Tuesday, April 24, 2007

And Now For Something Totally Different

China Mieville reading from his new children's novel, which seems to exhibit much of what is pleasing about his other books. There's an interview somewhere on the Guardian site as well, but I can't find it and have lost the link. Hat-tip to the ex.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

On 'The Lives Of Others'

In The Human Condition, in the midst of a discussion of how private property is different from mere wealth, Hannah Arendt has a wonderful, relatively throw-away, line about how having a space in which one is not observed matters:

[a] life spent entirely in public... becomes shallow [because] it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.

The best moments of The Lives of Others, to my mind at least, are those where it gestures in the direction of this insight. There are two scenes where the Stasi officer who has been conducting surveillance of a playwright and his actress lover, Wiesler, unintentionally encounters one of the people whose lives he has been privy to every small, inconsequential but potentially humiliating, details of. He knows that he knows too much, not primarily in the sense that were he to reveal enough to give away the fact of the surveillance it would remove its point, but in the sense that he is too aware of how they work, of the hopes and fears that begin to make them who they are.

The first time, he wants to give advice, but can't explain why he wants to, or how he knows that it is needed, while the second, where he interrogates one of the lovers, it is clear who he is, and the two of them have to collude in preventing his superiors, watching the pair through a false mirror, from discovering that they have met before. That moment, of awkward realisation, as he, after having asked one question sitting with his back to the prisoner, turns, where an understanding of what observation reveals flashes acrosses the face of the person who has been watched and listened to, that has to be suppressed because it is itself observed, is perhaps the best bit of the film.

There are other moments where the moral damage that is done when too much is seen is hinted at - the joke about Honecker that the Stasi lieutenant begins to tell in the canteen, before realising he is sitting next to his superiors, suddenly stops, is forced to finish, and then is perhaps teased, perhaps not, that that is the end of his career, is also quite cleverly done - but generally, there is something not entirely satisfactory about the film. Peter Bradshaw may be partly right that the playwright, Dreyman, does not quite work, although he is more ambiguous than Bradshaw gives credit for I think - the play shown at the beginning is, he claims to a blacklisted director he used to work with, butchered by the party hack who replaced him - but the real problem is Weisler: it's never quite clear exactly why Wiesler has the change of heart he does, since a Stasi officer with twenty years of experience, prepared to extract confessions through sleep deprivation, play tapes of such interrogations to pupils and mark as suspicious those who ask whether such treatment is cruel, all with a distinctly passionless face, seems unlikely to be converted by a simple piece of surveillance work.

The redemption at the heart of the film thus seems unmotivated. It is in stark contrast with the similar, although unfulfilled, transformation at the heart of Buongiorno Notte - which I wrote about here, ages ago - where the tension of having an articulate, reasonable, and above all vulnerable human being locked in a cupboard in a suburban house, writing letters to the government saying that he will be executed unless certain demands are met is all too clear. The kidnapper who nearly cracks is the one who is out in the world, who is able to escape the claustrophobia, who sees how people, under normal conditions, relate to each other. She is also young, and perhaps has never done something like this before. That she would flinch makes sense. With Wiesler, it is harder to see why. More mundanely, the film is perhaps too long. Still, for those scenes where Wiesler sees what he has done to himself by hearing too much, it is probably worth seeing.

Update, 11/05/07: Anna Funder, author of Stasiland, makes some similar points about the implausibility as well as, apparently, its impossibility, of Wiesler's behaviour in last Saturday's Guardian.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Get An Electrician

There's a Massive Attack song on Protection, Better Things, sung by Tracey Thorn. It's a kind of lament for a lover who is trying to ease their way out, simultaneously bitter and resigned, scathing about the explanations meant to soften the blow and knowing that it can be scathing because the chances are that there's nothing to be salvaged. Reading odds and ends of the Observer's attempt at a summary of the Blair years from the weekend before last, I was reminded of it. Jamie had it about right the day beforehand, when the Grauniad ran teasers:

Ten years in office, 54 criminal justice bills, 3000 new offenses and one CCTV camera for every four people in the country and you’re left with a sensation of permanent crisis... Endless institutional tinkering doesn’t convince people that things are improving. It convinces them that institutions are irrevocably broken.

Tracey Thorn is obviously much more dignified than New Labour, but there's the same sense of desperation. What makes her more dignified is that she doesn't try and hide it. When she sings

You say the spark's gone
Well, get an electrician

everyone, including her, knows it's pointless: this is, after all, not the sort of spark that can be provided by an electrician. That gives it pathos. The general hyperactivity of New Labour's attempts at media management is a desperation that cannot admit it is desperate, a conviction that the public's impression of the government must constantly be massaged which must always deny that any massaging is going on. It therefore lacks the pathos, and so the dignity, not that pathos is top of the list of qualities that are generally looked for in governments anyway. Blair himself may, I concede, have some pathos - the sincerity is so pleading, so brittle-seeming, that it could hardly not be aware of itself - but it is hardly the basis of dignity. This is because, even if it did have pathos, the new Labour approach to its electorate would still be infantilising, since it refuses to believe that, left to witness the results for themselves, the British public can be trusted to credit the achievements of the government. Amongst other things, that's profoundly anti-democratic, since what kind of right to rule themselves could realistically be attributed to people who cannot be trusted to trouble themselves acquire even basic information about the governance of their country when presented with the truth by their government.

The feature that will surely in the end, if it doesn't already, more worry the current government's successors, whoever they are, though, is how counter-productive it is. Of course there are doubtless other causes at work, but one of the causes of the total disbelief with which most government claims seem to be met is surely the awareness that the government does not think that its citizens can always be trusted with the truth. Even more than that, because the government's distrust seems to be quite general, not tied to any particular interest, there doesn't need to be any specific evidence of witholding of the truth for it to be reasonable to think that dissembling is going on, and even more than that, by irritating people, the infantilising makes them much less likely to be reasonable in the first place.

The other way in which it is counter-productive, for a left-wing government at least, is the way in which it totally fails to shift the terms of the discourse. I suppose in New Labour's case that may attribute to it a desire to shift the terms of the discourse which it never really had, but at least for many of those who supported New Labour it must be a disappointment. By focusing on managing the media, on massaging public opinion, New Labour left itself at the mercy of a news agenda dominated by basically Tory newspapers. Because of that, it was never really able to make an attempt to really roll back the ideological damage of eighteen years of Tory rule. Alright, Cameron has pledged to fund public services at the same levels as the current government, but those services are not funded significantly more fairly than they were ten years ago. The social democratic case has not been made, and that's partly because New Labour's belief in the infantilism of the electorate meant it did not think it would stand for it, which, in 1997 at least, was probably unjustified.

The broader point here, obviously, is that how you communicate with other people, the respect with which you treat them, the assumptions you make about how they process information, about their prior beliefs. If you want an open, constructive debate, a discourse where things are genuinely learnt, minds genuinely changed, treat people with respect, read their contributions charitably, be open to the thought that you are wrong. That isn't always easy - misunderstandings occur, tempers flare, and things are said or written which might not be if tongues were bitten, all of which I have been guilty of - but just because a goal isn't always met, it doesn't mean it should not be one, though. Where we have done something wrong, been too quick or too uncharitable, we should make amends, or at least stop flailing about, hoping to hit something in the end. If you're not prepared to do that, then you're probably not looking for the things that doing it would help secure. When that happens, at least one person in the conversation is likely to be asking for an electrician when there's really not much point. At least Tracey Thorn did it with dignity.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"We Can Respect One Another, And We Do"

Martha Nussbaum being relentlessly sensible about 'multiculturalism' here. I promise that I will write something myself sometime.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

If Only It Really Were Like Shooting Fish In A Barrel

I really hate John Reid. I can't think of anything he has done which hasn't been populist in the worst possible way. He seems to have made a career of pandering to ridiculous, often outright fascist, and almost always racist, tabloid-generated moral panics, if he hasn't been generating them himself. Anyway, you can ask him questions online here. Treat him with the respect he treats you; none at all.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Piercing, So Very Piercing

I still haven't decided whether or not obviously quasi-fascist aestheticization of violence is a reason not to see, or to see - admit it, you enjoyed the battle scenes in LOTR - '300', but either way, this is genius:



via Backword Dave. The gay one was just a bit obvious, I thought.

Update, 20/04/07: Michael Wood can't quite bring himself to condemn it either...