After the viva…Can’t stop falling in love with you

“Wise men say, ‘only fools rush in’,

But I can’t help falling in love with you”

- UB40

In the first year of my PhD, my supervisor made an interesting comment about my theoretical reading. He said that I fall in love easily. He was referring to my tendency to want to jump from one theory to another whenever I came across a new one. When I submitted my registration document, three months after initial enrolment, I was proposing to use a theoretical framework that somehow brought together the work of Hegel, Luhmann and Sloterdijk. I soon realised that it was going to be way to unmanageable and I decided to stick with Hegel. After attending a conference, I almost dumped Hegel in favour of Foucault; fortunately my supervisor emphasised the importance of committing to a particular theory. I remember making the decision that I was going to stick with Hegel as the basis for my theoretical framework come what may.

Yet somehow I managed to come away from my PhD viva with the overarching comment that there were too many theories in my thesis  – and as a result they were superficially connected by the use of metaphor rather than exposition from the literature. The irony is that I thought I was being restrained. I started with Hegel and moved to readings of his work by Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalysis and Catherine Malabou. As far as I could see it was Hegelian. The problem is that having set a boundary, I inadvertently crossed it by looking at psychoanalysis and other work by Malabou. For some reason, I also felt inspired by my supervisor’s work and included that as well, not too mention the more minor interventions. I somehow justified it my head by saying that Hegelian dialectical philosophy allowed for it.  I ended up with a Hegel as my first wife and a philosophical harem.

So the last month or so, I have been trying to figure out which theoretical intervention are essential to my thesis, and which are just fluff. The examiners’ report has been very helpful in that regard. The problem with it is that the examiners themselves have made a number of alternative recommendations as to how I could proceed with my thesis. Perhaps too many recommendations, because I have been having trouble deciding which recommendation I should take.  So then I have to ask myself, what is the primary purpose of my research and what is the dominant idea I want to get across. I have been bouncing from one thing to the other this last month, unable to make a decision, worried that any decision will be the wrong decision. I am also seeing how much my thesis is like a ball of wall; if I try to pull on one particular strand, the whole ball comes apart. I think I am slowly figuring out my favourite theme. Oh where is my supervisor when I need him the most? More importantly, why did I decide that I wanted to have my viva the day before he goes on holiday for two months?

I said in a previous post that my PhD has been an opportunity to learn things about myself as well as my research topic. Well, I have learnt that this tendency to fall in love easily and difficulty with decision making has been an ongoing problem for me, to various degrees. I could write more on that, but I won’t out of respect for others affected. If past experience is anything to go by, I needed the shock of the viva to force me to make a decision (though I wish that the examiners had just made one or two recommendations). Once again,  as with the preparation for the viva, I think the most useful advice  comes from my dad, whom I paraphrase: “Right or wrong, the important thing is to make a decision; if it is the wrong decision, I have to work to make it right.” He said that in a different context. As i understand it though, it doesn’t matter how I decide to deal with the problem of having too many theories in my thesis; I have to be able to justify it with proper evidence.

I give the final words to UB40…

Reflections on my PhD

Almost a month has passed since I submitted my PhD thesis. I am this strange period of limbo: I am technically still a PhD student but I have nothing to study until just before the viva. There is a sense of plasticity; half of me is excited at having completed the text and being only one small step away from a doctorate and being called ‘Dr'; the other half resists as I restrain myself from becoming too excited until I pass the viva. Out of all my jobs and post-18 education, doing a PhD has been the longest project I have ever worked on; what’s more I came to an end of my own accord. There is also an element of sadness as I realise that the journey is almost at an end and I will have to move on. So I thought I’d write about some personal lessons from doing a PhD.

Firstly, there are some things I would do differently if I were doing my PhD again.

Get funding

I was fortunate in that my parents had said they would always pay for education, so when I found an idea I only had to find a supervisor and apply for a place. Certainly it meant I had no obligations to the university. However, I was continually aware that my parents were getting on years and the PhD is a big expense. Furthermore, I am aware that I do not have the experience of obtaining funding that my colleagues on studentships. Finally, if I had been on studentship, it would have probably been a lot easier to find teaching opportunities than it was through my own networking.

Set more deadlines

When people ask me how long it has taken me to do a PhD, I say three and a half years. Surprise, surprise, that is not completely true. It is not as if I have been working 5 days a week, 40 hours a day either researching or writing. In the last three and a half years, I have also organised events such as this, attended events and seminars, wrote articles and papers, invigilated exams and co-founded an academic journal and procrastinated. My productivity in relation to my PhD itself was like a sine wave, with peaks and troughs. What I discovered was that I was most productive whenever a deadline loomed. Without someone external implying a deadline, my brain thought I had all the time in the world. This is of course the big pitfall with the structure of the PhD. Now, one might argue that all that time gave me the opportunity to do all the other academic things. That may be true. However, I found that deadlines do not mean that everything else goes out the window, even when close to submission. Deadlines emphasise the need to manage one’s time and prioritise. Could I have completed my PhD in three years as I originally intended? On hindsight, probably yes. But I’ll deny it if asked.

Work from home or a library

I live in South London. My university is in Central London, (Oxford Circus to be precise), a one-hour commute. I somehow convinced myself that I would be more productive if I created the illusion of ‘going to the office’ every day. I stuck doggedly to this belief even though procrastination proved it to be wrong. Truth is, relatively speaking, very little of the time I spent in the office was actually spent on the PhD. Sometimes, as indicated above, there were other academic activities, but I think a good part was spent on simply web surfing. Perhaps, as well as setting myself more deadlines or targets, I should have taken a leaf from many of my colleagues’ books and also worked from home or from the library; really I only needed to go into uni to see my supervisor or if there were planned seminars and the like. I thought there would be more distractions at home but, in the office, there were just as many distractions. I did work from home in the closing months of writing up. I also found that my parents were possibly the most effective “motivator”.

 So that’s what I would do again. That”s not to say I haven’t gained enormously (and I don’t mean a doctorate – obviously I am anticipating passing my viva here). I have found that the doing a PhD is not just about undertaking objective research. It is also about doing subjective research, in the sense that it is a process of discovery about yourself. Yes, I have learned about environmental law, waste policy, Hegel, Catherine Malabou, psychoanalysis, posthumanism, feminism, etc. I have also learnt about myself. I have discovered I am a lot more conservative than I like to think. This is because I am a walking bundle of contradiction (or internal dialectic) as well as attached to people and things outside of myself (external dialectic).  In a sense, there is a dialectic between the research and the researcher. As I wrote in the ‘final word’ section of my conclusion, I projected myself onto Hegel and then Hegel projected himself (from beyond the grave, posthumously, through his text) onto me [Jeyaraj, 2013, 154-155]:

It is arguable that it is beneath the status of a philosopher like Hegel to apply his work to something as mundane and everyday as a household waste collection service. After all, he is the pivot around which the Left and the Right turn. However, if we are to stay true to his master/slave dialectic, then we must accept that, through a dialectical reversal, even a master like Hegel must humble himself and make himself a slave if there is to be a future for his mastery; otherwise, idealising him and putting him on a pedestal, away from the detritus, means that he quickly becomes irrelevant and is toppled. At any rate…Hegel’s whole philosophy was about turning humility and apparent defeat into victory. We are the masters now who depend on the labour of Hegel but, as we cannot see the body of his work, we must attach a prosthetic through our own plastic reading. In the beginning, we hover like a spirit over his text which appears to somewhat formless and empty. Through plastic psychoanalysis, we listen in to the dialectic, symbolising its operation with images stored in our own minds; as we read, we thus form the text, which then resists deformation. We say, ‘Let there be light’ and there is light. At the same time, Hegel, through his text and others’ reading of his text, projects himself onto us and reforms us in his image; we become Hegelian, with the ability to listen into the dialectic in his text but also see the dialectic outside his text. We therefore recognise Hegel and Hegel recognises us.”

Perhaps the most significant way that my PhD has changed me is that it has made my faith in Jesus Christ stronger. When I started my PhD, I had only been a Christian for 2 years, still very much a baby believer. Though I accepted them, I very much struggled with the various apparent paradoxes within the Christian faith. I was also frustrated by the way that other Christians were able to simply utter “it’s a divine mystery”. But as I learnt more about the dialectic – and no doubt through the work Jesus himself – I saw how it was possible for the co-existence of contradictions. What’s more, I saw a complexity and richness to Christianity and God that I wanted to dive into and bathe. And most recently I discovered that I did not have to choose between Jesus and my roots in Hindu culture. I am a dialectic between the two. So from a Christian from a Hindu family, I am now a Hindu believer in Christ.

Now the end is near and so I face the final curtain

If you reading this post, you’re probably expecting something on Frank Sinatra. I am sorry to disappoint. As I write, I have just finished the second draft of my PhD thesis (although it feels like a new first draft). Technically its not quite finished. I still have to put into the right format, tidy footnotes and get ok from my superviser but the hard bit is done. Of course I am way behind my own schedule. When I started, I was aiming for the end of my 3rd year in August 2012. This has kept being pushed back. First December 2012, then January, Easter, then i gave up on schedules.

I feel a lot happier about this draft than I did the previous one, which was more about getting it done. The irony is that I could have had a first draft sooner if I listened to orthodoxy.

Originally I had chapters of 15000-20000 words, which was normal. Then one of my contacts, whose area of research is the nature of doctorateness, suggested that I split my chapters into smaller chunks of 5000-8000 words to make them more readable to the examiner. This made sense to me. I spoke to my superviser, who did not object. So I could have had a first full draft in November. I decided to make smaller chapters. However I realised that splitting was not as simple as it sounded; each chapter needed its own introduction and conclusion something which I had already done before. So I ended up spending 2 months on restructuring before submitting to my superviser.

After receiving comments back, I ended up rewriting whole Phd and ended up back at the more orthodox-sized chapters I had originally. And I realised that, whilst there is nothing wrong with questioning tradition, it’s worth remembering that traditions don’t survive because they are inherently irrational. Indeed, following Hegel, one could argue that the negation of an orthodoxy that seems irrational is necessary in order to realise its rationlity.

So what’s my point? That there’s a time and place for doing it “my way” and its not when I am near the end.

Finally, for those of you who came to this blog post looking for Old Blue Eyes, here’s Frank Sinitra “My Way”

The Irony of Plasticity

I have always been in favour of plastic Christmas trees over real, fresh ones. My parents bought one when my sister and I were really small – I don’t remember not having it – and we are still using it 30-odd years later. That means we contribute a bit less to climate change than those who opt for a fresh tree every year and we save money by being able to reuse the same tree (although, technically, fresh Christmas trees tend to be of the evergreen variety so could be reused if cared for). As the short film, Gloop, points out below, plastic is a fantastic material because it can be formed into any shape and, once shaped, resist deformation. French philosopher Catherine Malabou adopts the metaphor of plasticity to describe the dialectic or relationship between different entities.

Byproduct of oil production notwithstanding, plastic’s adaptability has led to somewhat of an environmental revolution in that products could be made without extracting finite natural resources. However, in an economy driven by capital, the resistability of plastic has had the unfortunate, unenvironmental effect of plastic mountains on land and sea. Furthermore, in the long term, it does break down, with smaller pieces ending up as part of the food chain. The irony is that this contradiction in plasticity fits with Malabou’s description of an underlying relationship between entities that influence each other who also resist the influence.

Christmas post: It is the thought that counts

It’s the evening of Christmas Day – presents unwrapped, stomach full and I am so tired. Personally I am content with this year’s haul. However I was disturbed to see loads of tweets in my timeline this morning from people moaning they didn’t get this or that. (Apparently iphones and ugg boots were particularly desirable.)

