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Meaning in A Collage: Text Production SOCRMx

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 14 Oct 2017, 09:03

Meaning in Production text in https://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/viewpost.php?post=198558, Open that in new window by clicking here.

It was typical that I not notice that the task I chose did want meaning to be covered – although this was covered in the wording of Option 1 rather than the categories given for write-up.: ‘try to do some analysis of the resulting image(s)’.

 So here is a first of a series (if I ever take it further) of iterative thinking about my collage.

 a)     In both the online screens and the photographed offline location there are phenomena which call themselves ‘rooms’ that can be ‘entered’. The latter is a physical room in which a lone worker sits. The former (on the screen-prints) is of 2 online ‘rooms’ – the first is the ‘Main Meeting Sharing Layout’ (as designated by Adobe Connect [AC]) and the second (under design by the worker) is a ‘Break-Out Rooms layout’. This same layout (Fig 2b) will be demonstrated in the Meeting Main room (following the scenario represented in Fig 2a), and then will be used by three or more sub-groups in their individual ‘Break-Out Rooms’. Both online and offline rooms can be said to be entered by the participant (SB). In what sense are the action of ‘entry’ or the space indicated as ‘room’ related to each other in offline and online space?

b)     The physical room is distinguished by ‘space’ apprehended through various perspectives on its interior distances. These involve perspective, dimensionality and orientation. The camera representing the participant looks up, down (although these latter tend not to be represented in the collage). Each perspective as the cameras ‘sees’ it are influenced by the direction of light that illuminates the ‘room’ and makes its contents visible or obscures them in shadow. Those conditions of light are effected by spatial and temporal distance of the light source (a window to a garden, garage and field beyond and a desk light). The variation in perspectives fragments the whole so that our whole impression of the room is ‘mocked up’ as a whole whilst making clear the partiality of the grasp of each part of the scene to the pauses in the movements of the camera ‘eye’.

a.      Thus note how a central slide which looks down upon the computer desk in front of the computer monitor shows the light reflecting from the white page of the participant’s diary. The proximity of diary and monitor are related to the temporal space that the screen shots represent – they are designs for a session that the participant is committing to hard record in the diary. Likewise, the participant plans for future practice sessions in order to come to terms with how to engage with the transition between Main Meeting and Break-out room (which was revealed as still problematic in this session). For the participant, what is being manipulated on the screen online has a ‘close’ relationship’ to the planning of temporal space in the diary. The screen itself in the shot above is relatively dark – the camera eye responding to the greater light source at a nearby window. We see the break-out room represented on the monitor but that ‘room’ is, in this view, subsumed to the perception of the computer monitor as one of the many objects in the room that might articulate themselves and their relationship to the participant.

b.     Objects in the room and their spatial relationships can tell us something about the consciously and unconsciously displayed aspects of the participant’s identity. The house and garden bespeak something about class and status. However other issues are betrayed by the books on show, the formal placing of wall decorations and the informal placing of objects and mementoes, including postcards and photographs.

c.      Time is central to the last point. Dead parents and pets, lost interests (the occluded Whitman) is displaced by the postcard of the Scottish hunk. The meanings of the placements can’t though be determined without some view of the subjectivity, and its changes that caused their spatial placements over time. Moreover, how much of that placement was planned or ‘accidental’ (if accidents exist in psychology) without involvement of elements of subjectivity including cognition and emotion. But temporal changes that aren’t subjective will also have been determining those placements: change of jobs, friends and the growth and development of children – the pictures above the monitor are by ‘children’ long since entered adulthood. This point about time is true of the book selection which tells of what book survived different course – in Classical Literature, philosophy, art (Van Gogh in presence) and so on. The old Soviet peace poster recalls a past holiday in a long ‘gone’ country as do the Byzantine church models and life and educational certificates

d.     Determining the balance of literary mementoes and ‘scientific’ ones and interpreting what kind of boundaries there may or may not be can be posed by the 2 skeleton models and the brain next to centrally but upwardly placed neuroscience texts.

e.      And then it is clear that the room is not well-tended – bearing sciences of decoration from a past that is not the participants but of the house containing the room, the clutter and over-use of floor-space as a temporal storage during a work phase – showing the badly organised remains of different interests which could be those of the participant or his husband.

f.      IN CONCLUSION, an offline room is complexly organised in terms of both competing and collaborating interests of the participant and their immediate networks. It means emotions, thoughts, memory and forgetting, past and present lives and work roles, institutions and so on. Here the computer keyboard and monitor fit into the meaning of an object required by the participants work (very salient at the moment of the picture) and home-life (eBay stores of books now read and no longer having a space anywhere in the house).

c)     The offline rooms are located in what we might call cyberspace – but the role of metaphor here is important. The Internet does not require the idea of architecture or rooms but hierarchical organisations of education (universities do). I notice with some surprise that the idea of room architecture is employed as a self-labelling metaphor in both rooms and to connect them to each other. The break-out room event is represented symbolically in 2(a) by pictures of two rooms – taken from Google and with no knowledge of what they represent. In part they were chosen so that the institutional language of main meeting and break-out rooms can be visualised and absorbed. However, it was also purposeful to show two different rooms – to emphasise that how digital meeting-space is conceptualised is both arbitrary, can be different for different people in the same space, and the conceptual sequelae of that. Those sequelae are that online spaces can be used in ways that offline spaces cannot – to destabilise space by linking to other places / resources / pages. However:

 i.     It is not true that you can control spaces. It depends on your status in the VLE hierarchy (Host, Presenter, and Participant – each with diminishing powers in that sequence). Since both screenshots are in ‘Host’ view controls that would allow this are visible in the in the top icon bar. However, were this scenario seen by a participant, even avatar participant as I discovered, those controls are diminished such that one follows a top-driven agenda. Hosts can gift and take away privileges to anyone below them, whether these gifts are requested are not – even in Break-Out rooms the agenda remains firmly in the hands of the Host and s (he) can visit each room as s (he) wishes. The breakout room reminds participants in them, by the placing of an icon to the left top corner, the main meeting to which  they will return on the Host’s decision (as do timer and fixed – unchangeable instructions)

ii.     It is clear that Bayne’s view that some metaphors for space here maintain functional fixedness in the educational space – they connate not multiply determined space (as in the physical room collaged) but one determined by ‘convention’ and, of course hierarchical power relations in higher education. I appear to be aiming here to a Baynesian reading as referenced in the earlier blog.



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To Enter a Room: Working with Visuals SOCRMx Edinburgh Exercise

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 15 Nov 2017, 15:58

‘To Enter a Room’: Researching Space & Entry into Space in an exploratory exercise by one OU Tutor preparing an online session on newly introduced software (Adobe Connect).

Steve Bamlett

Image Creation Exercise

To see the Meanings found in Production text described below, see https://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/viewpost.php?post=198642Open that in new window by clicking here.

Self in room

The two images I will be examining in this blog post are on pages 2 & 3.

1.     This is a collage of photographs that aim to show a series of views of the room space taken in a 360o swirl in an office chair. The room space is that in which teaching preparation happens, including representations of offline space and access point to online space at one point in the preparation process (p2).

2.     This is the online space used at this same point, as well as an explanatory online pages (p3).

The exercise took place on Thursday 5th November 2017 at 1419. Steve started work on his preparation. A random time by his husband, Geoff, was chosen from a set of folded identical papers well jumbled. The purpose of this ‘randomisation was so that Steve would not know which window would be open on his computer at the point when the photographic data was collected. Had he known this, a window could have been chosen that illustrated a pre-determined set of meanings (at least potentially)

Text Box: Figure 2: The collage of views taken at 1421 from a single swing on a swivel office chair

Print screens

The Task set & option chosen

Option 1: Collect and analyse images. Take a tour of your workplace or your neighbourhood with a camera, create a collage of images that represent a particular concept or theme you are interested in exploring. Then, write a blog post about your image creation task. Importantly, try to do some analysis of the resulting image(s).

Think about the following questions as a way of structuring your writing:

·        What is depicted in the image(s)?

·        What were you trying to discover by creating your image(s)

·        What did the process of image creation involve?

·        What is not seen, and why?

·        How is meaning being conveyed?

·        With respect to the photographs, how might the image(s) convey something different to your experience of 'being there'

The Task

  • What is depicted in the image(s) – Figs 2 & 3 above?

Fig 2 is an amateur’s attempt to create a ‘joiner’ (a method of assembling overlapping photographs to represent the collision of different perspectives to create a ‘whole’ but fragmented vision). David Hockney (2007:102) argues that such works use theories of seeing originating in in Analytic Cubism under Picasso, Braque & Leger. They show the participant’s spatial environment(s) at 1419 during a preparatory session for an online meeting with a group of 22 Level 4 learners to be held in the following week. The method used is dependent on the viewer’s perspective during a sequence of pauses in one 360o chair swivel the whole picture since, unlike Hockney and others, it also involves views to the back of the participant at 1419 and are represented by a swivel of their frame in the median range of 180o. The technique was intended to picture ‘space’ and ‘room’ (and a ‘room’) following Hockney’s experiments (but by an enthusiast amateur with no artistic pretension) that was, in effect ‘moving the space about’ (Hockney 007:106).

This is a deeply ‘subjective’ act but that in itself is not a problem with the method, since it aims at capturing not measurable space but perceived space, which may be an interaction with both filmic space – all depths are brought to the surface in a photograph and interact with ‘illusory’ effects of light - but also an element of potential psychological space (within any conscious or unconscious decisions made in taking and framing the picture and then selecting it or not for the collage).

The reason for not selecting an image (the repertoire can be seen on the attached file), the participant – analyst believed that these images could not technically fit on the A4 page on which cropped versions of them were mounted. The cropping was guided, it was believed, by an attempt at minimal fragmented continuity of the photographs.

Near the middle of the picture is the computer screen on a computer table, which was the primary focus of this observation.

Figure 2(b) is a print screen of the new layout being created for breakout rooms to be used in the teaching session. These are in incomplete form but are, I think, near, completion, although the Attendee pod will not be present. Note that attendees in this creation mode and in 2(a) are the participant (as Host in control of dependent views available to participants). The participants are all ‘avatars’ of the participant created by successive room entries.

The move to the Breakout rooms in 2(b) when completed will follow the screen in the main meeting at 2a. In each case a photograph representing the parent screen is available in its own pod. The breakout screens will ideally be used for instruction before participants are despatched to breakouts – especially in introducing the drawing / writing icon tool-bar (this is their first tutorial on the first year of AC’s introduction to the OU). I ought to say that the latter sentence indicates my plans if this is possible but I am not totally sure yet – more planning to do.

The screen (2b) at 1419 was in a state of near completion. Note that since this is a HOST screen there are some icons in the top bar not available to learners in the breakout rooms, which allow the creation, control and destruction of this new layout by the Host.

It had been pre-planned, but not with an eye to this project, to work on breakout rooms. I have long puzzled on the spatial / architectural metaphors such as ‘room’ used to describe cyber-space or online space and puzzled about them on my MA in Online & distance education (click to open in new window).

  • What were you trying to discover by creating your image(s)

In my blog (Bamlett 2016) – link immediately above – I quoted a sentence I removed from my EMA (which didn’t do all that well! L cheer upJ). It was:

Lucas & Claxton (2010:99) identify ‘functional fixedness’ as a means of disempowering learners from grasping more than the obvious affordances of resources. They see it as endemic to cultures dependent on teaching-to-the test rather than ‘lifelong-learning’.

I think it is possible that one means of achieving ‘functional fixedness’ is to control the spaces that learners inhabit online and indeed offline. What is space and what is 'a room' or 'room'? How do formal and informal definitions of these terms impact on learners online? How do offline contexts relate to online contexts in the learner’s conceptualisation and use of space? How do ideas of control, order, organization, and conversely, ‘creativity’ or individual difference – perhaps aspects of manipulations of psychological space - interact with other formal and informal spatial definitions?

These questions are all MUCH too large and vaguely posed. Moreover, I probably have no intention of following them through. They are not new questions to the academy though. Collier & Collier (1986: 46ff.) example such questions in ‘visual anthropology’ as early as the 1950s. Indeed Hall’s (1966: 97 words cited ibid: 48) seem to sum up my own study:

People who “live in mess” … are those who fail to classify activities and artefacts according to a uniform, consistent, or predictable spatial plan.’ (Mea culpa!!!!!!)

Together with these are much newer questions in online education: notably those in Bayne (2008:403) who shows how some VLEs strain to ‘render the “unknowability” of digital space knowable … in a way that is heavily coded for stability, authority, and convention, and which limits the sense of the information space as a domain’ from the intrusion of radical alternatives.

There is no doubt that what I want to produce however is only notes towards these issues. My MA in Art History has like ‘la belle dame sans merci’ ‘me in thrall’.

  • What did the process of image creation involve?

I have detailed the process of ‘reconstructing’ images into a ‘production text’ (Fiske 1989 cited Mitchell 2017:92) above at various points. Of course in a write-up I’d go for a fuller Methods section here, included deeper thought on analytic methodologies – my preference though would be a form of multimodal analysis (Bateman 2008, Bezemer & Kress 2016).

  • What is not seen, and why?

