Monday, 17 October 2016


Recently I read Richard Weight’s best-selling book on the Mod Movement. I assume it was best-selling, since it was out on the tables at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. It’s one of those social history books that makes sense while you are reading it, but doesn’t quite hang together in the memory. Weight includes as 'Mod' a number of groups I don’t think belong there. Skinheads: nothing sharp, ironic or racially-tolerant about them. And Northern Soul Baggies are as non-Mod as anything that could be imagined. A lot of the cultural content he ascribes to the movement comes from a group of people who called themselves “Modernists” and went for jazz, continental cooking and design. I have a feeling those guys weren't grooving to Stax and popping uppers in Ham Yard Friday night. I have no idea what Neville Brody and Post-Modernism are doing in there either, even if Brody was a young Mod back in the day. Len Deighton’s creation Harry Palmer just about belongs, although I see Palmer as closer to the Nouvelle Vague and Godard’s louche anti-heroes.

However, this isn't the point. Weight's book is a good guide to some of the fringe groups of post 1960’s British Cultural History.

It leaves you with the sense there was and is a sensibility called Mod, and that it had to do with dressing sharp, liking black music, being racially-tolerant, with Vespa-riding as an option, rejecting mainstream ideas of career and jobs, and with a sprinkle of irony thrown in. But not much more. Misogyny. But then Weight has to say that, because he’s a Visiting Professor at Boston University, so he has to throw some ideological chum to the feminists.

The phrase everyone quotes to define Mod is from Peter Meadon: “clean living under difficult circumstances”. You may feel that since this was said by someone in the middle of drug use and nervous breakdowns, this is possibly a little rich, but let’s go with the words of the prophet and not his actions.

At the very least “clean living” means self-respect, or at least its outward show. Hence the sharp dressing, which is always good for outward show.

Here are some things that weren’t options in the 1960’s: junk food, super-sizing, sugar and soya in everything, snacking; couch-potato living, playing computer games for hours, sitting in office chairs for hours on end; staying up late watching television; central heating keeping your house at near-summer temperatures; wearing sports clothes on the high street; two hundred channels and nothing’s on; around one hundred and fifty genres of dance music; terraced houses in working-class areas that cost ten times median earnings; sending jobs to foreign countries; easy divorce; hours of soap operas on television; effective birth control for women; social media. More people did manual work, and all work was more manual. The entire country was closed on Wednesday afternoon and all day Sunday. Except for cinemas.

What would “clean living” mean now? It would mean resisting all those ways to turn into a slob. It would mean keeping fit, eating well, staying in shape, and not being distracted by social media or slouching in front of the TV. Add being informed about the new in whatever interests them. It would mean focussing on having a good time, getting done what needs to be done and not being drawn into random drama and outrage. Sound familiar? Exactly. Mod was a Man’s Movement. Girls were welcome, but they weren’t the point of all the sharp dressing, Vespa-decorating and dancing to Wilson Pickett.

That’s the insight Weight’s academic political correctness blinds him to. Throughout history, I suspect, there have always been men who simply have not seen the point of family life and producing offspring - though they probably produced offspring, since birth control was pretty haphazard. These men chose to live better than the family man. Whatever “better” meant back then. Mods were the post WW2 working-class take on that. That's why the skinheads and their offspring really don't belong in Mod. When the Mods faded away, leaving only Paul Weller and Paul Smith behind, there was nothing for over three decades until the internet-based self-improvement movement evolved from PUA. That's the real story.

Self-improvers are not Mods. Sharp dressing, and a particular style of it, is the core part of Mod identity. I never dressed that sharp, but I did prefer Stax and Tamla Motown when I was at school. My lot were too late for Mod. Or for Hippies. But I am, however late in life, a self-improver.

