Thursday, 27 September 2012

National barriers

I was speaking to someone who has lived in the north of England all his life and has never travelled abroad. He told me that, if asked what nationality he'd consider himself to be, he'd be a "cosmopolite."

National barriers are breaking apart and different cultures, ethnicities and communities are intermingling at an extraordinary rate. It's little wonder that people who have never strayed beyond their country of birth appreciate this.

Someone like Dostoyevsky would be horrified to learn that I have taken a lot of elements of Russian culture and toyed around with them in my stories. A staunch nationalist, he firmly believed that one should write about one's own territory and abhorred the cosmopolitanism that prevailed in the romantic movements in France, Germany and Italy.

But that has changed dramitcally since the 19th century. The whole idea of cultivating a "national language" has all but perished and writers often cull ideas from national literatures foreign to their own.

Besides, the idea that one is completely "English" or completely "Russian" is foolish. We are all inter-bred. A DNA test would reveal that our ancestry can be located in many corners of the world. People often emigrate, settle in different countries and identify themselves with a new culture. Who's to say they can't?

This is particularly true of countries that have been colonised. Defining a "Chilean" person is very difficult indeed. The only people who could be truly qualified as such would be aborigines, but then they have interbred with Hispanic people. In middle class circles, people with German, French, English etc. roots speak with thick Chilean accents and act Chilean.

National barriers are falling apart and this is reflected through creative expression and political relations.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Essence, existence and indoctrination

I think that some of my writings exploring these issues on my blog have been a bit patchy. Here I'm going to try to clarify my views on phenomenology, etc.

I'll start by saying that the mind is a great mystery to us. We still don't have a full knowledge of its workings. Neuroscientists often accuse psychologists and the like of conjecturing whilst many psychologists claim that neuroscience is nothing more than a pseudo science. From the little I've gleaned out of all these ideas, there is a little of all of these which I intuit to be true.

I think that some of the workings of our own mind - our 'essence,' if you like - are partly innate to us. We are born with a set of attributes - intelligence, temperament, personality, etc. Each of us is born with a different DNA, so each and every one of us is entirely different, regardless of our upbringing and standing in class. So our minds, regardless of our upbringing, have propensities for different things.

From casual observation, I've always noticed that the personality of a person essentially remains the same. It is implacable right to the very end. A person might become more tolerant, have different belief systems etc., yet their tics and mannerism generally remain intact.

Every one us is born with an innate capacity to reason. For example, seminal linguist/political activist Noam Chomsky broke ground in his academic field when he pointed out that language acquisition isn't something formed by one's upbringing, we all have 'Language acquisition device' stored within our minds. Young children learn the basics, and even the nuances, of language because their minds have the faculty for this. One could even argue that the same is true for morality.

However, it is inarguable that all of us, to some degree, are shaped by our immediate surroundings. The way I see this is that this is more the case with belief systems. For example where I grew up, Chile, very few of the people I know didn't espouse the political beliefs of their parents. Religious beliefs are generally regional - sectors in such a such a continent will be Christian, over here they will be Musilim, over there Sikh, etc. People strong enough not to give into these belief systems either have had scarring experiences (being ostracized in school playgrounds, even abuse) or have simply evaluated their existence more critically and objectively.

The same is true for education. This is obvious - certain children who have been brought up precariously are deprived of a quality education whereas those parents rich enough can fork out an expensive education for their children. This also reflects the quality of a country's education - for example, free education for all, of quality, guarantees that a greater proportion of citizens will be more educated.

Speaking of belief systems, something I find abhorrent, is how often people are oppressed from having a free mind. I think we live in a society where we are indoctrinated, where injunctions are drilled into our minds. The media presents a picture of the world which is often discrepant with reality and the education system does not encourage children to inquire creatively or analytically. For centuries, this form of indoctrination has largely been religious and clerical; now you could say it is political, but is much subtler than that and it surfaces in a plethora of ways.

So, to summarise: we are all born with a set of attributes and mental capacities; our belief systems are shaped by our upbringing and life experience; and the nasty side of all this is that these beliefs can be besmirched by indoctrination (through an inadequate education system) and 'brainwashing' (through a manipulative media).

Monday, 17 September 2012


We need some kind of order and classification to hold civilisation together. Without some form of systematisation, society would fall apart and would degenerate into a state of anarchy (in the non-political sense). But are human conceptions of order mere artifice? Do they reflect our own innate sense of right and wrong, or are they more to do with a tangible objective reality? What happens when human order is challenged?

Any adherent of any political ideology would tell you that their political ideology is the most effective. A socialist would say (rather erroneously) that state communism is a way of attaining true equity. A fiscal conservative would say that the better a nation's GDP performs, the better the state of being (again, rather erroneously). Likewise, adherents of different religion would argue that their moral code is the ultimate compass to control human existence.

These are systems of thought promulgated to establish either a more equal, or moral, society. From a personal standpoint, all the examples offered above do not strike me as politically or ethically viable. A socialist society more often than not results in social repression and sectarian division and fiscal conservatism leads to massive disparities in wealth. As for religion being the only moral compass, this is hugely contestable. One does not need to adhere to any thought system or sense of spirituality to have an understanding of morality. There's actually a lot of scientific research proving that religious believers actually have a greater propensity for committing crimes and misdemeanours.

We need a kind of classification in day-to-day life. A library I walk into must have its books organised alphabetically, otherwise I would spend two hours there in search of a book instead of five minutes. Supermarkets are carefully classified and organised to help customers select their product.

