Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #2, People in landscapes

What does ‘philosophy’ mean when we look at paintings? Perhaps it’s a way of making sense of our place in the world – I’m thinking about places and worlds as painters might, specifically as landscapes. I’ve assumed painters see (literally) the world in a more thoughtful way than the rest of us – how is this the same as or different from scientific thinking? Ever conscious of media, I’ve written about how seeing is different from writing, and put some beautiful images in a sequence to make my points …

Leonardo writes as well as paints. In one of his anatomy notebooks he notes his drawings are more communicative than writing. One of his sketches of the heart has this rapturous commentary alongside:

O writer, with what words will you write with such perfections of the complete configuration which this drawing here composes? This you describe confusedly having no knowledge, and you leave little conception of the true shapes of things which you, deceiving yourself, make yourself believe capable of fully satisfying your auditors when you have to speak of the configuration of any corporeal thing surrounded by surfaces. But I advise you not to involve yourself in words unless you are speaking to the blind …

My points about media and sensory modalities communicate better if we can see this the way Leonardo did. Here’s the picture he was writing about, with his mirror-Italian words magically turned into English. The typeface (Myriad) is not as beautiful as Leonardo’s handwriting (understatement!) , but it is readable. It changes the notebook page from ‘art’ to something more functional, but this is perhaps closer to the integrity of Leonardo’s conception of what he really thought and felt:

From the wonderful Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app by Touch Press, with the translation simulating the position of the original handwriting in mirror-Italian. (In the app you can see the ur-text if you prefer.) Leonardo here is talking to himself – these notes are records of dissections or reminders/drafts/tryouts for what to put in his anatomy textbook. This book was never finished and was not to be published in any form – even as copies of these sketches – for 400 years. Notice how the multimodal iPad brings us close to Leonardo’s worldview. At a very general level, in Marshall McLuhan-speak, will all the king's horses and men of digital media put together again – after Enlightenment literary and scientific fragmentation – the Humpty Dumpty gestalt of the integrated subject and object worlds?

From the wonderful Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app by Touch Press. In the app you can switch to see the mirror-Italian if you prefer. Leonardo here is talking to himself – these notes are records of dissections or reminders/drafts/tryouts for what to put in his anatomy textbook. This book was never finished and was not to be published in any form – even as copies of these sketches – for 400 years. Notice how the multimodal iPad brings us close to Leonardo’s worldview. At a very general level, in Marshall McLuhan-speak, will all the king’s horses and men of digital media put together again – after Enlightenment literary and scientific fragmentation – the Humpty Dumpty gestalt of the integrated subject and object worlds?

Bearing in mind an artist necessarily believes the fullest representations/re-presentations of reality steer clear of language, this is how Leonardo wrote (c. 1492 – no app image available, I’m sorry to say) about some of the underlying principles of his philosophy of the relation of the mind to what the mind perceives:

Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and certainly the award of this name is well deserved, because, in as much as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, the body of the earth is similar; if man has in himself bones, the supports and armature for the flesh, the world has the rocks, the supports of the earth; if man has in himself the lake of the blood, in which the lungs increase and decrease in breathing, the body of the earth has its oceanic sea, which likewise increases and decreases every six hours with the breathing of the world; if, from the said lake veins arise, which proceed to ramify throughout the human body, the oceanic sea fills the body of the earth with infinite veins of water; the nerves are lacking in the body of the earth – they are not there because nerves are made for the purpose of movement, and the world, being perpetually immobile, does not need movement, and, not needing movement, the nerves are not necessary. But in all other respects they are very similar. (MS. A, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, f. 55 recto)


See my previous post for more commentary on this point, originally made by Martin Kemp.

Note that Leonardo’s worldview helps him to conceive of human veins and the path of a river in the same frame of reference. This was hardly his invention – the ‘as above, so below’ system of correspondences and homomorphisms dates back at least to the ancient Greeks and indeed continues in the recursive analytical methodology of Stafford Beer’s impressive cybernetic viable systems model. But Leonardo’s unique achievement was to embed this view in a beautifully visualized, life-affirming and communicative body of work.

Leonardo’s orthodox mediaeval Aristotelianism here might present rather a soft target, though, to gung-ho contemporary atomistic materialists such as Richard Dawkins. Leonardo’s comparisons of the earth and the human body is definitely unconventional (‘bad’?) science, but surely his easily falsifiable conjectures (to use Karl Popper’s terminology) are intermediate hypotheses that help us see an extended, complex and interrelating reality we otherwise could not even start to imagine. In other words, to borrow a metaphor from Vygotsky, all theory and methodology is a kind of scaffolding – what is important is what we have built when we take it down. Militantly secular scientists’ claims their work is ipso facto ‘objective’ are no less a prioristic and idealist than the positions of those they seek to attack; the absence of self-reflexivity thereby paradoxically refutes the contingency of a human consciousness in a materialist universe and is thus oblivious to the possibility/impossibility of awareness of awareness. Such things, as Samuel Beckett knew well, are surely better maps of the glories and disasters – the fullest dignity as well as the grossest absurdity – of the human condition than we can ever reach via Dawkins and the school of scientific methodological bureaucracy.

(This is a subject I readily admit I don’t understand, but I can’t believe quantum/sub-atomic physicists or cosmologists investigating the Singularity would get far using Dawkins’ polemical paradigm – reality is too exciting. On the principle that any critique of anything should never perpetuate the same mistakes, in my opposing of reductionism I must add that Dawkins himself is a courageous, complex and interesting man who has gone on record that he would take J. S. Bach’s devotional St Matthew Passion to his imaginary desert island. In a very different spirit to his polemics, though, as Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Scientific Enquiry suggests, let science freely, daringly and self-awarely extend our curiosity and wonder about the world.)

Back again in the world of art practice, what do Leonardo’s insights lead him to? What can we see? Here’s a detail from the Louvre version of The Virgin of the Rocks:

Detail from The Virgin of the Rocks (15??), in the Louvre, Paris. I have heavily cropped the picture to show the rocks. Image from Wikipedia

Detail from The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86), in the Louvre, Paris, showing the rocks. I am persuaded by the argument at http://www.leonardosgeology.com – by a geologist – that the accuracy of the details of the rock formations here is indisputably from the hand of the author of the geological studies in the Codex Leicester. The careful choice of different types of plant for different microclimates is also deeply characteristic of Leonardo. By contrast, the National Gallery version in London has prettier colours but the rocks and plants look like stage scenery. Image from Wikipedia

The full version.

The full version.

None of this is translatable into language, of course – but here goes … What’s going on here? The rock formations are weird, implausibly alive and threatening. Remember from the quote above, ‘if man has in himself bones, the supports and armature for the flesh, the world has the rocks, the supports of the earth’. On first view, there are two timeframes: the inconceivable scales of geological time and change, and four people oddly meeting in a damp cave. But the people – posed as formally as the theology – are immobile compared with the extraordinary chthonic and chaotic vaultings of the rocks, which threaten but also protect. We sense these opposites – figures and rocks – belong together and complete each other. There is psychological intensity here, drama, a palpable representation perhaps of the dangerous and generative energies of what Freud termed das Es (the It, in natural English), or which the ancient Greeks mythologized as the first gods before the dawn of civilization: the Titans.

We feel the power and drama of Leonardo’s painting more clearly by comparison with Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews:

Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748), in the National Gallery, London. Image from Wikipedia

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing gives us two contrasting philosophical interpretations. The first quotes art-history academic Lawrence Gowing: ‘the explicit theme of a contemporary and precisely analogous design by … Francis Hayman suggests that the people in such pictures were engaged in philosophic enjoyment of “the great Principle … the genuine Light of uncorrupted and unperverted Nature”.’ Berger draws our attention to the pinched and proprietorial expressions on the couple’s faces; he notes a little cruelly but with the voice of common sense that ‘among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr and Mrs Andrews was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowners’ (London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972, pp. 107–8; my emphasis). Neither interpretation is the only meaning: for example, left of the tree the clouds and Mr Andrews are dark and monochrome, whereas to the right there are colours and sunshine; the spectacular expanse of Mrs Andrews’ dress teeters on the brink of rapport with the sky and clouds. There seems to be some kind of investigation of the different worlds of this man and this woman.

Going back to Leonardo, here is some more scene-stealing geology, this time from The Virgin, St Anne and John:

Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne

Detail from The Virgin, Infant Jesus and St Anne (1508) in the Louvre, Paris. Image from Wikipedia

Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne

The full version. The restoration in 2011 by removal of later discoloured varnish has been controversial. I don’t know why the edges have been left darker.

The landscaping is very different from The Virgin of the Rocks – open, expansive, certainly not threatening. The colour temperatures move from blue/cool in the sky to grey/neutral in the background to warm earth tones/russets in the foreground. The figures again have Leonardo’s sfumato and characteristically blissed-out/gentle if rather bland expressions, whereas the craggy rock formations reveal the massive forces leading to the distortion of the strata, twisted near-vertically in contrast to the calmly horizontal laminae under the feet of St Anne. Note that Leonardo’s insistence on accurate observation of the subjectivities of perception requires him to blur the customary precision of his observation of the mountains.

The Virgin’s mother is not noticeably a different generation from her daughter, although she is manifestly larger; rather oddly, Mary is seated on her knee. This device sets up a composition where the gaze-lines of all four figures (including lamb) run along a strong diagonal axis, emphasizing bonds of affection between generations and – importantly for the ethically vegetarian Leonardo – species. The unusual hand-on-hip gesture of St Anne starts off the counter-diagonal running down to her right foot. In between is the (unfinished) grey mass of Mary’s robe, giving a strong-enough directional emphasis that Sigmund Freud (1910) famously interpreted the shape as a vulture – it is flying to the bottom left (with no visible head).

Like the dress in the Gainsborough, the grey of Mary’s robe connects the figures with the background, linking a brief moment of tenderness with the inconceivable passage of geomorphic time.

Here is a further enlargement of some delicious background:

Leonardo Virgin, Infant Jesus, St Anne – background

Detail, The Virgin, Infant Jesus and St Anne, on our left of St Anne’s head

Pollock, Lavender Blue

Jackson Pollock (1912–56), Number 1, 1950 (against the artist’s wishes sometimes known as ‘Lavender Mist’). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image from http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/lm1024.jpg

My would-be jump cut here forces correspondences onto two radically dissimilar artworks – see if you can position them on your screen so you can see both of them at the same time. I thought it might be revealing to see what happens when we look for parallels and contrasts. In Pollock’s paintings, his quest for an ever-purer non-representationality imposes an absolute schism between object and subject, as if there can be no being-in-the-world, only being; the world in itself is painfully invasive and compromises the authenticity and integrity of his existential/artistic worldview and has to be excluded or obliterated – even from the painting’s title. (I am not criticizing him, I am paying tribute to his honesty.)

Leonardo’s position is the reverse: the energy of his obsessive and enraptured explorations of the massive complexity of the ‘natural’ world – notice that the contemporary concept of nature ipso facto and crassly assumes we human beings are not part of it – takes him close to a kind of emotional communion even with geology. (I am not saying this is necessarily ‘good’ – does Leonardo have much engagement and empathy with the people?)

Jackson Pollock. Photographs of cigarette smoke (I regret!) often seems to counterpoint beautifully

Jackson Pollock. Cigarette smoke (I regret to say!), solidified in photography, often seems to make a beautiful and evocative counterpoint to shapes and music. The uplighting from the white canvas subliminally suggests otherworldliness/sainthood … Photo by Martha Holmes, 1949. Image from http://yalebooks.wordpress.com/ 2012/01/20/the-discovery-of-an-american-icon-extract-from-jackson-pollock-by-evelyn-toynton/

Pollock’s psychical and philosophical redistribution of Affekt in his paintings abolishes ‘the natural world’ and projects it as the act of the non-referential (‘abstract’) expression of subjectivity. He thereby paradoxically creates in his paintings a complexity that reminds us of randomness/design or chance/necessity in natural objects. In the characteristic trope of modernism, therefore, the conception of meaning here becomes the responsibility of the viewer or perceiver – us. We may choose to see them as wonderful, beautiful and full of meaning or as empty, dead. Some people see them as pretentious. The worst get into a rage about how much money they sell for at auction.

