December 31, 2012

The Lavender Hill Mob

I often walk down Lavender Hill- its an unremarkable road near Clapham Junction in London and happens to be on my route back from work to home. My walk home- if I chose to do it- goes through Clapham and I'm accompanied by so many other Londoners on their way home. In our suits, we tread through the streets- umbrellas at the ready and with rucksacks and cases to enable us to complete the day's work at home. I'm sure the picture is the same in New York or in Paris or in Tokyo: its the uniform life of the professional middle class everywhere. In some cases its a kind of drudgery- and occasionally on my way home I start dreaming of far off lands and skies and trees, of other worlds and other work and of what I might do with a million pounds or three million or four million. I'm not a lottery player so will never win that kind of money and those dreams for me will always stay dreams.

The Lavender Hill Mob is about a dreamer. Henry Holland does not much like his life- he doesn't like his name for a start. He doesn't like his job at the Bank [of England] escorting gold round London. But he does have what I don't- a plan to get enough money to live the life he wants to lead. We get a sense of what that is in the first scene of a film, sitting in some bar in Rio, he chats to a pretty girl (welcome Audrey Hepburn in her first screen appearance), drinks a glass of something with the British Ambassador and is the life and soul of civilisation, a good fellow to boot. He allies with another dreamer- an artist called Pendlebury. The artist quotes Shakespeare and makes busts: he lives though by making replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Holland wants to be a proper person, Pendlebury a proper artist and all they need is money: cue plot.

They can dream about this plot because they know what they are doing. The film makers themselves were advised by the Bank of England about how to steal the gold in concern (that's the urban myth on IMDB and I rather like it, true or not :)). Holland is the man who guards the gold which goes out from the Bank. He is one of those people who is paid little to perform a responsible position. They can do so because they are 'honest' men- a line actually used in the film itself. This counterposition gives the opportunity for the crime but produces a lot of the comedy. Two rather fabulous middle aged men, quoting Shakespeare, hire some hoodlums in the same way you might hire graduate trainees (see what they can do on the job)- they proceed to get involved in a police chase which resembles something between a real chase and a pair of undergraduates stealing another college's mascot! One of the great comic moments in the film where a respectable landlady explains criminal argot to the police relies on the counterposition between her politeness and her language.

Coming back to Lavender Hill and my walk home, it seems now not so odd a counterposition. Whether Lavender Hill was more realistically down and out then than it now is doesn't really matter. Actually the comedy of the film is enhanced by the fact that this mob now comes from a postcode that every young professional in London seems to desire to live in!

December 30, 2012

Chinese Traditions

Mara Hvistendahl argues that China isn't undergoing a sexual revolutionl; it's rediscovering its past (Andrew Sullivan)
Changes in China are really important to the rest of the world today. Whether you are a believer in the Chinese rise or subscribe to theories that say China's glorious future is an illusion, you can't ignore the country. Its sheer size demands attention- not to mention the size of its economy and its army. We watch Chinese films, we eat Chinese food, in a couple of years time we'll probably listen to Chinese music in a way that our grandparents would never have done. So that makes understanding China really important and makes accounts of China as a place vital. We have received lots of those accounts over the last few years- but something sticks in my throat when I think about some of them.

The statement above was taken from Andrew Sullivan's blog. Sullivan writes a lot about sexuality from a particular perspective and he welcomes the rise of Chinese 'liberalism' regarding sex. Sullivan sees that as a positive thing. I've cited from one of his posts where he discusses a review of a book about Chinese attitudes to sex in the past. Sullivan's post makes one statement which is supported by the review he cites: China has not always been a conservative place when it comes to sex. However I think his insert might lead you, or me, to make two errors about the place of sex in Chinese society in the past and present and future- errors which I think have wider resonances for how we understand other societies.

The first of these errors is to say that China is more liberal than the West when it comes to sex (or more conservative). This is an error for a very simple reason. There is no such thing as China. What do I mean? There is obviously a China which exists today and which people believe that they are a part of- just as there is a Britain or America. There is a China in the past as well that people believed that they were a part of. When a Chinese person believes they are part of this present China they might connect it with a history of a particular thing- including a particular word or their family's ancestral political commitment. But that does not mean what happened in the past determines what the content of China is in the future. Think very simply: there is nothing innately Chinese about Communism- anymore than there is something innately Russian about it or innately British about liberal democracy. If you had gone back to 1500 and introduced the concept that Russia and China were innately communist and Britain was innately democratic, the elites and peoples there would have fried you alive for saying it. Things happen to countries- but we should not read them back into the past or forward into the future.

The second of these errors is to say that every sexual liberalism or every sexual conservatism or every similar position is the same. There are a number of different reasons why modern Chinese liberalism about sex will be different from anything that went before. Firstly we understand the mechanics of sex in a different way today: noone in the 8th Century believed as we do in evolution. Secondly we see sex differently: contraception and pornography mean that any modern Chinese understanding of sex has more in common with a modern Western one than it does with an ancient Chinese one. This does not only apply to sex. A modern religious fundamentalist is not in the same position as a medieval one for a simple reason: he or she has almost certainly read more things. He or she participates in a culture where it is not assumed that one has to be Christian or Muslim. The belief either in sexual liberalism or religious fundamentalism may look the same- but it is not the same. This doesn't just work over time- but over space as well- its very likely that Chinese sexual liberalism or conservatism looks different to Western sexual liberalism or conservatism. Its also probable that my sexual liberalism or conservatism differs from yours- because we have different experiences to make our ideas out of.

Sullivan's statement is right and its useful to know that China has a 'liberal' past with relation to sexuality- but its fatal if we start saying that China is innately liberal or conservative- just as its fatal to say that about Britain or anywhere else. There have been liberal and conservative Chinese people and at times China has been liberal- over its entire history it may well have been on average more liberal than the West or less liberal. Ultimately though the past does not determine the future. Ultimately its dangerous to be essentialist about nations or any other group of human beings. We are as the crowd in the LIfe of Brian puts it, all individuals.

December 29, 2012

Christopher Hitchens and why I fail to write

This blog has been updated ridiculously infrequently recently- blame the laziness of your blogger and the demands of managers for that but you can blame something else too- that I was educated as a historian. One of the books I got for Christmas was Christopher Hitchens's essays- they are collected in a volume called 'Arguably' and as ever with Hitchens they are well written and fun to read. What strikes me though reading them and reading the rest of Hitchens's work is his strengths and weaknesses.

Hitchens was an amazing writer and obviously thought about writing a lot: his essays on writers show sparkle and panache. So when he writes about Anthony Powell, he provides wonderful snippets of why he thought Powell was an amazing novelist: a word here, a phrase there are shown to the reader as proofs of Powell's inventiveness with language and his mood. Hitchens illuminates through literature as well- in an essay on Newton he sums up the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge through a reference to Penelope Fitzgerald. He was also obviously a great journalist- I haven't yet got to those pieces but it strikes me even with them that it is mastery of the literary detail- the ability to sum up a subject in a phrase which marks him out.

The essay on Newton reveals his weaknesses though as well. Hitchens was confessedly not a scientist and when writing about the greatest scientist of them all, he turns to the alchemy and the mysticism. Neither was he much of a historian. He does not in the same essay probe why Newton- a greater figure than any reader of this blog or than Hitchens himself- believed in alchemy. Its a fundamental problem in his biographies of Orwell and Paine: they are gripping reads if only because you suddenly find yourself being an American revolutionary or a British socialist in 1940. But neither Hitchens nor we share the attitudes of those time: when we do our thoughts are repetitions whereas the originals were 'original'. Hitchens makes Paine and Orwell into our contemporaries- something no historian would ever do.

