Saturday, 16 October 2021

Moody: the works

A list of links to all my non-tech writings:

Essays

Travel writings

Novels

Glanglish - Contents

New essays will be added each week.

Three sciences

For many, science is the central achievement of the twentieth century, displacing the arts as the primary expression of mankind's creativity.  As a result, we tend to believe science's myths, notably those about its essential unity.  We are told that science proceeds by consensus, and as a result offers a uniquely integrated and unified domain.  But this view, written by the mental victors, conveniently ignores the fact that there are really three sciences, not one.

The first is what we normally mean by the term, and what might be more exactly called universal science, if only because of its pretensions.  It is Big Science, embracing the crowd-pleaser theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and cosmology; it is the root of all our treasured modern technologies - computers, non-invasive surgery, space travel; it is the defining cultural influence of our epoch, and informs not just the rhythms of our daily lives, but our whole world-view.

Universal science is a construct of the last three or four hundred years.  It supplanted two earlier kinds of science, one a historical relict, now rightly defunct, the other a tradition which endures.  The former was based on Aristotelian physics, and represented the sclerotic legacy of the Middle Age's Scholasticism.  The latter is often called folk science, but is more truly parochial.

It embodies the tribe's knowledge about the larger forces in life - the weather, the tides, the movement of animals.  Today its quaint vaguenesses have been largely superseded by the apparent certainties of its brash younger sibling, universal science.  But it persists in those areas, notably the weather, where modern science flounders hopelessly when confronted by a system whose complexity defies simplistic analysis.  Lore such as 'red sky at night, shepherd's delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning' clearly proclaims its pastoral origins; it also offers an empirical truth still beyond modern science's ken.

The last of the trinity of sciences might be called personal.  It is the solipsistic knowledge that we all have about ourselves, but which has no claim to validity beyond that arena.  This science embraces our specialist cures for colds, requirements for a sound night's sleep, ways to avoid hangovers, and combinations of foods and circumstances that are guaranteed to give us indigestion.  Just as parochial science is almost exclusively concerned with the local external world, so personal science is about our body, that most intimate internal space.

The progression from personal to parochial to universal therefore represents a constant expansion of knowledge's ambition, from the body, to the village, to all creation.  It thus also tracks science's historical rise to power, and its claim to increasing sovereignty.  The reverse movement from universal to personal also defines science's limitations.  Its theories of sub-nuclear matter and galactic cosmogony are so deep and abstract as to be scarcely refutable; but its feeble and flawed explanation of the weather is a constant reproach; and its ignorance about our purely subjective body-knowledge is near-total.

(1989)

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Dire diary

Outsiders labour under a basic misapprehension about corporate hierarchies.  Their image is of poor drudges at the bottom engaged in the mindless repetition of boring, meaningless tasks, with no scope for initiative or independent action.  Top executives, so this wisdom goes, are epitomes of free-booting free will, deciding on a whim the fate of thousands as they lounge around in boardrooms of dark leather and darker mahogany, or glide silently and effortlessly in their chauffeur-driven tinted-window limousines.  Nothing could be further from reality.

It is true that the ordinary office worker has a circumscribed range of functions - but also a concomitant freedom of when and how to carry them out.  An essentially undifferentiated role has no natural time-scales, no unique, imperative pattern: jobs can be moved around, substituted, lost even, with little overall effect.  However pressurised the situation, repose can easily be found - and kept: for into the vacuums and interstices which are created between tasks, there is nothing to flow.

Middle managers enjoy no such luxury.  Theirs is a constant battle between running the business and organising others.  The latter involves meetings, time's weeds which sprout in every available diary gap.  Arranged by a secretary or personal assistant, they are huge milestones mapping out the manager's week, obstacles dumped on the road to real work.  Where office staff paddle docilely in a business's routine backwaters, middle managers must swim hard against buffeting waves of problems simply to remain where they are.  Meetings soon pass from milestones to millstones, threatening to drag them under.  But through them, managers have the first inkling of a truth that will blaze all the more brightly the higher they ascend: that it is the diary which rules them, not the other way round.

Top executives live and breathe this axiom.  All of the week is meetings, meetings involving so many other people, and so complex to set up, that the most senior managers find themselves totally impotent in the face of their day's hijacking.  Now, they can only flow with the overmastering tide, and join the corporate flotsam.  Because top bosses are meta-managers - they run a business not by managing it directly, but by managing those who do - they find themselves in thrall not only to the clashing diaries of their immediate juniors, but through the corporation's pyramidal structure to those of their underlings' underlings too.  

