Tim Ingold's 'Making' is a worthy successor to his earlier `Lines: A Brief History' and `Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description'....moreTim Ingold's 'Making' is a worthy successor to his earlier `Lines: A Brief History' and `Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description'. This book is a very rich and satisfying critique of the objectivist epistemology and technocratic ethos that underpins much of knowledge production today.
The critique operates at different levels. Its opening gambit is a prima facie plea to save the discipline of anthropology from a collapse into the documentary thrust of ethnography. Ingold sees the former as a transformational "space for generous, open-ended comparative yet critical enquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life". Ethnography merely turns `participant observation' into `qualitative data' that are to be analysed in terms of an exogenous body of theory. These are fundamentally different, antithetical ways of knowing. Ingold's argument is a call to deepen our knowledge of the world from the inside, as fellow travellers, as co-producers with other beings and things that command our attention. Knowing, therefore, is `understanding in practice'. It is inextricably meshed with `making' as an active engagement with the material world.
Here the central theme of the book emerges. We are used to think of making as a `project', with a rather precise idea in mind of what we like to produce (a plan, a design) and a supply of materials to achieve it. Ingold contrasts this `hylomorphic' model with a `morphogenetic' approach that enacts making as a contingent process of growth. Making becomes a process of entering "the grain of the world's becoming and bend it to an evolving purpose". The author goes on to demonstrate the power and relevance of the morphogenetic approach in a revealing series of case studies centering on very different `things and beings' drawn from the realms of anthropology, archeology, art and architecture (`the four A's'). These include ancient utensils such as paleolithic handaxes, quasi-natural landscape features such a prehistoric mounds and technical, complex artefacts such as watches and cathedrals. Ingold wields the morphogenetic perspective as a conceptual lever to unearth layers upon layers of very rich and surprising insights. On this journey he sides with intellectual allies such as Deleuze and Guattari, Richard Sennett, Vilem Flusser, Gregory Bateson and the paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan (to name just a few).
The relevance of Ingold's argument goes beyond the already expansive territory encapsulated by the four A's. From my perspective it connects seamlessly with recent (and not so recent) insights in decision-making theory, in management, foresight and transition studies and in soft systems approaches. On the other hand it seems that the epistemology defended by Ingold is a radical critique of the kind of `hard' systems thinking that is sought after by decision-makers who are increasingly taxed by the savage unruliness of the world unfolding beyond their boardroom doors. This kind of `joined-up thinking' Ingold considers to be "a friend of reason but an enemy of sentience".
Apart from the cogency of an argument that is very difficult to do justice in a brief review, it seems to me this book has a number of qualities that enhance the reading experience. Despite its richness it is a slim volume (a mere 140 pages) and therefore doesn't impose undue claims on time-pressed readers. Ingold's prose is, as always, carefully groomed and accessible without being condescending. Also, I relished the appositeness of the carefully chosen references, which provide opportunities for engaging follow-up study (Lars Spuybroek's `The Architecture of Continuity: Essays and Conversations' and David Turnbull's `Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers' to name but two of my personal favourites). Altogether this is an important book that I'd like to emphatically recommend to the intellectually curious, whatever their disciplinary background. (less)
A young girl strikes a big American city like a meteorite. She fled a civil war and, via Paris and Montreal, disembarks in the metropolis. Her radianc...moreA young girl strikes a big American city like a meteorite. She fled a civil war and, via Paris and Montreal, disembarks in the metropolis. Her radiance and appetite for life transfixes those who have the privilege of orbiting around her.
The circumstances remind us of the real-world work of epidemiologist Aaron Antonovsky who, in the 1960s and 70s was struck in his research by how certain women who had survived the Holocaust were able to sustain a rich and positive outlook on life. Antonovsky reoriented his research to try to understand how this was possible (“Had it been just one woman, it would still have been important to find out why”!) which led him to develop an original and important theory of health.
Also Richard Powers takes this phenomenon as the start for a process of inquiry. From the immigrant’s dazzling presence he conjures two major questions: ‘How are we to live?’ and ‘How are we to know?’. The novel lets then two sense-making and life-making paradigms collide: the scientific and the narrative. The scientist (or, better, the scientist-entrepreneur) is on a visionary quest to lay bare the order in things and to explore the upper limits of human ingenuity (in sofar as this continues to provide venture funders with a reasonable short-term return). And that includes rewiring our genomic apparatus to “make ourselves over into anything we want”. Happiness should not be left to chance; it’s a neurochemical design challenge.
