Monday, 26 December 2011

2011 Reading and Listening

Listening highlights:

Pulse Emitter; Black to Comm; Leyland Kirby; Moritz Von Oswald Trio; Beethoven (string quartets, especially 12; piano sonatas, especially 30 played by Mitsuko Uchida); Chris Whitehead; BJ Nilsen & Stiluppsteypa; Ben Frost; Sun Araw; Jimmy Giuffre Trio; Keith Fullerton Whitman; Tim Hecker; Cordell Klier, I Believe; Tirath Singh Nirmala; Matthew Shipp (solo and in various groups); Christopher McFall & David Velez, Credence; Daniel Menche & Anla Courtis, Yagua Ovy; Twells & Christensen, Coasts; Luis Antero; Aethenor; Cleared; Birchville Cat Motel (solo/with Anla Courtis/with Matthew Bower); Mountains, Air Museum; more Beethoven (piano concertos 4 & 5; symphonies in Bernard Haitink’s recording); Stephan Mathieu; Daniel Menche, Feral; solo saxophone by David S. Ware, Peter Brotzmann, Anthony Braxton; John Fahey; Golden Retriever; Hive Mind; Sibelius (‘Finlandia’ & ‘Karelia Suite’); John Handy, Live at Monterey.

The two things that stand out in the year are, first, listening to a lot more orchestral classical music than I have before. That’s partly because I’ve had Classic FM and Radio 3 on a lot for my son, partly because I became somewhat obsessed with Beethoven. Second, I moved gradually away from my 2009-10 high-water mark of extreme noise (Daniel Menche, Lasse Marhaug, John Wiese, Yellow Swans) towards equally non-melodic and experimental but much less harsh music, often involving field recordings and often as free downloads from various netlabels. I still enjoy full-on noise (two records by Menche are on the list above, and I currently have records by Jazkamer and Skullflower on my iPod), but I’m not as focussed on it as I was.

Album of the year: 

Mitsuko Uchida, Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 30, 31, & 32—pure joy in being human. If I understand rightly, Uchida’s playing is at the ‘late Baroque’ as against the ‘full-blown Romantic’ end of the scale of Beethoven interpretation; I certainly like her lucid, conversational approach.

Reading highlights: 

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty; William Morris, News From Nowhere; Michael Jackson, Life Within Limits; Herbert Read, The Innocent Eye; John Fowles, The Magus; Robert Bates, Prosperity & Violence; Sebastian Junger, War; John Stuart Mill, Autobiography; Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands; John Maynard Keynes, Two Memoirs; Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence; Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild & Into Thin Air; Henry James, The Golden Bowl; Joe Simpson, Touching the Void; Maurice Herzog, Annapurna; D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Martha Nussbaum, essays on The Golden Bowl in Love’s Knowledge; Thomas Mann, ‘Death in Venice’; James Joyce, Dubliners;  Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba.

The main thing that stands out here is how few of my highlights are in my own discipline. I did read a fair amount of recently published professional philosophy for work and for interest this year, but none of it really grabbed me that much.

Book of the year: 

Henry James, The Golden Bowl—a huge reading project on which I almost gave up several times, but an astonishing novel. The best account I have ever read of what it’s like to be a self-attentive self moment to moment. Has ruined me for a lot of other fiction: it just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Christopher Logue is dead

Guardian obituary here, and here's an extraordinary recording of him reading from his All Day Permanent Red.

(Hat-tip for both: the always-interesting Languagehat.)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Music and embedded cognition

My friend and colleague Brian Garvey gave a work-in-progress paper yesterday about embedded cognition and the evolutionary explanation of morality. I'm not going to do justice to it, because I want to pick up on one small issue that intrigued me.

Embedded cognition occurs when we outsource cognitive work: when we write things down instead of remembering them, or use a calculator to do sums. One of Brian's other examples was the organisation of orchestras: the players outsource the cognitive work of keeping a beat, moving together, balancing different instruments, and musical interpretation, to a conductor; they outsource thinking about what notes to play, in what order, to a score.

I frivolously suggested that this explains why jazz is better than orchestral music. That claim is silly as it stands, of course, and I don't mean it. But there is an interesting difference here: jazz players do far less outsourcing than orchestral players. Jazz is centrally music in which the players are individually doing the cognitive work to produce a communal piece, without conductors or scores. (Not entirely: several features of jazz can be thought of as outsourcing techniques, or at least as techniques for reducing cognitive load. Part of a jazz musician's education, for example, is learning heads and changes - snippets of melody and sequences of chords which shape improvisation. That's what a jazz standard like 'Body and Soul' or 'Stella by Starlight' is: a melodic head plus chords over which players improvise, often in an alternating chorus/solo form. Free jazz, if we think this way about it, is an attempt to outsource as little as possible: to return all of the work of music-creation to individual cognition.)

