Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.


On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.


There is no universal interpretation of this

There is no universal interpretation of this

Coming off of a mildly catastrophic discussion of Trump and racism at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d use some of my holiday time to make a first pass at organizing some opinions I have been forming about sexism, misogyny and the pernicious influence of Christianity on western discrimination. I’ll try not to make it too long but I have today off and a long, complex write-up of the weekend’s adventure to procrastinate about, so we’ll see …

First I should say this post is aimed at left wing philosophy. If you’re a right-wing philosopher you might find it entertaining but I doubt there is much to benefit you here, so you might want to save yourself an hour of bad prose and move along …

There is a common debate in western leftism between people who think that various forms of discrimination (most especially sexism and racism) arise out of economic relations, and those who think that economic relations arise out of the inherent structures of some underlying fundamental inequality. For example, some feminists might argue that human development goes through a universal stage of domination of women, and from this arises the various heirarchical structures that give us racism, classism etc. Others might argue that the economic relations always come first, and that for example the economic forces unleashed by the development of agriculture favor the development of specific social forces (e.g forcing women to have more children in order to support population growth made possible by agriculture, or slavery to enable use of more land). Obviously most people see these things as interlinked or happening contemporaneously, and no one is ever silly enough to think that this stuff was all purposive (a group of farming men getting together and deciding to lock up their women, or whatever).

These origin stories don’t have much importance in day-to-day struggle, but they do and have been influential in major political movements in the past. For example, most of the streams of communist or anarchist radicalism believe that the economic forces of capitalism necessitate class and gender divisions and we can’t eliminate gender discrimination without destroying capitalism; but in contrast radical feminists often believe that you can’t reformulate the social organization of any system without first tackling the underlying gender discrimination that sustains all heirarchies. Obviously on a day-to-day basis we fight battles on the basis of the nature of the battles, so if an issue of equal pay is best won by union activism we organize that way, while if it requires a fundamental rethink of the way women and men interact at work we may fight it through education and awareness raising. But sometimes something big comes up in the ordinary day-to-day political hurdy-gurdy, and in order to deal with it we have to think about the underlying structures of society and what really drives our mainstream political ideas. Brexit and Trump are examples of this, and in many ways I think the radical left has failed to understand them by casting them as simple economic responses rather than manifestations of a deep underlying racism in these societies. In the case of Brexit there is a yearning for lost empire underlying the dreams of the little Englanders, and in the case of Trump I think we are seeing the final fight against the civil rights movement and, assuming the left wins, the burial of slavery apologia and confederate dead-ender ideology.

I used to think about the social order primarily in terms of the economic forces argument: that is, I used to think that when racist and sexist undercurrents reared their head in mainstream politics or pushed a surge of hatred through society, that they reflected some kneejerk, incoherent response to underlying economic forces. In this worldview we don’t have to tackle the deeper undercurrents of society’s problems, we just look for the economic pressures and fix them. Fixing economic pressures is easy, whereas tackling things like the social undercurrents of the alt-right’s hideous misogyny is hard. But then I came to Japan, and discovered that actually a functioning capitalist society with all the same economic pressures can have radically different approaches to the interaction between the sexes, and I started to understand that actually in many cases culture trumps economics, and understanding the cultural forces driving our social development is really important to being able to finally end many of the problems we face. I don’t know how a right-wing interpretation of these things would work, but the classical hard left really needs to adapt its analytical strategies to consider the deep undercurrents of social life. Similarly, when I came to Japan I realized that origin stories or analytical frameworks that posit universal underlying structures based on universally observable basic facts are useless, because actually there are huge differences in the way societies practice the same forms of discrimination, and these differences are relevant. In particular, radical feminist ideas about the origins of sexism and how sexism functions and is maintained fail dismally in the face of cultural differences that I think radical feminism, with its primarily American and British origins, doesn’t understand.

In this post I aim to discuss how I changed my mind about this in the light of Japanese gender relations, and how I came to realize the overwhelming importance of christianity’s sexual morals in generating western gender relations. As a result of coming to Japan I realized that if we want to change gender relations for the better in the west we need to – absolutely have to – crush the influence of Christianity on our culture. So first I want to explain the difference between the west and Japan on this issue, and then explain why I think it’s important.

