San Francisco: Why I hate TED Talks and love Rebecca Solnit

dsc_0530From LA to San Francisco I take the train. This feels like a novelty because I didn’t know the US still had trains. In Mexico (where I’m living at the moment, viz. November 2015) the train network was broken up and sold off in the early 1990s, and I assumed that the whole train network in the States had long ago suffered a similar fate. It’s one of the many things that surprise me on my inaugural visit to the US.dsc_0445San Francisco feels like a greatest hits of some of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. In Chinatown I have an uncanny sensation that I am back in China. I understand that this is kind of the point of Chinatown, but still. The sights, smells and sounds seem to be those of a place that exists in itself, rather than a mere stopping-off point for tourists.dsc_0419The layout of the hills reminds me strongly of Lisbon, with sudden stunning glimpses down into the bay. Strolling up from where I’m staying on the morning of thanksgiving, I find the streets mostly deserted. I sit in a café surrounded by big-brained young people murmuring and tapping away on laptops and drink coffee so strong my head actually falls off. I’m reminded of Hamburg in terms of the quality of life. There are lots of people carriers and I catch glimpses of yachts on the water below. I find the presence of a caterpillar sanctuary comforting and make a mental note to direct any exiled lepidoptera I should meet up this way.dsc_0474On the way to the Golden Gate park, around the corner from Haight Ashbury Primary School, I stop and watch a game of American football. Americans don’t call it American football, in the same way as the Mexicans don’t talk about Mexican food. It’s a college game, someone explains. I manage not to embarrass myself in conversation with the local enthusiasts, and briefly try my hand at sports photography. In the park itself, I pass the National Aids Monument and then come across two friends from ‘home’: Goethe and Schiller. The statue was dedicated by the German community in 1901. Partly because it’s a port town, SF has always been a huge draw for immigrants, and it’s easy to see why.dsc_0530Up at the bridge I enjoy a stunning view across the bay. I’ve missed the famous fog by a couple of months. In any case it’s diminished somewhat over the last couple of years. The climate is, after all, changing.dsc_0370The next day I spend in Oakland and Berkeley. Mention of Oakland often evokes the famous phrase from Gertrude Stein: “there’s no there there”. Actually, the most powerful association it has for me is with hiphop. Back in the 1990s I listened to a lot of g-funk and was particularly enamoured of a local revolutionary rapper called Paris who was best known for bragadaciously fantasising about assassinating the then-President. Hence as I wander round my head is full of lines of street poetry about shooting cops. Up in the hills above the bay I go for a woodland walk with Daniel, the brother of an old friend from Dublin. Although he wasn’t born here, he embodies a soft-spoken wisdom about the world which I quickly come to associate with this part of the country. We talk at length about the drought and what it means. Daniel was an agronomist before retiring, and now spends a lot of his time volunteering on a collective organic farm. Hence he is very well-placed to talk about what climate change is doing down at the roots of nature.dsc_0364I get the bus down to Berkeley. My new friends Jan and Steve kindly take me on a walk around the university, which is probably the most climate-aware place on the planet. Because of the drought the grass on the lawns has been replaced by wood shavings, along with a notice explaining why. In the Sciences building there’s an advert for a Survival 101 course (‘the next 50 years will be radically different from anything we have ever known’), a special board for ‘activist jobs’ and more Bernie Sanders graffiti that you can shake an organic placard at. Afterwards we have beer and pizza in their garden and talk about climate awareness strategies.dsc_0512The person who most embodies the radical Bay Area spirit for me is the local writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Although I’ve insisted here multiple times that climate denial is connected to racism, she points out more clearly and coherently that it is also very much about patriarchy. She’s best-known for writing the essay and subsequent book ‘Men explain things to me‘, which gave birth to the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit encapsulates the notion of an engaged intellectual: honest about the difficulties of staying active and hopeful but facing up to reality without flinching. I hope I won’t be doing her a disservice by saying she’s like a cross between Naomi Klein and Erich Fromm. In addition to being hugely prolific, she’s well worth following on Facebook. Last year her (in these times) must-read book ‘Hope in the dark’ was reissued. Shortly before visiting the States I read her history of walking, ‘Wanderlust’, in which she makes a connection between walking and writing that I find truly inspiring. Her work is a constant reminder that if is there is to be a future, it will be a feminist one, as another heroine of mine has also pointed out.dsc_0428Another woman I associate with the Bay Area is Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. Looking for an underground postal service which may or may not exist, she follows a series of homeless men through the night as they appear to deposit and collect mail from trash cans. The network may or may not represent another level of reality subjacent to the official America. Oedipa has visions of connections and communities that lie beneath the surface. She sees Californian suburbs laid out like circuit boards and notices arcane symbols used to communicate between those in the know. My father-in-law has a cute theory about how the visions she experiences may be the result of epilepsy. In any case, there’s something extremely prescient about a book published in 1966 anticipating the acid-fuelled flowering of consciousness