BOOK REVIEW: Peter Brook on meaning and language

‘What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence,’ Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the conclusion to his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. That line would spark off logical positivism, a kind of scientific fundamentalism about language, claiming that if the phrase has no real-world correspondence, and that correspondence cannot be demonstrated, the phrase is meaningless.

Wittgenstein himself would go on to show the folly of this thinking and repudiate any of his own philosophy that contributed to this narrow, and rather stifled view of language. Peter Brook’s Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, makes no great philosophical or academic claims for itself, but it does drive home the futility of reducing language and communication to a fixed system.

In some of his earliest ‘reflections’ in the book, Brook examines the granular nature of each word in English. Like atoms, they may deceive us into thinking they are the smallest unit of meaning, but words themselves have multivalent resonances. Each word contains its own universe, potential pent tight and which can only be released in active use.

The concepts of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are intrinsic to human life, says Brook, and they are also intrinsic to human language. Language emerged out of a need to communicate what actions were ‘good’ and what were ‘bad’ and eventually the gradients in between. Levels, the idea of being better or worse, exist within words too. There are better words and worse words for communicating a given thing, and there are levels of meaning. As Brook puts it: ‘… an endless scale of finer or coarser vibration, of finer or coarser meanings.’

Brook’s book reads like a conversational diary entry, or perhaps extended programme notes to a theatre production. There is no real thesis. These are ‘reflections’ after all, they are not meant to constitute a literary or academic theory. Some readers may find this baffling, a kind of directionless meandering thoughtfulness.

However, there’s some advantage in Brook’s relaxed, meditative tone. We are not being led towards some promise of resolution, as there is no question being asked, no demand being made upon the reader. We are simply allowed to join Brook in relishing the bewildering beauty of language, the subtlety of the very idea of meaning itself.

Brook’s work in both French and English informs this book throughout. He describes a flash of enlightenment when teaching actors performing in French how to ‘do’ Shakespeare the English way. The French actors appeared to be rushing the lines, and Brook instructed them to slow down the delivery, to relish each utterance the way Gielgud might have done. But this didn’t work, because – Eureka! – as a language French works completely different from English.  ‘I had failed to recognise that, if in English we speak in words, the french speak in thoughts.’ That is, French sentences contain a complete and ‘rapier sharp’ rendition of a lightning fast thought, and thoughts are essentially complete and too quick to capture in words. The ordinary Frenchman, speaks his words the way we might recite proverbs. The idea is formed perfectly in the mind, complete, before it is uttered. In English, contrastingly, and most notably in Shakespeare, we feel our way to the end of the sentence, we improvise as we go.

An actor’s task is obviously not to improvise his words as he goes, but the effect of the language is to convey the impression that that is what is happening. Shakespeare’s characters are so real to us because they speak in the same intuitive process as we do. Brook says the sense of the unexpected must exist in the actor’s mind, a sense of the meaning being open and alive.

Carrying on his meditations on the difference between French and English, Brook points to a common occurrence between speakers in each language – the speaker comes against a block and says ‘how do you say?’ What’s amusing about this, says Brook, is that the words are very often the same. However, certain words and phrases may share the same meaning, but as spoken in practice they carry very different undertones. The sense is the same, but the practical nuance of meaning is not exactly the same as their correspondence in each language.

The English phrase ‘I’m out of sorts’ corresponds to the French saying ‘I’m not on my plate’. They both have a similar meaning, but they carry with them different cultural resonances. He also uses the example of ‘Why’ vs ‘Pourquoi’. They are both the same in a practical sense but the French subtext is one of interrogation, an answer is expected. In the English usage, the dominant ‘y’ is left hanging, as if the question is by nature open.

To Brook’s delight, English is brilliantly anarchic, and can subsume Americanism and street slang and we are used to the idea that it is constantly changing. Brook says that the language of Villon and Rabelais shared this ramshackle nature with English, but during the Age of Reason, the Academie Francaise developed a rigorous system of curation, whereby new words are accepted or rejected, effectively by committee. In French, a word, any word, is the mot juste – self-contained and needing nothing other than itself to coney meaning. In English things are never so simple.

 

Another theme of the book is what theatre can teach us about human nature. For Brook, the ideal theatrical moment is one of a subtle, heart-stopping revelation, where the audience and actors are brought into one common experience. However, there are more instructive lessons that Brook garners from his lifetime in theatre.

Brook tells the story of a ‘68 theatre group, who, desperate to maintain the energy of change and renewal of that year’s dramatic social revolutions, moved to Geneva en masse and started their own company, one that would break away from the traditions of theatrical space, one which would create a moveable home.

The group designs a dome, a collapsable and flexible theatre, which can travel with them and which can give them the freedom to create their own boundaries of performance space. Brook recounts meeting these young revolutionaries, helping them put the finishing touches to their craftsmanship. After two years of fledgling work, the group had become close and creatively single-minded, having faced the challenges of their own limitations and the pressures of the new and unknown, together.

This group was the idealist, socialist collective, the same that was dreamed of by George Orwell, William Morris or Oscar Wilde. However, Brook asked them, now that they had built their flexible space, what do they plan to perform? The group were silenced by his inquiry. They had no clue. When Brook bumped into the leader of the group shortly after, he spoke of sad news. The initial challenge being overcome, the theatre group had splintered, and the dream was over.

The theatre troupe had put form before content, says Brook. They had become so engrossed in the practicalities of form, that they had neglected the very meaning of theatre itself, the art of storytelling. The story is a cautionary one, for revolutionaries, or for anyone wishing to create change and affect the culture. It’s not enough to innovate new forms or vernacular, or to solve practical challenges. You have to have a sense of meaning, a kind of spiritual purpose, to drive your action and to make it lasting and worthwhile.

This touches on something very prescient. Today we live with the innovations and political fall out from the 1960s. For decades now, children have grown up being taught to worship the glorious revolution, to aspire to be revolutionaries and to themselves make a stand for something. The problem is that ‘taking a stand’ has become an end in itself. Being a ‘changemaker’ is a sort of identity, rather than means to an end. No one thinks to ask what you are rebelling against and what you propose as an alternative. Style has usurped content. Today, all that matters is that you are ‘counter’; culture, in its highest and most humanist sense, doesn’t seem to matter.

 

The theatrical innovation for which Brook is known is now a kind of orthodoxy. Regarding the concept of the ‘empty space’, he says:

‘Emptiness is a starting point, not for its own sake, but to help discover each time what was really essential to support the richness of the actor’s words and presence.’

He acknowledges that today, the ‘battle has largely been won’, but he seems to be saying that preserving this empty space is getting harder and harder, regardless of how cluttered the stage is, or is not. Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare, says Brook, all built silence into their scripts; what was in between the lines was always more important than the words, which were merely stage directions for the accomplished actor. ‘Theatre exists,’ says Brook, ‘so that the unsaid can breathe and a quality of life can be sensed which gives a motive to the endless struggle.’ In other words, what makes it all fall together is what is not obvious, it can’t be found on the page, but it is found through the actor’s connection with the poetry.

Emptiness and silence are theatre’s greatest weapon, according to Brook, when a peculiar hush comes over the actor and the audience at once, something special and truly human occurs. Brook is somewhat mysterious here, but he seems to be suggesting that this capacity for creating space, emptiness and silence, is what can make theatre a genuinely unifying art.

Brook also addresses something very important for the modern artist in any arena – the challenge of being both relevant and truly rebellious at the same time. Artists do battle with their times, but in the same breath they must also embody their times and the traditions which have formed it.

Today we live in a paradoxical age where rebellion has become the orthodox. To ‘swim against the tide’ is in some sense to actually give in to the overwhelming currents of the age. Shock tactics, conceptual befuddlement and angry protest are simply what is expected. Craft is not what will get you recognised, but adopting an arch attitude will, and it will do so because it is now the familiar, it is what the audience knows. The challenge then, says Brook, is for the artist to truly understand the nature of his times, before he can begin to go against them and confront them.

Ours is an era of consumerism, technological bombardment and perpetual innovation. And yet, many artists seem to think that the prevailing status quo is characterised the bowler-hatted, pin-striped establishment bureaucrat. Much of the art that is considered rebellious, is really rebelling against an ancien regime that is long gone. For an artist to be truly challenging, they would have to confront not the old empire or the stuffy, grey-haired bourgeoisie of the 1950s cliche; they would have to take on the glossy, trendy technocrat, who has a large hip hop record collection and owns shares in multiple tech companies.

Protest has become naive, outrage has become glib, according to Brook. What was shocking and groundbreaking in 1967 is now banal and unsurprising. To be truly swimming against the tide, would be to offer solutions, to offer a world-view, to give people something positive and life-affirming when they leave the darkness of the theatre and enter the glare of the modern world. To do so, however, is to have oneself regarded with suspicion. The trend for deconstruction and anger is still in mid-stream, even as the traditions and customs that caused that trend have long been swept away.

‘A shock that awakens our indignation is cosy, and is quickly forgotten. A shock that opens us to the unknown is something else and makes us feeling stronger as we leave.’

For Brook, the mainstream must not be despised, even as the artist seeks to challenge it. As artists we emerge from a tradition, we don’t come out of nothing, no matter how unique we think we are. The challenge then, is to ‘find the vital currents’ even as we live in gratitude for all that has come before us. Only then can we avoid a merely adolescent rejection of the past and a unthinking worship of the new.

 

Brook says that Shakespeare’s genius was in combining the ‘esoteric’ with the ‘profane’. That is, for every moment of poetic grace and breathless insight into the human condition, there is an all too accurate expression of the every-day which brings us back to earth. For every moment of noble rhetoric, there is a crude joke. To emphasise one over the other is to lose the intrinsic significance and genius of the Bard. To play Shakespeare with only a perfect Queen’s English is overly-reverent; but to play him with only a modern swagger and vernacular is a ‘journalistic vulgarity.’

Brook says that contemporary audiences are right to pull back from anything that sounds too high-minded, too spiritual. However, to get caught up in only the earthly, materialistic struggles of human lives means one’s art will lack any of Shakespeare’s moments of lasting power.

Brook’s book is deceptively accessible. It is short, and it is not weighed down with citations, footnotes and references. It’s not an academic masterwork. It is however, deeply philosophical, in the sense of imparting wisdom, and rich with insight. You can dip into this book, and let the ideas and questions seep into your mind as you go for a long walk.

Someone who measures truth according to the level of new and surprising facts they are presented with, may well be disappointed by this book. However, for the jobbing artist, and in particular, anyone who is a performer, Brook’s writing here will be of invaluable, practical use.

Truth in the sense of literary and poetic truth, cannot be hit on the nose with specific words and precise descriptions. For the artist, truth is whatever falls through the cracks, whatever is implied, rather than what is said or pointed to directly. It cannot be any other way, because the great truths of the human condition transcend any one person or group’s experience, they are beyond the faculty of language in its evolutionary sense. If the reader is willing to abandon the idea that language should be a science, they may find themselves sharing in the same delight and wonder that Peter Brook has for the mystery of meaning.

Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning is available on Amazon. You can order a copy here

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The REAL reason Jordan Peterson is so dangerous

David Foster Wallace in his 1990 essay E unibus pluram: television and US fiction, wrote that postmodern irony serves as a way of making us more at ease with our slavish attachments to the predictable cliches of visual culture, rather than helping us detach from it. As a result, a snotty, cynical attitude becomes a necessary part of the mass media culture, a way of feeling above the crowd, when we are merely absorbed by it.

Irony becomes an intellectual crutch, an end in itself, and culture comes to standstill. Foster Wallace admits that it was necessary for popular culture to break from the stifled past of precious and deceitful idealism. However, the same irony that deconstructed the suffocating lies of bourgeois conservatism, is now incapable of helping us create an alternative.

He said: ‘… irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It is critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.’

Foster Wallace goes on to say: ‘Anyone who has the gall to ask an ironist what he actually stand for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.’

Some might contest that not all irony is destructive, that it can actually be a very positive and progressive force. They would be right, of course. But even Christopher Hitchens, that fiery apostle of irony, noted the difference between his preferred, nuanced and contemplative irony, and the hip, nihilistic sneering of the current age. In the opening words of his Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens wrote that there are many ways that the independent mind is patronised and misrepresented out of existence and one of them is to be given the title of ‘contrarian’. However, there is a more subtle form of attack:

‘To be called “satirical” or “ironic” is now to be patronised in a different way. The satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised-up. When a precious and irreplaceable word like “irony” has become a lazy synonym for anomie, there is scant room for originality.’

The ubiquity of the jibe and the desire to tear down, to lash out at any form of enthusiasm and deeply held values, with a cocksure tone of superiority, then, is not only damaging to the culture. It also gives ammunition to the philistines, to those who are already suspicious of culture and the arts. The result is an unholy alliance of the hipster nihilist and the overly-proud Trumpian ignoramus.

And most worryingly, the only thing held to be of any sacred importance, is the conviction that nothing is sacred or important at all, and to reach for a positive value system is to be hopelessly childish, or worse, reactionary and nostalgic for an age of unified cultural hegemony.

Douglas Murray stumbled upon this in his 2016 book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, when diagnosing European intellectuals’ fevered reluctance to cultivate positive values in the face of an academic critique. Reflecting on his attendance at a fruitless and arcane philosophy conference, Murray wrote:

‘If there remains any overriding idea, it is that ideas are a problem. If there is any remaining commonly held value judgement, it is that value judgements are wrong. If there remains any remaining certainty it is a distrust of certainty. And if this does not add up to a philosophy, it certainly adds up to an attitude: shallow, unlikely to survive any sustained onslaught, but easy enough to adopt.’

Even before the television age, this broken, suspicious and contemptuous superiority can be traced as far back as the early 20th century, when the poetic guns of Ezra Pound were turned on the cosseted cynicism of his peers:

‘O generation of the thoroughly smug
/and thoroughly uncomfortable,
/I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
/I have seen them with untidy families,
/I have seen their smiles full of teeth/
and heard ungainly laughter.
/And I am happier than you are,
/And they were happier than I am;
/And the fish swim in the lake
/and do not even own clothing.’

Industrialisation had already disconnected Pound’s generation from the simple truth of crooked smiles and picnics in the sun. The pure dharma of a fish inhabiting his sea is lost on us, a generation of people born addicted to technology and convenience, sceptical of anything that reminds us of innocence and vulnerability.

This inherent distrust of meaning may be prevalent, essential even, in an age of mass communication, but it seems that Jordan Peterson, the now ubiquitous Jungian professor who for the last eighteen months has been telling us all to ‘tidy our rooms’ and ‘grow the hell up’, may have the escape route from this cycle of obedience and bafflement.

His new book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is at once merciless in its account of human frailty, and Romantically optimistic in its argument for living a wholesome, meaningful and dutiful life.

The foundation of Peterson’s synthesis of Jungian myth-reading and statistical psychology is his commitment to the idea that hierarchies are essential to life. Not only are they fundamental to our natural environment, but also our nervous systems are hard-wired to systems of dominance.

His use of the example of the lobster is much satirised but it comes from a hard science world-view, demonstrating that our neurological reward systems are evolutionarily linked to survival within dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, like humans, respond to status, and their brains release serotonin in a similar way to our own brains. When a lobster wins a fight, he becomes more brazen in his challenges of other lobsters. If he loses a fight, he becomes less prone to risking conflict. The difference is in serotonin levels.

The chemical induces a response, whereby the lobster becomes more erect, more courageous in exposing his vulnerabilities. Serotonin makes the lobster’s nervous system begin to predict success, rather than avoid failure. Peterson’s point is that a chemical used in modern anti-depression treatment, has the exact same effect on creatures from whom we departed evolutionarily over three million years ago. And just like humans recovering from depression, the lobster’s nervous system on serotonin creates a feedback loop for success.

This connection between humans and lobsters has profound implications for the way we see depression. Peterson shows that depression, rather than being a disease, like cancer or tuberculosis, is more like a psychological trap. The experience of failure, disposes us to expect more failure, and the experience of disappointment and fear means we fall quickly down the dominance hierarchy. Like the lobster, we start to slouch, and we begin to see hiding away from conflict as a guarantee of survival, as opposed to adopting a stance of readiness to fight, like the lobster whose serotonin disposes him to expect victory over his peers.

So not only are dominance hierarchies a fact of life, they are intimately linked to our experience of happiness and success. We will be happier the more status we enjoy. We can adapt ourselves to greater chances of fulfilment and success, if we reverse the negative psychological loops that drag us down into depressive thinking and the expectation of failure. Lobsters who have placed themselves lower down the dominance hierarchy can be made to act like dominant creatures when artificially given doses of serotonin. They become more erect, displaying the stance of dominance to their peers, and thus creating more of a chance of beating challengers.

Peterson’s critics accuse him of trying to use science to argue for a fatalistic view of injustice. However, Peterson is a scientist, and he demonstrates a nuanced understanding of evolution, as opposed to a ‘might-is right’, Victorian social-Darwinist view of human life. Nature, says Peterson, is neither romantic nor definitively cruel. It is both beautiful and destructive, and inequalities and suffering are as much a part of life as stunning sunsets or the mystery of childbirth.

Environments are not static. They too change, and some aspects of nature evolve more dynamically than others. The basic morphology of arms and hands stays the same but the actual length and shape of bones may change faster. Weather may change but climate stays the same. Evolution, says Peterson, ‘is chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order.’ The old Victorian ideal of there being some clean, identifiable type of organism that will always survive, whose attributes lead to ever-increasing fitness to environment, is a myth. There is no template specified by the world, to which we are always moving towards. The templates themselves always change. All creatures are in a dance with nature. No one standing still will survive.

The way we have evolved to handle this flux between chaos and order is through the development of ‘culture’. Again, this is where Peterson comes up against his critics. Culture is not opposed to nature, he insists, but part of it.

‘There is little more natural than culture,’ write Peterson. ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’

This is important because many of the claims of modern activism and post-modernism are grounded in the idea that power is held unjustly as a product of oppression – whether it is the patriarchy, capitalism or some other conspiracy. For Peterson, dominance hierarchies are what create inequalities, and if we are to contend with them, we must first accept them as part of life.

He is not, as some have claimed, saying we should capitulate to existing hierarchies, or accept inequality as a given in all instances. Rather, that trying to fix cultural and biological problems through heavy-handed political solutions and ideological projects, is at best doomed, and at worst a highway to hell.

So rather than being some apologist for oppression, Peterson is at pains to insist that the only way to avoid the negative low-status loops of depression, and to avoid draining our our nervous systems of serotonin, is to reverse the chemical chain reaction. It is not the existence of hierarchies that is the problem, but our inability to face up to the facts of life, which causes depression. Just as negative loops are created by small events which lead to a cumulative experience of failure and low-self-esteem, so too can small, positive actions create positive feedback loops.

To be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, is to be in a constant state of reactivity. There are more threats, therefore serotonin is not very desirable. It is safer to hide, rather than be brave. 

Things can malfunction. Even when someone is relatively high in the hierarchy, the natural counters to chaos can go off, if certain key things are out of whack. This is why routine is so important. Without it, we live in a constant state of stress. Peterson says that when treating clients for depression, the first two things he asks about are sleep and eating. Without taking these into consideration first, depression, he says, is almost untreatable. The point is to manage mental healing, according to the way our nervous system actually works. Small steps like mastering sleep patterns and eating nutritional meals won’t make anxiety and depression disappear, but they can kick-start the nervous system into adapting itself for success. But we can’t do that if we are constantly blaming others, or raging against society as if it were a ‘rigged system’.

Peterson talks about agoraphobics, alcoholics and depressives as examples of people caught in a ‘positive feedback loop’ related to the parts of the brain associated with dominance and status. Alcohol may act as a counter to the negativity associated with low serotonin and low status, but the withdrawls become increasingly worse, meaning the alcoholic is caught in a loop of dependency to get that hit that counters to the feelings of low status. 

People who experience acute fear, may experience bursts of anxiety. This can then be triggered by the same situations where that fear was first experienced. The association then becomes more ingrained, so that eventually any instance of uncertainty can cause acute panic. The anxiety feeds on itself, so that the self shrinks and the dangerous world becomes ever larger. This is agoraphobia. Our anxiety systems tell us that anything we previously ran from must be dangerous. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Breathing becomes faster and shallower, and this leads to more fear, which just creates more anxiety. 

Depression makes us isolated and separated from friends and family. This makes us more useless and robs them of confidence, and then they become even more isolated and divorced from loved ones. It’s a vicious cycle. 

This is also the case with people who are bullied. They become more slouched and make less eye contact, meaning they become more likely to be bullied. The slide down the dominance hierarchy is fast and slick, once the positive feedback loop has been initiated. 

People who have gone through some experience that makes them wary of aggression may find it hard to release such emotions. This can make them more susceptible to bullying and tyrannical behaviour. Peterson says, ironically, that demonstrating a capacity for aggression makes it increasingly unlikely that you will have to use it. Failing to do so, makes you more likely to become a victim of it. 

Peterson says that in treating clients who believe that being harmless is the best way to survive, he invites them to see the link between their harmlessness and their resentments. It is only by admitting to and looking at their resentments that they are able to see what needs to be done to redress imbalances in their lives. Peterson also translates this to society-wide problems. Bureaucracies and tyrannies feed off people’s submission, the act of going along to get along. This creates festering resentment which can often become cruel and pathological. For Peterson, the only way to avoid this is for the individual to confront their resentments and stand up for themselves, and not allow such resentments to embed themselves. 

It is therefore necessary that we stand up for ourselves, show our teeth, and maintain strong boundaries. If we do not, we sink into a personal hell, but we are also contributing to the hell of those around us.

As much as all of this relates to Peterson’s clinical practice, it also helps us understand his politics. If we allow ourselves to fall into negative, reactive loops, then of course culture is going to appear to us oppressive, and our experiences will continue to confirm this. It is essential, according to Peterson, that we break this loop; not just for our own psychological health, but the for the health of culture and society as a whole. His admonitions about ‘taking responsibility’ or ‘tidying your room’, despite becoming memes and cliches in their own right, are actually grounded in a pragmatic view of how a healthy individual can build his or her relationship with their environment, with society, and with ‘Being’ itself.

Peterson can come off overly traditional. The sceptical mind may see the sense in what he is saying, but still feel resistant to the idea of ‘sucking it up’ and buying the apparent proposition that only conformism and traditional virtues are the key to a fulfilled life. However, beneath the apparent conformist orientation of Peterson’s idea of psychological health and society, there is something thrillingly subversive. We don’t ‘stand up straight with our shoulders back’ because he is telling us to. We do so because it empowers us, it puts us back in the existential cockpit. The message of responsibility that is much talked about in explaining Peterson’s appeal, is also a message of liberation.

We don’t eat good food because lifestyle columnists tell us to. We don’t stick to daily routines because we get brownie points from our elders or our peers. We do these things because they actually free us from being at the mercy of external forces, whether they are cultural, psychological or political.

That status and human happiness are intimately linked throws light on the high levels of depression in our consumerist culture. Feelings of despair and meaninglessness seem to be exacerbated by the dominant values of the contemporary economy, which encourages an almost pathological obsession with material success, gossip and self-esteem based on constant social comparison. 

A further offshoot from Peterson’s understanding of dominance hierarchies and the way serotonin creates feedback loops around failure and victory, is his insistence that we can only develop ourselves if we compare ourselves to who were in the past, rather than everyone else around us. We need our internal critic, because we need some standards in order to live a meaningful life. We need to be able to tell ourselves that some behaviours are preferable to others. However, as a clinical psychologist, Peterson recognises the dangers of this voice, and the role it can play in maintaining negative spirals towards nihilism and depression.

Comparing ourselves to unrealistic templates of success, or to peers whose lives bear no resemblance to the challenges of our own, can only make matters worse. This critical comparison is a recipe for serotonin drainage. However, realistic and nuanced comparisons are healthy, and can be motivating. It is this subtle difference between realistic and unrealistic standards of success and fulfilment, that seems to underpin Peterson’s concept of psychological health.

The effect of internet connectivity and mass media on our dominance hierarchy is extensive. Peterson notes that in the past a decent amount of talent might have propelled someone to the top of their local dominance hierarchy, and the path to further elevation for other competitors would have been relative clear. Today however, Peterson says, ‘our hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical.’ Meaning, the competition for top dog in any sphere is now almost impossible to penetrate.

A good example of this can be found in the music industry. The best guitar player in a provincial city may be the biggest fish in a small pond, but this exceptional talent is no guarantee of industry success. Not even close. There is simply too much competition, to the point where talent becomes almost irrelevant. A traditional idea of success in the music industry can no longer be a sustainable ideal for anyone choosing to live this life. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of limos and large hotel suites and long world tours filled with sex and luxurious decadence, just doesn’t happen anymore. The market is saturated and the demand is lower. The same is true for many other models of success across various industries.

The upshot of this is that most of us are destined to live near the very bottom of our dominance hierarchies, unless we alter our concept of what success is, and we start to judge success according to alternative metrics. One way of dealing with this, would be to adopt a cynical defensiveness, to subject the culture as a whole to a resentful and withering critique, and thus to sustain one’s psychological integrity through a manageable nihilism. This is close to what David Foster Wallace was warning us about in 1990. Sarcasm, paranoia and treating human relationships as if they are nothing but power plays, is the mark of this world view, and it appears to be the dominant tone of popular culture.

Another way of dealing with this challenge, one which has also gained a lot of sway in the prevailing culture, is the simplistic ‘positive thinking’ of new age spirituality. Peterson notes that delusional thinking was actually recommended for a time by professional social psychologists, given the fact that dominance hierarchies were becoming ever more vertical and difficult to ascend.

Peterson’s view is that we must reject the delusional wish-fulfilment of the new agers, as it means living our lives under a fog of lies. This can only lead to even greater levels of disillusionment and despair, and as a result is dangerous to society as a whole. However, being cynical about the very possibility of living a meaningful life, is no better, and no closer to truth. Peterson says, ‘Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.’

Neither of these half-baked solutions actually protects us from the downward spirals of negative feedback loops and depression. Peterson’s view is that we should actively embrace suffering. We must be mercilessly realistic with ourselves, before we can carve out a meaningful life. We must acknowledge the fact that life is often miserable and terrifying, and that we ourselves are prone to laziness and self-deception. Given these brutal facts of life, we can actually start to make a progress of sorts, we can see that small improvements, rather than perfectionist accomplishments, are more sustainable.

Peterson can often come off as deeply grim and pessimistic. However, his insistence that we face the suffering of human life is actually inspiring. Seeing the world this way frees us from black and white thinking about success and failure, and leaves us free to define our own ideal of success, and therefore to be in charge of what makes our lives meaningful. Instead of getting lost in outdated ideas of success and comparing ourselves to others, Peterson urges us to:

‘Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.’

Peterson takes this insight much further than success advice, however. He believes this  critical distinction between realistic and perfectionist ideas of success, is at the heart of difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God is a wide abstraction from the experience of dominance hierarchies. He is a terrifying judge, and he dishes out cosmic punishments and rewards. The New Testament God, however, as embodied in the ideal of Christ, is an abstraction of every individual’s choice to ‘live voluntarily.’

According to Peterson, this is the spirit of the West; a movement from top down commandments, towards nurturing the desire to do good because it is the most likely way of creating happiness on earth. The ideal found in Christ is a positive vision of the individual, someone who is not merely obedient, but who chooses good actively, because they have the breadth of vision to know it is the right thing in the long run, even in the light their own selfishness and moral limitations.

Peterson’s genius here is in uniting a knowledge of biological dominance hierarchies and Christian ethics. Even better, the resulting synthesis is supremely pragmatic and manages to be both scarily realist in its view of human nature, while also being life-affirming. We do not shy away from the inner critic, the voice which connects us to our evolutionary hierarchies. However, neither do we frame our lives as zero-sum games. We see our daily job as one of careful progress, rather than wholesale dominance, and thus we learn to find a deep meaning and self-respect in the small incremental victories we gain over the inevitable hardships of our lives. We can become resilient in the face of disaster, and competent when faced with chaos. Even death itself, viewed from this perspective, can bring a heightened sense of the beauty of our tiny lives.

xxx

The notion of sacrifice is intrinsic to Peterson’s view of personal development. The myths of Abraham and Christ, for Peterson, have deep evolutionary significance. The idea of sacrifice is intimately linked to the ‘discovery of the future’. That is, delaying sensual gratification in the present for survival in the future, is something that distinguishes humans, and allows us to main dominance in the evolutionary chain. On a tribal level too, delayed gratification is the necessary in the formation of what we now call ‘society’.

Biblical myths of sacrifice, for Peterson, demonstrate a cultural evolution in the understanding that I might delay my own needs being satisfied in the immediate present, so that my family, my tribe, and my nation, might survive in the long terms. The Adam and Eve story, Abraham’s call to kill his own son, and the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of God’s son going to the cross, are all ways of dramatically articulating the importance of delayed gratification in the cultural evolution of humanity.

However, understanding sacrifice as merely bargaining with God would be too reductionist. Peterson is at his most insightful and penetrating in the discussion of the myth of Cain and Abel. Both these biblical brothers offer sincere sacrifices to God, but only one is favoured: Abel. Cain becomes resentful, enraged at not being given his due, and murderous of his own hero, Abel, who for an unknown reason is the object of God’s love.

It is better to please God, to offer sacrifice, rather than to indulge ourselves. For Peterson this is the pre-conceptual, emerging awareness that satisfaction of the sense is not always the best option, that it is worth the pay-off to take a hit now, for survival and happiness in the years to come. Some may argue, as Sam Harris does, that such interpretations of otherwise very brutal and primitive stories is too convenient. That there is no real method of measuring the veracity of such speculations, other than that they sound good.

However, there is evolutionary insight here. It is better to delay gratification, but as with the Cain and Abel story, this is no guarantee of utopian deliverance. God may always disappoint us. And thus we easily descend into war and bitterness, jealousy and rage. And for Peterson, it is this psychological insight, though played out in extreme and violent stories, that is important. Cain does everything right. He loves his brother, his hero, and he loves God. But when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves, when he feels that the very real sacrifices he made are being punished, rather than rewarded, he murders his brother, tearing down his highest ideal, as a way of getting revenge on God.

Peterson points to the writings of school shooters and well-known psychopaths, to drive home his point. He quotes Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, whose last entries in his diary were curiously human, chillingly familiar in the contemplation of his own fragility, and in the one-pointed obsession with revenge. What’s common among these bloodthirsty killers is a distaste for Being itself, a desire to inflict punishment on the innocent, merely for existing. Such evil manifests, in Peterson’s words, ‘to protest the intolerable vagaries of Being.’ It’s one thing to undergo suffering, but to be subject of conscious, determined cruelty and malevolence can damage people for life. It was the sense that Cain was punished for his virtues that drove him to murderous rage.

Peterson’s claims about this phenomenon may not be decisive. His wisdom is built on experience as a clinician, but not a complete scientific proof. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves there is something terrifyingly resonant with this account of human evil. We claim not to be able to understand psychotic killers, school shooters and fanatical terrorists, but we understand them perfectly at the deepest level. We know the rage and fury that arises from the punishment of our virtues, from the arbitrariness of tragedy in the face of our most well-meaning and sincere sacrifices. When the best part of ourselves is met with contempt, ridicule or worse, indifference, we become mad. And if we undergo deliberate abuse by a loved one, it does not take much for us let go of our moral sense, and unleash a desire for revenge on God, or existence itself.

Peterson quotes Jung in saying that, ‘No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.’ Only when we explore the depths of our own malice, rage, resentment and capacity for evil, can we really make a sacrifice deep enough and large enough to counteract the suffering brought about by human evil. And it is this understanding of psychological development, that undergirds Peterson’s fascinating analysis of the story of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Cain, Jesus did not give into the temptations of the Devil. Peterson gives a psychological exposition of the ‘forty days and forty nights’ Christ spent in the desert. First the Lord is tempted to use his power to turn rocks into bread. Secondly, Satan urges him to throw himself off a cliff, and if he is the son of God, surely he will be saved by his divine father? Thirdly, Satan shows him the nations of the earth, which could be subject to Christ’s own supreme power, if only he chose to wield it. All of these sacrifices show Christ choosing to live well, to adopt a correct mentality towards life, rather than seeking immediate gratification.

