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)

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On Writing Accessibly (thoughts from book reviewing)

At the moment I am in the process of reading two books as part of writing a review for them. I’m reviewing the anthology ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ by Lexington Books, and ‘The Mythology of Evolution’ by by Zer0 Books (written by Noumenal Realm favourite blogger Chris Bateman). One of the things I usually think about when writing a book review is a thing that is the complete opposite of how I write in my blog: accessibility to your audience. One book succeeds at this consistently, while the other is problematic about this.
 
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been asked to do some freelance proofreading and editing work lately, and this varies a bit to when undergraduates ask me to look over their essays. Sometimes the comments and criticisms I have a deeply technical affairs (like ‘the meaning of is’), while others are very general and come up time and again when I do book reviews.

The cardinal rule is to know your audience and write to their level of understanding. I am a massive hypocrite when I say this because on this blog many of my posts presume that my readership has read such-and-such an essay or such-and-such an historical text. I find the freedom of moderating my own blog is that I want to talk at my level, because I spend my real life emphasising how to be accessible and how to write and speak accessibly, when what’s going on in my head presumes a background in music, or philosophy, or comic books, or whatever. I personally don’t write usually for an audience all the time. Sometimes I write to make notes of my thinking. I am however very honoured at how many people around the world have come to visit and read Noumenal Realm posts, and I’m surprised at how often my posts are translated!

Let me give two different examples of writing accessibly about a technical issue. Firstly, in reading Chris Bateman’s ‘Mythology of Evolution’, which I have yet to complete, and secondly, a book that I am currently reviewing: ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ (ed. P. Costello).

Bateman disseminating science

When reading through Bateman’s Mythology, I have found that he draws from a large array of sources, from technical issues in scientific journals, to generalist perspectives on biology, to the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology! In particular, Bateman explains a thesis in the issue of levels of selection in a way that was so clear, that the philosopher who he’s citing (who also happened to be a former lecturer of mine) couldn’t explain it clearer and simpler terms than Bateman. In fairness, the philosopher in question was very keen on using a lot of logic and game theoretic notations (preserving anonymity fail).

Bateman writes as if taking his thesis as a train journey and the simplicity and accessibility of his language is sure to keep an audience on the rails. Good writing tries to put a discussion in as simple terms as possible. Of course if one is writing for a more specialist audience this is not so much an issue. But there are some instances where technically oriented writing is not desirable, such as if we are bringing together areas of specialism where the experts don’t read each other and may be fluent in one set of terminology but not others. It’s one thing to talk biology (microbiology and pathology papers are the worst when it comes to readability!), and its’ another to talk philosophy, but communicating the two for a general audience is a masochistic task of accessibility.  

Continental philosophy jargon and children’s literature – a marriage made in the 7th layer of hell

I’ve finished a book that I am trying to develop an opinion about, for a book review. My overall opinion is that many of the articles are a genuine contribution to philosophy, while others are a very poor attempt at accessible writing. I’m sure many of you may be familiar with the genre of philosophy titles like ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ or ‘Philosophy and Twilight’ that have come out from the editorial mind of William Irwin. I think that there is a potential for connecting everyday cultural artefacts with philosophy, but if you do so, one must realise that there would be a targeted audience. I’m sure that less philosophers will read ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ than say Metallica fans.

‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ reflects a trend of philosophical literature that addresses issues in aesthetics, as well as ethics and critical theory in relation to children’s literature. I imagine that if there was such a thing as literary criticism for children’s books, it would surely welcome this kind of thinking. The anthology made me realise how exceptionally wide the scope of thinking is for philosophy in children’s literature.

When thinking of a wide scope, there is more of an onus to write accessibly for the printed word. There are some articles which do very well at this in the book. Some articles such as Court Lewis’ The Cricket in Time’s Square examines the philosophical ideas underpinning the story and then the story. Then there are obscurantist, inaccessible and horrid-to-read articles like The Giving Tree, Women and the Great Society (Milena Radeva), and Lovingly Impolite (Lindsay Lerman) which do no favours for accessibility. Although part of this I maintain is because of the impenetrable and ugly writing styles of the philosophers whom they cite, such as Derrida and Agamben, who make philosophy sound like word games and apply puzzlingly pretentious equivocations. If you are going to reference a ‘continental’ philosopher, it would do one favours to try and re-pack what they say in accessible English.

