Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I've been reading a selection from Gramcsi's "Prison Notebooks" - a book I've had since University (another legacy of the Marxism course). I've been putting off reading this book for 20 years, so now seemed as good a time as ever to start.

Gramsci is an influential figure in the history of Marxist thought. He was leader of the Italian communist party during the 1920's, the early stages of Mussolini's rule. He belongs to the period when the post-war revolutionary wave was ebbing, yet the Bolshevik success in Russia gave enormous credibility to Lenin's belief in the vanguard party. Gramsci was arrested by the fascist government and spent the last years of his life in prison. The Prison Notebooks are the notes he wrote in prison. They represent the beginnings of Marxist attempts to come to terms with the failure of the attempted revolutions across Europe during 1918-1920, an effort to come to terms with the changes in capitalism which seemed to challenge Marx's original analysis.

He is probably most famous for the theory of "hegemony" - the idea that a dominant class exercised hegemonic control over civil society, in other words society as a whole would willingly submit to their control without needing active coercion. It seemed like a powerful way of explaining why capitalist states were able to rely on support beyond their 'natural' supporters and defeat communist revolutions that had expected to succeed.

More to come on this. In the meantime I'm reading the sections on reform of the education system in Italy. There is important context around Gramsci's own upbringing and interrupted schooling. That said, his thoughts on education are far closer to Michael Gove than I expected them to be. He talks about selection, about learning Latin and Greek as a means of more generally 'learning to learn'. If nothing else it demonstrates how far the debate on education has changed in the last 90 years. His thought seems anachronistic and elitist - although I suspect his idea of selection is not that of Gove and the Tories, and he would have sought to be more meritocratic in practice.

Gramsci also infers (and this links to the concept of 'hegemony' mentioned earlier) that the communist movement should look to shift the control of civil society through a reformed education system, preparing the proletariat to challenge the dominance of capitalism from childhood. This could be seen as a natural response to the difficult in overthrowing the established order caused by it's dominance of civil society. This dominance can only be overcome with specific and targeted effort.

So that's a few random thoughts on Gramsci and education. I'll post more on hegemony some other time.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Byzantium and heterodoxy

I'm currently reading Haldon's "Byzantium in the Seventh Century", and I came across a passage on the relationship between patriarch and emperor which makes sense of heterdoxy - and particularly iconoclasm.

The conventional approach here probably treats theological debate as separate to politics - I'd not previously read anything that makes a convincing link between the two, other than a superficial materialist "form of dissent", usually with an unconvincing connection of particular heresies to specific class groupings.From memory this is the line taken by. Otherwise, theology is a separate discipline, which comes with a general failure to understand how ordinary people could have been so hung-up on it (although they seemingly were).

The section in Haldon is on p284 of the 1997 paperback edition. Here he is talking about the relationship between emperor and patriarch, and particularly Justinian I's view of the harmony between secular and religious authority. He identifies two inter-related trends: the use of church structures in administration; and the growing religiosity of imperial ceremony (highlighting religious coronation, an innovation of the seventh century).

Specifically he says:

"Faced with this monolithic concentration of authority, it is not surprising that oppositional tendencies were represented through a rejection of these poles of authority and a search for alternative routes of access to God and his spiritual authority from those of the emperor, the secular Church and the power of the state and its apparatuses."

Here then is the key connection. Facing a (usually) cohesive church-state structure, dissent is framed as a rejection of orthodoxy. This does mean a crude connection of heresy to a particular class in society. It is rather an explanation of the complex link between political dissent and heresy - and it is then easier to see why theological dispute was so important to the Byzantines. Rejecting orthodoxy was tantamount to rejecting the Roman state as constituted.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Elvis and the Renaissance

Been spending some time recently writing a short piece for a friend of mine who runs the "Elvis Presley Challenge" blog at www.elvispresleychallenge.com

It's rather pompously titled Elvis and the Renaissance - although to be honest the title is really designed to raise eyebrows and catch people's interest more than anything else. It also isn't really about Elvis, but rather pursues a pet theory of mine about changing attitudes to art after the Renaissance.

It stems mainly from my interest in Byzantine art. My theory is basically that the Renaissance introduced an idea of the artist being "true to himself" that is not present in Byzantine art, and that this has led directly to the absurdities of artists such as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst whose work is wholly self regarding. I once saw an interview where Emin was challenged to explain why her bed constituted 'art'. Her answer boiled down to "because I am artist, and I say it is". I think this move to wholly detach art from any connection to a wider audience, and from any need to be aesthetically pleasing is misplaced.

Hence the article on Elvis, which was prompted by a section in the book "Treat Me Nice" where the author expresses similar views about Elvis and his relationship with music in the 1960's.

I'll post a link to the article here once it's online.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I'll post on this in more detail at a later date, but there's a very interesting new book on Elvis just been published. It's called "Treat Me Nice" and draws parallels between the life and career of Elvis Presley and the Creature in the novel 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley.

I haven't read it yet (waiting for my copy to arrive) but I'm very intrigued by the potential in this. There's an extract available on the author's website where I've posted a few initial thoughts. The book itself is available on Amazon and seems to be receiving good reviews.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Reading Lukacs 'History and Class Consciousness' at the moment. It makes for a very effective re-reading of Marx, despite the author's preface disclaiming the book as no longer in line with his thinking.

The section on 'totality' makes sense - capitalist readings of economics and history work on the particular, they do not challenge the overall system. Marx's starting point is different. It is to step outside the base assumptions made by orthodox economists and review the whole system. Only when the particular is viewed through the lense of the general can a system or period of history or economy be understood.

The section on class consciousness I find slightly more problematic. While I see the rationale for what Lukacs calls 'imputed' class consciousness - it is in part an explanation for why a historical situation might not end in revolution when Marx's theories suggest it ought to. It is also an explanation for why not all workers support communism. The problem is that this seems somewhat like explaining away a problem rather than developing a solution to it. On the face of it, the failure of all workers to see that communism represents their interests suggest that Marx was misguided. How should this problem be analysed? It seems clear that the impact of the culture of capitalism is part of this, and Gramsci's theory of 'hegemony' is a more rational attempt to deal with this than Lukacs rather simplistic attempt to simply explain it away.

It feels like an attempt to justify Lenin's approach to the working class movement - workers should follow the party because the party knows what their class consciousness in any set of historical circumstances is expected to be, even if not all individuals subscribe to it.

I'm moving on to the chapter on reification now, and this is much more effective. It follows on the tradition of Marx in providing a vivid critique of aspects of capitalism. In Lukacs' case this is about capitalism transforming the relations between people into the relations between things, and how this eats its way into all aspects of society.

Plenty more to read on this, but it certainly feels like a strong and valid criticism of the capitalist approach.

This allows Lukacs to strike out beyond the factory and the relationship of worker to capitalist and begin to critique other aspects of capitalist society. I found the section on civil service bureaucracy particularly interesting:

"It is not only a question of the completely mechanical, 'mindless' work of the lower echelons of the bureaucracy which bears such an extraordinarily close resemblance to operating a machine...it is also a question, on the one hand, of the way in which objectively all issues are subjected to an increasingly formal and standardised treatment and in which there is an ever increasing remoteness from the qualitative and material 'essence' of the things to which bureaucratic activity pertains. On the other hand, there is an even more monstrous intensification of the one-sided specialisation which represents such a violation of man's humanity...it becomes all the more clear, the more elevated, advanced and 'intellectual' is the attainment exacted by the division of labour.

"The specific type of bureaucratic 'conscientiousness' and impartiality, the individual bureaucrat's inevitable total subjection to a system of relations between the things to which he is exposed, the idea that it is precisely his 'honour' and his 'sense of responsibility' that exact this total submission, all this points to the fact that the division of labour...here invades the realm of ethics. Far from weakening the reified structure of consciousness, this actually strengthens it."

Sounds like an analysis with a lot to say about the modern British civil service.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

I've almost finished my tour through theoretical Marxism - courtesy of Leszek Kolakowski's "Main Currents of Marxism". I remember this book being the standard text for Marxist philosophy when I was at university, but I never read much of it at the time (so much beer...so little time).

Anyway, it's been a fascinating tour. I've re-learned much about Marx and Gramsci. The section on Lukacs which I've just finished has also been enlightening. Lukacs' reaffirmation of the philosophic aspects of Marx' thought make a refreshing change from the Engelsian scientistic blunderings of the Second International. Kolakowski also does a good job of contextualising Lenin, and drawing out howw Marx does (and does not) underpin Lenin's thought and practice.

In general I find Kolakowski quite critical and dismissive - but I respect the opinion of someone who lived through the Stalinist era. In short, he should know (at least better than I). He is more even-handed to Marx himself in many ways, perhaps more so than might be expected.

And the outcome? I find myself drawn more to Lukacs than I was as a student. That's at least in part because I understand it better now than I did then. Looking now to move from the philosophy to the economics. That will be a challenge too.

Peter Harrison

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Watching "See You in Court" on the BBC. Promising myself to be more careful about what I write on the internet in the future...

Still. Moving swiftly on. Working on some stuff using CGI::Application and HTML::Template. Can't quite believe how easy these two modules make it to develop web stuff in Perl. It's extremely simple. Struck again by how much simpler working through this in Perl is compared to the VBA I have to use in work.

The latest movement on that is I've starting learning to use Classes with a customer interface. Makes things a bit cleaner, but VBA is still a mess.

Time for bed. Further posts to follow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jess passed the entrance exam to move schools to the local grammar this week. Really very pleased for her, and she worked really hard to get there. But...

...I can't help feeling really uneasy about how the whole process worked. I found it really hard to believe how heavily weighted in favour of the middle class the whole testing process was, and in particular the verbal reasoning stuff. Looking over the practice papers, it became very clear that no child could expect to have a reasonable chance of understanding what was expected without specialist coaching. Children growing up in a middle class family have an inherent advantage - through a broader vocabulary if nothing else. How can it be fair for those with sharp elbows and enough money to pay for private tutoring to gain a significant advantage?

It made me feel very guilty about facilitating this for Jess. But I still did it. Parenthood does bring it's challenges!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Still working on my eBay script at the moment. I'm hoping it will make it easier to monitor ebay listings, but it's still in the early development stages at the moment.

Things I have learned whilst doing this - using a constant ("use constant VERBOSE => 1") to conditionally show messages based on a command line switch (using "VERBOSE and print..."); using Config::Simple to load a configuration file.

I've been somewhat distracted though by my new HP Proliant Microserver. It's the kind of machine I've been after for ages - a small server that can replace the various bits and pieces of obsolete old desktop kit that I've used for home servers in the past. The most noticeable difference physically between it and normal home user desktop kit is how easy it is to access the hardware. The motherboard is housed on a tray that simply slides out. There are four drive bays with plastic trays that unclip and slide out. Although it's running a fairly low powered AMD chip, it's still dual core (my first dual core processor - that tells you how behind the times my kit is). It takes up to 8gig of RAM.

On the hardware side, it comes with 1gig of RAM, and for the moment I've added just another 1gig. This leaves it a little low on memory for what I want to use it for, but is all I can afford for the time being. It has 2 DDR3 240 pin slots which does mean that when I can afford to upgrade I'll have to sell my existing RAM. There's a single 160gig SATA disk. I haven't added to this yet, but I'm intending to add another two disks and set up a mirrored RAID fairly soon.

On the software side, I was originally going to run it as a straight FreeBSD amd64 server. But I read an article outlining how this machine met the hardware requirements to run VMware's ESXi, a hypervisor for running virtual machines. This got my interest going, so after chewing it around for a bit I've ended up installing ESXi 4.1. I've already set up a FreeBSD virtual machine to run as my main server, and will be setting up a FreeNAS one shortly.

In short I'm really impressed so far - and enjoying messing with virtual machines. It's disappointing that the primary management tool for the VM's only runs on Windows, but that's quickly solved by setting up another VM with Windows on it, and connecting to it remotely from my FreeBSD netbook using freerdp (which seems to work flawlessly).

Oh, and I'll remember to post further updates about my eBay app...

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Working now on a new script to do some stuff with ebay. Trying to buff up my Perl skills, having not used it for a little while. It'll take a while to get back into the swing of things I suspect. Waiting for my new HP Microserver to arrive. Hoping to run ESXi on it and some FreeBSD virtual machines - and also hoping to get the cashback promised by Ebuyer, which would make it a very cheap deal indeed!