Monday, 13 April 2015

Eclective affinities

In the last week of March I went to London three times. My wallet has been ever so light recently. The three events I attended were: The Sun Ra Arkestra on the 25th of March, a John Gray lecture on the 27th and football match between Chile and Brazil on the 29th.

The Sun Ra Arkestra

I introduced a school friend into Sun Ra's music and he let me know about this concert in London. It exceeded both of our expectations. This is quite likely the best concert I have ever attended.

The dour thing about most rock and pop is that is largely a dour process when it comes to live performance. The performers play the repertoire largely as it is on record. They insincerely thank the audience. They plan an encore. They leave. The great thing about jazz performances - especially with an ensemble as colourful as the Arkestra - is that each performance is different.

Sun Ra played nearly every variety of jazz throughout his career. He is written off by many as a crazy shaman who just made atonal cacophony. Yet the great thing about this music - and the Arkestra have kept at it for more than twenty years since his death - is that it is firmly poised between more traditional and more avant-garde stylings of jazz. In this concert, there was a lot of swing alongside brilliant atonal effusions.

It beggars belief that most of the group are in their eighties. Marshall Allan, who leads the group, is approaching ninety-one. They played with so much energy and passion that, if you heard a recording of the music, you'd assume they were all in their twenties. One of their saxophonists started dancing and doing incredible acrobatics - in his late seventies! Sun Ra has a despotic reputation. But, unlike other 'despotic' avant-garde-musicians - Mark E. Smith, Beefheart, Zappa, Miles Davis etc. - none of his musicians seem to harbour the slightest resentment against him. They still want to preserve his legacy, celebrate his cosmic philosophy and they still want to play each gig with the utmost energy and passion.

There is such a communal feeling to an Arkestra concert. They want the audience to get involved. I giddily danced and clapped throughout the concert. Towards the end, the wind and brass and players - barring Allan - descended onto the crowd and danced and soloed around us. I've been hearing Sun Ra's music for ten years now, so it is rather emotional to witness this. Also, strangely for a concert of avant-garde music there were a lot of pretty single girls floating around! (One of them started dancing with us but promptly left before the end of the concert!)

When you read about Sun Ra's music, he is always written about in past tense. It is easy to forget that his legacy lives on. To think that he was at his peak during the 60s and 70s when you can still attend a concert as mind-blowing as this.

John Gray

I've been reading John Gray's books and his magazine articles an awful lot lately. He has influenced a lot of my thinking and was the person largely responsible to get me into reading Schopenhauer (Borges played a part in that, too). I went with Michael Brooks, author of the 'Doves Will Rust' blog and a novel I review for this blog, Digital.

Gray is, by and large, the main voice of pessimism and unreason in this country. He has been a strident criticism of Enlightenment thinking and utopianism. The main charge leveled against him is that he offers nothing positive to lead to any tangible change and improvement. To Gray's credit, I think that there is far too much optimistic thinking. In my view, it is healthy to have his commentary and analysis in public discourse. He has been advocating a similar position for a long time. (This is despite seismic shifts from being a socialist labourite, to being a Thatcherite, a brief excursion into Blarism and now finally has arrived at a red herring where he does not really espouse any political label.) Gray critiqued free market globalism in False Dawn, where he argued that is an 'unstable Enlightenment project' on the verge of collapsing. He was an early critic of the Iraq war, viewing the idea of importing western liberal democracy as hubristic and utopian. As he was saying all this stuff about fifteen years ago, after Fukuyama had pronounced 'the end of history,' he was viewed as something of a crank. Yet after the financial crash of 2007, the unraveling of the Iraq war, the failure of the Arab Spring and many other developments have largely vindicated his position. The optimism of the 90s has largely lapsed into a collective scepticism.

The main target of Gray's polemics has been the notion of 'progress.' He argues that the Enlightenment/Liberal/Marxist idea of progress was inherited from the Christian notion. Gray argues that there is progress in science, in the sense that knowledge and information accumulates. Gray argues that that such a view is a 'human myth' (like religion), one of the many beliefs which humans have. (Another argument he uses against Enlightenemnt humanism is that humans are no different from other animals.) Gray sees politics as temporary remedial expedients - hence the 'seismic shifts' I mentioned above. There is no progress in politics or ethics. This was the view of ancient antiquity, which was a circular conception of history. In the Greek/Roman/pagan etc. conception, history was viewed as being sequential. There were wars and there was strife followed by periods of enlightenment and harmony. Whilst Gray does concede that living standards have improved and that we are more liberal and tolerant about civil liberties, these values and economic conditions can vanish overnight and be replaced by barbarism. (He cites the USA, the world's foremost liberal democracy, employing torture during the Iraq war.)

Gray covered some familiar ground in this lecture. He covered some of the stuff he has written about in recent articles as well as his most popular book, Straw Dogs. But the talk was at its most stimulating when he ventured into the subject of his latest book, free will. I disagreed with some of the things he had to say. Gray believes that our minds are deterministic and that we are not always conscious about our actions. In his book Straw Dogs, he argues that a pre-engineered cognitive system is essentially no different from that of humans. But, beyond that, can said cognitive system actually understand concepts like free will, morality, love beyond merely replicating them? (This has been brought up by John Searle in his 'Chinese Room' argument.)

