Tuesday, 30 December 2008

A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics

OK, I'm posting a massive one this time and I'm kind-of cheating - this is part of a work-in-progress chapter that is going towards my final thesis. I'm sure I'll at least revise it, if not just start from scratch and take some of the ideas.

Some of it assumes prior knowledge, but I think for the most part it should make sense to anyone with an interest in this stuff.

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Response to Francis Steen’s A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics

From the outset, my intention has been to employ a model of cinema as a ‘perceptual tool’ rather than as a medium of entertainment, or an ‘ideology machine’ – although these models are by no means incompatible or mutually exclusive. My discussion of the avant-garde from a cognitive framework is an area that has so far only received a modest amount of attention, not least specifically in relation to film. In spite of this, there is no shortage of material available on avant-garde film, some amount written on cognitive film theory, and a vast wealth of material from the wider field of cognitive science.

While much of my research will revolve around synthesising these fields and adding my own observations, I have so far just encountered one essay which seems to directly address the question that will serve as a backdrop to my larger discussion. Put concisely, that question is “what unconscious prerogative underpins the desire to produce and experience avant-garde art?”. An essay by Francis Steen entitled A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics offers a valuable response to this question, and so in the interest of defining my own ideas and objectives I wanted to outline Steen’s proposals and respond to them. It bears mentioning that his field of expertise is literature and mine is film - but we are both looking at guiding principals of aesthetics, and use different mediums as springboards for our discussion.

We begin by levelling the same criticism at theories offered on the emergence of aesthetic principals from within the field of evolutionary aesthetics. There is a tendency towards attempting to offer a ‘cover all’ account of standardised aesthetic practise. Steen cites the book by Voland and Grammar entitled Evolutionary Aesthetics (2003), which principally focuses on adaptations for habitat choice, and the experience of human beauty as part of mate selection. As Steen puts it, “what evolutionary aesthetics has so far failed to provide is a credible framework for understanding the surprising range of aesthetics” (Steen, 2006: 50). I would make the same criticism towards Anderson’s book, The Reality of Illusion (1996). Anderson offers a valuable ecological account of the principals of the human perceptual system as it evolved, in relation to how movie spectators engage with the illusions of cinema. However, there is no account for the variety of styles that one finds in film, not least an explanation for the emergence of the avant-garde. One would think, after reading the book that cinematic practise only works effectively in classical narrative form. For example, Anderson claims that an individual protagonist is “indispensable” to a narrative, and that Eisenstein’s experiments with a collective protagonist were “generally unsuccessful” (Anderson, 1996: 148) – both ignoring the variations by which “success” might be measured by, and also discounting the creative achievements of artists like Michael Snow, Bruce Baillie, Len Lye and countless other artists from the field of the avant-garde who commonly worked without a central protagonist, if any human figures at all.

Another reference that Anderson makes to ‘alternative aesthetics’ is in reference to Last Year at Marienbad in which he states that if the filmmaker does not supply adequate signals for a change in the image’s status (e.g. into or out of a flashback, dream or fantasy), the viewers will feel either bewildered or exasperated if they cannot supply the transitional signals by themselves. This may often be the case, at least for spectators entirely schooled in classical narrative cinema - but the question as to why Resnais intuitively chose to refrain from supplying signals for a change in the image’s status should be addressed. What unconscious prerogatives directed Resnais’ aesthetic choices? While not to discount Anderson’s contribution, an account for the range of aesthetics in film from a cognitive framework is yet to be developed . The variety of aesthetic approaches that exist, as Steen puts it “presents a crucial and delicate challenge when attempting to situate our current cognitive proclivities and capabilities within a renewed narrative of human origins” (Steen, 2006: 57). The variety of aesthetics tells us that a cognitive model which accounts for the range of styles available in the various media has not yet been proposed.

Traditional Beauty

By Steen’s proposal, we can begin to account for the variety in aesthetics by tracing the discussion back to the development of our perceptual facilities. He explains that in order to construct a fully functioning brain, one cannot depend on the genes alone. The human mind also depends on information that is present in the environment, he puts it that “we can think of the genes as a series of switches activated by an orderly progression of environmental conditions” (Steen, 2006: 60). Relating this back to the question of an ecological prerogative, it is suggested that if the environment reliably contains the information required to construct the brain, natural selection can be expected to favour mechanisms that easily access this information.

