Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trying and

Among the many constructions hated by pedants, "try and" is a favourite. For my part, although I invariably correct it, I do not think it is particularly bad, and I think a case could be made for considering it correct.

First, we need to consider what "incorrect" even means. As I've noted in previous posts, English does not have an Academie, so there is no authority to say "this is how one should write English". Only custom and various sources of authority that we appeal to serve as our yardsticks.

However, many, me included, accept that "correctness" in English -- or any other language, even those with their state bodies to preserve their purity -- is a matter of usage. If everyone bar you writes "in order to" or "between you and I", it doesn't matter that you deprecate it. You have been left behind by the language. This is primarily an outcome of the purpose of language: to communicate. To fulfil this purpose, it's essential that those who use the language have a common understanding of it. They do not have to have identical understanding, but it must be reasonably close. (So that we can disagree on what a "pavement" is, but we pretty much have to agree on "road". And you might use "may" where I use "might", but neither uses "should" for the meaning we are trying to convey.)

I think it's fairly clear that "try to" is more widely used than "try and", and most writers would consider the latter informal at best, but the latter usage is increasing, and there are other constuctions that share the same space. Many use "due to" or "as" where I would use "because of" and "because". Again, I would correct their usage, but I am not on sure ground. The usage of "as" for "because" is so broad that only my personal taste allows me to change it. So it's true, I think, that the day is not won for "try and".

But it is widely used, and universally understood. The first is important, because innovatory usages are rarely correct unless they are part of a jargon. You can't just invent your own constructions and hope that they will fly (even though they might be comprehensible to other users of the same language). The latter is not so important in considering "correctness" quite strictly, because solecisms made by native speakers are usually understandable without too much effort. However, I do think it's important in considering what is correct in a broader sense.

Why do people write it? It doesn't make "sense". When you "try to see" you are not trying and seeing, so why say "try and say"? People probably say it by folk analogy with "wait and see" and "go and see". It's interesting that these constructions have different meanings. The first, curiously, actually means "wait to see". Waiting and seeing are not separate. You must wait, then you will see. (And if you "try and go", you must try if you want to go. The parallel is reasonable.) The notion is that seeing would require waiting. The second means something slightly different. You must go if you personally want to see, but seeing itself does not require going. I'm not sure I'm correctly getting the point across (rushed for time) but the difference, as I see it, is that for "wait and see", the only way *anyone* could see would be to wait, whereas for "go and see", you have to go, but whoever has already gone, or is where the thing is, can already see. (This idea is complicated by its being possible that you must wait to see something someone else has already seen.)

It's interesting also to look at "look and see". Here, looking is necessary for seeing. So I think you can figure out how "try and see" has gained some currency.

The reasons that it doesn't work are complicated. "Try to" is not like "wait and" but more like "want to". You do not want and see if you "want to see" a film. "To see" is the thing you want. "Try to see" has the same pattern.

But items in English can happily cross into other categories, if they resemble their members sufficiently. Speakers use the material that they have in ways that make sense to them. We infer the rules of English afresh as children; we are not taught them (when you are taught English at school, you are taught two things: one, a restricted code that one could call "formal English" and two, descriptions of the rules you already figured out -- and those descriptions are often inaccurate). As in other languages, parts of verbs will become conjunctions and adverbs, adjectives will become nouns and vice versa, and nouns will become verbs if they're not carefully watched.

Nor does English have to make any sense. Phrasal verbs give terrible trouble to speakers of, say, Chinese, because they often do not have the sense of the words they are made of. ("Take over" is nightmarish for Chinese! Particularly because it can be used with the sense of "take" and "over" and also without it: "take that pie over to your aunt" and "take the firm over".) These are matters of idiom, that dirty black hole into which "sense" is thrown and new sense spat out. I think that if you can put up with "put up with" without demur, you can live with "try and put up with it"'s not making any "sense".

Of course, I do not recommend writing "try and". "Correctness" in language has a lot to do with status: you don't gain much kudos by using what others who believe that language signifies status consider a clear solecism. But I wouldn't be too quick to condemn it either. In a hundred years, it's possible -- particularly given its prevalence among American English speakers -- that we will all be "trying and", looking back at a quaint lost usage that only the very conservative still cling to.

(Just as a side note, it might seem that you cannot say "try and" because whereas "I'm trying to." is a whole sentence, "*I'm trying and." definitely is not. However, in "try and see", "and" is simply a conjunction. On its own, "trying" does not use it. It is, after all, "try" on its own that is replacing "try to".)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Can we get down from this peak?

So why care about peak oil? Somebody will just provide new sources of energy and we'll all be okay, right?

Wrong. This is why.

First, energy companies are not in the business of providing energy. What a whacky communist idea that is. They are in the business of making as much money as possible. They've been well aware of peak oil for decades (they are mostly American and are fully aware that the US had its peak a while back). But peak oil does not mean no oil. It means less oil.

What is economics? Why does it exist? Economics is the study of how scarce resources can be allocated. Why scarce? Surely there are lots of resources. The reason is that we can't all have everything we want just like that. There are limits on how much we can share out (mostly the obvious physical limits). Economics tells us how we can make work into shares of resources. You don't need to be an economist though to appreciate that if something is rare but people desire it, it will be costly. For instance, gold, which in times past had a rather limited supply, but is pretty and a good store of value (because it does not tarnish readily and consequently won't depreciate), has always been expensive enough to be the byword for riches.

So I'm BP or Exxon. What does peak oil mean for me? It means that demand for my major product is increasing, while the supply is not. So the cost will go up. Hooray! I can make tons more profit from it.

But peak oil is bad for the rest of us because we need a cheap source of energy. Really, really need it. The relative luxury we enjoy now is down to oil: I won't go into boring detail of how and why; let's just agree that it is. Without it, we will struggle to maintain our lifestyles. So we are a market, right, waiting to be served by the energy companies?

Well, yes, from our point of view, we are. We demand cheap energy, so come on, supply us. But from BP's point of view, if they make more money from lower-volume sales of oil than they can from higher-volume sales of cheaper energy, they are not going to bother with windpower, even if it is marginally profitable. It's as simple as that. If I have a hundred units of capital to invest, and can make two hundred back from expensive oil, and a hundred and ten from cheap energy, I am not investing in wind.

