The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Observing the Leonid Meteor Shower

I'm sure my talented brother James could do a better job of this, but here it is anyway, on a rainy night in South Queensferry.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where do you get your (Battle of) Ideas from?

As I mentioned below, I attended and took part in this year's Battle of Ideas, an event I also took part in two years ago.

(In case anyone doesn't know: Battle of Ideas is an annual weekend festival of controversy that is itself controversial because of the connections of its organizers, the Institute of Ideas, with a long-disbanded far-left organization and its successors, currently represented by the online current affairs magazine spiked. For a somewhat bemused but balanced liberal account, see Jenny Turner's article in LRB; for a critical conservative appreciation of the group's development, check this article; and if you want the full-on left-wing conspiracy account, PowerBase, SourceWatch, and LobbyWatch will keep you entertained for hours.)

For me, a highlight of the weekend was a discussion on mind-body dualism, featuring Raymond Tallis, Richard Swinburne, Stuart Darbyshire and Martha Robinson, and chaired by Sandy Starr.

My initial sympathies in the debate were with Martha Robinson, a neuroscience PhD student and naive mechanical materialist, up against: a polymathic professor and self-professed neurosceptic; a distinguished philosopher of religion (defending, in this instance, the soul rather than God); and two dialectical materialists. (Derbyshire and Starr are both frequent contributors to spiked.) Just to confuse matters, Stuart Derbyshire referred disparagingly to Martha Robinson's view as 'materialism', while himself elaborating (as I pointed out from the floor, to no avail) a materialist view.

His contribution went like this: Consciousness is not a separate substance, but neither is it a product simply of the brain. The brain is necessary for it, but looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for sunshine in a cucumber. In individual human development, consciousness arises from and goes beyond the infant's natural mental endowment when the infant learns language. Language liberates consciousness from elementary mental functions, allowing the use of abstraction and symbol rather than simple stimuli. Mind arises within a social process, originally in the interaction of the infant and its care-givers, and subsequently broadening out to include the whole of society. You didn't work out the Periodic Table, but you know it; likewise much else that's in your head. Not many of us, after all, coin new words, at least not words that come into general use. In a sense, your conscious experience doesn't belong to you, and that's why consciousness seems ghostly and weird.

I didn't agree with this at all, or even understand it, but while heading for King's Cross on the Tube the following day I was thinking it over while idly observing my fellow passengers reading or talking or staring into space and it clicked. Consciousness is social, it's uniquely human, it's not just going on in our separate heads but between them, in our interactions.

But ... wait a minute ... if that's the case then ... social consciousness is really important.

And it changes - and can be changed by - every individual.

Ideas matter.


When I got home I checked out the recommended reading for the event, and found right at the end a link to a work of Soviet psychology, and from that a whole archive of links to the works of Vygotsky and the school of thought he founded and the astonishing and inspiring humane applications that it led to, and the terrible vicissitudes of this school of psychology before and after it made its way to the West. Strangely enough, the very same view of consciousness that Vygotsky pioneered and that I heard Stuart Derbyshire outline can be found in all the boring Brezhnev-era textbooks of dialectical materialism.

By what a frail aqueduct did the fallen empire convey to a future civilization that most surprising discovery of Marxism-Leninism: the individual human consciousness, the soul!

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Now available!

Earlier this year, world-famous economist Brad DeLong asked 'Why is there no ebook of Ken MacLeod's "The Restoration Game"? This offends the order of reality, somehow... '

The order of reality has now been saved by Barnes and Noble, so feel free to get on with the reality of ordering.

Elswhere, Solaris Rising: the New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, in which I have a short story titled 'The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three', has just been released, and is available on Amazon in the UK, the US, and Canada. There's already a favourable review at Locus Online (along with a likewise favourable review of Technology Review: Science Fiction.

(Pic and links via Richard Salter, a fellow contributor.)

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Orwell's other island

At the beginning of October I spent a week on Jura, courtesy of the Scottish Book Trust and Jura Single Malt Whisky. The Jura Lodge is easily the most wonderful house I've ever stayed in: imagine the holiday home of a wealthy family with improbably good, if eccentric, taste and a magpie's eye for Victoriana and natural history. At first I thought that's what it was. I was surprised to learn that it was all a recent fabrication, designed by a talented interior decorator. Lots of writers have stayed there under various versions of the scheme, and I'm grateful for my week. All I have to do in return is write a short SF story set on Jura, to be published exclusively on the company's website and (in hard-copy) in a collection in the Jura Hotel. I'm not even expected to say a good word for the whisky, though I will: Whyte & MacKay is one of my favourite blends, and the 16-year-old Jura single malt could quite aptly be labelled Revelation (alongside the Jura distillery's two other labelled expressions, Superstition and Prophecy) though it isn't.

I spent a lot of time outdoors, often getting thoroughly cold and wet, but I also had plenty of time and space to read and write. And naturally enough, in this cheery environment I thought about the gloomiest writer who ever stayed on Jura. I'd recently re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the SFX Book Club, and - in dark evenings and the odd torrential afternoon - on Jura I browsed through The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, as well as the informative locally-published booklet 'Orwell on Jura', and an essay on the same subject by Bernard Crick in a nice little collection, Spirit of Jura: Fiction, Essays, Poems from the Jura Lodge, copies of which are liberally scattered around the house.

There's a common misconception about Orwell on Jura: that he went there to die, and that in going there he more or less deliberately made sure that he would. This is usually accompanied by a mental image of Jura as a remote, cold, wet, wind-swept miserable place, more or less ideal for writing a grey dystopia and then pegging out. Not a bit of it! Jura's climate, though indeed wet and windy, is mild. Palm trees grow in front of the hotel. Lizards live in the drystone dykes. The island is only remote in the sense that it's a (breathtakingly scenic) trek to get there. It's less than a hundred miles west of Glasgow. As Bernard Crick put it, Orwell didn't go there to die, he went there to write.

Re-reading his essays brought me to a thought that rather surprised me:

If George Orwell hadn't written Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he'd be remembered as the author of a few depressing novels. Selections from his non-fiction would now and again be reprinted by AK or Pluto Press, with kindly introductions by Michael Foot or Tony Benn. The political right would have no interest in him at all.

He's always a pleasure to read, but as a political thinker he was neither original nor important. His criticisms of the left were sometimes unfair, but hardly unique. On the rare occasions when he put forward a positive programme of his own, or endorsed that of others, there's not a cigarette paper between him and the state socialists. Considered purely as a platform, 'The Lion and the Unicorn' shares a surprising number of planks with 'The British Road to Socialism' though to be fair the latter doesn't look forward to blood running in the gutters and red militias billeted in the Ritz.

Orwell's writings have an odd place in British culture. For many people, Orwell's essays and books are the only political writings from the 1930s and 40s they'll ever read. A fair bit of Orwell's political writing from that time consists of disparaging other political writing of the period - particularly the writing of the left. From 'Politics and the English Language' you can get the impression that such political writing consisted mostly of crass apologetics in dreadful prose. The result is that nobody bothers to read it, and Orwell's view reigns unchallenged.

'If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.'

I wish.

There's no necessary connection between political truth and verbal clarity. Let's take some writers whose politics Orwell would reject. Nothing could be stronger than Orwell's detestation of Fabianism and Stalinism. George Bernard Shaw stood for the first and more or less endorsed the second, yet The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism is a delight to read. Not all the Communists and fellow-travellers were hacks. (Orwell's citation of a rant from that quarter is tellingly under-referenced: 'Communist pamphlet' - I ask you!) T. A. Jackson and A. L. Morton wrote their best-known books in clear and vivid English. John Strachey was at his most lucid when he was at his most wrong. Professor J. B. S. Haldane's science essays are still read for pleasure. The Trotskyist C. L. R. James wrote one literary masterpiece; Trotsky himself was constitutionally incapable of writing a dull page, and in Max Eastman he found a translator worthy of his style. On the democratic, non-Marxist left, Lancelot Hogben, one of whose lazier paragraphs Orwell's famous essay holds up to scorn, was the author of Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen - he was no Isaac Asimov, I'll give you that, but mastering these two books can set you up for life (or university, at any rate) which is more than can be said for Asimov's Guide to Science, fine volume though that is. Hogben's two big books sold hundreds of thousands. His style can't have stood in many readers' way.

That's not to say Orwell didn't have a point. I've always relished this passage from Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism:
By contrast [with Marx's published work], the extreme difficulty of language characteristic of much of Western Marxism in the twentieth century was never controlled by the tension of a direct or active relationship to a proletarian audience. On the contrary, its very surplus above the necessary minimum quotient of verbal complexity was the sign of its divorce from any popular practice. The peculiar esotericism of Western Marxist theory was to assume manifold forms: in Lukacs, a cumbersome and abstruse diction, freighted with academicism; in Gramsci, a painful and cryptic fragmentation, imposed by prison; in Benjamin, a gnomic brevity and indirection; in Della Volpe, an impenetrable syntax and circular self-reference; in Sartre, a hermetic and unrelenting maze of neologisms; in Althusser, a sybilline rhetoric of elusion.
What can you say?

Well! - what you can say is that if you work your way through Anderson's egregious collocation of vocables (and yes, I have looked up 'egregious') every word of this makes sense, and for all I know may even be true.

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