I cannot hear the opening bars of the hymn Jerusalem by Hubert Parry without strong feelings of revulsion. The hymn is of course based on the an extract from the poem Milton by William Blake. In this context it has become a dumb symbol of patriotism and the rallying cry of the establishment. Blake was a radical, he was an early supporter of the french revolution and got in to trouble for a confrontation with a soldier who was trespassing on his property. His relationship with organized religion was not an easy one and he was a vocal critic of the hypocrisies of the church. Although he was a Christian his beliefs were far from orthodox. If Blake were to know what had become of his poem he would surely be horrified. He was certainly not a believer in the kind of dumb patriotism that repurposing of his words has been used to promote. John Higgs sums up the situation perfectly when he writes the following:
“There is now a long tradition of Blake being celebrated by authorities in ways that were, to those who understand his work fantastically inappropriate. When the Labour and Conservative parties sing ‘Jerusalem’ at their party political conferences, they are presumably unfamiliar with the context of those works the preface to the poem Milton. As they heartily bellow the lyric, moved by the stirring music, they seem unaware that they are calling for the revolutionary overthrowing of the ‘ignorant Hirelings’ of ‘the Camp, the Court & the University’. The song is sung by schoolboys in places such as Eton College who seem not to know that they are the uninspired, insipid targets of Blake’s words. Blake is trying to persuade them to to take up mental weapons, such as ‘Arrows of desire’, as well as physical ones, such as the sword that shall not ‘sleep in my hand’, until in order to burn their college down1.”
What patriotic sentiment that is present in the poem and the rest of Blake’s work is a romantic one that appeals to nature and the inherent goodness of mankind. This is a far cry from the unholy alliance of religious and state power that the monarchy in Britain represents.
Let as now turn to the music of the hymn itself: Parry struggles to unite the significance of the music with the words in the final lines of the second verse “Among these dark Satanic mills?”. Blake is using the rhetorical question to point out what he saw as the evils of the industrial revolution and in a stereotypical romantic fashion harking back to a rural idyllic notion of England. In the music of the hymn the vocal melody moves to resolution that does violence to the spirit of the words. This musical mistake is a indication of a wider problem – namely – that Parry does not make contact with the deeper meaning of the poem, he merely engages with it on a surface level. Jerusalem has elements of the patriotic to it but it also questions the possibility of the divine in the person of Jesus ever having visited English shores which is now troubled by “… dark Satanic Mills”. Blake contrasts the old mythological idea of England with the more troubled modern situation. Any sense of unease is erased in the hymn by the triumphalist tone of the music. Further, Parry chooses to use the same melody in each verse (as is conventional to the style of hymns) this subordinates the significance of the words to the melody as they become locked into a generic rhythmic and melodic structure. It turns what is a beautiful poem into a piece of quaint nonsense.
It is a sign of the cultural poverty that so many only know of Blake through the hymn Jerusalem and have no further understanding of his significance as an artist. Although has now attained the dubious status of being culturally acceptable which usual means that a neutered and watered down version of their legacy in enshrined in various “respectable” places such as the national curriculum. Almost all artists desire fame but many would surely be unhappy with the manner in which they become famous. It is my suspicion that Blake would certainly be dissatisfied with his popularity which is focused on a very narrow number of his works and has turned him into a symbol of Englishness, something he would have almost certainly resented.
Is this not the fate of some many great artists to be permanently misunderstood? Romeo and Juliet is usually thought of a celebration of romantic love when it may have in fact been a satire, an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s of art in London was well attended by upper class types, the very people Munch despised and frequently depicted negatively in his work.
Sadly, in the case of Blake’s poem the damage is done. It is my hope that this piece may change some minds but I am not optimistic about the possibility of a cultural reversal. The greats of the past can no longer speak for themselves behind the veil of death they must rely others to help them. To the open mind the spirit of the artist shines through the poem, no amount of lies can ever fully bury the truth.
