UK Culture: What’s it like now?

Some of the best popular songs include phrases or references that capture key aspects of the way life is being lived in the surrounding – the overarching – culture. In the 1960s the Rolling Stones in their famous ‘Satisfaction’ highlighted the way people were subject to the relentless intrusions of marketing; Dylan’s ‘Highway 61’ told us about the culture of surplus that was unfolding around us whilst his ‘Times they are a’changing’ and ‘Ballad of a thin man’ defined the shock of the new and the erosion of old certainties. Later, Sinead O’Connor’s brilliant ‘Three babies’ and ‘Black boys on mopeds’ pinpointed the divisions, racism and fault-lines in Thatcher’s Britain whilst Pulp’s ‘Common people’ spoke of the emergence of a new, almost inverted form of democracy. Even the poetic Leonard Cohen identified the sense of resignation that people had come to feel about systemic inequality in his ‘Everybody knows’. If artists and writers are supposed to engage with the nature of their times and confront, as Cynthia Ozick insists, the ‘truth’, then it’s worth trying to discover what it is they are engaging with: So, what’s life like for us now? How’s it being experienced by song-writers, poets, artists, essayists, photographers and documentary film-makers? What’s going on in the social arena? How are relationships unfolding in the late modern UK? And what’s it like for me as I grow older and become increasingly irrelevant?

Some years ago the sociologist Jean Baudrillard had raised a number of trends in our culture that seemed to illuminate some of the possible contours of our condition. Baudrillard pointed out that there has been an acceleration of ‘all exchanges’ including the economic, political, social and sexual. (Quick quick! Here today and then there’s even more ‘here’ tomorrow!) This acceleration has even made it difficult to sustain a sense of history; we can’t slow things down enough to determine which event has led to the next. It has meant, almost inevitably, that our relationships are likely to be unstable: the more contacts you have the more chance there is to make relationships and inevitably to have relationships broken – as more attractive opportunities come along for one (or for both) of the partners.

The acceleration of exchanges has been facilitated by widespread and ever-present hi-tech communications; as a result he already noted that relationships were more fractured, interrupted and simultaneous. And there were are two consequences. First, people feared not being informed, not being ‘in the loop’, not knowing what was going on and of ‘missing out’. Second, ands perhaps paradoxically the level of freedom was diminished as people were caught up in a network of requests and agreements, meetings, encounters and appointments. As people rushed and lurched from one apparently social situation to another the chance for intimacy was diminished. Breathless, we scampered from one set of interactions to another: it all seemed faintly maniacal but now it’s second nature.

A second phenomenon characterising our culture concerned the genesis of a silent majority (or majorities). In a sense this is unremarkable: no one usually gets very excited about a silent majority. But what was remarkable was the fact that the silent majority existed as a force of inertia and displayed a seemingly ‘immense indifference’ when it was, in principle, better informed, better educated and better able to access the locales of power. The silent majorities shrugged their shoulders in resignation. Baudrillard thought that ‘this inert matter of the social’ was not produced by a lack of exchanges but by the multiplication and saturation of exchanges which, in effect, cancelled each other out. After all, if there is always an equal and opposite view it’s difficult to take action. If there are several views and no way in which to establish the superiority of one over the other – then – well – all we can do is throw our hands up in despair and turn our attentions to that small part of the world over which we do have some control. In a way we had more or less reached a state of stupefaction.

And a third social development was connected with the extremes of high-fidelity – and the end of the real. Baudrillard asked us to consider what happens in a high-fidelity culture: essentially music ends and the electronic wizardry of high-fidelity takes over in such a way that ‘music disappears as such’. What is provided as ‘music’ is something that has vanished into a model of perfection. And just as high fidelity cast radical doubt on music so human performances were themselves moving beyond the real, moving beyond the authentic. We simulated the real, the authentic. We had moved beyond truth. And it raised the question: Do I feel love (a complex tangle of emotions) or a ‘high-fidelity’ love modelled on what the ideal thing is supposed to be like? This is a love that has gone beyond the real. (And there is even a kind of high-fidelity of the authentic – which casts doubt on the authentic itself.) In principle, we could get quite indignant about being thought of as a kind of ‘fake’. But as we engage socially or fill in forms for jobs or manage customers and clients, and, as we tell our stories, isn’t the version we script of ourselves a bit too good to be true?

Baudrillard’s analysis is cast at the level of macro-sociology and cultural anthropology. Overall, it may well be the case that we live in a realm where there is less intimacy, more resignation and less authenticity (or honesty) than we originally hoped we would experience …

But here’s a seemingly inconsequential sign of the times: As I walk on the pavement and down the street someone, perhaps more than one person, is coming towards me. It may be almost anyone – singly, in twos or threes, perhaps a group. They show no sign of making way. I feel obliged to step aside; I step off the pavement. I tip-toe in the gutter. There’s no apparent reciprocity. It doesn’t seem to occur to people to signal an arrangement where we both share the pavement. And it’s like that when I’m driving. Even if I have the right of way it’s by no means certain that a long-established highway code will be upheld.

‘It’s something to do with the pursuit of ego,’ I was told. ‘It may even have come over from America.’

Wherever ‘it’ has come from is intriguing but whatever the answer is, Baudrillard’s plausible observations raise the question about the nature of the underlying messages through and by which we are now being socialised – the deep and powerful psychological nuclei (or ideology) against which the many surface aspects of our lives are organised and expressed. It seems that we are on the road to being inhumanly human: Certainly I have become rather disenchanted and unsettled because, in the era of the ‘fake’, I have basically lost trust in just about everything. (And almost everyone.)

BUT sometimes, on the pavement or along the pathways, when I stand aside, I hear someone say, ‘thank you’. Or sometimes, in the town or city, a mother asks her children to make sure that there is a space in which I may walk. It’s as if I’m hearing the silent majority. And that reminds me: I have to be careful not to get a distorted picture of life in the UK now. Nearly everything the media shows isn’t real. I’ve got to try and stay in touch with the facts and not the illusion. The illusion is beguiling – it’s spectacular, dramatic. Everyday life isn’t like that. Everyday life is people struggling along, getting to work, making the best of things.

So, I bet the silent majority is doing its best to spend the time following a huge range of worthwhile activities. I bet that, overall, it’s really got a generous heart and is warmly charitable and pretty sympathetic. And I’m sure that it’s laced with practical virtues and solving the problems of living with more-or-less good humour. That’s another enduring part of UK culture’s deep structure: we’ll have a big laugh and it helps keep us sane.

However, it does seem as if the silent majority has allowed a certain ethos to take precedence over something more obviously ‘ethical’: happiness and pleasure are pursued rather than justice and equality; the freedom of the individual and special interest communities have priority over the collective and the search to realise inspirational ideals. That is not good.

Against this, however, I have noticed a quiet and almost indiscernible counter trend. Three examples will do: the trend I am referring to was featured in a film recently screened at the Berlin film festival. The film is called, ‘Here’, and is by the Belgian director Bas Devos; he presents a fictional case study of two people who by chance meet, and who in their different ways, find a serenity in the modest and intimate micro-aspects of their lives. Devos is interested in counterposing the relationship between the one, a PhD student, a bryologist, who studies mosses, and the other, a construction worker, who loves to make delicious soups, with the modern world where progress increasingly deprives people of worthwhile human contact. In other words, the film profiles a modest trend of caring for the delicacy and beauty and good taste that is all around us.

The second example is a reminder of how to live well that has been outlined both by John Heider and Tove Jansson. Heider, in a book on leadership, encourages people to turn away from the bright lights and live a simpler life which would include ‘reading the classics.’ He doesn’t specify which classics but he doesn’t have to; the classics help to transform the way we look at the world, life and ourselves. Jansson’s ‘The summer book’ reprises an observation made by the Impressionist painters: it notes that you don’t have to venture far from your home to find beauty (below your feet or in the heavens above) and the pleasure of ‘leaving’ your self behind.

The third example was something I discovered on the above-ground platform of Kilburn High Road station in North West London. Kilburn High Road station is served by the Jubilee line of the London Underground. As the platform stretches away from passengers’ entry and exit points, someone or some group has created small rectangular herb gardens and something called a ‘forage’ garden. It’s an obvious and simple idea and whoever has initiated and supported this has exemplified what we could all do – albeit differently – wherever we are.

After Montaigne: ‘Death’ and a fourteen year old Nigerian girl.

The celebrated and often critically acclaimed debut novel, ‘The girl with the louding voice’ was published in 2020. Authored by Abu Daré, it tells the inspirational story of a teenage Nigerian girl called Adunni who has to endure the trauma of becoming the third wife of an old man in a poverty-stricken rural village household – and who then escapes and becomes a maid in an exploitative, rich and frankly deplorable household in Lagos; throughout the book she struggles, above all else, to find her freedom through some form of education and, in so doing, to honour the memory and wise counsel of her dead mother. Despite the unrelenting suffering that Adunni experiences, the novel is often very funny and its frequent use of Adunni’s caustic similes is priceless. (Her evocation of vile smells and physical ugliness is superb.) It also presents a devastating critique of social customs and practices in Nigeria itself.

The novel begins with some graphic and unsparing descriptions of family life in Ikati village many miles from the urban centres of the country. Overall the writing deploys the version of English which Adunni has picked up from both her mother, the television and a smattering of books. For example, of her father she says: ‘Papa is one hard man, always stronging his face and fighting the whole everybody in the house … when my father is in the house, everybody must be doing as a dead person.’ She tells us that the first wife of her husband, Lanbake, ‘always be painting her face with white powder like a ghost.’ Another woman, Tola, has the ‘face of a agama lizard.’ When she sees her older brother at a well she remarks: ‘The well it was belonging to my grandfather-father. He builded it with mud and steel and sweat … my mama she was telling me story of how my grandfather father kill hisself inside the well. He just fall inside one day … for three days, nobody knows where he was … until the well was starting to give foul odour of rotten egg and somebody mess. The day they find my grandfather father’s body, it swell up as if leg, nose, stomach, teeths and buttocks is all pregnants at the same time.

As the book progresses, Adunni, does her level best to help her very sick friend, a young mother called Khadija. We, the reader, begin to sense that something is so seriously wrong with Khadija that she is about to die. After a long bus journey with Adunni, Khadija finds herself beside a river and falls asleep; as she does Adunni imagines that she, Khadija ‘is warring with God for her soul.’ Adunni tries to alleviate her friend’s suffering and so she begins to talk to her about everything that comes to mind. But now, so ill, Khadija remains scarcely responsive.

Adunni then asks her, ‘You still here? Khadija? You are still here?’ Kahdija can only moan in reply. At this point the fourteen year old Adunni begins to disclose her reflections and beliefs about Death. These reflections reveal a distinct perspective and way of thinking about the forms that our inevitable death may take. She relates her thoughts in the following way:

I think of Death, how he come and take my mama and kill her dead. Death, he is tall like the Iroko tree, with no body, no flesh, no eyes, only mouth and teeths. Plenty teeths, the thin pencil and the sharp blade for biting and killing. Death is not having legs. But it have two wings of nails and arrows. Death can fly, and kill the bird in the air, strike them from the sky and fall them to the ground, scatter their brain. It can be swimming too, swallow the fishes inside the river. When it is wanting to kill a person, it will fly, keeping hisself over their head, sailing like a boat on top of the water of the soul, waiting for when it will just snatch the person from the earth. Death can take form of anything. It clever like that. Today it take form of a car, cause a accident, tomorrow it can shape hisself a gun, a bullet, a knife, a coughing blood sickness. It can take form of a dry palm frond and flog a person until the person is dying. Like Lamidi the farmer. Or as a rope to squeeze all the life from a person, like Tafa, Asabi’s lover. Is Death following Khadija now? And if Khadija die, will it begin to be following me too?

A short time later Adunni declares: ‘Just then a thunder scatter boom the sky. It is Death making a announcement, giving us big big warning.’ And soon Khadija does die – tragically abandoned by the man who was her one true love.

I enjoyed reading ‘The girl with the louding voice’ and becoming acquainted with one cultural way of thinking about Death. More significantly, the novel stands as a timely feminist and liberationist work. (On occasion I somehow felt that it ‘tried too hard’ to make its unrelenting major point about gender discrimination in Nigeria.) I also thought that Abu Daré’s comment (through Adunni) about the speaking of English can never afford to be overlooked: so, from the perspective of someone who has had to struggle to learn anything like what passes for ‘correct’ English, Adunni remarks that: ‘Now I know that speaking good English is not the measure of the intelligent mind and sharp brain.

End note:

The book became a New York Times Bestseller and, among other successes, a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ choice. Published by Sceptre it was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for ‘first time novelists’ and Abu Daré was included in The Observer’s list of 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2020.

A rock with tiny garnets – a first reflection on ‘The Summer Book’

Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ is a salutary and straightforward reminder of how to live a good life. It can be read from several distinct or simultaneously overlapping points of view – and always impresses as a particular and beautiful form of hybrid writing. Beneath the almost crystalline simplicity of expression lies a complex, insightful and meaning-laden account that regularly provokes a mood of thoughtful contemplation. ‘The Summer Book’ relates, in its 22 short chapters, a series of contrasting episodes that, over the course of a summer, befall its two central characters – a grandmother and her six year-old grand-daughter who live together on certain small islands located in the gulf of Finland. Overall, her book evokes the possibility of enjoying a mode of being in which people make the most of whatever is to hand; it details the wonderful phenomena that are endlessly revealed if we attend carefully to the world of earth, sea and sky and deploy the creative powers of imagination. It resonates with both the poetic vision and story-telling of Antoine St Exupery’s ‘Wind, sand and stars’ and the beguiling anthropology profiled in Anna Tsing’s studies of the world of the Matsutake mushrooms. Here, then, is a book which intimates an alternative to the noise, overload, stress and sheer insanity of our times.

Jansson’s work reflects what I can only describe as a particular ‘psycho-ecology’ of people and place. Perhaps all literature is variously touched by an intermingling of history, geography and culture – but this is writ large throughout her text: we learn of the inter-relationship between personalities, climate and weather, the geology of the islands, the microscopic details of plants and flowers, the impact and presence (often symbolic) of birds and mammals, of ants and worms and midges – and their effects on the psychologies of the main characters. We ‘see’ tiny garnets embedded in black-grey rocks, or thin veins of yellow etched in granite and we see a bent, knotted, twisted contorted thicket of wind-lashed trees. The signs of nature – its colours and moods – and the inevitable changes – define a leitmotif throughout the book. It is a wonderful study of how to make best use of our perceptual faculties – of awareness, of noticing the finest of detail – and of observation: thus, ‘In July the moss would adorn itself with a kind of long, light grass. Tiny clusters of flowers would open at exactly the same height above the ground and sway together in the wind, like inland meadows.

In addition to the psycho-ecology expressed in her particular literature of ‘place’, Jansson also presents her readers with a case study in anthropology. Here, then, is a small family that is interconnected with a wider community of Finns located on the coast and coastal islands of the gulf of Finland. Overall, we can sense something of the deep psyche of the people: austere, often taciturn, unfussy, blunt, practical, self-reliant and laced with a particular and often recondite sea-faring knowledge. No one is sentimentalised. And, thankfully, everyone is flawed; everyone has a fault or two. (In many ways her work gives substance to the concept of the ‘habitus’ – the deeply formed way of cultural being – that is so central to the work of Pierre Bourdieu).

Little by little the short chapters reveal more and more about the main characters and their idiosyncrasies; six-year old Sophia is capricious, volatile and vivacious – and her grandmother is tetchy, cantankerous, imperfect, wise, witty, faithful and loving. She represents a micro-study in ageing and, despite her ingenuity and capacity to find ways of replying to Sophia’s questions about Death and God and Hell, she has reached that point in life when each day is wearily piled onto that which preceded it. She has come to terms with the approach of death. Grandmother touches upon and makes explicit some basic anthropological truths: she acknowledges, for example, that island people are ‘different’ and how outsiders can never quite traverse the invisible psychological wall which binds the islanders together; we are reminded by her that sooner or later people will learn what is possible and what is foolish; and through her we are told that a young person needs to learn how to be adroitly sociable if they are to fare well in the ‘real’ world.

