Tuesday 31 March 2009

The Simple Truth

Once, like any clever kid, I was in love with difficulty and complexity (so long as it didn't involve maths). German was more satisfying to learn than French, for example, but Russian was the business. Even the price of admission was learning a new alphabet -- perfect!

Now, my sarcasms aimed at the likes of Derrida in previous posts may have given a misleading impression. If you have your Big Book of British Stereotypes to hand, I don't see myself as the bluff, Watsonian, common-sensical, rosbif sort of chap, with no time for airy-fairy Frenchified nonsense or dangerous Teutonic bombast. No, I prefer to think that I'm out of the conflicted Holmesian mould (now there's a man with an idiotic hat), with an admiration for the complex nose and long finish of continental thought, but a wounded wariness of its absinthe-like toxicity, more Maturin than Aubrey. Though with Watsonian facial hair and girth, it's true, and possibly also his delusions of sophistication.

As I think I've already mentioned, I played the Theory Game myself in the 1970s, and might have had a modest career cutting English cloth to the latest continental fashions. I moved from Marxism through Semiotics to somewhere quite interesting in the neighbourhood of "Reception Aesthetics," and long enough before the fat Do It Yourself Deconstruction primers hit the college bookshop shelves to have written one or two myself. However, in the late 70s my partner and I spent a little time in Paris staying with a friend, who was studying with Gilles Deleuze at the Paris VIII Vincennes campus, and who went on to become his translator. It was clear Hugh's cleverness and engagement was of a different order to mine. After some hazy evenings in which I failed utterly to understand the significance of rhizomes to philosophy, I decided to follow the advice of Rumi and "sell my cleverness and buy bewilderment." I've never regretted it.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

I think I've learned three useful things since those days. First: no-one is as clever as they like to think. Second: Yes, the truth may be multiple, provisional, mischievously unreliable and poisoned at the well by language, but any useful account of anything worthwhile nevertheless has to be kept simple. Third: there is an irreducible mystery at the heart of existence which -- like a deep, dark, dangerous and ever-moving pit -- needs to be acknowledged, mapped, and continually fenced off, and to which "bewilderment" is the only healthy response. Once in a while, everyone needs to lean on that fence and gaze into the darkness, but there's work to be done in the world, and such gazing is not an occupation for a sane person.
If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Ordinary folk have always known these things, of course: a hard life is a good teacher. The rigid certainties and dishonest complexities peddled by priests and pedants have always given "book learning" a bad name. Deservedly so: if you work in a university, you cannot help but be aware of the jaw-dropping stupidity of some very clever people. Education is a terrific ladder but -- especially when closely allied to religion or some other officially approved codebook -- it can look an awful lot like the Indian rope trick from ground level.

The problem is that it's all too easy to substitute the smoke and mirrors of prestidigitatory obfuscation ("Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen! Before your very eyes!") for genuine difficulty and complexity. The Cyrillic alphabet or the calculus are not obstacles, just vehicles that are a little tricky to learn to drive. But the sort of ponderously allusive, earnestly ironic wordplay that is typical of second-rank po-mo academic writing is less a vehicle than a Keep Out sign. In effect, we have seen the reinvention of scholastic Latin (aut disce aut discede, maybe?). A cynic might say that -- far from accelerating anyone's liberation from delusion, colonialism or exploitation -- the main "project" of much recent work in the Humanities has been job security: "This stuff must be serious, as it's so hard to understand."*

Humourists like Kurt Vonnegut have had humane things to say about the limits of human understanding. One of my favourite Vonnegut passages is this bar-room exchange between the narrator, a prostitute and a bartender in Cat's Cradle:
"He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life some day," the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned. "Didn't I read in the paper the other day where they'd finally found out what it was?"
"I missed that," I murmured.
"I saw that," said Sandra. "About two days ago."
"That's right," said the bartender.
"What is the secret of life?" I asked.
"I forget," said Sandra.
"Protein," the bartender declared. "They found out something about protein."
"Yeah," said Sandra, "That's it."
Curiously (prophetically?) this scene, published in 1963, describes a Commencement Address, something for which Vonnegut was to become known for delivering in his years of reknown (including a famous internet spoof); as a medium, perhaps, it was even better-suited to his folksy, avuncular wisdom than fiction. In the words of his prophet Bokonon:
Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.

*Once you have accepted that, yes, OK, the world looks different depending on where you happen to be standing (or being stood upon), that your view of it is not "naturally" privileged over anyone else's (understandably, a traumatic discovery for those white males who thought they were making the rules), and that language both constructs and mangles reality, then it only seems worth going on and on about all this -- at length, in depth, and with every silly pun and rhetorical trick you can lay your hands on -- if you also refuse to give up your "privileged" position in the academy. Otherwise, who cares? Become a postman, for Foucault's sake. As someone once said, postmodern kibbitzing about the scientific worldview does not cause aeroplanes to fall out of the sky.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Wired for Weeks

Postings have been a little sparse lately, for a number of reasons, but primarily because I've been working my way through Series 1 and 2 of The Wire on DVD. The clock is unforgiving, and two or more episodes in an evening means my blogging time has gone (I'm tempted to add: you feel me, man?) I watch very little TV, and since there still seem to be plenty of other things to talk about, don't usually miss it, even as social "filler". However, comparisons to Shakespeare can't be ignored, and I was a big fan of Hill Street Blues in the days when I did watch TV.

So far, my inner jury is still out: I'm aware that David Simon has described Series 1 as "a training exercise," and that it's Series 2 onwards that have attracted all the plaudits and attention. But so far, I'm not as impressed as I'd hoped to be. For all its exaggeration and caricature, I still find the characterisation and drama of Hill Street superior -- that series had a genuinely Shakespearian sense of how to mix and pace drama, violence, and comic relief, which I find (so far) lacking in The Wire. We'll see.

I've still been photographing, though, and here's a few highlights from the week's haul.

N.B. regarding the fourth image above, has anyone else noticed that digital cameras are somehow confused by a certain kind of strong, artificial blue colour, used on some industrial products? I like the effect, but the colour of that cable and the dangling ties have played havoc with the "realism" of the shot. It seems that every time I photograph something of that particular colour, something weird happens to the focus, or the colour rendition, or (in extreme cases) the smoothness of the curves. Odd.

Friday 27 March 2009

A Little Brief Authority

Last night I drove my son and a friend from Sixth Form College over to Guildford to see Measure for Measure at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (with Alistair McGowan as the Duke, and the action transposed to a "Victorian" Vienna). As they are studying it for exam purposes, this rare chance to see one of Shakespeare's weirder plays in performance was very opportune, and easily worth an hour's drive each way.

I don't know about you, but every day I live the cliché that every adult of whatever age is, under the skin, eternally 18. It sometimes feels as if the last 37 years have been a peculiar dream, and that any minute now I will awake in my bedroom in our fourth-floor council flat in Stevenage, full of energy and plans, ready to get on with my proper life. "I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was..."

But, for once, driving back through a very dark, very starry night -- part concentrating on the road, part turning over the play in my mind, and part listening to the chatter of two very bright soon-to-be 18 year olds -- I felt the full weight of 37 years of reading, listening, looking, learning, working, succeeding, screwing up, and -- above all -- daydreaming. I am not 18. Even -- especially -- inside.

It was not an unpleasant feeling, and I sat in a happy silence, slightly high with the sense that just continuing to turn up and pay attention is, eventually, an achievement in itself. Perhaps the only achievement worth going for. That's not a lesson I was ready to hear at the age of 18.

Monday 23 March 2009

Under the Hill

Following the hint of one of this blog's regular readers (and as recently featured on the estimable wood s lot blog -- Go Struan!) I went for a walk yesterday afternoon in the Water Meadows below St. Catherine's Hill. As promised, it's a place with a lot of potential. I was very taken with the signs, planted regularly along the streams, which read "DANGER! DEEP SILT" but which I kept misreading as "DANGER! DEEP SHIT" (well, I have finally been catching up with The Wire).

I like the idea of deadly hazards close alongside the paths where good citizens walk their dogs. It gives a certain edge, mainly metaphorical, to your afternoon. On Old Winchester Hill hillfort (nowhere near Winchester, as it happens) the signs warn of unexploded munitions, left over from when the hill was used for military training in WW2. On walks up there, I have several times found the sharp end of a .303 bullet thrown up by moles, trailing shreds of metal jacket delicately twirled by the Lee Enfield rifling. The first time, I thought I'd stumbled on some elaborate piece of Bronze Age jewellery.

Backlit allotments from the Water Meadow path

Beneath the old railway bridge

Sunday 22 March 2009

The Next Village

There is a (very) short story by Franz Kafka, with the title The Next Village. When I first read it, aged 17, and studying for German A Level, I think I thought it was simply amusingly weird. Now, aged 55, and getting a first good long look at old age (still in the distance, but closer and a damn sight more real than A Levels), my view of it has changed several times.

Here is the whole thing, in my translation:

Grandad always used to say: "Life is amazingly short. Looking back, even now, everything is all so closely crowded up that I can scarcely imagine, say, how a young person makes up their mind to visit the next village without the fear that -- quite apart from any mishaps -- even the length of a normally, happily unfolding life will be nowhere near enough time for such a trip."

Now, I think it's easy to take this story at face value. How very true, you might think: the older I get the quicker the time seems to go! How clear my childhood seems, but where, for the love of Dora Diamant, are my car keys? Short, sharp, and to the point -- good old Kafka! You could get the thing made up into a little poster to hang over your desk. "You don't have to be Kafka to work here, but it helps!"

However, for what it's worth, I always think it's good to remember that Kafka had a sense of humour. And, as that classic double act Deleuze and Guattari point out, the problem with most readers and critics is that they retreat from the experience of the unknown to the knowable, from the uncomfortable to the comfort zone: Kafka's castle must be "god", transformation into a beetle must be about oedipal conflict, etc. As Freud is alleged to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Or, as G. Marx did say, "Mind if I don't smoke?"

I refer you to my earlier post Impossible Things. Is it not amusing that an old man, at the end of his "normally, happily unfolding life," comes to the realisation that a trip to the next village (a journey he has presumably made many times) is actually impossible? That life, as lived, has an exponential quality which makes the banal, the eminently possible, as daunting as a trip to Mars? Perhaps it's a joke you can only get if you have ever slumped in a room (depressed, drunk, wasted, or simply lazy) and longed to be in that impossibly distant corner shop.

[Note added 25/9/23: Are you reading this post? I'd really appreciate it if you would tell me why, and how you got here! This is by far one of my most read blog posts, but I have no idea why it is so popular. Have you been set this story as a translation or interpretation exercise? Is there some word or phrase in here that brought this post up in a search? Or perhaps you are really just a robot inflating my viewing stats for no obvious reason? So please, either comment below or send me an email (address in my profile top right). Thanks!] 

Sunday 15 March 2009

Sunday Afternoon

I didn't feel like driving over to Winchester today, so had a Sunday stroll down the road that runs about 2 km down the west side of Southampton Common and marks its boundary, known as Hill Lane.

At first, I was more interested in the way the afternoon sun was hitting the glass of the bus shelters:

But then I made a detour into the Old Southampton Graveyard, at the south end of the Common, the last resting place of crowded generations of cityfolk, seafarers, dockworkers and their families. I haven't been in there for many years -- it's very picturesque, but hard to resist all the well-worn cliches of graveyard photography. Eventually, I was pleased to find something that may work in a set I'm building called "In Darkness Let Me Dwell."

The spring sunshine was very warm, and I was dressed for a winter's day, however. On the way back, I found my legs seemed more acutely aware of the reason for the road's name than they used to be.

Elementary, My Dear Ranganathan

Like anyone with old, cheap Windows kit, I struggle with colour consistency. Despite using a Spyder calibrator (the cheap version, obviously) I simply can't get my monitor and printer to make friends with each other. Of course, using an obsolete dye printer (Epson Stylus Photo 1270) doesn't help -- no-one make profiles for obsolete machines.

Here's an appeal: can anyone out there with a reasonably well colour-balanced monitor tell me: do the colours on these blog images strike you as strange (in a bad way)? Are they too dark? Is there an obvious colour cast? I'm not fishing for compliments here! Any comments welcome -- thanks!

The nearest thing I could find to a test card

Of course, if you're also either too poor or too mean (both in my case) to run the full version of Photoshop, you probably make do with the cut down Elements version. You probably also run an under-powered Windows computer, without enough puff even to run Elements at the same time as chew gum (or whatever it is PCs are doing when everything goes into a state of suspended animation).

I upgraded to Elements 6.0 from 2.0 a few months ago, and immediately noticed that it took much longer to load. I got very used to gazing at the new, blue, circular splash screen while Elements checked all its pockets and rummaged through its bag for its wallet, keys, etc. "Won't be a minute... Don't go away! Nearly there!!"

Now, across the middle of the Elements splash screen is a cast list of the people who wrote the thing. You get used to seeing the names while you wait. I noticed a big increase in the number of names in version 6, and a definite increase in the proportion of Asian names, which is interesting, but one in particular caught my eye: Sreedhar Ranganathan.

For only one reason: the Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan is a name to conjure with in library studies, famous for the invention of "faceted classification" (don't ask) and his "five laws of library science", the first of which is "Books are for use" -- wise words indeed. Whilst waiting for Elements to get its act together I would idly speculate as to whether there was any relationship. Then, one day, I noticed his name wasn't there. What? The next day it was back. Then it was gone again for several days. What??

The truth slowly dawned on me: there are so many people responsible for Elements 6.0, that they can't fit them all onto the splash screen credits at the same time. Every time you load it up, a new random combination of names is displayed. I began to wonder if I was the only person to notice this. Then I wondered ... was it random at all? Was there a pattern?

Then after a few weeks of watching I thought, "Get a life!" and decided not to read the splash screen any more, although I do still get a little lift every time I notice Sreedhar Ranganathan's name appear.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Stormy Weather

Here's an interesting pair, taken on separate days this week, where somehow the strong shapes and colours in one (the Nuffield Theatre) have reappeared as a kind of after-image in the other. Makes you wonder whether digital cameras have memory in more senses than one ...

Storm approaching over Mount Nuffield

Storm gathering in the atrium of the new Optoelectronics building

Monday 9 March 2009

One of Those Days

It's been one of those days, but in a good way. The weather and light has been such that wherever I looked (when I had the opportunity) there were potential pictures, starting with the carpark allotment in the morning, through a lunchtime exploration, to the walk back to the carpark at the end of the day.

Early morning light on my favourite allotment greenhouse,
its polythene lifting in the breeze

A Hall of Mirrors window on campus

A high window in the Student Services building, reflecting solar
in the roof, reflecting light patches onto the wall in turn

The Swimming Pool window reflects the Student Services
building opposite. The tree, for once, is really there.

A good day's unpaid work making photographs inside and around a good day's paid work writing Unix shell scripts. Sometimes, it all makes sense. Thanks to whoever/whatever sets these things up.

Sunday 8 March 2009

On the Hill

A quick visit to St. Catherine's Hill this afternoon, between showers. The interesting vignetted effect in the first two pictures is achieved quite simply by using the wrong lens shade. Oops. I think I quite like it, however.

You get all sorts of strange characters wandering the Hill. These two, fleeing from the camera and/or chasing the moon over the hillfort bank, are well known to me, however:

Friday 6 March 2009

It all fits

Here are two famous quotations which -- if I can find enough room -- I might one day have tattooed on my body somewhere. They're an essential corrective for those, like me, with a mystico-egotistico cast of mind but no balancing religious beliefs.

"Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person."

George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871, Chapter XXVII

"This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in. Fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

Douglas Adams, Speech at Digital Biota 2, 1998

Words to recall the next time your Inner Anthropocentrist pipes up, "It all means something, and what it means is ME!" ... As one of my teachers was fond of insisting, "Yes, but..."

Not a "pier-glass" (in fact, the bottom of a roasting tin)

Wednesday 4 March 2009

The Toad Work

Isn't it annoying, when work gets in the way of the things you really want to do? I've had a busy couple of months, and photography and blogging have had to take a back seat. Now, I always try to keep a space in my diary for staring into space -- because that, if I'm honest, is the main thing I want to do (I'm not what you would call a driven man) -- but the other stuff has been exposed (perhaps "revealed" is a better word) as a parergon. This is an ugly but interesting and useful word (plural: parerga) if, like me, you are allergic to the word "hobby."

The meaning of the word is nicely illustrated in the OED by a quotation from Harold Nicolson in a letter to Vita Sackville-West:
"I don't think that you will really go down to posterity as a writer of gardening articles. You will be remembered as a poet... So your gardening things will be regarded as a mere parergon (‘a bye-work’), like the flute-playing of Frederick the Great."
Nicely put, Harold, but -- bloody hell -- how wrong can you be? However, even if I never sell another print or have another exhibition, I will always prefer to think of my photography as an activity on a par with Frederick the Great's flute playing*, or Vita Sackville-West's gardening, than anything as anaemic as a "hobby." No, please don't say anything.

The best definition of a parergon I have come across ran along the lines of "a part of your brain which you cultivate separately in order to keep the main part sane," though I think it is more usually used to refer to "interesting out-takes from another project." Needless to say, such a useful but pointless and obscure word is a gift to the philosophers, and here's a definition by that master of lucidity Jacques Derrida:
"A parergon comes against, beside, and in addition to the ergon, the work done [fait], the fact [le fait], the work, but does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside. Neither simply outside nor simply inside. Like an accessory that one is obliged to welcome on the border, on board [au bord, à bord]. It is first of all the on (the) bo(a)rd(er) ."
The Truth in Painting, translated (?) by Geoff Bennington & Ian McLeod
Those last two sentences are enchanting, aren't they? You have to wonder what kind of accessory he has in mind -- a man-bag, perhaps, or a jaunty but idiotic sailor's hat, maybe? Perhaps it works better in French:
"Un parergon vient contre, à côté et en plus de l'ergon, du travail fait, du fait, de l'oeuvre mais il ne tombe pas à côté, il touche et coopère, depuis un certain dehors, au-dedans de l'opération. Ni simplement dehors ni simplement dedans. Comme un accessoire qu'on est obligé d'accueillir au bord, à bord. Il est d'abord l'à-bord."
Hmmm, or maybe not. A pun too far, I reckon.

From George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes,
Ancient and Moderne, 1635

Of course, when you have the great privilege of working in a university library your paid work can have "interesting out-takes" for the other parts of your life. In pursuing the subject of Renaissance emblem books, I came across this description by Andrea Alciato (Italian humanist scholar, 1492-1550, whose book Emblemata more or less invented the genre) of his own book Parergon iuris:
"I have entitled the work itself Parergon, for it consists of asides [obiter dicta] which I made when I was teaching Law, which were digressions from the subject ... I was in the habit of relegating to my notes any passage that came to my attention during my teaching which had some interesting explanation deriving from the Humanities, lest I should seem to diminish the pride of our forbidding and serious subject of Law and appear, as the proverb has it, to mix foxes with lions."
Admirably clear, Andrea, but -- come on -- never mind mixing the foxes and the lions, what about welcoming the accessories?

* Friedrich was pretty good, mind. There's an interesting book by James F. Gaines called Evening in the Palace of Reason, which describes the encounter between Frederick the Great and J.S. Bach which resulted in the composition of the "Musical Offering." [message for Andy W.: remind me to send you my copy]

Monday 2 March 2009

A New Place

If, like me, you're the kind of photographer who likes to find a local picture mine and work it regularly, you'll know that uneasy feeling when you start to think: maybe it's finally running out. I had that feeling last year at Mottisfont Abbey, a particularly rich vein which I have worked for nearly a decade. I was still driving over most weekends and going through the motions, but had got to the point where everything I was finding was merely a reflection or a refinement of something I'd already done. As B.B. King says, the thrill is gone.

Luckily, a new place may have emerged over the last few months: St. Catherine's Hill just outside Winchester. It has all the right qualifications: a varied landscape in a contained area that can be reviewed in circular walks, and which is close enough to my favourite chair that -- when I get the urge at around 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon to head out for a walk with a camera -- I can get there at least an hour before the light fades on a winter's afternoon, and be back in time to get the roast in the oven at 5:30. We're not talking about wilderness trekking here.

St. Catherine's Hill, like a lot of places in Southern England, is dense with hidden pasts. It's a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is also the site of an Iron Age hillfort, a vanished 12th century hilltop chapel, and the enigmatic Miz Maze. The area came to national attention back in the 1990s when it was proposed to drive a vast cutting straight through neighbouring Twyford Down to complete the M3 motorway from Southampton to London. Of course, Twyford Down is also an SSSI and thus legally-protected but, hey, needs must when the Devil drives to London every day... As a consequence, the first anti-road protest camps took place here. The so-called Dongas Tribe of protesters borrowed their name from the ancient trackways on Twyford Down, which, curiously, were named with a Matabele word for "gully" -- presumably brought home by someone as a souvenir from the Boer War (compare the way "The Kop" was adapted for the steep end of many football grounds, most notably at Anfield, Liverpool).

Anyway. Here are a few pictures from Sunday -- we'll see how things develop over the coming year. (I'm already kicking myself for missing February's snow ... There probably won't be any more like that for a decade ...)

View towards St. Catherine's Hill, across the Plague Pit valley

A closer view of that white dot in the valley:
not snow, but ash from brush clearing activity

Part of the infamous motorway cutting that now separates
St. Catherine's Hill and Twyford Down

Deer are numerous in the area:
they are very fond of tree bark

Sunday 1 March 2009

Classroom / Bedroom

Too many words, too few pictures, recently. Let's put that right with some of this week's haul.

First, two more university windows. These seem to pose the question, what kind of tool is education: a ladder, or a spade, or maybe both? As I am fond of saying, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail" ...

Second, our bedroom on Saturday morning, with early spring light beginning to enliven the reflective surfaces. The linocut of the church, and the painting of the bowl, incidentally, are by my partner's great aunt Mary Creighton McDowall. A set of these Italian linocuts appear in the book she published with husband Arthur McDowall Peaks & Frescoes : a study of the Dolomites (Oxford University Press, 1928).