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Absenteeism: the crisis of attention in contemporary societies

This is a translation of a text by Amador Fernández-Savater, published originally in the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es, 12th April 2019.

Absenteeism: the crisis of attention in contemporary societies

Channel-hopping, multi-tasking, constant scrolling, an intolerance for silence, an inability to recollect or concentrate, chronic distraction and permanent indifference to our immediate surroundings…

These days, we are never just doing what we’re doing.

Is this widespread crisis of attention just one more manifestation of our era’s ‘crisis of presence’? This crisis of presence means a difficulty in accessing an experience of the present. Let’s break this down slowly.

The dominant model for being is that of the ‘achievement subject’: always on the move, available and connected, always managing and updating a ‘human capital’ that is no other than ourselves (our abilities, relationships, our personal brand), obliged to be autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, flexible and without ‘baggage’.

This achievement subject is never just doing what it is doing, but goes beyond that. Beyond oneself, beyond the bonds that tie one down, beyond the situations one inhabits: in constant self-improvement and competition with others, forcing the world to deliver more and more. The present in which one lives is just the means to something else: something better that awaits us afterwards, later on. We believe we are highly atheist, but we live religiously in deferral, bleeding the present dry in sacrifice in the name of a salvation tomorrow.

Today, this achievement subject encounters crisis everywhere, both inside and outside ourselves: social and ecological problems are multiplying, with fissures, breakdowns and malaise in the personal realm (anxiety and panic attacks, tiredness and depression). That is, we are unable to be in accordance with the dominant forms of being. What can be done with such crises?

We can simply seek out ‘prosthetics’ that allow us to paper over the cracks and continue the rhythm of incessant productivity: therapy, pills, mindfulness, narcotics, periods of rest and disconnection for those who can afford it, addictions, compensating affects, the consumption of identities, intensities, relations, and bursts of self-esteem (recognition, likes), etc.

We can turn our suffering against ourselves: self-harm, injury, reactive rage, resentment and the search for a scapegoat, for someone ‘guilty’ of what is happening to us.

We can also look for ways of wiping ourselves off the map. In response to the command of ‘more, always’ given to the achievement subject, we can attempt a radical withdrawal. “Life no longer interests me, it causes me so much harm, and yet I don’t want to die”. David Le Breton calls this state ‘blankness’ [in the original French, blancheur] and surveys the different ways that exist for keeping away from the world so as not to be affected by it: to be no-one, to relinquish all responsibility, to refrain from being exposed, to hibernate, to sleep and maybe dream, but in any case never to be there..

Faced with the self as the always mobilized productive unity: one can disappear. Disappear in a connected room of your own (hikikomori), disappear in an excess of alcohol and speed, disappear into a sect, into anorexia, to disconnect, disaffiliate, abdicate: to cease to be.

‘Blankness’, as a flight to a non-place and an identity strike, is ambivalent: it can become chronic, it can be merely a prosthetic (after a period of disappearance, we come back with our batteries recharged) or it can be perhaps the beginning of resistance and an existential fork in the road.

The crisis of presence is thus circular. There is absence in the hegemonic mode of being: the achievement subject running and running distracted towards something in the beyond. There is absence in the symptoms of how we fail to fit the model: the malaise expressed in attention disorders. There is absence in the answers we develop in response to the damage: the forms of radical anaesthesia and desensitization.

We are not where we are because the world is not where it is either. It is organized from abstract principles that force it from without: performance, capitalization, accumulation. The recovery of attention is inseparable from a broader process of social transformation. From creation -between being and not being, between the productive subject and blankness- of other ways of being in the world. Of being-there, of being present and in the present, of being attentive.

Attention as negative effort

To be present is to be attentive. But, what is attention? To think this through, we need first of all discard the exclusive model of reading: a single, linear activity, concentrated upon a single, solitary task. Reading is one form of attention, but not the exemplar for every kind of attention.

Attention is, first of all, a negative effort: emptying, removing things, de-saturating, suspending, opening up a breach, interrupting… Simone Weil, the thinker par excellence when it comes to attention, was best able to see and explain this.

In a marvelous text, which was intended as inspiration for the teachers and pupils of a Catholic school, Weill says that the development of attention is the true objective of study and not marks, exams, the accumulation of knowledge or results.

