Copyright © 2001 - 2004

I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to, British politics, art and literature. My politics can be described as liberal/libertarian, a description I admit to being uniquely unhelpful, though this manifesto may prove more so. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept. To view the title of any pages linked to, place your mouse over the link.

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Thursday, August 26, 2004

When I saw this The New Yorker article, I was reminded of a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson to the effect that a democracy was capable of functioning only in so far as at least ten percent of the electorate were sufficiently educated to take on the role of a 'natural aristocracy' (hence Jefferson's conception of the Senate or the British University Vote);

"Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system... (for the rest) their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system. "

In this scenario, the majority of the electorate vote according to a heuristic rather than ractional model (low-information rationality to put it another way). In the Jeffersonian argument, the outcome of this is that democracy is more accurately oligarchy with a popular face, the model being one of representative government with popular consent (the same notion as in Burke's Address to the Electors of Bristol) rather than a more direct notion of democracy. It does seem to me one of the problems with this account of consistent belief systems is that it neglects the question of how consistent elite ideologies are. For example, current liberal democrat policy combines laissez-faire social libertarianism with a social-democratic approach to the economy that is rather more interventionist. Conservative policy has historically been a conceit that yoked together laissez faire economics with traditional social conservatism and was surprised when the individualistic society created by those economic policies proved indifferent to collective traditions.

Consistency has two aspects; combining policies that are compatible with one another on the one hand, and avoiding the inevitably awkward consequence of taking policies to their logical conclusion. In other words, there is a good argument for elite inconsistency. I'm reminded of an article by Peter Hain on this:

"The key elements of libertarian socialism - decentralisation, democracy, popular sovereignty and a refusal to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty - have a strong pedigree, going back to the mid-seventeenth century, the English Civil War and the radical activists of that age: the Levellers, Agitators and Diggers. Chartists and still later Suffragettes carried on this tradition, as did Robert Owen’s co-operative movement and groups of workers such as the Rochdale Pioneers who in 1844 put into practical effect local socialist ideas for workers' shops, insurance societies, credit unions and companies. Through such initiatives, early trade unionists and socialists invented and practised what the historian A. H. Halsey described as "the social forms of modern participatory democracy". Another nineteenth century socialist, William Morris, explicitly criticised state socialism for upholding the status quo of a centralised, unequal society."

The idea of a libertarian socialism has obvious reservations (i.e. social-democratic goals require some infringement of liberty in order to be achieved, with arguably the idea of democratic majority rule being inherently illiberal) but Hain has a good argument that it is a sensible adaptation to social and economic change. It can also be argued that inconsistency has an important role to play in democratic politics; the most consistent ideologies of recent times were the most absolute, with the history of the twentieth century was precisely of the decline of ideological hegemonies like Communism (in the Soviet Union) and radical Islam (in the Islamic Republic of Iran; lacking any means to critique or reform their all-embracing ideal, it inevitably rotted from within. The problem, of course, is that libertarian socialism is rather a poor (or to be more generous wishful) description of the current Labour party. Having abandoned state planning in favour of free market economics it has effectively adopted them with regard to social policy which is now entirely subordinated to an illiberal and decidedly sinister attempt to enforce 'mutuality' through legislation.

posted by Richard R 6:42 PM

Monday, August 02, 2004

The latest edition of Prospect has an odd piece on how British interest in European fiction dwindled, to be replaced by an interest in North & Latin American or Commonwealth literature:

"(a) shift in British literary outlook away from European modernism and the successors of Sartre and Camus, our last continental icons, and towards the American postwar realists - Updike and Roth, Mailer, Bellow and Morrison... That aesthetic break - the schism of form - between British and continental writing has little to do with native taste or British "insularity," but emerged from a condition of history. In Warsaw in 2001, I interviewed the Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki in his Stalin-era flat. To Poles who had experienced Hitler's war and had then to deal with Stalin's communists, he said, conventional narrative made no sense. "My generation time and again had to face the possibility of their lives being threatened. Traditional narrative structure could not express the psychological insight of the situations we found ourselves in."

What took them there was America's own vitality, an evolving narrative force in which one can see an unbroken vital line stretching from Scott Fitzgerald's America in The Great Gatsby to Thomas Pynchon's in Mason & Dixon. History had caused continental Europe's faith in narrative to falter in its stride; in the US (as, variously, in Latin America and the Commonwealth) there was no pause in the gallop. A great, unbordered expanse of narrative lay all around."

It's a somewhat peculiar argument, if only because the move away from traditional narrative predated the second world war and because earlier British writers, such as Virginia Woolf and Lawrence had shared this alongside Gide and Pessoa. It would probably be easier to make a case that it was Britain whose 'vital line' was broken, with the end of the second world war leading to markedly more traditional writers like Burgess, Murdoch and Greene, at precisely the same period Europe produced Sartre and Camus.

Nonetheless, that Britain has tended to look more towards the US in recent years seems as unarguable as it always has been unfathomable from my perspective. Whenever I have looked through the pages of Faulkner, Hermingway, Updike, Roth, Mailer, Bellow, DeLillo and Morrison I've always found myself facing something as alien in its mindset as medieval literature (in the case of Mailer and Hemingway an especially bellicose individualism would certainly be the cause, with even the more popular literature of Coupland seeming to replace European anti-bourgeois romanticism with dreary American pioneer individualism). When I consider the rich fusion of realism and symbolism in nineteenth century American fiction, such as Hawthorne and Melville and then consider the dull realism of twentieth century American fiction, the merits of traditional narrative seen less assured.

Equally, if I am to think of the contemporary writers I most admire they tend to be European; Kundera, Houellebecq, Ballard, Eco, Pamuk, Goytisolo or from the Commonwealth; Coetzee, Lessing or Gordimer. The most significant literary innovation of the second half of the twentieth century, magical realism (a belated means of codifying surrealism into narrative) originated in writers such as Borges and Marquez but was adapted by many of those above or with writers like Carter and Winterson. The one place it did nto find any purchase was the United States, which did indeed keep on ploughing the same furrow it had always done.

posted by Richard R 7:45 PM

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Roy Strong has published a history of banqueting and eating. It's full of fascinating details, from the Roman banquets with dormice dipped in honey and poppy seed to the advent of sugar and forks. But this part particularly stood out:

"It is clear that Roman palates were tuned to a different set of tastes than our own. As Strong observes, "in spite of their theoretical taste for simplicity, the Romans disliked any ingredient in its pure form. There is hardly a recipe without a sauce, one that radically changes the taste of the principal ingredient." Sweet sauces abounded on meat (as with those honey-dipped dormice). Fish were served sweet-and-sour. From Britannia to Berytus (today's Beirut) a salty fish sauce called garum traveled the Mediterranean trade routes to serve as the Roman version of Worcestershire sauce (present-day Thai and Vietnamese fish sauce is made with similar ingredients and has a similar taste). Some ancient Roman snacks still persist today as Italian street food: the salted beans called lupini and roasted chestnuts."

I've heard comments of this kind before; for instance, regarding the contrast between garish Roman tastes in interior decoration and our more minimal preferences. In each case, I usually find myself siding with the Romans...

posted by Richard R 10:47 AM

Friday, July 09, 2004

As race replaced sexuality as a dominant social taboo, hate crime laws came to replace indecency laws. As religion has increasingly become more and more problematic, a different path has been charted, wherein the proposed religious hatred act merges seamlessly with the still unrepealed blasphemy laws. In each of these taboos I have little faith that the remedy was of any great effect, but there are some rather particular objections to the current proposal. Firstly, by definition almost, religion lays claim to a hegemony of truth and it is difficult to see where the difference between criticism and incitment will often be; the risk is of replacing the right to freedom of speech with the right not be offended. Secondly, the creation of such legislation where an offence of incitement to violence already exists creates a hierarchy of oppression, where race and religion are granted special treatment and sexuality or atheism are not. The protection for a minority viewpoint is only possible because it is nothing of the kind, as Douglas Adams put it:

"Now, the invention of the scientific method is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked. If it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!” If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says “I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday,” you say, “I respect that...”

Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe... no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so? There’s no other reason at all, it’s just one of those things that crept into being, and once that loop gets going it’s very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard (Dawkins) creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be."

posted by Richard R 8:44 PM

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Johann Hari finds himself unsettled from a meeting with Peter Singer:

"Now that whole tradition, the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality, is terminally ill. I am trying to formulate an alternative... Singer's moral system is called preference utilitarianism... It has one basic idea: to be moral, you must do whatever will most satisfy the preferences of most living things. Morality doesn't come from heaven or the stars; it comes from giving as many of us as possible what we want and need...

"You shouldn't say animals," he says in a level tone when I raise the topic, "to distinguish between humans and non-humans. We are all animals." This objection captures Singer's thoughts in a neat sound bite. He thinks there is nothing special about being human. "Every living thing has preferences, and those preferences need to be taken into account," he says. "Non-human animals can't be left out of utilitarian equation." For Singer, this isn't so radical. "All we are doing is catching up with Darwin," he explains. "He showed in the 19th century that we are simply animals. Humans had imagined we were a separate part of Creation, that there was some magical line between Us and Them. Darwin's theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe.

To a large extent, most of Singer's thoughts are indeed a clear continuation of the secularisation of morality begun by JS Mill, wherein quality of life becomes more important than a stress on all life being equally sacred. Most of his ideas concerning selective euthanasia are likely to be less and less challenging in a post-traditional society. The difficulty is with the involvement of animal rights and Darwinism. These are not usual views at present. For example, here is John Gray:

"If natural selection had been discovered in India, China or Japan, it is hard to imagine it making much of a stir. Darwin's discovery signalled a major advance in human knowledge, but its cultural impact came from the fact that it was made in a milieu permeated by the Judaeo-Christian belief in human uniqueness. If – along with hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists – you have never believed that humans differ from everything else in the natural world in having an immortal soul, you will find it hard to get worked up by a theory that shows how much we have in common with other animals. Among us, in contrast, it has triggered savage and unending controversy. In the 19th century, the conflict was waged between Darwinists and Christians. Now, the controversy is played out between Darwinism and humanists, who seek to defend a revised version of Western ideas about the special nature of humans."

The worst aspect of this description is that the putative characterisation of oriental cultures as viewing mankind as part of a unity of nature makes it rather unlikely that such cultures could have formulated a theory that stressing the division of nature, red in tooth and claw, wherein each species is solely concerned for its own survival. Beyond that, both Gray and Singer use Darwinism to argue that mankind has no special place in the universe (something that can be argued for more convincingly with evidence concerning the intelligence of apes, cetaceans and other species), but their environmental views all appear to assume that every species on earth apart from man has an implicit special place in the universe. A thoroughgoing Darwinian perspective would not be overly bothered about the success of one particular virus at the expense of other; that is rather the point of natural selection. The arguments being elaborated belong to Gaia, not to Darwin.

As such, any ethical basis for relations between humans and other animals has to be a product of human ethical systems and cannot be derived from Darwin. In which case, problems with Singer's philosophy remain that have to be addressed. In particular, if the basis for ethics becomes a matter of consensus and preference, how are other animals to express such preference in relation to a human ethical system? My feeling remains that ethics in this area essentially remains a matter of human obligation and that the entire concept of rights, an inherently reciprocal concept, are wholly inapplicable. Equally, if we decide that rights are something that are bequeathed and not demanded, then there are other questions that persist.

posted by Richard R 2:39 PM

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

I've often though that Slavoj Zizek provides an entirely unintentional justification of the adage that everything communism said about capitalism was true but so was everything capitalism said about communism; his criticisms of modern capitalism are acute but his alternatives represent precisely the form of ruthless idealism that leads to gas chambers and gulags (it's impossible not to read Zizek's descriptions of his politics of truth and not be reminded of the Stalinist credo that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs).

To elaborate, Slavoj Zizek's stance is self-consciously the equal and opposite of the hardline conservative, with whom he shares his opposition to that fuzzy liberal area that tends to be the dominant aspect of most modern societies. His readings are a tour de force of the egotistical sublime, with everything subordinated to that pattern from the political to the ephemeral. In each case, the argument is that conservatives and the leninist communist that Zizek describes himself as are equally prepared to adopt a politics of truth that reserves a policy of realpolitik in defence of that truth. My general reaction to such politics is to counter with an appropriately psychoanalytic (Zizek being an acolyte of Lacan) observation; that courtesy has always been rather important to civilisation than truth (i.e. civilisation perseveres through repression and sublimation of its discontents).

In the instance of his latest essay, much of my ambivalence about Zizek applies:

"Religion is permitted — not as a substantial way of life, but as a particular "culture" or, rather, life-style phenomenon: what legitimizes it is not its immanent truth-claim but the way it allows us to express out innermost feelings and attitudes... And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as "barbarians," as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture — they dare to take seriously their beliefs? .. the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight...)"

Certainly, my longstanding view has always been bemusement concerning the liberal and personal notions of religion (with the kind of selective approaches to the totality of religion that have earned contempt since Nietzsche) in contemporary society which are more of an appropriation of religion than an observance of it; such things seem to me indicative of little more than atheism without the conviction (though as I have never been anything other than an atheist I am certainly no authority; fundamentalist believers are far from being beyond equally selective approaches to doctrine). Equally, I've long been concerned at modern society's inability to form a critique of religious fundamentalism, since religion is invariably presumed to be a unmitigated social good (hence perhaps my sympathy for the French ban on religious symbols in public institutions).

On the other hand, as an atheist I am in position to object to modern society tending to fillet religion of its meaning (recalling Michel Houellebecq's observation in Platform as to how capitalism would denude islam of belief in time. As an example, consider the Catholic division of sin and sinner, a somewhat risible piece of sophistry that is only put forward since it is no longer possible to speak of sin as wilful inclination rather than simply innate and bengin characteristics), and there are other theoretical perspectives on such matters, such as those of Anthony Giddens. Giddens argues where tradition dominates, individual actions do not have to be analysed and thought about so much, because choices are already prescribed by the traditions and customs. In a post-traditional society, matters becomes much more reflexive and aware of its own precariously constructed state. In short, tradition falls into desuetude but is not replaced with any other equally miltat ideology and in place of the clash of utopian idealism Zizek misses one one is left with a fuzzy form of liberal tolerance. It's debatable as to the desirability of such outcomes (it does rather resemble something out of Brave New World and arguably does have the consequences for art that Zizek says it does; the recursive displacement of prohibition and the injunction of incessantly inventing new artistic transgressions and provocations) but it still seems infinitely preferrable to anything Zizek might offer in reply.

posted by Richard R 8:01 PM

Monday, June 14, 2004

Niall Ferguson has given an interview on the reasons why the ten failed American attempts at nation building so outweigh the two successful examples:

"The current account deficit of 5 percent of GDP translates into a huge reliance on foreign capital. Whereas a hundred years ago, Britain was the world’s banker -- it exported capital in net terms on a colossal scale and was in a position to underwrite its imperial activities with serious investment... You really struggle to be a successful empire if you are also the world’s biggest debtor... The second deficit is a manpower deficit. There are no colonists, no settlers willing to leave the United States and go out and Americanize the Middle East, the way that a hundred years ago there were people pouring out of the British Isles.

