It was, of all people, Elizabeth Windsor who laid the charge most forcefully. Opening a new building at the LSE, weeks after Lehman Brothers imploded, she asked one of the dons why no one had seen the meltdown coming. In the years since, it has often seemed as if students are more serious than their lecturers about pursuing the monarch’s concern.
Undergraduates at Sheffield and Cambridge have set out to rattle the foundation stones of their discipline. In Manchester, they went further, organising the Post-Crash Economics Society and securing more eclectic instruction, through a new Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module. Covering the former Fed boss, Ben Bernanke, as well as the interwar Marxist, Kalecki, the course was not reducible to right or left. It offered something closer to economics as understood in Keynes’s Cambridge. Manchester, however, has now declined to accredit the course, and instead opted to pull the plug.
There are, of course, outstanding scholars within the economics mainstream. Its pre-eminent theorist, Kenneth Arrow, wrote for the Guardian within weeks of the crisis that the discourse he helped develop – about finance improving the distribution of risk – had become increasingly vulnerable to rival analysis, which emphasised how markets go awry where buyers and sellers have different information. The roots of that evolution go back to the 1970s, but it has picked up since 2008. The mainstream can also fairly point out that “non-linear” phenomena, such as bubbles and panics, are inherently hard to predict, which half-answers the Queen’s question.
The awkward thing, however, is that there were those who spotted at least the possibility of trouble on the horizon; it is just that they were rarely mainstream economists. Several journalists were asking sharper questions than academics. To take one example, the FT’s Gillian Tett, who has a background in anthropology rather than economics, asked where the frenzied debt dance would end. A grasp of the human propensity for herding is more useful in getting a handle on bubbles and crashes than any postulations about the individualistic calculations of rational economic man.
The failure to spot the crisis raised wider questions about the discipline’s usefulness. It can shelter behind unavoidable ambiguities regarding the price of both labour and capital. Will workers respond to income tax cuts by striving for the extra earnings they can now keep or by skiving, on the basis that they can now afford to take more time off? Do high interest rates induce savers to scrimp or encourage them to go out and blow their extra return? No one can say without interrogating the data – which good economists do try to do. But hopes of clear answers are retarded by departments that treat the subject as a branch of applied mathematics, and by practitioners less concerned with the insight than the arithmetical tractability of their models.
These shortcomings go back to “the marginal revolution”, which jettisoned the dynamic, sweeping preoccupations of 19th century classical political economy in favour of a narrower but more precise concern with movements between market equilibrium. But the big questions that concerned Mill, Marx and Smith are now rearing their heads afresh.
Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy unearthed the hidden moral assumptions of all the theory. Daniel Kahneman spent his career exploring how the way economic choices are conceived affects what decisions are made, but these days he can pack out Westminster Hall by speaking about his conclusions. Now Thomas Piketty – who spent long years, during which the mainstream neglected inequality, mapping the distribution of income – is making waves with Capital in the 21st Century. Nodding at Marx, that title helps explain the attention, but his decidedly classical emphasis on historical dynamics in determining who gets what resonates in a world where an increasing proportion of citizens are feeling fleeced by the elite. The tide of intellectual history is on the side of Manchester’s students.”
The actor Richard Burton famously played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953. The following story is from a profile of Burton written by journalist John McPhee in 1963 for Time Magazine, and recounted in the current New Yorker (“Elicitation”, 7 April 2014, p.57):
He [Burton] had completed about 60 performances and the box office was beginning to slide when the house manager came to his dressing room one evening and said, “Be especially good tonight. The old man’s out front.”
“What old man?”
“He comes once a year,” said the house manager. “He stays for one act and he leaves.”
“For God’s sake, what old man?”
As Burton spoke his first line – “A little more than kin, and less than kind” – he was startled to hear deep identical mutterings from the front row. Churchill continued to follow him line for line, a dramaturgical beagle, his face a thunderhead when something had been cut. “I tried to shake him off,” remembers Burton. “I went fast and I went slow, but he was right there.” Churchill was right there to the end, in fact, when Burton took 18 curtain calls and Churchill told a reporter that “it was as exciting and virile a performance of Hamlet as I can remember.” Years later, when Winston Churchill – The Valiant Years was under preparation for television, its producers asked Sir Winston who he thought should do the voice of Churchill. “Get that boy from the Old Vic,” said the old man.
They got that boy from the Old Vic.
When a group of people jointly undergo an intensely searing experience, especially one where they face a mortal enemy or opponent, a bond is created between the participants that outsiders can find hard to penetrate or even to understand. Soldiers in battle, for example, often experience this, as good novels and films have long shown.
