Six ideas – by Beth

26 Jun

I was thinking: what are the ideas that I’ve heard or read that have stayed with me? Ideas that lit a fire in my mind that hasn’t yet burnt out. Six is a good number for that sort of thing so here they are.

For an idea to take hold and live in your mind, you need to discover it at the right time, so I’ve listed them in chronological order of when the fire was lit.

1. Jane Austen’s “little bit of ivory”; and the power of the everyday

Jane wrote in a letter to her brother in 1816:

“The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.”

Jane Austen’s work is, amongst many things, an embodiment of “the personal is political“. Her books were read to me as a small child, and they must have soaked into my veins like lemon and sugar topping on a warm cake. Right before the end of high school, I discovered the photographic work of Nan Goldin. What an odd pairing: Goldin – a bisexual, living in New York/Germany. Austen – an English spinster living in the 18th-19th century. On the surface Goldin’s photos document her heroin addiction, domestic violence, AIDS, and drag queens. But at the core of her work are the most intimate portrayals of love and friendship in the context of the everyday. Austen and Goldin pass the Bechdel test with flying colours. Vanessa Berry‘s writing totally captures that sensibility too. Bless her heart. If I could express even a flicker of these women’s brilliance for shining a light on the everyday I would bow my head in wonder.

2. Mr Campbell/Pastor Niemöller‘s “First they came…” history lesson

In year 12, our history teacher Mr Campbell taught us a lesson I will never forget. I talk about it here in my tribute to John Campbell, who died this year. This is a perfect example of a teacher bringing something from the past into the present for their students. A reminder to speak out which I carry with me always.

3. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, 1975, and the idea that both humans and sentient nonhuman animals deserve freedom from suffering.

If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – insofar as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being. So the limit of sentience is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color

This book still has lots of challenging ideas, even almost 40 years later. It turned me vegetarian. I eat fish now, so I know I’m in a glass house, but it has stayed with me. At this moment I have a humane rat trap on the ground next to the couch I’m sitting on. I couldn’t bare to use poison (at least not until we’ve tried this for a while as an eviction method for our ratty housemate). The basic idea that humans are animals too is still so relevant – as a species we seem to want to forget that little detail.

4. Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizomatic theory, A Thousand Plateaus, 1988

Studied this in Cultural Studies in uni. I picked the book up tonight, hoping to get a choice line from it that showed what I loved about it. But my aged brain just switched off, and I opened Google and found this description instead:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G, A Thousand Plateaus, p.7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G p.25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space.

[Taken from here]

Yes it’s a total wank. Maybe I’ve just never forgotten that partially deciphering the French academic-speak made me feel like an intellectual for 5 seconds, but I’d like to think it was something more than that. The book is fucking dense (I never actually finished it), but every 100 words or so something of it seeped through into my brain, and spoke to me. Interconnectedness of EVERYTHING – check. Multiplicities of being – check. It was also written in 1988 but totally explains why the Internet is so powerful.

5. Ira Glass: “Action, action, action; thought.”

Ira Glass, host of the cult American National Public Radio radio program/podcast, This American Life, visited Australia in January. As I was getting ready to go I was saying things in my head like ‘I’m going to touch the hem of Ira’s garment’ and ‘off to worship in the church of Ira’. And then in his talk he spoke about the similarities between their radio show’s story structure and that of a Rabbi’s sermon (Glass is Jewish, so the sugary lemon sermons were poured on his warm cake at a young age and have left a mark on how he tells stories). All that religious imagery he conjured up for me was no coincidence. Ira says the affect of a good sermon, or a good story, boils down to the presence of the compelling: Action, action, action; thought. Action, action, action; thought. Meaning, tell a story as if it’s unfolding in the present moment, and then talk about the bigger themes and implications at work. Simple but totally inspiring for an aspiring storyteller.

6. Brene Brown’s Vulnerability and Shame talks

I blogged about these a few weeks ago. I’m not sure if her ideas are really going to stick with me, but I think about a couple of things from them a lot. Firstly, that simple but illusive thing of believing you’re fundamentally worthy of love just the way you are. And secondly, the idea that exposing yourself, making yourself vulnerable, can be so rewarding. I recently heard echoes of this second argument in Jeff Jarvis’s talk in defence of the public where he talks about the benefits of going public about his prostate cancer.

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3 Responses to “Six ideas – by Beth”

  1. Tabitha June 28, 2012 at 5:12 am #

    I feel this post has raised the intellectual calibre of our blog significantly! Nice work.

    I love your comparison of Jane Austen and Nan Goldin. You can take the girl out of Cultural Studies etc.

    I am impressed that Deleuze and Guattari made an impression on you. I always just found their language infuriatingly opaque. I had completely forgotten that their heyday was the late eighties-early nineties – in my mind they were so “of the time” that we were studying them.

    As for Ira – oh, Ira – I sometimes think that his parts of the show are the weakest. For example, his recent anecdote about running into “famous people” kind of fell flat from his failure to acknowledge that HE is a famous person! And sometimes his interview questions are a bit too leading for my liking. I guess he is the least edited part of the show, so I need to cut him some slack. I still do love him, obviously. And also obviously, I spend too much time listening to that show.

    In conclusion, I really enjoyed this post, thank you.

    • Beth June 28, 2012 at 5:30 am #

      As I say, I’m not sure how much of the D&G love was due to me just feeling so darn proud of myself getting any of what they were saying at all. But I distinctly remember that reading, and how excited I felt about the interconnectedness and unfixedness of everything they described. I also had the world’s greatest tutor in that class. James Brown. Total legend.

      Ira’s stories are often the more ‘journalistic’ ones, but I think his impression is felt in every story on the show. He was saying he works an 80 hr week *every week*. Julie Snider must be one hell of a lady too. I loved the testosterone episode where you hear more from the producers and get a hint of the personalities at work. Ira’s generosity in talking about what he sees as the winning formula of the show is also inspiring in its own right I think.

      The parenting topic seems to have unleashed the essayist in me. It’s like I’m unconsciously turning my contributions into a combination personal manifesto/creed/historical record.

      It was only while writing it all out that I saw the Goldin/Austen connection – amazing what the process of writing does for your line of thought.

      • Karen June 28, 2012 at 7:25 am #

        I agree on the top-notch calibre of this post, and indeed, Tabitha’s was a cracker this week too! How can we follow you guys?!

        Ah, I remember that rhizome number from a COFA gen-ed subject I took – being initially intrigued, struggling to follow it, and finally getting the distinct impression that my enthusiastic COFA lecturer didn’t quite get it either. I also questioned the biological veracity of some of the metaphors. There was another piece in the same line of essays with obfuscated yet fairly simple and profound points that I liked a little more, about Diogenes and Alexander. The big idea seemed to be to chill out and get some rays, which I enjoyed.

        Austen’s ivory comment made an enormous impact on me too. It’s so at odds with the slap-dashery in my own nature that it kind of scalded me to read about that dedication, that commitment to small perfection. I greatly admire Jane Austen and her novels.

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