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Statues and normalization.

ABSTRACT

After some remarks about the normalization of language through the preponderance of English, the paper considers the background to the normalization of measures in eighteenth-century France. It proposes that, long before the development of the metrical system in Revolutionary France, the practice of measuring statues had provided an interest in the variety of measures operating in Europe. Much seems to derive from this: not just metrification, but also the attempted use of classical proportion as a kind of standard for human beings, one that could be the standard of perfection, but also the standard in the sense of neutral average in statistics.

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Languages and Normalization

This paper is part of an enquiry into the cultural background to the normalization of measures in France at the end of the eighteenth century. But since it is being given at a meeting of the Modern Humanities Research Association, it seems appropriate to speak first a little about a different kind of normalization. This may well have begun, or at least gathered strength, in the France of the same epoch. Like metrification, this second type of normalization takes one measure and aligns everything to it. But this time, the measure is linguistic, and nowadays it is usually, however mistakenly, taken to be English. Now, this may be dangerous, in our case, for our particular profession and our separate jobs. But I am going to argue that it is even more dangerous: dangerous for our mental agility, for the way we think, for our very capacity to take on new ideas. I refer to assumptions about the normalization of languages.

It is only recently that monolingualism has been at all valued, and probably at all common. In the France of the eighteenth century, many people will have been bilingual between local dialect and a more regulated French. In present-day Scotland, many are bilingual between Scots--a true language, I remind you, with a centuries-old literature--and English, and the same is true in Germany, between Hochdeutsch and Schwabisch, for instance. My friends from the south of India move between four languages, Kanaada, Tulu, Telugu, and English. Now, these friends tend to avoid Hindi, and that can provide one reason for linguistic normalization: as the joke says, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy; it explains, too, why what a friend and colleague Donald Rayfield assures me is essentially the same language with different slants to its vocabulary, with different scripts--Serbo-Croat--is known as Bosnian, Slovenian, Serbian, or Croat in what yet different friends, though no doubt with a different political persuasion, persist in calling ex-Yugoslavia. We humans find it hard to manage this pull towards homogenization and our urge to particularity. It may be that these move in cycles; it seems likely that a particular historical era, one of unification, of loss of singularity in speech or dress, is coming to a close in Western Europe. We know that radio and television in Britain are much more tolerant of linguistic variation than even twenty years ago. For the United Kingdom, anyway, the relation between this tolerance and the dissolution, or rather, perhaps, the rebalancing, of class or race or geographical distinctions would be worth exploring--I haven't been able to find that it has been investigated. But it could perhaps be the case that this pull to homogenization is cyclical: after the creation of nation states, perhaps the new Europe will allow space for much smaller cultures--Welsh, Breton, Lombard, Basque, Catalan, and I know not what. There is perhaps a subterranean political argument at the present time for the toleration of less mainstream languages, which then provides for their admission to the table of subsidies, acknowledgement, and support (they are put up and shut up). Yet when, under the impact of the explosion of ex-Yugoslavia, I discussed with officials in one of the grants departments in Brussels the possibility of obtaining money to investigate linguistic diversity and its relation to nationalism, their unease was palpable.

There is, however, a kind of biological argument for linguistic diversity. There is some evidence that speaking several languages is good for the brain, making the circuits more complex, encouraging them to rebalance themselves constantly--and indeed, research in Israel about a quarter of a century ago produced physiological arguments for such a statement, in that the post-mortem brain physiology of a polylingual speaker is apparently different from a monolingual, richer in connections between pathways. (1) More must be known about this, now that the living brain can be scanned. I have to admit here, however, that I cannot find that the subject is being examined nowadays--I merely know a neuro-radiologist, to whom I personally have cause to be extremely grateful, who mutters 'That's a bit difficult for us at present' when I enquire.

