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e-prime art criticism

Post #356 • August 30, 2004, 6:42 AM • 8 Comments

"English-Prime," or "E-Prime" for short, refers to a subset of English that excludes the verb "to be." E-prime interests me enough that I intend to eliminate "to be" from my writing as an experiment for the next couple of weeks, longer if it works. Lately I have been eliminating it from my speech as well, although I have sometimes struggled to do so. (Moderate E-Prime retains "to be" for creating the progressive form of a verb, so it regards that "been" as kosher.)

Why get rid of "to be"? Firstly, most writers know that passive constructions suck the life out of sentences ("Janet was killed by Brad" vs. "Brad killed Janet"), and not using forms of "to be" makes it impossible to build them. Writers who use passive constructions mangle their logic, assassinate their subjects, and turn their syntax into mush.

The problems continue into epistomological territory. "Is" attributes essential, seemingly permanent traits to objects. Robert Anton Wilson:

The weakness of Aristotelian "isness" or "whatness" statements lies in their assumption of indwelling "thingness" - the assumption that every "object" contains what the cynical German philosopher Max Stirner called "spooks." ... In simpler words, the Aristotelian universe assumes an assembly of "things" with "essences" or "spooks" inside of them, where the modern scientific (or existentialist) universe assumes a network of structural relationships.

He calls the former kind of thinking "demonological." He also says:

A few scientists have taken to writing in E-Prime... [D. David Bourland Jr., who coined "E-Prime" in 1949] in a recent (not-yet-published) paper tells of a few cases in which scientific reports, unsatisfactory to sombunall members of a research group, suddenly made sense and became acceptable when re-written in E-Prime.

Such spooks haunt art writing in legions, and art writing provides many examples of prose that sombunall readers can understand.

Cocurated by Doug Aitken and P.S. 1's Klaus Biesenbach, the show is anchored by Aitken's magisterial Interiors, 2002, a room-size video installation whose four channels, each a coordinated crescendo of sound and image, are shuffled across three screens every few minutes; its clockwork climaxes are like waves lapping at a shore. The rest of the works in the show, which are mostly atemporal, use wildly different kinds of light to invoke different moods, from the uncomfortably harsh fluorescence of Bruce Nauman's Green Light Corridor, 1970, and the seizure-inducing blinks of Carsten H&oumlaut;ller's Atomium Phi, 2004 (which looks like a cross between a Calder mobile and George Nelson's "Marshmallow" sofa), to the softly contrasting indoor and outdoor black-and-white images of Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner's collaborative book Hard Light (1978).

Try to convert this paragraph (by Brian Sholis for ArtForum) to E-Prime and you'll see how little meaning it contains. How do the "climaxes" resemble the "waves"? Does "mostly" refer to "atemporal" or, um, "works"? What atemporal qualities do the works possess? And in that first sentence, Janet is being killed by Brad. Twice. This kind of stuff puts dust bunnies in your brain.

People have criticised the writings of Clement Greenberg as absolutist, and I never heard them this way until I considered them in light of E-Prime. Speaking of the work of Jasper Johns in a 1984 interview, he said:

The color isn't good enough, and it shows he doesn't know how good Olitski is. Not that he's got to paint like him. If right now you're an ambitious painter with major aspirations you've got to see how good Olitski is.

Part of the hegemonic tone comes from good, but most of it comes from is - three is's and an are. "Is" implies eternality. I don't pretend to speak for Greenberg, but notice that the following says the same thing, with force, yet doesn't sound as much like a voice from the top of the mountain:

The color doesn't look good enough, and it shows he doesn't know how well Olitski paints. Not that he's got to paint like him. If right now you consider yourself an ambitious painter with major aspirations you've got to see how well Olitski paints.

I assert that discussion would ensue more easily from the latter version.

Speaking of the top of the mountain, consider Exodus 3:14-15 (emphasis God's):

And Moses said to God, Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.

Only God is; we become. We manifest in the world to serve as the thousand arms of Kannon, and those arms move. When you say "I am" (happy, sleepy, pissed, confused, etc.) you take the Lord's name in vain.

I prefer Greenberg's authority to Sholis's vagaries, and I feel certain that the former reflects strong judgments, rather than the author confusing himself with the Almighty. We should make strong judgments, smart judgments, even harsh judgments if the situation calls for them. I do not argue for relativism or bland subjectivity here. Me, I'll make my judgments caustic enough to take the paint off of your car, if I feel the need.

Too, I continue to believe that no practice has so much merit that one cannot apply it badly.

But I want to eliminate "to be" from my thinking because I regard my judgments as judgments and no more. Not truths. Certainly not absolute truths. I think that E-Prime will make the conversations that happen on, including the ones I have with myself, progress more smoothly. If it makes my writing better in the process, I'll enjoy that too.




