Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Saatchi On-Line Showdown Submission

I have entered Red Umbrella in the Saatchi On-Line competition "Showdown". I need your help to vote for the work should you consider it worthy of your consideration. You can see the work and VOTE here. The work will be displayed between 9.3.09 and 16.3.09. Thanks in advance.

This is a piece from my Foundation panel. The work is created using a process I developed as part of my graduation project. Starting as a digitally manipulated photograph which is rendered as a series of inkjet prints which are tiled and transferred onto a gesso primed MDF board ground using an acrylic medium process. The process results in an individual image with a uniquely distressed appearance.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Reality of Childhood

Following from the CS lecture of 16th February 09 about Reality and Representation, I relate an incident which happened to me that brought home some aspects of that lecture.

On Saturday morning my 3 year old grandson he asked me if I knew where his “pooma” was. What is a “pooma” I asked, my wife informed me that is was a snorkel and an AA battery which when used as an offensive weapon was accompanied by the onamatapia “poom” when fired, hence a to Joe a snorkel and a battery represents a "pooma".

So what has this to do with CS? I felt this incident brought together the whole subject of visual communication as defined by Shannon and Weaver, Pierce, Saussure and Barthes.

Here we appear to have practical example of Semiotics and Linguistics at work . The information being received by me and my grandson about these objects is clearly quite different. From the visual information, he sees something that looks rather like a weapon based on signifiers picked up from watching Power Rangers and playing with his friends and cousins. I of course know this to be a snorkel and a battery.

But to Joe a tube with a "handle", signifies a weapon (gun) and a small cylindrical object that will fit down the tube, signifies a “bullet/missile”.

Is this in Pierces terms a convention? The conventional use of these items is one, to aid breathing under water, two, a source of power. But to Joe his connotation of a tube loaded with an AA battery is quite an effective weapon, a "pooma"!

In the words of Bathes, Joe’s connotation of these items is quite different to mine. Not only that but he has developed his own code, I had no idea what a "poom" or a "pooma" were but I am sure his friends and cousins do. And my wife of course who is an expert in juvenile linguistics!

POOM ...........................ya dead!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Semiotics - Toilet Signage

Whilst researching images for an article on the Semiotics of symbol based signs I was looking for an image of a toilet sign. Little did I know what a can of worms I was opening. As a compulsive photographer of just about anything and everything. I have an unhealthy collection of toilet signs of which this is just one, from Marks and Spencer, Manchester. I want to know why little boys seem to be excluded!

However my searches revealed that I am not the only sad soul in the world there are others much sadder than I. In the interest of researching the fascinating subject of Semiotics here is a selection of the toilet sign sites signs I found............

Gender signs
Semiotics-Toilet signs
Toilet signs
Coolest toilet signs around the world

If you know of any others leave me a comment

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Marxists Internet Archive

From Barthes to Zola and much more the Marxists Internet Archive is a cornucopia of information on all Marx related subjects. A essential bookmark.

I discovered the site whilst searching for information about Roland Barthes, I found an interesting essay, "Elements of Semiology".

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Daler Rowney - Make Your Mark Competition

They say if you don't buy a ticket you can't win the raffle. In a moment of madness I entered the Daler Rowney - Make Your Mark Competition way back in in October 08, I received an email in January to say I had been short listed. I could not even remember entering, let alone what work I had entered! Apparently there were over 1400 entries.

Just discovered I was a runner up in the Education Section with a piece from my Foundation panel "The Three Faces of Blackpool".

The winner was a Turkish artist Engin Dogan with his painting "Mongol" (Obviously being PC isn't an issue in Turkey). My congratulations, it was a very accomplished portrait with a very distinctive contemporary style.

What did the winner get? Two nights in London and a day with acclaimed artist Annie Kevans. Plus a year's subscription of the Artist magazine. And work displayed in the Mall Gallery!

What did I win? Well I thought it was Zilch, but I have, since my initial posting, discovered that I will have my work displayed in the Mall Gallery in London, the home of the Federation of British Artists, for 7 days, from 5th to 11th July 2009. This will be accompanied by a national press launch, so I am well chuffed.

The Chairman of the judges was the internationally acclaimed artist Romeo di Girolamo, President Royal Society British Artists. The other three judges were Annie Kevans, Patrick Giraud CEO of Daler Rowney and Stephen Doherty, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines.

Romero di Girolamo said “This new competition demonstrates that art is thriving all over the world. The standard of entries was exceptionally high and to have entries from five continents means the competition is truly international. It was particularly pleasing to see so many entries from young people showing that art has a great future and is in safe hands. We hope the competition will inspire more people to paint and make their mark".