It does not matter what present or gift you receive or how much it costs. In a Hegelian dialectic, we exist when we recognise or acknowledge others as capable of recognising us. Whilst there is mutuality to the relationslip, there is an element of co-dependence. We desire recognition from the other through something the other can provide, and vice versa. The relationship is abstract when the self becomes aware or conscious of the other as someone/thing that is not the self, but it is realised when we not only act on that thought through our body but the other accepts our action. A relationship is therefore not just something intellectual or emotional but there is materiality. Giving presents is an expression of that materiality but when we prioritise the present over the act of giving or receiving, the relationship takes on a master/slave quality. When we receive a present, we can see that the donor thought about us. The present could be rubbish for all intents and purposes, it does not matter. However, if we think it is rubbish, it is perhaps an indication that we do not properly recognise the donor. On the other hand, the same applies if we put no thought into the present and give rubbish for the sake of giving.

Christmas of course is about a gift that God gave us. He thought of us and loved us that he gave himself in human form. The gift was about as expensive as it could get: it cost him his place in Heaven and it cost him his life in,the most painful way possible at the time. By comparison, any present we give to or receive from others is always going to be rubbish and fall short of our expectations. Hegel argued that the only way we can be content is to recognise ourselves or, as Slavoj Zizek says, to change our perspective.

Media regulation: A Hegelian perspective

As I write, the town of Newtown, Connecticut, is dealing with the aftermath of an elementary school shooting, in which the shooter Adam Lanza killed 27 children. If that was not tragic enough, there has been one more victim, but this time at the hands of the media: Ryan Lanza, simply because he happens to have the same surname as the shooter.

According to Wired, various big name media outlets, such as CNN, Huffington Post and Slade, somehow identified Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page as the page of or for the shooter. This was picked up by social media and soon Ryan and even his Facebook friends were receiving, euphemistically, not very nice comments. Wired’s assessment was that in 24/7 news environment and a fast-changing story, media organisations were so hungry for information that they were not carrying out basic journalistic checks. But this is not a unique to the US. There have been plenty of incidents in Britain where the media have ignored or bent the law, in this case principles of journalism, for the sake of a story. The most obvious, recent, examples came out in the recent Leveson Inquiry, such hacking into people’s voicemails and taking personal, often intimate, information, without permission.

To me, these are clear manifestations of a Hegelian master/slave dialectic. A master entity, or entities, is only interested in its other – the slave – for what the slave can produce for it. The master’s life depends on the work of the slave. In this case, the slave is anyone from whom media organisations want information. The slave is valued according to how much information can be provided; the more open it is, the higher its media currency.  And, media organisations then value themselves against each other based on the quality of the information they provide. The problem is that they are not so much concerned with their relationship with the slave beyond its nature as an object of a story or provider of information. If the slave suffers adversely – or even refuses to work – it is considered a minor inconvenience at best, because there are others to take its place.

Sometimes the media justify their actions by pointing to us as readers, that we want to know. Perhaps to an extent that is true, but the question is whether we are interested in wrong information (what’s the point) or information that has been obtained at the expense of someone else’s suffering (if we are, then why have not used any of the Nazis’ research on eugenics? Just saying) Furthermore, one could question how much of the information that comes through media organisations is important, perhaps it is just another consumable. A further justification is that people who provide information have their own agenda for using the media and so it makes them fair game. We tend to call them celebrities, i.e. famous people. But the word ‘celebrity’ or ‘famous’ is becoming a broader and broader category. But, just as men (and probably still) would idealise women and put them on a pedestal, only to exploit them, so perhaps the media idealises celebrities.

The media acts as a master over people because it needs their information. The irony is that, as Hegel argued in his dialectic, the media is also a slave to people, because it not only depends on us for information, it also determines its value by how much we want its information. If we were to stop producing for it and then consuming what it produces, a media outlet or organisation would die. Or would it? On the one hand, a media organisation, by definition, mediates information between those who provide it and those who consume it. However, there is third party: those who fund that mediation of information, the advertisers and business owners. As long as media organisations can depend on the money – and PR – provided by commercial organisations, it almost does not matter that they do not think about their relationship with the public.  As long as they have the funds to exist, they do not need our information or our trust or love.

But I say almost. Just as there is a dialectic between the public and the media and the media and business, there is a dialectic between business and the public. After all, the business need the public to buy their products and/or to trust them. In this sadomasochistic love triangle, between the public, media and business, Hegel would argue that there is always a risk of dialectical breakdown somewhere. But it is that fear of breakdown – and the potential consequences – that prevents for the most part any one entity from pushing its luck too far. Sometimes breakdown does occur, but it is never so catastrophic that the system cannot repair it. There is also something posthuman about it in that now the public can be the media, those who work for media organisations or businesses can be people, media organisations are businesses, people have interests in businesses as employees, shareholders and future entrepreneurs, and so on.  But it is the creative tension in the system that actually ensures that – whatever else happens – everyone eventually recognises the right value of each other. If things went so smoothly, where would be the fun in (blogging or writing) about that?

The problem highlighted by Leveson and Wired is that media organisations ignore the law for sake of more and more information. However the media is regulated, the role of the law is to remind media organisations and journalists that they are in relationship to other entities and they have a responsibility to them. Whilst information is important, it is not more important than the underlying dialectic.

From Journalist to Academic: A Dialectic

As a fourth year PhD student, I am supposed to be in the position when I am ready to present my research to the department. If I were pregnant, I’d have a clearly visible bump, I’d be waddling and people would give up their seats for me on the bus. I’d also want to get the damn thing inside out of me. In a sense, I am ready to pop.

But when I gave a talk on my PhD research this week, it was as if I had only just done a pregnancy test. In fact, I was wearing so many extra layers that people could see I had put on weight but they did not know why. PhD research, like pregnancy and childbirth, suppose to be a beautiful process, but I had simplified it so much that I turned a baby, not even into a foetus but into a clump of cells.

In a former career, I was a journalist, and I now I blog and still do the occasional bit of copywriting. Like every other experience, it had shaped me in way that I was able to take useful life lessons. One of these lesson was: when communicating information, don’t assume that my reader or listener knows what I am talking about; indeed, it is generally a good idea to assume they know nothing. (Incidentally, I heard a similar version of this lesson in relation to driving: just assume everyone is an idiot.)  Of course, I don’t take this lesson to the extreme but I have always found it to be a helpful guide. I do not find it easy, it does require being extra-vigilant but generally others have complimented me on my comprehensive writing.

When I started my PhD, I continued to adopt this approach. It is possible that I have assessed academic books and papers based on how easy they were to understand and I generally prefer writing journalistically than in academese or in a managerial style. Indeed, I would argue that all writing should be journalistic. Indeed, I  have noticed that, in terms of structure, a news story, a journal article, a first class dissertation and a PhD thesis chapter are very similar. (Of course, a news story is more condensed.) My supervisor has now and again made references to my journalistic style of writing and to my alter ego as a blogger, then at our last meeting he said that I am writing more like an academic. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Computing Science,  did not have to the three years experience of writing academic essays, and then I went straight into journalism for three or four years. So when it went back to university to study law, I did not consciously write any different. I applied the skills I learnt as a journalist. A good essay was about research and analysis, as far as I could tell. So when it came to my PhD, I did not consciously think that I  had to write as an academic. I simply applied the skills and lessons that served me well, like a habit.

And so, knowing that there would be people who were not familiar with my particular theoretical framework, I decided to dumb down so to speak. I did not think of it like that, I simply wanted to make my research easy to understand. But there is a difference between simplifying in writing, where the reader has something to refer on paper, and orally, where all explanation has to come out of the speaker’s mouth, with or without the help of Powerpoint slides. Unfortunately, I found that I could not do justice to Hegel in a few slides, so I decided to speak only. Furthermore, like a journalist, I focused on one particular thread in my research. Unfortunately, this was the most unHegelian thing I could do. I ignored the dialectic between the different aspects of my research except the most basic of original Hegel and household recycling.

Throughout my PhD, there has been an underlying creative tension of the Hegelian dialectic between myself as a journalist and myself as a (potential) academic. In a sense, my PhD is a synthesis between what I knew as a journalist and what I am supposed to be learning as an academic. But, according to Catherine Malabou, that means that I was relying on a habit of journalism (what I know) and at least consciously resisting an aspect of academia. However, I was also submitting to academia as well, because I found that – by surprise – I was able to understand books in my third year that I could not understand in my first year. The dialectics between resistance and submission is plastic, in that both clearly were shaping it and it was resisting deformation . But then, there is an explosive quality to plastic as well. In my talk, I entered a situation where the need to submit was as strong as the desire to resist and I think I had a major explosion (or implosion). Perhaps I was have been applying the paradigm of journalism to situations where I should have been applying the paradigm of academia (whatever that is). Sometimes it worked and where it had not, I had put the failure down to something else. so, Thomas Kuhn argues, it was only when the conflict between two paradigms were sufficiently great that I reached a point of what Malabou calls le voir venir (To see what is coming). It was like a prophecy given by the Ancient Greek gods warning what might happen if I did not change course. The problem is how? What does say with regard to journalism and academia?

Being accountable for my PhD

My summer was, on the whole, very busy. Aside from two weeks off to watch the Olympics and two weeks over the period of my sister’s wedding, I have been holed up in the PhD office since June writing the final chapter of new material. My goal was to send my superviser the three main chapters for review by the time he comes back at end of September, and I did it.

I felt pretty good and can actually see the end of my PhD in sight. So, with my conclusion and introduction remaining, I formally started the writing up year. My superviser and I have previously discussed having a full first draft by Christmas – I said before, he suggested to use the holiday time. So not much longer to go. The trouble is, so far this month, I seem to have backslidden back into procrastination.

So today, with this blog post, I reaffirm my commitment to have a full first draft by Christmas (whatever that means). I will also be making this commitment on #phdchat and to my church homegroup. 

Being accountable for our time I have found is important. Otherwise, it is quite easy to waste time. Social pressure gets a bad wrap these days, but we cannot avoid it or eliminate it. Trust me, I’ve tried! Even Hegel – yes, him – says that true existence depends on (mutual) recognition by another person we see as equal. We care about what others think. Can you imagine what this world would be like if we didn’t?

The Radicalism of Nick Clegg’s Apology

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime minister, is actually quite radical in apologising for breaking the liberal democrats’ key 2010 manifesto pledge of not increasing tuition fees.

On hindsight, the pledge seems like just another crazy election promise that a governing party cannot keep. Yet, at the time, it was also something that was so easy to believe. Furthermore, the Libdems were neither the Tories nor Labour, so it was easy to believe that they could be different. So there was a lot of disappointment when they turned out to be more of the same. (I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.)

Clegg’s apology shows an awareness of a dialectic between resistance and change that is characteristic of Hegelian philosophy. in the opening chapter to my PhD thesis, I make the point that the only effective liberalism is conservative or incremental. It always looks to the future but lives from moment to moment. It would therefore take a brave politician to promise just a little bit of change. I disagree that the LibDems would have had to be “absolutely sure” that it could meet a manifesto commitment but a dose of realism regarding what’s possible would have been nice.

There is nothing wrong with aiming high. As my mum always said, if you aim for the sun, you’ll at least hit the moon. The problem is that sometimes if you only tell people you’ll hit sun, the moon can seem a bit of a disappointment.

Anyway, according to Hegel, we never actually know that we have reached our goal until we have. History is always written and rewritten after the event. Given this uncertainty, the most sensible option is to go in that direction one step at time. I would argue that many of our economic, social and environmental problems are perhaps a consequence of going too fast. Perhaps the reason why our economy isn’t growing is because the rest of the system is trying to catch up.

