BRAVE NEW WORLD

Once politics was, if not simple then at least understandable.  There were parties on the left and parties on the right, and they would stay roughly at either end of the spectrum, fluctuating into the centre and out again; but you knew, and so did they, which side of the centre they belonged.  Then you had the parties in the centre that had to fight off incursions into its space from one side or the other.  Tribal loyalties saw to it that you would usually follow your family’s lead when placing your X on the polling card. But now conviction politicians are gone.  Candidates promise anything to get votes.  Elected politicians appease reactionary popular opinion; unpalatable stories are called fake news.  No one wants to listen to elite groups who, they argue, consider themselves superior to everyone else.

Cartoon

It feels like everyone is playing by different rules; change has spread right across classes, gender and the country.   Austerity is hitting some communities badly whilst others continue much as they ever have; buying necessities like foreign holidays, fast cars and super wide televisions.  The government continues to cut funding for further education and the NHS but can find enough to commit to Trident and nuclear weapons.  Many young people want to know what the point in cramming their heads with knowledge is when experts are no longer valued or guaranteed work once they are crammed with arcane facts.

The financial crisis caused by the banks hit everyone except the banks themselves, who are still getting richer.  Terrorist fanatics are killing indiscriminately across Europe and the need to gather information means that personal liberties are being invaded.

It seems obvious to me that now is the time to have a serious discussion about how our society works and what our priorities should be to prevent the very poor getting poorer and the very rich getting, well anything they want.  Should we look to the Nordic countries and raise Taxes so that our schools and hospitals work?  Should we know what proportion of our taxes go to what?  And should the disgustingly rich pay at a higher rate of Tax than the ‘Just about Managing’ people who feel they have been left behind and forgotten?

In other words, do we want politicians discussing things that don’t really matter? Do we want a higher moral and honest tone to the debates in the House of Commons – with no booing or braying?  Or shall we forever be talking about what we can screw out of our neighbours just to leave them all alone for a while?  And seriously, do any of us really think that this is a brave little country hitting way above it’s weight against larger, calculating, unscrupulous and less plucky competitors?

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STRING THEORY

String is thought to be the earliest manufactured thread and has been described as the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth.  String can be used for carrying, holding, tying and trapping, securing and decoration.  Textiles underlie the great prints and canvases of Western Art and form a surface to write upon. Paper nowadays is largely made of wood pulp but is still made in the traditional manner with the fibres from plants in specialist paper mills; these fibres are pulped and bleached, washed and dried and then filtered onto a mesh and compressed onto a fine felt. 

 Sophisticated textile production dates to six thousand years B. C., in southern regions of Europe, and four thousand B.C. Egyptian women were weaving linen on horizontal looms.  Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as twelve thousand years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America.  In China, where the spinning wheel is thought to have first turned, sophisticated drawlooms had woven designs that used thousands of different warps.  These prehistoric weavers seem to have produced cloths of extraordinary complexity, woven with ornate designs far in excess of the simple need to cover and protect bodies or to provide warmth and comfort for their dwelling places.

ancient-greek-fabric-attica

The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash and women were selling surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs, long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

There were other spin offs from textiles too.  The weaving of complex designs demanded far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat.  Weaving was already multimedia:  singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games whilst they worked; these spinsters, weavers and needlewomen were literally networkers as well, spinning yarns, fabricating fiction and fashioning fashion.  The textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage too, long before anything was written down. 

Weaving is often used to mark or announcer information and a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Textiles do communicate in terms of the images which appear on the right side of the cloth, but this is only the most superficial sense in which they process and store data.  Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design.  Cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production; how many women worked on them, the techniques they used and the skills they employed.  The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it, the programme and the pattern are continuous. 

lozenge-shaped-blk-wht-fabric

The lozenge motif dates as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic period and is tied to human fertility and land. The binary male and female principles serve as the basis for deciphering the meaning of this symbol. It consists of two triangles. But in the pre-Ukrainian period, it was believed that the woman held the three corners of the lozenge (the three corners of the home), while the man held the fourth, which completed the integrity of the family. A lozenge with a dot in the middle symbolizes a sown field, which meant abundance and prosperity.  In addition to simple lozenges, we often see rhombuses with hooks (tiny horns) in Ukrainian embroidery. This design is called “zhaba” (frog) and symbolizes fertility. In ancient beliefs, this little creature was linked to heavenly moisture that gives life.

Lozenge-shaped patterns were embroidered on wedding towels and bridal gowns. Pregnant woman wore shirts covered with diamond patterns until childbirth as this symbol served as a powerful talisman.   

As the frantic activities of generations of spinsters and weaving women make clear, nothing stops when a piece of work has been finished off.  Even when magical connections are not explicitly invoked, the finished cloth – unlike the painting or the text, is almost incidental in relation to the process of its production.  The only incentive to cast off seems to be the chance it provides to start again, throw another shuttle and cast another spell. 

 

 

 

82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.

barry-humphries-by-dh

82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.

celia-birtwell-by-dh

As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid

MONA HATOUM at The Tate

I saw Corps étranger [1994] by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century.  I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it.  It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.

Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.

The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum.  The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?

Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal.  This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.

Corps etranger

I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me.  Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence [1992] was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height.  They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture?  The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.

IMAG1319

Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing.  This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.

One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera! [1980] was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing.  In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?

Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current.  Homebound [2000] crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation.  At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective.  I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it.  What was the connection?  OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets.  Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow.  Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside.  Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.

Homebound

Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age.  Her work.  Her Art.  Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time.  Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work.  Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.

 

THE COLLECTION

at The Proud Archivist, London, N1

Thursday 21st – Saturday 23rd January 2016

“An immersive exhibition celebrating the lives and loves of some the UK’s greatest collectors.  Showcasing some of the most intriguing and unusual collections from across the nation.”

 We may think that collecting is a wonderfully eccentric British obsession – nearly seventy one percent of Britons say they are collectors – though it is not solely confined to these shores.  This exhibition, however, highlights collecting in a uniquely British historical context where collecting had once been a noble pastime and the practice of adventurers and amateur scholars.  Some of the greatest museums in the world owe their existence to the acquisitive instincts of private collectors from the Ashmolean in Oxford to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London.  Henry Wellcome, the pharmacist, collected over a million sharp objects that he felt represented the history of medical science and later opened his museum.

 For many people who amass collections, their value is not monetary but emotional.  Collections allow people to relive their childhoods, to connect themselves to a period in their history, or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections may help them to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present.  Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. Collecting is much like a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be complete; an itch which can never be eased.  Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning. Some people find the act of arranging, organizing and presenting serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed. 

 Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect. They highlight the controlling and impulsive side to collecting, the need for people to have ‘an object of desire’ and hence the innate propensity to collect begins at birth, stemming from unresolved toilet training conflict, say the Freudians. They maintain, therefore, that the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their ‘possessions’ which have long since been flushed down the loo. 

loads of houses

 Jung had a more reasonable theory about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behaviour, embedded in, what he termed, our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of nuts and berries, once needed for survival by our early ancestors.

 At some point in history, obsessive acquisitiveness began to be seen as something suspect, infantile or just plain strange – stamp collecting became the epitome of suburban small-mindedness – and those inchoate accumulations were completed out of sight.  But in the late twentieth century came a second wave of collectors and those supposedly worthless assemblages of ephemera started to make serious money; a piece of chewing gum spat out by Britney Spears at Wembley Arena in 2000 being sold on eBay for $14,000.

Some commerce-motivated collectors hunt for collectables only to turn them into profit soon after – think the TV programme Four Rooms.  However, most autograph seekers are emotionally motivated to collect with, apparently, over ninety percent of autograph collectors having no intention to sell their trophies. Happiness is derived from adding a new find or signature to the collection; the excitement of the hunt, and the social camaraderie when sharing a collection with others.  