The enmeshing diary becomes a prescriptive book of their entire lives.  Such are the demands on their limited time that business appointments spill over into evenings and weekends - the company functions, the client outings, the overseas travel.  Far from being mighty corporate warriors cutting a swathe through the financial thickets, they are huge pin-striped puppets without a puppet-master, slaves of the system which they sustain and which sustains them.  Trapped as they are by the very power that they wield, many a senior executive must have snatched a precious moment during yet another meeting in those boring boardrooms of dark leather and darker mahogany to envy the simple, untrammelled life of the worker; just as kings and queens have ever envied the uncomplicated, idealised bucolic existence of shepherds and shepherdesses; and just as forlornly.

(1989)

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Counting the cost

Life is full of strange numbers.  But mostly we ignore the subtle groupings and structures that shape the way we think our world.  How many of us are aware of the effort of putting 60 individual seconds into each minute, or of the seven-dayness of the week?  Has no one noticed that four always seems to divide into 12 but never 13?  As our daily acquiescence in the world's fictive homogeneity shows, by learning to count so glibly we have lost the rich granularity of existence.  We are numb to numbers.

Anthropology lets us retrace the gradual erosion in awareness which took place as civilisation evolved.  The simplest societies count one, two, many.  Earliest humans probably found only one.  Each object in their world was unique: it did not surrender its specialness by being rudely classed as like another.  The pebbles on a seashore were not numberless; instead, they were individual components of an immense experience we have now forgone.  Instead, we see only a beach.

As society progressed, the successful warriors and rising merchant classes demanded bigger numbers to cope with more cattle, more bags of wheat.  Already the sense of what five or fifty entailed was bleeding out of the words: fifty became a rich man's flock.  By the time a hundred thousand Persians marched against Greece, the concept of a soldier, a man, one, had been hopelessly damaged.

The loss of the purity of numbers went hand in hand with the rise of money.  Objects were converted to values which soon had only a weak and arbitrary sense of quantity:  one shilling was twelve pence, but how many is a penny?  With money came the need to manipulate figures by themselves; hitherto they had been regarded as incommensurable entities rooted in real things.  Mathematics was born the day six sheep first equalled six goats.

The Roman number system proved hopelessly inadequate: you cannot multiply DCIII by XLIV.  The logic of the Arabic system which supplanted it led to  revolutionary concepts like zero and negative numbers.  With the arrival of a notation for less than an absence of cattle, the last links between numbers and their origins in the external world had been cut.

Commerce was quick to seize the opportunities opened up by this untethered arithmetic.  Freed from any grounding in physical objects, numbers became amoral.  The abstract intricacies of double-entry book-keeping allowed ingenious frauds - literally unthinkable for the Sumerian clerks drawing up their inventories in cuneiform.  Present-day trading in currency futures is only the latest manifestation of counting's promiscuity and perversion.

In the computer, the neutral number attains its acme.  The whole world - its sights and sounds, our thoughts and emotions - can be reduced to a seamless string of 0s and 1s.  Paradoxically, there is now no sense of number in anything, even though everything is a number.  And ironically, the hidden figure that lies at the heart of all experience is 1, just as it was at the very beginning.  But on the way back we have lost entirely the richness of that original, particular vision.

(1987)

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Corporeal integrity

In Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement' in the Sistine chapel, the damned fall to the left while the saved rise to the right.  Amongst the latter is St. Bartholomew who, following the ancient iconography, bears his identifying emblem - in this case the flayed skin of his martyrdom.  In a sardonic touch, the features the artist has given the slack skin are his own.

Death by being flayed alive seems particularly horrific.  Not just because it must be slow, lingering, and presumably excruciatingly painful, but also on account of its metaphorical stripping away of a protective outer layer that we take so much for granted - indeed, that we mostly take to be nothing less than ourselves.  Doing so reveals the truth about our bodies: that we are not the neat flesh and blood we call ourselves, a sturdy frame of bone swathed in a substantial and homogeneous muscular wadding, but rather a thin sack of skin in which myriad organs and mechanisms knock about in an uneasy and fragile equilibrium.

Medicine acknowledges this explicitly in its treatment of the skin as a single organ in itself.  But we do not like to think of an organ on the outside; in fact we do not like to think of organs at all.  The kidneys and livers and hearts of animals that we eat seem gross and disturbing when raw, their bloody details exposed.  Once the body loses its undifferentiated consistency, and begins to be perceived as made up of disparate entities, with functions like parts of a machine, we begin to feel ourselves the ragbag of offal and lights that we truly are.

Most of the time we contrive to ignore this fact with the ready connivance of society.  The images of bodies that greet us everywhere emphasise their hardness and compactness - the slim, svelte figure of the athlete and model - or their smoothness and evenness of colour.  Human nakedness is disturbing partly because it confronts us with the reality - that most bodies are nothing like these idealised images from magazines and hoardings, that they sag and droop and bulge, that they are blotchy and rucked; in a word, that they are just so many lumps of stinking meat.

Nakedness we can ignore.  But there is a more brutal revelation of our body's terrible secret.  The horror of physical violence is born of its power to tear open the bag of our body, to show us with shocking explicitness the seemingly random mess that lies within.  This is partly why blood is so disturbing: spilt, it is a gory emblem of the body's lost closure, of the fact that far from being firm flesh we are mostly liquid - by definition, a state of matter that can offer no resistance to force. The irruption of violence into our lives frightens us because it says we are weak and helpless in our circumstances - superior numbers will always overcome us; worse, it says that we are weak and helpless in essence - that our very structure is irremediably flawed.

Violence leads to wounds, damages to the system.  Wounds are illness, the negation of health.  And health means literally wholeness.  Corporeal integrity is a kind of health beyond the absence of sickness, one we desperately need to hold in not just those bloody, squirming organs, but our entire sense of being.

(1989)

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Windy City

Some sat at their desks, fiddling with pencils and paperclips.  Others stood in the corridors, dimly lit by the emergency power.  With no phones and no electricity, there was nothing to be done.  An enormous silence hung over the whole building.  Outside, there was a clear blue sky.

Upon waking that morning, it was apparent that something was wrong.  The alarm radio had not gone off: its display was dead.  Throughout the still house all the electric clocks had stopped at the same moment: 4.34 am; it was as if time had had a heart attack.  No light, no hot water, no kettle: the tiny marginal acts of civilisation had been cancelled.

People stumbled into work as if in a trance, more out of habit than from any real sense of necessity.  Everywhere there were scenes of destruction:  huge trees uprooted, lying stricken across the road.  Cars were driven under them with white-knuckled bravado, or gingerly past them, up on the pavement.  People milled around, some taking photographs.  There were no trains and few buses.  An occasional ambulance flashed by.

On the radio the police issued urgent pleas for everyone to stay at home; it was pointless going to work they said.  And the radio itself was strangely different.  Bulletins were broadcast every ten minutes.  The mindless music and vacuous ads had all but stopped.  Instead, the catalogue of deaths and disasters, the no-go areas and the helplessness of the authorities were hammered home with a kind of crazy glee.  A curious jitter ran through people, as if someone had walked over their collective grave.  It felt like the end of the world.

It was the Great Wind of '87.  'The worst weather in 300 years', they said, 'the worst disaster since the war'.  The dead, though few, were publicly lamented - so alien to this sanitised world of ours is random, violent death through force of Nature.  Everyone felt an aesthetic pang at the sight of centuries of trees laid low in the dust; still majestic like fallen royalty, but doomed and irreplaceable.  But most of all people felt themselves chastened, as if they had narrowly escaped something unthinkable.  A case of presque-vu.

For winds, albeit of record speeds, had shut down the whole seething, pullulating metropolis of London.  No transport, no telephones, and worst of all, no power.  Mere air had pulled the plug on late twentieth century civilisation in so comprehensive a manner that people could only stand around and stare impotently.  Power and telephone lines were restored after some hours, but the effects of that great wind were felt directly for days after, and the scars would remain for decades.

Imagine, then, a greater wind, an unnatural wind whose very touch is death.  After a nuclear explosion, following the huge pulse of radiation, but before the even more horrifying fall-out of radioactive debris, there is a shock wave.  That shock wave moves across the land like the Voice of God in the Old Testament: it is swift and terrible and unstoppable.  In comparison the Great Wind of '87 will seem a light spring breeze.  Looking around at our silent, desolated city, were we not right to be windy?

(1987)

Moody: the works

A list of links to all my non-tech writings: Essays Glanglish Travel writings Moody's Black Notebook Travels Walks with Lorenzetti A Par...