Before I go onto the next section I want to stress that it is not my task here to present Japan as an ideal society or to say it is not sexist or women don’t have a hard time or there is no rape or anything like that. I just want to show how things are different.

How are Japanese gender relations different?

I think the very first thing that foreigners realize when they come to Japan is that it is safe. It’s safe for men, and every day I am so happy about the fact that physical confrontations don’t happen here, but the absolutely overriding difference in safety is noticed by women. There is no street harrassment and no public fear of rape. I live in an area surrounded by parks that are dark at night and it is absolutely normal to see women walking alone through those parks at midnight, with earphones in, alone, with no concern in the world. I know in the country that there are places where women don’t travel alone at night because of flashers and gropers, but in the city at least this absence of the threat of sexual violence is noteworthy. It’s not just a statistical anomaly brought about by underreporting or something, and everyone who lives here seems to feel it very quickly. And when come from a western country with a lot of interpersonal aggression and a lot of violence against women (like Australia) you really – I cannot stress this enough – you really don’t understand what a difference this makes until you experience it. Once you have experienced a world without this kind of behavior you just lose all tolerance for western approaches to it. When I look at the lockout laws being introduced in Australia to stop violence between drunk men in pubs I am just astounded that we ever as a society tolerated this kind of thing, or that we have to use such a ridiculously heavy-handed approach to stopping it – and I notice exactly the kind of problem I alluded to above. The lockout laws are an attempt to use economic and legal tools to stop an underlying socio-cultural problem. Tackling adult male violence is hard, but stopping them from getting drunk in public is easy. But these solutions don’t stop the problem, they just stop it manifesting.

Some other easily-grasped ways in which gender relations are different in Japan include:

  • There isn’t really any Japanese word for “cunt” that you can use as an insult, and in fact there are no insults based on sexual activity or sexuality. In Japan you don’t tell someone to fuck off, you don’t say they’re a fag, you don’t say that was a dick move – sex is just not a degrading or insulting thing here, and you can’t use it as such, and if you tried people just literally wouldn’t understand what you were saying (though they would think you were being very coarse)
  • As a result of this difference, two chapters of Dworkin’s famous book Intercourse – Dirt and Death – don’t really seem to apply in Japan. A whole section of the radical feminist understanding of the universality of women’s oppression is built on an explicitly christian framework that 120 million people don’t get
  • Japanese women seem to have a much greater ability to negotiate safer sex than western women. Obviously I don’t know what every Japanese woman is saying or doing in the bedroom but the statistics make it clear: the vast majority of Japanese women are not using the pill, but rates of teenage pregnancy are very very low, as are rates of pregnancy generally. The only way this is possible if Japanese women – even teenage girls – are able to negotiate the parameters of sexual activity more effectively than western women
  • Japanese attitudes towards casual sex are completely different to the west. The love hotel is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life and while westerners usually think this concept is disgusting and weird Japanese people in general have no real problem with it at all.
  • Japanese women often work in industries where western women can never be seen. In particular farming, transport, and even construction seem to have a higher prevalence of women workers. It’s not common, but not especially rare, to see female truck drivers, and female farmers are normal.
  • Japanese women’s sporting participation seems to be much higher than western women’s and much more widely respected, across a wider range of fields. In particular Japanese women’s participation in fighting sports – and non-participant women’s deep appreciation of fighting sports – is completely normal, while it remains a very modern phenomenon in the west
  • Attitudes towards sex work and all forms of the sex industry here are much more practical and non-judgmental
  • Small businesses almost universally don’t have men’s toilets. They have a women’s toilet and a shared toilet
  • Opposition to homosexuality appears to be minimal and based primarily on concerns about responsibility to family and society, not on fear and disgust

I think these differences in attitude are strong and they derive from an obvious source: Japan is a pagan society. It has no long-standing or deep-seated religious just-so stories about how everything is women’s fault and women are dirty and bad, and sex is a punishment from God. Attitudes towards sex in Japan are constructed around privacy and shame, whereas in the west they’re structured around guilt and sin. Indeed, if you dig into some of the attitudes towards sex that are similar between Japan and the west – the lack of mixed bathing, for example, or the weird video censorship – you will often find they’re a result of Japan reacting to western values either post-Meiji or after world war 2.