A neurologist who studies hoarding behaviour agrees with Jung that the need to collect stems from a basic drive to collect supplies such as food that goes back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and that this drive originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. He has found that many compulsive hoarders had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a region of their brain that regulates cognitive behaviours like decision making, information processing, and organizing behaviour.

So collecting can be many things to many people, different motives are not mutually exclusive and different motives can combine in each collector for a multitude of reasons.  A positive and healing occupation; a way of passing the time; a symptom of brain malfunction.  Someone, one day, will probably make a collection of collectors, keep them in suspended animation and refer to them as curiosities. I’d pay to see that.

PALACES OF PEACE – Crystal Palace 1851 and World Trade Centre 1973 – How History Repeats Itself

                                                           Crystal Palace ironwork b&w 2

                                                                                 Crystal Palace 1851

 The twins were unusually animated on that bright spring morning

“Shall I see the Queen?” asked Samantha.

“Shall I see the Queen’s husband?” said Charles, not to be outdone.

“For goodness sake, stop hopping about or you’ll see nothing”, said Nanny.

“Shall I see the Queen?” Samantha repeated.

“Shall I see the Queen’s husband?” They went on and on.

“Shall I see the Crystal Palace?  Shall I see peace on earth?”

“I heard Papa say that the Exhibition meant peace on earth and goodwill to men”, piped in Charles.

“That’s as may be but there’ll be no goodwill towards me, or you, if your Papa is kept waiting in his carriage. 

 At last everyone was ready and they set off, Papa busily telling them that it was the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert’s idea to invite all the nations of the earth to London, and how this Great Exhibition would put an end to wars and conflict between countries through trade, and how Britain would spread peace throughout the world.  But the twins paid more attention to the great crowds that lined the roads cheering.  Over the top of thousands of people you could just see the Crystal Palace rising up, which after early showers reflected the May sun off the still-wet glass surfaces and made them sparkle.  It all looked unusually light and airy compared to the buildings they passed on their way, almost like it was floating over that part of South London.

 Once they got closer the children could see what looked like a great glass and iron, tiered wedding cake standing in a large green field.  Inside the building there were banks and beds of flowers in a rainbow of the loveliest colours, and there were tiers and banks of people whose clothes were of lovely colours too, so that everywhere was colour, on the ground and in delicate galleries.  And there were palm trees, and an organ sending a wandering thread of music through everything, and in the centre there was a platform carpeted in red with a huge sapphire blue canopy above what Papa said was the dais.     

Great elm trees grew behind it, indoors, and in front of it stood an intricate eight foot tall crystal fountain.  Twittering sparrows darted about the elms, Charles lifted his head and watched the fluffy white clouds drifting slowly over a blue, blue sky – they were moving and changing shape, and creating the impression that it was the Crystal Palace that was moving and the clouds that were staying still.  Looking up for a long time he was enjoying the sensation that the clouds were swirling around inside the vast curved dome that covered the palace.

“Don’t keep craning your neck up Charles.  Don’t slouch Samantha.  And do not chatter.”  Words which soon broke the spell and brought them down out of their own land of day-dreams.     

 Suddenly trumpets sounded, everyone stood up and the organ started to play ‘God Save the Queen’, and a choir sang the words.  It sounded small and lost because the palace was so big, but as soon as it was over there was noise enough because everybody began to cheer and to wave handkerchiefs and papers.  Then, at last, they could see Queen Victoria.  She was dressed in pink and silver and she was walking with her husband, Prince Albert.  She held a little boy by the hand – a little boy dressed like a Scottish Highlander – and the Prince held a little girl’s hand.  They all went up onto the platform which Papa called the dais, and there they stood for a while, all four of them, with the people cheering enthusiastically and the fountain leaping in front of them, and the elm trees behind them where the sparrows were hiding.

