Posts Tagged 'First posted 2008'

Stephen Toulmin’s Rules

Sometimes one comes across a book that seems to reveal rules that previously seemed indiscoverable. Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958, 2003) was one of those books for me. I had previously read a (sadly) lesser-known Cambridge philosopher called John Wisdom and grown very fond of his Paradox and Discovery (1965) and Proof and Explanation (1991), and upon reading that Toulmin was a former student of his it was clear that his book, a legend in its own right, should be on my reading list. Even before going through it, however, I came across the famous Toulmin-model of argument. The simplicity and flexibility of the model was quite simply astonishing. It really is a thing of beauty, never mind the fact that the book is not strictly about this single model. Here it is:

It looks way too simple to be a powerful tool of analysis, but there is no denying that it goes a long way in any argumentative affair. (D) stands for data or datum; the horizontal line, the inference, leads us to (C), a claim that is put forth by using the argument; (Q) stands for qualifier, it might be a word like “probably” or “presumably”, but it can also be something more elaborate; (R) means rebuttal and it is characterized by the word “unless”, ie. it explains why the contingency expressed in the qualifier might come in handy; the warrant (W) supports the inference and it explains why it is possible, or warranted, to make the inference. Warrants, in turn, can be backed up (B for backing) with further arguments when, for instance, someone challenges the acceptability of a given warrant. That, in turn, can develop into a whole new discussion that needs new arguments. The model can therefore branch out in multiples and be used again to describe what goes on under (B). It’s scalable in this sense.

The model is so simple that one can gain a lot just by learning its vocabulary. These are pretty much everyday words: warrant, claim, data, qualifier, etc. Therefore, there is little need to screw around with fancy terminology on this level. Just picking up stuff in the papers or daily conversations and naming the constituent parts of argument one finds in them can help one to make a habit of picking apart simple, everyday argumentation. Most arguments come to us unlabelled, and thankfully so, and most are not constructed carefully enough to have backings for their warrants or qualifiers or much else, but in order to be argumentative they have to have at least a claim.

One can speak of argumentative rigor only after a claim has been made. After that, one can ask for instance: “What do you have to go on and what warrants your inference?” Assuming you are on friendly terms with your interlocutor and don’t get punched in the face for asking that, this questioning will lead you to think the matter through with more precision and, who knows, even construct a more solid argument to support the claim through constructive criticism. In any case, the model is one of those things that will have a lasting effect on your thinking when you get it.

Mick Goodrick’s Rules

Studying music has many, many benefits and can enrich your life in all sorts of absolutely amazing ways. One thing it does not do, however, is help you feel good about yourself in any simple sense of the word. Whatever you do, there’s always something you haven’t mastered and, as a result, you feel inadequate. Stuff you’ve learned before by taking great pains, perhaps even intricate virtuoso shit, feels lightweight and too easy. So easy, in fact, that if you were your own audience it would be an insult to your intelligence and talent to play that drivel.

This felt inadequacy can be used for good, as a motivating force, but its dark side can at times become too much, a source of stress and anxiety. Times like these require a good teacher. If there’s none of those around, you need a good book. The workbook I use for my own amateurish efforts is Mick Goodrick’s The Advancing Guitarist (1987). When I first started reading it, I noticed it had clever little jokes that at times seemed a bit off-putting, but it was easy to get used to the humor when it was submerged in so much theoretical information and, for want of a better word, wisdom. Check out this passage from a section titled “On Being Self-Critical”:

Students tend to think that eventually, after they learn whatever it is that they think they need to know (or they can do whatever it is they think they need to be able to do), they won’t feel insecure anymore. This thinking amounts to wishing that you didn’t dislike your playing so much. It’s fantasizing that things will gradually change for the better.

Well, as good as it sounds on paper, it seldom (if ever) happens. In fact, it tends to get worse. If you start off being critical, you tend to remain that way, and more likely, along with everything else, your criticalness will improve. If you try to deny your criticalness, that messes you up, because it amounts to lying. If you become critical of your criticalness, it’s the same thing removed one step. . . . Being self-critical actually has a lot to be said for it. People who are self-critical tend to improve in music because they always seem to see so many things to work on. They tend not to get involved in overly developed egos. They tend to be much less critical of everyone else. Often, they are compassionate. (98)

At first glance, this has very little to do with music. It’s just saying that your criticalness will improve as your playing progresses. But the book is not for brief glances. It’s for practice in the sense of rehearsing and active meditation. There’s very little “just” in it, except for the odd joke or two. Its advice is based on a pluralism that always has music in mind. There are many approaches to any given aural device, of which Goodrick gives a few, but it always comes down to the same two questions: What does it sound like and why does it sound like that?

Stephen Fry’s Rules

Stephen Fry’s acting career often overshadows his literary output. His books are a strange bunch that includes fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, and some other things I don’t have a name for. His latest book is called The Ode Less Travelled (2005) and it’s a book about poetry. Actually, it’s a self-help book, with a cheesy subtitle and everything, that is aimed at people who want to learn to write poetry. It’s jam-packed with rules, forms, and writing exercises. And despite all that it’s great fun to read.

A good portion of the introductory remarks are aimed at explaining why Fry chose to write a book like this. My favorite reason is the simple fact that nobody teaches form. A few university English courses dwell on the subject around these parts, but even then the formal aspects of poetry are seldom given the treatment they deserve. Those of us who have gone through some version of the Finnish university system will recognize an iambic pentameter when we see one, but that’s about it. There is, however, another more interesting reason that pertains to actual writing skills given in the preface:

But however well or badly we were taught English literature, how many of us have ever been shown how to write our own poetry?

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to rhyme. Don’t bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.

Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry:

Anything goes.

What do you do when you are told you can do anything? Anything you do will come out as noise. Sloppy, unrehearsed, uninspired noise. In artistic endeavors it is often the case that the rules of the game enable you to express yourself freely. This fact is often dressed up as a paradox, but it is nothing of the sort.

To take a musical example, say you want to improvise over a chord progression that swings by a certain chord you recognize as F minor. Any note on your guitar will do, meaning any note will have some effect on the overall harmony, but you don’t want to play random notes and risk violence. An F minor arpeggio would do nicely, but you have to know the notes of the chord in order to play it. That’s easy to figure out. Say you do this and now you have a bunch of arpeggio patterns literally at your fingertips. Then you want to do something else and move around a bit. Say you have figured out the arpeggio for the preceding chord and want to make those notes flow nicely into your F minor patterns when the chord changes. But you happen to be stuck in an awkward place on the neck and would have to make a giant leap from one position to the next that would ruin the effect you are looking for. These are the sorts of places where you need more rules to enable more freedom. You open your theory book and discover relative keys. After studying this little rule you discover that in addition to F minor arpeggios you are able to use Ab major arpeggios under F minor as well. The damn things just happen to sound the same and by knowing this relation you’ve just opened up a good portion of the neck for further exploration.

The final trick in study of this kind, after the rules have become second nature, is to forget all about them and just express yourself freely. No shortcuts are available as far as I know. The best you can do is make learning the rules fun and Fry succeeds in doing precisely that.

Dante, Beatrice and Auerbach

Where did love songs come from? The sort of hyperbolic praise of lovers and love itself? An answer is not to be found solely in our biological need for reproduction, that is much too general a concept to make much sense in a world where we actually have to do our best to attract a mate and go through the motions and negotiate contingencies biologists can gloss over. It is a long way from Dante’s poetry to vapid love songs, but the path is illuminated by books such as Erich Auerbach’s Dante: Poet of the Secular World. It’s a short little thing, but it’s one of those books that is able to humble you however towering your scholarly pretensions are — anyone who enjoys taking beatings like this will absolutely love it. The weight of Auerbach’s vast knowledge looms in the background even as he gets carried away with his own prose and lifts his reader along with him to previously unimagined heights.

Beatrice is Dante’s love, his inspiration and muse. She was the name of an idea that gave birth to love as we have come to know it through song and verse. She became the nexus between the realm of the ideal and the sensuous, not Beatrice Portinari but the sign of imminent enlightenment and the ecstasy that precedes it. The poetic world and the real world, previously separated and only held side by side to make the ontological distinction clear in linguistic play, came together through her presence. Says Auerbach:

In Dante . . . each poem is an authentic event, directly set forth in its unique, contingent, and ephemeral this-worldliness; from personal experience it expands into the universal, whence by a kind of counteraction it derives its articulated form to become an immutable vision of reality in general, earthly particularity held fast in the mirror of a timeless eye. (68)

Auerbach makes Dante’s achievement epic in every sense of the word. Dante created a new way of thinking, a new metaphysical language, one is almost tempted to say he created poetry as we know it. But that would be saying too much, even if it were true, and it also seems too harsh to blame Dante for the kind of mindless wailing about babies and girls and boys you hear when you turn on the radio. That drivel is not Dante’s fault, but the reason it can exist perhaps is, the fault of him and Beatrice and the world they created together.