Here I think we get close to the divisiveness that is typical of modern art. In what they see, some people are not prepared to be open to see themselves. Those of us on the ‘inside’ of modern art might wonder if these people might be afraid of the life of their own mind. So when people say of a Pollock painting that ‘a child could have painted it’, we should notice the overt disparagement of children’s perceptions – yet I hope we can all agree that one of the lasting rewards of being a parent is to learn from and be changed by our children. I fear that comments such as these about Pollock diminish the possibilities for fullness of life for the present and future generations.

Instead of emptiness and deadness, Leonardo offers us life, profusion, connection, meaning – although the evidence of his paintings is that direct human empathy seems to have been difficult for him. Pollock does the same kind of thing, but differently. He is fiercer, apparently not caring; people who are easily hurt don’t want to seem vulnerable. His paintings are existentially alone. If you were ever in any doubt that public reception does not complete the meaning of a work of art, their widespread popular acclaim bears witness this is something, paradoxically, we can all share.

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Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #1

Benvenuto Cellini was a virtuoso Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor and wildly indiscreet autobiographer. Yet he soberly recorded King François I of France as saying ‘there had never been born another man in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about sculpture, painting and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher’ (my translation from his Treatise on Sculpture, 1567, p. 253 [of 1811 edition]).

When we consider the reputation of Leonardo’s paintings – his sculpture and architecture have not survived – this is a big claim, even allowing for Cellini’s relish for extravagant overstatement. And we might also discount the implication that kings’ opinions are worth any more than anyone else’s.

[If I could interrupt my own post here, please note that later on it contains adult images – by one of the most remarkable artists in Western civilization. I hope my discussion of them is in the spirit of Terence (195/185–159 BC): ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’ (‘I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me’). If this isn’t your cup of tea, fair enough; please read something else. Thank you!]

Nonetheless this is an idea well worth exploring, for two reasons.

Firstly, it can help us better understand what Leonardo’s work means – how/why he chose to do what he did. (I’m referring, in continuation of my previous two posts, to Leonardo’s private notebooks of studies for a textbook on anatomy.) By looking at his ‘philosophy’ I’m hoping his artworks will make more sense; this is difficult to describe unless you already know what I mean, but if I think I understand something I feel more alive. If I might dwell on this, I’m not sure if there’s any kind of experience that is more valuable. For a beautiful and expressive restatement of this, here is one of my all-time favourite quotes, from Leonardo’s fellow Florentine, Dante Alighieri:

In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations, as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light. The universal form of this knot I believe that I saw, because, in telling this, I feel my joy increase.
(‘Paradiso’ 33.85–93, in The Divine Comedy, edited by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973)

Leonardo (according to at least one scholarly article) greatly admired and was an expert on the poet/philosopher Dante; here Dante’s complexly literary and metaphorical statement of universality rooted in individual/embodied sense-experience and love is close, I believe, to the view of the world that Leonardo enacts in his notebooks – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Secondly, in my previous post about Leonardo I was ‘trying to understand precisely what it is about [his] way of looking that helps him see things both in their uniqueness and in connection with each other.’ Did Leonardo have a system or formula for his thinking and creating? My own very big claims in this little blog are yes; furthermore, Leonardo’s philosophy might be fascinating and highly relevant to us, right now, in the modern world. So, what is it? …

Leonardo’s flying machine, realized by James Wink. Image from http://james.winkoriginals.com/leonardo/hayward.jpg

Back in 1989 I remember going round the superb Leonardo da Vinci – Artist, Scientist, Inventor at the Hayward Gallery, London. This was in many ways complementary to the 2012 exhibition – which has supplied the theme for this series of posts – on Leonardo’s conception and investigation of the human body. The earlier one looked at Leonardo and techne, with some fascinating twists too. The centrepiece was an impressively large wooden flying machine. This was an example of the single main gag or magic trick, so to speak: all the spectacular machines and models turned Leonardo’s imaginings into something real. This, to use the language from my previous post, was the official story – another partial one, not the whole one I’m trying to explain.

In this particular exhibition story there is a happy ending: the tragic pathos of all those amazing ideas never fulfilled is wiped away by this technical, instrumental and triumphalist apotheosis. Interestingly, the official sponsor was IBM, during its glory years as world #1 supplier of personal computers; it was grabbing for its products some high-grade inspiration-by-association. (I’m not criticizing them; you may notice I’m doing exactly the same thing.) Stories always add to each other, mirroring the glorious complexities and confusions of human understanding. This 1989 exhibition, then, was also an oblique retelling of one of the most potent and odd narratives of our digital age: computers can and should turn your dreams into reality.

But here is what Martin Kemp said in his excellent catalogue (Leonardo, London: South Bank Centre, 1989) to the Hayward exhibition he curated. This is a rather different narrative to the one in the title, and more beautiful and interesting:

It seems to me that there is a core to [Leonardo’s] achievement, however imperfectly transmitted and received by different generations, that remains intuitively accessible. What has been sensed is that his artistic productions are more than art—that they are part of a vision embracing a profound sense of the interrelatedness of things. The full complexity of life in the context of the world is somehow implied when he characterises any of its constituent parts … I believe that his vision of the totality of the world as a kind of single organism does speak to us with particular relevance today …

I am deeply indebted to Professor Kemp’s insights, both in his writing and the curation of the 1989 exhibition, from which I have borrowed freely, at least to start with!

Here are two of Leonardo’s sketches from his notebooks alongside each other; one maps the course of the river Arno in Tuscany, Italy, the other shows the veins of the arm:

(Left) the river Arno, c. 1504, Drawings and Misc Papers Vol. IV, folio 444r. (Right) the veins of the left arm – those of an older person are compared with a young person‘s in the smaller inset sketch. 1507–8, from Anatomical Studies, folio 69r.

I can’t imagine that Leonardo deliberately drew these two sketches to make this point. I don’t suppose either that he intended them to be seen together. But nonetheless Leonardo seems to regard the plain of the Arno and the distribution of blood around the arm as equivalent and comparable.

It’s a shock to connect the two – topology and anatomy come in two separate compartments, don’t they? The more we think about it, though, why shouldn’t we see the two hugely different scales in the same frame of reference? If we really want to name them both by a single scientific category we could settle on hydraulics, but then we are still being reductive. We can call Leonardo ‘artist, scientist, inventor’, ‘anatomist’, ‘genius’ or anything, but if Leonardo is truthful about or truly reflective of the world, our partial/atomistic representations of him will only tell us about ourselves – not him specifically, nor the world in general. My concern is that we then miss his vivacious conception of integration, gestalt, pan-creational life-force.

Just in case you might think the collocations of dissimilarity in the previous examples are only accidentally similar, here’s another image, a detail from the well-known page with the foetus drawing:

From the Touch Press Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app. Leonardo’s sequence of images is unknown and has been completely obscured by rebindings and removals: there are no page numbers or titles, so for academic reference (and internet search) here, the Windsor Castle Library catalogue reference is RCIN 919102

The small inset sketches show that Leonardo sees correspondences of the main image with what look like seed cases. (He also depicts the action of gravity on imbalanced spheres, and why objects in relief look different from those in 2D.) This is what Fritjof Capra, author of crossover religion/science bestseller The Tao of Physics, says about it in his The Science of Leonardo (p. 260):

his famous picture of a fetus in utero is accompanied by several smaller sketches that liken the womb to the embryo sac of a flower, picturing the peeled-off layers of the uterine membranes in an arrangement of flower petals. The entire set of drawings vividly shows Leonardo’s tremendous care and respect for all forms of life. They exude a tenderness that is deeply moving.

I can’t claim any expertise concerning foetuses, although I have seen my four children being born; I can say that the (near full-term?) foetus in this picture strikes me as unusually clean and tidy – where’s the vernix? The uterus is also implausibly round and spacious – I have always imagined it (from an outsider and male point of view) as a majorly tight squeeze. Perhaps what Leonardo really sees here is his metaphor: a ripe seed or rich-brown nut. I hope you can see clearly on the left here what he says (c. 1511) on another notebook page. The app strips away the original writing and gives us a translation that helps us to see easily the conjunction of word and image – but the words are not about the image. So we can see that for Leonardo, metaphors are mappings, homomorphisms, correspondences – they help him make connections between different things. Metaphor is not just a rhetorical/poetical device – though note the modern and reductive implication that rhetoric and poetry are not a kind of knowledge of the world. Rhetoric, myth and fantasy, from the pre-modern world, assert a relation of knower to known that is deeply philosophical.

Note that visual artists usually have a different conception of knowing than writers. Artists curiously are perhaps less fluidly imaginative, in other words generative of strings of visual images. Writers continually jump from one metaphor to another, most of the time without any jarring – that’s what writing does, so we don’t usually notice. Leonardo’s imagination consists of a linked series of inter-translatable visual metaphors, transposing – like figurative language – something of the known on to the unknown.

The etymology of science from the Latin scire, to know, suggests that science is deeply concerned with knowing, although the obvious question ‘How do we know that we know?’ does not (as far as I can see) feature much in contemporary science. It seems largely concerned with repeatability, technique and methodology – as if pragmatic compliance with procedure ipso facto guarantees the incremental and non-falsifiable veracity of the modern scientific model of the universe and all that therein is. Even if it ‘really’ does, what does this universe feel like? Are we and our world just a massive bureaucratic apparatus? How can subjectivity and emotionality – in short, our humanity and our life – be completely and deliberately absent? Leonardo’s approach is not of course anything remotely like conventional modern science. Dare I suggest it is more animated and interesting? We can see this in every sketch.

Maybe the big foetus image above (shown in full-page view untranslated here) depicts what a uterus and unborn child look like when dissected following a tragic accident. Certainly Leonardo’s notes here soberly if speculatively meditate whether the foetus and mother can be said to have two souls.

Curiously, the sense of life-force in the bigger image seems very strong. For such a popular image – much circulated on the internet – it would be emotionally curious if it was an image of tragedy. In the interest of understanding and compassion I believe we should always pay careful and respectful attention to what we want to believe, even if it is apparently ‘wrong’; for it is also is a kind of truth. The eye of the artist makes us see an energy that radiates out from the child – the hatching is a vortex swirling around, starting from the very heavy dark outline of the body up to the lightness of the head.

Here are some studies of the heart of an ox:

‘Studies of the heart, some architecturally stylized, of heart, probably ox, its valves, atria and ventricular orifices; notes on drawings.’ From c. 1513. Papworth Hospital cardiologist F. C. Wells, in his article ‘Leonardo as a paradigm for modern clinical research‘ (http://jtcs.ctsnetjournals.org/cgi/content/full/127/4/929? in Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery 2004; 127:929–944), writes: ‘This drawing beautifully illustrates the importance of what we now refer to as the basal or strut cord of the mitral valve, antedating modern appreciation of its importance in left ventricular architecture and function.’ Image from The Royal Collection , http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/919080/recto-the-left-ventricle-and-mitral-valve-verso-a-sketch-of-a-running

My point here is that Leonardo seems to make a comparison between the chambers of the heart/ventricular architecture (at Propagandum Towers we take our metaphors very literally) and the configuration of rounded arches in a Romanesque church. Again, is this ‘proper’ science? I don’t think so.

Here are some tiny inset sketches, not the main picture on the page:

In an interview for the BBC, sculptor Henry Moore describes them as ‘beautiful flowers’. Perhaps it’s even more interesting than being right to see what we’ve said when we get something wrong. The problem for general readers is that prior to the iPad app, Leonardo’s notes in mirror-image Renaissance Italian are unreadable, so we could not expect to know just from looking at these florets that they are in fact representations of the anal sphincter. As is characteristic of Leonardo’s seeing and drawing, they have a sense of abundant energy and inner life. Notice too Leonardo’s impressive frank and dignified reverence for all of the human body. We can notice the cultural and philosophical differences in the historical development of subjectivity compared to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! | The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole are holy!’ (‘Footnote to Howl’, 1956) and the cringemaking Christmas carol line ‘Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb’ (c. 1852) that mistranslates Gestant puellae viscera (i.e. ‘carried in the body of a young girl’ – 1751, possibly thirteenth century). I happen to think these differences are important and interesting.

