Thursday, November 02, 2006

Growing Up, Growing Old: A Rullsenberg Rant

ARGH! Michael Bywater!

I can't even begin to express how cranky this piece made me yesterday, not least because of its inconsistencies.

It's not all bad. For example, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are okay. 8, 9, 10, and 12 have merits. 11 presents an uncomfortable possible truth that maybe even undermines my own railing against the piece. 23 is very apt in a world where Jimmy Carr is deemed suitable for a Front Row focus on Radio 4. Urgh. And as for Kirsty interviewing Madge: I know it has political ramifications but really, isn't it an excuse to have celebrity at the forefront of debate? And 24 and 25 have a positive idea within them even if they are - ironically - rather childishly phrased (yes, the words we use ARE important: that's why I want to scream at the "political correctness gone mad" crew; yes, excuses for 'surveillance are to be thwarted, though I think phrasing this as "Hide" doesn't help articulate this as a rational adult argument).

Equally, 27, the idea of "commensality" promotes the valuable idea that eating is public is unnecessary and should be dropped in favour of eating with family and friends. I can't disagree with that, except to say that the basis for the circumstances that urge people into eating in public (longer working hours, managing lunch-breaks etc) maybe deserve a more thoughtful analysis than provided here. 28 and 29 I have no problems with, although 30 does raise some problems less to do with the idea - "Demand - and display - good manners" - than with the manner in which the list that is given after it creates a litany less effective than its individual parts ...

Still, those were the ones I more broadly agreed with. The others got onto my less-than-happy radar...

Firstly, example 1: Pro-autonomy. Seems fine on a superficial glance. But am I alone in thinking this smacks a little of "you should not depend on anyone for anything"? Which seems only a snapshot away from sounding a tad like community/society is a myth propagated by lefties who believe in (horror, horror) helping and supporting other people. Not a route I wish to go down.

How about example 3: "Don't be affronted". Again, seems superficially okay, expecting the world to conform to your world view has proved the basis of many a reactionary ideologue. But scratch at it and you come to the idea that getting angry about things, wanting to change things, is itself a bad idea. I am affronted by the daily acceptance of poverty, of talking about human beings as if there was a 'deserving poor' and an 'undeserving poor'; as if to get help you have to be 'worthy'. Presumably, by Bywater's stance, being angry and wanting to talk about the basis of such ideas, wanting to change those attitudes, is immature. Erm, no actually. It's called humanity.

13 and 14 present some problems as well: "Do not love yourself unconditionally." Well, I think his emphasis is on the 'unconditional' element rather than saying 'do not love yourself'. At least I hope so, because [a] if you can't love yourself how can you expect others to do so? and [b] I'm in favour of good quality self-pleasuring. Anyway, back to Bywater. "Unconditional love is for babies and comes from their mothers [emphasis added]". Urgh. Okay, bit retrograde for a start in identifying mothers (and not, say, fathers, might have a role in this. And surely it relies on the idea that mothers inherently give their children unconditional love. Am sure that all those mothers who have felt ambivalence and struggled with post-natal depression or even difficulty of loving their child at all will feel greatly reassured by Bywater's statement. Obviously they are damaged and not normal and socially inferior. Yeah, your remarks are gonna help them a lot.

And as for 14... Whilst saying "Self-hatred is a problem too" is fine, that he continues with "But rather too much self-hatred than too much self-love" suggests that I wasn't too far wrong to question whether he was emphasising the word 'unconditional' in his attack on loving yourself. I don't get it. How can self-hatred help anyone? That too has often been the basis for damaged people hurting themselves and society. How does this help?

How about 15 and the dismissal, even despising, of "Desiderata". Whilst I personally find the 'verse' a bit on the syrupy side, a bit too 'Hallmark' for my liking, there are a number of elements that articulate wise suggestions. It also seems at odds in a piece about how people should 'grow up' that he should take against a verse that says "Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." Has Bywater actually read "Desiderata" recently or is he just working on old memories? Okay, the idealism of the hippies hasn't prevented some catastrophic managing of the earth. And the idea of the "universe unfolding as it should" rather suggests passive acceptance of the status quo that I find unsustainable. But seeing ourselves as part of the wider eco-system of life and universe doesn't seem so unreasonable. Surely it has been humanity's lack of consideration for the planet and prioritising of our own needs that has brought earth to the brink of potential eco-disaster that we now face. A little more care for seeing ourselves as just one element of the universe - instead of (God's) special creatures with inalienable rights (to bear arms/plunder natural resources) - might just help humanity survive.