But there is a cultural argument, which intermeshes with this possible physiological one, and makes it to my mind far more pressing than one of personal intellectual advantage. This argument is that of linguistic relativity: that we are shaped by the natural language we relate to most closely in a most intimate and complex way. To quote: 'Users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars towards different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.' (2) Thus Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), whose name is one part of the duo of linguist and scholar from whose work was developed what is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis is a specification of linguistic relativity: it holds that particular languages mould our experience in particular and each time different ways. This hypothesis is not to everyone's taste, though to anyone who has lived in multilingual backgrounds it seems almost evident. Contrary to what many claim, to my mind it would be entirely possible to construct a philosophically rigorous account of Sapir and Whorf's ideas (3) which would not exclude the great hypotheses of Chomsky on the relation between linguistic structure and the intellectual processing of experience, and the 'species-specific' nature of human language through its postulated shared deep structure. Indeed, some of the difficulty that some nowadays have with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to me to derive from the frequently sloppy claims which have been developed out of the pair's writings, and then from the conditions of transmission of Whorf's own ideas: he died relatively young, and it seems that only one article had been prepared for an audience of professionals--he himself was an insurance agent until the very end of his life.

The quotation from Whorf given above is also useful as a kind of warning about what we lose if we are monolingual: the particular 'takes' on our experience our language gives us, the peculiar intermeshing it sets up between what is not us and us, only begin to be experienceable when we learn other languages. We can go ex-directory but we can't go ex-language. Other languages give us that slight otherness which enables us to appreciate what we are in fact taking on when we think or speak in our own language, an appreciation that is unavailable in any other way.

Whorf worked in particular on languages radically, indeed spectacularly, different from English, American Indian languages. He was able to show not merely this difference, but how deeply it runs: it is far more than the old idea that Eskimos have a large vocabulary about snow because they need to be able to make fine distinctions about snow to stay alive (that is, by the way, said not to be particularly true of Inuit). The already quoted passage is, you note, a claim not about words, but about the articulation of words: about grammar. For he claimed, and I believe him to be right, that modern English 'and similar tongues lead us to think of the universe as a collection of rather distinct objects and events corresponding to words'. (4) English, and the cultures associated with that international language, may be ones whose salient way of dealing with our experience is through the item, 'distinct objects and events', rather than, for example, forces of indeterminate extent and shape, such as winds or rainbows. It is nouns that are particularly important in our language. What interested Whorf, as it had interested his mentor Sapir (1884-1939), was how very different is what other languages choose to pick out: not so much items, for instance, as direction of movement in Korean, where it is so much more important than in English that it can barely be neglected even by the tiny child. As a result it is what the infant seems to learn first. (5) So that the information conveyed by even banal accounts of the same everyday event can be surprisingly diverse. This, for instance, was something that Whorf noted about Hopi, where certain information has to be given which is not considered, not even mentioned, in the normal English equivalent. (6) Even a language like French, closely related to English historically, has a style of reporting speech, the conditional, which is almost unavailable in modern English except by a whole phrase; and of course other languages have particularly subtle methods of explaining the degree of certainty there is about the phrase which are not matters of vocabulary, or vocal emphasis, as they would have to be in English, but fully grammaticalized. To relate this back to what is perhaps the ultimate empirical proof: children as young as three show that 'selective attention', to use Slobin's phrase, to those certain aspects of reality which are favoured by their particular native language. In other words, different languages are urging us into a slightly different experience.

So that the death of a language is the death of a way of processing the world: the cultural loss of such an event is enormous. And we know that languages are dying at the rate of about one a week. Even if it is hard to imagine how that is known, or exactly what that means, grosso modo it seems to be true. Ten years ago, with Michel Jeanneret, I spent a while in a New Mexican pueblo with a poet who was trying to write a grammar of his language, Tiwa. It was spoken only by about 3000 people. He found that the grammar varied from family group to family group, and was proving impossible to write. To myself, I concluded that he was in difficulty because he wasn't trained. But the then Professor of Comparative Philology in Cambridge, the late Sidney Allen, explained tome that the problem was real, and different: a language with so few speakers is never stable, the peer pressure functions too erratically. There is an inventiveness inherent in every individual and small group's use of language which needs a disciplining counterweight from wider social consensus and common custom. It was interesting that the Tiwa poet did not wish to teach me any, although the Navajo market traders I hung out with had no such qualms--but then there are about a quarter of a million speakers of Navajo, and they have a radio station. And in a sense the poet was right--the deviations, the innovations that the non-native-born speaker brings to a language might be too much for such a fragile cultural formation to bear. Yet if others do not learn it, it will die.

When we returned to Phoenix, and to the university, we visited a magnificent university bookshop. But its very bounty created fury in us: a whole wall was dedicated to Native American culture (I will comment on that term in a while). Though there were many descriptive books about Native American languages, there was not one which helped you learn a precise language (you have to write to a specialized firm in Connecticut). In other words, these amazing languages, so different, so strange when approached from an Indo-European base, are all aligned to English. English is the experiential grid through which everything must be sieved; it is the normalizing factor.

The term 'Native American' can teach us something about this. The Navajo I met, anyway, did not use it: they referred to themselves as American Indians, the major national newspaper they read was Indian Country Today, and in New Mexico we read The Indian Times. Those who invented this term--and I haven't yet managed to trace its origin--no doubt meant well. (7) No doubt they wished to express guilt for one of the two tragedies of whole peoples in the development of North America. It is noteworthy that though the other tragedy, that of the use of slave labour, is still live and thought about, that of the Indians in the subcontinent is not, or not much, at any rate in ordinary public discourse. It is only now, with the economic power some tribes have acquired through the casinos built on their lands, that their peoples begin to take up some room in the general nation's mental landscape. And yet money is the ultimate homogenizer: it will be interesting to see whether the tribes continue their separate but unequal existence now some of them are so rich. So the term 'Native American', while meant to express respect, to my mind comes close to expressing a kind of opposite: a lack of interest in, an erasing of, a people's view of themselves. Instead of finding out how a people refers to themselves, and then using the term, if allowed to, a spurious, breast-beating formula was developed, designed to emphasize that America was taken over by largely European immigrants, and taken away from those who were there first. But let us leave the matter at that.

In Europe, we have not so far turned English into a latter-day pan-European Latin. But in the United Kingdom, anyway, we may have erred in what were our priorities in language-learning: we allowed ourselves to take over what might be called the 'spy model', where the aim is to pass for a native speaker. But that is given to very few--I speak as someone who regularly teaches in French-speaking universities, but who knows herself not to be bilingual, not truly bilingual. What perhaps we should have done is to have used the interpreter model: the person who moves between languages, not perfectly, but who understands the cultural differences between the two speakers, and can explain them.

So, to summarize: the pressures of normalization may be good for some things: this is the argumentum pro turismo, as I heard one Jesuit once justify the Mass in Latin. We like, or at least I do, not having to carry endless purses round Europe to separate our lire from our deutschmarks and so on. But these pressures are not good for other things. In particular, they send into the background the differences between cultures, they allow us to think we understand. But understanding starts by 'seeing where the other person is coming from', to use the interesting current piece of slang to express meeting a person halfway in ideas, or at least claiming to--in my experience, it is usually a concessive which is about to be withdrawn. The topological metaphor is not accidental, surely. It implies not complete understanding, not bilingualism and a passing unperceived in enemy territory, but a kind of developing realization which derives from a cartography of the other's experience, a kind of mental redoing of their journey. To be able to do this is inconceivable without understanding something of the language. Less dramatic than the spy, or indeed the actor (a surprising number of English actors have been ex-modern linguists), (8) it provides, I would argue, a not negligible description of the job of modern linguists, as long as they can proceed to explain this to another culture.

I now want to turn from the dangers of linguistic homogenization to a political and social one that actually occurred, one that was part of the French Revolution, one which was extremely successful not just on a national but on a European scale. I want to suggest some perhaps slightly surprising factors driving that development.

