Rumpledsilkskin (www.theasif.info) Who is?
Ted Honderich, who once helped me to a teaching post in philosophy, has written a book, over 400 pages long, on... “a kind of life”... being the philosopher Ted Honderich. But in virtual space I will be much briefer. Briefer about my own monadic act within the variety. No doubt “being a philosopher”, in this hopelessly abstract sense, is not fully a kind of life, instead, a way of seeming to avoid living, at least at the sharp end. But this is what theasif.info web site is about, so that’s alright.
My “kind of life” in philosophy began, although I did not know it at the time, sitting, as a child, in the outside lavatory - “lavatory” was the word we used - of our home, a council house, in Bristol, just after the 2nd World War, during the imminence of a 1st Labour government - I am a person of the State -. I remember now a total disbelief and incredulity about the accidental nature of my existence as consciousness... everything so rooted, set, except the viewpoint, the inter-active epicentre. I don’t know how I would have been able to describe this at the time, or rather I know that I would not have been able to describe it, - “whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent” said Wittgenstein! -.
The lavatory was a tight space, cell-like, with distempered, flaking walls. There was a high, rusting, cast-iron cistern with a chain; there was no heating: in winter the irregular pipes would freeze and later burst. In this lavatory I contemplated alternative worlds as suggested by the variations of flaked and brush-stroked distemper of the walls. Years later Richard Wollheim tried to encourage some improvement of my philosophical writing by asking for greater “richness”. I rejected this, thinking that “richness” was a value alien to my beginnings... my class. Council houses were boxes, well-designed boxes. There were no cornices, no artifice, no stained glass, no self-congratulatory, bourgeois discernment... although a few beautiful marbles passed through my hands... secular mandalas for games of the gutters and manhole covers. The lavatory was a private space, and it encouraged a fantasy of solipsism and its impossibility.
My life in philosophy was first announced in a career’s lesson taken by a wooden headmaster at a redbrick, grammar school. We had to prepare for this lesson... the only time we would come face to face with the head, unless it was for caning or receiving a book prize - both of which I qualified for as well -. The question asked was vocational: - what did we want to be? Really I wanted to be the world-middleweight champion, like Randolph Turpin, but it never occurred to me to say this, although what eventually I said was, in a way, more improbable. Perhaps the word “vocational” was used, I can’t remember, and, if so, perhaps my reading of it was too spare, literal, impoverished, that is, without “richness”, certainly without an eye to the material future. Anyway, I went to Mee’s encyclopaedias for an answer - a set purchased on the never- never, my parents having been persuaded by a salesman that a working-class child needed a set to achieve the easier life - and recall fixing with some certainty on a chapter about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. When it was my turn I announced to the headmaster and a bored class that I wanted to be a philosopher. There was no consternation, in fact no response at all; possibly none of them knew what it was that I said I wanted to be. Being ignored compelled me to confirm my announced intention, and I concentrated on writing up a notebook about what I called the nature of the soul, which, as I now recall, followed through a number of increasingly preposterous ideas trying to make sense of something which did not seem to me to make sense: a reductio ad absurdum, the formal concept of which I was, at the time, ignorant. This small notebook I carried on my person and began reading from it to classmates, who were, surprisingly, quite interested or amused.
From then on philosophy dogged my identity. I declaimed some idiosyncratic, general principles of socialism in what seemed to me to be an acceptable, circular or revolutionary and foolproof argument, and, although I cannot now believe it, announced the same outside my local polling station at election times. More Lenin than Attlee, although Attlee I knew of and Lenin I did not. I was chided in English literature for my abstract, argumentative style, described as like wrestling with a blanket. Not a brilliant student, initially I was selected for the D-stream - the lowest of the grammar school low - yet astonished by getting an A at S level for a quasi-philosophical essay, which was not even asked for, about literature and class. This proved a mixed achievement, my English teacher making me feel uncomfortable telling me with a cynical smile that I had been labelled “Marxist” at the examiners’ meeting as a result of this essay. Despite the grade, this felt like an act of name-calling and it served to increase my scepticism of authority, as the ideas I had expressed I had made up, and I had read nothing of Marx not even the Manifesto, although my Dad talked about Shaw’s prefaces. No doubt some of this sowed a seed for my later attacks on the empiricist-creation theory and the connecting centrality of indeterminism in my work.