The Three Faces of Blackpool - Acrylic Transfer on Board



An article in Tuesdays Guardian (10.2.09) included, in the G2 supplement an item about the use of LEGO as a means of communication. In view of the CS lecture on Monday I thought this provides an interesting twist on the subject of "Symbol-based writing system".

The author, Christopher Niemann, an American born Illustrator and Photographer, currently based in Berlin, claims he came up with the idea for his LEGO symbols whilst trying to entertain his sons through the long winter evenings.

This is the link to the Guardian article and this is the link to Christopher Niemanns blog, Abstract City in the New York Times, the origin of the piece. This is just one of many LEGO symbols he has designed. There is now a huge following of fellow contributors to the symbol gallery.

Deconstructing and Advert

This full page advert for Standard Life SIPP Pensions appeared in the Sunday Times 1st Feb 09.

The text in the advertisement reads
"why should your money"
"Whether you dedicate your life to adventure, or just pack as much as possible into every single day, ............."

I have to confess that although I assumed the person in the advert was probably famous I did not recognise them immediately. They are obviously an outdoor type, with lean rugged features, stubbly beard, light coloured piercing eyes, wearing an anorak, age, from the look of the eyebrows (grey and wiry), about 55 to 60, probably the age group of the target customer. I later realised the subject was Ranaulph Fiennes.

The advert is one of three in the campaign. This one appeared on successive right hand pages with an almost identical advert which included an image (which I again did not recognise immediately) of Mariella Fostrop. The only difference between the adverts was a variation in the wording of the first sentence in the boiler plate copy:-

"Whether you dedicate your life to art and culture, or just make the most of every waking moment, ............."

The third personality is Marco Pierre White.


To me the message in this advert is confused. The strap line poses a statement which is ambiguous.

Will the message be diminished if you don't recognise the person in the advert? Will it be enhanced if you do?

Why don't they name the celebrity?

Is the male character intended to appeal to males or females and vica versa?

Will investing your money with Standard Life be an adventure? In the current economic climate, probably!

Why choose three celebrities? Why choose these particular celebrities?

The Standard Life website suggests the target audience is over 44! The age of the celebrities are; Fiennes 65, Foster 50. White 50!

Not sure why this image is duplicated!


Following on from my post of the 18/01/09 Post-Post-Modernism I was drawn to the title of the Tate Britain Triennial exhibition Alter-Modern which has just started. The exhibition claims Post-Modernism is dead! Does this mean we will not have to study it any more? Unfortunately they do not seem to be sure what has replaced it! The curator Nicholas Bourriard described as a French cultural theorist, coined the name "Alter-Modern" (see below) apparently it is written as Altermodern but I think it looks much more important with a hyphen! The curator an admirer of Baudrillard and Foucault defines the new "ism as follows:-

  • "Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony (Def: a developmental change in the timing of events), that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia for the avant-garde and indeed for any kind of era - a positive vision of chaos and complexity".
The exhibition includes work by 28 artists and is HUGE. Exhibits range from reading a copy of the Times at a desk to watching a Soft Porn video!

The Curator suggests that Post-Modernism endeavoured to answer the question "Where am I from?" "Altermodernism, thanks to the Internet, means we need no longer define ourselves within traditional boundaries. The artist is a wanderer, drifting about in space and time, drawing from a vast, fluid fund of collective ideas. And his or her work is far less about a single finished object than about continuing processes of development and connection in which one thing always seems to be leading to the next.

Nicholas Bourriard claims he invented the term Alter-Modern, I think not!
Alter-Modernism is a neologism (new word) attributed to Croatian writer Filip Erceg. It is apparently an analogy to the term Alterglobalism (a social movement that supports global cooperation and interaction) and is supposed to be an alternative to Post-Modernist nihilism (nothingness).

The critics appear to be unconvinced that this is the replacement for Post-Modernism. The Times are not even sure were the exhibition is being held, Tate Modern or Tate Britain, it is the later, from 3 Feb 09 to 26 April 09.

If the critics are not in favour that probably means it is worth seeing!

Semiotics !

Semiotics - Seen in my hotel bathroom!

Academic Language #2 - Ownership

In one of my earlier posts I remarked about my difficulty, as a member of the proletariat, coming to terms with academic language. Since then I have experienced significant exposure to this elitist form of communication during the researches for my essay.

One thing that now concerns me is, how do I know when this new found academic vocabulary becomes mine? I seem to recall someone in a CS lecture warning us not to use our own language in our essay. Because we did not know enough! I have to say I find myself constantly concerned that my writing simply paraphrases the words of others!

