June 8th, 2005

operesque

How long has this been going on?

Experts, talking heads, curators, publicists, historians, academics and cultural journalists love to tell us when things started. It's been going on since... oh, since, er, 1972. Experts do this because they want to sound as if they know what they're talking about, they do it because history is, by its nature, revisionist, and they do it because all ambitious writers and curators need to rebrand history to make it—and themselves—a bit more exciting.

Here, for instance, is how BBC TV's flagship cultural review show, Newsnight Review, told us last week that the contemporary cult of celebrity "begins in the 18th century with Sir Joshua Reynolds":

"During his lifetime, Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the most celebrated artists in the Western world. But he was also - as this exhibition of his work intends to show - one of the creators of the modern-day cult of celebrity. He was a brilliant portraitist but also an impresario, a skilled networker, and a master of spin, who managed to manipulate the media and massage the egos of his subjects as well as paint."

I'm not quite sure what that's supposed to tell us about Sir Joshua Reynolds, but it certainly suggests we're in love with ourselves. Reynolds sounds very like a 21st century "culturepreneur", mobile phone at his ear, or a New Labour politician, or a toadying fashion photographer. How fabulous, darling, just like us! As Roland Barthes pointed out in his Mythologies piece about the hairstyles in Hollywood chariot movies ("Ben Hur" sports some weirdly 1950s pomades), we're always keen to "anthropomorphize" other ages and other cultures, to make them walk like us, talk like us, whoo hoo. We do this on the assumption that

a) if other cultures aren't like us they're not very interesting, and

b) otherness, far from being appealing or having something to teach us, is profoundly alienating.

We don't have much to learn from the past, it seems, but the past has a lot to learn from us. But the way we "teach" it is flattering: we laud it for inventing our own fascinating habits. The child is father to the man.

One way to be a bit more self-aware about the sort of revisions and reconstructions we do is to make up a new term or narrow the use of an existing one. For instance, I can tell you that Cute Formalism, a style I identified back in 2001, began in, er, 1962, or thereabouts. Now, I believe that Cute Formalism does really exist (I mean, it has its own Wikipedia entry, for heaven's sake!); it corresponds to observable cultural phenomena that aren't better defined by any other term. But it's also a fiction I invented one day when I was walking down Omote Sando, a particular construction I put on reality. As such, it can be defined flexibly, redefined, dated arbitrarily. As a matter of fact I don't talk about when Cute Formalism started, just where. But I could sound off about its origins in some exhibition catalogue at the drop of a hat, knowing that since I invented the term I probably wouldn't be contradicted. Naming something means never having to say you're sorry.

Some terms are more collectively owned, though. In his book "Graphic Design, A Concise History" Richard Hollis has a chapter on "The Swiss Style". But he's careful to distinguish "Swiss Design" from, well, Swiss design: "Produced in Switzerland by Swiss artists, Ruedi Kuelling's Bic pen ad belongs in a longer tradition than 'Swiss Style'", he tells us. It seems that a lot of Swiss design comes from Austria and Germany too, so Swiss doesn't really mean Swiss.

Just because some of this naming and dating stuff is obviously arbitrary, it doesn't mean we should throw away our cultural histories in disgust, though. Think of the big narrative, with its braggadocio and its obvious overstatements and oversights, as a structural skeleton on which to hang the really important stuff: anecdotes, names, examples, incidents, enthusiasms, quotes, facts. When I was studying Linguistics at university I used to hate the "rules" being described—they seemed so retrospective, so feeble, so authoritarian compared with the chaotic grassroots way language actually accumulates—but love the silly examples the lecturer would use to illustrate them: "There's a pagoda in the park." The rules were just a way to generate specific synthetic sentences like that.

One thing I do remember from my Linguistics lectures, though, is the distinction between synchronic and diachronic. Synchronic means something (usually language) observed at a specific point in time. Diachronic means studying something over a longer period, watching it change and develop. There's no word for things being "outside of time" as far as I know, because, for linguists if not for theologians, nothing is outside of time.

Another interesting time-related binary came up recently on Marxy's blog. Marxy was describing Professor Keizo Nakatani's "Japanese Economics: An Interpretative Essay". Nakatani distinguished ex ante systems from ex post systems: ex ante systems focus on opportunities, projections and dreams, ex post systems focus on actual results. Prof. Nakatani says that the American system is ex ante and the Japanese system ex post. One merely contents itself with ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to achieve inequality, the other attempts to level people based on their actual status. The ex ante system increases differences (people need "initiatives", they compete individualistically in order to become winners, not losers), the ex post system decreases them (the nail that sticks out is hammered in, we're all one big "us"). It's "I coulda bin a contender" versus "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

The terms ex ante and ex post aren't usually applied to political systems, though. They come from fields like law, accountancy and insurance. Ex ante concerns prospects, projections, speculation, (insurance) deterrence, modelling, promises, possibilities. Ex post concerns retrospect, facts, statistics, (insurance) compensation, documentation, actualities. Ex ante means "from before". It looks forwards. Ex post means "from after". It looks back.

One of the problems with the American system is that people don't seem capable of voting according to their actual class interests: they vote as individuals, and they vote according to their dreams. They vote looking forward, not looking back. A poll conducted by Time/CNN on the estate tax issue in 2000 (reported by David Runciman in Tax Breaks For Rich Murderers in the London Review of Books) revealed that 39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there "soon". That's a lot of wishful thinking... and wishful voting.

The American dream maps well to ex ante — to the idea that justice is the mere possibility of success, that the fact that one might get (or even exceed) one's deserts is enough: no actual compensation is required in this world, because The Last Judgement (the final actuarial event, the big Ex Post, an endlessly receding horizon, and yet so integral to the American dream) will sort everything out. No doubt more than 39 per cent of Americans believe they'll be in Heaven "soon". Personally, I'm interested to know what kind of hairstyles people wear at the Last Judgement. I suspect they're identical to the hairstyles of the people who believe in it. The sort of people who give charioteers a slick 50s DA, rabbits a wisecrack, and Sir Joshua Reynolds a cellphone.