My education in philosophy began properly in Hull, at the university. My student life flirted with the radical Left, but, more transformative, I came for the first time under a direct and identifiable, philosophical influence, which temporarily erased some of my idiosyncrasy. The spell was cast by Alan White, who during my time at Hull was promoted to the chair in philosophy. Compared with professional philosophers I met later, Alan White had little élan or style but more than made up for this by winning all arguments, not difficult to do with students but much more impressive with visiting faculty coming to give their papers an airing at the philosophy society. I remember one visiting academic claiming his life’s work had been ruined by White’s objections. This was more like world-championship boxing. These victories were the victories of a methodology. It was the methodology and not White’s leprechaun manner I started copying. Out of the traditions of empiricism had grown a conception of philosophy as conceptual analysis, a second-order discipline sensitive to the nuances of ordinary language. So the centre of my philosophical education was occupied by Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Austin, Ryle etc., and not obscurantist metaphysicians. Moreover, I developed a real feel for the niceties of language analysis which, entertainingly, helped flies out of bottles full of theory and abstraction. For several years thereafter I could well have been the inspiration for the academic in Tom Stoppard’s Professional Foul who lectures on the meanings of “eating well”. I suppose this might have turned out to be a straight and narrow corridor in which I was to spend the remainder of my intellectual life, had it not been for my left-wing, theoretical tendency and, differently, initially, the idiosyncratic idea of using my newly acquired methodological and philosophical skills on the concepts of literary criticism. Alan White was writing about psychological concepts, subjecting them to the exactitude of the philosophical manner of analysis, and he became supportive and interested in my literary project after hearing a paper I had written on imagery - an interest in seemings - and I.A Richards - a paper that had no direct bearing on anything I was to be examined in -.
Subsequently, he wrote to Stuart Hampshire, then professor of philosophy at UCL, asking that I be taken on as a DPhil student in aesthetics. Accepted at UCL for this degree, I left Hull fairly-firmly entrenched in official philosophy, although, more subversively, I continued to make, as I had for some years past, paintings and drawings recreating the experience of the lavatory wall. To some extent I had mastered some of the techniques of philosophical analysis as they were recognised professionally. Also, I had acquired from the university some recognition of myself as a philosopher, having won the Collingwood Prize, as well as the Departmental Prize in philosophy. I had a little substance, something to enable me to take myself seriously.
UCL cast spells of a different order. In his book, Honderich, still under its spell, spells out the magic.... “the place of most renown in my life”, “It had past and present”, “a place of settled distinction”, joining was joining “the elect”, and Hampshire.... “the very figure of a public schoolboy, with the head of an eagle. Greyfriars made flesh and come into maturity”, “patrician and certainly effortless”, “languid”, “elevated”.
I had not come looking for the centre of the intellectual universe but without my knowing it this was the deception, the mirage which immaterialised before me. Soon I was smoking expensive Passing Cloud cigarettes instead of Woodbines, cultivating a sonorous voice, meant as full of ease and confidence. I became intoxicated with the display of taste, and the intolerance of vulgarity. This was a fading echo of an old aristocratic order, the haute bourgeoisie, but it was disguised by a percussive, glittering logic and a counterpoint of liberalism manifesting itself in places as the deeper discord of socialism.
Person to person, the gap between myself and my “vulgar” origins became wider and wider. I don’t think I became a full class traitor, quite. I did not have the money. My Passing Cloud cigarettes, which I kept not in the fag packet but what from a distance might have seemed a fine cigarette case, and which I smoked as languidly and elevatedly as I could in my tutorials with Hampshire while he drew elegantly smoke from his cigarettes through a small holder, lay in my case in a disarray of chipped dog-ends. Smoking the high life was severely rationed by lack of cash. I lived in one room with a dog, a baby and a wife. We had no sink. A tap stuck out the wall and all wastewater had to be pailed down the toilet. No bank would lend us any money. These were the days when university students generally had moneyed backgrounds and were not encouraged to join a credit society. I became a sort of displaced person, fairly solitary, very intense, my life at UCL confined to tutorials and post-graduate seminars.
Philosophically I developed increased powers of concentration...obsessional at times. At the outset Hampshire asked me to study Kant’s Critique of Judgement. This may have been playing to his strength. It may have been set to get the measure of a working class graduate from Hull. My acceptance may have been a slightly risqué judgement on Hampshire’s part. Working-class intellectuals from the North were at the time at the cutting edge of what was or was not acceptable. You may have gained kudos in certain circles from the association. A new cultural mix was beginning to form and much was still not yet apparent to esteemed cognoscenti. I remember it was I who introduced Hampshire to the writing of David Mercer.... the world of Wakefield and the North. The Critique of Judgement and TV were much more two cultures than what Baron Snow of Leicester was discussing.
The Kant test was a test I must have passed as I was then allowed to proceed with my DPhil proposal. The title agreed between myself and Stuart gives some idea of what was very acceptable at the time in philosophy: - “An analysis of some concepts involved in some theories of art and aesthetic appreciation.” However, boiling up beneath this still surface of non-committal, modernist analysis was something else, entirely different and fantastical.
I have mentioned obsession. One night, walking my dog in Golders Green, after a very long day of philosophy I experienced a sort of vision that was neither religious nor supernatural, not Blake-ian in any way. It was a vision of a philosophical programme, which I experienced as taking my whole life to complete.
Suddenly I thought I saw through what university was doing to me. Before university I lived in the fantasies of childhood, superimposing on the maps of knowledge being offered the figures I found in the flaked distemper. Getting by, just, by making up the world from scratch, much as in my S’level essay. I was not good at accommodating existing systems of knowledge; I copied - an important skill - badly. An idea of philosophy on the other hand appealed, it somehow fitted who I was, the Socratic idea of superior ignorance, of not knowing but knowing that others did not know either, although they pretended or deceived themselves into thinking otherwise. So I had made an effort to acquire a skill, it served my life purpose to be able to do philosophical analysis. However, what developed alongside this was a social way of being. At Hull, the life of a narrow meritocracy, the professional philosopher of Stoppard’s play and at UCL the decaying life of an upper bourgeoisie clinging to a belief in abstract, aesthetic values amidst a torrent of levelling philistinism. All a denial of what I had come from. This then was the meaning of education. The Critique of Judgement was symbolic of the club for whose membership I was being tested, but for some reason I was already too drawn to Mercer’s “The Birth of a Private Man” to be able to enter. My vision was purely abstract but in concrete terms I suppose it amounted to defending my Dad’s pleasure in Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust - available in electronic space - as he rested in one of his own upholstered chairs, and attacking the presumed superiority of Greenberg’s businessman, sitting in his armchair - made for him - contemplating his Matisse - made for him - in rarefied rapture. Abstractly the vision was to attack all notions of abstract, absolute value as socially induced mind invaders and to reduce art - one aspect of absolute value - to its meaningful, non-mystifying function...as ifness, and then argue for the universality of this dimension beyond art. But this was only the beginning of the vision. As ifness - those alternative worlds in the distemper... the falling down a rabbit-hole syndrome - raised questions about what it was to be a person and the limits of forms of life. What did it say about us that we made things in our minds before we made them in reality? Sitting on the lavatory I was biology but I also seemed to depart the natural order. Huge new clouds of mechanism were emerging on the horizon, brewed from developments in brain science, genetics and artificial intelligence. More ominously the behavioural sciences were on the verge of taking over the workspace and the mechanisms of multi-national capitalism increasingly shaped the form of social space. Heroically, perhaps, philosophy really could show the fly the way out of the fly bottle, but not if the obscurantism of European ideology was allowed once again to take over the philosophical space in the name of radicalism. Quite simply my vision was of escape, not revolution, not real change, just the abstract form of escape, the autonomy that a hole in the wall made possible. And all of this connected loosely with Colin in The Birth of A Private Man blundering about the Berlin wall, saying….
“I’m always waiting for that last hemisphere of blinding light. Not assuming myself to be out of the ordinary, I can’t understand where my feelings have gone in others. Oedipus put out his eyes and wandered. All I can do is close mine and let the visions whirl.”
My Golders Green vision has been the thread which has held my kind of life together, along with the weft of my life, my Marlyannova, my wife, my proletarian grounding . In its own right this vision has given rise to philosophy books and articles plus various illustrative fictions, paintings and some music. It has secured for itself a tiny niche in the history of aesthetics, usually referred to as the social theory of art.
This philosophical journey begun a long time ago, whenever it was that it began, can now be continued in virtual space. There was no way for me to have envisaged this at the outset. But as its destination is virtuality, class and underclass and escape, electronic existence is a good fit. The possibilities of virtuality have multiplied incredibly since I started my kind of life and in a far-fetched way perhaps the two, along with many other things, are deterministically symptoms of the working out of some buried code in the species programme, but, more likely, and this is what I argue, they are all part and parcel of the aspirations of self-consciousness and autonomy. And so, my kind of life continues by revisiting and reflecting on various stopping points on the journey as well as striking out across a vast territory still uncrossed. Following will not be easy, it will not be an instant thing, and the subject matter is irreducibly difficult. For escape the web site is not necessary, for the defence of escape, as I mean it, it may well be, certainly nothing “out there” goes half far enough.
Colin: Not a concept. Not a free man or an unfree man. Just a ...what?
Colin: A man, damn you all. Damn you on both sides. Your statesmanship.... your deceit.... your contempt -
(A search-light comes on. There is wild firing across the wall now, in which Colin is trapped. He shouts again above the gunfire)
Colin: We refuse.... refuse.... refuse-
(Colin staggers in a hail of bullets from both sides. Feels his body. Stands with his arms raised. The bullets hammer into him. His shadow is thrown large on an opposite wall, as with arms spread-eagled he slowly curves forward and down the wire. Now he is hanging in the wire, blood spurting from his mouth.)
Colin: Only a man.... a thing.... a human thing -
from “The Birth of a Private Man” by the late David Mercer.
For new content go to Crops and Cultivation:-
David Mercer (see Encyclopaedia of Television, under M)
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