Cain is contrasted with Christ. Cain descends into the wilderness of the soul. He feels exploited and oppressed. He gives into the temptations of the Devil and nurses a malice and rage against life itself, and plots revenge on God. Christ, on the other hand, goes into the desert for real, willingly, for 40 days and nights. Enough to really know the truth of himself and his fragility as a man. Jesus confronted his own gluttony, selfishness and desire for power, and only in doing so was he able to understand humanity’s capacity for sin.

It is only in our confrontation with evil, in owning our own ability to be jealous, greedy and lustful of earthly power, that we can hope to live well. Once we realise that we too have the same potential for evil as an Auschwitz guard or a school shooter, can we have the knowledge necessary to rise above the cycles of revenge and Machiavellian struggle that hold human beings in bondage and lead them into the depths of psychological hell.

For Peterson, Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of a massive shift in cultural consciousness, an actual leap in evolution for humanity. It is the pre-conceptual understanding that it is better to live well, than to merely satisfy our desires in the present; and at the same time, that this right attitude, must be maintained in the face of the worst suffering. A failure to demonstrate this resilience in the face of despair and the temptations of power, leads us down the path of Cain, of resentment and rage.

What’s important here, is that Peterson is offering an unflinching view of intrinsic human evil, while rehabilitating our once commonly held belief in our own ability to transcend this ‘original sin’. There are some extremely learned and detailed digressions in Peterson’s book, on the critique of modernity by both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Both authors knew that the scientific refutation of Christianity’s metaphysical claims to fact, were bound to leave a vacuum in human civilisation. For Peterson, the great anxiety of our time is that in losing this framework for God, we lose the very thing that gave rise to scientific knowledge and human progress in the first place: the obligation to live for the the future, by sacrificing the now.

Peterson defines living meaningfully as ‘the development of character in the face of suffering.’ He says:

‘Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges between the interplay of the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.’

Many of the atheistic bent will remain determined to dismiss Peterson’s expositions of the gospels and mythical tradition, as unfalsifiable and arbitrary. However, Peterson is not just resuscitating the ideals of sacrifice and religious ethics, merely to make YouTube videos that make people feel better about themselves. If anything, his videos and interviews can be quite brutal in their insistence on the pervasiveness of human evil. He offers, however, both a connection to the past, and a way forward for people to maintain their own psychological integrity in the face of their own bitterness and resentment.

To adopt a new-age view of our own potential, or to fall into political ideology, is to be utopian and disingenuous about the human condition. However, to fall back on the crutch of hopelessness and cynicism about life and our place within it, is to open ourselves up to equally dangerous totalitarianisms. Peterson’s middle path is one of careful, realistic psychological progress in the face of undeniable suffering and the often arbitrary nature of tragedy. Cleaning our rooms, maintaining a schedule, living life in the service of a higher purpose that transcends sensual pleasure, these are the tiny rituals that stand between human fragility and violent hell. In a word, it is the act of giving life meaning, that saves us from turning descendinging into self-destruction.

xxx

 

David Foster Wallace saw no relief in the digitalisation of culture, from the captive passivity of image obsession, and the corresponding irony and sneering superiority that comes with it. We cling to postmodernism, to the fracturing of truth, because it serves a purpose, it helps us to feel aloof and detached, while we subconsciously give ourselves over to enraptured attention. Nothing about social media would have surprised Foster Wallace.

He speculated that the writers of the future might return to sincerity and reverence, away from nihilistic posturing, towards a sentimental naivety, open to accusations of anachronism and conservatism. Such accusations could be, and increasingly are, thrown at Peterson by postmodernists and atheist reductionists alike. For someone whose career is firmly based on the YouTube platform, his message is very much the antithesis of the values that dominate visual culture.

There’s something thrilling about Peterson’s call to ‘be dangerous’. It is not his wars against political correctness that make him a threat. Nor his merciless emphasis on humanity’s capacity for evil. Both of these are inconvenient to the wider agendas of the mass media. Peterson’s often surly and barbed pessimism is never going to sell Pepsi or beauty products. However, it is not these battles that make him such a threat to the dominant narratives of our time. It is, rather, his single-handed rehabilitation of meaning.

Peterson is often asked why he is popular. Why has this dry, rambling and frequently grave professor struck a chord with the young, and particularly young men? His answer is usually to say that young people secretly crave responsibility, because responsibility makes life meaningful, and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

This is true, but perhaps it is not the whole story. Maybe the reason is that his revitalised conception of a meaningful life offers us an alternative to the nihilistic sarcasm and naive suggestibility that go hand in hand with popular culture. The person who lives meaningfully, who has chosen to take responsibility for their own capacity for evil and to live well in the face of such a terrifying fact, is almost immune to ideological suggestion and psychic manipulation.

For a long time, the most expedient way of guaranteeing one’s own resilience in the face of propaganda or consumer agendas, was cynicism. This explains the seductiveness of postmodernism. Now that this very cynicism and fracturing of truth threatens to become a kind of tyranny in itself, Peterson is offering a remarkably strong and simple alternative way of maintaining personal integrity.

Living meaningfully is to be truly self-dependent. We ‘volunteer’ our own suffering, we become the source of our own inspired purpose. Peterson puts great stock in the hero myth, whether it is Christ, Horus or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The hero descends into darkness and discovers truth. The truth reinvigorates the nation state, replenishes the land. Unlike Joseph Campbell, however, there’s no easy fix for self-esteem here, no reassuring slogan such as ‘follow your bliss’. Rather, we make ourselves heros by resolving to make small, incremental steps towards the best possible scenario we can envision for our lives, and we do it knowing that tragedy and despair are inevitable and in fact part of the deal.

Peterson’s message puts us in mind of Blake’s Jerusalem:

‘Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
\

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.’

An individual who resolves to become the source of their own sense of purpose and meaning, secured by discipline and honesty with his or herself, becomes impervious to suggestion, whether it is ideological manipulation, political demagoguery or consumer advertising. In a culture that is contemptuous of human will, and which equates freedom with self-indulgence, no message could be more thrillingly dangerous.

Kazuo Ishiguro and Bob Dylan: Two Nobel traditions

Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel Artist In The Floating World is a beautifully crafted story of Japanese culture immediately after World War Two. It tells the story of an ageing painter whose own suspect memory has blinded him to his own forgotten war crimes. The novel explores the limits of personal memory, and shows the dangerous flaws in the way we construct our own self-image.

When it was announced that Ishiguro was the new Nobel Prize winner for literature, it was tempting for me to unleash a critique. Still smarting from the ruthless and ignorant anti-Dylan responses to the songwriter’s prize last year, I wanted to fight back.

I wanted to fight back against the the repressed writers and Faber customers who themselves felt affronted by Dylan getting the prize.

Ishiguro’s prize marks a return to consensus, a return to the safe, clipped and codified view of literature. Artist In The Floating World has much to say about our own lack of objectivity about ourselves, as well as a culture’s view of itself. It is indeed the debut novel of a brilliant craftsman, a writer fully deserving of a Nobel Prize.

However, this same questioning of objectivity in the novel represents a subtext of arrogance, a novelistic delusion about what can be deemed certain and uncertain. It is the same arrogance that is found in broadsheet newspapers or BBC interviewers. It is the same self-aggrandisement that exists in the editorial pages of the New York Times.

By giving Ishiguro the Nobel prize, the Swedish Academy is re-narrowing the frame of the Overton Window, eliminating the subjective, eliminating the imagination, and salvaging a quasi-Newtonian pseudo-objectivity that is the only security blanket of the academic class.

Ishiguro’s first novel characterises this world view. By a calm and ironic dismantling of subjectivity, it is effectively affirming the post-modern cynicism of the age. The crimes of the twentieth century, we are being told, are the product of inflated self-image, of histrionic grandeur. Far better to return to an artistic palette of positivist blandness, lest we veer into superstitious folk-Romanticism.

The reaction to Dylan’s Nobel Prize revived a centuries-old disagreement about the nature of literature; between what Robert Graves called the ‘Bardic tradition’ and the ‘folk tradition.’

For all their sophisticated meters and systems of prosody, the Bardic poets were always propagandists. Not just for immediate campaigns and wars, but also for the overall world-view of the moment. The court poet’s job is to crystallise and entrench the king’s worldview into the cultural norm.

The folk poets by their nature were less refined in forms and meters, and they were outright dangerous to the political consensus. It was for this reason that Elizabeth I outlawed unlicensed ballad singing. After printing presses started to dominate the folk tradition, oral transmission became even more of a threat, as centralised printers could now distinguish between the ‘real’ versions of songs, the ‘wrong’, or oral versions of ballads.

This propagandist’s distinction existed for the fledgling newspaper industry as much as it did for the established art of ballad-mongering.

Dylan’s art emerges out of the latter tradition. As a result it has more in common with the idea of literature in the Romantics, the Beats, Blake and the many unknown, unofficial geniuses of the ballad tradition.
The crucial line of distinction between official and unofficial runs down this divide between those who see the subjective as valid, and those who do not.

The Faber&Faber, puritan positivism of the pro-Ishiguro, anti-Dylan camp, is the view of those who attack subjective superstitions, in order to salvage a reassuring objectivity. This objectivity, it must be said, doesn’t even exist in the most rigorous of scientific laboratories. However, it has become the refuge of educated elites, who wish to bolster their own status with claims to special insight.

The art of the subjective, beautifully exemplified in the work of Bob Dylan, has no need for this reassurance. As the poet says, ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ There is no investment in objectivity, in consensus, in a fixed frame of cultural reference.

An artist like Dylan is far more interested in a man’s flawed recollection of events, than the objective truth about those events. In fact, the very term ‘flawed recollection’ is meaningless. It doesn’t matter if it’s the product of a misremembered mistake of perception or not. What matters is the virtue and quality of the story, the positive drive of the narrative and the emotive response it evokes. The notion of objectivity, which is a kind of obsession for the Faber&Faber types, is merely a distraction for the Romantic poet.

This commitment to the primacy of imagination over objective fact, is often dismissed as a kind of primitive laziness. It’s not ‘real literature’ because it does not affirm the God-like authority of a world of facts. A post-modern deconstruction of the imaginative subjective, amounts to nothing more than the inverse of this lust for authority. Behind both the post-modernist and the Bardic authoritarian, lies a desire for the cosmic daddy-figure.

The folk tradition doesn’t recognise either. That is why far more is said about perception, recollection and flawed memory in Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue, than is ever said in Artist In The Floating World. The latter is a guilty, cynical examination of the idea of cultural authority and personal objectivity. The former is joyful, Dante-like journey into the mysteries of memory, shared experiences and the mysteries of the imagination.

The many praise-filled opinion pieces about Dylan’s Nobel Prize should not fool us into thinking that his art has indeed been welcomed into the realm of ‘proper’ literature. The gatekeepers of the Bardic elite have manifested their backlash in Ishiguro’s award.

 

 

Digital oppression requires a new counter-culture

A sneering , scoffing cynicism is the sign of a culture in decline.

The opposite of superstitious gullibility and saccharine Victorian emotiveness, is not as the modern generation seems insist, a snarky, nihilistic despair.

Even the existentialists like Camus and Sartre were not arguing for a sort of ideological belief in isolation and horror. They were not prescribing an ‘ought’ so much as describing and ‘is’.

In a world that is industrialised and where family and community and religion are no longer the engines of stability and security, an existentialist confrontation with meaning is inevitable and to be desired. The great contribution of the existentialists was that they fearlessly looked into the dark soul of the modern man.

You can see too, that this kind of society made some form of socialism or communism a seductive alternative to the grinding impersonalism of the machine age.

For centuries, a sense of tribal unity and familial rhythm maintained the psychological integrity of individuals in the context of political society, whether it was nation state of local villages. From the Homeric age onwards, small and localised intimate relationships were the tonic to mass war or the environmental uncertainty of life.

As our culture became industrialised, these things were no longer enough, and some of the bulwark against despair, such as religion, were shown to be epistemologically and morally insufficient to capture the anxieties of a modern life.

Such is the narrative of modernity that we have all read and all would recognise in some version or another. What has changed in recent years, however, is that the world went from industrial to digital, without giving philosophers or poets or social thinkers much time to alter their world-views in correspondence.

The result, is that the ancien regime is still perceived to be the old, white haired bourgeois factory owner; and the rebel-with-an-answer is still seen as the renegade revolutionary. Neither of these poles in the paradigm are of any use, because the paradigm has altered beyond recognition.

The industrialised model of commerce, doesn’t apply to modern business. That much we can recognise, and we see the massive shift for what it is. What has failed to change is the counter-culture. The counter-culture is trapped in fighting an enemy that no longer exists.

Trying shovel the digital world and all its failings and advantages into the same ideological ditch as the industrial world, treating labour concerns and social fragmentation in the same way we would treat slavery, industrial poverty and factory mechanisation, has resulted in a massive dislocation of the counter-culture.

As most of the poets, comedians and artists treat Trump and all that he represents as confirmations of their soggy-Marxist assumptions, a new world is being ushered in that threatens to alter human nature and relegate the individual to a mythic relic.

This is a world of big data, artificial intelligence and no privacy. It is a world of light-speed gratification and instant distraction. It is not New Lanark. It is not even Orwell’s 1984. We have no precedent to understand this new world, and yet the old counter-culture tropes of existentialist novellas and civil rights newsreels are all people seem to have to make sense of their feelings of oppression and anxiety.

The most glaring sign of the counter-culture’s inability to meet the challenges of this new emerging world, can be found in the tone of voice, the scoffing bickering anachronisms of your typical leftist debate.

Your averagely educated and ‘wised-up’ type will either still cling to outdated Marxist tropes, or will give you some lecture on the meaninglessness of life, and hopelessness of the human soul. Both of these are really just symptoms of the same problem – an inability to evolve new ideas and a new counter-cultural arsenal to meet the challenges of the age.

Ironically, the only way anyone has ever created a new paradigm, has been to reach back into the past. It is through the preservation of culture, that culture evolves. Today, such an assertion is regarded as a kind of blasphemy, as if to say anything positive about the past is to argue for the divine right of kings or a return to the British Empire.

Behind this fear of the past, lies a fear of ideas. The great collapse of the old world has left a vacuum in what Woody Guthrie called the human ‘hope machine’. The current despair is not that of Sartre characters in the 1930s, shuffling through the alleyways of Montmartre is a daze of horror at their own isolation. Rather, it is the despair of the endless distracted, the endlessly bombarded and saturated mind, whose self is submerged in the feedback loop of consumer driven algorithms. To adopt the ironic pose of the Camus character in the long jacket, smoking and shouting in the wilderness, is to do nothing more than signal to our monopolistic, corporate rulers, an aspect of a our buying patterns for them to target in the next email.

What we need then, is not a scepticism about meaning and ideas, but a reaffirmation of the culture. A return to first principles. However, we cannot do this, as long as the counter-culture is trapped in Marxist/Existentialist tropes.

Everybody these days operates under the conceit that they are an ‘independent thinker’. The modern cynic creates a dogma around his uncertainty. He uses doubt and scepticism as a kind of ideology, a default and easy way of approaching the world. When presented with a complex idea, or some challenging ideal – say Islam – he lazily and self-congratulatingly collapses into nihilism.

What the cynic wants and needs, is not an honest engagement with ideas, so much as a quick way of convincing himself not to bother. Far better to dismiss the challenge as unsolvable and irrelevant, than to discover that there is something new and potentially devastating in his midst.

The modern cynic gets away with this by giving the impression that his ignorance and disdain for ideas is worldly, putting the sheen of irony and detachment onto a stance about life that is really quite small-minded and stupid.

Like Dylan’s Mr Jones, the modern cynic scoffs thinking he is being satirical, is sarcastic where he thinks he’s being ironic and resorts to despair when he should take refuge in a conscientious uncertainty.

The very notion that one would want to engage in ideas, to take on an ever moving challenge of developing fresh responses to one’s environment, is an affront to the bougie, suburban luxury of our generation. However, instead of admitting to this middle class taste for ignorance, the better to adopt the pose of not needing to engage, to give off like you have been and there and come out the other end, and that your inability to develop ideas is really some form of hip, switched-on nirvana of the absurd.

Along with a disdain for ideas, comes a disgust at the notion of ‘meaning’. The idea that one’s life would involve duty and sacrifice towards a higher ideal, that one’s citizenship is part of a larger more sacred story than one’s minute concerns, is met with palpable rage among the modern generation.

If you are bold enough to live by a set of ideals, to affirm a positive or even traditional purpose to your life, this is immediately met with scoffing accusations of egotism. The cod-Freudianism of pop culture seeps into any discussion of common psychology, and those who prefer nihilism to duty, will traduce any sense of of a personal quest to evidence of a narcissistic complex.

The idea of a hero is seen as anachronistic and outdated. Ironically, however, it is this need to dismantle personal narratives that is the real narcissism. Those who seek to live out a sense of their own heroism are far more likely to sacrifice their own concerns for the wider good. The nihilist however, has no reason to make sacrifices at all; it’s all pointless and absurd, so why bother?

It has been shown however, that, far more than a trendy healthy diet or ‘lifestyle’, what is more likely to give longevity and satisfaction in life, is in fact a sense of purpose, being part of a grander project. To live life as if one’s own existence mattered is crucial to the development of healthy, happy and moral beings.

To assume the posture of post-modernist cockiness, is to at once affirm chaos and despair, while at the same time living by a very strict and immovable fundamentalism.
This is neither tasteful, nor is it in any way useful in leaving a legacy for future generations as they face the battle against a loss of individuality and privacy, a loss of conscience in favour of social algorithms.

The important difference between scepticism and cynicism

In reactions to recent posts, where I have attacked a certain kind of snotty, nihilistic attitude of mind which I feel is dominant in western culture right now, I have found some who have mistaken my intentions. Some responders think I am attacking all doubt, and therefore calling for a reversion to a reactionary gullibility. Nothing could be further from the truth.

However, in the course of some discussion a useful distinction has arisen, which requires further exploration. It has become clear that what I have been attacking is a certain kind of doubting, a form of cynicism. However, some responders have accused me of attacking scepticism, which is a very different frame of mind altogether.

Many responders spend a lot of time defending scepticism as a healthy product of enlightenment thinking, something which goes hand in hand with liberalism and and open society. Such arguments are preaching to the converted. I don’t need persuaded of this.

Having said that, the distinction between cynicism and scepticism is welcome, and it seems to me that most of us go about the world conflating these two things.

To be a sceptic is to remain open to alternative possibilities. To be a cynic is to close oneself off to most possibilities.

The cynic uses doubt to claim a certainty about life’s outcomes. If one always suspects the worst in life, one is never disappointed. However, there is hypocrisy in this position, because to expect the worst is still to expect something. The cynic might claim that she is not actually expecting anything, merely avoiding any expectation of the good. However, there really is no such thing as expecting nothing.

Jean Paul Sartre would have called this bad faith. You are lying to yourself. If one avoids expecting positive outcomes at all times, one is by definition expecting the worst.

Eventually, you train your mind to expect negativity so much, that it becomes an affront to end up with a positive outcome, and you begin to resent those who do not share your outlook.

Of course, cynics will deny this furiously, as they are very much identified with their fatalism, believing themselves to have risen above the naivety and callowness of ordinary people.

This is another conceit of the cynic: that of claiming special insight, a superior understanding of the world, by exorcising from their minds any hope or positive ambition.

Again, the cynic tells herself this fatalism and arrogance is a form discipline, a kind of scepticism. In reality it is a lazy, ill-considered renunciation of the imagination. For the cynic, all that can be expected is doom, betrayal and narcissism. One’s fellow man cannot be relied upon. Humanity is the worst of nature, in disguise.

Sceptics, however, are indeed disciplined. They are, like scientists, able to entertain multiple possibilities, while avoiding the grief and loss involved with investing in one particular outcome. Life is a series of hypothesises. The sceptic lives with doubt, but that doubt is a means to an end, a tool, by which the sceptic achieves the spiritual release of living in a state of constant potential.

Like the cynics, sceptics do not expect the best, they are free from the perils of idealism. This also frees them from the dangers of Utopianism and political ideology. The sceptic has made peace with the ragged edges of humanity, the complexities of people’s common frailties.

However, unlike the cynic, the sceptic never rules out the pleasant surprises of human tenderness and empathy, the spontaneous shows of brotherly love, which are common in times of crises.

The cynic’s stance is one of limited intelligence. Because the cynic finds a rigid certainty in her bleak world-view. She would rather sacrifice the surprise charity of common goodwill, reducing it to Freudian motivations, in order to salvage the stability and control that living negativity gives her.

The sceptic, rather, lives like an artist, on the edges of the possible, in a beautiful anxiety. Doubt is not an ideology, to which reality must bow; it is a method of thinking, similar to that of a samurai warrior.

To live as a sceptic is to live fluidly, to live in a prepared state, like a kind of meditative contemplation. The discipline of the sceptic is one of reining in the imagination, rather than cutting it off completely.

Unfortunately for the cynic, only the worst kinds of possibilities are entertained. Doubt itself becomes a god to be worshipped, ironically becoming a dogmatic fatalism. To aggressively hold to the claim that ‘there are no truths’, is itself a truth-claim.

