Monday, 30 August 2010

(Like) Weeds on the Waves

You knit a long dress.
A mix of mostly greens

One straight tower,
Its bonfire of pleats
To dance around your calves.

So beautiful someone says…
Like the sea walking!

You think of Martello,
And how the weeds jump
Around his sides…

You laugh strangely.
Shall… I knit this sea?


The Conformist

To escape!  Is this what we want, to run away from the household tasks of hard thought and a sensitive conscience?  Is this why so many people not only endure but even like their paid work, even when it does not fulfil, and often aggravates…

To hide from a strange teacher, is that what we want; are we scared of Christa T.?

[as a teacher you] made such impractical demands.  – Just one example: you quoted a phrase to us from a book by some writer or other, I don’t recall who it was.  It was about the half-real and half-imaginary existence of human beings.  It really kept me thinking…  until I began studying….  Until I realized that, for me as a doctor, real existence would have to be enough….

…the essence of health is adaptation or conformity….  To survive… has always been man’s goal and always will be.  This means that at all times conformity is the means of survival: adaptation, conformity at any price.

… But you can’t upset me now as you used to, I’m not under your moralizing thumb any more…  The right thing would have been to focus on the realities themselves as the true standard and to measure your success by the degree of psychological robustness you have given your students to sustain them through life [because realities are always stronger than morality].

What were these realities?  The totalitarian state of East Germany.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Dear Carrie

Some questions may not have an answer….

Trauma (II) In our Fingernails

Railway Spine.  This was the name given to victims of railway accidents in Victorian Britain who suffered trauma.  The symptoms were both psychical and somatic and included mental confusion, blurred vision, and noises in the head.  A surgeon, John Erichsen, who gave this illness its name, believed it had a physical, neurological cause. His ideas were highly successful in convincing judges and juries that the effects of trauma were no different from the effects of other physical accidents; winning many compensation claims against the railway companies.

Thomas Laqueur compares him to Charcot; who also believed that trauma had a neurological basis, though he thought it was due to a congenital weakness within the patient – they had a susceptibility to it. 

Then came Freud.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Is it so unusual,

asks Carrie Etter, for poetry to transverse the boundaries between the experimental and the mainstream?  She is responding to some commentators on the “experimental” side who “struggle” with her “mainstream qualities”.

Yes it is.  For the debate in British poetry between these two wings (on a bungalow, if the truth be told – poetry almost doesn’t exist as an art form in British society) is about something much wider than individual poems and book collections. A style of poetry has become associated with a particular approach to life.  It is about politics. A radical politics that is both aggrieved by the dominant culture and aggressive towards it:

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Trauma (I): It Will Save Us

We love big ideas!  Like Lego we can construct marvellous palaces with our words, indeed whole cities; we can make an empire so extraordinary that even Marco Polo will not be able to describe it.

Take a recent book, The Empire of Trauma by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman.  Even the title tells a tale: of its imperial ambition.  Trauma, once just a psychological illness, has been turned into a metaphysical entity; a grand theory we can use to understand the world and its phenomena.  Like dialectical materialism, or Freud’s unconscious, trauma can now explain not only personal sickness but major political events; it has become the explanation for society’s ills.[I]  It can also cure them.

Monday, 23 August 2010

All by Itself?

Science is catching up with the arts!

We are told artists have ‘never doubted’ that language itself shapes thought; and that now the scientists are beginning to accept this old idea (see Mark Abley’s review of Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, TLS 13/08/2010). However, to support this view we are given some ambiguous reasoning:


History Speaks

I am a member of the Labour Party and Labour Representation Committee, but not uncritical of either. Sometimes I plug events or causes, but this blog is not intended to play a broad ‘noticeboard for the left’ role. All opinions expressed on this website are mine alone and do not represent the stance of any political organisation…

… My comments policy is probably one of the most libertarian found anywhere in the UK political blogosphere, because I believe in freedom of speech and the healthy clash of ideas. (David Osler)

The voice of History. Can you hear it? Those portentous tones, the confidence that everyone will listen (‘not intended to play…’) and the confidence he knows and understands the world (‘my comments policy… one of the most libertarian…'). Yet who is this writer – how many people on the web know of his existence? How many blogs and websites does he actually read?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Why I Am Not A Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.  Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting.  I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says.  I drink; we drink.  I look
up.  "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again.  The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by.  I drop in.  The painting is
finished.  "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me?  One day I am thinking of
a color: orange.  I write a line
about orange.  Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page.  There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.  Days go by.  It is even in
prose, I am a real poet.  My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet.  It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES.  And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Emily Henochowicz

At the end of an excellent lecture Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now! and a great American, was asked about Henry Kissinger. She described a talk he gave, where afterwards he was questioned about his role in the Indonesian conquest of East Timor. To the first questioner, a Timorese exile, he said, after a long silence, and after turning very red, its great you haven’t smashed this place to pieces! To the next questioner, the extraordinary journalist Allan Nairn, who referred to the official cables that showed Kissinger not only knew of the slaughter (this could be established by looking at the public record), but his anger because his staff had created a paper trail, he shouted, it’s people like you who make diplomacy impossible!

Indonesian troops had bashed in Nairn’s head when he and Amy Goodman were covering a funeral in Dili, which turned into a massacre when troops fired on the mourners. Both reporters, in a place were reporting was illegal, had put on their recording gear and ran out in front of the possession, to put themselves between the mourners and the troops, in the hope that they would not fire on western journalists. The troops rushed passed them, throwing them to the ground. To protect Amy Allan Nairn threw himself on top of her; it was then he was beaten over the head. The soldiers, pointing their rifles at them both, then asked if they were Australian – many years before five Australian journalists were murdered by Indonesian troops on the first day of the East Timor invasion. Australia had protested hardly at all; oil was more important than Australian life. Amy shouted out Americans! We are Americans! This is what saved them – the cost of an American life was too high a price to pay.

But this is not always so.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Let's Take a Break

Should the poet work hard? Current fashions suggest yes, he should: to the office early, and non-stop on the email track until exhausted he slumps home, to sleep under the evening TV; and the adverts that will consume his free weekends.

Do we have any alternative?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Counting the Words

Can you be an expert in a field you know nothing about?


Real Artifice

Novels are like strangers. We’re a little wary to start with; but are prepared to be polite. A few drinks, a confession or two, we chat for a while, maybe for a whole evening; and we see each other now and then. Sometimes, though, a rather odd one comes along and bang! we’re mates immediately and for life.

Here was a rather ordinary stranger, soon to be forgotten; when…

Monday, 16 August 2010

It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys

It seems frantic haste can affect science too. In the previous post I wrote about the pressure to do more in less time, of Lord Dacre and the authentication of fraud. Now we have this from the Harvard scientist Marc Hauser:

Dr. Hauser reflected on what he had learned from Dr. Marler.

“Only once can I recall Peter giving me an explicit bit of advice, and this is when my impulsivity was getting the best of me,” Dr. Hauser wrote. “Peter kindly told me to slow down, reflect more, and publish less.”

He didn’t listen, and even now he is writing “furiously”, though a letter leaked to the Boston Globe shows that there has been a Harvard investigation into his research results, which has found serious errors and misrepresentations; that may be the result of fabricating evidence or is due to sloppy working methods and record keeping.

The newspaper articles suggest a probable explanation: he wanted to have big new ideas, to work across a number of fields, and he wanted popular appeal (he was going to be the new Steven Pinker). In this he has been very successful…. And thus the urge, surely, to push those ideas just a little further than the facts warrant:

Dr. Terrace said there had been problems for some time with Dr. Hauser’s work.

“First there was arbitrary interpretation of the videotapes to suit the hypothesis,” he said. “The other was whether the data was real. There have been a number of papers using videotape, and all of them have to be reviewed to see if the data holds up.”

Dr. Terrace noted that it was easy for a researcher to see what he wanted in a videotaped animal’s reactions, and that independent observers must check every finding.

The mind has a propensity to go beyond the facts, and make connections that do not exist. It sees what it wants to see…. Intellectual discipline and integrity, and a rigorous academic field, can be the means to stop this tendency. However, the need for fame and glory can jump over these obstacles; seemingly quite easily in this case. Did Harvard play along?

Of course the people who do the serious work remain relatively anonymous:

Dr. Hauser, 50, was trained by two researchers renowned for the rigor of their field work on animal behavior, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania. “Marc was our first graduate student,” Dr. Seyfarth said. “But many years ago, we decided that Marc’s way of doing things and ours were not really the same. We just differed about our approach to research.”

It is difficult to have original ideas that are strongly rooted in academic rigour. Often the best work will be small improvements, greater precision and depth in a quite limited field; but not startling epistemological leaps that attract attention outside the subject area. Thus the best work is often done by people who remain unknown to the world outside their discipline. A fate, it appears, that did not appeal to Dr Hauser.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

F*** Dacre!

Nick Davies in Flat Earth News gives a new name to our modern day media: churnalism. The production line manufacture of news, that is often lacking content, is sometimes pure fiction, and is always open to the manipulations of the PR industry, that increasingly supplies many of the stories.

In Pile It On I suggested that the office had now been turned into a factory, with all the usual effects – both on the product and the employee. In Neal Ascherson’s review of a Hugh Trevor-Roper biography we get another glimpse into this new industrial world:

Like Road Signs to Oxford...

Assia is described thus:

..the current Susan Sontag figure in the UK literary scene – without the skunk hair; she was blonde – pulchritude and profundity.

And a daughter speaks …

‘George Steiner is George Steiner-lite, Dad’ Steph observed dispassionately.

The reviewer catalogues the undigested reading (‘Raine proves incapable of suppressing his erudition’); and makes the telling point about the narrowest of the novel’s milieu, Oxbridge academia and its literary offspring, and its aspiration to make universal statements, which turn out to be both banal and pretentious:

Crying has its own rhetoric. We need a poetics of crying. When we cry, we assume spontaneity, sincerity, because it’s a process we cannot control… (quoted from Craig Raine’s Heartbreak in Leo Robson’s review TLS 09/07/2010)

Is this the worst novel in the world?

Monday, 9 August 2010


Lawrence, Were you Listening?

But always to preserve the adventive
Minute, never to destroy the truth
Admit the coarse manipulations of the lie
If only the brown fingers, franking his love
Could once be fixed in art, the immortal
Episode be recorded – there he would awake
On a fine day to shed his acts like scabs…

Men, women, and the nightingales
Are forms of Spring.

The first is from Cavafy, the second from Corinth. The first salvaging something beautiful from the sordidness of cheap sex and poor brothels. The second the eternal resurrection, that is man, art and life… Both can be found in Lawrence Durrell’s Selected Poems, 1935-1963.

The first suggests a mere passive recording, so as too keep and fix one perfect moment; to capture it like a photograph. But is this how artists work?

I Believe in Pavements

He is everywhere. I wear him like perfume! At breakfast with my tea, the TLS on my lap, there he is wafting down, unsettling the pages.

Which pages? you ask.

Oh, its Anthony Kenny’s review of a new Cardinal Newman biography, by John Cornwell (TLS 30/07/2010).

It’s where he quotes Newman, showing how he demolishes a particular argument of Locke’s. His view that to love truth is not to take anything for granted; but to test it rigorously, until you are certain of its foundations. For without this certainty, without this level of evidence, Locke says, you ‘loves not the truth for truth-sake, but for some other by-end.’ Newman, as it happens, quite easily dismisses this:

We laugh to scorn the idea that we had no parents though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life, though we can have no experience of the future; that we are able to live without food, though we have never tried; that a world of men did not live before our time, or that that world has no history.

For Newman wanted to show that there were grounds for a belief in God, even though they appeared empirically weak. This argument appears to give some support to this idea.

It seems to me that both Locke and Newman are wrong. If Locke is quoted correctly and in context he reduces all knowledge to a single standard; and conflates this standard with morality. However, there is our workaday world and our intellectual life; the latter much more vigorous and exact. Imagine walking down the road and before each step you required the level of proof needed to substantiate Boyle’s Law. Would you ever leave the house? For in our ordinary lives we live off habit and custom, which are really semi-conscious beliefs.

Newman, if he has not taken Locke out of context, has avoided this distinction between scientific knowledge and our common sense understanding, and he ignores the special quality of the former, which Locke, I assume, wanted to capture: that its foundation is sound reason, based on hard empirical fact (there is, after all, something odd about science). Newman’s favourite argument against Locke, according to Kenny, was that we believe Great Britain is an island on the flimsiest evidence. A layman yes; but a cartographer?

Newman and Locke are almost certainly talking about different kinds of knowledge and insight, where the levels of evidence and argumentation required are substantially different. It is at the serious level of enquiry, of scientific and historical understanding, that the belief in God and Christianity was weakening. If Newman wanted to protect belief at this level he had to counter their arguments and evidence; not use our common sense notions; often wrong and ill-informed. By conflating the two he wins the rhetorical argument, but not the intellectual one. And surely enough later in the review Kenny shows how Newman, in the end, could only successfully appeal to those who already believed.

Yes, yes. But who do you wear like a rich scent? Oh, Mr David Hume.

I Haven't Finished Yet

She steps out

___In front of the canvas

To give me a gift
Of a quiet smile

___For I have seen
___What she doesn’t want me to see

At least not yet.

___Her raw paint,
___The feelings alive still.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Art and Life

The relationship of ideas to the world is a complex one, that it is not clearly understood; though the problem appears to be have been resolved many times; and millions of books have been written about it. Each new generation tends to shift the majority view: in one era it will be ideas that are all important, hardly influenced by the environment; while the next may emphasise the role of economics, or of Neo-Darwinian selection, to determine what we think. And so it goes on! The dialectic proceeds, both between epochs and within them (there is never a monopoly at any one time; there are always counter currents, which can be the source of the next shift, creating a new cluster of dominant ideas).

Hegel’s theory of history may be too abstract and formulaic, but if we limit it to the interplay ideas and reality, and make it more concrete and less systematic, then it does have a lot of plausibility and truth. Each period will have an ideological atmosphere, or climate of opinion, which will predominate; and because of its own shortcomings (which are inevitable), and the changing underlying reality, it will decline and be replaced by another; and so on and so on. And at some point in time there will be a creative revolution, linked to major changes in the environment, which leads to a huge shift in outlook, and the creation of a new theology or paradigm – examples include Christianity, the Reformation, and the first scientific revolution. Of course, how these changes in the world and changes in the ideas are related to each other is the big question, which no one really knows for sure; outside lots of speculative theories and individual insights.

Despite this uncertainty, and the changing fashions of intellectual history, the constancy of the question, at least since the 19th century, does suggest that such a relationship exists. So, whilst we may be unable to conclusively prove the case either way, as the causal factors are unknown - is it ideas? is it the environment? – we can at least work on the assumption of some intimate link between the two. Our task then is to trace some of these connections, which may enrich our understanding, both of the ideas themselves, and the wider world.

Saturday, 7 August 2010


Corporate Anarchy

Are ‘failed states’ so called because they are weak or because they are strong? Do we call them failed states because they failed, to manage themselves, provide for their citizens; or because we failed, to conquer and control them?

In a previous post I wrote about Alex De Waal’s analysis on this subject, particularly of Sudan, and looked at some of the reasons why the West wants to reform these countries: