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Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Paris or London: Which is more beautiful?

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Paris is grand and breathtaking; London is ‘rude and low’, which is easy for us imported Northerners to say safe in the hills of Yorkshire. Actually it was John Dryden who said so, so there. I like the suggestion in Austen Saunders’ Spectator Book Blog that London’s messy layout and ramshackle streets is a result of constrained monarchs not lording the local planners. The logic then is Paris is the symbol of despotism that required Revolution; London therefore a symbol of quiet resistance. No Robespierre but just a Wilfred Grimsdale.

From London’s maze to British Railways post-war? Or Carlisle Airport’s aborted take-off or just about any Project Le Grande that smacks of centralism. Where the US citizenry pack a small basement arsenal against Big Government we employ the local official; who, at the point of contact, sends years of MBA-project-planning-precision into a paper storm. Tombs and Tombs’ The Sweet Enemy suggests the French despise such lack of vision. They also grind teeth at our parliament. Its maddening obsession with precedent. The future is dictated by ‘let’s check what we did last time’; like driving forward using only the rear-view mirror.

Tombs is English and the other Tombs is French; making their Tome on the 300-year-war a little more interesting. Tis intriguing how history reveals ‘us’. Russia went with Platonic Idealism; England with Socratic Argument… France goes with the classical and elegant. Shakespeare was rough and crude and not worth our time, they said. Our desire to disunite and slug it out then leaves our city streets organically arranged. More a collage of opinion and minor fracas between the Mr Grimsdales than sweeping Champ-Elysees. Like one of those paint pots swinging on a rope above the studio floor of the genius Tony Hart’s Vision On; leaving its random splodges.

Randomness then is its own beauty; grand vision is seen for what it is, contrived and a little bit over blown. Impressive but wounded by self-engrandising puffery that is likely to induce slight regret. France post-war drove its railways like coach and horses where we bobbed and weaved around badger sets as we consulted the tea-lady. We see planning-by-committee as our birthright. Management by consensus then has led to patchwork London streets; Rome’s straight lines weren’t sustainable. Because they were Roman I suppose. You couldn’t hide in alleyways in the Roman world as they’d been marbled over? Where in Britain our freedom means we lurk seditiously in corners, up twittens, down quashetts.

So, Paris is more beautiful then. But we’re more satisfied in our unmade beds.

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Technology as ornamentation

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Norman Mailer did say, but cannot find where he said it, that technology is erotic; which is an uncomfortable word for us repressed English-males. It’s like the word porn; another uncomfortable word. But of course there is train-porn, watch-porn (I recall a two years of study accompanied by a group of wonderful fellow students who loved to eat and socialise together but were periodically terrorised by a conversation about watch collecting – which made train-spotting appear marginally exciting – apologies to those who find meaning in SeaMaster4738.45Chronodigimatics or whatever they were) and car-porn (see Top Gear’s intelligent looking audience for further puzzlement). Having watched a couple speak vicariously to each other through their iPhone’s Faceache updates all the way round and up to the till at Carlisle’s SuperDrug there is much hyperpathology (a word I’ve just created) at work; hence here is Richard Lane’s wonderful treatise on what I term the newest and most acceptable form of train-spotting:

“In the modern age, how functional are the technological objects that surround us? Have they penetrated our everyday practices to make a substantive difference to the way we lead our lives, or is this difference one of the surface effect, ornamentation?

Baudrillard announces in The System of Objects that in many respects it is the baroque that is the truly inaugurating moment of the modern age. In other words, there is no true development of the technological object, just a kind of abstraction (objects become mere lifestyle accessories), which Baudrillard equates with the architectural style of ornamentation that prevailed in Europe from the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries. In the contemporary world, the object is now taken over by the imaginary. Thus automatism “…opens the door to a whole world of functional delusion, to the entire range of manufactured objects in which a role is played by irrational complexity, obsessive detail, eccentric technicity or gratuitous formalism” (1977: 113).

To say technological objects exist as ornamentation at whatever level is not to say that they don’t have a function; in fact, the opposite is the case. In the baroque world of technology, an object fulfils all the criteria for its usefulness simply by functioning in the abstract sense. For example, a more powerful computer may be used for the same simple word processing that was performed on an older machine that costs a lot less money. The machine’s “power” is abstract in that it is not really tested out or used in any meaningful way. So we no longer have the question “What does it do?” but instead the question “Does it work?” This latter is what can be called “hyperfunctionality”, because other questions follow, such can be called a “hyperfunctionality”, because other questions follow, such as “Does it work faster than the last model?”, even if speed of operation has nothing to do with any real performance output or gain.

In hyperfunctionality, the technological object is not practical, but obsessional; not utilitarian, but functional (always in an abstract sense); the object or gadget no longer serves the world, performing some useful task – it serves us: our dreams desires of what objects can and should do (1997: 114).

Baudrillard’s word for this “empty functionalism” is the French word machin, meaning “thingumajig”, “thingumabob”, “whatsit” or, as translator of The System of Objects more satisfactorily puts it, “gizmo” (1997: 114).

