Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

I remember my introduction to New Order when I was living in Paris in the early 1980s. The FM radio band had just been deregulated and anybody at all could set up a radio station. I had two favourites: Radio Nova which played a lot of non mainstream music – including Australian music and La Voix du lézard which played a lot of new wave (including other favourites such as Depeche Mode and PIL (Public Image Limited). Blue Monday, of course, is a towering classic of 1980s electronic dance music.

I really like this 2016 version using 1930s instruments. The video is nicely done, featuring shady, masked, dinner-suited characters playing in what one might imagine to be some grimy, decadent, illegal Berlin backstreet cabaret in the limbo between the two World Wars. The use of unusual instruments such as zither, musical saw, crystal classes and theramin to recreate some of the electronic effects in the original is wonderful. The stuck gramaphone record is a nice touch too. The level of thought and expertise that went into creating this version is quite something. I’d love to see this group do more of this kind of work, but this seems to be a one off.

One can usefully apply the idea of palimpsest when it comes to listening to certain cover versions of well-known originals. The original is carved into your listening memory and the cover version and interpretation comes to overlay the original, creating a multi-faceted subjective music experience in the listener, operating reciprocally between the original and the cover.

This version is a fabulous musical palimpsest.

It is hard to appreciate now how innovative Kraftwerk were in their early days (and indeed in their later days!) and the sheer effort and technical expertise it took to produce this music. You can see the concentrated effort of the musicians here as they perform this great version of their classic track ‘Autobahn’. It’s also a good demonstration of some of the excellent atmospheric cinematography that you see showcasing some live music performances in the 1960s and 1970s. One shot I particularly like here is the closeup of the cables moving as the electronic drumsets are being played. The musicians’ names in futuristic neon is a nice touch as well.

The future that never happened…

What immediately struck me about this video is that, counter to so many other music videos, the women are not hyper sexualised. Judging from the comments on YouTube however, this artist hasn’t maintained this stance, which a number of the commenters have found deeply disappointing. I haven’t investigated further, preferring to maintain my illusions, restricting my interpretation to just this one work.

The setting is an asylum boasting the cryptic title of ‘The Palace of the Dogs’, with a pre-title explaining ‘Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices’. The inmates – far from the usual shambolic and miserable stereotype of the interned mad person are a voluntarily disciplined and cheerful group dressed and coiffed with extreme elegance. Everybody – male and female – is wearing a black and white tuxedo and two toned shoes or is dressed in simple black – with the one exception of the asylum nurse who is dressed in white. The mysterious otherworldly wardens are dressed in long flowing black robes with nothing but a sinister mirror for a face beneath their hoods. The dancing and choreography are superb, the black and white design striking, and the dance music builds as it goes along. There are more than a few elements of Michael Jackson ‘hommage’ of course. Like many music videos, the lyrics of the song have little to do with the video and the story it is telling. The video tells a far more interesting story than the song and music do.

The performance of the residents is not the sad madness of the Carnival of the mad. It is a counter-disicipline fully enacted and chosen by the residents. It is their exit and resistance from the disciplinary institution of confinement, but they are ultimately defeated and separated as indicated by the main character being returned to her cell by the alien warders after a magical escape to the outside generated by art and artistic skill. The asylum stands in for so many social institutions with the inhuman masters delegating duties to members of the incarcerated community. The nurse cannot help but participate from the sidelines in the dance fest she is observing – she can never be entirely separate.

I’ve decided to add a new category to this blog – music videos. Music videos can be extremely rich art forms with so much packed into a short time frame.

The Avalanches are an Australian electronic group based in Melbourne. This particular video deservedly won the video of the year award at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2001. It is a perfect example of how, in the short space of less than 5 minutes, a perfectly structured concept, short story and wonderful performances can have a major impact on the viewer. The numerous comments in response to the video on YouTube testify to this.

