HowTheLightGetsIn | A Festival of Philosophy and Music


Talks/ Debates Hay-on-Wye 28/05/13

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Day Six of HowTheLightGetsIn got off to a strong start with ‘Beyond Equality’, a talk by Peter Tatchell, the famous political activist and equal rights campaigner. Tatchell gave the talk a LGBT focus but pointed out that the arguments he made could just as easily refer to other oppressed groups such as women and immigrants. He began with reference to the recent Gay Marriage Act (which on the day of the talk was still in danger of being boycotted by the Lords.) He said that while he was not opposed to gay marriage and thought that in many ways it represented a remarkable achievement, he was concerned that it might lead the general public and some sections of the LGBT movement to think that the struggle for genuine equality has been achieved. Tatchell suggested that genuine equality would involve the LGBT outlook and culture being welcomed into and assimilated by our society, whereas, for him gaining equal rights on issues which have been created by straight society only means the gaining of those rights on straight societies’ own terms. He gave an example of how within the LGBT community some of the more traditional notions associated with LGBT such as the loud and proud aesthetics of, say, Pride, are now frowned upon. There is, he says, a desire within some parts of the LGBT community to see this victory and victories like this as an invitation to be assimilated into – and therefore on the terms of – traditional Straight-White-Male-conceived society. He says that it would be a great pity if this happened because a lot of what is both joyous and also an agent for change about LBGT culture will be lost – in the same way as, in a sense, the forward momentum of feminism has been by perceived victories. Misogyny in everyday life is clearly still a major issue but women themselves seem to have almost been disowned of feminism as a result of its assimilation into Straight-White-Male-conceived society, which has rendered it as something, which, irony of ironies, is viewed as almost distasteful by some women (certainly this was the case in the UK of the nineties.)

Tatchell argued that often when a victimised group is freed from their shackles they try to become like their oppressor. He drew comparisons with black Americans’ embracing of capitalism and with women having to compete with men on men’s terms in work environments (i.e. having to behave in an aggressive, competitive, pseudo-testosterone-fuelled fashion.) Tatchell argues that examples like this are self-evidently a great pity because a more directly black and female input into our Straight-White-Male-conceived society would surely result in a broadening of that society, helping to make it a more empathetic and outward-looking place.

Although Tatchell’s emphasis was on LGBT rights it could, as he pointed out, easily have been about any other minority group. His message was really a universal one: to fight for the right of the individual and for that individual’s voice to be given equal credence to that of the voices that comprise the establishment. There is an honesty and a fearlessness about Tatchell’s politics which come as no surprise from a man who once tried to citizen’s arrest Robert Mugabe (and who was given a kicking on British soil for his trouble) and who regularly protest’s on behalf of LGBT Rights in Putin’s Russia. Nevertheless it is a fearlessness which refreshes and inspires.

‘Seeing Red’, a talk by the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, would have continued the topic of gender equality but was unfortunately cancelled. This meant that next up was the Club of Rome-sponsored debate, ‘The Art of Wisdom’, which was chaired by Aeon Magazine’s Marina Benjamin and featured guest speakers Anders Wijkman, Jenni Calder and Paul Rose. The debate circled around the following question:

Philosophers often privilege rational thought above our lived experience of the world, but has this stifled our ability to embrace the joy of simply being? Is true wisdom thinking less, and being more, or would this be a step away from our vision of Enlightenment heritage?

Paul Rose, the arctic explorer and television producer, was very much of the opinion that yes we have stifled this ability to enjoy simply being. He spoke convincingly of the sense of oneness he has felt while spending long times in the artic and very strongly associated ‘the joy of simply being’ with a direct connection with nature. For him, the problem is that we have partly lost our relationship with nature and that we don’t give enough space to nature in our education systems. Rose then described his own formative experience on a school trip to the Brecon Beacons, where, having not been a very academic pupil, he suddenly discovered his exceptional ability at orienteering. This led him onto the subject of there being a lack of vocational disciplines in the UK today. The problem with Rose’s viewpoints were that, while they were unquestionably well meaning, they were overly simplistic and either unaware or unwilling to engage with the larger issues behind the debate. This was exemplified by his unwillingness to engage with an audience member who suggested that the real cause of our disengagement from the ‘joy of simply being’ was the fact that we were a hyper-capitalist society with it’s foot on the accelerator.

By turns, Wijkman, president of the Club of Rome and a councillor of the World Future Council, was an engaging and passionate talker, deeply concerned with the moral issues which effect us all today. While he agreed with Rose’s points he was indeed of the opinion that they were factors of a deeper malaise that needed addressing. Namely capitalism and the consumer society as we know it. He suggested that part of the reason there is a lack of vocational disciplines is simply because there is a lack of things to fix. He blamed this on disposable consumer society and the fact that products are made with a disposable life span. Obviously this also has a huge influence on the environment and he was keen, as the author of Bankrupting Nature, to emphasise the importance of environmental stability for future generations. He didn’t call for an end to capitalism but rather for a radical re-thinking of it.

Calder, the talented literary historian and author of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life in Study, speaking on behalf of literature and the arts, should you feel, have contributed more to the debate. Instead she gave extremely short answers, which added up to little more than truisms. She felt that there was a need both for philosophical thought and an embracing of nature and that the two were not separate but part and parcel of the same thing. She agreed that education and consumption were in a terrible state but did not have a good deal to say about how this might be overcome.

Indeed, while this was a stimulating and occasionally stirring debate, it didn’t produce a lot of answers. This is perhaps because the parameters of the question were too broad, allowing Rose and Calder to give answers which were not interested in exploring the debate beyond their own opinions. Only Wiljkman, with his deep concern for future generations, was genuinely, proactively interested in finding new ways of being for our global society. 

One of the most engaging talks of the day was ‘About Time’, by first year PhD student, Alexandra Paulin-Booth. She explored the ways in which radical thinkers in late nineteenth century France conceptualised time. Whilst the discussion was in parts perhaps too technical for a lay-audience, the major themes were entirely prescient. What is time? How do we understand it? Is it intuitive and innate or external and objective? Do we privilege perception or distrust our own senses?

The discussion was introduced through a reading of the works of Reinhart Koselleck, who attempted to re-examine notions of time in an age on the cusp of change. The future was typified by a tension between expectation and the ‘modern’ notions of progress. It struck me that this is still a preoccupation for our society, as we are in the main dominated by the expectation that science constitutes progress. Scientific discovery is one of the main features of our attempts at self-definition; just think of Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

The other major theme was introduced through the Syndicalist’s. Optimism entered time – the future is to be strived for because the status quo is corrupting. Again this led to a return to intuition. This, however, did not settle the issues of the present. But then Henri Bergson introduced the notion of ‘Duree’ or ‘True Time’. This is the not the time of clocks and calendars but Time created by the intuitive sense of the mind. This is a turning away from the Kantian conception of time as an objective predicate of experience. Bergson claimed that time is a matter of perspective because it encapsulates unforeseen possibilities. There is the past, present or future because something is only understood as having been already. We digest time retrospectively through thoughts and perceptions, which in their turn transform the event itself; they set the conditions for a thing having occurred. In this sense planning for the future is impossible and irrelevant. This raises the problem of anachronism. If we can only understand events retrospectively, as having passed in time, and if the effort of this means we transform the event in our understanding of it, then you can never reach or understand an event as it is meant within time. If every attempt to define ourselves is outside of time and imposed upon it, how can we speak of it without changing its nature? It was a pity that this could not have been developed further in the following audience discussion. The centrality of art in this view, the notion of creation as a confluence or puncturing of time would be an important and stimulating debate. This view was introduced in part by speaking about the notion of epiphany as a truth which transcends time yet is perfectly placed within it. This was picked up by thinkers such as Levinas and Heidegger.

Proust’s ‘In search of lost time’ seems to be dealing with this issue head-on. Perhaps this is why there follows such a primacy and privileging of art. A new confidence can enter on the suspicion of the empirical, objective and religious notions of time. The notion of epiphany becomes so persuasive as it provides a truth, which can be universally understood, pass in and out of relevance without corrupting the thing itself and can also simultaneously be perfectly placed within time. But then maybe that’s asking a lot of a ten minute Q&A.

Michael Foley concluded the day with a talk based around his new book, This Extraordinary World. Speaking to a packed crowd Foley extolled the virtues of trying to see things as though you are seeing them for the first time, to try and organically (he was quite against using drugs or Buddhist chanting to attain this) heighten your senses in order to increase your susceptibility to epiphanies. A noble enough sentiment but rather a flimsy one for a forty-minute talk, especially when his grasp of the philosophy behind these ideas seemed somewhat confused.

This is typified by the fact that the result of his thoughts point towards the phenomenological project. From Husserl to Heidegger the everyday is key to the revelation of things as they are. Foley hinted at this by introducing the ideas of flux and continual change in the work of the pre-Socratics but this line of argument appeared to be abandoned mid-way. Foley’s style was very approachable and he refigured the content into palatable but somewhat confusing terms – ‘petrifaction’ being the main offender – which left as many questions as they answered.

Considering that This Extraordinary World appears to intended as a sort of self-help-philosophy, it felt a little odd that it didn’t seem to have been of much help to the author himself, who revealed that he had barely, if ever, had an experience of epiphany. His central point appeared to be a call for the subversion of the everyday. He illustrated this by talking about the gravel-spreading scene from Cool Hand Luke and citing it as an example of how to use the ruse in everyday life (he also suggested doing dull tasks at work with unwarranted enthusiasm.) Whilst this has a point and a function it didn’t seem to marry up with a coherent epistemological view and in fact seems to be counter to the notion that embracing the everyday is what enables it to be transformative. Essentially the problem with Foley’s thesis is that he calls for a Husserlian ‘Bracketing’ or reassessment of meaning, (a blind acceptance of meaning and convention is what ‘petrifies’), but the practical examples of how this manifests itself seem to be confused.

Things which typified the day were notions of definition and truth, particularly in light of the past and future. ‘Beyond Equality’ railed against prescribed and reductionist readings of sexuality and minority cultures. ‘The Art of Wisdom’ discussed the issues of living and defining ourselves within the tension between spirituality and science. ‘About Time’ discussed the anxiety of change and how attempts at definition sometimes take us further away rather then closer to the truth. ‘The Extraordinary World’ sought to bring the themes of time, definition, self-discovery and praxis together in a consistent whole. It being an arts festival it was reassuring to keep hearing the notion of epiphany surface in different guises. It can be no surprise that with such an expansive and complex topic there were unanswered questions but like Bergson, Husserl or, indeed, any of the speakers, these attempts at examining our views are crucial to creating a space within which ideas and re-imaginings can flourish.

With special thanks to Michou Burckett for the sections on ‘About Time’ and ‘This Extraordinary World.’

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis