Positivism

How the web changes what art will be

I have been spending time in the presence of cyber-dystopians.

Last Tuesday I went to great talk by Evgeny Mozorov at the RSA, to hear Mozorov pour scorn on the idea that the internet is the harbinger of a new democratic personal freedom. He suggests that totalitarians and corporate astroturfers alike love it when we unthinkingly accept the internet as a force for good; it makes their work so much easier for them. Institutions are weakened by social media? Bah! It strengthens their hegemony.

I went to Art of Digital, hosted by FACT in Liverpool, where a great line up includedAndrew Keen rehearsing the thesis he put forward in Cult of the Amateur, namely that the internet is destroying the underpinnings of our culture by making conventional cultural transmission valueless, destroying newspapers and publishers and replacing erudition with Wikipedia. (Actually he’s moved on a little since then – but I’ll come to that in a minute.)

It’s true we have lived in the age of technological positivism for a little too long. When I freelanced for Wired it seemed almost heretical to suggest that some of the things we were writing about might not actually ever happen. A little corrective to that relentless utopianism is no bad thing. However the new public speaking circuit – something which has blossomed unexpectedly in the virtual age – naturally magnifies the extremes of the argument. You’re more likely to be listened to if you say something is either brilliant or crap.

While it’s true that the internet is altering culture fundamentally, maybe it’s time we started being a little more systematic about finding out exactly what it is that’s really going on.Matthew Taylor said this in his blog yesterday; any change produces results that are likely to be both positive and negative; we need to start understanding what they are. So what does this mean for the arts?

The Art of Digital strand has, naturally, been looking into that. I’ve argued elsewhere that arts institutions don’t fully understand the unfolding changes that are taking place – and the various consultants speaking earlier in the day, who didn’t go much further than describe social media as much more than a particularly whizzy new marketing tool, weren’t doing a great deal to change that outlook.

It was, paradoxically, Andrew Keen who pointed out one silver lining for the arts – and one that is going to be undoubtedly very powerful in years to come. We live in a world in which almost anything can now be copied for free. As the financial value of anything that can be copied disappears, so too the cultural value becomes undermined. For instance, recorded music, one of the greatest forms of the 20th century, is in a major slump from which it will never recover. Sure, there is great music still being made, but it’s a lot harder to get paid for it, and as a consequence, its cultural heft is drifting away. We are unlikely to see a cultural force as strong as, say, The Beatles – whose greatest music was never performed live – ever again.

But – sticking with music – we’re living in a golden age for performing artists. Never have as many people flocked to live concerts. The recession hasn’t even begun to put a kink in box office receipts.

As the value of the reproducible declines, the value of the irreproducible rises. A DVD of a performance is relatively worthless. Actually being there is invaluable. We are becoming a culture that wants the experience, as much as the content itself. Keen’s idea is an extension of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. What we want is the “aura” of the work of art, to use Benjamin’s word – and in the digital age, that aura becomes the uniqueness of a single performance. We want the now. We want the one-off. We want to be able to say we were present.

Not only does this mean that all arts that have that specialness of performance, from music, to live arts, to drama, can expect to thrive, but exisiting art forms seem to be changing too – and in the oddest way. For the last decade anybody who’s written a book knows you’re likely to make more money giving readings of the work than you ever receive in royalties. The literary festival – quite the most ungainly of arts events – has become a monster. Even the most tepid reader of their own work gets a look in. Crowds, who more likely than not haven’t even read the book, pay the price of a new book to hear the author read a small fraction of it. The “aura” becomes all important.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the world won’t still be full of struggling actors…

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Environmentalism is the new religion? So what if it is?

Sceptics often say that environmentalism is a religion rather than a science. It was the late Michael Crichton who stirred this one up originally, writing: “environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.” Fair enough: just like Marxism, which predicted a paradise to come after the end-time collapse of captalism, much of environmentalism undeniably draws its inspiration from 19th century millenarian Christianity. There is a catastrophic reckoning coming; there are saints and sinners. We’re all going to BURN in the post-Six Degrees world. And so on.

And, in this increasingly secular slice of Northern Europe, in particular, to call anything a religion is to belittle it.

But what if it is a new religion? Environmentalism certainly acts in the same way as many of the great non-conformist religions did. Those religions were passionate. They were about leading a more moral life. They were about taking action collectively rather than individual action. They held meetings regularly, gathered on commons and played loud music together. They too were derided as a bunch of feckless, dangerous, sandal-wearing wastrels.

I should say at this stage that I don’t have a religious bone in my body – though I once wrote a book on new religious movements that came out in paperback with a nice quote from Matthew Taylor’s dad on the front cover. I wrote it following the Waco siege, and what I came to realise when writing it was that it wasn’t that cults had become madder in recent decades, rather that we had become increasingly intolerant – even scared – of religious behaviour. This trend of suspicion and fear manifests itself intellectually in the radical scientific positivism of Richard Dawkins, for whom all believers are both deranged, and reducible to fundamentalists and Creationists. It manifests itself in the way we have conflated Islam with terrorism. And so on and on.

