Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Shocking Britain: UK’s EU exit offers insights into power and change (Podcast)

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2018 at 11:06 am

After a long and messy partnership the UK’s exit from the EU represents a complex set of desires to renegotiate the Social Contract. Some of these might be to restore ‘charismatic power’ to a country used to ‘throwing its weight around in the world’. From Orwell’s common man to Debussy’s challenges to modern realities there are new currents of thought emerging on leadership, power and change in the not-so-united Kingdom that can easily be missed in the light of this huge transition. Not just for Europe but for the globe. Europe has been the centre of dialogue on political systems for hundreds of years. It is again. And it has tended  to drag the rest of the world into its backyard squabbles. So close and renewed attention is vital. This podcast explores some of these emerging observations:

Podcast: Thinking about ‘third dimensions’: Big data and the empathy puzzle

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Global management is falling in love with the prospect of big data as its latest ‘third-dimension’. Its scale is a possible route through the maze of business planning. But what if you combine empathy, which, fundamentally, is the ability to imagine, with the interpretation of big data? More so is the real third-dimension primarily found in re-understanding ‘how the world is’? Which may be a final leap away from the world as a ‘model’ requiring a system. That is, a return to the world presented as a puzzle requiring a new breed of interpreters with a new outlook: Click here:

Decay, decrepitude, dereliction: and their benefits post-Brexit

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2018 at 4:01 pm

James Joyce summed up Brexiteers: “The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit… the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” Which I’ll come on to. But firstly, my car. It slid down a snow-covered Yorkshire hillside recently, saved only by a convenient wall. Neatly scarring both left-side passenger doors. This matched impressive damage to the driver’s side. Last year I drove off from a car park space into the adjacent lamp-post. Having driven off from two petrol stations without paying, and ending up on the police national computer, some sort of rot has set in. Yorkshire Police were humane: “when we looked at the CCTV you didn’t have a balaclava on sir, so we assumed you might not be an arch-criminal”. 

My own question is do I restore my car to its former mass mid-market glory. Or leave the scars. That I need a car to exist is itself a problem. Getting a bus from Golcar to Huddersfield, or Carlisle to Cockermouth, is lovely. You meet people on the bus. It is a social space. It is humanising and healing. Unlike the train. My problem was getting back from Cockermouth. There was no bus back. I rode on to Workington bus depot. Then walked to the railway station. Which is breathtaking by the way. A space that makes you want to miss your train. The train thundered back without the spirit of the bus.

I have decided to leave the car disrepaired. A talking point. In ‘shit-order’ as army-types say to recruits. Retired soldiers grow pony-tails, and join biker gangs, as not only a form of irony, but in a restoration of their battered identities. That you submit to depersonalisation though is not unconscious. We all do it. Uniforms are strangely liberating. And leaving the EU is not dissimilar. We want out of EU-order. Partly as we could not dominate this space. Remaining meant an inability to rule. There were never enough who like Queen Mary could say: “When I am dead and cut open, they will find Philip and Calais inscribed on my heart.”

When interviewed by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs a young Brexiteer called Robinson Crusoe said he didn’t want the complete works of Shakespeare as he was: “the prince and lord of the whole island; I had the lives of all my subjects at my absolute command.” He was not the first Alpha Male to be washed up on a beach then appoint himself master of all he surveyed. Crusoe set about recreating a small version of York on his island. Even re-creating a country retreat on the other side of the island. He didn’t co-exist, he dominated. The ecosystem made no sense to him, so he hacked at it madly. The fear of the unknown meant he rebuilt his known world in this unknown world. He neither understood his environment nor sought to. Crusoe’s domination was his own decay. He was destroying the ecosystem to keep his self recognisable.

The world is in the process of being stockaded by global capital. It is a known system. The Russians have planted their flag 4.3km down on the seabed next door to the Artic Circle to stake a claim to oil and liquefied natural gas. The Americans own the moon likewise. Possession is nine tenths of the law. But here and there there are little beaches on which new communities are forming who have no intention of capitalising their space. In fact non-ownership, and non-possession is the goal. We do not want to colonise the space. Letting go of this desire is a letting go of globalised power. Once you have communities not taking part in this form of power, a new economy forms.

The failure of leadership to build a society we can be content with has thrown up the word ‘resilience’. Children are taken outdoors by their school teachers to recover their ability to cope via physical challenges. Employers want resilient staff to cope with globalisation and its effects. These efforts are like the Dutch Boy with his finger in the dyke. The world we have built is creaking under hyper-possession.

If nine million modern globalised and educated Indians apply for 18,000 railway jobs, then that is a lot of disaffection. Globalised possession is at the root of our discontents. I had a heated debate about ‘purpose’ with a colleague. Modern purpose is an extended enclosure Act. A repeated legalisation of life. Where society cannot negotiate it resorts to the law. Once you propose to modern middle-class educated Indians that their taking part in Western modernity will lead to happiness through capital you are storing up the pathology that emerged in America following their 1950s revolution. John Updike’s characterisation of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom surviving plastic motels and sweaty cheapened sex aches off the page.

That Indians submit to Rabbit’s journey is interesting. But their submission will accelerate the West towards a conversation about capital. British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s achievement is to make Tories rehearse their arguments all over again. Which they now cannot do without considerable embarrassment. The Tory Front Bench look like the teaching staff at the grammar school prize giving ceremony. That the Labour Front Bench look like the local comprehensive’s staff room is neither here nor there.

Musing aside the structure of capital means it pushes people outwards from each other. Getting back from capital ownership is harder as you have to go on to Workington, as it were. My parents entered a Christian commune in Sussex in the 1950s. Intent on sharing everything together. Former Royal Navy commanders handed their Jaguars over. It was hell! My mother said. My brother ran away back to Suffolk at 15. Then to Fleet Street. And Murdoch. My four sisters were gone by 15 and 17. Spread to four corners of the Home Counties. To be loving wives to Crusoes (such were men of socially-mobile 1960s/70s, especially when hovering around London and its dormitories – in stark contrast to the stasis of now. London’s effect on aspiration is chemical). But it wasn’t hell for everyone. They were radicals. But they still couldn’t express meaningfully amongst themselves what they were doing. Its members gradually crept back into mainstream existence.

Community built without a narrative remains overpowered by capital. My father took a house round the corner from the commune. As a private man he was affected by the long-legacy of a community that couldn’t narrate its self. Community born in modernity has to play a different game. Acknowledging we are ethnically modern, and find ourselves playing the game of capital by its rules means a fairly epic conversation about what possession is. What it is to possess our lives, and things. About life journeys. And how to decay appropriately. To fall out of capital into community.

Stephen Hawking died yesterday as a demi-god of science. Worshipped for his inspirational battle against physical limitation. But the impression you had was of a man speaking through the decay of physical prowess. The winsome figure added a vulnerability and humility to his thinking. In the Knowledge-Era where the mind is Queen, Hawking still was a Robinson Crusoe. Planting his barley seeds self-consciously. His use of modal verbs like ‘is’ unapologetically ruins scientific credibility all over again. The most important epistemological question now is ‘why science?’ This is so offensive that reactions to it must be studied as much as the question itself.

