Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

It is often argued that Foucault adopts a relativist view of history. This couldn’t be further from the truth (no pun intended). It is much more complex than that. Most often it means in coded form ‘Foucault’s view and interpretation of history and events is at odds with my own view’.

If we have different views on the past, it is because we are enlarging and looking at quite specific concrete events and finding new angles, new layers and new understandings of those events,new ways of relating these events to a wider network including the events which happened subsequently to those things which happened. There is no way of exhausting our understanding of historical events and their significance for our present as more events accumulate. The past is still connected in this way to our present. Events are not fixed in the past, they are part of a network.

Foucault notes in “The Order of Discourse” that history, far from

“[turning away] from events: on the contrary […] is constantly enlarging their field, discovering new layers of them, shallower or deeper. It is constantly isolating new sets of them, in which they are sometimes numerous, dense and interchangeable, sometimes rare and decisive.”
Michel Foucault. “The Order of Discourse.” In Untying the Text: A Poststructuralist Reader, ed. R. Young, trans. Ian McLeod. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981, p.68

One might argue that this is a quantum view of history, ‘facts’ can operate either as waves or particles. The web that facts and events are woven into is so complex that we can emphasise one set of relations and then another or another and never reach the end of it. This is not relativism or anything goes – it requires a rigorous understanding of the details of those networks and a talent and relentless erudition in making these connections intelligible.

If we understand history and science as a network, not a discrete linearity of hermetic sealed items that follow in a narrow file one after another we have a quantum view of history: simultaneously a particle and a wave of energy. Perhaps this is one reason for the current popularity of Foucault’s work – his understanding melds perfectly with our situation in the so-called ‘networked society’.

Svend Brinkmann, Stand Firm. Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Trans. Tam McTurk, Cambridge: Polity, 2017

Another book I will be reading through on this blog. This short and entertaining anti self-help book is an absolute gem. I will admit I am a bit of a self-help junkie, but prefer works that offer practical (and not too hyped) techniques rather than ones that put the emphasis on self-discovery. Brinkmann is Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University in Denmark and this book was a best seller in its orginal language and made the author a celebrity. Brinkmann’s departmental affiliation is misleading perhaps as this book is located squarely within the philosophical arena rather than the psychological one, with the author advocating an updated form of Stoicism for today. In this he would no doubt concur with Foucault’s remark in relation to Ancient Greek philosophy:

Among the cultural inventions of mankind there is a treasury of devices, techniques, ideas, procedures, and so on, that cannot exactly be reactivated, but at least constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as a tool for analyzing what’s going on now-and to change it.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 349-50

In many ways Brinkmann’s project is quite foucauldian, and he does in fact refer to Foucault’s work, noting:

It may appear as if Foucault’s technologies of the self are equivalent to the the concept of self-development. And in one sense this is true. However, the significant difference is that while the self-developers of today typically posit the existence of an inner self to be discovered and realised, Foucault thought of the self as an illusion, something that is created, like an artist painting a portrait. It does not exist prior to its creation, and it does not come about by itself. Another difference is that the concept of self-technology is closely associated with an understanding of ethics. The concept of ethics plays an important role in Foucault’s later work, as it represents the ongoing relation to the self to itself. (p. 94)

Brinkmann in a gentle lampooning of Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the industry it spawned, proposes a seven-step series of techniques for resisting the cult of the self. He provides a nice short paragraph summary of each of these techniques in this article in Psychology Today. His proposed techniques are summarised in the entertaining chapter titles:

  1. Cut out the navel-gazing
  2. Focus on the negative in your life
  3. Put on the No hat
  4. Suppress your feelings
  5. Sack your coach
  6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography
  7. Dwell on the past

I am a big fan of artistic maps, not necessarily applied to actual geographical areas. Perhaps we could call these heterotopian maps. This lovely map which has recently been doing the rounds on twitter and facebook was designed by Gemma Correll for Evernote.

Update 5 April 2019
A couple of really good articles on procrastination.

Charlotte Lieberman, Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control), New York Times, March 25, 2019

Zaria Gorvett, The Smart Guide to procrastination, BBC, Capital, 26 March 2019

Ahh, procrastination. If you’re the kind of person who stays up all night researching niche phenomena – like, say, why some farmers used to make their chickens wear spectacles – whenever you have a deadline looming, or who, like Mozart, will work on anything but the most urgent tasks to create the illusion of productivity, then you may be in need of help.

