Thursday, 7 October 2010

On closure, moral dilemmas and breaking my design.

I once wrote in this blog that 'self reflection needn't be the bastard child of tragedy' and I hope over the last year I've given you some indication that reflection on morbidity is often a barrier to a life worth living. However if you'll let me indulge in a little artistic hypocrisy for one blog post I hope that I can explore my most recent experiences with you in some depth.

If there's one thing I despise it's lazy storytelling. There has to be part of the writer that dies when they finish a new Hollywood script in which the ending where every plot thread is resolved and every moral crisis the protagonists faces is dealt with. Life doesn't happen that way, there is never one complete resolution to everything.

A great example of this is Virginia Woolfe's Mrs Clarissa Dalloway of which much of the book is spent reflecting on the big choices she made in her life as she prepares for an evening party. As she is reminded of all the choices she never made in marriage and sexuality and she is driven mad by the life that never was. Clarissa begins to admire the courage of an acquaintance Sepitmus who is a shell shocked war Veteran who commits suicide to escape forced incarceration at mental hospital. Clarissa as begins to sympathise with Septimus she fields herself question after question on the choices she never made. Eventually she's reasons that her personal captivity, as a Victorian housewife, is much like the one Septimus killed himself to avoid. She herself considers suicide but partly through a mixture of cowardice and self deception decides to return to her party. Nothing is resolved, because most of life never is. It's what makes the narrative real for me.

The best stories never seek closure because it's not a part of life we ever learn from. Experiences of importance should remain with us forever however they make us feel. Years later they can create distinct emotional responses in ourselves. If closure were to numb the recollection of our most intense moments it would be poisonous to who we are.

The story of our lives won't be remembered in the regular day to day lives, but in the terrible moral dilemmas we make. We can't take them back, we can't even rationalise them because sometime there are no right answers. There are permanent decisions we make in our lives that make us ache. The real tragedy is these experience erode in poignancy over time .

The reason these stories resonate with me is because my brother died at the age of 18 and I was last member of my family to ever see him alive. I knew something was wrong, on reflection I probably knew he was leaving. I never tried to stop him, I made pleasant conversation. I went to school on time. I didn't want to be late. Even as a small, stupid child afterwards I felt heaped with that responsibility I never wanted. I could have understood him better. I could have asked him to stay. Things could have been different.

For years I wanted closure, I wanted some epiphany to happen that meant either I didn't have to take responsibility or that I wouldn't care any more. It never came, but as I grew older, met others and read more, I understood that there is a part of life would always have some unresolved finality to it. How we feel about a person remains remarkably constant. A terribly human trait is that it is often easy to get attached but so very hard to let go.

Our personal war of instinct vs reason is one where we see past our present needs in order to see the benefits of a future concept. As we've evolved as creatures of immediacy, I suspect that's why we're emotionally punished for being creatures of the long term. I think it is this facet of human nature that predisposes us towards wanting closure. Sometimes you have to wonder why we've evolved to be creature with such a questionable emotional memory. I think the simple answer is that it's just easier that way.

Science produces some pretty depressing data on this- There are some studies that suggest the amygdala, a hemisphere in the brain that stores emotional memory, is gradually suppressed over time, long before degradation. Evolutionists have postulated it's pre-programmed restriction on our ability to recall strong emotions to prevent constant, vivid emotional recollection. It seems nature has decided that total recall of our entire emotional history is more than we can take.

When we are asked to take the long view of relationships, I hate the idea that feelings or the emotional impact of our experiences somehow ebbs away over time. It seems impossible to hold onto the concept of a coherent self, if what was important to us seems to decline over time. Not through any realisation, or change in outlook, just a result of the inability to recall accurately the emotions involved.

I think one of the best virtues of human evolution is that part of the process involves breaking the previous design. Because we even have memories suggests there are advantages of going beyond being creatures of the now, even if we still have a huge evolutionary hangover involving the immediate demands of instincts or the suppression of long term memory. I think as our consciousness evolves this bizarre need for closure will eventually fade away. We will continue to 'break the design' all over again.