But are Leonardo’s observations ‘properly’ scientific? According to modern anatomy, apparently, there are seven muscles – which Leonardo specifically refutes. For those who want to read what he actually says, the words are in the following picture. I think they further help show his intensity/focus of observation and his leaps of interconnection from one subject to another:

On the subject of frankness about the human body, here is a remarkable and comparatively overlooked sketch from the Queen’s collection:

This page was not in the Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist exhibition, not for any prudish reason – an equally explicit sketch was on display. It was probably simply just too odd.

The pen strokes of the main focus of the image have a Picasso-like energy and intensity. The shapes of the internal organs in the male torso, by contrast, are recessive and almost fluidly abstract. The red chalk hatching/scribble in the female figure is frenzied – the explosive energy suggests (at least in terms of style) the raw low art/primitivism of 1950s’ artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Certainly the greatest enigma of this page is the combination of three images of coition with the mechanism, a gear train, whose cogs Leonardo seems to have carefully counted. Perhaps it is a machine powered by the fall of water – there seems to be a drive train of containers or scoops. And there is a minutely calibrated scale running across the page.

What does it mean? The app commentary is not much help: ‘Above are sketches of weights and wheels, and calculations in a fainter, yellowish ink.’ That’s it. Perhaps the combination of images and measurement is purely accidental – but, as we have seen, elsewhere in his notebooks Leonardo’s apparently random collocations of images usually show his mind spinning off at a related tangent.

If we assume they are deliberately connected, what do we learn? (1) Leonardo’s mind works in a way that seems strange to us. His other images of coitus in his anatomical drawings in the Royal Collection have commentaries that suggest Leonardo believed (weirdly, as far as I know) the soul of the child-to-be is passed in a tube direct from the spinal column of the male to the fertilized egg. (I’m not saying that’s what he is trying to show here.) (2) If Leonardo is trying to say something else which is true, and that truth is interesting but complex or difficult, have we lost the ability to make the connections that can understand him?

I suggest Leonardo is, intriguingly, going down the same pathways as someone in the modern era but hardly less enigmatic: Marcel Duchamp. His self-punning Marchand du Sel (translated as The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Marchand du Sel, Salt Seller, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975) largely consists of notes for the preparation of his iconic Large Glass (1923). Duchamp’s notes, unlike Leonardo’s, were published; like Leonardo’s, they take upon themselves no obligation to explain anything to anyone else. Among the bizarre and parodic mathematical/scientific and philosophical rationales it is clear that, at the very least, the upper panel is the organic ‘bride’ and the lower panel has the ‘bachelors’, surrounded apparently by the machinery of male sexual desire.

Marcel Duchamp (1923) La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even] – the ‘Large Glass’, in Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. The work was smashed to pieces en route to an exhibition in 1926. The pieces were stuck together, and the damage declared part of the work by the artist. For my entertainment I imagine Leonardo doing the same for his painting of The Last Supper. Image from Wikipedia

Between Leonardo and Duchamp some of the machinery and anatomical detailing appears to have crossed over between male and female; the upper part of Leonardo’s female has the mechanisms, the man the internal organs. The wonky lines running from the cones left to the ‘nine malic molds’ (the bachelors) in the lower panel of the Duchamp are his ‘standard stoppages’. These are his commentaries (directly) on the Système International d’unités standard measurements and (indirectly) on rationality and scientific method. Duchamp’s lines were produced by letting string fall down on the floor and then copying the shape in wood to make a dysfunctional ruler. Leonardo’s equivalent – probably to a very different purpose – is the calibrated rule across the page.

Of course I am not saying that Duchamp knew or was influenced by the Leonardo page in any way. What I think is more interesting is that there are correspondences, as if the two artists might have drawn from a common pool of thinking and responding. Variations on these themes are copiously verbalized in contemporary (French) philosophy, for example by Deleuze and Guattari. And if theories are to reflect reality – which they must – we should expect to find their expression in popular culture – which we do. I’m thinking, for example, of James Brown’s iconic Sex Machine:

To attempt a philosophical exegesis (why not?) of the lyrics of James Brown’s song, ‘Get on up’ is a call to a life of fullness and heightened intensity (cf. Bob Marley’s ‘Lively up yourself’); a palpably physical metaphor for this is getting to our feet to dance. ‘Stay on the scene’ invites us to live fully in the present, a religious and meditative practice enjoined by sages in many cultures throughout history. ‘Like a sex machine’: the pleasures of the body in the industrial age are vividly re-enacted in his song but Brown uses the simile to make sure we know he knows that art, language and representation belong to the symbolic realm. ‘The way I like it / The way it is’: Brown reminds us of the ontological schism between apperception and reality; compare the distinction in Heidegger’s terminology between ‘things-for-us’ and ‘things-in-themselves’. ‘I got mine / Don’t worry about his’: Brown’s mindfulness is a proud self-possession – and notice his fears and self-comparisons are not so fearful he feels he cannot talk about them. The language of ownership he uses here also resonates with the analysis by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, that contemporary capitalism deeply and increasingly commodifies and reifies all human relations, including even sexuality. Like Leonardo, Brown’s insights are so deeply embodied it seems as if they are not ‘philosophical’ at all. But the point of philosophy is not to draw attention to itself but to understand, reveal and encourage the life well lived.

So Leonardo, Duchamp and James Brown (in their very different ways) reflect back to us questions such as these: Are our best efforts at truthfulness going to be easy? How can we understand complexity with linear/atomistic cause-and-effect thinking? Can words help us communicate anything and everything? Is rationality the only filter for reality? How much can science tell us about what is really important in our lives? How much about our inner and outer worlds can we truthfully say we know?

I apologize if in this post I have over-emphasized the strangeness of Leonardo’s thinking. (I hope, in my next post, to show you some of the more obviously fruitful results of his studies, centring on the idea of the vortex.) I haven’t meant to be derogatory – the reverse is true. My intention has been to say that if there were no ‘errors’ there could be no truth. If we knew from the beginning what was an error we wouldn’t even need to start. In the philosophy he models in his writing and sketches, he insists, to paraphrase William Blake, that to know we must first imagine. And imagination is embodied in feeling and sense-experience. It acts as well as receives; imagination goes out from the subject too, hence the emotion and palpable life-force we can see in Leonardo’s sketches.

I hope we have at least started to see that Leonardo’s imagination is of the world and from the world and is in itself a world, full of the ‘substances, accidents and their relations’ Dante mentions at the quote at the beginning of this post. Notice too that Leonardo, like Dante and unlike materialistic science, insists that individual human perception and feeling is the beginning and end of knowledge.

Let’s leave the last (for now) words to Leonardo, from his anatomical notebooks (RCIN 919o48, c. 1510). Remember this is the sound of Leonardo talking/ranting to himself. As ever, literary style – the play of words and thoughts – is a philosophical position, a model of a very specific kind of being-in-the-world. It contains, metaphorically speaking, Leonardo’s philosophical DNA. His Dantean and anti-reductive credo here characteristically joins up parts to wholes, the human to the universal. It complexly speaks in a language of oblique self-criticism of his ambitions (‘to embrace the mind of God’) – note that, typically for Leonardo, even the mind of God is physical, embraceable. And there is the pathos of an old man who cannot complete his own project (‘not enough life … to acquire a complete knowledge of a single particular subject, such as the human body’). Do we find some bitterness here too about the anatomy project he spent so much of life studying? Please excuse my abbreviation …

The abbreviators of works do injury to knowledge and love, for the love of anything is the offspring of knowledge, and love is as much more fervent as knowledge is more certain. And this certainty is born from the integrated knowledge of all those parts which, being united together, compose the whole of that thing which is to be loved. Of what value is he who in order to abbreviate the parts of those things of which he professes to give integrated knowledge leaves out the greater part of the matters of which the whole is composed? It is true that impatience, the mother of folly, is she who praises brevity, as though some people had not enough life to use to enable them to acquire a complete knowledge of a single particular subject, such as the human body. And then they want to embrace the mind of God in which is enclosed the universe, carefully weighing and minutely dissecting it into infinite parts as though they were making an anatomy of it. O human stupidity! …

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Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (exhibition review) #2

This excellent exhibition (in the Queen’s Gallery, London) has some fascinatingly different stories to tell of Leonardo’s extraordinary anatomical sketches. We can have our interpretations on the surface or we can dig for them, depending on whether we like our versions official or subversive. For me the subversive ones are pulsing with life and interest. Three main ones (of both kinds) I noted are:

1 Leonardo as information designer – in my previous post I was trying to see Leonardo’s sketches as experiments in how to communicate complex information. I think this connects deeply to all of us, particularly those of us in the communication industries in the complexly communicative twenty-first century. I will be looking at this Leonardo again in a bit more detail.

2 Leonardo as commercial packager/publishing entrepreneur of a potentially bestselling anatomy textbook. The exhibition clearly identifies the sketches as studies for a publishing project but does not attempt any serious analysis of what this means. I wondered for a while if I was wrong to think of Leonardo’s concerns as anything like my own, but as reality check I am confident it really is an objective fact that art exhibitions rarely discuss of art as commerce. This is a missed opportunity for empathic/communicative connection, because doesn’t art mean much more if we can understand that artists are real people, just like us, and have to earn a living too?

An official trope from the exhibition: science meets art. This is a little dreary because it assumes the models are ipso facto true – i.e. Leonardo is unreliable. But they do give a depth of visual field, which is stimulating to look at after all the 2D drawings. Image from http://chloenelkin.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/models.jpg

3 Leonardo as anatomist. This is, as the exhibition title indeed says, the ‘official’ story. The displays counterpose his sketches to a few rather odd-looking brightly coloured plastic educational anatomical models by Adam,Rouilly. The overt intention is to show the contemporary scientific rigour of Leonardo’s observations – OK, this is a bit predictable. More subversively – this is probably intentional in the exhibition design, and fun too – his sketches show up the deadness of the models’ (and the twenty-first century’s?) reductively scientistic conception of the human body as machine. By close analysis of some of the drawings I shall try to argue that Leonardo sees the world as a kind of unified field, part of which – in Leonardo’s convergent phenomenology – reveals what William Blake called ‘the human form divine’. I’m trying to understand precisely what it is about Leonardo’s way of looking that helps him see things both in their uniqueness and in connection with each other. In other words, is there a communicable formula for thinking Leonardo-type thoughts? We need Leonardo’s drawings to help us with this; words on their own just don’t work.

Meanwhile, here are three more stories the exhibition does not talk about:

Leonardo as artist. The anatomical sketches are fiercely observant of their subjects but they’re not deliberately or outward-facingly ‘artistic’. This helps keep the exhibition fresh and free of art-jargon/hyperbole.

5 Leonardo as failure. Leonardo never got anywhere near publishing his research. Outside the bounds of this exhibition, Leonardo’s planned massive (70-tonne) bronze of Ludovico Sforza on horseback reached the intermediate clay model stage (at finished size) of the horse, but this was used in 1499 by occupying troops for target practice. Time has destroyed (or has it?) his unfinished Battle of Anghiari and many of his other paintings; for all his scientific investigations the paint/ground medium he used for his masterpiece The Last Supper in Milan has been disastrous. He died in a kind of exile in France, materially comfortable and enjoying royal patronage, but how can his failure to complete his ambitious projects not have left him bitterly regretful? But I don’t think his failures diminish his achievements for us. I believe they help us get an emotionally complete and more moving sense of him as a human being, perhaps just a bit more like you and me.