Gray draws from examples from ancient antiquity against secular humanists who think they are more enlightened and scientific. He talked about the Gnostics and contemporary 'transhumanism.' Gnostics thought that the material world was illusory and that the afterlife was the real world (a view which has shades of Plato). By adhering to their creed and by practicing asceticism, they would enter a 'perfect' spiritual plane. Gray argues that is essentially no different from a current scientific fad that wants to load the data from our brains and to bring it back once we've passed away. We thus become 'eternal' and 'perfect.' Scientists are essentially being ascetic and austere by living so healthily that they will live until 2040 until technology has caught up with us.

Whilst I disagree with some of his arguments about free will, Gray ended his lecture on a stimulating note. He talked about the need for humans 'to live in mystery and ignorance.' Gray is less influenced by philosophers than he is by poets. There is a Romantic streak to his world-view (which I am sure he would deny). I get terribly bored by thinkers like Dawkins, Pinker and Grayling (all of whom Gray attacks on a regular basis) who preach about the need for science and 'reason.' Gray is sympathetic to religion. He wants us to preserve myths, one of the things which differentiates us from other animals. We are so sedated by consumerism and by the progress of science that Romantic concepts like transcendence and the sublime seem to have little currency. Though as Michael said once we left the lecture, we still feel the need to intellectualise these things. And we are often smug about 'ignorant' people.

Chile vs, Brazil at the Emirates stadium

I went to this game with bunch of Latin American PHD economics students whom I've developed very close friendships with. Two of them are Brazilian. They had been taunting me about what a crap Chile team before the world cup but largely retracted those statements after they saw them play in the world cup! (We were close - ever so close - of knocking them out.)

This the fourth time I have seen Chile play. (The previous time was the 2-0 win against England at Wembley.) This is the first time, though, that I saw them lose. The game ended 1-0 to Brazil.

The main reason for the disappointment was down to Dunga's negative tactics. Chile are a fast, fluid, passing side and Brazil constantly fouled them and stopped them. (They accrued a lot of cards.) Chile, despite being the better side, mustered one shot on target.

Though I did encounter something very, very suprising. A fan from my third division teach, Fernandez Vial, invaded the pithch. I am in an important European stadium, watching an international friendly and I see a Vial fan storm into the pitch. Only word could express my incredulity: SU-RRE-AL.

Vial are in danger of being disbanded. They were just promoted from the third tier and the ANFP (the football federation) has charged them a large sum they can't afford to pay. Vial are the team with most support in the region and with longest and most interesting history. They deserve a lot more. The fan went up to Bravo, who plays for Barcelona, and pleaded for his help... yep, the situation really is that desperate.

So, all in all, I had fun bantering with my Brazilian friend and witnessing that surreal incident. And I'm a passionate fan of La Roja, so it's a always a pleasure to see them play. So it was worth it.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Strange bed-fellows

The invasion of Iraq created the optimal conditions which allowed Isis to annex vast swaths of the region. It created a failed state riddled with sectarian conflicts. It heightened tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims. It installed a corrupt Shia politician, Nouri al-Maliki, which ratcheted up Sunni resentment. Fundamentalist Sunni groups consistently made a lot of traction. It had a weak army. And, with the burgeoning civil war in Syria, it could not cope with Isis spilling over from across the border.

Whilst all this is true, it can lead to uncomfortable conclusions. It can lead us to deflect blame from Isis' heinous behaviour and direct all the blame at US' aggressive foreign policy. Yes, this would not have happened if the invasion had not occurred. And, yes, the neo-con strategists of the war should assume complicity. But this should not absolve Isis' behaviour.

Isis is a well-organised unit. For a moment they provided good electricity and water. They will kill anyone who does not adhere to the warped view of Islam. It is not as if they are just following Sharia law. They distort aspects of the Q'uaran to justify torture, murder and rape. With many of its fighters having served in the army for Sadaam Hussain, and having fought in the Syrian war, they have military acumen. Their brutality often exceeds that of the Nazis. Granted, they do not have the same military power as they did and are therefore nowhere near as comparable as a threat. They are committing acts of genocide against the oldest Christian communities in the world as well as a rare pagan religion, the Yazidis. They condemn as pagans any group which does not adhere to their strange view of Islam. Whilst some Sunni in the region were pleased initially - Isis are competent and well-organised - they are now fleeing after being subjected to their authoritarian behaviour. This is especially so after Isis force one man over eighteen from every family to conscript in their army.

The most repulsive impulses of human behaviour come to the fore when people join Isis. Since there is no functioning government in either Syria or Iraq, they have been given free reign to murder and pillage as they please. Even people growing up in western democracies, which are steeped in Enlightenment values, act in the most depraved way once they have joined the organisation. It can be disquieting to see civilised citizens of liberal democracies changing into savages overnight. It does lead one to think that these Enligntenment values which we cherish so much can disappear overnight.

Some parallels are being made with the Spanish civil war. Although many people are fleeing to fight with Isis, other are choosing to fight with the Kurds. Some make the analogy with fighting with the anarchists against the fascists in Spain in the 1930s. Isis is a force that should be defeated. Though as Theresa May enforces her aggressive security laws, it is very murky indeed to say 'you are right to go this treacherous territory to fight with the Kurds but not with Isis.'

The reality is that Isis will only be beaten with a coalition of strange bed-fellows. Iran is sending troops. The US is sending air raids. The reality is that neither is enough to decimate Isis. The only way to defeat Isis is through a coalition of historically hostile nations. After tentative the US/Iran nuclear deal, we may just be nudging towards that direction.