What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Grumble 4: Not Very Good

It’s a characteristic of modernity that I have noticed since I first noticed anything that things aren’t very good.

This used to puzzle me a lot when I was young growing up in the UK and I used to rationalise in this way:

What isn’t very good

Possible reason
The good teachers are at other schools

Adults generally other than parents

We don’t socialise enough
Service in shops
Perhaps there are better shops somewhere else

Perhaps they should be privatised (as the newspapers said)


If only we took The Times instead of the Daily Mail
We can’t afford better products

Social discourse/politics

Perhaps there are better thinkers and politicians in another country

The public library doesn’t have a big stock

Perhaps better programmes will come on when there are more channels

As readers can guess, when I got older I saw that these rationalisations were for the most part incorrect, and I continued to find that generally in society things ‘weren’t very good’.

One particular thing I noticed was a lack of choice at the very moment when choice was being trumpeted at the final word in political and social discourse. It used to make me wonder then, and I wonder still, why it is you can’t buy decent products in some categories at all and for the rest you have hunt around for them. For example 80%, at a rough guess, of the food in supermarkets in Australia isn’t really food, but ‘food like products’, so you have to waste enormous amounts of time buying what you can from supermarkets, and then hunting around in other shops for the real products that you want. Don’t get me started in toothbrushes and other toiletries, please, or the sad case of the decline of the desert boot.

Of course the other not-so-strange thing about choice is how, no matter how well it is packaged, each new choice seems to be more expansive than the last. For example currently I am negotiating a change to our internet access provider (not the ISP, the physical provider, wires and fibre-optics) and I’ve found it not surprising that whatever alternative is offered it is still more expensive than the current (unsatisfactory) ‘solution’.

What do you do in such a case of adolescent and young adult disenchantment? there are several things you can take refuge in, to be sure, literature and music perhaps. I’ll leave music till next week. As for literature I found that the productions of modernity were, if anything worse than the average of everything else; the literature I found described more or less well the dreariness of life and social productions, but didn’t offer any solutions. I also found that the nearer in time to the present you got the worse the writing got.

Just to digress for a moment, I find that the whole idea of novels quite absurd. If someone writes a novel describing the existence of people within society well, then all they have done is describe ‘what-is’ and this hardly deserve praise. However what is usually presented is some sort of rosy-tinted spectacle version of reality with some sort of happy ending aligned to some common ideology or other. For example recently I had the misfortune to have to read some piece of patronising and tedious drivel (which, of course has won many prizes), to help my poor teenage son through one of the rockier bits of the National Curriculum—the title of this non-masterpiece I’ll leave my readers to guess.

If I have to read novels I prefer novels from either end of the spectrum, the austerely socialist realist, such as César Vallejo’s Tungsten (El tungsteno (1931)), or novels where the writing veers off into the poetic and almost incomprehensible, like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Poetry, in my view, is completely different from novelistic prose, because rather than describe the condition of people in society it plays with and deforms the language they use to describe their own situation, (or at least good poetry does). However, I will leave this theme for now I as intend to write a piece on literature in these blogs soon.

In the end, in my adolescence I moved away from literature and left the novelists to their novels and novel-readers, and started reading history, ecology, science. It was in those areas that I began to put the pieces of the picture together to come up with the views that are expressed in this blog: that is rather than out being uniquely clever and uniquely wise in our present historical situation we are in a uniquely awkward situation.

The basic problem we have with our society is that we have arrived at a point where the traditional means of wielding and demonstrating power and securing allegiance, namely using greater and greater resources, can no longer work because we have exceeded the biological resources of the planet. So the reason why nothing looks very good to a discerning eye is firstly because we have reached the end of using conspicuous displays of natural products: no more narwal tusks posing as unicorn horns, or bear skins all over the floor and walls, and so it is more difficult to see that we are connected to the natural world and need to move with it. Secondly it is because we know of our fatal disjunction from the natural world instinctively and know that everything we do with our ersatz emotions and products is just half-hearted and obviously second-rate.

We have no ethic that we can attach ourselves to, so we rest either in pure selfishness, or attach ourselves to various false idols. We live, in all things, as though we are not going to live much longer. We continue to defy and destroy biodiversity when biodiversity is all we have.

Next week: An Interlude from the Grumbles: Musical Aesthetics

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