Sunday, 19 March 2017

Sameness and Janacek in Stockholm

I've just returned from Stockholm where I participated in a PhD examination and gave a presentation on the new threats that technology poses to educational institutions. I had a great time, and had some fantastic conversations about education, cybernetics, category theory and technology.

Stockholm is an interesting place in a way which is not immediately apparent. On the face of it, it's rather like many European cities. Stockholm's main shopping street, Drottninggatan, could be anywhere: London's Oxford street, Paris's Rue de Rivoli, Istanbul's Istiklal Cadessi, Cologne's Schildergasse, Amsterdam's Kalverstraat, etc, etc. This is modern global capitalism - and everything's the same. Is there really any point in travelling anywhere?

What I find interesting is that nothing is ever really the same - even in global capitalism. Having said that, Stockholm does its best to epitomise the movement.

At the weekend, Astrid and I went to the opera to see Janacek's Jenufa. Opera is another symptom of globalisation - although a more pleasant one. I enjoy going to the opera in whichever city I'm in - it's usually cheaper than London! But although every city has its opera house, no two performances are ever the same. Classical music is essentially the art of the "small difference". Inflection, intonation, articulation, timbre, etc are basically what it is about. Small differences in music can be deeply meaningful.

Janacek was a master at it. From the rapid ringing of the xylophone at the beginning of Jenufa, to the repeated - but never the same - motifs, he paints the trauma of dysfunctional family life. It's like Eastenders as if it was a Rembrandt painting. But Janacek knew it was all about repetition, and all about the differences we discern in repetition. Being the artist that he was, he not only paints the family trauma of a young woman whose bastard baby is murdered by her stepmother,  but expresses through sound what he knows of the dynamics of human feeling and social tension. These are the dynamics he represents with repetition.

Stockholm is a bit like the tied-up social expectations where everything has to run through rules which ensure cohesion and regularity. Janacek knows that these regularities are an illusion - messy real life seeps through the cracks, and brings the small differences which become most meaningful. We gaze at the cities of global capitalism like we might gaze on many different faces: each face is essentially the same; yet each new face which is subtly different drives us to seek another different one.

Global capitalism offers less difference than human faces. If it is a form of oppression, it is because it leads us to generate the difference which it itself does not provide. It is characterised by a loss of variety. But the consequence of the loss of variety it produces is the production of variety in the gaps which it can't control. Increasingly those gaps are finding political expression.

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