Saturday, July 11, 2009

My $5,800 Blog Entry

This summer has been tough for lots of college students. The juicier internships have dried up, career-advancing summer jobs are on hiring freezes, and even spots at crappy companies are sometimes scarce. As the school year ended, I thought I was going to have a job. It didn't work out. I thought I was going to be doing an English program. Was rejected. So I started the summer thinking I'd be doubly out of luck: not only was I not making money, I was going to be spending money taking summer classes. But don't worry, I wrote a blog entry.

Here's the story. In high school I signed up for one of those websites that finds you scholarships. Tucked in among all the other essay contests was a weird one: "The George Walford International Essay Prize." I quickly browsed the details. There's this political theory a British guy named George Walford came up with called "Systematic Ideology." Write an essay for, against, or about the theory and you can win £3,500. All the material about the theory was on the website. From what I could tell, systematic ideology was trying to answer the questions, "Why are there still communists when everyone knows communism isn't going to happen? And why are there people so conservative that fascism can erupt at the emergence of a Hitler?"

The essay only had to be 1,500 words long, but I didn't have time to read all the arguments about systematic ideology enough to enter. I put it on the backburner, saying to myself that next year I would look at it again.

Fast forward to this May. I was in Belize on a mission trip brainstorming about how I should use my time this summer. I had signed up for beginning German, but that would only take up the mornings. What should I do with the rest of my time? Play minesweeper? Read books? And then I got to thinking. I had just had a dry editorial published in Orlando's newspaper. Maybe I could do something with writing. Slowly I remembered the systematic ideology essay contest. I won an online video contest in the spring, so I wasn't afraid of the sketchiness of it being only on the Internet.

When I got back to America, I found the website. Yep, the contest was still going. Yep, the prize was still amazing. What really attracted me to it was that for a few of the years, on the page where it displayed the winner, it just said "No qualifying entries." And everybody knows that's a code word for "No one entered." Just to make sure, though, I sent an email to the guy in charge expressing my interest and asking if they expected many people would enter. I was encouraged by his reply.

"Dear Will:

Yes the George Walford International Essay Prize is worth entering!
We never know how many entries we will get, but I can say that some
years there are very few. Very, very few.

- Trevor"

I had three weeks until the deadline. Each of the two founders of systematic ideology wrote a book, so for the next two weeks every day after German I read their books and took notes. Then the next week I wrote my essay. It ended up being 22 pages. All told it was a lot of effort, but the whole time I was like, well, if I won, the £3,500 prize would more than make up for not having a summer job. In today's market, £3,500 is about $5,800.

The makers of the contest wanted a plain-text version of the essay, so I made it into a blog entry. I was kinda embarrassed that I was even entering such a no-name, no-hope contest with something I had worked on so hard, so when Facebook found my blog entry, I deleted the Facebook version. My mom proofread the essay. "At least one person will have read it by the time everything is over," I told her.

And then I won! The lead judge wrote this about my entry: "I nominate 'Chiropracting Systematic Ideology' by Will Penman as the winner of the 2009 GWIEP. He shows a deep understanding of the theory and a deep understanding of its history. His criticisms constitute new grounds. He links the theory to other theories. Far above everything else this year and perhaps ever, including my own work."

I got the check yesterday, but have already been spending like a winner. I bought a belt. Went to The Melting Pot with Stephanie. Am planning a roadtrip to Boston. I can't go crazy since I do have to think about paying for summer school, UF's increased tuition next year, and grad school apps, but still. I won!

Here's a link to the contest: George Walford International Essay Prize. If you click on "Prior Winners" you'll see a page with my essay lined right up with past winners. All the information is on the website if anybody wants to enter next year. The contest sure has made my summer.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Symbolism in the Movie UP

People ask me a lot what it is literature majors do. One way of putting it is that we explain the feelings you have when you read a good book or see a good movie. I just saw UP for the second time today. It's the only animated movie I've seen where there's a miscarriage. There're some deep emotions, and some of them are difficult to verbalize. One of the most poignant shots is at the end when you see the house landed right next to the waterfall. You feel a sense of satisfaction, but it doesn't seem to fit in. Sure, they always wanted to go there, so it's nice that the house eventually landed there, but Carl goes back to America and Ellie's gone.

Many people distrust symbolism. The idea that one thing can mean more than one thing seems suspicious, they think. But everyone understands symbolism in daily life. Say there's a husband who says "I love you" every day to his wife. Through thick and thin, he always says it. Until one day he catches her cheating on him and they have a big fight. And that day he doesn't say "I love you," even when she prompts him. On one level, it is just him not saying something he usually does. But after all the years, his saying "I love you" has come to symbolize the continuity of their marriage. So when he doesn't say "I love you" this day, he is symbolically discontinuing their marriage. He hasn't divorced her yet, but it's coming.

See, when something symbolizes something else, the two follow each other like Carl follows his house. Most of the time Carl leads, but sometimes the house does. In the same way, if the man wasn't as persistent as he was, then it wouldn't mean anything special for him to change. But it's his constancy that establishes the symbol. It gives the symbol momentum the way Carl's pulling gives his house momentum, so that when the man doesn't say he loves her, that symbolic action indicates that personal action is coming.

Sometimes symbolism is easy to see in movies. For example, there's a nice article in the New York Times that explains some of the visual symbolism in UP. The friendly dog Dug isn't shaped harshly like the other dogs--and he isn't harsh. Russell, the Wilderness Explorer, is soft and round--and his emotions are soft and various, too.

But the real interest in symbolism in UP comes from the house. Because as the movie gets going, we see that Carl's house comes to symbolize an attitude. It's an attitude that thinks love has to accomplish. Here's what I mean. When Carl meets Ellie as a little kid, he's smitten. And bowled over. Ellie is pretty intimidating, and when she makes him swear that he will take her to Paradise Falls, he takes it more seriously than she intended. She runs off undisturbed as soon as he makes his vow, but he solemnly remembers his promise for the rest of his life. These early experiences contribute to Carl's understanding of love as something you have to accomplish. In order to love Ellie well, he thinks he has to do a bunch of things. He's always trying to accomplish: he brings up having kids, he starts the fund to go to the falls, he buys the tickets to go right before she dies. And once he's in South America, he goes to Paradise Falls even if he has to abandon a kid.

So that's the attitude. Carl thinks that love needs to accomplish. The symbol of that attitude is his house. Watch the house, and you're watching the attitude. As you can guess, by the end of the movie, the house is left behind just like the attitude is. But let's follow it through.

At first, the house just sits there, resisting everything that wants it gone. And considering how isolated Carl is, it's no wonder his attitude on love is safe. You can't find out you're wrong about love if you don't have anyone to love.

But then Carl uses his balloons to move the house. So we see that Carl's house goes with him through space and time. His attitude goes with him, too. Even though Russell tries to get him to open up, Carl refuses to let go of his grumpiness. Accomplishing-love has to mourn ostentatiously, you know, and if Carl was more friendly to Russell, it would be like saying he'd gotten over Ellie. She was the source of his happiness, and he'll be darned if anything else makes him happy.

