Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The National Health Service?

You feel mildly unwell and attend the doctor for her opinion. She takes a blood sample so that a complete blood test can be done. A few days later, you are asked by the secretary at your medical clinic to make an appointment for one of the next ten days, so that another blood sample can be taken and another complete blood test done. She is not able to explain why this is necessary, but only reads the doctor's note, which states nothing more than that another test is required within that duration of time. You attend the clinic again the following week, and this time meet a nurse who reads from a screen that a blood sample is to be taken in order to be sent for a complete blood test and that this is a repeat procedure because some readings from the last blood test were "borderline." She is not able to tell which readings were "borderline," nor, therefore, what problem may or may not be at issue. Blood is taken and you are asked to ring for the results in two days' time. You do, to be told by the secretary that the doctor has noted "No further action required" next to your name.

Emma's Mr. Woodhouse is badly served by the history of Austen appreciation, summarily dispatched as a prosing hypochondriac, a caricature background for the protagonist's domestic life. He is all absorbing interest in draughts, and gruel, and the dampness of the dew and the oppressiveness of the summer sun. He objects, though always mildly, to the late nights and rich food in which his neighbours indulge and battles to reconcile his sense of hospitality with a grave concern at his guests' propensity to eat the oysters handed round by his servants. But the fact that only Mr. Woodhouse shares with Mr. Knightley the distinction of having judged correctly of the "not quite the thing"-ness of Frank Churchill's character before, towards the end of the novel, it is revealed for everyone to see, might give pause to his too hasty dispatch; Mr. Woodhouse may be dull and wordy, he may be over-gentle and unadventurous, but this effective semi-retirement from the social world does provide him with a certain perspective, which facilitates his withstanding the storm of Frank Churchill's brisk manners and involving humour to see the man's character for what it really is. And this perpective also gives Mr. Woodhouse what we might do well to think of, less as an irrational hypochondria and more as an attentiveness to his and others' wellbeing, less as the constant imagining of illness, actual, remembered, or imminent, and more accurately as a disposition towards health. What we have in Mr. Woodhouse, we might consider, is: an example of the experience of and care for health; a demonstration of a mode of attentiveness that has no real object - only illness, for the most part, manifests itself objectively - and no real end - there is no "cure" for health - and so can never be finished with; a kind of knowledge - of health, that one is healthy - that is also a way of life. If Mr. Woodhouse is a caricature, then, it is of a life lived for health, and not a life lived in illness.

This relatively minor point of interest with regard to interpretations of Emma has a surprising significance for the quality of our lives. It shows us that our National Health Service is, in fact, our National Illness Service; unless our experience of living congeals into a "case" of something, unless there emerges an object to be named and treated, there is "no further action required." Anything on the other side of the "borderline" - that is, all those endemic but undramatic conditions, of anaemia, depression, anxiety, excema, and so on, which affect the quality of our lives more even than we ourselves are able to know (we are no Mr. Woodhouses after all) - anything that might impact on that enigmatic experience that is the experience of health, is of almost no concern. Perhaps there would be nothing wrong with this in itself - after all, it is comforting to think that there is a National Illness Service, for illnesses are common and need to be treated - except that at its frontline is a set of professionals - the General Practitioners - whose title indicates that they would be much better placed in a National Health Service rather than a National Illness Service, so that the general character of the experience of health, or lack thereof, and the in-practice nature of the work required to understand and improve this experience, is not undermined by the expectation that only that which can be tightly specified and, ideally, automatically treated is worth attending to.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Pin Your Colours To A Mast

William Morris advised: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." How much better had he said: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful." After all, it is the separation of use from beauty, being raised to a principle of existence around his time and, by ours, so embedded as to be the central regulator of our experience and of our capacity to imagine outside of it, that Morris dedicated his time and his talents to protest against; for him, the idea that orientation towards an end reduces an object, a labour, a person to a mere means was alienating in the extreme, and the idea that beauty is, if not anathema to utility, then at least utterly indifferent to it, was artificial in the extreme. Alienation and artificiality: the pincer movement of modern life; how nice it would have been had Morris given us a slogan to rally round in our efforts to raill against it. For the want of a word, the slogan was lost; for the want of a slogan the battle was lost...and all for the want of a word...

But slogans are very passe these days; we've so outgrown them, what with their seeming to reduce complex programmes to a single dimension and their expectation that the blood in men's veins, and not just the brains in their heads, are conscripted to fight for the cause. No, we've grown too civilised for such things, too open-minded, too tolerant, too liberal. Not for us the bitesize mouthful of the catch-phrase; we're far too busy listening to alternative perspectives, gathering and collating various points of view, negotiating with others and accommodating those who disagree, far too engaged in sorting through the fusion of flavours on our plate, too involved in anticipating each one on its own, and in company with combinations of the others, to ever be reduced to actually taking a bite. As Lord Byron used to do when women were eating their meals, at the thought of a slogan to get behind we take our urbane sensibilities and leave the room in disgust: that women should be so beastly, that free and educated people should be so committed.

For it is the mark of a truly liberal democracy, that it is so permissive of different views, so non-committal, that it becomes difficult actually to hold a view, actually to commit: first, because there seems nothing against which to define one's view or commitment and, second - which is really the first reason, another way around - because to hold a view or to have a commitment in any manner that stands out, that would define itself, is to show an unacceptable intolerance of everybody else, is to be unreasonably aggressive. Not only this: in fact, to be anything becomes an increasing impossiblity, as the option to become changed as a person by what one does - to become, to really become, a baker, or a housewife, or a doctor, in a manner that strikes to the core of one's identity and is not simply a means to another of those ends we are everywhere told are so worthwhile to pursue - begins to stand out as itself also an act of agression. To be a teacher is now defined by the fulfilment of certain standards (and there are so many of them), imposed externally to define what it is to be a teacher; that one would actually be a teacher, live as one, think as one, act as one, that one would be what one is, is now unnecessary, excessive, belligerantly unnecessary and excessive. Today, we are all transferable skills and no true learning, all open education and no real knowledge, all the better to be formed as adaptable, multifunctional, instruments of the system with no resources to question our condition.

Set against this trend the practice of what Aristotle named as "the stochastic arts," defined by the relative independence of excellence in them from what might be thought of as "success" at them. Such an art is the art of medicine, or of teaching, or of childrearing, where wisdom gained from practice is not necessarily undermined by the death of a patient, the failure of a student, or the immorality of a child. In these arts - and, if we are sensitive to the contingencies of context and the indeterminacy of human existence more generally, they might profitably begin to be seen as exemplary of many more practices: cooking for company, plumbing old houses, the law, tax consultancy for small and medium sized businesses, trading in second-hand goods, etc. - inheres a direct challenge to the increasing alienation and artificiality of existence against which Morris sought to protest, for their end is not only difficult to define as an object apart from their processual realisation, but is, if defined for the sake of argument, not actually determining of excellence or otherwise in the field. In these arts, in short, is exemplified a kind of knowing that is also a kind of "feeling for," a kind of usefulness in which the aesthetic considerations of appropriateness, fittingness, measuredness, moderation, of balance, symmetry, timeliness, of beauty, are central: not merely ornamental or decorative, not of secondary consideration and dispensable, not submissive to ends, nor excessive, but actually constitutive of truth, of knowledge, of right. And by these arts is exhibited a kind of "feeling for" the rightness, the appropriateness, the fittingness, of an object, a method, a procedure, a way of doing, that has utility as integral, a kind of beauty that has use at its core.

At stake in the challenge posed by stochasticism to the transferable skills of a society given over to the realisation of certain ends, is not only the nature of work, then, but also the nature of play, that is, the manner in which those activities that are not regarded by us as ends oriented, nevertheless do, in our society, function within the means-end paradigm of modern living. Foucault's brief genealogies of literature, dotted sporadically around his much more fulsome genealogies of other modern institutions, would trace its provenance to the Rennaissance practice of making linkages between words and things that do not presuppose that "reality" is tied only to the latter, of ranging between language and world in a manner that does not distinguish between them by allowing all the force of truth to one and only the effect of representing truth to the other. In our world of means and ends, Foucault always implies, literature stands firm as that realm in which words continue to have virtues and vices of their own, in which combinations of words, in which phrases and their rhythms, retain the power they had in former times and are effective in themselves, and not just insofar as they point us to something else.

But Foucault misses the point that Morris was so persistent, but so far ineffective, in making: the literary use of language, of the materials of art more generally, the literary life even, which Foucault looks to as a stay upon the separation of means from ends that is the premiss of modern living, is not quite the refuge he thinks it, for it is in fact the symptom of a trauma which Foucault then looks to it to cure. Rennaissance times, as Foucault himself describes them, did not have literature. Why? Because life was "literary" and "literature" was life; the poverty of this description merely reflects the extent to which, by now, our language will not describe the fusion of the functional and the aesthetic, the purposeful and the beautiful, from the dissassociation of which it has emerged. The world was an aesthetic resonance chamber in which handkerchiefs were embroidered with lace and medical treatments bore similarities to the parts of the body they were used to cure. To look now to art, to literature, as in some sense a return to these times and a defiance of instrumentalisation is to look to that whose condition of possibility is this very instrumentalisation. Art, literature, has emerged precisely as the other side of functionality's coin; it is far from demonstrating the fusion of means and ends because it is defined as that which has no end. Art is for nothing; we may retreat to it for some ease from a constant pressure to fulfill given purposes, we may feel for it all the enthusiasm of one at last on a long-awaited and much-needed holiday, but we cannot, then, by definition, have it inform the conditions of our everyday existence. It may ease our pain, relax our bones, and provide us with a temporary escape, but it cannot change our lives.

