old blog / new blog

June 15, 2010

In case I missed you out:

‘Dear Sometime Readers of my old blog, ‘Rugged Indoorsman‘,

I hereby invite you to extend your Sometime Readership to my new blog, ‘Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground‘.

The title reflects my growing interest in wild foods & medicines (how long has it been since we last spoke?) and my concurrently declining interest in all things Indoors. As I try to explain on the ‘About‘ page, ‘Disturbed Ground’ refers to the kind of soil where you’re most likely to find the tough, hardy plants which we know either as ‘weeds’ or ‘crops’ depending on our perspective on their usefulness for us. Also, however, I’m using it as a metaphor for personal growth: exploring the possibilities for this in myself, starting with a recognition of my own ‘soil’ as pretty ‘disturbed’ … admit it, you had your suspicions ;)

Take the ‘agricultural counterrevolutionary’ part seriously or whimsically as you prefer. I felt a bit of both reactions when putting it like that, and still haven’t decided whether I’m comfortable having that as a ‘handle’ (or indeed whether I want to identify with any handy label). I won’t just be talking about how bad tractors and pesticides and ploughs are though – I follow writers like Daniel Quinn, Richard Manning and Jared Diamond in identifying the agricultural revolution (more broadly, perhaps the process of domestication itself) as the primary cause for how things got to be so fucked up nowadays, right across the spectrum. So you can still expect me to talk about subjects ranging from politics, the media, the arts, psychology, language, religion etc etc – all as I see them growing on their own Disturbed Ground.

But didn’t I talk about all that stuff on the old blog? Yeah, I guess. I think the main difference will be one of general approach. With my Rugged Indoor material I felt like I was getting sucked into all the things I was criticising (and there was a lot of criticism, especially if I’d been watching too much TV news), and expending a great deal of energy on things I might just as well have deemed irrelevant for all the impact my reactions might have had on them… In moving my focus towards the Outdoors I hope to ground my writing in my own personal experience; to no longer have this mediated by distant authority figures on a screen, across radio waves, or even in books. After first learning to see it as worth telling (why do we pay so much attention to the stories of faraway strangers if not because of a fear of taking our own lives seriously?), I will try to tell my own induplicable story – relating events and interpretations directly from my own senses & perceptions.

Here’s a passage I recently rediscovered from The Tao Of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, the first book I read that felt like it had been written specifically for me (at age fourteen). This explains what I mean better than the above Big Words:

“I say, Pooh, why aren’t you busy?”

“Because it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.

“Yes, but — ”

“Why ruin it?” he said.

“But you could be doing something Important,” I said.

“I am,” said Pooh.

“Oh? Doing what?”

“Listening,” he said.

“Listening to what?”

“To the birds. And that squirrel over there.”

“What are they saying?” I asked.

“That it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.

“But you know that already,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too,” he replied.

“Well, you could be spending your time getting Educated by listening to the Radio, instead,” I said.

“That thing?”

“Certainly. How else will you know what’s going on in the world?” I said.

“By going outside,” said Pooh.

“Er … well …” (Click.) “Now just listen to this, Pooh.”

Thirty thousand people were killed today when five jumbo airliners collided over downtown Los Angeles …,” the Radio announced.

“What does that tell you about the world?” asked Pooh.

“Hmm. You’re right.” (Click.)

“What are the birds saying now?” I asked.

“That it’s a nice day,” said Pooh. (pp.102-4)

I hope it’s a nice day wherever this message finds you :)

Your friend,

PS – sorry for any confusion, but I’ve set up a new email address at: frequently_growing at yahoo dot com for blog correspondence. I will check rugged indoor mail less often from now, probably until fmail decide to wipe my whole account again like they did last summer… That’s all for now! – I’

[deleted Jan 24]

January 23, 2010


Subversive pollution pollutes just the same.

After three years I pronounce the death of this blog.

I often had a good time writing it. Hopefully some people enjoyed reading it.

Onwards. Outwards.

Time to invert the inward focus; redirect the attention stream.

Time for this potted houseplant to reach his skinny roots out toward the wilder soils.

All the best

Naomi Klein on Haiti

January 15, 2010

…on good form as usual:

That Heritage Foundation quote for posterity:

Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S. In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti […] offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the image of the United States in the region. (link)


Updates #1


A few ‘uh-oh’ moments from Channel 4 news correspondent, Sarah Smith’s report on Thursday (Jan 14th – currently available on their ‘7-day catch up‘):

[10:34] At the airport a US airforce plane with supplies and soldiers. You can’t have one without the other. The troops will be needed, not just to rebuild roads and bridges, but to guard aid shipments and keep law and order.

Right … that‘s what they’re needed for … just like in New Orleans where they weren’t at all responsible for provoking & escalating the situation… Cue Oxfam’s Paul Sherlock talking about ‘a spark point for gangs and riots and things’ – because apparently ‘it will spark and there will be riots’. The subtext: “People just can’t be trusted to look after themselves – they need centralised bodies to take care of them and prevent a descent into anarchy”. Naturally:

[…] there are reports of sporadic looting. Young [black] men here siphoning petrol. In Haiti the strongest or the best armed will survive.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Channel 4 or other mainstream sources pick up on any examples of Haitians organising among themselves as per this precedent, or whether the image will remain one of poor, undifferentiated black masses at a loss without white saviours to guide and protect them.

Smith’s attempt at providing historical background was also predictably cartoon-like, strangely missing out the main actor in the country’s recent history. In one glaring example she talks in the passive voice about when ‘president Aristide was ousted’ without mentioning who was behind the ousting. In a Guardian piece, ‘Our role in Haiti’s plight‘, Peter Hallward fills in the blanks:

The noble “international community” which is currently scrambling to send its “humanitarian aid” to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.

Aristide’s own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.

