Archives for posts with tag: counterculture

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A couple of years ago my wife and I went on a holiday to the beautiful Greek island of Kefalonia and stumbled upon a house that so unashamedly proclaimed its whimsical good humour to the world at large that it was impossible not to stop and stare… and point… and smile… and take pictures… and generally fulfill every annoying tourist cliché in the book. Decked out from top to toe in a resplendent raspberry and vivid lime green, the place really did emanate its very own wave lengths of positive energy. Seriously, if you’d fiddled around with the dial of a transistor radio in the near vicinity, you’d have been able to have listened to the place humming happy little tunes to itself as it watched the world go by without a care in the world.

And whenever springtime rolls around again… and nature starts throwing a bit of colour about… and the miasmic drabness of a suburban winter finally starts to recede from view – I always find myself thinking back to that raspberry and lime green house with an overwhelming sense of nostalgic benevolence, and a seemingly instinctive desire for a radical injection of humour and vivacity into this woefully utilitarian world we seem to have built for ourselves.

If only the genius behind that resplendent Greek masterpiece were given free reign over the entirety of a modern city! How many dull grey office blocks would be transformed into 3 dimensional cubist masterpieces? How many cement grey subways would be commandeered for the artistic free-play of our alienated youth? How many toxic advertising billboards could be replaced with actual paintings? And I don’t mean the commissioned monstrosities knocked up by the Oxbridge turtleneck brigade for their boyhood friends in local government… or the cold pretentious oddities offered up (with sneering indifference) by your average urban architect hoping to surf his way to fame and notoriety on a wave of controversial reportage – I mean real art, and real city planning, and real building design by real people of the community. Fuck it. Why can’t the old fisherman from number 7 be given somewhere to memorialize the memory of his dead wife in sea shells? Why can’t the kids from the local junior school bedazzle the pavements around the local park with a hundred thousand painted sunflowers? Why can’t we draw smiley faces on the roundabouts… and grow strawberries up the railings of municipal buildings… and have stenciled processions of black and white doves for zebra crossings?

Why so drab?

Why so grey?

Why so serious?

Can there be any cultural crime as heinous as a societies loss of its own sense of humour?

Where in the name of God will we find ourselves if we start taking things too seriously?

Let’s face it – histories back-catalogue of particularly serious societies doesn’t exactly make for comfortable reading…

At the end of Jacques Tati’s seminal cinematic masterpiece “Playtime”, a sterile modernist Paris of glass, and steel, and right-angles is transformed into a giant fairground, where roundabouts become carousels and the world dances happily along to the sound of a circus organ. It was a desperate and brilliant plea for a more human version of reality – and as I endure my morning commute, crawling across the belly of a dead cement giant in my miserable little space-pod, I can’t help thinking that tati’s passionate plea is more relevant today than ever before.

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Capitalism presents us with a world largely stripped of playfulness and spontaneity because these are the human characteristics most deeply threatening to a society that functions upon principles of “absolute predictability and remote control from the centre” (Mumford). To the architects of a production rather than a demand based economy, the very idea that the people should be free to do as they please, to act in random or unexpected ways, is a terrifying concept – for what if the people were to suddenly lurch sideways into a spontaneous samba renaissance whilst they were supposed to be buying microwaves? What if they were to lose interest in upgrading their games consoles and their home cinema systems and started playing dominoes with their neighbours instead? To the greed driven capitalist psyche, the concepts of unhindered cultural development and genuine freedom of choice are abominations of free will. If the people stopped buying what they were told to buy, if they demonstrated genuine variety and individuality in their tastes and their interests, the financial markets of the world would quickly collapse under the destructive weight of a super-abundance of worthless and unwanted consumer goods. Thus, the entire capitalist racket hinges upon the coercive principle that the people must be made to behave in as predictable and obedient a fashion as possible at all times.

It is a depressing realisation that any society in which millions of people are centrally governed by a small capitalist elite must by its very nature, work upon principles of generality and mass appeal; the variations and deviations of the individual, be they brilliant or sublime, have no place in a system founded upon principles of servile predictability and enforced order. Thus, encoded into the very fabric of mass governance and control is the guiding principle of absolute banality. It is this increasingly bland and mechanistic model of society, with its flick switch predictability and its blind obedience to a centrally planned, profit driven culture that marks the true cost of contemporary consumerism upon the soul of man.

The teenager, beaming at his new mobile phone as he dies of boredom in a classroom, is not a teenager fulfilled by the wonders of the world before him or the opportunities for play that the world presents. The triple headed suction valve of the housewives new vacuum cleaner is, no doubt, an impressive technological feat, but after the smell of new plastic has worn off, the drudgery of her housework remains stubbornly intact. The joys mankind is afforded within the disabling limitations of an enforced mediocrity are scarcely joyful at all. For with every purchase of the latest gadget, with every music trend that is reverently followed, with every diet fad that comes and goes, humanity affirms the burial of its own creative principles.

