Monday, 24 October 2016

Modular Synth Monoculture?

I was sitting reading yet another thread on a modular synth forum and suddenly, quite out of the blue, a thought popped into my mind: where are all the black modular synth users? This thought began to snowball. Modular synthesists popped into my mind to be quickly replaced by others. Snippets of the hundreds of modular synth videos I must have seen replayed in my mind. They were all full of middle-aged white men. I thought of those I had interacted with over a number of years. All white guys too. Some women appeared, white ones of course, as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Suzanne Ciani and Bana Haffar flashed through my mind. I started to think that maybe modular synthesis is just something that white guys (and a few white girls) do. And I began to ask myself why this is. Is there something about it that makes it an overwhelmingly white activity? At last I thought of a couple of black guys I knew who had modular systems, Corry Banks of BBoy Tech Report and the Beatppl podcast and Saintjoe of Both of these guys are only people I know of because of their Internet content. But, still, that's two black guys in a sea of whiteness. What's going on?

              White synth dudes Klaus Schulze and Richard Devine

I thought some more about our modular synth culture. I wondered if it is analogous to the Prog Rock of the 1970s which was, in the eyes of some, a boring, white man's cerebral music, the forerunner of Dadrock. I asked myself why so much modular music is abstract and often found on albums about space or machines or robots. Often modular music seems to be abstract musical collages (which is not a bad thing. I make them myself!). Then I noted that the two black guys I could think of who do use modular have only got into it recently and they are, if I may put it like this, two guys who are expressly interested in music technology. Both have their own Internet channels in which they do reviews of gear and talk about the gear scene. They are gearheads. So it might have been almost inevitable they would get into modular at some point since its growth in popularity is almost exponential these days. If you like synths it is becoming almost impossible to ignore and many modern fixed synth keyboards are coming out now with CV and Gate connections or even more comprehensive ways to integrate themselves with a modular synth world. So the gear angle could be a way into the modular synth world as it was for these two guys. But I wonder if the music it makes would be? Who is modular synth music appealing to?

Its fair to say that this initial thought led to a wider thinking about modular synth culture for me. You may suggest that it doesn't matter who takes part in this culture so long as they enjoy it and you may want to be critical of my observation that modular synth seems to be a largely white activity. "So what?" may be your response to that. Well, to be clear, I'm not sure what, if anything, follows from my observation here. But I think its basically a true observation and it fascinates me as to why this might be so. Modular synthesis is a very specific kind of activity which requires, for most users, a reasonable amount of money to purchase ever-increasing amounts of electronics equipment in order to take part. So, clearly, you have to be other than dirt poor in order to partake. This then filters in to a discussion of society in general and the socio-economic groupings into which various kinds of people fit. Yes, I'm sure you can see where this line of thinking is heading. Its food for thought. Its to point out that modular synthesis is not a game everyone can play. The nature of what it takes to take part is itself a limiting factor.

But I don't just think that modular synth is a matter of who can take part financially. Ask yourself who the role models and mentors of modular synth are. Historically, we have inventors like Bob Moog and Don Buchla. White guys. We have 70s musical heroes and early adopters like Morton Subotnick, Keith Emerson, Klaus Schulze and other random Germans with stacked Moogs. White guys. In the modern world its Richard Devine or Alessandro Cortini or maybe Mark Verbos with one of his techno sets. White guys. It seems that the role models, community mentors and makers are mostly white guys too. Does anyone even know some non-white makers and designers of modular synth gear? This, to my mind, all plays out in the kind of music modular synthesists make. Now its too blunt to describe this as "white music". I wouldn't even know what "white music" is. As a term this would be completely unhelpful. And yet, as I tried to describe above, it does seem to me that the music I hear coming from modular synths, made overwhelmingly by white middle-aged men, falls into some broad categories. 

I know this because I make an electronic music podcast called The Electronic Oddities Podcast and it regularly features modular synth music I've located online, primarily on Bandcamp. So I know exactly how many albums tagged "modular synth" are out there that are space themed (a lot!) and how many seem to be generally about things to do with science or technology (many of the rest). This idea, perhaps, started with Kraftwerk and their "Man Machine", and they are surely significant role models (if only in terms of the aesthetic they create) in the synthesis community and within electronic music more widely. But Kraftwerk were also an influence on early Hip Hop music and 80s Electro that was largely a music created by people of color. Everyone knows that it was a Kraftwerk riff that was lifted and used in Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa, for example. I've also heard guys like Detroit Techno producer, Carl Craig, talk about the effect of Kraftwerk upon the music he has made. So it seems true that music made by some white guys can crossover and influence the music made by those of other cultures too. I note that both of the black modular synthesists I could think of earlier also have backgrounds in Hip Hop and both were formerly probably much more familiar with an MPC (which Akai always seem to advertize using black musicians) than a modular synth.

So where is this discussion going? Well I think it tells me that modular synth, as a kind of gear and as a music that is made with it, is quite a narrow interest. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing, or even if you agree with this analysis, is, of course, your call to make. There was a recent discussion, started by a comment Richard Devine made about the sound of the new Behringer Deepmind 12 synthesizer, over whether there is such a thing as "the modular sound". Opinion was divided on that. Some agreed on kinds of sounds that were likely to be made by modulars (Devine himself referenced organic sounds with much movement within them if I remember correctly) whilst others wanted to say there was no such sound since a modular is so versatile it could not ever be reduced to a signature sound or sounds. And yet, if we open this out a little, it seems to be that there may be, at the very least, recurring topics and recurring sounds to accompany them. I've made mention of what I think they are (space, technology and science more generally) already. Modulars, it seems to me, lead their mostly white users down similar paths (ones that are soundscapes or bleepy bloops?). The question this makes me ask is "Is this creating a kind of narrow monoculture?" I find myself asking if an influx of people from other cultures and other musical traditions might not change the nature of the music made on modular synths. For avoidance of doubt, I don't think this would be a bad thing for I think we can all learn from each other.

If we look at music more generally we can see that certain kinds of people tend to make certain kinds of music. People progress in peer groups of like minds and like tastes. Often when one member of the group goes a certain way others notice and follow on. I put the whiteness of the modular synth grouping down to this in some respects. As I tried to show earlier, the black role models in this kind of music (or people of other, non-white ethnicities more generally) are almost totally lacking. We see this too in a gear context. A new module comes out. Someone famous gets it. You want it too. Anyone who follows modular synth forums knows which modules are the hot modules everyone is meant to have. I imagine most people reading this who have a modular system have the Make Noise Maths, for example! But these are cultural understandings that you need to be part of the group to get and I think its important, in some senses, to remember that modular synth is a culture in its own right. You do need to be an insider in many ways to fully partake of the interest itself. And that's where who makes up this community becomes interesting. For if its only one type of person, or very few types of people, then perhaps the whole is not being refreshed and energized by as many sources of potentially new ideas and thinking as it could be. 

Well, all this is just a thought. You may see my point but maybe you don't. I will sit on the sidelines and carry on observing, looking for interesting new developments and possible sub-cultures within the world of modular synthesis. I'd like to think that, as a community, we are capable of the new and of innovation and of going new ways and welcoming new kinds of people and not merely repeating the old ones or those of our heroes. It remains to be seen.

PS Since writing this blog its been brought to my attention that Richard Devine is actually of Asian descent. I obviously wasn't aware of this at the time of writing and no offence was meant by describing him above as white. I can only apologize for my ignorance.

Sunday, 23 October 2016


It seems to be based on what is left of a bombed out building as you can see what is left of some of the floors of what was once, I guess, a tower block. Now, destroyed, a Syrian artist by the name of Tammam Azzam has, with the addition of some other bits of rubble, turned it into a forlorn version of the Statue of Liberty. A statue of liberty in war torn Aleppo, Syria. Who knows what liberty there is there as people use weaponry against each other fighting for... well, I'm not sure what they are fighting for. Power? Land? Resources? Ideology? Does anyone actually know?