The sceptic is not concerned with ultimate truth, so much as his own humility in the face of the limits of his own perception and imagination. Scepticism means to live in a healthy relationship with one’s own limitations.

Why then, do cynicism and scepticism get so easily conflated?

A huge part of the reason must be the overwhelming nature of modern living. The nervous system runs on empty for most of us, and the threats of the unknown are, as a result, more terrifying. The more useless stimulation we have to process, the more anxious we become, because our survival mechanisms – whatever they may be, I’m not a brain scientist – are in a state of perpetual overdrive.

It is not unreasonable to propose that our imaginative abilities, our faculties of seeing beyond the immediate situation into the realm of possibility, are what have sustained human beings and placed them at the top of the food chain.

In the modern world this imaginative faculty, this hyper-perception of what has not yet occurred but might, becomes strained. It is therefore easy to slip into cynicism.

The natural scepticism of the scientific world view, that healthy ability to entertain multiple hypotheses, is used as a sort of PR gloss, a way of convincing ourselves that the uncertainty of being overwhelmed is the same uncertainty as the disciplined scientist and philosopher.

We congratulate ourselves that our anxious state of cynical unknowing is the ironic methodology of Hume, Francis Bacon and Descartes.

The reason we conflate cynicism and scepticism then, is simply because it makes us feel better. The two attitudes grew in power simultaneously as a response to the growth and dominance of the technological era. However, they are in fact, entirely different ways of looking at the world.

Liam Gallagher’s As You Were puts a much-needed stridency back into rock ‘n’ roll

It’s one thing to scatter new seeds, another thing completely to cultivate the land. With the tragic loss of Tom Petty, rock ‘n’ roll lost one its most important guardians. Thank God we still have Liam Gallagher.

From Wall Of Glass down to For What It’s Worth, we have a settling of scores, an uncompromising simplicity of purpose.

Wall Of Glass is a wailing, unapologetic explosion of masculine power. The song presents the chief emotion of the album. That being: ‘I’m at the top of my game, and more’s the pity for you.’

Many of the songs to follow have an enemy in their sights, and at all times it seems that enemy is an incarnation of the modern disease, the distracted, careerist, Blairite spreadsheet monkeys, with their green tea and hot yoga.

The thudding opening chords of Bold are refreshingly simple, carrying the opening line into a quiet euphoria. ‘Gonna take you off my list of to-dos…’ This is a mature and calm manifesto of the rebellious spirit. I ain’t dead yet.

Greedy Soul needs to be played live. Nevertheless, it’s an exhilarating rise in temperature, while maintaining the emotional voice of Bold.

Paper Crown is a child-like metaphor, but as the song progresses it becomes a deeper and more powerful image. What kind of paper is the crown made of? I can’t help thinking it’s yesterday’s newspaper, bringing you the hard truth you can’t bear to see.

Of course there are shades here of Dylan’s Queen Jane Approximately – where’s all your power now your beauty has faded? But it’s worse than that. It’s the vinegar-soaked paper of an old chip packet, the mistakes of the past that can’t be origami’d into something new.

The bridge is a direct lift from Lennon’s Jealous Guy, but adds a slight operatic and dreamy quality to an otherwise straight-shooting Ashcroft-eque indie ballad. My favourite line is: ‘The hounds of hell won’t lie down on the ashes of your Paper Crown’.

Musically, a change of gear occurs with Come Back To Me and Doesn’t Have To Be That Way. The first of these is a jumpy, britpop stadium anthem. In its heart it’s a seduction song in the vein of Hendrix’s Foxy Lady. This track has one of the few outright rock solos on it, but nothing proggy or masturbatory. The Gallagher tone is never compromised, and the piano driven coda adds a swaggering, Happy Mondays feel to the fade out.

Doesn’t Have To Be That Way has some surprising shades of Human League and eighties Bowie, with a powerful opening homage to Hacienda techno. This song is new territory for Gallagher, but you can tell he is having fun, stretching his vocals and allowing the snarl of his voice to ride a different kind of beat.

This song has the quality of many radio tunes of the nineties, songs that Oasis would have given a wide berth. The guitar solo is very Doorsy, a searing slide psychedelia adding a vintage seasoning to what is really a dance-floor pop track.

For all its ‘back-to-basics’ qualities, this is a fresh and creative album that doesn’t rest on cliches and ‘the right way’ to write a song. There is a stridency, and that, more than any other factor, is what Gallagher brings to the table.

Some musos will object to Gallagher’s branding of modern music as boring and ‘beige’, but he’s not saying there’s no talent, or that people don’t rock out. He’s pointing to the fact that what passes for a ‘good song’ these days is technical accomplishment, rather than a desire to drive home a point.

Go to any open mic in London, and you are likely to find many great writers and musicians, content only to sing to their own navels. The lyrics are merely brushstrokes in self-contained little masterpieces. Nothing grabs you by the throat.

The missing link in modern music is not the talent, not technique, not the ingenuity of the songs. It’s an attitude, a point-of-view, a desire to wrestle with the perceptions of the audience, to carve experience down to potent bullets of common human understanding.

Gallagher makes no excuses for the fact that he is not re-inventing the wheel. The tendency towards demanding innovation for innovation’s sake has led to the conflation of ‘difference’ with ‘originality’.

Just doing something new and different doesn’t mean you are creating a shift in the culture. And doing something familiar doesn’t mean you are resorting to cliches either.

Anyone can be different. Being original requires being in the right place at the right time with the right tools.

Liam Gallagher’s album is an opportunity for rock ‘n’ roll to regroup.

Strange Days: Revisiting a classic Doors album

 Edinburgh in mid-Autumn can be a cold, lonely and haunted place. The sky is blanketed by a faceless mask of cloud, and at night the orange streetlights reflect a dreary turmeric pall across the city.

And it’s windy. Irritating winds, that muffle your conversations and your thoughts. Winds that cocoon you in a morose isolation.

On Saturdays at my boarding school we were allowed ‘uptown’ for a couple of hours in the afternoons, and the typical day out would be a trip to HMV on Prince’s Street then a milkshake at MacDonalds, and then run home for a dinner of dry, chewy beef and roast potatoes. Maybe you could steal a brief conversation from a pretty girl if you sat at the right table.

All the while the breezy darkness was closing in on you. Time running out, and your rationing of privacy and freedom running out too.

On one of these horrible windy days, I walked up Cockburn Street to a newly opened Fopp. Having recently discovered The Doors, I spotted a cassette of Strange Days, which I immediately bought for £4.99.

I wish I still had this tape. In the coming weeks, huddled in my icy room with bear walls and linoleum flooring, I’d listen to Strange Days over and over again. The barren, banshee-like screaming organ lines were perfect for the strained whine of cassette, which added to the discomforting and exhilarating circus-gothic mood of the album.

September 1967, when this album was originally released, would have been the anxious comedown after the naked highs of the Summer of Love. The choice of title and the first track being all the more fascinating as a result.

Strange Days. An echoing Manzarek organ gives way to chiming guitar and a rolling jazz-march on the tom-toms. ‘Strange Days have tracked us down…’ This is not the manifesto of liberation, this is not a flower power declaration of intent. Morrison’s voice glides across the beat like a melted liquorice narcotic.

‘The hostess is grinning, her guests sleep from sinning.’ Free love anyone?

You have the feeling of falling into a death-trance, the clouded hangover vision of backstreet whorehouses and doss rooms, the lantern glow of chinatown. The word ‘strange’ repeats through the lyrics like a dance motif, a lyrical melody, and Morrison draws out is drawling vowels like he’s spinning silk.

The deep cuts are the best cuts. Love Me Two Times is on every good compilation, but Unhappy Girl is a lost masterpiece. Along with Lost Little Girl, this song paints a picture of broken innocence, urban corruptions chiselling away at the mind of the American prom queen.

Unlike Dylan’s Miss Lonely, however, Morrison’s lost girls are a little more knowing, a little more complicit in their own intoxicating demise. For Morrison, losing one’s virgin soul is not the stuff immortal tragedy, it doesn’t symbolise the unthinking hubris of a generation. It’s simply the seductive self-destruction of freedom. It’s human nature. There’s no shock of surprise realisation.

Perhaps the strange days are the days of aftermath, when the sexual revolution turns to the terror of unshackled desires and liberation becomes licentious hunger. ‘You’re charged in a prison of your own device.’

Strange Days is an album that proves psychedelia doesn’t need to be mass, sprawling guitar jams and self-indulgent riffs and muso compositions for the initiated. Strange Days is mostly made up of tight, well-written and crafted pop songs, with suggestive, imaginative lyrical flourishes and dynamic mixes of tenderness and explosiveness.

Whatever you feel about The Doors, they knew how to lay down a song. Their albums are always crafted, thematically complete and integrated works of art.

Strange Days is a kind of drug album – of its time, but the antithesis of the zeitgeist of that moment. The psychedelia exists in the open spaces of the chilly soundscapes, as well as in the open-ended lyrics, which point to unseen torment rather than laboured dread.

Minimalism is not a word associated with The Doors, but in terms of how the actual compositions relate to the overwhelming effect of the songs, it’s absolutely appropriate. The organ riffs are manic but never crammed with notes. The drumming is thunderous but equally capable of a calm, massaging accompaniment.

Krieger’s guitar takes flight when the moment calls for it, and yet he never takes centre-stage. The solos are more like country or early rock and roll solos than they are hard cock rock eruptions of sound.

Morrison’s vocal style here is studied and restrained. He is experimenting with mic technique, adopting a lullaby intimacy as a counterpoint to his trademark booze-soaked yawp.

Horse Latitudes is a poem about death, and again, human nature. The performance here still creeps me out, and acts as a kind of avant garde balance to the streamlined pop songwriting of the first side of the record.

Two back to back hidden beauties, My Eyes Have Seen You and Can’t See Your Face, are Morrison at his most uncomfortably voyeuristic.

My Eyes is a short precursor to LA Woman. It’s a song of lust and sex – go figure. But whereas The Stones’ Straycat Blues is a one-dimension and lovable testament to groupie orgies and sixties free love, Morrison’s imagery creates a cinematic noir around the urban, transactional awkwardness of sexual encounters.

‘Free from disguise,
Gazing on a city under television skies,
Television skies, television skies

Let them photograph your your soul,
Memorize your alleys on an endless roll,
endless roll, endless roll’

The city and the female form are deliberately and subtly conflated. As in LA Woman, the girl’s body is a fractured landscape, an untravelled world to be captured in time, in the ripeness of the dying moment. Imprisoned in the polished gloss of celluloid. 

‘Carnival dogs consume the lines’ – no idea what that means but it is wonderfully predatory and manic. Can’t See Your Face is a paranoid song, but the delivery from Morrison is liquid elegance, allowing his voice to easefully trip off the consonants with relish, despite the almost schizophrenic nature of the words – ‘I can’t seem to find the right lie’.

