Tuesday, 31 March 2009

862 - Trickster

I knew that mini-library I've built would come in handy!

Trickster Makes The World is a book by Lewis Hyde (this edition Canongate, 2008), in which he documents and dissects Trickster myths from around the world. Trickster could be a coyote, or a rabbit, or raven, or the nearly-god Hermes, but one thing for sure, he (in the stories it's almost invariably a he) is very, very human!

Trickster is a boundary-crosser, who defines the boundaries that exist by the act of crossing them. He's basically out for what he can get, and grows nimble in the act of getting it, and of not, in the process, getting got by others. Coyote's after food, and escape. Hermes is after godhood, and immortality. Lewis makes the point that the transactions by which trickster progresses (or not) are the same acutely observed psychological tricks by which we make our own way in the world. Out of them is spun the culture that we pass on to the next generation. Being human is about accepting that we are tricksters, even when what we are trying to escape is our tricksterhood.

Immediately, for me, trickster resonates with my own journey. That's the one through religious fundamentalism as a young man, through a consequent fundamentalist rejection of fundamentalism, finally to a shamanic rebirth acknowledging both extremes, but happiest dancing nimbly on the boundary.

On that boundary, a new culture is created.

Here are the parallels: coyote (for example) seeks meat, and at the point of getting it, the point of getting snagged in the trap that lies beneath, leaps back, scratched. But now he's hurt and hungry. He's learnt not to trust his instincts, but not yet to catch the meat which will give him the strength to heal. So he tries another tack. He notes the fly, light enough to land without setting the trap off, and he observes he is getting thinner by the hour. Perhaps if he waits long enough, cunningly, he'll get so thin the food will be his for the taking. But as he thins, his strength ebbs, till, too light to pounce, too heavy to fly, he is caught out a second time. But here's where the world steps in. Brother mouse, or fly, or whoever, at coyote's point of weakness, is able and willing to lift the food from the trap and give it to him. Coyote learns a lesson about the kindness of the world at the same time as he learns his limitations.

And here's me, seeking adulthood, and at the point of achieving it (a career and, more than that, home in the Church), leaping back as I realise the cost is the loss of my a-religious childhood. I'm scratched, as deep as I know, and I've lost my sense of self. So I wait, getting thinner all the time, as the rest of my peers take what they need, and though I try to emulate them, creating the shell of a successful life out of the childhood I have been given, I can never quite generate the sense of adulthood I need. I'm too light. I'm too heavy. But here's where the world steps in. At my point of weakness, asleep one night, I am woken by... what? Love, that's all, given to me by... well, in the end, both by the world I found in church, and the world I knew outside. The meat and the not-meat together, filling that sense of identity up, with what was there all along.

So I'm a trickster, wise that I'll always be a trickster. I'll never be more (or less) than I am, nor do I want to be. But I can now take my part in creating whatever new culture I, my peers, and those that come after, can best use to survive a little longer. What I've learnt is that the natural world is drenched with love, but so is the cultural world. The two interact, tango together, and in the sphere of my own identity, at least, I can set myself dancing howsoever I please.

Monday, 30 March 2009

863 - The Medicalisation of Normality

A very pertinent radio doc this evening on The Medicalisation of Normality, which presents, concentrating on their medical dimensions, many of the issues I've touched on in my recent posts on stories, storytelling and the civil rights of identity.

It will be found on the BBC website here after the Thursday repeat, on Radio 4, at 1630.

I do urge you to listen, if you are able to spare the time for it!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

864 - Free Seas Freeze?

First thoughts...

June 8th is World Ocean Day. North Tyneside is planning a coastwide weekend of events, and a whole bunch of artists and other creatives (but hey, we're all creatives, right?) have been approached by North Tyneside's Artistic Director, Keith Barrett, for ideas.

There are likely to be competitions, street performers, public outdoor artworks, maybe music and dance, up the coast from North Shields to Whitley Bay and beyond. It may be that many communities beyond North Tyneside will be taking part.

The idea I'm wanting to pitch I imagined, initially, as some form of flash mob activity. I pictured a crowd converging on a pre-arranged spot along the coast, for example on the beach below Rendezvous Cafe, and, for five minutes or so engaging in some kind of coordinated activity, before dispersing. The best example I found online was a Big Freeze at Grand Central Station, New York.

But I think the idea's evolved. World Ocean Day exists to raise our respect for the oceans, and our awareness of the need to protect world oceans from global warming, pollution and exploitation. What if, rather than a self-selecting group of a hundred or so flash mobbers (might still work this way, though?), North Tyneside promoted the participation of everyone at the coastal festival in a two-minute (say) Big Freeze - a Free Seas Freeze.

Creating a free seas frieze, a kind of time-limited 3D postcard along Tynemouth Long Sands, Cullercoats Bay, Whitley Bay and up to St Mary's Lighthouse. There could be some kind of time signal, a flare, cannon burst or fog-horn. Everyone who wanted to would stop still. And after two minutes we'd unfreeze.

