Tuesday, October 18 2011

The Shard and transparently mortal buildings

I'm going to have to learn to block it out, but I was staring at the Shard again the other day. The shell is nearly completed. It is still a monstrosity. The planners who cut the deal should have arranged for compensation to be paid to folk whose visual environment is invaded by it, much like you get compensation for loss of light.

I found some consolation, though, listening to Roger Scruton talking about architecture, in a discussion with Ben Rogers. Rogers' talk doesn't come across on the podcast, but Scruton's is rich with ideas about what we might require of our architecture. In particular, he seemed to hit the nail on the head with what is so wrong with the Shard.

We've inherited an architecture of unhappiness in our time which has come in large part because functionalism has taken over our way of thinking about architecture. Buildings are designed for a specific function, usually at a drawing board so that the ground plan becomes all important, ignoring the fact that this function is as mortal as the person who's ordered it.

We're surrounded now by transparently mortal buildings... And it means that, because of the tyranny of the ground plan, most buildings are designed as a series of horizontal slabs. This is the modernist vernacular.

It was that line about 'transparently mortal buildings'. The Shard is, in effect, a mammoth celebration of death.

The architecture of happiness, conversely, is that which can survive a change of function. It doesn't have to be pulled down. A Georgian house becomes an office. A church becomes a settlement of flats. Buildings that outlast us, because they embody a satisfying form not a time-limited function, offer a deeper sense of place because their place is secured by a vision bigger than the person who ordered it. The sense of the past and future they afford lend their inhabitants some happiness.

(Image: Thefreddy12345)


Thursday, October 13 2011

The Moral Maze on friendship

I was on the combative BBC Radio 4 discussion programme last night, attempting to witness to the complexities of friendship, the hook being the dodgy dealings of the friendship between Fox and Werritty.

That said, I was struck by how the mood of the programme felt on the side of friendship, as it were, and rather against the cynicism fired by suspicion of it in a meritocracy. I came away thinking I might have been clearer about how friendship itself is many things, though we tend to talk about it as if it were always a valuable thing; and in particular, there are good and bad friendships, depending upon the virtues and vices the friends manifest together.

Anyway, do listen again (I'm on last).


Wednesday, October 12 2011

Is the transcendent natural?

I've been engaged in a conversation about the nature of the transcendent in recent days, with a group of folk who are, I think it would be fair to say, sceptics.

Their concerns, as I understand them, major on how the transcendent, whatever it might be, eludes scientific scrutiny. The fear is that it opens the door to all manner of mystification, religiosity and phooey. Alternatively, it implies strange processes by which apparently transcendent phenomena, notably consciousness/mind, emerge and float above, as it were, the material world with which science is comfortable. This is, in fact, leading some individuals entirely committed to naturalistic ways of describing the world to positing naturalistic ideas of the sacred, the transcendent and even the soul. Nicholas Humphrey comes to kind.

However, I tend to think that the word transcendent is treated as unnecessarily scary. I suspect it is often confused with the supernatural, the s-word often being deployed rhetorically to scare 'sane and rational' people off contemplating the transcendent. In truth, though, the transcendent is all around us.

For one thing, it is unclear to me what is meant by materialistic naturalism, if that is the philosophy which makes the transcendent inadmissible. And I bet if you ask most physicists these days, they'd be pretty unclear too. (I imagine biologists tend to more comfortable with calling on some kind of materialistic naturalism, mostly because they have a 19th century view of the nature of matter.) I prefer to follow Werner Heisenberg's advice, in his book Physics and Philosophy: he argues that old fashioned materialism is too narrow a frame to find a place for all manner of facets of life, often associated with mind; so better to stand on the known facets of life than the shifting sands of sciences that are changing so fast and whose ramifications are not at all understood.

That noted, what does physics suggest? I did a physics degree at one point, and whilst that never took me beyond the wave equation for a hydrogen atom and a first look at special relativity, it exposed me enough to the subject to feel that the world of mathematics, which physicists typically experience as a process of discovery, provides quite a good example of exploring a transcendent world that links with the everyday world.