Another result of this difference in attitudes that I have noticed but which I can’t formulate easily into words is the difference in attitudes towards femininity. In the west femininity seems to be seen as this kind of act that women put on in their early 20s, and it is seen as a deceptive and manipulative cloak. To be taken seriously at work or as an adult a woman needs to divest herself of this feminine cloak (or, as it is generally described, these “wiles”) and behave seriously – it is seen as a kind of childlike deceit. In Japan it seems to be viewed as just a natural aspect of being a woman, not a deceptive trick, and women remaining feminine into their 50s and 60s is completely normal. I think this also means that women are not taken less seriously because they dress and act feminine, although this femininity may disadvantage them by drawing attention to their gender (which, as everyone knows, is discriminated against at work and home in Japan as everywhere). I think this difference in attitudes towards femininity explains why Japanese women have maintained a high level of style and attention to personal appearance separate to men even as women in the west have begun to favour jeans and t-shirts – Japanese women don’t need to hide or be ashamed of their femininity, because they don’t have to dress in men’s uniform to be taken seriously. This is also evident in sport, where Japanese athletes who are taken really seriously by the public (the Nadeshiko football team, for example, or the wrestling team) still dress and act feminine because they don’t have to hide this stuff in order to be taken seriously. It’s hard to draw these links because it’s all nebulous cultural stuff, not hard science, but I think the simple reason for this difference is the Genesis story. In Genesis a woman tricked a man into a sin, and as a result women can’t be trusted. Christianity tells us that performative femininity is a deception that leads men into trouble and danger – it’s literally wily. After 2000 years of that story (and all the stupid badly-done renaissance paintings of a wily girl tricking a dude) we get young men who know nothing about Christianity or feminism or indeed women saying that they can’t trust a girl who wears make up, they don’t like make up because it’s deceptive, etc. There’s a 2000 year long history of distrusting women’s wiles and tricks at work there, and I think it has a profound effect on the way women in the west present themselves at work and in politics.

I suspect also that in reaction to this notion of femininity as performative and deceptive, and out of deep-seated fears of homsexuality that are also grounded in biblical hatred, men overperform their masculinity. The result is street violence. I think in fact Japanese men are much more comfortable about their masculinity and feel no special need to display it, not because women have been held back and men thus don’t feel threatened, but because they haven’t been raised in a society where men have to constantly prove themselves as not feminine and not gay.

What does this mean for western views on sexism and racism?

Obviously I’m no cultural theorist and I’m definitely not an expert on Japanese culture and history; this is just my impression of the differences between the west and Japan from 10 years of living here. Obviously also these lines between ancient books and modern practice are mediated by thousands of years of cultural baggage, and there are other cultures at play in western countries that may still have a lingering influence on how sexism and racism develop. But I think the connections are there, and that even though we in the west like to fancy ourselves as enlightened and developed, we’re actually still wallowing in a swamp of barely-understood cultural norms that derive from what is, in essence, a very very bad place. When you step outside the christian world and spend some time looking in, you start to notice that actually a lot of our bad points are not universal, and I think they probably stem from our religious origins. Here I have given the example of gender relations but I think the same thing applies to race relations and probably the way we approach class, economic inequality and other -isms. But I think that the differences in gender relations are clearest because they are most noticable in day-to-day life, and perhaps also reflective of the most poisonous aspect of Christianity.

I have said before on this blog that I think western radical feminism is itself misogynist and conservative. This is because it’s really hard to escape the origins of your own culture, and the reality is that our culture has its origins in a deeply misogynist, poisonous text that is hateful and judgmental – the old testament of the bible. And while modern Christians try to pretend that they built their ideology on the new testament’s story of love, this new testament story is an evil story of child murder, with a side of nasty misogyny from some of the apostles, and it doesn’t do anything to leaven the nasty hatred of the old testament. Furthermore, while our modern Christian movement tries to pretend that it is all about love and light (and murdering your own son so you can be famous, then fetishizing his dead body), the actual origins of our cultural approach to sex and sexuality are all in the old testament, in the disgusting, judgmental and hateful texts of Genesis and Leviticus. Our fundamental origin story is designed around hating women, and making sex sinful and dirty. Much as we like to pretend that we’re free of religion, we’re not free of its cultural influences, but we need to be if we truly want to liberate women and men from the shackles it has imposed on our relations. But my experience in Japan shows that these ideas are not universal, they’re not fundamental parts of who we are as human beings or who we will become if we try – we can shake off these ancient rusty chains, and become better people. But in order to do that we need to confront the causes of some of our deepest, most secret problems, and for the left that means not assuming we can fix all our problems by fixing economic relations – we need to keep taking the fight to the bible, and to the deep-seated insecurities and social tics it has created in us.

And sometimes that means we need to recognize where our society is failing itself, and fight cultural battles on purely cultural grounds, because when we assume there is some economic force that created Trump or the modern Republican hate machine, we are guaranteed to fail. Sometimes hate is just hate, and sometimes we need to fight it on its own grounds.

About the picture: This is a picture a friend of mine took at a recent festival. It’s Seiko Omori, about whom I know nothing, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of Japanese cultural imagery that is a) really hard for westerners to understand at all and b) almost certain to be misunderstood and misinterpreted if we try to analyze all the imagery in terms of western notions of sex, sexism, women’s roles, pornography, or power.


But it don’t make no difference
‘cos I ain’t gonna be, easy, easy
the only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m
Killed by death

I first encountered Motorhead when I was 14, at school in Australia. I had just moved to a new school (again!) and was getting bullied in my home room, so I was spending a lot of my time alone. In my home room was a sullen, muscly kid with a dark character, called Matthew, who was friends with a guy called Glenn – even more muscly, and rumoured to have been held back a year. Glenn had a scary reputation, but it was one of those high school reputations that has absolutely no backing – no one, when asked, could say why or what about him was scary.

One day Glenn came up to me in lunch and asked me in his rough and ready way that he had heard I was good at computers? Back when I was 14 being good at computers was a kind of novelty, and I had in fact done a one week long intensive course in BASIC a year earlier, so even though my family were too poor for a computer I was, for my time, pretty good at computers. Not too sure where this was going I said yeah I guess I am and he told me that Matthew was going to be held back a year just like Glenn had been if he didn’t pass computer class, and he didn’t get it all, and we were in the same class, so would I help? I was aware that Glenn had a reputation as the kind of boy to whom you can’t say no, but I also had a tendency not to do what other kids told me to do – a key skill when you’re being bullied at school.  However, I had noticed Matthew in class and was kind of sorry for him. I was just a year away from the abandonment of my brother by my family, who had left him in a children’s prison in the UK and moved to Australia, and I was sensitive to kids who couldn’t get it together at school. So I agreed to help.

Matthew passed computers, though I can’t say if it was my help or just because he tried. During the term that I was helping him, though, something remarkable happened – Glenn invited me to hang out with him and Matthew at lunch. It turned out that Glenn and Matthew were as outcast from school life as me, with no friends except each other, and they spent their lunchtimes in the school weights room, which no one else even seemed to know existed but which they had managed to score for themselves. We would eat our lunch in that hungry mechanical way boys do in about three minutes, spend a couple of minutes chatting while we let it settle, and then set to work on the weights. And while we lifted, we played Motorhead on the stereo. Sure, sometimes there was a bit of Anthrax or Suicidals, but mostly it was Motorhead because Glenn and Matthew were old school like that.

I have only a vague memory of that six months – my parents moved after six months of course, so my budding friendship with Glenn and Matt disappeared into the sludge of my childhood moves. But I do remember that Motorhead was the first music I took seriously in my teenage years, and those two boys were the first two boys who took me seriously. There we were, clustered around the bench press, Glenn pushing my body weight and then taking off all the weights so I could struggle with the bar, no judgments passed or scornful jokes made, just a group of young men making the best we could of our lunch hour. Compared to me their school days were harsh – I had been streamed into the top maths class and was enjoying my studies but for them school was an ongoing series of trials, trying to understand shit they just didn’t get, or understand why they had to get. Sometimes we would take our lunch hour out at the back of the playing fields, and they would get stoned and hang around with a couple of similarly outcast girls, with me tagging along sober.