For a while Carl and his house tug together effortlessly. Russell complains about having to walk all the way around the peninsula, but Carl walks contentedly. He pulls his attitude easily, too: he's accomplishing! He's finally showing his devotion to Ellie! It's hard work, of course, as they trek through the jungle, but Carl's task-oriented attitude has the situation under control.

Until Russell makes him promise to help the bird, Kevin, get home safely. Now Carl has pledged accomplishments to two people, and they don't mix. In the morning, he has to choose which way to take his house. Does he take it toward the bird, or toward the waterfall? His house, his attitude, can't go in two directions at once.

You have to give Carl credit for trying. All through his dinner with explorer Charles Mutz he tries to avoid the conflict between filling his promise to Russell and his promise to his wife. But Charles calls him on it and they have to flee. The house is roughed up quite a bit getting away, but Carl's house and attitude stay in tow.

They follow Kevin, but as the dilemma becomes more pronounced, you see that Carl isn't wholeheartedly into it. If he keeps helping Kevin, his house is going to go up in flames. Here the house as "house" and the house as "his attitude" are conjoined: if his house burns down, he won't have a house; and if his house burns down, he also won't be able to hold onto the idea that he should still earn his love for Ellie.

Carl chooses the house, chooses to cling to his old dreams. Russell, betrayed and dismayed at how he abandoned Kevin, trudges after Carl. Finally they get to the waterfall. Russell is angry. Carl is tired. But now he has time to evaluate his house. He tidies up the debris a little, then sits comfortably back in his chair. His attitude has been challenged quite a bit by the immediacy of being able to love Russell, who as a kid with no father, laps up any attention Carl gives.

We're pierced with the sense that Carl's attitude is heavy. His house has lost its lift, his friends are gone, and all he has is a heavy sense of a scorecard of life.

And that's when Carl finds the rest of the Adventure Book. In a heartbreaking moment, he sees that Ellie didn't need his accomplishments to savor their love. The whole scrapbook is filled with average, unstory-able joy. There is no accomplishment in the scrapbook, only love. And that finishes his attitude.

Follow the action, and you follow the symbol. As soon as Carl reaches this internal revelation, Russell flies away and the only way Carl can follow him is to practically destroy the house. He clears it of sofas, drawers, tables, chairs: everything of weight is evicted. This is a reenactment of Carl's attitude transformation. And once his heart changes, the house is incidental. Carl flies to save Russell, ends up saving Kevin and Dug, too, but in the process the house floats away. It's a difficult moment. Little kids in the theater saw the sadness of the house floating, but adults could see that Carl actually had everything that's truly important.

And so his incomplete view of love drifted off and all he was left with was love in its glory. He still honors Ellie, giving Russell her pin as a badge, but he doesn't feel driven to accomplish. They eat ice cream together and count cars. Meanwhile, he has a new house: Charles' dirigible, contrasting with his old house in its natural weightlessness. And his old house? Abandoned. It's a poignant scene when we see the house lodged right next to the waterfall because that had become a symbol, too, of perfect happiness. And so the symbols work together to show that even though Carl doesn't have perfect happiness--he's not living in the house--he still does.

That's how Carl's house is a symbol for his conception of love. I didn't conjure it up. There are little hints at the beginning to start the association. Carl being set in his ways corresponds nicely to the house set. Physical dwellings naturally correspond to mental states of mind, so it makes sense that a house represents, in a way, Carl himself. And when Russell comes inside for the first time, he remarks on how it was smart for Carl to bring his house along, because then he gets to take his "TV and clocks and stuff." The incongruity of grandfather clocks and adventures parallels the incongruity between Carl's attitude and his world.

Thinking about symbolism is useful because it lets you feel the movie in more ways. Sure, we could say that Carl has a difficult time adjusting to being with such loyal, lovable companions as Russell, Dug, and Kevin. But it's a picture for our minds to think that it's as difficult a burden as pulling your house everywhere you go. Sure, we could say that he learned something about love. But it's much clearer to see it as the difference between a blimp and a house with balloons attached. In the end, it's like watching the movie twice at the same time: once in words, and once in symbols.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Chiropracting Systematic Ideology


By Will Penman

Respectfully submitted for the 2009 George Walford International Essay Prize

In 1947, Harold Walsby wrote The Domain of Ideologies; a Study of the Origin, Development, and Structure of Ideologies. About forty years later, George Walford published Beyond Politics: An Outline of Systematic Ideology. If these two books form the backbone of the socio-political theory known as "systematic ideology," it is a backbone seriously in need of realignment. Systematic ideology is now kept alive by a website, an occasional newsletter, and the financial incentives inherent in an annual essay contest.

A simple summary of the theory goes like this: "The basic premise of systematic ideology is that ideology is the central motivator in human affairs; that the characteristics that make up the major ideologies come in sets; that those sets of characteristics form a series; and that the ideological series forms a system" (Blake 1). (Page numbers within HTML pages are given from the default "Print Preview" feature in Mozilla Firefox.) Since ideology is defined to be so broad as the "state of each human being's mental organisation" (Walsby 95), it makes sense that ideology would be considered the central motivator in human affairs. As for the "major ideologies," Walsby considers seven: fascism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, and a final "ideology of ideologies." Although Walsby goes to great length to show that ideology affects more than just politics, the politically oriented names he gives his major ideologies don't allow him to develop that theme. Walford accommodates for this by distilling each ideology to what he considers its essential characteristic and renaming the series: expediency, principle/domination, precision, reform, revolution, repudiation, and the same "ideology of ideologies."

Observation now takes the helm and notes that when the major ideologies are arranged in this order, several characteristics happen to be arranged, too. The size of each group becomes exponentially smaller with each move. The power of each group similarly declines along the scale. The desires sought also change, from stability being paramount in fascism toward revolution being the foundation of anarchy. The ideologies shift from economic freedom to economic control, too, and from political control to political freedom. (That is, anarchists want complete economic control and complete political freedom; fascists want the opposite.) Finally, there is a progression from relying on action toward relying on theory.

These observations transform the set into a series. If you reorganized the ideologies by placing anarchy next to conservatism because, for example, you thought they were both wrong, the neat alignment of the scale would be disrupted. There would be no order with respect to size, stability, economic and political leanings, or intellectualism. The only way to show those relationships is in the order they are given. Walford concludes that this consistency of characteristics "comes close to being proof" the ideologies listed are connected (Walford "The British Political Series" 9).

I should add two things about terminology. The observant reader will have noticed that the scale of ideologies implies that the majority of people in society are fascists. Walsby meant something more along the lines of "latent fascist," since fascist movements arouse what is already present. Walsby quotes Dr. Carl Jung to argue that Nazis gained power because "Hitler is the mirror of every German's unconscious" (50). Walford helpfully renames these fascists "non-politicals" and assigns them the ideology of expediency. Still, the assumption is that most people are willing to be told what to do.

Secondly, Walsby claims that not only are the more intellectual ideologies smaller than the more action-oriented ones, but that each one is smaller by a factor of ten (Walsby 39, but see his confused commentary on the graph at 26: rather than a linear decrease in representation along the range, "it can be more accurately represented by a hyperbolic curve," which would seem to imply an infinitely populated base of non-politicals/fascists and an infinite number of increasingly extremist ideologies). Establishing a clear relationship between size and extremism is crucial for later claims, but Walsby and Walford pass over it as if it weren't important. I, for one, do not intuitively accept that there are ten times the number of socialists as communists, or ten times the number of conservatives as liberals. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem unreasonable to go along with the idea that there are more of each closer to the beginning of the scale.

In the formulation of systematic ideology that opens this essay, since we see that the set of ideologies form a series, we jump to saying that it forms a system. That jump is systematic ideology. Walsby is thorough and moves slowly. Walford, on the other hand, is so excited by the possibilities of a "real and significant" system that he jumbles concepts and connections together faster than the reader can sort through the wake of his enthusiasm (Walford "The British Political System" 9). Together, the too-philosophic Walsby, who at one point feels it necessary to prove that protozoans can and do assume things (Walsby 121), and the too-impulsive Walford, who worries that a digression might "verge on the philosophical" (Walford "The Origin of Ideologies" 8), construct a theory that is tangled by years of unpruned speculation. This is mentioned almost as a matter of pride in the website's introduction: "Systematic ideology seems utterly skim-proof" (GWIEP 1). It is the goal of this essay to provide a concise, coherent, and readable explanation of what systematic ideology is and what it thinks it is.

A system explains things in terms of other things in the system. By far the best sentence in Beyond Politics is this one invoking the wonders of a system: "It brings within one coherent system of thought, to name only three items, the facts that Democritus assumed his atoms to be indivisible, that the USSR and the People's Republic of China have moved towards official acceptance of competition and private ownership, and that policemen were invented before psychoanalysts" (Walford "Introduction" 2). A system that encompasses science, politics, and anthropology? Finding the warrant for this claim drives readers through Walford's book. He quickly comes to the same premises we've already covered: everyone has an ideology, ideologies fit into categories, and these categories make a series. But the link between series and system is elusive in the rest of the chapters. In the third-to-last paragraph of the book, Walford finally asks why this structure is the way it is. Why don't people simply all become liberals, communists or anarchists? "Systematic ideology provides an answer, as yet only in general terms, and needing far more development, but supported by reason and evidence and opening the way to a new understanding of social development past and future" (Walford "Conclusion" 4). So, whatever the reason is, it's backed by reason, evidence, and will be helpful for understanding history. The "undertaking" of finding this reason is assigned to the ethereal final ideology: the ideology of ideologies. But other than peg it to another category, the vague "answer" Walford talks about is only that the ideological series exists! We'll see that systematic ideology in Walsby is much more precise, but we start from a foundation of murkiness.

I admit, "why?" is a difficult question to answer. But a simpler, more direct question, when applied to the whole school of thought, will be the chisel that separates everything into manageable chunks. That question is this: What is ideology a property of?

An analogy will explain what I mean. Imagine a man climbs onto his roof, peers over the edge, and drops a sandwich off. It falls. Somehow, this man has never noticed gravity before and is intrigued. He could, of course, ask why the sandwich fell, but his answers would obscure his own conclusions. Imagine he said, "The sandwich fell because I let go of it." The conclusion he really means is "Everything I let go of will fall." If his answer is "The sandwich fell because it was a sunny day," the implication is that everything will fall on sunny days. Even if his answer was as unhelpful as "The sandwich fell because God made it fall," it would be more beneficial to hear him say that only what God wills to fall will fall.

The difference within each pair of answers is that the first closes understanding and the second opens understanding. If the sandwich fell because the man let go of it, that's that. Further questions would be intrusive. But if the man says that everything he lets go of will fall, that makes any reasonable person ask, "Everything?" Similarly, if the man says the sandwich fell because it was a sunny day, you'd shake your head and think he was silly. But if he said that everything falls on sunny days, you would intuitively reply by asking why the man hadn't fallen himself. And even in the last example, if the man argues that the sandwich fell because God wanted it to, his answer has filled the gap in knowledge which "why?" creates and implies no need for further investigation. In contrast, by saying that only what God wills to fall will fall, follow-up questions immediately arise about what, exactly, God wills to fall. Coffee cups? Giraffes? Thus the "what" in "what God wills to fall will fall" makes its own hole which asks to be filled.

The more useful second statement of each doublet holds the answer to "What is gravity a property of?" With a little thought, if everything you let go of falls, then gravity is a property of height. If everything falls on sunny days, gravity is a property of the weather. And possibly gravity is a property of God's will.

Discovering what something is a property of is the process of finding the boundaries of something. Is gravity a property of ham sandwiches? Every ham sandwich the man drops off his roof falls, but that's only sufficient to show that gravity extends at least that far. When the man drops a sub sandwich off and it falls, he knows that maybe gravity is a property of sandwiches in general. And so he experiments. Is gravity a property of weight? Well, heavy and light sandwiches both fall, so it doesn't seem so. Is it a property of tastiness? Moldy sandwiches fall, too.

Gradually, the man comes to realize that gravity is broader than he had realized before. Not only does all food fall, but everything people make falls. And everything falls! Well, it seems as if gravity is a property of being a thing. Of course, the earth is a thing. So the man needs to re-define "fall"--it isn't precise enough for his added understanding of gravity. He decides that when he says "fall" he really just means "come closer to." And if we fall toward the earth because we're a thing, then it should fall to us because it's a thing. But he should probably re-define "weigh" since the Earth doesn't really weigh anything--but it does have a lot of stuff. Eventually, through experimentation and thought, he concludes that gravity is a property of distance and mass.

Maybe the man you know who drops sandwiches off of roofs doesn't follow exactly the same train of thought. But the point is that asking "why?" isn't always the best question because answering it isn't always the best answer. My man is on his way to calculating the gravitational constant, while the guy who was satisfied saying "It fell because I let go of it" has probably never dropped another sandwich off his roof since.

Let's apply this method to systematic ideology. It seems clear there is some phenomenon to speculate about: there is some kind of a scale, or hierarchy, with popular, unthinking movements of capitalism at the bottom and unpopular, intellectual movements of collectivism at the top. What is this a property of? Some people might think that since each individual has an ideology, ideology must be a property of the individual. But in, say, a basketball team, each individual has a number, but that number might not be the individual's decision: current teammates' numbers might be unavailable, or certain numbers might have been retired, or players might be assigned numbers based on how many years the team has existed. In the last case, an individual's team number isn't a property of the individual at all; it's a property of the team.

Similarly, ideology doesn't have to be a property of the individual. In fact, the one thing most systematic ideologists agree on is that it isn't a property of the individual. As for what it is a property of, having scoured two books and several articles, I can tell you that systematic ideology gives four distinct, contradictory answers to this question and operates as if they're all the same. It's back-breaking work, but in the end, only one answer is interesting and consistent. Unfortunately, this answer has fascinating but limited application.

We begin with the thing almost everyone agrees: ideology is not a property of the individual. If it were, we would expect that something about that person would govern their ideology--if we were Marxists, we would say it would be socio-political position. That is, I'm a rich woman, so I will be conservative (because who doesn't like things the way they are when they're on top?). Or, I'm a poor worker, so I should love communism and its possibility of instituting a better, fairer life. What Walsby points out, though, what Walford praises him for, and what reviewers praised Walford for, was rejecting this idea that a person's economic condition determines the person's ideology. On one side, this is proven anecdotally: rich people sometimes sympathize with communism. And on the other side, it's been evident to everyone that many well-informed, intelligent poor people do not appreciate communism. This is unexplainable in the communist mindset except by saying that the poor people who disagree with them are so oppressed they can't see what's good for them. This is a dangerous argument on a number of levels, and suffice it to say that systematic ideology dismisses it. As Walford puts it, people from each level in the ideological hierarchy "vary among themselves in income, status, personality, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex, diet, geographical location, heredity, physical constitution, accustomed climate, toughness or tenderness of mind, language, education, upbringing, toilet training, relation to the means of production and particular ideas about political matters." (Walford "From Politics to Ideology" 1). Ideology is not a property of the individual.

This is an important idea because it gives ideology some autonomy. Perhaps, systematic ideologists think, if society isn't creating the ideological series, the ideological series (caused by something yet unspecified) is creating society. That's the direction Walford takes his book, trying to lasso society into the realm of ideology's influence. And yet, we still have the ideological series floating in our minds. Non-politicals, fascists, conservatives, liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, ideologists. Whether the series is responsible for society or not, where does it come from?

The first answer is that ideology is a property of the activity. Daily life, Walford says, is done in the mode of expediency (characteristic of non-politicals), that is, in the simplest possible way. Expediency is not concerned with theory or consistency, but with immediate benefit. "This usually means taking care to preserve some items (such as clothing) and destroying others (such as pests), but only because this is usually the easiest method; we sometimes reverse ourselves, throwing away out-of-date clothes and keeping a rat as a pet" (Walford "Ideology Beyond Politics" 4). I assume the air around me isn't poisonous not because it isn't, but because the "balance of advantage" lies that way (Walford "Ideology Beyond Politics" 4). Donning a different ideological mode--precision (characteristic of liberals), let's say--would mean assuming that if I only measured the air and researched its particular qualities, then I could be safe. That's clearly an unsustainable mindset to operate all of life under. Thus, as far as daily life goes, the ideology we all operate under is that of expediency. It is the activity that determines the ideology.

Walford gives a chapter full of examples. Technology joins housework in the ideology of expediency. Social life--education, medicine, law, religion, police work--is done in the ideology of principle (characteristic of conservatives). Each one has an established, principled way of operation that respects authority and consistency: equal treatment under the law is a cornerstone of our legal system. Science transcends these by operating under the mode of precision: the world can be modified, and with greater understanding we will improve our condition. Though Walford doesn't go beyond this on the scale, presumably an activity like editing an essay would fall into the mode of reformation (characteristic of socialists), invention would be done in the ideology of revolution (characteristic of communists), and though Walford says "repudiation [characteristic of anarchists] is used for practically nothing other than an attempt to spread the ideology of repudiation" (Walford "The Origin of Ideologies" 7), suicide seems like it would be an act of repudiation.

Ideology being the domain of activity is problematic for three reasons. To begin, if the activity governs the ideology, then it doesn't make any sense to say that a person is an instance of any of the major ideologies. One morning an "anarchist" (we have to put it in quotations now in view of what he's about to do) eats a bagel, and in eating, doesn't repudiate the act of eating but goes along with it because society does it and it's the most immediately profitable course of action--he is hungry, after all. Yet in this act the "anarchist" is acting according to the ideology of expediency, and earns a fascist pass for the duration of his breakfast. If not at that moment, then unavoidably sometime: "this ideology accounts for the greater part of intentional human behaviour and plays a part in all of it" (Walford "Ideology Beyond Politics" 5). It seems similarly silly to call someone people socialists because they edit their homework before they turn it in. If I'm expedient 90% of the day, principled 9%, precise .9%, and so on, then what makes me belong to any of the ideologies? Every time Walford speaks of people as belonging to a major ideology, his words are incompatible with this division of actions into ideologies.

Furthermore, if activity is the determiner of ideology, then what separates one political opinion from another? What ideology does "voting" have? If one person votes for the conservative and another votes for the liberal, which activity dictated the vote? Trying to divide the world into political and non-political to resolve this problem completely destroys the unity systematic ideology is supposed to bring.

Third, it is false that an entire job can be categorized into one ideology. There must be more sophisticated modes of thinking in the legal profession or in education than Walford gives them credit for. The prize-winning essay from 2008 was written to answer which ideology judicial independence fit into: precision or domination. Its answer? Both. Not only do some activities not fit into either, but some fit into more than one. Walford admits that while religion naturally goes in the mode of expediency, people can be religious through principle, so that "easy outward compliance comes to be replaced by a more serious concern" (Walford "Ideology Beyond Politics" 6), and then adds "non-conformist religion" because that kind of religion operates under an even later mode. It appears, then, that categories such as "religion" serve more as ideological microcosms than as examples of one ideology or another.

If ideology isn't a property of the activity, perhaps it's a function of history. Both Walford and Walsby curiously fit this into their theories by means of verbal legerdemain such as this: "There is every reason to believe, however, that - as in biological growth - the development of the individual broadly recapitulates, and sometimes extends, the series of evolutionary stages passed through by the group" (Walsby 135). That is to say, since an individual's ideology moves from action to theory along the scale, the ideology of the society similarly moves. This conclusion "is forced upon us," Walsby continues, "by a broad historical survey of the growth of religion, science, philosophy, politics etc., and the study of savage behaviour, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the study of the intellectual growth of the individual in modern society." Walford devotes several chapters of his book to the same idea, even clarifying that his idea of ideological evolution in history is not biological evolution--ideology is not passed on genetically.

It does seem like an attractive proposition. Walford details how human society started out as hunter-gatherers (a model of expediency), gradually progressed to small villages (principle), then to empire (a mode of domination). Most recently, our power to influence the outside world has become so great through science that we need to use the ideology of precision to reign ourselves in. Society isn't bad, necessarily, but dangerous. These three ideologies (for some reason Walford separates domination and principle as stages of development, but they represent the same ideology) all view society as essentially good and the cosmos as essentially bad, and so even if society is modified it's still within the framework of society being good. For this reason, they are given the label "eidostatic," a neologism Walsby created to distinguish them from the later ideologies, which are called "eidodynamic." The "dynamic" part of "eidodynamic" is shown in the names themselves: reform, revolution, repudiation. Each one says that what we have doesn't need just tweaking, it needs to be remade.

Walford says that past the ideology of precision, people realize that health care, global warming, and other social problems can't be fixed piecemeal in the same way that a war is won by attacking; these social problems are excesses of society, and fixing them requires fixing the society. From here, the cosmos is good and society is bad. Thus socialists, communists, and anarchists seek a return to nature, global economic restrictions to protect the environment, and a continued call for individual recognizance of social harm.

What will happen to these movements? With chagrin in their voice, Walsby and Walford repeatedly admonish us not to expect them to ever take power. Walsby says this as if he hopes he's wrong, Walford tries to give a reason. The reason principle dominated over expediency, he says, is because the stability of planting increases the potential size of a group, and thus increases their power. Similarly, domination supersedes principle because with an army, any band of people can be taken over. And with a British empire on which the sun never sets, the only way to improve is to limit power in the ideology of precision. Wars, like the Cold War, are no longer out of fear that the other guy wants to dominate you, but are out of fear that the world will end. Reform and the other eidodynamic ideologies, Walford says, has no oomph to it, nothing to get it off the ground.

This is where the problems with the historically based theory of ideology emerge. Walford is insistent that each stage "enables its successor" (Walford "The Origin of Ideologies" 8). In the era of expediency, the idea of political individualism was literally "inconceivable" (Walford "From Village to Empire" 4). And the idea that power should be reigned in "could not have been said" before that phase (Walford "After the Empires" 2). Yet Walford never elucidates what it was that allowed people to think beyond their mode. It doesn't do a good job explaining why we can imagine the violent overthrow of the state that communism seeks, or the independently occurring statelessness of anarchy.

Second, the historical model is notably artificial. One pervasive critique of systematic ideology is that the division into seven categories seems arbitrary. The artificiality of the historical argument is of a different kind. Since most of Walford's discussion centers on the development of man before there was writing, small details that he got wrong could skew the entire picture. For example, part of his rationale for calling the first societies ones of expediency instead of communism, is that if they were communist it would "render the course of social development incomprehensible" (Walford "The Beginnings" 4). That is, he interprets history to justify his preconceived ideas of the way he thinks it should look. Again, he says it can't be anarchy because then "it follows that anarchism produced the state" (Walford "The Beginnings" 5). That is, expediency is allowed to produce the state, but anarchy isn't, because Walford thinks anarchy goes at the end.

Third and most important is that ideology being a property of history doesn't account for any differences within eras. If history is a principle factor in determining ideology, then since we're in the ideology of precision, we should all be liberals. Walford tries to account for the lower levels by saying that people fall back on them, but these are mostly examples of depravity: police officers have an ideology they should operate under, but some of them don't. There are bad (expedient) teachers and doctors and lawyers. But in transforming moral questions to sociological ones, Walford does nothing to explain the presence or persistence of crime. In fact, from his perspective, the sin that religion says humans are born with is the only way to explain our failure to act "up to" the ideology of our age. Knowing what age someone is born in does not predict that person's ideology.

This is an unfortunate conclusion, because both Walford and Walsby justify their work by their characterizations of social progression. If ideology isn't a property of history, though, then nothing can be said about what will follow. Walford's ugly, inspirational closing to his book is hogwash: "More than ever before, our world is a boiling, bounding, bubbling ferment of ideological novelty, and the rate of change is accelerating. If the ideological system has reached completion it is only in the sense that a newborn child is complete" (Walford "Conclusion" 5). Walford feeds us the image of the world as a newborn child because we know how a child develops. From our place in history, however, Walford's claim is as unsupported as saying that our world is like a tadpole, ready for its metamorphosis into an adult. Walsby more modestly hopes that we will somehow transition to "master" ourselves (149).

Perhaps ideology is a property of something more modest than history. The only group that is mentioned as having the spectrum of ideologies is in politics, so it's easy to imagine that ideology is a property of society. According to this idea, ideology doesn't emerge except in the largest possible group dedicated to the government of the people--the society. On the face of it, this is incomplete. Certainly the ideological spectrum exists in society--that's where we found it--but it extends to other groups as well. A reminder of the definition of ideology as the sum of all opinions about the world might be helpful for realizing the implications of the social argument: if ideology is a property of society, then people should agree on everything that doesn't have to do with politics. This is obviously false.

One real-life example is a juggling organization called the International Jugglers' Association. Its membership is several orders of magnitude smaller than the population of the US at only about 1500 members currently. Also, its goal, "to render assistance to fellow jugglers," has nothing to do with economic or political collectivism. However, IJA members are far from being in agreement with each other about marketing, festival production, services to offer, financial openness, organization of leadership, and so on; and the disagreements do not necessarily follow their political ideology. Most members are essentially "non-political." They like to juggle and stay out of the in-fighting. They show up for the fun and don't care about the rest. They are no less active in politics than others. That is, their ideology within the IJA does not correspond to their ideology politically. Others are principled. They faithfully attend the business meeting every year. Others are precise, and seek to improve the organization by tracking various membership and global metrics. With each level, the number drops. Some think the IJA is worthless the way it's structured and would like to completely reorganize it, with permission of the members. Others think that's not far enough, and want to make a new IJA whether people like it or not. Maybe one or two people would rather not be a member because of the strictures it places but is a member anyway for some reason. Each category is composed of Democrats and Republicans, and a significant number of others. But if ideology were determined by society, then the socialists should be the only ones who could want reform in an organization like the IJA. And since the IJA has been sued twice in the last ten years by its own members, I can confidently say that the IJA did not need to import socialists to do its reforming. Some people active in politics might not participate much at all in the school PTA, or someone who never votes might be the most campaigning member of a video game organization.

So it seems like ideology is a property of something less encompassing than society. We know that, despite what some arms of systematic ideology suggest, it isn't specific activities, and it isn't history in general or society more particularly. The fourth plan, and the breakthrough logically, is that ideology is a property of the group. Walsby touches on this lightly, Walford ignores it. But the reasoning at this point is what propels systematic ideology from a hope of a theory to the reality of a theory.

Walsby explains: "[I]ndependence of thought [is] incompatible with group or collective expression, but it positively tends to disrupt it and threatens to break up the unity - even the very existence itself - of the group. Hence the intolerance and hostility with which the group meets all attempts, on the part of any individual, to be objective, analytical, theoretical, critical and independent in thought" (41). Since humans need groups, evolution has placed within us a universal dread of the group that inhibits this group-threatening intellectualism. Walsby here uses Freud: "'The fear of the super-ego [individuation] should normally never cease, since it is indispensable in the social relations in the form of moral anxiety, and it is only in the rarest instances that an individual succeeds in becoming independent of the community'" (45, quoting New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis 116). People who do break off, either from within by becoming a leader or without by forming a new union, are risking the condemnation of the group. Breaking off is worth it only when the anticipated pleasure of being leader of the group or of yourself is greater than the anticipated pain the group will try to inflict on any non-conformists.