In many cases, the information required from the visual world is ubiquitous – such as the colour red, or circular forms. In one experiment, a group of cats were raised in a controlled environment without vertical lines, and on growing into maturity they failed to develop the capacity to perceive vertical lines (Stryker et al. 1978; Tieman and Hirsch 1982). In all of mammalian history, cats have always been able to depend on the recurring presence of vertical lines. As such, since the necessary information was abundantly present in nature, a relatively passive mechanism for accessing it would have otherwise been sufficient. Evolution hadn’t anticipated a controlled experiment such as this.

This is where art plays its role in the process of self construction. Beyond simple phenomena such as colours or individual forms, more ‘complex orders’ can be presented in art to expand our perceptual faculties. Steen proposes that aesthetic experience serves to supplement genetic information,

“our attraction to beautiful objects and events, and our experience of aesthetic enjoyment, may coherently be understood as the results of a biological need to locate certain types of information in our environments, as a supplement to genetic information, for the purpose of constructing and maintaining our own order” (Steen, 2006: 61)

He goes on to suggest that not only do we use art to supplement our own order, but that natural selection has constructed a motivational system that leads us to seek out these experiences. This proposal that art is used to calibrate our perceptual systems seems entirely compatible with my model of film as a cognitive tool – something we use to construct ourselves. And his discussion of the brain’s dependence on the visual world and other ‘orders’ found in nature to calibrate our perceptual faculties may well be the ‘missing link’ in substantiating my otherwise intuitive claim.

A point of contention in Steen’s claim stems from the fact that there has been such a variety of aesthetics that have emerged over history. Not only do guiding aesthetic principals vary according to geographical specificity, but they are temporally specific as well. Is it possible that the human brain required different aesthetics throughout history in order to maintain its own order? This seems unlikely. However, one possible response to this might be that as Bordwell suggests, where human biology constrains the aesthetic (i.e. sets the parameters), culture-based conventions specify (Bordwell, 1996: 98). Therefore, there is some leeway afforded to spectators across culture and historical place in regards to aesthetic specifity, even if the same biology remains consistent across time and location .

Nonetheless, Steen’s proposal that art serves to bring our senses back to life, and optimize our sensory systems may be usefully employed in my own thesis. But how does his claim fit into film? Perhaps Anderson’s book offers much to account for how film maintains order in the brain and brings our senses back to life by connecting the various aspects of standardised cinematic language (continuity, diegesis, character identification and narrative) to the evolution of our perceptual faculties. Narrative devices that were intuitively cultivated as cinematic language evolved exploit and perpetuate existing human proclivities, ‘maintaining our order’.

The Avant-Garde as Cognitive Strategy

If popular art can be used to construct and maintain our own order, how might the avant-garde be understood as providing an alternative strategy? It should be pointed out that Steen never specifically discusses the avant-garde or employs the term in his essay, and yet his idea seems to fit it with my area of interest pertinently. He suggests the following:

“By proposing new perceptual orders, artists tap into both the core and the unused fringe capacities of the aesthetic response system to explore complex sensory orders that have no precedent in nature” (Steen, 2006: 65)

This may be usefully applied as a backdrop to my own study. In art, one may engage with an artificial environment that cannot be found in nature. Since the human organism no longer operates in quite the same environment for which it was designed to survive, we may now propose new orders in the interest of expanding our perceptual faculties [expanding our aesthetic response system]. Steen suggests that it is not necessary for the orders found in art to replicate natural aesthetics, as long as they “tap into the design of our aesthetic response system” (ibid). Leeway is afforded to the human response system since innovative aesthetics “[exploit] the slack in our adaptive machinery” (Steen, 2006: 70). He continues,

“through art, an individual can not only acquire a certain type of self-knowledge about his own aesthetic preferences, but also use the art itself to propose new orders. These new orders can then be selectively incorporated into his own perceptual system, in effect teaching him to perceive and sense the world in new ways.” (Steen, 2006: 65)

This material is rich with points of discussion which I can address in the course of my thesis. For example, the “self knowledge” that Steen speaks of suggests that there are inherent similarities in calibration between individuals with similar aesthetic values. I, for example gravitate towards the mythopoeic rather than structuralist films (to use Sitney’s terms), in spite of the fact that I am familiar with the viewing procedures necessary when engaging with the Structuralist films, as proposed by Peterson in Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order. Is it therefore likely that I was born with a calibration which inclines me towards the kinetic, sensual style of the mythopoeic over the colder, conceptual style of the structuralist film? Were other adherents to the mythopoeic style born with a similar mental design?

A deeper examination on how new orders are incorporated into the perceptual system is something that could also be discussed. In a sense, “incorporating new orders into the perceptual system” is another way of saying “developing a taste” - but this could be looked at in more detail from a cognitive perspective.

A final point of discussion Steen raises here is how the ‘world’ is experienced differently after the spectator has acquired information that is unavailable in the genetic coding or the environment. It is easier to consider how the spectator’s engagement with art might be adjusted or stretched, but whether that changes the person’s engagement with the larger world is an interesting question, but one that is outside the scope of my line of enquiry.

One point of divergence between myself and Steen is in his faith in the average spectator’s appetite for novel orders:

“the proposed adaptive design of the aesthetic response engine is to detect and acquire information in the environment that is not present in the genes or in its own structure, for the purpose of wiring the brain” (Steen, 2006: 65)

What I feel needs to be addressed in this claim is that if human spectators hanker for information in the environment that is absent in genetic coding, surely the best source would be within the avant-garde – and yet the appeal of the avant-garde remains marginal. If the aesthetic response engine continually sought novel experience, wouldn’t fringe aesthetics be more popular? Public taste appears to seek novel experience within fairly strict parameters .

However, whether or not the general public seek radically new orders or not, the avant-garde nonetheless emerged as an artistic strand in the late 19th Century, and with this strand comes an alternative strategy that artists and spectators may employ in calibrating their perceptual facilities – a strategy that was at play beneath the horizon of conscious awareness.

Conscious Awareness & The Aesthetic Response

Two final themes that Steen discusses in his essay that I wanted to pick up on was question of the biological function of aesthetics and the aesthetic response system - both of which, according to Steen are undetectable to the conscious mind.

Before encountering Steen’s article, I already developed the belief that one’s aesthetic values were based on tacit knowledge – in other words, the spectator isn’t consciously aware of every human computation that takes place in perception of aesthetics. Therefore the human spectator cannot fully verbalise or account for their own preferences to themselves or others. Similarly, Steen suggests that “the conscious mind does not need a conceptual model of the distal purpose and function of aesthetics, nor does it need access to the complex internal logic of the operation of this function” (Steen, 2006: 62), and this is also accounted for:

“the biological function of aesthetics is complex in principle and execution, and from the standpoint of selection, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by clogging up the limited bandwidth and processing capacities of the conscious mind” (Steen, 2006: 62)

So evolution did not provide the conscious mind any awareness of the computations or the biological purpose of aesthetics, which may account for why this has been largely ignored in critical theory in film, while textual readings are pervasive. The “inferred but invisible underlying order” (Steen, 2006: 63) in art, as Steen puts it remains elusive to the conscious mind.

Steen also claims that the aesthetic response system is inaccessible to the conscious mind. What is made available to the conscious mind is a “phenomenology of aesthetic” which is rich and delightful, inherently motivating and it “confirms the exquisite order of the world and indeed our place within it” (Steen, 2006: 62). Inversely, when the senses are deprived of an aesthetic order we experience boredom and a dissatisfaction with the quality of our sensory environment. But again, the details of the aesthetic response remains elusive to the conscious mind:

“The elementary guiding principle of artistic creation is to trigger a controlled series of sensations that awaken an aesthetic response… the detailed characteristics of our aesthetic response system are unknown to us” (Steen, 2006: 65)

however, it is possible that the details of the aesthetic response system have in fact already been identified. Ellis describes a network in the brain called the RAS (Reticulate Arousal System ) which is believed to be the centre of arousal and motivation in humans. The RAS carries information from the outside world to the higher brain for stimulation by means of its connections with the cerebral cortex – which plays a central role for a variety of brain functions including attention, perceptual awareness and consciousness. The cortex and RAS are “intimately connected and stand on opposite sides of a balance, with the RAS exerting an arousing influence on the body system generally and the cortex inhibiting the RAS” (Ellis, 1973: 89). The point here is that it is optimal arousal that we seek, not maximal. But what’s important to my discussion is that this may offer some insight into the characteristics of the aesthetic response system that have eluded Steen – the nature of pleasure during an aesthetic experience, so to speak. When the spectator experiences a work of art that he is captivated by, he is at an optimal level of arousal. When the spectator is under stimulated, he will compensate by allowing his mind to wander. When he is over stimulated – if the sensory input is overwhelming, he might escape from the situation, or attend only to parts of the input. But in avoiding under stimulation, Ellis also suggests the following:

“the crucial factor [seems] to be [the] presence of meaningful stimuli. A hissing or white noise may generate the same quantum energy in the ears, but the subject cannot generate from it patterns of input that can be attended to” (Ellis, 1973: 87)

I would add to this that rather than simply a presence of meaningful stimuli, the spectator must be mentally equipped to both detect a meaningful pattern, and feel suitably challenged by it. When a work of art fails to arouse an aesthetic response, I would propose three possibilities as to why this may be the case:

1) the work of art is impenetrable, i.e. the spectator’s aesthetic values aren’t configured in such a way that accommodates the characteristics of the work. In Steen’s words, the spectator cannot detect the ‘inferred but invisible order’
2) the art is redundant, so the spectator is well acquainted with the form and/ or perceptual procedures of the work but feels under challenged
3) the spectator would enjoy the work on a formal level, but it doesn’t fall within the cultural sphere within which he aligns himself and so resists any potential aesthetic enjoyment

the third of these propositions is an unusual case since it requires a wilful act, so we can just focus on the first two.

In staying with Ellis’ auditory example, Patrick Hogan essentially argues the same point as myself – which is that rather than being the presence of a meaningful stimuli, the spectator needs the correct relationship with the information – the order should be neither impenetrable, nor redundant. Hogan cites W. Jay Dowling (a prominent cognitive theorist of music), who describes the experience of listening to music as “perceiving pattern invariants in musical events” (Downling, 1988: 126), and states that while the average adult would be unable to detect meaningful patterns in Shoenberg’s Second String Quartet (even though they are detectable to the trained ear), Barney the Dinosaur’s I Love You; You Love Me quickly becomes insufferable to adults in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that the pattern invariants are abundantly, excessively apparent (Hogan, 2003: 9). A less sophisticated infant could listen to the song endlessly, it would seem because an infant can find the appropriate level of stimulation in the work. But this is less likely to be the case for an adult.

So Steen’s orders, Ellis’ meaningful patterns and Dowling’s perception of pattern invariants all appear to point towards the same concept. With the order in place (in its multitudinous forms available), the spectator depends on having a set of aesthetic values instilled that are compliant with the stimulus on offer. If the spectator and the order are ideally compliant, the RAS exerts an arousing influence on the body to an optimal level. Failing that, the spectator will experience boredom, irritation or feel overwhelmed.

Bringing this discussion back to the avant-garde, a slightly different set of rules are at play to those already discussed. While arousing the spectator through detectable orders operates as a prerogative of art, the desire to incorporate new orders into the perceptual system requires the spectator to deny themselves the direct arousal of which is the underlying strategy found in popular art. In the avant-garde, at worst the art will more likely be impenetrable, and thus under stimulating. At best, it will allow the spectator to expand their perceptual skills and understand a broader range of aesthetic approaches – and this is something that is tacitly understood by adherents to the avant-garde and fringe aesthetics.

Conclusion

The starting point for my discussion began with what I saw as an incongruity between the ecological account of the emergence of film aesthetics that Anderson provided, and the emergence of the avant-garde. My goal is to offer a proposal that makes the ecological approach compatible with the fact that the avant-garde exists as an aesthetic strand. Using Steen’s theory of aesthetics as a tool of self-construction, I’ve proposed that the avant-garde unconsciously provides its adherents with an alternative strategy for self-construction to that of mainstream work. Within that debate, I’ve also attempted to provide an explanation as to why the process of self-construction is an unconscious one, and why the avant-garde – while providing benefits in self construction that might make it preferential over mainstream work, remains largely ignored by the general public.

It is possible that I should adopt a more moderate view of the difference between the mainstream and the avant-garde. It may be more appropriate to characterise these two aesthetic approaches as poles operating on a sliding scale, rather than being binary opposites. To one extent or another, every work of art supplements genetic information to optimize what’s already there, and every work also strives to create new orders (all art requires some degree of novelty) - but there is a difference in emphasis between these two approaches depending on where on the scale between the mainstream and the avant-garde the work is placed.

With the broader discussion in place, in the following chapters we can now examine more closely how ‘new orders’ are proposed to spectators of the avant-garde through the denial of and appeal to commonplace perceptual procedures. Maya Deren, for example denied the human propensity to seek out causally linked events and worked through metaphor and evocation instead – while still employing human agents and standard visual compositions. As a retinal experience, her films were relatively conservative. Fischinger, on the other hand abandoned the representational in his work and worked with abstract shapes. But he ‘softened the blow’ by synchronising the shape’s movements with music – why this made it easier for the audience is something that will be discussed. Amongst other techniques, Stan Brakhage pushed the boat further, so to speak by employing erratic camera movements as part of the expression of his work, and resisting synchronised sound – both being necessary asceticisms as part of the expression of his work. These perceptual procedures and others may be further examined during my thesis.

Research from the field of visual perception will form a major part of my discussion of the avant-garde, and also processes discussed in cognitive science such as cross modal analogy and cross modal verification. I also wish to go into more detail in examining the roles of the artist and that of the spectator, and the role that the genome plays in the development of an artist’s personal aesthetic and a spectators aesthetic preferences. In doing so, I hope to shed light on avant-garde film from a line of attack that has so far received little attention.

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Anderson, J (1996) The Reality of Illusion Southern Illonois University Press
Bordwell, D (1996) Convention, Construction and Cinematic Vision In Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carrol, University of Wisconsin Press
Bordwell, D (2006) The Way Hollywood Tells It University of California Press
Dowling, W (1988) Tonal Structure and Children’s Early Learning of Music in Generative Processes in Music: the Psychology of Performance, Improvisation, and Composition ed. John Sloboda, Oxford: Clarendon Press
Gombrich, E (1984) The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art Phaidon Press Limited
Hogan, P (2003) Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts Routledge
Peterson, J (1994) Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order Wayne State University Press
Sitney, P (1979) Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943 – 1978, Oxford University Press
Steen, F (2006) A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics in The Artful Mind ed. Mark Tieman, S., and Hirsch, H. (1982) Journal of Comparative Neurology, 211, no 4
Turner, Oxford University Press
Stryker, M et al. (1978) Journal of Neurophysiology, 41, no 4
Voland, E and K Grammer, eds. (2003) Evolutionary Aesthetics Berlin: Springer

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Corporate Cannibal

I never really understood the whole thing about Kate Moss. If I hadn't been told that she was so interesting, I don't think I would have noticed. I am prepared to concede that I might be missing something, but honestly - I don't get it. Seems to me that people say that they like her because it's considered more discerning than to say that you like Abi Titmuss.


I've tried to pick out a couple of images here in which I'm being fair to her. I realise that I could just choose two bad pics in an attempt to prove that she has no interesting qualities, but I don't think I've picked out 'bad' pictures. They just reflect what I honestly think, which is that she looks kind-of pretty and sort-of interesting, but never commits to an opinion on anything, and only seems to know one face expression - nonchalant.

Grace Jones, on the other hand kicks ass and I do think she's a real superstar. Unlike Kate, she developed a much more radical persona (know any other models who look like they could beat you up?), and she takes bigger risks in what she chooses to wear. Plus participating in the music industry makes you vulnerable to failure but she did it anyway. Hats off.

Unlike Kate, or most other models for that matter, she allows herself to look grotesque in the most exquisite way. If you don't know what I mean, look at the youtube video of her new single, Corporate Cannibal. That woman has balls.

Oh, and it's a great song, as is Slave to the Rhythm (her hit song from '85). Hooray for Grace!

Friday, 26 December 2008

Mistakes are Good

If any work of art means something to me, whether it amuses me or not is kind-of immaterial. Well, amusing me isn't the main thing it needs to do, lets put it that way. I don't really care whether a film or a song or anything else entertains me for a while, nor do I care if there are visible shortcomings. If it provides me with a novel way of looking at something and I see life within the work, then it's doing its job.

Popular opinion seems to dictate that we evaluate art of any form by its absence of flaws. The less shortcomings, the better the work of art. I would love to see this value system go away. For me, the more I feel entitled to love work that is rough around the edges, the more my response springs to life.

Case in point. Consider this photo:


This is an image that I saw recently and I just adore it. By common value judgements, it's "wrong". The objects of interest (ie faces) are obscured and out of shot. One is in the top left and the other is in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph. The center of the frame, where the eyes are inclined to go, doesn't contain anything of interest - unless you're interested in toy trucks. And yet I love the framing in this picture and I also love the raw, spontaneous energy. Irrepressibly human. It contains all the necessary information and was taken by someone who was clearly engaged in the moment itself.

Compare that with this photo:


Thin, lifeless, artificial. Disengaged. Supposedly, this is better framed and a more effective testament to the "magic" moments of a loving family. I'm probably being excessively judgmental of a family's earnest attempt to show the world how much they love each other, but I hope anyone who reads this will also interpret it as an effete shadow of the other picture I used.

Barthes once said, "What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself". Word.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Death and Christmas

I watched The Muppets Christmas Carol again today. I saw it countless times as a child, but I'm happy to say that I still think it's a great film. Everything seems well chosen, there are no mis-steps. Good casting, nice Muppet Choreography, great camera movement, catchy tunes. Plus when Rizzo the Rat asks Gonzo (who plays Charles Dickens) "how is it you always know what's going to happen?", Gonzo replies "Because I'm the narrator - I'm omniscient".

What resonated with me about the film this time extends to the original story. Scrooge, as y'all know, gets rattled by the three ghosts. In my mind, they disturb him in the following ways:
  • Past: Regret
  • Present: Guilt & Humiliation
  • Future: Terror

I think the idea goes that he's already lowered his defenses by the end of his experience with the Ghost of Christmas Present, but it's the Ghost of Christmas Future that properly puts the boot in and makes sure that he changes.

With the past, Scrooge re-steps the experience of how he let the love of his life slip through his fingers by putting work first. In the present, he sees how his employee (Bob Cratchet) lives in borderline poverty with a disabled but spirited son and he also sees others have a joke at his expense.

However, his experience of the future is a little bit different to how I remembered it. I thought that the final straw was seeing that no-one misses him when he dies, but that's not really it. Scrooge sees various people say how they won't miss a guy who has just died, and he has to clear away the snow from a gravestone to reveal that that person is him. But I'm sure that Scrooge already knew before clearing away the snow that it was him who people wouldn't miss.

I don't think it's the thought that people won't miss him that really bothers the guy. Rather, it's just being confronted with the terror of his own mortality that leads to his ultimate reform. The Ghost of Christmas Future, in his final gesture doesn't provide him with an argument towards him needing to re-think his life, but rather he just scares the shit out of him by accompanying the reasons why he should change with a cold, material affirmation of his eventual death. And I reckon that's what Dickens had in mind - you don't change people with reason or with sorrow, but with terror.

And that's the story of Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Sinterklaas and the Pagan Goblin

I've developed an interest in the origins of Santa Claus, he's an interesting hodge podge. We begin with Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th Century Greek Christian Bishop who lived in an area that has since become Turkey. He had a reputation for being generous to the poor, in one famous instance he provided money to three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian so that they wouldn't have to become prostitutes.

Somewhere along the lines, Saint Nicholas' memory was fused with a mythological character - Odin. Aside from the fact they both had beards, I'm not sure what they had in common or how they got mixed-up. Odin was one of the major Gods amongst the Germanic people prior to their Christianization. According to myth, Odin rode an eight-legged horse called Slepinir who could leap great distances. Children of the time would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar near the chimney for Slepnir to eat. Odin would reward the childrens' kindness by replacing Slepnir's food with gifts or sweets. Sound familiar? Think "chimney" and "gets around with a flying/ jumping animal".

The figure of Father Christmas (though not Santa Claus - Father Christmas had a different name and was too slim) had hit the scene by the 16th Century, but Puritan groups of the time banned the holiday on account of it being either Pagan or Roman Catholic (which I guess it was). Following the restoration of the monarchy and the Puritans losing their power in England, Father Christmas was back! This is a picture from The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England.

In Nordic countries, the original bringer of gifts at Christmas was the Yule Goat. Here you can see the goat teaming up with a delightfully sinister-looking proto-Santa...


Incidentally, seeing him on a goat reminds me of how similar the name "Santa" is to the name "Satan". But I digress.

There is also another guy we have to bring into the mix - a Dutch fellow called Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, he's entirely distinct from Santa Claus. However, they look alike, and their names are so similar, there's clearly something fishy going on. In the Netherlands, they call Santa de Kerstman (the Christmasman). Apparently, half of the Dutch households have Sinterklaas visit them on the 5th December, and the other half are visited by Santa on the 25th. Chaos.

How the Dutch name, Sinterklaas became Santa Claus was probably by the same process by which the name Christ-Kindl (Christ-child) became Kris Kringle (another name for Santa). Some english speaking schmuk probably forgot the original name and told everyone the wrong thing and that caught on.

By the late 1800s, St Nicholas, Odin, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas and the goat all fused into one guy, and the American caricaturist Thomas Nast redesigned him as fat and jolly. There was controversy over whether he's based in the North Pole or Lapland, a debate which still rages today. Who knows. At any rate, it was Nast who gave Santa the Red and White look. Although Santa's image was further popularised by Coca-Cola's advertising campaigns of the 1930s, they didn't assign his colours - contrary to popular belief. Coca-Cola also weren't the first soft drink to co-opt Santa, White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915.