And all of what we call avant-garde activity, all of art's radical critique, has operated only to exacerbate this situation. For art has directed its critical skills, not to the questioning of its condition as useless, but to questioning the conditions of uselessness: the constitution of art was achieved, by the eighteenth century, as the identification of the conditions necessary for purposelessness; the avant garde has operated to question the supposed necessity of one after another of these conditions - traditional perspectivism is not necessary, line is not necessary, colour is not necessary, the canvas is not necessary, an object is not necessary, an artist is not necessary, and so on and so on - but it has never operated to question its condition as purposeless. Because in purposelessness, in uselessness, lies the condition of its very existence, and it is interested in perpetuating that, at the very least. And so avant-garde activity operates as a useful device for letting off steam, for channelling the frustrations of an over-functionalised existence into a mode of critique that is, by definition, without function; it is a good playground for those who need time off from lives that can never be realised because they must always be ready to be for something else.

The revolution, then, will not look like we expect it to: it will not arise from the occupation of fine arts buildings on university campuses, or from lengthy meetings to resolve the various interests of the various interest groups, or from a melee of posters on which everyone's message is given a right to be seen and be heard. This is far too liberal, far too open, far too purposeless a mode of activity to issue any kind of serious threat to the simultaneous underdetermination and overdetermination of modern life. Far better to knit a jumper and then wear it, or knead some bread and then eat it, or learn to teach and then try your best to be it, or invent a slogan and get behind it. Pin your colours to a mast and do it so tightly that to take them off again becomes all but unimaginable. There's risk in this, no doubt. The colours might be the wrong ones or the mast not, after all, that strong. But these things may be worked on along the way, and, at any rate, it is for the most part better to be wrong than forever transferable.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Kettled and Scuttled

Student protests in England were this week treated to the recent enthusiasm of democratic governments for what is called "kettling," that is, for the police practice of shepherding protestors into a designated public space, there to spend the chief of their anger in relative containment. Much shock and outrage has been expressed at the undemocratic nature of this procedure, seeming as it does to restrict the right to freedom of speech and movement that is supposed to be a founding principle of democracy. What goes unnoticed, however, and partly because of the outlet for outrage provided by the very marginal constitutionality of kettling, is the extent to which protest is, in a general way, kettled by liberal democracies whose tolerance for protest works to make protest effectively impossible. If one feels bemused at the manner in which the fervour of protests against the invasion of Iraq or, in this case, against the removal of the cap on student fees, is followed, as night follows day, by an almost total apathy, certainly by no further action or "protest," one might reflect on the fact that a political regime built on the toleration of different viewpoints is in this sense highly pernicious: it is impossible to criticise it without supporting it, impossible to protest against it without buttressing it. A politics of tolerance fulfils itself most completely, is justified most totally, in the performance of its tolerance towards opinions directed in protest against itself; the more powerful the criticism, the more jusified the regime; the louder the protest, the more secure the establishment. A more thorough kettling is impossible to imagine. What is interesting, however, is that in this context the small-scale kettling of students two days ago is the nearest we have come to real protest, in that it reifies the endemic kettling of a liberal democratic state in a way that no amount of free-ranging marching about Whitehall could achieve. In being kettled, the students' protest became effective in a manner that it never could have on its own. Which leads one to think that the practice of kettling will not longer be employed by liberal democratic governments, who will no doubt justify its relinquishment on the grounds of its removal of the right to protest...

...but we can turn to find that this very same equation regulates the matter that the students were protesting about: the future rise in student fees. Students are angry that, from now on, they will have to pay more for their education and that they will spend many years in more debt than they do now. Here again, the students are being kettled, herded into a small space and made to feel outrage at it, when there is a much graver herding, a much more general kettling, going on, unseen, all around. For the issue of what students pay for their education, the concern being felt that they will be made to pay too much, provides a useful defusing of what out to be outrage at the extent to which, irrespective of how much they pay, students in England are not being educated at all. Here is another exerpt from "The Browne Report":
Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On
graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy
higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to
move from one job to the next. Participation in higher education enables
individuals from low income backgrounds and then their families to enter higher
status jobs and increase their earnings. Graduates enjoy substantial health
benefits – a reduced likelihood of smoking, and lower instances of obesity and
depression. They are less likely to be involved in crime, more likely to be
actively engaged with their children’s education and more likely to be active in
their communities.

Again, the naivite of a Browne who gives not a nod to the fact that the socio-economic conditions that make people more likely to participate in higher education are also those that make them less likely to be obese or commit a crime, the fact that participation in higher education is an effect of money and class much more than it is of some simplistic notion of aspiration and choice, must be glossed over for the moment, in order that we give due attention to the manner in which what is termed "higher education" in this excerpt is defined implicitly as "higher education to..." realise certain goals, the goals of money, status, physical and mental stability, and children who will want money, status, and so on. The idea that education, real education, true education, "higher" education, ought to teach people to identify and pursue their own goals, to identify and pursue the guiding principles of their own lives, to work out what the good life is and to learn to live it and to justify it to others, evidently is not one that Browne understands, and, given that the government has announced that it is to take on board the recommendations of the Browne report, not one in which our government is interested either. No, in England at least, one is "educated" in order to fulfil the life to which one is assigned, in order to submit to the demands of capital, in order to be obedient, in order to get into debt and spend a lifetime repaying it, in order to contain one's mental life within the parameters of "normality" and one's girth to 34". In England, education is kettling on a grand scale; that it requires the intermittent apparently draconian measure as an outlet for the steam of a populace that would otherwise explode with containment is in the nature of things, and resultant in nothing more than the whistling of an orderly kettle, boiling away to make a pot of good English tea.

But, if "education" is kettling, it is a kettling far more serious than any other, for it kettles the very skills that we require to identify and to question our kettlings. It is, in fact, more like a scuttling than a kettling, for we are left, after an English "higher" "education", as emptier vessels than we were beforehand, with nothing much more than water between our ears.

There may be an interesting post script to this, however: if the rise in student fees really does have the effect of preventing quantities of people from attending university, the resulting diminishment in the government's effectiveness in thoroughly kettling its population may eventually produce a reversal of government policy so as to make "education" once more more affordable. If so, the reversal will no doubt be advertised as the government's acknowledgment that a "higher" "education" is something that none of its citizens should be made to do without...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Pigs Will Fly

The Browne report confirms a trend long in the emergence: the commodification of learning and the elevation of "student satisfaction" to the standard of educational success:
Higher education in England has a reputation for high quality. Student satisfaction is high, high enough that England is one of the four countries in the world that feels able to survey students and publish the results. But the system should not be complacent about quality. Student satisfaction has not improved significantly in recent years.
Leaving aside the hopeless myopia of a Lord Browne who cannot see to consider the possibility that only four countries in the world are misguided enough to judge the sense of satisfaction of students as an appropriate measure of the quality of their education, it is strange that, in a country whose famous philosopher's most famous words warn us to prefer to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig, the grotesque equation of satisfaction with learning continues to flourish unchecked. Since ancient times, it has been accepted that the price of a true education is precisely the comforting sense that our needs are being satisfied, that we are provided with all we could wish for, that nothing else remains to be done. Socrates was known as the gadfly, that tiny, persistent and deeply dissatisfying insect that drives the animals it preys upon to a constant changing of position, swishing of tail and general hunt for another kind of life. That, for Socrates, was what true education involves: a never-ending needling, a persistent sense of unease, a constant searching for a better place than this one, for a truer time than now.

But Socrates was put to death, and, since then, all gadflies have been gradually banished, so that educators, as they are still called, are more like the masseur than the gadfly, smoothing away what remains of human pain at what we have and human ache for something better, oiling us up so that our cog doesn't stick the machine. But Browne, like the machine he serves, is subject to an endemic absurdity: he must see more and more satisfaction, just as the machine must make more and more profit; to plateau, even to improve "insignificantly," is to fail. And so he commits our education system to cranking itself up again so that students feel more satisfied, and then cranking itself up again so that students feel more satisfied, and on and on and on. Even the sky's no limit, so pigs will fly but then they must go into orbit.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Don't Laugh in Bed

There is a stock device of comedy which juxtaposes the precautions usually taken by, say, householders to protect their property, with the success sometimes wrought by the one who, rather than erect his defences, goes out to meet the intruder with such an unexpected degree of alacrity, with such oddity and force, that the tables are turned and the intruder scampers off with great speed and in high dudgeon at the indignity that his attempt at crime has just suffered. For an offensive enthusiasm can, on some occasions, function better than anything else to vanquish our would-be assailants; and it is, in the main, a funnier prospect than the other option.

