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!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Memory’s Veil - forgetting and remembering

Books have been appearing in recent years celebrating the simple pleasures of life (such as swimming, walking, eating, not talking) and bearing such titles as Wanderlust – a history of walking; “Cooked; a natural history of transformation”; and A Book of Silence
Not that there is anything novel about this – Henri Bergson wrote an entire tract on Laughter in 1900 (popularised in the 1960s in Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation). And artist and art critic John Berger’s most famous book is entitled Ways of Seeing (1972)

Faithful readers will know that I have been working on a new (and enlarged) edition of Introducing the Bulgarian Realists which adds cultural and historical references and a lot more painters.
So it wasn’t surprising that I had dreamed up a new title – “Exploring Bulgaria – a cultural romp”. I briefly entertained the idea of making the subtitle “a sensual romp” before realizing that this would attract the wrong sort of reader! As the book includes short sections on such things as wine, food, video and cinema I even thought of the title “Using Your Senses ”!!
It was, however, only when I was going through a catalogue at the weekend - and found myself constantly having to add the phrase “a superb but forgotten painter” to the names in my book - that I realized that the book's sub-text is ….memory……and forgetting…and not just in Bulgaria

Like many other European countries, Bulgaria has had periods during which a “veil of silence” has been drawn over parts of its history – with September 1944 being the point at which individual memories became selective. By contrast memories of the struggles which brought independence from the Ottomans in 1878 have always burned brightly…..

It is our fate to be forgotten when we die – but one of the nice features of present-day central Sofia are the crimson plaques which now grace the street corners, reminding us of the events and individuals who played a role in Bulgaria’s history. Not just Tsars and Russian generals but poets, revolutionaries, politicians ….even an English one (William Gladstone). A small station on the gorge which winds through the hills outside Sofia on the way north to Russe bears the name (Thompson) of an Englishman (Frank) parachuted into the country during the second world war who was quickly captured and shot. His brother (EP) went on to become a famous British Marxist historian!

But it was only yesterday when I was about to send the text to the printer that it was brought home to me that the whole book is, in a sense, an ODE TO FORGETFULNESS and that my references to Bulgarian events and people are simply one of myriad examples about what I’ve now started to call “Memory’s Veil” – the highly selective way all of us – in whatever country - remember people and artistic talent

Some of you may know the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb whose book The Black Swan became a best-seller a few years ago. In it he makes a profound point about the process by which artistic “genius” is recognised  (or not – the latter being more often the case)

More than four centuries ago, the English essayist Francis Bacon had a very simple intuition. The idea is so trivial that he puts to shame almost all empirical thinkers who came after him until very recently….. Bacon mentioned a man who, upon being shown the pictures of those worshipers who paid their vows then subsequently escaped shipwreck, wondered where were the pictures of those who happened to drown after their vows.

The lack of effectiveness of their prayers did not seem to be taken into account by the supporters of the handy rewards of religious practice. “And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like”, he wrote in his Novum Organum, written in 1620.
This is a potent insight: the drowned worshippers, being dead, do not advertise their experiences. They are invisible and will be missed by the casual observer who will be led to believe in miracles.

Not just in miracles, as Taleb goes onto argue…..it is also the process which decides whether an artist is remembered. For every artist of genius, there have been many more with the same talent but whose profile, somehow, was submerged….

Art, of course, is the subject of high fashion – reputations ebb and flow…..we are vaguely aware of this…but it is money that speaks in the art “market” and it is the din of the cash register to which the ears of most art critics and dealers are attuned……

One of the few other people I know who celebrates unknown or, rather, forgotten artists is Jonathan in Wales who runs a great blog called My Daily Art Display which fleshes out the detail of the lives of long-forgotten but superb artists…..

Sunday, April 26, 2015

anticipating post-modernism

Every day, 3-4 articles or blogposts catch my interest and have me surfing and collecting url links for future reference. Occasionally I do a post which incorporates those hyperlinks. It’s the small bit of public service I do these days.

As someone who benefited from university education in the 1960s when it was very much a privilege, I have mixed feelings about their subsequent growth – and about the slavish worship of neo-liberal principles and language which has followed. So I’m always a sucker for a rant about how the “bean counters” (accountants) and management thinking are destroying universities and, in particular, the social sciences and humanities.

Last week saw a good example in a catholic journal which had me surfing nicely. It is one of the many recent (and worthwhile) challenges to the prevailing conventional wisdom that humanities (and “liberal studies”) need to be scaled back if not abolished. It is a rallying cry for such things as scepticism, inquiry, originality  
The language, as one might expect, is a trifle ornate – but bear with me,,,,,”there’s gold in theme there hills….”
In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness. The reduction of the mind to software and the brain to a computer, which originated among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, has been popularized by journalists into the stuff of dinner-party conversations. The computer analogy, if taken as seriously as its proponents wish, undermines the concept of subjectivity—the core of older versions of the self. So it should come as no surprise that, in many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé.
One consequence of this seismic cultural shift is the train wreck of contemporary higher education. Nothing better exemplifies the catastrophe than President Barack Obama’s plan to publish the average incomes earned by graduates from various colleges, so parents and students can know which diplomas are worth the most in the marketplace, and choose accordingly. In higher education as in health care, market utility has become the sole criterion of worth. The monetary standard of value has reinforced the American distrust of intellect unharnessed to practical purposes: …..
 “An undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted. The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully.” The key to this process is “developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice.
It means learning not to take things for granted, so you can reach your own conclusions.” So it comes down to an effort at self-culture, as Emerson would have said. And self-culture involves an inward turn: it is “through this act of introspection, of self-examination, of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. And that is what it means to develop a self.”…… 
The preoccupation with process over purpose, means over ends, has long been a feature of the technocratic mind, which despite occasional countercultural protests (as in the 1960s) has dominated American universities since the late nineteenth century and now seems poised to render other forms of thinking invisible.
The focus on mastering technique rather than grappling with substance means that too often higher education “does nothing to challenge students’ high school values, ideals, practices, and beliefs,” as the author of a new book (Deresiewicz) observes. How can it, if it has no vision of what an educated human being should be, as Allen Bloom complained nearly thirty years ago in “The Closing of the American Mind”.
It is interesting how often Deresiewicz cites Bloom, the bogeyman of the politically correct left in the 1980s, who was nothing if not a passionate defender of the humanities. Resistance to technocratic imperatives cuts across conventional political boundaries. In recent decades, au courant educational ideologues have put technocratic imperatives in a determinist idiom—“the train has left the station” etc.—and have added a dose of management jargon.
The most egregious management-speak is the near universal use of a customer-service model for what universities do. As Deresiewicz observes, commercial values are the opposite of pedagogical ones. If you are interested in students’ long-term welfare, don’t give them what they want—don’t be afraid, he tells professors, to stand on your own authority, to assume you know something your students don’t, which they might profit by learning. The very fact that he has to make this obvious point suggests the parlous state we are in. The easy equation of students with consumers confirms Deresiewicz’s conclusion that the schools “finally don’t care about learning at all”—or about teaching.
 “Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another,” he writes, implicitly challenging the current fashion of online education.
On the contrary: “‘Educate’ means ‘lead forth.’ A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. A teacher awakens; a teacher inspires.” Not every teacher can measure up to this exalted standard, but its presence at least can make us try.
By comparison, when it comes to motivating teachers, the commercial model offers nothing. The emptiness of management jargon, applied to traditional moral concepts, is nowhere more apparent than in the ubiquity of the word “leadership.” Once upon a time it was something that was considered a duty, an accompaniment of privilege. Now, Deresiewicz writes, it’s little more than “an empty set of rituals known only to propitiate the gods.”
Like so many other ideals of the meritocracy (“innovation,” “creativity,” “disruption”), indeed like the meritocrats themselves, “leadership” lacks content. And where content is absent, power pours in. We are left with Mark Edmundson’s witty summation, quoted by Deresiewicz: a leader is “someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge.”

As often happens it was one of the discussants who led me in the most interesting direction – simply referring us to a book written in 1944 I had never heard of – The Abolition of Man – penned however by a very well-known figure CS Lewis. The argument of the (short) book is summarised here – and the full version can actually be downloaded here. Amazingly the book seems to anticipate the threat which the “anything goes” strand of post-modernism would bring (what I have taken to calling - the “whatever” response
It seems that Lewis (father of Daniel D) took this so seriously that he wrote a dystopian novel about it – That Hideous Strength whose plot is summarised in great detail here; serialised here; and available (courtesy of Gutenberg) in entirety here

Now I have to find the time (and inclination) to read the 2 books…..

The painting is one of three I bought this week at one of the small galleries underneath the Military Club....by a great book illustrator Alex Ivanov.....

Monday, April 20, 2015

Busts I admire

OK I admit it – I admire busts – particularly the sort I see in Museums....
I have grown increasingly to admire Bulgarian sculpture – for example Angel Spassov (1884-1974) and, on the contemporary scene, one of Bulgaria’s foremost sculptors Spartak (Paris) Dermendjiev - who has done a diverse series of clay sculptures whose There are no Happy Bulgarians and mother I admire most…..

So not altogether surprising that, as someone who has become (in the past few years) an art collector, I submitted this weekend to sitting (actually standing) for “Paris” as he “did my head”…..His uncle was a partisan during the war who sported the alias of Spartak – to which Paris owes his name. Some years back he gave me a clay carving of Spartacus when I bought a small bronze he did….

The weekend’s process can be seen here – finishing touches will be done these days; the bust then sliced and emptied (ugh!!); some darkener added; some drying; and then placed in the kiln for almost 12 hours…..with some 15% reduction in mass....

Although we had some good laughs as we chatted (and he sloshed on the clay and carved away), he chose to go for the severe look…..It was a fascinating experience during which I learned more about the man ……watch this space……

Thursday, April 16, 2015

No Excuse for Apathy

One of my unfinished projects has been a mapping of “alternative” ways of using our energies than that of the mad economic system which has had the globe in thrall (and peril) for at least the post-war period……
The project started with a short essay in 2001 (updated in Notes for the Perplexed) and moved into higher gear with the opening last autumn of a website Mapping the Common Ground which acts as a library of useful material for those keen to effect social change. Ways of Seeing…..the Global Crisis was my round-up of the reading I had been doing in recent years – with my common complaint being the failure of writers to give credit to others and indeed to make any attempt to do what Google Scholar exhorts us to do – “stand on the shoulders of giants”.
   
So I was delighted, this morning, to come across an encouraging American initiative The Next System whose opening video may be a bit crass but which makes amends with its initial report – The Next System Report – political possibilities for the 21st Century which contains extensive references to writing I had not so far encountered and to good community practice in various parts of the world.  This led me to new writers such as Pat Devine and Andrew Cumbers (celebrating public ownership); and such gems as -
- the manual Take Back the Economy;
- the book Capitalism 3.0 by Peter Barnes
We are Everywhere – a celebration of community enterprise
- An article on Democratising Finance by Fred Block
- The full bibliography of Danny Dorling’s glorious Injustice book

And that was just a couple of days after I had downloaded a lot of material relating to “the commons” which delicately tiptoes round the topic of “common ownership” – see this excellent overview The Commons as a new/old paradigm for governance – with a second section here
I was alerted to that by a fascinating article in Open Democracy Planning a Commons-based Future for Ecuador which is part of a wider effort that country has been making – set out in a document National Plan for Good Living which must be one of the first efforts this century to have a National Plan!

Other finds are -
The evolution of social enterprise – a very friendly overview of various landmarks in the important history of this “movement” (rather US-centric)
 - Commons Transition – the book from a site “of practical experiences and policy proposals aimed toward achieving a more humane and environmentally grounded mode of societal organization. Basing a civil society on the Commons (including the collaborative stewardship of our shared resources) would enable a more egalitarian, just, and environmentally stable society.

So no excuse! Let’s get off our backsides and do something to build a more sensible world!!

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Praise of Older (Wo)Men

Sheldon Wolin is a name to conjure with – in the early 1960s his book “Politics and Vision” was the core text for my course on political philosophy. He was born in 1922 and taught at Princeton University.
I thought he was long dead….but was delighted to discover yesterday that not only is he still going strong but that he has become almost a revolutionary in his old age….

In one very recent video series he deals with the question of whether Capitalism and democracy can Co-exist – allowing me to stumble on his explosive 2008 book Democracy Incorporated which can be read in its entirety here; reviewed here and summarised here
 If this analysis of a ‘democracy without citizens’ – in which popular sovereignty is reduced to ‘consumer sovereignty’ – sounds too Cassandra-like, Wolin backs it up with detailed history. (This history is, admittedly, heavily US-centric, but since the US is perhaps the limiting case of a managed democracy, this focus is instructive.)
Wolin rides roughshod over the standard American self-image of being the world’s most robust democracy. In chapters 11-12, he traces the evolution of American democracy back to the Putney debates of the 1650s, in which Ireton upheld the interests of ‘independent’ property-owners against Rainsborough, who championed the rights of the non-landed, and therefore non-voting classes .
It was Ireton’s anti-egalitarian position which, Wolin maintains, effectively triumphed in post-revolutionary America. Hamilton and Madison (unlike Jefferson) were deeply sceptical of democracy, precisely because it threatened the extant distribution of property and wealth: portraying the popular will as infected by ‘passion’, they confined ‘reason’ to a class of ‘guardians’, which was purportedly blessed with the insights of ‘cool and sedate reflection’ . They hence went about constructing a political system in which elaborate checks and balances stymied the wishes of the democratic majority, thereby ensuring a politics of ‘deadlock’ , which could be resolved only by the intervention of the powerful.
According to Wolin, then, though the ‘political coming-of-age of corporate power’ (xxi) took centuries, the conditions for managed democracy were instituted early on. The one real exception on this road to inverted totalitarianism was Roosevelt’s New Deal ‘experiment’ of the 1930s, which Wolin discusses in chapter 2. This ‘counterimaginary of a state-regulated capitalism’ was a valiant attempt to control corporate activity for the common good, but it did not survive World War II.
This ‘constitutional imaginary’ succumbed, steadily, to a Cold War ‘power imaginary’ which was prepared by the US’s wartime taste of global power. This power imaginary replaced a preoccupation with welfare, participation and equality, with what Wolin terms a ‘dematerialised’ ideology of patriotism, anticommunism and fear
This new, Manichean ideology, although not explicitly in the service of corporate wealth and inequality, certainly had these as its corollaries. And this because,
  • first, the Soviet Union was (nominally) committed to anti-capitalism and a thorough-going egalitarianism, thereby lending capitalist individualism a patriotic aura, and impugning its detractors. 
  • Secondly, the Cold War generated a massive increase in defence spending, which in turn made the American economy highly dependent on the corporate defence industries.
  • And thirdly, since all enmity was now directed at Communism, any suggestion that there might be economic enemies at home became seen as artificially and invidiously divisive, or even (as in McCarthyism) tantamount to Communism itself.
There is also an interview with both Wolin and another iconoclast – J Ralston Saul – at an interesting website called Common Dreams

The emphasis on age and experience reminded me of a charming blog which carries the (sexist) title Britain is no country for Old men which celebrates the lives and achievements of various characters. It gives a good sense of the Britain that was…..My posts sometimes feature older, inspiring activists such as Stephane Hessel (95) and Grace Lee Boggs (99) 

With all the emphasis these days on innovation, it's good , however occasionally, to have the perspective of experience ........

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Kafka is alive and well

Both my passport and my driving licence need renewal this year – the  hurdles I face (on mainly the former) will force me to stay put in Romania for the entire summer period….I am amazed that British citizens are (literally) not up in arms about the impossible (centralised) systems which have been in place for passports for the past few years.

We are told to expect a wait of 3 months (minimum) for the delivery of updated passports – during that period we are without a passport with emergency passports being available (returns only) for 100 quid.

If, like me, you have changed your address almost each year and find it impossible as a result to satisfy the requirement of notifying the driving licence authority of changes of address, you are reduced to giving a relative’s address. 
If you are living abroad, you are told to get a driving licence from the country of residence – with all the tribulations that involves of presenting yourself for a test as if you were a trainee driver (instead of one with 50 years’ experience – in 12 countries) 

Now I read of the Kafla-esque experiences Brits are having with their cars being towed away and being forced to pay hundreds of pounds to get them back even although their road discs are entirely up-to-date…..

This post may sound a bit Colonel Blimpish but it does indicate that IT systems in the UK are not exactly delivering on the promising new world we had been promised!!!! 

The photograph which has been heading these posts for almost 4 months is now changed since the warm weather has at last appeared here in Sofia!!! It shows one of the sculptures which graces the park in which the Sofia City Gallery is located.

Friday, April 10, 2015

King James English

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9.10)

What is it that makes these and the other words and phrases from the King James edition of the Bible have such a deep impact on our mind and soul? And do they have the same effect on those who read them in translation?

Brits usually think that the 17th Century language of the Bible is original – but it is in fact a translation. Not only that but an example of what we imagine to be impossible – excellence by committee!! The story is told here.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Big Screen Time

It’s 40 years since I read John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” (reviewed here) but it’s a phrase which has returned recently to haunt me – see my latest E-book effort Ways of Seeing…..the Global Crisis.
I heard the phrase again in a Bucharest cinema in a short trip I made at the end of the month – although it was expressed as “Maniere de voir” and it came from the mouth of the legendary photographer Sebastiao Salgado whose life film director Wim Wenders was celebrating in the documentary Salt of the Earth
About time that such photographers were properly celebrated – have there, I wonder, been films about such figures as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz and the times in which they lived? Documentaries we have - eg a curious one with CB here which has him reminiscing...a much more insightful commentary here but what about films which try to recreate the lives and events through actors and film sets?

This question occurred to me since I have been viewing recently quite a few films about other artists…..such as Picasso, Renoir, Turner, Dickens and Beethoven.
And it led me to Jeremy Iron’s portrayal of iconic Alfred Stieglitz in a film (TV biopic actually) which actually focuses more on the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe and bears her name as the title. Indeed the only photography which figures in the film is the infamous exhibition Stieglitz mounts of O’Keeffe’s naked body….  

For the most part films about artists are trite – even if the scenery is nice (Turner) - with plots turning on an highly selective aspects of the artist’s life…and failing to give either a sense of the artist’s creativity or of the times in which (s)he lived.

One exception - The Invisible Woman – made a big impact on me largely because it gave us insights into the importance of public readings for people such as Dickens; and of his God-like status in those days - which allowed everyone to whitewash his young love out of existence. But although the film apparently cost 12 million dollars to make only 3 million has been recouped in box-office takings – hardly an encouragement to creativity when most blockbusters these days cover their costs within the first month (here I have a confession – I was able to stream it………).

The detailed book by Claire Tomalin on which the film is based can be bought for about 15 euros – but will give many hours of pleasure…..As did Hilary Spurling’s 600 pages of Matisse 

It made me wonder about the economics and aesthetics of the different ways of presenting ideas and creativity – such as films, documentaries, books or even video presentations such as this ted talk by Salgado. So many millions of dollars (and wo-man hours) spent on film production to give (each of) us less than 2 hour’s (shallow) “entertainment” compared with a multiple of that enjoyed during the reading of a book – whose costs are a tiny fraction. Nae contest!

And yes I know that it is not a question of either/or – that films encourage (some) people to buy (and even read) books…..and most people have neither the time nor the energy to read….
But, still, we need to fight for the book -  ""Fahrenheit 451" still gives me a thrill every time I think of it, depicting a world without books in which a few brave individuals risked prosecution for their having memorised the text of one particular book…..

Regular readers know that my nomadic existence of the past couple of decades has helped me develop an immunity to television and newspapers – now television sets are banned in the places I control and I am happy to buy only LeMonde Diplomatique (as the only journal which still retains footnotes!). It is my location which enables me to be so selective - and makes me yearn for a campaign on the lines of the 1978 book “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”. Rather ironically, I'm currently reading a superbly-written book Armchair Nation - an intimate history of Britain in front of the TV 

addenda
- this list of 100 films based on the lives of artists and writers reveals that I missed one great film - Carrington!!
- and this list of books which the current TV series Mad Men has shown characters reading is a sign of hope.......