Science, Christianity, modernity are not community friendly. But they are all decaying nicely. Jeremy Corbyn’s mother knitted him a jumper, and an identity. His decay is electable. Battered and shambolic is a route to community. One of my community leader friends, who never gets back to me, ever, when challenged said: ‘leaders need to leave by the back door’. As a respected figure in his community, he has got something. Shambolic disinterested leaders are offering meaningful decay. A lead away from capital. Capital of course always gets back to you. Relentlessly. That capital cannot leave its community alone is part of the mental health epidemic.

You cannot enter a space without capital as dominant narrative. A decrepitude, a turning up late, or not all, in battered automobiles, with soup-stained clothing has its possibilities.

British vaudevillian Ken Dodd died just before Hawking. Dodd offered banality that was so nauseating it could only be funny. One of my best pals tartly responded: “He has always turned my stomach with his banal nonsense and how people laugh along with him, I sometimes wonder if it is more pity for a poor jester than anything else.” That Dodd was an under-performing King’s fool is an interesting thought. But he was a link to a world that fought middle-class oppressiveness. As Britain climbed socially we quietly admired those who remained in Channel 4 Shameless communities, free from university education, and respectable marriages that pleased both mother and father. Christianity got into bed with respectability and needs a quickie divorce for it to recover its credibility.

The value of Brexit then. Is that once we are out we can really screw up! If the EU took the Anglo-Saxons by the elbow for forty years, trying to explain secular humanism to the snotty-nosed kid at the back with the NHS glasses, it has not worked. The common woman has kicked Belgian bureaucracy in the balls quite firmly. And we will pay for it. The chance now is to rot back into a mulch of our own making. To the eurocrat the British Isles was a deserted island to escape from. The British are a people of the sea. Angela Merkel is of the sea, but also of the forest. Sea people don’t get forest people. Central Europe is much further from Britain than one hour plane rides. The island race need to see the sea regularly. Plus see the books. The sea exposes people in a way the forest doesn’t. Royal Navy commanders stayed at sea sometimes for ten years at a stretch without ever setting foot on dry land. Their reading of wind and wave won. I suspect others will follow Britain out of the Club.

But Brexit is a form of natural decay. Supra-nationalism will in time look terrifying and we will wonder what on earth we were doing. As we now look on Communism with horror (and affection). The link between the EU and global capital is now relatively obvious. Neo-liberalism is largely setting markets free from government intervention. The EU could not intervene as it was not a political entity. But remained an idea that was unlikely to achieve its federal ambitions. Without a unified identity people will not sign-up. Identity being the great driver of political affiliation. The EU means little to the ordinary voter, other than a necessary vehicle for securing a post-war dividend. For Britain to not just exit EU collectivisation, but also return to a pre-Victorian dereliction is on the cards. We think we can Make Great Britain Again (MaGBA) but I propose we make it slightly decrepit. Like a Ken Dodd performance. A sort of inclusive communal banality that counters Grand Projects.







Speaking into power in the Age of Kittens

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2017 at 11:57 am

Questioning power doesn’t get any easier. At least not in the Age of Kittens and other cuteness. The trauma of speaking is still with us. Hearing one’s own voice can hurt. Richard Rorty says this concern or hesitation is a form of irony. As we open our mouths we are wracked with the thought that we should have said it a different way. Or if you are English not said it at all. The doubts are easy to identify.

Firstly, speaking is not going to make any difference at all. To anything. Withdraw like Wittgenstein to a life of modest primary school teaching, blessing little ones. Secondly, the world is all the same but different. There is therefore no There, and your heroic passions will just mess with the space-time continuum. Finally, you are not actually fundamentally committed to anything. Unless you are prepared to die on your version of the cross do not deceive yourself.

Such tortured concerns may well be a very British or probably English disease. Having messed with the world imperially and colonially we are coy. Adopting now a humble pose is a natural demeanour. This effete modality is not unattractive. Inside such languid postures ‘we’ can be decorous, polite and disinterested. In this skin multiple contributions to those categoric lesser species can be made. Whilst America writhes in some pain seeing their version of Diogenes as President the Brexiteers can furrow a concerned brow, knowing our days of caricaturing (see Kipling, Rhodes) are behind us. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s reprise aside.

So, how do you question power in a territory marked ‘Opaque’? Where shoals of indecision flitter around mindlessly. No-one actually knows anything anymore is the admission. We are totally unconvinced by all speaking in Opaqueland. Banksy’s Dismaland was too dystopian. Dystopia is the weakness for the Left. It plays too hard on the bum-notes to recognise hope and movement towards Life with a capital-L are sound. Orwell knew this and offered his critique that the problem with Socialism is that it is full of Socialists who are too attached to the Outrage Bus. Outrage is convenient, if not lazy simplism. But it remains necessary. We should be outraged, frequently. But we should know when to offer Hope. Outrage and Hope are essential in Opaque Land.

Back to power. Power then has, not unlike the Taliban when off-duty, slipped into farmer’s attire and looks relatively benign. It says do not shoot me, I am innocent guvnor. I once roamed the earth burning crops and villages as the French advanced, readying myself for the fateful moment to deal death and destruction, but, now, I have changed my mood. I have slipped into something far more comfortable.

If power has changed its spots and slipped into the ether then speaking into the void left creates some discomfiture. The collective mass of letters to The Guardian are not sharing a destination. And it is the absence of destination that renders power awkwardly exposed. Like running through the woods naked, wolves on your tail, into a clearing complete with shops, bars and restaurants. The bar-tender catches your eye and you sit rightly disturbed at the horrible contradictions. Power has led you to a somewhere. But it is not where it was meant to be.

This collective ‘something is wrong’ mood is the effect of power not resisting its old foes. When you have something powerful to push against life is clear. Purpose is purposeful. A flurry of books inviting purposeful lives render us muscular. Only now having fulfilled a few purposes we are now sat at the cocktail bar. Power and purpose part their ways. Socrates dies afresh. Not unlike Macron ripping up the sacredness of France by frankly trying too hard. His admirable intellect is too self-conscious, too learnéd. You do not display such uprightness in France. You skulk in kitchen doorways. Socrates was similar. He was too self-confident, too definitive, too purposeful. He set things in motion from which we have not yet recovered. Hegel span these plates.

Why was Socrates flawed you say? Because any Method is destined for trouble. It attracts acolytes and they get enamoured with its potential. Again, back to power. And the possibility that power has been unstrapped from Cultural Platonism. That is power should always have inalienable qualities as defined by continuity. From left to right. Onwards, upwards, ever upwards. This type of power took part in propelling. But now, in Opaque Land, we are inevitably back to the healthy flux of Knowledge no longer working as it should. As a propeller. We are drifting on the Med in our sailboat and the hardest thing now is to enjoy the moment. Socratic dialogue is over as all cards have been played and none of them were a full-house.

So, power now is not just not propelling, it is not finishing modernity’s building project. As HS2 should have us waving union flags at its modern marvelousness it leaves us relatively cold. So what? Time and space is not what it was also. Escaping it meant getting to the seaside. Now we have seen the sea numerous times we ask so what? The excitement of airports as time portals is dying.

So speaking with Modern Reason into the embers of its project is why we feel a little embarrassed. Now Mugabe has resigned Zimbabweans will seek institutions that distribute power and protect from future despots. But we could say though that all modernisers, George Osbornes, Tony Blairs, Theresa Mays are despotically imposing a project which fewer folks have faith in anymore. Like high speed rail we are fundamentally doubtful about reason and its logics. Having screamed through the woods into the clearing we are butt-naked. When using reason to articulate purpose and speak into power we feel the draught.

