Tag Archives: civilization

Darwinism (or DarwinIsADouche.com)

I have a love/hate relationship with Darwinism. I love the idea, application and process of evolutionary theory – one can’t, and won’t, deny the beauty and mind bending revolution of Chuck’s vision (especially taking into account the arse clenching theology of the Victorian era). Yet I hate with profound passion the ubiquity of it as a metaphor (incorrectly, more often than not) and the misplaced faith in that metaphor as an ultimate endorsement. As a metaphor it’s usually employed to prop up lazy reasoning and convenient beliefs; Darwinism intoned in the hope that through its power it will lend an argument credence, a statement validity or, more commonly, imbue some cynical societal prescription, guaranteed to cure our indulgent ills, with the power of evolution’s place in the firmament of scientific and intellectual certitude.

Again, I’m not picking a fight with Darwinism, rather the casuist plodders who employ it as a wagon of expedience for their preferred convictions. That Mr. Darwin coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’ to describe his theory makes me want to weep and rage in equal measure. Ironically On the Origin of the Species suffers from the same problem the Bible does in the hands of their respective fundamentalists; a problem anchored in the refusal to recognise how embedded in the assumptions of the times the writers were. Darwin was a product of Victorian England, at the height of an empire that sought to benevolently conquer the world for its own good, because, obviously, the English were the pinnacle of civilisation. It was their duty as the highest representative of the human race. The believed cultural supremacy of the times is perfectly captured in the penultimate sentence of Darwin’s most famous tome: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” The arrogance and assumption, not to mention the hideous anthropomorphism of nature in its entirety, contained in that one sentence is quite staggering. But, and this is quite important, in our relativist wisdom we are quite capable of contextualising that statement within the prevalent cultural standards of Darwin’s lifetime, taking from it that if you stick monkeys in one end of a habitat, given an opportune environment, you might get Andy Warhol out the other. Which is my point – it isn’t the survival of the fittest, it is the survival of those with the most opportune mutations in that environment.

The word fittest is highly dependent on context, deeply in need of qualification. The way we use it has far too much of the smell of triumphalism about it; that those that fall are unworthy, and those who remain are right. It is putting the cart before the horse on a quite impressive scale, leading to conclusions based on a syllogism; they didn’t make it, we did, thus we are superior. A beautiful example is capitalism vs. communism, as Norman Manea wisely said, “Yet on the other shore, a self congratulatory society took the collapse of the other side as a vindication.”

Our vesting ‘Survival of the Fittest’ with power beyond its context has given us some pretty fucked up ideas of what the survival of a thing actually means, not to mention the context it survives or dies in. We have to save the ecosphere due to our biological need of it, because we’re quite important, being a higher animal, but the lower animals that can’t hack it in our climate altered wake, urban environs, polluted waters, fenced rural landscapes and zoos kinda deserve to die, coz, like, it’s survival of the fittest, right? Except for rats, as no one really likes rats. And pigeons, of course, being, as has been demonstrated, just airborne rodents… though what do we do with the fucking flying foxes? Is an actual flying rodent somehow exempt from our wrath simply because it doesn’t, y’know, fuck so much? The specious logic applied to sustain this illusionary narrative leaves us chasing our own brains round the inside of our skulls, demanding of us the unsavoury necessity of a shorter syllogism: we’re atop the food chain, thus the fittest, so we can’t be wrong. So… pandas? Fuck ’em.

We are the pinnacle of evolution, we are the duly ordained of nature; accordingly it’s our duty to show the way to the rest of the ecosphere… Hang on, I’ve heard that reasoning somewhere before… wait, wait… if a table has four legs and that thing I’ve been sitting on has four legs, then the thing I’m sitting on must be a table.

Okay, I feel better.

It’s a bit weird attributing, in a fundamental way, such high importance to being able to do some neat things with our thumbs and neo-cortex. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to see evolution as a kind of race; if we’re at the front of the pack then we must be doing well – though it’s a bit much that we’re refereeing the race we’re running in. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice… no, shit, I mean Quod Erat Demonstrandum… No I don’t… Ah, fuck it, caveat emptor, assholes.

The sublimely ridiculous thing is that most of the stuff we do – economics, science, even much of our art – works against a fundamental tenet of sustainable evolutionary practice: they consume more than they produce – a fine case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. As Daniel Quinn observed of the folly of our cultural practices: natural selection doesn’t eliminate you immediately, it eliminates you eventually. Our problem is that we’ve got our timelines all mixed up, making us unable to see over the chronological horizon.

