tag: Books



6
Jun 2012

Ray Bradbury. 1920-2012

I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.

Ray Bradbury

Today I was saddened to hear the news of Ray Bradbury’s death. He lived to the ripe old age of 91 and – if I’m being honest – I was a little surprised to hear of his passing… half-assuming he’d ascended to that Great Library in The Sky many years ago.

Bradbury was one of writers who lit up my childhood and brought colour and wonder to grey 1970s Dublin. His novel, The Martian Chronicles is probably the first serious science-fiction book I can recall reading. I don’t wish to denigrate the fantastical space adventures penned by W.E. Johns, which were my initial introduction to science fiction, but they were essentially Boys Own Adventures that just happened to be set in space; whereas Bradbury was doing something entirely different. I’m sure even Johns would agree.
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
Ray Bradbury’s prose was genuinely poetic. It was filled with wisdom, warmth and a rich humour. It was also deadly serious and – looking back – was probably the first “social commentary” I read too. Though of course, at the tender age of 9 or 10, much of the allegory went above my head. Even so, I can distinctly remember thinking that there was something important about Bradbury’s work… something I wasn’t quite grasping, but that I desperately wanted to. Later in my teens when I re-read The Martian Chronicles – along with scores (if not hundreds) of his short stories – I was pleased to have been vindicated. There was something important about Bradbury’s work. And there still is.

Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my all-time favourite novels. I’ve not read it in many years, but I intend to very soon. It’s a shame that my revisit to his books is being prompted by such sad news, but I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Mr. Bradbury; a man whose love of writing consumed him.

Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.

Ray Bradbury

When someone has spent more than ninety years on the planet, it’s difficult to describe their death as “a tragedy”. For surely few of us can expect to have such a span of years, and those of us who do should feel blessed because of it. And yet, when such a wise voice as Ray Bradbury is silenced, the world is always the worse for it. Still, he left us plenty of that wisdom in the books he wrote. Wisdom, wit and some cracking good yarns. For those of you who never encountered his work, may I suggest a short list to track down and be amazed by. And for those who are already familiar with Bradbury… well, there’s no harm in a re-read. It’s what he would have wanted.

My favourite of his novels:

As wonderful as are his novels, the curious reader should – perhaps even more urgently – track down pretty much any one of his glorious collections of short stories… The Day It Rained Forever and I Sing the Body Electric are two of the best, but you really can’t go wrong with Bradbury short stories. And if you don’t believe me, then why not track down some of the ones that have made it onto the web (The Pedestrian for example). You won’t be sorry that you did.


2
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of Bertrand Russell

This time last year, on the anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s death, I published a piece celebrating his life and work over at On This Deity. Russell is rightly remembered for his work – in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead – on the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (the book has since passed into the public domain and can be downloaded as a very chunky PDF file if you so wish… it’s currently available on rapidshare, or alternatively do a search for “Principia Mathematica PDF”).

Bertrand RussellHowever, while Principia Mathematica doubtlessly secured his place in the ranks of the Great Philosophers, it’s a highly technical and specialised book about the relationship between mathematics and formal logic. I recall flicking through it when I was a philosophy undergraduate and instantly deciding that unless I spent the majority of my three year degree immersed entirely in Principia Mathematica, I wouldn’t do it justice. And given that I was, at the time, more interested in gaining a broad overview of philosophy, rather than focussing on a single narrow aspect of the subject, I read a few bits and pieces about Principia Mathematica in Hospers (and other similar volumes) and pretty much left it at that.

However, it wasn’t long before I encountered the name Bertrand Russell once more. This time it was while I was eagerly devouring books on political philosophy… in particular left wing and anarchist political philosophy. So while to this day I’ve still not gotten around to reading Principia Mathematica, Russell’s Proposed Roads To Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism was one of the more influential books on my intellectual development. The full text of Proposed Roads… can be read over at the University of Virginia Library website and is worth your while checking out.

