In praise of the notebook

Since the start of the year (I still can’t believe it’s been 6 months), I have begun re-organising my normal inventory to include a notebook. It has changed my perspective on things. I am often of the view that paper is archaic, antiquated and will soon be obsolescent.

 

I was on a train last weekend reading a book on my tablet and the train passed through a tunnel. At that point there were no light sources anywhere in the train, but I barely noticed this as my tablet had a backlight and I continued to read Spiegelman’s Maus. I then noticed that people on the train reading magazines and books (P-books as I might call them) were noticing that I was not hindered by this tunnel and enviably observed how I was like the only person with an umbrella in a sudden spate of rain.

 

I am a keen user of Google Keep and I have found that it has really made an impact on my productivity and I use an account of Keep at work to keep track of multiple things going on. I also love the way in which Keep is like a post-it note and a back of an envelope all at once.

 

However for all this innovation and integration into a centralised cloud based centre, I have still fallen love with this old-fangled notebook. There are things that I love about my notebook which are irreducible. I love how my notebook has a little tab that keeps a pen, which has usages for other things besides that book. I love the physical size and weight of it. It is unimposing yet distinctly present. I have a 32gb microSD card that I often carry on my person which is a back up of a lot of files that I have had since 2006, but I barely remember its there and it is far to small to remind me of this fact.

 

I love the way that my notebook has visible signs of aging; it has discolourations, coffee stains, nicks here and there and other unaccounted for discolourations. I love how my notebook has a few torn out pages for when I’ve given my phone number or email to somebody. I also like using the lined pages for whatever I want. Unlike Google Keep, which presently allows pictures, checked lists and free text, my notebook is used for newspaper cuttings, scrawlings of logical proofs (Fitch, truth table and tableaux), I have some odd number chains and rough calculations, I write up my decision matrices there. I keep notes of meetings that I go to and I keep odd mementos there. I have for example a ticket stub from when I saw X Men: Days of Future Past alongside a picture of Schoenberg. I sometimes make a 5-line stave and write up some harmonic ideas in my head.

 

The novellist Lawrence Norfolk once described the notebook as being a junkyard of the mind. I love this conception, because I’d put things in my notebook that I’d never want to be on my blog, or twitter, or on Google Keep. I use Keep for strictly professional purposes at work and my home Keep account is strictly for productivity purposes. I have so much going on that I have to keep any kind of junkyard in a place that doesn’t affect that which is clean cut and polished.

 

Although I’ve always written this blog as a notebook form of sorts-  where I might state a view and possibly change my mind. I realise that this blog has become so established that I can’t always use it to post pictures of Pusheen. I am so besotted with my notebook that I should give it a name. Glenn Gould once described his chair as a boon companion and something that was quite close to him in more than a figurative way. Perhaps I might refer to my notebook as Gould. Although, I do have my worn-in-all-weather winter jackets that I refer to as my Glenn Gould jackets. There’s something to be said about the power of personal effects. My notebook has become almost talisman like, and as someone with a physical issue with handwriting, I am highly surprised to find this is the case.

 

The “Dear” (or, On Email Salutations)

The fact of our social reality is that we are judged by such silly things. But when we think about how deliberate some of those things are, maybe they aren’t so silly. The decision to favour trousers over a skirt has a distinctly gendered set of connotations for women. I have heard ad nauseam many conversations from women stating to the effect that they hate wearing high heeled shoes but it is expected of them.

 

Thinking about the micro level of interactions. I’ve been thinking a lot about emails. As someone who has to do a lot of emailing for work, and job applications, and everything in between (such as say, organising family things with my sister), I’ve been thinking about email salutations.

 

The issue of email salutations has been on my mind because it has encroached on issues of interactions in terms of gender, age differences, cultural/social backgrounds and just protocol. The issue really boils down to this: can or should I still use “Dear …” as a greeting.

 

Let’s consider a variety of cases:

 

Case one: working in a formal place

 

I sometimes work at a place where protocol is very important. Observing people by title or their ceremonial roles are very important as some of them occupy ancient institutions and are key civic figures. In this context it is not only appropriate, it is a sign of good Britishness to uphold the ‘Dear’ and other related customary salutations. This is the case in which the Dear is absolute, and in this situation I cannot ever get rid of the Dear.

 

Case two: at work: emailing someone who is literally behind you

 

I also work in a context where I am often in a lot of different desks and departments (see hotdesking) and there are often a lot of first introductions with people, sometimes meeting them physically after I contact them by emails (so I don’t recognise them by face). I usually do an anonymous Dear as a form of protocol to email people, including when I am unfamiliar as to where they physically are. If in some instances I am near someone that I need to contact, but I would need to email them because they are working on a caseload or on the phone or I just can’t judge their availability to deal with something, I would email them. I would often agonise over whether Hello is too informal for someone I don’t know, or if Dear is too naff and over-formal. These tend be the main cases in which a salutation becomes an issue of social interaction.

 

Case three: Dear and Gender

 

Antisophie put it to me in this way: would you call someone Dear to their face in the same way I might in an email with the same frequency? The answer to that would be a resounding no. It is true that when working with senior figures; Rt. Hon., Lords or your everyday Sith Lord, you would accord the correct title and greeting to them. If I worked more in this environment I certainly would take formality to be more frequent. Going back to the question Antisophie posed: would I call someone Dear? No. It’s incredibly gendered, and context of the other party’s acceptance of the term needs to be established. For example, an acceptable instance of me using Dear would be as a joke or an informal or familiar context with someone, and usually its to men and women that I know very well, and the quaintness of the utterance forms much of its acceptability. Outside of that it seems distinctly patronising at best, misogynistic at worst and horridly outdated. Antisophie gives me a reason to think that I should purge Dear altogether! Although if I’m writing a job application I wouldn’t want to undermine any chances by getting a little thing like the protocol of a salutation wrong. If we were living in a philosopher’s world I’m sure something like ‘Dear’ would be eradicated as a default.

 

Case four: to and fro emails

 

The usual kind of emails I get, which go something like:

 

Me: Dear n here’s my update on the situation

n: Great thanks, can you also account for so and so?

Me: Sure thing here you go

n: great thanks

(a bit later)

n: (unrelated question/topic with previous thread included in body text for some reason)

 

In these instances, sometimes it is a really quick fire of emails in a short period of time. Or it might just be a long thread. In these instances I think that putting Dear at the top is not only artificially distant, but also not germane to the discussion’s material. To and fro’s typically requires just the facts and even a greeting after the 2nd or 3rd reply isn’t necessary.

 

Case five: making an impression

 

I sort of hinted at this with the job application point. There are points where the formality of a situation is not established because you don’t know the person and or they are new to you (note I made a distinction here). Having a clear greeting and honorary salutation is crucial here. Having the Dear is important to establish a new connection, as in this context it is not presumptuous as a more informal greeting might be. With someone new having an impersonal distance is the default. My Latin American friends think that this impersonal distance with new people is absolutely quaint and quintessentially English (or in their words: soo cute!). There are instances where Dear is used to communicate a lack of salutations. Hi is too informal, Hello is awkward sometimes, and Hey? Well lets go to that.

 

Lemma: On ‘Hey’

 

Like the 19th and 20th Century aestheticians who had a fundamental dislike for the sublime. I too am not a such a great fan of hey. Hey is an informality that needs to be earned, like people who call me Mike. I am not a fan of hey and instead of communicating disapproval openly to practitioners of the word, I simply avoid participation.

 

Our salutations reflect our definition of the situation. I am eternally reminded of Dr. Kieran Flanagan’s example of the definition of the situation, in which a younger version of him was in a hotel in Minnesota and the hotelier asks: how are you today? To which he replies: I’M FUCKING AWFUL! Despite the values we have on authenticity, we still aren’t allowed to be honest when we aren’t okay, or in Flanagan’s case, fucking awful. I suspect that salutations exist in this same baffling way.

Received Opinions

Received opinions are the enemy of any informed democracy, and are the enemy of good taste. Whether a received opinion is wrong or right is immaterial. What is material is having enough familiarity with an issue to merit an opinion, or having a reasoned response to some issue.

 

It may be that we know too little about an issue to have an opinion. It may be that we have no view about an issue and yet many around us advance theirs. Having a perspective is overrated. There is such a thing as withholding judgment or simply having no view on an issue.

 

I’ve been thinking about the idea of a received opinion as there are many things in modern European history (by this I mean from the Baroque period to roughly the 20th Century). From my recent Spotify subscription I have decided to make really big musical playlists of composers or musical acts that I would like to be more familiar with. I like things like the BBC Sound of 2014 as I have been following those critical lists for a couple of years. I also have a mini tradition (as of about 2009/2010) of going to a 2-3 day festival called the Camden Crawl where almost all of the acts I see are completely unfamiliar to me, and then I have found that a few months later or a year later, some of them end up being on the radio and I can say that hipster thing of ‘I saw them before they were famous’.

 

Since about 2010 I have made music listening playlists for large collections such as ‘the complete work of Mozart’ or ‘the complete recorded corpus of Glenn Gould’ (part of what inspires me going on ad nauseam about one of my favourite pianist-artists). I have decided to listen to ‘complete works’ lists of other people as well. Last year I listened to Kate Bush, which was interesting – I must admit of my own male biases coming into play in my musical preferences and that I rarely acknowledge the female experience in music both as performers and lyricists. I listened to the complete work of Frank Zappa which required a lot of effort but was very rewarding at points. There was also a significant amount of leitmotif in his work too which would make me chuckle in that pretentious Glenn Gould way (not to say that I think Gould was pretentious – but he parodied it self-consciously).

 

Two composers have struck me in attempting to listen to their ‘complete work’. One is the composer CPE Bach, who is quite difficult to find big lists for on Spotify. The other was a composer that most people seem to forget these days: Paul Hindemith. CPE Bach I read in an article described as ‘proto-Romantic’ (wikipedia’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ piece), which I find an entirely eccentric claim. I also find it odd how standard intro textbooks refer to Locke and Berkeley as empiricists unequivocally. The problems with overview or received opinions are that they oversimplify and simultaneously under-explain. A received opinion may be a good point of view, but when presented as a received opinion tends to be less rigorous and argued for the more times it is copied by other people.

 

I have emphasised to people the importance of coming across primary source material on your own terms and reading it yourself. Instead of reading what other people think of them. It takes much more effort to read a Descartes commentary than it does to read Descartes’ meditations. That is more a testament to Descartes’ readability of the Meditations. When I hear opinions about Kant I can  sometimes guess where they are parrotting their opinions from. (pre-Manfried Kuehn or post-Kuehn’s biography). The beauty of the information age is that the resources for having an informed opinions are out there. With the exception of paid journals and unpublished papers, there’s a wealth of information from which we can contextualise and recontextualise our history.

 

Received opinions are subject to contestation. Some received views seem to linger no matter what, like a bad fart. Like the view that Nietzsche was a Proto-Nazi (which someone like Kaufmann in the 1950s’ successfully contested). Received opinions can obscure more interesting contexts. Listening to Paul Hindemith recently was reminiscent of Bernard Herrman film scores or les six composers such as Milhaud. I was reading a bit about Hindemith and he seems to have a strange set of contradictions: influential to the neo-classical movement of the 20th Century, yet in his post 1910s work shows influence from Schoenberg (as far away from neo-classical as you can get). The work of Hindemith seemed to have its own internal logic, its own sense of narrative and it didn’t quite fit with my received views of the 20th century. By one metric he is a musical conservative, and by another he was part of the avant-garde. I would be willing to consider Hindemith as both.

 

Another example of a received opinion that I’ve also mentioned countless times: when I read ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ I had no sympathy for the character’s suicide. It was not Romantic and it was not noble. It was not tragic, it was stupid. The story boils down to constituent elements: ‘boy likes girl, girl says ‘we should stop hanging out’, boy has breakdown as a result’. I am not saying that this is uninteresting and it is a life predicament that many people live through. However it is my view that there is nothing didactic about his response except perhaps (and this may be a bit oversight on my part), we accept that his actions are rash and aim to orient our behaviour away from what he does as a form of literary moral instruction. I find it dangerous to place such a high aesthetic value on this work and the way in which it seems to be commonly received suggests that we are more willing to follow the views of others than take our own view. Kant’s motto of the enlightenment is as relevant to musical history as it would be to current political situations: Sapere Aude: have the courage to use your own understanding.

 

Thinking Musically

I’ve written in the past about the adjective ‘musical’. Lately I’ve been hosting and helping people with improvisation. The odd thing is that I am no expert in music and I am an amateur and dilettante. I love to watch youtube videos about improvisation and playing technique and reading things here and there. I feel that one of the things that really enhances my ability to play is just to listen. There is a skill in being an effective listener of music and for me that is more of an accomplishment than whatever I happen to perform.

 

I have often said something to the effect lately, that the emphasis in performing well is to think musically. I keep saying this so much I don’t even know what I mean sometimes. I thought I might clarify what this could possibly mean in this post.

 

Thinking musically is about a commitment to music itself, music as a human activity and tradition that goes back to – God knows when! As a human activity we have forbears and we are inevitably indebted to them. It is fair to say that I am a paternalist about music often. Many things go back to Bach. Even the things that are developed as a reaction against something else, show that something else as a form of influence (Neoclassicism vs. 20th century Avant-Garde for example).

 

To think musically is to have your own voice. To think musically is to have a sense of conviction. My old piano teacher always used to emphasise the conviction of a performance over technique. Sometimes your conviction can be so strong that you might go against the standard interpretations or customs already established. Thinking musically can therefore be a means of expressing individuality.

 

As well as a commitment to traditions, genres and so forth; there is often an internal logic. There is an internal logic to an individual piece of music, sometimes in the phrasing, the articulation. Sometimes the internal logic is to one’s own playing style. An internal logic may be towards the interpretation of a composer or period.

 

I like to apply thinking musically to when I write my blogs. One thing that is a cliche of mine, is that I go for extended digressions that don’t always have a comprehensible take home message. Another example of applied musical thinking to a non musical discourse, is Glenn Gould’s ‘The Idea of the North’. This documentary on the Northern wastes of Canada applies an idea from the musical genre of the Fugue. The subject of the documentary focuses on vox pops of various people who have an experience of living on the northern frontiers of Canada and the aural testimonies are layered on top of each other in the form of subject, counter subject, answer. Of course I presume that when Gould did this documentary, not many of the intended audience would understand this Bachian influence on the art of radio documentary making. In lieu of this obscurity, it causes me to laugh at Glenn Gould’s sincerity. That so few would understand him yet he still continued his commitment to thinking and living musically.

 

Perhaps thinking musically is not a thing-in-itself, but a media through which ideas come forth. I think of how Haydn’s music often contains humour, not within the musical form but by virtue of being funny.

 

Perhaps I have a specific view about thinking musically. Lately my idea of musical thinking is a commitment to form and using form as a tool of expression. I often feel that things such as genre and style can often be the product of our cultural education and upbringing and instead of contributing new music to add to a historical process of cultural idioms and styles, we simply replicate them. While this in itself is not aesthetically ‘wrong’ or bad (see my post on musical conservatism), it is the unconscious and indeliberate nature of these influences that is deleterious. Like Walden, we must live deliberately in our music. If our upbringing is blues and our heart is in blues, then make it so, but deliberately.

 

Reading ‘Queer Philosophy’: The Philosopher as public intellectual

I am currently reviewing ‘Queer Philosophy’ (eds. Halwani et. al). One of the issues in the anthology concerns the role of Philosophers as public intellectuals. The prima facie view of  public intellectuals is that they usually assume a platform where they address an audience much larger than the audience for which their professional and publication background would normally mandate. So you would have specialists on very specific and seemingly irrelevant issues speak broadly about some generalised topic. Or is that really the case?

 

There are cultural issues at hand, as Halwani points out how in the USA, intellectuals are not seen as esteemed as say, France. It almost seems as if people in public gain greater social and authenticity capital if they are non-specialists or outright ignorant about an issue. One really needs to look at Anglophone politicians to see this is the case.

 

Cynicism aside, ‘Queer Philosophy’ contains some discussion on the (philosopher-)public intellectual. Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Moral Expertise?’ is a superb essay (anything she writes is superb, really) that invokes a distinction between a legitimate and illegitimate case of using a philosopher in a court of law. Engaging with the public means playing the game of short pithy soundbites. In a secular society, intellectuals have no more moral authority than anyone else, and the force of what a public intellectual puts forward should be considered by the merits of its premises.

 

How ideal this might sound, or how obvious this might sound? However the reality of it is that in the public sphere we all-too-often play with stereotypes and shorthand assumptions that just comes from a person’s name or position. Say the name Dawkins for example and people automatically get some kind of reaction or bugbear. Likewise, statements of the form ‘I believe’ does not have a place in the sphere of public reason. Taking beliefs and convictions as primitives is no form of argumentation at all, even if people attempt to derive premises or corroloraries or scholia as additionals.

 

Nussbaum gives bad examples of using philosophy in public debate (specifically in a court of law), and gives good examples. Linda Martin Alcoff poses that being a philosopher and public intellectual can involve portraying scholarship closed off to the general world, such as say, journal articles and treatises and conference papers; alternatively, Alcoff gives an example of where being a philosopher and public intellectual can advance original research and original insights on an issue that doesn’t come from journals but through an awareness of a public issue. Perhaps an example of this is the way in which feminist philosophers (and it should be said academic philosophy to an increasing participation) are challenging the conditions that make being an academic difficult for historically underpriviledged groups, this includes women but also minorities of various kinds such as those with disabilities.

 

Alcoff addresses the pitfalls of being a public intellectual in terms of one’s professional career, citing the examples of Cornel West and Noam Chomsky. Another view was to be negative, now this is negative in the Adorno sense. Where our worry about affirmations and making positive claims which could be appropriated, diluted and modified by others. Alcoff gives the example of the symbolism of the Che Guevara T-Shirt being utterly and cynically drained of any revolutionary fervour. The fear of being appropriated and misrepresented is very real when it comes to public intellectuals, especially when they are dead. I have come across the revisionism and perverting of Kant scholarship and German Philosophy at large during the Nazi period where something like the influence of a Scottish David Hume on Kantian Metaphysics is unthinkably offensive to the nationalist Nazi mentality.

 

There are many benefits and pitfalls to the different models of being a public intellectual. One can be a negative philosopher like Adorno, but how much of an impact did Adorno really have in his own time? Not much compared to say Sartre or Bonhoffer when it came to social critique. Alcoff’s example of Foucault’s activism is very powerful, to me that seems to be public intellectual work at its best. Foucault’s public activism on imprisonment led to a research programme and a mass of influence in a wide variety of areas in the social sciences, humanities and philosophy at large. There is indeed a space for original as opposed to derivative work in engaging with the public.

 

These essays in the ‘Queer Philosophy’ anthology were particularly notable to me, because they were so general, and should ideally be read by anyone with an interest in the public intellectual, and that doesn’t just include philosophers, or academics at large. I am particularly drawn by the suggestion that original work can happen through public engagement as a forum, the reality of academic writing is that something like Baumgarten’s Metaphysica will be read by a lot less people than Kant’s essay on the enlightenment, and more public responses and work has come from the latter, even when so much effort went into the former.

K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.

 

There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.

 

So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.

 

This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.

 

There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.

 

One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding

Non-European Black Metal

The one thing I really like about Black Metal, is how many countries have made it their own. Yes, there was all the stuff about the satanism and the church burnings and Burzum’s activities. But Black Metal means many things to many people. I’d like to talk about a blog I’ve recently been following. The blog Black [sic] Spring often hosts a lot of self released material, material that is purposely made available by bands for free in the bootlegging spirit.

 

I really found this blog interesting because of the non-metal albums it refers to. There’s a lot of ‘folk’ music from North Africa and broadly Arab countries listed. I admire how a particularly sensitive attitude is being displayed about the music. The music is often referred to as ‘folk’ but also acknowledges how some of it embraces more popular and western styles, often in subtle ways. I love how this music local to countries like Algeria or Egypt are drawn from as insightful from and directed to an audience who would normally listen to raw black metal cassettes. I love the renaissance attitude of openness towards difference, and a Romantic openness towards the folk culture, and using it as a cultural and idiomatic resource.

 

As the bands of Sweden and Norway became more polished after the 90s and a commercial culture emerged around Black Metal. The African, Latin American and Asiatic demo tapes that have come out of places like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Algeria or even Iran and Iraq continue to express a rawness and despair coming from their local situations. Black Metal is daring from those places, often they are stylistically interesting. Particularly when the distinctions that many black metal conosseurs make about subgenres do not hold.

 

When I think about writing that commentary on ‘In Search of Wagner’, an open question is in my mind about Adorno’s outlook: is there a possibility for cultural defiance, is there a possibility for a radical reform of our social consciousness through culture, in the light of the cultural industries and the European history that has preceeded the Second World War? I am increasingly convinced that Black Metal is an answer to that question, and that answer is Yes.

 

I wonder what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would have thought of the radical potential of Black Metal, the nationless underground nation, and the way it has been adapted to various localities, including to political ideologies that are deeply uncomfortable. I recall an interview (I think it was with Fenriz from Darkthrone), where it was said once the news went international about scandals about murders and church burning with the Norway scene of Black Metal, black metal at that point was no longer theirs, it became something for everyone. Non-European Black Metal is a frontier within a frontier, showing that there is still underground potential, and still an expressive capability within the genre. Another frontier is DSBM, which in a way has an opposing direction, instead of being internationally expansive, it is inward.

Michael

On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

The Spoon Theory revisited

A few years ago I read an essay which is quite influential, about a person’s explanation for dealing with chronic fatigue. It is endearingly referred to as ‘The Spoon Theory’, I recommend reading it. Go on, I’ll wait.

I’ve thought about this idea of the Spoon theory, having a limited but quantifiable amount of energy, or attention or time to dedicate to all the things you want to do. Some days you can do more, others you might do less, on more other days still you might do less. Much of my life seems to be fragmented across so many different circles and interests. There’s my training partner friend who I have lately been doing a lot of weight training with; there’s my badminton buddies (which includes my brother) who lately fill my phone with irrelevant Whatsapp messages (which I check about every 6 hours and find 200 messages); there’s the garden group that I’m involved with and that’s just off the top of my head of the kinds of things taking my time at the moment.

Whatever people consider as their spoons, there’s only so much one can handle in a day. I’ve been thinking about this in a large variety of contexts.

Reading

I read quite a bit, however I’m about 3 weeks behind on my comics and the pile builds up. I like to read in my spare time, and at the moment academic reading and blog writing is not a paying job (my CV is available on request by the way!). I have a lot of books that I have planned to read and often the pile grows even more whenever Librivox releases a new volume of Hume’s History of England, or when the next bit of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica comes out. I estimate that I’ll probably read all the things I have currently listed by the time I’m in my late 40s. Which is a little bit depressing. Then there are days when I’m just too tired to read. Learning is about finding out about old knowledge, and keeping your ear to the ground about new patterns and things going on. I’m struggling to do both, and the Theory of Spoons is very relevant to me. I do miss the old days when I would sit and read Kant for 10 hours straight and write 20,000 words in notes. It’s nice to idealise the past. Especially when it involved longer hair.

Fun activities

One of the things I learned from Spoon theory is that sometimes you need to keep your spoons for other things. This involves saying no to some opportunities. Sometimes I get book reviews or I’m asked to look at manuscripts or essays (also, my fees are available on request!) but I must turn them down as I have other things that have earmarked my time. Sometimes I hear about gigs that I would really love to go to, or a new activity that I’d like to do. In the background of the metaphorical spoons in my not so metaphorical hand, I must think about balancing my resolution to try new things and expand myself, against what i can find I am able to do in terms of my time, and my energy. The spoons have been helpful to me, although in this context it is within a wider context.

Adopting new behaviours

In the past I’ve talked a little about my scheduling system, and how I’ve set it in a way where I review behaviours and whether they are useful to keep patterns or to amend or delete how I do things. One thing that often surprises me is how many people think that I am ahead of the curve in terms of technology, apps or certain trends. In honesty I really am not, and I consider myself a bit of a luddite.

I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the kinds of apps we use as part of our everyday life, and whether they are for things like leisure or more helpful tools that keep records, remind one of impending meetings or how much they want to run today. One of the most general responses I’ve heard is that they only have a certain amount of attention and things like mobile phone apps, or another social networking website oriented around their interest in say, making ships in bottles is just not for them right now because all of their time is already full up with commitments from elsewhere.

We are in an age where so many things can demand our time, whether its serious, career relevant, personally fulfilling or frivolous. I’m reminded of Adorno’s essay on hobbies and how the notion of the hobby is disparaging and effectively supports the status quo. There’s so many fun and important things to do but such little time and ability. I realise the tension between adopting new behaviours or trying out new things when there are so many other objects in our inventory of life to deal with. It also makes it all the more special when we break routine. I am beginning to realise the role of the spoons when developing new habits or trying something new, as well as how our ‘spoons’ can be a barrier.

Concluding

On reflection I find the spoon metaphor very useful. It does a lot of work and the more I’ve thought about it in my life the more it has been useful in framing my time management and activities, as well as my limitations. To put it in terms of David Lewis’ Modal Realism thesis: it does a lot of work to justify its worth as a theory.

 

Michael