6 Leonardo #5 is also the opposite of the unhelpful idea of Leonardo as genius. ‘Genius’ is a weary word, definitely not a word of power. It only works if you’re convinced already, so it’s not really a word that communicates at all. It doesn’t, to use Claude Shannon’s definition, count as information because it doesn’t change the state of the recipient; it has already given up on the effort of trying to understand in order to explain. The avoidance of #4 framing also helps the exhibition – to its benefit – steer well clear of the genius story.

So, let’s look at the first three stories in detail.

1 Leonardo as information designer

I was stunned by this sequence of drawings, on facing pages of Leonardo’s notebook, from the late period (in the red room in the gallery) of his researches:

Rotated views of the musculature of the right arm and shoulder #1 (b/w image). The inset image top right is a unrelated sketch of the throat.

Rotated views of the musculature of the neck, right arm and shoulder #2 (b/w image). The eight-pointed inset (bottom right) describes the schema for the eight drawings.

Leaving aside their elegance, human dignity, careful shading and (as the captions claim) scientific accuracy, I think we can see something else: a beautifully original investigation of a way to communicate complex information. The exhibition’s explanatory caption brilliantly claims they are a study in 3D imaging. Alongside there’s a video of a professor of surgery talking about these images, saying that contemporary computer-based 3D renderings of complex anatomical features are invaluable in improving the techniques of trainee surgeons. Just as contemporary airplane pilots safely learn about trial and error using 3D representations of reality, and computer gamers might have a sandbox level to help them learn the controls, Leonardo’s information design here enters wholly and empathically into the teaching and learning needs of those most likely to want to use (and buy! – see story #2) his work.

I am not going to claim that something from the past is ipso facto validated by its precursion of its contemporary incarnation. Time’s arrow doesn’t work like that. I hope it seems sensible enough, though, to suggest that insightful practitioners of information design will always tend to use techniques that match or reflect transhistorical human faculties of perception and understanding. Throughout history, people have tended to respond to the same things in the same way – there is such a thing as human nature. Leonardo seems already to have imagined, from first principles, communication techniques that have taken some 500 years to develop and prove their worth.

A schema for showing gradations of musculature and bone profiles in the leg, c. 1485–90. This is a study rather than the finished article; to make usable sense each ‘cut’ would have to have its own section alongside. Image from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/912627/recto-miscellaneous-anatomical-studies-verso-the-leg-sectioned

Other graphics techniques he either created (according to the captions) or used with great fluency include an exploded diagram of the cortex, multiple sections of the leg – the principle of sampling/MRI scans – and cutaways/cross-sections. A particularly elegant double-sectioned skull reminds me that virtuoso handling of cross-sections alone was compelling enough to the minds of the book-buying public in the 1990s to generate million-plus sales for publisher Dorling Kindersley and artist Stephen Biesty, in the form of his Incredible Cross-Sections series.

The skull sectioned, 1489. Exceptionally elegant chiaroscuro effects from different thicknesses of diagonal hatching. Note the left-handed Leonardo’s cross-hatching goes from left to right. Note too an implicit philosophical conception of objects-in-the-world: the hatching delicately extends to the background. Even the context is enlivened by the perception of the artist. Image from http://www.artfinder.com/work/a-skull-sectioned-leonardo-da-vinci/in/artist.leonardo-da-vinci/

From Stephen Beisty’s Man of War. A very different aesthetic, but at least the information design (cutaway) technique is comparable. To make good enough sense you have to click to see it larger. Image from http://www.subsim.com/books/index_images/manofwar2.jpg

2 Leonardo as commercial packager/publishing entrepreneur

I discussed this point fully enough in my previous post. In a move sideways towards some of the e-book, publishing and media issues I discuss elsewhere in my blog, I would like to draw your attention to a very impressive iPad app, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, for iPad. Touch Press have been given full access to the high-resolution images under the care of the Royal Collection, which is the commercial wing of the Queen’s collection of pictures. The Royal Collection also curate and run this exhibition.

I went to a future-of-the-book debate in Cambridge earlier this year. One of the speakers, Jacky Colliss Harvey, Publisher at Royal Collection Enterprises, claimed (to my annoyance at the time) that the quality of the app’s images was ‘better than a book’. I now have to admit I agree with her.

Detailed study of these small-ish sketches is difficult in a gallery space – it seems rude to look at them for a long time and block off other people. Lighting levels are quite low, and the drawings are behind glass. This is good because they are well protected; we can go right up to them without worrying if breathing on them damages them. But the glass is reflective – curiously the images look as if they are on a screen anyway. On the iPad, at our own speed in our preferred location we can resize any part of an image to be as large as we want without any noticeable loss of image resolution. Scholars may wish to look at the original Renaissance Italian mirror-writing using a software mirror/looking-glass metaphor to flip the selected area left-right. Most impressively, by pressing a key we can see a translation into English of Leonardo’s backwards Italian that is fully readable and in the correct position. The sense of immediacy and human connection with this man’s thoughts and searching is – I am choosing my words carefully – a revelation.

A screenshot from the app showing the English translation in situ. Click on the image to enlarge. On the iPad the lettering is bigger, completely clear and much easier to read. Image from http://applenapps.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/da_vinci_anatomy1.jpg

It is also impressive that the app does not strain to turn the sketches into something they are not. I don’t see why an Alice in Wonderland app (for example) is better than a book because the pictures move. Is an e-book only a bad kind of movie? Is the iPad the very best kind of medium for communication because it is so fluidly interactive and multimodal? I don’t think so. Its main problem is it is too flexible. Our minds and our imaginations – not just our senses – decide what is a ‘great’ media experience. ‘Great’ art (for example) kicks against the limitations of the medium – the limitations are not a game or a pretence, they are real. Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot any less memorable or intense because there is no scenery or changes of location? I (and the rest of my family) enjoyed the recent Doctor Who series but I can’t really enjoy the game of imagining what is going to happen next when the Doctor can simply transport himself to any point in space or time.

This app, by contrast, is notably restrained in its dignified use of only some of the possibilities of the medium; in sum it is admirably and maturely respectful of its subject matter. Because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.

I will continue the final parts of this series of posts – the unofficial story in the exhibition about Leonardo as anatomist, that helps us see what I think of as the true and most interesting spirit of Leonardo – shortly.

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Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (exhibition review) #1

This is an unusual start to any review, but the gallery’s beautifully panelled and French-polished rosewood doors and postmodern urinal dividers in the spotless toilets were so unusual in their generosity to the possibility of civilized public behaviour that I sincerely believe I enjoyed the exhibition more.

More conventionally, this exhibition has been billed as the largest-ever public display of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings. There are some 87 folios of illustrations from the royal art collection on show in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Produced between 1485 and Leonardo’s death in 1519, they were acquired by an English monarch (probably bought by Charles II) some time before 1690. Shockingly, they were not published in any form until 1912. The public relations team for Elizabeth II has thoughtfully chosen to counter accusations of at least 222 years of regal dog-in-the-manger insularity by making these drawings publicly available now at this scale, in this the queen’s diamond jubilee year.

Leonardo conceived of the project of publishing a treatise on the anatomy of the human body in about 1485. He spent the remainder of his life – at varying degrees of intensity – preparing material for it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the studies and research for it remained unfinished at his death; the book itself was never even started. Judging by these notes he would have beaten – by at least 25 years, in scientific accuracy, in artistic excellence and communicative energy – even Andreas Vesalius’ magnificent and startlingly beautiful/horrific De humani corporis fabrica (1543). Perhaps some of Leonardo’s anatomical insights during the later period of his research – freshly and precisely observed, undistorted by obeisance to classical tradition and the vested interests of professional elites – could, over hundreds of years, have changed medical practice for the better.

Perhaps one of the finest printed books of all time: Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (1543). Illustrations by ‘studio of Titian’. A comparable project to Leonardo’s but completed – what would his book have been like?

What I am specifically looking at in this series of posts are some of Leonardo’s principles of information design, specifically the creativity of his conception of ‘user experience’ – contemporary jargon for what publishers, editors, writers, illustrators and web or graphic designers do. More simply, in terms Leonardo might have used, it is the maker’s consideration, in advance, for how someone else will see/read/experience what he or she has made.

More broadly, I am interested in the nature of representation: what is being represented, how, and why. I am clearly not qualified to talk about anatomy or scientific accuracy, so my comments on medical facts are based on the captions from the exhibition. But we can see that Leonardo has rethought the communication of his research results from first principles. These sketches how Leonardo is thinking, and how he imagined his readers might think.

Along the way, however, I shall at all times try to avoid the word genius – instead of implying that Leonardo is impossibly different from us, it’s much more interesting to analyse what Leonardo sees, how he sees it, and to what purpose. If some of his information design techniques seem modern, and we know they weren’t published until the twentieth century, doesn’t this prove that methods of effective communication arise spontaneously and convergently as insightful responses to problems that repeat themselves throughout history? Is not creativity, then, simply an open, honest and energetic attempt to reflect the truth? This is where we can start to find general principles and apply them to our work. We, like Leonardo, can always try to learn – and we don’t need to be a genius.

It is hard to imagine anyone other than a doctor taking on such an ambitious project – yet Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a peasant and a notary, only ‘informally educated in Latin, geometry and mathematics’ (Wikipedia); in later life he referred to himself as omo senza lettere (‘an unlettered man’). From the age of 14 his training was an apprenticeship to the studio/workshop of the eminent Florentine artist Verrocchio. (Remember painting in the fifteenth century was a trade, albeit highly skilled, with comparatively low income and status.) Perhaps the spur for the mature artist, aged 33, to begin this massive undertaking was to depict the human body more realistically or expressively. Perhaps Leonardo saw an opportunity to make some money from the rapidly growing market growing up around the new cutting-edge information technology taking Europe by storm: printing. A treatise (textbook) on anatomy is a classic publishing ploy aimed at the high added-value STM (scientific, technical and medical) market – think 5 million copies sold of Gray’s Anatomy.

Whatever his motivation, he chose to take on – from scratch – the heroic tasks of study, recording of results and preparation for publication. Making a virtue of his non-medical background, his primary source of information was the human body: he had to find out how to dissect. And, for a non-specialist, cadavers – as Doctor Frankenstein was to find out some three hundred years later – were not easy to get. (The exhibition commentary says there was, contrary to popular belief, no Church ban on human dissection.) At first he seems to have prepared by drawing the internal organs and skeletal structure of horses, cows, pigs or even bears. He also tried to follow the scientifically incorrect schemata of classical authors. The first, blue, room shows drawings from this period.

The introductory text to the blue room containing early sketches. The earliest binding (made after Leonardo’s death, and now empty) is at the front. I don’t mean to carp, but something more typographically delirious than bog standard Trajan and Times Roman would have been good. Late fifteenth-century Italy was not short of wonderful typefaces …

This is an early sketch (c. 1490–3), in this room, showing a lot more than the cross-section of a skull:

Leonardo’s sketch reflects classical (apparently!) rather than scientific ideas of brain topology. The damson-sized chambers in the middle of the cortex (main picture) represent, from left to right, the senso comune (‘common sense’, supposedly the connecting point for all the body’s sense receptors), imagination/reasoning, and memory. Image: surprisingly (at least for me) the Queen’s Gallery allows photography of the works on display.

This is both scientific research intended for Leonardo only and (to use publishing language) a rough that tries out different ways of presenting information before going to a final published form. In spite of the habitual gallery framing of their exhibits as ‘art’, surely these sketches are more practical – experiments with ways of recording and communicating complex information.

Neither is it what printers and graphic designers 20 years ago used to call ‘camera-ready copy’. Sixteenth-century hot metal typesetting couldn’t manage type on a slant. And the mirror writing is an obvious indication this is not meant to be read by anyone except the artist. As the exhibition captions explain, however, this unusual method wasn’t an attempt to keep his notes secret. They would have been readable, with a mirror, by any literate fifteenth-century Italian. So why mirror writing? Leonardo was left-handed; perhaps his acute sensitivity to the nature of materials and seeing suggested this typically radical and inventive design solution. It allowed him (a) to see what he wrote immediately, not covered up by his writing hand, (b) to label objects very precisely (note the densely packed labels above, all running from right to left) and (c), ever trying to be practical, to avoid smudging the ink. Or perhaps it was another example of the amazing brain-wiring that the largely autodidact Leonardo never had corrected by censorious teachers.

