Monday, 30 January 2012

Derek Parfitt's "On What Matters"

Derek Parfitt has at last published a two-volume meisterwerk called On What Matters. It's been over a decade in the making and discussed with almost everyone on the planet who cares about what he thinks matters. I was one of the many who beat their heads against the prose of Reasons and Persons, all the while wondering why, and I'm not going to do it again with On What Matters. And here's why...

He's asking and answering the wrong questions.

When I was young and knew little of the world, I thought of moral philosophy in abstract terms. I wanted principles, if not a super-principle, by which to judge and act. Well, judge, anyway. I didn't want to make decisions, which imply responsibility and the possibility of error, with all the attendent apologies, amends, revisions and starting over, and the possibility that I'd get it wrong again. What I wanted was apriori principles on which I could act, and if it didn't work out, it would be the world's fault, not mine. More people than you might think still want something like this. Anyone looking for fundamental principles surely does.

The issue isn't whether there is such a fundamental principle. The issue is what difference it would make if there was. The answer is that it makes no difference at all. Because it is high-level, and presumably can be stated in twenty-five words or less, you will need to interpret it in any situation. Unless it is the only general-purpose principle with an utterly unambiguous interpetation in any situation, other people may disagree with your interpretation and consequent actions. They will have and equally strong conviction that their interpretation is correct. You are both agreeing on the principle, but you disagree on what it means in a specific circumstance. Which means you may as well adopt a bunch of less ambiguous lower-level principles, rather than one necessarily ambiguous high-level one. This ambiguity is not something unique to high-level moral principles: there's more than way of applying Newton's Third Law to the orbit of a satellite.

While all this sort of thing is very interesting, at least to philosophers, it's not much use to anyone interested in the question "how should I live", let alone "how do I run this freaking country"? (It's worth noticing that the more freedom we give to answering the first question, the harder it is to answer the second.)

What's often overlooked is that the first question is always asked in a context: by someone who is already placed in an existant society with laws, rules, expectations, manners and etiquette. The first draft answer to "how should I live?" is "as much of an exemplary a member of the society in which I find myself as I can manage". The problems start when I am not a native of that society and have, perhaps from being raised somewhere else, perhaps from having that personality disorder known as an "independent mind", my own ideas about what is acceptable, or find myself having an unexplained but forceful emotional reaction to some practice of that society. "I can't do that, I don't care if I'm supposed to, I can't." We are not born moral tabula rasa, but with, perhaps never-to-be-triggered, ideas of what they will and won't tolerate or do, which appear not as intellectual theories, but as deep-seated emotional reactions. (Not many people are like this: the majority will go along with whatever they find themselves born into.)

We have by now left the realm of detached ethical shoulds and oughts, and entered the prudential and pragmatic world of contracts, argeements, deals, expectations, manipulations, promises, compromises, pay-offs and other assorted rewards and punishments. The question "how should I live" now becomes "how much of this stuff can I accept, how much can I organise my life so it doesn't affect me, and how much am I going to have to take some kind of stand, or accept that there are some jobs I won't get, some parties I won't be invited to, some people who won't be in my circle, and some people who I will sincerly wish were elsewhere but my vicinity." I'm not sure about you, but that sounds more like my real life.

Parfitt knows that a steller reputation as an abstract thinker is not gained by getting down and dirty in the world of prudence and pragmatism. He's arguing abstruse points about high-level moral theories - utilitarianism, Kantian universalism and a social contract theory - that no practical person who makes decisions (judges, jurors, politicians, managers and directors, doctors, administrators) has ever used. If you need a high-level abstract principle to help solve a problem, you're solving the wrong problem.

Moral philosophy has long been politics by other means. Kant wanted to set up a universal moral standard so that there would be no authoritative role for the Church. Utilitarianism was a doctrine that fitted well with the mood and aims of Victorian social reformers. Consequentialism goes well with pragmatic people who deal with the world case-by-case and don't want grand principles and political programmes. As a fallibalist, I don't believe we can know what's right, but I'm pretty sure we can spot what needs to stop happening and shouldn't spend our tax revenues on. We don't need a theory of right and wrong to stop bankers hyping another bunch of useless products, or the pharamceutical industry from corrupting every third doctor and medical researcher into endorsing expensive, barely-effective drugs with more side-effects than e-coli.

If I had to pick one question that I think "matters" above all, it's this: at what point must we abandon the pursuit of our personal goals and be prepared to sacrifice our advancement so that the rest of the community can benefit? The obvious questions here are: how much profit is enough? How big a bonus is too much? Is it really acceptable to collect expensive vintage cars: isn't there something better to do with the money? Do we draw the line at sending jobs to poor countries? Should we donate to charities if we believe that they are ineffective and spend too little of their income on the cause? Notice that our personal goals may well already include charitable and welfare aims, and we may also live a modest life with no great riches or prestige. We may even be mired in debts. Does poverty, or the prospect of sustained unemployment, excuse us for not blowing the whistle on our employer's mal-practices? Does the continuous need for a salary mean that we should be complicit in selling useless and meritricious products and services?

None of these questions, you will notice, have anything to do with runaway trolleys. There are plenty of simple but moral problems in the daily world - should we give money to a beggar if we suspect that they are going to spend it on drugs? - without using toy examples. So maybe if I think there is one thing that "matters" it's the examination of the moral world created by post-modern capitalism and sprawling States that take forty per cent of our income in direct and indirect taxation and still can't keep our hospitals clean and teach children to read, write and show up on time. With a smile. That's what matters.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Proust Questionnaire

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
 Blue sky, clear air, sunshine, beaches, sea, never having to worry about money or organising anything

2. What is your greatest fear?
 That my body goes on living longer than I can afford.

3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
 Low energy levels and crippling self-doubt.

4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
 When they eat smelly food on trains.

5. Which living person do you most admire?
 Terence Tao.

6. What is your greatest extravagance?
 I don't have enough money to be extravagant.

7. What is your current state of mind?
 Tired. Always.

8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
 Whose list of virtues did you have in mind?

9. On what occasion do you lie?
 If I don't trust you.

10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
 The bit where I don't look like me.

11. Which living person do you most despise?
  Anyone who thinks they can leave their morals behind when they swipe in at work.

12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
 I don't really "like" men.

13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
 That they are polite enough to flirt with me.

14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
 'I think'

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
 I don't do oxytocin

16. When and where were you happiest?
  You're making an assumption there...

17. Which talent would you most like to have?
 Energy and lack of doubt

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
 More energy, no self-doubt

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
 For a couple of years, I was possibly the best in the world at the job I did. Maybe only a couple of hundred people in the world did it, but that's enough. 

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
 Oh shit. I have to do this again?

21. Where would you most like to live? 
 See 1.

22. What is your most treasured possession?
 My health. When it's around.

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
 Drunk self-pity.

24. What is your favorite occupation?
 Wait. I can do things I like doing? When did that become an option?

25. What is your most marked characteristic?
 I don't drink, drug or use mood-altering chemicals.

26. What do you most value in your friends?
 That they're still here.

27. Who are your favorite writers?
 I steal from them all.

28. Who is your hero of fiction?
Philip Marlowe

29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?

30. Who are your heroes in real life?
 Socrates, Paul Feyerabend, Craig Murray and Groucho Marx

31. What are your favorite names?
 Girls' names that sound like thick black hair and luscious lips: Julia, Rachel, Sarah

32. What is it that you most dislike?
 All the seats being taken already.

33. What is your greatest regret?
 All the women I never made love to.

34. How would you like to die?
 Quickly, and soon after I next lose my day job.

35. What is your motto?
 One day at a time.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In A Hotel Garden

When I have the name of this hotel, I'll put it in. I stopped here for lunch on my way down to Somerset a couple of years ago. The food was good, the hotel plush and the grounds quite interesting. The weather was bad. Arriving on the Quantocks, I went for a walk in thick mist, because, well I had to stretch my legs.

Monday, 23 January 2012

De Botton's Religion For Atheists, or It's The Ceremony, Stupid

Read this Guardian review and the comments - always read the comments.

Okay, now let me through, I'm a philosopher...

They're talking about religion, and they seem to be doing it at cross-purposes at times. What's a religion? A short answer won't do here, so please indulge me while I suggest a fairly comprehensive answer.

