so celebrity then

An old notion of celebrity promotes the assumption that of course anybody would put up with the restrictions on and intrusions into their private life in exchange for permanent financial security. Who would not want to banish forever rent payment angst, and who would not want unrestricted holidays? For some years now though we have been living with a bastardised twenty-first century notion of celebrity promoting the added assumption that in order to achieve celebrity you don’t need to be able to do anything except manage your image or allow others to manage it. Fictional worlds ironically originating from a form known as ‘reality TV’ hold out the hope that fame is something that can come from publicly playing out very short term achievements and is something that doesn’t have to be linked to extraordinary ability, long term success or determination. If you’re already known to the public in some capacity you have a head start which might enable you to boost your public profile by learning a few dance moves; or if you have no public profile you could bake some cakes and then earn some money from sponsorship deals; or you could publicly try and convince a dinosaur emotionally stunted business owner that you may be his next high powered executive, whatever that is. Or you could sing your heart out on national TV. (Well, don’t actually do that, given how under-resourced the health service is now.) Anyway it only takes a few weeks of your time, and you need none of the attributes of those old fashioned twentieth century celebrities. Who knows? Through nothing more than pushing your image you may even become the leader of the world’s most powerful country.

I was minded of all this while watching the recent BBC documentary on the last five years of David Bowie’s life, having previously not been aware of the extent to which he hated his celebrity status. There’s an obvious sense in which the media attention focused on him was self-inflicted. Why would he play out so publicly and ostentatiously such theatrical scenarios if he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself? He explains that he was a very shy person and when he performs in public he feels even more shy. Adopting a persona helps with that feeling. I can relate this to my teaching experience. While addressing the class or even while speaking to an individual student, I would sometimes switch without warning to an alternative voice, an alternative accent or both. When asked why I did it, my usual reply was that it just got me through the day alongside my unwillingness to take anything seriously for more than a few minutes. But I now realise that I may also have been covering performance anxiety. Fame can ultimately bring the possibility of choice though, so during the production of his final two albums Bowie took part in no publicity at all: no interviews, no locking himself in a fake house with other celebrities, no toughing it out in a jungle a couple of miles from a five star hotel, no cooking his signature dish on television while a professional chef pretended to be critical of him, no fake press leaks or pretentiously self-effacing Twitter posts. In fact, many of the musicians involved in his final creative endeavours had to sign NDA documents before they were taken on.

There’s that old cliché of making sure you don’t look back near death and wonder why you didn’t get around to doing some of the things on your bucket list.  Bowie had on his bucket list writing a musical and seeing it performed, reprising vicariously his character from The Man Who Fell To Earth. And the value of vicarious experience is not to be underrated if you ever get the chance to do any near-death reckoning of what you’ve accomplished in life. He returned to his his fave fictional character Major Tom more than once, commenting that he was his first so he held him in high regard. When asked why the preoccupation with space travel he said ‘It’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space, isn’t it, writ large? I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me.’ Often the interior version of the experience is enough. You don’t actually have to attach an elastic rope to your ankle and jump off.

Bowie also commented that the twenty-first century had so far been disappointing. Jury’s out, I guess, but he did live to see the availability of free personal micro-celebrity through social media. You can now repeatedly photograph yourself and share that image instantly with hundreds of people, in what must come close to an ultimate act of narcissism. Where previously it was the province of the traditional mass media to propagate images publicly, now pretty much anyone can do it. Your own face, your meals, your animals, what you are about to drink. Up to you really. It’s your Lazarus moment.

so january then

Early January is a time when many struggle psychologically. We’ve been on the emotional and commercial ramp that society pushes us up in the weeks before Christmas Day, followed by the sofa buying hiatus during which we are encouraged to look forward to a new start as midnight on 31st clicks over in our time zone. On January 1st, thoughts turn to renewal, with the realisation that daylight is extending by a couple of minutes a day, but thoughts also traditionally turn to abstinence and self-discipline. This sudden onset of abstinence and self-discipline makes little sense to brains and bodies that have been encouraged to conflate self-indulgence and expenditure with relaxation and happiness for the last ten days. There is also that nagging awareness that only the relatively affluent get to take part in the self-indulgence and compulsory happiness. And then the thought dawns that you’ll soon need to be back on the work commute to pay rent.

Not too surprising then that the first few days of January is a peak time for calls to divorce solicitors and debt helplines; holiday bookings too, as the next escape from reality is planned. I was also recently shocked to learn that domestic violence figures rise sharply during the Christmas period.

Four years ago today, at around 3.30 in the afternoon, my life changed in a seismic way. I don’t want to dwell on that though. Calendar dates are reminders, but the luxury exists now to at least consider a more teleological view of time.

so ignorance then

A state of not knowing, generally seen as unintentional but sometimes given the qualification ‘wilful’. If you don’t know something, you don’t know it. The only way to correct that is to learn some new stuff. You can choose not to learn the new stuff, or stuff can be hidden from you by forces beyond your control. Or do those forces just appear to be beyond your control?

There are some manifestations of ignorance that can’t be corrected by investigation. Nobody alive can describe the experience of death, other than providing an account of the outward appearance of someone else’s death. Accounts of so-called near death experiences relate only the physical and psychological sensations produced by the human frame approaching death. Self-awareness, a product of the as yet largely unmapped complexity of the human brain, lends a sense of absurdity to the ending of consciousness. We cannot know whether the death of the body causes consciousness to end, and so we speculate – also a product of brain complexity. Historically, when faced with the apparent absurdity of consciousness suddenly ending, faith has stepped in to rationalise ignorance. Suddenly there is life beyond the death of the body. So that’s OK, because the human life essence doesn’t reside in the body so in a way it doesn’t matter what happens to the body. When the body hurts chronically, we can take comfort from the belief that we are not just a body. Problems occur when rules are invented for the afterlife, rules that have become ever more intricate, often including the invention of a non-corporeal being who manages and judges the afterlife and reserves the right to bar people from entry. Different rule systems are seen as incompatible with each other. Intolerance and hatred ensue, based on what people routinely forget is just an invention. My non-corporeal being does not accept either you or your non-corporeal being. Let’s have a war then, shall we?

Something broadly similar happens with belief in extra-terrestrial life. The science tells us that even if they exist they can’t get here. But we tell ourselves that Einstein may have been wrong and that they may one day arrive, even though his track record so far is pretty good. We tell ourselves that aliens may plug the gaps in our frailties, vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but more often than not we make them in our own image.

The banishing of ignorance and the furtherment of complex knowledge should be facilitated by faster and more accessible communication. Shouldn’t they? This was certainly what was on the mind of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the web. It appeared knowledge was on the verge of being truly democratised, with the content of the world’s libraries potentially pouring down the phone line into your screaming dialup modem and saturating your CRT pixels. (Watch those x-rays.) The earliest manifestation of IMDB was hosted at Cardiff University, was free of advertising and was a film enthusiast’s wet dream. A constantly updated Halliwell that didn’t weigh anything and that you didn’t have to look for as you paused the closing credits on your shaky VHS. Fast forward through those fuzzy white flickering VHS lines to 2017 and we are told by some websites that blocking advertisements hurts people. Really now. I rather think that it hurts commercial interests and that if your business model depends entirely on advertising you need to build yourself a time machine. Noah will be happy to discuss options with you.

So not too far off thirty years after the invention of the web, where are we in terms of knowledge, ignorance and communication? Well, media are now social. Great. I can stay in touch with friends and family in one tab and do academic research in another. Only trouble is, gee wiz, my Aunty at the other end of the country who I’ve only seen about four times since I was three, and doesn’t really know me, thinks I’m the spawn of the devil because I hold opinions different from hers. She ‘unfriended’ me once, whatever that means. I think that was after I said that the former shadow chancellor making a tit of himself on national TV was not really entertainment. Anyway she asked me to be her friend again a few days later, possibly because she felt guilty or because she’d sobered up, or both. The moral of the story, true or not, is that we are now completely accustomed to polarisation. Life is spent agreeing or disagreeing, or pretending to agree or disagree, according to perceived social need. But the space in between is increasingly blank, dark and cold. In my view the mindset cast by social media has been directly responsible for the EU referendum. What kind of sense does it make for us to vote yes or no on an issue of such extreme national importance, ignoring all complexity and gradation? On 24th June we had won, and so all migrants needed to leave the country that day, and we weren’t going to allow any more in. Simple. Those ponces in the High and Supreme courts had better not interfere with our right to be polarised or our right to ignore the complex issues.

Agnotology is an emerging discipline that looks at the deliberate propagation of ignorance in order to achieve a specific goal. It was first developed in relation to the tobacco industry. The science linking smoking to lung cancer is half a century old at least, and nobody who is not in denial would challenge it. If you want to give yourself lung cancer, and possibly as an added bonus your nearest and dearest too, go ahead and smoke. But our industry is centuries old and is properly regulated. Why should science interfere with my income? I like my house and my sports car. And after all a person has a right to smoke. I know: we’ll introduce doubt. Don’t look at the facts. That’s too much like hard work. There are only a few studies that indicate smoking might be bad for you, and they’re probably wrong. Aren’t they? Social media will help. No-one can ever be arsed to read beyond the ‘continue reading’ prompt. Better to use pictures anyway. A heavy smoking guy in a Barbour jacket pointing at a long line of dark people should do it.

More detailed work needs to be done. Work that promotes absence and suppression of detail is to be avoided, and is ultimately the product of wilful ignorance.