Posts Tagged ‘ Philosophy ’

#blogjammin: discipline, death and don’t get me started

after devoting my attentions to the music lineup last night, Saturday was the day to plunge myself headlong into the beating heart of greenbelt_ that is the talks program.

i started and finished my stints of sitting and listening with two sessions with the inimitable Texan theological agitator that is Stanley Hauerwas, and in between took in the enlightening musings of, amongst others, Mark Yaconelli and Peter Oborne.

Mark is co-director of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP) which (somewhat bizarrely) has turned endowments from the company that makes Prozac into a program to introduce young people all across the U.S. to the practices and ideas of contemplative spirituality. as one might expect, therefore, his talk centred around the relationship between action and reflection in the Christian life. drawing inspiration from, among other places, the story of the prodigal son, Mark highlighted a theme that i found would reoccur for me in Stanley Hauerwas’ later session, that of the creative potential and radical importance of spiritual discipline.

following on from the morning session in which he concluded expanding on issues arising from his recently published memoirs, Duke’s Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics presented his thoughts on the nature of the god to which American civil religion pays its homage. summarising his conception of the modernist, Liberal foundations of popular American theology by means of the phrase “the story that there is no story except the story that we chose when we didn’t have a story”, Hauerwas illuminated how the basis for spiritual discipline – along with, for example, covenants like marriage – is devastatingly corroded by the notion that humans are (and must be) free to choose who and what they are, and that death has become the ultimate, inconceivable scandal.

discipline, dear friends, was something i needed in spades during The Spectator and ex-Daily Mail political commentator Oborne’s ‘interesting’ talk about the nature and role of virtue in politics. if i were being supremely placid, i would say that i was disappointed (if not surprised) that references to Aristotle, Kant and MacIntyre were absent while those to Machiavelli and Plato flowed fairly freely. if, however, i were allowing the anger to rise once more, i would rant on and on about how infuriatingly reactionary, ill-conceived and poorly delivered the session was.

by means of a via media, perhaps i will instead focus on my sense that it was a waste of a good opportunity for a someone from a political and philosophical stable significantly distinct from that of the average contributor, to challenge a GB audience with something as well reasoned, well researched and well presented as it was, well, provocative.

all in all it has been a day of talks that has offered stimulations of various ilk, the majority of which were welcome and worthwhile.

#academix: the dr is published again

hello. there.

this is just a small post updating you on the latest in a long, glittering line of The Dr’s academic achievements. her most recent publication is a chapter in a new volume published by SCM, celebrating the life (and commemorating the death) of Marcella Althaus-Reid. the volume, entitled Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots, covers several aspects of Marcella’s work as well as other areas she might have spoken into had her life not been cut tragically short.

as well as The Dr’s brilliant essay, it contains chapters from Kwok Pui-Lan, Alistair Kee, Graham Ward and Rosemary Radford Ruether along with several others. why not check out The Dr’s blog post about it here?


not that it’s anywhere near as exciting as the news above,  i though i’d take this opportunity to remind y’all that my latest publication is also now available from (if probably not in) all good bookshops in the form of a chapter in Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, alongside essays from John Rogerson, Stephen Barton, Andrew Louth, Francis Watson, Richard Bauckham and several other serious-thinking people.

#idealog: crises of capitalism by david harvey

anthropologist and marxist geographer Prof. David Harvey lectures to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) whilst someone draws.


#ranthill: expectations – stuff: lower; people: higher

i have some thoughts to share friends.

you see, i think we have got to the point where we have got two types of expectations seriously out of kilter. i was on a train last week from Exeter to Bristol and in my carriage were newly installed TV screens attached to the back of every chair (yes, except the rearmost ones, ah…..).

a message on the screen read something to the tune of “You are now journeying in the first train carriage in the world to be fitted with the latest in pay-per-view entertainment technology – press here for more details.”