Last night, the audience at a King’s Players’ production in London had such an experience, and we will remember for the rest of our lives the courage and fortitude, resilience and – yes, dammit! – just plain, old-fashioned grit we all showed in the face of great odds. Nobody left, nobody laughed out loud, nobody became an alcoholic, nobody set off the fire alarm to bring this cruel and unusual torment to an end. During the quiet patches, those long dark nights of the soul, our focus on survival was so intense that the only sound you could hear was the swiveling of eyes.
Our first enemy was the play itself, Trojan Barbie, by Christine Evans. What an appalling piece of radfem agitprop! The writing is surely a parody of feminism, not intended to be serious, written as if by a teenager discovering poetry for the first time. The male characters are all evil rapists and thugs, and the women are either harlots or mad. Even the everywoman character Lotte is dotty. Not a single character appears real or embodied, a normal human being. No one grapples with the actual moral dilemmas of war, no one weighs pros and cons of different courses of action, not even in dialogue with one another. What plot there is is too ridiculous to be described, but involves unexplained time travel between ancient Troy and the present-day, with scenes set in doll repair shops, Mediterranean street cafes, refugee camps, battlefields, and the odd zoo. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.
Our second enemy, colluding with the first, were the cast and crew. Given the flaws of the script, one can only sympathize with actors having to make something of this. But why would anyone even try? Life is too short to waste it on such dross. And if, for some reason, you had to try, why not do it well? Why act badly? Why run around like a horse? Why impersonate Che Guevara and Zsa Zsa Gabor? Honestly, the only person missing from the production was Carmen Miranda with her hat made of fruit – although, there was in fact a samba. What was that doing there?
And the set! It included the world’s largest collection of Barbie Dolls, a massive pink cellophone heart, and the odd tiger. What normal person could possibly imagine that a large stuffed animal, a children’s toy, would convince us we are in a zoo? At first I thought it was intended as a visual metaphor for something else, something profound, perhaps a subtle reference to well-known war poet William Blake. (“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, In the forests of the Night.”) But No: the stuffed tiger behind a cage on stage was intended to be what is was: a tiger in a zoo. It roared through the sound-system, and it magically moved between scenes, sometimes lolling this way, and sometimes that. I have to say its acting was perhaps the most realistic of the evening, and I’m sure the tiger’s agent will be fielding many calls this morning.
No one would be converted to the merits of feminism by seeing this play, and lots of people would be deconverted. But that’s the usual way with agitprop: if you preach only to the choir, you lose the rest of the congregation. But of course, as with all agitprop, the preaching is not aimed at converting anyone, it’s aimed at making the preachers feel good about themselves. Shame about the poor audience, but.
However, we did make it through, we survived to the end without a single casualty. True, we lost two hours of our life that will never be regained. But we saw what we were all capable of under extreme pressure, we showed grace under fire, and we stood by each other right to the end. Being under fire together has made us life-long comrades, and at the annual reunions we survivors will no doubt tell and retell our stories of the time we fought Trojan Barbie, like the Band of Brothers that we now are.
Message to Homer: Your position as Trojan War historian is safe. No need to call your office.
PS (2014-04-06): Another review is here. “The stuffed animal representing the tiger was a bit unnecessary”
(On the death of Vadim Delaunay)
Closer than a brother, the first and youngest
of us seven, whence no return.
Sweeter than sweet life, whereas there were seven,
hacking, digging the frozen earth?
To fall asleep that way, and to wake, detached from the earth,
beyond exile, KPP, barbed-wire . . .
beyond the thorny stars. Pray for us,
offer your fraternal help.
Natalya Gorbanevskaya [1983/2011]: Selected Poems. Translated by Daniel Weissbort. Manchester, UK: Carcanet.
KPP (Kontrol’no-propusknoi punkt) is Frontier Control Point.
A sonnet by George Santayana, inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29:
When times are hard and old friends fall away
And all alone I lose my hope and pluck,
Doubting if God can hear me when I pray,
And brood upon myself and curse my luck,
Envying some stranger for his handsome face,
His wit, his wealth, his chances, or his friends,
Desiring this man’s brains and that man’s place,
And vexed with all I have that makes amends,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, -
By chance I think of you; and then my mind,
Like music from deep sullen murmurs rising
To peals and raptures, leaves the earth behind:
For if you care for me, what need I care
To own the world or be a millionaire?
