Sunday, February 28, 2010

In Which I Show My Commercial Genius

Portsmouth are going down. Sorry chaps, but you are. So how about earning a little money and not losing your club as well? How are we going to do that, you ask?

I'll tell you. You have a very valuable asset that you haven't yet exploited. In fact, I don't think anyone has, ever. What is this great asset that the accountants haven't noticed? Why, the chance to play at Anfield against Liverpool, at home against Chelsea, and a few more games.

I don't know how much Portsmouth actually need, I think the transfer window has closed, and they've already played at Old Trafford and Highbury, which would have been worth a lot, but the principle could apply to other clubs who find themselves in big trouble. Forget trying to stay up, sell a few of those players who expect to be paid, and sign a few millionaires who'll happily pay a fortune to play against Manchester United, or just to play for the team they've always supported.

There's one born every minute, after all.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Recursive Music

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift…

I imagine everybody knows Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, since, apart from being played regularly on music radio in any one of a hundred versions, it seems to be the mood music of choice for the closing credits of every detective series Hollywood churns out, and it churns out a lot. So you’ll have noticed that the first verse mostly describes what the tune is doing. Quirky, but not exactly recursion, more self-reference than chicken and egg.

Not unique either. Lope de Vega wrote a sonnet that describes the process of writing a sonnet about a sonnet. As a bit of a joke, presumably.

But for real recursion look at songs like ‘The Kentucky Waltz’, ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, ‘The Last Cheater’s Waltz’ (yes, there is a theme developing here), or ‘The Lambeth Walk’ for that matter. The song (B) that the song (A) is about only exists because the song (A) exists, but it (B) didn’t exist to be written about until (A) was written. It couldn’t even exist in the mind of the composer until it had already been written.

Odd, really. But then music, the performance of music, is recursive when it’s done properly. A good musician is constantly responding to the sound that he knows he is about to make.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

La Academia de San Fernando

At the bottom end of the Calle de Alcalá, just before you reach La Puerta del Sol, you find the Academy of San Fernando, an artistic institution of great prestige. It has counted many of the great Spanish painters among its fellows, and, more importantly to the passer-by, it has a fine collection of their works, and of some others its picked up along the way.

It's 250 years old, and is probably second only- a distant second, it's true- to the Prado, and the list of directors and fellows it has had over the years is very impressive. The building is also of some architectural interest.

You can read about all this by following the links, so I'm not going to describe it in detail, just give a bit of a taster and point out a few things which caught my eye, some unexpectedly.

On the 3rd floor you will find the modern stuff, much of it abstract, though representational and allegorical work is also there. You might find Muñoz Degraín's 'The Collossus of Rhodes' interesting. It's a extraordinary, vast fantasy on the celebration of a festival by the statue. And there is Eduardo Chicharros' 'The Temptations of Buda', a modern allegory showing the great man resisting the undoubted charms of a woman presented in many different ways, some involving animals, and very few involving clothes. You have to wonder why he resisted, but it made a better story that way.

The 2nd floor is largely dedicated to portraits of Academicians by other Academicians, and while some are of interest, they suffer from the usual problems of portraits; constrained by the whims of the sitter, the artist has little freedom of subject, medium, composition, colour, symbolism, technique or expression, and was probably only doing it as a favour in the first place.

The 1st floor, much the largest, has a number of fine Greco's, including a magnificent St Jerome, Zurbarán's, which include the exquisite 'Agnus Dei', a large room dedicated entirely to Alonso Cano and José de Rivera (if you don't know much about Spanish renaissance painting check those two out). Rivera has a scene of the taking of Christ, a group of figures, little more than faces, lit only by a hidden candle or torch which makes the face of Christ a reddish-orange focus of the scene, the intense emotion brought out by the intimacy of the lighting. Worth a visit by itself.

There are some Goya's, including a series of 'Children at Play', which is as good as the holiday scenes that hang in the Prado, and a couple of Rubens', perhaps not among his finest. Some Flemish painters who came to Spain to live and work, and some lesser known Spanish painters. Pedro Orrente, Andrés de la Calleja, Genaro Pérez Villaamil, Joaquín Sorolla, and many others, there to be discovered.

