Author Archives: _k
There has been a growing amount of coverage on the fringe group of people claiming the Earth is, in fact, flat.
bOINGbOING have been having fun at their expense for a while, and Neil deGrasse Tyson rather infamously clashed with the rapper B.o.B. on the subject, leading to…whatever this is. Following the first Flat Earth International Conference, the BBC have gotten in on the act.
What with the current state of international politics and some of the more choice world-leaders at the moment, it’s clear that mass-delusion is the flavour of the day, but, really? Following the lead of Feyerabend and Kuhn, I’m no big fan of Scientism, but even I draw the line at some point. What is going on with these folks?
I came across an article recently, which may have been courtesy of 3QuarksDaily, which could shed some light. Unfortunately, my google-fu is proving unusually weak, and I can’t for the life of me find the piece in question. What I recall of it was roughly thus – Religion, so the argument went, is not really an irrational position to take for those who are born into it. There seems to be foible of our cognitive architecture that makes it difficult for us to question the coherent narrative we are provided with – e.g., if we are raised in a community where everyone we know, everyone we trust, says that a) the sun will rise tomorrow b) water is wet and c) the son of an obstreperous sky-god was born human and resurrected himself from death for our sins 2000-odd years ago, it all sort of hangs together. Each premise, the way we’ve come to them and the authority with which they’ve been invested provides mutual support for the next. While, consciously, we might realise that some of these things don’t sync up, the fact that we exist in a community that is at peace with the contradictions prevents us from feeling the fractious nature ourselves. Or so the argument goes.
Now, something like faith in Science(tm) can be a bit of an ask – as most of the arguments from your mates in the Flat Earth crowd go, the idea that the Earth is an oblate spheroid of immense proportion is, well, contrary to common sense. Shit looks flat, right? But then, what about the fact that we’ve all been raised in a society that is steeped in truSt and respect for the our good priests the Scientists? Shouldn’t that, according to the argument, bridge the gap?
That’s aside from one of the more redeemable aspects of science, that, assuming you have the materials and finances, you should be able to replicate any experiments under your own steam (putting aside the cascading issue of non-reproducibility amongst all streams of science…). And oh the experiments you can do. I’m not exactly “overly-proficient” when it comes to maths, but I can appreciate that the proof of the world’s roundness is pretty standard geometry – which is why it was figured out 2500 years ago.
Beyond the fairly basic maths, there’s also the various other proofs – satellites, circumnavigation going back hundreds of years, literal photos of the planet from space. GRAVITY. How do you look at all these and deny them? What alternative story do you tell?
A story of epicycles within epicycles, that’s what. The assumption of a world-wide conspiracy which would require the involvement of millions for generations beggars rational belief. The alternative idea, a disc ringed by walls of ice preventing everything dropping off the edge, has just got be beyond anyone’s willing preference. Also, in case you were curious, the sun has a diameter of 32 miles and is located – approximately – 3000 miles above the surface of Earth. So that’s a thing.
As much fun as it is to poke fun at these people, I do have to reiterate my complete confusion behind the whole thing. I suspect there are a fair few people involved simply for the lolz, but it can’t be the whole of them, can it? What’s the appeal? How do you sustain the contradictions?
Hopefully the intrepid explorer that is Mad Mike Hughes will be able to provide answers on these questions and more, using nothing but his home-made, steam powered rocket. To fly. To space. To see the Flat Earth. This Saturday.
Repeat celebrity deaths this week, yoked one to the another by more than just the end of the life, but, in some ways, the defining aspect of it. I’m talking, of course, of David Cassidy and Charles Manson, and the year 1969. For Manson, ’69 saw the infamous murders he would later be imprisoned for masterminding. For Cassidy, this is the year he got his start on the Partridge family, launching him into the hearts of thousands if not millions of young women across the globe. Together, they are a Janus figure – Manson the twisted, long-suppressed thanatos of the era, Cassidy the commercialised, sugary optimism. Fitting, then, that they should shuffle off together.
Does this signal a tide-shift, then? With these mobile archetypes finally gone, can society slough off the fetters of a long-past era? I doubt it.
All my life, Western culture has been dominated by a nostalgia for that period, 1965-75, and it has warped the production of just about everything around its own, particular focus. It makes a certain sort of sense – this was a period where the economy had been on an upward trajectory for some time, the people coming of age here more materially wealthy, collectively, than any the species had seen. The economic turmoil in the late 70’s, multiple crises in the 80’s and 90’s, not to even start into the morass that has been the first decades of the 21st century, only makes that time look all the lovelier in the child-like gaze of memory.
Nostalgia isn’t new, of course – even the ancients had a conception of it – but there was, is, something new about the duration and monetisation of nostalgia for this time. It’s uncontroversial that every generation will look back on their formative years as something special, but it seems like that period in the 60s/70s has been distinct thus far – the first time we’ve this mass media apparatus – the technical ability to keep near-perfect records, coupled with the commercial impulse to reproduce the simulacra, again and again and again. The cohort that ushered it in are still with us, if starting to look a bit ragged, and more importantly, still call the shots from the heights to which they’ve climbed. Not for nothing are millenials disempowered and cash-poor. These are the fruits born of that twisted tree: Eagles international tour 2018, with James Taylor supporting. For this year. And next. And forevermore.
The cultural landscape produced by this autonomic reproduction is no doubt what led to the outsize impact of the Great Celebrity Cull of 2016. Statistically, last year was in line with the usual expiration of famous people, but, because we are now into the period where Baby Boomers will drop off with greater regularity, and the fact that the last 3 decades have been spent deifying this slice of the population, these deaths packed a heavier punch. There was a collective feeling of personal loss, because, in a real way, the individual celebrities had been woven into the fabric of our lives. This will continue.
Growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of how dense this agglomeration had become – the fish doesn’t see the water in which it swims, of course – and it is only since my own childhood has been hooked up, in a much lesser degree, to the industrialised nostalgia machine that I’ve taken notice. Taken notice I have, though. I remember, maybe a couple months back, going in to the local Fopp (a subsidiary of HMV, for you none British-types; cynically triangulated towards a more indie, art-house crowd than the flagship shop, though similarly struggling economically) and taking a moment to soak up the space. The ‘new’ release wall was riddled with the latest offerings from legacy acts, slumming to pay their alimony. Stacks of Kerouac and Hunter S. could be seen beyond that, acid crisp in new edition. Oh, for sure there was something genuinely fresh buried underneath the detritus, like some sort of fungal growth feeding off the rot, but like a pig you had to sift to find it. Clammy, near-lifeless hands hanging on doggedly to the throat of the consumer was the impression.
And, to whom does our own nostalgia really play to? We of the 80’s delude ourselves, saying the like of Stranger Things is for us – but is it really aimed at the people who emerged from it, or is it a sop to those who lived it the first time through? It straddles a weird spot for me, between myself and my parents, but it’s only by way of the life-long inculcation of their media, their stories, their situation, that I derive as much pleasure from it as I do.
So, with the accelerating removal of the physical embodiments of this era, shuffling about in their well-tanned agedness, are we likely to see new vistas open before us? I don’t hold my breath. The machine has been brought up to speed, and it’s too late to change course now. Too many people of my own age have been reared on this stuff to warrant an abrupt course change, or, heavens forfend, an actual shut down. There’s money to be made, and what’s the real difference anyway between a mostly-dead and an actually-dead Keith Richards?
ST:D – A Most Unfortunate Acronym
Came across this article over at 3:AM yesterday, and its focus on the thematic as grounds for critique of the new Star Trek series struck me as refreshing. I’ve my own gripes, which I’ll probably get to in due course, but they are rather more menial than those detailed in the article.
In brief, Daniel (article’s author) makes a surey of some of the recent criticism, and praise, for Star Trek: Discovery, highlighting the way in which it differs from previous series on a broad level. Apparently, there has been some approval for the shift to a more politicised approach to the content, unlike the way in which The Next Generation or the Original pursued a very pulled-back, future Utopian-esque feel. Daniel mentions in passing the now-super-cringe-inducing way ST: Enterprise had tried to grapple with current events, and, from what I’ve seen, Discovery has thus far avoided this, I suspect it is waiting in the wings. I appreciate the fact that all SF is really about the era in which is it written, but the plotting of ST:E was so ham-fisted it’s a wonder it lasted for the 4 seasons it did.
The article references the very perestroika-era nature of TNG and Deep Space 9, which lead to the rather smug, Utopian triumphalism on display, and picks up on Bifo Berardi’s recent work detailing the decline of a technologist Utopianism of just this sort. Berardi has been, up to now, someone I didn’t have a lot of time for, Autonomism striking me as one of those theoretical frameworks you get less out of than the effort you have to put in to understand, but the work referenced – After the Future – might be worth taking a look at. The bookends of the techno-Utopian project, that of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and the events of 9/11, seemed interesting, not least for the choice of these events in and of themselves.
This is not to say that the piece derogates the Utopian project outright – far from it, in fact. Counterpoised to Berardi’s pessimism for capitalist-technoUtopianism is the idealism of the early days of the Soviet revolution, espoused most particularly by Mayakovksy and the spirit of which is on display in Star Trek at its most succesful and heavy-hitting. Furthermore, there are good arguments that we need a Utopian focus, as it helps pull us through the drudgery of building a more equitable, worthwhile world.
For all its successes in carving its own trajectory, the article correctly upbraids the ST:D for taking the easy route on xenophobia. As was heavily discussed almost immediately, the presentation of the Klingons as religiously anti-Federation is meant to be a comment on the current state of American politics. However, as the 3:AM article points out, this has got the situation completely reversed. Thankfully, the data is coming to bear, and it is clear that the narrative of the ‘angry white working-class’ just doesn’t match the truth that it was affluent voters that allowed Trump his victory. But –
All of this points to the uncomfortable reality that hate and intolerance often emerge from within largely cosmopolitan societies, not from without. Nevertheless, in Discovery, the ideology of racial purity is assigned to an alien enclave entirely foreign to the Federation, suggesting that racism is not the left’s problem to fix.
It’s true that, despite good intentions, the previous series fell short of their “progressive” ideals in one way or another (<<cough>> <<cough>> rampant misogyny <<cough>><<cough>>). This, then, may be ST:Ds Achilles Heel.
Or it could be that the dialogue is wooden, the acting is crappy, the premise is dumb and rehashed, and the prosthetics are debilitating. Column A, column B?
I stopped watching after the 6th ep, back in mid-October, so I can’t really speak to any developments/improvements since. Still, it’s not too much to expect the series to have found its footing more than half-way through, is it?
This is the first I’ve seen of Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the lead character Michael Burnham in ST:D, and I get that much of the issue lies with the really crap-tastic dialogue she is provided, but the human-acting-as-Vulcan really doesn’t cut it when it comes to building a likeable, engaging main character. Furthermore, can’t we put away this whole trope of “misfit learns to embrace their humanity”? The success of it in the characters of Spock/Data/Odo/SevenOfNine/whatever the fuck they used in ST:E was that they were part of an ensemble cast, and didn’t have to carry the whole of the series. As is, with the more linear narrative (as opposed to the potted episodes of previous series) of ST:D, Burnham is much too much the focus, and the struggle to come to grips with her human/Vulcan duality stretches pretty thin when it is constantly front and centre.