Yes, I am definitely in need of help. Other distractions of choice for me include researching interesting gadgets or looking at homewares of various kinds.

This fantastic book is now available in English at a prohibitive price unfortunately. This deserved cheap paperback status so that many could buy it. See the review I translated back in 2013. Publication blurb and details below.

Pascal Chabot, Global Burnout, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018

Available for the first time in English and freshly adapted as the acclaimed documentary Burning Out, Pascal Chabot’s polemic treatise – Global Burnout – takes the phenomenon we call burnout as not just an individual problem that affects a few exhausted people, but rather ‘a disease of civilization’, connected to concepts of progress, technology, and desire, which are the hallmarks of this era of experimentation.

First analysing the archaeology of the concept, Chabot distinguishes three main types of burnout: the first, specific to professions who help others, appears to be the exhaustion of their humanism; the second, a trouble of adaptation and perfectionism; and the third, which is a consequence of the struggle for recognition. The philosophical implications of each of these three states is identified, allowing Chabot to buck the trend towards a negative, nearly fatalistic outlook, something not surprising considering the intrinsic gravity of the subject matter. An excellent story teller as well as an adequate elaborater of complex theories, Chabot’s Global Burnout presents an introduction to the topic and therapy for the modern reader.

Table of contents

Something is happening

Part I: Beyond fatigue
Freudenberger and the free clinic?
Tired souls
In a Congolese leper colony

Part II: The burnout?machine
Abandoning perfection
The useful and the subtle
Recognition and disregard
Women’s burnout

Part III: Postmodern malaise
Theory of the a mirror disorder?
Under the sign of fire
The tightrope-walker’s manifesto

Postface to the English edition
Burnout and energy
The invisibility of energy
The causes of repression
Dialectic of energy and desire
Post-burnout transition


“Burnout, stress, and depression have become worldwide epidemics. Calling burnout ‘civilization’s disease,’ Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot has given us a fascinating and accessible history and theoretical framework of this modern crisis. He not only shows us how we got here, but also how we can use that knowledge to redefine success and truly thrive.” –  Arianna Huffington, HuffPost Founder and Founder & CEO of Thrive Global

“Fire and work are the forces at stake in our suicidally consumption-driven civilization, examined with penetrating depth by Pascal Chabot – whose contemplative approach stands out in an era where efficiency reigns and purpose is negated, struck down by a disruption that leads to madness, in the final phase of the phenomenon that Nietzsche called nihilism.” –  Bernard Stiegler, head of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation, Centre Georges-Pompidou, France

“It’s urgently relevant and superbly well-written and translated. It’s readable and compelling….I love this book and the translation is beautiful.” –  Graeme Kirkpatrick, Head of Sociology, University of Manchester, UK

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

To add to my miscellany of definitions of home, Cooper Marcus (pp. 105-6) refers to a 1979 work by David Seamon with a strong Heideggerian theme, A geography of the lifeworld. Movement, rest and encounter. ‘David Seamon, who has written on the phenomenology of the home, suggests that a feeling of at-homeness for most of us seems to combine the qualities of rootedness, security, a sense of “ownership”, restoration, feeling at ease, and warmth’.

My initial enthusiasm for Cooper Marcus’s book has waned a little. My response, to quote Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan from the original Star Wars, is: ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’. The book was originally published in 1995 and uses field research collected over a period of twenty years in California from the mid 1970s. It also refers to the author’s own childhood and some of her adult experiences. Cooper Marcus grew up in Britain and her account of her childhood, evacuated to the countryside away from the blitz in London during World War II, shares the same sometimes bitter sweet utopian flavour of early and mid-century twentieth English children’s fiction, notably the novels of Edith Nesbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The examples of other people’s relation to their built living spaces are redolent of a Californian culture of consciousness raising and alternative self culture, now faded into memory and whose remnants exist only in the margins of sub-culture. Much of her literary research refers to work published in the 1970s and 80s and earlier.

Foucault’s assessment of Californian cultures of the self very much applies here.

