Childhood stories

I read this Medium post that’s blown up recently, which is about the almost unimaginably huge amount of content on Youtube for children and the ways in which the site’s design has allowed disturbing content to become mixed in with appropriate videos. It’s an interesting read. Unsurprisingly, it prompted me to think back on my childhood encounters with stories, ideas, pictures, feelings, anything that I could not make sense of and that affected me strongly. I’m sure many other people did similar. The things that article talks about are certainly concerning (if couched in a slightly hysterical tone) and I don’t wish to suggest otherwise. It was just a springboard for me to think about instances of exposure to weird and confusing things I had in my younger years (definitely not when I was as young as the children that Youtube content is designed for/affecting, and there’s a great difference between giving a child a book, as would happen to me, and sitting them in front of rolling videos).

One of the most fascinating books of my childhood was The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories, a compilation of short stories from the 1740s through to the 1990s. I can’t quite remember how I first got a hold of this book. I do remember our family owning a copy at some point. Internet searches have given me a bit of information on it, but I get the impression that it is not hugely popular.

This book is a central part of the collection of mysterious, strangely exhilarating things that made a significant impact on my young mind. It was a firm favourite on the weekends when the family settled into “quiet time” – reading and other non-TV activities only. The stories in it were so unlike any contemporary children’s books I read. Their intriguing titles drew me in, some simple and others strangely exotic. Each entry was idiosyncratic in form and subject and vocabulary. I understood all the words, but they were put together in ways that were highly unusual to me. Some had a clearly recognisable moral. Others were not so clear or seemed to have none.

Particularly notable about this book is the handful of stories that were scary or violent or otherwise disturbing, and that paired these themes, to great effect, with a delicate ambiguity. I found one of them here: The Wailing Well. Brilliant and very creepy. I found another here: The New Mother. Horrible and wonderful. Bits and pieces from these and other stories are remarkably vivid in my mind, well over a decade since I read them. A man carrying a young boy’s bloodless corpse. A long wooden tail dragged across the ground. Nanina’s bloodied, bruised feet held tightly in the roots of a tree. Good-hearted little Tommy treated cruelly, and that so casually, by the girl he held such sweet childish affection for. A hostile stepmother making life hell for her powerless new stepdaughter.

Each author of those stories clearly had a great skill for showing a young reader dark and frightening things in ways that were gentle but didn’t coddle or comfort. Truly awful things – gruesome, unjust, punishment beyond the measure of the crime – happened to the (usually child) protagonists of these tales, and the moral of the story often seemed to me to simply be “the world is sometimes a terrible place”. This lesson was imparted in a carefully detached manner, shown rather than told, without the heavy-handedness or world-historic feel of the moral message of so many children’s stories. The rather pedestrian truth of the brutality of life was conveyed in a fittingly matter-of-fact way.

At the time, I wondered if the content of some of these stories was perhaps pushing the boundaries of appropriateness; I could see that it was certainly very different to what I found in other books I would read, even ones that dealt with obviously unusual subject matter. I see now that the material was fine for me at the age I was reading it at, and, moreover, that I was enriched greatly by having things that I perceived to be dark and mysterious and that I could experience alone. As valuable as the content itself was my perception of it, and the role of both content and perception in me creating my private child-minded world of inexplicable and intriguing things. I deeply valued my time spent inside these stories without adults offering explanations or guiding me away from ambiguity. I was taught to feel comfortable treading water when I couldn’t make sense of things, and my young and small world was broadened in profound ways. The mystery of it all was the reward, of course.

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Desk stress

One of the key features of this year, the first of my PhD study, has been the inability to secure a comfortable place to study and write. Not a struggle I anticipated. Not something I had even given much thought to prior to starting at the University of Sydney earlier this year. I remember vaguely assuming that things would work like they did at my previous university, where as an undergrad I remember seeing small groups of PhD students sharing offices with their own permanent desks. I now understand that this is not at all a standard arrangement, and that postgraduate students at different institutions around the country work in many different settings.