I know that I’m looking back on the previous series through rose-coloured glasses (I was a kid, alright?) and that they were super hammy, and the dialogue was often so stilted as to be somewhere in the stratosphere, but I can’t recall anything so grim as someone interjecting ‘Computer – add roasted tomato salsa. Cooked tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, remember that.’ Like, I get that they are trying to big up Burnham’s logical thrust, but, shit, it’s salsa. What the hell else is it going to be made from? Clunky.
Talking about clunky, can we address the prosthetics they’ve brought in for the Klingons? I’m not terribly down with the aesthetic changes they’ve made, as I’m not sure how you keep continuity (also, is this series meant to be in the same time-line as the other series? is it in the parallel universe of the reboot films? do we even know?) with what we see of the Klingons later on, but I can appreciate that the show runners wanted to differentiate things a bit.
The problem is, while the visual presentation of the species is striking – or at least, the faces are, costuming is all a bit naff – the actors can barely move inside them, and it leaves the faces rubbery, devoid of emotion. It also undercuts anything they try to say – what used to be an expressive, highly dramatic species is left croaking out lines that are stripped of any impact. And it’s not as if they couldn’t do better – the work on the character of Saru, by comparison, is stellar. I just don’t know why you’d elect to have your major antagonist look as if they have no motor control of their face.
If all this is meant to be in the main timeline, then the writers have done themselves a grave disservice. It irritates me no end when you get some tell-tale leap forward in a novel, some hint about a character’s fate, that completely undercuts any dramatic tension for the rest of the work, and it happens more often than you’d think. Here, if this is part of the same arc as TOS and TNG and all the others, well, we know that nothing actually comes of the Discovery and her crew, because the drive-technology that is so central to the whole series is never referenced in any other canon entity. It’s all moot. It’s bad story-telling, that hobbles itself before it’s even out the gate.
There’s a chance that Star Trek: Discovery will yet sort out its kinks and become a more balanced, interesting series. Sometimes it takes a season or so to hit stride, the start of TNG as a good example. All the same, it can do that on its own time – I don’t reckon I’ll be spending much more of mine on it. The 3:AM article, though, was interesting, and opened up lines of inquiry I hadn’t previously thought about.
These days, seems like there’s a check-list whenever a new sci-fi flick comes out, a formula for articles, think-pieces, and commentary to be made, ritualistically whipping up the internet into a self-righteous froth. These last few days have been more-or-less the same.
Caught the new Blade Runner earlier this week, at the local Vue. Not our usual cinéma de choix, but they’ve implemented a pretty hefty reduction on Monday ticket prices – perhaps they’re feeling the financial pinch.
I’m not a Dickhead (though I’m certainly guilty of being a dickhead…), so I didn’t go into this overly invested. Well, that’s not precisely true – I was concerned by the cutting of some of the early trailers, which seemed to be action-heavy in a way that didn’t sync with my memories of the original film (it’s been about a decade since I saw it last – couldn’t tell you which version, though I recall overdubs – and I’ve not read any Philip K. of novel length) which seemed a shame. I allayed my fears remembering that it was Villeneuve directing (which was a leap of faith in itself – I’ve not yet seen Arrival) and was reassured that the atmos, at least, would be on point. I wasn’t disappointed.
More on the ritualistic criticisms, though – as per usual, there have been accusations of vacuousness (untrue) misogyny (kinda true) and racial insensitivity (pretty accurate). Maybe it’s because I’m not paying as close attention, but I don’t really get the sense that other genres, outside of the speculative like sci-fi or fantasy, get the same sort of treatment. This is not to say there are no criticisms lobbed at your latest Disney effort, or the most recent Scandi-noir police procedural or what have you – when these films are egregiously out of step they are rightly upbraided – but they don’t seem to have the same rubric of criticism applied. Perhaps it’s because, as speculative fiction, sci fi looks at the possibilities for the future, and a future that leaves out large chunks of the present is both morally and structurally myopic. Perhaps it’s because the audience of this genre overlaps significantly with the Tumblr crowd of rambunctious moral arbiters. Who’s to say?
I, white cis het male that I am, feel that the film for the most part avoids accusations of misogyny. It certainly portrays many of its female characters in an overtly-sexualised manner, but, insofar as I can tell, this does not a misogynistic film make—the portrayal of misogyny is not misogyny tout court. Importantly, and this is where the film stumbles on other criticisms, the portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 is in keeping with that of the original Blade Runner, insofar as the society’s approach to gender is concerned. The world of the original was a grossly sexist place, and so too is that of the sequel. As much as the Blade Runner-verse happens in a time-line adjacent to our own real-world one, it’s probably a faithful representation of what would happen to our society in a hyper-commercialised future – hell, it’s probably what we’re headed towards at the moment. It’s not as if the multi-story holographic adverts that dance above the street-level replicant manifestations of the product don’t have real-world analogues. This is just a dialled-up version of what we already have, with the pop-princess du jour filling our various media with a commodified sexuality, reinforcing and guiding the trends of society’s actual sex workers, the logics of pornography stamped into us day-in, day-out.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t revel in its portrayal of misogyny. It’s not lurid, it’s not exploitative. It definitely has characters that use women, or woman-analogues, in a less-than-positive light (the protagonist foremost amongst them), and shows a society that, much like our own, is pervaded by the otiose relish of the female form, but to do otherwise would be dishonest to the story it is telling. A protagonist who possesses all the right views on women, whilst also on the arc that the story requires of him, would jar. A society that is as steeped in a runaway capitalism as that of Blade Runner but also respects women is a contradiction in terms – sexism, just as racism, is concomitant with capitalism; they can’t be pulled apart. Hell, this is a society that is literally built on slaves – it’s the whole thrust of the story – why would you expect it to have anything but trash gender politics? But, even in showing all this, the film doesn’t become complicit in it. While it doesn’t go so far as to damn what it shows – it’s more harsh on the hollowness of these relationships than the power imbalance inherent – it doesn’t actively enjoy it, either. It has ample opportunity to: the “love scene” between the protagonist and his “partner” could have been much more sordid, aimed entirely at titillation. Instead, it is used to underline the core concerns of the series, that of the nature of personhood and the ambiguities, the uncanniness, of possible human-adjacent realities.
The more accurate complaint revolves around non-white people in the film, or, rather, the lack-thereof. The setting of Blade Runner 2049, much like its predecessor, is Los Angeles and its environs. Picking up on some of the now-standard cyberpunk tropes, this Los Angeles is doused in Asian culture, from signage to the sartorial to gustatory. However, there are few, if any, actual Asian people in evidence. I’ve seen some clever epicycles deployed to explain this, the best yet being a comparison with the diffusion of American culture in our own world. In many countries around the world, so the argument goes, be they European, Asian, or, increasingly, African, you will find American businesses and products, replete with English signage, despite the absence of Americans, on the ground, perpetuating and guiding the effort. This is a product of the success of American cultural imperialism, the victory of American propaganda world-wide, as it portrays itself as something desirable, as synonymous with “success.” It was just this that led to the cyberpunk trope in the first place – during the Eighties, when so much of this stuff was codified, Japan was economically bullish, and the future, so it seemed, belonged to them. Thus, anything set in the near future looked like a fusion of Anglo and Japanese culture, with the hegemony of Japan redesigning the way American streets looked, the language that was spoken there, the food that was consumed.
All good, but the original Blade Runner, unlike its sequel, had plenty of Asian people on the streets themselves, as well as the signage and culture and what all. Where have they gone in the intervening 30 years? There’s been speculation that the Asian countries could have “gotten their shit together” and gone off-world – the existence of the extra-terrestrial colonies is a feature that looms large over both the original and the present Blade Runner – but this can’t account for every individual, and certainly doesn’t make sense of the real-world demographics of LA. The original film had a key character in Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos, who drew from his own mixed background to try and give a poly-racial feel to the film. Gaff is relegated to a few lines in a single scene in 2049, and I can’t recall any other Hispanic character – with dialogue or without – throughout the film. Evidently, much of the shooting was done in Hungary, so I can understand the logistical difficulties in importing the right mix of extras simply for atmosphere. Even so, the absence of nearly any brown or black faces in such a melting pot as Los Angeles is a bit stark.
All in all, I think Blade Runner 2049 comes through bruised but whole. Not a perfect film, but this isn’t a Bergman we’re talking about. The cinematography is beautiful, with very tasteful CGI. The pacing is, contrary to my original concerns, true to the original, and this, coupled with the seemingly-trademark Villeneuve soundscape, allows for a sustained meditation on what it means to be human. Performances were neither stilted nor overdrawn to camp. Could the story have been more nuanced? Were all angles satisfactorily explored? No. Does the plethora of criticism find purchase? Yes. As ever with these things, your best bet is to take a look yourself, and make your own opinions. Especially if you can grab some steeply-discounted Monday night tix.
Jung and the Shadows of Essentialism
Following the statement I made previously – that of working through concerns I’d been chewing on a while – I am reminded of something that struck me when I was reading a primer on Jung and his psychoanalytic program (Jung: A Very Short Introduction, by Anthony Stevens). This will, I suspect, sync up with larger issues I’d been intending to articulate for a while – perhaps to be covered in a subsequent post.
It was, true to its name, just a short work, and what with the limitations on depth I wouldn’t take it to speak accurately for Jung or his positions in a nuanced manner. So, this isn’t so much an issue with him or his stance, but rather that of the author’s interpretation (unless of course it is an accurate portrayal, which would be…unfortunate). I’d be happy to learn that I’ve got the wrong end of the stick on this one, and for this to become a springboard for further dialogue. I don’t have the book itself in front of me, so I’m afraid I’m working off notes I took at the time of reading and my memory – hopefully this doesn’t result in too uncharitable a presentation of the position.
So, your man Anthony there has spent a good portion of the work, up to this point, hedging his bets on Jung’s more radical propositions, arguing the weaker case for the archetype thesis (that which states that there is a collective unconscious in all of us, which is populated by figures of distinct characteristics. The way that we come to terms with these figures, the way that they express themselves through us, so the argument goes, bears heavily on our own psychological health and well-being throughout life) saying that this proposition is best understood not in the fully fleshed–out sense of actual, volitional individuals acting under their power in a mystical space beyond that of the physical (how would we gain access to this? Where is the proof of it? Is there any way to verify it as one thing and not another? …No?) but rather as something similar to the concept of ethology found in biology.
Ethology, a relatively new sub-discipline, examines the behaviour traits of animals in their natural environment, trying to gain insight into what motivates certain actions on a repetitive level. Some of these things can be explained by knowledge passed down by parents, or the result of external stimulus from the environment around them, but there are other behaviours that seem to be innate, which we do see quite a bit of. Where do they come from? The answer, seemingly, is in the composition of the animal – its genetics, its evolved nature fitting into the environment. Our author argues that archetypes, and the collective unconscious, should be understood along the same lines. That the archetypes themselves are nudges towards certain traits, that the collective unconscious is best understood as the architecture of our minds as they have been built up over evolutionary time. It’s not a terrible way of rendering an abstract description of a psychology in material terms, harmonising the theory with what we are beginning to learn about the biology, while cutting out a lot of the woo. So far so good.
But then, we come to a brief comment on sexuality:
“The specious idea that gender differences are due entirely to culture, and have nothing to do with biological or archetypal predispositions, still enjoys wide currency in our society, yet it rests on the discredited tabula rasa theory of human development and is at variance with the overwhelming mass of anthropological and scientific evidence.”
You what, mate?
I’m no big fan of orthodoxies, be they academic or otherwise, but this is just such nonsense.
The hand wave of ‘mass of anthropological and scientific evidence,’ without actually mentioning where one might look for any of this, is risible. Especially since said “mass” points in entirely the other direction! What ought we to make, then, of the two spirit descriptor amongst North American Natives, or the Hijra of India and Southeast Asia? What do we make of the wealth of anthropological and sociological evidence demonstrating the link between patriarchal societies and the conception of a binary gender? Not only is gender a social construct, but even biological sex is being shown to be much more fuzzy than a simple male/female divide with the occasional, quickly surgically-reassigned hermaphrodite thrown in for jollies. Also, in what way does any of this require “a tabula rasa theory of human development”? Who even does that? If this is being invoked in the Lockean sense, this is a gross misapplication – that was only ever meant as an explanation of epistemic acquisition, not personality or identity, and even then it was defined by pre-existing, innate rules. Phah!
I can appreciate the desire for a definitive, bold stance, one that carves out a position in a radical way and acts to draw attention (infamy?) to the subject, but this seems like such a weird hill to choose to die on. More strange is the about face, initially arguing for a rapprochement between theory and evidence, pruning away the eccentricities, gently, gently, and then to cite said theory in such a bold, declarative manner – for such a completely specious position. It struck me as deleterious to the initial effort, and, with the suddenness of its appearance, rather out of sync with the general tenor of the work itself. I can see that this move might be necessary to support some of the later arguments regarding the duality of the human self, but pinning them on outmoded conceptions of gender, and doing so in such an impudent manner, only serves to expose the poverty of the theory itself.
I’ll not give up on Jung as yet – I’ve a copy of the Red Book sitting on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to get through – but this did set off some alarms for me. With any luck, this is merely the prejudice of Stevens showing through, and not something inherent in Jung’s architectonic.
It’s been a good long while since I’ve written anything (that I’ve posted here, at any rate).
I’d been meaning to get back to posting regularly, in various forms, for a while now. Chances are the next few pieces, of whatever type, will feature stuff I’ve been chewing on these last few months.
This one, however, might as well cover some ground since last I posted.
Without further ado – Trump
I freely admit, I misjudged the situation in America in the run-up to the election. I was caught flat-footed on this as much as I was by Brexit. As evidenced in some of my previous posts, I was hardly rooting for a Clinton victory, but it was what I expected and what I was preparing for.
It might sound rather precious for me, a Canadian living in Britain, to say I was ‘preparing’ for anything to do with an American election, or even to believe that I’m warranted an opinion. On the other hand, though the States might not be my country, it is still the major imperial power of the day and that causes me concern enough to write this.
It’s no secret that Trump has been Bad News for Americans, and Mexicans, and Canadians, and the World, in very tangible ways. The emboldening of toxic, right-wing elements within the electorate has lead directly to the deaths of many. The policy positions, those few he has been successful in enacting, have posed even greater threats. I’m still not convinced the man himself is an out-and-out fascist. A bigot, a misogynist, a criminal, certainly. But, with the sloughing off of the most extreme elements of his coterie (Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, etc.) it seems clear that we are dealing with a more standard Right-winger we are lead to believe – which is, I should say, certainly bad enough.
The Democrats and their cheer-leaders have been offensively unapologetic regarding the -abject- failure of the Clinton campaign. HRC is now, of course, setting out on a book tour denying any fault at all of her own in the rise of Trump, doubling down on the hubris that played a large role in how deeply unpopular her candidacy was. There is no doubting that there is a gross tendency of misogyny in America, perhaps the worst example of it in the West, but this doesn’t, as many claim, explain in full the results of last November. The belated and poorly executed Democrat resistance to Trump, only now really getting up to speed, is just so pathetic, and is indicative of these deeper issues. I mean, I could go for nuance here, or link to detailed commentary on the Dem’s conduct over the last year, but this comic from the Nib more than gets the point across:
I don’t know that many, if any, Democratic officials have said it on record themselves, but the amount of rhetoric from the luvvies in Hollywood, talking heads of the liberal/centrist media, the hoi poloi of Facebook/Twitter, all declaiming Trump as a fascist and what all else is nigh on rendering the concept meaningless. Trump isn’t effective enough to be a fascist. If he were, he’d be a great deal more organised, a great deal more thorough in subverting the fabric of American democracy (such as it is) and a great deal more direct in his methods. Trump is a shambolic megalomaniac, who has ridden to power on the seething hatred and cynicism of various parts of the American electorate, and that is enough.
I’ve actually sat on this piece a half a month now, and the unfolding of this most spectacular of presidencies has forced me to change up my tack. Back then, I had just read a puff piece on Martin Amis which actually prompted me to write this – he’s recently released a collection of essays – and in the article Amis mentions his relationship with Christopher Hitchens. In particular, he talks about Hitchens’ propping up of American Imperialism in his last years, and this jogged the memory of those times. I was struck by the similarities in the run-up to the Iraq war, the lies that were told, the grandstanding, the lot of it, to our own times. I was, if only for a day or so, possessed of a belief that the world might actually be headed towards WWIII.
However, the news cycle has moved on – Trump has shown yet again how much of a travesty he is for his own people, using his trip to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico to actively insult the residents of that colony; Trump has decided he’s tired of a far-East nuclear stand-off, and is trying to shred what seemed like a done deal with Iran – why one front when you can fight two? There was coverage of various angles following Trump’s diatribe at the UN, and one in particular struck me – Trump’s rhetoric is bred out of the one thing he half-way understands, that of machismo business conduct. Most of what he says about NK is likely, in fact, aimed at China. Setting the initial point far higher than what he wants at the end of the day, Trump is seeking to bring China to the bargaining table. We might yet bumble into war in Southeast Asia, but I no longer think that that is the direct intent of Trump and his administration. Most tellingly, the American military has made no obvious preparations for a large-scale adventure, and they’re the ones who’ll have to do all the heavy lifting.
I had, before I believed as I now do, intended to close this piece by coming round, half-way, to an endorsement of the liberal tactics mentioned above – this effort to paint Trump as, somehow, even worse than he is. He isn’t a Nazi, but, if making him out to be is effective in removing him from power more quickly than is telling the truth, perhaps it’s an acceptable fudge. Truth and the blind pursuit of it, especially after the training in Philosophy, has been something of a hang-up for me. However, more and more, this academically-manufactured foible is giving way to recognition that the truth is instrumental, and, more-often-than-not, completely side-lined in ‘civil’ discourse. The zeitgeist is laser-focused on ‘fake news’ at the moment, but this has always been the case – human beings are limitedly rational, and the heuristics we’ve developed to get on in an informationally-incomplete life sideline considerations of 100% accuracy. The unswerving pursuance thereof is a fetish for the secure and self-satisfied.
But, as I said, that was before. I’m still loosening up my miserly, pedant’s grip on the Truth, one finger at a time, but this doesn’t strike me as one of those moments to let slip the knowing lie. The truth has great power – it is in large part why Corbyn has found such success – and the abuse of it will inevitably result in trouble down the line (the current, recognised hollowness of the Dems is a case in point). Obviously, if we’re staring down nuclear war, onus should be put on current concerns, possible futures be damned. But, this isn’t the current project. If we right-thinking people do want to be rid of Trump, we need to root out his cause, for he is, ultimately, just a symptom. We will not do this by lying about the thing. As much as Cheeto Benito is an hilarious moniker.
There. Done. Back. Apologies for the meandering nature of the above. Next will be more succinct.
I recall, a good number of years ago, reading that ‘a philosophical novel is an impossibility.’ I maintain that it was Iris Murdoch who said this – I remember being struck by the idea that, if anyone were to know, it should be her – but I can’t for the life of me dig it up via Google. Irrespective – if this were true, bad news for Sophie’s World and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – but not for Lars Iyer’s 2014 novel Wittgenstein Jr, because, despite the name and the nominal subject matter, it is in fact a love story.
The narrative follows, loosely, a group of philosophy undergrads in present-day Cambridge over the course of their degree, united by the presence of a shared lecturer. A lecturer they half-jokingly refer to as Wittgenstein Jr, as if he were a diminutive version, in all the eccentric mannerisms, of the more famous namesake. The jumbled-together nature of the cast – boys from different backgrounds and with different approaches to and desires from life – is highlighted in the work itself, resulting in moments of humour and pathos in equal measure as they strike off one another and maintain an uneasy friendship. This is balanced against the somewhat abstract maunderings of Wittgenstein Jr (whose real name is never offered up) which, while they don’t necessarily build to a coherent philosophical project, do massage the story forward.
No normal, straight-ahead tale, the prose style throughout the work is in a state of flux: at times, dialogue is laid out as a screenplay – named characters in block print, followed by words that we assume are passing in some manner of ordered temporality. At other times, we have the situation related to us by our protagonist, Peters, in a clipped, present-tense reportage that curtails any worries that he might not be the most faithful of narrators. Thirdly, we have the broad-stroke, hermetic declarations of the titular Wittgenstein Jr, as filtered by Peters, thrusting themselves between the actual events of the story.
It’s somewhat difficult to dissociate my own experiences from those of the novel – I fear that, being situated in Cambridge myself, I’m giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to the book. How much am I filling in gaps within the presentation, when I too have walked along the University backs, drank late at night on Cambridge’s rooftops, spent lazy afternoons meandering to Grantchester? Doubly, I’ve been an undergrad in a philosophy program, too. Much of the experience rang true – Iyer was a lecturer in philosophy at Uni of Newcastle before taking the position of Reader in Creative Writing, so he ought to know, if most recently from the other side of the equation – but how much is just my own insertion? Then again, the experiences we each bring to a reading inform it – there can be no distilled, pure version of any such affair, can there?
My biggest complaint, structurally, is brought on by my own experiences: no women in the class itself, and the female characters outside the main, male undergrad set are little more than set-dressing. In my own cohort, the few female colleagues amongst the majority male crowd were by far the best of us – but, and this is something endemic to analytic departments, few is the rule. Likely, my friends and colleagues performed so much better than the rest of us because of the unvocalised assumption that they were, even in the 21st century, interlopers, and thus had to outstrip the rest just to get by. I can only assume that Cambridge, at the undergrad level, is even worse on this. It would have been positive if Iyer was able to critique this state of affairs in some way, but I appreciate the lampshading nonetheless. The reported romances, those few that involve women, are dealt with on an abstract, allegorical level (and it is the disappointment thereof, the inevitably mundane nature of the amoureuse, that stalls the romance).
Rather than receive reports on the minutiae of the didactic process, the descriptions of the classes the group take with Wittgenstein Jr are opportunities for gnomic, aphoristic utterances that do more to provide an atmosphere to the book than anything of a linear, plotted construction. There are through-lines, such as the idea of the ‘English lawn,’ which resurface at various points. The metaphor is used as a heavy-handed critique of the modern Oxbridge reality, without necessarily hearkening back to a ‘better’ past:
“The English lawn is receding, Wittgenstein says. And with it, the world of the old dons of Cambridge.
New housing estates, where once was open countryside… A new science park where once were allotments and orchards… New apartment blocks near the station, their balconies in shade … And towering barbarisms: Varsity Hotel, looming over Park Parade; Botanic House, destroying the Botanic Gardens; Riverside Place, desecrating the River Cam…
They’re developing the English lawn, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glassy towers on the English lawn. They’re laying out the suburbs and exurbs on the English lawn. They’re constructing Megalopolis on the English lawn.
And they’re developing the English head, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glass-and-steel towers in the English head. They’re building suburbs and exurbs in the English head…
The new don is nothing but a suburb-head, Wittgenstein says. The new don – bidding for funds, exploring synergies with industry, looking for corporate sponsorship, launching spin-off companies. The new don, courting venture capitalists, seeking business partners, looking to export the Cambridge brand. The new don – with a head full of concrete. A finance-head. A capitalist-head.”
Iyer does a good job at presenting the self-important priggishness of overly-clever young men, puffed up on their own abilities and lacking the self-awareness to temper their more brash statements. Your humble reviewer may or may not be able to attest to the veracity of the following passages…
“EDE: Have you noticed how the rahs are all saying literally now? I was like literally exhausted. I was like literally wasted. But nothing they say actually means anything! Literally or figuratively! Most of the time, they don’t even finish their sentences. I was literally so… They just trail off. They barely speak, most of the time. Mmms and ahhs. Little moans, nothing else. Oh reeeealllly. Lurrrrrvely. Coooool.
And they use the word uni, which is unforgiveable, Ede says.”
“We speak of our desire for despair – real despair, Ede and I. For choking despair, visible to all. For chaotic despair, despair of collapse, of ruination. For the despair of Lucifer, as he fell from heaven…
Our desire for annulling despair. For a despair that dissolves the ego; despair indistinguishable from a kind of death. For wild despair, for heads thrown back, teeth fringing laughing mouths. For exhilarated despair, for madness under the moon.
Our desire for despairs of the damned. For crawling despairs, like rats, like spiders. For heavy despairs, like those on vast planets, which make a teardrop as heavy as lead…
Our desire for the moon to smash into the earth. For the sun to swallow the earth. For the night to devour both the sun and the earth.
We speak of our desire for extinction, for cool mineral silence. For the Big Crunch, for the end of all things. For the Great Dissipation, when electrons leave their atoms…”
Truthfully, the only thing that saves these extended sections from contemptibility is the earnest, charming honesty by which they are delivered. As much as they signal – on their surface – entitled, inexperienced boasting, the reality is that of young, nerdy men bonding, building a friendship to push back against the often-hostile, imperfect world they wish they could change for the better, or at least to their conception of what that might mean. Moments of shared, unselfconscious awkwardness – such is the mortar of friendship.
There are passages where the reader is offered glimpses of Wittgenstein Jr’s mounting paranoia – never so sharp, though, as to turn the tenor of the book, which remains fundamentally light in its touch. The sheer outrageousness of it, though deadly serious in delivery, can’t but undercut itself. One can almost picture Bernard Black uttering the below –
“The dons are always ready to pounce, he says. Always ready with their greetings. Hello, they say. Nice weather we’re having, they say. How are you?, they say. How are you getting on?, they say. What have you been up to?, they say. Each time: an assault. Each time: a truncheon over the head. Hello. Nice day. Hello. Hello.”
As I had mentioned earlier, though, the work really shines when it is relaying the essence of Cambridge, descriptions of the physicality and references to the culture combining to provide a hefty psychogeographical distillation. One where you can almost feel the sandy crumbling of acid-rain washed architecture under your fingers, the heaviness of all this accumulated, academic prerogative bearing down on you.
“Flooded pasture. Meadows full of standing water. Salt-water wetlands. Tidal creeks and meres. Rivers braiding, fanning out.
You get a sense of what the Fens used to be like, before they were drained, Wittgenstein says. Settlers building on banks of silt, on low hills, on fen edges. Towns like islands in the marshland.
We imagine the first scholars, expelled from Oxford, founding the new university in Cambridge. We imagine the first colleges growing out of boardinghouses. The first classes, teaching priests to glorify God, and to preach against heresy. The first benefactors, donating money for building projects. The first courtyard design, at Queens College, the chapel at its heart. The first libraries, built above the ground floor to avoid the floods. The lands, drained along the river, and planted with weeping willows and avenues of lime trees. The Backs, cleared, landscaped lawns replacing garden plots and marshland. Cambridge, raising itself above the water. Cambridge, lifting itself into the heavens of thought…”
I started off this review by denying the idea that it should be a ‘philosophical novel,’ and instead declaring it a love story. I think I’ve shown some of the appreciation it has for the particular moment in life the characters share; the physical place they find themselves in. There is a more prosaic, more carnal love story that winds its way through the piece, but, I think, to give it away here would be a disservice to the reader. As much as it comes to the fore towards the end of this relatively short piece, it does a good job of injecting a degree of energy, of providing motion that makes sense of and solidifies the earlier passages.
Suffice to say, if you yourself have come from a humanities background, or really from any space where a volatile, passionate friendship has sprung up – one that hangs together despite itself, and burns the brighter for it – and it’s something you’d like to see represented; if you’ve a desire to get a feel for what Cambridge is like as a place and a head space; if you’re interested in intriguing and challenging narrative forms, there are worse tales to read than this.
Plus, it’s quite funny.
Picture the scene before you – you know it well – the standard one, trotted out for decades now by the self-satisfied, oh-so-earnest mega-charities: sub-Saharan Africa, swollen-bellied children so far-gone into their destitution they barely swat at the buzzing flies. But, wait, you’re not in sub-Saharan Africa, you’ve just left the A5, on your way to Milton Keynes. Those fly-blown children? Glassy-eyed Millenials. The flies themselves? Babies. Oh, forsaken one, you’ve found yourself at Ikea.
Take a closer look at these desolate people around you as you ascend the escalator – they will be your group, your tribe. Together, you will venture through this strange land. It won’t be done on purpose, there will be moments where you find yourself almost alone – these will be the worst, when the immensity of this place begins to bear down on you, the weight of the precariously stacked plastic tchotchkes, the forest’s worth of balsa-wood spoons dumped in steel cages, the aluminium garlic presses in their hundreds, all feels like it will crush the sanity from your tortured brain – but, inevitably, one of your tribe will wander back into view. The site of that collar-popped striped shirt, those third-best yoga pants, the flip-flops, will set you at ease. Here, here in this mad bricollage of Euro-chic consumer goods, here is something you can hold onto.
You will stick to the predetermined paths that shepherd you along the ‘long, natural way’, only very seldomly venturing off to examine the mesh backing of the FLINTAN, the lumbar support of the FJÄLLBERGET, or the thread count on the SKÖRPIL. These paths will usher you on your way, offering a subconscious balm against that greatest of all fears, the threat of becoming lost, going feral and living out your days in the cramped, kaleidoscope world of the showrooms. No, by sticking to the paths, egged on by the unattended screams of your tribe’s offspring, you’ll safely make your way to the juncture.
A choice is now forced on you, which, admittedly, can be a bit of a shock after the structure of the showrooms – do you break your pilgrimage, and head to the food dispensary, or do you venture forth into the ‘market hall’? The hollow rumblings of your stomach decide for you, and unerringly your feet guide you past the ‘market hall’ and into the ‘restaurant.’ You queue amidst the other millenials, grasping plastic tray in both hands. Why have they put the dessert first, you wonder idly as you grab yourself two servings of the Swedish apple cake. Good thing too, as, though you don’t know it yet, the ‘veggie balls’ you spoon onto a plate subsequently will leave you feeling hungry before you even exit the store. Even with the two pints of Norwegian lingonberry sparkling water!
Temporarily restored, you brave once more the surging crowds, re-inserting yourself into the flow and sweeping through the cavern-like maw of ‘the market.’ You notice, bobbing along in the swirling mass, the heads of some of your tribe – unbeknownst to you, it seems they too succumbed to the vagaries of their mortal frame. Their harried, ungulate expressions reassure you, and you calm enough to begin examining your surroundings. The swing-top KORKEN stacked metres high? You can’t go wrong at £1.75! Get 5! The 18-piece FÄRGRIK? £13.50? Get two! Ooh, what a sweet design on the GLÖDANDE! Get three in case one chips. Alas, you must be having fun, as your meandering course, assisted by the shuffling herd around you, has brought you to the end of the market – a hole in the ground.
As you descend the escalator, you’re assaulted – olfactorily. Laid out beneath you stretch hundreds of scented candles, and their individual waxy odours blend to a miasma that chokes ever more thoroughly as you descend. Tugging your loved ones along, you rush through to clearer airs and find yourself –
in the flatpack. A farness of flatpack. A warehouse worthy of any seaport, situated within the store, now stretches before you. Banners hang from every row’s end, depicting and naming the ‘designers.’ As one, they smirk down on you. They know this place is theirs. They run the gamut from corn fed all-American to bright-eyed Slav and on to canny Eurasian and can be anywhere from 28 to 73 (but, though it won’t be until you’re safely ensconced in the car and bootling down the motorway, the thought creeps up on you – only one gender is ever represented), and they all have the same expression. The only thing that wards off the fascistic is the size – just shy of your Nuremberg banner. The only escape from their ever-present gaze is to duck into the aisles themselves, to be confronted with their creations – handily disassembled and packaged for your convenience.
Dodging in and out of momentary respite, you see it ahead of you – the goal of this odyssey – the discount den. You pass by the spare SKORVA and the stacked LÖNSET, paying them no attention at all. How can you delay, when some other schmuck might snatch the mis-matched FÅGLAVIK set? The ever so slightly-lumpy HÖSTFIBBLA must be yours! Success! You wrestle the cracked BJÖRKSTA from the boney clutches of some sucker’s gran and rush over to the till.
The queue is three groups deep, and, due to the various trolleys, baskets and carts each are possessed of, you are forced to abandon your comrades to wait. You quickly pass your wallet to your partner and dash. The Norwegian lingonberry sparkling water has returned.
You get back in time to catch the final cash through. Congratulations, you’ve just spent £783.56.
Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.