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Monday, 18 September 2017

How We Know Things

Around the seventeenth century, a funny thing called 'The Enlightenment' was happening. One of the effects of this movement was that sundry gentry from all over Europe suddenly decided that a productive use of their time would be to dabble about collecting odds and ends from the deep past and either construct elaborate fantasies around them, or simply label them and shunt them into vast private collections. These people were called 'antiquarians', and one of them, Sir Robert Cotton, had what was possibly the biggest collection of Anglo Saxon documents extant at the time. This collection was eventually willed to the British nation, and was moved to the ironically named Ashburnham Manor for safekeeping. Ironic because the house burnt to the ground on the 23rd of October, 1731. The fire destroyed many of the the 563 manuscripts in the library, but one which was miraculously preserved was Beowulf, labelled as such, and bound, for some reason, within a collection of mediaeval bestiaries. Another antiquarian, Icelandic scholar G J Thorkelin, translated and copied Beowulf, then took it to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Copenhagen was occupied by Napoleon's forces at the time and the translation, along with Thorkelin's house, was destroyed in a British bombardment in 1807. Luckily, Thorkelin himself was not destroyed, and he did a do-over, thus ensuring that the earliest full version of a British literary work was preserved, by the skin of its teeth.

Years later, a grand, crazy old widow called Edith Pretty, left alone in a big house in Suffolk, became interested in attempting to contact her dead husband through spiritualism - a movement that was big in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and one which couldn't be more different from The Enlightenment. Spiritualist 'thinking' prompted Mrs Pretty to decide that she'd had a bunch of prophetic dreams about the collection of artificial mounds on her property. So she toddled off to the local university, hired a self-taught archaeologist (the amusingly named Basil Brown), and told him to get digging. This was in 1938. Over the next few years, subject to minor interruptions owing to WWII, it was gradually determined that these mounds were dark age ship burials containing the richest hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure discovered then or since. Amongst the finds were two objects - a drinking horn and boar helmet - which exactly matched descriptions of objects found in Beowulf. The boar helmet is the only one of its kind that has ever been found, helmets from dark age Britain being about as common as honest parliamentarians, and is the best and most dramatic evidence that the world described in Beowulf has firm anchors in reality - is, in fact, a real world.

The survival of the Beowulf manuscript, and the attestation of its world in the Sutton Hoo burial, account for a worryingly large proportion of all that we know about Britain between 600 and 1000CE. If the folks fighting the fire at Ashburnham had been just a little less assiduous, or that random Icelander just a little less dogged, that old lady just a little less crazy; there would be a yawning gap in our knowledge of a period which is pretty dark to us as it is. Which is why we used to call it 'The Dark Ages'. Without these two random and tortuous narratives of exploration and discovery, the history of English literature and the Anglo Saxon period would be dramatically different. And wrong. And there's the thing. We know we're not as wrong as we might have been, thanks to all kinds of dumb luck, but what we don't and can't know is how wrong we still are. This isn't limited to obscure aspects of British history, either. If Schonky Schliemann had never met that spy, he'd never have dug that huge trench in Hissarlik and found the city variously known as 'Wilusa', 'Ilium', or 'Troy'. If Bedouin shepherd Mohammed Edh-Dhib hadn't fallen into that cave, our knowledge of the Hebrew Bible would be missing one thousand years of its history as a manuscript. If anonymous bad boys hadn't burnt down the palace at Hattusas, we would never, ever have been able to confirm the existence of an entire empire (Hittite), which vanished from the record in around 1200BCE, its memory surviving only in a handful of casual mentions in a bible story about someone else (Abraham).

Given, then, that what we know about ourselves is based in large part on what we know about our past, and that what we know about our past is governed in large part by random chance, it's difficult to see how anyone goes around being certain about anything. People who know this are of course aware of the very tenuous and probably wildly unreliable thread that connects us to the origins of the present, and thus are born those rather fatuous aphorisms about knowledgeable people being aware of their ignorance. There is a mad tendency to try to reduce the sum of our knowledge into what I like to call 'Dinner Party Facts'. All people came out of Africa. The Jews have always lived in Israel. The Bible forbids [insert thing here]. None of these things, taken as hardened, absolute information, is entirely true. Simple narratives and certain facts are the playthings of the ignorant and the stupid. The acquisition and application of knowledge is not and cannot be the philatelogical process of collecting 'facts', as there really is no such thing. 'Knowing' things consists of the much harder, much less comfortable endeavour to understand and synthesise what little we have, and above all, to maintain an awareness of the dark immensities of ignorance which form the shifting basis of all our knowledge.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Kardashian Gap