On a more intellectual level, we have developed a writing system and mathematical symbols for our needs in literacy and numeracy. Archaeologists looking through relics of the Mayan civilisation have discovered that, although they obviously used a different set of symbols for mathematical equations, the language is essentially the same as those used in Western and Eastern civilisations.

But whatever system we are talking about, these are all man-made. They reflect human issues or have come about as a result of some kind of social malaise that has afflicted humanity through the ages. (For example, the ardent need for a radical overhaul for many Russians came about after years of monarchic rule.)

But what happens when we challenge these systems? This often jostles and disorientates us. We have been brought up in an environment where our minds are centred around this particular type of thinking. There are some languages where, when one does not follow the rules of the game, the whole frame falls apart. This is true of mathematics - if one does not use the correct calculations, the answer will be wrong. The same is true for architecture (where a building would fall apart) and chemistry (where substances might blow the fuck up!). But this isn't true for music. Although strict rules have been laid out with regard to keys, chords, scales etc., one can quite easily ignore classicist rules and end up producing a valuable piece of music. So, do thought systems necessarily predetermine function and order?

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Nocturnal phantom

The Night Wanderer (1924) by Edvard Munch

This painting brutally evinces my darkest days.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The library, our greatest institution

"Like all men of the library, I have travelled in my youth. I have journeyed in search of a book, perhaps of the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can scarcely decipher what I write, I am prepared to die a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. [...] I affirm that the library is interminable." - The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges

Just like the afore quoted story explores, a library is more than the sum of its parts. It is endless, voluminous and of sweeping scale and scope. Each book is different, rife with countless meanings and suggestions. In effect, it is the classification and codification of all human endeavour.

And all this is at stake, for two reason: one, the onslaught of digital technology; two, economically precarious circumstances convince politicians that, if there is one institutions that must be slashed, it must be the library.

Going digital means that all books become the same. It is encrypted, codified to the point where there is no variation amongst the items. (And in the library Borges writes about, even identical books have slight variants.) These works aren't stored, they are transmogrified into a digital medium that doesn't lend itself to public availability. The digital format is a far cry from the titanic and seamless vision Borges conceived of in 'The Library of Babel.'

All that aside, a library has been the classic tool for the autodidact. From time immemorial, it has been the most useful service for those who do not want to be sermoned but would rather learn of their own volition. Just under six years ago, I loved scouring libraries for their selections on classical music and composer biographies. These titles (which are far more specialised than works of fiction or general history) are nowhere to be found in those libraries I frequented. The autodidact must look elsewhere for these titles (i.e. the internet), but isn't it a shame that there isn't a public service providing him with such information?

I'd argue that the library is a far more important institution than a university. I say this out of pure piggishness and single-mindedness. I much prefer discovering on my own. Not just that, I prefer looking into subjects I have singled out myself, rather than having them served on a plate to me. A university allows all people, from all social standings, to develop their argumentative skills and their aptitude. That is all in good stead, but isn't it more exciting to study something that you have chosen and to work at it within your timetables and at your own pace? There are often huge gaps in your knowledge but, for the autodidact, this is the preferred mode of study.

The current ruling party in the UK is cutting down on several libraries. I won't discuss the economic flaws inherent in these austerity measures, instead I'll go through what a loss this means for us. A library is a cherished institution, dating back centuries, that provides an indispensable service to the community. If these cuts lead to the decline of libraries, then irreparable damage would be caused. Incompetent politicians and opportunistic purveyors of vacuous and empty technology will only have themselves to blame for bringing this service to an end.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The audience

The relationship between an 'artist' (for want of a better word) and the 'audience' is very complex. It is not such a black-and-white situation. The creator of whatever object a lot of the time is doing it to please himself, yes. Eventually, however, this creator does want some sort of evaluation for whatever object in question...

I always have a hard time convincing this to people. There is a lot of ponceyness and pretentiousness about saying "I don't want to write, I have to." It does sound very far-fetched, but it is true. What I find surprising is how so many people are unconvinced by this argument. 

Is 'art' or 'entertainment' simply a commodity one produces simply to amuse others? The great tragedy about the publishing industry is that it all eventually amounts to market forces - create a product for this specific audience.

Borges said that, if the entire civilisation would perish and he were to be the the sole survivor, he would continue to write. So would I. Still, Borges said that it would sadden him if no-one were to read his work. Ditto.

I love people reading my stories and my (better) blog posts. I like sharing my creative pieces, my views on aesthetic and social phenomena as well as to put up certain aspects of my personal life. But is this all done for the sake of others?

No way. As soon as you pander to your audience, the greater disservice you are doing to yourself. 

It depresses me when people assume that writing fiction and blog posts is all about entertaining a specific audience. The audience can give helpful and constructive criticism, yes. But have you written the piece specifically for whatever sensibilities they might have?

I often find that my writings that attract less notice are the ones that satisfy me the most. There are some blog posts with few hits that I judge to be far superior to others that attract far more views. I think that, in the first few years of this blog, I made the terrible mistake of writing explicitly about my private life. Whenever I read through these writings I pretty much detest them. Most of those posts have attracted far more notoriety than the posts exploring my views on philosophy, literature, film, politics etc. Is that an indication that I should write more about myself? No, I much prefer writing about other subjects...

It's an awkward situation. When I met a follower of my writings in London earlier in the year he expressed his feelings. He studies composition at a conservatory. He was far more irresolute about this than I am. Contemporary classical music, particularly the type written in university campuses, does not fit in with any musical market or trend in the mainstream. Most people seem baffled by, and aren't likely to pursue, the dense and gritty pieces of these composers. Does this undermine their efforts? What does this say about this type of music? If there is no market for it, why do these people continue to explore these sonorities? For an audience? For themselves?