Queen Vic in pink

 Prince Albert made a speech and then presented a copy of the illustrated catalogue of items in the exhibition to his wife.  The Queen, Prince Albert and their group then went round the whole building looking at the huge variety of exhibits before returning to the dais and officially announcing the exhibition open to the public.                                   

 Then it was time to go home.  As they left they could see vast numbers of people still queuing outside the building – they were told that these people would have to wait four hours before getting inside.  Samantha and Charles now felt very tired and they were only half aware of their father talking as they dozed in the carriage on the way back home. 

 “A splendid occasion.”  He was saying.  “The world has never seen the like.  Nine hundred thousand square feet of glass.  The Prince is justified if ever a man was.”

“But there were no black men, no brown men, no yellow men, no red men”, whined Charles.

“My dear boy”, said Papa, “you weren’t expecting that were you?”

“I was expecting to see all the nations of the earth in peace and goodwill.”

“Well, so far as I’m concerned, the fewer foreigners we see over here the better.  The best guarantee of peace on earth is British trade.  The Great Exhibition will promote British industry and innovation.  Glory to God in the highest and on earth room for the expansion of the steam engine and of British exports in general.” 

 His conclusion upset the children who believed all the words that had been spoken about peace and goodwill.  They started to cry but the effort was too great and they soon fell asleep.  A strange disappointment filled them as they lay in their beds that night.  Later Charles would wake up from a troubled sleep in panic; he had dreamed that he could see again that great glass and metal confection melting like ice cream, whilst firemen rushed around with hoses.  He awoke Samantha, for whom else would he turn to in the dark of the night?  They huddled together in her bed trying to dispel their fears.  As they lay there they weren’t to know that within two years Britain would be at war with Russia in the Crimea.  In six years there would be a civilian rebellion in India which had to be quashed, and in nine years Britain’s industry and innovation had turned to the building of iron warships.  In just fifty years a bitter struggle with the Dutch in Africa would start the Boer war and a conflict in that continent that would run and run.  They were not to know either that eventually their beautiful Crystal Palace would be destroyed by fire.

                                                              WTC

                                                                       World Trade Centre 1973

 One bright spring afternoon as the twins, Sam and Charlie, settled down in front of the telly to watch something that was making their father very excited.  It was a documentary programme – something they would usually avoid like the plague.  But this was a documentary devoted to a new building in New York City in the United States of America.  The commentator was rambling on about the World Trade Centre bringing together businesses and government agencies involved in foreign trade.  That it was a ‘one-stop trade information hub’ where ‘an international business person would be offered the full range of services such as market research, trade shows, exhibition space, business services, trade education, group trade missions’…………….. Blah. Blah. Blah, thought the twins.

 The commentator went on eagerly quoting figures.  Charles was bored and took no notice but he liked the pictures of spandrel plates welded to the columns in the fabrication shop; he was fascinated by immigrant navvies digging out the Tower’s supports with shovels and hands deep down in New York mud; he was spell-bound by other workmen balancing high up in the air like acrobats amid steel-plate girders.

Samantha was impressed by the size of the thing, one hundred and ten stories, one thousand, three hundred and fifty three feel tall, occupied by fifty thousand people.  Even more interesting to both of them was that these buildings would be called the ‘Twin Towers’, surely that meant that it all had something to do with them?

These twin towers were part of a complex of seven building in Lower Manhattan, the interviewer explained, and had been designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki.  “You must be very proud of your design, Mr. Yamasaki?” he asked.

“Yes, yes, I am.  But what I am mostly pleased with is that these buildings are a physical expression of the universal effort of men to seek and achieve world peace.”

“Why do you say that, Mr. Yamasaki?”

“Well now,” he replied, “this building will be a monument to world peace, because I believe that world trade means world peace.”

“In what way would you hope that this building will be regarded in the future?” asked the interviewer.

“It is my sincere wish that in some way this building will point to all the best aspirations of man to live in peace together.” Minoru Yamasaki answered.

Over the top of thousands of people you could see the first of the two towers rising up, which, after early morning showers, reflected the Spring sunshine off the still-wet glass surfaces, making them sparkle.  The columns, finished with a silver-coloured aluminium alloy made the towers appear from afar to have no windows at all.  It was a structure that filled your vision then got smaller as you looked upwards; it was unusually light and airy and it seemed to be enveloped by and absorbed into the fluffy white clouds which drifted slowly by in the blue, blue sky.

Building the WTC

 The camera zoomed in to show tiers and banks of people; firemen with their oddly shaped helmets and dark clothing contrasted with the soldiers and sailors who stood erect in their blue, black, khaki and white uniforms; and generals with their medals glinting in the sun and ladies in their fine clothes.  So that everywhere was colour, on the ground and in the banked tiers of the audience; and there was a brass band sending a thread of music through the whole congregation.  In the centre of all this there was a platform carpeted in red, that the excited commentator said was called a dais.

Suddenly trumpets sounded, everyone stood up and the band started to play stirring music and then a choir sang an anthem called the Star Spangled Banner.  As it played all the navvies and firemen removed their hard hats, engineers, designers, architects and invited dignitaries put their hands on their hearts and joined in.  All was quiet for a short moment, then there was noise enough as everybody began to cheer and to wave handkerchiefs and papers.

A great cheer went round the enclosed space and a dark-haired man, who Samantha thought looked a bit like the proboscis monkeys they had seen in the Popeye cartoons, and his mousy wife went up onto the platform which was called the dais, and President Nixon – for that is who it was – stood as the people cheered like mad and waved their handkerchiefs and little flags that had stars and stripes on them.  Suddenly it grew silent and he started to speak into a bank of microphones.

“On this day the fourth of April nineteen seventy three, we are joined together to celebrate the New York Port Authority whose vision it was to erect this building. 

We celebrate human innovation….  And we celebrate this great country of ours that is leading the way in technology, manufacture and farming……

I am proud to cut this ribbon and to commend and praise the building and the ideas behind it.  The World Trade Centre is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace …. A representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the co-operation of men and, through that, his ability to find greatness.”

Everyone was clapping, smiling and whooping while thousands and thousands of small pieces of paper – which the commentator called ‘ticker tape’, filled the air.  It was a very pretty sight.  The brass band started to play a march and everyone watched as the monkey and his mouse got into their limousine and left that place.                              

Then a sudden coldness made Samantha shiver and a cold shudder ran down her back.  “What’s wrong Sam? Asked dad as the programme ended with a view from high over the top of the crowds showing all the people slowly leaving.  “A splendid occasion.” Dad continued.  “The world has never seen the like.  Minoru Yamasaki is justified if ever a man was.  Amazing for a foreigner!  But then he was educated in America.  Now the best guarantee of peace on earth is trade, and with the prospect of limitless oil to lubricate the wheels of trade nothing can stop us.  Let ‘em try.”

Oh what a strange sense of foreboding filled the children as they went upstairs to bed that night.  Later Sam would wake up from a troubled sleep in a panic.  She had dreamt that she could see that great, sharp-edged glass and steel edifice blurring and melting like an ice cream as people ran away from it in terror.  Her moaning awoke Charlie and they huddled together in bed trying to dispel their fears.  Hadn’t this all happened before?  Didn’t it all end badly? 

 

THE INHUMAN CONDITION

entire Cyborg

I have been thinking about cyborgs recently.  Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days.  Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information  sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities?  Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction.  A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain?  New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates?  At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?

The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.

It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives.  The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance.  It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.

The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when  it can be turned on or off,  is acceptable.  I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away.  So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world.  We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.

And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains?  Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible.  “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”

Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative.  And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening.  I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?

But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other?  The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition.  The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?