Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

16 JANUARY, 2012

The Origin of Snark: Original Illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” 1876

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Snark is something we encounter — and possibly employ — daily, its permeating ubiquity and cultural givenness having eclipsed any sort of curiosity about its history and origins. But while snark might be a weapon from the modern hipster’s arsenal, the linguistic heritage of the word itself dates back many generations — to 1874, to be precise. Its first recorded occurrence in language is in the title of Lewis Carroll‘s nonsensical poem The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits), which he penned at the age of 42, nine years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Cue in some favorite and little-known illustrations for his masterpiece.)

The poem chronicles “with infinite humour the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature” — the Snark. The original edition, published in 1876 by Macmillan, featured intricate black-and-white artwork by English historical genre painter Henry Holiday — a collaboration rumored to have taken place largely through a correspondence of letters between Holiday and Carroll. (Cue in this morning’s famous correspondence.)

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13 JANUARY, 2012

Scrap Irony: Irreverent Illustrated Cultural Commentary by Edward Gorey circa 1961

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What the physiological effects of space flight have to do with the art of courtship and the Oedipus complex.

Inimitable mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey — notorious letter-writer, illuminator of day and night, purveyor of mischievous eroticism — had a rare gift for irreverent storytelling and dark humor, so it was only fitting he would parter with poet and satirist Felicia Lamport. Over the course of more than two decades, Gorey illustrated three of Lamport’s satirical verse collections, beginning in 1961 with Scrap Irony — an anthology of witty, sarcastic observations on everything from courtship to vice to the era’s hottest technologies, like cybernetics and space flight. Gorey created artwork for the dust jacket, title page, chapter titles, and many of the individual poems. With Gorey’s visual irreverence and Lamport’s penchant for puns, the book defined snark long before snark was a weapon of choice in the arsenal of modern hipsters.

Though the book is long out of print, you can find a copy with some sifting through Amazon or, if you’re lucky, your favorite local Gorey-loving bookstore.

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13 JANUARY, 2012

Elevator Groupthink: A Psychology Experiment in Conformity, 1962

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What vintage Candid Camera can teach us about the cultural role of the global Occupy movement.

The psychology of conformity is something we’ve previously explored, but its study dates back to the 1950s, when Gestalt scholar and social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch, known today as the Asch conformity experiments. Among them is this famous elevator experiment, originally conducted as a part of a 1962 Candid Camera episode titled “Face the Rear.”

But, while amusing in its tragicomic divulgence of our capacity for groupthink, this experiment tells only half the story of Asch’s work. As James Surowiecki reminds us in the excellent The Wisdom of Crowds, Asch went on to reveal something equally important — that while people slip into conformity with striking ease, it also doesn’t take much to get them to snap out of it. Asch demonstrated this in a series of experiments, planting a confederate to defy the crowd by engaging in the sensible, rather than nonsensical, behavior. That, it turned out, was just enough. Having just one peer contravene the group made subjects eager to express their true thoughts. Surowiecki concludes:

Ultimately, diversity contributes not just by adding different perspectives to the group but also by making it easier for individuals to say what they really think. [...] Independence of opinion is both a crucial ingredient in collectively wise decisions and one of the hardest things to keep intact. Because diversity helps preserve that independence, it’s hard to have a collectively wise group without it.”

Perhaps the role of the global Occupy movement and other expressions of contemporary civic activism is that of a cultural confederate, spurring others — citizens, politicians, CEOs — to face the front of the elevator at last.

HT Not Exactly Rocket Science

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