And this, it turns out, is the principle behind that quintessentially British humour that seems never to outgrow what, in other cultures, remains a largely teenage phenomenon: delight, almost hysteria, at references to sex. Take Bridget Jones: a "loose" remake of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, both in the sense of bearing an only shadowy resemblance to the earlier work, and in the sense that its greatest departure is probably constituted by the altogether less uptight antics of its characters and the generally indulgent attitude to sexual behaviour of the society it portrays. It is cut through and through with would-be humorous episodes and observations concerning, for the most part, something on the theme of sex: Bridget hasn't had any for a while; Bridget played naked in Darcy's paddling pool when young; Bridget is stared at in a deliberate manner by Mr. "Titspervert"; Bridget indulges in what is still an illegal sexual practice in Britain; Bridget's uncle, who is not her uncle, enjoys placing his hand on her behind; and so on it goes, involving not just Bridget, but all its characters, in what are intended to be funny conversations and situations of a softly sexual nature. And then, we remember Austen's Elizabeth, patently not given to engaging in any such conversations or situations, and thereby, in contrast with her modern-day counterpart, revealed to be altogether repressed.

So we might think. And so we would be very wrong. Austen's characters and their society certainly do seem to have had the most wonderfully complex ways of hiding from sex in all its forms - the fact that Pride and Prejudice's Lydia must, in preparation for her marriage but subequent to having already eloped, remain with her uncle rather than returning to her father's house is one very ordinary example of this - but Bridget and her lot are just the same. For the British association of sex with humour is the contemporary equivalent of what we now identify as the Victorian assocation of sex with sin. Bridget actually laughs in bed, while having sex, which is about as likely (arguably, far less likely) to contribute to the success of the occasion as her quoting from some religious treatise on the evils of what was about to happen (or, in this case, about, embarrassingly, not to happen). Bridget, with so many of her compatriots, is like our besieged but eccentric home owner, holding her fort, not by erecting a set of complex and stalwart defenses but by riding out to meet the enemy with an eager gusto that will dampen his spirits by too concentrated a dose of his own medicine. But wait. This suggests that the practice is a gendered one, the preserve of women when confronted with men. Not at all: it is the strategy of both British men and women, when confronted with sex, that is, with sex as intimacy, sex as skill, sex as complex adult relation, sex as highly-involved exchange, sex as anything other than the enthusiastic-aggressive mania that is sex as joke.

The Victorians tended strictly to conceal their legs (and those of the furniture on and at which they sat) to defend against thoughts of what lies between them (a very good device, we might think, to interestingly generate such thoughts); their descendents tend to demand a constant and almost total revealing of legs (the current fashion for wearing tights as if they constitute the complete clothing of the lower body is the concession made to winter by this demand), and every other body part, if possible all at one time and with great hilarity, which is a very good device, we must concede, to kill stone dead any interesting thought about what might lie between them. Sex may no longer be a sin, but it is more effectively forbidden by having becoming a great laugh.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Throw a Sop to the Masses: Sponsor "The Arts"

William Morris, at the height of the Victorian age, when the old practice of living over, in, or very near, one's workplace was giving way to a new desire to live elsewhere than where one plied one's trade, walked out one day to one of the newly established London suburbs. The advent of extended street lighting was not the least important factor in the new enthusiasm for living on the outskirts - previously, travel to and from such places relied upon either the sun or the moon - but its primary motivation was, of course, the growth of industrialised modes of production: one could not live in or over the factory in which one worked as one of a large, anonymous group and one would not, if at all possible, live near its often belching unpleasantness. That this was often not possible for the workers meant that it became desireable for their superiors; the middle classes, because they could, ceased to live near their places of work and traded the hustle and bustle, the mixed economy, of city living, for the quiet and almost entirely residential areas growing up around its margins.

And so one day, William Morris finds himself in an almost silent street, lined on either side with the new Victorian villa, a detached residence on a relatively small piece of land, similar to its neighbours in style but suggestive at least, in its qualified independence from the homes around it, of the privileges of the independently rich. There is nobody to be seen but gentlemen and their ladies and servants, no tradesmen at their work, no shops selling their wares. Those are to be found on the main street, a new invention of the new lifestyle and intended to act as foil for the genteel retirement tucked away behind it. "A beastly place to live," Morris thinks to himself, and quits it almost at once.

The beastliness of such places was, for Morris, guaranteed by their operating to segregate, not only the population but the processes of production and consumption upon which the population generally relied. Those in the villas ate, of course, they sat on chairs, dressed in gowns and puffed on pipes, but, contrary to former times, they felt it desireable to remove themselves as far as possible from the sources of their food, chairs, gowns and tobacco. In many cases, this desire was purely aspirational; not all could afford the move outwards. But what mattered to Morris was less the fact of people's removal than the attitude towards labour and its materials from which it sprang, or to which it contributed, an attitude that, for him, was bound up with the interests of capital, of labour for profit alone, and therefore opposed to the integration of production, consumption and practised artistry that a fully human existence, as he thought, requires.

Let us name another beastliness, then, which Morris should have shuddered at had he lived to see it: goverment funding of the arts. The Arts Council England (ACE) has announced that it is to cut funding for the arts by 29.6%. In fact, it has also decreed that only 15% can be passed on to what it describes as "frontline" arts organisations. And there is outcry, at the predicted closing of museums, bankruptcy of publishers, penury of artists. But we should stand with Morris, and feel glad at this development, for state funded arts are a sop, thrown at us by the government and its system, much as large corporations that suck the life from their workforce concede a monthly "dress down" day, or organise the odd "team building" hike, as a safety valve for employees who might otherwise explode from feelings of alienation.

What was it that Morris found so beastly in that suburban street?: its incubation of a mode of living premised upon the conception of human flourishing as anathema to involvement in, or even remembrance of, the craftly labours on which lives then, at every turn, had to rely but which they were being taught to despise the sight of. Women learned to be proud of their ignorance of the patterns for shifts and chemises, and boasted of it; men grew angry if any detail of the workings of their households, the cycles of their gardens or the picklings of their kitchens came before them in any manner other than as good fires, fresh flowers and fine meals. In short, it grew to be accepted that the highest form of human existence knew nothing of the labours whose fruits it enjoyed and ought to get as removed as possible from the materials and processes on which its satisfaction in life relied.

The end result of this trend is inevitable when one realises that knowledge is a skill, that knowing that this gown is most becoming or that sauce tastes best or those colours look finest is impossible without knowing how gowns are sewn or sauces made or colours chosen: what we call taste is lost, and (it cannot be a coincidence that this is the end result of a process that was incubated so carefully by capitalist values) the stays upon consumption are delivered entirely into the hands of profit. The highest form of human existence, it seems, quietly interred in the leafy streets of an undisturbed suburbia, having lost its connection with the sources and processes of its health and wealth, has lost itself to all but the highest bidder.

And the last move in this vicious game is government sponsorship of the arts. We have become so inured to our alienation from our selves and our lives, so used to having companies tell us what looks good, tastes good, feels good, that we have lost the capacity - which Morris would have placed at the very core of a fulsome human society - to produce, desire, even to recognise, what is beautiful, what is good, what is tasteful, what suits. All of that is consigned to the "fads" that keep our market moving, and meanwhile we have forsaken what we ought to have insisted on: art, beauty, as a feature of human experience generally. Instead, what little need we still have for the beautiful, for the ornamental, or merely for the non-utilitarian, is "satisfied," even "supported," by "the arts," that field of objects and events that are not part of the means-end system to which all other aspects of life appear to have been subjected. Of course, the extent to which "the arts" have been integrated into the marketplace, the extent to which they have blended so well with capital, ought to make us more suspicious than we ever tend to be. For "the arts" are a way of quelling the populace, of answering to that very small remaining need for beauty, for craft, for a break from the pursuit of ends, and of making us feel that all of this is there to be had, at our fingertips and mostly for free, and that it is our own fault if we do not avail ourselves of it.

But small wonder that most of us don't. Aleks Sierz recently posted a piece of outrage at the apparent relief felt in some quarters that government cuts to the arts have not been higher, reminding us that those touched by the arts will also be touched by government cuts to other areas; they too live in houses, have children and fall ill. That Sierz feels it necessary to point this out, that he judges it to be an opinion held widely enough to merit contradiction that "people who work in the arts are only sustained by the arts," is interesting, for it indicates the extent to which the arts are so removed from the business of living and us engaged in it, that they seem a little island unto themselves, to which we are free (but not so free anymore, let us hope) to retreat and regenerate and engage in a little "team building" perhaps. Meanwhile, back at the business of living, nothing need be beautiful at all. No wonder the government sponsors "the arts," and thank heaven it can no longer afford to do so.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

What Ever Happened to Criticism?

Austen, writing in an age that allowed women mostly no voice at all, in a sitting room that was throughway for the busyness of domestic life, in a genre widely held to be at once insignificant and corrupting, a woman whose future stood to the attention of the many contingencies that operated upon the men of her family, and whose home was, by today's standards, continually shifting its scope, location, and contents, was still, according to Josipovici's recent What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a writer whose most central characteristic is that she was sure of the ground under her feet. Dickens too, Josipovici insists, despite the former's lowly beginnings, frequently precarious finances, ever expanding family, crowded commitments, uncertain health, and never abating drive to remove himself, both literally and figuratively, from the unprepossesing prospect of his father. "The more I see of the world, the less I am satisfied with it": Austen's Elizabeth Bennet testifies to the effect of the contemporary stultification of women that is the theme to dominate Austen's oeuvre; but still, Josipovici tells us, Austen shows none of that disenchantment of the world that he regards as so essential to good, to true, to real art. Similarly Dickens, notwithstanding what must be one of the most comprehensively dark visions of Victorian society and its institutions of change; "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" - Josipovici quotes Salinger's Holden Caulfield - is still too complacent, altogether too comfortable, to share in the disillusionment that Josipovici so values.

