you missed one of the rungs in the ladder
June 9, 2018, 6:39 pm
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In his essay Such Were the Joys …, George Orwell describes the claustrophobic social realities of early century England.

The social and class milieu was rooted in low church religion and upper class unattainability and snobbery, which cancelled each other: on the one hand: sex puritanism, hard work, academic distinction, no self indulgence. And on the other: anti-intellectualism, love of games, xenophobia, contempt for working class, fear of poverty,  materialism, power and leisure.

To be socially acceptable one had to live on the interest of a sizable family endowment. It was virtually impossible to attain upper class status from the middle class: best case was a middle manager civil servant, but more likely, after a lifetime of hard work, an office boy.

Today we have indifferent boomers, a majority who can’t retire, lost millennials, the precariat, giggers etc. Was Orwell’s time any different from our own?

The various codes which were presented to you at Crossgates – religious, moral, social and intellectual – contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of the nineteenth-century ascetism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for “braininess” and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible. At the time I did not perceive that the various ideals which were set before us cancelled out. I merely saw that they were all, or nearly all, unattainable, so far as I was concerned, since they all depended not only on what you did but on what you were.

Very early, at the age of only ten or eleven, I reached the conclusion – no one told me this, but on the other hand I did not simply make it up out of my own head: somehow it was in the air I breathed – that you were no good unless you had £100,000. I had perhaps fixed on this particular sum as a result of reading Thackeray. The interest on £100,000 a year (I was in favor of a safe 4 per cent), would  be £4,000, and this seemed to me the minimum income that you must possess if you were to belong to the real top crust, the people in the country houses. But it was clear that I could never find my way into that paradise, to which you did not really belong unless you were born into it. You could only make money, if at all, by a mysterious operation called “going into the City,” and when you came out of the City, having won your £10,000, you were fat and old. But the truly enviable thing about the top notchers was that they were rich while young. For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible. You clambered upwards on a ladder of scholarships into the Home Civil Service or the Indian Civil Service, or possibly you became a barrister. And if at any point you “slacked” or “went off” and missed one of the rungs in the ladder, you became “a little office boy at forty pounds a year.” But even if you climbed to the highest niche that was open to you, you could still only be an underling, a hanger-on of the people who really counted.

George Orwell, Such Were The Joys …, p 31


George lived here
January 24, 2016, 9:32 pm
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no one wanted to read
February 22, 2015, 11:14 am
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The NY LA art book fairs are for makers of zines, comics, posters, prints and art books. There is a genre of art book that is full of pictures and very big text. One of its leading proponents and practitioners is Bruce Mau who did Zine and SMLXL etc. One way of describing this genre of book is that content now has to fight with design for relevance. So, the old orange penguins were a couple years of hard writing work (content) set in type and given an eyecatching cover. The content had clear superiority over the graphics and design of the book. Not with art books, the font and design is much more important with them and oftentimes all but extinguishes the content. At the art book fairs people gather to buy and sell these novelty products. Architects like art books, I guess their education doesn’t emphasize the kind with content: history, fiction, poetry. A young architect once told me he liked books as objects. That’s what an art book is, an object.

I have a degree in literature and an internet addiction. On my recent vacation, I took a book and no computer. It was only five days, so not much of a sacrifice, but the book burned into my brain and heart in a way I haven’t experienced in months and months. I began to write again. Anyway I’m back now wasting time on the internet, flipping around, reading essays and watching movies, and rarely confronting humanity in the way that my travel book helped me to. I guess most of the internet is like an art book – more flash, less content.

Something from Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

language domino

A Chinese sage of the distant past was once asked by his disciples what he would do first if he were given power to set right the affairs of the country. He answered: ‘I should certainly see to it that language is used correctly’. The disciples looked perplexed. ‘Surely’, they said, ‘this is a trivial matter. Why should you deem it so important?’ And the Master replied: ‘If language is not used correctly, then what is said is not meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion’.

Erich Heller

[copied from Lars Iyer’s site Spurious]


“The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

George Orwell, 1946, “Politics and the English Language.”


The extinction of languages which we are now witnessing – dozens pass annually into irretrievable silence – is precisely parallel to the ravaging of fauna and flora, but with greater finality.  Trees can be replanted, the DNA of animal species can, in part at least, be conserved and perhaps reactivated.  A dead language stays dead or survives as a pedagogic relic in the academic zoo.  The consequence is a drastic impoverishment in the ecology of the human psyche.  The true catastrophe of Babel is not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues.  This reduction formidably fueled by the mass market and information technology, is now reshaping the globe.  Military technocratic megalomania, the imperatives of commercial greed, are making of Anglo-American standardized vocabularies and grammars an Esperanto.

George Steiner, The Tongues of Eros

April 13, 2011, 8:11 pm
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge | Tags: ,

Tea, a pipe, the evening edition and … murder, please.  Or maybe to update it a bit: an evening in, popcorn, someone you love and a nice bloody murder movie.

Show us the body first, cut and cold, in the woods or splayed across a big chair in a living room, like the one I’m sitting in now, reading this paper or watching this movie.  Then bring in the detective, an outsider, foibles fully on display, with razor sharp wit, always on the move: assessing, searching, reasoning, intuiting, questioning, psychologizing, smoking.  We need foils and blockages, false turns, malevolent and coy personalities whose roles flip:  fool us again and again with each new revelation.  Now wind it tight in time:  a deadline against which the detective races.

What is the appeal of murder to the middle class?  There are two ways of looking at murder in a comfortable society:  as an aberration, or as a part of the system that maintains its ease.  It’s simple to accept murder as aberration; all of the sordid details and undesirable characters — the cops, the detectives, the murderer and even the victim — are totally foreign to our lives.  It’s the difference that fascinates us.  Detectives are agents who act on our behalf to quell the violence and return us to our ordered lives.  They are heroes of the culture:  Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Morse, Wexford, Miss Marple, Alleyn, Jonathan Creek, Jane Tennison, Inspector Rebus, Father Brown, Tom Barnaby, Bergerac, The Saint, Cadfael, Cordelia Gray.

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huxley v orwell
February 10, 2011, 6:43 pm
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Stuart McMillen’s comic of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, via kottke.

Both visions are vicious and clarifying and true.  Huxley’s though seems truer; it describes the insidiousness of our materialism and narcissism.

the power and the dishonesty
July 21, 2009, 10:52 pm
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Here is the definition of nationalism from George Orwell’s famous essay Notes on Nationalism written at the close of the second world war in 1945.  Sixty years on now and it’s still the defining quality of our times, so perhaps now we should just state that nationalism is viral or perennial or human.

There are a number of ideas in these paragraphs that are worth understanding.  The craziness of taking on the project of human classification; the madness of naming them good and evil.  The willful and total subsumation of the person into the work for more power.  The ability to finely balance hunger for power and delusion.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.


A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

-From Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell, 1945