Different qualities give different people their cost-benefit analysis. Someone who is smart, strong, and personable is most limited by the least common denominator mentality of the group and will thus have the most to gain from breaking off and will be most likely to do it. As society advances, physical strength is less important and intellect becomes the dominating trait. The more intellectual someone is, the more likely he or she is to not follow the group blindly. At this point it may seem like breaking away into a different group--the fundamental action to define one's ideology--is a property of the individual: his or her intellect and personality. Systematic ideologists deny this for two reasons: first, not all smart people are eidodynamists; second, many dull, stupid people are. Intellectuals may have the edge in breaking off, but it is the group that gives people the chance, and once the chance is there, there will be leaders or rebels.

With the understanding that everyone has a dread of the group, it's easy to see why the majority of people are willing to be herded by the collective decision: it's a psychological instinct! Fascists thrive on this. "'The structure of the Third Reich cannot be understood', says Konrad Heiden, referring to the Nazi Gestapo, 'without this monstrous apparatus for intimidation. In the beginning is fear, the state is all-powerful, obedience is the fount and source of all things. And yet it would, be a mistake if we thought of the German people's fear of its government as synonymous with aversion. No, there is enthusiasm. This contradiction between mob-enthusiasm and police rule is one of the mysteries of dictatorship, and seems almost to suggest that the object of enthusiasm is police-rule itself. Does the slave derive happiness from the presence of the jack-boot on his neck? It is certain that relief from responsibility has always been a substantial element in the happiness of the mob - the submersion of the man in the mass, no matter whether he be high or low, educated or uneducated.'" (Walsby 50, quoting One Man Against Europe 105-6.)

Of course, the bigger the group, the more levels of breaking off there can be. The group of people who break off have a certain homogeneity, but when that group reaches a certain size, it can chafe to accord with that many other people, and the drive to break away from the group who have broken away begins. And so the non-politicals, human lemmings, have a strain who would rather decide for themselves. Many of them like banding together, but some of that strain think that being a conservative who follows authority misses the point. They break off and become liberals. And so on. Notice that each departure is simply one of restlessness: searching for a return to absolute happiness which Walsby says we got a taste of in the womb, each rejection of the group before it comes with some idea of how to make everything better. Rather than imply seven levels of ideology and a super-level beyond that, the tension between a person's dread of the group and desire for personal independence accounts only for the existence of different strata. All we've proven is that there is always a fringe.

At first this seems disappointing. Of course there's always a fringe, we think. In any group there are weirdos and people who think they've got it all figured out. But there is an interesting application of this idea. If ideology is a property of the group, where each person's ideology forms based on how everyone else in the group's ideology is formed, then people's ideology is based less on some objective truth than it is based on their perception of others' ideologies. For example, Walsby quotes Freud in saying that the "perception" of others getting excited makes you excited and creates a closed feedback loop (Walsby 37).

In fact, psychological studies indicate that despite living in a modern age in which freedom of speech and thought is supported and encouraged, we still want to fit in. During the 1950s a psychologist by the name of Solomon Asch showed that our desire to be part of the group is so strong it even appears when we think we've trained it out of us. In the Asch conformity experiments, a participant was ushered into a room with other people and told he was taking a vision test--a set-up which established not only that he didn't need to be like the others, but implied that he should be completely independent. A vision test in which you lie is of no use. The people in the room were then shown a line and next to it, three lines of various lengths marked A, B, and C. Then, one by one, the people verbally indicated which of the three lines was the same length as the original one. Each room went through eighteen of these trials. The test wasn't tricky. Each answer choice was either clearly wrong or clearly right. But what the participant, who "happened" to be seated last or next-to-last, didn't know was that everyone else in the room was in on the experiment and at pre-determined "critical" trials all answered with the same wrong answer. On average, participants conformed to the majority in 33% of trials. 75% conformed to the obviously wrong answer at least once, and 5% conformed every time. (Asch 1). If dread of the group plays such a powerful role when the group is unimportant, we can imagine that it plays an even bigger role when there's more at stake. We can also imagine political conspiracies in which each individual is manipulated by the appearance of the group's opinion, creating the very condition the conspiracy initially fabricated.

Finally, we can look back at the other three ideas of what ideology comes from and account for them. The first idea was that ideology relates best to the activity at hand. With our new understanding that the ideological series comes from dread of the group, we can see that ideological speciation only matters when there is a group. Housework is relatively unencumbered by outside pressures: whether you turn on the washing machine and then get the clothes or vice versa is not dictated, ever, by anyone else. Thus, there are no clothes-first camps or washer-first networks. With no group, ideology is all the same. As for Walford's other activity-categories, they were mostly arbitrary and reflected the fact that there actually was an ideological spectrum present. Religion was a good example: lots of people believe unquestioningly, but lots have also considered it quite a bit. The problem isn't quite airtight: sin (inconsistent, irrational deviations from the proper course) still goes unexplained.

The second idea we looked at was ideology as a function of history. Since ideology is governed by properties of the group, though, history is too big to be predicted. The best we can do is say that there will always be disagreement, always a fringe. Walsby and Walford both work hard to keep content (like economic collectivism/individualism) separated from mode (intellectual individualism/collectivism). If we know there will be more than one mode, that doesn't mean anything about the content of those modes. It is instructive to imagine that a bunch of communists happen to wash up on a deserted island. With no stasis to resist, could the "eidodynamists" simply form a communist community? If people are as flexible as Walford says they are, then in the same way that yesterday's revolution that the Sun is the center of the universe is today's commonplace, perhaps today's revolution of communism could be this island's commonplace. And yet Soviet Russia has fallen and Walford argues that no society with a commonly owned means of production endures. The fear should be, maybe ideology isn't a result of any of these: maybe ideology is a product of truth. It's a boring answer, and it's kept in check by the fact that there is always a fringe. If people really judged based on the truth, you would expect us to be people with better ideology than earlier ages, and I don't think that's true.

Third, we considered that ideology was a derivative of society. We felt close, but not specific enough. Armed with our current conclusion, though, we see that since society is just a really big group with a specialized purpose, there are differentiated ideologies. And since society is so large, there are enough people to have seven layers. (If the 10:1 rule does hold, there would need to be one million people, statistically, just to have one sane anarchist.) Not many groups are big enough to have such a rich array of ideologies. Furthermore, since one purpose of society is to allocate resources, the economic propensity of our ideological series comes about. Walsby spends almost half his book explaining that the eidodynamists assume that people are going to somehow see the truth not because their truth is true, but because everyone has faith. Eidostatic ideology has an ideal material world (heaven), eidodynamic ideology has an ideal group (agreed-on classlessness). Faith in the masses begins as faith in the spiritual dies. The ideology of ideologies is when we can get past faith in some "truth" and analyze things objectively. Thus, society is perhaps the grandest example of the heterogenization of ideologies. As populations increase, perhaps more ideological levels will become apparent.