Writing in a difficult way alienates one’s audience. Although sometimes this is seen as a purposeful thing such as the case of Nietzsche, or maybe even Schopenhauer, who force people to know their intellectual background in order to understand them. There were a few good articles in the anthology and it is good to emphasise this with the bad. The idea of philosophising about Children’s literature is very appealing. It was unfortunate for me that the piece on Frog and Toad was a bit difficult to read, because I love Frog and Toad.

The exception to accessible writing

I do believe that there is an exception to the desideratum of accessible writing, and that is when one is deep in terminology that it is impossible to explain in lay terms. Or where the intended audience is definitely not the lay-person. One thing that I’ve noticed lately are certain people who shall remain nameless who consider themselves experts about certain issues only to find that they haven’t read very much literature on an issue and suddenly find themselves that using accessible language is imprecise, irrelevant and unhelpful to the advances of how an issue is in the present state of the art. This is what I call the ‘out of Kansas amateur’.  

I think that the intricacies of 20th Century music involving very fancy methods and technical terms would be an example of something that is a challenge to explain explicitly with accessibility. The philosophy of Kant often uses a certain syntactical structure which involves long sentences, and lots of lists and details as part of a system. This systematic thinking also leads to a very dry sort of language being employed. Sometimes accessibility is over-rated. But then again in these situations, it is being written for an audience.

There are many instances where a writer has to write for their audience, but for a select number of things. The content is important enough to challenge a reader to take a journey and grow in order to be able to understand the text.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)

The New Year’s Resolution

One of the notable things I’ve noticed about a coming New Year are projections and hopes for the future. There is a space for looking forward, it seems often for me that looking backward in taking an historical or retrospective view is something I do far too often, and I don’t look forward enough. There have been lots of articles that I’ve read lately about what people think are economic, political and cultural projection. I enjoy seeing forward perspectives on films and musical acts and games  to look forward to over the next year, as well as what they think are going to be big hits and often finding retrospectively, when they are desperately mistaken in naming ‘the next big thing’. Even in the the comics world the New Year is planned out as a series of new beginnings for well-known characters.

I haven’t spent much time thinking about New Years Resolutions, partly due to two reasons: firstly I’ve been quite busy enough getting on with goals that I’ve immediately set for myself and secondly, I think that I made some pretty systematic ones last year. In this post I will talk about my 2012 resolutions, and in writing about it I will consciously consider in the background of physically typing this, whether I need to amend my targets.

New Years Resolutions of last year

So, last year I set some resolutions of varying priorities. Some things are low priority, such as trying to read 120 books (a challenge I set on Goodreads.com). I failed at this. In 2011 I managed to exceed my initial target of 100. I thought if I set 100 I would easily beat it. I was wrong. I still have on my computer playlists of audiobooks and ebooks that still need reading. I estimate that I have between 285-310 (not including ebooks) that I have planned to read over the course of my lifetime. Some books will take longer than others (like Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire!).

The higher priority resolutions I have taken a systematic, and routinised approach to (or if one is a Kantian, a Schema). I have written a document which states my goals and targets, and I’ve set in google calendar to have a weekly review of how I have achieved these targets. I think that this year I will have a weekly and monthly review of said tasks. So my resolutions were (and I quote from my official target plan:

  1. Commit to at least three fitness activities a week (this may include badminton and gardening)
  2. Make 7 job applications. Later amended to ideal target: 10 jobs a week
  3. Putting yourself in new and unfamiliar situations, try at least once a month.
  4. Read more books – one a week would be nice!
  5. Practice more piano/get more musically involved (this can be music production, composing, learning another instrument…)

A review of targets

In setting these New Years Resolutions I learned a lot about myself. Can you guess which of these targets were the most difficult? I’ll let you wait. In the meantime here is a related memebase picture.
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I found that each of those targets had a challenge, and presented different challenges for me. The one pertaining to keeping active and applying to lots of jobs are about the very important skill of grafting (and for me that concept will forever be associated with Mo Farah). Grafting is what my piano teacher always taught to me. Practice, practice, practice. If you are dying, practice. If you are busy, practice. If you have other things to do, practice. That is the essence of being a musician. My Jazz musician of a teacher’s favourite phrase was ‘there is no excuse but death’. Sage advice from a man that was a centenarian. Keep active to keep fit, and keep working on those applications to get a lead (eventually). I must admit its not easy and giving up can be tempting. I’ve learned to change a bit of my attitude to graft more and in doing so I have discovered more about myself through making a new person out of these activities.