If you happen to be in Madrid, once you've got tired of the Prado, go and have a look at the Academy of St. Fernando. It's worth a morning.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

El Retiro- Madrid at Play

Business- or perhaps just life- took me to Madrid this weekend. It's not a place I'm especially fond of, particularly on rainy days in February. It's not so easy to have in as Barcelona or Sevilla or Valencia, say, and in any case, as regular readers will have gathered, the big city is not for Hickory. I like the country, wide, green, fascinatingly beautiful and filled with more life than you will ever find on a Saturday night in Lavapies (or Soho, or Sunset Strip, or whatever you happen to know).

Still, when you want a bit of culture down here the nearest place to find it is Madrid, of which more tomorrow (hope springs eternal in the blogging breast).

Madrid also has the park of El Retiro, which is probably my favourite part of Madrid. It's an interesting place for many reasons, and it's far more than an attempt to create a bit of country in the heart of the city. In fact, it isn't that at all, and if it were, it wouldn't interest me. I have the real thing on my doorstep. No, El Retiro is a square mile of pure Madrid, but with grass and trees and water instead of shops and cars and asphalt.

It contains a boating lake, very popular even in February, as the photo shows, presided over by a typically unimaginative piece of monumental 19thC sculpture. Impressive to row past, though- you can imagine you're Alfonso XIII, if that's the sort of thing you like (he was ugly and thick and was ultimately deposed by the communists, but he probably had a good time, on the whole).

On the path by that lake you can find people performing. You know the sort of thing, you can see it in Covent Garden, Times Square and a thousand other places where people make turn anything they think they're good at into a show in the hope of making a living.

There are living statues, quite a few of them- I saw a US Marine, Charlie Chaplin, a transvestite clown, one end of a pantomime horse (not sure which end, but that's what it looked like) an improbably fat superhero who looked as though he'd have trouble getting out of bed, let alone saving the world, and a selection of headless bodies, plus an invisible man, who was maybe not strictly headless in the same sense. And a tramp, but since looking dirty and ragged and not doing anything all day is what tramps do, it was hard to tell whether this was art or just another old wino praying he can make it till it's dark. Probably not, since most of the others have signs proclaiming their membership of the National Association of Living Statues, and would have drummed him out of town if he wasn't part of the union.

The balloon sellers, the gypsies trying the old heather trick, the bored-looking fortune tellers reading the gossip magazines, the portrait painters who all seem to have had Elvis as a recent client, the giant-bubble blowers, the clowns, the Donald Ducks and the Mickey Mice, all staples of this kind of place, but all creating a sense of life. A couple of puppet shows, a unicyclist, a very funny juggler who used a lion tamer's whip to get the crowd to stay close around him, and a man whose number was giving obedience classes to his labrador.

By a smaller, wilder lake not far away is a glass palace. Spare and elegant, it's often used for art shows, but on Saturday it was just an attraction in itself. So were the ducks.

As in many big cities, people in Madrid relax obsessively. In the park they practice yoga and tai chi as though their lives depended on it, everywhere there are runners and walkers and cyclers and stretchers and flexers, sweating themselves to thinness and long life with the help of an ipod and a designer tracksuit. Oh, and skaters, hundreds and hundreds of them. It seems that in Madrid, if you don't in-line, you are out of it.

On a broad part of the outer path is where they congregate to do all the things you can possibly do on roller skates. They slice swiftly and elegantly around the curves, they twist and turn and glide backwards and forwards with equal skill, they wobble ten feet before tripping over themsleves and falling heavily, they look good until they try something clever, they put lines of cones on the ground and slalom between and around them- the lad in the photo did the whole run backwards on a single wheel and you could barely see the skate as it flashed from side to side.
They play pick-up hockey games, but that's what skates were inverted for. But they also chat in pairs, they joke in groups, they encourage each other, or they push and shove, they give advice or shout in derision, they dance together, they 'walk' the dog, they throw a frisbee back and forth, they dance, they sing or they cut through it all in a world of their own. Oh, and they fall over a lot.

It's not the country. It's not really even a park. It's Madrid, and sometimes it's fun to be part of it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Decay of Language Part 1

"Language does not decay unless it ceases to be used for communication. It changes, sometimes other people's usage (or mistakes) grate upon those who say it differently, but the language itself is not in any danger.

Language has existed for thousands of years, performing its function adequately, without any care or attention at all, and most have never been subject to it at any time in their history."

That was the comment I left on this article over here, and which the author then responded to here. It occurs to me to expand on these thought, because there are many misconceptions about how language changes and what happens when it does.

