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Vault Finding #5

In this raid on the archives, I’ve paired one of my earliest posts with an unpublished draft on the French Situationists. With a bit of luck, you can’t see the join!

Image result for you can't see the join morecambe and wise I find it sad that children today don’t occupy the streets and open spaces like we did when I was young. There have always been risks in such freedom but we made a habit of going around with our friends, rarely if ever alone. We knew the dangers and were able to avoid them. So many kids were out and about, there was safety in numbers. With more adults around, too, we behaved ourselves most of the time because we didn’t want to get into trouble. In this way, we learned how to take responsibility for ourselves.

Sitting alone in your bedroom is not a healthy substitute, especially when you factor in the online risks and bad cyberspace influences that would shock many parents. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, I’m afraid. Let’s make the open air a place for youngsters again, providing proper facilities and a sensible but not stifling adult presence. It would be quite a challenge but I can’t think of a better way to create the communities of the future …

Well, I said we behaved ourselves but we probably weren’t above adding the occasional daft moustache or blackened tooth to advertising hoardings that showed people leading impossibly perfect lives. We might even have changed the odd word here and there … 

That ever-perceptive poet Philip Larkin captured the historical moment much better than I can:

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards.

from ‘Essential Beauty’

That small cube? Oxo, of course, the magic ingredient without which family life was incomplete … nay, inconceivable! 

Image result for oxo advert

Image result for oxo advert

Surrounded by such propaganda, how could us kids have known that while we roamed those 1950s streets a bunch of French intellectuals were turning our natural instincts into a whole new heavyweight philosophy?

We didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia, of course, without which the following mock-academic account could not exist:

With cultural roots in Dadaism and Surrealism – and political roots in Marxism – the Situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly-lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, towards individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.

Another important concept of situationist theory was the need to counteract the spectacle – essentially the mass media that reduces free citizens to passive subjects who  contemplate the world as no more than a consumable resource. The method the situationists adopted was the construction of situations – moments of life deliberately contrived for the purpose of reawakening authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life as adventure and the liberation of everyday existence.

The dérive – a French word meaning ‘drift’ – is a revolutionary strategy originally put forward in 1956 by Guy Debord who defined it as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

It involves an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Though solo dérives are possible, Debord indicates that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions.

The dérive‘s goals include studying the terrain of the city (psychogeography) and emotional disorientation, both of which lead to the potential creation of Situations.

A détournement‘rerouting or hijacking’ in French – is a technique developed in the 1950s and defined in the Situationist International’s inaugural 1958 journal as “the  integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”

It has been defined elsewhere as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” – as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.

Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political hoaxes and stunts, an influential tactic called Situationist Prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the anti-consumerist culture-jamming movement in the late 1980s.

Its opposite is recuperation, in which radical ideas or the social image of people who are viewed negatively are twisted, commodified and absorbed in a more socially acceptable context.

Yeah, don’t get me started on how Tin Pan Alley moguls turned the exciting runaway underground of 1960s sounds into the long slow mogadon-music snooze of the 1970s. You’ll never hear the end of it …

I’ll end with a short clip that shows how people behave online compared with face-to-face!

 

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Vault Finding #2

Continuing my trawl through old unpublished drafts, here are some random thoughts on the rules of arguing that still seem timely and relevant:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”Arthur Martine

Worth remembering, I believe, especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” is too often a menace of reacting rather than responding but it needn’t be this way. We can be critical while remaining charitable, aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett – the American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist – questions our current everyone-is-a-critic culture.

In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking – noteworthy for the significant value it places on ‘the dignity and art-science of making mistakes’ – he offers what he calls ‘the best antidote [to the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent’:  a list of rules formulated decades ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments. There is far too much shouting from the battlements. Comments that wholly diverge from the above code can and should be ignored, I believe, but merit response if they show understanding – or at the very least acknowledgement – of other points of view.

To anyone who views this as an unrealistic and naively utopian approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing – it transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion. When commenting on students’ written work, I tried to start with something I’d liked – it opened them to criticism.

A polite preamble means we don’t have to hold back when it comes to expressing our own disagreements. When the gloves come off we can employ Susan Sontag’s three steps to refute any argument – find the inconsistency, find the counter-example and find a wider context.

Image result for susan sontag

There’s a worrying lack of evidence behind much that is published online.

“Fake news is a real cause for concern on social media, particularly on Facebook, where unverified information and outright lies can swallow up facts and truth. That’s a frightening concept when 62% of American adults access news through social media.”

Iman Amrani, Guardian, 26.11.16

But it’s not an entirely new phenomenon.

“Back in the 1990s, the internet pioneer Josh Harris tried to sound a warning – but at that early utopian stage, when the web was assumed to be decentralising, democratising, enlightening, almost no one understood what he was saying. Later, in 2002. George W Bush’s own Voldemort, Karl Rove, chided a reporter by saying: ‘People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of the discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works any more.’ The gnomic taunt caused more bemusement than consternation at the time, but Rove was ahead of the game.”

Andrew Smith, Guardian, 26.11.16

This article goes on to talk about ‘post-truth’ where ‘facts become secondary to feeling; expertise and vision to ersatz emotional connection’ and ‘retro-truth’ where ‘a proposition is judged not by whether it is true or false when stated, but whether it has the potential to become true – like energy waiting to be released from the atom’.

I am the master of the universe.

(Well, thought I’d run it by you again to see if there was any take-up. Some of you might care to get a little campaign going on my behalf. I wouldn’t acknowledge it at first, of course, but don’t fret – in private there’ll be plenty smiling and waving practice!)

Yes, I jest, though my hectic humour hides a serious point. More and more these days I find a purely rational response insufficient. To inoculate myself against the poison I must infect myself – a small dose in the relatively safe form of art to build up my immunity. Art is ambiguous – no easy answers to be found there – but dives below the surface where fake news floats.

Listen, if you like, and maybe read …

 

I am the centre of this universe
The wind of time is blowing through me
And it’s all moving relative to me
It’s all a figment of my mind
In a world that I’ve designed
I’m charged with cosmic energy
Has the world gone mad or is it me?
I’m the creator of this universe
And all that is was meant to be
So that we might learn to see
The foolishness that lives in us
And stupidity that we must suss
How to banish from our minds
If you call this living, I must be blind
Songwriters: David Brock / Nik Turner
Master of the Universe lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Images: Brain Pickings & Wikipedia

Meanwhile, on the wrong side of history …

 

Is that a frown, First Minister?

Your people are uneasy, Sire.

Wherefore? Are they tired of bread and circuses?

Our straw polls show that no amount of bread nor frequency of circus can assuage their deep discomfort.

Will they not accept their Sovereign’s gracious word that all is well?

No longer, alas, Your Royal Reassurance! Such soothing sentiments simply serve to fuel the fires of faithlessness. Your billowy blandishments are become red rags to rampant bulls of disbelief.

Fires? Bulls? You’re babbling, man!

Forgive me, Your Brightness, my lowly gaze is dazzled!

Cut to the chase, you chump, or those eyeballs shall peep out of tonight’s goulash!

Well, High-and-Mightiness, not to put too fine a point on it …

Spit it out, you nincompoop!

your subjects seem to have lost their simple faith in your omniscience, All-Knowing One.

How come I didn’t know that? Whatever happened to my enormous network of neighbourhood noses?

Bunged up, Your High-and-Mightiness, ever since your omnipotence was called into question.

And who would dare to defy that?

Pretty much everybody once your omnipresence grew so thin on the ground, All-Overness.

Ah questions, questions, questions! And to think how easily satisfied with any old answer those credulous crudscrapers once were!

Halcyon days, Sky-Blueness! But now it is the latest craze to perform autopsies on every dead, discarded philosophy and the platitudes from the pen of Your Royal Mindfulness have been much dissected of late.

So, Earhole, have they managed to penetrate the beating heart of my pronouncements?

Such a miracle of regeneration is beyond even their capabilities, Your Otherness. It appears that nothing is taken on face value but must be mined for deeper meaning. They say no man is to be trusted until his peers confirm his conclusions.

Peers? A ruler has no peers within his realm! His word is law, no evidence required! And as for these pedantic nit-pickers that seek a reason for everything, why, let them spend a dreadful night or three in the Caverns of Chaos and Old Night and pick the bones out of the bad dreams they find there! Ha, do they not know how often I inhale the embalmed bodily vapours of my mummified forebears?

It is not common knowledge, Your Royal Sniffiness.

Well, you puny pipsqueak, let us blazen abroad our olfactory intimacy with the Old Ones as proof positive of timeless credibility! We must rescue our poor nation from the icy clutches of pen-pushers and box-tickers by bringing a halt to so-called progress and putting the clock back to glorious yesteryear. Can a proud scion of Ulf the Uncompromising and Unk the Unstoppable bow his knee to straw polls and focus groups when he should be soaring with eagles far above the common clouds to build a new Eldorado, Shangri-La or Elysium for the truly worthy?

The flying machine is under construction as we speak, Your Loftiness. We only await the perfection of a heatproof wax to hold the feathers …

 

Related image

Pieter Bruegel “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Image: novaziodaonda.wordpress.com

Fare Thee Well! (3/3)

Greetings, Earth Dwellers!

Zog from Alpha Centauri here. May it bring some consolation amid the inescapable trials and tribulations of uncommon sentience to know that your musical artistry, travelling at the speed of light, has inspired us to make the most of our final days. To dance and sing as if this could revive our sterile oceans, our polluted skies, our dying flora and fauna – as if we had somehow remembered just in time the blessings of a simple life before our crazed stampede to the edge … the eve … the brink of  …

Ah, for once I cannot blame my communication breakdown upon this old steam-driven inter-galactic language-transposer of mine! The words are there if I can only bring myself to use them. And now our last log is in the wood burner to keep the water bubbling – the stream of translation flowing – a little longer.

Our very last log.

Oh, with life itself at stake I expected a battle but in the end … well, none of us could come up with a better idea than to send you this token of our gratitude. All the more surprising, perhaps, as our message to love is no more than a shot in the dark with no expectation of ever receiving a reply.

Send us your response, by all means, although there may be nobody here to listen. Eight Earth years is a long time when your place in nature is so imperilled. Please think of us as you celebrate your own narrow escape from the jaws of extinction, hearkening just in time to the piper at the gates of dawn who smiles and plays our death knell.

I watch the embers darken.  Too late now to open the subsequent boxes of delight you beamed through careless timespace and perceive for ourselves the renaissance unfolding like a universal flower that surely must have followed your Aquarian awakening – a golden age where new communities discover how mutual sharing and sensitive collaboration can create aesthetic and scientific wonders far beyond the scope of mere self-interest?

How it hurts to realise that runaway competition and its concomitant over-consumption wrecked whole words with idiotic duplication and insane destruction when all we really needed was the infinite variety of nature left to her own mysterious devices. The choice was ours – to learn at her feet or lead her by the nose. We grew impatient and chased quick kicks instead of slow satisfactions.

Almost the only relic of our better days was the compunction to smile, forced where once it was freely given. Who wants a world, asks one of your Woodstock organisers, where you are afraid to smile? Or, I might add, where you are afraid not to smile? Perhaps we can agree – who wants a world where you are afraid?

Our lights begin to flicker and the steam-gauge falls. These words are raindrops on a drydust desert … wo whoa woe a turning point has passed … has past … the past is never dead – it’s not even past … 3 days of loving peace … 3 million years … waterproof that it can happen … the I that is all of us … forget yourself and live together … it’s only the beginning … but whatever it is, you can’t buy it, man!

Zzzzog out …

Post Scriptum … hell and high water, post every damn thing, did Brian Wilson ever get to Smile?

 

So What?

 

Any education system that puts too much stress on getting ‘right’ answers runs the risk of crushing the natural instinct young people have to experiment. You don’t learn new things to impress others but to discover them for yourself. Extrinsic motivation is no substitute for the intrinsic purpose of finding out how the world works and determining your place in it. Making mistakes is the only way to learn what works. It’s all too easy to repress the discovery urge in children and to make them fearful of change.

Herbie Hancock’s story about Miles Davis has inspired me to riff on the theme. The uncertainty of the future calls for a creative response which is fearlessly experimental. Rule nothing out and incorporate everything. Natural evolution itself proceeds by accumulating past success and the cultural evolution that is our special invention should never be hijacked by political elements who wish to exclude particular influences. Art and science must remain open to the world.

To help myself argue from first principles, I’ve revisited the WordPress Daily Prompt site – now extinct – and its fitting final word: Retrospective.  I had to dig down in my own Archive for this draft post which, without a hasty bit of improvisation, might never have seen the light of day. And a word by itself is nothing – alongside others it can become everything.

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight.

Emily Dickinson

At risk of crumbling, then, here is my poem:

R each back into those days gone past.
E mbrace mistakes and forget fear.
T rial and error’s long and winding
R oad has led you thankful here.
O pen up your heart and mind to
S eek the lessons you have learned.
P erspective is the hard-won prize when
E very corner’s safely turned.
C oming up and straight ahead
T he way is still as yet unclear.
I f your SATNAV screen go dead
V alue common sense instead.
E ach step into dark bring cheer.

 

Image result for broken sat nav

 

Image: Imgur