28/2/2020 0 Comments
On solar power and self-expression
Already vast amounts of power is being generated by solar panels, and it is so much better if we are not clearing forest for solar panel grids, which there is no need to do if we all have our own solar panels on our rooftops, as more and more people are doing. It helps to have subsidies, and it helps to have the technology getting cheaper and cheaper, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t help more if solar panels were also to become more of a form of self-expression. After all many people pay quite a lot to keep up their data plans, so they can post images and messages on social media. How lovely it could be if we were able to light up our solar panels to print messages, in little alphabet-cells, and with colours we could adapt like octopuses to present our messages in the right emotional tone, and perhaps we could persuade our panels to present images too, and we would want to be able to panel-shot our messages like a screen-shot so that they could be seen not only by people flying overhead in aeroplanes (electric planes) or from the road, for those people living in houses with a luckily-pitched roof, but could be posted onto social media. I am imagining it will be easy to change them every day, from our phones. And I am imagining people in aeroplanes, or on the side of the roads, sharing good solar panel displays on social media, so that there could be a form of popular critical acclaim that we would all aspire to even as we also might want to just connect with our neighbours or express our feelings of sorrow or wonder or dismay.
21/2/2020 0 Comments
On feeling like
I feel like almost everyone begins almost everything they say these days with the preface, “I feel like….” I feel like they are not in fact talking about their feelings but offering opinions or thoughts, or even sometimes making plans. What does it mean to present thoughts in terms of feelings? Perhaps it is a belated cultural recognition of the psychological truth, that we do experience thoughts emotionally, that we do need feelings in order to make decisions. It used to be fairly mainstream for scientists to claim that animals didn’t have feelings or consciousness but only followed pre-programmed instincts, and yet our own most powerful feelings are those we feel because of our own pre-programmed instincts – the love for our own children, the romantic love that so many songs and poems are about, the fears that give children nightmares, our fears for our children’s safety. Maybe our thoughts are only rationalisations of our feelings, just as our morals, I think I read somewhere, don’t determine what we do, though we might think that they do, but are worked out afterwards to be consistent with our actions. If we work for an oil company we are less likely to believe in climate change, not because this is why we work for the oil company in the first place but because we have to live with ourselves afterwards. So maybe it is a good idea to begin with an awareness of our feelings. We went to a lovely climate change salon the other night, ready to talk to people living locally about what we might get on and do, but the evening started with the suggestion we talk first about our feelings. I thought, feelings? I want to make a plan of action! By the end of the evening, we hadn’t even started to come up with a single plan of anything we might do. But we all felt very differently than we had when we turned up – we felt connected to each other, hopeful, ready to act. We are going to meet up again and make plans, and this time, when we make plans, we will know who we are making them with, we will know what concerns the plans are addressing, we will want to work with each other specifically, not just with a group of local people who happen to want to take action. So, I feel like it does matter to think about how we feel. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself entering a conversation using the phrase myself, for (I think) the first time. It felt very comfortable, perhaps because I was talking like everyone else (all much younger than I am), in the way it feels comfortable to be dressed similarly at, say, a climate change salon, but also, I think, because I wasn’t quite presenting an argument, or making a claim that could be expected to be backed up. I was just mentioning a feeling. But I wasn’t, really. I was making a claim. It is a bit like the way politicians – but also colleagues (who also say “I feel like” sometimes, even in formal meetings – quite nice really) will talk “around” a subject. I feel like this is a way of skirting the issue – we have conversations around a topic, rather than addressing particular points of view or points of contention. And yet, when I wanted to replace the word “around” with the word “about,” I realised they are in fact almost the exact same word, and perhaps in the same way the word “about” has come to mean “on the subject of,” so, too, does the word “around.” Or does it? Have we moved from “about” to “around” just because the word “around” does still allow us to skirt around an issue we ought to be confronting directly? I feel like we ought to acknowledge our feelings, but I also feel like we ought to then present thoughts, and claims, that can be challenged and which could be backed up with evidence, and we ought to act on our claims and the implications of them, and we ought to plant trees, and put some solar panels on our roofs. And I feel like the phrase “I feel like” ought to introduce a simile at least as often as a thought or an opinion or a plan, and perhaps what I really want to feel like is a leaf, or a hen, or a sink full of dishes. I feel like a pillow with no head on me, a carpet with dust swept under it, a cicada singing its one day’s quota of song, a screen with words inflicting themselves on me, one dark letter at a time.
10/2/2020 0 Comments
On talking in visual images
No sooner have I liked the idea of Instagram making artists of us all than I read Nathan Jurgenson’s “The Social Photo,” in which he argues against reading images on social media in terms of art criticism, and sees the criticism of Instagram images, or “social photography” more generally, as banal and lacking in aesthetic interest, as missing the point: “To treat social photography in terms of its aesthetic quality is analogous to judging all written language on its poetic merits.” At once I completely capitulate. I don’t even want to judge all poetry in terms of its poetic merits (although, when judging a poetry competition, then I do). In fact social photography perhaps is less like all written language (in contrast to the subset of poetry) than it is like language in general (in contrast also to the subset of only written language). It is a new form of conversation, “a kind of visual speaking,” Jurgenson writes. I was reading about animal languages over the summer, and one of the questions most central to animal language studies is whether animal communication ever has a grammar, rather than just consisting of a series of coded sounds (or gestures, or other forms of symbol). It seems that some animals certainly can learn to communicate grammatically, and some animal languages do seem to have a form of grammar. But is there an Instagrammar? What would that mean? And what would it mean for our communication amongst ourselves to be increasingly conducted in a mode which doesn’t have a grammar?
