One of the most interesting things I read this week was this excellent blog piece by documentary maker Adam Curtis. He’s pondering why so few new ideas have emerged from the financial crisis, and his first answer is the lack of fecundity from think-tanks. So he explores the history of think-tanks, going back to the first British think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs. He discovers that one of its founders, a free market buccaneer called Oliver Smedley, also set up one of the first pirate radio stations in the 1960s – Radio Atlanta. The station eventually merged with Radio Caroline and Radio City, but the merger ended in tragedy when he shot the founder of Radio City with a shot-gun. Shiver me timbers! There’s an interesting book to be written on the connection between rock, punk and the Thatcherite revolution…
If you want to see one of the inspirations for Curtis’ counter-cultural cut-and-paste critique of capitalism, check out John Berger’s pioneering 1970s TV series, Ways of Seeing
, which is available on YouTube.A fine piece of work…although I wonder if Berger’s emphasis on ‘de-mystifying’ the European tradition of art, and exposing its rhetoric of power, ignores the question of beauty and artistic skill…You arrive at a view of art where it’s just so many placards declaiming different attitudes to power, which itself ends up in the pointless undergraduate sloganism of conceptual art. Or perhaps I’m being mystical.
Both Berger and Curtis are, in their way, essayists. Both are, in fact, pioneers of the televisual essay. Today, the essay is in robust health, thanks in part to the growth of boutique publishers like Atavist and Byliner, which allow non-fiction writers to publish long essays as ebooks, and then share half the royalties. Here’s a good piece
on that model. And here’s a great example
of the essayist as inner-explorer: Claus Von Bohlen talking about his experience of excruciating pain, doing a week-long course of Vipassana meditation in Nepal.
The politics of well-being is increasingly a global phenomenon, that impacts on the thinking and policies of agencies, multi-laterals and charities working in the developing world. Where once the ‘Washington Consensus’ reigned supreme, now agencies and departments think in broader, more holistic terms, about how aid and interventions affect communities’ well-being, rather than simply their GDP and average income levels. But is well-being simply another western construct we’re imposing on developing countries?
Yesterday, I interviewed Dr Sarah C. White of the Centre for Development Studies at Bath University. She worked on a research project called ‘Well-being in developing countries’ from 2002-2007, and is in the middle of another research project, called ‘Well-Being and Poverty Pathways‘, financed by DFID and the ESRC, exploring well-being and poverty in two communities, in India and Zambia. We discussed whether well-being is a universal term, or to what extent western societies – and in particular Positive Psychology – has arrived at a definition of well-being that focuses on the individual while ignoring the relational. What can we learn about well-being from other cultures? You can read the interview here.
One of the pioneers of the history of emotions is the British philosopher Theodore Zeldin, who wrote a huge, five-volume, history of French passions, way back in 1973, and then brought the discipline into the mainstream with his best-seller, An Intimate History of Humanity
, in 1994. Not long ago, he set up a foundation in Oxford, called Oxford Muse, which is mainly involved in promoting conversation. Zeldin has come up with a format he calls ‘a feast of strangers’, which sounds a bit like a cannibal potluck, but is really an event wherein people turn up, get fed, and get paired off with a stranger for an hour and a half, then given a menu of topics to discuss, course-by-course. Over soup, you might be asked to discuss ‘how have your priorities changed over the years?'; while the fish course asks you to consider ‘when have you felt isolated?’ Speed dating it ain’t. For an hour and a half, it’s just you and the Other, going through the ‘process’ of deep conversation, finding out about each other, sharing, listening. Not sure I could take it. But perhaps that’s Zeldin’s point: we have erected more and more barriers to proper conversation, have walled ourselves in with iphones and headphones, have dwindled the resources of our attention, and our capacity to trust, share with and listen to others. You can hear a Radio 4 show from last week about the conversation project here
On Friday 30th, the London Philosophy Club invites the wonderful grass-roots philosophy movement – Philosophy In Pubs (PIPs) – to come and talk to us about their movement, which has been going for a decade, and now has 37 PIPs groups around the country. They’re very affable and inspirational people, so do try and come if you’re in London that night. A few places left, here.
Finally, check out this interesting video blog
by Penn Jilette, the Skeptic magician, fresh from an encounter with a Christian evangelist in the street. He seems moved by the experience, and decides that, if you’re a Christian, and believe people are going to hell, and you don’t proselytize, you must ‘hate humanity’. Likewise, if you’re an atheist and you don’t proselytize. Hmmm…Skeptics and Christians, two peas in a pod?
See you next week,