And here is Shakespeare’s #29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
There is always a particular sadness when someone one has known since high-school dies. If the friend dies young, then the absurdity and the fundamental lack of fairness of our earthly existences are manifest again. If the friend dies in middle age, however, there is a different type of unfairness, since at least they were able to fulfill some of their potential, even if not all. If the friend dies near to 50 and is recently married and with a young child, then it seems that what was not fully realized includes their relationships with their family. In other words, it is not only unfair for the friend that they died before their time, but unfair for their family, whose lives also will now include tragedy.
Friends as well as family are sad, since we are unable now to enjoy the company of the deceased. In the case of my school-friend Tony Meale, who has died quickly after an unexpected illness, the pleasure of his company was particularly great. He was one of the funniest people I have ever met. All of his comments – razor-sharp and rapid-firing – were delivered with the deadest of pans, and thus were often confusing to those who did not know him well. The straight face fronting the dry, sardonic sarcasm, of course, made any comment deemed offensive by the listener very plausibly deniable, which may or may not have been his intention. His straight face may also have been because he did not necessarily see the humour himself. I am convinced that truly eccentric people almost never believe themselves to be eccentric – they think it is they who are perfectly normal, and the other 99.9% of the population who are askew – and TM was perhaps one of these. In any case, one did not ever spend long in his company before doubling over in laughter, something all of us who knew him experienced.
I can count on two imperial hands the people I have met with his rapid, razor-sharp wit. Indeed, I want to list them here in order of encounter, for the benefit of any fifth millenium readers: John McBurney, PH, Tony Meale, SR, Reg Ngonyama, JG, HV, SP, AT, TC, WN, AM, DM. (I use full names only for those who have passed on.) Although important only to me and (perhaps) to my close friends, I want to acknowledge Tony’s membership of this select and awesome circle. On one never-forgotten occasion in Canberra almost 30 years ago one of these friends SR encountered another PH, and the verbal fireworks were stunning and immediate. The two are very different in gender, age, education, social position, interests, and background. One would not have predicted that they would spark as they did. As part of a larger group, they first each recognized one another’s verbal dexterity, and then – instinctively, and without explicit co-ordination – engaged in a game attempting to outwit one another, with each utterance issued as both clever and funny reply to what came before, and as a challenge to the other to best it. Were it were not for the fact that both their spouses were present, we would have thought they were flirting, despite the generational difference in age. The rest of us retired from the conversation as this duel proceeded, in laughter and awe. It was similar, I imagine, to watching Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley spark at the Algonquin. They’ve not met since, and perhaps such a performance was a product of its particular moment, and could not be repeated. TM’s untimely death brought that ancient evening again to mind.
And though the after world will never hear
The happy name of one so gently true,
Nor chronicles write large this fatal year,
Yet we who loved you, though we be but few,
Keep you in whatsoe’er things are good, and rear
In our weak virtues monuments to you.”
From Sonnet IV, To W.P., by George Santayana.
Police report of “Romeo and Juliet” Confidence Scam:
Location of crime: Upstairs Foyer, Greenwood Theatre, Guy’s Campus, King’s College London.
Date of crime: Evenings of 5th, 6th, 7th February 2014. The crime may also have been “rehearsed” before these dates on unwitting spectators.
Financial sponsors: A group calling itself King’s College London English Literary Society.
Nature of crime: Deconstruction of playwright’s text without single reference to post-colonial or feminist perspectives. Co-conspirator “The Friar” tore out pages of “Romeo and Juliet” text to manifest true nature of crime.
Key victims: William Shakespeare, women.
Perpetrator: Unknown. Calls himself “The Director”. Identity: Elusive. Real identity unknown. May use pseudonyms: W. Nash, Rookie Monster, DPR, Edward Snowden.
Known Co-conspirators: Marcus “The Friar” Bazley, Hillary “The Counsellor” Chua, Laura “Juliet” Deering, Jackie “Lady Capulet” Edwards, Matthew “Romeo” Hodson. Others involved in supporting the scam thought to be: Catherine Walters, Elena Gillies, Emma Lawrence, Aja Garrod, Aggi Cantril, Sophie Omar, and Kate Gardener. Notes found at crime scene indicate others may also have assisted, almost certainly without realizing the consequences.
Modus Operandi: Perp takes out-of-copyright play text, reducing number of characters, even using unwitting mark in audience to play role in deception. Play cut down and cut up, and done as crime scene investigation, with scenes “reconstructed” by “actors”. Legal counsel present to narrate events and give illusion of objectivity.
Perp uses intelligence and wit to produce amusing, clever, and sophisticated version of play, which is used as a “script” that is then executed (“performed”) by co-conspirators in front of marks. Performance of script of professional standard, and very realistic. Thus, marks easily deceived and soon suspend disbelief. Only one of the known co-conspirators is believed to actually make his living in theatre. Remaining co-conspirators possibly being groomed.
Co-conspirators take on “roles” to execute script. Thus, “The Friar” is a Cockney ex-junkie offering life advice to the other conspirators, along with marriage ceremonies and store-and-forward messaging services; “Romeo” is a lovestruck young man, writing dreamily in his Moleskine; “Lady Capulet” is a tyrant of the household, a dictator of the local. The different “roles” cleverly interleave, and jointly enable confidence scam. Indeed, witnesses report that the acting was so intense that it approached the threshold of caricature, but without ever crossing that threshold, making the performances thrilling to watch. Co-conspirators all appear to be under direct influence of Perp.
Co-conspirators use a variety of names, including real names, to confuse audience about when co-conspirators are “acting” in their “roles”, and when not. Humour and wit used to distract attention of audience from reconstruction of double suicide, following madness of young love, set amongst inter-gang warfare in urban Italy.
Toying with nature of “acting” indicates this is crime of real sophistication by people with extensive experience in deception and illusion. Perp and co-conspirators may have worked in Elizabethan theatre before. Crime shows many hallmarks of two known literary deceivers and wits with Elizabethan previous, Thomas Nashe and Kit Marlowe. Neither likely involved: Nashe believed deceased, Marlowe either deceased (Deptford Regional Office view) or living in exile in Italy.
Production involves post-coitus scene, drugs, violence, suicide, and death. No rock and roll, but. One person injured by vicious slap. Music deployed very effectively to “set the scene” and relax audience in preparation for confidence scam, and at various times during the operation to manipulate emotions of marks.
Use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings obviously intended as subtle allusion to FDR’s funeral and Oliver Stone’s film about Vietnam. This double allusion should allay concerns of English Department about absence of references to post-colonial oppression and the wickedness of US global hegemony, as well as providing a warm glow of self-satisfaction to the one person who caught the allusions.
Related scams: West Side Story, High School Musical.
Known beneficiaries of scam:
- Perp and co-conspirators
- KCL English Literary Society
- Greenwood Theatre
- King’s College London
- The Horseshoe Inn, Melior Street, London
- The London theatre world
- The audience.
Progress of investigation: Police seeking the 132 witnesses to garner further information.
Public warning: These people are armed with professional acting skills and very dangerous. Perp may be serial dramaturge, intent on career in intelligent theatre or deception. Co-conspirators capable of superb acting at the highest level.
Deptford Regional Office reports rumour that next confidence scam may take place in Copenhagen.
Conspirators also believed to hold raucous after-play parties to celebrate success of scam, involving alcohol, tobacco, witty conversation, and profound arguments about the existence of God and the nature of relationships. Kit Marlowe would feel at home. US State Department Advisory: Americans visiting London particularly at risk.
Note: Potential side-effects of scam include reviews written as police-reports, pretentiously imitating style of the production itself.
I miss reading the posts of the late Norman Geras, over at Normblog. His views were always interesting, and his arguments very often acute. For all his mental incision in general, however, he had a blind spot when it came to religion, as I argued here. His blind spot marked him, despite his lack of religious beliefs, as a person of the post-Reformation confessional view of life: the view that thinking does (and should) preceed acting, and that thinking leads to considered beliefs. This is a peculiarly modern, western view, a view not shared by most of humanity, neither now nor in the past. The entire weltanshauung of Zen Buddhism, for example, is that beliefs (in the form of enlightenment) are the consequence of religious practices, not necessarily their cause. Norm, western philosopher to his fingertips, never got this.
S. Brent Plate makes a similar criticism of a recent questionnaire aimed at ranking US cities by their “Bible-mindedness”:
The assumptions of the pollsters betray a larger misconception concerning who religious people are and what they do. Questionnaires are still mired in the mostly-Protestant notion that religious people read holy books and have “beliefs” in their heads. It makes for good fodder on the religion news circuits but necessarily leaves out the lived realities of religious existence. For religious life in these United States, the potluck is just as important as the preacher. The soup kitchen as important as the scriptures.
What if we had polls that were indeed about religion and society? What would this mean? How would we ask? Who would we ask?
At the least, this would require the work of bodies, of actual breathing, eating people. We’d find that we social beings might believe things, but more importantly, we behave in particular manners. Our bodies move with other bodies in private and public ways, singing and swaying, seeing and smelling.
We don’t act out our beliefs as much as our beliefs are created through our actions.