All aspects of language are changing all the time- the phonology of our grandparents’ speech is not ours, teenage slang is regenerated every few years, words become temporarily fashionable and lose popularity again, meanings expand and shift, new concepts come to be talked about and receive new names or old names, old concepts cease to be discussed and their names die out or start to mean other things, structures

None of this has any effect on the usefulness of the language for communication. Language is immensely flexible and will always contain ways to express anything a speaker wishes to say. But it is up to the speak to use his intelligence and perseverance to find it, it is not the business of language to preserve every conceivable idea that someone might want to express in fossil form through eternity in case it is needed. The success of language lies precisely in the fact that we only have to manipulate a small number of symbols to achieve our communicative goal, and these symbols are themselves arbitrary- it doesn’t matter what they are, only that they exist. That’s why they can change without any loss of communicative potential in the language.

Many of these variations occur within social groups, professions, classes, activities, towns, neighbourhoods etc, and they occur precisely because they are useful, or at least because they do not interfere with the process of communication. If they transcend these limits to other kinds of communicative context, there may be a need to identify the meaning by an alteration of the mental paradigms and common understandings that allow the exchange of meaning. But we do this all the time anyway; in almost all conversations we have to interpret and reinterpret meaning in accordance with the various details of the context, not only of the words that are used, and determine what meaning that is contained in them. We find ways to understand and be understood, not always perfectly.

Communication does not take place on a universal scale, there is no global conversation, there are only people speaking together in small or large groups, or reading privately the writings of people they may or may not know, and there are dozens of different reasons for seeking communication. Contrary to common belief, most conversations have a primarily social purpose, and the exchange of information is a minor or non-existent component. Most of what we say is quite simple.

*The painting is by Mrs Hickory.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nick Griffin, Happy to Obey the Law

The BNP has voted to change its constitution in order to allow non-whites to join, as long as they share ideas and aims of the party, particularly with regard to keeping Britain fundamentally British. It's hard to imagine it will result in the party being swamped with applications (though if you happen to know a few thousand blacks or Asians with nothing better to do than wind up Nick Griffin then we might be able to have some fun) and Griffin himself says as much.

Rent-a-quote anti-racists have said that the move is purely cosmetic and doesn't reflect any change in the racism at the heart of the BNP, thereby setting new standards for stating the obvious. But they are also wrong in an important way. The change has been enacted because the BNP do not want a public fight with the Equality and Human Rights Commission at this point, and because they have spotted a tiny flaw in that body's cunning plan to make them nice by decree: obeying the commission will make no difference to their policy and practice whatsoever, but, as a spokesman says, their new constitution will effectively be approved by the EHRC and the courts, giving them an official legitimacy that they will take great pleasure in pointing out at every opportunity.

Neither the EHRC nor any other organisation, legislature or court has any business telling a private association who it must or must not allow to belong to it (and in the case of the EHRC I don't know why it exists in the first place), but this particular interference will not even achieve their intended aim, but rather the complete opposite. This will probably then be used to justify more oppression, and not just of the BNP.

The BNP is not a violent or criminal organisation, whose actions need to be stopped by the forces of law and order. Most people dislike the BNP intensely because it and its members have ideas that we would rather did not exist. Well, they do exist in Britain, thousands of people think that way. Pretending they don't exist, or using some quasi-judicial force to try to make the people who hold those opinions pretend that they don't, does not solve anything. To change people's minds you must talk to them, discuss their opinions and defend and explain your own. It may not work, but it's the only thing that has a chance of working.

The BNP has won a victory today, once again, thanks to the stupidity and arrogance of its opponents.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Temperance and Chastity

When their Grandmother had married sixty years before she and her husband had bought the two houses, joined together, on what had been, briefly, a good road. They had been almshouses, built by a factory owner for workers with large families. He called them Temperance and Chastity, presumably in the hope that virtue would be inspired within them, and perhaps it was for a while. What was good enough for the large family of a Victorian worker was too small for a middle-class couple half a century later, so they bought them both and knocked a door through on the ground floor. The Grandmother never drank and didn’t look at a man after her husband died young. Forty years of joylessness later she joined him and left the house to her grandchildren. She asked them to share it, to live together as brother and sister and to remember how she had lived up to the names on the plasterwork. The day they buried her they locked the connecting door for good and started living freely on her money, doing what they wanted. Theresa still worked as a secretary. She liked having company laid on for her, and it meant she could leave her grandmother’s money largely untouched, except for holidays and a few luxuries. Donald became a poet, but nobody noticed. So he mostly hid away with a bottle, making a world inside himself that wasn’t threatening or cold, a world where he mattered.