The video works at so many levels. The trapped miners with their still healthy clichéed singing canary in the background, find an unexpected trapdoor and emerge from their monochrome underground into what they see as a wonderful paradise of colour and glamour. But the audience sees only a rather tawdry dance hall with a couple of young wannabes in 1970s dance attire performing without an audience to two aging and bored judges. The miners, unfit, overweight and dirty are initially seen as interlopers but after a faltering start the older miner proves an unexpected virtuoso of dance and the miners bring an unexpected light into the world of both dancers and judges. All parties have benefitted.

On offer in this short video is a layered set of metaphors dealing with the transition to the afterlife, friendship, grief and loss, indeed a metaphor for life itself – the first tentative steps and then a magnificently played out performance in obscurity to only a very few who judge and participate in its virtuosity and then both celebrate and grieve at its end and loss. There is an evocative blend of time periods – vaguely early to mid twentieth century miners and 1970s disco meet in this strange hidden heteroptian space.

The music itself is entirely composed of samples and has the retro nostalgic and bitter sweet cheery echoes of so many obscure and forgotten dance halls. The title of the song, ‘Since I left you’ exists in Magritte-like dissonance with the sampled song ‘Since I met you’, adding further to the richness and ambiguity of the text.

In short, a wonderfully evocative piece.

In recent years, I, like many others, have noticed that criticism and critical intellectuals have been steadily pathologised as unduly negative and hence in need of therapy and psychological intervention. It’s a very effective way of silencing the critique of institutions and social conditions.

It remains to be seen how this trend will play out in a post Covid world. A number of governments, politicians and social institutions are now engaging in what I would call head in the sand and wishful-thinking governance. If we pretend the problems surrounding Covid are not there, they will magically go away and we will return to the morally and socially bankrupt reign of neo-liberalism that worked well for the proponents of this wishful thinking strategy. If we think positively we can have everything back! But this kind of thinking is premised on the idea that the old status quo worked for everyone. Many have no wish to return to the strictures of a ‘2019 normal’.

I am currently re-reading Svend Brinkmann’s excellent 2014 manifesto (2017 in English): Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement craze. He proposes a number of principles loosely derived from Stoic philosophy to counter the endless incitements towards self-development, self entrepreneurship and a no holds barred positivity. He notes:

‘Barbara Held posits an alternative to coercive positivity -namely complaining…. Life is hard … but this isn’t our real problem. The real problem is that we are forced to pretend that life isn’t hard…. The freedom to grumble comes from the ability to face reality and accept it as it is. It endows you with a type of human dignity, in stark contrast with the terminally positive individual who zealously insists that there’s no such thing as bad weather (just inappropriate clothing). Well actually, Mr. Happy, bad weather is real – and when it’s real it’s nice to be able to complain from the warmth of the pub.” (p. 39)

He makes the very important point that complaint focuses on what is external to us – weather, oppressive work practices, the cost of living and so on, whereas the philosophy of blanket positivity is directed inwards. It’s not the weather that’s bad, it’s that we’re not dressed properly for it. Underpaid at work? Think positively, work harder, get promoted, change your job, change your attitude. One can of course list numerous other examples.

The idea, of course, is not to indulge in a maudlin gloom fest but to recognise real external constraints and act with dignity and integrity – two words that recur in Brinkmann’s book – in solidarity with other humans to better external conditions where possible and adapt where not. Positive thinking and the ‘law of attraction’ are the illusion of an infinitely powerful self and self-will. Covid-19 and its endless variants (Deltacron anyone?) and environmental degradation are a pointed reminder of the limitations of the human will in making itself centre and arbiter of all existence.

I am currently working on the references for a translation of some of Foucault’s lectures. The editors in French have established a very extensive editorial framework – adding in all the references to texts referred to and alluded to by Foucault. (Foucault read and wrote far too much is my only comment here as I slowly work through this material!) Amongst the reference are some letters from Seneca (4 BC–AD 65).

The letter I have cited from below is a salutory reminder – but also an encouragement – to academics and other artists wondering what their role is at present. It must be pointed out, however, the establishment proponents of performative metrics would no doubt take a much dimmer view of these remarks. The extract begins with a warning which could equally well apply to the dangers of social media and the current media news cycle. All a demonstration that even if certain cultural and social mores have changed, humans still tend to respond in a similar fashion.

Without doubt, the larger the group we associate with, the greater the danger. Nothing, though, is as destructive to good character as occupying a seat in some public spectacle, for then the pleasure of the sight lets the faults slip in more easily. 3 What do you suppose I mean? Do I come home greedier, more power-hungry, more self-indulgent? Worse than that! I become more cruel and inhumane, just because I have been among humans.

Purely by chance, I found myself at the midday show, expecting some amusement or wit, something relaxing to give people’s eyes a rest from the sight of human blood. On the contrary! The fights that preceded turned out to have been downright merciful. The trifling was over: now it was unmitigated slaughter.
A break in the action: “Cut some throats in the meantime, just so there will be something going on!”
9.There is no reason for you to be enticed into the midst of the people by a prideful wish to display your talent for public recitation or debate. I would want you to do that if you had any merchandise suitable for this populace; as it is, there is nobody capable of understanding you. Perhaps somebody or other will show up, and even that one will need to be instructed, to teach him how to understand you.

“For whom, then, did I learn these things?” You need not fear that your time has been wasted so long as you have learned them for yourself.

10 And so that my own learning today will not be for myself alone, I will share with you three exceptionally fine sayings that come to mind as having some bearing on the point at hand. One shall pay what is due with this letter, and the other two you may credit to my account. Democritus says,

One person counts as a nation with me, a nation as one person.*

11 Also well spoken is the remark of whoever it was (for there is some dispute as to the author) who said, when asked why he expended such efforts over a work of art that very few would ever see,

A few are enough; one is enough; not even one is also enough.

The third is especially good. Epicurus, writing to one of his companions in philosophy, said,

I write this not for the many but for you: you and I are audience enough for one another.*

12 Take these words to heart, dear Lucilius, so that you may think little of the pleasure that comes from the acclaim of the many. Many people do praise you: does it give you reason to be satisfied with yourself if you are one whom many people can understand? Direct your goods inward.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, “Letter 8: Writing as a form of service” In Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp.36-37.

Moseley, Alice. “Nudging in Public Policy.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. 30 Jul. 2020

“Nudging” in public policy involves using behavioral, economic, and psychological insights to influence the behavior of policy targets in order to help achieve policy goals. This approach to public policy was advocated by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge in 2008. Nudging is underpinned by a conception that individuals use mental shortcuts (heuristics) in day-to-day decision-making, shortcuts that do not always serve their long-term interests (for instance, in relation to eating and exercise patterns, road safety, or saving for the future). Nudging does not involve seeking to persuade individuals about the merits of pursuing particular courses of action that will better serve their long-term welfare. Rather, it involves altering the choice environment so that when people follow their instincts, using familiar mental shortcuts, the most prominent option available to the policy target will be one that is likely to promote their own welfare, and that of society more widely. Nudging has come to be considered a core part of the policy toolkit in many countries but academic scholarship has also debated the ethical dimensions of nudging, and there is a flourishing research literature on the efficacy, public acceptability, merits, and limitations of this approach within public policy.

nudge, behavioral public policy, ethics, experimentation, micro-foundations, political decision making

Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy, Political Behavior, Political Psychology

I’ve just had the good fortune to be able to spend three months on long service and holiday leave and have taken the opportunity to undertake research and work on organising systems. It has been a process that has been worth its weight in gold. My goal has been to set systems in place that will allow me more space and energy to happily devote to intellectual and research pursuits in an evermore fragmented, distracted and frenzied world.

A quick rundown of some of what I have been reading of late.

I’ve just finished reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
Newport also published a companion volume last year in 2020 – The Time Block planner which handily has a 13 week schedule – perfect for a 13 week semester’s planning!

Newport, who is a Professor of Computer Science, writes from his experience as an academic. This means that although he seeks to extrapolate his reflections to the corporate sector – one can very comfortably apply his ideas in a university setting – something that is a bit less self-evident when it comes to much other management self-help literature.

