Really, what the hell IS art?

Joyce 200I first read the passage in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from which the excerpt below comes, when I was seventeen, which is about the age Joyce himself was when this photograph opposite was made. I have never forgotten it, and I have never forgotten the book either – it had on its front cover a famous photograph of the young, clean-shaved Joyce, standing in front of what appears to be a greenhouse. He has a flat cap on his head, which he has cocked over to his right; his hands are thrust into the pockets of his baggy trousers, and he stands with his feet firmly planted apart. Locked in that almost defiant frame, and still to emerge are the denizens of Dublin, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, and the Mamalujo quartet… “Tip! Tip!”

The passage was in my mind when I came up with the url for this blog. Stephen Dedalus’s definitions always struck me as being a good landmark at which to start a debate about what the hell art might be, and the questions he leaves hanging in the air well worth pondering in pursuit of an answer. Lynch’s laconic interjections should stand too, to remind us that we are mortal and, as such, open to having the Mickey Bliss taken out of us.


—To finish what I was saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas says: Ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension? Are you following?

—Of course, I am, said Lynch. If you think I have an excrementitious intelligence run after Donovan and ask him to listen to you.

Stephen pointed to a basket which a butcher’s boy had slung inverted on his head.

—Look at that basket, he said.

—I see it, said Lynch.

—In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehended it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

—Bull’s eye! said Lynch, laughing. Go on.

—Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words, the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

—Bull’s eye again! said Lynch wittily. Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar.

—The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions. But that is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.

Stephen paused and, though his companion did not speak, felt that his words had called up around them a thought-enchanted silence.

Joyce cover 200—What I have said, he began again, refers to beauty in the wider sense of the word, in the sense which the word has in the literary tradition. In the marketplace it has another sense. When we speak of beauty in the second sense of the term our judgement is influenced in the first place by the art itself and by the form of that art. The image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others. If you bear this in memory you will see that art necessarily divides itself into three forms progressing from one to the next. These forms are: the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.

—That you told me a few nights ago, said Lynch, and we began the famous discussion.

—I have a book at home, said Stephen, in which I have written down questions which are more amusing than yours were. In finding the answers to them I found the theory of esthetic which I am trying to explain. Here are some questions I set myself: Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic. If not, why not?

—Why not, indeed? said Lynch, laughing.

If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood, Stephen continued, make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?

—That’s a lovely one, said Lynch, laughing again. That has the true scholastic stink.

—Lessing, said Stephen, should not have taken a group of statues to write of. The art, being inferior, does not present the forms I spoke of distinguished clearly one from another. Even in literature, the highest and most spiritual art, the forms are often confused. The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero, which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

—Trying to refine them also out of existence, said Lynch.


Spectral Materialism


One should thus get rid of the fear that, once we ascertain that reality is the infinitely divisible, substanceless void within a void, “matter will disappear.” What the digital informational revolution, the biogenetic revolution, and the quantum revolution in physics all share is that they mark the reemergence of what, for want of a better term, one is tempted to call a post-metaphysical idealism. It is as if Chesterton’s insight into how the materialist struggle for the full assertion of reality, against its subordination to any “higher” metaphysical order, culminates in the loss of reality itself: what began as the assertion of material reality ended up as the realm of pure formulas of quantum physics. Is, however, this really a form of idealism? Since the radical materialist stance asserts that there is no World, that the World in its Whole is Nothing, materialism has nothing to do with the presence of damp, dense matter – its proper figures are, rather, constellations in which matter seems to “disappear,” like the pure oscillations of the superstrings or quantum- vibrations. On the contrary, if we see in raw, inert matter more than an imaginary screen, we always secretly endorse some kind of spiritualism, as in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which the dense plastic matter of the planet directly embodies Mind. This “spectral materialism” has three different forms: in the informational revolution, matter is reduced to the medium of purely digitalized information; in biogenetics, the biological body is reduced to the medium of the reproduction of the genetic code; in quantum physics, reality itself, the density of matter, is reduced to the collapse of the virtuality of wave oscillations (or, in the general theory of relativity, matter is reduced to an effect of space’s curvature). Here we encounter ANOTHER crucial aspect of the opposition idealism/materialism: materialism is not the assertion of inert material density in its humid heaviness – SUCH a “materialism” can always serve as a support for gnostic spiritualist obscurantism. In contrast to it, a true materialism joyously assumes the “disappearance of matter,” the fact that there is only void.

Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, 2012, pp.21-22.