As we all struggle to come to terms with closure, I'd like to suggest that maybe closure isn't healthy or necessary to move on with our lives. It's simply a biological and psychological mechanism to make our lives easier. I think if are to take the time to explore ourselves, breaking this behaviour is part of that process.

This denial of self and the forgetful nature of emotional experience doesn't require closure, it requires an acceptance of what I value. Maybe experience is a dish served raw. I hope I never forget that.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Getting high on isolation. On self, society and solitude.

As I suspected three months in and the smell of the dole queue is starting to get to me. Sure I've worked temp and I've been to three interviews now (I was recently told nine is allegedly the magic number) and some days I just get tired. Tired of making phone calls and tired of attempting to sell myself to people I've never met, for jobs I don't fully understand. The terrible thing about the modern age is the level of insincerity required to get through each working day.

But I am still enjoying myself regardless, moving back to London is definitely a positive step, something about the pace of this place is good for a young person and the monuments around every corner are a nice reminder that anything is still possible.

I've noticed since returning to London that time alone, peace and solitude are more precious probably because they are more finite resources here in the capital. I've noticed several times that cancelling because you want time alone people always assume the worst. I must be depressed or exhausted or I must have some deep emotional trouble. It seems in the war of People Vs NonPeople if you reside in the NonPeople camp you must be fit for the asylum.

Weirdly these are often the times I'm happiest. Most of classical psychology would string me up as a fully fledged crazee. It is widely believed that man is a social being, that interpersonal relationships are the main, if not only source of human happiness. When did we become so afraid of being alone?

As habit dictates I investigated such behaviours and unsurprisingly much of it condemned this choice, until I stumbled across a paper published in 1958 entitled 'The capacity to be alone' by Donald Winnicot who seemed to argue there are healthy aspects to solitude.

“It is probably true to say that in psycho-analytical literature more has been written on the fear or the wish to be alone than on the ability to be alone... Its seems to me that a discussion on the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone is long overdue.”

It seems to me that Solitude is important for at least two reasons. Firstly time alone allows us to develop as individuals, personally. Much of my reading has declared that other persons are dangerous to individualism, and developing false personalities on the basis of reacting, and being subject to, constant external stimuli is probably societies most commonly accepted form of insanity.

Secondly it allows to us to imagine. Remember when we did that all the time? It's funny that something deemed essential for the healthy development of our children is something adults either hardly do, or at least never talk about. Creative spark doesn't come from concentrating so hard something appears, it comes from having the time and the peace to imagine the form of things we wish to create.

For this laptop to exist someone had to imagine it. Reality is simply the affirmation of collective imagination married with physical possibility. I think we need to give ourselves more time to be alone, to imagine and to know ourselves.

Solitude is perhaps the only access we have with individualism, certainly many case studies have revealed that group mentality allows our social image or 'ego' to override the conscious choices the self or 'Id' may have made. Bruno Buttlehiem made this observation with Israeli teenagers forced to conform to a set of group values. Immediately even outside the value remit, as social conscious grows, the individual (and therefore the artist) diminishes.

I think this struggle with our social-ego produces bigger damage than we realise. At the group level it begin to threaten our own needs and desires. Beyond that I am unsure how anyone shares themselves with somebody else when we don't give ourselves enough time to develop a solid sense of self. Being defined, even partially by someone else is a fallacy. We can't be someone we are not.

Post-modernists may try to view us as social constructions, but when we are alone we have to be the ones to make the decisions for ourselves of what we think about, what we dream about and what we decide to care about. It's the only time we become pro-active people rather than simply reactive individuals.

I'm well aware isolation is not always a healthy drug. Certainly excessive use can result in nihilism, the inability to form any relationships or just fear of other people. I think solitude need to be approached in much the same way our relationship with alcohol is. It must be used occasionally and with mild dosage to enhance experience and not deny it.

I suspect this might be harder than it sounds as we seem to have become great 'information addicts'. It is hard for people to not be doing something sometimes anything to avoid doing nothing. I would appreciate a more constructive approach to down time. One that reminds us exploration of self is valuable commodity in a time where, much of who we are is defined by what other people expect.