The unseen here is vast, even though the method aims to highlight the perspectival nature of concepts of offline space. Indeed an addition to the method may be to ask participants in open interview ‘what do you think is missing from your collage that would help someone to understand your experience better?’ What I think is missing here (given that I did this quickly and as a pilot to see how to refine the instructions to myself) is that psychologically vision is not experienced in this angular way and that gaps in the layout appear not to be meaningful – see, for instance, how Hockney uses gaps – and their absence – in his ‘joiners’. The kinetics and proxemics within the space obviously also have meaning, since movement, even eye saccades, will serve psychologically to make the objects and environment meaningful to the person viewing them. A kind of dance animates meaning and image production. This is even more problematic when you consider how the contents of a screen are seen in interactions with the objects that ‘contain’ it and surround it or are called forth by it. Some pictures could not be integrated in the collage, yet one, showing a pile of papers on the floor, topped by my copy of Coe et. al. (2017) obviously must have an impact on meaning production – its absence being significant.

  • How is meaning being conveyed?

Meanings may be thought to be conventionally attached to objects and artefacts in the ‘room’ (and indeed the room itself, which was obviously once a bedroom – well before we moved here (why do we never decorate?). Meaning will be an interaction between top-down stored associations and bottom-up perceptions. Untangling what we see and what it means is necessarily a subjective and iterative process where meanings are tried out. Such a process will involve deep reflexivity in the process of interpretation and contain information to help the reader find out how interpretations might be motivated by interest (gender, sexuality, class, status and so on). What is discovered might not be unpredictable to the viewer’s expectations as a result. One effect of changing perspectives on a moment is its defamiliarisation, possibly as a result of mental processing involving wider networks of association than those usually employed.

  • With respect to the photographs, how might the image(s) convey something different to your experience of 'being there'

My last sentence in part covers this. However, it is also important to remember that the viewer may already have chosen a ‘meaning’ of their experience prior to having it: in order to meet the ambitions of their academic project or for a more or less conscious reason. Hence devices to increase reflexivity including peer involvement in analysis may well be important.

PS I have my ideas about how, at this point, I interpret my ‘production text’. I’m so pleased we aren’t asked to make this analysis. Happy to discuss though.

What fascinates me are the self-images in the created cyber-rooms shown (especially Fig. 2a). I’d like / not like to think about that!


Bamlett, S. (2016) ‘Education as Space-Travel. Referred to in H817 EMA as Bamlett (2016c)’ in ‘Steve Bamlett’s blog: Available at: https://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/viewpost.php?post=178400

Bateman, J.A. (2008) Mulltimodality and Genre: A Foundation for the Systematic Analysis of Multimodal Documents London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Bayne, S. (2008) ‘Higher education as a visual practice: Seeing through the virtual learning environment’ in Teaching in Higher Education 13 (4) 395-410 DOI: 10.1080/13562510802169665.

Bezemer, J. & Kress, G. (2016) Multimodality, Learning & Communication: A social semiotic frame London, Routledge

Coe, R., Waring, M., Hedges, L.V. & Arthur, J. (Eds) 2nd ed. (2017) Research Methods & Methodologies in Education Los Angeles, Sage.

Collier, J. & Collier, M. (1986) Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.

Hockney, D. (2007) Hockney’s Pictures London, Thames & Hudson.

Lucas, B. & Claxton, G. (2010) New Kinds of Smart: How the Science of Learnable Intelligence is Changing Education Maidenhead, Open University Press / McGraw-Hill Education.

Mitchell, C. ‘Visual methodologies’ in Coe, R., Waring, M., Hedges, L.V. & Arthur, J. (Eds) 2nd ed. Research Methods & Methodologies in Education Los Angeles, Sage. 92 – 99.

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Molly Nesbit v. Foucault. Marx redivivus. A843 Ex. 4.4

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:50

It should be apparent from Nesbit’s title that her essay is, in some sense, a retort to Foucault’s influential ‘What is an author?’ As you read try to keep this dimension in mind. Ask yourself, and include in your notes:

·        How does her account differ from Foucault’s perspective on authorship? To put this another way, what is her dispute with him?

·        How does copyright define biography/authorship? How does it change?

·        Why does Nesbit employ the past tense?

1.     Style is important in comparing this essay to Foucault: ‘The French definition of the author has gone vague …’. We begin with a very relaxed response to what ‘some say’ about an author, including the characterisation of Barthes infamous notion of the ‘death of the author’ – ‘some say corpse’. This rather deliberate undercutting of your antagonist (a kind of reduction ad absurdum’) is as near to the allusiveness of Barthes and Foucault as is gossip to formal debate. It mimes the ‘crudeness’ (229) of which it speaks. This then is stylistic control of a high order, which tries to show that author-functions (the plural is indicative of what is to follow) are implicit in the work but may be multiple, rather than singular. It shifts the question from, in the last analysis, what are authors in relation to a work – even, we might say, somewhat reflexively, the work you are now reading. The use of an authorial ‘we’ in this essay is probably as worthy as study as anything else in it.

The substance of the dispute with Foucault appears on pp. 240ff.and again starts with an allusive wit. In mounting a case that Foucault does not cite law specifically as a means of explaining the socio-cultural function of an author: “to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society” (cited 240). Nesbit riffs, in the stylistic register of the detective –fiction genre. Foucault does not ‘call in the law’ to investigate the death of the author but prefers like any old private dick to do the job himself.

We are left with a deeper critique than we might suppose. Foucault assumes authority in order to question it, and, Nesbit suggests, thus fails to see how, in the end, even his own function is socially inscribed in determining economic practices – market regulation in the name of the law. Author functions are called forth by the relations of supply and demand in the economy: ‘Authors function, whether the state of knowledge recognizes their existence or not.’

This is so beautiful – in turning ‘author function’ into ‘Authors function’ we see that function in relation to the economy of desire (another term for supply & demand). Nesbitt says Foucault fails to note that discourses are not superior to the ‘market economy’ and are indeed their locus of being: indeed ‘this economic condition … defined the author in the first place (240). Author functions are determined (or in Althusser’s use of the Freudian term  ‘overdetermined’) ultimately by the economy in Nesbit, who goes to insist that law is, at some level, the primary political articulation of this changing economic condition. The ‘state of knowledge’ ruled by Foucauldian authority forgets that its ‘state’ is merely transitory and ultimately determined (‘in the last instance’) in determining socio-economic practices such as the market. It is a state therefore in deep political peril.

Nesbit therefore argues, I think, that history, through mutating legal discourse, does not provide an authoritative definition of the author and their work but a determining ‘working definition of art’, which has been ‘as a quantity not a quality, the zero-degree of the law’ (241). Her conviction is that Foucault is blind to this because he is blind to any perception of over-determination, such as is argued by Marxism as a totalising analytic philosophy. As the economic bases of an economy slowly change, so do, by necessity, the laws which maintain stability are slowly changing, either in the direction of the consolidation of notions of individual ownership of intellectual property or capital (235) to one where capital is aggregated from interest groups working in uneasy collaboration (in the present day [257]). In this present context copyright law is barely able to form a coherent statement, not least about what an author is. What I think is suggested here is that the author is seen as a conflicted concept at present and that, it is in this conflict that there is hope of beneficial historical change, in which cultures differentiate in the very act of coming together (257). This provides a source of postmodern change not available to the more structuralist theories of Althusser.

My concern here is that Nesbit rather reifies the law and its ability to speak in a unitary voice. The law speaks only at the moment of its interpretation (in court) and otherwise lives in an interpretive vacuum, using only tools enabling its texts to be read and these in themselves being largely past interpretive moments (the role of legal precedents). Law in practice is often defined by discourses other than itself – including professional discourses. If we fail to see that, we fail to see how a liberatory law for those with queried mental capacity in 2005 has become a law that articulates mainly how ‘deprivation of liberty’; can be justified – following revisions in 2010.


2.     Copyright defines biography’s relationship to authorship by ‘flattening’ any differentiations one might want to make between authors’ biographies which other discourses, such as those of connoisseurship: high art, lower art and non-art; genius or non-genius; or good art & bad art. It reduces authorial function to a set of rights ‘to a cultural space over which he or she may range and work’ (230).Thus photography is defined not by its concomitant devices (such as the camera) but by the photographer’s ‘work’ understood as his or her ‘property’. (237). This could be extended since Nesbit here falsely names the camera device as the main progenitor of photography as an art, whereas it was in fact the means of imprinting durable images produced within the camera. There remains a lively debate about the role of the camera in visual art since Brunelleschi, Caravaggio and Vermeer. This debate however would perhaps not shake Nesbit’s main point. The artist’s ‘eye’, ‘hand’ and their especial interaction remained a means of enforcing hierarchical distinctions, since it was conceptualised as a valorised and distinct type of interaction through virtue of nature, nurture or both.

3.     Nesbit employs the past tense for a number of reasons I think.

§  First it acts as if the author, being dead according to Barthes, can only be a past phenomenon. In this sense ‘was’ is past perfect in tense.

§  Second the ‘was’ might be a past imperfect tense. In this sense it does not ask what was the author when it existed but what was the author in the past compared to what the author is now and will be in the future – it was once that but it now is … and may become … (re-establishing the dynamic dialectic of history in Marx over Foucault’s archaeological metaphor for it.

§  It riffs on Foucault’s title. Foucault says what ‘is’ an author because he remains that type of author established by the Old law (as, more tragically, does Barthes). He does not know that he sings of his own obsolescence – believing that the hall of discourses (the university) trumps historical changes in the economy and the new law that will articulate it. Atget’s and Duchamp’s ‘common-sense’ appreciation of art is favoured over theirs as more historically accurate, timely and sighted out of the old writer’s ‘blind spots’. It establishes a new wave of Marxist cultural analysis: Lyotard to Nesbit.

That’s me, done though.


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Copyright law and genius in France 1793. A843 Ex 4.3.1

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 3 Oct 2017, 08:33

Consider the following extract from Lakanal’s report on the French copyright law of 1793 and try to identify the central concepts he uses to argue for special rights for authors:

Of all properties, the most incontestable, the one whose increase is in no way injurious to Republican equality and which gives no offence to liberty, is undeniably the property of works of genius; it is if anything surprising that it should have proved necessary to recognize this property and to secure its free exercise by a positive law, and that a great Revolution like ours should have been required to return us, in this as in so many other matters, to the simplest elements of common justice.

Genius fashions in silence a work which pushes back the boundaries of human knowledge: instantly, literary pirates seize it, and the author must pass into immortality only through the horrors of poverty.

Ah! What of his children …? Citizens, the lineage of the great Corneille sputtered out in indigence!

Since printing is the only means whereby the author may make useful exercise of his property, the fact of being printed alone cannot make an author’s works public property, at least not in the way that the literary buccaneers understand; for if it were so, it follows that the author would be unable to make use of his property without losing it in the same moment.

What a cruel fate for a man of genius, who has dedicated his waking hours to the instruction of his fellow citizens, to receive only a sterile glory, and to be unable to claim the legitimate reward of such noble labour.

It is after careful deliberation that this Committee advises you to create dedicated legislative provisions which will form, in a sense, the Declaration of the Rights of Genius.

(Lakanal, 2008 [1793], p. 176)

The passage works by setting up an assumption that property and capital accumulated by certain individuals may be the source of significant inequality (and, unsaid) oppression). In a sense, that is the meaning (at this time at least) of the revolution – in that it challenges the control of land, objects and more fluid property by a minority – those who call themselves the ‘best’;  the aristocracy. Aristocracies may be set up by accumulation of property in the hands of a few, but the French Revolution here does not declare that property is itself a problematic category: where ‘all property is theft’, Instead it implicitly declaims that property ownership be determined according to the ‘simplest elements of common justice’.

This belief in property rights as inalienable rights will become the trademark of bourgeois revolution. It institutes itself on a belief in unequal distribution of talents, founded on the example of ‘genius’. Genius is never equally distributed – if it were it could not be recognised as such and there would be no reason to separate our feelings about the fate of Corneille’s children from those of the children of every (wo) man. And if our belief that intellectual property is the ‘most incontestable’ can only be a step away from a New-Right justification that property itself is not the source of inequality rather the natural and qualities of its holders.

The passage is a defence of ownership in its crudest form and applying to objects that are unseen. A printed work may be an object that can enter the free market but its contents represent that which naturally belongs to the ‘author-function’ – that work which alienates (in silence) the author’s internal property and makes  it appropriable unless its ownership be legally protected as a ‘right’. If we believe in the ‘Rights of Man’ (sic) then (assuming that only some men are genii) the rights of genius are also an obvious corollary of those rights and we are a step away from copyright law.

We have reinstituted a kind of aristocracy in the name of equality – a contradiction worthy of a true bourgeois revolution. Such a view must be music to a ‘genius’ like Marat or David.

An aristocracy of Nature. The masturbatory image of Corneille sputtering out his semen as waste is at its root – a right of man indeed. What we requite is a coming together of the law (legitimacy), the recognition of ‘natural’ inequalities of mental capital as an incontestable basis for seeing labour in acts of mental control in a recognition of inequality as the basis of an ordered society – at least of bourgeois society. This is the tragedy of nineteenth century France. The peasants die for a fraternity of capitalists (come back Zola – all is forgiven – even what you did to Cezanne!).

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Introduction: Me and research methods: Initial blog for EDX SocRMx Blog

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 2 Oct 2017, 16:45

· What kind of topics are you interested in researching?

