Monday, 3 September 2012

The unvenerable bede

Thursday 11 May 2017

On Monday 23 July 2012, my article 'The Unvenerable Bede' about the perils of social media for politicians and local Wollongong Councillor Bede Crasnich in particular was published in Tertangala: The Environment Issue. Bede issued a response in the subsequent September Gender and Sexuality Issue, and for five years a slightly altered version of the article has been available here. After discussion with Bede in light of the recent announcement of his retirement from politics, I have agreed to remove the article from my blog. If you have any questions, or would like to request a copy of the article, my details are listed on my contact page.

Cover photography by Wilfred Russel-Smith, design by Lisa Diebold.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

A small addendum for the los angeles review of books

Sunday 5 August 2012

This morning in the course of my internet rounds I came across a fascinating LA Review of Books article by Matthea Harvey investigating the relationship between tennis and poetry. I was disappointed, however, at the omission of my favourite tennis-related passage in literature, and what I think is one of the most beautiful tracts of prose in all Western literary canon. Continuing in the lazy (busy) man's blogging tradition I started with 'Cloud atlas and the left', I've decided to post this passage as a small redress for the overlooked literary tennisphile, Vladimir Nabokov.

The passage comes from Lolita, when a tennis game as decidedly mundane as the titular character's is transmuted in the eyes of the narrator Humbert Humbert into 'the highest point to which [he] can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make believe':

She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home. Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make believe, although I daresay, for her it was the very geometry of basic reality.

The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke. The ball when it entered her aura of control became somehow whiter, its resilience somehow richer, and the instrument of precision she used upon it seemed inordinately prehensile and deliberate at the moment of clinging contact. Her form was, indeed, an absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis -- without any utilitarian results [...] My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip. 

It had, that serve of hers, beauty, directness, youth, a classical purity of trajectory, and was, despite its spanking pace, fairly easy to return, having as it did no twist or stung to its long elegant hop. (262263)

Here we witness Lolita's deification, her ascension up the ranks of ancient mythology from nymphet to deity – the nymphs were, afterall, spawned of the gods  celestial and potent, beautiful and terrible, creator and destroyer of worlds, endowed with, instead of an ordinary tennis racquet, something altogether more divine, like Artemis' silver bow, a golden whip. 

I must say, though, I prefer to imagine Humbert talking about Ana Ivanovic here than little Dolores Haze.

This is, of course, Nabokov, so there's more going on here than just a celebration of tennis, or even the surface-level attraction of the narrator to 'his' Lolita. This ode to the game is wrapped up into the novel and imbued with meaning, like everything else. I think there's something in the way Humbert apotheosises Lolita, the way he immerses her in abstract systems which she manipulates and controls ('white-lined time', 'the very geometry of basic reality', 'her aura of control', 'a vital web of balance', 'the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created', even 'the service cycle' and the almost illicit 'act of serving') that speaks of agency. It's as though by empowering his victim, significantly just before Humbert is called away from the court by a fake phone call, a scheme of Lolita's to aid in effecting her escape, he makes it appear she is more in control of her situation than the we otherwise might think and, therefore, by extension, Humbert becomes less a villain.


Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita, published by Penguin.

Lucas Dawson's 2009 photograph of Ana Ivanovic.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The worst kind of emergency

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Like most people who want to think of themselves as morally conscientious, I've been acutely aware of my obligation to contribute to charity for some time now. I wrote in March last year in the post 'Further Irish adventures' on my travel blog, Ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted

I can’t really explain it, I suspect because it doesn’t make sense, but I feel a kind of guilt being in someone else’s country and being better off than them. Here I am, a visitor, a traveller in London and there’s a homeless man whose country this is, and I’m better off than him.

In retrospect, I now feel I can account for that 'inexplicable', 'irrational' guilt with another passage from the brilliant documentary that everyone should see, Stephanie Black's Life and Debt, and the book upon which it is based, Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place

But some natives--most natives in the world--cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go--so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

The writer has, I think, natives of the third world in mind here, but I think it applies to the homeless of the first world, too. I think I was picking up on this dichotomy between the privileged tourist and the impoverished native, and it made me uncomfortable. I continued in that post to explain how I assuaged both this tourist's guilt and my obligation to give:

I just made a promise to myself that, while travelling, I would give something to everyone who asked it of me – even if it’s just always the smallest coin in my pocket (although I think giving single pennies away is more insulting than anything else). I know it’s irrational, but I don’t think giving can really be a bad thing, so I’m happy to keep doing it. It’s either homeless people, charity workers, or buskers, so the money’s never going somewhere it shouldn’t.

I felt that satisfied my obligation while I was away, but I always intended to, upon my return, do some research and choose a charity or two that I could champion and support regularly. The task, however, proved too large and too difficult. Where do you start? How do you choose between one cause and another? I soon realised that the very dedication I had to the idea of charity (and of finding the right one) was only serving to delay my actual participation in it. So my ultimate solution ended up resembling my European policy more than anything else. Since then, I've been meting out smaller amounts of money more frequently to whichever charitable cause comes my way. $10, say, every time a friend does a charity run. 
So far this has led me to make donations to causes as diverse as the Sexy Tales Comedy theatre collective, Cancer Research UK, the Leukaemia Foundation, the lesser known Nepalese Blinknow Foundation and even, controversially, Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. I have also recently begun to donate monthly to the activist group GetUp!, although I would classify that as a third-tier act of charity. It's third-tier because, as strongly as I feel about the issue, its importance is higher-order, more abstract, contentious. I might be wrong about the need for the Australian political discourse to be dragged left, just as it might not be as important to donate to the Atheist Foundation of Australia, or any particular political party, despite my personal feelings on the issue. These are disputable ideological causes whose need to be kept at the third tier is underlined when you consider that many people in the world would not donate to GetUp! or Avaaz, but to right-wing think tanks and the like. I would also place donations to arts organisations, libraries, museums, schools, local children's sports clubs, and other institutions of general good in this category. These are worthy causes, but they would serve only to improve lives, not to save them. The fact that there are two tiers of importance below them should not reflect poorly on their worth, but rather on how very dire the need of other causes is.

We can all agree, for instance, about finding a cure for cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or AIDS, or leukaemia, whatever objections I may have to the shameless corporate exploitation of the breast cancer pink ribbon (most disgustingly in the name of 'breast cancer awareness', as though we could be any more aware of breast cancer), and misgivings I might have about the resulting disproportionate funding of breast cancer research to that of other cancers. These potentially life-saving causes I would name second-tier, once again because of the seriousness of other causes, not because of their own lack of worth.

Because, while the pursuit of cures for disease is undoubtedly a noble cause, no one can say it is morally wrong that diseases exist, that this is an injustice for which we are implicitly to blame and which we can act to stop. That is the nature of the first-tier causes, those which attempt to solve and alleviate poverty.

Now, semantic decay has unfortunately seen to it that we hear talk about poverty mostly as meaningless platitudes. We're all inured to it. 'Starving children in Africa' has become a reproach for parents to get their children to finish their meals and avoid waste, the touchstone invoked rhetorically in every argument, a phrase to be bandied about by comedians in witty contrasts with petty Western concerns.

But try to stop and think about it for a second, as I have recently. Try to undo the work of semantic decay, to resensitise yourself. It's like how we grow up with giraffes and elephants in our books and toyboxes, their long necks and noses pointed out to us as their distinguishing features from the very beginning, so we are robbed of the chance to ever really marvel at them, until one day you're half-watching a documentary when you realise how remarkable they really are.

Think about it. Try to look at it from an objective perspective, that of intelligent alien observers, or our descendents in the future. What would they think when they heard that three quarters of the world's population lived in poverty and the other quarter did nothing. How can we go on with our lives knowing that the rest of the world is suffering in this way? How can we buy an expensive new TV when we know that if we only donated that money to a charity instead, we would literally be saving hundreds of lives? How can we spend billions exploring space when we haven't even solved the problems here on Earth? How is this allowed to go on? If you accept that the boundaries between nations are arbitrary and we are all just human beings on this world, it's hard to believe. It's hard not to think that there should be some kind of limit on the wealth that a nation can possess while its neighbours are dying of easily curable diseases. That each rich country should have to take on a number of poor ones whose welfare it is their responsibility to ensure before they can continue to expand themselves. The poverty of the vast majority of the world is nothing short of an emergency, and it is the worst kind: the kind that we have gotten used to. The kind that can last centuries.

Think about the last time you heard about or saw someone rich, or some possession you wish you were rich enough to own. Now realise that nearly everyone in the rest of the world feels that way about you. The rest of the world would give anything to be in your financial position, however humble you may feel that to be. And not just now, but for all human history. It's mindblowing. This tweet comes to mind:

In light of all this, I've decided to add a new page to this blog, which will track my charitable efforts over this financial year. I'm not doing it to boast. I'm doing it because I want to be able to see the difference I've made, and judge whether I feel it's enough. I'm doing it mindful of what Peter Singer has been urging us to do: change the culture of giving. To make it something that you would expect any normal, decent person to do, something that you could envision bringing up in casual conversation: 'Oh, so who do you donate to?'

I'm urging you to do the same. Pick a charity, a first-tier one, and work out how much you can spare and start giving. Then, if you want, you can give to the second and third tiers too. Or do what I do and give out ten dollars here and there wherever the opportunity arises. As Singer says on the webpage linked to above:

almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary. (You are not sure if you are in that category? When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If the answer is “within the past week” then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure.)

Once you have any amount of expendable income there is no excuse for you not to give. If your savings are in the hundreds, just give ten dollars every now and then at the least. We live in the age of the internet. You can do it with your credit card without ever seeing your money leave your hand. You won't even notice the difference, I promise.

And don't just give, but record it, like I am. Publicly, if possible, but privately otherwise. So you know how much you're giving and can feel good or bad about it accordingly. And talk about it. Take the pledge on Singer's website. Tell people you're looking for a charity to donate to and ask them who they recommend. Act surprised if they say they don't give. Shame them subtly if you must. And every time you give to charity, click the 'share on Facebook' or 'share on Twitter' buttons afterwards. Let everyone see, and let's change the culture of giving.


Stephanie Black's 2001 documentary Life and Debt, produced by Tuff Gong Pictures.

Lisa Pryor (@pryorlisa)'s 2012 tweet.

WhatNewsShouldBe's 2011 YouTube video, 'african food joke comic strip', of Dwayne Perkins's 'Not a Part of the Problem' comedy routine.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Cloud atlas and the left

Monday 16 April 2012

I'm quite short of time at the moment (one assessment due tomorrow, one on Thursday, three books to read this week, editing work needed for Wednesday, going to Melbourne for the comedy festival from Thursday to Monday, with a presentation on a book I haven't started reading due two days after I get back), so in lieu of a real post, here's something I've been meaning to put up here for a while that won't eat too much into my time.

A while ago, while Til and I were travelling around Italy and Greece, I read a wonderful book by David Mitchell called Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004 and which was recommended to me by one of my lecturers, the excellent Dr Joshua Lobb.

I'm increasingly interested at the moment in tracing back the texts and ideas I encountered that led me to certain conclusions, because sometimes my conclusions (eg socialism, vegetarianism) seem so radical when just looked at bare. But if I could present people with a more manageable sequence of ideas that, once accepted, lead to that conclusion, it might be more understandable.

The book is full of beauty and poignancy, but in particular the passage I want to quote below, the ending of the book, when read after undertaking the journey of the entire novel, was one of the first things I encountered that led me to start thinking about why a progressive, leftist, socialist (look it up if that sounds alarming; it might not mean what you think it means) approach to world governance is a better one than a conservative, capitalist, individualist one. I now see the divide between left and right as largely one of cooperative socialism and competitive individualism. It even had a part to play in the development of my ideas about vegetarianism (note the 'weaselly word' the narrator identifies, and possibly see my post ''Naturalness', semantic decay and veg(etari)anism (part two of three)').

And don't worry, it doesn't have much in the way of spoilers, although being the final passage there are a few references you obviously won't understand if you haven't read the book:

Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates acts? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & beastiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why underminde the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the 'natural' (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: – one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the entropy written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peacably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth and its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen or a vainglorious general's sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

I hear my father-in-law's response. 'Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam. But don't tell me about justice! Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the red-necks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites! Sail to the Old World, tell 'em their imperial slaves' rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium's! Oh, you'll grow hoarse, poor & grey in caucuses! You'll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naïve, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed Hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!'

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? (527–529)

Incidentally, there's a film adaptation of Cloud Atlas coming out late this year with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Jim Sturgess, so get your hands on a copy and read it beforehand!


David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, published in 2003.

Cover image.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Anthropocentrism and the sentience hierarchy (part three of three)

 Wednesday 21 March 2012

This post originally formed part of my other post, ''Naturalness', semantic decay, anthropocentrism, hierarchy and veg(etari)anism (part two of two)'. Upon rereading it shortly after I first posted it, I decided it was really a separate issue and could be excised to make that post more readable. I hadn't gotten around to reposting it yet, so this is it, part three in my series of posts about veg(etari)anism.

In 'Miranda devine: enemy of the heart, the mind and vegetarianism' I argued that one of the central positions of Devine's piece – that we may as well eat meat because even if we only eat plants, we are still causing pain and death – was flawed because, among other things, it assumes that there is not a hierarchy in the capacity for suffering of different forms of life.
Positioning sentience as the sole criterion for valuing life is not without its problems. Viewed from the most objective, abstract perspective practically imaginable – say, that of an omniscient gaseous cloud which gained mass somehow from the dream of a fictional character imagined by a germ on the forehead of an alien* – it's arbitrary, biased, and it doesn't take into account forms of sentience we don't understand. But it's really all we have to go on. Like many things, it's an imperfect starting point, unstable ground upon which we have no choice but to build our more reasonable, moral theories.

*Suggestions for further abstraction welcome. 

Life is intrinsically valuable, but we can discriminate between the relative values of its different forms on the basis of sentience – the capacity of a lifeform to experience pleasure and pain, to have a 'preference', as Peter Singer explains in Animal Liberation, which David Foster Wallace calls 'more or less the bible of the modern animal-rights movement':

     It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a
     stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone 
     does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing 
     that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its
     welfare. A mouse, on the other hand, does have an interest in
     not being kicked along the road, because it will suffer if it is.

Others have argued that all life is irreducibly and equally valuable. The system of reasoning I'm outlining, however, contends, perhaps less radically, that human beings come out on top. Our lives are the most valuable and the most important. But there's a crucial distinction between the reasoning that brought me to this conclusion and the reasoning used by others that privilege human life over animal. If you've read my blog post, 'Positions on political correctness: towards a stratigraphical model of argumentation', which you almost certainly haven't, this situation might sound familiar. We have the base Position containing all those traditional justifications humanity gave itself to do whatever it wanted to animals – man is greater than beast, God gave men mastery over animals – which has been countered by the Position asserting universal equality of life. My Position seeks to occupy a third stratum paradigmatically above the other two, but syntagmatically between them. The 'mastery over animals' Position condones any violence that humans wish to enact upon animals, and the 'irreducible and equal value of life' one allows none, but mine (and many others') justifies the taking of animal life only when there is a direct choice between animal and human life: when, for example, a human must eat an animal to survive, or when an animal attacks a human.

The effective distinction between the three arguments, then, can be found in the points at which they locate the justification for the taking of animal life on a scale of necessity. Under Position 1, it can be almost anything – nourishment, pleasure, entertainment, convenience. Position 3 locates the distinction at a point beyond all of these, making them all violations of its rule, but some more extreme violations than others.

It takes a lot for me to dismiss the death or pain of a fellow human being, considering the importance I place on empathy as a characteristic, and it's usually the kind of thing I cringe at when I hear someone else do. I've found one exception, however, to be when humans kill animals for reasons that constitute more extreme violations of Position 3 and are themselves killed or injured in the process, as, for example, happened earlier this year when a hunter accidentally shot a protected grizzly bear thinking it was a black bear, or as occasionally happens to Spanish bullfighters:

Gustavo Cuevas's World Press Photo award–winning shot of matador Julio Aparicio being gored in the throat.

When a human is injured in this way, I can't help myself thinking good on the animal that did it. And no matter the sympathy I have for victims' families, my reaction is usually at least 'fair enough' when a person is killed in this way. If humans breed animals specifically for the purpose of killing them needlessly, or if they go into the animal's habitat with the same intention, and the animal is able to overcome the significant odds stacked against it, I simply can't help applauding it. It's not unlike the response evoked by the death of a mass murderer: certainly nothing like the mindless, morbid delight of the celebrations that ensued upon the death of Osama Bin Laden, but nevertheless a calm sense that justice has been done (in this light, another justification for killing a sentient being might be added to the argument – punishment for undoubtable, confessed, wilful, unrepentant mass murder of humans or other equivalent beings on the sentience hierarchy, by a human or other equivalent being on the sentience hierarchy).

The interesting and somewhat disturbing corollary of the sentience hierarchy as I have described it is that, if Earth was colonised by a race of aliens more intelligent than us, it would be morally acceptable for them to eat us if it came down to a choice between that or starving. The only defense would be an addition that asserts that the hierarchy plateaus at a certain level of intelligence, and all species beyond that point are equally as important as one another in spite of any differences in intelligence, and it is therefore universally wrong to kill any of them. But it would be fairly convenient to locate this plateau just below humans in the hierarchy. You'd at least have to include the great apes and the higher-order sea mammals, but humanity's actions hardly accord with this inclusion considering the damage we do to the habitats of both.

Which is unsurprising considering humanity's overall hypocritical, anthropocentric attitude to predation. You only have to look at popular culture television shows and films to see that we regard anything that hunts us as evil, but anything we hunt as an acceptable source of food. In Dragon Ball, Goku hunts wolves and giant fish, but dinosaurs and even other humans who hunt other animals are characterised as villains and are consequently attacked by the morally incorrigible protagonist. The same hypocrisy can even be found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's okay for Buffy to kill vampires and demons because, 'They're evil'. Why are they evil? Because they eat humans and they have no souls. But why discriminate against creatures just because they have no soul? They can't help it. They're just as intelligent as humans, and the show demonstrates they have the capacity to suffer, but killing them is acceptable because they need to prey on humans to survive. In this respect they're more moral than us; we eat animals even though we don't need to, but a vampire can subsist on nothing but blood (although pig's blood is a viable, more conscionable option for the program's re-ensouled undead). But stay your hands, Whedonites. I hasten to add that, to be fair, the show does engage with the Slayer/killer opposition.

'Yeah, I prefer the term 'slayer'. You know, 'killer' just sounds so ... Like I ... paint clowns or something. I'm the good guy, remember?'


Gustavo Cuevas's photograph, 21 May 2010.

Marti Noxon's television episode 'Buffy vs. Dracula', from Joss Whedon's television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5, Episode 1.

Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, quoted in David Foster Wallace's essay, 'Consider the Lobster'.

David Foster Wallace's essay, 'Consider the Lobster', in Gourmet Magazine in August 2004.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The hegelian dialectic

Saturday 21 January 2012

     Any feedback, suggestions, corrections, criticisms or referrals to 
     existing similar models will be useful in refining the technical 
     terminology, visual metaphor and general conceptualisation of 
     the model, and will be greatly appreciated. 
     ('Positions on political correctness: towards a stratigraphical 
     model of argumentation')

So it turns out my 'stratigraphy of argumentation' model is merely the plain old Hegelian dialectic (although I gather it isn't as 'Hegelian' as that name implies). But yes, it's thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which we covered briefly in one of my Theory for Practising Writers classes, but I didn't remember enough to pick up on the similarities.

It's always a strange mix of pride, relieved excitement and embarrassment when this kind of thing happens. Pride that you came up with the same idea as a renowned philosopher on your own, relieved excitement over the fact that it's already been theorised and discussed and all you have to do is research it and apply it and possibly build upon it, and embarrassment that (in this case, anyway) I publicly and ignorantly put forth an idea that was already in existence as though it was original. 

But as I said, I'm very excited to research the concept, and I'll then be able to see how much of what I came up with on my own is superfluous and how much could still be useful for expounding upon the notion. Once I've determined that I can do another post updating my ideas. The only thing is I'm not sure when I'll get the chance, now. I've landed a massive editing job that'll see me hard at work right until university starts up again. If it stays quiet around here, that's why.