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Archive for February, 2010

An old friend, Fr Martin Boland, has recently started blogging. Do take a look at his site: The Invisible Province.

Provincetown Harbor horizon just after dusk (folded) by Chris Devers.

I couldn't find an image of The Invisible Province, so here is Provincetown Harbour...

Here is his mission statement (I’m sure he would hate that phrase):

An attempt to map some of the features of the cultural landscape while challenging the current orthodoxy that culture and faith inevitably exist in opposition. The Invisible Province seeks to show that modern culture cannot sever itself from questions of transcendence and faith and nor can faith distance itself from culture. In surveying the fault lines between culture and faith, The Invisible Province reimagines this relationship and suggests avenues for mature dialogue.

Just to give you a taste of his writing, these lines come from his post about fashion designer Alexander McQueen:

But McQueen’s importance will not be based on his preoccupation with mortality or the tragic nature of his own death. His importance will lie in the fact that he could take a roll of fabric and in his mind’s eye, he could see how it might transform the human form: lengthen legs; broaden shoulders; pinch a waist. Combining this interior knowledge with his store of cultural references from history, religion and society made for new levels of creativity. McQueen understood that in societies where the visually crude and crass predominate, a garment of transforming beauty could still seduce us. Fashion, for a brief moment, could make us pause and wonder. His legacy is not death, but beauty.

And here is the opening paragraph of his review of the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain:

A common criticism levelled at contemporary artists is that they don’t know how to paint. Chris Ofili certainly does. The current retrospective at Tate Britain presents him as the most painterly of painters. His works are all about the sensual layering of paint; the celebration of virtuoso technique; the fusing of colour and pattern that calls to mind the printed textiles of Nigeria, Ofili’s ancestral home. Not content with exuberant brushwork, he decorates his works with an infectious rash of psychedelic ornamentation, a multi-coloured braille. Collaged magazine images and glitter fizz and spark. Images are sampled from popular black culture (the pimps, dealers and prostitutes of blaxploitation films) or religious iconography (the Virgin Mary, the Last Supper) and then mashed up on the canvas. And, somewhere, you will find the unmistakable signature of the artist: a lump of elephant dung elevated to the status of a modern totem. “[Using the dungballs is] a way of raising the paintings up from the ground,” explains Ofili, “and giving them a feeling that they’ve come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall.” In Ofili’s hip-hop aesthetic the beautiful and the degrading, the sacred and profane, history and culture bump and grind to a sweaty rhythm.

I think the blog will be well worth following.

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Berlin Wall 1987 by fjords.

The Berlin Wall 1987

The Church is often criticised, not just for being an institution with many weaknesses, but for being an institution full-stop. As if institutions by their very nature repress the human spirit and undermine authentic relationships.

Francis Fukayama writes about the reasons behind the successes and failures of recent democratic movements. I don’t know enough politics to judge whether all his analysis is correct, but the sociological point he makes about the importance of institutions is worth noting, for religion as much as for politics:

The collapse of the Orange Revolution should teach us that enduring democracy is not just a matter of ideas and political passions, but of concrete institutions embodying democratic values. It is also about the human agents who create them: the right leaders can make or break a transition to democracy.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago, there has been a huge disparity in post-communist outcomes. In Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and the Czech republic, there has been solid support for democratic, rule-of-law states that could qualify to join the European Union. In Russia, by contrast, there was huge disagreement after 1991 not just over whether the state should be democratic or authoritarian, but over the country’s borders, ethnic identity, and relations with neighbouring countries. So the single most important determinant of which countries would go on to become successful, stable liberal democracies was the degree of consensus in favour of strong new state institutions. [Spectator, 13 Feb 2010]

Values need embodying in institutions, in customs, in laws. Of course they can become ossified, and of course not all institutions are good institutions. But if you try and share your values without having an eye to how they can be carried forward in concrete practices, they will probably not take hold and endure.

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Sally by sally_monster.When I was about ten I became obsessed with Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the whole Peanuts comic strip. I still have a library of those paperback compilation books that I haven’t had the heart to part with.

One of the recurring scenes was of Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, standing in front of her class for a ‘show and tell’ session, when she had to bring in something interesting from her weekend or holiday and explain why it was so interesting.

I was talking to a primary school teacher last week. She told me that the fashion in schools these days is not ‘show and tell’, but to teach children to show without telling. They have to find ways of letting a story speak for itself, of letting a drama unfold, of leading listeners to a place where they can reach a conclusion or draw a moral for themselves.