Both these songs revolve around love as a doomed photographic effort, the futility of seeking to apprehend the shadowed soul of another. As a result, both these masterpieces are songs about loneliness and despair, just as much as the more overt People Are Strange is.

Legend has it that The Doors recorded the music for When The Music’s Over without Morrison, the singer being somewhere on the Sunset Strip boozing and fucking.

The lyrical improvisations in the band’s epic rock crescendos like The End and Music’s Over, were made on top of crafted spaces left by the band. They weren’t winging it, in other words.

Densmore’s drumming in particular evolves itself around Morrison’s careful, cat-like phrases. The band know when to pull back, and to push behind Morrison when the eruptions of angst come.

A great example of this is the way Densmore’s rolls curl round Morrison’s delivery at:

‘The face in the mirror won’t stop
The girl in the window won’t drop
A feast of friends alive she cried,
Waiting for me outside’

‘I want to hear the scream of the butterfly’ is said to be a reference to Chang Tzu’s poem about a butterfly, the sound being the inaudible sound of the soul beyond the veil of death. Or something like that. In any case, that’s probably what Morrison was getting at.

As life-affirming as this tour de force is, Morrison’s Birth Of Tragedy philosophy always teetered on the edge of nihilism. At times it seemed the best he could hope for was one final burst of poetic thrills before death came stalking.

However, there’s something overtly Romantic – in the Keats/Shelley sense of the word, about Music’s Over. Life is not worth living without art. Without beauty and self-expression, we are reduced to boredom and selfishness. Our vision is impaired without the primal and ecstatic growth offered to us by the ritual of rock n roll.

Without this song there would be no Patti Smith’s Horses. The poetic improv about raping the earth, points to the idea that it is the communal ceremony of togetherness and erotic connection afforded us by rock n roll, which frees us from our own narcissism.

Throughout Morrison’s poems and lyrics there is this homage to the primal and primeval. Music’s Over, like The End, reaches an orgasm before sinking back into a melodic coda. But unlike The End, there is an uplifting sense of possibility; we’ve undergone a ritualised death, a bacchanalian form of worship that helps us expunge our inwardness and exorcise hopelessness.

In that dim, lifeless study over twenty years ago, I think I was captivated by this album because of its atmosphere. Paranoia and aloneness are woven delicately with strains of fragile melodies and bluesy vocal phrasings. Pain and joy wrapped together like lovers in a tantric statue.

I was also enthralled by Morrison’s observational writing, the way he could capture a soul, photograph it, with only a few lyric strokes.

These days, it’s not as cool to like The Doors as it is to profess love of The Velvet Underground. However, Strange Days is the best counterexample to the tired and typical charges thrown at Morrison and this band. There is nothing overblown, nothing extraneous. You’ll find no extra fat on the cinematic bones of these songs.

What stops The Doors, and this album, being more popular is the fact that despite all the noir and the sexual paranoia, the songwriting is optimistic and poetically earnest.

Nothing could be more uncool these days, of course. And yet nothing could be more needed than the poise, subtlety and life-affirming craft exhibited by The Doors on Strange Days.

Strange Days will be reissued on an anniversary double disc remaster on November 17. Pre-order your copy here

 

BOOK REVIEW: Business for Bohemians, by Tom Hodgkinson

In George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the main character Gordon Comstock declares a ‘war on money’, devoting himself to loneliness and poverty in order to pursue his dream of being a poet. Comstock’s predicament represents the doomed aspirations of any artist in a commercial world, caught between the machinery of wage slavery on the one hand, and the alienating bitterness of rejection and poverty on the other.

For Orwell, there is no inbetween. Comstock’s desire to live a bohemian, free and creative life eventually gives way to inevitable capitulation to commercial values. It becomes simply unsustainable to live at odds with the wider social values.

Tom Hodgkinson’s Business for Bohemians, offers a third way, a middle path between alienated artistic destitution, and corporate enslavement. Hodgkinson is the managing editor of The Idler and has written a series of books on the importance of Idling – living a life devoted ‘bohemian’ pursuits. The central aim of this Idling Philosophy is creating freedom to develop a rich, fulfilling life.

Bohemianism, according to Hodgkinson, is not about dropping out and being a careless gypsy. It is about carving out freedom for yourself and living on your own terms. One of the hardest messages of the book is that being bohemian means becoming a businessman.

The difference between you and the hurried, stressful corporate world is not that you reject money, systems and routine. It’s simply that you create your own systems, rather than be dictated to by the systems and routines of larger, faceless entities.

‘Bohemians often are excellent salespeople. This is because they believe in what they are doing. And whether you are the editor of the new-agey Resurgence magazine, Satish Kumar, or Damien Hirst, or hedge fund manager Crispin Odey or the headmaster of Eton, your job is the same: asking people for money so that you can continue to do what you do. Enjoy it.’

Hodgkinson gives us some uncomfortable truths, based on his own mistakes trying to manage a business by being the laid back, ‘nice guy’. You have to learn how to use a spreadsheet, and you have to learn to love sales. You also have to be prepared to be the tyrant boss sometimes, to avoid being screwed by pseudo-bohemian losers who will inevitably see your creative values as easy prey for their lazy, hustling ambitions.

At times, it sounds like Hodgkinson is telling you to give up the very bohemianism he is supposed to be helping you foster. However, the truth is that living a bohemian life has nothing to do with being ‘anti-business’ or looking down on marketing and disciplined book-keeping. It’s not about declaring a ‘war on money’. It’s about freedom.

In a world convinced of the Marxist view that we are either enslaved or the enslaver, the idea of becoming a shop-keeping petty-bourgeoisie is far from cool. It fits into neither the romance of poverty nor the worship of material success. However, argues Hodgkinson, it is the only way to live an independent life.

He refers to Lenin, who thought that anarchists and individualist bohemians were merely bourgeois exploiters in disguise. This probably accounts for the continued suspicion of artists trying to make money and run a creative business.

There’s a reason why the petty-bourgeoisie shopkeeper types are hated by the rich exploiters and the Marxist revolutionaries alike: they don’t follow the crowd. They are loners, they hate ideologies and have no interest in joining anyone’s club. This kind of independent thinker is what Hodgkinson is trying to persuade us to become.

The point of bohemianism is to live a free, creative and self-determined life, and we can only do that if we, ironically, are prepared to put the work in. Idling is not about being lazy, it’s about being truly yourself.

‘Your business is a way of communicating an idea and creating a living for a group of people. It is a shared endeavour, a collective enterprise. Therefore, it must provide freedom and fun for the people you work with, as well as for you. After all, what is the point of it? If you just want to make money, then don’t start a business. Go and work for some awful money-making machine and wallow in your own amoral wretchedness. Join a corporation, climb the ladder and enjoy paid holidays and multiple departments.’

The fundamental point of this book is to show you the basic, unavoidable aspects of business that you must force yourself to love, before you can carve out time to live the Good Life. We must become practical in order to become creative. We must become disciplined, in order to be free.

Those who reject this call to arms as a kind of ‘selling out’ are in fact tacitly standing for the values of wage slavery and exploitation. They are basically admitting that the only people who can afford to be free and creative are those with established wealth.

‘It would be easy to grumble about all of this [becoming a creative entrepreneur] – to think that it is all beneath you. But this aristocratic contempt of the lowly tradesman will get you nowhere. And aristocratic contempt for trade is itself absurd. For the aristos, whose ancestors were royal lickspittles, murderers, thieves and rascals, to look down on those who choose to open a shop and sell stuff is patently ridiculous. It’s all right for the aristos to be anti-materialistic and scorn trade when own 20,000 acres and have a ton of serfs paying them rent every month. Does that give them the moral high ground? No.’

Hodgkinson’s point is that the creative life is available to us all, if we simply master a few basic tricks of the trade. You don’t have to declare ‘war on money’ to become free. You don’t have to avoid business to salvage your values from the corporate monster of modern life. You just have to be smart, knowledgeable and willing to do some heavy lifting in order to liberate yourself from agendas that are not your own.

You can order a copy of Business for Bohemians at idler.co.uk

A new online course is now available, with Tom Hodgkinson guiding you through the main principles outlined in the book. You can book your place here 

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Sixty Years at Tate Britain

Sixty Years at Tate Britain is a journey through the events of British post-war history, seen refracted in the prism of work by artists from 1960s to today.

The opening blurb tells us that each piece in the collection is a response to narratives and issues such as ‘immigration, feminism, racial and sexual identity, AIDS activism, music and club culture’.

The show is explicitly political, and political in a very particular, post-modern sense. The Britain presented here is not the Britain of Churchill, empire and high gothic ambition. Each piece appears to have been chosen for its explicitly non-historic, anti-patriotic sensibility.

Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series is a strong example of the kind of searching, slightly nihilistic eye that this exhibition wants to celebrate.

His pictures show empty back streets, overpasses, rail bridges and derelict housing blocks, all in black and white and all of them devoid of human activity or the comfort of identity.

The photos were taken between 1977 and 2008, in and around North Kensington and west London, and they show a London still peppered with bomb sites, still reeling from the damage of war.

This could be East Germany as much as London. There is no civilisation here, but only concrete and the carcasses of Victorianism, the bland, hard edges of dreary development.

This is a London that is somewhat unrecognisable today. However, following the horrors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington, you do catch yourself searching for anything that might resemble that building. There are skylines with high rise blocks, and the general texturelessness and loneliness of the landscapes presented here does speak to this recent trauma.

However, much of these areas have probably been gentrified now, and the London we see through Savage’s eyes is only one side of the city – there is no creativity, no bustling energy of optimism. All you are allowed to see is the forgotten, vacant lifelessness of desolate alleys and parking lots.

The pictures themselves, however, are clean, well composed, and show a technical control for depth of field that allows for maximum impact in conveying the shape and form of the city Savage was trying to present.

Cunt Scum (1977) by Gilbert and George, presents a similar face of London. We are still seeing a dour, post-war Britain, only this time with slightly more explicit political flavour.

Gilbert and George give us the prophetic images of what we will come to know as ‘Thatcherite Britain’. Working men in crowds, Bobbys on the beat, homelessness, inner city high rise developments.

The photographs used are not as technically pristine as Savage’s, but the over and under-exposed quality of the shots deliberately contrast the stark light and grim shadow of a Britain gutted of its identity.

If anyone still has doubts about the power of Abstract Expressionism, and the thrust of its techniques, they should look no further than Ataxia – Aids Is Fun (1993), by Derek Jarman.

Almost certainly the most moving of the works in this exhibition, Ataxia hits the viewer in the most vulnerable aspects of the subconscious. No amount of description and campaigning can compete with this image of the fragmentation of the nervous system caused by AIDS. It is a terrifying work, that leaves no one in any doubt about the meaning.

AIDS was not just a cull of gay men, it was, and still is, a tectonic natural disaster for every individual affected. This painting is hard to look at – violent, uncompromising and entirely precise.