For the narrator (or novelist, or mythographer) happiness emerges from a tangled web of relationships. “Happy people have stronger social relationships, more friends, better jobs, higher salaries, and stronger marriages. They are more creative, more altruistic, calmer, healthier, and longer lived.” But the causalities aren’t always clear. And there are contingencies, and human fallibility. From this messiness and from this abundance of possible relationships the narrator constructs a story, and hence imposes some sort of sense on the world.
The paradigmatic difference between the ‘objective’ and utopian scientist and the narrator who is all too conscious of the inescapable fragility of human life is played out quite literally in this novel. Powers overlays it with another dilemma that is rooted in the foundational problem of freedom. Imposing order is never an innocent business. Narrators make normative judgments. And those judgments may have unwanted or unintended consequences. One of the characters in a short-story authored by one of the protagonists (drawn from real life) commits suicide because he rebelled against the irreversible framing by the narrative. So how to navigate this dilemma between order and freedom? How to write a story of “the kind that, from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there’s no choice but chance?”
Scientists have to deal with a similar conundrum. In the hypercomplex universe of genomics, the data are always more or less inconclusive. “Genes don’t code for traits. They synthesize proteins. And single proteins can do incredibly different things, depending on where or when they’re produced … “ Deciding where to put the line between nature and nurture, between determinism and freedom, is, for the time being, also in science an unresolved issue.
Richard Powers’ books invariably are novels of ideas. This double dilemma – between science and story-telling, between determinism and freedom – seems to me to be the philosophical backbone of the book. There are other themes that Powers weaves in with characteristic brio. But at the center remains the young girl, Generosity, for whom the whole challenge of ‘happiness’ is a mirage: “People think they need to be healed, but the truth is much more beautiful. Even a minute is more than we deserve. No one should be anything but dead. Instead we get honey of out rocks. Miracles from nothing. It’s easy. We don’t need to get better. We’re already us. And everything that is, is ours. (less)
Tim Parks' Europa is not an easy book. Stylistically and pychologically it makes considerable demands on the reader. The whole narrative is captured a...moreTim Parks' Europa is not an easy book. Stylistically and pychologically it makes considerable demands on the reader. The whole narrative is captured as an obsessive, splintered internal monologue. Despite being on a journey from one European city to another, there is an overwhelming impression of stasis as we are pinned down to listen to a voice that is relentlessly drawing itself further in an abyss of self-doubt and reprove. Jerry Marlowe, the protagonist, is an archetypal one-dimensional man. He doesn't believe, doesn't want to believe in anything. His intellectual achievements, job, marriage and relationships are cause for ceaseless, sardonic appraisal. Least of all he believes in a Europe that has turned into a figment of our tired, postmodern imagination. It's a world where words have lost their meaning, dwellings have turned into floodlit non-places, and people have delegated their civil rights to faceless technocrats. Marlowe's erotically charged affair with a sophisticated French colleague is a divisive beacon in this process of psychological dissolution. It represents both the apex of his life and the inevitable expulsion from paradise.
As the journey progresses, Marlowe's distress and disorientation deepens. Parks masterfully juxtaposes this emotional maelstrom with a strand of black comedy. Marlowe's co-travelers (including a mongrel dog named after medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym) form a microcosm in which quite a few of the lowly human impulses - ego-centrism, greed, prejudice, debauchery, vanity, stupidity - are showcased in what at times approaches pure slapstick. Ultimately this slightly vulgar insouciance - and the tragic outcomes that seem to be associated with it - only reinforces the mood of despair that pervades this Swiftian novel.
Tim Parks seems to be an enormously versatile writer. This is the third novel from his hand that I have read (in addition to Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Teach Us to Sit Still) and they all provided a different reading experience. But without exception these are brilliantly written, intellectually satisfying and emotionally rewarding books.(less)
Marvelous story about the ageing Edward Elgar who's trying to recapture his muse in composing his elusive Third Symphony. The opening chapters of the...moreMarvelous story about the ageing Edward Elgar who's trying to recapture his muse in composing his elusive Third Symphony. The opening chapters of the book are unforgettable. (less)
There is a powerful current in our contemporary, post-industrial culture that is arguing for a simpler, more sustainable alternative to our wasteful,...moreThere is a powerful current in our contemporary, post-industrial culture that is arguing for a simpler, more sustainable alternative to our wasteful, environmentally damaging way of life. Proselytisers rely on a varying mix of three sets of arguments: the environmental challenge posed by climate change, the energy supply challenge posed by peak oil and, finally, the spiritual challenge emerging from the newest science on personal wellbeing (in a nutshell: beyond a certain point more money and stuff doesn't make us happier.)
