Idealism, Stupid

This has been moved from my other blog because I am trying not to bang on about philosophy there.

A strange thing happened yesterday. I was at a conference full of scientists and none of them thought materialism worked.

This strange phenomenon might seem a little less strange in the context of the conference being a conference about psychedelics, but still. People were talking about DMT, its mechanisms, its applications to our understanding of how consciousness works and how best to analyse the peculiar visual and perceptual trends common to people using it, regardless of their cultural background or setting.

One of the common threads of discussion was whether it made more sense to take these visions and perceptions (all of which tend to invoke elves, in much the same fashion as the old northern European shamanic traditions) at face value – the elves are real entities out there in the world and DMT offers a way into seeing them – or as a sort of mental construct.

Conventional materialism would fall into a bit of a hole here, because if you agree that stuff in consensus reality, like the table and chair in front of you, are actual real things, it troubles the question of how real the real things are. Problem is, the elves have all the same apparently real qualities as the real things. If the real things are real, you are in danger of finding yourself believing in elves: not a respectable materialist position to hold.

At the end, I asked the speakers which metaphysical position was best fit to make sense of the elf story.

Idealism, said Andrew Gallimore, as though it were obvious. Which, to anyone who has taken psychedelics, I suppose it is. And to people who have chipped away at the thorny issues of establishing mathematical and philosophical fixity, and concluded that it doesn’t really work unless you keep on changing the script in an attempt to account for the unaccountable, too. The philosophy festival I work for finds more of these people each year. And, perhaps more significantly, idealism is a position that sits with increasing ease for the mostly lay audience. We might have got over God, but there is an inchoate folk metaphysics out there that thinks naive realism is a bit silly upon inspection.

I gave a paper last week on The Hunting of the Snark and Flatland which wasn’t really about either book but the backdrop of developments in Victorian metaphysics. Both, I argued, alluded to the story of an attempt to project what seemed (as it always does, for philosophers love nothing better than to reinvent the wheel) like the New Speculative Realism out of new mathematical techniques, and its ultimate collapse. The unhuntable Snark turns out to be the ineffable Boojum; the Zen master of a non-man, the Baker, who succeeds in meeting with it is sublimated into thin air in something like an encounter with the Absolute; the proliferation of additional possible dimensions in Flatland, which then starts to sound a bit like a DMT trip, results in the impossibility of any particular perceptual account of the world being mind-independently true.

What I would now like to know is which particular flavour of idealism Gallimore was on about. Even if we’re agreed that the notion of a fixable mind-independent reality is a bit silly, there are different ways of understanding that too. Where are we headed? Later speakers alluded to holism or monism, in the guise of spiritual practitioners like Gurdjieff and Steiner whose followers, in my admittedly limited experience, tend claim special insight by virtue of their guru having uncovered it, as though the entire histories of Eastern and Western philosophy alike weren’t a thing. Do we see mind-dependent reality as a big, interconnected cosmic mind, or do we take a more austere line?

I also got excited about how it might be possible to take an idealist position and create a consciousness-as-GUI metaphor in which different modalities of consciousness take hold, like layered operating systems, when different phenethylamine or tryptamine-based neural networks are fired up. More on that soon.

Snarks and Boojums

This is the paper I gave at London Critical’s Legacies of the Immaterial stream.

Academic recycling disclaimer: contains overlap with other recent papers posted here and severe overuse of “apophatic” – proceed with caution. 

Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark is a failed epic in which a crew of ten disparate characters – all of whose names begin, for no obvious reason, with B – embark upon a ship on unmappable waters in order to hunt down a mythical creature called the Snark.

Attempts to describe the Snark are consistently beset with problems, perhaps because nobody has ever seen one, or perhaps because the Snark does not really exist. We are told that some Snarks may be Boojums. The Boojum is something that strikes fear and awe into the crew. The poem does not have a coherent plot – instead, it consists of a series of digressions. In the last section, ‘The Vanishing’, the Baker, an idiot savant character introduced as being un-nameable, finds a Snark and vanishes, in a moment of sublimation, into thin air, in the middle of telling his comrades that the Snark is a Boojum.

Despite the fact that Lewis Carroll is one of the world’s best-loved children’s writers, few people have read the Snark. There is also very little academic commentary on it. It is thought of as a “nonsense poem” and categorised alongside Jabberwocky and the work of Edward Lear. In this paper I will argue that the apparently nonsensical qualities of the Snark are more usefully understood as a form of intentional anti-realism and perform a function similar to the Zen koan.

In The Philosophy of Nonsense, Jean-Jacques Lecercle describes the Snark as ‘a journey through negation’, taking a Kantian reading of the distinction between negation as privation versus negation as lack in various episodes of negation in the poem. Lecercle concludes that the sophistication of Carroll’s treatment of negation in the Snark is indicative of a proto-philosophy of difference.

The other great theoretical treatment of Carroll, Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, is notable for the absence of any substantial mention of the Snark in it. Lecercle sees the Snark as the apotheosis of Carroll’s prophetic interest in the instability of language and meaning and finds a precarious balance of sense and nonsense that commands a philosophical reading in it. Deleuze mentions it fleetingly early on in Logic of Sense, in the context of the hunt for sense being like the hunt for the Snark, but otherwise limits himself to the Alice books and Sylvie and Bruno.

The inclusion of Sylvie and Bruno, which is less read and, I would argue, less relevant to Deleuze’s thesis on sense than the Snark, makes it seem possible that the Snark’s lack of treatment is more than an oversight. If we are going to consider the meaning of absence in terms of negation, the absence of the Snark in Logic of Sense might tell us something about what Deleuze is up to with it.

First of all, though, I want to turn to some episodes of negation in the Snark. In doing so I am going to refer to Philip Goodchild’s paper Speech and Silence in the Mumonkan, which operates both as a Deleuzean reading of the zen koan and as a Zen reading of the Deleuzean notion of sense as metaphysical surface. Goodchild is interested in the idea of apophatic expression – the way in which it is possible to describe, by means of silence, absence, or negation, the indescribable.

The Mumonkan is now considered to be the most significant piece of Zen literature, compiled and written in the thirteenth century by the Chinese Zen monk Wumen Hukai, generally known in the West by his Japanese name, Mumon. It consists of forty-eight koans, strange and paradoxical stories, questions or anecdotes, each bearing a commentary and a brief poem at the end. Each of these forty-eight sections, or cases, consists of three parts: the koan itself; Mumon’s commentary on it; and Mumon’s verse discussion of it. A distinguishing feature of the relationship between these three parts is that they don’t appear to make much sense together.

The Mumonkan opens with Joshu’s Mu, the first and most well-known of the koans.

A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog the Buddha Nature?” Joshu answered, “Mu.”

“Mu” means “nothing.” Mumon’s commentary on Mu states that you must “cut off the way of thinking.” He instructs his student to “summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word “Mu.” Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of “has” or “has not.”

Here, therefore, we have a question that is answered, in “Mu,” with a nonsensical answer, and the nonsensical quality of “Mu” operates as a negation. By responding to a question about whether or not a dog has the Buddha-nature with the word “nothing,” the binaristic yes-or-no assumption of the question is ignored, and negated.

It might then be tempting to take an answer of “nothing” as an answer with a nihilistic endpoint. In response to whether or not a dog has Buddha-nature, does the answer imply that nothing has the Buddha-nature, or that there is nothing? Mumon rejects this too when he says “do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of “has” or “has not.”

It is a little like Lecercle’s assertion of the distinction between negation as privation – itself a relative conception of has or has not – and negation as lack, which one might alternatively describe as a nihilistic conception of vacancy.

Mumon’s verse on Mu does not operate as a straightforward answer either – or as any sort of answer:

The dog, the Buddha Nature,

The pronouncement, perfect and final.

Before you say it has or not,

You are a dead man on the spot.

It is the idea of what Mumon calls “the pronouncement, perfect and final” that is at stake here. Mumon is dealing with the impossibility of a perfect, final statement. He is taking a radically anti-logocentric stance.

Goodchild describes this process of negation in the koan as “the most characteristic motif of Zen language.” Goodchild’s account of Joshu’s Mu is both as an exercise in non-rational enlightenment, and a question, or problem, answered with a further problem:

This koan illustrates the most characteristic motif of Zen language: negation. It is an apparent denial of the doctrine of the universality of the Buddha-nature, and implicitly points toward denial of the power of any doctrine to articulate the truth. The ‘mu’ is often taken as a koan in itself and meditated upon alone. […]

The negation is used reflexively to delimit the domain of the operation of language, and it is a realization of this limitation which allows the break- through to an alternative mode of experience to occur.

Yet Joshu’s Mu is not simply a statement concerning the impotence of language: it is posed as a problem which requires a solution. […]

On the level of language itself, the reflexivity of the negation is also problematic: in pointing to an area outside of its operation, language surpasses its area of operation and hints at something unsayable, which has nevertheless allowed language to speak of it.

It is this notion of the liminal point at which language is able to say the unsayable that forms the focal point of Goodchild’s Deleuzean reading of the koans. Goodchild asserts that Deleuze is doing the same thing with the Logic of Sense.

For Deleuze, sense creates a metaphysical surface between language and reality, enabling the negotiation of meaning. It is a surface that can be breached, in language, via Carroll’s strategy of nonsense – or, more strictly, the enculage of sense – so that its absence and thus its status become apparent.

In Deleuze’s only explicit allusion to Zen in the Logic of Sense he describes the desexualised univocity of Being as enacted by a stuttering and frantically masturbating figure who is ‘one-third Stoic, one-third Zen and one-third Carroll’, and whom I sometimes imagine might be the Baker from the Snark.

Let’s have a look at the Baker. In ‘The Hunting’, as the crew prepare to go out and hunt the Snark, the Baker combs his whiskers, or beard: [PP5]

Then the Banker enclosed a blank cheque (which he crossed),

And changed his loose silver for notes.

The Baker with care combed his whiskers and hair,

And shook the dust out of his coats.

On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly problematic about the Baker combing his whiskers – it seems one of the more sensible of the crew’s various idiosyncratic preparations – until Martin Gardner points out that the Baker consistently “appears whiskerless in Holiday’s illustrations.”

Gardner offers two possible explanations: that Holiday missed this information in the poem, and drew the Baker whiskerless, which Carroll failed to notice; or that Carroll wrote this particular stanza after Holiday’s illustrations had been completed. Given Carroll’s well-documented control-freakish relationship with his illustrations and illustrators neither of these seem particularly likely.

I propose, instead, that we compare the episode to the koan The Western Barbarian With No Beard.

Wakuan said, “Why has the Western barbarian no beard?”

Mumon’s verse accompanying the is concerned with the idea that assumptions of reality, and the adornment of detail that makes them appear real, are a delusion.

Don’t discuss your dream

Before a fool.

Barbarian with no beard

Obscures the clarity.

The Bodhidharma is traditionally depicted with a beard; the term “barbarian” refers to this. But whether or not the “real” Bodhidharma has a beard is an irrelevant distraction to this process. The instruction “Don’t discuss your dream” is about the illusory nature of experience.

Carroll uses the inconsistency in the pictorial and verbal accounts of the Baker as a querying mechanism, calling into question whether he is coherent, and therefore real. The two accounts do not share a coherent sense-relationship, and in the breakdown of the sense of the Baker our notion of the Baker’s Bakerness is further dismantled.

As soon as we are introduced to the Baker, in ‘The Landing’, it is made clear to us that his attributes are not designed to build a clear picture of a man, because he is described only in terms of negatives: the things he forgets to bring with him, his inability to remember his own name, which results in different crew members giving him their own label, with no single agreed tag for him. Even his baker-ness is undermined by the fact that he is only able to bake “bridecake”, or wedding cake, for which there are no ingredients.

When Carroll mentions the un-bearded Baker as combing his whiskers, perhaps he is taking up a similar idea regarding the impossibility of linguistic description, and thus the impossibility of a linguistically mediated meaning, or reality.

Carroll does something similar with his description of the Snark in the ‘Bellman’s Speech’, an episode in which the imposition of qualities that bear no relation to the Snark and that are not coherent with one another bring to mind the British Idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley on internal relations.

Bradley sees the pursuit of describing things by the imposition of qualities, relations between qualities, or the terms of those relations as the creation of constructs which, rather than having a unifying ontological function, simply proliferate.

Something similar happens in The Logic of Sense, where Deleuze describes the three forms of relations within logical propositions as being conditioned, relationally, to one another in a loop. The only way to escape this is to add sense as a further conditioning expression, and sense itself turns out to be a relational and therefore elusive entity in which fixative attempts end in proliterative paradox.

