A Year in Review: Changing Perspectives

Since it is the time of year where it is customary to review events and happenings of the past twelvemonth, it is both seemingly customary and obligatory to write a review of the year. I have invited Sinistre, Destre and Antisophie to give a piece about reviewing the year, and Antisophie rejected this on the basis that it was an arbitrary idea for a blog post. If there is one thing I have tried to do in my resolutions of 2011 it has been to keep a sense of consistency with the things that I have resolved. In addition, one other thing that I think might be worth talking about is not just a change in my activities, which is usually characteristic of New Years resolutions, but what usually characterises the failure of said resolutions: mindset.

Previous New Years resolutions have met with some success. In 2009 I ventured to keep more records of music, so I used Last.fm religiously (p.s. feel free to add me!). My resolution for 2011 was to improve my fitness, and read more. I’ve been training for the past few days with Sinistre, and I think with some fairness I can say that I’ve upheld the former resolution but there is more to do in the world of keeping fit. Regarding my reading target, I set a task of reading 100 books, which I have kept a log on another social networking site, Goodreads (again, feel free to add me!). I not only met the target of 100 books but exceeded it. I hope that the developers of the site keep that widget for 2012.

A related, but non resolution task that I set for myself over 2011 was to read more about Feminism. I did this through the help of the ‘A Year of Feminist Classics‘ blog, which I must admit that I couldn’t find many of the books towards the later months. Reading the (excuse the gendered word) ‘seminal’ works of feminism did help to widen my perspective, and the agenda of feminism will continue to be something of interest to me. I suppose I have been apprehensive about feminism in the respect that people often say things like ‘I’m not a feminist but…’, or ‘I agree with feminism to a point’, in reference to the fact that many people seem to think that the literature in the 1970s to 1980s which typified feminist discussion in relation to more radical themes discussed in Margeter Walters’ VSI monograph on feminism. Another feature that may annoy many people is the perception of contemporary feminists as 20-30 something women who predominantly speak from a caucasian, middle-class university educated perspective. If politics has the problem of these male equivalents (give or take a decade older) dominating political discourse, contemporary representations of feminism would also have this as a difficulty as well.

As an aside, I recall an interesting allegation that I was perpetuating a white bourgeois view of culture in a talk that I gave on Utopias earlier on in the year, and I thought to myself: I am the last person to be accused of being white or bourgeois! My point is that the population or over-reputation of any discourse (such as the overrrepresentation of men in politics or academic fields) is not a reason to dismiss the discourse tout court, even if it undermines what we may call its ‘ecological validity’.

So, having read Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women’, Wollstonecraft’s ‘Vindication’ and Perkins-Gilman’s ‘Herland’, can I call myself a feminist if I see a good amount of reasoning about the historical and current status of women being diminished by virtue of their urinary organs. I find this difficult to answer. One because feminism isn’t really my ‘battle’ to fight, firstly as a man and secondly since I have so many other battle grounds to engage with (Adorno on Culture, for instance). There is a certain kind of flaw about campaigning on too many issues which undermines a campaigner (let’s call this the P. Tatchell factor), so in that regard I am more an observer of feminism than a participant.

I think the real thing that blew my mind in relation to gender is that I am much more aware of the gendered nature of culture. I have a nephew and a niece for example, and I can see how toys and products are marketed differently, and perhaps the obvious form of this is the colour coding and gender assigning of products. Girls like pink and boys like blue. Girls toys relate to domesticity and male toys relate often to activity. Another thing that interests me is that feminism was introduced to blow open a quagmire of intellectual discourses, politically the acknowledgement of women shook up the establishments of the early 20thC and still continue to do so in various respects, consider for instance the recent BBC story that women are not included in the Sports Personality of the Year award (to which the F-Word blog put forward a series on contemporary women in sports today, many of whom are Olympic hopefuls).

In the history of feminism, intersectionality is essential to the movement, to talk about women is to demystify an ‘other’ character. Increasingly we can demystify the ‘other’ by addressing issues of ethnicity and sexuality. Black and lesbian feminisms were interesting critiques which split feminism into a plural movement of feminisms, which would attack each other for their lack of representation and the solidarity with the female disaspora. One thing that I learned from new personal friends is the experience of the transsexual woman. Blowing open our sense of social awareness even further, there is still much more work and social awareness for the cause of transgendered persons. Cisgendered establishes currency as a term in relation to the transgender, and the acknowledgment of transgendered people poses another set of issues for feminist discussion.

Being a philosophically inclined person, I couldn’t help but ask if feminism was relevant to philosophy. This merits a whole article on it self, but let’s just say that it does have much of a contribution to systematic areas of philosophy. Empirical studies on gender and gender bias show that data on gender perceptions affects issues that are relevant to theorising in epistemology, morality and even the construction of science. I have wondered personally whether ‘feminist epistemology’ is basically the same thing as ‘social epistemology’ , in that they acknoweldge the social construction of knowledge and question what things are not included under the aegis of episteme (that’s just one example). I’ve had a related thought which is whether it is possible for feminist philosophy to be a systematic philosophy. This I need to think harder about. It is one thing for feminism to be relevant to philosophy systematically, it is vastly another thing for feminism to be systematic. Perhaps it is unique about an intellectual movement to be involved so intimately with campaigning and action that it resists systematising.

2011 has been the year of the SlutWalk, superinjunctions which mostly related to men having affairs with women and for British readers, changes in government funding which negatively affects everyone, but women will be especially affected in relation to activities such as childcare and employment, where the gendered roles affect their social and public roles. The frame of gender has been useful to me in my general outlook, and it also has enabled me to be painfully aware of my own gendered existence. I spend hours playing skyrim, working out at the gym. I have macho interests like airsofting and tasteless action films. I realise that some of my interests I probably find compatible with being male. I am self conscious about the gendered language among my friends, and even some of the things I say which normally is accompanied by an ‘oh shit did I really say that 2 years ago?!’ moment. Gender is a very interesting frame to look at contemporary issues, and I think it will continue to do so. So if there is anything that can characterise my year I would say that it is reflexivity.


On balance: regarding critical perspectives on Christopher Hitchens’ life

While most of the other male Noumenons are quite fans of Christopher Hitchens, and to some extent, I quite like his ‘God is not Great’. There is, however, a number of pieces going against the grain orbituary pieces which place the man in a more critical light. I’ve just sent them to the other Noumenons and it has enlivened a midnight discussion at present. We have found the articles through Leiter Reports, and it certainly provides food for thought. The critical allegations which I find really challenging to the legacy of Hitchen’s reputation and writings are the following:

  1. Hitchens’ position on Iraq, specifically, the allegation that he said that he did not ‘change his position’ about supporting the war, but shifted from an initial WMD line of justification (following Blair/Bush), but the justifications that I recall him often saying (when we came across him ff 2006) were on the basis that Saddam Hussein was a dictator and any dicator should be removed with a democratic order. These are clearly different reasons and it is bad faith, and disingenuous to say the justification is the same, it is difficult to say it is not changing a position of support, when the platform of support is vastly different.
  2. Hitchens’ talk of Islam or ‘Islamofascism’ was one of those thematic soundbites that he had (along with the very notable: ‘we are created sick [by God], and commanded to be well’).
  3. There is one specific allegation pertaining to his reference to the Dixie Chicks (who in my view are a bit of a cultural obscurity) as ‘fucking fat slags’ (sic). There are many different ways to cut across or try to prosthyletise sexist language (e.g. ‘its a generational thing’/’journalism is full of men’), but it’s just poor rhetoric at best, or crass chauvinism at worst.
  4. The personal character of Hitchens is one who drinks often, Hitchens himself acknowledges this in various interviews. I recall a saying of his in an interview where he quipped that if one couldn’t be without a drink to be a creative writer, then they are a failure. According to personal testimonies, Hitchen’s character when drunk was highly uncomfortable and a bullying character. Michael is currently writing a book review on A.C. Grayling’s ‘The Good Book’, where he earlier made a pertinent comment to me that the problem with Grayling’s address of the character of Solon in Humanist “Book of Acts” is that he’s too positive and not critical. Michael’s point is that it does an injustice to Solon’s deserved reputation as a great man not to acknowledge that he was not perfect, and that his reforms (such as the measure to end slavery debts) did cause problems as well as solving others. So, when I asked Michael earlier if these critical appraisals still affected his admiration of the departed Christopher Hitchens he simply replied: Is Solon a great reformer?


Reading Adorno: Culture, Administration and ‘institutionalised culture’

As I further read Adorno, I find many of the cultural references he establishes interesting, they are interesting in that they show a man’s familiarity with what he essentially finds repulsive and corrosive. I myself make a purposeful effort to listen to music that I wouldn’t normally like, or I might say it in a different way: if I listened only to the things that I liked, I would be incredibly dull and unchallenged aesthetically speaking, even if my music interests are typically subversive ideologically. Adorno was well aware that subversive cultural objects can be sanitsed and appropriated by the culture industry to become an anodyne machination to enforce the cultural status quo.

I am reading an essay ‘Culture and Administration’, where he addresses a certain kind of putative dichotomy between these two notions. Administration may be typified as the Weberian concept of rationality. According to Adorno’s reading of Weber, institutions which become increasingly organised and efficient seek as a norm, to become even more efficient and organised, I wonder what both sociologists would have thought of Machine Learning! Culture by contrast, is fuzzy, culture is ideological but also without a system of order and can manifest organically and in its various infestations, manifest in its own unique way. I take Adorno to appropriate this dichotomy as a late 19thC or Romantic notion (I must admit that I’ve not quite finished the essay yet). However, for the context of Adorno’s broader cultural industry notion, it seems interesting to invoke this contrast.

Perhaps there is a normative role for culture, a still existent rational possibility for the emergence of Culture in the way he has construed. Emergent forms of art representing ideologies may simply come from various historical and cultural contexts and remain fresh and relevant. When I read about Adorno’s distinction, I immediately thought about the state of the arts in the UK. Many artists and projects are maintained institutionally. A lot of Classical Music in the UK through the BBC is essentially tax payer funded (or whoever pays a TV license). This is an instance where ‘culture’ directly has an administrative character. There are manifold other instances of this, the British Government has a ‘ministry for culture’, which does sound quite Orwellian (as in 1984) to me.

If I were to take an Adornian perspective to the current affairs of ‘institutionalised culture’ we might see the institutionalisation of culture, that is to say, by paying and supporting artists, funding bodies take an areopagite role of determining the agenda of future successess, at least as far as financially supported artists may go. Of course, as we have learned from the bohemians, financial support goes a long way to recognition among the public, and as we have also learned from history, it is not always the ones who are popular who are remembered.

When I think of Adorno’s contrast between culture and administration there is the air of the old ‘creativity versus rationality’ dichotomy, and I am also reminded of Kant’s notion of the genius, which I am sure Adorno had in the back of his mind. The Genius is a creative potential to redefine the rules of a given art, genuine innovation comes not from following the rules of an artistic norm, but working from one’s inner creativity to establish an internal logic and order. Perhaps simply said, the truely eminent don’t follow rules and principles of their art but create their own. I think by this contrast of culture and administration, Adorno allows for the possibility of the Genius, and I’m pretty sure that he thought Alban Berg/Arnold Schoenberg were exemplars [and he’s not wrong!].

As I close this piece I realise that there is an amphiboly here. I used three senses of the term culture. Culture qua culture industry, which involves the oppressive machination of late capitalism to use media such as radio and television to have an impact upon the social consciousness. Culture versus administration, which allows for a positive notion of art, perhaps through the Kantian genius, or the emergence of underground movements. Lastly, I considered an undefined and perhaps putative use of the word in my address of ‘culture’ institutionalised. The state of funded cultural projects today shows both the administrative and autonomous aspects of various cultural practices (such as say, Grayson Perry’s British Museum exhibit). Perhaps this infrastructure is a more rationalised form of the patron. Institutionalised culture does not challenge the terminology of Adorno, rather, it emphasises that terms need to be pulled apart.


Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

As with many other important things, I found out on a regular visit to the BBC’s news website that Christopher Hitchens had died. Many of his regular readers, or fans, if you will, were expecting this news ever since his cancer was discovered. It is normally the custom in honouring the dead, to start with a platitude about life, living or death. I feel that this would be a tired cliche, and could be found in orbituaries and other such memoriam posts around the internet and print media.

