Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Bullshit Mayor for Bristol

In his essay/book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt suggests that one of the reasons that there is so much bullshit around today is because of democracy. Spreading power and responsibility around encourages, or even makes it necessary, for people to hold opinions on things they know little about.

I feel like that about the Mayoral elections in Bristol, that I know almost nothing about the candidates or the issues, and that casting a vote is pretending that I do. Charlie Brooker describes approaching current affairs if you haven't been paying attention as like tuning into episode 803 of the world's most complex soap opera. That applies just as much to local affairs as national or international ones.

Somehow local issues seem harder to decide on than national ones. Maybe it's because for all the managerialism of contemporary politics, there are still matters of principle on show at the national level. Or maybe it's just because I know more about national politics. Living in this city doesn't mean I know anything about what's going on.

The main issue in Bristol is transport, but I'm damned if I know the pros and cons of rapid transit vs buses vs increased rail services vs trams vs cars vs rocket packs vs cycle lanes. I'm still not entirely sure what "rapid transit" is - I think it's just buses with special dedicated "bus lanes". The only thing all that time playing sim city taught me is that subways are fantastic, but you've got to plan ahead and leave space for the stations.

Maybe if I'd been paying attention to local politics for, say, the last decade, I'd know who some of these people are and what they're like. Instead, my only conclusions about the candidates are:
- one of them looks like a very manly muppet (or a very muppety man)
- one of them makes me think of one of the toads from Bucky O'Hare
- the libdem really looks like a libdem.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Quick Film Reviews #6

More old film reviews.

Woody Allen in slapstick mode as a man in a coma revived after centuries. Involves a lot of people running around chasing other people in a comedy fashion. I wouldn't say it's a work of genius, but it's quite funny, though probably more for the wit than the running around.

Demon Seed
James lent me this because it's one of his favourite sci-fi films. I didn't realise until I started watching that it's based on a book by the epitome of airport thriller writers Dean R Koontz. It's vision of a super-intelligent computer and automated house is wonderfully 70s. Proteus does seem to be the Anakin Skywalker of computers though. All that awesome intellect and knowledge of humanity, but absolutely no persuasive skills. Oh, you rebutted my one sentence argument... Then I will have to kill you! Also, let's give this computer a really sinister voice. Or maybe he's the MacGuyver of computers, able to create a reconfiguring, levitating polygon and a tailored embryo using just a laser and a mechanical arm. There's some kind of message about inhumanity and the environment, but I think it got lost somewhere.

Blue Velvet
This is actually the first David Lynch film I've seen, so I braced myself for a baffling story of mysterious symbolism. I was rather surprised to find a linear plot, clear good and bad characters and a neat resolution. It does have a "strange and brutal underside to the normal looking town" theme to it, but this is made less threatening by the fact the two sides are very clearly spatially and thematically separated. The ending is parodic in its upbeatness, even down to the mechanical robins straight out of Mary Poppins. It reminded me of the basic structure of a fantasy story where chance leads the hero into an alternate world, at least until its problems are resolved. (It also reminded me somewhat of A History of Violence.) None of which is to say there's not a depth to the film and its symbolism, and there are a number of very memorable scenes, mostly based around Dennis Hoppers legendary satanic performance.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Books: The Gum Thief

Continuing my attempts to write something about every book I read.  Not as a "review" as such, but to encourage me to think a bit more about about them.  It looks like I can read books faster than I can write about them, as I have a backlog.

I think Douglas Coupland is one of those zeitgeisty authors.  I don't mean that in a bad way.  More that he tackles the modern condition openly.  And by "the modern condition" maybe what I mean is "first world problems".  I don't think I mean that in a bad way.

In case you haven't guessed, the Gum Thief is a story of people in America who feel trapped and unsatisfied with their lives.  I read it on a rainy Sunday when not leaving the flat was a rational plan, rather than something to fight against, and there didn't seem to be anything else to do.  When I started the book I thought "this is how I'm feeling".

I think the moral of The Gum Thief is that changing ourselves is very difficult, but through reaching out to others and trying to imaginatively live their lives, we can find connections and effect some kind of change.  It made me think about the experience of imagining yourself in someone else's position, trying to feel what they're feeling and what choices they might make.  I don't think I've thought about it much before.  It's not something I'm very good at, or at least I don't do it instinctively.  I'm bad enough at imaginatively inhabiting my own life, let alone someone else's.  So I probably go through a book or film, or similar story, without really connecting with the characters the way other people might.  I can't remember any examples of going "that was a particularly convincing character".  Though maybe it's only critics, authors and literature students, who think about these things too much, who say that, as I can't remember anyone I know saying it.

My main problem with the book was that it alternates letters/notes between the characters with sections from a terrible book one of them is writing.  It's amusing, but I don't want to spend too much time reading something that is deliberately terrible (and not deliberately terrible enough to be great).  The whole book's fairly short though, and breezes along, so it's not a big problem.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Books: The Fatal Eggs

Do you want to read some early Soviet sci-fi?  Of course you do.

A scientist's discovery of a ray that increases the growth and reproduction rate of animals leads to disaster when it is unwisely taken out of the laboratory in an attempt to feed the country.  The Fatal Eggs is obviously a satirical metaphor for the experience of Russia, but I don't think I really appreciated it.  Communism is something that should have been cautiously experimented with, but was seized upon by cruder and more urgent men?  At least I can appreciate the detail of early revolutionary Russia, and science fiction from a time when scientists accidentally creating monsters was still a fairly fresh idea.

Books: The Acid House

I'm not sure how I feel about short stories.  I find them very easy to read, but also rather unsatisfying.  This might be because I'm slow to empathise with characters and situations, so don't make those quick connections that are important for short stories.  Or it might be that because they're short and easy they don't make me feel like I've done some serious reading.

I read an essay about Trainspotting once, before I'd read the book, that argued that while the film had its good points, it failed to present Renton & co.'s lifestyle as a viable alternative.  Reading the Acid House, and in particular the novella A Smart Cunt, the contours of this alternative become more clear.  It's a lifestyle designed to enable the acquisition and use of various drugs.  The scale and urgency of use varies, but they are always an organising principle.  Casual work, benefits, itinerancy, canny union reps, the erratic kindness of friends and family, petty theft and dealing, rent and tax arrears.

The characters in Welsh's stories live on the margins but their lives don't seem precarious.  They have no careers, possessions, houses, happiness, dreams or people they really care about that they can lose.  The lack of formal structure in their lives gives them resilience.  The only things they really risk are their bodies, battered by drugs, police, thugs, friends, neglect.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Books: Vineland

Vineland is a bit of a mess of a book, but I really enjoyed it.
SPOILER ALERT for this post, if you're concerned.

Pynchon's world is a mix of the realistic, the exaggerated and the fantastical.  Some feels like genuine people's history, buried histories of strike-breaking and radicalism.  The extraordinary powers available to the villain Brock Vondt, as he sets up camp in California with a small army including helicopter gunships, are an exaggeration, although it's hard to know just how much of an exaggeration.  The fantastical comes from the ninja death-touch used by one of the characters, or the skyjacking of passenger planes that don't pay the protection money. 

Pynchon has been described as "zany", but that's a horrible description.  It is a style deployed for amusement, but also with more serious purpose.  The loose grasp of structure and reality that the book has fits its subject matter.  That's not to say that the people in it are deluded, but many have some weird ideas.  Pynchon probably doesn't want you to believe a lot of the stuff in the book, but if you accept it temporarily, it makes you more sympathetic to the protagonists, more likely to accept other ideas, that may not be wrong just because they're far-out.

What I find particularly interesting about the book is its look at the failure of the 1970s counter-culture and the fall-out from that.  Maybe it's my own ignorance, but it's a subject that does not seem to get discussed a lot.  Everyone knows a bit about the hippies, tends to regard their ideas as too naive, failing when confronted with reality.  It's less common to pick up the people and ideas and trace what happened to them over the next decades.  Adam Curtis does it quite a lot (particularly in AWOBMOLG).  Pynchon sets this is in a  longer context of resistance to corporate and government, back to the union-busting of the 1930s and 50s.

I like the descriptions of people and communities living out unusual and marginal lives in the heart of a first-world state.  Whether growing marijuana or forming a community of those caught between death and life.  There is potential implicit in the idea that you can do this, under the noses, so to speak, of the authorities.  Vineland doesn't present a rosy picture though.  The power of the US government is exaggerated, but the violence and calculated repression used on the hippy movement, from COINTELPRO to the National Guard, was real.  The power of the state is always looming, sometimes approaching, sometimes receding, but always unaccountable.

In Foucault's Discipline and Punish, the purpose of prison is not so much to prevent crime but to create a class of people useful to the powerful.  In Vineland the war on drugs has a very similar role.  It is just as much a means as an end, creating endless opportunities to threaten people, influence them, turn them into informants, attack marginal communities and so-on.  A block of cannabis too large to even fit through the door is 'found' in the house of one of the main characters, Zoyd, giving the authorities the power to take away his house, his daughter and his liberty - unless he can convince a judge that he is more trustworthy than the upstanding US marshalls who discovered the drugs.  The plan of Brock Vondt is to use the war on drugs as a way of relocating large numbers of people to a secret camp (itself a leftover from Kennedy-era nuclear worries) where they can be indoctrinated into model citizens.  In the end, this dream is dashed when the government finds that people are moving there voluntarily, finding their way from Vietnam, Central America, Mexico and so-on.

Another tool of social control, "the tube" plays an important role in the book, but I'm not sure quite what.  One character remarks that the trouble with the generation of the 60s/70s is that they had no resistance to it.  Maybe the volume of stories available on TV overwhelmed those told by people.  The images that Frenesi's film collective take great risks to record are overwhelmed by a torrent of TV.  However that seems to be reading too much in to what the book actually says.

Despite everything that has come before, the novel has a surprisingly warm conclusion.  Any sense of defeat by the protagonists is mollified by the memories of others, a long-term and continuing struggle passed down from generations.  They are reconciled at a family gathering.  A sprawling, not particularly conventional family, but still a surprisingly traditional group in which to find a radical heart and refuge.

My biggest issue with the book was one of the central characters, Frenesi Gates.  She starts off as a radical film-maker, but becomes an informant and, in events at a campus that has declared itself to be the independent People's Republic of Rock & Roll, is involved in bringing about the murder of its key figure.  After this, she briefly settles and has a child with the hippy Zoyd Walker, before returning to the federal fold for a life of undercover informant work in a witness protection program.  As I was reading I was thinking "my opinion of this book will strongly hinge on how plausibly her motivations are explained."  I was disappointed.  She seems to be driven by little more than lust towards the villain, Brock, and maybe early on a desire to redeem him (though this is barely mentioned).  Is it symbolic of people's need to have authority figures?  Except for a last-minute urge in Frenesi's daughter, none of the other characters seem to have this drive. 

Perhaps even worse than this is the glossing over of sexual violence and threat.  It crops up occasionally, and there are regular mentions of officers taking opportunities to cop a feel of students during round-ups.  This never builds above harassment to a sense of menace though.  The main relationship between power and sex is of women's desire for (or willing submission to) powerful men.  Maybe there is a certain gentleness in the whole of the book though; violence is more threatened than actually experienced by the characters.

Although I enjoyed it, I did find Vineland unusually hard to follow.  It's not just the narrative jumping between years without making the chronology very clear, or the fact that at one point I had to check back to make sure that a character who was talking really had been killed some years earlier, or even the idioms and speech patterns used by the characters.  I often found it hard to follow what was going on, from paragraph to paragraph, and I don't really know why that was.  There were also bits that I simply didn't get.  What was going on in the minor subplot around Takeshi's loss adjusting work passed me by completely.  I see now that the Thanatoids, with their 'karmic imbalance', are people who can't move on because of hangovers from their past - just like the main characters.  Even if I'd grasped that straight-off, I think they'd still have puzzled me.

Sooner or later I'll probably pick up some more Pychon, probably either Gravity's Rainbow or Mason & Dixon.  I can see myself re-reading Vineland at some point in the future, too.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Books: V for Vendetta

Continuing my attempt to write something about every book I read.

V for Vendetta starts off with a bit of a puzzle.  By page three of four, V has blown up the Houses of Parliament, an event you see for about one panel.  Apart from laying claim to Guy Fawkes' legacy (the blowing up bit at least, not the catholicism), this sets up an immediate question.  Even if it were just a jump-start for the character and story, it should be more dramatic.

My friend Dom's comment is that it is because V is very un-comic book.  The art eschews spectacle.  Most panels are close-in of a couple of characters.  Typically there's little movement other than characters walking around, and what physical action there is is short and sharp.  He also pointed out to me that the original was in black and white, making such spectacles harder.

Another factor is that in the Britain the comic portrays, Parliament no longer exists as a political body so lacks significance for the regime and the people.  But if this is the case, why is it a target for V?  The important point is a rejection of the political past.  V is not attacking the existing regime so that the England can return to enlightened parliamentary democracy; he is a lot more radical than that.

All that aside, I think it's simply something that is not handled especially well in the comic.

Anyway.  V for Vendetta is unusual in its explicit advocacy of a political ideology.  Large-scale anarchism seems particularly difficult to fit into any recognisable fictional narrative structure, as it's inherently decentralised, not centred around key characters.  A story which features a superhero, of a kind, must strike a particularly fine balance between this individual driving events and showing the empowerment of the broader populace.

The masterstroke of V is to make the hero both an individual and also faceless and replaceable, someone we could all be (a statement with multiple meanings).  All the same, I'm not sure how convincing it really is.  Had V not had truly exceptional capabilities from the start, then surely things would have been very different.  He is only replaceable once his plan has reached fruition.  The script of the play has run its course and the audience are left to take up the actor's roles, but where would they be without that prologue?

Moore's psychological view of liberation is (surprisingly?) a fairly crude one.  There are two processes.  One is the exposure to the masses of the regime's weakness.  This is straightforward and unoriginal.  In the comic's terms, show the system is a charade, and let everybody become an actor.

