Monday, 6 December 2010

On Television - An Applied Review

Despite being written almost fourteen years ago about French TV, Bourdieu's insights into the structural mediocrities of television broadcasting is easily translatable to the present day output of British television (tr. Note, p.83). On Television remains both relevant and vital. A case in point is the BBC's The Story of Maths presented by Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy. A crucial sequence of Programme 3, was the practical application of Leibniz's work on calculus. du Sautoy sat in the driver's seat of a product-placed Audi explaining how Leibniz's work enabled the calculation of the instantaneous speed in contrast to the average speed on the car's speedometer. Virtual axes appropriately appeared with an overlaid curve of the car's acceleration and deceleration. After three seconds the car was calculated to be travelling at ... Well that's the point there was no calculation: there was no maths. Would it be possible to broadcast the story of other topics whilst simultaneously censoring the topic? the story of music without sound? the story of art without images? 

du Sautoy currently occupies the Oxford chair of `Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science', but what might the public understand from this sequence? Bourdieu's essay helps answer such a question in terms of self-censorship, market economics and the desire to be `on television'. Bourdieu doesn't actually mention the cult of celebrity but in its coruscation of those for whom `to be is to be perceived' (p.14) the acceptance of and compliance in censorship is a necessary condition for television's creation of a `public-that-won't-understand' (p.13). The programme's accessibility to non-mathematicians is deemed to be a success (OU, Sesame, Autumn 2010, p.13) but such success is questionable if non-mathematicians remain uninformed of the mathematics that have caught their attention. 
The second part of the `On Television' essay deals with the sociological field within which TV operates. This focus facilitates an analysis of the way the TV subject is created and established. This effectively depersonalizes Bourdieu's argument (and hopefully this review) and allows for criticism and elaboration upon the structural conditions within and through which such mediocrity is effected. The Story of Maths might operate, most obviously, within the discourse of public service broadcasting, and since there aren't that many maths programmes within this field du Sautoy could have written pretty much anything he liked. However, The Story of Maths is also connected to the most popular, most economically successful shows (X Factor, Britain's Got Talent etc.). "The result is programming that makes concessions to facile [popularism]" Thus the format of The Story of Maths follows that of personality and pits Newton against Cowell, Gauss against Subo: extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. 
Bourdieu closes On Television with a preemptive note in preparation of the charges of elitism and/or esotericism. Imagine a maths programme that introduced the complex concepts of mathematics and which explained them in an engaging, meaningful and entertaining way that challenged the level of superficial reception. That Bourdieu's argument is not elitism is, paradoxically, a challenge to the elite that only seek to reinforce the mechanisms that put The Story of Maths on the screen in the first place.

Buy this book, and if you can afford another please send it to Marcus du Sautoy c/o BBC TV.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

sex talk

Last Christmas I was given a little book called She Literally Exploded by two Torygraph journalists (Christopher Howse and Richard Preston) who dislike certain modern phrases and usages.  Sometimes it's quite funny, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes interesting.
The compilers dislike the word 'homophobic' because:

"the prefix homo- means not 'homosexual' but 'the same'.  So homophobes ought to hate or fear those the same as themselves. In general they hate or fear those who are different." (p.55)

The OED concurs in so far that 'hom-' means 'the same' when that prefix is followed by vowel. However, it's unsurprisingly more nuanced than The Torygraph's journalists present.
The OED describes a homophobe as 'a homophobic person' which is someone who 'pertains to or is characterized by, or exhibits homophobia; hostile towards homosexuals' (paraphrased by me).  Look up 'homophobia' (n.1) in the OED, and the prefix 'hom-' represents 'man'.  That is because in its earliest sense (c.1920) 'homophobia' is, literally, 'a fear or aversion to men'. 
'Homophobia' (n.2), however, is defined as a 'fear or hatred of homosexuals', and that is because the prefix 'homo-' is used, in this instance, as a contraction of 'homosexual'. 'Homosexual', in turn, uses 'hom-' to mean 'the same' (hom- + vowel) and is not specific to man or woman.
The way the OED treats the two 'homophobias' is significant because they are listed as two different headwords with two distinct definitions rather than the same word with two different senses.  I appreciate that homonyms have the potential to cause difficulties but Christopher Howse's blog on The Torygraph's website claims he writes about the world's faiths, especially Christianity. He also comments frequently and blogs on the uses and abuses of the English language'.  Now you might very well think that someone who writes on religion might be well suited to prescribing the meaning of homophobia but I couldn't possibly comment, (FU).