Let's take 16 and 17: "Ignore fashion". I've been reading Marjorie Garber's collection of essays "Quotation Marks" (picked up from the LRB) and it's full of great stuff. I've just finished reading her essay on 'fashion'/'fashionability' and the meaning of these concepts. It's an insightful interrogation of the critical views embedded in uses of the terms. In regards to clothes, I kinda get his point. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have little time for fashion or even for dressing appropriately (which is why I'm dealing with Bywater's example 18 separately). But in terms of his discussion on music, I really got cross. If you're going to bemoan adults liking pop music as an attempt to be 'down wiv the kids' or even as an extension of childhood at least have the decency to talk to a young person to find out what is hip at the moment. Invoking Eminem is just so off-base. Or maybe that was his point, to choose a ever-so-slightly-several-years-ago-hot-thing? He goes on "A middle-aged person 'Keeping Up with the Trends in Music' is as lamentable and as infantile as a middle-aged person in Lycra." Hmm. Well, it kinda depends on the body of the person wearing lycra as well as what it is they are wearing. Few people over 12 probably wear items entirely made of Lycra anyway, but as a part of the material it can help add shape to an outfit. Or presumably as soon as we hit 40 we should just all wear sacks? Thanks. Why not put bags on our heads while you're at it (or does that cross over to other debates)? But back to music. Again, as with fashion I make no pretence to be up-to-date. I know what I like and am open to discovering new things. For Cloud, at the moment, a lot of those new things are quite old: e.g. classical music or from well-established genres e.g. country, folk, Yiddish music. For both of us, we continue to like things that sound new and exciting. Things like they cover on Radio 3's Mixing It featuring Lullaby Arkestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, and obscure examples of music from Africa. Some stuff is new, current, and from young artistes. Others as I say are just new to us. And there is always the complex issue of what current trends actually sound like: there is a lot of offensively inoffensive/bland rubbish out there. We have long since reached the point where, say "the stuff we liked when we were young" (to quote Bywater) is actually far more radical than much current music, or that current stuff is merely a re-hash of that stuff from our youth. Sometimes these returns of styles from the past are great reinvigorations: Post-Rock may be a reinvention of some of Prog's finer moments but when it's top quality stuff it can rival the best of classically inspired music (GodspeedYouBlackEmperor, Rachel's, Mono to name but three artistes). We're not "keeping up with current trends", we're prepared to like what we like regardless of fashionability, whether its fashionable or not. So being a story-song kinda girl I stand by my right to love "When the Sun Goes Down" by the Arctic Monkeys without caring whether anyone else likes it or not.

So we get to 18: don't follow fashion especially if you're a woman. Hmm. Well, we're back to the semi-agreement points in terms of me saying I'm against fatuous pursuit of 'youthfulness' whatever the cost (plastic surgery! 55 hours at the gym per week! Creams and cover-ups for wrinkles - aka polyfilla for skin). But "You don't want to look like a teenager forever"? I accept that some may find my style, my dress sense, rather ridiculous. And I can 'scrub up well' for occasions that demand plainer or formal attire. But I neither look nor feel right in 'plain clothes' (in all senses). Maybe that is down to a lack of confidence, but I am as much 'performing being Lisa' as anything else. And doing that demands I get into 'costume'. I have enough character traits that make me lose confidence without not being able to use clothes as a boost to my persona. (Indeed, colleagues will usually ask if something is wrong if I'm NOT wearing something of a vivid colour or stripes, so much has it become associated with myself.) Besides, my style is more under-12s than teenager. A bit Helena Cardboard-Box crossed with the dress of your average 5-8 year old...

How about 19 and 20 (I'll come to 22 in a moment and 21 is just laughable: it's the full expression of someone's beliefs that I want to challenge and if they want to believe in God, Allah, green fairies, or Harvey the rabbit that's fine by them. I'll reserve the right to get them to talk through their justification and their beliefs but I won't inherently distrust them until they start spouting garbage that damages humanity, like condemning homosexuals to death) Anyway: "Denounce relativism at every turn" - specifically in religious debates since if we believe something is right we will try and defend and argue it is right against those that disagree rather than accepting things having equal relevance. Well, that seems fine to a point, but seems awfully tied to the agnosticism of 20 which is less convincing. Why not atheism?

22 on God loving us? I refer readers to the fine series of graphic novels "Preacher". A fine discussion of God's role in the universe.