August 30, 2004, 3:26 PM

Am I mistaken, or is this the same as switching from passive to active voice whenever possible, as recomended by Strunk and White?

I don't know; Janet was killed by Brad" and "Brad killed Janet" have always sounded identical to my ear, and while your rephrase of Greenberg's paragraph sounds more agreeable, I would guess that part of his appeal during his day came from the brashness of his language.

Still, this sounds like an interesting experiment; perhaps one has to try it for a while before coming to any definitive conclusions.



August 30, 2004, 5:51 PM

Oh, yes, I think we should not only adopt this mode of expression, but we ought to go back and correct all the brash, egotistical, Godlike claims all those fools have made in the past.

Instead of:

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal..."

Let's try:

While we certainly would never go so far as to call them "truths", and realize that our personal judgments may not be "self evident" to everyone as they are to us, (most of us, anyway), it is, in our majority opinion at least, preferable in most circumstances (with appropriate exceptions according to varying conditions which may come up from time to time) to consider, at least as a basic rule of thumb, that people are more or less the same, inside, at least, and we probably should treat them pretty much all the same, as much as possible, anyway. We understand that this might not appeal to everyone, but, just for starters, we want to give the idea a try and see how it flies, knowing full well that our colleagues and the public at large, who have as much right as we do to have an opinion, may disagree, and that future generations have every right, if not the duty, to determine their own set of parameters. OK?

Or this unbelievable absolutist decree:

E = MC2

Let's change that, without further delay, to:

Some elements of the research I have been conducting indicates the possibility, to me at least (I know this may not hold true for everyone), That "energy" (although there is considerable disagreement about what "energy" actually means, as we all know) is more or less about the same thing as "mass" (for my definition, which I hope you will agree with, please see appendix) times the speed of light (I know we are using absolute terms like "miles per second", but please bear with me; I welcome and will seriously consider any comments, of course) squared. I know this sounds simplistic, and it may not suit everyone, and I welcome and respect the opinions of not only my colleagues but any one who wishes to offer a differing opinion, but for me it works.

I'm sorry, but if I did not think I was speaking the truth, I would not speak at all. It is not necessary or even desirable for this blog to go "smoothly". It is not necessary for people to modify what they say to make it more agreeable. If someone makes an all-encompassing, absolutist statement we are all free to disagree without getting all lathered up about that person's "attitude". What is needed is discussion that sticks to ideas and opinions, takes what people say at face value and does not descend to petty name-calling and innuendo.



August 30, 2004, 5:54 PM

Besides, Johns's color does suck.



August 30, 2004, 6:08 PM

I'm not sure E-Prime hits the target you established. I dare say it's altogether beside the point. Lemme try to explain. Alesh's point about active voice is a good one, but I think there's a deeper issue e-prime fails to address, to which the solution is, I think, a combination of old-fashioned politeness and new-fangled scientific rationality. And I'll even marshall a science fiction writer to my cause too!

E-prime may improve the quality of writing stylistically (which is arguable), but I don't see any evidence it changes the quality of thought. One may say "the sun is orange," "the sun seems orange," or "the sun shines orange," but all we've done is replaced the word "is" with one of many possible analogs. There's surely no end to similar technical solutions along these lines. (Uh, I mean, "Technical solutions along these lines surely abound.") Similarly, one might say "Jojo is an idiot," "Jojo thinks like an idiot," or "Jojo's mind strains to produce the slightest sliver of wisdom," but they've insulted Jojo no less. The result may be more stylistically palatable, or even comprehensible, but there's no discernable change in the sentiment or its impact, nor do I think it brings us any closer to battling the hegemonic pronouncements you mentioned above.

In fact, I'd suggest that in many cases, eliminating "to be" might simply prove more impractical, incorrect, or more unclear than before. At some point, a statement of fact necessitates itself. "Robert Anton Wilson was a science fiction writer." Is that not a fact? Unless we're convocating an epistemological convention, it does little good to say he "seemed" one, nor does it satisfy me to say "RA Wilson wrote science fiction," since I'm sure there's someone's uncle Bobby Joe out there who did too, but the original term connotes a social admiration and cachet the latter construction does not. Depending on the way the words are recast, the sentence may become even more convoluted and passive.

But mountain-top pronouncements are nothing new, nor is their cure. Western civilization has a centuries-old tradition of diplomatic speech and politeness, which I feel satisfies much of the intent here. Nowadays, this tradition dovetails with a newer one, scientific thought, which I feel completes the notion, i.e., that one must not say what one cannot objectively assert and prove.