How are we to understand this? Why would a woman writing under and about conditions of almost impossibility, why would a man writing in a space as actually and as metaphorically cramped as it could be and in a spirit so continually depressed by endemic evils, be accused of unadmirable assuredness and insufficient disenchantment? The answer according to Josipovici would lie in the category mistake that regards precariousness in one's material circumstances or the haphazard crowdedness of one's daily existence to address the kind of uncertainty that goes to produce good art, the mistake that assumes disappointment, however well-directed, at the conditions of women or anger at the major socio-political institutions to have relevance for the kind of disenchantment exhibited by great artists. For it is not uncertainty per se that Josipovici values in the artists he admires, but uncertainty about art, just as it is not disenchantment with the world that he looks for in the artworks he encounters but what he calls disenchantment of the world, which amounts to a disenchantment with the world of art. Poverty and poor health do not the artist's assuredness dampen, Josipovici implies; the despair of irony and the humour of darkness do not the artist's disenchantment make: for the world is the world, and art is art, and never the twain should meet. Austen and Dickens, by being too much of the world, are too little for art.

And therein lies the reason for Josipovici's distaste for all but the "Modernists"; only the "Modernists" exhibit disenchantment itself, because only the "Modernists" have no ground at all under their feet, because only the "Modernists" despair, not merely at this or that message, but at the medium through which any message might, must, be transmitted. That, for Josipovici, is real disenchantment: not the having of something disenchanted to say, nor even merely the having of nothing to say, but the having of everything to say and nothing with which to say it.

Austen and Dickens, then, and those more contemporary authors who Josipovici identifies as their descendents, are, in effect, all too human: too directed in their uncertainties with too much purpose to their disenchantment. Austen, a woman in a time of men, intervened in that time both by the fact of her writing and by its content, demonstrating in what she says and does women's claim to greater consideration and the continuity that exists between daily life and the creative spirit. Dickens, for his part, performed his creative practice in the same manner and with much the same motivation and effect as he had, early on, fufilled his post as court reporter for the newspapers. Just as, then, he wrote for cash and on schedule, often completing his report to the rhythm of the jolting carriage that was carrying him back to London, so later he wrote to keep his children in clothes and his father from debt, to strict and regular deadlines, with the helter skelter of domestic life and a busy social diary all round, with the noise from the street and the stench from nearby tenements never relenting . And as his reporting functioned to inform people what went on in court, so his novels functioned - albeit at greater length and with conventional devices employed - to show people what went on in their world, a world with which Dickens was anything but enchanted. But all of this has little to do with art, Josipovici implies; for art does not function, art does not intervene, art does not seek to profit, art does not have deadlines, art has no concrete conditions and effects, art is disenchanted with nothing. Art, rather, pursues the "relentless contact with reality" that too much contact with the world would suppress. By being too real, it would seem, the novels of Austen and Dickens are not then real enough.

Because in the end, Josipovici would have us believe, the novels of Austen and Dickens suffer by not being the things they describe: they are not the feeling of muslin on the skin, nor the stench of sewage, nor the taste of madeira, nor the sight of rotting flesh. But that is not it, of course; words can never be such sensations. Austen and Dickens, then, fail in being too complacent in the face of this never, in being too at home in the language they write, as if that language were somehow capable of representing the things to which it points. Everything happens exactly as and when it should in their novels, Josipovici bemoans: the carriage pulls up at five minutes to nine; the gown is let down another two inches; the marriage occurs at just the moment it ought. There are no doubts, no hesitations, no "examining of what's going on in their own minds" as they imagine, no ability "to question what it is they are doing" as they write. Instead, there is mere anecdote, the telling of stories to lure us into a world that is not real, the use of the past simple to tempt us to think it's all true, the production of "reality effect" as evasion of "reality itself." From being, in one sense, too real, then, too fulsomely of and in the world and its ways, the novels of Austen and Dickens move to being, for Josipovici, far from real enough. Content, as he describes it, with mere representation, they never face the challenge of representing reality, of showing "the trembling of life itself," a challenge that can never be truly responded to except, indirectly, as the suggestion that there is something that cannot be done. Hence the greatness of Beckett's avowed weariness of "going a little further along a dreary road," and the all but impossible, quintessentially "Modernist," search, through art, for that which refuses to be turned into art. Austen and Dickens, by taking artifice at face value, by resting within that which art allows to be possible, act in bad faith, Josipovici tells us; they employ their arts to do what can be done and neglect altogether to use them to do what cannot.

Which gives us a timely entrance to criticism of Josipovici's commitment to what he calls "Modernism," for it is a commitment ultimately to a curious determination to continue to engage in an activity that is rather an indulgence than anything else (for Josipovici, art does not make a living; it is not fitted kitchens), but in a spirit of begrudging despair at the value of that activity, rather as if one spent one's time on the golf course in Marbella doing nothing but despairing at the impossibility of achieving anything by playing golf. Don't go to play golf in Marbella, we might advise, but spend your time more productively; similarly, put down your pens and your paints, we might counsel, and get out there and do something else with your life. But that's just it. Doing something else with your life is equally irrelevant, equally distant from reality, equally merely human, Josipovici believes; in fact, it is much more irrelevant, much more unreal, much more human, insofar as it occupies one's mind with concerns other than the conviction that nothing mere humans can do or say is anything but incomplete, prejudiced, contingent, grubby...well, human. Effectively, then, "Modernism," for Josipovici, is the discontent with the merely human; and art, for Josipovici, is that realm of activity where this discontent finds expression.

But, if Josipovici feels impatience at what he perceives to be certain supposed artists' sense of assuredness of the ground beneath their feet, we might pause here to, with far greater reason, accuse Josipovici of something similar. One experience of staying with, of operating within, the "merely human" is the experience precisely of the shifting nature of the ground on which one stands, the sense that one only ever has an insufficient amount of evidence for one's claims and a finite capacity to justify one's beliefs. This is the experience that the human is all there is, the experience that one must pull oneself up by the bootstraps, the experience of the lack of any superhuman ground for human existence that would remain stable through all our vicissitudes, a foundation for all our relations. But it is precisely this superhuman ground that Josipovici imagines himself and his "Modernists" to stand upon, as they try to recognise "that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art," as they try to give voice to the "inhuman," to Reality, to Now, to Nature: how to capture the landscape without humanising it, how "to see it as it is and not as I see it" is the challenge that faces Cezanne, as Josipovici describes it, a challenge, to put it bluntly, to see the view from God's seats. Neither the "reality effect" of the realists nor the flights of the fantasists can do anything but grate upon Josipovici's sensibilities therefore, not, he explains, out of some Puritan disdain for the imagination or for the craft of letters "but out of respect for the world." But belief in this "world," to which human efforts to think and do are so offensive, can finally rely for its effect only on exactly this disdain: for the finitude of human existence, for the partiality of human achievements, for the relativity of human truths, for the contingency of human successes and failures.

Josipovici is, in the end of all, a fairly straightforward Platonist. For Josipovici never questions the assumption - which is quintessentially Platonic, although it has had its more recent proponents - that humans use their arts to represent. It is true he makes distinctions between the tradition of representing character and his more favoured practice of representing action, and between those artists who think of their work as mirroring reality and those - the "Modernists" - who know that their words function merely as "emblems" or "signs" of reality; but these nuances do not take from what is Josipovici's basic belief: that the primary character of art is its representation of the world. And his Platonism does not stop there. For - and this is the inevitable consequence of believing, as Plato did, that the reality that humans see around them is but a dim representative of Truth itself - Josipovici also believes that the representations of artists will always fail because, even at their most faithful, they will only succeed in representing human truths and inevitably fall short of representing Truth itself. He goes further: insofar as art multiplies the number of human truths around us, insofar as it points us again and again towards the human world, and especially insofar as it does this "faithfully," it is actually corrupting, actually damaging of our capacities to sense that, beyond the human, there lies a Truth that is inhuman, a reality that is infinite. Hence, Josipovici shares with Plato a rather negative view of the value of art, a conviction in its degrading effect.

But this is not all: Josipovici also shares with Plato the elevation of a certain kind of artwork - for Plato, this was the highest form of poetry - which employs its arts to represent not human things but some inkling of the inhuman. For Plato, great poetry gives an idea of Love itself, of Hope itself, and so on. For Josipovici, great art - "Modernist" art - gives a sense of reality itself, which turns out to be the realm in which no possibility is annulled by the commitment to any particular possibility; rather, possibility itself - which, we are asked to accept, is the most real of conditions - is suggested through the annihilation of, the utter disregarding of, any particular possibility. Hence Josipovici's admiration of Henry James who, according to Maurice Blanchot's reading, wrote in a manner characterised by an allegedly "pure indeterminacy," and who we are told managed, "behind the constructed work which he brings into being, to allow us to feel other forms, the infinite yet weightless space of the narrative as it might have been, as it was before all beginnings." Certainly, on this model, Austen and Dickens, do, spectacularly, fall short: Dickens, because of the explicitly interested, determined, aspect of his novels, their frequent dialogue with contemporary developments, their address of socio-political events, and their explicit submission to the requirement of regular remuneration; and Austen, perhaps primarily because hers are novels of which we might particularly remark that, before all beginnings, they might have been nothing at all, such were the unfavourable chances of being a woman and a writer at that time. For neither Dickens nor Austen, then, was the weightless space before all beginnings in itself of any significance at all, let alone of the infinite significance that Josipovici would attribute to it. But that is because their living conditions or their livelihood depended on it; and only if one's life depends on it is one capable, in Josipovici's view, of making good art.