Statues and Normalization

STATUES AS STILL LIFE

The subtitle to the heading above invites rebuttal: statues aren't still life, in the normal sense of that term. No indeed. They are 'stilled life'. But the eighteenth century treated statues as if they were--as if they were part of architecture, in particular (of course, they often were just that). Statues have indeed transformed real life into a motionless universe, even when, as in some of the greatest, they show effort and movement. But this transformation isn't one-way: for the processes of that transformation are turned back onto real life, with important intellectual effects, and it is that that I wish to sketch this evening.

Such a dialectic isn't surprising. As you know, one of the motors that drives the prodigious engine of thought that is Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, is a tension between the singular and the universal. Hegel has picked on a constant thread in human thought, but one which is yet particularly evident in intellectual activity at the end of the eighteenth century. For between these extremes lies an articulating middle, the 'particular' or the 'species' as it was also called in logical terminology. Now the end of the eighteenth century sees a much-increased intellectual effort to clarify what that middle is, interpreted in straight biological terms. I want to suggest that

* the practice of measuring Greek sculpture does not just influence ideas of perfect proportion, of ideal human form, but also develops ideas of the mean in its main senses, of average and of common, or even banal;

* through statues, the represented human body is brought into a kind of grid of possible variation and possible idealization where the species is thought in terms of the particular; this happens much more clearly and effectively in sculpture than in other art forms.

My argument runs: first, the normalization associated with proportion in statues inflects comparative anatomy in a particular way; this is not very new, though it may have been studied a bit superficially. But more, an ideal sculpture can come to represent man as a species, and is taken as more neutral and less particular, more universal and less singular, than a representation of man in other arts. And the last stage of this paper: in the 1830s, with the great Belgian statistician Quetelet, the methods of generalization usual in sculpture are quite explicitly adapted to the beginnings of statistics as a science. So I shall argue that at the end of the eighteenth century within the golden mean of proportion there is a tension between the mean as ideal and the mean as average and common, which becomes a crucial point of articulation in Quetelet's work and, incidentally, can be seen in the great artist Goya and the mad architectural draughtsman Lequeu.

The great numbers of classical statues that had been discovered in Italy from the early sixteenth century on had made of Rome a tourist dragnet, a source of honest or not so honest pennies for a whole swarm of fakers, copiers, restorers, makers of casts, and of course guides to what the visitors came to see. One of the expressions of the cultural value of these statues is the publication of their measurements. This is a practice well established by the end of the seventeenth century. Exactly why the fashion was expressed in that way is perhaps less clear. It looks at first straightforward: part of artistic practice, a search for ideal proportion going back to Leonardo (who in fact did not think much of sculpture) and to the German artist Durer (and of course back to Vitruvius and many others). But the search to understand these perfect proportions seems to become a kind of investigative tool. These statues are believed to present the ideal: but what is the ideal? Is it equivalent to the universal? Can these ideal proportions be those of actual people? Could there be a collection of portraits brought together in one of these perfect statues? (We know the story of Zeuxis and the women of Crotona: the great painter takes the best bit of each model and by putting them together makes the perfect woman.) Or has the individual been effaced in the urge towards the ideal? Perhaps banalized?

The habit, as one might almost call it by the end of the eighteenth century, of measuring classical statues is part of a complex cultural movement. But it is also part of a push towards normalization. In a movement spearheaded by the French at the end of the eighteenth century, the layerings and idiosyncrasies of culture are simplified and universalized: the obvious example is the rationalization of weights and measures in the early Revolution.

Once one starts looking at drawings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many depictions of measurements of classical statues are to be found. This may not be surprising--that was part of the training of artists, and a great deal of care has been expended on showing this. (9) Most drawings are clearly modular, arguing that the whole statue is based on one particular measurement of one particular part of the body, which is then to be found again as multiples in the other body parts.

The earliest record of a measuring of a statue I have found in French culture dates from 1640 and has remained in manuscript. (10) This manuscript seems to have been well known though not published. Its drawings are believed to be by Poussin. Another set of measurements becomes famous because they appear in a best-selling book: Girard Audran's Measures on the Most Beautiful Figures of Antiquity, of 1683, a work reproduced many times during the next century, and translated into several languages. (11) Even more powerful dissemination occurred for Audran's plates when they were used in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie for the article 'Dessein', in the volumes of plates published in 1763 (Figure 1).

Audran was still published into the nineteenth century, and this type of illustration of measurement, though of sculpture, seems to appear most notably in books on how to learn drawing--as the Encyclopedie had produced them in its article on drawing. Audran's book is in fact a series of engravings of classical sculptures with very detailed measurements. The reason for doing this is worth considering: the preface to the book maintains that different sets of measurements are in circulation, varying on the one hand form country to country and on the other according to temperament, and that these different sets of measurements belie the universality of ancient sculpture. Yet Audran admits a tension: because personal temperament and individual singularities are not allowed to appear, ancient art appears cold. Indeed, Audran says, there has never been an individual man as perfect in all his parts as are some of the ancients' figures. (12)

However, one of the statues most admired, and most discussed, the Lao-coon, excavated in 1506, had been measured, and it was discovered, to general consternation, that its left leg was longer than its right. No reason for this discrepancy was advanced which was generally accepted. In Audran, this leads to a discussion of whether sculpture can take into account the angle at which the statue is intended to be seen, in other words, whether foreshortening can be employed in sculpture, as it would in any painting designed to be seen from a specific viewpoint. However, this discussion of angle of vision in relation to size and shape of statues is not common. It is found in certain eighteenth-century architects: Briseux and, especially, Cochin when discussing architecture examine how the dimension of statues needs to be varied to respond to the angle of vision. (13) Indeed, I now believe that Canova's work, with his fabulous technique of surface preparation, can be seen as a way of controlling perception of size and shape without resorting to perspectival variation of shape (Apsley House, and the statue of Napoleon as Mars the pacifier, where it can be most clearly seen because of its location in the stairwell).

One can also wonder whether Audran's report of the different sets of measurements in existence explains the personal tone of some of the claims made on some drawings of statues: the eighteenth-century English artist Joseph Nollekens, for instance, on the back of his measured drawings vouches for their accuracy:

That no doubt of the authenticity of accuracy of these measurements may be hereafter entertained, I now certify that they were with the most scrupulous attention taken by me on the real statue of the Venus dei Medici at Florence in June 1770, and signed Joseph Nollekens. (14)

Artists, indeed apprentice sculptors, measured, then, as can be seen from a manual for sculptors of the same period. (15) But it seems that amateurs also did this. In the very same years as Nollekens, in 1770 or 1771, a Lady Miller measured the Venus de' Medici at the Tribuna, and published her results in her Letters from Italy Describing the Manners, Customs, Antiquities, Paintings, & c. of that Country. Horace Walpole has some kindly cutting remarks about the Miller couple, and of course not everyone can be the descendant of 'Old Corruption', as his father was known to his opponents. They seem to be more interesting than he will allow. Having built, rather extravagantly, a house near Bath, they retired to live more cheaply on the Continent a while and it is then that they visited Florence. Now it may be that, in general, measuring of statues was undertaken to help in the detection of restoration. But that can't be the case in the measuring of the Venus, performed, I've just said, in the same year by Lady Miller and by Nollekens: it had been done too many times before. Lady Miller is quite aware of the restorations of the statue: 'her arms and hands are modern [. . .] the rest is antique, and she is composed of forty-two pieces'. (16) But not merely has she measured the statue, she gives the measurements in different standards, Roman and Neapolitan 'palmi', for instance. In this she is following the brochure she had been handed by the Abbate, but it is highly interesting that this list of measures is given apropos a statue contemplated and admired by an international set of visitors. The statue is the international base measure, the actual measurements local.

Sow hat exactly was the point? Is the attempt to understand the proportions of an admired sculpture in fact a recognition of the social value of symmetry of form as much as agreement about the universal value of the great classical statues? An example from Jane Austen: of Darcy, when he first becomes conscious of his attraction to Elizabeth Bennett, it is said:

Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. (17)

Lady Miller begins her account of the Venus de' Medici with her height--and she bothers to repeat this in the different measures of Florence, Rome, England, and France. About twenty years later, as I have reminded you already, France will adopt unified decimal measures, on the advice of an enormously distinguished scientific committee. And it is striking that slightly later, after their return from Italy, Lady Miller's husband will be very active in the British Parliament, in a vain attempt to tidy English weights and measures.

Now it is noteworthy that the great collection of engravings reproducing the finds at Herculaneum gives under the images on several, though not all, occasions the measures of the statue being reproduced to scale, and in terms of both Roman and Neapolitan 'palmi' (Figure 2). This is to give the reader some idea of actual size, obviously, but the awareness of different measures placed directly in relation to a piece of ancient sculpture is interesting. One wonders whether the urge to standardization of measures may not have developed in relation to the universal norm that is classical sculpture at this period? Trade in taste may be more powerful than commerce.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Measuring and Normalization

PETRUS CAMPER

The measurement of statues is applied to human beings by the great Dutch doctor Petrus Camper, as you surely know. His work was not published during his lifetime, though it was well known, if only because he had toured giving lectures in which he discussed his ideas, not just in his native Holland but in England, France, and Germany as well.

Camper was an artist, and a theoretician of art, but he was also an important doctor. His work brought together ideas about the right angle from which to draw faces in order to give a correct notion of their shape with an interest in transformation of form, ideas that seem, for instance, connected with the work nearly two hundred years later of the Scotsman D'Arcy Thompson. (18) He collected skulls, and his writings mention giving public dissections. Before I say any more, I want to dispose of one idea: in whatever way the posthumous publication of his writings and engravings was interpreted, he himself was not what we would now call a 'racist'. Again and again he says in his writings that education, not race, is the key to class, that is, status in society, and he violently attacks the slave trade. He is in fact a relativist: he was famous for not believing that there was any stable beauty in any form at all.

My Figure 3 is an illustration of what Camper called the 'facial angle'. It moves from a monkey to an orang-utan to a young black to a Calmuk, by which is probably meant someone who could stand in for the whole of eastern Asia, although strictly speaking Calmuk at the time refers to a Turcoman group of Central Asia. What Camper is showing is the different angle made by the line between the lower part of the nose and the ear-hole and the line passing through the forehead, nose, and lips. This enabled him, he insists, to draw the relative shape of different human heads accurately. He describes how he set up his skulls to preserve, he says, 'the true form and relative situations of the parts'. Now the perspective he uses is not the normal one used in drawing from a fixed viewpoint, but the perspective developed by masons and architects.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

What is this plate designed to show? And in particular, is it an illustration of how to draw different kinds of faces, as Stephen Gould has argued, (19) or does the line-up that Camper gives mean something else? I think the answer must be that it is both. It seems, as Diderot says, that Camper produced what are trick drawings which mapped skull shape through a series of transformations, from man down to bird. Thus Diderot on Camper:

He knew national physiognomies. He said of a gentleman who had brought me from Russia to Holland 'That one is Greek', and it was perfectly true. He accused all artists of having been mistaken on this point. He has written a treatise on drawing in which he indicates the principles whereby without interruption one can go from the face of a god to the face of whatever nation one pleases; from the national face of a man, from a black, to the face of a monkey, and from that of a monkey to the head of a bird, of a heron or a stork. (20)

Camper develops all the animals, from the man to the stork, from one single model, only by changing their facial line.

One shouldn't believe that the animals have always been what we see now, nor that they will always stay the same. (21)

But Camper's actual text that was published with the drawings does seem also to be thinking about how 'transitions can reflect a changing set of external forces acting on unaltered biological material'. (22)

In other words, if the head is set slightly differently on the body, there will be concomitant changes finally in the features of the face. Camper gives his results as a line which was interpreted to mean that there was a smooth ascent from monkey, ape, through the human races from the black to the white to the ideal human as symbolized by a Greek god. In fact, Camper was illustrating the results of his measurements of the facial angle. While the angular degrees did produce an ascending scale, Camper never in his writings referred to the existence of a racial hierarchy at all. He holds to monogenesis.

Near the end of his life Camper came to the conclusion that 'impressive catastrophes' such as subterranean fire, earthquakes, and floods had occurred. This explained fossilized tropical animals found in the north, and allowed for the development of human variety. The major fault-line is between man and animals, and the big difference between them is the way the head is joined on to the body through the vertebrae at the top of the back. Camper was in contact with Buffon, and must have known the work Daubenton was doing on comparative anatomy, and in particular on precisely the point of the implications of the difference of posture between men and animals. Camper was using the head of the Apollo (Figure 4, fifth sketch) as the extreme limit, the unreal limit, of the human body. The idealized form of a Greek sculpture is in Camper's text one where normalization, approximation towards an ideal, has stripped off character and individuality, and in the case of Camper's Apollo pushed it out to the very end of the possible relation of the nose to the chin (he looks like Horace Simpson, as a clever friend noticed).

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Normalization and Statistics

QUETELET

The founder of modern statistics, Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), had been trained in the beaux arts before becoming a mathematician. He quite explicitly compared his development of the concept of the average man, for which he was famous, to the idealization of sculpture. He noticed that his observations--for example, about height in a nation--were symmetrically distributed about the mean, in the curve known as the 'normal' curve of distribution, or the bell curve (from its shape). The middle of this bell accounts for most of the members of the class surveyed, tapering off at either side to the more infrequent occurrences of extreme height or extreme shortness. Quetelet compares this to measuring the chest of a statue: you can do this ten times over, and the result will be slightly different each time (even if you are not trying to cheat--he worked on evasion of the draft). If you did this a thousand times, supposing you had the courage, then the average would certainly be very close to the real value. And moreover, you would be able to evaluate the probable error of your measurements. And he concludes: all this shows us that things are as if all the chests that have been measured had been modelled on the same individual, an ideal one, if you want, but whose proportions can be found if we take the experiment far enough.

There is an irony here: when seen as an average, the form behind every form, the ideal of Greek sculpture, produces Quetelet's homme commun. And for some, this homme commun is indeed the stripped down, the average, the banal. Some contemporaries called this idea 'the height of vulgarity'.

This is a kind of fable for our times if it is translated into the realm of language. We need to protect particularity, and learning different languages can do this. Cultures need to navigate between the extremes of extreme particularity that is one kind of nationalism, and the universalizing forces which seek to impose one language, one nation, or indeed one God. Modern Linguists can help.

(1) Martin L. Albert and Loraine K. Obler, The Bilingual Brain: Neuro-Physiological and Neuro-Linguistic Aspects of Bilingualism (New York and London: Academic Press, 1978).

(2) Benjamin Lee Whorf, quoted by Dan Slobin in 'From "Thought and Language" to "Thinking to Speaking"', in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, ed. by John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 70-96 (p. 75).

(3) One can argue that Dan Slobin, for instance, has attempted this.

(4) Whorf, 'Languages and Logic' (1941), in Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. and with an introduction by John B. Carroll, foreword by Stuart Chase (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; London: Chapman & Hall, 1956), pp. 233-45 (p. 240).

(5) Soonja Choi and Melissa Bowerman, 'Learning to Express Motion Events in English and Korean: The Influence of Language-Specific Lexicalization Patterns', in Lexical and Conceptual Semantics, ed. by Beth Levin and Steven Pinker (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 83-121.

(6) See Franz Boas, Handbook of American Indian Languages, 2 vols (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911-22). See also An Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. by Frederick E. Hoxie (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1996). I owe this latter reference to the kindness of Tiya Miles, Acting Director, Native American Studies Program, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

(7) I owe a great deal to Professor Greg Dowd, Professor of History and American Culture in the University of Michigan, for help with the facts of this situation.

(8) Eleanor Bron and Michael Redgrave, for instance.

(9) Reed Benhamou, Public and Private Art Education in France 1648-1793, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 308 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1993).

(10) Freart de Chambray, 'Proportions que j'ai mesurees avec Mons. Erard sur les originaux mesmes a Rome l'annee 1640', MS Pc 6415 dated '30 mars 1678', at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

(11) Girard Audran, Graveur du Roy, Les Proportions du corps humain, mesures sur les plus belles figures de l'antiquite (Paris, 1683).

(12) 'C'est dans ce sens qu'on peut dire qu'un Peintre se peint soy-meme dans ses Ouvrages, et que le sentiment secret ne avec nous, et dont souvent on ne connoit pas la cause, est ordinairement ce qui nous determine dans nostre choix. Pour ce qui est du temperament, il agit encore plus puissamment en nous. Comme c'est luy qui fait la distinction la plus essentielle d'un homme a un autre, il a part a tout ce que nous faisons. C'est dans ce sens qu'on peut dire qu'un Peintre se peint soy-mesme dans ses Ouvrages & que le sentiment secret ne avec nous, & dont souvent on ne connoit pas la cause, est ordinairement ce qui nous determine notre choix, & nous fait conformer ses figures a l'air des personnes pour qui nous aurions le plus de penchant' (Audran, Preface (unpaginated)).

(13) Charles Etienne Briseux, Architecture moderne, ou l'art de bien batir pour toutes sortes de personnes, tant pour les maisons des particuliers que pour les palais (Paris: Jombert, 1728). The great specialist on Rameau, Cuthbert Girdlestone, 'suspect[s] that Briseux would repay investigation' (Jean-Philippe Rameau: sa vie, son aeuvre (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1962), p. 112 n.), and one can only agree. Charles-Nicolas Cochin, Recueil de quelques pieces concernant les arts, extraites de plusieurs Mercure de France, 2 vols (Paris: Jombert, 1757-71). See the bibliography of Marian Hobson, The Object of Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), for an account of the publication history of this last publication.

(14) Drawing no. 1459 in the Ashmolean Museum.

(15) See Francesca Carradori, Istruzione elementare per gli studiosi della scultura (Florence: n. pub., 1802).

(16) Lady Anne Miller, Letters from Italy Describing the Manners, Customs, Antiquities, Paintings, & c. of that Country, in the Years MDCCLXX and MDCCLXXI, to a Friend Residing in France, by an English Woman, 2 vols (London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1777), I, 386.

(17) Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, in The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. by R. W. Chapman, 3rd edn, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), II, 23.

(18) I owe this reference, and thus the discovery of D'Arcy Thompson, to Professor Chris Johnson. See D'Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form, abridged and ed. by John Tyler Bonner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; this edn first 1961, original full edn Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917, rev. 1942; repr. of the 1942 edn New York: Dover, 1992).

(19) Stephen Jay Gould, introduction to On Growth and Form, ed. by Bonner, pp. ix-xiii (p. xiii).

(20) Voyage en Hollande, in Diderot, OEuvres completes, ed. by Roger Lewinter, 15 vols (Paris: Club Francais du Livre, 1969-73), xi, 331-451 (p. 424) (my translation).

(21) Elements de physiologie, in Diderot, OEuvres completes, xiii, 635-819 (p. 670) (my translation).

(22) Gould, introduction to On Growth and Form, ed. by Bonner, p. xiii.

The Presidential Address of the Modern Humanities Research Association read at 1 Carlton House Terrace, London, on 11 May 2007
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Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Oct 1, 2007
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