Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tristan Hunt's Education

In case I don’t get round to writing about the conversation on Trotsky and Engels on the South Bank last night, let me mention one incidental thing that struck me powerfully.

Tristan Hunt (the historian who has written a biography of Engels) said he’d been hooked on Engels since he was 11, when his teacher at prep school read them the whole of The Condition of the Working Class in England, a chapter a week.

(Hunt is from the strangely named Queen Mary, London -- as if it were a ship, or indeed a queen (it’s actually a university) -- and I've noticed that every scholar I hear or read from that institution seems impressive.)

I doubt whether that sort of teaching is even conceivable in today’s state education system, of which perhaps the biggest failing is its lack of substantial content and denial of scope for deep intellectual engagement.

London, Berlin, Mexico

What a week for treats I could have had in very few other places than London.

Sometimes I fantasise about a move to the country (where I've never lived), partly in preparation for the coming breakdown of environment and society, which may or may not happen, in my lifetime or for years after, but more because I love views of landscape and having birds around other than the magpies, gulls and pigeons that are all we get in Surbiton apart from the occasional parakeet. (I've saw a single swift on a couple of occasions, and distant swallow once or twice.)

But then I think about the stuff I've been able to do this week by virtue of living in London (on the outer edge but with fast, frequent and free trains to the centre).

Here are the highlights.

Monday evening: a conversation between six writers, historians, journalists and other experts on Berlin, the Wall and the division of Germany. Memorable readings from two autobiographical pieces about the East, comments out of long experience by Misha Glenny with a passionate appeal to make the EU work for the sake of the peace and security of Eastern Europe including the Balkans which should eventually be brought in, and a quite different account, quiet and thoughtful, by David Chipperfield the architect on his restoration -- or reconstitution -- of the Neues Museum, with slides.

Tuesday morning in the British Library, looking at stuff I've had on a list for a year or two. Lovely place to work and the system seems to work beautifully. Because I'd got something wrong in my ordering one item hadn’t been delivered so I'll be back today to get it -- they’re faxing it from Boston Spa, their depository outside Leeds (a talk by the LCC Chief Inspector of Schools in 1948 about the London School Plan.)

Tuesday evening: Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the ENO (English National Opera) -- the production got a bit silly but the singing and music were ravishing. I first discovered this opera (1908 0r 1911 as I remember -- that terrific exuberant, inventive, iconoclastic first phase of Modernism) in a tv series on 20th century music, Leaving Home, by Simon Rattle and his Birmingham Philharmonic on Channel 4. I taped it and later bought the DVDs and have replayed them several times. When does C4 do anything like that now?

Yesterday evening: the South Bank again for another conversations: Robert Service and Tristran Hunt on their biographies of Trotsky and Engels. This calls for a separate post. It was as terrific as all those ‘conversations’ on the South Bank are. I've been to loads and never a dud one.

What, in the country, I ask myself, would I be doing at the times when in London I have experiences like these? going for walks? enjoyable once in a while but when the weather’s dull they can be really boring. Gardening? I used to do that and a large part is mindless drudgery.

Could see myself rapidly declining into Marx’s (and Hazlitt’s) state of rural idiocy: fitter and healthier but bored and stupid. So here I stay for the next little while.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Art and neuroscience

In the last couple of days I've chanced to look at three articles which discuss what studies of the brain and evolutionary biology have to say about art and literature. Two were in the London Review of Books and conclude ‘Not much’ (Terry Eagleton’s article [24.9.09] is entitled ‘Darwin is No Help’). The third is an article John Hardcastle sent me about the mutual influence of Vygotsky and Bakhtin and points out that their essential philosophies of science and criticism were poles apart, Bakhtin holding with the neo-Kantians that completely different methods were required for studying the physical world and the arts, Vygotsky that as we know more about the body/brain a unified science will become more and more possible, the key to understanding art lying in a study of the responses it evokes.

Vygotsky, though, wasn’t guilty of a crude reductionism that saw consciousness simply as a biological issue. He was impressed, of course, with the argument that at one level the material is all there is and, along with many others, was looking for ways of accounting for consciousness, will and aesthetic response within a single framework. One way was Gestalt psychology (the whole is different from the sum of the parts), but what they were moving towards was the now influential idea of emergence: while ‘the more complex aspects of reality (, mind) presuppose the less complex (e.g. matter)... they have features that are irreducible, e.g. cannot be thought in concepts appropriate to the less complex levels’ (quote attributed to Collier 1994).

Friday, 6 November 2009


The English National Opera at the Colisseum Theatre has surtitles despite all their operas being in English (I find them helpful).

When you enter the theatre the screen is showing, alternately,

Welcome to the London Colisseum
Please ensure that all mobile phones are switched off


Welcome to the London Colisseum
Write a review

This poses an interesting question. It’s polite to say ‘please’ when you ask for something, which is why it says ‘Please ensure...’. Isn’t it then rude and peremptory to say ‘Write a review’?

No--I don’t think we do find it rude. So what’s going on?

Unlike the surtitles we get once the show has started, these messages are directly addressed to the audience with the intention of affecting their behaviour; the hoped-for response is an action. The difference is in the weight the ENO places on each address.

