Sunday, March 30, 2008

DIDs and the Principle of Parsimony

Last night my fellow Video Watchdog kennel member Kim Newman left a comment on my “DIDs” entry (DIDs=Desert Island Discs) that I found so interesting I was prompted to share it:

I assume you know this, but sometimes bits of British pop culture are surprisingly obscure outside the UK. The term “Desert Island Discs” comes from a long-running BBC Radio 4 program--it started in 1942, and is running [!]--in which a celebrity selects the eight records they’d take to a desert island (along with one book and one “luxury”) and is interviewed about their life, work and how they’d survive in this situation. It’s such a simple format that it’s lasted forever in broadcasting terms (its creator, Roy Plomley, was the host until 1985, and only three other presenters have succeeded him). I’d be surprised if it hadn't been done in other countries.

I very much appreciate Kim taking the time to post this information, because in fact I did not know the origin of the practice of selecting Desert Island Discs. In the U.S., most lists default to a “Top 10,” so I’d always assumed a DIDs list consisted of ten albums. But, as Kim points out, the original practice was to select eight records, one book, and one “luxury.” As Tim Lucas pointed out in his comment on the DIDs entry, there are books on the subject of DIDs (the one I know about being Greil Marcus’s), but I’ll admit having never read any of them (see Tim's comment for a discussion). As I mentioned in my earlier blog entry, I find most DIDs lists uninteresting: either they consist of a recitation of the same old titles, or they are so willfully obscure as to be intellectually impenetrable.

The fact that the practice of selecting DIDs originated in England during wartime--that is, during a time of shortages, of scarcity, of rationing (frugality mandated by the government)--in short, a time of widespread lack of the necessities and comforts of life requiring of all civilians the necessity of sacrifice--is quite revealing, really, for in my initial post I’d connected the practice of DIDs to the Principle of Parsimony, an unstated linkage I’m now convinced, thanks to Kim’s post, is correct.

The Principle of Parsimony (parsimony generally being defined as excessive frugality or stinginess, especially with regard to money) is sometimes called “Occam’s Razor” after its putative originator, William of Occam (pictured above). His specific purpose was to formulate the rules of logic that would minimize the proliferation of causal and/or explanatory hypotheses--in colloquial terms, "the simplest explanation is most often the best," or in its laconic, Dragnet formulation, "just the facts, m'am." However, the Principle of Parsimony became more popularly formulated as, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” a utilitarian principle that not only justifies stinginess (“parsimoniousness,” sometimes referred to as “miserliness”--the Scrooge syndrome) or excessive frugality but forms the basis--seriously--of the Puritanical injunction against recreational sex: recreational sex violates the Principle of Parsimony. In strictly utilitarian terms, you have sexual intercourse when you intend to procreate--period. Parsimony, like the Reality Principle, strives to restrict or inhibit the various expressions of pleasure.

The adage, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” is just about as good a Puritanical justification as one could find for the practice of compiling DIDs lists. However, if the Principle of Parsimony is the Puritanical underpinning of DIDs lists, the actual mental activity that dictates the selection of the list itself is perversity (resistance, obstinacy). In other words, when faced with the choice of having something or nothing (even if that something is “just a little,” i.e., the Reality Principle), desire chooses something: perversely--out of necessity--it selects a single object of pleasure out of a vast number of possibilities: the rarified, fetishized object--one DID out of a possible 8 or 10 (the total set). Each element of the set is like a game piece one must select before the game starts, the game being how to negotiate the operation of pleasure with a highly restricted economy premised on lack.

There’s a Warner Brothers cartoon (I think) that expresses this mental operation of lack determining desire in a wonderfully concrete form. If my memory serves, the scene depicts a weak, starving, sad-eyed character (a dog?) placing a lone, small bean in the center of an immense plate. With his napkin, knife and fork on his left, he very carefully salts and peppers the single bean. He then ceremonially ties on a bib and raises his knife and fork over the bean . . . and then oh so delicately, with tender, loving care, cuts the bean in half, raising the parsimonious morsel to his mouth and begins to chew it, savoring its delicate, subtle flavors.

Can someone leave a comment with the name of that cartoon? If I happen to have it, I'll try to post a frame grab on a future blog entry.

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