Mongol tolerance

June 9th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The Mongols, famously, were not much interested in religious conformity. People who managed to avoid being massacred during the Mongol invasions were at least unlikely, subsequently, to be persecuted for their religious beliefs. What interested the Mongols was that holy men of all religions should both pray for the Khan (for there was no knowing who might have the best hotline to heaven), and, at least as important, provide the regime with access to their specialist skills. The Mongols were nothing if not pragmatists.

— David Morgan (?) in the TLS

[you hear this a lot. I do wonder how psychologically true it ever was]

Palin schoss mit!

January 23rd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Reading about the connection of the Bild to Rudi Dutschke’s shooting, I can’t help thinking about the parallels to the Gifford shooting in the US. The anti-Springer slogan in ’68 was “Bild schoss mit!”. Perhaps now we need ‘Palin schoss mit’?

origin of the fourth estate

January 22nd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Where the term Fourth Estate comes from:

The idea of the press as a “Fourth Estate” came to prominence during the nineteenth century. In 1837 Robert Carlyle referred to “A Fourth Estate of Noble Editors” in The French Revolution: A History, and in On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) stated that “Burke said there were Three Estates in parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”. Carlyle continued: “Literature is our Parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy. Invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable.”

Depressive hedonia: blast from (450 years in) the past

January 21st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

On depth of pleasure…something not all that apposite, but which has been rocking around in my mind, and so which I may as well expunge by copying here.

Here’s Roger Ascham on Jane Grey, Anglicanism’s favourite geeky teenage quasi-martyr:

I came to Brodegate in Lecetershire, to take my leave of that noble Lady JaneGrey, to whom I was exceeding much beholding. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess, with all the household Gentlemen and Gentlewomen were hunting in the Park: I found her in her Chamber, reading Phædon Platonis in Greek, and that with as much delight as some gentleman would read a merry tale in Bocase. After salutation, and duty done, with some other talk, I asked her why she would carry out such pastime in the Park? smiling she answered me: I know all their sport in the Park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato: Alas good folk, they never felt what true pleasure meant.

Nostalgia, atemporality and music blogging

January 21st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Simon Reynolds: how do you write about music when the volume of creation is unmanageably large? You give up on criticism, give up on finding something Significant. Instead, you just churn out excited brief notes on whatever track has dropped into your feed in the last 5 minutes.

That’s what Pitchfork are doing with their offshoot Altered Zones. 15 bloggers post prolifically “with a sensibility that could be fairly described as post-critical“. Because, says Reynolds, “there’s just too much [music], and that filtering doesn’t seem to be quite the thing to do with it

So far, so typically net/ADHD/affect-driven. More interesting is the implied link between this cultural surplus and a culture of nostalgia.

“Everybody knows” that we’re drowning in nostalgia. But our nostalgia has two distinct patterns, one transitional, the other here to stay. The first is our parent’s nostalgia — the mainstream, modernist-nationalist TV nostalgia of “remember the 80s” shows. This variant functions as a stand-in for the mass culture of the past, a nicotine patch for modernism. It conjures up a feeling of experiencing the same media alongside your neighbours, friends and enemies. Since that shared culture no longer exists in the present, it’s transposed into the past.

So that form of mass-culture nostalgia is a transition phenomenon: it’ll vanish as there are no longer generations growing up with mass-culture upbringing. “Remember the 90s” is already strugging; “Remember the noughties” perhaps won’t function at all.

But the ‘nostalgia’ currently riding high in music is something else entirely. It’s “ahistorical omnivorousness”:

I don’t think [it] really has much to do with all the ’80s ghosts haunting this music. From YouTube to sharity blogs, the Internet is an ever-expanding data sea, and these young musicians are really explorers, voyaging into the past and diving for pearls.

Bruce Sterling covered this last year in a speech at the Transmediale digital art festival in Berlin:

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

tw: yes

John Samson

January 16th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

John Samson, a mostly-ignored documentary-maker active in the 70s:

In 1977 Samson made Dressing For Pleasure, a documentary about ordinary people who enjoyed dressing in rubber and who approached their fetish with a matter of factness that seems almost quaint. The film was an immediate sensation among British fashion designers and within the London punk scene and was promptly banned as a video nasty. It ended becoming one of the most ripped off British films of the 1970s.