In the Californian cult of the self, one is supposed to discover one’s true self, to separate it from that which might obscure or alienate it, to decipher its truth thanks to psychological or psychoanalytic science, which is supposed to be able to tell you what your true self is. Therefore, not only do I not identify this ancient culture of the self with what you might call the Californian cult of the self, I think they are diametrically opposed.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 362

Reading the various stories of people and their relation to their houses, one is left curiously hanging, the psychological ‘truth’ of their relationship to their living space is exposed, but one wonders – what then? What detailed techniques can be used to go from there?

In the end, Cooper Marcus’s book is a great starting point for reflection but bound by a particular time, place and discipline (Jungian psychology) that I find all a little remote. The book serves to emphasise how much has changed since the mid 1990s and the exponential speed of that change. Next on my reading list for this topic is Alain de Botton’s more philosophical, contemporary and European focused book, The Architecture of Happiness.

To extend on the theme of my earlier post on The Secret of Kells a little.

The increasing digitisation of library collections and rare books has drawn attention to the power of the art work in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Often this artwork appears as marginalia, sometimes bearing little relation to the written text. This artwork is variously lively, colourful and beautiful but also gruesome, bawdy and grotesque. Here’s a small collection of some of my favourite animal illustrations. The first of these is a musical Pangur Bán perhaps…

Cat with hurdy-gurdy, Book of hours, France, ca. 1485-1490. NY, Morgan, MS M.26, fol. 88r. Online source: Discarding images

Rats rowing (Ste-Geneviève, MS 143, 14th c.) Online source: It’s about time

Bartholomeus Anglicus, ‘Livre des propriétés des choses’ (‘De proprietatibus rerum’, French translation of Jean Corbechon), Paris 1447. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 399, fol. 141vº. Online source: Bestiaire

Image from Faraḥ nāmah / Abū Bakr al-Muṭahhar ibn Abī al-Qāsim ibn Abī Saʻīd al-Jamālī maʻrūf bih Yazdī. Yazdī, al-Muṭahhar ibn Muḥammad, fl. 1184. [S.l : s.n., 16–?]. This is a natural history treatise that is illuminated with detailed multicolored illustrations of animals, birds, plants, stones and humans. Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

revBestiary, England 13th century (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 764, fol. 51r)


Image from from Faraḥ nāmah / Abū Bakr al-Muṭahhar ibn Abī al-Qāsim ibn Abī Saʻīd al-Jamālī maʻrūf bih Yazdī. Yazdī, al-Muṭahhar ibn Muḥammad, fl. 1184. [S.l : s.n., 16–?]. This is a natural history treatise that is illuminated with detailed multicolored illustrations of animals, birds, plants, stones and humans. Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

Categories: Art

This sounds like a most interesting book. I have long been fascinated by lighthouses and their liminal location between land and sea, throwing light into the darkness, guiding benighted travellers across rough seas and away from hidden rocks. They also form a minor theme in science fiction – representing that border point between the unknown and the known and the possibility of the intrusion of the otherworldly. Lighthouses appear in Doctor Who on at least a couple of occasions and also in the 1962 film version of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. They also make an appearance in horror and supernatural films such as the strange and atmospheric 1948 film Portrait of Jennie.

Progressive Geographies

9781472477354From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light, edited by Veronica Strang, Tim Edensor, and Joanna Puckering – now out with Routledge.

What is a lighthouse? What does it mean? What does it do? This book shows how exchanging knowledge across disciplinary boundaries can transform our thinking. Adopting an unconventional structure, this book involves the reader in a multivocal conversation between scholars, poets and artists. Seen through their individual perspectives, lighthouses appear as signals of safety, beacons of enlightenment, phallic territorial markers, and memorials of historical relationships with the sea. However, the interdisciplinary conversation also reveals underlying and sometimes unexpected connections. It elucidates the human and non-human evolutionary adaptations that use light for signalling and warning; the visual languages created by regularity and synchronicity in pulses of light; how lighthouses have generated a whole ‘family’ of related material objects and technologies; and the way that light flows between social and…

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The Secret of Kells is the most glorious animated film, combining rich elements of Irish history, mythology, culture and heritage.

Its exquisite and non-realist artwork takes inspiration from the famous 9th century illuminated manuscript Book of Kells. Although the tone of the film is magical and firmly positive (for its young audience and for those of us weary of being endlessly confronted by the indulgence of less than edifying aspects of human existence) it is not afraid to shy away from the darker elements of ancient evils, dangerous wolves and bloody and destructive Viking raids, human mortality while at the same time containing all these elements within strict boundaries.

