Notes on “perfectionism”; tempora cum causis (16)

Garden fresco in the Villa of Livia. Image: Wikimedia.

In the Brutus (71), Cicero, tracing the trajectory of Latin literature, writes: nihil est enim simul et inuentum et perfectum,Nothing is fully developed at the moment of its invention.” The Latin verb perficio, from which the English word “perfect” derives, means “to bring to completion” or “to finish.” In a different work, On the Nature of the Gods (2.35), Cicero, speaking from a Stoic perspective, describes this process of completion or finishing in terms of a natural growth which irresistibly strives beyond its current state. Here comes the Latin and the Loeb translation: 

neque enim dici potest in ulla rerum institutione non esse aliquid extremum atque perfectum. ut enim in uite ut in pecude nisi quae uis obstitit uidemus naturam suo quodam itinere ad ultimum peruenire, atque ut pictura et fabrica ceteraeque artes habent quendam absoluti operis effectum, sic in omni natura ac multo etiam magis necesse est absolui aliquid ac perfici. etenim ceteris naturis multa externa quo minus perficiantur possunt obsistere, uniuersam autem naturam nulla res potest impedire, propterea quod omnis naturas ipsa cohibet et continet.

Again, it is undeniable that every organic whole must have an ultimate ideal of perfection. As in vines or in cattle we see that, unless obstructed by some force, nature progresses on a certain path of her own to her goal of full development, and as in painting, architecture and the other arts and crafts there is an ideal of perfect workmanship, even so and far more in the world of nature as a whole there must be a process towards completeness and perfection. The various limited modes of being may encounter many external obstacles to hinder their perfect realization, but there can be nothing that can frustrate nature as a whole, since she embraces and contains within herself all modes of being.

Each of these discussions of “perfection” in Cicero suggests that the thing which is “perfect” is one which has been worked beyond an initial beginning of some kind — the event horizon of “invention” (inuentum), or the young tendril of vine — and imagines the possibility that such a start could be brought forward to its logical conclusion, its completion. Essentially, “perfection”, in these terms, requires a distance between the beginning and the end; an end cannot coexist with its beginning. It requires growth. Yet the fine line between the simplicity of completion, and the politics of “perfection” is blurred by Cicero too. The natural world may follow its own script, leading to the growth of plants and animals, but Cicero includes human artefacts in the same category: painting, architecture, “technology” (ceterae artes…). The idea that the perfect thing is the completed thing is a problem. Because, well. When is anything finished? There is a difference between completion (the point of fullness beyond which further growth is impossible), and a stop (a breaking off point). But what is it?

The English term “perfectionism” — i.e. the refusal to accept any standard short of “perfection” — did not arise until the 1930s (according to the OED), yet there is a shadow of this idea even in Cicero. In certain circumstances, Cicero writes, obstacles may arise which stand in the way of even nature’s “perfect” course. The anxiety of not meeting completion is there. Such anxiety enters at the moment when the concept of an “end” is complexified by judgement. A critical eye complicates the notion of completion, questioning the possibility of wholeness. The social phenomenon of perfectionism inserts a difficulty into the concept of the “perfect” as the completed thing, because perfectionism refuses to see completion.

As an antidote to a social disease which invalidates moments of closure (i.e. what even an “end” might mean for us), we might reconsider what it means to “begin” something. In How Societies Remember (1989), Paul Connerton figures the “beginning” as something more complex than a single moment of inception (p6):

“All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when a social group makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start. There is a measure of complete arbitrariness in the very nature of any such attempted beginning. The beginning has nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is as if it came out of nowhere…But the absolutely new is inconceivable. It is not just that it is very difficult to begin with a wholly new start, that too many old loyalties and habits inhibit the substitution of a novel enterprise for a new and established one.”

The beginning does not come out of nowhere. To some extent, a “fresh start” is impossible. All beginnings grow from old soil (to extend the horticultural metaphor). If the beginning is a blurred line, so too can the end be — that horizon line of “perfection.” If completion is not a full stop but a lingering note, then perfectionism may lose some of its power. There are, too, lots of moments of fullness along the way towards that blurry wholeness. The full embrace of perfectionism also means accepting the argument of teleology — that what comes next is inherently superior to what preceded it, that human culture is marching towards a pin point of perfection. Teleological thinking blinds us to points of significance outside a narrative of progress. Rejecting such thinking allows us to consider what it is, exactly, that we’re progressing towards.

Nausicaa pyxis; climate change and fragments; N. K. Jemisin; tempora cum causis (15)

Ancient. In the Boston MFA, there is a late 5th c. BCE pyxis which depicts the scene from Odyssey Book 6 where a naked Odysseus encounters Nausicaa. Given that the pyxis was an object used by women (as a make up or jewelry box), it is really interesting to see what kind of scenes are depicted on them; i.e. what kind of media did the Greeks of this period think was fitting for women? I look at this object and imagine a young (affluent) woman holding it in her hands, seeing reflections of her own life in the life of Nausicaa in Phaeacia (as well as the “calculated flirtation”, as Emily Wilson calls it, between herself and Odysseus). Note the care given by the painter to distinguish each of the figures on the vase according to their narrative role, and class: Odysseus, as in Homer’s depiction, is embarrassed by his nakedness; Athena is present as his guide; the women in Nausicaa’s attendance run wildly away when Odysseus appears (as in Homer), except for the one still engaged in the washing; Nausicaa stands tall, and is elaborately dressed. This graphic representation is remarkably faithful to the verses of the Odyssey. Compare the 20th century version by American painter, William McGregor Paxton, in which everyone is naked, not just Odysseus.

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Here is Emily Wilson’s translation of the scene (Odyssey 6.119-146):

“What is this country I have come to now?
Are all the people wild and violent,
or good, hospitable, and god-fearing?
I heard the sound of female voices. Is it
nymphs, who frequent the craggy mountaintops,
and river streams and meadows lush with grass?
Or could this noise I hear be human voices?
I have to try to find out who they are.”

Odysseus jumped up from our the bushes.
Grasping a leafy branch he broke it off
to cover up his manly private parts.
Just as a mountain lion trusts its strength,
and beaten by the rain and wind, its eyes
burn bright as it attacks the cows or sheep,
or wild deer, and hunger drives it on
to try the sturdy pens of sheep — so need
impelled Odysseus to come upon
the girls with pretty hair, though he was naked.
All caked with salt, he looked a dreadful sight.
They ran along the shore quite terrified,
some here, some there. But Nausicaa stayed still.
Athena made her legs stop trembling
and gave her courage in her heart. She stood there.
He wondered, should he touch her knees, or keep
some distance and use charming words, to beg
the pretty girl to show him to the town,
and give him clothes. At last he thought it best
to keep some distance and use words to beg her.

Modern. Earlier this week I was texting with a friend when they mentioned that coffee production may be at risk by the year 2050. The dread of climate change is something that is always with me (I stopped eating meat a few years ago for this reason), but I find myself always pushing it to the back of my mind. The coffee thing brought it forward in an instant. I found myself googling flood projections for Boston, where I live now, as well as my childhood home, Glasgow. I thought about the fear of things to come which washed over me when I saw the flood sequence in Parasite. I asked my husband whether, in light of all of this, we were really doing enough. I asked myself why, given our knowledge of the climate emergency, I don’t give up everything and try to grow vegetables and live off the grid in some sustainable way. Then the next day, I got up and continued to write and worry about my book about Latin fragments.

Last week Parul Sehgal’s review of Jenny Offill’s novel, Weather (2020) appeared in the The New York Times: “How to Write Fiction When the Planet is Falling Apart.” (Thanks, Christian and Michele! Who individually sent me this because they knew I would like it.) Sehgal writes:

‘In her new novel, “Weather,” Offill applies her instruments — the fragment, the odd fact, her deep banks of knowledge on mysticism and natural history — to a broader canvas. The stakes are the survival not of a marriage but of the planet itself. “The question I was thinking about in this book,” she told me, “was, Can you still just tend your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?”’

And, further in:

‘These might be familiar stories of family life, but now imagine them told in shards, the plot edging forward in jokes, quotes, Zen koans. The fragment is an old form, perhaps even our native form — don’t we speak to ourselves in curt directives, experience memory as clusters of language? In Offill’s hands, however, the form becomes something new, not a way of communicating estrangement or the scroll of a social media feed but a method of distilling experience into its brightest, most blazing forms — atoms of intense feeling. I read somewhere that clouds could be called floating lakes. That is what these fragments feel like: teeming worlds suspended in white space, entire novels condensed into paragraphs… The domestic and intellectual meet on the same plain in her work; the swirl of hair on the back of a baby’s head is as worthy a subject of contemplation as one of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms.’

The fragment has an essential duality. Whatever it is, it exists in its original context, connected to its surroundings (a baby’s hair swirl to the baby; Wittgenstein’s aphorism to the rest of his work); but it also exists on its own, as an image in a frame. It is both broken off (fragment is from frangere, Latin “to break” — it means “broken thing”) yet simultaneously resistant to breakage. Hence Sehgal’s invocation of the atom, which is, ostensibly, the thing which cannot be broken down any further (atom is from ἄτομος, Greek for “a thing that cannot be cut”). The atom as an idea (leaving aside the physical phenomenon which has been given this name) is a hard core, resistant to the processes of damage and loss which eat away at all the things which once surrounded it.

Sehgal’s analysis of Offill’s work highlights how dread in the face of climate change works upon a human observer of reality. Dread eats away perceptive connectivities, and leaves behind the most intense fragments of experience. Fragmentation plays a role in the micro but also the macro. Contemplation of its process brings up the inevitable question: what will survive? Scholars of antiquity look at this process of fragmentation after it has already occurred: shards of Sappho papyri, torturous manuscript traditions, small parts of once colossal statues. And while destruction (accidental or deliberate) has a role to play and how things do or don’t survive from antiquity, the kind of destruction we observe does not compare to what climate change can do to the face of the earth in the near future.

In the urgency of the present moment the question shifts from what will survive, to who will survive. The idea that coffee, such a mundane but profound part of my life now, may disappear in thirty years jolts me. But there is so much more at stake than this comfort, this little fragment of my life. The richest countries are the most responsible for climate change, but it is the poorest who will be most affected. How we treat each other is reflected in how we treat the earth. A renewed focus on what is lost, what we’re in the process of losing, and what we stand to lose soon is frightening, but it is what we need. In context of all of this, the fragment gains a new significance as a symbol both of our perception of reality, but also our capacity for action. Reconnecting what is fragmented, contextualizing the atomized, reframes the discrete, isolated parts of our lives as part of an urgent, global narrative.

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Excerpt. N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, p150): “A break in the pattern. A snarl in the weft. There are things you should be noticing, here. Things that are missing, and conspicuous by their absence.”

Daily life. We’ve been seeing a lot of films at Coolidge Corner, and it has been wonderful.


How to Write

This week at BU I gave a proseminar for our PhD students, “How to Write.” Here’s what I told them:

How to Write. 1) Establish a practice. 2) Contextualize your work. 3) Create writing community. 4) Use good tools. 5) Read about writing. 6) Stop thinking.

1) Establish a practice. Haruki Murakami is a writer and an ultra marathoner. In his memoir, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running (2008), Murakami makes an alignment between writing and running — in that each is a practice: 

“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.”

When you run, or do any kind of physical activity, it’s about putting your body in the position to do the practice. You don’t say to your muscles, “get stronger!” But rather, you run, you put yourself in the right environment every day, and over time your muscles do get stronger. It’s the same way with writing. As with running, when you sit down to write you don’t know how well it will go (and, indeed, how well it will go is governed by somewhat mysterious forces). But you put yourself in that position nonetheless; and some days you do well, other days you don’t. But you do it consistently, and, by trial and error, you figure out what kind of practice works best for you. I’ve known scholars who like to write for an hour every day first thing in the morning, and that’s it. I prefer to set aside an entire day so that I can devote several hours in a row to write. We all have slightly different ways of doing it and that’s fine — but whatever you do, do it consistently.

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1a) Focus on time writing rather than words written. Given the fact that you don’t  know how many words you’ll be able to write in any given session, using words written as a measure of progress will ultimately become frustrating. Instead, focus on time spent writing. Doing so will allow you to have space to think (and thinking is of course part of writing!) and to develop your ideas. When I was writing my dissertation, I spent 3 to 5 hours a day working on it.

1b) Do it a little every day.
Establishing a practice means writing consistently. You may be a morning person, you may be a night owl, but whatever you do — do it every day. (Every day that you’re working, that is. It’s important to take days off, to rest. To extend the running metaphor, you have to rest your muscles for them to grow. And in addition to that, having a robust and dependable writing practice means that you can have a life. Which is important!)

1c) Keep a record of your hours. Keep a journal to note down the hours you write every day. I show an example of mine from summer 2019 below. On Wednesday 5th June, I wrote for 6 hours “with a lot of faffing” (=British slang for “screwing around”), i.e. I put in the hours but there were many distractions. I also noted what I was working on, so that I could pick up from there the next time I wrote. On Wednesday 10th [July??], I struggled. I wrote from 10.49am to 2pm, and then noted: “I need a break!” When I returned, I annotated this with “didn’t **really** take a break but worried from 2-3.15 :).” A nice example of how writing can go well or it can go badly. Nonetheless, you continue your practice!

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I take inspiration here from another writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. In a 1988 interview, she described her written practice. Worth noting what happened in the evenings: “After 8.00pm — I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.” No one can write all day. There is always a point of fatigue, and once you reach this, you shouldn’t work against yourself. Go and rest.

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2) Contextualize your work. When you begin your research project as a PhD student, you feel an enormous pressure to be original. Indeed, that’s one of the metrics by which we judge successful research — whether it is a new and original contribution to the field. And it’s easy to think that originality means removing yourself from what has been said before. “No one has ever looked at this issue the way I am.” Yet, truly, your writing will be at its best if you go into it acknowledging the fact that you are not alone. In the slides below I show two different perspectives on this. Is your work a lone tree? Or is it a tree that is in a contextual forest, standing alongside other work in an intellectual ecosystem? Create a dialogue between yourself, the ancient evidence, and prior scholarship. Interweave, entangle. Be synthetic.

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In a talk from 2004, “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter), Ursula K. Le Guin describes what it’s like when a writer does not acknowledge the tradition in which they are working:

“A genre is a genre by having a field and focus of its own, its appropriate and particular tools and rules and techniques for handling the material, its traditions, and its experienced, appreciative readers. Ignorant of all this, our novice is about to reinvent the wheel, the space ship, the space alien, and the mad scientist, with cries of innocent wonder. The cries will not be echoed by the readers. Readers familiar with the genre have met the space ship, the alien, and the mad scientist before. They know much more about them than the writer does.”

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It’s weirdly easier to do this in a research area that you don’t feel as personally invested in. You can practice this deliberately, scholarly interweaving by going through the following steps:

2a) Pick an ancient piece of evidence. It could be anything.
2b) Analyze it. Spend some time just you and it. Tease out points of significance. Take notes. Think about it in the context of other things you know about its period/genre/whatever.
2c) See what other scholars have said; read 3-5 pieces of scholarship. You’ll see that some of the things you noticed have already been published. But, by reading multiple scholars on the same object/text/problem, you’ll ALSO see that the issue is not a closed one — there are multiple interpretations, and they get more interesting if they take into account what has previously been discussed.
2d) Combine b) and c). Synthesize what you have read from various scholars and then add your own analysis in light of what they have said. Now you have written an interesting and rich piece of research!

DON’T BE AFRAID of finding that your ideas have already been published by someone else. A new observer of a problem will always shed new light on the issue. It is ignorance of prior scholarship that will lead you to make unoriginal work. 

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3) Create writing community. Writing is lonely. You have to spend a lot of time on your own, and because you feel vulnerable about the quality of what you’re producing (especially in the beginning), you can feel wary of those around you. But a community of writing is what you need, and it can be very rewarding. There are a number of ways to do this.

3a) Ask a trusted friend or classmate to read your work. The “trusted” part is quite important. Not everyone around you in the intellectual environments which you find yourself in will be a good interlocutor for you. I have a close friend from grad school with whom I still share work, but it had to be this person and not anyone else. It’s personal! Creating relationships where constructive critique can happen takes a lot of work, but it is extremely rewarding.

3b) Agree to swap and critique. Talk to a friend who is perhaps in a similar stage of writing as you (for example, you’re both working on the second chapter of your dissertation), and agree to swap work and meet to discuss it. This can be helpful for a number of reasons. It can help you feel like your work has an audience. And reading what someone at the same or a similar stage as you is writing can help you see your own growth.

3c) Arrange or attend writing meet-ups. It’s a well known thing that dissertation writing is hard. With that in mind, a number of institutions have regular meet ups for PhD students where you turn up, write for a number of hours in a room full of other people who are writing, and then have coffee, socialize, etc. This is a great thing for keeping motivated, creating community, and meeting other grad students outside of your field. BU has a Dissertation Writing Group. You may be like me, however, and need to be at home to write in peace. However, if this is something that you think would be useful, it’s a great thing to try.

4. Use good tools. Part of your writing practice will entail finding the right writing tools for you. I suggest the following:

4a) Scrivener. One of the best word processors out there; one which allows for flexibility and non-linear writing. You can watch their videos and see some egs. It isn’t free — although there is a discount for students. However, it may well be a good investment for you. I bought my copy when I started my dissertation and I’m still using it.

4b) EvernoteI don’t recommend this for writing large projects, but it is good for keeping track of various notes, or pdfs. It’s another place to store your ideas which is not on your computer. There is a free version. No matter what system you use, make sure you a REGULARLY BACKING UP YOUR WORK. Back up your files regularly, and in more than one place! 

4c) Forest appSet a timer and Forest will block website of your choice for that time. I am addicted to twitter (no surprise there), so I use the chrome extension version. This is a great way to a) keep track of your writing hours; b) be strict about minimizing distractions. I often set the timer for a short amount of time (c. 20 mins), but go well beyond it. It helps to get into the mindset you need for writing.

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5) Read about writing. In addition to readings books by writers on writing (e.g. by Murakami or Le Guin), there are a number of useful resources out there which specifically give advice about academic writing:

6) Stop thinking. Writing and research requires a lot of thinking (naturally). But it also requires a lot of time not thinking. In addition to the fact that you should have a life (i.e. don’t let writing eat up everything), your writing will be better if you spend time not thinking. I end with the immortal words of Don Draper:

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Visit to Bates; digital humanities and the human body; Elizabeth Marlowe; tempora cum causis (14)

Ancient. This week I was up in Maine visiting the Classical and Medieval Studies department at Bates College. On Thursday (30th Jan. 2020), I talked about my primary research interest right now, Cicero and the Latin poets (I’m finishing up a book on this); on Friday (31st Jan. 2021), I talked about digital approaches to teaching. Handouts below: 

Modern. I can understand why “the digital” as category sometimes seems so distinct from the world of humanism or humanistic inquiry. But investigating the digital within the framework of the extensibility of human embodiment immediately complicates this view. Digital humanists (this term, to some, is tautological; to others, self-negating) often emphasize the essential continuity between established forms of intellectual work and the capacities of contemporary digital techniques; as Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto (The Digital Humanities; 2015: 2) write:

…everything from the scholar’s desk and shelves, study, studio, rehearsal and performance space, lecture halls, campuses, research institutes and convention halls can also legitimately be considered environments. Yet in many ways these new digital tools carry on, in analogous ways, the same functions of traditional humanities. Is the very computer upon which humanists rely so heavily still a tool, something akin to their medieval writing tablets?

Digital techniques build upon traditional humanistic practices but also develop them; Sarah E. Bond, Hoyt Long, Ted Underwood (“‘Digital’ Is Not the Opposite of ‘Humanities‘”; 2017):

Much of what is now happening under the aegis of digital humanities continues and expands those projects. Scholars are still grappling with familiar human questions; it is just that technology helps them address the questions more effectively and often on a larger scale.

“Digital humanists”, who spend so much time theorizing their own relationship to classical traditions and contemporary technology, are often met with knee-jerk reactions by those who have not taken the time to situate their own intellectual complaint. It all brings to mind Ursula K. Le Guin (I keep coming back to her), who regularly drew attention to the fact that her critics could not get past the genre of her writing to grasp the meaning of its content. At face value digital projects can have an alienating effect on traditional sensibilities, but when we dig deeper we quickly see that the intellectual processes required for such work are just as complex and interesting as the standard products of scholarship. I have written elsewhere about how teaching with digital techniques encourages students to sharpen analytic skills and deepen their intellectual commitment to research.

Anyway, returning to the embodiment part in all this. Technology is absolutely bound to the human body; formed for human use, imagined as an extension of human manipulation (in a literal sense of manus, i.e. ‘hand’) of reality. While contemporary technology sometimes feels so seamless as to be invisible to our own theorization, looking at older artefacts in digital history makes this incredibly clear. Take, e.g., the Philippe Henri’s (1984) “Cadavres Exquis / Exquisite Corpses.” This is a program for a computer generated poem: i.e. Henri wrote the code, but the actual poem was “written” when the program was run on a computer; and indeed rewritten anew each time the program was run. The code was circulated on paper (see the slide below: from Nick Montfort’s [@nickmofo] lecture at BU last year, “Translating Computational Poetry” — watch a video recording of the lecture here); and in order to run the program, a human being had to type it by hand into a specific computer, the TRS 80.

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“Cadavres Exquis”, which is only one e.g. of a whole genre of computational poetry, very clearly demonstrates the entanglement of technology with the essences of humanity, not just the body, but indeed the “soul” (if such a dichotomy is even truly real). The human spark which invents the poetry; the human body which materializes it; the technological body (i.e. the computer) which extends that invention and materialization.

When I found out about this example of entangled text and technology from Nick Manafort’s talk at BU, it immediately made me think of the contemporary emulators used to play old video games on modern computers; i.e. programs which simulate the hardware of the N64 so that you can play Ocarina of Time without having to use the physical tools required in 1998. Such digital reconstructions (if that’s even the right word) have a preservative effect, but they also make me think about the relationship between my own body and the console at the time when the game was originally released. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the attic, holding a controller (that was physically attached to the console – lol!), blowing the dust out of a Goldeneye cartridge. There are so many structural similarities between our relationship with these modern artefacts, and the historical processes which we study; the reception and reconstruction of ideas from antiquity to modernity. The relationship between text and context. The social and embodied nature of textual production.


Excerpt. Elizabeth Marlowe (@ElizMarlowe) Shaky Ground (2013: 9): “Many archaeologists follow the thinking of Paul Kristeller, who suggested that ‘art’ as we know it wasn’t invented until the eighteenth century. According to this view, notions of pure, historically transcendent form slide perilously close to deeply suspect ones of ahistorical universal beauty. Ancient objects should instead be understood as manifestations of ‘visual culture’ or ‘material culture’ — the understanding of which depends heavily on context. In this and in much of the recent literature, the binaries are conspicuous: archaeology vs. art history, academia vs. museums, context vs. form, artifact vs. art, history vs. beauty, resonance vs. wonder.” 

Daily Life. Morning light in Maine.