cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Genius, Genii, and the History of How the West was Thought Up

Today, in between marking and picking away at missing scenes, I have been reading journal articles on genius. The topic turns out to be a much more fascinating -- and even more fraught -- than I had realised.

To put this in to personal context, one of the keenest lessons I learned at school was this: my intelligence was boring. For instance, I once did this vocabulary test when I was about 10, and after about 20 minutes and having read about two-thirds of the test booklet, I got to "pneumonia." I stumbled very slightly on the pronunciation, never having seen the word before, but corrected myself immediately. The teacher used it as an excuse to cut the test short, even though every other student had been allowed to spell out words s-l-o-w-l-y. It wasn't being stopped that incensed me, it was the double standard of not being able to go to my limits like everyone else.

That double message -- be smart; no, stop it -- is what has always bugged me about these labels and expectations. Gifted. Talented. Yeah, right. It might as well have been: boring; snob; scary. I hated that the world didn't make sense, that people said one thing but meant another and weren't smart enough to hide it from me.

I'm actually over all that now. It probably doesn't sound like it, because yeah, there's some residual bitterness at the wasted time, but I just don't care anymore. So what if I'm smarter than this person, or dumber than that one? It's irrelevant. And maybe that's why I finally went and did some reading on this topic -- academic turgidity is always a good way to exorcise demons. :)

I thought some of you might be interested in the highlights of what I've read so far, so I've given the good bits version behind the cut, complete with a brief history of all western philosophy as it has impacted on the post-modern world, and not to mention an excited aside about Rodney McKay and the Genii. *nods seriously*

Let's start with the dictionary definition, because that's where I went first:

  1. an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc.: the genius of Mozart.
  2. a person having such capacity.
  3. a person having an extraordinarily high intelligence rating on a psychological test, as an IQ above 140.
  4. natural ability or capacity; strong inclination: a special genius for leadership.
  5. distinctive character or spirit, as of a nation, period, or language.
  6. the guardian spirit of a place, institution, etc.
  7. either of two mutually opposed spirits, one good and the other evil, supposed to attend a person throughout life.
  8. a person who strongly influences for good or ill the character, conduct, or destiny of a person, place, or thing: Rasputin, the evil genius of Russian politics.
  9. genie (defs. 1, 3).

[Origin: 1350–1400; ME < L: tutelary deity or genius of a person; cf. genus]

—Synonyms 4. gift, talent, aptitude, faculty. ("genius" n.p.)

There are several interesting things about this series of points that I would not have recognised before reading the essays I'm about to discuss. To start with, when I first read points 1. and 2., they seemed like fairly typical definitions, but now I realise they are shorthand for a whole history of debate between: 1. genius as an abstract, external (usually God-given) gift that is occasionally visited on people, and 2. the modern conception of genius as a person who is born with and intrinsically contains this thing called genius.

Also, as a side-note, the dichotomy present between 1. and 2. was fundamental to the generation of the subject/environment split which affects pretty much all of modern thought (you know: the idea that people are individuated selves, separate and distinct from nature and/or god).

See what I mean about the History of How the West was Thought Up? And you thought I was kidding. Ha ha ha.

Getting back to the definition, Point 3. is linked to:
  • the general acceptance of the theory of evolution and the consequent rise of science-based racism and the eugenics debates;
  • the uptake of the idea that it's possible to quantify populations statistically, and the consequent idea of statistical norms. This includes the notion that "normal" mentality exists on a spectrum (or bell curve) rather than in a binary opposition to all "other" mentalities, such as madness/idiocy/genius; and
  • the more recent adoption of a positive notion of "genius" which is largely due to a capitalist imperative to increase performance and creative outcomes.

4. and 5. are variations on those themes, with some harking back to the language root of "gen" as in "generation".

6., 7., 8. and 9. relate back to the Classical conception of the genii as godlike beings who teach Men lessons.

So. Are you boggled by how much history is packed into those nine points? Because I sure as hell am. It doesn't end there, though. I got all of that background from about ten essays, so I can only imagine how much more is still to find. Here are some of the interesting bits.

