what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The comedy of words

I am a great reader – and fairly prolific writer. Indeed at one point, my secretary in the 1980s called me “paperback writer” in an allusion to the Beatles song. And I have indeed tried my hand at various times with (self-published) little books – one written in the 1970s around 30 or so questions about a new system of local government (for community activists); the second a more autobiographical piece drafted for more therapeutic purposes to help me make sense of my life; and the last - In Transit - a collection of papers I put together to give to people I was working with in central Europe and Asia. This last I suppose was a calling card of a sort.   

Every now and then I try to pull my thoughts and experience together – for example in a paper such as The Search for the Holy Grail – some reflections on 40 years of trying to make government and its systems work for people but I lose patience too easily and move on to other things – leaving this one unfinished. A presentation at a prestigious Conference, however, does wonders for concentration and I therefore had more success in 2011 with this paper about the deficiencies of the capacity-building work in ex-communist countries - The Long Game – not the log-frame

What I don’t understand about most academic and bureaucratic writing is that it is so lifeless….it seems designed to cast a disinfectant over our living souls and kill the bugs of creativity and insight… I have been exceptionally lucky since 1970 - in holding first political positions (and then consultancy roles) which allowed me to observe the processes of government at first hand; and then being allowed the freedom to reflect quite openly about this to those who cared to read such reflections…  
I have always found two collections of essays particularly inspiring – those of the development writer Robert Chambers and those of Roger Harrison - the organizational development consultant.

Both produced collections whose essays were preceded with detailed notes explaining the conditions in which the essay was drafted and indicating how the writer had adjusted his thinking…..

And this morning, I stumbled across another name we should honour for the quality and openness of his mind - and writing. Neil Postman died in 2003 but I still remember him for his critique of television - Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was actually a tribute I came across
I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman, who died in 2003 was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures—with reputation but no real discipline—have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore one’s mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas.
Now what discipline, what department is that?Everyone who knew Postman—and I include perhaps a hundred thousand who only heard him speak—knew him first through humor, which was the reflection in person of the satire in most of his books, each of which is a pamphlet, an essay between covers: The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) was satire about the infantalization in American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) was satire about entertainment and what it was doing to us. Technopoly (1993) was satire on the “surrender of culture to technology.” 
In these days of grey specialisation, such qualities deserve celebration!
His, of course, was not the only voice to warn against the new technology….

The activist with the wonderful name of Jerry Mander had wowed us a few years earlier with Four Arguments for Getting Rid of Television and I was delighted to see, during this morning’s surfing, that he is still going strong – with The Capitalism Papers (2012) which got a nice review in Dissident Voice  

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