It’s good that advertising executives in the film industry are learning the same lessons themselves, and realising that it is better to tease people in the trailers than to tell them everything about the forthcoming film. As Jane Graham writes:

[Until very recently] the vast majority of studio-financed trailer-makers have played it safe, their audience-tested trailers following the basic three-act rule of set-up, jeopardy and emotional- or action-based blow-out. Now, however, thanks mainly to that feral little monster, the internet, and one of its most recent and riotous offspring, the viral, there are strong signs of a creeping rebellion in trailer-making…

JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield trailer, released in July 2007, was a brilliant example of the latter. Shown in US cinemas before the blockbuster Transformers, this teaser used footage from what looked like a home movie featuring screaming, running crowds and explosions in New York. Flying in the face of the first commandment of film promo (consistently supported by market research) that the more the trailer explains and reveals, the more commercially effective it is, it was devoid of information and untitled – only a release date and the name of JJ Abrams appeared onscreen.

As David Stern suggests, the most significant impact that Rance’s “improv” virals have had on trailers has been to free them from a commitment to plot information. The best online trailers don’t go beyond “teaser” territory, needing only to intrigue, or even confuse, to set film fans off on a detective’s quest. This has allowed for some genuinely innovative and smart promo work, like the fake news report on Dr Manhattan that formed part of the alternative Watchmen universe, and the Coraline trailer in which Neil Gaiman gravely described the effects of koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, which set the tone for his script.

It’s better to tease than to tell. And it might mean that I don’t have to close my eyes and hum during the trailers to avoid having the plots revealed.

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I had an article published this weekend about the faith of Jean-Paul Sartre — his nominally Catholic upbringing, his atheistic philosophy, and the subtle shifts that took place in his thinking towards the end of his life.

Jean Paul Sartre y Simone de Beauvoir (lomo) by OscarDC.

The tomb of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Cimetière du Montparnasse

I can’t copy it all here, but here are a few lines about his early life:

Sartre was a Catholic. His mother didn’t have a strong faith, but she had him baptised. When his father died – Sartre was only 15 months old – he and his mother went to live with her parents. Sartre’s maternal grandmother was more involved with her faith, so there was some rhythm of church attendance and Mass-going for the young boy. He remembered the feeling that God was watching him all the time, especially when he was naughty; and the pain in his knees when he was forced to kneel in church.

But God gradually drifted out of his consciousness, and religious indifferentism became the background to his growing up. By the time of his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in 1945 he could say ‘existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position’. Much of this was posturing: he softens this statement in the lines that follow. Yet there is no doubt about the powerful and largely negative influence he had on the faith of many young Catholics in this period. I admire much of Sartre’s philosophy, but I am not naïve enough to think that his words or his lifestyle were simply a force for good in post-war European society.

Sartre was a notorious atheist, attacking a particular conception of God. It’s a shame that he didn’t go deeper in his exploration of how God was understood in the tradition of Christian philosophy and theology:

He had plenty of opportunities for discussion over the years. Catholic heavy-weights like Marcel, Maritain and Gilson were in dialogue with existentialism. Stalag XIID, his prisoner of war camp, was full of French priests, some of them serious thinkers. He gravitated to them as fellow intellectuals. They taught him Gregorian chant, and he gave them talks on Heidegger. If only it had been the other way round, and he had had a few existentialist drinking songs up his sleeve, to sing in exchange for some lectures on Aquinas’s understanding of God as Pure Act.

There were nevertheless some shifts that took place later in his life:

There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.

In these final philosophical reflections Sartre seems to repudiate much of his life’s work and embrace ideas such as the need for an objective morality, the transcendent end of the human person, and a quasi-messianic notion of how society can find perfection. When pressed, he insisted that these conversations did indeed express his opinions, and that they were not foisted upon him by Lévy.

I stayed in Paris for a French course a few years ago and went to visit his grave. He’s buried, now joined by Simone de Beauvoir, in the Montparnasse cemetery. I prayed for them both. I knew the story of a death-bed conversion was just a myth, but I also knew about the intellectual movement that went on in those later years. It gave me enough grounds to hope that he might, just possibly, have been open to the Lord’s mercy at the very end of his life, as he went to meet the One he had denied so many times. [The Tablet, 20 Feb 2010]

stalag xii d by duesentrieb.

Stalag XIID - the prisoner of war camp where Sartre conversed with many French priests

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I still hardly use Facebook. If I remember, I copy these posts onto my homepage. And if someone sends me a message, I try to reply. But being ‘the wrong side of 40′ most of my middle-aged friends still prefer email to social networking.

Nokia e61 smartphone by Ziębol.I used to console myself with the idea that Facebook is the past, and something new will soon step over the digital horizon. It seems I was wrong, and Facebook is actually the face of the future.

It’s not just that Facebook growth is still exponential (I don’t just mean large, I mean exponential: it’s rate of growth is going up; the number of active users doubled from 200 million last summer to this month’s 400 million). It’s that our personal identity, and our commercial identity, is becoming defined not by what we consume (shopping), or watch (TV), or search for (Google), but by what we connect with in real-time.

This is why mobile Facebook and all the new smartphone applications will shape the evolution of culture and human consciousness over the next decade. Blogging, by the way, is almost prehistoric by now.

David Rowan explains the background:

What we are witnessing is the ultimate battle for control of the internet. Google, employing the world’s smartest software engineers, has dominated the desktop-internet era for a decade through its unbeatable algorithm-based computing power. But now we’re into the mobile-internet era, Facebook intends to dominate by knowing what we are thinking, doing and intending to spend — wherever we happen to be. As Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg sees it, this “social graph”, built around our friends, family and colleagues, will determine how hundreds of millions of us decide on everything from holidays to cosmetic surgeons. And with Facebook the proprietary gatekeeper — its mobile-phone applications already attracting extraordinary engagement from members — that’s a potential advertiser proposition that Google can only dream of.

It’s not that Mr Zuckerberg is still only 25 and naively arrogant that annoys Google, nor that his company has enticed swaths of senior Google talent. It’s that Facebook’s fast-growing dominance of the “social” internet threatens its rival’s entire business model. If it can sell advertisers access not just to what you’re thinking, but to where you are, who you’re with and what you plan to do, Facebook’s revenues from individually targeted “behavioural” advertising could increase exponentially. And it knows it.

“Google is not representative of the future of technology in any way,” a Facebook veteran boasted to Wired recently. “Facebook is an advanced communications network enabling myriad communication forms. It almost doesn’t make sense to compare them.”

Mr Zuckerberg’s human-powered view of the internet also taps into our yearning, as social creatures, to climb Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to attain self-actualisation: of the 400 million active Facebook users (up from 200 million last summer), half log on in any given day; they share five billion pieces of content a week and upload more than three billion photos each month. On average, they spend more than 55 minutes a day on Facebook. Those who access it via their mobile devices are “twice as active”. Now do you see why the search gurus in Google’s Mountain View headquarters are so anxious?

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It’s been running for a few weeks now, but I haven’t yet highlighted the email subscription option for this blog. It’s in the right-hand column, near the top. Just leave your email address, and each new post gets sent to your inbox.

Inbox Art by 10ch.

This will save you endless worry and heartache about which posts you might be missing, and whether you are reading them hot off the press or not. And the email comes with all the images, links and comment options – so it gives you the full online experience.

Of course I am only suggesting this to those strange people out there who are trying to fill their inboxes rather than empty them.

Inbox 1790 by Tidewater Muse.

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It’s Ash Wednesday – another excuse, if any were needed, to post about human origins. After all the festivities of Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras, we approach the priest on this first day of Lent to have our foreheads marked with ashes. The traditional words spoken at this point are: ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ (The priest standing next to me this morning as we distributed the ashes, a former Carthusian monk of a venerable age, used the Latin phrase that was still lodged in his memory: ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’.)

I was connecting this with last week’s philosophical anthropology lecture about human origins. Much is still unclear, scientifically, but one of the fascinating discoveries is that human beings who are anatomically modern emerged in pre-history many thousands of years before there is any evidence of characteristically modern human behaviour.

So you can find homo sapiens skeletons from about 200,000 years ago, and in terms of their anatomy there is hardly any difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’. If a crowd of such homo sapiens came towards you on a summer’s afternoon you’d say, ‘Look, there are some human beings’.

Dame de Brassempouy: le visage haut de 3,6 centimètres (reproduction)  by fredpanassac.

The "Dame de Brassempouy", perhaps the first representation of the human face, from about 25,000 years ago

But the evidence for modern human behaviours comes much later, sometime between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago (we are not sure exactly). Only in this period do we begin to see the cognitive leap that gives us our name (homo sapiens, wise-rational man), so that by the time of our Cro-Magnon ancestors in the upper paleolithic period (about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago) there is an astounding proliferation of new behaviours. The pattern of intermittent innovation is gone, replaced by revolutionary advances: sophisticated hunting and fishing tools; elaborate architectural designs constructed with mammoth bones; kilns that could bake clay statuettes to 800 degrees Farenheit; decorated bone tools; elaborate burial sites filled with grave goods; the well-known cave art from central France; and – my favourite – a multi-holed bone flute from some 30,000 years ago.

The question is: What happened? And why is there this lag between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and what we think of as modern intelligence and creativity? There are three possibilities: (1) The intelligence was there in potential, but some other factor needed to develop in order for it to be released; (2) the intelligence was working away, gradually, as human culture developed and human wisdom accumulated, and the revolutionary consequences of this would only become apparent, with their archaeological evidence, over a hundred thousand years later; or (3) something else happened to allow the emergence of creatures we would recognise, behaviourally as well as anatomically, as full-blown homo sapiens – people we could call our brothers and sisters.

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