The tactic in literary realism would be to deploy qualities that have a sense-relationship with one another – and so are coherent – and have a sense-relationship with the subject of their description. Carroll inverts this process when describing his ultimate non-realist entity, the Snark. In the Bellman’s Speech, we see the Bellman reel off a list of qualities attributed to the Snark. As the qualities proliferate, the possibility of coherence, or unity, slips away – and, eventually, so too does the Baker:

“Come listen, my men, while I tell you again

The five unmistakable marks

By which you may know, wheresoever you go,

The warranted genuine Snarks.


“Let is take them in order. The first is the taste,

Which is meagre and hollow and crisp:

Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,

With a flavour of Will-o’-the-wisp.


“Its habit of getting up late you’ll agree

That it carries too far, when I say

That it frequently breakfasts at five o’clock tea,

And dines on the following day.


“The third is its slowness in taking a jest, [PP10]

Should you happen to venture on one,

It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:

And it always looks grave at a pun.


“The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,

Which it constantly carries about,

And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes –

A sentiment open to doubt.


“The fifth is ambition. It next will be right

To describe each particular batch:

Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,

From those that have whiskers, and scratch.


“For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm, [PP11]

Yet, I feel it my duty to say,

Some are Boojums –” The Bellman broke off in alarm,

For the Baker had fainted away.

Carroll sets up a description here and undermines it by over-describing. With each new stanza he adds an additional characteristic, or set of characteristics; the description, rather than becoming richer, becomes less convincing. The unlikeliness of the various descriptions is funny because they are all so incongruously different from one another: to use the Bradleyan analogy, the relations between qualities are too tenuous. The exercise of denoting, and of identifying qualities, becomes the stuff of comedy, or Deleuze’s humour, which arises in the breakdown of sense.

We generally treat the koans with a rather un-Zen piety rather than reading them as humorous; the idea is that the impossibility of response is presented as a problem that produces a new problem, forming a regress. There is no obvious metalinguistic solution, or, in Goodchild’s term, “doctrinal axiom” to fix it; rather than being a tricky rational exercise, it is – if it can be said to be a statement at all – a statement about problematics.

Carroll’s famous paradox ‘What The Tortoise Said To Achilles’ – the characters allude to Zeno’s paradox of motion – results in an infinite regression where justifying each proposition requires infinite supporting propositions. Carroll published his paradoxes in the philosophical journal Mind just as Russell and Moore were starting to deploy symbolic logic in an attempt to pin down the way that language refers to things in the world.

In The Principles of Mathematics, Russell discusses ‘What The Tortoise Said To Achilles’, and in doing so stumbles into an appeal to external sense in order to legislate for the validity of statements. This, as Deleuze identifies in The Logic of Sense, is itself paradoxical. The recourse to external sense becomes one of the key obstacles to straightforward ontological realism. The jokey tone of ‘What The Tortoise Said To Achilles’, seen in this light, starts to look like an act of trolling.

If the formal system of language is prone to internal contradiction, and doesn’t work; if the exercise of denotation is prone to paradoxical regress; and if linguistic constructs form what seems to be our reality, but is, as it is to Mumon, a delusion, what lies beyond it? As we see at the end of the Snark, it is the Boojum.

And it is the Baker, whose eccentric demeanour is somewhat reminiscent of a Zen master, who encounters the Boojum at the very end of the poem.

‘It’s a Snark!’ was the sound that first came to their ears,

And seemed almost too good to be true.

There followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:

Then the ominous words, ‘It’s a Boo –’


Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air

A weary and wandering sigh

That sounded like ‘-jum!’ but the others declare

It was only a breeze that went by.


They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

Not a button, or feather, or mark,

By which they could tell that they stood on the ground

Where the Baker had met with the Snark.


In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away –

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The thing hunted turns out not to be a thing at all, but something else entirely, a thing that can only be defined, apophatically, by what it is not, and by its ability to make phenomena in what seems to be the world cease to exist. The Baker might be experiencing the dissolution of selfhood in the moment of enlightenment, or he might, according to the dominant philosophical mode of the time, be engaging with the Absolute.

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, the early pragmatist and philosophical prankster, wrote a spoof paper in a parodic edition of Mind in which the hunt for the Snark was equated with the hunt for the Absolute. The frontispiece of this special edition looks like this; Schiller jokingly comments on its likeness to the Bellman’s Map in the accompanying preface. The image of a map of nothing is visually analogous to the apophatic hunting narrative in the verse, and to the non-image of the gap where the Boojum isn’t.

Carroll wrote the Hunting of the Snark after the final line came to him while walking and haunted him. One obvious metaphor provided by “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” is that of appearance and reality: the title of Bradley’s magnum opus. The Snark is what the thing appears to be, and the Boojum what it really is. The pursuit of identifying appearance then leads to a contradiction between appearance and reality.

We might describe Zen as having some common ground with the forms of absolute idealism that characterised Carroll’s Oxford in the late nineteenth century, in that both offer monism as a solution to the apparent paradox that besets attempts to fix the meaning of language. Carroll’s allusion to Zeno’s characters of the Tortoise and Achilles in his own paradox seems to imply that, as in Zeno’s paradox of motion, the solution is to see the whole and not the parts. For Carroll, defaulting to monism would have been an entirely and characteristically conservative thing to do. His literary work is peppered with satirical references to the new mathematics and the idea that they might be the basis for a new Victorian speculative realism. Carroll is not a realist.

Badiou famously dismissed Deleuze as a philosopher of the One; Logic of Sense often feels like an inchoate account of all of the reasoning that leads to an inescapably monistic conclusion without quite reaching it. Difference and Repetition invokes Duns Scotus’ account of univocity to try to hold the many and the one together, taking a sort of neo-Spinozist line in which the endless unfolding of things takes place within a tacit priority monism. If Logic of Sense played out its problematics of sense fully, though, it would end up somewhere near F. H. Bradley, or the contemporary philosopher Hilary Lawson, whose book Reflexivity draws a similarly apophatic metaphysical conclusion from paradox and regression.

It is as though Deleuze is keen to downplay the monism bit of “pluralism = monism” at a time when a materialist ontology felt politically expedient. I will leave you with his Stoic/Zen/Carroll vignette from the Logic of Sense and, in the spirit of evading attempts at fixity, refrain from further comment.

The univocity of sense grasps language in its complete system, as the total expresser of a unique expressed – the event. The values of humor are distinguished from those of irony: humor is the art of surfaces and of the complex relation between the two surfaces. Beginning with one excessive equivocation, humor constructs all univocity; beginning with the properly sexual equivocation which ends all equivocity, humor releases a desexualised Univocity – a speculative univocity of Being and language – the entire secondary organization in one word. It is necessary to imagine someone, one-third Stoic, one-third Zen, and one-third Carroll: with one hand, he masturbates in an excessive gesture, with the other, he writes in the sand the magic words of the pure event open to the univocal: Mind – I – believe – is – Essence – Ent – Abstract – that – is – an – Accident – which – we that is to say – I meant – .”

Mapless Maps: scale and anti-realism in Carroll and Swift

This is version of a paper I gave this week at SCALE2015. If the referencing isn’t complete, it will be soon. Quite soon. Possibly. 

As Lewis Carroll’s fiction diverged ever further from straightforward narrative modes, both popular and critical responses to his work became increasingly divided and negative. Alice was a hit; the Looking Glass, though more challenging, still popular; the Snark deemed strange and depressing; and Sylvie and Bruno regarded as something of an embarrassment.

But to describe Carroll’s regression from narrative realism as a failure of narrative technique is, I shall argue, mistaken, and better described as intentional antirealism. We can read it as aligned to an antirealist philosophical position that is expressed both in these works and in his work as a mathematician.

It is well documented that Carroll derives much of his humour from mathematical skits. The extent to which the mathematical trends and developments Carroll reacted to both as mathematician and author reflect particular philosophical developments has been more neglected. It is less obvious – Carroll’s day job was as mathematician, not philosopher – but the time spanning the genesis and publication of his literary works was a time in which some of the boundaries between mathematics and philosophy were being interrogated, and in which new mathematical speculations were becoming used as the basis for a new realist speculative metaphysics.

In this story about mathematics, measurements and metaphysics, and the degree to which they could be interdependent, we find the image of the malfunctioning map.


Some context: The Hunting of the Snark is a narrative verse in which a crew of twelve characters is hunting a Snark, which turns out not to be a Snark after all, but a Boojum. There are early hints that the Snark might not actually be a thing: nobody can describe its appearance; its attributes are self-contradictory and incongruous; rumours abound that it is actually a Boojum anyway.

All we know about the Boojum is that people “softly and suddenly vanish away” upon encountering it, having mistaken it for a Snark, and this implies that it is all-consuming but also not a thing, in that nothing is left to be seen. Carroll’s illustrator, Henry Holiday, tried to reify the Boojum by drawing it, and Carroll rejected the plate. Just as the Snark is indescribable, the Boojum is undrawable.

The Bellman has appointed himself the captain of this expedition. Here’s what the crew has to say about his map:

He had brought a large map representing the sea,

Without the least vestige of land:

And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be

A map they could all understand.


“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,

Tropics, Zones and Meridian Lines?”

So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply

“They are merely conventional signs!


Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!

But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”

(So the crew would protest) “that he’s brought us the best –

A perfect and absolute blank!”

In Sylvie and Bruno, Mein Herr, a German Professor (and it may be worth mentioning that another crackpot German Professor figure, Herr Niemand, appears in Carroll’s satirical tract defending Euclidean geometry, on which more later) sets out some of his homeland’s various areas of scientific progress, one of which is in map-making:

“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

“About six inches to the mile.”

“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.

On one level, Carroll is simply making a joke about maps. In the first case, the joke is that the pursuit of simplicity leads to a reductio ad absurdum map in which there is no content, and in the second the joke is that the pursuit of detail leads to a extensio ad absurdum map in which there is so much content that it ceases to be a map, but is simply the mapped territory itself. In both maps, the mathematical relationship that makes mapping possible – the idea that it is possible to represent the territory or thing mapped symbolically by means of measurement and scale – is conspicuously absent.

And when you look at the maps alongside some of the play on scale that you see in Alice, it seems possible that there is something else going on too. Carroll’s mathematical allusions imply a position on the ideas and developments he is alluding to. Carroll is a conservative at heart. He is a Tory, a High Church man, and he is also mathematically and philosophically conservative.

One of the oddities of using texts like The Hunting of the Snark and Through the Looking Glass to corroborate a claim for philosophical conservatism is that by our contemporary standards, the anti-realist qualities of the text feel radical and postmodern. It is not a stable, predictable narrative. But when we describe these sorts of characteristics as post-modern we do so both anachronistically and against a default assumption of naïve realism, so that a sensible, normal text describes things as they are in the world. It is a sort of literary correspondence theory of truth, a logical extension of Mimesis.

Carroll isn’t reacting in this mode. He is a minor Oxford don in a time and place where various forms of absolute idealism dominate. The notion that all that can be said to be true about the world is our experience of it, and that beyond that experience lies something unknowable and unsayable is accepted. The idea of a mind-independent reality is a heresy. Mathematical techniques that might be able to overcome human perceptual bias and measure this reality are just beginning to be speculated. Furthermore, Carroll’s beloved Euclidean geometry is being dismissed in order to do so.

In 1876, the year of the Snark’s publication, Hermann von Helmholtz published an article in the philosophical journal Mind, where Carroll would later publish his famous paradoxes. The article is entitled ‘The Origin and Meaning of Geometrical Axioms’ and sets out the basis of some of the new non-Euclidean geometries, many of which pre-date the Alice books, and argues for the ontological application of the new geometries when tested empirically.

Helmholtz describes this application in the conclusion to his article as ‘certain principles of mechanics … conjoined with the axioms of geometry[1]’ – an elision of mathematics and mechanics we would now recognise in the form of mathematised theoretical physics.

In advocating both the existential import and naturalistic application of the new geometries, Helmholtz anticipates the already identifiable divide between what he calls the “idealistic philosophers[2]” and the beginnings of a new positivist project; indeed, his use of the term “realism” in the article is applicable in the same sense of a mind-independent reality as would later become common terminology in Mind’s New Series. [As an aside, I was being corrected by my supervisors for using the term “realism” anachronistically until I read this article; it therefore made me quite happy.]

