M.77 “find this out; but”

I am publishing here a further excerpt from my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The commentary to the meme discusses titles of art works, classical editorial practices, and Aristotelian virtue ethics.

M.77 find this out; but


M.77 find this out; but Composed: April 20th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to…”, black. TB2: “Thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time!!!”, black.

This meme uses a well-known quotation from the poet and classicist A.E. Housman: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time” (Housman 1905, xi).  … [A]lthough Batman is clearly interrupting Robin, he is not hijacking the conversation to reframe Robin’s sentiment. Rather, the rhetorical effect of the entire original quotation is preserved intact.

What is not preserved intact, however, is the text of the original quotation. The artist has extracted part of the original from Batman’s and Robin’s encounter. Even with this text missing, their dialogue is entirely comprehensible but in fact, the extracted text is not entirely absent and shows up as (or in?) the meme’s title. The context from which it has been removed, in the meantime, has been slightly altered. Robin’s part of the original has had three dots added at its end. Nor, surely, are these the three dots of ellipsis, signaling that some text has gone missing. Their function is to indicate, rather, that Robin’s speech is interrupted. (This function they discharge largely by graphic means. They are like perforations along which the text is torn in two.) Batman’s segment of the original has its first letter capitalized. (It also has three exclamation marks not in Housman but that is not relevant to the title-text’s immediate surroundings.) Thus, having been extracted, the title-text can fit back properly into its original context at neither end. It is like a jigsaw piece the tabs and blanks of the neighboring pieces of which have been damaged. It has, to all intents and purposes, become an orphan, ripped from a home it can no longer return to.[1]

Turning to the content of Housman’s sentence, let us ask the obvious question: what is it, exactly, that three minutes’ thought would find out were thought not so irksome and three minutes not such a long time? The text is from the preface to his edition of the satires of Juvenal. Housman is discussing the principles of textual criticism and taking to task many of his contemporaries and predecessors. One fault many of these are alleged to have is a mechanical reliance on rules in editing. The 18th century, he says, had as its rule to go with the reading (if there is one) found in a simple majority of manuscripts. The rule of the second half of the 19th century, by contrast, is always to go with the reading of the best manuscript unless what it has is utterly impossible (by which he seems to mean principally ungrammatical or unmetrical). (He describes this as the “fashion of leaning on one manuscript like Hope on her anchor and trusting to heaven that no harm will come of it” (v).) This rule might find expression in an editor’s preface in such words as “I have made it my rule to follow a wherever possible, and only where its readings are patently erroneous have I had recourse to b or c or d” (xi) (though Housman writes acerbically that no eminent scholar would state the rule thus baldly, only his “unreflecting imitators”). Housman then poses a dilemma. Either b, c, and d are derived from a, in which case they should never be preferred to it, or they do not, in which case the rule assumes what is clearly false, that all errors in a will be “impossible readings.” It is this dilemma which three minutes’ thought would find out. Instead of the mechanical application of rules, Housman thinks critics should exercise their faculty of discernment and judgment. Each textual uncertainty will be attended by any number of circumstances a critic may take into account. One cannot detect errors only on the grounds of impossibility but must pay attention, above all, to the sense of what is expressed. A manuscript reading may be judged in error because it describes something implausible or inconsistent with other parts of the text too. (Which is not to say, of course, that these should be turned into new rules and an author never allowed, on principle, to be implausible or inconsistent.) Continue reading “M.77 “find this out; but””

Shmidentity politics

What kind of relation is like identity but holds between a thing and itself (rather than between necessarily co-referring names, for example) by stipulation? Why, shmidentity, of course! The term “shmidentity” (actually “schmidentity,” but see infra on the spelling) was introduced by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity and, following his example, the “sh-“ or “shm-“ prefix is now often used in philosophy for properties or relations that resemble other properties or relations but have some feature that may be controversial in the case of the prototypes built in by stipulation.


The linguist David L. Gold, in a paper in the Jewish Language Review (volume 3, 1983) entitled “A Story about Pocahontas, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull in Yiddish,” refers to the fact that languages in decline (such as Yiddish) often become “ludic languages, that is, languages used largely for jocular purposes, often only for low comedy and vulgar humor” (113). Having made this claim he cites, without quoting, a responsum by him to a reader’s query in an earlier issue of the journal which I here excerpt:

Since Yiddish word-initial /š/ + consonant sounds “funny” to a sizable number of English ears, any Yiddish word containing it is automatically recategorized [as humorous] when entering English (e.g. shmir). Perhaps the fact that initial /šm/ is a pejorizer in Yiddish and EAE [Eastern Ashkenazic English]… has contributed to this feeling among English-speakers. (Volume 2, 1982, 302)

The use of the term “shmidentity,” therefore (and similar neologisms in the philosophy literature) is culturally insensitive, appealing to the ‘funny’-sounding phonemes of a language that translated Freud, Einstein, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson, among countless others, for a quick laugh now that that language has fallen on hard times and is forced to wear the fool’s motley. I recommend this usage be avoided in philosophy henceforth.

