How Things Began was a radio series, broadcast in the early 1950s for junior school kids, concerning early prehistory. It described in what I recall as intense detail the life of trilobites, pterodactyls, and dinosaurs, and when we had listened to each broadcast – was it fifteen minutes? – we were expected to make drawings of what we had just heard. It was easy to do, as we never questioned the authority that required us to make these drawings, and indeed enjoyed it enormously – though I recall the sweat of fear when I made a bad line and rubbed through the paper trying to get it right. I really could not draw, and have never done so.

But I am certain that these were ekphraseis, as the broadcast was an oxymoron, an unrepresented figure of a lost world, something that could be passed on only by realizing and not by repetition; not ‘listen to this,’ but ‘look here see this, this is what the broadcast was about,’ proudly showing one’s drawing of the dinosaur after the transient event – just as Homer shows an ideal Greece of Archaic times in the shield.”

The paragraphs above are from an essay called Addressing Ekphrasis: A Prolegomenon to the Next by Adrian Rifkin (in Classical Philology Vol. 102 (2007) pp.72-82. Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

I think How Things Began provokes another ekphrastic operation, in addition to Rifkin’s interest in the proxy realization of the extinct species / completed broadcast on paper. The instruction to draw brings with it the option to not draw but rather do something else. The instruction causes any alternative action (writing instead of drawing; singing instead of drawing; staring out of the window instead of drawing…) to veer into a position of alterity: whatever else it may be, it is an alternative to drawing, and it exists in relation to the absence of the drawing task.

We hear that the children never questioned the authority of the instruction to draw, but if some of the children decided not to draw, wouldn’t they feel the absence of a drawing that should be being drawn, and wouldn’t they be aware, for a moment or two, of an illicit period of not-drawing which they should be spending with pencil on paper?

Inhered in the possibility of drawing dinosaurs is the impossibility of all other things: drawing or not drawing; things drawn or imagined or real; dinosaurs or other animals; or other things that aren’t animals – actions that slip indistinctly into things, verbs into nouns and back again – and their impossibility carries with it their possibility. The instruction for children to draw dinosaurs marks the peripheries of the instruction for the world to world.