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.

Generation Loss

Generation loss is a term for when something is transferred, replicated into another format or reproduced and the quality decreases incrementally with each copy. This happens across all formats, analogue and digital, be it a negative that has another negative made from it or an online video that is downloaded, no replica is ever perfect. This theory has been explored in science fiction fairly regularly when clones deteriorate at an accelerated rate or when multiple clones are made the later ones are less like the original, this was confirmed when the world famous Dolly the Sheep, the first living clone of an animal, was found to have debilitating arthritis and died relatively young. The more you reproduce something the poorer the reproductions become. Have you ever played chinese whispers? The final phrase, announced after having been heard and retold to a group of people, has suffered from generation loss. The photograph of a beautiful valley reproduced a thousand times becomes and green and blue smudge.

Socialism is (contrary to popular belief) not Communism. Communism is the opposite of Capitalism, Socialism accepts Capitalism but believes in democratic state intervention to curb its excesses. Y’know, the ones that result in people dying or being abused or discriminated against. It’s original meaning, coined by Henri de Saint-Simon, was to refute the individualism espoused by liberal politics i.e. that people prosper when we work together for a common goal as opposed to everyone being “out for themselves”. Socialism developed into a genuine political force in the 19th century and whilst the history of it is convoluted and difficult, one of its first major ‘wins’ can be seen in the Paris Commune of 1871, a short lived French Government post Franco-Prussian War that didn’t result in many decrees being passed but ones that did were significant. The separation of Church and State for instance. But in Britain in 1900 was when socialism took a larger part in the politics of this country. The Labour party was formed under the banner of socialism and rights for workers (hence the name) and overtook the Liberal party as the major opposition to the Conservatives. Since then the Labour party has remained the main ‘other’ party in Parliament.

Rather amazingly Labour’s impact is profound on any British resident. Even people who claim to be adamant Conservatives still believe in an awful lot of socialist principles: free health care, legal aid, social housing (to combat those pesky homeless people who want your change), maternity leave, and a myriad of other things that we in this country, when we are not taking them for granted, overwhelmingly agree with and actively fight to maintain. The post WWII two Labour government developed the Welfare State and the NHS, put many services into public hands by Nationalising things like the Bank of England. After the decimation of land, property and populace wrought by the war something drastic had to be done and Clement Atlee’s Labour Government, with the help of William Beveridge and Aneurin Bevan. developed this rather radical socialist agenda into policy. It worked and within 6 years the country was transformed to the point where, even though the Conservatives won the 1951 election, it was only by accepting these substantial social changes as a rousing success known as the Post-War Consensus. A lot of these ideals did not survive Thatcherism but some did, notably the NHS and the Welfare State and it is rather encouraging that even as Labour shifted right in the 90s many of these ideals were still maintained. Until today.

The generation loss of socialism has come to the point now where it is so muddied and unrecognisable that people cry foul at its nearest mention and, as mentioned earlier, confuse it with the unmitigated disaster of Soviet Communism. With names like Social Justice Warrior, Feminist and Do-Gooder used as pejorative terms this shows the deterioration of an ideology that was seen as a consensus, an objectively beneficial set of economic and ethical principles. From generation to generation we have been handed these political ideas but shuffled in amongst growing disparity in class and increasing austerity from every political party in the UK. This has created a contempt for this mode of political thinking whilst taking the surviving elements still seen as good and repurposing them; the Conservatives notably referred to themselves as the ‘Party of the NHS’. The result is that the Labour Party of 2017, despite having the largest membership of any party and espousing policies that benefit a massive proportion of the country of all classes, is rife with civil war from its own MPs who demand Labour return to its more right leaning ways so it might win the snap election against an unabashed and staggeringly popular Conservative Party that are doubling down on a glassy-eyed nationalism and individualist manifesto. Politics that once saved and united a nation is now dismissed as a chaotic mess and actively maligned as out-of-date and impractical. Socialism’s generation loss has left it barely perceivable from its source.

This is not unique to the UK. You need only look at the dawning of the Trump era of Rule by Whim and Oligarchy, the rise of sanitised Fascism in Le Pen in France, North Korea’s existence under the boot of a Dictator, Syria’s near total collapse under Assad, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte saying he literally doesn’t give a shit about human rights and is “angry. I will kill people” make it quite clear that in the 70 years since the greatest humanitarian disaster in human history, there has been a deterioration in the memory of that era that revealed to everyone the depths of depravity and unconscionable evil mankind can stoop to under the guise of individualist pride and nationalism. As a child, the values espoused by socialism: fairness, equity and altruism – seemed to be a given, countries and people that did not go along with these kind of egalitarian and (I believed) forward thinking ideas were confronted and taught “that’s not how we do things now”. In the last 3 years or so this seems to have done an about face. Endless reams have been written on the subject, analysing why from every side of the argument but, to me at least, they all fall short of describing the paucity of humanity inherent in nearly every nation across the globe today. That verdant green valley and it’s crystalline blue river, now nothing but a hazy cyan smudge.

When Theresa May wins the General Election in June and England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland become single party Nations, when we leave the EU to our unmitigated detriment due to a myopic and over inflated sense of self worth, it is unlikely anyone reading this will feel the sociological tremors resulting in the genuine catastrophe that awaits. That will be the next generation. The next generation, in the wake of unchecked totalitarian political control, fascist governments, nationalist policy and a total lack of diversity in any field, will lose more than we can comprehend. In just this country alone the NHS will be privatised, the Pound will be one of the lowest valued currencies, class divisions will result in substantial ghettoisation, a hard border in Ireland will plunge us back to ‘The Troubles’ of the 70s that cost thousands of lives, all combined with general economic disparity that will produce a generation bereft of any of the socialist ideals that, ironically, the right wing trumpet as our great institutions. It is the next generation who will be described in history as the Generation of Loss.

Let us hope they develop a radical political idea of working together for a common good. A party of, I dunno, being social?

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.

Disco 2000

 

Comics, to me, are as important a piece of literature as any other. Like all art some are better than others, some exemplify all that is good about comics others exemplify all that is bad but to dismiss the entire genre as childish or in some way ‘low art’ is itself truly childish. I read both books and comics from roughly the same age. From between the ages six to twelve was my heyday of comic books until they took a back seat and throughout my teenage years read a lot of books I felt I had to read and I now realise wasted a lot of my time in doing so. I returned to comics in my early twenties and read all the comics I should have been reading instead and was rewarded in doing so. I’ve read plenty of great and rubbish comics when I was young but looking back some were absolutely excellent and informed my reading later in life. Throughout my life though some comics persisted, some comics I bought when I could and always returned to characters and strips out of sheer delight and fascination. One of those was Batman in any and all his incarnations, the other was 2000AD.

2000AD celebrated its 40th birthday last week and judging by Twitter it is in rude health, despite certain worrying moments where sales slipped and discontinuing the print edition was mooted. 2000AD is one of the few British comic books still going and more importantly thriving (along with the similarly iconoclastic and anarchic VIZ) which is one of the many reasons I love it so much. It was also an early stomping ground for and launched the talents of some true luminaries of the comic book form. The likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Alan Grant and many more besides were all featured early in their careers by 2000AD and whether you read comics or not believe me the cultural landscape would be MUCH poorer without these people in it. People generally tend to think of Judge Dredd when 2000AD is brought up and he is undeniably the superstar of the comic but the likes of Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog and even its ‘Editor’ the alien Tharg has gone on to achieve wider acclaim. Not least for a largely independent comic to last 40 years is an achievement in and of itself. It continues to foster new comic writing talent and its ‘Future Shocks’ shorts (one of the few comic strips that canvas from open submissions which I myself have submitted to in the past (to no success)) is still going strong too. They even took on characters from discontinued British magazines like Dan Dare from Eagle comics, another character I have an inherited love for. In short 2000AD is nothing shy of a British institution.

I first read 2000AD by mistake. There was a hardware and second hand bookshop in my old hometown (yes such a thing exists) and as a kid I was always on the hunt for books to read. With my chum we’d go to different bookshops in town (of which there are now considerably less) and have a hunt around. In this particular shop there was a bargain bin for old comics in which you could buy a bundle for something stupid like 10p. My friend liked this because he was a fan of old second world war comics of which there seemed to be an unending supply of. Some of these I enjoyed but even at that young age war porn put me on edge. Instead there were several bundles of 2000AD comics from the early 80s and on a whim I bought a couple of rolls. The first thing that surprised me was they were printed on newspaper like my sister’s Beano and my Dandy used to be, by then I was used to the far more glossy (and expensive) covers of American comics. The printing was also a bit more ‘vintage’ as we call it now, serrated page edges, print holes, colour codes on the inside margin, etc which was unusual but what surprised me more was what was inside. First and foremost, blood, guts and boobs were in each ‘Prog’ in some form or other which to a young kid was a fantastic discovery and a thrill that I had somehow got away with buying these comics. More than this was the illicit thrill of actually more dynamics in a comic. I had discovered that in Batman and DC in general things were a little darker and lines of good and bad were blurred a little more but in 2000AD ‘Good guys’ didn’t exist. Everyone was generally horrible or cruel or had their own selfish agendas and wherever there were ‘good’ people, or at least those with morals that extended beyond themselves, they were punished or beaten down or turned. Importantly however this wasn’t portrayed as a good thing, everyone and everything was terrible in 2000AD but it was pointing and laughing and sneering at this. This was basically my first introduction to dark satire, my genre of choice, which I would find later in abundance in the likes of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker. With 2000AD though everything was fair game and it wasn’t simply satirised but lampooned, made grotesque, then violently eviscerated. I read and re-read those 10 or so comics 100 times. I wasn’t allowed to buy the current editions back then as they had that damn warning on the cover ‘Mature content. For adults only.’ Not long later it turned out my father was working freelance with some of the artists and designers from 2000AD and would bring home new Progs every so often so I circumvented this problem but only occasionally. Since then I have only bought the odd prog (again similar to VIZ) but when I do I’m always delighted to find every comic strip is still as dark, as angry, as cynical, as sardonic, as biting, as graphic and as FUN as it was when I read those out of date 80s editions as a 10 year old.

2000AD holds a unique place in comics alongside the likes of the Beano, the Dandy and VIZ because, for me at least, they are exemplars of a certain British way of thinking and our sense of humour. I am not a patriotic man, certainly not these days, but if I were asked to explain what being British meant I would probably say to read these comics for the answer. British comics, like American comics, exist in a fantasy version of their home nation; a world of park rangers and strange garage inventors, eccentric vicars and fascist bobbies, a world where the protagonist is a Menace, a freak, dirty, grumpy, an upstart and all with a pig-headed, stubborn refusal to accept a lesser lot and cow tow to those who tell them not to which is similar to the American comic style but the difference is who they are fighting. Typically Spider-Man fights the purse snatcher for the nice police/state/corporation whereas the Brit fights that establishment tooth and nail. Every character in 2000AD is cynical, skeptical, original and stubborn, unlike America where the heroes are typically squeaky clean or fight for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ or that malleable thing ‘Liberty’, British comics aren’t interested in Heroes, we want actual every people, people from council estates, the working class, the ugly, the unpopular. 2000AD has never attempted to gloss over the disgusting neglect in British society and never afraid of where to lay the blame or point the finger. Where Captain America fights for the maintenance of the status quo, Judge Dredd does the same but in a dystopia where he is undeniably a right-wing, totalitarian monster. It is no coincidence Dredd was born in the UK of 1977 a year of Strikes, a rise in Conservativism in local elections, the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland, the release of ‘Star Wars’ and most soberingly a year in which the Yorkshire Ripper was claiming more victims. Whilst American comics offer an escapist fantasy and obliquely reinforce the will of the state and the American Dream, British comics show life as it is now from the gutter up, aggressively denouncing those in power, be it through the depiction of an imperialistic ‘Teach’ or a fascist cop, or representations, though sometimes problematic – some pretty dubious sexual politics being the worst offences – , of leaders or the general public as gullible or naive fools. These are a far more honest, if extreme, and dare I say it responsible approach to depicting the world.

Today serial print media is in decline, more people read online and spending is at a low and yet 2000AD perseveres. I myself (under-employed yet again) am unable to afford the special 40th Anniversary edition but I would definitely urge you to. The Dandy ended its print edition some years back which broke my heart but was understandable and the majority of kids weekly literature is generally limited to some commercial tie-in that’s either short lived, some imported American run or just plain rubbish. Luckily we have new kid on the block, The Phoenix, which flies the Brit comic flag proudly and whilst it doesn’t go to the extremes of yesteryear it is certainly a breath of silly, weird and action packed fresh air in the comic book market. For me though 2000AD stands front and centre, most certainly not waving a flag, but forging ahead into the dark and scary political landscape of nationalism and fascism that we are witnessing, to mercilessly take the piss, send up, mock and generally laugh at it all. So thank you Tharg and everyone past and present at 2000AD for maintaining an uncompromising publication and remaining resolutely human. Drokk yeah.

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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