As for the spelling, “schmidentity” (the form used by Kripke himself) reflects the efforts of those who have sought to cast Yiddish as low German and transcribe it into Latin characters on the model of German spelling. It is, therefore, another blow to the dignity of Yiddish. Standard Yiddish Orthography romanizes /š/ as “sh.” If one must, therefore, continue to use this offensive neologism, I recommend that at least the spelling “shmidentity” be given.

This was to have been a footnote to a footnote to a footnote in my in-progress book. If anyone is interested, here is the tree of footnotes. This note on “shmidentity” [3] would have been a footnote to [2] a discussion of the title of Gold’s paper “A Story about Pocahontas, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull in Yiddish” and the question of whether the story, given in his paper, could really be said to be ‘about’ those figures. (I draw on Robin Jeshion’s views about the link between proper names and de re thought and talk and, obviously, on Kripke’s views about historical chains and reference.) This itself is a footnote to [1] a discussion of whether my Yiddish Batman meme commits the same kind of assault on the dignity of Yiddish that I here lay at the feet of “shmidentity.” (See this earlier post and the links to yet earlier posts it contains.) This, in turn, is a footnote to [0] the main text which is the commentary on my Yiddish Batman meme.

Simcha Bunim/simkhe-bunim

When I first created the Yiddish Batman meme, I had to come up with a ‘Jewish’ name for Batman.


Robin: What is your Jewish name, Batman?
Batman: Call me *Mr* Batman, Boy Wonder.
And my Jewish name is Simcha Bunim.

I don’t now remember the exact thought process that eventuated in “Simcha Bunim,” other than that I wanted something that would sound a bit comic. (Apologies to anyone whose name actually is Simcha Bunim.) I see now, for reasons briefly mooted here, that I may have taken a first, tottering step towards vicious stereotyping at that point. The question of the meme’s relation to stereotyping is something I have now incorporated discussion of in the commentary on the meme. I was greatly helped on my way to this end by my ‘irascible’ expert (introduced here and further mentioned here). Truth be told, he came to the conclusion that my meme, in the light of the commentary (of which he saw an earlier, unreconstructed version), was “repulsive”! (You can see I am still processing the trauma of this.)

But the point of the present post is not to linger on that calamity, but to express my amazement at just how much there has been to say about the name “Simcha Bunim.” I wonder if I just got lucky and picked a name that raised so many interesting issues, or whether any name would have yielded comparable riches.


Continue reading “Simcha Bunim/simkhe-bunim”

af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh

In my previous post on this blog I mentioned that I had just finished the commentary on a Batman meme that was in Yiddish. I had sought a lot of help in writing this commentary since, not to put too fine a point on it, I often didn’t know what I was talking about. Among those to whom I turned was a very distinguished but somewhat irascible expert on Yiddish. (Do I give away his identity, to those in the know, if I say that he prefers to call that language “Yidish”?)

I sent him the completed draft of the commentary, 8,000-9,000 words long, and, with amazing generosity, he read it all! In it, I briefly mentioned the role Google Translate played in my quest to obtain the Yiddish text for the meme.  I summarize this expert’s response to my commentary using a Yiddish proverb he himself used in reference to Google Translate’s Yiddish:


I can only hope, on the basis of his kind offer to help me improve my text, that he does not think me too much of a fool! (But note, for future reference, the small “a” at the beginning of “af a nar.”)

Continue reading “af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh”

A Yiddish Meme

One of the memes in the Batman Meme Project is entirely in Yiddish. I have just finished the nearly six-week process of writing (a draft of) the commentary on it – and it has turned out to be the longest commentary, by far, yet written. (I suspect it will remain the longest, but who knows! I didn’t expect this one to be so long.)

When I was composing the meme, back in Spring 2016, I had help with the Yiddish from a friend of a friend. I had produced the Yiddish text by using Google Translate, but it didn’t look all that right to me and I had no way of knowing if it was idiomatic, or even basically correct. This kind person helped get it into shape and, as part of that, she changed the Romanization (Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters) according to a standard established by YIVO – a Jewish and Yiddish cultural organization founded in 1925. That, she said in an off-hand remark, gave the text a ‘Lithuanian slant.’

Although my commentary touches on many things (the relation of speech and writing, Jewish naming practices, the etymology of one particular Jewish name, Robin Jeshion’s proposed principle of Single Tagging – basically, you shouldn’t name something if you think it already has a name, and others), the thing I got most caught up in was this ‘Lithuanian slant.’

Continue reading “A Yiddish Meme”

Names and descriptions

When I composed the bulk of my Batman memes, between January and March 2016, I knew very little of Batman except the 1960s TV series, which I loved and which defines the characters of Batman and Robin for me. (One of the memes uses the image of the Joker, as played by Cesar Romero


and another that of Burgess Meredith’s Penguin.) In preparing to write my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I thought I should rectify that and so I was happy to find a recent book had been published on the history and cultural significance of the various incarnations of Batman – The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, by Glen Weldon. From that book, I learned that several of the themes I will deal with in my book are in fact pre-figured in the Batman corpus from the very beginning.

Continue reading “Names and descriptions”


At a recent presentation in London of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I structured my remarks entirely around an explication of the work’s difficult title. There, it was a matter of associating each component of the title (including, I hasten to add, its punctuation) with either knowledge an audience would need to understand what the book will be (i.e. what a meme is, what a Batman meme is) or with aspects of the book itself that I wanted to present to the audience. But, now continuing to plough my way through Gerard Genette’s maddening book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (maddening because the topic is so interesting and yet the discussion of it so long and boring), I am inspired to say something about the rhetoric of my title.

Genette notes that it is virtually routine for academic books to have a title that “evokes symbolically or cryptically” (by means, often, of metaphor, metonymy, antiphrasis, etc.) and a subtitle that “gives a more literal indication of the theme.” American publishers, he says, call the main title “catchy” (or even “sexy”!!) but the subtitle “is often a complete cure for love.” Occasionally, however, he notes that the relation between title and sub-title, with regards to their capacities to enflame or douse the reader’s ardor, may be reversed.

Continue reading “Title/subtitle”

Some thoughts on onomastic fetishism

As you may know if you’ve followed anything about my current project, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! will be presented as a catalogue of Evnine’s (my) Batman memes by an editor who is, as I have started putting it, notionally distinct from the creator of the memes. That is, the editor will write about the artist in the third person, will conjecture about him and his motivations, will draw on evidence to substantiate those conjectures, etc. But I will not conceal the fact that the artist and editor are in fact the same person.

I am now reading Gerard Genette’s book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation and one of the paratexts he discusses is the author’s name. And as it happens, I have wondered for some time how this will work in my book. The full title is A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I had initially thought that that the ‘authorship’ of the book would take the form “edited by Simon J. Evnine.” But a doubt about this way of proceeding arose from the crassest of material concerns. Would a university administrator see “edited by” and count the book less towards future pay raises than an authored monograph? Should I, to lay claim to my work, follow the title simply with “by Simon J. Evnine”?

Genette distinguishes between mere pseudonymity and the creation, by an author, of a genuine alternative, imaginary author, replete with her own paratextual presence (prefaces, honors, etc), as, for example, is the case with Kierkegaard. In my own case, there is no pseudonymity involved, but something of the same problem of classification arises. Have I, with paratextual repletion, created two personae here, both of whom share my name? Or is there a mere “onymity” (the term Genette coins to refer to the standard case in which an author uses her own name), but with some weird stuff added in which I refer to myself in the third person?

On top of it all, naming itself is one of the themes that will run through the work. Genette writes that “use of a pseudonym unites a taste for masks and mirrors, for indirect exhibitionism, and for controlled histrionics with delight in invention, in borrowing, in verbal transformation, in onomastic fetishism” (52-3). Perhaps the moral to be drawn from my own case is that all of this is true for the use, not just of a pseudonym, but of any name, even one’s own. I am certainly planning for my book to engage in all those things Genette lists.

Single Tagging

As part of the commentary on one of my Batman memes, I plan to divulge the words of a song I have composed. It is one of those cumulative songs which gets longer and longer by the addition of a new element each time through – a musical version of “I packed in my grandmother’s trunk…”, and the elongation is effected through the introduction, one at a time, of the many existing names I gave a cat I used to have as a pet.

Now, today in class, I was teaching Robin Jeshion’s paper “Acquaintanceless De Re Belief” and she there suggests that naming in general is governed by (though not as a strict condition) a principle of Single Tagging – roughly “Don’t give a name to something that already has one.” I questioned this principle in class in the light of my practice (almost a compulsion – there is definitely something non-voluntary about it) of giving many names to my pets. And one of the students was like “Me too!!!!!!”

So, I have two questions: Is this a recognized thing, this quasi-compulsion to give multiple names to pets? And do people find Single Tagging plausible?