Finally, Rev. Paul Nedergaard, a clergyman in Copenhagen, attracted controversy in 1958 when he declared Santa to be a "Pagan Goblin". I'm sure Saint Nicholas would be delighted to know that his memory has been morphed into a fat, cheerful goblin that sneaks down chimneys and promotes beverages.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Not Funny

I'm perfectly happy to judge a book by its cover. As such, I've been looking through a database of stand-up comedians and have compiled a series of pictures of comics whom, I'm certain, aren't even remotely funny. Enjoy.





Thursday, 18 December 2008

Journal Excerpts: March to December 2004

From mid-2002 to early 2005, I kept a journal of ideas and thoughts. I've been flipping through it today, and thought I'd copy out some of the later ones that I still like:

17/12/04
Yetzer Hatov - a Hebrew term that means 'the good instinct'

26/09/04
If an antidote to pain was invented, then I would wonder how I could survive without it

12/09/04
By the year 3000, the whole world will be speaking Chinese

18/07/04
[Excerpt from a conversation with Steve Crowe who mis-heard me]
Paul: "this t-shirt cost me ten smackers"
Steve: "tit smackers?"

16/07/04
Weird advertising ploy on posters and TV commercials: men dressed up as 'hunger' or 'dyslexia' or headache demons

31/05/04
It's a danger. From an early age you might be making shit jokes, but people laugh out of politeness and you grow up with the misconception that you're funny, but you aren't. You're just surrounded by kind people

20/05/04
It is not God's presence, but rather God's absence that is mans greatest source of comfort
[That's a quote from the film Eloge de Amour]

12/05/04
WWF wrestlers are comic book characters put back into real life:
Reality --> Fiction --> Reality

25/04/04
In the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" Judy Garland sings in anticipation, and Eva Cassidy sings in retrospect (step-mum's observation)

16/03/04
Punks feign poverty, Townies feign vitality, Rockers feign trauma and Bohemians feign sophistication

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Ribena ben Moses


A few years ago, some ex-students of my step-dad (Frank) sponsored a pig for him as a gift.

The pigs name was Moses. I never heard about Moses until, by chance I was around on the day that Frank received a letter from the farm that looked after his pig saying something to the effect of "We are sorry to inform you that Moses has been very ill recently and had to be put down. However, in Moses' place you will now be sponsoring his son, Ribena." and there was a photo of Ribena enclosed.

Offhandedly, my mum exclaimed "ah, Ribena ben Moses!". For some reason, that phrase has remained lodged in my head since late 2004.

Incidentally, the word "ben" is Hebrew, it means "son of".


Monday, 15 December 2008

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." is a grammatically correct sentence.

The sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word "buffalo". These are:
  • the city of Buffalo, New York
  • the animal buffalo, in the plural (equivalent to "buffaloes" or "buffalos")
  • the verb "buffalo" meaning to bully, confuse, deceive, or intimidate.
The sentence reads as a description of the pecking order in the social hierarchy of buffaloes living in Buffalo:

THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo.

[OR] Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also intimidate other bison in their own community.


Sega: Childhood Mythology

I imagine that most people are like me in that they have enduring, and somewhat haunting images from their childhood - when one's imaginitive life is just as potent as real-life interactions. I'm of such a generation and demographic that some of the most potent images of my early childhood come from computer games.

This may sound unfortunate to some, but it isn't something that troubles me at all. Computer games for me were wondrous environments to explore. Children today play computer games in which the graphics, the interface and the sophistication in design has long superseded what I grew up with. Yet I'm very happy to have spent my early years playing Sega Master System games.

It's sort-of difficult to explain precisely what continues to bother me about some of these images. But there is something particular about these early games that spook me. They create these little internal worlds that just look so incomplete.


See what a strange image this is. All primary colours, made of these big blocks and no detail whatsoever in the sky - just bright blue. A blonde guy sits on the shoulder of a giant robot and waves at you. He's accompanied by slow music that bleeps and bloops.

As you play the game, you never learn who Space Harrier is, he's just a guy whizzing through the air that shoots space aliens and monsters and the like. No back story, no motive. Unclear where he is. Just a guy whizzing along....


Here's an image from a game called R-Type:

For old-school gamers, this is quite an iconic image. But again, an entirely incomplete imaginitive space that the player enters. I never understood whether I was controlling the spaceship itself, or a guy inside the spaceship. But besides that, what's the deal with this alien? You just fly up to it and start shooting, and it shoots at you. What was it doing before you got there? Who made it? It's tied to a wall, so did it spend its whole life sitting there being evil or what? These sorts of things bothered me when I was a kid. And again, besides the lack of back story there is no detail whatsoever behind the figures of interest, just pitch black. This wouldn't happen in computer games today, there is always visual detail and the self-contained universes are filled-out with a back-story.