Systematic ideology, then, offers a lot it doesn't have to offer. It doesn't offer historical accounts with any rationale. It doesn't compute rankings for activities as if we were making a résumé showing the distribution of humanity's time. And it doesn't just say that there are lots of political parties and they don't agree with each other. Rather, systematic ideology takes principles from psychology to make a system out of a series of selected ideologies. It accounts for their presence and continuation, and partially accounts for their general content and membership. From there, small but meaningful conclusions can be drawn. This summary represents the alignment of reason and work on systematic ideology. Its intent is to guide further students in their understanding of the ideological structure of systematic ideology. And with that, perhaps the author has demonstrated the all-elusive "ideology of ideologies."

Works Cited

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press. Summary at . Accessed 26 May 2009.

Blake, Trevor. GWIEP. "What is Systematic Ideology by Trevor Blake." 26 May 2009 .

Blake, Trevor. "GWIEP Notes and Quotes." 26 May 2009 .

"GWIEP.NET New Readers Start Here." GWIEP.NET. 26 May 2009 .

Walford, George. Beyond Politics. London: Calabria Press, 1990. (Accessed 26 May 2009 chapter by chapter at )

Walsby, Harold. Domain of Ideology. Glasgow: William McLellan, 1947. (Accessed 26 May 2009 at )

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Obama's Royalty

Obama gave a third press conference Wednesday. It was the one Fox didn't cover because they like Lie to Me more. I don't know if anyone watched it. I was home from UF by then, so in the real world where the Internet is not used as the primary news-carrying device a few hours after the fact, my parents had the press conference on. As an English major, I was paying more attention to the way Obama said things than to the things he was saying. I noticed that Obama doesn't know how to talk about his own power very sensibly.

I'll walk you through the scenario. A New York Times reporter cutely asks what has most surprised, troubled, enchanted, and humbled Obama. Obama cutely copies them down and goes through them one by one. He's doing quite well until he gets to "humbled." What he wants to say is that he is humbled by not being all-powerful: being President seems like an omnipotent position from the outside, but he is actually limited by other people since we have checks and balances. But he has a problem, because if he's trying to downplay his own power, he doesn't want to attach a bunch of "I"s describing it. So look at what he says instead:

"Humbled by the -- humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life..."

Folks, that's what's known as the Royal "we." Originally, like practically everything, it started as a Latin term: royalis maiestatis. Roman emperors used it, popes used it, and English inherited it the same way: as an expression of power. I remember from one of my classes this semester that Shakespeare uses it relentlessly. For example, in Hamlet, the King's first line uses the Royal "we":

"Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe;"
Blah blah blah.

Don't be confused. "Our" dear brother's death means "my" dear brother's death. The King is the country (as Shakespeare will later use when he calls the King of Norway "Norway"), and since he's practically all the people combined, it's appopriate to use "we."

So you see it's ironic that Obama uses a rhetorical device that asserts power when he wants to say that he isn't powerful. As Americans, we're so unused to the Royal "we" that I wonder if anyone else did a small double-take to figure out what Obama meant. "The presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry." At first you think maybe he means Americans in general, but that doesn't make sense: we are the larger tapestry of American life. Then you think maybe he means presidents in general, but that's deliciously impossible: we only have one President at a time. When I listened to it, I tried to construe the "we" as the set of all Presidents of the US, but then I picture George Washington, John Adams, and all the rest, back from the grave in a meeting with Obama to discuss how much power the President has. Nope, Obama meant only himself.

He makes up for it, of course, in his next sentence. Once he's started talking about the limits of his power, he can say "I" as much as he wants. Notice all the "I"s:

"And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line."

Ha, ha. You're such a joker, Mr. President. Having a button--or, or better yet, a switch!--to get people to do what you want? How ridiculous! People aren't mechanical products like that. It takes a press conference to get us to fall in line.

Now obviously, Obama didn't mean to mean what he meant. It just came out on the fly because he had to come up with humility on the go. But let's face it: Obama's hot stuff, and if he has to step into the Royal "we" to show he isn't royalty, perhaps that says something about the kind of power a charismatic, smart President really does have.

Back in November, I said I was voting for Obama because when he became emperor, I wouldn't be able to. I think I might have to revise that slightly. In accordance with Obama's own words, I would like to say, "Hail to the King!"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

My 3-5 pg Paper on the History of the Word "Cow"

Our first assignment for "History of the English Language" was to use an etymological dictionary to talk about a word for several pages. People thought I was kidding when I said on my Facebook status that I was writing an essay on the word "cow," so I wanted to show the final product.


Will Penman

ENG 4060 – History of the English Language

Professor Paxson

Feb 6, 2009

A History of the Word Cow

When you hear "Old English," the word "cow" isn't the first thing that comes to mind. At first I wanted to research the word "noise," since I thought it was interesting that a word so basic to expressing life – a name for sound in general – carries an unshakable negative connotation. As it turns out, "noise" is Anglo-Norman and thus unsuitable for this assignment. Instead, I looked to a word even more essential to life: cow. Coincidentally, as benign as cows are and as stable as the word might be thought to be, "cow" has also come into a pejorative meaning. Unlike "noise," however, "cow"'s decline is closely linked to its feminine denotation. But creativity in employing "cow" doesn't stop at insults; the word is still productive today. From AD 800 in a Latin-English dictionary to a 2005 reference defining "cow-tipping", "cow" is alive and mooing (although it must be added that cows couldn't "moo" in literature until circa 1550).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "cow" is older than English. A Common Teutonic word brought into Common Indo-germanic, "cow" enters Old English as . The root of it, though, is so old that the Aryan branch split to form the Greek and Latin equivalents. So "cow" is related etymologically to "bovine"! What's interesting, though, is that just like our loanword "bovine," outside the Teutonic languages the word was of both genders.

"Cow" had a rocky phonological start. Early on bifurcated to leave speakers in Scotland and North England saying ky and kye. Southern England took an extended form of kyne which means they had two words for "cow." I'm a little confused by it, and others were, too. In 1877 the Holderness Gloss said this: "Kye, cows. In West Holderness, kye is used to denote particular herds, kine being used for cows in general." That's manageable enough but for the spelling variants. The OED has several categories of spelling the plural. There's c©e, , kij, kuy, and several more as the centuries past. There's also cun, kyn, kuyn, and more in a similar progression. A third category lists an easily recognizable form: cows; and a fourth a variant used only in Cheshire pronunciation.