that was to come.dsc_0484Maybe in the future awareness and empathy will be luxuries, like yachts and, well, houses. In the Bay Area there’s a drought of affordable places to live, which means the cost and scarcity of housing is by far the number one topic of even the most casual conversation. Whereas in London it’s partly the influence of the finance industry making things much more expensive for everyone else, in SF it’s the tech companies. In 2013 local activists started protesting the shuttle buses used by companies like Google to transport their workers to the corporate campuses, like the one described by Dave Eggers in ‘The Circle’. Everyone else is allowed to stay in the city under very stringent conditions. It puts me in mind of an essay I once read by Brazilian sociologists called ‘the return to the medieval city’. In modern cities there are so many exclusions in operation, partly through technology, screening creating invisible walls. The globalised market functions as an particularly efficient repressive tool. Anyone could get removed at any time. Just as undocumented migrants fear the immigration authorities, most people in cities like San Francisco live in terror that their landlords will sell up or raise the rent.dsc_0405Increasing amounts of apartments are given over to Airbnb. The new economy is a battleground. The Bay Area may be one of the places from which field operations are directed, but it is also very vulnerable to their effects. Just a couple of weeks before my visit protestors occupied the company’s headquarters in support of a (subsequently unsuccessful) proposition to limit short-term rentals. The tech industry is a reminder that smart doesn’t mean intelligent. Back in Mexico City I’d noticed that the British Council has a weekly session of TED Talks, open to all its students. These are becoming as ubiquitous in TEFL as they are online. They represent ‘progress’ divorced from politics, entirely mediated by the market, with technology as its stand-in article of faith – after all, it was Friedrich Hayek himself (the father of Neoliberalism) who called the market a kind of technology. The TED ideology is based on a religious faith that the existence of African mobile phone entrepreneurs will somehow save the world. It’s all very slickly packaged and presented, to the extent that The Onion does a very clever parody. (Here‘s a much more serious critique by Evgeny Morozov.) For me, TED talks put me in mind of Mao’s Little Red Book, in that they imply total devotion to the helmsmanship of the Global Market. There are, truth be told, some brilliant TED Talks (inevitable, given that they appear to come off a pretty speedy production line) but the fact that they are sponsored by car companies often gets in the way of any enjoyment or inspiration. At best they are persuasive and informative, and at worst irritatingly smug and extremely complacent; they are almost always deeply neoliberal in outlook.dsc_0551Down at Fisherman’s Wharf there are actually people fishing. I try to figure out if they’re doing it for food or fun. If it’s sustenance they’re after, they’re in competition for survival with some of the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. The scene reminds me of Durban, South Africa, where we saw Indians without rods fishing for whitebait in polluted water. It’s easy to romanticise going off-grid, but surviving outside the walls of the global market is hard. Still, many have no alternative but to escape its dominion and seek out or build alternative communities. José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ is about a shopping mall that dominates every aspect of life in the area around it. Work, food, security and leisure are all increasingly centred on it. At the end the protagonists pack up and drive off the page to an uncertain but more independent future. In the final pages of Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’, set in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler leaves the politically repressive atmosphere of LA and heads up to Northern California, where new communities of hippies and other dissidents are being established. Contrary to the example set by countless backwoods myths and log-cabin yarns, surviving on one’s own is not an option. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in ‘The Road’ wanders a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape with a shopping trolley, and the book ends up with a incongruous epiphany which resembles nothing less than an advert for Coca Cola. The motif of the shopping cart put me in mind of the avatar that so often stands in for us on the internet. In McCarthy’s novel there is no more online and no more consumerism, so the future is dead. It is ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ made (barely) flesh. There is no community, with little fellow feeling between the isolated individuals who drift into contact. They are reduced to little more than isolated pixels in a ruined computer game. By contrast, in another of Saramago’s dystopian fictions, ‘Blindness’, the only seeing character literally strings the group of blind people together and manages to preserve some sense of a community in the midst of the shredded social fabric. The final words of the novel are ‘The city was still there’.dsc_0526There are examples of offline communities which protect those expelled or repulsed by the workings of the Matrix; wherever there aren’t, we have to try and establish them in the face of the confluence of climate breakdown and total corporate control. Climate Camp and Occupy were attempts to set such up places, to establish havens where people could identify and belong. Significantly, Rebecca Solnit spent some of her younger years as part of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. And although it’s set further down the Californian coast in LA, Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (set in 1970, at the waking from the hippy dream presaged in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’) closes with the following passage, one which I personally find of some comfort when contemplating what lies ahead:

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

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Some more thoughts on how we come to know ourselves

I’ve been thinking recently about consciousness, about how we come to be aware of ourselves and of the world. In a passage which I think can also be taken as a broader metaphor for how we develop our perceptions of reality, Karl Marx somewhere describes the workings of the economic system (capitalism) in the following terms: the enormous machine is housed inside a building which we can never enter. We can only look through a number of tiny windows – inevitably, only one at a time – to surmise how the whole apparatus might work.

(He might go on to say that we can also study what the machine produces, which is to say immense wealth on the one hand and immeasurable misery on the other. He might say that, but unfortunately I can’t track down the quote.)

The following, from the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, describes the view from the inside:

“At the very beginning, the infant is in a state of ‘primary unintegration’: unconnected feeling states and without even a rudimentary ego.”

In one of his most famous quotes, Winnicott also says that “there is no such thing as a baby” – there is only a collection of needs that must be met by the baby’s environment, which in the very early stages is its mother. It’s mainly through the relationship with her that the infant develops a sense of itself as a unified being.

In both cases, the first from outside and the second from within, we can’t perceive a unity. In developing our self-consciousness we rely on others’ reflections of ourselves to develop our sense of who we are. We learn about ourselves by looking at others, particularly when they’re looking at us. Where we feel a muddle of physical and mental sensations, they perceive a unity. For Lacan, the mirror stage is when (starting around twelve months) we start to recognise externally-generated images of ourselves. Some people get stuck in this phase, never surpassing their obsession with their own reflections.

It’s a staggering experience to witness the first flickerings of the awakening of consciousness. In the beginning our brand-new daughter was just a jumble of nerve endings united by a vague sense of need. Then she learned that she has a voice, two organs that let in light, a mouth and the opposite of a mouth. She still has little use for her hands; her favourite part of herself are her breasts, which she has no way of knowing aren’t part of ‘her’ body. She’s very much in the phase of not knowing she exists and (although her eyes are not yet able to focus) she looks to us for clues about what she is. We will tell her what and who she is, and she will tell us what and who we are.

In fits and starts I’ve been reading the novel ‘How to be both’ by Ali Smith, which describes the flowering of adult consciousness in a teenager in the midst of the brutalising world of social media. Our daughter is (hopefully) tens of thousands of days away from (whatever survives of) that, although our initial plan of keeping all connected devices out of her sight proved to be absurdly unrealistic. (I’ve tried to explore these issues here). The fact that nowadays so much of our notion of who we are and what we are worth is mediated by these black mirrors means that we obsessively try to control what we share of ourselves and what is shared of us in order to create a self-portrait we can live with, or at least one that doesn’t trouble or shame us too much.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider what perceptions visitors to this website (the overwhelming majority of whom haven’t met me in person) receive of me as an individual, and how my perceptions of their (your) perceptions affect my perception of myself. (I’ve tried to articulate the relationship between self-consciousness and social-media-as-spectacle here.) It’s startling to realise that tens of thousands of people are simultaneously reading your thoughts. Most will just be fleeting visits but it’s gratifying to read the extremely thoughtful and often bewilderingly generous comments of those who say they’ll be back – after all, every creative act is an attempt to create unity in the form of the community of those who experience it. As for the experience of having an article go viral the week before my first child arrives, it’s thanks to my daughter that my head is still attached to my shoulders. Anything that can happen online is inevitably of secondary importance when compared to the birth of a new human being.

We also learn who we are through the mass media, which teach us morality tales about who we should and shouldn’t be and how we should and shouldn’t behave. A lot of those offered up for public approval and/or opprobrium are paranoid and/or sadistic caricatures, grotesquely insecure narcissists who seem to have got stuck in the mirror stage and who depend on media exposure to feed their bloated but poorly-nurtured and hence ultimately insatiable egos. I hope that what I write here isn’t perceived (that you don’t perceive it) as a manifestation of any burgeoning megalomania on my part, but rather as an honest (albeit from now on more occasional) attempt to usefully explore aspects of our shared reality and, in doing so, create a community of those who share those perceptions. As for any impulses I might harbour towards world domination, I confidently expect to take first prize in the World Nappy-Changing Championships to be held later this year. I just hope that I won’t fall asleep on the podium.

Shame, Self-awareness and Zinedine Zidane

downloadWriting teaches you some salutary lessons about yourself, the world and the relationship between the two. Last week someone gave me an article about the ten phrases Italians most hate to hear in their own language, the equivalents of ‘literally’, ‘basically’, ‘shouldn’t of’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘going forward’, etc. One curious example of an infuriating phrase is ‘piuttosto che‘, which means ‘instead of’, but instead of using it to mean ‘instead of’ increasing amounts of people (particularly in the north) use it to mean ‘or’, which causes obvious confusion and widespread rage. I thought it would be fun to write something in Italian which contained all those expressions, partly as a laugh and partly as a means of exploring questions of language and identity: who does a langauge belong to, who has the right to make mistakes, who defines what a ‘mistake’ is, etc. However, I screwed up. I overestimated myself. I didn’t (get Chiara to) check what I’d written properly so it didn’t work, being full of my mistakes, the typical ones that foreigners make. The sixteen people who read it will not have been nearly as amused or impressed as I wanted them to be. Che imbarrazzante! – how embarrassing, indeed shameful. I exposed my pretensions, the gap between what I want to be able to do and what I am able to do, who I want to be and who I am, who I am on the inside and who I am to others.

This often happens when speaking other languages. In making a claim on another identity I risk being seen as an imposter, a fraud, an outsider. (I wrote about how this feels here). A language learner can use this to their advantage – shame can burn itself into your brain so you never make the same mistake twice. Hence self-consciousness can be a source of self-awareness, the former implying shame and the latter a sense of control. Interacting in another language partly comes down to learning one’s lines, knowing how to act in a given routine situation so as not to lose face.

One of the people who has best developed this metaphor is the sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. His ‘dramaturgical’ analysis of social interaction distinguishes between front and back stage behaviour. The goal of our performance as human beings is to be accepted by the audience.

As we develop we learn to play the role of ‘ourselves’. By the time we become adults we should, in theory, have become aware of who we are and how we should act. Hence being a teenager involves a lot of self-consciousness and shame. Teenagers shame each other, ridiculing each other’s pretensions and pretences. In my own cultural background (the north of England) ‘getting ideas above your station’ was scorned. A common source of shame is being exposed as fancying someone, wanting what you can’t have. Celebrating shame, enjoying one’s exclusion has long been a central element in youth culture, the deathless popularity of figures such as Morrissey and Jim Morrison attests. Shut out of mainstream society, disaffected teenagers develop their own theatrical rituals and codes.

I have always admired people who surpass those fledgling anxieties about being who they want to be, who write their own scripts and improvise without fear. Two prominent examples died this year: Prince and Bowie. A less commercially recognised example is Momus, who has written very perceptively and eloquently about the English tendency to anticipate and thereby ward off shame by deprecating oneself*. The artist Grayson Perry, in his Reith Lectures of 2013, talked with his customary brazen wit and charm about the risks young people take in declaring themselves ‘artists’. Creating one’s own character can be a hazardous undertaking, but going off-script is essential for living a meaningful life**.

George Michael is a curious case. As he grew older he was notable for his total lack of shame in his private life but he remained conventional and conservative in his artistic endeavours, seemingly driven by fear of the market. Then there’s Trump, who appears to have no shame. It’s shameful to be completely shameless. It makes you look like a very bad person indeed.

Another very interesting case study of the absence of shame and self-consciousness is the documentary ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait‘, in which the camera follows the footballer throughout the course of an entire match, only very rarely cutting away to show the rest of the action. It shows him completely absorbed in the game, caught up in the flow. The footage (which mostly consists of him scratching his nose*** and looking a bit énervé****) is accompanied by his gnomic insights into the profound business of kicking a ball around some grass*****. On one level it’s a study of someone at work, a time-and-motion study of a global superstar. He doesn’t look at the camera; the world is a camera. What’s interesting about Zidane is not his skill but his visibility. His work is not so much trying to create chances and score goals as to be watched. The film is therefore more interesting as a reflection on spectacle and self-consciousness (and, given our awareness of his spectacular headbutt in the World Cup Final later the same year, on shame and its absence). How does it feel and what does it mean to be constantly observed, contemplated, regarded? What is it like to exist solely as an image? What does life as spectacle mean?

Sometimes, when I remember to, I like watching strangers out in public and imagining that they’re acting. People are simultaneously very good and very bad at playing themselves. What they are particularly good at is depicting self-consciousness. Cinema and photography (and now selfies) mean that we are constantly producing and consuming – literally and mentally – images of ourselves. I notice this in myself, when stepping off a plane, or leaving the cinema. Goffman called these ‘dramaturgical moments’. Images, particularly those in adverts, teach us how to act. When consuming products and services we are not just being watched on CCTV, we are also monitoring ourselves. We aspire to be images. We fantasise about being part of the spectacle. Hence the Zidane film is partly a voyeuristic morality tale, about how we are to behave as images of ourselves. It has elements of both going to a zoo and of watching pornography, and is also an anthropological study of spectacle that is itself spectacle.

There is a curious dimension to these issues, which is our use of smartphones. We increasingly use them to escape from awkward situations, ones that could cause us shame. Awareness and awkwardness are closely related, and conversation and eye contact make you vulnerable, potentially involve you in a tangled web of social obligations. Hence we employ our device as a shield and a screen to ward off psychic interference from others.

What does this do to our awareness of our actions? Are we self-aware when we’re online? Do we believe at some level that our devices render us invisible? What happens to our self-consciousness when we’re scrolling through our Facebook feeds on a bus? Does shame exist online? (There’s certainly shaming. One reason I stopped using Twitter is that the medium knows no shame when it comes to lying, being wrong and shaming others). It would be interesting for an artist to make portraits of people absorbed in using their mobile devices. When we do so are we on or offstage? Are we in public or in private? Does Goffman’s metaphor break down at any point? What would a film of someone famous texting for ninety minutes be like? Would a documentary featuring Kanye West playing with his iPhone 8, accompanied by a hauntological soundtrack and captions in which he reflects on fame and self-awareness, be a big hit?

I’m aware that these thoughts are not original. Perhaps I need to read some more Susan Sontag or Jean Baudrillard or something, or maybe just some more books about the joys and horrors of child-rearing. One point of writing these things here is to think things through. Another is to start conversations. I find it curious that people will occasionally praise what I write but rarely respond to the actual content. Maybe that’s because it’s boring, or not very well-expressed, or incoherent******, or blindingly obvious. It would be shameful, mortifying to be told that. But thankfully I’m 44 years old now, so I don’t have to worry so much about such things. Or at least, I shouldn’t. So why am I so excited about getting a new pair of spectacles? Is it about seeing better, or being seen better? Che presuntuoso.

* I would never do that, anyway I’m German.

** I feel very self-conscious about the fact that all of the people mentioned in this paragraph are men. I’m also aware that the last sentence sounds a bit like Alan de Button. I could change it but at the end of the day, Brian, I tend to write these things quite quickly so I can dedicate more time to thinking about what to put in the footnotes. 

*** Although not as much as Žižek, another supposed philosopher whose name also begins with Z and who also had a documentary which was just called by that surname, does.

****https://www.google.it/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=%22pissed%20off%20in%20french%22

***** I wrote about my somewhat ambiguous relationship with football here.

****** Eg. obvious criticism of this article: shame and self-consciousness are not the same thing.