Once I started hanging out with Glenn, the bullying stopped. Once I tried volleyball club, and some dickhead at volleyball club got in a fight with me in the car park, and Glenn wanted to know who? Where? And I had to ask him not to waste his time. For that rare six months, in that school, Glenn was my lucky charm, the first man who ever made me feel like I could be respected just for being alive and there, the first man who ever  understood the concept of mutual aid and just being good to each other.

And he was a stoner and a Motorhead.

After that I moved to another school, in the country on the edge of the desert, and when I arrived as usual I had nothing in common with anyone – except heavy metal. Motorhead opened doors for me, again mostly with the boys who were repeating the year because they didn’t take the first one seriously. Now we had Metallica, Megadeth and a whole new world of thrash that I would never even have known about if it hadn’t been for those six months in the weights room, with Glenn in his Motorhead singlet, thrash booming, the smell of sweat and iron …

Without those metal boys my high school would have been slightly less alive, largely a life of skulking around waiting to be hissed at by the popular kids. Through metal and role-playing (which of course those kids were doing) I found a group of people who took me seriously and cared about me. I can’t say that metal inspired those kids to be nice – after all, I’ve even heard that people who don’t listen to metal can sometimes be nice human beings – but it was definitely the soundtrack to my discovery of human kindness. And it was somehow appropriate, because that first breath of human spirit came from a pair of boys who were in their own way as cast out as I was, and we were all listening to music that was fundamentally about not compromising yourself, about rejecting people who reject you. Motorhead, especially, is about being yourself and not letting anyone drag you down.

This morning I learnt that Lemmy, lead singer of Motorhead, died suddenly of cancer. It’s hardly surprising given his claim to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, and his huge smoking habit. He was 70, and playing gigs right up until last year. His band released a statement on his death which includes this simple, beautiful admonition:

We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please…play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD.
Have a drink or few.

Share stories.

Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself.


Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister

1945 -2015

Born to lose, lived to win.

That statement took me back to those teenage months with Glenn, when I was fumbling around learning to be a person for the first time. It’s probably hard for modern kids to get, but back then we were still wrestling with whether it was okay for girls to swallow, whether you should wait till your wedding day to do it, whether a single toke would get you addicted to heroin for life … there was a lot of fear of just living back then, and now that AIDS was stalking the earth there were new fears of transgression and sexuality. But metal was about living, it was about life, and it rejected all that old fussy stuff about what we should and shouldn’t do. Obviously it wasn’t just Motorhead, but Lemmy was ferociously present, he was living large and telling us all to be who we wanted to be. And we did just that, and our lives are better for it.

Lemmy’s death is obviously a big blow for metal. But on a deeper level, it’s a reminder to all of us of our mortality. If ever any man on this earth could keep living just by sheer force of will, it was Lemmy, but he was killed by death. If Lemmy can’t escape that caped doom with which he was so familiar, what hope do we have? Only one: to live our lives large and as we like them, regardless of the consequences, as he did, and dare Death to come and get us. Let death be the least of our experiences, and deservedly the last.

Fuck this actual thing

Fuck this actual thing

Most people gather with their family for Christmas, and most people seem to view this as a chore. In the days leading up to Christmas my Facebook feed is filled with articles about how to survive your drunk, racist uncle, or complaints from my friends about the impending horror of Christmas dinner. In November in the run-up to Thanksgiving Day my feed is also filled with articles from Vox and other US aggregators about how to survive the drunk racist uncle (plus, interestingly, how to rebut questions about when you are going to get married or have kids).

I escaped most of these responsibilities years ago, because I have no family. For me Christmas is a time of mixed emotions, when on the one hand my friends all abandon me to go hang out with their family, reminding me of everything that I have missed for a long time; but on the other hand their time with their family is a chore, and is primarily made that way by the poor behavior of older relatives who cannot accept basic norms of social interaction.

By way of explanation, my family abandoned me when I was 17 and although we made a few efforts at reconciliation subsequently, those efforts never stuck and ultimately I gave up on them. For most of our lives we have been separated (even when I was a child) by an ocean and two continents. Once I married I did occasionally have to endure Christmas with my in-laws, but I could also choose not to and often did, preferring not to spend the money or, once I was in Japan, unable to due to work.

At some point in the process of being abandoned by, trying to reconnect with, and then giving up on my family, I discovered that actually family are not as important as the world tells you it is, and most of what the world tells you about family is misleading and/or actually destructive. In fact – contrary to popular wisdom – your family are just people, like you, and they have a responsibility to treat other family members with respect that all too often they fail to live up to. Other family members, especially junior members, are expected to tolerate the poor behavior of other members, and make special allowances for them that ultimately degrade everyone’s relationships and put a deep poison into a central factor in many people’s lives.

We are of course used to the idea by now that adult family members have to try hard to provide a good environment for their children, to be responsible in their relationships and not to be abusive. But once we become adults everything changes. Suddenly the onus is on the children and younger family members to be an empty vessel for their parents’ idiosyncracies, anger and gradual loss of touch with reality. We all know the drill, because we’ve all done it: sitting through the lectures by the angry uncle who thinks climate change is a myth made up by lesbian Aborigines, or enduring the vicious angry barbs of the perenially-aggrieved aunt, or sitting through destructive patterns of parent-child interaction that have existed since we were little, are plain as day to us but apparently completely unnoticed by the parent in the interaction. In our twenties, especially, before we’re independent in our careers and have our own families, we have to endure the sneers of older family members who view our ideals as shallow and foolish thoughts we will grow out of when we become just like them. If we’re women, we have to endure being seen as soft and emotional if we disagree with our parents on a range of things (not just political, but about how people should behave at Christmas parties, how labour should be divided, what we should eat or how the young and elderly should be treated). We struggle to introduce new ideas to the Christmas event or to find new ways of doing things, because the older family members control everything, and attempts to deflect or defuse long-standing and destructive social dynamics are ignored, or even openly opposed. In my family, worst of all, was the assumption that my older family members could say horrible things that would see anyone in my peer group cast out instantly, and I should never, ever speak up against those horrible things or present a different opinion, but must sit quietly while a gaggle of aging, out of touch idiots rained hatred and bile down upon me.

For the life of me I cannot fathom where that hatred came from, and I cannot understand why my parents never understood that I don’t want to hear it. I mean sure, if you want to argue … but it’s exhausting, can’t we just put it aside and talk about something else? I guess my family was incapable of any form of interaction that wasn’t conflict, and by the time you’re an adult it’s not possible to break that dynamic from within. My family was also incapable of understanding and respecting my work, which is a thing I notice often in my friends’ families too – especially working class families, whose children have moved from building things to programming things, living in two-income families with no children at a time when their parents were in single-income, breeding families fixed on a certain trajectory. The problem here is not that the children are doing different things to the parents, but that the parents don’t understand the value of those things.

I know not everyone experiences these things at Christmas, and that for many people (I guess) Christmas is a generally pleasant, slightly boring experience with a few eye-rolls mixed in. But for a lot of us one or more of these phenomena are a common, frustrating and often quite upsetting part of any major family gathering, that leaves us exhausted, stressed and in many cases distressed. Why is this and what should we do?

In my opinion much of this Christmas-time anguish comes from two related problems. First, parents cannot accept that their children have grown up and do not want to deal with the possibility that they could learn or grow from their children’s experience. It is the ideal of every society that every generation is better educated, wealthier and has a wider range of positive experiences than their parents, and I think it is still the case that this is true, but imparting this education and experience backward to the previous generation doesn’t seem to be part of this goal. This means that even in adulthood we are infantilized by our parents, who always weigh their limited and often negative experiences – of war, poverty and life before the internet – against our positive and empowering experiences. Even when we reach our 40s and 50s there still seems to be this ideal that we will sit down and shut up while our elders tell us stuff we have heard a million times before – and no sharing back.

Second, and worse, society sells us an image of family relationships that is completely destructive, and that I think is built on experiences of times long past. This image simultaneously holds that our family are essential – that we can’t rely on anyone as much as family – and that our relationships with them should be unconditional in a way that our relationships with almost everyone else in life are not. I don’t think either of these things are correct. Family are often the first to let you down in a time of crisis, and in any case modern society has many systems in place to protect those who cannot rely on their family – systems like guardianship boards, pensions, elderly care, which while not perfect liberate us from dependence on our families at times of emergency – and there’s no reason to think that they should necessarily be the first or best people to turn to in times of crisis. Those of us who live far from our family understand this, even if we can trust our family, because distance renders their willingness to help immaterial. But the second part of this image, of the unconditional nature of our family relationships, is a terribly destructive force in our personal lives. What is it about family that means we have to endure each others’ foibles and cruelties without complaint or surcease, year in and year out, where we would abandon even partners who treated us with the same disregard? What possible benefit is this for anyone involved in the often-destructive relationships that hang over us from our childhoods?

I have a feeling that at least some part of the persistence of these negative dynamics in adulthood arises from the simple expectation everyone has that family will continue to stick together even if they abuse each other. For example, I know of a family where one member sold a struggling business to another, naive family member, and used the money to move into a new, booming business, leaving that family member to sink under the pressure; they were all still expected, somehow, to get along. In my own family my Father was viewed with shock and amazement when he declared he would no longer speak to or have any dealings with an uncle who sold him a dud car that was actually a deathtrap. Family are expected to stick together even if they do things that are cruel, destructive or alienating – even if they do them over and over again. I think people all know this about family life, and it makes them reckless in their dealings in a way that they are not with strangers.

If everyone in a family relationship knew that they would be tossed away as easily as strangers if they behaved cruelly or immorally, everyone would behave better. We all know that if we treat our partner a certain way they will abandon us, and that our friends only stick with us so long as our good points outweigh our bad points. In this regard our friends and partners keep us honest, and maintain some certain baseline of behavior. Obviously at times this changes, for example when a child is born or a shared business demands some special commitment, but in general our friends and partners respect that they have to listen to our needs, act on our complaints and at least try to show some degree of care for our needs. But family members – especially the older ones – work on the general assumption that no matter what they do, they won’t be dumped. They won’t be uninvited from family affairs even if they spout casual, disgusting racism or treat other family members with contempt. Many families harbour long grudges and wounds from past misdeeds that would have seen a member cast out from any other group. Those misdeeds would be much less likely to happen if people held family members to similar standards of responsibility that they hold the rest of the world to.

Many people think that the family is a central unit of society, that it holds society together and is the fundamental building block of social order. Yet it is within this fundamental building block that people are held least responsible for their own actions towards others. Perhaps the family would be a stronger building block of society if people understood that they were at more risk of being held accountable within it. Perhaps people’s behavior across society would be better if within their families they were held to similar standards of behavior that they expect of strangers. Perhaps then the family would be a real building block of social cohesion, rather than – as I suspect it has been for much of human history – a stumbling block to self-improvement, in which everyone’s welfare is held back by a fear that conflict within the family will have real physical and economic consequences for everyone in the unit.

We have updated relations in friendship groups and in couplings to reflect the realities of the modern world, but in many ways our families still rest on a fundamentally feudal (or Victorian?) assumption about their importance to the welfare of all their members. Let’s update our family relations to match the world we live in, not the world our parents inherited. Hold your family accountable for their bad behavior, and let them know they won’t always hold your patience and tolerance. We can build a better world not just by the way we treat strangers, but also by the way we treat those closest to us – and the way we force them to treat us.


Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.

Only what you see man, only what you see

Only what you see man, only what you see

Today a friend took me, without explanation, to see Sophie Calle’s The Unsold (売り残し) at Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza. I don’t often attend art shows – let alone modern art installations – and I almost never visit Ginza, so this was a real novelty for me, but despite my initial misgivings it was definitely worth it. Here is my review.