Anyway in an act of sheer hypocrisy, I've been feeling myself getting a little lonely of late. So I think struggling against a blank screen maybe off the menu for a few a days. Such is the form I would like to end on a quote-

"Real misanthropes are not found in solitude, but in the world; since it is experience of life, and not philosophy, which produces real hatred of mankind"

Without imagination reality becomes static, without individualism society becomes sterile and without solitude and a sense of self none of these things are possible.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Tragedy and why we need it and the moral problems with new liberalism

Two Months in we are beginning to see the first flashlights of the coalitions agenda, it seems we are seeing the scaling back of the Public Sector and a bigger emphasis on us participating in our politics. Weather it be becoming part of the 'Big society' or forming a 'free school' or simply participating in in suggesting how the government may legislate better in the future. Certainly the angle is to increase social welfare by having the government do less and people do more to shape social welfare in way that they choose.

The angle is to create a more liberal ideal. That seems a natural shift from the Blairite years of nouveaux socialism.

Social engineering on government scale has largely been unsuccessful, particularly in the UK. It is worth noting that even in the boom years, the introduction of the minimum wage and increased access to working tax credits had only one outcome- the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. New Labour was a momentous failure. Increases in social services was funded by debt and was unsustainable, bureaucracies found themselves paid more with less to do and by the end they were approving projects with no fiscal backing to make the incoming government look bad when they cancelled them. By the end it degenerated into school yard politics. You spend too much. You don't spend enough. We've all heard it.

One thing I will gift New Labour with is idealism and a sense of moral purpose (illegal wars aside). As badly managed as it was they made a genuine attempt at making things better. Now I think the new government can't even be bothered incorporating a morality into itself at all. The moral basis for their social policy seems to be an emphasis on Liberalism and the freedom to choose. Liberalism sounded sexy to me at first- the losers lose, the winners win, free markets creating capital unhindered and a world where expression and opportunity are truly free. Hayek believes that these principals to be inseparable-

“Neither good intentions nor efficiency of organization can preserve decency in a system in which personal freedom and individual responsibility are destroyed.”

Unfortunately Hayek didn't graduate into recession caused by high rolling Gamblers. Free trade certainly pissed on my freedom. Individual responsibility meant 6 figure severance packages. Post-recession this emphasis on freedom worries me. It seems a failure of governance caused the recession, so our new masters in No 10 are suggesting now they do even less?

The reality is that power without money always results in optimistic low-cost social agendas. I'm worried that our new found freedoms will result in a new scapegoat for the government- us. Political development throughout the 20th century was a consensus throughout Europe that governments do more, this newfound assumption they now do less seems like a step back, not a step forward.

Getting back to creating a Liberal meritocracy may sound wonderful, but all liberalisers will admit that it is naturally- self serving system. Adam Smith used this as the basis suggesting the selfish ideals will drive will drive all markets including the moral market.

"Every individual... neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it... he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain."

Capitalism may work financially but I don't think it's a moral driver for how we live. It would assume that my interest in the social wellbeing of other is guided by selfish gain rather than that of empathy garnered from being a long sufferer of that terrible illness of being human. One of the problems in investigating economic theory is that those who publish tend to be the winners. Winners tend to be big on knowledge but small on empathy. Perhaps one of the most ironic tragedies of political philosophy is that it's written by people who often don't experience failure at all.

A society that begins and ends solely with self interest manifests itself in many terrible forms, it exploits, is ruled by cronyism and manifested in the very worst parts of the world where day-to-day government play no part in the lives of its citizens. An over managed government ensure social projects become toxic high tax, unsustainable failures.

The terrible thing about living in Britain is that under a two party system, the talk of a progressive politics is exactly that. The reality is we're back into a political swing towards Conservative austerity after years of wasteful socialist largesse. Identical as every political swing since 1945.

I hope one thing we take away from the Blair-Brown era are the moral sentiments that not all people who fail deserve it. Not all people who succeed deserve it either. The Moral bankruptcy of New Liberalism is the assumption that tragic figures could never exist in a Liberal utopia. It forgets even if systems are perfect humans are not.

It seems strange to me that tragedy being the most popular expression of art doesn't find itself into politics more. I accept that politicians or leaders of any kind should lead by by example, but this distorted image that politicians have to perfect all the time means the false picture we get is going to lack the genuine human facets- inconsistencey, the struggle of making hard decisions and the drama that we create when we ask people to put their reputations on the line to justify themselves. David Laws was such a tragic figure caught out not because wanted to make money (he had no need for it) but the fact he wanted to protect his private life from public scrutiny. Yet once smeared he was axed immediately. Politics demands perfection. This idea that politics has to have perfect people undermines it's capacity to accept that talented people sometimes fail.

People who never push themselves hard enough or are just too scared to make decisions they might be wrong on don't belong in politics. Dostoevsky was very aware that human capacity to allow others to redeem themselves is the part of the human condition that forges the strongest individuals and that harmony on the basis of mutual perfection can never be real-

“Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.”

I think he's suggesting a love of humanity comes from an understanding that as moral agents we fail all the time, that some wisdom that can only comes from failure.

As we embrace New liberalism I would be careful of this idea that the less the government does the more culpable we are for our own fate. It can get horribly judgemental, in Victorian England someone of lower class would be called an “unfortunate” nowadays under in our more liberal society they would be called a “loser” Just because we've found ourselves in our more meritocratic society lets not forget the message of 3,000 years of tragedy- The pure meritocracy can never exist and on that basis many of those who fail deserve moral understanding.

We would do well to remember our fate is never ours alone, morality needs to compensate for both the randomness and the consistencies of the human condition. That in itself is an impossible task but never underestimate the value of investigating the impossible.

It's why philosophy matters.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Why I’m choosing choice, fear and the future.

As I sign off on the paperwork that will later become my under graduate degree, I had a terrible realisation- nothing is certain anymore. For 24 long years I always had the notion of what I wanted to achieve, school, college bum around for year, uni and then get a job. I had thought naturally I would float into a science role until I realised the rather mechanical Germans I had worked with in the lab seemed to relish the chores of early morning maths slightly more than was natural. Then came the alarming realisation that's not what I wanted to be.

I sit here in my rather grubby t-shirt with the rather empty declaration “we’re free” but science teaches us there are in fact measurable boundaries to the universe, that deterministic laws of motion that dictate everything I am capable of. Science’s brilliance lays in it’s ability to deconstruct problems analyse them and push forward the most accurate theory on the data provided. The discipline is extracted from mathematical proofing simply substitute the numbers for real world measurable equivalents and you have the essence of how science approaches problems.

So soon I will have my certification that tells the world that I am technically proficient in this discipline. Dragging the world’s understanding of the unknown into certainty once seemed a great way to contribute to this world, yet now on cusp of being licensed to do so it begins to seem so empty. Some people take a different approach; Richard Feynman a physicist on the Manhattan project and one of the great quantum thinkers seemed to embrace a search for uncertainty in science:

“It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.”

True enough words; dogmatism of any kind always makes me suspicious and the many times science has proved itself wrong does a good job of eliminating arrogance in this field. Still I feel this is a slightly confusing message for a physicist for even in the seemingly random quantum dimension there exists certain albeit chaotic probabilistic frameworks. Thinking back to my Christmas time search for crucible moments I’ve since come to two conclusions:

1) Crucible moments don’t exist and that small and gradual change over time simply affects our character to the point we decide (consciously or unconsciously) to redefine ourselves.

Or crucible moments DO exist and:

2) Crucible moments are often misrepresented. They are not over coming great adversity or completing some arduous task but simply a change in attitude, perspective and ambition when faced with complete uncertainty.

The amount of uncertainty in my life to date has practically been nil, and at any time I can remember when the future was uncertain the only thing I can remember about that time was complete anxiety then relief once certainty took hold again. I suspect that has something to do with how society is designed since getting the degree seems to be what life was about since I was about 15 and any uncertainty was greeted with the fear that life wouldn’t be as I wanted it to be. Now I’ve scrambled to the to top all I have is uncertainty but with it comes free to choose who I want to be, what I want to do and what the focus will be for the next stage of my life. No assignments, no deadlines, no 9 o’clock start or 11 am meetings all I have now is choice. It seems uncertainty brings us a wonderfully unexpected gift- the choice to choose.

My life to date hasn’t exactly been bad to despite the lack of choice within it, I suspect in six months and several thousand dole financed cigarettes later I’ll be writing, that maybe, just maybe uncertainty is over-rated. Potentially a life without direction is no more defining than stand in the queue for the post office- I just don’t know now. I can’t get away from thinking I will be taking some important decisions in the next year. What they will be of how they will affect me is all part of the uncertainty.

I don’t think science (or even Feynman) has done me much good teaching me to cope with uncertainty but university has equipped me with some education and initiative and I suspect these are the core skills for making the most of uncertainty. Uri Meller PhD, writes in his sociological thesis “Coping with uncertainty” that the only way we move forward is to accept uncertainty is our greatest opportunity for change.

“The ability to accept uncertainty and tolerate ambiguity might become an essential aspect of a personality that has to deal with an unpredictable environment. Accepting uncertainty includes the ability to be in confusion and to accept that confusion as a necessary element in the process of interacting with a nonlinear world, a world suffused with ambiguity.”

He makes some interesting points on the inconsistent nature of personalities but I guess I like him because he writes likes a scientist, although I’m not sold that we need necessarily to be confused in uncertainty. My thoughts are to get the most from a time of uncertainty we need not to be confused but lucid to recognise the opportunities it presents.

The answer I will hazard in this six month overdue assignment on my initial question "What is a crucible moment?" is this- If we choose choice in our lives then we choose uncertainty. The only time we amalgamate everything we are is not what we do when asked to do something, but who we choose to be when we can do anything.

I’m gaining some sympathy for the post modernists now; certainly my search for certainty in science hasn’t even yielded a desire for certainty at all. I’m sure I’ll grow out of this soon enough, like the enthusiastic anarchist that realises that a career, a family and a home actually gives you tangible benefits often lacking in idealism.

Despite that I think I need a written record of the time that uncertainty never scared me for the first time, a precious moment in which almost I’m probably enjoying more freedom than I have done in years in who, where and what I want to be. I suppose I better start acting like this time matters.
As I take my first teetering steps into the uncertain job seekers funded future, Voltaire offers these comforting words:

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

So given a world where certainty is absurd anything is possible. So to those graduating enjoy. You’ve never been freer.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Politics is broken and you know it

It must be an election year. The amount of political smear I need to rub off my TV every morning is getting worse, the usual parade of fraud, gay-bashing and death taxes has already entered the increasingly comical world political discourse. Only this morning I saw internet chatter of people legitimately talking about whether a B&B owner should be allowed to exclude gays. Fuck. Is this what political discourse is these days?

I’ve debated long enough to know when something is and isn’t a debate. If this had been a white supremacist excluding a black man, or a Muslim refusing to serve a woman because she is not wearing a Burka or a Mormon refusing anyone who didn’t believe that there were city states in North America 50 years after Christ’s death, there would be no debate here. We would say “Wow your ignorance is so staggeringly bad it’s a real sad state of affairs that we need to make laws for people like you.” We would move on. Discussion over.

But Grayling is a senior conservative. It’s a recession. People are quite anti-government. The usual questions were asked. By all means let the politicians score points against each other but don’t give them credit for it. Don’t let them make morons of us all.

I despise big state politics. Big states waste money, big states are lumbering and inflexible in the fast paced world of Global economics, big states always limit freedoms, big states are bureaucratic and inefficient, big states are impenetrable when people need them, big states control and manipulate information. Big states deprive people of money, freedom and any political empowerment whatsoever.

Do we live in a ‘big state?’

Those little sparks of electricity rushing through your brain just now is questioning and appreciating the political landscape of Britain. Maybe when we starting talking about what politicians think instead of the stupid things they do maybe the media would take us seriously for a change.

Leave the pathetic attempts at character assassination to the pages of heat magazine.

I want politics please.