There are many arguments for and against the legitimacy of the fame of the Kardashians. Most of the arguments for have to do either with a perception of their positive influence on someone or other, or their existence as a kind of fait accomplis. They're famous now, so are therefore important to know about. The arguments against are pretty obvious, and are mostly put in the form of questions about why they exist, what, at the end of the day, they actually do, and so on and so forth.

What these arguments ignore is that there really isn't any legitimate basis for fame of this kind, and nor does there need to be. The Kardashians and others of their ilk are not rational products of a rational system, and it's a little bit foolish to try and explain them as such. Just like Rockefeller, Beau Brummell, Trump in his pre-presidential phase, or Alcibiades, the Kardashians are clearly manifestations of the cult of celebrity. So far, so obvious. But what I wonder is how clearly we see the implications of the very existence of this cult.

The last half century or so has seen a massive acceleration in attempts to systematise and formalise social and political mechanisms. The recently revolutionary notion of 'bureaucracy' has become ubiquitous, standard rhetoric for the nations of the west always includes talk about being 'a nation of laws', and most people in western democracies, if you really push them, will admit that their particular societies are at least supposed to be based on equity, fairness, and egalitarianism. Given this, why aren't we all currently living in our own various utopias of freedom and whatnot?

There's a lot of potential answers to this question. Many people will argue quite cogently that the gap between ideology and practice is created by corruption, greed, institutionalised unfairness, popular apathy, and a host of other factors. I don't disagree, but I think that there's probably something deeper at play. In a world where everybody is shouting about fairness and compassion, the fact that so little of these things seem to exist in our systems must surely be down to something lurking beneath our conscious impulses. Something that we're not entirely aware of.

And the Kardashians are my proof of its existence. In short, the Kardashians and other celebrity cults speak to the insane human compulsion to create gods and aristocrats. As far back as we can see in time, humans have always set up shrines or images to some sort of divine or semi-divine personification of a perfect or ideal other. It doesn't matter how many systems you put in place, how much you try to scrub out the influence of church or tribe or nobility - all this does is create a gap into which something like the Kardashians can spring fully formed as objects of trivial worship. Huge sections of our informal systems of culture are built solely around the elevation and emulation of these people, and built in such a way as to leave absolutely no doubt that the veneration of these images is very much an aspect of the popular will. As in, nobody is being compelled to slavishly admire these idiots - they're actually paying to do it. And this teaches us an important lesson about the current limits of the human animal when it comes to the acceptance and judicious use of freedom.

It would seem that our social development has outstripped our collective cognitive evolution. Still today, unchanged for thousands of years, it's all too possible to observe the inability of people en masse to understand anything if it is not cast in the form of a story containing at least one hero and one villain. And it would seem that it is collectively impossible for us to understand even ourselves without recourse to some more or less artificially constructed ideal. The impulse to quarantine our aspirations into some inaccessible, otherworldly realm is a recurring theme in the story of humanity's constant falling short of its ideals. The horrible familiarity of our current problems is a symptom of the fundamentally unchanging patterning of our minds.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Much Neglected Art Form

With the exception of a handful of pioneering academics and specialist publications, serious critical consideration of gaming as an art form feels, to me, to be seriously lacking. Sure, it's commonly accepted that gaming is now very much mainstream, but it's pretty clear that what most people are talking about when they say this is Call of Duty and Candy Crush. I'd argue that this is a terrible mistake. High end, complex games are material which should not - cannot - be sequestered generationally. Academics and reviewers who are rich in experience and expertise in other forms need to engage with this art form or face missing out on the richest and most complex thing to happen to creative expression since someone ran a reel of film through a projector. This is driven not least by the necessarily multi-disciplinary approach which must be applied to fully understand such works. There are few better arguments for this than the astonishing master work, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The sheer scope of the work is awe inspiring. In volume alone, the creative output dwarfs any contemporary work in any other medium, and there's the added consideration that all of this content has been crafted with loving care and attention to detail, and each element linked and interlinked in a decision/narrative tree of mind-boggling complexity. And as if that weren't enough, it's beautiful as well.