January 11th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Historical rhetoric of the left is, as a rule, a thousand times better than the current stuff. Even when it’s basically content-free. Jim Cannon, via Ken MacLeod

That is the realistic perspective of our great movement. We ourselves are not privileged to live in the socialist society of the future, which Jack London, in his far-reaching aspiration, called the Golden Future. It is our destiny, here and now, to live in the time of the decay and death agony of capitalism. It is our task to wade through the blood and filth of this outmoded, dying system. Our mission is to clear it away. That is our struggle, our law of life.

January 9th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Charming introduction to Theodore Zeldin’s books of French history:

Zeldin’s approach can be understood as a kind of historical ethnography, while Todd’s approach emphasizes processes and structures of nation formation.

What’s striking is how out-of-place Zeldin’s work must be in contemporary academic history — but equally, how it’s the kind of history people really want to write, and to read. I’m becoming increasingly sympathetic to the idea of some kind of revival of 19th century humanities, with the diligence and the emotional involvement. I’m not sure if you can manage that without the racism and shallowness — though is it really better to have your prejudices concealed behind dull prose and academic walls?

Adam Curtis, Behaviorism and Behavioral Economics

January 7th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Adam Curtis has a blog

Curtis is IMO the most interesting documentary-maker currently active, by a healthy margin. He spends months or years closeted in the BBC archives, intermittently emerging with documentaries like The Trap or The Power of Nightmares.

Most of his documentaries fit into a coherent project, an intellectual history of the 20th century. What continually fascinates him is the interaction between emotions and politics, how ideas about human nature shape how we see ourselves, and so form the background assumptions which justify political movements. As he told Charlie Brooker:

“What I’m hoping they’ll do is pull back like in a helicopter and look at themselves and think about how they’re a product of history, and of power, and politics, as much as a product of their own little inner desires. We’re all part of a big historical age. That’s just what we are. And, sometimes, we forget.”

The blog extends these themes, often accompanied by decades-old clips which might otherwise never have found there way online.

Here is a typically fascinating post. Curtis takes Behavioural Economics — popularised in ‘Nudge’ and by Dan Ariely, now being politically weaponized by Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Unit — and ties it to Behavoiurism. This is the psychological apporoach* of treating the mind as a black box, not trying to understand it internally but just tracking how it responds to certain stimuli. Curtis:

Drawing on… behaviourist ideas [Nudge author] Thaler wrote a paper in 1981 with a great title – An Economic Theory of Self-Control.

This is what lies behind the Downing Street unit’s plans to find mechanisms to manipulate people so they will do “good” things – like save more for retirement or eat less bad food.

Skinner himself was acutely aware that modifying human behaviour in these ways raises serious political questions. Not just about individual freedom, but about who decides what is “good” behaviour, and what happens when others decide it is bad.

These are questions that the Nudge enthusiasts seem to be blithely unaware of.

The whole blog is fascinating, and is at the very least full of arguements to interestingly disagree with. I’m a fan.

* ‘approach’ because it hovers uneasily between being a methodological practice of conducting experiments and a theory of how the mind works. It’s comparable to the ‘homo economicus’ model of rational self-interest in economics. Both are trivially true, but only if you sideline some of the most important causes of behaviour. Both function very well in narrow circumstances which make for good journal articles, tempting researchers to focus on those circumstances and ignore the rest. Both thus had a similar academic trajectory — innumerable grad students applying the theories in ways that were clever, internally consistent, and applied to the real world only if you ignored the footnotes — attacked continually by outsiders determined to blame the theory for the shortcomings of its application.