Academic Language

Critical Studies Essay December 08 - Reflections

Critical Studies Essay December 08
A belated reflection on the essay. At the time of writing I have not had my marks for the essay. I will have to reflect further on this post when I have.

The essay proved to be a marathon. Mainly due to my lack of initial planning. I quickly realised that in my panic to grab as much reference material as possible I became overloaded with information. Much of which I did not reference sufficiently well that I could go back to the source. Result was I lost focus, could not see the wood for the trees. I pulled myself together by reaffirming that although this was a research based essay, it was essentially a technical exercise and it was probably more important at this stage to get the structure and presentation right as come up with an earth shattering academic work. I am sure that is what Steve said!

I made the notes that in future I should stay more focussed, produce my thesis statement at an early stage, make sure my notes were clear and well referenced, make sure reading is relevant. Avoid being side tracked. Start the bibliography and reference collection from day one. I discovered a brilliant Word plug-in for collating citations, called Zotero.

As for the essay, I think my technical structure is OK but I am not so sure about the actual essay structure. I feel my conclusion may prove to be a major weakness, too short! Time will tell.

Just need to wait and see if my thoughts prove to be correct. Grade ? C+?????

Jackson Pollock at work

Jackson Pollock at work - the main focus of my essay

13 photographs that changed the world

"Omaha Beach, Normandy, France" Robert Capa, 1944

This post may be a little late for some. I would assume that many of these images could have been the subject of the last essay assignment, for the photographers anyway.

The photographs are aggregated and commented on on Neatorama's blog.

Possibly the most interesting part of the post are the comments suggesting other images which could have been included.

How many more could you add to the list?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Stretcher Bars

If you are going to be stretching your own canvases there are a number of options, from the local wood yard to the College MDF strtechers. Personally I find MDF too heavy for large canvases and not only that it is not as stable as you my think. MDF will bend if your canvas is a bit tight.

One of the cheapest places I have found for stretchers is They have a wide range of sizes and qualities at very reasonable prices. Certainly cheaper than going to the local wood yard.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Sketchbooks Part 1

This semester we are looking at sketchbook compilation and construction. In this Video Norman Travers explains to the group three different styles of exemplar sketchbooks from past foundation students. The emphasis here is on drawing.

Here are some shots of pages from the scrap books to give you an clearer idea of the content. Click on the image to enlarge.

In the two pages above, this idea of breaking an image down into small sections and then redrawing, painting, recreating them was used as one of the exercises in the 2nd Drawing assignment. In this sketchbook the author used the work of artist Marlene Dumas as inspiration.

I acknowledge the copyright of the authors of the work shown, Norman Long, Catherine Mortimer and Ian Rothwell.

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything

I came across this article last year when searching for info on Post-Modernism. A rediscovered it yesterday when searching for stuff on "De-construction". It is such a great piece of writing that I make no apologies for ripping it in its entirety for this blog. Partly to ensure its posterity, the Internet being what it is, the original article has already disappeared into Cyberspace once apparently. With respect to Chip Morningstar (What a great name)!

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything

My Postmodern Adventure

by Chip Morningstar
June 1993

"Academics get paid for being clever, not for being right."
-- Donald Norman

This is the story of one computer professional's explorations in the world of postmodern literary criticism. I'm a working software engineer, not a student nor an academic nor a person with any real background in the humanities. Consequently, I've approached the whole subject with a somewhat different frame of mind than perhaps people in the field are accustomed to. Being a vulgar engineer I'm allowed to break a lot of the rules that people in the humanities usually have to play by, since nobody expects an engineer to be literate. Ha. Anyway, here is my tale.

It started when my colleague Randy Farmer and I presented a paper at the Second International Conference on Cyberspace, held in Santa Cruz, California in April, 1991. Like the first conference, at which we also presented a paper, it was an aggressively interdisciplinary gathering, drawing from fields as diverse as computer science, literary criticism, engineering, history, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and political science. About the only relevant field that seemed to lack strong representation was economics (an important gap but one which we don't have room to get into here). It was in turn stimulating, aggravating, fascinating and infuriating, a breathtaking intellectual roller coaster ride unlike anything else I've recently encountered in my professional life. My last serious brush with the humanities in an academic context had been in college, ten years earlier. The humanities appear to have experienced a considerable amount of evolution (or perhaps more accurately, genetic drift) since then.