For this is not fitted kitchens, Josipovici tells us; this is not package holidays (golfing in Marbella nothwithstanding): this, we are asked to believe, is the stuff of life and death. The lives of the "Modernists" depend on it, on answering the call to write while knowing that to write is fruitless, on taking up the pen while aware that pens are no use, on going a little further along that dreary road. But the problem is that all of this is rather unconvincing to the unconvinced. Josipovici and his "Modernists" have got themselves into a little loop: beginning with the assumption that art differs from fitted kitchens in having no use (and this is an assumption, for art - that is, the artificial generation of meaning - has often, as in cases as well known as Austen and Dickens, had its uses), then they avail of the general uselessness of art - its remove from the world - to indulge in the very-removed-from-the-world leisure activity of descrying the world for not being enough; but, of course, art - human artifice - will always, to some extent, be of the world, and so the loop goes on, as the leisured artists of our time bemoan the mere humanness of the world with its least human of pursuits and then bemoan the humanness of even this pursuit. But it is not a mere leisure activity, we are told, for their lives depend on it. But in what sense? In no sense that can be made to sound reasonable: the "Modernists" do not write because they would champion the female intellect in a world of men, they do not write because the legal system is so involved and corrupt as to make misery among the people; no, they write because they have to, but the "have to" cannot, by definition, be given further content. But this makes "Modernism" into a belief system and the "Modernists" into alleged prophets, called by the gods to do their work, and looking all over for inhuman, immaculate, conceptions.

Which brings us back to Plato, but with more force than Josipovici is ready for. For, of course, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be a Platonist like this, to hold that the world makes sense only in the context of an Other World in which things are not merely human. But, if you are one - and Josipovici does not write as if he thinks of himself as one - then you must accept: firstly, that you have a ground beneath your feet that is as solid as any that can be imagined - you have a fully worked out belief system at your disposal; and, secondly, that your experiences will be, for the most part, unreasonable, that is, incapable of justification to those who do not share your belief. Now, Josipovici's book does not read like the work of one who is indulging in the expression of what is consciously held as a belief, nor does it read as the work of one who regards "Modernism" as anything other than the effect of the waning of belief - the dissolution of grounds - that is often regarded as the defining feature of the modern age. Josipovici finds himself in a difficulty, therefore, defending a mode of creative practice that relies upon nostalgia for necessary truths and a sufficient distance from the world of human wants and needs to feel that nothing is worth saying when nothing absolute can be said. Meanwhile, the world goes on all around: successful interventions are made, bad books are written, the health service is reformed and a bestseller comes from nowhere, and nobody thinks, for a moment, that any of this is the result of activity too human to have any value.

Where do we start to unpack this misguided account? Jane Austen's novels are not representations; Charles Dickens' novels are not representations: that is the first thing. If one were to say "You're a pig!," although one element in this event is the fact that the word "pig" "represents" a fat, pinkish animal, this is by no means of central importance. Because "You're a pig!" is not primarily representational; it is a performative utterance, it produces an effect, it expresses anger, it intervenes to increase the tension, it is something itself. Similarly, Austen's novels do not primarily represent a particular village in late-eighteenth-century England. They are the effort of one woman to stake a greater claim on intellectual life; they are the intervention of one voice in the changing of women's position in society; they function to criticise the system of class, and so on; they are something themselves. And similarly Dickens' novels, which urge the poor to revolt, shame us all to greater benevolence, make some peldge to live better lives, intervene in the contemporary debate over the possibility of spontaneous combustion, and so on: they are something themselves. Josipovici's idea, then, that such novels are like drugs, tempting us to a half-life of unreality, is preposterous. On the contrary, the novels of Austen and Dickens are compelling, not in the way of drugs but of stories - yes, anecdotes in the past simple tense - that change us, that goad us to action, that inform us of times and their people; they are more likely to prod us awake than they are to lull us to sleep.

A second thing: in casting such novels aside as corrupting in their temptation of humans to humanness, Josipovici curiously reenacts a move that was made at the very inception of the novel. Austen's Northanger Abbey subjects the move to no small degree of irony, when her heroine, Catherine Morland, an increasingly enthusiastic novel reader, is depicted as a naive girl full of nonsense and fancy, and placed by the plot under the supposedly more mature capacities of Henry Tilney, who laughs at novels to begin with but then seriously warns Catherine of their perniciousness when he judges them to have led her so astray as to have suspected his father of gross philandery and the possible murder of his mother. But the criticism of the novel in this novel is highly ironic, and, in the end, implicitly trounced when only Catherine, and as a result of her education by novels, turns out to have been able to read the character of General Tilney, who, if not quite a murderer, is revealed to have treated his wife, when alive, most cruelly, and who pursues Catherine for her wealth and throws her out of his house without provision and in the dark when he discovers her penniless state. For novels can educate, can inform, can enlighten, can cultivate, can inspire one, can change things. Only a society like that of Jane Austen, with one view of what's right and real, and we might say only a position like that of Josipovici that holds there at least to be one right and one real (even if he has learnt to give it no content), can judge of this education as inevitably negative, can feel threatened by the exposure if offers. That Josipovici has, at the moment he likens novels to drugs, to caricature the novel as the thing that would tell us what it's like to be a tiger or a lobster, shows, I think, the desperation of a critic who has no more reasons to give.

Which brings us, at last, to the question of our title: whatever has happened to criticism? Well, what has happened in this case is the result of a curious commitment to the notion that the good critic "makes us see through their eyes." In this notion is lodged the key to what is ultimately the unreasonableness of this piece of criticism, for it suggests that the good critic operates in that most unreasonable of middle grounds between the subjective and the objective, that place where one has allegedly no reasons to hold the views one does hold apart from subjective impressions and yet all the reason in the world - as a result of the privileged status of those impressions - to claim the right to "make us" see what one sees, the right of objective truth. This explains the marked tone of Josipovici's book, which unites the assertiveness of subjective experience with the imperiousness of objective fact. Of the original version of Duchamp's Large Glass, indistinguishable from other versions except that its panels were shattered by accident, Josipovici asserts that, while other versions may be beautiful, only this one "lives." We are given no argument to persuade us of this: it is asserted with all the immediacy of a subjective impression and assumed with all the confidence of a clear cut case of fact. Similarly, Josipovici points to Duchamp's and others' alleged commitment to the imitation of action as superior to the traditional tendency to imitate character, without once proposing any reasons why it should be considered so. And yet, in his closing comments, Josipovici recognises that some may not share his views on "Modernism," on art, or even on the world, and that all he can try to do is to persuade others to see things as he does. But this is precisely what he has not done, has not even tried to do. For, being too much of an unwitting Platonist, he is also too much of an unwitting Kantian in relying upon that mode of aesthetic experience that Kant so cleverly devised, which is both purely subjective and universally true. Of course, Kant, like Plato, thought that the human world was but a poor, merely human, representation of the World-in-itself, because Kant, like Plato, in the end had a God to defend. Josipovici has no such God, but he does keep the space where that God used to be; his task, like that of all good critics on his account, is to fill it. But Gods rarely deign to persuade; and so they make very bad critics.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

"I Think, But I'm Not," Said The Headless Chicken

When Descartes, in his moment of greatest doubt, consoled himself with the insight that, so long as he experiences himself thinking, which he cannot but do, then at least the fact of his existence cannot be doubted - "I think, therefore I am," in its summative form - he went a giant leap too far. Kant, a century and a half or so later, saw his precursor's mistake: we have no right to conclude the existence of that I from the experience of ourselves in thought, because the I that is concluded to exist is not identical with the I that, in any given moment, thinks. The I that Descartes proposed to exist, the I of "I am," is, as Kant called it, a transcendental I, that is, an I that unites our various moments of thinking, of wishing, doing, believing, intending and so on, in a higher, coherent, unified, self. The I of "I think," is, for its part, what Kant would call an empirical I, that is, an I in the world, now, operating for the moment, subject to contingency, consisting only of the particular thought it is having or the act it is doing, with no expectation of continuation attached to it, certainly no cohesiveness with another moment of thought or action guaranteed. Two different Is: therein Descartes' error in assuming that, because one functions at this moment, the other must exist.

Only so far did Kant depart from the insights of his predecessor, however; for, according to Kant, although we cannot, as Descartes thought we could, be certain that our transcendental I, a unified self in which our various moments of thought and action are gathered together, actually exists, we must continue to think and act as if it exists. In other words, for Kant human being in the world can only realise its potential (in fact, can only make sense of itself) insofar as it assumes that its individual actions, its various thoughts, its beliefs, desires, hopes and dreams, are those of a self that transcends them all and wraps them in its grand, unifying arms. Without the assumption of a transcendental self, empirical thought and action is degraded, inhuman.