Sadly, as I suggested when I was talking about the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon recently, the hopes and dreams of Russell in that near-century-old text have been comprehensively ignored by a society which has dedicated itself to the attempted gratification of individual desire through over-consumption. Russell called upon us to overcome these baser instincts and push ourselves onwards, towards a more just and free world. But as he said in Proposed Roads… (echoing the views of Proudhon, half a century earlier) the use of violence to achieve supposedly enlightened ends is almost always self-defeating. The achievement of a better world “requires a breadth of outlook and a comprehensiveness of understanding which are not easy to preserve amid a desperate contest”.

Which is why, as well as being the author of one of the seminal works in logical philosophy, Russell is also remembered for being a dedicated peace campaigner. As a founder-member and the organisation’s first President, he gave the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) the intellectual legitimacy it needed to gain a critical mass. And even into his nineties he was active in the movement (as well as organising international opposition to America’s war in Vietnam). Russell firmly believed that humanity held within itself the ability to move past our aggressive selfishness. He saw clearly that violent competition in nature can be – and often is – tempered with a drive towards cooperation. And he felt that we have reached a point – thanks to technology and our global interconnectedness – where it has become imperative that this cooperative drive should now supersede our competitive instinct. Otherwise we risk destroying all we have achieved.

Russell was convinced that the overthrow of capitalism was necessary for us to achieve this evolution. But he was also convinced this could not be done with violence. At least, not if we wanted to replace it with something better. Of course, it’s difficult to see how it can be achieved non-violently, given how entrenched the power of the capitalists has become. However, as he was fond of saying… “we are obliged to give the matter some thought”.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


3
Jan 2012

… and a happy new year!

Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.

Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.

Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.

From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.

Sporting highlights of 2011

Stephen Cluxton scores the winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland finalWith each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.

Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).

In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.

Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.

Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.

Musical highlights of 2011

I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.

The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.

Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.

Ako ti je glasno…

Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!

Movie highlights of 2011

I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011’s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.

The Sunset LimitedAnother notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.

Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.

About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.

There are several of 2011’s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.

Television highlights of 2011

As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.

The TripProbably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.

As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n’sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.

I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.

Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.

So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.

Literary highlights of 2011

Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011″ bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.

In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011’s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.

Other highlights of 2011

Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.

In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.

I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.

There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.

And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.

2011 Senior Football Final Photo courtesy of independent.ie


19
Dec 2011

Security (by Philip Challinor)

The War Against Terror has brought death, kidnap, rendition, torture and destruction to an already weary world. It has resulted in an ongoing erosion of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It has also partly unleashed and partly revealed the moral vacuum at the heart of western society. The War Against Terror has done more damage to the notion of enlightened, liberal democracy than any terrorist could hope to have achieved. By fighting fire with fire we have merely succeeded in burning everyone. In my search for a silver lining – and it is a very narrow one indeed – I’m forced to fall back on that old cliché about harsh times providing inspiration for writers and artists.

Security (by Philip Challinor)It is The War Against Terror and consequent loss of civil liberties that form the heart of Philip Challinor’s 2010 novel, Security. It’s a story told with wit, skill and an unsettling dollop of resignation… a sense that humanity is more than willing to allow terrible things to happen if they’re scared enough, and sometimes just because they’re too lazy to do otherwise.

Readers of Security spend 24 hours with a mid-level bureaucrat – Anderson – working for National Consolidated Solutions, to whom the UK government have outsourced a number of security contracts. Any novel about the work of a bureaucrat is going to be leavened with a certain amount of existentialism, but Challinor chooses to downplay this aspect of Security by turning the inner world of his protagonist into an abstract mystery story… Just what is it that Anderson does? The central character suffers from that terrible and slightly paradoxical combination of boredom and stress that anyone who has ever done a job that didn’t interest them, yet found themselves with a petty tyrant as a boss will recognise. Partly because of this – and partly due to the nature of his company’s business – Anderson forces himself to plough through his daily routine by focussing purely on the mechanics of the task at hand. As a result, the bigger picture takes some time to come into focus and although the entire novel is steeped in a sinister atmosphere, it takes a while to work out exactly why.

