Humanities? Law? Tourism? Zoology? Politics? History? Art? Maths? Philosophy? Music? Languages? Classics? Engineering? Architecture? Economics? Medicine? Psychology? Daniel said.

All of the above, Elisabeth said.

That’s why you need to go to collage, Daniel said.
— Ali Smith Autumn

Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
— Ali Smith, Autumn

As the stumblings of the Trump press office have demonstrated repeatedly, words matter. They are both imbued with meaning and open to interpretation. Any crossword enthusiast will recognise that a single word can be burdened with an array of definitions even before their metaphorical usage is taken into consideration. They are pregnant with possibility, adapted to nuance, context and inflection.

Novelist Ali Smith captures this beautifully in her most recent novel Autumn. We time travel with her protagonists Elisabeth and Daniel backwards and forwards through various moments in their respective lives. As Elisabeth blossoms into her early teens, the eighty-something Daniel assumes the role of mentor and guide, questioning, challenging, having a catalytic effect on his protégée’s future.

Walking and talking together, they paint with words. Smith is an extraordinarily visual writer, often incorporating the description of photographs, paintings and film scenes into her narratives. Sometimes, as is the case with How to be Both and Artful, the images which adorn the covers of her books are reconstructed through her prose. With Autumn, the work of pop artist Pauline Boty is significant to the lives of each of the two protagonists, one of the many connections that bind them together.

[Picture credit: My Colouring Book by Pauline Boty]

Boty often made use of collage techniques in her artworks. Daniel’s word play with the term establishes a bridge between the paintings he describes to the young Elisabeth and their conversation about her future education. Elisabeth speaks of going to college when she is older. Daniel, a trickster, urges her to go to collage instead, where she can combine multiple interests and embrace multidisciplinarity.

Having so recently published The Neo-Generalist, reading these passages had a pleasurably jarring effect on me. In the chapters titled ‘Provincial Punk’ and ‘Shoring Fragments’, borrowing from punk culture, the Modernists, a variety of writers, artists and interviewees, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how our lives, our identities, are an accumulation, remix and mash-up of interactions, lessons, memories and roles, characterised by fluidity and adaptiveness. In ‘Picaresque Tales’, we examine alternatives to established 21st-century education practices.

Smith distils all these ideas into a single word. Collage. An artwork. A descriptor. A place. An experience of learning for us all.

Maybe “self” was a free variable with no bounded value.
— Michael Chabon, Moonglow

She didn’t truck much with conventional ways of dividing up the world—black/white, male/female, gay/straight, abnormal/normal—none of these boundaries convinced her. These were impositions, defining categories that failed to recognize the muddle that is us, us human beings. “Reductionism!” She used to shout this out every now and then.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Punk, in turn, celebrated the fragment and the conjuncture. Torn clothing, for example, reassembled with electrical tape, chains, or safety pins, privileged the collage, rather than the seamless whole. Contrary to the alleged timelessness of artistic truth, punks celebrated the ephemeral quality of the commodity. Contrary to the rectitude of virtuosity, punk bands openly flaunted their haphazard musical skills.
— Randall Doane, Stealing All Transmissions