Randy and I were scheduled to speak on the second day of the conference. This was fortunate because it gave us the opportunity to recalibrate our presentation based on the first day's proceedings, during which we discovered that we had grossly mischaracterized the audience by assuming that it would be like the crowd from the first conference. I spent most of that first day furiously scribbling notes. People kept saying the most remarkable things using the most remarkable language, which I found I needed to put down in writing because the words would disappear from my brain within seconds if I didn't. Are you familiar with the experience of having memories of your dreams fade within a few minutes of waking? It was like that, and I think for much the same reason. Dreams have a logic and structure all their own, falling apart into unmemorable pieces that make no sense when subjected to the scrutiny of the conscious mind. So it was with many of the academics who got up to speak. The things they said were largely incomprehensible. There was much talk about deconstruction and signifiers and arguments about whether cyberspace was or was not "narrative". There was much quotation from Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Saussure, and the like, every single word of which was impenetrable. I'd never before had the experience of being quite this baffled by things other people were saying. I've attended lectures on quantum physics, group theory, cardiology, and contract law, all fields about which I know nothing and all of which have their own specialized jargon and notational conventions. None of those lectures were as opaque as anything these academics said. But I captured on my notepad an astonishing collection of phrases and a sense of the overall tone of the event.

We retreated back to Palo Alto that evening for a quick rewrite. The first order of business was to excise various little bits of phraseology that we now realized were likely to be perceived as Politically Incorrect. Mind you, the fundamental thesis of our presentation was Politically Incorrect, but we wanted people to get upset about the actual content rather than the form in which it was presented. Then we set about attempting to add something that would be an adequate response to the postmodern lit crit-speak we had been inundated with that day. Since we had no idea what any of it meant (or even if it actually meant anything at all), I simply cut-and-pasted from my notes. The next day I stood up in front of the room and opened our presentation with the following:

The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the phenomenology of narrative space and requiring the naturalization of the intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of the model of the metaphor.

This bit of nonsense was constructed entirely out of things people had actually said the day before, except for the last ten words or so which are a pastiche of Danny Kaye's "flagon with the dragon" bit from The Court Jester, contributed by our co-worker Gayle Pergamit, who took great glee in the entire enterprise. Observing the audience reaction was instructive. At first, various people started nodding their heads in nods of profound understanding, though you could see that their brain cells were beginning to strain a little. Then some of the techies in the back of the room began to giggle. By the time I finished, unable to get through the last line with a straight face, the entire room was on the floor in hysterics, as by then even the most obtuse English professor had caught on to the joke. With the postmodernist lit crit shit thus defused, we went on with our actual presentation.

Contrary to the report given in the "Hype List" column of issue #1 of Wired ("Po-Mo Gets Tek-No", page 87), we did not shout down the postmodernists. We made fun of them.

Afterward, however, I was left with a sense that I should try to actually understand what these people were saying, really. I figured that one of three cases must apply. It could be that there was truly some content there of value, once you learned the lingo. If this was the case, then I wanted to know what it was. On the other hand, perhaps there was actually content there but it was bogus (my working hypothesis), in which case I wanted to be able to respond to it credibly. On the third hand, maybe there was no content there after all, in which case I wanted to be able to write these clowns off without feeling guilty that I hadn't given them due consideration.

The subject that I kept hearing about over and over again at the conference was deconstruction. I figured I'd start there. I asked my friend Michael Benedikt for a pointer to some sources. I had gotten to know Michael when he organized the First International Conference on Cyberspace. I knew him to be a person with a foot in the lit crit camp but also a person of clear intellectual integrity who was not a fool. He suggested a book called On Deconstruction by Jonathan Culler. I got the book and read it. It was a stretch, but I found I could work my way through it, although I did end up with the most heavily marked up book in my library by the time I was done. The Culler book lead me to some other things, which I also read. And I started subscribing to alt.postmodern and now actually find it interesting, much of the time. I can't claim to be an expert, but I feel I've reached the level of a competent amateur. I think I can explain it. It turns out that there's nothing to be afraid of.

We engineers are frequently accused of speaking an alien language, of wrapping what we do in jargon and obscurity in order to preserve the technological priesthood. There is, I think, a grain of truth in this accusation. Defenders frequently counter with arguments about how what we do really is technical and really does require precise language in order to talk about it clearly. There is, I think, a substantial bit of truth in this as well, though it is hard to use these grounds to defend the use of the term "grep" to describe digging through a backpack to find a lost item, as a friend of mine sometimes does. However, I think it's human nature for members of any group to use the ideas they have in common as metaphors for everything else in life, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to cotton to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a commercial environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are different from me -- marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my investors, my customers -- none of whom belong to my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I'm constantly forced to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to understand. My success in my job depends to a large degree on my success in so communicating. At the very least, in order to remain employed I have to convince somebody else that what I'm doing is worth having them pay for it.