Okay, you might say, there's little incentive for the energy companies to invest much in research, but surely someone else will want to serve that market? True, as oil rises above a hundred bucks a barrel, other sources of energy will become competitive, but who is going to produce them? No other method currently produces large amounts of energy cheaply, and research into production methods to make the other sources cheap enough is very costly. Remember what we are asking for here: someone to invest a huge amount of money so that they can create a product that is cheap! We're saying invest money so that you can make thin profits. Oil was easy. It just sits there in the ground. You drill and bang, there it is. It requires investment but you can produce oil with fairly low-grade technology (and you are doubtless aware that the Middle East has been in the forefront of oil production as much because its oil is easy to acquire as because it has so much of it). The profits from early production allowed research into technology to increase production, but that process was powered by the easy profits oil brought. Other energy sources do not offer easy profits. They could, perhaps, once the technologies involved are mature. (But consider this: if someone can make solar cells, they make a one-time sale to you of the cell, then you make your own electricity, so again, it's great for you that there should be cheap photovoltaic cells but the cheaper they are, the thinner the profits for manufacturers and the more likely that my investment does not provide the return I hoped for-- if I am Exxon, what do I see in this process: I spend a shitload of money inventing cheap solar power, and someone in China makes the cells cheaper than I can). This last point is important. Exxon profits hugely from peak oil. As demand grows, oil will become ever more costly, but the slope of price will likely outpace the slope of increased costs, as oil becomes more difficult to extract. But if someone is churning out cheap, efficient solar cells, oil is no longer a valuable commodity. The thing we want, remember, is not oil as such; it is cheap power.

These then are the reasons energy companies have not rescued us from peak oil, and will not do so, and why no one else looks much like doing so. Energy companies could pour money into the technology (and they are doing some water-treading research, so that they are capable of keeping pace with the market as it develops) but they don't figure to make as much from it as they can from oil, and worse, any technology that produces cheap energy will be replicable by people who can do it cheaper, so they will simply be cutting their own throats to create it. And others simply cannot do it. The technology for extracting cheap energy from the available resources is extremely expensive, and the road to cheap power is not short. You are looking at a long-term investment of an enormous amount of money into a product that is not certain to make money, partly because, again, any technology that can create cheap power is likely to be easily replicable. Alternatives are simply enormous projects, which are far beyond the scope of anyone who doesn't already have a very large amount of money, and those people, just like the energy companies, already have more certain profitable uses for their capital.

What people who insist that markets can correct problems like this often ignore, or are too ill informed to figure out, is that while in theory someone will gladly meet a demand so long as it makes money, and certainly, there is money to be made in energy, they will not surrender currently profitable activities to do so. They also ignore that capitalists do not on the whole work on the long term. They do not think about how they will make a profit in fifty years. They think about how they will make one next year.

The problem for businesses, I'll repeat for the slow learners, is not that they can't fulfil the demand for cheap power. Of course, they could. A big company could invest a ton of money in solar power or some other source of cheap power and create cheap solar cells. But they would find monopolising that cheap source of power impossible, because even if they tried to keep the technology secret, the risk of someone stealing it would be high, and governments, under pressure from their power-hungry citizens, could force them to allow competition. (Contrary to popular belief, businesses hate competition, because if no one else supplies what you supply, but demand outstrips supply, you are going to make a great deal of money, but if someone else supplies it so that the market finds an equilibrium, then you are not. What people who urge free markets do not always grasp is that volume is great for the consumer but not so great for the business: a business's ideal market would be one in which there isn't quite enough of whatever people want -- the sort of market we will soon have for cheap energy.) The energy companies are among those rich enough to do it, but they have even less incentive: they would be destroying the conditions that will be creating their enormous profits in the next 30 or so years. Yes, after that the oil will have more or less run out and that will make it impossible to profit from it, but they will simply switch their operations to something else they can readily profit from.

The answer is quite simple though. We need someone who is willing to make huge investments without the pressure of needing to recoup them in profit. Someone who has our interests at heart and can undertake enormous research projects that can produce results reasonably rapidly. Now where can we find someone like that?

On the shelf

Al Gore is fat, right, and a screeching Cassandra, right, so we needn't take what he says, seriously, right? That stuff about 20-feet rises in sea level, blah blah, all nonsense, right?

Right. The sea is not likely to rise 20 feet any time soon. (But not likely is not not at all.)

The thing is, this is why I take him seriously. We have no idea how close to falling into the sea Greenland's ice is. But we do know that it would be catastrophic if it does. And it's not just a case of fuck it, I'll just go live up a mountain.

The Larsen B ice shelf fell into the sea over 35 days. One day it was there, proud and frigid, just over a month later, it was pretty much gone. More than three thousand square kilometres of ice, whack, straight into the ocean. (Our American friends may like to know that that's a bigger area than Rhode Island; Europeans, it's more than Luxembourg and slightly smaller than Cornwall.) That structure had existed for at least 400 years, and probably for 12K years, since the last glaciation. Well, the sea didn't rise 20 feet, because Larsen B is only tiny as ice sheets go. Greenland's sheet is more than a million square kilometres. We know it's melting, but we don't know how fast. Scientists cannot accurately model ice-shelf breakage, because it is so complicated and has so many variables, so they are left saying, let's hope it doesn't.

The chance is not nil though and the outcome would be horrendous. A Larsen-type event in Greenland could dump an enormous amount of ice into the North Atlantic. Well, so what? The so what is that a large influx of ice could disrupt -- even stop -- the ocean circulation, as well as raise sea levels. The headline outcome of that would be that the UK and Western Europe, which have a mild climate because of the Gulfstream, which brings warm water -- and by extension warm air -- from the Gulf of Mexico, would instead have climates that matched those of other places at the same latitude. Which is Labrador. Or Moscow but with more storms.

Still, we would not be in a position to worry about that for long, because that would not be the worst of it. If the sea stops circulating, the seabed will be warmed by the Earth's internal heat and the deep sea will become anoxic. This will do two things. Allow the release of sequestered methane and create the environment in which bacteria that like eating methane and shitting out sulphides thrive. The deep sea holds sulphides, which cannot escape because of reasons I can't explain but do understand (I know that sounds weird but when I read about a "chemocline", I understand what it means but don't know why it works, so can't really describe it), and can hold them up to a point. Once that point is passed, wham. Hydrogen sulphide -- the "rotten egg" gas -- would belch up from the deep in enormous quantities.

It's believed this may have happened before. Unless you are planning on patenting a method of breathing hydrogen sulphide, it will not be pleasant for you.

Yeah, it's not all that likely. And Al Gore is totally fat. But it's much more likely than winning the lotto, and I buy a ticket for that every Saturday.

Soft centres

There is nothing much worse in politics than a moderate. These sad creatures tend either to be rightists in disguise, or clowns who cannot read the political map. They believe they are eminently "reasonable", but reason should lead you to either wing of political thought. I can respect the rightist intellectual -- although I wonder about the coldness that has seized their heart -- but for the moderate I have only contempt.

Why? I can almost hear you whining. Why hate me for not having the balls to believe in anything except timidity? The reason is simple. Moderates are enablers of the right.