Yehezkel Kaufmann's conception of the meta-divine realm may not, on the surface, seem to have much to do with a sword-swinging, bodice-ripping computer game, but then that's not all there is to The Witcher - not by a long shot. Kaufmann's idea that the pagan universe contains a realm of being from which the gods themselves spring is important for many reasons, but here we're focussed on the way this affects ancient versus modern mentalities. In a culture dominated by transcendent monotheism, our understanding of ancient mentalities can be seriously hampered by the lingering formative effect of the big three. The idea that there is a place from which the gods come creates startlingly different interactions with the tangible universe. Depending on the nature of the relevant mythology, commonplaces like blood or water can become imbued with divine significance, and long-forgotten features of everyday life like sacred landscapes and ritual calendars suddenly make perfect sense. By transposing and synthesising many systems of meta-divinity into interactive dramatic and narrative form, The Witcher allows us to experience and understand these mentalities through a faithful and sensitive simulation of sacred liminality. Vaguely remembered and poorly understood superstitions are expanded and explained in a way which promotes understanding of the dim past in ways which history teachers can only dream about. It may seem unlikely, but anyone who has engaged with The Witcher is much better equipped to understand complex ideas like immanence and meta-divinity than someone who hasn't, simply because, on some level, these concepts have been lived and experienced.

The broad premise of the game centres on The Wild Hunt, a piece of European folklore having to do with the storm gods, elves, the departed, or the dread hound, Black Shook, depending on where in Europe the tale is encountered. The story goes that whenever there's a storm, it is The Wild Hunt galloping across the sky in pursuit of souls, and if Black Shook catches your eye, you are forever lost. So far, so simple. Layered in amongst this, however, is the idea of the protagonist/avatar, Geralt of Rivia, as a specially bred monster hunter called a Witcher. What this creates (besides complex explorations of the morality of professional warrior-hood) is a pretext for the compilation of a wonderfully comprehensive bestiary of practically every nightmare creature from Classical Greece to modern times, as well as somewhat more ambiguous or benign supernatural fauna. As an ethnographic achievement, The Witcher's bestiary dwarfs most examples from the mediaeval period, the time at which this literary form reached its peak, and for sheer preservation and detail of monstrous traditions, professional and amateur ethnographers and folklorists alike should find significant utility in the collection, in spite of its fantastical lack of context and attribution. It's not just about listing or preservation, though. The genius of the bestiary is in its detail and synthesis. The grand literary achievement of the monster lore in The Witcher is the deft manner in which an enormous, eclectic grab bag of superstition, folklore, and myth has been woven together into a coherent universe. The effect of this is to prompt new and interesting ways of thinking about humanity's fascination with the monstrous. The juxtaposition of disparate traditions highlights their similarities, and hints at the central truths of human conceptions of monsters, as well as exploring the essential dichotomy of beauty and horror. Common threads in logic, ritual, cult, and system catalyse and highlight ideas about transformation, therio and anthropomorphism, and humanity's intimate yet profoundly uneasy relationship with the natural world and the murky intersections of the conscious and unconscious.

The Witcher's literary merits do not merely rest, however, on mimesis, archaism, and preservation. The foregoing aspects, as substantial as they are, are merely peripheral elements of the narrative. The story itself is a grand interweaving of the public and personal, high drama and low comedy, intertextuality and resonance both comic and poignant, all heavily imbued with themes of justice, humanism, high statecraft and the idea that all decisions, however small, can have significant impacts. The element of active decision making present in gaming means that the thematic messaging has an immediacy and impact which far outstrips the capacity of any other form of literature. The player is not just an observer of the work's themes, but a responsible actor in their realisation. It is this element of responsibility which, in a well-crafted game, provides a far more intense experience of the core ideas of a story than is possible in print, image or film. The player is bowled along from decision to decision, the fates of individuals, communities, and nations in their hands. This isn't just about fantasy or role playing - the world of The Witcher is peopled with characters depicted such that the player invests emotionally in their existence, and the potent consequence of this is that the ideas and dillemmae unpacked within the story have vibrant and actual life. This constant load of moral responsibility forces players to consider fundamental questions of good and evil, and to interrogate their own moral choices, the basis and validity of their ethical positions and comfortable assumptions - the exact same questioning which is provided, at a considerably less confronting distance, by the philosophical bases of tragedy.

