Sunday, June 12, 2022

Slow progress

I have been making slow progress on preparations and planning since I wrote that "Travel plans" piece two months ago. The timetable remains more or less the same. It may slip however.

With respect to blogging etc., rather than trying to set up a new site in order to build a bigger audience I have decided – for the time being at least  to consolidate. I intend to post more frequently here and (identical material) at my WordPress site, adopting a more informal approach. Shorter pieces.

My association with Daniel Kaufman and his Electric Agora will probably continue though I have no new essays in the pipeline. With respect to my EA-based podcast, Culture and Value, eight episodes are currently available. They have attracted some attention (and so far about 4000 listens/downloads in toto). But I am not adding new episodes at the moment. (This is for various reasons  including the fact that the podcast has yet to be made available on Apple Podcasts.)

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Travel plans

I am in the process of reorienting my life. Over the years I have been caught up, as everybody is, in various projects, commitments, entanglements and responsibilities (or perceived responsibilities). Some of these commitments limited my opportunities for extensive travel, or at least the sort of travel I desired.

In recent years I wanted to ensure that I would be able to visit my ailing mother on a regular basis. She was in a nursing home in Melbourne. So I leased a place fairly close by, a small ninth-floor apartment in Melbourne’s old Chinatown district.

Unfortunately, due to draconian COVID-driven bans on visiting, I was not allowed to see my mother for months on end or liaise in the normal way with nursing staff during 2021. In previous years she had fared pretty well, fighting off occasional acute illnesses and defying predictions by physicians and nurses of her imminent demise. But last year a pressure sore got out of hand and became infected and she went into serious decline. She died in January.

My apartment lease expires in early August and my intention at the moment is not to renew it. I have not decided on where I will be based. The plan, for the moment, is just to travel. Initially to Singapore, and then further afield. This itinerant lifestyle could continue for quite some time if my health and finances allow.

My intention is not to be moving constantly but rather to stay for extended periods (months) at most destinations. I will probably continue to post material online. But how my lifestyle changes will affect the extent, nature or focus of this activity is uncertain.

Naturally there would now be some scope for doing anecdotal travel-related pieces, impressions of various places and so on. But to what end? Before the restrictions of the last couple of years, most people I know traveled widely and on a regular basis. I didn’t. I am the least-frequent flyer I know.

I am aware that the old fogey, Rip Van Winkle angle could easily become tedious, so I'll need to put strict limits on my conversational and other references to four-engined turboprops, Boeing 707s and descriptions of how places have changed. (When I last visited Athens, for example, the Third Hellenic Republic was in its initial stages and the time of the generals was still fresh in everybody’s memory. But, as I say, this is not really a line I want to pursue.)

On places, one has impressions, one makes judgments. But is there any need to talk publicly about them? Opinions and impressions are a dime a dozen; and reportage makes sense if you are being paid for it or if you are pushing some narrative or other which you deem to be important, but not otherwise as far as I can see.

There is always the option of getting involved in scholarly work again or in serious writing – possibly on political themes or international relations, possibly on more theoretical topics. It all depends on various factors (whom I meet, where I am based, how my interests develop, geopolitical developments, etc.).

Whatever happens, my preoccupation with culture and value will continue, and exposing myself to different cultures (to the extent that urban cultures have not converged into a boring sameness) will at the very least constitute a kind of experiment in compatibility.

There are still things to do here (sorting papers, legal matters, getting a new passport, etc.). I hope that it will all go smoothly and that my transition to a new way of life occurs without my having to face any further personal stresses or challenges.

Looking to the broader context, it goes without saying that social, political and economic stresses will continue and probably become more intense. To what extent I will be trying to chronicle or wanting to comment on these things in the future I do not know.

Nor have I decided what communication platforms to rely on during my travels. I may even decide, given the state of the world and the direction in which things are moving, that I want to follow the example of many of my literary and intellectual heroes and hunker down somewhere far from the madding crowd.

While I am in traveling mode, however, I would be very open to meeting – for a coffee, say – anyone who may have come across my blog posts or essays over the years, as well as those internet friends with whom I have maintained more direct contact.

[This is an abridged and modified version of an essay which appeared recently at The Electric Agora.]

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Personhood and cultural embeddedness


In my podcast and elsewhere, much of what I say is centered around what you could see as the paradox of personhood: our individuality derives from our cultural embeddedness. I thought it might be useful to set out in writing – as directly and concisely as possible – my assumptions about personhood and about what makes us human.

These ideas are difficult to pin down but they are important because they are so fundamental. They also have significant implications, and this is why they continue to interest me. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a currently-contentious social or political issue to which answers to the basic questions I am addressing would not be relevant.

Biology and culture. Culture and biology. That’s not all there is, but – with the inorganic world within which biological organisms evolved and within which they exist – that’s enough to make a human being.

Imagine growing a human fetus in a lab, doing whatever might be necessary to allow the body to grow and muscles to develop but not allowing social contact or cultural (e.g. linguistic) input. Such a being might look human and may even be able to perform some basic physical activities but how human would it be (except in a technical sense)? Crucially it would not (I am saying) be a person.

Now, if you believe in a spiritual substance which inhabits or animates the body you will have a different view from mine and may consider me to be disrespecting human dignity by even discussing such an imagined experiment at all. But my point is not to demean human dignity but rather to understand where it comes from.

