Phony Wars

 Posted by at 10:32 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 312011

In general I am all for phoney wars, rather than the other 'kinetic' sort. Kinetic? Kinetic action is the posh phrase used these days for the bit of wars which is about "breaking things and hurting people".

And, no, we are not lost, simply trying to read between the lines, and enquiring about the possibility of miracles. After all, what else could the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird be about, except miraculous possibilities?

The 'Movement' towards freedom… which inevitably clashes with other people attempting to move in the opposite direction. Do we meet head on, or do we attempt some kind of dance in order to get around each other?

For instance I remember on my last vist to Totnes, it was a crowded High Street Saturday a few weeks ago, the pavement full of shoppers, and this one Tai-Chi man suddenly bearing down in a straight line for me. He was probably a Saturday High Street regular with his goatee beard and Chinese flowing cotton robes, practicing projecting his 'chi' energy or something. He wasn't moving sideways for anyone. Ill-mannnered git, I thought, as I got out of his way.

Nor was he enquiring about the possibility of miracles. Is there another possibility?

According to the latest (July Aug 2011) copy of the New Left Review, THE BOOK on THE CRISIS is: The Crisis of Neoliberalism, by Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy (Harvard U. Press 2011). At $49.95 hardback copy I wont be getting my copy just yet… but the NLR says it is the "best book on the topic by far".

The Dumeneil Levy analysis runs through the crashes and crises of 1890, 1929, and 1970 to 2008, engaging some Marxian 'luggage' as well as Glabraith, Keynes and Polanyi (etc), showing how and in what ways each crisis is the same and how each one is different. The latest – the one we are in now – is the problem whereby none of the money is getting to the right place, that is to investment: QE, all those billions of $$$$$$$$ being pumped IN… are ending up…… in China. Thus the absence of a V-shaped recovery.

"Neoliberalism is not about principles or ideology but a social order aiming at the power and income of the upper classes… ". (Upper Classes = Super-rich)

So what is the next move in this structural crisis? Dumenil and Levy agree somehow we will muddle through, but there will be an upheaval along the way. One possible future is a New Deal variant with the managerial and popular classes uniting to roll up their sleaves and get the job done. Hurray! But the D and L bets are that the managerial class (ie Pinky and Perky and all their mateys) will go it alone, make a move on the Super-Rich while at the same time keep the riot police on the streets to make suer the popular classes dont get uppity.

Like I said, do we meet head on or do we dance around each other? I don't agree or disagree with the D and L analysis, but I continue to look for the possibility of miracles. Like I wrote last week; Gangs are Good.

Culture Wars, Turf Wars and Real Wars

 Posted by at 12:50 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 272011

Where are we? Are we lost? There were those months following September 1939 that came to be known as the phoney war. Could that phrase describe our present predicament? Dave ‘Pinky’ Cameron and his chums have laid down the gauntlet; they are afire with enthusiastic bombast to destroy the few remains of the post-war consensual social-democratic vision of social justice based on inclusivity, a partnership of state and private enterprise with safeguards in place to protect us from the ravaging monsters of unfettered capitalism.

    The gauntlet is laid down for all of us to see, but maybe we don’t want to see it. We hope that it will all be OK – we’ll muddle through as usual. Or is it that we are waiting for a new way forward to be revealed.

    How does culture change work? Here we are, trapped in the dead carapace of monetarist ideology, but somewhere “out there” or “in here” are the seeds of a re-formation, a reformulation, a revisioning of how to frame the economy, or perhaps the political-economy would be more to the point. How to re-frame without those crafty politicians framing us? Are we straining towards a future or longing for some tarted up version of the past?

    What sort of world do we want to live in? What are the values shared by the vast majority of us?

    And then we have the news from Libya this week of what looks like the last death struggles of Gaddafi and his regime as many Libyans seek to find a way to a democratic future; 'We want what you’ve got'. But we are also seeking a way forward, examining the tension between unfettered individual freedom and solidarity. We seek a life that does not demonise others or exclude them – but where are the limits?

    There is no capital-T Truth (see Gianni Vatimo's, A Farewell to Truth) but there remains a need for an orientation which will always be a weird mixture of the material and the spiritual, the collective and the individual. Oh yeah! It looks like a life of dialogue and negotiating – the great army known as the human race, slouching on, running and jumping – a carnivalesque ragtag army telling each other our stories.


    And not forgetting, of course the next stanza from Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:




    I know noble accents

    And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

    But, I know, too,

    That the blackbird is involved

    In what I know.


Gangs are Good

 Posted by at 11:57 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 232011

About there being a Bigger Picture – The inchoate Riots, which have rudely awakened me from my self-satisfied dialogic sleep and bounced us out of our customary safety zones –  and that good things can manifest out of bad ones.

The struggle, and it is a constant struggle as I find it against powers that seem intent on creating a disconnect between the two, between good things and bad ones that is, and equally at the personal level between my (existential) experiences of anxiety, fear, confusion, disappointment and sense of loss, and the political and ethical urgency demanded of the Bigger Picture.

For me it is, if you like, how to find agency in melancholia. Among the many helpful resources we have come across during our walkingtalkingwriting travels which help us with the disconnect, HERE are some categories:

- Historicise. We recommend Postwar by Tony Judt. I also recommend TJ's latest (sadly his last) stuff too… eg Ill Fares the Land, and his (free access) posts on the New York Review of Books Blog.

- Theorise. We recommend making at least some connection with the 20th C continental tradition (rather than the Anglophone / AngloSaxon tradition of 'Smart Thinking' - too smug or what!). Begin with Walter Benjamin (‘Uncle Wally’ in our blog-speak)… try One Way Street. Follow the curve of the Frankfurt School etc… via Theo Adorno et al… and 'negative dialectics' through Critical Theory to Feminist (Post-feminist etc / Post-post… etc) writing. Yea… I know it is hard. I mean, does one actually (try to) read these kinds of books for 'pleasure'? Here's just one from among a big heap of examples; Judith Butler Giving an Account of Oneself.

Fictionalise. We recommend everything written by WG Sebald of course, since our blog here also belongs to the literary tradition of Spatial Stories’… from off the top of a very long and growing list – eg I would also add Open City by Teju Cole on the basis of The Guardian review last Saturday (fingers crossed since I have not read it yet!).

- Operationalise. There is the evidence. For more accessable writing I recommend The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas still Walk among us, a Chilling Tale by John Quiggin (nb check the author – there is another book with the same title). For rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty in the nitty-gritty of the "bit surreal" or "parallel quality” of the disconnect experience (between good things and bad ones that is), I recommend looking at the heterodox investigative tradition as it is being developed through what is called 'Critical Realism'. It is a way of understanding and operationalising different levels of understanding, and especially accommodates emergence. Try this paper by Tony Lawson as a get-dirty-quick taster.

Back to blackbirds… other categories on our political journey include Poetise (eg Wallace Stevens) and Psychologise, but time deadlines and word-count limits demand these are left for another time. And there is the important Carnivalise category too, as in: Gangs are Good (Breaking things and Hurting People isn’t).

Action and Language

 Posted by at 11:49 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 192011

At what point do I make the shift from passivity to action? Make that decision to get out of the chair and do something? Last week we were amazed by the eruption of rioting; the sparks of wildfire blowing in the wild winds leaving no area that could really be called ‘safe’. It was a demonstration of sorts but what, exactly, was being demonstrated? Riot, looting and criminality were the first words to be bandied about. Then came sick and broken, absent fathers, poverty, MPs fiddling their expenses, bankers’ greed; each of us relying on our ideological underpinnings to choose the language that might make sense of it all. After this there were the calls for harsh punishment of the criminals and politicians tried kicking the police but then the police kicked back and so Cameron was quick to praise them.

    Yesterday evening I went to see Just Do It, a documentary following the activities of climate camp activists. Their non-hierarchical methods of organising, their clever ways of only announcing the target at the last minute in order to stay one step ahead of the police, their humour and playfulness, their skill in presenting their case as well as being prepared to be arrested, all made for an enthralling account and they were an attractive bunch of people – always ready to attempt to engage police or passers-by. And of course non-violent. Added to which Marina was always ready with her teapot.

    On the other hand, inchoate is the word that comes to mind in relation to the riots and inchoate riots have a long tradition in this country. According to the OED inchoate means ‘just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary: a still rudimentary democracy’ is one example the OED uses, and the other is: inchoate proletarian protest’! These are very telling examples.

    How do we turn the riots into a political language. When I say ‘we’ I include the rioters and criminals – after all they are attempting a dialogue with those of us who didn’t join them. Democracy, if it is to mean anything, must be inclusive; too much inequality and it must degenerate into exploitation and class warfare.

