Sunday, November 25, 2012

Marks of Use

We should admit that, as a civilisation, we have not yet outgrown the what should be by now banal charm of consumption. The Black Friday sales, for example, are merely a somewhat more concerted, visible and exhausting climax to what is already an interminable series of perpetual climaxes in the cycle of sales and discounts. I await the no doubt impending decision by shops to come clean and declare that the Christmas season starts not now, but in mid-May, or indeed, whenever they so wish. (I, for one, would be glad to get mince pies all year round.) Are we to be surprised by the contradictions in our collective, addled psyche, caused by relentless purchase and acquisition? Why do we feel a twinge of environmental guilt -- left in our minds like driftwood from the great sea of unexamined received wisdom -- when we use a plastic bag? And yet why do we then go home, plastic bag in hand no less, and cheerfully, sinlessly order a new coat we did not need 'for the season'? 

Many evils stem from this. But perhaps the most lamentable one of them is the literally throwaway attitude we take towards objects. One can be silly and romantic about this. There is nonetheless a serious point to be made. In a time of fewer — and better — objects, one would form closer attachments to objects. A belt, a watch, a pair of shoes: these could all be trusty sidekicks, over time turning into curmudgeonly old familiars. (No doubt the appeal of antiques and vintage clothing in part comes from this sense of loss.) In particular, I've been led to reflect on books as physical items.  My work this term on the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and his reception in England has brought me to many college libraries in Oxford and Cambridge. I've looked at many, many fifteenth- and sixteenth- century copies of Pico's work, trying to figure out how readers read these works from annotations, marginalia and other such clues. What's recorded in these physical remains is evidence, demanding to be interpreted, of the simplest of acts we often take for granted: that of the interaction between a book — both as text and physical object — and the reader.

Books then were much bigger and rarer. Reading was a much more obviously physical exercise: Renaissance readers were known to use a book-wheel. (Though how common they were is in some dispute) This device, to quote Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine in their seminal article '"Studied for Action': How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy':

... enabled its user to lay out on flat surfaces as many books as he might choose, to move them as he needed them without losing his places, and to stop at any selected text — thanks to the cog-wheels
One would have
60 or 70 portions out of large volumes, open, not counting the tiny ones. You sit and with your hand you bring portions of these large volumes before you three at a time. To put it in a nutshell, you can make a whole study revolve, and so easily that it is a delightful exercise. (Grafton and Jardine, p. 46)
All of this has led me to reconsider the relationship I have with my books. I am now more conscious of reading as a physical act: that in reading, I am not merely dealing with Platonised thoughts in some superlunary realm. One feels the quality and texture of paper, one appreciates typefaces, one is affected by light and shade. I've now taken to doing something I once refused to do, and that is to mark books -- annotating, underlining and writing on the margins. To regard the book as sacrosanct is superstition. One keeps a book in good condition in order to preserve it for future readings or for passing it on or down. But ultimately, books are our objects, meant to make us better people. To venerate them is idolatry, a misordering of means and ends. In leaving marks on my books, I take joy in creating a record of use, of historical evidence of reading. One can start making history in this small way, while hoping to move on to greater things. It is also a one-man protest against the cheapening of things, against the mass production of ever-proliferating objects: by marking books, I make them inimitably and undeniably my own.


Maddie, as you'll see in the comments below, has asked me about e-book readers (or e-readers). In one of those moments of strange clairvoyance, she has hit upon some thoughts on them that I cut out of my original post. Such coincidence demands that I replace them here. I think most of the arguments against e-readers are derived from contemptible, thoughtless reaction. But the inability to interact with the e-book in quite the same way as one would with the physical copy is, I think, a regrettable loss, and one to be ardently resisted. My guess is that both forms will exist side-by-side in the future. But that is a worthless prognostication. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Art as Psychosis