They really seriously want you to turn your phone off. Because the request is so serious it has to be made seriously polite. Just “Turn your phone off’ might well be taken as rude because it’s undisguisedly an order and one you’re really expected to act on, and we don’t take kindly to being bossed around. It risks reading like, ‘Do we really have to tell you to turn your phone off for a performance, you thoughtless fool?’

The politeness is done elaborately, almost to the point of ridiculousness: how can I, a single reader, not knowing anyone beyond perhaps an immediate neighbour, be supposed to ‘ensure’ that all the phones in the theatre are off? Or is the entire house supposed to come together in some fine upsurge of collective will? It suggests, moreover, that my response is to be some sort of ‘ensuring’ rather than the brutal actuality of (what they’re really after) switching my own phone off, which of course I should have already thought of.

‘Write a review’ on the other hand, while grammatically an imperative, is no more an order than the instruction in a recipe or a suggestion in an ice cream place to ‘Try our new flavours’. It implies, ‘Why not...?’ and as a speech act (ie *pragmatically) is in invitation or suggestion.

In fact, if we get a straight imperative like ‘Write’ in a situation like this, that’s a clue that the speech act isn’t an order. If it were the imposition of some near-compulsory regulation, we’d recognise it by it’s non-imperative form. If we were in a classroom or on a parade ground or in some firm run by Alan Sugar, our linguistic/pragmatic interpretive frames would be different.

(We shouldn’t, then, be telling kids that ‘an imperative is for giving commands’. It is, but only sometimes. Like the ‘present tense’ isn’t about contemporaneity: ‘I'm arriving tomorrow’.)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Marxism and the crisis

Last night there was a debate at King's College London between the King's academic Alex Callinicos, a respected Marxist thinker, and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, considered one of the best analysts of the economic situation. Both were spoke clearly and effectively with no fudges, making only sparing use of notes -- indeed, it wasn’t obvious that Callinicos had any.

Apart from one rather cheap crack at economics (a good thing that King's didn’t have an economics department because economic theory was so blind to obvious realities -- is it *still as bad as that? I thought there had recently been lots of promising developments in the subject), Callinicos came across as straightforward and humane. Wolf was rather unpleasant, patronising his largely student audience by saying their questions were just what he’d anticipated and implying we were all unthinking egalitarians.

Though completely engaged by the opening two speeches, I began to feel during the answers to questions that this was a non-event and I wasn’t learning anything. The speakers weren’t engaging, so it wasn’t even going to be a draw. (I left half an hour before the end.) Callinicos put the basically familiar argument that capitalism is intrinsically a lousy system and we shouldn’t give up trying for a better alternative just because the USSR had failed, the one serious though flawed experiment in socialism: capitalism, after all, had taken five hundred years to develop -- foolish to judge socialism after only a few decades. Capitalism, as Marx had observed, though now (for reasons he elaborated) in possibly terminal crisis, was the most productive system there had ever been (to which Wolf added that it had spectacularly increased the wealth of many ‘undeveloped’ countries, most notably China). *Planning as an essential concept could no longer be dismissed so readily since dealing with climate change obviously necessitated it; the argument then needed to be about what *sort of planning: planning by elites in the interests of profits, or democratic planning in the interests of well-being?

Wolf said capitalism was here to stay as the least bad system; it was impossible to ‘fix’ it, once and for all, and there would always be periodic failures like the present one (with huge human costs), but, as before, capitalism would always recover because it was the only known way of co-ordinating the ‘de-centralised initiatives of millions of people’, a task too complex for any planning system--even in the relatively simple economy of the Soviet bloc.

It was this point that Callinicos critically needed to address but by the time I left he hadn’t, except to say that developing a democratic alternative would take time (five hundred years?) and that a few academics had done some solid investigation of the forms such democratic planning might take.

He picked up the observation by Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Israel Emanuel, that ‘this was too good a crisis to waste’. He didn’t say what he had in mind in practical terms as the way to exploit it but I thought Wolf’s point (from Popper) about the need for ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than utopian schemes had force: this might be an opportunity for such engineering. What Wolf didn’t register, however, was that such engineering, no less than utopian planning, must always be in some *chosen direction -- fixes aren’t *just technical -- and why shouldn’t that be the direction of greater well-being and democratic control? Slavoj Žižek in the current *New Statesman advocates strong support for Obama’s health reforms because, though imperfect, in the absence of any grander possibilities they’re *something and they meet the right criteria. Until Callinicos’s academics produce a clear model of a planning system that will work, perhaps this sort of piecemeal initiative is the only option.

Callinicos was, of course, absolutely right in his critique of capitalism. Wolf was absolutely right that no system has been discovered that’s not worse at co-ordinating vast numbers of individual choices -- in the interests of wealth production. He simply didn’t address the question, what about producing well-being rather than the wealth that’s measured by market price? What we needed was a debate about how to get from here -- Wolf’s capitalism which has all the strengths he describes but is inhumane and destructive -- to Callinicos’s democratically co-ordinated economy that aims at well-being.