See also this Democracy Now! feature on how ‘US Policy in Haiti Over Decades “Lays the Foundation for Why Impact of Natural Disaster Is So Severe” ‘ where Center for Constitutional Rights legal director Bill Quigley provides some welcome counterpoint on the military question, again relating Haiti to New Orleans:

And ultimately, you know, until order is restored—and “order” meaning a just order is restored—people break into small groups, family groups, neighborhood groups and that to try to care for each other. The police are just as bewildered and traumatized as everybody else.

And I want to say, one of the big worries that we have about Haiti is this, you know, sending in the military, that there is this real sense that you can’t actually start to feed people, you can’t actually share water with people, until you have people there with machine guns to prevent, you know, these—the worries of folks. And there’s an actual fear of the victims by people who are coming. They’re afraid of the people, when in fact the people are the most resilient, cooperative, generous folks who have already survived on their own. And this sort of militarization and scaredness—you know, scariness of the people there is something that’s common to all disasters.

The discussion also includes valuable analyses on the role of NGOs, the provision of foreign aid and the relationships with other South/Central-American countries and their liberation struggles.

Closing thoughts from Ran Prieur’s ‘What We Learned From Katrina‘ essay:

Ordinary people are competent and decent when you strip away the system and the stupid roles it requires us to play. A catastrophe is a huge opportunity for us to learn to help each other as equals, for people suddenly free of jobs and cars and television to rediscover their aliveness, to come together and build something beautiful.

This will not be permitted. It’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People with their survival needs met and free time are a huge threat to management. The reason they sent troops to New Orleans instead of food and water, the reason police violently broke up groups of people who managed to come together and take care of each other, the reason they sealed off the whole city except for official evacuation buses in which people were treated worse than cattle, is the same reason you have to have a job to eat and occupy space, and the same reason they had to kill the Indians: It is so deeply ingrained in human nature to build cooperative non-coercive communities, that the domination system cannot afford to give us an inch.


Updates #2


It didn’t take long: ‘IPS: As Aid Efforts Flounder, Haitians Rely on Each Other‘:

In the absence of any visible relief effort in the city, the help came from small groups of Haitians working together. Citizens turned into aid workers and rescuers. Lone doctors roamed the streets, offering assistance.

And despite hysterical reports of ‘criminal gangs’ returning to ‘rule slums’ after the quake destroyed the national penitentiary, it seems that already much of the serious violence has come from institutional sources. The escaped ‘gang members’ are accused of the heinous crimes of ‘stealing guns from prison guards’ and destroying ‘records of their incarceration or criminal records’. Meanwhile witnesses report that ‘most prisoners escaped or were shot by police as they ran outside’ [1:40]. Richard Seymour notes:

As it transpires, even in the text of these reports themselves, the major act of violence was by the Haitian national police opening fire on crowds of starving earthquake survivors, murdering one of their number, and leaving others tied up on the streets to be beaten to death by ‘vigilantes’ later. The striking fact, patiently reported by observers on the ground, is that Haiti is not gripped by anarchy, ‘mob rule’, mass slaughter, or anything of the kind. There was probably no more violent crime in Haiti this weekend than there would be in any normal weekend, and probably less than in some American cities.

As for the ‘looting’, the Guardian have a picture worth a thousand words under the headline ‘Retribution swift and brutal for Haiti’s looters‘:

Who looks like the real criminal here? I see starving, desperate people. I see food and/or necessary goods. I see the barriers, that ‘normally’ separate these from those who need them the most, crumbling. I see a thug in uniform preventing this re-distribution, re-enforcing (the delusion of) these barriers and thus condemning people to death.

… and the American military hasn’t even got properly stuck in yet … Plenty more ‘uh-oh’ moments in this Al-Jazeera report:

What He Said

December 30, 2009

via reddit, check out the following speech from Iraq veteran Mike Prysner:

This is the only kind of soldier I feel comfortable supporting.

Extension: the truly responsible course of action for people working / caught up in a destructive profession (and please show me a non-destructive profession within the current planet-devouring context) is for them to render it inoperable – as far & quickly as possible, working from inside or out to make its position untenable. “Our troops cannot do their jobs without knowing the public supports them”? Good! The less we support them (in their professional capacity) the better! Nobody should be doing those jobs in the first place!

Thus emerges the possibility of undermining the Industrial War Machine by turning its own nuts and bolts against it. As I put it last February:

This is not ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ – this is ‘making the works themselves realise that their flesh is alive and capable of feeling the pain of everyday metallic impacts’. […] A machine cannot function if its component parts start to soften and gum up the works – allowing this to happen with their own bodies.

I can think of lots of things worse than a demoralised, paralysed military. The first that springs to mind would be a motivated, capable military, efficiently executing its murderous tasks…

I’ll let Eddie Vedder close this off and repair his reputation:

Disturbed Men

December 7, 2009

A week-or-so ago I watched Obama’s speech of December 1st to cadets at a place called ‘West Point’ late at night on the BBC. The one which talked about Afghanistan and simultaneously announced a long-term ‘exit strategy’ and the immediate ‘deployment’ of 30,000 more troops. If you can stomach it, you can find the full text – including iplayer footage for now – up over here.

I back-and-forth on the question of what to do with such a shitstorm of lies, distortions, half-truths, misrepresentations, cynical appeals to emotion and jingoistic patriotism, orwellian inversions etc etc; how to respond to such naked, shameless state propaganda as & when it inevitably comes up from people in official positions. A sane society would marginalise or shun individuals who pump out such disruptive, hateful sentiments; put them into some kind of rehab, or, failing all else, employ someone to take them on a walk somewhere nice and remote for them to have a little ‘accident’ and never return. In our society they make it to the highest, most prestigious positions, spouting their poisonous garbage all the way! (They can keep it under wraps for a spell when trying to get elected.)

So, the questioning goes, what to do when the insanity permeates the culture, saturating it from the top down? Can I afford to ignore these pronouncements, declare them irrelevant, beneath contempt, not worthy of serious consideration (which implies legitimacy), knowing that they will provide the basis or support for a thousand other challenges that will come my way and impact my life, often through the people closest to me? Or would I better spend my time cutting these things off at the source? … But then, where to find that source? Obama’s the one speaking (and ultimately responsible for the damage his words and actions will cause), but in this instance he’s basically reading out a Pentagon briefing, and has any number of establishment shills behind the scenes, pulling his strings and making his lips move. On a deeper level, also, he’s acting out on a broader social expectation – e.g. that imperial leaders exist to look after our individual safety and interests (not merely those of transnational corporations) – which might prove infinitely more difficult to challenge and root out, and would involve routine engagements with a much wider constituency.

I don’t know how to answer or to whom to direct my response. I guess the best guide might come from the Zen (or common sense) advice to remain responsive within any given circumstance, following what feels right to direct the energy-that-arises where it needs to go. At this moment in time I can’t be bothered with tearing Obama a new one (here’s an essay contest that looks on the right tracks if that sounds like something you’d like to do). Nor can I be arsed with my usual deal of typing out long passages from books by Mark Curtis and John Pilger (this is my blog – if you want to hear their opinions they’re not hard to find). I could do the ‘Shouting At The TV’ bit and make my intial grumblings more articulate, but they wouldn’t amount to much more than “these words reside in a historical vacuum” and “reference to declassified records makes it evident that the governments of nation states never act out of benevolent intent – their motives drive from economics, pure & simple”. Did those words ever convince anybody?

Maybe. Either way, I’m going to tell a personal story instead.


I take the train once a week to go to a pub that hosts a pretty decent open mic night where I play guitar and sing with other people, and by myself. A couple of weeks ago I went a little earlier than usual because of an episode at home that made me feel uncomfortable enough to want to get out. On the station platform, under a light drizzle, I bumped into a guy I knew from the pub, C, who was on his way there from the city. We had perfunctory conversations for ten-or-so minutes until the train rumbled in. He was already slightly ‘merry’ from drinking with a group of friends earlier in the evening.

We got on the train and looked for a place to sit, with seats facing opposite one another in such a way as to support the ongoing exchange. Turning right into the compartment with the toilet in the corner there was only one option for that, which was next to a young guy with short-cropped hair, sitting by himself next to the window with a can of lager resting on a small piece of shelf and looking pretty far gone. He motioned to me to sit in the seat in front of him, so I did, and C sat next to him, across the small aisle.

After a quick trip to the loo, this kid came out leaning very heavily on seat-backs and having visible difficulty moving his legs. After a while we asked if he was all right, where he had been, whether he had someplace to go – the usual questions you might ask someone in a sorry, drunken state while trying to avoid a recounting of their tragic life story (because you were getting off at the next stop). He reassured us he had friends to stay with further along down the line, and told us, completely casually, that he wasn’t so good, having been shot in the leg. After quickly making sure I hadn’t overlooked a pool or trails of blood on the floor, I assumed he didn’t mean he’d been shot that same evening.

The story came out slowly, with evident distress. He was currently on a six-month leave from the army which had put him in Iraq. While on patrol in one of the cities over there a 12-year-old boy had shot him twice in the leg, whereupon he had whirled round and killed him (the boy) by shooting him in the head. He described how the bullets had felt going through his body, and, matter-of-factly with much attention to detail, how his own bullets had impacted on – taken the life from – the child, and then how the mother had screamed and cradled his lifeless body. I imagined him using the same words in describing the incident to his superiors, although now, with us, the tears were streaming freely down his face. Clearly the image made a strong impression that would probably haunt him for the rest of his life. He was nineteen years old (eighteen at the time of the incident).

It was hard to know what to say or do, other than to just bear witness to the story which could not stay contained. C pulled out a close-to-full 35cl bottle of whisky and offered it, wisely or unwisely. The guy drained about half the liquid in big, desperate gulps. We wished him the best from the given circumstances before getting off at our stop.

In the pub I briefly explained what had happened over the PA before singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Story of Isaac’, which includes the killer inversion of:

When it all comes down to dust I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can
When it all comes down to dust I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can

– a terrifying ‘line of the times’ and amazing how close it comes to the soldier boy’s story, considering I’d learned and decided to play the song before even meeting him. This seemed like an appropriate artistic response. On his ‘Live Songs’ album, Cohen himself introduces the song as ‘about those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another’. I aped this by dedicating the cover to the guy, his recovery and to “those who sent him” before going through every line and feeling (transmitting) the various relevances & resonances (only slightly biting down on the part about the ‘beauty of the word’ – personally I don’t think any amount of beautiful words could justify the acts Cohen sings about).

It was only afterwards that I managed to kick myself with the realisation that I’d forgotten to dedicate it to the one person who actually got killed – the Iraqi child! How did I fail to mention him or the family he’s left behind in my dedications? It happened so easily, almost reflexively. The hidden message behind the ommission: those who deserve sympathy – or even attention – are the people on our side. The rest barely qualify as human beings. We are the actors. They are the acted upon.

The question that eventually wound its way toward me was this: How would we in Polite Society react to the original incident – one boy shooting and wounding another; the second then shooting and killing the first – if it involved two equal citizens in a western country; if we strip the context of ‘soldier in a foreign occupying force’ vs. ‘member of a resisting population (with a different culture, language and skin pigmentation)’? I think the survivor would quickly find himself in jail, pleas of self-defense notwithstanding. He wouldn’t get any automatic sympathy, people wouldn’t stand up for him, asserting pure motives and noble intentions on his behalf. Few would suggest that he had a right to do what he did, or endeavour to make sure he was better armed for his next violent encounter. We wouldn’t see one as a hero, the other as a villain; in the best case scenario we would call it a tragedy, observe the mess it left behind with horror and try to trace the causes to make sure the same thing never happened again. We would see victims further victimising one another. We would want to stop it.

