Sunday, 28 January 2007

How 'life' came to justify boundless acquisition

Man vs The Elements

"I do not believe that there is a single concept at this moment which deserves denunciation as intensively as the concept of life.

The concept of life in the West results from a perversion of the Christian belief according to which God, who is Life, became man. From this promise, this offer of a gift, this mysterious opening to what lies beyond, a this-worldly entity was derived. Life became an immanent idol, an all-purpose polemical label, a conceptual justification for boundless acquisition in this world.

Indeed, life permits the formation of a foundational category, separate from the cosmos, for possessive individualism. From there it is easy to see the leaps to the struggle for life against nature, other individuals and society.

In this construction, life cannot be understood apart from the "death of nature." In a continuous thread that runs back to Anaxagoras (500 - 480 BC) and up through the sixteenth century, an organic, whole conception of nature was a constant theme in the West. With varying nuances and emphases, nature was seen as alive, sensitive, at times animistic, correlated with human action.

With the Scientific Revolution, a mechanistic model came to dominate thinking - nature was then seen as dead. This death of nature, I would argue, was the most far-reaching effect of the radical change in man's vision of the universe. But an insistent question then presented itself: How do we explain the notion of living forms in a dead cosmos?

The modern substantive concept of life thus appears as a kind of mindless movement to fill the void."


Thursday, 25 January 2007

Only Connect

The people who most inspire me tend to be straddlers of boundaries: Alastair McIntosh and Alan Garner, John Berger and Hugh Brody and others. Polymaths, you might call some of them, but the word makes me wince. It seems to condemn the rest of us, if we get to use our brains at all, to the stark choice which my LiveJournal friend, Chris, perceives between obscure specialism and shallow generalism.

I don't mean to disparage detailed scholarship or excellence of any kind, but I think we suffer from the failure to connect our thinking. It's bad for the soul - but it's also bad for the planet, as George Marshall argues:

A friend of mine - a social scientist by training - was working in the offices of the British Antarctic Survey and noticed that scientists made no attempt to put together their different and very specialised areas of research to form a single picture. She believes that this is a deliberate psychological strategy. By looking at only one small part of the problem, scientists can avoid facing the overall catastrophic conclusions and can hide behind their specialism.

I believe that many scientists adopt elaborate denial strategies to protect themselves from the extreme seriousness of climate change. They intellectualise the issue and deliberately avoid facing its implications. They define emotional engagement as ‘political’ and irresponsible and castigate those, fellow scientists included, who express fear or despair, or seek to communicate the real urgency to the general public.

Finally, scientists are prone to leave climate change at work and live like everyone else the rest of the time. Whenever I have the chance I ask climate scientists if they still fly for their holidays. Most are surprised that I even ask the question. One admitted to me in the pub after a heated public meeting that he flies three times a year to the Alps and even south America for skiing holidays. He said that his job was very hard and stressful and that he needs the break.

The connection between specialisation and the clear separation between work and life is significant: the narrowness of the roles which life seems to offer us has much to do with the consequences of the economic and political structures we inhabit. The Marxist philosopher, Ernst Fischer, put it more fiercely:

The categories we make between different aspects of experience - so that, for instance, some people say I should not have spoken about love and about the Comintern in the same book - these categories are mostly there for the convenience of liars.

What set me thinking about this tonight is the work my longtime fellow troublemaker Sebastian Mary has been doing with the Institute for the Future of the Book. This is a group of incredibly bright people doing fascinating, important work with a powerful sense of purpose - and my only excuse for singling them out is that I'm really interested in what they're doing.

In this context, though, I am singling them out because (at the risk of monotony) I wonder if it's healthy to think about the future of anything at this moment in history, without relating that thinking to the social consequences of our ways of living - and particularly to how climate change is going to reshape our lives. Really, then, this is a challenge to myself, to if:book and to anyone else to try to think across the boundaries necessary if we are going to respond to the situation we are in.

With that in mind, then - and as a provocation rather than a prediction - here is a rather different take on the Future of the Book from a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature:

Our world is voracious and still becoming more so. Sooner or later, unless we exercise a care and forethought which is seldom evident in the mass of human beings, we shall be left with little more than village or small town economy. It is worth noting, therefore, that the making of books can be a cottage industry. If the need is there, anyone could learn that careful swirl of the tray and flick of the wrist that distributes the pulp evenly over the mesh and gives us handmade paper...

I say all this because I sometimes hear people say that the age of the book is past; and I suppose these statements to come from people who have a couple of thousand television sets on their shelves. But it will be a very advanced village industry that can manufacture a television set. Tapes, cassettes, records, radios, television sets are with us, certainly; but he would be a wise man who could predict how long we shall be able to afford them.

(William Golding, 'A Moving Target', Address to Les Anglicistes, Rouen, 16 May 1976)

Offset Your Infidelity!

No sooner had I posted about the wonders of First Life, than I came across another overdue solution to the moral ambiguities of existence in 2007.

I present to you, Cheatcare: helping you feel better about bad stuff:

Your cheating is offset by these people who we pay not to cheat on their partners...

(Courtesy of the highly recommended Paul Kingsnorth.)

Get a First Life!

The Times records how the princes of our age, gathered at Davos, gloat over the lucrative pornographic potential of "haptic" interfaces (which allow users 'to enjoy a real, physical experience' of virtual worlds):

Their [sic] was laughter among delegates as Mr Gage added; "The moment the haptic interface works in Second Life, the porno industry is going to double!" Another delegate noted that the "sex part" of Second Life, with users living out fantasies, is already one of its biggest earners.

According to Steven Poole (whose Guardian non-fiction reviews are a top source of fascinating reads), one of the contributors to 'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?' suggests that, 'given the decadent temptations of virtual reality, the only civilisations of any species that survive to colonise the galaxy will be puritan fundamentalists'!

All of which seems a good cue to plug the overdue sanity of First Life:

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

More Illich

[From 'The Shadow Which The Future Throws']

Illich: The 'information revolution'... has injected new life into what would otherwise have been the exhausted logic of industrial development. This encourages expectations that, through his tools, man can escape the limits of his condition.

The social and mental construct called digital information, based on either/or, yes/no, zero/one, black/white, cannot lead us to the condition of post-scarcity. Basing the future on either/or disembedded decision-making cannot escape scarcity. This mode of thinking creates scarcity, by its very definition. Digital decision-making is not language; it is not culture; it can never recover the commons for us. Rather, it is the very creation of the most fluid market ever devised, that of information.

On the other hand, subsistence assumes culturally-bounded growth, that is, a context of commonly defined needs balanced against the limits of nature. Such a social awareness rests upon the historical knowledge of the human condition as precarious.

Gardels: Well, then, given the information revolution, can you entertain any optimism concerning the social embedding of alternatives to development/growth?

Illich: I first distinguish between the attitudes of hope and expectation in front of a "not yet." Expectation is based on a belief in instruments and the naive acceptance of socially constructed certitudes. Hope is based on historically-rooted experience, what Jean Paul Sartre called the "unsquashableness" of the phenomenological.

Giving up all optimism and pessimism, one is free to be courageous; one places no trust in tools and instruments; one comes to a hope based on human beings.

Now, I do see unsquashable signs of hope in the lifestyle of some drop-outs, for example, former professors who learn from subsistence peasants, articulated alliances among green committees, searchers for new options, transnational networks. But my practical phantasy is still unable to envisage how, short of a devastating catastrophe, the assumption on which the new alliances rest could emerge as a general common sense. One reason, I suspect, is that too many of these admirably courageous dissidents remain wedded to ideas like needs, education, health care and
so on.

[More here]

Talking to Strangers

A few days ago, I posted Tim's account of a conversation about climate change. That got me thinking about how uncomfortable we tend to be about talking to strangers.

I remember the artist and activist John Jordan telling a workshop that he realised he was far more comfortable facing a line of riot police at a G8 summit than knocking on his neighbours' doors to talk to them about setting up a shared compost scheme.