Survival of the fittest indeed.

So we use the shortcut of ‘survival of the fittest’ to bless arguments with the power of  Evolutionary Theory while, with deep irony, practising behaviour that only promises to make of us a case study for the next species that happens to grow thumbs. Evolutionary Theory still remains a beautiful and true description of what we see in the biological world around us, but ‘survival of the fittest’ as a metaphor sucks. It sucked then and sucks now. I quite like the idea of setting up a website dedicated to the failure of Darwinism as a metaphor: DarwinIsADouche.com, for all the Darwinarcissists out there. Though, on consideration, I’m pretty sure the server would immediately crash from the sudden surge of Dawkinites and other, less articulate Fundamentalists.

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Violence

I think about violence fairly regularly, a possible result of various childhood and early adult experiences, though more likely it’s just the general prevalence of it. But the lens through which I view violence was definitely formed at the private high school I had to go to – a colonial attempt to emulate the English elite model that somehow transformed into a rugby obsessed, educational black hole that endorsed bullying as essential to the construction of character. I was quite small as a boy, not really growing significantly until I was sixteen, so my experience of the worst of this violence was as a weak kid who learnt it was a bad idea to try and stand up to bullies (in this sitcom bullies don’t suddenly back down when confronted, revealing themselves as cowards, they knee you in the stomach and elbow you in the back of the head). It was pretty horrible to be surrounded by this violence but to also be embraced by a context that rewarded said violence socially, if not materially, was baffling. My public school years leading up to this private highschool did nothing to prepare me for the levels of violence that were commonplace there.

One of the worst aspects of this didn’t really come home to me until my final year, when we suddenly had at our disposal the physical and social tools to perpetrate this violence ourselves. This was abhorrent to me, I couldn’t stand the thought of it – it actually made me feel ill. Yet I watched those kids who had gone through the same, or worse, shit that I had perpetrate and embrace this violence, instead of reviling it. It was their turn, I was told when I asked a couple of my friends why they did it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that reality, to actually understand in real terms how violence just begets more violence – a comfortable cliche that doesn’t do itself justice.

Our very origins are based, I think, on conception and conceit. At a fundamental cultural level violence seems to make sense to us, so it follows that we would look for its part in the birth our species. We think of ourselves, in this culture we call civilization, as the pinnacle of the human race. This conceit, that our culture represents our whole species, is massively damaging to our view of cultural phenomena like violence.

Believing our species coalesced in violence makes it easier to perpetuate it, that much is obvious, but the depth of violent conflict in our thinking and behaviour is terrifying. It finds easy expression in our political and social agendas in ways we just don’t notice, let alone question. We make war on drugs, obesity, terrorism, poverty and disease. Business is conducted as warfare (The Art of War by Sun Tzu being a standard business text). There are relationship battles, the grander battle of the sexes; we fight for the hearts and minds of the people.

In ‘Origin of the Species’ (there’s that conceit again) Darwin conceived evolution as war: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” Ignoring the ‘higher animals’ thing, nature conceived as hierarchy rather than obviously interconnected systems, the belief that we were actually produced through violence, on an evolutionary level, makes it far easier to see the cultural evolution and acceptance of violence as ‘natural’.

Violence isn’t necessarily about hitting someone, of course. We learn to exact violence in the cleverest, most intimate ways. We only have to look at the intricate use of violence in an abusive relationship – the horror of the physical violence is the crescendo; it is what enforces the continual emotional and intellectual violence of the relationship. It’s all about control and dominion. We all understand this, even if we are inarticulate in the face of it, we all understand. We’ve been made to by our very surroundings, which has a knock on effect into our internal lives. We commit violence on ourselves; constructing an inner violence that warps and betrays our internal lives, condemning our ability to relate to each other and the world around us into a search for and a shameful or embarrassed purchase of the latest aphoristic self-help book.

We understand when violence breaks out in traffic jams, sporting events, chat shows.  We condone or damn it but we certainly comprehend its mechanisms. We celebrate it if it happened on a grand enough scale, in the form of public holidays, parades, statues. Even in sermons. Regardless of its expression, we all understand it. We identify, sympathize and empathize. We get it.