The person is not just a body, but a body that has developed within a particular social and cultural environment. There’s no secret ingredient. There doesn't need to be.

I recognize, however, that it’s natural for us to think in terms of embodied – and disembodied – spirits. Such ideas are widespread across many, unconnected cultures. The most concise and compelling account I have read of these things was by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who, drawing on his research into African religions and on cognitive science, postulated a kind of universal mental template for persons which gives rise not only to our normal notions of embodied persons but also to the notion of disembodied persons, the notion of purely spiritual beings.

I am saying that we are culturally embedded biological organisms. Our personhood derives not from a soul or spirit but simply from the cultural matrix in which we grew up.

This is all very well, you might say, and widely accepted. But I am making two claims here. One is that there is no soul or spirit. One is that we are necessarily culturally embedded. It’s the latter point I want to emphasize.

People often talk as if one can or could “reject” or stand outside of one’s culture. I would reference here the Romantic myth of the rebel. Its hold within the cultural milieu in which I grew up always bemused me and I still see signs of it everywhere. Sure, you can reject aspects of your culture – but only by embracing and deploying other aspects of the cultural matrix within which you came to and continue to exist. An individual is always dependent on – and in fact defined by – this matrix and indebted to the other individuals, past and present, who have contributed to it.

This does not mean that individualism is impossible or is an illusion. The individualist simply seeks out and engages with a wider range of cultural elements than the unreflective conformist does.

The sort of individualism I value most is not about eccentricity or even primarily about creative self-expression (important as the latter undoubtedly is). It is more about independent thinking and practical wisdom (or commonsense).

As I envisage it, independent thinking is closely associated with – and bolstered by – the institutions, traditions and values of science and scholarship. Such values may be universal but they are also culturally contingent in the sense that they have flourished at different times and in different regions. And their current eclipse in Western countries does not auger well for the future.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Mother's death

My mother (Marjorie Clare English (née Shanley)) suffered a sudden deterioration in her health early this week and died peacefully today. She had been battling serious health problems for some time, including Parkinson's disease.

For the last ten years of her life she lived in a nursing home where her two sons visited her on a regular basis. My sister, who lives in Western Australia, had to make do with the telephone most of the time but always kept in very close touch. Circumstances were such that my sister's two boys never really got to know their old and (by then) ailing grandmother as well as they would have wished.

This is not the time to write about my mother as a person other than to say that she was deeply loved by her children and other family members, and throughout her life was liked and respected by just about everyone who knew her. I have written in the past about her illness and her fighting spirit, and about the music she liked and responded to. (See "A Parkinson's playlist".)

The family is grateful to Marjorie's physician for her dedication, wisdom and kindness and especially to the hard-working personal care assistants, nurses and others who interacted with her over the last decade. Above all, it was this friendly interaction which kept her going.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The most unhappy country in history

You know how it is. You are tempted to submit another comment in a comment thread discussion but then think better of it. Because you don't want to monopolize the discussion, appear too negative or just because "less is more."

Disagreements are intrinsically more interesting than agreements and I am often drawn to challenge statements either for what is being said, or for how it is being said.

Take this brief extract from a piece by E. John Winner which appeared recently at the Electric Agora:

"And it has been my experience, although widely denied, that Americans, despite wealth and power, remain the most unhappy people in history.  Others suffer greater physical suffering, of course, but none experience angst, dissatisfaction, frustration, hopelessness, depression, disappointment, more deeply than we..."

There is, at least from an outsider's perspective, something darkly comical about these claims. It's not just that they are hyperbolic. It's more that they come across as yet another manifestation (albeit rather strange and perverse) of American exceptionalism. We are not only the most unhappy people in the world, we are the most unhappy people in the entire history of the planet. We suffer angst, dissatisfaction, frustration etc. more deeply than foreigners can even imagine!

There is something to this however, and it relates to imperial decline. The wealth and power is slipping away, just as it did for the British who faced a series of debacles (including Suez) and eventually the humiliation of an IMF bailout. This process is very painful for those who grew up believing that the status quo would continue indefinitely. I understand that.

I was going to make a moral point here, referring to foreign victims of American violence and suggesting that some kind of karma or communal guilt might have been in play also. But this would have been disingenuous. I don't believe in karma; nor, really, in communal guilt. Besides, it would have been a cheap shot. Bad things happened; and pointing the finger at one group or nation necessarily lets other groups or nations off the hook.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Politics and personal values; the Taiwan question

Personal and political values can be intertwined in complicated ways. Even within close families, there are often serious, politically-driven divides. I talk here about the way my own foreign policy views and attitudes developed, referring to the influence of my father and also to bitter, politically-driven personal rifts which existed at one time within my father’s family.

The latter part of this episode of Culture and Value is devoted to a review of a recent discussion about China’s regional ambitions and to the dangerous game (as I see it) that the United States is currently playing in the Western Pacific, especially in relation to Taiwan.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The curious persistence of Cold War thinking

Great powers in decline are often more dangerous than rising powers. The leaders of such countries (today's United States?) may be tempted to take drastic action in an attempt to stem perceived decline and restore the status quo ante or simply to distract from domestic problems.

In the latest episode of my podcast, I argue that, although changes in the geopolitical landscape have taken us well beyond the relatively clear ideological dichotomies of the Cold War era, new and dangerous forms of neoconservatism have arisen which are influencing foreign policy and media reporting and perpetuating the myth of American exceptionalism.

This episode runs for about 13 minutes.