(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘intellectual history

“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing”*…

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pumped body was like “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Damon Hill’s Formula 1 car was “a modern sculpture propelled by burning money.” Television was “the haunted fish tank”, a sense of humour was merely “common sense, dancing” and a luxury liner was nothing but “a bad play surrounded by water.” Sydney’s Opera House looked like “a portable typewriter full of oyster shells”… and the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s maquillage became the most famous make-up in town: “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”

You didn’t need to read Clive James’s books or poems to feel the impact he made on the English language. You only had to watch television or read the papers…

No other writer could capture the popular imagination like this. But this generous, glittering shrapnel of unforgettable imagery all fell outside the realms of Clive’s formal literary career, leaving him with an unfair reputation as a brilliant lightweight who never quite fulfilled his dazzling potential.

The antidote to this is simple. Forget the image; read his work. If Clive James had not been such a popular and familiar figure, it would be even clearer now that we should be mourning the loss, a year ago, of a literary giant…

An appreciation of a late, lamented literary treasure: “The Enduring Prose and Poetry of Clive James.”

Your correspondent heartily recommends James’ remarkable Cultural Amnesia, richly entertaining and deeply enlightening…

This was an 850-page blockbuster, consisting of 106 brief essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on the characters he felt had determined the course of Western culture and liberal democracy’s fight for survival in the twentieth century. Most of those featured were Clive’s heroes—from Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, by way of Camus and Dick Cavett, Fellini and W.C. Fields, Egon Friedell and Terry Gilliam, Kafka and Keats, Beatrix Potter and Marcel Proust, Tacitus, Waugh and Wittgenstein. Others were his villains—Hitler, Goebbels and Mao, but also Sartre (Stalin’s apologist, “a devil’s advocate worse than the devil himself, because the advocate was smarter”), Edward “Decline and Fall” Gibbon, Alexandra Kollontai and the “dismaying” Walter Benjamin…

See also Adam Gopnik’s appreciation of James, “Clive James Got It Right” (source of the image above).

* Clive James

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As we trip the light fantastic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that the first installment of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary was published.  Edited by James Murray (“The Professor” in Simon Winchester’s wonderful The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary), it was originally a project of the Philological Society of London, devoted to cataloging the English words that had evaded inclusion in then-current dictionaries.  The first edition had the benefit of 27 years of work, by dozens of contributors; the first installment, the full title of which was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, ran to 352-pages, covered the words from A to ant, and cost 12s 6d (or about $668 at current rates). The total sales were only 4,000 copies.

James Murray in the Scriptorium, the home of the OED,
on Banbury Road in Oxford (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 1, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The heart and soul of the company is creativity”*…

Creativity doesn’t have a deep history. The Oxford English Dictionary records just a single usage of the word in the 17th century, and it’s religious: ‘In Creation, we have God and his Creativity.’ Then, scarcely anything until the 1920s – quasi-religious invocations by the philosopher A N Whitehead. So creativity, considered as a power belonging to an individual – divine or mortal – doesn’t go back forever. Neither does the adjective ‘creative’ – being inventive, imaginative, having original ideas – though this word appears much more frequently than the noun in the early modern period. God is the Creator and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the creative power, like the rarely used ‘creativity’, was understood as divine. The notion of a secular creative ability in the imaginative arts scarcely appears until the Romantic Era, as when the poet William Wordsworth addressed the painter and critic Benjamin Haydon: ‘Creative Art … Demands the service of a mind and heart.’

This all changes in the mid-20th century, and especially after the end of the Second World War, when a secularised notion of creativity explodes into prominence. The Google Ngram chart bends sharply upwards from the 1950s and continues its ascent to the present day. But as late as 1970, practically oriented writers, accepting that creativity was valuable and in need of encouragement, nevertheless reflected on the newness of the concept, noting its absence from some standard dictionaries even a few decades before.

Before the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, the history of creativity might seem to lack its object – the word was not much in circulation. The point needn’t be pedantic. You might say that what we came to mean by the capacity of creativity was then robustly picked out by other notions, say genius, or originality, or productivity, or even intelligence or whatever capacity it was believed enabled people to think thoughts considered new and valuable. And in the postwar period, a number of commentators did wonder about the supposed difference between emergent creativity and such other long-recognised mental capacities. The creativity of the mid-20th century was entangled in these pre-existing notions, but the circumstances of its definition and application were new…

Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative? (Hint: the Manhattan Project and the Cold War played important roles.): “The rise and rise of creativity.”

(Image above: source)

* Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company

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As we lionize the latest, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Simulation is the situation created by any system of signs when it becomes sophisticated enough, autonomous enough, to abolish its own referent and to replace it with itself”*…

It is not often that a comedian gives an astrophysicist goose bumps when discussing the laws of physics. But comic Chuck Nice managed to do just that in a recent episode of the podcast StarTalk.The show’s host Neil deGrasse Tyson had just explained the simulation argument—the idea that we could be virtual beings living in a computer simulation. If so, the simulation would most likely create perceptions of reality on demand rather than simulate all of reality all the time—much like a video game optimized to render only the parts of a scene visible to a player. “Maybe that’s why we can’t travel faster than the speed of light, because if we could, we’d be able to get to another galaxy,” said Nice, the show’s co-host, prompting Tyson to gleefully interrupt. “Before they can program it,” the astrophysicist said,delighting at the thought. “So the programmer put in that limit.”

Such conversations may seem flippant. But ever since Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford wrote a seminal paper about the simulation argument in 2003, philosophers, physicists, technologists and, yes, comedians have been grappling with the idea of our reality being a simulacrum. Some have tried to identify ways in which we can discern if we are simulated beings. Others have attempted to calculate the chance of us being virtual entities. Now a new analysis shows that the odds that we are living in base reality—meaning an existence that is not simulated—are pretty much even. But the study also demonstrates that if humans were to ever develop the ability to simulate conscious beings, the chances would overwhelmingly tilt in favor of us, too, being virtual denizens inside someone else’s computer…

Learn why gauging whether or not we dwell inside someone else’s computer may come down to advanced AI research—or measurements at the frontiers of cosmology: “Do We Live in a Simulation? Chances Are about 50–50.”

* Jean Baudrillard (who was describing the ways in which the significations and symbolism of culture and media are involved in constructing an understanding of shared existence… which may or may not, itself, be a simulation)

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As we play the odds, we might send dark birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche; he was born on this date in 1844. A philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist, he and his work have had a profound influence on modern intellectual history.

Nietzsche became the youngest person ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of 24, but resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life. He completed much of his core writing in the following decade, before suffering a complete mental breakdown in 1889, after which he lived in care until his death in 1900.

Nietzsche’s writing spanned philosophical polemics, poetry, cultural criticism, and fiction, all the while displaying a fondness for aphorism and irony. He’s best remembered as a philosopher, for work that included his radical critique of truth in favor of perspectivism; for his genealogical critique of religion and Christian morality (and his related theory of master–slave morality); for is aesthetic affirmation of existence in response to his famous observation of the “death of God” and the profound crisis of nihilism; for his notion of the Apollonian and Dionysian; and for his characterization of the human subject as the expression of competing wills, collectively understood as the will to power. Nietzsche also developed influential concepts such as the Übermensch and the doctrine of eternal return.

After his death, his sister Elisabeth became the curator and editor of Nietzsche’s manuscripts. She edited his unpublished writings to fit her German nationalist beliefs– often contradicting or obfuscating Nietzsche’s stated opinions, which were explicitly opposed to antisemitism and nationalism. Through her published editions, Nietzsche’s work became associated with fascism and Nazism. But scholars contested this interpretation, and corrected editions of his writings were soon made available. Nietzsche’s thought enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1960s and his ideas have since had a profound impact on 20th and early-21st century thinkers across philosophy—especially in schools of continental philosophy such as existentialism, postmodernism and post-structuralism—as well as in art, literature, psychology, politics, and popular culture.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

“All poets write bad poetry. Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.”*…

 

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia 1784 by William Williams active 1758-1797

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia, by William Williams, 1784. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

 

Readers may recall an earlier nod to William Topaz McGonagall, widely considered to be the worst published poet in British history.  McGonagall, best known for his widely-excoriated verse recounting of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” distributed his poems, often about momentous events, on handbills and performed them publicly (often, it is reported, to cat calls and thrown food).  And he collected his verse into volumes including Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Further Poetic Gems, and Yet Further Poetic Gems.  Imagine your correspondent’s surprise and delight to find a learned appreciation of McGonagall’s place in poetic history:

Not unjustly, McGonagall is rarely mentioned without an epithet: some version of “the worst poet in the English language.” And by any reasonable account, any judgment based on the most universally shared values of poetics, prosody, and taste, there is little to admire in McGonagall. The rest of his corpus shares—replicates, really—the faults of “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: its lapses into bathos, its involuted syntactical structures, its rhymes so slanted as to be more or less horizontal.

There have been worse poets, of course, and as such it would be more accurate to describe McGonagall as the worst famous poet in the English language, a testament in part to the man’s powers of self-promotion and the caprices of literary history. But McGonagall’s notoriety still owes much to the singularly strange power of his own badness. There’s something, I think, in poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster”—as well as McGonagall’s many poems on his great themes of death and destruction—that is worth examining; something that might redeem him, ever so slightly, from the annals of amusing semi-obscurity; something unsettling about his ostensibly blinkered artistic vision that might help to account for why he lingers as the patron saint of misbegotten verse…

On William Topaz McGonagall, the worst famous poet in the English language: “The Disaster Poet.”

(Readers will find a selection of McGonagall’s poems here.)

* Umberto Eco

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As we bathe in bathos, we might spare a thought for the decidedly more-accomplished poet (and playwright, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and philosopher) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he died on this date in 1832.  Probably best remembered these days for Faust, he was “the master spirit of the German people,” and, after Napoleon, the leading figure of his age.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Knowledge is not simply another commodity. On the contrary. Knowledge is never used up. It increases by diffusion and grows by dispersion.”*…

 

Bacon

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is a digital reconstruction of the early modern social network that scholars and students from all over the world can collaboratively expand, revise, curate, and critique. Unlike published prose, Six Degrees is extensible, collaborative, and interoperable: extensible in that people and associations can always be added, modified, developed, or, removed; collaborative in that it synthesizes the work of many scholars; interoperable in that new work on the network is put into immediate relation to previously studied relationships.

This website is hosted by Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, and data is available for download both on this site and as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s digital collections

While the new Six Degrees of Francis Bacon interface is designed specifically for researchers of early modern Britain, it also confronts many of the challenges that humanists in general now face in the contexts of data visualization, crowdsourcing, user experience, and graphic design…

The Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project is dedicated primarily to the social networks of early modern Britain, 1500-1700, but in order to support scholars and students of historical social networks more broadly, the project team, with critical support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will soon release freely available website code on Github under an Open Source License for modification and reuse…

A dynamic, collaborative recreating of the connections through which knowledge was shared in early modern England, and a template for digital humanties scholars in other fields/eras– from Project Director Christopher Warren (@ChrisVVarren) and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin

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As we channel E.M. Forster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Oxford mathematician and amateur photographer Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– aka Lewis Carroll– delivered a handwritten and hand-illustrated manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.  The original (on display at the British Library) was the basis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… which was published exactly one year later, on this date in 1865.

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