Won’t somebody please think of the children!!

14 08 2009
Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

So, I’ve been reading Plato. Not much of it, to be sure, but some and to a specific purpose. I’ve been pretty much argument mining from the Republic, and have come out with some useful stuff. One thing I’ve come out with, more than any number of other things, is how very annoying it is to read Plato. Reading Plato is like hearing a conversation between your grumpy moralising professor and a robot that has been programmed specifically to agree with everything he says.

 Aside from this revelation of stylistic narcissism I have been reading Republic as a guide to these Socratic and Plato..istic… Platoean… Platoesque… Platonic? notions of the poetic image. On the way to these ideas however I came across Plato’s arguments about censorship. He doesn’t call it censorship, of course, but it amounts to much the same thing. What he’s doing is exploring moral arguments in relation to the ideal city that he is hypothetically proposing, so when he argues for what shall be allowed into the Republic, he is also discussing what should be excluded, and why.

 It’s interesting because of just how little Plato’s argument differs, in its fundamentals, from the current arguments in favour of censorship. Plato’s argument is that certain forms of poetry (Epic, Tragedy, etc.) should be excluded from the republic because they are misleading about the nature of the gods, and represent (or imitate, produce mimesis) of behaviour that the ideal Platonic man should not emulate in the Republic, and that they encourage emulation of that behaviour. Who is likely to emulate this behaviour. Certainly not a man like Plato, or his mouthpiece Socrates, but the impressionably minded children of the Republic. The specific line of reasoning, involving the nature of the gods, is of course specific to the time and place.

 However, this is much the same argument as is put forward today by those who argue in favour of censorship. In the 1959 Obscene Publications Act in Britain the argument was that a published artefact should be censored/deemed obscene if it had a tendency to corrupt those who were like to come into contact with it. Again, the question is that certain materials have a tendency to corrode a public moral. In Plato’s Republic it was religious thought and public behaviour, in the case of the 1959 Act’s test case Lady Chatterley’s Lover it was sexual morals and promiscuity.

 Both Plato and the writers of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (OPA-1959) assume that certain ideas/thoughts are corruptive, and there is some sub-population that is likely to be corrupted by them if exposed. Plato argued that the young were likely to be encouraged to emulate the ideas of Homer and the epics. OPA-1959 argued that the young and the working class would have their fragile conceptions of right and wrong corroded by the novel.

 This revelation surprised me at the time, but in retrospect I realised that it ought not have. The reason being that there is, to my mind, only one reasonably line of argument in favour of censorship. A society, ideally, starts from the state of complete openness, and that a society needs a reason to ban something. The opposite of this is the idea that everything is banned until a reason to un-ban it is produced. So, starting with the idea that we need a reason to ban something, the person making the argument for censorship must make a case in favour of banning. To plausible make a case to ban something, one needs to argue that there is something inherently harmful in having it be permitted. In arguing this the person must ask: who is it likely to be harmed? In such a case, the person making the argument is unlikely to think of themself as likely to be corrupted by it, as they are the one who initially recognised its detriments, so they must identify some other person or group who will be harmed / corrupted. In most cases, it seems, the children, the poor, poor defenceless children are the ones to spring up like corruptible weeds from the pavement, with the possible inclusion of the working class.

 Oh GOD! Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!!! It really does come down to the defence of families and public morals by someone who considers themselves to have moral authority.

 There are, of course, various subtleties to the arguments, but the general principle remains the same. What is also interesting is that the more progressive arguments against censorship have not remained stagnant, but developed with the culture that produces the supposedly offensive materials. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write more about these arguments in the future.


The impossiblity of Aristotle

24 07 2009

About two or three years ago I started watching the American TV show, The West Wing. To my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed it, possibly because it bears the same relationship to real political ethics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does to the confectionary industry.* In one episode, during the fourth season of the show, one of the characters mentions an Aristotelian principle related to narrative. He says, in this quote pulled cavalierly off the Netosphere:

West Wing Cast

West Wing Cast

West Wing


SAM He said… what he said was this– he said, “A probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.” The impossible is preferable to the improbable. What did he mean? He meant that it’s okay to have a broomstick sing and dance, but you shouldn’t turn on the radio and hear the news report you need to hear.


And this represents, reasonably accurately, what Aristotle was going for. In his Poetics he describes a number of qualities useful, if not crucial, to the art of drama. One of these is the idea of probability:

In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion. With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible. Again, it may be impossible that there should be men such as Zeuxis painted. ‘Yes,’ we say, ‘but the impossible is the higher thing; for the ideal type must surpass the reality.’

The key phrase in understanding the concept, I think, is ‘the requirements of



art’. If we were looking at the requirements of ‘science’ I think the improbable would be hugely preferred to the impossible. However, Aristotle believed that art’s purpose was to represent a reality ‘higher’, ‘greater’, or perhaps just more harmonious, than our own. His example, Zeuxis, painted highly idealised portraits. For Aristotle this was ok, because it represented reality in a way that was ‘higher’, or more perfect. Aristotle justified this by reference to the ‘action’ of the drama, where each action must bear a relationship of plausibility with objective reality and with the previous events within the drama. It becomes more acceptable to a drama’s audience, he says, to introduce impossibility, such as a god, rather than an improbability, such as a coincidental meeting between long lost twins**.

I heard a conversation recently about the new Star Trek movie that talked along the same lines. They mentioned the phenomenon of ‘Warp Drives’, which are impossible. But because they are written into the base assumption of the fictional universe, i.e. ‘they are possible here’; they are accepted without need for further explanation.

The question of what we are, and are not, willing to accept from fiction makes for interesting theory. Aristotle, being the man he was, believed that there are rules for how we accept in drama, and in fiction in general. Interestingly these rules still seem to hold true, which suggests there is something fundamental to our engagement with story. Too often these ideas are misused, however. I have had people tell me to ‘just suspend [my] disbelief’ in the face of overwhelming and repeated improbabilities. But suspension of disbelief isn’t the right idea, and it has become a weasel word for poor writing. If a thing is well written, I shouldn’t have to force myself to accept the unacceptable, and neither should you.


*Actually, that’s a bit harsh. The show is meant to be reasonably accurate as far as ‘processes’ go.

** My examples, not Aristotles.

Irony, Metaphor, Metonymy and Synecdoche

9 06 2009

There’s a lot online already about figurative language, some of it of more use than others. However, I thought It might be useful to go over, in brief terms, the difference between: Irony, Metaphor, Metonymy, and Synecdoche. Wikipedia has pretty good entries on each of these as well, so feel free to go there if you like.

Irony is perhaps the best known but also most misunderstood of the figurative tropes. Broadly, and we’ll go from the Wikipedia entry for this one, irony is

‘a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance between what one says or does and what one means or what is generally understood.”

Or, according to Harold Bloom in his ‘The Art of Reading poetry’:

‘…saying one thing while meaning something so different that it can be the precise opposite. We learn to wince when Hamlet says: “I humbly thank you” or its equivalent, since the prince generally is neither humble nor grateful.’

Metaphor, also, is well known and well understood. In simple terms it is the transfer of characteristics of one object to another. So if you say ‘The office-building was a tomb’ you take those meanings commonly associated with tombs, those of death, stillness, morbidity and so on, and overlay them onto the understanding of an office. Wikipedia offers a good example, it says:

The metaphor, according to I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed. Other writers employ the general terms ground and figure to denote what Richards identifies as the tenor and vehicle. Consider the All the world’s a stage monologue from As You Like It:

     And all the men and women merely players;
     They have their exits and their entrances;

     — (William      Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7)

All the world’s a stage,

In this example, “the world” is compared to a stage, the aim being to describe the world by taking well-known attributes from the stage. In this case, “the world” is the tenor and “a stage” is the vehicle. “Men and women” are a secondary tenor and “players” is the vehicle for this secondary tenor.

Synecdoche is different to both Irony and Metaphor, but it is just as concrete in its implications. It represents a trope where a ‘part’ is substituted for a ‘whole’. The common example of this is ’50 head of cattle’ where the heads are counted in order to represent the whole animal. The whole is implied by the presence of the part.

Metonymy, finally, is where something is referred to in terms of something it is closely associated with. This is different from synecdoche, where the two elements being summoned must be part of the same whole. Instead, in metonymy, the requirement for referral is one of ‘intimate association’. As Harold Bloom says: ‘The name or prime aspect of something is sufficient to indicate it.’ So, for example, in the line ‘Lend me your ears’, ‘ears’ is used to refer to hearing, or attention, as there is a common understanding of association between the two.
It is tempting to boil these few tropes down to a calculus of language, (e.g. irony = using A to say B. Metaphor = taking elements of A and assigning them to B) however, as in much of language, the practical divides between irony, metaphor, synecdoche and metonymy are thin and fungible. I suggest further reading. Leave a comment below if you have any ideas of the next place to look.