Saturday, August 18, 2007

L- l- l- land of the free.

Just a mundane reminder that the winners write history. Extraordinary story, in a way, though.

Not that things have necessarily changed much...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Little Green

Amanda is 20 weeks old. She can lift her head, and support her weight on her forearms if she starts from lying on her front. She is too young to be crawling yet. Today she cried for most of the day, in pain because of wind trapped in her chest. Sometimes if I stand up and hold her I can get her to stop crying for a while, but if I change her position even slightly - change the arm supporting her weight, for example - she will start again. Sometimes, if I sit down, and sit her on my lap, facing away from me, she will take one of my fingers and suckle on it. Eventually the lack of milk will frustrate her and she will again begin to cry. I give her a bottle of warm milk. She drinks four fifths of it, and immediately falls asleep, without burping. Ten minutes later, she wakes up in pain, and the whole cycle begins again. With us in the room are six other babies and one other adult - a girl, pale, aged 17 or eighteen. At five o'clock in the afternoon I leave. Amanda has been there since half past six this morning, and will stay until eight o'clock this evening, when her mother will arrive to take her home. This is how she spends every day, apart from Sundays, when she stays at home.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Five blockbusters and a controversy

In recent days, and indeed nights, I have watched the Xmen triology (excellent blockbusting value); the first two Bourne films (superior spying lark, I can't wait to see Ultimatum; and Black Snake Moan. I would heartily recommend all six to anyone looking for a fun, light movie to while away an evening. They are all well above average. In the case of the two series, I wouldn't want to see any of them without having seen the previous episodes, particularly in the case of Xmen. However, the second Bourne film and second and third Xmen films are that rare breed: sequals just as enjoyable as the original film.

But it is Black Snake Moan that surprised me. It is not excellent. Justin Timberlake is a notable weak link in the otherwise very strong cast. The plot suffers from improbable reactions from some of the characters (which I couldn't go into without giving away bits of the plot). And the ending is unsatisfactory, unless you believe, and I suppose you might, that blues music has the ability to heal the deepest wounds of the soul.

Much of what I had heard about the movie was formulaic. Christina Ricci half naked chained to a radiator...misogynistic...unsensitive play on sexploitation movies...the frustrations of the male libido glorified through the showcasing of blues; the frustrations of the (dangerous) female libido 'cured' in a self-satisfied gender power-play...

Some reviewers who liked the film have accused its critics of not having watched it. I can see why. Much of the criticism, dressed up as intellectualising gender theory, seem either to give audiences far too little credit, or (which seems more likely) have read the themes of the film in an extraordinarily naive (or faux-naive) way.

That the 'affliction' from which Rae, played by Christina Ricci, needs redemption is extreme nymphomania, should not, I think, be taken too literally in thinking about the 'message' of the film. It is shorthand for hedonism. The film adopts the cinematic conventions of a sexploitation film, and tells a morality tale speaking to the present, not to the past. I will not give anything away, but I would definitely recommend this film, and not just as an object lesson in bad film criticism.

I repeat that this film is not excellent. This seems to have been the verdict of all the positive reviews, perhaps in reaction to the trenchant critics. It is, however, very very good, and contains perhaps the best performance from Samuel L Jackson that I have seen. It also has one of the most enjoyable soundtracks since the film that brought his other great performance, Pulp Fiction. Now that is saying something.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Foundation legends.

It is taking me a long old time to start to put together the foundations for a theory of religion that doesn't depend on gods. (Some forms of Buddhism, recognisably for most purposes religions, do not seem to have deities).

So I started to think about foundation legends. For a long time it has seemed to me that they fall into two broad types: autochthonous legends: we were literally 'born from the earth' or our ancestors have lived here since some mythical beginning; and legends of conquest: a mythical point of arrival, or the fulfillment of a destiny. Of course, a given society may well not have a simple foundation legend corresponding easily to one of these types. The foundation legend of Christianity provides a suitably convoluted example. The Eden legend is clearly autochthonous, but the Fall leads to exile and that notorious conquest legend involving the 'Promised land.' Of course, the post-Pauline church added, and Augustine significantly expanded, a new conquest legend which pulled the circle back to the original autochthonous legend: the City of God presaginging a return to Eden for the 'Chosen People.' None of this seems to me to undermine the basic scheme of two broad types.

What, then, of the foundation legend of the modern aetheist? Perhaps more importantly, what of the secularist believer of the modern European nation state? The second question is probably incredibly difficult. The first is arguably answerable.

Many foundation legends look, to post-Enlightenment eyes 'irrational.' What are the bases of their truth-claims? There is always, of course, a source of authority promoting the claims of predominent foundation legends over the claims of other versions. This might take the form of collective tradition (for example in the oral traditions of an ancestor cult), a particular text or group of texts, or in the knowledge of a particular caste or hiercarchy of individuals.

The rationalist challenge tends to take the form of an attack on the knowledge system being promoted by this authority. So a Christian might give priority to the legend contained in the Bible, and the authority of the Bible might be re-inforced by the very sanctity of the text, by liturgies containing rituals of reverence, by the sharing of this reverence with community peers, and by the instruction of a hierarchy of clergy. The rationalist might ask: "But how can you believe in this legend, transmitted as it is in a text of doubtful provenance, with a hugely controversial tradition?" The Christian answer will normally be along the lines of "This is the word of the lord."

An ancestor based foundation legend will tend to derive its authority from a societal reverence for the knowledge of ancestors, and for the methods by which this knowledge purports to be transmitted (requently repeated stories are a common method). Two objections which a rationalist might raise are the problem of generational 'Chinese whispers', and the exclusion of new knowledge (progress as New Labour would say) from the tradition. The former can be dealt with quite easily: it has been effectively demonstrated ad nauseam by anthropologists that the form of a story can change markedly over generations, but the frequently oral traditions retain their substantive content to a remarkable degree. The latter raises the consistent point of tension between Enlightenment rationalism and other systems of knowledge. Rationalism cannot accept that, whatever the absolute truth-value of scientific theory, there can be any better method of apprehending the truth than rational thought. In this sense, it is arguably an intellectual cul-de-sac. If so, rationalist attacks on other foundation legends might be suffering from a serious discontinuity.

What of the rationalist foundation legend? The world came into existence as a result of the 'Big Bang;' life evolved according to the principles first formulated by Darwin. That would be my brief take on the current state of rationalist play. It certainly has the possibility of producing a fairly organic cosmology. Rather than tying a social group to a delineated territory on earth, it is a autochthonous foundation myth for humanity, and the territory is the earth. I am not about to dispute that Darwinism is currently the only convincing theory for the development of complicated life forms from simple life forms. However, there are two broader points where the rationalist foundation legend looks highly questionable, even on its own terms.

Firstly, the so-called 'Goldilocks Enigma' - that it is extraordinary that earth should provide a complicated matrix of conditions 'just right' for life - cannot be answered with the observation that if life was to happen anywhere, it must be here, or we could not be here to think about it. This is the reply proposed by a large number of important physicists, and yet philosophically it just won't do. It does not address the 'Goldilocks Enigma,' it just passes the buck.

The second, and more serious, problem lies with the physics of the Big Bang (or any other similar theory). Those who purport to believe that this explains their ultimate origins are placing immense amounts of faith in a small caste of initiates who are privy to secret knowledge. This may seem a bizarre way to describe physicists(!), but the reality of cosmological physics is that all but a select few do not in reality even have any possibilty to understand the science behind the models. For most normal people, the maths is simply beyond us.I suspect this includes most popular science writers, who happily use their authority over their readers to assert such theories as more or less fact, despite lacking the tools to understand them.

It would be absurd to follow this line of argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to attack rationalist theories of knowledge altogether. I am not claiming that 'standing on the shoulders of giants' is not an important part of knowledge acquisition. But I am attempting to demonstrate the circularity of the rationalist foundation myth. It is as externally unverifiable as any other foundation myth. Hence to attack any other foundation myth as 'irrational' is to miss the point.

The point of all this is to suggest that science offers no superior alternative to other kinds of foundation myths. They remain a category of knowledge systems which "provide satisfactory answers to important questions to which nothing else seems able to give satisfactory answers." Naturally that satisfaction remains in the eye of the beholder (or believer). But there simply does not exist an objective alternative.

It seems to me that this (foundation legends) might be one example of the kinds of things which constitute religions. Of course it is a fairly tentative first step, but you have to start somewhere. Suggestions welcome...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Plus ca change

So I watched the TV news tonight for the first time in a while. And? Foot and mouth outbreaks...Madelaine McCann's parents believe her to be alive...British soldier dies in Basra...Tension between Georgia and Russia.

All these stories have been seen before. So whats new under the sun? Well, 2 things, both appearing well down the programme (this thatbeing Channel 4 at 7 o'clock).

i) This FMD outbreak has been assessed as extremely likely to have emenated from Pirbright research centre, where there are two operations. The first is a governmental research institute. The second is that of a private company, Merrill, with which the government yesterday placed an order for 300,000 doses of FMD vaccine. I don't know what other viruses, affecting animals or humans, are treated at these and similar sites, but for FMD to infect livestock as a result of biosecurity lapses at Pirbright, this soon after the enourmous slaughter of the last outbreak, is beyond disgraceful.

ii) GB again makes headlines for 'distancing' Britain from the US. This time he has persuaded Bush to release 5 non UK nationals who have residency here from Guantanamo. If that is the best he can do to mark a change in TB's policy to the US, those who fear the position of Britain's shoulder should be fearful indeed. Even those of us who think our security depends upon our relationship with America must fear that we are to become embroiled in yet more international atrocities as a result...



That is all.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A new ice age?

More Russian strategic activity has found a prominent place in the UK media. The story is, in some ways, very funny.

""This isn't the 15th Century," Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told the CTV channel. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'," he said."


It is also unsurprising: Putin has been quite consistent in taking steps to increase Russian influence over the acquisition and distribution of natural resources.

Of more interest is the pattern of reportage in the British media. Russia has been taken more seriously here, it would seem, since the assassination of Litvinenko. Compare this relatively low key article about the Russia-Georgia gas standoff, from a couple of weeks before Litvinenko's death with this article in German publication Spiegel right back on 4th September 2006. It will be interesting to see how both Britain and the EU proceed - there have already been signs of Britain adopting a confrontation stance in diplomatic circles.