The Venus Effect

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Recognitions
Diego Velázquez. Rokeby Venus, c. 1647–51. 122 × 177 cm. National Gallery, London.

Velázquez’s Venus is perhaps the most naked on record: with nothing but her lovechild, Cupid, to hold up a mirror to her difuse reflection (deflection?), she lacks most of the mythic giveaways of her traditional representations. She is unlandscaped, unjewelled and unmyrtled. She can’t be [M]arsed. If not for the luxuriant fabrics she is recumbent on, or for that fleshly tongue of curtain, her room is as featureless as Cupid’s left leg, which is as faded as her face. Seen glancingly, she is the picture of a modern, mortal woman: an adaptation that, to some extent, accounts for her survival into our days.  

An icon in a history of iconoclasm, she first materialised in the private rooms of Felipe IV, to join two other mirror-carrying Venuses by Titian and Rubens. Though female nudes were rare and heavily policed in the Baroque Spanish court, Velázquez ―as court painter― was as heavily protected; his Venus admired by the king and by some of the realm’s most powerful courtiers, who made sure she didn’t succumb to hazard or censorship.

This Venus is not self-absorbed, but considerate of the efforts required to protect her. She shows us her backside but not her pudendum, unlike her more brazen revision as Goya’s Nude Maja. Her gaze is averted from the viewer, but complicit with the painter. By hook and by crook, she made it to England, where she took on her Rokeby title and garnered the devotion of another king, Edward VII, who secured her placement in London’s National Gallery.  

In Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich has Matisse retorting to criticism on the proportions of one of his portraits by saying: “This is not a woman, this is a painting.” The Rokeby Venus is neither.

In 1914, Mary Richardson, a British suffragette out for symbolic blood, took a meat cleaver to Venus, slashing her seven times from rump to neck. She was upset by the painting’s allure and claimed she meant to “destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history” to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Befitting her stature and nature, the Rokeby Venus was restored. In addition to spending six months in prison ―the maximum sentence for defacing a work of art― Ms. Richardson became an early model for a very different mirroring of womankind: the angry feminist, antithesis of the eternal feminine.

Personality Ambidexterity: Or How to Turn Yourself Inside-Out

Fox and hedgehog are related archetypes that form an archetype schema: a set of related archetypes that arguably covers most of humanity very well. Push come to shove, most people are willing to classify themselves on a good schema, and suspend the instinct to challenge the underlying assumptions and fuzziness in boundaries.

The simplest sort of archetype schema is a binary classification (“there are two kinds of people in the world…”). Developing some capacity to inhabit the other side of a binary schema, within which you see yourself relatively clearly as being on one side, is like developing personality ambidexterity. To do this, you have to understand the symmetries and polarities in a given schema.

A symmetry in mathematics is a transformation that turns one thing into another. For example, a reflection symmetry flips (say) a left-hand silhouette drawn on paper so it looks like a right hand. Any archetype schema is based on various symmetries and polarities, but it may not be immediately apparent how to describe it explicitly as such (a necessary step before you can apply a transformation), or why it is worth bothering.

What operation might turn, say, a fox into a hedgehog? And why would we want to attempt that sort of “trading places” switcheroo?

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Extrovert-Introvert Fog

Many coastal geographies experience interesting patterns of fog formation when hot and cold currents mix. There are more complicated ways fog forms, but essentially it is a consequence of a collision between two distinct local weather patterns.

It recently struck me that many extrovert-introvert interactions have a similar characteristic. Extroverts gain energy from social interactions. Introverts gain energy from private, secluded thinking. When the two kinds of personalities have been “charging” for a while, they are not just energized, they are also in the grips of serious momentum.

The extrovert’s momentum manifests as wanting to continue social interactions, past the “social charging” event. 

The introvert’s momentum manifests as wanting to continue to think, past the “solitude charging” event.

When the two collide in this stage, the resulting energized communication confusion is really frustrating to experience and hilarious to watch. I call it the extrovert-introvert fog.

