Category Archives: daily observation

Covid, Climate, Culture and Change

It’s hard when you realise how much things are going to continue to change as Covid and climate breakdown become central in our world. But if looking at change and how humans cope with it isn’t a cultural task, then it’s hard to know what is. The changes that are upon us, and the changes that are to come, prompt some thoughts on the cultural realm as the climate crisis and the associated pandemic unfold across the human experience.

Most current commentaries have a direct focus on the role of electronic media (TV, radio, film, games). These perhaps find it easier to adjust, so I want to take a broader look. The digital world now exerts its presence across human experience, but by stressing what can and cannot be done online and at a distance, we sometimes forget to look at culture across more traditional categories and see how these categories may be affected by the changes now taking place in the social and economic landscape. Much of the surface worry is about who pays, who is paid, who controls and who innovates, but there are other areas that may feed into the discussion about our cultural future, and this will sometimes involve looking back at our cultural past.

Art and Art Galleries

Art galleries are based on the display of works paid for the very rich (rich people, states, religious bodies, companies and other organisations). They are made available for general viewing, for research, and to make a cultural statement about values and power. As the rich still seem to like to collect art, why not use this acquisitiveness and the vast unseen stockpiled resources of art museums to fund cultural activities and change? I would guess that the warehoused stock of artworks in the worlds museums (mostly never on public display) could, if judiciously put into the market, raise billions to fund the operations and development of the world’s art museums, and leverage a shift towards a less archival art museum culture. Rich people have the money, we (the state, the religions, the civil society institutions) have the art, so let’s make a deal.

For each 10 million raised from such sales (whether in dollars, euros or pounds) the funds could be split, say, as 2 million for upkeep of the museums, 2 million for capital investment, 2 million for education, 2 million for the purchase of artworks (to a maximum of 20,000 from current living artists thus providing a much needed boost to a struggling sector), and 2 million for public outreach in the form of more art classes for adults and children, getting people to do art, not just to consume it.

Putting the people who can pay back into the role of the people who do pay might put art museums nearer to the centre of making art and learning about art and wean them away from being institutions that reinforce the cultural value now given to highly priced and tradition bound objects.

Music and Performance

Music has long been created at either a grass roots level or in response to commissions from rich people, states, or religious bodies. If these groups are reluctant to pay taxes to fund these activities, why not encourage them to commission private concerts for friends and family? This could be done alongside a provision to licence live streamed and packaged musical packages for other audiences, or perhaps include distanced ‘viewing’ or ‘listening’ by the masses, across a valley, a river or some other suitable barrier acceptable to both the rich and poor. Soccer and other sports are forging the way in developing new economic models like this and these models may be usefully adapted for cultural performances.

Can more venues be connected, making smaller audiences more viable by aggregating them? This works online, but what about less centralised, less formal networking, through, say, mass usage of smartphones to stream performances from innumerable personal viewpoints, viewable by all, in random creative order. Could this generate income? Someone will work out a way and that income could be shared with people organising personal local performance by musicians, choirs, music groups, and this could encompass both offline and online collaborations.

One of the sectors seen as most under threat is that of live theatre, where the economic model is based on high income from seat sales, something impossible with social distancing. What new models could be available? Again it could be select private performance – the visiting band of actors perhaps, harking back to Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream – financed for the benefit of a small personal or corporate elite, thus retaining the services of costume, lighting, special effects. To this could be added a more structured and better funded system of streamed performance, something that did not just seek to extend a stage performance to a screen, but which, building on models like that of Creation Theatre’s recent Zoom Tempest, made a new dramatic event for a broader audience.

Words and Texts

Some books, publishers and booksellers have done well in the times of crisis, others not so well. Writers and illustrators may also have done badly, but this might encourage them and us to look for new ways of sharing the writing and circulation of texts and images. Why not add the value of sharing to the creative outputs, not just by the add-ons of appearances, podcasts, audiobooks and customisation, but by sharing acts across individuals and groups.  This could including reading aloud, listening, gathering to hear each others’ voices, see each others’ visual representations of stories, and participate in enactments of favourite scenes and tableaux. Add these experiences to some other kinds of performance and this could see a reawakening of total artworks that do not rely solely on technology to attract audiences, or funding. Perhaps, if you build it people will come.

Publishers, booksellers, writers and illustrators might expand their roles and become both a basis for and evidence of co-creation and sharing, balancing and reconciling solitary and communal livelihoods. People might be encouraged to memorise more, not just as a Fahrenheit 451 security device, but as a way of internalising words and stories in a way that digital media do not encourage. Children and older people could all (re)learn the pleasure of internalising narratives, something that has only recently been lost from human culture. This may be particularly true for poetry and song, where reading and singing aloud, listening, new writing, experimentation and mixing of words, music and actions are part of a long tradition stretching through market performances, dada events, poetry slams and surrealist happenings. Let’s see more of this develop within the new constraints of the pandemic, breaking away from conventions of what a poetry or music event should be.

Makers will Make, Everyone an Audience

Cultural participation is more than Morris dancing or Instagram, more than Glastonbury or the Proms, more than visiting a bookshop or a library, more than doodling or messing about on the piano. It is these things, but it is best seen as doing them with purpose, with a desire to create a new thing or event, rather than seeing culture as a pastime or, more stuffily, as the guardian of tradition and accepted form. Creative culture always shows the desire to support others who are themselves creating. It is the basis of the freedom to be critical, and reinforces the good will that respects others who are creating in good faith. It is heart and soul, and the heart and soul of everyone you meet. As such, cultural participation is not tolerance of others, it is belonging with others; it is not a result of the division of diversity but an awareness the richness of difference. As such it can engage with all aspects of our lives, and in these times it must.

Language

Another area, so often overlooked in a world where commerce, politics and scientific endeavour are conducted in so few ‘world’ languages, is that of language. So much culture is tied up with language and yet in many societies monolingual culture predominates. We need to exploit the extent to which bandwidth can now handle multilingual culture, transmit messages in all our human languages and abandon the current hierarchy in which languages are maintained by market-driven creation and dissemination. The electronic media are now mostly limited to their language ghettos but they can and must be restructured to enable and encourage language variety, familiarity, experimentation and mixing. The human voice and human writing are the record of our diversity and that diversity cannot be treasured through one language, one creole, or one standard of understanding.

How can languages be liberated? By encouraging and enabling their use by everyone who can or wishes to use them, and that means any language they have or find at hand; by exposure through listening and reading different languages and, however imperfectly, using those languages to utter unusual and novel thoughts; by trusting to words to tell the truth when truthful people use them and distrusting even the most polished word of the untrustworthy.

Cultural Communications

Culture is communication, and it can provide what the new circumstances demand: new kinds of communication – digital, analog, haptic, local, distributed, formal, informal, in all different media that may or may not have a centre or be near one. Imagine the different network capabilities of an older technology like the radio, transformed into a multidirectional method of transmission and reception, not mimicking digital communication, but developing on the back of its analog history a communication of unlikely interface, provocative interference and surprise appearances.

We have become seduced by the chimera of rapid communication, without realising that what is rapid may be less communicative and what is slower may contain a more weighty message. Communications can be slow, they do not need to be instantaneous. The letter, or the planned telephone call (given time by both parties), the considered communication, these all lie at the heart of any cultural exchange worth the candle. Moving some way back towards the text and to the sound of voices over private networks will help to re-humanise cultural communications and correspondence.

Culture does not always benefit from constant and consecutive communication (the your go/my go text message exchanges over the tennis net of the smartphone screen). Personal messages sent from the point of view of the writer/creator can be sent without always having the receiver/reader in mind, they can allow thoughts time to settle, and give time for consideration and measured response. Letters – yes, letters sent through the postal system while we still have it – provide a useful sense of separation that is in contrast to the forced togetherness of the phone and the staccato mix of chumminess and urgency of the electronic message. Culture, art and creativity can benefit from separation, with considered communication coming at the right time.

If cultural events, creations, and communications are to take this opportunity to morph with meaning as the world adapts to increasingly critical changes in the things that affect our physical, mental and social wellbeing, then our cultural life may well need to work harder to fight the general social and political urging to return to a status quo ante to which there can in reality be no return. Now is the time for those concerned with such things to subvert inequalities; use the unbalanced nature of society as if in a martial art, using the weight and power of the dominant to unseat and unbalance their control over cultural life; move away from any idea of culture as a consumable, something that can be monetised, used up, rationed and owned; and develop new modes of creation and communication that use both old and new technologies in their place to help us work through the mess that we are in and from which we must escape or perish.