Richard Sennett's book, 'The Fall of Public Man', includes a fascinating account of the emergence of the convention of public silence - the point at which, in cities like London and Paris, strangers first stopped talking to each other in the street and in other public spaces. He associates it, among other things, with the shift from the haggling of the street market to the department store, where we as customers become an audience before the spectacular displays. (He also points out that it is in the same period of the nineteenth century that the convention of the silent audience arose in the theatre and the concert hall.)

My hunch is that learning to talk to each other again is one of the skills we'll need if we're going to find a liveable way through the consequences of climate change. It's one of the things we experimented with a lot in Pick Me Up - for example, when Charlie and friends dressed up as air stewards and served tea on the London Underground. That was definitely a liberating experience for the four of them - and a classic story! - but might the spectacle of experiments like that actually reinforce the strangeness of talking to strangers? The hard thing is to do it without a costume, without props or artistic license.

'Discovering the origins of our socially-constructed certitudes'

"In order to find an alternative language, my colleagues and I are devising a dictionary of the history of those terms that are the mythological crystallization points around which modern experience is organized - terms like future, development, growth, participation, liberation, population, need...

"Our method is to go back into history to discover the origins of these socially-constructed certitudes that today dominate the development discourse. Poetry, meditation, etymology, drugs perhaps, the thoughtful recovery of real-life moments in one's past... these are so many different methods to discover the strange origins of our curious assumptions. Only by re-entering the present moment with this understanding will it be possible to establish a new discourse, a new way of seeing, a new set of terms that can guide sustainable 'policies' without recourse to the Nemesis-engendering idea of development."

(Ivan Illich, The Shadow that the Future Throws)

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Brought to you by the 'diverse, vibrant and innovative' gambling industry...

As seen above a urinal in the gents of a west London pub:

You love sex, she loves sex. You love money, she loves money. You have money, she loves you. See how much you have in common?
I am struggling here. I can't seem to find anything beyond the single entendre. Or even much of a connection to poker. Unless the message is: "Gamble on our site and you can win enough to pay for a prostitute."

And this is the 'diverse, vibrant and innovative industry' which Tessa Jowell believes holds the key to regenerating our towns and cities.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Rich World, Poor World: Iñárritu's 'Babel'

Somewhere in his remarkable documentary book on migrant workers, A Seventh Man, John Berger makes the point that, depending on who you are, 'reality' differs not just subjectively, but objectively. In the same way that our constellations would be unrecognisable to a visitor from elsewhere in the universe, so the facts of our own world constellate differently according to where we find ourselves within it. It is a classic Berger insight, the painter's feel for perspective combined with a humane, reflective yet uncompromising political engagement - an insight I found myself coming back to last night as I watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel.

Critics have talked about this as a film of chance, of the 'butterfly effect' linking a series of characters around the world: the Moroccan shepherd who gives his sons a gun to shoot jackals; the American tourist who is accidentally shot, and her husband; their children and the Mexican maid who cares for them; the Japanese man who once owned the gun and his deaf-mute daughter. There are certainly moments in the film which suggest the sentimental 'We-Are-the-World spectacle' which Peter Bradshaw damns it as. But he is surely wrong in suggesting that the irony to which this 'unity' is subjected could be unintentional.

This is not a film about chance, but about the extent to which the consequences of chance events are determined by our place in the world. It is a film about fairness, about how our assumptions and our sense of entitlement are shaped by where we are born. Linked as they are by the common ground of desire, loss and vulnerability, the lives of the characters diverge according to whether they belong to the rich or the poor world. Nowhere is this clearer than when the young American boy turns to the Mexican maid and asks, "Why do we have to hide, if we didn't do anything wrong?" The question is not simply childlike in its innocence, it typifies the culpable childishness of the rich world which echoes through the film.

For example, when the American woman is shot, her coach is forced to divert from the tourist trail, into the tour guide's home village. As her husband tends to her, the other passengers' fear of terrorists is inextricable from their revulsion at the poverty of the village, and breaks out in a series of tantrums as they demand that the driver switch on the air conditioning or that the bus leaves the couple behind. While the nightmarishness of their situation makes it understandable, it is hard not to recognise in their behaviour an anger at not getting our own way that is a feature of daily life in our consumer societies. We become incensed at any personal experience of injustice, of having our rights infringed, yet remain deaf to the unfairnesses of the world at large.

The residents of the poor world, on the other hand - Moroccan villagers beaten up by police searching for the 'terrorists', the Mexican maid receiving summary justice from a US border guard - are unillusioned. As in Berger's stories and essays, there is a sense here of the wisdom of the poor: it is not that poverty is idealised or that the poor are presented as morally superior, but that from their side of the boundary, certain things are obvious which from ours require a critical and imaginative insight which a blizzard of media and advertising and the sheer pace of life tends to obscure.

'In the kingdom of ends,' wrote Kant, 'everything has either a price or dignity.' Near the end of the film, as a helicopter arrives to airlift the American couple to hospital, the husband tries to push a fistful of bank notes on the Moroccan tour guide on whom they have depended since the shooting. He refuses. In the rich world, we are often tempted to the childish belief that money can fix everything. Seen from here, economic development appears to represent the transcendence of the tragic aspects of human existence. Might it not, in fact, mean their externalisation from our world, onto the lives of those for whom the facts constellate differently?

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Zen and the Art of Not Looking At The Adverts

A couple of years ago, sMary conducted an experiment at the University of Openness which involved navigating the London Underground every day for a week while avoiding 'at all costs looking at tube adverts, or at least... reconstituting them into units of signification'.

She recorded her thoughts along the way - as well as suggestions from other UO-niks, and the occasional heckle from me. By the fourth day, she found herself getting ill and wondered if it was a symptom of 'vert-withdrawal:

Wondered whether too much humanity in close proximity can make you ill if unused to it (like too much rich food perhaps...?), and whether in fact the verts take advantage of that to mop up the spare attention individuals divert from human contact so as to protect their fragile integrities. Certainly I feel like I'm dissolving right now.

I was reminded of all this because last week we were braving the rush hour for a 9am meeting with the wonderful Susan Benn of PAL Labs, when we found ourselves on a platform whose hoardings were not only 'vert-free but freshly painted black. There was something zen about it.

...on those rare occasions when there's a Tube platform or escalator with no ads, the feeling is miraculous, like being free of a heavy load. I find myself staring around me with an idiot grin on my face at the textures of a real environment unmediated and unadorned by promises of 'a better life elsewhere'. Even the brushed steel surfaces they stick posters on seem beautiful, simply because they do not refer relentlessly to something elsewhere.

The little known perks of driving a Lamborghini

Apparently you're allowed to park on bus stops. Who knew?

My bus had to stop in the middle of the road to let us off, causing traffic to stack up across the box junction. (And another thing, why do half the drivers on the road seem oblivious to the rule that you don't enter a box junction unless the exit's clear...?)

Here's that number plate, in case anyone's in a position to name and shame:

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Talking about Climate Change

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking and reading about climate change. In the process, I realised how well I had previously done at not thinking about it too much - catching it out of the corner of my mind, but not full on thinking.

Why? My friend and co-conspirator Paul spoke a few weeks ago about the way climate change confronts us with 'deep emotional questions about ourselves and about society':

Without being too simplistic about the climate change debate, it’s basically we’re all going to die but we might be able to do something about it. It’s a big serious challenge to us as individuals and it lurches between optimism and pessimism. It’s pessimistic as a way of encouraging optimism and that's emotionally exhausting...

But among the emotional exhaustion, I did make one rather wonderful discovery. I will rush no more! is Tim Hodgens' blog. It is also his mantra, as he goes about trying to make a change and simplify his life. I am slowly reading my way through several months of entries, but one of his posts about climate change gave me back a lot of hope.

Having been thinking about how to get talking to people about global warming, Tim is having a late lunch at Harry's Pastrami Shack, when his attention is drawn to a conversation at the counter:

Counter Guy: "People complain about having to reset their clocks when there's a power outage. (On the TV they were talking about the storm in Denver) But it's much more serious when it's much more serious."

Mr. C: "Big changes in the weather."

Counter Guy: "the spring was worse with all that rain. I work for a pool company and we couldn't put in the pools. We were down $100,000 in receipts by July and there's no way you can regroup after that."

Later, and after Counter Guy leaves, I say, like out of the blue: "how do you think this will all play out?"

He looks at me and I say: "with the weather, the changes."

Mr. C: "Ya don't know. We haven't been there before."

I start talking about my previous posting about climate change and talk about Jim at Big Bear, California (he knew it instantly - I could see him 20 years ago growling up the mountain on a good old fashioned hog) and Laura in Sasketchewan. He listens attentively.

He tells me about how there was "flowering going on, on the north side of PJ Rhodadendruns; 6 months early."

He then goes on talking about the melting arctic ice shelf and how that's all fresh water and how it will upset the current (that circulates from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and then up the Eastern seaboard of the States.)

You really have to wonder how this is all going to play out.

For my part I liked how I got into the conversation with the elevator pitch of "how do you think this is all going to play out."

His comment of "ya don't know, we haven't been there before" is incisively spot-on

The other thing I took away from this conversation was how easy it actually turned out to be to "get at" what was going on beneath the surface with the right question.

He offered his hand, we shook and I left.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

The Chances of Success

Tim Adams, writing in last Sunday's Observer, made a fascinating argument about the rise in gambling in Britain under New Labour. Last year, as a nation, we put £50 billion into slot machines, on horses and lucky numbers and the rest - a sevenfold increase over the past five years. While charting the government decisions which have fed this and the naive liberalism and weakness before corporate lobbyists underlying them, Adams suggests a deeper, parallel trend is at work.

Since the end of the Thatcher era, he argues, financial success in all areas of life has come to appear increasingly arbitrary, a matter of extreme fortune rather than reward for hard work:

During the extraordinary 1992 election campaign, Major made a speech from his soapbox entitled 'My Vision for the Future' in which he burbled about how he wanted to see a Britain in which 'wealth cascaded down the generations'. At the time the choice of the word 'cascade' seemed vaguely absurd; wealth had rarely cascaded, Las Vegas-style, in Britain, it had mostly dripped or slowly puddled. In retrospect, though, Major was correct in his choice of language.

In the years that followed, cash did appear to flow in sudden flash floods or not at all. If there was one dominant theme of the Nineties, it was that money could arrive with no warning, apparently at random, in the form of share windfalls, or to fat cats, or property speculators, or footballers, or employees of Goldman Sachs. This combined with plummeting faith in politicians and institutions helped to create a sense that wealth and power were distributed almost by chance. In the month that Camelot won their franchise to run the National Lottery, the news was dominated by the financial collapse of Lloyd's of London; the lottery, with its sudden cascade of outrageous fortune, seemed to typify the national mood; it also served to bring gambling into the mainstream of culture.

It's easy to pile up examples and sound like you've proved something. But there is certainly a perception that ability combined with steady, hard work - never a guarantee of success - is a less reliable route than used to be the case.

What interests me is the way this trend - if it is a trend - goes hand in hand with an intensification of the rhetoric of meritocracy. As ordinary social mobility (rather than extraordinary overnight success) has fallen, politicians on all sides have claimed to be bringing about 'equality of opportunity' (with its implication that you've no one to blame for your failure but yourself) and 'standing up for hard working families'.

Finally, after years of reporting on the regeneration of Sheffield, what resonated most powerfully with me in Adams' article was the digression about 'the oxymoronic leisure industry':

Whenever I hear that phrase I am reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with the city fathers of Liverpool, who were talking excitedly about their plans for the 2008 city of culture. They spoke a good deal of the booming 'leisure sector' in the city; eventually I came to realise that what they meant by this was drinking. I remember sitting in one of those packed drinking dens late one night with a notebook thinking blearily I had cracked the mystery of Labour's economic policy: create as many students as possible, encourage them to live in blighted city centres, surround them with cheap drink and all-night licensing hours, allow them heavy debt, and let the consequently rampant 'leisure industry', in league with property developers, rebuild your cities.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

The Voices of the Boatmen

Having launched the theme of Succeeding and Belonging on a theoretical level, it seems right to move up close, to the level of lived experience. This article tells the story of the Thames watermen, licensed to captain boats on the river for generations. It is a trade which requires a long apprenticeship and detailed local knowledge, but which is likely to disappear as a new national waterways license (introduced this week) permits others with less training to work the Thames.

The voices of the boatmen capture the sense of relationship with a place and how this gives meaning to their lives - but how it counts for nothing in the process by which decisions are made:

Like many lightermen, Captain Andrews followed his father and grandfather into the trade. "You learn your alphabet, you count to 10 and then you learn your Thames reaches," he said."You sit in your dad's boat on school holidays because it's fun. Even before you're apprenticed you've got years and years of experience."

The boatmen deny the charge that they preside over a closed shop, which the new licence will finally open up. "Traditionally it was local work for local people but anyone can be apprenticed at any age," said McCarthy. "It's not a closed shop. It's just that it means something to us and it's a family job, something you wanted your son to do. Now my nephew is currently in the middle of his apprenticeship and we don't know where his future lies."

Aaron Evans, 20, will complete his five-year apprenticeship next summer. "I might have done all this for nothing," he said. The boatmen also fear for their jobs. "We could all be out of a job because less experienced people could come in. Companies can pick and choose the cheapest," said Andrews.

Watermen and lightermen received double rations during the war because of their crucial role. Traditionally, they are also the only members of the public permitted to touch royalty - to help them into boats. But despite their historic importance, they feel the government has not listened to them.

"All those little things. It's part of posterity," said Andrews. "We know it doesn't matter in this day and age but it should matter."

Succeeding and Belonging

Last summer, I had a below-the-line exchange with Pat Kane on Comment Is Free which brought into focus a set of questions about success and belonging. More recently, this theme seems to have taken over my reading and thinking - in part because it bears on my work at The School of Everything, but also because it connects many of the stories I have reported on over the last few years. It's time I started to write up some of that thinking, on here and elsewhere, so I'm going to start by revisiting that original discussion.

Pat had written an article about the way adults misrepresent children, in which he challenged George Monbiot for selective quotation of a survey that suggested 16% of young people "believed they would become famous, probably by appearing on a show like Big Brother". What Monbiot didn't mention was that the young people questioned also aspired to imitate figures like Richard Branson, JK Rowling and even Tony Blair. Commentators, as Pat rightly pointed out, are often too quick to caricature young people.

Even so, I suggested that there was a deeper and more important issue raised by the survey:

Modern societies are proudly (if inefficiently) meritocratic - there is a great emphasis on finding meaning in personal competitive success. But the same societies tend also to have reduced chances of 'success', in its socially recognised forms. Richard Sennett, in 'The Fall of Public Man', described the emergence of the virtuoso concert pianist in the world of classical music during the nineteenth century, and the parallel reduction in the overall number of pianists able to make a living from their skill, as giant concert halls were built and people only wanted to see star names. John Berger has written eloquently of the new gulf in quality between great artists and hack painters in the early modern period - it takes an unprecedented vision, tenacity and resilience to stay faithful to one's vocation in a society where commodification and alienation are built into the economic fabric of life.

So while it may be more encouraging that children aspire to follow Branson or Attenborough than to appear on Big Brother, is it any more likely that such aspirations will be fulfilled? And is there a problem with a relentlessly meritocratic education system that drills into young people the message that their lives will meaningful in accordance to their outward, competitive success?

One way of challenging the supremacy of success as a source of meaning would be to rehabilitate the value of belonging - of knowing one's place, not in the demoralising sense of one's position in a league table, but in the inspiring sense of valuing the specific, the local, that which slips through the net of use- and exchange-value. Such talk is easily heard as reactionary and Prince Charlesish - but the extrication of the radical sense of belonging from its reactionary twin is an important challenge in a time when so many of the assumptions of modern society are already in question.

I think I still agree with most of that - and I know that it's a subject I can't leave alone.

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