Hitchens therefore wrote quickly and wrote well- what he had to say was worth reading. I struggle with that demand- I don't write well and don't write quickly. I suspect something of that has with our different skills: I am not a journalist nor have the kind of close reading that Hitchens had or power to quickly summarise. As a historian- and a poor one- I live in constant fear of correction, of the fact that slips through my fingers and leaves me looking silly. I doubt Hitchens's books on Orwell or Paine would really be undermined by the revelation that Paine never wrote the Rights of Man and Orwell never imagined up Winston Smith: his Orwell and his Paine exist independently of the actual historical reality. What he did was amazing and was hard: harder in some ways than being fixated on the facts but it was different. Blogging would have suited Christopher Hitchens- sometimes it feels like it doesn't suit your present author!

October 16, 2012


I apologise again for too long a hiatus. Why did I not write for a while- well because I did not see a purpose in writing and because it became in some sense a chore which I did not understand. When I had that burst of activity earlier this year it was in some sense purposeless: I did not think about why I wrote merely that I wrote. So this post is an effort to redefine this blog- there are plenty of entries on it already and I suppose to offer a manifesto for myself about what this will now be about. It will not be filled with articles or thoughts which are complete: I'm unable to write those with the pressures of work and also just because I cannot do that. It will neither contain political content- which is why the title of blog which has always been a little odd, will now change. Ok what is it about?

One of the ideas that always haunted me when I came to start this thing was the idea of the political blog. For various reasons that's just run away from me. The other idea that I thought of as key to this enterprise was that this was really some kind of common place book. A place where I could gather the fragments of experience together and think about them. That's the idea from now on that I wish to explore. No comment on this blog will be final. No comment on this blog will be worked out beyond the instantaneous moment of idealisation and no comment will be personal. This blog will be about what I have read and what I have seen and what I have thought about- it will be a common place book: a record largely for myself of my own cultural life and my own thoughts. I'm not going to write about politics- partly for work reasons but partly because I think politics is too easy to write about in an unreflective way.

Why do I think blogging is therefore useful? Well I think it may be useful for me to filter those thoughts through others. Possibly its also useful because its a record for me of what I've read. Whether its useful for you to read it, I have no idea. I'm not abandoning readership even though I've become uncertain about it over the last few months- whether anyone read and whether that mattered. I suppose the more that this is a fragment of thought, the more it really matters to me- its a way of capturing my own internal monologue and this time I think that's a more realistic place to go from. Blogging not as a perfect review or an effort to recapture the world- but as a place to record a thought, an idea which may be mad, will be inconsistent but will I hope be useful and interesting to myself and possibly to you.

I apologise for pausing- and I will try not to do so so often in the future!

May 18, 2012

Oxford Philosophy by Alan Bennet

I never saw Beyond the Fringe but this piece on Oxford Philosophy is brilliant.

May 04, 2012


Roger Ebert, the film critic, expresses what it means beautifully here

That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.  
I think he is right. I thought of my father when I read that, a far greater man than I will ever be, and thought of the way that even that memory fades with age. Death comes twice, once through absense and secondly through forgetfulness. The greatest commitment in the war poetry is
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them
Save of course we now do not. Not because we are wrong or evil in some way but because we never knew what we had to remember. To some extent that is what history is- its a device for remembering those who are gone, who are lost, who will never return. But it is an endeavour that will always fail. Its the same with growing in some ways- as we grow, we kill the previous parts of ourselves- the games we would play as children, the love that we left behind, the world we had lost. Reading Barnes's Sense of an Ending, I got taken more and more with the title- is there anything to human life which is not a sense of ending?

May 02, 2012

A favourite quotation

I was chatting to a friend this weekend about the origins of human rights- and dragged up this quotation from Sir Edward Coke, its one of my favourite quotations- and I thought it worth posting up.

We are but of yesterday (and therefore had need of the wisdom of those that were before us) and had been ignorant (if we had not received light and knowledge from our forefathers) and our daies upon the earth are but as a shadow in respect of the old ancient dayes and times past, wherein the laws have been by the wisdom of the most excellent men in many succession of ages, by long and continuall experience (the triall of light and truth), fined and refined, which no one man (being of so short a time) albeit he had in his head the wisdom of all the men in the world, in any one age could have effected or attained unto. And therefore it is optima regula, qua nulla est verior aut firmior in jure, Neminem oportet esse sapientiorem legibus: no man ought to take it upon himself to be wiser than the laws.
Coke said this in Calvin's case- a case about whether a Scot could claim rights under English law. The quotation though really isn't about the case itself- as much as it is about the principle of what is a law. It sits with some of the things that we have seen recently in Oakeshott- though I suspect Oakeshott did not derive his thinking from Coke's. Coke believed law was formed by tradition however there is a tension in his thought: notice his principles of fining and refining and the contrast between that and the resolution against change. Coke is in favour both of change and against it: the quotation incorporates a contradiction. 

The contradiction, I think, is not as important as one might think. Coke stated this during a case- it was a legal opinion rather than a philosophical argument. Coke was not writing a course in formal logic- rather he was writing a sentiment. His phrase was an argument within a political and legal realm: to make that argument the emotion is key, and Coke gets that emotion in his writing. It may not be great philosophy but the reason the phrase is requoted is that its both good politics and good law.

April 28, 2012

The sense of an Ending

"You just don't get it"

Julian Barnes's Sense of an Ending is filled with quotations- glimpses. It starts with quoted memories- ends with staccato sentences- and an explanation of events that we have already been told is unsatisfactory. The book expresses in one hundred painful pages the life of a man- Tony- who had two real loves,  Veronica a student he met at University and Margerate who he met later and married and had a child with. This review will be thick with spoilers- it can hardly avoid it. The sense of an ending is about what ending means and what looking back is- the main character says at one point that as young people we always anticipate the desperation and sadness of growing old, but not that of looking back on youth- well this is a novel about looking back. Looking back through the haze at old relationships and old sadnesses and old disappointments- at our failures and our distress. And at the fact that even now, after all has been done, the memory fades and ultimately we 'just don't get it' even when its long gone.

I don't make much of a pretence to understand this book- in 100 pages it includes more ideas than most manage in three or four hundred. The nature of the book though talks about something that I'm fascinated by- the nature of history and the nature of memory. Those two things are related- from the first historian Herodotus who said that his history was written to make the deeds of famous Greeks and barbarians safe for the world. Herodotus expressed it first- but that aspiration remains a source of why we do history. We write biographies and think about individuals- not merely because we believe that individuals cause social change- but because in some sense history undoes death. The question that everyone who thinks seriously about the past thinks about ultimately is whether we are coating the past with lies. To what extent can we really remember- I think this of people I have lost in my own life, through death and folly, they slowly slip down into sorrow. The smile I fell in love with, the glint of intelligence in the eye, the smiling eyes- all gone into everlasting fog.

Death and folly are two words that marry together and spend their time in this novel entertwined in each other's arms. Thanatos and Eros, according to Tony's friend Adrian, are tossed in battle, one against the other until the end of time and, as one quote from the novel, from Elliot, puts it are all that there really is to life. Memory though provides an inadequate guide to these things. Tony remembers what he chooses to remember. We all do this. Barnes captures the way that we have to tell narratives in order to ensure that we can survive events. That girl that Tony loved, he has to forget so that he can forget the fact that they broke up. Who has not been there- rhetorically convincing themselves that the error that they made was insignificant. The choice of memory, the framing of narratives is something that all historians and politicians know by instinct, we forget that we apply this to our real lives. Our lives are not realities- they are constructed- the road not taken rears ahead in our thought and is associated with either pain or pleasure, depending on our self dramatisation.

