Teaching, pasticceria, and the purposes of education.

What is university education?

What is university teaching? What is its purpose? What should it be?

downloadIf the questions have preoccupied many of us in the UK even before students started to be conceptualised as customers, they were recently brought back to me anew and with unusual clarity, as for the first time for some years I was privileged to teach, in an unfamiliar setting, students of a kind who had been through a very different education system from my students in the UK.

Over ten days in November I was lucky to teach six 2-hour sessions at the University of Macerata to 1st year undergraduates, and 1st year MA (“magistrale”) students in Languages in the Department of Humanities.

The sessions were divided equally between three longer courses, two on the nineteenth-century novel and one on modernist women’s poetry. Unlike in the UK, there are neither elaborate course booklets nor dedicated virtual learning environments such as Moodle   or Blackboard; rather there are basic directions to the students about what set the set texts are and what the general aims of the course are, as follows:

(1st year MA ) http://docenti.unimc.it/silvana.colella/courses/2014/13256 and http://docenti.unimc.it/marina.camboni/courses/2013/12192

1st year undergraduate http://docenti.unimc.it/silvana.colella/courses/2011/9153

Such elegant indications of course content give the teacher great flexibility and, importantly, the ability to keep absolutely up to date by changing research questions and incorporating new material as it emerges during the teaching year – which of course it will do, produced either by the teacher herself or by other academics. This also means it is easy to insert sessions such as mine even after the course has started.

Naturally, I tried to make connections between what I understood to be the focus of the extant courses and my own concerns and expertise, without risking overlap or duplication of material. Talking to the usual teachers of the courses was helpful. But at the same time, the sessions were (in theory at least) open to the public. The result was inevitably something of a mash-up, and had to offer something attractive. Hence the rather sensationalist titles.




Example of page 1 of a "preslide"
Example of page 1 of a “preslide”

The fact that the sessions were to be delivered in English to non-native speakers was another issue. I sought to deal with this by making available in advance what I called “preslides” in the “Teaching documents” section of my academia.edu site and /or on the usual professor’s university site: the usual prof informed the students orally in class that they should download the preslides and read them carefully along with the set texts, electronic copies of which I also provided. The preslides were designed to help students take notes. They comprised PDF versions of black and white PowerPoint slides stripped almost entirely of images, 6 slides to a page, and asked questions and provided quotations with gaps where key words should be. They were based on, but certainly not identical to, the much more elaborate PowerPoint slides I showed in class (these were also made available to students after the sessions, again in PDF, 6 slides to a page, on my academia.edu page).

Since I knew the sessions would not be examined, there was no obvious way that I could properly test the effectiveness of my teaching of the class overall (I always think of exams as testing the teaching as much as the learning). As is my wont, I planned abundant interaction from which I would normally be able gauge a class’s understanding, but I also knew that Italian students were not used to this and would probably be shy. I therefore devised a questionnaire for the students to fill in at the end of my time with them (that is, at the end of the second of the two-hour sessions). Such questionnaires are of course always double edged; they not only inform the researcher of the results, but inform the person completing the questionnaire, in this case making the students reflect on what they really had got out of the sessions and how they could get more out of future ones.questionnaire

I had 35 responses from the 1st year undergraduate class, and 22 from the first MA class, and 9 from the second (31 MA responses in total). It was quite wonderful to see the students take this questionnaire very seriously – it seems, from talking to them afterwards, that they are not used to doing this kind of thing, and that is why they spent so much time thinking about it, no matter how much I insisted it was not a test.

Of course one wants to find out what the students think of one – hence my immediate turn to the question of what I could have done better.  Almost of them were embarrassingly positive in their responses to “What could Andrew have done to help you learn better?”, especially the 1st years. “Involving” (= “coinvolgente”?) occurred in 8 of the 35 1st year responses (28%), “catch our attention” in 3 others, along with numerous generic positives.

“he was very involving, so he couldn’t have done anything more to help me learn better than this”

“it was a fantastic and involving lesson! The slides were useful and the explanation was clear”

“he was very involving and funny in his lesson”

There were just 4 suggestions for improved teaching: more on Dickens (x 2) and talk more slowly (x 2). I was delighted that only two students asked for the latter, as it meant that, for the vast majority, the care I had taken over oral delivery – speed, choice of Latinate vocabulary – had paid off.