9/2/2020 0 Comments
On us all being visual artists
More people write poetry than read it, used to be a kind of joke against poets. But poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield rather likes it that so many people write poetry, and that reading poetry so quickly turns into wanting to write poetry. This suggests that reading poetry is a particularly active form of reading, that reading poetry is very close to writing poetry, as the reader moves through the actions and travels a particular poem takes. (Brian Blanchfield also writes essays using a method involving never looking anything up and allowing misreadings and misrememberings their own creative flourishing, which is the method I too am using, so this account of his thinking may not be entirely accurate.) Writing poetry, he also observes, is the form of writing most like reading, a form of writing in which poets write at a distance from themselves, and when the poem works it works by surprising the poet as much as later readers. I have very recently started posting images on Instagram, with one collection of photos mostly of my hens and sometimes of books I am reading and reading nests I make to read them in, and one account just for posting pictures of squares. I felt a surge of excitement when I thought of taking pictures of squares, and it gives me the feeling of being a kind of artist when I find myself looking out for good squares, and finding the right angle in which the squares will come out most squarely. As an artist, I am like the poet who doesn’t read poetry. This isn’t quite true, I do look at art, more even than I take photos of squares, but I don’t think of my photos of squares as art, really, and I do not look at art in order to understand my own contribution in terms of a conceptual field I am entering, or to find approaches to the visual that might resonate with and inform my own. I just take pictures of squares. Even so, this practice orients me towards the world a little more like an artist than before, and makes me think what an extraordinary social shift it is, as more and more people post images on social media, towards a world in which everyone is an artist. This seems rather a lovely reorientation, a world in which everyone looks for the aesthetic value in the world they inhabit, and the lives they are living, and is interested in how it might be framed, and curated, in moments, details, juxtapositions.
Thinking about why we are liking reading George Eliot so much, I wonder whether moral dilemmas are really what all narratives are about, or all interesting narratives, and are what we read novels for, whether we are placed in the position of a character having to make a moral decision, sympathetic to the difficulties of the decision, as in a George Eliot novel or a novel by Anthony Trollope, or whether we read for insights into the characters of others, seeing how other people judge character and becoming alert to the clues other people are reading, or misreading, as in a novel by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens – with more or less subtle clues. But then I wondered whether we even make primarily moral decisions any more, or whether we frame our decisions in other terms, as strategic decisions to effect particular goals. (But how to do we decide on the goals? Not in moral terms, but in terms of the games we find ourselves playing?) What is at stake in the decisions people make in novels now? The contemporary novels that have made the most impact on me have been about the highest stakes moral decisions, and decisions that are almost impossible to make in an uncertain situation, a supernatural situation in both cases – the time-travelling scenario of Sandra Newman’s The Heavens, and the alternative life scenario of Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Both are about the apocalyptic futures we are looking at, the apocalyptic futures that we are creating as a society, and what responsibility the individual has to try and avert the apocalypse, and a momentous, overwhelming responsibility is at least a plausible reading of the answer both novels could suggest although in both cases this reading is ambiguous. In both those novels, too, as well as in the novels by Eliot and Trollope, the moral choices are never all that is at stake in the decisions that have to be made – even if the choice is made on moral grounds, it will affect the protagonists’ happiness, success, wealth, even the lives of others in ways that do not always neatly align, so that the right moral decision won’t necessarily work out best for the protagonist even though we want them to make it. Maybe this is why many readers prefer Jane Austen to Eliot or Trollope. As for my own writing, I don’t think my characters have ever made a moral decision in their narrated lives, they are driven by whim and circumstance, as perhaps am I, I can think of very few, if any, decisions I have really made on moral grounds exactly, although in another sense, I am always trying to do the right thing (for the hens, for my children), it is just a question of how, which is what I am usually all at sea over. As for poetry, I can’t think of any poem I’ve ever written about a moral dilemma, and perhaps that is why I write poetry, not more (and not better) fiction.
7/2/2020 0 Comments
On personality and situation, further thoughts, this time about people not hens.
In thinking about hens, I seem to find clear evidence both for how distinct each hen’s personality seems to be from the moment they hatch out of the egg, and for how dependent their personality is on their place in the pecking order. I have been spending some time in hospitals lately (not as a patient) and what is so striking is how many profoundly good people work there, people whose goodness seems absolutely intrinsically a part of their character, expressed in the smallest and most individual gestures as well as in the larger heroic acts of working long hours, beyond their shifts, day after day. Obviously this goodness is not just situational. It is hard to imagine any of these people going home and being less than good outside the hospital. Perhaps it takes a certain kind of character to go into health care in the first place, perhaps even to look for administrative or receptionist roles within the health system. Perhaps, though, also, the work required of them shapes their character, and the acts of care and attention their roles require them to perform become a part of who they are. The Stanford Prison Experiment has largely been discredited, the experiment which divided students into prison guards and prisoners, and seemed to quickly lead to ordinary students becoming sadistic when given a prison guard role. I am quite sure none of the people I’ve met in the hospital this week would become sadistic in a guard role situation. George Eliot – whose fiction we’ve been reading to pass the time – doesn’t see character as situational either, or, rather, particular situations do bring out particular qualities of someone’s innate character, but the same situation would bring out very different qualities in someone else. It is the particularity of the revealing responses to situations that is so enthralling in her fiction, as it is in the hospital.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.