Splinters: November 2020 – short essays on the here & now
This month: Copy and paste...
The consummation of consumption 2...
But if I am only for myself...
Protecting people, saving lives... MORE!
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
Copy and paste
by Christos Tombras
“Tell me something”, my friend Patrick said the other day. We were walking in the park near his house. “That’s a beautiful sunset, isn’t it?” Indeed it was. I watched him as he pulled out his camera to take a picture.
“I was just wondering,” he said while checking the pictures he took. “What is it that makes a sunset beautiful? Would it still be beautiful if there was no one around to witness it?”
“You know, this sounds suspiciously like the other thing they say, about the sound of a falling tree if there is no one around to hear it.”
“Yes, I know”, Patrick said. “But that was not my point.”
“I don’t know”, I said. “The answer to the question whether a sunset is beautiful seems to depend on whether there are beings around for whom the question makes sense. It’s not a witness that makes it beautiful, but the potential existence of a witness.”
“This is exactly what I thought”, Patrick said. We remained silent for a moment or two. “And what about when they say that a sunset is so beautiful that it could have been a work of art?”
“I guess that you can only say that a sunset is as beautiful as a work of art if you can consider it on its own.”
“‘On its own’? What do you mean?” Patrick said.
“You need to isolate it from its surroundings. You need to put a frame around it, just as you did earlier with the camera. You need to freeze time, to put the scene in brackets. It’s only then that you can think of it as a work of art, when you can use copy-and-paste, so to speak.”
“Copy-and-Paste? I don’t usually think of my pictures as copy-and-paste”, he laughed. “But regardless: what about if you just experience it and then, later, you bring it to mind at will?”
“That’s exactly what I mean”, I said.
In his Weather Project installation at the Tate Modern in 2003, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson decided to make his own sunset. He employed hundreds of yellow, mono-frequency lamps in order to construct a huge semi-circular form at the end of the Turbine Hall. This form, reflecting on the mirror covering the whole of the ceiling of the hall, created the impression of a huge orange sun. Visitors entering the Turbine Hall would be greeted by a strong, almost blinding duo-tone yellow light. It was as if the Turbine Hall had its own resident sunset.
But it was not a proper sunset.
For one, this was a sunset in suspension. It was static. And then, the sun was not real. The sky was not real. The light was not real. Time itself was not real.
There was no question of whether Olafur’s sunset was beautiful or not. Or, to be more precise, such a question was no longer relevant.
The project was not about the sunset or the light.
The scene itself had an eerie quality, emanating something ominous – magnificent and yet unsettling. It reflected a world.
The story, published in the December 2019 issue of the journal Nature, created quite a sensation to anyone interested in pre-historic art. Paintings, which had been discovered two years before on the wall of a cave in the Indonesian island Sulawesi, had been shown to be 44 thousand years old. To calculate their age researchers measured the relative levels of different isotopes of radioactive uranium and thorium found on calcite built-ups on the painted figures themselves.
The Sulawesi paintings show animals native to the area being hunted by human-like figures. It appears that the pre-historic “artists” wanted to tell some kind of a hunting story. This is still a contestable point, but if confirmed, it would make this the oldest known pictorial narrative, predating similar pre-historic rock art found in Europe by at least 20 thousand years. But it is not the oldest known human drawing. This specific title belongs to a tiny fragment of a rock found in South Africa. It is 73,000 years old and doesn’t tell a story. It only shows some red cross-hatch lines.
It is absolutely impossible to understand what it would mean for those ancient humans to be able to draw these lines or those animal figures. What did they have in mind? Was it an attempt to capture beauty? Was it an expression of wonder? Was it a question? Or was it perhaps an answer?
We cannot know, and in fact it would be unwise to speculate.
Still, we can be certain of one thing. The artists who left their marks on the tiny South African rock or painted the animal hunting scene in the hidden Indonesian cave shared something. They shared the decision to use the means available to them in order to effect a change on something in their world, not because they needed to do it for their immediate survival, but just because they wanted to do it.