beignetThe MA students were slightly – but only slightly – less positive on the same question. 11 wrote “nothing” and there were in addition 13 superlatives. There were, however, 8 suggestions for how I could have improved: more history (x 1); more on the concept of satire (x 1) which in retrospect I agree would have very useful (thank you to whoever wrote this – excellent idea!); don’t wait for responses from the class but just give the answer (x 1 – sorry, but my pedagogic tradition wants you to think for yourselves, not be choux buns – beignets – which I stuff with crème Chantilly!). Two wanted more time to discuss the texts, one of these two sensibly suggesting that what turned out to be a 4 hour session be split over two days. One wanted more videos (we saw just one – a Youtube video of the controversial Royal Opera performance of Salome, with Nadja Michaels, naked executioner and very bloody head). I’m a bit sceptical of this given the time constraints and the purpose of the aim of the session, but I take much more seriously the remark of another that “he could have spent more time on some extracts we’ve quickly seen”. This was echoed by another who wanted to concentrate on fewer texts (and indeed by the one who wanted more time in general). For what I had forgotten was the sheer difficulty of nineteenth-century prose and poetry for second-language learners – not only its unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax, but also its cultural references. I was treating them like UK MA students and that was very unfair of me. I really should have put myself in their shoes (as opposed to choux).

What’s the ONE most important thing you’ve learned from Andrew King’s sessions?

“That learning literature is not about studying in books but getting into the text and asking yourself questions and trying to give answers”
“I hadn’t thought it possible to find advertising language in literary works”
“There’s no limit to desire”
“Realism is a contract between author and reader which demands trust”
“Realism is still dominant in Britain today”

The biggest surprise to me, though, was the variety of the responses to the first two questions. Of the 35 1st year responses to the first question “What’s the ONE most important thing you’ve learned,” 28 wrote something about realism (6 were very specific on realism as a contract between reader and text; while 7 more were also specific in a variety of ways; the remainder more generic – e.g. “I’ve learned better realism in a more specific way”). The real delights lay in the 7 alternative responses, two of which are cited above; two others showed a delight in semiotic theory and in the problem of refusing value judgements in literary discussion. A great deal of variety was evinced in the responses to the second question, that concerning what students wanted more of (these don’t add up to 35 as not everyone wrote something – 10 wrote “nothing” while others left a blank; a very few wrote more than one thing). It’s easier to present the results in tabular form:

  • Household Words
    Household Words

    Dickens (x 6);

  • historical context of various types (x 6);
  • Victorian art (x 4);
  • literary context (x 3);
  • realism and crime (x 1);
  • theory (x 1);
  • effects of journalism and literature on lower classes (x 1);
  • realism (! x 1);
  • comparison of British realism with Italian verismo (x 1);
  • close reading (x 1)

There’s no pleasing a class completely of course. For in response to the question about what the students wanted to study less and why, 9 of the First Years didn’t want Dickens at all as they thought him “boring”; 5 found the theory of realism too hard; 1 wanted less history and 1 didn’t see the relevance of looking at the details of Victorian art. The rest said “nothing” or similar, or left the question blank.

Rather than look at Dickens journalism then, I should perhaps have looked at some short and simple contemporary newspaper articles, perhaps culled from the British Newspaper Archive. I should certainly have omitted the part of the lecture most interesting to me, the part concerning semiotic theory and realism’s aspirations faithfully to represent the world. Yet the students were perhaps right: I wonder now if that part is just me being clever, playing a kind of cadenza, with surprising trills and scales and leaps over the intellectual keyboard. It may be ingenious and of course it IS thematically integrated  – but removing it won’t weaken the overall argument. The students helped me realise that while it is integrated it is not integral. I shall accordingly drop that section in future.

Thank you 1st years at Macerata!

Herod seeks to persuade Salome of the value of his pearls, using techniques derived from contemporary advertising
Herod seeks to persuade Salome of the value of his pearls, using techniques derived from contemporary advertising, including incremental analogy and royal endorsement.

Although less effusive in their praise, the 31 MA students also wished to change less: 5 said they wanted less history, 1 wanted less on women in print. This ties in with students’ desire to focus more on the texts (though on individual questionnaires there was not necessarily a correspondence). In short, I concluded that the MA students wanted help with reading strategies. I don’t think it was just a question of not understanding syntax and lexis but of interpretative frameworks and how to test these frameworks against specific texts through close reading. I sought to remedy this in the last session with the MA students, in which I offered a framework and pretty rigorously tried to apply it to texts and historical data. Explicit feedback from 5 of the 9 students in this session suggested that that worked, but of course there is a severe limit on what it is possible to teach in such a short time. Any significant development of reading strategies requires, I think, at least 20 hours of contact time.

