Friday, 8 March 2013

On repeat…

The clip above is of Simeon ten Holt's Canto Ostinato, which has provided my marking soundtrack for the day. It's a Dutch version of minimalism: much more melodious and European than the American version, which draws on rock, blues and African influences to a far greater extent. Canto Ostinato can last for a mere couple of hours or a full day, because it's built on repeated sections which the composer likened to genetic code. The weakness of the piece is its sweetness: it can quite easily turn into aural wallpaper in the wrong hands, whereas 'classic' minimalism's motorik rigour demands attention.

So in a way, ten Holt's piece is perfect for the marking I've been doing today: online forums examining a Satanic soliloquy in Milton's Paradise Lost (Book IV, 358-92) and asking them to draw on their close reading skills and critical reading to explore Satan's characterisation. Given that a large number of students are asked to consider the same few lines, the result is much like Canto Ostinato for the marker: lots of repetition, quite a lot of pleasure, but little variation or risk-taking. I find it hard to take in too much in a single session, and to reply with much originality 30 times, though I do my best. Certainly the standard was high and there are moments of light relief. 'What's Satan's state of mind here', I asked. 'Pissed off', came the reply, accurately enough. 

What else has been going on? Well, talking of sterile repetition, I watched Question Time last night, despite knowing in advance the response of every panellist. Last night's crew could have formed the celebrity cast for Huis Clos ('l'enfer, c'est les autres): imagine being trapped forever with Melanie Phillips, Stephen Twigg, Bob Crow, Ken Clarke and a UKIP candidate, all endlessly rehearsing manufactured outrage. I'm used to the audience consisting of racists and conspiracists, but the BBC seems to have decided that panellists should all now essentially behave like trolls. Just once I'd like to watch an episode in which some of the commentators expressed a degree of humility or self-doubt. When David Miliband visited The Hegemon, I asked him if there was any room for self-doubt in modern politics and he literally did not understand the question. I think it's important to be open to challenge and self-examination. The other day I had a long exchange on Twitter with someone about education. We disagreed on absolutely everything, but did so thoughtfully and respectfully. It was really enjoyable to swap ideas without treating the other as a deluded moron. But political life has no room for complexity, ambiguity or doubt. To get anywhere, you have to behave as though whatever you're saying at any given moment is obviously and permanently and completely true, despite knowing that very few things outside gravity fulfil these conditions. We have always been at war with Oceania. If you remember otherwise, your memory is clearly at fault. 

Melanie wrote a book calling London 'Londonistan' and tends to believe that if you disagree with her in the tiniest way on anything at all, then you personally are guilty for 9/11 and the Holocaust. 

Bob Crow: reminds me of the junior Vogon in The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: '"Resistance is useless," bellowed the guard, and then added, "You see if I keep it up I can eventually get promoted to Senior Shouting Officer, and there aren't usually many vacancies for non-shouting and non-pushing-people-about officers, so I think I'd better stick to what I know."

Still, Mad Mel managed to be unhinged, insensitive, paranoid and viciously reactionary without denouncing Islam, which is a major achievement for her. Either that, or I've gone deaf. Between her reactionary certainty and Bob Crow's bellowing and blinkered brand of socialism (I like him, but I'd love a bit more nuance: I imagine he starts breakfast by demanding his wife provides THE WORKERS' MUESLI NOT AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE BUT IMMEDIATELY BEFORE CAPITALIST BANKERS TAKE IT AWAY TO FEED TO THEIR PONIES, whereas Melanie Phillips would merely announce that the cereal box is empty because Islamofascist anti-Semites have brainwashed ordinary people into renouncing their Traditional Breakfasting Values), before long, I was entertaining myself by imagining Bob and Mel scarfing down the free warm white wine backstage before rutting like animals in the Green Room. 

An image that will not quickly go away, unfortunately.  

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