Root Menu

Bi Scott

A Self-Portrait

‘Under the Winter Snow the Spring Grass Grows’

This Chinese proverb expresses my belief – or should that be my ‘relief’ – that states of being are not discrete, consecutive or definitive, but always subject to flux so that even when seemingly fixed and dead-end, they nevertheless harbour within themselves the potential for change and regeneration.

It also hints at some of my abiding interests: how people see the world, how they make sense of it, how their actions are influenced by their perceptions and how those perceptions can be altered. Ultimately I am interested in what makes people tick, and in order to understand this I find myself repeatedly pondering issues of perception, categorisation and metamorphosis: the relationship between the fixed and the flux!

It is only recently that I have come to understand the common denominator underlying the apparently disparate interests that drive me. Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor than what ‘drives’ me is what ‘draws’ me – as scent draws a predator – since I still find myself responding to an ineffable attraction before I even begin to comprehend the what and why of it.

By way of example, here are some of the things that have captivated my interest in the last decade:

  1. Aphorisms and Double-takes
  2. Puddles
  3. Grammaticalisation
  4. Wedding photography
  5. College prospectuses
  6. Diplomacy
  7. Anosagnosia

Rather than work through them chronologically, let me dive into the middle and hang my portrait on the peg of a wedding! I was shooting a wedding recently when I recognised the onset of that hunter’s high: all senses on the alert, breath caught keen sight, a prey intuited if not quite perceived. I didn’t yet know what had triggered the feeling, but am by now familiar enough with its manifestations to know that a sense of significance nearly invariably precedes my recognition of what it signifies.

On this occasion I was tip-toeing round the room where the bride and her attendants were getting ready, and as the place was small, the surfaces all chaotically covered with cast-offs, shoe-boxes, make-up, flowers etc., and the bride, bridesmaids, flowergirl, mother and father all competed for floor space while engaged in different activities, I tried to seek a vantage point which would capture the confusion. A few shots later I had caught the scene but knew this wasn’t the whole story.

It was only as the party regrouped at the church door where the priest welcomed and stilled the onward rush that I recognised that in this moment of stasis I had another part of the story, though even then I didn’t understand what the story might be. Perhaps I was too distracted by the fact that one of my cameras was playing up, or perhaps I was too focused on another chapter of weddings which had just started and which had similarly held me in thrall (for years!) before eventually yielding its significance. Perhaps I just needed to still the onward onslaught of my own pulse, for no sooner had I caught my breath again as I watched the ceremony unfold from the back of the church, than I recognised that what had triggered my hunter’s high was once again a moment of metamorphosis.

The chaos and confusion which nearly invariably characterises the bride’s dressing and preparations – overcrowded rooms, undersized mirrors, unforeseen emergencies, overlooked essentials – had all magically resolved themselves into the serenity of the ceremony and the calm choreography of the rest of the day just at the moment when the bride paused in the porch. Between these two states were the two hands of the priest outstretched in welcome, his white robes screening the chaos from the serenity and somehow turning one into the other as he himself turned round to face the aisle and the altar beyond.

It was a few months ago, as I tried to write a piece on my approach to weddings for my website, that I finally came to understand two other moments of metamorphosis that have similarly captivated my attention in the past. What strikes me as remarkable is that I had speechlessly responded to the same focal moments during three years as a professional wedding photographer before I was finally able to articulate what the pull was.

More remarkable still is that I suddenly realised that other equivalent moments across the span of my adult life could similarly be explained by this one fascination: the moment of metamorphosis, the fulcrum between the fixed and the flux. With this insight I could finally explain how I came to be a theoretical linguist who was also a photographer with a research interest in visual studies who also happened to lecture on the relevance of language to Diplomacy. I had always understood the common denominator to be an interest in verbal and visual language, but this was unconvincingly vague. Here’s the link as I understand it now:

Aphorisms ‘representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther’ (Francis Bacon). I grew into aphorisms and ‘discuss’-type questions at about the same time as I grew out of sucking sweets, though the mulling and mulching involved in both seems to tickle equivalent pleasure centres of the brain, and the sharp edge of a knowledge broken definitely has a citric tang to it...

…just as do double-takes! These involve the sudden reperception of one’s preconceptions and figure prominently both in my political language teaching, and in my creative photography.  I particularly like liminal states where one tries to hold both frames of reference in mind simultaneously. A favourite game of mine is to try and observe my thoughts as I fall asleep! Some of my favourite photographs depict two levels of existence simultaneously, either in the physical world as in Doubilet’s below and above sea-level shots, or in the social world, as when street photography captures the often ironically incongruous juxtapositions.