The whole idea of being a victim of violence is totally fucked up by the cultural significance we give to the act, let alone how we view the practitioners of it. When an event is resolved through violence it somehow becomes validated by it, like violence has lent it some of its greater meaning: the philosophy of violence. We debate back and forth the meaning and intent, implication and inference, practice and theory. I find this a terrifying confirmation of violence’s legitimacy in our culture; that we are capable of talking about violence in such shades and with such specificity.

Where do we think it comes from? So many people believe or accept by default that humanity is inherently violent. Not just capable of violence but fundamentally violent – unstoppably and biologically violent. Which might suggest, through a sense of evolutionary destiny, that our violence is forgivable? Because, come on people, it is plainly, as anyone can tell, unarguably (I mean, look at the evidence) just in our nature. Almost any biological creature is capable of violence, humanity being a good example of that, but we take that fact and contort it into a syllogism mighty enough to rationalise itself away.

Go to this link, or this one  and have a look. Do some math. When faced with this are we forced to believe that it is beyond our will? That violence is, what? Inexorable? Inescapable? Preordained? Divine? When considering these consequences do we have to come to the conclusion that our drive to violence is inherent? Biological? God given? If we don’t accept a premise approximating that, what would that mean? Would it mean responsibility? Could we survive if we had to think of a history and present drenched in our bloody choices? If not does it mean we are forced to conceive of a future just as bloody?

If we were to take away our capacity for violence, our toleration of it, our civilization would collapse. It is necessary for our continuity, political, social and material, that someone or thing suffers and dies – not maliciously or cruelly necessary, only by barren, practical necessity. We believe we have to accept it in our world, to tolerate it, if our world is going to continue. It is the oil on the cogs of the machine that brings to our table what we believe we require.

In ancient Rome, when gathering evidence in a court case, from a slave, it was inadmissible, that is to say illegal, if the information wasn’t gathered with the use of torture. There’s a modern argument that torture is, after opining the use of torture as a yardstick of barbarity, actually okay, if the information gathered is important enough. If this paragraph seems to not make much sense, seems to contain contradictions and paradoxes, it’s for very simple reasons.

The use of violence has simply gone on too long, become too complicated. Violence, enduring and horrendous, becomes the default because, y’know, what else are we gonna do? How would you fix it, buddy? Come on genius, solve the world’s problems.

Why is it so hard to just stop?

I’ve read that a culture can’t change its belief in its fundamental principles, because once it does it ceases to be that culture and becomes something else. To aspire to forget violence, to find another way to communicate our needs and desire on the world and ourselves, would mean a change of culture. We could become something else.

When I was in Barcelona recently, with my brother, we were staying in a Hostel. We were in the main bunkroom, a room that had maybe 25 or 30 beds. On the first night there myself, my brother and a number of other people were trying to get to sleep, a venture continually thwarted by a group of 20-something English travelers who were treating the bunkroom as a staging ground for their drunken adventures. They would leave and someone would get up and turn the light out. A short while later they would come back, turn the light on, drink more, talk loudly, and then leave again. Someone would get up and turn the light out. This repeated every twenty minutes or so.

I figured this was something you just accept as the price of a cheap bed. Until midnight – then it gets really fucking annoying. I had been getting angrier and angrier, quietly fuming away on my lower bunk, my brother trying to sleep above me. The pattern of drunken visitations continued, with the added bonus of a couple of disparaging remarks about one sleeper’s big white arse sticking out. Then, at 2am, one of them made a snide comment questioning the whole room’s desire to sleep when we should have been out drinking. The sort of loud mouth, fuckwit comment only protected by the comforting, arrogant presence of a large group of drunken friends. I snapped. The slow burn of my frustration and anger launched me out of my bed with a yell of, ‘Get the fuck out of here’ and had me, before I realized it, propelled halfway across the room, dressed only in my boxer shorts, wanting to hurt someone very badly.

When I got to them, the group of three nearest to the door, I didn’t stop. I transformed my momentum into violence very efficiently, shoving one hard in the chest, propelling him out and into the corridor wall, hard. I was still talking, though I have no idea what exactly I was saying. I turned immediately and grabbed one of them (the one making all the comments) by the throat and pinned him against the wall. The third one I reached for and I think I got hold of his shirt before he broke my grip by moving backwards very quickly. My brother had jumped off his bunk and followed me, backing me up while, very wisely, trying to calm the situation down. I was inarticulate in rage. I couldn’t express to the guy I had by the throat what I wanted to because I wasn’t thinking that clearly, I just wanted to put my fist straight into his face.

I wasn’t scared. The rest of the group had backed out onto the little balcony, giving me room and abandoning their friends. I definitely wasn’t scared. I wanted one of them to swing at me. The only cap on my actions was that I hadn’t damaged anyone and I wouldn’t start a fist fight unless one of them tried to hit me. I wanted someone to swing at me so I could start swinging back, I desperately wanted a reason, something I could look back on later and say that I not only had provocation for my anger but direct cause for my violence. I wanted to hurt someone so badly I could barely contain it.

I think of what I must have looked like: I’m not small any more. I’m an inch or so shy of six foot, broad shouldered with an athletic frame. I exercise frequently and am strong. I’m balding, so I keep the bald man’s traditional skinhead haircut. I was bigger than two of the guys I attacked and wider than the other. I also have a few tattoos on my torso. I would have been scary. Seeing someone in a rage is always scary. Seeing a half naked someone who looks capable of violence charge at you and grab you or your friend by the throat is, I imagine, sobering in the extreme.

The end result was that they backed down and got out. No one threw a punch. When they came back they were quiet enough that I didn’t wake up. The next two nights were the same, very quiet and considerate. In the intervening time they didn’t make eye contact with me, even when I sought it.

I’ve told a few friends about this now, and I don’t believe I’ve coloured it too much to benefit me. Every time I’ve not only been forgiven my actions, I’ve had them approved. I had cause. It was understandable. It was so out of character that it must have been justified. I’m sure most, if not all, of these responses have been out of care for me. But I… I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m aware that I haven’t told one particular person who would have been horrified had they been there and witnessed it.

The worst thing, and the most relevant to my thoughts on violence, is that the anger that I channeled wasn’t the anger those drunken English kids generated. I had been conflicted and confused about something for days; something I’d left behind before but had come back to prey on me, causing a very specific kind of doubt and conflict. There was real turmoil inside me, and those poor Brit bastards just brought it out.

I’m ashamed of myself. I hate violence. I hate the process and the results. Yet I perpetrated it. Worse, I let anger fuelled by personal confusion become violence against stupid but blameless targets. I manifested the lessons I had learned at school. Which makes me hate even more that there is part of me that is secretly proud of the violence I became, that I actually feel better about myself because I have had that capability confirmed.

This is the language of violence, the thing that our lives are steeped in. The distant acts of our past waiting inside us for an opportunity to present themselves – whether it is outwardly on others or what we inflict internally on ourselves. A perpetual cycle of violence and scars subsumed in the currents of our lives only to be heaved up by the tides on other shores.

I want to replace the violence, and the underlying hatred, in my life. I want to be able to feel love and exact the results of that on the world instead. But I can’t find the path. Or I can’t identify it. Yet it must be there because I’ve seen others walking it.

Hate is the process and violence the result. Replace the hate and change the result. Sounds easy enough.

—-

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nature me not your Nurture

In my teens I became obsessed with what I was. I wanted to understand what made me me. If I could understand the pieces, where and how they fit, my personality would become my playground. Things would become governable, I’d be able to take the pieces that made me socially awkward and inept, move them around and, voila, dapper and charming. I’d craft myself to any and all situations, alleviating building pressure that would crush my comprehension of myself (strangely I thought I comprehended the world) and be an improved person. I would become a man of emotional and intellectual Lego, removing and adding pieces until I was better, stronger, faster – like Steve Austin, just on a budget.

So I would read little bits and bobs about brain function and so forth, write them down and slowly piece together the machine that was me. It’s safe to say that I was a devotee of the mechanistic universe, a cheerleader for Descartes, Bacon and the Scientific Method. A Lego cheerleader shaking nature’s breasts as pom-poms.

And for a while I thought I’d done it – figured myself out. I’m a Stabile Introvert, you see. Also an INTJ. And some other stuff. I knew which cups the peas were under, all I had to do was move them round fast enough to dazzle the crowd. Needless (I hope) to say, things have changed.

