Sunday, May 27, 2007


Well, among the many offensive things in today's Russia, this still somehow manages to stand out:

"We believe these perverts should not be allowed to march on the streets of Moscow, the third Rome, a holy city for all Russians," said Igor Miroshnichenko, who said he was an Orthodox believer who had come to support the riot police.

"It (homosexuality) is satanic," he told Reuters. One man holding a crucifix threatened to beat up any gay person he saw. [NOTE: a fine lesson in Christian virtue, no?]

Richard Fairbrass, a gay singer with the British pop group Right Said Fred, was punched in the face and kicked by anti-gay activists while speaking to Reuters in an interview.

"We understand this is a gay event and so we came down here today," Fairbrass told Reuters before being hit. Blood dripped from his face after the attack.

Volker Beck, a German Green Party politician and gay rights campaigner, was hit in the face with eggs before being detained by riot police. "We didn't do anything," he told Reuters as he was led away.

The rest is here.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Close your minds

Shuggy identifies a peculiar 'concept inflation' afflicting the notion of 'open-mindedness', and he puts in a few, rather convincing words for something we might call 'appropriate intolerance':

Any sort of context seems to have been lost. Looking for a partner? Then you better discriminate against the under-16s. Is the earth flat? We really aren't obliged to be 'open-minded' towards people who think this. Apart from anything else, open-mindedness like this must surely be rather inefficient.

Appropriate closed-mindedness allows doctors not to waste time on the possibilities that the patient before them is ill because they were abducted by aliens the previous evening, or they're possessed by a demon, or have been disabled by a witch-doctor or something. And mechanics can fix cars more quickly if they dismiss the suggestion that engine failure is down to fact that the driver's ying was out of sync with his yang.

The topic was homeopathy; the truth is universal.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Be good now...

There are very good, non-theistic reasons for being 'good'. In fact, more than necessary.

As Matt M. explains:

I to – being human – have a number of “immoral” urges. So why don’t I act on them? Hmmm… perhaps because doing so would more than likely leave me friendless, jobless, hunted by the police and wracked by guilt at the misery I’d caused.

At what point does that become attractive?

Immoral acts – i.e. acts which cause pain and/or suffering to others – are attractive only to psychopaths. The rest of us, regardless of our metaphysical beliefs, have plenty of good reasons – internal and external – for avoiding them.

As Stan Lee used to say: nuff said?

Size matters

Rats. Had I been born in one of those many countries with more sensible health-care systems than the US of A, not only would I probably be healthier, but I would also be taller:

Prior to World War II, US citizens were some of the tallest people on the planet, but since then their heights have stagnated; Europeans are now on average between 2 and 6 mm taller, despite the US position as the most affluent nation on earth. Like the previous study, this data reflects the growing disparity in prosperity in the United States, where income inequality is higher now than at any time since the Gilded Age.

The rest, by Jonathan M. Gitlin is worth reading, as are the two studies he mentions.

(The report from The Commonwealth Fund, also suggests to me that Germans should stop griping so much about their health care system: yes, it's getting less generous, but the results remain impressive. Speaking from personal experience, I've found health care in Germany to be fabulous. And all the doctors are so tall...)

(Via Lawyers, Guns & Money)

The play's the thing...

Filled with husbandly pride (and, knowing how much work went into it, no small amount of awe and respect), I am very pleased to announce that The Theatre of Civilized Excess: New Perspectives on Jacobean Tragedy is now available to order.