The book has a comment from a Mod girl about the Mod-Rocker fights. She recognised some of the Mods in the photographs. They were not the Faces she knew. The rioters were the boys in the lower streams and secondary moderns. The Mods she hung out with were much smarter and were going to pass their exams and have careers. (You could have a better career with five good O-levels then than you can with a junk degree now.) Weight half-absorbs the lesson of this. Mod was an elite, as self-improvement is now. Elite means elite, not hundreds of teenagers in parkas having a riot. Since he's not allowed to like elites, Weight has to conflate the rioters and the Faces, and that's what spoils the coherence of his story. In the end, the art-and-design Modernists just cannot be tied in with the Vespa-riding, pill-popping Mods. Every time he did it, I kept wanting it to work, but it doesn't. Paul Weller and Pete Townsend weren't Mods, for all the parkas, rounders and sharp suits. They were from the start, professional, dedicated and hugely talented musicians, who found in Mod a framework for their ideas. There's a difference between being the thing and being inspired by the thing. The caustic song "Substuitute" is at once man anthem and a critique. It depends how the listener reacts.

On the other hand it does give him something to write about the thirty year wasteland between the death of Mod and the growth of self-improvement.

If you really want to know what Mod was and how it felt, read the first two chapters of Tony Parsons' Limelight Blues. In fact, read the novel: it's Parsons’ best, and one of the best novels of the last quarter of the twentieth-century. Yes. Really. Here’s his protagonist David Lazar in full Mod righteousness:
They thought they were so special, the creeps on the team [at the advertising agency where Lazar works], but they reminded him of commuters. The suits of the men in the Tube made him smile. What was the point in wearing a suit if you looked like a sack of potatoes in it? They stared at him…and they hated him, because he wore a suit beautifully and for pleasure, and they wore a suit as a convict wears a fetter.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

My Second Favourite Video

Is Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out.


 Press play and enjoy.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Evolution and Culture Are Orthogonal

(Orthogonal = at right angles. Therefore changes in one do not bring about changes in another.)

Evolution cares about two things: that you breed and that some of the kids survive to reproduce themselves. It does not care who you are. The most ugly, ignorant, violent, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, wife-beating, child-molesting people can and usually do breed, sometimes prolifically with multiple partners. Evolution does not care. It does not care that the children grow up as the images of their parents. It only cares that those kids reproduce.

Evolution does not care if you painted the Mona Lisa. It does not care if you discovered penicillin. It does not care if you wrote The Golden Bowl or The Golden Bough or discovered the Golden Ratio. It does not care if you proved The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra or invented Set Theory. It does not care if you design dresses or skyscrapers, it does not care if you won the Indy 500 or the Wimbledon Men’s Final. It does not care if you are rich or poor, polite or an asshole. Evolution does not care about human culture, politics, science or morality.

The only dysfunction Evolution recognises is failure to breed.

(I am evolutionarily dysfunctional. Smart, pretty people often are.)

The Vulgar Evolutionists have a huge problem with evolution: they want it to be the explanation of the current human condition, and they want it to be a process that will guarantee that the present condition is not dysfunctional and the future development of the human race will be in a socially-approved direction. Accuse them of that directly and they will deny it. Read their books and articles you will get the unmistakable impression that’s what they are saying. They have an evo-explanation for everything: even when those things are opposites. Without the link between culture and evolution, evolution is just another natural macro-process and of rather less relevance than digestion, breathing or sexual reproduction.

But Darwin said that that sexual reproduction is an explicit evolutionary mechanism: the male proposes, the female disposes. Amongst peacocks at least. So far, so benign. At some stage Darwin or his publicist T H Huxley flipped the two around. The theory needed some window-dressing, and what could be better than the idea that well-brought-up Victorian ladies were executing Evolution’s Will in their choice of partners? Generalise this to the underclass and you get a bracingly-nihilisitic view of human sexual choice, which actually flatters the middle-classes: whereas the underclass female chooses her mates for thuggery because that’s how you survive in the underclass, the middle-class female chooses hers for education, manners and culture, because that’s how you thrive in the middle-class. Evolution, culture and progress all wrapped up in a big bag of middle-class smug.

It's tosh because evolution is the name of an effect, of which sexual reproduction is a cause: there is no process of "evolution", as there is of the water cycle. What there is a change in the total gene pool of a species (DNA differs between individuals: the genes shared by all members of the species is the common pool and the genes possessed by at least one member of the species is the total pool): either completely or in the proportions. It doesn't matter how this change occurs, only that it does. Species of microbe can evolve very quickly when exposed to anti-biopics. The change is not brought about by the microbes somehow changing their DNA, but from microbes with the wrong DNA being killed, so that only resistant ones survive and reproduce. Members of the species that are not exposed to the antibiotic will not change. This is what evolution is. It’s a by-product of the ODTAA of history. Evolution is just One Damn Thing After Another. There’s no plan, and today’s fit might well be tomorrow’s loser.

The change in content and distribution of the total gene pool of a species is brought about by many mechanisms: sexual reproduction is one, and typhoons, storms, droughts, harvests of plenty, harsh winters, plagues, flu epidemics, baking-hot summers and any other extreme natural events are others working to cull the weak, if the weakness is has a genetic cause. Longer-term mechanisms are changes in crops, plants, predators, pests, diseases and climate conditions. Animals breed, and Nature lets them know which ones will survive.

So evo-psycho gets it exactly backwards. Evolution does not cause traits in female mate-selection: traits in female mate-selection cause changes in the content and distribution of the total gene pool of the species, and If it persists, that's evolution. Women don't make the choices they make because they are aiming for evolutionary success (breeding children who breed): they make their choices based on whatever random reasons made sense to them at the time ("muscles", "steady job", "great cocaine", "I want a baby”) and if those choices are awful then if we're lucky their children won't go on to breed, and if we're unlucky, they will. The mechanisms that cause total gene pool change do not select the fit, but cull the weak.

That's why Darwin needed the PR.

That's why the human condition is unchanging: human tribes and organisation have no basis in DNA. (And if it did, nobody would be allowed to say so.) Evolution cannot cull for assholes, because assholes are made, not born. Evolution cannot cull for fat and ugly, because fat and ugly can reproduce - even if no-one wants to know how. It cannot cull for crazy women, because a crazy woman who wants children can fool a gullible man for long enough to get the job done, and then live off the court-mandated child support. It cannot cull for good-looking playboys who won't commit because, well, you know why. It can cull for sane, smart and pretty, because sane, smart, pretty people tend not to have children if they can avoid it. It cannot promote cultural competency - even the Bachs and Bernoullis only lasted a couple of generations. Families with generations of influential and culturally contributing children tend to have strong traditions and to be well-integrated into the upper-class. Culture, not DNA, promotes culture.

This may be why the human race is so darn successful (aka "over-runs the world"): the cultural variation needed to make a society resilaint to attack is not caused by DNA that can be bred out, or on the other hand, swamp the other traits and produce a race of assholes or wimps.

All these thoughts were triggered by reading this article, recommended by Scott Adams. I drew the exact opposite conclusions that he did. He thought that the article talked about a proof that evolution trumps everything. Reading it, I realised evolution has nothing to do with anything except breeding, and that life is about a lot more than breeding. Often so much more that breeding becomes a distraction. That may not be evolutionarily successful, but then who wants to be a success at something you have to be smart and self-controlled not to do?

Monday, 3 October 2016

Why Grow Up? Susan Neiman Doesn’t Quite Explain Why.

Susan Neiman is an American academic who may still be suffering the trauma of having both John Rawls and Stanley Cavell supervise her PhD. She’s pretty darn highbrow, as many well-published American philosophers are. She says she read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason right the way through, unlike Lord Bertrand Russell OM FRS who fell asleep before the end. (I’ve had a crack at it and usually went away to read Hegel instead. Hegel is much more fun. I’m personally fairly sure that Lord Russell had the right idea.)

Neiman’s book is in a long tradition of American philosophising in which problems are discussed not in their own right, as a legal thinker, policy-maker, economist or other practical type might do, but through the lens of the thoughts of one or other of the Big Names. A praxis-oriented thinker would state the problem, throw some facts and concepts at it, and propose a solution. In a footnote they might then say that they swiped much of the proposal from a) Immanuel Kant, b) Jean-Jaques Rousseau, c) David Hume, just to ward off the cheap shots along the lines of “there’s nothing here that wasn’t already in Plato”. The praxis-oriented thinker takes inspiration from the past to understand a present problem. The American academic takes a current problem and uses it to understand the Great Works. It’s kinda bass-ackward.

And when anyone starts on about “the Enlightenment”, as Neiman does, we can be fairly sure they are not addressing the real world, but some part of academia and a few mavens who can’t find meaning in their lives without God or Gaia to put it there for them. Moving on...

I’m going to be pedantic: to answer Neiman’s question, we must first know what it is to grow up, how it might be possible to avoid doing so, and why we should not avoid it.

So what do we mean by “Grow Up”? Susan Neiman can mean anything she likes, and does, once she’s introduced Rousseau, Hume, Kant and the Enlightenment. She means that one should learn to think for oneself and to "balance the is and the ought”, to accept that the world is imperfect, but not to fall into cynicism and carry on with one’s attempts to improve it, nor to fall into an urbane “It is what it is” resignation of any effort to change. That’s a balancing act, and it’s not for adolescents or people who have to focus on getting the next promotion so they can start to save for Alice and Ewan's school fees. But it doesn’t really mean much in terms of the weekly round of mundane activity. Does it mean I have to get married or have children or what? Though Neiman quotes Rousseau’s denunciation of people who don’t earn their own livings as rogues, it’s not actually clear she’s much on the side of having a job, especially since, she says, so many are pointless, boring, morally compromised and concerned with providing goods and services that distract people from a Meaningful Engagement With Others and with the ssues of their time. Yep. Neiman believes in the Good Old Days.

In The Good Old Days, people wore suits all the time, unless they were farmers, when they wore dungarees. In the Good Old Days, everyone had Meaningful Jobs in Communities to which people Belonged. Men and Women Got Married, and Toughed It Out when things got bad, and they had children, who were not indulged, were set to work as soon as they could toddle, and called everyone about a foot taller than them “Sir” or “Ma’am”. Unless the kids were Scamps, of course. There was Religion and Church Attendance and Sin. And then Bill Bernbach came along with his genius advertisements and lead all these Serious People away like the Pied Piper.

Utter tosh. The Good Old Days were horrible. Racism. Sexism. Child abuse everyone knew about but nobody spoke of. Spotty hygiene. Ghastly coffee and painful dentistry. Everyone smoked so the world was covered by a thin layer of nicotine. Smog that killed people, rigid border controls and nobody could take more than £50 out of the UK per holiday. That had to pay for the hotel, since there were no credit cards and cheques didn’t work. Yea the 1950's. Not.

The marriage-mortgage-children idea of “Growing Up” has vanished. It’s too expensive (house prices, school fees), too risky (divorce), and the world is too unstable. You can’t pay a thirty-year mortgage with a thirty-day job.

We have Grown Ups today, but they aren’t your great grandfather. A Grown-Up is someone who thinks through and accepts the consequences of their actions. Grown-Ups can choose the least-worst option in a situation we should never have got into and from which there is no right way out. Grown ups drive the kids home at the end of the day (metaphor alert). Grown-ups make decisions for themselves. Grown-ups take care of business. Grown-ups are practical, operate in the real world, and don’t always respect the delicate sensibilities of those with professionally-delicate sensibilities. Grown-up Do Deals and Get Stuff Done. Grown-Ups know how to use the system when it suits them, and how to dodge it when it doesn’t. Grown Ups know that circumstances trump principles. Most of all, Grown Ups can deal with the BS and not get disheartened or feel themselves compromised by doing so.