Rob Hopkins' Transition Movement is pragmatic attempt to come to terms with the disruptions that are heralded by climate change and peak oil. Thoughtlessly addicted as we are to fossil fuels, our societies are ill equipped to deal with the adverse implications of energy scarcity and a hotter, less predictable climate. According to Hopkins, what we need to develop is resilience: the ability to deal creatively and locally with energy supply and environmental shocks.
The Transition Handbook is a hands-on guide to help communities make that transition towards a resilient, low-carbon future. It is useful to distinguish three layers in the book.
The first layer encapsulates the three main parts of Hopkins' argument, focused on the head (the facts about climate change and peak oil you need to know), the heart (the need for positive vision and commitment) and the hands (practical guidelines for enabling resilient communities).
The second layer consists of a range of design principles that can be relied on to shape resilient communities. For example, in preparing for an energy-scarce future we need to know that resilience relies on a small scale, modular and decentralised infrastructure. We also need to invest in high-quality productive relationships, integrate rather than segregate and use the creative edges of systems to make the most of their potential. There are many more of these principles that have been lifted from an eclectic mix of disciplines, including systems science, ecology and the psychology of change. Hopkins himself was deeply influenced by the permaculture movement, a radical design approach to constructing "sustainable human settlements".
The third layer features a range of practical solutions that comply with these design principles. These solutions are meant to be the cornerstones of any resilient community and include a template for working towards a more energy-thrifty ("energy descent planning"), decentralised energy generation, local food sourcing, re-skilling of consumers into creative citizens and local currencies.
Transition thinking is not only a theory but it is also a social movement and the book features a number of UK examples of communities that have started going down the path towards resilience. Hopkins is acutely aware that the governance of the Transition movement needs to mirror the design principles underlying resilience. It would hardly be credible and effective to embody a Transition movement by a tightly-managed, centralised bureaucracy. So, Hopkins is only willing to give pointers to help people in facilitating bottom-up, small-scale, self-steering initiatives. Lots is left to emergence and action learning ("... where it all goes remains to be seen ..." is an often used phrase in the book).
The Transition Handbook is an accessible, smart guide to helping us deal with the challenges we may face as a result of climate change and peak oil. In itself the book doesn't offer anything new, but it rearranges familiar pieces of a puzzle into a compelling and coherent approach towards learning again to help ourselves and to do more with less. (less)
This is a very entertaining collection of interviews. Duckworth takes his time to explore the issues sufficiently deeply with his interlocutors. Hence...moreThis is a very entertaining collection of interviews. Duckworth takes his time to explore the issues sufficiently deeply with his interlocutors. Hence, there is substance to the book: it certainly is more than a loose collection of freewheeling conversations. And I am grateful for the fact that Bill Duckworth expanded his survey beyond the obvious collection of Minimalists and Cage. I knew nothing about Pauline Oliveros, Glen Branca or La Monte Young and came away refreshed from reading all their stories. I was generally satisfied by the way Duckworth steers the interviews. The tone is relaxed, sometimes earnest, sometimes tongue-in-cheeck. He is at his very best in the long, sometimes rambling conversations with La Monte Young and John Zorn. But in other cases - such as with the more rigorous and perhaps intellectually more intimidating personality of Steve Reich - Duckworth rigidly sticks to his agenda and fails to capture a number of potentially interesting tangents. The interview with John Cage is outright funny in the way Duckworth fails to catch on with what Cage really tries to get across. He keeps asking the wrong questions whilst Cage, with dwindling patience, is making broad excursions in conceptual hyperspace. But if Duckworth fails to capture a number of interesting opportunities to dig deeper in some of the interviews, this remains a very valuable collection, at least for those new to the whole field of American experimental music. (less)
Well-written and rather harrowing story of a gifted but troubled musician's life. A good case study too of the ineptness with which our society deals...moreWell-written and rather harrowing story of a gifted but troubled musician's life. A good case study too of the ineptness with which our society deals with mental illness. Recommended. (less)
It is obviously always very welcome when a major monograph is published about a peculiar artist such as Sergei Prokofiev. I read Harlow Robinson's Ser...moreIt is obviously always very welcome when a major monograph is published about a peculiar artist such as Sergei Prokofiev. I read Harlow Robinson's Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography long ago and the image I came away with was of a tremendously gifted but temperamental, opportunistic and egocentric composer. One of the most mystifying episodes in Prokofiev's life is his move back to the Soviet Union, early in 1936, almost at the nadir of Stalinist repression. The introductory chapter in Morrison's book illuminate the logic of this surprising move. Basically, Prokofiev was outfoxed by the Soviet apparatchiks. When he was abroad, before his move, he was promised considerable perks and artistic freedoms. A steady stream of Soviet commissions led 1935 to be one of the most lucrative years of his career. And Prokofiev was pretty sure he could keep his options open: when the Soviet adventure would prove to be a disappointment, he and his family could always return to the West. Very soon it was clear that the Soviet cultural establishment had another scenario in mind. In the first few years, Prokofiev and his wife Lina were allowed to travel abroad with their children, however, remaining as `hostages' in Moscow. Already in 1938 Prokofiev did his very last tour outside of the Soviet Union. Henceforth, he would remain in the Soviet Union.
That being said, Sergei Prokofiev did produce some (maybe even most) of his timeless works during the roughly 25-year long Soviet chapter in his life. So something in that precarious setting must have connected with his creative impulse.
The merits of Morrison's study are multiple. It provides us with a more balanced picture of Prokofiev's personality to start with. Sergei Sergeyevich may have been vain and competitive, he was also a tremendously hardworking man who was not insensitive to the plight of his relatives and colleagues. His separation from Lina and his children and his relationship with Mira Mendelsohn is cast in a somewhat more favorable light than is sometimes the case.
And we get a much better view on Prokofiev's working methods, particularly as far as the dramatic work is concerned. Morrison provides us with very detailed discussions of Prokofiev's work on his operatic and cinematographic output, illuminating the nature of his dramatic instinct, his compositional strategies, his relationship with the texts and demands of directors, and his reaction to the variegated pressures of Soviet cultural censorship.
All of this is certainly captivating material and Morrison's effort in garnering it in this sweeping overview of Prokofiev's Soviet career is certainly commendable.
That being said, I also feel the study has a number of definite weaknesses. As already indicated, the focus is very much on the dramatic work (the operas, ballets, incidental music, film scores and cantatas). The instrumental, chamber and symphonic music is discussed much more cursorily. And that is deplorable as his most timeless contributions are likely not in opera and film, despite Prokofiev's own insistence to seeing himself as essentially as a dramatic composer.
For example, whilst Morrison qualifies the three `War Sonatas' as more radical (and successful) than anything else in Prokofiev's mature oeuvre, he gives them short shrift. The Sixth Sonata is discussed on a mere two pages, the Seventh only gets a fraction of a page and the monumental Eight, certainly one of Prokofiev's most impressive compositions, is only fleetingly mentioned. In contrast, the incidental music Prokofiev wrote for an aborted production of Pushkin's `Boris Godunov', directed by the tragically murdered Vsevolod Meyerhold, is discussed over a full 16 pages (understable, maybe, given that in 2007 the author oversaw a world-premiere staging of Pushkin's drama, featuring Prokofiev's incidental music and Meyerhold's directorial concepts.)
Whatever discussion of instrumental works there is, is not convincing to boot. Morrison doesn't seem to be with his heart in it, haphazardly relying on secondary sources and continual references to a more spiritual side in Prokofiev's psychological layout (he was an ardent follower of the Christian Science teachings). For example, once more in relationship to the War Sonatas, what are we to make of an assertion such as: "The music is abstract in sofar as it avoids external references, but for the composer, abstraction bore programmatic, spiritualistic associations. Once could fancifully argue that the three sonatas transcend their own structural and syntactical constraints, revealing those constraints to be the false postulates of false reasoning". Similarly, the all too short discussion of the monumental Sixth Symphony doesn't even mention, let alone clarify the Wagnerian overtones of the central Largo (Parsifal's `Spear' motif) and concludes with the enigmatic assessment that the symphony `embraces much of the surface rethoric of a socialist realist narrative but little of its cohesiveness.'
Another element that remains curiously underdeveloped in the book is Prokofiev's relationship with some of his most influential colleagues. Myaskovsky was one of Prokofiev's most trusted friends but he appears only as a kind of narrator citing snippets from his diaries. The nature of the relationship between these two composers remains in the dark. What Prokofiev thought about Myaskovsky's work we don't know. Similarly with Shostakovich who makes ghostly appearances here and there in the book - spending a night chatting with Prokofiev and Mira during a train journey to Moscow, or putting his dacha to Prokofiev's disposal. These courtesies did not keep Prokofiev from critiquing Shostakovich's work in public. But what did this really mean? Morrison surmises that Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony emerged as a reaction to Shostakovich's Fifth, but it's a mere hypothesis that is not corroborated by facts. When Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was performed in 1936, it must have come as a bolt from the blue, given the general mediocrity of Soviet classical music at that time, the iron grip of Soviet censorship on cultural production and also Prokofiev's own struggle to adjust to the new regime. Yet, at that point, we learn nothing about Prokofiev's reaction to this work.
Finally, Simon Morrison is not a great stylist. The prose is serviceable, but no more than that. The structure of the book is sometimes confusing too. I have a suspicion that Morrison started from a collection of papers (or a PhD) on various dramatic works which he subsequently meshed with biographic material. This can explain why the structure of the book is sometimes so heavily tilted towards those long excursions whilst the chronology jumps back and forth. However, I gladly admit that the narration improves in the final quarter of the book. The story of Prokofiev's life through the end of the war and the damaging Zhdanov resolution of 1948 is very well told.
So rather than a general, all-encompassing overview of Prokofiev's Soviet years, I would consider this book at heart more an academic dissertation on the mature Prokofiev's dramatic output. As a result of reading Morrison's book we do get a more balanced and three dimensional view on Prokofiev's complex personality, although many questions remain. The foundational mystery - namely how Prokofiev was able to find artistic nourishment in this brutally inhuman society - remains a riddle. Maybe Prokofiev's belief in Christian Science theory has something to do with it, but it is not the whole story.
That being said, I am still happy to have access to this abundant material. However, the book as a whole is too unbalanced to count as the final study of Prokofiev's Soviet years. (less)
This is an excellent chronicle of a long and tormented life. Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was a gifted British composer who particularly made a name as...moreThis is an excellent chronicle of a long and tormented life. Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was a gifted British composer who particularly made a name as symphonist and writer of film music. He left an impressive body of work, including nine symphonies, over twenty concertos, a number of very popular occasional works and countless film scores.
Arnold was most popular in Britain - as a composer and conductor - in the 1950s and 60s but he fell out of favour with the critical establishment because of a style of composing that was seen to be populist and very much against the grain of the avant garde, serialist orthodoxy. Arnold's problematic, self-destructive temperament didn't help to ingratiate him with the critics. Later diagnosed as manic depressive, he was a highly complex personality, extremely generous and confrontational at the same time. Heavy drinking exacerbated the impact of his mood swings and crippled his creative abilities.
So, it's a very mixed picture, most sensitively reconstructed by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, that emerges from these pages. The authors have been able to provide us with a not at all uncritical but utterly respectful picture of Arnold. In lesser hands it might easily have spilled over into an unsavoury and superficially sensationalist narrative. The research behind the book seems exemplary; it is littered with footnotes referring to conversations with very many people who knew Arnold intimately and it builds collegially on already available biographical material (including the "official" biography by Piers Burton-Page, now out of print). Beyond documenting Arnold's personal journey, the book also provides a very interesting, wider perspective on mid-to-late 20th century British musical life.
What the book does not offer is a scholarly analysis of Arnold's music. The work is invariably linked to biographic circumstances, associating the musical logic with particular personalities or events in Arnold's life. In my personal opinion this is a rather one-dimensional way of understanding the music. As a complement I would recommend to have a look at Paul Jackson's (The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Brilliant and the Dark (unfortunately a rather expensive volume) which offers more substance when it comes to musical analysis. In addition there is a more music theoretical study available by Raphael Thoene (Malcolm Arnold - A Composer of Real Music. Symphonic Writing, Style and Aesthetics). So we are well catered for elsewhere when it comes to musical analysis.
I have no hesitation to recommend this book without reservation. (less)