From the summary:

Jacobean tragedy is typically seen as translating a general dissatisfaction with the first Stuart monarch and his court into acts of calculated recklessness and cynical brutality. Drawing on theoretical influences from social history, psychoanalysis and the study of discourses, this innovative book proposes an alternative perspective: Jacobean tragedy should be seen in the light of the institutional and social concerns of the early modern stage and the ambiguities which they engendered. Although the stage’s professionalization opened up hitherto unknown possibilities of economic success and social advancement for its middle-class practitioners, the imaginative, linguistic and material conditions of their work undermined the very ambitions they generated and furthered. The close reading of play texts and other, non-dramatic sources suggests that playwrights knew that they were dealing with hazardous materials prone to turn against them: whether the language they used or the audiences for whom they wrote and upon whose money and benevolence their success depended. The notorious features of the tragedies under discussion – their bloody murders, intricately planned revenges and psychologically refined terror – testify not only to the anxiety resulting from this multifaceted professional uncertainty but also to theatre practitioners’ attempts to civilize the excesses they were staging.

Available now from Rodopi.

Don't need a weatherman to know which way the (martian) wind blows

Thanks to Geoff, I have discovered a very useful guide to climate change produced by New Scientist.

It's a very good tool for dealing with misinformation.

And it contains an answer to one climate change myth that I wasn't even aware of: apparently, there have been arguments that greenhouse gases have not caused global warming since...wait for it...Mars and Pluto are also warming up (and, as far as we know, neither of them is served by Easyjet.)

Apparently, though, that line of analysis is even less convincing than it initially sounds...

Having grown up in what I was repeatedly told was a nine-planet solar system, however, sentences like the following are somewhat jarring:

Our solar system has eight planets, one dwarf planet and quite a few moons...

Alas, poor Pluto. Vertically challenged, but no less beloved for all that.

(Besides, I thought there were actually, three dwarf planets...)

Monday, May 21, 2007

In the line of fire

I've much admired Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's reports from Iraq (and two of them have featured in posts on this site), so I was sad to hear that he had been injured by a grenade in recent fighting in Lebanon between the government and Islamic radicals. (From the Guardian, scroll down to the bottom of the article.)

He had followed soldiers into a building on the outskirts of Tripoli when a grenade was hurled down the stairwell, injuring him and one of the soldiers. He was released from hospital last night after being successfully treated for wounds sustained when three small pieces of shrapnel lodged in his arm and thigh. Abdul-Ahad, who studied architecture at Baghdad University, has been twice shortlisted for foreign correspondent of the year at the British Press Awards. He has won a number of awards for his reporting from Iraq, including the Martha Gellhorn prize last year, in which judges praised his "vivid, humane, independent and brave" reporting.

Here's wishing him a quick and full recovery.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Domino Dancing

Somewhere along the line, I picked up this song from Fujiya and Miyagi (a band from Brighton, England, as the name would lead you to believe) and quite liked it.

Now I see there's a video.

Which is also interesting.

Help the aged

There is quite an enormous amount of material I now have backlogged with regard to Recommended Reading, but I so far haven't gotten around to posting it. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps next week. Perhaps never. Alas....

In the meantime, I would like to recommend something dealing with a topic I've not referred to in a while: design.

More specifically, the aesthetic of 'old', 'used', 'authentic', 'second-hand', 'resale', 'antique' stuff.

The sort of stuff that, I think, maybe, I'm coming to appreciate more and more. But I'm also, as it were, coming to appreciate the complexities of my appreciation.

In his post 'Secondhand best: the point of not designing at all', Momus takes a look at some old stools and along the way makes some intriguing comments about 'the patina aesthetic', class, ethnicity and contradictions.

A sample:

At a barbecue in Gorlitzer Park last weekend I got talking to an Israeli girl about generation gaps which are also class gaps. Our parents think they're higher class than we are because they have newer furniture, clothes and so on. What they don't realize is that we think we're higher class than them because we've moved past consumerism as the be-all and end-all of life. We wear our secondhand clothes -- and present our retro furniture -- as a badge of honour, a cache of cultural capital. You don't spend your way to a better future when spending is precisely what's going to cancel the future!

In Berlin, at least, the style of the progressive bourgeois class is totally defined by patina. Most cafes for these people have mix-and-match retro chairs, shabby and comfy. People's houses have 50s, 60s and 70s furniture, often communist ostalgie pieces, each one with a tale to tell. The less you paid, the cleverer you are.