I often wonder what my younger self would make of me now. I’m pretty sure there would be the embarrassed shuffling of feet and furtive avoidance of eye contact. We’d probably have to talk about our hair and what happened to it just to save ourselves from Older Me ranting about interconnectivity, systems theory and the folly of believing the universe a controllable machine, requiring only sufficient understanding of the parts to reveal its secrets, something that would no doubt be followed by Younger Me calling me a chicken-shit hippy wannabe that can’t grasp the elegance of a rational, truthful and unforgiving cosmos. Something like that. The younger me would eventually ask, in a hushed and horrified voice, if I believed in God now. I’d probably say yes, just to fuck with him.

The change in my perception of such things came about through various shards of knowledge, more and more found pieces shaping those that came before them, leaving me hopelessly confused. Until, with great relief, I gave up my need for a mechanistic universe or, more to the point, mechanistic people (the latter obviating the argument for the former). Let me try to walk you through some of my headache:

Extraversion and introversion are commonly understood traits but there are physical causes for them that aren’t widely known. The extra/intro traits have been traced back to a group of brain cells in the brain stem called the ‘ascending reticular activating system’, these cells ultimately determine levels of arousal (activity you dirty bastards) in the cerebral cortex. Physiologically speaking, extroversion is linked to resting states of low cortical arousal and introversion is linked to resting states of high cortical arousal. So when at mental rest the extrovert’s intellect is in neutral while the introvert’s, in the same position, only gets as low as second gear.

The outward displays of being an extrovert or introvert come about because the cortex inhibits the lower centres of the brain, and when it (the cortex) isn’t aroused (extrovert) actions become dictated more by the impulses and desires of the lower centres of the brain. If the cortex is aroused (introvert) then those same impulses and desires don’t get through as often as they have to go through the active filter of the cortex. Extroversion = uninhibited, introversion = inhibited.

An excellent demonstration is the effect of alcohol on the two kinds of traits: Alcohol lowers cortical arousal, thus promoting excited and uninhibited behaviour – a drunk extrovert is usually just an amplified version of themselves but a drunk introvert will often behave very differently to their sober character.

It is important to point out that one’s natural cortical resting state, be it high or low, doesn’t dictate levels of intelligence in any way.

Now. Stabile and labile are less well known but just as concreted by empirical evidence. An individual’s brain can be dominated by either the sympathetic or parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, this is the area of the brain where thoughts and actions are initially processed.  The sympathetic branch (labile) responds to outside stimuli and alerts the organism (being the brain and body) to immediate action. If dominated by the sympathetic branch a person is excitable and tends to act quickly on hunches, best guesses and experience. Labiles can make pretty awesome sword fighters.

The parasympathetic branch (stabile) habituates the organism to stimulus and restores the body to balance very quickly, thus stabiles tend to be more placid and react very calmly and thoughtfully to events around them. The result of this is that in an emergency it’s safer to be standing next to a stabile but somewhat more exciting standing next to a labile.

It’s worth noting that while labile traits and extroversion along with stabile traits and introversion often come as a package deal, it isn’t a physically dictated relationship; that person you know who is charismatic, a natural leader and kicks arse in fights with ninjas yet remains cool, calm and considered under pressure will most likely be a stabile extrovert – that sort of person can sometimes be identified by the adoring crowds that follow them around throwing underwear.

Okay, as far as personality types that’s fine, there’s more in that area (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic) but that’s getting more general and into the area of effect rather than cause.

The cause and effect of brain and personality function is essentially the nature versus nurture debate, a debate I think is largely over-hyped by our blind obsession with binary relationships and dichotomies. In terms of the brain I think confusing the hardware and the software is where the problems start, something compounded by our cultural confusion over ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ behaviour and our quest to define ourselves as culturally and historically unique. The One or the Other! The universe must adhere to our determined dichotomization! (maybe dichotomization is more about an inherent cultural mechanism rather than a functioning universal or biological truth… Bob Loblaw).

That’s not to say that the hardware and software (nature vs. nurture) don’t interact and inform each other in hugely significant ways, that is kind of the point of their relationship. Habit formation is proof of that: by doing a thing or thinking a thought repetitively you burn a neural pathway, a pathway that once burnt is quite hard to reroute. The ability to form that pathway is the brain’s learning hardware (nature), but the formed pathway represents the cultural software (nurture).

It’s easy to see the hardware but questioning one’s software is ridiculously hard because it is, quite literally, the way we think (not how). We burn our pathways as children, when we’re learning junkies (nature) but as adults look at our hardware through the eyes of our software, deciding, obviously, that we were always meant to be this way, making ourselves fated beings, imagining that our brains are made up of memes and genes and that, thanks to evolution, what will come from us is nigh on unavoidable (a round of applause for Mister Dawkins!). It’s essentially the same process as believing that J.C. is going to pop up at some point in the near future and usher in Judgment Day; it’s all a matter of belief in principles and rules that use their internal architecture of reasoning as the standard of measure of all other beliefs. Nurture defining nature, at least in effect.

Biology isn’t fate, no matter what our software tells us. Biology is interactive and fun, like sex. But our software has become so self-obsessed that it now believes it is hardware (nature). Our software (nurture) is our culture informing us of it’s operating principles, its rules and dictates, and that culture is the medium we use to transmit our beliefs and practices down the timeline through our children’s children’s children, etc. (assuming our nurture hasn’t totally screwed with our sex lives, that is).

One of the obvious problems this dysfunctional relationship between our hardware and software is that we have become cultural supremacists, totally devoted to the premise that the way we live is the one right way to live (sure we can tweak it but generally we’ve pretty much got it nailed). No other way will be tolerated (for evidence of this see any and all colonial ventures in history). To make it confusing, look at it this way: our nurture is convinced it is our nature, (which is why we’re convinced memes & genes are the same thing) thus we deny that our culture is a made up thing. We make ourselves fated beings by defining ourselves as a natural force, something undeniable, something inexorable (and probably ineffable), a thing that we consequently don’t need to make excuses or apologies for. We have done for the biosphere what Ptolemy did for astronomy.

Brains, like the universe, construct stuff from found things. Stuff and Things. Tinkering with ideas and implications, a bricolage from the rummaged notions and manifestations of the surrounding world, is, in its totality, an uncontrollable process. If you accept the resulting mosaic as truth unbending and absolute you’re abdicating responsibility in the hopes of control. If you’re unwilling to question your parts as a bricoleur then all you end up building is a cage.

Move Me

I’ve been thinking about perception and movement a little, about how we come to interpret the world through our formative lenses, and how, thanks to many years of dance, I still see a lot of the world around me in movement and its beauty or ugliness (which is still beautiful). I still remember a perfect moment on the Piccadilly line at night, a few years back, when I was traveling out to the far reaches of London to meet someone. The train had just surfaced from the warren of the Underground and was moving quickly through some sort of industrial yard, a wide expanse of railroad tracks and large empty vehicles. I was standing at the far end of the quarter full carriage, looking down the length of it, as the rails or train or something made that locomotive sway a bit more intense. At the same time there was electrical arcing happening between the wheels and the tracks, creating bright strobing electrical crackles that lit up the night outside the window for a few seconds, then a few more, while causing a dimming of the internal lights, punching an image of an electric-blue industrial wasteland into my head. As all this was happening I was listening to my favourite song of the time, Old Artist by Archive, and the softly violent jerk and lurch of the train was being transmuted by everyone in the carriage into an unconsciously fluid pulse and flow, all surrounded by lightning blue, the people’s movement in perfect time with the beat coming through my headphones. A perfect synchronicity.

I have rarely been happier than in those 10 to 15 seconds.

This is how I see a lot of the world. Movement. I don’t know how many times I have become mesmerized by someone walking in front of me, how many times I have followed someone an extra block or two just so I can witness the marvel of their physical cadence. Sometimes the beauty I see in a kid’s game of tennis, or a sudden moment of seemingly choreographed basketball, makes me gasp. I annoy people I’m with or talking to by the irrepressible need I have to watch, be it on a walk on something caught by my eye on a television in the corner.

Once I realised that my brain had been so beautifully corrupted by dance I became entranced by the way others perceive the world. Musicians are remarkable, physicists, archaeologists, artists… it beggars belief the difference in fundamental perception of the immediate world by those around us. Listening to these people describe the world is a wonderful and almost incomprehensible experience. I’ve love listening to my friend Jess describe the noise and motion around her through the lens of her musical brain. Hearing Emmanuel describe his joy through the way he thinks the world functions. It brings a new vitality to everything. Coming to understand Sara’s love manifested through her vision of the world, despite and maybe because of what she knows of it.

Sometimes it makes me want to cry, and I’m not sure why.

Watching Sylvie Guillem ply her body (how intense must her vision of the world be?) got me was thinking about Ballet as a metaphor for societies vision of itself. Ballet is all about control, its graceful beauty defined and expressed through a strength and physical repression that takes years and years to burn into you. Ballet itself really didn’t become what we know it as today until fairly recently, repopularised in the early 1900’s by the Ballet Russes, who took the beautiful innovations and genius of Jean-Georges Noverre and made them real. I think it served as a perfect expression of our cultures’ vision of it’s self: beauty through control.

The timing of Ballet’s surge in popularity was important too, as the world descended into conflicts never before imagined it needed things to prop up its belief in itself. Ballet was one of those things (though probably not that major), representing high achievement through many of the things – control, beauty, discipline – that we consider vital aspects of civilisation. This can counter the horror we inflict on ourselves through warfare and economics, apparently.

Ballet’s lack of evolution, in many ways, represents this too. The ballets that everyone goes to watch aren’t those created recently, it’s the Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle, etc. The old expressions of ballet and empire? I remember reading about the horror and rage and the riot that greeted Stravinsky’s & Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. It so upset the classical forms of both ballet and music that people couldn’t cope with what they considered pure art forms of beauty manifesting a description of the world they couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, comprehend.

New forms of dance are fascinating exposes of our world – Guillem’s transition to contemporary dance fascinates me, that she seeks expression and order through a more chaotic and emotionally confronting form. The violent and undeniably expressive krumping. And so many spaces in between – and that’s just the west. It’s so easy to forget, through the cheapening of dance’s meaning by music videos, how powerful it is as an expression. These music videos that saturate the television, capture us for a very good reason. The same reason Bollywood includes dance in all their films, only their reasons are more articulate than ours, dance is still a stronger narrative there, expressing a history and mythology that we in the west have lost in our daily lives.

But I digress. Quite a lot.

The world moves me through my understanding of it. I love that one of my understandings is so inarticulate and basic as movement, an expression and meaning I don’t have to speak of if I don’t want to. It’s these things that bring comfort to me when I’m struggling with so much else.

Have a think about a universe defined through dance:

Nataraja – Hindu cosmic lord of the dance, controlling the motion of the universe and the flow of time. He dances on the demon of ignorance, his four arms extended gracefully around him, one foot on the demon’s back, the other lifted in the air – it is said that when Nataraja brings this foot down, time will stop.

Philoso-fu

I spent the day in Wellington attending a seminar by Peter Vardy about teaching ethics in high-school and beyond (I apparently did this for fun). Discussed much was the social and cultural context we and today’s youth live in (an average of 3.500 advertisements a day, the common melding of sexual and violent imagery and the fun subject of emotional and physical dissociative disorders in young girls giving $10 dolllar blowjobs to male classmates in Sydney schools) while trying to re-establish a base ethical philosophy with which to educate everyone so they can put the intellectual beat-down (in an anti-realist, situationist-utilitarianism (with a synderesis twist) kinda way) on the invisible hand of capitalist propaganda designed to turn everyone into cookie cutter consumerist automatons while pillaging the environment at the government’s behest and returning a juicy profit to the body corporate . All within a Anglican frame-work (and it was fun!). I happily realised early on that we were effectively discussing how to teach young and old alike a means of self-defence against the dark-side of modern civilisation. My Kant-fu is stronger than yours, old man.

A Short History of Progress

I’ve been reorganising a lot of my books recently, revisiting some of the novels and non-fiction that has most influenced, thrilled and chilled me over the last few years. One of my favourite reads of 2006 was A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. A book that was further imbedded in my consciousness due my luck at getting to meet Wright at a literary festival in Wellington – such an intimidatingly articulate and charming man! What an abilty to make the end of the world sound so damn interesting.

One of the central questions Wright seeks to answer in this concise and gripping work is, “Why, if civilizations so often destroy themselves, has the overall experiment of civilization done so well?” He tries to answer it, with some success, by describing ‘progress traps’ that confer success at the cost of sustainability. These progress traps often take the guise of cultural belief, an almost mythical beast that, with the correct sacrifices, offers a strange mix of immortality and wealth; the determined deforestation on Easter Island is a particularly chilling example of this. Wright bangs the old drum of ‘Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” but he taps a compelling rhythm, one that takes a tired adage & transforms it into an urgent reality. A precise & extremely compelling work that inspires a desire to know more.

Also, if you have any interest in pre-colonial north and south America, I highly recommend reading one of his other books, Stolen Continents, a deeply interesting analysis of displaced cultures and civilizations before, during and after colonisation.