‘Against Interpretation’

Susan Sontag

Who could be against interpretation? Interpretation is what we do. It is as natural to us, and perhaps even as automatic to us as our breathing or our heartbeat. It is, I would say, the basic function of human cognition. We like to think that we deal with reality, but we do not. In fact we encounter a stream of instantaneous phenomena. These phenomena may have a relationship to reality, but that relationship is neither constant nor consistent, and nor is it in any way measurable. When we see a tree, for example, we do not, cannot, know the totality of ‘tree’; but the instant flash of trunk, branch, leaves, and whatever images come into our minds are what we interpret, and we give it a meaning, a word. We interpret it. We do not even reduce the totality down to that interpretation, because we do not have the totality to start with.

At this point the shade of Susan Sontag comes and stands at my elbow, crossly tapping her foot.

“That is not what I meant,” she says, and points to a passage in her famous essay, ‘Against Interpretation’.

Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in its broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

Fair enough. Let’s set aside my insistence on our everyday experience of the world as being one of phenomena, and let’s take that definition of interpretation, damned by Sontag as “the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius,” and run with it. Here is the opening paragraph of her essay:

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incatatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

Sontag’s initial sentence is an example of the very process she abhors – it is an interpretation. Whenever we contemplate prehistoric humanity we come across things we don’t understand. Give us a flint hand-axe or a scraper and we’re happy, we can immediately see what they’re for. Give us unaccountable marks on a piece of bone, a cup-and-ring pattern on a stone, or a vivid painting on the wall of a cave – something for which there is no obvious purpose – and we feel compelled to invent one. We come up with a “must have been,” we consciously interpret. Our fall-back position is ‘ritual’. We have no proof that our remote ancestors divided life up by any kind of taxonomy that we would recognise, no evidence at all that painting a cave wall had any significance for them beyond being an act woven into everyday life, no evidence of their metaphysical sensibilities, no evidence at all of ritual. In fact, all we can be forgiven for recognising in the paintings is a mimetic quality, the one that the Greeks thought up later.

The reductive verdict of ‘ritual’ is our colonial mind-set at work. It is the same hegemonic code and rules of interpretation that dubbed ‘ritual’ what we thought we saw when Maasai, or Andaman Islanders, or Maori, or Iroquois went through something that their society or culture regularly repeated. In our supposedly civilised superiority, looking down upon those whom we considered ‘primitive’, we reduced what they did to a word we could cope with, a word replete with condescension – we are above all that, we are rational beings, or so we say to ourselves.

Judith Butler

I’m going to digress for a while. This whole subject of ritual opens up another avenue of thought for me and, like a dog in a field, I like to follow fresh scents. I’ll go back to Judith Butler’s declaration of gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (519). Gender, Butler tells us, is performative, to which I always feel bound to answer, “What isn’t?” What single act that we do any moment of any day of the year, be it demonstrative of gender or anything else in our make-up or in what society or culture expects of us, is not in some way a declaration of who we are, who we are to be taken to be, or what we are currently doing? When we repeat that act, particularly on a regular basis, then its stylised repetition makes it part of a ritual. For that is what a ritual is – the regular repetition of a performative act. At every Catholic mass, the priest raises the host and consecrates it, by which performative action it becomes the body of Christ; his congregation recognises this, it is familiar to them, they have seen this performative act a hundred times or more.

It could be that the actions that came before our colonial eyes in East Africa, the Andaman Islands, Aotearoa, or Ontario, or before the rediscoverers’ eyes in the caves of South-Western Europe, do or did have that order of significance for their actors. But it is not so simply because we say it is so.

I have, in any case, always been dissatisfied with the word ‘ritual’. Where there is something familiar such as the Catholic mass mentioned above, or the way that the court officials and the advocates rise and bow when the Sheriff enters the courtroom, it is the outward signal that there is a process under way. I prefer ‘process’. It is still condescending and presumptuous to look on at something from an exotic culture, nod knowingly, and say, “Process.” But at least the word has less of a derogatory nuance. It might be possible to look at the cave paintings and surmise that there was a cultural process going on; but I believe the most we can do, the most we should do, is look with awe, and with satisfaction, at something our sisters and brothers felt it worth putting there.

In her essay, Susan Sontag makes a plea for us to back off from conscious interpretation. She says (or rather, she said in 1964 – her shade is no longer standing at my elbow tapping her foot):

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? […] What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. […] Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism – today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are […] In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
(12, 13, 14)

“Of things being what they are.” I certainly see where she is coming from. But this takes me back to my initial point – the impossibility of knowing what things are. Our first, perhaps our only, experience of an artefact is that immediate phenomenon, filtered through our senses, dealt with by our powers of perception, made some-sort-of-sense-of if sense is really what we’re making; this phenomenon, instead of standing still, plays a giant game of association with our mind, conjuring up other images, some of which seem to last, others dissipate before they’re fully formed. We do ‘interpret’, we can’t help it. I often put it this way – we read everything. Just not as coherently as we would like to believe.