In Berlin, at least, this is essential class signalling. What distinguishes a cool cafe from McDonald's, or a cool house from a house furnished by Ikea, is patina. Busy working people often admire your handpicked thrift clothes apologetically: "I'd love to wear that kind of stuff, but I just don't have the time to hunt it down, so I just buy new." New has become second-best, secondhand best. It may be hard to explain to your parents, but to your peers it's second nature.


Of course it all gets very complex and contradictory. The creative class in Neukolln are slumming Slow Lifers, whereas the immigrants are on the up-and-up, enterprising, hard-working, stressed. One group is pre-materialist (in other words, aspirational and ambitious), the other post-materialist (so over Rolexes and bling). They pass each other midway without so much as a nod.

There's also a fascinating paradox in the attitude to work -- the dignity of labour -- that emerges in the patina aesthetic. Sure, old stuff is cool because you can see how it's been worked and reworked. You enjoy -- and fetishize -- labour in the piece. Other people's labour. People you never met, people far away in space and in time. Dead craftsmen, previous owners. Yet you opt out of consumerism, and buy pre-owned stuff, as part of opting out of precisely the kind of productive culture that created this stuff in the first place. You admire, from your Slow Life, the "fast life" of someone overworked, back in 1920, or over in China.
Do read the rest. It's better in context.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'A bigot, a reactionary, a liar, and a fool.'

There I was, just about to move on into the next and more demanding stage of mourning (due the passing of Jerry Falwell), when I was rescued at the very last minute by Timothy Noah, at Slate.

Noah not only provides what might be a perfect epitaph for the late founder of the Moral Majority (the words that adorn the title of this post), but he also does the great service of assembling a list of the great man's wit and wisdom.

How very insightful he was.

A selection:

On Sept. 11 [links to an mp3 audio file]: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.' "

On feminists: "I listen to feminists and all these radical gals. ... These women just need a man in the house. That's all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they're mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They're sexist. They hate men; that's their problem."

On global warming: "I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We'll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn't returned. I don't believe a moment of it. The whole thing is created to destroy America's free enterprise system and our economic stability."

On Jews: "In my opinion, the Antichrist will be a counterfeit of the true Christ, which means that he will be male and Jewish, since Jesus was male and Jewish."

So long Jerry, you will be missed.

By somebody.

I'm sure.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thinking about...zombies

Although not really a fan of the horror genre, I loved 28 Days Later, and am very much looking forward to seeing its sequel 28 Weeks Later when it is finally released in Germany.

While the film certainly looks exciting, viewing the trailer and other excerpts that I've been able to find online, inspires feelings of...well, dread, I suppose. And an odd sadness.

Perhaps it's the real-world references to the situation in Iraq, for instance (the deceptive security of a green zone, the seemingly inevitable slide toward chaos and destruction, the free-firing snipers), or perhaps it's contemplating an apocalyptic plague loosed upon a city I know relatively well and which has increasingly seemed haunted by a latent aura of vulnerability.

OK, I know, we are only talking about a zombie film here.

But 'zombies' have always been excellent symbolic tokens representing all kinds of real processes, fears, and darker corners of human psychology. The very notion of the 'undead'--not quite living, not quite dead--is inherently ontologically disquieting. Great horror films (or fiction, such as that from H. P. Lovecraft) have always generated a feeling that is really...unheimlich ('uncanny').

This is a feeling that, in another sense perhaps, underlies Haruki Murakami's fascinating book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, which I'm currently reading. As Murakami notes in his preface, he was partly inspired to write the book by a letter he ran across in a magazine from a woman whose family had been affected by the sarin nerve gas attack carried out in 1995 by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

'How on earth did this happen to us...?' she wonders, a question that Murakami recalls 'stuck in my head like a big question mark.'