Puddles, and more particularly the reflections one glimpses in them, offer an endless pool of double-takes, and the world turned on its head and unsheathed by a reflection is a theme I keep returning to in photography. My first reflections were prompted by a sense I had, following a mis-handled harassment case, that morality had been turned on its head, good turned into bad, integrity into disingenuousness. Where language failed me in its triteness, literalising an idiom visually seemed to better express my sense of injustice. Now when I display upside down shots it is in order to see things new rather than to redress wrongs; it is to explore ‘how else’ the world might be (I am deeply indebted to Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry for articulating the healing power of creativity). My most recent exhibition ‘Heaven’s wicket’ is of Oxford landmarks glimpsed as morphing miniatures among rain-drenched cobbles and paving stones.

Grammaticalisation also involves a process of recategorisation in which a lexical part of speech such as a noun or verb becomes reanalysed by consecutive speakers as a functional category denoting more abstract concepts such as tense or aspect. My doctoral thesis, the title of which earns me well-merited digs from the head porter of my college even today, nearly ten years after the event (‘Aspectogenesis and the Categorisation of Directionals in Mandarin Chinese’), adopted a two-tier perspective whereby the subliminal process of categorisation evident in the language of native speakers is subjected to an openly debated process of categorisation by different schools of linguistics. Mmmmh, you’d think I might have noticed what I was up to during all those years of concentrated work on the subject!

College prospectuses, as they are being reconceived today, attempt to break from the conventional ivory-tower and heritage image of Oxford in order to project a synthesis of polarities – old and new, stone and people, community and individual…My photographs have reconfigured the ‘look’ and its attendant narrative of half a dozen colleges so far, and I am keen to continue with my covert (blown it!) re-imaging of Oxford.

The use and abuse of ambiguity, metaphor, analogy, performatives, presuppositions and other similar resources by political players is another driving interest. In my capacity as Project Manager for Language and Diplomacy in an organisation which aims to coach diplomats and other interested parties in a variety of political skills, my primary task is to heighten people’s awareness of rhetorical resources, both verbal and visual. But my interest in diplomacy also ties in with my recognition of the importance of dialogue, and current developments in Public Diplomacy, which promotes people power over state power, dialogue over diktat and attraction over coercion, all seem very relevant to what we’re doing here in daring to talk to each other through the Muse.

Finally, anosagnosia – the condition of being unaware of one’s condition – is a word that has remained a source of undiminished fascination ever since I first came across it while studying aphasia. I am incredulous that such an abstract concept should ever have been lexicalised at all, and fascinated by the receding horizons it represents: no matter how much one tries to think oneself out of the limits of ones thoughts, there will always be further constraints hemming us in since we can’t out-think our human condition.

So why do I consider my interest in the fixed and the flux to be so much a defining feature of who I am that I should structure my self-portrait around this one theme?

Partly, as I have suggested, because this interest defines my outlook and has largely defined my career, from language – deemed by some to fix the ‘kaleidoscopic flux of impressions’ which is the world, to photography, which so obviously arrests time and light.

But my sensitivity to categories can be originally attributed to the fact that I have always caused others difficulties in categorising me through my inability to provide a simple answer to the question ‘Where are you from?’ I used to be half Scottish, half Yugoslav, born in Switzerland but schooled in England and Wales. Now the ‘half Yugoslav’ has further fragmented to part Serbian, part Croatian, and part East European mix (Czech and Polish). This is not a convenient category and not a possible response to social chat! The follow-up question ‘Where do you feel you belong?’ is equally problematic since I don’t categorise myself in terms of countries or cultures. Even if I felt the need to, I would be thwarted as none of the peoples I claim connection to would consider me as one of their own.  To simplify, I always say I’m British, but this proves problematic too as my accent isn’t authentically British, even though English is definitely my most fluent language (though neither my ‘mother’ tongue nor my ‘first’ language, literally speaking!). So back to the ‘Where are you from, originally’ question! My children, who are half Chinese but Oxford born and bred seem to have an easier time of it!

Perhaps a more revealing line of inquiry would be to explore why I have an unplaceable accent. The reason I was sent to boarding school, as far as I understood at the time, was because my Scottish father was dismayed that his two children were starting to speak English with a mid-Atlantic accent. Once at school in the garden of England, it became clear that not only where you came from, but where you stabled your horse, were both indelible markers of what you were worth. I don’t remember ever consciously deciding to affect a foreign accent, but I suspect I decided there and then not to play into the English class system. In refusing to assimilate, and in failing to redress my accent, I registered my modest protest against the boarding school experience long before I had heard of convergence and divergence in sociolinguistics!