The “freedom” to choose between a blue sweater and a red sweater cannot, in any meaningful sense of the word, be considered a freedom… and there can be no such thing as a moderately free society because freedom exists only as an absolute. It therefore follows that the freedoms we are presented with as consumers of the capitalist programme are not freedoms at all, but false freedoms… and what are false freedoms, if not systems of control and limitation – the prefabricated “spontaneities” of a system that fears the genuine intellectual and artistic play of its people. For in the free play of the mind exist the seeds of revolution.

Let gravity do its thing
A lot of people view life as some sort of dreary uphill struggle. A steady, monotonous plod towards the distant and ill defined plateau that is death – burdened down, every miserable step of the way, by life’s many sorrows and responsibilities. Personally I’d rather see life as being something closer to falling out of a gigantic tree. Sure you’re going to snag a few branches on the way down, sure you’re going to die on impact when you hit the forest floor, but THE ACT OF FALLING ITSELF IS COMPLETELY WITHOUT EFFORT! And if you’re really chilled out – I mean Lao Tzu, water without ripples, the butterfly is definitely dreaming of the man chilled out – maybe you’ll even be able to enjoy the ultimate liberation of a pure and absolute freefall.

After all, there really is no point in struggling – the outcome is about the only truly obvious and predetermined thing in the known universe. The more you try to grab at the branches as they race by; the more you fight against the process of falling (desperately clambering and pointlessly scrambling and further entangling) the more ragged and battered you’ll find yourself when you finally hit the bottom. Far easier to just let it all go, to roll with the punches, to opt for the path of least resistance; enjoy the views as best you can, appreciate the fresh air, say hello to the sparrows! Hell, maybe you’ll even be blessed with the opportunity to pluck a piece of fruit or two… but only if it works out that way – the second you start throwing yourself into the branches in search of unpicked riches is the second you get your eyes scratched out for the effort. There really is no such thing as a free lunch, unless of course, you stop looking for it!

And as you hurtle towards the ground – those last few moments of freefall can be spent either screaming in fear and desperation at your inability to change a single aspect of the gravitational Master-plan, or enjoying the ride, content in the knowledge that you had some fun along the way. And however many branches you might have smacked on the way down, at least you’ll have the pleasure of knowing that your body will eventually provide a half decent spade or two of compost… will work its way into the earth from which it came… will be drawn into the roots of the very same tree from which you fell… egoless and free, dissipated and unchained… in myriad forms over countless ages… absorbed into the fabric of the infinite freefall.

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If an unscrupulous business conglomerate suddenly decided to start pouring an endless stream of noxious sewage into what had once been a pristine lake renowned for its natural beauty, it probably wouldn’t take long for people to get pissed off and start complaining… and yet day after day, the conscious and subconscious minds of the hapless inhabitants of the 21st century are subjected to pretty much this exact same process… only we’re either too dazed by the smog to notice, or too burnt out by the daily grind to even care. Let’s face it, the modern world is a fleapit of unwanted and harmful advertising; irrelevant and counterproductive information; fatuous and emotive media narratives; and an ever-growing stockpile of fundamentally useless information. By the time you make it to work in the morning you’ve already been hit by the TV, the radio, the cereal packet, the billboard, the bumper sticker, the newspaper, the internet… a constant babble of ceaseless mental pollution ever more aggressively encroaching upon that tiny safe-house of silence and tranquility deep inside each and everyone of us. And as our media augmented reality quickens the pace at which we have to process and manage all of this information still further, I can’t help wondering how much is enough? Is it healthy? And where in the name of God is the “off switch”?

Drip…drip…drip… the Chinese water torture of a million negative words and images as they sink into the watercourse of our psyches. And if it’s “all in there somewhere” – just think about the sheer volume of soul destroying anti-matter each and every one of us has sucked up over the years! Of course, the single most frustrating thing about stress and burnout and overload, isn’t so much the fact that it exists, as the fact that we did it to ourselves… pointlessly… and that even as we sit here now, passively observing an ever growing explosion of mental health issues and stress related illnesses, every facet of our lives continues to accelerate at ever more dazzling speed towards a brick wall of knowledge and information so dense in its construction that we will be smashed to pieces on impact. Is it any wonder that people are breaking the windows and jumping out?

Maybe an endless supply of facts and knowledge isn’t such a great thing after all? If your mind is crammed to bursting point with a million useless trivialities about pop star’s tattoos and diet pills, how are you ever going to function with any sort of meaningful clarity or purpose? And, if you take the alternative line and dedicate yourself to the conquest of specifics; if you study for ten years and become the world’s leading authority on millipedes or sandpaper, how will that possibly help to enrich your daily experience? How will it help you to become a more rounded or multi-dimensional human being? In this so called “age of information” how many people have genuinely useful information at their disposal, not necessarily a cure for cancer, but the sort of simple practical awareness that must have existed before the likes of Adam Smith and Henry Ford came along and pushed hands and minds in separate directions. How many people can make a chair for instance, or cultivate a field, or dig a well?

Of course, it’s also worth noting that plenty of knowledgeable people out there are complete wankers… whereas plenty of men and women who have never so much as picked up a newspaper in their entire lives have souls as pure as the driven snow. Maybe intuition and instinct and compassion are what matter most in the world? Maybe we’ve evolved these massive brains so that we can turn our intellects to the service of loving kindness? Maybe the fact that we’re slowly burying our true natures under an ever growing mountain of information is nothing more than a terrible mistake… because we can’t get our heads around the fact that answers create questions as much as questions create answers… and that our quest for knowledge is a desert without end… an abyss… an addiction.

Consider for example the nightly soap-opera of news broadcasts beamed into our living rooms: a series of shitty things will have happened to people who don’t deserve it… an expert or two will have been plucked from obscurity for the day to explain why we should be angry about something we’d never even thought about… somebody in a position of responsibility will pretend to be working terribly hard for our collective benefit… a minor celebrity will have been publicly humiliated or disgraced so that we can waggle our heads and feel better about the state of our own morality… and an enemy of whichever political state we happen to belong to will makes us feel small and insecure and desperately in need of our big brother governments……… Given the more or less static nature of this formula, what is it that keeps us tuning in every day so that we can consider ourselves well informed?

Are the full frontal pornographic details of somebody else’s misery really helping me to become a less ignorant, wiser and more knowledgeable individual? Or is it enough to know that there is suffering in the world and step back? Even if we consider ourselves to be the sort of clued-up human beings that have smugly transcended the petty trivialities of the gossip column and reality TV, we could easily spend our entire lives intravenously consuming serious, meaningful “information” without ever actually lifting a finger to make positive change. Worse still, we could get so hardened to images of human pain and degradation that we ceased to even feel moved by them anymore. It seems to me that there is a vast difference between living in a world with poverty and famine, and living in world of information about poverty and famine. And though nobody could deny that there are instances in which information is good and necessary, when it helps and guides and directs; in an age that is as obsessed by information as our own, that literally worships information like a new religion, we seem to have reached some sort of vital tipping point. Even the most important information is lost amongst the pointless; is weakened by its own endless replication and dissemination; is at risk of being trivialized by the readiness of its own availability in evermore disneyfied and parodic forms. With so few needles and so many haystacks, wouldn’t it have been better to have unplugged ourselves from the white noise of incoming information altogether, and to have gone off and made that chair instead?

And if I seem strangely fixated with the idea of going off and making chairs all the time, I apologise… it’s just that it’s on my bucket list, and I’m incredibly envious of anybody who has the necessary skills. There’s something beautifully concrete about making a chair – it seems to present the perfect balance of mind and body, and belongs to the world of real things like trees and people and dogs’ wet noses, the world of actual tangible problems like needing somewhere to sit. Making a chair is like catching a fish and cooking it for dinner – a tangible whole that exudes a sort of natural integrity because there is a very obvious and real point to it. Making chairs and catching fish stand in glorious and direct opposition to the daily toils of our own world… with all of its utterly pointless graphs and pie charts and po-faced interactions… its stressful juggling of emails and meetings and working lunches. Call me cynical, but I can’t help thinking that making a PowerPoint to explain to your boss why the dip in expected sales predictions still adheres to the amended version of the 5 point progress model, isn’t actually real. Not in any meaningful sense of the word anyway. It’s smoke and mirrors. Pushing around bits of nothing and rearranging them because you need a paycheck. If it never happened it wouldn’t matter. If it took place in front of a tribesman he wouldn’t be impressed or care to learn its ways.

When you really get down to it, is a human being an indiscriminate filing cabinet full of other people’s information… or a playful, sociable mammal?! Are we biological life forms or cold grey components in the gargantuan super-computer that passes for modern life? Should we really be burning ourselves out writing reports… so that other people can have meetings… so that other people can send emails… so that we can all run around and write even more reports and have even more meetings and send even more emails… or should we be lying on the grass staring at the clouds?

It’s time that we reassessed just what the hell we’re doing with all of this information we’re able to generate and disseminate… and trust once more to our instincts and our intuition… relearn (through play and spontaneity, laughter and interaction) what it actually means to be human.

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Switch off the television

Switch off the laptop

Switch off the radio… and the mp3… and the mobile phone…

Poke around in the silence for a little while.

Rediscover the feeling of having a thought which is in no way connected to a piece of incoming information…

Experience an emotion that isn’t the direct result of something you’ve just had injected into your brain by the media.

Let it go…

All of it…

Even that bit you’re still clinging on to…

Let it all go…

Seriously, all of it…

Kick back and relax

Take it easy

Stop

Breathe

Step out of your own way

Chill the fuck out…

And be happy in the knowledge that sometimes (especially if you’re swinging back and forth in a hammock) to learn less, is to know more.

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