In fact, it could be that what can be called the transcendent is what makes the natural sciences possible. This would be the weight of the observation about mathematics. Then there's also the philosophical point about laws of natural which, it seems to me, have to be in some sense transcendent in relation to the natural sciences, or else you embark upon an infinite regress where the laws of nature need secondary laws of nature that determine them, that need tertiary laws of nature etc etc... It is for this reason that in physics you get books about the '7 fundamental constants' or whatever - fundamental being acceptable code for transcendent features; and in Dawkins-style evolution you get notions such as the immortality of the genes. I don't buy that, but the general point is that the natural sciences do, in fact, appear to lead to transcendent concepts that are required as their ground.

I know there's loads of debate about the nature of laws of nature. So more broadly again, on the transcendent in the everyday, I was reading about Abraham Maslow's notion of D-cognition and B-cognition the other day. This is the idea that D-cognition - D for deficiency - is the kind of knowledge required in the daily business of striving and surviving, which is largely a process of finding what we lack. B-cognition - B for being - is the felt or intuited sense of participating in the world at a deeper level than the humdrum. It's a different kind of knowing that can be linked to a sense of the transcendent.

Maslow has an example, from when he was once participating in a graduation ceremony. Apparently, he tended to think of such occasions as 'silly rituals'. However, on this day he suddenly perceived a tremendous procession, beginning with the great figures at the origins of his discipline and reaching into the future with the generations not yet born. It was not a hallucination. Rather, the ritual conveyed a vivid and I would say transcendent representation of the deep meaning of university life.

In general, the function of mimetic, mythical, ritual, poetic, religious and other ways of exploring our participation in the world would be to show or perhaps unveil the transcendent. It strikes me as highly likely to be a very common way that people experience the world, alongside the humdrum. And entirely natural.


Sunday, October 2 2011

Celtic evangelists

If you're passing Southwark Cathedral, do take time to look at The Four Evangelists by Sophie Dickens. They are tremendous, circling the aisle of the nave.

Based on imagery from the Book of Kells, it is as if a more ancient memory of Christianity has returned, one not almost overwhelming associated with comforting thoughts of love, but one that spoke to the archetypal passions in human beings - a faith like a winged man, at least as strange and troubling before it became so familiar.


Friday, September 30 2011

The Big Questions - God

I've just finished the manuscript for a book in Quercus' The Big Questions series, the one on God.

Reading it through, I realised one of the running questions is why science seems to be encouraging new spiritual exploration and enquiry, more than undermining it. There's the way a scientific attention to the world can develop a mode of perception that naturally provokes wonder. There's the way science is often counterintuitive, much as many spiritual practices discern counterintuitive perceptions of reality. Or there's the humility science can instill, which is not dissimilar to the notion that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

So, I was interested to read that the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion has just published research suggesting that 70% of scientists believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict; that 68% of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree; and that non-religious scientists typically think highly of their religious colleagues.


Friday, September 23 2011

The autumn equinox today...

... marking the aging of the year.

Though I've noticed these little cyclamens in the park nearby, just flowering, facing down the enormity of the season's change.

There's hope as well as a nip in the air.


Wednesday, September 21 2011

A spat in the psi-wars

Every so often, I catch a skirmish in the psi-wars - the often raucous, evidence-hurling debate between paranormal researchers and their sceptical debunkers. There was a bit of it yesterday, when Chris French, the gentleman amongst sceptics, wrote a piece claiming psychic Sally Morgan had been exposed with an earpiece through which she hears her messages from the other side.

Danny Penman, on the other hand, who writes broadly psi-favourable articles, or at least open-minded, had previously written an article on our Sal, which concluded she can produce 'amazing insights', whether by paranormal means being moot.

In this piece, at least, Chris hardly holds the high standards research in this area requires. His exposé is based upon a women called Sue who called into an Irish radio programme. It reads as if Chris hadn't verified her testimony or even who Sue is, else I'm sure he would have said; he also didn't speak to Morgan - who denies the accusations on her website. Danny, on the other hand, had a consultation with Sally Morgan, and sent three plants to do similarly, all of whom reported some positive findings. Who knows the truth of it.

I was left wondering why I can never, quite, get excited about the paranormal. I've read a few books, the last, Randi's Prize by Robert McLuhan, struck me as balanced and thorough, and concluded the evidence is substantial and weighs in pro, and that sceptics routinely go into denial. No doubt the sceptics would claim the evidence is all dodgy and believers are inventive, usually honest, self-deluders.

But I suspect that the reason the paranormal so excites some is not that, if true, it threatens to overturn the whole of physics; you could hardly add to the weirdness of physics as it is. Nor that if science proved there were life after death or somesuch, western civilisation would rock on its axis; most people believe it already. Also, it seems a bit silly to me to be interested in the possibility of a telepathy that knows the colour of your sofa or what you ate for breakfast. Even if true, that would be just party tricks; mere spectacle.

Rather, the psi-wars appear to manifest a deep ambivalence about our way of life. It's something like this. The sceptics seem to fear that the gains of the modern world, particularly its rational empiricism, risk being lost to human folly, and so they champion a science that would understand the whole of life to keep that risk, and its propagators, down.

The believers, or open-minded, sense that a reductionist mindset risks reducing our humanity. The constant noise, distractions and demands that modern materialism have created prevent us from noticing the subtler ways we belong to one another, experienced, say, as an embodied feeling, a sense or intuition. Paying attention to that not the spectacle, as I believe is attempted in practices such as meditation or therapy, is important and can be life-changing.


Monday, September 19 2011

A Monday heresy

I didn't like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. I couldn't make head or tail of what was going on for almost all the time, and it didn't add up by the end. It took wikipedia for me to sort it out.

It's true that it's beautifully filmed and cinema insiders are loving it for its homages to Hitchcock etc. It's true that Gary Oldman has a smile like the Mona Lisa, hovering in between emotional states so as to seem almost from another world. It's watchable.

But what is a thriller if it fails to tell the story? And it's not just that it's demanding. I like demanding. I felt it was crudely obfuscatory. That's not a playful trick, a brilliant reversal, an artful unfolding. It's cheap narration.


Friday, September 16 2011

How To Be An Agnostic

I recall Zadie Smith writing about the joy of good readers, as opposed to good writers, I think in this piece. I understood the joy of a sympathetic reader reviewer, in this review by Timothy McDermott in the current TLS of How To Be An Agnostic. It seemed, under his eye, the book achieved all it might ever manage to do. It's brief, so forgive me if I cite it in full.

'How to' presumes 'why'. A course in how to survive in the wilderness presumes people want to survive there (the why) and offers them skills and techniques to do so. Mark Vernon asks 'how to be an agnostic', when neither the 'why' nor the techniques on offer are so clear-cut.

Vernon first recommends agnosticism as a desirable human virtue, appealing to Socrates' passionate spiritual quest to know oneself humanely and modestly, resisting the twin pitfalls of scientific and religious certainty. Knowing must become a service to, rather than a mastery of, the things we know, marked by patience and sensitivity, fragility and vulnerability. Vernon's book is a plea for such virtues rather than a manual of techniques, though he mentions in passing Socratic questioning and the mindfulness techniques of the Buddha.

Indeed the book is gently autobiographical, though not so much a chronicle of events - Vernon has been successively an Anglican priest, then a declared atheist, then someone disillusioned by both religion and irreligion - as the record of a path taken by a mind, a voyage around 'God', for want of a better name.

There are brilliantly perceptive and sympathetic chapters on 'How Science Does God' and 'Science on Ethics', examining the positions taken by scientists (mainly cosmologists) since Newton and in our own day - figures including Steven Weinberg, Martin Rees, Eugene Wigner, Roger Penrose, Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. And two later chapters explore the agnosticism of Christian theologians, in particular Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa and Pascal. The path Vernon traversed has led him to his present passionate commitment to a 'learned ignorance', respecting the limits of human knowing, and convinced that God lies beyond those limits, beyond the certainties of either religion or atheism.

