Friday, September 30, 2005

Back to the future

William Morris – Pre-Raphaelite poet, writer of fantasy novels, leading member of the Arts and Crafts movement, designer of wallpapers, fabrics, and typefaces, founder of the Kelmscott Press, and political radical – was aggrieved by the fact that the beautiful goods he and his firm produced could be afforded only by the well-to-do. It was Morris’s belief that art, as the expression of creative and satisfying work, should not be something separate from everyday life. Further, both art and work should connect human beings with the natural world. Morris’s vision of his ideal society is elaborated in his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890). The novel seems impossibly idealistic and naïve in many ways, yet in some respects Morris was ahead of his time.

Morris called himself a communist. He wrote articles and co-authored a volume (Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome) sympathetically expounding, and elaborating on, Marx’s ideas. In the 1880s he was a political colleague of Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, in the Social Democratic Federation and then in the Socialist League. Yet Morris was an anomaly among socialists, his commitment to radical social change growing out of a visceral and uncompromising opposition to the values of the industrial age, including the technological triumphalism espoused by most socialists. He was even more radical than Marx and Engels; unlike those two in their later years, he rejected the possibility of the working class attaining power through peaceful parliamentary means. (A memorable line in News from Nowhere informs us that in post-revolution Britain the Houses of Parliament are preserved as a storage place for manure.) More than this, he rejected not just capitalism, but industrial society in any form.

As Morris saw it, the proper goal of the socialist revolution was not to further the domination of humans over nature, but to allow us to exercise our faculties in communion with nature. His ideal communist society is not only decentralized, but de-industrialized: “It is a society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forgo some of the power over nature won by past ages in order to be more human and less mechanical, and willing to sacrifice something to this end.” To fail to cherish the beauty of the natural environment is to be self-destructive. “How could people be so cruel to themselves?” is the rhetorical question from Ellen, the travelling companion of Morris’s alter ego in News from Nowhere.

Running as a unifying thread through Morris’s writings is the idea that a flourishing natural environment is a vital human need – a need rooted in our very nature. This has more recently been articulated as the concept of biophilia, the hypothesis that human beings have a profound emotional affinity for the planet’s other living organisms, which constitute the web of life within which Homo sapiens has evolved. Morris goes further, by calling our attention to the way industrial society has thwarted satisfaction of the vital need for a flourishing natural environment. To prosper, he says, we must work to undo previous destructive human intervention in the environment and must free ourselves from the system of production that furthers this destruction. Morris urges his audience “to set yourselves earnestly to protecting what is left, and recovering what is lost of the Natural Fairness of the Earth: no less I pray you to do what you may to raise up some firm ground amid the great flood of mechanical toil, to make an effort to win human and hopeful work for yourselves and your fellows.”

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Be a man, Russell

Russell Smith, the Toronto novelist and short-story writer, excels at humorously skewering the pretensions of the young and hip, the artsy and the academic, particularly those living in Toronto. I recommend him to you. It seems a tad ironic, then, that Smith is one of Toronto’s premier dandies. This guy is serious about clothes. When I first encountered him in The Globe and Mail, writing about the correct way for a man to lace up his shoes, my immediate reaction was “Get a life!” – a reaction that I retain to this sort of foppery. Simultaneously, however, I admire him for saying, in effect, “Here are the standards by which I choose to live, and I don’t care whether they’re popular or not.” It’s the feeling I have when I’m in the supermarket and see an elderly gentleman in a suit and tie, there amid all the others in the jogging outfits and baseball caps. “Good for him,” I think, “he’s doing it his way.” (Cue Frank Sinatra.)

Smith defends his obsession with clothes in a new, non-fiction book, Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress, excerpted in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. He detests the word “metrosexual”, likely because it implies that being a dandy (a word he doesn’t use in the article) is less than manly, and he wants to argue that masculinity and a concern with clothing style go well together. He asks: if it’s not considered shallow to enjoy the pretty colours and “rich materiality” of painters like Matisse and Vermeer, why should it be considered shallow to enjoy the attractive surfaces of clothes? “I crave Matisse as I crave a silk tie or a plummy Burgundy”, says Smith. Appreciation of music, of painting, of food, of clothes – all these are cut from the same cloth (if I may put a metaphor in his mouth). Smith then goes on to defend the artificial by pointing out that art and artifice have a common root and that all art is artificial. “I would no more return to the natural than I would give up Shostakovich and Brahms and the Louvre.”

That’s where I think he goes off the rails, in setting art against nature. I prefer the view of William Morris (1834-1896), who maintained that “everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her....” Speaking of what he called the decorative arts, “that great body of art by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life”, Morris said:
Now it is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in: forms and intricacies that do not necessarily imitate nature, but in which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web [i.e., woven fabric], the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.
In The Garments of Caean, by the under-appreciated science-fiction writer Barrington J. Bayley, fetishists of the Art of Attire are described as “clothes robots”. The novel introduces us to Peder Forbarth, a humble tailor who longs for the sartorial splendours of the planet Caean, where clothes are a way of life. The Caeanics believe that the individual’s range of attire confers on him a greater command over his own personality, enabling him to escape the dictates of biology. They esteem the artificial over the natural, and indeed have a horror of the naked human body. After an illegal salvage expedition to a crashed Caeanic clothes-freighter, Forbarth becomes the proud owner of a suit constituted of the fabulous Prossim fabric – and made by the hands of the one and only Frachonard himself! On donning this artistic masterpiece, Forbarth immediately becomes one of the five best-dressed men in the universe, self-confident and charismatic. The catch is that before long the Frachonard suit owns its wearer, who feels helpless and lost without it. “A Caeanic’s raiment is his interface with the universe, the sole means by which his existence can be validated and his hidden abilities brought into play….” Superficially assuming a new dynamism, our hero becomes in reality the ultimate in clothes robots, now leading his life under a compulsion that seems to spring from the suit itself. The Garments of Caean is probably not Bayley’s best piece of fiction, but (and I’m not pointing a finger at Russell Smith here) he does have a message for those who think that success is to be found in the rent-an-image dictates of the dominant culture: Suit yourself!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Welcome to 1650

The evidence is mounting that civilization is about to suffer a major heart attack. In June I mentioned peak oil, the idea that world oil production is reaching its all-time maximum and is about to decline, with potentially serious economic and social consequences. Well, I wasn’t alarmist enough. As Matt Savinar explains at length (and with many useful links), if you think that peak oil just means you’ll have to leave your car at home and take the bus more often, you’re living in fantasy land. Not just our motor vehicles, but modern civilization itself runs on oil; there’s almost no aspect of our lives that doesn’t – from food to medicine to computers. And the fact that the decline in overall oil production may be gradual doesn’t mean there won’t be a heart attack. Analogously, you only have to lose a small fraction of the total water in your body to die of dehydration. Long before all the oil is gone, society as we know it now will be gone.

Does that mean we’ll all be back in the equivalent of the 1950s, in some version of Grease? Hardly. The 1950s was built on oil, and used it even less efficiently than today. But it’s not just a matter of jet travel and so many other things becoming too expensive. Apart from energy considerations, many earlier technologies may be unavailable simply because they’ve disappeared in practice. Will there be – is there even now – the material and human infrastructure for manufacturing and repairing manual typewriters? Will there be the infrastructure, including a trained and skilled workforce, for operating steam locomotives? Once society advances to technology D from technology C, from B, from A, earlier technologies get lost. Even though the knowledge is likely to exist in libraries, the task of reconstituting the basis for its application may be beyond anyone’s capability. (On this score, I urge you to seek out the excellent 1949 novel Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart.) The point is that when the big crunch comes, society will not collapse back to 1950; 1750 or 1650 is a more likely date. We live in increasingly desperate times, though most people don’t realize it yet. If we’re going to avoid the heart attack, it will take a lot more than exercise and eating right.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sartre on blogging

Windy weather. Fat, glossy chestnuts are smashing on the pavement and kitesurfers are on the strait. And thinking of chestnut trees, and those surfers living very much in the moment, reminds me of another passage (not the famous one with the chestnut tree) that I particularly like in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. It's about the problem of trying to reconcile the endless possibilities of the present moment with the desire to find narrative coherence in one's life. This is an issue that arises also in philosophy of history, in the debate between rationalists, who emphasize human agency, and positivists, who insist on explaining through lawful regularities. It's also central to the debate over the scientific status of Darwinian theory. Here's Sartre's protagonist:
This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must – and this is all that is necessary – start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount. For example, when I was in Hamburg, with that Erna girl whom I didn't trust and who was afraid of me, I led a peculiar sort of life. But I was inside it, I didn't think about it. And then one evening, in a little café at St. Pauli, she left me to go to the lavatory. I was left on my own, there was a gramophone playing Blue Skies. I started telling myself what had happened since I had landed. I said to myself: "On the third evening, as I was coming into a dance hall called the Blue Grotto, I noticed a tall woman who was half-seas over. And that woman is the one I am waiting for at this moment, listening to Blue Skies, and who is going to come back and sit down on my right and put her arms around my neck." Then I had a violent feeling that I was having an adventure. But Erna came back, she sat down beside me, she put her arms around my neck, and I hated her without knowing why. I understand now: it was because I had to begin living again that the impression of having an adventure had just vanished.

When you are living, nothing happens. The settings change, people come in and go out, that's all. There are never any beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, it is an endless, monotonous addition. Now and then you do a partial sum: you say: I've been travelling for three years, I've been at Bouville for three years. There isn't any end either: you never leave a woman, a friend, a town in one go. And then everything is like everything else: Shanghai, Moscow, Algiers, are all the same after a couple of weeks. Occasionally – not very often – you take your bearings, you realize that you're living with a woman, mixed up in some dirty business. Just for an instant. After that, the procession starts again, you begin adding up the hours and days once more. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. April, May, June. 1924, 1925, 1926.

That's living. But when you tell about life, everything changes; only it's a change that nobody notices: the proof of that is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be such things as true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the opposite way. You appear to begin at the beginning: "It was a fine autumn evening in 1922. I was a solicitor's clerk at Marommes." And in fact you have begun at the end. It is there, invisible and present, and it is the end which gives these few words the pomp and value of a beginning. "I was out walking, I had left the village without noticing, I was thinking about my money troubles." This sentence, taken simply for what it is, means that the fellow was absorbed, morose, miles away from an adventure, in exactly the sort of mood in which you let events go by without seeing them. But the end is there, transforming everything. For us, the fellow is already the hero of the story. His morose mood, his money troubles are much more precious than ours, they are all gilded by the light of future passions. And the story goes on in reverse: the moments have stopped piling up on one another in a happy-go-lucky manner, they are caught by the end of the story which attracts them and each of them in turn attracts the preceding moment: "It was dark, the street was empty." The sentence is tossed off casually, it seems superfluous; but we refuse to be taken in and we put it aside: it is a piece of information whose value we shall understand later on. And we have the impression that the hero lived all the details of that night like annunciations, promises, or even that he lived only those that were promises, blind and deaf to everything that did not herald adventure. We forget that the future was not yet there; the fellow was walking in a darkness devoid of portents, a night which offered him its monotonous riches pell-mell, and he made no choice.

I wanted the moments of my life to follow one another in an orderly fashion like those of a life remembered. You might as well try to catch time by the tail.
So the choice is clear: to live or to blog.

Monday, September 12, 2005

No wonder they conquered the world

Gantogoo Bayarkhuu

Sept. 14: Meanwhile, in China the People's Daily, organ of the Communist Party, reminds us that it's "The 6oth anniversary of the victory in the Anti-Fascist War". All hail the proletarian struggle! But what ever happened to Mao suits?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Day of the barbarians

September 11 is not only the anniversary of the attacks against New York and Washington. It is the anniversary of the 1973 military coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Chile. The overthrow of President Salvador Allende brought to power the barbaric military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The Nixon-Kissinger administration was openly hostile to Allende and worked to undermine his government even before it took office in 1970. Washington wanted a coup against Allende all along, but whether it played a direct role in the events of September 11 remains a controversial issue.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

CBC yes, Promo Girl no

"Well, Promo Girl has got to go. So does that smug, superior jerk who does The Voice." I frequently disagree with Margaret Wente's political analyses, but her column on the CBC lockout in The Globe and Mail on September 1 was right on the money. Yes, I too cannot stand the excruciatingly irritating and omnipresent Promo Girl. (The Voice is insufferable, but at least you knew when he was coming on and could turn the volume down for a minute. Promo Girl popped up without warning, and made me want to throw the radio at the wall.) But ill-advised attempts to make the CBC appeal to a younger audience were not the gist of Wente's column. Her main point was that, despite its shortcomings, the CBC is head and shoulders above other broadcasters in this country, and it's a dedicatedly Canadian voice.
CBC-bashers argue that its ratings are so low it doesn't deserve all that taxpayer support. CBC Radio gets only about 10 per cent or 12 per cent of the English-language radio audience. On TV, Canadian Idol is way more popular than Peter Mansbridge. But so what? Mass always outdraws class.

The CBC is pitched to people with a flicker of interest in the world and an IQ above room temperature, which automatically excludes a good half the population. It's supposed to be specialty programming. It specializes in Canada. No private broadcaster will ever do that. As for ratings -- well, if you want to find out where the hustle for ratings leads, just check out CNN. In between natural disasters, CNN is runaway brides from end to end.
After the (real) CBC is back, and Promo Girl is gone (I hope), maybe we can persuade The Globe and Mail to let us vote one of its columnists off the paper. I know which one I'd vote to boot, and it wouldn't be Margaret Wente. The one I'm thinking of is the Self-Promo Girl.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Cuban doctors on way to Louisiana

CNN has shown the arrival of Cuban doctors and relief workers in Miami, on their way to Louisiana. The first contingent of 200 doctors are headed for Baton Rouge, which will be their base of operations for New Orleans and for Biloxi, Mississippi. Up to 1300 more Cuban doctors are expected to arrive in the next several days. In Havana, President Fidel Castro said he welcomed President Bush's decision to accept Cuba's offer of medical aid. "I hope this signals a change of attitude toward Cuba in Washington, and the beginning of a new era in Cuba-US relations. For our part, we are willing to go the extra mile to mend fences." In Washington a White House spokesman cautioned against reading too much into the decision to allow entry to the Cubans, but emphasized that President Bush was determined to put political differences with Cuba aside in the interest of helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina. "He feels it would be mean-spirited to do otherwise." At the same time, the National Weather Service announced that hell has just frozen over, bringing relief from the sweltering conditions along the Gulf coast. President Bush said he's looking forward to doing some cross-country skiing this week at his ranch in Texas and is inviting Cindy Sheehan to accompany him.

Would I lie to you? In fact, President Castro has repeated his offer of medical aid to the United States. He said that Cuba has more than 130,000 health-care professionals and that more than 25,000 of them are on international missions in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But the Bush administration is hardly likely to accept Fidel's offer. What an embarrassment to be bailed out of an emergency by the little socialist island of Cuba, after decades of trying to crush it! In the run-up to the Iraq war, the US administration accused Cuba of developing biological-weapons technology that could be shared with states hostile to the US. There seems to have been even less to back this charge than the one about WMD in Iraq. Is there a pattern here? Well, at least there's not much threat that sick and destitute Americans will be exposed to the dangers of socialized medicine.

Sept. 6: Not everyone is as keen as the Cubans to aid the US.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

"Fear and I were born twins"

Commenting on New Orleans' rapid descent into barbarism, one caller to a Vancouver radio station yesterday claimed that Canadians would behave better in a catastrophe. Would we? We tend think of Canada as a more civilized society, the "kinder, gentler nation" that Bush Sr. wanted, a society where we look out for each other. Our national character trait is terminal niceness. We are the nation whose motto is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", but the very traditional-conservative "peace, order, and good government". Ay, but there's the rub. What happens if the government disappears? How long after the Big One, the nine-point-whatever Richter earthquake, before we too are looting, shooting, and scrabbling over each other to save ourselves?

"Fear and I were born twins", said Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), referring to the approach of the Spanish Armada at his birth. The fear of social collapse underlay his political doctrine--not surprising, since he lived though the English Civil War, and feared for his life both because he was on the losing side and because he was a notorious atheist. He famously wrote that life in a state of nature, a condition without the political state, would be "nasty, brutish, and short". He is worth quoting at greater length:
Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known....
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
"A common power to keep them all in awe": a strong state is the necessary condition for peace, in Hobbes' view. When that power goes, we descend into a war of all against all, whether or not there is actual battle at any given time. Anarchists do not share Hobbes' pessimistic view of human nature, and reject his contention that society will collapse without the political state. In the ruins of New Orleans there were countless instances of mutual aid among the population. The most plausible vision of an anarchist society is probably the one to be found in Ursula K. Le Guin's science-fiction novel The Dispossessed. But, as Le Guin writes, the people of the utopian planet Anarres "knew that their anarchism was the product of a very high civilization, of a complex diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology that could maintain high production and rapid transportation of goods." Even anarchist optimism must be tempered by the realization that the larger and more complex a society, the more energy it requires to sustain it, and that the viability of the whole depends on maintaining its constituent subsystems in good working order. Look at New Orleans and how vulnerable it was to catastrophic disruption; then look at the role the oil of the Gulf of Mexico plays in the larger US economy. Global civilization today is New Orleans writ large. There are storms on the horizon, the levees are in danger of failing, and we do nothing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Welcome to the future

The reports from Louisiana and Mississippi are not pretty. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead; bodies floating in the streets; a breakdown of law and order, with looters and gunfire common in places, vehicles being hijacked; and authorities calling for the complete evacuation of New Orleans. Fuel prices, already high by recent standards, rocket upward until the government steps in. This is one disaster. Imagine having to confront multiple such disasters simultaneously. Could central authorities cope? In the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami, aid poured in from the rest of the world, which remained unscathed.

Whether global warming has played a part in the New Orleans flood is not clear, but rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather phenomena, combined with overpopulation and an end to cheap energy, bode ill for the future: one prospect is a Hobbesian state of nature in which life is nasty, brutish, and short, relieved in spots by precarious order imposed by the strong, take-no-prisoners hand of authority.
The bulk of the city had long since vanished, and only the steel-supported buildings of the central commercial and financial areas had survived the encroaching flood waters. The brick houses and single-storey factories of the suburbs had disappeared completely below the drifting tides of silt. Where these broke surface, giant forests reared up into the burning dull-green sky, smothering the former wheatfields of temperate Europe and North America. Impenetrable Matto Grossos sometimes three hundred feet high, they were a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past, and the only avenues of transit for the United Nations military units were through the lagoon systems that had superimposed themselves on the former cities. But even these were now being clogged with silt and then submerged.
J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World