A central (non-speaking) character is a white cat, Pangur Bán, from the famous Irish poem, “Pangur Bán” penned by an anonymous monk in the 9th century, comparing his scholarly activities to those of his white cat. There are several translations of this poem, notably by Robin Flower – my favourite version because of its simplicity and also by poet Seamus Heaney. The poem paraphrased into modern Irish is read out over the end credits, without fanfare or signposting by Irish actor, Mick Lally.

The music also contributes to the wonderful atmosphere of this film, particularly a magical sequence where the fairy Aisling transforms Pangur Bán

Tomm Moore, who co-directed the film with Nora Twomey, describes in a comprehensive interview how the film was conceived and put together. This passage draws attention to the sheer scope and variety of the international collaboration on the film:

Walking the Dog studio in Belgium did about 20 minutes of 2D and a lot of the 3D animation and compositing. Digital Graphics did ink and paint, compositing and some 3D. Blue Spirit in Angouleme, France did additional backgrounds and Flash animation (for background characters only) as well as a majority of the compositing. We did 40 minutes of 2D animation in the legendary Kecskemet film studios in Hungary, where the Hungarian folktales that had inspired me to try for a folk-art style had been made. We also had Lightstar Studios in Brazil handle our clean up and inbetweens from the Irish and Belgian studios. The editing and sound design was done in Paris in Piste Rouge and the music was written by Bruno Coulais in Paris, but arranged and recorded by Kila in Ireland.

It was an epic adventure to co-ordinate between all those studios and I owe a lot to our great production team and supervisors for keeping it together. The challenges of streamlining the work from the various studios were sometimes daunting. We had a great asset management solution in Hobsoft, which was developed by two Danish guys to manage European co-productions. I also enjoyed engaging with so many new cultures.

I am now looking forward to catching up with the rest of Tomm Moore and his associates’ work.

Categories: film

Reflections on Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger’s notions of home and living space (dwelling).


Processed by: Helicon Filter;

This post takes off from reflections on two notebook entries in Walter Benjamin’s long, uncompleted research into the space and culture of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project or Passagenwerk, notes that he dedicated to the problem of dwelling (Wohnen).   I’ll come back to these soon. But first a few preliminaries to set up the broader context for where I’ll be heading, which is Benjamin’s rich meditations and criticism about “interiors,” which embraces in his writings a complex set of topics and interconnections between them, including modern cities and their reconfigurations of inside and outsides through enclosures and the use of glass in architecture, the culture of the bourgeois household of the 19th century and of Benjamin’s own childhood, and the psychological interiority so intensively elaborated by modern culture from lyric poetry, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and modern art to psychoanalysis and new-age spirituality.

Dwelling was a problem…

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Design Psychology, ‘the practice of architecture, planning and interior design in which psychology is the principal design tool’ (Toby Israel) is a growing new field, forming part of the discipline of psychology’s ever expanding and dubious endeavour to encompass and explain all human experience. Clare Cooper Marcus’s work could also be situated within this movement. Martha Beck remarks:

You may have no idea you’ve produced an extensive memoir, but you have. In fact, you’re living in it. According to psychologists who analyze the relationship between our homes and our psyches, we often—consciously or not—choose and arrange out living spaces to reflect our life histories. To Toby Israel, author of Some Place like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, a home is an “environmental autobiography.”

When visitors walk into your home, what story do they “read”?

Selgascano Studio. Architects: José Selgas and Lucía Cano, Madrid (Spain) 2007.

But perhaps we could take a different approach to living space. Rather than viewing living space simply as an extension of the self and identity, manipulating and colonising space and material objects, imposing a power relationship upon them, forcing them into expressing a self which is not their own, we might envisage instead, entering into a free relationship, a relationship of mutual respect, support and harmony. This idea is slowly gaining more mainstream traction in relation to natural environments, and can also be seen in innovative initiatives in the built environment which see environmental architecture working in the area of harmonious relations with nature. But it is not just ‘nature’ and the outside that need to be recognised here, but the very form of the materials and objects that make up the building and its interior.

Again, this is about recognising the boundaries of the human and non-human and entering into a relation, a network where difference is recognised, rather than the human occupying the whole territory.

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