Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Utter Bollocks (an essay on swearing)

Last year I had the following essay published on Recently I tried to access it from my workplace but found myself blocked by the University web server: “Tru-View has categorized this page as Offensive and Tasteless.” Now that’s ironic since one of the principle points I raise in the essay is the extent to which swearing is used, either directly or through injunction, to establish and reinforce social exclusivity.
Steven Pinker has some fascinating things to say about the subject of swearing in the following 2 part video (here and here) though he makes little, if any, mention of swearing as a practice of social differentiation and exclusion. There is also a very interesting article (here) about differing attitudes to the use of profanities within academic disciplines (Thanks to Sean for the link).

Utter Bollocks (an essay on swearing)
We often think of “innocence” as something completely uncorrupted, a state of moral purity, but to what extent might this notion be a fabrication in which we subtly compel one another, and children in particular, to conform to social norms?

Some friends of mine are having difficulties with their five year old son who has started swearing whilst at his new school. They've tended not to discourage him from swearing at home and now they’re faced with the task of socialising him into a set of values which are somewhat different from their own but which are held by the social sphere into which their son is being initiated. It makes one wonder who’s actually being manipulated to conform the most: the child or his parents?

With children it's often pointless to attempt to rationally explain the complexities of a mode of behaviour which we wish them to modify. Instead we tend to lay down rules and injunctions to control and encourage behaviours which we feel are appropriate to a particular context. We say "No, don't do that" or "Stop it", and when asked for an explanation we all too often say "Because I said so" or, if we're not too distracted or stressed by the situation, we might work a little harder to come up with a shorthand explanation like "Because it's bad" or "Because it's naughty". Whilst this is understandable, it's often the case that such responses are simply inherited from our parents and other childhood figures of authority. We tend to accept these norms and when explanations are required, the most expedient and conventional responses are easily to hand. How often, I wonder, do we stop to consider the values and motivations behind these attitudes? For the most part, the explanations we give aren't really explanations at all: they're descriptions of what we judge swearing to be, and they provide very little indication, if any, about the root of the issue. So, not only do our children miss out on the truth, but we ourselves have only the barest understanding of what we believe. If we’re pushed on this subject the most common response we give is that swearwords are sexual in nature, and children should be protected from such things. But is this really anything more than a half-truth?

Swearing is perceived by many people to be the result of poor upbringing by parents who, for whatever reason, are too busy, too unconcerned or too liberal to discourage their kids from such antisocial or ‘obscene’ behaviour. But already we can see a series of clear judgements underlying these responses. I suggest that it’s precisely this, ‘judgement’, rather than simply moral outrage, which is at the heart of our attitudes to swearing.

Swearing allows us to distinguish between members of different social groups and social levels in a very similar way to regional accents and slang. It's a universal discriminative capacity which creates linguistic differentiation and provides clues as to the values, upbringing and social status of different individuals. The important thing to recognise is that the conventional objection against swearing has relatively little to do with the explicit sexual content of expletives.
“A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but in practice it’s insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning.” -George Orwell
The argument that children need to be protected from such things, neatly avoids the fact that the typical injunction against swearing contains a significant component of social differentiation and exclusion. As with all exclusionary practices, the uninitiated are either denied entry to the group, expelled, or forced to conform to the group’s dominant norms. The truth, which is easily missed here, is that the argument about the sexual content of swearwords is, in many ways, simply a convenient moralistic foil for these exclusionary and manipulative social practices. Indeed, it could be argued that these censorious attitudes are the very cause of the problems they seek to eradicate:

“Taboo topics tend to generate many slang expressions, and these have been conceptualized as functioning to resist oppressive norms that deny voice to certain groups of people and render some subjects unspeakable.” -Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger

But this isn’t to suggest that all swearwords are entirely innocent or that the intentions behind their use are simply noble expressions of resistance against oppression. Many swearwords are forms of abuse, specifically designed to alienate and insult people by marking them out as different, inferior or abnormal, and we’re right not to tolerate such xenophobic and abusive attitudes. We all have our moral limits and many of these are shared across differing social groups and are crystallised in social taboos. But not only do these taboos tell us about where we set some of our most delicate moral boundaries, they also tell us about our collective fixations and anxieties. As with any group, these fixations and anxieties are frequently associated with what we regard as sacred, and by extension, profane – from whence we derive our conceptions of profanity.

Alongside this perception of language as a register of the sacred and profane resides the belief that words are more than simply utterances: words have the power to offend, to shock, to violate and to transgress. The well known phrase that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ becomes, from this perspective, little more than a case of wishful thinking: words can, on the contrary, inflict severe and lasting psychological harm. But we need to be careful around such arguments. For example, in US law there’s a term sometimes known as the Hecklers Veto in which a group can effectively force the government to prevent an individual from exercising free expression by taking offence and threatening to riot. It’s the government’s duty in such cases to prevent a riot whilst granting all individuals free speech, so long of course, as this free speech isn’t acting with the singular intent to incite a riot.
“The rioters are the culpable parties, not the artist whose work unintentionally provoked them to violence.” –Judge Posner. Nelson v. Streeter, 16 F.3d 145, 150 (7thCir. 1994).
The vital issue here then, is the intent behind an utterance or expression rather than the offence taken. Inevitably, it’s not always a straightforward matter to determine the underlying intentions behind an utterance but it’s certainly preferable to allowing self professed offended parties to dominate or veto free expression.
“Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.” JS Mill
One of the principle complexities at the heart of our consideration of swearwords derives from the confusing lack of consistency in the ways that different groups, and even individuals within these groups, use expletives. This inconsistency is much less a consequence of the fluidity of linguistic meaning than a clear indication of the fact that swearing is primarily a form of social negotiation and exchange:
“swearing functions not only as a marker of (group) identity, but also as a means of negotiating and actively constituting that identity.” -Karyn Stapleton
Once again, we find that the literal meaning of expletives tends to be secondary to the communicative dynamic which such words create. Swearing reinforces relationships or quite literally comes between them, and differing social groups define their linguistic boundaries in a variety of nuanced and complex ways in order to negotiate and express their collective values, often to the point of inventing their own euphemisms or, on occasion, entirely new lexicons.

This tendency for taboo subjects to stratify into distinct lexicons was noted by the British author CS Lewis who pointed out that when discussing sex we are “forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter and the anatomy class.” This observation illustrates how each lexicon is closely associated with a particular contextual use. Moreover, when we encounter terms from a particular lexicon outside their familiar setting they often seem incongruous, if not completely absurd. For example, you're unlikely to say in the heat of passion “let's have sexual intercourse”, nor are you likely to say to a doctor “I have an uncomfortable pain in my arsehole”, though, interestingly, such things are becoming more common (see here).

When I first began thinking about the issues of swearing I was tempted to consider the exclusion of children from the use of ‘adult’ language to be a case of irrational inconsistent disingenuousness on the part of adults. Willy, Penis and Prick name exactly the same thing after all, so why might we wish to prevent children from using these different associated lexicons freely? I can see two possible reasons. The first is related to the contextual dependency of different lexicons and the subtlety with which individuals use swearing to test, negotiate with and/or to gain entry to different groups:
“Speakers who use taboo language successfully (i.e., they do not seem to offend their listeners) are often attuned to the situation in which they are speaking.” -Robin-Eliece Mercury
It has been found that the urge to swear originates at a fundamental neurological level and is therefore an unusually instinctive and pre-linguistic form of expression which has been identified even in primates. Despite these primitive origins, swearing has also been shown to involve sophisticated process of predictive modeling which subconsciously assesses potential audience response:
“Researchers point out that cursing is often an amalgam of raw, spontaneous feeling and targeted, gimlet-eyed cunning. When one person curses at another, they say, the curser rarely spews obscenities and insults at random, but rather will assess the object of his wrath, and adjust the content of the ‘uncontrollable’ outburst accordingly.” -Natalie Angier
The higher-order forms of cognitive processing and sensitivity to nuance involved in the use of swearwords are specifically enabled, on a neurological level, by the functions of a well developed Pre-Frontal Cortex; a portion of the brain which only fully matures in late childhood. To expect children to understand, yet alone appropriately utilise such sophisticated, context dependent forms of language would surely be unrealistic and would undoubtedly to lead to error, confusion and misunderstanding in the use of forms of language to which many people are especially sensitive.

But there’s another, equally compelling reason why swearing might be thought to be a sensitive issue for children and this relates to children’s developing understanding of the meaning of privacy. As children’s language skills develop and they become more independent, it’s important for them to be able to function effectively within the moral culture that surrounds them. At this stage it becomes increasingly necessary for them to form conceptions of the Personal and the Private and their first encounters with these concepts are most likely to be through language and the taboos which are so deeply inscribed within it. The way adults frame and proscribe language through the use of different lexicons becomes an alert to children that there’s something curious about the things to which these words refer but also something mysterious, powerful and, most of all, threatening which they don’t yet quite understand. In a sense, it might be argued that taboos act like a form of protection, by raising awareness of social sensitivities and forcing parents to demarcate boundaries of acceptability. In many ways taboos functions exactly like subtle socially accepted versions of parents who say “You can’t do that because I said so”: they establish boundaries based upon authority and they leave explanations to be sought or invented by minds which, in this and so many other regards, have other peoples ideas of innocence foisted upon them.

