.

(Some pics that I thought iPhoto had irretrievably destroyed have turned up in another neck of my virtual woods - hence this posting.)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Turk again

Hah - this is what comes of having an artist in the family. Jim Medway points out that the Gavin Turk in my last posting is based on Robert Indiana's Heliotherapy Love, 1995.

Turk's is still better, though.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Gavin Turk pic

This card has been on the shelf above my desk for weeks and it’s only recently that I’ve looked at it rather than just seeing it. It’s announcing an exhibition at Paul Stolper in London of works by Gavin Turk, now finished -- I missed it, sadly, because of my holiday. I like that gallery because the work is interesting, Paul’s always happy to chat and it’s in a great location, Museum Street, just south of the British Museum and next door to Abbot & Holder, a wonderful three-storey picture shop.

The effect of this posting will be much diminished by the failure of my scanner + screen to reproduce original colours, and then by being viewed on your display which may well be quite different. In particular there’s a strong pop-artish effect that might be lost between the green and red.

The instructions for enjoying this picture (is ‘picture’ the right word?) must include, first, focus on the negative spaces: try seeing them as positive and the letter shapes as negative. The blue shapes are far more insistent than the green; and the shape that holds its own and is most salient as an entity in its own right is the long vertical blue form to the left of centre. In fact, apart from the letters, that’s the only interesting shape; the others are smaller and less articulated.

If we didn’t recognise the red elements as letters, would we see them as four separate forms or as one highly articulated one? I think, as at least three – R and K might be seen as one.

I love the way the three arrows, two green and one blue, insert themselves into that rectangle to generate a K.

Blue makes the running in the bottom half but makes only one appearance in the top.

Interesting how the holes or open spaces within the R are occupied by one blue and one green, the blue appearing as perhaps a part of the same thing as the big long blue form, emerging into view again from behind the red. The blue that comes into the K from the right edge, however, seems out on its own.

The green shapes are really rather simple.

There’s a very strong horizontal division into two equal halves but no vertical equivalent.

Then, how about the drama of the U? It’s tipped over – that’s how we see it; its axis is SE/NW rather than N/S, and its two outer tips protrude beyond the frame. More disturbingly, by tipping it introduces irregularity: whereas every other edge or line in the picture could have been produced with compasses and ruler (circles and straight lines), the edge of the blue where it meets the U could not -- the bottom of the U isn’t formed, like the curve of the D inside the R, by joining two part circles with a straight line but by a more complex curve.

It’s intriguing, economical, ingenious and very satisfying to look at.

Art goes a long way simply by the complexity of its internal relations: simple regularities that get complexified, or irregular forms in which regularity is discerned.

But here there’s also the oscillation between seeing letters and seeing forms, and the exoticness of the word, not only in its reference to something very foreign and charged but also because the word is unusual: does any other English word end in –urk? (‘Perk’ rhymes with it; so does ‘work’ – but not ‘stork’…)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

English v Comp Lit

Re my last posting, on rhetorical and serious lit, or attitudes to lit: in the Canadian university where I worked for eleven years there was a department of English and a department of Comparative Literature. The English faculty (or most of the men at any rate -- there were hardly any women) were shabby looking, had scruffy beards and drove old wrecks of cars: you could see the Canadian heritage of Scottish Presbyterianism in their long-suffering faces, lined by years of dutiful service in the trenches of lit. Comp Lit wore expensive, beautifully tailored suits or canary waistcoasts and bow ties; their shoes and briefcases were of the best Italian leather, their conferences were in Rio and Lisbon and they drove sports cars. They favoured clever rhetoric, playful texts and playful theory. They were closed down, as I recall, for financial irregularities and abysmal student ratings.

The rhetorical and the serious

The Introduction to my Penguin Shakespeare The Winter’s Tale says that romance is sometimes considered a little too popular: late in his career Shakespeare's longer-lived contemporary Ben Jonson scoffed at two of Shakespeare's late plays, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest,

mocking the fantastic dimension that makes them distinctive. All these complaints derive from Jonson's contempt for the popularity and conventionality - what he considered the vulgarity - of dramatic romance, and they represent a moral objection. He seems to have felt that Shakespeare was squandering his talent by peddling entertaining fantasies; he believed that fiction ought to be instructive, ought to expose the follies and errors of the society for which it was written by showing 'an image of the times', ought to employ 'deeds and language such as men do use' (Prologue to Every Man in His Humour; composed c. 1604-16). To such a neoclassical sensibility, the moral function of drama depended on a credible representation of familiar experience, an illusion of the world in which spectators could recognize themselves and their own culture. Thus Jonson set Epicoene, or the Silent Woman and The Alchemist in the very London neighbourhoods through which the audience had travelled to the theatre. (Russ McDonald, Introduction to The Winter’s Tale, Penguin 1986, xxxiv)

Strangely, that emphasis on familiar language and experience recall the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, two poets who were precisely not neoclassical.

But whereas Wordsworth followed that agenda in so far as he did write of ordinary people and did avoid the conventional language of much eighteenth century verse, Coleridge and the next generation of Romantics went in for strange tales (‘The Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘Christabel’…) that were closer to Shakespeare's late plays than to Jonson’s.

A ‘moral objection’ is what Leavis and his followers could be said to have had to novels that didn’t deal ‘seriously’ with men and women and society as they were: they had no time for magic, fantasy and the Gothic. Wuthering Heights maybe but no Frankenstein and no Poe. Nor had they any time for tales that declared their conformity to the conventions of tales: no Conan Doyle, no ghosts, no The Avengers, no Dr Who – no popular culture, in fact.

The agenda of the 1960s-70s version of English built on everyday experience and ordinary vernacular language was informed by something of that spirit, even if it didn’t derive directly from Leavis. The enemy was artificiality: genres that looked like genres and didn’t conceal their conventions and artifice; children’s writing that wasn’t ‘sincere’ and ‘authentic’. Strongly influenced by that ideology in my training, I may have tolerated but certainly didn’t encourage those children who enthusiastically wrote long adventure stories and tales of horror, ponies and space. Only when my pupils were describing their streets and neighbours and examining their relationships would I have been happy for my PGCE tutors and teacher mentors to drop in and see what was going on.

But we don’t now agree with Jonson and most of us very much approve of The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Cymbeline. And in the same way, while I still cringe at all the Gothic stuff that’s now so big in school and university English, I now feel there was a dimension missing in the ‘realist’ English of 30-40 years ago. Part of me welcomes the postmodern turn to playfulness with language and genre and to the embracing of artifice: I hugely enjoy Marquez, Calvino and Vonnegut and if teaching now would give my younger pupils (‘Key Stage 3’ the absurd UK jargon – what are the off-key stages, I wonder?) loads of Arthurian legend, classical romance (the Odyssey) and Midsummer Night’s Dream; perhaps even ghost stories.

Richard Lanham wrote a few years ago about the alternation in literary history of periods dominated by homo seriosus (Virgil, Milton, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence) and homo rhetoricus (late Shakespeare, Sterne, Melville, Saul Bellow). We’re certainly now in a more rhetorical era – except that we wouldn’t acknowledge (nor would Lanham, I'm sure) that The Tempest or Much Ado were any the less serious because they were rhetorically playful.