Religions have some or all of the following: 1) a theology, a description of a deity or collection of deities, with or without charming stories about their behaviour, creation myths and tales of their intervention on behalf of a chosen tribe; 2) a set of rules and practices for the worship of that deity or those deities, which usually includes an idea of prayer (don't forget Tibetan prayer wheels!), and of some kind of ceremony which may be private or communal, together with rules and traditions for the practice of that ceremony; 3) a canon law,  governing the conduct of its officials, paid or unpaid; 4) a morality, a code of conduct for its followers, which may or may not include the way of treating fellow members and strangers, the role of women, the right or wrong of abortion, sex before, during and outside marriage, and so on and famously so forth; 5) a lifestyle which may or may not include prescriptions and proscriptions on dress, diet, working on a chosen holy day, manner of speech and other such ticks and habits of everyday life; 6) a spiritual practice for dealing with the iniquities, cruelties, tragedies, boredom, frustration, upset, insolence and unfairness of life. 

A religion is a theology, a worship, a canon law, morality, lifestyle and spiritual practice. The theology is compulsory, all the rest are optional, even if leaving out a practice of worship would feel a little odd. The faithful may feel that simply listing the pieces out misses something, and indeed it does. It misses the way that religions are claimed to be, and for all I know are actually experienced by their followers as, an indivisible, organic whole.

A totalitarian religion presents these rules, codes and practices as one huge organic whole that must be accepted without question and lived without exception. A more humane totalitarianism allows grades of wrong-doing and a practice of confession and forgiveness. Some religions seem to be about nothing but the lifestyle stuff, others seem to be all about the spirituality, while others are all about the ceremony and community.

Just because someone can't separate rules about the behaviour of women, from the proper manner of prayer or the idea of angels in their religion, doesn't mean that those ideas are not, in logic and in fact, separable. Religious people and even secular commentators who want to sound gruff talk about "cafe religion" or "a la carte belief", with the disapproving air of superiority of those who take their whiskey straight. However difficult it may be for a signed-up practitioner of one or other religion to imagine, and never mind that its management would deny it with loud denunciations, it's fairly clear that each of these six components is quite separable from the other, and indeed many of the items in each can be removed or others added. The result wouldn't be the exact religion we started with, but it would be another religion. The person you're talking to might have difficulty imagining this - "it's not like that, it's all one, it's complicated, you just can't take bits and leave them" - but that's their failure of imagination, not my spiritual emptiness.

What's also clear is that we can have a morality, spiritual practice or a lifestyle without a religion. This is the claim that causes a lot of the dispute, and we need to understand that the dispute isn't about a matter of logic - morality, spiritual practice and lifestyle work perfectly well without theology - but about a matter of feeling: to a paid-up daily worshipper morality without Hell feels a little conventional, spirituality without Heaven feels a little less soft and warm, and of course, lifestyle without God feels totally arbitrary. That's the problem, because it's lifestyle that people are most attached to. The dispute is about them wanting Big Impressive Reasons for not eating pork, not cutting their hair, circumcising the men or killing women who get raped.

When people say that "religion" is a good thing for social cohesion, they are claiming that the mass of the people will follow the morality and lifestyle rules - which is the important bit - all the better for believing in a theology and worshipping. This is a splendid piece of wishful thinking denied by every moment of history and at many places in the present. I think I'd rather live in 21st century Europe where marauding Dukes merely take over each other's companies than in the religious past when the Dukes actually sent soldiers to kill and rape people and burn places down. Losing your job is no picnic, but it's better than being raped or having your arm chopped off.

What do we make of people who say that "religion" is sometimes a Good Thing? First, check if they really are talking about the Pope or The President of the Church (head Mormon). If not, ask them for an example, which will quickly show you if they are really hankering after the morality, the lifestyle or the spiritual practice. If they're after any of these, ask them if they want an Ayatollah and a prohibition on pork on the side? After they have finally understood what it was you just asked them, they will say "no, and what's that got to do with it?". Well, if you want a religion, you have to choose: Pope, Ayatollah, Chief Rabbi, one of those guys, and several of them come with a prohibition of shoes for women on the side. At this point whoever it is will give you a funny look, because they weren't talking about that. It will turn out that they don't really know what they are talking about, but at a push, what they really want is the ceremony. Thursday prayers, facing Mecca, the women upstairs, incense, ending with the Serenity Prayer, before shaking hands with the priest on the way out to an organ voluntary, and a good gossip on the green in front of the church, with selected head-shaking at mothers who can't keep their children quiet and whispers about just who Lula May is seeing of a Tuesday evening down by the bayou. Or something along those lines.

They want the ceremony because they think that a sense of community and shared life goes with it. Well, only in their nostalgic dreams. Such a person isn't a serious student of history, politics, the human condition, or even the last few weeks' news. Try saying this: "Good lord, is that Harry Lime, I must say hello, do excuse me".

The final trick is for the religious person to re-define religion to mean any one of the six items, instead of "theology+worship+other stuff". So I'm religious if I share a chunk of some religion's morality, or don't eat pork, or do a yoga class once a week. That, of course, is just cheating. Religion means God, Bishops (or whoever) and silly exclusionary lifestyle rules that serve as membership badges. I say the Serenity Prayer at the end of AA meetings, but that don't mean I believe in a God, let alone the Archbishop of Canterbury. If you get into a conversation with someone who tries to tell you that you can have religion without God and Bishops, politely finish the conversation (see above) and don't play cards or do business with them either.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked: Around London

A Ford GT on Jermyn Street on autumn Sunday Morning; rain on the roof at Galvin in Old Spitalfields Market; the famous Black Helicopter flying away from Somewhere Secret in Feltham; Rats on Wheels at the northern end of Waterloo Bridge, morning rush hour; Friday evening, Exmouth Market in summer.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Steve McQueen's Sex-Addict Movie Shame

I saw the much-hyped Steve McQueen movie Shame Sunday afternoon. Here's what one of the characters would say to describe their crazy behaviour...

"I was so out of control, I fucked my brother's boss three hours after meeting him in this nightclub where I had a gig. I shagged my brother's boss in my brother's bed. In his flat, where I was crashing. My brother had to go our for a run while I was shagging his boss in his bed."

That's the kind of story that has people in 12-Step rooms agreeing that you had crossed the line from Normal to Crazy. Catch is, it's what Carey Mulligan's character does. Michael Fassbender's character is a single man. So he can't do stuff like whore away his daughter's college education, or disgust his wife so much she divorces him, or cause his son to be jeered at in school, or lose his job because he was getting some lunchtime nookie when he should have been at a client meeting. That's what out-of-control addicts do. His character is single and keeps his job despite the IT department finding a ton of porn on his work computer (huh? not these days). He's just a fucked-up man who can't mix friendship and sex, and has the money to buy hookers - though in the middling-level job he has, those are pretty fancy-looking hookers he's getting for the money. He's the sex equivalent of a heavy drinker who behaves badly when drunk - that doesn't make you an alcoholic, it just makes you an asshole who needs to cut back. And that's what his character is. It's his sister who goes in for self-harm and attempted suicide - and self-harm is regarded by we conventional alcoholics as almost as incomprehensible as anorexia. It's his sister who's the utter mess.

Which is not the movie I was sold by the hype. It has good photography and sets, excellent performances, but of a script full of cliches and almost zero insight into sex addiction, or indeed any kind of addiction. Fassbender's character gets full of remorse, so he goes to a downscale bar and gets the crap kicked out of him by a rightly pissed-off boyfriend. After which he gets oral sex from a gay man in one of those visions-of-hell that have never actually existed. Ummm, hello? Can you spell "homophobic"? There are the obligatory masturbation-in-the-shower sequences that are shorthands for "desperate and sad", in the same way as the beautifully-photographed run is supposed to be a literal metaphor for the way he runs from problems and confrontation (in this case, that he should have stopped his boss coming into the flat with his sister). I didn't get the feeling that the writers understood anything about sex addiction, but that they did think that single men were pretty awful. Compare and contrast with Michael Keaton's portrayal of a minor-asshole cokehead in Clean and Sober - Shame is not of that calibre of insight at all.