Lateral Thinking Defines Genius
I started by reading Raymond Carr's essay on "Education and Genius," in which he argues that education can actually stunt genius by forming these mental ruts that are hard to think around. This is hardly an astonishing idea, as I'd thought of it myself independently. It has a few interesting corollaries, though. Carr points out geniuses don't necessarily get high marks in school, as they don't necessarily accept standard authorities/dogma, and that for this reason many closed-answer IQ tests fail to pick up people who will become high achievers in their fields (172-3).

Also interesting was his contention that absent-mindedness and day-dreaminess are not just cliches but signs of genius, as they allow lateral thinking. This resonated with me, as I've often slept on a problem and woken up with the answer, especially when writing fiction.
Reverie, so characteristic of genius, seems to imply imaginative (recombinative) thinking, which improves responsiveness along lateral cross-connections between the (relatively isolated) neural routes "potentiated" by repetitive training. Lateral responsiveness allows electric excitation to diverge from the neural routes laid down by educators, more readily if the genius resisted learning by rote (by mimicry), and it constructs a network of responsive neurons [...]. Forgetfulness and invention seem to be two aspects of one phenomenon: the breaking out of mental ruts. (Carr 173)

However, Carr chooses male examples of genius as his evidence, and I found that unexamined bias undermined his credibility somewhat. Many women have been privately educated, and show the signs of genius as he describes it, eg. Austen. So I have to ask, what else has he missed, in such a one-eyed look at genius?

Interestingly, all the other substantive articles I read engaged with this gender bias. The consensus was that the label of genius, as with so many other labels, has historically been used as a gatekeeper for white, heteronormative, male power, with some added class issues as well (largely through the art versus popularity debate that's raged through so much of critical theory and the politics of taste).

The Politics of Genius
The next article I read, McDermott's "Materials for a Confrontation with Genius as a Personal Identity," engaged with exactly this kind of political usage of the idea of genius:
The core definitions of genius not only change over the centuries, but change in a direction well tuned to the political and economic circumstances in which they are worked on, fought over, and used. This is no less true for genius theories that counter core values. (279)

I found this a convincing counter-argument, which discusses and debunks the ways in which genius has been constructed to support privilege by keeping people in their place, based on a hierarchy of mind (as opposed to a hierarchy of class, divine right, etc). McDermott also quotes Herbert Dieckmann, who makes a strong case that Diderot popularised the idea that genius is not temporarily bestowed (by God), but is rather something intrinsic to (white, male) individuals (280).

McDermott then puts this idea of genius into a wider context:
The term genius did not change on its own, but with a set of related terms: creativity, individual, imagination, progress, knowledge, science, insanity, race, intelligence, and human nature. Together they point to an emerging theory of mind well fitted to the emerging capitalism that has been the context for the institutionalization of genius. [...] The genius under capitalism has an efficient mind: less has to go in, while more comes out; less to be worried about, and more to be sold. (284)

Next, I went on to Edward Cahill's "Federalist Criticism and the Fate of Genius". This was long and a slog, because I just don't know enough about nineteenth-century American history to have a good sense of the context. However, there were some interesting bits that speak to similar issues of the construction of genius:
[T]he idea of genius began to appeal more directly to democratic individualism by proclaiming the theoretical potential of every citizen, whether cultivated or not, while muting such populist claims in a more abstract vision of aesthetic humanism. Genius was everywhere and in everyone, but its expression was limited to those Emerson would, in "Self-Reliance," call the "Great men" in whose work ordinary men recognized their "own rejected thoughts." In other words, the dialectic of genius and taste in the early national period first staged the revolutionary emergence of individualism within a republican context and then the gradual accommodation of elitism within a democratic context. (Cahill 696)

I find this politicisation of genius completely fascinating! Cahill adds, "[T]he idea of genius simultaneously registered two paradoxical values: a potentially radical liberty of imagination and a cultural politics of exclusion." (711)

Putting it all Together
The most amazing essay I've read so far, however, is Bernadette Baker's "From the Genius of the Man to the Man of Genius." This was a really dense read, but I had at least seven OMG, that explains so much! moments while I was reading it. Bascially, Baker takes an historical approach, looking at the usage of the word genius in the Classical, Medieval and Modern periods, and tracking the ambiguity of its meaning, and how that maps to the political. She argues that the word has been ambiguous for different reasons in each era, but that the accumulated baggage has influenced each following ambiguity. So for instance, early in the paper she says:
Drummond Bone argues that the word genius is "a kind of aporia" in that it refers to the "what" that escapes the categories of comprehension and of speech. The categories from which it is in the act of escaping tenously define it. The actual occurrence of the word might thus be seen as "a signal of the absence of a definable concept" -- genius tries to explain the inexplicable. (qtd. in Baker "Part 1" 4)

