Thursday, 29 November 2007


In less than twelve hours time, I will be on my way to Mexico! I don't know how much internet access I'll have - or want to have - over the next week. But I'm sure I'll report back on the gathering in Cuernavaca before long.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Peter Pan Guide to Turning Thirty

All week, people have been asking me how it feels to be 30. My first answer was, "Much the same as 29, only it's a bit harder for people to patronise you on account of your youth!" (As James Wallbank pointed out, though, it's easier for them to say, "At your age, you really should have grown out of...")

Then I started to notice the difference. Perhaps it's all the other things going on around my life, but there's a sharpened sense that this is it: I'm never going to be a grown up, so it's time to get serious! (Or, as Andy put it to me, "We've avoided growing up for long enough, and now the rules have changed!")

With this, I was reminded of a passage from John Berger, which is ostensibly about the relationship between a painter and his subject, but which catches something larger about what might be called vocation:

How did you become what you visibly are? asks the painter.

I am as I am. I'm waiting, replies the mountain or the mouse or the child.

What for?

For you, if you abandon everything else.

For how long?

For as long as it takes.

There are other things in life.

Find them and be more normal.

And if I don't

I'll give you what I've given nobody else, but it's worthless, it's simply the answer to your useless question.


I am as I am.

No promise more than that?

None. I can wait for ever.

I'd like a normal life.

Live it and don't count on me.

And if I do count on you?

Forget everything and in me you'll find -- me!

The collaboration which sometimes follows is seldom based on good will: more usually on desire, rage, fear, pity or longing. The modern illusion concerning painting (which post-modernism has done nothing to correct) is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.

John Berger, Steps Towards A Small Theory Of The Visible

(I'll be back in a day or two, when I have more time, to take up some of the threads from people's responses to recent posts. For now, though, thanks for turning my monologue into a conversation! It's far more sociable that way.)

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

To be AND not to be

As words must be learned by listening and by painful attempts at imitation of a native speaker, so silences must be acquired through a delicate openness to them. Silence has its pauses and hesitations, its rhythms and expressions and inflections; its durations and pitches, and times to be and not to be.

The last phrase of that passage, from Illich's reflection on 'The Eloquence of Silence', makes me sit bolt upright whenever I reach it. Let me try to explain.

'To be, or not to be?' That is the question with which we are familiar. The figure of Hamlet, like that of his creator, stands at the back of what (in the long sense) is called modern English literature. 'Modernity' is a slippery concept, but there is a certain peculiar way of thinking about the world which became dominant among the powerful and 'forward-thinking' in western Europe from the 17th century onwards.

One of the peculiarities of this way of thinking is a tendency to insist on 'either/or' answers. (Anthony - who would probably steer me away from historical narrative here - talks about 'the elimination of uncertainty' as a key characteristic of the 'dynamics of enclosure' which he critiques.) This 'either/or' tendency is itself a characteristic of a desire for once-and-for-all solutions.

One of the things which is lost, as this way of thinking becomes dominant, is the sense of timeliness. The assumption that different, seemingly opposite, things may be right at different moments gives way, for example, to the attempt to identify timeless, universal Rights. (Paradoxically, the superiority of these tends to be bound up with the non-timeless assumption that the present is necessarily superior in wisdom to the past. This, however, is a very different kind of time to that experienced by those immersed in the sense of timeliness.)

Much of this is sensed in Shakespeare, anticipated and handled with careful ambiguity. (Hamlet himself observes that 'the times are out of joint'.) Harold Bloom made the bold claim that Shakespeare 'invented the human as we know it'. In a different key, it might be said that Hamlet seems the prototype of the modern individual, the subject who feels obliged to contain a universe within his self - to reach 'either/or' answers.

So, when Illich ends his list of the properties of silence with its 'times to be and not to be', I hear an echo arcing back over the centuries, or outwards from those centres of power where Hamlet-like leaders strut and fret, to the vernacular world in which Illich was at home. In Shakespeare's England, this world was still close enough at hand to feed in and out of his writing - soon afterwards, the gap between the vernacular understandings of reality and those common among the intellectual, political and literary elites would extend to a point where, finally, high culture could rediscover 'the folk' as (more often than not) an exotic object of fascination and condescension.

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Gospel According to Lego

Adam naming the animalsGenesis 2v19-20: "He brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, every bird of the sky, and every animal of the field. But no suitable helper was found for the man."

My sister, for her sins, is an RE teacher. (That's Religious Education, a subject all schools in the UK are obliged to teach.) Her attempts to keep her pupils' attention brought to my attention the revelation that is The Brick Testament.

The section on St Paul's Instructions on Marriage is particularly... instructive, shall we say. Though possibly not suitable for school. (Or church, for that matter.)

Gettin' On Planes

Rather like Mr T, I have an aversion to getting on planes. Not an actual phobia, although I never much enjoyed the experience: all the boredom of a childhood car journey, sandwiched between two halves of a rollercoaster ride...

But eighteen months ago, I decided to give up flying - more or less. As you've doubtless heard a million times, as an ordinary citizen, not flying is pretty much the biggest difference you can make to your carbon footprint. (And don't get me started on carbon offsetting...)

I say "more or less". I realised a while ago that it would be hard to get through the process of setting up the School of Everything without taking some flights for work purposes. It's not exactly taking EasyJet to Prague for a boozy weekend, but I'm not comfortable with the amount of "necessary" flying required for business-as-usual - whether in business or academia.

But then today, for the first time since I quit, I found myself really feeling the need to fly somewhere. What's responsible for my fall from the wagon? This:

Ivan Illich passed away in December 2002. Five years after his death, a group of friends and readers are convoking other friends and readers around the world to meet in Cuernavaca. There, more than thirty years ago, thanks to the fruitful milieu provided by the Centro Intercultural de Documantación (CIDOC) headed by Valentina Borremans, he launched a critical debate on the major institutions of industrial society and the underlying public certainties supporting them... We want to call friends and readers of Ivan to gather on Mexican soil, the country where he lived so long.

The gathering is only ten days away. I have just written to the organisers, to check that it will be possible to take part. Assuming it is, and assuming I can find a way to pay for the flight, I'll be there.

P2P Breakfast

To Islington, this morning, for a Hub Breakfast with Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives. He's a very impressive guy, from a high-level corporate background (but with a Marxist heart beating somewhere in there), who's both drawing together information on the range of peer-to-peer projects in different fields and attempting to create a narrative of how P2P production could displace capitalism-as-we-know-it.

He's very alert to the potential critiques of this - in particular, the difference between P2P knowledge production and applying the same approach to production of material goods. My favourite soundbite was this: "Today, we act as if material resources were infinite and immaterial resources [i.e. music, writing, software] were finite, when really it's the other way round!" (Easy to say, hard to change, of course.)

As I said to him afterwards, for someone who likens the movement he's involved in to 19th century socialism, he seems very optimistic. (He replied, reasonably enough, that the labour movement did much to improve the quality of life - and he's not a utopian.)

What did strike me was a certain slippage which is, perhaps, inevitable when offering narratives of successive economic eras. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism, Michel said, so P2P production will (possibly) replace capitalism "because it's better". But to what kind of "good" does this "better" refer? Economic or ethical? In fact, this kind of narrative tends to collapse the distinction. But surely we can imagine a situation in which one way of living is economically better, while ethically worse?

When challenged on his optimism, Michel said that, of course, it is possible the human race will commit collective suicide, but it seems unlikely that people will choose to do so if there are other options available. If I am (relatively speaking) a pessimist, it is because of a suspicion that our demise may come about, not as an act of suicide, but as the kind of unintended overdose to which addicts are prone.

(I'm actually a rather hopeful kind of pessimist, but I don't place my hope in narratives of progress.)

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Philosophy of "As If"

Having been an enthusiastic participant in the Yahoo! Groups Alan Garner list for several years, I was delighted to discover that a similar list existed, dedicated to the work of Ivan Illich. It looks to have become rather quiet, but I'm enjoying working my way through the archives, with the intention of introducing myself and (assuming the locals are friendly!) inviting along some of the people I've met in the past year who've expressed an interest in developing a conversation about Illich's ideas and influence.

Anyway, in the context of a discussion about the roles of the individual and the state in social change, I came across this great paragraph:

I have been wrestling for a long time with context vs individual responsibility. I have concluded it is not either-or, but both that matter. Yes, of course, we must each take personal responsibility for our own situations. We must pull a Vaihinger "as-if". The only alternative is madness and depression and curling up into little shivering balls of protoplasm. At the very same time, holding two contradictory ideas all at once, context is all. Sort of a C. Wright Mills sociological imagination riff. Context is all, yet we must act as if we are in total control of everything. So, we must together work to change context, work to make the world better for all, work to drag a kicking and screaming bad tempered world together into the commons of the god of all. At the same time we must, at the individual level, work with each person and ourselves to take individual control of as much of our lives as we can grab and self-direct within the context in which we exist.

The poster's name is Dan, and what he says reminds me of conversations I've had with a different Dan. I wasn't familiar with Hans Vaihinger, the philosopher mentioned, but the importance of "as if" resonates strongly with my own experience and the approach to reality to which it has led me.


I hadn't planned to take a break from this blog, but one week stretched into another until I found I had stepped back from it (which was no bad thing). It has been a busy time! All kinds of things came to a head at once, as if to meet the deadline of my 30th birthday. Well, the day is upon me, and it seems a happy moment to return.

My main news is that I now have a place to live in London, after spending much of the past year living on Paul's sofa. I've been lucky to have such a tolerant business partner, but it is a huge relief to have a real bed - and to be reunited with my books! (And I'm sure the only person who's more relieved than me is Paul...) In practice, I will be spending about the same amount of my time in London (around 80% of it) as I have been doing for the past few months. But it will be good to have somewhere for Hannah to stay, so that she can visit me some weekends, instead of me returning to Sheffield.

Meanwhile, things have been moving fast in other areas of my life - including the School of Everything, where much is happening behind the scenes. (More news soon, in other words.) Through that, and through generally following my nose, I have met some amazing people recently. And, as I cross the threshold of this new decade, I'm feeling very lucky with my life.

So, this blog. Time out gave me the chance to pay attention to those blogs I read and enjoy, to think about what I've learned from them and from the experience of keeping my own. Writing matters to me: along with reading, spending time with people I care about, and growing stuff, it is one of the things I intend to do with myself for as long as I have any say in the matter. And for the immediate future, what writing time I get will continue to go into this blog.

My plan right now is to vary the rhythm a bit, to post more often, to be more active in directing people towards things that have caught my attention, and to let go of the habit of needing to turn every thought into an essay! Any other suggestions are very welcome.

I'll also be making an occasional radio programme for Sheffield Live, which is meant to be an extension of this blog. Hopefully it will be a chance to go deeper into those preoccupations which keep surfacing here, but fit awkwardly in the limits of a few paragraphs. It should also be a bit of fun.

The plan is for each programme to take a different question which I've been asked and use it as an excuse to talk to some interesting people. I'm starting with the question that gave this blog its name, asked years ago by a relative: "Isn't it time you got a proper job...?"

(Again, suggestions for other questions I should tackle would be great!)

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