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Outrage: the silent stronghold of the seminal

The word ‘seminal’ is actually a sticky, miasmatic plague on society and should be immediately banned

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Source: Rubens Alarcon / Alamy

The phallic effigy of the fascinum is understood by some to be a feature of Ancient Roman religion. The embodiment of the divine phallus was symbolic of power and protection, a charm against envy of the evil eye. In some myths, a disembodied phallus emerges from the sacred and innately generative hearth of Vesta to perform acts of divine conception

We think of the history of creative production as boiling down to a few ‘seminal’ moments. Big ideas, sputtered out into the world to part the waters of time, each rupturing the status quo of an entire epoch and defining what is to come. The idea of a single work having momentous influence bears clarity and vigour and is highly compelling. It allows us to parse the great continuity of the past into meaningful narratives. It underlies how we think about creativity as an essential nexus of genius and production. At the belly of the idea is the word, fit for purpose with all associations of origin, of germination, of viscera and virility and of thickly generative matter: seminal.

It must be stopped. Not because the word’s own sticky lewdness squelches against our sensibilities. It must be considered, revised, ideally banned, because – like any product of the obsessive sexings and genderings we plague ourselves with – the nature of the valorisation it grants is harmful to everyone, to all of creative culture, including those individuals it would seem to privilege. 

‘Like a napkin sketch thrown across the bar table, the idea is generated on impulse, thrust towards the womb of the world to cultivate elsewhere’

You may want to argue that in the word’s origin story, coming from Latin’s sēminālis, it refers to a neutral seed, unsexed and entirely benign. But language is happening, constantly, and at some point since antiquity the word was adopted by biological science, coming to refer to semen in a specifically male sense. Historical definitions might be helpful in describing branches of word-association, building a story of how we got to where we are, but contemporary meanings have much more bearing on a word’s resonance than those dictionary-listed as obsolete. Such an argument forgets the value of feeling. The fact that for some, the word might not immediately spark explicit associations of procreative soup, is more a sign of its silent stronghold in our language structures than of any harmlessness in its character.

These days, at its very surface the word reinforces the notion that the artist requires a certain (specifically male) ejaculatory capacity as prerequisite for entrance into the heroic hall of fame. This notion might be ignored, the word applied to the work of women, claimed by any whose biology does not accord with such male emission, or by those who altogether eschew cognitive alignments with biology. Under the skin, however, it still spends its energy marrying all ideas of heroic creativity to an essentialist masculinity, as maleness, not necessarily rewarding biology alone but certainly rewarding the performance of a sexed paradigm. 

Entrenched in generative hetero-sex, the word makes production parallel with reproduction, locking neatly into sexed ideas of genius that go back to ancient philosophies and cling still to cultures today. The Stoics spoke of logos spermatikos, or seminal reason, a formative force that also imbues the male seed with an inherent power to generate form from the chaotic and yielding mass of the female.

‘It is starchitect culture, sole-author, devoid of recognition for the many hands’

This substance is framed not only as generative matter but as a goop of innate logic. We see that narrative of the man protagonist producing sense from hysteria, the woman having succumbed to vapours, replicated time and again in text and film. Meanwhile, this form-giving is not figured as an effort but as easy, natural, as the most mechanical of maleness. It is no more than an involuntary expulsion: all the work is left out. 

Like a napkin sketch thrown across the bar table, the idea is generated on impulse, thrust towards the womb of the world to cultivate elsewhere – either alone or according to another’s nurture. The little drawing is discharged with a final flourish, without care or responsibility for the painstaking effort of revising, reworking, industriously iterating until the work is sound. The result is uncompromising. It is starchitect culture, sole-author, devoid of recognition for the many hands. It is inevitably totalitarian. This relates not only to the design process, but to how we treat ‘completed’ buildings, as unable to adapt to the needs of their users, as irresolute, at worst as an edifice to an ideology. In attempting the seminal from the outset, in building only for posterity the present is forgotten, and the work itself also suffers. It is no wonder that the world contains so many mediocre manifestos. 

As we write histories, the idea of the key work or canonical text nevertheless remains useful in its operation as a tool – an apparatus emptied of power or association and deployed only in service of making sense. The Stoic idea of the seminal as divining matter returns, suggestive of pure essence, the reddest-raw root of an entire tradition neatly encased in one exemplary work. Necessary in untangling the knotted web of many overlapping events into historical narrative, and preferable to perpetual wading in the weighty mires of nuance, the idea of the seminal work yet preserves an unreality. It presents as fact a vision of history composed of a series of linear arcs, each catalysed by a singular event. The identification of the catalyst in question and the unweaving of the complex web are subjective acts, most often performed by the powerful: the story written by biased actors. If left unchecked, all nuance is lost, and it is the great fiction of history that is then obscure.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today