While I am a great believer that questionnaires which indirectly ask students to reflect on their learning have great pedagogic value, perhaps the most valuable of all is the last question: “What could you have done to help you learn better”? The undergraduate class was actually delightfully talkative and responsive, but still 7 wrote that they could have been less shy and talked more. No fewer than 19 confessed that they should have prepared in advance(about 55%) , including printing out the preslides; 10 wrote that they should have paid more attention, including two who said they should have slept the night before and 1 who, with charming candour, admitted that she should have turned off her iphone and not read messages from friends! The MA students were much more tentative and perhaps alarmed by this question: in the first, larger, of the MA classes, a slightly smaller proportion (50%) said they should have prepared for the class, but a larger proportion (25% as opposed to 20%) said they should have talked more in class. One said that the texts couldn’t be unzipped and another said that s/he should have come to both sessions, not just the second. In the second MA class, of the 9 students, no fewer than 8 said they should have come prepared; no-one said they should have talked more as in fact the smaller group did encourage more interaction.

crostata di castagne (chestnut tart)
crostata di castagne (chestnut tart)

What wasn’t captured by the questionnaire, but which I think very important indeed, was the pleasure I felt as a teacher of such socially skilled and charming students. There was a great deal of social stroking of the teacher. From my shoes, this is a great danger, whose nature is visible in the apparent difficulty students had in arriving at conclusions based on evidence independently of the teacher. I found at times compelled to make ridiculous statements to try to get the students to contradict me, even to the point of confusing the gender of the people they saw on the screen. It was hard to get them to dare to draw their own conclusions without a clear guide from me! This was especially notable amongst the larger MA group, who seemed to have been very thoroughly socialised into agreeing with what they perceive to be authority at the expense of evidence.

This certainly does NOT occur only in Italy: the rather exasperated account of an American university teacher here shows that. But I do think that it Italy it is performed with an unusual charm and subtlety. Perhaps it is even connected with the form the students’ self-criticism took (I am interpreting “I should have talked more/ prepared better ” as what they thought I as authority figure wanted them to do). It may also be connected with a short but significant discussion with the first years on the differences between the breakfast news shows on television in Italy and the UK, 1Mattina on RAI1 and its UK equivalent, BBC Breakfast. While we agreed that both involved evidence-based reasoning and the maintenance of human relations and, importantly, of social hierarchy, the balance seemed to be in favour of the latter in Italy. In other words, hierarchy determines knowledge more than disinterested reasoning. This leads me on to a speculation about the different social functions of education in Italy and the UK.

ciambellone maceratese stuffed with chocolate
ciambellone maceratese stuffed with chocolate

Does the teacher in Italy perform less the part of a model of how to draw conclusions from evidence than that of a master patissier who creates and fills beignets and other delightful pastries? An important role that of the pastry chef. I’m a great fan of beignets as well as crostate and ciambelloni maceratesi – but I do worry about how delightful it is to consume them. My concern is not with my waistline in this context. Rather, if students treat themselves as beignets that teachers fill or bake, my worry is who will use them up, and for what end? Do students perhaps need to be taught to be more rebarbative, less consumable, more overtly and independently critical of authority, more self-moving, rather than taught to sit on a shelf oozing charm and creme Chantilly, resigned to their fate? Do students need careful and phased training in specific skills of independent problem identification and solving rather than stuffing with information?

But then, putting myself in their shoes, I wonder if such a powerful focus on distanced, rational problem-solving is really a life-skill that is, or will be, useful for students in their cultural context which is very different from mine? Am I fetishising problem-solving too absolutely, too glibly? Perhaps in the lived experience of their day-to-day lives, social skills of a very particular kind are more necessary — charming consumability to ensure cooperation and loyalty from authority and colleagues, and resignation in the face of opposition to one’s needs and demands.

Is, after all, the best Italian translation of “education” perhaps not what the dictionaries tell us — istruzione or formazione? Maybe, even though we learnt it long ago as a “false friend” meaning “politeness,” it is educazione ?  Is this what teaching as pasticceria would mean?

That’s not for me to decide. I remain an outsider to Italy, still wearing my battered old British shoes, even while delighting in the many charms of Italian choux. It would be irresponsible of me to do other than raise such questions, not least because, alas, I have to confess that my pastry has always been on the heavy side. Though I’m a bit better at the picante.

Reading the Olympics 3: the Discobolos Redivivus (1936)

Olympia image
Olympia image

If the previous story of the American student was rather benign, I’m not so sure about Leni Riefenstahl’s quite marvellous 1938 film of the 1936 “Nazi Olympics”. It’s a film that has been claimed rightly as establishing the modern grammar and vocabulary of the moving imagery of sports: cameras were mounted beneath balloons, on rafts, in trenches, on rowing boats, under water  and under saddles to try to capture the kinaesthetic – indeed the kino-aesthetic, or movement aesthetic  – of the struggle towards perfection that governs the overall narrative of the film.

The film opens with a trumpet fanfare calling out into darkness, followed by a short title sequence announcing that the film is a record of the 1936 Olympics. There ensues a long slow sequence of mists and stone over which the camera roves as if searching for something. Eventually the Acropolis is revealed , along with stone statues of Greek deities, male  and female, over which the camera slithers and slides in a langorous eroticism while the soundtrack offers slow chromatic harmonies and fragments of melody recalling the “degenerate” music (Entartete Musik) of, say, Schreker of the 1910s and 1920s.

After 7 minutes the camera comes to rest on – of course – the discobolos, which Riefenstahl, a female Pygmalion,  brings to life in a gender inversion interesting to all students of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century gender.  This is the moment when Riefenstahl breathes into stone so that it becomes flesh, and simultaneously into photography so that it becomes cinematography – kinomatography. This is the moment when stillness becomes action, when Myron’s supposed dream of capturing movement is finally realised. We have had to wait 2500 years for this to be accomplished and it is a woman film director who has had the audacity and vision to do it. Simultaneously, the music shifts to diatonicism with a clear rhythmic pulse and melodic structure, and even at times an almost Orffian folksiness: we have arrived at a form of music which allows for “progression” from one key to another, of symphonic transformation and narrative.

leni reifenstahl discobolos
Leni Reifenstahl discobolos

Riefenstahl was to use the human discobolos as the cover image of her 1937 book of stills from the  making of the film, reinforcing its iconicity as the symbol of the triumph of flesh over stone, of art over nature, of movement over stasis, of regeneration from degeneration.

leni reifenstahl discobolos book cover
leni reifenstahl discobolos book cover

Reifenstahl is taking on the imagery of the early Olympic posters and celebrity photography, intensifying it, universalising it in the typifying spirit of classical Greece, reminding us of the pan-Greek “international games: note in this regard how the image is a perfect history painting, the figure naked, abstracted from setting and any social reality that can anchor it. If the implications of the very historically situated soundtrack belie this, the figure of the discobolos himself (itself?) was also highly politically charged.

The Discobolus Palombara, the first copy of this famous sculpture to have been discovered, had been found in 1781 at the Villa Palombara in Rome. In 1937, the year of Reifenstahl’s book Schonheit im Olympischen Kampf, Hitler negotiated to buy it from the Italian state. He eventually succeeded in 1938, the year Olympia was released, when the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs sold it to him for five million lire. The statue was only returned to Rome in 1948, the year of the first London Olympics. It was clearly on the political agenda for Hitler as a representation of Aryan perfection, and its return in 1948 was an acknowledgement of that which sought to set its ghost to rest.

To return to the film. After the pygmalionisation of the statue, we are shown a sequence of naked or near naked athletes, male and female, as if the original models for the statues we have previously seen: Riefenstahl has turned the whole world of stone to flesh. The narrative continues now through time as a torch is lit in a ceremony invented for the Nazi Olympics, and it’s carried in relay from Olympia to Berlin. There can be no question in this film that it is Germany that has brought the Olympics to life again. The origin of the Olympic torch in Nazi Germany was hardly commented on in the Uk media before or during the 2012 London Olympics – but its televisual and cinematic potential that Riefenstahl invented was certainly exploited to the full.

In some ways the film is historically accurate. It was the Germans who “found Olympia” just as it was German scholarship that vectored the ways the classics were understood in the nineteenth century. Germans had first properly excavated the site of Olympia after a half-hearted attempt by the French in 1829. That said, the modern Olympic Games had been international from the start. De Coubertin, the recognised founder of the modern games that we know, was inspired by the muscular Christianity of Arnold of Rugby – he wanted to learn from the English how to improve the French education system for men. And then we must remember the annual Olympic games of Wenlock Edge founded in 1850 by William Penny Brookes  to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”. De Coubertin certainly knew of these games and was in touch with Brookes.

Riefenstahl deleted all that international history, sucking it out of the imagery. Instead she inscribed the games into a quite wonderful aesthetic narrative, a striving for perfection, a struggle for beauty – beauty in struggle (Schonheit im Kampf ) – that had, in its modern form, in a specifically German genealogy. Now Kampf (“struggle” or “battle”) is highlighted by Riefenstahl in her title. It is a term that recalls German romanticism, Nietzsche and, of course, Hitler.  There is much debate over whether the film conveys Nazi ideology. Whether it does or not overall remains to me uncertain, but there are certainly elements that are impossible to ignore (as in the imagery of the discobolos and the stress on Kampf). In the 2nd part of the film, though, there is an increasing tendency for the events to become a celebration of male physical perfection beyond any idea of nationality or race.

There is a huge amount that can be said about this film, but I want to spend these last few minutes by pointing out not just its easily perceptible  Darwinian evolutionary narrative and its linkage to Nietzschean ideas of the ubermensch – both utterly predictable – but a faith in transcendence of the body through technology that again has its roots in German romanticism – above all in music with its emphasis on the modern technology of sound to create sublime effects. It is modern technology that enables the transformation of stone into flesh, stasis into kinesis.

First let’s consider the opening sequences of the 2nd part of the film,  (“Festival of Beauty”) set in the Olympic village. After an establishing shot, we move from plants to slime on water and then through a series of animals increasing in size and strength until we meet a herd of Aryan men training in the woods and cavorting in the sauna and in the woodland  pool – Aryan men swim quite happily in nature: they are casual masters of it while being part of it (a notorious trope we are familiar with from Heidegger). We then see a series of shots of men from other countries which, intercut with shots of animals, more than risks racism. Clearly we have witnessed an evolutionary progression that mirrors the inspiration of stone to flesh in the first part of the film, along with a visual representation of the risks that degeneration back into less evolved nature may remain with us.

Olympia diver
Olympia diver

This evolutionary narrative is halted for most of the film but is meant to register for the next hour or so, casting the Olympics as an evolutionary struggle for existence. It returns and  comes to a climax in the famous diving sequence (1.20.00 onwards here — or here separated from rest of film).  The soundtrack now seems to recast in serious vein the hilariously camp waltz of the superman in Richard Strauss’s ironic symphonic commentary on Nietszche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. In combination with Riefenstahl’s dazzling visual editing it makes men fly.

We have arrived, at the end of the film, to the divine Ubermench, a condition to which all participants in the Games strive. Here, as indeed elsewhere in the second part of the film, the competitors are stripped of nationality and indeed of individuality as they return to the abstract forms of the gods that Riefenstahl had started with. Flesh is now rendered sublime, borne by air not earth.

Olympia end
Olympia end

In the epilogue that succeeds the sky divers (1.25.00 here), Riefenstahl will progress beyond the earthy mists and the stones, the ruins of classical antiquity, beyond the materiality of nations and of the human body, beyond even the clouds as (1.27.27) national flags will bow down to the pure light of technology. Is the sun shining down or are the searchlights shining up? Either and both: the Light is one. Reifenstahl will fling us beyond the body to the utopia of the machine, to a beyond where in fact it’s the German cinema with its powers of light projection and light play – precisely, Lichtspiel – and manipulation of the image that is in absolute control. Even the human voice will have ceased in the Valhalla-like soundtrack so that the technology of German musical instruments will lead us upward and on (zieht uns hinan as the final words of Goethe’s Faust puts it), just as in the perorations of Beethoven 9 or Wagner’s Ring , or – banned though this music might have been by the Nazis – of Mahler 2 or 8, where instruments alone, musical machinery, propel us into the technological sublime.

No longer throwing a discus into an uncertain future – how far and where will it go? – here Germany, the destination of the Olympic flame, now extinguished,  projects light and sound so far that it seems to receive it. Project, reject come to have no meaning in the final scenes of the film: space and time dissolve and become one, as in the land of the grail in Wagner’s Parsifal (cf. Wolfgang Wagner’s comments on the setting of Parsifal). Sublimity and aesthetic deconstruction avant la lettre rewrite classical antiquity to empty the aesthetic object of specificity, an aim quite in line with traditional art historical understandings.  All this through the wondrous technology and art of Germany – and a woman Pygmalion.

And isn’t it through the lens of the technological sublime that the games are presented to us today as mediated spectacle? Spectacles come in many forms, but isn’t the dominant visual image we are presented with that of  heroic and mainly masculine sublimity? Of course women are prominent too now, but there is little doubt about the sex that remains in charge. This is not subtext but the text itself. This is why the discobolos seemed so very right at the outset.

Perhaps, though, instead of Myron’s discobolus,  this photograph of Riefenstahl directing her visual technology of sublimity might be an alternative image to underwrite the Olympics, lending a poster for a study day on the Games a genealogy less “pure”, less masculinist — and more obviously troubling.

Leni Riefstahl directing
Leni Riefenstahl directing




Reading the Olympics 2: the Discobolos Redivivus (1896)

Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics
Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics

After the set up in the first part of this talk, here, surprise surprise, is a photograph of a discus thrower of the 1896 Olympics. It is the celebrity victory photo of Robert Garrett, who won the discus event on the evening of the 1st day of the first modern Olympics , 6 April 1896. An American athlete, Garrett – so goes the founding myth – had originally not intended to enter the competition at all. Indeed, the American contingent – all from Boston Athletics Association and Princeton University – had almost not been able to go. Senior students from their University – who would have been of the appropriate age – could not attend because they had finals to sit, and the expense of travelling to Greece was high. But Garrett’s father coughed up the funds and in March Princeton University Track Athletics Association sent 4 men, including Robert.

Now discus throwing  was not internationally practised at this time – it was pretty much a reinvented sport by the modern Greeks in imitation of the discobolos statue that Curtius had unearthed. It was a sport that they had designed so that they could win. But Professor Sloane of Princeton, a future IOC member and friend of the driving force behind the 1896 Olympics, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, suggested to Garrett that he enter the discus competition anyway. Not short of funds, Garrett commissioned a Princeton blacksmith to replicate the discus of the Discobolus – it weighed 9 kilos, and was just too heavy to throw in a discus-like way, so Garrett decided that he wouldn’t go ahead and enter.

But, so the story continues, Garrett picked up a  discarded discus used by Greek competitors that he found on the track the morning of 6 April – the very day of the first modern Olympic Games. It was much lighter than the discus he had had made back in Princeton, and there and then he decided to enter after all. Clearly, things were much simpler back then! The Games hadn’t become the highly mediated and orchestrated event it has today – Gale NewsVault for example gives only 145 mentions of the Olympics in its corpus of British newspapers throughout April and May 1896, many of them, as was usual for the time, duplicates of London newspaper commentary on the idea of the games themselves.

But to return to the story of Garrett.

Discus throwing was the last event of the day. After the King of Greece had formally opened the Olympic Games at 2.15pm, there had followed the 100m heats followed  by the long jump  and the first medal of the games – won by a Bostonian – and then there were the 800m heats. Now the sun was going down and the air was cooling. It was time for the discus. The Greeks, unsurprisingly, were considered elegant: they were being measured by Myron’s discobolos and in turn had used it as their measure. It was, as so often, a self-confirming evaluation. The English entrants were apparently nothing short of ludicrous. Nonetheless, in true heroic style, Garrett won the discus event after a couple of false starts. Later in the Games, he came second in the long jump to the Harvard athlete Ellery Clark, and went on to win the shot put. Garrett went on to become a very successful  investment banker – and collector of Egyptian manuscripts (which he donated to Princeton in 1942). He is the very type of ancient Greek athletic aristeia, perfect in body and mind, on the field and in society, who wins and offers a sacrifice (his manuscripts) to the organisation that nurtured him. He is indeed the discobolos redivivus, the Winkelmanian mortal embodiment of the divine, a wonderful extension into sport of the Paterian ideal of the artistic god descended to earth that is explored in Pater’s essay on Pico della Mirandola. Even more, Garrett is the perfect student, the product of University-as-Pygmalion+Inspiration. As a student he is a statue moulded and brought to life and inspired by his institution.

Yet pause for a moment – look at this photograph again. The US flag is the wrong way round. The American hero was left-handed!

Garrett did not therefore accord with the classical precedent of the right-handed discobolos. In ways quite typical of late nineteenth-century celebrity photography, trickery was involved to make the reality conform to an idea. The photograph was turned round so that in this case  the celebrity could be attributed more easily an illustrious classical ancestry. I don’t think we can say this is just an American trick, a US claim on the authority of the classical, a simple usurpation of the ancient Greek ideal or effacement of modern Greek claims to it. It’s not just national propaganda so much as conformity to media propriety. Of course the discobolus redivivus had to come to life from the ancient pattern, and therefore he had to be right handed. This was one of the rules of what was by now the dominant pop-classical discourse about aesthetics that classically derived sport incorporated. We can see its roots in Winkelmann and Pater extended by 1896 to become demotic and general, a notion spread far and wide by an ever more intense celebrity culture: by this stage it’s tacitly accepted that celebrities have something divine about them, as Barthes, 60 years later, was to explore when discussing Greta Garbo.

But clearly, Garrett’s photographer was not entirely in change of the technology: it was in change of him. Unlike so many better celebrity photographers (such as Queen Victoria’s as explored by John Plunkett), he forgot about the details, reminding us all too clearly that the divine is moulded from the same flesh and clay as us. 40 years later, another visual artist will not allow such slips, with more sinister results.

Reading the Olympics: the Discobolos 1

Reading the Olympics Study Day programme
Reading the Olympics Study Day programme
The following trio of blogs comprises the opening plenary  given at the Reading the Olympics Study Day at the University of Greenwich 7 June 2012.  

 It is a great pleasure and honour to have been invited to speak before you all at Greenwich: it’s the first time I have had the opportunity of doing so since starting 5 weeks ago. Even though this kind of cultural history is hardly my core area of research, I want to seize the opportunity to explore some very basic issues that the title of the event and the programme itself raise about how we study and represent history and gender.

The text I want to think about is the flyer before you of this very study day itself: “Reading the Olympics”. Trained to be attentive to the paratextual as much as to words, I looked at this flyer and wondered at its quite literal subtext – the image the day’s organisers chose to placed beneath the words, THE image of the Olympics. Why did this image seem so right to me? What affiliations or genealogy does it suggest that make it seem an obvious image to underlie the programme? What is being rewritten or written out (in every sense) so as to make it seem right?

It is of course the discobolos (or diskobolos or discobolus) of Myron which I recognised from my classical past. What did I know of this statue? What did I know of its association with the Olympics?

