category: Announcements



11
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of René Descartes

Hey folks, I’ve got a new piece over at On This Deity.

11th February 1650: The Death of René Descartes.

Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1650, we remember the life and work of French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes. Although not overtly political, the work of Descartes succeeded in redefining much of philosophical thought, to the extent that it would be more than fair to describe him as a revolutionary thinker. And while many of his ideas have antecedents in ancient Greece, Descartes can stake as firm a claim as anyone to the epithet, “father of modern philosophy”.

read the rest…

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28
Jan 2012

The Death of W.B. Yeats

As the year wears on, we arrive at another anniversary. This time last year I published a piece over at On This Deity celebrating the life and remembering the death of William Butler Yeats, truly one of Ireland’s most cherished sons.

William Butler YeatsYeats was first and foremost a poet of genuine greatness. Possibly the finest ever to hail from these shores. Though he has plenty of competition… and in the final analysis, claiming one poet is better than another is always a dubious activity. Let’s just say that there are few poets – from anywhere – whose work affects me so deeply.

Yeats, of course, was not only a wonderful poet. He was also a dedicated archivist who – along with Lady Gregory – compiled the collection of ancient tales and sagas that we now know as Irish Mythology. In so doing, he is as responsible for the form and shape of traditional Gaelic culture as any individual. And tradition was something he felt very strongly about. A friend and fellow-traveller of many of the leading lights of the modernist movement, WB Yeats strode an uneasy line between past and future. He wanted to embrace the modern world, yet despised it for its tendency to tread heavily on the best parts of the past. He saw the creative potential of industry, but despaired at the lack of wisdom guiding it. Why did we not have the discernment to welcome the advantages of the new while preserving the advantages of the old? Progress was inevitable, he understood that, but did it have to be at any cost?

And Yeats was also a political man. He spent a decade in the newly independent Irish government as a senator. One of the leading intellectuals of those early, heady days he was at the forefront of the movement to resist the influence of the catholic church on Irish politics. It was, lamentably, a battle he was to lose. How different would Ireland have been if those early progressive liberals had overcome the social conservatives! Unlike in much of Europe, the Irish revolutionary socialist movement was tightly bound to the church. There are very understandable reasons why this was the case, and in truth it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise given the unique situation in Ireland at the time. All the same, it’s difficult to avoid a certain wistfulness when imagining an alternative history where Yeats was on the winning side of that early social struggle.

Of course, one thing the progressives, the catholics, the traditionalists, the modernists and the revolutionary socialists of early 20th century Ireland would all have agreed on would be that the present predicament in which we find ourselves is intolerable. Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, William Cosgrave and WB Yeats would have been united in their condemnation of the present government and the capitalist attacks on the people of Ireland they facilitate. On that at least, they would have voted together, and fought side by side. The selling of our sovereignty in return for tax-breaks for the wealthy would be anathema to the men who struggled so long and sacrificed so much to win that sovereignty in the first place.

But I guess we couldn’t have the greatness of those heroes past without also taking on their flaws. And they had many. So it behoves us to reach for a brighter future rather than wallow in nostalgia for a rose-tinted past. All the same, we can – as Yeats himself always stressed – avail ourselves of the distilled wisdom of days gone by. We may not always have the strength to choose which parts of our history we are influenced by, but we are obliged to at least try to give voice to our better angels and to silence the demons. And so, with that in mind, I shall finish this piece as I finished the piece over at On This Deity a year ago today, with the words of Yeats in the poem that – above all others – lives within my heart and mind.

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


26
Jan 2012

An Ecology of Mind (film) – UK Tour

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The name “Gregory Bateson” will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It will also be familiar to a small number of academics who have studied his work in such disparate fields as anthropology, psychotherapy, communications theory, systems dynamics, linguistics, ecological science and biology.

Now, those who know Bateson’s work will have spotted the deliberate error in the above paragraph. It is of course the central thesis of Batesonian philosophy that these are not “disparate fields” at all. Our separation of these disciplines is entirely arbitrary and ultimately quite problematic. Though as he himself acknowledged, we do have to think about things separately simply because “it’s too difficult to think of everything at once”.

It’s one of the great tragedies of our times that Bateson’s work is so unfamiliar to so many people, and that his name is barely recognised even by the generally well-educated. Those who do know Bateson’s work (not all of them of course, but a significant majority of those I’ve met or read) count him among the most important thinkers of the past few hundred years. And they lament his relative lack of influence on a culture that could sorely use some wisdom and guidance. Reading his seminal collection of papers, Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a truly revelatory experience and anyone who does so with an open mind is likely to be profoundly changed by it. He sees – clearer than most – the fundamental flaws in how humanity interacts with the world of which it is a part. He doesn’t provide a set of solutions to our problems, for he denies our problems are of the kind that can be addressed using “a set of solutions”. Rather, he identifies our “way of thinking about the world” to be the central issue. Our entire epistemology is deeply flawed and it is leading us ever closer to disaster.

A simple example of this flawed epistemology; this failure to see the vital interconnections in the world around us; can be seen by examining the current European financial crisis. On the one hand, the IMF and EU are predicting that Ireland and Greece will overcome their problems so long as they act in a particular way and follow certain instructions. They predict certain rates of economic growth which, although modest, will be enough to get us out of trouble within a certain number of years so long as we privatise state assets and implement strict budgetary controls. On the other hand, both institutions have issued warnings (IMF, EU) about impending oil / resource depletion that are, if taken at face value, absolutely guaranteed to torpedo those growth projections. In the context of charitable donations, the advice of Jesus to “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3) is certainly a worthy one. Unfortunately when it comes to matters of public policy, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, enough about that. My UK readers will – I hope – be interested to discover that the recent film about Bateson’s life and work (entitled, appropriately enough, “An Ecology of Mind“) is to be screened at several locations in the month of February. I’ve not yet seen the film, dear reader, but I nonetheless recommend you attend your nearest screening. Any film about Bateson’s work is surely a must-see. It’ll certainly be a more enriching experience than Transformers 7: The Car’s A Robot!

Currently the dates announced are:

  • Feb 13th, 2012Milton Keynes (Berrill Lecture Theatre, 7pm)
    Contact: Magnus Ramage at m.ramage @ open.ac.uk or telephone 01908 659 779
  • Feb 14th, 2012Hull (Hull University)
    Contact: Gerald Midgley at G.R.Midgley @ hull.ac.uk
  • Feb 15th, 2012Manchester (Chinese Art Centre, 6pm)
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 16th, 2012Manchester (MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2pm)
    Address: Room 104 Geoffrey Manton Building, All Saints Campus, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 17th, 2012Glasgow (The Old Hairdressers, 7pm)
    Invited panel speakers: Nora Bateson, filmmaker; Carol Craig, author of The Tears that Built the Clyde; Torsten Lauschmann, artist; Nic Green, artist and ecological activist; Alastair Macintosh, Centre for Human Ecology
    Contact: Robert Thurm at galleryhair @ hotmail.co.uk or buy tickets at TicketWeb
  • Feb 20th, 2012Bradford (National Media Museum)
    Address: Pictureville Bradford, West Yorkshire BD1 1NQ
    Contact: Gail Simon at gailsimon @ clara.co.uk or telephone 0870 701 0200
  • Feb 21st, 2012Bristol (Arnolfini Gallery, 7:30pm)
    Address: 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA
    Contact: Nick Hart-Williams (Schumacher Society) at nick @ schumacher.org.uk or buy tickets from the Schumacher Society
  • Feb 22nd, 2012Dartington (Dartington Schumacher College, 8pm – Screening and discussion)
    Address: The Old Postern, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EA
    Contact: Inga Page (Schumacher College) at Inga.Page @ schumachercollege.org.uk, telephone 01803 865 934 / 07813 802 508, or buy tickets from Schumacher College
  • Feb 23rd, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Screening and panel)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 24th, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Seminar / workshop with Nora Bateson)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 27th, 2012London (Premiere) (The Old Cinema)
    Invited panel speakers: Jody Boehnert (Ecological Literacy researcher, Brighton University / EcoLabs); Ranulph Glanville (Emeritus Professor, University College London / Independent academic / President of the American Society for Cybernetics); Peter Reason (Professor Emeritus, Centre for Action Research, Bath University / Ashridge Business School); Wendy Wheeler (Professor of English Literature & Cultural Inquiry, London Metropolitan Uni. / author of The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture / Consulting Editor for Cybernetics and Human Knowing)
    Panellist and Chair: Dr. Jon Goodbun (Sr. Lecturer, Architecture, Uni. of Westminster, RCA & UCL)
    Contact: Jon Goodbun IMCC (Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture) University of Westminster at jcgoodbun @ mac.com
    Co-organisers: Wallace Heim (home @ wallaceheim.com); Kevin Power – Centre for Action Research, Ashridge Business School (kevin.power @ btinternet.com); Eva Bakkeslett (bakkesle @ online.no)
    Buy tickets at Eventbrite
Trailer for An Ecology of Mind

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10
Jan 2012

Thomas Paine publishes ‘Common Sense’ (10 Jan 1776)

It’s a year old now (where has the time gone?) but one of my pieces has come around again over at On This Deity.