I think the path will lead onwards. Are there not also limits to human not-knowing? Aristotle says that the mark of an educated man is to require in every field as much certainty as the nature of the matter allows. And Aquinas's agnosticism is companion to a calm certainty: other philosophers, as Herbert McCabe puts it, know what they mean by God but doubt whether he exists, whereas Aquinas has no doubt that something we call 'God' exists, but doesn't know what that is. And his 'learned ignorance' of what God is requires total clarity about what God is not.


Thursday, September 15 2011

What is lost when we learn to write

A Welsh linguist has helped the Shanjo people of Zambia to develop a written version of their oral language, ciShanjo. Fascinating. Paul Tench reports, 'It would be good for the Shanjo people’s sense of self-worth, their dignity, pride in their distinctive culture, their standing in the region, not only to be literate in their own language, but also to develop their own literature and to give visual expression in public signs, at school and in all their institutions.'

I've no doubt that's true. It's the way of the world. However, I read the story at the same time as reading The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. He argues that nothing less than the ecological crises we face today stem, originally, from the huge shift in consciousness that was precipitated by oral cultures learning to write.

Roughly, he argues that the magic of reading and writing happens on the page, the extraordinary way in which scribbled marks can grip you to convey sense, voice, meaning, engagement.

But in an oral culture, language is written, as it were, on the landscape. It is intimately connected with the sensuousness of place. The classic case in point is the Aboriginal culture of Australia. Abram vividly describes the synesthesia of identity, environment, dreaming and language that roots Aboriginals, and other indigenous peoples - and that is lost with writing. Alienation from nature is the result.

As the technology of writing encounters and spreads through a previously oral culture, the felt power and personality of particular places begins to fade... Writing down oral stories renders them separable, for the first time, from the actual places where the events in those stories occurred... Once the stories are written down, however, the visible text becomes the primary mnemonic activator of the spoken stories - the inked traces left by the pen as it traverses the page replacing the earthly traces left by the animals, and by one's ancestors... Gradually the felt primacy of place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of "space" as a homogeneous and placeless void.

A lot has happened when you've learnt to write.

(Image: Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia, Thomas Schoch)


Wednesday, September 14 2011

Philosophy Now Radio

... is into its new run. Last week, Grant Bartley talked with myself on Wellbeing and two fellow Art of Living authors, Ziyad Marar, who wrote Deception, and Piers Benn, whose new title Commitment is out later this year.

Do have a listen to that and the other shows.


Tuesday, September 13 2011

A depressing moment by the Shard

I was contemplating the soullessness of the Shard again last night, London's 'warning sign of disease' as Jonathan Jones put it - the disorder being environmental, aesthetic and economic disproportion.

Its straight lines heading in one, dreary direction. Up. Its growth for growth's sake, the 'philosophy of the cancer cell'. Like a derivative work of conceptual art, it has one message - size - that you get at first glance and, by choice, would never particularly want to see again.

Size is offered as architectural interest, sheer scale as a prompt to curiosity. But it isn't at all remarkable in buildings, and so there's only one way to go: even bigger.

I thought on. That is the disease of our times. I upgraded my mobile just to have more memory, fooled into thinking that 5 gigabytes will inject more excitement into my life than 2. Or there are the headlines panicking as economies flat line, as if growth of itself would precipitate spontaneous outbreaks of human happiness.

The Shard seemed like a monument to a lack of surprise at life - genuine surprise replaced by a fetish for new, bigger objects, gizmos. As I looked at its acres of repetitively blank glass, desperately trying to catch a reflection of the city so as to make its surface look interesting, I felt my senses depleting, my body disappearing.

Then, the sight of a London plane tree, beginning to yellow with autumn, waving in tune with the strong evening wind. Thank you. It told me that I was, in fact, alive.

(Image: Richard Fisher)


Monday, September 12 2011

Healing hearts

Listening to some of the commemorations of 9/11, it struck me how often the human heart was referenced, in the context of healing. And I wondered: is this meant metaphorically or literally?

For example, Mark Oakley in St Paul's preached a great sermon, which included this thought: 'Whereas our bodies often do quite a lot to heal themselves, human hearts are not so skilful. They need to be loved back into life...'

