Monthly Archives: June 2012

Postmodern Practitioner vs. Objectivist Superman

So firstly, I’ve totally neglected this blog before it even really got going – sorry. Had four job interviews in the last 2 weeks, so not really been devoting much, if any, time to anything I might feel remotely guilty about doing because, shock horror, I enjoy it.

That said, because I just can’t get the whole ‘interview process’ out of my head, I’m actually going to blog about it, though vicariously enough that it isn’t boring for y’all.

So I’ve had a couple of interviews at a great agency now, and for the second one I was asked to talk about 5 things I’m passionate about. In thinking about what 5 things I would talk about, I got to thinking about what fascinates me most and, more importantly, why that is.

I have always had a tendency to ‘overthink’ things, although I don’t think anything can ever be over-thought, with a particular focus on people and personalities. I’ve suffered from a fascination with ‘big’ personalities for as long as I can remember, yet until recently thought that this was a product of being overly open to the idea of the cult of personality, married with a tendency to root out meaning in anything I see or read. Reading the books of Ayn Rand, however, allowed me to see a bigger picture with regards to where this fascination with personality and character comes from. I realise that the previous sentence effectively just invalidated everything I’m about to write in the eyes of many people, like when you think you’re having a reasonable conversation with someone in the street and they turn out to be a racist. But hear me out; since this interview I’ve got a good way in to ‘Atlas Shrugged’, having previously only read ‘Anthem’ and ‘The Fountainhead’, and my view of Rand is now somewhat less rosy. (edit – 9.10.12 – my relationship with Ayn is on indefinite hiatus since getting 2 books into ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and deciding to take a little break because, well, life’s too short to read the same conversation between the same two vile characters for 1300 pages. ‘The Fountainhead’ is still the best book I’ve ever read, though.)

Anyway, I talked about 5 things – Ayn Rand’s thinking, Morrissey, Woody Allen, Bret Easton Ellis and Kanye West.

These 5 things have one unifying theme; that of understanding the self, and the world, on a higher, post-modern, plane.

The Fountainhead is a genuinely great novel, and I don’t think I’ve ever so obsessively analysed every sentence of an 800-odd page book before. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rand says on the subjects of objectivism and libertarianism, and I also think that parts of her argument are inherently flawed, but the overarching message of the book really challenged some of the things I’d accepted as concrete in my worldview. The Fountainhead, in many ways, is anathema to postmodernism, with its unwavering focus on reason over and above a re-thinking of the structure of humanity as being based on no solidly defined rules. However, the central message of the book; that of achieving excellence in your field without any outside influence or interference, and without your means becoming your end, ties in very nicely with the ideal of a ‘post-modern practitioner’. The role of a post-modern practitioner is to bring the avant garde into the present; shaking the foundations of accepted society in much the same way as Howard Roark’s buildings did. The reduction and crystallisation of human emotion into characters that embody those ideals demonstrates the ultimate in individualistic postmodernism – the sacrifice of the ‘self’, at least publicly, in order to demonstrate something bigger and more important.

Morrissey is one of the most divisive figures in modern music, a personality whose strong personality means a variety of different things to different people. But the real pull of Morrissey, speaking as an avid fan, is the mystique of his hyperbolic character. Those who love Morrissey can see him for that – his comments about Norway, veganism, the royal family etc etc., come, most certainly, from a real place, but are exaggerated and overblown in a way that fits the role of more than just a sad, lonely man. Moreover, the emotion and feeling behind his lyrics is simultaneously specific and incredibly broad at the same time; allowing fans to feel included and spoken to without actually saying anything overly specific about individuals. That’s because Morrissey understands, at a cellular level, the hopes and fears of modern man and, importantly, knows how to effectively translate that into verse. Morrissey crystallises these universal truths in his lyrics but, more importantly, crystallises all of the neuroses and worries of modern man in himself. Through taking the mundane and the normal, and dramatizing them into the personal strife of an impossibly miserable human, what he actually achieves is a personified discourse on the hopes and fears of life itself.

Woody Allen, similarly, inhabits a character, albeit an even more complex one. The ultimate postmodern icon, Allen has effectively made 40+ films with himself as a central character; a neurotic, exasperated intellectual searching for some form of companionship. None of his characters are radically different, but each one demonstrates those central concerns in one form or another (interestingly, Allen projects this character onto all of his characters, whether female or male, adult or child). The ultimate issue that Allen embodies is the quest for a ‘foil’ of the opposite sex; one who is thoughtful and culturally sensitive, but who is not tied down by a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, personality. The ‘companionship framework’ that Allen has created for his character is both similar to, and radically different from, what he wants, inhabiting both genuine and ersatz credibility and knowledge; inhabiting a catch-22 in which the mate he desires will only become clear through being that which repels him. In this way he demonstrates, again, a more universal desire, however impossible it may seem, or how unpleasant it may be in reality, to find somebody that very closely shares your personality. His character demonstrates the complicated puzzle of distinct human personalities – however simple it may seem to find someone ‘like you’, the improbability of someone whose hundreds upon hundreds of personality tropes even 50% match your own is enormous. Especially when you’re as complex as Woody Allen; and as deeply shrouded within a character projection.

Bret Easton Ellis is one of the most celebrated postmodern writers working today (although Christ knows how much that will change if he does, indeed, pen the screen adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey), creating complex layers of characterisation both within and without his literary output. Similar to Allen, Ellis writes a version of himself in every book, or at least an extreme extension of a human emotion or desire. Yet, further to that, Ellis himself embodies a character outside of his books – his interesting tendency to throw in anecdotal tales in interviews, often with little or no basis in truth, further builds on the mystique of the man. These are not the lies of a pathological psychopath, like James Frey, but little tidbits that are not to be taken as truth, or at least not by those who understand the narrative that Ellis is weaving through his life. Lunar Park, especially, creates a closeness between his work and his life, leading people to question what is true and what isn’t. However, in a postmodern sense, it’s irrelevant – what matters are the questions that we ask ourselves about our ‘dark side’, and what the process of framing those questions says about us. Ellis moves incrementally through illogical extremes of humanity throughout his books – from an involvement in, and ultimate rejection of, teenage decadence, through apathetic promiscuity and up to violent torture and murder, Ellis puts himself out there as a universal cypher, representing the destruction of innocence that comes with age, as well as the preoccupation with extreme violence that has propelled humanity throughout our evolution.

Finally, and perhaps most strangely, is Kanye West. Many people posit Lady GaGa as the ultimate in postmodern pop icons, but I’ve never quite been able to work out what point her character is trying to make, other than ‘you can be weird’. Also, those people need to read a book or something. Seriously, that woman. Anyway, Kanye updates the age old concept of the hip-hop exaggerated icon into something wholly new and much less masculine. Since its inception, hip hop has created characters that flaunt hypermasculinity – they’re over-tough, over-masculine and not necessarily intended to be taken at face value. Much like the rock stars of roughly the same time, who exaggerated decadence and sexual aggression to its most illogical apex, the act was never really one to be taken at face value, but one on which their followers could project their own fantasies. As the genre that has, arguably, developed most in the last 25 years or so, the development of hip hop ‘characters’ has had to evolve too. Kanye’s character is layered beyond just the tough exterior – his public persona is less tough guy and more super-arrogant, mega-rich superstar, who really only cares about money and women, and really doesn’t give a shit what people think about him. Yet listening to his music, and seeing him perform live, shows a layer deeper than that; somebody incredibly insecure, who would, quite literally, fall apart without the fame and adulation – at once confessional and in denial, pissed off for admitting his weakness yet desperate to tell everyone about it. In so being, Kanye highlights and exaggerates the dualism at the heart of everyone, and the notion that fame or no fame, nobody is entirely secure or happy with their ‘lot’.

All of these people engage with postmodernism on a very real level – all filtering social angst, societal worry, things that encompass all of humanity rather than just individuals, through individual characters dealing with individual situations. Though they may deny it, they use emotion, feeling etc. as a tool to communicate a deeper truth, sacrificing their own personality on the altar of a deeper meaning. This fulfils both the role of postmodern practitioner and Randian (is that a word?), objectivist ideal – their ‘character’ personalities are powerful because they concern themselves only with excellence, in the sense that only through excellence can their characters truly engage the audience. They have made their own soul. Each of these people demonstrates a higher way of thinking and being. Celebrity culture is all built around character building, but often that character is created by Machiavellian forces rather than by themselves, and rarely is there any depth to the character beyond PR. The 5 people I have talked about all demonstrate that life can be viewed, and lived, as a complex game, enabling and richer and deeper understanding of existence and seeing the world in multiple dimensions. “Their ends”, so says Ayn Rand, “have not become their means.”.

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The Population’s Age is Growing, so Why Isn’t the Budget?

An article on the Guardian Healthcare Network today highlights the way in which Japan deals with the issue of an ageing population, an issue that healthcare companies in the UK are desperately trying to address.

Japan runs a ‘parallel scheme’, encompassing both regular medical care and social care for the elderly. Bear in mind that, in Japan, a baby girl can be expected to live to 86, a boy, 79, yet they manage to take care of their increasingly aged population with lower healthcare expenditure than the UK and Germany. This is, partly, attributable to Japan’s handle on costs being vice-like in comparison to the UK’s “chuck money in a sieve and see what we’ve got left in 10 years” approach. But the real masterstroke here is Japan’s Long Term Care Insurance System. The LTCI effectively creates a compromise position between families and the state in looking after the elderly – from the age of 40, everyone pays a little bit into the scheme and then, come the age of 65, you suddenly have a menu of social care assistance that you can take advantage of. Both families and the health system feel a relief on the burden of social care; hospital stays are reduced, and expenditure on the parts of both the family and the hospital is mitigated. Some charges are added, such as for ‘residential’ stays, but these are means tested.

The world economic climate at the moment, naturally, pushes any kind of scheme like this into the cold light of scrutiny, but it’s hard to believe, with expenditure in Japan so much lower than here, that a social care solution could be achieved any better. Without sounding too partisan, it’s also hard to believe that Andrew Lansley will come up with anything better. The population is ageing. Fact. We don’t really have a choice here; we have to do something.

What Japan has achieved is what we really need to focus on – breaking down the distinctions between different types of care. Health problems, whether age-related, physical or mental, all need to be addressed equally and without prejudice. They also need to be met through equal discourse between the population and the government, both locally and nationally.

The elderly, benefitting from home price increases, are sitting on a great deal of potential equity, but there is no robust method by which they can access that capital – capital that could contribute greatly to a scheme such as LTCI. The increased, and ever-increasing, age of the population is something that everybody is starting to worry about, but not necessarily addressing. In Japan, the LTCI scheme begins taking payments at the age of 40; if we were to start that planning ourselves, then we can avoid seeing the problems in our old age that the current elderly population are facing now. The unavoidable truth is that social care, whether packaged on an equal footing with all other elements of care (and with a redistribution of the, currently, way unequal healthcare budget) or seen as a separate section with a separate budget, needs more money. The Dilnot Commission, whose findings were published last year, proposes a similar scheme to LTCI; means tested payments coming from those who need nursing care, but when and if this will come into effect is still very much in question.

The question of where to find the money for a fairer social care budget needs to be answered, and answered soon – just as Japan did 12 years ago.

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Off the Beat(nik)en Track

The ‘powers that be’ at WordPress HQ recommend that I take the opportunity, with this tepid tippie-toe into blogging, to tell everyone why I’m doing it and what I’m all about.

I think the best way to explain that is to tell you about how and why I started listening to jazz.

I’m not a huge jazz afficionado, and it took me a long time to work out how to fit my brain into a type of music so entirely different from what I usually like. That’s the thing about jazz; it’s the ultimate expression of avant-garde music, and yet people who profess to love the experimental stylings of, say, Animal Collective or Pere Ubu just can’t wrap their psyche around the beautiful, and exponentially more interesting, music of Charles Mingus or Miles Davis.

Right from school, when I started to get itchy feet about how many more variations of rock song formation I could realistically get excited about, I had always tried to ‘get into’ jazz. I’m certain a huge part of that was to be the guy who liked jazz in sixth form. I never was. Instead, I discovered the rich and rewarding world of hip-hop, which slaked my thirst for something without strings for a good while.

At university, a very, very dear friend of mine who lived directly above me was an avid jazz nerd fan, and I gave my utmost to listen to his collection and enjoy it. But it didn’t happen. Records I can’t listen to enough now, particularly Miles Davis’ ‘In a Silent Way’, just didn’t grab me at all. I did, however, (if he’s reading this) love waking up in the morning to jazz coming out of his open window. That’s not sarcastic, it was a genuinely nice way to wake up. That, however, was the extent of my jazz enjoyment between 2006 and 2012.

So what happened in 2012 to make me, not only give it a third (and final) try, but to name a blog after it? Was it that I had ‘grown up’? I initially thought that must be the answer, but then said it in my head again and realised that that is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. Musical tastes are arguably at their most sophisticated between 18-30, where the thrill of constant discovery is still there and you don’t feel too old and sad to try anything new. So it wasn’t that.

What it was, I realised, was letting go of past prejudices. I realise using the word ‘prejudice’ around jazz music is risky territory, so let me qualify that statement immediately. Jazz is an entirely different form of music from what most music lovers are used to – even fairly serious ones. The problem I faced before was an expectation that any ‘proper’ form of music would have a grounding in rock music of some form. Consciously or not, I was always waiting for Thelonious Monk to kick his piano to splinters and pick up a Les Paul. Jazz has to be understood in a very different way. Like I said, I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination – merely an interested bystander – so I won’t start talking about poly-rhythms or time signatures, but I can say that jazz paints pictures with mood. Rock fans, think Dylan Carlson’s textured desert music with Earth or Sunn O)))’s, for lack of a better term, instrumental hellscapes. Vivid stories and images told without words. This, and oh my god am I going to sound like a pretentious little sod here, suddenly solidified into razor-sharp relief when I stuck some Miles on whilst reading ‘The Fountainhead’. Granted, the type of jazz and the chronology are wrong, but suddenly the mood of the text just sprung out, both parts perfectly complimenting each other, forming a single, breathtakingly unified whole.

So why have I started a blog? That’s why. I’ve always, like so many, ‘meant’ to have a blog ‘some day’ to put down in writing the things I discuss with my most illuminated of friends, or the ideas I have by myself. It just took a few tries, a few failings, and a thorough dead-heading of past convictions: the idea of putting things on the internet for all to see just doesn’t seem so repellent any more. The same is true in anything. I’m not a lifestyle guru, and I thoroughly detest feel-good blogs and instagram’d ‘good-living’ mottoes, but sometimes you miss out on something good because you’re not ready for it, or because you can’t let go of your rigid, static understanding of it, or because you mask laziness with contempt. Just keep plugging away, and maybe something will come out. And if it doesn’t, what harm did it do?

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