I would have shown a guy running out of money, lying to a likeable girlfriend (the Nicole Beharie character will do just fine), in trouble at work because he was dumb enough to download porn to his work computer on a business trip, missing a visit to the hospital to see his father because he got caught in a four-hour Internet porn session, and then getting beaten up by a returning boyfriend when he was cheating with a random pick-up (called, say, Sarah). He goes for treatment, thereby saving his job, but not his girlfriend, who leaves and in a later scene with a friend explains that she's not so sure she can trust her judgement anymore as he didn't get what was wrong with the guy until it was too late. Sarah gets thrown out by the boyfriend, with a black eye, the scene done in such a way that we think he has a point, even if he shouldn't have hit her. The guy comes out of treatment and returns to work, we can reprise the neat scene on the train with Lucy Walter's character but this time have him look away and see the Lucy Walter's character's disappointment. He runs across Sarah, who's sporting a bruise (brusies take a long time to go away) and gives him a smack we may well feel he deserves. Leave the man standing on a Manhatten street, confused and just starting to talk to his SAA sponsor. You can have all the hot hookers you like in the first act.

I saw two films that day. Before Shame, I saw Tales of a Life. Now that's a good movie.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Son of a Preacher Man - Ed's Diner Version

So I was in Ed's Diner having an American Cheese burger and vanilla shake after having seen My Week With Marilyn at the Curzon Soho, after having been to the gym and before browsing round Foyles - my basic default perfect Sunday - when Dusty Springfield starts up on the jukebox, singing this...

and the middle-aged Australian ladies next to me at the counter start singing along quietly to it, in the way that people do at Ed's. And I thought: don't you know how old the girl was when the Son of A Preacher Man came calling? This song is about a couple of fifteen year-olds making out, and the sad thing is that the girl hasn't ever found anyone else who made her feel like making love since. Jesus! Even I knew it was about that when it came out, oh, errrr, last year.

Yet there they were, singing along about how the only boy who could ever reach them was a sweet-talkin'-son-of-a-preacher-man. Nope. Not in their experience. But they were note-perfect. I'm not sure what it proves - perhaps that if you put it in a song, you can get away with a lot more. But then, could anyone get away with Gary Puckett's Young Girl today. I'm thinking not.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Tal Wilkenfeld, Orianthi Panagaris: Australian Guitar Godesses

I have in the last few weeks discovered that Australia has lately been exporting lady guitarists. Well, Canada has the monopoly on lady singer-songwriters, so the Australians had to do something different.

The first is the jazz bassist Tal Wilkenfeld.  Here she is at the tender age of about 23 with the guitar god's guitar god Jeff Beck at Ronnie Scott's...

The other is heavy metal guitarist Orianthi Panagaris,who has played with most of the guitar gods you can think of because she impressed the hell out of Steve Vai when he was touring Australia. Yes, that's right, she impressed the guy who impressed the hell out of Frank Zappa when he was about the same age. Here she is with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani...

What's remarkable is the number of You Tube commentators who say something like "yeah, she's okay, but there's loads of people who can play like that". And that may even be true. But it's not what it takes. There's a line in the movie Basquiat where the art critic Rene Ricard says "part of the artist's job is to get the work where I will see it". Self-promotion, getting yourself heard, sending your CD to Herbie Hancock and asking if you can support him on his tour of Australia, is what it takes. And that's what all those other people don't have. 

To my generation, there's nothing odd about a 20-ish-year old playing at the top levels. Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Pete Townsend, Tony WIlliams, Herbie Hancock, Steve Vai, Joe Bonnamassa to name just a few. Hancock was headhunted by Miles Davis when he was twenty-three, Williams when he was seventeen. Bonamassa opened for BB King when he was twelve! To my generation, what's odd is guys and gals in their thirties just making it past their first record deal. Jesus! You're supposed to be dead by thirty, leaving a legacy of erratic brilliance behind you.

There is one thing I hope. Ms Wilkenfeld has a fantastic technique and a solid grasp of the harmonic complications of contemporary fusion jazz. Catch is, fusion jazz is emotionally empty. There's more emotion in Coltrane's opening phrase of A Love Supreme  than there is on the whole of a Gwilym Simcock album I bought as an experiment. It would be a huge waste of her talent if she stayed in that line, and a huge use of it if she tried to do something new, with something that moves the soul. The point of being young is that you can learn fast and aren't scared of trying something new. She's still got some time - Ornette Coleman was twenty-nine when he released The Shape of Jazz To Come

Monday, 9 January 2012

Guy Debord's The Society of The Spectacle

I had a terrible cold over Christmas and re-read Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. This might be a cue for jokes about French philosophers making more sense if you have a cold, but it isn't. The book is famous and never out of print, but I'm not sure how many people now would read it all the way through. By today's standards it's an abstract tome written in best 1960's academic Marxism. There's no fun bits where we can lament with the author the appalling bad taste of the masses. It's not about The Spectacle, it's about the society that Debord thought it took The Spectacle to maintain. It's also showing its age.

Back in the 1960's the people who ran consumer goods companies and advertising agencies were a great deal more patronising and sure that the consumer would do as they suggested. The consumer didn't have a whole lot of choice then. Companies didn't need to "control" the media because they were behaving reasonably well - by today's standards. Today, from the outside, Capital's "control" of the media looks a lot more assured, calculating and deliberate than it is. On the inside it's a bunch of highly-paid, not-very-bright-but-very-shrewd men (and ever more women with the same values as the boys) desperately trying to clean up the mess before the grown-ups get home, or hoping that the cool kids will like what they're pushing, or the ever-fickle public won't be influenced by this week's scare story and stop buying the crap that fills the shelves, the airwaves and everywhere else. Skilful single-cause activists can cause PR and business headaches with a few low-cost, high-profile stunts. The underpaid, under-resourced churnalists who work in print and broadcast media lap all this pre-packaged stuff up like hungry kittens. Senior managers and advertising creatives aren't patronising, but scared. Those that can, loot everything in sight and move on, like marauding bands of mediaeval knights.

In one sense, the capitalism that Marx wrote about and Debord refers to was defeated, or perhaps changed, sometime in the 1980's. There's a 1967 proverb that it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government still gets in. Capital is similar: it doesn't matter what you buy or even if you buy nothing, it still winds up in a bank account and the capitalists get to use it. I once had a neat little book called Commodify Your Dissent which described how any kind of dissent wound up as a product to be bought. Choose your cause, buy the tee-shirt. In complex economies and societies, some kind of central administration is unavoidable - though whether it should think of itself as "governing" us like so many unruly subjects of a monarch is another matter. Large businesses are unavoidable for mass-markets as well - though whether they should be allowed to send jobs to other countries, pollute the water table to extract gas, and make food that their senior managers don't let their own children eat is again another matter.

It's not the structure that's the problem - it's the content. There's a seminal book called Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television  which, quite apart from giving you a tour round every "alternative" cultural idea of the 1970's, has strong arguments for why you should stop watching TV. When he wrote "TV" meant the set-and-the-shows-broadcast-by-the-networks. Video, DVD and LCD screens hadn't come along to turn the TV screen into a home movie screen on which we could watch anything. Turns out that much of what Manders was talking about was the shows and the idea that TV is something you leave on in the background all the time (some people do, I'm always amazed when they tell me). He used the example of how much more effective an ecological campaign that used images of a dead forest was than when it used images of beautiful countryside. On the TV sets of the mid-70's showing images shot on the video of the time, that's true: on modern 16:9 LCD screens showing images shot on film or HD, it isn't. Beautiful nature looks overwhelming.

Debord died in 1994 and I wonder if he appreciated that at least in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the post-Murdoch media reached a synergy (or incestuousness, if you're not a fan) with the entertainment industry and business that made the 1960's look like it was run by people who weren't really trying. Need I only say "Fox News"? Are you old enough to remember when the Financial Times didn't consist entirely of re-cycled press releases and pre-packaged spin from "contacts"? And you do realise that sports "news" isn't really news? It's just celebrity gossip and reviews, but about people who have skills.

Debord saw a society where, he believed, people were separated from each other by the Spectacle, because that was what Capital needed. In this he couldn't have been more wrong. It's not Capital that needs us to be isolated in the fear of ridicule of our differences from a norm we imagine everyone else upholds. Capital doesn't care about our social arrangements and personal preferences: it makes money whatever we do. The human condition could be described as one of being separately-together for much of the time, simply because that's what it means to be responsible for our own survival and advancement. The fact that people are so very different means that there's no guarantee we will find congenial company we can trust living within one percent of the Earth's radius from where we were born. It's Government that exploits this to make its job easier. Capital needs us to a) consume, b) work, c) pay our due bills, d) not wreck stuff. Government needs to tax us and not depose it, which is easier if e) we think that it is "just us" who thinks or feels like this, f) believe that everyone else is content with the way things are, and g) fear that the barbarians will ruin our lives if we don't accept being governed.

He thought that the society created by advanced Capitalism and the Spectacle was something new, that once there had been a time when people communicated, formed co-operative ventures, held out against the Bad Guys together and probably raised their children as a village as well. Well, not in any world I'm welcome to. Every now and then, yes, and historians write books about such episodes and revolutionaries dream on them. Then everyone goes back to business-as-usual: distracted from themselves by the work, children, gossip, bill-paying, status and entertainment that make up their lives. For some people that distraction is not enough, while others make it their life's very meaning, but it occupies most people and leaves them semi-connected to themselves and the world. That's what Debord was looking at, and it's been a permanent feature of human life. He wanted that to change, so he had to believe it wasn't.

If The Spectacle really is a structural feature of capitalism that can only be removed if capitalism is removed, then we are condemned to a mass culture of endless soap operas and bad comedies, with temporary fringe cultures around it like so many soap bubbles. But if mass culture and the conduct of business is the result of decisions by people, some of whom live next door to you, doing jobs like yours, then we can think of ways to make those people make different decisions next time. "Let's not do another cheap decorating / cooking show." "Let's not just re-cycle that press release about an odd-sounding condition that Pfizer has an expensive drug to treat". "Let's not lend people money for houses they can't afford." "Let's not send those jobs abroad, let's train our own people instead." "Let's not shove this insurance product down our customers' throats just because we can". "Let's not hire another insecure person who will use their bureaucratic position to bolster their fragile sense of worth: let's hire a grown-up instead."

In the end, this is a temperamental thing. I was raised as an engineer: I know people are not beavers, they don't do design and make stuff by genetic instinct. Anything made or run by people is the way it is because someone made a decision to put them there, design them like that, use those materials, run the procedure this way not that way, and so on. It's sometimes fun to imagine a world ruled by abstract powers and processes, but I can't do it when it matters. When it matters, the little corner of the world that has made our lives worse is the way it is because someone decided it would be that way. They should be found, exposed, questioned, if necessary ridiculed and shamed, and the people who hired them, trained then and managed them should have the same treatment. (Yes, people should make better decisions because they don't want their children to be taunted in the school playgrounds.) The process should be changed. But while people believe they can hide behind institutions, "commercial confidentiality" and self-serving laws that stop individual bureaucrats being identified and called to account, then they will be tempted to take the short-cuts, economies and assumptions of compliance-at-our-expense-and-inconvenience that make the bureaucrat's life so much easier.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Top Five Regrets? Top Five Self-Indulgent Spoonfuls of Chicken Soup!

According to something I chanced upon via 8Tracks and tumblr, the top five regrets as expressed by dying people to a nurse are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. 

Pass the chicken-soup! Puh-leeese! These may be the Top Five Regrets You Will Say To A Kindly Female Nurse, but it ain't the truth. For one thing, where is the one regret of all men: 6. I wish I'd made love to all the women I ever wanted to. Notice, "made love to", not "been in a deep and meaningful relationship with". I bet women have a similar regret: 6a. I wish I'd said yes more often.

This stuff is as genuine as a death-bed confession to a priest, and probably fulfils the same function: that until we can accept our lives, we can't let go of them and die easy. It's a way of saying "that was how I lived my life, and I hereby atone for it". Which may make you feel better about yourself, but atonement isn't amends. Step Nine requires amends - practical action to put the wrongs you did right. It's a little late for amends if you're talking to the nurse.

1. Living a life "true to yourself", whatever that means, is possible for the rich and people who don't mind being poor or being supported by their partner who is doing the day job to pay the Serious Bills. Most of us can't earn a wage, let alone a decent living, doing what we would really like to do. A few do, and they just let the side down. Sure, you wish you'd had the courage now, but back then you were behaving like a responsible adult and paying the bills. Probably raising kids as well.

2. There's a reason you worked hard. You were scared - rightly or wrongly - of losing your job. You didn't want to go home, because it was too complicated. What you mean is: you wished the rest of your life had been different so you wouldn't have needed to work hard to avoid the bits you didn't like.

3. You wish you'd had the courage to face the consequences of expressing your feelings. I take it we're talking about unrequited and lost love here, and not all the times you wished you'd called someone as asshole. Because not doing that is known as proper restraint.

4. There's a reason you drift away from your friends. They drift away from you. You all have lives, jobs, families. You change. You stop being able to communicate like you used to. You get tired of their acts, and they of yours. (God knows how I ever had any friends at all, in that case.) Suddenly you start having secrets to keep - like how your marriage sucks.

5. The nurse says that people realise that "happiness is a choice". Is it bollocks. In AA we have a phrase: "you can start having a good day any time you choose" which is meant to remind you that most of the time, you're the one holding onto the bad feelings and you can let them drop. Being free of negative emotions is not the same as being happy, though I'd understand if many people thought it was. What the old guys may be saying here is that they wished they had let go of their bad feelings, not harboured resentments and angers and so on. And if this is what they mean, I'll believe it. But I'll bet at the time they thought they had good reason for feeling the way they did.

I'm not implying that the people who say these things are being insincere. They're just doing what they've been doing all their lives: saying and doing what, as a responsible member of their society, they know they should be saying and doing. And feeling better for doing so. Even if they don't believe it.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Casetlejo Rock Sculpture

I'm deep in the generation of a number of complicated ideas at the moment. There's stuff on statistics, algebraic geometry, the idea of revolution and Debord's idea of the spectacle, and various other things. However, it's all still in the oven, and you know what they say about opening oven door when the cakes are cooking.

So here's some pictures of a rock sculpture someone made on the beach at Castelejo on the Algarve. It's got a slightly Andy Goldsworthy look about it, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't him.

Whoever it was, is pretty good at this stuff. It didn't survive a couple of tides, but then that's the point of these sculptures: that they are temporary and exist in the documentation.

Monday, 2 January 2012

New Year's Resolutions: The 2012 Mix

Of the Resolutions for 2011, I missed on: city breaks, reading all the books I'd bought but hadn't read yet, project Coriander, and I thought about my age rather more than I should.

City breaks are expensive, especially compared to twice as many days on the coast, because city hotels are expensive, unless I stay in some Holiday-Inn chain at the end of the transport lines. Reading the books is a never-ending task, as I keep buying new ones. Age? I know damn well I'm thinking about that as a way of staying away from women I know I won't choose well and will therefore want to be away from in a very short time. So those items are off the resolutions list. On the other hand, if I don't resolve to take holidays I won't, as not taking holidays is what I do by default, and if I don't count the gym as a resolution, I'm falling into the trap of making last year's resolutions this year's routines. Which is a fine way of filling my diary before I start. So I'm going to drop the ones that don't work and keep the ones that do and I need to make an effort to do.

What do I want to change about what I did in 2011? There's the not-having-a-girlfriend bit, which is a little beyind the scope of New Year's Resolutions. There's the fact that my Saturdays seem to go by in a haze of nothing-much and I have a very high reluctance to venture into the outside world then - unless it's sunny, I wake up early and the Metropolitan Line is working, when I may well go for breakfast in Notting Hill. I need to do something about Saturdays - I know I should be able to do nothing all day - except cook, iron and clean bits of the house (that's "nothing" when you're single) - and not get a guilty conscience about it, but I don't. Call it "Make Saturday Special" for the moment and make it mean something later.

So here's the list for 2012.

1.  Spitalfields isn't Soho - get over it and set off for the Central Line prompt at 17:00
2.  go to the gym at least three days a week
3.  not eat chocolate late in the evening and avoid excess carbs at lunchtime
4.1 take two week-long holidays abroad and a couple of short breaks in the UK
4.2 one weekend, take the sleeper to and from Penzance
5. spend more time researching stuff that's useful to my various projects
6  do my "36 Views of St Mary Axe" photography project
7  read "Finding Time Again" so I've "read Proust"
8. Make Saturday Special - details to follow
9. make the best of the seven-week Olympic period
10. errr... that's it.

(Resolution 9 does not mean what you think it means.)

So let's see how I do with this. I need to do a couple for work as well, but I'm not going to think about those just yet.