But by then an awareness of categories had been born…as had a certain scepticism. At boarding school I was considered a tart because I spoke French and all French women are tarts, yet on holiday I was referred to as ‘the nun’ because I went to a girls-only school! Whereas in England I was irredeemably foreign, at home my mother was dismayed because I was becoming too English. Even today she will dismiss me as ‘you people from your little islands’ when annoyed, yet in a good mood she is the most sincere admirer of this Sceptred Isle! A final formative discrepancy was within the family, where my father’s standing was marginalised by the axis of solidarity established between my mother and brother, yet in the world at large my father was a high achiever and a huge personality.

Perhaps my favourite instance of Procrustean categorisation comes from a small fisherboy I got talking to on the Croatian coast while waiting for a ferry to dock. After a friendly exchange during which I struggled to understand the art of fishing as explained through his disarmingly thick local accent, he asked me, ‘Are you Slovenian?’ When I said I wasn’t, he got up, gathered up his stuff and as he started walking away said over his shoulder in contempt, ‘Then you must be stupid’!

I don’t pretend to be above the blinkering effects of categories myself, as the following example reveals. I have often been called a Jack of all trades and been warned against the indifferent fate that befalls non-specialists. Despite chaffing against this conventional wisdom, for several years after my doctorate I acknowledged that I had indeed probably spread myself too thinly. The criticism seemed justified because anybody else who had similarly been given the privilege of a Junior Research Fellowship would certainly have gone on to make a career for themselves, rather than hanging on at the margins, earning an hourly rate through (admittedly abundant) tutorial teaching, getting nowhere.

I consoled myself with the belief that behind this apparent failure lay an overlooked asset: I was bringing up my two children as a single parent, we are a happy family and they seem to be turning out well. Being there for my son and daughter has always been a priority, and my research, my teaching and my photography could all be seen as achievements rather than distractions. But despite my implicit belief that I am right to put my children first, and that since my children didn’t want to leave Oxford I wasn’t going to leave them in search of a job, I nevertheless felt stigmatised for not ‘making good’.

Life became a little easier when I realised that instead of teaching all hours and spending my hard earned money to fund my photography hobby, it would be financially wiser to fund my teaching hobby through my photography. This simple shift in self-perception from linguist to photographer eased the pressure and opened new opportunities which, after a few further twists and turns, led to a full time job teaching!

It is only since last year, thanks to the job that I have started to shed the ‘Jack of all trades’ stigma. Although my children need me less now, I still teach theoretical linguistics, work as a professional photographer, and lecture on the relevance of language to politics. So apart from working longer hours to fit it all in, nothing has changed – except the way that I am categorised – and this it turns out makes all the difference!

To have a job title is to have a salary and prospects, to be granted a place in society and by some arbitrary extension, to be a good citizen. Now that I have a bona fide job I am being offered others – with titles! This is in sharp contrast to the time when, after ten years of lecturing, tutoring and examining in Chinese linguistics I approached the faculty for a job title, only to find (to my combined dismay and…delight!) that the discussion faltered over the part of speech I was allowed to use in my CV: a verb (have lectured), or at most a gerund (lecturing in) but not a noun (lecturer), not even a modified one (assistant, occasional, faculty…lecturer). Although this injunction undoubtedly had detrimental consequences for my job applications, the fact that not just a word, but a mere inflection, can determine a person’s career and social standing is a source of delight to me precisely because it illustrates the way in which categories have consequences!

I remain very aware that it was only when I had stepped from the amorphous and uncertain category of self-employed to the terra firma of a proper job (scare quotes may be distributed at will here), that I felt confident enough to question the idiom: might I not also be a master of all trades – or of the few I laid claim to anyway – rather than a master of none? and since when does more than one equate with ‘all’? It seems clear that I had succumbed to the presuppositions of a fixed phrase and that despite my best endeavours to enhance awareness, I am all too often unaware of just how lacking in awareness I am – back to that old bugbear anosagnosia! Seriously, there are lots of issues with regard to how one fits in professionally which intrigue and disconcert me, to do with what is measurable, acceptable and ultimately deemed valuable by any given culture.

My interest in seeing things new does not entail contempt for how things are and I don’t at all see myself as an iconoclast. On the contrary, to come back to what I said at the start, my interest is in what makes people tick, and in how things are and might be, rather than in how they should be. Perhaps the only area in which I am prescriptive is with regard to courtesy which, although often arbitrary in its manifestations, essentially reflects a recognition and respect for others. But then again, when you don’t belong you can only ever hope to be accepted by being attentive to the manners and mores of others – can I be sure that I am not courteous out of self interest?!

To conclude with a glance at the future:  I’d love to use my diplomatic contacts to photograph the movers and the shakers of the world – perhaps fellow Musers would be the best place to start; I very much look forward to having grandchildren and would love nothing better than to become a great-grandmother; and in the meantime I hope to continue watching the spring grass grow.

January 2005

Bi Scott's homepage