Contrast this situation with that of academia. Professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies in their professional life find themselves communicating principally with other professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They also, of course, communicate with students, but students don't really count. Graduate students are studying to be professors themselves and so are already part of the in-crowd. Undergraduate students rarely get a chance to close the feedback loop, especially at the so called "better schools" (I once spoke with a Harvard professor who told me that it is quite easy to get a Harvard undergraduate degree without ever once encountering a tenured member of the faculty inside a classroom; I don't know if this is actually true but it's a delightful piece of slander regardless). They publish in peer reviewed journals, which are not only edited by their peers but published for and mainly read by their peers (if they are read at all). Decisions about their career advancement, tenure, promotion, and so on are made by committees of their fellows. They are supervised by deans and other academic officials who themselves used to be professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They rarely have any reason to talk to anybody but themselves -- occasionally a Professor of Literature will collaborate with a Professor of History, but in academic circles this sort of interdisciplinary work is still considered sufficiently daring and risqué as to be newsworthy.

What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands -- an isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary divergence from the mainland population. There's no reason you should be able to understand what these academics are saying because, for several generations, comprehensibility to outsiders has not been one of the selective criteria to which they've been subjected. What's more, it's not particularly important that they even be terribly comprehensible to each other, since the quality of academic work, particularly in the humanities, is judged primarily on the basis of politics and cleverness. In fact, one of the beliefs that seems to be characteristic of the postmodernist mind set is the idea that politics and cleverness are the basis for all judgments about quality or truth, regardless of the subject matter or who is making the judgment. A work need not be right, clear, original, or connected to anything outside the group. Indeed, it looks to me like the vast bulk of literary criticism that is published has other works of literary criticism as its principal subject, with the occasional reference to the odd work of actual literature tossed in for flavoring from time to time.

Thus it is not surprising that it takes a bit of detective work to puzzle out what is going on. But I've been on the case for a while now and I think I've identified most of the guilty suspects. I hope I can spare some of my own peers the inconvenience and wasted time of actually doing the legwork themselves (though if you have an inclination in that direction I recommend it as a mind stretching departure from debugging C code).

The basic enterprise of contemporary literary criticism is actually quite simple. It is based on the observation that with a sufficient amount of clever handwaving and artful verbiage, you can interpret any piece of writing as a statement about anything at all. The broader movement that goes under the label "postmodernism" generalizes this principle from writing to all forms of human activity, though you have to be careful about applying this label, since a standard postmodernist tactic for ducking criticism is to try to stir up metaphysical confusion by questioning the very idea of labels and categories. "Deconstruction" is based on a specialization of the principle, in which a work is interpreted as a statement about itself, using a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Gödel used to try to frighten mathematicians back in the thirties.

Deconstruction, in particular, is a fairly formulaic process that hardly merits the commotion that it has generated. However, like hack writers or television producers, academics will use a formula if it does the job and they are not held to any higher standard (though perhaps Derrida can legitimately claim some credit for originality in inventing the formula in the first place). Just to clear up the mystery, here is the formula, step-by-step:

Step 1 -- Select a work to be deconstructed. This is called a "text" and is generally a piece of text, though it need not be. It is very much within the lit crit mainstream to take something which is not text and call it a text. In fact, this can be a very useful thing to do, since it leaves the critic with broad discretion to define what it means to "read" it and thus a great deal of flexibility in interpretation. It also allows the literary critic to extend his reach beyond mere literature. However, the choice of text is actually one of the less important decisions you will need to make, since points are awarded on the basis of style and wit rather than substance, although more challenging works are valued for their greater potential for exercising cleverness. Thus you want to pick your text with an eye to the opportunities it will give you to be clever and convoluted, rather than whether the text has anything important to say or there is anything important to say about it. Generally speaking, obscure works are better than well known ones, though an acceptable alternative is to choose a text from the popular mass media, such as a Madonna video or the latest Danielle Steele novel. The text can be of any length, from the complete works of Louis L'Amour to a single sentence. For example, let's deconstruct the phrase, "John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual."

Step 2 -- Decide what the text says. This can be whatever you want, although of course in the case of a text which actually consists of text it is easier if you pick something that it really does say. This is called "reading". I will read our example phrase as saying that John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual.