By contrast, Helmholtz sees Euclidean geometry as creating a delusional conceptual trap in which only shapes that can be imagined on a human scale and on a flat piece of paper can be conceived as existing. Within these limits, there is nothing geometry can say about the world beyond the limits of human experience. He is critical of ‘the readiness with which results of everyday experience become mixed up as apparent necessities of thought with the logical processes’ – taking an anti-intuitive line – ‘so long as Euclid’s method of constructive intuition is exclusively followed in geometry.’[3] Helmholtz is not only advocating possible alternatives to Euclid: he is dismantling the validity of Euclidean geometry.

Melanie Bayley identifies both Alice books as satires on, and against, the New Mathematics.[4] Helmholtz considers the nature of bodily distortion and space-perception:

Let me first remind the reader that if all the linear dimensions of other bodies and our own at the same time were diminished or increased in like proportion, as for instance to half or double their size, we should with our means of space-perception be utterly unaware of their change.[5]

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s shifts in scale are not matched by her surroundings, creating a disruption in her sense of place that she is very much aware of; the mismatch of scales and Alice’s propensity to grow and shrink create a comic unreliability of the common-sense, or intuitive, notion of what the rules of space and bodies in it are. Bayley describes Alice’s distortions as reflecting

‘Dodgson’s love of Euclidean geometry, where absolute magnitude doesn’t matter: what’s important is the ratio of one length to another when considering the properties of a triangle, for example. To survive in Wonderland, Alice must act like a Euclidean geometer, keeping her ratios constant, even if her size changes… Of course, she doesn’t.’[6]

Carroll wrote Euclid and His Modern Rivals, a satire defending Euclid, a few years after the Snark. One of the oddities of it is that he does not use it to attack the new geometries, but limits his targets to other, quite minor, pedagogical texts aimed at schoolchildren and undergraduates. It is in his fiction that Carroll satirizes the ontological claim that Helmholtz is making for mathematics, this wild new idea that it is possible for mathematics to say things about a mind-independent reality.

In the Snark’s fifth Fit, ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’, the Butcher, who has been established as a simple and uneducated man, deploys a mathematical proof for the existence of the Jubjub bird.

“‘Tis the voice of the Jubjub!” he suddenly cried.
(This man, that they used to call “Dunce.”)
“As the Bellman would tell you,” he added with pride,
“I have uttered that sentiment once.

“‘Tis the note of the Jubjub! Keep count, I entreat;
You will find I have told it you twice.
‘Tis the song of the Jubjub! The proof is complete,
If only I’ve stated it thrice.”

The Butcher then creates a mathematical proof, a piece of circular reasoning in which the starting number is the end number.[7] The proof is not only ill-suited to its proposed corresponding entity in the world, but is also self-referential. In the accompanying image, a book bearing the title Reductio ad Absurdum can be seen beneath the Butcher’s feet.

A couple of decades later, when Russell and Moore were starting to deploy symbolic logic to pin down the way that language refers to things in the world, Carroll published his two logical paradoxes in Mind.

Carroll’s paradoxes are often contested on the basis that they are errors rather than true paradoxes. It is possible that this is part of a Snark-like trap. ‘What The Tortoise Said To Achilles’ – the characters allude to Zeno’s paradox of motion – results in an infinite regression where justifying each proposition requires infinite supporting propositions.

In The Principles of Mathematics, Russell discusses ‘What The Tortoise Said To Achilles’, and in doing so stumbles into an appeal to external sense in order to legislate for the validity of statements. This, as Deleuze identifies in The Logic of Sense, is itself paradoxical. The recourse to external sense becomes one of the key obstacles to straightforward ontological realism. The jokey tone of ‘What The Tortoise Said To Achilles’, seen in this light, starts to look like an act of trolling.

If you read the Snark, the Alice books and Sylvie and Bruno, or aspects of them, as a satirical response to the new realism first espoused by the likes of Helmholtz and developed by Moore and Russell a little later on, the idea that you might collapse the narrative fabric of reality starts to look a little less radical. It is a very defensive sort of radicalism. It brings to mind Swift’s attack on the speculators in Gulliver’s Travels, and his attack on narrative coherence in A Tale of a Tub. Carroll and Swift are up to much the same thing.

In Part III of Gulliver’s Travels, the Voyage to Laputa, Gulliver encounters the Speculators.

Their Heads were all reclined either to the Right, or the Left; one of their Eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the Zenith… It seems, the Minds of these People are so taken up with intense Speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the Discourses of others, without being rouzed by some external Taction upon the Organs of Speech and Hearing…

Swift’s Speculators have distorted heads and wonky eyes from using telescopes; the astronomical claims of Enlightenment scientism result in physical deformities and intellectual incapacity. Their homes are shambolic, their clothes ill-fitting despite the efforts of the tailor who uses a quadrant to calculate Gulliver’s height, leaving him house-bound for want of garments.

The levitating island itself is a satire on emerging theories of magnetism, demonstrated by William Gilbert and recorded in the annals of the Royal Society, Swift’s speculative target. Its map shows its zig-zagging path; a sleek and straightforward movement would veer dangerously close to functional technology.

Just as Carroll teases out satirical episodes relating to particular ideas in the Alice books, Swift does so in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver, like Alice, is a naïve Everyman character whose straightforward narration and credible responses to incredible things facilitates parody and satire, often assisted by episodes of defamiliarising scalar dysfunction.

For Swift, the text in which narrative satire breaks down into something that not only satirises technologies and ideas but satirises the notion of narrative fixity itself is the earlier A Tale of a Tub, less read than Gulliver as the Snark is less read than Alice for its ferocious resistance to narrative integrity.

In the Tale, there is no approachable Everyman leading us through the story, for the three allegorical brothers are subordinate to a narrator characterised by persistent self-contradiction and a tendency to digression so entrenched that it results in a digression on digressions which, in the vein of Carrollian logical paradox, might form the beginning of an infinite regression.

Satire, in its classical form, has a target. Conventionally, satire narrates a reality and satirises things within it. Swift uses digression, narratorial inconsistency and self-contradiction to satirise the text’s constructed reality, and any meaning that might be found within it.

Swift – or some iteration of his narrator – also parodies his own refusal to supply a meaningful narrative. In the ‘Digression on Madness’ he prepares his reader with mock hubris in anticipation of an important principle regarding the human condition before leaving a gap, as though the text were missing, in its place:

The present argument is the most abstracted that ever I engaged in: it strains my faculties to their highest stretch: and I desire the reader to attend with the utmost propensity; for I now proceed to unravel this knotty point.

There is in mankind a certain .           .           .           .           .           .           .

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

Hic multa desiderantur           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

And this I take to be a clear solution of the matter.


* Here is another Defect in the Manuscript, but I think that the Author did wisely, and that the matter which thus strained his Faculties, was not worth a Solution; and it were well if all Metaphysical Cobweb Problems were no otherwise answered.

Philip Harth reads A Tale of a Tub as an exercise in attacking the doctrinal fixity of Catholicism and Calvinism, and, by virtue of its parodic negation of those faiths and satirical negation of its own narrative fixity, taking something akin to the Anglican via negativa, an apophatic strategy for triangulating a sort of anti-doctrine by virtue of avoiding fixity. Here, Swift is taking a further apophatic line on the ontological claims of the metaphysical cobwebs of the new natural sciences. It is a piece of terminology one might imagine deployed in a philosophical spat in Mind a hundred and seventy years later.

The Snark uses contradiction and negation for similarly apophatic ends. In ‘The Hunting’, as the crew prepare, idiosyncratically, to go out and hunt the Snark, the Baker combs his whiskers, or beard:

Then the Banker enclosed a blank cheque (which he crossed),

And changed his loose silver for notes.

The Baker with care combed his whiskers and hair,

And shook the dust out of his coats.[8]

On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly problematic about the Baker combing his whiskers – it seems one of the more sensible of the crew’s various preparations – until Martin Gardner points out that the Baker consistently “appears whiskerless in Holiday’s illustrations.”[9]

Gardner offers two possible explanations: that Holiday missed this information in the poem, and drew the Baker whiskerless, which Carroll failed to notice; or that Carroll wrote this particular stanza after Holiday’s illustrations had been completed. Given Carroll’s well-documented control-freakish relationship with his illustrations and illustrators[10] neither of these seem particularly likely.

I propose, instead, that we compare the episode to the Zen koan The Western Barbarian With No Beard.

Wakuan said, “Why has the Western barbarian no beard?”[11]

Mumon’s verse accompanying the Western Barbarian is concerned with the idea that assumptions of reality, and the adornment of detail that makes them appear real, are a delusion.

Don’t discuss your dream

Before a fool.

Barbarian with no beard

Obscures the clarity.[12]

The Bodhidharma is traditionally depicted with a beard; the term “barbarian” refers to this. But whether or not the “real” Bodhidharma has a beard is an irrelevant distraction to this process. The instruction “Don’t discuss your dream” is about the illusory nature of experience.[13]

Carroll uses the inconsistency in the pictorial and verbal accounts of the Baker as a querying mechanism, calling into question whether he is coherent, and therefore real. And it is the Baker, whose eccentric manner is somewhat reminiscent of a Zen master, who experiences the final encounter with the Snark at the very end of the poem.

‘It’s a Snark!’ was the sound that first came to their ears,

And seemed almost too good to be true.

There followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:

Then the ominous words, ‘It’s a Boo –’


Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air

A weary and wandering sigh

That sounded like ‘-jum!’ but the others declare

It was only a breeze that went by.


They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

Not a button, or feather, or mark,

By which they could tell that they stood on the ground

Where the Baker had met with the Snark.


In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away –

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The thing hunted turns out not to be a thing at all, but something else entirely, a thing that can only be defined, apophatically, by what it is not, and by its ability to make phenomena in what seems to be the world cease to exist. The Baker might be experiencing the dissolution of selfhood in the moment of enlightenment, or he might, according to the dominant philosophical mode of the time, be engaging with the Absolute.

Ferdinand Schiller, the early pragmatist and philosophical prankster, wrote a spoof paper in a parodic edition of Mind in which the hunt for the Snark was equated with the hunt for the Absolute. The frontispiece of this special edition looks like this; Schiller jokingly comments on its likeness to the Bellman’s Map in the accompanying preface.

Carroll wrote the last line of The Hunting of the Snark first, and then the last stanza to fit it. In eight words, the final line tells a story. There was a thing sought, and its status as a thing turned out to be mistaken, for it was another sort of thing, and possibly nothing. That is what the Snark is about.

Carroll’s mapless maps do not wish us to speculate, or even map, our own reality: their function is largely that of the Zen koan, a nonsense strategy for overcoming the assumption that any fixed, measurable reality is possible.


1]Helmholtz, The Origin and Meaning of Geometrical Axioms, Mind Vol 1 No 3 July 1876, p.321

[2]Helmholtz, The Origin and Meaning of Geometrical Axioms, Mind Vol 1 No 3 July 1876, p.302

[3]Helmholtz, The Origin and Meaning of Geometrical Axioms, Mind Vol 1 No 3 July 1876, p.302

[4] Bayley, [more detailed citation required]

[5]Helmholtz, ‘The Origin and Meaning of Geometrical Axioms,’ Mind Vol. 1 No. 3 July 1876, p.315

[6]Bayley, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Algebra: Wonderland Solved,’ New Scientist, No. 2739, December 2009

[7]          Gardner expresses this algebraically in the Annotated Snark, p.80.

[8]Lewis Carroll, Fit the Fourth: The Hunting, The Hunting of the Snark

[9]Martin Gardner, The Annotated Snark, note 35

[10]Morton N. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, pp. 128-9; 406-7

[11]Mumon, trans. Katsuki Sekida, The Mumonkan, p.37


[12]Mumon, Mumonkan, ed. Katsuki Sekida, p.37

[13]Katsuki Sekida (ed.), Mumonkan and Hegikanroku, p.37

Towards a Folk Panpsychism: on the Trail of the Green Man

In the fortnight since I wrote this paper I’ve been subjected to radical satirical alterations to what I think is an appropriate metaphysical position to hold.

Two weeks ago, I sort of thought this, though. I wrote it for this symposium, Spaces of Attunement, which was fantastic. I felt as though I made contact with my tribe and will be following Authority Research Network with great interest.

This paper is based on a book I wrote last year about the Green Man, an image that looks a bit like this or this that you may or may not be familiar with. I’m going to begin with an email from a man called Graeme who replied to a request I put out to a web community called The Company of the Green Man:

I saw your request for information about the concept of the green man and how it fits in to modern peoples life.

I thought i would tell you what it means to me.

I have a green man image in each room of my house and a half sleeve tattoo of a green man on my arm.

It may seem that I am a bit odd but to me the green man is a symbolic link of man to his origin as a natural animal, with trees and foliage being the symbol of nature and it’s all encompassing presence.

The general assumption that we are the highest order of animal is tamed by being drawn back to natures stages of life, birth, youth, fertile adulthood self sacrificing to our offspring, old age and decay then death.

From here I like to think we will be like other forms of nature and are reborn anew in the next season or cycle.

The image of a man formed from foliage is a blend of him as an animal but still strongly part of nature.

The reason for so many images around the house is to hopefully remind us of our origin and not to be so arrogant to assume we are superior to all other forms of life. Also I like the images of the green man and if I am way out it does no harm as it is a positive feeling toward nature.

I am not sure if this rambling makes any sense or is of any use to you but as the ideal is wishful thinking on my behalf I just thought it may be of use.

All the best with your work,


It turns out that there are lots of people like Graeme. It happened that two of my other interviewees for the book, the writer and Dark Mountain founder Paul Kingsnorth and the Oysterband singer John Jones, also had sleeve tattoos of the Green Man, and I wonder whether, if I’d been more assiduous in my research, and maybe asked everyone to strip off, I’d have found more.

The reason that people are interested in the Green Man is that, like Graeme, they see in him an interface between the human and the non-human sphere. The Green Man is, therefore, a locus, a place, of attunement. What I hope to show in the brief time I have this morning is that today’s understanding of the Green Man demonstrates a metaphysical position that is becoming less unfashionable, and that offers a better basis for understanding and dealing with the consequences of the Anthropocene, than the materialism, or physicalism, that currently passes for common-sense in most academic and public discourse.

The twentieth century was the first time that materialism, or physicalism – the idea that there is a mind-independent reality made out of bits of stuff – was the default metaphysical basis for understanding how the world works. There are good reasons for this. It works very effectively as a way of both understanding the relations between things in the world and of intervening in the world. I’m using some fantastically complicated bits of technology right now and describing them and their development as a mind-dependent experiential construct isn’t going to sound too convincing.

This physicalism isn’t great at describing consciousness, though. There is a movement within analytic philosophy of mind towards doing away with the notion of mind, or consciousness, altogether, describing it solely as an emergent property of a complex system.

To describe the sorts of things that most people agree to be forms of life existing as an outcome of consciousness has been considered pretty bonkers and heretical in mainstream academic philosophy. It’s teleological. It’s anthropomorphic.

There is an irony in the deep anthropocentrism required to tag any assertion of non-human consciousness as anthropomorphic. There are all sorts of perceptual traps we can fall into when trying to impose models of how things work onto the world around us, but finding evidence of consciousness in other things doesn’t seem to be a particularly dangerous one. Unless, of course, it besets an ethical framework that justifies the neoliberal exploitation of all non-human stuff.

Out there in the lay world, physicalism or materialism was married to an assumption that, if we’re going to generalise, we could describe as Cartesian in its origin, that mind and matter are different things. The stuff out there in the world exists and science can tell us how it interacts and behaves, because it does so in an entirely predictable and mechanistic way. Mind, or human consciousness, is an exception to this mechanistic universe, because it exists in God’s image. It is a rather magical explanation.

This set of assumptions has characterised Western industrial thought. Cartesianism worked for the Enlightenment project, facilitating a way of explaining the properties and interactions of physical objects in the world, and it also worked for the Church.

Cartesian dualism creates a metaphysical basis for a worldview in which human privilege is mediated by the existence of God, and thus to some degree by the Church. Human privilege, the idea of stewardship and the ownership it implies over the other, mechanical bits of Nature, exists because human consciousness is of God. It forms a natural hierarchy.

Compare this with Spinoza’s metaphysics in the Ethics. When I first came across the phrase Deus, sive Natura – God, or Nature – in isolation I assumed, like everyone seems to have assumed since the Romantics, that Spinoza was a pantheist. In fact, having read the Ethics, it looks more as though he’s an atheist materialist whose particular conception of materialism is a form of dual-aspect or neutral monism. It makes it look more as though using the phrase God or Nature is a way of inserting the tag God into an explanation of Nature that is so relentlessly naturalistic as to become apophatic.

Without going into Spinoza’s additional attacks on doctrine, this was not a good story for the Church. Cartesian materialism creates a hierarchy between the human sphere, in which consciousness and will exist in a God-mediated fashion, and the rest of nature which is mindless, soulless and mechanical. Spinoza overturns this othering of nature: in Spinoza, nature is everything and everything is nature and we are of it, not apart from it. All that Cartesian magic privilege of godly humans being in charge gets ditched.

If Spinoza really is a pantheist, it is such a reductive form of pantheism that it becomes indistinguishable from an atheistic conception of materialism. However, even if you see Spinoza’s metaphysics in an atheistic light, his conception of determinism is tied into the notion of conatus, a striving for existence that characterises all life and all matter. He is a materialist, just as Descartes is a materialist, but he is a panpsychist materialist.

Panpsychism is the position that consciousness is a universal feature of all things. Academic philosophers are fantastically nitpicky about policing the limits of what bits of terminology mean, but I’m going to go crazy and use panpsychism as an umbrella term to take in forms of pantheism, panentheism and animism, because it does a good job of describing a common quality, namely universal consciousness, and it offers a secular description of it in a sphere often complicated by religious and spiritual factionalism.

There are, therefore, two main options for overcoming the Cartesian human consciousness privilege. You need to be consistent: either everything is conscious, as most of the history of philosophy would have it, from Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics through most Eastern philosophy to the various forms of idealism that characterised much of nineteenth century Western thought.

Alternatively, nothing is. But so far the best explanation we have for that is that if we can’t explain consciousness adequately as an emergent phenomenon, it must either not be a thing or it’s something best ignored by the analytic philosophy that dominates the academy.

And, besides, even if you view the physicalist-reductionist position as one that works, what it doesn’t do is offer a basis for a biocentric ethics; to the contrary, it offers a basis for an anthropocentric free-for-all in which all stuff in the world is made out of mind-inert matter of varying degrees of complexity and is therefore fair game to be used and destroyed as required.

Furthermore, what academic philosophers think about metaphysics and ethics and what sort of relationship there might be between one’s metaphysical position and the sort of ethics that position facilitates does not appear, beyond the occasional pop-philosophy book, to have much of an impact on how the rest of us think about these things.

Schopenhauer was famously dismissive of what he called folk metaphysics, or popular metaphysics, or other variants of it. He took an elitist line in which there was a distinction between faith-based religious belief, which involved a blind submission to the discourse of religious and social authority, and rational philosophy, which could be cultivated through educated reflection.

Regardless of what one might think of these distinctions in Schopenhauer’s contemporary context, we now find ourselves, at least in the West, in a rather different situation. Our situation is one in which the hold of organised religion has collapsed into a largely secular society, and in which the academy has remained hierarchical, and perhaps even become more hierarchical and authoritarian in nature, so that it is no longer possible to draw straightforward distinctions regarding which institutions are most powerful in mediating our philosophical understanding of the world.

You could go further, and argue that the institutional status and privilege of the academy drives a conservatism towards challenges to academic normative discourse. In philosophy, the accepted discourse over the last century has been within the domain of analytic philosophy, and has tended overwhelmingly towards a physicalist ontology. It is a field in which the pursuit of metaphysics is currently still overwhelmingly regarded as meaningless. When you look back over time, though, this current trend towards a physicalist ontology seems a little arbitrary.

As recently as the late nineteenth century, a form of panpsychist monism was the default academic metaphysical position. You see it in post-Hegelian idealism in the likes of F H Bradley, you see it in early pragmatists like James and Schiller. You see it, a little later, in Bergson. It is notable that the Society for Psychical Research, which sounds hopelessly woo-woo by the standards of today’s academy, was chaired in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by James and Bergson among others, most of whom were academic physicists, philosophers or physiologists. If your metaphysical position is devoid of mind outside some emergentist understanding of consciousness, psychical research sounds a bit weird, because you’re researching something that doesn’t exist.

However, if your metaphysical position is one in which mind is a constituent part of material existence, it’s less weird. Even Russell, the most notable proponent of logical positivism at the turn of the century, defaulted to a Jamesian form of neutral monism in the end that contemporary metaphysicians, such as David Skrbina and Philip Goff, would include in the panpsychist tent.

Over the last decade, panpsychism has seen a small resurgence. Galen Strawson’s 2006 paper, ‘Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism,’ was significant in seeing an analytic philosopher adopt a panpsychist position on the basis of it offering a neater and more coherent account of consciousness. David Skrbina, who is perhaps better known for his ongoing dialogue with Theodor Kaczynski, the Unabomber, has written extensively about panpsychism, and his most recent book, the Metaphysics of Technology, offers a fully realised panpsychist metaphysics upon which he proposes a more biocentric ethics, among other things. Philip Goff, who like Skrbina is driven by a strong political and environmental ethics, sets out a position that he describes as cosmopsychism in a new book.

But this is far from forming the mainstream of academic thought, let alone lay thought. And the extent to which academic discourse influences lay discourse, REF impact assessments aside, is often dubious.

At the same time, the collapse of organised religion in the West has left the path open for more disparate and fragmented belief systems, both secular and spiritual. I propose that we see this collapsed hierarchy, this fragmentation, as a strength.

One of the common factors of these belief systems, when you unpack them, is a metaphysical position roughly analogous to the old-school panpsychist monism I outlined earlier. It rejects anthropocentric privilege, like Graeme the Green Man enthusiast did in his email. It opens the way for a rhizomatic, disparate, messy folk metaphysics that is largely panpsychist in character, and that might better facilitate a biocentric starting point for a new post-Anthropocene ethics.

This new folk panpsychism is many-stranded. Some of those right-wing Christians in the States are probably right when they identify yoga as a form of creeping Hindu or broadly pagan spirituality. You can go to a pretty mainstream yoga class and be invited to connect with Oneness at the end.

There are trademarked shamanic training courses these days, in a weird elision of late capitalism and an inchoate drive towards a panpsychist cosmography. These vary greatly – some seize on what they consider to be authentic traditions, Siberian-style drumming and Anglo-Saxon conceptions of the great tree of life, Yggdrasil, and the like – and some whose focus is more secular and meditative, but attains the same ends.

But it doesn’t even need to be as structured as that. Most contemporary neopagans have a conception of animism and what their individual godheads mean that is basically fictionalist and metaphorical. They are used as spaces of attunement, just as much of the iconography in Tibetan Buddhism is used as a mode of attunement. It is an easier way in for most people than the often very dry apophatic techniques of Zen Buddhism or, for that matter, reading hundreds of pages of Deleuze.

Even the Church of England is getting in on this, or bits of it are at the edges. I interviewed a local vicar who was known as “the pagan priest” and it turned out that he channelled a pantheistic – in fact, panentheistic – conception of God through reclaiming some of the practices and liturgies of ancient Celtic Christanity.

And this is where the Green Man comes in.

People who don’t profess to be Celtic Christians or Buddhists or yogis or pagans or shamans and who are even wary of using the term “spiritual” have an affinity for the Green Man. You can be an atheist and be into the Green Man. You can also be a neopagan and be into the Green Man; indeed, at Avebury on solstice morning last summer there was a Green Man taking part in neopagan rituals. I met a respectable suburban professional from Croydon who dressed up as the Green Man with his morris side, I had a brief email conversation with a tech entrepreneur and activist who identified as GreenMan, I tallied up the Green Man T-shirts on real-ale drinkers in rural Shropshire.

The disparate nature not only of the lifestyles but of the overall cosmographies and belief structures of the people who use the Green Man as their space of attunement has a lot of merit if you want to find a means of interfacing with the non-human world without the power structures of established religion.

This time last year I fell into writing about a set of ideas that had hitherto played little part in my life. I live about an hour and a half from here, in the Wye Valley near Hay, and I found myself on an aimless psychogeographic foray one morning while sort of looking for something to write a book about.

Anyway, as those of you who live in the UK will no doubt recall, last winter was flood season. It hit the Welsh borders in a big way. It was mid-February and the Wye had burst its banks on either side so that it took up the whole valley. I drove down a scary flooded road to clear my head by going for a walk by a church.