In terms of information design (the designer’s practice/choices that are intended to help others readily understand their work in a particular way), note the lateral small cross-section at the bottom, with, lower down to the left, a cutoff front view of a face (a familiar reference point) so we see the height of the section in relation to the skull. On the right we see Leonardo has outlined the top half of the skull hingeing away to the right; this is sketchy, but even his barely considered sketches show the palpability of embodied experience. Note the emotional content of the main drawing, the vertical section: a fully scientific (by contemporary standards) section would have sliced off more of the face and neck – Leonardo seems to want to show a recognizably human profile. (Compare this with the plastic anatomical model below.) And the baroque swirls of hair in every sketch are a feature of Leonardo’s astonishing perception of pan-creational life-force.

Back in the world of information design, note the extreme minimalism of the labeling conventions, where the plainest of keylines unambiguously connect referent to referred solely by differences in length. The written captions radiate out in expressive imitation of (and at a larger scale from) the drawn layers. An insert on the right, towards the bottom, mostly in blacker ink (done some while later?) shows Leonardo’s further thoughts. In the onion sketch on the left Leonardo notes correspondences between an onion and the skull. This isn’t conventionally good science because vegetables grow differently from people’s heads, but Leonardo vivacious conception of the unity of the created world – always embodied, always connected, always real and fully alive, never abstract or solely intellectual – gives us something different and (dare I say?) more interesting.

I am not excusing bad science, but I am suggesting that curiosity and openness to phenomena precede observation and scientific work generally. As Leonardo’s anatomical work attests, his predisposition to observe interconnectedness opens up his faculties of perception to new insights. This is not superhuman; this is the way all of us understand metaphor. If this is not duly (or dully) scientific, might there be something wrong with our conception of science?

Let’s look at one of the contemporary plastic models of the human body also on display. These anatomical models (‘SOMSO’) are by Adam,Rouilly (their spacing). This is an enriching idea by the exhibition organizers: we can compare the anatomical veracity of Leonardo’s observations with modern science. The plastic models are impressive and no doubt educationally useful, but the comparison with Leonardo’s work shows they are oddly non-human and simplistic; the sanitized and ‘educational’ use of highly differentiated/flattened colour and plastic has more than a nuance of the products of Fisher-Price.

An Adam,Rouilly section of the cranium

A Fisher-Price chatter telephone

To be fair to these models, competition with perhaps the finest artist/draughtsman in Western civilization was always going to be a struggle. But can it be, over the course of 500 years of improvements in medical knowledge, that something has been lost?

I don’t have any more space in this post to explore more of Leonardo’s insights in detail, but I hope to continue these themes shortly.

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The pleasures of fine lettercutting in stone

Here’s a lovely thing I was very lucky to be given a few weeks ago. I hope anyone with an interest in words, writing and lettering will enjoy it here too.

What is it? It’s a Clipsham limestone square pillar with handcut lettering on each of the four sides. It’s very heavy, about 35 kg (80 lb), and about 50 cm (20 in.) tall. The strong textures look very handsome outdoors, where the sunlight strikes the lettering from different angles at different times of the day or season, and makes ever-changing abstract highlights and shadows.

The four sides read LETTERS FORM WORDS FROM. Note the pillar/obelisk only fully communicates with us in its original form, not in explanations, translations or reproductions. We need to walk round it clockwise to read ‘Letters form words, words from letters.’

Time, rain and dirt are going to change it, so the overhangs of the incised lettering will go dark while the three flat sides get whiter and streaked with rain. Raindrops bouncing off the ground will make the base darker than the top. On the fourth side, the lettering for WORDS stands out in relief, and the recessed background is deliberately left rough to attract – after many years – velvety black grime.

For now, tiny flecks of quartz that computer screens just aren’t bright enough to show sparkle in the sunlight. The fossil-bearing Clipsham has fragments of seashell in it, revealing its origins beneath the seas millions of years ago. Otherwise it is oolitic (one of my favourite words), meaning it looks as if it is made up of tiny eggs, each about the same size as sturgeon roe (caviar). It is a freestone, meaning it can be cut or carved in any direction. The freedom from constraints needs those with the highest-developed thoughts and most esoteric masonry skills, hence freemason.

The form–from pun makes me smile. Having worked in book publishing – including editing, design and typesetting – for 30 years it makes me think about authors who didn’t spot they typed one when they meant the other. Spellcheckers don’t see anything wrong either. It’s a classic typo. Perhaps there’s a point here about human and machine errors. I like to think the human ones – and they’re the ones behind the machines too – have some dignity. As Samuel Beckett’s Worstword Ho (1989) suggests, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

What if we go anticlockwise? ‘Letters from words … words form letters.’ Weird backwards thinking is sometimes creative and helps us think unusual thoughts, as on the other side of Alice’s looking glass. The more direct and emotive letter association here, though, is with the thing handwritten with pen on paper, friendly and personal, sent to or from someone special to us. I’m sure people these days send love-emails or emails of condolence, but a deeply felt letter kept from years ago is a thing of wonder, isn’t it?

The lettering on three sides cuts into the hard stone; it is impressed. The WORDS letterforms stand proud; they are expressed. The stonecutting here, like engraving or woodcuts from the world of printmaking, is a medium that asks palpably direct questions about impressions and expressions.

The incised Humanist italic FROM and FORM, with their elegant serifs, derive from the Roman stonecut lettering tradition. The LETTERS side, with its rounded Es, hints both at uncials favoured by eighth-century Irish scribes and Greek epsilons. The variety of letterforms has an élan and a joie de vivre that recall the mastery of David Jones:

David Jones (1895–1974) Exiit Edictum (1949). This superb hand-drawn lettering is both formal and lithe. The epigraphy responds to the unusual paper medium with a mixture of playfulness and solemnity. It celebrates the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke: 2:1 Exiit edictum …, ‘There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus …’, 2:7 Et peperit … in praesepio, ‘And she brought forth her firstborn son … and laid him in a manger’ and 2:12, et hoc vobis signum, ‘and this shall be a sign unto you’. Jones frames these texts on the top and left with the striking pre-Christian prophecy from Virgil’s Eclogue IV ll. 6–10: iam redit et Virgo, … iam regnat Apollo, ‘Now the Virgin returns … now your Apollo reigns.’ Drawing and gouache on paper, 406 x 330 mm. © Estate of David Jones. Image from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/jones-exiit-edictum-t03192

One of the subtlest pleasures of craftsmanship – such as a beautifully made table, typeface, typeset page or stonecut lettering – is the graciousness of the maker’s self-effacement. He or she doesn’t tell us what to think or how to feel; the intentionality drops away, leaving only a thing-for-us. When I rang the maker of this piece, Cambridge-based stonecarver Keith Bailey, he simply said the words came to him ‘by accident’. A books-about-books group book choice earlier this year was The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett, itself a beautifully crafted if necessarily literary exploration of the phenomenology of manual – non-verbal – skill; in this spirit, notice the lightness of Keith Bailey’s claim, as if he might never (!) have thought about this particular distillation of words during more than 50 years of painstaking work on letters in stone.

His work here gives me the gift of writing about it in a way that probably says more about me than it, but I hope I have done it the justice of at least trying to pay careful attention. Whatever my imaginings, the mass of the obelisk itself will be around for a good few hundred years longer than I will, continuing to give others pleasure and provoke interesting thoughts.


The giving of good gifts is in itself both an art and craft – I’m now thinking of the generosity of my friend who gave it to me. Every day I can see the solidity of his rare and inspirational ability to imagine, enter into, understand and enjoy what someone else thinks and feels.

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Tales from synaesthetic oceans: shampoo, Rimbaud and the cult of the LP sleeve

What do you think about this?

[Product name] has fresh notes of bergamot and lime, a spicy sensual heart of poivre, beechwood and oakmoss, enhanced with base notes of sandalwood, amber and vetiver.

It’s on a bottle of shampoo. For me, the incantation of wild and mystical-sounding ingredients (vetiver, aka Chrysopogon zizanioides, is a type of fragrant grass) is primal and sybaritic. Notice the synaesthetic trebly ‘fresh notes’ of bergamot and lime, and the base/bass of sandalwood et al. – as if smell is a sound. The mid-range ‘spicy sensual heart of poivre’, as well as being delicious mouth music, has the same nuance of anthropophagism that shocks us (doesn’t it?) in the Christian rite of Holy Communion.

And this is ‘only’ a commercial product. My point here (and throughout all of this blog) is that commercial culture (publishing, design, advertising, marketing) communicates with us in the same way as art or, in this case, religion. I am not being disrespectful: each one helps us understand the other, and ourselves.

Unfortunately for this minor masterpiece of copywriting the lettering on the pack is tiny, and the product name is boring. Oh well. Such are the managerial politics of creativity. No wonder artists don’t usually go for corporate-style decision-making structures.

Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’ (‘Vowels’, written 1870 or 1871) is in the same incantatory/synaesthetic tonality but from ‘high’ culture. Click on the link for the full hit – the original French is even more euphoric than this short extract: ‘A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins: A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies which buzz around cruel smells …’

An obligingly literalistic representation of Rimbaud and poem, from just after its publication date – some 17 years after being written. Image from http://abardel.free.fr/iconographie/illustrateurs/luque.htm

As Rimbaud said in his letter to Paul Demeny (15 May 1871), ‘Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ (The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses). The emphasis is Rimbaud’s, but note the metaphor of seeing is all the more palpable for the multimodality and synaesthesia of his poetry.

The provocations of the Rimbaud-influenced Aesthetic Movement of the 1890s, similar to the positions of guerrilla and terrorist movements in politics, were a desperate and fearful non-negotiation with what they considered to be an unbearably powerful opponent. The Aesthetes and related avant-gardist groups at the time were fighting (within the domain of culture) the forces of anaesthesia, the deadening of human perception associated with industrial ugliness and the homogenization of the texture of human experience by machine production.

This ecstatic and primitivistic oppositionism resonated with and was influential on the counterculture of the late 1950s onwards. In a world of technological/scientific instrumentality (including the shadow of ‘The Bomb’), the hegemony of anti-Communism and the universal (in the West) opiate of broadcast TV, the Beats, hippies and freakz generally sought to find through varieties of drugs, sex and music a spoonful of truth and a heightened feeling of life.

Gentle reader, I will spare you further historical speculations, both those speeded-up or at Test-match-cricket kinds of length – I hope the ones so far at least set the scene. I will as promised try to say something relevant about the magnificent genre of the sleeve of a 12-inch vinyl record.

My very simple premise is that a medium of expression, like the medium of a work of art, in-forms the ‘content’ (I am speaking crudely). ‘The medium is the message’ is a good slogan but its simple meaning continually needs to be refreshed and made complex. A 12-inch stereo long-playing record (an ‘LP’) was in its time an ear-dazzlingly wondrous innovation. Instead of sound being a place in a space, sound was now the space itself. And compared with ‘the single’ the LP was a generous but still boundaried helping of music (25 minutes or so per side) that gave the artist both safety and creative freedom. The LP format became a classical artistic form, similar to the sonnet, haiku, sonata, blues and symphony. The conventions of pacing and length were there to keep or – daringly – break.