Myron's Discobolus
Myron’s Discobolos

The original Greek statue, supposedly by the sculptor Myron, dated from some time around 450-460BC. We know it mainly from a marble Roman copy found in Italy in the eighteenth century; smaller bronze copies have also turned up. It’s famous for having solved a problem in sculpture that the exhibition that opens tonight in the Stephen Lawrence Gallery also addresses (“The Present is a Moment just Passed“). For the statue captures movement through time even while it is, being a  statue, arrested in time. The thrower is about to launch the discus off into an uncertain future.  How far will it go? Where? What will this projection into futurity mean? Victory? Loss? Something else again? And then, who is this man? His nakedness abstracts him from society: we cannot place him other than to say he was almost certainly a Greek free man, not a slave, as only Greek-speaking free men could participate in the Olympic games. He has no name, no individuality. Typically classical, the statue aspires to the type, the idea, not the individual likeness.

But then, I want to ask, how much has this image to do with the ancient Olympics?  Discus throwing was, it is true, one of the five parts of the ancient Pentathlon (discus, javelin throwing, jumping,  wrestling, running). But it was just one of them and, furthermore, it was practised everywhere in the palaestra as part of a general gymnastic training. There’s nothing about discus throwing  per se which is Olympian.

Yet here we find discus throwing on the official posters for the 1920 and 1948 Olympic games (the latter more specifically Myron’s).

1920 Olympics1948 Olympics

Was a copy of Myron’s statue perhaps found in Olympia to validate our association of the statue with the Games?

Well, no. All the copies of the Discobolos I know about have been found in Italy: it does not seem to be connected to Olympia it all.


Only two statues were dug up when the Prussian Ernst Curtius excavated Olympia between 1875 and 1881: a winged Victory and the so called “Hermes of Praxiteles” in which the god holds the baby Dionysos. Despite Hermes’ typically perfect body, this statue is hardly a model of the competitive athletic. The original Olympic games were held in honour of the king of the gods, Zeus, and there is a clear connection of this statue to Zeus. Dionysos’s mother was consumed when her lover Zeus revealed himself to her. Zeus saved the unborn child inside her and gave it to Hermes to take to the nymphs to be nursed and brought  up. Here Hermes has paused on his flight to amuse the infant Dionysos with a charm in his right  hand – now missing.  From the direction of this photo Hermes looks serious, but when seen from the left his face is sad, when from the right, smiling.

The Hermes of PraxitelesWhy don’t we use this emotionally complex image of surrogate fatherhood as an image for the Olympics? Perhaps because while Hermes’ body is perfect, the statue is hardly a marker of competitive individualism or struggle  that the Olympic Games seem to valorise above all else.

What’s at stake, then, in using as the icon of international sporting competition a Roman copy of an emotionally blank athlete? I leave that for yourselves to ponder for the moment. What I will say is that the very idea of the discobolos and discus throwing as the embodiment of the Olympics started at the very first international Olympic Games in 1896. I’ll talk a bit about those first Games before going on to discuss briefly the most famous of all movies about the Olympics, Leni Riefenstahl’s amazing 1938 two-parter, Olympia, as a way of setting up and contrasting with the talk that will follow mine, a discussion of the 1948 London Olympics by our colleagues from History.

Part 2 is here.



Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: a Study Guide Annotations 1

The following notes are intended to help the reader understand Barthes’ references, technical terms, themes. The previous post provides very briefly the context for this text.

The page numbers below refer to the translation of La chambre claire by Richard Howard, Jonathan Cape (now Macmillan), 1982.

page 4

Barthes needs a “corpus” or collection of texts in order to classify them, which is the basis of scientific understanding. NB. Word-play corpus/ corpse/ [dead] body. The term “body” and all cognates are one of the main strands that weave in and out of this text.

Tuché – the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan borrows this term from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for whom it means “chance” or “accident”: the point is that reality is accidental and has no “meaning” or narrative – it just “is”. The following references to Buddhism and to the English mystical commentator Alan Watts are all connected to this idea.


antiphon – the first of the many musical references that Barthes uses in this text: look out for others. What may be the function of such references?


mathesis – mental discipline, knowledge or science


eidolon – Greek word for “image”, “likeness”, but also “spectre” or “ghost”. Note the large number of words with the same root eid– that appear in this text. “Idol” (which is etymologically connected to eidolon) with its erotic and religious connotations does not appear, but seems to be hovering just out of sight like a ghost…

terms you need to remember the meanings of in this work:

What is the Operator? __________________________________________________

What is the Spectator?__________________________________________________

What is the Spectrum?__________________________________________________

NB the word-play spectacle/ spectre throughout


camera obscura – an arrangements of lenses and mirrors in a darkened room or box invented in the sixteenth century. Artists used it to project images onto canvas on which they would base their pictures. Note how Barthes introduces the idea of the camera lucida by means of a kind of a binary opposite, the camera obscura.


zero degree – a reference to Barthes’ own first published volume Writing Degree Zero (orig. 1953 as Le degré zéro de l’écriture) – “degree zero” here means “without meaning”, “purely for and in itself”.


parenthesis – see note to page 20 below


eidos – According to Plato the “eidos” is the real image of something (usually translated in English as “Idea”). It exists in the realm of the eternal and so is not perceptible by the senses. In Husserl (see note to p. 20) it means the same as “essence”, which can be arrived at by pure consciousness. I’m not sure which sense is uppermost in Camera Lucida.


Rue St. Rustique, Montmartre

Atget, (Jean) Eugène Auguste (1856-1927), French photographer, now recognised as one of the major figures in the history of photography. In about 1898 Atget began his photographic career; within a decade he had produced some of his most impressive documentary series on Parisian life—tradespeople, architecture, shop windows, parks, cafés, and markets. He’s most famous for his pictures of empty Paris streets.

Rue St. Rustique by Atget,  March 1922


The task of phenomenology is to study essences, such as the essence of emotions. Although Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, never gave up his early interest in essences, he later held that only the essences of certain special conscious structures should be studied by phenomenology. As formulated by Husserl after 1910, phenomenology is the study of the structures of consciousness that enable consciousness to refer to objects outside itself. This study requires reflection on the contents of the mind to the exclusion of everything else. Because the mind can be directed towards non-existent as well as real objects, Husserl noted that phenomenological reflection does not presuppose that anything exists, but rather amounts to a “bracketing of existence” (compare the “parenthesis” Barthes refers to on page 14), that is, it sets aside the question of the real existence of the contemplated object.

What Husserl discovered when he contemplated the contents of his mind were such acts as remembering, desiring, and perceiving and the abstract content of these acts, which Husserl called meanings. These meanings, he claimed, enabled an act to be directed towards an object under a certain aspect; and such directedness, called intentionality, he held to be the essence of consciousness. Transcendental phenomenology, according to Husserl, was the study of the basic components of the meanings that make intentionality possible. Later, in Cartesian Meditations (1931; trans. 1960), he introduced genetic phenomenology, which he defined as the study of how these meanings are built up in the course of experience.

NB the author of the book that Camera Lucida is in homage to (Sartre) was key in the introduction of phenomenology to France during Barthes’ youth.


Greuze, Jean-Baptiste (1725-1805), French painter. He studied art in Lyon and in Paris, where he became a leading genre painter who concentrated on sentimental moralistic scenes and portraits.

The Village Betrothal by Greuze

26 – 7 and many pages following  concern two of the most cited terms from Camera Lucida

  • The studium of a photograph comprises those aspects that we learn to appreciate through enculturation. We ourselves bring “studium” to a photograph. It is part of our consciousness.
  • The punctum of a photograph comprises those aspects that wound or puncture us like Cupid’s arrow. Beyond our conscious control, the “punctum” seems to leap out of the photograph into us. The same points don’t always continue to wound us.


What is surprising about the connections made with photography on this page? Can you relate it to film?


“noise” (“in cybernetics”) here = interference or static that surrounds a radio signal and makes it less clear

What does Barthes mean when he writes, “Is not the very capacity to perceive the political and moral meaning of a face a class deviation?” (it should become clearer if you read the few sentences following that one). Do you think what he says is true? Why?


fantasmatic – producing fantasies

NB the recurring theme of the “Mother” – is it related here to the studium or the punctum?

What is a “unary photograph”?


Do you find Barthes’ refusal to regard Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs as merely pornographic and unary convincing? Why (not)?


metonymy – substitution of attribute or associated object for the thing itself. In Lacan such substitution of one object for another marks the movement of desire along a chain (we desire one thing, then another, then another…). Metonymy is a structure that enables the psychoanalyst to follow the chain of the analysand’s desire and thereby to understand his/her unconscious. The punctum as metonymic is thus clearly marked as beyond the conscious control of either the Spectator or the Operator. (cf. Derrida’s supplement – this is referred to on p. 47).


myth of Orpheus –  Orpheus was the mythical musician who tried to bring his beloved back from the dead. The gods of the underworld permitted this so long as he did not look behind him towards his beloved who was following him.


satori – a Japanese term that means “enlightenment” and “nothingness”. Barthes had written a book on Japan: The Empire of Signs. (see also later the reference to the haiku, a very strict Japanese verse form of 17 syllables)

pages 55-6

What are the differences, according to Barthes, between cinema and photography?


….and the pornographic and erotic?


Palinode = recantation or “a singing over again”. It also means a retraction of a thesis. But it also recalls Palinurus, a character who, right at the end of Vergil’s Aeneid Book V, falls overboard just before the hero Aeneas lands his fleet in Italy (his destination) and descends into the underworld to meet his dead father. Palinurus is commonly interpreted as the necessary human sacrifice for a journey to the land of the dead. Aeneas meets him in the underworld and promises him a magnificent monument even though his body is lost for ever: a tomb without a corpse = a sign without a meaning. NB cf. also Socrates’ recantation in Plato’s Phaedrus.

Now move on to the next post for the rest of the notes.