The introvert tries to take whatever the extrovert says as more thinking raw material, but the extrovert isn’t interested in that. He or she is interested in continuing to talk, it doesn’t matter about what.

So the extrovert keeps trying to restart the conversation, skipping from topic to topic in an effort to feed the existing momentum. The introvert keeps trying to think about what was said 5 minutes ago and getting the extrovert to shut up while they process.

The interaction usually ends in disengagement with one walking away in frustration, usually the introvert. Otherwise the introvert says something like, “god, will you shut up, and let me think for a moment!” Or the extrovert says something like, “will you pay attention for a moment, you keep tuning out!?”

The Cloistered Hedgehog and The Dislocated Fox

Greg is a 2013 blogging resident, visiting us from his home blog over at On the Spiral. His residency will explore the theme “Individuality and Decision-Making” over several posts.

For this first guest post Venkat suggested that I discuss a contention (based on Philip Tetlock’s research) in Nate Silver’s book  The Signal and the Noise regarding the fox and hedgehog archetypes.  As I haven’t yet read Silver’s book I’ll have to reference Venkat’s paraphrasing of Silver:

…while all humans are terrible at predicting the fate of complex systems, foxes (“knows many things”) tend to do better than hedgehogs (“knows one big thing”), and improve over time, while hedgehogs tend to do worse, and get worse over time as they grow more doctrinaire.

Silver’s assertion may be surprising to people who are familiar with studies, like those by management guru Jim Collins, which associate preeminent business leaders with the hedgehog archetype.  Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule are other popular themes that would seem to favor the hedgehog.

To put some context around Silver’s claim it will be useful to consider the influence of environment on personality.

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Resilient Like a Fox

Last week, I was at the LIFT Conference in Geneva to speak on “resilience.” I did my 20 minute talk using a very Tempo-esque angle on the subject, using the fox and hedgehog archetypes that I talked about in Chapter 3 of the book. My thinking on using archetypes to analyze complex themes has been slowly getting more sophisticated, and I hope to do a stronger treatment of the idea in a future edition.

I’ve embedded the talk below, and you can also get to it via this link. You may also want to check out some of the other talks. If you’re based in Europe, I highly recommend the LIFT conference. It is unusually well designed and choreographed.

I’ll be developing this fox/hedgehog theme further in my upcoming talk at ALM Chicago in March.

Forged Groups

In the military, they have a saying: soldiers don’t fight for causes or countries, they fight for the guy next to them. Why would you die for the guy next to you?

It takes a very special kind of extremely cohesive grouping to sustain the kind of punishment that warfare dishes out. There is absolutely no reason to believe that members of a random group, without ties of kinship or race or shared political values for instance, would be willing to die for each other.

It turns out that what makes people willing to die for each other is actually the pressure of war itself. Facing death together means being reborn together.  The metaphor of fire and forging is apt.

The cohesion has to be manufactured. The result is forged (as in metallurgy, not fraud) groups. How do you create forged groups?

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The Second Most Important Archetype in your Life

In Tempo,  I distinguished between two broad classes of archetypes: generic ones that have names and explicit descriptions, which apply loosely to many people, and specific ones that apply to just one person, and may be only implicitly recognized based on characteristic behaviors.

The more intimately and personally you know somebody, the more you need a specific and implicit archetype. This means that your self-archetype is the one that has to be the most specific. At least if you agree that self-awareness is generally a good thing to seek.

This does not mean that a specific archetype needs to be detailed. It can still be an impressionistic thumbnail sketch that is no more than a characteristic shrug or turn of phrase. It merely needs to be one-of-a-kind; sui generis. 

Your self-archetype is arguably the most important archetype in your life. It can be either specific or general, and a thumbnail or very detailed. But most often it is specific and detailed.  It is sometimes useful to compute with a very generic, thumbnail self-archetype, to break out of toxic self-absorption.

What do you think is the second most important archetype? Hint: it is not necessarily the one that maps to your significant other.

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