Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Brief History of Western Culture

Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins

[Image source: http://www.irishnews.com/sport/2016/03/18/news/on-this-day-march-18-1949-iconic-snooker-player-alex-higgins-was-born-454325/]

Since there's no time to write anything new (the TEFL course is reaching its long-delayed climax), I'm fobbing off my readers with four more paltry notes that I wrote back in 2002-ish.

All of them were inspired by the same relativistic and universalist idea: that any and every artefact (no matter how humble, ephemeral or trashy) contained the whole of human history,  had limitless horizons and could sustain a lifetime of study and interest. In principle. You may feel I've demonstrated the opposite!

The Orbis Pocket Encyclopedia of the World (London, 1981)


This has rather a complex history of compilation. The cartography apparently comes from Prague (many of Britain’s cheap factual books from this era originated in Eastern Europe). Someone unnamed, nevertheless, must be responsible for all the English translation, anglicised names on the map (e.g. “Black Sea”) and additional material. The quantity of aggregated labour in the pages of this book is astonishing, as much so as in those Victorian factual books with their impeccable proofreading, exhaustive indexes and thousands of engraved illustrations.


The hybrid origin of the book is subtly betrayed in a map such as the one of Europe. I was at first puzzled by the prominent naming of places I’d never heard of, such as Duncansby Head (we always say “John o’ Groats”). I now see that these are vaguely intended to demarcate the physical limits of Europe. Both “Nordkapp” and “Nordkinn” are shown - the latter name (I think describing the most northerly point in Europe, which is not the North Cape) is not even shown on my large motorist’s map of Norway. The White Sea appears as “Beloje More”.


On the Spanish coast there is no Torremolinos or Benidorm or Lloret de Mar.


Production looms large in the accounts of nations - somehow, archaically so.

The UK produced 124 billion cigarettes p.a, Sweden 11.3 billion (USA 627 billion, USSR 378 billion). China is the leading producer of a tobacco crop - more than a million tons a year.


I really bought the book to understand the moon and skies, but the explanations are, to me, incomprehensible - perhaps they are just not complete enough. 


Alex Through the Looking Glass: The Autobiography of Alex Higgins (Alex Higgins with Tony Francis, 1986)



If the only worthwhile communication in art is not what is said but what is betrayed, this should appeal. The book is narrated in the first, i.e. Alex’s, person (except for an introduction in which Francis speaks for himself). As we read we believe in the persona, and Francis is quite unobtrusive. That it is more or less an understood intention to betray is clear from the often discordant intrusions of Alex’s wife and relatives. Did Alex himself intend to speak frankly, or intend to reveal himself frankly (a different thing)?


“That night the lid blew off. It was the culmination of four years of pressure. The whole episode was so preposterous you’d hardly believe it. One thing I will not stand for is being accused of something when I’m fairly and squarely not guilty. I lost control. That’s why the television set went out of the window. I had to vent my fury somehow. It was better than hitting Lynn. What is a fellow to do when his wife is behaving like this?”


Seeing Alex play snooker was electrifying, but not friendly. He was not really an intentional entertainer. His belief is in who he is - a phenomenon, a person whose every act in some way typifies his unique style. He takes curiously little pleasure in his two world championships. His apparently intense love for his children is unconvincing - it convinced me, iconically, when he wept and beckoned for Lauren on TV. The autobiography assumes that Alex will settle down calmly into middle age - but we know better. Such religious egotism requires disaster. The inevitability is perhaps unwittingly alluded to in one of the sentences above: “It was the culmination of four years of pressure”. Alex grasps that the cause of the outburst is not altogether the immediate events but his own history, which is absolutely real to him. The next sentence makes light of the circumstances. Then he asserts: “One thing I will not stand for...” as if it was a matter of principle. Such principles are always witnesses to a life being desperately shored up. 