For this reason, I don't think that young gamers today will be as haunted by their early computer games in later life as I am by mine. A child's fertile mind is compelled to fill in the blanks with the incomplete environment and he/ she becomes more immersed. Weird stuff from early life that imprints itself in your brain.

So I'm thankful to have been part of that fleeting generation.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Farookh Bulsara was kind-of a Weird Guy

Farookh Bulsara was kind-of a weird guy. More than any other public figure that I can think of, there was a whole load of misconceptions or incongruities around him which seemed to pass over the radar for the general public.

He was born in '46 in Zanzibar. He and his family subsequently moved to the UK, where he decided he was going to be a musician, and chose a pseudonym for himself. On becoming famous, only a small minority seemed to realise that it was a stage name, by and large people thought that that was his real name.

If you look at pictures taken of Farookh when he was young, it's quite apparent that he was Indian, but I think it became less apparent as he got older. Another peculiarity is that he did look sort-of like a Rock Star earlier in his career, and yet as he became increasingly famous he looked less like one.

It can be difficult to imagine Rock history without someone as iconic as Farookh, he always seemed to me to be a part of the fabric
of things. But seriously, can you think of another Rock Star that had short hair and a moustache?


He just pulled these excellent poses on stage so he looks like a real superstar. But try and picture Farookh sitting in a chair quietly - just not a very Rock 'n Roll image. Who else looked like that? Also, which other Rock Stars were most famous for the music they produced in their early 40s?

Farookh was Zoroastrian - a religion that entered recorded history in 5th-century BCE, and was apparently marginalised during the mid-7th century following the Islamic conquests of the time. It's apparently the oldest of the "revealed credal religions" and "probably had more influence on mankind directly or indirectly than any other faith"* . Ever heard of another famous Zoroastrian?

In much the same way Farookh was Indain and no-one seemed to care/ notice, he was also Gay. You'd think that in the 70s and 80s that would have been a big deal, but apparently not! Seemingly had no bearing on record sales or public image or anything.

Finally, Farookh and his band broke a United Nations cultural boycott by performing a series of shows in the (then) apartheid South Africa in 1984. Apparently they had some criticism at the time, but that appears to have been largely forgotten. Much better remembered is their performance at Live Aid the following year. My suspicion is that people forgot about the performances in South Africa because they liked the music.

I just kinda like how there's this superstar who has all this stuff about him that no-one seems to notice...

* Quote taken from: Boyce, Mary (1979), Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices

Friday, 5 December 2008

Man and the Animal Kingdom

My nephew investigating a chicken, and me being intimidated by a swan

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A Theory to Defend


I invested in a Canon XH A1 Video Camera today, thus upgrading from the Canon XL1. I'm really happy about this, and am looking forward to having a new toy to play with, plus I'll be making better wedding vids, I'm sure. One of the major advantages in this upgrade is the addition of a flip-out screen. If you look at the pictures, you'll see that the XH A1 (the black one) has a little screen that comes out and the XL1 (the white one) just has a viewfinder that you have to look into with one eye.

I was discussing my XL1 with a video technician recently, and I complained about the absence of a flip-out screen. My objection was that since I spend somewhere in the region of 5 hours per day filming wedding footage, it's a little tough on the eye having to stare into a tube for that long. Her counter argument is that it saves on battery if you just have the small screen. I replied that if you keep a second battery to hand then that isn't such a problem. She replied, "ah yes, but professionals look through the viewfinder".

This pisses me off for a few reasons. First of all, she didn't address the fact that it hurts my eye to stare into that tube all day, so she didn't refute my first statement. Rather she said something unrelated and pretended that that somehow counters what I said. Secondly, every camera that has a flip-out screen also has a viewfinder. So all they are really doing is limiting your choices.

But what mainly bugs me about this is that I'm not really saying anything particularly difficult to figure out. Stubborn though it may sound, I'm definitely right. But she didn't want to change her mind on the matter because she had a theory to defend. That's all it is. It's not that she chose a position through a lot of careful thought, she just selected a position and adamantly stuck to it. Sadly, I think that this is tremendously commonplace. Where does this confusion between 'standing your ground' and 'being pig-headed' come from?

Perhaps I'm writing this down just to remind myself not to fall into that trap. It's good to be swayed by other people's opinion. Ah, how beautiful it is to change ones mind.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Who is Rrrr?


I took this photo a few months ago in Broadstairs. Is there seriously someone in the world called "Rrrr"?