The third task is about something completely contrasting to the aforementioned resolutions. I am someone who as a response to my dispositions, has relied on rituals and routine to try and get out of a slump and be productive. However the extreme of this is that I can sometimes be obsessed with routine to the point of being overwhelmed by tasks or being incapable of dealing with sudden changes and spontaneity. So my response to this is a minimum of one occasion a month going to a completely new situation, whether this is a new physical place or doing something new or approaching a task that I’ve done before in a completely novel way. I’m trying to work on my plasticity through subverting routine on occasion. I said it’s a minimum of once a month, but in practice I managed to exceed this.

The other two are more personal. I really want to keep up my musicianship. I performed in front of an audience last year and some friends of mine are desperately trying to get me involved in an ensemble situation. I also started to learn the ocarina with a view to learning other musical instruments. I picked up my first saxophone yesterday and I was amazed at its similarity to the clarinet. I think I may have begun a new love affair with music.

Most of my targets I met, some of them I exceeded, some of them I failed. Sometimes this is a matter of setting expectations too high, other times it can be about unforeseen events getting in the way. I need to have a bit of a think about what my resolutions should be for this coming year, but I do quite like what I set for myself last year. I might tweak it a bit rather than making a completely new set of targets.

Some general remarks

New Years Resolutions are a cultural phenomenon, they may have religious origins but I do think it is a genuinely secular effort at self-improvement. There is a sincerity to New Years resolutions towards a commitment to self-betterment, whether that’s of a person’s outlook or wellbeing, or an external situation that relates to them such as improving a community or relationships. Looking through the Wikipedia page it looks like there’s data that the idea of the resolution is something taken up by many people, but not so much that they follow up on. A general lesson in life is that good intentions can come from a sincere place and its great to acknowledge avenues of improvement. It’s completely another thing when it’s the middle of the year on a weekday that is particularly busy or stressful and many other things need attention. On may be is tempted to oppose the intention of what their resolution was, or completely forget about it.

My intention of the day is bundled with an half dozen other things. There are many elements to keeping a resolution from my experience, and I’m certain there are many other things I’ve yet to realise are challenging.

Happy New Year

Michael

Facial Hair and I: on Movember

(Image: Friedrich Nietzsche, the patron saint of awesome moustaches)

Perhaps its the cool thing to have themes of the month. This month is National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo). This month is also ‘Movember’, a month in which men raise awareness for male cancers by growing a moustache. This post is going to be about facial hair, my relationship with facial hair. I will also muse on how men have relationships.

Me and my hair
(Image, X men character: Bishop with trimmed moustache-beard)

I have lots of stories about hair. I grew up in the 1990s, when I had little glimpses of hair metal bands, scruffy haired Grunge bands and my older teenaged brother had a pretty nice mane once upon a time when I was an impressionable child (of course now we joke that I look like the oldest sibling). Many of these factors made me admire men and hair. This is perhaps one of the most frivolous aspects of my interests, but I must admit that all those early 90s dudes, plus guys like Conan the Barbarian had an impact on my follicular subconscious.

One particular story I remember was when I was an undergraduate (probably told this enough times already). I was mostly paying attention to studying and the like, and I didn’t look at the mirror that much, and then one day I realised that it had been several months since I looked into a mirror and I had a massive beard and my hair was unrecognisable. I couldn’t recognise my face and it was a very distressing moment to acknowledge that I needed to do other things than read.

My approach to hair hygiene changed over the years and as I am one for rituals I have a personal rule of growing a beard once a year (at least), so I can explore how I look. Last year I grew a beard that then turned into  a moustache, and it attracted quite a bit of humour from my friends. One of my friends said ‘it suits your face, but not who I know you to be’. I consider this the ultimate backhanded compliment.

