“A three century old ritual is reimagined by artist Marjolijn Dijkman in the form of a week long presentation of ideas and discussions called ‘LUNÄ Talks: Uncertainty Scenarios’.”
There is a moment in most pub conversations when I test the water. The talk has been flowing for perhaps thirty-five minutes, second pints have been purchased and a couple of proper belly laughs successfully banked. We are all looking each other in the eye. This is officially a successful evening. The stage is set. Pubs are becomingly like stage sets these days – all moody dark walls and 70s oxblood leather Chesterfields. The topic might be lucid dreaming, Neolithic henges, Prime Minister’s Questions or someone’s psychometric test results. Anything reasonably educated, informed people might be commenting on in a pub. Then after three serious comments, two counter-arguments and a leavening joke, there’s a pause. This is the moment the conversation could go either way. There’s a sort of dodge and feint in what follows, because this is when the people round the table establish the level. Are these just a few more pub topics to be sandwiched in between lighter material, funny stories or news of mutual acquaintances? Or are we having this conversation for real.
In the eighteenth century, the Lunar Society, a dining club of industrialists, scientists, reformers, thinkers, talkers and futurologists, presumably suffered from no such preliminary constraints. Time is short enough for busy people to really talk to each other about the past and the future, so a meeting held once a month – on the Monday nearest the full moon – between (mostly though not exclusively) men such as Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgewood, presumably did not spare time on introductions, because they all loosely knew each other and all probably took themselves unashamedly seriously.
But week 22 of fig 2 brought together 10 collections of people, of whom 2 to 4 at a time would be speakers and the rest observers and contributors, most of whom had probably not met before, so introductory speeches, for want of a better word, were necessary.
This week’s artist, Marjolijn Dijkman, was inspired by the Lunar Society to create a clean-lined modern version of the table round which the original protagonists met. Among her interests seem to be science fiction, representations of the future, and deep time. But her involvement really ended there apart from some commendably relaxed chairing of the meetings – what she has created, in the re-imagined lunar table, is a conversation piece, in the sense of something that fosters conversation rather than something which draws its attention.
I attended two of these talks but I was more interested in and lastingly affected by the one in which I didn’t say anything (I didn’t realise until later that anyone could chip in) so make of that what you will.
Changing prospects, Sat 6 June, 2pm-6pm
“Saturday’s session will concentrate on the notion of change in relation to the locus of collective imagination of the future. We will explore different approaches, which are utilised to motivate and trigger seismic shifts relating to the world around us.”
It’s just as well I have that paragraph because while I was entranced by the whole thing I came away without the foggiest idea of what it all amounted to and I’d be surprised if any of the speakers did. Mark Fisher was having a good rant about capitalism, elite corruption and the utter cultural wasteland generated by the rich, all good stuff (the rich are boring and this is a profoundly important truth – go and look at the redevelopment around Tottenham Court Road if you don’t believe me) after which he segued somewhat less nobly into how put upon he is as an academic by all those terrible higher education administrators (of which I am one so, oh please, just answer my emails) and how culture is struggling to do its job as a means of drawing attention to things that are wrong because we no longer have time or capacity to enjoy shared attention (a profoundly important point). Someone else is touchingly obsessed with the moon and had many interesting reflections on the history of our collective obsession with it and I’m only sorry the John Lewis Christmas advert wasn’t out at the time. Ken Hollings is touchingly obsessed with sci-fi manga, Philip K Dick, Godzilla and human perceptions of robotic intelligence, and also provided the much needed reassuring humour that presumably someone provided in the original Lunar Society to stop everything going completely off the rails. There was a really interesting and grounded set of verbal notes from, I think, Caroline Edwards, which speaks to the impact of science fiction on our ways of thinking and perceiving at quite a neuro-mechanical level – she mentioned how preparing for the science fiction course she teaches to students causes her to have much more interesting dreams than normal, as if her brain is being exercised in some way.