About half an hour away, at Kilpeck on the other side of the Black Mountains, there is a very ancient church that dates to shortly after the Norman invasion. One of the many wonderful peculiarities of that particular part of Herefordshire, known first as the Welsh kingdom of Ergyng and then in the Old English as Archenfield, is that for many hundreds of years its location on the border between England and Wales allowed it semi-autonomous status, even under the Normans as recorded in the Domesday Book, and that semi-autonomous status protected the social and political characteristics of the area from intervention into the late Middle Ages.

It also seems likely that local religious traditions would have been protected, with Archenfield, which remained largely Welsh-speaking until the nineteenth century, retaining a form of early Celtic Christianity for some time after the Saxon church decided to follow Rome.

Why is any of this relevant? Kilpeck was the administrative and religious centre of Archenfield. Therefore, we can regard the church as being able to tell us something about the religious character of that place and time, and the church is an extraordinary building.

In order to get to the church, I had to drive down the Golden Valley, a side valley off the Wye, and the extent of the devastation on the road, with the tarmac torn up at the edges by water and cars abandoned to flooding along the sides, was really striking. That road had just re-opened after being closed to flooding for a couple of days. The high school had closed; power lines were down; all of the basic bits of infrastructure and human technology that we take for granted had been taken out by something as basic as weather. Driving down the road was quite scary. I no longer trusted my car.

Along the way, I’d been thinking about how a twelfth-century Kilpeck congregation might have regarded the weather we had been experiencing. They would have seen it as an act of god, or possibly gods; they would probably have seen it as possessing teleological qualities; they would definitely have seen it as a phenomenon possessed of will or mind in some form.

It was when I saw the Green Man over the door that the whole idea coalesced: here was an ancient church, the last existing physical outpost of the old animistic Celtic Christianity, decorated with a plurality of images from nature and the world – a sheela-na-gig, all sorts of real and mythical beasts, people playing music and dancing or getting amorous – and a Green Man overseeing your entrance into it.

If you look at the earliest foliate heads, what we now call Green Men, such as images of Silvanus, the Roman forest deity –


this one, a terrible, terrible photo, is from a tombstone in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum at Trier – they have a benign quality.

This one, from Dore Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Herefordshire, dates from around the twelfth century. He’s pretty happy; the Cistercians believed in finding God through agriculture and the love of working with the land. I see him as positive, pantheistic. As you get later into the Middle Ages, you see gorier images among the foliate heads: they gurn miserably, their tongues are often sticking out, indicating death. They seem to be intended as a warning against something – that something being to do with connecting with non-human life and with nature.

One interpretation is that they warn against seeking spiritual nourishment in nature, another that nature represents the sensual and material world. What most people seem to agree on is that these later medieval heads are a reminder that God is the only true path. Anglo-Saxon shamanism had the Upper World, an ethereal spiritual dimension, the Middle World, which lay behind what appears before us as material existence, and the Lower World, which lay beneath the ground in the roots of the tree-cosmography. The Church kept the Upper World as Heaven and proscribed the Lower World as Hell, so that all the images associated with it were translated into Satan and demons.

And then there’s a gap, a big gap, before you have the contemporary reimaginings of them, which are beneficent: far from warning us against communing with nature, they are designed to encourage us to do so, to picture ourselves made of leaves or emerging from them, connected in some way to an all-encompassing nature from which humans are not apart.

But it turned out that it wasn’t that simple. The Green Man never really existed as a coherent, unbroken visual tradition, let alone as an ancient godhead or icon or vehicle for attunement. That bit was all made up quite recently.

Just as the historian Ronald Hutton has dismantled much of the popular notion that contemporary neopaganism is based on ancient authentic underground religious practices that had to be kept hidden from the Church, in a way that seems pretty convincing and evidence-based, if you talk to a folklorist about the history of the Green Man he will tell you that there is no authentic singular archetype that exists in some form or another throughout history. Neopaganism is a meme. The Green Man is a meme. They were reinterpreted fragments of old ideas and iconographies, reinterpreted through particular contemporary experiences and concerns that have given them a new shape.

The Green Man is a twentieth-century construct. Insofar that he exists, it is in the contemporary imagination. He was invented by an amateur anthropologist, Lady Raglan, who wrote an article in the journal Folklore in March 1939 which elided the foliate heads from the churches near her home at Llangwm in Monmouthshire, not far from here, with various folk traditions now thought to be completely unrelated such as Jack-in-the-Green, a May Day ceremony involving a man dressed up as a tree.

Lady Raglan’s Green Man piece was a spectacular piece of mythologising. In the wake of Frazer’s Golden Bough the suppressed paganism trope that is now disputed by people like Hutton was developing, perhaps in part as a response to industrial society and in part in lieu of the dwindling hold of the established Christian church over religious and spiritual beliefs. Lady Raglan’s various scantily researched elisions caught the popular imagination, and never more so than now in our dangerously anthropocene world.

I was supposed to be researching a book about this thing or idea that turned out not to be a real thing at all, to lack any sort of consistent heritage, and about halfway through I realised that far from being a weakness, that shifting and constructed quality was actually a strength.

One of the few things that people can agree on about the Green Man is that he represents an interface between human and non-human life, and that he represents an understanding of a non-human world that is neither mechanistic nor sterile. Various accounts of the Green Men exist as iterations of the pagan god Pan, which you can certainly see in this one from an eleventh century Knights Templar church near here at Garway, or as the Sufi Al-Khidr, who shamanically straddles the material and ethereal worlds, or as a more secular image of a deep and attuned connection between man and nature – here from the cover of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake. The common strand between the belief systems that underpin these interpretations is some shared form of animism or panpsychism. They all rest on a worldview in which mind, will, autonomy exist across all things.

The Green Man was only ever a meme. But all belief systems that catch on are memes. Cartesianism was a meme. Spinozism was a meme, one you see expressed more recently in Bergson and Whitehead and Deleuze. So were all those various forms of Christianity as they ossified into structures of oppression, and were overturned.

All of these things, these memes, were metaphysical ideas being expressed and mediated in different ways for different sorts of people. There were academic metaphysical memes and folk metaphysical memes. The Green Man was a folk metaphysical meme whose freshly constructed quality derived from a new post-Anthropocene panpsychism, that was visually articulated and accessed in a way that appealed to all sorts of different people from all sorts of different religious and spiritual and secular backgrounds. And those people were the activists, the artists and writers and musicians and eco-warriors who would end up gaining far more of a hold over the public imagination than any academic paper could hope to do.

The right thing to do, surely, is to cultivate the memes that work better for the physical environment that we find ourselves in now, a physical environment shaped by human intervention, that human intervention itself shaped by centuries of anthropocentrist belief. Maybe people out there aren’t stupid. Maybe there is a degree of rational choice in how we select or build our folk metaphysics. And with that in mind, I think it’s time to ditch the institutional mediation of metaphysics and to reclaim it, messily, back into life.


Kathleen Basford, The Green Man (Cambridge: D S Brewer, 1996)

Brian Branston, The Lost Gods of England (London: Constable, 1993)

Henri Bergson, Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey (eds.), Key Writings (London: Continuum, 2002)

F H Bradley, Appearance and Reality, 9th Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930)

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (London: Continuum, 2001)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum, 2004)

Rene Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings (London: Penguin, 2000)

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (London: Macmillan, 1929)

Philip Goff, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality [work in progress, currently accessible online at]

Ronald Hutton, Pagan Britain (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, 1919)

Lady Raglan, ‘The “Green Man” in Church Architecture,’ Folklore

Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 1939), pp. 45-57

Keith Robinson, Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections (London: Macmillan, 2009)

Steve Roud, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin, 2003)

Bertrand Russell, Analysis of Mind [available online at]

F C S Schiller, Riddles of the Sphinx: A Study in the Philosophy of Evolution (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1891)

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

David Skrbina, The Metaphysics of Technology (London: Routledge, 2015)

David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005)

David Skrbina (ed.), Mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 2009)

David Skrbina (ed.), Technological slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2010)

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (London: Penguin, 1996)

Galen Strawson, ‘Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism,’ in David Skrbina (ed.), Mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 2009)

Sense and Satire

It’s great that people are finally asking whether the sort of satire that Charlie Hebdo does is any good, but it also seems as though nobody is thinking very hard about what exactly satire is and how it works.

It’s not a new phenomenon – in Britain, where we have a pretty sophisticated satirical culture, sometimes, at its best more Voltaire than cartoons about funny brown people, there is woefully little engagement with what satire tells us about our world and why. Academic studies of satire are particularly feeble on this front, although some people like Simon Malpas have interesting stuff to say about it. I thought about organising a satire conference last year in which practising satirists (i.e. people who are funny) would talk about what they do instead of academics, since academics tend to do such a pisspoor job of it, probably because they are mired in their own doctrinal fixity of Having A Thesis on Things and are therefore unable to destabilise it by having a laugh.

Anyway, having been rude and dismissive about everyone else, I’m going to outline what I think is going on with satire and how it works.

I think satire is best seen as an undermining of the sense of something – the sense of who somebody is, or the sense of something that they are doing, or the sense of what is going on in the world. I think it sits in a continuum in which humour and nonsense are also present.

In order to understand what satire is, therefore, I think you need to have an understanding of what sense is. I am going to try to do this without quoting Deleuze – back to France again – but may not be successful in this endeavour. Let’s see sense as the overall coherent picture of a thing, a scene, a reality. I’m going to go with the notion of a scene for now. It is possible to break the scene down into bits, people and places and objects and actions, but the way in which those bits sit together and fit together create the sense of the scene.

That sense – its coherence and its stability – affects how the scene is perceived, and yet it is made up of the various constituent bits of the scene. It is also made up of our own internalised ideas of what a scene should be like, what is normal, what is to be expected, something which we call “common sense.”

If one of the constituent bits of the scene doesn’t fit the other constituent bits of the scene, it affects the overall sense of the scene. A man walking into a room with a banana on his head disrupts the common-sense notion of how one normally walks into a room. That’s not particularly funny, although it might be to my four-year-old. Some humour, particularly physical and slapstick comedy, works on this level: something about someone’s appearance or physical actions is altered or inverted in a way that is an obvious misfit with common sense. This sort of humour can work in a way that is invites us to laugh at the individual person or simply at the situation. It can be targeted or not-targeted. If it’s targeted at a particular person, it undermines the story that they are a normal, competent person in the world. If it’s not targeted at the person or alluding to their incompetence, it makes the overall sense of the scene appear to be outside of common sense, and become what we might describe as silly or absurd.

At its most simple, satire operates by altering one or two attributes of the thing being satirised. Political satire, which is inherently targeted, often takes an ad hominem line by altering an aspect of its target – a facial feature or verbal rhetorical tic – so that the audience, complicit in recognising this, views the undermined target as not in line with common sense notions of what is a normal appearance or style or speech or behaviour. This is the level that some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons work on. They’re not particularly sophisticated: facial features or items of clothing indicate racial or cultural origin metonymically, a pair of Arab-style slippers left in the wake of a bomb blast, a Semitic nose.

Some of the more interesting Charlie Hebdo efforts operate on the next level up, in which the sense of the scene itself is inverted. The conventionally held, common-sense notion about Islamic extremists is that they murder infidels in the name of Jihad, and of a literally-constructed view of what the Prophet said. Let’s assume that in mainstream discourse about Islamism the Prophet is held as a metonym for the word of the Prophet, and thus Islam, and specifically its literal interpretation. If an Islamic extremist is instead presented murdering the Prophet, the story is then about someone who takes a literal interpretation of Islamist discourse killing the source of the Islamist discourse he is supposed to take literally, and in doing so undermining the logic behind his action. There’s also the transgressive thrill of the pictorial representation of an entity that is not supposed to be represented, but that is secondary to the point of the cartoon. It undermines the common-sense notion of what the purpose of the terrorist act is. It’s more clever than the image of a person of Arabic origin doing explosions.

This disruption of the sense of a publicly held story or discourse is what Swift did so brilliantly. The most sophisticated satirists aren’t just undermining an attribute of a person, or even a person – there is nothing ad hominem about it. They undermine sets of beliefs instead. Good political satire attacks political discourse and points out its logical inconsistencies by inverting or exaggerating an aspect of a common-sense argument in that political belief system.

Swift’s famous assertion that the Irish should eat their babies in A Modest Proposal does this with contemporary political policy on Ireland and, in particular, public discourse about how best to deal with the poor. You could do something similar with Daily Mail stories about profligate fecund benefits scum and food banks today if you were so minded. If the common-sense story consists of the propositions that there are too many poor people, poor people can’t afford to eat and poor people have too many children, the solution is that the poor people should eat their own children, thus solving the issues of there being too many poor people and the lack of food. In this case, the solution isn’t even logically incoherent – but it is entirely incoherent with any notion of what humane and civilised society, and humane and civilised public discourse, should be. It is that level of incoherence that makes it absurd, and therefore funny.

