Wake(y) Wake(y)

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything on here. But now that my brain has started producing such high-grade academic horseshit I think it might be time to opt for some words with fewer syllables—even if these shorter words are used up mostly in describing the horror of the longer ones.

I’m writing a chapter on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake at the moment, and writing about ‘the’ Wake when you’re not a fulltime Joyce scholar is a frightening experience. The book is astonishingly good, of course, and worthy of the praise it receives, but I can quite understand the opprobrium too. A critic called Ruben Borg says somewhere that ‘the’ Wake teaches you that there are books you still need to learn to read, and that’s exactly what it feels like. I spend much of my time just stumbling about from word to word, like a drunk looking for his keys, and every time I think I’m getting somewhere close to unlocking a phrase, a sentence, a passage, I discover it’s just the change in my pockets, jingling about and confusing things.

The real absurdity, though, is that it can only be a single chapter. People spend their entire lives reading this bloody book, and I somehow need to say something interesting (perhaps even original) about it over the course of what really amounts to just 7 or 8 months. And having recently screeded several thousand words about the meaning of just one, it seems that this is a task with an unlikely and unknowable end, a bit like Finnegans Wake itself.

I do already have a contingency plan though. Should I be fortunate enough to make it to my viva exam and be unfortunate enough to be asked a question on this chapter, I’m just going to filibuster my way through and then knock up a homemade degree certificate on a passing Etch A Sketch. Ta da!

In memory …

We only ever really talked about our shared passion for the music of Radiohead. He even gave me a free ticket to one of their Earls Court gigs back in 2003. Nearly a decade ago.

I can’t pretend to know what might have happened in the intervening years. Or even what might have been happening then. Whatever the case, it’s over now—for better or for worse.

Neither of us had seen Radiohead perform live before; they didn’t disappoint—it was a fantastic night.

Things are always in such a delicate balance.

Rest easy, JB. You’ll be missed.

Après moi le déluge!

The system-driven selfishness of the capitalist mode of production, as seen by Marx all those many years ago:

In every stock-jobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that is may fall on the head of his neighbor, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in secure hands. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases out pleasure (profit)? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.

(Capital, 381)

It is perhaps the last two sentences which speaks most readily to current predicaments.

Progressive change (whether in relation to workers rights or environmental degradation) as a purely market-driven effect, divorced from ethics, is only too palpable when it comes to the depletion of nonrenewable energy resources, where serious implementation and funding of alternatives will only commence (in the coming decades) when the price of producing oil exceeds the production costs of its cleaner rivals.

Growth, Growth, Growth

7 billion people now inhabit the Earth. Although they don’t, of course—the article announcing the news is by now hours old. Now there will be several thousand more. Even now you can add on another couple or so. And now? Yeah, maybe you’d better just keep your pen handy …

This 7,000,000,000+ already uses 1.5 planet Earth’s per year—an inescapable statistic which defies logic as it damns. “Use” is perhaps a little neutral in this sense. How about “consume”? Everyone is, after all, born into a capitalist system hell-bent on consumption, on the acquisition and loss of money.

This capitalist system requires at least 3% growth in order to sustain itself. David Harvey’s lecture does better than I could ever do. As does Sir David Attenborough quoting President Kennedy’s environmental advisor Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad—or an economist.”

The whole of the Attenborough speech can and should be read here.

I wrote nearly 18 months ago on this same topic and surmised that we suffer from what political scientists call “status quo bias”—basically a resistance to change when the imperative for change seems insufficient. Expensive products and holidays help drive this. The worldwide Occupy protests are an important step in the opposite direction.

Population Growth, consumption Growth and 3% compound Growth feed each other hungrily. And it is from these three interconnecting issues that a whole host of other worthy causes stem. It almost seems unnecessary now to talk of the environment, of animal welfare, of renewable energy, of global warming, since all are intimately related to and negatively dependent upon these three predominant (and growing) problems.

Answers? Well, I’ll probably have it all figured out in the morning …

For starters though, a healthy dose of consciousness raising through the (very limited, given the readership of this blog) dissemination of important information. Start with the Harvey lecture. Go on—consume it up all nice and tight.

Hypocrites! or pragmatists?

The criticism of the Occupy London protests in much of the right-leaning press in the UK recently has focussed largely on issues of hypocrisy. How can these so-called activists possibly be politically motivated, the question goes, if they’re seen drinking Starbucks coffee, browsing the internet on their Apple laptops, and wearing designer clothes? There they sit, complaining about a system of excess and corruption, whilst they themselves reap the benefits. Hypocrites!

The alternative (but still linked) rebuke is that the activists are made up only of feckless students, rich kids with nothing better do to, or the lowly unemployed. And why should anybody listen to these freeloaders? Do they really think that without capitalism’s guiding hand they’d be receiving their benefits or student-loans? And as for Henrietta and Ptolemy living off daddy’s oil money: they don’t know they’re born …

The recent (debatable and debated) news reports claiming that 90% of the Occupy London tents were vacant overnight conforms to this same all-or-nothing logic. Activists are clearly required to conform to an unchanging social role involving minimal shades of grey. As soon as one social category is breached or blended with another then activism ceases, political messages are compromised and hypocrisy reigns.

But then what does this really leave?

If the logic states that it’s impossible to engage in the activity of activism whilst immersed in the activity of capitalism, then who is left to speak? The answer, presumably, is only those with no political voice at all; those who can be easily derided or ignored—those, in effect, who can safely protest without ruffling too many feathers.

Undoing this cleverly disarming logic is, of course, quite easy. The influence of markets, branding and capitalism is inescapable. Put simply, it is impossible to be an effective political activist without engaging in hypocrisy. Just as it is very difficult to be an effective environmental activist without, say, international air-travel. Slavoj Žižek puts it well:

What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken from us – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror”, ominous and threatening as it should be.

To remove these necessarily overlapping areas leaves only a choice between the ‘all-in’, easily stereotyped (and ignored) left-wing anarchists who want a return to communism, or the ‘all-out’ Mr Monopoly bankers who’d willingly sell Africa to Shell—which is effectively a choice between fuck- and bugger-all.

If someone at Occupy London leaves the camp every three days to go and catch up on paid work (so as to lengthen their stay at the protest), then their act of so-called hypocrisy is in fact a pragmatic choice based upon the realisation that whilst the current system is broken, it is the only system in town, and that it is only through such a system that new and collective political agency can emerge.

Within a hegemonic system like capitalism, hypocrisy must in fact be the point of departure for any act of political dissent. And whilst there are certainly some modes of hypocrisy it would be better to avoid (protestors drinking Starbucks coffee for one), to simply berate pragmatic people for working within their limitations is a shortsighted and manipulative attempt to caricature what is a complex social movement into clearly defined parameters, and works only to stultify debate.

And it makes me mad.

Subatomic particles: the musical!

EDL supporters have been ridiculed, Jeremy Kyle has been put to music, and now this, from the Symphony of Science: the Quantum World, autotuned for your pleasure.

I’m increasingly siding with Leibniz. This really is the best of all possible worlds.


My relationship with Twitter began about two years ago when I was offered a prospective fortnightly column in TimeOut Hong Kong writing a series of 24-hour ‘tweet diaries’ about special events or daily life in the city. Not knowing anything about the medium I thought it best to sign up and get used to the thing, so I created a username, uploaded a picture and started writing infrequent updates about my mundane existence. The audience for these tweets generally consisted of a few friends who I knew used the service, various maniacal twitterers with upwards of fifty-thousand ‘follows’, and the odd pornography bot spouting on about butt-plugs and bargain-basement buggery. I think I lasted all of two weeks before the inanity of what I was doing struck me and I bailed out.

Recently though, in an ineffective bid to increase the readership of this blog (which wavers somewhere between nothing and barely anything on most days), I set up another Twitter account and started the whole sorry process again. Of course, nothing had really changed in the interim, other than slightly less people I knew were on it, and there seemed to be inordinately more sex-bots prowling the site in search of hapless sweaty clickers. I followed a few people of interest, was followed myself largely by marketing folks selling shit out of cardboard boxes, and idled away a few hours sending the odd tweet, chatting to friends and replying to or retweeting tweets which were funny or interesting, or both. But now I feel pretty much back to where I was just under two years ago, when I decided Twitter was pointless.

Having said all this, if you follow the right people, you can be directed to some very interesting articles, videos or online projects which you might otherwise have missed. It was through Twitter, for example, that I discovered the Top Documentary Films website, which has a collection of thousands of watchable documentary series available online; the Topsoil website, which is a sort of writing collective working towards equality and solidarity; and a fellow called David Kozin, who is looking to research a medical condition close to my heart known as HPPD. So clearly there are resources to be found if you look in the right places.

My main problem with the site, however, is that it seems largely to be populated (outside of the marketing folk and sex-bots) by people feverishly writing acerbic or witty one-liners about nothing at all. And more often than not, they’re not very good at it. In fact, most of the people I follow (which is probably where I’m going wrong), spend all day every day harping on about bugger-all in a certain withering tone of satire, farce, aggression and ‘oh my god I’d better write something’ desperation. Some of them make me smile, some don’t. All of them whiff faintly of futility.

None of this should be read as an end to my Twitter revisitation though. I think I just need to recalibrate my expectations, organise my feed a little better (by cutting the nitwits), and use Twitter for what it is evidently good at: exchanging information, disseminating knowledge and cultivating ideas (some of which can of course be acerbic and witty). Graham Linehan is perhaps best of all at striking this balance.

Whether I’ll write anything myself or simply use it as a dynamic resource for information is of very little consequence. With no followers or method for acquiring followers I may as well shout my opinions into an empty beancan.

Funny, huh?

Incidentally, my TimeOut ‘tweet diaries’ never got past the initial submission, which I blame solely on the format.