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

five red apples

I placed five English Cox apples in a drawer and asked my partner to “bring me a red apple”. All of the apples had some red colouring, and it would have been possible to pick any of the apples and justify that choice as ‘red’; that is if ‘red’ were defined as having some red colouring. She considered the apples and selected one. When asked how she had decided which to pick, she replied that the chosen one apple had the ‘most even spread of red’ but that she might have picked an alternative one which was a ‘deeper red’ but that it was ‘only red on one side’.

(Thanks to Donna for the photo.x)

Monday, 29 November 2010

what's in a name?

The surname Weston is said to derive from the west town (west tun) ( in much the same way that the surnames Sutton, Middleton, Norton, and Easton are presumably derived.
It’s a nice coincidence then that the similar looking Anglo-Saxon word ‘wæstm’ (fruit or fruitful) should crop up as my favourite brand of cider.
Much Marcle, the village that is home to Westons, is clearly a wes tuun

a fruitful investigation

‘Fruit’ is a post-conquest French loanword with the OED dating its earliest usage to 1175. Changes to the language of food and food-dishes is a recognized feature of Norman power, (Bragg, 2003, p.37-38) and to that extent ‘loan’ doesn’t really convey the power of the lexical assault.
Prior to the Norman conquest, the Middle English word ‘aepel’, could be used to refer to any ‘edible product of a plant or tree, consisting of the seed and its envelope, esp. the latter when it is of a juicy pulpy nature’ (OED, ‘fruit’, n., 2). Thus ‘aepel’ could refer to a pear, a lemon, a cucumber, a banana (aepel of paradis) or an acorn (aepel of ok). Other variants of the ME word include ‘aepil’, ‘aepul’, ‘eppel’, ‘eappel’, and ‘apple’, (University of Michigan, ME Dictionary, ‘apple’). All these ME words, in turn, are developments of the early Old English ‘aepl’ that the OED dates to before 1100.
In addition to the umbrella term ‘aepel’, the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wæstm’ could also be used to mean the edible products of a tree, as well as its more common use in describing the tree’s productivity and fecundity in general, (Bosworth and Toller, ‘wæstm’; Bragg, 2003, p.52). These latter senses were taken over by the adjective ‘fruitful’, with the earliest recorded use in 1300 (OED, ‘fruitful’). The OED also records the use of ‘acorn’ to mean fruit generally, derived from Gothic, ‘akran’ which itself derived from Old High German, ‘ackeran’, (OED, ‘acorn’). The earliest A-S recorded use is 1000.
So, users of A-S and ME did not use the word that we now use to refer to an apple in the way we now use it, that is to refer to the edible product of the Malus domestica. At the head of the first philosophical investigation Wittgenstein quotes Augustine’s description of his process of learning language, and in particular the learning of the names of ‘things'. When describing how the shopkeeper uses language to fulfill the order Wittgenstein concentrates upon the understanding of the adjectives (‘red’ and ‘five’). However, the semantic narrowing of ‘apple’ demonstrates ... Well I suppose in Saussurian terms it could be said to be an example of a general arbitrariness in the naming of things, an example of diachronic change. In terms of Wittgenstein I suppose that although the twenty first century shopkeeper would understand the meaning of ‘apple’ in an entirely different way from that of a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon trader it wouldn't really matter as long as the customer happily left the market with their basket of apples, and the trader had made the sale.