Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Coming to terms with the Antipodean Fallacy

Here in the grim upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere where the low grey clouds oppress the spirit and the most dangerous animal a philosopher might encounter on a typical day is a Harlequin Ladybird, it is very easy to imagine that there is no such thing as The Real World. 

However, in the scorching heat of the Australian desert where the terrain, the flora and the fauna have all been out-competing each other in the viciousness stakes for Millennia, the philosophers tend to assume that the world is real and start their musings from there without bothering to establish it. This is known as the Antipodean Fallacy. Or so I was led to believe by a lecturer at the University of East Anglia. When I came to google the phrase as research for this post, I found out that, until now, those two words have never been put together on the whole of the internet. 

Skeptics have been doubting the existence of The Real World since Zeno of Elea noticed that a running man could not reach his destination because he would have to cross half the remaining distance an infinite number of times. A solution to this paradox can be found here, but it may hurt your eyes.

Descartes managed to doubt everything except the fact that he was doubting and then confusingly attempted to rebuild all knowledge from that foundation of doubt - with a little help from God (he was after all an Early Modern Philosopher).

These sorts of ideas have held an immense appeal for me since I was a teenager. I thought: let's start at the beginning with "What is it possible to know?"  Anyway, turns out the answer is "Not very much."  Even Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum" has been watered down by subsequent thinkers to something along the lines of "there was a thought".  And I don't think we are going to be able to deduce rice pudding and income tax (let alone all knowledge) from a remark as wet as that one.

So maybe the Australians have got it right? Perhaps a better starting point is to adopt the Antipodean Fallacy and ask: "What is it possible to know about the Real World?" The answer is probably: "Not bloody much, mate?" 

Friday, 11 November 2011

On the false duality of optimism and pessimism.

Once, in a science lesson in school, I innocently described a beaker or test-tube or something as half-empty and my lab partners leaped upon my choice of phrase to brand me as a pessimist.  The use of the phrase alone seemed to make one a pessimist, regardless of the circumstances - forget that I was describing a copper sulphate solution (or some-such) not a pint of beer. I thought this a little unfair. Even describing a pint of beer as half empty should not exclude one from optimism. Compare:

This pint of Guinness is half empty - better get another one settling. 

Anyone want another one? Not you, Finnginn, yours is still half full.

The optimist/pessimist distinction has been bothering me recently as I'm starting to see it as a particularly good example of what Jacques Derrida (in one of his saner rants) might describe as a false duality. Are we really one thing or the other or are they just unhelpfully stark labels to pin on the complex human behaviour of thinking about the future. 

Generally, I am optimistic about my prospects for the following day: Have a lie-in, break my fast leisurely, write a thousand words (ha!), wander off to meet friends/go to work, glass of wine/hot chocolate before bed and repeat being my recipe for the perfect life.

However, I am pessimistic about the future of humankind. Whenever I think about the far future - I see catastrophe. Not in a Cassandra/Nostradamus weird prophetic way. There is a logic behind my pessimism that goes something like this: You can't avoid an apocalyptic event forever.  Even if we survive the immediate threats that we could actually do something about (e.g. nuclear holocaust, global warming, overpopulation, pathogen immunity to antibiotics and the sudden disappearance of all the bees) which seems drastically unlikely, we still have all the threats about which we can do little or nothing (asteroid strikes, super volcanoes, gamma ray bursts, the Sun's expansion and ultimately the heat death of the Universe). At some point there is going to be a pretty fucking miserable generation of humans.

But even within this pessimistic tapestry, I want to weave a thread of optimism. For humanity I hope, even as it destroys itself, will find time to grieve and love and laugh.  It is this theme that I have been attempting to address in these notes I have made for a work-in-progress poem in the apocalypse genre: 

We looked East to the blackening sky,
Behind us the clouds were turning red.
The floor, with her tortured silhouette,
Tattooed forever on my mind.
The fear hit us on the sickening breeze
And we hid by day and spent our nights
In search of dust-free sustenance.
Made defiant love. Coughed up blood.
You marched us miles on weakening limbs,
Made smiles glimmer on our blistered lips,
Lit fire when cold left us shivering.
Now all is starless, moonless night. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Everybody loves a good pantoum (except, apparently, the blogger spellchecker which has underlined it in an ugly red squiggly line.  But seeing as how it doesn't even recognise its autobackformed verb 'to spellcheck', I don't think we need to take its opinion very seriously).

Warning: there will be some name-dropping of some British poets in the following paragraphs. 

I was introduced to the pantoum by Simon Armitage in 1994 and wrote maybe a dozen or so over the following decade. Many of the early ones did not survive the infestation of mice in my bedside cabinet while I was away travelling in the late Nineties. But this one (the second I ever wrote, if memory serves) illustrates pretty neatly where I was at, in terms of pantoum composition, at the age of 14 - it's pretty cringey in parts and suffers from the appalling naming problem I lamented here, but ends with a run-on that, half a lifetime later, I'm still absurdly proud of.

Human Rights Frustration

In the dark, with a knife, in the moonlight, it gleams.
'A life for a life,' the Sun headline screams,
'How many killers have had life then gone free?'
How many people executed wrongly?
'A life for a life,' the Sun headline screams.
They all think that's fair (except me, it seems)
How many people executed wrongly?
How many locked up with a thrown away key?
They all think that's fair (except me, it seems)
But who listens to me? My views are extreme.
How many locked up with a thrown away key?
It's an innocent life, but you can't fucking see.
But who listens to me? My views are extreme.
'How many killers have had life then gone free?'
It's an innocent life, but you can't fucking see
In the dark, with a knife, in the moonlight, it gleams.

Those of you who know me can probably see why I'm so drawn to the pantoum format.  The compulsory repetitions make it a bit like solving a crossword puzzle.  The pantoum writer constantly has to ask himself: 'How can I make this make sense in both bits of the poem?' And, as the above example demonstrates, frequently he fails.  But occasionally you get a moment of sublime satisfaction (like the '...can't fucking see / In the dark...' run-on) that makes the whole enterprise thoroughly worthwhile.

Anyway, skip forward 12 years to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in summer 2006.  I was sitting eating my breakfast and had switched on the news to the images of air-raids and bombing runs that precede any modern war.  I was filled with an intense self-loathing for the ennui I felt about war-reporting.  How I wasn't at all shocked by exploding buildings or wailing mothers or refugees.  How it all seemed like a steady repetitive backdrop to the last decade of my life.  From the bombing of Sarajevo, when I really cared and would shout to anybody who would listen about Thomas Deichman, Fikret Ali, and ITN's libel case against left-wing magazine LM.  To that moment when I thought - 'I don't want to watch more war, I wonder if Shipwrecked is on.'  

And then it occurred to me: '...steady repetitive backdrop... a pantoum would be the perfect form to reflect these emotions!'

So here it is:

Live in your Living Room

Now that we can watch them making war
On CNN, Sky News and Channel Four
The missiles don't rain 'Shock and Awe'
Just daily deaths in blood and gore.
On CNN, Sky News and Channel Four,
The journalists are keeping score
Of daily deaths in blood and gore
For us - who've seen it all before.
The journalists are keeping score
Of bodies in a foreign war
For us - who've seen it all before.
But do we ask what the fighting's for?
For bodies in a foreign war
The missiles don't rain 'Shock and Awe'.
But do we ask what the fighting's for
Now that we can watch them making war?