I often encounter a weird bias, when it comes to the visual product of games, reminiscent of the old prejudice against comic books and graphic novels. These latter are, of course, firmly entrenched in the mainstream now, along with the quotidian obviousness of Banksy, and the near meaningless jingoism of other forms of pop art. And yet the magnificent beauty of so much of gaming's visual art gets little to no serious attention. Whether it be hyper-realistic cinematic trailers like the one above, or the dauntingly global pool of art and art styles subject to mimesis, pastiche, elaboration, or straight use, The Witcher is a staggering compendium of artistic achievement.

The landscape itself is moulded with fine aesthetic (though definitely not geographical) logic. Dead ground, terrain, and cover are not just used tactically in The Witcher, but are also exploited to provide countless openings of sudden and breathtaking vistas. The construction is as intricate and deliberate as any Classical garden or Romantic grotto, and at least as powerfully and consistently sublime. The two key differences, however, are in the fact that the world of The Witcher is not a single garden, but a series of fully realised and populated simulated worlds, and that this is a landscape which is not limited to vicarious or imaginative experience, at least visually. It is also, to a certain extent, performative, in that the aesthetic reality of each environment is predictive and productive of the nature of its events and populations. This performativity is not just unidirectional either - the player's actions will form and shape sections of the world, providing dramatic and immediate visual manifestations of moral and sociological impact.

Beauty, male and female, pristine and grotesque, is a significant part of The Witcher's visual world. Echoes of Rococo and Pre-Raphaelite starry-eyed eroticism abound in the depiction of practically every character, be they young, old, halt, hale, pristine, or disfigured. There is also the uncomfortable Geigerian sexualisation of the grotesque and horrific. Monsters are lovingly rendered with exaggerations of tongue, breast, thigh, and curve, which make a further complex comment on the essential nature of monsterism - the inflation, subversion, or inversion of decidedly human characteristics which separates the monstrous from the merely frightening. Visually as well as textually, The Witcher points again and again to the concept of our darkest evils deriving their genesis and expression from deep within our image and awareness of ourselves.

At this point, this author's dilletantism in the field of visual art brings about a frustrating halt. While quite a lot of the game is recognisable as run of the mill fantasy art, there seem to be frequent excursions into much higher realms of visual expression. Someone much better qualified should devote some attention to this work - attention which it richly deserves.

The sheer plethoric volume of material in The Witcher is such that I haven't even touched on music, higher ethics, or the detailed exploration of human relationships abundantly present in the game. Questions about the value and absolute integrity of sovereignty, the dichotomous relationship of freedom and civilisation, historical simulation and representation, and much much more are all contained within this sprawling framework. And it's not just The Witcher, though it's a prime example. Whether the player is deciding the overall policy of intergalactic colonies in Mass Effect, conducting complex, multi-handed truce negotiations in Skyrim, or weighing the competing philosophies of transhumanism, reactionism, and liberalism in Fallout, the medium of gaming can provide a depth and level of narrative and thematic engagement unrivalled in immersion, impact, and sophistication in any other existing form. Creators, critics, and academics ignore this world at their peril, and to their significant loss.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Yoga, Swastikas, and Pauline Hanson

Yoga is really old. Maybe not as old as Indian Nationalists say it is, but it's still very, very old. The earliest evidence we seem to have of it is cylinder seals and reliefs from the Indus Valley which appear to depict yoga practices as part of ritual activity. These date to roughly 3000BCE. In this time period, Yoga is intimately associated with ideas of universal order, the primary symbol of which, for the Indus Valley cultures, is the swastika. Some archaeologists date cave paintings of swastika to 10000BCE, and posit a link between yoga, tantra, veda, and paleo or mesolithic ritual and cult. I find all this kind of thing profoundly fascinating, but I'm well aware that in this I am practically alone. So I may as well get to the point.

Over the millennia, yoga transformed, adapted, and expanded into a wide variety of practices and applications to do with medicine, religion, and so on, but until about the turn of nineteenth century, it was very much an exclusively eastern product. The idiocy of Orientalism helped to bring an awareness of yoga to the west, with fantastic authors like Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Roald Dahl being sucked in by its mystic allure and contributing to its popularisation. As for the swastika, I don't believe there's any real need to recount the story of its transmission to the west. The point is that the introduction of this alien cultural material was accomplished in a way which has rendered it practically unrecognisable with reference to the original.

