Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Comfortable niches and ‘toothless poodles’

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm
The Last Supper

Stanley Spencer took the profound and put it in the ordinary, as in putting his Last Supper scene in a brewery. He took the familiar scene and re-lit it, an artful act of re-representing. Many of Britain’s institutions have long lost their original purpose and in Gayatri’s mind have settled into ‘comfortable niches’. From churches to the state bodies creaking oak panels are served by those for whom perpetuation of the entity itself has become the singular high point of their careers; often refusing to see ‘company stock’ has dropped to zero in the eyes of the very people it seeks to serve. Credit:

‘Toothless poodle’ is a rather harsh phrase. But ‘poodling’ is frequent mockery for those bodies set up to protect us from wanton hacks or country leaders currying-favour with allies. Glistening in the sun what do our cherished structures serve? Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak hit the nail incredibly hard last year. She wrote a fizzing critique which keeps re-surfacing like a shiny penny. But firstly think how much decision-making for ‘us’ takes place through the institutions of state, far beyond our franchise. Quite a bit, yes?

And how much do we proudly point the visitor to our shores to our Western society’s sophistication and its ‘trusted’ institutions? But institutional life is spent. Gayatri picks on the example of the rise of secularisation as an unquestioned, in my view, institutional vision for a better society. Run with her gut below:

“The fact that in the 18th century in Europe it was possible to create such a system [no moral references] has a lot to do with the class structure brought in by capitalism… On the other hand, there are folks who say that secularism is Orientalism. That is also nonsense. What we have to do is not be so taken by the European picture that we either slavishly follow it, or slavishly deny it. The issue is to look at our world, and see… class-fixed secularism… remember that even in democracies, universal suffrage is a very late date, so therefore the people who were upholding secularism were in fact the white guys, Christians, people of property and so on, right? So that doesn’t make secularism bad, it just makes it race and class specific and in many ways launders Judaeo-Christianity, so that Judaeo-Christian religious observance is given comfortable niches within secularity, and everything else is “tolerance.” It’s the only instrument we have.”

That’s quite a dense piece but what Gayatri is saying, in my view, is that there is an assumption that if there is a political vision of a secularised and institutionalised world, as we’ve seen in Europe, that it will arrest a moral decline. This is naive as secularism isn’t ‘value neutral’. Within its appearance of ‘non-religious fairness and inclusivity’ there are those with privileged positions (classes) who will enjoy exploiting the inherent and persistent reality of unfairness and exclusivity. We need the ‘moral position’ (transcendent) to drive for equality she cries. It won’t happen via secularisation as a ‘project’ in and of itself.

But, more importantly, it is offering the suggestion that any movement or ‘good’ that ends up going from vital and light-on-its-feet to an evolved institutional structure such as the building-centric-church in this country is tantamount to the death of purpose. We see in the UK our declining church sitting in comfortable niches, giving in to the surrounding institutions, led by those for whom change is anathema. And the problem is a collective one of human leadership. All social entities that lack questioning slide into brittle crystal palaces.

Emerson offered that an organisation is the ‘lengthened shadow of one man’ (Murdoch and Ford aside). The charismatic founder who expended their spleen in getting movement remains so deified to the following crew they can’t exorcise his or her ghost from the board room and the journey of vital society into dessicated Institution begins. Somebody else said if you speak the truth and question the inherent rightness of ‘the group’ you’ll sound as if you’re from Neptune; so your life is on the line as few will respond.

So, for secularisation read modern institution; for modern institution read comfortable niche. When someone invites you to sit on a council, board or sub-committee consider the invitation very carefully. You are about to enter a comfortable niche that might award you the gong of ‘toothless poodle’ unless, and only unless, you offer a question that relates to the very existence of all around.