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.