Angst & Instability

I don’t know anyone who does not suffer from some form of Anxiety. I have written about this variously elsewhere on this site but the more research I do on psychology and philosophy (for work I might add, that is literally my job) the more it seems an inevitability of modern living. I was recently reading Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness Unto Death’ which he calls Despair, which he defines in the almost comedic way of: “relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. Soren was talking about the search for God and the idea of sin or simply a life without God being the eponymous ‘Sickness’, however there is a lot in the text that neatly describes the sort of depression that is on the rise today. For such a short but dense philosophical text, chiefly about God, it is worth the read purely because of its demand for self-exploration and understanding. In it Kierkegaard talks about the idea of ‘embracing oneself’ which is very much a buzzword amongst the positivity movement that is so prevalent today but more than that it grapples with the notion of the infinite and the finite and reconciling our place within both. As such ‘Sickness Unto Death’ can be seen as one of the earliest existential texts.

Even more interestingly Kierkegaard also wrote a text called ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ in 1844. In it he uses the analogy of a man at a cliff edge looking over the edge and being terrified by the drop yet with a compulsion to jump off. This internal conflict is what he defines as Anxiety or Angst: living in indecision. What this signifies is the dread that accompanies an awareness of our own freedom. The immensity of our abilities and our freedom in such a vast, and largely uncaring, universe is powerful and daunting, Kierkegaard recognizes this and gave us the definition for what teenagers around the world are accused of feeling every day. And he was right. What greater kind of indecision and accompanying dread is there in life than the transformation from a near total lack of awareness in childhood to almost too much awareness and understanding in adulthood? Every teenager is afflicted with angst because they have not yet learned to compartmentalize in the way adults do and bury ourselves in the minutiae of everyday life to ignore the immensity of experience and existence. Naturally, as a Christian, Kierkegaard says this is to do with sin and not accepting God but again need not be read that way. The idea of reconciling the finite and the infinite is a struggle which we all deal with. Or at least I thought it was.

HP Lovecraft is a horror writer from the early 20th century who built on this existential dread of reconciling our place in the Universe that was explored in a similar way in fiction by Ambrose Bierce and Robert Chambers but is definitely born of Kierkegaard’s explorations into Despair & Angst. I’m a fan of this type of horror writing and apparently I’m not alone, many things in popular culture at the moment are turning to this kind of existential horror in in either direct or oblique but always interesting ways. I wrote about this resurgence on this site previously too. Despite this it would seem this type of horror is purely the bastion of the straight white male. The thing that prompted me to write this piece was on Twitter recently, someone RTed a quote by William Hutson of the hip-hop group Clipping who said that “Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism is only terrifying if you’re a straight white man and you thought you were the centre of the universe anyway.” Now an important thing to know about Lovecraft was that he was a racist and anti-semite and these factors undeniably informed his writing. Writing at a time of post war civil rights meant a straight white dude was being confronted by his own existence, specifically (he thought) having his freedoms removed. Now whilst this is certainly true it does little to explain why Ice T recently talked about his love for the Lovecraft story ReAnimator on Twitter or the incredibly horrifying existential confrontation of Get Out that was such an enormous success. And, most tellingly, the cultural penetration of Game of Thrones which is purely about the existential threat of the amorphous Winter, the night that is “dark and full of terrors” and so on, and the futility of our fighting it (a topic explored by Wisecrack). Lovecraft’s brand of existential terror is indeed informed by his problematic beliefs but the genre itself only seems to become more and more potent as the years go by.

Despite the despicable racism, anti-semitism, nationalism and class disparity that continues today, life in the west has improved vastly since the late 19th century. Equality took massive strides forward over the last 50 years and we live in a world of technological wonders like the internet that has increased the living conditions of billions and the rise of automation in industry has given us more free time to do what we love. And yet here we are with all this luxury, realizing how it equally penalizes other nations and cultures, how automation robs people of jobs and their identity, with rising political beliefs of a return to old fashioned segregation and discrimination, sexism and a potent form of nationalism all on the rise not the decline. In short, the whole planet has been confronted with its own freedom and the truly awesome immensity therein and far from embracing this and attempting to make a far more equitable and sympathetic society utilizing all this incredible new tools at our disposal, millions have shied from it. Instead they prefer to close their borders, demand a return to the ‘good old days’, where freedoms were limited, people were told what to do and personal liberties were maintained violently. By extension this can be seen in individuals as much as it can different societies or nations or people.

Friends and family of mine live their lives very differently now to the way I saw it as a kid. With the gig economy and most relationships (of any kind) being cultivated online and therefore needing nothing more than our smart device to run most aspects of daily life, we are given an enormous amount of freedom. With a wealth of things to do, to live and to experience in our time we instead live our lives in increasingly smaller homes and binge-watching season after season of television shows. The response to this is often “well I can’t afford to do anything” which in itself is another existential argument but what we’re essentially saying is we want to forgo our choice i.e. we are living in indecision. Some people are dedicated to moving forward and doing things and smugly tell us about it online in a passive aggressive way that says ‘you should be doing the same, you lazy bum’, others are dedicated to regressing society and become President, whereas I think most of us are the ones stuck in that stasis of indecision, not knowing how to move forward or back and consequently not putting the effort into defining ourselves beyond the roles a steadily dissolving society has given us. We are freer than we have ever been as species (that does not mean there are not people who have little to no freedoms and are not subjugated) and yet far from accepting and utilizing this freedom the vast majority of us either shun it entirely or refuse to do anything with it and that, I believe, is where this epidemic of anxiety has grown from.