                                           Tammam Azzam's Statue of Liberty

Meanwhile, in Calais, France, a migrant (or refugee) camp known locally as "The Jungle" is about to be broken up and got rid of by French authorities who have tolerated its existence for well over a year now. Many in this camp are from Syria. Others are from Afghanistan or other places. They want to get to the UK. Who knows why? Maybe they have family or friends there. Maybe the UK's historical influence in their homelands makes it a natural magnet for those seeking escape from their own private hells. I would be surprised if many of them realized the country they were coming to though. It is a place lately marked out by hatred, division, rhetoric and ugliness. I admit, though, that it has not yet turned into Aleppo although, as I emerged from my sleep last night into a waking state once again, I had a half awake, half asleep dream in which people showing compassion for foreigners were sentenced to death and shot. 

You might find this idea a bit extreme. But I think its a logical conclusion from some of the thinking I am seeing now openly spoken, thinking which, in more restrained times, was whispered amongst like minds or spoken of only under rocks. Lately, though, those with such views have become emboldened. They have found leaders who at least wear the veneer of respectability even if it doesn't go very far down. In the UK, Nigel Farage became the voice of several million closet racists with his advertisements which were barely disguised Nazi propaganda. His task was to blame everyone's problems on Johnny Foreigner and he seems to have surprised even himself that he did it. Before the Brexit result was announced he was already conceding defeat. But he won. There were more old folks with a fond remembrance of empire and younger people with nothing being rounded up by the vitriol of tabloids owned by billionaires than he had realized. Farage is a key player if you're American too. Donald Trump sees Brexit as the model for his own, very similar uprising and hosted Farage at one of his rallies. "The victory of the ordinary guy over the elites" they see it as.

Of course, its not this. Its the victory of hate over hope. Its the victory of division over unity. Its the victory of self over community. Its the victory of a few self-interested people over everybody else. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump don't care about the people who support them. They care about themselves. They care about living in the world they want in their heads. Everybody else, well, they are just those that can be used to hinder that ideal or bring it about. What Farage and Trump have shown, along with a compliant media especially in the UK where newspapers still hold some influence, is that hate for someone who doesn't look like you can indeed be nurtured and grown. A number of tabloids here in the UK have been consistently and often virulently anti-foreigner, anti-refugee, for years. Those chickens were always going to come home to roost. And they have. We see today in the UK white supremacist groups, defence leagues for Englishness (whatever that is) and an increasing number of incidents against people of other races and nationalities. This isn't coincidence. Its the pay off for the investment the hatemongers have made. This stuff doesn't exist in a vacuum. Nor does it just disappear.

Now in America, a land riven with racial angst and hatreds as far as I can tell from across the water, this is coming home to roost too. Trump has himself been sowing hate and discord during his campaign. He suggests the elites control everything and that they will rig things to fix the election. He says he might not accept the result unless he wins. He says there are more murders now than ever (a lie he continues to repeat). He demonizes non-Americans as reprobates looking for a free ride. Now Trump is characterized by many as a habitual liar with no concern for the truth at all. The message is what matters. For he knows that some already want to believe the things he says. So if he just repeats lies over and over again the effect of this will be to engrain these things in people's minds. Many of his supporters now see the press as the PR wing of the elites they've been taught to despise. They chant "L├╝genpresse" at the press corp, a chant that Hitler used against the German press in the 1930's. He boldly boasts in private of sexual assaults yet when women come forward to say he indeed sexually assaulted them he claims that everyone is a liar. Even though he has himself admitted he sexually assaults people. His supporters shrug it off, unable to link his own words to the accusations of others. Trump seems to threaten to sue someone else 10 times every day. It is a mentality in which Trump is always right and everyone else, especially the elites and foreigners, is out to get him. Trust no one but him is his campaign message. Yes, you should trust a habitual liar who is clearly one of the most irresponsible and self-serving people alive today.

The way these demagogues have risen to such dizzy heights is similar. Both have played off the powerful, who, of course, they are not in this rhetoric, against the little guy, the ordinary person with nothing. That is, the ordinary WHITE person with nothing. In the UK we might call this the working class. In America it seems slightly different in that it is the hard pressed blue collar guy who is the backbone of this body of resentment. In each case, however, these respective men sought to radicalize these naturally quiet people who, in normal times, would just struggle along with their daily lives with a grumble. What Farage, Trump and their media partners such as Rupert Murdoch have done, however, is play on the fears of people like this and tell them that everything they think is true. Other people are getting stuff for free. Other people are getting an easy ride. Other people want to kill you. Other people are making monkeys out of you. The rhetoric is constant and quite deliberate. But these people are being played. Would Trump, Farage or even Murdoch, given a chance, actually make the lives of these people better? No way. Its not even genuinely in their minds to do it. These people are entirely negative in their motivations, driven by what they are against as opposed to what they are for. And I genuinely believe these people are racist at their core. 

Sometimes the supporters of these people and the positions they espouse speak more clearly and sensibly than they do. After all, Trump and Farage must at least pretend to appeal to more moderate people. Farage cannot say he wants a white England. But some of those who support his views do. This week in the English press I've read quite genuine comments from people who want a white monoculture in the UK and who think compassion for refugees is "Anti-British". People talk of those wanting compassion for the refugees as "traitors" and as "treacherous". Some bright spark actually started a petition to make talk of wanting to stay in the EU or rejoin it again a matter of treason. Another, an MP, wanted refugees teeth pulled out and tested to determine if someone was under 18 and thus a child worthy of help as opposed to an adult not worthy of it. "The foreigner" has become a very contested notion in the UK. In America it is even more scary due to the gun laws there. I have read accounts of people who intend to intimidate people of other creeds and colors and it seems many are convinced that people of certain colors or who speak certain languages are out to kill them en masse, terrorists in waiting. Such is the rhetoric, for example, regarding "Islam". The situation in the USA is also more febrile because there is already a historic background of racial injustice deeply woven into the fabric of the country's history. The American Civil War may have sealed the fate of slavery but one hundred years later social justice causes were still being fought for and needing to be won by those like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Even 150 years after this war there is still need for campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and American police departments continue to gun down black individuals at a rate much higher than those of other ethnic groupings.

I have come to refer to this age we are now living in as "Disturbia". The world of my experience, white, English-speaking, does not seem safe anymore. The dissonance, anger and hate cannot be blocked out or ignored anymore. It is horrible to live in. It is deeply ugly and being made deliberately so by charlatans who want nothing more than their 15 minutes in the bright lights. These men are morons who just want to poke the wasp's nest with a big stick and say "Look at me!" They do not have the wit or intelligence to see what permanent damage they are doing or how their stupidity will change things for the worse for many years to come. They are men who have not recognized, as most sane observers have, that the post World War 2 prosperity that many have shared in was due to shared aims and common goals across nations. Trump, Farage, even Murdoch, are not internationalists. They are small-minded nationalists. They buy in totally to the Ayn Randian notion that for me to prosper and survive then you must not. For there can be only one winner, right? Look at how Trump avoids his civic responsibility by avoiding federal taxes and then laughs in his supporters' faces and suggests it just means he's smart. What if everyone decided to be "smart" like Donald? You see, its always the have nots or the can nots that will pay the price for this kind of self-seeking "smartness". The irresponsible will always be happy for the responsible to pay. And then call them dumb for doing it. By their actions they willfully seek to create disconnected people and disrupt both bonds of compassion between us and any ideas which encourage togetherness. In its place they create a white tribe of disaffection as if its somehow us who have been exploited.

I cannot foresee how any of this plays out. But I don't think it can be good. I live in a country now where a compassionate comment said in good faith about those with nothing leads to many days of press coverage calling for the speaker to be sacked from his job. (Google "Gary Lineker".) I live in a country where the compassionate tears of a singer (Lily Allen) for children living in squalor are mocked and vilified. I live in a country where if you are under 18 we might grudgingly help you but if you are so much as a minute older we will denounce you as a lying scrounger seeking to deceive and defraud us. I live in a world where people are denominated by nation and this label then determines whether they are worthy of help or not. (Although if you're not white you might need to go to the back of the queue.) I live in a world where "looking a bit foreign" is enough to regard you as a danger to me and as completely other. It didn't get to this by accident. Its been done on purpose. Its every bit as insidious and deliberate as was the agenda of the Nazis less than 100 years ago. Indeed, its telling that the overt Nazis and racists, so emboldened of late, openly support the Trumps and Farages of this world. I don't know about you but if it were me being supported by such people I'd want to take a look in the mirror and think again. 

Now I am a white man. I cannot help this for, like everyone, I was born what I was. Some may say that this shields me from the real horror of our current situation in the world. But I am not blind and, unlike many people of all colors, I do not simply accept the agendas I am handed. Neither should you either. I fear for those who are not white in the world that is before us. As the power and influence of the Trumps and Farages rises it changes things for the worse for those who are not white and for any who speak up for them who are. And it doesn't even matter if they win. Brexit has passed here in the UK and the future is uncertain. We have deliberately been goaded into an act of self-harm. In the USA, even if Trump loses, as is now increasingly predicted, the hate he has sown will remain. The lies he has sown will continue to bear fruit. And its not as if Obama himself was that concerned about droning random foreigners anyway. All this hate and division will play out in a thousand acts of unknown ugly consequence reported by victims and their families sporadically as the price is paid. The uglification of the world by small-minded people who cannot think past their own grievances will continue. And my problem is I cannot see how you stop it. "Where good people do nothing there evil will flourish" is how the saying goes. But as I think about this and survey the scene it seems to me as if it is a never-ending war. Victories are won for fairness, equality and justice but the war rumbles on anyway. You come to the conclusion that its perpetual war. 

So then you turn and you ask yourself whether what matters is not who wins but what you stood for. There are reasons to suggest this matters, not least that you can look yourself in a mirror. But is it enough? Anyone can only make a difference in the here and now, that is for sure. A worldwide peaceful co-existence has not yet been known on our planet and what reason do we think exists that there will ever be one whilst there are people in the world who actively define their success as someone else's failure? I guess those who fight social justice causes must have a reason why they do and maybe this is simply as simple as not wanting to accept the station others in life would give them, to live a life not dictated by others.

"People are people so why should it be you and I should get along so awfully?" sang Depeche Mode.

What's the answer?

Monday, 17 October 2016

Bleeping Modular Synths!

As I checked my various timelines today for what was happening in the world, a process which involves reading articles on music websites, watching videos and listening to people's new tracks, I came across a reference to an old interview on the Sonicstate website. For the purposes of this blog it doesn't matter who it was with except to note that they were modular synthesists of the Eurorack variety. The video interview itself is quite lengthy and interesting and there was also some music showcased along with it. My interest was peaked even further though when I ventured into the now ever-present comments section that seems to accompany almost any internet posting anywhere. Here I started to find somewhat puzzling, critical comments about both the interviewees and what it was they were doing, i.e. making music with modular synthesizers. (They had a huge, wall-sized, Eurorack setup.) I bring this up and, indeed, make a whole blog out of it today because it seems to me that there are some general criticisms of the whole genre of modular synth (that is, of the music and of the users) that are out there these days that are spread by those with chips on their shoulders or grudges to bear. I personally regard them as the preservers of an unseemly conventionality. But I want to try and address them. If you use modular synths too you may find the following discussion pertinent to what you do. Or you may not.

The first kind of comment I want to address is the kind that suggests, sometimes with regularity, that modular is somehow "being pushed down people's throats" these days. If this is the case, and I only say if, this is because, as Jean-Michel Jarre said in an interview recently, that "electronic music won". What he meant by this was that in the past the idea of making music with electronics itself was frowned upon. For a number of years, even into the 80s when people tried to stop those such as Gary Numan from doing what they do, electronic music was regarded as somehow not "proper". Again in the UK, as with Numan, Depeche Mode, who have since gone on to become the most popular electronic group of all time and lately with considerable amounts of modular gear at their disposal, were, at the start of their career, never given any credit or due in their own country. Their music, being electronic and all synths, was regarded as somehow insubstantial and fluffy. "Just Can't Get Enough" was laughed at not regarded as a pattern for future musical output. It certainly wasn't regarded as amounting to anything. However today, as Jarre pointed out in the interview, all music is basically electronic. The balance has swung from guitar music to synth music. The procedures for even making music have become significantly more electronic and involving of electronic devices. Very few people today, in the modern electronic environment, would even blink at the idea of synths or synth music. Today you are regarded as dangerously weird or "old school" if you don't use a computer and software as some part of your process.

So what then of modular synths "being pushed down people's throats"? Well the particular complainant who made this comment goes on to suggest that the problem is that a lot of modular synth music is "just noise sequences with no real substance". Is this the Depeche Mode complaint rearing its head again? It may well be. However, what this also is is an example of a value system in operation regarding what is regarded as worthwhile (or substantial) or not worthwhile (or insubstantial) when it comes to electronic music. That the language is a matter of substance or lack of it is interesting to me because it makes me ask what "music with substance" might actually be and, thus, whether this is a goal that the modular synthesist should have. Clearly, this person hears a lot of modular synth music and regards it as effete and ephemeral, fluff that gets blown on the wind. The suggestion is that it is ultimately meaningless. Now that is as maybe and, at this stage of the blog, I don't want to suggest for a second that the charge of being insubstantial might lead to the notion that something becomes meaningless. But, further, I also don't want to be forced to the conclusion that to make music that was meaningless, even if you did, would necessarily be such a bad thing. 

But let's back up a little. Another commenter accuses those in the video interview I referred to as being "noodling hipsters" and those in the modular synth community might be familiar with this casual insult. He suggests that they, and possibly a wider community of those like them, have "no musical inclinations beyond hoarding gear and making it bleep". Ouch! I wonder if anyone's Spidey sense is tingling after that warhead has been detonated? It must be said that when one surfs the various forums and internet places where modular synth fans go there does seem to be plenty of people with little musical output and plenty of gear they never seem to put to more than minimal use. Now, of course, we are not autocrats here. People can do with their things, or not do with their things, exactly what they want to do. But the charge seems to be that some modular synth users, and, by extension, the group as a whole, are collectors of stuff more than they are active music-makers. Does this accusation ring any bells with you, I wonder? We are starting to build up a critical picture of modular synth fans as people chasing an insubstantial cool factor, people who obsess over stuff and discuss gear but without producing anything that matters. Perhaps more evidence in this direction might be the preponderance of modular synth users who make 5 minute "jams" recorded on their camera phones as opposed to full length pieces of music which they have honed and crafted and produced as works of art in their own right. Some would certainly say so, it seems.

This charge of being "noodling hipsters" or collectors of cool things bites further when its suggested, as it was in the comments I refer to, that "such people give electronic music a bad rep". This makes us ask what we as modular synth users want to be known for. Are we to be considered as the electronic music equivalent of model train enthusiasts, collecting all our stuff, making sure it looks just right and then privately playing with it and maybe going online to discuss various layouts and technical specifications of equipment? Are we merely people with an interest who show our stuff to other people and then endlessly talk about it? Is this what being into modular synths is all about? For some it may well be and I don't wish to denigrate that. Above all else in this blog I will hold to the view that people can make of their resources what they will. However, this does beg the question of image and public perception. It makes us ask what modular synthesists want to be known for and perceived as. If modular synthesis is a subsection of electronic music and, thus, something with a musical purpose in mind where does this fit in amongst the collecting, noodling and discussing?