Who would not want to be this kind of grown-up? Someone whose profession requires them to pretend to delicate sensibilities; or who expects to be able to act on impulse and be excused for any awkward consequences; or who has to believe there is always a right way of doing things; or who can’t trust themselves to be able to drive the metaphorical kids home; someone who doesn’t trust themselves; or who welshes on a deal when they get their side of it; someone who doesn’t know the difference between a reason and an excuse. Someone who is not really suited to the rough-and-tumble of the political or commercial worlds, or any kind of competition. Someone who feels, for whatever reason, that they are entitled to be protected.

Today’s idea of a Grown Up abstracts from any particular economic or social organisation. Anyone in China or Tanzania would recognise this characterisation. Nieman couldn’t quite let go of the idea that being grown-up should have specific cultural requirements, but when she goes looking for some - jobs, travel - what she’s looking for isn’t there. Wisely, she stays away from making marriage and children compulsory. Which given that she’s the mother of three children is restraint beyond all expectation.

It’s possible you may want to have a go at reading Kant after reading Nieman’s book. Lie down and let the feeling pass.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

It’s The Simpatico, Not The People

Ed Latimore has a really good post in the "34 lessons I've learned from X" genre. It's well worth reading. I’d like to riff on this item:
People are the most important thing. No matter how much money you make or how good a time you are having, if you don’t have people you like to share it with then it really is meaningless. It is a special kind of torture to be around people but not really feel connected with them.
This is two unrelated points. Second one first.

It surely is a special kind of torture to be around people but not really feel connected with them. If you feel you should be connecting with them because you want to be one of that gang or because they seem to be having a great time. Otherwise you're just stuck with a bunch of people with whom you are not simpatico and being stuck with people like that is another special kind of torture.

As to the first point, there are some activities that don't make a lot of sense done on one's own. Playing (but not watching) any team sport, or playing in string quartets or other bands. Some things kinda necessarily involve people. Almost every other activity can be done alone, and the better practitioners often prefer to go solo. Ed Latimore isn’t talking about that though. He’s talking about “sharing experiences”.

“Sharing” experiences is a problematic idea. Consider a Cy Twombley painting, The School of Athens

Most people would see a series of meaningless scribbles. Over the years I’ve read a book on him, seen the exhibitions that came to the Tate and the Serpentine gallery, and it makes a little more sense to me, but there are people who can explain why it’s a great painting. Don’t even ask how much that would fetch at auction. Looking at a Twombley is not a shareable experience unless the on-lookers have very similar backgrounds in culture and education. What Ed Latimore is talking about is sharing-experiences-with-someone-a-lot-like-you, and I’m thinking that the real value there isn’t so much the experience as the being-with-someone-you-know-is-a-lot-like-you.

The older we get, the fewer people are like-us: we acquire a bunch of life events and experiences each one of which is shared by others, but very few people (very few = maybe two other people in the UK) has the combination, and it’s the combination that makes us who we are.

One of the skills a single person must learn to the point of reflex is being able to enjoy themselves on thier own: eat at the bar alone, read in the cafe alone, snooze on the beach alone, go to movies and galleries alone. Once he learns to appreciate cultural objects on his own, it seems strange having another person there. How do they add to his appreciation of the painting / movie / scenery / food/ whatever? Unless they are pretty damn special, they usually detract from it. He has to deal with their comments, boredom and need for attention.

There are people, of whom I am one, who have learned to treat the world as a giant art-exhibition-cum-obstacle-course. The obstacle course consists of finding and keeping jobs, clients, somewhere to live, something to eat, stuff to keep us warm, taxes, laws, regulations, HR policies, parking zones, and all that logistical / economic jazz. The art exhibition is everything else. It's there to be looked at, interacted with if it's one of those performance art or installation things, and otherwise appreciated and moved on from. People are both obstacle course and art-object. Then there are a handful of people who are actually people, becuase I have a history with them and they understand what I'm saying.

There's one little change I'd make to this piece of advice: Simpatico people are the most important thing. If you can't find those - and there is no guarantee you will, for many reasons - then learning to appreciate stuff without people to share it with is the next most important thing.