Cover image by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth. The final cover bill, £3,000 (say, over £40,000 in contemporary terms), should be compared with a typical (then) cost of £50. The designers got £200 flat fee and no copyright; the rest was the cost of using the images of famous people. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein apparently found it so stressful to negotiate (and pay for) permissions that the only viable next step was the drastic minimalism of the Double White album. Again, in this follow-up to Sgt. Pepper the graphic idiom sets the tone for the change in musical style. Incidentally, Sgt. Pepper was the first album to print out the lyrics on the cover – a further interpenetration of media modalities.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1966) has been thoroughly worked over by critics; my only point here is that the baroque profusion and storytelling of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s cover is a superb visual counterpoint to the richness of the sound palette. Unprecedented numbers of overdubs, sound effects, musique concrète, referencing of twentieth-century vernacular musical styles and Fluxus-style creative subversion of the physical form (the UK pressing used the leadout – the usually silent innermost groove of the spiral that activated the auto-changer to lift the needle off – for a reverse-tape freakout): all these seem to find permission and corroboration in the magnificent cover artwork. I suggest the continuing grip of this album on all of us, old and young, is at least something to do with the cover’s outstandingly successful visual translation of the texture of the music.

The best tracks of Jimi Hendrix’s fractured masterpiece Electric Ladyland (1968) are an all-too rare use by Hendrix himself of the resources of the recording studio as a means of artistic expression in the medium of stereo sound. They include the astonishingly widescreen/filmic ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and the swirling abstract and angry vortices of ‘Voodoo Chile: Slight Return’. And all of this came (in the UK) in a beautiful cover. These images below are the two sumptuous LPs belonging to my brother (yes, he’s my elder bro and officially cooler than me):

These are two separate albums, not a gatefold – apparently intended to make an expensive double album easier to buy in two stages. This UK version comes complete with quirky references to English comic-book space hero Dan Dare’s nemesis The Mekon and the US anti-Russian Early Warning domes at Fylingdales, on the Yorkshire moors. The US album covers were either crass (dozens of naked women) or just boring (a ‘psychedelic’ picture of Hendrix’s face). Hendrix (unlike The Beatles) usually seems to have been badly served by record companies. (Mae West – here as Statue of Liberty – is third from the left, top row of the Sgt. Pepper cover.) Image from http://www.soundstation.dk/data/products/128855.aspx

I use to listen and wonder what was the connection between the sound of the music and the look of the sleeve. Answer: only the designer knows, but there was a panorama of a new and strange imaginary place, a counterpoint to the soundscapes in the music.

Here is the full gatefold cover (front and back) of the Pink Floyd album Meddle (1971):

The image is more allusive if you remember you only see the right-hand side first. I see a weird nostril or some sort of dolphin or whale. N.b. too the watery and synaesthetic metaphor of ‘waves’ or ‘ripples’ of sound. Gatefold covers, with their reference to left/right space, clearly play both on the medium of stereo sound and the structure of the brain. Confusion heightens the intensity of our responses – where is the title, or name of the band? Image from http://floydian615.deviantart.com/art/Meddle-HQ-286682717

The Pink Floyd brand-story is partly the management/curation of the innovative/quirky synaesthetic legacy of their subsequently mentally ill founding guitarist Roger (‘Syd’) Barrett. This story seems delicately poised on the issue of psychotropic substances: the loss of Barrett is deeply mourned, but the band’s admiration for the brilliance of his drug-assisted/damaged creativity (‘Shine on, you crazy diamond’) still infuses their later output. They become self-avowedly ‘comfortably numb’, professional depressives whose commercial self-exhibition of guilt and grief is – at least for me – difficult to swallow.

Meddle is from a more innocent time. The fine cover (by Storm Thorgerson, member of the enviably titled design group Hipgnosis) is evocative but not as iconic as the designer’s later Dark Side of the Moon artwork. Thorgerson has generously said the album was better than the cover, and that the band phoned him with the cover idea (‘an ear under water’) after unsurprisingly rejecting his preference, namely a photograph of a baboon’s anus.

Even so, what is particularly enjoyable about this cover is the completely ingenuous but still effective visual representation of the musical soundscape of the standout track that takes up all of side 2, namely ‘Echoes’. A line from it, with its Barrett-influenced internal rhyme, runs ‘And everything is green and submarine’: reverb guitar seagull/whale shrieks and keyboard sonar ‘plinks’ call clearly to mind the cool greenness of an undersea world. Can music be a colour or a temperature? Can a silent underwater landscape be described with sound? Yes and yes; furthermore, the cover artwork – not a tiny CD booklet or iPod image – can help us hear it.

LPs were so delicate – one scratch would spoil them for ever – everyone used to handle them with the utmost reverence, always sliding or rolling them gently back into their inner sleeve. So the outer sleeve (‘cover’) was a welcome protection. It worked hard for marketing too, because it was a promise of the kind of music inside without us needing to hear it. If synaesthesia is really so rare (see my previous post), how come mean-minded record companies spent so much money and creative energy on these fascinating sound/image combinations? It was the spirit of the age that the music and the impressively large canvas (so to speak) were complementary to each other, in the same multimodal way that I have argued elsewhere is the intention of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and is implicit in the conception of the iPad.

Clearly the golden age of the LP cover has now gone, but can I point out that a book cover works very much the same way? How much synaesthetic hit do we get off the greyness of what the Kindle says is a cover?


Within the 1960s’ counterculture it helped the veneration of the album cover that the shiny and expansive flat surface was both a practical and symbolically rich place to roll your spliffs. Each of the three modes of experience (music, artwork, getting high) ‘primed’ (in the language of Daniel Kahneman) our response to the others. It is both notorious and true that cannabis enhances the enjoyment of music and colours – I do not know about other substances. Steve Jobs once famously claimed Windows OS would have been better if Bill Gates had dropped acid – the shock of the true. Of course it is tragically passive for anyone to expect that pharmacology by itself can substitute for the fullness of a life well lived, but I think Jobs was in fact arguing for something more interesting, namely openness to reality and truth. Note the metaphor of ‘window’ – Windows XP was apparently a rather desperate-sounding allusion to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Microsoft didn’t call it Doors but there’s surely a pop culture reference in there somewhere I’ll get to in a minute …

The late Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) apparently used to tell a story of his early days when he sold vacuum cleaners to make a living, finding (and impressively recognizing) he was making a house call on the elderly Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) on the edge of the Mojave Desert. ‘This vacuum … sucks’ was his quick and embarrassed if not exactly Wildean aperçu. The author of Brave New World had immigrated to the States before the Second World War and had subsequently investigated psychoactive drugs, particularly mescaline/pejote. He wrote an account of a mescaline trip for his short but elegant and thoughtful book, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954). In it he observes, for example, that flowers were ‘so passionately alive that they seemed to be standing on the very brink of utterance’ (p. 59). It seems this book had permeated far enough into 1960s’ West Coast consciousness that Don Van Vliet knew its author by sight and the young Jim Morrison should refer to it when looking for an edgy name for his band. Revealingly, according to Wikipedia, Huxley’s book was the source, not the original William Blake quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ For his inner visions Blake never needed anything more than his imagination.

From the inside cover artwork for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (1969), synaesthetically described on the album sleeve as ‘A movie for your ears’. I used to think this image was just weirdness, but here Captain Beefheart is holding – I presume – the vacuum cleaner he once proffered to Aldous Huxley. (Huxley is third from left on the second row of the Sgt. Pepper sleeve.)

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After the (Olympics) gold rush – some thoughts on media and emotionality

If Usain Bolt had improved his 100 metres time from 2008 in step with the upgrades in 2012 Olympics media coverage, he would have run it in [fill in your own very small number here] seconds.

My serious point is that the Olympics media, at least in the UK, have been superb. There has been unprecedented viewer choice of replays/live coverage on the web, and live coverage at all Olympic venues simultaneously. High-definition telephoto images, particularly in slow-motion, have captured fleeting gestures, the slightest movements of muscles and rapid changes in facial expressions in ways that have been beautiful and moving. If you go to an event you get the contagious excitement of being in a huge crowd, but the athletes are tiny dots. The ravishing detail of image capture in 2012 has helped focus on the raw expression of emotion. This is just my personal impression, but I’ve felt more moved and emotionally involved with these games than I can ever remember. Anybody else feel that?

For a British person it’s difficult to work out whether the pleasure of London 2012 has been heightened by the danger of loss of national face, not just in poor sports results but also in potentially bad organization, inept media and embarrassing opening/closing events. It has been an enormous relief that we’ve had excellent results, built stylish venues and organized some suitably feelgood celebrations. In short we’ve demonstrated the kinds of quirky but creative and effective cultures that are near the best of what we British people can do.

But I think there really has been a journalistic decision to focus on the emotion of the games – the technical improvements have simply made it possible.

For background, keen students of the national zeitgeist will have noticed for some years that our famous British ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘British reserve’ is no longer as culturally powerful as it was. Perhaps we Brits started to notice our American friends on imported TV programmes whooping and hollering; we wondered why (at least on television) they seemed to be enjoying themselves while we were keeping schtum. During the 1980s Tony Blair’s contribution to the practice of politics was partly the insight that politicians in the media eye have to ‘emote’, meaning they need (at least for their opinion poll results) to express emotions publicly rather than just feel them privately. The locus classicus of this kind of overt emotionalism in UK culture was the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. Diana herself was an evangelist for this kind of emotionality; I am not in any way trying to diminish the sadness of her life story and tragically early death, but her preferred self-image as ‘Queen of Hearts’ might be more accurately termed ‘Queen of Hearts on sleeves’. By contrast I can’t believe the British royal family feel any less intensely than anyone else – they simply choose a different style of displaying emotion in public.

My general point, perhaps the central insight of this blog, is that our changing conception of ourselves is at least partially influenced by the reflections of ourselves we see via the extension (and distortion) of our sense faculties in media. Those reflections are different depending on the nature of the medium, whether HD television images or spoken language or words on a computer via the web.

What has this got to do with sport? It has been noticeable for some time, even in the UK, that sporting figures are also now obliged to emote for viewers and fans. Prowess with racket, ball or running spikes is not enough; their job of work is also to talk about their emotional highs and lows. Even when Andy Murray was clearly distraught at losing to Roger Federer at the British Open Tennis Championships at Wimbledon in June 2012 – with some kind of personal grief too, as when he looks to the sky and says something after he wins? – he had the courage to speak to his interviewer seconds afterwards. This clip comes after the very worst bit but is still painful viewing if you think anyone’s human dignity includes the right to feel what you feel in private. Our sympathies here go out to Murray, perhaps for the first time – the English sections of the UK public have not previously warmed to his defensive personality and abrasively pro-Scottish pronouncements. And his gold medal – along with his conspicuous singing of the national anthem – has gone a long way to repairing some of his previous PR damage.

This ‘emotional’ style of interviewing – grabbing the still-panting sportsperson, shoving a microphone in their face and asking them ‘How does it feel?’ – has been much used at these Olympic games. It has in truth been fascinating viewing, and the perfect adjunct to the HD slowmo images. The abstractions of the tiny figures running round an extended circle shape are replaced by near-full-screen images of faces sometimes at a peak of emotional expressiveness.

It is very much to the credit of the athletes and the spirit of the games that they have answered the interviewers naturally, honestly and decently, usually without media-weary platitudes. They have appreciated the efforts of their competitors. They all want to thank their coaches and families – family reaction shots have been a heart-warming feature throughout, including the meme of South African gold-winning swimmer Chad le Clos’s dad. The British athletes in interviews have usually been expansively appreciative of crowd support.

Chris Hoy’s mum tries to watch but can’t manage it. His dad is on the right. Image from AP / Martial Trezzini

There have been extreme differences in reaction at getting silver/bronzes. The media-crucified Rebecca Adlington wept with disappointment for her bronzes in the 400 and 800 metres freestyle, but Tom Daley (and team) was ecstatic (at 4:15) about his diving bronze. In the same competition a mortified Qiu Bo stood stock-still with his face to the wall after getting silver. Jessica Ennis triumphed over perhaps her most difficult opponent, the frenzy of media-induced public expectation.

My favourite Olympics media moment was when the British rowers Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase felt they had ‘let the nation down’ for getting a silver. In this clip the depth of their grief and the beautifully sympathetic reactions of the interviewer are wonderful. I thought it showed a deep human sympathy between athletes and spectators – finely expressed by the journalist as he struggled to keep the professionalism of his work on track.