Use the market where it works, but be ruthless in exploiting the weaknesses and vanities of the rich and powerful; share in all directions, eliminate the hierarchical nature of current digital sharing and make each smallest network member as empowered as the next; encourage giving, or gifting, and give culture value by making it free to all; discourage central ownership of amassed artefacts and all the associated interpretations, memories, creative tools, sites of creation, copies and copyrights, ideas of acceptability, propriety, and standing.

This is just a beginning. The cultural world is experiencing many difficulties in this pandemic, coming as it does at the start of the climate breakdown, as Brexit turmoil becomes more acute, and as political institutions thought the world are under extreme strain from renegade leaders. It is no good trying to ‘save’ culture, thinking that governments have any interest in anything that isn’t purely economic or geared to their certain concept of ‘security’. This is a time for cultural rethink, and one for which we all now have the time, whether we want it or not – time to spend on exciting and innovative change. This is the time to act. There is no ‘normal’ to return to. There never was.

Coronavirus haiku

You will stay alive

Through the spring and the summer

Winter will wake you

Let’s have a climate-friendly, pandemic-proof book fair in Europe in 2021

As London Book Fair joins Paris and Leipzig in cancelling its annual March shindig, it’s clear that the days of the greenhouse gas book fair are over, so let’s see this as the opportunity to create a new kind of publishing gathering.

What about taking all the energy and enthusiasm and using it to create a new kind of European publishing meeting in the digital space?  At last, here is a chance to show how publishing can use the opportunities presented by e-creation and e-commerce not just to add to the older models of publishing, but to develop a new meeting ground for publishers from throughout Europe and the world.

Are publishers and other book professionals ready to rise to this challenge? I hope so, for the sake of publishing and for the future of the world in this time of climate emergency.

 

Beyond 31st January 2020

The UK looks set to leave the European Union at the end of this week and it is unlikely to join again in my lifetime. It’s a time for a short reflection and a few observations.

First, when it comes to nationality, Brexit has not made me feel more British, or more English or, in fact, more European. It has not actually changed my view of myself much at all. I stand by the remarks I made at the time of the referendum.

Secondly, Brexit has not changed my views of the people who engage in politics, or those who are responsible for the management of major corporations or large institutions. As before, I consider them to be almost exclusively self-regarding, self-seeking, self-important chancers who make decisions to benefit themselves and people like them. I will never understand how we let them get away with it.

Really it seems that Brexit is not really any sort of change at all. On 1st February 2020 Britain will remain a place where inequality, prejudice, ignorance and superciliousness rule in equal measure. If Brexit has not changed my view of myself or of the country, has it changed anything?

The answer, I think, is yes. The way in which British politics have been conducted in past four years, since the time the referendum campaigns began, has helped us to see that political, social and material progress are chimeras. We are not just in a fake news post-fact world; we have reached a different end of history; we are in a post-progress world. Liberalism, democracy – whatever you call it – does not triumph; it damages both human society and the natural world. The bad guys win, again. The rest lose, again. The very idea of progress, the scale of the destruction, is now killing us, all of us.

At the heart of both the Brexit blip and of the far more important climate and ecological disaster is a history of selfishness, and systematic social, racial and gender inequity. It seems unlikely that there will be any coming together, except in the titanic clash of ideologies and sensibilities, in a struggle that will be determined by a straight division of the good, the bad and the ugly.

In the year 2020 and the coming decade Brexit will mean that some will make money, while many will lose livelihoods, homes, health and life itself. In these same years the far greater losses created by climate change will be shared by us all, as droughts, floods, pandemics, wars, crop failures and poisonous air take their toll of human, animal, plant and microbial life around the world.

This decade is important and we need to treat it that way and get on with the job of preserving what we can, as soon as we can, in any way we can. Those who want to work with others in Europe will continue to do so, and will get strength from that. Brexit will not stop us doing what is necessary.

Holiday Reading

Each time I go on holiday I take along some of the books I’ve bought in recent years but not read, and this year two of the items in the bag spoke of the current British predicament.

On the one hand I have the first three volumes of The Forsyte Saga telling me something about how we got into the mess we are now in (English entitlement, financial chicanery, war and property bubbles), while on the other, Futures and Fictions (a mix of essays and conversations published around the time of Mark Fisher’s death in 2017) offers some pointers of where we may need to go next.