There is a further level of sense-disruption that Swift does, and that you see in the strange and brilliant work of Chris Morris among relatively few others, in which the sense of the coherent existence of the scene itself is undermined. There’s a more detailed account of some of how Swift does it in A Tale of a Tub here. A simplified description of it might be that any given narrative scene or story is supposedly intended to recreate the world, and that when it does so we are able to suspend our disbelief and see it as real. There is a common-sense understanding that the real world out there exists, and that it is possible to make sense of it, and that it is possible to represent it in art or film or fiction in a way that is intelligible to an audience.

By tweaking various apparently trivial contextual details in the scene – the tone or pitch of voices, the artwork on the wall, the slight misfocus of the camera – Morris disrupts the scene’s sense in a way that makes you see it as strange and somehow absurd, so that the overall sense of wrongness or absurdity then informs the way in which you view everything that happens within it. And yet what is happening within it is, in the main, normal and recognisable and even banal, the stuff that happens in your own everyday life, and that in turn is viewed as being absurd and a little unreal.

All of this has a metaphysical quality, and the sense of a possible metaphysical transition is what makes it so compelling. A simple realist telling of a story or a simple piece of narrative film appear to be representing a real world out there. Sophisticated satire has an anti-real quality that invites you to question the reality of the world as it is presented, and the reality of the world at large. It invites the accusation that the world is not something real and fixed, but something constructed, and that the problem might lie with our own perceptions of it. Swift does it in A Tale of a Tub; I think this is what Carroll does in The Hunting of the Snark; it is, sort of, what the Zen koans aim to do in undermining any notion that the world is a fixed and intelligible thing.

The endpoint of the koans is a denial of any sense of a world composed of objects, things, fixity. Some people see this non-realism as being nihilistic (although I would argue that it fits more effectively into a monistic framework, in which the world-out-there consists of one ultimate sort of thing, but that’s an aside. Or possibly a digression). Our most brutal satirists are often accused of nihilism too, of tearing apart other people’s worlds without seeking to provide one of their own.

But, when you look at what happens as a result of fixed notions of what the world is and how we are supposed to behave in it, the sorts of fixed notions held by medieval Crusaders and Islamist militants and seemingly ex-sensible people like Richard Dawkins, nihilism doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing anyway.

God, or Nature, or the Pantechnicon

Speculative metaphysics has seen something of a boom in recent years. Well, perhaps not quite a boom, but a flutter, at the very least. There was that whole fad for Speculative Realism a little while back; the philosophy festival I work for sees ever-increasing demand for events on metaphysics; and then there’s the panpsychists.

I’m still not entirely sure how I first stumbled across the term “panpsychism.” It was one of those rabbit-hole discoveries, where one exciting new bit of information leads to another in a chain of events causally linked by Google and Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, the Wikipedia it’s OK, or at least philosophically OK, to like. I think Chris, my supervisor, might have started it in a conversation about speculative metaphysics, for that matter, and how it was starting to become fashionable again. As an indicator of just how crazily speculative it was becoming possible to be, he mentioned that the previously sensible analytic philosopher Galen Strawson had quite recently outed himself as a panpsychist.

Having somehow duped Chris into thinking that I understood enough about metaphysics to write a PhD thesis that was sliding terrifyingly towards being mostly metaphysical in character, I nodded in agreement and ran off to the library afterwards to Google “panpsychism.” I realised immediately that there was a bit of philosophical terminology to describe a position both in metaphysics and philosophy of mind that I agreed with and had been considering without the vocabulary to articulate it for some time.

I thought my friend DJ invented panpsychism late one night in early 2005, in a flurry of afterparty excess and discarded A1 flip charts. He’d been a computer scientist and a doctor and now, in a further skittish career change, was being a management consultant, in which flipchart demonstrations seemed to form an inextricable role. We were lying around on the sofa, drinking the things left in the drinks cabinet that one most regrets drinking the next day.

“I want to tell you a story about water,” said DJ.

We looked at him. He stood up unsteadily.

“Everything makes more sense if you think of water as possessing consciousness. Let me draw you a diagram.”

Relatively few people who hung out with DJ late at night escaped the Water Story. The idea was that water was really an institution made out of constituent parts that were themselves institutions. The stability of matter could be seen as an institutional stability; you could have strong, stable institutions and weak, unstable institutions. As soon as you ditched the anthropocentric notions of a) consciousness existing only in ways and on scales observable to humans and b) institutions existing only in ways and on scales observable to humans, there was a pretty effective metaphor that explained all sorts of things. Terms like “scalism” and “constitution” took on their own very specific meaning, but it never occurred to me that anyone beyond our strange late-night bubble would have anything more to say about any of it.

Until early this year, anyway. I knew, and know, very little about philosophy in the grand scheme of things, but I had just spent a couple of months reading through back issues of Mind and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society from the 1890s and 1900s (stay with me here) and was struck by how much the default positions on various bits of logic and metaphysics had changed over the intervening century-and-a-bit.

Mind’s New Series, under the editorship of George Stout, hosted some of the earliest debate about language and logic that was to form part of the logical-positivist project, and essays like Russell’s ‘On Denoting,’ the retrospective highlights, were ridiculed and, in ‘On Denoting’s case, nearly rejected for being too outlandish for Mind’s readership. It is a great irony that Mind is now a journal for the analytic philosophy that Russell and Moore spawned: back then, its New Series was a vehicle for early pragmatists who, when pushed, took a quietly monistic metaphysical position, and for British Idealists, who didn’t need any pushing at all to get there, to argue about the finer detail of issues like the existential import of propositions at great lengths.

Monism is the assumption that the world is ultimately one entity, or made out of one sort of thing. Russell’s famous early skirmishes with Stout’s idealist-monist status quo belie the neutral monist position that Russell himself took twenty years later. Neutral monism asserts that the division between physical and mental entities is false, and that material things have an intrinsically mental quality – the physical and mental are part of the same one substance. By virtue of the indivisibility of body and mind, neutral monism is, according to Skrbina’s notably flexible terminology, a panpsychist position.

Russell is in good company here. Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West (2005 – evidently a year of panpsychist synchronicity) situates him in a canon of respectably mainstream philosophers who diverged wildly from the atomistic materialism, or physicalism, currently held as a common-sense truth. Alternatively, you could of course describe atomistic materialism as a divergence, a blip in a landscape where the one had always presided over the many, a landscape with – let’s go wild here – an ancient cosmic mind. But it isn’t time for that yet.

One of Russell’s many stablemates in monist territory, as Skrbina notes among others, is the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch-Portuguese-Jewish rationalist, progressive and heretic. Accusations of heresy usually point to good things. Spinoza was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Sephardic community for what is to all intents and purposes atheism: he openly held that there was no transcendental God, and that the Jewish laws were not given by God.

Nowadays Spinoza is thought of as a pantheist, for his famous term deus sive natura, or “God, or Nature,” used to denote the ultimate substance of the cosmos which manifests as the material world through a variety of modes and attributes. Put like that, it sounds a bit woo-woo, but the description of the world he sets out in his Ethics is as naturalistic as we can conceive of even now. When Spinoza equates God with Nature, the effect is to naturalise God to the extent that any description of God that you might think of as being Godlike – i.e. standing transcendentally outside of the natural world, in a supernatural way – is entirely eradicated. All there is is Nature, the “naturing Nature” of natural laws and the “natured Nature” that follows deterministically from them.

Where Spinoza veers most from our contemporary understanding of the world is in his account of conatus, the striving for existence that characterises all things. Matter, inanimate objects, animals, mankinds – all are subjected to this same natural law, and the behaviour of all is characterised by it. It does away with the idea of free will and human agency: all we are doing is enacting our life-drive, just like everything else.

The idea of all matter in the world to be striving, striving to exist, to maintain its existence, or to become, is the bit that feels heretical now. We are not supposed to attribute striving to anything other than humans. We are accused of anthropomorphism for doing so. It is this idea of the striving to be and become of all things, an understanding of it that stretches back long before Spinoza to the Presocratic philosophers of ancient Greece, that characterises Skrbina’s utterly compelling account of technology.

The Metaphysics of Technology was published by Routledge this year. I have yet to see it reviewed, and find this extraordinary. Skrbina attracted a bit of attention for a talk he gave about Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, with whom he corresponds and whose manifesto and writings he edited, at the SXSW festival a few years ago, but aside from that has a low profile. Part of this must be related to his eschewal of technology: he doesn’t have a website, and he certainly isn’t on Twitter, for reasons that emerge soon enough in the book. He is a one-time Green Party candidate in his home state of Michigan, where he teaches at Dearborn.

Skrbina’s previous books, Panpsychism in the West and Mind That Abides, a collection of essays including Strawson’s now famous ‘Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism,’ were well if not extensively reviewed. Skrbina writes with unusual elegance and clarity, not just for an academic philosopher, who rarely manage either, but as a writer per se.

The Metaphysics of Technology is a critique of technology, in the spirit of Heidegger, Marcuse or Ellul, all of whom are drawn upon throughout the latter part of the book. It is a comprehensive and convincing critique, and an excellent history of previous technological critiques. But it is the book’s first part, subtitled Metaphysis, that is exceptional in its scope.

Just as Spinoza spirits away God into a naturalistic account of God that subsumes God to Nature, Skrbina collapses all notion of technology being technological in the conventionally understood way, quoting Heidegger’s maxim that the “essence of technology is nothing technological.” What he means by this has a Spinozist quality. Technology is thought of in terms of artifice, as something done by the unique capabilities of humans, but it exists in nature, and is part of nature, and drives nature as a natural law:

Everything that exists in the physical realm is, in the deepest sense, natural – that is, of nature. All technology is natural. Of course, we commonly think of it as artificial, as artificium, ars facere, something made by human hand or craft. But to state the obvious, humans are natural beings, and thus our doings and makings are also natural, that is, nature acting on nature. All human contrivance, all man-made technology, is nature-made-nature, a second-order product of nature itself.

Thus understood, technology is the appearance of order from within the realm of nature.

Skrbina outlines examples of animals and plants creating and using technologies in order to overcome the prevailing anthropocentric understanding of it:

Captive rooks can make and use hook-shaped tools to get food. Bottle-nosed dolphins use sponges to aid in hunting. Octopuses carry and use coconut shells as shelter. Humpback whales use “bubble nets” to catch krill and herring. Even such ordinary structures as a bird’s nest, a beaver’s dam, or a spider’s web qualify as technological. In fact, any animal that creates a home utilises technology…

And not only animals: plants also make use of objects around them and thus put things into their service. Carnivorous plants attract, trap, and digest insects for food. Vines and other tendriled plants seek out and grasp onto objects around them for use as support. Parasitic plants (hemiparasitic, holoparasitic) utilise other plants as nourishment. Plants can even produce and emit chemical signals as a means of communication.

Having detached technology from all normative preconceptions relating to the uniqueness of human intelligence and the unique human capacity to create it, Skrbina reverts to the word’s Greek origins, both notionally and etymologically.

Technology is composed of technê and logos: in reverse order, the Logos is the great cosmic mind of Heraclitus and the ancient Greeks, both base substance of all things and divine ordering principle. It is not a concept easily unpacked by the contemporary realist mind; it might be easier to see it as a natural law, a rationalising force with an interest in moving towards a more orderly order, a greater perfection, the opposite of entropy.

Skrbina derives technê first from Plato’s account of it as the process by which the logos is realised. Technê could manifest as art or crafts or building or cookery or medicine: it is outcome-focused doing and creation. Aristotle was the first to unite the two terms, but declined to see technê as anything but a human pursuit. Then Skrbina invokes the Stoic account of both technê and logos: Zeno’s pyr technikon, the creative fire from which the logos is expressed. This is his point of realisation:

This ontological connection between technê and logos, first established in the human sphere by Plato and Aristotle, is now expanded to a universal principle. Energetic fire is the material reality, Logos the guiding mind, and technê the process by which all things are formed. Technê and Logos are inextricably combined in everything, and indeed they have no existence independent of the other. The world-sphere can therefore rightly be called a Pantechnikon: an all-technê, a material unfolding of universal reason.