And indeed, it is the essential everydayness of the stories of the people affected by the attack (along with the sinister fact that, unlike in a sudden explosion, it took hours for many victims to realise what had happened to them) which makes reading their experiences so...uncanny. That, as well as the maddening contingency of the semi-random circumstances that brought certain people to certain subway cars at certain times.

For their part, the perpetrators of the attack, the members of the Aum cult, seem strangely detached in their methodical, affectless determination.

Indeed, at times they resemble nothing so much as...zombies.

Perhaps its the very impersonality and relentlessly all-devouring nature of the killer virus (and its carriers) in the '28' films which makes them so shattering to contemplate. No negotiation is possible; reason is powerless.

The same could be said about death cults.

Philip French concludes his review of the film this way:

But the movie is ruthless and not only in the way it spares no one from plague and bullet. The chilling theme is that the road to hell on earth is paved with good intentions, starting with the well-meaning scientists and the animal activists who light the fuse, and continuing with those inspired by compassion and moral decency.
As in so many things here in the real world: there is no pony.

Which is, indeed, dispiriting.

Perhaps I should wait for the DVD.

So, it's maybe a good thing that Jonathan Coulton is around to add some much-need levity to the whole topic of brain-eating zombies. Here is his excellent song, 'Your Brains'.

Friday, May 11, 2007

I wish I had answers to random questions that were this cool

Perusing the excellent blog Some Men are Brothers I ran across a reference to an interview with Will Sheff, the lead singer of the band Okkervil River. I happen to have a song by this band on my mp3 player ('Black'...and quite a rocking little number it is). So, I was intrigued.

The first question in the interview was the following:

'So the first thing I wanted to ask you was if you’ve ever been in a fight.'

Fair enough...I mean, it's nice to start out with something unexpected, something that, the interviewer thinks, might nicely break the ice and usefully unsettle the interviewee.

However, the answer was far more interesting than -- I assume -- the questioner expected:

WILL SHEFF: Oh. I was in a knife fight just a couple months ago, believe it or not. I was at a party—kind of a hipster party in Austin. It was New Year’s Eve. And there were lots and lots of people there. I dropped Scott [Brackett, Okkervil’s trumpet and keyboard player] off and I drove back to the party for no good reason. I was really drunk, walking around, and I turned a corner and saw two gentlemen having a fight. One of them pulled a hunting knife out of his jacket. It was like a ten-inch-long hunting knife, and he swung it at the other guy’s throat! And the other guy turned his head at the last minute and he got cut on the back of his neck. But if he hadn’t turned his head he would have gotten his throat cut.

The guy who got the back of his neck cut shouts, “He’s got a knife! He’s got a knife!” So I see this guy swinging this hunting knife around and in a blind, drunken impulse I grab the guy’s hand—the guy with the knife—and I was going to try and pull the knife out of his hand. But the instant I grabbed his hand, I looked down at this knife and I realized that this is a real, very sharp, very metallic knife—and it could very well stab me in the gut or something like that. And so I thought, All right, well, I really have to pull this knife out of this guy’s hand or else something bad’s going to happen. He was holding it really, really tight and for just a second, he loosened up his hand. I saw that as my window, so I pulled as hard as I could to get the knife out of his hand—I actually cut my hand in the process of it. I pulled so hard, and it was such a crowded party, that in the process of pulling the knife out of his hand I stabbed somebody in the leg.

BLVR: Oh my god.

WS: So I stabbed this guy in the leg and he goes [abruptly] “Ow!” And I said, “Hold on a second—I’ll be right back.” And I ran and hid the knife somewhere the knife’s owner wouldn’t find it. But where, in the morning, the person who had been assaulted could find the knife and use it as evidence.

BLVR: That was very responsible of you.

WS: When I got back, the guy who had pulled the knife was long gone. The guy who I stabbed was still there. And he was just sort of drinking a beer. And I said, “Man, I’m really, really sorry I stabbed you in the leg, but a guy pulled this knife…” And the guy said, “Oh, no, no, it’s OK. I’m fine.” And his girlfriend said, “No no no, you’re not fine—you have blood all over your hand.” He had his hand over the wound, and when he lifted it, his hand was slick with blood. There was blood all over his hand.