We cannot say anything else about their decision other than accepting that they had an intention. And in this they have something in common, not only with themselves and with all other unknown prehistoric artists, but also with Olafur Eliasson, and with my friend Patrick – and in fact with all human beings: an intention, that is, a vector of action. It always implies a starting point, a direction, an objective, and a scope.
But also it implies a choice – and it reflects the world in which it appears.
The consummation of consumption 2
by Samir Gandesha
I want now to turn to Guy Debord’s article entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, from the Issue #10 of Situationiste Internationale published in March, 1966. This will help us to draw out some of the radical implications of Kimberley Jones’ analysis. (See The consummation of consumption 1 here.)
Like Kimberley Jones, Guy Debord draws attention to the almost universal condemnation of the riot – in this case the Watts Uprising. He singles out remarks by the head of the NAACP at the time, Roy Wilkins, who argued that it “ought to be put down with all necessary force.” Like Jones, Debord understands the uprising not in racial but in class terms, referring to MLK Jr’s statement in a recent Paris lecture that Watts wasn’t a “race” but a “class” riot. What drives the Blacks of Watts is proletarian consciousness according to Debord, which means consciousness that they neither are masters of their own activities nor of their own lives.
Like Kimberley Jones, Debord understands the uprising not in racial but in class terms.
The crux of Debord’s analysis aims at an inversion of the characterization of looters as the embodiment of animalistic drives. He does so by deploying a concept that he would elaborate in his most famous book one year later, which, in fact, gave direction to the events of May, 1968, and this is the concept of the spectacle. According to Debord, the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes an image. The spectacular society is the society that creates, amidst real misery and deprivation, the appearance or fantasy of affluence and abundance.
The spectacle represents a new level of the fetishism of the commodity form which is an object with a certain use value that satisfies determinate human needs but that is, nonetheless, produced in order to realize its exchange value or profit.
For Debord the looters, far from being animals, represented a human response to dehumanizing conditions, namely, the fact that capitalist society, characterized by generalized commodity production, is a society in which relations between things appear as relations between people and relations between people resemble relations between things.
By challenging the almost theological sanctity of the commodity, the looters re-establish human relationships grounded in gift and potlash economies. For Debord, in the racist and colonial “hierarchy” of the society of the spectacle, people of colour, but particularly black people are reduced to the status of things. Insofar as the looters directly circumvent the logic of exchange with the demand for use, which is to say, the satisfaction of needs, however false such needs may be. He argues, and I quote: “The flames of Watts consummated the system of consumption…Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration, whatever particular form it may take.” Yet, such flames immediately call into action the police.
The policeman is:
"the active servant of the commodity, the man in complete submission to the commodity, whose job it is to ensure that a given product of human labor remains a commodity, with the magical property of having to be paid for, instead of becoming a mere refrigerator or rifle – a passive, inanimate object, subject to anyone who comes along to make use of it. In rejecting the humiliation of being subject to police, the blacks are at the same time rejecting the humiliation of being subject to commodities.”
The social contract, to reiterate, is not broken, but functions all-too well: for it is a contract geared to the maintenance of private property, with all the necessary violence and force necessary. This recently became amply clear in the actions of the 17 year-old White shooter in Kenosha on August 25th who was there, according to his own account, to help the police defend private property.
Returning to the question I started with, namely: the possibility of cross-racial solidarity, it is of vital importance to grasp the particular and universal significance of the uprisings and in the process to make of it more than a “racial” event, for this is exactly what the far-right want.
Rather, we must situate the uprisings that we’re seeing within the larger context of a society in which inequalities are deepening. It is also important to place recent developments in the context of a history of social struggles, from Watts in 1965 to Paris in 1968 to Minneapolis in 2020. It is vitally important to understand extreme forms of police violence not as effects of a mystical, transhistorical White supremacy, but rather as a manifestation of a racism that flows from the vicissitudes of a social order mediated by the commodity-spectacle, grounded in the sanctification of private property under deepening forms of a socio-economic inequality that hits Black and Indigenous communities especially hard.
This social order is a historical one – an order that came into being and one from which it is still possible for us to emancipate ourselves.
But if I am only for myself – sentences under lockdown
by Iain Galbraith
" To throw off the burden of a present evil is no cure unless the general condition is improved."
Michel de Montaigne
One true statement the first sentence can make is that it points to all the sentences following.
What pride, and what eminence! – nobody could lie under that weight.
Pointing the way for things to come, the first expects the second and each sentence that follows to do the work it cannot do itself.
And how did we like that?
I found it was dispiriting to be pointed at in that way.
I did, too.
But you weren't "two", were you, you were six, or do you want me to say: "I do, seven"?
I think you should take this more seriously.
If we carry on like this we won't get anywhere.
Always blaming somebody else.
It's the laziest sort of activity, pointing the finger.
But the first, the prime mover, has a monopoly on virtue.
As the first of the second paragraph you would say that, wouldn't you?
I suppose one could say the prominence of the first was its grandeur, but also its downfall.
Yes, well, we were supposed to push on from here but we've performed like Achilles in Zeno's paradox: no matter how fast we run we never exceed the primacy of the first.
You mean: reach that unattainable summit whose sublimity exists solely by virtue of its being our first sentence?
I mean we are not doing our job.
Nonetheless, this following thing gives me a headache.
From which we may conclude that the first, the oh so virtuous one, seems to have been pregnant with nothing very much of value.
You look back over your shoulder and there is nothing left to speak of.
You look forward: ditto.
A void where initial promise was.
Why go on, if we can never reach our goal?
Don't ask me, I was dead before I got here – and you didn't even notice, did you: still expecting me to do something when all I have to contribute is my rigor mortis?
You won't get away with that.
They'll have you.
Come, come: they are already accusing us of decades of internal squabbling.
OK then, what are we actually saying?
"It's impossible to solve the housing crisis".
"The planet cannot be saved".
"We can't stop refugees drowning".
That is what we believe behind the bluff?
No, no, we're saying we know how to dig in and stay put to some effect.
To live with it quietly and achieve normality.
Normality is what everybody wants, right?
Find a nice vaccine and settle down.
Back to the "before times".
A return to life.
Um, so we're actually dead?
Can we be saying: we owe nothing to the first sentence because it looked forward instead of backwards?
There's always sideways.
Actually, the first sentence prescribed neither normality nor progress; it proposed cohesion.
We've managed that well, haven't we?
A̶l̶l̶ ̶d̶e̶a̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶g̶e̶t̶h̶e̶r̶,̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶m̶e̶a̶n̶.̶
First sentences change their tune in time: listen.
Yes, things sound so different from down here.
We've all changed since then.
But wait: where are we now?
Can anybody know that?
How do we realize our potential before this piece comes to an end?
Nobody said anything about a final word.
Protecting people, saving lives
by Rosemary Bechler
The strategy isn’t working across vast swathes of Europe. In the UK, this first became obvious to northern regions suffering lockdowns. Forget health versus the economy or lockdowns versus anti-lockdowns. The only justification for such restrictions is the precious time and opportunity it gives us to put in place the local find-test-trace-isolate–support system that does work. (Around six weeks is what Independent SAGE calculated for the UK on October 16 in their ‘Emergency Plan’. )
Which is why it was such a sliver of hope when these northern constituencies made two demands in negotiation with Johnson’s Government: firstly for effective local track and trace systems enabling them to isolate and support those who are infectious. Secondly the extension of the furlough scheme to include all individuals and businesses adversely affected by these same restrictions.
These two requests are not divided between health and the economy. The financial element is widely recognised as essential to the success of ‘trace, isolate and support’: not surprisingly people will avoid starving their children, or shopping their contacts and friends. As Stephen Bush says in the New Statesman: “it remains both crazy and cruel that the UK is enforcing lockdowns on households and businesses without maintaining sufficient economic support to do so.”
A positive response on both counts would make this a hugely popular government – even keeping its promises to new Tory voters in the ‘red belt’. Let me share with you the whole of the Sarah O’Connor FT quote excerpted in my last:
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked the legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt in June, promising a “New Deal” akin to the US president’s efforts to combat the Depression. One of the FDR government’s boldest decisions was to become “employer of last resort”.
The UK government should create jobs too: real roles that equip the economy for the future. Britain has a shortage of care workers, which are undoubtedly jobs with prospects, given the ageing population, and require no formal qualifications so can be ramped up quickly. It would take an extra 180,000 care workers just to bring the ratio of carers to the over-70s population back to its 2014 peak. Creating this number of jobs, paid at the “real living wage”, would cost about £5bn, according to the Resolution Foundation think-tank. Investments in teachers and teaching assistants, nurses, mental health workers, home insulation and green boiler installers would also pay dividends.”
O’Connor surely has an unanswerable case, given the systemic challenge we face. As Christine Berry pointed out in July, Rishi Sunak’s £5 billion of mostly repackaged investment plans, or 0.2% of UK GDP – was 200 times smaller than Roosevelt’s New Deal, amounting to 40% of US GDP at the time. So, plenty of scope: why not also take Anthony Costello’s hint, that ten of the £12 billion spent on an utterly defunct privatised and centralised track-and-trace system, “would have had greater impact” had they dispensed £1 million each to 10,000 currently excluded GP practises?
But there was a resounding NO to both demands, coupled with threats of a more punitive package. Why so? What’s stopping them? O’Connor acknowledges that Conservatives are instinctively wary about government intervention; but as several commentators have pointed out, ideological consistency in government decision-making went out of the window some time ago. Christine Berry goes straight for Johnson’s loyalty to the financiers and speculators who are the Conservative donors, in marked contrast to FDR’s vision. This is no secret – I tremble to think what kind of authoritarian regime is in the works to prevent a day of reckoning for the string of unproductive crony deals chronicled on openDemocracy, Byline Times and elsewhere.
But do these explain the stubborn resistance to local track and trace? Surely some judicious facesaving would be well-advised at half the cost? Maybe Cummings, like the White House, is wedded to ‘herd immunity’ – hence the herding of students back to halls of residence to do their damnedest? Maybe Cummings, in the scrabble for centralised testing and centralised Apps, is chasing the eye-watering profits to be made from big data health systems. Successful local test and trace can only get in the way. Which might explain why they are only talking devolved decision-making now, when it is very nearly too late: Rudolf Klein’s phrase for an earlier stage in Thatcher’s privatisation of the NHS springs to mind – the “decentralisation of blame”.
We don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. But one motive is insufficiently explored. Look at the agencies that would have to be revived, given added capacity, and encouraged to work closely together in those six weeks it will take to build an effective local track and trace system. Look at the considerable numbers of ordinary people who they would be able to protect from infection, long-COVID, bankruptcy, death, and what Dame Louise Casey calls the coming “period of destitution”. Imagine the close combinations of production workers and socio-cultural professionals (such as teachers, social workers and salaried medical professionals), not excluding the interests of ethnic minorities and environmentalists, that result. They would be focused around an interventionist internationalist state with a strong domestic redistributive programme whose social democrat/democratic socialist lineaments already lurk in the current Labour Party manifesto.
The Tories would be rebuilding a class enemy that they have been inexorably dismantling since Margaret Thatcher first stepped onto the stage of history.
by Leonie Rushforth
"At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime. One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending Free School Meals doesn’t reach these kids…" Ben Bradley, Tory MP
There’s been a lot of Charles Dickens on social media this last week, since the Tory government refused to extend Free School Meals over the half term holiday; pictures of Oliver Twist asking for more have been everywhere. It’s worth re-reading the passage that introduces that moment, so deeply embedded in our collective memory – it describes the thinking of the workhouse board:
‘The members of this [the workhouse] board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered – the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. 'Oho!' said the board, looking very knowing; 'we are the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, in no time.'
So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors' Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.
The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more – except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.
The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites.
Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
'Please, sir, I want some more.'
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
'What!' said the master at length, in a faint voice.
'Please, sir,' replied Oliver, 'I want some more.'’
In Dickens’s London, it was the cholera slums that killed thousands of working people in recurrent outbreaks and horrified the philanthropists. How long before we see the emergence of covid ghettos where people who will have no access to whatever vaccine arrives begin to die in huge numbers? The groundwork for this has already been prepared. No accident that people are turning to the campaigning and toweringly angry novelist in shocked recognition.
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