It’s probably going to take ten years at the basic minimum to make Iraq a stable, functioning market economy with something resembling democracy. And I just think that there is a complete lack of realism about that here because people think, "Oh, this isn’t empire, this is just liberation. "

To a large extent, I can't help wondering if this isn't an overly optimistic judgement on America's suitability for its putative imperial role. In economic terms, US economic growth has essentially been funded by foreign investment, which tends to prove elusive during unstable conditions. While a heavily industrialised economy might well benefit from warfare, this is not sufficient for the US economy where consumer spending tends to prove as elusive during unstable conditions as foreign investment.

This difficulty extends rather further than a lack of realism over Empire; it also applies to the very nature of the US military. British troops had been prepared for activity in Iraq through years of experience in urban warfare (Northern Ireland) and the broader diplomatic and policing activities (UN peace keeping missions ironically enough, something shunned by the US after the respective debacles in Lebanon and Somalia) an occupation requires. By contrast, the technological superiority of the US hyperpower tends to rest on precision guidance weapons delivered by airpower. Frederick Kagan argues that this represents a serious flaw in US military strategy:

"Even in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, ground forces or the threat of their use played the decisive role in bringing the enemy to surrender. In Afghanistan and Bosnia, the U.S. relied on local forces to supply the ground troops, which helped convince the hostile regimes to give in, but also left the U.S. politically beholden to its allies and unable to achieve its political aims as a result. During the Kosovo operation Slobodan Milosevic withstood the American air attack right up until it became clear that a ground attack might follow—and then he surrendered... it goes without saying that only ground forces can execute the peacemaking, peacekeeping, and reconstruction activities that have been essential to success in most of the wars America has fought in the past hundred years."

Although there is a lack of manpower for US military operations (the draft having been mentioned on more than a few occasions in the last year or so), the two other points Ferguson makes are arguably one; cultural. In cultural terms, America remains a nation of immigrants who look back on the rest of the world with suspicion and feel little inclination to hold a passport. While Ferguson may well be correct to note that an occupation force exactly the same size as that Britain originally used in Iraq is hardly adequate when the population of Iraq has grown greatly since that time, a further part of the problem is the general lack of knowledge of other cultures. In Ferguson's history of the British Empire he observed that the specialist knowledge of figures like TE Lawrence gave Britain a considerable advantage over Germany; it might well be said that much the same currently applies to the United States.

posted by Richard R 7:30 PM

Friday, June 04, 2004

I have to say that going to vote today was the most dispiriting of all the occasions when I have gone to make my mark on a ballot paper. The ballot paper for the local elections was essentially what I had seen on previous occasions; the three major parties and the green party. This was therefore a quite small ballot paper with three votes permitted on it. The European election ballot paper was twice as long and had one vote permitted on it. The reason for this difference being the sheer number of present; comprising the far right (British National Party), the nationalist right (UK Independence Party, English Democrat Party), the Religious Right (ProLife, Christian Peoples Alliance) and the far left (Respect). I shall be generous and not include the green party in this list, though it was a narrow decision. Never has Alan Coren's observation that democracy consists of voting for your dictator of choice seemed quite so apt.

This is in many ways an extension of a trend I have noted many times before concerning the matching centripetal and centrifugal tendencies on modern politics; as the three main parties cluster around a single ideological centre (largely in the interest of winning over what were formerly the only sections of the electorate likely to transfer their vote), much of the electorate find they can no longer consider themselves represented and vote for one of the fringe parties accordingly. The difference is that while this kind of model fits most of the parties mentioned above quite well it fits poorly for UKIP, since the Tories have moved much closer to the UKIP position over the last few years rather than vice versa; it is the mainstream that has shifted.

posted by Richard R 8:08 PM

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

An interesting piece by Richard Rorty on the relation between metaphysics and politics. The debate concerns the Platonic correspondence of moral and political propositions to reality and whether these can be dectermined as clearly as more empirical matters; and if not, then how can a rational choice between a liberal Athens and a fascist Sparta be made?

"To agree with Protagoras and Nietzsche that "man is the measure of all things" is, Wolin thinks, to reduce the choice of democracy over fascism to a matter of taste... Nietzsche and Heidegger thought that once one rejected the Platonic claim to provide rational foundations for moral truth, all things would need to be made new. Culture would have to be reshaped. James and Dewey, by contrast, did not think that giving up the correspondence theory of truth was all that big a deal. They wanted to debunk it, and so help get rid of Platonist rationalism, but they did not think that doing so would make that much difference to our self-image or to our social practices. The superstructure, they thought, would still be in good shape even after we stopped worrying about the state of the foundations. Democracy could be adequately defended by empirical, nonmetaphysical arguments of the sort Churchill offered when he said that it was "the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." It did not need "normative resources."

As a defence, there is much to be said for this, but it seems a rather weak defence. As a concept, democracy requires a notion of pluralism that hardly seems compatible with attempts to establish any moral or political concept as definitive. The results of such attempts (The Inquisition in Catholic Spain, theocracy in Calvin's Geneva, Lenin, Stalin and the 'ein reich, ein volk, ein fuhrer' approach of Hitler's Germany to take a few rather obvious examples) were no more democratic than Plato's ideas; in each case since each set of propositions was assumed to be beyond question they invariably led to a choice of Sparta rather than Athens.

This debate reminds me of Karl Popper's distinction between open and closed societies; since events could not be predicted the only sensible approach is to proceed through continual open scrutiny; to Popper the notions of democracy and rights can almost be considered as being analagous to peer review. For example, communism had always described itself as being scientific, but was criticised by Popper for failing to pay heed to instances where its tenets had been falsified. Since communism failed to fulfill its predictions it has since fallen into the realm of belief. Another example is Stuart Hampshire's view that the political aim of building consensus is fatally flawed since conflict presumes the right to question authority and safeguards against tyranny; a free society should instead attempt to develop institutions to fairly arbitrate in such cases. Rorty himself has elsewhere argued that since no interpretation of phenomena can lay claim to certain universality, a democracy accompanied by freedoms of speech is the most sensible approach.