A first year USyd PhD in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences wishing to study in a designated postgraduate space on campus has two locations to choose from. One is a fitted-out basement – no windows, harsh lighting, often many desks free. The other is also a basement of sorts, but above-ground (has windows) and often a reasonably pleasant place to work, and thus not so many free desks to be found. Both are “hot desk” spaces, which means that no desk is permanently allocated and students need to remove all their things from a desk after finishing work for the day. (Spaces with assigned desks are available to students in the later stages of their PhD. Details of all spaces here).

Simply finding out about these spaces did not happen easily, but poking around the university website led me to information eventually. I had a clearer idea of where to find the windowless spot than the other, so that has been home base for the year to date. I have been productive there through sheer force of will. Many people don’t mind that kind of space and can work there well, but in the past few months I have finally admitted to myself that I am not one of these people.

Having no point of permanence for study combined with a poor working environment has had a strong psychological impact on me. My already-existing anxiety is at a constant hum well above normal levels. I take a remarkably long time to settle down enough to concentrate and do meaningful reading and writing. No windows in my study space means a bizarre relationship with time of day, and regulating my work into productive sections becomes difficult.

I find stoicism an admirable trait and seek to cultivate it in myself where possible, but these efforts sometimes become misplaced. Directing myself to stop being so precious and just do some fucking work is not a sustainable strategy for the three-plus years that this PhD will take me. I find nothing admirable in me forcing myself to put up with a situation that is detrimental to my mental health, to my will to learn, to my passion for writing, and, moreover, that has been imposed on me by a university that has severely mismanaged its intake and provision of facilities for postgraduate students.

I am providing a short personal account of my difficulties here, but I wish to be absolutely clear: this is a structural issue and one that the University of Sydney has created and must solve.

USyd has over 900 arts postgraduate research students and provides about 300 desks for them – I don’t have exact numbers to hand. Some students study at home, others are often away on research trips, some study at uni only on certain days of the week. There are lots of cases of students not requiring permanent desks. This does not explain or mitigate the fact that USyd has enrolled far, far more postgraduate arts students than it can provide facilities for – facilities that it is obliged to provide under its own guidelines and that of the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association.*

I fail to see what can produce this set of circumstances other than the university blindly pursuing a path that is profitable and ignoring the pressure-cooker conditions intensifying as, I can only presume, more and more students have been enrolled and the number of desks has stayed the same. There is a new building on the way with more spaces, due to open in 2019, and while I have heard varying reports about the number of desks this will house, all reports are under 100. A little larger than a drop in the ocean, but not by much.

I have been working with a group of other postgraduate students to try and tackle this issue through collective action. This has been important in bringing together people with similar concerns, and in showing me that there is a history of student action around postgrad study space issues and that many current students share my concerns. Until I made contact with these students I felt like I was shouting into the void. Thankfully I have also had invaluable support from particular staff members who have gone above and beyond in responding to this issue, and I believe that some extremely good news will be delivered shortly about some new spaces.

I don’t and can’t regret coming to Sydney to pursue a PhD. I have found many wonderful welcoming people at USyd, including my excellent supervisor and some great new friends in the postgrad cohort. I am able to pursue my interests easily in the rich cultural and sporting life of the city and in its beautiful natural environment. This said, I can’t help but wonder what life would be like at a university that took its postgraduate research students seriously as valuable members of its academic community and showed this through actions, not just words. I moved to Sydney, and away from family and friends and places I love, to be a part of the academic life of this university. I want to work at uni every day in an environment where I can be comfortable and productive. I live in a small shared flat and have no luxuries like space for a home study, and I carefully live on the federal government “research training programme” scholarship of about $27,000 per year in Australia’s most expensive city. I rely on my university to be a calm and pleasant place to work – nothing outside the bounds of reasonable expectations in my position as a PhD student.

The situation I’ve briefly outlined indicates that there is something extremely wrong with the University of Sydney’s approach to long-term management of its postgraduate student body. It is clear that the university does not take seriously its need to provide decent facilities for these students and in adequate volume, and this in turn means that it does not – it cannot – truly value its postgraduate students. I know that the many passionate supervisors and all members of staff who work with postgraduate students across many areas of the uni absolutely do care about us and have our best interests at heart. It is the university-run-as-corporation and its acolytes that is to blame. This post is a way for me to let out some of my pent-up frustration and to provide a very short overview of this issue for anyone interested. To do the issue justice would require more time than I have right now as my confirmation looms and thousands of archive pictures wait to be sorted through. The battle continues.