Progressives want change because we believe the world is wrong. The way it is structured is all awry, and we believe it could be put right -- or righter. I don't think anyone wholly sane believes it can be made perfect, or even that there is a perfect state it could be in. But we feel that it could be better. Moderates though fear great change. They are on the whole statusquoists. They look for excuses not to urge disruption. On climate change, they want to wait and see; on oil, they think the crisis is exaggerated and we will science our way out of it; on wars, they are against them, but not so much; in disputes, they urge seeing both sides, even where it is quite plain that one side has much the greater claim to justice. This latter is, I think, their worst crime: they allow disgusting rightists, who have no interest in justice, to claim an equal share of their affection. Always seeking "balance", the moderate ignores that the world is unbalanced, and, to bring about equity, what is needed, sometimes, is an extremely unbalanced reaction. For instance, if women are sorely mistreated in some distant land, denied rights, employment, access to education, what is needed is not to see the point of view of the men who are mistreating them, but to demand that they are provided with what they lack. But what happens? The rightists, who don't care about women (and mostly don't believe they should have much in the way of rights anyway) unless they have some political purpose for pretending to, want business as usual with the men in the distant land. Moderates, instead of insisting that we cease to empower them, invent excuses to do nothing: the women will suffer more; our economy depends on turning a blind eye to bad business partners; we should work for slow but steady progress, not revolution. And so on, blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, the women continue to have circumscribed lives, and nothing changes.

As I say, there's no way in a case like that to characterise the moderate's position as anything else but a softer version of the rightist's. Philosophically, they took a different road, but they arrived in the same town, if not the same street. Worse, even where they do not share the rightists' positions, they enable them. American moderates may hate Guantanamo, torture, the war on people with oil, but they won't do what it takes to end it. If that was impeach Bush, Bush should now be impeached. If it was disrupt the mechanism of government, that's what they should have done. Floppy moderates, trapped by their belief that others can't really be all that bad, allow hardcore shitheads to get away with murder. It's not just America, of course. This happens everywhere that there are bad men and others without conviction.

Now, I do understand that this thinking can be dangerous. It lies on the road that the takfiris and other jihadis have taken: first you identify your enemies, then you identify your enemies' fellow travellers and they too are your enemies, and finally you identify those who aren't actively opposed to your enemies and they join the ranks of your enemies. But it's a curious thing about the jihadis that in their ranks are many smart guys, who have argued from premises that are not unreasonable to positions that are extreme without their ever having really gone off the reservation. Most of their analysis is fairly sound, when it comes down to it. (Consequently, I think that if you consider that we are involved in a battle of ideas with Islamists, we must approach their premises, not their final positions.)

But I am not urging their extinction. I'll settle for their being imprisoned in the camps they facilitated, until they are sufficiently enraged by the way things are that they stop the Panglossing and start hating the bad. It's not so terrible to hate if the target of your hatred really deserves it. And some do. Some really do.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mind your nonsense

There are fewer sadder sights than pedants playing Canute with the tide of language change. Some of these poor creatures have slid out from the woodwork to complain about the BBC, which is, they claim, failing in its duty to guard the English language. I am not sure it ever had that task, really, although it served as a de facto guardian of the standard when its announcers all spoke "BBC English", another term for the style of pronunciation known to linguists as RP, and to the laity as Oxford English, or public school English, among other things. (It is simply the "posh" English that you would be taught in an elocution lesson.)

Sadly for the whiners, language changes, and for a language such as English, which does not have an Academie to fight against change, and whose arbiters of correctness, such as the OED, are solid descriptivists, what is right is not some ossified code from the 1950s, but whatever people actually say.

They claim that presenters and correspondents on both television and radio routinely misuse words, make grammatical mistakes and use colloquialisms in place of standard English.

Do they though? You cannot "misuse" a word if your usage is in accord with the majority's for the reasons I've given. Particularly, you cannot be said to be wrong if the language has changed and your accuser simply wishes it hadn't. I note that one example they give is "refute". Now, "refute" may well once have meant "disprove", but it now also means "deny strongly". One may deplore that it has shifted meanings, making it a less precise word, but the shift has happened whether you like it or not.

I note too, with some glee, that as usual when a pedant fires a broadside, he or she ends up with egg on the mush:

He blamed the corporation for ruining a number of words, giving the example of the noun, replica. Correctly defined as a 'copy, duplicate or reproduction of a work of art', Bruton-Simmonds complained that it was now used in place of 'imitation', 'likeness' and 'model'.

But "replica" of course does mean all those things. It basically has two meanings. One is a copy that is indistinguishable from the original. The other is a miniature model of the original. Those of us who spent boyhood (or girlhood) hours gluing together replicas of aircraft and ships will be well aware of this meaning (so it's clear that the word has had that meaning at least since I was a lad, and that's, erm, many years).

The idiot who made this mistake wants a whole grammar Stasi for the BBC. Volunteer nitpickers would listen to the radio, or watch the telly, and then whine disconsolately to the grammar tsar. I'm sure broadcast professionals would welcome these interventions, because we all enjoy being treated like schoolkids at work.

Ann Widdecombe, a phenomenon that I don't think I could adequately describe to American readers (indeed no biography could get across just what an atrocious and hilarious person Widdecombe is), rentaquotes that it is important that broadcasters mind their Ps and Qs because their use of language has a tremendous effect on society. However, she didn't say what that effect was. Broadcasters of course reflect society more than they influence it (although I accept that a feedback loop probably does exist, and of course American TV has some influence on usage -- although possibly not as much as some make out).

They need not fear. Language survives everything except its speakers dying. Like everything else, it evolves. And complaining about that is as sensible as complaining about the evolution of animals and plants. What? You think cats, dogs and birds were better in the good old days?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Workshop: The smoothie

Although I'm not such a huge fan of her blog (too saccharine for me, and way too concerned with ephemera, but that's not to say there's no place for a bit of fun in this sad old world, and I do read it from time to time, and when Paula is into an issue, her writing is fine; and in any case, she has a great eye, always noticing), I'm a big fan of Paula's writing. She's light and sharp in about equal measure, and that's not easy. She is, as I've mentioned before, wasting her time with romantic fiction. She writes far too well, and is far too observant for it. I'd love to see her write a comedy of manners, and if she ever does, I hope she'll let me read and comment on it, because I'd love to see her in print.

The smoothie is pretty good. On the one hand, you'll swear you've read it before; and on the other, you just won't be able to think where. Maybe it treads a bit too close to the cliche line, but I think Paula's style is always to do that. She's familiar enough to drag you in, but just sharp and clever enough to be engaging for the more serious reader. It's like a hug with teeth. You can decide for yourself whether that's something you like.

The Smoothie

They were arguing again, the sounds bouncing in from the living room
and making shadows on the bedroom walls.

I think that sounds making shadows is too much of a stretch. If you mean the parents cast shadows, okay, but you didn't say that.

She pushed back the blankets,
grabbed Bashley the bunny, and crept into the kitchen.

One thing I do like in writing is economy (which will not surprise anyone who's read any of these workshop pieces, nor anyone who reads my blog, I should think). Here I think Paula has quite neatly introduced her main character. We know already she's a small girl (the comforting toy tells us) -- and we've filled in that it's her parents who are fighting.

Bashley said he
was hungry, so she stood on a chair to reach the fruit bowl. Dropped
the mushy brown bananas into the blender. Added a scoop of vanilla ice
cream and pressed the button.

I love the lack of an agent in those two sentences. It echoes a recipe, of course, and that's a really nice touch.

The whir drowned out the voices a

Well no. It drowned them out or it didn't.

She added the rest of the ice cream, some orange juice, and an
apple. Turned up the blender's speed, but could still hear them. She
threw in slices of bread and the leftover chicken thing Daddy had said
was shit.

Nice touch. I wonder whether she knows what something being "shit" means. But it doesn't matter. Kids catalogue that sort of thing, and throw it back at you.

Literally, in this case.

Milk, cookies, and beer. The blender spat out a torrent of
smelly banana beer goo that splattered over the stove.

Two things here: first, I don't think you need to tell us that the good is "smelly". If you do feel you must, find a better word, one that really turns the stomach. Reeking springs to mind. Fetid. Second, I would ditch "that splattered" and add in "the counter and" so that it reads "spat out a torrent of fetid banana beer goo over the counter and stove", because it's not clear why a blender would spew goo over the stove.

She tossed in Mommy's calendar with the checkmarks on the days she
stayed late to do inventory. There were lots of checkmarks this month.

A nice piece of dramatic irony. The kid doubtless has no idea why the checkmarks, but we of course do.

They all disappeared into the stinky gray ooze.

Because you are writing this in omniscient voice, you should prefer "stinking" to "stinky". Also, I think the goo would be brown. Apart from anything else, it should be the colour of shit.

Bashley laughed as it
overflowed like lava

I'd just say "flowed" here. No big reason; it's just that it's obviously overflowing, just as lava overflows the vent.

spreading across the counter and swallowing up
the telephone. She held him tight and climbed on top of the
refrigerator as the goop flooded the floor.

You should use a comma before "and" because that's the American way.

Gaping maws materialized
out of the mess, devouring the table and chairs as the blender
shrieked and whined, vomiting out more.

I don't like "gaping maws" because it is such a stock phrase. And I'd much prefer an amorphous mess, so that the parents are surprised by their fate.

Her parents stood in the doorway and screamed.

"What are you doing up there?"

"Turn that goddamned thing off!"

She rested her chin on top of Bashley's soft head as the smoothie
swirled around their feet, making them slip and fall. Her father tried
to pull up her mother, but it was too late. The tsunami was starving
now and its eager claws pulled them under, their bodies disappearing
into the roaring wave, becoming the wave.

See, I think that works without maws. The "claws" are easily visualised as peaks of goo.

And then it was quiet.

Yuk. I have to say, I loved it. My suggestions are entirely minor because I don't think this sort of piece is really helped by overthinking it.

I repost the whole story below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching her name.

The Smoothie

They were arguing again, the sounds bouncing in from the living room
and making shadows on the bedroom walls. She pushed back the blankets,
grabbed Bashley the bunny, and crept into the kitchen. Bashley said he
was hungry, so she stood on a chair to reach the fruit bowl. Dropped
the mushy brown bananas into the blender. Added a scoop of vanilla ice
cream and pressed the button. The whir drowned out the voices a
little. She added the rest of the ice cream, some orange juice, and an
apple. Turned up the blender's speed, but could still hear them. She
threw in slices of bread and the leftover chicken thing Daddy had said
was shit. Milk, cookies, and beer. The blender spat out a torrent of
smelly banana beer goo that splattered over the stove.

She tossed in Mommy's calendar with the checkmarks on the days she
stayed late to do inventory. There were lots of checkmarks this month.
They all disappeared into the stinky gray ooze. Bashley laughed as it
overflowed like lava, spreading across the counter and swallowing up
the telephone. She held him tight and climbed on top of the
refrigerator as the goop flooded the floor. Gaping maws materialized
out of the mess, devouring the table and chairs as the blender
shrieked and whined, vomiting out more.

Her parents stood in the doorway and screamed.

"What are you doing up there?"

"Turn that goddamned thing off!"

She rested her chin on top of Bashley's soft head as the smoothie
swirled around their feet, making them slip and fall. Her father tried
to pull up her mother, but it was too late. The tsunami was starving
now and its eager claws pulled them under, their bodies disappearing
into the roaring wave, becoming the wave.

And then it was quiet.

Paula Light 2006

Why not God?

Why would I rather God didn't exist?

It's quite simple. He solves one mystery: why is there something rather than nothing? But he poses another in answering it: why is there God rather than nothing? So that's pretty much a tie.

Otherwise, God is just another burden on us, and we have enough.

I was going to explain what I meant by that, but thinking about it, it should be self-explanatory.

Also, this is not a good world. We can't even pretend it is. It's rubbish. It's grossly unfair and stupidly so. The bad often get rewarded, usually at the expense of the not-so-bad. Virtue does not bring success, or reward, no matter how you measure it. It tends to bring heartache, because it is just another weakness for the nonvirtuous, or simply callous, to take advantage of. We are poorly equipped to live in it, because we have been burdened with just enough intelligence to understand that we are alive, and not enough to live, enough to know who we are, and not enough to be able to change.

I don't think a god who made this world would be a good god. I'd rather it was the outcome of stupid chance. Because doing this on purpose would be really cruel.


But it has beauty, I know you will say. Yes, it does. But you cannot ascribe all the beauty to God and the ugliness to man, because the most ugly things are not our fault. That we must die is not our fault. We'd live forever if we could. That we are driven by feelings we cannot understand is not our fault either. We didn't make ourselves (although maybe one day soon we will). And even those things that are our fault would be his fault too: he is supposed to have made us and at the same time to be outside time, so he knew how we would be.

But I do not blame God, because I have my preference. He does not exist. We are a joke the cosmos has played on itself, a rather unfunny, weak joke, which is told today, forgotten tomorrow. Let's not be sad about it though. With added God, it would only be funnier.

Race to the bottom

Fun and games at the Gates of Vienna, a blog whose content could pretty much be summed up as "The Filthy Wogs are Coming". Recently, they allowed noted Norwegian racist Fjordman to guestblog.

There is something I want to note about the concept of "whiteness" that people like Fjordman appeal to. American "blacks" are "black" for a simple reason. Their ancestors were stolen from their homes, decultured and homogenised by the slavers as a monocultural mass of men, women and children. The slavers did not care that Fang people have different marriage rites from those of the Igbo. They did not care that Gambians and Congolese speak languages from different families. To them, they were all black.

This is part of the tragedy of slavery, not an outcome to be celebrated. Yet, curiously, writers like Fjordman want to do the same to "whites". Whereas I can see some merit in believing that one should celebrate what is good about Norwegian culture, I cannot see that Fjordman does that. Instead, he wants to celebrate what is good about "white" culture, as if there were such a thing.

Of course, it's a strange thing for those who stand outside Fjordman's worldview to look in at it. In his world, our common "whiteness" gives us common cause. Which is odd, because when we were kids, we were taught to hate other Europeans for not being like us. The Fjordmans of my youth hated the French as much as they hated blacks. Not that they had much to do with either. When I was, say, 12, there was one black family in my village of three thousand people and no French. The locals contented themselves with hating the English, given the lack of "Pakis" to bash.

I am only going to pick out one part of Fjordman's pseudointellectual essay (how these people love their spurious sources: always the same "thinkers"; always the same distorted stats; always the same sources for the same old bullshit), because it illustrates so clearly how unthinking this particular "intellectual" is:

In May 2007, Osama bin Laden’s deputy terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahri stated that “Al-Qaida is not merely for the benefit of Muslims. That’s why I want blacks in America, people of color, American Indians, Hispanics, and all the weak and oppressed in North and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world.”

Read that statement closely. This Jihadist organization is calling for a global war against whites. Not Christians or Jews. Whites. I have been told all of my life that skin color is irrelevant, but this balancing act gets a lot more difficult when somebody declares war against you because of your race.

But the reason Al-Zawahiri calls on blacks, American Indians, Hispanics and so on to join the jihad is not that he is perpetrating a war on whites, but that he considers himself white.

What irony! Fjordman and his like think that "Muslims" too are homogenous and "black". But Arabs consider themselves white (and are often themselves starkly racist). A visit to any of the nations in northern Africa that have significant overlap between Arab or other Semitic peoples and black Africans will disabuse you very quickly of the notion that they are all just "blacks". Take Sudan, where Muslim Arabs are dispossessing and murdering mostly Muslim blacks.


The Muslim menace is, of course, mostly illusory. Most, nearly all, Muslims are just like you and me: people who are just getting on with it. They don't want to destroy your culture, such as it is (since when was the rampant pursuit of material goods and the sexualisation of absolutely everything to the soundtrack of mushy pop, documented by a man who puts sharks in tanks actually a "culture"?); they just want to make a few quid so they can nice up their home.

But that doesn't stop hatemongers such as Melanie Phillips. I well remember disagreeing with a friend quite vehemently because she considered Phillips a "good source" for Wikipedia, just because a newspaper prints her bullshit. (If you wanted an illustration of Wikipedia's bankruptcy as a bastion of intellectualism, in fact, its insistence, driven by a handful of ideologically motivated editors, that newspapers are infallible is as good as any.)

Here Phillips takes issue with the recent letter from Muslim scholars to the Christian top bods. The Muslims, you may have read, have called on Christians to find areas of commonality and live together in peace. Seems fairly unexceptionable, although there are certainly criticisms to be made.

Make peace? says Phillips. But to do that, we'd need to be at war:
First and foremost, it purports to be a plea to Muslims and Christians to make peace with each other. But this implies that both are at war with each other. This is untrue. The Islamic world — or part of it — has waged war on the Christian (and Jewish) western world. The Christian world is merely responding in self-defence. It is the Islamic world which says it wants to conquer the Christian. The Christian world does not say it wants to conquer Islam, merely that Islam should stop trying to conquer it. Yet the Islamic world pretends that the Christian world is engaged in an act of exterminatory aggression against it.

Islamic acts of conquest? Erm. Let me think... erm. Help me out, Mel, because I'm really struggling to recall the massive invasion of any Christian states and the destruction of their infrastructure, command structure and social fabric in recent times. Can you help me out?
On the other side, well, there are two invasions of Afghanistan, one of Iraq, a coup in Iran, the threat of bombing against Iran, the bombing of Sudan, two wars against Somalia's Muslims (Ethiopia is overwhelmingly Christian, remember), not to mention the ongoing support and arming of repressive regimes in several Muslim states and of a repressive, usurper state in Israel. For starters.
But one supposes that in Phillips' world, the "Muslims" are "attacking" us by sending hundreds of thousands of poor people, the flotsam and jetsam of our colonialisation and its stepson globalisation. They didn't just impoverish themselves, you know!
In response to the invitation to consider Muslims as partners, beautifully expressed by the Muslim scholars thus:

So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill

which is a sentiment that it's hard to believe anyone would struggle to get behind, Phillips says:
it’s really a variation of the ancient adage: submit or die

Yes, it's true. These lunatics are so far gone that they read "Let's be friends" and it says "Die white bitch" to them. The war of the West on Islam will never end while this mentality not only gets airtime, but predominates in our media.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The rights to rights

Here is a tough one. A mother wants her severely disabled child to have a hysterectomy, to spare her the discomfort of menstruation. She is opposed by Scope, the disability organisation that supports people with cerebral palsy.

I don't have a view on whether the mother should go ahead with the operation. It's plain from Scope's comments, as reported by teh Graun, that they think the mother is thinking of her own convenience. I don't think that's a terrible sin though. It must be a tough job to care for someone badly disabled.

A couple of things Scope said struck me though.

Society should adapt to accommodate disabled children, rather than modify them to fit into society, Mr Rickell said.

Should it? I don't know. I know it is the orthodoxy that the world should mould itself to the individual, not the other way round, and in general, I believe that, but in everything, you have to consider the costs and the benefits. Some things have no cost at all, so it's hard to see why they shouldn't be done, but others do, and those who want it should be prepared to explain why they should. Putting a ramp on a train, for instance, has a cost, but a low one, so it's reasonably easy to defend calling for it. Providing special educational facilities though would have a high cost, and while you might believe that the principle of providing universal education is important enough to make it worth it (and on the whole I do), it is not indefensible to consider the benefit too slight for the cost. (The same issues apply to considerations of the right to life where defending that right would involve extremely expensive medical treatment; we do not in fact defend it in cases of kidney failure: we do not expend sufficient money to guarantee a machine for everyone with failed kidneys.)

Costs, I should point out, can be measured in other things than money. Disabled people often require a huge investment of time and energy. I'm not saying they don't merit it (just as I'm not saying that they do not merit monetary expense), but I am saying that it is not beyond debate. (And again, considering the right to life, we do not defend it by barring the use of cars, which are responsible for ending many lives. We understand that rights need to be balanced, and your right not to be endangered by motor vehicles is outweighed by others' right to drive.)

I am not going to touch on the notion that others must fit themselves to society, which is clearly so. Society imposes norms on some that involve those imposed on not being permitted to express some part of themselves or their culture. You cannot kill goats in the high street, even if it's something you did back in Whereveristan. (Does anyone actually do that? It's the sort of thing them crazy furriners are accused of, but I don't know of any group that actually does publicly slaughter goats or any other animal, except for those Spanish guys who torture donkeys.) Neither can you have sex with children (so you do not have the unbounded right to express your sexuality), and so on.

Scope sees the issue in terms of rights. It says:

This case raises fundamental ethical issues about the way our society treats disabled people and the respect we have for disabled people's human and reproductive rights.

But rights are not something that inhere in you. They are something the society you are part of endows you with. Unless you have a mystical or religious understanding of rights and their origin, this is not something you can contest (although people do). And societies must consider costs and benefits of rights. Just as with adaptations of society for disabled people, some rights have no cost; others cost significantly. The right to free speech is not particularly costly, but the right to free education is. (And those who think that rights inhere in you should think about the right to education: how can that possibly be an inherent right? Would you argue that you have a right to transmission of your culture? Why?)

And I have to say, if a child is particularly badly disabled, allowing them reproductive rights has a heavy cost. If the child cannot look after itself, how can it in turn look after a child? Scope is not saying that Katie Thorpe has the right to have her own children. It is saying that she has the right to create children that her parents or the state will have to care for. Its spokesperson specifically notes that Scope is calling for more resources, presumably to that end.

I can understand why it is dangerous to suggest that rights should be restricted, or should not be universal. If Katie is not permitted her reproductive rights -- so that we allow the principle that not everyone should have kids -- then who else might not be granted them? Will there be a disability bar? Perhaps we should disallow them to the stupid? The ugly? The poor? Blacks?

But on the other hand, we allow bars in other areas. Everyone has the right to become a doctor, but Katie will never become one. It's not just that she won't have the qualifications that I'm thinking about here. It's that the qualifications needed are set to disbar her. So her right is worthless to her. Is it any different to say you have the right to have children so long as you can care for them?

Bars based on capability still deny rights, even if they don't do so explicitly. Equally so capacity. It's fine to say you have the right to hold shares in any company you choose, but you will not be able to exercise that right if you have no money.

But it is an ethical minefield. Should we provide resources to support people who cannot singlehandedly care for their children? Well yes, of course I think we should. We do in so many other ways, and I think it's right to do so. (I am a beneficiary of this kind of assistance; not least that my children's education is and will be provided by the state, but also that I receive government money to help provide for them. I won't discuss here the benefit that society receives in return for that, but it does clearly receive one, and I'm not sure that it's so clear in Katie's case what that benefit would be -- although you could argue, and I think it would have merit, that caring for all of society's members improves a society in and of itself.) But on the other hand, there are other classes of people whom I think should be discouraged from having children, and I don't consider it an infringement of their rights to do so. (Although, to be fair, if I discourage my children from having their own children before they are grown themselves, I am asking them to defer the exercise of their right to reproduce, rather than denying it to them altogether.)

As I say, I don't have a view on what Ms Thorpe should or shouldn't do. It would be easy to be glib, and condemn or support her on "principle". (How often our principles are shallow and unconsidered! It's easy to say, god no, the girl has the right to her own body, but much harder to comprehend in that view a child who cannot express what she wants with her body, for whom the mother already makes decisions that the child does not share responsibility for.) It's easy to talk about rights without contextualising them. (For instance, Americans are afforded the right to carry guns by their constitution: a right specifically aimed at preventing the government from monopolising force in a world in which that was a legitimate concern. Now the context is different, and the right no longer makes the same sense it once might have. In the same way, one can have some, albeit limited, sympathy for the argument that the modern world, and the threats it contains, militates against absolute rights to private communication and so on. In a world in which a group of men can in theory wipe out a whole city, however distant a prospect that is, the negotiability of rights might seem more apparent -- and they are negotiable: again, I point out that rights are agreements among us, not something that we pick out of the aether. We have the right to free speech in the West because we agree that it's a good thing, not because God gave us it or because it's evident that men should have it: it is not our natural condition, clouded over by society, that we should speak freely, and it is not a coherent position to say it is. I intend to revisit this issue, because I think rights are a more difficult issue in the postmodern world than they are generally taken to be, and I think liberals tend to be glib about them: but of course you have this or that right. It's an important issue because there is quite a difference between denying a right and simply not allowing it, and this difference becomes important in talking with people who do not allow the rights we allow: often we insist that they are denying rights, while they deny their existence.) At the same time though, allowing that rights have contexts creates the danger of allowing those who would suppress them a framework in which they can easily achieve that end.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Workshop: the window

I rate Father Luke highly, as regular readers of this blog will know. He's an observational writer, rather like Bukowski, although I think his work is deeper and more serious than Bukowski's. He's neat and efficient at his best.

I don't think "The window" is his best, and I'll try to discuss why.

She watched dust specks playing with the light
coming in around the panel between her and the window.

When you've read to the end, this will make sense, but I found it difficult first time around to visualise. I do like the conceit of dust specks playing with light though, although it's nothing like new.

In general, I prefer Luke's writing when he avoids adornment. When he tries, I think he falls down.


She took a deep breath, and she let it out.

You would have to render this "She breathed in deeply, then let the breath out" or similar, because taking a deep breath involves letting it out.

But you understand what he meant, you could cavil. Yes, I did. But although writing is primarily about conveying a message, writing fiction is an art. You don't just focus on communicating, as you might with an email or a handbill, say, you also concern yourself with how you create the message. Above all, in my view, writing is improved by pulling in the slack. Bad writers write too much. They allow their writing to sag with redundancy.

Can more florid writing not be good? Yes, it can, but you should bear in mind that florid does not necessarily mean wasteful! You can create ornate, beautiful writing that still does not waste a word.

In writing as taut as Luke's, this small sin becomes a huge one. He cannot write the least bit loosely, because the angularity of his prose is wrecked by it.

The bare skin on her
shoulders rose and fell with her breath.

This sentence, I'm sorry to say, needs to be taken out and shot. First of all, your skin is not on your shoulders. It composes your shoulders. We do not think about shoulders as being the bones and muscle, and the skin as overlaying it. Rather, we think of the whole as an ensemble. So the "skin of her shoulders" is correct. Second, and much more importantly, the skin does not rise and fall, the whole shoulder does. Luke can say that (although I'd struggle to read any meaning into that, except that he is letting us know that the shoulders are bare), but he must then say something else about the skin. He could talk about the cold here, I suppose.

But if he does, he is passing up an opportunity to say something about the woman. Luke, notice something about her shoulder. When the panel rises, what would you notice about her shoulders, if you could see them? Would you see a mole? A tattoo? A scar? Completely unblemished skin? You can say something about the woman by what you allow to be seen. Here, you've allowed nothing. Your woman is entirely a cypher. That's a mistake, because you allow us no way to care for her, and I think that's essential to your story.

She smelled the dust, and
something sweet, like candy, and also sex.

Hm. I don't like "something sweet, like candy" because it is the most obvious sweet thing you could have come up with, and besides, does not have a readily identifiable smell. Had you said "She smelled the dust, and honey, and also..." that might have worked. "Licorice" would have been excellent, because it is evocative.

Don't just say "sex" either. It's a cliche that it has a particular smell, so twist it by saying "quick sex" or "angry sex" or "sex in a stolen moment" or whatever, so that the reader is asking "how does that smell then?" and has to do some work. You don't want to overdo that sort of thing -- making the reader work too much is a mistake and being overclever is annoying too -- but you have to aim for evocative.

She was sitting in the small, dark room on the floor with her legs
tucked under her, and to the left. Her bare right arm rested at the
elbow on a red pattern vinyl, and chromed metal chair.

She looked at her toes, and she wiggled them once to have something to do.

I'd make her convinced bits of dust had fallen on her arm, and have her brush them off. The implication is clear for the reader, and some will look back and see that you cleverly hinted at the resolution.

Her nipples caught the cold in the room, and they stood erect in the
darkness. She closed her eyes, and tilted her head back. Her black
hair shifted across her bare shoulders.

The cold catches the nipples, not the other way round. Because it is dark, and the nipples can't be seen, you should describe what she feels, not what there would be to see if you turned the light on.

Don't mention that her shoulders are bare again. We already know that.

There was a little tray by the window. A piece of paper money slid
into the tray.

I'd have mentioned the tray earlier.

How can she see the money, by the way?

She stood up, exposing her nakedness to the panel. And the panel slid
up, exposing the window. The light disappeared the floating dust.

The light made the dust disappear. "Disappear" is not generally a transitive verb.

She smiled.

You have five minutes, she said.

So it's a nice enough twist, if you go in for that kind of thing, so what's not to like?

Well, besides the lapses in English that I've pointed out, there is a lack of tone. In some stories, this serves Luke well, but in those stories, he is himself the protagonist. Those stories say, look at what the world is doing to me. And in them, he allows the narrator to feel. We know how the world is striking him because he has tone, he is engaged. Here, the woman is entirely a cypher. She has no feeling about what is happening, except to be bored, and she consists of nothing. I felt very "yeah whatever" about the whole thing. The lack of engagement left the story flat.

How could you fix that? In various ways. You might use a play of symbols to achieve some dynamics in the story. There's a famous parallel set of symbols in Madame Bovary. On the up, she sees, I think, butterflies in a field, white and beautiful; on the down, she burns letters and their ashes make black butterflies.

This is why I suggest the dust falling on her. It speaks about her situation. I'll leave it to you to work out what it says. It also allows the writer to resolve the story with another related symbol. The panel shifts and blows away the dust. Ta-da!

Another way would be to engage us more directly by reflecting the woman's mood, or giving her more "life". She could think about something briefly, wonder something, have something with her that we can read as symbolic of something. We could say more about her hair: badly cut, damp, greying, whatever. We could say that her skin has tiny bruises from the chair; her eyes are moist; her bad tooth is bothering her. I suppose my problem is that this is an observational piece but Luke hasn't observed anything. Allowing himself to see just a little more would enrich this story.

B-b-but you said you liked him better without adornment, I hear you cry. Yes, I do, but spot the difference here: seeing more and writing it neatly, and seeing the same and overwriting it. I'm asking for more substance, not more writing of the same substance.

I repost the whole story below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching his name.

the window

She watched dust specks playing with the light
coming in around the panel between her and the window.


She took a deep breath, and she let it out. The bare skin on her
shoulders rose and fell with her breath. She smelled the dust, and
something sweet, like candy, and also sex.

She was sitting in the small, dark room on the floor with her legs
tucked under her, and to the left. Her bare right arm rested at the
elbow on a red pattern vinyl, and chromed metal chair.

She looked at her toes, and she wiggled them once to have something to do.

Her nipples caught the cold in the room, and they stood erect in the
darkness. She closed her eyes, and tilted her head back. Her black
hair shifted across her bare shoulders.

There was a little tray by the window. A piece of paper money slid
into the tray.

She stood up, exposing her nakedness to the panel. And the panel slid
up, exposing the window. The light disappeared the floating dust.

She smiled.

You have five minutes, she said.

Father Luke 2007

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Zen vs Art

Most modern art is rubbish. I don't say that because I think art should be figurative; neither because I think that an artist should be a craftsperson. Great art can be abstract and can also be made by those who are not technically adept (or are but are not employing their craft). I say that because most art is rubbish. It has fallen far behind music, which despite its very limited palette (pardon the weak pun) remains able to innovate; behind even the novel, moribund as that form is. The only medium that rivals it for uselessness is poetry.

Here is a Guardian whiffler telling us why the Turner is so great. I take issue, as follows.

The great feat of the Turner prize is not that it rewards art many people consider to be "just a bit of rubbish" but that it claims to make absolute, not relative, distinctions between four such pieces every year.

The great feat of the Turner is that it attracts attention to pieces of work that would otherwise be gleefully ignored by the masses. And the masses do not need training in the fine arts to recognise rubbish when they see it. I will say this up front: great art reaches inside you and touches you. That is what art is: how we talk to ourselves, how we show each other what we've understood about ourselves, our world and our place in it. You do not need to know art to be touched by it. Taste, I concede, varies. But the feeling that something is not just a thing that I, or you, like, but is something insightful, deep and satisfying does not so much.

It shortlists four artists that to conservative eyes

Here is the crux of why people like Jonathan Jones feel they must admire the emperor's apparel: because it is new, and Jones fears more than anything being seen as staid, unwilling to adventure. But newness in itself is not a merit. It's a terrible failing of critique across the board that it insists that novelty on its own is good. It's the same kind of thinking that in business has companies convinced that all change is for the good. But it's not, of course, and we can more clearly see that in business than in the arts. (Partly because business is not usually seen as being progressive, largely because it has not been infected with modernist critique that sees all of human endeavour as progressing from cave to cathedral.) Change can be destructive without necessarily entailing new creation. In any case, innovation works when it is against what there is, not when it is made in a vacuum. So music that departs from a genre can be excellent; music that invents one rarely is.

Conservatism is not an ill in itself. Some things really aren't broke, and don't need fixing. I'm not suggesting that all of art was good! I am saying though that, for instance, it was not necessarily true that art had said all there was to say about the world, so ditching the notion that it could say more was not necessarily a good step.

are just charlatans

And I'm not conservative, but I think most of the artists picked by the Turner panel are charlatans. They are chancers, who hope to make a career out of throwing together bits of junk, in the main. At best, they are cluelessly untalented. The benefit of art for them is that it's difficult for the poor "conservatives" to say why they are rubbish. (Because analwits like Jones have spent so many words on denying that "this artist has nothing to say and no means to say it even if she did" is all the criticism most modern artists deserve.)

exhibits them - and decides which is not merely an artist, but a brilliant, even great artist. In other words, it claims the loftiest critical standards can be applied to art widely dismissed as ephemeral.

Yes, doesn't it though.

And the art is not dismissed as "ephemeral". Ephemeral can be great. What is more ephemeral than the pop song? You love it today, forget it tomorrow, in theory. (In practice, some throwaway pop has lived for many years, and will doubtless live for many more.) Yet a great pop song is great art. The art we are discussing is dismissed as "rubbish". That's different.

Just so we're clear, I'm saying that an artist could be as good as Smokey Robinson but most are at best Celine Dion or Mariah Carey. Not even that, of course, because Dion and Carey are at least technically proficient, even if they are cluelessly awful. God, if Tracey Emin actually were as good as Mariah, what an improvement in her work we'd see! Perhaps it would be fairer to compare her with a novelty band, given that she is a dreadful one-trick pony. Indeed, the notion that modern art has become novelty art is quite strong. What else is a shark in a tank? It is not a statement about anything but how clever Hirst is to put a shark in a tank.

The truth is that after 23 years of this we still don't have any lucid way of saying why one ready-made is better than another.

Right again. But this is not because they are impossibly rarefied. This is because it is as pointless an exercise as comparing your stools and anointing one Best Turd of 2007.

What the Turner keeps falling back on instead is the oldest of all western ideas about art: the belief in God-given genius.

Why do we believe in God-given genius though? Maybe because some people's work has that extra something. Maybe because they excel in a form that we can understand?

I don't know. Maybe because some people are just geniuses?

When you get rid of technical achievement, get rid of excellence in painting or sculpting as standards of comparison, you are left with a messianic belief in the inspired artist

Get rid of all of that, and you are left with a bunch of guys who put junk together, aren't you?

One of the key problems I have with modern art -- and the notion that it can spawn genius -- is that that is all there is to it. You can be absolutely fantastic at putting junk together but that is all you have done. By removing conceptual depth from your work, you leave only the surface: the act.

So when you put a bunch of bronze figures on the beach, and insist they don't represent anything, what you have is a bunch of bronze figures on the beach. Which is nice.

- the same belief that led Renaissance Italians to claim Michelangelo was literally a gift from heaven.

Except that Michelangelo was talented.

This prize has abolished talent and replaced it with genius - and this exhibition takes the claim to a transcendent historical level.

No, the prize has abolished talent and replaced it with nothing, and is hoping no one who "matters" stands up and says "hang on, this is rubbish".

Well, I don't matter, but this is rubbish.

It is an exhibition of geniuses - a survey of the Turner's history that concentrates entirely on the winners since 1984. I can't think how the curators reached such a bizarre way of dealing with a history that is contentious in every way: every year, the winner is controversial; every year, some people think the whole thing's a sham. How on earth can you purify such a tangled phenomenon into this exhibition's pristine academy?

Well, why not?

The thing is, none of it has much value, and you could choose your winner by sticking a pin in the catalogue. As Jones has correctly noted, you can't judge these things. They are not like photographs or short stories. They do not have content. So what else would you put on display: the curators' personal favourites?

Why? To preserve the dignity of the judges who, in 1989, preferred Richard Long to Lucian Freud?

Well, who doesn't?

A Turner retrospective without Tracey Emin's bed - a loser in 1999 - is a history without the dirty, interesting bits.

Maybe they are striking back in kind. Emin's bed was uninteresting, and it won't have become any more interesting. If it wasn't for cunts like Saatchi claiming that this bollocks is art, Emin would be selling herself for crack, not coining it in. So maybe the curators are laughing at the whole idea of having "winners" and "losers" when there are no criteria for judging.

Maybe they are saying "just look at the rubbish some clown thought was the best of that year; Vermeer is rolling in his crypt".

Worse, by excluding the also-rans it forces you to ask: do any of these winners look like geniuses?

Nope. They look like cunts. If you included the also-rans, they'd look like cunts too. Because they are.

They have destroyed part of our culture. Art has long ceased to be about expression. Part of the reason is money. Making art tradable has created a desire for things to trade, and those who traded it had more or less run out of things that had value. So they needed to find new value, which they achieved by making it impossible to judge value. The truth is, modern art is "good" if Saatchi buys it, because he puts the value into it. It's all about the dollars. Another part of the reason is that we live in a world where not only does everyone want their fifteen minutes, but everyone also wants to feel valuable, talented, wonderful. So if you can't play the guitar, are not good-looking, can't write, are cackhanded and a bit dim, where do you go if you want to be respected as having a talent others don't have? You go to art school.

Other than Damien Hirst, I mean?

You know, many things in this world make you wonder whether it is you or the world that is mad. You read the endless bullshit that the rightards put out; you watch TV that it's almost unbelievable that people made, let alone expect you to watch; you see and hear things that are so in-your-face stupid that you wonder that the people doing and saying them don't implode under the weight of dumb.

But I am not living in a world where Damien Hirst is a genius. I am utterly confident of that; unless we are saying that his genius is for making money and having people talk about him. No, Hirst is a talentless prick.

Here's the thing. They often say about "conceptual" art (LOL at the "conceptual" tag for art that does not include concepts but seeks to be a concept in itself) that yes, anyone could have put a shark in a tank, but no one else thought to do it. However, the truth is, anyone could have put a shark in a tank, but no one else bothered. That's all it is. I could sever my cock and display it in the Tate. It would say nothing about me, about the world, about cocks, or about anything whatsoever, except that I claim my cock is art.

Which it is. And who's to say it isn't? Because we have allowed everything to be art.

How boring! Instead of its being our means of expression, a conversation among ourselves, a delving into who we are, we have made art just everything, whatever we put in tanks, whatever we splatter on a board, whatever we say or do, so long as we say it's art.

So much of the art here is good.


Actually all of it is good,

Yes, I suppose it is. "Good" has absolutely no meaning in art.

Is this a good thing? Well, in some ways I suppose it is. Postmodernism helped us to stop thinking some people were better than others, some choices better, some morals and so on. But it helped because those things were not objectively better but were considered through the lens of individual or communal values. Postmodernism teaches that our judgements are based in consensus, not objectivity, and that confusing the two is a mistake. Mostly.

But it is not necessarily the case that consensual values are all wrong. We may agree that, for instance, genital mutilation is not objectively "wrong" without agreeing that it is right. We can say, we know that this judgement is based in our values, but we uphold those values all the same.

the notable exception being Hirst.


Seeing his bisected cow and calf - reconstructed by the artist for this show - is a shock: where is the sensitivity and beauty you see in Anish Kapoor's blue voids or Wolfgang Tillmans' tender photographs?

Kof. Well, Kapoor does blue lovely, and the worst you can say about Tillmanns is that he takes a nice photo.

And yet, forget the sensitivity, the beauty, the being good.

Yes, I think you can safely say that's been forgotten.

Hirst's art cannot be called "good" but it can be called great.

It can be called a dog on a string but that won't make it one.

It is ugly and brutal and true and far more modest than anything else here.


It's half a cow in a tank, you halfwit. That's ugly, yes. Brutal? Dude, brutal is the shoeing you will get if you ever express this opinion to me in the flesh. True? OMG. What? What truth is it expressing? Go on. I promise to accept Hirst's "genius" if any commenter can coherently say what truth there is in the cow. Unless your comment is "well, it's truly half a cow". Modest?

If Jonathan Jones was strangled with his own entrails, that would be modest in the same sense.

You want genius? He's a genius.

You know. One day, Jones is going to wake up and look in the mirror and go, blow me, what a farce I am.

Well, I can dream.


I do dream that, you know. I dream that there will be a morning on which we all have a moment of perfect clarity. We all go, blow me, what a farce I am, and realise what and who we really are.

I think I will write a novel about it! What do you think? A virus spreads throughout the world, infecting everyone person by person, so that they become incapable of... well, whatever you call that thing, hiding, pretending, masquerading. Incapable of not realising the truth about themselves. Scales from eyes. Think it has legs?

To find one in 24 years is actually not bad going.

You know something, Jones. I've put more art into this one post than Hirst has into his entire oeuvre. But you cunts killed art, and left us with a deathly dull substitute with the same name but none of the attributes. Thanks for that, Jones.