Friday, December 01, 2023

Arts Diary: Napoleon

Arts Diary: Napoleon:  Everyman Bristol

25: Answers To Readers Questions

1: Fascist

Kind of the whole point of this sequence of articles was that words mean different things depending on who you are, where you are, and when you last had lunch with Zaphod Beeblebrox. We are now debating the definition of fascist. I wonder if everyone missed the point; or if in fact they exactly got it.

I agreed with Orwell that "fascist" is frequently nothing more than a term of abuse; but that we generally have a pretty good idea what kind of things the cuss-word could be applied to. I do slightly think that Gavin is more inclined than I would be to use it as a synonym for "bigotry" or "hatefulness". I would prefer definitions around populism, nostalgia, and the back-stab myth. 

Some time ago a clip was circulating on the interwebs, possibly from the West Wing, in which three nice American politicians were asked why America was the greatest country in the world, and a liberal sounding chap said, more in sorrow than in anger, that America used to be the greatest country in the world, but due to things which unspecified people had done, it no longer was. The people who were forwarding it to me were largely liberals types, but it felt fascist-adjacent to me.

In practice, it means "Right wing person, and by the way, I think right wing things are generally bad." 

Which brings us back to: 

2: Woke

Woke (1) A set of beliefs about how white, male, heterosexual 'Christians' structured language and social structures to make sure that white, male 'Christians" were always in charge.

Woke (2) The theory that wokeness (sense 1) is propagated by a malign entity with a malicious intent -- the Frankfurt Group, the Alien Space Lizards, the SJWs, the Jews etc. 

Woke (3) i: Any text or action which shows black, female, gay, non-Christians in a good light 

ii: Any text or action which doesn't treat black, female, gay, non-Christians as a deviation from the norm 

iii: Any text or action which depicts or acknowledges the existence of black, female, gay, non-Christians unnecessarily 

iv: Any movie or comic book with black, gay, non-Christian people in it.

Some people sincerely believe that all instances of woke (sense 3) are caused by woke (sense 1): "The reason Disney made The Marvels is that they wanted to dismantle the white, straight, male, Christian hegemony". 

Some people sincerely believe that all instances of woke (sense 3) are caused by woke (sense 2): "Russell T Davies cast Ncuti Gawa as Doctor Who because the BBC is communist and therefore wants to bring down western civilisation."

But very many people use the word in sense 3 without any clear ideas about senses 1 or 2: "woke" is simply the word they use to describe a TV show with a black actor in it or a book written by a gay author. "Apparently there was a gay character in the new Doctor Who. Sounds woke to me."

Andrew's "translation" exercise largely assumed that "woke" was being used in sense (3) ("anything which has a trans person in it or suggests that being trans is okay"). G's translation effectively stone-manned Musk by showing how a sophisticated reading of woke in sense (1) could plausibly lead to some of his conclusions (you could conceivably think that a belief in structural inequality will result in the extermination of the human species.)  

Andrew acknowledges that he focussed entirely on the anti-trans element. It would have been better if he had focussed on the racial definition ("If we do not prevent people from thinking that white people have advantages over black people, we will never travel to Mars") or on inequality in general ("Unless people stop looking at the various ways in which society is set up to give certain groups advantages over others, humans will become extinct.") or even economically ("The only important thing is to prevent people believing that resources should be shared out fairly.") He may in fact re-write the passage to reflect this. But G's extensive mini-essays went rather beyond what Andrew's "translations" were intended to be doing. 

3: Translation

G correctly spots that Andrew was riffing on the end of Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet in which the Christian philologist has to translate Wellsian philosophy into the language of the angels, so "Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute" comes out as "Living creatures are stronger than the question of whether an act is bent or is better to be alive and bent than dead..." Translation was a thing Lewis was interested in, of course. He saw his job as a Christian writer as translating difficult theological ideas into the language of ordinary people, and has some interesting things to say about how ordinary language differs from that of the academic. ("I do not say that this woman is immoral but I do say that she is a thief" means "She is chaste but dishonest."

Let's consider a couple of examples.

"He had a strict Calvinist upbringing."

Literal gloss: "His parents were disciples of the sixteenth century Swiss theologian, John Calvin."

Idiomatic gloss: "His parents were devout Christians who believed that God rewards hard work and punishes laziness (and by the way, they were probably Scottish.)" 

Explanatory gloss: "Until the 1500s, most Christians believed that you went to heaven by regularly saying sorry for your bad deeds and paying for them with charitable giving or self-imposed punishments, but a French priest started to teach that God knew in advance who was going to heaven. When these ideas spread to Scotland, they gave rise to a culture which was often perceived as joyless, austere and unkind to children..." 

"Jeremy Corbyn supports free wi-fi because he is a Trot."

Literal Gloss: "Jeremy Corbyn believes the state should supply free internet access because he is a supporter of the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky."

Idiomatic Gloss: "Jeremy Corbyn believes that the world should consist of single state in which the government owns all the wealth and shares it among the people: this explains why he thinks internet access should be free." (This would lead to absurd conclusions: "Support for free wi-fi is evidence of support for world-wide communist revolution", "Worldwide communist revolution is undesirable; therefore there must always be a charge for internet use.")

But in fact, it is clear that "Trot" is being used, not to refer to Trotsky or Trotskyitism, but as a swearword meaning "left-wing", so the accurate translation would be: 

"Jeremy Corbyn's belief in free wi fi is left wing, and therefore bad."

or, if we have to gloss "left wing"

"Excessive sharing of resources is bad; providing citizens with free wi fi would involve the excessive sharing of resources; therefore providing citizens with free wi-fi would be bad."

An explanatory definition would go on for pages, and go far beyond what I was aiming at in the translation exercise. I'll have a go if you like:

"Trotsky believed in world communist revolution; Lenin and his successors that it could be achieved in the Soviet Union alone. The British Labour Party was an alliance between Trades Unionists, Marxists and Social Democrats. British Marxists who supported Russian and Marxist-Leninism tended to join the British Communist Party; the ones who resigned from Party in 1956 and joined Labour were largely Trotskyites. They were far to the left politically of the Trades Unions and the Social Democrats, so members of the Labour party who were not Marxists tended to use Trotskyite descriptively, and then as a term of abuse. By 2020, "Trot" was simply a word used to denote a left winger party member who the speaker disapproved of. Moderates in the Labour Party felt that Jeremy Corbyn was too left wing, and therefore denoted him as a Trot: the free internet access plan was one example of his supposedly excessive left-wing thinking." 

4: Virus

If someone says that "The drug trade is Satanic" they might mean different things --

A: "Drugs are very, very, very, very bad"

B: "Drugs are very bad and I believe that bad things are ultimately caused by a malign spiritual power"

C: "Drugs are very bad, and I believe that the perpetrators are under the direct control of a malign spiritual force, and that prayer and exorcism could form part of their rehabilitation"

D: "I believe that the big boss of the cartel selling weed in Brixton literally has cloven hooves, a tail and smells of sulphur."

(I understand that when members of the Republican Party say that Hillary Clinton is Satanic, some of them at least are using the term in sense D!)

If your local vicar says the drug trade is Satanic, there is very little point in pretending that you think he is talking in sense D ("No, I've met one of the local dealers and he is definitely a normal human, albeit not a very nice one") when he was obviously using the word in sense A (I disapprove of this very strongly indeed).

We have accepted, I think, that Political Correctness sometimes means "A Jewish (cultural Marxist) conspiracy to destroy the West" but very frequently only means "the prevailing orthodoxy". "Woke" sometimes means "A Jewish (cultural Marxist) conspiracy to destroy the West" but very frequently only means "liberal beliefs" or "beliefs the speaker thinks are too left wing."

Another Christian writer once told C.S Lewis that it was the job of Christian literary critics to reveal the false values underlying much contemporary literature. Lewis asked if that meant "to reveal what the values underlying contemporary literature in fact are (and, by the way, as a Christian, I personally believe those values are false)" or if it meant "to reveal the falsity of the values." Lewis approved the first and disapproved the second, because he felt that critics were experts in showing underlying assumptions in literature, but only amateurs in talking about which values were good and which values were bad.