As it turns out, he was on ecstasy, so he didn’t really care that he had been stabbed in the leg. So I said, “Well, go to the bathroom, look at the wound, and see if you have to go to the hospital, I’ll pay for it or whatever.” So he goes to the bathroom and the news quickly spreads that this guy’s been stabbed in the leg. No one realizes that the other guy actually was assaulted and there was a fight. They just heard there was somebody who pulled a knife and stabbed somebody in the leg.

BLVR: It was you.

WS: Yeah. So I go to the bathroom to check on this guy and there are all these girls in the bathroom and they’re all like [girl voice], “We’re taking care of it! We’re taking care of it! Go away!” And then the host of the party comes out and goes: “Everybody out. Somebody pulled a knife. Everybody out of here.” He’s called the police. I say, “I don’t want to leave. I’m the person who actually inflicted the wound and I feel I should pay for it if he has to go to hospital.” And he says: “You’re the one with the knife?! What kind of sick fuck brings a knife to a party? What the fuck is wrong with you? Get out of here!” And I was like, “But it wasn’t my knife!” And he said, “I don’t want to hear it. Just get the fuck out of my house.” And then the police showed up, so I was like—I’m not sticking around. So I left.

It turns out that the guy who pulled the knife now has criminal charges pressed against him. And the guy who I stabbed was not that gravely injured.

So that was the last fight I got in and it involved a large hunting knife on New Year’s Eve.

BLVR: And for the rest of your musical career, every song will be based on that.

WS: Well, the funny thing is, it’s become this thing in Austin that people talk about—and nobody really knows the story. People think that I brought the knife to the party. And one person said to Travis, our drummer, “Hey, I heard your boy was trying to get fresh with some girl in the bathroom at a party and she wasn’t having it, so he stabbed her in the leg with a knife.” So in a sense I have been typed, now, as a kind of knife-wielding psychopath.

Read the rest at The Believer if you like. But I think the remainder is rather a let-down after this.

Texas is a lot more interesting than I thought.

Adding a decibel or two

As Ophelia suggests, now might be the time to make a little noise. Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil has been arrested by a government (one of several) that has demonstrated it is not reluctant to arrest and torture people at will. From the press release by Human Rights Watch:

Bangladesh’s military-backed care-taker government should immediately release Tasneem Khalil, an investigative journalist and part-time Human Rights Watch consultant, who was detained by security forces late last night, Human Rights Watch said today.

Khalil, 26, is a journalist for the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper who conducts research for Human Rights Watch. According to his wife, four men in plainclothes who identified themselves as from the “joint task force”came to the door after midnight on May 11 in Dhaka, demanding to take Khalil away. They said they were placing Khalil “under arrest” and taking him to the Sangsad Bhavan army camp, outside the parliament building in Dhaka. [...]

“The Bangladeshi military should be on notice that its actions are being closely watched by the outside world,” Adams said. “Any harm to Tasneem Khalil will seriously undermine the army’s claims to legitimacy and upholding the rule of law.”


[Update]: Tashneem Khalil has been released. Details available here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

More thoughts on rampant pathologies, modernist ziggurats and countless rabbits

For those who are interested in J.G. Ballard (or for those of you interested in getting interested in him), some further reading...

Simon Sellars has a far more comprehensive run-down of last weekend's conference. As he points out, the venue was both entirely appropriate and subtly absurd:

I provided myself with other breaks by wandering around the UEA grounds and the ziggurat halls of residence, in particular, a series of pyramidical, mirrored structures ringing a lake and woodland, resembling nothing less than a Ballardian Concentration City. All around, the Brutalist architecture was superbly integrated into art and aesthetic, into functionalism and living, so much so that I thought a garbage skip was in fact an art work along the lines of the industrial sculptures dotted around the grounds. There was a swarm of rabbits darting around my legs, too, and hundreds, maybe thousands of interconnected rabbit holes – an animal kingdom version of the ziggurat – and one couldn’t help but compare these hyperactive beasts to the usual activities of university students after a few lagers.
Along with his keen observations (and excellent photos), Simon provides summaries and links galore on many of the topics covered.

Elsewhere online, Owen Hatherley also interprets the event (and helpfully provides a link to his own contribution), though in rather more discordant terms. He registered some kind of 'tussle' between rival gangs of literary theorists to decide who could 'claim' Ballard's writing as their own.

I didn't notice that, which is odd, since my ears are usually attuned to the dulcet sounds of intellectual bloodshed.

However, perhaps under what seemed on the surface to be a remarkable openness to other points of view and a refreshingly collegial atmosphere, I missed out on some subtle aggression amongst the intellectual tribes gathered.

Not only am I not as up-to-date on academic turf battles as perhaps I should be, I may have been distracted by all those charming bunnies.

I do, though, have a sneaking suspicion that the following might have been directed at me (or, more precisely, my own contribution), partly since I was one of the few to take a sociological perspective:

So there were some strange recuperations here, most memorably an attempt to read High Rise as some sort of sententious Family and Kinship in East London style anti-Modernist critique.

Well, you can't please everybody (and at least the attempt was memorable).

Having never had my intellectual efforts be reduced (or elevated, take your pick) to a recuperation before -- let alone a 'strange' one -- and since neither I nor Ballard (nor the sociology I was employing) could be even vaguely seen as 'anti-Modernist', I suspect I've been misunderstood.

I will certainly have to speak more loudly next time.

And use more diagrams.

Or perhaps this was directed at someone else...

[Update] It was directed at someone else. So, I feel better now.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A cavalcade of anger and fear

'This Year' by the Mountain Goats.

(The video seems to load slowly, so you may wish to pause it till it's well ahead of itself.)

Nightmares at Noon

I'm still recovering somewhat from last weekend's conference on British author J.G. Ballard at the University of East Anglia. This is not only because of its particular subject matter but also the inevitable components of conference attendance (exhausting travel, finding one's way around strange cities, the creation of a social space in which conversations are brief but intense, the necessity to concentrate intensely on wildly diverse -- and possibly contradictory -- interpretations, and the enjoyable but tiring post-conference evening in the pub...)

Nonetheless, I'm very happy to say that my experience of the conference was a very positive one. This is especially so since I'm a relative novice when it comes to Ballard (or, indeed, to literary analysis), and I had gone to Norwich as much with the aim of learning something about Ballard's writing as presenting my own humble efforts at interpreting it. As at any conference, each paper had its own qualities, and some were better than others, but I must say that the overall quality of debate and discussion was very high.

Considering that Ballard's writing is probably most generally known for its violence and dark perversity (adapting a review by Ballard himself, one speaker referred to his stories as 'nightmares at noon'), the atmosphere at the conference was nothing if not cheerful and convivial. I was struck by the diversity of people who seem attracted to Ballard's work, and I have never attended a conference, I think, at which the boundaries between 'academic' and other forms of knowledge were so hard to define and, indeed, at which the distinction itself was so insignificant.

It is a rare and genuine pleasure to meet so many very fine and enjoyable people in such a short span of time.

Just to quickly make a few impressions...

It seems that that, after a long period of either being (relatively) ignored by literature scholars or of being (frequently) shoved into one of a series of all-too-simple categories, Ballard is rapidly on the way not only to being taken seriously outside his long-extant community of admirers but also to being analysed in terms of a much broader spectrum of theories and philosophies. As one plenary speaker noted, the new academic popularity of Ballard raises the spectre that his writing will be hemmed in by a series of 'closed and obsessed theory worlds', each claiming him as its own.

This is true; however, given not only the kaleidoscope of literary theories available today but also the lack of objective criteria for comparing their results, this is more a function of literary analysis itself than a comment on Ballard. Nonetheless, despite the inevitable theoretical cacophony, growing scholarly interest means a potentially greater awareness of the nuances and complexity of Ballard's fiction. And that's a good thing.

My own contribution, which sought to analyse two of Ballard's novels in terms of Norbert Elias's theory of the 'civilising process', seems to have been well received. That was gratifying, particularly as I'm not a literature person but rather a historian. I also feel that I've successfully learned a great deal not only about Ballard himself but about some of the broader contours of current literary criticism. (Some of these are very enlightening; some of them strike me as not very helpful, but this is not my field, so I don't feel so eager to expand on that point just now.)

Over the course of the conference, I felt a few half-formed intuitions that I had been developing about Ballard's work becoming more defined. I'm still not sure whether I'm on the right track or not, but when I said things along these lines, I did get some positive feedback. (Rather than a sign of insight, of course, widespread agreement can also signal banality, so that's always an alternate possibility. So, I'm not claiming any particular genius in pointing these out, and since I'm unfamiliar with a lot of the previous interpretations of Ballard's fiction, I may be unwittingly re-stating other people's observations.)

First, for example, the media undoubtedly plays an enormously important role in Ballard's fictional work and his commentary; however, in reading his novels I have found over and over again a vivid depiction of the limits of culture and mediated experience. As much as fantasy, text, image and language, I think Ballard (quite rightly) emphasises those things lying beyond them which structure real life, i.e., physics and biology.

Second, and on a related note, where some might see Ballard as celebrating the potential of technology or media to effect a transformation (or transcendence) of human nature, I find as much (if not more) a consistent message in his work about the ultimate impossibility of fundamentally changing or escaping who (and what) we are. Perhaps he is less definite than this, but at the very least he places firm emphasis on the unlikelihood of fundamental change or on what we might call the inertia of both reality and our mammalian heritage.

Third, in response to my paper, I received a very good question about how seriously we should take Ballard as a social critic. That's something about which I'm still thinking, but my immediate answer (which, so far, I still think is right) was that Ballard's sociology should be taken seriously but used carefully. For instance, as my paper sought to suggest, while not presenting a realistic 'map' of modern violence -- which, as at any other time in history, has mainly mundane and fairly straightforward causes -- Ballard's seemingly bizarre texts present a jarring vision of social life that contain useful (and accurate) insights into historical, social and psychological processes.

(Most fictional depictions of violence give a quite distorted image of its reality. I recently ran across this succinct paper by an Australian criminologist making just that point. Curiously, Ballard's fiction -- while on the surface so much more odd than, say, a typical crime novel -- might contain truer messages about violence than ostensibly more 'realistic' books.)

Fourth, and finally, while the specificities of the post-war world and its culture and technologies are vital parts of Ballard's writing, I think it is possible to put his work within a longer historical context. Some of the issues he deals with (the struggles between impulsivity and self-control, the role of violence in social relationships, the influence of technology on human life) did not simply emerge post-1945. (Although, obviously, the last half century has seen important and meaningful shifts in those topics, ones with which Ballard has presciently and poetically engaged.)

All these points, in one way or another, were in some rudimentary form in my head when we set off to travel to Norwich (via the quintessentially Ballardian atmosphere of Stansted Airport), and, along with some other interesting questions to think about, they are what is going to continue to shape my efforts to understand the work of an author who seems, at last, to be getting the attention he is due.

So, greetings and gratitude are certainly due to the organisers and other participants for a pleasant and stimulating weekend.

(The photo, by the way, is one I took of a former Second World War military emplacement near Le Hourdel, France, which, due to erosion, has since fallen on its side. Ballard himself commented on such structures in his article 'The Architecture of Death'.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The nucleus of belief

Sticking, if only tangentially, with the topic of death for a moment...

Perhaps this reveals a serious gap in my education, but I was very surprised (via This Modern World) to find that atheism apparently has some kind of officially recognised symbol.

And, at least according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, which has established a list of 'available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers', it is this:

How bizarre.

Who decided that? And, more intriguingly, I do wonder precisely how many government headstones and markers this symbol adorns.

(Even more strangely, one of the V.A.-accepted Muslim symbols, a five-pointed star, is listed but is 'Not shown because of copyrights'. So, who exactly owns those copyrights, I wonder?)

Into the dark

Well, I'm back.

To celebrate: some not-so-idle thoughts about death.

From Sam Harris, who is quite right to point out that 'what one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life':

You could die at any moment. You might not even live to see the end of this paragraph. Not only that, you will definitely die at some moment in the future. If being prepared for death entails knowing when and where it will happen, the odds are you will not be prepared. Not only are you bound to die and leave this world; you are bound leave it in such a precipitate fashion that the present significance of anything -- your relationships, your plans for the future, your hobbies, your possessions -- will appear to have been totally illusory. While all such things, when projected across an indefinite future, seem to be acquisitions of a kind, death proves that they are nothing of the sort. When the stopper on this life is pulled by an unseen hand, there will have been, in the final reckoning, no acquisition of anything at all.

(The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, 2004, pp. 37 and 38 -- thanks to Anja for pointing this out to me.)

From Norbert Elias:

Death is not terrible. One passes into dreaming and the world vanishes -- if all goes well. Terrible can be the pain of the dying, terrible, too, the loss of the living when a beloved person dies. There is no known cure. We are part of each other. [...]

There are indeed many terrors that surround dying. What people can do to secure for each other easy and peaceful ways of dying has yet to be discovered. The friendship of those who live on, the feeling of dying people that they do not embarrass the living, is certainly part of it. And social repression, the veil of unease that frequently surrounds the whole sphere of dying in our days, is of little help to people. Perhaps we ought to speak more openly and clearly about death, even if it is by ceasing to present it as a mystery. Death hides no secret. It opens no door. It is the end of a person. What survives is what he or she has given to other people, what stays in their memory. If humanity disappears, everything that any human being has ever done, everything for which people have lived and fought each other, including all secular or supernatural systems of belief, becomes meaningless.

(The Loneliness of the Dying, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 1985, pp. 66 and 67).

From Julian Barnes:

When my mother died, the undertaker, from a nearby village, asked if the family wanted to see the body. I said yes; my brother no. Actually, he said (to me, when I passed on the question), “Good God, no. I agree with Plato on that one.” I didn’t have the text he was referring to immediately in mind. “What did Plato say?” I asked. “That he didn’t believe in seeing dead bodies.” When I turned up at the undertaker’s—which was more like the rear extension to a haulage business—the funeral director said apologetically, “I’m afraid she’s only in the back room at the moment.” I looked at him questioningly, and he expanded: “She’s on a trolley.” I found myself replying, “Oh, she didn’t stand on ceremony,” though I couldn’t claim to know whether she would, or wouldn’t, have wanted to do so in the present circumstances.

She lay in a small, clean room with a cross on the wall; she was indeed on a trolley, with the back of her head toward me as I went in, thus avoiding an instant face-to-face. She seemed, well, very dead: eyes closed, mouth slightly open, and more so on the left side than on the right, which was just like her—she used to hang a cigarette in the right corner of her mouth and talk out of the other side. [...]

At the undertaker’s, I touched her cheek several times, then kissed her at the hairline. No, she didn’t look awful: there was nothing overpainted about her, and her hair, she would have been pleased to know, was looking good. (“Of course, I never dye it—it’s all natural,” she once boasted to my brother’s wife.) Was she so cold because she’d been in the freezer, or because the dead are naturally cold? Wanting to see her dead came more, I admit, from writerly curiosity than from filial feeling, but there was a bidding farewell to be done, for all my long exasperation with her. “Well done, Ma,” I murmured.

('The Past Conditional', The New Yorker, Dec. 2006)