Thursday, 30 April 2009
Underwhelmed silence. I feel slightly uncomfortable.
"It's a really great book!" I say, over-compensating. "And I'm going to blog... And shop - there's sandwich fillings we're short of."
How do I get across just what I mean by reading? Because it's not only that there is a subtext, there's an entire sub-culture signified by the word. Machiavelli, apparently, used to set a table for two, and dress up in suitable costume, before opening a book: that way he showed his respect to the author - they were eating together.
So here's a list of what I do when I read, sat in the caff with a cup of tea and a pencil in hand:
1. I am reading;
2. I am brainstorming;
3. I am creatively interacting, with the text and people around me;
4. I am performing a piece of art called 'The Reader";
5. I am using my time constructively while I wait for the Church to catch up;
6. I am inviting interruption;
7. I am promoting books, and all things bookish;
8. I am occupying a seat in the caff, thereby contributing to its appearance as the kind of place you might enjoy reading a book in (but I don't get free coffee for this);
9. I am not trashing the streets, or mouldering in front of daytime TV;
10. I am sending out love and peace vibes;
11. I am intriguing people;
12. I am blending in;
13. I am deconstructing the prevalent assumption that to be a worthwhile member of society you have to tick boxes, stress over work, and live a line on someone else's bankroll;
14. I am dancing (inside, textually);
15. I am reducing my carbon footprint;
16. I am growing neural connections;
17. I am tending my marginalia;
18. I am travelling, by ink and bleached wood-fibre, miles and miles;
19. I am a programme running on the analogue internet;
20. I am a librarian without walls...
Wednesday, 29 April 2009
That you are the centre of that story,
That you are in control of your story:
no religion, philosophy or science has ever promised more than this. The religion I know most thoroughly, Christianity, uses one word - love - and many words - the Bible, but I don't think it offers anything other than a demonstration of this truth.
It follows from love, because from the perspective of love, all things are possible, and all are bestowed upon the beloved, so that we, being loved, have the tools, inclination and permission to make of our lives what we want.
It follows from the Bible, because, whether fact or fiction, the story of Jesus unlocks the possibilities of love and, in making them known to us, gives us mastery over them. Even if the surface claims of the gospels are untrue, there is a perspective from which they become true. You can stand four-square a scientist and allow this perspective.
But it would be true to say, I think, that the Church, as an institution, has had problems with this news. Which is why, through the ages, its members have, in about equal measure, chosen to embrace the institution despite themselves, and embrace themselves despite the institution. A centripetal force argues for the core, whilst a centrifugal force propels outside.
I'm not ashamed of my upbringing and young adulthood, which drove me towards the core of the gospel, but I'm also not ashamed of my decision first to leave the Church, and then to remain outside it. I believe this is a prophetic stance - a testimony to the overarching reach of love, very much of the moment, given the rise of new technologies and the impact of globalisation at a point in our history when modernism, in its institutional, consumerist guise, has run itself, and our planet, out of steam.
John Gray writes forcefully, over his thirty plus year career, of the collapse of the Christian myth, and of the myths, such as atheism and liberal progress, that have spun from it. But it is my understanding that Christianity is not Christianity unless it stares its collapse in the face. Christianity is precisely about what you do when your myths have all collapsed - Jesus the Messiah is patently not the Messiah of contemporary Judeo-Roman myth if, instead of restoring the kingship of Jerusalem, he is dead on a cross. Christianity's answer is that, having accepted the collapse of the guiding myth given to you by your older peers, you are absolutely free to tell one of your own choosing.
For the past five years I've been exploring the terrain where this insight leaves me. And I'm working up ideas on at least two scales. First, on a societal scale. I'm captured by the image of a seagull flying low over the water as an argument for the celebration of thrift: high-flyers have represented the pinnacle of achievement for many years, with the attendant benefits of a luxury lifestyle, kudos and freedom from moral restraints (the mile-high club), but it takes as much skill, and a good deal of daring, for a gull to skim the waves. It shouldn't be hard to construct a population-wide cultural niche where value and esteem is attached not, say, to consumption, but to environmental reparation - and indeed, blossoming in all kinds of places, is just this sensibility.
But societal change rests, I believe, on individual change, and in order to change like this, to become the early-bird lone-voice creative low-flier in a given society, community, family, mirror, it helps to feel secure in your right to choose at a most profound level whatever story best appeals to you. Hence my passion for our rights of identity, for the celebration, across cultures, of our ability to story ourselves whichever way we choose (regardless of what I want, or you, or our present society, or whatever).
My call, as a once-Christian, is for churches to promote storying as the new core tenet of their faith. As I have made clear, I believe this is actually true to the ancient heart of the Christian gospel. It is also profoundly ecumenical, common cause with storytellers across the ages. If you want a temporary enemy, by all means fight those who would steal our right to tell stories - but remember, all they are doing is telling stories for themselves, so fight with infinite care and gentleness, lest you become a stealer of stories yourselves.
But I am a once-Christian, and don't believe this is a message just for the institutions. The most effective way I can think of, to argue as an individual amongst individuals for the value of storying, is to embody it as a consciously creative act, an art and/or science. It's not a lonely cause to adopt - there are storytellers making the headlines everywhere: today in the Metro newspaper I read of the Japanese barman who has founded a new genre - the mobile phone novel. I read also of Marie Bashkirtseff, who in 1875, Jon Savage argues, as a prototype for today's teenagers, defining her identity, writes 'I am the most interesting book of all'. And neuroscientists, becoming, by their research, a story themselves, tell us how neural plasticity hardwires the stories we live into our very brain structures and personal identity both.
Sometimes it seems daft that I am writing all this on a tiny blog, but in the end that's the essence of the case I am making. This isn't about a money-making fix, or the short-term. If it's about getting the message out, I want it out organically. You don't need the support of an institution to fashion the story you live by. Have it if it is offered, but (my advice, anyway) don't wait for it to come to you. In Whitley Bay, or wherever you are, set to your dragon slaying, or big swoon, or comedy of kings, by yourself.
Sunday, 26 April 2009
Friday, 24 April 2009
Six months after this, Sylvester's has gone.
As I was taking the photo, I saw a man in shades watching from across the derelict site. He got into his car and turned the corner towards me, pulling up alongside. We had a conversation. He knew the developer. It's going to be apartments (23 or 32: I forget.)
E and I joke about apartments. There are no apartments left that are not luxory. That means, I think, the cat doesn't have to pull its ears in when you swing it. Oh, and it can have a shower in adjacent bathroom afterwards. (Does your cat shower?)
But although Sylvester's was a beautiful burst of pastel seaside, and kitsch, if it hadn't been left to ruin, I don't have a problem with apartments. Not if they're designed with real flare. 32 apartments means 32 new faces on the seafront, at least. That means 32 new dreamers, 32 new dreams.
Finest raw (or seasoned) material, the stuff we dream about. Dreaming of dancing, who knows, with passion, one day there might be a new Sylvester's in town.
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
But I've been wedded to the idea that, whatever happens, Whitley must regenerate. Only now, reflecting on the possibility of wild and multiple plotlines, do I begin to ask, Does Whitley have to regenerate after all?
John Gray, in Black Mass, argues that the political pursuit of utopian visions is just the tail-end of apocalyptic religion. The regeneration of Whitley Bay is nothing if not a political football. Regeneration is about the death and rebirth of a town, newer and better than it was in its prime. The big myth it is incarnating is the Christian vision of a new Jerusalem. That myth's as bred in our Western European political bones as any.
But there are other myths, perhaps as powerful, perhaps more appropriate.
The myth of Pandora's Box. The myth of Order out of Chaos. The myth, encapsulated in evolution, of unending growth, variation, consolidation, regrowth and replacement.
Regeneration implies a crisis, and, whilst it is easy to imagine Whitley as having undergone a crisis, especially when the crisis is talked up by opposition politicians, over the years, of both hues, the idea is emotive, and can obscure a million mini miracles, growing all the while the Spanish-City-Saurus dies.
The point, perhaps, being that regeneration is too backward-looking a term - too re-, not enough new.
Just as we wee furry buggers were in no way the regeneration of the great reptiles, I wonder if the true inheritance of Whitley Bay won't be measurable in rebuilt playhouses and swimming pools, thriving commercial centres and sheer bulk of people, but something else, unexpected, entirely?