Far from being the exclusive malady of the white middle class, I think this existential anxiety is rife amongst humanity today, whatever your belief, creed, colour or nation. The need for creating purpose in our lives and a direction for humanity as whole has never been more necessary but equally never more ignored and therefore, Kierkegaard’s need to reconcile ourselves with the immensity of existence, with God or without, seems to be the ultimate test of our times. If we cannot learn to justify our own existence and our place in the universe we may be heading for a lack of it.

Enframed Online

Please like, subscribe, follow, give me the thumbs up, leave a comment, favourite, retweet etcetera. In the abstract arena of the internet where everyone under the age of 40 makes their living, the currency is in the above listed units. That’s how you get traffic, hits, interactions, views, metrics and so on which equals profit. Somehow. I think it’s from advertising but that’s getting choked these days too so I don’t really know. Either way, both our livelihoods and our own self-worth today are measured in these kinds of metrics making social media a bizarre kind of augmented reality video game like Pokemon Go. Gotta catch em all!

This kind of thinking – technology as a mode of living – was perfectly defined by Heidegger in 1949 as ‘Gestell’ in German or ‘Enframing’ in English. The idea being that for something to exist in the Human world it must be ‘framed’ by us first i.e. something doesn’t really exist to us until we have named it and discovered its purpose. It is a lot more complicated than that but that’s the broad strokes. As such, we have enframed other people to serve the purpose of ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ on social media, they are a literally a resource to be mined, a different node with unique attributes in a system that falls into certain predictable patterns that we can then manipulate for our own ends, literally like a computer. It is perhaps little wonder then with the YouTube vlogger, the influencer and the blog pundit we have ended up with such a right-wing society developing in the west.

Now this hypothesis was developed by Heidegger prior to the invention of digital technologies so I doubt he could have foreseen how prescient this theory was. His perception of it was seeing the totality of vision or everything on Earth as ‘Standing Reserve’ or any matter waiting to be exploited by us (there’s no coincidence the Standing Reserve is used in military vocabulary too). Heidegger saw it as the way humanity has evolved and grown by using the environment to create tools, homes, toys, vehicles, etc but technology in general is our way of life so we must enframe the environment around us to see it as a resource. Whilst this is an accurate way of describing humanity it is equally problematic when it is applied to people. Heidegger himself flirted with Fascism and the Nazi mentality can most definitely be seen as a very extreme method of enframing, i.e. humans as a resource to be exploited. Ironically the current Neoliberal model of Capitalism is also very much the same; seeing people as consumers, artists as creators, art as content, a useful item as product. To enframe is to rob something of its own essence, its own definition of what it is and with every demand for a like and subscribe we are framed as a resource.

For me the fact that a lot of the ‘Alt-Right’ online, who like to troll and abuse anyone not white or male, seem to talk of objectivity, espouse a love for science and demand ‘The Truth’ in every discussion. This search for objectivity which they deem objectively true is an oxymoron. All experience is subjective but their belief in this objectivity reveals how they have enframed everything as a means to serve their way of life. In essence, the various YouTube channels, Facebookers, Celebrity Tweeters, Instagram Influencers and so on that say they are apolitical still enframe their audience as a resource for them to continue living their lives, so are indulging in a type of ‘soft-fascism’. Yes, I’m calling PewDiePie a fascist like everyone else. But seriously, the fact the likes of Milo, Cernovich and Alex Jones do so well online is because they don’t see people, they see metrics and text on a screen, a similar mentality as the various Nazis when asked how they could perform their crimes replied all they were doing was signing bits of paper. Whilst this comparison is admittedly extreme, the dehumanization in both cases is most certainly there.

It’s probably worth pointing out here that I write for a YouTube channel and most of my writing work is published online these days so I am by no means saying the internet is inherently bad but there are significant problems with our relationship with it. I like to think the stuff I write and the way I approach the internet goes some way to assuming the people who view my CONTENT are their own people with their own complex opinions and experiences that they bring to the discussion but I fully admit this is not always the case. Many is the time I have made a criticism of a celebrity or ‘important person’ online only to have them reply in defense. This always depresses me because typically I will stand by the criticism but by no means wished to offend or upset the person, in the same way you may have a criticism of a friend in real life but you would not wish to insult or attack them at a dinner party, I’d like to think I had better manners and was kind enough to know when and how to broach the subject in private. The internet and social media does not lend itself to this way of thinking. I enframe these celebrities as untouchable objects who neither hear nor care about my petty concerns so I can offer my super important hot takes to the world but then I am regularly proved wrong when I get an angry or wounded reply in defense.

I, more than most, have a lot to be grateful for thanks to the internet. It has given me a whole new life, new friends, travel, work and a girlfriend but the reason for that is, I hope, I always see the various people I interact with online as human beings with thoughts and feelings like me. A certain level of empathy is needed in the age of social media that is sorely lacking and has created an enormous amount of issues that has undeniably ruined lives. The alternative now is to just go off grid entirely which presents its own problems in a world where almost every financial transaction, bank, business and relationship is formed or fostered online. For me personally the sheen has definitely left the internet. The novelty of Amazon, YouTube, Social Media, et al has worn off with various scandals and problematic views, actions around tax avoidance, propaganda and misinformation, sales of personal information, abuse, Sexism, Racism, as well as poor customer service, built in obsolescence and much, much more. The Digital Revolution has transformed the world and isn’t stopping now but I think people are starting to predict, if not a Post-Internet Culture, but a culture where the internet is massively reduced in its scope and perhaps a return to more ‘analogue’ methods of interacting and sharing experience and knowledge. By no means does this remove the problems presented by our selfishness or our need to enframe the world as a mine of resources but it would certainly mitigate the impersonal mode by which we’re engaging with people, and the world, at the moment.

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Worst Case & Ariel

“You either love it or you hate it” was the slogan for Marmite because the people who did their marketing were smart enough to know this was the truth and they weren’t convincing non-buyers to get it so they just ran with this idea that had fallen into common vernacular. Bands, Books, People could all be described as “Marmite” meaning you loved or hated it, no middle ground. Today this partisan mentality has extended to EVERYTHING, nothing is seen as middling anymore or can simply be ignored, it is either the greatest thing to have ever happened or the worst. It will either save us or destroy us. The thing I found to be most interesting in all this is how this extends to the topic that has been the preoccupation with popular culture for the last 15 years or so: The Apocalypse.

The Left see an imminent apocalypse due to climate change, economic collapse and escalating wars whereas the Right see it in the rise of political correctness, social justice or just anything that doesn’t grossly benefit white dudes. Now the important distinction here is how both define these futures for society and civilization, for the left it’s a Dystopia that awaits but for the right it’s a Utopia. The pejorative use of the word Utopia has always perplexed me. Why is the idea of a prosperous, equitable society that benefits all seen as such a bad thing? I think the first thing to understand is that the people who complain about “Utopian dreamers” are normally the people currently living in a Utopia themselves: privileged, wealthy white people who have never known real conflict on their shores in their lifetime and are rarely said no to or not catered for, but it also seems to boil down to a total misunderstanding of what Utopia is.

I just finished reading Thomas More’s book ‘Utopia’ which is where we get the word and its general meaning from. Unfortunately, little more than a basic precis is given to us by the modern definition of the word Utopia if you haven’t read the book. The book itself is about a mysterious sailor named Raphael who tells Thomas of an island nation that he visited/discovered off the coast of South America. It is a seemingly ancient society and civilization of total harmony and the more it is described the more we realise how difficult it is to see happening at the time the novel was written but thanks to a surprisingly nuanced and detailed explanation of the different aspects of Utopia by Raphael we can see reflections of the country in our own contemporary society, references to courts and policing, sales and taxation and even home ownership and gardens are discussed as the perfect model for a well maintained civilization. Thus, the most striking thing reading Utopia today is that by the book’s definitions it already exists in the western world, but only here and only to certain class of people.

The other thing that struck me was something that seems slightly abstract about the book: it is not a first-hand account, it is an account of a first-hand account. Anyone who is aware of the ‘Unreliable Narrator’ trope in stories will know this is one way of being given a story that may or may not be true. Or both. Any book you are reading purports itself to be the objective truth, be it written first person or not, you take the story at face value even if you know the person telling the story is subjective. In the case of Utopia you are hearing a subjective account of a subjective account and this places Utopia in an interesting place not just as a book but an idea that has come to define the word. Even in the context which defines the idea of Utopia it is seen from a distance, it is a myth even in its own story explaining it. Utopia is a country viewed from afar, never to be landed on, that we see as perfection but can never attain. Perfection has always been unattainable, as any wise person knows, so Utopia can only ever exists as an idea even in its own story. Therein lies the difference between the Left and Right visions of the next stage of civilization, the left knows aiming for Utopia is doomed to failure for “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” but we equally fear the reality that a dystopia is achievable due to its definition being founded in very real and present concerns. The Right, however, are the opposite. Their Utopian hell is unlikely to ever happen but they inch ever closer to a dystopian present of their liking and design.

Another text that uses a mythical island to confront us with a form of Utopia and Dystopia is Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. Whilst Prospero’s island is not a Utopia, nothing more than a rock really, it is easy to see the way everything on the island, embodied in Ariel and Caliban, is depicted as being Utopian or Dystopian depictions of humanity. Even the way the survivors of the shipwreck see the island is the opposite to one another:

Adrian:            … the air breathes upon us here most sweetly
Sebastian:        As if it had lungs, and rotten ones.
Gonzalo:         Here is everything advantageous to life.
Antonio:          True; save means to live.
Gonzalo:         How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
Antonio:          The ground, indeed, is tawny!
Sebastian:        With an eye of green in’t.

An island that depicts both the best and worst in people seems a perfect sister to More’s Utopia (a text written 100 years before the Tempest) that reflects the problems of the contemporary England of More’s age to a dream-like, mythical place of societal perfection. Prospero even says in his “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, the implication that everything there on the island is false, this “insubstantial pageant”. At the end of the play both the selfish and greedy Caliban and the righteously furious but altruistic Ariel are freed from their servitude to Prospero by him as the survivors along with the Magician himself and his daughter leave the island to return to the ‘real’ world, this could be seen as relinquishing the notion of the dichotomy presented by the island of good and bad or black and white thinking (Ariel in performance is often White, Caliban is typically depicted as Black). As such we could see Prospero’s island as both Utopia and Dystopia that the characters can return to civilization with knowledge of, in the same way as Raphael returned with an understanding of the Utopians.

The point I am trying, laboriously, to reach is that the Hegelian argument of Thesis and Antithesis (the need for two opposing arguments to decide on a synthesized method to progress with) need not be embodied in reality. Diametrically opposed views are useful in debate and thought experiments as there will always be a counter argument for any point of view or belief but its usefulness in day to day life is not beneficial, as we are seeing today. Whilst this may sound like an attempt to say “Can’t we all just get along?” it isn’t. I do not believe in liberalism or centrism, I believe in everyone being educated and intelligent enough to understand an argument from each extreme and be able to utilize this knowledge to better approach a topic as opposed to simply taking an oppositional or dogmatic stance on any given thing. We need be neither Ariel nor Caliban, we can be Raphael and see the ideas of perfection or corruption without making them a reality and know there is something better to aim towards.

Having said all this, I admit this was one hell of a reach. I based this article on the title which was given to me from an autocorrect mistake by my girlfriend when she meant to say ‘worst case scenario’ but I liked it so much I wrote it down to use as a title later. It kinda makes sense though. And I highly recommend reading Utopia, fascinating reading given the current political climate, especially in the UK and USA. There’s nothing wrong with being a Utopian dreamer, Shakespeare clearly was.

Designing the Future

 

In a sea of hot-takes and off-the-cuff put-downs regarding the current snap election in the UK, I realise adding yet another one to all the noise has all the effect of a fart in a tannery but I want to look specifically at the aesthetics of these campaigns and how it reveals more than you might think. A close look at the Labour and Conservative manifesto’s graphics can tell you just as much as the policies inside. In addition I want to look at some of the language used by both sides and how that also – literally – speaks volumes for their ideologies. I won’t be looking at policies necessarily and while there is some cross over this isn’t necessarily a criticism of either parties pledges or policies. Here is a link to Labour’s manifesto and the Conservative manifesto so we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Let’s start with the most glaring difference between the two: Web optimisation. Labour has dedicated an entire subsection of their site to their manifesto, each section of it has its own webpage making it quicker to load. You scroll or swipe down to carry on reading and on the desktop version an image is justified to the left and remains static. There is a menu for each chapter allowing you to jump easily to the section of the chapter you want to read. This all speeds up load times and is very efficient. The Conservative manifesto is pdf in a media player on a single page of their website. In the page it is small and difficult to read but you can full screen it, however it still displays as a pdf in a book format (complete with animated page turning) and does not fill the browser. The player is much slower to load too due to the more complicated requirements of the animated elements. In addition Labour’s is more web native so downscales well for mobile devices which is how a majority of people will get their first access to it whereas the Conservatives’ relies on the ISSUU player and does not alter its appearance depending on what device you view it from, whilst this maintains consistency cross platform it makes it much harder to read if you’re viewing it on a smaller device. Now, importantly, the Conservative web manifesto is less friendly to the differently abled, certainly people without finger dexterity or who have vision problems, whereas Labour’s is much simpler to use and easier to read.

Now let’s look at font and text layout. The Conservatives have gone for a classical serif-based approach with Garamond (the font this article is written in), Labour instead have gone for the sans-serif, clean lines of Helvetica. As well as being visually opposite to one another the history of these fonts is poles apart too. Garamond was designed by engraver Claude Garamond in the 16th century for old printing presses, Helvetica on the other hand is a modernist font from the 50s by designer Max Miedinger. Generally in English we are used to seeing the printed word in a serif type like Baskerville or Times New Roman (named after the paper it was designed for) as it more readily appeals to our eyes that seek more human handwriting patterns, whereas Helvetica is much more a display font due to its clarity (used in the logos for American Airlines, Toyota, North Face, FedEx). Now on the printed page I’d argue Garamond works better in the lengthier prose sections except it has the effect of making the Conservative manifesto look dense an impenetrable, like the long form prose of a novel. Labour’s font may be plain and rather flat but it looks much easier to take in at a glance and therefore more welcoming. Online however it’s a different story. There are more sans-serif fonts on websites than serif, Helvetica is a fit for purpose multi-platform font that is clear and simple whatever device you read it on, Garamond is not (he said, writing in Garamond). Whilst it is definitely not like other web fonts and certainly looks ‘classier’ it is neither inviting nor easy to read. Unfortunately the Conservatives further compound this illegibility by seriously messing up the kerning (the spacing between characters). The Initial (those big letters that start the chapters) is really badly cramped against the paragraph, to the point of nearly overlapping – a design no no. Labour’s kerning is on point however, plenty of spacing between characters, aided by Helvetica’s clean lines, and a pronounced white box around the Initials Also the Conservatives’ page layout is cluttered and dense, Labour’s is sparse and minimal. The Conservative Manifesto reads more like a text whereas Labour’s reads like a power point presentation. The former is undoubtedly ‘powerful’, with more gravitas, but Labour’s is much more like the bulletin board it should be.

Labour’s Manifesto is much more in keeping with the design aesthetic of today (specifically web design) whereas the Conservatives’ is more like what we picture a formal legal or government document to look like. The latter is very much in keeping with the repeated dirge of ‘Strong and Stable’ and portrays the Conservatives as a more classical, traditional party but it is undeniably drab with it’s dour palette of Black, White and Blue. Labour’s on the other hand looks like every pamphlet you get dropped through the door: bright red, with the white shining cleanly through and – importantly – full colour images and colour coded sections. This speaks of Labour’s idea of inclusion, it is open and inviting with pictures of different people of varying gender and ethnicity. The Conservatives’ speaks more of its belief in individualism and the state stepping back to allow you to imprint you personality on to the policies and their presentation. In both cases both designs are not bad at all, they both reflect the message the party wishes to impart in the content of the writing itself and does so admirably, the point I’m making is that these designs are specifically tailored to appeal to their core voter and any undecided voter. Personally I find the Conservatives’ design to be an ugly, cluttered, austere mess with kerning issues and a shocking lack of understanding about web optimisation, whereas Labour’s is a minimalist, modernist’s wet dream i.e. Me.

Then there is the question of cost. Labour provided a financial break down of their manifesto promise in a separate sheet that broke down the costing. This was due to constant criticism by the press and the other parties that the socialist program was a myth and could not be properly funded. The Conservatives, with no such pressure, have provided no information on how their manifesto pledges will be paid for.

Now let’s look at the language of these manifestos and their respective launches. The Conservatives seem to be pushing the party to the background by constantly referring to Theresa May and her team, her foreword is littered with “I” and “My”, promoting the idea of individuality and (rather ironically given her and the party’s criticism of the ‘identity politics’ around Corbyn) that you would be voting for the leader who is much more popular than her party because apparently people still have the Mummy issues left over from the Thatcher era. Ahem. Labour talk about “we” “us” and “our” promoting their ideology of a shared society, community and a government integrated with the populace instead of one that steps back at times of crisis. Then there was the way the leader’s introduced their manifestos. Alright this is where I really get on my soapbox. Jeremy Corbyn used the same language in introducing his policies in an open airy space, unmolested or delayed by protesters. Theresa May’s however was delayed not just on the day but the manifesto’s printing itself was delayed four times (allegedly). Corbyn spoke of we and you and us and our where May talked of I and me and my. For all the talk of not trusting Corbyn you had better really bloody trust May as her words were that this was “My manifesto … a vision of the country I want this to be after Brexit”. That to me is terrifying and the true politics of identity. She spoke of wanting “to build a country” and that is telling. Brexit to her means destruction. It means the collapse of the previous Britain with its worker’s rights and moves toward equality, so the Conservatives would then have the ability after Brexit to build the country anew in their own image, or should I say hers. Corbyn’s introduction spoke of “unleashing Britain’s potential” after Brexit not attempting to reconstruct and introduced the policies saying “I am very proud to present OUR manifesto”. Believe what you like about the cult of Corbyn he is not the one publicising it, Theresa May – despite point blank denying it – most definitely is relying on the cult of her own.

My personal politics and loathing for the Tories and Theresa May aside what the manifesto launches and the manifestos themselves make plain is what is on offer from either party and not just in the policies themselves. On the one hand you have a severe, cold, austere, classical, stately manifesto of gravitas and great circumstance and on the other you have an open, warm, colourful, modern, simple manifesto of inclusion and assistance. I know which one I’ll be buying a hard copy of.

There’s still time to register to vote. Takes two minutes. Click here. Then vote for anyone except the Tories.

Arriving at Another Language

A lot is made of what we say at the moment. We are made to choose our words very carefully. Saying the wrong thing can get you pilloried, abused, shamed or even fired in this day and age due to the immediate and vociferous reaction by online mobs who are only too happy and quick to reach for the torch and pitchfork. Both the left and right appear to have their demands on how sacrosanct language is and how it should be deployed and used; the Nu-Right delight in using inappropriate language, pleased when they offend by using racist or sexist slurs, complaining of political correctness gone mad, whilst the Left angrily demand all discourse be pulped through the fine mesh screening filter of tolerance and inclusion. Ironically the roles of both have reversed, the typically free and liberal Left demand control and censorious guidelines for discourse and the traditionally control loving Right dislike the control imposed upon their vocabulary. Some more sensible people would argue that the best method lies somewhere in the middle, that one side shouldn’t be so quick to clutch their pearls and the other should not so deliberately try and goad and insult. The trouble is the whole debate isn’t as cut and dried as this. Ironically both sides are guilty of the others sins yet are seemingly unable to recognise the deficiencies in their argument. Language (whether it be English, Spanish, Cantonese, Flemish or any language) is a strange and capricious beast that has been variously described, mainly in science fiction, as living creature, totem and even a virus. For a better understanding of how language can affect us on a fundamental level there is a modern treatise for just this topic in the recent film ‘Arrival’.

*Spoilers for Arrival ahead*

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the short story ‘The Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, ‘Arrival’ is ostensibly a science fiction film about invading Aliens. This is far from true it turns out when the Aliens try to communicate with us and by learning their language the lead protagonist discovers it has altered her perception of time. Events of her future appear as memories and events of her past appear as current. Whilst the film itself deals with determinism (an interesting source of intense debate in the field of physics as the Uncertainty Principle comes under closer and closer scrutiny thanks to developments at CERN) it is a profound indicator of how language, on a fundamental level, changes a person’s perception. A study by Georgetown University in America discovered that learning two languages and developing an increased vocabulary increased the Grey Matter in the brain but the European Commission published a study in 2012 that showed people fluent in more than one language suffered from poorer verbal skills because they carry two or more languages with them every time they speak thus creating difficulties whereby they use fewer words day to day and have more frequent tip-of-the-tongue moments as the brain tries to compute a vast library of sounds, this means being bilingual effects your speech on a lexical level but also a syntactic one. Therefore while being bilingual does effect your brain development, increasing the efficiency of the brain’s executive control system that looks after high-level thought, multi-tasking, and sustained attention, and the increase in grey matter, no study exists that shows links between bilingualism and executive intelligence, emotional intelligence and intelligence quotient, i.e. being bilingual doesn’t actually make you smarter (despite what a typically histrionic and poorly researched article by the Daily Mail may have said). What it DOES do, rather amazingly, is changes the actual physical structure of the brain and its processes. So on a very basic level we are defined by the language we speak and how often we speak it. When it comes to perception however things get even more interesting.

