Category Archives: lexicon

A sow’s ear

Some photos seem promising in the viewfinder, but once displayed on the computer screen turn out to be underwhelming. I can see what I was after (but didn’t achieve) with this one, but didn’t process it further in the first round:



It was only later in the day, when I was considering possible symmetrical unfoldings among the day’s photographs, that it occurred to me that this one might be a candidate for the GIMP copy-flip-join treatment. I observe that my previsualization of the effects of this procedure is chancy at best, in that I’m usually surprised at what the transformation reveals, and I don’t often make exposures with the intent to produce symmetrical arrays of the resulting images. The products are mostly serendipitous.

Anyway, the result of the transform opened a whole new world of interpretation for the image, and my first thought (and hence the title of the image) was “empty wings”.


empty wings

Now, wings don’t usually have the property of emptiness or fullness; they may adorn the backs of angels and mythological beasts, and be integral to birds and bats and insects, and might be glorious or workaday or fluttery or super-aerodynamic, but empty? Not so much. But this pair of wings seems to have a life of its own, their sweep echoed in the snow-like pattern to either side, and they almost seem as if they might be donned, tried on by a wing-shopper for fit and sartorial effect, taken out for a run around the block to assess their loft and effulgency.

The image partakes of the myffic, because there aren’t really any wing haberdashers in our world. Looking at “empty wings” we are led to imagine that there might be, and imagine that angels might wish to rotate through a wardrobe of wings for different occasions, and that somehow a photograph has transported us thither. Or the viewer might say “humph, seaweed on the beach, just twice as much of it” and pass along to some other image.

I’m trying to pull together the vocabulary to think and talk about the effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography—about how and why some photographs work in the sense of transfixing the viewer with an epiphany, and in the sense of spawning a feeling of unforgettability for the image. We all have our own catalogs of such images, and there’s not necessarily a lot of agreement among appreciators of photography about what truly belongs in the canon. It’s subjective and personal, and that’s basically a good thing, in the many-mansions sense.

One of the writers who has put systematic effort into exploring these matters of photographic essence is Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida. I’ve read through the book several times, with each pass assimilating a bit more terminology and Barthian viewpoint, but it’s very French and demands a lot of a North American reader. I am no expert but…

Barthes does something very clever, while disclaiming any expertise (or, indeed, interest) in technical photography. He uses 25 photographs (many of them not familiar to most readers) to exemplify aspects he discourses upon. Who, for example, has ever given much thought to this image of Queen Victoria sitting on a horse?


(Queen Victoria, photographed by George Washington Wilson, 1863)

Barthes uses the image to introduce the idea that the photograph has a clear studium, an aboutness, something that it relates about its subject: it’s Queen Victoria, in the flesh (well, shrouded in a vast black dress) sitting on a horse. That’s what it’s a photograph of, its “historical interest” and identity in the wider world. But Barthes then points out that for him the photograph also has a punctum, an element that grabs the viewer and makes the image into something with a personal and memorable significance. Barthes’ punctum:

…beside her, attracting my eyes, a kilted groom holds the horse’s bridle: this is the punctum; for even if I do not know just what the social status of this Scotsman may be (servant? equerry?) [in fact he’s John Brown… and the horse’s name is Fyvie], I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse’s behavior: what if the horse suddenly began to rear? (pg.57)

For me the unforgettable punctum of the photograph is John Brown’s sporran, that which marks him as a Scotsman in full folkloric costume. That’s where MY eye is drawn when I look at the image.

So here we have a couple of tools to help us talk about those effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography to which I referred above. Barthes offers a number of others that I haven’t decoded yet myself, so another pass through Camera Lucida is on the docket.

And, going back to the “empty wings”, for me [and for sure Your Mileage May Vary] the image has a punctum in the homunculus that seems to form the point of attachment of this set of wings to our imaginary angel’s back:




As so often before, I wonder aloud if the wings and the homunculus were there before I unfolded the original image. Or did I create them? Or are they purely imaginary? When we read a photograph, are we just projecting a personal and idiosyncratic interpretation? Is a photograph a document whose significance is contestable, or maybe even fungible? Deep waters.

on the Harmless Drudge account

another passage from Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man

The slang lexicographer is by very nature a voyeur. The lexis undoubtedly leans toward pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or not professionally. They are linguistic reporters, except that unlike the tabloids’ traditional formula they make no excuses and they do not leave. The job is to collect knowledge, to explicate it, and to disseminate the information that emerges. As I say, a voyeur, but ideally an informed one. (pg 38)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

A week or two ago I saw the announcement for Green’s Dictionary of Slang in its online version, and almost bit (at about $60/year). Intrigued, I looked on Amazon and (1) found that the 3-volume print version could be had for a bit less than $600 via Prime, and in used form for around $300; and (2) that Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer (2014) was about $4, plus shipping. I ordered the latter, and started reading it when it arrived. Fantastic so far, and I’m only 20-odd pages in. His first substantive chapter (‘Beginning’) is a fascinating and utterly unique take on autobiography, raggedy bits of wry memory:

This is in no way a conventional memoir, but some things must be said. Or so it seems to me, whose working life is so committed to searching the past for origins and roots. It is a beginning that, without the memories that those from more settled lineages have on tap, has always seemed abrupt. Perhaps, like newly arrived immigrants looking forward to their future and rushing to move beyond the past, the young have no interest in asking questions about ‘before’? Perhaps that was merely me? I failed to ask and remain in ignorance. And since the past was quite literally another country, and that country no longer exists remotely as it was, I am not going to find out. I have been trying to make up for it, by proxy, ever since. (pg 15)

A quick calculation tells me that $60/year is not all that much more than $1 a week, cheap at twice the price for a subscription. So I bit. And it looks like a real winner, now that I’ve browsed a bit and tried out the various features.

A mind stridently blown, all in half an hour or so

Herewith a summary digest of one of those wonderfully cross-pollinating collisions, a bibliophile’s shaggy dog story, with musical flourishes:

I’ve been reading Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, one of those books that far too few people know of, and that just about ANYbody’s life would be vastly enhanced by contact with (the original recommendation thanks to Kate, who has a nose for such books besides being herself a witty typographer), and I got to this passage:

Sizing and spacing type, like composing and performing music or applying paint to canvas, is largely concerned with intervals and differences. As the texture builds, precise relationships and very small discrepancies are easily perceived. Establishing the overall dimensions of the page is more a matter of limits and sums. In this realm, it is usually sufficient, and often it is better, if structural harmony is not so much enforced as implied. That is one of the reasons typographers tend to fall in love with books. The pages flex and turn; their proportions ebb and flow against the underlying form. But the harmony of that underlying form is no less important, and no less easy to perceive, than the harmony of the letterforms themselves.

This page is a piece of paper. It is also a visible and tangible proportion, silently sounding the thoroughbass of the book. On it lies the textblock, which must answer to the page, The two together – page and textblock – produce an antiphonal geometry. That geometry alone can bond the reader to the book. Or conversely, it can put the reader to sleep, or put the reader’s nerves on edge, or drive the reader away. (p. 145)

Now, I’m a sucker for musical analogies, so this piqued my interest. And then I turned the page, and here’s what most stridently blew my mind:
page proportions as musical intervals

The beauty and economy of this bridge between page layout and musical intervals gives me gooseflesh. “Stridently,” I thought. “Most stridently.”

The phrase “stridently blown” has been with me for 50-odd years, since I first read it in Manning Coles’ Drink to Yesterday. Turns out it’s not common parlance, at least as said parlance is reflected in what Google knows. I searched books.google.com and got these truncated passages:
Hambledon quotes
So I trekked out to the barn, where the auxiliary library reposes, and found my copy of Drink to Yesterday, and so completed the passage:

…the gaff has been stridently blown somehow. Does a gaff produce a strident note? Describe a gaff, with notes on at least three different methods of blowing it…

I won’t go on to describe what I found via Google search for the phrase “describe a gaff” but suffice it to say my knowledge has been stridently augmented.

I was led to wonder why shaggy dog, and so I discovered and [need I even say?] ordered via Amazon Eric Partridge’s The ‘Shaggy Dog’ Story: Its Origin, Development and Nature (with a few seemly examples) (1953). Should be here in a week or so.

And so it goes….

Word of the day

I’ve always kept an ear cocked for portentious words, those with more space on their insides than their exteriors might suggest. Sometimes they’re uncommon words, like mendacity or nugatory or tendentious… words that facilitate well-honed calumny, and (truth to tell) suggest that I am more literate than thou. Other words in the land of portent are more broadly familiar, but encode niceties of expression and fine distinctions of meaning, accessible to connoisseurs; Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, W.V. Quine’s Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary, and Collins and Glover’s Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War are three lexicons of this sort of verbal tesseractitude, each a catalog of explications rather than a collection of definitions. And of course there are portmanteau words and other idiosyncratic coinages, of which H. Dumpty famously said “I pays them extra and I makes them mean what I like”.

Today’s case-in-point has been tumbling in my consciousness all day today, gathering momentum as an explanation or enlargement of an issue that’s been on my mind: prestation is the word, and the issue at issue is my own long-running habit of (seemingly) giving away collations of information –texts, lists, sound files, images, books– on the slimmest of pretexts. “Informing others against their will” as my sigfile says, but what is it that lies behind this proclivity of mine? And whence cometh it, the behavior and the mot juste alike?

I first encountered the term ‘prestation’ in a graduate school course, not one I took myself but one that good friends of mine were in and talked about, in the way we talked about stuff in those dear dead days. The term is (and isn’t it obvious) French, and figures prominently in the work of Marcel Mauss. Here’s a nicely anonymous summary from Wikipedia, which saves us all a lot of time:

In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never “free”. Rather, human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (1990:3). The answer is simple: the gift is a “total prestation”, imbued with “spiritual mechanisms”, engaging the honour of both giver and receiver (the term “total prestation” or “total social fact” (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim’s social fact). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost “magical”. The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them” (1990:31). Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honour and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one’s spiritual source of authority and wealth. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving – the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one’s own liberality, honour and wealth.

