Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Ephemera (IV)

Published on 26 October 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

(Some reflections are not worth a full-throated blog, yet they contain small kernels for reflection – like plum kernels one rolls in one’s mouth while climbing a steep mountain on a hot day. I’ll post ephemera from time to time)

The narrative “selfie” – a new genre

A friend of mine has gifted me a small book with the title “A Short History of Gardens.”[1] Short it is: a lively 124-page long romp spanning from the hypothetical garden of the first cultivators of time before time to the post-modern ecological orchard – and much of the author’s cleverness in between.

Cleverness: for the book’s numerous small distortions, errors, and omissions reveal the author’s true purpose. It is not to convey knowledge, even if fragmentary, but the author’s experience in this or that garden, and in a (a-)historical perspective. In short, it is a narrative “selfie,” meant to impress the reader through vicarious involvement. We are meant to admire the author, not the gardens. He is producing a selfie with a garden as background.

Forever in the lead, art has already shown the way.[2] The price of this conceptual innovation has been the abandonment of the common or societal canon which tied observer and the artist. What’s left is subjectivism pure and simple. Whether we “agree/love” or not with what is said/shown, grounds in personal experience, which cannot be shared with anyone.

Transposed to the non-fiction area this may lead to “incommensurability” and “relativism,” which beset the humanities and increasingly the social and even material sciences.[3]

Intellectual selfies might be momentarily amusing, but how relevant are these ephemeral utterances? I’d hope we’d gain some fresh insight in this way… I’m struggling, though to see the light.

The subject of Universal Exhibitions

The craze of Universal Exhibitions (UE) started in the UK, which hosted the first one in 1851. The Crystal Palace was built as its core.[4] The second UE, was in Paris, in 1855, and celebrated “arts and industry.”[5] The staging was motivated by Napoleon III’s desire to re-establish pride and faith in the nation after a period of war.[6] So the French people and their achievements were at the center of the Palace of Art and Industry, which was built to out-impress the Crystal Palace.


(This is all that’s left of the building, which was torn down to make room for the Grand Palais)

The French pavilion celebrated French artisans, farmers, and workers.[7]

The theme chosen for the 2015 Milan Universal Exposition is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. This embraces technology, innovation, culture, traditions and creativity and how they relate to food and diet. Expo 2015 will further develop themes introduced in earlier Expos (e.g., water at Expo 2008 in Zaragoza in the light of new global scenarios and emerging issues, with a principal focus on the right to healthy, secure and sufficient food for all the world’s inhabitants.” From being actors, people have become the recipients of the benefits of technologies.

I wonder whether we could even imagine an UE celebrating people and their activities, these days…

The fine art of reviling

LIANG Shiqiu[8] (1903 – 1987) is best known for having translated Shakespeare into Chinese. Among the lesser known works is “The fine art of reveling,” which was translated into English in the 30s and is meanwhile out of print. I found a modern version in Italian.[9] The back-cover blurb calls it “the martial arts of speech.”

And indeed, it is a list of mostly indirect tactics aimed at putting down one’s opponent without seeming to do so. LIANG articulates in his work the wisdom of Sun-tzu: “…attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”[10]

In his second lesson, LIANG advises any practitioner of this verbal martial art well to choose one’s adversary: he should be neither beneath nor too high above one’s station. What distinguishes (Chinese) art from (Western) theory is the setting of limits to its application or, if you wish, deliberately putting it in context – here the relative strength of the opponents. Theory may be absolute; art never is, and art always grounds in context. Art is not an abstract rule, but a relationship between realities.

Theory follows “the Platonic model. It is magnificent in its inner coherence but mostly irrelevant to the real world. In order to make a connection between heavenly ideas and tangible realities, Plato himself was reduced to inventing something he called the Demiurge, an intermediate being who translates the ideal forms in heaven into something tangible in the world.”[11] Aware that the context transforms everything, including theory, the Chinese approach is to provide guidance when confronting the context – at the expense of timeless applicability.

[1] Gilles CLÉMENT (2011): Un brève histoire du jardin. Édition JC Behar, Paris.

[2] See e.g. Nathalie HEINICH (2014): L’art contemporain explosé au rejets. Études de cas.Fayard, Paris.

[3] See e.g. Carlo ROVELLI (2011): Che cos’è la scienza. La rivoluzione di Anassimandro. Mondadori, Milano. In the material sciences “incommensurability” is a non-starter, which made many careers, however. I’ll blog soon in this.

[4] https://bit.ly/1ruEXjn

[5] https://library.brown.edu/cds/paris/worldfairs.html

[6] See John ALLWOOD (2001): The Great Exhibitions: 150 years. Cassell & Collier Macmillan Publishers.

[7] See e.g. Eric LEGUEBE (1978): Napoleon III le Grand. Eric Authier, Paris.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liang_Shih-chiu

[9] See LIANG Shiqiu (2011): La nobile arte dell’insulto. Edinaudi, Torino.

[10] Ralph D. SAWYER (2007) (Transl.): The seven military classics of ancient China. Basic Books, New York, pg. 161

[11] Edward MENDELSON (2014): Escape from Microsoft Word. New York Review of Books, Blog October 21, 2014, 12:45 p.m

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