I have said that "Political Correctness" may mean nothing more than "prevailing orthodoxy". Similarly, "mind virus" might mean no more than "widespread and prevalent idea"."Woke" may mean no more than "liberal ideas {which incidentally I think are bad}". But this creates a problem for the translator. Does "the woke mind virus will destroy civilisation" mean "liberal ideas {which, by the way, are very prevalent} will destroy civilisation". Or does it mean "the widespreadness and prevalence of liberal ideas will destroy civilisation". Or even "any widespread and prevalent idea will destroy civilisation, and at present, liberal ideas happen to be the widespread ones."


“The woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide.”

Many people who make movies have liberal ideas -- which are very widespread and prevalent at present -- and because of this, everyone in the world is likely to kill themselves."


Many people who make movies follow the most widespread and prevalent ideas (which, at the moment, are liberal ones) and as a result, everyone in the world is likely to kill themselves.

“That the mind virus is pushing humanity towards extinction is not hyperbole.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that liberal ideas (which are, at the moment, widespread and prevalent) are likely to result in everyone in the whole world dying.


It would be no exaggeration to say that the widespread prevalence of a particular idea (in this case, liberal ones) are likely to result in everyone in the whole world dying.

“The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters”

The only thing of importance is that liberal ideas are shown to be wrong, even though they are prevalent and widespread at present.


The only thing of importance is that liberal ideas cease to be prevalent and widespread.

“Unless the woke mind virus, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit, and anti-human in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multi-planetary.”

If you have liberal ideas, then you probably believe that humans can't learn about the world through objective and systematic study, or that even if they can, they shouldn't. If you have liberal ideas, you probably don't think that the cleverest and most talented people should have the most money; you may even think that it's bad to be talented and clever. If you have liberal ideas, you probably don't like people at all and would rather they become extinct. As long as liberal ideas are widespread and prevalent, no-one will ever send a spaceship to Mars.


When a particular idea becomes widespread and prevalent, it becomes impossible to learn about the world through systematic and objective study. When a particular idea becomes widespread and prevalent, the cleverest and most talented people are not given the most money, and perhaps there will be no clever or talented people at all. When a particular idea becomes widespread and prevalent, ??human beings start dying ??there is a risk of human extinction ??it is bad for people in general. If this happens we will never send spaceships to Mars. At the moment, the idea which is widespread and prevalent is liberalism, so we need to talk about conservative ideas instead.

Other Things I Learned From This Exercise

a: Abstract terms like "the human race"; "humanity" and "civilisation" are almost impossible to turn into meaningful concrete ones: once you replace them with "everybody" or "people" you turn out to to be talking nonsense.

"Society" has a meaning in terms of "what sociologists study": the way-that-people-behave-in-groups. You might, of course, think that human beings don't behave in any particular way in groups, and sociology is therefore snake-oil. C.S Lewis said he didn't like the term "society", but noted that it mostly just meant "all of us". But when Mrs Thatcher famously said "there is no such thing as society" she didn't, presumably, mean that groups of people didn't exist or that groups of people didn't behave in particular ways and she certainly didn't think that "there is no such thing as all of us." What she was reacting against was the idea of Society as a thing with agency.
"Society is to blame for crime" can easily be translated into statements which are not actually nonsensical although Mrs Thatcher presumably disagreed with them. ("Everyone is to blame for crime, not just the people who actually commit it." "If everyone behaved differently, there would be less crime".) I can't come up with sensible glosses for words like "humanity" and "civilisation" which don't lead to absurd conclusions. 

I think it was Simon Hoggart who said that you should test an advertising or political slogan by asking what the opposite would be. ("It's a pedestrians car: so push it" was a memorable example.)

b: "Woke" and "virus" equivocate around concepts of agency and intention. Does "the woke mind virus is anti-science" mean "one of the beliefs of people who identify as woke is that science is a bad thing" or "as a matter of fact the belief in woke ideas will have negative consequences for scientific research" or even "people who identify as woke believe in things which cannot be scientifically proven." Does "eradicating the woke mind virus" mean "eradicating all liberal ideas"; or "making liberal ideas less widespread"; or, indeed "killing all the liberals."

I think that when an evangelical clergyman says that the drug trade is satanic, he does in fact have a picture in his head of a fiery, fallen angel directly manipulating criminals to do bad things; but that if challenged, he would readily admit that that picture is a metaphor or a myth, and he really means that crime is sinful and sin is in the long run the result of Satan's power. But the fact that he thinks in terms of that metaphor probably influences the ways in which he thinks the problem might be solved (e.g that exploitation is an inevitable result of fallen human nature and therefore insoluble, as opposed to the result of temporary and alterable social conditions.) Unless, of course, "Satanic" turns out merely to be his word for poor housing, inadequate mental health provision, under-resource education etc etc etc in which case the metaphor is completely empty and he can probably get a column in the Guardian.

Similarly, it may be that some people who talk about the Woke Mind Virus are perfectly aware that they are using a figure of speech. But the fact that they have chosen that figure of speech is significant; and it will affect how they act. 

There is also the question of how "my daughter believes that some people's gender identity is different from their physical sex at birth, and that she is one of those people" and "my daughter believes that we should share out money and resources more equally and not concentrate them in the hands of a super-rich minority" or even "my daughter believes that all rich people are evil" are in any way iterations of the same thing. You might as well say "Andrew is infected with the liking-folk-music-and-anchovies virus" or "Since he took up jogging, Trevor believes we should defund the police."

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Friday, November 24, 2023

23: Terry Eagleton wrote a clever essay on romantic poetry.

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Terry Eagleton wrote a clever essay on romantic poetry.

I have probably quoted it before. I have probably quoted most things before. He asked how you could justify swooning over Grecian Urns and weeping about Skylarks and writing long addresses to the West Wind in an era when small children were literally being forced to climb up chimneys and used as beasts of burden in coal-mines. He said that writing poetry was itself an act of resistance.

“In the face of such forces, the privilege accorded by the Romantics to the ‘creative imagination’ can be seen as considerably more than idle escapism. On the contrary, ‘literature’ now appears as one of the few enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed. ‘Imaginative creation’ can be offered as an image of non-alienated labour; the intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind can provide a living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to ‘fact’.”

I don’t in fact think that writing long essays about Doctor Who and Spider-Man is an act of resistance against the coming Muskocracy. I don’t think that when I write about popular culture I am stepping outside of political discourse and writing about something neutral and therefore real.

I am currently looking at the code-numbers you can sometimes spot in the margins of very old comics. They can give you a clue to when the thing was written. The first Spider-Man story was V-789, since you ask. The first Thor story was V-786. Which makes Stan Lee’s tale about thinking up Thor because a god was the only thing bigger and better than a teenager who could climb up walls look decidedly iffy.

But I don’t think that “The first Thor story was in all probability written slightly before the first Spider-Man story” is a politically neutral statement. I think my beliefs about when Thor was published are bound up with the colour of my skin, my position in the Black/white dichotomy, the configuration of my genitals, my preferred pronouns and my chosen name for God. I think that language and narrative are male/white/’‘Christian’ constructs. 

Unless and until they are not.

But I feel I can write commentary on texts and feel fairly sure that I know what I am writing about. At least texts stay where they are and don’t move about. 

Unless they do.

I wrote a coda to my essay on the Micronauts called “Why Are You Wasting Your Time On This Shit?” I don’t know how I could have explained myself more clearly. When I write about old comics I am not really writing about old comics because I don’t think that old comics are particularly important. No more and no less important than anything else. When I write about old comics I am really writing about me. Because I think that I am very important indeed. As are you. Unless you are just a zombie controlled by a virus, in which case you might as well jump into the incinerator before they push you.

I understand that that essay hurt the feelings of people who rather like the Librarians Are Fucking Awesome posts, and I am sorry about this. But quite gratified a few of them read it.

I was fond of my golly. I have never seen Michelangelo’s David. I go by he/him. I think it is better to keep your pants on in public places. I think Show of Hands are an excellent folk band. Jack Kirby definitely created the Silver Surfer.

There is a monstrous odour…senses transfigures…boarding at that tower window crack and giving way…Ia…ngai…ygg… I see it….coming here…hell-wind…titan blur…black wings…Yog-Sothoth save me…the three lobed burning eye.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

22: I suppose that all groups develop their own patois

 I suppose that all groups develop their own patois.

That might even be what we mean when we say “group”: a set of people who all use words in the same way.

Most schools have slang expressions. But high-status public (i.e private) schools print their slang in little books and make the new boys learn it by heart. Because being an Old Etonian is a lot more important than having been to East Barnet Lower.

If you weren’t in the role-playing club you would probably be baffled when someone claims to have “failed their not-spill-the-coffee roll.” If you weren’t in the Christian Union you might legitimately wonder what the hell a “quiet time” was, let alone a “word of knowledge”.

Dave Sim, sorry, “the shitty aardvark writer”, pinpointed this some years ago. You may know what I mean when I say “Spider-Man” or “Wonder Woman”. But what if I say “Toro” or “William Burnside”? What if I say “Amazing Fantasy #15” or “Action Comics #1”? “Detective Comics #27”? “Incredible Hulk #181”?

The Internet and Streaming TV and those awful mobile phone things have caused the number of groups and the number of idiolects to multiply to the point when no-one is comprehensible to anyone else. How, given that this is the case can I ever write about politics again? How can I write about anything at all?

I could try to write as if I were addressing an intelligent eight year old. I could aspire to turning my prose style into that of Janet and John.

I could define every term. And then define every term in my definition.

I would not describe someone as a fundamentalist. That’s a loaded word; a word that tells you how I feel about the person I an describing and assumes that you feel the same way. But I could say that he’s “a Christian who takes the Bible literally.”

Except that “Christian” and “Bible” and “literally” are scarcely less loaded terms. Okay: a Christian is a person who believes in God; and who believes that God was specially present in an historical figure called Jesus. The Bible is a book which is specially important to Christians. To take something literally is, I suppose, to believe that it really happened, in real life, and not as fable or legend.

But when I tell you that someone is a fundamentalist I am not saying that they are a person who believes that the stories in the book which is special to the people who believe that God was particularly present in a person called Jesus really happened and are not just stories. I am also saying that they have conservative values; that they regard their beliefs as super-important and want to convert other people; that they are probably American, probably from one of the southern states and that they don’t like abortion or homosexuals. And I am almost certainly saying that I don’t approve of them. And this wouldn’t help even a little bit if what I had said was that someone was a free market fundamentalists.

So it might be better, in fact if I was deliberately obscure. If I eschewed words with obvious meanings and generated a kind of Klingon postmodernism."Quasi-scriptural theo-essentialist." "Non-narrative holy-writ absolutist."

Or I could say what I actually mean. American Christian. Bad Christian. Extremist. Bad thing.

All right: but what do you mean by American? And Bad? And Extremist?

Bad man have lots of money. 

Bad man say bad thing. 

Bad man like moon rocket. 

Me no like moon rocket so much.

—Thy reason, man?

—Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.

—I warrant thou art a merry fellow and carest for nothing.

Lewis defined Magic as objective efficacy which cannot be further analysed.

This is a magic spinning wheel, and anyone who pricks themselves will sleep for a hundred years.

You can’t ask why: it just is. Lewis was happy to say that the deepest truths of Christianity—the Atonement and the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist—were magical beliefs.

Science is the exact opposite of magic. Everything can be analysed: nothing “just is”.

Before Science everything was Magic: no point in asking why the sun rises or trees fly south in the winter: they just do. Science has spent thousands of years answering the “why” questions and abolishing magic. But sooner or later—probably very much later—it will hit the Grand Unified Theory Of Everything or Fundamental Natural Law and science will be complete.

“But why did those conditions exist at the very beginning of the universe, or of all possible universes?”

“Well, there’s no answer to that, even in principle. They just did.”

“Nothing is magical” may turn out to be the same as everything is magic. Which, I happily concede, is not a very helpful or interesting insight. All places are one place but that place is very big.

Perhaps words are magic in the same way.

You can only ask “what does that mean?” and “what do you mean by that?” so many times. Eventually you hit the undefinable; and the undefinable is what you really mean.

“What do you mean by the Woke Mind Virus?”

“I don’t mean anything by the Woke Mind Virus. The Woke Mind Virus is what I mean. Brexit means Brexit.”

—The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard: that is—I am I.

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