A loss of realism could be seen in other government policies too. For example, in the referendum campaigns for the Alternative Vote, both sides justified their positions with wild claims, when in reality the change was a small increment to greater representation. Discussions over the Royal Family also get a bit strange when they go beyond one of values to one of economic benefits. No doubt the same will happen with the referendum on Scottish independence. But at the end of the day, History does show and will show that we have always gradually been moving to a point where every individual will be  mutually recognised and acknowledged by other individuals and no aspect of a person will be suppressed.

Who is your PhD for?

It may sound like an odd question, even presumptuous to ask who my PhD is for. I’ve always justified my choice to do one on the grounds that I love research and I found a subject I wanted to explore. (Why do people act environmentally friendly – answer, we always do.) In other words it was all about me. But if that were true, then I know from my own experience that I probably would have got bored. I have only been able to sustain interest in the most mundane of activities by looking beyond myself.

My experience is supported by a number of philosophers and scientists. Hegel’s philosophy in a nutshell is that a person can have a full existence not only if it lives for itself but also lives for another. Freud says that while pleasure comes from the release of tension, ultimately ending in the final release and death, our instinct for life goes beyond the pleasure principle. According to neuroscience research, neurons survive when connections are made to other neurons.

The question is, who else is my PhD for?

The immediate and obvious answer is that my PhD is created for my supervisers and viva examiners. After all, at the end of the day, I don’t want to have nothing to show for the time and money (especially as its not my money). So even though it is my research, I don’t think I have ever rejected any of the guidance or recommendations provided by my superviser. And I do have one eye to what the examiners will read and how I might justify what I have written, to the extent that I have cited my intended examiners’ work.

But if that’s all my PhD is for, it would probably be pulped after viva instead of being available in the library. instead, it becomes another brick in the wall of knowledge, waiting for others to build on it. So my PhD is for other researchers.

But I don’t intend that my PhD collects dust in an academic library, hoping that someone finds it. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one around, does it make a sound? Similarly, as Hegel argued, does my research exist if there is no one to at least acknowledge or recognise it. One of my favourite metaphors for doing a PhD is pregnancy and childbirth, complete with labour pains; why would I not want to show off my baby? not just at conferences and in articles, but a book,this blog and other social media channels. My PhD started life as an environmental problem. Well, I do think it may or may not suggest particular policy actions. I hope its not presumptuous of me to think that my PhD is for society.

Finally, before I started, I prayed that whatever I produced from my research would not contradict the Bible. As far as I can see, God has answered my prayer. Indeed, my research has given me a greater understanding of many of the paradoxes in christianity. Furthermore, Hegel’s philosophy is obviously influenced by christianity and one cannot deal with him without dealing with the spirituality, which is heavily interwoven in it. So in the end my PhD is for God.

What’s the story of your PhD?

In writing up my PhD, the question my brain seems to ask the most is not “where do I go from here?” but “how do I get to where I want to go?” It seems to want to create the narrative or story first, before I have done the reading or research. Having come up with what it thinks is the story of my thesis does it then ask “well, is there research to make this story believable or viable?”

Of course, if there wasn’t, then the story would be rewritten accordingly. Nevertheless, my biggest worry was that I was being self-selective in the data collection. But I think the anxiety made me more vigilant and thus more willing to explore alternate storylines. Indeed, I often find myself becoming surprised at the direction that the research took me. When I transferred from PhD candidate to student status, me assessor noted that my surprise was evident in my writing, which I hope indicates that I have been prepared to change the narrative when the data changed. I guess that if my brain was expecting one answer, and the data pointed somewhere else, surprise is a natural response.

According to neuroscience research, the brain is designed to look for the most plausible story based on the subjectively known evidence. it is apparently the most conducive to survival if one considers something that looks like a lion and sounds like a lion to actually be a lion, unless proven otherwise. This of course emphasises the importance of doing research, because red berries appear to the caveman to be nice to eat unless they know that the neanderthal next door has died as a result. Nevertheless, there is clearly an inherent conservatism in the brain that is about the conservation of the body and progression or radicalism is a consequence of necessity rather than a default setting. This tension between conservation and progression is highlighted in the philosophy of Hegel, particularly in the reading by Catherine Malabou, that is characterised by plasticity, a capacity to be formed and to resist deformation. When I write, it is like a moment of le voirvenir, to see what is coming, that exists between what went before and what comes after.

I wonder whether the need for a story is why I have always resorted to the narratives of other stories – Oedipus, Thelma and Louise, star trek, Hamlet – and to a phenomological method. After all, narratives are a way of simplifying and ordering a mass complexity. After all, the creativity of the brain is limited only by the information stored. There is nothing in a story that is extraneous and my superviser and anyone who has reviewed my work have always asked “why is this sentence/paragraph here?”.

I also believe that my PhD is a way of ordering experiences that went before.

The Bible – God’s Thesis

There are many different ways to read the Bible. Some people choose to read it literally, which is problematic because not every part is meant to be a chronological narrative. Others read it christologically where every bit points to Jesus. Others will look for consistent patterns throughout or even as a love letter from God. I would like to posit it, in the greatest respect, as God’s Thesis.

Firstly, the Bible can be divided into sections equivalent to that of a thesis. The first 11 chapters of Genesis, from creation to the tower of Babel, is his introduction. It is difficult to argue that it is historical. It seems more mythical. It therefore succinctly states God’s overall argument: I created man, man disobeyed me, but I will save them even though no-one deserves because I love man. This is best captured in the story of Noah, who trusted God and did something which sounds ridiculous and unreasonable – build a boat miles away from water – because the boat  became the source of salvation through God’s power. (Ok, so God was a researcher-participant.) Noah’s drunkenness and Tower of Babel emphasises man’s ongoing capacity to sin, even after being saved.

From Abraham through to the letter of Jude, including the gospels, God presents his evidence and analysis for his overall argument. of course, there are many things which point to Jesus but also many references to first 11 chapters, including Jesus. The conclusion of God’s thesis is the book of Revelation. It summarises the evidence and reveals God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Bible has also been put together like an academic thesis. God is the lead author with a large research team whom he has selected himself. Many of his team had other jobs. Not all the material written or researched has made the final cut, indeed the value of some of the writings, such as Hebrews and 2 Peter, was not seen until quite late in the day. One could say the real writing up didn’t really begin until about 300 AD and the various church councils. In a sense, his thesis has been complete for 1,500 years and since then God has focused on teaching and the conference circuit. Obviously, one cannot draw exact parallels between God and an academic, after all knowledge is created by him in the first place.

Finally, everyone calls it God’s Word or logos. In other words, the Bible describes his underlying reasoning, i.e. his argument or thesis. Of course, no post of mine would be complete without mentioning Hegel. The Bible is arguably a dialectical text; it deals with the paradox of God’s love and wrath, of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, and of God’s as divine and as human. It includes many things which seem ridiculous, not least the idea of God dying. So, God’s Word is not just a thesis but a synthesis of a thesis and antithesis. As a dialectical text, it also a conversation between God and his creation.

As a PhD student and Christian, I have sought to ensure that everything I read is within a biblical framework (or at least I hope so) but still true to the text. One could argue that research is all about understanding God (the author) through understanding the world (his creation). This ultimate purpose of research – among all the other human reasons – is reflected in the The Bible.

The creativity of the oppressed

What happens when your subjectivity is denied? where does it go? it is redirected. sometimes this is a good thing, such as a piece of creative expression like a blog post or PhD thesis.

But sometimes a denied subject will lash out  because they feel trapped. How much creativity comes from anger? But it could be worse. Hegel argues that crime and violence are cries for help rooted in denial of subjectivity and responsibility.

One wonders whether the supposed openness in celebrity and social media is as much about a suppressed self wanting to be heard.

It is interesting that, according to Hegel, the dialectic between self and other is plastic, i.e. forms and resists deformation. He took it from the art world. Catherine malabou says in “what should we do with the brain?” that the tendency of the neoliberal state to force us to be flexible for the sake of the economy ignores our subjectivity and plasticity. The only way to fight is creativity or
disobedience.

Long she may reign over us

My name is Pravin and I am a recovering ” republican. I used  to believe that only democracy could  produce good  leaders. But this quality is not unique to elected leaders. According to Hegel, a good leader recognises their limit and capacity of people to be responsible. Indeed if the west is anything to go by, people are still denied their responsibility through economic factors. At same time, people in a dictatorship can recognise their power, as in Arab Spring. A good leader therefore is made by something other than his  course to power.

Vive La Revolution, Vive Hegel

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about what Hegel might say about the  Arab Spring. In light of the events of the last 12 months all over the world, I have decided to revisit it.

At the time (February 2011), I commented that we Brits need some kind of mass violent protest and riot against the authorities and a wholesale change of system. Well, in August 2011, we sort of got our riot, in the only logical way that a riot in a capitalist liberal democracy (as opposed to a dictatorship) could take place. Then a month later, we got a protest for a wholesale change of the system, through the Occupy movement.  (And, of course as I predicted, I was hiding behind the sofa for the first and ‘doing my bit’ on Twitter for the second.) Protests and electoral upsets have been continuing throughout Europe, most recently with Francoise Hollande’s presidential victory in France, the rise of non-mainstream parties such as Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece and the return of the indignados and Occupy movements in Spain and globally respectively, not too mention months of fighting in Syria and Bahrain. What is interesting is that the  authorities in each country were opposed to the protest movements and have sought to maintain the status quo and carry on with their policies, whether austerity in Europe or repression in the Middle East.

In Hegel’s 1827 essay, The Magistrates should be elected by the People, he wrote about the need for a popular uprising in his home state of Wurttemburg (Germany).  It was a time when there is a clear groundswell of opinion and feeling that the traditional political edifice of the day could no longer be sustained.  He says that “a vision of better, juster times has come to life in the souls of men [and women], and a longing and yearning for a purer and freer destiny has moved all hearts and alienated them from the present reality.” It does almost feels as if Hegel were writing in the present. The longer that change and the “satisfaction of hopes” is put off, the more intense will become the “urge to remedy a genuine need, and any delay will make that longing eat more deeply into men’s hearts, for it is not just a fortuitous attack of light heartedness which will soon pass away.”

But it’s not just that the current “political climate” is universally and profoundly seen as unsustainable. There is also a universal anxiety that it may “collapse and injure everyone in its fall”. In Europe, this could be the collapse of the euro or the default of Greece. It’s almost as if the fear is so overwhelming, so powerful, that “it will be left to chance to decide what shall be overthrown and what shall be preserved, what shall stand and what shall fail”. Hegel argues that whatever “cannot be sustained” should be abandoned and the “dispassionate eye” of justice is the only yardstick to examine what make something unsustainable.

He says that it is “blind…to believe that institutions, constitutions and laws which no longer accord with men’s customs, needs and opinions” can be justified and sustained. Any attempt to “restore confidence” in these elements in which people no longer trust or have faith is likely to lead to a “much more terrible outburst in which vengeance will ally itself to the need for reform and the ever deceived, ever oppressed mass will mete out punishment to dishonesty”. Of course, Hegel is writing towards the end of the French Revolution which saw a change in the French political system from an absolute monarchy to a republic. One can only wonder whether we are going through a similar period. One must wonder whether attempts to regain public trust of politician, of the financial services sector and of government’s economic management in Europe and gradual reforms in Middle East will be counterproductive and that what is required is a renunciation of power, manifested by a transfer of power from the centre to the masses. “To do nothing when the ground shakes beneath our feet but wait blindly and cheerfully for the collapse of the old building which is full of cracks and rotten to its foundations, and to let oneself be crushed by the falling timbers, is as contrary to prudence as it is to honour.”

Those who are driven by the fear that something must change – those saying it is the only option – will weakly “try to hold onto everything they possess”, like a “spendthrift who is obliged to cut his expenditure  but cannot dispose with any article he has hitherto required and has now been advised to do without”, like cars, foreign holidays and centralised power. On the contrary, they “should not be afraid to scrutinise every detail…the victim of injustice must demand the removal of whatever injustice they discover, and the unjust possessor must freely give up what he possess.”

Whether Europe or the Middle East, the protest is ultimately from the people who have no jobs, less money, less subjectivity against an elite trying to hold on to what they have and trying to increase economic growth. Perhaps this should be the strongest indication that perhaps there needs to be a paradigm shift away from the status quo and demand for economic growth. A Hegelian Hegel paradigm, there is an understanding that there is always a risk of breakdown in the relationship or dialectic between entities and it is that fear of breakdown that ensures the dialectic (or mutual conversation) continues.  It’s only when an entity tries to satisfy itself only and seeks to dominate the other, without mutual recognition, that breakdown occurs.

Do you understand what my PhD is really about?

That’s been the most difficult question I’ve had to deal with during the course of my PhD. Honestly, how do you explain something really complex to people who don’t know anything? Usually, I waffle on about recycling and incentives and through in something around relationships until they go away. But lately I’ve been trying to prepare for my transfer from MPhil/PhD to PhD and I just could not get my thesis abstract quite right. Eventually, my supervisor suggested to write an abstract as if for the layperson, like a blog post. And it worked. So, I am curious now, how comprehensible is my thesis abstract? Please let know what you think.

In my thesis, I argue that a post-humanist approach to environmental law can be developed from a reading of Hegel. Society is ultimately made up of networks of individuals-in-families. Hegel calls the force that hold society together (mutual) Recognition but Jessica Benjamin reads it as Love. The conservation of society comes from the self’s responsibility to (or ability to respond to the needs of) others who depend on the self in the present and the present generation’s responsibility to future generations. Through Catherine Malabou’s reading of Hegel, the family based on marriage and procreation represents a plastic future that is not just a distinct entity from the present but exists simultaneously and is continually transformed by and into the present. This is reflected through the expansion of human civilisation. This means that to be human is constantly changing over time to include whatever is in its environment. In other words, to be human is to be post-human – the human self is its environmental other. The totality of relations between individual humans and their environment is reflected in the relationship between society and the environment. If law is an expression of the self’s responsibility to the other, then all law is arguably environmental law.

Therefore, I argue that law can be nothing more than an aide-memoire of the responsibility and dependence of the self and other. This can be seen from analysis of EU and national waste legislation, local authority literature, government and NGO reports and journalistic articles. The government recognises the role of individuals-in-households and the importance of changing household behaviour to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. This corresponds with the Hegelian family as the basis for society. But there is a debate regarding the limit of the law. On the one hand, the household is the untamed environment of the state; on the other hand, it is protected from the legal environment. Local authorities have an array of different household waste and recycling policies, such as incentivisation, co-mingling and the frequency of collections. The evidence indicates that the more invasive the policy into the running of the household, the more the household is able to reduce waste, increasing recycling and also prevent waste. This demonstrates that when the legal environment is brought inside the household, it reminds the household not only of its responsibility to the state but also of society’s responsibility to the environment.

So, since all law is environmental law, the marginalisation of sections of society is akin to the landfilling of waste. Previously, the household could buy products and dispose of waste by sending it into the environment and forgetting about it. Similarly, sections of society (individuals-in-households) arguably make use of other individuals-in-households until they do not need them any more. This master/slave dialectic is reflected in various ways, including age, socioeconomy, race, physical ability, sex, etc. Hegel argues that this relationship is always one step before breakdown, so perpetuating the imbalance. But since the human is post-human, the relationship has a plasticity that indicates that wasted communities are recyclable. However, through law, their wasting can be prevented because recycling is Hegelian Recognition. I argue that this will result in a more equal society, with an aspiration of a zero waste society. In other words, social equality does not come from the creation of rights (alone) that require resources to enforce them but responsibility that requires a sense of agency or subjectivity.

PhD, blogging and procrastination

It’s been a month since my last blog post, but it feels like an eternity. Furthermore, tweeting has gone way down too.  But I guess that’s what happens when real life takes over. Truth is, as useful and creative as social media can be, it can also be a major source of procrastination. A bit like talking on the phone with friends.

I knew that when I started the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ blog, I was not going to put myself under the pressure of updating it every day. But I still managed to write something at least once a week, often more. Often, it was a way of taking a break from my PhD. And often it was a way of exploring ideas within my PhD and the application of theory to practice. So I never expected to go so long from the field. It’s been a month, but in internet time, that’s forever.

As I said, real life (well, offline life) took over. Soon after the start of 2012, it hit me that I in my third year and into the end game of my PhD. My plan, when I started, was to submit this July. As I’ve progressed, that date has slowly slipped back, to August, then September. In my fourth year, I enter the official writing up stage. For the first six months of the fourth year, I don’t need pay any fees. Given that I don’t pay my own fees but someone else is paying them, it made sense therefore that I effectively have until April 2013 to submit my thesis. (Otherwise, what they expected to pay goes up.) I am pretty sure that I don’t need to wait until next April and I’m not sure that I want to wait that long, so I am resolved to submit by December/January, which I think is doable. The only thing is that I have not even transferred/upgraded to PhD status yet, which I should have done last September. (Most of my colleagues have not transferred either but that’s besides the point.) Once I transfer, then I am can go for the PhD, otherwise I might have to settle for the MPhil – frankly, after three years, that would feel like such a waste of my time, not to mention a waste of my sponsor’s money. So the last two months, my only goal has been to complete all the documentation for this deadline, including writing and finalising two chapters. I finally got this done last Friday and I should be able to submit the documents within two weeks. Just need supervisers’ signatures.

I am now ready to move onto chapters three and four. The great thing is that I’ve effectively written half my thesis (not including introduction and finetuning). All of sudden, an 80,000 word thesis is no longer on the other side of a canyon. I feel like Thelma and Louise mid-air over the top. Yes, I know that we don’t if they made it across but that’s what faith is for.

According to the Procrastination Equation, I am an impulsive being. Blogging and tweeting did become forms of procrastination. They had more immediately fulfillable rewards plus, while it was important that I succeed, the expectancy that I would be able write 80,000 words was low. Indeed, the only way I’ve been able to force myself to write was by reducing the ‘delay to reward’ and ‘expectancy of success’ to 1,000 words a day. That worked to an extent. But, the last two months, not only was I focusing on 1,000 words a day, I also added an extra deadline of the end of March and just put loads of pressure on myself so that no meeting that deadline would feel like the end of the world. It also helped that at the time when I wanted as much time as possible to work on my PhD, I also got a number of opportunities to engage in teaching and this reduced the time available and added to the pressure. It was a both good and bad timing, because it forced to me to focus. So, having achieved my goal within my deadline, more or less, my expectancy of success has gone way up on two counts: word count and duration.

I can relax a little a bit now but not too much. I am still an impulsive being. So I have to find ways of overcoming it either. Fortunately, my most immediate research tasks is more reading and, since the weather is expected to be good for the next few days, I can decamp to the park. (Yes, I know, it’s hard life doing a PhD sometimes.) But that’s not always going to work, when I am writing up or researching online. In those times, I find that I have to schedule blocks of procrastination to get it out my system before I start work for the day, at lunch time or at the end of the working day, or sometimes I just have to resist.

The Procrastination Equation, as developed by Dr Piers Steel, is a formulaic and psychological way of understanding our dialectic nature as individuals, and the dialectic nature of the world. Catherine Malabou says that we are plastic – we can be formed by others as well as resist deformation. In other words, our plasticity (developed from the philosophy of Hegel) as individuals is our susceptability to change and our capacity to resist- or our propensity to procrastinate. It’s not just PhDs we procrastinate on but on everything we do or have to do – from paying our bills to tackling climate change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging, but it might be I don’t blog as often I used to. After all, I can’t stop my propensity to procrastinate, but I can make it work for me instead of against me.

For more on the above and other ideas to tackle procrastination, I strongly recomment ‘The Procrastination Equation’ by Dr Piers Steel.

Kolaveri Di – the plasticity of the Tamil language

Recently I was sent this video of the Tamil song “Why this Kolaveri Di” (English version at end of post). I’ve only just found out that it was probably the most popular song of 2011. I have to admit, I have a rather slim grasp on my Tamil roots, so I had no either what it meant or what it was. So of course I went to Wikipedia: apparently, the song title translates as ‘Why This Murderous Rage, Girl?’ and the song is from the soundtrack of an upcoming Tamil film 3, due out this year, about a guy who is rejected by a girl. Anyway, this blog post is way behind the times, given that the song was released in November.


What’s really interesting is that the song is written in ‘Tanglish’, a Tamil/English hybrid, but that’s what interesting about Tamil, you don’t need to be really fluent in it to speak it, you can mix Tamil and English together in a way that you can’t (or not allowed to do) with English and other European languages (although not Tanglish). So listening to people talk conversationally over a period time I have found that slowly I have been able to understand things. I can speak Tamil, although perhaps not to the same level of my parents who came to England from Sri Lanka. When I was a child, they would often speak in Tamil if they didn’t want my sister or I to understand what they were saying, but as I got older, this became more and more difficult as I understood more and more.

Here’s an example of how Tamil and English fit together (not that you will probably need it). If you want to say “I would like (want) some food/dinner” in Tamil only (apologies for the English spellings):

Ennakku sharppadu vernum (Literally, for me dinner want). “

But you could also say:

Ennakku dinner/food-ikku vernum.”

Of course, probably because of colonial times, there are a number of English words for which there is no Tamil equivalent anyway, such as apple, (motor) car, orange and (ironically) tea, although they may be said in a Tamil accent – Ahpple, mohtar car, thear. And, there are apparently Tamil words that have become a part of English, such as catamaran and mulligatawny. So, and this post would not really be complete it I didn’t mention Hegel, there is arguably a Hegelian dialectic between Tamil and English. The two languages are plastic, where they shape and are shaped by each other, whilst at the same time resisting deformation. The language of ‘Kolaveri Di’ (the song) appears to a manifestation of that plasticity. (As an aside, the single video at the top of this post indicates the dialectic between creator and created, particularly where the studio instructions are included.)

There are a number of videos for ‘Koleveri Di’ on Youtube but I particularly like this English R&B version, which I think captures what ‘Koleveri Di’ (Murderous Rage, Girl) is all about.

And of course there’s already a Downfall parody.

What did Hegel do on Valentine's Day?

Thank God Valentine’s Day is over. Dont get me wrong, I don’t hate Valentine’s Day. I am pleased that there are plenty of people who can celebrate it and I hope to join them some day. I just haven’t found anyone whose into, er, group activities. Just kidding.

Even Hegel, the 18th Century German philosopher and father of the modern state, believed that love is fundamental basis of the world, it’s what makes the world go round, because it cannot be broken down any further into its constituent parts. (He also called it Recognition.) In his “Philosophy of Right”, he wrote: ‘Love is in general the consciousness of the unity of myself with another. I am not separate and isolated, but win my self-consciousness only by renouncing my independent existence, and by knowing myself as unity of myself with another and of another with me. But love is a feeling, that is to say, the ethical form of nature…The first element of love is that I will to be no longer an independent self-sufficing person, and that, if I were such a person, I should feel myself lacking and incomplete. The second element is that I gain myself in another person, in whom I am recognised, as he again is in me. Hence love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding. Nothing is more obstinate than this scrupulosity of self-consciousness, which, though negated, I yet insist upon as something positive. Love is both the source and the solution of this contradiction. As a solution, it is an ethical union.’

Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone to celebrate Valentine’s Day with. Well, no-one real anyway….oh wait, I have plenty of people to celebrate it with, they just don’t want to celebrate it with me.

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Facebook IPO: What would Hegel do?

I am pretty sure that the investment potential of Facebook is underpinned by the theoretical knowledge of Hegel. Having studied him for the last two years during my PhD, I am pretty sure that Hegel, that German, 18th century philosopher known as the father of the modern state would not only be one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest friends, he probably would have found Facebook. Except that he would have called it something like Recognition or Dialectic. He would be an avid blogger – quite handy when wars across Europe and/or financial hardship are making it difficult to publish – and made pretty good use of wikis. It would have been interesting to see something like the Phenomenology of Mind promoted via Twitter but I am pretty sure he would be a Networked Researcher.

So when I read Mark Zuckberberg‘s letter to potential investors as to what they should know about investing in Facebook, I could not help thinking that Hegel would be proud. Both Hegel and Zuckerberg emphasise the foundational importance of relationships. The essence of Hegel’s philosophy is Recognition, where each self-consciousness (i.e. human being) exists in and for itself in that it exists for another self-consciousness, that is ‘it is only by acknowledged and recognised’ (Phenomenology of Mind). In The Bonds of Love, the feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin argues that Recognition is so central to our existence that we often take it for granted; she says that near synonyms include ‘affirmation, validation, acknowledgement, knowledge, acceptance, understanding, empathy, taking in, tolerance, appreciation, sight, identification with, find familiar with and love’. Hegel is so bold as to argue that society, though an extension of the family, starts with a unity of individual consciousnesses of oneself held together by a feeling of love. ‘The first element of love is that I will to be no longer an independent self-sufficing person and that, if I were such a person, I should feel myself lack and incomplete. The second element is that I gain myself in another person, in whom I am recognised, as he again is in me. Hence, love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding.’ (Philosophy of Right). It is difficult to argue that Zuckerberg would not have sympathy with that view. He describes Facebook social mission as starting small, ‘with the relationship two people':

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

His stated aim for Facebook is to help people connect, share information and build those relationships, whether it’s with small circle or half the world. What’s interesting is that he then goes on to what appears to be an ultimate agenda of rewiring ‘the way people spread and consume information, believing that ‘the world’s information infrastructure’ resemble the social graph – a network built from the bottom-up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date’. This way of transmitting information is not dissimilar to what the growing body of neuroscience demonstrates about how the brain works, points out the French Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou (What should we do with the Brain?). In other words, how we individually process information, neuron by neuron, would seem a logical way for how we relate to people, convey information and how societal change is achieved. A key element of a neuron though is that it does not easily connect to other neurons – Malabou calls it explosion – and bonds only become stronger gradually over time. It’s also why we take time to drop habits (The Future of Hegel). Zuckerberg says:

As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

Malabou develops Hegel’s notion of plasticity to emphasise the tension between our resistance to and our susceptibility to change. As can be seen from Zuckerberg’s approach, it’s a conservative (incremental) approach to achieve a radical or progressive goal of ‘a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services’ and better government that responds to its citizens. And let’s be honest, the big problems that put us off companies and politicians is poor customer service, marketing that we just cannot relate too and products that just don’t meet our needs.
This brings me on to the ‘Hacker’ way, which Zuckerberg defines as ‘building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done’. In many ways, I would argue that Hegel was a hacker. Certainly, his key text, the Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, was something that had to be finished quickly because of financial pressures and concerns about war. In a continent dominated by Christianity, he certainly tested boundaries, with his philosophy taking in or recognising ideas from Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Indeed, in my view, by focusing on Recognition, he is arguing in favour of seeing beyond the illusion of self and other to what connects the two.  And, studying and then writing during the French Revolution, he was always a strong liberal; however, he recognised that liberalism could not be imposed from the top-down but could only be achieved gradually, incrementally, in a bottom-up or peer-to-peer fashion, much like the ‘continuous improvement and iteration’ of Facebook’s Hacker Way. Indeed, Malabou suggests that the What Should We Do The Brain? is a critique of a neoliberalism that has distorted the science of the brain and that we really ought to be reading more Hegel. And this is of course why it’s not enough to just read one text by Hegel or even only what he wrote. Whilst his philosophy is premised on their being such a thing as perfection, he describes history as being the development of progress towards perfection. Costas Douzinas points out in The End of Human Rights that the Hegelian Spirit, which was the underlying driver of the change in the word, has never grasped the totality. It goes back and forth between this world and the spiritual dimension and each time it understands a little more about the world. Each moment of time is a little more understanding. Hegel never said that anything that’s gone before is perfect, because the Spirit won’t know perfection until it understands everything. In other words, as Facebook hackers would say: ‘Done is better than perfect’.
The original aim of this post was to argue the relevance of Hegelian philosophy to today’s world. But then, as a true believer, I would say that. More importantly, having read through Zuckerberg’s letter, I am pretty sure that there is a theoretical basis to Facebook’s mission (and social media in general). Hmm, I wonder if I should put my money where my blog post is.

Yes, Yes, Oh God, Yes

Sex

Having an orgasm leads to an altered state of consciousness. This will probably not come as much as a surprise if you have had sex or masturbated to the point of ejaculation. But, just so you know, your suspicions have been confirmed by new scientific research, according to an article by Kayt Sukel in the New Scientist. What is interesting is what neuroscience tells us about the parts of the brain that are involved in sex and orgasms.

The neuroscientific research shows that it is the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain for “aspects of consciousness such as self-evaluation and considering something from another person’s perspective” that is active at the time of orgasm following self-stimulation masturbation. However, it also showed that a specific part of the prefrontal cortex, the left orbitofrontal cortex, appeared to switch off when orgasm followed partner-stimulated masturbation.

The pre-frontal cortex happens to be the part of the brain responsible for self-control, organisation of thoughts, creation of narrative and ultimately finding a reason or purpose for things. The researchers, Barry Komisaruk (Rutgers University, US) and Janniko Georgiadis (University of Groningen, The Netherlands) surmised that self-stimulation required greater mental effort to create a fantasy or image to take the place of a partner, whose presence would make it easier to let go. If someone else is stimulating us, there’s not that much we need to do. So a part of the prefrontal cortex turns off – the altered state of consciousness. This is perhaps why the ‘Yes, Yes, Oh God, Yes’ moment is more pronounced during sex. But I think that that expression is more than a figure of speech in the throes of passion.

But if the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that creates purpose and organisation, then atheists will say that God is simply notion of the prefrontal cortex. I don’t think this disproves the existence of God. On the contrary, if there is an external God and he does communicate with us directly, He is most likely to communicate with us through the prefrontal cortex. That is how he would relate to us.

I can’t speak for other faiths out of ignorance, but Christianity is meant to be about how God wants to have a relationship with us. In the Bible, this relationship is often described metaphorically as the marriage between a bride and bridegroom. Perhaps this isn’t as metaphorical as we might think. Perhaps the orgasm we get from sex is meant to be God’s way of giving us a temporary experience of what it’s like to be in an (eternal) relationship with Him in Heaven. He’s telling us, ‘If you like sex and orgasm, then you are going to love being with me’.

Obviously the above research is not conclusive but Komisaruk and Georgiadis suggested that there are many valid reasons why we don’t have orgasms during sex but ultimately it’s down to not letting go and giving up control to let someone else pleasure and satisfy us. In the same way, the only way that we can experience this erotic relationship with God is if we completely submit to Him and let Him pleasure and satisfy us. Perhaps in heaven, our left orbitofrontal cortex will be completely turned off and we will be in constant state of sexual orgasm. (Perhaps the experience of the Fall described in Genesis, when we are supposed to have turned our backs on God, is when the left orbitofrontal cortex became switched on. Maybe that’s why the whole of humanity became infected with ‘sin'; there was actually a physiological change in our thinking.) Orgasm following from masturbation, on the other hand, does point to this relationship but is only a shadow because we are still in control.

Apparently, it’s also possible for women and children to have orgasms while being raped or abused. Now, rape and sexual abuse is a horrible act so this understandably creates confusion. I’m not expert so this paragraph should be taken with a pinch of salt. But perhaps the victim, either consciously or subconsciously, gets to the point where they realise that the abuser is going to do it to them whether they resist or not. So they just wait for it be over, essentially giving up.

This blog post does raise an interesting issue about certain controversial narratives about Jesus, such as in The Last Temptation of Christ or the Da Vinci Code. Though this is not in the Bible, Mary Magdalene has historically been portrayed the physical lover of Christ. Christians have traditionally rejected this but in light of the above research I wonder whether, actually, the Mary Magdalene-as-lover narrative is just another way of talking about being in relationship with God. Mary gave herself, submitted herself, completely to Christ (God) and allowed him to satisfy her. (I am not suggesting that she actually did have sex with him. But, when one thinks of the Hegelian dialectic between contradictory ideas, perhaps that’s what we have here.) Theresa of Avila has described a perfect union with God as ‘devotion of ecstasy’.

Indeed, the whole Christian faith is based on a sexual act – the Holy Spirit of God coming into Jesus’ mother Mary. Mary entered that altered state of consciousness, she went to Heaven and back. In John’s gospel, the writer always describes himself the ‘disciple that Jesus loved’. Luke’s gospel and his Acts of the Apostles is written in the form of a letter from the writer to Theophilius, which is Greek for ‘lover of God’. There’s even a whole book in the Bible, The Song of Songs, which is erotic love song between newlyweds and is also taken to be an allegory for the divine relationship between us and God.

Right, I’m off to my room to pray…

 

 

The Devil Wears Prada: Le Voir Venir

Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway shooting on 'The Devil Wears Prada'

I’ve just watched ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ for the umpteenth time tonight. I love it when I find films or TV series that I just want to watch over and over again. What I find fascinating is that every time I watch I pick up on something I didn’t notice the first time or something that didn’t seem significant before stands out. I also find that the first time I watch something I tend to focus more on the plot because I don’t know the story. But afterwards, because I know the story and what’s going to happen, I can actually appreciate more the writing and the characters and the backgrounds and so on.

For those of you who haven’t seen the Devil Wears Prada (why not?), Andrea (played by Anne Hathaway, the best thing about the film) has recently graduated from journalism school. Her dream is to write serious journalism like the New Yorker or for a newspaper. But she decides to apply for and take a job at Runway magazine, the top fashion magazine, even though she has no interest or knowledge in fashion because it would look good on her CV. Apparently both Runway and the editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) have a fair amount of kudos not only in fashion but also journalism.  After a shaky start, she actually begins to succeed to the point that she is invited to join Miranda at Paris Fashion Week. The problem is that her success seems to be at the expense of who she is.

There are many themes that come up in this film but what I saw tonight was – appropriately for a film about a fashion magazine – what the French philosopher Catherine Malabou called le voir venir. Malabou translates it as ‘To see (what is) coming’, that moment where you stop, look back from where you have come and look forward and anticipate where you are going and decide what to do. It reflects, again appropriately for a fashion magazine, the plasticity of the Hegelian dialectic between resistance and change. (Plastic being something that can be moulded and then, once moulded, resists deformation, with an explosive element).

When Andrea first starts at Runway, she makes it pretty clear she is just there to get the experience before moving on, that it’s not what she’s into and so on. But she works hard. She holds onto her sense of fashion and she pokes fun at the ‘Runway girls’ with her friends. Then, after a particularly harsh telling off, she thinks it so unfair. It is brought to her attention that actually she hasn’t trying that hard at all…she’s not really adapting to the work environment, so why should the work environment adapt to her. At that moment, she experiences le voir venir. She decides to drop her sense of fashion and seeks help. She looks back and looks forward and decides to jump. However, that moment of le voir venir was like an explosion, it didn’t just push her a little forward, it pushed a lot. And continually there is tension between the ‘old Andrea’ and ‘new Andrea’. Indeed, there were lots of moments of le voir venir.

But as she seems to be leaving her old friends behind and making new ones, she still resists losing her values. As Miranda shows more and more faith in her, she shows loyalty to Miranda. So, when she finds out from Christian Thomson, her favourite writer with whom she has just slept with, about a move to push Miranda out of Runway, she is frantically trying to warn her of what’s happening. She is then absolutely devastated when Miranda resolves the situation and protects Miranda’s career by what she considers an act of disloyalty to the creative director of Runway, Nigel. But this is what succeeding in fashion and fashion journalism is all about…continually adapting and moving forward even if it means leaving behind those to whom you are connected. (Indeed, the whole fashion industry is about what’s new not what’s old hat, so to speak.) And that is Andrea’s final moment of le voir venir in the film. But this time, Andrea resists the forward momentum in her career and turns her back on a career at Runway. In essence, she turns back from becoming more like Miranda.

At the end of the film, it appears as if Andrea has gone back completely to how she was at the start of the film. But I think that the reason why she was able to go as far as she did at Runway was because she was interested in a career in serious journalism; she was ambitious. Miranda makes the point early on that girls who knew a lot more about fashion, thinner and better dressed, gave up a lot sooner. I think this was, for those girls, about fashion rather than about publishing. For Andrea, where she came from provided the reason for going forward. She had her resume of student journalism and was heading to serious journalism. Runway was not just a blip as the editor at the New York Mirror suggested at the end, even though Andrea tried to play down her time there. It was always part of her plan. She did what she needed to do to get the experience and when she felt she had gone far enough, she left. I think this was why Miranda took her on in the first place: because she saw someone with a sense of ambition who she knew would try hard, as opposed to the usual assistants who were just about the fashion. This is why Miranda says she sees much of herself in Andrea. Of course Andrea disagrees, but Miranda was talking about her ambition and she was right; Andrea was ambitious enough to get ahead at the expense of Emily who was far more into Paris Fashion Week. So yes, on the one hand, Andrea did change and move forward at Runway; On the other hand, she resisted change and held onto her dreams and her ambition.

What’s in a Name? (Leader of the Wise Men)

US birth certificate
Our names are recorded on our birth certificates

Names are amazing and beautiful. They are relatively small, just a handful of letters, but they are our very first label. They form the basis of our identity and yet are probably the only part of our identity that we do not have any control over. Well, that and our genes, but people won’t generally be asking for a blood test as a matter of course.

This post was inspired by a conversation on Twitter with @rellypops, otherwise known as Narelle. I hope I don’t embarrass her by saying that I thought her name was very beautiful. The funny thing is that if she had not contributed a post to my other blog, I would be thinking she was a guy, based on our earlier conversations. Although on hindsight, Narelle doesn’t sound like a guy’s name.

So, as I was saying, I generally find names to be amazing. In my view, they are the second gift to us from our parents (the first being life). But whatever the reason our parents chose our names, I think God was inspiring them somehow because our names are an indication of our destiny. Of course, with a name like Pravin, I might be a bit biased.

The story of how my parents decided on my name is, er, interesting. Actually, it’s quite mundane. My mum was flicking through some of my dad’s professional membership magazines (he was an engineer). Apparently, she saw the name Pravin in one of the magazines. The story became more interesting when I asked what my name meant. (Actually, I’m not sure whether I asked or whether they just told me.) Apparently, according to them, my name means ‘Leader of the Wise Men’. Talk about ego booster.  Of course, this may have been a little poetic licence, because when I googled my name years later, all I could find for a meaning was ‘expert’, although it could be argued that an expert is a leader of wise men in a way. (Ok, yes, I am biased.)

I have to be honest the meaning of my name did have an influence on me. I did focus more time on academic study, as opposed to social relations, because I wanted to live up to my name. (My academics at school and degree level perhaps didn’t make me leader.) But I also started creating my own narrative. I remembered how, when I was younger, whenever I played a role in the nativity at school, I was always one the wise men (usually the one who brought myrrh). In a another school play, I was a grand vizier. When I played Vashistha in the Ramayana for a tamil community association play, it was not lost of me that Vashistha was the leader of the wise men. Then, from my shortlived career as a journalist to my current role as a PhD student and blogger, perhaps that thought of being some kind of an expert is there, subconsciously.

Hegel
Hegel - Leader of the Wise Men?

Perhaps its partly why I am drawn to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. In The End of Human Rights, Costas Douzinas describes as a totalising philosophy that is meant to encompass all philosophies, a sort of theory of everything or logos. Hegel himself was very much an interdiscplinary scholar. In the introduction to J B Baillie’s’s of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Baillie said that Hegel sought to incorporate all the philosophical theories of the past by “giving logical continuity to what in appearance was mere historical sequence, and by showing that his own distinctive principle of synthesis was at once the presuppositions, the outcomes and the completion of his predecessors”. He saw that his principle of synthesis could only be vindicated completely if it contained “every fundamental type of experience in which mind had been historically realised”. In a sense, one could argue that Hegel sought to be a ‘leader of wise men’, although it is up to us to decide whether he was or not. But what’s interesting is that being the leader didn’t mean coming up with his own thing from scratch but humbly recognising the work of others and building on that. The leader is, not the first in line but the last or the follower and is no-one without those who have gone before or standing underneath. It’s like Isaac Newton saying that he was standing on the shoulder of giants.

Now I haven’t really had any wider discussions with many other people about their names, usually because they don’t know. But my dad’s name, which in Tamil culture is my surname, means ‘King of Victory’. Out of respect, I don’t want to go into to many details but I can see how that is an appropriate name for him. Indeed, names must mean something when even God places a value on the names we are given. The first woman was called Eve because ‘she would be become the mother of all life’ and it is our mothers who give us life by carrying us in the womb, giving birth, breastfeeding and nurturing us. (If we think about the use of ‘eve’ now, it refers to the day before, just as our mothers came before us.) God renamed Abram as Abraham (Hebrew for father of many) because he would be ‘a father of many nations’. And then of course, there is Joshua and Jesus, Hebrew and Greek respectively for ‘God saves’, and both them did end up saving people. The irony is that, at the time of the Roman Empire, Jesus was a pretty popular name in Palestine (understandably) – the man who was freed by Pontius Pilate in place of Jesus – was Jesus Barabbas, a convicted murderer. This suggests that a lot of people perhaps do not live up to their (God-given) names.

So what would it mean for me to live up to my name of ‘expert’ or ‘leader of the wise men’. From Hegel’s example, to be a leader means to be a follower and to recognise that you cannot do things on your own, that you need other people.  Certainly, this is what Jesus told his disciples – the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But what does it mean to be wise. Was Hegel a ‘leader of wise men’ or just a very knowledgeable one? After all, a philosopher is Greek for wise man. Is it presumptuous of me to think that it is God’s will for me to be a the leader/follower of philosophers? This is a really difficult. This is the first time I’ve really sat down and thought about the meaning of my name and what it means. Perhaps God told me right from the very beginning what he wanted me to do. I remember being asked at the age of six what I wanted to be  when I grew up and I said that I wanted to be scientist that invents a machine that converts grass to spaghetti (hey, I was six). However, since my degree, I have not gone down the science route. Or have I? If one thinks of the original meaning of science as ‘knowledge’, then surely a student and journalist are both seekers of knowledge, i.e. scientists. And, according to the Book of Proverbs (in the Bible), the beginning of knowledge is the fear/reverence of the Lord. In other words, taking my name in full, my destiny is to be ‘a follower of God’ and ‘Jesus’ (who is the King of Victory). It was never my intention that this post would end like this but I think I can actually say ‘I found my destiny’. Now, I just need to see it through to the end.

Did I not say that names are amazing?

Reblog: Wicked Wizards or What @sarathesheepu and I learnt from Oz

What does the Wizard of Oz mean to you? For me it was a cheery musical about a girl trying to find her way home. With catchy tunes. Then I saw the West End musical, Wicked, which is arguably much darker. It made me question the positivity of the classic 1939 film with Judy Garland. I discussed this with @sarahthesheepu, aka Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell, during the Christmas break and she invited me to contribute to a post on the Oz narratives as political critique. It was really good fun, and quite surreal. We even managed a Hegelian/Nietzschean reading.

 

 

Ring in the new, keep up the old

Well, it’s 2012. I’ve just realised how ironic it is that I always mark the start of a new year by looking to the past. For some reason, my family have developed our new year traditions.

On the days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, we start clearing out the rubbish and tidying up the house. The idea is that everything is tidy by New Years Eve. After dinner, we’ll have a shower and change into some fresh clothes and wait, probably watching TV. When the New Years Eve programme on BBC1 starts on, we have our respective drinks balanced on our knee (metaphorically speaking). Then, when Big Ben starts striking, we’ll stand up with our drinks. When it strikes 12 and the fireworks go off on the TV, we’ll raise our glasses and do the hug and kiss thing. Then we watch the rest of the fireworks and start going to bed.

Om Tamil
'Om', the basic symbol of Hinduism, in Tamil

On New Years Day, my mum and I will be the first to wake up, as we will go for an early communion service. (On a normal Sunday, I usually go to a different church, which is less traditional and younger age range.) When we get home, we all go to Hindu temple (as the rest of the family is Hindu). You’re probably wondering why, as a professing Christian, I would go to temple. I don’t believe in the Hindu gods as such, but I go for the family and for cultural reason. It doesn’t feel like a good idea to be divided at the start of the year (call me sentimental). I don’t pray there but I hope I act respectfully. After all, it’s what in your heart that counts. God can see my motivations. Anyway, I personally believe that the various Hindu gods a representations of the one true God. For example, Amman, the goddess of justice, represents the aspect of a single God who loves justice.

When we get back home, we carry out a ceremony called ‘Kai Viyalum’, which involves the exchange of money between us – we have to give something that is goldish (pound coin), silverish (50p, 20p, etc) and bronzeish (1p or 2p) and, if feasible, a note. The tradition is this exchange of money must be first time we touch money in the New Year and before exchanging, we pray to God to bless it. The key thing is that this money is not meant for just spending, but for saving for a while. It’s probably pretty obvious why I participate in this tradition. After ‘Kai Viyalum’, we have a lunch of milk rice (essentially rice cooked with coconut milk) with various curries. I think milk – as it comes from the cow – is considered in Hinduism to be a life-giving substance, but milk rice is also quite nice with certain curries.

Whilst I don’t call myself a Hindu and don’t believe in it, it is a part of my roots and culture and, to be honest, there is vibrancy in Asian and Hindu culture that is absent from European culture and Christian worship. Don’t get me wrong, I attend a conservative evangelical church and the atmosphere is vibrant and it is a community but not like Asian communities. Anyway, as a British Tamil,  I am constantly straddling two cultures which do at times clash. They key is to reconcile the two. I think Christians certainly can learn a thing or two from the way Hindus worship and vice versa.

If I was to think about this in a Hegelian sense, I guess there is a dialectic between my Christian faith and Hindu roots. The two are contradictory like thesis and antithesis but they can shape and be shaped by each other in synthesis. I can’t cut off my Hindu roots because it is a part of me, so I might as well adapt it to worship Jesus. Catherine Malabou would probably call this le voir venir, that she translates as ‘to see (what is) coming’. I interpret that to mean pausing to reflect, looking back at what went before and thinking how to proceed to deal with what’s coming. In a sense, New Year’s Day is a moment of  le voir venir and certainly I look to tradition to celebrate the new. But actually my whole life has been like that, both looking at tradition and looking forward and thinking whether the two can be combined. I can’t cut off my Hindu roots but I can’t go back to being Hindu having discovered Christ. I am in 2012, so I can’t go back to 2011 or before but I can’t forget what’s happened because that’s how I got here.

Reading the Riots: An Environmental Problem

Landfill
Clearing away the waste

The UK riots during the summer were the result of people who perpetually felt outside the law, according the research by The Guardian and London School of Economics and contrary to the government’s assertion that it was solely down to criminals.