It was all great fun, I just don’t think all that much of people’s special subjects necessarily got into the end product, if that is what four hours of conversation can be called. If things coalesced around any particular speaker it was Fisher, which is odd because he was the one person there without a specialism of some kind in science fiction which is one of the key themes all the talks of the week were supposed to turn on. So the three observations that follow are really just me picking out bits I liked, for lack of a better discriminating mechanism.
One of the topics on which everyone’s specialisms briefly threatened to gel was the subject of shared attention. There was a lengthy and enthusiastic exchange about big cultural events, and it was proposed that big shifts in reality such as those that followed things like the release of a Beatles record just don’t occur any more. Our attention is split too many ways. Fisher proposed that the Beatles and Dylan were a form of consciousness raising that did in fact lead to change, or at least the possibility of change. The cultural history of the 60s remains a testament to the power of shared time spent together, and the self-actualisation and wider consciousness that ensue. The group discussed possible current outlets for shared attention, and in the context of music these were felt to be “underground” music of one sort or another at one extreme, and X Factor at the other, and neither really performs the same “cultural event” role entirely. I’m still unsure about this. I think we’re perilously close here to arguing that people were somehow purer, more aware individuals in the “old days”, and cleaved to these great cultural icons and events because they chose to experience shared attention, rather than because the television set just didn’t get any more channels. And it’s not as if there wasn’t underground music when the Beatles were around which absolutely defined the 60s experiences of an awful lot of people living in Britain at the time who one way or another were excluded from a lot of the conventional 60s shared experience. But even if we do concede that cultural events no longer focus shared attention on that scale, I don’t think that necessarily implies that massive cultural shifts do not and cannot occur. It just makes them harder to spot. And so more difficult to work into arty, well-informed think pieces about the history of popular music.
The shared attention conversation led on into something else, which exemplifies one of the problems with being a futurologist; sometimes you just sound like a Grumpy Old Man (whatever your gender), and sometimes that is precisely what you are (ditto). I have had this experience listening to David Graeber and Brian Eno in conversation and it is disappointing.
Yes, inevitably people started talking about social media. And hence the atomised life of cities and segregation and alienation and of course someone ended up mentioning how you go into a café and everyone is plugged into their headphones working on laptops in a way that undermined genuine sociability with the “illusion” of human connection, yada yada yada.
My science fiction reading may be pitiful but I studied archaeology so I do know something about sociability and cities which is how I know all this is faux-nostalgic wibble. The “illusion” of sociability inherent in sitting alone in a café is only an illusion insofar as any socialising is perforce an illusion (it rests on effective theory of mind, after all, and what is that if not the ability to conjure and sustain an illusion about the other person’s viewpoint.) Socialising is socialising. There are certainly people I exclusively interact with face-to-face where genuine exchanges of understanding are pretty bloody illusory. Furthermore, it makes no sense to regard cities as a sort of alien imposition driving the poor little humans apart. We made the bloody things. That’s not to say they don’t have emergent properties, but their emergent properties are unlikely to be on average more uniquely damaging and disturbing than any other complex form of social organisation we have evolved, such as companies, nation states, nuclear families and orchestras. The cities-are-bad-for-us schtick comes from a naïve and pessimistic view of human evolutionary capability, in the face of several dozen thousands of years of the most astounding counter-evidence you could find. You might as well say we’re profoundly damaging our wellbeing because we’re not “evolved” to drive cars. It’s the same kind of just-so logic which causes people to advocate certain diets with extremely precise rules about crops that half the world successfully survives on (and not the fatter half at that) because of what we “naturally” evolved to eat as “hunter-gatherers” (when? where?).