In Beatrice the oriental Christian motif of incarnate divine perfection, the parousia of the Idea, took a turn which has profoundly influenced all European literature. With his passionate, exacting temperament and his unflagging desire for a concrete embodiment of the truth Dante could only accept a visionary experience capable of legitimation by reason and act; he removed the secret truth, which in this case coincided with the first sweet enchantment of the senses, from the hazy private world of his [stilnovisti] companions and gave it a foundation in reality; his yearning for the truth did not turn to sterile heterodoxy or shapeless mysticism. (61-2)

Reading Auerbach, one begins to wonder if Dante did us all a disservice and drove us mad. What he came up with was not a new religion and, although a part of one, it seems to go far beyond any religious belief. Love blown up. Love encompassing the universe. Love whose praises we may sing forever. Inexhaustible love. Love godlike, His rival even. Dante made it possible to blow up the idea into something whose inexhaustible praiseworthiness and simultaneous concreteness made it possible for man to meet God face to face. Denying its otherworldliness made it of this world, albeit something that can never be reached, a thirst that can never be quenched or a flame that never goes out.

Epic Bloodshed

People who spend much of their time talking about literature seem endlessly amazed by the fact that we are drawn to fiction in the first place. One can of course posit many reasons for our need to indulge in literature. For instance, we find advice in parables, diversion in romances, and something to aspire to in epic poetry. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to read fiction, but there are others that are morally questionable. In fact, they might even be wrong, the sort of reasons that lead to mental strife and psychological scarring. When I was younger, I found out early that literature could be dangerous and that this sense of danger could be used for play, like the matches in grandpa’s woodshed.

There was more sex, violence, incest, mutilation, cruelty, torture, and psychological mindfuckery in the library than television could ever provide. And people around me seemed quite pleased that I had taken up reading as a hobby. In fact, it was more than an idle pastime. It was an addiction, it was flirting with danger. The biggest discrepancy I found in Greco-Roman mythology. These stories were rightly lauded by everybody as some of the greatest things ever produced by mankind, and they were (and still are) absolutely terrific tales of death, bestiality, love, war, honor, and everything else in between. It just seemed hilarious to me that my minders probably would have wasted no time taking my books away had they read these blood-drenched opuses themselves.

Reading has become a job for me now, but the same thrill is still there. There are lots of more ethical viewpoints that clutter up the childlike joy of reading about heads being bashed in and gods having their way with mortals; and, of course, many technical things of interest make these stories anything but simple. But the delight is there, however troubling it may be. Take, for instance, this little battlefield snippet from John Dryden‘s magnificent translation of the Aeneid (Book 11):

He seems to follow, and she seems to fly.
But in a narrower Ring she makes the Race;
And then he flies, and she pursues the Chase.
Gath’ring at length on her deluded Foe,
She swings her Axe, and rises to the Blow:
Full on the helm behind, with such a sway
The Weapon falls, the riven Steel gives way:
He groans, he roars, he sues in vain for Grace;
Brains, mingled with his Blood, besmear his Face.

I was more into the Greek stuff, but it’s pretty much the same. Sexuality, violence, power, all mingled into these exciting packets of madness one could get from the library for free. Unlike television and the movies, this was genuinely scary. Not because of the graphic violence and sex. It was the act of letting someone into your head and letting them screw around with the bits inside that was truly frightening. And this is really the point where the danger of literature becomes palpable. It is supposed to make you think: Am I allowed to enjoy this? Is it as safe as it seems, or will it turn me into a monster or a madman? What about people who will never read this? Can they even have an inkling about what they are missing? Are they better off unscarred? Will I eventually lose my mind and will it matter anymore when I do? That’s heavy stuff when you’re twelve.

Equine Utopias

The word “utopia” entered the lexicon a long time ago and today it of course denotes an ideal frictionless social system where all are able to live in the greatest possible happiness in perfect harmony. Most people know that it is the title of Thomas More’s 1516 book and that it literally means no-place — there are many Greek puns in the text which itself, and surprisingly few people seem to know this, was written in Latin. The name usually conjures up images of a place so perfect it cannot exist in real life and yet is something we all should strive for. From this it is obvious that most people have not read More’s faux travel-narrative which, in short, is a story narrated by someone called Raphael who explains the habits and customs of the Utopians in the manner of a proto-Gulliver.

It is a horrible place to live in if you are a woman and it’s not much better if you are a man. More was a religious nut at a time when this was a particularly difficult thing to accomplish and he eventually died for his beliefs. He refused to recognize Henry VIII’s nookie-hunt-inspired innovations and lost his head for it, probably quite happily too. His ideal society reflected his rigid beliefs resulting in the book which has been called the first work of fiction in the English Renaissance. It’s also often said that More’s Utopia is some sort of proto-Communist tract, but I would think it unfair towards Marxist materialism to go along with that. The modern reader will perhaps see More’s Utopia as a place closer to an Orwellian society reinforced with Foucauldian self-disciplining mechanisms. Which is to say it’s not much fun at all. My point is, it’s very difficult to find anything nice to say about the world More created, but seek and ye shall find.

Swift was a fan of More, and More’s influence can be seen in Gulliver’s Travels. Much like with Utopia, people seem to pick and choose what parts to read and which to chop off and usually the discarded bits are the ones that do not conform to an easy reading of the work. In Gulliver the bit that is most often left out is the last voyage where Gulliver meets the Houyhnhnms, those noble horse-creatures who seem to have figured out this business with society and perfected it. They’re so fantastically noble that Gulliver is in tears when he has to leave and physically repulsed by humans when he returns to human society. Now, with that in mind, check out this bit in Utopia from the new Penguin translation:

People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, or money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that’s really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury. But labourers, coachmen, carpenters, and farmhands, who never stop working like cart-horses, at jobs so essential that, if they did stop working, they’d bring any country to a standstill within twelve months — what happens to them? They get so little to eat and have such a wretched time, that they’d be almost better off if they were cart-horses. (110)

At least as horses, More writes, they’d lead much happier lives where they wouldn’t have to worry so much. It is a typical social inequality rant some bushy-bearded pinko could belt out even today for the simple fact that it is still true today. Horses are fairly dumb animals, but there is a tinge of nobility in them anyway. If only they had the good sense to act according to their potential and be the creatures Swift made of them. This line of reasoning has many avenues to explore, but I have to stop here for now because it is quite late. I will not pun about leading horses to water and letting them go about their business, but I would like to say that using the word “utopia” in its common sense becomes much more interesting after one has actually read More’s book.

Lewis Carroll

There’s something very frightening about Lewis Carroll. It is as if he had noticed the horrible misuse of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a children’s book and wanted to write a story which would somehow smuggle in the relentless misanthropy of the last chapter of that fantastic work — the one where it’s not a matter of being delightfully big or small or among delightfully strange people but noticing the barbarity of one’s own culture and self. The censors who enjoyed chopping off that little bit had to be fooled somehow, so Carroll used wit (or some semblance of wit) and his pitch black sense of humor to do just that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Take, for instance, his famous parody of Isaac Watts’s moralistic poem which in the original goes:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

By a little tweak of the subject and Watts’s moral perspective Carroll turns this poem on its head and creates something quite subtle, but it’s devastating nonetheless.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly he spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

The little tale of the busy bee has been turned into a description of a predator doing what predators do best. It is not the case that the moral tale of being good and industrious has been soiled by parody and made into a story of evil. The question of morality is there, but in a very different form. Crocodiles do what they do because they are crocodiles, and bees sure as hell do not get moral satisfaction from their work. Someone stuck on a factory assembly line works hard, too, but it would be strange if they sustained their faith in the meaningfulness of their work every day until the day they die. We find satisfaction in the mundane repetitiveness of work not because it is rewarding in itself but because if we didn’t we would see it devoid of its moral qualities. We make up things such as “I’m happy that the toys my company makes bring happiness to children” or that “My input on the production line contributes to the economic growth of my country and hence the welfare of its citizens, my countrymen.”  Carroll scorns our lot in unspeakable ways. It is this terrifying wit (not the Disneyfied versions of his books) we should celebrate nonetheless, because it at least tells us that we make up excuses for our happiness, our own little morality tales, because we have to. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Spending too much time with books will make you do that, which is something Watts also forgot to mention.