‘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.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

New Critical Terminology

I was going through the copy-edits on my forthcoming OUP Walter Savage Landor monograph this morning. At one point the copy-editor (who has done a tremendous job, I must say) queried my use of the word 'retconning'—'Should this be reconnecting?' he asked. No, I replied. No, I'd like to keep it in, if you don't mind.

It got me thinking. Literary criticism took on board a raft of new terms in the 1950s from psychotherapeutic discourse; and then acquired a whole new terminological raft in the late 1970s and 1980s via 'Theory', a.k.a. 'The Theory Wars', vocab items which were either neologisms of sometimes breathtaking ugliness, or else technical terms from Continental Philosophy ('Being-in-the-world' and the like). I'm not sure there has been much traffic latterly, though.

I wonder if SF, or more broadly 'the internet' (an idiom largely shaped by SF fandom), couldn't provide a new injection. 'Retcon', for instance, strikes me as a tremendously useful concept, something for which we don't really have another word. (For example: Coleridge was a political radical in his youth, and a Church-and-State Tory in his old age. Now, as is the way with people who follow that particular ideology path he insisted that his political views had not changed one jot, and his whole intellectual life was marked by a remarkable consistency. When he reworked or republished his earlier political writings, he retconned them to various degrees, according to his later beliefs). Another fandom word I like, and which I've used in more academic contexts, and which copy-editors have blue-pencilled, is 'squee'. It connotes excitement, but of a peculiar kind that is both an infantile over-reaction and a mature recognition of one's own immaturity in reacting that way. I don't believe there's another word that means quite the same thing.

Another example that occurred to me: Frank Kermode somewhere regrets that the word 'cant' has fallen out of common usage. It was a concept (as he notes) that mattered a great deal to many Romantic and Victorian writers and thinkers, as something to be avoided. Kermode thinks the nearest modern equivalent is 'bullshit', which isn't, as he says, quite the same thing. A bullshitter, I'd say, knows perfectly well that s/he is being mendacious, just stirring the pot. Bullshit is spoken, almost, with a knowing wink of the eye. Cant is not like that: it's equally mendacious and damaging, but it is perpetrated with perfect seriousness, the pretence of honesty and upholding propriety. But I think we do now have a word (well: two hyphenated words) for the 19th-century category of 'cant': 'concern-trolling'.


  1. Serialists like Dickens did loads of retconning - I'd be amazed if nobody in the pre-comic era had ever found a word to refer to it.

  2. Phil: true. Not sure what the word would be, though.

  3. I assume you're looking at retconning as something different to revising. So for example, Dickens changing the ending to Great Expectations is a revision.

    However the revised ending in which, presumably, Pip and Estella stay together as a couple while Pip writes his memoirs and then publishes them requires us to assume that either Estella is cool with his descriptions of her in the earlier chapters or that he didn't write it like that. Which IS a retcon.

    I think.

  4. According to Harry Frankfurt in his seminal On Bullshit, bullshitters aren't necessarily aware of their mendacity. Rather, bullshit isn't concerned at all with truth or falsity. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

    I agree with him, and I'm happy to have found a legitimate reason to write about seminal bullshit, which sounds really gross.

  5. Noddy Boffin's big reveal in OMF - he wasn't really a miser, it was all a big act! - is a classic retcon. Also not a very good one - but the, the better a retcon is the less likely it is to be recognisable as a retcon.