I don't understand much about the detail of yogic practice, but what I do know for sure is that its original function is almost identical to that of gungfu - a form of moving meditation designed to link or connect the body with external, universal forces. Which is really not at all what it is today. For the most part, yoga in the west has shed its religious and ritual functions, and is now firmly entrenched in the self improvement/self management space. The key word being 'self'. Talking to practitioners and reading their promotional bumf reveals an overwhelming tendency to view yoga as a way to connect to inner aspects of the self, to improve or otherwise harmonise physical and mental components of the self, to engage with and learn to love the self. Self, self, self. Which is much more in the vein of being an observation, rather than a complaint. But the importance of the observation exists in the metamorphosis of the practice. When we in the west absorb an alien cultural product, we make it very much our own. A core element of pagan ritual and medicinal practice becomes, in the process of transmission, a leisure activity focussed entirely on individual well being, individualism and leisure activities being fundamental to western modes of life. This process can be seen over and over again through tea, pepper, potatoes, astrology, martial arts, curry, medicine, theatre, and writing... the list of appropriated (in the neutral sense of the word) cultural material is practically endless.

Which is what monocultural reactionaries simply don't understand. Idiots like Pauline Hanson and her fan club see the ingress of foreign cultural material as a threat principally because they do not understand the ways in which such material is transmitted or absorbed. To be fair, they also have trouble understanding primary school level civics and words of more than one syllable, but that's probably beside the point. The thing about anglophonic culture is that it is highly robust. We in the English speaking world have acquired the greater part of our cultures from outside, while the tiny original ethnicities forming our internal basis are arguably more mysterious to us than the cultures we have conquered, colonised, or otherwise absorbed. Western cultures in general are not so much under threat as they are in an accelerated phase of absorption and appropriation (neutral again).

It is only possible to view culture as safe when static and under threat when evolving if the viewer is suffering from some sort of serious mental deficiency. This could be ignorance, cognitive incapacity, or the delightful combination of both represented by Pauline Hanson. So really, we should basically leave immigration and other such issues alone, and focus on stealing ideas from a culture that refuses to allow intellectually stunted imbeciles to ascend to positions of power. Surely, there's some tiny country somewhere from whom we can appropriate this idea.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Moby Dick and The Fallacy of 'Killing the Magic'

One of the ideas I encounter all the time is the strange notion that analysis ruins the experience of creative works. It most often crops up when I'm taking a student through film analysis, as film is usually the medium they also engage with voluntarily in ordinary life. I'll be talking them through various film making techniques and explaining how each element is designed to evoke either specific or varied reactions, and they'll almost always ask, "But doesn't knowing all this stuff kind of kill the effect?". It's a question I get asked so frequently, and so reliably, that I have to conclude that it's a widely held belief.

I think it stems from the kinds of magical thinking we generally foist on children in schools as part of the effort to tame and socialise the human animal. God can see what you're up to. Santa will reward your virtuous behaviour. Imagination exists in a separate and alternate universe to reality, so no, it doesn't work if you just imagine you're wearing pants. And that's the essence of it - the quarantining of imagination away from reality creates the superstition that the analysis of imagination's products will somehow drag them into the 'real' universe, thus destroying their impact and wonder. I call this a 'superstition' advisedly. It's emphatically not true on any level. Imagination and reality are not clearly demarcated. They're not, in fact, even securely defined, understood, or satisfactorily proven to exist. Given that, one of the most important duties of an educator of older children is to repair the crude scars of earlier and necessary cognitive training - to re-knit the internal and external worlds of human consciousness once the child has become 'reasonable' enough to make independent (if necessarily arbitrary) distinctions between reality and unreality.

As a part of this attempt, I usually use Moby Dick as an exemplar. Melville's astonishing, enormous epic is usually first encountered as monolithic, intimidating, and practically incomprehensible. Rather like the bible, it hits the reading mind as a gigantic, towering edifice made from whole cloth, impossible to ever completely understand. For some, this is sufficient to make it unreadable, whereas others read it over and over again, trying to parse the deeper hidden messaging which they know, with absolute certainty, must be contained within it. And there is where it usually stops. The outline or shape of the primary concepts of the novel sit in a sort of fuzzy pool in the vague mnemo-cognate we use to have and store vague impressions. To my mind, this is a goddamned tragedy.