And Prince Charles, in a very thoughtful speech, remarked: 'But then I began to reflect that all the greatest wisdom that has come down to us over the ages speaks of the overriding need to break the law of cause and effect and somehow to find the strength to search for a more positive way of overcoming the evil in men's hearts.'

Is there evil literally in men's hearts? Can human hearts really be loved back to life? I suspect the phrases can be taken literally, that the heart is more than a mechanical organ capable of carry metaphorical associations.

There is, of course, Shakespeare's line about hearts having reasons. Digging around on the internet, not always the best guide, it seems there is a growing acceptance of the notion of the 'functional heart brain', following the research of Andrew Armour. There's a short summary paper from the Royal College of Psychiatrists here. For example, and if I've understood it right, after a heart transplant, the nerves of the heart do not reconnect for some time, and yet the new heart functions. In the paper, Mohamed Omar Salem discusses how hearts may communicate with the rest of the body and the brain via their exceptionally strong magnetic fields too, and further:

There is now evidence that a subtle yet influential electromagnetic or ‘energetic’ communication system operates just below our conscious awareness. Energetic interactions possibly contribute to the ‘magnetic’ attractions or repulsions that occur between individuals, and also affect social relationships. It was also found that one person’s brain waves can synchronize to another person’s heart.

(There's further speculation about the heart's involvement in precognition, though this is obviously controversial, and so I'll avoid the distraction.)

It's funny how we need MRI scanners and the like to help us believe things many intuitively know, and our ancestors presumably took to be blindingly obvious aspects of life. The heart has its reasons. Duh! Such are our times.

Then again, I know that in the heart unit up the road from here, people undergoing open heart surgery are told that it is a particularly emotive operation. You are warned about having a seemingly irrational moment of breakdown, after the wound itself is well on the mend, because your heart will have been exposed in more than one way.

Can hearts be helped literally by being loved? Can forces such as evil reside in men's hearts? It seems so.


Friday, September 9 2011

God and the race to the White House

A lesson from history, if you're watching with mounting horror the rise of evangelical forces in the American Republican party. (There's a good state-of-play survey at FaithWorld.)

Thomas Kidd, Baylor University historian and scholar of religion, observes that in the election of 1800, Federalists took out weekly newspaper advertisements asking whether Americans would prefer a 'God and religion' leader like John Adams to Thomas Jefferson and 'no God.'

In spite of the smears, Jefferson won.


Thursday, September 8 2011

Philosophy breaking out all over

The London School of Philosophy just launched its new association with Conway Hall.

The Philosophers' Arms just 'opened' on BBC Radio 4.

Oh, and The Idler Academy's ancient philosophy symposiums soon begin, with the pre-Socratics on 4th October, and yours truly.

I'm also leading a series of evening classes on free speech at the Bishopsgate Institute, in conjunction with English PEN, starting 12th September.


Tuesday, September 6 2011

Writing in the dust on 9/11

As the hype up to the anniversary of 9/11 reaches full steam, I am trying to remember the thought of some of the New Yorkers who were on the recent religion and violence seminar.

They observed that whilst the world heard George Bush declare a war on terror, and saw Tony Blair fall into line like a lieutenant, many who lived in the city preferred silence. They lit candles. They attended vigils. They squared up to the horror not with cries of justice and vengeance, but with remarkable compassion and calm.

We had been talking about Rowan Williams' book, Writing in the Dust, his reflections on the day in which he too was caught up. The title comes from the story of Jesus being presented with the woman caught in adultery, the pharisees demanding an instant respond. Jesus writes in the dust.

Williams reflects that there is a satisfaction to be had in responding quickly, dramatically. It feels like you are doing something meaningful, taking control. 'What makes discharging tension attractive is that it is an act that has a beginning and an end.' But the end often slips from view; the promise of closure revealed as an illusion. A different approach is to stay with the vulnerability. It's harder to do - impossible for politicians - though it was the example of the emergency services, Williams believes, who are practiced 'living in the presence of death'.

'Simone Weil said that the danger of imagination was that it filled up the void when we need to learn how to live in the presence of the void.' It's from the void that faith might return.

