Humanity unleashed

Reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A hopeful history for New Scientist, 10 June 2020

In 1651 English philosopher Thomas Hobbes startled the world with Leviathan, an account of the good and evil lurking in human nature. Hobbes argued that people, left to their own devices, were naturally viscious. (Writing in the aftermath of Europe’s cataclysmic Thirty Years War, the evidence was all around.) Ultimately, though, Hobbes’s vision was positive. Humans are also naturally gregarious. Gathering in groups, eventually we become more together than we were apart. We become villages, societies, whole civilisations.

Hobbes’ argument can be taken in two ways. We can glory in what we have built over the course of generations. Or we can live in terror of that future moment when the thin veneer of our civilisation cracks and lets all the devils out.

Even as I was writing this review, I came across the following story. In April, at the height of the surge in coronavirus cases, Americans purchased more guns than at any other point since the FBI began collecting data over 20 years ago. I would contend that these are not stupid people. They are, I suspect, people who have embraced a negatively Hobbesian view of the world, and are expecting the apocalypse.

Belief in innate human badness is self-fulfilling. (Bregman borrows from medical jargon and calls it a nocebo: a negative expectation that make one’s circumstances progressively worse.) And we do seem to try everything in our power to think the worst of ourselves. For instance, we give our schoolchildren William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies to read (and fair enough — it’s a very good book) but nobody thinks to mention that the one time boys really were trapped on a desert island for over a year — on a rocky Polynesian atoll without fresh water, in 1965 — they survived, stayed fit and healthy, successfully set a lad’s broken leg, and formed friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Before Bregman came along you couldn’t even find this story on the internet.

From this anecdotal foundation, Bregman assembles his ferocious argument, demolishing one Hobbesian shibboleth after another. Once the settlers of Easter Island had chopped down all the trees on their island (the subject of historian Jared Diamond’s bestelling 2011 book Collapse), their civilisation did not fall apart. It thrived — until European voyagers arrived, bringing diseases and the slave trade. When Catherine Susan Genovese was murdered in New York City on 13 March 1964 (the notorious incident which added the expression “bystander effect” to the psychological lexicon), her neighbours did not watch from out of their windows and do nothing. They called the police. Her neighbour rushed out into the street and held her while she was dying.

Historians and reporters can’t be trusted; neither, alas, can scientists. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, conducted in August 1971, was supposed to have spun out of control in less than two days, as students playing prison guards set about abusing and torturing fellow students cast in the role of prisoners. Almost everything that has been written about the experiment is not merely exaggerated, it’s wrong. When in 2001 the BBC restaged the experiment, the guards and the prisoners spent the whole time sitting around drinking tea together.

Bregman also discusses the classic “memory” experiment by Stanley Milgram, in which a volunteer is persuaded to electrocute a person nearly to death (an actor, in fact, and in on the wheeze). The problem here is less the experimental design and more the way the experiment was intepreted.

Early accounts took the experiment to mean that people are robots, obeying orders unthinkingly. Subsequent close study of the transcripts shows something rather different: that people are desperate to do the right thing, and their anxiety makes them frighteningly easy to manipulate.

If we’re all desperate to be good people, then we need a new realism when it comes to human nature. We can’t any longer assume that because we are good, those who oppose us must be bad. We must learn to give people a chance. We must learn to stop manipulating people the whole time. From schools to prisons, from police forces to political systems, Bregman visits projects around the world that, by behaving in ways that can seem surreally naive, have resolved conflicts, reformed felons, encouraged excellence and righted whole economies.

This isn’t an argument between left and right, between socialist and conservative; it’s but about what we know about human nature and how we can accommodate a better model of it into our lives. With Humankind Bregman moves from politics, his usual playground, into psychological, even spiritual territory. I am fascinated to know where his journey will lead.

 

“I heard the rustling of the dress for two whole hours”

By the end of the book I had come to understand why kindness and cruelty cannot vanquish each other, and why, irrespective of our various ideas about social progress, our sexual and gender politics will always teeter, endlessly and without remedy, between “Orwellian oppression and the Hobbesian jungle”…

Reading Strange Antics: A history of seduction by Clement Knox, 1 February 2020

Tyrants and geometers

Reading Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical by Amir Alexander (Scientific American) for the Telegraph, 7 November 2019

The fall from grace of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s superintendant of finances, was spectacular and swift. In 1661 he held a fete to welcome the king to his gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The affair was meant to flatter, but its sumptuousness only served to convince the absolutist monarch that Fouquet was angling for power. “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France,” Voltaire observed; “at two in the morning he was nobody.”

Soon afterwards, Fouquet’s gardens were grubbed up in an act, not of vandalism, but of expropriation: “The king’s men carefully packed the objects into crates and hauled them away to a marshy town where Louis was intent on building his own dream palace,” the Israeli-born US historian Amir Alexander tells us. “It was called Versailles.”

Proof! explains how French formal gardens reflected, maintained and even disseminated the political ideologies of French monarchs. from “the Affable” Charles VIII in the 15th century to poor doomed Louis XVI, destined for the guillotine in 1793. Alexander claims these gardens were the concrete and eloquent expression of the idea that “geometry was everywhere and structured everything — from physical nature to human society, the state, and the world.”

If you think geometrical figures are abstract artefacts of the human mind, think again. Their regularities turn up in the natural world time and again, leading classical thinkers to hope that “underlying the boisterous chaos and variety that we see around us there may yet be a rational order, which humans can comprehend and even imitate.”

It is hard for us now to read celebrations of nature into the rigid designs of 16th century Fontainebleau or the Tuileries, but we have no problem reading them as expressions of political power. Geometers are a tyrant’s natural darlings. Euclid spent many a happy year in Ptolemaic Egypt. King Hiero II of Syracuse looked out for Archimedes. Geometers were ideologically useful figures, since the truths they uncovered were static and hierarchical. In the Republic, Plato extols the virtues of geometry and advocates for rigid class politics in practically the same breath.

It is not entirely clear, however, how effective these patterns actually were as political symbols. Even as Thomas Hobbes was modishly emulating the logical structure of Euclid’s (geometrical) Elements in the composition of his (political) Leviathan (demonstrating, from first principles, the need for monarchy), the Duc de Saint-Simon, a courtier and diarist, was having a thoroughly miserable time of it in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles: “the violence everywhere done to nature repels and wearies us despite ourselves,” he wrote in his diary.

So not everyone was convinced that Versailles, and gardens of that ilk, revealed the inner secrets of nature.

Of the strictures of classical architecture and design, Alexander comments that today, “these prescriptions seem entirely arbitrary”. I’m not sure that’s right. Classical art and architecture is beautiful, not merely for its antiquity, but for the provoking way it toys with the mechanics of visual perception. The golden mean isn’t “arbitrary”.

It was fetishized, though: Alexander’s dead right about that. For centuries, Versailles was the ideal to which Europe’s grand urban projects aspired, and colonial new-builds could and did out-do Versailles, at least in scale. Of the work of Lutyens and Baker in their plans for the creation of New Delhi, Alexander writes: “The rigid triangles, hexagons, and octagons created a fixed, unalterable and permanent order that could not be tampered with.”

He’s setting colonialist Europe up for a fall: that much is obvious. Even as New Delhi and Saigon’s Boulevard Norodom and all the rest were being erected, back in Europe mathematicians Janos Bolyai, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Bernhard Riemann were uncovering new kinds of geometry to describe any curved surface, and higher dimensions of any order. Suddenly the rigid, hierarchical order of the Euclidean universe was just one system among many, and Versailles and its forerunners went from being diagrams of cosmic order to being grand days out with the kids.

Well, Alexander needs an ending, and this is as good a place as any to conclude his entertaining, enlightening, and admirably well-focused introduction to a field of study that, quite frankly, is more rabbit-hole than grass.

I was in Washington the other day, sweating my way up to the Lincoln Memorial. From the top I measured the distance, past the needle of the Washington Monument, to Capitol Hill. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant built all this: it’s a quintessential product of the Versailles tradition. Alexander calls it “nothing less than the Constitutional power structure of the United States set in stone, pavement, trees, and shrubs.”

For nigh-on 250 years tourists have been slogging from one end of the National Mall to the other, re-enacting the passion of the poor Duc de Saint-Simon in Versailles, who complained that “you are introduced to the freshness of the shade only by a vast torrid zone, at the end of which there is nothing for you but to mount or descend.”

Not any more, though. Skipping down the steps, I boarded a bright red electric Uber scooter and sailed electrically east toward Capitol Hill. The whole dignity-dissolving charade was made possible (and cheap) by map-making algorithms performing geometrical calculations that Euclid himself would have recognised. Because the ancient geometer’s influence on our streets and buildings hasn’t really vanished. It’s been virtualised. Algorithmized. Turned into a utility.

Now geometry’s back where it started: just one more invisible natural good.

Just experience it

Visiting mumok, Vienna’s museum of contemporary art, for New Scientist, 23 December 2017

Visitors to Vienna’s spectacular Natural History Museum may discover some taxidermied exhibits smothered in black gloop. This is artist Mark Dion’s The Tar Museum, and it is part of Natural Histories: Traces of the Political, an art exhibition about nature and politics, most of which is in the nearby museum of contemporary art, mumok.

Those venturing across the Maria-Theresien-Platz will not be sorry. Or not at first. Early on, there is charming, sometimes beautiful documentation of work in the 1970s by the Romanian Sigma group. Inspired by research in bionics and cybernetics, mathematician Lucian Codreanu and his fellows applied scientific method to their observations of the rivers and woods of the Timisoara hunting forest. Doru Tulcan’s abstract sculpture Structuring the Cube makes something surprisingly organic, suggestive of the workings of a crayfish’s eye, from a tiny vocabulary of rods and triangles. Meanwhile, Stefan Bertalan’s Structure of the Elderflower earns its place by virtue of its exquisite draughtsmanship. This being the 1970s, the Sigma group also enjoyed a lot of more-or-less undressed mucking about, and became a focus of dissent against Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship.

The other artists, groups and movements in this show rarely achieved as direct an engagement with the natural world.

Many pieces here index human activity through changes in the environment. The models and photographs of Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s Debrisphere record how landscapes have been altered for military purposes. More often, though, the art focuses on how nature encroaches on human settlement. In Arena, Anri Sala records the decayed state of Tirana zoo, with feral dogs occupying a space meant for people, while the zoo’s “wild” animals languish in cages.

Nature’s eradication of human traces can’t come quickly enough in some cases. In 2003, Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka visited Auschwitz and filmed deer grazing by the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp. A wall board observes that, in 1942 (when Bambi was released), “while cinemagoers were shedding tears about the emotional story of a little deer, the ‘final solution’ and the murder of millions of people was already being planned”. This is silly: would the world be any better if Bambi’s bereavement left us unmoved?

It gets worse. Exquisite allegorical frescoes by 18th-century artist Johann Wenzel Bergl are “recognizable as strategies of absolutist picture propaganda”. And back with Dion: one installation capturing “the lifestyle and self-image of the prototypical ethnographer of colonial times”, isn’t even that, according to the curators, but alludes “to our own imagination of that ethnographer”.

I left feeling rather as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have felt if, instead of freely stepping through the mirror, she had been shoved through it from behind by a gang of goonish anthropologists.

Natural Histories is a portal into a world where history, politics, horror, guilt and the natural world are sewn together. It is well worth seeing, but I wish the curators had shut up.

A grin without a cat

What happens to a body of artistic work when its presiding genius dies? It’s hard to imagine anyone finds it hard to hold in mind the cumulative effect of the works of J G Ballard, say, or even Dame Barbara Cartland. Mythomanes are, above all else, consistent.

But it’s consistency that matters – not personality. While he lived, the writer-artist-filmmaker Derek Jarman practically personified British metropolitan intellectual life. But it was his living personality that held his wildly varied (and variable) world together. Within a couple of months of his death, those of us who’d rated him were beginning to avoid making eye contact: day by day, the pleasures we had shared were ceasing to make any sense.

Time will heal Jarman’s reputation, but very slowly – and I think the work of Chris Marker – the videos, the writings, the photographs, the documentaries, the films, the CD-ROMs, the installations and all the rest of it – is likely to require as long a recuperation.

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The Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London has put together a tremendous retrospective of the life and work of the French artist and documentary maker, who died in 2012. But the experience, as you move dumbfounded from screen to glass case to screen to keyboard, is neither one of pleasure, nor even admiration. In fact it’s cumulatively disturbing.

How can none of this mean anything any more? Is it the gallery, or is it you? (It’s you.) Even Marker’s filmed photo roman La Jetee (the easy one, the entry text, the one that got turned into Twelve Monkeys) slithers over your eyes as slick and as cold as an eel. Are you having some sort of stroke?

 

Alain Resnais called Marker “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man” and he wasn’t kidding. Marker was Mr Media Saturation, the living incarnation of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. His video mash-ups didn’t just capture the future. They somehow made it inevitable.

And that, of course, is the trouble. We are living in Marker’s world now, just as surely as we are living in Jarman’s. It’s damned hard to map a forest when you’ve been dropped slap-bang in the middle of it.

Feel your way, purblind, from one wall-mounted explanatory text to another. Most are in Marker’s own words. He understands your pain. He even gives it a name: “the megalomanic melancholy in the browsing of past images.”

For now, at least, Marker, the unwitting and posthumous author of his own explanatory texts, lives more fully and more vividly than his work, his subjects, his photographs of 1968, and students demonstrating against “a largely imaginary fascism”.

“In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats,” he writes. “But you don’t choose your time.”

from HOW TO LIKE EVERYTHING by Paul Shepheard

For a hundred days, between July and October 2009, the empty fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square was occupied, an hour at a time, by selected members of the public. The author of this ruse was the artist Antony Gormley; he allowed his successful applicants to do anything they wanted while they were up there, and to take anything with them that they could carry unaided.

The other day, I came across this passage, from Paul Shepheard’s excellent crypto-Utopian novel How to Like Everything:

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The real story was in the plinth itself. To stop this man and all the others hurting themselves a huge safety net supported on steel beams and painted grey like the ones they have on aircraft carriers to catch overshooting planes was attached to the plinth. I think that was the real sculpture, that net. It was made out of the problem of democracy – which is that it starts out as the means of collective action against oppression and then abruptly runs out of steam. Democracy has no value in itself, it is made of the will of the majority, whatever it is at the time. It is a way of dealing with everything, but it is a utility, not a vision. To think of it as a vision results in a thousand regulations surrounding every action, because ultimately democracy depends on the law. That safety net was an example of the art of the law.