The most obvious reply to such defences is that if one has a society of people who take an entirely pluralistic approach to morals and politics then they are unable to respond appropriately to threats to that pluralism from more monologic philosophies. On the whole, while this claim has a superficial value I'm more and more convinced that it is nonsense. To take one illustration, Soviet intelligence proved extremely effective in inflitrating open Western societies but proved extremely ineffective at utilising that intelligence; cases where the intelligence conflicted with official ideology were simply dismissed. The weakness of monologic philosophies is that they have no means of compensating for their own errors. As Hannah Arendt put it:

"Lessing rejoiced in the very thing that has ever - or at least since Parmenides and Plato - distressed philosophers: that the truth, as soon as it is uttered, is immediately transformed into one opinion among many, is contested, reformulated, reduced to one subject of discourse among others. Lessing's greatness does not merely consist in a theoretical insight that there cannot be one single truth within the human world but in his gladness that it does not exist and that, therefore, the unending discourse among men will never cease as long as there are men at all. "

posted by Richard R 9:21 PM

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

One of the themes I seem to keep on tripping across these days is the division between historical literary criticism, literary writing intended for the mythical common reader, and academic criticism, such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. The latest example of this comes from this review of The Oxford English Literary History:

"Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people's successful creations... But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled... In his new book, After Theory, Terry Eagleton describes two camps, the belletristic and the theoretical. Why is it, he asks, that the former is credited with seeing what is 'really in the text'? 'To see The Waste Land as brooding upon the spiritual vacancy of Man without God is to read what is there on the page, whereas to view it as a symptom of an exhausted bourgeois civilisation in an era of imperialist warfare is to impose your own crankish theory on the poem."

On the whole I have always been sceptical of claims regarding aesthetic judgement, where, it seems to me, the difference between opinion and prejudice is merely a recognition than man is as much a rationalising animal as a rational one. This seems particularly so in this case, where the problem is not that the Oxford Review lacks aesthetic discrimination, but that it does indeed discriminate between works according to an aesthetic the reviewer is not in sympathy with (i.e. one that prefers postmodern and politically committed aesthetics).

In fact, this review raises several questions that are poorly answered; for example, surely there is a great deal that is arbitrary about the formation of the canon (after all, the Victorians read Scott and Rossetti rather than Austen and Hopkins; a prejudice always rather more congenial to me than that of modern times). Equally, if one should be wary of reasing texts symptomatically, one feels tempted to ask what is the value of literature if it cannot be regarded as being symptomatic? But rather than doing nothing more than writing a rebuttal, it might be better to recall what a criticism of aesthetic merit resembled. Though he disliked the term 'aesthetic' FR Leavis would nonetheless seem to the very acme of the type of criticism being exalted. His criticism sought to weigh the merits of differing authors. Those admitted into the great tradition included George Eliot, James, Conrad and Lawrence; those excluded had Milton, Woolf, Tennyson and Hardy amongst their number. Dickens and Charlotte Bronte flitted between the two camps. While contemporary criticism might be guilty of neither selecting nor rejecting, aesthetic criticism promptly went to the other extreme.

There's a good argument to be made that some notion of 'literatity' is important, even an arbitrary one. But such arbitrary notions cannot be founded on anything other than prejudice masked as judgement. It seems to me that a division between criticism and theory is something to welcome. Let the former return to being the preserve of writers like James, where there is little pretence that one is seeing anything other than a mirror of the writer themself (as with Rushdie and Franzen, both cited by the reviewer) while the role of the critic as self-appointed arbiter of taste can comfortably be left to wither on the vine. While I have a great many reservations about contemporary theory (its selective appropriation of philosophy and linguistics, its ignorance of historical conditions in favour of what remains a vulgar Marxism, to cite the two most obvious complaints in what would otherwise be a rather long list) I'd still prefer the likes of Bakhtin and Lukacs to Trilling and Richards any day of the week.

posted by Richard R 6:41 PM

Saturday, May 08, 2004

I recently came across this piece comparing recent In Our Time discussion of hysteria to a discussion of flat Earth theory. To a large extent such discussions seem somewhat anachronistic; if such a discussion took Freud seriously in scientific or medical terms then it is more of a living fossil than anything else. Pre-twentieth century science was not nearly as divorced from other disciplines as is the case today and Freud was working in a period before the likes of Russell and Popper had even established the notion of a philosophy of science. In short, I think it should be clear that Freud's work has little value in scientific terms (particularly since much of what Freud attributed to hysteria can now be more accurately attributed to physiological disorders). But I do have some trouble with what seems to be a movement to discard Freud completely, being unwilling to accept that he might have a place in the history of ideas, if not the history of science. Something similar was apparent when I recently posted on the subject of Camille Paglia and Neal Stephenson's views on the rise of the image and the deline of language as a communications medium; complaints were raised that Paglia was making empirical claims which could not be considered unless they subject to the strictures of the scientific method. The value of the concept is viewed as being entirely contingent upon its truth value. My uncertainty over this is largely due to the fact that the truth claims of something like Civilisation and its Discontents (or even The Interpretation of Dreams) don't seem necessarily different in kind to me to those of Thus Sprach Zarathrustra or Being and Nothingness, both of which were written with truth claims in mind but which are rarely judged solely according to that criteria (indeed much the same could be held to apply to literature, which is far from being devoid of such truth claims).

My own view of Freud was largely determined by an interpretation of him written by Harold Bloom. Harold Bloom once made a rather good case to the effect that there were very few concepts in Freud that hadn't been at least implicit in Western culture. Wittgenstein had a similar reaction, stating that Freud had not discovered the unconscious in the same manner as Colombus discovered the Americas, but had instead described a new notation for "psychological reactions." Where Freud is commonly used as a means of interpreting writers, Bloom inverted this and users various Romantic writers to interpret Freud (appropriately so given that Freud often cited works of literature as often as patient case studies). To Bloom, Freud can best be described as a cultural mythologist:

"My interest in Freud comes from the increasing realization that Freud is a kind of codifier or abstractor of William Shakespeare. In fact, it is Shakespeare who gives us the map of the mind. It is Shakespeare who invents Freudian Psychology. Freud finds ways of translating it into supposedly analytical vocabulary...I think Freud is about contamination, but I think that is something he learned from Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is about nothing but contamination, you might say. The Roman stage trope of contamination has to do with taking characters, with the names they have had in other plays and in history, and giving them the same names but making them wholly different characters. It is the way we live, it is the way we write, it is the way we read. It is, alas, the way we love: we are always taking the names of the dead or past characters and applying them to others."

Of course, such a view can hardly be viewed as surprising; one of the principal reasons Freud achieved the status he did was because of his influence on vast swathes of early twentieth century literature from Mann to Auden, Lawrence, Woolf, Gide and Dreiser to name only a few. Nor is such a view especially original; Robert Musil had taken the view that Freudianism was characterised by double-bind logic, wherein if we cannot detect an Oedipal desire within us, for instance, this proves all the more that the desire is there, but deeply repressed. Nonetheless, Musil regarded his rival as having achieved greatness not as a scientist but as a pseudopoet. On the whole, I would have thought this sufficient to qualify Freud for a place in the history of ideas, if not the history of science. But then, I came across this:

"In the last hundred years such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Sartre and Lévi-Strauss have (set) out from a culture alienated from its traditional beliefs, disconsolately counting the small change of its new spiritual poverty, they have returned richly laden with belief and certainty in order to announce the discovery of the Brave New Worlds of dialectical materialism, of psychoanalysis, of existentialism and of structuralism. Many thinkers have greeted these discoveries with relief and enthusiasm. But because of their profound lack of familiarity with the orthodoxies of their own culture, they have often failed to recognise that the New Worlds in question are in reality but part of the old religious continent which was once their own, and that what they have embraced are not fresh theories of human nature but Judaeo-Christian orthodoxies which have been reconstructed in a secular form."

On the one had, such an argument is a familiar one, with the work of Richard Dawkins representing a better known illustration of it; science and the scientific method are viewed as the sole means of explaining the world (thereby displacing not only religion but also literature, history and philosophy to varying extents), wherein the individual could step outside their own perceptions of the world and thereby obviate the need for interpretation (or, as Mary Midgley put it; "But of course the idea that the universe could be deflated down to the facts is one she has constantly fought against. We could not begin to understand a world that was made of facts and nothing else; such a world is itself an imaginative vision and not a scientific one.". In short, the same kind of scepticism shown by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations. In this case, it also assumes that an individual can step outside their own culture (and therefore, to take another unscientific metaphor, to discard their memeset in its entirety). In such cases, I would have thought it very clear that the value of a concept is not reducible to its truth value alone; christianity is unlikely to have any truth value at all but this hardly means that all aspects of it need be ignored (surely the concepts of free will and salvation through individual agency are not entirely without merit and are worth perserving). This particular approach dwells on the veracity of a claim in an eternal present and divorces such claims from historical context and culture. Oddly, this in itself strikes me as a reconstruction of the religious approach to truth at its worst and not being different in kind to roundheads whitewashing church murals or Mao's cultural revolution. Perhaps the best statement of my view of this can be found in Hayek's Scientism and the Study of Society:

"Till Science has literally completed its work and not left the slightest unexplained residue in man’s intellectual processes, the facts of our mind remain not only data to be explained but also data on which the explanation of human action guided by those mental phenomena must be based... The question is here not how far man’s picture of the external world fits the facts, but how by his actions, determined by the views and concepts he possesses, man builds up another world of which the individual becomes a part. And by “the views and concepts people hold” we do not mean merely their knowledge of external nature. We mean all they know and believe about themselves, other people, and the external world, in short everything which determines their actions, including science itself."

posted by Richard R 2:54 PM

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Terry Eagleton has been reviewing a history of fascism. Much of what he says sounds reasonable, though I'm a little inclined to think that if fascism is to be defined, historical and political definitions are somewhat limited; Umberto Eco's typology of an ur-fascism has always struck me as a more convincing concept. On the whole though, I'm more struck by the observation that ends the review:

"Liberal capitalist nations are becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it."

I'm a little surprised that anyone should imagine free markets and liberal democracy to be necessarily contingent. Though the theory that argues for such a connection is far from being unreasonable (the notion being that only a framework of civil rights are capable of guaranteeing the conditions for capitalism, e.g. by safeguarding property rights), one need surely only consider the respective economic fates of Weimar Germany and Hitler's Germany to think twice about that. Alternatively, one might consider the economic fates of China and post-communist Russia (particularly now that economic confidence and an increasingly authoritarian regime in the Kremlin appear to be hand in glove with one another).

posted by Richard R 7:40 PM

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The death of Thom Gunn marks the end of what I had viewed as one of the most important bodies of work in modern literature. Certainly, he had always seemed to me to be the most important poet since Auden. Where most twentieth century poetry retreated either into a sense of quirky parochialism (Larkin, Betjeman) or into solipsistic romanticism (Hughes), Gunn had always seemed ably to effortlessly offer a via media between romanticism and realism.

posted by Richard R 7:29 PM

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Edward at Fistful of Euros has been talking about the perversity of Britain, a country that traditionally viewed referenda as the dereliction of Parliamentary democracy, holding a referendum on the EU constitution while France, where the Fifth Republic enshrine referenda into the constitution, remains opposed to the idea. The clearest exposition of the British position on such matters comes from Edmund Burke's address to the electors of Bristol at the conclusion of the poll:

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion... To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear, and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience; these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution."

Oddly enough, I find myself feeling rather sympathetic to Burke's view, not so much out of reservations concerning democratic populism (the kind that led to referenda being prohibited in the German constitution) but out of a more specific problem. In theory such a vote should be the ultimate mandate for any policy and provide a lasting political settlement but in practice the type of issue that has to be put to such a vote out of expediency is extremely unlikely to confer any such mandate. In the event that a 'Yes' vote is passed the results will probably be the same as the referendum organised on British membership of the EU; claims will be made that the issue was misrepresented and the electorate deceived (unlike at any general election). Conversely, in the highly probable event that a 'No' vote is the outcome, Britain would find itself in an extremely invidious position and it is easy to imagine a similar outcome to what happened in Ireland after the rejection of the Nice treaty. While at the end of the day I think it is difficult to argue against the idea of incorporating referenda into the constitution as a means of ensuring consent of the governed for any constitutional change (The Irish model springs to mind), the present ad hoc approach leaves referenda very far from being the kind of magic bullet they are pretended to be.

posted by Richard R 6:33 PM

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Following on from my previous post discussing historical parallels with the present situation in Iraq, Niall Ferguson has suggested that the experience of the British Empire in Iraq itself is the most appropriate one:

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," declared Gen. Frederick Stanley Maude — a line that could equally well have come from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this time last year. By the summer of 1920, however, the self-styled liberators faced a full-blown revolt... Then as now, the insurrection had religious origins and leaders, but it soon transcended the country's ancient ethnic and sectarian divisions. The first anti-British demonstrations were in the mosques of Baghdad. But the violence quickly spread to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where British rule was denounced by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi."

The problem with Ferguson's thesis is that he is rather selective in his account. In particular, he takes the view that the brutality with which the British suppressed that revolt will have to be emulated by the Americans if any orderly transition of power is to be effected. It is certainly true that the British were subsequently able to do just that, but Ferguson neglects to mention that the Hashemite prince Faisal was subsequently deposed, thereby allowing a fascist dictatorship to sieze power. Suffice to say that this is not quite the inspiring example Ferguson appears to view it as.

posted by Richard R 8:26 PM

Thursday, April 15, 2004

I've always rather liked the idea of counter-factuals (i.e. what if alternative versions of history), largely because it seems to me that understanding what didn't happen is often as important as what did happen. So, I was rather struck by this critique of counter-factuals:

"It is surely the interaction between individual choices and historical context which is what governs the events of the past. As Karl Marx put it: "People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." ... It is no surprise that progressives rarely involve themselves [with what if history], since implicit in it is the contention that social structures and economic conditions do not matter. Man is, we are told, a creature free of almost all historical constraints, able to make decisions on his own volition. According to Andrew Roberts, we should understand that "in human affairs anything is possible."

Accordingly, counter-factuals are seen as a preserve of the right, creating a narrative based on the actions of great men rather than of economic and technological forces. Of course, there is always a continuum in such things; only the most doctrinaire would deny a role to human agency in the face of wider forces or vice versa. But I must admit I became more favourable to this critique after reading an article by Victor Davis Hanson (who has contributed pieces to some of the counter factual books I have), imagining what if President Carter had responded with military action against Iran in 1979, comparing the actual events to the appeasement of Hitler and opposing them to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Reagan doctrine. Firstly, this assumes that these are the correct analogies for present circumstances; it could as easily be argued that Vietnam is a better analogy than Munich, or indeed the Boer War. For what it's worth, I think the Boer war is a good analogy, though I'd suggest that the Thuggee cult is possibly a better one.