Much is made of ‘The Right Word’. Certainly as a poet this is always the bullseye you aim for but what it implies is how the wrong word can create a really deep shift in a discourse or simply total confusion. By omitting a word or clarifying clause to a statement, or simply emphasising the wrong part of a phrase, a jovial conversation can quickly become an argument. The joke of the little boy asked to go down the road and see how Old Mrs Kettle is only to return with the answer “78” contains an inherent truth that our moment is defined by the language we choose to employ. Time itself can be warped and changed simply by shifting tenses, something many note in the English and French languages as being particularly odd. Gone, go and going; past, present and future, if misused can create a strange logical time loop. “Where have you been?” when asked of someone not completely fluent in English, replied with “I go to the toilet” taken at face value means they are going to the toilet at that moment (and more importantly didn’t answer your question!). Of course we know this is malleable, especially when dealing with people who do not speak our language, but when taken on a broader scale we are essentially walling ourselves into our cultures with our given languages. In literature, particularly poetry, much is made of a translation because something written artistically in its mother tongue will be intrenched in cultural nuance, aphorism, argot, idiom and technicalities not present in the other language, therefore something is missing in transference, typically the inherent ‘sense’ of the original is lost. The first line of Albert Camus ‘The Outsider’ being a fine case in point. In poetry there is an oft ignored method called the ‘Version’ whereby you do not translate the poem necessarily but re-write it, hopefully capturing its essence, in your own tongue and hopefully impart that which the original did and it is this that creates the most interesting response to those who argue over language via the notion of language as response to perception rather than perception as a response to language and therefore a way of ‘translating’ an idea/poem/image so it is better understood in its nature by those reading/seeing/hearing it.

Nietzsche once said: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in Grammar”. Which feeds in well to the major political arguments surrounding the Left and Right’s demands on language; both sides are failing their respective battles because they both believe their language is the correct one and not the fallible creature it truly is. The flaw that Nietzsche, I think, is trying to wrestle with is that language indicates the way things are, not that the way things are informs language. As an example, if you were to see a four legged animal on a lead in the street you might say “that’s a dog” and you would be right, we have the word Dog so when it is said our mind immediately conjures up the image of a dog. The trouble is we then imagine a Platonic ‘Form’ of a dog, an ideal dog that doesn’t exist or is probably our favourite dog from real life or fiction, until we begin to describe it with an endless stream of adjectives: its a short haired, jack russell terrier, with a loud yip and a milky eye that farts when it sneezes and doesn’t eat dried food because… etc. Language does not account for the uniqueness of the dog in an instant when attempting to communicate this. We can see and absorb the individual nature of it but have to create a spider graph of words around it to lock down it’s reality in conversation or dialogue. An ideal language would be able to invent a word upon seeing the object that perfectly communicates its individual features, its nuances and its character, something that Ted Chiang and Denis Villeneuve approach in their story of a language that can perfectly communicate between species because it relies on an entire lifespan of the individual to find the correct instance or example of something that needs to be communicated as Amy Adam’s character does to the Chinese general which in turn saves the globe from intergalactic war. A language that communicates totally and completely in the briefest time would be incredibly freeing, imagine being able to gather all the nuance and empathy of a political argument in a sound.

Sadly we aren’t there yet. As Nietzsche said we are still ruled by our God of grammar, that god in our syntax that still says “It is raining”, “What time is it?” The magical IT or THEY that controls our structure of speech and ultimately our reality, or at least our perception of it. France even has its Conservatoire which perfectly maintains the French vocabulary so no foreign words can intrude unnecessarily, a true example of the tyranny of language personified as a loop; we define language, language defines us. Which, for me, is where poetry comes in. The poet Don Patterson described poetry as “A method of failure”, by which he meant poetry should always exceed its grasp, trying to capture the ineffable in a word or phrase, so that whilst it may fall short we do then have a more appropriate short hand for a given feeling, emotion, state of mind, place, time and so on. Shakespeare was the master of this, a neologist of such depth and complexity nobody goes a single day speaking English without quoting him. No one individual has done more for English communication and expression since. The notion, so beautifully captured in both the short story and film of Arrival, that every facet of our lives is defined not just by our experiences but how they are communicated is one that everyone speaking any language today should heed. With societal division at its highest in centuries the need for better communication, a more frank and nuanced dialogue, is desperately needed and – for me at least – that means: more poetry.

The Market as Automata

The Conservative government recently announced their Spring budget via the near universally derided Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. My loathing for the Tories is undisguised but when they announce their budget for the year ahead it is time to pay particular attention as it describes, better than any rhetoric, what the beliefs and ideologies of Conservatives are and most importantly where their faith lies which is (and seemingly always has been) in that strange and ephemeral thing: The Market. This reliance, even dependence, on The Market demands a close examination of what it actually is, ironically something it resolutely resists. Economists, theorists and sociologists have spent centuries attempting to understand the abstract notion of one country’s market going to a market where other country’s markets are; a Common Market or a Market for Markets. Something that conjures the image in my mind of a town market of wooden stalls selling fish, fruit and vegetables piled on top of one another.

But The Market is somewhere we all sit and something all our lives are irrevocably tied to. Any job we have is apparently part of this metaphorical Market place and anything we buy is defined by this Market. What most interests me about The Market is its abstract (ultimately fictional) nature those invested in it, literally i.e. all of us are, by involvement or association, also abstracted. Dehumanised. We can see this in the language used to describe anything as soon as The Market is involved: people who buy products are ‘Consumers’, a work of creative art like a novel is a ‘Unit’, the Employed & Unemployed are reduced to a figure with no context as to the circumstances of their Employment status. In relation to this and most interestingly The Market actually responds poorly if people are humanised or a company caters to this need for context surrounding the individual that purchases goods or services. JC Penny in the States removed all reduction sales, offers and coupons from its stores and instead passed those onto the shopper by favouring low prices. It did away with attempting to fool customers with deals and treated them as adults with a respect that they would appreciate in a move to simply lower prices. Sadly, sales dropped and their Market share plummeted straight after. EA with the release of their videogame Titanfall 2 at the end of 2016, decided to buck the trend of pure profit online sales after the initial purchase of a game, seen in things like Season Passes and MicroTransactions that allow for further downloadable content, by doing away with these and treating customers with maturity and not attempting to milk further cash from a game that would already cost $60. Yet despite critical praise and a more than favourable audience response, EA found the title under performing in sales and no doubt the bucking of the Market Trend will be blamed for a significant hit in profits in their pre-Christmas sales. In short, if choice or personal/individual response is introduced to The Market it shuns this.

Yet the curious dichotomy remains that we talk about The Market as if it is a living entity or in some way is aware; it ‘responds’, it ‘moves’, it ‘dictates’. Marx in the Grundrisse says that Capital – and make no mistake when we refer to The Market we are explicitly referring to Capitalism – cannot abide limits, it has to turn it into a barrier which it then circumvents or transcends. This language of Capital consciously not abiding resistance further muddies the water by personifying The Market further. Some say this is because The Market is run by people, nations, that this anthropomorphises occurs but as stated above The Market ‘resists’ the introduction of consciousness or choice or simply our humanity. Which begs the question: what is it? Well the official answer is that it is a systemic process, an algorithm dictated by the interactions of other financial algorithms. Yet a market ‘personality’ exists, we see it in the post Referendum plummet of the Sterling and most interestingly in the crash of 2008-09 when, in a letter to the queen, leading Economists and business leaders said they “failed to account for Systemic Risk”, which put bluntly means they didn’t expect The Market to change its mind. Yes we know the crash was due to hedge funds, loans and credit reaching a critical mass but the simple fact this was not planned for or foreseen indicates an element of whim (or if you don’t agree with that then its simply supreme idiocy on the part of financiers and business leaders). Beyond this the fact that whole governments and nations bow to the deference to the all powerful, all knowing MARKET could easily be transposed to a religious context replacing that respective deity with any other. Yet I doubt any modern economist or politician would accept that they are kneeling at the alter of Financial Consciousness. It might be easier to understand both the actions of the Market (and by extension any deity’s) actions by looking at the more Economically palatable idea of Automation.

The word Automaton comes from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning self, therefore meaning ‘acting of oneself’. Today it is used when referring to robots or machines acting as people but there is an interesting legal obfuscation in the definition of the word. If you were to kill a passenger in a car because you sneezed and caused a crash this can be legally defined as ‘Death by Automata’ and you avoid personal culpability, a reflex or ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is an automated response, conscious thought and brain function is not involved when a doctor taps your knee and your lower leg springs forward. Most of our definitions of Automation rely on an attachment to, if not a reliance on, human conscious thoughts or at least our human abilities, so the idea of automation within The Market is still problematically human with its capricious changes yet continually resists our introduction. Is this independence from, yet reliance upon humanity and our choices from The Market a sign of a form of intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence has long ceased to be a question of if but when. The greatest minds in the world are trained on developments in this arena as whilst it could vastly increase our quality of life it conversely presents substantial threats to our existence not to mention the moral implications of a conscious mind not bound by the frailties of the human body. We already talk to Siri on our phones and algorithms on Google already predict our diaries, our journeys and destinations, what we buy and who we want to call. The Market is an entirely abstract entity now, the cash in our hand’s worth is dictated by digits being changed in millions of computers across the globe. We have already personified it and left it in charge of our careers and livelihoods to our great cost as we repeatedly discover but still defer to the apparently objective wisdom of this Automated System. This objectivity is supposedly The Market’s greatest strength but objectivity can be a dangerous thing. Objectivity is what we see in the animal kingdom where parents neglect or actively kill their offspring, where many animals are cannibals, or in nature where every volcano, tsunami and earthquake has no subjective interest. And need it be reminded of the existential dilemma presented by the total objectivity of the cosmos in which we sit. Objectivity provides science with some of our greatest innovations yet continually confronts us with moral dilemmas as a direct result of that objectivity coming into conflict with our human subjectivity. Scientists must often intervene with subjectivity on the objective experimentation with foetuses for discoveries within the field of stem cell research, the moral discomfort of using dead foetuses to further the health and prosperity of the human race. As such, is a purely objective Automated System really the best thing to guide our lives and political discourse?

The biggest concern, as mentioned above, is how closely this all relates to magical thinking akin to religious faith. A true regression to the pre-enlightenment era where we create causal relationships where perhaps there are none. We know this Market exists but are its movements and changes a response to our input or vice versa? Is the Market responding to titanic shifts in political power, business mergers, credit sales or are we just responding to The Market shifts?

With Thatcher’s faith in The Market still casting its long shadow, this year’s budget was a terrifying reminder that it is The Market that matters and not people. The tax hike on the self employed is an excellent example of this. With the removal of any sort of job security in the current job Market with the prevalence of zero hour contracts and utterly unreasonable demands being placed on the workforce, the financial market must be appeased with monetary recompense for these foolishly human instabilities. What is most notable about this budget is what it didn’t say and what it did not acknowledge. No mention of climate change, threats to the environment or clean energy, no mention of library closures, not even a mention of the Conservative’s manifesto that promised no increases in NI contributions. And most worryingly not a single mention of ‘Brexit’ which will undoubtedly push the Sterling into another free fall, yet Hammond comfortably made Market predictions well into the 2020s despite the very swift approach of one of the most tumultuous political eras in living memory. Again, The Market will decide. All hail The Market.

The Beauty of Fascism

 

Have you noticed that Trump says ‘Beautiful’ a lot? And words similar? Everything he likes or that benefits his administration or wants to create will be beautiful. The same kind of language appears in the rise of similar parties in the UK and Europe, not necessarily beating the drum of ‘Beauty’ but certainly speaking in terms of restoration and face lifts. London since the stock market crash has become a forest of cranes and building sites as modern architectural wonders grow into the air. A political equivalent of ‘keeping up appearances’ in the eyes of the world permeates the Nu-Right. Watching a recent party political broadcast on behalf of our unelected Prime Minister in a pathetic attempt to placate the growing unrest (in spite of soaring opinion polls for her and her party) it was a bizarrely rose tinted video filled with smiles and opulence, an Instagram-like filter was even used to give the whole affair a golden hue as if far from being plunged into a bleak future of segregation, vilification and economic suicide, the nation and her party literally glowed with delight and promise. A return to Aesthetics seems to have been adopted by the leading political parties of developed nations today.

Aesthetics was a philosophical movement developed from the early Greek idea of Beauty, one of Plato’s ‘Forms’ by Alexander Baugarten in the 18th century. It deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste through the creation and appreciation of something beautiful. One of the most noted Aesthetes was Oscar Wilde. Prior to the second world war the appreciation of art and beauty was reasonably uncomplicated, the Romantic ideals of beauty are still indelibly printed on our collective consciousness. “A rose by any other name” and so on. Beauty, thanks to the Romantics and Aesthetes, became inextricably linked with love and was often assigned an equivalence with truth. Art and culture prior to the rise of Modernism near universally accepted the most beautiful things as the best and most honest. And then Nazis appeared. Part of the Nazi ideology was an entrenched desire and love of beauty. The very idea of an Aryan Race is that of a race of perfect and beautiful people, a master race. The Nazis hoarded art and built vast and grand buildings, each a mass of finely detailed and exquisite design and architecture. Since then a love and appreciation of beauty has become problematic, it is now linked with humanity’s darkest hour. Beauty had become inherently ugly.

In the fairy tale of Beauty & The Beast, a rude and selfish man is punished for this crime by “Being made to look as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside” and thus turned into a beast. Throughout the tale he is confronted by a woman, the embodiment of beauty, and made to change his nature by falling in love with this beautiful girl. On the brink of death the Beast is brought back to life by the woman’s declaration of love and transforms him back into a handsome prince. At play here is a traditional association with beauty, that it can transform the ugliness and cruelty in the world into the good and beautiful. It has often been noted in analysis of this story that identity is in fact lost through this conformity. Applied to real life – the idea of an unattractive person who is withdrawn and insular because of society’s treatment of them because of their appearance, that they should simply be a nicer, more welcoming person to those who insult or deride them and then they will be seen as beautiful – this seems like a problematic acceptance of aesthetic beauty so as to conform to a society that demands they be hidden from view. The need for the Beast to ‘transform’ into a handsome prince so he may be better accepted and therefore worthy of marriage speaks volumes for how the adoration of beauty lacks a great deal of humanity.

The fascism of beauty is still very much alive and well, we all know the unfair standards of beauty set by mainstream media and its focus on aesthetics (certainly when it comes to women) and how ostracising it is. Post WWII the modernist movement even went some way to attempt to counteract it. Brutalist architecture and much more plain, abstract, disjointed, even plain ugly design was incorporated into architecture, literature, music and art itself but in the same way as we resist the ugly undercurrent of beauty we equally resist the unattractive veneer of a more fair minded appreciation of the world, people and culture. Anyone who has seen Kubrick’s vision of A Clockwork Orange will know how oppressive the Brutalist architecture aesthetic is and yet the right has openly returned to its love for beauty. Why?

The answer, I think, lies in the Philosopher and MP Edmund Burke’s treatise on the Sublime.

Burke again takes note of the Greeks and their idea of The Sublime and sees it not simply as that which is beautiful i.e. aesthetically pleasing, but as that which can destroy us. He points out that the sight of a beautiful vista: a tempestuous ocean from the shore line, the grand canyon, a forest of redwoods, etc belittles us, reminding us how small and insignificant we are and how easily a roaring sea, bolt of lightning, a volcanic eruption or a tornado could snuff us out at any given moment. The sublime is beautiful and dangerous. As such, this seems to be how fascism adopts beauty for its own ends. Beauty and grandness is imposing and implies threat so by adopting each of these and the mode of Aesthetics the parties most in need of appearing strong, desirous of little challenge and the outward appearance of welcome and inclusion appear stronger, welcoming, inclusive and warrant little challenge.

Equity by contrast is ugly. The need for humans to create beauty inherently requires the removal or hiding of anything not aesthetically pleasing or meeting the individual’s taste, hence the fascism, but a more egalitarian, equal, equitable aesthetic vision requires the inclusion of the parts of society and art and culture that generally we do not care for. Featuring the handicapped, the mentally ill, the non-gender-normative, and just generally anyone who is not aesthetically pleasing is representative of the world as it stands today but this is not the world we see represented through art. If anything these supposed minorities are shamed into either conforming to a given aesthetic taste or simply shunned. This was changing until recently. With the sudden rise of right wing populism the demands on a more ‘Traditional’ aesthetic standard has been rekindled and anything not deemed beautiful is neither necessary nor desired. Sadly the left seem as resistant to letting its standards of beauty slip to combat this. Fairness, inclusion and equity, that which ‘Liberals’ or any left leaning individual deem to be their dictums, by their very nature are messy, difficult and yes, very ugly.

What Burke calls The Sublime is a beauty of nature, of existence itself and importantly rife with ugliness throughout. To experience it is to be humbled and to dwarf our petty demands on the planet or the cosmos, this is not something that can be manufactured by humanity and it is why Trump and his acolytes’ continual allusions to beauty ring so hollow. Be suspicious of those who try to convince you of the beauty they see without acknowledging the ugliness too. It’s only fair.

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