What’s the difference? Why, after for the first time meeting somebody who had killed another human being, did I feel more drawn to reactions of respect and empathy than repelled by feelings of horror and disgust?

About two months ago I wrote that ‘the test of a fully-fledged radical, at least in the Western context, comes not so much in the form of police lines and other forms of overt social opression, but in being able to face the culture down when it comes at you with puppy-dog eyes, white wristbands or pictures of distended African bellies.’ After reading ‘For Whose Sake Wear A Poppy?‘ by blogger, ‘martin-j’, I feel like adding ‘war widows’ and ‘wounded soldiers’ to the list:

The simplest form of propaganda is omission. How can you not feel sympathy for someone who has had their legs blown off? How can you not pity the war widow left to struggle on a pittance? The easiest way of course is not to know about them. That’s exactly how our pity and sympathy for the victims of our invasions are kept in check. We’re not told much, so we don’t care much.

With the noblest of intentions, one consequence of the poppy campaign is to elicit selective sympathy. It focuses our grief on one specific group of casualties – no surprise, our own. Meanwhile the victims of our invasions slip further from view, perhaps further despised for bringing this tragedy upon ‘our boys’.

Exclusive focus on our own soldiers is of course the current media method of dealing with the hell we have made of Afghanistan and Iraq. For those who supported these invasions reporting their true horror and failure would mean admitting complicity. So roll on the squaddies, let the tragedy be theirs. Rather than the criminality of the invasion all attention turns to the plight of Tommy Atkins. Rather than failed states and piles of civilian corpses, the tragedy becomes one of shoddy equipment and shitty living conditions.

The culture has no qualms about smuggling its agendas through the voices of people you’d never think to challenge – ‘[a] grieving mother is difficult to argue with’ as John Kelly put it. Absent from the picture and the high-profile media podiums, as usual, are any dissenting voices, with the very real bravery of ‘refuseniks’ like this guy comparatively ignored (and certainly not held up as an example for others to follow).

I read in the local paper about a funeral for one of ‘our boys’ killed in Afganistan. Apparently someone in the back of the church called out ‘three cheers for the soldier’ which resulted in a standing ovation from the entire congregation. How monstrous would someone at that funeral seem if they refused to stand and cheer on the grounds that they didn’t want to support militarism or those who (however unwittingly) do the dirty work of Empire? After all (John Kelly again):

[…] one of the necessary conditions in the process of transforming civilians into soldiers – willing to kill, maim and die – is for soldiers to feel the public supports them and their actions. (ibid.)

[It’s possible that the soldier we met was looking for this ‘public support’ in telling his story – I hope we supported the recovery of his human rather than his institutional side in this – ed.] How outlandish do I sound as I make my baby steps towards being able to tell mourning families that their sons and daughters fought and died for no good reason (economics don’t count)? The answers to these questions reflect on the mental health of the wider culture, on the success of elite groups in mindfucking the masses until they identify with their rapacious programmes, and on the ability of ordinary people to go along with any comforting lie if it will help them think the social structures operate according to essentially decent, human values.

Talking about it later, C said he thought the people in this country were going to have a lot of very disturbed young men to cope with in the years to come. I agreed. Still (as it came to me afterwards), better to deal with the problem here, on our own soil, than to allow unscrupulous men to harness – to feed – that disturbance in order to visit it upon innocents in a faraway land.

Then, once we have enough of the young ones choking on their ‘duties’ and vomiting up their traumas, we can start to deal with the disturbed old men who gave the orders in the first place. And, I’ve got to say, I don’t feel much sympathy welling up for them at the best of times…


So yes, Afghanistan. The important first step is to explode the official explanations and justifications. Once you get past those, other answers make themselves available. Here are some articles that helped me do that:

Also, watch Eddie Vedder fall into the same trap as me during (-30:15) and after (-03:30) this awesome concert performance from Austin, Texas. I’m sure there were illustrious artists making similar points in the Soviet Union during the 80’s when their armed forces were ‘working so hard, living off the land [sic] in the desert […] to fix what they can fix and somehow come up with a resolution to this situation’ [I can’t bring myself to type what he said next – get with the program, Eddie! – ed.] in the territory they had occupied… This after singing a verse like:

Her son’s slanted
Always giving her
The sideways eye
An empty chair where dad sits
How loud can silence get?
And mom, she reassures
To contain him
But it’s becoming a lie

She tells herself
And everyone else
Father is risking
His life for our freedoms

Never thought I’d regret sharing such distinguished company :| Seems that empathic impulses can make our brains drop out of our heads – can in fact be employed as tools of oppression – if we only direct them selectively, to those the culture has deemed worthy recipients.

New Page

November 24, 2009

… wwoof diary to your right »»»»»»


November 11, 2009

I just read this interview of Derrick Jensen by Franz Joseph Smecker and was struck especially by this bit:

R.D. Laing began his extraordinary The Politics of Experience with: “Few books today, are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become very alienated from our own experience, from whom we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves, that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. I of course agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. This culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding—that the culture is murdering the planet—is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be no dreams. There can be nothing.

This helped me make sense of why I dislike so much of what passes for ‘popular music’ these days – with pathetically few exceptions, none of it engages with reality in a truthful way. Watching the chart programmes on TV, I’m struck by the borderline aggressive way in which the songs and singers who’ve made it to the ‘top 40’ refuse to approach anything smacking of ‘depth’ or ‘meaning’ or … ‘relevance’*, either in lyrics or through the overall sound they produce. Taken all together it seems frantic in its shallowness, desperate in its willful ignorance, and watching more than a ¼ hour of it does my fucking head in. These artists take as their starting point the useful, silencing lie that ‘everything is basically okay; we’re just here to have fun’. That makes their work unforgivable.

