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)

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

Speaking of straddling boundaries, a few years ago I read Samuel Huntington's The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order. His thesis was that with the end of the Cold War, future clashes would be found not between ideologies, but along the "fault lines" between civilisations.

I think there has been enough evidence to make his thesis worth considereing. Most clashes have been along the fault lines, even to a three-way clash in the former Yugoslavia.

But I find myself straddling the boundaries between three civilisations - African, Orthodox and Western. And perhaps it is only those who straddle the boundaries who will see the need to try to avert the clash.

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