On top of this Tove Jansson shows how (wherever we may be) the sometimes transparent and sometimes opaque film of imagination glazes the world. In consequence, ‘The Summer Book’ can be read as a study in and of the flights of creative fancy that makes the world so enchanting and which underline that strange enduring freedom intrinsic to our very being: we meet in one chapter some ‘crooks’ (that aren’t); in another the grandmother fashions from balsa wood a new version of Venice; there’s a magic forest – and there is the arrival of an intrusive, resented and discordant house that despoils the view but can be morphed into a lane-marker; we discover how the almost tragic figure of Berenice (a young visitor to the island) learns to express her fears, horrors and insecurities through a startlingly good work of art …

In fact, each of the 22 chapters has the power to stimulate hard thinking, dreamy mediation and plainly raises critical questions about the way we live now. I think the book can work as a harbinger warning us that we really do already have all that we need. It implicitly recalls Claude Monet’s remark that, within a few miles of wherever we may be, we will find whatever is sufficient to paint a masterpiece. The world that Tove Jansson shows us is almost devoid of any digitally mediated technology and suggests that our lives might be made better without it.

Her writing style is excellent; her evocative similes are perfect: a colourful plastic contraption that lies just beneath the surface of the water is ‘like an apricot from Paradise’; lights reflecting in the water from a visiting yacht are ‘like dancing snakes of fire’; swallows swooping and gliding overhead look ‘like knives in the sky.’ She makes use of compelling adverbs; people act ‘defiantly’ or ‘angrily’ or ‘vindictively’ and ‘The Summer Book’ is replete with subtle allegories, pithy insights and beautiful lapidary description. It is a literature of realistic escapism; a resourceful otherness and a disciplined difference.

Footnote: Tove Jansson situated her book in the not too distant past. Her emphasis on the close contact with nature recalls some of the inspirations that energised the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. But for me, perhaps the most significant theme upon which she touches is the process of ageing and the approach of Death. To that extent her book provides one appealing answer to something Hubert Dreyfus considered as one of the central features of Heidegger’s philosophy Put most simply, it is this: ‘Since there is death, what meaning does my life have?

What is Education for?

What is education for? is the title of a chapter by Roger Marples in Richard Bailey’s ‘The philosophy of education’. In this chapter Marples discusses, briefly, a number of different emphasis that the practices of education might take. In this short note I shall focus on only a part of the first section of Marples’ chapter and refer more specifically to the concept of education elaborated by the influential philosopher Richard Peters. I shall then quote the summary of Peters’ concept of what it is to be educated that has been sketched by the distinguished philosopher of education, Robin Barrow.

Marples introduces his readers to the question, ‘What is education for? with a sobering reminder: he notes that the UK government spends a huge amount of taxpayers money on education and children are expected to (and usually do) spend a minimum of 11 years at school. However, if one were to ask the taxpayer or virtually any member of the public what schools were for the answers would vary considerably. Since everyone in the country is affected by the behaviour, attitudes and values of school leavers and since schools and schooling actually have (or should have) a ‘profound influence’ on the belief systems and dispositions (the habitus) of those same young people it follows that everyone engaged in the ‘delivery’ of the curriculum might ‘do their best’ to ensure that pupils are equipped with the appropriate knowledge, understanding, skills (both practical and social) such that they can make a valued contribution to a late-modern industrial and service-oriented society within the fundamental context of a liberal democracy. Given such an investment Marples considers that we have a ‘right to expect’ such a valuable contribution. With this as background, and in contrast to the educational systems and structures of previous eras, Marples invites his readers to dwell on the question: what, today, should schools be concerned to achieve? And more generally, he asks, ‘Towards what should education aim?’ He begins his consideration of the aims of education in a section that asks two questions: What is ‘education? and, ‘Must an educator have an aim?

Marples immediately remarks that these two questions engaged the attention of the hugely significant philosopher of education, Richard Peters, who thought that ‘to be educated was an end in itself’. It is not a means to something else and cannot be compared to the acquisition of ‘know how’ and/or the kind of knowledge that enables a person to do specific things. (This includes whatever it is that furnishes us with the wherewithal to make money. ) Education, for Peters, is logically connected to that which is intrinsically worthwhile. On this account, the most important thing towards which our school and educational systems should aim is the genesis of educated persons. The question which is automatically raised is, ‘What is it to be an educated person?’

Marples quickly moves on to provide an outline of Peters’ criteria for ‘being educated’ – a summary similar to that noted by Barrow (2011). However, as is so often the case, I think that studying the original source is really indispensable if one is to gain a thorough understanding of the argument or meaning embedded in the text; and it is certainly worth pausing and referring to Peters’ (1966) original work, ‘Ethics and education’ in which he carefully explores the idea or concept of education itself. Reference to this original work is particularly valuable because not only does Peters help his reader to grasp more clearly what education entails but also because he grounds the concept in the moral framework of a liberal democracy. Moreover, at the level of conceptual analysis, Peters provides what might at first sight be a somewhat counter-intuitive account of ‘education’ in virtue of the fact that he resists giving too much concrete detail about the content or processes of ‘education’. However, as his argument unfolds he provides a number of illustrative examples concerning how an educated person may be transformed by whatever it is that he or she is learning and how an interest in something specific (such as ‘boats’) may lead on to ‘avenues of exploration and appreciation well beyond the object itself. It is also valuable because Peters depiction of the educated person confronts his readership with the unsettling question: Am I really that well-educated?

Of education itself, Peters highlights the fact that it does not aim towards anything extrinsic to itself and that being educated implies something worthwhile; whatever is done in the name of education should be pursued in a morally acceptable manner. Embedded in the concept of ‘education’ is the idea of developing one’s potentials as well as one’s intellect and character. He particularly emphasises a clear distinction between education and training – and points out that ‘we’ would ‘normally use the word ‘train’ when we had … a specifiable objective in mind.’ By contrast, education cannot be tied to any such specifiable objective. If education has aims then they are cast in a very different form to those of training; the concept of education entails a process concerned with the development of individual potentialities and/or the development of intellect and character. In a sense, it is plausible to say that ‘education aims at itself.’ There is, in Peters’ opening chapter devoted to the idea of education and being educated, a specification of the criteria that define what it is to be educated and this includes the need for both knowledge and understanding, the idea of ‘looking at things differently’ as a result of the genuinely educational experience and a consideration of how an educated person integrates their knowledge such that they ‘see’ its relationship to the wider world.

After his close scrutiny of Peters’ texts Barrow summarises the formal criteria for ‘being educated’ as follows: ‘Peters suggests that an educated person is to be distinguished from a trained, skilled, or a socialised person by four characteristics. All have some kind of knowledge or understanding but [first] the educated person has not merely facts or information but also ‘some understanding of the principles for the organisation of facts’; s/he is, secondly, not merely unthinkingly able to regurgitate facts such as historical dates, but is to some degree in some way affected or ‘transformed’ by this knowledge. He or she sees the world differently than s/he would otherwise have done as a result of this understanding. Thirdly, the educated man must care about the standards imminent in (to) his field of interest. An educated person takes seriously the standards and procedures of science, for example, and is not merely cognisant of them. Finally the educated person does not simply have a field of knowledge but what Peters calls a ‘cognitive perspective’, meaning a wider framework such that, for example his scientific knowledge co-exists with historical and cultural understanding.‘ (Barrow 2011: 13)

This is a good summary – but it remains just a summary. In Peters’ original text ‘Ethics and education’ some of the fine detail of the various criteria are described and this illuminates and clarifies the kind of sketch that both Barrow and Marples provide. Overall, I think that any close reading of Peters’ work, is challenging and unsettling because he obliges his reader to consider the level and type of knowledge that they have in relation to any particular subject. He forces one to become conscious of the conceptual schemes one may (or may not) have in relation to organising and making sense of the facts and information that have been accumulated. He confronts us with respect both to the achievements of our intellect and the desirability of our character. He also finds that ‘to be educated’ is to have achieved an intrinsically worthwhile state of being – rich or poor. But, I cannot help feeling that his concept of ‘being educated’ now seems to run up against some of the countervailing norms and values of our wider cultural emphases. I have the impression that although schools do their best to inculcate desirable states of mind as well as the various intellectual powers and the virtues of good character (i.e. they try to ‘educate’) a wider societal ethos of ‘get what you can’ counters and subverts their best endeavours.

Can we teach ethics?

Not so long ago – and shortly after the introduction of the named subject of ‘ethics’ to the practice of police management and leadership development at the centre for higher police training – I began to create an ‘ethics for police leaders and managers’. However, my attempt to make the subject appeal to senior police officers in the UK was not entirely successful. All along, I knew that the subject of ‘ethics’ was really unlike any other subject and that ‘teaching’ ethics was fraught with difficulties. On top of this ‘Police ethics’ is itself a deeply challenging subject – and my sense was (and is) that an acute sensitivity to the realities of policing is necessary to grasp fully the nature of the challenges. Over the years I have often thought about how anyone might approach the teaching of ethics (successfully) and recently I found myself ‘beginning at the beginning’ with the question, ‘Can we teach ethics?‘ I did this because I was studying the philosophy of education and I encountered James Conroy’s chapter which asks exactly this question. In this short note I shall provide a brief summary of Conroy’s consideration of the basic and profound question, ‘Can we teach ethics?‘ As he addresses the question he makes four fundamental points.

First, and perhaps most importantly, he emphasises the way in which teaching ethics is not equivalent to the teaching of virtually any other subjects (and, most plainly, the teaching of mathematics and calculus). He illustrates how ethics is concerned with our ‘being’ – our manifest being of a certain sort of person – whereas the teaching of other subjects is more concerned with different types of knowledge; in the case of calculus, for example, it is concerned with teaching a learner how to do that which is necessary in certain specific situations. (One way of thinking about the challenge of teaching ethics is to consider how the ‘word’ may be made ‘flesh’.)

Second, he makes the obvious point that in order to teach ethics the teacher needs some clear idea of what ‘the good’ is and, similarly, what ‘goodness’ is. However, the history of ethics reveals that there have been significant shifts in identifying and defining ‘the good’ and Conroy’s chapter outlines some of the complex major developments in ethical thinking. He begins with the ancient Hebraic stipulations that the ‘good’ is that which is laid down by God and then explores how, through the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, the word of ‘God’ was displaced by the primacy of human reason; in short, we (as humans) had the power ourselves to think through the problem of identifying the good and the bad as well as ‘right’ conduct – and this was exemplified in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. (He focuses on Kant’s famous categorial imperative as an exemplar of the use of human reasoning in determining justified ethical thinking and the rules for conduct.)

Third, Conroy then focuses on the contemporary world – which is now characterised by far less certainly about the possibility of any moral absolutes. Here it is worth quoting him directly. Of our situation he writes: ‘… we are the inheritors of a legacy which questions the very existence of any binding objective law which determines how we are to conduct ourselves …’ and he follows this up with a comment about what I take to be the reality facing teachers generally and teachers of ethics particularly:

There is [now] disagreement about the basic claim that there is such a thing as absolute right and wrong and this disagreement is mediated to children in myriad ways every day. Indeed the moral culture of the school and the home may be entirely at odds …’ (Conroy 2012: 66)

He thinks that the contemporary mood of moral uncertainty was largely instigated by both Freud and Durkheim who thought that our morality was a projection. In the case of Freud, God was theorised as the disguised manifestation (the projection) of father-son relationships whilst in the case of the more sociological Durkheim, morality was the crystallisation of a collective conscience – that is, with ‘the social glue’ that held society together and assured communal survival and security. But if Freud and Durkheim were central to the emergence of our present situation it was Nietzsche’s damning ‘Twilight of the idols’ that had a far more destabilising effect. This is mainly because Nietzsche had the temerity to regard all ethical schemes as suspect – and riddled with hypocrisy. (He thought that what deeply characterised human being was a ‘will to power’ – and that the various ‘moralists’ were more concerned about hanging on to their positions of power rather than acting in accordance with any of their moral prescriptions.)

Fourth, given the backdrop of such moral ambiguity and notably the work of Arendt who recognised the ‘banality of evil’ (the evil that was brought about by people just doing what was expected of them and following rules) Conroy considers, in some detail Kohlberg’s theory of moral development with its emphasis on levels of moral reasoning – and then, without returning to answer, explicitly, whether or not ethics can be taught, he concludes his chapter by referring to the emerging post-Aristotelian focus on ‘virtue’ and virtue ethics; he ends with the observation that, for Aristotle, the best way to cultivate virtue was to practice virtue.

In the light of Conroy’s consideration of the question, ‘Can we teach ethics?’ it seems fair to argue that since ethics is about being – and being a certain type of person – the patient and painstaking emphasis on self-development that characterised certain approaches to what may still be called the education of the ‘whole person’ might actually hold out the promise of helping people to be consistently decent, honest, sympathetic, respectful, as well as happy in (and with) themselves. Some anthropological frameworks – such as that outlined by Bourdieu and his concept of the habitus – might be deployed to help ‘install’ the frames of mind and dispositions that are ‘ethical’. But the teaching of ethics has ultimately to be concerned with making a deep and lasting intervention in the very fabric of a person’s being. And this is something very difficult to achieve. Moreover, the problem is that the world – and especially the world of achievement, acquisition, status and self-interest – ‘takes over’ and often counters the narratives of ethics.

There’s only one table and only one chair

As I became older, I could see more clearly how language and image worked together to create the forms of reality that, without doubt, determined much of how I had both come to live and how I was continuing to live. In short, I had come to be increasingly aware of the stories and their associated imagery which underpinned and determined my values, my conduct and preferences; for good or ill, I understood how the ‘film’ of imagination stood between myself and the more basic texture of the world.

Sometimes the words and images were provided by songs: for example, a long time ago I listened to a particular song entitled, ‘Tonight will be fine.’ It featured on a long-playing record (the second album by Leonard Cohen) which itself was called ‘Songs from a Room’. The back cover of the album featured a photograph – a truly attractive photograph – which has been the subject of a number of affectionate commentaries: in a black and white informality, it shows Leonard Cohen’s muse, the famous Marianne, wrapped in a towel and seated on a chair at a table upon which is a single typewriter. The setting is a simple room on the Greek island of Hydra. Of the photograph one such appreciative writer takes the viewpoint of Leonard Cohen himself as follows:

You look out from your house on the Greek island of Hydra. The sun is shining and you can actually hear the sea in the distance. There are some birds on the cables of a telephone mast …You walk to the bedroom. Marianne has just woken up and is sitting behind your typewriter, just for fun. You grab your camera and take a picture of her. Life is perfect, not a shadow in sight.’ (Gerrit-Jan Vrielink 2021)

Another notes:

Hydra promised the life Cohen had craved: spare rooms, the empty page, eros after dark. He collected a few paraffin lamps and some used furniture: a Russian wrought-iron bed, a writing table, chairs like “the chairs that van Gogh painted.’ (David Remnick 2016)

And when I first listened to the album, ‘Songs from a room’ I also imagined how wonderful it would be to ‘take off’ from the overcast skies of the United Kingdom and write poetry on an, as yet, unspoiled Greek island. (It was, after all, the late 1960s) But I also always associated the photograph of Marianne with the song, ‘Tonight will be fine’. And this is because, in imagination, I unwittingly adjusted Cohen’s original lyrics and substituted the lines: ‘And I choose the rooms that I live in with care, there’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer’ with: ‘And I choose the rooms that I live in with care, there’s only one table and only one chair.’ There was something perfect about a simple room with only one table and only one chair.

I still try to ‘choose the rooms that I live in with care’ and recently I managed to recreate something of the atmosphere and ethos of the past whilst I was in Crete: in the old quarter of Chania I really did find myself staying in a room that had only one table and only one chair. And in response to their inspiration, I began making notes, in pencil, in a tiny book with blank pages and a red cover. I wrote not so much about anything romantic or sentimental but more about the darkness that may befall us. But all along I was fully aware that the album, its songs and the back cover photograph made for something I referred to during my travels in Crete as a ‘Leonard Cohen moment’. I still live through some of the literary and image-laden forms of reality that were bequeathed to me throughout the 1960s.

The photograph shows the table and chair in my room in Chania. I appear in the reflection of the mirror

Heart of Darkness

In the dazzling, relentless, white light of Crete I had the chance to read, carefully, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. The brilliance of the text matched (or even surpassed) the gleaming sunlight.

I made a number of notes as I read the narrative and acknowledged the several ominous warnings that it contained. Amongst them, for example, is the recognition that our human being is marked forever by vulnerabilities and limitations – and that we are always susceptible to expressing the darkness in ourselves.

On page 100 of my copy, Marlow, the narrator, makes a telling observation about the most that we can ever really expect to achieve in our lives. Of ‘life’ itself he concludes:

… the most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – [but] that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets …

Note: It is difficult for me to disagree with Marlow.

There’s nothing weird in Fine Art

After completing my MA in Fine Art in October 2021 I decided to focus my attention on both a study of the philosophy of education as well as reading some classics of literature. However, I was recently invited to a symposium in Fine Art that was to be held in the same institution where I had completed my MA. I decided that it would be a of good idea to accept the invitation. And so, on Monday 23rd May I had the well-nigh indescribable experience of attending the MA Fine Art symposium in UCA Farnham. (It was part of the MA course requirement for all the MA students who were pursuing the MA in Fine Art.)

It was indescribable because, whilst it successfully rekindled my sense of surprise and pleasure at encountering the strange conventions, performances and manifestations of advanced art, it also evoked for me a complex flow of disparate emotions: these ranged from regret to resentment, from feelings of loss and disappointment to disturbance. (I was also the only male present.) The audience in the room numbered 10 (including me.)

Of the symposium itself, five female students presented; one was English, one was Taiwanese, one was Chinese, one was from Chinese Hong Kong and one was Japanese. Each student had organised their presentation under a heading. They were as follows: ‘Glitch Me: An Exploration of Sexual Escapism, Literature & the Digital Self’; ‘Journey into Nature’; ‘Life Journey’; ‘Feminism and Social Relations’ and, ‘To the Intersection of the Line: An Exploration of Identity and Manazashi’.

I made notes during each presentation even though I could barely make sense of what was being said; none of the presentations was particularly straightforward. There was the de rigeur addition of ‘ideas’, ‘quotes’ and the occasional piece of abstruse theory to the visual entities that were chosen to be shown; as usual, the audience displayed a certain reticence towards saying anything once the presentations were over. I asked some questions but I am not sure that they were either understood or welcomed. The work looked pretty good – but I am used to things looking digitally ‘good’ when they are presented in a cinema and on a large screen. However, some of the questions and issues that the artists were pursuing were really worthwhile. There was, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme to do with gender and identity. (Whilst no one named it – ‘sex’ crackled, like electricity, around the edges …)

Overall, I thought the depth of thinking and the innovative ways of manifesting works of art shown by the five different presenter/artists went someway towards doing justice to an MA in Fine Art. 
The gap between words and things remained as vast and unbridgeable as ever – and, in certain respects, contemporary Fine Art remains intrinsically if charmingly obscure; it reflects an adherence to the forms of art defined by the conventions of the contemporary ‘look.’ There is, as one established artist put it, a ‘sami-ness’ to the large amounts of whatever it is that falls into the category ‘Advanced’ Fine Art. (The symposium illustrated why I would have enjoyed my MA course far more and would have derived far more benefit from it if I had experimented more. The constant sense of being assessed, judged and evaluated compromised, for me, the whole, experience.)

In addition to the symposium I also twice – in the last few weeks – visited the dedicated studio spaces in which I began my studies for the MA in Fine Art. But, as I entered the actual campus I felt a strange frisson of anxiety – and a definite sense of the unheimlich. (Older people, like me – and who look like me – don’t really belong. ‘Advanced’ Fine Art culture is exclusionary.) On both occasions the original spaces were deserted. Those parts which appear to be allocated to the current students were almost without content. There is a kind of absence of presence. However, one or two students were making good use of their studio space and, in a way, it was (and is) very revealing to see the ‘back-stage’ of their work.

Since the course, I have been cross with myself for having been far too concerned with the assessments and the evaluations. I enjoyed the recent symposium precisely because a majority of the artists were exploring personally significant ideas, basic or difficult questions and were ‘trying things out’. One of them had made a work in relation to the sentence, ‘When I see me.’ Her art had a clear and consistent emphasis on her (and other’s) gendered identity. I liked this. I responded to her by saying: ‘Well, when I see me, I see deterioration.’ I then invited her to imagine what the opposite male sex might be inclined to say in response to the words, ‘When I see me.’ (I don’t think the audience approved of this – I just had a feeling that they did not.)

Since the MA course I have also been establishing proper foundations for serious thinking about the philosophy of art. I have completed two paintings and I have been featured as a kind of dysfunctional character in an hour-long anthropology and art film. I would like to make some films – perhaps in the mood and style of Kenneth Anger.


The presentation of identity: an archive

One of the recurring themes in contemporary advanced Fine Art concerns the issue of identity. Part of this is probably related to the fact that any student of Fine Art finds him or herself asked questions that inevitably relate (ultimately) to his or her ‘self’; the questions oblige the artist either to give an account of that which underlies his or her work – or to make explicit his or her values and preferences. On top of this, it may well be that a cultural ethos pervades ‘modern life’ – an ethos of individualism and self-centredness. It would be unrealistic to imagine that a developing artist can somehow be immune to this ethos. In one way or another, I too, faced questions related to the person I had become. Whilst far younger artists grapple with the problems of ‘image’ I, by contrast, have lived a life and can take stock of the different themes that permeate and define my identity. In fact, doing the MA process and in may ways, I had begun long meditation on death. I may not live for that much longer.

At the beginning of March 2021, as my final MA Fine Art project was launched, I began preparing an archive of my writings, drawings, photographs and paintings – as well as one or two mixed media pieces. I was obliged to prepare the archive in the computer application, ‘InDesign’. This is a remarkable resource and those trained in either illustration or graphic design are well placed to make excellent use of the ‘InDesign’ programme. Their achievements are often breathtaking. By contrast I was (and still am) a relative novice to ‘InDesign’ and so I knew that my work could never achieve the fabulous presentational values of the skilled user. However, I devoted one month to each of five volumes with the goal of expressing a form of self-portrait. In March, volume 1 focused on ‘poems and stories’; in April I sought to locate myself in an anthropological context; in May I tried to outline the extent to which I was a distinct individual, whilst in June I faithfully reproduced many aspects of my own sensibility; and, finally, in July, volume 5 was devoted to the ‘dark’ side of my being.

Taken together, the ensemble really does go someway to outlining the themes which make me who I am. (They ‘describe’ and profile an ‘identity’.) Of course, I don’t expect anyone to read the various pieces of writing: (I am tempted to say, ‘Why should they?’); and even when, for example, I showed one of the volumes to a family member, she just quickly leafed through the pages and commented briefly on a few of the pictures. In effect a month’s worth of work was ‘consumed’ by her in less than three minutes!

But it was a fascinating experience to try and produce an accurate summary of both the ways I ‘see’ the world and how it infuses and has created my identity. It is relatively obvious that if someone were to look at the text and images they would see that my being is historicised and can only be understood through the kind of anthropological framework that Martin Heidegger or Pierre Bourdieu provides.

One curious result of preparing the archive became apparent in Volume 4 – the volume in which I explored my sensibility; it turned out that I had unwittingly taken on a slightly inauthentic way of experiencing art: Most of it – and even the recognised great works – were not by any means entities that I really liked: I had, in fact, persuaded myself that I did ‘like’ them (and I would make an effort to ‘read’ into them all sorts of meanings) but now I have come to realise that ‘art’ has become conventionalised and I had simply been seduced by the norms of the connoisseur and the whole network of people who have the authority to define what counts as ‘art’. That was a genuine revelation and I feel much better now that I know my own truth. The particular moment when I had this illumination was afforded by the pleasure I experienced in seeing the beauty of a painting by Alfred Sisley in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Dijon. It sparkled and (after Heidegger) even suggested ‘the power of insignificant things’. What a great relief it was to see a part of the world that was fit to house or avail itself of the human spirit!

The photograph shows the covers of 4 or the 5 volumes.

Satan is not necessary

Primo Levi’s book, ‘The drowned and the saved’ is an account (an analysis really) – of living through horror: he tells us of his and others’ experiences of surviving terrifying incarceration in a concentration camp. He reveals the chilling aftermath of those experiences. He cannot ‘forgive’ that which was done to him but he refuses to countenance the vice of hatred.

In the final chapter of his book – a conclusion – Primo Levi considers what might be, for him, the most appropriate way of communicating such a devastating and ominous warning from history; he wants the young to know what happened and he wants them to know this vividly. But he is pessimistic; he notes that even by the 1980s the events he wants people to confront were ‘matters’ now associated with their grandparents: such matters were already ‘distant’, ‘blurred’ and ‘historical’. The contemporary young were besieged, in his view, by ‘today’s problems’: the nuclear threat, unemployment, technologies which are frenetically innovative – and so on. He was not sure that he – or others who wish that the knowledge of the horrors should not be diluted or left to wither and die – would be ‘listened to’. But nonetheless and despite his reservations Primo Levi thought that people like himself and similar others have, as he put it, ‘a duty’ to tell their story and a resolve that they must be heard. He asserts that ‘we’ collectively have been the witnesses of a terrible and unexpected event that happened in Europe – in a country, Germany, that had just experienced ‘the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar’: it was a civilisation that came to follow the figure and violently seductive performances of Adolf Hitler. He, Hitler, was obeyed and his praises were sung by such a civilised people right up to the catastrophe …

In the wake of the Nazi disaster that befell Europe, Levi recognises that it can happen again, and it can happen anywhere. And it has. Levi writes:

… it is not very probable that all the factors that unleashed the Nazi madness will again occur simultaneously but precursory signs loom before us. Violence, ‘useful’ or ‘useless’, is there before our eyes.

And he continues:

It only awaits its new rendition of a Hitler (there is no dearth of candidates) to organise it, legalise it, declare it necessary and mandatory – and so contaminate the world. Few countries can be considered immune to a further tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties … political fanaticism and racialist attritions …

His words foretell what has happened to Ukraine and its people.

But as Levi says, ‘Satan is not necessary.’ And he continues his concluding remarks by countering the notion that somehow war and violence are inevitable. He writes:

… there is no need for war or violences under any circumstances. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved around a table, provided there is goodwill and reciprocal trust; or even reciprocal fear.

I think he must be correct. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved through the hard work and moral resolve which can sustain a ‘good will’ – and which is allied to some basis of trust. However, the best humanistic psychologists recognise that there are, amongst us, people who really do live through the darkest regions of the human soul. They live in the realms of the sadist and the cold cold psychopath. They are unimaginative people who successfully overlook – or are immune to – the suffering of others. They are versions of Nietzsche’s iconoclastic ‘human, all too human’. And this wretched condition appears to be ‘at work’ in the leadership of Russia.

Foot note: In John Heron’s (1986) revised publication, ‘Six Category Intervention Analysis‘ he provides a comprehensive overview of the different types of ‘intervention’ that people may make in relation to others. For example, we can be, in our interactions, supportive, or confronting or prescriptive. But at the very end of his book he provides an account of what he calls ‘perverted interventions’. These he thinks are ‘quite deliberately malicious’. Of this type of intervention he goes on to say that ‘any systematic analysis’ of them would entail an excursion into the ‘black intervention arts’. And this is ‘the domain of the spy, the secret policeman, the political agent provocateur, the interrogator, the torturer, the brainwasher, the propagandist and the professional criminal.’ Interventions of this type are immoral by any standard – and plainly, in one way or another, they characterise the sheer malicious nastiness and cruelty of the Russian leadership.