Automatism now has the human subject as the ideal to be striving towards, and the human subject becomes the next barrier to the development of the technological object…”

Discretion is now the better part of Valerie

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2011 at 7:12 pm

This word ‘pledge’ is intriguing. Has its capital sunk like toxic debt? Is too much pledging like too much chocolate; you get sick of it and ignore it after awhile? Americans pledge allegiance to flags; we breathe oaths to truth; promises to love; resolve New Years; re-member ourselves with commitments; determine futures; shake hands; guard honours. Maybe Roger McGough is right: Discretion is now the better part of Valerie.

Or, as John Donne puts it:

For when through tasteless flat humility,
In dough-baked men, some harmlessness we see,
‘Tis but his phlegm that’s virtuous, and not he.

Debt due to a vision of ourselves: A unique kind of British Angst

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 at 6:35 pm

If you think we’re wobbling in the face of debt woes, absorb this recent encounter with a downturn: “In early 1996, Bill Clinton warned that because the debt ceiling had not been raised, Social Security cheques might be late. This scared Congress into passing a small increase in the debt ceiling solely to meet Social Security payments.” Economist, January 13, 2011*. Clinton’s record appears a matter of hot debate. Congress it is suggested shackled his excesses. But the current government might pause for a moment and think about the US’s love affair with debt and our love affair with the US. There is an intriguing paradox in this ‘special relationship’.

America is what Niall Ferguson (is it Neil or Nihall?) calls a ‘debtor nation’ in his book Colossus. He paints the US as an Empire in practice, or what he terms, an hegemony (a more palatable term to an American), extending its influence more pervasively than the British Empire ever did. Either way the US lives on debt; its propensity to ‘take a flier’ unrivalled. Of course doom merchants have predicted the US eagle will descend like a brick for some time.

Doom merchants predicted Britain’s demise too; difference being they were right. France,  Germany and the US accelerated past the British at the turn of last century. They watched us, spied on us in fact (yes, industrial espionage secured our trade secrets), copied us and did it better. Same story. We were holding onto our market lead by our eyelids only to finally give up the ghost in the 1950s…. wait! So it was WWII that killed our economy? Yes and No.

We were bankrupt two years into WWII; but we still led in key markets by the end of the war. Order books were busting. Slight problem though. We had no cash. Our pounds sterling had crossed the Atlantic and were busily super-charging the US economy to its white heat of ‘1950s America’. America’s Dream Decade was built on our pennies; they were cash rich and we were cash destitute. Maynard Keynes literally killed himself begging for some of that cash back. Without it we couldn’t meet our customers’ needs. And… we didn’t. The orders for ships went to Sweden and elsewhere. But why you ask? The US gave us a huge pile of dough. They sort of did but…

Britain had an emotional problem; largely we didn’t wish to believe our Empire was dead. In fact few of us have. Even Blair transmogrified from CND’er to Freebooter as he breathed the fumes of No. 10’s oak and leather. And here is an uncomfortable notion: Britain’s debt is largely fuelled by our desire to be a Top Table nation over the past 60 years. But why?

When the factories of 1950s’ Britain were switched back to commercial production in 1945 we had capacity to meet our orders. With a loan from the new SuperPower across the water we were up for it. Germany and France had shrunk from Imperial aspirations and took the ‘let’s be a small European club’ approach. We on the other hand said ‘We must be Great again!’. And America quietly let it be known that the price for greatness was being the lead Euro nation in the NATO. Oh, what an honour! Well, the price for our exalted status involved a ‘small’ conflict with Communism that needs dealing with, with Round One in Korea.

In effect our desire to be great meant support of the Anglo-Saxon worldview; and the capital of Anglo-Saxony was now in Washington. To be funded above the Marshall Plan’s injection meant splitting our factory production in half and re-arming to protect an Empire that didn’t exist. Consequently we spent the 1950s with 300,000 troops overseas guarding sand. 80,000 protecting a non-vital asset called the Suez Canal. Only by the 1960s could we resist the US’s governance, but by then our manufacturing had been dealt a mortal blow. The working man and woman weren’t the mortal enemy constructed in the 1970s as they’d built the economy largely through self-directed leadership and then fought two World Wars only to be undone by a leadership that hankered after greatness.

Debt ‘became-us’ due to our vision of ourselves; we could not conceive of our nation as ‘small and European’. Our natural resources long exhausted (in fact we’ve never been able to feed ourselves alone) we needed high-value businesses but shot ourselves in the foot as the money for re-tooling went on tanks and guns for a phoney-Cold-War. Driven I say by self-engrandisement, and leaders whose vision of our nation is rooted more in the 19th century, let alone the 20th.

America has only been debt free for one year in its life time; its vast natural resources and internal market has caused it not to blink at eye-watering debt levels. For us, our key resource is intellectual. But our Achilles’ Heel remains our conception of ourselves. Our very peculiar brand of British Angst (desire to be significant) ensures we pile debt to continue to fund us as a world power (lead partner from Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan), with vast defence expenditure; when in reality we are a small European nation with a desperate need to humble ourselves and compete. As Germany and France built their post-war visions we look still into the rear view mirror of a great past, catching the cut of our jib, which still looks suitably Imperial, if not Royal. As Mrs Thatcher said in 1991: ‘Only good comes from the English-speaking world, nothing good comes from Europe’. I wonder what she was referring to?

* http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/01/americas_debt

The theme of the Global Leadership and Change 2011 Autumn Lecture Series is: Renewal: Building A Sustainable Future