One of my few memories I have of primary school was being given a teased because I was reading The Lord of The Rings. At that time all things fantasy and sci-fi were definitely not cool; skateboarding and sports were cool. As a young boy I could never have predicted the great cultural reversal that has taken place in the last decades. Even the meat heads who I practice martial arts with have all watched the Avengers film Endgame and probably all of the proceeding titles to boot. What happened? How has our cultural world been turned upside down? I will do my best to answer this question and through this specific change try to understand how culture has changes in general.
For me it all started fittingly with Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of The Rings. What he achieved with these films was to take what is sprawling and inaccessible story, which is full of obscure lore and an unmanageable large cast of characters and render it into something accessible. At the same time retaining the Wagnerian imagery and emotional power that made the books resonate so deeply with so many. The films went on to be wildly successful both commercially and critically. This I believe was the genesis of the new cultural trajectory. For surely somewhere in Hollywood a light bulb must have turned on in the head of many a film executive when they realized that nerds were willing to shell out to see cinematic renderings of beloved classics. Further, that the even those who were not hardcore fans were sucked into the orbit of these pieces by the minority who were obsessive in their devotion the sci-fi and fantasy genre. This has lead in turn to more “mainstream” titles being fully or partially displaced. This logic was proved by the earlier massive success of Star Wars which although is by comparison with Lord of The Rings quite light in terms of the complexity and intellectual challenge is none the less definitely nerdy. Another precursor to the turn in the cultural tide was the explosion in popularity for the Pokemon card game (which despite being an avid collector of the cards I never played), cartoons and films. The key difference between this and the success of the The Lord of The Rings is that Pokemon was always bounded to the younger generation and never shed its childish connotations in a way that it could be adopted by adults without some element of embarrassment, at least this was my experience growing up, now this has to some extent changed which I will discuss later.
By contrast, the success of The Lord of The Rings crossed boundaries of age, as the older generation fondly remembered the books and and the younger gained access to Tolkien’s universe through the films. Of course, there were purists who despised both the literalness that comes with the cinematic rendering of a book and the boiling down of the narrative to its barest essentials. In my experience these were a minority.
Next came the early Spiderman films staring Tobey Maguire, this development was portentous as it paved the way for every comic book no matter how stupid to be turned into a film. Once the flood gates were opened a vast quantity of such films were released, there was simply too much money to be made. This is not to say that the spate of comic book adaptations that came after this were all devoid of artistic merit, many of the Xmen films where decent. However, clearly the majority were motivated as all Hollywood blockbusters are by narrowly commercial concerns.
At the same time in the early 2000s information technology began exerting more and more influence over peoples lives, as a result many in the tech world were becoming exceedingly wealthy. The rise of the nerd in the business world is perhaps connected to the rise of nerd culture. For surely money and power have always been sources of prestige. By attain these things the nerds by proxy legitimatized the cultural expressions of this identity.
This change in our cultural landscape leaves me with a sense of vertigo and unease. the main source of this being that the changes in culture bear eerie parallels with changing generational dynamics. For fantasy and especially the type of fantasy epitomized by the popular Marvel and DC comics is childish. In many comics the motivations of the characters, the emphasis on action and the simplistic the morality are childish (although it must be said much that is considered “adult” could also be guilty of these sins). Have not the lives of millennials become increasingly indicative of a an eternal pseudo adolescence? Fewer and fewer people will have will children many still live with their parents well into their 20s and beyond. What I am not suggesting that the cultural change has caused a change in lifestyle, rather, that the two trends have occurred in parallel and each has reinforced the other. It is the infantalisation of the adult that the rise of nerd culture symbolizes. I say this as someone who is undoubtedly a nerd, I work in IT, not a day goes by when I am not interacting with one form of device or another, the majority of fiction that I have read is of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Part of my mistrust must surely stems from the resentment that arises when something that you used to feel was the exclusive property of you and other connoisseurs is now the property of the masses. There is an element of snobbery here which cannot be denied. In my defense, I think some of this feeling are justified. For example, the films of the The Lord of The Rings have largely supplanted the books, the memories I had of the books are supplanted by the styling of the cinematic depiction. The clunkier parts of the books were largely evaporated away from the plot of the films (with the exception of the extended editions) . This boiling down is necessary for the purposes of adaptation but removes much of what was charming from the original story. As tedious as many of the passages in the trilogy were to read they added a sense of depth and eccentricity to the narrative that linked them to strangeness of the ancient myths and legends Tolkien was inspired by. The removal of this elements can make the narrative of the films feel flimsy by comparison. Further, this theme occurs again in again in the adaption of any narrative that originally appeared in book form to film regardless of genre. Whilst the two mediums are not mutually exclusive but I cannot help but feel that in many cases the reduced low fat narrative of the film has supplanted the original. Here I must also add that in some cases this taking liberties with the original plot can lead to improvements, especially if the story being adapted was not very good in the first place.