In my opinion we ought to be aware of this. Perhaps it is not an erotics of art but a ‘chaotics’ that we need, or, if you prefer something more solid to hold onto, something with an –ology to it, a phenomenology of art. Perhaps we need a whole tool set, a Swiss-Army-Knife of the consciousness, in which we keep interpretation, erotics, chaotics, and any other handy tool.

Sontag might not have liked that idea, and would have kept the interpretive tool snapped shut. Not for her the peeling away of the skin to reveal and interpret content. Of modernist art she said:

The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic, but it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is…,” “What X is trying to say is…,” “What X said is…,” etc.)

Lyn Hejinian

What Sontag is saying here – I know, that’s cheeky of me! – is that art is never used as a means of communication. I doubt that such a statement can be accepted. Many works in all kinds of genres are produced to be seen and heard and understood, to convey a message or to make a point, to be instrumentalist even didactic. Sontag objects to the epanalegesis of Philo of Alexandria, and by extension of any revision of the meaning of scripture, down to this day, beyond the expression of the religious experience of the culture within which it was first written; thus she must object to any passing over of the proprietorship of content, if content there is, and surely to form, which she privileges above content. This is a narrowing down. A poet such as Lyn Hejinian, on the other hand, takes an approach that is vigorously diametrically opposite. For Hejinian, intrinsic in loosening her own proprietorship of a poem is relinquishing authority over meaning. She finds with Yurii Tynianov that even a single word does not have a single definite meaning, but is “a chameleon, in which not only various shades, but even various colors arise with each usage” (Tynianov 60), conceding his idea of the “oscillating sign” in which meanings and nuances jostle for position (70) in a signifier, which can even slip away from its signified (Ward 19). Thus writing, and even more so reading, becomes an exercise not in teasing out any fixed or intended meaning, but in allowing thought-associations to form freely with words, and further “where one once sought a vocabulary for ideas, one now seeks ideas for vocabularies” (Hejinian, Language of Inquiry 27). This is an interpretation beyond bald interpretation, a deliberate invitation for the reader to take part in the creative process, adding other dongles to the Swiss-Army-Knife:

But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality.

This is a wonderfully liberating attitude compared to Sontag’s, an ‘anything goes’ attitude to reading or observing or hearing a work of art, closer to my idea of ‘chaotics’ perhaps. Not without its problems, of course, it is no more a definitive view than Sontag’s, and the world has moved on since all these statements were made.

Where does this leave us? Sontag’s essay remains a major work of influence, a ‘must read’ item for all those who want to study literature or contemplate any genre of expressive art. However it is not, of course, graven on tablets of stone.


I hope you have enjoyed reading the above. Of course it can’t have covered everything – it has touched on areas about which whole books have been written. If you would like to enter into discussion about this post, please use the comments box below, or email me at taxonomydomine{a}, and I will transfer your remarks here. Vigorous counter-arguments are welcome; flames, however, will be doused.

Here’s an interesting digression: why did I pick those particular photographs of the women I quoted here?


Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol.40 No.4, 1988, pp.519-531.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. University of California Press, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Vintage, 1988.

Tynianov, Yurii. The Problem of Verse Language. Translated by Michael Sosa and Brent Harvey. Ardis, 1981.

Ward, Geoff. Language Poetry and the American Avant-garde. British Association for American Studies, 1993.

Walter Benjamin on History

 Angelus Novus

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
den blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Gluck
– Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The above paragraph is the ninth of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1968, pp.257-8).

Queerpunk: a note

On 28th November 2017 our 20c Queer Fiction seminar group was discussing Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, in the light of her and Laura Doan’s chapter ‘Making up lost time: contemporary lesbian writing and the invention of history’, from Territories of Desire. To summarise the chapter – which is difficult to do whilst doing justice to it, of course – it legitimised, in the light of there being very little historical record on which to base a lesbian ‘genealogy’, the constructing of imaginary cultures, communities, and situations in the past, such as Diana’s coterie in Tipping the Velvet. Waters’ Victorian setting drew comparison with the speculative history of novels in the Steampunk genre, which in turn led me to ask whether Waters had, in fact, invented ‘Queerpunk’.

A quick dash to Google revealed no such compound noun. Did we have a new coining? Had I invented a word?

Queerpunk: A genre in which an imagined or imaginary lesbian sub-culture exists or flourishes in a historical period where there is no record of such a sub-culture; esp. in the Victorian period.

The algorithms of search engines are peculiar things, however. Fast forward a couple of days to 1st December, and I found an anthology of five homoerotic cyberpunk stories, edited by Cecilia Tan and Kelly Kincaid, under the title Queerpunk. So not a neologism after all, but certainly a new usage, as ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘steampunk’ are divergent literary concepts.

One can be driven mad searching for a handy, one-word definition of an emerging genre or sub-genre. How about ‘Dykepunk’? Well, that exists too, but as a self-definition by ‘riot grrrunge’ band C-Rex. From this point, trying to find a prefix for the literary sub-genre sails too close to flippancy, facetiousness, or downright disrespect.

What do you think?


Doan, Laura, and Sarah Waters. “Making up lost time: contemporary lesbian writing and the invention of history.” Territories of Desire in Queer Culture: Refiguring Contemporary Boundaries, edited by David Alderson and Linda R. Alderson, Manchester UP, 2000, pp.12-28.

A live(?), white(?), male(?) student of literature speaks!

Why the question marks in the title of this article? Because at least two of those terms have come under scrutiny of late, in the field of critical thought. The term ‘male’, an apparent expression of gender, is no longer automatically assumed to be an expression of some inner essence or monolithic construct but rather of a ‘stylized repetition of acts’ (Emma Clery, paraphrasing Judith Butler, 161) or repetitive acts of performance (Brenda Silver, similarly paraphrasing, 323). I selected these two citations to show that this way of thinking is now influential across an increasingly wide field of literary criticism, though it probably has much further to go.

The term ‘white’ has been argued to be ‘pseudoscientific’ and, along with other assignments of colour such as ‘black’, ‘red’, or ‘brown’, an arbitrary construct not a report of reality (Gates, 6). The term ‘live’ might as well have its own question mark, just to be neighbourly with the other two.

2If you are wondering why I’m even addressing these issues, I can tell you that it was because the item pictured here arrived in one of my social media feeds today. There was a time when such a collection of statements was looked on as radical. Now, I’m afraid, it is hackneyed and old hat. The days when one could sneer at ‘dead white guys’ are over – a hell of a lot of people are (arbitrarily) white, half the world is male, and everybody dies.

As always, however, anyone who is of a conservative persuasion need not imagine that they can come here for comfort. Wrong shop. The most you will get from me is that you are free to argue from your perspective – as indeed one modern school of thought does – that there are universal truths. But be prepared, when you enter the arena of debate, to be challenged. We all should be, whoever we are.

By and large, however, these days the sentiments expressed in that social media meme seem like a bit of an aunt sally – a target set up by someone to shoot down on their own – to be circulated amongst their friends. Not debating, just an exercise in confirmation bias. There is more than a hint of the pejorative in the way ‘white’ is used, but let’s have a look at the initial thesis that ‘white academia’ is out to fool you; I’ll do this, if you don’t mind, by reference to my personal experience.

Posit: ‘white academia’ intends to fool you into thinking that the greatest authors were and ever will be white men.

Since 2010 I have been in ‘academia’ in the United Kingdom, studying literature. During that time, the works presented to me included those by: Aphra Behn, Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bishop, Jamila Gavin, Beatrix Potter, Philippa Pearce, Mildred Taylor, Nadine Gordimer, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling, Louisa M. Alcott, Rebecca West, Daphne DuMaurier, Elizabeth Bowen, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Radclyffe Hall, Anne Bannon, Audre Lorde, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Salman Rushdie, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Sam Selvon, Christopher Okigbo, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gurinda Chadha, Beverley Naidoo, V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Hanif Kureishi.

Of course on its own this list is meaningless. Yes, I studied ‘male’, ‘white’ authors from Shakespeare to Cormac McCarthy. But it was in academia in my mainly ‘white’ native country that I first learned to challenge the concept of the literary canon, that I first considered ‘post-colonial’ literature, that I first encountered the politics of gender being applied to literature. Not from a social media meme. The writer(s) of that meme need to catch up.

Not that this implies that the book is closed. Challenging established views should have the aim of opening things up to enquiry, not the setting up of a new establishment, not the installation of a new non-white, non-male pantheon. Critical thought is not in the business of creating new norms.

Posit: ‘white academia’ intends to fool you into thinking that the most beautiful city in the world is Paris.

The concept that beauty is subjective, however, was certainly around more than two thousand years ago, at which time Paris did not even exist, let alone the boulevards and monuments of Haussmann’s Paris. Aesthetic though those works be, they were constructed on the orders of a despot. None of these facts have any bearing on whether you consider Paris beautiful – chacun à son goût – and frankly the only public expression of preference I have ever heard was in a Cole Porter song from 1953, and not in academia.

Posit: ‘white academia’ intends to fool you that every great philosopher came out of Europe, and that Europe is the pinnacle of civilisation.

‘Europe’ is as arbitrary a concept as ‘white’ and ‘male’. I could almost argue that ‘philosophy’ is also. The word is Greek, true, but I doubt if its modern application would be understood by its originators. I know of few people who would not recognise the name Confucius, and the status of European civilisation has been under challenge since at least the time of Karl Marx. Catch up!

There is of course a much more fundamental problem, certainly in the study of literature. Literature is – it is almost unnecessary to state – the product of a literate culture. Both words have the same root. Gates reminds us (7-9), by reiterating the story of Phylllis Wheatley, an African slave, who was examined by a panel of educated and propertied men of the city of Boston MA one day in 1772, to ascertain whether a collection of poems published under her name were actually her own work, and whether she had sufficient understanding and intellect to have created them, that literacy was supposed to be a mark of intellect. Gates asks an important question about this, and supplies a speculative answer:

Why was the creative writing of the African of such importance to the eighteenth century’s debate over slavery? I can briefly outline one thesis: after Rene Descartes, reason was privileged, or valorized, above all other human characteristics. Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the visible sign of reason. Blacks were “reasonable,” and hence “men,” if – and only if – they demonstrated mastery of “the arts and sciences,” the eighteenth century’s formula for writing.

Literacy, therefore, was the yardstick with which to measure intelligence. This seemed reasonable to the men of the Enlightenment, since their education would have included the study of Greek and Latin texts, which had transmitted the knowledge and wisdom of the classical age down to them – it’s philosophies, its rhetoric, its poetry – along with the works of the literate men of their own language.

The creative use of literacy produced what we now call literature. That term, in its familiar usage in the English language, is no more than five hundred years old, and certainly since its earliest recorded use it has been refined and redefined. Many civilisations have been literate and have produced text. China devoted time and care to calligraphy, and has records that go back millennia. Ancient Egypt covered walls with square metre after square metre of hieroglyphs. Jewish culture produced the books of Law and of the Prophets. To define any of these products as ‘literature’ we have to apply our own European – more, Anglo-centric – concept to them. In an earlier article I questioned whether the Egyptians had a word for ‘art’; I raise a similar query regarding ‘literature’.

Moreover, the application of this concept and its attendant criteria privileges societies and cultures that went down the route of committing things to writing. Who is to say that a griot who is capable of memorising whole histories and of re-telling them creatively is any less intelligent that someone who can read or write, simply because he does not?

The fundamental problem resolves into this, therefore:

When we speak of ‘post-colonial’ literature, we speak of the adoption, first of all, of a colonial concept by the formerly-colonised. They’re entitled to, of course, if they want to do so, but they should be aware that they have in their hands something that was handed down to them be people who considered themselves their masters. Furthermore, if Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example, should speak of himself as a ‘Kenyan author’, he would be defining himself by a set of arbitrary lines drawn on a map by the former colonial power. They have put themselves in an analogous position to Phyllis Wheatley and to George Moses Horton:

If blacks could write and publish imaginative literature, then they could, in effect, take a few “giant steps” up the chain of being in an evil game of “Mother, May I?” For example, scores of reviews of Wheatley’s book argued that the publication of her poems meant that the African was indeed a human being and should not be enslaved. Indeed, Wheatley herself was manumitted soon after her poems were published. That which was only implicit in Wheatley’s case would become explicit fifty years later. George Moses Horton had, by the middle of the 1820s, gained a considerable reputation at Chapel Hill as “the slave-poet.” His master printed full-page advertisements in Northern newspapers soliciting subscriptions for a book of Horton’s poems and promising to exchange the slave’s freedom for a sufficient return on sales of the book. Writing, for these slaves, was not an activity of mind; rather, it was a commodity which they were forced to trade for their humanity.
(Gates 8-9)

Is post-colonial literature a commodity that authors from the formerly colonised lands are forced to trade for a position in the world where literacy engenders literature and international prizes, with their attendant prestige, are awarded for it? Should that be the criterion on which we judge the worth of newly-independent nations, confined in arbitrary lines on the map, and people whose forebears found themselves colonised? Are people not worthy of respect without having to continue to have to jump through the hoops which our culture sets up? Is respect in fact not something they are due as human beings, something to which they are already entitled, and not something which is in our gift?

We have strange ideas about intelligence and intellect. We count people as less intelligent because, for example, they have not developed technology or do not live in towns. In doing so we fail to see the self-sufficiency that may be in their way of life and the sophistication that may be in their cultures. More importantly, as I mentioned in a previous article, we fail to see ourselves. We fail to see that although we have used our intellect to build cities and develop intricate technology, we are myopic about the problems inherent in all we do. We are knowledgeable but not wise. We know less than the aboriginal group in Australia who have the proverb “The more you know, the less you need.” Our greatest folly, the greatest hole in our wisdom, is judging other people by our standards, and the greatest disservice they can do to themselves is to fall into step with us.

4As a parting thought to my readers, I would like to say this. Amongst our own ancestors were illiterate folk who raised ‘standing stones’. They knew their material, they handled it, they set it up. In Stenness, on the Orkney mainland, is a grouping of such stones arranged so that if one stands in a certain spot one’s voice is amplified, so it can be heard a considerable distance away. Popularly this is supposed to be happenstance. I suggest it is deliberate, the work of people who knew more about the characteristics of stone than the average moderner knows about the working of the apps on their phone. I suggest that it is the product of great intelligence, and that the stones are placed to be useful to the parliament or folk-meet of the people who set them up. I suggest that the gulf between us and them is the difference between a simple technology used to greatest effect that is now forgotten and dismissed, and a complex technology that is out-of-control and yet is celebrated. I know which I would prefer to use as a criterion.


Clery, Emma J. “Gender.” Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, 2nd edition, 3rd printing, edited by Edward Copeland & Juliet McMaster. Cambridge UP, 2014, pp.159-175.

Gates, Henry L. Jr. “Editor’s Introduction: Writing “Race” and the Difference It Makes.” Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1, 1985, pp.1-20. Accessed 12th August 2017.

Silver, Brenda R. Virginia Woolf Icon. Chicago UP, 1999.

Can a ‘straight, white, able-bodied man’ ever be marginalised?

2. FoucaultCan a ‘straight, white, able-bodied man’ ever be marginalised? Well, the answer is yes, of course he can. But if you’ve come here looking for an apologia for the Men’s Rights Movement or for support for the idea that people with brown faces are somehow oppressing everybody with a pink one, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong shop. That’s not what this is about, but do feel free to read on anyway.

In the preface to The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes his merriment at discovering a passage in an essay by Jorge Luis Borges that referred to the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’:

[…]as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

1. BorgesOf course we, along with Foucault, know that Borges imagined this encyclopaedia, but that isn’t the point Foucault is making. We imagine we stand on a rock of knowledge, certain that how we see the world is how it is. We confidently discriminate between vertebrates and invertebrates, mammals and non-mammals, dogs and cats, and so on, based on differences we have highlighted as important. Some of us go further in our classification of, say, dogs by pointing at one and saying “This breed is a Labradoodle,” and deciding that it may breed with others of its kind and be shown in Dog Shows as the epitome of its kind. If, at some time in the past, one of its great-grand-sires or great-grand-dams was not a Labradoodle but a… well… a Poobrador, that distinction does not seem relevant to the breeders’ association or the panel of judges.

In my previous post I speculated how it might have felt to walk down an avenue of sculpted or painted representations of Hathor, Khnum, and Thoth when one does not have a word for ‘art’. I suppose that the nearest we can come to imagining it is if we consider a Catholic devot, deep in reverent prayer, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary; for that person the biblical terms ‘idol’ and ‘graven image’ have long since fallen away, and the plea of their soul is heard by the one who intercedes with God. In vain our argument – “It is not so because it is demonstrably not so!” – circulates, tries to prove itself by itself, eats its own tail. It may be that we, by virtue of the turns that human thought has taken since a point in the past, no longer classify things by a supposed virtue they share – a brave man and a lion, for example – but that does not stop us from naming our sports teams The Dallas Cowboys, The Wigan Warriors, The British Lions, and so on as though that taxonomy still existed. It does – we can’t get away from its power, even though we tell ourselves it’s metaphorical.

Taxonomy is a process of exclusion. It is not a process of grouping together but one of putting apart. There is a difference between a vertebrate and an invertebrate because we choose to exclude one from the other – the very fact that we classify one by a word that depends on the other and, by the small addition of a prefix, negates it is an indication of that. The fact that the difference between the two seems so natural to us now is because of the legacy of a pre-existing idea which conditions our thinking, a pre-existing word that expresses that exclusion. We have become so used to a particular taxonomy that our culture has now sanctified it, we are so conditioned by our language that to think otherwise is virtually impossible. We are fluent in Newspeak.

Marginalisation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the process or result of becoming or making marginal, especially the process of making an individual or minority group marginal in relation to a dominant social group (“marginalization”, OED). The taxonomy of marginalisation is, like any other taxonomy, a matter of cutting off what is considered not to be a certain thing. But the only clear criterion for being marginalised is the fact of marginalisation. To add any other factor is to make a different taxonomy altogether.

In a society or system where, in general, heterosexual people are privileged, or white[1], or able-bodied, or male, or any combination of these are privileged, that general privilege can be seen to preclude marginalisation of the whole group. In the world that we know today, especially here in the Northern Hemisphere, we have a legacy of general privilege pertaining to ‘straight, white, able-bodied men’. This fact casts no blame, denigrates no one, pours guilt on no one, implies no lack of virtue in anyone straight, white, able-bodied, or male; it is nothing more than a situation we have inherited. An attempt not to dim the light they enjoy but to bring others equally into it, so that the idea of ‘privilege’ no longer seems relevant, is an entirely laudable one. But to assume that a general privilege implies that no individual or sub-group within that generality can ever be marginalised is dangerously myopic and, furthermore, false. It is the assumption of someone who has never considered age, social class, ‘invisible disability’, etc. as marginalising factors. It is evidence of incomplete and flawed vision.

Recently I submitted an article to a web site that exists to promote the study of literature, art, film, etc. and their creators that are somehow marginalised. I chose to promote the novel Sez Ner by Arno Camenisch. Camenisch writes in a dialect of Romansh, a minority language of Switzerland. Neither Sez Ner nor its English translation The Alp is found in our university library; a quick search of our university web site does not reveal any course available that includes Romansh language or literature. My reason for promoting this novel was the marginalisation of minority languages. My article was rejected. The editors gave as their reason that Arno Camenisch is a ‘straight, white, able-bodied man’. I should say right away that I supported and still support the aims of the web site. But I am convinced that their decision was fundamentally wrong. They added an extra criterion for being marginalised other than the fact of marginalisation; they assumed that a general privilege excluded a particular marginalisation. Wrong on both counts.

A quick excursus here. Some readers may consider that I am writing this present post because my ego was dented by their rejection. I’m human, so let me therefore concede that there’s probably an element of personal pique involved somewhere. There, I’ve admitted it, move on, nothing to see here…

I regularly chat with a straight, white, able-bodied man. If he wrote poetry or painted pictures, they would be excluded from consideration by the web site. The fact that he is homeless and begs on the street notwithstanding – the fact of his actual marginalisation. 3. SkinheadIn 1969, when I lived in South East London, I belonged to a youth group known as the skinheads. By and large we were straight, white, able-bodied, and male. We didn’t pay much attention to how the rest of society saw us – perhaps we should have done, but there wouldn’t have been much we could have done about it – and as a result what people ‘know’ about us was largely constructed by the media of the time. We weren’t a right-wing racist bloc – that description may be pertinent to certain ‘revivals’ of ‘skinhead’ movements that happened during the decades since 1969 – there were plenty of racial prejudices amongst our generality, as one would have expected amongst mainly working-class youngsters of that era, and there were plenty of aspects of our general culture that were unattractive to society as a whole, but most of us would have grown up and, for example, voted Labour in general elections rather than for any right-wing party. Plenty of us got involved in fights, many did not. Plenty of us were racists, some were anti-racist, myself for one. We did not wear a ‘uniform’ but had a gradually evolving fashion, which had faded out (certainly in London) by the end of 1970. But it didn’t really occur to us until later that by virtue of having been hidden behind a media-created image we had in effect been marginalised, become a by-word for everything ignorant and unpleasant in society’s youth. This actually raises a vital point, which is that being marginalised does not depend on immaculacy – we had plenty of warts – but solely on the fact of marginalisation. There are plenty more examples of individuals and sub-groups within the generality of ‘straight, white, able-bodied men’ that find themselves marginalised. To fail to recognise that is a mistake, and to make that mistake in a campaign to end marginalisation is a fatal flaw. It will perpetuate marginalisation, not end it.

That brings me to the end of my apologia, I will now append the article in support of the study of Sez Ner by Arno Camenisch. [NB. It has been slightly edited for the purposes of this post.]


Aotearoan writer Glenn Colquhoun said “The most difficult thing about majorities is not that they cannot see minorities, but that they cannot see themselves. There is no contrast, no dissonance, everything is white on white” (Colquhoun 38). Majorities hold the default position, whilst minorities are somehow subversive of that default; sitting in the majority, however, we’re blissfully ignorant about what exactly is being subverted. We can only see ‘them’ in relation to ‘us’, not the other way round. When it comes to speakers of different languages, as David Crystal says, there is the closest of links between language dominance and cultural power (5). Many years after I left high school in England, it struck me that I had learned French and German, and one year’s optional Russian, but I only knew a couple of words in Welsh, and absolutely no Gaelic. The culture I grew up in privileged the languages of our nearest overseas neighbours above our own linguistic minorities. I’m not much more knowledgeable now, and I think it’s because I still can’t see myself.