That difference between jazz and orchestral music offers a way to defend a less silly version of my silly claim: jazz is better than orchestral music at engaging and interconnecting the many different cognitive capacities involved in music-creation. Where an orchestral player is using just some of her own musical faculties (at a very high level of skill and effort), a jazz player is using many more of those faculties, as well as meta-cognitive faculties to organise and coordinate them. So, if we think that the purpose of playing music, like the purpose of other human activities, is fully to express human and individual faculties, and jazz is better than orchestral music at fulfilling that purpose, then jazz is better than orchestral music.

That's a big 'if', of course...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

One way seminars go wrong

For me, anyway. This week I found myself in a familiar, depressing pattern in a seminar on Mill's account of the good life. A talkative but not very well-prepared group gradually accelerated into a free-for-all in which we very rapidly and confusedly moved over a lot of ground, missing important distinctions and failing to stick to the question in play. I was slow to react: partly because I was slow to gather that the group as a whole hadn't understood the question I had asked at the start of the seminar (because most of them hadn't come to the lecture, and because many of them mistakenly believed that their A-level study of Mill had been adequate to the day); partly out of irritation at a particular, self-confident student repeatedly asserting that Mill's position was 'pretentious' (irritation not helped by his helpful definition of the word 'pretentious' when I said that I didn't understand what his argument was. Yes, thank-you, I know what the word means. What I am politely trying to convey is that calling Mill pretentious is a rather silly ad hominem).

What should I have done instead? I now think I ought to have gone back to basics: returned to the question at hand - what is the good life? - and the answers in play - hedonism, desire-satisfaction, perfectionism; insisted on the precise use of terms in discussing them. I'm wary of doing that kind of remedial work in seminars, because it too often reinforces the unfortunate impression that many students have of seminars as revision classes on the 'points' in the lecture. But perhaps I was too wary in this case.

For this particular group next week, I'm going to be rather more directive and careful about these basics, and see if that improves the quality of discussion.

Paul Motian is dead

The wonderful jazz drummer Motian died yesterday. He had an extraordinary ability to suggest swing, and to express ideas, with minimal means; he was a great musical conversationalist.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A former self speaks: sketch utopia

I found the text below in a long-forgotten corner of my laptop's hard-drive. It must be from around 2002, when I was doing my PhD. It seems, although I'd forgotten this, that I planned my thesis to be much more directly utopian than it eventually turned out - it and my closely-related 2007 book, Living Without Domination, ended up being much more about how and why we should construct utopian texts. This is my attempt at actually writing a utopia rather than writing about them. William Morris and Ursula Le Guin needn't worry about their preeminence, but I have to admit I quite like it, considered as the product of a relative I don't remember very well.


Joseph lives in what was once a hotel, and which is currently officially called Ice Station Bakunin after a slightly drunken general meeting, but is called Home Farm by most of its hundred-or-so inhabitants. Unluckily for Joe, the meeting last night didn’t get silly until after a work rota’d been agreed, and so he’s digging manure into a field which was once a tramp-haunted park, at seven am on a cold, bright october day.
          Joe’s half-brother Hakim nudged him awake an hour ago, hung over, and they stumbled between heavy hangings and out of the old breakfast hall, with muttered swearing following them from the futons, camp-beds and blanket-nests scattered around it. Joe and Hakim started the breakfast-hall crew two years ago, when they decided they couldn’t live with dad and his ominous silences any more. They and six others in their teens cleared the room, dried it out with space-heaters after begging the power from that week’s resource committee, learned some basic tent-making from the web, and then got Rob, Joe’s mum’s partner, to help when their first go looked more like a collapsing balloon than the combined opium-den and barbarian camp they’d imagined.
          Already though, they’re thinking about moving. Little kids keep joining, nobody’s got any new ghost-stories, and sometimes they’d like a little privacy. If either could be bothered with the work, he could commandeer a room, have his own bathroom and cook for himself. But Hakim might be moving in with his partner Carl soon, and Joe’s thinking about leaving Home Farm. And anyway, who’d want to eat breakfast alone when you can have scrambled eggs and rye pancakes in the refectory, and listen to the gossip?
          Joe’s been thinking of moving on for a while now. He’s been talking to a group of musicians on the web, sometimes throwing themes into their sprawling communal pieces, sometimes just listening and chatting. They’re based fifty miles south, they concentrate on their one art instead of just messing about with everything and anything, and – best of all, thinks Joe – they live in one of the new ceramic domes, not in some urban-bricolage mess held together with cellulose-still plastic and ridiculous ancient skills like plastering and carpentry. Bricolage is going out of fashion. More and more people are moving out, casting domes under the forests which are spreading again, eating from hydroponics pools instead of farming, and concentrating on creation instead of just living. There are web-based design groups working on self-sufficient domes for the deep oceans, and more and more sealed-environment skills are being developed and spread by the orbital communes.
          Some don’t like this. They say the single-issue affinity groups are unstable, that the old communities work because the people in them work at all sorts of jobs, see each other in all sorts of roles, and can be masters today and apprentices tomorrow. Hakim’s beginning to think they’re right. He likes the respect he gets from the younger breakfast-hall kids, likes teaching his skills and telling his stories, but he also likes being the naïve newbie on committees. He likes digging fields in the morning and arguing about economics in the afternoon. He likes knowing, as Joe doesn’t, how much maintenance the hotel’s ancient plumbing takes, and even almost likes the repair jobs themselves, stinking hard work though they are. But he’s got some ideas about how to make them easier.
          The cities are emptying, and the people who still live in them are either traditionalists like the Home Farmers, or weirdo affinities eagerly scanning the web for every new invention that’ll leave them a few more minutes to make music, or design games, or work on the maths of faster-than-light travel. The skies and seas are filling up. There’s talk of colonising the asteroids, ‘though if anyone does go, they’ll be arguing all the way, the time-lag gradually increasing, with the conservationists. And maybe the conservationists will convince them after all.
          The web links everyone who wants to be linked. Big number-crunching projects are run distributed across the idle microseconds of millions of computers. Experiments are run in Birmingham, Cairo, and under the Black Sea as part of ambitious projects, medical, artistic, techinical, and blue-sky physical. The meta-collation software gets better all the time. There are uncountable conversations, cross-fertilisations of ideas, negotiations, self-selected emergency committees for a thousand contingencies, novel forms of conflict-resolution or avoidance from simulated wars to poetry contests to massive tetris championships, going on every second. Joe once helped arbitrate a real squabble about an orchard in Australia, without ever knowing, by how he played an online roleplaying game.
          Hakim is happy where he is, digging the old park and watching his steaming breath. He’s thinking about whether he should ask to be deputised to the local moot next month. Joe is restless, and will move to that muso commune soon, and then on into orbit when music gets old the way tent-making, and history, and many other things did. He’ll have a burst of depression in his twenties, but hard work designing the acoustics of an orbital habitat’ll pull him out of it.
          There’ll be other restless seekers and other depressives. People will die tragically young, like Hakim, who’ll break his neck in a fall at thirty. Not everyone will get want they want to do done, or stop their loved-ones leaving them, or be satisfied. But there won’t be wars, or famines, or nations, or tyranny. There will be bullies and domestic tyrants, but there’ll be creative resistance and ways of leaving. Great things will be created in music, architecture, technology, maths, subjects we don’t have names for yet. By negotiation and creativity, community and initiative, humans will continue to organise themselves, as they have done ever since there were humans. And this time, they’ll get it right.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What's wrong with Battlefield 3?

Battlefield 3 is a first-person military 'shooter' or 'soldier sim' for PC, Xbox, etc. I'm using it as a stand-in for all such games (see also Call of Duty), as the target for a suggestion:

What's wrong with Battlefield 3's 'simulation' of modern, small-unit infantry and vehicle warfare is that it's dishonest. It's represented as realistic, but it isn't. It misrepresents the actual experience of war in at least these ways:

  1. It creates a myth of individual agency, in which a soldier or a small group can, by choice, make a decisive difference. Compare the actual passivity, control by impersonal forces, and subjection to luck of actual soldiers.
  2. It misrepresents warfare as individualistic. Compare the deeply communal nature of actual small-unit infantry fighting.
  3. It misrepresents warfare as costless - one can always restart or respawn. Compare the terrible costs of violence on both perpetrators and victims.
  4. Its 'wars' are implausibly narrative in form. Compare the actual fragmentary experience of soldiers.
This is an aesthetic criticism: I'm taking it that games are a form of art, and that this kind of dishonesty - dishonesty in self-representation - is something wrong with an artwork.

As an aesthetic criticism, this has no immediate results for legislation, for example - banning bad art is a terrible idea. But it might have results for virtue and for self-cultivation. These games are realistic in another sense: they engage the moral emotions involved in our response to violence. And it's possible that they thereby corrupt and misdirect those emotions: that these games are to those emotions what high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar food is to our appetites.

Three expected objections:
  1. Games aren't art, and therefore aren't subject to this criticism. I reply: I'd like to see the plausible account of art which excludes them.
  2. Unrealism is necessary in an entertainment: an actually realistic game about warfare would be dull apart from the 1% of the time it was unbearably horrific, just as an actually realistic war film would be. I reply: this just means that these games are necessarily, not contingently, dishonest, and that's no defence. No-one has to make such games.
  3. The makers of these games are just responding to market demand: don't blame them. I reply: demand for these games is not an eternal feature of human nature, it's deliberately created by advertising in a culture burdened with a fantastical notion of individualistic, effective, consequence-free violence. And even it were natural and unavoidable, that wouldn't require anyone to pander to it.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


On Tuesday evening, I went on a wet and muddy walk through the woods round the edge of Lancaster University campus, and listened to Organ by Kevin Drumm (from his Necro Acoustic box set). Organ is a solo piece for electronic organ, amplifiers and RAT distortion pedal. It’s a repetitive but not exactly rhythmic alternation between two pitches with varying levels of distortion and what sounds like a leslie rotating speaker. Sometimes there’s a very marked difference in sound between the smooth pitch and the distorted one, sometimes less so. Sometimes the higher pitch is the more distorted, sometimes the lower. Beats from close dischords are sometimes audible. It lasts for just under 55 minutes, and then stops very abruptly, as if the recorder has been switched off.

