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.


Cultural Connections: The protest generation

I was currently reading an essay “The Schema of Mass Culture” by Adorno over the past couple of weeks. I was planning to write about it and make some notes, but I need a lot of time to think about it, to connect the dots as it were and I know that any interpretation that I do have is hardly definitive or worth reading. Connecting to the present, I have been catching up on the news events around the world from room with a window facing dull suburbia. With the recent riots behind me, I am observing that there is a protest movement in the USA. There are already internet memes mockingly referring to the sincerity of the movement, which in a way both undermines its seriousness, as well as acknowledges its influence.The phrase ‘we are the 99%’ is coming up a lot.

Around the world, protests are popping up. This is hardly a uniquely pan-Arab phenomena, as so-called ‘developed’ or ‘northern/western’ countries are experiencing moments of civil unrest. Credit rating agencies are looking poorly on the borrowing records of governments, and many pundits foresee more difficult economic times before it gets better. This issue exascerbates already underlying social inequalities, and in a way creating new ones. This is a recipe for civil unrest.

Over the past few years of writing this blog, I’ve noted a certain cynicism (namely, mine) about protest movements in general. I’m cynical that they got hijacked by families of causes, or they are simply not listened to, or that apathy rules stronger. There are a great number of interests groups these days. If we are to look at the UK, there are a huge family of interests which form the broad ‘anti-cuts’ protest movement. In a way I still feel cynical about whether they will make any affective change, but their voices are definately going to be heard. In some way, protest methods have become more plural, more inclusive, and not necessarily more direct-action based (although there’s a lot of that too).

Reading Adorno, I am reminded that certain Frankfurt school representatives would engage with student protest interests, combining praxis with their theory. The social sciences, and to a lesser extent, philosophy, had become relevant to the protest sensibilities of the time. What happened with the protest movements were that they fizzled out, and the failure of which set the cultural tone of pessimism for the 1970s in the manifold of cultural movements. I wonder how this situation will pan out, but I’m certainly not optimistic of the emergence of a world soul, or socialist utopia. Perhaps, like Adorno thought: culture will be schematised to expected conditions and the terms of collusion will be carved out by culture, cutting the protest motive from the jugular. Television popular light entertainment in the UK is at a peak high that it has not seen in decades, a fixation on such a culture seems to be an interesting contemporamous bedfellow of the protest movement. I find something distinctly Adornian about that.


On Steve Jobs

I’ve been pretty hectically busy this week, part of it is ‘career’ related, and most of it is also due to family issues. Over the course of the week, the only time in which I could catch up on the news is late at night. It so happened that around midnight, I recieved a retweet from Associated Press which said simply that Steve Jobs had died. I looked on google hurredly to confirm (or corroborate) it and I found no precedent stories except a story about a hoax earlier in September reporting his death (not helpful). I later found about 6 minutes later that the reports came flooding in to confirm the story. News these days travels pretty fast, but not that fast.

Many people refer to him as an Edison like figure. The success of the two latest Apple innovations not only superceded the iPod franchise in terms of its hype and success, but set the playing field for its competitors. I often say how I am not an Apple consumer, but how is anyone not an Apple consumer? In the respect that the iPod set up the market for MP3 players and mp3 consumption, services like Spotify, or last.fm probably wouldn’t exist. By counterfactual, if we were to entertain the non-presence of Apple on the world, I’m pretty sure that the consumer market, and culture at large would be a vastly different place. The strange influence of Steve Jobs, I think, would be on even his reception among his competitors, and that is indeed a powerful influence.

One closing comment I shall make is this. Many of the innovations of the various Apple products over the years were hardly ‘invented’ by the team at Apple, but they did create a popular usage and mainstream market for innovations such as the MP3 player or tablet based computer. One of the innovations that most people may not acknowledge is the Graphical User Interface of the Apple II. Stephen Fry talks much about how revolutionary the GUI was when he first got the Apple II in his 2010 autobiography “The Fry Chronicles”. What Fry notices is how using a computer became immediately more accessible and opened up to a wider non-specialist audience wider than computer nerds and code fanatics (although they are a very important group). The popularisation of the GUI and the success of subsequent GUI based operating systems (such as the Windows family) is one of the great game-changers of the 20th Century, not just in terms of how we use technology, but in terms of how the consequences of such have changed our cultural and social behaviours, relationships and abilities in a way that cannot be reversed. Perhaps more than any of the innovations of Apple over the past decade, popularising GUI should be considered Job’s greatest achievement. It makes one think what possible game-changers will be next over the coming few years and decades.


LSE’s ‘blood money’ allegation

We at the Noumenal Realm have taken a conscious decision to abstain from writing about a great many of the current affairs, but this is more because many of us are in conversation and we seem to end up at a lot of moot points that don’t really go anywhere (but then again, the same can be said about our thoughts on philosophy being moot). We have considered trying to write on the recent events over the Arab world but we are struggling to establish a ‘frame’ about it.

Anyway, one story has taken our irk lately. Michael has sent us a large spate of articles from the British broadsheet press of late and much of it has come out so quickly and reports are legion that clarity and erudition is sacrificed over sensationalism and repetition. Let’s focus on a specific story that has flared up the (otherwise) quiet area of Higher Education News. The civil unrest that began in Tunisia which has spread to Libya has led many media pundits to call out the behaviour of certain Heads of State and other officials who have made efforts to bridge a relationship with Libya in (what seems) predominantly economic relationships with the suggested intention of fostering also a cultural/political exchange. With this going on in the background, there have been reports which have emerged almost concurrently over the LSE which include:

  • The allegation that Col. Gadaffi’s son plagiarised his Doctoral thesis awarded by the London School of Economics (University of London)
  • The (substantiated) fact of Saif Gadaffi’s financial input into the LSE for a North African Research project
  • Reports of senior figures in the LSE involved with Libya with the suggested intent of educating the future political elite of the country

These allegations are seperate, but understandably, when public scrutiny comes into one specific issue, a variety of related issues will then emerge, this is natural for the inquisitive journalist to seek a story. However, the issues relating to each of them suggest that they are taken all together and amount to a single judgment or criticism, namely, the undermining of the intellectual independence of the LSE and the suggestion that Gadaffi’s doctorate was ‘bought’.

There are seperate stories here, which Lord Desai notably points out in a piece on the issue this week. Plagiarism is a serious issue, but it is also an issue for the internal scrutiny of the degree awarding body. Like legal cases, this is not the matter of public judgment. It is the primed conclusion (considering the cognitive bias literature) to bring up this story and then conjoin it with the suggestion that Gadaffi also had influence over the LSE by means of a charitable donation. Conjunction is a natural way to accrue beliefs, as Hume pointed out, but also as Hume pointed out, just because we see a phenomenon of class E(ffect) consequent to class C(ause), does not follow that all E’s follow C’s, but it is natural to believe so.

The issue of the LSE’s financial influence with Libya is a more complex issue which very much makes the nature of higher education necessarily political. The consequence of the sullying of the LSE’s reputation culminated in the resignation of its head. In some ways the LSE is a victim, but that is not to say it is without guilt. It may well be the case that the LSE accepted a donation from the Gadaffi family, but funds in higher education can be very political. Consider the case of the Templeton Foundation which Dawkins infamously called out as being a religiously oriented research body. Consider how much of the funding in Engineering departments come from organisations which are either directly or indirectly involved with the arms trade. Universities have been, and to a much larger extent currently are encouraged to find a wider range of funds which includes establishing relationships with a variety of bodies, and many of them have political or ideological commitments. With the culling of public funds that go to the university, the state has virtually handed this option of forging relationships as a strong suggestion.

The LSE is no different to many universities who make relationships to improve funds. I deem it an equivalence to call out the LSE’s involvement with Libya with all other universities who forge partnerships with organisations which conduct research into aerospace who then also are involved as defense contractors. The blood money accusation is the same, but there is much more than an allegation and accusation here in play with the LSE set of stories, it is a loss of face. The loss of face is in the fact that a history of British officials (not limited to the LSE) forging relationships with Arab states who are now facing serious criticism from within their own countries and without. Calling out such relationships and partnerships is important and a fairly legitimate excercise in journalism, but this story is obscured by the obvious demagogue terms on which the stories set themselves out.