I think the point you're trying to make, Franklin, was more strongly made by a different SF writer, Robert Heinlein, in Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein conceived a class of characters called "fair witnesses," professional judges who, when on duty, were only allowed to say only and exactly what they see. A famous example is that one is asked whether they see a white house nearby, but reply they see a house with two white sides visible from the current vantage point.

As I see it, the goal you're trying to achieve is not necessarily to exercise syntactic care (though Alesh's comment about active voice is apt), but to only say what you can absolutely defend, despite your human infallibility (or perhaps even in recognition of it). Would you consider looking again at Greenberg's quote in this light? I'd suggest something like this: The color isn't strong enough for my taste, it doesn't engage my interest, and it shows no discernable debt to Olitski, whose color techniques are more engaging to me. [Etc].

Greenberg makes his point, yet no godly pronouncements are issued, no egos bruised, no opinions unaccounted for, and food for thought is handed out all around. Simple rules of politeness and rational evidence may serve the task more aptly than e-prime. As always, your results may vary...



August 30, 2004, 6:22 PM

Hovig: Thanks for providing a more thorough, more comprehensive and much less contentious reaction than mine. Mealy-mouthing makes me see red. I can't help myself.

It made me laugh out loud to read your version of the Greenberg statement, not through any fault of yours, but knowing him for many years, as I did, and trying to imagine him talking like some college administrator was just plain funny.


Jerome du Bois

August 30, 2004, 9:55 PM


Dust bunnies in your brain. I like it.

What's that saying? "The Lord travels in all dimensions at once, the Lord arrives in all directions at once."

Unlike Avalokiteshvara, neither you nor I can see, much less point, clearly in all ten directions. But we can try; we can point, to one, two, or several, and I believe you point with a strong straight finger -- it just takes one arm -- to your need for clarity, not absolutes. Big difference. Speaking of which, in the name of . . .

The Exodus quote jogged my memory, and I looked up this reference (page 4) from Frank Tipler's 1991 The Physics of Immortality:

". . . in the original Hebrew God's reply was Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. In Hebrew, the word Ehyeh is the future tense of the word haya, which means 'to be.' That is, God's reply to Moses should be translated "I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE . . . Tell the children of Israel the I WILL BE sent me to you."

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, by definition, can never be static: Ha-Shekhinah, which in frontier Kabbalah represents the female presence of the divine which suffuses all creation; the finger on our pulse. I'm an agnostic, but I believe in this force so much I have it tattooed, in Hebrew, on the back of my neck.

Stay safe, secure, and prepared, everybody over there in South Florida. Looks like a rider approaching.

Jerome du Bois



August 31, 2004, 12:37 AM

Alesh: Strunk and White makes the same recommendations, on stylistic grounds.

Oldpro: One of the E-Prime writers refers to the preamble of the Constitution as a beautiful example of E-Prime: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

I think Johns's color sucks too, and I can still say that in E-Prime. Let me clarify that I am taking on this experiment for myself; I don't think anyone else should do it if they don't feel interested in doing so, and I definitely don't want to revise non-E-Prime sentiments from the past. You brought up E=MC^2 - Alfred Korzybski, a scientific philosopher whose General Semantics gave rise to E-Prime, wanted to apply the clarity of science to human thinking in general and suggested the elimination of "to be" to that end, saying that it "led to irrelevant controversies." Remember that discussion about criteria, and how dreary it became after a while? Talk about irrelevant controversies. A lot of the argument fought over whether this item is one of those items. You and I referred to our experience, over and over again, as we explained how we don't use identifiable criteria when we judge work. E-Prime provides a systematic way of talking about experiences and acts of judgment and prevents name calling to whatever extent it can prevent construction of statements like "You are a bozo!" In fact, I think I already do this to a great extent; I'm just making it a little more official. You know me - I take moderate positions and judge them based on the results. If it doesn't work out I'll drop it.

Hovig - again, no theory has so much merit that one can't apply it badly. E-Prime offers ridiculous substitutes for "the ball is red," "the glass is on the table," and "my name is Franklin." The ball has a red surface? I see the glass on the table? People call me Franklin? No thank you.

In the case of Jojo, I think that "Jojo's mind strains to produce the slightest sliver of wisdom" has the most flair out of the three sentences. If we can verify it, I have no problem insulting Jojo per se. Unless Jojo is the name of a beloved houseplant, in which case that fact would impress and astound me. No theory will make up for bad faith and I have no illusions to the contrary. I'm trying to make sure that I talk about verifiable experiences, by which I mean experiences that I can verify personally.



August 31, 2004, 12:41 AM

Jerome: Cool. Thank you.

I think the storm will miss Miami, based on hesitant opinions coming out of the National Hurricane Center.



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