looking at the screens sent me into a fleet of reminiscences: i remember when i had a black and white TV that you had to tune to the correct frequency with a dial. in fact, i still remember the frequencies: BBC 1 was C51 (714MHz), BBC2 was C44(658MHz), ITV was C41 (643MHz) and Channel 4 was C47(682MHz).

then there was my grandparents’ TV, which was colour, freaking massive (front to back) and had a panel of buttons for controlling the channels, conveniently situated on the sitting room wall – slightly further away from the sofa and armchairs than the actual set itself. my grandad often confused it with the thermostat and used to explode into fits of rage as Emmerdale Farm refused to yield to This Is Your Life, and instead the room just got hotter and hotter.

moreover, there was how crap the reception generally was, especially if there was any ‘weather’ around (and what a stupid phrase that is incidentally), which, in Cornwall, there always was. i remember being satisfied if i could consistently see the ball, whilst watching football (Division 1, live, on a Saturday afternoon, on BBC1). then there was the fact that after a while the picture on colour sets would intermittently turn all yellow or red (sorry magenta) and would require a firm bash on the top to correct this. the gap between the required bashes would then shorten, until you’d give up and then eventually forget that the other two primary colours ever existed.

all of these were perfectly normal parts of the TV watching experiences of my childhood and adolescence – and i’m really not even THAT old, nor  did i grow up THAT poor. we had mid-level electronic equipment and thoroughly mid-level expectations regarding its performance. unless The Godfather II was showing, there wasn’t really any notion that you would be able to sit down and watch TV all evening, without moving – and given how unlikely that scenario was and the unmitigated crap that was mostly on, you basically wouldn’t have ever wanted to do so anyway.

so, there i was, sat on a train with a thin, crystal-clear touch-screen LCD TV staring back at me from the rear of the seat in front, loaded with hours of premium TV programmes available for everyone in the carriage to watch for a fairly modest fee, and i couldn’t help thinking how far things had come in the few, yes few, years since i was 9 and TV was hard work.

then, the screen of a guy sitting opposite me flickered and stopped working for about 30 secs before starting back up where it had left off. the guy, who must have been in his 50s, turned to the woman who was with him and said simply “pile of crap”.

how short our memories and how high our expectations have become.

i was on a flight from London to New Jersey last year when, shortly after we’d boarded and taken our seats, an announcement came over the address system explaining that ‘they’ were very sorry, but there was an error with some of the plane’s equipment and therefore … none of the in-flight movies would be available to view during this flight. the various TV shows, music albums and games would be accessible, but the movie database, not.

given the tone of the announcement and the fact that the words ‘error’ and ‘plane’ had been connected by the words ‘with the’, i couldn’t believe not only the extent of the groan that went up from those around me, but the near riotous reactions of some of my section’s more expressive (i’m going to say American) passengers.

i still think of flying as something of a terrifying, inexplicable miracle. yes, it’s an expensive way to travel, but it gets you to the other side of the sodding world and it kills the planet a bit in so doing – two good reasons for a high price tag as far as i’m concerned. on that occasion, as long as i arrived in New York on the day i was supposed to and in one basic piece, i was going to be happy. to be fair, i probably wouldn’t have enjoyed my flight if Continental had provided a hot tub each and plenty of heroin, but while my expectations were perhaps a little low, i couldn’t help feeling those of the over-animated people sitting around me were just a tad inflated.

what if we compare the apparently high expectations we have learned to have for things (especially technology) and services, with the pretty low expectations we seem to have of people – not celebrities, you understand, just people.

i have several friends who seem to think it’s probably their fault when prospective partners cheat on them or generally treat them with contempt, and it seems, when probed, that at least part of that response is to do with feeling stupid for thinking that the person concerned might have been civil and considerate and honest.

i love to hate that infuriating programme on TV with the page-three girl, fat magician and other one, who go round ripping people off, ruining their day/holiday and making them cry, for fun and in order to teach us all that if we get conned or plain mugged, it’s at least partly our own stupid fault.

no. it’s not. at least not to any extent that’s worth seriously considering. yes, in practical terms it’s good to know what to look out for and to be aware of some simple measures to take to decrease the chances of your being caught up in something like that, but if you are, then the part of the blame that’s worth thinking and talking about lies wholly on the selfish bastarding thieves who did it. it’s basically the same argument as the one that says women who wear short skirts should really have expected to have been groped, or worse.

people can and should be good. we are capable of truly amazing things. no matter how bad things may seem, history strongly and repeatedly suggests that the momentum created by people acting together for good is an almost unstoppable and all-conquering force. the reason it doesn’t happen that often is probably something to do with how lazy we all are about learning the lessons of history and not listening to people who want to swap their promise of good news highlighted against a background of general despair, for our money, and how intent we all seem to be on expecting very little more than the worse of each other.

regardless of what the advertising industry constantly tells us, we really aren’t entitled to all that much when it comes to luxuries, goods and services. it’s no-one’s moral duty to make sure my journey or stay or day is completely perfect. the world is not a terrible place filled with bad people because my steak is a little over-cooked, or there was a long queue, or you’re somehow not going to get everything you’d expected.

however, it IS our moral duty to regard each other ethically and justly. we don’t do it, because if we did Capitalism wouldn’t work – and that’s what gives all us rich people with blogs all the good stuff we like – but we should. it IS proper for us to have concern for each other, to try not to hurt each other, to be compassionate and also to expect that of others in return.

so, my proposal is this: why don’t we all try to lower our expectations and deflate our sense of entitlement when it comes to stuff, and do the opposite with regard to people. instead of throwing our energies into letters to First Capital Connect about that overcrowded train, or Costa about that tepid flat white, let’s remind the people around us and in the media spotlight that we expect more from them in terms of the effort they put into being a good human being, and also that we would like them to do the same for us.

this way, maybe we can all help each other to be better people, and while some flights will still happen without the soothing ability to watch Knight and Day, Final Destination or United 93, and some of the near-miraculous TVs on trains might sometimes malfunction, we might actually regain a little of our dignity, humanity and hope.

#ranthill: gender and distinction

the IAAF have today announced that South African track star Caster Semenya will be allowed to continue her career after nearly a year of official uncertainty about her ‘status’, and the results of the tests she has been forced to undertake will remain confidential.

problems began for Ms Semenya hours before she won 800m gold at the World Championships in Berlin last year, as a ball of rumours that had been circulating for a while suddenly hardened into an official investigation into her entitlement to complete in women’s athletic competitions. without ever being explicit about exactly what evidence lies at the basis of the suspicions (and therefore inviting speculation that it was simply a combination of her being fast, tall and broad), the IAAF reported that Semenya would have to undergo ‘gender tests’.

as you as intelligent RQT readers will be aware, the notion of ‘gender tests’ is a quite ridiculous one. despite what the IAAF thinks (and to be fair the BBC, The Guardian and almost every other news agency failed to correct them), in proper terms gender could never be ascertained by a test, given that gender is, as C20th philosophy and sociology has taught us, a fluid quality that each of us performs. in this sense, the term ‘gender’ is not synonymous with ‘sex’, which is what the IAAF really meant but was perhaps a bit embarrassed to say. in the simplest terms, ‘sex’ relates to biology, whereas ‘gender’ relates to social identity, which is why ‘gender tests’ is a nonsense concept.

the deeper problem, however, is that while a ‘gender test’ would be meaningless, a ‘sex test’ wouldn’t necessarily prove any more helpful. the issue is that while much of Western society continues to think of biological sex as being an essentialist and binary concept – i.e. a person is either a man or a woman – in reality this is quite far from the case. as the brilliant work on theology and intersex conditions by Dr Susannah Cornwall – my talented partner in crime and life (known to RQT readers as simply ‘The Dr’) – has shown, there are all kinds of experiences that disrupt this over-simplistic conception of sex, the most fundamental of which being that science is finding it ever increasingly difficult to find any absolute basis for the distinction at all. (for more info on her work, read Dr Cornwall’s blog here)

we can probably all see that sex cannot be determined on the basis of the external appearance of genitalia, because there are many conditions that result in unexpected relationships between external and internal apparatus. however, likewise, the best research shows that internal sex characteristics, chromosomes and even the size of gametes (considered until recently the only reliable location of sex distinction) cannot be relied on to give a universal decree as to the sex of the individual under consideration.