If institutions no longer know quite where they are taking us then at least we can be naked together honestly. Nurses who joined the NHS after its inception were supercharged to clean and scrub with astringent pride. Now, the NHS is loved for its trapping the middle-classes into a shared project. We thank it for distributing wealth more fairly, as well as producing low-cost miracles.

It mixes chemicals like a shaman and people are healed. But we are numbed by the experience of being in an institution. With its zombie eyes. Once you have journeyed through modern life you have experienced more ‘chop logic’ than you care to consider. Just how many meetings can you refer to sub-section 42.7 with sincerity before madness sets in: “I would like to draw your attention to the aforementioned, underscribed, overarched, and paragraphed.” There are no shortage of modernisers wanting more of this. For its boundaries are clear. But what they do not realise is that modern institutions will replicate their selves endlessly. Once you have removed the risk of life from human relationships and trained the masses to all do ‘hospital corners’ correctly according to Matron there is little going back from there.

Lord Chris ‘Hong Kong’ Patten in his thoughtful bio unselfconsciously still blames the UK union movement for its post-war travails. This is the ‘chop logic’ of the modern politician believing in the power of rational argumentation. A politician’s career, especially conservatives, rest on tidy arguments. But fundamentally detached from the important. That new Ministers can sweep aside all that has gone before them reveals the weakness of law making as a way of speaking into power, and more so human hearts. The Greek Logos and Socrates forgot the relationship between hope and heart. A beautiful mind is not quite the same. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith then is a leap away from the logics of all, religion and logic. The UK union movement was roughly saying the same thing. That markets, economics, institutions and the assembled mass of rational argumentation was ricocheting off the glaringly obvious. That Life is not experienced through institutionalised living. Their last stab at community, albeit collectivised under industries, was a chant against modernity’s project. Whilst fuelling it.

Kierkegaard refers to a sickness that has not yet declared itself. This is modernity and its chop logics. Yes, it is a form of sickness that has yet to be diagnosed. The post-modernist declare it a finished project at times but in truth globalisation is simply modernisation. The spreading of institutional power. But a power that has slipped into frames or structures. A Socratic Method. Power that is in systems is largely immune to people who speak. The unions spoke against system power but their frustration turned violent at times. Playing into the hands of political power. They also proposed another system of power without recognising they were somewhat deaf to its critical flaws. Corbyn’s great opportunity is a self-consciousness. To recognise he is part of a system as much as any capitalist.

Here then is the shape of late-modern power. Largely embedded in systems and processes that defy the voice. An echo chamber that initially was resistant to the charismatic man, as de Tocqueville noted. But now resistant to ‘the good’ but more so ignorant of the human heart and its nature. John Lewis Christmas advertising has spotted this. As have many marketing men. The emotional labour required to post on Facebook is considerable. If you are not pink, cuty and fluffy you are probably avoiding it. In the vacuum of institutional life the temptation to be ‘lovely’ is strong. Those who speak with a breaking voice are getting a following.

This appeal to hopefulness, to the possibility of a life not dominated by modernity is where legitimacy is now found. Those who are extra-cute are scratching at an itch. What the market finds distasteful is genuinely loving communities that defy it. It is the same for organisations finding that legalistic leadership is destroying it. Leaders who create community ahead of purpose find life considerably less fractious. When speaking towards power the community can detect your intentions as the voice leaks meaning all over the place. All speaking is a confessional. If we are tempted to speak we reveal much more about ourselves than we dare even consider. Hence when we gambol into the clearing we are frighteningly naked.

The dissolving of supra-national structures, the weakness of all trans-national relationships is a result. The possibility of being lost in the labyrinthine mess of personal relationships is upon us. Liminal relationships are almost fully resistant to the market and modernity. As Wittgenstein says we make our own logics and construct our rules of the language or power game.

This tension between a head and heart life sits below issues of speaking into the world. To re-insert matters of the heart invites the speaker to ‘be lovely’, or ‘adorable’. As someone said to me the other day: “You have a great mind!”. The corollary of this was your both your heart and mind are somewhat in need of work. Such is the joy of having friends who speak. My back-hand top-spin return was, well, the heart and the mind need thought. It is a both-and. Another friend chipped in: “No, it’s all about the heart.” The problem with heart-people is they are very cute. So cute you want to take them home, frequently.

The serious questionable association though is between cuteness and love. To be loving in a late-modern context requires a big syrupy spoonful of kitten-cuteness. We have come some way from Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates leaving the tent for a quiet non-attention-seeking death. And thank God we have come a long way. The recent argument that Scott’s expedition was bounced into a hasty bid for glory by the sneaky Norwegians who had not declared their intent with ‘British-style’ straightness suggests Scott’s party might bear additional culpability for misjudgements over issues such as not using dogs to pull their sleds. The race to the Pole like the race to the Moon look increasingly preposterous in a world where power is now spread amongst the masses. Who collectively do not see an early death as transforming much. The benignity of life now, that is, the absence of the Epic, suggests much. In truth ordinary life was already a Greek Tragedy, and additional Epicness impositions from governments et al were beyond madness.

The ordinary navigation of daily existence comes with its own journeys to the Pole. The brushwood that blows when we speak might be this new reality that when folks have space to tell their own stories we all stand back in some amazement. The imperialists and colonialists still want Knowledge to come with old forms of power, imbued with the Greek Logos. But as Polanyi says mythos was always there. Logos and Mythos are the conversation. Socrates did open up the space for speaking, but it was a Logos space. That is true of most modern spaces. They admit the rational and empirical happily but little else. Hence, kittens!

What I have Learnt So Far..

In Uncategorized on January 9, 2017 at 12:03 pm



There are many things I don’t know and even more thing it seems that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. The obvious things like:

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Is it really so bad to have a business mogul as president?

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2016 at 11:54 am

Published originally in: The Conversation:

Donald Trump’s image as a street fighter offering a voice to the disenfranchised propelled him to victory in the US election. But beyond the artifice of political stage management, it just might be possible that an executive business brain will cut through Washington’s House of Cards.

Trump has never held public office so he’s a total newcomer to the Washington bear pit that scuppered much of Obama’s agenda. His experience as a business mogul, however, comes with some transferable skills. Executive and global leadership are wholly interlinked and so there are some important lessons to be learned from business. This can be seen in the way that the crisis in America’s auto industry was handled.

The impact of Ford Motor Company’s US$12.7 billion 2006 and General Motors’ US$79.6 billion 2007-08 losses were overshadowed by worldwide economic collapse soon after. Global governance, political and economic systems have become the dominant debate since. But executive leadership was also key.

Disaster in America’s auto industry, staved off only by US government bail outs, has been a result of senior leadership’s failure to react to global signals. The emerging trend for downsizing from big, gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles to smaller models, driven by the 2003-08 oil price hikes, were reacted to too late. Interpretation requires mature executive leadership minds, with a desire to embrace both data analysis and creative solutions.

Ford’s old leaders failed to react to global trends.
EPA/Andrew Gombert

Any real embrace of subtle global trends must be rooted in extended dialogue between government and industry, not one or the other dictating. Trump’s brutal, old-school bruiser mentality might be sorely tested by this. A strong hand may be needed when faced with existential threats. But if a business executive persists with a sovereign will, this can end in significant damage.


The role of president is akin to the CEO of a company. They are the commander-in-chief and dictate the vision. Those that are dubious of a Trump presidency should take heart that he will be surrounded by advisers who will be experts in their field. But it’s important that he has a listening ear.

An openness to change – and detecting its subtle signals – is crucial. Indeed, CEOs play a critical role in encouraging their leadership teams to spot subtle trends in their industry. On the hopeful side, it was Trump’s acute understanding of the deepening social divisions in the US, that galvanised so many to vote for him, to the shock of many.

The tunnel vision of senior leadership both drives and restricts performance. The key role of a chairperson in a business is to aid the CEO’s openness to change, sometimes bringing their gaze up to the horizon. Margaret Thatcher’s propensity to drown out questioning ultimately led to her exit. What voices will Trump permit to speak? Will he be open to criticism? His propensity to shout down his critics throughout his campaign would suggest not.

The art of the deal

Any good leader must maintain a macro view of what’s going on. Yet leaders have a propensity to get bogged down in micro issues; a heavy focus on planning and control by 20th century businesses was a reaction to the industrial upheaval of the 19th century. Trump will have to cope with the shift to today’s more ambiguous and interconnected world, which needs a flexible and organisational mind.

Organisations are probably the last space that despotism is allowed to exist in the West so Trump will find the bird’s nest of government bureaucracy maddening. He has, however, boasted of his ability to make deals. This will be put to the test, as he will have to engage in the kind of political compromise and back room dealing that orthodox business leadership can despise.

A strong hand is only good sometimes.
EPA/Michael Reynolds

Ultimately, President Obama stepped in to save the US auto-industry. But it took judicious leadership to regenerate it. Ford avoided government takeover by putting together its own strategic recovery plan, led by CEO, Alan Mulally. A sophisticated range of measures from union negotiation to settling a nervous leadership team were skilfully deployed – and it required capturing both the micro and macro perspectives, sustaining business through volatile trading. Behind the bluster, is Trump an intuitive business brain that can see the macro as well as the micro? Mulally demonstrated the deft touch that was needed.

The hunger for deal-making – something Trump has made a name for himself in – is a core strength of the classic business mogul. But in the long view of history these need to be deals that stand the test of time.The Conversation

Christianity as modernity

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2016 at 4:45 pm

What would the builder from Nazareth think about Christianity? Would he be a Christian? Nazareth was not even a one horse town by the way. So whatever you think of the present state of Christianity its rise from Hicksville to global is intriguing. Somebody said the other day Jesus was a Sophist, with the gift of the gab. Take a wild off-piste set of ideas and pump them with assertive seriousness, the sort that front bench politicians adopt, and you have a movement. If your ideas are moderate and plausible, they will be piled up in the leftovers bin. Put a fantastical notion into the arena, with an irresistible spokesperson at the head, and the world appears to take note.

But the clear blue water between the vulnerability of an individual leader with radical conviction, and an institution, the Church, is getting wider. As Christianity reels from its institutional incarnation where is it truly at today? It started as a set of ideas about people around the margins, those who were without power, the vulnerable, and persecuted. Those with no voice at all, dirty, the people you recoiled from by their stench, to a mission tied closely to respectability. A rather tidy faith, buttoned, pinched, austere, conservative socially, and oft politically. What happened?

The answer is it went from intimacy, fluidity, to solidness. From engagement to muscularity. 19th century writers wrote of chapels and assembly halls taking on the air of frightening hardness. In short a faith became fundamental. And fundamentalism worships its own self-righteousness, its immovability, not the source of its meaning. A vision was traduced to legal practice. The builder from Nazareth was thrown out of the church and taken to a cliff to be thrown off after his first sermon. Not the promising start mothers wish for.

Where is the source then of these solid objects that have become acceptable to modern people, to an extent that they are part of our institutional backdrop? To find the source of power do not look at the structures and policies. Power resides in the aesthetic images we carry before us and act as the guiding filter for action. The image Christianity painted ultimately drifted from engagement at the liminal level, in and amongst, to being at the top of the power hierarchy. The top of the hierarchy today is economics. But it was once both government and the church together: Christendom. As the church lost its influence, it is government, shaded slightly by economics, that sit at the top of the tree. The church frequently sits benignly alongside. It likes to offend morally but not politically. It is the moral voice of the existing structures, not the voice challenging the structures. To do otherwise is to lose institutional status.

The long journey from mystical truth contained in ancient texts, to virtue largely linked to the acquisition of knowledge probably found its ultimate expression in capitalism. The self-responsible Christian, working hard, proved God’s blessing. From this position of ownership and acquisition they can bestow blessings on the less fortunate. Respectability was an added bonus. But, hold on. This is the message of Modernity, not liminality and intimacy. By a long transmogrification ‘to be modern’ appears identical to Christianity, as if the two fused.

The evidence would be that the church is now an organisation (modern), rational (modern), authoritative through knowledge (modern), hierarchical (modern), institutional (modern), institutionalising (unwittingly modern), bureaucratic (modern), legal (modern), individualising (modern), technological (modern), and so on. The church has shape-shifted into the archetypal modern structure. To be a modern then is to be a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be modern. The two are synonymous. Modernity has absorbed the tenets of the heart and formally legalised them into the daily fabric of Western modernity, or really the Hellenic Mind. To be modern is to be Greek. The Christian God is the Greek Whole, the perfect One, of which we are subsumed as a sub-set. The ordered society, with knowledge of God through thought, and through a social contract that structures our world and practice.  The Ideal Society, law-bound, compliant and civilised.

But Christians privately struggle with the solidity of this expression, and find dissatisfaction at the deeper level with their church experience they tell me. And they say there are few places to turn. Their discontents are the inner sense they are not building intimacy and new life, but are reinforcing another modern power structure, that serves existing power not the release from it. The seeming single purpose of the builder from Nazareth, to destroy religious power, is frustrated by the complexity of Westernisation. If religionised Christianity has found a new host, modernity, it can survive there for some time. The deeper concerns do not go away. That rationalism of life is the antithesis of freedom. And Christianity now cannot save people from rationalised and functionalised lives. Not if the church is a function of modernity.

Rationalism was meant to be the pathway to an advanced consciousness. Knowledge Of being the high point of modernity. To Know is to be virtuous. But Knowledge is now not what it seems. Knowledge is unknowable. It is not what we thought it to be. To Know is to have an object that blocks the view beyond. What passes for modern knowledge is a rationalisation of experience into a form that we can handle and hold, governed by the dominant modern anxiety: to have the world explained to us. Protestantism fell into this trap. It wanted the mystery of faith as a possession. Something it could wield, beat and chastise with. But the Protestant Reformation misunderstood its own roots. It thought the enemy was power in Rome, and to defeat an institution, you had to become one yourself. A modern one. Modernity was the temptation to the breakaway church. The coat fitted and power became the goal. Structured hierarchical power appears the antithesis of the builder from Nazareth’s arguments.

The Church made a fatal error of interpretation. It pointed to the individual, already vulnerable, already clinging on with their eyelids, as Betjeman suggested, and laid additional burdens on them, in place of taking them off. As Bunyan warned Christian, don’t get stuck in a town call Morality. The place where good Moderns find their power source. But if iniquity sits in the death inducing structures, throttling vitality and freedom, how do you wheedle it out. Do you leave the structures in 2016 and wander alone. What have institutionalised modernised Christianity got to offer other than carrying the values of Modernity?

Institutions have critical roles to play. They are the first agents of government. Thereby today the Church occupies a Space as a first agent, but an agent of modernity I argue. Albeit reduced in influence, it nevertheless speaks. Less strident and superior certainly. Slightly more aware of its loss of credibility at times. Sometimes trying hard to promote its self unselfconsciously, using modern advertising to ‘reach the masses’. But fundamentally unaware it is a Modern Institution that embodies only some aspects of the original New Testament texts. And many leaders in the church are comfortable with that. It is a living. It is not without fun and challenge. But do not enter modern Christianity without realising it is modernity, could be the suggestion. Paradoxically to be modern is to be virtuous, and a participant in secular power.

This might be a difficult charge. But when the Church finds post-modernity wicked and sinful in its notions, it is of course not speaking in defence of the Nazarene, but for modernity, scientific interpretation, a machine-like universe. One that makes sense immediately to the modern mind. The fiercest defences from the Church are for the texture of modern life, not its alternatives. Power sits unmoved at the top of poles, remote. As one good friend said recently, leaders of the church sit atop poles, rarely venturing down. But this is what modern leadership does. It constructs pathways and contracts that leave power out of reach.  Few modern leaders find meaning in new understanding, in imagination, but do find great sense in maintaining the institutional values unquestioned.

Modernity, as Dostoyevsky would agree, is not hospitable to critique. That is because it is a Project. A project some sociologists would say is incomplete. Others will argue Modern Civilisation is far from being civilised. It is brutal. We have arrived in it and the thrusting Church, the one that feels hard done by and somewhat rejected by secularising landscapes, will not easily admit its role in modernity. When people then reject Modern Civilisation and Christianity they are rejecting primarily two synonymous forms of rationalisation of life. The reduction of meaning to objectified pathways that brook no dissent, and forms of salvation via modern Christianity that embrace capitalism unquestioned (it’s the unquestioning bit that is more the problem than capitalism per se).

Note though that the West finds it difficult to critique capitalism, because the Greek mind assumes the alternative to reforming its ideas is serfdom through socialism. Christianity has accepted this binary. The 2008 global crisis perversely strengthened capitalism’s hold on the imagination. The answer to economic collapse is the distribution of more risk, not its mitigation. This is the effect of modernity. Modernity, as one writer says, is a camera obscura. The light comes in through the hole in the roof and turns the image over. Arguments from binary modern minds invert reality. If there is a disaster it cannot be modernity, as this Project has not yet completed. We must press on. With Christianity by its side. As Lesslie Newbigin argued Christianity stood silent when German churches tacitly endorsed the rise of Hitler, and it has said virtually nothing about the exposure to risk for people in the UK. It looks and sounds helpless and hopeless at times. Because it has found its most ready expression in modern capitalist bureaucracies. Tidy unities and patterns that get people through the day but sleepwalks society into a reduction of life itself.

When communities cannot find their voice, or be allowed into the public space, or that space is dominated by commercial voices to their exclusion, you look around for leaders to challenge these structural sins. But when those leaders are officers of modernity primarily, referring to themselves as Christian, the institutional value of their domain comes into question. Being allowed a domain amongst other domains is only sustainable if you hold a unique and confident argument. But when your voice sounds identical to the voices of the other domains, speaking for the same sets of values, the individual suffers increasingly. Community is reduced further as its members are invited to take part in the rituals of modernity not shape it or question it.

To get noticed in such a convergence of argumentation maybe takes the Sophist’s voice. Wild in its ideas, preposterously powerless. Freakishly alternative to the status quo. Were these the intentions of Oscar Wilde’s dandiness, the Bloomsbury Set’s foppish disregard, Modernism’s contemptuousness for authorised reality. But these seeming radical figures floundered on their participation within existing power structures. They found a level in the existing hierarchy, became adopted by the literarti and glitterati. Middle-class ease became one of the worst forms of power to emerge from industrial capitalism. It less pulled people up than co-opted them into modernity. Middle-land feeds off reinforcing power, seeking to gain access to the upper-echelons through conformism. As one writer said Protestantism is now the most conformist religion.  Enter its modes and they are more ritualised than Roman Catholicism. Is the Catholic mind far more open than the Protestant now, which rarely had intellectual weight but cast the New Testament into a form of legal text. Biblicism, a modern reading of narratives, has dominated this tradition. They cannot read nor understand the New Testament as modern people regard literal reading as moral. Mysteries to the modern mind invite no serious intelligent thought. Its meanings rationalised into legal frames.

When though modernity comes into question, then considerable change should ensue: Modernity is the religion, the new Puritanism, the one that “sanctified, without eradicating, their convenient vices, and gave them an expugnable assurance that, behind virtues and vices alike, stood the majestic and inexorable laws of an omnipotent Providence, without whose foreknowledge not a hammer could beat upon the forge, not a figure could be added to the ledger” to borrow from Tawney. Here is the collapse of Christianity into Modernity. Knowledge was the sanctification of all error. Modernity is the new Puritanism. This reveals why the texture of church life became identical to going to work. Men prowl the aisles of church on a hair trigger to offer discipline, but not engagement, as: “the wicked may be corrected with ecclesiastical censures, according to the quality of the fault”. The punitive and correctives modes of Christianity and modernity look again identical. Both isolate the individual at times from the context of community, and administer their reasoning ignoring social travails.

What post-modernity offers is understanding the individual as plausibly a construction of their context and acting somewhat in flow with it. Although this at times goes too far, its value to reframing who the individual is is immense. The language and practice of the self is radically changed when the person is outside of community. Modernity and Christianity have for economic reasons preferred the isolated individual as their target. A society that is engaged in dialogue together becomes the ‘monster of many heads and more eyes’ (Hardy) and is the terrifying prospect for modern and Christian individualism. A community that heals itself via communion across the table rips up power but then is faced with its own management of power and trust. Frequently benign bureaucracy, administered from afar, is preferable to the masses than active engagement. The English tend to enjoy quasi-feudal democracy over and above grassroots engagement.

So would the builder take part in modernity, is the real question. And be modern. Modernity offers a form of consciousness, one sensitised to light and sensuality. It is a legalising of life, a social contract with rational knowledge, that offers utility towards the now, not imagination beyond what can be seen clearly. What level of sophistry is needed today to shake inexorable modern pathways? Death is everywhere, martyrs fall left and right, and much non-conformism on the surface is in reality a taking part in modernity. Contemporary radicals ultimately appear to desire modern power. To refuse it is a form of sophistry.

But I digress: change management lessons from Tristram Shandy

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm

It’s 11p.m. After a long-shift at the office a woman presses the up-button to summon the multi-storey car park elevator. Her car is on Floor 12. The lift-doors crank open. Four males, beer cans in hand refuse to move. Does she step in? Now, students of organisational behaviour are meant to know this stuff. Folks in Management Faculties spend a fair chunk of their scholarly lives concerned with ‘next moves’. One might be ticked as ‘incompetent’ for not offering a plausible, reasoned case-study answer. But, what if Rev. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and his opinionated self studied business management? Clearly his answer would be: ‘A man’s body and his mind, with the utmost reverence to both I speak it, are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin’s lining; -rumple the one, -you rumple the other”. Quite. This is Shandean at its meta, disruptive, discordant, but not mystical finest.