That's just... yeah! Throughout this whole paper I kept thinking of the way Rodney McKay is written; it's like he's an emblem of the problematic discursive space Baker considers, while at the same time, he is the archetypal white male genius! I love that he's both; it kind of supports her whole argument, in a weirdly story-as-history kind of way.

But the best part is where she talks about how genius became a moral signifier for heteronormativity as well as whiteness and maleness, because it's like the SGA writers read up on the history of genius and then, I don't even know, turned it into a paper aeroplane or something. Look at this quote (which is totally out of context, but ignore that, it's too hard to summarise meaningfully here):
Together, the disarticulation of Man from same sex love, the contours of an emergent humanism, and the pivotal operation and ambiguous location of genii themselves [...] provide a set of conceptual affiliations that were later taken up and refined. That is, in retrospect [such texts provide] a set of literary arrangements that suggest the possibility of a conceptual reliance upon the subject as an individual (i.e. male) human whose centring and discipline was thought necessary for articulating heteronormative moral codes in an environment of plenitude. (Baker "Part 1" 14)

*waves hands*

OMG. Do you see? With the use of the Genii in SGA as a direct physical threat to Rodney, and a moral threat to Atlantis, and the way the Earth people's ethics are so morally dubious coming from their plenitude compared to the general Pegasus poverty, plus the queer positioning of Rodney and John... not to mention Rodney's disparagement of the soft sciences (Nature!) and his constant refrain of "genius" without seeming to have any understanding of his reliance of intuition, and that whole Ascension ideal of the Ancients (gods) which was arbitrarily visited upon Rodney. The whole dynamic of the show is like a microcosm of the history of genius being played out in weekly popular entertainment. I mean, could it possibly be on purpose? Or is this stuff so intrinsically tied to the notion of genius that it couldn't help but be part of the show? Are the same kinds of issues present in House (I haven't seen enough recent episodes to know)?

Anyway, I'll put away my inner geek now, but I think all those echoes are awesome, whether they are deliberate or not (they called them the Genii!).

But to finish off with, here's another link between the conceptualisation of genius and the History of the West. Have you ever wanted to know why our wider culture lauds originality so strongly? Yep, you guessed it, it's one of the "defining" features of genius, according Edward Young, who wrote in 1759:
An Original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of Genius; it grows, it is not made: Imitations are often a sort of Manufacture wrought up by those Mechanics, Art, and Labour, out of pre-existant materials not their own. (qtd. in Baker "Part 2" 82)

You can see from this quote that the nature/self split was not clearly formulated when he was writing, but that idea of genius equalling originality and being the ultimate value has stuck and stuck.

What I've come away with after reading all of this is a new appreciation for why being intelligent is treated so bizarrely in our culture. We get the lip service of it being good, that as students we should work hard and excel. But then, in a hundred subtle ways, we are told, don't stand out, don't be too smart. And of course we are; how could we not be with this much baggage packed into the notion of genius?

I've enjoyed this journey way more than I expected. It's got me thinking in new directions, and I think I'm going to have to read up some more on this. If you know of any good sources, please pass them on.

* * *

Baker, Bernadette. "From the Genius of the Man to the Man of Genius: Part 1: A Slippery Subject." History of Education Review 34.1 2005: 1-18.

--. "From the genius of the man to the man of genius: Part 2: Inheriting (ideas about) genius." History of Education Review 34.2 2005: 78-94.

Cahill, Edward. "Federalist Criticism and the Fate of Genius." American Literature 76.4 2004: 687-716.

Carr, Raymond T. "Education and Genius." Creativity and Innovation Management 6.3 1997: 168-176.

"genius." Unabridged 1.1. Random House, Inc. 12 Feb. 2008. < >.

McDermott, Ray. "Materials for a Confrontation with Genius as a Personal Identity." Ethos 32.2 2004: 278-288.

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Tags: acafandom, discussion, reading
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