Donald woke up the next morning and his head ached slightly. His body ached more from sleeping on the floor, and his muscles had too little salt and his blood too little sugar. His brain was functioning badly, flickering on and off like an old television. His memory would have done the same, but he didn’t turn it on. He ignored all that, it was the same most days and it went away. A lot of water, something isotonic and a large one for breakfast and he would feel better. When he’d done all that he walked about the living room for a while and tried to think what he was going to do. He looked at his watch and it was ten thirty... He knew he had to meet someone. He couldn’t remember who but it would be in the Horse and Groom, and it wouldn’t be before six. He hoped it would be an agent, but how could it be. The ones he knew had stopped speaking to him, embarrassed by his pleading. It was more likely to be someone he’d promised to lend money to last night... He sat down at the desk in the little room with no windows that he called his study. It was where the word processor was but it made him feel claustrophobic and he picked up a sheet of paper and returned to the living room where light poured in and he could see people walking past. He put the paper on a hardback book on his knee and poised the pen over it, hoping to catch an idea unawares. His way of writing was like a hunter in the savannah who sticks a spear in the ground and waits for a lion to impale itself on it. He had neither the energy nor the courage to seek ideas out.

He wrote a word at the top of the page. It was ‘empty’. Was it a title? A theme? The core of an idea? Or just a word? He looked through the window and saw there was no traffic passing. The road was empty. How is an empty street different from a busy one? What is it like? It is temporarily devoid of purpose, it has no meaning, it might as well not be there. Not the same as at night, when a street like that is supposed to be empty. It’s waiting then, sleeping, recharging itself. But during the day, an empty street is...what. Useless is not a poetic word. Redundant is better, but is there any point saying it? Anyone can see that. An empty street, momentarily redundant, like... There were no prostitutes on that street, but if there had been they would be redundant too, for a moment, no one to see them, to want them. The traffic lights, the crossings, the signs, the hoardings, money wasted for those seconds or minutes. The house was empty, too, empty of anyone but him. He didn’t count himself, perhaps no one did. Would someone looking through the windows then see him there and call it an empty house because only he was in it. Emptiness depends on where you look from and what you look at.

The street wasn’t really empty, there were plenty of things in it, but it wasn’t doing any of the things it was made for. The house wasn’t redundant, it was keeping him warm and dry and protecting the machines and books he would need later. But it was empty because there was no one in it. Except him. Was Chastity empty? Theresa would be at work, but she always seemed to be there, in the pictures and the ornaments and the flowers and the carpets, which were unmistakably hers, and in the smell of her living room, which smelt like Theresa’s living room, and her bedroom, which smelt like Theresa’s bedroom. Chastity was never empty, even when Theresa wasn’t there. Temperance was always empty. Unless he had a visitor. One who could understand a house that wasn’t theirs. Most of the people he knew couldn’t and Temperance was empty even when a crowd was getting drunk there, pretending to discuss literature, or when he was trying to make love to some girl who’d worked him out too late. Not that he really made love, any more than his sister did. He had sex, not very often, and not very successfully...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On the Nature of Cognition

At one o'clock on Sunday morning I noticed, quite by chance, that a radiator had burst in a part of the house we don't use much (no, not the East Wing, just a kind of spare room). Water all over the floor and spurting everywhere. The insurance company immediately sent a plumber, who managed to cut off the water, but next morning we discovered there was a problem with the tap/knob that should have stopped water getting in, and it was still dripping, continuously.

The washing-up bowl we put under it took two hours to fill, and we had no plans to go out for longer, but it would have meant getting up several times in the night, until we could get a proper plumbing job done on Monday. Not something I had any wish to do.

There is a point to all of this...

I spent most of Sunday afternoon looking for ways to at least partially reduce the drip rate, using silicon sealant, chewing gum, plasticine, clay, blu-tac and an innovative system of leverage and bracing involving a teaspoon, a salad server and a headless doll. Nothing worked, the water found a way out at the same rate as before. I refused to resign myself to an almost sleepless night, and in the evening I was still thinking of ways to reduce the rate of flow.

My readers are a bright lot, you've probably guessed what's coming...

At tennish, in desperation, I changed my approach to the matter. I had become obsessed with the idea that the drip rate from the radiator was the problem, whereas in fact it was merely the cause of the problem. Stepping back and up a meta-cognitive level, I saw that the real problem was that the bowl would overflow regularly during the night.

