Surfeit of politics, dearth of friendship?

December 31, 2006 at 2:49 am | In scenes_victoria, social_critique | 1 Comment

I subscribe to OpenDemocracy, but lately I often find myself clicking through the articles without paying too much attention. Too much party line, too familiar a frame, nothing to see: move along. I guess I’m getting crotchety about politics as my age settles increasingly into that middle part. But today I clicked through to Mark Vernon’s brief article, The Politics of Friendship, and found myself thoroughly engaged, making connections. This wasn’t totally new material, but it happened to come at me in conjunction with something else I just read today, apropos of the seemingly endless discussions around homelessness in Victoria (and every other urban centre): Malcolm Gladwell‘s February 2006 New Yorker article, Million-Dollar Murray (it’s subtitled “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage”).

Without going into detail (’cause I’m too tired and too lazy right now, and this is after all just a blog), I found myself connecting these dots. The first, a quote by Gladwell, who writes

We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don’t give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality. But the Denver homelessness program doesn’t help every chronically homeless person in Denver. There is a waiting list of six hundred for the supportive-housing program; it will be years before all those people get apartments, and some may never get one. There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.

[a bit further down, elaborating on power-law distribution, Gladwell draws on car emissions and smog:]

We have developed institutions that move reassuringly quickly and forcefully on collective problems. Congress passes a law. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgates a regulation. The auto industry makes its cars a little cleaner, and—presto—the air gets better.


Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis. [see article here]

So what does that have to do with “politics and friendship,” or more specifically, with friendship? Well, politics is like that universalist principle, the idea of justice, fairness, etc.: a universal one-size fits all solution that’s “equitable.” Friendship is about particularity, elevating one above all others. Mark Vernon wonders whether our justice-driven democratic structure hasn’t some resonance with the general perception that it’s gotten a lot colder lately, emotionally, and that loneliness or an absence of friendship is becoming systemically entrenched.

Vernon writes:

However, friendship is a more interesting test because some of democracy’s highest values are actually at odds with it. In short, friendship puts the humaneness of abstract democratic ideals on the spot.

One obvious point of tension is between the egalitarian principles of democracy and the individual partiality of friendship. Democracies treat all citizens the same: everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and has the right to one, and only one, vote. Human rights too are absolutely universal or they are worthless. Friendship cuts across this because it is not universal but is defined by its particularity. To say “you are my friend” is meaningless if it does not imply that I regard you above the rest. One would do something for a friend that one would never dream of doing for someone else; friends act for each other out of preference and loyalty not disinterest.

Democracies, therefore, have an ambivalent attitude towards friendship. It is fine in private but deeply suspect if and when it is seen to play a part in public life.


In a democracy, however, justice is an absolute good: it must be done and be seen to be done. Again, therefore, democracy can nurture a suspicion of friendship, thinking that it is a way of doing things characterised by questionable commitments and opaque affections, not the transparent, transcendent fairness of justice. The downside of idealising justice in this way is the speed with which people turn to the law when resolving personal disputes. Hence, perhaps, the fact that the most mature democracies are highly litigious. (see rest of article here)

If justice is an absolute good, it’s also an abstraction when it comes to dealing lovingly with one’s friends (and strangers or non-friends or potential friends). By moving us into the realm of the universal, it effectively re-moves us from the particular of knowing (or getting to know) particular people. Add to this the increasingly frenetic pace of a “constantly-on” life, and it’s no wonder if you feel ungrounded.

Vernon adds:

There are other points of tension between democracy and friendship. For example, democracies tend to nurture utilitarian approaches to politics, based upon trying to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Friendship, though, abhors “felicific calculus”, preferring to build relationships. Might this not suggest a reason why increasingly affluent democracies become increasingly unhappy places to live?

