The idea of plural narratives

Plural histories

Something that has been on my mind of late is the idea of historical/cultural narratives that rely very much on stories which are often told. There are many kinds of stories which people deem significant and which are significant which are often told or have some aspect of it disputed: the story of the HIstorical Jesus, for instance, or the discovery of the Americas. The World Wars and the rise of Nationalist Socialism are other examples of narratives often told. But of course they are not the only stories.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how emphasising some narratives may undermine others. To emphasise unitary or specific narratives can both posit or prime non-rational assumptions about such a period of history. I am reminded of the kind of person who can only talk about the little they know about a subject even if its not relevant, and who is not content with an humble ignorant silence or agnosticism.

There are narratives which are not well known, but does that mean they are forgotten? It may be said. To not know that attributed first known composer of written music scores was a woman, is not as well known as it should be, is something that if we do not know about, we may not even think about. This I may consider a form of erasure. Likewise, it is said that many of the early writers of Tin Pan Alley established their careers through the uncouth musical genre known as ‘Coon Song’. Some things are ugly in history that if we forget, let the attributed get away with what they did. To some extent there is a moral character to our remembering and our histories: we remember the great achievers and celebrate them, and we should also remember those who should be shamed. We should not forget the shamed of history, of course we can also revise and dispute who we valorise or demonise.

There are many narratives in a single epoch. Some stories are told too much and it is the repetition that people become obsessed with, instead of the story. I am tired of hearing the anecdotes about Immanuel Kant and how he knew when it was 3pm. Why not the anecdotes about the influence of his friend Joseph Green? Reading the Black Metal anthology recently explores the other scenes that emerged, including USA black metal, where it was said that Depressive Suicidal Black Metal was developed.

I guess I’m reminded of this particularly today because the infamous nature of Varg Vikernes being on the news lately. Every mention of Burzum (and that includes this piece) increases the cult of what the early 90s scene was, and the potentially overhyped nature of it reminds me of that old saying ‘if you had all the pieces of the ‘true cross’ you’d have enough wood for a forest’. What about the other scenes that emerged within the Black Metal aegis, such as in Greece.

The other day I was having a conversation with my actor friend about the idea of a theatrical version of Star Wars. My friend suggested that would be a logicially ambitious project. But I suggested that (I was also simultaneously explaining my approach to musical score-reading), one must have an interpretation of the text rather than creating a literal facsimile. The Empire Strikes Back would work in my view as a drama if we focussed on specific situations, persons and mentalities. The Battle of Hoth from the perspective of a Rebel Soldier about to die; the engineers inside the Executor Star Dreadnought as they go to Bespin; or the inner worries of Lando Calrissian in his offstage behaviour away from Solo and Organa. There are many stories to tell, and being a judge of the multiplicities is an interesting critical question. What I would say to summarise though is: there’s no single history.


100 objects to explain the world

Ending today, was a fantastic series from BBC Radio 4 titled ‘A History of the World in 100 objects’. In conjunction with the British Museum; this programme explored objects which gave an account of human history through the objects we use. From objects such as the Olduvai axe, we see objects as enablers. While objects enable, innocation also broadens the scope of potential experiences. Beyond mere survival humanity becomes far more sophisticated; rituals and values emerge around sexuality, or the nature of our contact with others and our relationship with nature.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which is also referenced in Hawking’s latest book ‘The Grand Design’; is that early mathematics came about as a system for administering resources such as paying workers or distributing and storing grain. Perhaps a contradiction in the human condition is the drive to consistency and organisation; against the ‘freeness’ of creativity by breaking said rules.

Creating systems, not just of theories, but of how we organise ourselves; is really a great human endeavour; whether one needs to keep the technology infrastructures working, or the support infrastructures or even the economy; the strive for consistency is one of the vital human impulses that allows for human survival, and things as mundane as keeping warm during colder months, or organising travel.

The objects towards the end of the series were particularly emotive and powerful. While most of the objects speak about the human past. Many reflected some of the battles ongoing against sexual and gender prejudice. The last two objects, a credit card, and solar panel; truly hit at the heart of the present day. The issues of scarcity and sustainability will likely be
objects that will define the immediate and distant future (if there is to be any of the latter) of humanity. It was a fascinating programe. 


“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. “

Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. So says Richard Feynman, apparently. Alan Sokal, in a recent interview with Jullian Baggini, wrote that this analogy is suggestive of the lack of epistemic merit that philosophy has to the structuring and adding of new knowledge to physics. Analogies like this are apt for the contribution that philosophy has to physics, granted; but I have found it wanting in other cases.

A musician, who was largely an autodidact once said to me that he did not care very much for music theory as it did not fit with performance skills and apprehension as a musician. I fell silent, not bothering to tell him that he was playing music predominantly in a mixolydian mode, while utilising tritones, ostinati, parallel 5ths, 8ths, dominant sevenths, suspensions, passing notes, arpeggiations, and so on…

I can appreciate the view that being steeped in a particualr style limits one and the musical options that they have. I have recently started to play the guitar, and I like playing on blues scales. This is largely to impress my friends at my ability to naturally create riffs and hooks, but there is another sense in which I communicate my utter disdain for a style by its ease, there is a sense of comfort and familiarity when I play a ragtime. I’m not very good at sightreading Bach, even less if I attempted Beethoven or Chopin. Joplin and Lamb, by contrast, are a joy to practice at sight, this is because of my own insecurity as a piano player, but also there is a joy in seeing the immediate fruit of one’s labour by my immediate apprehension of the musical style and its playing ease. There is not as much ease, by contrast, in heavier romantic styles.

In short, sometimes knowing the rules of the game enhances our performance as players. This is certainly true for olympic or professional atheletes; who, while being introduced to a professional level normally at university or younger; sometimes furnish their career with a doctoral thesis that relates either to their performance or training as an athelete. Our inspiration may come from other things; engineers and technologists can sometimes draw their innovations from the observation of nature.

Coming back to the philosophy example, a later point was made that physics is just as successful and unhindered by philosophy. Physicists like Feynman and Wolpert are distinctly anti-philosophical, in contrast to the likes of Einstein, or if one really wants to go back, Newton. Newton after all, had written about his empiricist leanings and nature of his methodology. Kant reacts critically to Newton’s ’empiricist’ methodology, but not the results. This kind of philosophical engagement of a physicist, by the standards of the day, were by no means amateur and are taken seriously by philosophers today.

The so-called philosophically oriented physicists of the 20thC, by contrast, are not terribly interesting in terms of our contempoary philosophical tools. Einstein’s ‘Spinozism’ has been talked about by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, as a caveat so as not to be interpreted into religious terms. Having an understanding of Spinoza’s metaphysics, by contrast, is not even addressed. Spinoza’s approach to life was one of emotional calm against the overwhelming and sometimes uncontrollable temperaments that we suffer in life. One of the enjoyments that we can have in life is an apprehension of the unity of nature that is, in his metaphysics, how the nature of our inner consciousness subsumed in no small part to the larger reality as a whole, as well as the underlying propositional language that both support. This may sound mystical, but really, it is a form of naturalism. The two prejudices that Spinoza’s philosophy had were: admitting that his metaphysics was fundamentally correct, and we put scientific development and knowledge on a pedestal. None of this is really addressed in the ‘Einsteinian’ view so bastardised by the atheist popularisers.

Stephen Hawking’s own popular books try to establish a so-called philosophically interested reading of M-theory, string theory and general relativity. There are moments where his reading is somewhat patchy. But perhaps the real thing that is important, and that Hawking succeeds in, is making the current understanding of science understandable to a general public. This is what I would consider the most socially important thing that phyiscists can do outside of their work. Sokal’s perspective by contrast is one where physicists do their science between monday-saturday and then their speculation on a sunday. What succeeds about Hawking’s presentation is that the physics is presented in a manner that has religious and humanistic dimensions, rather than one of a technical ‘philosophical’ merit. Does the universe have a beginning? Does the universe have an end? What is our place in the grand order of things? Is there life beyond earth? Physics goes on well without philosophy’s involvement, however, it should be attributed to the death of the polymath that there are less physicists more interested in philosophy. The rise of continental philosophy that fails to acknowledge the work in physics with any real expertise is also a reason why physicists may dislike philosophy as a whole, that is the whole point of the Sokal hoax in a sense.

Perhaps the most interesting, and important thing that physicists can do for the public is to be understood. Conspiracies such as the moon landing being fake, or the belief that miniature black holes will destroy the universe; are harmful to science, harmful to reason and pander to a mindset that hurts rationalism and rationality.


Historical Islam’s role

Over the past year, it has come to my attention of the historical role of Islam during the middle period. The translation movement, for instance, collected texts from all available cultures and drew from it. There seems to be the suggestion, and I think even the assertion (although I can’t find a citation) that those Islamic scholars who took those works of engineering, medicine, geometry, astronomy and other physical sciences, sythesised the knowledge of all of those discourses.

This leads me to question, if, either there is an implicit assumption of unity within these natural discourses, or if it was asserted by those Islamic scholars; if the latter, that would be interesting in itself, if the former, I’d think that unity was in greater sense of being convincing to me.

Let me state the thought in another way.

The works of engineering could be seen as offshoots of particular or applied generic principles in the physical sciences. That the same ‘iron’ in bridge-building, is the same ‘iron’ that we might analyse in our blood stream. Thus, knowing about the generic ‘iron’ and its properties would lead us to knowing more about how it affects the body, or how we may use it industrially.

Furthermore is the (seemingly trivial) proposition: the same ‘iron’ in a bridge is the same ‘iron’ in our blood, and that there is a unity in our subject matter in nature, shows the unity of nature in general. This, however, is not a trivial proposition at all.


Reading Foucault: Some observations

Reading Foucault is difficult; but one questions how it is that Foucault shall be read: for this question determines the latterly question: how shall Foucault be judged?

It is, despite my confidence about social theory, a whole minefield, of which I admit nothing interesting I can say about Foucault; comparatively however, the observations can be made:

1. It is strangely familiar to read Foucault, not in the writing style, nor even in the context; but in the conclusions made.

2. This is for a few reasons: Foucault’s terminology and work has been dispersed even if not by name unto many subjects: literary studies, social sciences, the humanities, (continental) philosophy..

3. There is a strange parallel to be made between Goffman (of whom I know a little bit more about) and Foucault:

i. Both seem to have interests in control mechanisms
ii. Both have ‘campaigning’ elements to them
iii. Both leer into the more morbid and dark and ‘outside’ (to use Goffmanian terminology) subjects of social relations and social structure; stigma, homosexuality, the ‘total institution’.

4. This parallel isvery unsubtle and there are many complexities to Foucault that I am not acknowledging.Very much, it is to say that Foucault’s work took place in the intellectually isolated environment of France, where little outside of it came through (except, of course, for the real ‘titans’ of the past – Freud, Marx, Hegel etc.)

5. It is interesting to read Foucault as a historian for two reasons:

i. If we understand Foucault as a historian, it sets a prospect for the kind of thing history can be: social commentary of the past to understand the present and future. I hold this wider perspective of our social and natural history to be ‘history par excellance’.
ii. Seeing Foucault as making a statement about our understanding as a result of, or in context of, past social beliefs/attitudes and institutional build makes Foucault look very favourable (much more so, than if we were to consider him a ‘social theorist’, or ‘philosopher’).