The other is that which liberates V, Evie and Rose Almond - being abused until their fears are stripped away to a fearless core.  I'll just pick up one issue with that - that empirically it is a very questionable idea.  While Libya and Syria provide contemporary examples of people who say that they have simply been pushed too far and found dignity and freedom stronger urges than life and fear, the holocaust provides us with the example of learned helplessness.  I don't think many go through incarceration and torture and come out psychologically stronger than before.

A strident call for anti-authoritarianism and independence, then, but a problematic model to follow.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Books: How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

I've had this book, by Francis Wheen, for some years now, but never felt like reading it.  Mumbo-jumbo ranges from the voodoo economics of the 1980s, through postmodernists, catastrophists, neoliberals, the emotional diarrhoea around Princess Diana's death, Chomsky, the third way, right back to modern voodoo economics and radical left reactions to 9/11.

There's some interesting stuff in there.  There are some quick background histories to things that you probably already know are wrong, but might not know much about.  Wheen lays into Chomsky's record of, if not defending, then at least giving a lot of the benefit of the doubt, to regimes opposed to the US - in particular Cambodia.  In a similar way to Nick Cohen, he attacks those who think that because countries like the US so often do bad, they can never do good.  There are a few good quotes, which I now can't find.

About a quarter of the way through, though, it begins to drag.  I think part of this is because Wheen never ties together his subjects.  Wheen explicitly defends enlightenment values like rationality, independent thought, liberalism and humanism, but I don't think this is the whole picture.  Does all this 'mumbo jumbo' have the same causes, or are different phenomena independent?  Is the strategy to resist or defeat them the same?  You might be able to work it out for yourself by studying and thinking about what Wheen says, but honestly, it didn't interest me enough to bother.

One thing that particularly puzzled me were the quotes on the jacket.  The book is described by the Spectator as "deliriously funny" and by Jeremy Paxman as "hysterical".  Now it certainly did raise some smiles, but no more, suggesting that either Paxman has been hiding a streak of hysteria behind his hard-bitten exterior, or he spends too much time with extremely dull people.

If you want to read a more concise, illuminating and much funnier treatise on a similar subject, read HG Frankfurt's On Bullshit.  I've just read someone suggesting that it is itself mostly bullshit, but even if that is the case, it's still thought-provoking bullshit.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Books: Titus Groan

I find it hard to believe that I last read Titus Groan when I was thirteen or fourteen. I always meant to re-read it, but never did. (My parents' copy of Titus Groan went missing, which didn't help.) So while I'd say it's a favourite and important book to me, it was half my life ago that I read it.

Titus Groan is still not quite like anything else I've read. Strangely, it reminds me slightly of JG Ballard, though I can't say why. The exaggerated, slightly hallucinatory quality, perhaps.

When I first read the book I found it very hard to read. The prose of Titus Groan is like its setting: ornate, sometimes tortuous, often obscure. This time round, I found it much easier going, though there was still the odd word I didn't know ("hanger"). I also found it exceptionally strange and unrelentingly dark.

The biggest changes in my experience of the book were in the humour and the characters. I think the first time I was so submerged by the darkness that I didn't appreciate the humour. This time I realised how genuinely funny some of the characters and absurdities are. On a number of occasions I was chuckling out loud.

In a similar way I appreciated the characters better. Some are clearly evil or vile, both enabled and constrained, by their situation. Others are unusual, certainly, but pushed to extremes to cope with their situation. The Countess' withdrawal from human contact as a way to withdraw herself mentally from the drudgery of ritual and those whose company she is forced to keep. The twins' nature encouraged into spite and ignorance. Flay, taciturn and hard, but loyal and even dear to those who know him.

Most of all though, the doctor and Fuschia. Despite aloof, affected appearances, the doctor is a thoughtful, compassionate man. As he himself thinks, the others have responsibility towards ritual, but he has responsibilities towards them and their wellbeing. Of all, Fuschia is most tragically trapped. The doctor's intellect at least provides an escape of sorts. Fuschia feels the oppression of Gormenghast, but has only childish escapes, no-one to teach her or provide an example to follow, and no-one to offer or receive the tenderness that would relieve her (save, in all counts, the little Prunesquallor can offer). All this leaving her horribly vulnerable to Steerpike's manipulation. The book leaves you with a sense of foreboding for these two. If the Gormenghast is bad, the realisation of Steerpike's ambitions would be worse.

The adult characters all the characters either suffer a withering of the spirit, or restrain and canalise it, into brutality, birds and cats, an obsession with being a lady. It's this prospect that faces Fuschia. And it's this that is made physical in the Bright Carvers and their sudden decline from vibrant youth to premature age.

Of Steerpike himself, I am not sure how much there is to see beyond the fact he is a psychopath.
Steerpike is not alone in feeling nothing for other people. His success rests on the fact that he cares nothing for the system. For all the other characters, good and bad, Gormenghast is a part of them, just as they are part of it. Steerpike is constantly referred to as an outsider, even though there is no hint of anything odd in his origins (just a kitchen boy). Rather, he is an outsider because people subconsciously realise he cares nothing for Gormenghast.

The only other character to want (in a vague way) to throw down the system like this is Fuschia, and it's what makes her seem so vulnerable to Steerpike. On the other hand, he is unable to recognise the casual cruelty that repulses her and counteracts his efforts to charm.

There is an ambiguity in the book here, that only the most heartless character is able to challenge a heartless system. Does respect for others mean respect for the system, either for itself or for their sakes? Are all revolutionaries cruel, or even psychopathic? Or is Steerpike simply the only person with all the right characteristics - intelligence, art, luck, motivation?

One thing that made me prevaricate about reading the book a little was the feeling that it was a cold, dark winter book. That's not really true though. Titus Groan crosses many seasons and weathers. The only common feature of the weather is that it conspires to oppress the characters; it is always overwhelming either in its violence, like the titanic downpour during Swelter and Flay's confrontation, or in its relentlessness. Even more than the harsh, sparsely described landscape, the weather provides an expressionistic accompaniment to, or rendering of, the events.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about re-reading Titus Groan is that I found that literally all the events I remember from the trilogy come from the first book. Flay and Swelter, Flay's cat-throwing banishment, the burning of the library, the death of Sepulchrave. I am wondering what on earth goes on in the second book that I have forgotten, and whether it will be familiar to me when I read it.

One thing that hasn't changed is that I still can't describe the book in a satisfying way, in a way that really gets across how it feels.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Books: What's Left?

What's Left is Nick Cohen's polemic against the state of the left. I was a bit apprehensive coming to it. I'd consider myself on the left, even if I'm uninvolved. So criticisms of it are personal. On the other hand, because I am uninvolved, it is easy for me to pick and choose, ignoring bad things and people, rather than having to commit to actions and groups.

The jacket of the book doesn't help. On the front is a picture of a man wearing a suit, with a keffiyah covering his face, holding a peace symbol placard in one hand and tossing a grenade idly in the other. (The original hardback cover is better.) On the back are supportive quotes from Philip Hensher in the Spectator, Peter Oborne in the Observer, James Delingpole in the Mail on Sunday and Martin Amis in the Sunday Times. Not a set of commentators to inspire confidence.

Cohen's argument for how and why the left lost its way ranges from consumerist politics to Virginia Woolf, but it's mostly about the left's response to tyrants, and more specifically to Saddam Hussein.  Saddam Hussein was a monstrous tyrant; we all know this (or should do).  Just how bad he was might have passed people by - I certainly didn't have a clear idea.  Cohen reminds people of this without dwelling on it.  The first case in Cohen's thesis is Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi who in the 1980s wrote a devastating account of the brutality of the Iraqi regime.  He was a hero to the left when Western governments were ignoring Saddam's crimes.  Then the First Gulf War came and Makiya argued that the coalition should push on to Baghdad and overthrow the regime.  The left disowned him.  Saddam carried on murdering the people of Iraq.

Cohen asks: 
Even if the United States invaded Iraq just to get its hands on the country's oil, the result would still be better than Saddam Hussein.  The Iraqi regime was a totalitarian fascist regime.  Why didn't the left support its overthrow?
His answer is that the left has forgotten that there are worse things than liberal democracy. I would add, though Cohen doesn't, that there are worse things than war.  The left has lost the ability to criticize the bad its own governments do while supporting the good.  It is heading towards a manichean worldview where anything the West does is bad and anyone who opposes it can't be all bad.  As a result, the left is starting to support the far right (dictators and Islamists), both passively and actively.

How did this come about? The history of warfare and the left, according to Cohen, goes something like this. It started in the 1930s, with opposition to fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The left had some issues about war with Germany, but came good in the end. Then things were peaceful for 45 years, until the first Gulf War. Umm.

Instead of dwelling on events like, say, Vietnam, Cohen turns one of the left's criticisms on itself. It's a left-wing trope that for Western governments there are deserving and undeserving victims. Cohen suggests the same applies for the left. When Hussein was being supported by the West, Iraqis were deserving victims; after the First Gulf War they became undeserving victims. Pre-eminent among the deserving victims are Palestinians, oppressed by US-ally Israel.

When asked why he spends most of his time attacking the US and its allies, Chomsky has a simple answer: because as a citizen of the US he has more responsibility for its behaviour than for that of any other country. It's not that he doesn't care about the people of North Korea. I doubt he has a good word to say about the North Korean government, but he's not responsible for it, and he has very little control over it. As Chomsky points out, it didn't take a war to get the Indonesian military to withdraw from East Timor after 25 years and tens of thousands of deaths. It just took pressure from Indonesia's allies, like the US and Australia. Pressure like not actively supporting the murderous Indonesian military, for example.

There are even bigger problems with Cohen's argument. These are the very broad label of “fascist” and the tricky question of what is the left.

Cohen argues that the great virtue of the left used to be recognising and fighting fascism. For Cohen, the Iraqi regime, Al-Qaeda, Zimbabwe and presumably other organisations and regimes are “fascist”. Just like in the 30s, this justifies all means necessary, up to and including war. We have to fight Saddam Hussein and we have to fight Al-Qaeda, because they're fascists. I actually think the emotional reaction this is intended to create is ok, if lazy.

The less obvious challenge is this: in the 1930s, were people really arguing for military intervention in Spain, Italy or Germany? There's a difference between a civil war, defending one state against another and intervening militarily within a state. Italy and Germany had the will and the means to attack other countries. Saddam Hussein never attacked another country except when he thought it was ok with the US (thought wrongly, in the case of Kuwait).

The Iraqi regime certainly had a horrible ideology, as Al-Qaeda does. But they are different ideologies. In fact, they were conflicting ideologies. Al-Qaeda's goal of an Islamic Caliphate had no place for Baathist Iraq. By classing both as fascism, Cohen implies that the invasion of Iraq was also a battle against Al-Qaeda, a conflation that would make Blair and Bush propagandists proud. It's hardly a radical view that the invasion of Iraq helped Al-Qaeda. We've the authority of MI5 to support that view.

You could certainly argue the case that a stable, democratic Iraq will help fight Al-Qaeda. Cohen doesn't bother to do that. When he talks about “fighting” Al-Qaeda, it's actually not really clear what he means. In fact, he's very hazy on Al-Qaeda and “Islamism”. Is the military regime in Egypt justified to keep the Islamic Brotherhood in check? Should we be fighting various low-intensity but (inevitably) nasty wars in various countries in the world? These difficult questions aren't addressed.

The easiest criticism of the book is that the examples don't really represent “the left”. Here are two examples. Cohen lays into relativism, but I don't think I've ever actually met or read anyone who believes in it. He also highlights the SWP's role in the Stop the War protests. His criticisms of the party and George “I salute your indefatiguability” Galloway seem correct. Yet Cohen himself says that most people involved in protesting the war didn't care about the SWP. He doesn't go on to say that if opponents of the war were inspired by politicians, it was more moderate or respectable ones like Robin Cook and Clare Short. The SWP won a seat in parliament in 2004, before losing it again in 2009 , when they received 33,251 votes, an eighth of the votes the Green Party got.

Which is not to say Cohen doesn't get anything right. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime was probably the only good reason given for the invasion of Iraq. It's quite possible the anti-war movement ignored this. I still think the war was wrong, but I also think the left does not have a clear idea of how to deal with dictators. War is not supported except in exceptional cases, with strong international support. "Engagement" is sometimes supported, sometimes not. Sanctions are usually supported, but rarely effective.  It is entirely possible that different approaches are required for different cases, but I don't think I've ever seen a clear discussion of this.

To an extent the left has internalised the system of states and international institutions. This system makes a big a distinction between fighting to liberate Kuwaitis from the Iraqi Baath party and fighting to liberate Iraqis from the Iraqi Baath party. (Though it is certainly not the only distinction.) It should be hard for the left to attack the mendacity of states one minute and look to the UN to legitimise things the next. It's not wrong to go against “international opinion” if you're right.

Look for grand visions in the left and you'll probably be disappointed. Of course, this is because grand visions have disappointed. The left's lack of a cohesive vision is in part a tactic. Whether it is a good one is open for debate.

Blaming Cohen for using straw men and misrepresenting the left is so easy I started wondering “what does Cohen think of as 'the left'?” What is it he's lamenting the loss of? I went back to the definitions in the introduction. “The left” is defined with a conscious fuzziness - “you know it when you see it” - but notably it does specify that it is aligned with the trade unions. Trade unions crop up from time to time in the book, in a positive light. On the whole, though, they're not discussed. If they're not the elephant in the room, they are at least lurking just outside.

I think what Cohen is really lamenting is the loss of a left which:

  • is radical but still able to work within the system
  • has a cohesive organisation and political programme, but is not authoritarian
  • is committed
  • is linked to the working class, or at least the trade unions.
With those conditions in mind, it's easier to be sympathetic, but it doesn't make the book any better. You'll find little insight into the fall-out from the 60s & 70s counterculture, the decline of trade unions and class politics; the weight falls decisively on Iraq, Cohen's own moment of revelation. Perhaps he should have written a more personal book about his relationship with the left first, and then attempted this book.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Books: Kuhn vs Popper

Continuing my attempt to write something about every book I read. Even though this book's fairly short, this post goes on a bit as I try to get to grips with the most important parts.

The dramatic subtitle of Kuhn vs Popper by Steve Fuller is: The struggle for the soul of science. I don't know much about Thomas Kuhn or Karl Popper. What I was expecting from this book was a brief and accessible introduction to debates about the scientific method, using the tension between the two as a hook. What it actually turns out to be is a bit of a hatchet job on Thomas Kuhn. For example, one chapter explains why Heidegger cannot escape some responsibility for Nazism. The next asks "Is Kuhn the American Heidegger?" Leaving you thinking, "did Fuller just call Kuhn a Nazi?" Probably the book is best read by someone with a basic grounding in the subject already, something I don't have, but it was still clear enough to be worth reading.

Roughly speaking, Popper and Kuhn's approaches are as follows. For Popper, to decide between rival theories, scientists must set a test. Each theory makes a claim, and whichever is falsified fails the test should be discarded, regardless of its longevity or authority. (If your claim is unfalsifiable, it's not scientific.) Popper's vision is one of constant challenge for scientific theories, and regular failure, but scientists themselves have to be protected from the consequences of being wrong.

For Kuhn, scientists work within "paradigms". "Normal science" is an incremental advance. It increases the power of a paradigm but also brings up problems. When the collection of problems gets too great, a successful new paradigm emerges and a scientific revolution occurs. Most famous scientists engaged in "revolutionary science" rather than (boring) "normal science".

A paradigm is a sort of worldview. Here we run into some problems. Kuhn has been criticised for not having a clear definition of "paradigm" and using the term in different ways. What is probably the key feature of paradigms is that they are "incommensurable". "Incommensurability" is an even more problematic term. Incommensurable theories are radically different, like newtonian vs relativistic vs quantum physics. They are very different ways of looking at and describing the world. You will not understand newtonian physics if you assume that all particles are also waves, with indeterminate position and momentum.

What I think is the key to incommensurability is that it is impossible to clearly judge between two theories (at least, initially). There is such a gap between them that it is impossible to translate a claim made by one theory into terms that can be used to verify the other. In addition, while the new theory solves problems of the old, according to Kuhn, some information is always lost. Naturally, there will be also be things the new theory can explain, but has not yet explained. Faced with this situation, there can be no conventionally "scientific" contest between the two theories. I think Kuhn would go as far as saying that even in retrospect it is impossible to scientifically judge between paradigms. They can only be understood and validated in their own terms, which by definition(?) invalidate other paradigms. Instead there is a fracture in the scientific community, which is not entirely healed until supporters of the losing theory 'die off'. (Einstein never really reconciled himself to quantum mechanics.)

Whether this is really true is open for debate. Late last year, Errol Morris wrote a series of blog posts titled "The Ashtray Argument" in which he attacks the concept of incommensurability. In an interview, Kuhn claimed that incommensurability was "easy" - he got it from mathematics and used it as a metaphor. In maths, incommensurability refers to the fact that irrational numbers cannot be expressed as rational numbers of fractions. Pi as a fraction would be infinitely long. Supposedly, the guy who revealed the existence of irrational numbers was killed by the Pythagoreans for threatening their mystical worldview. They could not make the conceptual change from a world of rational numbers to one where some fundamental numbers were irrational. However as Morris points out: 1) this almost certainly never happened; 2) irrational numbers arguably supported the Pythagorean view; and most importantly 3) it wasn't the case that the Pythagoreans couldn't understand or judge the validity of incommensurability. Kuhn's founding metaphor appears to undermine his own theory.

Anyway, to round this off, when a new paradigm takes over, scientists rewrite history and make it look like science was always heading their way, in its inevitable march towards truth.

There is certainly a valid attack on the 'whig' interpretation of scientific history here - the view that science is always advancing and improving, in a fairly straight line. However it has a number of negative effects. One is to break science into a multiplicity of specialised paradigms. These are insulated from criticism from outside, both of their correctness and their value. In fact, Fuller argues, it served the Cold War military-industrial complex. It persuaded scientists to work on incremental improvements within the constraints of a paradigm ("normal science") rather than to think freely. It protected scientists from criticism of their political and military role - and from thinking about it for themselves.

Popper was initially linked with the Frankfurt School and critical theory. However while he kept a lot in common with them, he also disagreed on some major points. In particular, his political programme was more provisional, experimental and (arguably) democratic, compared with the Frankfurt School who launched something like a(n unsuccessful) propaganda war against capitalism. Popper was much more engaged with politics and his critics than Kuhn, and it may be that his reputation suffered as a result. In contrast, Kuhn wrote no significant books other than The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and answered criticisms only very erratically. This ties in with Morris' picture of Kuhn as someone who forbade him from attending rival lectures and threw an ashtray at him when he challenged incommensurability. (Though Morris' story has been challenged, most notably by Thomas Kuhn's daughter.)

All this might seem a largely irrelevant argument, while science continues successfully on its way. In fact, one of the chapters is titled 'Why philosophers get no respect from scientists'. It's not easy to summarise - I'm not sure it's entirely clear - but part of the reason is that science tends to relegate failed thinkers to "philosophy" while adopting successful ones as "scientists" (eg. Newton vs Descartes). Most scientists working within their specialised niche see no value in thinking more broadly. If they do conduct such "philosophical" speculation it tends to be after they have had their great scientific successes and have entered a "fallow" period.

The Kuhnian position actually relegates philosophers to "underlabourers" working at fringe problems to support scientists. It is quite explicitly uncritical. In fact, it calls for both a non-judgemental history from the perspective of the subjects, and a heroic history aimed at inspiring contemporary scientists. By contrast, a Popperian history of science builds normative assumptions into its story, highlighting how science has deviated from them.

The importance of this is twofold. First, in judging what is good and bad science epistemologically. For example, Popper and his followers had issues with evolutionary science and its ability to claim any change as making an organism "fitter". Evolutionary biology is probably in a better state today, but it has spawned the very dubious field of evolutionary psychology. The movement of physics away from experimentation and observation and into ever more abstract mathematics is another case where scientists methods need to be questioned. I wonder whether this relegation of philosophy has actually encouraged the growth of pseudo-science and non-science. It makes people (both specialists and not) unfamiliar with criticising methodologies. It also looks like science it is itself shielded from criticism, making it appear one among a range of belief systems which cannot be criticised or compared.

Secondly, the philosophy of science is required to make ethical judgements. Some would pretend that science is simply an amoral search for knowledge, but this is clearly not true. Think for example about a virologist choosing whether to research a cure for HIV or to research new biological weapons. In the 20th century scientists were involved in some great ethical questions, most notably the development of nuclear weapons. The fact that the ethics of this project were and are still not clear does not mean scientists can evade responsibility. It might appear that much contemporary science is far removed from ethical questions, but the example of German scientists is instructive - in 1914 they swung behind Germany, including shifting focus from physics to "the epistemologically inferior" chemistry. (The great exception was, of course, Einstein.)

One thing about this book is that I came out feeling I had a much better understanding of Kuhn's philosophy than Popper's. It did leave me wanting to find out more about Popper, but his own works seem quite daunting. I'll have to look out for an introduction.

"How can a mere philosopher devise criteria distinguishing between good and bad science, knowing it is an inutterable mystic secret of the Royal Society?" - Imre Lakatos (1973)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Books: Excession

Some lighter reading now. The other two Culture novels I've read left me with the impression that (spoiler alert) the Culture always wins. The Culture is a tremendously advanced, post-scarcity, civilisation; the most powerful in the galaxy. Excession poses the question: what happens when it encounters something that seems more powerful than it is? That it doesn't understand. For which it has no frame of reference. That might challenge it.

Tied into that is the story of the Affront, a species that enjoys cruelty and refuses to reform, and the tales of the human characters. Even more than the other books I've read, the events in this story are driven by AIs. The humans (and drones) are manipulated, commonly with care and compassion, but with little control over wider issues.

I suppose if there's a common theme running through the book it is - when should we interfere? If we think other people, societies and civilisations are doing themselves or other harm, should we intervene? The Culture is an AI-managed utopia; should we feel disconcerted by this? Or is it the crowning achievement of a civilisation to create something better than they are?

Anyway, that aside, the book is a good read. Like the ships they live on, Banks cares about his characters, and somehow he saves a number of funny bits for the end of the book.

Books what I have read: The Palestine-Israeli Conflict

I thought I'd try writing something about each book I read. Mainly for myself, as sometimes I think I read through things too quickly, without enough reflection. (How should you balance out reading extensively and intensively?) Making myself sit down and write something about a book, even if it's just an aspect of the book, will help make me think properly about it. But if I'm writing this stuff I might as well post it up and hopefully see what other people think.

I'll do the first few books in a splurge.

The Palestine-Israeli Conflict by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami. This book is intended as a primer on the history of the conflict, with half written by an Israeli and half by a Palestinian academic, followed by a little engagement between them.

It is as depressing as you might expect. Zionism (which was both religious and secular) was an understandable reaction to the position of Jews in the 19th and early 20th century. Then the holocaust gave horrible evidence for its arguments. At the same time, it's easy to see the idea of transplanting one group of people into the lands of another as a colonial approach; the people living in Palestine are simply there to be moved around.

It is interesting to see the internal struggles over the nature of the state of Israel laid out. There is a lot of argument over its religious and social character, arguments you can vividly see continuing today when settlers attack troops and billboards featuring women are vandalised.

What's perhaps most disheartening of all is the leadership. Israeli leaders negotiate in bad faith (Ehud Barak accelerating settlement building) or refuse to compromise. Arab leaders frighten Israel (and their own people) without actually improving the position of Palestinians. Most of all, though, the Palestinian leadership has failed at almost every turn. True, they may have been in a difficult position, but it's rare to see such a long struggle with so little good to show for it.