Weil distinguishes attention from concentration or willpower: gritting one’s teeth and enduring suffering guarantees nothing to anyone who studies, since learning can be moved by nothing save desire, pleasure and joy. Attention is rather a kind of ‘waiting’ and ’emptying’ which allows the unknown to be welcomed.

To attend is first of all to cease attending to what we supposedly must attend to: to radically halt attention that has been codified, programmed, automated and scripted towards the search for achievements, objectives or performance.

‘Attention consists of suspending thought, in leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding it in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.’

We must empty ourselves at the outset so as to become able to attend (to listen, to receive) to what a given situation proposes and holds in store for us. To empty oneself does not mean forgetting or erasing what has been learned, but rather setting it aside so as to grasp the newness and the singularity of what is on the way.

How might we empty ourselves? Simone Weil encourages us to recognize our own stupidity, to return once and again to our errors so as to lower our pride: pride is an obstacle to learning – it is only those who allow themselves to be ‘humbled’ by what they do not know who are able to learn.

‘The mind should be empty, awaiting, not seeking anything but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it…Thought that rushes ahead fills up prematurely and is no longer available to receive the truth. The cause is always the pretension to be active, the want to search.’

To attend is to learn to wait, a kind of passivity. This is entirely counter to the impulses that dominate us every day: impatience, the compulsive need to give an opinion, to display and defend an identity, a lack of generosity and openness to what someone else is saying, an intolerance towards doubt, the googling and coming up with automatic answers, cliche…

The current blunting of attention is related to these forms of saturation. A good teacher will thus begin by emptying: lowering defences, opening up hearts and spirits, helping to disentangle oneself from one’s own opinions, to develop a liking for exploring the unknown, without fear, or anxiety, and in trust. This attention cannot be ‘taught’, but is rather exercised. It is taught through example and practice.

Attending to what happens

Secondly, attention is the ability to understand what happens. But, what is what happens? At least two things.

On the one hand, what happens is not what we say is happening, what we declare, what we mean, the ideas that we have. We say one thing, and another thing is happening.

What happens is of the order of energies, vibrations, of desire. Desire is widely misunderstood these days as some kind of flighty whim or search for a lacking object, but we will understand it much better if we think of it as a force that sets us in movement, that makes us do, that gives rise. Desire is what happens. Attention, then, is the ability to listen to and follow desire: to attend to it, to invent forms for it so that it happens.

For example, the desire to think in a situation of learning. The desire to give and receive love in an amorous situation. The desire for transformation in a political setting.

To attend to what happens is to understand and light up desire, that by which each person is animated in a classroom, in a relationship, in a revolution. Denise Najmanovich, an Argentinian researcher, tells me that the etymology of attention has to do with tinder, the thing we need to light a flame (and to revive it over and over).

Attention to the rhythm and not only the sign: what happens is not what we say, that which is explicit, codified. Attention to the details: what happens is singular and not a case of a prior series. Attention to the process: what happens varies: it has high and low tides, it is not always the same.

On the other hand, what happens happens ‘between’ us. Attention is not (only) concentration and gathering in oneself, to be concentrated in oneself can be in fact the best way of not paying attention and leaving a situation behind.

In a classroom, in a relationship, in a revolution, attention is attention to the energy that is happening ‘between’ us. A transindividual sensibility.

A ‘convergent’ or ‘ecological’ attention is how Yves Citton describes it in a splendid book on the subject: the attention of one interferes with that of others, we look and we attend to what others look and attend to, each situation is a complex web of links and attention is the ability to perceive this relational web, this system of resonances. Even the most trivial of conversations requires the activation of this convergent attention, if we do not want it to be merely a succession of monologues.

We really are where we are when we are attentive. Close up and involved, vibrating with the energy of the situation – ‘in the groove’, as tennis commentators say about this or that player deeply involved in the match.

We are involved when we are affected by what happens: something touches us, something calls to us, something moves us. What involves us in a situation is of the order of affect. It is not for nothing that Plato said that the good teacher does not teach the object of knowledge, but before anything else a love for the object of knowledge. They are able to affect.

Attention is the necessary faculty for sustaining settings of not knowing, settings that are not organized by a model, a prior code or an algorithm: settings of learning, of love, or struggle. It is the sensitive ability that allows us to read signals that are not codified: energies, vibrations, desire. Without attention, that is, without negative effort and listening to what happens, the situation becomes quickly standardized and a prior image is repeated: a top-down classroom, a conventional couple, a classical politics.

There are no people more intelligent than others, according to philosopher Jacques Rancière, just attention and distraction. There are situations of attention and situations of distraction, situations that activate our attention and situations that extinguish it. Intelligence is attention, stupidity is distraction. We become intelligent when we are inside what we experience and stupid when we go outside of it.

Our world is composed largely of stupefying situations that remove us from the match: situations of representation where we delegate unto others (the media, politicians) our powers of attention, market situations ruled by abstract and homogeneous principles (achievement, profit logic), codified situations where unknown algorithms organize behaviors, choices and tastes.

It remains in our hands to open up singular situations for thought, struggle and creation where we can together become more intelligent by activating attention to what happens among us.

This text is the result of a thousand conversations in the heat of the project ‘Paying attention: the battle for getting into our heads’, with Oier, Rafa, Lilian, Helena, José Ramón y Marino, Diego, Marta and Mari Luz, Miriam, Agustín, Francis and Lucía, Juan, Frauke and friends from the Grupo de Atención de Tabakalera (Donosti)…

 

Thanks to Élise and John for help with aspects of the translation.

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Legislating For The Penis

Nina Simone

I was thinking about all the talk about anatomy in the air these days. The womb. The foetus. The ‘heartbeat’. The fingernails.

Sometimes this just washes over as normal. As if it is perfectly normal that our way of talking about other people should be rigorously anatomical.

Clearly it’s a good idea to have a strong grasp of anatomy if you are a medical practitioner, and it certainly helps to know one’s arse from one’s elbow when receiving medical advice about one’s condition.

But what about when it comes to other people? By coincidence, as I started writing this, I Got Life by Nina Simone was playing.

‘Hey, what have I got?
Why am I alive, anyway?
Yeah, what have I got
Nobody can take away?

Got my hair, got my head
Got my brains, got my ears
Got my eyes, got my nose
Got my mouth, I got my smile
I got my tongue, got my chin
Got my neck, got my boobies
Got my heart, got my soul
Got my back, I got my sex’

In Nina Simone’s singing, this about someone who is deprived of so much, yet who recognises that as a living, breathing human being she is still endowed with the basic means of fighting for liberation. Or to put it another way, she has nothing to lose but her chains.

It’d be an entirely different song if the possessive pronoun ‘my’ didn’t feature. It’d stop being an affirmation of possibility, and become a rather desperate list of anatomical objects instead.

What happens when this merely anatomical register is used, when people are discussing the laws by which they will agree to be governed?

If you find yourself talking -in the abstract- about ‘the womb’ as an object to be governed by law, you have most likely forgotten that each and every such organ is part of a human being who has to live their life among others, with all the variety, diversity and adversity that human life brings. And when you forget about it, you take it for granted that the people affected have no say in it.

Sometimes, you don’t even notice. Or at least I don’t notice. And maybe part of that is down to the fact that I have never heard any high-flown radio panels or read any earnest op-eds about how best to legislate for ‘the penis’, or ‘the testicles’.

I would ask men reading this: what do you think would be the best legislation to introduce governing the penis? What kind of basic laws should be introduced that ensures that the best use is made of the life contained in the semen stored in the testes? And please don’t try and argue that the sperm isn’t alive: I’ve seen the opening scenes of Look Who’s Talking.

If you find the above scenario absurd, to say nothing of inhuman, then you must, if you have a vote, vote to Repeal The 8th.

To whomever sings ‘I Got Life’, the Eighth Amendment says: no, you haven’t.

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Just Us For Dara

By Izzy Kamikaze

dara-e1523218457678.jpg

Dara Quigley’s death last year at the tragically early age of 36 was a loss, not only to her devastated family and friends, but to Dublin, to Ireland and to everyone who cries out for justice and whose voice is ignored. Through her blog and her writing in Broadsheet, The Dublin Inquirer and elsewhere, Dara cast a light into the corners where many of us live and struggle, but where others prefer not to look. A gathering on Saturday the 14th of April will mark the first anniversary of her death by focusing on what Dara left to all of us when she died – her powerful words.

Dara died, but her voice is still with us. She wrote to us from dark corners where they tell us there’s nothing much worth seeing or hearing going on. She wrote about the struggles, the strength and the spirit of people who are supposed to not matter very much: people who struggle with addiction and poor mental health, survivors of sexual abuse who see their torturers protected by a society that closes ranks around the powerful, kids from the suburbs far too easily dismissed as “useless scumbags” and the voices of popular protest smeared as “a sinister fringe.” To Dara, we were “natural diamonds…formed under extreme pressure and time…a generation of diamonds who sparkle because of their flaws, not in spite of them.”(1)

Dara’s death has left us with many questions, especially around the sharing on social media of Garda video footage of her arrest  and the exploitation of her distress as entertainment. Those questions have to wait for now, as various investigations take their course. In time we hope there will be Justice For Dara, but right now, there is no justice, there’s just us – Dara’s friends and admirers and readers and comrades in the apparently never-ending struggle. We will gather at 8pm on Saturday 14th of April, upstairs at The Hut in Phibsboro and we will celebrate what Dara gave us and continues to give us and what nothing, not even her death, can ever take away – Dara’s glorious words.

“They tried to bury us,” Dara wrote. “They didn’t realise that we were seeds.”(2) Dara’s words were seeds, and among those gathering at The Hut to water those seeds and give new life to them will be: Dorothy Murphy, Harry Browne, Loki (by video link), Richard McAleavey, myself, Costello, Eamonn Crudden and Nay McArdle. Other fans of Dara’s writing who would like to contribute should get in touch (but please note time is limited and contributions should be short.) Admission is free, but we’ll be accepting donations for a favourite charity of Dara’s on the night.

The venue is small, so it would be good if you could let us know at the Facebook event page linked here that you’ll be coming so we can try to make whatever overflow arrangements are needed. If you can’t join us in person, you’ll be glad to hear that the event will be livestreamed by Mark Malone.

The most up to date information about the event can be found at this Facebook page.

“They tried to bury us and it worked for a while.” – Dara Quigley (1980-2017)

The beautiful portrait of Dara above was painted by her good friend Dorothy Murphy.

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A note on impartiality in reporting on the 8th Amendment

A referendum on the repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland is to be held this year. It is likely, as with previous referendum campaigns, that a great deal of attention will be devoted to the matters of ‘fairness’, ‘impartiality’, ‘objectivity’, and that broadcasters, particularly the State broadcaster RTÉ, will devote equal airtime to voices for and against.

If an article in the constitution is the subject of a referendum, it follows, in the interests of the ‘impartiality’ regularly cited to ensure that both sides are given equal hearing, that the assertions of that article should not be reported as valid.

Some people will argue that the article is valid and others will argue that it is not. So, having regard for the declared need to ensure ‘impartiality’, it follows that a broadcaster should not do anything to give the impression, from its own coverage, that the article is valid. Or not valid, for that matter.

Yesterday afternoon RTÉ Radio 1 ran a news report during its Drivetime programme on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s speech in support of repealing the 8th Amendment.

Introducing the speech, household name Eileen Dunne referred to “the 8th Amendment that recognises the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child”. This is a paraphrasing of the wording of the amendment. It is also -perhaps coincidentally- the exact wording used on the Wikipedia article on the 8th Amendment (as of today).

Given that the amendment in question will be under consideration for removal through a referendum, you might conclude that impartiality means not taking a stance on whether the right mentioned by the text, or the categories associated to that right, exist in fact. Some people think the right exists, others do not.

If we say “the 8th Amendment recognises the equal right to life”, which is what RTÉ News says, then we are tacitly proposing that this equal right to life actually exists, and that the 8th Amendment recognises it. Hence its removal would not remove this right from existence: it would simply remove it from the constitution.

If we refer to “mothers” in this way,, we are tacitly proposing that anyone who is pregnant is a mother, regardless of whether they want to be or not.

If we refer to the “unborn child” in this way we are tacitly proposing that anyone who is pregnant ought to be considered as carrying an unborn child, regardless of whether they wish to give birth to a child. Or in other words, the question of whether they are going to give birth to a child is not a matter for whoever is pregnant.

The point is that the validity of what the constitutional amendment says is being contested by a referendum, but RTÉ in this instance (and I would venture that this happens regularly, not only with RTÉ) has effectively reported that what the constitutional amendment says is valid, and in so doing has conveyed the political perspective that informs this constitutional amendment as simple fact. Such reporting cannot be considered impartial.

Later on in the Drivetime programme, RTÉ played a 42-second recording of Micheál Martin’s speech, and a one minute long recording of Fine Gael anti-choice TD Peter Fitzpatrick’s malign drivel.

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Both Sides, Then and Now

One of the striking things that about Miriam O’Callaghan’s interview with Kingsmills massacre survivor Alan Black was the presenter’s emphasis given to atrocities being committed on ‘both sides’ -and also humanity on ‘both sides’.

I was never part of a ‘side’. So many people I know did not consider themselves part of a ‘side’, least of all a side from which people perpetrated atrocities on their behalf. Like many others I never supported any kind of killing. I was very much aware, however, that there were others who were very much inclined to kill me, and others like me, because they deemed that I was on an opposite ‘side’.

My religious denomination meant I was automatically part of the ‘pan-nationalist front’. This was a common phrase used by the DUP at the time. and an entity that the Mid-Ulster UVF in its Portadown murals proclaimed it would smash.

The effect of the commonplace rhetoric of ‘both sides’ -or, on occasion, ‘both tribes’, is to present the Northern conflict as borne primarily out of sectarianism. Sectarianism viewed in this light has little to do with the character of institutions in Northern Ireland, or how life is organised by and large. Rather, it is considered more of a mindset: it reflects a poverty of vision among those who fall prey to it, in contrast to those who observe it.

In describing the Northern conflict in terms of ‘both sides’, or the ‘two sides’, the role of the British State in prolonging that conflict is effaced. Its sponsorship of loyalist death squads is ignored. Instead, the British State is elevated it to its desired status as an honest broker seeking to keep a lid on warring sectarian ‘tribes’, just as it has claimed to do in a whole swathe of territories around the globe.

whataboutery

A frequent self-satisfied diagnosis is whataboutery. This is supposedly an inability of members of one side to recognise their side’s own crimes and misdeeds while decrying the crimes and shortcomings and blindspots of the other side. Diagnosticians of whataboutery, of course, have neither crimes nor shortcomings nor blindspots of their own. 

If the role of the British State is left out of consideration, massacres appear as savagery emerging from the dark side of human nature, manifestations of pure evil. The Kingsmills massacre, a brutal sectarian atrocity, was preceded immediately by the Reavey and O’Dowd killings. These were carried out by the Glenanne Gang, a group of loyalists, British solidiers, and RUC and UDR members responsible for dozens of murders. John Weir, one of the members of the Glenanne Gang, said that the purpose of their activities was to provoke a “civil war” in which the IRA would eventually be crushed.

Kingsmills did not emerge out of some unfathomable tribal savagery, or that strange apparently natural phenomenon known as the ‘cycle of violence’. It was a retaliation, just as the Greysteel massacre was a retaliation for the Shankill bomb. To describe it as a retaliation is not to justify it. It does not render the perpetrators any less culpable for the sectarian bloodbath. It is simply to point out that the role of the British State in inciting the event should be considered important, if one is interested in the truth of these matters, and in ending the possibility of future violent conflict.

To categorise this and other such questions as the ‘whataboutery’ of ‘one side’ is to acquiesce in the preferred logic of forces that have blood on their hands, and no inclination to come clean. It takes no small amount of gall to polish one’s halo about the depravity of IRA violence and simultaneously let the British State off the hook, in effect conceding to the latter its right to murder whoever -including Irish citizens- in defence of the realm.

The idea that I, or anyone else, Catholic, Protestant, nationalist, unionist or otherwise, are automatically part of a ‘tribe’ or a ‘side’, whereas people in Dublin or London sit in splendid Olympian detachment from the whole thing, borne by higher ideals and more civilised inclinations, is one of the main factors in prolonging the prospect of sectarian barbarism.

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The Inquest of Bread

Unintended faux pas do happen

Some quiz questions:

Which date is the anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of Bloody Friday?

Which date is the anniversary of the La Mon restaurant bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Droppin Well bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Teebane bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Shankill Road bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Omagh bomb?

Which date is the anniversary of the Loughinisland massacre?

Which date is the anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings?

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know the exact answer to any of these questions. The year and the month of some, at a stretch.

Barry McElduff, the Sinn Féin MP suspended from the party for three months, is supposed to have known the date of the Kingsmills massacre. He is supposed to have known that it was a very bad day to put a Kingsmill loaf on top of his head. He is supposed to have known, at the very least, the brand names of the products he puts on top of his head for videos shared online have potentially damaging connotations for people who might watch those videos.

Some people think Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. They think that he knew very well it was the anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre, and that he went down to the local shop, picked up a Kingsmill brand loaf, and placed it on his head. They think the MP then posted it on his Facebook page for the world to see, maybe because he thought some of the viewers would find it funny, or maybe because he thought, with calculated malevolence, that other viewers would find it desperately hurtful.

Some people say they do not know if Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. However, they say, he should have known what date it was. Or he should have made the association between the brand of the loaf he picked up, and the massacre.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the date when you know all the dates of all the atrocities conducted in the Northern conflict over 30 years. Maybe there are lots of people who keep a close watch on such dates, but I don’t think I’ve ever met any.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the association between the brand name of the loaf and the massacre when this is what you yourself think whenever you pick up a Kingsmill loaf in the supermarket. Or maybe you do not pick up such products, because of what they connote for you.

But Kingsmill is one of the most common bakery brand names in Northern Ireland. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland eat these branded products every day. They lift the packet from the bread bin or wherever, take out a couple of slices, and put them in the toaster, or maybe they make a sandwich. I have done this many times myself.

How many people, would you say, are put off eating the sandwich when the association with the massacre comes to mind, as it is supposed to? If it’s a common association, which is what people appear to think, then there are tens of thousands of people who are regularly reminded of the massacre by the food in front of them, but they carry on eating regardless, their appetite undimmed. What kind of person does something like that? I cannot help think of the regular scenes from House of Cards, with the monstrous Frank Underwood preparing himself a white bread sandwich in his kitchen late at night, unmoved by the carnage that surrounds him. Would it not be a society of monsters, if so many people have the stomach for that?

Is Northern Ireland a society filled with monsters? Some would have you think that is, and that there are significant numbers of people whose fuel for living is the purest hate. One of the most horrible images in my mind -it seems no less horrible even though I wasn’t even there when it happened- is of one group of teenagers passing through a schoolyard, crying and bewildered because two of their classmates had been shot, and another group, from inside a classroom, banging on the windows, laughing and shaking their fists at those outside in taunting celebration. What do you do with images like that? You could give in to them, let them take hold of you. You could build an entire outlook on the idea that there is an enemy out there, ever present, hiding perhaps, but ever willing to seize the opportunity to humiliate and annihilate. You would find it easy to find others who have the same enemy as you. There are plenty of Facebook groups devoted to that kind of thing. And one of the attractions -for want of a better word- for this outlook is that you can never know, for sure, that some other person isn’t secretly harbouring some pure hate towards you under an outwardly friendly disposition.

It seems sensible to me, though, to try and avoid making out that there is some malign force at work when there might be good grounds for believing that there may not be, to try and avoid stocking up on fuel for nightmares. In the response to Barry McElduff’s video what is striking is how seemingly few people are open to the possibility of pure coincidence. As if pure coincidence were some sort of logical impossibility, let alone a likely explanation. If it is right and proper that people should do nothing that adds to the pain of victims of atrocities -and of course it is- then we can’t confine this to the initial circulation of an image, but also to the act of lending it a significance and weight that it may not have. In this regard I don’t know what good purpose anyone thinks they are serving by calling upon a victim of an atrocity and asking them to weigh up whether or not such and such a thing relates to that atrocity or not. Or worse, presenting them once again with their painful memories, and asking them to relive it once more. It seems sensible to me, as well, to try and distinguish between ghoulish opportunism on the one hand, and, on the other, a disinterested effort to prevent a flare-up of sectarian paranoia.

For what it’s worth, which is very, very little, I believe Barry McElduff is telling the truth when he says he did not intend any hurt with his silly video. Believing it doesn’t mean I know for certain what he intended, because I can’t. I just choose to live in a world where I’m not fetching up monsters at every turn. And maybe you should too.

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Men from Nazareth, Officials from Hell

neoliberalismo

The other day, the head of the Housing Agency Conor Skehan made widely reported remarks that homelessness ought to be considered as a normal thing and that it was wrong to consider the current situation in Ireland as a crisis.

The idea of a ‘normal’ rate of homelessness is not all that different from the idea of a ‘natural’ rate of unemployment, a conventional enough concept in economics. Both will occur in the best of all possible worlds. The ‘natural’ rate of unemployment hold that even when there are more than enough jobs to go round, there will still, at any given moment, be people who are unemployed, because people will still lose jobs due to the dynamism of the economy, and it will take time for them to find other jobs. Similarly, with a ‘normal’ rate of homelessness, there will always, as Conor Skehan himself said, be people who find themselves on the streets as a result of events in their lives.

One major problem with both ideas is that there can never be a best of all worlds under a capitalist system. Ultimately, the only possible world worth having, as far as capitalism is concerned, is one in which profit rates are on the up. Since profits are little more than the appropriation of a surplus produced by labour power, a world of rising profits entails a world in which labour power -the ‘hand and brain’ exertions of human beings- is increasingly subjected to the rule of capital.

The Housing Agency headed by Conor Skehan claims it is concerned with ‘sustainable communities’ and ‘affordability’ in housing. Yet the rule of capital requires the elimination of collective solidarities that make communities truly sustainable. Moreover, the concept of ‘affordability’ in housing, by definition, treats housing as a commodity, rather than a right. ‘Affordability’ here is little more than the counterpart to profitability in the production and provision of housing.

This evening on RTÉ’s Drivetime, in an interview with Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger, the presenter described current levels of homelessness as arising from the failure of the state to build sufficient levels of public housing to cater for people’s needs. This description was true, as far as it went. What it omitted, and what is omitted by and large from media coverage of this issue, is any questioning as to why the amount of public housing built has been so paltry for so long.

From the dominant point of view, it is inconceivable that the best of all worlds could be one in which a home is not a commodity, but a right. It is also inconceivable from the point of view of many in the general public too. If a salaried worker is accustomed to looking upon their home as an asset that ought to appreciate in value -a habit that is strengthened by a sense of poor prospects for one’s wages and pension- they are less likely to take a positive view of the idea that a decent home should be a matter of right.
At best, they are likely to look upon public housing schemes as a form of charity. This predicament can breed a stew of reactionary resentment: why should they get anything laid on for nothing when I have had to toil for all that I have? A ‘sustainable community’, from this point of view, is one in which the price of one’s house continues to rise and the riff-raff are given the bare minimum to be kept out of sight and out of mind.

In the Drivetime interview, Ruth Coppinger rightly questioned the wider implications of the remarks of another public official, Eileen Gleason, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, who said that homelessness arose, in many instances, from a longstanding pattern of ‘bad behaviour’, from people who were ‘not like you and me’. If this is what such people said in public, Coppinger asked, what do they say behind closed doors? In other words, how much is the real view of public officials, who are charged with dealing with housing and homelessness, a view founded upon on reactionary resentment?

The idea that everyone has the right to a decent home is fundamentally at odds with the idea that housing ought to be a commodity. Yet the latter idea is the outlook of Fine Gael and the broader political establishment, along with the media establishment. But it is also an outlook shared widely among the better-off sections of Irish society. This tension is addressed through a resort to charity. It is charities who should deal with the matter of homelessness, since those who are homeless, if housing is to be considered a commodity, are best thought of as unfortunate supplicants at best, and feckless miscreants at worst. The prominence given to charity -institutionally and rhetorically- also has the nice effect of dignifying the people shown to be providing it.

To give his view of homelessness as normality some moral ballast, Conor Skehan quoted “the man from Nazareth”. Assuming this was Jesus of Nazareth and not Hayek or Friedman of Nazareth, Jesus, according to Skehan, said “the poor will always be with us”. This is not what Jesus of Nazareth said, at least not according to biblical sources. He said that ‘you will always have the poor with you’. The remark had a specific context. They were made in the house of a leper, not a radio studio. A woman broke open an expensive flask of ointment and poured it over Jesus’s head, and his disciples had given out to her, since they calculated that such ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to help the poor.

When Jesus says to his disciples that ‘you always have the poor with you’ it is not an observation on some eternal feature of the economy. It is a reference to the way in which his disciples are already supposed to be living in solidarity among the poor, and, foreseeing his death at the hands of the authorities for standing with the poor, Jesus welcomes the woman’s gesture, since he will not always be around. Considered in their entirety, the remarks of ‘the man from Nazareth’ are not a doleful recognition that all societies will have some degree of poverty or exclusion, but rather the expression of an idea that Skehan and the rest, institutionally and ideologically, reject altogether, and that is far closer in meaning to a popular expression from more recent times: that nothing is too good for the working class.

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