Friday, 16 December 2011

Life Inhuman

A local Waitrose is currently featuring a hedgehog sanctuary among its three charities of the month, which shoppers are asked to choose between by contributing the token they pick up at the cash desk when they pay for their groceries. The hedgehogs are competing with charities dedicated to giving relief to those suffering from some kind of palsy and to children growing up under some kind of disadvantage. And the hedgehogs are winning. Amidst poverty and illness, only the hedgehog is really deserving.

To the outsider, one of the most striking features of the British is their affection for animals. Another striking feature is their lack of affection for each other. People carry dogs in their arms as they would (elsewhere, at least) a child; and they charge rent to children who remain in the "family" home as they would (and even this might not happen elsewhere) a stranger. People are strange, and animals are kin.

The imperative to consume is here and now so all-consuming, that the overlay of thought and feeling that has distinguished the human from the merely animal is being eroded. When nothing but instincts remain, hitherto-humans become endlessly manipulable by their arousal and satisfaction; so long as hopes and dreams, principles and commitments, are recast as basic needs, they can be sold and sold and sold again: this is what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism." But the other side of this coin is that, unless something "adds value," which is to say, unless it feels like the satisfaction of a basic need, it is so excessive as to cease to mean anything, so surplus as to cease to exist. In this category are increasingly interned all of the higher, that is, human, achievements: loyalty, care, protection, patronage, love.

The only real tie that binds us now, above and beyond the quasi-instinctive consumption practices that we share so utterly and completely, is the tie between parents and their young children. But dogs too care for their young. As do hedgehogs. And only for so long. When animals come of age, the bond between adults and their offspring falls away, to be replaced by and by with an entirely new bond between the now-adult offspring and their young. Instinct will only spread so thinly. To the outsider, the absence of anything like family cohesiveness in Britain is remarkable. Parents appear, if anything, over-"invested" in their children, but the tie seems astonishingly to weaken as the children grow older, and children are finally dispatched to the world as if this were the wilderness and survival of the fittest were the best we have to hope for. Small wonder, then, that ageing parents get left behind (for the state to take care of badly). As for siblings, they are a matter of almost total indifference; and friendship is all but a myth. It turns out that instinct is a poor foundation on which to form our bonds; it would as soon set us against each other as it would appear to unite us in pursuit of the same ends. A world of consumers is a dog eat dog world. Except that, here, no-one would dream of eating a dog.

The infamous British reserve has few cracks. Rather incongruously to the outsider, however, it does give way very quickly when the opportunity arises to be naughty about private body parts, intimate sexual acts, and basic biological functions. All of a sudden, what had seemed buttoned-up fortresses of inhumanity leave down their guard wholly, light up their eyes brightly, and giggle like eager schoolgirls, as if to say, "Mummy, I'm home!". And, in the animal world, it seems indeed that they really are.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Our Lovely Vulgar And Most Human Art

In 1967, Gore Vidal wrote:

The portentous theorizings of the New Novelists are of no more use to us than the self-conscious avant-gardism of those who are trying to figure out what the next ‘really serious’ thing will be when it is plain that there is not going to be a next serious thing in the novel. Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.

Our lovely vulgar and most human art? Vidal's tone reminds one of Aristophanes' Socrates, swinging aloft in his basket in the sky and addressing poor Strepsiades down below, exclaiming "short-lived one, creature of a day! Why do you call me?" Short-lived literary form, mere human mode of reflection, how do you continue? Vidal's reply: only as a habit not broken; only as a form of words emptied of all they might ever have meant.

This is the oldest sleight of hand in all the world. The novel, like all of human endeavour, did not begin as a hymn to the gods. Dr. Johnson, who was there at its inception, called the form (and he did not mean to compliment it) "familiar history." Its practitioners were not priests, merely women, writing what was effectively an entertaining version of the conduct book for girls. But that art went the way that all arts go in the end, in a confidence trick that is as ancient as our civilization.