the IAAF’s decision not to publicise the results of Semenya’s tests might seem like a gesture of solidarity with the athlete (if a much overdue one), but in reality, the likelihood is that they feel they cannot release the results without also being specific about what it was exactly that they were testing for and how. if they were to publish any results, the decision that they have made would be open to all sorts of contestation, in this and any future cases. what is more, they would be forced to formalise the criteria that they themselves use to judge sex in terms of categorising athletes, which thus far they have seemingly been as vague about as possible.

whilst few of us would deny that on average male athletes tend to have qualities that make them stronger, faster and more powerful than their female counterparts, this is and has to be a matter of averages, not law. would Rowan Atkinson enjoy a ‘natural’ advantage over Serena Williams at tennis? while that might be a somewhat flippant line of argument, it also highlights the fact that there are all sorts of other aspects of human physiological and psychological makeup that function to distinguish the performance of athletes.

Michael Phelps might stand as a good example. he is built like a swimming machine: he has an abnormally long, thin but muscular torso, a massive arm span compared to his height (6’7″ span, 6’4″ height), size 14 feet and super-flexible ankles. i have none of these attributes, but if i were an international quality swimmer, could i legitimately expect an athletic body to regulate to distinguish between Phelps and me? in other words, should there be a category for people who have these or similar traits, and those that don’t, or would that be ridiculous? when compared to sex, the difference is a matter of frequency of the occurrence of advantageous characteristics, but one could argue that at the highest level that makes little difference – i.e. an examination of the differences between an averagely built male swimmer, an averagely built female swimmer and Michael Phelps might put the set of differences between the first two bodies into an interesting perspective.

of course one of the really fascinating aspects of Semenya’s case was the blatant fog of orientalism (or whatever the equivalent is in relation to Africa) that hung around the story. those who suspected that Semenya has an intersex condition regularly painted her as a country girl, who came from a deep-dark region of South Africa where such conditions are more widely found and as such constitute a ‘normal’ part of life. This racist and patronising discourse of ‘oh is isn’t her fault, she’s too backwards to realise she’s a man’ would be disgusting enough if it wasn’t also unbelievably ill-informed. Semenya might have grown up in a rural area, but she now studies at Pretoria University and works with their state of the art equipment, facilities and coaches.

i have only huge respect for the way in which Ms Semenya has handled the fact that her body has become the site of such a strange and political debate. she has consistently come across as a gracious, confident and highly focussed individual and i hope she goes on to excel in the sport and to be an inspiration for all people who find themselves in a similar situation. what is more, i hope that the IAAF are called to formally justify all of their actions.

#idealog: the inconvenience of dissent

look mum, i done a rant

a curious trait of our ‘liberal’ ‘democratic’ ‘culture’ has emerged from the damp smoking embers of last week’s election. apart from the blatant absence of any real understanding of/deep seated belief in our parliamentary democracy (“boo hoo hoo, why isn’t there a tory government when i and my friends all voted tory???!!!!”) the complex political wranglings initiated by the lack of a clear mandate have revealed an intriguing and seemingly un-Liberal shift away from the horizon of the individual.

in all the talk of minority government and coalition the (quite predictable) general desire – which is both reflected and ultimately generated by the mass media – has seemed to be for swift decisive and unswerving resolution. it has perhaps been no real surprise to the philosophically literate reader that when scratched away the neo-liberal paintwork of absolute choice has revealed an underlying desire for (and expectation of) diktat.