Another very useful read has been Marie Kondo’s work on material organisation and our relations with the non-human material world. Her work interestingly resonates with unexpected philsophical complexities. I have previously cited a scholarly article on the application of her method earlier on this blog.

Another read has been Peter Walsh, Let it go – quite good – particularly on downsizing aged relatives’ households.

Berlin blogger Anuschka Rees’ book, The Curated Closet, on organising your wardrobe, is next on my ‘to read’ shelf. It has had very good reviews and a quick skim through the copy I’ve bought gives the impression of a good practical read with detailed concrete exercises. It is absolutely essential, of course, to look one’s best – let the wardrobe do the talking to counteract any impression of exhausted decreptitude!

Also on my ‘to read’ shelf is Cal Newport’s A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. I’m not entirely sure that this book will offer any tips I don’t know of already, but one thing I do like about Newport’s work is his capacity to formulate tried and true techniques from a slightly different angle to solid practical effect. I will of course reserve judgement until I’ve read it.

An interesting call for papers

The Fan Studies Network

In 2021, the Pokemon franchise celebrates the 25th anniversary of its debut in Japan and the fifth anniversary of its popular worldwide AR cellphone game Pokemon Go. In fact, Pokemon is arguably experiencing something of a resurgence and renaissance within the current cultural moment. When a pop-up Pokemon Centre store was opened in London in 2018 to mark the release of Sword and Shield, queues for entering the retail space frequently had to be closed due to demand whilst product lines regularly sold out on a daily basis. In 2019, when the long-running cartoon’s main character Ash Ketchum finally won a Pokemon tournament, major news sites humorously deemed this victory a newsworthy event (Bissett 2019). More recently, a revival in Pokemon card collecting has left retail shelves bare and scalpers running rampant whilst mint-condition ‘graded’ cards have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction (Koebler 2021). Meanwhile, the…

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I find Marie Kondo’s work and method fascinating. What I find particularly interesting in her method is its invitation to people to develop a more respectful, attentive and less instrumental relationship with the non-human as well as a recognitions of the agency of the non-human (in Bruno Latour’s terms).
This open access empirical study locates her impact within the context of sustainability studies.

Chamberlin, Lucy, and Åsa Callmer. “Spark Joy and Slow Consumption: An Empirical Study of the Impact of the KonMari Method on Acquisition and Wellbeing.” Journal of Sustainability Research 3, no. 1 (2021).
Open access

In the context of resisting throwaway culture and aiming for a sufficiency-based circular economy, it is vital that consumption is slowed down—both in terms of reduced acquisition and reduction of the volumes of material resources moving through the system. To date it has been difficult to engage mainstream consumers with sustainable consumption practices, including sufficiency, but we suggest that the recent growth in popularity of decluttering, self-care and other wellbeing movements, exemplified here by Marie Kondo’s globally successful method for tidying up, may help. We review the topics of sufficiency and wellbeing, the potential of material interaction or ritualised reflection for behavioural transformation, our interpretation of consumption “moments” and the KonMari decluttering method before introducing the empirical study which took place in Sweden and the UK and Ireland. Participants were recruited through Facebook groups, with around 300 surveyed and 12 interviewed in each geography, and the interviews were qualitatively coded and analysed. Findings were surprisingly similar, highlighting a significant shift reported by participants in their approach to consumption following their introduction to and practice of the method, in particular a more reflective and restrained approach with regard to the acquisition of new things. Taking into account initial increases in disposal, the method of reporting findings and dangers of rebound, we cannot conclude that KonMari is a straightforward route to reduced consumption. Nevertheless for those who have embraced the ritual and created a more desirable home environment by discovering what “sparks joy” for them, it seems that a change in the meaning of material acquisition or possession and a slowing down of consumption through a reduction in shopping can be an unintended result.

KEYWORDS: sufficiency; sustainable consumption; slowing consumption; decluttering; circular economy; KonMari; Marie Kondo; wellbeing; reflection

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