When Socrates came on the scene in Athens, some thinking fellows were spending their life by giving answers to the big questions of life and other teaching fellows were earning their living by showing people the skills for the business of living. And then Socrates, in one clever move, cleared a space for a way of doing things that has dogged our steps ever since. By admiring but placing himself below the thinkers, and denigrating and placing himself above the teachers, he constituted a way of life that neither claims to have answers to the big questions (on the grounds that only the gods can have those) nor devotes itself to the practical skills of living (on the grounds that we ought not to be merely human just because we are human). This way of life is called philosophy, and it purchases its alleged remove from the business of living, not by attaching itself to pieces of wisdom it will defend but by claiming to love a wisdom it will not (because it says it cannot) name. It is a way of life that is led between the claims that godly things are too good for us and human things not good enough.

And so the women who dominated the novel form for the first twenty-five years of its existence went the way of Socrates' teachers, condemned for claiming to disseminate (and for money too!) skills with which to negotiate this life. And the men who dominated the novel for the following hundred years or so went the way of the thinkers, admired in their way but judged to be naive in their belief that answers to the big questions of life can be represented by mere humans. Surviving them both were the philosopher-novelists, too in love with the godly to submit to the market, to entertainment, to instruction, to the mere business of living and writing, but too self-consciously humble to lay claim to any world view, defend any vision, or pin their colours to any mast.

Of course, since these philosopher-novelists are only a confidence trick (albeit the very oldest one in the book) they have almost nothing to give content to their writing other than a chastened admiration of the thinkers and a patronizing contempt for the teachers. And so they run out of steam, of course. But not quite as Vidal describes it. The parishioners, as Vidal has them, have all abandoned ship quite some time ago. They, after all, go in for being instructed and inspired; the one is not below them nor the other mystified so that it lies above them. They have moved on elsewhere. For them, if an art is dead and gone, then there is a reason not to want to practice it and to read it. But they have not moved in search of other gods, as Vidal would have us believe. Because only the priests believe in gods. And only they will eventually go to another place in search of them. There, they will, once again, call the place a church and those gathered there "parishioners," whose words they will call prayers, in worship of gods whose absence will empty those words of all meaning. The parishioners will not stay for the end game. The philosophers will. Until they too up and move elsewhere, to empty out another form of words of all its meaning and another building of all those gathered inside.

It is a rather easy thing, this swinging around between heaven and earth, calling down in pity at those who would learn the business of living well and looking up in knowing nostalgia at those who would answer the big questions of life. An easy thing, but not a serious one.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Pretty Useful

In "The Beauty of Life" (1880), William Morris names his golden rule: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." This, to trump the trend, growing fast in his time, of separating use from beauty, such that the former - use - was gradually relinquished, to the demand of industry that the end product be realized as efficiently as possible and the demand of capital that the end product be replaceable as infinitely as possible, and the latter - beauty - was gradually isolated, in frames, on walls, in museums, among the privileged, where its remove from use was its defining feature. In this way, the set of objects and field of practice that emerged as the province of beauty - that is, art - came to be understood as that set of objects and field of practice outside of the merciless proliferation and pursuit of ends that came to dominate everywhere else. Only art - broadly understood as that area of human interest in which experiment, invention, originality, and freedom reign - was thought to resist the subordination of means to ends and ends to profit that was, already in Morris's time, coming to define human life in all other respects.

But it was precisely this seeming promise of art that, given its provenance, given its having been constituted by overspill from the paring down of means and leveling out of ends so necessary to the flourishing of industrialized capital, gave Morris pause: for, the other side of the enjoyment of objects and events free of the pursuit of ends, was the utter subjection to the pursuit of ends that prevails in every other sphere. More than this, the elevation of those objects and events free of the pursuit of ends, as the greatest site of resistance to utter subjection to given ends, slowly but surely took from the appeal and the practice of those other possibilities for resistance, which would undercut the dominance of given ends, not with a total abandonment of purposefulness, but with a refusal of anything other than a purposefulness for which purpose is not the only determining factor, a purposefulness for which process is also significant, a purposefulness for which ends and means are not separate but rather so completely involved with one another that the distinction between use and beauty, between efficiency and pleasure, does not arise. It is because we visit the local art gallery during our weekends, because we hang prints of our favourite paintings on our walls, that we have lost the talent and the requirement for receiving pleasure from weekday life or from the walls themselves. Life is stripped bare, with just a few pretty useless things cobbled together and kept in one place for those still minded to have a look at them.