Religion has been around as long as human society; ideas of the sacred have been a crucial way in which we understand the physical world around us. From a historical point of view, what’s really odd is the aggressive secularism that’s taken hold in this small piece of the world.

But anyway. It turns out that the legal system is one step ahead. In yesterday’s Guardian blog, Andrew Brown points out that environmentalism is on the verge of accidentally being accorded the status of religion:

Is committed greenery entitled to the same protections as a religion? The question has come up with the appeal against the judgment in the case of Tim Nicholson, the former head of sustainability at Grainger, a property investment company, who claims he was dismissed in part because he took his green convictions seriously and the company did not. After a 2007 change in the regulations, he may be protected under the anti-discrimination law in the same way that a religious believer would be, providing only that his philosophical beliefs are cogent, serious and “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

So there you go.

But thinking about environmentalism as if it were a religion is an interesting way to go. So far, it has to be conceded, religion looks a lot more successful at achieving its aims worldwide than the environmental movement has. The Pope still draws a bigger crowd than any Franny Armstrong video. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so shy of those elements of quasi-religious conviction that float into environmentalism.

The big difference is that environmentalism is of course, based on modern science, rather than old books and prophets. This is a secular religion, above all. But if it’s going to succeed, there has to be an element of faith there too. That sort of all-in this together faith that there is a possible future that is the other side of the apocalyptic vision. As Mark Dowd, Campaign Director of the church-based environmental campaign Operation Noah comments in theGuardian online today:

I believe virtue and example are contagious. Look at what happened recently with the launch of the 10:10 campaign, which the Guardian is backing. No sooner had Ed Miliband signed up to cut his own carbon emissions by 10%, than we were being told the whole Tory front bench were getting ready to endorse the pledge. Within 24 hours, the entire cabinet had also jumped on board and Liberal Democrats announced they were looking at moves to make this a resolution which would bind the whole party.

EDIT

I see the aforementioned Matthew Taylor is also musing on the positives of religion in his most recent blog.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

The achilles heel of climate campaigners

As American writer Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in her book Bright-Sided, it’s now OK to say that optimism may be over-rated.  If a relentless economic positivism led to the economic crash, I’d also say that an instituational inability to say how dire things really are environmentally must now be seen as one of the contributing factors to why the public are reluctant to back the kind of radical measures we need from COP15.

In private, climate experts often admit they’re scared silly about what the future’s going to be like; in public they maintain a more positive face. There are, of course, very good reasons for this. Conventionally, we assume that people don’t change unless there’s something in it for them. But what if the climate crisis doesn’t fit this paradigm for cultural change? What if we actually need to start to panic to achieve change?

A slightly comic tussle took place on Monday in the Guardian between two people – both climate campaigners – who hold opposing views on this. The new British bugle blower for looking apocalypse in the face has been the writer and activist Paul Kingsnorth, who, along with his friend Dougald Hine, established the anti-modernist Dark Mountain Project to urge us to embrace the end of civilisation, (see this blog from  a few weeks ago). Kingsnorth’s radical view is that civilisation is the disease, not the cure. Any efforts civilisation makes to combat climate change are doomed to failure, and will only prolong the descent.

Kingsnorth and the Guardian’s climate rottweiler George Monbiot went to head on this, Kingsnorth belittling Monbiot’s efforts to browbeat us to reform ourselves:

We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.

It’s an odd situation for Monbiot to find himself in. Monbiot is more accustomed to coming under attack from the denial-bots of the conspiracist fringe. Now activist Kingsnorth himself is attacking his friend Monbiot forbeing a denialist. You have to feel sorry for the man. Interestingly poet and author Kingsnorth comes at the issue as much as an artist as a camaigner – and as noted earlier – art often scratches at the apocalyptic door.

Monbiot’s obvious defence is to point out that Kingsnorth’s millenarianism has a lurid seam of misanthropy to it:

I note that you have failed to answer my question about how many people the world could support without modern forms of energy and the systems they sustain, but 2 billion is surely the optimistic extreme. You describe this mass cull as “a long descent” or a “retreat to a saner world”. Have you ever considered a job in the Ministry of Defence press office?

Monbiot is right of course. Kingsnorth’s world is a dark one. It’s just whenever I hear Monbiot arguing like this, there’s something about the primness of his tone, the convolutions of his clauses and the use of words like “surely” that always makes me think of Miss Jean Brodie.

But despite the misanthropy of Kingsnorth’s position, he has hit on a real achilles heel of the climate change movement. It’s never healthy to believe one thing and say another.

Read the Guardian article.

The Dark Mountain Project

By the by, Kingsnorth himself refers to Monbiot’s love of McCarthy’s The Road as evidence of Monbiot’s own millenarianism. Kingsnorth and I have been disagreeing about that book (see comments); he doesn’t think it’s about climate change at all. It’s one of those arguments where the only solution will be to pull McCarthy off the sidewalk and ask him himself:

EDIT. Coincidentally, Bill McKibben and Steven Colbert also danced around the same maypole on the Colbert Report, with Cobert adopting a slightly lighter form of millenarianism: “It’s game over. We should all have end of the world sex, right now. We’re all going to die!”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bill McKibben
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Health Care Protests

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology