‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

'Death to the Reading Class'?

This Fortnightly Review piece by Marshall Poe really doesn't pay-out on its provocative title. Poe doesn't actually want the class to which he and I both belong to perish. He just thinks it needs to accommodate newer visual cultures. Well alright then.
Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.
I grok a wrongness here, although of course this may simply be my personal, bibliophilic bias showing. Still: wouldn't this logic apply to plenty of other things too? It's a struggle getting my 9-year-old to read, but he loves-loves-loves playing video games. Humans, though, weren't evolved to play video games; all that tricky digital manipulation of the controller, all that arcane acquisition of the rules and conventions of the game. People like driving cars, and sipping VSOP brandy, and playing Real Tennis, and building scale-model Taj Mahals out of matchsticks. None of these things run along the grain of our evolutionary development. ('Note that we have no car-driving organs ...')


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. That piece doesn't even make sense on its own terms, starting with its foundational distinction: "Our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets" — I thought we did that by, you know, watching them with our little old eyeballs. And if the reply is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't watch that kind of thing, then we also didn't decode tiny pixels on flat screens, but rather encountered living, moving things in a three-dimensional surround. Without sitting for hours on our asses in chairs, by the way.

    And re: "we must allow audio-visual media to join text as a means of public enlightenment." Who are "we" that we have such power to allow or disallow? "Audio-visual media" seem to be doing just fine without our condescending approval.

    Verdict on essay: I say it's dumb and I say to hell with it.

    1. I think it is dumb. I'm trying to work out if it is a potentially interesting idea clumsily dumbed down for a general audience, or if it is just dumb all the way. The former possibility (though it's not what the essay actually says) would be something along the lines of: the existence of a common disorder we call 'dyslexia', and the fact that dyslexics are rarely discalculic (a separate, rarer condition) suggests that our brains do have some structural difficulty in processing the specific data we call writing. And it does take many years of practice to accustom the brain to do the reading-and-writing thing; historically speaking it used to be the accomplishment only of a small priestly cast whilst everyone else, from commoners to kings, did perfectly well without it. Etc. But this is probably me, and not the writer here.