Step 3 -- Identify within the reading a distinction of some sort. This can be either something which is described or referred to by the text directly or it can be inferred from the presumed cultural context of a hypothetical reader. It is a convention of the genre to choose a duality, such as man/woman, good/evil, earth/sky, chocolate/vanilla, etc. In the case of our example, the obvious duality to pick is homosexual/heterosexual, though a really clever person might be able to find something else.

Step 4 -- Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical opposition" by asserting that the text claims or presumes a particular primacy, superiority, privilege or importance to one side or the other of the distinction. Since it's pretty much arbitrary, you don't have to give a justification for this assertion unless you feel like it. Programmers and computer scientists may find the concept of a hierarchy consisting of only two elements to be a bit odd, but this appears to be an established tradition in literary criticism. Continuing our example, we can claim homophobia on the part of the society in which this sentence was uttered and therefor assert that it presumes superiority of heterosexuality over homosexuality.

Step 5 -- Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is interpreted as referring to itself. In particular, find a way to read it as a statement which contradicts or undermines either the original reading or the ordering of the hierarchical opposition (which amounts to the same thing). This is really the tricky part and is the key to the whole exercise. Pulling this off successfully may require a variety of techniques, though you get more style points for some techniques than for others. Fortunately, you have a wide range of intellectual tools at your disposal, which the rules allow you to use in literary criticism even though they would be frowned upon in engineering or the sciences. These include appeals to authority (you can even cite obscure authorities that nobody has heard of), reasoning from etymology, reasoning from puns, and a variety of other word games. You are allowed to use the word "problematic" as a noun. You are also allowed to pretend that the works of Freud present a correct model of human psychology and the works of Marx present a correct model of sociology and economics (it's not clear to me whether practitioners in the field actually believe Freud and Marx or if it's just a convention of the genre).

You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us aren't French, we don't qualify for this one, but we can still score almost as much by writing in French or citing French sources. However, it is difficult for even the most intense and unprincipled American academician writing in French to match the zen obliqueness of a native French literary critic. Least credit is given for a clear, rational argument which makes its case directly, though of course that is what I will do with our example since, being gainfully employed, I don't have to worry about graduation or tenure. And besides, I'm actually trying to communicate here. Here is a possible argument to go with our example:

It is not generally claimed that John F. Kennedy was a homosexual. Since it is not an issue, why would anyone choose to explicitly declare that he was not a homosexual unless they wanted to make it an issue? Clearly, the reader is left with a question, a lingering doubt which had not previously been there. If the text had instead simply asked, "Was John F. Kennedy a homosexual?", the reader would simply answer, "No." and forget the matter. If it had simply declared, "John F. Kennedy was a homosexual.", it would have left the reader begging for further justification or argument to support the proposition. Phrasing it as a negative declaration, however, introduces the question in the reader's mind, exploiting society's homophobia to attack the reputation of the fallen President. What's more, the form makes it appear as if there is ongoing debate, further legitimizing the reader's entertainment of the question. Thus the text can be read as questioning the very assertion that it is making.

Of course, no real deconstruction would be like this. I only used a single paragraph and avoided literary jargon. All of the words will be found in a typical abridged dictionary and were used with their conventional meanings. I also wrote entirely in English and did not cite anyone. Thus in an English literature course I would probably get a D for this, but I already have my degree so I don't care.

Another minor point, by the way, is that we don't say that we deconstruct the text but that the text deconstructs itself. This way it looks less like we are making things up.

That's basically all there is to it, although there is an enormous variety of stylistic complication that is added in practice. This is mainly due to the genetic drift phenomenon I mentioned earlier, resulting in the intellectual equivalent of peacock feathers, although I suspect that the need for enough material to fill up a degree program plays a part as well. The best way to learn, of course, is to try to do it yourself. First you need to read some real lit crit to get a feel for the style and the jargon. One or two volumes is all it takes, since it's all pretty much the same (I advise starting with the Culler book the way I did). Here are some ideas for texts you might try to deconstruct, once you are ready to attempt it yourself, graded by approximate level of difficulty:


Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea
Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers
this article
James Cameron's The Terminator
issue #1 of Wired
anything by Marx


Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn
the Book of Genesis
Francois Truffaut's Day For Night
The United States Constitution
Elvis Presley singing Jailhouse Rock
anything by Foucault


Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
the Great Pyramid of Giza
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
the Macintosh user interface
Tony Bennett singing I Left My Heart In San Francisco
anything by Derrida

Tour de Force:

James Joyce's Finnegans Wake
the San Jose, California telephone directory
IRS Form 1040
the Intel i486DX Programmer's Reference Manual
the Mississippi River
anything by Baudrillard