We still, generally, think of art as the product of an act of creation. (Cue familiar tropes about the artist as God, the Renaissance, etc. etc.) But unlike God, who -- I assume -- was supremely in control of his creative powers, some artists speak of their urges and impulses to create, as if it were some sort of psychosis. Art in this conception is spontaneous. Relatedly, art is then sometimes viewed as the result of possession, of being seized by the creative process. As Martin Amis said about his novel, Time's Arrow, but more generally about the process of writing itself:
"Why did you decide to write a novel about the Holocaust?" This challenge, which I still sometimes hear, can only be answered as follows: "But I never did." Similarly, I never decided to wite a novel about teenage sexuality, or Thatcher's England, or millennial London, or, indeed, about the Gulag (which I nonetheless completed in 2006). With its hopelessly inapposite verb, and presumptuous preposition, the question reveals an understandable naivety about the way that fictions are made. For the novel, as Norman Mailer put it, is "the spooky art".
This view of creation, as an uncontrollable urge to create, could never have come from the Christian mythos with its concrete sense of beginning and end. It is a pagan conception. Witness the Greek account: a messy and undignified process of starts and false starts, with Uranus, Cronos and Zeus. We have Plato to thank, with his Ion:
For all the good epic poets utter all those fine poems not from art, but as inspired and possessed, and the good lyric poets likewise ... For a poet is a light and winged and sacred thing, and is unable ever to indite until he has been inspired and put out of his senses, and his mind is no longer in him' (533e-534b)
But for Plato, artistic possession was something deeply suspicious, a potential source of anarchy and disorder. In the unbeatable explication of Edgar Wind, the first Professor of Art History at Oxford:
Although no philosopher has praised the divine madness of inspiration more eloquently than Plato, he viewed it (like Goethe and Baudelaire) with grave suspicion. He rated the strength of man’s imagination so high that he thought a man could be transformed by the things he imagined. Hence he found miming a most perilous exercise; and he devised curious laws that would prohibit the miming of extravagant or evil characters.
I'm not an artist, obviously. But I imagine when one is in the full swing of things, this process is supremely empowering, like no other. Yet creative failure must feel akin to failed suicide: Philip Roth, commenting on his recent decision to stop writing, speaks of his liberation from failure, from the fact that 'Writing is frustration -- it's daily frustration, not the mention humiliation'. Roth seems to have found a surprising liberation from his calling. But here another idea comes into play, one I am not concerned to discuss, and that is the idea of the artist as vocation. 

But there is one other conception that intrigues me. Art, in this case, is simply an attempt to cope with life. Art is therapy -- for the artist. It is an attempt to lighten the heavy burdens of memory and experience. But I think this itself often becomes another sort of psychosis. It becomes a struggle to make sure none of it goes to waste. The artist jealously hoards experience, safeguarding it, mining his memories and experiences. It is all grist for his mill, and he ever struggles to make more and more of it. He becomes no longer quite part of human society, and even no longer part of his own life: life is all material, just more material, to be collected for the production of art. I imagine -- again, because I am not an artist -- this must alter own's being quite profoundly, and particularly one's relation to reality. Sometimes I have felt as if I'm in a work of fiction. But the conviction that all of life is simply a primordial soup of potential plots, characters, tropes and symbols is beyond me. The writer I think that most conforms to this is Thomas Mann. Colm Tóibín describes Mann's method as such:
There was always a sense with Mann ... that he was an observer at his own life, that he learned very early to stand back as each thing happened, pretend that it was happening to someone else and then store material for later use. (Love in a Dark Time, p. 127)
Later on, in discussing Elizabeth Bishop, Tóibín rakes up another, perhaps even better example: the poet Robert Lowell, who turned one of Bishop's letters to him into a sonnet. 'Bishop', Tóibín writes, 'was greatly disturbed by his use of this material'. Bishop complained:
One can use one's life as material -- one does, anyway -- but aren't you violating a trust? (p. 192) 
One suspects such questions rarely occur to artists, and that Bishop was herself being slightly disingenuous -- a fact betrayed by the throwaway, but entirely undermining, 'one does, anyway'.

But for me, the great observer is the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Yes, many will scorn. Yet surely, in her over 70 novels and 150 short stories (and not to mention plays), we can discern that almost pathological desire to make as much of the material as possible. And Christie is an acute social observer. I often say I first encountered the English in Christie, and this gave me a profound understanding of them, far better than any other way. It's completely true: I still recommend Christie for sociological and psychological insight, rather than the mystery.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


My first definitive encounter with America was 9/11. Before then I had, of course, known of it, read about it and heard about it. But after 9/11, as shockwaves were felt all across the globe, I was suddenly made very aware of this huge, unavoidable nation and its impressive (and equally irritating) sense of importance and destiny in the history of the world. I was still in primary school then, but I recall we discussed the events endlessly in school. It was impossible to forget America from that moment onwards: it proceeded to start two wars and re-elect Bush. It is easy for Americans to forget this, but Obama's election in 2008 dramatically changed how many outside America viewed it. No longer did we follow America simply to be appalled, irritated and grimly amused. For once, there seemed to be a positive reason to follow American news. 