I may still be just as ignorant, but I now – forgive my patronisation – like to support those who keep languages alive not as a political statement but as a creative one. Yes, creativity is political, I get that, and the more I dig the deeper this hole gets. Having pronounced on cultural power, David Crystal goes on to cite Switzerland as a successful example of peaceful multilingual coexistence within a single nation (13), but how easy is it, from a foreign or from an internal majority position, to gauge what pressure there is on a minority language and its living community? Swiss author Arno Camenisch says of his home languages, “If it is raining I write in Rhaeto-Romanic. If it is windy or sunny, German… I grew up in a polyphonous village. There were many languages… but television was king. We believed in TV more than God!” (Camenisch, MacIntyre, and Hahn). To Camenisch “the sound is the soul of the text” (ibid.), but when I heard him read from The Alp in its original Romansh version, I reflected that the sound was all I could access, and that what I was listening to was the equivalent of a musical recital, not an expression of meaning and culture by the medium of language.

4. ArnoCamenisch translates his own work from Romansh to German. In 2014 an English-Language version was brought out, translated by Donal McLaughlin. Each time a translation of any work is made a problem is created. There is a tension between one language and the other(s), and a complex relationship is formed. You could say, for example, that when a German version of The Alp is read in Switzerland, it reaches another of Camenisch’s neighbours; equally, however, it becomes a reason why that same neighbour might not bother to learn Romansh, any more than I learned Welsh. When I read my own English version, I am conscious that the novel is now available much more widely, internationally; on the other hand, that availability depends on a major hegemonic language, and my reading in that language means that I may not bother to reacquaint myself with German or ever consider learning Romansh. And as I make that pronouncement from a position of privilege, what else am I not seeing?

The Alp, or Sez Ner in the original, is a very short novel. Its subject is rural life. It is written in a series of paragraphs, sometimes no more than a line long, none longer than half a page, and each separated from the next by a line-break. Dialogue is terse and without quotation marks. Each paragraph describes a scene, or a short piece of seemingly banal action. Having read to the end, and having wondered when something is going to happen, you suddenly realise that life in the Swiss Alps has done just that, and has borne you along like a blade of grass in a stream after a rainstorm.

The dirt gets under your nails. The dirt stains your hands. The swineherd uses the boot-brush to try and get his hands clean. The dirt sticks in the folds, like it was etched there. The dirt only goes once the skin begins to peel. The skin begins to peel when the summer’s over, as if your body was shedding its skin like a snake.
(Camenisch 56)

When it rains, the cows shit better, says Giosch. Clemens laughs.

5. The AlpLooking at these lines, I am acutely aware of their translated nature, for the simple reason that I know that the title of the novel itself has lost something. ‘Sez Ner’ is a specific location, whereas ‘Alp’ is a generalisation. What other nuances may be missing? Nevertheless I would like to see the novel studied in English first of all, but if it is, then I beg colleagues to have an original work to hand, to be able to get some idea of the creativity that went into the translation process, and to appreciate the freshness and directness of the original. Encountering The Alp/Sez Ner on any basis, even monolingually, is worthwhile. Studying it where the original can stand as a positive asset, is a marvelous opportunity to promote and to relate to minority languages both remote and close.

‘Relate’ is the operative word there. I would like to see the study of The Alp and other similar books become an exercise in learning to see myself/ourselves better, in colouring Glenn Colquhoun’s “white on white,” as much as one of raising the profile of, in this instance, the Romansh-speaking communities. Whether I have the right to make that request in those terms is, of course, wide open to debate.


[1] I apologise for using this term which, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. reminds us, is a pseudoscientific misnomer (4).


Works cited:

Camenisch, Arno. The Alp. Translated by Donal McLaughlin, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

—. Sez Ner. Urs Engeler, 2010.

Camenisch, Arno, Martin MacIntyre, and Daniel Hahn. “Major-Minor: Languages and Nations.” Unpublished discussion 16th August 2014, Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Colquhoun, Glen. Jumping ship, and other essays. Steele Roberts, 2012

Crystal, David. English as a global language. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Editor’s Introduction: Writing “Race” and the Difference it makes.” Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1, 1985, pp.1-20.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. Translator unnamed. Vintage, 1994.

“marginalization.” The Oxford English Dictionary, 2017.