That’s not to say there are not trite truths in play here – we are probably less fit than we would be without cars, and we probably shouldn’t have normalised the consumption of small sugar-drenched pieces of cardboard as a healthy morning choice. But these unfortunate tendencies, along with the real or perceived ill effects of social media, the dislocation that can send people in large communities spiralling down the cracks etc, are just the unremarkable bad cards we have drawn in this particular gameplay of modern civilisation. The fact that people work on laptops in cafes and have headphones is not a sign that things have gone Horribly Wrong and there isn’t a clear and obvious utopian alternative in which Everyone Is Friends.
So you can lay off cities. Cities appear to be this monolithic parasitical bad thing because we are not good at thinking about complexity, randomness and large numbers of people. But that does not mean that cities aren’t human. They’re incredibly human and therein lies the big reveal. The reason I know that cities are not the chosen mechanism of cackling omniscient capitalist oppressors to engineer our segregation and isolation is because the capitalist elite oppressors are just as shit at thinking about this stuff as the rest of us. Possibly worse.
Point three was really a collection of ideas about social organisation and social norms, and how people cling to them or resist them, culminating in an interesting insight into said capitalist elite oppressors. A discussion about robot intelligence threw up a neat point about practice (in the sociological sense) and what it signifies, as follows. One solution to the problem of an ageing population is to use robots as carers for the elderly. People tend to have an icky response to this – on some instinctive level it doesn’t feel right to us to have a machine that does not care doing these sorts of tasks for human beings. Yet the real live humans who do these jobs also ape the motions of caring at times, perhaps most of the time. They do things as if they love and care for the people in their charge, but this is not really true. They may well be naturally caring people, they may be absolutely fulfilled in working in a caring profession, they may form strong bonds at work like a lot of people do. But they are not actually required to love their charges like a family member. If we accept this happily, we have to accept that it is the practice of caring that really matters to us, not the feelings it derives from. In which case, the company concluded, why shouldn’t a robot carry out the practice.
Fisher’s students apparently have a similarly ick response to his attempts to deconstruct the family as a “natural” and inevitably correct phenomenon, despite the fact as he pointed out that this is a relatively disadvantaged group of young people. Their demographic does not enjoy a particularly good experience of family, yet they are loth to see the concept reduced. I think this is probably a perfectly natural heuristic bias of some kind – if you experience a version of something (an event, a social construct, a job, anything) which is self-evidently non-optimal, it is easy to believe that an optimal version (a) exists at all and (b) would vastly improve your life. You haven’t experienced the reality of having a pretty-good family upbringing and yet still encountering mental health problems, or disadvantage in the workplace, or whatever it might be. So you remain able to enshrine the family as a panacea for all these sorts of things. The other interesting point is that another group who fetishize the family are of course the traditional boarding-school educated elite, and I think it is this similarity that some Tories have in mind when they claim to really understand The People in a way lefties or liberals cannot. Of course, the proximate explanation for the similarity is that the elite too, perhaps, are less likely than the rest of us to have experienced the modern idea of a healthy, functional family unit.
And that was our Saturday afternoon.
Of course, the thing about the original Lunar Society is that it was a meeting of elite people – in the power and money sense. Whatever it was they talked about, they presumably had the capacity to translate the outcomes into real world action, and this action would be played out in science, industry, technology and social reform at near-parliamentary level. In other words, in some pretty momentous fields which would substantially affect the lives of large numbers of people (in this context, I note that one of the homage societies is a collection of entrepreneurs and software developers in Australia, who are probably one of the nearer things to a modern equivalent). A lot of the people speaking at the Luna talks at fig 2 were intellectually or artistically exciting but I would guess few have the capacity to make immediate impacts like that. This was after all a “re-imagining” of a “ritual”, a word that implies practice but also implies relic, tradition for its own sake, an act carried out without engagement. The whole thing does speak slightly to the limitations of this style of head-on verbal critique as a mechanism for identifying problems with society. We all know that ranting in a pub or on a blog, unless you are an influential person, or talking to them, doesn’t actually change anything very fast. This is why a lot of people look for engines of cultural change in, haha, more traditional avant-garde art.