Skrbina sees the Stoic system as a “comprehensive metaphysic” if not a “metaphysical theory of technology per se” – human technology was not the dominant force, or threat, for the Greeks then that he perceives it as being for us today. That is where he steps in:

I suggest that this Heraclitean/Stoic worldview – the cosmos as a Pantechnikon – can serve as the basis for a relevant metaphysics of technology.

One of the objections Skrbina anticipates to his Pantechnicon is the teleological character of the technê-logos. There is no greater heresy in biology, as he drily notes of an old college textbook, than a teleological account of plant behaviours as being consciously directed towards some beneficial end. It’s the panpsychist assumption, in the end, that makes such an account possible. As Skrbina points out:

Teleology is not some anticausal ‘just so’ story about natural behaviour, nor is it a mystical or supernatural phenomenon. As should be obvious, human teleology happens all the time.

As a rebuke to the claim that cause and effect alone can explain the emergent self-organisation of nature, Skrbina defends teleology, and its concomitant panpsychism, as offering a better account than any physicalist (or what Strawson calls PhysicSalist) explanations for life or consciousness. ‘These things… grow in complexity and subtlety over evolutionary time, even in the face of thermodynamic laws to the contrary.’ And therein lies part of his big physical, and metaphysical, beef:

The second law of thermodynamics says that certain physical systems – namely, physically isolated ones – will inevitably evolve toward states of increasing randomness. Pure randomness is a final goal or end state toward which all systems tend. Likewise the tendency of an object to accelerate when subject to a force, in the direction of that force, is arguable an end-directed action. Materialists will object that there is no “because of” or “for the sake of,” no intentionality or will, involved in such instances. And yet we are in a poor position to make such judgements. Physical systems evolve in particular directions, depending on conditions and forces at work. They move toward logical, coherent, preestablished ends. This is sufficient to qualify as teleological, in the physical realm.

Skrbina describes his teleology as an ‘atheistic, naturalistic teleology.’ He describes the trend towards increasing structural and material complexity in the universe, the trend of first inorganic evolution towards a life-supporting complexity, and then the organic evolution of the biosphere. The ‘seemingly inviolable second law of thermodynamics’ and what should be an increase in entropy over time ‘applies only to theoretical, closed systems – of which there are none in the universe.’

Skrbina’s defence of teleology takes in a point about energy, couched in the context of the second law of thermodynamics, that can be extrapolated to grave consequences later on:

The most useful aspect of the second law is that every energy transaction exacts a fee. Energy is irretrievably lost, primarily in the form of heat, in all interactions. Thus any given dynamical system will inevitably run down and ultimately stop without an ongoing injection of surplus energy – sufficient to offset the transaction costs. And for the system to grow in complexity, there must be an even higher energy injection – sufficient to build new forms of order. But a balancing act must occur. Too much energy, of course, would destroy a given system. Too little, and the system grinds to a halt. Order grows only within certain broad limits of energy consumption.

The panpsychist teleology of the Pantechnicon, therefore, takes on a status as a metaphysical ordering principle, a natural law, an ordering force whose power can be seen across all scales. This ordering force of technology might look benign at first, the stuff of godlike ingenuity and wonder, but it is not a force that can be controlled. Our mistake is to see it as being in human hands, as something to be harnessed by human endeavour. Instead, it is we, along with everything else in the cosmos, who exist subservient to the ordering force of the Pantechnicon. It may look as though progress is lovely, but the scale and power of the institutions required to create and maintain the nation state, the internet, much of the quality of life that we in the rich world take for granted necessarily undermines the freedom and the welfare of most human and non-human life on the planet.

And, as Skrbina says, metaphysics has consequences. If you take a panpsychist view of the world, humans no longer occupy a position of privilege regarding the earth as resource. We aren’t charged with stewarding it, and nor are we divinely authorised with exploiting it for our own ends. The particular consequences of his pantechnical metaphysics are the bit where he enters heresy so far as the Western tech-happy progress narrative is concerned:

In a pantechnical universe, technological development proceeds autonomously and deterministically. In its early years, technological determinism was relatively benign; it was characterised by complete dependence on human beings, and thus it served, or appeared to serve, human interests. As it evolved through its first phase, technology increasingly sacrificed human well-being for the sake of its own development. The latter part of phase one, which we are in today, is marked by little regard for humanity or nature. Technological advance becomes a self-serving end. This is in preparation for a second phase of determinism in which technology achieves full autonomy from humanity. This point – which some are calling the singularity – seems to be within a few decades of attainment.

If the pantechnical thesis is valid, we should find evidence of progressively greater harm inflicted on people and on nature. Such harm does not appear suddenly but rather emerges slowly and subtly over centuries.

You start to see the extent of Skrbina’s Unabomber sympathies towards the end. He advocates a lifestyle and degree of technology, in the commonly understood sense, similar to that experienced by the Ancient Greeks, or, at a push, Europeans around 1200CE. It’s a regression narrative; it is not clear how we could sustain the planet’s human population that way. The likes of Paul Kingsnorth and his Dark Mountain comrades see a similar endpoint with a different causality: instead of humans voluntarily reverting back to medieval living, medieval living and the sort of survival tactics employed by Kaczynski in his cabin-dwelling years are what await us when our current unsustainably rapacious society collapses.

I had the privilege of interviewing both Skrbina and Kingsnorth this year; aside from advocating, respectively, panspychism and an form of animism that sounded suspiciously like it, both see our predicament as inextricably connected to, and hastened by the excessive availability of, energy. Both are fatalistic about it, unsurprisingly for a philosopher setting out a form of teleological determinism and for a writer whose work deals in large part with Uncivilisation – perhaps less predictable is Skrbina’s dedication of his book ‘to our collective future’ and his assertion that the inevitable teleological march can at least be slowed by certain significant large-scale changes in human behaviour.

Skrbina’s regressiveness comes accompanied with a curmudgeonly relationship with contemporary culture. It is the book’s weakness, an apparently emotionally driven aside uncorroborated by much of an understanding of what it opposes. There are bits of it that could make sense if developed: there’s a case to be made that television and film have had a corrosive effect on the narrative, and on what the human mind is capable of processing as a narrative. Auerbach’s famous piece of literary criticism, Mimesis, presents a sort of progress narrative about literary realism, but the unintentional consequence of our post-Auerbach technological capability to fake it more effectively is the emaciation of our ability to imagine anything for ourselves. Never mind typewriters and word-processors; we should start by worrying about the consequences of video first. And Skrbina can’t resist getting a fogeyish dig in at rap music and Autotune too. I’d be with him, nearly, were it not for the fact that contemporary pop music production has complexities and subtleties that are, at their best, symphonic in nature, and nobody who has listened to some of the output on labels like Kompakt or Traum or M_nus would make the claim for techno as symptom of intellectual decline. Perhaps the issue, for Skrbina, was in the genre’s name.

But that isn’t his main concern, and nor should it be. As a metaphysics in its own right, and as a coherent and timely critique of technology, Skrbina’s book is mind-altering in the best possible way. I can’t help but feel that he should be getting hugely more attention, in mainstream culture as much as academic philosophy. Maybe he’s right about mainstream culture after all. The scale of his ambition and the elegance with which it is pursued is vast. We desperately need more of that sort of vastness in our stories about the world and our place within it.

Back to our friend DJ and his collection of flipcharts.

“The thing is,” he continued drunkenly, “scalist bias prevents us from seeing institutions that are bigger than us. Everything gets subsumed into a larger institution, and at some point there is a moment of institutional shift where the interests of the individual are no longer served by the institution, but are instead yoked to the institutional self-interest.”

Everyone looked at him blankly. It was 5am. The sun would be up soon, and that would be the end of the party.

I still don’t think DJ’s assertions are far off the mark. They are a management consultant’s interpretation of technê-logos, in the end, and it’s one that we should all be wary of.

Cusop Dingle

I started this blog last year in the hope of writing about nonsense. Writing about sense through the via negativa of writing about nonsense has been done already. I wanted to do nonsense, though, for its own sake, and found myself well off-track with that and the blog generally and eventually my PhD stuff by Easter, when I began writing about something entirely unrelated to any of it.

Reading back through it, there is vanishingly little about nonsense, which needs to be remedied. But, in an oblique way, I have found myself writing about sense, albeit as far from the logocentric version of it as you can get. The sense of a place, the sense of a place in time, or of time in a place, the sense of the things in it, all those bits of the world – I’ve done a fair amount of that. Psychogeography as a term is overused, and its Situationist history is quite different from what most people writing and reading about place in this time and place understand it to be, so let’s avoid that. Yet the pursuit of description of place and of space can be elusive and unfixable as the sort of sense that Deleuze and Carroll toy with. Space-sense might be the conditioning expression of time and place and life and all its traces. It is very hard to sum up concisely; thank goodness for long-form rambling.

Anyway, I was in a space I knew very well this morning, but that I hadn’t been in, or at least spent meaningful amounts of time in, for a while. The Babyfather lives up a hill overlooking Cusop Dingle. There’s an argument to be made for its status as the best view in Hay. The house, which is part of a once-ruined hamlet slowly being revived into new sorts of spaces, faces north in the crook of the valley, protected from wind and, at this time of year, the sun too. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you knew it was there.

We were all up there for Christmas for the first time in six years. The house still feels the same. It was the surrounding bits – the forest track and Forest Road, the fields above the house, the various waterfalls – that I felt the need to chase. I used to run through them every second day, watching the slow changes underfoot: you can take the direct track up to the top between November and March, but it soon becomes impassable with nettles and brambles and giant hogweed after that. I used to observe the state of the spring obsessively, waiting by the gurgling tank to check that it was coming in and measure how much and how quickly with the baby bottle we kept for that purpose and the stopwatch on my phone.

In the morning, when only I and the smaller child were up and about, although it was already quite late, a man knocked at the door. He was from a local history group down the valley and wanted to ask the Babyfather about the house. It happened to be that I was reading Richard Booth’s screed about the history of Cusop Dingle and the nefarious activities of the various Welsh quangos responsible for its destruction at the time, simply because it was there, and it was there because a couple of the buildings in question now belong to the Babyfather. We had a brief chat and exchanged contacts and I realised that his group were, in their way, doing the same thing, trying to pin down a sense of the places they knew very well in time, and so was Richard Booth, mining place and its sense of decay for political ends, uphill and angry on horseback. Hay seems to attract them, from Kilvert onwards, and no doubt many more before him.

Later on I escaped for a bit, ostensibly to look for sheep skulls in the top field. After a cold snap, of which there were many in recent winters, you could usually find a couple where some poor creature had died of exposure or, already weakened by it or lambing, had been attacked by a fox. It was too soon in the year for that: the promised Boxing Day sleet that had driven me to drive the car down the hill into town in a state of mild hysteria, remembering how the real winters had been, had passed us by. A dusting of snow sat at the very crest of the Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob, diminishing. There was the most magnificent holly tree I had ever seen in full berry that, if recreated on paper, would have invited accusations of excessive fancy or Photoshop. It sat in the corner of the field above the flat rock where the Babyfather would get people to stop after a long walk to marvel at the valleys below. I had been there many times and never noticed it, and now it owned the place.

I would have run along the top of Cusop Hill like I used to, delighting in the sense of being alone, cold and alone above the world-at-large, delighting in the cold wind that might otherwise be relegated among things to avoid and the way you could see in both directions down the Wye Valley and across the Radnor Hills and to the formidable face of the Black Mountains in a way that felt godlike in both enormity and solitude. There wasn’t time today. I scouted the field for white, finding a number of lichen-patched rocks and bits of soggy wool and then, at last, the skeleton of what I thought was a lamb.

Closer up, the skull had fangs, which glided smoothly past each other when you closed its jaw, the sort of things humans pay orthodontists good money for. Either a dog or a fox, probably a fox: only yesterday the Boxing Day Hunt had been out on the Bluff and the whole road into town was littered with horse-boxes and jodhpurs, and even if they theoretically didn’t go for them there and then, lots of people seem to get no greater pleasure than when taking out non-monetisable wildlife.

I scooped it out and walked over the brook that had been re-routed at some point between the time when an old map we once found was made and now, in some long-forgotten iteration of Jean De Florette, past the avenue of bent hawthorns that marked out the old drover path, and around the edge of the field, a little lost. The bracken on the other side seemed very high; I couldn’t find the low bit I’d always relied on to scale the barbed-wire fence over to the forest track. I had never been lost here before. It had always been too close to home.