But there is worse, worse even than the demise of lifestyle that Morris regretted. For art does not operate only as the safety valve for a lingering requirement for the kind of aesthetic pleasure no longer available from the things one sees and does in general. Or, as this safety valve, through which the pressure of engaging in the business of life is relieved, there flows out much much more than one might have imagined necessary: the desire for beauty is given an outlet in the eschewal of purpose that is art, but the practice at eschewing purpose that art provides has so corrupting an effect that we have become accustomed to doing without purpose even in matters purposeful, to performing meaningless jobs, to buying things that don't work well or at all, to wearing clothes that do not keep us warm or make us look good, to engaging with technology that will not be usable next year for reasons of fashion or of "progress." In other words, the practice art gives us, at pleasure in the absence of purpose, is perfect preparation for that essential aspect of capital and its demand for profit and growth: obsolescence.

Art must begin at home, as Morris warned, if any of this is to be remedied. We must find, in the things we see and use and make and do, when we are oriented towards even our most basic ends, a kind of pleasure that is not accounted for merely by the attainment of those ends (as if the pleasure would necessarily be increased if the ends were attained as quickly and as frequently as possible). But, so far are we from having, any more, the language with which even to describe what this might involve, we are driven to resort to negative description, in this case to the V&A's "pretty useful" tools, which - surprising, given the nature of the objects - represent the perfect fruition of the separation of use from beauty by which we are every minute so degraded. In this case, no need even for obsolescence: here we have almost quintessentially useful objects made beautiful precisely at the expense of their use. One strike at a nail, and a chip will come in Morris's "Anemone" print; another strike, another chip, in a perfect performance of use as anathema to beauty. No greater insult to the memory of Morris could be devised; no clearer statement of the now almost total absence of pleasure in the useful; no more striking summary of the extent to which the arts that ought to begin at home in fact suck out the life from home and everywhere else.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Knowing of Jane Austen

"She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not - like a sound agnostic," G. K. Chesterton wrote of Jane Austen, in his The Victorian Age in Literature. A tiny, but pretty clear, portrait of unreasonableness: Austen, sufficiently provincial to believe that the confines of her time and place are all in all: knowing what lies within them with unquestioning certainty; utterly ignorant of what might lie outside them, ignorant even that there is an outside them.

But, I wonder whether this really describes the limits of Austen. Perhaps she did know what she knew, but she also, sometimes, did not know what she knew, being prone to lapses into that kind of knowing for which the things we humans know are to be held in some contempt and at a remove. At the close of Mansfield Park, Austen writes thus of the final union between the protagonist, Fanny Price, and her long time love, Edmund Bertram:
I purposefully abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. - I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.
No dogmatism here, Mr. Chesterton: only the most open and inclusive of knowing, only a knowing so aware of its not knowing that it will presume to sketch but the mere outline of a plot, leaving the reader, with all of her knowledge, to fill in the rest. No agnosticism, either: but the explicit statement that she knew what she did not know, humbly handing over to every reader the determination of appropriateness in the timing of true love, aware that her sense of timing would have its limitations and not ring true for all.

A great show of reasonableness, then, to counter Chesterton's portrait. But what kind of reasonableness is this, that is so knowing as to back away from its task, so knowing as to relinquish its duties? It is the reasonableness of knowing you don't know, the reasonableness so knowing of the partiality of human ways and means that it holds them at an arm's length, in some disdain.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that Austen has been more or less plucked out of that tradition of women novelists clustered around the end of the eighteenth century (they have not been taken very seriously on account of the limited nature of their work) and transplanted into the Victorian Age, as befitting a writer of our time, a writer who too showed contempt for her trade all the better to raise herself above it.

We might turn here, at last, to Aristotle, in whose Poetics it is written that the superior forms of poetry give precedence to that which is universal in their story, turning only then to the particular episodes that go to elaborate it. That which is universal, Aristotle explains, is that which is integral to the story, in the case of Mansfield Park, the simple event that the heroine wins the hero of her desires, unalloyed with the mere elaboration of that event in terms of when and how it took place. It is for this reason, for Aristotle, that "poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history": for poetry makes salient the universal features of what happens or might happen, whereas history is bound to the detail, arbitrarily (Aristotle's judgment) unfolding, without necessity, sometimes even without probability, merely of what actually takes place.

Aristotle explains this point by analogy with painting, observing that there is little pleasure to be had from the painter who applies (even exquisitely beautiful) colours at random, when compared with the effect produced by the outline of an image in black and white.