Like most things, simply what it feels like will tell you if it was a success. I went to three events – tennis, kayaking and hockey – and noticed a good-tempered buzz to the crowd. Premier League football crowds, by contrast, often feel ugly or threatening; football fans’ humour is often bitter or sarcastic. Security checks at all three Olympic venues were efficient but friendly, with startlingly (compared to airports) short queues. The demand for tickets meant we watched cheaper events and teams/countries we didn’t know much about, but it didn’t seem to matter because it was fun to find (with the rest of the crowd) something to cheer about. On the way out of every venue many of the volunteer ‘games makers’ (out of 70,000 total) seemed genuinely to want to interact with us; one smiled warmly at us and asked us if we had had a good day, and was interested in our reply. And then on the train afterwards I was one of three strangers who easily struck up a sparky conversation about (and being an example of) how the Olympics had brought the country together.

All in all, the unacknowledged but implicit competition between heavy-duty corporate monopoly sponsorship and the popular spirit of the games was decisively won by the people. The volunteer helpers have been wonderfully non-bureaucratic and genuinely intent on helping people have a good time – at the ‘Park Live’ big screen they let people through the exit just so we could see Sir Chris Hoy win a gold medal. At times, though, the sponsors/monopolies seemed crude, such as when Ticketmaster (‘official ticketing services provider to London 2012’) got Twitter to take down one man’s computer-generated tweets that told followers when re-sold tickets were available on the official site. This harmless, non-profit and useful site ‏@2012TicketAlert was swiftly reinstated – a triumph of common sense. By the end of the games it had, apparently, reached 1 million people and helped do a good job recycling unused corporate seat allocations that would otherwise have been empty. But why weren’t the seats being used? Why wasn’t the reselling system better organized? If you see empty seats when watching an event on TV and you’ve been told no seats are available, it is manifestly wrong and unfair. Ultimately a way was found to fix the empty seats issue, though in the future the sustainability of the Olympics brand might require a better system for redistributing unused corporate allocations of seats back to the general public. And the enforcement of monopolies needs to be much less heavy-handed. ‘Proud’ to allow only one kind of credit card?

Lord Coe, former 1500 metres gold medallist and chair of the London 2012 organizing committee, was on a video at Olympic venue ExCeL. He said this: ‘It’s a complex, cluttered world we live in. But the oasis of sanity is often the Olympic Games.’ His ‘how to speak to the media’ training is clearly stopping him from saying what he was really thinking, but if we read between the lines it was indeed a profound relief there were no terrorist attacks; even better, nobody seemed to give them a second thought. And the intensity of emotion on display might not seem like sanity to those rationalists who only see the arbitrary or meaningless in games. Sport, though, is the lie that tells the truth. The irrationality of the premise – does it really matter if someone comes first or last? – gives sportspeople full permission to express safely and unguardedly the whole range of human reactions to triumph and disaster. In our witnessing of athletes’ dedication and intensity we can all see reflections of our own struggles, but in a stronger and purer light.

On my way into Cambridge today the only bit of the sluggish River Cam that isn’t as smooth as a mill pond – the race by Laundress Green – was chock-a-block with 20 or so young people with brightly coloured plastic kayaks and slalom posts just like the ones Baillie and Stott had to paddle through en route to their gold medal. In 21 years in this town I have never seen slalom posts on the Cam before. Perhaps the greatest success of the games is not in physical excellence but in our minds: ‘Inspire a generation’ seems fresh and true.

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What is synaesthesia? Why is it important?

Crikey – the online Random House dictionary says synaesthesia (synesthesia in more search-friendly US English) ‘is a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color’.

There’s a problem here: the scientific language misses the meaning of something at root simple and strong. So, going back to first principles, here’s an example of synaesthesia in a contemporary poem called ‘Writing’:

She could see the paper waiting to be written on
She could hear the pens banging on the cupboard door
Desperate to be used
She could feel the lines on the paper wobbling
As if about to cry
She could smell the colours screaming and shouting
Wanting to be noticed
She could not stand it any longer
She sat down and wrote

I presume the writer couldn’t tell us – for reasons I’ll give you in the next paragraph – what synaesthesia is, but in ‘She could smell the colours screaming’ she intuitively smashes together three senses (smell, sight and hearing) in a climax of emotional intensity before finishing with the fierce and generative paradox of her writing making a new silence and white space.

This poem happens to be written by an 8-year-old. I saw it in a school anthology. My point? This artless (in a good way) simplicity intuitively channels the complexities of energy, life and truth. These are the characteristics, I often try to say in this blog, of communication. If we can develop a rich and complex enough model of intuitive communication to explain synaesthesia we can use it to help make our work – in publishing, design, advertising, writing, marketing, teaching, communication – richer, more memorable, more effective.

Synaesthetes perceive one sense in terms of another, i.e. they can hear sounds as tastes, or see letters as colours. An early study (1893) records that some see numbers in space, or personify letters or numbers: ‘T’s are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but … 3 I cannot trust … 9 is dark, a gentleman, tall and graceful, but politic under his suavity.’ One contemporary synaesthetic savant, Daniel Tammet, sees David Letterman (Numberman?) as number 117, ‘tall, lanky – a little bit wobbly’; he thinks of numbers and letters as emotions, colours, sculptures and landscapes en route to remembering pi to 22,514 places or learning Icelandic in a week.

In practice, though, all permutations of crossovers between senses have been recorded, including people who verifiably claim they can smell with their toes.

Synaesthetes usually think what they perceive is normal and unremarkable for the same reason none of us can know what green means to someone else. On being asked about it, they usually think of it as something pleasurable or helpful. People who think of numbers as colours may be abnormally good at maths; those who remember ideas as objects connected together in space may have particularly good memories.

I am by coincidence reading a book by Dominic O’Brien called You Can Have an Amazing Memory (London: Watkins Publishing, 2011). The author, the publisher’s blurb gushes, ‘is legendary for winning the World Memory Championship eight times and for outwitting the casinos of Las Vegas to win a fortune at blackjack.’ Reading it wasn’t my idea (it was a book group choice), but (a) it is fascinating and (b) it works, even for me. Here is one of his synaesthetic warm-up exercises for preparing to improve your memory:

Imagine you’re holding a football in your hands. Imagine that it smells like freshly squeezed oranges. Take a few moments to bring those two thoughts to life in your mind. Now imagine the football has the texture of jelly. It’s ticking like a clock and tastes of chocolate …

I’ll probably say some more about this in another post, but the key to the author’s method is to convert abstract information (e.g. the order of packs of cards, lists of random words, binary code or numbers) into personally significant, sensorily rich/diverse and emotionally varied ‘journeys’ round familiar places, turning the data into ‘stories’ by deliberately working with the grain of his instinctive, irrational and spontaneous associations. Notice there is an implicit, practical and successful model here of how our minds and memories work, based on what I propose is the same inherently transmodal and substitutional pathways characteristic of synaesthesia.

A cross-correlation for this comes from a very different kind of world: Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, Book VI) has a particularly elegant schema for understanding our sleep-time acts of self-communication. For Freud, dreams allow us a glimpse of the most foundational workings of our mind without (at least to start with) the distortions of consciousness. He uses a taxonomy of metaphor, metonym, condensation and displacement to help our dream-interpretations distinguish between manifest and latent content. Note the transformations (respectively) of translation, association, reduction and substitution are functionally the same kind of slippages we can observe from the diversity of synaesthetic responses.

An intimidating and vulnerable Sigmund Freud, surrounded by his collection of classical and early Egyptian figurines. I have no details of date or photographer, but I think this is a late photograph taken in London, c. 1938. His cancer of the jaw is clearly visible. Image from http://www.freud-sigmund.com/dream-top-theories

The persons who wrote the Wikipedia definition say it is a ‘neurological condition’ affecting ‘between 1 in 20 and 1 in 20,000’ of the population. (Note again the clinical scientific language.) The wide difference between these numbers makes them sound like wild guesses. Even 1 in 20 seems low to me, partly for the completely unscientific reason that sometimes I happen to experience correspondences between some music and tastes. I have no idea whether this is ‘true’ or just intellectualized synaesthesia, but a few bars of harpsichord music might remind me of crunchy hazelnuts, or fluty/‘chiffy’ organ stops make me think of oaked Chardonnay. If I was going to describe the taste of an arrabbiata sauce on pasta, for example, I might talk about trebly/oboe-y sounds over a plucked double bass.

I hope this doesn’t sound weird. I don’t usually talk about it much. I remember one person – wrinkling her nose in scepticism – said ‘But everybody thinks like that!’ It’s very difficult to know what other people experience – please leave a comment or send an e-mail and let me know whether this makes sense to you or not.

My other (a lot more objective!) reason to doubt the accuracy of the Wikipedia numbers is the following experiment, originally by Wolfgang Köhler. Here are two shapes; in an imaginary language, one is called bouba, and the other kiki. Which is which? (The answer is at the end of this post.)

From an experiment first conducted by Wolfgang Köhler. Image from Wikipedia.

High-profile neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and colleague E. Hubbard say that 95 per cent of those in their 2003 repetition of the experiment give the same answer – unlike 56 per cent of people diagnosed as being autistic. Responses are very similar for English and Tamil speakers, so the very high figures are probably not specifically related to the language spoken. Other research suggests that two-and-a-half-year-olds, not old enough to read, respond in the same way, so it can’t be anything to do with the shape of the letters.

Why should a shape, something we see, correspond so closely with a sound, something we hear? Can it be that our responses are not as chopped up into discrete sense categories as we usually believe? Don’t we already know that our minds and bodies are more active and more fully alive when we communicate across a whole range of senses? More philosophically – and here is the punchline to my previous digs at reductively scientific language –  isn’t reality more interconnected and richer than we usually have the tools, systems and language to understand? Isn’t synaesthesia a kind of apperceptive prism for a more interesting and beautiful world?

In one of the next posts I will be looking at examples of synaesthesia in the magnificent genre of 12-inch record sleeves.

The spiky shape is kiki, the blobby one bouba.
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Inventing the future – the earliest mention of the word ‘wordpress’?

Two ifs: if there was a search engine that filtered on the earliest mention of, and if we then looked up ‘WordPress’, we would find this, by James Joyce, from 1939:

A bone, a pebble, a ramskin; chip them, chap them, cut them up allways; leave them to terracook in the muttheringpot: and Gutenmorg with his cromagnom charter, tintingfast and great primer must once for omniboss step rubrickredd out of the wordpress else is there no virtue more in alcohoran. For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints.
(Finnegans Wake, 1939, p. 20, ll. 5–11, my emphasis)

Three things to be clear about:

1. I’m not saying the official WordPress history – that Christine Selleck (now Tremoulet) suggested the word to WP founder Matt Mullenweg – is wrong.  

2. I am also not suggesting Christine was turning over the pages of Finnegans Wake some time in March 2003. Maybe she was, but FW is probably the most unreadable masterpiece in world literature – apparently (in Dubuque, Iowa) even university English professors join reading groups to get through it. Respect to her if she was reading it; even more to her if she wasn’t, for inventing something so good and so right. In a world where Google used to be called Backrub and the iMac was going to be called Macman, it’s important there are people who can channel the wishes and expectations of the millions of the rest of us – and persuade the people who have power that they should listen.

3. James Joyce invented and used this word first. Of course he wasn’t talking about blogs, but isn’t great literature for all of us, for all time – including, in a way that would sound weird to try to explain, the future?

Joyce and Sylvia Beach in her English-language bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., in Paris. Sylvia Beach was the first and remarkably prescient publisher of Ulysses – copies imported to the UK on publication were burned for ‘obscenity’. Image by unknown photographer, presumably after the date of publication of Ulysses, i.e. after 1922. From http://ransomcenter.tumblr.com/page/2 – the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas, has the admirable aims of acquiring ‘original cultural material for the purposes of scholarship, education, and delight.’

But what does Joyce mean? The first bit down to ‘mutthering pot’ is a recipe for making parchment, for making numbering systems and language itself; the ‘muttheringpot’ has resonances of muttering (mutter = German for mother) and mothering. The embodied earthiness of language evolves (‘terracook[s]’ – cf. Italian terra cotta) – both out of primaeval sounds (muttering) and what we as infants hear from our mothers, our ‘mother tongue’.

The theme of evolution, both of humanity and language/media, is celebrated in ‘cromagnom’ (Cromagnon man; also a magnum of champagne?) and ‘Gutenmorg’ (Johannes Gutenberg), who is now synonymous with Good morning (German, guten morgen), a new dawn, Joyce suggests, in the cultural history of the West. Gutenberg’s ‘tintingfast’ (inkwell, from the German Tintenfass, but also printing press, already prefigurative of rapid twentieth-century colour printing) is associated with the principle of one law for all (‘… magnom charter’ ≈ the Magna Carta), bible printing (‘great primer’) and even monotheism (‘omniboss’) – though Joyce literally brings us back to earth with the step on to an omnibus.

The rubric (from Latin, ruber) is the red lettering in mediaeval religious texts, often liturgical instructions to the priest; Joyce thinks of red bricks. After ‘wordpress’ – remember Gutenberg converted a wine press into the printing press – Joyce riotously conjoins alcohol and the Muslim sacred text al-Koran (‘alcohoran’), throwing in a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Act II scene 4, where the drunken but life-affirming Falstaff says to the innkeeper: ‘Give me a cup of sack, rogue. Is there no virtue extant?’

I don’t know who ‘the rapt one’ might be – an enraptured Sikh holy man wrapped in a turban, perhaps? His warning is that the heady brew (‘meed’) of ‘papyr’ culture (‘in prints’) is made of ‘hides’ (both ‘ramskins’/parchment and deliberate obfuscations of meaning by the author), ‘hints’ (clues we readers have to work out) and ‘misses’ – failures to communicate. Eugene Jolas records astonishing patience and enthusiasm for the extremely difficult task of typesetting FW; he tells us Joyce was mostly entertained by Jolas’s many typesetting errors (‘misses in prints’ ≈ misprints, always deliciously enjoyable here at Propagandum Towers) and would often keep them. Perhaps they were a quid pro quo for Joyce’s massive changes at page proof. ‘hides and hints and misses in prints’ is also a remarkably fine and good-tempered description of (respectively) authorial concealment, revelation and miscommunication.

Eugene Jolas was in a literary group/journal ‘transition’. This is their ‘Proclamation’ from 1929. Joyce was not a signatory, but was a contributor of material that was to become Finnegans Wake. Note #6: ‘The literary creator has the right to disintegrate the primal matter of words imposed on him by text-books and dictionaries.’

Pouring out of the ‘wordpress’ here is the red wine of Joycean intoxication with language, the profuse and effusive creation of a drunken but beautiful history of everything. No wonder the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, looking for a language to express a radically new conception, subatomic particles, found quark in there:

In 1963, when I assigned the name ‘quark’ to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork’. Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark’ in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ …
(M. Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995, p. 180)

In the publishing and design industries the US software house of the same name used the word in 1981 for its page makeup program. Like Quark XPress, WordPress can feel proud of its literary genealogy.


Joyce also invented the word collideorscope (FW, page 143, line 28). Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 75, and the source of my finding the wordpress quote above) suggests it means ‘the interplay … of all components of human technology as they extend our senses and shift their ratios in the social kaleidoscope of cultural clash’. In a different kind of technology and clash that extends our human capacity to conceive of the Singularity, the first nanoseconds of the universe and indeed of time itself, the Large Hadron Collider has made possible the experimental near-verification of the previously only theoretical Higgs boson. Is there somehow a convergence between Joyce’s philoprogenerative word-crunching and the LHC’s atom-smashing, both ultimately in search of deeper insight? Wouldn’t Joyce’s Collideorscope be a better name for it? Might somewhere in Finnegans Wake lie buried another invention of the future? As another literary inventor – William Blake – once said (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 15), ‘What now is proved was once only imagin’d.’

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Bicycles, beds, chairs, doors – the use of modern art

‘Mr. Beckett’s patient concern with bicycles, amputees, battered hats, and the letter M’ starts Hugh Kenner’s still impressive Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study (New York: Grove Press, 1961, p. 1). My previous post tried to talk about the same things, respectively a human-centred ethos for designing our technologies, the power of the imprint of the object world on our bodies/minds, and the humanity/dignity of being wrong. Notice that Kenner helps us see in Beckett that the alphabet and writing press in on us too. ‘Patient concern’? Supposedly fierce and uncompromising modern art runs the full range of human emotions …

First off, let’s see where we get to on Marcel Duchamp’s improbable marriage of bike and chair. Perhaps Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ are, on one level, snook-cocking swipes at William Morris’s ‘have nothing in your home but what you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. In spite of Duchamp’s cool sarcasm I believe he also tries, quite straightforwardly and the same as any kind of traditional art, to help us see the world vividly and freshly, and to tell us something true.

Marcel Duchamp (1888–1968), Bicycle Wheel (‘assisted readymade’), 1913, remade 1951. When Duchamp needed some income in the 1950s he had copies made as ‘an edition’. These were then sold by an upmarket art dealer for large sums. I don’t think this diminishes his oeuvre at all; getting two jokes out of the art market and some cash as well seems fair enough. Image from Wikipedia

At the very least, Duchamp’s impossible conjunction of non-sitting and non-moving forcefully implies something that isn’t there: the human body. Or does this piece say machines have pushed us off our perch? Chairs have legs, but have our thoughts become mechanical? (From popular culture I’m thinking of The Eagles’ ‘Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.’) I’m also thinking that in William Blake, the ‘dark Satanic mills’ are not just the machines of the Industrial Revolution but also the dead, mechanistic cosmological system of Newton and – more personally and psychologically – thoughts that go round and round and round …

Or is it another Duchampian play, from his extensive iconography of these things, on mechanical male and organic female? Whether in Duchamp or modern art generally, I don’t see openness to multiple interpretations as just an amusing game or something ‘intellectual’: we can try or start to understand ourselves by what we think we see. Whether the artist intended a ‘meaning’ or not probably doesn’t matter, though I like to think we can find in Duchamp’s work, like Beckett, a ‘patient concern’ that helps us to find something that makes sense for each of us.

Tracey Emin (1963–), My Bed (1998). Image from http://cacmalaga.org/?p=996

Beds: Tracey Emin’s My Bed feels both highly personal, attention-seeking and (for me) uncomfortable, sickening or embarrassing. These strong adjectives do not mean, by the way, that I am criticizing it. That’s simply how I feel when I look at it … The piece clearly works on all us at the provocative borderline of emotionality and exploitation, truth and lies. In another register of human experience away from art, going through the things that used to belong to someone who has died can feel very poignant, but perhaps because it is the opposite of Emin’s kind of exhibitionism: their possessions are private, never meant to be on display. I mention these experiences because Emin’s piece doesn’t get there – for me. How could it? Nevertheless, some people say they feel powerfully moved by it.

There again, why does art have to be simplistically truthful or emotional? In literature, fiction rather than autobiography is usually the premier genre for emotional intensity; the point is not to guess what is true in the work of art but to respond fully and truly, and to know our response. We don’t need to like the art itself – as if liking was either necessary or sufficient for responding fully, for starting to understand richly …

Furthermore, if an artist says they are telling the truth it doesn’t mean they are. They could be experimenting or even lying– when has ‘the truth’ been easy to define? Emin’s populist emotionalism may in fact ride (or sit) on top of specialized art-philosophical analysis. Here is an extract from Book X of Plato’s Republic:

Socrates: And the painter too is, as I conceive, just such another [similar to a poet] – a creator of appearances, is he not?
Glaucon: Of course.
Socrates: But then I suppose you will say that what he creates is untrue. And yet there is a sense in which the painter also creates a bed?
Glaucon: Yes, but not a real bed.
Socrates: And what of the maker of the bed? Were you not saying that he too makes, not the idea which, according to our view, is the essence of the bed, but only a particular bed?
Glaucon: Yes, I did.
Socrates: Then if he does not make that which exists he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence; and if any one were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth.
Glaucon: At any rate, he replied, philosophers would say that he was not speaking the truth.
Socrates: No wonder, then, that his work too is an indistinct expression of truth.

I like to think of Emin’s piece, therefore, as a serious and challenging testbed (why not?) for exploring emotional representationality; she questions, via her hypo- and hyper-authenticities, mechanistic thinking and ingenuous or reductive interpretation.

Here is another chair piece about seeing and thinking-about-seeing: Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.

Joseph Kosuth (1945–), One and Three Chairs (1965). Image from Wikipedia

Trying to be more precise about media, this is an image on your computer screen of a picture file on a blog website (via the internet) of a photo of an installation of a work of art that consists of a chair, an enlarged photographic reproduction of the chair and a photograph of the typeset definition (in English, appearing as if copied from a dictionary) of ‘chair’. (The definition looks odd to me – it’s all etymology and no explanation of what a chair is. And what is a chay?) The work of art in fact consists of the specification or design of all these stages. There is no ‘original’: there can be any number of different chairs, photographs and definitions; each is ‘the’ work of art. This work, like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel readymade, can be produced indefinitely; its reproduction changes the experience completely.

Note that Kosuth’s piece (in all of its variants) does have ‘real’ chairs – the ‘one’ in the title. Perhaps on this site it should just be called Three Chairs. Of course the reproduction of any work is radically different from its original even if there is one. If you played Schubert’s String Quintet in C major D956 (for example) on the tinny speaker of a phone it would probably sound terrible, but I have heard people disparaging the paintings of Mark Rothko even though they may have only seen a postcard-sized reproduction in the four modest yellow/magenta/cyan/black printing colours in a book. His enormous paintings in the Tate Modern in London, for example, are both intensely and subtly colourful in a way that is effectively unreproduceable. Compared with the book or web image, the emotional experience is very different.

It is always a problem with interpreting modern art that we are usually oblivious to the obvious, at least in terms of media. We can see this, for example, in a TV reality show of extreme feats of endurance in a desert; we may feel anxious about the protagonist’s survival even though a full film crew – and catering – is presumably on hand. Marshall McLuhan called this ‘narcissus as narcosis’, or the human tendency to regard our perceptions as natural and normal – even if they are not.

So – for me at least – one of the pleasures of modern art, as William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14) suggests about ‘printing by the infernal method’, is that it helps us cleanse ‘the doors of perception’ so that ‘every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite’. Remember too that interpretations, like the two-faced Roman god Janus (cf. January), go in two directions: they reveal the perceiver as well as what we perceive. Duchamp, during his supposedly solely chess-playing years, found a compelling way to express this. He instructed a carpenter to install a single door for two rooms so that when one doorway is shut, the other must be open. Was this just home improvement? Or does it, in inverse proportion to its overt modesty, model the brave anti-reductionist project of modern art? As a commentary on itself, might it not be both open and closed to interpretation?

Marcel Duchamp, Door of 11 rue Larrey, Paris (readymade?), 1927. Image from http://www.toutfait.com/ unmaking_the_museum/ Door,%2011%20rue%20Larrey.html

Modern art is both from and about our world; much of what we think of as reality is the aggregate of so many different kinds of media – including these words and images you see now. So the doors of perception are nowadays not just of the body but also of technology. Looking backwards from our own age, might not Duchamp’s door therefore also be a highly expressive metaphor for the Boolean logic of binary digital processing? Open or shut? On or off? True or false?

I suggest that art, as Marshall McLuhan once said (Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 246) about education, is ‘civil defence against media fallout’. It is, in a media world of radioactive meanings, a Geiger counter to help us live more purely, more fully.


On the subject of chairs and media, may I bring to your attention to the thaumaturgic and mighty (if also mightily expensive) Bibliochaise?

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