Of course, this just discloses my own personal bias. Surely, in fact by definition, popular music just represents ‘what people want’, right? If I don’t like it, that could just indicate how out of touch I am with the desires of those ‘common people’ (like you? – apologies JC) and I should take my complaining elsewhere. Well yes, the charts as far as I know still represent what most people have spent their money on, but how did most people hear about these artists / tunes in the first place? Through the same commercial sources. Artists who don’t splash out on advertising or otherwise score high-profile media appearances generally don’t make the preselected list from which the Greater Public chooses. As with other phenomena like the mass media, junk food, fashion, technological ‘progress’, I much prefer the conclusion that, by limiting, marginalising or destroying viable alternatives, manufacturers in effect force this stuff down our throats, to the old misanthropic cliché of ‘the ignorant schmucks get what they deserve’.

‘People writing songs that voices never share’ – Simon & Garfunkel

What would pop music sound like if it actually reflected what most people go through in their lives? Well nationwide mental health stats might suggest that sadness and depression – and musicians acknowledging and helping their audience to deal with the issues they raise – would step from the shadows to take a more leading role. You might expect to hear more of the vital emotions like anger and compassion, along with doubt and vulnerability. You might even get a bit of  humour, anywhere from gentle to biting. Above all you’d get some actual open, emotional honesty. I find it revealing that these fundamental aspects of the human experience so routinely fail to make it into the modern arts. The message I get from this absence goes hand in hand with (reinforces) messages that have come thick and fast from the rest of the culture throughout my lifetime. For example: “Thinking too much or too deeply is unproductive”, “Cheer up, it might never happen”, “Don’t laugh: this is deadly serious”, “Nobody wants to hear about your problems; shut up and get on with it”. Peoples’ inauthentic, false selves might want to hear (even feed off, get further suppressive strength) from these messages, but that doesn’t make them any less poisonous to their overall well-being. When I catch a Radiohead performance once in a blue moon on the TV, e.g.:

I can almost hear the collective “thank fuck somebody’s addressing this stuff – maybe I’m not alone after all” go up into the atmosphere from (the smallest, most neglected part of) viewers around the country. I haven’t heard any other plausible explanations for their popularity.

Radiohead album sales aside, I did some research on what ‘use’ this music actually provides:

The DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) came out with a ‘Statistical Bulletin’ in January ’09 (pdf) on the state of what the economists term the ‘Creative Industries’ in the UK. In their ‘headline findings’ they estimate that ‘The Creative Industries, excluding Crafts and Design [but including Advertising, Architecture, Art & Antiques, Designer Fashion, Video, Film & Photography, Music and the Visual & Performing Arts, Publishing, Software, Computer Games & Electronic Publishing, and Radio & TV – ed.], accounted for 6.4% of Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2006′, ‘The Creative Industries grew by an average of 4% per annum between 1997 and 2006. This compares to an average of 3% for the whole of the economy over this period’, and that ‘Exports of services by the Creative Industries totalled £16 billion in 2006. This equated to 4.3% of all goods and services exported.’ All together, these ‘Creative Industries’ ‘created’ just over £57bn (excluding Crafts and Design) in 2006.

Helpfully, they have a table breaking this down sector by sector – so in 2006 it turns out that ‘Music and the Visual & Performing Arts’ raked in a cool £3.4bn, or 0.4% of the total ‘Gross Value Added’ of that £57bn† in the entire UK economy (totalling £895bn if £57bn represents 6.4% of it) – by comparison, both ‘Advertising’ and ‘Radio & TV’ came in at 0.6%, ‘Publishing’ with 1.1% and ‘Software, Computer Games & Electronic Publishing’ accounted for 2.7%. ‘Exports of services’ from the sector amounted to £270m.

But there’s more to come. In March ’09, NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – ‘Making Innovation Happen’) published a report called ‘Demanding Growth‘ which proposes that:

Our response to the recession […] should support new areas of emerging demand, where important long-term trends are giving rise to new markets. Three areas for potential growth are especially promising: the green economy; creative industries; and healthcare, including services for an ageing society and biotechnology.

NESTA believes that these are all areas of high future demand, significant existing strengths, and strong technological changes. The green economy and healthcare could have a combined market size of £93 billion by 2013, with the creative industries alone contributing £85 billion to GDP.

Success in these areas requires the government to support and empower businesses through a combination of infrastructure development, regulation that actively encourages growth, and the use of government procurement to stimulate demand.

and forecasts that ‘a 9 per cent annual growth rate can be achieved with effective government support’ to achieve that £85bn target, ‘creating 185,000 new jobs’ in the process (p.13).

What would happen to the ‘significant existing strengths’ of – not to mention the growth forecasts for – the ‘Creative Industries’ if more of the necessary honest, ‘forgivable’ work were to come from the mass of artists rather than merely from isolated individuals and groups within their ranks? If the proportion of meaningless slush correlates to ‘Gross Value Added’, as the commercialisation of every musical style from jazz to hip-hop would suggest rather forcefully, I shudder to think what the charts would sound like in NESTA’s vision for 2013 (about 50% worse by my calculations).