 

* University of Sydney policy – Essential Resources For Higher Degree by Research Students Policy 2016 (link opens a PDF). Also see the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association’s “Space Planning Guidelines” (link opens a PDF).

Learning/thinking

super-andrija-zagreb

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about my own thinking, and specifically about how my education has created some unfortunate infrastructure in my mind that I’m now examining, pulling apart, rearranging, and sometimes throwing away.

One of the more bizarre experiences of my high school education was taking English Extension in Year 12. I tried to find the 2008 syllabus online but no dice. I think it’s maybe more fun to reflect on it using just my memories, rather than delving back into it all in a more concrete sense. The subject was primarily about getting students to produce readings of texts – so, pick a book or a film or whatever and pick a theory and do a reading of that text through the lens of that theory – in a more sophisticated way than was being taught in regular English classes. Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, and Foucault, among others, were presented to us with minimal background information, really just as tools of sorts. Impose this over the book you’ve chosen and you will have your reading.

I have always been the kind of person who needs to know more and needs to know why, so the way this subject was taught was extremely disorienting. I can’t just read a bit of theory and take it at face value and dive in to applying it. I need to really understand who wrote it and what they were doing in writing it, and then I need to be able to correctly place it on my mental map of thinkers and ideas and history and so on. I need to understand what I’m doing.

This subject and my difficulties with it became deeply upsetting, and I turned to trusted teachers from other courses to help me. One pointed me down the path of “lit crit is a sophistic scam”, which was extremely reassuring at the time. For a while I was someone who would quite seriously cite the Sokal hoax as proof of the failings of academia. I certainly didn’t know any better. I was seventeen, an overachiever who was becoming lazy and complacent, feeling the pressure of needing to do well in my final exams, and bewildered by my inability to understand this material.

I had been given things that I didn’t know what to do with. Last week I opened The Archaeology of Knowledge and had to smile as, for whatever reason, Year 12 English Extension came rushing back. I don’t mind the idea of introducing post-structuralism or whatever to high school students, but I hope the Queensland education department has scrapped whatever they were doing with it in 2008.

My undergraduate years were messy and featured a few strange changes in degree. I strayed from and returned to political science, eventually completing an extended major and honours in this field. A particularly strong memory is of a course that seemed to be built around the core idea of universalism vs cultural relativism. I don’t remember details but I have a feeling it was a course about human rights, which would make sense. Students were heavily encouraged to view the topics and events in the course with u vs c.r. in mind. Tutorials were basically footy matches: we all chose sides and debated forcefully. This all had an enormous impact on me, and I think quite a damaging one. The way that the course was framed simply did not and could not encourage much in the way of creative and critical thinking. It took much effort to move beyond the dichotomy presented. For some time I didn’t have the knowledge or the tools to do so.

In my final semester of my undergrad degree I was introduced to contextual intellectual history through two avenues: one, by an academic in my school who had agreed to take me on to do a research project, and two, in one lecture in the last weeks of the capstone course. I soon wondered why I wasn’t handed “Meaning and Understanding” the day I began my degree. Later I understood, but still. I felt like I’d somehow been waiting my entire degree to read this stuff. Training myself to think as an intellectual historian is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever undertaken, and it involves radically updating or completely jettisoning many of the ideas I absorbed during undergraduate courses. Not everyone taking those courses wants or needs to be an intellectual historian, of course, but an understanding of the history of political thought is vital for a student wishing to coherently discuss that thought as it exists and can be used today. The ubiquitous “intro to pol sci” course (a week for liberalism, for conservatism, for whatever else) really is an absurd kind of survey that sets the unfortunate scene early on. How else to proceed, though?

In one of our early meetings, I asked my research project supervisor (later my honours supervisor) if he might help out with a political economy reading group that I was trying to set up. He politely declined, explaining that his research required him to think about texts in a historically-informed way that made it difficult to then think about them and teach them as relevant to the present day. I was immensely intrigued – no one had ever said this sort of thing to me before. That incident folded itself up and sent itself deep into my brain and has lived there ever since.