The anniversary is being marked by action programming that covers the story from every possible angle, as if desperate to fill the void. But I think too of the thought of the New Yorkers.

(Image: Scotty Weaver mourns the loss of son, P.O. Walter Weaver ESU Truck #3, during 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero. Andrea Booher/FEMA)


Sunday, September 4 2011

Three things I read

Roger Scruton on icons (super-thoughtful piece in Prospect)

The growth of the advertising industry and of the marketable image has been greeted from the very beginning by protests from social commentators, fearing what Marx called “commodity fetishism”—in other words, the diversion of our energies from those free activities that are “ends in themselves” towards the world of addictive desires. Marx took the idea of fetishism from Feuerbach, who believed that all religion involves this state of mind, in which we animate the world with our own emotions, so placing our life “outside” of ourselves, and becoming enslaved to the puppets of our own imagination.

Pankaj Mishra on 9/11 (long reflective piece in the Guardian)

The sense of mad overkill, intellectual as well as military, grows more oppressive when you realise that, though al-Qaida murdered many people on 9/11 and undermined American self-esteem, the capacity of a few homicidal fanatics to seriously harm a large and powerful country such as the US was always limited. There is nothing surprising about their spectacular lack of success in rousing Muslim masses anywhere (as distinct from inciting a few no-hopers into suicidal terrorism). Their fantasy of a universal caliphate was always more likely to provoke fierce Muslim resistance than the globalising project of the west. Over-reaction to al-Qaida was by far the bigger danger to the west throughout the last decade; and, as it happened, groups of rootless conspirators, initially cultishly small and marginal, quickly proliferated around the world as a direct result of western military and ideological excesses after 9/11.

George Steiner on proofs for God (review of the arguments in the TLS, noting recent new developments)

The existence of our universe, its physical characteristics, the biological evolution of organic life make it inherently and cumulatively more plausible, more likely that God exists than the opposite... Swinburne argues eloquently that atheism offers no adequate counter-explanation. Any argument for possibility and the probable does nevertheless remain unquantifiable and impressionistic.

Incidentally, Steiner includes man-of-the-moment William Lane Craig, the philosopher no new atheist, apparently, wants to debate.

Recuperating a line of argument crucial to medieval Islam, W.L. Craig affirms the necessary causal foundation of the cosmos. This ultimate is itself without natural basis. The Big Bang and the laws of entropy, moreover, prove that our cosmos has its origins in time (Augustine would have concurred). This, again, legitimizes the assumption of a divine builder. But does it point to a personal God accessible to human apprehension?

(Image: Christ Acheiropoietos)


Friday, September 2 2011

Sexual Excess and the Meaning of Love

Exploring psychodynamic accounts of male homosexuality

In his autobiography, Chance Witness, the journalist Matthew Parris describes one day standing by an exit of the London Underground, from which commuters are pouring, and asking himself how many of the passing men he would like to have sex with? His answer is low: barely one in a hundred. So what sense, he asks, does it make to define himself as gay – a man supposed to seek sex with other men – when the overwhelming majority of men do nothing for him erotically?

If Michel Foucault is right, the modern experience of being human has been shaped, in part, by a scientia sexualis. The science established a link between the truth of an individual’s personhood and their sexual activity, ‘a new rationality whose discovery was marked by Freud – or someone else,’ as Foucault puts it. And yet, Foucault also argued that sexual rationality is simultaneously alienating, as it provokes anxiety about the truth of an individual’s sexuality identity too. Parris’s confusion is a case in point.

Freud himself was ambiguous on homosexuality. On the one hand, he describes the homosexual individual as having made a manifest narcissistic object-choice that renders him identifiable as an ‘invert’ and ‘pervert’. His default position on human sexuality has usefully been characterised as ‘norm and deviation’, the norm signified by heterosexual functioning that, resonating with his biologism, is best orientated towards procreativity.

But on the other hand, Freud complicates his analysis by blurring the boundaries between the ‘pathological’ homosexual and heterosexual others. All people, he notes in a universalizing move, are ‘capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious’, adding that psychoanalysis is opposed to the separation of people on the basis of a supposed orientation and, further, that homosexuality is not explained either by the hypothesis that is it innate or acquired. If the aim today, following the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, is to develop non-pathological understandings of homosexuality, then these latter principles are worth remembering.

Jung too seemed undecided about homosexuality. He variously regarded homosexual desire as psychologically immature; not criminal; symptomatic of cultural and historical factors as well as psychological; not defining a person; and as having meaning for the individual concerned. That meaning would unfold through individuation, the complex and individually unique process of psychological development that aims at personal wholeness. From Jung, it could be concluded that there is no such thing as homosexuality, but rather, as many sexualities as there are people.

However, as Foucault spotted, the notion of defined sexual orientations has a powerful appeal because establishing a link between sexual activity and personal identity promises knowledge, about the client for the analyst, and about themselves for the ‘gay individual’. As a result, more recent strategies for developing non-pathological accounts of homosexuality often sustain the link. Isay, for example, re-describes the Oedipal situation so that the peculiar emotional difficulties gay men have with their fathers are explained as a consequence of a gay orientation, as opposed to a cause. This is still a normative approach, in which the deviant becomes, say, the bisexual.

Another tendency, that over-values the link in a different way, might be described as the romantic politicization of homosexual sexual activity. It is found amongst queer theorists. Bersani, for example, describes a character he refers to as the ‘gay outlaw’. The outlaw pursues a variety of subversive sexual activities that threaten dominant cultural ideologies and, further, do not seek the mutual exchanges of loving human relationships in them. The political eclipses the personal.

This fascination with the cultural politics of sex is common in the gay sub-cultures of many modern cities, though it is not clear that it is has led to the outcomes queer theorists celebrate. Instead, it can be argued that it has merely fed the commoditization of sex in gay clubs and saunas. As Mark Simpson dryly remarks, ‘Gays have indeed changed the world and the shape of men’s underpants forever’. More seriously, from the point of view of the therapist, it has arguably contributed to what has recently been described as a ‘mental health crisis’ amongst gay men. ‘LGB people are at significantly higher risk of suicidal behaviour, mental disorder, substance misuse and substance dependence than heterosexual people.’

Now, this is an enormously complicated predicament, weaving socio-economic, cultural and psychological elements. However, from the therapeutic point of view, there is value in returning to those early intuitions from Freud and Jung.

Freud’s universalizing instinct emphasizes that human sexuality is a continuum, rather than hanging on singular object-choices, which renders it an unstable source of identity. To embed the insight further, it is also necessary to critique his heteronormative biologism, the implication that the main or normal goal of sexual activity is procreative. It is a move inherent in Lacan who, in his theory of the mirror phase, builds on the observation that human beings are born prematurely. This results in erotic gestures carrying meanings that are psychological rather than biological, and further, that are ‘permanently out of synch’ with one another. Hence, for example, Lacan’s axiom, ‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’, focuses on the failure he sees as inevitable in a man and a woman’s attempt to relate to each other sexually (even when, biologically speaking, they are successful): rapport means both rapport and ratio in French, implying that their sexual connection never completely matches up.

What this highlights is that human beings experience erotic desire as excessive, in the sense that whatever objects it becomes attached to, they will not satisfy it. Whether this is due to a fundamental lack at the origins of human subjectivity, as Lacan proposes, or because the erotic reaches for a plenitude ultimately beyond human experience, as Plato proposes, is another moot point. Nonetheless, psychodynamic accounts that aim to deliver a complete scientia sexualis will similarly always fail too. Better, like Shakespeare, to pose an open question to love: ‘What is your substance, whereof you are made?’

So, Hedges suggests, the scientia sexualis should be treated as a generator of ‘local myths – just-so stories’. They are valuable and inevitable as they are the way we deal with reality. But also limited and limiting. Hedges continues: ‘I believe it is our task as psychotherapists to listen to individual just-so sex stories, as well as to professionally generated just-so sex theories, and to try to untangle whatever limiting meanings have become attached to them.’

This resonates with Jung’s insight about homosexuality having meaning for the individual concerned, implying that the task for everyone is to discover the meaning of love. ‘Love is always a problem,’ Jung wrote, an ‘intensely individual’ one, and is such that every ‘general criterion and rule loses its validity’ when we try to make sense of it – though, for the sake of our development, try, we must.


Thursday, September 1 2011

The Faith Machine, on losing your soul

The Faith Machine had its first night at the Royal Court last night. It went down well.

The story features that rare creature, a bishop who was broken by the 1998 Lambeth conference, the 'anti-gay one' that Peter Selby likened to a Nuremberg rally. Bishop Edward has some of the best lines too. 'Nihilism is the victory of the status quo,' was one I chewed over on the way home.

Congratulations as well to Alexi Kaye Campbell who deftly finds a relatively fresh response to the arguments of atheism. 'Fools, fools, fools', Edward says, for trying to understand 'the soul of the world' without myth and poetry. 'The militant atheist saying, "Don't think like that, don't dream like that, don't wish like that, don't breathe like that."'

Thinking, dreaming, wishing, breathing like that is traumatically demonstrated when Edward loses his mind to dementia. All he can remember are lines from the Bible. I've heard carers report the same thing. The person would say nothing all day long and then recite the Magnificat or the Lord's Prayer in perfect King James English. The lines are not remembered in their minds, which have gone, but are written on their souls. They can still think and dream a little.

The story of the play revolves around Edward's daughter, Sophie, and her off and on boyfriend, Tom. She is all soul, becoming a journalist so as to devote her life to reporting personal stories of war and exploitation. He had soul in his youth, manifest in an unpublished novel, though then he sold his soul to the highest bidder - becoming an amoral, highly paid advertising account manager.

That's a bit of an easy dig, though it got good laughs. It fascinated me as well that the Royal Court wanted a play that spent quite some time discussing the arguments of the Anglican communion.

But the message? On the face of it, that is obvious: Tom loses his soul. The word is used against him several times. However, I was surprised when, in the final scene, one of the characters says this line: 'For what good shall it profit a man shall he gain the whole world?'

It's another Biblical quote, and garbled, and at first I thought the actor must have got it wrong. But Alexi must have meant it that way: I checked the script.

The original poetry runs, 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' So I took the message actually to be more subtle. We're in danger of losing the line about losing our soul, and we hardly even know now that it can go.


Tuesday, August 30 2011

How the Bible doesn't do doubt

Preparing for my talk at Greenbelt, yesterday, I thought to see what the New Testament has to say about doubt. I was surprised. It turns out, nothing at all - at least doubt in the sense meant mostly today, as in 'I doubt x is true'.

Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean 'being of two minds' or 'disputing so as to cause division'. This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read, I suspect.

For example, when in Mark, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do 'not doubt in your heart', it is tempting to read it today as a kind of magic trick - as if it's saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is God, and the earth will move for you, literally. But the text really means you can achieve extraordinary things if you truly set your heart to it.

Or James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads 'you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea'. That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full confidence, no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and sticking to your guns, holding to your deepest commitments.

The broad point seems to be that the use of words like diakrino and distazo are reflections on belief as a way of life not truth statements. The irony is that holding to a way of life will involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing - actually, needs to, in a sense. Think of what it's like to love someone or to write a book or to devote your life to the study of dark matter. Doubts may be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to success: personal growth, creativity, discovery depends upon it. I understood why Rowan Williams remarked, when we spoke to him making our radio programmes on doubt, that faith is close to doubt.

What's required is keeping faith - faith too not being about confidently asserting metaphysical propositions but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God.

Most of my talk was about why we now think faith is a question of rational proof rather than courageous commitment, and I think it turns on the modern notion that the truth of life is discovered by stepping back from life, seeking a 'view from nowhere', rather than stepping into life and participating in it. This leads to the sense that doubt, not knowing, uncertainty is a kind of failure, rather than integral to choosing life in all its fullness and becoming wise.

But as Martin Luther, no less, realised, 'Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to knowledge-with-doubt is no knowledge at all.'


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