Wednesday, 28 July 2010


I'm always bugged by noise pollution. People, pretty much everywhere, usually seem to me unduly and kind of desperately loud. I still think this is the main reason people seek out and enjoy large groups - the sound of laughter and shouting and whenever possible the deafeningly blaring anonymous and characterless music helps them block out who and what they are and how unpleased they are with their general lot in life. Not that I can look at my life in silence in smug self-satisfaction, but I generally prefer knowing what's missing to ignoring it - it seems like the logical first step towards changing things for the better.

So it confused me a little today when in a bit of internal dialogue I characterised my excessive preoccupation with myself and whether my stuff was going well as "noise" - isn't it exactly what "noise" is by (my) definition out to prevent?

So I started building this scheme that began getting complicated enough to need to be written down. To my mind, there are three layers of noise under which most of us are usually submerged:

1) Conformism: Peer pressure striving to control our whole identity and striking spectacular successes at least insofar as our actual behaviour is concerned - we do what others do because they do it, and don't try particularly hard to find our own way. On the rare cases that we do, the group will often go into direct-rather-than-implied pressure mode, creating the most clear-cut instance of repression - but most of us will never even go there (at least not beyond adolescence).

2) Busyness: The impulse to keep on the move, to keep active, to be perpetually stimulated by a hectic life - whether this is expressed in workaholism, partying, television, drugs (even soft ones) or mere extroversion - this is what I have traditionally referred to as "noise", and see as ultimately concerned with not letting you hear yourself think. When I was overwhelmed by my moods people kept telling me "you think too much" and "you just need to find something to do" and I'd be at a loss because to me these counsels conveyed a far deeper desperation than what even I was feeling, and suggested that the solution was to never listen to yourself ever again. This "busyness" impulse terrifies me because it's so pervasive and accepted, and yet so obviously nihilistic and suffocating - so much in denial of life and aliveness. It's a whole institution powered by a self-righteous intellectual timidity.

3) Intellectualism: Or perhaps "Analysisism" would better describe what I mean: In retrospect it may not apply to "most of us". Excessive analysis is a syndrome reserved for relatively few, but it's self-denial's last line of defence. Even once we've broken free from conformism and busyness - once we are ostensibly free do what we want and to know what we think - the intellectual independence that brought us this far threatens to betray its own purpose by so frenetically cultivating itself as to drown out what we feel, which is what all of this noise excavation was about in the first place. Sometimes we think about things not because they're worth thinking about, but to serve the same impulse of repression that ever made us consider for a second that conformism or busyness might be good ideas. They don't actually "make sense", but they have an inner momentum that comes from the deep-seated fear that there is actually nothing there, so we better not look too directly into ourselves.

Though probably quite few of my friends and acquaintances fit this criterion, I don't think I'm just talking about myself. It appears that Western intellectual tradition in general, and certainly most of its moral philosophy that I've encountered, is deeply infected with this fetishistic "scientific" attention to irrelevant detail and structural considerations. The pursuit of objectivity has us discussing "objects" and their relation to one another while ignoring as much as we can their relation to us and our feelings. Even our "appreciation" of art has more to do with what it makes us think than with what it makes us feel, which to me seems ridiculous but to the world in general appears to seem obvious - much like our differing stance on busyness.

The alternative to the last of these noisinesses can be found, I think, by examining what is at the heart of all these exercises in repression. Namely, pressure. We are under pressure to meet the group's approval as we are under pressure to find something to do as we are under pressure to conform to our own standards to the letter. The alternative to pressure, is Taoism.

If Buddhism asserts that we don't need desire to live a good life, Taoism (more sensibly, I think) asserts that we don't need pressure. The idea is that if something is good, it should be done, and if it's bad it should be avoided, and that it shouldn't really get complicated beyond that. There is no sensible reason to avoid the good and to pursue the bad - only pressure, from whatever source, to do so. Taoism would tell the pressure, in general, to go fuck itself, much like the "intellectual" told conformism and busyness to sod off. Instead of pitting a better pressure against a worse pressure, the idea is that pressure is fundamentally unnecessary, and that truly independent and truly sensible conduct can be achieved by simply doing what you want and avoiding what you don't. We are not children who need to meet parental pressure without which we will not get for ourselves what we need; we are adults who know what they want and usually how to get it. Forwards planning is fine - backwards examination does little beyond distracting us from ourselves, at least when it's done not from the position of relaxed contemplation but from a sense of duty.

You need silence in order to hear yourself. Noise as expressed in any and all forms of pressure is designed to prevent precisely that, for reasons that are sometimes extremely bad and sometimes only a little. Possibly you need to read through the Tao Te Ching before this statement becomes convincing, but there is nothing appeasing others can get you that you can't get from listening properly to yourself instead.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Vikings, Dragons and Arabs

I wrote this probably over a month ago, but I intended it to go here so go here it will.


So I've just seen this film, and I'm kind of bowled over by how perfectly it seems to encapsulate my new general political attitude. Properly speaking, it is another one of these familiar exercises in bland, knee-jerk liberalism, but somehow it still managed to strike a chord with me, and even to seem to pertain specifically to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is a really good film, and I hereby formally dispatch you to watch it, but I'm going to talk about it freely, without worrying about spoiling things. Mainly because this movie proceeds in precisely the way you'd expect it to - its plot's not the attraction - but here you are warned anyway. SPOILERS ahoy.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup, young Viking boy in a village regularly ransacked by dragons. Hiccup can't quite get his Viking thing going. He's small and clumsy and generally inadequate in terms of dragon-hunting macho-macho-man-ness, and when he more or less accidentally comes across a wounded dragon and gradually makes his acquaintance, he begins to have second thoughts about the attitude he's supposed to have towards these creatures. 

So yeah, we've already seen this story anywhere from Pocahontas through Shrek to Avatar, and often in sharper terms, but this movie seemed to highlight for me in a much more powerful way the ideology, collective passion, and societal convention that facilitate and enflame this kind of stubborn, hate-filled, and mind-bogglingly blind aggression.

To reiterate the point I've been making and this film has been strongly implying possibly without fully realising it - nationalism is a disease. It poisons our psyche and corrupts our souls, divides us into tribes and has us see monsters where humans exist. Usually deeply flawed humans - often humans with whom we've shared a checkered past and that we have good cause to be wary of - but humans towards whom having a poisoned, hysterical and demonising attitude contributes absolutely nothing at all.

Before I go on conjecturing and allegorising this film out of all proportion, I want to mention a scene: Enraged Viking village leader Dad tells exposed-as-traitorous-dragon-fraterniser Hiccup "You are not a Viking. You are not my son."

Yes, unpleasant, and the pain is what this scene's mainly about. But, there's an obvious implication many (most?) people even in the genuinely advanced Western World don't see here; you don't have to continue being Jewish any more than you have to become a carbon copy of your father. These are things you are born into, and that your surroundings would be glad to see you carrying on, but, with respect, fuck the surroundings. Fact of the matter is I'm not my dad, and even less than that am I my "people" and their history. Nothing wrong with either of them, but contrary to popular confusion, they are quite simply entities that are distinct from me. They just are. I didn't promise anybody to be my dad and I didn't promise anybody to be Jewish. These things are too important to be determined at birth, and the fact is they aren't. They are artificially preserved by social constructs, because society is fucking stupid when it's not very carefully engineered not to be.

The truth is Hiccup isn't a Viking, and neither is he is father's son the way that marauding explosion of violence intends. The movie takes both these sentiments back later on in the proceedings, but it is a kids film after all. Part of the tragedy of real life is that sometimes your surroundings can't deal with who you are and what you're not. The confrontation can be ugly, but it's unavoidable if you ever want to truly "break out" - step out of the shadow of your predecessors and come into your own.

There's more to this, though, than just fulfilling your individuality. As bland as the message is, it's not really obvious, at least not in Israel. When you tell an Israeli we don't have to be at war with the Arabs you're likely to get much the same reaction as a Viking's when you tell him there could be peace with the dragons. Both of the conflicts didn't just spring out of thin air. In both it is somewhat counterintuitive to learn which of the parties is responsible for by far the greater amount of devastation and death. Both the Vikings and the Israelis are fighting what is at its core a war of self-defence, but they're doing it so zealously, so excessively, that they begin to lose both their moral compass and their ability to think straight about their own interests.

The most potent bit of symbolism in the movie, which appears to have been created more or less by accident and to serve for plot rather than thematic purposes, has to do with how the conflict was created:

The dragons live in a large cave. Down in its depths lives a kind of quasi-queen - a titanic, astronomical beast that makes all the others look like flies. When the dragons don't feed it stolen produce or livestock, it eats them. The movie implies that only together can the Vikings and dragons stop it, but before that it briefly toys with the idea (being a kids movie, again) of the catastrophical consequences the premature and frankly unnecessary rousing of this largely pacified giant might have.

This works for both sides of the long-going war. If we're not careful - if we keep on with these superfluous violent, repressive, and brutal adventures - we could awaken the rage of the humiliated post-colonialist Arab and Muslim world that originally started this conflict to such a level it will no longer be possible to hold it back and prevent a full-blown psychotic culture-war. The effort of "deterrence", though doubtless working, is also bringing the bad blood constantly closer to its boiling point. We are playing with fire.

Conversely - and this is more a dangerous musing than an actual opinion - the giant that is Israel has in many ways already been awakened. At the end of the movie the dragons join forces with the humans to kill this huge beast despite it being one of them, because (presumably), though just like them it is only acting in self-preservation, it is simply causing too much damage. Now, I am not disputing Israel's claim of always acting ultimately in the interests of self-defence, but as well as being a nuclear power Israel is the world's fourth largest exporter of arms, so what does that mean? I'd like to think that all of Israel's destructive international (non-Arab-related) behaviour is the result of evil, callous individuals whose actions weren't truly necessary for Israel, but what I'm worried about is this - what if they were? That's not a rhetorical question. I don't know what to think about this.

What I do know is that tribal identification is irrelevant. I don't think you can really start seriously thinking about these things without that.