When I entered the gallery my first glance revealed an installation of everyday objects, including two dresses, that to my jaundiced and cynical eye immediately resembled Tracey Emin’s execrable bed-type stuff, and I was immediately disappointed. However, right at the door there is an introductory explanation (in Japanese and English) of the premise of the work, which changed my mind. Basically, three artists set up a flea market in the grounds of Yasukuni Jinja. They laid out their wares on three squares of cloth, as shown in the picture. One (I don’t recall which) sold worthless every day items, to each of which was attached a story that actually happened (i.e. a real story) with some relationship to the item but in which the item itself was not directly involved (so e.g. the typewriter on sale is not necessarily the typewriter from the story). Another sold a mixture of semi-antiques (cutely mis-spelled as “semi-antics” in this exhibition) and ordinary items, to which were attached completely fake stories with apparent emotional content[1]. The third sold actual antiques, and one of his original photos. For example one person was selling a completely normal bra for about 25,000 yen, and another person was selling a picture of a psycho-analyst (freud?) for 38,000 yen. One of the antiques was an ancient ceramic hot water bottle, and the picture was a pretty cool sea/sky thing. Each artist catalogued what they sold and the amount of money they sold it for – which was surprisingly large. Apparently an American tour guide passed by as this sale was going on and told his charges “there is nothing here, ignore it.” (Cute). The explanation finishes with the simple, curt phrase “These are the unsold.” So the exhibition consists of the material that was not sold.

This exhibition consists of three pieces of cloth on which the remaining items are laid out, attached to each of which is a tag with the price and the story. Behind each installation, on the wall, is a photo of the original setup, so you can see what was sold. On the opposite wall are the tags for the sold items, with their corresponding story. These tags have no information about the item to which they correspond, so you have to wander across to the original picture and guess. The stories are really interesting and believable, though whether they are actually true or not I have no clue. Investigating on wikipedia I discovered that the Eiffel tower story is true, and just as unbelievable as it sounds – Sophie Calle certainly knows how to do crazy things (I can’t remember if the item attached to this story was sold or not).

I’m an uncultured barbarian, so I have no idea what this installation was trying to tell me about whatever, but I thought it was really cool. Trying to understand why people bought these ludicrously overpriced objects because of their vague stories, or didn’t buy some object even though its story was cool, was an exercise in intruding into someone else’s private life. The stories themselves were fascinating, disconnected monologues, none of which I believed (but some of which I have subsequently learnt are real!) I can’t speak for the Japanese but the English used in the broader narrative descriptions – what the exhibition is about, how the artists met – is clear, sparse and strong. The structure of the main introductory sign and its finishing statement, “These are the Unsold” is particularly powerful, and suits the style of the exhibition. It’s a simple idea done well, and it holds your attention. Why did the passersby leave the charred bedspring and buy the useless typewriter? This, I cannot fathom. I wouldn’t buy the red bucket some guy pissed in, but why would someone else buy the bottle. Also the story of the horn is acutely sad and the horn is quite cheap, but apparently un-sellable. What does that mean?

I didn’t know anything about Sophie Calle before this exhibition, but reading her Wikipedia page I get the impression that she is a powerful, prodigious and generally unethical talent. My friend has also seen the exhibit Take Care of Yourself, which as the quoted reviewer says seems to be both shallow and deeply engaging. Her attempt to get blind people to define beauty sounds like it has the potential to be very powerful (I don’t draw any conclusions!) and the work where she gets a guy to shadow her and then presents pictures of herself sounds really interesting. Invading others’ privacy, not so much. How come medical researchers have to get ethics approval, but French artistes can pursue some guy across the world, or hijack a stolen diary for money?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, I’d never heard of Sophie Calle before today and I think her work is a genuinely interesting and challenging example of modern art at its finest. I don’t know what she’s trying to say with this exhibition and I can’t really say what I think of it, but it’s really cool. It would be better if she followed it up with some kind of article in a peer-reviewed journal giving her conclusion about what the purchases and non-purchases mean, instead of leaving it to an ignorant rube like me to try and understand, and if she had found a way to summarize what was bought and wasn’t (e.g. rankings with stories, or a website where you can see all the objects with what was bought and what wasn’t, and its story) then the exhibition would have been even cooler. But despite these missed opportunities this exhibition is very cool, and in general I have to say Sophie Calle’s work seems pretty interesting. I hope more of her stuff comes to Japan, and I recommend visiting it if you are in Japan, or keeping an eye out for her work if you are not.




fn1: I may be mis-remembering the exact nature of what these items were, but I hope you get the general gist.