Semantically, "cow" is assured of at least one meaning: female bovines aren't going anywhere. And for most of the word's history, "cattle" has supplanted any need for an abstract reference to the species, but that's plural. It surprised me at first that we don't have a good word for either of the sexes. We have "dog" and "cat," I reason, so why don't we let "cow" mean "cow or steer"? I think my perception is based on a life that is so far removed from interaction with farm animals that I want to collapse my vocabulary as a result. About all I know is the rumor that cows have three stomachs. Similarly, for me the only use of having "chicken" and "rooster" is to make good riddles. (A rooster lays an egg on the roof of a barn, slanted at four degrees, with a wind blowing perpendicular at 10 mph. Which side of the roof does the egg land on?) Life in America is getting to a point that needing gender-specific names for animals is as specialized as needing the word "bitch" for female dogs.

Along those lines, though, I personally feel uncomfortable using the word "cow" to refer to a steer. Steer have horns! I think to myself. I can't give a feminine word to such a masculine creature! I have no problem, on the other hand, gracing a female animal with a masculine word. I think it reveals a bias deep in my thinking that prissifying a male is worse than masculinizing a female. Perhaps that's another conserving factor in the meaning of "cow."

"Cow" seems to have become a model for the feminine by the eighteenth century, since for certain other large animals (elephants, rhinoceros, seal, whale, etc.) the female is termed the "cow" and the male the "bull," and sometimes "cow" is even used as a "she-" particle, like "cow moose" or my favorite, "cow alligator": "In dimmer recesses the Cow alligator, with her nest hard by" (OED cow, n.1.3b 1946, 1880).

Speaking of large animals, by 1696 "cow" had come to mean "woman," although unlike today, the comparison was not one of girth but one of character. A woman was "likened to a Cow" if she was a "Lazy, Dronish, beastly Woman" (OED cow, n.1.4b 1696). It's been used as a general insult to women ever since. One later dictionary glossed it as "a woman; a prostitute," as if a woman were a kind of prostitute instead of the other way around. I'm surprised both at how late and how early this way of insulting women appeared. "Hen" had been applied to women almost one hundred years earlier, but as a cutesy term of affection (though "hen-pecked" appeared soon after in a decidedly non-affectionate sense). I wonder if men didn't appropriate "cow" for so long because cows had so much domestic use that it wouldn't be much of an insult.

Cows figured largely enough in people's lives to spawn a plethora of cow-related compound words. Simple words like cow-beef, cow-breath, cow-flesh, cow-hair, cow-shed, and cow-thief are all attested to, as well as words in the objective case: cow-driver, cow-farmer, cow-lifter. I myself have never lifted a cow, but I assume that if you had the right amount of strength (or a forklift) it could be done. Less obvious are words which would be important to cows: cow-pea (fodder in the southern US, apparently), cow-cabbage, cow-clover. A dialectal name for Silene inflata is cow-cracker, which is not a Latinate skull-basher but a purple flower cows might eat.

There are such classics as cow-pie and cow-lick. Paging through the OED I also came across some fun ones: the "cow" compound cow-blakes, a cow compound of dried dung used for fuel; and cow-sucker, which is perhaps a hedgehog.

I had hoped that the verb "to cow" was related to "cow" by functional shift. Unfortunately, the verb "to cow" (as in "to intimidate") came from Old Norse and didn't appear until Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth that cursed be the tongue "hath cow'd my better part of man" (OED cow, v.1 1605). Interestingly, though, "cow" as a verb has a secondary, opposite meaning arising not out of a fancy category of semantic change, but out of confusion with the verb "to cower": "Instead of ending like a man, he now cowed before me quite spirit-broken" (OED cow v.1 1844). "Cow" is a pretty exciting thing to be, I guess.

Thus "cow" is broken up, dissected, examined. I leave the consumption to you, because without it, "cow" would have been just another word. On the other hand, "cow" is just another word, and the changes – pejoration, generalization – that have accompanied it accompany language like the waves accompany the ocean. From our small spot on the beach of present-day we can see linguistic causes splashing in the distance. That process may have noise along the way, but it certainly includes a "cow" or two.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


For old geezers who don't know the modern meaning of "fail," there's a website with thousands of examples. You'll notice it's never used as part of a sentence: "fail" encapsulates a situation. Who needs verbs when one word can do that?

I always thought "fail" was kinda harsh. It's anti-sarcasm that shuts down communication. Walking down the road, you trip. "Smooth," your friend says, meaning the opposite. "Fail," he could've said, labelling you just as thoroughly.

But then I was playing Chinese checkers with my cousins, and now I understand:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why I Need to Know Everything

I guess late Christmas Eve isn't the time I expected to resume blogging, but I wouldn't have expected the whole family to not have a single present wrapped yet, either. "We're a family of slackers," Melanie said. As it turns out, I didn't expect to be enjoying winter break so much, so I guess that makes for a whole round of unexpectation. Since I only had a few days to transition from studying in Beijing this summer to going to school, I haven't had a break longer than four days since June. Each day I wake up and am amazed that it's still vacation.

Vacation is always tough for me, though, because I never know how that relates to accomplishment. I usually define "rest" as anything that doesn't feel like work, but I have to watch out because the pleasure I get from doing personal projects is really similar to the pleasure I get finishing work. For example, I've been making a computer game intermittently over the last few years. It's almost finished. Andrew and I were playing it tonight. It's to the point, though, where the work the game needs is difficult and not that important. So it's mostly my perfectionistic streak that's making me continue. And I enjoy writing, but if I think of blogging as a duty then I feel overloaded. I was actually very conflicted about blogging tonight because I anticipate feeling a sense of accomplishment, and that worries me.

One thing I have been doing, though, is going to Barnes and Noble to read. I read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. It's a boring hypothesis (successful people have other things--parents, wealth, luck, culture--besides their own grit and intelligence going for them) but he cites so many interesting studies. In one page he happened to mention an IQ test for really smart people, and gave an example. "Teeth is to hen as nest is to ___"

I don't know the answer. And I think the problem is not because of my analogical skills, but because I don't know enough about teeth and hens. What's the relationship between teeth and hens? Hens are female, do teeth have something to do with that? Teeth have calcium, do hens have something to do with that? And once I did figure it out I'd have to be able to apply it to nests. I don't know anything about nests.

A few nights ago I was reading online about a study that concluded two things about octopuses: they prefer HDTV; and they have no personalities. If I only knew more, I found myself thinking, about the differences between regular television and HDTV, I'd be able to assess the researcher's results. One comment mentioned pixels and frame rate and went on to a complicated discussion about persistance of vision that I wish I had the background knowledge to follow.

That's all I'm asking for, really. The background knowledge for the world. Some people consider knowledge to be an end, but really it's only as good as you can apply it when wanted.

The point, of course, isn't to know about HDTV per se, it's to know that "hens' teeth" is a phrase as is "mare's nest." Neither of which I'd heard of before I googled the analogy, and so according to Hoeflin I might not be the smartest person ever. Wisdom is applied knowledge, so to become wise I have something to work on. But maybe I should wait until after Christmas break to do the real work on that.