Testing the rules

Human beings exist in language. Words and people change each other constantly. The meaning of words shifts as they slip from one object to another like viruses. And then what we mean, or think we mean, changes too when we use them.

To prove something originally meant to test it, not to show its truth. The root of the word is Latin, through old French, and it signified the process by which people try to find the truth of something. But the word’s slippage from the test to the result of the test has left us with some odd leftovers, conceptual appendices that can cause problems. ‘Proofreading’ has no sense as a term unless it is understood to mean examining a text for accuracy. Bakers ‘prove’ their dough to test that the yeast is active.

And the saying ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule’ only makes sense if ‘proves’ is taken to mean ‘tests’. A proverb which is simply a statement of scientific method – that something can be accepted as generally true only until an exception can be found – has become a licence to turn that method on its head. In everyday use, ‘the exception that proves the rule’ is a way of avoiding the need to justify a wilful or aberrant idea.

We need rules. They are essential both to daily life and to the development of the knowledge that has taken humanity from the Bronze Age to the International Space Station in the blink of an historical eye. The complexity of reality would be paralysing if we did not simplify it by agreeing common interpretations and shared meanings. But one of the ways we get from the Bronze Age to the ISS is to test those rules and the beliefs they hold. Scientists, farmers, philosophers, mystics, gardeners, soldiers, artists – in every field of human endeavour, there are people who, by their exceptional capacities, prove and then rewrite the rules.

A couple of years ago, in explaining Regular Marvels to an academic, I found myself describing it as an attempt to do research using the rules of art. It’s still the best short explanation I have, though I recognise it needs unpacking, which is one of the things this blog tries to do. In using the rules of one field of knowledge to work in another, I am trying to test both – rules and fields, art and social science.

My work seeks to be an exception that proves some existing rules. How far, if at all, I succeed, and what value is ascribed to the results is for others to decide – but it won’t depend on whether I prove anything in the modern sense. I’m not out to prove, but to test. I’m doing it because I want to and because I can. There’s a lot to be said for having a title, a salary and a pension, whether in the arts world or in academia. But there are too many rules for me.


Restless meanings

Classical music is as important as photography in Terence Davieselegiac film about the people and city of Liverpool in the last century. Archive film of labouring lives, in streets and homes, factories and docks, are underscored by great washes of Mahler, Brahms. Perotin and Tavener. It’s almost always the slow movements and their juxtaposition with the images of hard lives is very moving.

The meaning, though, is ambiguous. The music is one artist’s addition to pictures filmed by other artists with their own, perhaps complex, intentions. Does its introduction signify the essential dignity of people struggling to make the most of the mean hand they’ve been dealt? Or does it inspire sadness at the waste of human potential produced by industrial society? Perhaps it’s like the Last Post, simply a requiem for what has been lost.


The music itself cannot have been familiar or valued by many of those over whose faces it plays, if only because poverty will have kept them out of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra‘s concerts. Even radios will often have been beyond their means, at least before the 1960s. And that is before the question of taste. There’s a short burst of the Hippy Hippy Shake to introduce a brief (and refreshingly unsentimental) appearance by The Beatles, then Davies explains that he lost interest in popular music when Presley arrives, turning entirely to classical work and his ‘beloved Bruckner’. But that was not the experience of most of his fellow Liverpudlians, who followed The Beatles into liberating new worlds, and it is hard not to feel that Davies is reclaiming his city’s soundscape for the music that he values.


But ambiguity is one of art’s – particularly music’s – great qualities. It keeps real art alive, restlessly shifting between possibilities, between interpretations, between meanings. So the uncertainty of Davies’ intentions (to me, not to him) is central to this film’s power. With its other qualities – its formal beauty, its passion and bitterness, its narrative subtlety – this ambiguity is part of what makes you want to watch Of Time and the City again, even as it ends. It’s one reason why the film can speak in its intensely local accents to people across the world, and one reason why it’s likely to be watched long after the pleasing but forgettable films made the same year.

Without the music, the film would be less moving and less interesting, easier to understand, but less meaningful.