It had taken me a mere twelve hours to recognise that the solution was... a larger bowl. I found a large plastic tray with high sides, and slept like a log.

And I used to think I was reasonably intelligent.

This InterSphere blogginess thing is a surprising beast.

I don’t quite understand how, but a comment I wrote on Charles Crawford’s ‘blogoir’ ended up as the introduction to an article in the Independent. It wasn’t attributed, and it made the article a bit awkward, because it was supposed to be a response to my words, not an explanation of them. Charles gives me to understand it was not his fault, but a formatting error at the paper. Not that I’m bothered, but a link from the Indie would have done wonders for my traffic. (I got one from CNN once, as they seemed to think I was an authority on the politics of Bolivia, and the StatCounter went mad for a couple of days.)

Ah well. Such is the Interweb. But if you click on the link to the article, the first two paragraphs (which don’t even make much sense out of context) are mine. I feel a post on Language Decay coming on.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Found Poetry in the North Korean Constitution

Regular readers will know that I am a bit of a fan of the language of Constitutions. Here we have some great lines from the Constitution of North Korea (1998; there has been a change since then, replacing the last references to 'communism' with 'Juche*' the late eternal leader's own interpretation of Marx which emphasizes how they are alone against the world. It means self-reliance or some such thing, like Sinn Fein and similar groups of crazed obsessives who think they're the only ones going in the right direction up the motorway. Socialism still gets mentioned repeatedly, though; I don't know how Christopher Hitchens would explain that away). I am sure the enslaved and tyrannized people of that great paradise are delighted to know that their lives are governed by such deathless prose. Of course, most of it doesn't really mean anything, and much of the rest is not such as would make the heart of the simple citizen jump with joy. I wouldn't count on making it stand up in court, either. It's largely a hymn of praise to the great leader and eternal president, and is of no use whatsoever to the oppressed serf whose country and life has been stolen by these miserable scum.

*The concept of Juche is discussed here, with what precision I couldn't say, and, though it's not strictly relevant to the subject, Spanish speakers may find this bunch of nutters interesting.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a socialist fatherland of Juche which embodies the idea of and guidance by the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung.

Comrade Kim Il Sung founded the immortal Juche idea, organized and guided an anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle under its banner, created revolutionary tradition, attained the historical cause of the national liberation, and founded the DPRK, wisely guided the social revolution and construction at various levels, strengthened and developed the Republic into a people-centered socialist country and a socialist state of independence, self-sustenance, and self-defense.

Comrade Kim Il Sung clarified the fundamental principle of State building and activities, established the most superior state social system and political method, and social management system and method, and provided a firm basis for the prosperous and powerful socialist fatherland and the continuation of the task of completing the Juche revolutionary cause.

Comrade Kim Il Sung regarded "believing in the people as in heaven" as his motto, was always with the people, devoted his whole life to them, took care of and guided them with a noble politics of benevolence, and turned the whole society into one big and united family.

The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung is the sun of the nation and the lodestar of the reunification of the fatherland. Comrade Kim Il Sung set the reunification of the country as the nation 's supreme task, and devoted all his work and endeavors entirely to its realization.

Comrade Kim Il Sung, while turning the Republic into a mighty fortress for national reunification, indicated fundamental principles and methods for national reunification, developed the national reunification movement into a pan-national movement, and opened up a way for that cause, to be attained by the united strength of the entire nation.

Comrade Kim Il Sung was a genius ideological theoretician and a genius art leader, an ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander, a great revolutionary and politician, and a great human being.

The DPRK and the entire Korean people will uphold the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung as the eternal President of the Republic, defend and carry forward his ideas and exploits and complete the Juche revolution under the leadership of the Workers ' Party of Korea.


Article 1

The Democratic People 's Republic of Korea is an independent socialist state representing the interests of all the Korean people.

Article 2

The DPRK is a revolutionary state which has inherited brilliant traditions formed during the glorious revolutionary struggle against the imperialist aggressors, in the struggle to achieve the liberation of the homeland and the freedom and well-being of the people.


Article 18

The law of the DPRK reflects the wishes and interests of the working people and is a basic instrument for State administration.

Respect for the law and its strict adherence and execution is the duty of all institutions, enterprises, organizations and citizens.

The State shall perfect the system of socialist law and promote the socialist law-abiding life.


