March 6, 2012

Ornament is not about pleasure: A look at "overload" and some history

In the reading I've done since posting my argument that ornament is for enhancing memorability, I still haven't found anyone who's noticed the connection to memory. Some arguments were variants of the lazy economic interpretation about ornament being one weapon used in the struggles between and within classes, obviously wrong since it shows up too much in primitive societies where it's used only to distinguish ethnic groups at war with each other, not as weapons themselves in inter-group conflict. Plus ornament, where it's practiced, begins too early in life -- little girls trying on lipstick and little boys getting temporary tattoos are not part of any class conflict.

The mainstream view, though, was more about ornament as giving pleasure to the audience. Functionally the thing could exist without ornament, but adding it on top makes it so much more pleasing. And when certain movements want to strip surfaces of ornament, it's because of some Puritanical drive against the indulgence in pleasure, seen as sinful, decadent, corrupting, etc.

I don't deny that pleasure plays a role, but it works at a later level than what is ornament for, which is memorability. Some ornaments are more memorable than others, and some of that variation could be explained by differences in how pleasurable they are. Still, if anything pleasure is a means to the end of memorability.

How about a quick test, though? If we consume ornamentation for pleasure, then there should be something analogous to sensory overload and a de-toxing period afterward. Consider clear cases of pleasure like delicious food or no-strings sex. There is such a thing as too much delicious food and too much sex. If pushed beyond that limit, we experience an overload of the organs and senses involved in the pleasurable activity. Soon we go into a refractory period where we can't get eat any more ice cream or go for another roll in the hay, even if we wanted to (which we don't).

We feel nothing like that when we're confronted with excessive levels of ornamentation. We feel puzzled about what exactly it is we're looking at -- there is just too much detail to clearly make out what is underneath it all, at a specific level. We may know that it's a building underneath all the high-relief sculpture, or that there's a melody somewhere under all the warbling, but we don't get a feel for the unique building in front of us or the unique melody we're hearing.

Excessive ornamentation is therefore an overload of the learning and memory systems -- we can't learn what specific thing it is that we're looking at, and so cannot store or retrieve it from long-term memory. We turn away feeling un-satisfied -- we wanted something memorable! We do not nearly collapse from our senses being over-satisfied.

What about those recurring movements that want to abolish ornament? Again I think there is some kind of revulsion they have toward pleasure per se, but that isn't the main motivation. They mostly want for buildings, melodies, etc., to be forgettable. Of course they still want them to be remembered -- not because of any memorable features, but because you're just supposed to worship this building and that melody. The arbiters of architectural and musical taste said so. It is always the mark of a low point in culture when the mainstream insists that we remember forgettable things.

This view explains the authoritarianism of such movements, which is hard to account for if they were merely against pleasure. Edit: Perhaps the anti-pleasure view can capture this too, like if people need authorities to steer them away from their inborn inclination toward pleasurable things.

It also goes with the heavily socially avoidant personalities that these people have -- let me be in my cell in the hive, and I'll let you be in yours. Avoidant people need attention and esteem like everyone else, but they don't want to connect with others, so that only leaves attention-whoring. Look at me and tell me how awesome I am, but not because I've reached out to you and done something worth praising.

On the other end of the spectrum, truly ornamental movements have no leaders, issue no manifestos, and have no desire to force their policies on the masses. Being more socially out-reaching, they lack the pretentiousness and self-consciousness that would kill the mood of belonging to a wild crowd atmosphere. They want to be remembered only for having made something memorable.

This shows why the Victorian pro-ornamental school never achieved the greatness of the earlier Romantic-Gothic period (i.e. Regency in England and Empire in France), the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods not too long after, or the New Wave look of the 1970s and '80s (I mean the whole visual culture, including movies by that point). They may have genuinely wanted a return of a healthy level of ornament -- neither bare nor bewildering -- but the zeitgeist was too far in the authoritarian, avoidant, manifesto-writing direction. That hyper-activated sense of self-awareness kills any chance you have of falling into the dream state and letting the ideas, words, and pictures just flow out.


  1. Hey, can you explain the empire waist look of the Regency period? It's not the most flattering look is it, for women? It's hard to pull off?


    Could you give more examples? Especially from Regency in England or Empire in France?

    Great post, as usual.

  2. The waist was very high in the Romantic-Gothic period, like right under the breasts, and dresses kept fairly close to the body as they reached the bottom -- not the body-obscuring tents of the Victorian era. They were also fairly gauzy, showing more of the skin underneath.

    Kroeber and Richardson did a quantitative study of fashion changes from the late 1700s to the mid-1930s. The height of the waist looks like it roughly tracks the homicide rate, though not perfectly. Higher in rising-crime times.

    The exceptions are a period where it got higher from 1850 to 1870, and perhaps part of the Roaring Twenties where it got lower (although that doesn't match my impression).

    You saw that in recent cycle too -- pants, shorts, skirts, swimsuits, underwear, basically everything got really high-waisted from the '60s through the '80s. Since then it's come way down.

    I don't know what it's about, but there may be a link to how long the legs look -- a high waist gives the illusion of a longer unbroken line from the waist down around the hips and through the legs. That's at the cost of creating a "long butt" look in the back, which a lower waistline fixes.

    Come to think of it, a hit song from the '80s was "Legs," and then it changed to "Baby Got Back" by 1992. Guys like leggier girls in more dangerous and unpredictable times?

  3. I'll be checking out some books on Regency and Empire design today, so I'll look up some good examples and maybe put a post together after I'm through with those.

    But just do a google image search for "regency england furniture / architecture" or "empire furniture," etc.

    Much of it, especially in France, looks almost like Art Deco, especially compared to what came before and after. Just the right level of ornamentation, mostly symmetrical, somewhat severe, warm colors, low-relief details, figures from mythology and ancient history, exotic motifs, an Egyptian revival, etc.

  4. Yeah, it seems like every guy nowadays has a tatoo. I was wondering what that was about.

    Compare that to the 60s-80s, when if you had a tatoo, it meant you were either a criminal or member of a biker gang.

  5. First, I genuinely hope you write a book about all this one day. Not to put on any pressure or anything.

    "Come to think of it, a hit song from the '80s was "Legs," and then it changed to "Baby Got Back" by 1992. Guys like leggier girls in more dangerous and unpredictable times?"

    Long legs is associated with low testosterone/high estrogen in men. Here's an excerpt and link:

    "I first came across a connection in a text that noted low testosterone in males was connected with longer legs. Bonobo vs. chimpanzee comparisons suggest bonobos have lankier builds and are more neotenous than chimpanzees. I’ve noted anecdotally that autistic and Asperger’s males seem to display an unusually high proportion of the tall. Scandinavians are more neotenous in several features, including height."

    "Going farther out on this limb, I would expect matrifocal societies to display more height than patrifocal societies, and peoples perhaps 100,000–50,000 years ago, as we first departed Africa, still matrifocal-based, to display more height than societies 10,000–2,000 years ago when patrifocal society became fully engaged."

    Now, I disagree that height means low testosterone(height can be effected by a lot of things). But that being said, it seems reasonable that "lankiness" means lots of estrogen. Think of a lanky nerd vs. a macho guy with an oversized torso.

    If long legs means lots of estrogen in men, it surely means the same thing in women. So in rising crime times, men prefer more feminine women(women with higher estrogen). But in falling crime times, they prefer more adrogynous women.

  6. Klinefelter's syndrome - where a man has an extra X chromosome - is also associated with long limbs.

    Chromosomal disorder that occurs in one out of 500 males. With an extra X chromosome in each cell (XXY), patients look male, with firm, small testes, but they produce no sperm and may have enlarged breasts and buttocks and very long legs. Testosterone is low and pituitary reproductive hormones high. Intelligence is usually normal, but social adjustment can be difficult. Rarer variants cause additional abnormalities, including intellectual disability. In the XX male syndrome, Y chromosome material has been transferred to another chromosome, causing changes typical of Klinefelter syndrome. All variants are treated with androgens.

    Read more:"

    Now, interestingly, increased estrogen in men is associated with social awkwardness. Could generational differences be connected to actual biological differences?

  7. Cool stuff, I had no idea that estrogen influenced leg length. Maybe that accounts for the girls I call five-foot firecrackers -- they look petite and non-threatening, but are more pushy, wound-up, and horny than average-sized girls.

    I don't know what to make of the question about whether guys prefer more feminine girls in different eras. Snooki from Jersey Shore definitely looks more like a garden variety fertility goddess, and so did Marilyn Monroe, compared to Clara Bow or Paulina Porizkova.

    On the other hand, all of that decoration during the Twenties and Eighties, not to mention their greater behavioral and emotional femininity. The haughty and mousy types that pop up in falling-crime times like the mid-century and past 20 years are so off-putting that it can cancel out their more voluptuous figures.

    It seems more like some aspects of femininity are emphasized by women and sought after by men in falling-crime times, and other aspects in rising-crime times. But we'd have to come up with a good objective index of femininity to rule out a widespread move toward one end of the femininity spectrum or the other.

  8. Here's a relevant post for those who missed it, about ideal female body shape in rising vs. falling-crime times:

    Body shape

    I found another image from an iconic visual artist of the mid-century to give more evidence of how focused they were on plump rumps. Here's an Edward Hopper painting with a girl whose figure is meant to distract her boss. In the '80s, she would have been very slender, but back in 1948 she looked like Nelly Furtado:

    Office at Night

  9. Long legs in men also denote higher estrogen?

    I love the rangy look in men.

    A long torso and short legs on a man makes him look like a monkey.

  10. But that being said, it seems reasonable that "lankiness" means lots of estrogen.

    Women, I think on average have relatively taller hips, but shorter actual limb bones (shorter arms and legs). So it depends on whether you look the leg:torso ratio length comes from hip or the actual limb length, in terms of relatively leggy women as having a more female or male morph than average. A quick way to check this would be to compare arm length (since arms and legs tend to grow in proportion). And vice versa for men.

    Estrogen's effect on bone growth are interesting:

    In those bones that extend mainly via endochondral ossification (rather than intramembrous ossification), in particular the long bones like the legs and arms, estrogen generally promotes an increase in length (and it's by aromatization of testosterone to estrogen, more than direct action that men grow and which accounts for male size differences), but that periods of extreme saturation of estrogen promote epiphyseal closure that prevents further growth (and women have more of these earlier than men, who have them, but again mainly via aromatization of testosterone to estrogen - men who lack either estrogen receptors or the aromatase enzyme have delayed epiphyseal closure and skeletal maturation, resulting in very tall stature).

    (paraphrased from Dan Lieberman's Evolution of the Human Head, page 43).

    Klinefelters people may have some interesting thing going on in which they are generally more estrogen satured than males, but like males do not have the early and extreme saturation points which cause XX females long bones to stop growing earlier, so end up having very tall stature.

  11. Be interesting if there was some way of checking whether people who wear uniforms in their life (prisons, military, school, police, &c.) have impaired levels of memory of their day to day procedure than if there were a free dress code. Or if this varies depending on the elaborateness of the military uniform compared to civilian dress or not.

    Might link into the theory of uniforms being used to "de-individuate" in memory formation I would expect aids individual identity formation.


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