 As far practical research in the world of work, that is no longer an aspiration for me. However, my residual interests in the nature of research into health and social care remains, even though I never during my career found a context of research in this area that focused on a multi-perspectival approach to the psycho-social world that I once felt to be such an urgent need. The work I do part time (AL at the OU) that introduces methods remains either thin (at undergraduate level) or focused on quantitative approaches that actively excludes qualitative work at any depth (in conceptualising data collection and analysis). I teach a course on Mental Health (aimed at part at nursing and social work trainees) that virtually invalidates the kind of qualitative analysis, which I find most useful as a mental health practitioner, survivor or learner.

My present involvement in study then is mainly on an MA on Art History, which does at least raise issues fundamental to my interests – such as the role of multimodality in teaching, learning and research. In the end then I plump for that as my main interest. As you will see below, I kind of resist the ‘research question’ approach because I think my current interests are fulfilled by the speculative, intuitive and reflective examination of the limits of research for my needs were I ever to try and realise them.

· What initial research questions might be starting to emerge for you?


How can multimodal input into teaching and learning be used to engage, motivate and raise expectations of ‘self’ and the ability of practitioners to practice with a more critical sense of what evidence is important in work with people who identify as having mental health problems?

I understand that this is too large, but I am not at the point of knowing how to ask the researchable questions, which might evaluate current or past implementations of multimodality in teaching or learning, as well as attempting trials of newer interventions.

In a sense I do trial and error (with safeguards) in my present work as a teacher in this vaguely conceptualised direction (and I still hope to be motivated by some external prod to a clear conception of what I want to give as a teacher). How else can one teach effectively & develop as a teacher though without some kind of continual reflexive self-examination.

· What are you interested in researching - people, groups, communities, documents, images, organisations?


Again all of these objects (and subjects captured through ‘ethno-methodological method and analysis) of research are important to me. The research should eventually focus on how these foci of interest interact with each other in day-to-day teaching situations in HE.

 An example of small scale thinking I did on using multiple perspectives in qualitative research analysis in the language of assessment (abandoned as unworkable) is this old blog. (click to open in new window). When I look at it now it seems confused but it does at least say that what I want is some approach that integrates multiple inputs.

In the end, my interest remains speculative and reflective and this may be because I have personally ‘sort of’ resigned out of the practical issues. But the interest remains because I find ‘research’ so often used to justify a certain approach to subject matter that I can’t quite feel comfortable with. I think this is painfully evident in this blog ‘blog-blasted from the past) - (click to open in new window).

 · Do you have an initial ideas for the kinds of methods that might help you to gather useful knowledge in your area of interest?


Ethnomethodology that looks from within learner and teacher communities at perceptions of the barriers and commonalities that arise in performing the identities that inscribed learner & teacher roles prescribe. How deterministic are these roles? Can they be explored in terms of performative ambivalences that threaten ‘stable’ power relations? Is that a worthwhile aim?

· What initial questions do you have about those methods? What don't you understand yet?


To the last part, there is quite a lot I don’t understand. In many ways, I will learn whether my interest is in pursuing ‘research methods’ or whether it is purely speculatively epistemological and based on the lived experience of epistemological conflict in the contemporary institution of HE.

·  Do you perceive any potential challenges in your initial ideas: either practical challenges, such as gaining access to the area you want to research, or the time it might take to gather data; or conceptual challenges; such as how the method you are interested in can produce 'facts', 'truths', or 'valuable knowledge' in your chosen area?

Many. This seems the base problem for me and stymies me, at the moment, from conceptualising a research role for myself and which indeed was a barrier to me taking on an Ed.D at this time as the first step in this process.

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Caravaggio as a comparative test-case A843 Ex. 3.6.2

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:51

·        What are the main points Sohm is trying to make about biographies of Caravaggio?

·        How is his case similar to or different from that of Raphael?

I have never understood the point of reading sections of a paper, especially when directed to comment upon issues related to the theme of the paper itself, although I warmly recognise that this is an attempt to lessen the learner workload and therefore has advantages. Hence, this answer is based on a quick reading of the whole paper. I do not yet know whether I will want though to confine the answer to the introduction of it. (And still don't know after finishing it thus far - as far as I want to go).

·        The main points are:

o   The function of achieving readable and engaging narratives elides or possibly (in the biopic) over-rides the function of biography as an objective historical account.

§  This may extend to using the narrative to make of the life, death and intervening events a meaningful pattern imposed on it by the perception of the artist’s life as a whole.

§  The art itself is seen not only as product of one single individuated ‘ life’ but also as the limiting case for the authenticity of our reading of one or more artworks (and indeed, sometimes the defining character of the artwork as a whole oeuvre.

o   Kris & Kurz introduced a formal notion of the function of ‘early modern’ biography to articulate the meanings of an art work, and its place in an oeuvre, in terms of a ‘higher truth’ (449). Narrative in the form of iconic myth becomes the locus of that meaning. This is especially true of ‘death’ stories, which retrospectively shape the meanings of earlier artworks.

o   If biography can shape interpretation of paintings, the corollary is also true (459). This is in past a function of the function of language to convey multiple meanings simultaneously, and this is particularly true of literary language (450). A retold life event can be treated as a form of allegoreisis.[i]

o   The allegorical meanings of an artwork, read as a combination of the multimodal intertextuality of biography and work, can be the substantive evidence used to critique:

§  The artwork OR oeuvre;

§  The artist per se – including their socio-cultural emplacement in history.

§  The culture itself, which the art is used to articulate (modern or contemporary art for instance cp. Tracey Emin author-function.

o   A Death Scene is the key to ultimate truths. This is the case for a number of types of biography, even those making ‘truth claims’ (451).

o   The meaning attained in a review of both life can be an iconic allegory: Raphael as Christ, Michelangelo as Marsyas, and Caravaggio as Judas Iscariot (452).

o   Those iconic meanings are embedded in visual art by manipulations of facial expression, properties, costume and adornment. However, from the evidence (452f.) I would also add relationship to the artist’s formal framing devices). We could include Poussin in this.

o   In Caravaggio meaning, description and allegorical interpretation attach to notions of darkness, in relation to morality, nature and formal tenebrism – shadowing, chiaroscuro. This can verge to the notion of Caravaggio as anti-Christ (or anti-artist) in some particularly class-bound accounts.

o   In particular it can characterise artists who supplant pursuit of the Platonic Idea for material objects in Nature. Including fleshly ones, but chiefly monetary reward or its commodification in possessions.

I would caution here that ‘allegory’ is the Renaissance (as inherited through The Neo-Platonist revival, was complex. In England, for instance, Spenser speaks of his Faerie Queene as a ‘continuous allegory or darke conceite’ (sic.). Here ‘dark’ mirrors 1 Corinthians 13 about the sublunary world as a place in which we see ‘as in glass darkly’. We can’t confront then uses of darkness in Renaissance & 17th century art as baldly as this paper does. To be ‘dark’ is to secrete one’s meaning. This does not always invalidate it – it often purports to do the opposite.

  • Raphael is said to be presented as Christ. I agree in as far as we read that identification as allegorical – a function of meaning complication. In both cases Icarus myths are used (see Castiglione’s faux-Raphael) to show attempts to over-reach in an assault on the Sun (like Marsyas with Apollo, Icarus with Apollo in his natural light). Of course, though rooted in similar meanings, they can act differently. Thus Caravaggio is Icarus who is punished by the sun (Apollo) for too much savouring the “cellars without too much sunlight” and for covering up ‘the difficult parts of art’. (458)

Darkness in Caravaggio is purported to allegorically point to his love of the lowly, a baseness and lack of right learning that even elevation to the Knights of Malta cannot hide (458). The underlying myth here is of the foundling (as found in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Tempest for instance – very much plays about art as noble or base). Stolen from Court, the true noble will show himself so, even though ‘basely’ brought up. Likewise darkness is a space with different meanings – sinister, psychological (mad isolation), social as well as theological or philosophical. (458).

In both cases the artists are described as ‘self-fashioning (459)’ (using Greenblatt’s terminology), we cannot assume that Caravaggio fashioned a dark, demented and fragmented self-image for the reasons given by his biographers. For a modern reading, see Schama’s The Power of Art. Nevertheless both detractors and emulators accept that C self-consciously evidences the phrase, ‘every painter paints himself’. This can be used to look at not only subject-matter, and the artist’s relationship to subject-matter, but also technique – chiaroscuro of course but also naturalism and the means used to achieve stylistic individuality. Detractors speak of Caravaggio ‘driven’ by a malign or disordered psychology to ‘paint his own ugliness’. But I wonder – Caravaggio is, for me the master of the ‘dark conceit’ – the invitation to seek meaning at a number of different levels, or to speak more contemporaneously, through a number of possible conflicting discourses.

[i] Mirriam Webster definition of allegoresis: the interpretation of written, oral, or artistic expression as allegory.

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Raphael in search of the 'best' in life & art. A843 Ex. 3.5.2

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…, let me start by saying that to recognize true perfection is so difficult as to be almost impossible; and this because of the way opinions vary. …. Still, I do think there is a perfection for everything, even though it may be concealed, and I think that this perfection can be determined through informed and reasoned argument. And since, as I have said, the truth is often concealed and I do not claim to be informed, …I can … only approve what seems to my limited judgement to be nearest to what is correct; and you can follow my judgement if it seems good, or keep to your own if it differs. Nor shall I argue that mine is better than yours, for not only can you think one thing and I another but I myself can think one thing at one time and something else another time. (Castiglione (1976: 53f.)


Knowing where to start can be difficult, as Castiglione’s character, the Count, admits. It is a matter of judgement. Then, isn’t everything, says the Count in the same breath. This passage, which somehow reminds me of Wittgenstein, is actually about what constitutes judgement of what is good and best in a thing, action or person. It rests on an as yet unresolved dialectic – in a sublunary world we might intuit ‘perfection’ but never know properly that it is ‘perfection’, mired between different and varying (diachronically and synchronically) ‘opinions of how such perfection be adjudged. Judgement is a slippery thing. This is Castiglione at his most playful best posing problems of judgement and authority. The Count is talking about perfection in a ‘courtier’.  We are posed by opinions about what is judged to be perfection in an artist.

This task looks at 2 opinions of what constitutes an artist’s achievement.

(1)    Raphael doesn’t in a sense, in a private family letter not purposed for sharing beyond that family raise the issue of perfection in the artist per se. He is concerned to show his family that he has achieved a certain status and that status (and its surrounding circumstances) have changed since they last heard of him. The change that constitutes achievement is expressed in the following series, with more than a hint in the ordering what Raphael thinks will most be adjudged success by his current audience: first, monetary wealth, then a role with status (and that adjudged by income) and then a hint of the stability of both status and income. Raphael ‘making it’ as an artist, or at least so he thinks his family will judge, is Raphael with money and promise of more to come. Of course Raphael also associates these things with ‘honour’ that is personal but also shared with the family to which he writes and the city where they live and he originated. But that ‘honour’ is quantified in money and whose value is evidenced in those quantities. Of course, this witty letter is an act of reassurance to his family and a bolster to their faith in them and their belief that he continues to think of them, despite not writing. The final joke is telling. Yes, this could be Raphael but is Raphael in the subject position of the young man who, having left home, must prove he is making good. He does not mention the aesthetic value of his art but is this because he is not thinking of it OR that he knows (in as far as he can judge) that that will not be uppermost in the minds of his audience. We need to remember that all communication will, as I think Castiglione, suggests above will take on the values of the current interaction in assessing what matters.

(2)    The Subject position of the Raphael invented by Castiglione (I'll call if Faux-Raphael) is precisely a man self-conscious that judgements differ in our world and that a better judgement is hard to assess or find. Hence, Faux-Raphael says of the ‘designs’ he sends to Castiglione that they have been judged as good in themselves, but notes that judgement may in itself be compromised in quality and sincerity. This mock letter then is a much more obvious illustration of the dilemma expressed dialectically in The Courtier.

In that search for knowledge of what constitutes ‘perfection’ in art faux-Raphael seeks models in the reconstruction of buried antiquity, critical authority of a master (Vitruvius) but neither offer ‘all that I need’. What this suggests is that perfection is an aspiration rather than an achieved phenomenon and that searching it is dangerous and potentially fatal (the point of the use of the Icarus myth here – to fly too near to the sun of perfection may end by drowning in a sea of undifferentiated mutability.

This piece is full of humour about dangerous death: does, for instance, the original Italian allow you to read the joke in English that shows that the ‘collapse’ of a career can be like being buried under the weight of a falling St. Peter’s. The metaphors of falling and rising he are contiguous – collapsing like a building, raising like Icarus to show that the issue of social reputation too is a dangerous area – seeking perfection may fall foul of the fact that there are too many opinions of what perfection might be – and some of them, not that well informed (even if it be one of successive Popes, as both Raphael and Michelangelo were to find).

The meat of this passage is very playful but central to Castiglione’s philosophy (perhaps I think of him as a precursor to Wittgenstein). A perfect woman cannot be fairly judged – note how Castiglione plays (heterosexual men will be heterosexual men) on Raphael’s well known uxorious life – without being found in a wide trial amongst a very large sample of women. Just as he submits his ‘designs’ to what he supposes is the better judgement (than his own, The Poe or the Roman intelligentsia) of Castiglione at the opening of the letter, at the end, he invites Castiglione in a similar bed-hopping hunt for the ‘best’ in ‘beautiful women’. This is more than a mere joke, it dramatizes the problem in the Courtier – we believe that ‘perfection’ exists but tastes so vary that we cannot attest to perfection without trial of it. At this point, it may no longer be see-able as ‘perfection’. This is the same dilemma we find in Milton’s Comus. Perfection survives not in realised body but in an imagined one that is desired but never caught (witness Galatea in flight in her scallop shell – the scallop is the very icon of eternal perfection). It is really ‘a certain Idea that comes to my mind’. Such intuitions might though actually BE the road to Perfection. Castiglione fades into Plato or, at least, the ancient Neo-Platonic school Castiglione favoured.

