Cultural Riches

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I’ve long thought it curious that returning art confiscated by the Nazi regime gets treated under the heading of restitution of cultural heritage, given that it deals with personal property, seldom with what belongs to Jewish culture or German culture or whatever culture. I’m reminded of that by an article seeking to argue that we should all be equally eager to return everything else. Unfortunately, it's the kind of article that hares straight off towards a preselected conclusion; I was a bit surprised, for example, to be told that ‘the Ottomans ha[d] ruled Athens for centuries without harming the [Parthenon] sculptures’ without even a passing mention of that accident with the gunpowder...

The main thesis seems to be that ‘belief in the superiority of colonising cultures’ and consequent ‘disdain for non-Europeans’ explains ‘why the Elgin Marbles, not the Benin Bronzes or Aboriginal art or Chinese antiquities, are the face of the debate about cultural repatriation’. I don’t follow this notion of relative obscurity. I remember when Randall McGuire visited Durham and delivered a lecture on returning artefacts and human remains to the Yaqui: he made it very clear how little they possess of anything and how much they live on the edge. In contrast, the Bronzes, like the Marbles, have been subject to widely reported interventions by a national government; Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone had Zahi Hawass; the Koh-i-Noor attracts high-level political interest... In that little list of famous cases only the Marbles are of European origin. It’s just that some heritage objects (notable exhibits in their own right) are in the eye of well connected, well monied, well heeled interests, whereas some... aren’t.


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Backward-looking, reactionary, left behind by the pace of change and resenting the modern world. But enough of those demanding a rerun...

It feels like the end of Calvin and Hobbes spliced with the end of that Fawlty Towers episode with the ‘forgotten’ anniversary. (My hunch is that had things gone the other way I’d have been citing the end of The Graduate... but we’ll never know.)

The obvious and immediate effects are political and economic, but there’s a visible ripple effect in the epistemic realm that holds so much else aloft: new fractures appearing in conceptual models of how the world works, how to manage it, and what counts as having credentials to do so. Exhilarating or traumatic or both, according to your taste and circumstances.

I wonder what the old Nudge Unit people make of it all. Political science has crashed into the art of politics.

Sell stock in knowingness, assuredness, and this guy. Buy assets in curiosity; this could be a great time for big ideas.

Thinking Out Loud

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It’s a good thing polling day is nearly upon us; things are getting too meta even for me. I think we’re now onto critcisms of the tone of accusations of lowering the tone of the debate.

In the reactions to the ‘breaking point’ poster we had Remain, whose leading lights including Cameron still officially endorse or at least aspire towards the Conservative ‘tens of thousands’ pledge, and Vote Leave, which now endorses a points-based system not a world away from UKIP’s own immigration policy, competing to fall into Farage’s trap first: he now gets to present himself as the only one unsqueamish enough not merely to talk a good game but to stare matters in the face.

In a way, though, this kind of abstracted debate is fitting. Nations, peoples, publics, when they develop organically, do so in ways that escape the schematic theorising of political science and philosophy. Every nation is a legend in its own lifetime. They have to be; the alternative is a marriage of convenience, and what’s convenient will always change in time.

Conceptually we play with toy states, social contracts nobody actually signed: it’s easy to see how you might start with something like that and end up deciding that states should be readily agglutinative, since universal human reason is supposed to come already built in. The real accretions of history are strange, surprising, crooked; it belongs to no possible theory of institutions that Britain should have a royal stamp collection. Yet could there be anything more perfectly British?

The intellectual and administrative thinkers who ponder deliberative democracy and so on have not, I think, hugely enjoyed this period of democractic deliberation in all its splendid unruliness. I’ve already seen a defence of the European Union which talks of ‘building new publics’ around transnational issues: the kind of thing that could imply sheer engaged campaigning, but in the context of the EU’s institutions looks far, far removed from anything resembling civic grassroots. I’m hardly a poster child for anti-elitism, less still for raging against intellectualism; but I think there’s a heavy risk of creating echo chambers and Potemkin villages, bureaucratic attempts to imbue theoretical templates with life. Then the real anti-elitists turn up, in anger.

I’m not honestly sure whether Leave’s appeals to sovereignty reflect a deeper understanding than Remain’s; though no doubt making a largely pragmatic argument was the right approach for nearly all my countrymen. I am convinced, however, that there is a deeper understanding to be had.

Matcap Capers

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I made these a while ago when playing with Sculptris, and thought I might as well post them. They’re basically experiments in painting with matcaps as brushes: it turns out those can look quite painterly when blended together.

Three versions of some sort of polyp from a Lovecraftian fantasia (same mesh, differently painted):

polyp-0.png polyp-1.png polyp-2.png

This one ended up as Prometheus, or maybe a heliotheistic C-3PO. (The marks on the arms are a mistake which I decided to leave alone because they add a bit of visual interest.)


Food for Thought

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I recently got the editorial board’s comments on a textbook chapter. It seems somebody named James Petrik had fun with the draft:

On ‘Heidegger’s hammer’: ‘Here’s a tangent. My older brother, who happens to know a bit of philosophy, often said that he thought there was room in professional wrestling for a philosophical villain. He imagined that this wrestler would be managed by the Heideggirls and rant about there being no Geworfen like being Geworfen over the top rope. I now know what his signature move might be called!’

On ‘giblets and blood-clouds’: ‘I love this turn of phrase! Sounds like the name of a restaurant Ron Swanson might patronize in Parks and Recreation.’

(I’m reminded in turn of an educational programme from French class, in which ‘Le Café des Abattoirs’ got a rebrand; Google is telling me that nowadays this is the name of an actual establishment in Paris. Perhaps that’s where today’s Parisian intellectuals go for meaty conversation.)