The election coincided with my International Baccalaureate exams. I had been following the career of the young senator from Illinois quite a while before that. Reading about the election was pure political crack, and I was a junkie. Fours years on, my hopeless addiction to (political) news coming of the States is uncured. One cannot deny that American politics has a grandness of tenor, vision and narrative that is unmatched in the world. It is this relentless generation of narrative, however, that might obscure a few, more subtle lessons from the election.

Big data, we are told, won the election. It's all a numbers game. Obama's formidable voter-targeting machine turned out enough voters to withstand the inevitable swing against him. Obama built a coalition, a majority, whatever you might call it, of 50+x% to triumph. Not only politics, but punditry is meant to be revolutionised by this election. Nate Silver's impressive prognostications, built on solid statistics and mathematics, at FiveThirtyEight (at the New York Times) will put an end to pointless, blind punditry. The lessons for the Republicans are supposedly numerical too: they need to broaden their platform to get numbers on their side, to appeal to Latinos/Asians/Women/the Young.

But demographics are not destiny. Obama's coalition is fragile, and the Democrats should not bank on particularly high turnout among minorities for the next election. There's no guarantee that pivoting on immigration will win Republicans the next election. Simply targeting and turning voters out is not what democracy is about. Neither is pandering to specific groups of voters in order to squeak past one's opponent. Some have observed that facts were a terrible casualty of the campaign. But the other largely unmourned loss was policy, and it seems to me the focus on numbers is simply the other side of the coin.  There was no sense that these were two parties treating the election as a referendum on policies. Isn't democracy about bringing forth policies for public consideration? This misguided belief in numbers, along with the unprecedented flow of money and negative campaigning, threatens to reduce politics to an elevated game of advertising and marketing. It is certainly not a model to be recommended for other democracies.


Addendum: Sorry if this seems long-winded, and I haven't really got to the point. To summarise: the narrative generated by post-election commentators of the election seems to be that numbers, data and demographics will dominate the democratic process. That's partly because commentators need to generate 'lessons' learnt in the campaign every election cycle. But it's also because the narrative has a seductive appeal with a simple message: politics is becoming more scientific, with better polling, better demographic targeting, better data, better 'operation', better 'machinery'. To me, that's an insidious sidelining of what democracy is about: the presentation of ideas to the public. To put far too simplistically, it's a clash of the two cultures, and how one conceives of democracy: as a science, or as an art. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hard Truths

In the rush of days, lengthening to months, and growing terrifyingly into full Cambridge terms, one thinks too much and too little. (It strikes me that I should be Pseudo-D the Cantabrigian.) I thought I should say something, to avoid skidding past the two-month mark before my last post. Since that post, I have marked yet another birthday (22nd -- an unsexy, uneventful, insignificant number) and I have met and spoken to extraordinary and wonderful people here in Cambridge. I have thought and eaten and drunk and enjoyed the beauty of this city, so similar to and yet different from Oxford. I love it all, of course. But some truths have hit me. (To riff on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, these are hard truths that keep me going.)

After more than three years in the UK, I know that I love it dearly. I owe a lot to it. It suits me all too well. It has allowed to make and remake myself, according to a cloudy conception I had when I first arrived on these shores a long while ago. (Some of my friends have remarked on this change, but they also tell me -- reassuringly, perhaps they are being disingenuous but I think not -- this change is a better distillation of me. A refinement, paring down the bits that weren't quite authentically me.) But deep down, I know that this country is not my home. It is the home of many good and great people, but it is certainly not mine. This sense of not-belonging -- it is, I hesitate to add, not because I've been made to not feel at home -- is a precious realisation I treasure.

In my undergraduate days, I often chose not to think of Singapore. After all, Oxford was meant to be an experience entirely different. Wishing to experience Oxford and the UK fully, I only went back home in the summers. But now I find myself constantly looking back home. Not out of homesickness -- I am remarkably resistant to that -- but out of duty, and out of love. I feel -- I think all of us Singaporeans feel it -- that Singapore is at a particularly crucial point in its politics and government. There is a lot of room for change, for betterment and for greater freedom. But it could so easily go wrong, through failure of leadership and weakness of resolve, through discord instead of progress. And so I feel a certain call of service.* And when I return, I will return with gladness and joy in my heart.

*You've heard it all before, no doubt. I'd check back in a few years' time, if I were you.