How's about, for instance, letting the grassland on the site of the old Marine Park First School, between Coquet Avenue and Marine Gardens, keep growing into a piece of meadowland. You could call it the Coquet Avenue Pocket Park. Then knock down more old buildings and replace them with allotments?
Or what else? Suggest something!
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
View from the top of the spinny thing I rode at the fair on the Links opposite Whitley's Spanish City Dome.
Monday, 20 April 2009
Anyway, the idea has caught hold of me, and is shaping my reading. I've focussed on narrative so far, on plotting. Christopher Booker's 'Seven Basic Plots' and Robert McKee's 'Story'. The big ideas across religious continents, the ways they shift, with the help of books by Karen Armstrong. The way we construct our identity out of the activities we perform together, and therefore, the way that the activities we choose can be suited in different ways to a 21st Century public and/or private identity. Tensions between alternative modes of living - hunter-gathering and farming, as detailed by Hugh Brody. Re: the Whitley Bay angle, this has meant that I have focussed my thinking on the story arc of decay and regeneration.
Recently, however, I've begun to realise plot-construction is not the only tool in the toolbox. Simon Beaufoy made this point explicitly at the Story Engine Conference I attended in February. Because it was true - narrative is not enough to make a story - I ignored him. Sometimes it takes a while for my brain to take on board a new idea. Simon was pressing for less action, more character exploration. My ostrich-instinct was to protest: how can you make a truly gripping story out of character alone? (Though, of course, he wasn't suggesting character alone.)
Then I dug up Jay Griffith's first book, on the wildness and fecundity of time. And Susan Greenfield on the environmental pressures that determine, at least in part, how our brains change. And Norman Doidge on neuroplasticity. The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology on niche construction. Lastly, Rita Carter on Multiplicity of personality - the theory that we can possess more than one personality, at different levels of development, as a valid response to external and internal pressures, if our neuroplastic knitting accretes around several behaviours, memories, beliefs, instead of just one.
All of which links, like this: where the commerce of Hollywood drives for straightforward action plots, wild time allows for the development of multiple plot-lines, like rampant vines in a rainforest. Wild plotlines suit multi-character explorations, complexity, the partial or full development of a story - allowing nature to abort unviable exercises in cultural niche construction, whilst those that thrive, spread. The tangle of a vibrant rainforest is the lush environment of neural networks thriving in a stimulated brain. And as the plotlines grow, so do the personalities within our minds, in response to new stimuli - technologies, ideas, pressures and seductions - from the world around us. As I continue to read Rita's book, and explore the personalities that make up me, I will also be learning how to shape them, even create them. And I will begin to 'get' that storying is as much about personality as circumstance.
[Hubble bubble, because each of Shakespeare's characters is formed in some degree this way, by playwright, actors, and audience, and as an exercise in fecundity, Shakespeare's canon is hard to beat. From witches on a wild heath, through Lear to Prospero, and courtly, commercial, martial dramas, and the transcendance of A Winter's Tale, his work truly is himself time and again, looped, spooled and knit through our culture and natures both, in breadth and height and depth.]
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
I don't know whether miracles happen or not. Not in the sense of Easter risings and Pentecostal fire-speak. Not the real, actual flaming bush variety, or the reshaping of ill-formed backs, sight restoration or bottomless bank accounts, through the intervention of BOGOF spirituality (buy the myth, get the prosperity chucked in free). Psychic ruptures and prophecies may happen or they may not. I don't want any of it any more.
Except love. Good old-fashioned, lower-case, transformative, selfless love.
Love and empirical science. Shared science. Observation. The real deal. If I can't make the case for love without intervention from super-reality, love's not enough of a miracle maker for me.
From here on in, hard reality's enough.
E and I spent a happy Good Friday mooching around our old university. I took, and thoroughly enjoyed, English and Related Literature, from 1989 to 1992. Here are the doors to my old department, where we found them on Friday, enticingly parked against a nondescript wall. Ah well. The doors, if not the future, were bright... ;)
Thursday, 9 April 2009
And this is good: from Susan Blackmore's new book Ten Zen Questions (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), which - to my great joy - has been classified by the publishers, on the ISBN info-panel on the jacket, as "Gift/ Zen/ Popular Science", in that order -
This brings us to a modern version of the mind-body problem, called the 'Hard Problem' of consciousness: that is, how can objective, physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience? Neuroscientists are making tremendous progress in understanding the objective brain processes; with brain scans, implanted electrodes, computer models, and all sorts of other ways of investigating how the brain works. We can measure the electrical firing of neurons, the chemical behaviour in synapses, the processing of information, and the mechanisms of vision, hearing, and memory. We can see how information flows in through the senses, and how responses are coordinated and actions carried out.
But what about me and my conscious experiences? Where do I fit into this integrated system of inputs, outputs and multiple parallel processing systems? The strange thing is that I feel as if I am in the middle of all this activity, experiencing what comes in through the senses, and deciding what to do in response, when in fact the brain seems to have no need of me. There is no central place or process where I could be, and the brain seems capable of doing everything it does without any supervisor, decider or inner experience. Indeed, the more we learn about how the brain works the more it seems that something is left out - that very thing we care about most of all - 'consciousness itself'.
In other words, the Good Friday question: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Why am I just flesh and blood? Where is the transcendence? Where is the poetry? How can I fail to die? What guarantees me? Where is Your place in the world, if we are just neurons and synapses and information transactions?
To which, the Christian I was would have said, "Wait until Easter: that's the point - He rose again. He thought He was abandoned by God, but He wasn't."
And the librarian I became would have said, "That's just a story: one among many. It's a category error to apply the dynamics of the Easter story to hard science. But don't worry. Science, and Easter, say that when I die, the library remains."
(And probably Christianity is just a story, and we are an illusion spun out of molecules. Probably there is no absolute reason why, having defined each other as bundles of interacting neurons, we should not proceed as a society to marshall each other efficiently and unpoetically, like books on a shelf, to the convenience of the greatest number and the shallowest thinking. Perhaps scare stories about challenges by the State to our fundamental identity are alarmist nonsense - they must be if our identity doesn't exist.)
But the artist I am says, "The greatest miracle is that story and science combine at Easter to create something new. And consciousness is neither a spirit, nor a synapse: it is a season. What we choose to do in that season is limited only by our imagination."
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
It occurs to me that in the tradition of the civil rights movement, the next civil rights battle to be won can always be predicted by analysing the identity of those who the public notices are deemed by the police to be acceptable collateral damage in their mission to maintain perceived public order.
This for two reasons. First, in terms of policing, a target group for a given operation is defined apart from the general public, but the definition will have always have blurred edges. In the protests last week, the protesters were the targets. What defined them as separate from the non-protester Ian Tomlinson? This was not an issue of colour, gender or behaviour - all visible signifiers. In terms of the police operation, a white, middle-aged, male, retreating non-protester was deemed worthy by white, middle-aged, male, police, using proportionate force, of beating and shoving to the ground, and seemingly, of obfuscating about afterwards. No doubt, the degree of obfuscation is also an indicator of the sensitivity of the act.
Second, perhaps more importantly, the act of noticing is itself one of consciousness-raising. The very fact that the death of Ian Tomlinson is being analysed publicly indicates that, in the eyes of the public, something noteworthy has occurred.
It wasn't until violence against blacks was scrutinised that you could be sure that the struggle for racial equality was making headway. It wasn't until violence against women was taken seriously that sexual equality was on the agenda. More to the point, perhaps, it wasn't until it became clear that violence was perpetrated not just against suffragette or abolitionist protesters, but against those caught up in the figurative, or actual, melee, who happened to share a common identity with the protesters, that change had arrived. And the 'becoming clear' is what I'm interested in, not, in this instance, the righteousness of the cause.
Now that violence against Mr, Mrs, Ms and Miss Majority Britain is news, perhaps Majority Britain is waking up to the fact that it doesn't matter what colour, gender, creed, class you are, it is possible for you to be deprived of your rights by an arm of the state in the name of order.
Good news. Because traditionally this is the harbinger of success in the non-violent fight for greater freedom.
Friday, 3 April 2009
With respect to any given individual, the three levels of niche construction operate effectively as separate, but interacting dimensions.
Genetics, in the wider environment, is a landscape one finds oneself in: it is about the interplay of organic and inorganic chemicals, which follow physical laws. At any given moment these may be being defined by, or defining, the environment around or within them.
Ontogenetics introduces a temporal dimension to proceedings. Ontogenetics is about bodily change over time: an immunity developed, a neural pathway altered and a new skill learned (or lost). Depending on one's age in developmental terms, one's internal landscape will behave differently, and the landscape that interacts with it will also have changed. Genes will have been switched on or off; outside influences removed or encountered for the first time. Moving in two dimensions, one is able to place oneself in the way of, or at a distance from the direct physical influence of aspects of the chemical world.
Culture introduces the element of interpretation. Chemical landscapes can be analysed according to different criteria; bodily changes monitored and explained in multiple ways; the results can be communicated through external and internal means, across genes and taking account of different developmental states. Information can be released or withheld, wholly or partially, dependant on one's sense of time and of the landscape about one. One may choose to restrict the learning of a skill, internally by removing oneself from one's learning environment, externally (in relation, perhaps, to others' learning) by disrupting a lesson. In the process new lessons become available to be taught and learnt. Other developmental processes are disrupted, proceed unaffected, or become stimulated. Moving in three dimensions, one is able to select one's life story, and other stories occurring about one, and in which one is involved. One is able to acknowledge the possibility of other stories, other options, and to take the time to communicate them.
As a chemical landscape predicts but cannot explain development, and as development predicts but cannot explain culture, so culture predicts, but cannot explain the real presence at one and the same time of conflicting stories about the same cultural states. Stories where time's arrow is reversed at the same time as it travels forward; where not just photons but bodies and whole worlds exist in two or more places at once. Stories where one is applauded for seducing the villain, who gives birth to a mantlepiece and ends twice at once, and is still in the middle of their story, and already at its start, when one pops one's clogs. Perhaps these do not exist, or perhaps they anticipate a God's eye view of the cosmos, one that only in moments out of time and space and worldview we can share. Ecstatic moments. Dreams.
If we have home, or origin of some kind, in such a perspective, then our only guarantee that it is a kind space is the nature of God. I'm not even sure conventional definitions of Love, or life after death, do it full justice. Such a home is known in one's innermost being, maybe.
Wednesday, 1 April 2009
The right to disbelieve them;
The right to doubt one's disbelief;
The right to be wrong in one's doubt;
The right to believe a story,
Knowing it to be untrue.
The right to disbelieve,
To take joy in a fantasy for the sake of its fantasy:
If listener and teller do not share a common disbelief,
If all ghosts rise somewhere,
Who'd listen to, who'd really tell
Of a new thing?
The right to doubt one's disbelief,
To find the frisson of a story in its possibility,
Not because it has been pinned true in the past
But because other tales like it have been told,
And once told, tasted - the taste,
If not the telling, true.
The right to be wrong in one's doubt,
For either the story is true, or it is false:
The doubter is always wrong. But
To make that doubt bright and new,
Though it is wrong, the truest of gifts,
And brightest hope, and forever, and so -
The right to believe a story, knowing it
To be untrue: to disbelieve a story,
To doubt one's disbelief, to be wrong in one's
Doubt, and believe, and not - to
Stand with science, hold court with
the Gods - a right and a blessing, bounden
duty, horizon, forever, forged, found
Here's a good summary from "Niche construction, human behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology", by Kevin N. Laland, in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (p.37, OUP, 2007, eds. R.I.M. Dunbar and Louise Barrett):
Organisms gain information that guides their niche construction through processes operating at at least three different levels, including population genetic, ontogenetic and cultural. Niche construction is influenced by all such information stores - not just genes - and all feed back to influence selection.The niche construction of every species is informed by naturally selected genes; for many species it is also informed by complex, information-acquiring ontogenetic processes such as learning or the immune system, whereas human niche construction, and perhaps that of a few other species, is also informed by cultural processes. Genetic processes, ontogenetic processes and cultural processes operate at distinct but interconnected levels (Odling-Smee et al., 2003). Each level interacts with, but is not completely determined by, the others: that is, learning is informed, but only loosely, by genetic information, and cultural transmission may be informed, but not completely specified, by both genetic and developmental processes. Genes may affect information gain at the ontogenetic level, which in turn influences information acquisition at the cultural level. In addition, ontogenetic processes, particularly learning, may be affected by cultural processes, while population genetic processes may be affected by both ontogenetic processes and cultural processes when humans modify their selection pressures.
Ref. - Odling-Smee, F.J., Laland, K.N. and Feldman, M.W. (2003) Niche Construction: the Neglected Process in Evolution. Monographs in Population Biology 37, Princeton University Press.
The niche I'm scratching at is, perhaps not surprisingly given Posts 903, 902, 900, and 862, the Church.
I want to be able to say that the niche the Church occupies should be defined in terms of the love that we grasp at across cultures, a heart, a single core value, which somehow lives itself out in all cultures, all things. That's what I mean when I suggest that love is the greatest abstraction - not so much an abstraction as an intraction.
It becomes plain when a man or woman who should not die does die, but the Love he or she stands for is found to live on. It blows the value of any given culture, national or religious, out of the water, and at the same time affirms it as a way, but not necessarily the only way, of being.
Particular spiritual communities (even communities of one) become exercises in conscious niche construction, the love that motivates the people in them finding expression in the interaction of cultural, developmental and even genetic processes, as stated in the quote. It sounds scary, and indeed the only guard against abuse is, should be, can be, the nature of Love itself never to abuse.
For those with a mind to build new kinds of communities and community, besides remembering that the whole thing is natural, it is probably worth exploring what niche construction says about the way such gatherings operate.
Thank you for a really good meeting last night.
First of all I want to apologise for the lateness of the hour at which I'm writing. Do please feel free to challenge me about this email come daylight! - though I often get my clearest thinking at this time, which is why I'm writing as I do. And second, to clarify a little, I ought to say that though I often come across as an enthusiastic naif, I'm actually pretty canny - my forays into art, as into the rest of my career, come second to a deeper commitment to people: I self-define as a post-establishment, post-religious vicar (which is, admittedly, a lot of 'posts').
I've been giving some thought to the 'flash mob' idea, and more particularly the commitment I made to you and the others to lead in its organisation. The truth is, on reflection I don't think I am able to, reasons to follow.
Most importantly, I am not able to square the 'bottom-up' - or better, non-hierarchical - nature of a flash mob, with the need to fit it under a North Tyneside umbrella. When the council arts officer - as was entirely proper, I know, given her role - spoke about the need to pass plans before the council for a health and safety assessment, I cringed. You were quite right to point out that what we would be talking about wouldn't exactly be a flash mob. And I think this gives rise to two issues.
First, it's important for me, personally, to maintain objectivity in the distinction between top-down and bottom-up activities, otherwise I cannot support people in both camps as I would like. To be calling something a flash mob when it isn't wouldn't be helpful, either to the council, who would be open to the accusation of bandwagon jumping (as T-Mobile, because of their ad, is), or to genuine flash mobbers, who would find the prophetic edge of their action blunted. I'm pretty sure, one day soon, that that won't be a problem, but I do think at the moment it is.
Second, more pragmatically, if North Tyneside does pass some kind of mass improvisational activity, it's worth asking whether, if the 'flash mob' title were adopted, people who used the name in its pure sense might not organise their own action and overshadow the official version. Better, I think, for the organisers to be up-front from the start, and call the activity 'Improv Street Performance' or something. In that case, I have to be honest, I would not be the best person to organise it: someone schooled in drama, professionally or ad hoc, would.
So on two counts I've ruled myself out. Clay Shirky, in 'Here Comes Everybody', is good on the nature of flash mobs, and I'm also going by the reading I've done around wild and (non-violent) anarchist philosophy - by people like Hugh Brody and Jay Griffiths. Ultimately, because these form the political principals I wish to be defined by, and as I believe they underpin current political structures, but that these structures need periodically to be deconstructed, and now is probably such a time, I wish to continue to work outside the box, meaning that I forego some great opportunities, like the current one.
Therefore, once again, my apologies. I'm sorry to have made my commitment before I backed out of it, but hope that by being clear, as early as possible in the day thereafter, I've not caused you too much trouble, and that if you do see a way to proceed with the flash mob idea, it is carried off with great success.
(I also think there's mileage, one year, if not this one, in the 'Free Seas Freeze' idea.)
I look forward to meeting you again soon,
With all good wishes,