ANGIER, N., 2005. Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore. New York Times. [online] Available from:
ARNOTT SMITH , C., Nursery, gutter, or anatomy class? Obscene expression in consumer health. [online] Available from:
BRAUN. V. AND KITZINGER. C., 2001. "Snatch," "Hole," or "Honey-pot"? Semantic Categories and the Problem of Nonspecificity in Female Genital Slang
Journal of Sex Research, May, 2001. [online] Available from:
JOELVING. F., 2009. Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief. Scientific American. [online] Available from:
MERCURY. R.E., 1995. Swearing: A "Bad" Part o f Language; A Good Part of Language Learning TESL CANADA JOURNAUREVUE TESL DU CANADA VOL. 13, NO.1, WINTER 35 . [online] Available from:
ORWELL. G., 1933. Down and Out in Paris and London. Penguin. London.
STAPLETON. K., 2003. Gender and Swearing: A Community Practice. Women and Language, Vol. 26. [online] Available from:

Monday, 20 June 2011

Experiments in Situated Knowledge

"Catching Fire" (after Richard Serra), ©Jim Hamlyn 2011

Earlier this year I was selected for an Artist's Residency at Sydney College of Arts in Australia. At the same time there's a conference at the Institute of Experimental Arts in Sydney on the subject of Art and Experimentation. Lesley and I submitted the following abstract and received confirmation a few days ago that we've been selected. Now all we have to do is put the whole thing together!

Experiments in Situated Knowledge

"We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched." -Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Part academic presentation, part performance, part discursive documentary, this presentation takes an alternative approach to the format of conference presentation in order to argue, by constructive example, that art arrives at its own unique forms of knowledge and knowledge generation through speculative experimentation with concrete reality, form and process.

The profound success of certain forms of epistemic enquiry - principally scientific research and academic thought - has resulted in a relative marginalization of creative and improvisatory forms of critical and analytical investigation and to a parallel adoption, within the arts especially, of aspects of the terminology of science in order to legitimate the processes and practices of art production and consumption. For example, the use of the term ‘experiment’ is itself predicated upon an implicit association with empirical science as opposed to the more abstract trials and even ‘play’ that are fundamental to art production.

Drawing upon the experiments of Swiss artist Roman Signer (who’s work literally fuses the improvisatory and experiential with the more exacting necessities and laws of physics, often to explosive effect) and the research of the eight artists and cultural theorists involved in the newly formed “Co-creativity of Hand and Mind” research group based at Gray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK (whose work investigates the interchange between Experience, Experiment and Expertise - etymologically rooted in the term experiri: ‘to try’), this presentation seeks to propose that the language and significance of alternative forms of communication (situated knowledge, contemplation, humor, sex, reverie, narrative etc.) offer valuable ways to understand the indispensable contribution of experimental creativity (art) to our understanding of the world and our place within it.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Lives of the Artists

“Skill is fine, and genius is splendid, but the right contacts are more valuable than either.” - Arthur Conan Doyle

Last September I wrote here about a disparity in the way that theory and practice are graded in art schools and the potential inequality this raises for students. Since joining Facebook last November I’ve become all the more aware of a related anomaly that pertains to the way that courses acknowledge - or largely ignore - the engagement of students beyond the confines of the institution.

It has always been the case that some students are more engaged than others - that will never change. But whilst for a proportion of students, studying is very much a 9 to 5 affair undertaken in order to gain a qualification, for many others their chosen discipline is an integrated and consuming part of their daily life. When these students walk out of the door at the end of the day they continue to engage in communities, discussions and creative cultures that stimulate and inspire them and they in turn contribute back to these cultures: as musicians, DJs, VJs, voluntarily working in galleries or community arts projects, submitting for competitions, attending exhibitions and openings and generally participating in a wide variety of creative opportunities and contexts.

Very often these are the students that excel and continue beyond art school, undoubtedly because the ethic that such engagement engenders becomes a self perpetuating habit. Their hard work doesn’t even feel like work because they are doing what they enjoy and immersing themselves in it as much as they can.

Unfortunately though, when it comes to marking students, it’s already hard enough to fully acknowledge this kind of engagement because the criteria that degree courses use rarely have much space for kinds of engagement that are not a direct consequence of structures instituted and controlled by the institution.

It might be argued that these engaged students will necessarily be more confident and experienced and therefore better able to achieve good grades anyway. To a large degree this is true but there are others whose involvement in such extracurricular culture is more intangible, perhaps more discursive, less visual but nonetheless inventive, playful, thoughtful, and significant. Sometimes these students are brilliant catalysts: not so productive or surprising in the things they create, but rather in the situations or discussions they generate, nurture or promote. Such individuals are an indispensible part of the kinds of critical and creative cultures upon which progressive societies are founded and it is extremely fortunate that the drive to be involved, for such individuals, is intrinsic to the role because certainly the support and acknowledgement they receive from academic institutions is paltry at best.

And I’m not talking about a tiny sub-group of students here either. Over the years, I’ve observed many such individuals on numerous occasions and since I’ve joined Facebook I’ve noticed their engagement even more. If, during the past, it was possible for such individuals to join, for example, a pub discussion and throw in a few well aimed remarks and light hearted volubility across the table in order to keep the discussion flowing into ever more insightful territory, now they are armed with a vast reservoir of links, articles and media that pepper their communications and inform their social presence. Yes, much of what is posted on facebook is inane rubbish and yes it’s often haphazard, but considering the sheer volume, the engagement, the enthusiasm and the evidence of awareness, surely we can do better than to completely ignore the vital participation and contribution that such individuals make to a thriving creative culture.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Variation and Perfection

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “variation” and I’m beginning to realise that it plays an easily overlooked but vital role in our understanding and appreciation of a constellation of concepts including “uniqueness,” “rarity,” “perfection,” “quality,” “value,” and “greatness” etc. These are things to which we might aspire and they lead many people in the world to extraordinary lengths simply for the hope of experiencing the vaguest glimpse of them. Global culture is, to a large degree, driven by this desire: to be the best, the greatest, the highest quality, the most efficient, the most economical, the most sustainable, the most valuable, the most perfect.

All quantifiable things, by definition, lend themselves to being measured, and it is through measurement that we might seek to improve them. As Lord Kelvin famously noted: “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” But not all things that can be measured, can be improved. We can measure the hue, intensity and brightness of a myriad of colours but we’d likely be certifiable if we sought to improve say indigo, crimson or ochre. These colours are what they are. We might prefer one particular colour over all others, but this does not make International Klein Blue either qualitatively or quantitatively better than any other colour. Our preferences are subjective aesthetic choices, not objective facts.

When discussing aesthetic matters we can still talk in terms of “quality,” “value” and “greatness” etc. but the further we venture into this territory the more unwieldy and contentious the criteria we might apply. Once again, we are dealing with preferences – very elaborate ones - but preferences nonetheless. Over time we might find that we share the ‘taste’ of a certain connoisseur and that their preferences lead us to a fuller understanding and enjoyment of our own experiences but there is nothing objectively more True about their opinion than that of any other equally well informed and experienced consumer. Truth, in fact, doesn’t actually figure in the equation, since we are not dealing with facts so much as feelings and sensations - not measurable things ‘out there’ so much as complex and notoriously difficult to quantify internal states. If you’re at all doubtful about this claim then consider for a moment the extent to which societies institute teams, juries, boards, committees and panels etc. to make critical judgements in cases where the possibility of subjective bias may lead to faulty or damaging decisions. In such cases we substitute inter-subjectivity (collective judgement) as a proxy for the goal of pure objectivity.

So where does variation fit in? Perhaps the easiest way to approach this is to introduce the experience of food (though the principle could be applied to any sensory experience). Imagine the most perfect meal you’ve ever eaten. Would you wish to dine on this same experience day in, day out, morning, noon and night for the rest of your life? Doubtful. The experience would very soon become monotonous to the point of disgust. My point therefore, is that where aesthetic matters are concerned, quality is nothing without variation.

Yet another important aspect of what makes anything valuable is “rarity,” such that when rare things become abundant they cease to retain their value. Paradoxically though, what we also find, is that rarity and variation pull in entirely different directions. Rarity calls for uniqueness and scarcity whereas variation calls for multiplicity and diversity. This might well explain why there is such a widespread emphasis on originality within the fields of aesthetic choice, since originality simultaneously provides something rare (the first of its kind) and variation (by adding something different to what we already have). It might also explain why true perfection is an ideal forever tantalisingly out of reach.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Raw Material

When I was an art student I had a tutor who considered his teaching to be part of his artistic output and who made a great show of the fact, to his students at least. Evidently he believed his role to be more unique and therefore more profound than that of other teachers and wanted us to feel special as a consequence. Perhaps I should have been flattered, but instead I couldn’t help wondering: so what does that make us - your raw material?