Castiglione, B. (1976) (Trans Bull, G.) The Courtier London, Penguin Books.

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Raphael into Castiglione and vice-versa: A843 Ex. 3.5.1

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Castiglione graphic analysis A843

Consider Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione in the Louvre (Figure 3.7), asking what it reveals about the sitter and artist.

·        How is the portrait composed?

·        How would you describe the relationship between sitter, artist and spectator that it sets up?


I have attempted in the Figure above to use rough geometric shapes to describe the composition and suggest the almost axial centrality of the central figure and the distribution within that figure of the volumes suggested. I have described it as almost like a set of notional triangles that work in interaction to focus the face of the sitter, and render it the compelling focus of a viewer’s attention.

This attention I do not equate with that of the artist since the latter employs a number of devices that get noticed in the picture only as a function of time and attentive looking. Whilst a viewer first notices the humanity of the central figure in its face and latterly hands (almost occluded by the apparent arbitrary placement of the bottom marginal line of the whole). We definitely start with the face. This is in part because that feature (or set of features seems almost islanded in volumes of clothes stuffs, whose size is emphasised and forms the width of the picture frame as a whole.

Colour is important here. The choice of soft dark colours which animate merely by being folded in ways that distribute light as the main source of their tonal variation. Colour in the face contrasts pallor with effects that appear to emerge from within the figure to interact with light – the blush like central colouration of the centre face reflected in those prominent lips.

Yet Raphael does not centre Castiglione on the picture plane itself. The torque of his body, twisted so his right side moves beyond the picture plane and leaves an important gap of space on the left (viewer’s left) of the picture. That emphasis on space creates the sense of necessary distance that modifies our human closeness to this man. It is as if Raphael reserves him slightly for himself by this compositional device. Likewise the torque of the body emerges, as viewers concentrate on that ideally placed eye level as a means of showing Castiglione’s eyes as fundamentally indirect in their imagined attention. While the iris has moved to retain an appearance of centrality (given the turn of the body), the pupil focuses above rather than on the viewer. The sitter seems both to see you and not see you.

Moreover, the embodied turn emphasises one ear, such that Castiglione is seen as both a person who sees and hears – as himself attentive (as someone who takes in the world rather than projects himself into the world. This is emphasised to me too by those reticent hands. Raphael composes the picture so that they just appear above some arbitrary line, as if caught by accident. How different from earlier Renaissance uses of a balcony to emphasise the resting place of hands. These hands are tense and enfolded, appearing to move into themselves. To me they imply a tension moving against and into the body of the man, again emphasising interiority – areas of something unknown and hence forever distant from the viewer.

This enfolding is mirrored in the clothing, which although asserting boldly (if also in a muted fashion) colour, volume, decoration and both social & financial value emphasise the recesses of shadow and a folding in of light to a darker interior. Castiglione’s outline is less prominent against the shadowed background to our right.

Castiglione is clearly a man who both values art and manifests that value in the hidden features of that costume, otherwise made beautiful by light. The gem on his hat mirrors the expressive and open shape of its highs and resides (unobtrusively just above them). Likewise the woven refinements of his garments almost hide – that gold button, the line of woven patterns above them in the base of the inverted triangle the button proposes, and the apex of the triangle in the woven insignia at the centre of his headpiece. This is most reticent – beauty and taste shown nonchalantly (Bull’s translation of Castiglione’s (1976:67) term sprezzatura) _ Wikipedia opens in new window (use with caution).

I have discovered a universal rule which seems to apply more than any other in all human actions or words: namely, to steer away from affectation at all costs, as if it were a rough and dangerous reef, and (to use a novel word for it) to practise in all things a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless. … So we can truthfully say that true art is what does not seem to be art: and the most important thing is to conceal it …

I would say that this is precisely about the relationship between Castiglione, Raphael and his viewers. What we see conceals the art of both men only to blazon that art more in the paintings (and the philosopher’s) deeper, richer truer and well-educated art. In fact I would say the picture constructs art as riches – praises the luxury of the prince and entourage whilst it decries and vulgar show of that richness. However, show there must be or there would be no art alone.

Sitter and artist display not only exterior but interior riches (those of deep character so loved of the period). The viewer will see these if they can from a distance as an admirer but not as an equal

That’s about as much as I can think of – now to the revealed discussion.

All the best


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Christ (?) in Raphael’s Self-Portrait: A843 Ex. 3.4.2

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Consider the self-portrait of Raphael (Figure 3.6). What does it reveal about the artist’s identity? What is the relationship between Raphael and the other sitter, and what does it seem to tell us about Raphael’s persona? Note that the second sitter’s identity is not known, despite much speculation by art historians.

Raphael & friend

acheiropoieton’, an image made ‘without human hands’. : The look and hands of Raphael

This may turn into a small essay. Why? Because I desperately want to resist the idea that Raphael paints himself as Christ. In as far as he is like Christ, I believe the simile is merely and self-consciously rhetorical and communicates complexly. This is very much a ‘thing’ of mine, perhaps an obsession and, in this sense, this can never aim to be an essay in miniature. However, I do not see any identification with Christ as necessitated in this or other self-portraits of Raphael. If it is there at all, it is only in terms of an analogical allegory of Christ’s mission (the way, the truth and the life) in that of the artist. Concentration on the facial appearance seems to me less important (although possibly there I admit) since there is no pressure – in our portrait - on the characterisation of Christ as ‘type’; even if a humanist type such as is explored rather thinly by Thomas (1979) and more deeply in Kemp’s (2012:35ff.) treatment of Leonardo’s portrait of the saviour.

Nevertheless the lively debate in Christian thinking on the nature of images of the divine is important. It matters that the ‘Veronica’ (as Dante calls it) is the imprint of the real body of Christ precisely because it both (a) differentiates the image of Christ from a ‘graven image’ & (b) takes away the impurity implied by the fact that the divine might need human ‘hands’ to represent itself as an idea. However, the relationship between Raphael and his ‘friend’ here is clearly mediated in terms of what we see in the hands of the two participants. Raphael’s hand sits at rest on his friend’s shoulder in total relaxation from labour (manual labour characteristically) whilst the friend’s hand works to express intention and purposive meaning. If feels to me to point in the index out of the picture plane – a point that is essential to readings of this picture I’ve encountered. And the friend’s hand co-operates with his head and face, one attempting to direct, in its backward glance, the gaze of Raphael towards that place where he wants it to be.

That both hand and face can be read together as index of interaction and intentionality (or its lack) is common in Raphael I think. The very opposite being the sketch of ‘A battle of nudes (The Siege of Perugia)’ where hands and gaze express committed action and mental intention in total concord, creating a directed flow in the viewer’s gaze on them towards the right edge of that drawing (NGS 1994, Item 19  - not pictured).

SodomaThere is as a result of the focus towards dramatic action in the latter a great stress on human body and art that is of the body. In contrast, all of Raphael’s known (or suspected) portraits (Thoenes 2016, 7ff) show Raphael as merely a head without active hands. The gaze of that head is never on the action of the picture but towards the viewer, implying a relationship of minds engaged in looking (and thus valorising looking as an act) rather than an active physical or even mortal relationship. This was perhaps noticed by Raimondi as noticed both by Thoenes above and Whistler (2017) in her essay on the importance of ‘hands’ in Raphael. For me it is the relationship between head and hand that is important here. That is because desegno in Vasari and others was both a matter of what happens in an artist’s head when s(he) plans and their hands when they draw. Yet there is something less than perfect, less than ideationally divine. About the reliance on manual labour. It is for this reason that Raphael appoints himself as of the gaze and the head (looking out to an unperceived and therefore potentially eternal viewer) rather than to any other mere actor on or behind the picture plane. We see this in our picture but also in the School of Athens.

In the detail above Sodoma is veiled and darkened by his attention to other artists, whilst the light on Raphael’s face emphasises a gaze that goes beyond Sodoma or Pinturicchio to us – his repeating viewers and requests a meeting of minds. And not because he is isolated (spiritually at least) here. Look at the figure left who Goffen (2002:222) insists is both Michelangelesque and perhaps Michelangelo himself, whose gaze is obscured and shadowed, with his hand in restless action.


The same is true of the ‘The Expulsion of Heliodorus’, (Theones 2016:10 - not pictured) where Raphael bears a weight but concentrates attention on the gaze as if the work of the hand were as nothing, and the disputed Uffizi self-portrait (not pictured).

Now this has something to do with divinity but it also has relation to the relative importance of manual dexterity and work compared to the role of the head – in design / desegno.

Raphael is building a characterisation of the artist I’m arguing that might use ‘godhead’ as one of its analogies but not merely in terms of appearance. The Godhead is more impressive when it plans than it executes (as for living our assistants can do this for us). Although Raphael is not a mere aristocrat as that analogy with the Duchess of Windsor suggests. He values the products of his hand and the action of hands (perhaps in interaction they are genuinely potentially one – hence the beauty of the painting).

Look for instance at the telling drawing of unconnected (if that ever can be true) of apostolic head and hands in Catalogue item 120 (Whistler & Thomas 2017: 246f.) In our beautiful painting of two men, the gaze which looks out and beyond mere relationship in real time is valued in relationship to that which acts out of the picture. Here there may be a Christ analogy. No-one can ever know what it is that is pointed towards. It could be the artist’s mirror or a third person who WAS there. Belting (2013; 133ff) argues that the two point to the picture from whose completion Raphael and sitter are resting and showing by the compared attitudes and appearances the difference between how art might and must capture social masks but also the living face in the moment of the ‘speech act’. But much must be assumed in this reading. But then that is the case in any reading. That is why I think Raphael inevitably engages us as viewers, asking for his picture’s completion in that relationship of ideas. Now a Christ analogy might be useful here. Raphael’s mission to his friend may be like that of Christ – to ask his disciple or mentee to see the ‘way, the truth and the life’ he must lead – with all the pain therein. However, I see that as one of many possibilities. The painting’s meaning for me is overdetermined by Raphael’s mentation within of the meaning of art for the true artist, where immortality and divinity appear in a more mortal light – all in war with time (a true Renaissance theme and in Edmund Spenser as much as Raphael).


Belting, H. (2013) Face and Mask Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press.

Goffen, R. (2002) Renaissance Rivals New Haven and London, Yale University Press

Kemp, M. (2012) Christ to Coke Oxford, Oxford University Press

NGS (National Galleries of Scotland) (1994) Raphael: In Search of Perfection Edinburgh, NGS.

Thoenes, C. (2016) Raphael Cologne, Taschen.

Thomas, D. (1979) The Face of Christ London, Hamlyn

Whistler, C. (2017) ‘Raphael’s Hands’ in Whistler, C. & Thomas, B. (eds.) Raphael: The Drawings Oxford, Ashmolean Museum Oxford University.

Whistler, C. & Thomas, B. (eds.) (2017) Raphael: The Drawings Oxford, Ashmolean Museum Oxford University.

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Characteristics of depictions of Raphael’s death A843 Exercise 3.3.1

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 28 Sep 2017, 08:32

Consider the common themes in the Vasari extracts and the 4 descriptions from contemporary writing.

I have extended this task to include Vasari because I thought that would help me more. I find the task as set rather leading since it presumes the identity as Christ that might be being built around Raphael’s person in all the accounts, although I have yet to read the discussion. Having read them again and again, I do not find clear evidence of such an identification in the 4 accounts exactly contemporary to the death, other than might be prefigured in the notion of Christ as the new Adam (as humanity transfigured by His redemptive function).

In Vasari however there seems to be a daring identification of Raphael as an exemplum of ‘possessors of rare and numerous gifts’ as one of the ‘mortal gods’. Hedged around with the signs that this might be blasphemous since Christ is as near as Christianity gets to a ‘mortal god’ (a god that can die), we still have to remember that Vasari cannot be evoking Christ as such because Christ is not one of many ‘mortal gods’ in Christianity. And then the extract offered leaves out the sentence qualifying the possible blasphemy. That continuation makes it clear that the immortality secured by Raphael (and his like) is because of the endurable remnants of himself that he (and they) have left on earth as support to his ‘honoured name’. Is it not possible then that this discourse is not about the artist as immortal but the endurance through time of his works (including Art)? I think such an interpretation possible, even in Vasari.

Of course Vasari makes this clear in his account of the Transfiguration. Our translation calls this picture ‘divine’ but both the Penguin and Oxford Classics translation prefer ‘inspired’ for this term. We need the Renaissance Italian, but even then we might fail to understand the nuance of the term, so distant is that version of it from even contemporary Italian. I am pretty certain however, that though Raphael may be said to be like Christ, he is not identified with Him but is instead shown to be enduring because he raises Art to the level of the comprehension of the divine and the godly in the Christian Trinity:

‘with His arms outstretched and His head raised, appears to reveal the Divine essence and nature of all the Three Persons united and concentrated in Himself by the perfect art of Raffaelo, …’

The role of Art here is to ally itself with Godhead. It is not the role of Raphael. That, at least, would be my reading. I think this is evident too in Castiglione’s account of Raphael who insists that Raphael is not merely a great artist or is so only because he facilitates a revelation of what Art can and ought to be doing (Castiglione / Bull 1976: 98f.).