But the practice of believing, of faith, which allowed Kant to continue to think and act (and continue to expect others to think and act) as if something exists that we cannot know to exist, has since waned (and Kant is, in many ways, part of the drive for "enlightenment" that has been the great cause of this waning), so that, in Britain at least, the ability to imagine a trancendental self, let alone to think and act as if it exists, is largely in abeyance. Coming from a Catholic country in which the transcendental self is written into every nook and cranny of socio-cultural existence - the experience of conscience, and the guilt with which this experience is famously associated, is impossible unless one regards individual instances of one's thinking and acting in the context of a larger whole to which they contribute and which, in many cases, they function to corrupt and degrade; think of it as Dorian Gray's portrait, which operates as the transcendental self to the empirical actions that are unleashed upon an unfortunate world - what strikes one in Britain is, most immediately, people's lack, in the main, of self-doubt, of self-consciousness, of self-awareness, of self-knowledge. Coming from a culture in which thoughts and actions are almost impossible to experience without the attendant judgment of those thoughts and actions as contributors to the self that is ultimately to appear at the gates for judgment (and whether or not one actually holds to the belief system that encourages this, its effect is now endemic), it is extraordinary to see before one's eyes people (that is, what one takes to be transcendental Is) apparently unattached to what they have just said or done, to the extent that something said in anger or error, even at those times when the anger or error is identified and apologised for (this is, after all, a good country for politeness), appears to have no effect on the person who said it. It is as if what was said has no relation to the sayer, as if she is as unresponsible for it as the person to whom it was said, such that the identification of it as, for instance, unfair or hurtful, is somehow an event in which neither of them really participates.

Disconcerting and all as this is in the moment, it is even more confusing taken as a general condition. For what is absent from a society of empirical Is, in which there is no capacity for belief in trancendental Is, is any real ability to reflect on one's behaviour, to alter it, to learn from it. If one changes, it is only as an animal changes, because one has been beaten again and again, or rewarded again and again; empirical Is respond to circumstances - responses to circumstances is, in fact, all they are - but those circumstances cannot be reflected upon but only reacted to. There is, in a society of empirical Is, so little capacity for self-analysis, that the idea of reasoning with someone, of trying to make them know you (never mind making them know themselves) is utterly misplaced; all one can do is to talk about the weather, or some other standard topic, and hope that, today, in this place at this time, one encounters an I that's not too hot to handle.

Kant was right: we cannot be sure that any such thing as a transcendental I actually exists. Philosophers since Kant are right too: the heuristic benefits of assuming that such an I exists are not as certain as Kant thought they were, and we would do well to loosen our expectation that we, or others round us, must think and act - and understand our and their thoughts and actions - as if they must always cohere. But from the loss entirely of the capacity for reflection, for knowing ourselves and others, that practice at belief in a transcendental self or selves affords, emerges a situation of, as Kant would describe it, deep immaturity, a world of almost literally headless chickens.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Natural Childbirth Mistrust

Queen Victoria, notwithstanding her nine children, was no enthusiast for pregnancy and childbirth, and, at the first possible moment and although that moment only arrived for the birth of her eighth child, availed herself of the benefits of chloroform as a pain relief during labour. This was much to the outrage of various interest groups of the time, and in particular of church leaders who held the view that God would not have made childbirth painful if it were not meant to be so and if the pain were not necessary to the production of healthy infants and devoted mothers. Even Victoria was unconvinced by this argument, and today it will seem to many one very weak indeed. And yet, much of the substance of the mid-nineteenth century church's view is sustained by the notion of "natural" that continues to emerge as the dominant contemporary ideology surrounding labour and birth. Today, a woman often finds herself with feelings of guilt and inadequacy at opting for one of the pain relief methods available to her - most usually, the epidural - because of the tacit assumption that a birth without pain relief is a "natural" birth, and therefore a more successful birth, a healthier birth, a more autonomous birth, an easier birth, a better birth.

Now, given the fact that most women who have the option open to them do continue to avail of pain relief in labour, we might conclude that, much as the church's argument in the nineteenth century that the pain of labour is in some sense necessary failed to produce its effect, the "natural" position has not gained its point. But this would be to move too quickly. For, it is actually crucial to the "natural" position that most women do not opt for a "natural" birth; its effectiveness lies not in its increasing the number of labours and births that take place in pain but rather in the dissemination of a view that there is a way of giving birth "naturally" and that not to do so is to have fallen short of our "natural" potential. Why should this be? Why should it be essential to the "natural" position that most women do not opt for a "natural" birth? Well, much of the rhetoric of the "natural" position focuses on the lack of autonomy available to a woman under epidural (she will have delivered herself into the hands of the medics, will no longer be able to move about as she chooses, and will have all key decisions in the birthing process removed from her jurisdiction) and on her inevitable retreat from the experience of her own body, so that the only person who can really know what is happening is taken out of the equation (the woman can no longer feel when and how to push). These two effects are also said to attach to other, less complete, forms of pain relief; diamorphine, for example, tends to make a woman feel detached from her physical existence, and gives rise to a demotivation that can make her more malleable in the hands of professionals. In short, then, the "natural" position argues that reason and experience are bracketed by pain relief during labour and birth; a woman sacrifices both her freedom to judge and her capacity to feel. Implied in this argument, of course, is that reason and experience, autonomy and feeling, would, if allowed to operate, function during labour and birth; without epidural, a woman would, it is claimed, judge for and feel for herself...

...which is why it is important to the "naturalist" that women do not generally undergo labour and birth without some form of pain relief: for, one of the most startling aspects of labour and birth that is undergone without pain relief is its revelation of the very limited nature of the human capacity to reason and experience. Once in the throes of labour pains, a woman unmedicated will often, and very quickly, have reached the limits of her ability to conduct herself, will often, and very quickly, cast about for some person in whom to place all of her trust and who will subsequently work, more or less well, to be the woman's judgment for her. Herein lies the challenge to the midwife, who must - although he or she is not always able to do this - exercise the woman's supposed autonomy on her behalf. And herein lies the rage for "birth-coaching," which the "natural" position recommends as facilitating a "natural" birth and which conceals the fact that a woman in labour will often outsource her supposed capacity to judge for herself as soon as ever she can; if this fact has been buried in a previously worked out "birth plan," it is less likely to strike us as an abdication of reason. So much for the rational birth. Even more surprising is the extent to which a labour and birth without pain relief, far from revealing the woman as a "natural" child bearer, shows up the extent to which we are alienated from our most basic of phsyical experiences. Without numbing, it is said, the woman can judge for herself when to push, can report to the midwife the nature of her experience, can shift her position so that the baby's passage is easier, and so on and so on. What is never said is that it is very unlikely that a woman who has never experienced the need to expel a baby from her body will recognise the need to do so. The what-it-is-like of needing to push is something with which she is not familiar, is something not "natural" to her, and therefore something that she is not necessarily the best person in the room to be the judge of. In fact, it is most likely to feel to her like the desire to defecate, which, given the strength of the taboo against public defecation, is likely to make the woman not want to push just at those times when she ought to push; seen in this light, the person supposedly experiencing what it is like to give birth is the last person in the room whose experience should be given priority.

What a labour and birth without pain relief reveals, then, is that the autonomy and rational judgment that we often regard as definitive of humanity is but a thin and fragile layer atop a deepseated irrationality that is no longer that of the animal (we have, in many ways, been alienated from our animal capacities) but much more like that of the child, and that our ownership of our bodily experiences is very very tenuous, subject, like our ownership of the more intellectual, less supposedly immediate, aspects of our lives, to habit and convention. What a labour and birth without pain relief reveals, in short, is that there is very little "natural" about us - we are neither naturally thinkers, nor naturally feelers; which is why, together (but this is another story) with its implicit disciplining of women by feelings of guilt and inadequacy, it is essential to the "natural" childbirth camp that relatively few women live up to its expectations.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Please Sir, We Want Some More!

There are few more moving moments in the history of the novel than that in which little Oliver - unlucky enough in life to have found himself at the mercy of state provision in the workhouse, and unlucky enough in that to have drawn a straw so short as to have been elected by his fellows to be the one to do the asking - presents his empty bowl, raises his hungry eyes, and says "Please sir, I want some more." Food and shelter are said to be our birthright; to have one so young left so short of both is pathetic indeed. But there is something more pathetic, and it is not to be found in the workhouse, and it does not even know its own name.

The National Student Survey results released this week show that third level students in Britain are, on average, 82% satisfied with their educational experience. In a country where education - that very next phase of our birthright, after food and shelter are assured - is at this stage more or less unavailable, this level of satisfaction represents a degree of want that not even Oliver could imagine. For it is one thing to know what you lack, to have a very clear sense of the object of your longings and to be able to hold out your bowl to receive it; however hopeless your holding out, however unquieted your longings, however unanswered your knowledge, there is a satisfaction and a dignity in naming your want. It is quite another thing, and another thing much more degrading, to have no idea at all what you lack, to have a general sense of want but no particular notion of anything wanting, to have a free floating sadness with no object to which to attach it, to have a bowl that needs filling, a hunger that gnaws, a vague sense that not all is right, but no means to pull it all together, nothing to make you stand up and ask, in fact nothing to prevent you from declining the ladle when at last it comes round with more gruel, while all the while feeling that something falls short and that life is not all that was promised.