And what might 26 mean: "Eat it Up"? Whilst the rise of western culture's 'faddism' is one thing, there is a difference between eating choices and allergies, physical reactions, and in some instances death. I prefer not to eat nuts because generally I don't like the taste. But if the food is tasty I have been known to unknowingly - or with wilful ignorance of my tastes - eat the damn things. But I won't develop a body destroying allergic reaction as some people can do, have done, which in some instances can seriously impair their health if not kill them. Are our bodies more picky because of our over-developed selective tastes or is there a genuine health risk for some people to eat certain things? Well, I suspect that evolution isn't working THAT fast so I'm prepared to reserve judgement and in the meantime not force people to eat anything and everything. Otherwise you end up eating the diet prefer by Heston Blumenthal, and that would just be wrong.

And finally, let's take his example 31: so it's a good thing to lie and let people down. Yes, that's an adult trait I really want to commit to.

Hmm. That was quite a rant. And I should fully expect some people to take issue. Oh well, I can deal. I know what to expect...


Rob said...

I have to say that, given the outrageously tongue-in-cheek nature of #19, #20 and #21 (to say nothing of #31) I had rather assumed that the whole list was not intended to be taken seriously. (I mean, come ON: #30 "eating in the street" in the next breath to "suicide bombing"?)Which is not to say that you don't make some good points by doing just that.

My comments on the list itself? #4 - I had NO IDEA that the "USA Patriot Act" was an acronym. (I still didn't believe it until I Googled it.) Argh! And #16 - there are fashions in music? I hadn't noticed..... (CDs I have most recently played in my car are by Planxty, Al Stewart, Spiritualised and The Spice Girls. Oh, and Wagner's "Parsifal".)

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Yes, I know there was an undercurrent of "not to be taken seriously" but really, given some points were (humourously) reasonable, it rather undermined it to see it as all being unserious. And of course he did specifically invoke "seriousness"...

Reidski said...

November 2nd 2006 is obviously official rant day - see mine for proof!

John said...

God, I must be getting old. #19 was the only one I disagreed with!

Michael Bywater said...

Dear Lisa,

Some were meant to be serious. Some were meant to be ironic (in pursuit of #1: autonomy) so that readers says "Hang on. Just one damn minute..." etc. The Lycra point is well-taken; of course it depends on the body. Eminem: yes, deliberately outdated (MM is an establishment figure now Whitey has decided the boy's only, y'know, joking). Yes, the stress was on "unconditional" self-love (!).

Being affronted is, I agree, a problem. Given a second bite, I'd probably do it differently. I think the point I was trying to make is that there's no point thinking that being "affronted" or finding something "inappropriate" is going to effect any sort of change at all, and nor should it. Only the infantile think that their personal response is enough to change the stimulus. Adults, as you point out, try to change things directly, and not on the basis that they are affronted, but that the thing itself -- povery, hunger, exploitation, whatever you want to put on the list -- is ethically unconscionable. So I accept the blame there.

But, God knows, I am not some sort of authority who can define The List and then sit back smugly. It's just a sort of "how-about-this?" experiment, which people are supposed to rail at, pick holes in etc. That's why a book is a discourse and any writer who thinks otherwise is a fool.

(Many of us are fools, of course. But I think most of us are a lot less smug and minatory than you might think.)

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Dear Michael,
well firstly thanks for taking the time to read my remarks. I am for better or worse 'just' a blogger so it is still pretty thrilling when more professional status writers read what I rant.

And as you say, it IS a discourse and your piece certainly provoked some of that!

Kindest regards and good luck with the book - am sure it will inspire further comment and amusement!

Rob said...

Wow - having the author turn up ibn your comments box is a sort of "Annie Hall" moment:

MAN: It's the influence of television. Now, now Marshall McLuhan deals with it in terms of it being a, a high-- high intensity, you understand? A hot medium--

WOODY ALLEN: What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it.

MAN: -- as opposed to the truth which he [sees as the] media or--

WOODY ALLEN: What can you do when you get stuck on a movie line with a guy like this behind you?

MAN: Now, Marshall McLuhan--

WOODY ALLEN: You don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan's work--

MAN: Really? Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called TV, Media and Culture, so I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity.

WOODY ALLEN: Oh, do you?

MAN: Yeah.

WOODY ALLEN: Oh, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. Come over here for a second?

MAN: Oh--

WOODY ALLEN: Tell him.

MARSHALL McLUHAN: -- I heard, I heard what you were saying. You, you know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

WOODY ALLEN: Boy, if life were only like this.