one intriguing aspect of the apparent paradox of the zealous desire to choose but equally potent disgust at divergence of opinion has been the apparent inability of the average social-networker, journalist or political analyst to grasp the key principle of coalition (which we might, if we wanted to push the envelope call ‘political community’). overwhelmingly the media rhetoric has been that of ‘strength and stability’ which given the current economic climate is of course no surprise. the surprise has been the apparent lack of an ability to perceive what politicians mean when they say – over and over again – something like “we recognise that what is necessary, above all else, is a strong and stable government”. it seems clear to me that what they are referring to is a political structure that will function to govern day-in-day-out over the next few months perhaps years – i.e. one that the individual MPs and members of the various parliamentary parties can actually live with and work within given the obvious ideological variation across and within the various parties.

what many commentators – be they professional or amateur – seem to be focussing on however is simply mathematics and naked power. numbers ruled election day being as it was a shit-storm of absurdly simplified statistics and meaningless on-the-fly extrapolation and now we seem to want them (that is the numbers themselves) to solve the problems for us. we are so used it seems to numbers dictating to us their own interpretation (or rather seeming to, while the hidden manipulators of the data remain such) that we can no longer treat numbers as what they are – tools for defining problems, demonstrating transitions and modelling interactions.

306 (cons) + 57 (dem libs dem libs dem dry libs) = stronger than 258 (lab) + 57 (lib dems) + 1 (green) + 1 (NIA) + 3 (SDLP) + 3 (PC) because 363 is a bigger number than 323 and bigger is stronger. or – put into words – gordon brown lost so he should sit down and nick clegg is the ‘kingmaker’ (a phrase i hope to never hear again) because he has the casting vote. the only problem with this reasoning is that these numbers irreducibly represent human beings with brains and eyebrows and toenails and convictions. a party whip is a negotiated tool not an absolute, assumed reality. attempting to let the numbers do the work relies on the notion that what we essentially have is three politicians who each have their gangs (who will do whatever they say). perhaps this is where the leaders debates led us with their unremitting focus on three individuals. we all forgot that very few people actually get to vote for any of those men and fewer still (0) get to choose between them at the polls.

the inescapably practical reality is however that parliamentary democracy relies on dissent not conformity, and that is why negotiating a functioning (i.e. ‘strong’) government needs be careful (and yes perhaps slow) work. we have been blinded by the logic of corporations into believing that it is unproblematic to think of companies of people as been essentially a single person. corporations think, act, sue and are sued like people – but they are not people. and they can only pretend to be on the assumption of effective hierarchy. political parties do not and should not work that way and neither should a society.

the paradox of the post-modern account of individual choice is that while endless alternatives constitute a positive, the ambiguity created by a lack of consensus in collective decision making constitutes a horror. what if we actually have to make meaningful decisions amongst ourselves? what if our choices need to represent foundational convictions and/or encompass civic duties? we are used to choice without responsibility, opinion without conviction and decision without duty. we are not used to having to know why we did what we did. we are also used to being and knowing political individuals defined by the ability to choose but divorced of substance – bodies and desires and beliefs (such are our private but never public idiosyncrasies). we can (and should) invest as much of our time as we like in personal development and self-transformation behind our closed doors, creating and dreaming about and investing in faux-dynamic narratives, but we should never look to change anything other than our own reality – that would be extremism. this is what thatcher meant by “there is no such thing as society, only people” – “shut up, mind your own choices, do as you are bid”. that is the iron hand inside the ever-proferring glove.

what i perceive in the media confusion and occasional outrage that has poured out of my computer, radio and tv in the last few days is in part the shock of political personhood. real people are complex and awkward and messy. cooperation requires nuance and negotiation. society requires polyphony. all of which it seems is an inconvenience to most. a coalition government with a small (and perhaps only ever theoretical) majority will require those involved to do actual political work. and not just once. but it will also require us as the electorate to follow the workings of parliament, to engage in the ongoing political process and to rely on more than just the ability to judge someone by their dress sense or media-awareness or how many celebrities like them.

there are such things as society, community, dissent and compromise. and one outcome of what most people seem to be hailing as a disastrous election might just be that we learn as a culture to fully embrace the work of sketching out, serving and celebrating that liminal, nuanced, mediated thing we call the common good.