    I was also reminded of the looting that burst into the open in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – just when Bush was announcing ‘mission accomplished’. What attempts were there to understand, make sense of what happened beyond the seeming lack of preparation and foresight by American planners. Rather like blaming the police after the riots last week. But these are human actions; people getting off their backsides and doing something – claiming freedom. An item always on the politicians agenda, though it often seems to mean the freedom of the rich to become even richer.

    One more thought linking the above to our brief examination of that movie, The Tree of Life: I was reading The Slaughterer, a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer and he mentions the Tree of Life as a text of the Cabalah or Kabalah. And apparently there is some linkage between the Tree of Life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the Old Testament’s Garden of Eden: the one that Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruit from; the consequence of which was to bring death to humanity. Cameron, of course, wants the rioters to be stuffed with the knowledge of good and evil as though they don’t know what it is. I bet they do.

    Back to blackbirds:




    O thin men of Haddam,

    Why do you imagine golden birds?

    Do you not see how the blackbird

    Walks around the feet

    Of the women about you?


Nearly (out of) Sight

 Posted by at 12:41 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 172011

The last word on the subject – Yes, like an extended essay on grief – as if it was being interminably beamed back from a fast disappearing speck on the far reaches of the cosmos, a Voyager (“a futile, man-made machine, a gleaming spider in empty space, wafting past lifeless planets where sorrow had never existed except perhaps for the pain of rocks groaning under an unbearable burden of ice, and I wept”. Cees Nooteboom. The Following Story, 2003 ed’n, P14).

Unstuck in time (say, like Billy Piper), and, increasingly unstuck in space, it appears that the span between great social events and the existential fate of individuals remains impossibly wide – The Riots – in which a man found on Facebook inciting disorder is today sentenced to four years imprisonment. The sentence is a deterrent.

And I wept, out of a clear blue sub-tropical sky, in the early morning sunshine standing in the crowd on the long suburban lawn still wet with dew, and across the lagoon the bright flame from the base of Apollo 13 roaring and shaking the ground, as the rocket rose into the sky. Crossed it to and fro, since I had no way of knowing at that moment of its ill-fated mission, or, in 1969 that encouraging protest was a crime. The sentence is a rendition.

Traced in the shadow / an indecipherable cause – on Tuesday I watched a storytelling, song, music and dance work based on the poem by Radindropath Tagore, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva . Composed and sung by Pandit Vishwa  Prakash, the dancer crossed it to and fro, her eyes framed in kohl black, stamping the ground, while the drummer was like a blackbird holding a snail shell in its beak and beating it against a rock.

And I wept – No, tears were held in suspension – the quality of ecstatic sadness, as of a great loss, in the singer’s voice. The sentence is a manifestation.

Shadows in the glass

 Posted by at 10:47 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 122011

I came out of The Tree of Life with one possible interpretation on my mind – I had just sat rather uncomfortably through an extended essay on grief. Whose grief, I’m not sure – the director’s? Mine? The world’s? No, way beyond that, the grief of the universe. It could have been called The Black Hole of Grief. Go into it, and you will probably never come out again. Perhaps there is the hope that you will come out the other side into some strange beach scene where people wander around peering at each other in vague recognition.

    What shall I say? Somewhat overblown? A tad over-inflated?

    On the other hand the next movie I went to see was A Separation. An Iranian film directed by Asghar Farhadi: a beautifully detailed portrait of a family crisis seen through an Iranian lens.

    Recognisably a good movie.

    And what about the riots? Every Tory minister I heard the, used the agreed words of criminality and the thugs will be brought to justice.

    In the current BBC2 drama series, The Hour, set in the mid-fifties, the news team (the focus of the series) decide to parallel the Soviet repressive invasion of Hungary and the Israeli, British, French invasion of Egypt.

    In a similar way it is hard not to parallel these riots with government policies. These wildfire-like riots perpetrated by (it sounds like) a cross-section of marginalised young men and looting chancers with the help of maybe career criminals sharing information by twitter and facebook. There has been the recent and ongoing demonstrations and violence in the Middle East and North Africa but also I am reminded of Iraq and wholesale looting that took place after the “successful” invasion by the US and the Brits. Government policies aimed at reducing the deficit and pandering to the Tory hatred of public expenditure and continuing to gleefully spread the word of monetarist orthodoxy despite all the evidence that the market left to itself is a dangerous anarchic beast, have, of course, a gloss of legality, but the effects nonetheless are destructive to many in Britain, particularly, the poorest and most vulnerable. I suppose like all bullies they only take on the weakest – they didn’t dare take on News International until it was weakened by increasingly vile revelations of their journalistic practices. They presumably know that their policies will lead to social unrest so when it comes they can appear to take the moral highground.


    Meanwhile back with Wallace Stevens:




    Icicles filled the long window

    With barbaric glass

    The shadow of the blackbird

    Crossed it, to and fro.

    The mood

    Traced in the shadow

    An indecipherable cause.



    Nuff said.


The Tree of Life

 Posted by at 6:22 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 092011

It was a STUNNING (the film directed by Terrence Malick I mean) 2 hours and eighteen minutes… quite stunning! Being the (whites only) Marin County (San Francisco Bay area) version of Angels and History with Sean Pean and other intergalactic stars gliding seamlessly between Big Bang, Creation, Vox Pox Evolution with contributions, as it were, from David Attenbro, National Geographic channel and Professor of Astronomy (Hubble space telescope pix), Mozart’s Requiem and God (at least I think it could have been God), time traveling from dinosaurs through to the existential pain of west coast post-modern successful alpha-male misery, and his memories (of course) by way of flashback to an even worse time before – a childhood in which three brothers learn to compete with each other murderously under (of course) the jealous gaze and malignant curse of the father (Brad Pitt), so that it is bound to end badly, and it does.

All you need is love.

The suggestion along these lines is offered late on about the 130+ minute mark in the film, and without the slightest hint of either inflection or inuenedo, at which point I am – yes – too stunned to appreciate anything, including the beauty or otherwise of the natural world, including the birds. There are (of course) seagulls whirling in the sky, but I am unable to see if anybody is in immediate danger of being attacked by them. There is also a long film sequence of a mass of starlings in (of course) intelligent flight behind the downtown skyscrapers at sunset, but I am unable to detect any significance in their movement.

The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

It is my fault, I admit, that I cannot tell the difference, or provide a meaning, benign, malign, or otherwise to such events as these. The streets of London are burning… and now, according to the 6 o’clock news, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool too. And, like Basho, there is "that thing I do not know yet, the Windswept Spirit".

What a lovely word . . . innuendoes

 Posted by at 12:01 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Aug 062011

Oh dear, it seems we must dredge up bits of debris from the past, venture into that febrile world of childhood: those long lost (or not!) days before Dr Spock came along in an excited and post-Freudian age of progress and improvement. The infamous sixties – the watershed between the b/w world of the fifties from which a vertiginous drop led down and down through the dark ages, flashing past the classical empires until we land on our backsides, hairy and grunting, eating and grooming and lying back in the branches – also known as history and pre-history – and our current consumerist dreamworld in which we lie back on our recliners by the pool, getting drunk and fat. Sorry? Did you say crisis? Banks? Markets spiralling out of control? Nonsense, please would you get out of my light.

    In those far gone days the gods were as plentiful as mosquitoes, angels lounged about not knowing the meaning of the word work. And trousers were a long way into a future which our imaginations hadn’t invented. We dribbled in perfect unblemished happiness. Not one of the babies had to fear his father’s violent wrath; the belts that were not needed for the absent trousers. No, those dads chuckled at their off-springs’ endless mischief.

    Oh, they were happy days. The lineaments of the happiness archetype were laid down during this timeless time. Yahweh was resting after the monumental efforts of creation. He (he?) saw no reason to start improving things. Progress not being thought of until after the Fall. There are other stories, of course, like evolution, but could I fit in all of that, here, in a few hundred words? No certainly not. But there is the tricky issue of gender and power: the patriarchal domination, the gendering of gods leading to the gendering of the one, the highest of the high gods, with an inclination to make rules, to lay down laws . . . and progress became about who had the biggest empire. My dad’s bigger than your dad: stronger, richer, got a bigger car and other things like that.

    Talking of evolution do you remember Desmond Morris and his Naked Ape? And then Dawkins come along a bit later with his Selfish Gene. Stories that my great-great-grandmother told me as we huddled round the flickering candle.

    Anyway evolutionary progress eventually comes up with the famous Murdoch Belt, bloodstained and hardened by much use – as well as that right arm, the left holding down the squealing Rupie.

    And come to think of it, doesn’t Jimmy look startlingly like the angel in your picture. I think history must be an alien concept to angels. It is only humanity that must bear the weight of history and time, of what is endlessly false consciousness.

    By the way what happened to that blackbird of Wallace Stevens?




    I do not know which to prefer,

    The beauty of inflections

    Or the beauty of innuendoes,

    The blackbird whistling

    Or just after.