It is worse than that, in fact. In many cases, the survey shows that students' dissatisfaction is felt at the poverty of what are called "learning resources" (Blackboard is a popular one) and the failure of lecturers to highlight what are called "key concepts" (all the better for Wikipedia-ing, one supposes); but, to the extent that education - that is, the training in abstract thinking, in reasoning, in argument, the communication and critique of ideas, that defined education for most of human history - is not only not facilitated, but is actually diminished, by the demand that understanding be summarised in a drop-down list and posted for students to see on their own terms, students' current use of the National Student Survey is tantamount to Oliver actually emptying the contents of his bowl on the ground as irrelevant to his general malaise and a distraction from his efforts to set things to right.

Students these days are on unprecedented amounts of prescribed and unprescribed drugs, are in astonishing depths of therapy, show unimaginable levels of ennui, and continually describe themselves and their friends as suffering under a mental illness of some kind; meanwhile they declare themselves very satisfied with their educational experience. All of a sudden, Oliver and his bowl seem a story of hope in a time of plenty; for nothing is worse than the one starved with hunger who does not even know where his stomach is, never mind what a bowl and a ladle might have to do with it.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Big Self

We hear much nowadays about "The Big Society," a - perhaps conveniently timed with the requirement for cuts to public services, but not necessarily pernicious on that account - reconception of social responsibility, as increasingly devolved upon communities and smaller groups within them rather than the property of The Big State. Society, on this vision, is far less an achievement of central administration, and far more the concrete, experimental, piecemeal, and much more meaningful and effective, process of people in cohort engaged in their own lives and those of others around them. Aside altogether from matters of political ideology, which have too preemtively tarnished this new vision with the old wire brush of Thatcherism, there is a very pressing question of whether The Big Society is possible in the country of The Big Self.

No doubt, the Enlightenment expectation of the coherent self, constituted by the by definition reconcileability of its various, and changing, components, has long been subject to suspicion; Freud's notion of the unconscious, for instance - a deeply divided and divisive force in the human psyche - is so accepted an account of the self as to have entered the set of tacit assumptions that go to make up our very basic understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, it is not wrong to say that some sense of a unitary self, however shifting and difficult to maintain, often continues to regulate our lives: it lies at the root of efforts to overcome various of our impulses because of the difficulty of making them coexist with characteristics of ourselves that we would like to flourish; it explains our sustained attempts to reconcile others' views of us with the views we would have them hold; and it of course solves the conundrum of why a society so fed up on Freud would continue to try to make one of what are almost, on his account, of necessity in tension. Doomed and all as these efforts may be, prejudiced and all as they undoubtedly are by the traditional expectation that Reason conquers all, they do have some positive effects, not least of which is the manner in which the striving after some kind of coherence for ourselves makes us, to some extent, independent of the whips and scorns of time, of place, and of other people: one is not, though it takes effort, merely three - or ten times three - sheets in the wind, but a force of at least partial resistance to changes, to misunderstandings, to attempted cooptions, to prejudices, to people; one has something - some one thing - to present to people, to have them try to understand, to tread upon their presumptions, and, yes, to stimulate their own conceptions of themselves and others.

True, all of this means that human association is less a "There's room for everyone in the pot" scenario that postmodern fluffiness would have us believe is a desirable condition, but one can look at the situation also from another angle. Not striving for this sense of self, not working at a version of oneself with which to meet the world and those in it, can give rise to a kind of lazy subcontracting of oneself out to various interests, commitments, values, occupations, and groups; with no effort made to gather together these subcontractions, to prioritise some over others, to negotiate a deal between them so that no one of them becomes definitive of, or even necessary to the continuation of, one's sense of self, one is, in a sense, everywhere and nowhere. Being nowhere, one becomes rather odd in association with others, with little to present, with nothing to defend, generating a feeling in one's potential, but unrealised, interlocutors, of a strange dislocation, of a virtual encounter, of a shady deal, in short of anything but a fair exchange; but, being everywhere, one is then also always at stake, so that the views of others on a disparate and unpredictable range of even apparently neutral topics can, without warning, tread upon something so essential to a local shard of self - which, without some centralised administration, is free to run amok and feel itself to be of central significance - that one is constantly being trodden on by innocent interlocutors who did not even know there was anyone nearby. Postmodern fluffiness - and the cotton wool "isn't everything lovely" that is its everyday representative - is therefore trumped by the existential anguish of encounters with no one and the unmanageable outrage of unpredictable annihilations.

Many avoid the novels of Dickens on account of their being peopled largely with characteristics, interests, foibles, eccentricities, virtues, vices, and tastes, rather than with actual characters; those who like their novels realistic are turned away. And yet, British society is riven so through and through by strata and their categories - class, sex, race, being the three big ones of course - that trump what might have seemed the untrumpable human self, that novels filled with identifications rather than identities have a strange, and inverse, realism about them after all. But not even Dickens could imagine the full horror. Martin Chuzzlewit, early on, reports on a sudden and fraught meeting of the extended Chuzzlewit clan, who anticipate the death of their relative and expect some benefit therefrom. Around the table sit the usual splendid array of identifications, in precisely the kind of discord that can result when one's self is all in one, very local place. But among the crowd is also one whose visage is so uncertainly drawn as to give one, Dickens says, the impression that his maker sketched his outline but forgot to fill him in; he is a strange presence, necessarily (it seems) linked with another more fulsome and contributing nothing in particular to the discussion but a moment, and a chair, full of a strange kind of absense. What Dickens did not predict, however, is the grotesque coincidence of strong identifications with the outline of a self that comprises many of this country's wandering souls; what he could not have seen is the strange, and horribly unsettling, experience of meeting one who seems not to be there and then all of a sudden, and inevitably unwittingly, seeming to have killed them with one blow. The outlined man is also, today, the outlying man; you will meet him everywhere and nowhere, and though you will never see him before you, you are bound to wound him to one of his cores.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Come Back Ozymandias, All Is Forgiven

What is one to learn from Shelley's "Ozymandias" but of the futility of attempts to transcend the finitude of human existence: Ozymandias, king of kings, would have his stone carved legs made massive and planted wide apart in the centre of his kingdom; but his land is now desert and his legs two trunkless stumps whose faded stridency is mocked by the cold sneer of his wrinkled mouth, which will erode no faster than the legs from which it has fallen. It is, to our modern ears, a by now familiar lesson. We are not made for lasting; we are human, all too human.

But what, then, of the contemporary mania for recording ourselves, for producing image after image in a manner that increasingly takes the place of experience? Are we Ozymandias, over again, destined to have our soft-toned smiles made a mockery of by the inevitable brevity of our lives? Curiously, no, and that is our tragedy. Ozymandias was of an age in which the contingency of human existence was regarded as the merely human reflection of inhuman, of infinite, truths; human demise was, then, to be overcome by a reaching toward the inhuman, finitude by a striving for the infinite. A hopeless pursuit, we might now think, with our modern wisdom that knows there's nothing but humans and lies; and yet the yearning for something transcendent, the grasping at something beyond, did at least tend to elevate, to educate, to enlighten, to broaden the horizon of our minds. What is characteristic of the modern Ozymandias - the child, aged but eight, whose image is posted worldwide and weekly, and who knows more of how to perform her childhood than she does of anything childish - is that her image is not any striving but rather a rooting in the basest of human possibilities: our drive to capture ourselves, instead of being an effort to overcome death with Truth and Beauty, with Right and Good, is a defiant bedding down in the moment, as if we are not only incapable of reaching beyond ourselves to something greater but are entirely described by cliched smiles, on Hallmark occasions spent in standardised relation. This is all we are, our images say of ourselves: as wrongheaded a view as that of Ozymandias, but worse, so much worse, in its reduction of human existence to a stock of pre-packaged experiences and consequent removal of the possibility of our being taken out of ourselves to something different, and, yes, maybe better.

Two massive legs in the desert tell of a man who got far too above himself; but better that than a constant picturing of ourselves out of the experiences that might, just might, make us learn something new. We may well be human; but must we be all too human?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Life Unconversational

There exists, in Britain, such a fear of conversation that what one says is allowed to produce an effect in inverse proportion to the effectiveness of the saying.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Curious Tale of Our Loss of Taste

The Curious Tale: Once established as leading dressmaker of his day, Charles Worth abandoned the conventional attire of the gentleman - at that time, nothing but sombre black suits and tall black hats - for clothes still readily identifiable as those of the artist; he began, in short, to dress like Rembrandt, all beret and bow and flowing velvet lines. In so doing, Worth was both true to, and treacherous of, his vocation as couturier. On the one hand, he was setting himself up as no longer simply a craftsman, albeit of superior technique, but as an artist in his own right, whose work no mere technical skill could account for or reproduce; and he was doing this in the manner he knew best, through a dramatic transformation of his mode of attire. On the other hand, Worth was himself leaving behind the endless play of convention and invention that had come, largely in his hands, to define couture, by adopting a type of dress to transcend the vagaries of fashion and partake of the timelessness that, at that time, was coming to define the existence of art; in this, he coincided with the "aesthetic dress" movement then alive in England, which recommended attire expressive of ageless values to operate as a corrective to the perceived triviality of contemporary dress. (The fact that "aesthetic" dress was characterised by the long flowing lines reminiscent of the clothing of ancient Greece shows that values defended as timeless and true were adopted from the time and place usually resorted to by Western efforts to transcend the changes of humans in history.) Worth, the man of fashion, began to dress in contempt of his trade...