To be clear about the consequences of this, the treatment of death (the sure sign of mortality) in a ‘Life’ story is clearly crucial. I think Vasari makes it clear that Raphael is not the new but the old Adam – a man who chooses violent excess and secrecy in his sexual life is not Christ. He fears even to admit his own humanity – a very UnChristlike thing – until he must confess in his last office. He is a ‘good Christian’ at the end but not Christ and he dies as a Christian must, without, at and up to this time, rebirth. However he pays witness to the reborn Christ through his ‘perfect Art’ as we have seen. His soul’s immortality in heaven is at the end compared not with his person but with that with which ‘he embellished the world’.

Although this may seem like nit-picking, I think it important that the myth of Raphael’s perfection is seen not, by his contemporaries, as like Christ but in using himself and his art in that service. Too like mortal men who only act properly when they know how to act, Raphael’s secrecy and excess (however much Vasari admires that) was the source of his death, which proves him mortal, whilst allowing art the chance still of immortality – enduringness beyond death. Remember that Vasari does not see redemption of sin in Raphael’s story but only the ability of art to ‘efface any vice, however hideous, and any blot, were it ever so great.’ That claim does not elevate Raphael into the superhuman but rather forgives him for his humanity.

So, if we turn to the very contemporary accounts, I find little that makes him Christ-like. I sneaked a peek at the account that follows this exercise and find nothing in this extract from Lippomani (10 April) that justifies the construction of the extrapolation – ‘as if God planned it this way’. Maybe the justification for this reading is in the hidden discussion. I’ll see. There is the potential of seeing Raphael as Christ in Pico’s (7 April) letter that states without doubt that ‘ The heavens sent warning’, but even then we may not be reading the tone of this statement correctly. After all, Pico, a courtier, is writing (with ‘wit’ – which means with the use of rhetorical figures - as the Renaissance courtier must) to the Duchess herself. Both would use language that emphasises and elevates art. What our lives Raphael is not a reborn self but a ‘second life’ that is equated with Fame. I think Sir Walter Raleigh would have known how to read this – is it formal hyperbole – in ways we do not.

As for the worldly Michiel (6 April) in private to his diary he notes only the importance of Raphael in terms of his wealth and his scholarship (without even mentioning his Art). He laments his unfinished scholarly tome on Rome rather than the promise of future Art. Of course, by the 11 April and writing to a fellow courtier, he has heard the rumour (he says it as that) of the heaven-sent warnings but makes sure we understand that these may really be more to do with ‘the weight of the porticoes on the door’ – again with great weight. What will immortalise Raphael, as Castiglione, would have understood is the transfiguration of his reputation into art – ‘moving and perpetual compositions’ says he wittily and perhaps not a little sarcastically (possibly).

So my account does not seem what is prefigured for me in this task but I’ll now see by looking at the hidden discussion.

One issue with these accounts of course that Raphael is said variously in them to die at the age of 33, 34 & (in Vasari) 37. In a numerological age, fixing on one might be important for establishing a commonly held myth.

All then best


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Larry Rivers & camp subjects / gay subjectivity: A843 Ex. In 2.4.2

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:52

Washington Crossing DelawareI love to answer these and commit to an answer before I reveal the course discussion, so here goes again:

. While reading, you should ask yourself:

·        What does Butt claim about gender and sexuality in this essay?

·        How does he characterise the sexuality of Rivers?

·        How does he find this sensibility in Rivers’s artworks?

·        What does this suggest about gendered identity?

Note: What Did I Do? is the title of Rivers’s autobiography from 1992

1.      I find this essay somewhat confusing and I would not wish to say that Butt commits to straightforward and univocal characterisations of either gender or sexuality. He appears to wish to characterise a socio-culturally determined set of subject positions and a discourse associated with those positions that in 1940s and 50s USA characterised a marginalised community and how those positions became equated with a statement of an artist’s wish to confront and challenge the norms of society. In a sense they seem to offer merely a means of characterising art and artist as denying any solidity to the objects it reproduces and produces and as, therefore both object and subject, understood both in terms of the ‘object’ represented and the subjects who both respond to culture through remaking its imagery.

Yet it is not so simple, since, Rivers also uses those subject to both play and enact sexual practices that those subject positions enable in a minority and oppressed community: the sexualisation of the male body as object of desire and appropriation, the valorisation of the penis and the deconstruction of masculine heterosexual hegemony over the realm of desire.

Problematically, the discourse of gay subjectivity already employs subject positions which both critique but also maintain the validity of binary gender discriminations, which can be experienced as oppressive by lesbians, some gay males and some women. Thus the issue of ‘gay subjectivity’ is far from simple. The ‘self-othering game’ (p. 89) may enact otherness in complex interacting forms that may undermine them. However, in as much as it remains play or game, it refuses to challenge essentialist notions of subjectivity that may be the real root of contradiction in subjects seen by themselves and others. Butt seems want to point out that Rivers preserves essentialist positions ('real' heterosexuals act out as gay and vice versa). The same might be said of the use of feminine subject positions – not only in painting but the art of Tennessee Williams – which retain some of non-playful power dynamics which contradistinguish binary power distictions like male & female.

I may not have read carefully enough but I am unsure where Butt stands (or sits to carry on the camp play) on this issue.


2.      Butt characterises Rivers as playing gay but also benefitting from that play by the appropriation of sexual pleasure possible when the sexual subject which is the other is hardened into sex object. He could be clearer about this if that is what he means. Tennessee Williams, for instance, shows that the appropriation of the sexual object through performance is both dangerous and a matter of real power – in Both Streetcar Named Desire and, my favourite, Suddenly Last Summer. He also suggests that Rivers uses sexuality and sexual pose as a means of characterising the challenge to conventional meaning posed by art and the artist. Images no longer mean what the prevailing power structures in society want them to mean and are therefore ‘queered’ by the legitimation of counter-cultural meanings.

Washington's trousers

3.      I am not sure that we are really looking for a reflection or mimetic representation of River’s own sexuality in these paintings but rather a performance of traditional subjects – both in the act of the painting and the representation of these subjects’ action. I’m quite happy to take on the reading Butt gives to the painting of the figure of Washington in the boat (see above). The emphasis on the stark outline of the naked leg and the phallus is taken as an enactment of painterly emphasis but also as an action in Washington that offers his sexualised body for some sort of appropriation.

However, I can’t stop where Butt does at camp fun. There is an abstraction in the use of white here (and potentially in the brushwork mentioned but I can’t see that) that does other than point out the joke of Washington’s ‘burgeoning basket’. Looked at in the context of the whole picture, that white patch is recalled in figure of Washington before embarkation (below) for instance as well as other abstractly white motifs. There is something of glory in Washington’s horse that defies outlined drawing. Now, this might be merely making an equivalence between stallion between the legs as phallus – the white makes his neck look like a phallic projection and it, as in the Washington in the boat, reflected by the horse’s strong white and painterly legs.

Washington's horse

But return to the whole painting and we see a display of such stark whites throughout, not least in the characterisation of the water. These whites may or may not have meaning but they cannot be confined to a camp joke. I may therefore be wanting to see ‘more’ in the picture than a camp joke. I agree that in the 1950s camp and gay life seemed to heterosexual men to embody excess (p. 84) but the ‘excess’ in the white of this picture cannot be reduced to such stereotypical characterisations. It may have multiple meanings, not least in re-characterising light and notions of illumination and reflection. In a sense, it stops Washington being the iconic focus of the picture, replacing that figure by homage to spaces and spatial relations in time and space. At least I think it does.


Greatest Homosexual

4.      What Rivers does to David’s Napoleon (already quite a camp figure) is to reflect him, almost recessively in male shapes, which are beginning to lose their iconic ‘masculinity’ and are thus ‘queered’. I love how Napoleon’s constraining sleeve is mirrored in the subject/object to his left (our right). Here male bodies are subjected to cubist fragmentation. The sleeve can look like the camp red hat of a miniature figure with red epaulettes.  The men turned round, eventually running into each other. The link of military values to latent male homosexual bonding had already been made by Freud (in relation to both French and German militarism.  And Rivers appears here not only to allow male figures to reproduce each other but, in a cubist fashion, undress them, with suggestive emphasis on groin areas. I wonder if that too comments on neo-classical traditions in art, wherein, David, for instance, would first draw his figures unclothed in order to allow what parallel he then attaches to hang appropriately. Was David too willing to employ the ‘myth’ of Napoleon as well-hung man? Here again a joke has the capacity to undermine traditional values – of man as fighter, leader and so on. Hence I think, Rivers may be employing gay subjectivity as a subversive potential, but I can go no further and I’ll look at the discussion after mounting this reading.

All the best


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Greenblatt’s Self-fashioning: A843 Block 1 Sec 3 Exercise

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:53

  1. Pay attention to the author’s method for teasing out theoretical concepts about self-fashioning from Holbein’s painting, as well as to the fact that the primary topic of his book is English literature (note the book’s subtitle: ‘From More to Shakespeare’).
  2. How would you characterise the discussion of identity and subjectivity here? What are the conflicts in the painting according to Greenblatt, and how do they operate?

(1) Greenblatt does not, as such describe ‘self-fashioning’ as a theoretical concept or define it. It is rather implicit, at least in this piece. This is characteristic of certain kinds of literary theory, which aim to persuade that the theory used is born of empirically observable facts..

Look, for instance, at p. 20 para. 2:

o   There are, to be sure, the faces and hands of D & S, and yet so strong is the sense of pose as Holbein depicts them that they seem, of all the objects in the painting, the most artificially crafted. They possess a calculated impenetrability that suggests, in the hands, the carefully fashioned casualness counselled by Castiglione and, in the faces, the masking counselled by Machiavelli.

The next sentence uses reference to ‘the power of human shaping’ to characterise and summarise what is described here. Yet where is this notion really defined or spelled out in a way that can be challenged. In this extract it is not. Hence, the passage can elide certain agencies. Is the ‘pose’ crafted by the two diplomats or by Holbein to allow us to see through the imposture? That question will not be answered. This is because Greenblatt is working from a consideration of the humanist diplomat More to seeing Shakespeare as that artist who writes ‘character’ in ways that allow us to see the character fashioning an ideal image of itself, whilst allowing us to see behind that mask. This is, after all, the aim of most theatrical drama whether that of Shakespeare’s Othello or Leontes or any of Ibsen’s characters, including the Emperor Julian in Julian the Apostate.

It is totally appropriate to call this a ‘teasing out’ of concept rather than a theoretical discussion or even the application of theory, which might require some robust inter-disciplinary thinking. 

I totally agree with Greenblatt’s statement however that this picture offers us signs for interpretation, which interpretations (even of the question ‘what is reality in this picture?’) it then undermines. (p. 20 para 3). The problem is that like most literary critics, Greenblatt uses the tools of his trade as if there were no difference necessitated by the cultural object examined. Having noticed the uneasy and disturbing ‘reflection’ upon each other of the anamorphic skull and the skull brooch that is worn by one diplomat, he offers this ‘close reading’ as the key to his interpretation that the picture both celebrates the human capacity to map the world and undermines its efficacy in a world that other than the means we use to represent it.  His characterisation of visual art (presumably compared to literature) is of the former’s ‘sensuous immediacy and simultaneity’.

This strikes me as a cliché. In an obvious sense the process of reading literature and auditing/seeing dramas necessitates temporal as well as spatial issues, but it is naïve to  think that visual art is processed outside of time or in immediacy. Otherwise we can only attribute Greenblatt’s ability to see the well obscured brooch skull as an effect of critical and special close reading. In fact I think this is not the case. The picture, like most products of the norther, rather than Italian, Renaissance operates very differently to the stress on ordered perspective in say, Raphael. Yes, Greenblatt has noticed the brooch. Here it is.

Hat-brooch Holbein

 This piece of painterly virtuosity can be noticed only with the ability of the viewer to spend time as well as critical intelligence on the picture and it is this call to temporal attention that characterise the virtuosity of the Northern renaissance I believe. And, in doing so, other images emerge. The same diplomat wears a pendant (no doubt also a sign of wealthy imposture) in which Satan (by Archangel Michael?) is overcome and the crucified Christ hovers in the extreme upper right hand of the picture (hiding, like Polonius, behind an arras) – only seeable if you give time to the painting. If you see all this, it may undermine the imposture of diplomacy, science and education but it does not do so by leaving everyone merely with post-modern angst about the lack of unitary meaning, although for me as a non-Christian it must do so.

Satan Defeated (by Michael)

 Christ behind arras

Hence my feeling about Greenblatt is that sacrifices accuracy about the process of seeing visual art (and accuracy about the different roots of the Northern Renaissance) for an attempt to wear the cloak of the theory to cover meretricious subjectivism. Is that too harsh?


(2) Greenblatt seems to argue that while identity is observable and readable from signs of complex and shifting meaning, it can be distinguished from our apprehension of how the characters presented through these signs appear subjectively to themselves. Moreover, identity and subjective self-apprehension can clash – they can mean different and sometimes contradictory things. We are used to dealing with Shakespeare, of course, in this fashion, wherein we see action and character in conflict – as too in Browning’s Italian painter monologues. We can see our diplomat as proud in the vanity of his education, place in court and the world but open to being undermined by the otherness of mortality and even perhaps notions of sacrifice and redemption which go beyond the ornamental. These conrtradictions make up our and probably Holbein’s ‘reality’. However, Holbein, in effect can afford not to rest on the fissures between contradictory readings. If, as viewers, we can’t, it is because the meaning of all symbols, icons and signs change diachronically in time. Greenblatt’s reading effectively hides this basic truth from us – merely because he insists response to visual art is about simultaneity. I do not believe it is.

Well, that's what I thought on 22/9/17.

All the best


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Griselda Pollock on Van Gogh A843 1.3.5

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:54

A843 1.3.5 Griselda Pollock on Van Gogh


 How does Pollock’s critique of art history take its cue from what she identifies as a Marxist literature? Take particular note of her use of the word ‘ideology’ and consider its meanings.


·        Pollock deconstructs the means by which art history produces a discourse of art history focussed upon the individual artist or ‘subjective genius’. The latter becomes in that discourse the unitary guarantor of the meanings of an oeuvre and limits those meanings to the ideological reflection of the specialised ‘subjective genius’ – the artist. In the term ‘subjective genius’ we understand that what the artist realises is something specific and special to their own subjectivity, rendering their art into ‘visionary scenes’ (that appears without awareness of the work that goes into building a scene).


At the same time the ‘subject’ is rarefied from its social constituents, which may be multiple and contradictory rather than unified and coherent, and rendered magically apparent rather than ‘made up’ from work on discourses, which may also be visual discourses or image repertoires. The stress on self-transcendence in vision is what links ‘subjective genius’ to the notion of asocial madness and the ‘romance life’ produced by allowing VG to appear as a subject in his own subjective visions in the film Lust for Life– such that self and vision are removed from the ‘everyday’ and the processes constructing the everyday (social configurations of both time & space in the constitution of ‘work’ for instance).


For Pollock the reflection of social philosophy in Carlyle is needed to understand in part the origin of VG’s motifs, as is also an awareness of how his work with images mediates relationships of class, gender and so on between him and his art. The source of all the disguises which mask work on and in multiple discourses (both validation and otherwise of the given social order in which VG is ‘thrown’) is ideology.


·        Ideology in Pollock’s use is a means of rendering a social practice in ways that ignore its origins in social relations, including power relations) and the ongoing history of changes in modes of production (in ‘art’ as in other commodities). Hence we can create an ‘ideological ‘pure’ space’ for art (57). Art history is then a social practice that not only disguises its object – art as made in history – but its own practices as ideology by precisely seeing itself as non-ideological. Commodities like the monograph and catalogue raisonné embody the ideas of art and artistic genius as shown above but are, like art itself, materially produced out of a set of (hidden) power relations. The practices productive of such commodities, which declare themselves as non-ideological (note Marx on Robinsonades in Grundrisse) are ‘temporal and causal narratives’ and ‘biography’, in which the latter is the primary agent in the former.


The agency of institutions and dynamic social processes is missing from ‘art history’ which makes it, in effect, not ‘history’ but a narrative of transcendent realisation of a special individual’s whole body of art  work. This is illustrated in the role of the publisher in Pollock’s own work on VG (67).

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A843 Exercise on Foucault's concept of 'author function' applied to art

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Oct 2017, 21:55


Consider the following questions:

  1. What is the ‘author function’ and how does it differ from a more traditional idea of ‘the author’?
  2. In Foucault’s view, what kind of author does the critic invent, and why does the critic fixate on the author?


3.     What does Foucault mean by the ‘discourse’ surrounding an author?


4.     What does Foucault’s account do to the idea of the author as a stable point of origin, a concept fundamental both to the model of the genius artist and to the genre of the art-historical monograph?


1.      The author function is that ‘ideological product’ which acts within the text to marshal its meanings / significations into a repository that tames its tendency to discontinuously propagate excess of meaning. It classifies meaning under a ‘name’ that owns and therefore unifies those meanings and takes responsibility for them and a right to control them. This is likely to be complex because we are not imagining here an active control by a ‘person’ or ‘agent’ but a limiting or regulating filter which suggests that responsibility and rigt to allot meaning is owned 'elsewhere' than in a text's multiple and multiplying readers. It is a ‘principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning’.

2.      The critic aims to establish an author’s canon and ascribe unity to that canon (in the name of the author, through limiting criteria which discern the ‘author’ as the source of rights and responsibility for the meanings appropriate (and appropriated) to that work. In that sense the role is similar to connoisseurship in art. The critic thus invents and maintains author-function, repairing it when it is ruptured (by re-reading). Foucault sees the critic fixating on the author as a criteria for:

a.      Safe attribution of works to an author – as part of his canon (not Henry VIII for Shakespeare);

b.      Unity of meaning that acts as a control against erratic (uneducated) readings.  

c.      A means of explaining diversity in a work because such diversity mocks biographical or contingent information associated to an author.

d.      A means of resolving contradictions in and between canonical texts – giving it a non-contradictory unitary source (cp. Bakhtin).

e.      It defines what in other writings or sources of expression can be given ‘authority’ as evidence for a singular interpretive act.

3.      Discourses proceed from social institutions and ideologies supportive of those institutions, as well as the power structures & dynamics which support and are supported by institutions. Subjects are inserted into this frame but an ‘author’ escapes such insertion (and therefore ideological identifications) by a discourse of artistic technique. The author function suppresses the ability to identify the interplay of power and interest of the social discourses writing instantiates.

4.      Foucault’s account sees the social processes of discourse about art as a production and maintenance of author-function. In art this the individual genius (whether Raphael or Rothko). The purpose of such processes is the maintenance, in as far as is possible of current distributions of power in society and of the ideologies that sustain that power to self-maintain. It argues that the radical potential of seeking meaning in art is thus lost and the power and authority to read / interpret / understand of the viewer is deferred to the author-function – the latter’s private ownership denies collaborative meaning-making or limits it.

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A843 Exercise on determing an artist's oeuvre

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 18 Sep 2017, 15:45

A843 Block 1 Artist and life


Are all works by an artist relevant? What exactly is an artist’s ‘work’? Write down a few notes in answer to these questions.


Once we begin to ask ‘what is relevant for the study of the artist?’, what further questions come to mind? Write a few down that occur to you.

(a)    The question ought to be are “‘all works relevant’ to …” and then nominate an issue in art interpretation, evaluation and / or other area of thought and study. Otherwise there is too much to think about I think. However the second question is more pertinent. We could say that an artist’s work is all of the work that s/he completes but that raises issues about how being ‘finished’ is interpreted and by whom. Can the artist alone decide the answer?  And what of draft work or ‘preliminary studies’ where the earlier question is even more acute in that the work is mainly an object whose meaning lies on the processes that lead to a complete work – which we may consider another work. Yet Leonardo’s greatest work is often represented by ‘cartoons’ (once the name of preliminary studies. transitional to the making of the final work). Moreover, some works – say Louise Bourgeois recovered notes and drawings done (sometimes) on scrap paper during nights in New York in which she was unable to sleep and pushed under her door to be picked by her person who worked with her (http://www.fruitmarket.co.uk/archive/louise-bourgeois/). Was this therapeutic private work or more than this – a portal to other parts of her work? The video on this page claims it gives access to a Louise Bourgeois who is not otherwise ‘well known’.

(b)    Is art only those things that have the potential to be made into a relatively ‘enduring’ record? What then of unrecorded performance? What of the performance thought to make everyday life? Does art need even to be seen by others to be art? Do we distinguish between the ‘works’ of an artist and work done in conditions where they are not in control of the product?

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A843 Blogs Part 1 Exercise 1 (Rothko) Preliminary

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 18 Sep 2017, 08:51

Exercise 1 (preliminary thoughts on Seagram Murals - http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/rothko/room-guide/room-3-seagram-murals ) prior to exercise proper

I’m starting from scratch here with little to go on but the titles and pictures, although transcribing these caused quite a lot of problems. As titles go, these set out (apparently) to puzzle and not only those posed as ‘Untitled’. Pictures with near equivalence in names (differentiated by date only and sometimes enigmatic Section number) have significant differences in appearance either in colour combination and form. The pictures seem to problematise the notice of both colour terms and the meaning of ‘on’. Is ‘on’ a word denoting how one colour articulates another (as in Hockney on Rothko) or about relations in surface dynamics – which colour is on top of or under the other. The dates themselves (here not in any knowable order) bespeak changes in grasp of the subject brought about in terms of time perhaps but not certainly. What of the difference between paintings designated as ‘murals’ and those not and what differentiates a ‘Mural for Wall End’ from a Mural?

All these pictures illustrate a problem related to frame. There is a quiet comparison of the framing of each picture with a frame within not least in the construction of its edges and apertures – double frames being particularly intriguing. Some frames problematise ‘borders’. Are borders that are wide still borders for instance? Is an internal border a ‘representation’ of a border – and, if so, is it any less so than the ‘actual’ border of the whole picture? Parts and wholes perhaps are even problematic.

But I’ll stop here and return to Exercise 1.

Extract 1

Rothko did not feel “very securely at home in the interpreted world.” He looked about him. He searched faces. He traveled. He married and had children. But he was never at ease. He was indifferent to objects, and took little pleasure in the ordinary embellishments of daily life. In his various studios austerity reigned. There were no distractions – no bibelots, reproductions, Oriental rugs or even comfortable chairs. His sensuous and emotional life were not dependent on paraphernalia or possessions, even small ones. He craved transport, and found it mostly in music. His greatest fund of emotion was lavished primarily on what he made – paintings.

(Ashton, 1996, p. 3)


Ashton connects Rothko’s feeling about a world that he personally has not ‘interpreted’ to a need for greater security. For him, he suggests that world was one without ‘objects’ but with shifting frames of interpretive reference. Hence we would be inclined to interpret his objectless mural paintings in terms of his ‘escapist’ psychology – in Ashton’s view. The suggestion seems to be that Rothko’s psychological distaste for static objects is merely translated into his art. This feels to me to be based on a circular argument – the distaste for objects is shown in his life and illustrated in his painting. There is therefore a direct relationship between Rothko’s art and his life. However, the evidence used to make this direct link does not use the same kind of evidence to characterise the life and the art. The ‘objectlessness’ is merely an assertion. For me these paintings feel very full. The objects are perhaps occluded but I sense we aim to understand what these are nevertheless. I, for instance, see ‘framing as a relationship between objects in my (to say the least) naïve reading.


Extract 2

The open rectangles suggest the rims of flame in containing fires, or the entrances to tombs, like the doors to the dwellings of the dead in Egyptian pyramids, behind which the sculptors kept the kings “alive” for eternity in the ka. But unlike the doors of the dead, which were meant to shut out the living from the place of absolute might, even of patrician death, these paintings – open sarcophagi – moodily dare, and thus invite the spectator to enter their orifices. Indeed, the whole series of these murals brings to mind an Orphic cycle; their subject might be death and resurrection in classical, not Christian, mythology: the artist descending into Hades to find the Eurydice of his vision. The door to the tomb opens for the artist in search of his muse.

(Selz, 1961, pp. 12–14)

Selz openly uses the stimuli in the painting for a subjective exercise in association. Throughout the stimulus links to not only to subjectively identified alternative domains (‘rims of fire’ or portals to tombs. As we read on, we see that both alternatives feed off a set of mythical narratives. As I have worked on this exercise I have started some reading and am now aware that Rothko, prior to these classic ‘rectangles’ pieces, fed off mythologies and perhaps links between these and psychoanalysis. Does Selz, knowing this, feed off that information to mythicize and turn these paintings into ‘narratives’? Now I think he does. The associations otherwise are based not only in subjectivity but a specialised and educationally focused brand of subjectivity that otherwise appears to impose itself on the pictures. I am however now aware that there is a critical tradition associating Rothko with death themes, so perhaps this passage is not as off-centre as it seems presented as here to a naïve learner.

This issue is more potently explored in my current reading of Rothko, Christopher (2017). Strangely enough (given the family connection – Christopher is his son) that latter book rejects over-easy biographical interpretation. Moreover, I find in it that Rothko WAS highly interested in framing per se. he stopped using conventional frames for his work, invented interior frames etc. I sense here that my own naïve reading above may have got to that same place by a different route. I also begin to see part of the route by which I got to this point – silent and half-aware comparison of my response to Rothko with my response to Hodgkin, in his last exhibition at Wakefield this year.

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Comparing Four 2017 novels based on Attic Tragedy

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:09

Comparing Four 2017 novels based on Attic Tragedy

Part 4 of a 4-part self-directed project

Having said I’d do 4 parts I felt less like it once I’d completed Part 3. So here are just a few bullet points of comparative description and partial evaluation. This will be done by taking thematic points of contrast and comparison.

1.      Religion

This issue relates to the following 2. Each of these novels uses the polytheistic structures of Greek religion in some way and with varying effect. Perhaps most tellingly they, like Knapp (2017), explore the shifts between polytheism and atheism that sings in the original plays too, although often for atheism to be subverted. Knapp rightly asks though, why that was necessary – it suggests a voice for atheism in Classical Greece louder than we have thought. All of the novels variously show religious faith that is often a disguise for power politics – only sometimes only sexual politics. Thus Vann shows Medea has raising a vast and relatively less formed Oriental religion, even older than the polities of Thrace and Cappadocia – a feminine past. She often though also uses this, quite nakedly, uses this to talk about how to assume or disrupt political discourses. This is even clearer in Toibin’s Clytemnestra, although Electra appears to abandon even Clytemnestra’s rootedness in ancient religion to displace its role with power – and not only power (sex used as power). I didn’t (and it may be my fault) get as strong a sense of ambivalent complexity in these issues in Haynes. Clearly people use religion for the purposes of power but the linkage of desire to power is not so cogently or forcefully there (for me at least).

2.      Gender & Sexual Politics

5th Century Greece made a problem of gender and sexual politics in its own right and in every domain of debate: politics, religion and identity. It is possibly for this reason alone that the contemporary theatre and writers for the theatre have revisited it – often, in the case of Anne Carson (of whom no-one is a greater authority at every level of that discussion and its sequelae in other issues). Eros the Bittersweet is probably still the most under-rated book of literary-historic-cultural criticism. I still value some of the early pioneering and radical (where my contemporaries would write naïve) versions of that, such as Eva Keuls (1985) The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual politics in Ancient Athens. And if you want balance on these questions look no further than Edith Hall’s continuing and urgent output.

Academic interest aside however, these three novelists have picked on urgent questions about sexual politics in the original plays of Medea, the Labdacid (Theban) plays and The Oresteia(s) and in the production history of them. My feeling is that Haynes probably moves least radically in political terms from older themes – and I have characterised that as the equivalent of updating tragedy to the themes of pre-feminist writing by women of the 1950s. There is an overt concern with a woman’s voice – honesty about childbirth and about the supposed natural feelings that link women to family structure. Women are more rational than men – this is even true of Eurydice (the wife of Creon) who otherwise plays the role of the jealous sister-in-law to cover her perception of what really drives her husband. In Toibin, women uncover the power games that keep men in control in the state and family but it is a male voice (a queer one) that does the subversion of that order at each and every level. The women fall victim by death or, in the case of Electra, by becoming women playing in the role of men – a thing that seems true too of Haynes’ Antigone. Vann’s feminist Medea refuses to wish to be known or likeable – she seeks to overthrow such solid certainties as the only path to a redrawing of gendered relationships.

3.      Queering the Picture

There may be no need to develop this. The theme of both novels by males is honestly queered, although in ways that might distinguish a novelist who identifies as gay, like Toibin, and one who, though heterosexual in public pronouncements, is so without any easy belief that such labels mean much as all his fiction shows. I have to say that there may be some bias in my view of Haynes novel as good but not a contender for great (unlike the others) because she does not take up this theme from Attic Greece.

4.      Narration

Toibin’s narrative is thoughtful – it mimes the problems of authority (and ‘death of the author’) as part of its exploration of other themes. These issues underlie Vann’s submersion in the literary critical gender politics of the contemporary US University but are not (as in Toibin) worn on the novel’s disturbed narrative surface. With more than a little Derrida via Bakhtin in its make-up, Vann’s narrative often works by internal contradiction rather than change of narrator and is symbolised in metaphors of depth, surface, flow and eddy. Medea is a thing of the disturbed elements we are told.  

5.      Past(s) and Present(s)

What then do these novels make of the past they (under)mine? Each of them exploits the Greek awareness that the past is a kind of fiction that is forever malleable, at least by the fifth century BCE, to the needs of the present – a view that allowed Euripides to completely overturn the stories of older dramatists within a century and which has kept on turning since (even with violence to the text – as in Seneca, Racine, Corneille and Wole Soyinka).

More important is that Toibin and Haynes balance this past and present with possible futures that may or may not value women differently as well as relationships. They are still open to Utopia. I don’t think Vann is.

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David Vann (2017) Bright Air Black London, Heinemann: ‘at the center (sic.) of what makes all liquid and changeable’.

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David Vann (2017) Bright Air Black London, Heinemann: ‘at the center (sic.) of what makes all liquid and changeable’.

Part 2 of a 4 part self-directed project

David Vann’s writing is much more difficult to place in a distinct English language tradition than either Toibin or Haynes. He writes that the genesis of this novel was in a university course that studied Euripides’ Medea and then a ‘feminist thought workshop’. His love of dirt, death and decay in all of his novels from The Legend of a Suicide onwards is psychoanalytic in origin. Indeed were I to lay a bet I would suggest that this novel owes as much to Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun as to Attic tragedy, since such a ‘black sun’ is described early in the novel (4). Its enemy a male force that threatens: ‘her father a threat from the very beginning, an enemy before she was born’ (39).

The key image is the dismemberment of patriarchal law or its chances of reproduction – Medea’s ritual magic revels in a trickery in which self-oppressed princesses are made to tear off the king’s, their father’s, ‘balls’ (191) as a means of ‘renewing’ him: ‘Segmented king, faceless and neutered, returning to some earlier form.’ Later these kings are ‘runt kings’ (125).

The association of woman with that that is deep and dark and buried underneath the world ruled by the Name-of-the-Father. Sub-rational, it is thus beyond or before all words that name or structure that order: a de-centred ‘center’ associated with fluid mutable formlessness (86) at war with the world of men: ‘A king always at the center, never without reference’ (10). However fathers who assert priority over daughters do so themselves under threat from chthonic forces that assert an even greater priority in a world before the establishment of patriarchal order – in this novel a descending layer of primal goddesses from Hekate to ‘Nute, blue god of the Egyptians’ (4).

Hence Medea ends as she begins as a symbol of the resistance of the familial roles that serve the interests of the symbolic, biological or symbolic father. She lies in the bloody dismembered body parts of her brother, using these to distract her pursuing father and his wrath and to ‘unman’ Jason in by mining out his inner being by drawing him into orgasmic admixture with that bloody mass (5).

Medea’s power lies most in her ability to knowingly become a prototype of woman who is and always will be hated because always ‘true’ to a feminine principle that distrusts male order, ready to be known forever as she who killed her male children (13). Medea seems to embrace evil because she knows she will always ever be represented as it but Vann does see her as a good mother (249f.) I think, although I think the argument to show why this is so too complex for me at this moment or this place but it inheres in the fact that her as yet ungendered boys are at threat from the hard wold of men more than she, ‘faces carved by helmets into slats and mouths bare and animal’.

Medea, after all, does not hate ‘men’. She prefers them in sexual love with each other than as warriors whose meaning is the establishment of masculine power in mutual bloodshed and lust for imperial wealth: ‘Some lie with each other reversed and swallowing, others mount, and all are swaying.  … A vision Medea would never have imagined, would never have been allowed to see. The most beautiful forms in firelight.’ (32).

This is a wonderful novel, although it lacks (quite unlike Toibin) anything like a redemptive vision or potential – indeed you look for that in vain in Vann (try Goat Mountain). Of course the Greek texts themselves facilitate more potential in Orestes than in Jason, as Euripides presents him.

If I prefer Toibin, it may be because he places the darkness of Clytemnestra (in some senses able to make ‘bright air black’) in the context of a world where male rule is not really ever challenged. Strong women in both other novels (Electra and Antigone) become men in order to rule and serve patriarchy. But Orestes gives me hope for men. Medea is more the stuff of Kristeva and radical philosophy. Her aim is deconstructive as well as destructive, the utopian vision denied representation and therefore saved from the compromises involved in its naming in language compromised by patriarchy and instead part of the repressed structure beneath the world’s and the sea’s surface – ‘liquid and changeable’.

Medea the one who would end a god and all his descendants and the day-lit world. She would do this. She knows this is true, that whatever binds other people to each other has no hold on her. She is bound only by elements …..

All the best


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Colm Toibin (2017) House of Names London, Viking: ‘Orestes wanted to say to (Electra) that neither she nor anyone else in the palace had authority.’

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:03

Part 3 of a 4-part self-directed project

Colm Toibin sought authoritative readers for his novel, including authoritative classicists such as Edith Hall and Natalie Haynes. Yet this is a novel that queries the role of all sources – whether gods, kings or parents – and invents a consciousness that Toibin elsewhere describes as ‘the essential privacy of the emerging self, of the sense of singleness and integrity, of an uncertain moral consciousness, of a pure and floating individuality on which the novel comes to depend. The conspiracy in the novel is thus … between the protagonist and the reader.’ (Toibin 2012:3)

That is why both the novel as a form and its emergent dominant consciousness, an a-social Orestes, wrests the authority to ‘name’ things as they are from kings, queens, fathers, mothers and the hierarchies that seek to impose social orders. Rather than allow a focus, as if from the start, to be any first person narrator who may claim such ‘authority’ (and authorial role), he ensures that Orestes (as a point of view in a third person narration that overcomes theirs – morally at least) to be the novels ‘voice’ rather than that of one of the characters. First person narrators’ attempt to control the stuff of narrative in this novel but are submerged under questions of their ‘reliability’ and integrity as both narrators and focal centres of a moral consciousness.

Hence, Toibin’s main self-proposed challenge in The House of Names is the genuine transfer of complex play-text ‘versions’ of the Orestes story to a novel in which he lends, when he can, his authority as writer to emergent rather than focal consciousness’s. The latter are compromised by their pasts whose aims are very much about how to reproduce that past  in the present and control how that present is perceived. Toibin does not allow either Clytemnestra (with the richness of her inner (indeed infernal) resources) or the outright and simpler and more conscious love of control in Electra to dominate. Hence, although given prominence – Clytemnestra opens the novel and appears, like Mary in The Testament of Mary, to seek to dominate with her hunger for an authority, as constant as death itself. Like Milton’s Death she seeks to digest the world she takes in and transform into a dark art: ‘We are all hungry now. … Murder makes us ravenous’. This is an art that feeds the hunger of the ‘taste’ it alone relishes by keeping still (quiet and static in time) except as a ‘moving’ interior monologue. There is a rich poetry here: ‘I feel if I remain still, something more will come.’(227) Dead pasts that ‘remain still’ must make the present appear meaningless in its endeavours to ‘emerge’ anew and different.  Contrastingly, Electra, accepts the most heinous of political oppressions (that represented by a still (because broken- legged) Aegisthus) to seek power and control rather than inner authority:

‘She no longer went to her father’s grave. She had become brisk, almost sharp. Since she spent the day … exercising control … . She … spoke rather of distant regions that would have to be brought under control. (243f.)

No longer poetry – rather (and Haynes finds a similar character in her Ani – Antigone) this is the thin legend of a politics of control.

Orestes (the primary focal ‘point of view’ of the author) who spends time reworking fictions which rewrite the structures in which authority, power and control inhere – especially the family (which he witnesses in continual cycle of formal and semantic change). He does so in collusion with an author who renders everyone else in full meta-cognitive control of a kind of conscious role-play that recycles the past. Note, for instance, Agamemnon: Clytemnestra see him interacting with child Orestes (enacting a sword-fight); ‘as if (he) knew that he must play the part of the father with his boy for all it was worth.’ There are multiple such self-conscious references to theatrical and social role-play: ‘’I would assist my mother in her role as someone who had known grief and was now almost foolish, distracted, harmless. We could play the parts together even if my brother came back.’ Says Electra (163).

Orestes in contrast inhabits fictions where people do not exactly know what their roles are or how to name them. Central to that is his fictive and imaginative hold on the silences that make up even his sexual and physical relationship with Leander, until the latter pushes him out of the world of known roles that he prefers. We know that Orestes experiences a silent physical tenderness with Leander (125, 134) that cannot be merely explained away by reference to Greek male bisexuality and which, in its refusal of names – such as ‘sexual’ or ‘physical’ - nevertheless has felt presence in its silence. When Orestes, in the ‘house of whispers’ (213) that is Mycenae, hears the sexual congress of Aegisthus and his two favoured bodyguards, by following them to a remote palace room and waiting and listening outside these ‘sounds were familiar to him and unmistakable’ but still do not get named.

Attic Tragedy investigates family more radically (and with self-conscious politics since Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE itself aimed to refashion family links for the purposes of its democracy and no more so than in Aeschylus’ Orestes plays) than has been done (except perhaps in Shakespeare) until modern times. Toibin’s analysis is a defence of what in Margaret Thatcher’s legislation was called ‘pretend family relationships’ and what more knowing souls call the ‘chosen family’.

He imagined sometimes that Leander and Mitros were his sisters, … (115).

These imaginations and plays (transformations of role) seek later not to be named but merely experienced: ‘Orestes lay back and leaned his head on Leander’s chest as Leander put his arms around him and held him. Orestes knew when that happened to say nothing, …’.

Personally I have always wanted Toibin to be known as a great gay novelist. That would be a help to restore so much of what is lost otherwise to public discourse of gay sexuality (something Lorca struggled with when he met open gay people in the USA and thought ill of them in contrast with Whitman’s ideals). However, to name him thus might be ambivalent – a mere act of power. In the novel the richest character, however otherwise unreliable as a ‘narrator’ and who needs to be finally (as is old Hamlet by his son) dismissed as backward-looking ghost, is actually the one who gets nearest to the theme of that ambivalence and projects it, if not in a way she will ever understand, into the world:

There are presences I wish to encounter, presences that are close but not close enough to touch or be seen. I cannot think of their names.

Un-named presences remain open rather than closed identities. Names may overly bind presences – perhaps. Such is our existential dilemma. Hence I’ll be happy for Toibin to remain merely a great novelist and for the radical potential for the future of the novel as champion of chosen family in his novels such as The Blackwater Lightship and The Master to remain unarticulated within that ‘greatness’

 All the best


Toibin, C. (2012) New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families London, Viking.

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Natalie Haynes 'The Children of Jocasta' London, Mantle: ‘wailing at some real or perceived injustice’.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:01

Part 1 of a 4-part self-directed project

Haynes praises and thanks the classicist, Edith Hall – as does Colm Toibin - in her Afterword to her novel. This is no surprise. Hall is the very greatest of classicists – someone who has allowed the past into the present as a means of resisting those who put the present into the past. There is a creativity and radicalism in her scholarship that enhances and centres the scholarship she exudes whist being purposive. Hence two very different ways of mythical recreation in Haynes and Toibin can have a common reassurance of a genuine classic source – however creatively radical their revision.

Of course Toibin is the greater novelist and what he draws from the Oresteia is hence the richer and more urgent. However, Haynes knows I think what she does. Maybe my feeling that this is lesser comes from the insistence of Haynes on the models of her emulation – which seem to me be the mid twentieth century flush of female creativity in public - I might have wished however that that model would have been Beryl Bainbridge rather than Margaret Drabble and Daphne du Maurier, despite my love of the latter.

Haynes knows, as a well-attested populariser of classical motifs, that she works from an open field – from a mythical repertoire whose function it was, from the very beginning to be open to narrative revision – she herself cites the differences in the story of Jocasta between Homer and Sophocles, and in the fifth century additions to the myth – the children of Jocasta –Aeschylus and Sophocles. She does not mention Euripides The Phoenician Women in which Oedipus outlives his warlike sons (just) and there may be a good reason for a novelist who cares for her readers to do this.

She makes some bold transpositions between the role of Eteocles and Polyneices, AND Antigone and Ismene. The boldest transposition is Tiresias into the role of the sexually motivated housekeeper, Teresa – a character who owes as much to Mrs Danvers (in Rebecca) as to the Attic dramatists. Into the latter, she weaves some dark hints gleaned from a lost Theban trilogy of Laius’ rape of his host’s son, into a fully-fledged but not very ‘out’ gay character, protected by Teresa.

For those who know the Greek tragedies, this leads to some moments of frisson. The picture of Antigone ‘wailing at some real or perceived injustice’ summarises at once the characters as Haynes sees them of that heroine in Sophocles and Jean Anouilh and is a tremendous moment of literary critical fun. However, we shall see that it is more than that in its function as a predictor of a plot twist I refrain from identifying lest I be branded a ‘spoiler’.

However that characterisation also, in its context, also shows the major revision of style in the novel – into the mode of ‘family romance’. This is not so much the genre described by Freud but by the ‘women’s novel’ of the mid-twentieth century (I say this without any intention of making the latter seem inferior to the former). You only need take some of Jocasta’s musings or interactions with other women to illustrate this:

She lay half-dozing in the sun, trying to remember what she needed to do today. But she had little to fret about. … (p. 176)


She (Teresa) had turned to Jocasta, expecting the queen to overrule this upstart and tell him that Teresa was not to be argued with. But Jocasta had done nothing of the kind. Rather, she had taken her husband’s arm, and told Teresa that things were changing at the palace, so perhaps it was time for her to move on. … (p. 184)

But it would be unfair to use sentences like these with their modern idioms and attitudes (‘time to move on’) to characterise the novel as a whole. One effect of this attempt to make the historically remote available in this way is to create a sense of crude comfort at the stability of things – one that makes the denouement of this novel with its blast from an ancient past in which bodies are extremely at risk from many sources of instability, even more shocking. In that sense, Haynes uses these transformations of role expectations, to and from the distant past, to heighten our sense of the immutable significance of tragic effects (without religion of any kind).

And more than this, Haynes can make links between contemporary and classical instances of atheism (Jocasta’s doubt of oracles and even the will of gods in Sophocles) such that Jocasta supports the sensibility of a modern woman, attempting to optimise her control of self and things in inclement situations. She does this by focusing on embodied female experience, to the detriment of the overblown, and (in the end) rather childishly ‘magical and wishful emotional thinking’ of her male characters. Jocasta can therefore express even very negative emotion, justified by the fact that it is in part determined by her circumstances and not seen as theologically immutable (as men’s emotions are here so often):

After seven months of persistent, sometimes crippling nausea, Jocasta was desperate to be rid of this parasitic child which persecuted her from within. … She was terrified of what was to come. She was barely sixteen years old, slightly built, and afraid her body would soon be split in two by an infant who cared nothing for damaging her, but whose determination was only to be born. (pp 82f.)

The almost seamless move from this to Haynes’ Jocasta’s atheistic thought about the role of oracles is masterful. Prophesy is about the affairs of ‘men’ (‘not women’ is not said but echoes throughout) and only because men insist on a meaning that endures rather than changes in and through bodily experience and circumstances. This philosophy is best expressed by Isy (Ismene) at the end of the novel where she hopes that in a future when prophecy, like her father, are blind: ‘people will be carving out their lives, in whatever circumstances remain for them.’ (p. 324).

This is not a novel for me but it is a good (and highly readable novel) and it, as surely as ever (and better than The Amber Fury), makes great and classic play-texts relevant and accessible in a new way.

All the best


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2017: 3 Novelists search the Attic and find more than Tragedy there.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 25 Jun 2017, 19:03

2017: 3 Novelists search the Attic and find more than Tragedy there.

This blog is my preface to a project I have set myself to discover what, if anything, links three novelists (all already known to me) in a desire to take their narratives from Attic tragedy. In the fifth to fourth century BCE a vast social, religious and political cultural project created a vast series of dramas of which only 40 or so remain extant.

Since that time, these dramas –based in a mythological ‘history’ shared by not only writers but by people, literate and illiterate (the latter the large majority) – have remained the staple of world literatures, continually reinvented by cultures who returned to them to express moral, religious, political, psychological truths (or admixtures thereof) that were often widely divergent in their interpretation and functional application.

Hence, any writer who revisits the stories therein often revisits a palimpsest of divergent narratives and narrative functions that variously might also recall the aesthetics of Aristotle, the political divergence that French society found in comparing Racine and Corneille, and the inconsistences within and between psychologists including William James, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre.

So this blog is the preface to 4 others which will look at:

1.      Natalie Haynes The Children of Jocasta on the Labdacid family tragedies and their versions.

2.      David Vann Bright Air Black in which Attic Greece confronted its ambivalent dependence on the Ancient East.

3.      Colm Toibin The House of Names in which myths of Mycenae find new application.

4.      Summary and comparative conclusions

I’m aware that this isn’t a visited blog and I'm 'cool' (indeed almost frozen) about that cool

This is a project basically by me for me, but if anyone happens upon it, or part of it, please join in and initiate discussion if you’d like to. You can be as personal as me.

All the best


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LOL at LAL (Laughing at Learners that you teach)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 18 May 2017, 09:52

I think the commonest despair I experience as an OU Tutor is to see the regular display of 'howlers' by Psychology ALs from marked work submitted by learners to their ALS. Of course, this behaviour I see only in certain but 'regular' Psychology ALs but it may be widespread, although it does not seem to happen (at least not in the spirit of ALs 'having a laugh' together) in Science Faculty courses. I believe that learners should know that their work may be held up to ridicule in private but enduring and stored conversations between lecturers even though done anonymously.

In protest, as an OU Student, I will henceforth deny permission to quote me on enduring records even anonymously, given the offensiveness (and general unprofessionalism) of such behaviour in my opinion. I complain regularly. Complaints are ignored.

All the best



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Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied VERY PERSONAL REVIEW

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 2 Mar 2017, 15:40

Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied London, Faber &  Faber

Simon Armitage

What’s in a name? Armitage could have called this volume ‘Solitude’ and in a stroke joined the army of poets and poetasters who have milked this hackneyed stereotype of the poet and poetry. Instead he asks the question: who or what and how do we become ‘the unaccompanied’. Armitage becomes therefore yet again a ‘measure’ (in all its senses) of the social forms and functions of loneliness and its professions in poetry – even down to the wonderful, funny and intensely moving evocation and pastiche of Wordsworth written about an ‘accompanied’ (though the company is ‘borrowed dog’) walk from Dove Cottage (‘The Candlelighter’ p. 56):

I stood in some blind spot of its dark eye

and deer and dog were still and unaware

and stayed that way, divided by that wall:

wild stag and hunting hound in separate worlds,

The sense that ‘division’ whilst real and solidified in objects might be some temporary loss of a fuller and more connected vision persists, lifting poetry back into its social function. The stance we take both connects and distinguishes (at their respective line ends) ‘I’ and ‘its dark eye’, and whilst not promising greater light admits of its possibility.

Hence, a poem that starts with a sorry ghost of Wordsworth in the ‘corpse road’ from Dove Cottage, ends with a kind of secular communion of company that is both also a sorry ghost of community but an admission of its underlying potential. It is as potent as the ambiguities in its half-rhyme (tarn / cairn):

Then I hacked up the ghyll to higher ground

Counting the hikers striding along the ridge,

Thinking of taking a drink from the tarn,

Thinking of adding a new stone to the cairn.

My favourite poem has to be ‘The Claim’ (p. 47). It, like other poems here, shows what I feel to be a new (or perhaps deeper) interest in the unconscious (whatever we take that to be) that is, as in ‘The Candlelighter’, ‘still and unaware’. This poem joins others that humorously or otherwise explore the realms of the undead or, in his most literary of jokes that conjoins Homer with Ezra, ‘Poundland’ (pp. 10f), by pastiching Ulysses’ visitation and libations in Homer’s Hades. The deep mine in ‘The Claim’ is that of the US West but it applies to any claim to own a deeper selfhood (private and dark), let alone that of being a ‘poet’: ‘operation mind-fuck’.

This is a poem about dredging creation out of a thing that feels like death and yet still (the hope is – gloriously realised in this poem) resurrected in a passage that uses snow like one of my other favourite poets, John Burnside, and likewise his deeply ambivalent religious analogy and metaphor.

‘The Unaccompanied’, finally (p. 74), is a glorious poem – one that, were it not too universal for that purpose alone, seems a poem about unaccompanied, sad but ungenerous Brexit Britain, as do others –satirical of the notion that we can ever ‘walk alone’, other than over a precipice. The Company we keep is in the past, present and future – it builds our ‘suspension bridge’ structures that fly in hope of joint survival in each other. I love this great piece because, ambivalent Yorkshireman myself, it bridges for me some of the poets that belong to what Armitage himself wanted to see as a Yorkshire tradition: Tony Harrison, himself (forgive me the others) but also that son of new Yorkshire, the just-risen star of Andrew Macmillan  (there’s father, there’s son)[1]:

Songs about mills and mines and a great war,

About mermaid brides and solid gold hills,

Songs from broken hymnbooks and cheesy films.


Then his father’s voice rising out of that choir,

And his father’s father’s voice, and voices

Of fathers before, concerning him only.

Arcing through charged air and spanning the gorge.

He steps over the cliff edge and walks across.

I wonder how much that ‘cliff edge’ owes to the imagery of fear and hope in the Brexit lexicon.   

But to be honest, I am not at all confident that I know why these poems are something new – just that they are. Becoming recognised, midst the ‘alpha males’ of his sixth form as ‘the poet in my heart’ (from Fleetwood Mac of course) raises an image that will forever remind me (now in my 60s) of being ‘outed’ in my Yorkshire school in quite another way although the fear seems less fixable to an event that has or might happen now – just significant of the excitement of transition (in ‘Gravity’ (p. 22f.):

And the airspace that followed

was instantly baubled

with orbs and globes

from the mouths of angels

and an outed choirboy’s

helium bubbles,


Till the heavens ballooned

with unworldly apples.


Of course, this is clever. In a stanza or two earlier, he sets himself the task of bringing together Isaac Newton and Robert Browning (rhymed with ‘brown-nosing’) but it isn’t the cleverness (the metaphysical wit) I love it is the ability to dig down deep into feeling that emerge from his readers as their own in ways he cannot have known would have happened.

Read them. Enjoy them! They will ‘interpellate’ (I knew that word from Althusser would come in handy one day) you too!

All the best


[1] Although I think this was just wishful thinking on my part. Those mermaid brides surely come from George Mackay Brown (a first edition of whose poems holds its favoured place in Armitage’s coming-of-age poem (p. 20).

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Hailing Frederick Toates of the OU

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 17 Feb 2017, 19:16

This month's The Psychologist has a brilliant interview with Frederick Toates (click here to open in new window):

Advantages in reading this now are:

He talks sense about the role of biology and psychology, understanding for us some of the silliest turf wars between different 'schools' of psychology - or (but I'm wickedevil) different 'narrow minds' in psychology.

He outlines his own contribution to material on Addiction  - on wanting & liking - current NOW (p. 66).

He talks about his own perspective as an 'expert-by-experience' as a person  combatting OCD (about which he has written a mixed self-help / academic book).

He mentions Skinner and Freud in the same sentence WITHOUT disparaging either.

He extends 'wanting and like' neuropsychology to the study of sex and talks of his recent book.

He talks about his hopes and fears for universities (and the OU).

All the best


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