Now in the past couple of years I have become more interested in what might be generally described as abstract electronic music. Sometimes this blurs into flat out noise and certainly things that could be described as atonal. I like everything from drones and soundscapes to chaotic glitches and musical uses of harsh static. I embrace the chaos that can be inherent in a modular system or setup in which you can deliberately set out not to be tuneful. This, I argue, has always been there from when people started picking up their synths at the end of the 1960s. It is a constant and authentic branch of modern electronic music. I have written blogs about this before and suggested on some of those occasions that there was a bias in society against this due to cultural factors which canonize certain forms of music at the expense of others. I still think that this analysis has some truth to it. However, not everyone agreed with me. To persist with the Sonicstate link, sometime guest on their Sonictalk podcast show (and synth demonstrator and vintage analog enthusiast of note), Marc Doty, wrote to me concerning one blog I wrote (on his Automatic Gainsay Facebook page) that he believes that music "isn't a cultural choice" but, instead, "an evolutional outcome". He then goes on to write of his belief that human beings have "connections to organized sound and resonating vibrations that go deeper than their choices". He thus thinks we are, quite naturally and reasonably, drawn to tonal sounds, harmonic relationship and, thus, melodies and chords. I found what Marc had to say deeply fascinating. I wasn't convinced but nevertheless.

I mention all this because what you believe about things conditions how you will approach others, things that you come across daily. This, indeed, is how we humans are able to handle our daily lives at all. We process things based on what we already think and believe. Some of these things may help modify some of the beliefs. Most are just churned up and processed by the beliefs we already have. And so it is with electronic music too. Now I have to say I have noticed that the aforementioned Mr Doty has, at times, seemed to be quite critical of especially Eurorack users with his view of what it is he thinks they are doing and why. I don't intend here to critique or repeat any of this. Marc, I'm sure, is big enough and eloquent enough to speak for himself if he wants. But reading something of his deeper beliefs about music and sound it at least makes some consistent sense with those other things. It is easy to see why he is critical of some things in the light of where he seems to be coming from even if you think he gets the whole thing wrong! Marc is able to give an explanation of why he favours tones, melodies and chords over noise, incoherence and chaos being the fan of electronic sounds and music that he clearly is. This is important to me because I will always value a reasoned argument I don't agree with over a casual insult that comes from out of the blue. I don't ultimately believe that Marc has explained things adequately in what he wrote to me on Facebook nor why some, maybe many, people like making noise instead. Maybe one day he will give a talk or write a paper doing just that. But what of the criticisms I've collected up here from one random internet posting? Where do they fit in?

People get into modular synthesis for many reasons and, to my mind at least, its legitimate to get into modular synthesis for any reason you want. If you want to build the world's biggest modular synth decoration on your wall then go for it. Its no skin off my nose. But most people are, at least nominally, getting into modular synthesis for so-called musical reasons. Now this may just be for the "noodling" that my commenter above has frowned upon. But so what? It seems to me that the modular synth, of any format, lends itself to this purpose. If one is going to dedicate oneself to using a modular synth then, with there being so many possibilities, one will need to play, in the sense of have fun experimenting, in order to do this. This, it seems to me, is one of modular synthesis's biggest attractions in the world of electronic music. The fact there are so many options openly encourages this play and, to me at least, makes it a legitimate activity. A modular synth can be an activity, like the piano of old in the Victorian parlour, where you spend some of your leisure time just playing. Is that an illegitimate use of electronic music resources, an activity that gives it a bad reputation? I don't think so. There is no law or instruction which mandates you must do anything at all with a modular synth. Buying one or beginning to build a system does not commit you to "serious" or "proper" music and neither does it force you to submit to some traditional or authoritarian notion of what "music" is. No way, Jose.

And now we need to address the issue of "musical substance" once more. I genuinely do not know what this means. I imagine it could mean something traditional, something melodic, something, for want of a better word, "normal". Or mainstream. I crap on that idea. If a modular synth is anything, in my understanding, then it is an exploration tool. It is a device in which you can, deliberately and with some ability, purposefully tread untrodden paths. If you have one I think you should do this because, apart from anything else, its one way to guarantee that you will sound like no one else in a world where sounding like someone else seems, for many, to be the safest path. In a recent episode of Divkid's "Modular Podcast" I was delighted when the artist Scanner (also known as Robin Rimbaud) spoke to the effect that music is about finding your own voice in your equipment. I could not agree more with him. I would equate this with "musical substance" in that then the music at least becomes about something. It becomes about you, your interests, your experience of the world. 

But I have a bigger point here. And this is that I don't think music need have any substance. It need not have any meaning. It can be effete, ephemeral, empty, pointless and void of any sense. The demand that things have meaning is perhaps the most conventional demand of all. In this context, it is the nihilist, the person who does things simply because they can or for a moment's pointless fun, who is the rebel. And with a modular synthesizer you can certainly, and constantly, do this. You might not even know how you did it and never be able to repeat it. (Repetition is another conventional notion.) But so what? Why does, and why did, the music ever have to mean something? Why must it have a point, a substance? Why must anyone take the box of chaos that is a modular synthesizer and then regard it as something to be tamed, made safe, made conventional? Why not go the other way and simply enable it to express its inherent desire to blurt forth randomness into the void? This plea for substance is the death of possibility on the altar of conventionality. It is the desire that we all play it safe so as not to seem too "other".

In the end, I believe, the criticisms I found are merely expressions of the value systems of those who hold them. These people had their own ideas of what music is and of what they regard being musically valid as. But these ideas and beliefs can only ever extend as far as their own noses. Beyond that there are other ideas and beliefs which you and I are equally free to have and hold. This may be because, as Marc Doty believes, evolution will guide us down a certain path. It may be, as I tend to believe, that you decide to make a certain choice. Choices, of course, are never made in a vacuum. (And so Doty and I may be talking about the same thing from opposite ends.) In my experience each musical life is a great chain of events, of cause and effect, in any case. Due to my interest in electronic music I make a podcast called "Electronic Oddities" and in doing that I am constantly lead from one thing to another in a great chain, all the while discovering new things, things I missed from decades ago, and much else. To me this is the wonder of it all, that there is so much and it is all so different. Not knowing what will happen next, what I will hear next, is the greatest thing about electronic music, this inherent capacity for possibility. That is why I am so attracted to modular synthesis in the first place. Will some people who have a modular synth be "noodling hipsters" just wanting to look cool? Yes. But so what? Much more important to me than any chat about devices, tech talk, "look at my setup" pics or anything else surrounding modular synthesis is the ideas involved in actually making music. "What are you doing with your gear?" is the important thing for me followed up with the question "Why?" 

For me a modular synth should be, par excellence, the instrument for people with ideas and it should be used to musically express them. For me personally the sin would be to have a system and then not use it to see how far you can go with it. But I'm perfectly aware I can only control my own gear and output and no one else's. Its just that to have a great system, as many people seem to, and then not use it to explore sonic possibilities would seem to be a terrible waste. So, to finish, of course we all have our own ideas of what "substantial" music might be for we all have value systems. But these will only ever be ours and our music always expresses them. We should, as Robin Rimbaud said, seek to find our voice through the technology for this is not just a collection of electronics that will always sound the same. The fact a modular synthesizer is a device through which human beings can mediate themselves with the utmost electronic flexibility possible is of vital importance. And to that extent its like anything else. It reveals the person behind it. 

So are you a model train enthusiast, a noodling hipster or a sonic explorer?

PS I have always found electronic bleeps quite profound. Its always about how things are contextualized I find.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Politics and Morality

During a very recent discussion it came to light that there are allegations of sexual misconduct against Gandhi, the man who brought freedom from the British Empire to India and set it on a path of democracy. I admit that these allegations were news to me and I was directed, during my conversation, to a webpage that detailed the allegations. Now I don't know the truth of the allegations, what the evidence is for them, who the accusers are or anything like that. But for my purposes here today none of this really matters. My subject is to be the intersection of politics and morality which might raise a belly laugh in some as they ask what morality has to do with politics. Our politicians all seem to have feet of clay, overactive dicks and lots of friends happy to look the other way, you will probably say to me. If they are not abusers themselves then they are people who know things but say and do nothing. They are "enablers" in the parlance of our times. And its certainly not restricted to Gandhi. Martin Luther King was at least accused (some would say smeared) of sexual misconduct. In Britain numerous past and present political figures are mired in variously disgusting sexual accusations. Most famously, the two current presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are completely mired in sexual allegations. Trump boasts that he can just grab any woman he wants "by the pussy" and, what's more, they will let him because he's famous whereas Clinton, it has been alleged, has actively covered for her husband Bill's many indiscretions and even taken action against those he's accused of being involved with to shut them up.

Now, hearing all this, some people despair. I understand that reaction. There are those who think we need standards, moral standards, and that these things should not be voluntary and left to the whims of individuals. For these people standards are not things you abandon when it suits you. Morals, for such people, are not things you forget when its the person who is on your political side that's being accused. Take Trump, for example. There has been widespread condemnation of his recently released tape where he boasts of forcing himself on women and his fame meaning they won't stop him. And yet tens of millions of Americans and many high profile Republicans still support him. They either deflect criticism by saying "But look what Bill did!" or they try to dismiss it as just "locker room talk". Neither of these excuses works though. Trump also has active court cases in progress against him alleging sexual assault and worse and has, or had, friends who are now convicted pedophiles. Can we be sure it is "just talk" in his case? Trump is a man who has a history of sexual misconduct accusations against him and his "locker room talk" does nothing to discourage outsiders or casual observers from believing them. But my point here is this: what if it were Obama who had been caught on tape? What if Obama was accused in court documents of sexual assault and even rape? The same people who sit on their hands or defend Trump now would be demanding impeachment and incarceration! Their morality is not absolute: it shifts with the circumstances.

For some people this is wrong: morality should be absolute. But is it ever? Really? Is it really so beyond your experience that you might give a little leeway to someone you know or support, leeway you might not give to someone else? I submit to you that you recognize this possibility and may even have done it yourself. Of course, you may argue that rape and a casual attitude to sexual assault are so serious that we cannot allow personal preferences to come into play. Whilst in no way wanting to excuse either crime here (and they are both CRIMES) I would say its easy to pronounce from the outside. But its altogether more difficult when you might be the one with consequences. Some of you might read this as me trying to excuse or explain away sex crimes. I'm not. I'm saying the stakes are very different when it is you in the firing line and that morality, like it or not, is changed by the relationships between those involved. I'm saying that if your husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, were accused of such things you wouldn't see it as you do when its some political hate figure you only know from the TV or the media. There has been recent criticism of so-called "situational" morality but I'm afraid that I have to blog here today about why I cannot but see that morality is exactly that.

Morals are a personal choice inasmuch as we can say that anything is a choice at all. You and I, we would like to think, both get to decide what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. This encompasses both a set of general beliefs about these things but also an ability to triangulate cases on the fly as the general principles are applied to specific cases. It is integral to this understanding that you and I need not agree on these rights and wrongs either in general or in any specific case. It can be said that we would even value this ability to think differently and come to differing points of view. This is because if I am forced to agree with you, or you with me, then morals and values are not volitional anymore, they are not free. And we hold it as possibly in the highest esteem that we must all be free to come to our own conclusions without coercion. This, of course, risks the possibility that I may hold a set of moral values I judge much higher than yours. It also risks the possibility that I may choose to hold values much lower than yours or even have very few values at all. But, it seems, we judge the freedom to choose as more important than the consequences of the freedom of choice we esteem so highly. This freedom allows Donald Trump to think its in order to grab women by the pussy and it allows many other politicians throughout history to justify a litany of sexual misdemeanors. It also allows their supporters and opponents to take sides accordingly.

Now I am certain that I make moral choices every day, and have values that, if you knew about them, you would think less of me. In the political sphere this is obviously true as well because we have case after case, year after year, where people resign or are forced out of various offices due to the public perception of their choices. (This is to ignore those who try to "tough it out" regardless.) But what can we do about it? I've already pointed out that we hold freedom of choice in the highest esteem. Can we, somehow, make people more moral? Can we, as was recently suggested to me, expect more from people in public office? I don't honestly see why. People in office are just people. They are prey to the same temptations and vices as anyone, potentially, could be. They are members of the same moral or immoral societies as we are. "But I am not a person who wants to commit sexual assault" you may, correctly, reply to me. I accept that and it is not my argument here that we could all be horrible people if we really wanted to. What I am saying is that our standards don't bind anyone else. Our choices are not mandatory for others. We could impose absolutes on public office. We could say no one with any allegation against them could be eligible. We could suggest that only candidates who are whiter than white could stand. But could we say that every candidate's thoughts, beliefs and values must pass some quality threshold? Could we hold their morality to account? And, if we could, what then has happened to that freedom of choice we formerly held in such high esteem? We may want to stop Donald Trump from actually grabbing women by the pussy but do we also want to stop him thinking, in his private thoughts, that he thinks its ok? Do we want to start living in the world of Minority Report?

In action, morality is basically a belief or a value we can justify with reasons. Its nothing more than this. When speaking about a moral choice or a value all we do is say why the choice was a good or bad one or the value is a value worth having, what makes it important. This is all rhetorical. Some would want to argue that morals and values can be absolute. I'm not one of those people. For me, this is just rhetoric too. I am not a moral absolutist for I can find no way to ground morals in anything other than people's views about them or their consequences. Morality for me is always a matter of consequences, of perceived goods and bads and of the reasons given for seeing things in certain ways. So, to give a concrete example, I cannot say that grabbing a woman by the pussy is an absolute bad. I do not believe in absolutes. But I can give a reason why grabbing a certain woman's pussy might be bad, and, I think, it would be hard to imagine a case in which it wasn't bad. The important thing here is that I can give reasons for my choices. Morality is a matter of choices that can be justified even if that is only to yourself. (It will often, if not usually, be to some social grouping, however.) In politics this is much more public. You routinely have to justify your choices and values publicly for your electorate will want to know if they share your views or not. And its because of this that I cannot see how there can be any higher standard for the practitioners of politics, the politicians. Let me explain. 

I wrote earlier in the year on my blog about "the shit sandwich conundrum". Basically this is when you have two political choices and they are both, well, shit. Trump and Clinton are, in my estimation, such a choice. Both are equally shitty without redeeming features. Both, in addition, are immoral figures as I judge them. Both are venal, mendacious and self-serving amongst a litany of other "sins". Should we have some kind of morality test for these people? I say no. Let them be whoever they want to be, holding whatever filthy, degrading and disgusting values they choose. But let them be exposed to the voting public so that these views not be hidden away only to be revealed in secret. Let us really know who these people are. Let us know they lie and cheat. Let us know they cover things up. Let us know they regard women as things to fuck and discard or embarrassments to be covered up. My argument is that you cannot impose a moral test upon politicians but you can submit them to other people's morals. And it may be that this is what they fear most. Of course, only in a world where people stopped caring at all, stopped having morals, would this test not work. But then, I suggest we'd all have a much bigger problem than Trump's out of control libido or Clinton's desire for corruption. Indeed, it may be argued that this is the case right now. The problem is not that Trump is a "mutt", as Robert de Niro so eloquently put it, or that Clinton wants to turn the world into a corrupt, corporate hell, its that our world itself is a self-serving, immoral chaos of unjustified beliefs, base urges and gut feelings.

When talking about both politics and morality it is as well to remember that there is no perfect answer or universally acclaimed choice. We should also remember that one person's justice is another's injustice. At any one time there will be people free others say should not be free and those pronounced guilty who others swear are innocent. This is all to re-emphasize, yet again, that this is all rhetorical, a matter of reasons and persuasion. We should be consistent in our judgments, people say. But this is only true until we reach a point where making an exception seems to be supported with better reasons than the consistency we formerly found holding the best of the arguments. If morality is about reasons and reasons are a matter of persuasion then there can be no absolute value, only the most persuasive one supported by the best reasons and providing the most sought after consequences. In that context the most I think we can ask for is exposure, light shone upon our public representatives. We cannot invade their minds and bend them to our will. Whose will would that be anyway? Mine? Yours? But we can force them to be as open as possible. Then, if the public choose a pervert or a sex pest, at least we will know. Democracy means a free public choice not the tyranny of the public.

And, of course, there has been an elephant in the room of this discussion all along: POWER. But that is a blog for another day...

Monday, 10 October 2016

World Mental Health Day

Were I a more courageous man than I am then we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. I'd be dead, my life taken by my own hand. Lucky for you, then, that I don't have the required level of courage. It leaves me here to write blogs for you to read.

Today, I learn, it is World Mental Health Day. Apparently, this is on October 10th every year. I chuckle a little because only last night I fired off a sarcastic tweet about "every day being something or other day" these days. Lots of those days are mere advertising campaigns and none of them are really official days for anything. Its marketing and you are being sold something. But then, irony of ironies, the next morning World Mental Health Day turns up. If today is the day that mental health is being sold then I'm all for it because today I'm here to tell you that lack of mental health is no walk in the park. 

And I can speak from some considerable experience. I can't say exactly when my life began to go out of shape. Maybe it was as early as age 10. Maybe even before. But certainly by ages 14-16 I was disturbed enough to have appointments with an educational psychologist. I treated it as a game in which my task was to convince the doctor that I was a normal boy feeling fine. I guess I did a good enough job because I only saw him a few times and no further action was taken. But one morning when I woke up, aged 19, I thought, genuinely and completely, that I was about to die and then I might have wished that there had been some more rigorous investigation at an earlier stage. I was experiencing my first full blown, thorough-going panic attack. I was leant over the kitchen sink, cold tap running, sweating like a pig as I dry heaved. I really did think I was going to die. My head was racing. I had no idea what was happening. I felt terrified for my life. When the moment passed, as I've learned through multiple episodes since it always does, I spent the rest of the day a drained zombie, unable to think or eat. 

That first panic attack was over 28 years ago. And I'm still very aware as I write today's blog for you now that I could have another at any time. One does not become immune to them. I did, for a time, have a few good years in the intervening period when the fog that descended on my personality with that first attack cleared a little and a bit of sunshine shone into my life. But circumstances change and you can find yourself back at square one. In that intervening period I learned many things, not least that the attack I'd suffered and repeated many times since was not just about "external circumstances". It was quite likely very much something to do with who I am physically as a person too. There is a history of mental health problems in my family and so its more than possible that I was vulnerable to such problems even from my very birth. Since that first attack I've had many more. I've found myself terrified on trains, buses, planes and just out in public. Its worse if I'm in public because people might see me and stare and wonder if I'm mad. I've seen the look in their eyes as they shy away. But I'm not mad. I'm just scared and asking myself "Why is this happening to me?" And sweating like a pig.

Having such anxiety problems changes your life. When told you've been invited to a party, for example, you might be thrilled at the idea there's fun to be had and laughs to share. I would be worried in case I felt a panic coming on. I'd be asking what I might do if I started to feel bad. I wouldn't want anyone to know. Probably best I make up some excuse not to go, I'd think to myself. That solves all the problems that I'm imagining and anticipating in my head. And experience would back this up because I've been in so many places at so many times sweating my balls off and not wanting to be there, a rising fear filling my mind, my guts churning, just wishing I could get out, run away and escape. Because I know if I could only step out of that door and leave this situation the symptoms I'm experiencing would disappear just like that *snaps fingers*. But, knowing all that, it turns you into a person who takes the easy path all the time, the path of least resistance, the path that doesn't lead to horrible feelings and mental struggle with yourself. Could you really blame me for becoming a hermit, a recluse, one who just wants to live without the gaze of others?

But there's more. Life doesn't stand still. I read in an article for World Mental Health Day that "mixed anxiety and depression is the most common form of mental disorder in Britain". I can well believe it. I suffer from it. I can feel it now in the regular headache I've developed over the last 12 months. (I'd never had a headache in 47 years before that.) I've become so very attuned to every twitch and burble of my body. I've become over-sensitive. Every pain I fear might turn into an agony. Every twitch might become another problem. I live daily in fear of pain and agony and physical struggle. Each day is turned into a waiting for something bad to happen. Imagine just that burden on your mind besides anything else you might have going on in your life. And its this sense of always having things "on my mind" that becomes a problem too. I'm never free. There are few moments in which care is abandoned and the moment becomes one of enjoyment. You become a person who is constantly monitoring themselves, always on watch, forever on the lookout. "When is the next bad thing going to happen?" is always on your mind. You try to negotiate your life around all the perceived problems of being yourself in the world. And there's never an off day from this job. Its 24/7/365. And the question keeps rearing up in your head "How do you escape a problem when the problem is you yourself?"

This blog is not really about me and its certainly not to say "Poor me, look at me, have sympathy for me". But I think that sharing personal thoughts and feelings is helpful because maybe it jolts one or two people into realisation to know that people suffering from mental health issues might feel this way and, for some others, it will make them realize that there are other people out there who feel this way too. Mental health issues are not uncommon, whether temporary or of the more permanent kind, and the Mental Health Foundation estimate that 1 person in 6 likely experienced a common mental health problem in the last week alone. Expand the time frame and more and more people will know what it is like to have experienced such things. One of the immediate thoughts people have having experienced a mental health issue is that they are alone and no one else understands how they feel. Having once sat in a support group for people with similar issues to mine I realized that's not remotely true. Indeed, what I realized is that many people might feel a hell of a lot worse than me. I sat down in that group with people who could barely walk without shaking, people who seemed terrified to exist and locked in a prison of the self. I myself have lain in bed unable to stop shaking and it wasn't because I was cold. It was because in some way it seemed like my soul was mortally terrified of the conditions of its existence. Such is life for some of us. We can become prisons for ourselves with only our own painful emotions for company.

But, of course, its one thing to recognize this and another to do something about it. For some people, people lucky enough to have someone who cares enough to take the risk of stepping in, doctors and possibly pills and therapies will help them. I'm glad for them but I also think that's not the case for everyone. For some people, lucky people, a friend is enough, should they be lucky enough to find one. That's good too and it goes to show that caring about somebody in a genuine way really can and does make a genuine difference to someone's life. But, again, this may not be true for everyone. My experience of mental health issues is very narrow and limited to my own experience. But there are many kinds of mental health problems and they aren't all experienced as the same and neither do they necessarily have the same solutions. Or, indeed, any solutions. However, I do struggle to imagine one in which no one giving a fuck about you as you suffer with it will help. Of course, as I've tried to show, with some common mental health issues it can cause the sufferer to isolate themselves as a defence mechanism and this can give further opportunity for their afflictions to attack them all the more. That said, I personally would respect anyone's right to deal with their situations as they feel able to. I have certainly isolated myself out of self-preservation. If trade offs have to be made to accommodate myself to the things I must suffer then to suffer them without outside interference seems a reasonable trade to me.

So today is World Mental Health Day and if you were someone who thought that you didn't know anyone who had mental health problems, well, now you do: me. But I would wager someone more close to home than me whom you already know does too. The purpose of this blog is really just to say "be aware". We really do not know what goes on in the minds of others nor what they have had to suffer or how it affects them. Maybe you or someone you know is that person who avoids things "in case they feel bad". And maybe the feeling that motivates that response for them is something more than just not liking groups of people. Who knows? We are complex beings who react in diverse ways to things. The events of life affect us all differently and, for some, become problematic and even a life-long struggle.

Be aware and have a little understanding. Help if you can. For some people its life that is the hell and death that will be the blessed release.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

I, Pixel

In the course of a day several artistic enterprises will scroll down my various timelines and, at random, I will choose to partake of them. Most often these are music but, like most other people, if I know something of what I might expect from the people concerned, I usually let it pass on by unless what I am expecting in some way might satisfy my current mood. This, of course, is a terrible thing and an example of something I hate: knowing too much. I hate the fact that we think we know things, that things have been put in a box in our minds and, forever after, stay in that box and affect our judgment about them. Of course, one answer to this would be if creative people were so varied and imaginative that they could be surprising rather than creatures of habit that turn out more of the same thing again and again. That is an artistic fight I try to take on. But I cannot speak for others and their motives. More fool them, I say, if they are happy to be in the box.

However, it is best of all when something comes along that has no box, that is, in some sense, contextless and therefore innocent of our knowing. Then we can enjoy the pure thrill of appreciating something that comes with no baggage and about which we do not know too much. Such a thing came into my timeline yesterday. It was a 7 minute video called "Pixelate" and you can watch it HERE! 

                                     A still from "Pixelate"

A basic description of the video is to say that it is simply 7 minutes of ever-changing pixels. But that would be like describing the film "Jaws" as a film about hunting a shark. It is but its much more than that. From the moment I first watched "Pixelate" until now, after several watches, I've found the video to be both therapeutic and intellectually challenging. The surprising thing to me on first watch, as I enjoyed that virgin experience of the first time, something that can never be repeated, was that I started to ask questions about what I was seeing. First of all I asked myself "What does this mean?". This wasn't really a question of intention either. I wasn't asking myself what the author of the piece, Ian Haygreen, thought it meant. I wasn't asking after his purpose in making it. Indeed, I don't know the answers to these questions nor do I think I need to. Instead, I was asking myself if there was any meaning to be found in the shifting landscapes of pixels as they moved around in various chaotic patterns. In a way I suppose I was an observer observing myself observing as I did this too. I was asking myself about what I was asking of the video. And so it became natural to ask why I was asking myself what the pixels might mean.

The patterns of pixels on the screen were very chaotic and most of the time they shifted and changed at quite a speed. It became a hypnotic experience. The rather quiet and atmospheric ambient soundtrack played a part in this too, I'm sure. The effect was a kind of unobtrusiveness which could work its way into your consciousness unannounced. As the pixels shifted and changed I continued to ask myself the meaning question. I asked myself about the relationships of one pixel to another, whether it mattered what colour each pixel was. I imagined the pixels were people. Now, with these pixels representing people, it was a question of asking what meaning there was in all these people running around in their immediate relationships one to another like the ever-shifting pixels on the screen. I wasn't sure it mattered what colour the pixels were. But does it matter what colour the people are? There was a sense of ambiguity. What if all these pixels were just symbols for people? The pixel fields just changed. No one had more priority than any other one. Make them people and does anything change?

The hypnotic effect of the pixels changing, without commentary, guidance or context, became quite nihilistic. It seemed to be saying "Things just happen. Stuff goes on as it will. You can attach whatever meaning you like to these events but its not fixed or binding. Or even necessary."  It occurred to me that within the changing pixel landscapes I could look at them as if they were moving left to right across the screen. But then, with a change of concentration, I could make it seem as if they were going the other way too. And, thus, I had power over history and events. I could say in which direction they were going and I could look at things as if they were indeed doing that. The pixels were powerless to stop me. The pixels were just material for my interpretive apparatus to get to work on. And I considered once more that other things, things that might be taken to be more serious, were just the same as these pixels. The example of Brexit came to mind. To one group of people this is freedom and taking back control. The direction of travel is a new and glorious future. But to some other observers it is disaster and xenophobia and leads directly to the dark ages. Who is right? Both and neither of course because you can see the pixels moving however you want.

I started to ask myself if the meaning question I was asking was the right question to be asking at all. It occurred to me that asking the question "What does this mean?" is a question we often ask of many things, if not everything, but that, maybe, a lot of the time we should just step back and not ask it. I am aware that notable psychologists, such as the inventor of Logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, are of the view that people have a need of meaning in order to exist. Frankl's academic and therapeutic work in the area of psychology strongly suggests that people are simple meaning-making factories who generate meaning as a means of survival. Frankl himself personally survived Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz) while most others in his family did not so we can understand how he reached his conclusion. But, nevertheless, it still begs the question of whether we need to be asking questions of meaning at all. These pixels I was staring at could easily have been regarded as simple meaningless and ever-changing configurations. There were, it might be said, no consequences from regarding them as meaningless. But when it comes to other things we find it much harder to believe this. Yet why? Aren't the events that go on around us, the relationships we make and build to other things, equally as meaningless in the end? Why not let go of our attachments, created always by us and for us, and just see everything as pixels?

I saw the pixels here as representatives for other things. I saw them in ever-changing relationships to the other pixels around them. This made me replace them with other things and wonder if anything had really changed. Life just goes on, I thought. Existence takes its path of least resistance always being in relation to other things yet never having any necessary binding relation to other things - unless we make it so. Nothing has to mean anything. Meaning doesn't work like that. It is plastic and some other, contrary, meaning can always be ascribed to the same events - just as I made the pixel stream change direction. (It's not even clear the pixels were in a stream actually so maybe I created the connections between the pixels and made them a stream too.) I slowly became a pixel myself and realized that that could mean both everything and nothing.

Pixelate was created by musician and, apparently, filmmaker, Ian Haygreen who is on Twitter @IanHaygreen

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Self-Importance of Being Human

It happens semi-regularly. And I find it very annoying. But what is this irritation that gets under my skin? Often it is manifested as the incoherent ramblings of some guilty-feeling person who takes it upon themselves to make the whole of humanity responsible for some negative they see in the world. A good candidate here, and the one which motivates this blog, is climate change. Some Twitter person, who I am clearly following in error under the mistaken belief that he might have interesting things to say (the only reason to follow anyone on Twitter), was last night weeping and wailing for Hurricane Matthew which, said he, was "the fault of humans". I assume he meant to suggest that it was caused by anthropogenic climate change, the scientific notion that human activity has warmed planet Earth and materially affected its climate in certain ways. Its very important to be careful when talking about this because you can very soon be talking nonsense (in numerous directions) if you do. Let me explain.

The notion that human activity might affect the climate I do not find to be an outrageous one. I believe, through common sense as much as scientific demonstration, in the principle of "cause and effect". That is, stuff affects other stuff and so on. The idea of human-initiated climate change is therefore not outlandish. It fits within a world of cause and effect. Now this is not to say that the cause human beings has the effect climate change. But, to quell the fears of any liberals or climate scientists reading, I'm not about to give you a Trump-inspired climate change denying rhetoric. I leave it to others to demonstrate if we humans are affecting the climate or not. If they say we are then I can accept that as within the realms of possibility. However, this is not to say that any weather event from here on in is "caused by climate change". We had hurricanes before humanity's recent spurt of industrial development. Floods occurred before we had factories. It got a bit hot before the combustion engine was invented. Indeed, whisper it quietly, our planet was once upon a time nothing but volcanoes. And trust me when I tell you that polite middle-class society could not have existed in that either.

So let us be sensible here, as I imagine climate scientists generally to be if not their environmentally leaning popularizers. Individual events cannot be ascribed to climate change even though all kinds of populists and their media outlets now seem to do this more and more. The science of the climate is about trends and generalities and not "you driving your car every day caused a hurricane in Miami". The very notion of this is stupid and inane. But, for my purposes, this kind of thinking only acts as a prod to thinking more about what motivates this type of thought - besides the lack of any decent grip on the science about it. I locate in the type of thinking that wants to blame the weather on us a couple of things. Firstly, I notice guilt. People who say stuff like this always want someone to blame. When it comes to the weather they conveniently stick the blame at our door in general. So Hurricane Matthew is OUR fault. That means you specifically and everyone in general. If only you didn't have a 4x4 vehicle, a tablet computer, a smartphone and a 42 inch TV it wouldn't have been windy in Mickey Mouse Land yesterday. But there's a second thing too which motivates this guilt: human self-importance.

I'm noticing this human self-importance more and more and it irritates the hell out of me. I've written about it on this blog before too, the overwhelming human exceptionalism that some of our race seem to have taken on board as a matter of faith. In the case under discussion here this human self-importance takes a modern, technological form. We are getting to the point now where human consciousness is starting to believe that, instead of us being like the rest of creation, subservient to conditions, reactive to the world around us which we do not control, that we might be able to actually start taking the lead, actively controlling and creating what is around us. This is based, I believe, very strongly on an unspoken thought that, somehow in ways never explained, we are the pinnacle of creation. And, so some of us think and others assume, we can become gods, masters of our destiny. So, of course, to this type of person, the weather is always our fault. We have become so powerful we can affect planets now. Yet, I wonder, even the lowly cow farts out hundreds of tons of greenhouse gas every day and that affects the climate too. No one thinks the cow has become god.

But then no one would because cows aren't people and people are what is important. The Western instrumental mentality sees cows only as a means to an end, food and milk in this case. But let me continue with the mentality I see around climate discussions because in it I find many insidious and unhelpful thoughts. Most of the people who will mention climate change seem to have a very narrow focus. As I have already said, this focus is all to do with human beings; the focus is its effects on us and it as a phenomenon we caused. But it seems to happen in a vacuum as if weather wouldn't happen without us. Now I live in the UK and if I'd been in exactly the same place 12,000 years ago it would have been during an ice age. The North Sea, to the east of me, would have been frozen and a piece of land called Doggerland, which is now underwater, would have linked the east of England to northern continental Europe such that you could just walk across (a Brexit voter's nightmare!). This is to say that the geography of my location would have been completely different to the "normal" which is what I, with my puny human grasp of events, regard as "what is the case" today. But, completely oblivious to the fact that human beings exist, our planet's natural processes melted all that ice, created a vast new sea, cut a channel between southern England and northern France, and made the UK an island. We didn't cause this. It happened all by itself. And, guess what, given enough time there will be another ice age too. Indeed, North America may yet again be under an ice sheet meters thick. It was before. (Imagine a world in which human beings SHOULD affect the climate because otherwise the world may quite naturally become difficult to inhabit for a time!)

What the irritating people don't seem to grasp is lots of things which come from the notion, the very important notion, that TIME = CHANGE. The world is not standing still waiting for the self-important human beings to do something to affect it. The climate is not passively standing by seeing which way human decisions will make it go. The world itself is a living, breathing ecosystem that we just happen to be a part of. Indeed, that's why we can affect (and are affected by) it at all! We live in a physical world of causes and effects, causes, incidentally, that go far beyond this planet and our ability to affect them. Our very sun, which now in our current sense of normal pleasantly warms us, will, with scientific certainly, one day grow so large that it fries us. This won't be our fault. Its the physical world doing what it does. You see this very planet, and assumedly us with it, was targeted for deletion long before the physical processes of the universe had swung into action and, unbelievably, produced human beings. When it did produce us nothing and no one thought that it had done something special, unusual or different. It was just the universe doing what it does on its way to a postulated heat death in some trillions of years. Physical things don't survive; they decay over time. Time is the name we give to the process of change and decay and it is functionally equivalent. But often we simply don't realize this. Stuff is ALWAYS changing, always decaying. Its just we rarely focus on this fact.

So this is partly why I don't understand the very, very conservative tendency of environmentalists who always seem to want to preserve things exactly as they are right now. But, I ask you, who canonized this particular point in time and made it holy? Why is now special apart from our self-important and self-regarding need to make special that which we regard as normality? And, no, its not my desire to trash everything, kill animals, poison the planet or anything like that that motivates this point for me. I'd very much like to live and let live if we have a choice. I don't see a monkey much different to a lion, a fly or a crocodile in the "life forms that deserve to keep living" stakes. This is because every life form gets brought to life without consent and is then thrust into a world so much beyond its own capacity to comprehend. All are equally as deserving or undeserving of life. All must equally adapt to their circumstances in the ways that nature has equipped them with. There is no arbiter over and above us designating what is worth its existence and what is not. Stuff just plays out as it will as each has ability to affect it. Personally speaking, I don't think that other forms of life are our's to do with as we will or that, even more preposterously, they somehow belong to us. All you are seeing there is the simple principle of "might is right". And this is how much of the world of our experience plays out in both human and animal spheres. Evolution. The strongest survive. What can happen will happen. All that good stuff.

It would probably be terribly bad form now to list all the things human beings have destroyed on this planet. But its a lot of things. The trouble is its not nearly so many things as the planet destroyed all by itself. (By the way, I reject the notion that we should separate human beings and the planet out as if we were somehow not of the planet or part of it. My express belief here expressed is that there is but one system and we are a part of it. My comments here, then, are rhetorical in purpose.) Well over 90% of species that ever lived on Earth are gone forever, so I'm told. They did that without our action or interference. Its almost as if nature is a machine for giving birth to things and then, as night follows day, killing them off again. Hey, it is exactly that. But this doesn't sit well with the so-called educated environmentalist tendency which is the expression of a conservative preservational tendency which I cannot but see as, rather than in tandem with nature, totally contrary to it. Nature, like time, is change. No one thinks that, left to its own devices, nature would just keep everything as it is right now. Everyone knows very well that if things were left alone then they would change themselves. Landscapes would alter, species would come and go. Things would carry on under the auspices of the actual normal which, contrary to puny human thought, is NOT the world as it looks out of my window during my pathetically small life. It is, instead, the whole vast sweep of events which make up the life of an on-going universe, a physical universe of change and decay AS CONSTANTS.

I think that what is needed here is a total change of perspective in many people, people who have started off with human beings at the top of a pyramid they designate "the Universe," and then designate everything else as somewhere below that as if it were merely there only to inevitably lead to us. Let me be as plain as I can be: we are not special, not the pinnacle of anything. In fact, if evolution is allowed to roll on we will, INEVITABLY, be superceded. And, in any case, even if it were the case that a narrow-minded preservation of the way things are right now was to be desired, we are doing a completely shitty job of making it so. We live in a world in which serious-minded, educated, environmentalists can drive high powered cars, use computerised devices full of precious metals that have travelled around the world to get to them, take multiple flights on aeroplanes and then whine that "humanity is killing the planet". Well, yes, it may be. But then maybe you should get rid of your car, stop using computers, TVs, modern communications devices, mass transportation systems and the capitalist economic system as a whole if you want our chosen lifestyle to affect the planet less. I note that most environmentalists seem not to preach this though. Because they love the perceived benefits as much as the next person. Human beings are deeply flawed creatures who will habitually preach one thing whilst doing another. They also seem to have desired a technological and industrial form of life which cannot but consume, pollute and destroy. Oh, and one last kick in the teeth, if you want to "save the planet" you shouldn't have kids. Producing more people is about the worst thing you can do in terms of your carbon footprint.

I say this, smugly, as a man who has no car, TV or tablet. I have a smartphone but never use it because I have no friends or contacts and so no one to call. My computer was bought in 2009 and there's no prospect of my getting a new one. I'm probably the most environmentally friendly person you know (I have no kids and never travel anywhere either that isn't on foot) which is ironic since I don't share this perverse, conservative-preservational tendency of the environmentalists. And yet here I am making as small an impact as possible upon this world I share with you (for a person who lives in a developed country). So when it comes to the environment I can actually point fingers if that is the game people want me to play. But I find the whole game to be bizarre and wrong-headed and full of curious if not preposterous notions. The truth is things change and I see little point in changing the game to "but whose fault was it they changed?". This is but the narcissistic preening of people who always need someone to blame and unreflectively regard human beings as the reason that everything exists. 

These people make me sick.

Instead, we need to start seeing everything much more holistically, as a system. We are a part, an insignificant, tiny part, of this system, of a whole much bigger than us. We aren't the reason for its existence or its purpose. We need to start seeing change and decay as normal processes, the real normal as opposed to the ossified, static, fake normal we think we see when we look out of the window with a field of vision so small that we think that because something is like this now then it always was and always should be. Come back to where you are now in 10, 100, 1000, 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000 years time and things will have gone through numerous changes because, newsflash, change is inevitable. Change is normal. Things do NOT stay the same. The preservational tendency in some human beings is contrary to this physical reality and to the on-going processes of a physical universe. Species will come and go. Things will die. That's normal! Its also normal, by the way, that things that have developed higher brain function and self-awareness might want to avoid the inevitable. The evolutionary story has not yet all been told.

On the whole, however, its time to once again remind ourselves that human beings are temporary, contingent, insignificant. No good can come of making one self-important species that might never have existed the center of all that is.