History is therefore meaningless unrest- the tale of a fool, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Again Barnes reminds us that this is not true. Our narratives, Tony's narratives are false but that does not mean that there is not a narrative- it just means it is inaccessible to us. There is a narrative in this novel: something horrific happened. But you won't know at the end what that something is. It is veiled in darkness. Similarly a suicide at the beggining of the book invites questions about why it happened- and those questions remain unanswered. Thinking again by the end of the book, Tony realises that the past can be interrogated in different ways. The suicide of a boy who made his girlfriend pregnant is significant to Tony as an adolescent because he wants to know about the boy and why he did it, by the end of the novel he is interested in the girl and how she coped. The questions are all legitimate- there are answers but without the dead boy, the parents who are long dead, even the girl herself- those answers have gone. A history master argues with Adrian about the meaning of these events- Adrian says that it is the reports of the individuals that decide what happened, the master the actions- neither and both are right. To some extent, the only way to know what has happened is to know what happened next- if Tony is guilty then that is right.

Guilt and responsibility depend on history, in Roman law it was intention that made a crime, a crime. I can only be responsible or guilty for things that have happened, not things as they might be after an act I commit in the future. As an implication, as we grow older we become more and more guilty. Moral personality is deeply involved in the novel. Who is to blame depends on the questions that we ask. If the past is uncertain, then so is moral responsibility. We live in a world without a view from nowhere, and that is all there is to say. This novel leaves me exhausted and pondering, personally, my own folly and my own death. Suicide said Camus is the most fundemental philosophical question- despite Camus's argument, I think Barnes goes further- we don't know what happens and why- what we can only know is that the philosophical subject is history, and the philosophical moment is historical.

April 27, 2012

Uncle Sam

Alan Sked's inaugural lecture at the LSE focussed on national icons: Professor Sked talked about the iconographic figures of the past- Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Lincoln etc- and spoke about the way in which those individuals had developed a mythic histories. Sked is obviously right on this broad point- and we can see how far that's true when we look at more obscure figures who have become national icons. Take Sam Wilson for example. A US merchant in the 1812 war who sold food to the US army, Sam Wilson became through a series of accidents (chronicled here) the image of America. He became Uncle Sam. The point about this is that Sam Wilson was a pretty ordinary person- he had none of the glamour of a Lincoln or a Frederick, wasn't ambiguous or anything special at all.

Why was he remembered? Ultimately that isn't a question that can be answered- there isn't a particular reason save for a catchy name and a clever set of poster makers why Sam Wilson should have been remembered. What's interesting about him though is that it demonstrates the need that the young republic had for some kind of myth. The US was founded in 1776: Uncle Sam lived through both its founding and the other great traumatic event of its early history, its war with its former colonial master Britain between 1812 and 1814. Before 1776, the US had been 13 individual colonies- diverse religiously, economically and racially from each other. The divides that split America right up until the modern era were geographic, focussed on states. To keep this country together, it needed mythic figures- Washington, Revere, Jefferson- who could become a focus for allegiance. In a sense, Sam's generation gave rise to so many of these icons because Sam's generation was the generation that made the United States. The essential icon in that sense was and is Lincoln: the President who stopped seccession.

That draws me though to a final point- and it reflects back on Professor Sked's lecture and a lot of the way that we view history today. Uncle Sam was a useful image for the United States because it reaffirmed national unity, it helped keep national peace. Historians may look at the man behind the image and say that he wasn't the same as the image that was eventually projected of him: indeed they may look behind some images like the image of John Bull and say he never existed. That's missing the point. The point of the image isn't that someone like that existed- its that someone like that was imagined to exist. National icons have a function and the function is the interesting bit about them as icons. We might want to study some of them independently- Lincoln to understand how a federal system can split into warring factions for example- but that's not studying their status as icons. As icons what's interesting is what they do and how they are used within political debates and discussions: how they become the substance of people's imaginations. This is where history can become innately political because if an icon is the meaning of a myth, destroying the icon is in some sense destroying the myth. But some myths are useful to us in politics...

A.J. Ayer on Logical Positivism

I've just discovered on youtube a fascinating set of programs presented by Bryan Magee. He interviewed in the seventies, leading philosophers about their ideas- so you have Iris Murdoch talking about literature and philosophy, Freddie Ayer on Russel and Frege, Hilary Putnam on the philosophy of science, John Searle on Wittgenstein etc etc. I've finished this particular broadcast: the others I'm currently working through- but this discussion between Ayer and Magee is fascinating.

There are three further parts to the interview.

Why is this so fascinating? The philosophical content is very interesting of course. I think there is something more though to it than this: Ayer was responsible for logical positivism coming to Oxford in the thirties- with language, logic and truth he began a conversation about it that lasted for the rest of the century. The conversation therefore records not just a thinker talking about a set of thoughts, but a thinker talking about his own impact, in his youth. During the fourth part, Magee asks Ayer to reflect on what he thinks of the weaknesses of logical positivism: Ayer's responses are very interesting because they show a wry detatchment from the Ayer of the 30s, a withdrawel from some positions, the adaptation of other positions. Its a perspective that is worth having and one I suspect that requires a certain type of maturity, confidence and longevity to attain to.

April 25, 2012

Oxford Philosophy: When Argy Bargy and Talky talky ruled the world

This dialogue and there are five further sections between Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire is an exploration of what Oxford philosophy meant in the middle years of the twentieth century when J.L. Austin dominated it. Its an important document philosophically of course- and I'll let you actually listen to what Berlin and Hampshire say- far more lucidly than I could ever- to discover that. However its also important as a cultural document: as whatsoever we think of Oxford philosophy and the contributions of Berlin, Hampshire, Ayer, Austin and others to it, we have to see it as a cultural moment as well as a philosophical moment. This was philosophy as reared probably for the last ever time on its own within a great university. Hampshire comments that there was no contact with the outside world- noone in Oxford during the 1930s cared about the outside world's opinion of their thinking, the outside world being both America and Cambridge at this point. Berlin tells of an Oxford dominated by schools of argy bargy (the analytical Pritchard) and talky talky (Collingwood and the Hegelians).

What's so interesting about this moment is that it was so insular. One might suggest for example that even in Oxford this was an insular group- they never had anything to do with the Inklings just down the road from Berlin's rooms in All Souls let alone with Cambridge or Princeton and Harvard. That culture whether in the Inklings or here with the analytical philosophers is obviously very powerful. They could focus on a set of texts that noone else understood- whether that is C.I. Lewis on perception or A.J. Ayer on Language, truth and logic. They were able to forge interesting questions in a very intense and concentrated fashion and in both the cases of the Inklings and the Oxford tradition, those questions produced great works- of literature and of philosophy. Concentration and insularity are undervalued today but are crucial for these very reasons: there was a point to having a life concentrated like that of a medieval monastery. What it produced was a common culture, a common reference point out of which the participants could emerge- and of course bitter rivalries- one thinks of Lewis and Tolkein, Ayer and Austin.