If there’s one thing I can say about Hitchens is that he wrote broadly. Hitchens was well read and the ‘texts’ which he imbibed in varied from political philosophy, new atheism, English Literature to the more lowbrow nuances of popular culture. Hitchens covered a wide range of bases which captured the zeitgeist of the past three or four decades, and from my limited life experience, he captured the 2000s pretty well, for an author of a elder age where youth was emphasised in the public sphere, he showed a razor sharp understanding of the times and even when his interpretations and analyses were often disputed vehemently, he provoked a discussion on topics which one would not normally consider.

Hitchens in various parts of his ‘Arguably’ anthology, alludes to figures whom he has been compared to, such as Gore Vidal and George Orwell. The former in his social views and public profile, and perhaps the latter, in that both were journalists with a conscientious socialist bent. Hitchens proved that the journalist could be an intellectual, and in an ever changing world, the agenda and focii of the intellectual should also broaden.My own influence from Hitchens would be that he showed the possibility and desirability of combining elements from disperate subject matters, traditions and merging of a ‘high’ cultural corpus with a ‘low’ cultural focus to create focussed articles which were more readable than the literary and intellectual figures which he would reference. The passing of his life also represents to me a changing mindset and environment going on around the world. In the way that people would talk about historical moments such as the 1968 student movement, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. I suspect that 2011 would be the year of dissent and global disquiet about the status quo.


On Social Media (or The panopticlon of judgmental peers)

I’ve noticed lately how Facebook is telling me about the behaviours of friends, whether they are in a certain restaurant (via Foursquare); whether Michael is playing too much Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and lately there is a ‘Guardian’ and ‘Telegraph’ application which tells me (as if I want to know) what articles they are reading from these UK newspapers. At this point I felt something was deeply wrong. The Guardian is putatively seen as a centre-left, liberal publication (or at least, their readers are described as such), and maybe 5 years ago people would have complained about the way in which technologies are are means of constant surveillance, leaving a trail of one’s activities. There was something menacing about being observed or having our data kept by unknown forces: who, for instance, really looks at our Nectar card points balance when I shop at Amazon or Homebase?

From Socimages post on social media

In a way this Foucauldian worry about the surveillance society and a menacing panopticlon is a lost concern. To some extent most citizens of the city-state accept surveillance in tacit ways to many degrees. During the UK riots this year, many surveillance technologies successfully worked to catch many of those involved, the public would surely approve of such an application, and we can at least see a non-menacing rationale of such surveillance in that extent. What I really find worrying, however, is the constant ‘performance’ of social life. This has been emphasised and turned up to such a level which I find insufferable. Twitter friends think that it’s somehow amusing to tell me about a late train in Croydon, or the “woes of waiting for a bus, and then two come at the same time #buskake”; Charlie Brooker, a great cynic of our time, has turned his writing which has insightful pieces on television and his Guardian column, has turned his talent from gold into bowel movements.

I think the thing that is worrying me is that social media can be seen as a means to changing perceptions and challenging orthodoxies to give people a voice. But when individuals are aware of others, they become self conscious and attempt to project some idealised conception of themselves, projecting themselves as they think others expect or wish to see of them. I’m guilty of this myself, Michael and Destre have told me in previous discussions that they are slowly self conscious about this issue and find that social media management is similar to personality management in social interractions. In this way, social media has a fundamentally conservative force, instead of changing perceptions, it enforces the notion of ‘business as usual’, or that the status quo (or some hyperbolised version,¬† where all some individuals do are say proverbs and upload pictures of babies/cats/their six pack/drunken partying). The govenance of social media is under more nefarious hands than governments and shifty mega corporations, its governed by the expectations others have of us. It is true that social media can be used to subvert traditional forms of authority, and unify forms of resistance and can signify ideological and symbolic forms of difference. Social media however can be a conservative force that expresses in a most naked form, our need for approval from others, by emphasising what we think others will like or expect of us as social persons.This mindset preserves the status quo, and also our ways of perceiving change, both within ourselves and without.

It’s also inescapable. I could cynically add: ‘Like us on facebook’ and ‘join us on Twitter’. Words are cheap, if all we have to say are things people expect of us, that’s not freedom, it’s self enforced slavery.