In 1816, Austen famously wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen, of "that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour": a comfortingly artisan image of the writer at work, painstakingly constructing a likeness in tiny scale and with fine materials; but Austen's contempt for this process, the contempt that changes her image of the artisan into that of the artist, is expressed, not just with the tone of irony with which Austen so frequently positions herself above the arbitrary vicissitudes of the events and the characters that elaborate her plots, but also with the account she gives of her nephew's writing style, with which the description of her own style is intended to contrast: "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." With which style of writing would Aristotle have approved? Certainly not, the one characterized by variety and glow; much more likely, the one undertaken with a fine brush (to keep the lines sharp) on pale background and with a view (this was why "miniatures" of their daughters were often commissioned by noblemen, to encourage the ardour of potential suitors) to achieving, not a mere likeness of the subject (the stuff of "history"), but the essence of their personality as well (the stuff of "poetry").

There is a kind of knowing that is mostly attributed to young women, who are perceived not only to employ their feminine wiles but to do so in a manner so conscious of their attractions that the effect is unpleasant, as if the young woman in question were setting herself above the round of human relations even as she also engages in it. It may be this kind of knowing that separated Austen from her contemporaries, and made her much more a writer of our time than she was a woman of her own.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Literature's Humble Uniform

We might take the problem of contemporary literary fiction back just one step further, to Plato's teacher, Socrates, and his famous statement of the merits of knowing you don't know. Socrates seems, by this, to name a kind of humility as essential to human knowledge, presumably because mere humans, by contrast with their gods, are never capable of more than partial insight; to give proper expression to this limitation, it is necessary, so Socrates teaches, to build into any and all of our pursuits the acknowledgement that they are undertaken in merely human style.

But there is no longer any humility about this Socratic move - perhaps there never was. Why not, is a matter of logic: if not knowing is an essential aspect of all human knowing, then not knowing is also an essential aspect of knowing you don't know; it is not a case, then, of knowing you don't know but also of not knowing you don't know. This kind of logic is rather dreary, of course, seeming bent on being so clever as to efface the spirit of Socrates' claim. But it is precisely the spirit of Socrates' claim that is at issue. For the truth is, that knowing you don't know can only be the superior mode of knowing that Socrates claims it to be, if it is characterized by an inhuman certainty, which, for Socrates, comes from the juxtaposition of human knowing with godly knowing. In other words, as a perpetually present "humility," knowing you don't know is really a piece of hubris, always relativizing of human achievement as a means of rising to a godly one.

The fact is that we do know. Not in a godly way (what might that be?) but in a human way. The idea that this, the fact that we humans know in a human way, ought to be perpetually made present in our knowing implies that there could be another way. If we relinquish that final piece of hankering after divine truth, then we can launch ourselves into our human ways, without having to show contempt for them, or remove from them, unless, that is, they come into conflict with other human ways that we might value more.

Shuffle off this mortal humility, then, and our writers might be free again, to launch themselves into their projects without having to posture at a contempt for them even as they pursue them, without having to sacrifice their human talents to appease the gods they no longer believe in.

But why now, for Socrates' saying to have become the style? Why now, for the so-called "humility" of not knowing to be in vogue? Because we live in a condition that is premised upon the quiet suppression of any kind of launching in, any kind of knowing that might be considered to merit being acted upon; and it is a condition for which the "not-knowing" intellectual classes, too knowing to feel that anything is really justified, are the perfect embedded army.

Contemporary literary fiction is one division of this troupe: a very loyal one, whose "new clothes" are the uniform of the obedience it fosters in the "hearts and minds" of its target population.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Baby-Led Oppression

An important element in current doctrine on child-rearing is what is called "baby-led weaning," whereby, as the name suggests, a baby is encouraged to determine what, when and how she will make the transition from a milk to a solid-food diet. This means that at "mealtimes" - and it is important now to distance ourselves from that term, for such times are not baby led - the only person in the room yet to have reached the age of reason is the one who determines the amount and kind of calories to be consumed and, in the process, distributes those calories in a manner that constitutes them as things to play with as well as to eat, things to ingest in jest.

The most recent large-scale survey on the topic in the UK revealed that one quarter of all boys, and one third of all girls, between the ages of 2 and 19, are overweight or obese, and the problem, we are told, is getting worse, another recent survey predicting that the numbers are set to rise to 63% of all children in the not too distant future.

How, we might ask ourselves, when we are making such strides in knowledge of how best to initiate our babies into the world of eating and drinking, are those babies getting fatter and fatter as they grow up?

But this is the wrong question. We should rather ask: why do we continue to give up responsibility for the rational determination of our children's relationship to food when we can, at the very least, observe that the baby-led approach does not improve that relationship?

If we ask the question in this way, then an answer does quickly present itself. And it is: the commitment to baby-led weaning continues, not in spite of the fact that it hands over the determination of meal-times to someone whose IQ, we are told, is less than 20, not in spite of the fact that it results in food wastage and mess, not in spite of the fact that it makes it almost impossible to monitor the amount of food one's baby consumes in any day and therefore more concerned about her nutrition, not in spite of the fact that it is time-consuming and frustrating, not in spite of the fact that meal-time loses its defining characteristics and flows out into the whole of the waking day, and not in spite of the fact that it is at least not reductive of the kind of problematic behaviour around food that leads to overweight and obese children, but actually because of these effects. Baby-led weaning, like many of the practices recommended to child-rearers these days, is a very good way of keeping people occupied by minutiae, generally anxious, guilty, and, yes, too overweight to fight what seems like a naturally-given apathy. Not much will change, politically, socially, culturally, economically, when those already grown are preoccupied with the anxious relinquishment of their responsibilities, and growing generations are too sluggish to do anything much at all.

Baby-led weaning: it's surely too innocuous an ideal to produce such sinister effects, one might object. But, it is precisely by these apparently innocuous commitments that a liberal democratic population, with its antennae raised for large-scale and explicit restrictions on its freedom, must be kept down. Indeed, the extent to which baby-led weaning is actually liberating - of children, from culturally determined restrictions on eating and drinking; and of parents, from the requirement that they assume authority - makes it that kind of control that is the most effective of all: by removing the boundaries around that time of day when food is prepared and consumed, and around the various stages of maturity (which are put into a melting pot out of which babies emerge as leaders and parents as helpless), it constitutes a grazing populace unused to the deferral of gratification that is part of what separates us from the animal and that allows time and space for the pursuit of those higher pleasures that make us more than mere cows out to pasture. Add to this effect, the immeasurable increase in anxious guilt that is generated by the proliferation of norms - how many calories your baby ought to consume, what range of food and textures your baby ought to encounter, how lumpy your baby's dinner ought to be, when your baby ought to hold her bottle, when she ought to hold her spoon, when she ought to hold her cup, and so on and so on - norms, whose increase is not objected to as the unacceptable restriction on your baby's particular make up and circumstances that a regimen of mealtimes and menus is regarded as: and you have the parallel loosening of traditional structures and undermining of reason and experience that is the perfect recipe for a population of under-confident and acquiescent child-rearers, and confused and resistant children.

Did Elizabeth David wean herself? Did Delia? Did Jamie? Did Hugh? I think not. What nonsense, then, to admit for a moment that the rage for "baby-led weaning" is anything other than that combination of freedom-where-there-should-be-constraint and normalization-where-there-should-be-responsible-judgment, that are the ties that bind us in our liberty.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Literature's New Clothes

Contemporary literary fiction is a case of the Emperor's new clothes. It is time somebody shouted out from the crowd: "But they aren't writing anything at all!"

Plato distinguished the products of what we now call "art" as those whose appearance alone is of interest. These days, we may quickly move to dismiss this definition, given the iconic status attributed to several twentieth-century artworks that seem to undermine it, not least those indiscernibles whose appearance cannot be definitive, or those conceptual pieces which do not appear at all. But even these artworks have entered the fray broadly as examples of visual art. And, for visual art, the challenging of Plato's claim, that art is appearance alone, has about it just that kind of apparent impossibility that suits so well the spirit of the avant-garde.

But what of literature? Not so easy for literature to position itself in respect of Plato's claim - and it was a claim originally intended to be true of poetry more than of any other art form - given that appearance would seem almost the preserve of the visual. We might say, then, that, as the visual arts pursued an almost impossible antipathy towards appearance, the literary arts pursued an almost impossible affinity with appearance, through that aspect of appearance that was, happily, both the perfect mode of appearance for literature and the favoured mode of appearance for Plato: form.

But has not literary form had its day? Have the formalists, and the structuralists, and the post-formalists and the post-structuralists, not been and gone? True, but something still remains of form: not any literary form, but the form of literature itself. Contemporary literary fiction continues the attempt to live up to Plato's definition of art - which, for Plato, made art true - by writing in a manner to give the appearance alone of literature. The effect is a genre in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant. And this effect is produced, not simply by the abandonment of most of the elements of character and plot, not simply even by an avoidance of high-literary language and style, but by a self-conscious juxtaposition of the signs of excruciating effort - short, elliptical sentences; absence of fulsome description; muted tone of painful sublimation - with the signs of iconoclastic casualness - colloquialisms; lack of trajectory; air of the incidental. This is how the appearance alone of literature is pursued: by the combination of painful retention, of a Literature that will never appear, and easy production, of a Literature that need only appear.

The Emperor ordered his new suit of clothes to appear invisible only to those stupid and incompetent subjects not fit to remain at their posts. And there does seem that kind of intellectual stake in contemporary literary fiction, that those who cannot appreciate it are those too stupid to do so. But stupid people too can read and write. It is just that, for now, they must do so without giving the appearance of doing so. They must wear clothes that people can see, which leaves them far more exposed than they would be if they wore clothes that only appeared.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Brian Haw: Did We Kill Him With Kindness?

Before the death of Brian Haw is entirely forgotten, and with it the man and his campaign, we would do well to include in our brief respectful acknowledgment of the merits of his cause and the courage of his methods a moment of regret, not just for the manner in which we sometimes handled him too roughly but also for the manner in which we generally treated him so well. It is said that a man can be killed by kindness; certainly, a man’s protest can be silenced by tolerance.

On 16 January 2007, The Guardian reported Tony Blair as saying: “When I pass protestors every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.” In this short statement, B.liar, as Haw liked to call him, enacted the mode of oppression characteristic of the political system of which he was a very fitting leader, a system that makes capital out of criticism by its performance of tolerance towards efforts at resistance. The more explicit the resistance, the more political advantage to be gained because the more “liberal” the regime is proved to be that allows the resistance to proceed. In this way, the implicit display of political tolerance will always trump the explicit display of political resistance, as the content of particular protests is neutralized by the political effect of their form as protests. “You name it, they protest against it,” is about as near as a good liberal democracy will come to paying any attention to the particular grievances of discontented citizens. As Robert Shrimsley (FT.com, 21 June 2011) observed of Haw: “Ironically, he may be remembered less for his protests against the British government than for the way Britain ultimately protected his right to protest.”

One moment during Haw’s decade-long campaign crystallized this oppression-by-tolerance of our political system: the moment in 2007, when Mark Wallinger won the Turner Prize for an artwork comprised of a faithful reconstruction of Haw’s Parliament Square protest, much of which had recently been dismantled under the new Serious Organized Crime and Police Act. The difference between art objects and other kinds of object is a question that continues to exercise many in the artworld – it is a question that arises most pressingly around the justification of “indiscernible” art objects, that is, objects like Wallinger’s that look just like an object that is not considered art. One influential answer comes from Plato: art objects, unlike all other objects, are those whose appearance alone is of interest. And here lies the solution to the killing-by-kindness of Brian Haw, for the so-called “tolerance” of liberal democracy amounts to the transformation of life into art, of ways of life into appearances of ways of life, of points of view into representations of points of view, of beliefs into performances of beliefs, of principles into forms of principles, of relationships into hallmarks of relationships, of achievements into certifications of achievements, of thoughts into the documentation of thoughts. In this way, no matter how oppositional one’s beliefs and actions, they are not only tolerable but crucial to the appearance of tolerance of the regime in which they can, apparently, flourish. The official Turner Prize pages on Tate Britain’s website report that the jury recommended Wallinger’s artwork as a “bold political statement.” What nonsense. It is, rather, the appearance of a bold political statement, whose only real merit is its making explicit the extent to which bold political statements, in our British liberal democracy, are only ever allowed to be appearances of bold political statements anyway.

While Brian Haw must be honoured for his commitment to resisting the wrong-headed and immoral foreign policy of Britain, he must also be honoured for unintentionally showing up its very objectionable domestic policy; that moment when his protest against the state of Britain was transformed into an artwork called State Britain revealed something startling about the conditions of our time and place: the fact that protest against our liberal democratic government is not actually – at least not straightforwardly – possible, given that any protest, whatever its content, unwittingly lends support to the apparent liberality of the polity that non only permits it to happen but “thanks God” that it can. And that’s what we call freedom.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Art Kettle

The Art Kettle is due for publication by Zero Books at the end of this year or beginning of next. Its aim is to demonstrate the manner in which art operates as a "soft" discipline, comparable in its nature and effect to the police tactic called "kettling," and the controlling counterpoint to our liberal democratic polity's promise of "freedom" and "tolerance."

Friday, 21 January 2011

At Last, Something for the Digestion

Minister for Education, Michael Gove, is introducing changes to the second level curriculum that, for once thank heaven!, are not being greeted as another daring move towards the future but rather, at last, as a reanimation of the past: students of Geography will be expected to know the names of capital cities, students of English the novels of Austen, students of History the chronology of kings. Those so blinded by New Labour as to think that anything Old is regressive may say what they like, this is so hopeful a development as to amount to the possibility of a reopening of the channels to education that have been so surely closing over the last couple of decades or more.

And this too, at a time when what is called "higher" education has sacrificed itself so entirely to determining the extent of its quantity and, what is not, in the New Labour target culture, qualitatively different, its "quality," that it is no longer much else but the detemination of the extent of its quantity and quality. Open the pages of Times Higher Education these days, and what you see advertised in its jobs pages are lectureships in Higher Education. No, not lectureships in the higher education of students in Philosophy, or English Literature, or Physics, but lectureships in the higher education of students in Higher Education. In these times of unprecedented university cuts, when education has become so utterly defined by targets that the survey of students' sense of satisfaction as they sit in their "Introduction to Phenomenology" class is taken to constitute the success of their introduction to Phenomenology, the university has nothing but itself left to teach its students. The question is whether students' sense of satisfaction will be taken as constitutive of their higher education in Higher Education; if so, the university may find itself hoist by its own petard. Having savaged the possiblity of education in all disciplines but itself, the university may finally, having had to turn on itself for sustenance, end in savaging the university. It is too late, now, to feel that such an end would be anything but welcome.

But perhaps there is hope in the surprising guise of Gove: hope that, as education consumes itself at the top, it opens up again, nearer the bottom, to a healthier set of foods - including the recommended daily amount of roughage that has been utterly neglected by the over-refined, over-processed offerings of New Labour; hope that what had appeared as a devastatingly over-involved eating itself to death is only the last stage in a peristalsis that begins anew, now, to improve all our intellectual diets.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Classy Dress

Immediately outside the university library, there is collected a small number of students, third years perhaps. Your eyes come to rest on one member of the party, because she has pretty features and healthy, long, blond hair. And then you take stock of the rest of her, and what you see is this: dark green, rectangular-cut jacket with diamond-patterned quilting, such as people wear on TV programmes about horses; a foot, or less, of visible denim; and then the Hunter wellington. And you think: "Why would a pretty young woman dress in a jacket for which her shape is irrelevant, and a pair of wellingon boots?" And the answer follows fast: this is the uniform of a certain class of young woman, one who has horses, if not quite in her stables, then at least on her list of hobbies, one who wishes to attract a man to, if not quite yet, then at least very soon, keep her in the manner to which she is, if not quite accustomed, then at least determinedly aspiring. That she judges her chances of attracting this man to be greater when attired in a quilted green rectangle and boots for mucking out in than it would be in a mode of dress designed and worn to, say, emphasize her femininity, to - let's keep this very general - make her look nice, speaks volumes for the manner in which class has trumped style, of dressing and probably too of other aspects of living.

During the nineteenth century, when industrial modes of cloth production began to undermine the distinction that had been easily available to those who could afford dresses made of fine fabrics, middle class women became fearful of being mistaken for their servants and, what was almost worse, of their servants being mistaken for themselves. There promptly followed the introduction of the servant's uniform so that style continued to remain the preserve of the privileged. Society has changed sufficiently for the imposition of a class uniform to have become outrageous. But it has not changed so much that the benefits of such a uniform are no longer felt. It is simply that, now, the middle classes, constrained from dressing others in it, consent to dressing themselves in it, and opt to preserve a badge for their position in society by claiming as their birthright, no longer style but rather a green-quilted absence of it.