The Shandean mind and its fans would fly to the outer reaches of digression and swim there for as long as sanity can bear it. To allude and collude with digression is evil for some and life for others. (Why is there little in between friends?) Tristram ‘thanks’ his father for his Exocet spirit: “Mr. Shandy, my father, Sir, would see nothing in the light in which others placed it; -he placed things in his own light; -he would weigh nothing in common scales; -no, he was too refined a researcher to lie open to so gross an imposition. –To come at the exact weight of things in the scientific steel-yard, the fulcrum, he would say, should be almost invisible, to avoid all friction from popular tenets.” There’s a siren appeal in the West for plain-speaking. You don’t get on without the ability to label reality. But a social fabric shot-through with plain-speakers has lost its way, for Tristram at least. The challenge for business is that plain-speaking is lethal for long-change-cycles, whose reality is teased from the upper-reaches through meta-discourses.

Businesses may have life-cycles, or certainly we like to think so. They may not at all, but it’s a nice notion. History is told as cycles. The 1929 Wall Street Crash laid the seeds of 1939, Richard Hoggart says. The 2008 crash is laying seeds of prolonged austerity but the current social frenzy and its direction of travel doesn’t offer a hard empirical object for the organisational behaviourists to capture. The patterns of social history then maybe of interest to leadership scholars. W H Auden moved to the USA in 1938 noting: “More even then in Europe, here, The choice of patterns is made clear”. The channels of change which funnel movement are invisible to hard empiricists.

Hoggart notes Auden’s “England to me is my own tongue”. To speak about the shifting patterns of immediate experience is seemingly difficult for all but the poet, who is capable of searing accuracy. Meta-discourses aren’t inaccurate, and are often more truthful. The more religiously laced our speech, says Matthew’s gospel, the further we are from truth. Religious-speak is pointed, and doesn’t resist the ‘friction of popular tenets’.  Numerous early 20th century modernist poets escaped the language-set of England to be free from a ‘cultural life’ that is “demandingly homely”. The quilted patchwork blanket of the BBC, NATO, UN, EU, and the scale of institutional life makes 21st century life more corseted and cossetted than Auden’s day. Speaking today involves obeying strong currents, whose movement is more inexorable than Auden’s Englandness. The threat to the soul maybe less louche continentals and cosmopolitans than the unseen suffocation of narrowing channels.

Exit the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, in London, and on the wall opposite it says ‘Theatre Land’, above the words ‘Shaftesbury Avenue’. The experience of discovering lost tribes in the urban jungle is denied to visitors now. London’s appeal was its shambolic nature. Of course London is Disneyfied for gauche tourists who prefer simulation above that grubby slick of grease that a day ‘in town’ provided. Neo-liberalism shakes and vacs and puts the freshness back. But of course it doesn’t. It is a pastiche of experience.

But labelling doesn’t work for life and long-patterns of change I argue. This is the centripetal monological violence of Bakhtin’s concern. London is Steven Flusty’s “prickly space” that can’t be occupied, Bauman says. You’re there to go from Theatre Land to Restaurant Land to Home Land. The spaces between are “inderdictory spaces” which guide you at the elbow off the train into the channels. In the mass of signage which greets each step the gaze is pulled inwards. Change then is concerned with the centrifugal. The “elite” who designed these gulleys have pulled our gaze down to the ground. We’re pulled down to the fractions of its existence, but this doesn’t mean ready-intimacy and the ability to talk of the experience.

Laurence Sterne’s Shandean exploits spotted life’s rationalisation into concrete encounters, which couldn’t then be expressed without gurning. This is the inversion that bright modernity creates. Experience that is bagged and labelled leaves the individual still knowing the label offered isn’t the experience. It is something else. That is, you’re not in Theatre Land, or Making Love, or Having a Great Time with the Kids. That was the intent, and self-delusion, but it is something else, and of course our education system in its wisdom has shut down the ability to digress in Shandean fashion towards revealing the absurd truths of experience. However, the experience that is not labeled is joyously human Shandy reveals. Work and life are reframed through a keen gap between the act and its representation.

“I’m in London having a great time”, says the text to friends, but our disquieted self would prefer to reveal “I should try to forgive my sister’s boyfriend” or other more pressing concerns that persist. Bauman would point out that the structuration of territory has become the structuration of life experience to the point of denying the language of intimacy which is where our consciousness sits. This is then the prickly space of consciousness which is denied to late-moderns who might want to point at change patterns: “consumers are migrating from Nokia boss”; “the housing bubble is going to burst”; “we’re massively over-geared”. To speak of the devil requires a digressive pathway from the outer reaches. The sensitive critic moderates better than Tristram though.

Language is in Shandy’s father’s steel-yard being hammered still. The climate of psychology has pervaded into the bedroom and boardroom eliminating little but plain-speaking, which is the fulcrum of speechness for moderns. Bakhtin’s 15th century Feast of Fools is where excrement and urine are thrown around gaily in the streets to shatter the cultural tightness of ordered existences, at least once a year. This though is about space at the top of the stiffening wine-skin, Bakhtin would say. Scaring away middle-class decorum and permitting the self to be offended maybe the most generous disposition. Management teams go stale, camped deep inside their own language-sets, and camped deep within old business models that are precious to self-fulfilment, but are also protective of vulnerable teams. You wouldn’t make Tristram a manager. The gap between ‘an act’ and ‘its labelling’ is now 0.001 seconds so Tristram wouldn’t survive. To lengthen that gap by digression is costly when under existential threat, but critical when in mid-cycle and the going is good to firm and the first signs of decay of the current business model are showing.

Tristram Shandy was published amidst many titles that offered carefully structured storylines, with conclusions. Into the predictable pathways came Sterne’s work. As did Rabelais’s wild language, and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Eliot shifted the ground and Auden is making sense of the current milieu I’d argue: “Language of moderation cannot hide”, he says. Plain-speaking is a form of disguising ambiguity, which is the most concrete reality of all. It’s necessary when the enemy is “to your front!” But most of life isn’t lived at war. The alternative to plain-speaking isn’t obscurantism either. This is the inference of plain-speakers. I’m a plain-speaker so I’m trustworthy. What is really meant is I’m a plain-speaker because the pain of exploring the hard-yards of change-cycles, context and causal factors is too great.

Opening the space to facilitate this dialogue is dangerous but worth it. Having alongside business agendas a parallel space that is concerned for development is quite simple, as this is where other language-sets are given permission. A feast of fools is permitted, safely, and multiple philosophies are eased into the saddle. Monological workplaces satisfy alignment but in truth they are only looking at change through a dominant philosophy that will work for a season. The ontological leap of faith is creating processes that bridge the old and the new. This is a language game, of seeding new seasons with their changing language early. Sterne and Auden seeded the ground for the coming season, accelerating access to present realities. Even if this season has its greyness the language can have its colourful digressions. Your business is as likely saddled to the pattern of language as it is the change-cycle.

Sterne’s digressions become fabulous but terrifyingly revealing and near-to-the-bone. Like Don Quixote’s roaring off in every direction, the madman gives into his impulses without moderation, and becomes appealingly human. Indiscreetness indicates a soul, someone said. But such being isn’t behavioural science. The patterns are long and winding, centrifugal. The long dialogical outpourings of Crime and Punishment’s protagonists start to coalesce into various analogous images of human turmoil. You are glad to have stayed with Dostoyevsky. He wants you ‘to hurt’ with him. But those images are up for grabs. Auden makes this journey via Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr (Hoggart), from psychology to “creatureliness”, accommodating the images that emerge from ‘accepting the present in its fullness’. Digression in general achieves this acceptance of the human in flux with ruffled patterns, easing the space managers struggle in. Arresting the wildness is less important, but putting it in tension becomes the leaderful moment. The lift goes up and down anyway Tristram might say, but the lady executive’s midwife was an interesting woman, she had nine children herself…

Playfulness in language, its leaderful and commercial potential

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Playfulness in language as a notion hovers alongside the conventional informational telling of Western social-history. Where our fact-based education teaches us to learn time events, and believe this was ‘us’, turning to consider ‘the way we express’ our world offers potential. The history of the modern literature canon is a story of playfulness, or its absence. Modern utilitarian education deflected us from knowing ourselves through our own utterances, whilst broadening our language-set simultaneously. A focus away from language and its use is a focus away from us as unique selves. Fortunately, there is an important ‘turn’ towards reflection across many levels of education. A turning of the gaze from ‘out there onto a world’ towards the story of the ‘self within the world’ is a significant shift. Enabling people to locate their own self within their own story may well be the apotheosis of education itself.

A fact-based, object-focused, education is critical to a materialist economy. It drives global competencies. This is the world we’ve built, and we struggle to detach ourselves from its logic. The inexorability of its progress is the seat of our anxieties. The possession of how we choose to tell our own story may well be the most valuable element within a life’s journey, and possibly the saving grace from an economy that at some point will need new assumptions. The unwitting, and witting, result of industrialised education was to dynamically link utterances to objects, evolving a lingua-franca which meant human interaction was dominated by articulating events in time: “where have you been?” eclipsed “what do you think – and who am I?”. To re-represent such a hyper-literal encounter with ourselves fell to the modernists who painted in many colours, some vivid. I see it as playfulness, a coming out of an attachment to certain forms of expressing, to discover that the self should express the self from a consciously chosen language-set.

I popped into Thomas Carlyle’s home in Ecclefechan last year, just up the road from here. It’s not easy to get hold of the man from his roots, in what must have been a very tight language world. The wild playfulness of his Sartor Resartus, 1833, is still powerful to read now. His freedom to imagine, and create a world of allusion, should draw our attention to him again, and his complexities in a solid modern landscape. His ability was to change the horizon around his self and its representation, a virtue modernity intended to offer but gets frequently lost. Where Austen pulls you into the surface displays of a structure, with its detailed mosaics, in the same way modern behaviourism does in business settings, Carlyle re-tells the world through shifting colours. Which of course makes him a figure of suspicion. Re-colouring the world outside of the conventional political economy is iconoclastic, but necessary, as it is intrinsic to being human.

The political landscape for language use is rooted in horizons bounded by discourses. A modern education has its discourses of ‘inculcating information’. The social territory of the Westernised world has its narratives of ‘identity through work, consumption and possession’. Plus many others of course. What religion intended to offer was a domain of discourses resistant to these dominant competitors. But it’s struggled as Westernised nation states have a habit of co-opting religion into their utilitarian architecture, re-representing its meanings, not least the work ethic. Reinhart Kosselleck notes: “Each concept establishes a particular horizon for potential experience and conceivable theory, and in this way sets a limit”. Westernised economies mixed their discourses of political-economy and religious-fervour over the last 400 years with intriguing consequences for its members. A dominant and often unvoiced result was on the limits of expression and the freedom to choose one’s own paint box of language. A paradox for modernity itself which at its core is about freedom of expression.

I like the example in particular of how individuals will talk of themselves through shared discourses. An industrialised education tends to lead people to talk of their selves through their national identity, or their visits to places, which are both an objectivised form of discourse, constructed from the social milieu. A popular example of an objectified narrative which runs through Britain is: ‘We need to get back to when we were a Christian nation’. This is largely irresistible in its pervasiveness. It’s co-opted by political parties, individuals, churches, as a thread on which much is hung. Re-representing this form of immovable discourse playfully was Carlyle’s gifting but by changing the horizon boundaries around such language. If a ‘Christian nation’ as a persistent discourse is locked into the consciousness, Carlyle re-framed its assumptions through allegories, pouring in vivid images that shifted the aesthetics of a past that didn’t actually exist. Remi Brague attempts a similar colourful discourse: “What is called Christian civilisation is none other than the ensemble of collateral effects which faith in Christ has produced on the civilisations it has encountered along the way”. This new representation steers our imagery in a different direction. The portmanteau of Christian-nation is reformed. The story of our selves linked to its import is revisited, if not unlocked. The monumental efforts to restore a past world that didn’t exist can be re-directed. Bakhtin would claim this as a form of leadership agency, where Brague paid attention, dialogically, to the cute fractions of his social landscape enabling him to colour the past in the now.

The danger is getting caught reading these ‘heresies’, just like the Bishop of Barchester, reading Rabelais. Carlyle restores Rabelais’s social role. It’s not a heresy to choose the language that fits a profoundly held belief. What is heresy is to borrow discourses unquestioningly. Education has at times been about learning not to question. Tragic as that is. Govean-type sensibilities seemed caught between a pastiche of a ‘Christian-nationhood’ and a genuine desire to love literature, and its playfulness, but the media’s portrayal of his discourse denied him any humanity. Even Luther, Calvin and Jack Lewis thought it preposterous anyone should read a text divorced from their spirit’s involvement, but the social landscape has been riddled with Govean-language and empirical-self figures, where being invited to ‘tell your own story’ is anathema, and a bucolic image is preferred. This is a very modern inversion. Goveanesque propelled the value of literature, its freedom to colour the canvas, its sacred importance, whilst profaning its message through what Bakhtin termed the “didactic gloom of bigotry and moralising”. Which is the current modus of American Fundamentalism, both religious and secular variants. The two are synonymous.

The rich writing of Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor remind that Nietzsche said: “The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary”, pointing out Carlyle was too much the gentleman not to be a ‘good Christian’, which had a different meaning then than now. Goveanesque craving after ‘strong faith’ and ‘good education’ is no proof of a love of anything, but “quite the contrary”, maybe. I argue it is a lack of playfulness in our discourse which is a signal of our fears, our conformism to a very present impenetrable set of discourses, and the presence of others’ ambitions, and their desire to exercise power over of ‘our story’. Giles Fraser manages in his weekly column to invert this truism, but of course has to do this outside of central structures. Vicky Beeching is the latest figure to tell of the inability to construct a story faithfully due to the language restrictions. The fear of other’s individual utterances relates to our very local fears of seeing ourselves in our own constructions. Facebook hasn’t emerged in the West as a tool of critical engagement because its language appears to be held in a tight boundary. Twitter offers sufficient anonymity to express, possibly.

De Tocqueville notes the patriarchy of modernity: “I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world…That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing”. Modernity has slipped into this modus. This is why American conservatism speaks to the world as it does. It tends towards a Goveanesque Cartesian modern Millieism. A utilitarianised modern state where language use is literal and unplayful, as we were oft in the Victorian era. Language seen as a utility is a great danger for most domains. The evangelical church’s horror at Vicky Beeching isn’t her sexuality, but her telling her own story, in her own words. This will be the unravelling of America’s core Victorian literalism, and then China’s, and so on for all utilitarianised landscapes.  Mike Kann offers an image, I interpret, of American manhood resting on the power to steer expression towards convention. Professionalism and other economic modes require approved language-sets. Cosmopolitan Europeanness is what American fundamentalists see as secular, not because they understand its history, but because it won’t conform to recognisable language patterns. To ‘be good’ is to ‘be hyper literal’. When in truth fundamentalist American industrialism is thoroughly modern and thereby secular in intent. We know this because the lack of playfulness in its landscape. Those who do speak oft possess a hysteria, a form of desperation, like Elmer Gantry, or the sourness of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom.

Returning to playfulness as core to language-learning isn’t easy. It’s painful because of the profound association with notions of dignity and self. From a leadership perspective changing the horizons around language-sets has commercial risk for business communities long celebrated for their conventional use of language. Bakhtin appeals to the shades of meaning available in such an approach, its ability to disrupt patterns of thinking which might be locked onto dangerous trajectories. He notes de Tocqueville’s concern for modern patriarchies (Bakhtin being a Soviet subject) where societies perpetuate themselves through bounded language sets. Disruption facilitates change, Bakhtin notes. The other high value proposition is that dialogical societies are fundamentally entrepreneurial, but not just commercially. Dogmas, single narratives and measures have distorted late-capitalism.

Norman Nicholson: A Conscious Modernism

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2014 at 3:17 pm

**Reflections on poet Norman Nicholson, born Millom 1914**

‘Have you been to London?
My grandmother asked.
China dogs on the mantelshelf,
Paper blinds at the window,
Three generations simmering on the bright black lead,
And a kettle filled to the neb,
Spilled over long ago.

The constant tension within the English spirit is between its strong provincial roots and the demands of modernity. The distinctiveness of our region, its shared meanings are in contrast with what Aldous Huxley referred to as the ‘dreadful joy’ of the ephemeral. Nicholson’s resolution with his provincial self seems peculiar for a man of his period. A fully modern existence of the 20th century kind embraces disconnectedness as good. To disjoint from the patterns of the natural world, and no longer be located by our position beneath the arc of the sun above our heads is the foundation of modernity’s freedom-giving-power. It’s the escape from what Bakhtin calls the ‘didactic gloom of bigots and moralists’. But along with the freedom of ‘hopping on a train’ to escape time and space came alienation. You arrive in the concrete jungle with a shocking self-consciousness created by the urban environment’s demand that you co-opt their speech and manners, thus implanting further unease alongside your clumsy efforts to ‘fit in’. Although in the metropolitan environment there is no ‘fitting in’. Nicholson seems to avoid such contortions, as did Benjamin Britten, embracing a place where ‘the self’ could speak. In so doing Nicholson disrupts the inexorability of modernity, which in the 1940s and 50s, was Britain’s only answer to its fragmenting markets.

The modernists of the late 19th century and early 20th were in a protracted frenzy of unpicking the crumbling of modernity’s promise of ‘peace through The New’, and attempted to create otherworldliness through new representations. Tragically Britain missed this useful introspection and reflection. It was too invested in the mass market. There was little or no mainstream lingua-franca of critical reflection on Britain’s place in the world and the values that had wedded it to solid-industrial principles. Renewal at the level of ‘the self’, the region, and the collective was eclipsed by imperial values of top-table power. Wagner had offered a new sound world, pre-fixing the arrival of modern composers who were to offer a polyphony of new experiences, of which none really coalesced into anything we can agree on today, but they did create an active dialogue for those interested, such as the Europeans and Americans, who industrialised at a different pace, adapting to changing markets. They possessed the self-consciousness of modernism, and its space for thought. Britain, desperate to conserve its lead, maintained the perpetual anxiety of falling forward into ‘The New’. Even pre-eminent modernist T. S. Eliot became more English than the English as his self-consciousness appeared to switch to conserving an English establishment that was in need of re-understanding. Orwell’s message had also been swept aside.

But Nicholson’s provincialism comes with an assertiveness, maybe indulgence, which is transcendent. This is because looking at his language now, at a time when modernity is as much of a dogma as its religious forebear, it is easier to grasp why he found faith and the physical enduring. His sensibility towards the patterns of the physical world offer modernist impressions: “See it doddering in the ripples of the vapour”. Wittgenstein referred to modernity as a constant restless quest. One which he gave up. Nicholson’s world avoided this questing. In his world the word ‘rock’ meant something he could stand on and something which could transport us. Nicholson’s language stands between positivism and postmodernity, which at the time was a difficult balance. C. S. Lewis’s treatise The Abolition of Man decried the suggestion that the wonder of the waterfall could be created outside our experiencing the waterfall directly . To break free from our rootedness, our createdness and inhabit an entirely constructed world sourced from our passions and creativeness alone, was an ambition that had dire consequences for ‘who we are’. Nicholson looked long and hard at what modernity had sought to escape. He noted we are finite, created and rooted. This was provincialism with a new self-consciousness: “And children suffocate in God’s fresh air”. He invites a fresh look at that finiteness. While Kafka noted that unconscious rootedness led to a descent into the mundane misery of a stuckness in provincial drudgery, Nicholson makes an appointment with it, choosing to see its relationship with the eternal. K., the protagonist in Kafka’s The Castle, didn’t notice his physical world at all, only the barriers to his future status. As a good capitalist does. In this sense Nicholson is profoundly modernist, seeing through the friable state of modernity’s promises, and the stultifying effect of not adopting new language to renew our existence in The Now. Proust talks of an unconscious rootedness, the potential of being ‘trapped by our own soul’ implying even when we do travel through to pastures new we take our ‘own world’ with us like a comfort blanket, adding to any imprisonment. Nicholson chooses to be exigent with his place, not passive, but drawing out from it what he requires. I am provincial, but, importantly it is a conscious choice not a Kafkaesque victimhood.

While Britain was still blackening its landscape Proust and his ilk at the end of the 19th century observed that institutions of modernity had lost their ability to deliver modernity without dulling the soul, in addition to the already wracked bodies. He observed that the skeleton of the modern world created, however, a space for individuals to meet. Nicholson is appealing to the existing frames offered by the natural world. If you walk down the corridor of your office building, like the backdrop of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, it repeats itself on a loop. You are forever back to your starting point. Everything looks the same. You walk across the Yorkshire or Cumbrian landscape and you are constantly being located by the 3D shifting of the irregular patterns of trees and randomness of the river. The trees are moving as you walk. Every image is new and fresh. You know where you’ve come from, where you are now and where you are heading. You are fundamentally located. Therefore a Nicholsonian conscious provincialism need not be a euphemism for decay or scapegoat for metropolitan spirits but for a widening metaphor of ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘rescuing’. He adds “What if I listen? What if I learn?” If ‘to be modern’ means leaning into simulated realities constantly and telling ourselves ‘this is progress’, and ‘this is better’, what David Collinson calls Prozac Leadership, then Nicholson’s language-set is in stark contrast. He is saying capital-P ‘Progress’ isn’t ‘learning’ and implies it is novelty in place of learning. Learning takes place here and now, with what we’ve got between us. Alienation is only broken by this admission ‘we’re both here now’ and the willingness to ‘see’. There isn’t progress at all then, only difference and disconnection. Philip Gardner quotes Kathleen Raine with “Nicholson [feeling] himself to be a living particle of the natural world”. This immersement has attracted its critique but in essence ignoring the prevailing mood was modernism’s core, a breaking of faith with the season’s patterns, an asynchronous life. This wasn’t the message they wanted. An unlikely modernist.