True, egalitarianism, justice and economics-driven problem-solving are hugely valuable and underpin a very many great goods. However, that they are valued because they are impersonal is double-edged. The great paradox for democracies espousing these universal ideals is that unless their sovereignty is tempered they become dehumanising and tyrannical. And friendship, without which the good life is simply impossible according to Aristotle, suffers. [more]

Well, ok, I’m not sure he really is asking the question in the way I’m thinking about it, but it’s something I got from reading his article and then surfing over to his homepage (as well as to a transcript of a 1997 presentation by Jacques Derrida, link provided at the bottom of Vernon’s article). That bit about “democracies tend[ing] to nurture utilitarian approaches to politics, based upon trying to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number” at any rate resonated deeply with Gladwell’s explication of seeing problems through Bell-Curve Distribution glasses when we really need Power-Law Distribution glasses. In both cases, there’s something counter-intuitive in what these articles argue (“what, justice as a universal principle and greatest happiness for the greatest number isn’t good enough? What?, you’re going to advocate putting more money to people who don’t deserve it vs giving it equally to everyone in need? What’s wrong with you?”), but at the same time there’s something insane about doing something that doesn’t work over and over again.

Yay and not-so-yay

December 27, 2006 at 7:12 pm | In scenes_victoria, yulelogStories | 1 Comment

Unexpectedly, an Amazon shipment of books arrived today, in time for birthday stuff, including the very weighty New York 2000: Architecture and Urbanism from the Bicentennial to the Millennium, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove. It’s a tremendous resource and will go some way toward making up for not travelling to NYC in the flesh.

That’s the “yay” part — but I also just got an email telling me that my January article (which has been set to go since Dec.1) got bumped to the February issue because of space constraints. That’s the “not-so-yay” part.

On birthdays, one hopes that one gets old enough to trample augury underfoot, or at least turn it into a direction. It seems it’s never a straight line.

Deadlines in December

December 26, 2006 at 11:35 pm | In architecture, ideas, scenes_victoria | Comments Off on Deadlines in December

We celebrate holidays in December because it’s a remnant from our agricultural past (fields fallow, stocks laid in, days too short to work outside), and we celebrate holidays in August because that’s a remnant from our industrial past (too hot to keep the factories humming, etc. etc.). This, I read somewhere, and now can’t remember where.

The next article I have coming out in Focus magazine in a few days has a working title of “Discovering Changes.” That’s a play on word-meanings, of course. One can discover changes, and one can be changed by discovering. The editors have altered my titles in the past, so I’m not sure whether they’ll let this one stick — it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that I was quite pleased with myself for getting this particular article in (for January publication) on the December 1 deadline — I suspect it’s a largely arbitrary deadline, as a previous one moved, seemingly erratically, from the first of the month before publication to the 5th to the 12th and so on. I think I got the “first of the month” deadline as a way of keeping me on a short leash; the magazine’s other writers seem to be polishing their words as late as mid-month.

But, that’s ok: if I get the thing done, it’s out of my hair (perhaps, unless there are requests for edits).

I really wanted to get this next one (for the February issue) out in time, too: Jan.1 or as close to. I reason that if I’m not struggling with an article till the last minute, I may be able to see my way clear to getting additional work done. But like some proverbial farmer, I don’t really want to be hoeing a row of words out there on the blank white page. It’s so bloody dark, for one thing. And cold, too.

I do have ideas laid down aplenty, though: even though I started working on something altogether different now, the “Tourist ‘I'” angle is still alive for a future article. And of course there’s shopping/ retail: I’m currently engrossed in Jan Whitaker’s Service and Style — I’m a bit irritated by how the book is organised, but it’s a treasure trove of priceless information and analysis. Really excellent. And I’m reading Jan Gehl (see this page and this one, too), thinking about Shrinking Cities, and exploring “Downtown” in the Places Journal.

And for kicks (and intellectual stimulation), because he’s just so damned good, there’s always James Lileks‘s site with its seemingly endless links to ephemera as well as nuggets (and photographs) of urban wisdom (even of the no longer extant variety). For all of you munching down xmas leftovers and gagging on that last rum ball, surf over to his Gallery of Regrettable Food, where 50s and 60s culinary advice gets a well-deserved thrashing. I came for his excellent “urban studies” section, and didn’t go there to gorge, but of course I did….

Fashioning a certain age

December 24, 2006 at 3:10 pm | In fashionable_life, ideas | 4 Comments

I should have some idea of what my February article will look like, but what with “this season” and all, I’ve been singularly distracted. And there’s a birthday coming up in a couple of days, one of those big ones with a zero at the end (and a halfway grown up number in front).

So I went shopping. Strangely, I know nothing about shopping anymore, not that it ever was my strength. Spending money: that, I’m quite good at. However, shopping, as an art that serves self-adornment as well as self-definition (“I shop, therefore I am”): that, count me a rank amateur. Nay, not even amateur, as the word denotes “lover.” I am more of a historical throwback to an earlier time (childhood or pre-turbo-capitalist early industrialisation: take your pick), where other people did one’s shopping for one. I suppose during those decades when I was nubile, some sort of hormonal challenge kicked in and I shopped for all the usual reasons (desire), but now, being quite deracinated (perhaps alienated) from my class origins, I have no traditional anchors or reasons for doing it, while the biological ones have receded into the background.

Matrons (post-nubility females) used to shop because one simply had to if one wanted to maintain certain distinctions. Matrons are, however, a certain class of persons — that no longer exists. Yet the new classes don’t suit. I’m too old to be a yuppie (which is so 80s anyway), too leftist to be a mere consumer, too rich (and too disinterested) to be just a bargain-hunter, too poor to be in the luxury ranks, too picky to settle for anything but the best, and so on and so forth: once you start to think about this critically, you realise that as une femme d’un certain age, there aren’t many options.

Where I used to live I knew a bookseller of a certain age who dressed in the same uniform, day in, day out. She always appeared in khaki pants, white blouse, black socks and black shoes, her elegant silver hair pulled back in a pony tail, black ribbon, black glasses. Every day. She looked quite good, if predictable. Healthy, too. Then suddenly she disappeared, having unexpectedly died of cancer.

I’m not suggesting that uniforms kill or anything. But it did put me off the predictability of uniforms, and made me long for the caprices of fashion, which seemed less deadly than the ones of health …or disease. If only I knew where to shop…

Pomo goes to market

December 23, 2006 at 1:47 am | In ideas, social_critique | Comments Off on Pomo goes to market

Fascinating article in The Economist, Post-modernism is the new black, by …hmm, how interesting: I don’t see a by-line. Ok, by “special report” or “the economist.”

Whoever wrote it was pretty well informed. For once, none of the usual sophomoric trashing (which so predictably alternates with hagiographic treatments) of Adorno and Horkheimer, although the article’s ending was sadly lame:

So should every businessman have a Lyotard by his bed? Only if he wants to send himself to sleep. Pomos made a point of writing impenetrable prose: it was necessary, Foucault argued, if they were to be taken seriously.

Come now, author: you just spent a goodly number of words showing that postmodernism wasn’t just about impenetrable prose.

Right at the start, the writer points to a parallel between postmodernism and modern-day retailing or any sort of marketing: “There is no hierarchy of goods.” That’s true, with a qualification. If you’re shopping for a $250,000 wristwatch (i.e., something in the mid-price range), then your wristwatch isn’t inherently more or less valuable than any other commodity …in a similar price-range. At the same time, people with that kind of money to spend no longer believe in any other sort of hierarchy — the value (aka the anti-value) of, say, slumming, has completely evaporated into the evanescence of postmodern life. It is all relative to everything else, and everything else, being relative, is evanescent, unreal.

Foucault had belatedly spotted that post-modernism and “neo-liberal” free-market economics, which had developed entirely independently of each other over the previous half-century, pointed in much the same direction. One talked about sex, art and penal systems, the other about monetary targets. But both sought to “emancipate” the individual from the control of state power or other authorities—one through thought and the other through economic power. Both put restoring individual choice and power at the hearts of their “projects”, as the pomos like to describe their work.


Modern retailers are only just getting to grips with two of the consequences of the breakdown of authority and hierarchy that they hoped for half a century ago: the “fragmentation” of narratives and the individual’s ability to be “the artist of his own life”.


Mark Lee, a management consultant, argues that the “new huge empires are based around one niche”.

The individual becomes the artist of his (her) own life, but the price is that we’re in charge of just a (relatively special) niche. Extinguishing the tutelage of authority in favour of a mastery of domain (the niche), we seem to have flattened the mountains and valleys of the past, exchanging them for a rupture-free landscape that somehow seems curiously the same, wherever we go

Touring glam, anarcho-punk, and narcissism: a video history

December 20, 2006 at 2:40 am | In fashionable_life, ideas, social_critique | 2 Comments

I’m obviously not posting much on this blog lately. It’s experiencing a rethink — if I were smarter, I would figure out the pattern here, but I’m not there (yet!)…

I’m experiencing a rethink, too. I have a paid writing gig these days — nothing too demanding, but I’m experiencing a learning curve nonetheless. I say this by way of explaining my absence here. But it’s a cop-out: I want to be absent here, even though I want to be present. Childish, isn’t it?

More on this later. For now, a “minder” to myself, something to flesh out and give context to the stuff I’m writing off-line.

I recently finished a little article about downtown Victoria, in which I relied heavily on the lyrics to Petula Clark’s 1964 hit “Downtown.” In that article, I also briefly mentioned that ex-Spice Girl (“Baby Spice”) Emma Bunton has done a remake of that song. Well, subsequently I wondered why I ever mentioned the latter version — given the word-limit, I couldn’t explicate. But I can here.

The Bunton version is an object lesson. It’s really a piece of tripe.

Brief detour: I’m also thinking about my next piece (for the February issue of the magazine I’m writing for), which necessitated some reading of tourism theory. (Yes, tourism theory. Not exactly the business angle, but more like the Foucault-ian angle…) From Cities and Visitors; Regulating Tourists, Markets and City Space (ed. by Lily M. Hoffman, Susan S. Fainstein, Dennis R. Judd) I learned a ton of stuff in chapter 3, by Nicola Costa and Guido Martinotti, for example. Costa and Martinotti actually enlightened me significantly as to my own past collusion in middle-class intellectualism (perhaps the same stuff that Adorno called Halbbildung, and which some conservative critics now revile as well). That is, the kind of thinking-about-things that used to be relatively esoteric ivory tower theory has filtered down to a broader spectrum of middle-class intellectuals, who (in an unfortunately often small-minded way) have made a dogmatic hash of things.

From chapter 3:

Critical theory is important, as it yields information regarding intellectuals and their audience. Indeed, books within this tradition have had great success with a learned public — the members of the intellectualized middle class, engaged in differentiating themselves from mass tourists through the construction and presentation of an ideal self, that of intelligent travelers who differentiate themselves through the exhibition of refined and expensive cultural tastes (Munt 1994).

Through critique, the intellectualized middle class has elaborated a distinctive poetic and policy of taste and distaste in the form of the ‘romantic gaze,’ which is opposed to the ‘collective gaze’ of the general public (Urry 1990). Critical intellectuals do not have among their primary objectives the intergenerational transmission of the art of travel, and their books lack any indication of how to fill vacations with acceptable content. They have provided a critique which contrasts standardized recreation and the rule of money with authentic experience. They have failed, however, to describe a content different from that generated by the market. The ‘critical’ middle class is composed of snobbish individuals. Graburn and Barthel-Bouchier (2001: 149) observe: ‘These commentators, snobs or anti-tourists are sure of two things: tourists are not us and they are inherently bad, the regressive detritus of burgeoning affluence in modernity.’

Consequently, critical intellectuals have not had any practical impact on the regulation of the negative environmental and social-equity effects of mass tourism. they have delineated the aestheticism of the anti-tourist in everyday life with considerations regarding taste and distaste in order to contrast the vulgarity of the masses that have crowded beaches and ski slopes and invaded cities. The ideal visitor, remembered nostalgically, is the learned traveler who knows ancient languages, proceeds at a leisurely pace, learns neither useful nor practical things, and belongs to a complex high culture. We hypothesize that the critics of the welfare-state-consumer-society-mass tourism trinomial belong to the intellectual type that Bauman (1987) defines as legislators. They set the rules for good taste, exhibit certainties from top to bottom, and are surrounded by aura and timorous respect.

My working theory for another article (one of the not-yet written ones) is that we are all tourists now. The working title is “The Tourist ‘I'” — a hungry eye, or an over-sated one?
But back to Petula Clark, Emma Bunton, and one other…

In my last article (it’s called “Consuming Downtown,” published by Focus magazine in Victoria), I quoted from the lyrics to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Thanks to YouTube, you can watch a very cool film clip (maybe from 1964, but more likely from 1967) of Pet Clark performing the song before an audience. The video is available via this YouTube link. It’s so innocent (in retrospect it actually seems chaste), yet glamourous: Clark is in a studio, on stage, in an evening gown. She has a battery of back-up dancers. One of the clip’s comments notes,

The way she moves towards the camera while gently swinging her hips to the accompaniment of tuxedoed male dancers, that is the very definition of the sixties pop style that inspired Bob Fosse for 10 more years at least.

It’s styled and fake and set indoors, but pasted to a wall in the background there is a picture of a city skyline, its density expressed in highrises. Even though it’s a dance number that has been choreographed to the nines, you can watch this and still believe it’s actually about “downtown.”

With Emma Bunton’s version of “Downtown,” however, you know it’s just infantile narcissism run amok. Bunton’s music video is available on this YouTube page. Compare the two. Bunton, done up as a French Maid (yet clearly incapable of doing any kind of actual maid’s work), experiences “downtown” as a fantasy …in a sealed room. That is, she never leaves the deluxe confines of a baroque-ish hotel room, through which troops a parade of cardboard characters, the likes of which you’d probably not find on any actual downtown street (unless it was Carnevale in Rio — the movie version).

“Baby” Spice gives us a “downtown” without a street, but what else could one expect from someone who, like some Peter Pan on steroids, has not grown up? Bunton, playing at playing a character (“French Maid”), comes across as the empty-headed narcissist she has to be, if she is to succeed in appealing to Mr. and Ms. EveryPerson’s fantasy of infantile aggrandizement.
If Clark’s back-up dancers still conveyed a sense of military precision (and hence, some notion of effort), Bunton’s gang of hotel room pals is at pains to avoid any and all suggestions of purpose or effort or co-ordination. It’s all playpen fun, but it’s without issue — except the all-important issue of vacant “vogue-ing,” which simply demands your attention, but none of your empathy, imagination, or thought.

Contrast this to another “downtown” music video — this one is hands-down my all-time favourite: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (also via YouTube). Unlike Bunton, whose “downtown” universe is the private room, Lauper includes the private room (her bedroom, at the end of the video) and the street: both are important. But most tellingly, watch how differently density (the holy grail of urban vibrancy) is handled by Lauper as opposed to Bunton. In Bunton’s hotel-room “downtown,” every kind of person is scripted as a cog in a narcissistic parade of the same kinds of people: facets of Bunton’s fantasy, which in turn are the infantilised viewer’s objects of self-pleasing fascination, too. There is no wish to suggest diversity: it’s all one class (namely Euro-trash), one age, one taste, etc. In Lauper’s video, on the other hand, density (and its very real accompanying diversity, which, should you experience it in the flesh, forces you into contact with difference) is what makes for the fun: there’s a crazy mixing up old and young; rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; hip and staid, etc. It’s full of possibility, and every time I see it, I smile. I don’t smile when I see Bunton’s “Downtown,” though. It’s a depressing tourism hell, a phony theme park of what’s allowed and “in.”

Clark: glamour; Lauper: anarchy & punk; Bunton: narcissism & spectacle for its own sake (=boring!).

Delivered in sex

December 7, 2006 at 9:18 pm | In fashionable_life | Comments Off on Delivered in sex

Not sure I want to bookmark this article, nor happy about leaving it lying around in one of my browser tabs, therefore, it’s one for the blawg. From the Daily Telegraph, an article on How Queen’s English has grown more like ours, which has a tewwibly witty line:

A scientific study of Christmas broadcasts to the Commonwealth since 1952 suggests the royal vowel sounds have undergone a subtle evolution since the days when coal was routinely delivered to Buckingham Palace in sex. [emph. in original]

Ok, so maybe I’m easily amused….

Reading on a bit further down, and I can see where John Cleese got all his funny voices (if not his funny walk):

“In 1952 she would have been heard referring to ‘thet men in the bleck het’. Now it would be ‘that man in the black hat’.

“Similarly, she would have spoken of the citay and dutay, rather than citee and dutee, and hame rather than home In the 1950s she would have been lorst, but by the 1970s lost.”

And indeed, the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast was pure Dartington Crystal.

She began: “As he (King George VI) used to do, I em speaking to you from my own hame, where I em spending Christmas with my femly.”

Artist statement on Santa commercialism

December 7, 2006 at 9:03 pm | In scenes_victoria, social_critique | Comments Off on Artist statement on Santa commercialism


Interesting article in today’s paper about Jimmy Wright, an artist who devised a punchy protest against xmas crass. Mr. Wright, aged 69, erected a cross in his front yard, which faces onto a main road in the farming community of Metchosin on Vancouver Island. But instead of nailing Jesus Christ to this cross, he affixed an effigy of Santa Claus. The article is entitled Santa ‘shot Jesus out of saddle’. Its subtitle states, “Crucified effigy makes a statement but some neighbours are protesting.” I bet they are!

Mr. Wright, who wants to make “a statement about the orgy of consumption in the modern world,” inscribed the words “Sumptum Fac Donec Consumptus Sis,” which is supposed to mean “Shop till you drop.” More from the article:

“Santa represents frivolous consumption,” Wright said yesterday, standing at the foot of the cross beneath the outstretched red-suited figure. “That’s all he is. He shot Jesus right out of the saddle. He’s the focus of Christmas.”

The idea for the work started brewing about eight months ago, said the artist. Wright started looking for wood. In early August, he bought a Santa costume. Then he called a friend who works with fabric and traded a painting for her help.

“But the final straw was looking at a report on CNN which said we will have effectively fished out the ocean. And I thought ‘Oh Jesus. We’re suffocating the goose that lays the natural egg. We have to stop the orgy of consumption.”

Natural egg or not — some of Wright’s neighbours are deeply upset.

At the mailbox near his home, Jennifer Blair said she thought the ‘statement’ wasn’t fair to children. Some of them catch a school bus on that corner.

“They think Santa’s at the North Pole getting their toys ready, not on a pole in Metchosin,” said Blair.

I like Ms. Blair’s sense of humour (North Pole, pole in Metchosin). I can see her point about the schoolkids on the bus, but on the other hand, the anger of the neighbours speaks to the work’s effectiveness.

Wright, who was raised a Catholic, said Christmas is very important to him, but he stopped buying presents years ago.

“I used to love Christmas, but when you think about it, I loved it for the wrong reason,” laughed the 69-year-old artist. “But you learn with age.”

Another thing he has learned is honesty.

“It’s a funny feeling when I’m sitting in my hot tub, looking out this way, and I’m trying to make a statement to everybody to slow down on what they can consume, and I’m in a 6,400-square-foot home.”


Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
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