Follow me on Twitter

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Weapons that float and harm

A bizarre headline on the BBC News website reports that a 'Student “struck by a truncheon” has a brain injury’
It’s like a truncheon suddenly became self aware and decided to smash skulls. Such a fiction sub-plots the Melanie Gillingan film, ‘Popular Unrest’ in which an unwielded knife embarks on a killing spree. The knife materializes above its victims before bludgeoning them to death.
Are police truncheons capable of a similar surrealism? This [non] conjuring trick of rising up and whacking heads?
‘It wasn’t me, it was my truncheon.’
A lot has been said about bias in the way the demonstrations have been mediated. The press in particular had a field day with the incident involving Charles and Camilla. Whilst the Reithians seem to think that using a wheelchair whilst holding certain beliefs is solid enough justification for police brutality, or at the very least, solid ‘angles’ to expedite a TV inquisition.
Well ‘Have I got news for you’ Ben Brown, your performative contradiction in relation to Jody Macintyre’s treatment at the hands of the law is sodden with ideological predicates. A wheelchair bound protester is not a threat to armed police, so let’s forget about that. And public knowledge about Mr Macintyre’s ‘radical’ beliefs only came to light after the media did a post facto ‘research’ job on him.
Ben Brown’s position amounts to this: ‘you hold radical views, therefore, the police have some justification for treating you this way.’
Now we should not expect too much from the media. We certainly should not expect the media to act as the protector of a just and truthful public space. It is important to point note the strategic nature of Brown’s supposed statement. It is not a propostion aimed at uncovering truth. The statement implies coercion is justified, a position that flatly contradicts the idea of freedom. The statement is also unlikely to represent a true picture of police knowledge. The police knew nothing of Mr Macintyre’s views, when they opted to pull him from his wheelchair. Mr Macintyre’s ‘radical’ beliefs only came to light after the media did some rummaging.
If this is correct, then we see that it is BBC presenter Ben Brown not the police who seeks to use Mr Macintyre’s beliefs to justify authoritarian actions, a point that Mr Macintyre has made himself (link here). Ben Brown chose to re-situate the facts about Mr Macintyre’s beliefs, place them before the horse of his treatment and in the process justify authoritarian practice. Ben Brown may not be aware that he his doing this, but that’s ideology for you.
The Standard reports that “Alfie Meadows, 20, was allegedly hit with a truncheon as he tried to leave the “kettling” area outside Westminster Abbey during last Thursday's confrontations.”
An Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation is ongoing in to the ‘incident’ involving Archie Meadows. Such an investigation could, though probably won’t, lead to criminal proceedings. This might explain the media’s nervousness in reporting the incident. The Mail stepped close to the line with: ‘Student has emergency brain surgery after “being beaten around the head with police truncheon” during protest’. But I’m still left thinking of sentient truncheons, of truncheons that make their own calls as to whether or not ‘the force continuum’ is high enough to justify assault. The problem is that none of the headlines seem to fit.
Maybe no photographers or film crews were around to film the moment when Archie Meadows was struck, but then, he was kettled, and kettling with its section 60 provisions is a state of exception from which BBC News reporters apparently had to be evacuated during the latter stages of the 9 December demonstration.
By contrast there were paparazzi aplenty to record the moment when proletarian stick touched royal flesh in Regent Street later that evening. Perhaps this explains the more snug ‘fit’ in the headlines that accompanied that incident.
But what separates the concrete actions of a truncheon and the fictional bludgeonings by a knife? A feature of Giligan’s film is the random subjectivity of its victims (a call centre worker, keep-fit fanatic, business women, a tube commuter). They apparently share nothing in common.
The film invites a Marxist interpretation. Its blurb states that:
‘The film explores a world in which the self is reduced to physical biology, directly subject to the needs of capital. Hotels offer bed-warming servants with every room, people are fined for not preventing foreseeable illness, weight watching foods eat the digester from the inside and the unemployed repay their debt to society in physical energy. If on the one hand this suggests the complete domination of life by exchange value do the groupings offer a way out?’
Maybe those who die in the film are victims of an alienated essence that has reared up in hostility before them (let me apologise in advance for Marx’s sexist language):
‘Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.’ Marx, K, 1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: Estranged Labour (

Monday, 13 December 2010

From the police blog

The following is a comment placed on the wonderfully nuanced 'Police Inspector Blog'.
There's alot one could say about this site. But I've settled for the inversion of reality performed by 'Steve'. His talk of 'rising up the force continuum'  would be funny in a Darth Vader type way, were it not so bloody serious.
Anyway, Steve, who I am presuming is a police officer, is not happy about the increasd use of  'Book blocs' during student demos and the negative effect this is having on police tactics.
I believe that 'Book blocs' originated in the Italian student movement. This link by the Wu Ming Foundation provides information as to geneaology. Book blocs are five or so feet high, made of polystyrene (??) replete with lo-tech covers alluding to the writings of various canonical thinkers (popular book covers include 'Negative Dialectics', 'One  Dimensional Man' 'Catch 22' etc).
'Steve', our presumed police officer, refers to these books as 'weapons.' Now I suppose the student holding aloft  'Our World is Our Weapon'  is probably making more than a glib 'knowledge is power' type statement, but still... weapons?  Really?
'I noticed that the little shits have started to make themselves shields disguised as placards from what looks like slabs of foam, they even seem to have handgrips on the back and one I saw on the news was being held by a number of students and all being used to push police back or to prevent the yob from being pushed back or struck. Clearly they are also bringing weapons* to their ‘peaceful protests.

Student 'book blocs'
'The students have upped the ante and are making police tactics that are currently being used less effective. The police are going to have to rise up the force continuum to keep on top of this lot. Somehow I think the use of horses and lack of dogs is a sign of this and heres hoping next time the water cannons and CS are rolled out.'
* your correspondent’s italics

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ibsen’s Master Builder: A narcissist?

A visit to Chichester’s Minerva Theatre to watch an excellent production of Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’.

Master Builder Solness is a narcissist who in the end is outmanoeuvred by the only other character in the world capable of weaving a comparable web of manipulative deceit: another narcissist.

Hilde - played with acerbic energy by Naomi Frederick - is the burgeoning of youth come to displace the older Master Builder Solness; a man obsessed and quite sick with the unending game of self-love and domination. Now, the only effective narcissist is a person equipped to live without ever bowing to the nagging, imploring criticisms of ethical life. All other people – at least the ones that try to avoid using their fellows - are fools, instruments or ‘creatures’ who are either of use or not.

But, there is no point in a narcissist who has ceased suppressing his or her guilt. Such a surrender is at the root of the Master Builder’s demise.

Perhaps this is all a little unfair on the character of Solness. The Master Builder is a play said to be rich in symbolism, and the role of Solness, in keeping with the Master Builder’s own difficult character, is demanding. Michael Pennington, a well respected actor with a distinguished portfolio which includes the RSC, adds to the complexity of Solness’s character in conveying his sophisticated and vulnerable sides. But as ever with this type of maladjusted character, Solness’s vulnerability is not as it seems. His fear and vulnerability is of a different nature to that of the 'well-adjusted' member of civic society.

No, his is a vulnerability born of a lifetime spent repressing guilt: the guilt of building a reputation on the ashes of his wife’s inheritance; the guilt of serial philandery; the guilt of oppressing the people around him. It is the absence of this guilt, the type of guilt that is said to eat away inside, that separates the narcissist from the fully reflective member of the human race. Once the Master Builder can no longer resist this guilt, once he succumbs to it, he becomes human. But it is a phryyic triumph, with the price of now being prey to the narcissistic spirits who were once his bedfellows. It is ultimately this that the narcissist fears, the fear that the golden rule, the rule which enjoins us to treat others as we would have them treat ourselves, that rule which the narcissist is uniquely gifted to exploit, can be turned upon its head.

It is not long before Hilde’s well honed sense for the vulnerable deploys itself – by way of quite subtle manipulation; of Holness’s wife Aline; his underlings; and of the Master Builder himself…

It was the first time I’d seen a play by Ibsen, so I am unsure whether it is to his, or to David Edgar’s, skill in adapting the tale that amidst the play’s symbolic references to guilt, betrayal and domination, the audience is not forced to take a moral stance. For me it seemed to be a reconstruction of the subtle and, often seemingly inoffensive, interplay of domination and manipulation that can occur in real life.

It ends the only way it can – no twist - to the sound of the screaming, hysterical narcissism of Hilde now become master of the Master Builder himself.

- The Master Builder, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 9 October.

Friday, 17 September 2010

‘If it weren’t an enhancement it wouldn’t be a good’

Last weekend I buggered my knee (again) playing cricket. I say ‘again’ because it’s two years since I had an operation to clear up an original injury.

Back then, playing football, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (AKA, by me at any rate, ‘the Gazza injury’) ending any lingering pretentions I had of playing professional football (ok and the fact I was 33-years-old, ok and the fact that I probably, just maybe, wasn’t good enough)

So back then I had an op to graft a new ligament to replace the torn one. And now I fear I’ve re-torn it. Anyway, it dawned on me, really for the first time, that you only get one pair of legs in life. A depressing thought, if an odd one.

You see I think there was part of me, deep down, that thought one day I’d be able to sort the leg out, get it repaired, ‘fix’ it. You only get one set of legs in life, but I could sort that dodgy leg, you know, when the technology was in place and all that. And it would be a good thing.

It was in this context that I read a piece by Professor John Harris on human enhancement technologies.

There are some interesting discussions out there amongst trans-humanist thinkers who emphasise the emancipatory potential of technologies aimed at enhancing our bodies. . There is also a separate movement of ‘liberal eugenic’ thinkers who seek to justify the idea of ‘parental choice’ in the deployment of such technologies, for example, to inscribe desirable traits in their offspring.

Professor Harris writes, I think, from something like the trans-humanist perspective. He’s interested in how technologies can be used to augment our bodies and make them more – dare I say? – bionic. He argues that such enhancements are obviously goods because well, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be enhancements would they?

But in my opinion there is something problematic in the “if it weren’t good for you it wouldn’t be an enhancement” line of thought. The problem is with the basic ‘good’ that is assumed from the outset.

Advocates of ‘liberal eugenics’ seek to justify interventions in the human genome on the basis of parental choice. One of the arguments they present to justify parental choice (for example over the size, eye or skin colour of children) is that there is no difference, from the moral point of view, between genetic enhancements aimed at influencing an embryo’s future life plans, and parental influence over a child’s education or career.

Parents want the best for their children, e.g. – a good career; parents want the best education for their children in order to enhance their career prospects; therefore, what’s wrong with a genetic enhancement that would do the same job? For example, by inscribing the mathematic competence requisite to a job as a hedge fund manager or accountant?

A problem arises here when this type of ‘parental choice’ is uncritically assumed to be a good. And I’m not talking about the good of hedge fund managers. One of the worries presented by thinkers who take a more conservative view of enhancing technologies concerns the capacity of future subjects to take up critical positions in relation to the decisions of their parents and their attendant genetic programmers.

Consider this: I ought to be able to decide whether to say ‘no’ to my parents and opt against being an accountant or hedge fund manager. But a child whose genetic inheritance is inscribed with a propensity to develop the characteristics necessary to play basketball, or play the stock markets, has no say in the matter.

In this account it is the capacity to partake of ethical life itself that is feared by conservative minded thinkers (for example Habermas) on this issue. The worry is that relationships of mutual recognition and the symmetries built into our ethical-moral dealings as members of the species might be jeopardized by the unequal terms implied by a relationship between a genetic programmer/parent disposing over an embryo in such a way that a particular essence is inscribed into that life.

The worry is magnified by the knowledge that tastes in such liberal eugenic enhancements, and the capacity to service them, would be generated and delivered by ‘the market’ in accordance with so-called ‘parental choice’. The danger in this is that we risk sacrificing the ethical self-understanding of future generations in pursuit of a particular essence, image or social status that we as parents prefer.

I’ve decided not to go back to the doctor about my leg. Nor am I contemplating further surgery aimed at ‘rebuilding’ that failing ligament. I’ve made my legs work hard for me for the last 36 years, perhaps there are some things I no longer need to impose upon them.

There is a difference between having a body and merely being a body.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Monday, 21 June 2010

Father's Day Thought

Kids strip you bare. They leave you exposed and open, dethroning any pretensions you might have to preserving your image. They remove pride like a heat gun scraping paint from a window. Totally uninhibited, they make loud requests in public like ‘Mummy? Daddy? Can you wipe my bottom?’

There are lots of things in this world about which I am certain:

• The maxim ‘it is wrong to hunt animals,’ is not universalizable;
• It is pointless to expect sunflowers to grow in a garden infested with grey squirrels; and
• It is unwise to leave the patio door unlocked during balmy nights in Homerton.

But what do I know? No seriously, what do I know? Well, there is one thing I know with a validity as solid as quantum theory. It is this: that children make us better. They are a corrective, a constant, undeviating and metronomic correction to humanity’s death (physically and spiritually).

Hannah Arendt, elaborated something like this with her concept of ‘natality.’

‘the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of being something anew, that is, of acting… Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical thought.’ (Arendt, H, 1958, The Human Condition, pg9).

For Arendt, to act is to begin, to take an initiative, ‘not the beginning of something, but of somebody who is a beginner himself.’ Every child is not merely another life, but a completely unique one, an individual contribution to history. New life promises the hope of smashing the past’s assumed domination of the future.

Birth is the symbolic dividing line between nature and culture or, as Habermas argues, a point of ‘differentiation between the socialization fate of a person and the natural fate of her organism.’ (Habermas, J, 1996, The Future of Human Nature). We can have no say in our own conception and as such are artefacts of nature. But we are also social and historical creatures with the ability to dispose over, and feel at home in, a life history we know to be our own. Natality underpins a presupposition that is key to our essence, it is the presupposition that enables us to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. To accept or reject, to start anew.

Reflecting on one’s life we can take a view, ‘Do I like the way my life has been so far? No? Well I’ll start again.’ Children are masters at affecting this change, they spread it around like a virus.

As an adult I am like an old sash window, the view inside obscured by glazing bars and putty and glass obscuring the view inside. Some sash windows are impossible to prise open after years of painting over. But with a heat gun, one can strip away the paint, perhaps open up the window for the first time in years. That’s what children do. This is natality.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

When is a door not a door...

Enlightening graffiti: 001 'The door'

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Do journalists need a 24-hour news agenda?

Is there anything in human nature that says we ‘need’ 24-hour rolling news?
Of course not, the factor that determines whether or not we ‘need’ 24-hour news is financial.
Like Gucci bags or the Apple ‘tablet’, 24-hour news is a commodity, created in the market place and consumed by customers. It is possible to envisage a life without 24-hour news, as it is possible to envisage a life without a mobile phone or a 150 gigabite mp3 player.
However, once the Pandora’s Box of this ‘need’ has been opened, it is difficult to shut it again (though the thought of stuffing 24-hour news into a box, slamming its lid and straddling it like an overloaded suitcase, does have cathartic appeal).

Anyway I ask this question about 24-hour news because of an exchange on the radio this morning between two Today Programme journalists (well one a journalist, Norman Smith, the other, the presenter Justin Webb). The exchange took place in response to a report by the Better Government Initiative which suggests, (among its many findings which the BBC to its credit also covered) that rolling 24-hour news might be having a negative impact on the decisions politicians make.

During the exchange Mr Smith described the civil servants’ report as a ‘lament about modernity,’ [cue eye-rolling in the studio] conjuring the idea that civil servants who bemoan 24-hour news might be nostalgic for a ‘more sedate’ age when the business of state was conducted differently old chap.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down in the well-worn ethical discussion about whether or not news ought to consist of a journalist interviewing a fellow journalist about a story that could be seen as critical of other journalists in general. I also don’t want to go on about the ‘false consciousness’ that journalists seem to suffer on this issue. Isn’t 24-hour news a product? In principle, might not journalists have reservations about 24-hour news themselves? Is it the 24-hour news agenda itself that results in a situation in which journalists - starved of contacts willing to appear on the Today Programme at 7am – resort to interviewing each other?

What a rubbish argument. We have already established that 24-hour news cannot be stuffed back into a box. But what we have not established clearly is the effect a rolling 24-hour news agenda can have on the quality of the decision-making process.
The report by the Better Government Initiative, far from advocating a return to a ‘more sedate’ age, merely asks whether we need to, at least consider, what effect the media has in influencing the poor decisions that politicians sometimes make.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Good and Conscience: will Tony Blair use 'Conscience' as justification for his decision to invade Iraq

A ticket ballot has been arranged for members of the public eager to hear former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s, evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq.

I’m interested in Mr Blair’s account of the role his conscience played in the war.

A number of arguments have been outlined to explain why we went to war. Most of the arguments have failed to convince most people that the war was justified.

Conscience appears to be Mr Blair’s ultimate justification for invasion and, if used at the inquiry, it will be fascinating to see how he makes his argument.

His evidence is clearly of interest to ordinary members of the public (hence the need to hold a ticket ballot for attendees), but I wonder if any moral philosophers will be present in the audience.

I am currently reading GWF Hegel’s argument about ‘Conscience and the Good’ contained in his Philosophy of Right (sections 129-141)

It gives an interesting account of the role that conscience plays in deciding on what is the right thing to do.

Hegel was particularly concerned that the formal, content less and abstract nature of the subjective consciousness could lead the moral subject to take up erroneous positions when judging the right or moral thing to do.

He further outlined the pitfalls that conscience can fall into, its fallibility, its susceptibility to caprice and the danger that conscience justifies arbitrary acts. Ultimately Hegel warns us that a pure reliance on conscience can serve to undermine the difference between right and wrong. For example, I might tell you that I act with a good conscience when I hold open a door for you. But I might actually hold the door open for different reasons. I might be holding it open for the person walking behind you, or in order to lock the door behind you in order to imprison you.

I don’t know whether Hegel’s account presents anything like the definitive account of the dubious operation of conscience in deciding moral questions. But if it does, then it might have important implications for what I think was Mr Blair’s motivation to go to war.

I hope to write a comprehensive blog that considers Mr Blair’s position alongside Hegel’s arguments once the former PM’s testimony is available.