At the centre of the Analytical philosophers is Berlin. I remember reading in Berlin's writings a self depracatory statement that he believed his importance in life was his ability to knit together others. Berlin had a great mind and there is a reason that people still read what he had to say in later life- but its an important observation of his other skill, as a facilitator. Important I think as well because the group created a context for its members to operate within- thinking to Berlin's own Personal Impressions, one gets the sense of a thinker who knows who his audience are and knows how to appeal to them. This both gives him the confidence to move forward with his intellectual project- by the 40s definitely not within analytical philosophy- and also the security of having that project critiqued and accepted. It exposed the work to some blindnesses- Quentin Skinner later picked up on several of Berlin's methodological blindnesses- but it also enabled the work to happen. We underrate this often: recently thinking about Berlin I put him into a category of emigree intellectual, and obviously he along with Karl Popper and others was such an emigree (of a slightly earlier generation than Popper), but one's eventual intellectual group which one considers one's home is still vital to one's development. I don't think we can take the emigree out of Berlin, but neither can we dispense with the room in All Souls for our understanding of any of those that met there.

In truth, it was not just what the division between argy bargy and talky talky meant when it was taught which gave Berlin and Austin and Ayer their background, it was the fact that they all knew within a narrow Oxford context, what those two titles meant.

April 17, 2012

Property and the Body

However harsh you think your view of justice is, you are unlikely to be as harsh as the justices of Anjou and Maine. The customary of the two provinces of France, written in the early 15th Century, suggested that for crimes such as rape, the murder of a pregnant woman or murder (including suicide) not merely should the offender be punished with death- but their house should be torn down, their fields despoiled, their vines stripped out and any forests they owned chopped down. This they called 'ravaire' or ravage. This punishment is really interesting- Alexander Murray in his work on suicide from which I take this suggests it marked a different boundary of the body from ours. In the medieval world, the body extended not merely to the form of the person but to their chattels and their land. Not merely that but the crime of the individual might well be visited upon the family. Medieval writers justified this by reference to the Book of Numbers, where two people, Dathan and Abiram are swallowed by the earth along with all their families for the sin of blasphemy.

These points that Murray raises are very interesting- because they point right into a conceptual distinction in terms of the way that individuals have been thought about. In the past this notion of the individual extended further than it does today- not merely outwards into property but also outwards into different persons. This raises questions though about the way that they understood those differences. Individuals had their consciousness of that individuality mediated for them through a different prism than that available to us today. The problem with history often is that all we have is the prism- the law code, the theological treatise- we don't have the individual experience of that, the inner consciousness of what that meant. We can only infer from our own empathetic understanding- in most cases. Murray is one of the best historians I've read on this kind of history- and I have no doubt in the rest of his second volume on suicide he will dwell more on this- but its an almost impossible task and reminds me of the fact that the difference between us and the past is precisely the reason why we find it difficult to put flesh into the husk of evidence that we have been left.

April 16, 2012

What is a murder?

The content of murder is often debated within our own society. It is not so long ago that suicide was deemed to be a type of murder- we shall discuss that more in the future. Plenty of people see abortion as a type of murder- others do not. Some see contraception as another type of murder. There are definite arguments that euthanasia is a species of murder: whether in the same sense as suicide or the added coercion of relatives keen to see an inheritance. The content of murder shifts generation by generation: is death in war murder? Some people think that Tony Blair and George Bush are murderers- others that they were merely leaders of states that went to war. Murder isn't an obvious concept to us- but one meaning has drifted away from us and its interesting to think about why that's so.

The original meaning of the word murder is not unlawful killing: it is unlawful secret killing. Secrecy really worried medieval society. The secret murder concerned the legal authorities and they took great pains to advertise when a murder or a suicide had been published. This is one reason why, as Alexander Murray documents, suicides were buried at crossroads or on the shores of rivers. They were buried with the instrument they had used to kill themselves- the noose, the knife- to demonstrate that the law knew the manner of their deaths and advertised to all passers by that they had died in this grisly way. You could see this as the basis for public hangings too: the law advertising that this killing had been found unlawful, that it was not one of these murders that would never be detected. The law fixed epistemologically what had happened to a person: uncertainty in this sense allowed a violation of the law, was a challenge to the legal model of knowledge.

Nobody uses murder in this sense today. Despite its uncertain range- our murders are all well murders. We know when someone has been unlawfully killed- and unsolved cases are more often than not unsolved murders, rather than unsolved because noone can be sure about a natural death. There are two reasons for this. The first is the most obvious and will not detain us: we just know a lot more about what a natural death or a murder looks like. From being able to detect DNA on a knife, to being able to register poison in a bloodstream, we know far more than our medieval ancestors did. The second is interesting though and its about the powers of the state. The medieval state had no police force, had no registry of identity, worked through local elites and had no social services. Its infrastructure of knowledge was not inferior neccessarily, but was less statistical and more moulded by a local elite than the modern state.

This is a guess and it would be interesting to know when and how the meaning of murder changed- but my guess is that it has something to do with the changing nature not of science but of the state. Probably that changing nature is what has led us to abandon some of the practices of our ancestors- public execution for one. The impact it has on the way in which the content of the concept of murder has changed is also interesting: thinking about it the only type of murder where we become worried about the boundaries between death and murder today is euthanasia. That may be the exception that proves the rule about our evolving understanding of what the rule means.

April 14, 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog says in his film at the beggining that he opposes the death penalty. One might assume this is a film which opposes the death penalty, which campaigns against it- but if you did think that you would be wrong. What Herzog does is describe what happened in a particular case. In 2001, in Conroe, Texas, two 19 year olds, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry shot a nurse Sandra Stotler- and later her son and his friend. According to the police, the killing was motivated by Perry and Burkett's desire to steal Stotler's car. That was all that they wanted- a red sports car- and for that as the officer on the case said, three people died. By the end of the film that three becomes four, because Michael Perry was executed in July 2010. Burkett faces a forty year prison term and will be released- if he receives parole- in 2042 when he will be 59. The film describes these events and interviews the families of the victims, people who knew Burkett and Perry in Texas, the killers themselves- Perry is interviewed eight days before his execution and an interview with Burkett's current wife. Interviews with the Prison Chaplain who holds the ankle of each prisoner as the lethal injection is administered and with a former captain of the death squad at the jail are included in the film. All in all this is neither a light nor a pleasant film: its a good film.

Some critics have argued that Herzog didn't really know what he was doing with the film- that it is not polemical enough or whimsical enough. I think the film is powerful as a description rather than a political polemic. Herzog may say he is against the death penalty but this is neither an expose of a clear injustice nor is it a statistical argument. It is an observation. As such though it has an argument but it requires the viewer to switch their attention from the political to the personal context for what happens in the film. We hear plenty about the lives that the two perpetrators lived up until the murders, hear plenty about what they were like outside the jail (Jason Burkett sounds like a thug for example) and hear about their troubled up bringings (particularly Burkett's). Burkett's father is interviewed in incredibly powerful scenes- himself a convict in prison for a similar time to his son, the sheer sense of his own failure is a difficult and important thing for Herzog and the viewer to capture. When he describes the feeling of being locked to his own son in handcuffs as they leave the court house, the feeling of despair is probably the greatest I have felt in a cinema.

Likewise Herzog captures something about the families of the victims that I think we seldom do. What is left for them after a murder? It must feel like so much has gone, senselessly, into the past. Both the family members of victims we see here look and feel anguished: interestingly both are siblings and the sense of loss is palpable- almost unbearable at points. The important thing about these sections of the film is not that it does not make you feel angry- or at least did not make me feel angry- it made me feel compassion and sadness. There are two feelings on the screen during the film- when you see the Burkett's father, you feel the anguish of honesty about failure- when you see the families of the victims, you see the anguish of loss. These two very different emotions suffuse a film that really is about two types of abyss, one of sin, the other of death. Looking at it another way, what Herzog presents is a murder which has produced two devastating consequences- shame and despair.

The interviews with the two murderers fit into the rest of the film slightly askew. Reviewers have asked why Herzog didn't probe these men more- he asks questions but does not strive for a gotcha moment where the killer breaks down in tears. Nor does he probe the stories of either man. Both deny the murders now. Perry until his death insisted that a police conviction was coerced. Both blame the other man. Herzog seems clear that they did it though- even though Burkett's wife insists he did not. Neither admit to any guilt: Perry says that he feels sorry for those who have visited the atrocity of what he calls murder upon him. Burkett's father clearly does believe his son did something. Burkett's wife- a post-prison acquisition who he has hugged but not spent time with outside of prison- clearly disagrees. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film involve her talking about her love for the convict. The emptiness, particularly from Perry, is terrifying but it stands between the two emotions I discussed above- between shame and despair is what caused both- emptiness, an abyss.

That sense of a parenthesis that lies around the devastation of the event is something that Herzog plays upon. The two most redemptive images of the film come from the prison chaplain and the captain of the death squad, for them parentheses are moments of pity (in the first case- the parenthesis around a pause to watch a squirrel) or common sense (that life in the latter case is the dash between death and birth on a tombstone) but the director plays with that parenthesis throughout. He plays with what might be called the abyss- with the abyss between interviewee and interviewer inside a prison where glass separates them physically, the abyss between two lovers separated by a wall, the abyss which defines our lives and gives meaning to them. Lastly the abyss that is the event itself that determined all this: Herzog makes a point of showing us that the murders happened for almost no reason. All this devastation and destruction came from a moment that seemed thoughtless, that itself was an abyss where action took over from deliberation, where 'I want' trammelled up the consequence of that desire. Where 72 hours of possession of a sports car justified the murders of three people.

Herzog is against the death penalty, but though his film is about death row, its not about the death penalty. Its about the ways in which we can destroy our own lives, slipping into worlds where violence is a convention, where you learn to read in prison, where the sins of the fathers become the sins of the sons and so on infinitum down to the end of recorded time. Herzog's vision of that is dark- between the parenthesis of shame and despair, you find nothingness, the nothingness of sin. The redeeming moments of  this film are moments when the chaplain and death captain tell us about other ways of thinking about moments, ways that bring out the positive nature of life, but over them hangs a stench of what happened ten years ago and the consequences that to this day continue to unravel from that one event.

April 13, 2012

Michael Oakeshott's history of ideas

Embedded within Oakeshott's account of politics is an account of history and in particular the history of ideology. Oakeshott faces a problem with ideology, because having dismissed empirical attempts to discuss politics, he faces in the essay on political education the challenge of the thinker who suggests that ideology is the basis for our political decisions. Oakeshott wants and needs to dismiss this account of the way in which ideology is generated because if ideology can be sat outside of a political tradition, it provides a means of critique which is outside of the political languages to which Oakeshott wants to confine his political education. Essentially if Oakeshott is wrong about ideology, then one can turn away from his political education without losing anything: because national traditions are not sufficient alone to generate political ideas.

This challenge gives rise to one of Oakeshott's most interesting statements:

The pedigree of every political ideology shows it to be the creature, not of premeditation in advance of political activity, but of meditation upon a manner of politics.
This is a very radical statement. Essentially what the philosopher means is that there is no ideological position that doesn't develop out of an empirical situation. Politics proceeds before any conception of the right path within it. Oakeshott provides what he thinks of as clear historical cases of this happening:
consider Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrrangements- a brilliant abridgement of the political habits of Englishmen. 
Leave aside whether Oakeshott's history is correct, what he is arguing here is that political argument arises out of national traditions of thinking and is inspired by particular historical moments or understandings of them. Oakeshott doesn't deny that new ideas occur but he suggests that they are intimations, born from within the system of politics as it functions, hence he suggests that women's suffrage happened because there was an inconsistency in the law rather than because of an abstract right that was discovered to appertain to women.

This is a very radical and important move within Oakeshott's philosophy- he later suggests that such movements within a tradition may be unconscious, the Russian revolution was as Russian as it was Marxist (for him). This is not merely a truism in Oakeshott's mind: because its the basis for saying that if you want to understand a political movement, you must understand not the abstraction which the political actor mouthed, but the society from whence he or she sprung. If you think about that for a second it becomes a very interesting observation: take Locke: Professor Oakeshott is quite simply wrong if he thinks Locke's treatise was motivated either by what Locke believed England was like or what England was actually like in 1682. What Locke was motivated by was a desire to shape England into a different realm, but his context was as Dutch as it was English and as Protestant as it was either. Oakeshott dismisses the relevance of non-national context- and furthermore of context which is not empirical. The contrast with Neitsche for whom the empirical context is nothing, but for whom the context of abstraction is everything: so Neitsche says that the reason that there is no definition of punishment is because that concept has been described in an infinity of different ways. Oakeshott downplays the ideological and the non-empirical because what he wants is this separate language of politics that cannot be reduced to its abstraction.

April 12, 2012

Oakeshott and the state

Reading Michael Oakeshott's essay on political education, something struck me. The classic notion of the state- developed by Bentham and others- is that the state is a coercive power which is managed by a group of individuals. The state is defined by them as the actor who possesses the power or action of sovereignty: its how most political scientists and historians would define the state. Michael Oakeshott, in his essay on Political Education, defines the state rather differently and the difference is important for the essay and his conception of politics itself. Oakeshott says

Politics I take to be the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together. In this sense families, clubs and learned societies have their 'politics'. But the communities in which this manner of activity is pre-eminent are the hereditary co-operative groups, many of them of ancient lineage, which we call states.
That definition is very very different from the conventional definition. What Oakeshott doesn't do is define the state by its powers- he instead defines the state as a community of individuals who participate in a political tradition. There is an obvious problem with this: how does he distinguish between a state and one of the earlier named groups- however we can leave that issue aside for the moment.

This is important because one of major issues running through Oakeshott's discussion of political education is his insistence on a national conversation, in which political action, consciously or not, forms an inevitable part. That understanding is dependent on the fact that the major actor in Oakeshott's work here within politics is the state, conceptualised as the community. To conceptualise the state as the bearer of power would be to empty politics of that communitarian component: in that sense, Oakeshott's redefinition of the state is the key move within the essay. It does something else though- because not only does his definition shape his conception of politics, it shapes his perception of national politics. Oakeshott can argue that all states are different because they are bearers of different conversations, the agency is the same but defining the state by its political tradition enables the philosopher to hypothesise that each state is unique and hence- as we can see from the quotation above, the politics of each state is unique. Oakeshott's redefinition of the state in this essay is therefore key to his conceptualisation of politics as a linguistic rather than an empirical arena.

If the study of the state is truly the matter of politics, and Oakeshott thinks it is, then the only way he can say that the citizen is not scientist but anthropologist and historian is if he redefines the state. Redefining it so that every state is the individual subject of an anthropologists scrutiny, rather than an interchangeable function which experiments with interchangeable individuals.

April 11, 2012

Can Literature do Philosophy and if so how?

Can novels do ideas? It seems like an odd question. There are plenty of novels which do purport to 'do' ideas- whatever that means. Yet think about it for a second and it becomes slightly less strange. Literature and philosophy are by their very nature different. Iris Murdoch in a conversation she had with Bryan Magee- the first part of which is below:

Murdoch argues that literature and philosophy are distinct activities. Philosophy tries to do one thing- to seek truth- and literature many which include some ressemblance to truth but also other things like fun. Philosophy she says seeks to clarify, literature to mystify. Despite Murdoch's arguments, this week in the FT Jennie Erdal makes the opposite argument- she suggests that philosophy and literature can be wedded and that there is such a thing as the sophisticated novel of ideas.

These positions are not absolute. I have no doubt that Erdal would agree that novelists can often be bad philosophers- can even be social theorists or political theorists or makers of ideas (to use Murdoch's phrase)- and have no doubt that Murdoch would agree that there is philosophical work in novels- indeed she identifies one, Sarte's Nausee. There is a great burden here though in terms of the distinction that's being made. One can feel in the article that Erdal really wants to list philosophical novels, whereas in the interview one can feel Murdoch's reluctance, indeed she protests, about naming philosophical novels. Part of this I suspect is down to Murdoch's proffessionalism as a philosopher and her wish to keep philosophy as a hard subject, as opposed to one exposed to art. But there may be more at the root of the distinction.

I think added to it is the idea that literature does something which is separate from philosophy. Erdal talks about the way in which literature enables her to live her philosophy or realise how a theory can be lived. What I find very interesting about that is both that it is tempting and that it is in some sense deceitful- there is an aspect to presenting people with a lived example which is both extraordinary as an education but propagandistic as an argument. Art cannot ultimately- and I think Murdoch is right here- make arguments easily- she argues that often in Sartre the argument itself becomes aesthetically unpleasing. For me this happens in War and Peace with the long tracts on the meaning of history. Possibly in that sense, novelists need to be aware and beware of philosophy in their writing.

April 10, 2012

Whatever happened to Charley Bates

So at the end of Oliver Twist, Fagin gets hanged, Sikes is dead, Bet goes mad, Noah Claypole begins a career as a thief, Charlotte his paramour becomes a whore, the Artful is transported and Monks becomes destitute. Villainy obviously isn't a good career choice for any of them- even Sikes' dog ends up falling to its death, dashing its brains out and an obviously sympathetic character like Nancy has hers bludgeoned out on her bedroom floor. There is one exception to this tide of woe- and that's Charley Bates. Why?

Well first off- who? Charley Bates is the only other direct member of Fagin's gang named in the novel- you could make an argument for one other but everyone else functions like Sikes as an associate of Fagin. Charley is the Artful Dodger's best friend- he accompanies him and Oliver to pickpocket Mr Brownlow, gambles with the Dodger and generally plays the role of ally and friend. The difference between them appears to be that whereas the Artful is more calculated Bates is addicted to humour: so when they lose Oliver, the Artful immediately realises that Fagin will be furious, Bates finds it funny. Likewise in gambling, the Dodger is deceitful and cheats: Bates finds losing funny and does nothing to stop the cheating- even though he loses money. The distinction between the two young criminals is one of maturity but its also one of philosophy.

This is crucial- because Dickens wants to establish crime not as a deed but as a way of seeing the world- it is he says at one point a poison. That's why Oliver despite his criminal acquaintance is not a criminal- his upright heart protects him (even implausibly) against contagion. Nancy is a criminal but recognises the stain on her conscience- and hence can be redeemed (even if that redemption is at the cost of her life). Mr Bumble has committed no crime- but in essense is as one with Fagin's gang because his philosophy is the same as theirs- and Dickens continuously asks his readers to think about the logic of the thief and the fence and how many of their allies it applies to. The comic device of calling the Artful a gentleman is not merely a parody of his presumption- but also a satire which asks the question what exactly apart from his ill fitting clothes makes him no gentleman.

To return to Charley: what distinguishes Charley is in a lesser sense to Oliver, that which distinguishes the other boy. Charley is a lighthearted fool, but that isn't a crime. Charley is a criminal- but unlike the rest he does not think as a criminal. He is not so philosophical as to cheat at cards or understand Fagin's wrath- thus as he is less of the politician, he is less culpable. Whereas the Dodger cannot be redeemed- nor can Fagin or Sikes- Charley can because his intentions are not purely evil. Ultimately when judged against someone like Noah Claypole, the pickpocket emerges as a less criminally minded figure than the savage youth. This distinction- which I've not quite managed to capture- is I think very important to what Dickens wanted to say: Charley Bates is vital to the novel's message, which isn't that we should all feel smug that we aren't Fagin and Sikes- but to ask which of us has behaved like Fagin or Sikes and saved ourselves from their position, by virtue of our wealth and power.

April 09, 2012

What Nancy did

Oliver Twist is remembered for a number of things- Fagin and antisemitism, Sikes and his dog, the Artful Dodger, Master Bates and much more. Nancy is one of the characters that everyone remembers- mainly because of her death. Ferociously bludgeoned to death by Sikes after she is suspected of betraying the gang, Nancy dies in a peculiarly horrific way- so horrific that her friend Bet who identifies the body, is led away to Bedlam straight afterwards. The press have ever since concentrated on the melodrama of Nancy's end. There is an interesting question that has to be answered about why Dickens killed Nancy in this horrific way- some have argued for a feminist interpretation of Nancy's death or an interpretation about Dickens's rejection of his own working class past. Others might argue that Dickens was thinking as a novelist, trying to design a shocking end for Nancy and finally undermine any sympathy that we might have for Sikes and Fagin.

Attending too much to Nancy's end though misses I think the way that contemporaries read the novel- they had to wait weeks between segments- and therefore something crucial about Nancy's character. If one interesting question about Nancy is why was she killed so horrifically (in a way that no film maker save for (to his credit) David Lean has ever tried to convey)- then another is why did she sympathise so much for Oliver and therefore why does she come to Rose Maylie. Again its worth thinking about when she does this- she is sympathetic to Oliver when he comes back to the gang after his kidnap (by her and Sikes) on the street. She is sympathetic before the house breaking that Oliver goes to with Sikes. By the time that she goes to Rose Maylie, Oliver is actually safe in the Maylie household: again this is an important absense from most of the film versions. Most of the film versions have Nancy directly saving Oliver from Fagin and Sikes by revealing his place of concealment: but that is not what she does. Instead she is the person who reveals the deception by Monks to conceal Oliver's true birth.

Most of the film versions change this I think because it renders Nancy more sympathetic- its less convoluted. Dickens doesn't do it though. The answer I think to the question about Nancy's 'betrayel' reveals why she does what she does regarding Monks. Nancy we are told throughout is a strong willed girl- her own declared age is probably in her late teens or early twenties, what she says about Oliver is interesting. She tells Fagin when she first fears he will enter the trade, that he like her might learn to live with a home on the streets. She tells Rose that she will in the end end up in the Thames, her body floating down river. She doesn't envisage living beyond forty. She says to Fagin and Sikes that they will ruin Oliver's life. So what she does in the exchange with Rose is not merely try and rescue Oliver directly, she does something more noble- she tries to rescue Oliver's future and she succeeds. Nancy's strength is not just her sympathy for Oliver's immediate plight but her sympathy for Oliver as a human being with a future of his own that cannot and should not be betrayed. I think its that that the Monks declaration reveals and that's the quality that leads her to betray Sikes.

That also places Nancy on the other side of Dickens's philosophy (to say the Bumbles)- philosophy leads people to evaluate others directly on their immediate circumstances- it leads people to evaluate others as objects or numbers. What Nancy does is in direct contravention to that principle- obeyed by Fagin as much as anyone else- because she takes an irrational sympathy to Oliver and eventually acts on that principle and dies. That's why Nancy is such a key character in Oliver Twist- she embodies empathy.

April 07, 2012

Photography: that'll never catch on!

You may have guessed by now that I'm rereading Oliver Twist. I just came across a fantastic piece of commentary by Mrs Bedwin. Oliver has just been taken in by Mr Brownlow and lying in his bed is drawn towards the picture of a beautiful woman on the wall. Mrs Bedwin, when she realises says this:

Ah, said the old lady, painters always make ladies out prettier than they are, or they wouldn't get any custom, child. The man that invented the machine for taking likenesses might have knwon that would never succeed, its a deal too honest. A deal' said the old lady, laughing heartily at her own acuteness.

Mrs Bedwin is not stupid- but she is wrong, so why?

I think and this is a guess its to do with memory. I take a photograph to capture a moment- that's what say the facebook timeline thing is really doing, its showing moments of people's lives back to them. Now there are good reasons to take a photograph to memorise a situation- we want a record of our lives- to recall the girl we loved, the child as it grew, the experience of graduating or marrying or receiving a qualification. Its important we do this for ourselves and accuracy of memory is part of the reason to do it- the picture would just not be as good- I want to see the thing in itself, not the picture that some artist drew. As someone interested in history, I find this even more- I love looking in biographies of people in the 19th and 20th Centuries at their photographs, just to see what they really looked like and capture the expression of their face in my mind. This sense of accuracy is what makes Mrs Bedwin wrong- she is right people are concerned about their looks and what has changed now is that the standard of accuracy has become the photograph. This means that someone who sells their beauty- they must capture that beauty on a lens.

However the fact people get their photos retouched regularly tells us that Mrs Bedwin is not that wrong- photos may have caught on, but people are concerned enough about their looks to try and fool the camera.

April 06, 2012

Oliver Twist and Thomas White

My copy of Oliver Twist carries a rather interesting footnote. You may remember that Oliver is tried for the theft of Mr Brownlow's goods in the novel. Oliver is taken up to the court and is incapable of speaking- a kindly man speaks for him and makes up answers, tells the magistrate that Oliver has no parents and that his name is Tom White. Ultimately Oliver is freed when a witness arrives to tell the court that whoever did commit the crime, it was not Oliver. Tom White is an interesting name in all of this: when I first read the book I assumed Dickens had just picked a name- like William Smith- from thin air. The footnote to my copy of the book suggests otherwise- it suggests that Dickens picked a particular name of a particular pickpocket.

In December 1826, Thomas White was indicted at the Central Criminal Court for stealing a hankerchief from the pocket of a Mr Barlow. White was seen stealing the hankerchief and was found guilty and sentenced to seven year's transportation. My footnote tells me that he was working for a well known fence and had a mistress known as Nance at the time but the indictment makes no reference to it. The incidental detail is interesting: White's position sounds very similar to that of the Artful Dodger and Bates- though not to Oliver Twist. Its also a signal of the sentence Oliver might have received had he been found guilty. I suspect there is more to the reference than just that but have to confess I know no more...

April 05, 2012

Philosophers in Oliver Twist

Re-reading books you read as a child is a fascinating experience. I read Oliver Twist for the first time when I was about 11, when I read it I read it for the story. Re-reading it as an adult, the thing I notice more than anything else is Dickens's humour. Oliver Twist is not a melodrama merely: it is a comedy. It is laced with irony and sarcasm. Dickens is poking fun left, right and centre at visible targets within his own day- and (part of the reason the book works) our day. One such burst of humour considers those that Dickens regards as philosophers- Dickens mentions these figures a number of times in the first few chapters. I want to isolate some of these references- consider what Dickens aims at through them and then lastly why he uses the word 'philosophers' rather than another word to rebuke these men that he addresses. Ultimately I think Dickens chose that word deliberately.

So who are the Philosophers and what do they say? Dickens mentions 'philosophers' for the first time in Chapter 2 when describing Mrs Mann, she functions on a payment system whereby small children from the workhouse are transferred to her care and then she receives payment for their living allowance. She skims off money- and behaves in that sense Dickens argues like a philosopher. Dickens argues that she behaves in a philosophical way because she experiments to see how little a child may subsist upon: he compares her to a philosopher who experimented in detecting whether his horse would live if he did not feed it. Mocking this experiment, Dickens leaves us in no doubt that philosophical knowledge- whatever this is is worthless. Secondly Dickens establishes that the Board of the Workhouse themselves are philosophers- as they have discovered that the poor want to be in workhouses and therefore have cut the living allowance so 'that all poor people should have the alternative(for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house or by a quick one out of it' (Chapter 2). Dickens talks of philosophy again and again- but I think one last citation is neccessary for us to get a partial picture: in Chapter 8 when Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger rob Mr Brownlow, they flee the scene leaving Oliver standing in shock. Oliver's shocked reaction is testament to the fact that 'although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with that beautiful observation that self preservation is the first law of nature'. Note the irony in that 'beautiful'.

These three citations would not be enough for an essay or for a critic- but they are enough for me. What should we think of philosophers from this? I don't think Dickens wants us to like them- I think he wants to go further, he wants a picture to be built of the philosopher from these portraits. Firstly the philosopher sees society as an object to be experimented on and is not interested in the condition of the poor. Secondly the philosopher views people as machines to consume- and consume minimally at their highest efficiency. Thirdly he thinks that the philosopher believes that self preservation is the highest end and constructs a system on the basis of this. There is a hint of utilitarianism in this description- more than a hint- but there are also some other things here. Dickens is making a political point about the purpose of what he might describe as compassion: but he is also making a practical point. All of the philosophical insights above are wrong: not morally but empirically. The boys and the horse die, the poor don't want to be in workhouses and fear them and the choice is not real and lastly Oliver, the best character in the entire book, does not behave like a philosopher but like a moral human being- hence the aspiration to self preservation is not the most beautiful thing in human nature, its something that Sikes and Fagin share with Brownlow and Oliver, it is the base ingredient.

This leaves us with one important question- Dickens's use of the word 'philosopher'. I think Dickens here is making a point about the lack of realism associated with these ideas- they are theories or philosophies rather than points about the world. He is disputing the expertise of any expert who supports these- this is 'just' philosophy. I think also embedded in the use of the term is an irony itself: Dickens doesn't mean these ideas are proper philosophy. Ultimately looking back, they miss out any notion of ethics or morality itself: Dickens a believer in compassion sees these philosophical principles as incomplete. Ultimately the reason he uses the word is to bring out, ironically and manifestly, the contradition both theoretical and empirical in these insights. Oliver Twist is a funny novel, with a serious purpose.

April 04, 2012

Anglican Enlightenment and Christian Revelation

I don't normally just provide a link to someone's work- but this is different. John Pocock is one of my heroes- a truly great historian and one of the most important minds of the last half century. This is a lecture that he gave at the University of Sussex in March of last year- I will let it stand for itself because Pocock needs no introduction nor description!

April 03, 2012

The Parish Home

Our society is pretty unique- I mean that 'our' globally. One of the ways in which it is unique is its geography. Most of us know about foreign countries, quite a few have visited them, many are happy to live abroad, many are happy to emigrate for work and see their return as quite a simple exercise. Afterall when all it takes is to hop on a plane for five hours, studying in a different continent becomes a rite of passage rather than an excursion that might take years. You see this in religious observation as much as anything: chatting to a Muslim friend recently, we compared the experience of going on Hajj at the beggining of the twentieth century to doing so at its end. In the first case the journey could last months and would only be done once, but a flight from London or Pakistan to Mecca is now a matter of hours, and the most severe inconveniency is likely to be dodgy airplane food. Not to mention that short or even medium distance travel has fallen in price amazingly in that time.

That has done things to our notion of place. I remember crossing into the Baltics from Russia many years ago and feeling as I did so, I had come home, I was within the European Union. Just to imagine the differences from past times is crucial to understanding those times and the shock of moments such as the Industrial Revolution. Emigrating to Australia is very different without long distance telephones or google chat! But people in the past also patterned their lives differently. As K.D. Snell found in a recent article in the Economic History Review, the late 18th and 19th Century poor thought of home as their parish rather than their city or their country. They thought of home through the prism of how the church and government addressed their needs: ie through the parish authority and also as the place in which their friends (by which they meant their family) dwelt. Snell's point is important- partly because it shows us how deeply spiritual the architecture even of place was in the 19th Century: the parish boundary was ecclesiastical and not merely civil- but partly becuase it shows us how far medieval notions of place endured and were shattered by the experience of industrialisation.

That's because what Snell chronicles is the appeal of the poor to help from their parish after they have moved. Home is a contrast with not at home. Its probably no accident that fifty years later these people founded the great football clubs of England, supported them etc and founded local rivalries- these are ways of anchoring home in a world of migration. It also points to facts I think about the modern world: home is not a neutral statement, its a way of appealing or stating something about onesself. In some cases- like my arrival in the Baltics, it can be a feeling of increased security: in others like the claim that one's home is one's castle, its a claim of right, in other's like these parochial claims its a claim of obligation. Its also a claim of identity- I am a .... and as identities get fractured, they need replacing. That raises a further question- what does it mean to be at home and what identities can fill that place?

April 02, 2012

Tabloid: Sex in Chains

This post will probably go up there with Medieval Lesbianism as one of this sites greatest hits: the post is going to disappoint, but that's because it really doesn't live up to the title. Point 1 of Journalistic ethics is to fulfil what you promise in the title and yet again this blog has completely and utterly failed, my job application to the Sun remains in the Editor's draw, locked away. But apart from my missed career opportunity: you are probably wondering why the title exists. The title refers to a film- Tabloid- which the BBC have just put out on the iplayer (for UK viewers see here) and which came out last year. The film was made by one of my favourite documentary makers- Erroll Morris- and tells the story of beauty queen who allegedly kidnapped a Mormon, took him to a remote part of England, chained him up and repeatedly raped him. That at least is the story that his friends told: her story says that he consented, that they escaped Mormon tyranny and went to a remote cottage to have plenty of sex and enjoy each other's company before he was kidnapped back by the Mormons. The British Press were intrigued and got involved. The story died out- until that is the same woman recently had her dog cloned.

Why does this matter you might be asking- I mean apart from the opportunity to put a title up that involves the phrase 'Sex in Chains' and thus get two dozen thousand google hits- why am I writing this article. Well Morris's film is really interesting in that it doesn't do two things. Morris never comes down and tells us whose version of the truth is right: he explicitly avoids saying that the Mormon view is correct or that Joyce's view is correct, he doesn't comment. Secondly he doesn't interview the Mormon: he was unable to get that interview but its crucial that he doesn't interview him, because we are unable therefore to make any judgement on what happened. Morris isn't telling us what happened- and he presents us with a partial version of the truth, we don't hear from one of the main participants. Therefore we come out of this film aware that this is not a film about truth: its a film about story and the stories we tell each other and the role of journalism within those stories. This is amongst Morris's greatest films because of that- well known for letting the interviewee speak to the camera and focussing on their account, this film takes this perspective to the ultimate conclusion: unlike in previous films like The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War, there is no historical narrative to pin this film into. Either version or a mixture between the two might be true- we just don't and can't know.

Instead what is there? There is just a set of stories. Joyce has her story about the Mormons and their brainwashing and the press have their stories about interviewing Joyce and the Mormons. Neither story is neccessarily true- and yet we and the journalists only have Joyce's and other's recollections of events to go on: we don't know but equally the journalists can't know too. The journalists are interested in story not in truth- that's as expected- but this is why in part they are, you can't get the truth, you can print the news. There is a deeper issue here though- because I think we are invited to compare Morris's methods of producing this story to the newspapers. Both he and they are neccessarily partisan but Morris allows the particpant to frame their own narrative- he edits it but it is their words. The journalists reinterpreted Joyce's words and redrafted her statements. There is an issue here about fidelity to the stories we tell- the role of journalists not being to find an impossible truth, but to tell the lies coming from the closest observer.

March 31, 2012


Trishna as a film is based upon one simple insight- Freida Pinto (see above) is very beautiful. You may think that's a betrayel in some way of a film that models itself on one of the great tragic English novels, that transfers it into another context and seeks to play with our ideas about the West and the rest- but I don't think it is. You see Freida Pinto's beauty is really the issue in Trishna, the new film by Michael Winterbottom. Its what the main character Jay wishes to possess and flaunt, its a metaphor for the beauty of India itself and lastly its the fate and despair of Pinto as an actress herself. Her beauty is not incidental to the film it is both the film's success and its failure, it is the alpha and omega of what Trishna is really about. You can't really just get the film by looking at the portrait I have put above, but you can sense its themes and understand its ideas if you stare into her eyes for a couple of seconds and flick your gaze away. You see its all about the beautiful girl and the beautiful country.

Trishna really is a film about glimpses and glances. Jay catches sight of Trishna (played by Pinto) at a dance somewhere in Northern India, she is there to entertain the tourists, he, a British Asian playboy, is there to be entertained by the quaint customs of the locals. She stands for India in its exoticism and perhaps its eroticism. She is a child of India, less comfortable than he is with the sexual mores of the West and Western cities- in their relationship, he bears no risk, she bears all the risk. He can look at and enjoy her beauty, she has to suffer their relationship- to say more would be to give away details I don't want to give away. But whereas Jay slowly becomes uglier and uglier as the film goes on, Trishna retains her beauty. Though abused and insulted, she retains that perfect look: Miss Pinto does almost no acting in this film, she stands impassive to receive what the world throws at her, and throws back her looks. In that sense, she perhaps does ressemble an India that Jay is colonising- he has come to run his father's business, but actually he is creating his own cultural universe within the country. Even the way that the film is photographed mirrors the girl and the country: both are beautiful, both are impassive.

Glimpses and glances are not quite enough to make a film though because they do not give an inner life. No character in Trishna has a developed inner world: they are externals. There are indications that Trishna and Jay's relationship will fail in the way that she doesn't talk, and isn't confident as opposed to his breezy confidence and sense of ownership. There are hints in the power relationship between the two. These relationships are surface ones though- one never gets a sense of why these two people are together apart from the fact that Pinto is very beautiful and her male costar, Riz Ahmed, is also handsome- but that's not enough for a real drama about relationships. Its not enough for two and a half hours of screentime- not enough to just admire, one has to enter into and understand.

And that's the real problem with Trishna- it goes to some dark places and really doesn't own those dark places- or justify going there- but more than that its a film about surfaces and beauty. It might make you want to go to India, it might make you acknowledge that Freida Pinto is a beautiful woman- but it doesn't make you want to rewatch the film. Pinto is never allowed to give her character an inner life here- she dances, she talks, she smiles, she suffers- but I never got the feeling of a character- more of a target. Whether that's Pinto suffering from the disease of beautiful actors- that they aren't allowed to act, I'm not sure. But as I walked out of Trishna, I wondered about whether beauty ultimately is really ever enough.