All the same, there’s plenty of humour to be found within the pages of Security, but it is both bone dry and extremely dark, so don’t expect too many chuckles. And the inevitable existentialism of a bureaucrat’s story hasn’t been completely eradicated – despite the attempts of Anderson’s unconscious mind to roboticise himself. This existential aspect is most obvious in Anderson’s encounters with and thoughts about his family. We can only assume that these sterile relationships did not start out this way and are a direct result of the toll taken on his psyche by the job he performs. Perhaps.

Ultimately Challinor successfully avoids getting too bogged down either in the monotony of bureaucracy or the opaque family relationships of the protagonist. And he creates more than enough intrigue to prevent Anderson’s monotonous life turning into a monotonous novel. Like the great Leopold Bloom, while Anderson is a passive participant in his own life, his passivity does not weigh down the story he tells. Over the course of the (relatively short) novel Anderson’s conversations begin to reveal precisely what is going on around him – even if at some level he would rather they didn’t. And fittingly, his final significant conversation – with the wonderfully objectionable Eric Munt – reveals everything in the most explicit terms while also hinting at an even worse future to come.

Security, like Ken MacLeod’s excellent The Execution Channel, paints a bleak picture of a future that threatens to engulf us all should we allow it. A future that has already begun to creep backwards into the present (as the inmates of Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the cells at Bagram Airbase or a dozen other places whose names we don’t know can attest to), and which must be resisted at all costs. The alternative, as illustrated by Anderson, is too chilling to contemplate outside the pages of a novel.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews


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

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


25
Aug 2010

… and the Tree of Nothing

I’m terribly busy at the moment, and I won’t be around very much over the next three weeks. I’m off down to Cork for a few days (my sister is getting married) and then I’m heading over to Serbia for a couple of weeks.

Anyways, while I’ll try to pop in here now and then and post something during my travels, they’ll most likely be flying visits. Links to interesting stuff, or the inevitable embedded YouTube vid.

Of which this is one. It’s a YouTube vid of a stand-up comedy clip. Makes a change from a music video, I suppose.

By and large very few stand-up comedians interest me. For me, Bill Hicks set the bar so high that most stand-up just sounds hollow and lifeless now. There are exceptions of course, and of those, Stewart Lee is probably the finest. He treads that line between social commentary and funny weirdness that’s so very hard to sustain. And it’s to his great credit that he manages it.

This is a clip from the first episode of his most recent TV show (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle) wherein he expresses his position on the Harry Potter books. The final line, and the way it’s delivered, made me laugh out loud.

8 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video


18
Aug 2010

First lines quiz

Books this time. Regular readers will recall the occasional quizzes I set where I list the first lines of a bunch of songs and invite you to guess the titles. Well, this time, prompted by Paul over at The Whole Damn World, I’ve decided to list the first lines of a bunch of books (both fiction and non-fiction) and see how good your memories are. Some are obvious, others far less so. Feel free to use google if you need to, but don’t post google-sourced answers in the comments.

Introductions, prefaces and prologues have been omitted, these are all “Line 1 Chapter 1″s. The first one is also the first one on Paul’s list, but it’s a great line to get the ball rolling. Also, there’s no more than one from any particular author.

Fiction

  1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.1984: George Orwell – Paul
  2. Later than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof.Vineland: Thomas Pynchon – Nosemonkey
  3. Daniel Pearse was born on the rainy dawn of March 15, 1966.
  4. I didn’t know that afternoon that the ground was waiting to become another grave in just a few short days.So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away: Richard Brautigan – m’hoop
  5. Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.
  6. In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne.
  7. I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.On The Road: Jack Kerouac – Paul
  8. The day had gone by just as days go by.
  9. May I, Monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding?
  10. Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more.
  11. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.Ulysses: James Joyce – Nosemonkey
  12. That’s good thinking there, Cool Breeze.The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test: Tom Wolfe – Paul
  13. Back in the late 1970s, when I was fifteen years old, I spent every penny I then had to fly across the continent in a 747 jet to Brandon, Manitoba, deep in the Canadian prairies, to witness a total eclipse of the sun.
  14. One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it — it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.Through The Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll – Larry’s Mum
  15. The year 1866 was marked by a strange occurrence, an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten.
  16. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald – m’hoop
  17. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.A Farewell To Arms: Ernest Hemingway – m’hoop
  18. That was when I saw the Pendulum.Foucault’s Pendulum: Umberto Eco – Nosemonkey & Larry
  19. Save the albatross…! Stop nuclear testing now…!
  20. The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.Neuromancer: William Gibson – Gyrus
  21. This time there would be no witnesses.Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Douglas Adams – m’hoop
  22. Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.War and Peace: Tolstoy – Nosemonkey & Larry
  23. At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound.Don Quixote: Cervantes – Nosemonkey
  24. Listen to my last words anywhere.Nova Express: William S. Burroughs – Gyrus
  25. My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons.Gulliver’s Travels: Jonathan Swift – Nosemonkey
  26. At nine o’clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed.The Idiot: Dostoevsky – Nosemonkey (half point for author but not book!)
  27. Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair.A Scanner Darkly: Philip K. Dick – Gyrus
  28. The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.Trainspotting: Irvine Welsh – Paul
  29. The chimes of San Salvatore broke into Josef Breuer’s reverie.
  30. May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened and having for the time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages; for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar.Maldoror: Lautréamont – Howard

Non-fiction

  1. In your schooldays most of you who read this book made acquaintance with the noble building of Euclid’s geometry, and you remember — perhaps with more respect than love — the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers.Relativity: Albert Einstein – UKLiberty
  2. Among the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke and irritate each other, Mr Burke’s pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance.The Rights of Man: Thomas Paine – Nosemonkey
  3. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.The Communist Manifesto: Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels – Paul
  4. All states, all dominions that have had and continue to have power over men were and still are either republics or principalities.The Prince: Machiavelli – Nosemonkey
  5. It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.
  6. Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Gregory Bateson – Gyrus
  7. All five elements basic to the study reported here — population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources — are increasing.The Limits to Growth: The Club of Rome – Phil
  8. When I was six months old, my parents moved from Kesswil on Lake Constance to Laufen, the castle and vicarage above the Falls of the Rhine.
  9. “Long long ago, when wishing still could lead to something, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, who had seen so many things, simply marveled every time it shone on her face.
  10. My research has led me to the realization that repetition automatism (Wiederholungszwang) has its basis in what I have called the insistence of the signifying chain.

Have at it.

21 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme


2
Aug 2010

Sherlock

I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I read all of the original stories when I was a kid and again when I was ill a few years back (they’re perfect reading while ill… stimulating but not too taxing, and evocative enough to lift you out of your present circumstances and transport you elsewhere). I’ve also got the complete box-set of the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett* which is endlessly rewatchable. Brett’s eccentricity in the role is exactly how I imagined Holmes when I first read the stories. Others insist that the rather more restrained Basil Rathbone is the perfect Holmes. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion (absurd though it may be) but for me Jeremy Brett will always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I heard about the new BBC adaptation. Updated to modern London and given the faintly irritating first-name-only title of “Sherlock”, it had the potential to be rather ridiculous. As I said to Citizen S when we sat down to watch the first episode, “99% of television is utter crap, so statistically this is likely to be utter crap”.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson

Well, having seen the first two episodes, I am very happy to be proved wrong. It’s actually rather good. The production has managed to update the characters and setting while somehow retaining enough of that stately Victorian grace that defined the Granada series. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes far closer to the Brett than Rathbone end of the spectrum. In the first episode he describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”, a kind of nonsense pseudoscientific phrase that nonetheless suits the character perfectly (and I don’t mean that in a bad way).