One of the starker statistics of the newspaper’s ‘Reading the Riot’ series is that 85% of 270 people who took part in the riots attributed policing as a “significant cause”. Indeed, 75% said that they had been repeatedly stopped and searched but there was also a less tangible general anger towards the lack of respect shown by the police. In other words, for the vast majority of rioters  – and perhaps they represent an even larger silent group – law and the state were not about their protection but about their oppression and alienation.

If we take the riots as a series of crimes, then the first instinct is to condemn them. But, in his reading of Hegel, The end of human rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century, Costas Douzinas suggests that crime is in fact a cry for help by the offender. ‘The essence of crime is the criminal’s demand to be recognised and to be respected as a concrete and unique individual against the uniform coercion of the legal system.’ (p277). It is the failure to recognise people as beings who deserve respect and dignity that ultimately pushes them  into alienation and then to trangress the law. (I don’t want to say this true of all criminals but certainly this could be said for many of them.) Of course, a thief often steals to meet unfulfilled needs but the law has a tendency to force people to fit into a certain mould. Crime then becomes a way for the individual to have a voice. Given the link between identity and property, it is surely not surprising that many of the crimes were acquisitive in nature (even if they did verge on the bizarre in some cases).

This lack of recognition or respect by the law can be seen clearly in the way that stop and search powers are applied disproportionately to black people and how the whole ‘War on Terror’ discourse has targetted Muslims (and arguably people who look as if they are Muslim). But the Guardian/LSE research shows that race was just one of a number of contributing factors, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education. What they all shared was a general sense of alienation and of not being a ‘part of British society’.

What happened is that whole swathes of the population have been pushed out into the environment (so to speak) of British society. There are a core group of decision-makers and direct beneficiaries at the centre and everyone else around the edges. Perhaps the Occupy movement captures this thought best with the distinction between the 99% and the 1%. (I think it’s probably more than 1% who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but as a slogan it’s pretty catchy.)

It was interesting that phase 1 of the ‘Reading the Riots’ research was published in the same week as the end of the climate change conference in Durban. One could argue that when the riots happened, like climate change, the environment came back to bite society on the arse. And, like climate change, it wasn’t those in power who were the victims but other parts of the environment.

In the battle against climate change, recycling and renewable energy are seen as the solutions and creating waste the problem. Perhaps the problem that led up to the riots (and other forms of alienation) is that people are treated as waste and not valued as a ‘part of British Society’. When we throw things away, the state (in the form of the local authority) collects it and disposes of it at landfills or buries it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. The problem with waste is that it is never cut off from society. Pollutants will still get into the soil and the air and affect us. That’s why the law imposes an obligation on local authorities to provide recycling services. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps this is how the 1% sees the 99%: resources and waste of their money and power.

It was interesting that the David Cameron claimed he used his veto against the plan amend the Lisbon Treaty to solidify closer fiscal union in the Eurozone in the interests of Britain. What he considered British interests was in fact the interests of (not even the whole of) the Conservative Party and its backers and, more debatabely, the City. He even told Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarchozy that the EU and the ECJ do not belong to them, suggesting possible legal action. So, once again, the power elite in Britain sees law as a way to maintain the status quo. The irony, according to many commentators and politicians,  is that maybe Britain itself got pushed into the environment.

Protests, plastic bullets and plasticity

As I write, there is a possibility that we won’t get through today without London police using plastic bullets on students and protesters. But, of course, being someone pretty immersed in the works of Hegel and Catherine Malabou, I just had to give some thought to the plasticity of those bullets.

By way of a disclaimer, I would like state that I am wholly anti-weapons of any kind, particularly in the hands of people in authority and as instruments of fear, power and security. So plastic bullets and baton rounds are no more justifiable than guns and metal bullets. (When I tweeted on the subject of this post, I found myself in a hole.)

In Hegelian thought, plasticity is the character of the dialectic. Something is plastic if, on the one hand, it gives form (shapes) and, on the other hand, receives form (is shaped). But it also points to the contradiction between resistance and change. One the one hand, something is plastic if it can be moulded (receive form) but, having been moulded, it resists deformation.

Plastic bullets have obviously been shaped, that is unfolded from a universal concept of plastic into something determinant (bullet-shaped). But what is it that they shape? Their purpose, apparently, is to disperse crowds (i.e. protests), or at least, to influence their direction in which the crowd is going (i.e. away from the bullets, police and protected areas). But the protest is arguably more plastic than the bullet. It can be unfolded out of the universal crowd into a determinant group of people and, in response to environmental factors, it can change form, disperse and come together and still be a protest. Indeed, it is has been observed in previous protests that ordinary members of the universal crowd can get caught up in someway with the protest and police have not always been able to distinguish between the two.

But plastic bullets are plastic because their whole raison d’etre is that they resist deformation. Indeed, it is the basis for the fear of pain that they engender. Unfortunately, it is this apparent plasticity that also gives them the capacity to do more than just hurt, which is why there is a concern. They have been known to kill and maim.

There is also a certain plasticity in their function. When they are in the baton round, they are plastic bullets, at least potentially. After they are fired, they become actual bullets. But once they have either hit or missed their target, it is no longer a bullet. Its purpose loses form and dissolves into the universal detritus (waste). But their capacity to resist deformation means that they can be recovered by the police and reused by the bullets either at different protesters or at a different protest. So plastic bullets are, in a sense, reusable and recyclable.

I have to be honest, as a researcher in environmental law, it’s nice to see the police taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. But at what cost? Recycling in general is important for the environment and there is a certain plasticity to it – the continuous formation and deformation and formation. But just as recycling feeds into a culture of consumption, surely plastic bullets, despite claims of responsible use, will make it easier for the police to be more casual in their deployment, knowing that one plastic bullet can be used many more times than a metal bullet. How many times are the police looking to use it? It’s difficult to conceive of British authorities going the way of the Syrians but I don’t really want to finish the sentence.

 

The Evanescence of Philosophy

It’s been a while since I last found literary treasures in philosophy, which is ironic given that I waxed lyrical about the beauty of specific words that philosophers, including Hegel, use in their treatise. Maybe, something does get lost in translation from German to English, which turns out not to be quite a narrow-minded language. After all, you have one word ‘love’ which describes a plethora of emotions, where, for example, in Greek, there would be four words.

Anyway, in finally getting to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind – which was surprisingly easy to understand considering the author – I came across the word ‘evanescence‘. It means “an event of fading and gradually vanishing from sight”. That’s how Hegel describes the satisfaction of ego’s desire. Sounding like ‘effervescence’ and its hissy sound, the very word captures the very wispy nature of that satisfaction. Anyone who has struggled with any addiction will know what I am talking about.

Indeed, one could argue that translating texts from the original language leads to an evanescing of the literary gems. It’s not really a grave robbing, more of a well-intentioned opening up that exposes the precious stones to the elements.

So, Evanescence is a perfect name for a rock band, in an industry known for fast rises and slow, painful deaths. Let’s hope they don’t live up to their name.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

From paternalism to parental society

Two days ago, I wrote about how the Tea Party’s resistance might be a good thing for America. Not necessarily because of the policies they espouse (that’s not what this post is about). The Tea Party in the US and the anti-cuts coalition in the UK are in fact two sides of the same coin, that coin being the rising up of society through mass grassroots movements to remind government where they come from and what their purpose is.

As I wrote before, the state has traditionally been seen as paternalistic, with responsibility forlooking after a childlike society. This view still resonates today, with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism. A father is still a father, no matter how easy going he is. In the feminist critique, however, the alignment of the state with one particular gender has created opposition. Most obviously, this has been between the sexes, but,  where the feminine has come to represent the uncivilised or irrational, this also means between races, socioeconomic groups and between man and the environment. These ‘others’ of the white male have always been subject to oppression. It is this inherent gender polarity, says Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, that is the problem.

By eliminating gender polarity, the question becomes no longer who is the mother or who is the father but who is the parent. But we are not talking about an ungendered parent, but one who is bisexual or bi-gendered – that is, one who has attributes that have traditionally been identified as male and attributes traditionally identified as female. The important thing is that it is the parent who begets the child. So, if the state is the parent, say, who does the state beget. Does the state create society?

Benjamin argues from her psychoanalytic feminist perspective that the child identifies with the father in order to differentiate itself from the mother. Before this, from the child’s point of view, the father essentially doesn’t exist. In other words, the child created the father  then gave up power to him. This is the obvious flaw with the notion of a paternal state.

Yes, the environment (Mother Nature, say) can be said to have ‘given  birth to’ human beings in an evolutionary sense – according to how God designed the system, obviously – but it is the forming of societies that led to the creation of the state to govern societal relations. So, in reality, society is the parent of the state, with the responsibility to make sure that state behaves well (whatever that means).

The problem in many Western liberal democracies has been apathy in society. Voter turnout has often been quite low and this has allowed to the state to get away with proverbial murder, whether it be the Iraq war, the undermining of civil liberties, massive over spending and borrowing, large scale public sector cuts and lax regulation of the financial services industry, to name a few. But what the Tea Party movement, the anti-cuts coalition, the ‘Stop the War’ protests in 2003, the larger than usual turnout in the UK General Election followed by the forming of coalition , show is the importance of a powerful society, standing up for what it believes to be right and keeping government accountable. This is the parent’s job in relation to the child. When the parent can’t be bothered , children think they can do anything they want or they live in a fantasy world.

The state is the eternal child.

This doesn’t mean that the state doesn’t lack any power at all. As any child knows, parents can be out of touch with the times, so children do need to ‘educate’ parents as well. But obviously a child cannot respond to the parent in the same way that the parent responds to the child. But what’s important is that there is a dialogue or dialectical relationship between the parent and the child, the society and the state, where anti-thesis and thesis come together to form a synthesis, but even if they don’t, both understand the other better.

But even more important is that parents cannot be like children and children cannot be like parents. The Tea Party caucus can be the parent as part of society, but it cannot play that role if it is in government. There is a reason why the government is made up of ministers and secretaries, they have to take the more deferential or submissive role of a child. But this redefinition of the state/society relationship also means that we must abandon the idea of Montesquieu‘s three branches of government. Really, the legislature and the judiciary should rightly be seen as the highest levels of society, since their role is to keep the executive in check and acting in accordance with societal values.

Perhaps the parental society is the true Big Society – big, because it’s about not being a child anymore, it’s about growing up and taking its responsibilities seriously. It has nothing to do with a retrenchment of the state in terms of services provided. No, a small state is one that acts with the humility of a child towards the society that created it and gave it life.

Additional thought

Perhaps the current democracy movements in the Middle East are also an example of the dialectic between paternalism to parentalism. In which case NATO’s intervention in Libya must be like the reality tv show Supernanny, who comes in to help the despairing parent. So, it’s still questionable then.

Imagining my PhD

Well, ok, sometimes I do sit and wonder what it would be like to actually complete my thesis, submit it, get my doctorate and get it published. I do imagine what it would be like to be a bona fide, published academic. But that’s not what I mean by imagining my PhD.

To be honest, it has become plainly obvious to me how much doing research is not just about actually reading books and reports, collecting empirical data and doing experiments. There have been so many times where making the connections and developing a theoretical framework has come out of doing nothing, or at least doing something seemingly unproductive and totally unrelated to my PhD.

I can remember instances where I am going home on the train, after a day of really struggling with something theoretical. I am thinking, staring into thin air – not the pretty girl in front of me with the low cut top and nice legs, stop it – or reading some novel and all of sudden I have an ‘Archimedes’ moment. No, it doesn’t mean that I run naked down the aisle of the train, shouting ‘Eureka'; I just found inspiration for my research in something as unconnected to it as a bath or playing with toys.

On another occasion, I came to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic because I was able to make connections with a random news story about addictions that I read in the London Metro that morning. Sometimes, I have even been sitting in a sermon on Sunday, listening to the pastor teach, and instead of feeling convicted or encouraged about my walk of faith, I’ve thought ‘Of course, that’s what Hegel [or Catherine Malabou or Judith Butler] was talking about’.

In fact, I have become very much aware that my reading of philosophy has just as much been influenced by own subjective experiences and the enotional baggage I acquired before my PhD.

Maybe this should be a question, but I think these moments of non-research are an essential part of the research process. But, then it becomes difficult to say what research methodology I am using. In a sense, one could argue that I am using a dialectical method based on the synthesis of research and non-research. But then surely all research must be dialectical. I guess this is to be expected. After all, our brain doesn’t turn off, when we finish working for the day. Much like a broadband connection, it is always on. So, it can be argued that we researchers are always working. And, often, it feels like we are.

And that’s the danger. It is quite easy, because I am doing something I love, to overdo it. If we are doing too much active research, pretty soon I suffer from information overload. My brain can be like a call centre. At some point, all the incoming calls just keep getting added to the queue and no matter how hard the brain works, it can’t deal with the backlog. A good call centre, I have noticed, will from time to time post a message telling customers that there is a backlog and they can’t take any more calls and to try again later. This is why those periods of non-research are so important…it allows me to actually process the information I have received and to action it. This is the imagination.

Literary treasures in Philosophy

Reading the work of philosophers that are over 200 years old (and dead) – in my case Hegel – is any amazing opportunity. There are so many things that are published nowadays – in print and online – so there is no shortage of contemporary writings and ideas. It is quite easy to think that anything written before, say, 2000 – with few exceptions – is out of date. When one enters the hallowed walls of academia to do a PhD (at least in the humanities), one finds access and encouragement to actually wallow in the ideas of people such as Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Plato and talk about with people who are similarly inclined. (In case you are wondering I didn’t experience this as an undergrad or Masters postgraduate, I studied mathematics/computing science and journalism respectively, the practice of which has very little need for philosophers.)

Of course, as many people who have tried reading Hegel will know, he is not the easiest person to get to grips with. But, in addition to the ideas contained within, it is amazing the use of specific words – such as ‘sublation’. This week, I have been trying to figure out Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, with a view to figuring out my theoretical framework for a PhD in environmental law. And, in the text, Hegel describes one of the characteristics of animals as “interrupted intussusception

I won’t go into the context of the word but I just had to look up the definition: “a medical condition in which a part of the intestine has vaginated-” WTF? Invaginated? Maybe, this just my (dirty) mind, but this sounds interesting. An invagination means “to fold inward or to sheath”.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

 

 

Culture of one

I am thinking a lot about the meaning of culture at the moment. Currently, I am writing a paper for a conference on the cultural legitimacy of internationl climate change laws and policies. At the same time, as an Asian person who was born and has always lived in the UK, I am continually balancing and negotiating the so-called intricacies of Asian and ‘Western’ culture. The problem is that where the line blurs for me – and no doubt for my contempories – is not quite the same place where it may blur for people of my parents’ generation. And even then, generational identity is not always clear cut.

Culture is something that has amassed over time. From my observations of the way the word ‘culture’ is used, it seems to be a euphemism or PR spin for ‘tradition’. Something is not considered to be in keeping with the culture, if it goes against the traditional way of doing things. In The Future of Hegel, the French philosopher, Catherine Malabou, says that culture is formed out of the power of habit (Malabou, p68), which is essentially the repetition of a certain activity. What habit ends up creating is a “virtual being” that mediates the opposition between the universal and the particular and reduces the distances between them (Malabou, p71). One could argue therefore that culture or tradition is this virtual being, this imaginary concept, that people try and hold on to for fear of losing it.

But habits can be changed, which means that culture, is not a fixed concept. This raises the question of whether a culture can ever really come to an end or die. What may start of as potential separation between universal and particular will result in a new direction (a new form of the culture) as the present particular becomes more universal and a new particular or universal emerges. “What in the beginning was merely an accidental fact…is changed through continual repetition of the same gestures, through practice, achieving the integrity of a form.” (Malabou, p73-4)

This doesn’t mean that the old form of the culture cannot be continued. But it does mean that the potential for particularity suggests that a culture can be or is of one person. If culture is about the things that we do over and over again, then if we do something different, not in keeping with the culture, there is the potential to change the culture or form an individual culture of one. Or a culture can be a unifying virtual being for all the different habits. In other words, there is only one culture; it just has an infinite number of strands.

Sources

Malabou, Catherine (2005). The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporal and Dialectic. (Translated by Lisabeth During). Routledge, London & New York.

Baptism: it’s all about the experience

So, after four years, I finally got round to being baptised. Full immersion was not as scary as I imagined it. To be honest, I had never expected it to be of any specific spiritual significance, which is one of the reasons why I hadn’t been too fussed about going through it before. I wasn’t too keen to indulge what I had previously seen as some ritual. (I come from a Hindu background where people perform rituals left, right and centre without knowing why they are doing it, other than that it is traditional.)

Anyway, regardless of what I thought, Jesus does command that one be baptised if they accept the gospel, as a public declaration of faith, and it go to the point where I could no longer go against that.

Now the actual act of immersion is pretty quick. It was over before I knew it and I was slightly in shock, particularly when the rest of the congregation started applauding. But, after I had changed into some dry clothes, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had been cleansed. I couldn’t explain it. After all, baptism is a symbolic act and is not essential, as such, to salvation. There was nothing special about the water in which I was baptised – ordinary tap water – or the hands or words of the pastor.  Plus, I was convinced that it’s only significance was symbolic.  Yet, even with that mindset, I still feel different. When I accepted Christ four years ago, I knew that my sins had been forgiven but I was still aware that I had committed them and they still hung around me like a bad smell. (God would just choose to ignore them.) But now I can’t smell anything, or at least, the smell has vastly improved. It doesn’t make sense. Rationally, I should not be feeling this, but I do.

All I can think is that baptism is, on the one hand, a symbolic act, but, on the other hand, it is more than a symbol. Is it possible that baptism, in fact, completes the (initial) process of salvation? Yes, I was saved when I accepted it intellectually. But, Jesus had to die and then be resurrected. As a result, we don’t have to die. But, baptism simulates the the death, burial and resurrection experience of Jesus, and without it faith is only intellectual. Baptism makes faith experiential. (Caveat: these are just thoughts, I will need to consult with the minister on this.)

It’s a long time since I have written about Hegel and the dialectic. But a key part of his philosopy is that universals, ideas, thoughts are initially abstract and they only become concrete when they are manifested in something particular, such as experience or relationship. I wonder therefore whether, until yesterday, my faith was abstract, not yet real. This explains why new believers are encouraged to be baptised as soon as possible after being saved and why Jesus commanded it in the first place.

Remaking the world

Given the times that he wrote in (late 18th to early 19th centuries), it is not surprising that Hegel does not have much to say about the environment. Not too mention frustrating if one is doing research in environmental law. But, there are hints of a connection between humanity and the environment. At the beginning of The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate, he says that the hostility of the environment (represented by the Flood of the Bible) was a result of man’s hostility to it and each other. As part of my phd thesis, I am using a psychoanalytic feminist reading of Hegel to develop a dialectical account of the relationships between society, law and the environment.

It is a lot easier to see that the environment affects the way we live than the effect we have on the environment. Of course, the most obvious manifestation of this effect is in pollution. But, apparently, scientists are saying that we are moving into a new geological epoch, the Antropocene, where we are literally making the world in our image (i.e. rotten to the core).

In a sense, geoengineering isn’t something we do to solve the problem of climate change. It is the cause of climate change. Instead of being radiated back into space, the carbon dioxide remains trapped near the planet. That’s a hell a lot of energy, and it is expressed as ice melting, water heating, increased cloudcover, etc. Reinsurer Munich Re said that “the only plausible explanation” for 2010’s catastrophes, the drought, heatwave and fires across Russia and the mega-floods in Pakistan, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere was partly global warming.

I don’t even know what to call this post

It’s been a whole week since I have last posted. The last few days have just been so hectic, with the last minute arrangements for an academic symposium last Friday. But I must say, everything worked out really well. I was amazed at all the positive comments I received afterwards and during the weekend and it really made it all worthwhile. Not that that’s why I organised the event but it’s good to know that others got something out of it.

I now need to finish a paper that I am presenting at another workshop this Friday, so I am not going to blog too long now. But, as part of the paper and my PhD thesis, I try to create a model for describing the relationship between society, the state and the environment,  by using feminist discourses to draw a line from Hegel’s philosophy to the UK government’s definition of household. Obviously, I am not going to going into too many details for the moment but this has helped me to see the Hegellianism of East 17 (or, more specifically, one of their songs).

 

Questioning contraception

In my final year of my degree, one of my assignments was a group project to develop a mathematical model to predict the spread of AIDS. As a result of the research we carried out, I was convinced of the importance of encouraging safe sex and making contraception widely available. Even after I became a Christian, I saw the denial of contraception as somehow causing harm and therefore not very loving, as Jesus calls us to be. Furthermore, I figured that it was better to help people not get pregnant instead of helping to terminate a life, which was given by God, by having an abortion.

Today (17 March 2011), I attended the Sustainable Development 2011 conference at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London. One of the speakers, Derek Flynn, the deputy head of Foresight at the Government Office for Science, gave a talk on the sustainability of agriculture and the findings of a report “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”. According to the report, the big challenge was feeding a growing global population. One delegate raised the issue of population control as the “elephant in the room”, although I personally think this is a dangerous topic because it is easy to visualise an unsavoury character justifying genocide or forced sterilisation. The chair, Sara Parkin, founder director of Forum for the Future, set off on a rant about the importance of making contraception available to women in developing countries. Her argument was that contraception enabled women – not couples – to plan their families and space the birth of children more equally. She made the point that 30% of births, in Britain and in the developing world, were unplanned.

My immediate thought was that a baby may be unplanned from a human point of view by every life was a part of God’s plan. God creates life and he would not create a life unless he wanted that life to exist. Parkin seems to suggest that a woman – not a couple – has a right to substitute their own plan for God’s plan. In fact, she called contraception a human right. And all of a sudden I found myself questioning my long held belief. Yes, contraception do give control, but are they also allowing us to override God’s plan. After all, sex does not always result in conception. Therefore, if conception takes place, it must because the conditions are right for it to do so and God wants that baby to exist. Why else would he create it.

This raises the question as to whether contraception really is better than abortion. If you don’t to have a baby, then don’t have sex.

But what about sexually transmitted diseases? Well, STDs are transmitted because people have sex with more than one person in their lives.  STDs are a real problem, but they became a problem because of promiscuity, premarital sex and adultery. If people only had sex within a lifelong marital relationship, then there would be no need for contraception (unless of course one partner had an STD at the start of the marriage).

Now, I am not at the point of suggesting therefore that contraception should be banned or discouraged. It is after all an imperfect solution for an imperfect world. But Flynn countered to Parkin’s argument that the evidence shows that increasing gender equality and providing education to women (both generally and about safe sex) also reduce population growth.

Now if I were a conspiracy theorist, I would surmise that the availability of contraception undermines both gender equality and female education. It seems to create a relationship of dependence and power: women on men, the developing world on the developed world, etc. Indeed, Parkin’s referral to contraception as a human right brings to mind the work of Costas Douzinas, who has used Hegel’s master/slave dialectic to argue that human rights is a tool of the master. It helps the slave to become like the master, without challenging the master to change his ways. Likewise, contraception – and abortion – means that a woman can act like a philandering man without the latter behaving properly towards the woman.