Is my unease justified? Or a mere exercise in snobbery? One way of answering this questions is to consider the qualities of both the mediums. Is there is an inherent difference between events depicted in film and those of the written word beyond the surface and obvious? One key difference is the way they are experienced by the viewer. In the cinema you are a passive observer of the action rather than an active participant. By contrast, a book requires the reader to engage their mind and imagination with the work. A film through its immersive quality can silence the viewer’s critical faculties in a way that a book simply cannot. This is not to say their cannot be thought provoking films, but that their ability to impose their message on the mind of the viewer is far stronger due to the passive state they induce. In light of this, we can see how a bad film is far worse than a bad book, for a bad book does create as immediate an effect on the mind than the written word. The violence done to the mind by a low quality work is greater. Further, that the simplification of narrative and concept that the film encourages increases the likelihood a film will be bad as consequence of its medium. In so far as this is true my unease is justified. Unease is not the same a condemnation; I do not share Roger Scruton’s wholesale opposition to film as a medium.
Another question that should be asked is what this shift in taste can tell us about mass culture? Does it operate by a sort of logic? Or are its operations blind and purposeless? Earlier, I have argued the former. That the changes in culture has run in parallel with the changes in the world at large. Further, that they can to limited extent influence each other. As this influence can only be observed through the similarities between the two trends it is impossible to say with any precision how accurate this conjecture is and if it is true which of the two trends is the more influential. There is undoubtedly a element of cultural change that is cyclical and presumably the dominance of nerd culture is itself part of one of these larger cycles. Contrastingly, there is an element of cultural change that is undoubtedly random, I can remember when for brief period of time blue suits were all the rage in central London; now they are nowhere to be seen. It is as if they were like freak growth of some plant triggered by unusual conditions; blooming quickly but then disappearing.
However, the rise of nerd culture has by this point had many years of upward trajectory and cannot simply be dismissed as a fad or something that is likely to go away any time soon. As many societies in some respects have become increasingly anti-social might this lead to a counter reaction to a life excessively based in the world of fantasy and by proxy the internet, which in many ways embodies the idea of a fantasy world. It offers types of interaction that is simply impossible face to face or by any other medium. Further, the ability to adopt any number of pseudonyms that Edward Snowden so eloquently describes in his memoir Permanent Record, means that a user can indulge in any number of fictional existences. Surely the dominance of the internet over almost every aspect of modern society must also be symbiotic with the cultural changes under discussion? For the “real” world has increasingly become transformed through the application of internet based tools whether this be shopping, dating, careers or socializing. One consequence of this is that stereotypical interests of the computer programmers behind this change have a cachet to them that previously did not exist. Science fiction seems less ridiculous and overblown when our lives are increasingly dominated by the influence of technology.
To conclude, whatever comes next culturally after this phase (if we are indeed in a transitory state affairs rather than something permanent) is unknowable. However, a reactionary move against the constant presence, for better and for worse, of technology in our lives seems likely. I am skeptical that this could ever reach the level of mass culture as surely the vast majority of people seems to be happy with the convenience and new opportunities technology affords. To buy into some new cultural option they must surely turn against it analogue in the everyday world as well. Until this happens I suspect that any wider change in the cultural landscape is unlikely.