That Alex could learn from such an incident is precluded by the very personality (or life-strategies) that caused the incident. “Snooker is show business and the show had to go on. I even managed a humorous interview with Dickie Davis before the match and put on a pretty good act I think. That was the professional in me. Others might have thrown in the towel under that pressure, but the old survival instincts saw me through.” The “survival instincts” is an accurate phrase, but what is enabled to survive is the destructive self.


The Danbury Mint (2001)

On the table is the Christmas 2001 Catalogue of the Danbury Mint (“Heirlooms and Treasures”) - an astonishing publication. I can’t tell the difference any more between the artistic effect of this incredibly rich and complex commercial enterprise and - well, last night it was Rimbaud and Tomlinson, for example. The latter have more re-sale value, but that’s the only thing that occurs to me.

I realized I was drinking my tea from the wrong mug. This one was bought in Magalluf, not in Alcúdia. Dabbled green background, blue and burgundy flowers with yellow centres. I like those cheap hand-painted mugs much more than anything in the Danbury Mint catalogue. In fact the one from Alcúdia was not so cheap, it has an abstract design and is signed “Figas”. I wonder about the life of Figas and the people who produce all those oil paintings of white houses and boats drawn up on the beach. And the photographs of the artists in the Danbury Mint catalogue; the pleasantest, happiest people, with the nicest names, a bit like the writers of romances too.


Walking somewhere, I was struck by the headline



Climate Change - Our View (pamphlet in Esso service stations, 2002)
The question of who “We” is in corporate speech is no mere semantic puzzle when “we” start delivering “our” views. Who is speaking here? The directors in chorus? But this statement was drafted by junior employees, altered at will until approved by someone at a high level. It does not represent the opinions of the juniors (I know how easy it is to distance yourself from words that you write as part of your job). Nor does it represent the opinion of the seniors, which are kept very private indeed (company confidential at least, and probably personally confidential too). In fact it is not the statement of a person (or persons) at all. Does it represent, perhaps, “what the shareholders would want to be said at this time”? We are getting closer, so long as we don’t confuse this with “what they believe”, which is (as with most people) no doubt the usual mixture of imponderable, unconfessable and tamely unconsidered.
One of the things that bothers me about institutions is that they automatically generate “statements” which have no necessary relation to any individual’s opinions. The human beings who comprise Exxon’s workforce are not in control here. I suppose analysis would show that the potential (say, for malevolence) of a corporate is in the end sustained by millions of tiny moral decisions, loosenesses, allowances, etc by thousands of individuals. Within the context of each person’s life, they are not significant, they are easily outweighed by the larger kindnesses and generosities common to most human beings; they are only significant when co-ordinated; when drilled and trained together along one line of least-resistance; i.e. by a system. This is what happens in a corporate, and the effect can be positively referred to as synergy. I do concede the lack of individual responsibility. 
So the corporate statements... who is speaking then? If not a person, then a personification. Which means that the statement has a fictional element. Yes, it goes unnoticed, it is an absorbed convention. The serious matter is that fictions have a complicated relationship to truth.
The pamphlet appears to be addressed to “the public” - it is meant to be “heard”, that is to say to be skimmed, to have a positive influence, to reinforce support from sympathetic motorists and employees; just as important it is meant to be “overheard”, e.g. by regulatory bodies and competitors.
The pamphlet is functional, it is a move in a game. Mere factual communication ranks fairly low in its functions. For instance, one can make nothing of the quoted statistics, because they are decontextualized. They are there to be half-remembered and repeated, not understood. And the pamphlet doesn’t begin with its own background, as thus:  “A lot of people are saying that Exxon should be boycotted because they consistently fight against the implementation of the Kyoto protocol”. That would be highly unstrategic. Anyone who knows the background can work it out for themselves, but the last thing Exxon wants is to enlighten the ignorant. On their own paper, they have no reason to print accusations.
The first section runs, in actuality, as follows:
There is much concern today about man’s potential role in climate change, often referred to as ‘global warming’, and the long-term risk this may pose.
Man-made greenhouse gas emissions occur primarily from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). So we take climate change very seriously. There are still many gaps in the understanding of climate change, but it poses serious long-term risks and uncertainty is no reason for inaction.
Action is needed, but as greenhouse gases arise from everyday energy use, it is important that actions should address environmental concerns but not threaten standards of living or economic growth. A focus on new technology will be essential.
The first paragraph recognizes “concern”. This is a word for possible loss of revenue, and so we can easily believe that it is taken seriously. Yet to recognize people’s concern (if “we” was a human being and not a corporate) is also a pleasant, human trait. The reader who is inclined to support Exxon feels rather warmer towards her/himself because of this sentence. S/he too is “serious” and recognizes that there is “concern”. All the warmer because it is more than possible that the “concern” is all stuff and nonsense. “We” are so human and sympathetic that we take the concern seriously anyway, even if it’s all nonsense. “You need say no more - It’s enough for us that you are worried.” (Which is true, but only because of the revenue.)
The second paragraph says, easily, that “uncertainty is no reason for inaction”. In fact, it would be a very good reason for inaction, if the uncertainty was radical. The important thing, though, is to make sure the uncertainty is emphasized. The reader is given the tools to draw the “stuff and nonsense” conclusion, though the statement is too politic to do so. (Actually, this is a measure of change. It is not so very long ago that Matt Ridley in the Telegraph, for example, was saying quite plainly that the “science” behind predictions of climate change was naive and fatally flawed.)*
*[Since writing this, some newspaper articles have appeared, in the wake of an industry-sponsored collection of papers, which repeat the accusation. But this was very low-key.]
The third paragraph means “we are against any legislation that interferes with our business”. But “means” has several senses. Exxon do not really want such a blunt interpretation to be advanced. The important positive word in this paragraph is “everyday”. It implies that the world in which “we” freely pursue profits is the world that you enjoy with all its benefits. You don’t want that to be threatened, do you? The obscure threat is that actions that hinder the activities of Exxon are likely to bring our merry western existence into catastrophic decline. That argument would, of course, have no force unless Exxon’s operations permeated our lives in the way they do. It is an argument from global spread. It would not be admitted, for example, in defence of seal-clubbing; or if it was, we would laugh. To spell out the implications more clearly, we might put it like this: It’s dangerous to do anything about BIG companies.
The “focus on new technology” is a way of diverting the reader (or over-hearer) from a “focus on legislation”, which of course could be imposed right now without any reliance on the promise of new technology.
In the next section (“The way forward”) this focus is further specified. The list is in fact a series of diversionary tactics (do anything except legislate!). For example, the first item on the list is:
- Vigorous pursuit of energy efficiency. Saving energy reduces emissions.
But this seems the least seriously meant sentence in the pamphlet. If TOTAL emissions were actually reduced, that would be bad for Exxon’s business, as bad as legislation which imposed a reduction of emissions. The only reason for Exxon supporting it, therefore, must be their confidence that it won’t succeed in achieving what legislation would.
A much more seriously intended item is this:
- Promotion of carbon ‘storage’ through forestry and agriculture.
This, of course, would not harm Exxon’s business, since it would allow emissions to continue at the current (or greater) levels. It would also be environmentally disastrous, but only the hopelessly unregenerate will grasp this, and the pamphlet is certainly not intended for them.
The final section of the pamphlet (“Actions we’re taking”) is intended to be read quickly and without much attention to detail. For example, the deliberately boring sentence:
It (i.e. the type of actions we are taking) is consistent with Esso’s longstanding commitment to the environment, reflected in our track record of leading our industry in introducing ‘cleaner’ fuels to motorists in the UK, our global record of excellent environmental performance and the recent confirmation by the international quality assessor Lloyd’s Register that our company is ‘among the leaders in industry’ in integrating environmental management into our business.
From this turgid uninterpretability, the reader is invited to mine a vein of positive connotations: longstanding commitment, excellent, environmental performance, leaders...  
These, as the composers of the text might say, are the “messages”.

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