The Serpent

January 4th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

I recently discovered the Serpent. This is a musical instrument vaguely similar to a tuba, but developed in the late 16th century for the purposes of church music. The idea was apparently to create an instrument which sounds similar to a low male voice, so as to enhance the lower ranges of plainsong. Opinions on the instrument are mixed, to put it tactfully:

It is blown with a cup shaped mouthpiece which is very similar to that of a trombone or Euphonium/Baritone. Played softly, it has a firm yet mellow tone color, or timbre. At medium volume, it produces a robust sound which seems to be a cross between the tuba, the bassoon, and the French horn. When played loudly it can produce unpleasant noises reminiscent of large animals in distress. [source]

Over the past four centuries, other writers have been far nastier. And it sounds like a nightmare to play:

The Serpent really requires a totally unique approach and playing technique….Because it is not possible for the basic Serpent to be vented properly, the instrument does not conveniently resonate at the desired pitches the way modern wind instruments do….

Since the Serpent does not center accurately on most notes, the player must be able to ‘sight sing’ the music much like a singer must look at a given note and produce the correct pitch without mechanical assistance. Once the player has the specified pitch in mind, he must then produce the required vibration with his lips, forcing the instrument to go along even if it cannot actually resonate at that frequency.

There must, somewhere, be groups of people dedicated to playing the oddest of instruments. Ideally together.

December 10th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

What is Anonymous

What does anything have to do with the other? People are dead. Other people are rich. Some people’s day was ruined. Other people were embarrassed. Some people laughed. What is the end result? Human history. The world, every damn day. Welcome to the never-ending old sick twisted mostly unfunny joke that is life. The human mob, again and again and again. Until there are none of us left.

So what is Anonymous? Whatever you want. In my definition, the closest that a boring and trite platitude can get to summing up human existence while still missing it completely. Sorry. Add your own politics/doom/disappointment/enthusiasm/distrust/anger/fear/love. It’s jokes, all the way down.

In other words, it’s the mob. we got a little less used to the mob in the era of Fordism, when people were more regulated and had to get up at 9am. Now, the internet is in many ways bringing us back towards the pre-industrial. And 4-chan is the new mob.

Horror Comics

July 31st, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Looking through the treatment of comics in the UK parliament, I find (unsurprisingly) that MPs care little and know less. But go back to 1955, and you find this brilliant rant from a young Labour MP, making a (successful) attempt to ban “horror comics”:

it is the glorification of violence, the educating of children in the detail of every conceivable crime, the playing on sadism, the morbid stimulation of sex, the cultivation of race hatred, the cultivation of contempt for work, the family and authority, and, probably most unhealthy, the cultivation of the idea of the superman and a sort of incipient Fascism.

Turns out, this was just a pale reflection of all-out hysteria in the US aroudn the same time, complete with burnings of comics.

Hunter S Thompson

May 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

My attitude to Hunter S Thompson is that of the owner of an overindulged rottweiler, calling him a harmless softie while barely restraining the beast. For sure, much of the HST mythos is true: doubtless he was a drug-addled psychotic bastard who you wouldn’t want to turn your back on. Posterity may have literally turned him into a cartoon — both Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem and Doonesbury‘s Duke are based on him — but there was plenty of crazy lingering there from the get-go. Beneath it all, though, there’s a touching melange of disbaused idealism and a surprising affection for those working less dramatically from within the system.

Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, Duke keeps telling us, a search for the American Dream. The intrepid heroes purgatory their torsos, strain themselves to the point of breaking, and through this mortification uncover the nature of their world. The apparent nihilism is the aftermath of broken dreams, the realisation that the chnage which had appeared to be beginning in California in the 60s had come to a juddering halt:

[in the mid-Sixties] there was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high—water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

This sense of disappointed idealism, and the quest to regain it, appears much more strongly in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. his report from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. He’s striking in his affection for the young staffes and volunteers fighting for McGovern from within the system, even when their positions are far more centrist and pragmatic than anything Thompson would himself countenance.


April 23rd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Widowhoood is one of those facets of historical experience that I can’t really grok. Widows throughout pre-modern history have been subject to such a weird mix of fear and acceptance, left a socially precarious position but also one in which they have more freedom than married women. Biblical examples would be Ruth and Judith; historical ones can be traced through land and tax records. Laurence Fontaine argued in a recent issue of Esprit that widows in France had more access to markets:

Dans la France de l’Ancien Régime, le droit des femmes évoluait selon leur statut social et les phases de leur cycle de vie ; les veuves étant, par exemple, plus libres que les femmes mariées qui restaient soumises à l’autorité des maris. Toutefois, la charge qui leur incombait de s’occuper et de nourrir la famille leur a donné un accès au marché.

What I can’t figure out is how much this peculiarly, perversely privileged position of widows was general, how much just a situation which enabled a few personally strong widows to run with it, while the majority ended up in much more difficult circumstances, practically and socially.

[as is probably obvious, this is mainly a marker for a topic I find interesting, but which has presumably already been the subject of multiple books, and which I don’t anticipate having anything new to say about]

A great many things keep happening

April 20th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Since hearing it mentioned on In Our Time, I’ve been entranced by the start of Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks:

A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad. The inhabitants of the different countries keep quarrelling fiercely with each other and kings go on loosing their temper in the most furious way. Our churches are attacked by the heretics and then protected by the Catholics; the faith of Christ burns bright in many men, but it remains lukewarm in others; no sooner are church buildings endowed by the faithful that they are stripped again by those who have no faith. However, no writer has come to the fore who has been sufficiently skilled in setting things down in an orderly fashion to be able to describe these events in prose or in verse.

Alas, that seems to be more-or-less an invention of the translator. The Latin text begins:

Decedente atque immo potius pereunte ab urbibus Gallicanis liberalium cultura litterarum, cum nonnullae res gererentur vel rectae vel inprobae…

Which This translation renders more literally

With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil

ah, well, it’s still a glorious opening line, regardless of authenticity.

England is Mine

April 12th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Bracewell’s “England is Mine” turns out to be excellent page by page, but a bit of a letdown overall. He’s taken as his basic thesis something entirely vagye and anodyne, namely nostalgia for the countryside within English culture and pop music. He calls this “Arcadia”, although it’s unclear what makes this a peculiarly English form different from the adoration of an imagined countryside that is present in just about every country in the world. Likewise, the breadth and commonness of the subject makes it hard to trace any intellectual ancestry for the views he describes: who is to say whether different longings for “Arcadia” are directly related, or just parallel expressions of the same common human urge?

That said, I’m only on page 37; all this could well be resolved later.

April 12th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Why have I never previously encountered Pynchon as essayist:

historical Ned Lud was well absorbed into the more or less sarcastic nickname “King (or Captain) Ludd,” and was now all mystery, resonance and dark fun: a more-than-human presence, out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England, possessed by a single comic shtick — every time he spots a stocking-frame he goes crazy and proceeds to trash it.

January 2nd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink


A lot went wrong and my own sorry generation are largely culpable. Smug, lazy and intellectually self-satisfied; historically uneducated and therefore fixated on superficial understandings and re-stagings of the past; unwilling to risk seriousness, or rather, mistaking creative conservatism and po-faced self-absorption for seriousness; lacking sex, glamour, rage, resentment, a death drive, or anything vaguely fucking resembling a reason to make a mark upon the world – you, my peers, are possibly the most boring lot of Westerners since those born ‘tween the World Wars grew themselves up on Patty Boone and Georgia Gibbs.

Couldn’t agree more.

The Arabs: a history

December 25th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The Arabs: A history, by Eugene Rogan, has just been published in hardback. The various reviews present it as an important work, perhaps even as a successor to Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples — respected, but now somewhat long in the tooth. Hourani was Rogan’s “mentor”, whatever that means, but the younger historian has concentrated mainly on media and historical circumstances, in contrast to Hourani’s excursions into “demography, trading patterns and literature“.

Sadly, the reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph concentrate on the Arabs’ contact and conflict with the West. I’m hoping this is just an artefact of the British newspaper industry, not of a narrow focus in the book itself.

October 16th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Philip Pullman writing on Athensius Kircher (in the form of a book review) is a treat, lightly linking him to the post-pomo cultural melange, and the return of magic:

Kircher lived on the cusp between the magical world of the Middle Ages and the rational and scientific world of modernity – as perhaps we do again today, except that we’re going in the other direction. His half-sceptical, half-credulous cast of mind is very much to our current taste.

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