Sunday, 29 July 2012

The wobbly Olympic scenery

The London Olympics opening ceremony
My wife and I stayed up late on Friday night to see on TV the opening of the Olympic Games 2012 in London. I'm not an enthusiast of these kinds of occasions, but I do think such large-scale spectacles can be culturally revelatory, and I was looking forward to seeing how Great Britain would find itself portrayed by the director of the ceremony, the film maker Danny Boyle.

Several things stick with me, as I discussed with some friends on a Facebook thread yesterday (yes, I do that!). First, as one friend observed, amidst the portrayal of Britain as a once green and pastoral land of village cricket and agriculture which disappeared in the shadow of industrial might, there was not one mention of God (apart from the occasional hymn and the national anthem) and certainly no symbolism concerning the role of the Church in our island's story. Someone flippantly remarked that there was nothing for bikers either, but, as another answered, bikers have no significant role in Britain's historical and social genesis. Christianity does! And like it or not, so does the person of Jesus Christ. But no, these were airbrushed out of the picture here: this was a representation of Britain but a selective one, and the omissions were as significant as the inclusions. At one moment in the unfolding drama, a young girl and boy kissed, and behind them on a screen flashed a rapid series of images which included heterosexual couples, homosexual couples and a man kissing an ape. Xenophilia makes its public entry into British life! The inclusions are significant, just like the omissions.

The spectacle meandered onwards (view it on the BBC iPlayer if you are in the UK). After the depiction of the arrival of the industrial revolution, we saw one of the Olymmpic rings being forged (for as we know, the Olympics were inspired by bloodsucking factory owners who thought the working masses needed a little diversion ... weren't they?) and then lifted up on high to form part of the Olympic symbol. A new section narrated a couple of teenagers leaving a house filled with TV-watching adults and going out for the evening. Since one of them dropped her phone, they were chased by a group of boys through four decades of pop music (with accompanying dancing) until the boys caught up with them to return the phone, and we saw the moment of the kiss described above. The original house finally lifted up in the air to reveal Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world-wide web, typing at a desk. 

How all very modern Britain! Boyle's picture told us and the world about ourselves: we have a bucolic and industrial past, and we've swapped it for a suburban and consumption-shaped present, our principal consumable being that of mediatised entertainment. Heck, the crowd in the Olympic stadium were even part of the show!  

But, as I also said to our pro-biker friend, if this spectacle represents who were are in the sense of our national identity, we've become an existentialist nation: we are what we do. We are no longer a land aspiring for anything so naff as ideals or values to be striven for. We have nothing to offer except our sense of humour in a vacuum and our funky music (which is yours at a price). I've called this existentialist, but that's probably an insult to existentialists. At least existentialists are looking to affirm something by their doing. This spectacle showed us affirming almost nothing except ourselves (apart from a short section praising the National Health Service): how funny we are, how individual we are, how many well-known cultural references we can make (Harry Potter, James Bond, Mr Bean, Sir Simon Rattle). It was a procession of postmodern variability, spread thick with high-tech razzamatazz.  

The Rio Carnival
Of course, the next day almost nobody in Britain dared say a word against the show, or analyse its implications too much. We all had to say how wonderful it had been, how game the Queen had been for playing along with the James Bond charade (true enough), how generous the volunteers had been with their time. This was not the moment for raining on the British parade. A new mood took over in fact. Looking forward to the Rio Olympics, some commentators dared Brazil to match London's spectacle. Many wise heads nodded, seeming to imply that the Brazilians would struggle (naturally) to do half as well as the British had done. As if Rio were not the home of the carnival in the first place ... 

So, another friend said, you didn't enjoy it? Well, actually, I laughed out loud in places. And as a spectacle, it was amazing. But it was empty, as empty as our postmodern, consumerist search for who were are. Some of the foreign press picked up on this, wondering if Britain knew what it now was in a postcolonial age. That was a nice way of saying that much of what we saw in the Danny Boyle spectacle was not plausible. A nation's identity does not hang on what its youngsters do on a Saturday night, or at least, if it does so, that nation is in a sorry place.

All in all, in fact, it was rather like a hanging: there was something indescribably thrilling about it, but in the end, you know, it was a bit of a let down.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Focal things and practices

Dr John Senior
I suppose there is a romantic in all of us in one way or another; we are all irreducible individuals. I am not, however, what I would call a romantic, at least not by training. Using such grand, generic terms, I would say rather that my intellectual formation was 'classical' in nature. If I was going to be more concrete, I'd call it Thomist, and if I was going to be as precise as possible, I'd call it neo-scholastic, All that said, I'm haunted by the image that that great teacher of literature John Senior uses to denounce the neo-scholastic project: St Thomas, he says, is to the neo-scholastics as farming implements are to a formerly colonised island whose colonisers are all dead and whose natives have forgotten the use of the implements and now hang them in the trees to worship them.

As a classicist, I learnt that habit is good, but experience proves the need to balance habit by frequent reinitiation. As a classicist, I hold that principles are indispensible, but experience proves the need to balance principles by frequently reconnecting with persons. Hard on principle but easy on people, rather than easy on principle but hard on people. He who stands by raw habit and nude principle has hung what he believes to be the truth in a tree and usually worships it with blood libations (sometimes his own, frequently that of others). I suppose the question that arises, however, is why do we ever lose contact with the real in the first place, either through habit (in the moral domain) or through principle (in the intellectual domain)? I'm sure Gabriel Marcel would convict me of having the spirit of abstraction.

Professor Albert Borgmann
With this rather romantically-drawn backdrop - given the themacity of the perpendicular pronoun - I have stumbled recently into reading Albert Borgmann, the American theorist of technology, and found therein at least one happy illumination of the problem I have just described. Borgmann is preoccupied among other things with the conditions of our material culture and what has happened to it in our perceptions. He is concerned that the pretexts which urge our immersion in technology are in fact narrowing and unfulfilling. Like habit and a kind of narrowly applied principle (this is my gloss), our technological context invites us to seize and instrumentalise the  things we see and almost unconsciously consume them, even when, most worryingly, they are not for sale. Thereby, however, we find the depth of things is reduced severely. What we need, says Borgmann, is to push technology to the periphery of our lives and challenge its omnipresence with what he calls focal things and practices: objects and activities which help us reconnect with those things we have lost contact with through usage. These gather our world together, revealing its various significations, while disclosing their own depths in the process.

If that all sounds woolly, the way I see it is that Borgmann is providing a reason why dinner round a table with good friends, laughing and enjoying each other's company, is more satisfying in all ways than an evening spent on Facebook. It suggests why even people who spend half their waking hours steeped in World of Warcraft think it's cool when someone can get the guitar out and pick a tune. It also correlates with Jacques Ellul's belief that the technological society begins as a way of thinking about things, rather than in material production. Perhaps habits and principles, taken in a narrow sense - taken in some self-sufficient sense - are ironically the incipit of a world understood without reference to its deeper self.

We are all users of technology; this very blog is a phenomenon of the technological culture. But this need not be a double bind. I'm free to blog as long as I don't forget the reality of the reader. I'm reminded of some lines by French novelist Georges Bernanos who, when someone said he was a 'realist' because he sat in cafes and wrote about what he observed, answered:
Georges Bernanos
I write at cafe tables because I cannot go long without faces and the human voice about which I believe I have tried to write honourably. [...] I write in cafes as I wrote once in railway carriages, so as not to be duped by creatures of my imagination, and, through a glance cast on some passer-by, to rediscover the true measure of joy and sorrow.    

Beyond habit and abstraction, there is then some tangible thing with which I am bound to reconnect. Failure to do so seemingly comes at the price of an ever intensifying dessication of the mind and soul.  Bernanos's words were addressed directly to that school of French literature that thought it was being 'naturalist' and 'realist' by trying to represent things as they are. By some sad paradox, they were disorting as they were representing. Somehow, the confidence of a certain mindset in seizing and possessing what is, can lead to a strange payback arising from the infidelity of the knowledge - the inadequation - such a process produces. Our principles are good, but our use of them can distort both them and us. Realism cannot be realism when it is obsessed only with what appears. G. K. Chesterton calls for for stereoscopy: the real only appears itself when viewed through mental binoculars, rather than through any reductive and voracious systematisation of the mind.

These things - and the inspiration of this blog - were brought home to me again recently standing beside an enchanted fjord (in the picture above and around us) when I found its beauty impressing itself upon me. It was not teaching me what it was in itself, as if it were undertaking some exercise in realism. It is not entirely clear what that mysterious fjord was up to But I think ultimately it was reminding me of the depths of all things and, likewise, inviting me to stand a little more humbly before them. Borgmann has not listed fjord-gazing as a focal activity, but something tells me he would not dismiss the suggestion.

Monday, 23 July 2012

First day of the holiday today ...

.... so, thanks to my daughter for waking us up at 4am! But what to do? We are  - to use that appalling portmanteau - having a 'staycation' and will head for town later to potter in the shops and munch on some lunch. The temperature has reached a happy 25 degrees celsius (77F) which makes it nigh on sultry for us Brits.

The other possiblities are legion. I have a volume of Albert Borgmann on the table which has been awaiting my attention for some time. I also have a pile of unwatched films arising from the near total incompatibility of my wife and me over film choices. My office bookshelves are begging me to sort them out after seven months of disorder since we moved house. And, well, it's just so nice outside ...

The week looks busy otherwise. Tomorrow is billed as a daddy-and-daughter day while my wife disappears to a conference. Thursday involves a trip to Manchester to see my parents. Friday of course means the Olympics!

But let me not resort to the stereotype of needing a holiday after my holiday: away from me, all ye linguistic procrustes! I shall place the holiday under the sign of Pieper.

Just pass the cultural sun cream, would you?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

An afternoon in Tolkien's footsteps

We spent some time this afternoon at Sarehole Mill Museum a few miles outside Birmingham city centre. On the face of it, there is nothing really special about the place: an untidy carpark, a few old mill buildings and an ill-stocked cafe. Lift aside the mantle of modesty, however, and you will spy J. R. R. Tolkien's very own playground from the time when he was a lad of eight.

He had come with his widowed mother and brother Hilary to Gracewell Cottages next to the mill pond. They were living near family in south Birmingham after the death of Tolkien senior in South Africa. The two boys played all over the still functioning mill, among the millstones and pulleys:

They gambolled in the local fields from which they were regularly chased by a mad Birmingham farmer on which the character of Farmer Maggot was based. Nearby, they found Moseley Bog which itself provided the raw inspiration of Fangorn Forest.

Pictures of the mill from the early 1900s when Tolkien knew it suggest the area was little more than a village within easy reach of a large town. Now, it is one of the many suburbs which slide away with ungainly vulgarity from Birmingham city centre. The noise of the traffic likewise nowadays takes a little something away from the atmosphere's location.

And nevertheless, it is a special spot. Pictures of the mill capture something of its old world charm:

And in the summer sun, with the birds singing brightly and the vegetation humming under the heat, one could not help but summon up the image of Tolkien's young imagination being forged under these kind stones.

Blogging the agenda: agenda-ing the blog

I have been writing in a variety of fora for quite some time now but this blog is a new venture for me. It will be as much a scrap book of current interests as anything else. I have felt for some time the need to find a place where I can breathe a little, beyond the constraints which are placed on one by expectations professional or otherwise.

I am not drawing up anything as crude as a manifesto; I am simply wondering if I can recapture here the space, life and curiosity I recently felt standing on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the broad daylight of a late evening in mid-summer. It was the kind of moment which recalls one to oneself, to the best of the things one has learnt and which lie in a jumble beneath the ashes of the daily grind.

Well, I can try ...

Welcome, reader!