Our Loss of Taste: ...and to function thereby as both orchestrator and sign of an aporia that comes to define his time: between artist and common man; between timeless values and fleeting enthusiasms: between the truly classic cut and arbitrary, transient fashions; and between the faculty of taste and the acquiescence of all those increasingly content to sacrifice theirs in imitation of, or obedience to, an allegedly higher standard. Of his Empress, Eugenie, Worth said in interview: "Not that she is indifferent in the matter of dress. Quite the contrary...The point is that she trusts our judgment rather than her own." If even the Empress relinquished her right to judge what and how she would wear, what hope then for all of her subjects? No, taste was being given up as an achievement of everyday life, and placed in the hands of professionals, the artists whose judgment was more true than yours or mine, by virtue of being more free of the prejudices and purposes, the petty concerns and the small economies, of even an imperial existence. And yet what is it exactly to have taste, if it is not to take from the options before one what appears to be the most fitting, if it is not to reconcile conditions that prevail with hopes for a different future, if it is not to work with the means one has round one and try to produce something better, if it is not, in short, to have everyday thoughts, and everyday means, and everyday things? The freedom so valued in the newfound professional man of taste in fact would remove the conditions for taste; and when the final constraint imposed on Worth's artistry, by what was at least the form of subjection to royal command, was, in 1870, to disappear with the Second Empire, the one in whom good taste had been entrusted had nothing more left him to require it: both the triviality of the high street and the timelessness of high art had come clean away from all mooring, and taste would soon have had its day.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Dress to Excess

Once the house of Worth et Bobergh was established in 1858 and gained the patronage of court essential to the prosperity of any fashion house of the time, it was guaranteed a constant supply of business from the contemporary rage for fancy dress. The challenge presented by this enthusiasm was comprised by the simultaneous necessities of varying one's costume with commitment and aplomb and of yet not offending moral sensibilities by appearing in garments of a colour or cut now considered inappropriate - the full skirts of the middle of the century would look askance at the Grecian outlines of its very beginning, for instance. But Worth flourished under these conditions, for the knowledge of historical styles of dress gleaned from his early and sustained interest in the history of art provided him with an almost endless stream of ideas for costumes that would enliven but not affront the eye.

But mid-nineteenth century France was in a rage for fancy dress in another sense: the dresses worn by women, not only to evening occasions but for everyday purposes too, were, by modern standards, just very fancy, excessively ornamented and elaborate. And here too, Worth found his opportunity, for he introduced to French high society an appreciation for the reserved, the modest, the simple that won him a reputation and clientele in proportion to the real novelty of his sartorial values. Worth executed the essential lines with true expertise and the resulting elegance of his creations began to quickly expose the fussy inferiority of previous modes. Simplicity trumped excess, and Worth was the man to do it.

But there is more than one side to excess, as there was more than one sense of fancy dress. Worth's designs may indeed have been simple but the manner in, and pace at, which he made them to change, replacing the fitful and mostly purposive movements hitherto native to dress with an increasingly rapid and regular motion that cut its ties with larger scale socio-economic conditions in order to chase the new for the sake of the new, was excessive to its very very core. Rummaging through the wardrobes of history for ideas for colour and cut, with neither rhyme nor reason to answer to and only ever decreasing social constraints to limit his options, Worth's house of fashion grew more and more like the National Gallery of his youth: filled to the brim with periods and styles, juxtaposed without judgment; history, flattened out and hung on the wall for all to see.

De Marly, Worth's biographer, describes his maison as "not a dress shop but a palace of costume," which tempts one to observe that Worth, for all his tasteful rejection of the age's rage for fancy dresses, remained strangely in thrall to the age's rage for fancy dress, with all its indifference, its randomness, its impropriety, its triviality; by Worth, history was reduced to a mere dressing-up box and life - at least insofar as life gets dressed - to no more than a costume party.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Not Fit to Wear

Worth, the first couturier, emerged from the obscure side of the counter at Gagelin of Paris on the strength of his quite startling talent at crafting gowns that fit; the few simple dresses, made by him and worn by his wife, Marie, in order that she might best display whatever hat or shawl a customer wished to see modelled, became themselves the objects of customers' desires, for they fit so well and moved so fine that neither hat nor shawl could outshine their superior cut. And then Worth was suffered to sew, and to refine so the making of dresses that nothing less than a perfect fit was soon considered tolerable by those who could afford the luxury of discernment.

These days, fashion houses no longer demand profitability from couture, which is rather regarded as a symbol of status, speaking in all its excess of the profit that mounts up elsewhere, and successful in this in almost direct proportion to the extent to which the dresses it makes eschew the demands of mere function. This produces the surely very curious category of "Ready to Wear": curious because it contrasts, not with designs that wait to be tailored to personal fit but with garments not fit to be worn.

What began as the work of refining a craft so that dresses would fit wearers well, is now all defined by a grand scale contempt of such mundane requirements as dressing in clothes that are cut for the purpose.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


In the 1830s, when dressmaking was still for women only, Charles Frederick Worth used to scurry from his workplace at Lewis & Allenby on Regent Street, complete whatever errand he had been sent on, and spend the time saved by speed and a skipped lunch in a guilty lingering around the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Such a variety of pictures, in so many colours and such different styles, treating of such diverse subjects, the provincial young Worth had never conceived. And it gave him an idea: that the lugubrious pace at which fashion then rang its changes might be set to a headlong rush of enthusiasm for the rejuvenation of past styles, and replicate the indiscriminacy of the National Gallery's archiving in an only barely chronological juxtaposition of colour and cut that would purchase its freedom from the heavy skirts of social more and utility with the transformation of fashion from a craft to an art. Thus the first haute couturier set in train a process that culminates in the simultaneous removal of high fashion from the demand that it be worn, and relegation of what's worn to the tat of the high street, so that the proximity of Trafalgar Square to Regent Street becomes, rather surprisingly, a matter for regret.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich shows how it is that death is killed by life. Between talk of who is to succeed him at work, and worry over the fate of his children at home, between plans for his wake and the card game that might be had after, between talk of his illness and news of his end, the death of Ivan Ilyich falls into a strange non-existence, even for Ivan himself, who struggles, towards the end, not with the inevitability of his death but with its impossibility: Ivan Ilyich cannot die, for death is that which is ever displaced by the force of its representations.

It is a grand story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, with its "It" and its final struggle and its great moment of revelation. But a related effect is wrought more modestly by Dickinson's having heard a Fly buzz - when I died. For Dickinson, death is displaced, not agonisingly as Tolstoy would have it, not in such a way that death retains Its full force, to circle Its representations about It so tightly and still have Its subject in anguish, but amusingly, anonymously, diminutively, by a Fly, whose uncertain stumbling Buzz - interposed between the light and me - functions at once as high comic precis of the nothings that weave round the dying Ivan and as dead-pan deflation of the event to which Tolstoy would still give the full centre stage; for this Fly is uncertain and stumbling, dying too it would seem, so that Death is displaced by small deaths, and our speaker is not simply blocked from seeing but unable to see to see. Dickinson's modest episode reveals what Tolstoy's grand spectacle would continue to hide: that the events which we tend to efface in our headlong pursuit of life's purposes, are not royal affairs - when the King be witnessed in the room - but tiny, uncertain, stumbling, and like many many others before and after. Ivan Ilyich cannot die, not because humanity is unable to confront the great Truth of its Death but because it will not accept the hum drum of its deaths. That is the It we displace with our endless representations of it: we are born, we labour, and we die, and the ways that we do so are homely and unoriginal.

But if, to this extent, Tolstoy was overambitious, he also went not far enough. He follows the trend of Western philosophical thought in staking all claims on the fact of our death, but forgets in so doing that fact of our life, and all of the ways - more troubling, perhaps, than our wont for neglecting demise - in which we signify ourselves out of it. Dickinson is our instructor here, for these ways are most often forged from as grand a conception of Life as Tolstoy's conception of Death: Life, as punctuated by great moments of celebration, by birthdays, anniversaries, mothers' days and holidays; Life, as captured by some lens or other so that it is no longer mortal; Life, as reported so that it's gone Public, on networking sites that are always switched on; Life, as acknowledged by cards of appropriate theme, carefully sought out and written in and sent off in a task that acquires greater substance than the event to which it would give expression.

To this frenzied party for Life, there is somebody left uninvited and increasingly likely to decamp elsewhere so empty has grown his social calendar. Dressed in clothes too ordinary, blessed with features too undistinguished, with manners more heartfelt than fashionable and tastes too concrete for company, with spirits too temperate and temper too even, life is left out in the cold, and Life, jaunty Life, so sure to arrive in fine style, to say the right thing and to leave just on time, is invited to dine in his stead.