So, what are we to make of all this? I earlier stated that my quest was to learn if there was any content to this stuff and if it was or was not bogus. Well, my assessment is that there is indeed some content, much of it interesting. The question of bogosity, however, is a little more difficult. It is clear that the forms used by academicians writing in this area go right off the bogosity scale, pegging my bogometer until it breaks. The quality of the actual analysis of various literary works varies tremendously and must be judged on a case-by-case basis, but I find most of it highly questionable. Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to consider the contrast between what is said and what is not said, between what is explicit and what is assumed, and that popular notions of truth and value depend to a disturbingly high degree on the reader's credulity and willingness to accept the text's own claims as to its validity.

Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred. The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of postmodernism is "epistemologically challenged": a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The language and idea space of the field have become so convoluted that they have confused even themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the academics. It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It immunizes them against having to confront their own failings, since any genuine criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made indistinguishable from all the other verbiage. Intellectual tools that might help prune the thicket are systematically ignored or discredited. This is why, for example, science, psychology and economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago. The field is absorbed in triviality. Deconstruction is an idea that would make a worthy topic for some bright graduate student's Ph.D. dissertation but has instead spawned an entire subfield. Ideas that would merit a good solid evening or afternoon of argument and debate and perhaps a paper or two instead become the focus of entire careers.

Engineering and the sciences have, to a greater degree, been spared this isolation and genetic drift because of crass commercial necessity. The constraints of the physical world and the actual needs and wants of the actual population have provided a grounding that is difficult to dodge. However, in academia the pressures for isolation are enormous. It is clear to me that the humanities are not going to emerge from the jungle on their own. I think that the task of outreach is left to those of us who retain some connection, however tenuous, to what we laughingly call reality. We have to go into the jungle after them and rescue what we can. Just remember to hang on to your sense of humor and don't let them intimidate you.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fine Arts and Professional Practice - First Semester

Having just completed my first semester on the Fine Arts and Professional Practice BA (Hons) degree course at Blackpool Art School I thought it may be helpful to those contemplating embarking on this course if I shared some of my thoughts and experiences from the first semester (15 weeks).

First thing I realised was the Art Foundation pre-degree course (FC), which I enjoyed imensly, in no way prepares you for what is involved in an academic degree course. Which is a pity really as with a bit of joined up thinking the value of the foundation course could be considerably enhanced. Considering that many of the Blackpool foundation students go on to the BA course at Blackpool there seems to be a large gap between the two courses.

Critical Studies
For example, although the FC includes Contextual Studies (history of Art) the way the subject is taught the subject does not prepare you for Critical Studies (CS) which is the degree course equivalent. CS is much more academic, in its approach, different vocabulary, embracing the philosophy of art and critical thinking. A prior knowledge of these concepts will be a definite asset in your first semester. They throw you in a the deep end and if you have no idea who Baudelaire is or the ranting of Marx, Engle's and the crackpot ideas of Jung and Freud you will be struggling. Particularly as within 10 minutes of the end of the first lecture the library will be stripped bare of any reference material. A criticism I have of the course at Blackpool is they do not provide a reading list prior to your arrival. This places great pressure on the library facilities. See my Amazon wish list in the right hand column for reading suggestions. No the list is not a hint to buy me anything.

Computer Skills
About 50% of the new students struggled with inadequate computer skills. Although help is available from student services, deficiency in this area will slow your progress at a time when you have many other things to cope with. If your computer skills are rusty or none existent. I would strongly advise that you spend your summer holidays getting to grips with basic word processing and the Internet. You will have to type up a weekly blog for CS from the fist week. And there is a 1500 word essay to write at the end of the first semester. This has to be presented in a very precise manner so you need fairly good word processing skills. You will also need to learn how to do searches on the Internet for contextual material both for all aspects of the course.

If you do not have a computer of your own I would strongly advise buying one. I am typing this on a Samsung NC10 Netbook which costs new (Christmas 2008) £225. You can buy laptops at computer fairs for under £100 or less. If funds are really tight try a request on BlackpoolFreeCycle ( If you are disabled or on benefits I believe there is a scheme through college for providing FREE computers.

An important part of CS is the completion of a blog or as they now prefer to call it an eJournal on the College Intranet, familiarly known as Moodle. Moodle is like a mini part of the World Wide Web which is private to the college. Moodle is an important part of both your course and of college life. It is used by the college and tutors to communicate with you by posting notices, sending you emails, reporting results of assessments etc. There are a variety of discussion groups on which you can share thoughts and experiences of such things as gallery visits, social events, trips. Ask for help and advice, from house shares, requests for models to where to find a retro 70’s suitcase! And there is a fund of other information both about the college and your course.

But the most important part of Moodle is your eJournal. This is the bit that most people struggle with and much to my surprise it was not the more mature students. The younger text messaging, Facebook, MySpace generation seemed to suffered most. If you have never kept a blog or online journal you should seriously find out how this bit of the Cyber World works. If you want to have a practice in advance I would suggest checking out Blogger on the internet. This is an easy to setup and use blog service operated by Google.

Although you are expected to file an eJournal entry at least once a week this is not a diary. It is an assessable part of your CS module and is supposed to take the form of a critical thinking review on an aspect of a CS lecture, seminar or may be a set piece. It can also include reflective thinking about other aspects of the course, particularly the relevance of the content to your professional discipline and/or practice (Oh yes I have not mentioned Professional Practice yet). It must not be a blow by blow of your daily life. Entries should be short and sweet. Ideally no more than a couple of paragraphs, on one subject. If you want to say more or cover more than one topic you should post separate entries. Posts should include references and key words and if relevant an image(s). They should not include slabs of cut and paste text! Neither should they turn into essays. Moodle contains detailed guidelines.

Professional Practice
The other modules on the course, Professional Practice, Drawing and Painting are slightly less demanding initially. Professional Practice covers aspects of becoming a professional artist in all its permutations, self employed own studio, to teaching. The module covers aspects of self employment, setting up a studio, looking for funding, self promotion, galleries, artist groups and networks etc etc. Useful things to check in advance are Lancashire Artists Network, the magazine AN, as many local galleries as you can find, the local art scene in general and within Blackpool in particular.

Drawing is split in two. Main part is "Constructs in Drawing" which is mainly concerned with Life Drawing which will be familiar to those who have completed the Foundation Course. The approach is traditional with emphasis on mark making. You will use a variety of media from pencil to paint but mainly a mix of compressed and traditional charcoal. There is also a more experimental module which is concerned with technical methods and process. It is usually based on the work done in the previous drawing class. Historical and contextual referencing is an important component.

The module explores spatial awareness through a wide range of technical methods and process combining drawing and other processes such as collage. The subject matter may be directed by the assignment or may be optional. Most students chose to concentrate were allowed on their personal project. This proved to be a sensible choice as it was possible to compare the results of using a variety of techniques on the same subject material. I personally found the approach very enlightening.

The general advice in both drawing and painting is to think "wild" the emphasis is on exploration and discovering personal strengths and weaknesses. It is

Mixed media AJP

important to be self motivated. You need to be able to discuss your work and motivation, be aware of current art trends and their relevance to your work. Our personal work, self directed study, embraced the subjects of Space and Place.

Reflective Diary/Journal
There seemed to be some confusion between individual students as to how this should be approached. Personally I used an A5 spiral bound note book into which I endeavoured to reflect on each lesson. There was an element of diary but on each occasion I made a point of considering the good and bad points of each entry. I received no negative comments at my assessment.

I have to say I have found the first semester challenging but very enjoyable. We have a good spirit in the group. The tutors are generally quite human and extremely helpful. There is a tendency for the odd one to forget that not everyone is 18 years old!

Martin Parr - Photographer

Since the 1970s, Martin Parr has photographed aspects of British life, documenting and dissecting the way we live with a witty, unblinking eye. On the eve of Tate Britains exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain Parr met us at his London studio to talk about his work.

Video courtesy of shihlunchang

WAYS OF SEEING (final episode - advertising) 4/4

This is the fourth of 4 posts showing the final episode of the BBC2 broadcast of John Bergers seminal work "Ways of Seeing" in 4 parts, this is 4/4.

Video is courtesy of manwithaplan999

WAYS OF SEEING (final episode - advertising) 3/4

This is the third of 4 posts showing the final episode of the BBC2 broadcast of John Bergers seminal work "Ways of Seeing" in 4 parts, this is 3/4.

Video is courtesy of manwithaplan999

WAYS OF SEEING (final episode - advertising) 2/4

This is the second of 4 posts showing the final episode of the BBC2 broadcast of John Bergers seminal work "Ways of Seeing" in 4 parts, this is 2/4.

Video is courtesy of manwithaplan999

WAYS OF SEEING (final episode - advertising) 1/4

This is the first of 4 posts showing the final episode of the BBC2 broadcast of John Bergers seminal work "Ways of Seeing" in 4 parts, this is 1/4.

Video is courtesy of manwithaplan999