Today more than ever we hear about the need to return to “normal” or the even more choice phrase “new normal”. The philosophically minded when presented with such statements must ask: what is normal? What was normality?
To avoid banal generalities I am going to try and stick to what I know which is the situation in the UK. Although I may at times refer to “The West” for stylistic reasons what I am really talking about is the UK.
The relationship of the citizen to the government has taken on more and more of the characteristics of the master-slave relationship set forth by Hegel. The master and the slave both depend on each other for mutual recognition of the other’s self consciousness. The government finds meaning in imposing it’s will on the citizens, the citizens find significance through following the directives of the government. This dynamic has always been present in British society but has reached unprecedented levels currently. As far as I am aware it is now a item of law whether one is allowed to meet another person outside of one’s household. A undeniable and important component of any return to normality will be a retreat of government from people’s private life. Whilst there must be pressure on them to do this as soon as possible, I fear that there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. That as the state spends more and more money that it is not recuperating via taxation it may have to seek more rapacious means of maintaining it’s existence. Also, there is the practical point that long after the virus has been vanquished the fear surrounding it and the possibility of a new variant or some other disease taking hold can be used as a political carte blanche to enforce whatever measures it wants. To be clear, I am not passing judgement on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of such fears. What I am commenting on is how they will likely be used by unscrupulous leadership. If the past is any indicator of future behavior it seems that people will broadly speaking comply with whatever deprivations are imposed on them. On this front, I see no return to normality any time soon.
Speaking about the cultural sphere in The West in the broadest sense it appears that all discourse outside of a few isolated channels and dissenting voices is dominated by left-wing or progressive thinking. As these ideas gain more and more dominance and are often spread in very intolerant and unquestioning way. An example, of this are the recent move of all major brands to embrace some idea of social justice or racial equality for obviously cynical reasons. Very little real progress (by the standards of those who hold progressive beliefs) will be achieved. When people who diverge to whatever extent from these beliefs feel threatened they may be sparked in a counter reaction which creates further polarization. Alternatively, people will simply express publicly all the right opinions, whilst in private they sharpen their knives. This duplicity will mean that the appearance of an increasingly “progressive” society will continue a pace, whist underneath the surface little or substance will change. To be clear, I am not against a more equal or fairer society in principle. What I object to are the coercive means that are deployed to achieve it that are ultimately counter productive.
Despite the spate of censorship by internet platforms it is still the case that you are far more free to think what you want in the relatively anarchic internet than you will ever be in “real” world. I should qualify this statement by saying that certain views although controversial are too obscure to attract the sort of critical mass of attention that is required for something to be frowned upon in the first place. An example of this being those who think that both the mainstream left and right in this country are intellectually bankrupt. Such an opinion is so far out of the norm and has so few adherents that it can be safely ignored by the powers that be. Especially, when this distention is not combined with an “extremist” ideology, I use scare quotes because every original idea that has ever been proposed was at some point labelled as “extreme” by those with vested interest against change. The printing press was not a welcome development in the eyes of many in Europe that the censorship mechanism that was the original copyright laws were put in place in England to control it. The thought that women deserved to treated the same as men was also a once a radical idea.
On the fringe of what is acceptable today you may see the orthodoxy of tomorrow. I remember laughing at tourists from Asia because they were wearing face masks. How ridiculous they looked, I laughed at their obviously unfounded paranoia. Now the rest of the world has adopted what was previously viewed by as lunacy. I do not mean this in a snobbish way but if you look at the history of ideas you see again and again an intransigent and ideologically committed minority leading the passive majority. We see this the rise of fascism, Marxism and now socialism (perhaps the most widespread and enduring of “isms”). Observing this pattern can make one cynical as to the prospect of any real progress or meaningful change. Are not the vast majority of us asleep? Are we not largely guided by subtle currents of influence and brainwashed by advertising? Are we not lost in a sea of media (mainstream or otherwise) and content that is impossible to process?
Today many seem to care about the environment, I am broadly in favor of this. But the question must be asked, why do they care? Is it through a project of individual research or discovery? Or is it simply that they care because they have been told to care incessantly from every imaginable source. The outcome of such messaging is not as distressing as the effectiveness of this light brain washing. For surely if it can be used for fairly vanilla purposes it can also be used for darker ones too. So to return to original question: what is normal? Normal can be whatever you are told repeatedly and asked to adopt unquestioningly. Beliefs that are truly a matter of choice cannot be categorized as “normal”· For example, in the UK we are free to believe in whatever religion or lack thereof we choose. In light of this being religious cannot be described as “normal”. It is a item of choice. Following UK lock down restrictions is not an item of choice, paying taxes is not an item of choice. Normality is very valuable to those who need it to justify their existence and it must be maintained at all costs. This said, I do not want be seen to be sliding here into a fashionable and toothless anarchism. Talk is cheap. What I would offer is this advice: if you are told to do something repeatedly by those who have no skin in the game question it1.
Normality is also a great comfort and a necessary one in cruel and uncertain world we live in. The absence of normality is often accompanied by poverty, deprivation and unease. From the security of normality people can make plans, start a business, a family and take risks. The normal development of children is entirely dependent on the strength of the mother-child relationship. In its absence psychological and physical disorders of all kinds are inflicted on the child. In light of this positive aspect of normal it is easy to understand why it is so dogmatically enforced and how under the canopy of its virtues so much that is pernicious is smuggled in. Fundamentally almost all people desire some basic level of comfort and provision for the necessities of life. Without these we are so caught up in the struggle for survival that we can never grow or try anything new. In my own case, I was so busy last year trying to survive economically that a mild unease underpinned many of the things I did. However, is there not a element of normality that has the effect of a sedative? For when everything is following a trajectory that we feel in control of our desire to question and interrogate our experience pacified. The necessity of criticism and inquiry is obvious when something has gone wrong. The need is far less obvious, and seen by some as pathology, when all is well.
Our society is becoming increasingly autistic the ubiquity of smartphones has lead to a atrophy of our social abilities. The post pandemic world that we inhabit seems to the logical conclusion of a trend that has been occurring for years. There is something very Hegelian about the way the agenda our society is becoming more and more anti-social. We are in the midst of a great social experiment, will the eventual lifting of restrictions lead to change of course in human relations where we finally realize that we need to wean ourselves off our addiction to social media? Alternatively, the trajectory we are on may remain stubbornly unaltered as people are drawn inexorably under the spell of big tech. I say these things as a nerd who makes living in IT and has learnt immeasurable amounts from internet (this blog could not exist without it). It is not technology I am opposed to without it I would be greatly impoverished: financially, intellectually, artistically and emotionally. What I am against is the how discourse online is increasingly controlled by a cabal of companies that can remove and censor user content at whim. Of course, if the user base makes a decisive move away from them they are in trouble, so to some extent we get the internet we deserve. Hopefully recent events onlinewill be wake up call to many that we are too dependent on a few businesses to provide all of our services on the internet. A more diverse ecosystem must replace this.
The break with normality that be caused by the pandemic has clearly been seen by many as ideological opportunity the somewhat sinister phrase “build back better” has somehow entered currency. The questions must be raised as to who will be doing the building and who will be directing it? For if it primarily guided by existing power structures I fear we will get the same again and worse.
In conclusion, a simple recommendation or condemnation of normality is simply no intellectually viable. The associations it contains are complex and also to a great extent relative. In light of this it defies simple analysis. I have done my best to shed some light on the issue but must admit there is so much more that could be said. I will revisit this topic at a later date to see what has changed and what is merely the familiar disguised as novelty. I want to be an optimist but I fear such a outlook may be delusional. This crisis will undoubtedly serve as a great distraction; whilst we are living in fear and struggling those highly placed have license to do things they would not normally get away with. The idea of a vaccine passport would have been unthinkable before, now it is openly discussed. It is short hop from this to a bio metric passport. The invasion of personal freedom shows no signs of slowing down.