Hommage a Chrysler Corp. (1957) by Richard Hamilton, is possibly the most technically impressive part of this show. A masterpiece of negative space, and a proto-Pop Art achievement, the work explores the sexuality of women and motorcars – a staple of pop culture already by the time it was painted.

In this painting you see so much of modernity captured in the slick curves and urbane textures – everything from Kerouac, to the Velvet Underground to Madonna’s aggressive slut-empowerment in the early 1990s.

As a primary source, this painting will communicate to future historians unspeakable truths about the post-war age in the west, so much more than the nihilistic trends that emerged from the 1960s.

Michael Fullerton’s portrait of disc jockey John Peel (2005) opens this patchy exhibition, and it’s a brilliantly understated and traditional work.

A reference to the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th century, this work captures the loveable paradox of Peel. He was on the frontlines of counterculture for the best part of four decades. However, he was a national treasure, as well-known and loved as the Queen herself, by the time he died.

Painting him in this way, allows the viewer to see Peel and all that he represents, through a lens of continuity and cultural endurance. The other works in this exhibition lack this sense of connection.

Peel’s love of the underground was not a post-modernist quest, but rather and desire to keep the tradition of British art alive and thriving. To be counter-culture, for Peel, was not to be anti-culture. He was a kind of spiritual patron, rather than an iconoclast or revolutionary. We see Peel here where he belongs, in the Pantheon of British creative innovators and leaders, not as some snotty champion of disaffection.

Fullerton’s portrait reminds one of Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s Oscar Wilde portrait (1884) also showing in the Tate. The same deep colours, the same ironic, but accessible creative expressions on the subjects.

There is a deliberate dislocation of Britain from its past in this exhibition which seems designed rather than simply observed.

Taken on their own, each piece has something important to say about this country. However, there is a disingenuous agenda in the collection, as if the only things relevant to post-war Britain were issues of immigration, sexual health, gay rights and feminism.

Britain is a divided nation, and in some sense that divide runs down the fracture between a historic past, and a post-Thatcherite economic identity.

Explicit in the form of this collection seems to be the assertion that nothing of Britain’s past is fit for purpose, nothing about the identity formed over centuries up until the 1960s speaks to the issues that face the country today.

Sixty Years presents a cultural orthodoxy which is itself archaic and mismatched to the reality of the times. The creative disgust of punk and post-modernism are far more connected to time and circumstance than their advocates would have us believe, and the idea of being liberated from the past is no longer the seductive, working class utopian vision it once was.

Far more powerful, would be an exhibition that tried to link the fractured world seen in the works of Savage and Gilbert and George, with the through-line of art history in Britain.

The moral eye of this exhibition is bankrupt, and the forms have become fetishes.

This dislocation was painfully available to us in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Protestors and rabble rousers leaped upon the deaths of impoverished families, as if they were somehow catapulted back to 1981, to a world of miners strikes and the Falklands war.

In trying to present a distinctly modern Britain, this exhibition comes off as suspiciously nostalgic for a time when a clear, Marxist model of social forces was convenient and offered clarity in an era of confused, class emancipation.

Sixty Years goes out of its way to avoid any sense of continuity. For a worldview obsessed with identity, that very concept of identity itself seems incredibly impoverished. Beauty is seen as something representative of the evil establishment, a veneer of the old guard.

It may or may not be true that the classical beauty and Victorian baroque of British art is linked to its imperial past. However, what Sixty Years shows is that the fractured aesthetic of sex-club fetishism and class-war concretism is dangerously anachronistic and ill-fitted to meet the challenges of contemporary Britain.

Even seen as a retrospective, this exhibition is curiously limited, confined to one narrow view of Britain’s recent history. For all its celebrations of alienation and working class anxiety, the world view implicit here could only emerge from someone on the affluent sidelines of the culture, frustratedly clinging to an academic model of urban Britain that is simply not relevant any more.

‘Equal marriage’ is a phoney emancipation for lifestyle activists

After the weekend’s LGBT marches in Northern Ireland, and the German parliament’s vote in favour of gay marriage, the great non-issue of ‘equal marriage’ is back in the headlines.

Writer Colm Toibin, in a recent interview, said that the referendum vote in the Republic of Ireland a couple of years ago, marked a historic moment for gay people like himself. In a religiously conservative culture, the acceptance of gay people’s right to marry in a church, said Toibin, is final proof of inclusion for LGBT people.

It is certainly part of civil freedom to allow any one of us to declare love to another person in any which way we want, and have that recognised and protected by law. One thing the reactionaries like the DUP have right, is that marriage is a vital force of social cohesion.

When we make a commitment to another person under the law, we promise to invest the power of our citizenship in their lives. We are making a symbolic gesture of the very meaning of citizenship itself, that with one’s freedom comes a responsibility to protect that same freedom for another. Marriage is a very intimate way of expressing that responsibility.

There are differences between marriage, civil partnerships, and civil marriages. However, these differences are purely material. What each contract embodies, is the same level of freedom to love and the duty of care that involves. Whatever imbalances may exist between civil partnerships and Christian marriage, these are not matters of human rights, but legal procedure.

Colm Toibin may be right in claiming that allowing gay people to marry in church is profoundly symbolic, especially in countries where the church has wielded serious political clout. If that is true, then it should be permitted, without question.

However, the idea that this campaign is the new civil rights question of our age, or is a matter of ‘equality’ and human rights, is tiresome and fatuous. The hard political battle over LGBT rights has been won. The reason that it is still treated like some great fight for emancipation is because it makes people feel like revolutionaries, without actually calling on campaigners to expose themselves to any risk.

The recent resignation of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron shows how twisted the issue of ‘equal marriage’ is. Farron is a typical Westminster centrist, and a committed human rights advocate. His own personal beliefs about the nature of marriage are of little consequence.

Part of what it means to be a liberal, is an ability to separate questions of civic justice, from personal conscience. The balance of liberty can only exist if we tolerate opposing views on what constitutes the moral good, while we protect each person’s right to determine the answers to such moral questions on their own terms.

‘Equal marriage’, as it is pompously called, is a perfect way to see into the heart of modern liberalism. We can see why the free press and free speech are issues treated with contempt by the left. Liberals have no interest in allowing people to form opinions based on personal conscience.

The ‘good’ in society is prescribed before one’s conscience even comes into play. If you fail to fall in line with what has been determined as right thinking, you are branded a bigot, excluded, just as gay people were ostracised before 1965.

The DUP in Northern Ireland are indeed wrong. They are stunting democracy and imposing their own views by abusing their veto on gay marriage. However, this is the very same tactic used by many of the LGBT side, especially those who called for Tim Farron’s resignation.

Liberty means that no one’s personal whims can be imposed on the constitution. The benefit of this, is that we are all free to express love, hate and indifference to each other as we please, as long as that doesn’t amputate aspects of each other’s citizenship.

‘Marriage equality’, bears no resemblance to any case of emancipation.

What are the core features of a real act of emancipation? The first has to be that there is some form of social and conservative oppression. The great trick of the modern left, of course, has been to redefine ‘oppression’ to be so broad, so abstract and invisible, that it exists everywhere. But the real moments of emancipation – the freeing of slaves, the civil rights act, the legalisation of homosexuality – conversely, happened against the backdrop of identifiable crimes.

To go out and protest these crimes meant you were up against an infrastructure of repressive state violence and corruption, and this meant a direct threat to one’s physical safety and livelihood. Speaking out meant ostracisation, blacklisting, or being beaten up.

The second feature of authentic emancipation is a clear and tangible miscarriage of justice. What’s interesting about the great movements of emancipation was the fact that they involved fighting an internal contradiction between the proposed values of the state, and the way the state was actually behaving.

Today, protesters and activists are not going up against miscarriages of injustice, so much as claiming that the very structures of society are unjust. This must be treated with suspicion. It’s not enough to mouth off about ‘inherent privilege’ or contort everyday unfairness into some evidence of hidden structural inequality.

Real emancipation can only happen when real violations of basic rights have occurred. In the case of marriage, it’s not a right. So it cannot, by definition, be an issue of equality. The only question of rights would be whether people are free to declare their love to each other without fear of persecution or danger.

Yes, it is wrong to stop people from using their Christian faith to declare their love. But allowing this to happen is not a matter of human rights or justice.

The final feature of an emancipation is that it radically alters the society from a restrictive one to a free one. Can we really claim that allowing ‘equal marriage’ does this? Is there some great attitudinal shift at the heart of this issue? Are people who were once deprived of basic human dignity now tasting the fresh air of liberty?

The only people who are actively against ‘equal marriage’ are evangelicals and reactionary conservatives. These people are a laughable minority, and their views have no hope of oppressing anyone politically, or violating anyone’s human rights in a legal sense.

And yet, the social justice movements, and the triangulating politicians that feed off such movements, give the impression that the bowler-hatted 50s Tory is still the great threat, that we are still fighting forces of establishment aristocracy and Victorian conformity.

These activists need to invent an archaic establishment to fight against, and refuse to see the massive social changes that have happened since the 60s. The bowler-hatted man is dead. And the stuffy, bourgeois conservatism that was so dangerous to gay people, has been deposed.

This is the problem with the Left in general. It has been ossified, trapped in history and over-saturated with 1960s iconography, to the point where it is wildly ill-equipped to identify the real, modern battles for justice, and to see new challenges and new forms of oppression when they present themselves.

And the new establishment of the Merkels and the Camerons and Mays love this delusional kind of activism, because it acts as no real threat. As long as people mistakenly battle against an idea of the establishment that died years ago, they pose no danger to the yuppy, neoliberal, corporate globalism that is doing the real damage to people’s lives.

You can tell this is a non-issue by the feebleness of those objecting to it. The celebrations, protests and marches are completely disproportionate to the moral and political victory that is supposed to be had by making equal marriage legal.

Protest has become a lifestyle choice. Since Apple Mac’s ‘think different’ ad campaign in the late nineties, freedom-fighting has become a kind of branding, a social status symbol, rather than a moral necessity.

Essential to this neutered, narcissistic version of emancipation is the fighting of causes that have little or no impact. Nothing substantial is achieved by allowing gay people to marry in churches. Most people, gay or straight, probably get married in civil ceremonies anyway.

Virtue-signalling about ‘equal marriage’ is an easy way to give yourself a moral high-ground, but the truth is it has little to do with gay rights, gay health, or the well-being of individuals struggling against religious fascism or political persecution for their sexuality.

There is no need for barricades, no long nights starving in the flanks. There is no danger involved. It’s a false issue. A great way to make yourself seem like a revolutionary when what you are is really the worst kind of bourgeois sheep.

All the while gay people are thrown off roofs in the middle east, and the best they can hope for from their LGBT brothers and sisters in west is the signing of a few petitions and some Facebook outrage.