Futures and Fictions contains seventeen contributions, and five stand out in my reading.

*1*

In Stages, Plots and Traumas by Robin Mackay, plot is a many headed term.

It is immediately obvious that “plot” is a semantically rich word. Perhaps uppermost for us is plot in the sense of narrative, but not far behind it would come the conspiratorial sense of the word – the manipulation of affairs by some shady agent or agents behind the scenes. Also current, if less prominent, we find the senses of “plot” as territorial (a plot of land), graphic (plotting a graph), and geometric or projective (plotting one space into another).

The essay talks about how plotting devices (specifically the visual threading of various pictorial and topographical evidence in many TV and movie detective dramas) do not always provide the proof they pretend to, and Mackay stresses the way in which unexpected interventions are often necessary to ‘solve’ various mysteries, either in fictions, dramas or in a psychoanalytic examination. What is shown in any graphic plotting rarely reveals the actual ‘plot’.  It is what happens behind the scenes that is often more vital in the investigation.

The dice are always loaded; continual navigation and reorientation is inevitable.  The essential tool of the detective and the therapist alike are the scalpel and the compass.

This seems like good advice to someone trying, at a distance, to make sense of the world today.

*2*

The second of the pieces to catch my attention is a conversation between Judy Thorne and Mark Fisher about his ideas on ‘Luxury Communism’, the idea that it is already possible for everyone to have enough to lead a fulfilling life if only capitalism didn’t stand in the way.

Positing something like luxury communism as a positive goal means that we can start to see capitalism a force of resistance and obstruction,’ says Fisher. ‘It is only unrealistic from the point of view of a system which cannot be sustained, and which is prepared to risk everything in order to preserve its own fantasies.’

The politics that stresses austerity for some while promoting deregulated wealth for the others is a block to human wellbeing. We all know this, but are not sure what to do about it.

*3*

A later essay may help. In Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation – Labioria Cuboniks tells us that ‘XF rejects illusion and melancholy as political inhibitors’.

The illusion that XF rejects is ‘the blind presumption that the weak can prevail over the strong with no strategic coordination,’ while ‘the malady of melancholia only compounds political inertia, and – under the guise of being realistic – relinquishes all hope of calibrating the world otherwise.

The message might be ‘don’t get mad, organise,’ and do this by a ‘transformation of deliberate construction, seeking to submerge the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in a sea of procedures that soften its shell and dismantle its defences, so as to build a new world from the scraps.’

Things – politically, socially, environmentally – are now at the stage where everything has to change if we are to hope for survival.

*4*

Theo Reeves-Evison’s Surface Fictions points to a world where the meaning of artefacts and artworks may ‘no longer hinge on a straightforward opposition between interior Truth and exterior fiction. In fact, they may not conceal an interior at all. They allow us to see that the surface itself has depth, and that it is only through fiction, understood as an additive process of layering, that we can understand and shape deception’s deception.’

Alternate facts and fake news are textured, and if we know how to look we can betray the architecture of their construction.  We need to learn new ways of looking to ‘see through’ the deceptions.

*5*

Which brings us to the only actual fiction of the collection, a story by Ursula K. Le Guin entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Omelas is a utopia of sorts – ‘like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.’

There is only one dark spot, and this dark spot makes all the rest possible for the happy people of Omelas whose ‘tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.’ Some, however, when they see this reality, leave Omelas.

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead in the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Who stays? Who walks away? Where can they (we) go? Is there another destination, another outcome to our local, international and global conundrum of political disruption and climate chaos?

When they leave Omelas, some people ‘seem to know where they are going’.

Relaxing with my holiday reading, trying to take a break in the sun, do I?

Climate Haiku (France, June 2019)

I
Sucking out water
Spray the aquifer on crops
Drought is coming soon

II
Medieval clothes
Conjuring and magic tricks
No thought of Black Death

III
Water to swim in
Tumbles from springs and snow melt
Leaving rocky peaks

IV
Birds moving in trees
Ring doves flying together
No other thing stirs

V
Transhumance beasts move
Baaing and dull bells ringing
Up to fresh pasture

VI
Stony mountain mist
No worry in beating rain
Dry later and hot

VII
Raining for twelve hours
Owl hooting in the pauses
Sunny briefly cooler

VIII
Watch brown squirrel climb
Claws on bark like gnawing sound
Up in the pine tree

IX
Rumbling grey sky
Thunder or high flying thing
Closer and louder

X
Three hill horizons
Cresting together in cloud
Changes will come soon

XI
Full moon fathers’ day
First waxing and waning then
Waning and waxing

XII
Bright sweet tomatoes
Soft hairs on yellow courgettes
Dirty garlic heads

XIII
Bark of the olive tree
Cracked like a river bed
Liquid under it

XIV
One hornet buzzing
Nearer then further away
Changes summer’s sound

XV
Flies are bothersome
On the skin and in the air
Bringing more disease

XVI
Hands come together
Mountain top recedes in rain
Run for the shelter

XVII
My seventy-first
Longest day dawning cool blue
Short night approaches

XVIII
Here comes canicule
Red on maps and voices shrill
Can’t block burning sun

XIX
Repeating food names
Staving off hungry meaning
Fuller but still starved

XX
Heavy atmosphere
Over expanding waters
Closing over life

Twitter threads

Twitter threads are a new sort of writing 1/10

They come in different forms 2/10

They may be used to cover a topic succinctly and in a strict logical order 3/10

Or they may be vague and rambling 4/10

Often they have many of the characteristics of listicles 5/10

If they are numbered you can see that all the tweets have been written before the first one is tweeted 6/10

If the numbering system goes awry it looks as if they are more spontaneous 7/10

A twitter thread can be turned into a blog post 8/10

It can even be printed out, published as a small pamphlet or as part of an anthology 9/10

If you want to preserve a twitter thread you can keep a screen print of the whole thread 10/10

 

Thinking in Extremes

An exhibition called Benjamin und Brecht/Denken in Extremen officially opens at seven o’clock this evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It draws material from the Walter Benjamin Archive and the Bertolt Brecht Archive, both housed at the Akademie der Künste, and, according to the website blurb, it includes key documents illustrating the pivotal and conflictual points in the relationship between the two men.

Publicity for the exhibition bears the famous picture of the chess game under the knorrigen Birnbaum in the garden of the house at Skovsbostrand in Svendborg where Brecht lived in exile, itself a potent symbol of the mix of collaboration and conflict in the relationhip. The pear tree is gone now and I believe I am one of the last people to have seen it. I shall explain.

I stayed at the Svendborg Brechthuset in May 2014, and on the last day of my visit the trustee and a friend were tidying up the garden. They decided that the old tree was beyond saving and the time had come to cut it down. This happened quickly and the trunk and few remaining branches were sawn up into logs for the next winter’s fire. Some of the more rotten pieces were thrown on a pile to rot down for compost. I asked if I might save a small bit of branch from the tree, and they agreed, and then moved on to other tasks required in the early Danish summer.

Perhaps a piece of the tree would add to the narrative and, if so, I would be happy to provide one as a late addition to the exhibition. I do not know what this small object would add to the story, but I do know that on that day in May 2014 I felt very strongly that the ending of that tree was a significant event. It felt like a final sign of the passing of the twentieth century and the start of a new era, though one in which the thoughts that prospered under that pear tree might still provided memories, myths and methodologies useful in the coming extreme times.

Brecht mentions the Birnbaum in Naturgedichte I, a poem that ends by reminding us that in some circumstances it is a good idea to live in houses with several exits. Benjamin and Brecht knew this only too well as, sadly, do so many others in our own times.

Hat das kleine Haus wohl im ganzen drei Ausgänge.
Das ist gut für Bewohner, die gegen das Unrecht sind
Und von der Polizei geholt werden können.

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Showing the D-Day spirit on 1st April 2019

Brexit reminds me of D-Day, not the invasion of Europe in 1944, but Decimal Day on 15th February 1971, the day when Britain said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence.

I was in Norwich at the time and spent the Saturday before in a pub, where an official was drowning his sorrows. His task for the day had been to make sure that all the traders on Norwich market were ready for the switchover and he told the story of one old boy who didn’t seem to have heard of the new currency. The man had asked when this change was going to happen, and when he was told it was in two days time, on Monday, he sighed in relief. “That’s alright then,” he said. “I don’t open Monday.”

Will it be like this on Brexit Day?

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