Sunday, 25 June 2017

The banality of relationships

"I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk
Your head rush, fly like Egyptian musk
Aww shit, Wu-Tang Clan spark the wicks, and
However I master the trick just like Nixon
Causin' terror, quick damage your whole era
Hardrocks is locked the fuck up or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous 'cause I wreck this
Dangerous, I blow spots like Waco, Texas"
- Ghostface Killah on the Wu-Tang Clan song Bring Da Ruckus

More than once I've pondered whether noticing (and pointing out) a resemblance between two things is banal.

Rappers for whom everything is like something else are one example (although don't get me wrong: I think Wu-Tang are great), but there are also critics who attack someone for resembling something:

"[Michael] Gove sort-of looks like a fucking balloon animal or something doesn't he, he has that kind-of eerie air to him."
- The comedian Frankie Boyle talking about a British politician

I've also been guilty of it myself, as with this post juxtaposing paintings by Tiepolo and Mondrian.

But it turns out there are far fewer ways of relating two different concepts than I'd realised. According to the philosopher David Hume, there are just three: resemblance, contiguity in time or space, and cause or effect.

It's worth reiterating that, I think: there are only three different ways in which any two ideas or thoughts can be connected.

(Steven Pinker, in whose book The Sense of Style I learned the above, says linguists have identified about a dozen different kinds of connection, but that the extra nine or so are essentially just subdivisions of Hume's trio.)

So if I'm a rapper trying to inject some colour into my rhymes, I've only got three options.

Likewise, if I'm a critic examining something, I can only introduce ideas not inherent to the thing itself in one of three ways (unless I want my writing to be disjointed and incomprehensible; not so much of a problem with rap, admittedly).

Hell, even if I'm just making small talk with someone at work or in a bar, there are only three things I can do to keep my words from drying up, without abruptly changing the subject.

Suddenly I feel so much better about my shitness at chit chat: it's not only that I lack imagination, it's also that there are so few courses of action anyone can resort to!

Quite why society hasn't yet invented and embraced a device for generating topics of conversation at random, I don't know. Maybe that can be my gift to the world...

"I don't really know anything about cactuses ... Or the Spanish flu ... Or temperance ... Ah look, a flamingo! Did you know that science can't yet explain why flamingos stand on one leg? We do however know that they're pink because they eat algae ..."


  1. I posit that it is ONLY through relationships that the human mind can apprehend and comprehend reality, that the division of reality into 'parts' and the 'relationships' between those parts is the foundation of all human reasoning and thus, from our perspective, the foundation of reality itself. The 'parts' of reality, objects, concepts, types, categories, sets etc have 'meaning'in their relationships to other parts. Creating new and novel divisions, delineating new parts and identifying and comparing relationships (consequently making meta-relationships) i.e. making meaning is in fact human creativity. So don't knock it. ��

    1. Sorry, only just seeing this. I'm not sure I was knocking the use of relationships... Or maybe I was, but only to demystify the process in order to discover how to do it better!