Hmmm, I think. Is this what I do, what I’ve always done, as long as I can remember? When I point somebody to a website (or, often enough, a whole bunch of websites) or press upon them books or inveigle them into listening to “just a few” musical examples or otherwise foist bits of my knowings upon them, is there a subtext of demand/desire for some kind of reciprocation? And have I known this for 40+ years, but never realized it as a recurrent pattern? Is this an essential part of my disquietude with teaching –that I wanted and expected and even craved reciprocal engagement from students and colleagues? Was I somehow wounded or disappointed when the response to my ‘gift’ was silence or indifference or bafflement or “will this be on the exam?” Yup, all that rings true, and it’s interesting to find a sort of resolution, and to recognize why the sigfile motto pleases me so.

Once I’d decided to hunt down the quiddity of prestation, I was launched on just the sort of sport I most enjoy, chasing through Google search results and the print resources in my home library, and of course through my own organic memory banks too. Dictionary definitions are basically pedestrian, and even the OED is rather pallid:

…a payment …especially a feudal due… The action of paying in money or service, what is due by law or custom, or in recognition of feudal superiority; a payment or the performance of a service so imposed or exacted; also, the performance of something promised…[but the Supplement adds a specifically anthropological sense]

A gift, payment or service that forms part of some traditional function in a society, given or due either to specific persons or to the group.

The term shows up in only a few sources in English, e.g. in the subtitle of Gloria Goodwin Raheja’s The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village. It’s all over the place in French, not too surprisingly, mostly in the fiscal sense. And it even appears on t-shirts:

prestation
So I’ve happily flushed several hours of this afternoon tilting at the windmills of the mind…

undergrowth? stain? blot? speck? disgrace?

Teju Cole’s Google’s Macchia in The New Inquiry is an inspiring blog posting on several levels: a nice exposition of ideas about directions in contemporary photography, a meditation on activities that I’m only beginning to notice

…the various artists who have appropriated Google Maps’ Street View and Google Earth, extending the practice of found imagery and the readymade to the images discovered on the computer screen. These Google-based photographic practices are forms of counter-surveillance, and in part what they do is show that a photography of ideas can accommodate different kinds of images…

and a lovely example of the power of the blogging medium. And the post delivers something I didn’t know:

In Naples in 1868, Vittorio Imbriani published a pamphlet entitled La quinta Promotrice. In this now almost forgotten text, he advanced a peculiar theory of art that centered on the color patch or, in Italian, the macchia (the word literally means stain or spot). According to Imbriani, the macchia is “the image of the first distant impression of an object or a scene, the first and characteristic effect, to imprint itself upon the eye of the artist.” It is, in other words, the total compositional and coloristic effect of an image in the split second before the eye begins to parse it for meaning. Imbriani was writing against the academic idealists of his time, who were obsessed with categories of style and execution. “Every painting must contain an idea,” Imbriani wrote, “but a pictorial idea, not just a poetical idea.” And for him, this pictorial idea was a matter of “a particular organization of light and dark from which the work takes its character. And this organization of light and dark, this macchia, is what really moves the spectator… Equally in music it is not the attached words, the libretto, but the character of the melody that produces emotion in the listener…”

I did a bit of searching around macchia, starting with wiktionary, and was directed (by Google, natch) to this from Dale Chihuly’s website:

…Since the Renaissance, macchia has been associated with a sketchy way of applying the initial color to a drawing or painting… In the seventeenth century, macchia designated the special quality of improvisational sketches that appear to be nature’s miraculous creation rather than mere human work… encapsulate[s] the concept of the spontaneous outpouring of artistic sensibility…

Says Cole,

I am now using Search By Image for my own personal color studies, for my own understanding of the color patch, and I don’t know what might come of it. I’m watching to see what other photographers and artists can create using this latest manifestation of Big Data. As usual, they will have to navigate between the Scylla of copyright issues and the Charybdis of “that’s bullshit, not art.”

Much to chew upon here.

Concise advice

from World Wide Words:

Let your conversation possess a clarified conciseness, compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility, without rhodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabical profundity, pompous prolixity, and ventriloquial vapidity. Shun double-entendre and prurient jocosity, whether obscure or apparent. In other words, speak truthfully, naturally, clearly, purely, but do not use large words.
[Notes and Queries, 11 Feb. 1893.]

(see here for more)

On flappers

I remember vividly the umbrage my mother (born 1899) gathered up, expressed and projected in my direction when I [quite innocently] asked if she’d been “a flapper” back in the day. “Certainly NOT!” I think she said, but the withering tone was beyond any I think I’d ever encountered. A few minutes spent with The Flapper’s Dictionary is probably as close as one can get to understanding her animus. She was a person of considerable rectitude, inclined to take moral turpitudes Seriously: with eloquent fluttering of the eyelids she declared Sophie Tucker’s songs “suggestive” (and so they were, deliciously). Very early on, I learned which of my own realities to protect her from…