There’s a dry humour to the proceedings that drifts just close enough to sheer silliness for enjoyment but never crosses the line and bursts the bubble of dramatic tension. And for those intimately familiar with the source material, there are a vast array of knowing winks and nods to the original Holmes. The “three patch problem” line made me laugh out loud and Holmes’ use of a smartphone to discover that Cardiff was the only place that had the appropriate weather to fit the facts was the perfect update of the original character’s constant trawling through newspapers and reference books.

Interestingly, the heart of the adaptation is Watson. Played wonderfully by Martin Freeman, he’s brought far more to the fore than in previous screen outings, or indeed than in the original stories. Like the original Watson, Freeman is a military surgeon returned from active duty overseas and clearly misses the action. Action he finds aplenty when he teams up with Holmes.

Apparently the BBC have only commissioned three episodes, so the final one will be next Sunday. If you’ve not seen the first two, then I’d advise you to track them down this week (if you’re in the UK then they’re probably on iPlayer… if you’re not, then you might have to wade into the murky waters of the torrent networks, though you didn’t hear that from me) and watch them before the final episode.

It’s a clever, well-written series with new mysteries that nonetheless retain a similar atmosphere to the originals. It’s not the best thing you’ll ever see, not even the best Holmes you’ll ever see, but it is part of that elusive 1% of television that’s not utter crap.

And for that, I am thankful.

* Aside: I met Jeremy Brett once. He was a neighbour of a friend of mine and he invited us in for a sherry one evening. Yes, a sherry! He was exactly as I expected him to be… a wonderful gentleman of the Old School.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » TV reviews


11
Jan 2010

War & The Noble Savage

The latest book from my friend and fellow traveller, Gyrus, is subtitled “A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilized Peoples”. Over the past few years a debate has been raging… quietly raging, but raging nonetheless… regarding the nature of pre-civilized human society. In this slim but incisive volume, Gyrus summarises the debate and adds to it. Signficantly, in my view.

War and The Noble Savage

There is a tendency within our culture (perhaps within humanity, though anthropology suggests that it’s not universal, merely rather prevalent) to reduce everything to a kind of oppositional dualism. To polarise every debate. The baddies and the goodies. Yin and Yang. Male and female. Left and Right. I find this tendency rather unsatisfactory as it often (usually!) ends up simplifying issues to the point of uselessness.

The debate regarding pre-civilized cultures; specifically regarding the questions of whether they are/were more or less violent than civilized cultures and whether they are/were more or less ecologically conscientious than civilized cultures; has followed that general tendency and become polarised. On the one hand there’s the view — generally attributed to Rousseau — that pre-civilized peoples were “Noble Savages”. On the other hand there’s the view expressed by Hobbes that primitive life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

These two positions (both of which appear to have started life as thought-experiments, rather than deeply held convictions) have led to various kinds of caricature. The post-Hobbesians paint a ridiculous Dances With Wolves-esque idyllic utopia — minus the inter-tribal warfare scenes — picture of the other side, and insist they are guilty of nostalgia and wishful thinking. This is of course compounded by New Age primitivists with their Back to Nature rhetoric. On the other hand, the post-Hobbesians are themselves painted as deluded apologists for progress; desperately trying to portray the past as hellish even as civilisation destroys the future.

Where Gyrus, characteristically, succeeds is by refusing to be taken in by the propaganda of either established camps and instead casting a genuinely critical eye over the claims of both. In doing so, I believe he likely comes as close to the truth of the matter as we’re going to get — given the difficulties involved in establishing facts when discussing prehistoric societies and/or modern indigenous societies prior to our contact with them.

War & The Noble Savage is accessible, educational and well-written enough to be described as entertaining. It serves as a fine rebuttal to the recent tendency to view the past through a Hobbesian lens while never succumbing to the seduction of nostalgia or primitivism. I’m pretty much going to insist that my few regular readers (and the rest of you too!) buy it (think of it as returning the favour for the excellent service I’ve been providing here for several years, ahem). It’s privately published and costs a paltry four pounds (including P&P… people outside the UK add a quid for postage). Even if this isn’t a subject that traditionally you’d be interested in (though you’ll be surprised at how relevant it is to all manner of other areas of debate), you should still buy it in order to support the kind of independent research and publishing that the author, and others, undertake.

