Sunday, 15 March 2015

Half Full



Many years ago, when I was young and open to new ways and ideas, and trying to escape the limitations of my small-town swot-cum-stoner mentality, I met a few people whose ideas were so far out I thought they must be faking it.  One guy -- a tall, lugubrious northerner whose chest-length dark hair seemed to weigh his upper body down into a permanent stoop of resignation inside the heavy dark overcoat he wore in all weathers -- was the first anti-humanist I had ever encountered.  Not in the sense that he had problems with humanist philosophy, but that he thought humans were the problem, and extinction of our species was the planet's best hope. No, really?  Far out!

My friend was a straw in the wind, it turned out.  In certain parts of the academy, and in particular within that strange penumbra of academically-tinged thinking on the Web that is the haunt of the recovering but still-unemployed humanities postgraduate, an oppressive orthodoxy of pessimism has taken hold, a sort of intellectual End Times mindset.  For a while, this stuff seemed compelling.  But, I don't know about you, now I'm really bored with the dull droning sound that this sombre hive produces, and I still tend to think they're faking it.

There is a serious contemporary problem of disillusion, of course: the steady stripping away by science of the handy illusions and delusions that have, for most of us, in large part defined our humanity, can be experienced as a bleakness.  If not god, if not transcendence, if not spirit, if not art, then what?  Attempts to rationalise consciousness -- most recently as a heuristic, integrating information-processing device -- strike directly at the "soul" and the "self" and the deep values of moral behaviour in ways that can be profoundly upsetting, but don't offer anything to put in their place.  Humanism itself comes to seem like a mere comfort break on the journey away from superstition to nihilism.

Some sad cases, not themselves scientists, revel in this bleakness.  Humanism is dismissed by them with a sneer.  They enjoy the oh, so superior sense that -- you poor sentimental fools! -- it's all in vain.  Life is a meaningless text, onto which we merely project whatever grids of meaning we have inherited, created, or had imposed on us.  It is a tale told by an idiot, so to speak, full of sound and fury, signifying ... Well, nothing.  The ultimate revenge of these nerds of nothingness, these nihilism wonks -- many of whom have found a congenial home in higher education -- is to take our brightest and best children and fill them with this grey poison of relativism and cultural pessimism.

This often goes hand in hand with a rejection of "Enlightenment" values, generally understood as a set of beliefs about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of human rights, with an underpinning conviction that cumulative progress through rational enquiry will free humanity from the chains of superstition and political oppression, and the scourges of disease and hunger.  Hah!  As if!  Don't you know we're all doomed?

This toxic stuff is seeping into the wider culture.  Take this quote from an article in a recent weekend's Guardian Review by voguish novelist Tom McCarthy:
Careful not to fall back on some naive escapist fantasy (of individual self-expression, or the transcendent human spirit, or art-as-redemption and so forth -- in other words, the very fantasies to which a conservative view of fiction still clings), De Certeau is nonetheless groping his way towards some kind of resistance to or rupture of the machine's logic.
(James Joyce Would be Working for Google, 7/3/2015)
Whoah...  Watch out for those naive escapist conservative fantasies, dude!  He goes on:
We could quite easily dismiss these thoughts as French bollocks, brush them aside and pen great tales of authenticity and individual affirmation, even as the sands in which we'd need to bury our heads in order to do so are being blown away.  Alternatively, we could explore, with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition, this non-life-restoring resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct, is writing's true and only lot, its afterlife.
Blimey, what is the point?  Hand me that razor-blade, when you've finished with it, mate.


Now, I'm no philosopher.  The problem is, neither are most writers or humanities scholars.  Sure, they've read some French bollocks Bourdieu and some Foucault and some Deleuze and maybe some Benjamin and some Bakhtin, mainly in translation, but they have no sense of the traditions and arguments in and against which such marginal, provocative figures are writing.  Also, so much academic writing is scholastic in impulse, in the mediaeval sense that it merely looks for interesting, approved and publishable wriggle-room within the confines of the thoughts of certain acknowledged authorities.  Who these are, of course, is largely a matter of fashion.  Who now admits to reading even Althusser, Adorno, Goldmann, or Lukács?  No doubt Deleuze is already curling the lip of some black-clad 20-year old.

As I say, I'm bored with this pessimism, however smart.  Life is not meaningless, except as defined by someone playing linguistic games, obsessed by the meaning of "meaning", or by someone with an oedipal grudge against organised religion, and a minimal grasp of what religion is and does.  Your life may have no "meaning", but it is not futile.  All of the universe has followed a clear and compelling logic of behaviour -- "laws" -- that, however improbably, has resulted in me and you, right here, right now.  You exist!  I exist!  Is that not utterly bizarre?  Is that not exciting enough?

Yes, consciousness is fragmentary, and yes, we have plural, largely constructed identities, and yes, we're mortal, and yes, there is almost certainly no continuance of existence after death, at least in any form we would recognise, but...  When was it ever any different?  Why let the too-clever sweet nothings of a few academic doom-mongers poison your life at the well?

But then I'm still just a small-town swot-cum-stoner at heart.  In the end, life is simply so much nicer than the alternative.  Its very absurdity is a deep source of joy.  I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't convince myself otherwise.  Besides, pessimism breeds passivity -- what's the point? -- and if we're ever going to get out the various messes we're in as a species, rather than simply extinguish ourselves, we're going to need all the optimism and activism we can muster.

Ditch, post, tree, copse, wood

20 comments:

Richard Parkin said...

Until I took a closer look I couldn't see the copse for the trees. But maybe that's the trouble with some people.

Zouk Delors said...

Who now admits to reading even Althusser, Adorno, Goldmann, or Lukács?

Frankly, I don't even admit to having heard of them. I'd look them up, but what's the point?

Mike C. said...

Richard,

Not sure now why I added that caption!

Zouk,

No, indeed -- now is the time to be reading Terry Pratchett (if you never have, I recommend him). I see Daevid Allen (Gong) died this week, too -- couldn't believe he got a namecheck on Radio 4 news and an obit in the broadsheets! I mean, how many people ever listened to Gong?? ("I am, you are, we are craaazy...")

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

I guess there are a lot more pothead pixies working for the Beeb than we thought. I reckon there'll be a documentary soon on Radio 4 all about him - they put Robert Wyatt's biography on Book of the Week over the summer!

Mike C. said...

Dave,

I guess so, but it seems so improbable (I'm trying hard to imagine the scheduling conference for PM -- maybe Eddie Mair is the one familiar with the Oily Way?)

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

Maybe their Kitchen/Cookery programmes could be more enlightened. A member of Jay Rayner's audience could ask, "What's that in the sky there?"

And an enlightened pannelist could shout out, "teapots that can fly". Ah well, all in a day's dream . . .

Mike C. said...

Groove update:

At 07:40 this morning GEORGE freakin' CLINTON (Parliament/Funkadelic, "Free your mind and your ass will follow", etc.) was on the TODAY programme being interviewed by John Humphries...

Someone is putting something into the BBC coffee, and it sure ain't sugar... Maybe the "Parliament" bit confused somebody.

Mike

Gerry said...

I only heard the trailer for George Clinton - Justin Webb was ecstatic about the prospect. The whole Funkadelic/Gong/Escalator axis is sufficient for laughter and celebration

Mike C. said...

Gerry,

It is -- maybe it's finally time to break out the Idiotic Hats again!

Though I spotted you slipping "Escalator" in there... Maybe I'll give it another listen (40 years may be sufficient fo my ears to recover).

Mike

Gerry said...

Just for you!

Mike C. said...

Why, thank you! I must admit "Escalator Over the Hill" has been useful, over the years, as a reference point -- a pin in the map saying "Here be dragons". I never took nothin' my soul couldn't kill... Maybe it's time to revisit.

Mike

Mike C. said...

Gerry,

Done the deed, ordered "Escalator" on Amazon. How could anyone resist this blurb:

Even if you decide you hate this recording and everything it stands for, this is an essential classic if you have any interest at all in large-scale jazz-derived composition. Long sought-after as a rare LP, this work dates from 1971 when anything seemed possible, to the extent that a massive avant-garde quasi-opera by composer/pianist Carla Bley and writer Paul Haines, boasting a "plot" which is enigmatic to the point of incomprehensibility and which draws on musical sources which range from the classic blaring of the American big bands to the European Serialist school of post-classical composition almost seemed par for the course. Throughout her career Bley has always seemed more interested in manipulating the structural devices of jazz than in allowing full rein to its tradition of improvisation. While this can occasionally make her smaller-scale work sound somewhat constipated, here it succeeds in holding together this vast, sprawling, nothing-like-it-before-or-since musical and literary edifice which is as essential, in its own way, as the suites of Ellington. --Roger Thomas

What's not to like?

Mike

Gerry said...

It is getting easier all the time. I now understand why the first Stravinsky audiences were outraged yet now he is used as backing music for adverts. Just waiting for "Little Pony Soldier" on a breakfast cereal.

Kent Wiley said...

Do report back about the Elevator experience, Mike. Running that one down was an enjoyable dive into the Wikipedia hole of "locked grooves", "parallel grooves", "inside-to-outside recordings" etc. It sounds like a trip, listening to the Amazon samples, with some bad vocals, and cool Carla Bley sounds. How could I be a fan but be ignorant of this magnus opus? Oh well, blind spots abound.

Mike C. said...

Kent,

How, indeed? But you may yet count yourself among the fortunate...

This is obviously going to be a post in its own right, in due course. Will we never escape the gravitational pull of Planet 68-77?

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

Apparently not. No matter what the topic - whether Adorno, Nihilism, "class warefare", or Zizek - we always come back to the music of our "yoot". I'm certain it's not lost on you that the largest number of comments here at the Hat deal with music and pop culture.

Mike C. said...

Kent,

I know, it's my own fault, I should ruthlessly exclude any off-topic comments -- the problem, is usually me that starts it!

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

I did read one of the Discworld novels a few years ago. I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I still had to read to the end because I wanted to know what happened. No urge to read any more though.

I'm surprised to find you praising such low-brow literature. Is it the prominence of certain librarians (as I read) which particularly tickled you?

I've yet to see any report stating the cause of death, but I've heard that an "unnamed source" states it was not an assisted suicide (for which he was, of course, a well-known advocate). However, the DEATH tweets perhaps suggest it was at least expected, if not planned. I've also been told, though, that Alzheimer's sufferers can "forget how to breathe".

I saw Allen in one of Gong's incarnations in Montpellier, France in 1977 and again under his own name in Hitchin in 2010(?). I think he was very influential on the acid house scene as well as with us pothead pixies, wasn't he?.. which might explain his prominence in the obits.

As for Elevator, I'd have to put them(?) in the same class as Althusser & co.

Still trying to remember where "never took nothing my spirit couldn't kill" is from, btw.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

When it comes to reading, I'm not a "highbrow" kinda guy -- I mainly read thrillers, which is where the best contemporary writing is to be found, imho. Don't read much "literary" fiction at all. Pratchett's books are well-written, funny, wise, and full of great recurring characters (I'm a Granny Weatherwax fan).

"Never took nothin'" is from "The Pusher" by Steppenwolf (figures on the East Rider soundtrack, I think). "Well, I smoked a lot of grass, I popped a lot of pills..."

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

Somehow I missed Daevid Allen's death – he appears in my personal starcharts as a founder of Soft Machine, of which I was once particularly fond.