When we come to analyse Moby Dick, one of the very first things which happens is that we lose the idea of the text as monolithic - a single object. Its vast scope and incomprehensibly broad range is discovered for what it really is: not a singular vision, but rather a set of deeply fractured and inchoate explorations of distinct ideas. Basically, just like the bible, or a chance-met stranger, closer examination erases the illusion of a consistent and coherent entity. At this point, someone usually interjects with a kind of QED: "See! You've revealed its flaws, which kills it as an experience!", which is of course entirely wrong. Getting to know a text is like getting to know a person (mainly because that's exactly what it is). The better we know someone, the more inconsistencies, blind spots, flaws, and failings we discover. Thing is, though, when it's the right person, these apparent blemishes actually enrich and enliven the experience of that individual. In the same way, understanding Moby Dick's serious structural and conceptual flaws simultaneously reduces it to a manageable size, while elevating it into a pure act of communion. From an intimidating monolith, the story of the white whale becomes a conversation with a human mind. Flawed, certainly, but real and alive. An abstract interlocutor who asks us questions, tells us what it sees, thinks, and feels, and invites us to contemplate the human condition in all its frailty and majesty through the mythical lens of a failed (or not) monster hunt, and a Gilgamesh/Enkidu style platonic love affair.

And then it all becomes stark staringly obvious, in a way. The very famous first line, "Call me Ishmael," tells us straight out that Melville has created a persona with whom the reading mind is invited to converse. About the tenuous frameworks of society, identity, religion, sanity. About the grand narratives of humanity and its troubled relationship with truth and the rest of nature. About whale penises and tobacco smoking. About anything and everything, really. Its greatest flaw is its greatest strength - there really isn't any requirement to experience this text either sequentially or completely. It's discrete sections stand alone in a way that would make a modern publisher despair, and which make the work such an enduringly rewarding companion. In the case of Moby Dick, as in almost all cases, deeper, analytical knowledge does not in any way destroy its 'magic'. What it does do, however, is create the kind of knowledge which is necessary for all genuine bonding with ideas, images, thoughts, and people.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Blackjack And Politics

The best time to grind out a few hands of Blackjack at the casino is a Monday afternoon. This isn't about maths, but people. Blackjack is one of the few games where, with careful play, it's possible to take advantage of a very slight swing in favour of the player. In order for this to happen, however, all players need to co-operate intelligently against the bank. Players who are selfish, ignorant, or both, will make decisions which swing the advantage back to the bank. A good example is when the dealer draws a six or less. In this situation, it's vitally important not to draw picture cards from the deck, as these are needed to help maximise the probability that the dealer will bust. Of course, it's necessary to hedge oneself a little, so it's allowable to hit oneself up to ten, but the common good requires that players do no more than this. Ignoring the table and going for an individual win will usually result in every other player at the table losing. And this in a situation where proper co-operative play would have most likely resulted in everybody winning against the house. This is why Monday afternoons are best - none but seasoned, dedicated players hit the casino on a Monday afternoon.

In western democracies, politics is a game that's quite similar to Blackjack. Sure, the odds seem to be stacked against us, with big money interests and aggressive lobby groups poised to use up all the available oxygen, and legislative systems so opaque that the whole game seems irretrievably rigged in favour of the house. But we see again and again that united popular will can and does beat the bank. Thing is, this can only happen when it's more or less united. When we have a situation where the people are mired in useless garbage - semantic disputes, arguments over statues and holidays, mutual name-calling, and idiotic recrimination - the house will always win. So just like Blackjack, where a responsible player always follows the probability matrix, there are ways to swing the balance of politics back into our favour.

  • Ignorant participation allows interest groups to tailor the narrative to their own narrow requirements. If you're not across an issue, either get across it or shut up. Economics is a good example - hardly anyone understands it, but our insane insistence on talking about it anyway allows governments to fight elections around issues we do not comprehend.
  • Play the long game - sure, it's about self interest, but if we let our neighbour's house catch fire today, there's a good chance ours will go up tomorrow.
  • Default to the equal treatment of all people. Giving groups more rights doesn't destroy functional societies - it's taking them away which does that. 
  • Fear is never the answer. The project of civilisation is inherently unsafe, which means that its survival is dependant on our individual and collective courage.
  • Tribalism is the enemy of democracy. Any political view which isolates any group based on who they are rather than what they do, is almost certainly invalid. 
  • Think. How we feel about something is not a reliable guide to what is right, or even to what is relevant. Politics is neither a sporting fixture nor a soap opera - it's a real life process in which we are duty bound to participate as intelligently and responsibly as we can.
  • No-one can live in a world tailor made for them and them alone. Grow up and make room for other views.
  • Find common ground. Demagogues love division. When the people are polarised, the popular will is atomised, and the bank will always be able to have it all its own way. 
Great experiments of connectivity have always been a bit bamboozling for humanity. It's worth noting that great collapses and wars have tended to happen at our periods of closest interconnection. 1177 BCE, 576, 1913 - moments of broad connection seem to act as the tipping points of history. The internet has created another one right now, and the confronting realisation that the vast majority of people can neither ratiocinate, articulate, or spell, seems to be causing us to shrink from each other - to fragment and fracture apart as quickly as we possibly can. Which is the surest and speediest way to ensure that the house will always, always win.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Sudden Awareness of Statues

I'm used to being the only person who notices statues. Usually I'll be out in a public park somewhere, generally very late at night, and while everyone else is finding places to throw up or urinate, I'll be reading plaques and saying things like, "Who the hell is John Adamson, and why should anyone care?". I still don't know, but what I do know is that nobody I've ever encountered a statue with has ever had the first clue as to who it's for, or why people pay for statues to be put up in the first place.

What this means is that, as usual, the sudden emergence of this 'hot button issue' has caught big sections of the population entirely unprepared. And it's into this gap of understanding that the usual bigots and loonies have flocked, attempting to cast (no pun) the issue as stuff it is emphatically not. From the conservative 'destruction of history' nonsense, to the progressive grievance factory's 'endorsement of crime' polemics, the issue of statues is set to become another battleground for the nation's political soul, only this time potentially without the toxic scrutiny of innocent citizens' lives which comes with the Marriage Equality 'debate'.

So why do statues go up? And how, after a snappy five thousand years of living with and participating in the practice, can we still be as confused about this as we so patently are? The conservatives are right in that the central motivation is a kind of 'public history'. Prominent or otherwise significant figures in the formation of thought or the nation, or whatever, are commemorated in more or less random locations around the city, with little plaques curtly explaining who they are and why we should care. This is indeed a form of concrete (again, no pun) collective memory. But the progressives are also correct in saying that there is an element of morality in memorialisation. The strong implication of a statue is that its subject is someone to be admired - figuratively (because literally) placed on a pedestal. But there are statues of Bligh, Boudica, Napoleon, and other far from unambiguously admirable people, erected much more because the individual in question is considered to be important, rather than actually good. 

And this is really the essence of it. By far the most salient consideration when erecting statues is significance. The nature of the medium is such that fine shades of meaning, complex modes of communication, and so on, are basically impossible. I'm not saying they're not present - the statue of Bligh, for example, is deliberately stumpy, ugly, and truculent in stance. But this kind of fine symbolism is generally lost on the vast majority of the statue-ignoring public, and creators of public monuments must be aware of this general insensibility when it comes to their works. So statues are principally designed to memorialise the 'great' as distinct from the good. And, apart from a few notable exceptions (like Confederate memorials erected at the height of the Civil Rights Movement), in a largely neutral way.

Which brings us to the issue at hand. Should statues of colonialist, racist, or otherwise morally ambiguous figures be allowed to stand? I vote that we ask the children of Syria, or Yemen, or the citizens of Venezuela, or the women of Saudi Arabia - all the people most likely to give us the sensible answer, which is, "Who really gives a toss?". But, failing that, I think it isn't too hard to figure it out for ourselves. If statues are memory and a more or less tacit acceptance of certain values, then we should probably just leave them alone. Because we are generally pretty crap at remembering our past, and as a nation we are, by and large, tacitly accepting of our racist, murderous past. So until and unless those things change, I'd suggest that our current crop of statues is actually exactly representative of who we are. Pulling them down won't erase our deep-seated moral failings. It will only render them invisible.