Secondly, it should be observed that wider forces were indeed involved in all of these cases. To be specific, the economic and military capacity of Britain and France to defeat Germany at that point. Or the economic failure of the Soviet Union, leading to its inability to compete on military terms as the prime cause for perestroika and glasnost. That should also be set against the consequences of the Reagan doctrine in terms of instability and the risks had Gorbachev responded with force. In the present time, we might observe that the question of states is barely relevant (which makes appeasement a poor analogy), since much of the terrorism in question occurs quite independently of state structures and typically tends to thrive in opposition to them (as the history of the British Empire should testify as much as current events in Iraq). In short, I'm rather sceptical about Mr Hanson's thesis. But I do have a counter-factual of my own: what if the US had not applied the Reagan doctrine to Afghanistan? Julie Burchill had some ideas on that point. Perhaps the left can benefit from counter-factuals after all (even if only as wish-fulfilment).

Update: Scott Martens suggests that far from being conservative, counter-factuals are whiggish, depicting scenarios wherein progress is derailed from its correct course (in other words, a past tense version of dystopian fiction). He further notes that conservatism tends to be determinist in its own fashion also; constrained by a fixed notion of human nature rather than history. I'm a little reluctant to describe the genre in terms that are quite so essentialist (the term covers a multitude of sins and Hunt has a point about wish-fulfilment from conservative writers wondering if the British Empire could have been saved), but it is a good point. Consider Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, a novel where the South wins the civil war and thereby creates a backward and primitive future. In fairness, I should also say that the Davis Hanson essay I alluded to above is in a similar vein; it dealt with the possibility of the Athenian navy being defeated at Salamis.

posted by Richard R 7:39 PM

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

I've long been interested in aspects of the Sapir-Lee Whorf hypothesis, which states that the structure of language has the capability to determine habits of thought. This piece seems to give the idea some validity:

"All the major color terms but one were exactly like those in English, and in the one area of difference, they differed in exactly the same way." (They grouped green and blue to form what Kay and Berlin called "grue.") That two such profoundly unrelated languages should name colors alike seemed to point to some universal linguistic pattern... Hunter-gatherers need fewer color words because color data rarely provide much crucially distinguishing information about a natural object or scene. Industrial societies get a bigger informational payoff from color words... Several languages lack subjective terms analogous to "left" and "right," using instead absolute directions, akin to "north" and "south."

The implication seems to be that language can exercise a determining influence in such cases as differing ways in which languages describe space. Conversely, the similar conceptual structures underpinning most languages would point to a limitation of this effect, presumably due to similar cognitive processing of the environment or to an innate transformative grammar of the kind postulated by Chomsky. That said, I am rather struck by the absence of any reference to linguistic change in the face of social change; I would have thought that should describe the 'grue' word formation rather well.

posted by Richard R 11:45 AM

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I took an enormous amount of malicious pleasure from this post at Crooked Timber, discussing the frivolous nature of evolutionary psychology just-so stories. In essence, one of the problems for evolutionary psychology is that it tends to offer genetic explanations of every facet of human nature, irrespective of evidence and without any significant prospect for either verification or falsification. The same people who denounce studies such as postmodernism will freely introduce concepts such as memes, which are then spoken of as if there was any empirical evidence for their existence. The most obvious example of this is Steven Pinker's dismissal of modern art as being a cultural aberration, when he neatly forgot that popular art of the kind he views as being most compatible with human nature has been the exception and not the rule when it comes to the formation of literary canons. But beyond that, one can be quite sure that someone somewhere will have posited an evolutionary explanation for each and every aspect of our behaviour (not excepting the plumbing of kitchen sinks).

The more disturbing aspect is the question of political bias. Just as the age of Marx and Freud excluded such explanations in favour of environmental theories, I often feel that the present age is doing precisely the same thing in reverse. Certainly, in this case the genetic factors have associated environmental triggers and I tend to feel that the nature/nurture distinction is meaningless; since it is rarely possible to conceive of one without the other. In particular, the idea that human nature exists as a fixed quantity in the absence of a blank slate, is inherently conservative, being one of Hirschman's central tropes in the Rhetoric of Reaction (not to mention fitting a Hobbesian/Burkean worldview far better than that of Locke or Dewey). Of course, this may simply be a matter that the conclusions of evolutionary psychology are simply more amenable to a right-wing standpoint and that to avoid this is a matter of denial, rather than a question of bias being behind the theories to begin with. But the fact that there are left-wing Darwinians like Singer and Dawkins suggests to me that this is much a matter of interpretation as of evidence.

Update: Here's a rather good example of these problems, a piece by Steven Pinker dismissing evolutionary explanations for religion:

"Pinker began his argument by refuting what he called “three spurious adaptationist explanations of religion:” the suggestion that people embrace religion for its comfort, its sense of community and its ethical value. Although he admitted that those three theories may be true, he questioned their merit in explaining the universal, widespread popularity of religion. Pinker furthermore dismissed the idea of religion as a “source of higher ethical yearnings” and an unambiguous moral guide. “The Bible is a manual for rape, genocide, and the destruction of families...Religion has given us stonings, witch burnings, crusades, Inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers...and mothers who drown their children in the river,” he said."

As it happens, my own view of religion is essentially very similar to what Pinker outlines here. The problem is the distinction he advances between evolutionary adaptation and by-products (Spandrels as Gould would have called them; odd to hear Pinker using a Gouldian argument) seems a rather arbitrary one in this context. Although I've always found the argument that religion is a guarantee of social order a poor argument for defending religion (since in such an argument the question of whether any deity actually exists is irrelevant) it does seem to have an obvious application, particularly if we consider the extensive evidence for a neurological basis to religion.

Update: An interesting piece from The Scientist further reinforces some prejudices:

"EP is no more speculative, argue proponents, than any branch of psychology. Indeed, EP may be less speculative since it incorporates evolutionary constraints... But like Darwin's theory when first presented, most of EP, says Atran, currently entails consistency arguments: plausible but unproven rationales. It remains to be seen, he argues, whether EP will blossom into a fecund area of study like Darwin's work or go the way of phrenology."

It strikes me that evolutionary grounding actually makes evolutionary psychology less reliable than standard psychology for the very simple reason that the process of evolution is not something that can be easily observed while the question of whether a feature is an adaptation, a spandrel or a evironmental influence becomes arbitrary.

posted by Richard R 4:42 PM

Camille Paglia has published a new piece in Arion, on the theme of the increased importance of the image to Western culture:

"Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them... The visual environment for the young, in short, has become confused, fragmented, and unstable. ... the style of cultural analysis currently prevalent in universities is, in my view, counterproductive in its anti-media bias and intrusive social agenda. It teaches students suspicion and paranoia and, with its abstract European terminology, does not offer an authentic anthropology of the North American media environment in which they came to consciousness. Post-structuralism and postmodernism do not understand magic or mystique, which are intrinsic to art and imagination. It is no coincidence that since postmodernist terminology seeped into the art world in the 1980s, the fine arts have receded as a major cultural force. "

It's an interesting thesis, namely that the increased importance of the visual imagination has led to an increased dimunition of the reasoning faculty, something that works through language rather than any visual medium. The particular interest for me is that I have always been most at home with language rather than with music or the visual arts; it took me years before I could appreciate music without lyrics. As always with Paglia, the problem lies with her inconsistency. Her magnum opus, Sexual Personae, suffered considerably from this, in that it suggested two opposed tendencies as dominating Western culture but presented a shifting picture of how each tendency should be considered. Paglia seemed unable to suggest which of the two should be allowed to surmount the other, and seemed equally unable to define any dialectical relation between the two. Accordingly, her tone was alternately moralistic and anarchic. Something of the same problem applies here.

The particular problem is that if Paglia's thesis is correct, then her proposed remedy of 'imagology' (a unified study of art, history and criticism) seems to run the risk of being collaboration rather than resistance (if the only course of action is to dwell on study of the visual imagination, then it may well be that post-structuralism and postmodernism were wise to be suspicious of magic and mystique). Contrast Paglia's argument to that of Neal Stephenson in his essay In the Beginning was the Command Line. Stephenson has a similar argument to Paglia in many respects:

"The word, in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts--the only medium--that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring torrent of electronic media... A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts."

Stephenson is wary of relying on the visual imagination; he sees it as offering mediated experiences and sees mediated experiences as being unreliable in comparison to the written word. By contrast, Paglia veers between proposing a course of education that simply adapts to this changed world and denouncing it, most obviously with the unintentionally ironic conclusion to her suggested visual studies:

"But it is only language that can make sense of the radical extremes in human history, from the ecstatic spirituality of Byzantine icons to the gruesome barbarism of Aztec ritual slaughter. It is language that fleshes out our skeletal outline of images and ideas. In a media age where books are no longer the primary medium for information storage and exchange, language must be reclaimed from the hucksters and the pedants and imaginatively reinforced. To save literature, educators must take command of the pre-rational world of images. The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words."

Update: I've noticed a few other blogs criticising Paglia on a number of grounds. The most obvious is the dated nature of her argument, rehashing Mcluhanite theories at a time when the Internet has arguably restored text to primacy over images. Certainly, the Internet is in many ways a good analogue for the Victorian telegraphy system and by virtue of being initially conceived for military applications evolved through a completely different route to technologies such as television and DVD.

posted by Richard R 4:22 PM

Saturday, March 27, 2004

One of the things I've noticed recently is that a term like 'meme' appears to have developed the connotation of 'conformist subjugation to certain social practices.' A meme is something one is never infected with oneself and is never used to describe anything of any note (though in theory the entire history of most academic disciplines could be described as memetic in much the same way as Kuhn described science as operating through paradigm shifts). To remind us before going anything further, here's a definition of the term 'meme:'

"A contagious information pattern that replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern. (Term coined by Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".) Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted knowledge is memetic. (Wheelis, quoted in Hofstadter.)"

It is, in short, a relatively specific term whose entry into common usage has discarded much of that specificity. If you accept the idea of memetics (the concept seems to me to essentially be beyond verification so I'm not sure I do) then behaviour is either determined in memetic terms or in the kind of genetic terms familiar from evolutionary psychology. In either case notions of free will or volition outside of either concept would, according to these theories at least, seem an unlikely concept. More to the point, I've always been puzzled by the memetics of individualism in our society (the meme that allows one exemption from the conformist memes of others); non-conformism is deemed valuable and rebellion is aestheticised, but this is always conducted within terms that can only be described as collectivist i.e. the uniform-like dress codes routinely adopted by sub-cultures, as much a guesture of affiliation as of alienation. Such lifestyles inevitably became mainstream to such an extent that I would expect tweed jackets and pipes to have now become the only such means of expressing non-conformism. Ironically enough, the punk slogans of rebellion and con-comformism were to essentially become the Thatcherite credo for the following decade. In political terms, the conservative preference for individualism (as in recent posts on the consumer versus the citizen) and the awkward argument that "there is no such thing as society" suffered from similar problems; namely that much of their policies assumed a collective set of social values. On the left, the notion of individualism was less of concern that diversity and multiculturalism, but even there policy frequently assumes a collective set of values that are not necessarily compatible with either notion.

All of this isn't to say that I consider individualism to not be valuable as an idea (on the whole, I think I'd personally prefer to leave memes out of it) but I would certainly admit that I am never sure what it really means in practice. There are a great many people I can think of who might view themselves as individualists and non-conformists; in one of those cases would I say that such an ascribed image matches my own perception of them.

posted by Richard R 4:40 PM

Friday, March 26, 2004

I've been thinking of late of the differences between European society and politics and those of the United States are worth looking at in more detail. To take domestic policies first, the United States is presently characterised by what could be termed right-wing populism in opposition to a narrative of liberal elitism;

"Markets give us what we want; markets overthrow the old regime; markets empower the little guy. And since markets are just the people working things out in their own inscrutable way, any attempt to regulate or otherwise interfere with markets is, by definition, nothing but arrogance... One populism rails against liberals for eating sushi and getting pierced; the other celebrates those who eat sushi and get pierced as edgy entrepreneurs or as consumers just trying to be themselves. One despises Hollywood for pushing bad values; the other celebrates Hollywood for its creativity and declares that Hollywood merely gives the people what they want."

Where Europeans view redistribution as a means of aiding the disadvantaged, Americans view it as placing a ceiling on their aspirations (A product of not having an aristocratic hierarchy to start with; social mobility becomes more important than the more socialist convention of equality, though that is an increasingly uncertain concept in the US. Tocqueville saw the American idea of equality in relation to measures designed to prevent the formation of an aristocracy). The extent of inequality in American society is such that any other state (or at least any European one) would have produced much more left-wing governance over time. But with some exceptions like the New Deal, there's little sign of it in the United States. By the same token, most European nations have become progressively more and more secular over the last half-century, where the US would seem to have become more religiose. Accordingly, attempts by conservatives in Britain to stress family values and to denounce Westminster elitist liberals faltered where the same attempts in the United States thrived. President Bush seeks to criminalise same-sex civil partnerships, Michael Howards supports them.

Translating this into foreign policy terms, the result is that much of Europe tends to view American policy as irrationally moralistic and becomes sceptical as to whether American religious fundamentalism is a proper response to Islamic religious fundamentalism. Equally, the American national narrative has become increasingly tarnished due to the gap between said narrative and actual levels of social mobility; its ability to offer a compelling vision to its allies accordingly suffers (typically at the same time as lambasting said allies for being overly concerned with equality at the expense of economic growth). Turning to foreign policy alone, the United States tends to view national interest and sovereignty as paramount concerns. Conversely, European experience during the second world war has left them wary of national interest as the sole consideration, while European colonial experience had left them sceptical as to whether framing the conflict in military terms is an appropriate response. It would be too easy to slip into a distinction between post-historical Europe and America here, but it should be observed that 'post-national' Europe is in most regards essentially pursuing national interest by other means. Where the United States administration has shown little interest in using international law and trans-national co-operations as a means of addressing terrorism, the Madrid bombings appear to have produced the opposite response in Europe, using trans-national integration as a means of reinforcing national security.

Of course, all such broad distinctions run the risk of falling into caricature. The US critique of post-nationalism as leading to removal of democratic accountability and increased powers for national executives at the expense of legislative branches is a powerful one. Equally, the American critique of international law as giving an essentially equal weighting to dictatorships and democracies is not easy to dismiss. But if nothing else, it does suggest that Europe has a valid alternative view of such matters; something that seems important to me when considering the charges that the change in Spain's government amounted at appeasement. Undeniably, that is how it may be seen by both the United States and Islamic terrorists. But it seems equally possible to me to construe the Spanish election as a protest against how attempts to deal with terrorism have been conducted, against the view that the American approach to such matters is the only possible one.

posted by Richard R 3:27 PM

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

I was rather taken aback to come across this phrase in a piece describing the new Tory marketing strategy:

"We are looking at voters as consumers; they are the same people who buy sofas or cans of fizzy drink... The Tories' switch to the sort of advertising employed by high street retailers and consumer brands breaks with party political advertising tradition."

The parallel is presumably an exact one, given that most cans of fizzy drinks are every bit as homogenous and indistinguishable as political parties. Cynicism aside, the replacement of the idea of the citizen with the idea of the consumer seems imprecise to me; particulary given that much of Tory policy has encouraged that idea on the one hand (in particular the concept of applying consumer choice to the provision of public services, for example hospital league tables, school vouchers) and demanded notions of citizenship on the other (the defence of tradition, promulgation of family values and so on). The problem is that while it isn't necessarily true that the role of consumer and citizen are opposed, nor is it true that they are necessarily identical. There is a difference between a market state and a nation state and it might be as well for all concerned to make a choice between two not especially compatible models.

posted by Richard R 12:14 PM

Sunday, February 29, 2004

An interesting paper from Bruce Alexander, ostensibly on the subject of addiction but with wider implications for capitalist society:

"Psychosocial integration is essential for every person in every type of society-it makes life bearable, even joyful at its peaks... Insufficient psychosocial integration can be called "dislocation." Although any person in any society can become dislocated, modern western societies dislocate all their members to a greater or lesser degree because all members must participate in "free markets" that control labour, land, money and consumer goods. Free markets require that participants take the role of individual economic actors, unencumbered by family and friendship obligations, clan loyalties, community responsibilities, charitable feelings, the values or their religion, ethnic group, or nation... People who persistently fail to achieve genuine psychosocial integration eventually construct lifestyles that substitute for it."

It's an interesting argument (if a rather psychoanalytic interpretation of Marx, though Marx was unlikely to have been so nostalgic for 'clan loyalties'), largely because it's one that has always seemed to carry a great deal of truth to it (and is certainly more convincing than the conservative view of social dislocation being attributable to the permissive society and moral decline). That said, the particular point of interest for me is comparison with Anthony Giddens and his views of post-traditional identity, wherein the decline of imposed social roles necessitates the creation of more diverse lifestyles. Always odd how completely opposed interpretations can be derived from the same set of premises.

posted by Richard R 1:08 PM

Thursday, February 26, 2004

The BBC has commissioned an interesting survey on levels of religious affiliation in differing countries. Many of the results are interesting, but to my mind the most surprising was that only 29% of the UK population said they thought the world would be a more peaceful place without religion. In fairness, the issue is not clearcut; as this article suggests there is usually a continuum of causes, wherein religion simply serves as another marker of otherness:

"Alice Lakwena, the leader of the Holy Spirit Movement, claimed that God had commanded her to seize the Ugandan capital and I and other journalists found and interviewed her in a banana grove about 100 kilometres (60 miles) short of Kampala. Superstition played a large part in the progress her ragtag band of followers had made. They smeared themselves with a potion they were told would protect them against the army's bullets. But this bizarre campaign has also fed on northern political grievances in Uganda."

That said, there are much more unambiguous instances from history where persecution was conducted with only religious difference being the cause and without ethnic difference or forms of economic or social grievance. In this sense, religion does serve as a prototype for a form of absolute ideology that must be imposed in a way that has rarely been true for other ideologies (interesting to note that most religions tend to meet most of Eco's characteristics of ur-fascism). An obvious exception is communism, but in many respects it can be argued that religion served as the prototype here. As an acquaintance of mine once wrote in comparing christianity and communism:

"Neither has much use for the criticisms of philosophy, which they both distrust because they cannot control it... One joins them only by publicly endorsing their doctrines, and advances by being perceived by one’s superiors as passionately conforming to them. The laity of each lack the power to dictate the course of church-state actions; power issues from the apex - the crowned head of the controlling minority of the ideological elite.

Dissent is either treasonous (contra people) or blasphemous (contra God); one punishes it directly in this life, one indirectly through disposition of a believed-in next. To join either is to forfeit it your rights. One is world negating the other is other-than-world negating. Each asserts that the only way to be truly human is to embrace its faith... Both have a person to worship and a book to read, and both have trained experts to communicate the orthodox meaning of each to the mass herds, and to denounce forbidden concepts and conceivers. The masses of each are constrained to take their words at face value, the words of ideologues commissioned to propagate the Faith.

In both cases, a certain set of concepts is promulgated which are essentially incompatible with the liberal ideas of the nation state that developed in opposition to them. Neither can claim exclusive preserve over such concepts but neither are easily separated from them.

posted by Richard R 9:37 PM

For the most part I've been in favour of the idea of using such techniques as citizenship ceremonies to reinforce ideas of common identity; the problem, as I see it, isn't so much with the means as with the end. The most glaring example of this is the monarchy; those swearing the oath of loyalty in this ceremony are doing so to a monarch whose position is contested by around twenty percent of the population (and where names like 'citizenship ceremony' disregard the fact that citizenship is not a meaningful term in the UK, where the population are subjects of the crown). Beyond that, the adaptation of the ceremony according to UK region seems an odd approach to reinforcing common values and suggests an inability to define a consensus as to what common values the ceremony is intended to inculcate. It seems difficult to avoid concluding, as Spiked Online would seem to have, that "Trying to teach new immigrants how to be British is becoming an uncomfortable demonstration of the fact that we don't know ourselves." In short, there is little clear notion of what British common values consist of to form a basis for such naturalisation. It is all well and good to write an oath referring to democratic values, rights and freedoms but none of these appear particularly valued by contemporary British culture. David Starkey once described Britain today as a post-national culture, different from the concept of multiculturalism in that all notions of ethnic and national identity tend to shade instead into a post-traditional culture. In this state, ideology (like that of the United States or of the kind Habermas is seeking to create for Europe) seems a more important basis for national identity than national or ethnic ideas; unfortunately third way communitarianism hardly represents an appropriate platform for that.

Much of my current interest in this stems from this Prospect article I read a few weeks ago:

"Fifty years of peace, wealth and mobility have allowed a greater diversity in lifestyles and values. To this "value diversity" has been added ethnic diversity... This is America versus Sweden. You can have a Swedish welfare state provided that you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values. In the US you have a very diverse, individualistic society where people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens. Progressives want diversity but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests."

It's a difficult argument, particularly since it can be argued that the role of government to create common values through its institutions becomes rather more pressing in a more diverse context (much the same as the role the article allocates to the BBC), not to mention increasingly negative views of the welfare state followed political reform of the welfare state, rather than preceding it. Furthermore, it assumes that the welfare state is an instrument of social solidarity and not of economic security. Nonetheless, greater diversity in terms of ethnicity and values remains a fact (not just in Britain, but in Europe generally, recalling Pim Fortuyn's critique of illiberal views held in immigrant communities) and it seems to me that there is limited scope for attempting to forge a common identity forged on structures that were created for more homogenous ages (the idea of a state church is an obvious example) and that some attempt to create the type of national narrative used by France and the US as a means to resolve the tension between liberalism and pluralism.

posted by Richard R 8:41 PM

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