That's my pitch, anyway. At present.

865 - Aardhox

In honour of the Whitley Bay Festival of the Great Ox (day late), here's a bit of genetic engineering.

The aardhox is a cross between an aardvark (that's the snouty, anteater bit), a horse (that's the general quadruped physicality of the thing), and an ox (that's the sentimental, got-to-tie-it-in-somehow bit)....

The beast can be found splashed on tarmac at the other end of the prom to the Five-Legged Space Rabbit.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

866 - The Greatest Abstraction, Of Course, Is...

... Love....

867 - Wild Money

I'm riffing on Jay Griffith's books, Pip Pip (which I've just started) and Wild (which was a beautiful and formative read a year back). Also a post I wrote near the start of the blog, and the pressure I place myself under, from time to time, to justify what I do in monetary terms - which is a question to do, I think, with identity.

In Pip Pip Jay writes about cultural perceptions of Time. She juxtaposes the abstract measurement of time favoured by the West, all clockwork and binary, with the innate sense of time we carry within us. The sense that is wild, and therefore of a piece with the rest of Nature, that monitors where we are in time by our hunger patterns, the impact of light on skin, the buzz and birdsong of other lives around us. Abstraction, she argues, seems thin by comparison.

Much of what she argues is concerned with the politics of cultural driving forces, and therefore that other abstraction, money. She quotes the 'miserable' Benjamin Franklin, who made the link explicitly: "time is money". And what I'm wondering is (and probably in her book she gets to this, but I've not read it yet), is there, therefore, such a thing as wild money?

I like my idea about money being a work battery, abstracted from the sheer sweaty bulk of a sack of produce (or the time taken to harvest it) to the point where it can be contained as a row of imprints on a magnetic strip, a line on a bank account. I also like the insight that all it requires to sustain the meaningfulness of that line is a massive social contract, in the same way that batteries store energy, but only if you keep them in optimum condition.

Spelling it out further: just as it takes energy to store electric energy in battery form, it takes energy to store kinetic energy in monetary form, so that all one does, by maintaining a viable financial system, is shift the burden of work from the harvester to the gold-miners, accountants, IT people, forgery prevention units, till manufacturers, wallet-makers, educators, nutritionists (because it takes wits to remember all those pin numbers) and yes, defense establishment, who perpetuate the systems of symbols that a successful financial transaction rides on. And if, in the end, all we are talking about is the reallocation of energy expenditure from one area to another, isn't it fair to say that money, as much as anything else in nature, is ultimately subject to the laws of conservation of energy?

I think this prepares the ground. If we have a spectrum of increasing abstraction, with graft at one end and financial currency at the other, and if we also recognise that neither end is more or less energy efficient than the other, we can begin to argue that exchange can legitimately occur anywhere along that line. We can proceed to argue that anything that involves the reciprocation of effort for effort is worthy of the term 'money', and that the imposition of one form of currency on a people is an act of cultural imperialism. We can start to celebrate the varieties of moneys available to us, just as Jay celebrates the varieties of time. Indeed we can start to talk meaningful of 'worth' across peoples, and even species, holistically.

I don't think this is to say, necessarily, that modernism 'got it wrong' - just that there is no reason to proceed as if modernism is the only right there can ever be. Richard Kearney, postmodern philosopher and Irish peace-broker, among other things, is right on this: Postmodernism, which gets a bad press in some quarters, is surely about the recognition that modernism is only one of many many cultural, indeed personal, stories open to us. It is therefore truly wild. So it would seem entirely reasonable if, just as postmodernism has led to the rediscovery of diversity and paganism at the heart of our cultural and religious systems, so too we should be rediscovering our place within a cosmically wild economy.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

868 - Pip Pip Quote

This, on the fourth page, probably sums up Jay Griffith's book (but thankfully there are 314 more joyously to read):

"The Karen always know the time. Living with them for six months it became clear to me that the only person with a watch and the only person who could never tell the time was, well, myself. To the Karen, the forest over the course of a day supplied a symphony of time, provided you knew the score. The morning held simplicity in its damp air, unlike the evening's denser wet when steam and smoke thickened the air. Backlit by sun a huge waxy banana leaf at noon became green-gold stained glass, cathedralizing time. Barely one of my hours later, it was just a matt, bottle-green leaf, useful verdure, a plate for rice, a food-wrapper. Birds sang differently at different hours and while the soloists of life are always with us, the whole orchestra of the forest altered, shifting with the sun's day, all the noisy relations between birds, animals and insects, making chords of time played in all the instrumental interactions. Western time seems a thin, thin reedy peep of a thing by comparison."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

869 - Shelf Life

All other books to the bottom of the pile - my library's got hold of this one for me!

[And here is the author's website, with excerpts from the book.]

870 - Great Timing

...And as I contemplate the final paragraph of my last post, about what I am doing, and how it plays with labels, and the state's use of them, who should ring up but Business Link:

"Hi, I'm calling on behalf of Business Link and One North East [local Government funding body]. You had some contact with us over the last twelve months. Can I ask you a few questions, for auditing?"

"Yes, but... [laughs]... the answers might be a bit complicated."

"Er... okay. This call may be recorded, for training purposes. Your business idea, have you put it into practice yet? Are you trading?"

"Mm. Well, it's kind of an artistic idea, and one of the things I'm questioning is whether we need money to run a society."

"So... are you invoicing anyone yet?"

"Well... "

"Can I say you're 'in between'?"

"Yes. Yes, that's definitely okay." [I'm thinking, having just typed the post I've typed, I can't back off now, but 'in between' is just the phrase I need. Thank you, audit-boy!]

"Okay, so I'll say you haven't started trading yet. So that's everything. I don't need to ask you anything more."

"Okay, then."


"I said it'd be complicated."

"Okay, bye."


If that's the sound of Business Link shutting me up in a shoebox, I hope I was able to dance around on its edge a bit before they fit the lid on.

871 - Another Way of Putting It...

... is to ask, "Why not make art out of your identity?"

I guess this is what Gilbert and George do, and Grayson Perry, alongside their artworks in more conventional media. Their identities are as important to us as their stained-glass, their ceramics: the duo, impeccably dressed; the cross-dresser with an alter-ego, Claire.

Gilbert and George, says Wikipedia, 'refuse to disassociate their art from their everyday lives, insisting that everything they do is art. The pair regard themselves as "living sculptures".' Their work, profiled by the Tate Modern in 2007, defies restriction, but includes, in the words introducing the exhibition, 'raw examinations of humanity stripped bare; ... sex advertisements to religious fundamentalism'.

On graduating from art school, Grayson Perry 'joined the "Neo-Naturists", a group started by Christine Binnie to revive the "true sixties spirit – which involves living one’s life more or less naked and occasionally manifesting it into a performance for which the main theme is body paint”.'' Quote, again, from the big W. Perry links his subject matter to himself explicity in this comment: "Sex, war, and gender are subjects that are part of me and fascinate me and I feel I have something to say about them".

My own medium is ultimately myself. I take the labels I have earned or adopted over the years, exploring them, subverting them, and layering them around me: librarian, married man, gardener, one-time evangelical christian, care-worker, vicar, artist/illustrator, director/ storymaker, and so on. There's something pure about carrying your art about on, and only on, your own person. A challenge, too, when your personhood is as much an aspect of that art as the clothes you wear, or your occupation. More so. Your neural network becomes your medium, the network's plasticity your pen-marks and draftsmanship. Played in extremis, your work is invisible, unless you choose to express it, because it lies underneath the skin.

The work taps into current fascination with avatars and incarnation, role-playing and celebrity life, gender expression, the public/private dichotomy, and attempts by the state, or religious fundamentalists, to pin down identity, to assign economic and social worth to the labels we wear. It links with the cyborg art made by people like Stelarc.

The ultimate expression of one's identity as Art is also, potentially, an act of subversion, because, to take up Gilbert and George's rallying cry, it is - more than paint on paper, or writing groups, or amateur dramatics - Art for All. Everyone has access to their identity: there's no threshhold to cross. What you see of them may be artifice: you've no way, unless they choose to tell you, and even then they might be dissembling, of knowing.

But could one dissemble? Because by admitting this dissembling aspect of myself onto the palette with which I work, I must, by definition, ally myself with whatever lies closer to my core. Closer than any act of falsehood or truth-telling. This roots the artistic act in questions of spirituality and ultimate reality. It's no longer a threat: it's too important for that.

Grayson Perry makes his art on pots, because pots possess, he says, an inherent humility. The bible has something similar to say about people: we are cracked pots. Nice, therefore, to end by taking the hyperbole of the preceding paragraph and admitting that it is spoken by an exceedingly humble piece of earthenware. A talking pot? Now that's potty.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

872 - Big Sticks

E and I dropped into the Sage, Gateshead, lunchtime today, on a walkabout around the Tyne. We knew there was a Jazz festival this weekend and, on the off-chance, were hoping for some music in the concourse area.

Well, was there some music!

The Sage has been running an inter-generational drumming project called Big Sticks. As we walked in the project organisers were setting out the concourse for a showcase concert. Kids had been encouraged to take part, bringing with them a parent, carer, grandparent, neighbour, friend, whoever. After a day or three of rehearsal, today they performed.

Fabulous sounds! Drums and marimbas; shouts of affirmation; clapping; a crecheful cacophony of squeaky toys and football rattles; an acrobat percussionist; audience morphing into performers; performers from three to three score ten, and then some; stratospheric cute levels, and best of all, I thought, a blast to hear a hundred plus people drumming nine bells out of Norman Foster's architecture. Architecture should be played! (How can you love what fails to resonate?)

As the music started we realised one of our friends, a former colleague of mine, was in the audience, and it wasn't long before we saw her husband and son file into the performance space. Our friend asked me afterwards what I was up to, and I could find no better way to explain what I do than to say, "See this, which is so joyful, but must have taken a huge commitment to bring off - I'm about helping it happen wherever, whenever. Why shouldn't a minute of meeting be a story you can go home with? So I'm about making stories out of the everyday."

I happen to believe we all do this. Big Sticks did it splendidly for E and I, especially because our friends were a part of it. And religious people do it through the spreading of massive metanarratives, which we are invited to participate in of a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Writers do it through elaborately constructed worlds shared, for the most part, one-to-one. And we all do it, simply by presenting or absenting ourselves to or from one another, giving our time for others to myth-make with: our time, our activity, our being.

After Friday's post about reprioritising, it's great to be reminded that I'm still on the right track, however potty it might sometimes sound.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

873 - Early Morning Walk in Whitley (3/3)

08.35 at the window of the old Rainbow amusements arcade, with reflections of refurbished Playhouse

874 - Early Morning Walk in Whitley (2/3)

08.20 at the Briardene

875 - Early Morning Walk in Whitley (1/3)

07.50 approaching the beach from Park Road

Friday, 20 March 2009

876 - Reprioritising

Funny how a post clears the air. This one has cleared up a lot for me. The point of stories being to give relevance to life, which is in turn to be lived as a story of stories.

My story recently has been one of radically questioning why society looks the way it does, and how alternative models may be generated, not because this society is necessarily wrong in itself, but because it's always good to have something in your back pocket for the (it'll never happen) (not if I can help it) Apocalypse.

Time perhaps, having made that clear, to put away some of the books, and get a little bit less radical, a little bit more integrated.

So, from Monday, I want to dip my toe back into the rat-race. Or at least, pro-actively articulate and get engaged with it. Face-to-face articulate, not blogosphere articulate. Proportionately less time poring over books in Starbucks, and more ... anything else, really - purely, you understand, in the interests of a good story. Money being a work battery, and all that: I could even do a bit of work for money...

Reckon I can? Honestly, I'm not sure, actually. Employment has given me a headache in the past (literally - stress): I like being my own boss. When I'm my own boss, I don't get headaches. So at this stage I'm reprioritising from, without actually knowing what I'm reprioritising to.

Which is perhaps to say, the whole of this post has been phoney. Part of me wants a zappy Goddy thing to take me out of myself and set me down in a body with neurons rewired to be - I don't know - a happy mind-doctor or shop-manager or something. Part of me likes my whole Che Guevara house-husband persona. Part of me would just like to go down to HMV and pick up the first series of Battlestar Gallactica, blow the fact that it costs £50. Part of me says, hey, you know you're a vicar, whether you like it or not, 'cos of that love-blast you got back in 2003 (or was it 1989?). And isn't the world just weird? And isn't that the point of your story?

What's it gonna be?

877 - Coraline and The Point of Story

Another post trying out an answer to the question "What's the point of story? No, really?"

So we've got yer innate psychology, evolved to the point where we are pretty darn good at surviving. Involves stuff like the assignment of intention to other creatures. Allows for the development of a supernatural worldview when intention is assigned to natural forces like the weather, and death, and fertility, and creation.

Then we've got yer science, which can pretty much explain everything about everything by now, including the hardwiring of consciousness, and placebo effects, and the mass-movements of crowds, not to mention the emergence of complexity (including life) and the fact that most things don't need a source of intention for them to do what they do.

David Lewis-Williams writes: "the essence of being human is an uncomfortable duality of 'rational' technology and 'irrational' belief. We are still a species in transition." His implication, on the surface at least, is that we are moving from a belief-driven state to a scientific one. At the moment we are somehow stuck in the middle.

Then we have the beauty of a paragraph such as this one from Neil Gaiman's Coraline (Boomsbury, 2003):

Coraline went over to the window and watched the rain come down. it wasn't the kind of rain you could go out in, it was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed. It was rain that meant business, and currently its business was turning the garden into a muddy, wet soup. (p. 15)
Now, I am sure you could read this paragraph believing it to be literally true. So the rain would have business, which at other times might include forty days washing away the sins of the world, or providing a bountiful crop in response to a decent sacrifice, or some such.

Or you could read it through an engineer's lens, stripping it of belief. Perhaps the thought that rain had business would seem incomprehensible, and thus be ignored. Or, mechanically, you'd have to 'tag' the incomprehensible thought as a metaphor, once you'd established it was impossible, of course, meaning a double reading of the paragraph, rather than a single one. And you'd always have to allow that your hypothesis was just that - a falsifiable hypothesis.

Is it true that we are evolving from the first state to the second? Is either preferable to the other?

I picked up Coraline at Waterstone's, because it has been made into a new film, and also because I've not read it yet, despite it being on my reading-list since it was written, but most of all because I spent the morning reading theology, and intended to read science this afternoon, and at lunchtime I wanted something different.

The experience of entering a story world, of experiencing it taking shape before my eyes (behind them too), as the master storyteller selected first one word, then another, till his whole creation sang, gave me the space I was seeking. Space to do what? To settle into my humanity as neither a creature of blind belief nor pedantry. And somehow, as I read the story, I found myself with space not just to appreciate the tale, but the writer for creating it, and the people around me enjoying the sun as I read. In turn, this experience made my efforts of morning and afternoon relevant.

I dare say we may move to a society where everything is explainable materialistically, and we feel free to jettison all our religious beliefs. Or we might relapse into fundamentalist supernaturalism, shunning contact with the world, and each other (and, given that we know science can even explain emotional states, our own inner selves).

But I prefer to think that we're actually pretty sorted where we are at present. Periodically we can let science clear the religious slate, so that we're not beholden to superstition. Or let ourselves remember that science is, after all, only a belief system - probably the right one, though perhaps it's just a fickle god allowing us to believe that.

But with the religious slate clear, and the permission of hard science to invest our sugars and neurons and overall physicality in any world we create upon it, the field is open for us, storytellers all, to exercise our humanity in the creation of any story, or stories, we might wish.

Every story we encounter along the way reaffirms that truth. And that's the point of story.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

878 - Storying

No good fighting a Civil Rights campaign for freedom of identity on the negatives.

This is the positive. With freedom of identity we can story.

I wrote an earlier post on storying, though I didn't call it such.

Storying is the verb. Storying is the sport. Storying is living your life as a riff on the stories you know, mashing them up to create new ones, adding your own freshly composed tales to the mix. Storying is the fully conscious life.

Storying is to the conformed life what parkour is to the restriction of public access, mashing up is to popular music, and grafitti is to consumer culture.

In the end we all story, just as we all parkour the space our bodies occupy, sing our songs while we breathe, and leave our mark in the memories of those who come after us. We story because we have the freedom to know who we are, and who we are is, in the privacy of our minds, our own to decide.

Storying is not new. Religious folk who are born again choose their new identities, mash themselves into the body and life of Christ, or the Umma; change their names to mark what they do.

Poets and eccentrics fashion counter- or hyper-cultural personalities, like Dylan Thomas or Quentin Crisp.

You or I do it when we leave a movie and let ourselves be Indy or Erin Brockovich for half an hour, squared-shouldered and witty, until something reminds us that it was just a movie and they are made up, and we have responsibilities (never mind the responsibility to enthuse others, or fight injustice expecting to win).

Celebrities do it, being Madonna, or Jordan, or Jade, or Jamie, or Orlando. It's method-acting, real time. There's a cost, but only because storying is seen as a privilege, to be offset by pain. Storying is not a privilege, it's a right.

Games players do it, and second-lifers, but you don't need the technology - that's a tool, not a necessity. You can free-run bare-foot. You can be your avatar off-screen.

Everyone stories, over a lifetime, over generations, day by day, minute by minute. Think of the shortest story you can, and make it happen (remember the twist, though; the learning experience; you won't be the same person leaving the story as you were entering it).

Storying is a deliberate act by which we take the natural narrative of our lives - birth, life, death - and fashion it into what we want it to be. Perhaps it has its own morality - villains get their comeuppance, somehow; love blossoms, dies and is reborn. After all, a bad story fails to satisfy. Sometimes, perhaps, it crosses into fantasy. That's okay.

And stories can be abandoned: put down, or away, and started again.

Storying can transform a community. Watch it happen in Whitley Bay. Real time.

879 - Two Quotes on Identity and Civil Rights

The first from Susan Greenfield:
What would it actually be like to have a community where everyone was fired up, excited by the act of revelation and discovery, with such a strong and robust sense of self that each was impervious to the needs or reactions of others?...

One answer might be to limit the number of those in society who were creative...

[Or] lets take a different tack. Perhaps the answer might lie, not in contriving different stereotypes, but in drawing on the advantage that each offers to society.... All four scenarios - Someone, Nobody, Anyone and Eureka - have their place in the narrative of a human life story, as well as in enabling a fully functional and successful society. The problem until now has been that the balance hasn't been right - neither for the individual nor for the particualar society in which they live. But now, for the first time in human history, the technology is there to enable us to have not just the technological toolkit but also the time and space to shape a world that creates an environment where all four personas can be developed into an integrated portfolio....

(Greenfield, i.d., pp. 290-1)

The second from David Lewis-Williams, and anthropologist writing about Upper Paleolithic cave painting

Here I examine interaction of mental activity and social context: how, I ask, do notions about human experience that are shared by a community impinge on the mental activity of individuals and how does socially controlled access to certain mental states become a foundation for social discrimination?

(Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2002, pp. 9-10)

The two authors are writing about the same subject, creativity interacting with community, but Greenfield writes about the 21st century, Lewis-Williams about the 120th century BC. Both recognise the potential for social discrimination in the way creativity is handled.

Three things chill me about Greenfield's analysis.

The first is that, although she herself does not advocate the suppression of creativity (explicitly, she chooses 'a different tack', though not before sketching the social engineering that would be necessary in order to limit the number of creative people to a minority), other policy makers, more pragmatic and less ethically motivated, might.

The second is that I strongly suspect that her partition of life into four equal mindsets - creative, individualist, community-minded and full of wild abandon - is simply wrong. Rather, it seems to me, creativity expresses itself through the other mindsets, allowing us to transcend them. Categorising creativity on a par with the others implies that there are times when creativity is not appropriate, but, say, drudgery for the common good is. But doesn't this remove the imagination that could transform the drudgery, through hope of better times, subversive humour, and inventiveness? Leading rapidly to a situation where those that are privileged are able to remove themselves from the need to slog, at the expense, by default, of those - the identity-poor? - whom they legislate to stay in place, keeping an unequal society ticking over.

The third is that Greenfield assumes that only thanks to technology do we have the ability to shape a fully integrated human life. This theory hobbles us, tying us to tools that only the rich, individually and as nations, can afford. It belies the evidence of evolution and extant hunter-gatherer communities, as Lewis-Williams' quote implies, as well as those creatives who we let ourselves celebrate, but maintain are dysfunctional, forgetting that their dysfunctionality is as likely to be a product of the suppression of creativity elsewhere in post-agricultural society as it is a personal disability. If only technology can fix it, we have a license for physical intervention and legislation. But if it is part of our humanity to be creative, such restriction can at best challenge us, at worst harm us.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

880 - Someone, Anyone, No-one...

I'm on the final chapter of Susan Greenfield's book, i.d. - The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century (Sceptre, 2008). Though she is prone once or twice to sneak in an over-blown scare, I like the clarity with which she explores the neuroscience of identity construction, and teases out the possible implications of information, nano- and biotechnologies on the way our brains become personalised into minds. I've linked to a bad review: the book's not perfect, but read it as one scientist's work-in-progress, and be argumentative with it in the margins, and, I think, it becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Like so:

Greenfield is arguing that environmental influence upon the plasticity of neurons within the human brain can bias a mind, over the course of its lifetime, towards one of three possible configurations: an identity can be caricatured either as Someone, Nobody, or Anyone.

Someone is, in Greenfield's words, someone like us. Nobody is someone from her grandchildren's generation, and those who follow. Anyone is someone fundamentalist, though not necessarily religious. And at times I had to work hard to shake free the voice of Greenfield's objective scientist, which is pretty convincing, from her subjective take on the desirability or otherwise of each identity, evident in the summary above.

Greenfield's own summary, worth quoting, is from pages 277-8:

The defining feature in the Someone identity would be relations with others: behaviours that symbolize, and are reactive to, one's own status vis-a-vis others in any particular society. The brain would be characterized by extensive neuronal networks... malleable enough to be constantly updated and changed in response to shifting values and status as a result of ongoing experience...

Meanwhile the defining feature of the Anyone identity would be actions: the ritualized motions and prescribed patterns of living out each day.... Connections here would be as extensive as in the Someone brain, yet less changed by the happenstance of the moment. The stronger, more rigid neuronal network would... allow for a more robust, internally derived and less conditional identity, but also... more uniform and predictable.

The Nobody brain would be the antithesis of this. Here... there would be no frames of reference.... The brain would be maximally receptive to incoming stimuli, but with relatively less neuronal networking to assign any 'meaning': the emphasis would be more on sensation than on cognition.... [Its] defining feature... would be raw feelings.

Two issues have arisen for me in the reading of the text so far. The first is that it is also possible to conceive of a fourth caricature, so that in the same way that Greenfield contrasts Anyone with Nobody, Someone can be contrasted with a fresh identity formation, that of Everyone. I want to explore this in my next post, because it does sound whacky at first.

The second issue concerns the two sustained threads of argument used by Greenfield to make her case.

The first thread is one of detailed neuroscientific description, supplemented by observations from life and social sciences. The second, which the Guardian review, by Jane O' Grady, uses to disarm the book, is the theory that what separates us from other animals is our ability to think metaphorically. If our identity is, essentially, an elaborate metaphor, developed and sustained across networks, sensitive to the concepts of cause and effect, past-present-future, within the prefrontal cortex - rather than the brain's primitive, stimulus-response-stimulus driven older tissues - then excessive exposure to intense stimulation as a result of screen technologies might constitute a neural environment in which the more evolved regions become less and less involved in identity formation.

The trouble, as I see it, is that although Greenfield (correctly, in my opinion) equates metaphorical thinking with narrative, she equates narrative solely with the idea of a past-present-future timeline. Thus narrative and metaphor become properly logical, but are contrasted to the stimulus driven arts, like poetry, of which Greenfield writes: "poetry does not depend on a logical set of steps, or even on a correct sequence of words: by tapping into our half-formed, pre-existing associations it gives us sometimes an insight, but always a powerful here-and-now experience." (pp. 161-2)

Knowing poets, as I do, and the science with which the best of them apply their craft, this seems to me to be only half a definition, and muddies Greenfield's argument. David Edgar, the playwright, at The Story Engine Conference, recently made the same point, from the opposite direction, when he called upon the screen-writers present to remember that a good story is about more than its storyline - it is character and atmosphere and whatever else too.

And it seems to me, with the little evolutionary psychology that I know, that our ability to 'read' a landscape holistically, to compare our experience of, say, tree with tree, fruit with poison, only when combined with a sense of cause and effect, the essence of time passing, will result in metaphorical, and at the same time narrative, thinking. The tools of metaphor are simile and logic - to say that a man is a mountain is first, surely, to say he is like a mountain, then to acknowledge he may only become one through the passage of time. In narrative the story of that change is told; in metaphor time is conflated and the metamorphosis (Ovid's term, of course) laid before us in a moment.

Hardwire this understanding of cognitive processes into Greenfield's neuroscientific model, and, though I am by no means a neuroscientist, I suspect the troublesome kinks in her argument are removed, together, perhaps - and rather interestingly for all kinds of reasons - with the need to panic as our identities evolve.

[These thoughts to be teased out in greater depth later!]

Monday, 16 March 2009

881 - Holywell Dene 5/5

882 - Holywell Dene 4/5

883 - Holywell Dene 3/5

884 - Holywell Dene 2/5

(The trees all lean this way, don't cha know?)

885 - Holywell Dene 1/5

Five photos from Holywell Dene on Saturday. An 8 mile walk with E and my parents: from house to the Beehive Inn, to the Dene, to Seaton Sluice, to St Mary's Lighthouse, and home again, which took in the North Tyneside Wagonway System, a fine farmland pub, this wooded dene, great cakes at the sluice's Castaway Teashop, the Lighthouse, and a sea-wind like a scourbrush all the way home.

886 - Graphic

In tribute to the Hernandez Brothers, whose transcendent punk graphic magic-realism Latin American tales are collected under the title Love and Rockets, my one-day-to-be-written comic about the North East Coast will be called Coves and Coquet...

Saturday, 14 March 2009

887 - Loo Fractal

Reinforced glass above the Gents outside Rendezvous Cafe

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

888 - Identity is Story

In the wee small hours this sounds profound, so publish and be damned.

The civil right of identity is the right to tell stories.

Tell your life story: it is who you are.
Tell a story about your life;
Tell it how you please;
Tell it in whatever manner you please:
In words,
In pictures,
By your actions,
With explanation,
In contradiction,
Many times and
Ways over.

Tell it quietly, among friends;
Tell it with friends -
Tell stories together:
About your kin,
About your kind,
About humankind,
Tell stories about this world;
Tell them about this world and its kind,
And others not of its kind -
Forge your identity:
Only the unkind could steal it.

My stories are not to be stolen,
Made slave, nor slave master:
I am not to be made victim by stories you tell of me.
I am the master of my own tales -
Director, captain,
Beloved ravisher.
Ariadne taught me to weave:
Like you, I weave well.

The grandest narrative is
No narrative at all
Unless we wish it to be -
As the man once said:
"I am forsaken!" - till he
Claimed his stories back,
Or forged new ones,
To tell on the road to his companions,
Or so they told us -
More than could fill all the books of this world.

Our right of identity is the right to tell stories.
Under threat we will see our stories stolen away.
I will not let my story be stolen.
I will tell my stories
Even if to myself.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

889 - Storymaker

I bought this bracelet from Lebeado in West Jesmond. You pay by the letter, then string the bracelet yourself.

The idea is snitched from Ira Lightman, who is a friend and conceptual poet - a description he threaded onto a necklace and wears to his performances.

I thought, for my purposes, a bracelet would be more discreet. I wear this around town as a vicar might wear a dog-collar, to express my desire to be a 'storymaker' for people. It's loose enough to slip forward on my wrist if I want to increase the chances of people noticing it, and pokes out of my sleeve coquettishly otherwise.

The only drawback is that sometimes the 's' gets stuck on the fastener, revealing the rather more alarming label 'TORYMAKER' instead.

890 - Moon Over Bourbon Street Tonight...

Full moon tonight.

(Sting's brother used to own the building where the Boardwalk Cafe is now, I heard - )

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

891 - The Civil Rights of Identity

Following this post I've grown more and more certain that there is a fundamental rights issue, concerning identity, related to our freedom, as human beings, to choose to define ourselves by labels, or not.

The civil rights movement has in the past fought for equal rights regardless of sex, race or gender. Totemic battles over voting rights for women, the abolition of slavery, and Gay Pride movements, have come to symbolise wider struggles, some of which have lasted centuries. There is now, in Britain as elsewhere, a battle over our future obligation to carry ID cards. This battle could be a lone stand, or it could be totemic of a wider struggle. I suspect the latter is true.

The following is a quote from Susan Greenfield's book on i.d., about the world she anticipates is breaking upon us as a result of information technology. Note the tone:

Perhaps future generations will live instead, in the fast-paced, immediate world of screen experience: a world arguably trapped in early childhood, where the infant doesn't yet think metaphorically. It's a world, remember, that lacks the checks and balances of the adult mind: reality can blur easily with fantasy, since there is no read-off against past conversations, thoughts or events. It is consequently a frightening, exciting, unpredictable and above all emotionally-charged world - a world of immediate response rather than one of reflective initiative. (p.180)
The implication of this passage, as I read it, is that although sensual, deliberately choosing such a life would be irresponsible, unreflective. The word Susan Greenfield uses later is reckless.

The book concerns me, because, as Greenfield herself explains early on in her book (p.ix), as an eminent scientist and a Baroness, she has contributed to debates in the House of Lords with, presumably, the aim of informing Britain's future cultural and legislative direction. And it is worth pausing to consider who would be impacted by any attempt to redress widespread neurologically-related irresponsibility. Over the course of the book, drawing on medical studies, Greenfield provides a list of people prone to recklessness:

1. Children;
2. Schizophrenics;
3. The neurologically damaged;
4. Those in romantic love;
5. Others prone to psychotic episodes;
6. The sleep deprived;
7. The obese;
8. Takers of drugs, such as cannabis, that promote, or replicate dopamine in the brain;
9. Sportsmen and women and others who engage in physical activities that alter temporarily the mind;
10. Future-generation users of screen-based technology;
11. Those genetically predisposed to take risks.

Because I recognise myself in the description above, and also its similarity to the description of hunter-gatherers provided by Hugh Brody in his book, The Other Side of Eden, where the lack of checks and balances recognised by the Western World derives from a fundamentally different set of cultural experiences, to this list I would add:

12. Those who have achieved a degree of maturity, having processed conflicting fundamentalist worldviews,
13. Indigenous Hunter-Gatherers and those who endeavour to live inspired by them.

That's a fair few people. And although Greenfield does not treat them all equally, she does define them against a perceived adult norm.

The fundamental problem to me is that Greenfield's 'adult norm', full of checks and balances, and shaped by the twentieth century schooling system, not to mention four-hundred plus years of the printed word, sounds simply like the Modernist worldview. And her list of the reckless (with the inclusion of my two additions) is a combination of everything the Modernist worldview disproves of, from infantilism, to addiction, to wild romanticism, to mental disturbance, to the uncivilised, to the hedonistic, to the not strictly scientifically positivist, to the postmodern and geeky.

We live in a world of tribes, and we currently deal with those we take issue with by labelling them. It's okay, they're not our tribe, so we know they are not like us. We're happy, should someone choose a label for themselves, to consort with them, our own sense of identity intact. We're even happy if others define themselves against the label we give them, like Jimmy Dean, or Doctor Horrible. That's the modernist way.

But I meet, and hear of, growing numbers of people who are not happy to be labelled. There is the teenager on the metro who is uncomfortable with being an '-ist'. I understand this is a common attitude amongst Generation Y. There are Christians in the evangelical tradition who reject the 'Christian' label - I suspect this is true across many religions. There are movements in psychology away from the labelling of syndromes. In an age where work is transitory, growing numbers of people distrust the badge of their profession as the mark of who they are. I know of people who do not like to be defined by their marital status, as most forms in Britain currently require.

I'm not calling for the abandoning of tribes, of identities, of labels. I am calling for the freedom to choose whether to be labelled or not. We were not born pre-packaged. We should be free to choose how we define ourselves, or even if we define ourselves at all.

If this freedom is not fought for, or retained, we set up a world of categories and divisions. Systems like i.d cards will formalise them and restrict... what? Hunter-gatherers may give us a clue. These peoples live in a data-rich, unexplained world - the one Greenfield fears, in the form of new technologies, is coming for us all. And guess what? They evolved - we evolved, because we are they - precisely to be able to do so.

Labels direct our freedom to respond to life, in tune with or counterpoint to it, whatever it throws at us, be it uncommon experiences, the ability to participate in mass movements, the chance to risk all for a dream, or for someone we love, the mass-democratisation and new experiences embodied in screen technologies. But we need, surely, to be free to leave those labels behind, take time out, perhaps permanent time out, to be fully human, because they can also restrict our freedom, or exclude us.

If I am right, a struggle is already in progress between those who seek to identify themselves and others, and those who retain the right to remain uncategorised, and not to categorise others. In fullness of time this civil rights movement will be won by those who admit a way for the two worldviews to live together permanently and peacefully, or for one or the other to fade away naturally. This is about fundamentalists and liberals, in all spheres, and a world where both can co-exist.

May I suggest that one way to circumvent the logic traps of modernist civil rights thinking, which might risk labelling one or other side as 'good' or 'bad', would be to speak in stories, and dreams, like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

892 - This Is Not A Political Blog...

...but what the heck does Harriet Harman mean by this quote about Sir Fred Goodwin and his overwheeningly fat pension?

"And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in."

Does the government really govern by rating public opinion over the rule of law? Did it step in over Iraq? Does it over the death penalty? No (I hope) and no and no.

So there is no consistency to this argument at all, and unless it is argued out properly, through parliament and the courts, acting on it could be perceived as an abuse of power.

Not a political blog, but I lean leftwards, just so that you know where I'm coming from.