What does it mean to participate in a growing industry? Could you survive within that environment (and receive its tokens) with a coherent, publicly expressed critique of the very growth which would be putting food on your plate? What if that growth came with its own required attitudes – a continual pretence of cheeriness, a world-weary irony, a stiff upper lip, a ruthless desire to get ahead hidden behind a smile and a handshake, etc. etc. – would you, could you go along with it, or would you drop out hard to hover on its margins for the rest of your days? What happens to creativity when subjected to the demands of an industry? Perhaps it depends on whose creativity: one person who creates the ‘right’ things in the ‘right’ way will be rewarded with success; another person not quite meeting the same standards (but equally talented in the work they produce) or using less acceptable methods will tend to get ignored. As Noam Chomsky famously put it to Andrew Marr:

[11:10] I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.

I don’t know if, given the choice, I’d prefer to work in a growing, a static, or (G*d forbid) a shrinking sector of industry. It would depend, I suppose, on what values people clung on to, and how fiercely they tried to resist change in shifting from one stage to the other (because all industry goes through the three phases – they contain eachother in the expression ‘what goes up must come down’). I think profit-orientation creates a little bubble cult(ure) of its own (a bubble that can get quite big, as we’ve seen) with exhaustively strict rules that its members have to take seriously all the time or else face expulsion. That whole process looks ugly to me, even during the supposedly ‘good times’. So, given a real choice, I think I’d prefer not to work in an industry at all.

In Burning All Illusions (Google Books preview), David Edwards (building on the work of Chomsky, Edward Herman, Erich Fromm and others) describes a ‘filter system’ operational in mass society, whereby initial premises like ‘growth is good’ form ‘framing conditions’ that, left unchallenged, can create fantastically ornate, but predictable & homogenous social superstructures, without the need for further conscious design. He compares it to pouring ‘a stream of tiny balls’ into a square frame, which creates a near-perfect pyramid because ‘any ball that settles inevitably builds, while all others in less stable positions are moved into more stable positions or bounce out’ (p.9). Later, he applies this to the mass media, with some obvious applications to our subject:

[…] the mass media are not indifferent to issues of doubt, questioning and truth; their primary role is to create a buying environment which maximises advertising sales. This requires the careful avoidance of stimulating deeper thought that interferes with the buying mood (what, after all, could be worse than the potential consumer deep in thought about some critical issue raised by a programme, thus barely noticing the advertisers peddling their soft drinks, snacks and other essentials of modern life? Programmes will inevitably tend—by a process of ‘natural selection’, rather than active censorship—to be reduced to the lowest common denominator of advertising product vacuity). Above all, the creation of a buying environment requires the avoidance of any notion or implication that gratuitous consumption for status and luxury might not be the natural and sensible goals of life. This immediately rules out most profound human thought which, as a consequence, has almost ceased to exist for modern humankind—except as the fossilised bones of ‘superstition’. (pp.84-5)

Pursuing Edwards’ metaphor, it seems to me that, in the attempt to render their endeavours ‘forgivable’ in the current climate, artists would have to embrace their ‘unsettled’, ‘unstable’ positions in the growing pyramid, maybe working to deliberately ‘bounce out’ altogether. We could formulate a general prediction: The further you manage to situate yourself from the apex, the lesser the upheaval you’ll face when it eventually crumbles in on itself (and the saner you’ll feel in the meantime). Or this: The closer you get to the frame itself, the greater your opportunity to wear it down (through your movement, through your struggle to free yourself from all arbitrary constrictions) until it finally cracks and splinters away to nothing.


* – the word I was looking for here was ‘urgency’ – you wouldn’t tell from anything in the charts that, as Jensen puts it so undeniably, ‘the culture is murdering the planet’. A purpose this serves is to pacify the population into acceptance of absurdity, and to lull us to sleep in the best traditions of Aldous Huxley’s fictional drug, ‘Soma‘:

“I don’t understand anything,” she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. “Nothing. Least of all,” she continued in another tone “why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly,”

† – corrected Nov. 20

Frank Turner’s love song to Margaret

November 1, 2009

Turns out the lead singer from Million Dead (author of such lines as ‘Because honestly, if you ignore the terminology, mainstream political philosophy grew out of Christian teleology. Despite the claims on the packaging, all the liberals and the communists, all the people making promises, are pigs to a man and their premises are all the same.’ – link) struck out on his own, after his band dissolved, with a fresh folk/punk sound that all the kids could sing along to.

Of course I’m a sucker for political content, but browse around the Related Videos, check out his site or myspace page for plenty of other, equally refreshing sides to his musical character.

In related news, here’s a passage from ‘Absolutely No Excuse’ a John Pilger article from back in 1991:

The pent-up energy of these boys is like a presence; to an old person or a young child it must be menacing. I have watched them expend some of it by riding a bike in slalom course through the glass and dogshit, back and forth, back and forth.

Whenever I ask them what they ‘do’, their reaction is incredulity. One of them laughs. They do nothing of course! Even those still at school do nothing; and leaving school will mean more nothing. That, they seem to say, is what they are for. They are the literal opposite of nihilists; for it is they who have been rejected.

It is likely they knew about this state of nothingness as far back as the age of seven. That is when the ego expands and children get a pretty good idea of where they are heading, especially those in a class-based society. Modernised poverty adds another dimension. There is the beginning of conflict between popular, illusory expectations and the inability of many young people to grasp that these are illusions and not for them. By the time they reach their teens, they will be blamed for not living up to inspirational images that are almost all of wealth and aquisition. The resulting frustration will produce violence, most of it no direct threat to others; it is inward violence manifest in failure at school, the disintegration of relationships, and in general ill-health. (Distant Voices, pp.25-6)

The Social RPG

September 25, 2009

I have a game I’d like to present. I’ve been playing it on some level or another for several years now with many mixed and interesting results. I think I’m going to call it the Social Role-Playing Game. It works as a solitaire to keep your mind occupied (or, as it may turn out, free from occupation) during your while-away moments, but I think it could get better results as a back-and-forth between two players or even as a multiplayer circle formation.