Unsurprisingly, I find myself now similarly afflicted. Sorting out the relationship between my academic work and my political ideas and commitments is often difficult and causes me a not insignificant amount of worry and anxiety. Something to write about once I know what to write.

 

Picture: http://yomadic.com/communist-architecture-zagreb/

Music & History

I’ve been thinking lately about how my musical education as a young person primed me to embrace intellectual history as enthusiastically as I have.

My long-term interest in classical music (that frustrating catch-all term) includes a significant interest in baroque music and historically informed performance. From a very young age I was drawn to Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and others, including somewhat obscure names that I dug up on Youtube and in piles of sheet music.

It became clear to me early on that there are a range of approaches taken to the interpretation and performance of baroque music. It was fascinating to compare different versions of the same piece and consider what had gone into making each sound as it did. Why did some conductors and performers care about historical accuracy? Why were others unconcerned?

When I was 13 I received a life-changing Christmas gift from my father: a recording of Handel’s Messiah, the 1959 one conducted by Malcolm Sargent with the Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic. The booklet inside the CD case had a blurb about the recording and the artists, which included discussion of choices made to not stick to original instrumentation and to abridge the work. I read it over many times. I was fascinating by this glimpse behind the curtains. I had no idea that so much about classical music performance was up for debate.

Youtube, live performances, and my own experiences as a violist and a chorister have shown me many different productions of Messiah over the years, performed with a range of soloists and ensembles and performance philosophies. Some of these have been historically-accurate performances, where everything from the kind of instruments used to interpretation of written directions to use of vibrato is carefully considered, with a view to recreating the kind of sounds a 1740s audience would have heard when listening to Handel’s glorious new creation

Every time I hear Messiah it’s like hearing it for the first time, yet of course so very familiar. It is still Messiah regardless of how it’s performed. I’m still profoundly moved whether I’m hearing a baroque ensemble or an orchestra in a modern configuration. Comparing the aesthetic qualities of the different performances I’ve seen over the years is quite enjoyable.

And yet, and yet. If pressed, I will opt for a historically informed performance. I want something nuanced and thoughtful, not bloated and verging on a kind of performative self-consciousness (Yes, We Are Performing A Very Famous Piece). Not the kindest appraisal and not universally correct, but correct enough to have shaped my preferences.

Thinking about these things so deeply as a young person surely went some way in making me extremely receptive to the ideas of Cambridge school intellectual historians. Quentin Skinner urges us to uncover the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage; when I heard that for the first time I thought, you know, I think I understand what you mean.

Worthy-is-the-lamb

I think there is a very interesting comparison to be made between historically informed musical performance and contextual intellectual history. It’s not one-to-one, for many obvious reasons, but there is something there. Musicians and historians in these traditions are both working to uncover, restore, and re-create the past as faithfully as they can. They are each piecing together a puzzle of sorts. They seek to leave modern prejudices behind and carefully collect and collate evidence that shapes their output in the image (for it will only ever be an image) of the past.

Similar questions face each type of historical enquiry, especially when these contextualists of either field are perceived as elitist or antiquarian. Why does it all matter? Who cares? Essays, operas, concerti, treatises of the past: their authors are long dead, and so are their target audiences.

But consider the riches we uncover by taking slow and careful hands to the task of excavating the nuances of past thought. If a composer intended a note be played this way and not that, it can transform a piece of music entirely. We show respect to the composer’s vision by seeking to reproduce their music as faithfully as we can, and we are rewarded richly for doing so. Or, if present-day political rhetoric is backed by the authority of a long-dead theorist whose work can’t possibly be considered to be supporting it, this appropriation needs to be challenged and original intentions of the author revealed. We in the present day are then forced to use our own brains to address our own issues instead of asking a giant of the past to do it for us.

Perhaps I just deify the author too much. I want to know what Bach meant when he wrote what he did. I want to hear what he wanted his music to sound like to an audience. I want to understand our intellectual heritage of a given topic rather than crudely wondering what the texts on that topic can offer in the present day. No one in the past was writing specifically for me, and I don’t believe there is anything to be gained from treating their work as though they were.

Listen to Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in the hands of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra under Paul Dyer, and then to the Münchener Bach-Orchester under Karl Richter. Listen especially to the aria, the third movement. It’s a beautiful piece of music, in either rendition, but hear how different interpretations transform a piece entirely:

I have a particular affection and respect for Richter style interpretations of baroque work, but it’s hard to deny the sheer brilliance and sophistication of the Brandenburg Orchestra’s playing. They draw out tensions and beauty that aren’t present in other interpretations.

Use of Weapons

 

I recently had the great pleasure of reading Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks for the first time. He’s an extraordinary writer and this is an extraordinary book. He masterfully handles two timelines unfolding in alternating chapters, slowly converging, each telling part of a richly detailed and ultimately heartbreaking story.

As in much of his work, Banks is not holding the reader’s hand. He leaves it to us to negotiate jumps in time and space, but I sense that he doesn’t want to give his readers a stressful experience. It seemed most natural to let the changing cast of characters and places, bizarre events, humour and tragedy wash over me instead of obsessively worrying about keeping track of each detail. Use of Weapons is an unhurried book and I didn’t fight it.

I would say that the story plays its hand close, but it’s hardly playing a game. The concealment of the true nature of certain characters and events isn’t a cheap gimmick here. Banks is not out to deceive the reader. He is honest about what he’s doing, and eventually shows us that it was done in the service of a higher purpose. Trust and patience is rewarded.

I often think about how the reading experience is impacted by the physical nature of a book: a reader can literally see and feel the unread section of a book growing smaller, and this surely has some psychological effect on how we read a novel and anticipate its ending. As the pages disappeared in Use of Weapons I knew that answers must be coming, but, as is usual in his work, Banks will not present them neatly packaged. Each timeline in is infused with a hazy sense of something-not-quite-right from the start, and I became almost weary with dread as the book progressed but refused to accelerate.

Answers came in shocking bursts. I wept hopelessly at the book’s most shocking reveal and again at its devastating conclusion. It was a punch to the stomach followed by a liver shot.

Banks has a precious gift: he shapes and directs his readers’ emotional responses with incredible delicacy and intelligence. His books aren’t packed with explicit themes and subject matter, but he knows how to deliver sudden moments of unbearable horror and pain and bittersweet sadness that leave an indelible impression. The enormity of events becomes clearer the further away I get from them. I’m still turning this book over and over in my mind, weeks after I finished it.

The story is like a grand saga – not in the sense of some massive modern-day multi-book series, but a myth, a cultural artifact. It feels temporally ambiguous, standing outside any particular time and place. It’s already happened and might never happen at all. Unlike much science fiction, it’s not about one single world- or galaxy- or universe-changing event, but about people and history and purpose. Small details and minor plot points contribute to the sprawling story as much as its most impressive turns, and the whole becomes an offering to the tragic figure at its centre. (See the end for a comment that is also a spoiler). I didn’t feel like a participant in this book, but a witness to its events.

I’ve been reading science fiction since my early teens but I’m glad that I came to Iain M Banks a bit later in life. I’m not sure my younger self would have known how to appreciate his work quite so fully as I can now. Each time I pick up a Banks book I haven’t read, I’m a little sad. Excited to read it, of course, but aware that what we have now is it. I’m savouring the unread titles. He is missed.

 

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To be clear: the tragic figure, to me, is Cheradenine Zakalwe, not Elethiomel. When the twist was finally revealed, I was completely heartbroken. I like to see Use of Weapons as an atonement of sorts for Cheradenine’s grim life and death. I don’t think Iain M Banks would necessarily agree with this interpretation, but I’m incurably soft-hearted with this sort of thing.

Something something lies and statistics

Have a read: Spreadsheets are people too: statistics and reality. I quite like this blog post.* I see this issue come up time and again in political discussions, and it usually boils down to a “feels vs reals” kind of debate, or perhaps a subsection of the Two Cultures question. Like Professor Portes, I think that there is a lot of unnecessary and misguided antagonism between the stats and anti-stats crowd.

As someone who is, broadly speaking, found on the left side of politics, I’m sadly used to political bedfellows of the anti-stats persuasion. This doesn’t mean a literal hostility to statistics or science and maths more broadly; in fact, I’d say that many of these people would say they like science very much. The anti-stats attitude is something most easily seen in the midst of debate; for some, making an argument based in ethics or morality is more important than making a case using empirical tools. When this view meets opposition from the stats crowd, things can deteriorate fast.

I can’t help but think of my time spent in internet forums and Facebook groups that are focused on discussion between people of different political beliefs. These are weird little microcosms where real-world political dynamics are replicated, amplified, and played out in often predictable fashion. Often it seemed like the lefties showed up prepared to have debates centred on ethics and morality and expecting certain axioms of theirs to go unchallenged, while a certain set of the right/libertarian crew seemed to have piles of links and papers ready to go at all times on most topics (of varying quality). That Stefan Molyneux catchphrase, “not an argument”, is instructive here. In these spaces, arguments based on non-empirical foundations (for lack of a better term) were perceived as weak and illegitimate – not “real” arguments – whereas a position backed up with statistics and other scientific evidence was considered respectable.

I see interesting parallels here with wider cultural tensions between the hard sciences and humanities. Serious work is conducted using the scientific method; expendable, even indulgent work is done by those who spend their time, say, pouring through old poetry books, or theorising about gender. So goes one popular line of thought.

I’ve noticed this dynamic in debates online and in real life. I’ve tried to explain it to myself and ended up frustrated. Surely it’s problematic to view all this in a framework where left-wing politics is grouped with the humanities and right-wing politics is grouped with the hard sciences and they’re all fighting in some grand battle, but that seems to be what I’m implying. To help it all make sense I ended up using Nietzsche in a slightly spurious way, or at least employ/bastardise some of his ideas in ways perhaps not quite intended by him. I’m certainly no scholar of his work, but I’ve found his concept of master-slave morality to be useful in trying to make sense of why we see particular divides along political and cultural lines.

I see parts of the political left as beholden to a kind of slave morality which manifests in various ways including shaping the way that they argue. Whipping out a spreadsheet isn’t nearly as meaningful to some as a solid argument based in political philosophy, or something derived from an ethical framework, or testimony from lived experience. Further, arguing in the same way as their political opponents is uncomfortable; not only are they perhaps not well-versed in these techniques, but the act of simply adopting them seems like a tacit acknowledgement that their opponents’ tools of argument are effective – effective enough to want to copy and use right back at them. This is a concession that’s far too dangerous to make in a situation where gaining and holding on to points of legitimacy is paramount.

Many are reluctant to buy into a view that they perceive to be cold and sanitised. They doubt that graphs and numbers can give a true picture of people’s lives, solve the problems facing them, and ultimately provide justice. Perhaps they’ve seen these tools employed to do the opposite of that. The picture of, say, a heartless, hyper-rational government cutting welfare benefits based on advice from a wonkish grey paper is a powerful one (and it’s certainly not based on total fantasy).

So, the master’s tools can only be used for his own ends; the slave feels compelled to reject them and use his own. This is an enormous mistake for the political left to make. We must utilise a range of tactics in our political battles and avoid a mindset which prompts us to view the use of particular tools as a concession to our opponents. Perhaps a hackneyed point, but: statistics can be used to tell a range of stories, and it’s impossible to challenge or confirm these stories without knowing how to speak the language they’re told in.

Numbers are not a neoliberal conspiracy (to paraphrase a great tweet I saw recently and now can’t find). Those on the left are unwise to dismiss an indispensable source of information about the world. Of course, this is a complex issue with more dimensions than what I’ve touched on: consider how different priorities and ideological paradigms become popular, why certain research gets funding, how the concept of expertise is built and maintained, or why evidence for particular things might be pushed by powerful voices. Just… like I said, not everything is a conspiracy, and using statistics doesn’t make us heartless or cold or legitimise political opponents. It helps us understand the reality of our world in different and powerful ways.

 

*Though it’s worth highlighting the section about “spreadsheet-driven policy” on poverty: I take issue with this approach for particular (socialist) reasons that I’d like to discuss more in another post.