At the beginning of 1776 the American Revolution was well underway and growing in intensity with each passing week. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June ’75 had shaken the British army so badly they’d been on the back foot ever since. And by March of 1776 Washington’s advance on Boston would drive the bulk of that army into Canada. Of course, King George would respond with a lengthy military campaign and the War of Independence would continue for some years. In truth though, it was back between Bunker Hill and Boston that American independence became inevitable. Because it was on this day, January 10th back in 1776 that Thomas Paine published Common Sense.

With a US election later this year that looks like it will be a run off between an incumbent corporatist and a religious challenger, the tensions that divide American society, and which can be found even within the pages of Paine’s book (despite his overt call for religious pluralism) will once again bubble to the surface.

For those who have not read it and who are interested in one of the most culturally influential texts in American history, the entire thing (and it’s pretty short) can be read on this page. It’s definitely worth a read.

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8
Jan 2012

Happy Birthday Mr. Bowie

David BowieAs a quick glimpse at my Last.fm artist chart demonstrates, I’m a bit of a Bowie fan. So, on the occasion of his 65th birthday (just imagine Bowie’s bus pass! I bet it’s a specially designed one made out of that crazy folding metal stuff that they got off the UFO that crashed at Roswell), I was going to write something about how important his music has been to me down through the years. How he sound-tracked some of the defining moments of my teens and twenties and lit up the darkness right when I needed it most. I was maybe going to throw some brief reviews of some of my favourite Bowie albums (in no particular order… Low, “Heroes”, Lodger, Diamond Dogs, Heathen, Ziggy Stardust, Station to Station, Scary Monsters, 1.Outside, Earthling, The Man Who Sold The World, Hours, The Buddha of Suburbia… er, pretty much all of them really with the possible exception of the 80s stuff, but even then the singles were great; Loving The Alien, anyone? Let’s Dance? China Girl?) I might have related the tale of the epic cross-country hitch with my mate Justin, to see Bowie play in Exeter during the 1.Outside tour… easily one of the weirdest weekends of my life (and that’s saying something… I had a lot of weird weekends during my twenties). Perhaps I’d even describe the recurring nightmare I had for much of the 90s and into the early noughties in which I wandered through an eerily deserted London city until I reached the Tate Gallery within which I discovered a deranged David Bowie slashing his own wrists while whispering the lyrics to some of his songs; after which diseased and disfigured angels began to fall dead from the sky. Yeah… bit of a screwed-up dream that, but pretty appropriate for where my head was, at the time.

But in the end, all of that would just be a roundabout way of saying that David Bowie has had a far greater impact on my life than is strictly sensible for someone I’ve never met personally. And though he’ll never read this, I’d like to thank him for his wonderful contribution to my world, and wish him a very happy birthday, and many many happy returns.

Ultimately it makes more sense to share some Bowie, than just share some thoughts about him…

or…

or…

or look, just go to YouTube and type in David Bowie. You’re guaranteed a great time.

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24
Dec 2011

A very merry Chrimbo

Well, I’m about to do my annual festive good deed and call the Ethiopian Embassy in Dublin to tell them it’s Christmas (I’m not sure if they know). In the meantime, let me wish all of my readers a wonderful Yuletide. Whatever your feelings about the religious significance of the festival, midwinter has ever been a time to feast, be merry and look at pretty lights. And I hope you do. And in the words of Bill and Ted – who, frankly, got it right where so many wise men got it wrong – be excellent to each other.

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22
Oct 2011

22nd October 1941: The Execution of Guy Môquet

Check out my new piece up at On This Deity.

22nd October 1941: The Execution of Guy Môquet.

It happened in a quarry behind a prison camp on the outskirts of Châteaubriand. In three groups of nine, twenty-seven men were lined up. Behind them a pit to fall into. Before them a row of German guns. It was the 22nd of October 1941 and terrible scenes such as this were happening throughout Europe. For one reason or another, some of those events have echoed louder in the pages of history than others. And the brutal slayings that took place in that quarry near Nantes have echoed as loudly as any. For it was there that Guy Môquet’s short life was ended. He stood defiantly with his 26 comrades and faced the guns, refusing a blindfold so he could look his killers in the eye. He cried out Vive la France! as the fascists opened fire.

read the rest…

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25
Jul 2011

Bateson of The Day

What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams, and the like) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.

This notion can conveniently be illustrated by an analogy: the living human body is a complex, cybernetically integrated system. This system has been studied by scientists — mostly medical men — for many years. What they now know about the body may (aptly) be compared with what the unaided consciousness knows about the mind. Being doctors, they had purposes: to cure this and that. Their research efforts were therefore focused (as attention focuses the consciousness) upon those short trains of causality which they could manipulate, by means of drugs or other intervention, to correct more or less specific and identifiable states or symptoms. Whenever they discovered an effective “cure” for something, research in that area ceased and attention was directed elsewhere. We can now prevent polio, but nobody knows much more about the systemic aspects of that fascinating disease. Research on it has ceased or is, at best, confined to improving the vaccines.

But a bag of tricks for curing or preventing a list of specified diseases provides no overall wisdom. The ecology and population dynamics of the species has been disrupted; parasites have been made immune to antibiotics; the relationship between mother and neonate has been almost destroyed; and so on.

Characteristically, errors occur wherever the altered causal chain is part of some large or small circuit structure of system. And the remainder of our technology (of which medical science is only a part) bids fair to disrupt the rest of our ecology.

The point, however, which I am trying to make in this paper is not an attack on medical science but a demonstration of an inevitable fact; that mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.

In a word, the unaided consciousness must always involve man in the sort of stupidity of which evolution was guilty when she urged upon the dinosaurs the common-sense values of an armaments race. She inevitably realized her mistake a million years later and wiped them out.

Unaided consciousness must always tend toward hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.

If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat the poisoned insects. If the DDT kills off the dogs, you will have to have more police to keep down the burglars. The burglars will become better armed and more cunning … and so on.

That is the sort of world we live in — a world of circuit structures — and love can survive only if wisdom (i.e., a sense or recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

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16
Jul 2011

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project

I’ve got a new article up at On This Deity. To be honest, I could easily have written four or five times as much on this subject as it’s something I was obsessed with for quite a while, and it also feeds into my “advanced technology as pathology” thesis. But 12 hundred words is already a lot in these days of abbreviated attention spans.

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project.

At half past five on the morning of July 16th 1945, The Gadget exploded and the whole world shook. Three square miles of desert sand was melted into glass. A mushroom cloud rose almost 8 miles into the sky and cast a shadow that darkens our world even now. For it was on this day, in the final year of the second world war, that humanity entered the atomic age. A day of infamy. A day to lament. A day on which we should – as a species – collectively reflect on just how far our ingenuity has exceeded our wisdom.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
- Albert Einstein

read the rest…

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14
Jul 2011

14th July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille

Head across to On This Deity to check out my new post.

14th July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille.

Today we celebrate, though not without a small note of reservation, the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this day in 1789. Commemorated with a public holiday in France, Bastille Day has come to mark the beginning of The French Revolution. Of course, France has had a number of significant revolutions – notably the July Revolution of 1830 and the revolution in 1848 that gave rise to the Second Republic – but it is the one that began in 1789 and lasted a full decade that has earned the definite article. It is The French Revolution.

The Bastille (or Bastion de Saint-Antoine) was originally a fortress built in the 1370s – during the Hundred Years’ War – to protect eastern Paris. By the 17th century the expansion of the city meant the Bastille was no longer on the outskirts where it could serve as an effective fortification against attackers, and Louis XIII re-purposed it as a prison. For the next hundred and fifty years the Bastille provided French royalty with a secure facility into which political prisoners and social agitators could be thrown with little or no regard for legal due process. As such, in the eyes of many it soon came to represent the oppression of the monarchy and although it only contained seven prisoners on July 14th 1789, the Storming of the Bastille was a hugely symbolic act, demonstrating the rejection of arbitrary royal privilege by the people of Paris.

read the rest…

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