How I got my moustache
(Image: Marvel Character: Mandarin, sporting nice but possible politically incorrect moustache)

Without even thinking about movember, over October I fulfilled my monthly quota, I was not too motivated about growing the beard but I thought I might as well do it and get it behind me. I tend to mark my accomplishments through quotas, and it makes it overly rational and not so fun. Literally after I shaved it, a friend of mine brought to my attention a movember android app and a mo-bros website, where he was actively raising funds. This friend told me that as the most hirsute guy he knows (backhanded compliment), I have the most potential to have the most awesome moustache, and all I need to do is be part of his ‘team’ for fundraising, he’ll do the rest. Reluctantly I agreed. I had been growing my beard for over a month before I shaved it off, and having to do something like that all over again was quite the chore. However after 17 days I had a full handlebar moustache. My friend was right, I am very hirsute.

The nod
(Image: Tony Stark from Season 2 of Iron Man TAS 1995, mullet + moustache)

In my experience, men have a distinctly gendered set of performance when it comes to communicating with each other. Between my male friends and female friends, I always talk about activities, jokes, and concrete things like historical events or gaming or something we are mutually involved with. Otherwise there would be very little to talk about except the typical British small talk topics (tea, the weather, football).

I’ve found though that sometimes obvious visual similarities can be enough to share an interest. In the TV Show ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’, Larry David refers at times to how bald men relate to each other in having a mutual life of discrimination from wider society. I thought this was hilarious because it makes baldness look like a subculture, or like a social class. But the discrimination is possibly measurable. How many US presidents or UK Prime Ministers have been bald during their term over the past 30 years?

I also thought it was amusing because when my hair was a lot longer, I would get nods of acknolwedgement from other long haired men, as if to say ‘alright mate’. Even if I didn’t know them, there was this odd sense of solidarity of keeping the faith. The same has been with my moustache this month.  

How people have responded to my moustache

It was only about after day 2 of turning my goatee into a handlebar that I realised people were responding to me differently in London. I saw several women looking at me on the tube, I thought it was because they were impressed by the book I was reading: then I realised I was reading an E-Book in a reader, that means they aren’t looking at me because of the book. I then noticed they were smiling. I’m not one for people to smile at me on the tube. It was only about 3 hours later when a colleague was laughing at my moustache (and subsequently said so) that I realised they were comically admiring my moustache.

Responses from men have been different. Most men admire the facial hair, some almost treat me like a war hero, how the act of not shaving above one’s lip merits ‘you are doing a good thing’ from people is the most eccentric thing I’ve ever heard. After all, it’s my friend doing the fundraising!

I have also conversed with people at work who I never normally talk to, since I’m not so big on football I have no expertise on commenting upon which manager got sacked or such and such getting transferred to City, so I normally have little to talk about except work with these men, except maybe a joke or two from time to time. However my moustache has given me social powers in which they talk to me about combing, waxing and other such sartorial graces. I have found facial hair to be a mask, it hides who I really am and makes me look like a sociable being. I like this and eventually I find I grow into the mask, in true Wilde fashion, the mask has become my face.

How men talk to each other

Over the past week I’ve also started playing Minecraft, why is this relevant? Well it seems to me that minecraft has been something I can talk about with my friends as we play and chat on skype, but it seems a general thing that when men have something to talk about as a shared interest, it is a very good window to start talking about other things. As such, while playing minecraft, we ended up talking not just about how to make a bed (three planks, three wool, by the way), but also about dating and relationships; jobs and careers; writing; philosophy and mathematics; how to create a 32 bit processor using redstone, which led to a philosophical discussion about turing machines and the limitations of computation.

When I wear the moustache, I’ve begun talking about prostate cancer and testicular cancer, with men and women, they’ve asked me about that kinds of signs one needs to check for, and that led to a wider discussion about personal heatlh, with many people sharing their own stories about their personal health, or those of others they know, and it became very intimate and candid. If I were using the terminology of Goffman I would say that something like mutual activity or even the moustache has become a form of social prop, from which the possibility of interaction becomes possible, not to say it is necessary condition, but perhaps sufficient condition.

I must ellipsis what I say with ‘in my experience’, as I acknowledge all men are different. However, through activities and shared experiences men I’ve known seem better at opening up. Movember is a really great thing in that it enables a conversation about health and wellness through something else and something almost irrelevant (moustaches). I’ve lost count at the number of times where a conversation about an activity leads to a more emotionally laden conversation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard men in the changing room after a martial arts/football/weights session talking about their kids and their hopes, their loves and their passions, while finishing up their training/session.

Michael

That’s just not Cricket: notions of decency and cultural values

 

Over the past few weeks the BBC has put out a series about the cultural character of the British, presented by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop. One thing that really interested me was how the notion of British Character has a cultural history. Namely, those things that we take for granted such as a commitment to fair play, notions of politeness or sentimentality have a large part of expression and grounding through cultural and historical events. Whether this is say the philosophical work of Locke on the emotions, or the kinds of stories that were spread of Admiral Nelson before his death, our attitudes and moralising do tell us a lot about our time.

Jimmy Saville Moral panic in retrospect

Concurrently in the contemporary news, there is a moral panic about a dead man, namely how the broadcaster, DJ and philanthropist, Jimmy Saville has a variety of allegations, more and more seemingly revealed of his sexual misconduct with minors. The idea of a moral panic is a sociological notion, where a percieved threat is permeated through culture. Very often these percieved threats are more from hearsay or individual stories, rather than wholescale statistical analysis. In other words, there is often a disconnect between our percieved threat and the actual calculated risk.

Perhaps the recent stories on Saville are completely unlike a moral panic in the sense that we are referring to past events that already happened. But as more allegations arise, and the moralistic judgments we have on him come from across the board of the entertainment industry, broadcast media and even politics and healthcare, I think there is something very panic-like about this issue.

Britishness

There is something exceptionally British about this story. The outcry of the indecency of what happened shows our public standards and intolerance to child abuse, but there is also another dimension: the suggestion that many people heard rumours and a culture of silence about sexual harassment shows a tension between two values: the value of deference, which is something that the British are typically considered to have towards certain authorities; against the cultural value of critique and its importance.

The British media have an international reputation for leaking scandals, (and it seems, covering them up). I consider this to be a value, the value of an individual working in a public department who reveals financially wasteful processes, or corruption. The commitment to fairness and adherence to the rules. Lately it seems to me that there is a tendency to slay sacred cows. This year saw a great deal of scrutiny over the News Corp executives following the evidence of phone hacking. It makes me wonder whether there are fewer things that are immune to criticism in the public sphere.

The other side of criticism: censorship

In wider news there have been a variety of stories about people getting in trouble for Facebook comments, online harassment and twitter abuse. So much so that the definition of ‘trolling’ has a public of being outright offensive, as opposed to being a nuisance. What about activities such as going on a Nickelback Youtube video and saying ‘THIS IS TRUE HEAVY METAL!’ or Black Metal song pages on Youtube arousing the ‘more kvelt than thou’ brigade about some semi-coherent discussion about music and ideology. These are perhaps offensive, if you are say, a Nickelback fan or a Trve black metal afficionado, but hardly criminal.

In the cases where there is a sense of moral indecency about online comments and harassment. such as the horrible case of Amanda Todd, or malicious comments about recent deaths on RIP pages, there seems to be a set of legal precedents towards prosecution in the UK. In the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of attention about the Reddit page ‘Creepshots’ where many defenders have acknowleged that while it may be ‘immoral’ and psychologically indecent to pursue the kind of public voyeurism that is involved; it was seemingly not illegal if they followed certain minimum criteria about photographing people without their consent or awareness.

Moving forward

Criticism seems to have these extremes and a particularly primed response may lead us to being overly sensitive. It is certainly right to blow the whistle on the child abuse that Saville did, and if there is a case at the BBC or any other news media that purposely overlooked his indiscretions then they are accountable. Deference in his case no longer applies to dilute wrongdoing. On the other hand, the case of being overly sensitive about people claiming to be offended as a way of silencing others does not help a conversation. It also is not conducive to discussion to have gratuitous and purposeful attempts at an emotional reaction of say, grief or disgust by trolls that ridicule those who have died, but is that criminal?

It looks like as we navigate through these issues, we will find a new sense of cultural identity, maybe a sense of Britishness or a more internationalised cultural sensibility mediated through online communities.

tl;dr

I think its definately a good thing that there are less institutions and people immune from criticism. But I don’t think the enlightenment values of old accounted for internet trolls.

Michael

The Audiobook

I love audiobooks. During a period between my undergraduate finals and throughout my postgrad days, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I estimated that I typed between 20,000-25,000 words a day, and that’s just on notes, not to include googling, IM conversations, emails and button bashing playing a game or such. I was forced to think of alternatives to my regular methods of note-taking and I was assisted by the university to think about alternative ways of learning to sitting with a book between my knees and moving my neck between the screen and the two pages beneath me.

During this period of time I developed a lot of new rituals, all of which were with the intention to increase my efficiency while doing physically less. It was simply not an option at the time to force myself to take less notes. This was the start of a story that got me into book chairs, and perhaps more pertinently, audiobooks.

At the time I only read for learning and reading in the exegetical way of interpreting philosophy texts and journal articles is a very specific form of learning. I had very little time for any other kind of reading, and that includes the fun stuff. Audiobooks for me represented a departure and radical alternative to taking in information through books. I’ve spent years reading as a way of memorising every detail and nuance of a piece, to some extent I still do this and it’s a habit that has its benefits and curses.

The audiobook is an aural experience. Reading can be an aural experience, it is often good for one’s comprehension to read aloud what one is reading, this was a habit that James Mill taught his genius son. Reading is also a tactile experience, feeling paper, its texture, the thickness or smoothness of a page. Reading can also be an olfactory experience, an old book has a distinct smell, a wet book as well. A new book has a satisfying chemical odour to it. I can find these things distracting for reading ordinary things. I find it more difficult to turn pages than most people for example, partly due to RSI and mostly due to dyspraxia. Associating multiple sensations can help me memorise things, but they can also be distracting. My favourite association is when I play my old piano repetoire and I feel like I am psychically re-living when I was learning these pieces in the early 2000s as a teenaged younger me. Dry and dusty books also remind me of Kant, perhaps because the B1xxx section of the libraries around the world don’t tend to be visited very much.

Audiobooks have become very much in vogue in recent years. Often when I tell people that I enjoy audiobooks, you can tell on the basis of their age the kind of cultural connotations it has. Some people think its an easy option for reading as reading is often hard work, others think that its an intellectually lightweight option, normally because audiobooks have been for simple or accessible audiences. A few others have bought into the recent marketability of a certain audiobook provider that is very good right now and sponsors many of my favourite podcasts.

Audiobooks have become a market in a similar way to the ebook. Many major publishing houses and publications appeal and open themselves to the audiobook market. There are unique reasons for the appeal of the audiobook. Some audiobooks have ‘secret’ content specifically for audiobook format compared to say, printed format. Some newer audiobooks are read by the author, and what an interesting experience it can be to physically hear the author as if they are thinking those thoughts. Christopher Hitchens’ biography is a notable case in point, I read Hitchen’s biography around the time he died and I recall the haunting nature and significance of not only reading an author who is no longer living, but listening to his voice. Hitchen’s autobiography also includes a post-book interview in audio format where he describes his changing views on the audiobook as a medium.

Accesibility is a very important aspect of audio reading for me. I find it intellectually difficult to read anything, including children’s literature or fiction, because my mind is always working several different angles that would be apt for reading Adorno, but not Doctor Seuss. Reading an audiobook allows one to choose their degree of commitment to a text. I can read an audiobook while I’m working on something, while I’m at the gym. I can by contrast, spend full attention to an audio text as well. One of my most intimate audiobook experiences was one day when I was down with the flu, and I read the whole of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar while laying in bed, the experience was like living the life of Esher Greenwood and that book will always have a special place from my experience of listening to it.

Accessibility has many manifestations. Audiobooks I presume were initially made for the visually impaired. When I absorb an audiobook, I have found that my comprehension level is distinctly different to the tactile experience of reading a book, or even the visual experience of an ebook. Audiobooks (and for the same reason, podcasts) have allowed me to enjoy literature again and I have discovered the comedic monograph as well. George Carlin’s series of essays ‘Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?’ is a personal and hilarious collection of essays which is highlighted by the medium of audio. The sonic experience of a book has its aesthetic merits.

As with many things, I think the audiobook brings us closer to Homer. What I mean by this is we so often emphasise texts as the archetype of knowledge or communication. Namely through books or articles and word-representation. It is anachronistic to think of a great tale as the Iliad as a book, for its origins were as an oral poem. There is something powerful about the oral story and the diversity of ways a message can be communicated. The pre-eminence of the text can be a distraction, when what matters is the message it has. Audiobooks can be liberating in that way and also allow for a wider range of experiences in ‘reading’. I’m really glad that audiobooks are a bit more in vogue.

Michael

Musing: A life in data

Earlier this week my External Hard Drive sort-of crashed. I say sort of because it came to a point where I knew it would become non-functioning and I migrated all of the data to another space before it fully died. I had a moment of shock for a variety of reasons. I’ll talk about two of them in this post. One reason is that I came to realise how much of my life can be gleaned from the data within that external drive, and perhaps more valuable than most physical objects I have, that data is a record of my life. The secondary point pertains to my ‘dependence’ on computers, cloud hosting and other such technological marvels of the modern world. Every solution has a problem, and I came to realise the problems of my over-dependence on digitising my life, this shall be the second part of my post.

A life in memories

When my hard drive faltered, my first thought was like the Titanic ship officers were apparently depicted in Cameron’s 1997 film, the proverbial ‘women and children’ most vital files must be preserved! This involved an extensive scan of my paper records which include most of my paper files and folders from about 2004-5 to 2009-10 (I’ve not digitally archived my files since 2010). I then took a lot of unsorted files, miscellaneous audio recordings and songs I’ve made. Then I found some pictures. Antisophie made a joke to me once saying that the perfume she got from a romantic partner lasted longer than the relationship itself. Digital memories have a shelf life which is potentially longer than the human lives that they describe. They may be our equivalent of cave drawings for whoever may come to know of us humans one day. Or it may be a lot of dirty poisonous plastic bottles and argon filled disposed fridges which are semi-degraded in deep sea waters which continue to poison its environment in the future earth.

When I looked at my archive I found various pictures and videos. I sw lots of happy times. I saw an old flame and her vibrant beauty; I saw my little nephew from birth to when he started to talk and then I saw some people who are now deceased. I had a realisation to myself that these pictures and videos are essentially all I have left of them, even if the angles and focus are a bit off or they didn’t look particularly prepared to a picture, its still all that remains, as a digital and as an human memory.Time is frozen in a photograph, and it gave me pause for reflecting on what once was.

One person whom I barely recognised was myself! I found a few pictures of myself back in about 2008 when, according to a few testimonies, I was at my ‘sexiest’. Back then I had ridiculously long and thick hair which almost went to my waist plus I was much more arrogant and times were much more innocent. In recent months for unrelated reasons, I have been thinking about contextualising the past few years of my life. In terms of social context, my own personal narrative and my wider family narrative, I was thinking about how times are different. One thing I noted amusingly with my sister recently was what life was like before she had children, she jokingly implied that she missed those days and also implied that it seems so long ago that she didn’t remember that there was such a time! It’s funny how 4 years can change lives.

Thinking about the past I have thought in some ways that I am a bit wiser, and a bit more organised. I feel that I’ve worked a lot on many of my flaws and I still am working on a few ever vigilantly. I’ve seen the past few years as a journey and one with many difficulties. Seeing the archives which I forgot existed then forced me to change my perspective yet again. Without looking at the archives, I had been thinking about the past. After looking at my archives I then changed my gloss on recent history. Times seemed much more innocent back then and a large degree of that is due to the political climate. I remember the days when Sainsbury’s basics had a super-cheap range of everything from chocolate to brandy, which, in South London parlance, I caned. Things like job stability, economic growth were much different too and from the perspective of 2012 there seemed to be a luxury of ignorance.

I miss the old me. Sometimes I wonder if it was the hair that I miss, or being so naively arrogant (both of which constituted a sense of sexiness). I perhaps miss the innocence of the time and I hate how the present feels like a redux of the late 1980s or early 1990s downturn and pessimism. Fry and Laurie sketches where the Police became Privatised or where idiots appeared on television shows are now more like satanic prophecies than quaint liberal absurd humour and my own political concerns are diminished by the fact that Real Life Stuff is more pressing a concern than say, activism or waxing political, proto-socal theorist style. The tone of our blog has significantly diminished as part of Real Life Stuff getting in the way, and I do realise I could talk about more interesting things, more socially prescient things. I see much change through digitising my life and there’s a great advantage to it.

The Umbilical USB

I keep records of financial transactions, boring administrative documents, bills and so forth and I would ideally like a unified and organised manner of keeping it all together. Google’s various appendages have been ultimately useful to me over the recent years, and I’ve discovered more and more applications and services that also help me archive and organise my life. Then there’s a point where it becomes too much: do I really need to use twitter? Do I really need PInterest? The answer to both of those is no. I do however, find Google Reader immensely helpful. I also find GCal a lifesaver. I find facebook more significant for contacting and organising things than my boile phone, in fact I use so many cloud based applications that I can get away with my phone being used only for SMS and phone calls. The irony of me being a phone Luddite is lost on most people! Most people don’t use IFTTT to syncronise their twitter to flickr, or use boolean functions to automatically save news articles to a CMS for which is later used for creating a dossier.

There are great uses for cloud applications, or even backing up data through hosting services as a way of preserving those important things. I have learned however that there have been instances where a paper based method could have been ultimately easier for me in some aspects. If I had a physical photo album, I would be more tactile and perhaps I could physically note the presence of photo albums of the past decade and pick them up to reminisce more often, instead of whenever I’m having a computer crisis and I end up almost never seeing these photos otherwise.

I’ve developed a system which links most aspects of my life together using cloud applications, I might talk about that in another blog, but it has a lot of personal implications for me. Realising that I’m dependent on GCal to organise my day makes me more stupid in some ways: I don’t need to remember things if I’ve already set it in a timetable. I also don’t need to decide things if I have planned and decided what I am to do in advance. This means I get to think less. I must admit that there is a skill to memorising and keeping a mental note of plans and keeping it all in your head. I used to be known for my exceptional skills of recollecting, and GCal is basically outsourcing some of my brain computation to the cloud. I consider it part of what philosophers have called the ‘Extended Mind Hypothesis’. Antisophie also jokes that I am a real life ‘Otto’ with his notebook.

Having GCal is great, except when the internet is down, or when my computer breaks down (both situations faced in the past year). What if there is a massive EMP or natural disaster to cut out connection to communications infrastructures or electronics devices? There is a place for the older physical methods of keeping records and data, there’s a place for keeping data on your computer and on servers as well as just the cloud. Backing up is not longer considered an 100% efficient way of preserving those precious memories or important work files. I think you probably need about at least 3-4 copies in order to really have some protection: A backup on a detachable medium; a cloud back up; ‘the original medium’, maybe a P(hysical) copy if applicable, and a second copy using one of the aforementioned means just to be secure.

A few years back I was reading a website (the exact name of it escapes me) which had this radical revolutionary idea: you only need to own a few things in your life: have enough clothes for a few days (and circulate/clean them regularly); have a few personal and sentimental items and have your laptop computer. At the time I read this website, the ultraportable laptops (which never really took off) were in vogue and were of low memory capacity. This website proposed to keep all of one’s memories and records and personal items as digital versions: ebooks, mp3 files, youtube videos and image hosted photos.

There is an extent to which I adhere to that digitally minimal philosophy. I suppose I’m personally attracted to the fact that I can still have my alienware in this minimalist ascetic idea. Especially since my alienware is a decadent overpowered piece of technology which is metaphorically and (as I’m typing right now) literally on a pedestal which centralises all of my life. It’s nice to have one’s life centralised, unified, rationalised. I think Weber would consider it a nightmare, and Kant may have considered this digital age as the potential ideal of his ‘science is organised knowledge, wisdom is organised life’. Personally, I like being away from my cloud from time to time. I find it liberating when I leave the house and I don’t need my phone, or I don’t even need a watch. As much as I am attached to technology and so reliant on cloud computing and the web to organise and enact much of my life: I also really like when it has nothing to do with it as well! Recently I’ve gotten involved in a community garden, a choir and I play badminton and try to do some weight and circuit training with a few mates.

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about my 21 year old (with the lovely long hair) self its the inflexibility and sense that I had it all set and sorted in my ideas and the way I organised myself. I don’t, and my reliance on GCal is probably going to change. There will be some new app that does it better and I’ll change. Perhaps the greatest experience I found from revisiting my memories is knowing that I am adaptable and things will change. Photos will stay the same forever and the past is fixed. Today and tomorrow are (at least from an epistemic point of view) undetermined.

Michael