Article 79

Citizens are guaranteed inviolability of the person and the home and privacy of correspondence.

No citizens can be placed under control or be arrested nor can their homes be searched without a legal warrant.

Article 156

The court has the duties to:

1. protect through judicial procedure the State power and the socialist system established in the DPRK, the property of the State and social, cooperative organizations, personal rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, and the lives and property of citizens,

2. ensure that all institutions, enterprises, organizations and citizens abide strictly by State laws and staunchly combat class enemies and all law-breakers

It goes on and on, and gets worse and worse. Quiet unrelated to any reality, and much less the reality of North Korea. Badly translated, aspirational stuff, ignored by the leaders, but fawned over by apologists and fellow travellers who point out that it guarantees (how? it's only a piece of paper, and the twisted midget who's in charge has a large army awaiting his whim) the rights of women, foreigners and the old, and guarantees free universal health care and education. Much like in Cuba, which has higher literacy and longevity than almost anywhere in the world, according to the figures that Fidel makes up and which too many people take at face value.

Follow the link and read the constitution in all its cynical, tawdry, semi-literate glory, and be thankful you live in a better place. If you can read this, at all you are at least not in that obscene communist hell-hole, forced to live out a script excreted by some demented troglodyte.

On the Surprising Right-Wingness of North Korea

Via Samizdata I find this article by Christopher Hitchens in Slate. He gives a first hand account of North Korea, notes a few interesting aspects of how North Koreans see themselves, and shows a couple of simple and eloquent consequences of the evil tyranny that has destroyed the lives of tens of millions in that country over decades, one of which is this starkly stunning photograph of the night sky over the Korean peninsula.

He discusses how it is that these people can accept, up to a point, their oppression. It is well documented that in the Soviet empire almost everyone hated it, but they didn't know what to do, or were afraid to do it. In the People's Democratic Paradise it is doubtless much the same, but it is easy enough to give people a fake identity to cling to, and easy too to make them fear that anything else will be even worse.

It's a genuinely interesting article, in which he gives informed data and perspectives, and some intelligent analysis, and he makes no attempt to defend the odious dwarf Kim Jong-il and his evil blood-stained father, nor even does he do what left-wing apologists for tyrants so often do, wring his hands about how, if only it had been done properly it would have been wonderful. Instead he uses a rather novel approach to not condemning communist murderers- he pretends they're not communists at all, but are in fact right-wing fascists.

The idea is not his, but comes from a book he has been reading, which also sounds interesting. He reaches the conclusion that communism is dead in North Korea because the word has been dropped from the constitution (of which more later) and they no longer speak of the people owning the means of production. The truth is simply that they have dropped all pretence that the people own anything at all, not even their own lives. Communist countries have never allowed any real ownership, whether common or individual, to the people; all ownership and control is reserved, necessarily, to the ruling elite. It is surprising, to say the least, that Christopher Hitchens fails to realize that, just because the dear leader has explicitly told his people what most communist tyrants hide behind meaningless words on worthless bits of paper- that they are nothing and have nothing- the country has not ceased to be a communist tyranny.

The Sexual Politics of Sleep

'sleep is never just sleep. It is a metaphor. '

'For 20 years, the powerhouse feminists of the West have been superheroines'

'I believe that successful women — the ones with the most privileged lives of all — often feel a gnawing existential guilt about their very abundance and power. Someone has to be punished.'

Someone called Naomi Wolf, who clearly thinks she's important, discusses in the Times how sleep is a feminist issue. Women, we are told, are trying too hard to keep up in a man's world and are so tired as a result that they can't. Women, all women, everywhere, apparently, sleep less than men, spend hours at the hairdressers and in the gym, and it's all just not fair. Presumably this is part of the male conspiracy to rule the world. As models of the superwomen that all women strive to imitate, she gives a couple of gossip columnists and a pop singer. Why is Sarah Palin never mentioned in this context? She has, after all, achieved far more than most women. How many female governors are there in the US? But she's a Republican, of course, and a human being, rather than a product of that politico-factory they have somewhere in Detroit. And she comes from an unfashionable state, where she probably only needed the votes of her brothers, cousins and uncles (but I repeat myself) and half a dozen caribou to get elected, so she doesn't count.

Feminists come in many forms- wooly-headed, blinkered, frothing, stupid, self-loathing, hate-filled, verbose, shrill, sometimes even thoughtful and intelligent, but they invariably fail to notice that successful men also have to work hard, organize their time efficiently, devlop a number of social skills only indirectly connected to their profession, sacrifice family and other interests, get up early, carry on when they're tired, and so on. We just don't complain about it. We accept it as the price of success. (Not that I know much about success, but the little I have achieved has been through hard work and sacrifice, not by virtue of having testicles.)

Most of the women I know, successful on feminist terms or otherwise, have too much self-respect to see Madonna as a role model, or to write contentless, vapid, circular, irrational pieces in the popular press. Perhaps I don't know much about women. Anyway, the article's good for a laugh, but I shan't be reading Naomi Wolf again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

George Lakoff- a Non-Rant

George Lakoff is one of the big names in cognitive linguistics, and one of his big things is the role of metaphors not only in language and communication, but in cognition itself.

He is a linguistician, and what he discusses is mostly within his field of expertise; this isn't a post about how he's talking a load of nonsense about things he doesn't understand (though he should be a bit more careful when talking about mathematics, which I may come back to sometime). Also, the paper linked to is only an introduction to the ideas developed in the book, and is intended to provide some background and some examples to get the thing moving. It is not meant to be rigorous, which is fortunate really, because it has too many holes to be a true theoretical foundation for anything.

No, my beef with Lakoff is not really a beef a all, merely a few comments about what he says:

- Argument is war: there are many expressions used-he gives a list- which conceive of argument in these terms, and although he concedes in an aside that the concept of argument os only partially structured in these terms, he immediately states that this is the normal way of understanding argument, viz. as a form of war.

He seems to be overegging this considerably. At the level of conceptual metaphor we could equally construct an understanding of war in terms of argument, and there is, of course, a reason for this. Argument and war share the idea of difference and disagreement. Once that is understood, it becomes clear (if it wasn't already) that we think of argument as conflict, contest, competition, confrontation, difference, sport, and many other things, depending on context, the only common characteristic is that two people are not in initial agreement. (Even this is not strictly true, in that argument can at times be a form of solitaire.) There is no intrinsic need, and the metaphors do not always have or require, the idea of violence, bloodshed, physical battle.

Many of the expressions he gives, though possibly miltary in origin, are commonly used with no martial sense, and so there is no metaphor of war, but rather one of sport or game, or the underlying metaphor may be argument itself. Examples of this are 'target', 'strategy', even 'win' and 'lose' themselves. A battle is not, and never has been, the only thing that can be won or lost, and whether it is the first think we think of when we use them depends on our social and cultural circumstances, and the context of the use.

- Time is money: this one is even easier to deal with. Time is conceived as having value because it does have value. Yes, we can earn money with it, but we can also do many things that add value to our lives (what they are will depend on each one of us, but they may obviously include studying, reading, fun, entertainment, family and friends, wine, women, song, sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, quiet contemplation of the world or of one's navel, even Celebrity Big Brother on a Desert Island with Optional Ballroom Dancing). These thing have value in the same way that money does, and time is what allows us to do them.

Time is very strictly limited, and if you need reminding of that there's a chap with a scythe I'd like you to meet. Time has value, as money has value. It isn't even a metaphor. Time has almost certainly been valued for longer than money has existed. And 'spend' doesn't work in many languages, which is a minor quibble, but too typical of the anglo-centric school of linguistics.

- Transport studies- the conduit metaphor: this is the one that I frequently have professional dealings with, as it were. We tend to think of communication in terms of wrapping a message into a parcel in our brains, sending it on a journey from our mouth to the ear, and then the brain, of the listener. It is certainly true that we conceive it this way, and it is undoubtedly a metaphor. Many of the expressions listed by Lakoff bear this out. Wittgenstein pointed this out, and Michael Reddy is one of those who developed the idea, and tried to discover why it is so pervasive and persuasive, at least in English.

It isn't easy to think of counter-examples, that is, expressions we use, metaphorical or otherwise, which use a different underlying image, but they do exist. We speak of 'bringing to mind', 'I want you to think about', 'imagine', 'I couldn't make him see' and so on, which conceive of communication as a way of directly creating an image in the mind of the listener, not sending it on a little Platonic carriage from one brain to the other.

This is, I think, the best metaphorical foundation for Lakoff's later work as set out in the book, and probably the one he understood best as well, given his background. It might even have been the one he started from and would have liked to stick to, but he thought he should broaden the scope of the examples before developing a theoretical framework.