Why would anyone listen to this? It’s tuneless, it doesn’t develop, it doesn’t exactly lift the spirits, and it goes on for a very long time.

Here’s one reason why: listening to it causes intense sensitivity to other noises. I was drawn to focus very closely on traffic noise as I was walking near a road, on the wind in the trees, on the sounds of hockey players on the all-weather pitch in the distance (I wear not-very-isolating earphones while walking, since I prefer not to step under buses). Something about very minimal, repetitive music acts as an amplifier. Organ works as education of the senses.

I’d be interested to know how Drumm thinks about what he’s doing: what effect does he intend in his listeners? What effect does making this stuff have on him? The couple of interviews I’ve read with him suggest that he’s a bright and amiable guy, but are more about how he got into playing guitar, or how he knows Jim O’Rourke.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

This week in my classes

There's a balance to be struck between: (1) Guiding students in how to approach difficult philosophical texts - offering prompt questions, contextualising the texts' problems and assumptions, explicitly demonstrating the skills of the philosopher in reading, reconstructing, and imaginatively extending the texts' arguments; & (2) Allowing students to experience the productive confusion and open-ended response that's part of what makes reading those texts worthwhile. Too much of (1) will lead to box-ticking and purely reactive work; too much of (2) will lead to frustration, panic, and rejection of the course (students stop doing the reading, don't attend seminars, etc.). Neither excess helps learning.

For my ethics course this term I'm experimentally turning the dial a couple of clicks towards (1). I'm offering quite a lot of prompts, and using lectures to explain problematic contexts: free will; consequentialism, deontology, virtue. And in particular, I'm doing more explicit meta-analysis of philosophical practice. I'm spending time in seminars identifying different kinds of task as we engage in them - exposition of the text, argumentative response to it, imagination in constructing replies to objections on Hume's behalf. I'm saying out loud that what we're doing now is trying to make Hume's argument clear in our own words, and what we'll do next is see why we might disagree with it. This is in contrast to the rather more free-wheeling, student-led, and demonstrative rather than self-descriptive seminar style that I've adopted over the last few years.

I'll be interested to see how it pans out...

Jokes that are only funny to philosophers

In one of the seminar rooms I'm teaching in this term, someone has written on the white board in permanent marker. What they've written, delightfully, is Hobbes's account of the authority of the sovereign.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Ethics lecture: Hume 1

Podcast of the first of three lectures on Hume: his life, work, and philosophical project; his naturalism and scepticism; his account of human action.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Teaching this term

I'm teaching two courses this term: a large part II undergraduate ethics course, on Hume, Kant, and Mill; and the core course for our MA in Philosophy, What is Philosophy?, on methodological and metaphilosophical issues. I'll be posting links to podcasts and occasional thinking about how things are going (inspired by Rohan Maitzen's This week in my classes series). Course guides here and here.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Richard Skelton, Black Combe

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Principia Ethica & Professional Philosophy

G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica, which was first published in 1903, has had an extraordinary influence on twentieth-century moral philosophy. One of its ideas - the naturalistic fallacy - provoked Stephenson, Ayer, and the other expressivists, who provoked the growth of metaethics into a vast and elaborate field of professional philosophical concern.

This review isn't about that field: I want instead to make some ideological or sociological remarks on Moore's project and legacy.

As I read it, Principia Ethica is an attempt to found an autonomous form of moral philosophy, immune to being absorbed by the sciences, especially biology (which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was bullish post-Darwin) and psychology (post-William James). This explains several odd features of the text and its reception: the extraordinary vitriol it directs against Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill - neither of whom could have cared less whether what they were doing counted as philosophy in Moore's idiosyncratic sense. Its firm assertion of distinctive, non-empirical methods for philosophy: intuition, self-evidence, and the method of absolute isolation. In person, as John Maynard Keynes records in his fascinating memoir 'My Early Beliefs', Moore's methods were expressed as pantomimes of extreme disbelief that anyone could possibly disagree with him. Finally, the cultish character of Moore's school at Cambridge, also described by Keynes.

Moore won: in the twentieth century, philosophy became professionalised in university philosophy departments, jealous of their distinctive subject-matter. Philosophers' research was funded on models borrowed from the sciences, along with that word, 'research': I work in philosophy by reading, thinking about, talking about, and writing it, but I'm not sure I do research. Philosophy's superstars were  the magicians of the abstract and technical - like metaethics - and their work appeared in obscure, overpriced professional journals; popularisers and amateurs were looked on with suspicion, however many books they sold. (There's a fair amount of exaggeration in this picture, I admit.)

Was this a good thing? Obviously I owe my living to it, so I'm not disinterested (I'm no superstar, but I've published in several of those overpriced journals). But with that caveat, I'm in two minds: on one hand, I think philosophy should be public and accessible. It's a shame that some of the smartest people in the field never talk outside it, not least because there's obvious public interest in the questions philosophers work on, and if the smart people don't publish for that public, they'll look elsewhere (to weak sauce like Alain de Botton, for example). On the other hand, the realistic alternative to professional philosophy right now is probably not a utopia of high-level public discourse; it's the replacement of philosophy with self-help (The Secret, for example), leavened with the occasional philosopher kept on staff by a wealthy patron: think of Thomas Hobbes's faintly embarrassing dedication of Leviathan to Francis Godolphin.

Mark Edmundson

on what students could and should be getting out of university.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Mountains of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is a history of how we understand, see, and live with mountains. It's both high-quality public communication of scholarship, of a kind I'd like to emulate, and an engaging personal memoir of the attractions and pains of mountaineering.

My interest here is what it suggests about the perception of value. Mountains of the Mind shows, by well-chosen anecdote and readings of travel-writing, that several values we might now take to be central to human flourishing - discovery, originality, the experience of wild beauty - have short, local histories. Quite recently, mountains were experienced as ugly wastes, not as provocations to Romantic emotion or heroic effort. How should we react to this revelation of contingency in our ways of valuing mountains, and in our forms of valuing generally? Here are four possibilities:

1) Profanation The discovery that others valued differently in the past, and that our own values have a history, throws all value into doubt. My perceptions of value are just what my history has made me perceive, not access to anything real.

Response: of course our value-judgements don't meet the impossible standard of being without history, but that doesn't show that they aren't true. One of the shifts in understanding Macfarlane maps is the discovery of deep time: the world is ancient, and mountains, far from being permanent, are brief by comparison to it. They're thrown up and worn down by vast geological processes operating over millions of years. But that mountains are temporary doesn't show that they aren't real.

2) Fluidity Human flourishing, and our experiences of value, are infinitely, culturally variable.

Response: we don't have evidence for infinite variability, only for difference within a range, and a pretty narrow range at that. Our shared nature as talkative, tool-using, child-rearing East African plains apes with a very recent common ancestor suggests that our possibilities have limits. The interesting problem is to map the range of difference and the loci of similarity.

3) Multiple expressions There are many ways to enact core human activities and passions, and different cultures have accessed and expressed that core differently. Mountaineering is our way of approaching what others approached through bullfighting or spiritual exercises: triumph, the numinous, addictive terror.

Response: this could be true, but it needn't be. There are some new things under the sun: contour maps aren't just an alternative way of describing mountains, they're a better way. Some forms of expression may be deeper and clearer than others.

4) Discovery Rousseau, Coleridge, and other central figures in the history of understanding mountains uncovered something latent in human nature. What we now recognise in wild beauty wakes something in us which, before them, was much harder to bring to fruition. These pioneers may also have discovered new forms of corruption: Macfarlane is very clear on the addict's selfishness of the mountaineer.

Response: but how are we to tell that some new experience of value is a discovery, rather than just another  one of the nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right? I don't know. Much of my thinking at the moment - including this post - is about that question.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Commenting elsewhere: eating fish

Erik Loomis, in passing in a post about the destruction caused by tuna fishing:

how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal? It makes absolutely no sense.

It makes sense if, like me, your problem with eating meat is complicity with the suffering and premature death of creatures who understand themselves as selves over time, make plans, recognise other individuals, and love their children. ‘Fish’ is too broad a category to make judgements here, but I think it very unlikely that tuna have those capacities, and very likely that pigs do. So I’m OK with eating tuna but not pigs.
That doesn’t answer your main point about the destructive impact of fishing technology, which has given me pause. But the distinction between fish on one hand and cows, pigs, etc. on the other does make sense.


It occurs to me that my last post's final dismissal of 'the usual bullshit about responsibility' could be misinterpreted. I don't mean to say that the idea of responsibility is bullshit, I mean to say that the use of responsibility-talk by politicians is usually, and in this case, bullshit. Genuine assignment of responsibility - properly holding someone to account for something - requires serious work uncovering: (1) causation - who and which actions caused what?; what were the roots of those actions? (2) the actual choice-sets available to the actors - what could they do, given their range of options and their resources and capacities? & (3) the moral psychology of action - how do people come to act in particular situations? how are their passions, scripts, and reasoning powers engaged or bypassed? Politicians do not typically do this work, so their invocations of responsibility aren't even trying to track the truth. They are therefore, in the technical Frankfurtian* sense, bullshitting.

* Harry G. Frankfurt, 'On Bullshit' in The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge University Press 1998).

"Tomorrow You're Homeless, Tonight It's a Blast"

Impressive quantities of drivel is being talked about the recent riots. Here's some non-drivel:

For myself, the only conclusion I've come to is that simple-minded 'they're all criminals' explanations won't do. 'The rioters' are not a homogenous group, and the reasons why one person gets involved - smashes a shop window, grabs a pair of trainers from a window already smashed, throws rocks at the police, gets in a fight, watches a fire without trying to put it out, starts a fire - may be quite different from the reasons another does. Some have grievances - against the police, against particular austerities, against the political and social conditions of their lives; some have just had it up to here, and grabbed an opportunity to express their anger; some are more-or-less opportunistic thieves; some see other people getting everything they've been taught to value while they have nothing, and think it's only fair to rebalance things; some are bored kids excited by destruction and communal action; some just got caught up in a crowd.

My main worry is a turn towards authoritarianism: the current government will sell what any big constituency wants to buy, and just now it looks like that's revenge and security theatre. So, more money and powers for the police; collective punishment for the families of people accused (not even convicted) of rioting; the usual bullshit about responsibility.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Top 100 SF

NPR's top 100 SF & fantasy books is as contestable as any such list, of course. Ones I've read are bolded.

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert (the first two, anyway)

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell

7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein (I've started this, but couldn't stand it, and I'm a Heinlein fan)
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King (lost interest somewhere in the middle)
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein (not even slightly like the film)
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings (I think; can't remember anything about them, though)

42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist

67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

(Hat tip: Siris)

Friday, 5 August 2011

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography

I spent much of this week rereading Mill's Autobiography, which I haven't read all the way through in one gulp for a while. Here's my current take:

Autobiography is, first, a theory of individual development towards flourishing (aka well-being, happiness, success), using Mill's own life exemplar and warning; second, it's Mill's attempt to understand and account for himself on his own psychological and ethical principles. As a theory of development, it contains an ethology (an associationist account of the development of character out of circumstance) and an ideal of successful virtue and sensibility (Mill's wife Harriet, doing the rhetorical work for Mill that Cleanthes does for Hume in section 9 of Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals). Its central ideas are, first, progress (and it hints at parallels between individual and social development - Mill presents his intellectual life as gradual progress punctuated by revolution, for example); second, experiment and empiricism against intuition and the status quo.

As usually happens when I read Mill, I now want to drop what I was doing and read more. I have never read Principles of Political Economy, for example, and I could stand to reread Subjection of Women and Logic of the Moral Sciences.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Moving photos of couples at last able to marry in New York.

Free Music: Field Recordings

I’ve been enjoying listening to field recordings and non-idiomatic music made with field recordings recently: one can come to hear mostly-accidental juxtapositions and patterns as if deliberate (love the way the track builds towards that ambulance coming through), and the training in listening to one’s immediate environment can make being out in a city, in particular, a lot more pleasant. There’s something very enjoyable in being able to hear environmental noise as artistry.

I find most of this stuff as free downloads via Impulsive Habitat, Acts of Silence, and Bandcamp.

Some recordings I particularly like:

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Teaching Cross-Cultural Communication?

Tamsin Haigh, a student on the MA in the Idea of Toleration at York, has an interesting project called 'Teaching Cross-Cultural Communication: How Should Political Theory be taught in the 21st Century?'. She sent me (and I assume plenty of other people!) some questions about it; here they are, with my responses.

I am exploring the above question as part of a project involved in the construction of an alternative to the traditional undergraduate curriculum for political theory. The aim is to restructure the study of political
theory, in line with the current trend of 'internationalisation', in order to retain a place for this sort of exercise in today's academic context. I am writing to you, as a member of the PPR faculty, in the hope that you might be able to spare a few minutes to contribute your perspective on this issue.

- The current restructuring of higher education suggests that, in the future, students will demand more choice regarding the modules they study.

- Higher education is becoming internationalised. A global market has emerged, with an influx of international students and a demand for more internationalised subjects. In response to this, many traditional Politics degrees have moved towards international studies, with IR theory becoming part of the mainstream curriculum.

- There is a worry that the standard text-based approach to political theory, focusing on key thinkers from the Western canon of political thought, no longer addresses the needs of the modern community of political scientists. Like other areas of politics, it needs to broaden its scope.

- By internationalising the current approach, political theory will retain its place in the discipline as a vital mode of advancing cross-cultural communication and understanding.

1) You’re probably right that there will be more pressure from students to choose what modules to study in the future. This change is part of the wider transformation of universities towards a more commercial, ‘customer-focussed’ style. But I’m not sure that it implies demand for a more international political theory: some of the most successful courses I’ve taught – according to student feedback – have been very traditional close reading courses, in small groups, on canonical texts. My attempts to introduce non-canonical texts have been often resisted and resented by my students, many of whom have an instrumental, performative attitude to their studies. They know what to do with Mill’s On Liberty, they have a context and prior acquaintance, they understand (or think they understand) what’s expected of them. They’re quite unwilling to engage with the unfamiliar, because it’s too open-ended and risky.  I therefore think that increasing student power to influence course content is at least as likely to push in the direction of more conventional, canon-based study as it is to take us in the direction you suggest. 

[Later: I should have made two things clearer here: (1) that this is true only of some of my students; many are pleasingly independent; (2) that I don't blame the more instrumentalist students - they've been poorly served by A-levels, and in any case have good reasons for regarding a degree as a necessary passport to the lives they want, not as anything worth doing for its own sake].

2) Again, you’re right that higher education increasingly operates in a global market. But British Universities’ pursuit of international students is at least partly the product of a particular funding regime which incentivised, especially, efforts to recruit non-EU postgraduate students. That funding regime is being dismantled as we speak, and it’s very unclear what the effects of its replacement will be. It might, for example, shift recruitment efforts much more towards the most well-qualified of UK undergraduates (students with AAB or above at A-level), because there will no longer be a cap imposed on how many of them we can take, and each will be worth £9,000/year.

3) I and many other political theorists/philosophers are humanists deeply committed to the value of reading, interpreting, and arguing with great texts. We’ve invested a great deal in learning the skills involved in that kind of work, and in understanding particular texts through it. I teach John Stuart Mill, for example, because I’ve spent some years and effort becoming an expert on him, and I did so because I love both his work and the particular kind of investigation involved in understanding it. So I’m not sure that the changes you look forward to will be made easily, especially in an environment where we’ll be under student/customer pressure to teach more contact hours on more familiar material. When am I going to have the time to become an expert on Lao Tzu, for example? Would anyone take my course on him even if I did?

4) I’m not to be honest sure that political theory’s ‘place in the discipline’ is ‘advancing cross-cultural communication and understanding’. In the first place, which discipline? In the second, the obvious role of political theory – like any other academic discipline – is to expand our understanding of the world. If that fosters good things like cross-cultural communication, great, but it isn’t really my, or political theory’s, job.

John Fowles, The Magus

This is an easy book to bounce off: the first-person main character, Nicholas Urfe, is intensely dislikable, and there's a lot of portentous speechifying about freedom, love, and truth. But it's compellingly written, I kept coming back to it, and I'm glad I stuck it out. In defence: first, Fowles makes Urfe a self-absorbed little shit on purpose; the point is that he is a self-absorbed little shit, and that we need to understand how and why, and to recognise a bit of ourselves in him. Second, The Magus is an attempt at an ethics of self-development, and that needs an ethically-backward character to start with. The game played on Urfe, as I read it, is an attempt to make him better: both to heal what's wrong with him, and to remake him as less selfish, cowardly, and ignorant about people, especially himself. The means used in that remaking bring up a problem I've also written about*: what if the best way to cultivate free people is violation of their freedom? What if the childhood which reliably makes self-motivated and self-commanding adults is one of parental tyranny, as for John Stuart Mill or Edmund Gosse?

Shorter me: I can see why lots of people find this and other Fowles novels annoying, but it might have been written specially for me.

* Samuel Clark, 'Kicking Against the Pricks: Anarchist Perfectionism & the Conditions of Independence' in Benjamin Franks & Matthew Wilson eds, Anarchism & Moral Philosophy (Palgrave 2010).

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Free music: Gutta Percha

Gutta Percha, A Crawlspace Companion: appealing mixture of field recordings, warm static, and damaged vinyl. For fans of The Caretaker.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Teaching focussed

This is the first advert I've seen for a lectureship which is explicitly described as 'teaching focussed', i.e. it's a 9-month post in which you shouldn't expect to get any writing done - and therefore shouldn't expect to get a better job next year.

I have no problem with there being academic jobs focussed on teaching out of scholarship, rather than on publishing original research; but there does need to be a career structure attached.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Motivation, Global Justice, & Empire

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at this enjoyable event, organised by Kerri Woods:
The aim of the workshop is to consider the persistent gap between the demands generated by our best theoretical accounts of global justice and the action in support of global justice that real world agents are motivated to take; and to advance normative research on global justice that is sensitive to, and informed by, empirical questions.
That is: we rich people ought to do far more for the global poor, and many of us know it, but we still mostly don't. Why not, and what can be done about it?

Several kinds of response were offered. Perhaps our solidarity, compassion, and sympathy are poorly developed, and need to be educated (Kerri Woods, Carol Gould). Perhaps our complicity with the economic and political system which creates poverty renders us liable to what would otherwise be illegitimate manipulation by charities, by analogy with the way an attacker renders herself liable to self-defensive violence (Graham Long). Perhaps, as Sue Mendus suggested, fulfilling our responsibilities to the poor would require such a radical loss of our way of life - not just wealth, but liberal politics and the right to children - that we can't imagine it. We're not just unmotivated, but immobilised, the way Bernard Williams suggested the ancient Greeks were about slavery.

I found myself wanting to raise another possibility: what actually motivates much human action is habit and institution. We act out the scripts we've internalised for our social roles. We take the opportunities presented to us by our local institutions (governments, work-places, cities...), pay attention to what they make salient, ignore what they don't, and rarely push back against the limits they impose.

So, what we need to motivate the huge and systematic action our best theories of global justice require is not (just) solidarity or compassion: it's new habits and institutions. And we have a good historical example of an available set of habits and institutions which could do the global job: empire. To deal with global poverty, we need to create a system of institutional roles which makes dealing with it habitual and easy: a global imperial bureaucracy. This has the further advantage that it could recruit some very powerful human sentiments to the cause: desire for status, recognition, security, and a place for me and my children. A letter from Oxfam, no matter how heartrending, is a much less effective motivation than a secure job managing the distribution of generic medicines, steady career progress, and a decent pension at 65.

Kerri and others took this as an attempted reductio: if that's where our theories of global justice take us, there must be something wrong with them. I admit that I did have my tongue partly in my cheek. But I'm not sure the reductio goes through: the Roman, Austro-Hungarian, or British empires had good features (the rule of law, peace-keeping, religious toleration, opportunities for locals to enter the middle classes by joining the bureaucracy) as well as bad ones, and it's at least not obvious that an empire of this sort would be worse than the current world system.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Mix: A Joyful Noise

Public vs Private in Universities and Health Systems

Howard Hotson in the LRB argues that the success of world-class private US universities (Harvard etc.) isn't evidence that market tactics would improve UK universities. Although Harvard and the other Ivies do exceptionally well, the US university system as a whole does worse on average than the UK, is far more expensive, and maintains huge inequalities.

A parallel point can be made about markets in healthcare: the US system does exceptionally well at the top end of provision, but does no better than the NHS on average, costs a lot more, and maintains huge inequalities (see references below).


Some places to start on markets in healthcare, and especially the NHS:

Friday, 10 June 2011


A compliation of work by Swiss artist Zimoun:

Zimoun : Compilation Video V2.8 | Sound Sculptures & Installations from ZIMOUN VIDEO ARCHIVE on Vimeo.

I like this a lot, I think because it hits a couple of my buttons at once: (1) art as an environment to explore. I felt the same way about Rothko at the Tate Modern a couple of years ago - all those pieces together worked as a machine for engaging my senses and adjusting my mood by moving around the space. (2) noise as music - I'd happily listen to the sound these things make on (not too isolating) headphones, while walking around a city; environmental noise would add to it.

(Hat tip: BLDGBLOG.)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: the one-sentence version

Thomas Cromwell as Tony Soprano.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

For the first couple of hundred pages, I thought this might be something special, to put beside The Name of the Rose: compelling fiction which is also valuable history, an attempt to re-enact medieval thought [1]. It isn’t. It’s wonderfully written at the sentence level, it has set-pieces both funny and bleak, and Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a great character – appealing, frightening, sympathetic and dreadful. But Wolf Hall, finally, is high-class soap opera. It’s excellent entertainment, but it’s not more than that.

[1] See R. G. Collingwood, Autobiography, chapter X.

Mix: We're the Martians Now

Saturday, 4 June 2011

ad hominid

Argument ad hominid: the fallacy of trying to establish moral, political, or other conclusions by telling stories about cavemen.

(Idea stolen from Cosma Shalizi)

Friday, 3 June 2011

Header image credit

Bundles of neem twigs for sale near Manek Chowk in the Old City, by Meena Kadri. 

Student evaluations

Like many universities, Lancaster has systematic student evaluation: at the end of a module, our students are invited to fill in an online form mixing Likert-type questions (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) with free comment boxes. Any good teacher wants to know how well her teaching is going, but here are three reasons to doubt that forms like this are going to tell her.

1. Irrelevant correlations: many studies suggest that evaluation scores don’t reliably track teaching quality. For example, high scores are correlated with teachers who: (a) match gender stereotypes in dress, mien, and social behaviour [1]; (b) mark generously, or more generously than students expect [2]; and (c) present in an enthusiastic style, regardless of content [3].

2. Anonymity breeds contempt: as anyone who’s read youtube comments knows, anonymity encourages some people to speak expressively and without normal filters: to say things they’d never say to your face, haven’t really thought about, and couldn’t defend. There’s good reason to make anonymous channels of communication available to our students, but not owning their words in evaluations may not promote honesty or usefulness, let alone civility [4, 5].

3. Competent judges? Evaluations may tell us whether our students like us and our teaching or not. But if we want to know whether we’re good teachers of our subjects, why think our students are competent to judge? They typically have no teaching experience. They don’t know what they don’t know, or what they need to know, or how to gain that knowledge. The best learning is often unsettling, inconclusive, and not what we expected. Perhaps someone in the middle of that difficult process of development isn’t in the best position to judge how well it’s going.

None of these are reasons to stop listening and responding to our students. But they are reasons to wonder whether the evaluation tools we use actually tell us what we want to know.


  1. Kierstead, D., D’Agostino, P., & Dill, H., ‘Sex Role Stereotyping of College Professors: Bias in Students’ Ratings of Instructors’, Journal of Educational Psychology 80(1988): 342-4.
  2. Greenwald, A. & Gillmore, G., ‘Grading Leniency is a Removable Contaminant of Student Ratings’, American Psychologist 11(1997): 1209-17.
  3. Naftulin, D., Ware, J., & Donnelly, F., ‘The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction’, Journal of Medical Education 48(1973): 630-5.
  4. Penny Arcade
  5. xkcd

Further discussion:

(This post is a version of a piece I wrote for Lancaster University's independent email newsletter Subtext).