The sense of this field, a field I could have drawn with map-accuracy myself, just as I could have drawn the field above it that pointed up Cefn Hill when you saw it from the road, had been lost. And that’s one of the strange things about the sense of a place: you build it over time and then you have it and it’s there, and when it’s there you never question it until it goes, or alters, and even then it takes a while to notice. Like the sense that conditions written expression, it is a relationship, the way in which all the attributes of a time and a place sit together. It is sometimes elastic, and able to stretch and accommodate new bits of character, so long as you are present for it, but when you are not it is fragile.

It took me years of weekend trips and stints pretending to work while really doing very little, and years more of living full-time down the track and walking and running to make time pass and placate children and, often, myself, to know the place enough to have a full sense of it. And now, two years after leaving it, the sense was falling away. It wasn’t just about familiarity, but about losing the relationship with those incremental changes that happen in time, so that if I’d been there every other day I’d have known that the sheep seemed to be in better condition and that someone had cut through exactly the bit of fence I’d hoped to scale with bolt-cutters, which was strange, and that the bracken by the side of the forest track was unaccountably high, and seemed to have taken over the brambles’ patch, and that the forest track was seeing more traffic than it once had, bike tracks and cartridges and a parking ticket and cigarette butt marking human trails.

The changes were few and subtle, but enough to disconnect the sense of knowing how the place was now, the sense of what might happen in it if you camped out for a week and watched, the sense that it was knowable at all. One of the ingenious things about Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker is the way in which the Zone in which the film takes place is prone to shift and alter. It feels uncanny, supernatural. But in our entirely natural world, spaces change all the time, and it is only when we return to them in time-lapse that the changes are felt, and to the same eerie Stalker-ish effect.

Halfway down the forest track, I bumped into the Babyfather and the children and their two model battleships. We went to the pool that had been bulldozed into the Dulas Brook, the ancient border between England and Wales, ostensibly to spawn salmon, who were not in evidence, and more probably to flog the huge, beautiful slabs of stone that form a fairyland of connecting waterfalls on either side of it. The banked-up path lined with trees and mossy stones by the brook would have seen some things in its time, but I don’t know that they could ever be matched by that particular act of vandalism. If such thing as a river-animus exists, I can only hope it wreaks terrible revenge one day.

The ships circled round and round the wrecked pond. Snow fell. I was getting cold. The light, which cast the banks of the brook in the sort of golden tint reserved for memories of places rather than their actuality, began to drop and fade. I ran back to the house to warm up, down the track that I’d run down so many times before, always with the same sense of downhill relief, past the Bumpy Waterfall that roared with winter, past the newt pond and up the path that was still somehow the same, possessed of the same sense, changing in the same predictable cycles of undergrowth and grass. There was the Christmas tree growing to one side, a little fir that one of the Babyfather’s friends had decorated one year and whose strangeness in other seasons made for a waymark that had always pointed home, to familiarity. From the tree, it was the home stretch. I knew every tree, bush, plant along the way, even now. It still felt like the way home, even if home was ten miles and a car ride away. The sense of it was good.


It is Midwinter Day, Yule, the Winter Solstice, whatever you want to call it. Perhaps we have too many words for it. I regard this now as the end of the year. It is the end of the year, the point of transition between the dying days and the growing days, the time when, maritime temperate time-lapse notwithstanding, the lives that have died or fallen away into slumber will soon see new life renewed. When I first moved out of London to Galloway years ago, someone told me that you see the first shoots of the new year sooner in the country and that it hastens the sense of winter’s passing. It took me years living in the Welsh borders to finally accept this, and it’s true.

Tonight, or rather this afternoon, because the light went strange and pink-gold like a filter set to faerie around four, I marched the children into the woods across the road and we walked down the long path. In midsummer, the path was overgrown with nettles, and brambles threw their tentacles ever closer into the centre of it. Now all of that had died back, and the path was broad and track-like, which it always had been underneath, and the shape of the place was revealed as the railway embankment it had once been. Behind us, the last bits of the sky glowed pink and red, and beneath them and behind distant trees, a house on the road lit up with Christmas lights looked at first as though it too was a part of the last strange sunset of the year.

Underfoot, you could still make out the ivy on the ground, and the field to the river glowed with relative light in wonky contrast. It was the gloaming. Why don’t we use the word more? I suppose it works less well when there are electric lights and backlit screens that throw everything else into darkness, but it is at its most magical in cities too, like when you peer across the rooftops of London when the human lights are on the cusp of outshining the sky.

A couple of kinks in the track where tall firs have grown too large or too close to the centre prevent you from being able to see all the way to the end of the track. At the end, somewhat obscured by birches and young holly bushes, there is an open shed with a fireplace. We adorned the skulls with holly earlier in an attempt at festivity. I pushed kindling gently into the base of the bonfire. There is nothing macho about building a decent fire: it is entirely a matter of technique over force. I’d forgotten the matches, but my father arrived with my neighbours who, thankfully, smoke. It lit beautifully.

The fire is cyclical too: it catches into that big first conflagration and then dies back, and you watch it wondering if it’s too high, too hot, the roof too close to catching, and then hurriedly press it down so that the sticks catch each other to build it up again. Every part of it moves and changes, and even when it’s down to embers their glow is not a single thing but a morass of small changes, shifting intensities of light. It is the change of light in time and space that is so hypnotic about it.

At the end of the summer I climbed Hay Bluff on the day that the sun set exactly as the moon rose, and the moon was full to boot, and I had to run, or rather scramble, to the top to get there just in time, the pink moon sitting low in the dusty sky behind the mountain just as the sun had burned away to nothing before it.

You can’t not look at that. The movements, the perpetual alteration of the things that dictate the terms of life on earth, are all laid bare for you. You don’t need a fire as a metaphor, but it’s still fun to have one.

The School Gate: a critical-theoretical introduction

This article irritated me deeply. There’s nothing more infuriating that the sorts of weekly braindead exhortations to tat acquisition you get in Style magazine – apart from miserable old radfems invalidating your personal autonomy for getting dressed in a pleasing manner. Both stories have their own character and ideology – we could call the first acquisitive and the second puritanical. The acquisitive ideology is upfront libertarian: make the best of what you have, turn it into $TATU$. The puritanical is repressive, morally negative: dressing in a socially desirable way is bad, because seeking social desirability is bad. Malign forces are behind social desirability, and must be avoided lest they invalidate your soul.

What is obviously required, in order to liberate my mummy-wimmin-sisters from the shackles of their false consciousness, is a critical-theoretical primer to the Great School Gate Debate.

1. Semiotics

The stuff that you wear is all invested with meaning. It is a visual language, in which an item of clothing is associated with meanings. Roland Barthes nailed all of this in The Fashion System, but also and more famously in Mythologies. It’s all just common sense, really.

If you wear leather trousers to the school gate you are asserting your sexuality by referencing  sexual fetishism, or your rock’n’rollness by referencing biker culture, or your superiority in not having an office job by referencing unworksafe subcultures. If you wear a black polo-neck, you are being an Intellectual, because that’s what people like Barthes wear. These sorts of association construct meanings, which vary according to what the associations are. As the associations change, so do the meanings, as when Daniella Westbrook singlehandedly brought down Burberry by not being posh.

As well as garments having a semiotic meaning derived from mass popular culture, every School Gate reflects its own microcosmic social world, with its own tribes; each tribe seeks and avoids certain tribal markers. Therefore, if you live in the intersection of Posh Rural, Mid-Wales Hippy and Ex-Urban Hipster, you will see codifications of jodhpurs, dresses-over-trousers and ironic leopard-print. Mid-Wales Hippy is mildly disgusted by the fox-hunting implications of equestrianness. Posh Rural is mystified at the seeming appropriation of the Barbour, which was his garment, by the Ex-Urban Hipster, who saw some kids in one on a recent sightseeing trip into Dalston. Ex-Urban Hipster is troubled by the timelessness of the other tribes’ attire, which indicates that they see no need to be current. The reason that Ex-Urban Hipster needs to be current is social capital – which we will deal with momentarily.

Rejecting identifiable clothes is a semiotic statement too. OK, some people are simply too busy or too tired to care, but some of them aren’t. Rejecting looking acquisitively desirable is a moralising statement. It says “I am above this.” It is therefore a more arrogant statement than a 9am blowdry, which, one might argue, is primarily a performative act (see Part 3).

2. Social Capital

Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social relations entails the idea that social connections and networks can act to benefit and privilege some groups of individuals (hence the PTFA). Lots of social relationships, or social relationships with high-status individuals, help construct the power and status of the individual. Particular aesthetic habits (which, of course, include dress) are borne of socio-economic status and social capital, just as they communicate status and social capital to others. Social capital can be gained, by the fashion-forward, by means of cultural capital: the complex system of visual reference we call fashion can be interpreted with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication into a Look, from which social capital can then be derived.

The allure of the School Gate is as arena for pursuit and displays of social capital, for both parents and children. The School Gate is where initial friendships – let’s be cold and call them social connections – are attempted and formed. Part of the currency of School Gate social capital is the play date, a transactional exercise in which the relative social capital of the child reinforces that of the parent, or vice versa. A process of sartorial signification is therefore useful in order to influence or reinforce particular social relationships: alluding sympathetically to the other’s tribal status, perhaps by softening one’s look with dreamcatcher earrings, or creating the illusion, by allusion, of status with the assistance of symbolic capital embodied within objects. Nothing says Old Feudal Money quite like a battered Defender.

3. Performativity

The morning school-run is no time for peacockry. It is too early, and too cold. The occupational hazards of Weetabix and toothpaste are problematic. The School Gate is an afternoon phenomenon. It would be limiting, and wrong, though, to see the School Gate as merely a visual phenomenon. It is not – it is a performance. It is a social performance, its actors seeking status-acquisition, and it is a gender performance, a public space in which normative maternal femininity is expressed and reinforced.

How women present themselves after motherhood is a different thing to how women present themselves before motherhood. The pre-motherhood performance of femininity is heavily sexualised: look as un-man-like as possible, in order to look hot, or desirable, and get laid. This version of femininity is the most highly prized, because it is the form that the people with the money and power (i.e. the men) like best.

Enter motherhood, and the matter becomes more complicated. Parenthood, more than marriage, determines a sense of mutual sexual ownership. Marriages can be dissolved easily enough without children; it is the presence of children that ties you to the other party. If you’re about to trash your body and see your erotic capital nosedive, you need an insurance policy: someone who agrees, explicitly or implicitly, to keep you and at least pretend to desire you afterwards. In return, you should look desirable enough to provide a bit of wife-status, but not sexually available. Looking sexually available as a mother is heretical. If you’re married, it disses your husband and destabilises the safe marriage assumptions of your peers. If you’re single, it says you put yourself above your children.

Motherhood-appropriate School Gate clothes are, therefore, a bit like hijab. They assist you in performing good character, beneath which you must also indicate social capital and some latent desirability. The School Gate mother-performance entails being clean, lest Social Services be summoned to remove the neglected children from your unhygienic home. If you live in a rural area, mud is acceptable as part of an outdoorsy wholesome semiotic, but grub is taboo. The mother-performance must not have its tits out, unless attached to a baby, and must moderate any bodily display, such as short skirts or tight jeans, with a desexing hairshirt counterfoil. The mother-performance must allude to social capital, whether through professional smartness or indications of being able to read and act upon the public conversation as mediated through the Sunday Times. The dominance of the tea dress is no accident.

These assumptions all sound a bit sexist – what about the dads? The School Gate is gendered. It is a feminised space. Men acting within the School Gate may find themselves performing masculinity in order to avoid the erosion of patriarchy. Performances of masculinity include, but need not be limited to, discussing football practice, the wearing of muddy boots, thereby semiotically indicating man-labour, and arriving at the last minute, indicating that one has Been At Work.

4. Feminism

The weirdest thing of all is that the term School Gate even exists in its own fashion category. Feminist outrage should not be reserved for it, and its many actors, but for the reasons behind it. It is what happens when too many people are holed up in their homes for too long, leaving them with one communal space in which to do social communication. It is what happens when too many people – and they are mostly, but not exclusively, women – are too lonely, and rely too heavily on one moment in the day when they are around other people. It is what happens when there are too many women doing the domestic and caring jobs, unassisted by men, resulting in a space in which what little social power exists needs to be fought for. It is what happens when loneliness has eroded people’s confidence to the extent that they feel it necessary to buy confidence with wearable commodities. There’s nothing wrong with performing your superiority to others in a social arena – it’s what all animals do – but as a social world, it is too small.

The happiest people at the school gate seem to be the muddy ones, and the ones on their way home from work.