Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Bufo bufo, bufo bufo

I had the pleasure of going out for a drink with Joe fairly recently, which is to say a few months ago. The time-distortion effect of young children is not one which has ever made it into an episode of Star Trek, but I can assure you it exists. “Captain! The Borg have jumped back in time 500 years and changed something! Our present is unrecognisable!” “What’s your opinion, Mr Spock?” “Clearly we must follow them, Captain, even at the risk of being unable to return ourselves.” “No problem, Spock. I had Scotty lay in an extra kindergarten before we left dry-dock. Mr Sulu – set the parental-stress switch to maximum!” [Much more of this – Ed.]

As ever, I mused over Joe’s forced ejection from Wankerstone’s, nearly four years ago now, and through some kind of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, have found a number of quasi-relevant quotations jumping out of recent reading.

First, and most lengthily, here is Vaclav Havel is considering the nature of what he calls the post-totalitarian system – according to the Wikipedia entry on Havel ‘a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to "live within a lie."’
No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism. For this reason, an individual’s desire for power is admissible only in so far as its direction coincides with the direction of the automatism of the system.


If ideology was originally a bridge between the system and the individual as an individual, then the moment he steps in to this bridge it becomes at the same time a bridge between the system and the individual as a component of the system. That is, if ideology originally facilitated (by acting outwardly) the constitution of power by serving as a psychological excuse, then from the moment that excuse is accepted, it constitutes power inwardly, becoming an active component of that power. It begins to function as the principal instrument of ritual communication within the system of power.


As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these corrective disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.
From his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978), published in Open Letters.

Now here is David Simon, from his ‘Post Mortem’ in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:
Struck, Wooten, Alvarez, Zorzi, Littwin, Thompson, Lippman, Hyman - some of the best reporters the Baltimore Sun had were marginalized, then bought out, shipped out and replaced with twenty-four year-old acolytes, who, if they did nothing else, would never make the mistake of having an honest argument with newsroom management. In a time of growth, when the chance to truly enhance the institution was at hand, the new regime at the Sun hired about as much talent as they dispatched. And in the end, when the carpetbaggers finally departed, their mythology of heroic renewal intact, they had managed to achieve three Pulitzers in about a dozen years. During the previous dozen, the newspaper’s morning and evening editions achieved exactly that same number.

Listening to Garvey over drinks that day, I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by – a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom – you will eventually be betrayed.

It seemed very Greek the more I thought about it. The stuff of Aeschylus and Sophocles, except the gods were not Olympian but corporate and institutional. In every sense, ours seems to be a world in which individual human beings – be they trained detectives or knowledgeable reporters, hardened corner boys or third-generation longshoremen or smuggled eastern European sex workers – are destined to matter less and less.
Not long before, I’d read an interview with Hanna Segal in The Guardian:
[S]ince we tend to submit to the tyranny of our own groups, “speaking our minds takes courage, because groups do not like outspoken dissenters.” The battle now “is between insanity based on mutual projections and sanity based on truth”. And all we, as citizens, can do is “struggle to expose lies, and strive for the preservation of sane human values”.
Not that this is anything new. Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) lamented thus:
What vaileth trouth or by it to take payne
To stryve by stedfastnes for to attayne
To be iuste and true and fle from dowblenes
Sythens all alike where rueleth craftines
Rewarded is boeth fals and plain
Sonest he spedeth that moost can fain
True meaning hert is had in disdain
Against deceipte and dowblenes
What vaileth trouth
It should be noted of course that Joe did indeed vail, and Waterstone’s had to admit unfair dismissal. Finally here is Francis Bacon:
For these winding and crooked courses are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious.
From the very first essay in the truly excellent Oxford Book of Essays, just reissued. Would that it outsells Clarkson this Christmas. One can, and should, hope.


Earlier in the same essay, 'On Truth', Bacon says that "it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt". One could take this to be an early description of foma, Kurt Vonnegut's term for those white lies which don't hurt anyone and make everyday life that little bit easier.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Or to put it in the modern venacular, keep your head down, don't rock the boat... The thing is we are encouraged to stay quiet and go along with the consensus - at work to criticise or point out the flaws in a procedure or plan isn't constructive, it means you are not 'a team player' (I didn't realise we were playing a game) or much earlier in life schools, for all their pretense to be educating young minds to think for themselves do pretty much everything they can to make all conform in dress, behaviour and rote answers to questions. Then when people make a legitimate protest in the street many can't understand why they do it or even worse brand them troublemakers. Taken to its extreme this is used by those in positions of authority as justification for villifying and/or removing non conforming individuals, whether it is a petty minded boss removing an employee or a political leader employing the 'we all stand united' banner to make criticism seem like an insidious evil. Its an aspect of human nature which is as much as a threat to democratic freedoms and liberties as the jackboot and book burnings, masked by a veneer of respectable mundanity.