The basic idea is fairly simple. You begin by naming a profession (or, more loosely, a behaviour or other cultural phenomenon you’ve seen happening with some regularity) fairly widespread in society at large, and then attempt to identify its (primary) social or political role – i.e. what crucial supportive function it serves within the wider culture. When you’ve given an answer, name another profession (or behavioural pattern) for the other/next person (or for yourself) to puzzle over in turn.

Here are some of the questions it has helped me to ask:

  • How much (if any) monetary compensation can the participant expect for this (professional) activity? Who signs the cheques? (Implied, ‘lurking’ question: does money, insofar as those who make it available do so on a regular, dependable basis, represent anything other than the desires of the rich & powerful?) What do they get for parting with this currency?
  • In what ways does the activity further the wider goals of the culture (in our case, economic growth, higher GDP, faster rates of resource extraction, etc…)?
  • In what ways do the stories told in (or by) the lives of the professionals, and/or enacted by the profession as a whole bolster the wider cultural stories (e.g. man as inherently evil, man as separate to or above from ‘nature’, zero-sum competitive struggle as inescapably fundamental to all life, etc…)?
  • Who most benefits from the (collective) behaviour? Who least? (Who not at all? Who gets shafted?) How do these groups relate to one another? What kind of barriers (geographical, social, political, psychological, physical – if any) separate them? Who put the barriers in place?
  • Has somebody (or have many bodies) in the past tried to suppress the activity for whatever threat they perceived in it? If so, why? If not, why not? Does the same person (or do the same people) still try to suppress it, and for the same reasons? If not, what has changed (in them or in the activity or in the wider context) in the meantime?
  • In what ways does the process help or harm the bodies or minds/psyches/souls of those involved?
  • Do the participants participate of their own free will or did somebody have to co-opt, trick, trap or otherwise (e.g. through lack of other viable options) force them into it? How much compromise do they feel they are making? Do they feel like they are chasing their own goals?

And so forth.

Of course the game reaches its zenith when players feel prepared enough to apply the same line of questioning to their own professional fields (or other habitual behavioural patterns). For many people this will prove too difficult or uncomfortable (for the time being). They may even reject the game before trying it, perceiving right away the threat to their own jobs and their continued ability to hold them down. We know that ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’ (Upton Sinclair) and many of us have had studiously ignorant employers or co-workers explain to us how ‘thinking too much’ can act as an impediment to the overriding imperative of getting the work done.

But if John Pilger can do it…

Graduates might think they can change the system from within, and there are rare examples of extremely honest journalists working in the press: John Pilger, George Monbiot, Robert Fisk and Greg Palast, for example. But these are islands in a sea of compromise. Pilger has described himself as a kind of “fig leaf” at the New Statesman, a way of promoting their claim that they are open to a wide range of views. Only one or two ‘fig leaves’ are required, however, and so most of the good writers thrive outside the mainstream. (link)

Hell, if I can do it (although admittedly I didn’t manage to spell it out while still receiving the meagre salary) the final stages shouldn’t prove impossible for everybody.

From one perspective it seems entirely appropriate to call this game (and the kind of thinking it encourages) ‘dangerous’ or ‘subversive’ or ‘destructive’, and I don’t entirely reject these labels (if anyone figures out how to sell it, they can put a warning sticker on the box). Luckily there’s another perspective from where we can see that the primary danger comes from allowing these same, often destructive activities to continue unquestioned, not to mention unopposed. There’s a perspective from which understanding the real ins and outs of your own (professional) activities actually represents the healthiest, most sanity-preserving course of action. Even (or especially) if that ultimately causes you to seek other, more truly productive means of employment. Since quitting professional (classical) singing and figuring out some of the reasons why it troubled me so much, I’ve lost a lot of my bewildered anger and hatred when listening to, and even occasionally participating in, that music again. That I do so now with the emphasis very much on my own terms helps with this. Identifying the structure has unexpectedly lead to a different (if not grateful) kind of appreciation for what goes on within it. A couple of times it has almost made the music sound beautiful again…

So, the best use I can think of for this RPG would be as an extractive tool, helping people to pry away what’s left of their authentic selves from the service – from the enslavement – to the languishing Death Economy.

Okay, here’s an easy one to start:

What social role is played by the producers of property programmes on the TV?


September 14, 2009

… something.

Hello readers!

So, I’m back in England. In fact I’ve been back over a week now, with full internet access and all the usual habits that entails. Quite a shock at the abruptness with which it’s possible to slip – jarringly – into old, addictive patterns of behaviour. Back in July I went nearly a month without touching a computer, then a cousin came along  up into the mountains with a laptop and a USB, and *bam*, three hours of the day gone into watching shitty pirated movies and playing fucking solitaire.

I see Ran has some advice on writing a blog with a view to getting (and maintaining) a steady readership, including this nice metaphor:

There is a special rule for blogs or anything else where you’re trying to hold an audience over time: it’s like feeding a fire. The fire is the attention of your readers, and your writing is the wood. Of course you need clean dry wood and not soggy dirty wood. But also, if you go too long without throwing wood on, or if you throw too much wood on at once, the fire will go out.

This, along with my stubborn refusal to allow search engine access to the site, my reluctance/inability to self-promote and all the time spent checking out wordpress blog stats instead of writing new material, explains why these pages have only gotten 3,000 hits in their time, and why fully 98 of the total 125 comments have come from yours truly: refining, PSing, backtracking, deconstructing, pondering, adding the cavernous echo to my own voice… I suck at firebuilding!

Actually, I probably have all the necessary firebuilding skills and even sometimes the desire and motivation to get a nice roarer going, but at the same time as I feel drawn to their warmth, their comfort, their promise of eventual companionship, the flames repel me with the conflagrationary potential they contain. Once I get the thing started I suddenly feel appalled by the destructive potential, and convinced that I’d let it get out of hand, out of control. And almost gleefully so. Hell, all the tinderwood I’ve been jealously hording over these years – it’s almost a shame not to spark it off and watch the whole lot burn in one go! But still, those small licks of flame put me into a terror. So perhaps I smother or starve them out on purpose.

Back near the start of this thing [check] over two and a half years ago I had loads of ideas for the rugged indoorsman. I’d get so excited over some thought or project for him to mull or chew over that I’d have trouble getting to sleep. Some of these even made it past the ever-scrupulous editing stage (more accurately: they got through when I got so tired with alter-ego ‘ed.‘ and his constant interjections that I wound up saying ‘screw it’ and hitting the ‘publish’ button) and onto your screens.

Now whenever I think about this blog I spend half my time wondering whether I should just kill it off and start afresh with something new. Or just kill it off. The question: ‘Why the fuck am I doing this?’ poses itself less frequently in my mind these days (ever since I started out on this extended break from routinely doing things I hate) but it still pops up once in a while and I still can’t respond anywhere near adequately. I watched an interview with Billy Corgan on youtube* in which he discusses writing the song ‘Today’, and he said that it was only with that song that he was finally able to make the decision that he wanted to live. And I thought, ‘Yeah, there’s my problem. I still haven’t decided that I want to live.’ Not ‘whether or not I want to live’ – I don’t think suicide comes into the question. I think it refers to a resolve to step purposefully out from the ranks of the walking dead, to leave the purgatorial neverland behind, to escape from the place where ‘the individual delegates all transactions between himself and the other to a system within his being which is not ‘him” and where ‘the world is experienced as unreal, and all that belongs to this system is felt to be false, futile, and meaningless’ and to move with no possibility of return (back) toward the place where ‘Thoughts and feelings of which the self is the agent are alive and are felt to have point. Actions to which the self is committed are felt as genuine.’ [R.D. Laing, The Divided Self – see below]

How does one go about making this decision?

Buggered if I know.

Here’s a picture of me, still undecided but feeling pretty good nonetheless:


Well, absorbed anyway.


[* – found it. Oh, and he says that about the whole album, not just the one song – ed.]

Outdoor taster

July 1, 2009

Unforseen internet access allows me to gift you this diary extract from the closing stages of a recent canoe trip (more on which as of when). Further online responsivity postponed for the forseeable, but you never know!

I learned a few things about resistance vs. acquiescence to your fate while four of us were locked in the back of that metal box, with only an A4-sized piece of window high up on the front end, and a small white light above the door barely banishing the darkness. At first I was fine enough rattling along sightlessly in there, but it started getting worse when I refused to try & sleep along with the others. I though of “illegal” immigrants being bussed through the night and Jews on cattlecars to the concentration camps; all helplessly awaiting an externally directed fate.

Why do we choose to suffer in silence when the steps to take to alleviate the suffering are often so simple and obvious? What training are we responding to and how did our trainers think they were doing a good job in preparing us to meet the world? What world were they preparing us to meet? What world were they preparing us to create?

F told me the ride would last about an hour and to try to get some sleep. N in a way gave me license to descend into my own bodily perception when informing us that he didn’t feel “à l’aise” (he’s always coming out with these things: “j’ai faim”, “j’ai mal”, “j’ai soif”, “je suis fatigué” – pronouncements completely alien to my get-what-you’re-given mentality). Soon I was feeling violent urges toward the enclosure, and implacable anger toward my captors (the issue of consent comes into it but the physical reality of the situation is still accurately described by the word) and – stangely – toward my fellow inmates so resigned to their incarceration. I thought of what I’ve been reading in Livingston’s book* about the defining ability of domesticated animals to tolerate conditions of crowding that would drive their wild ancestors insane, and the human ability to tolerate pain as part of a story including a future relief entirely out of evidence in the present. I imagined me beating myself bloody against the bare metal walls like a trapped animal recovering from sedation, all the while screaming: “I am not a malfunctioning component in your machine!”, and this reaction started to seem more + more appropriate and attractive.

Instead I got up, went over to the front and rapped on the window, laughed strained incredulity and said “non” when F asked if I was going to be sick, rapped louder and more insistently on her suggestions when it didn’t seem that anything was happening in response. When they finally stopped the van and a concerned B rolled back the door the words came out stronger than I expected: “5 mintues please!”

What a great feeling making something happen! For the first time since I-don’t-know-when, I felt on solid ground, like I had drawn that line which says “I won’t take no for an answer”. My 3 companions had the same hardness in their faces, the same tensed eyebrows, but only I had the fierce animal glare in my eyes that comes – I suppose – from listening to the needs of the body and connecting them firmly into self-preservative action through the intellect. E later said (through N’s translation) that I looked green and should have made them stop way earlier. She was the one to take my place when we continued, after P asked if I’d like to travel in the front and I hoarsely responded with a “that would be nice”. I didn’t feel bad for another having to shoulder my previous suffering. The original act had some altruism in it (ie: letting everyone have a breather) but the continuation was entirely selfish. I had acted  to relieve my suffering, been offered a lifeline, and felt no remorse in taking it. If others wanted to do the same that was up to them.

Outside, I paced around, jumped up and down, spat on the ground a couple of times, and generally tried to re-enliven my senses and physicality for my hard-won 5 minutes, then got into the front seat. The fierceness and solidity lasted for about another 2 hours, facial muscles set in hard lines of resolve like those portraits of Latin Americans in Motorcycle Diaries (the film – see below). I turned away from the others who seemed perplexed or disconcerted, and didn’t make much conversation until much later in the evening.


* – Rogue Primate


June 20, 2009

… for the summer

Sunset Waymarker

New stuff when I get back in September or then-abouts.

Have a good one!


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