May 12th, 2006


Notes towards a definition of Procrustean Seeing

Question: What do these statements have in common?

"James Blunt is just as much a "rock" act as, say, the Arctic Monkeys." (Caroline Sullivan, from an article entitled "Rock of all Ages" in The Guardian.)

"But surely every genre or revived genre has been the same." (Reader comment after the same article.)

"Are European or Japanese news stands so different?" (Reader comment after Click Opera entry about American news-stands.)

"Any old legitimised artist is pretty much as good or as useless as any old legitimised anything else." (Reader comment after Click Opera entry on being an artist.)

"What will we do when the new ethics breaks down under the weight of the same inherent flaws as the old ethics?" (Reader comment after Click Opera discussion of ethics in art.)

Answer: These are examples of what I call "Procrustean Seeing".

Who is or was Procrustes?

"Procrustes, whose name means "he who stretches", was arguably the most interesting of Theseus's challenges on the way to becoming a hero. He kept a house by the side of the road where he offered hospitality to passing strangers, who were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night's rest in his very special bed. Procrustes described it as having the unique property that its length exactly matched whomsoever lay down upon it. What Procrustes didn't volunteer was the method by which this "one-size-fits-all" was achieved, namely as soon as the guest lay down Procrustes went to work upon him, stretching him on the rack if he was too short for the bed and chopping off his legs if he was too long. Theseus turned the tables on Procrustes, fatally adjusting him to fit his own bed." (Mythweb)

When Theseus served up poetic justice, fitting Procrustes to his own bed by cutting off his head and feet, it may have been the end of a man, but it was just the beginning of a metaphor. Now, when we speak of a "Procrustean bed", we mean an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.

The enemies of Socialism have often likened its emphasis on equality to Procrustes. But I'm not talking about equality of result, but equality of perception, making one size of thought fit all possible instances and cases. What's annoying about this response is that it declares a commentary which notices difference or specificity (the specificity of American magazines, for instance) irrelevant or unremarkable by declaring that all magazines are more or less the same.

In terms of my "seven deadly intellectual sins", Procrustean Seeing is a deadly combination of "pompous univeralism" and "moronic cynicism". It usually contains the idea that there's no point in distinguishing one thing from another (in other words, recognizing difference) because "it's all the same wherever you go". (Cue up my rant against Paul McCartney's "Ebony and Ivory" song.)

I don't say it's motivated by evil. Procrustean Seeing has a lot of admirable motives. It may be motivated by an anxiety about declaring one thing better than another, a desire to avoid judgementalism. It may be motivated by the idea of equality of opportunity. Hey, we all have an equal opportunity to become fascists, disregard trifling historical details about Prussian militarism, and don't throw the first stone, because we all live in the same glass house! Procrustean Seeing can also be an attempt to prevent outgroups having negative stuff projected onto them, to prevent people from being isolated and bullied. (Cue Sting's song about how "the Russians love their children too".)

The trouble is, Procrustean Seeing is Panglossian. Like Dr Pangloss, it prefers to put its head in the clouds and see universal unity. The glass is half full, not half empty! All is for the best (or, reassuringly, the worst) in the best (or worst) of all possible worlds!

A bigger problem: Procrustean Seeing, one-size-fits-all, is teleological. Teleology (from telos, meaning end, purpose) is the supposition that there is design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in the works and processes of nature. It's a bit like anthropomorphism, the tendency to project human-like characteristics onto animals. It projects the kind of meanings we can understand onto a universe which doesn't share our conceptions. It assumes there are purposes in the way the universe is structured, the kind of purposes we ourselves have. As I sang in my song "The Sadness of Things", "for you, when things go wrong, they go wrong for all the right reasons... and the universe exists for the convenience of your feelings".

But why would it "all be the same in the end"? What would be the reason that nothing would be different from anything else? Why would such a strange universe exist? So that, like Procrustes, we could "correct" difference with mutilation and murder? Does pompous universalism always contain this implicit threat, the idea that we won't recognize your difference from us so that, should we come to invade you and (for instance) destroy your museum, nothing will really be lost?

Donald Rumsfeld, as he stood on the steps of the demolished Iraqi art museum, is said to have asked: "How many vases do they need, anyway?"

Donald, you utter bastard, those weren't just vases, they were encoded cultural particularities, the very DNA of character. They were difference itself. Let's not smash it up, either with our deeds, or with our thoughts.