Overall, War & The Noble Savage is an important contribution to an important debate. For those interested in an introduction to the subject (while you’re waiting for the book to be delievered) Gyrus has given some talks on this subject, one of which was recently turned into a Slidecast which you can listen to on his website for free.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews


9
Jan 2010

Bateson on ‘The Sacred’

Everyone who knows me is aware that I can be rather evangelical about the work of Gregory Bateson, and in particular about his collected essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. There are two reasons for this unabashed proselytizing.

Firstly, from a purely personal standpoint, when I first began to get my head around his work it was an incredibly satisfying experience. While I was certainly learning plenty of new ideas, much of it felt more like I was having long-held suspicions confirmed. A thousand things I’d been thinking about and grappling with — for the best part of 20 years — up until Bateson, they’d been like so many fragments of paper… each hinting at something beyond it, but something still unconscious and inaccessible. Steps to an Ecology of Mind didn’t tell me what it was. It just showed me that I didn’t have a random bunch of paper fragments; I had an unsolved jigsaw.

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The picture is almost always a little bigger than you imagine.

The second reason I spend so much time banging on about Bateson’s ideas is because I think they are incredibly important. I believe we are facing an imminent crisis arising from the unsustainable nature of our civilisation. Not only does Bateson offer us an incisive explanation of this crisis, he provides a perspective on it that I believe is invaluable should we wish to deal with it effectively.

Having said that, I often suspect I detect a tone in some of Bateson’s work that suggests he didn’t think we had a hope in hell of dealing with this crisis effectively. Not because we don’t have the necessary tools or wherewithal. But because we don’t have the vision. Our epistemology is savagely flawed.

I think my, shall we say… “Batesonian proselytizing” is an attempt to share that realisation. Or at least suggest to others that it’s there to be shared. Of course, when I thrust a copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind into someone’s hand, I’m immediately forced to launch into a lengthy explanation of how to read the book. It’s not Finnegans Wake or anything, but nor is it the easiest text to get into. And it’s very easy to get discouraged. I started reading it three times before it finally clicked with me. Though it’s worth pointing out that I never once considered not reading it after that first abortive attempt. You only need to spend an hour or so browsing Steps to an Ecology of Mind to know that there’s something valuable there.

Earlier today, I was listening to a talk Bateson gave in 1971 on the subject of The Sacred. It’s labelled “a lecture on Consciousness and Psychopathology” though his rambling, conversational style definitely puts it under the category “talk” rather than “lecture”. About halfway through, he muses:

There are things, you know, that people do… that just give one the shivers. They will put the potted plants on the radiator… and this is just bad biology. And I guess “bad biology” is, in the end, bad Buddhism… bad Zen… and an assault on The Sacred. And that, really, is what we’re trying to do; defend The Sacred from being put on the radiator in this sort of way.

Gregory Bateson | 1971 lecture on consciousness and psychopathology

This simple metaphor (much of the talk is about the necessity of bridging the gap between the metaphorical and the literal) sums up the challenge facing humanity today. It’s the very heart of Colin Tudge’s argument in the essential So Shall We Reap, for instance. It’s at the heart of the Climate Change debate and almost all environmental activism.

If you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, why not download and listen to the talk. It barely scratches the surface of Bateson’s work, and like his books can be a little opaque in places (in the sense that he’s discussing complex subjects that are by their nature rather difficult to discuss and often inhabit that fuzzy area where language has trouble finding a firm grip). Nonetheless it’s filled with wisdom, warmth, humour and genuine insight. And there’s not much about which that can be said.

Gregory Bateson: 1971 lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1) | (Part 2)

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion