The Ashtray: The Ultimatum (Part 1)

Morris_ashtray4-blog427Errol Morris in the NYT:

I don’t want to die in a language I can’t understand.
— Jorge Luis Borges (as quoted in Alberto Manguel, “With Borges”)

It was April, 1972. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J. The home in the 1950s of Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and the father of the paradigm shift, threw an ashtray at my head.

It had all begun six months earlier.

“Under no circumstances are you to go to those lectures. Do you hear me?” Kuhn, the head of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Princeton where I was a graduate student, had issued an ultimatum. It concerned the philosopher Saul Kripke’s lectures — later to be called “Naming and Necessity” — which he had originally given at Princeton in 1970 and planned to give again in the Fall, 1972.

But what was Kuhn’s problem with Kripke?

Kuhn was becoming more and more famous. He would become not just a major figure in the history and philosophy of science, but an icon – and his terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” became ubiquitous in the culture-at-large. An astrophysicist and rock-climbing friend from Princeton, Dick Saum, later sent me a picture of a bumper sticker that said, “Shifts happen.”

Kripke was slight, bearded, in his early thirties. He was not well known but had a reputation as a genius. He had provided a completeness proof for modal logic (which deals with necessity and possibility) while still a teenager — and in the process reinvigorated Leibniz’s ideas about possible worlds. [2] There was also the amusing anecdote of Kripke being offered a chair at Harvard when he was 16. He supposedly wrote back, “Thank you, but my mother thinks I should finish high school first.” Nonetheless, it was hard to see how Kripke’s theories had much to do with Kuhn. Or at least, it seemed so, at first.

Bradley Manning’s forced nudity to occur daily

Glenn Greenwald in Salon:

Md_horiz Let's review Manning's detention over the last nine straight months: 23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he's allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards' inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards' full view. Is there anyone who doubts that these measures — and especially this prolonged forced nudity — are punitive and designed to further erode his mental health, physical health and will? As The Guardian reported last year, forced nudity is almost certainly a breach of the Geneva Conventions; the Conventions do not technically apply to Manning, as he is not a prisoner of war, but they certainly establish the minimal protections to which all detainees — let alone citizens convicted of nothing — are entitled.

The treatment of Manning is now so repulsive that it even lies beyond what at least some of the most devoted Obama admirers are willing to defend. For instance, UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman — who last year hailed Barack Obama as, and I quote, “the greatest moral leader of our lifetime” — wrote last night:

The United States Army is so concerned about Bradley Manning’s health that it is subjecting him to a regime designed to drive him insane. . . . This is a total disgrace. It shouldn't be happening in this country. You can't be unaware of this, Mr. President. Silence gives consent.

The entire Manning controversy has received substantial media attention. It's being carried out by the military of which Barack Obama is the Commander-in-Chief. Yes, the Greatest Moral Leader of Our Lifetime and Nobel Peace Prize winner is well aware of what's being done and obviously has been for quite some time.

More here.

81 Minutes With Mike Tyson

Geoffrey Gray in New York Magazine:

Encounter110314_250 Mike Tyson walks into the Ringside Lounge in Jersey City. It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday but feels after-hours inside the bar. A pink neon light faintly streaks the walls, which are covered with Tyson photos, and the ceiling, which drips with Mylar streamers. The music is loud. A birthday posse, four women, already drunk, shimmy around their stools as if they were stripper poles.

“What’s the food situation?” Tyson asks the proprietor. “I’m famished.”

The house specialty is pork chops.

“You have rice?” Tyson asks. “Yellow rice? And carrots?”

“So mixed vegetables. Sautéed onions, Mike?

“No onions.”

“And what to drink, Mike? Tea?”


It’s an unexpected order from the former most feared man on the planet, but it’s what his new diet dictates. After retiring from boxing, Tyson struggled with drug addiction. He wasn’t exercising, and he got so fat he thought his heart might explode. For more than a year now, he’s been vegan. He claims to have lost over a hundred pounds.

More here.

Why India Is Democratic and Pakistan Is Not

Christophe Jaffrelot in Foreign Affairs:

Indiapakistananddemocracy195 Since 1995, when the historian Ayesha Jalal's pathbreaking and controversial book Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia was published, there has been no serious study comparing the political trajectories of India and Pakistan. Those who have tried to fill this gap have succumbed to the temptation of attributing India's democracy to Hinduism and Pakistan's autocracy to Islam — a reductionist and not particularly productive approach, since religion is usually only secondary in explaining political trajectories, whether it is Indonesia's democratization or Sri Lanka's march to dictatorship. In the remarkable India, Pakistan, and Democracy, Philip Oldenburg, a research scholar at Columbia University, is wise enough not to resort to such sociocultural explanations. Instead, he examines historical, political, sociological, cultural, and external factors to explain the reasons why India and Pakistan diverged.

Oldenburg is quick to dispel some common misunderstandings about India and Pakistan, the first being that they had similar experiences during the colonial era. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British began gradually devolving power to local authorities in several provinces across India. They did not pursue such reform very far in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, two provinces that would make up the bulk of Pakistan after the 1947 partition. Both territories were important military recruitment grounds for the Raj and were located along its restive western frontier, where devolution was considered a security threat. Whereas several of the provinces India inherited from the Raj had experience with some democracy, Pakistan inherited two highly militarized provinces with no such background, laying the groundwork for the country's military-bureaucratic ethos. Even more, India was born with an intact bureaucratic apparatus in Delhi, whereas Pakistan had to build an entire government in 1947 under a state of emergency.

More here.

what hitch doesn’t see at the revolution


When anatomizing revolutions, it always pays to consult the whiskered old veterans. Those trying to master a new language, wrote Karl Marx about the turmoil in France in the 19th century, invariably begin haltingly, by translating it back into the familiar tongue they already know. And with his colleague Friedrich Engels he defined a revolution as the midwife by whom the new society is born from the body of the old. Surveying the seismic-looking events in Tunis and Cairo in January and February of this year, various observers immediately began by comparing them to discrepant precedents. Was this the fall of the Arab world’s Berlin Wall? Or was it, perhaps, more like the “people power” movements in Asia in the mid-1980s? The example of Latin America, with its overdue but rapid escape from military rule in the past decades, was also mentioned. Those with longer memories had fond recollections of the bloodless “red carnation” revolution in Portugal, in 1974: a beautiful fiesta of democracy which also helped to inaugurate Spain’s emancipation from four decades in the shadow of General Franco. I was a small-time eyewitness to those “bliss was it in that dawn” episodes, having been in Lisbon in 1974, South Korea in 1985, Czechoslovakia in 1988, Hungary and Romania in 1989, and Chile and Poland and Spain at various points along the transition. I also watched some of the early stages of the historic eruption in South Africa. And in Egypt, alas—except for the common factor of human spontaneity and irrepressible dignity, what Saul Bellow called the “universal eligibility to be noble”—I can’t find any parallels, models, or precedents at all.

more from Christopher Hitchens at Vanity Fair here.

not Poet of the mundane


“Poet of the mundane.” That’s what the LACMA press material calls photographer William Eggleston, and that’s how “the Eggleston legend” usually goes: Reclusive Southern gentleman, a soft-spoken, polite savant out of the pages of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner, turns his camera on the neglected vistas of Memphis and environs and in the process makes color photography safe for museums. It’s a neat legend, one that is readily available to anyone trying to describe the genius of Eggleston’s photographs, and one that has helped Eggleston craft his public persona to this day. But the Eggleston legend, that shorthand way of describing his considerable achievement, papers over all the delicious contradictions that define the photographer’s unique journey. That journey has been on display at LACMA for a couple of months as “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008.” You have only two weeks left to experience it, and you most certainly should. But this “poet of the mundane” business can be reductive and, in a sense, limits a complex appreciation of the photographer’s craft.

more from Gustavo Turner at the LA Weekly here.



On 4 October 1957 a shiny steel sphere the size of a beach ball hurtled through the sky, emitting signals picked up by radio operators around the world. Taking the United States completely by surprise, the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first earth satellite, opening a new chapter in the space race that was met with both awe and fear. A month later Nikita Khrushchev promised that, by freeing the economy from the dead hand of Stalinism, he would create such abundance that even the United States would be left in the dust. The claims now seem extravagant, but at the time the spectre of a rising Soviet Union seemed real enough. In the mid-1970s American visitors walking through the major cities of Siberia were taken aback by downtowns that were made to appear every bit as modern as their counterparts back home. Yet by the time the Soviet Union came crashing down a decade or so later, the perceived threat to the West had already been transposed to the East. Glittering Japan was the future. Bankers predicted that a rising empire of the sun would soon supplant the United States as the world’s leading economy. Distinguished academics such as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wondered whether Japan had a different model from the West, its citizens cells of an organic whole that stifled open dissent. On a more popular level, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun imagined a ruthless corporate world headquartered in Tokyo taking over American industries. By the time the book was published in 1992, Japan had already fallen into a decade of slump. Niall Ferguson is not quite sure when and where he was hit by the realisation that we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy, but he believes it may have been during his first walk along the Bund in Shanghai in 2005, dazzled by modern skyscrapers far taller than the erstwhile symbols of Western hegemony.

more from Frank Dikötter at Literary Review here.

Elephants Can Lend a Helping Trunk

From Science:

Elephants Elephants know when they need a helping hand—or rather, trunk. That's the conclusion of a new study that tested the cooperative skills of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Thailand and showed that the pachyderms understand that they will fail at a task without a partner's assistance. The ability to recognize that you sometimes need a little help from your friends is a sign of higher social cognition, psychologists say, and is rarely found in other species. Elephants now join an elite club of social cooperators: chimpanzees, hyenas, rooks, and humans.

To test the elephants' cooperation skills, a team of scientists modified a classic experiment first administered to chimpanzees in the 1930s, which requires two animals work together to earn a treat. If they don't cooperate, neither gets the reward. For the elephants, the researchers used a sliding table with a single rope threaded around it. Two bowls of corn were attached to the table, but the elephants could reach them only by pulling two ends of the rope simultaneously. Working with mahout—Asian elephant trainers—trained elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, the researchers first taught individual animals to pull the rope with their trunks. The 12 elephants were then divided into six pairs, and each pair was released to walk to their waiting ropes. If one animal pulled the rope before the other, the rope would slip out, leaving the table—and treats—in place. “That taught them to pull together,” says Joshua Plotnik, a postdoc in experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the lead author of the study, which appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes once had, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

W.B. Yeats

From ‘End of History’ Author, a Look at the Beginning and Middle

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:

Fuku Human social behavior has an evolutionary basis. This was the thesis in Edward O. Wilson’s book “Sociobiology” that caused such a stir, even though most evolutionary biologists accept that at least some social behaviors, like altruism, could be favored by natural selection. In a book to be published in April, “The Origins of Political Order,” Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University presents a sweeping new overview of human social structures throughout history, taking over from where Dr. Wilson’s ambitious synthesis left off.

Dr. Fukuyama, a political scientist, is concerned mostly with the cultural, not biological, aspects of human society. But he explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare. Because of this shared human nature, with its biological foundation, “human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures,” he writes. It is these worldwide patterns he seeks to describe in an analysis that stretches from prehistoric times to the French Revolution.

More here.

Public Television: America’s Unexpected Wasteland

by Michael Blim

“…When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

–Newton Minow, Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, May 9, 1961

Pbs Kennedy Administration nostalgia is all the rage. For the next three years, we can count back by fifty years to our heart’s content, regardless of how banal or bloody the event, to a time when something happened then that could be used as a moral lesson now in the seemingly endless winter of our discontent.

I am using the Kennedy rhetorical ploy here with less reverence and more irony than currently in play. After all, how can one prattle on about the moral lesson of Vietnam without acknowledging that nothing was learned, and instead that Vietnam marked the moment in the postwar world when America took empire seriously on the road? Or that Kennedy’s sixties marked the high point of generalized American prosperity — not its beginning, but its last great act before the end?

Still Newton Minow’s Kennedy Administration condemnation of America’s television programming still possesses the ring of truth, even if by now we are so inured to the medium’s fearsome banality. Though a lifetime corporate lawyer and well-connected politico, as FCC Chair in 1961, Minow had something else important to say, and that he actually said it then shows us how far the profession of law has declined over the past 50 years:

“…the people own the air. And they own it as much in prime evening time as they do at six o'clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you — you owe them something. And I intend to see that your debt is paid with service.”

Fancy that: “the people own the air.” Doubtless Rupert Murdoch believes, in addition to thinking that it is okay for Fox News to be a political party, that he owns the cognitive and auditory spaces in our brains. Reformers like Minnow not only insisted on regulating private broadcasters but also sponsored the growth of National Education Television and its transformation into the Public Broadcasting Service (1970).

Read more »

The Value of Being Befuddled, Occasionally. Or, the Attempt to Live a Life of Constant and Eager Observation

by Tom Jacobs

…our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption.

–Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)


The fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society houses the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, a collection encompassing over 40,000 objects spanning from prehistorical to 21st century New York. By adopting an “open storage” policy, the NYHS has opened what would otherwise be a warehouse to the public, so that the miles of shelved artifacts that would normally be languishing unseen in a storage area on the fourth-floor can now be observed (albeit, without placards or captions). Unless one consults the computer databases, one is left pretty much on one’s own to make sense of what one is seeing. This can be a productive scene of fascination, recognition, and misrecognition.

ScreenHunter_09 Mar. 07 14.36 A few years ago I spent a long afternoon browsing through the glass-enclosed cases of objects ranging from a remarkable collection of apple peelers, Tiffany Lamps, American Indian pottery, a cot that George Washington slept on during the Revolutionary War (and which still bears something like his sweat stains), and various objects of historical interest that people found on the ground while walking the farms of northern Manhattan in the early 20th century. It’s hard not to lose all sense of space and time as one leans over and into the cases trying to see at closer range some subtle and possibly revelatory detail (Washington’s sweat stains, for instance). Eventually I came upon a display of objects collected from the streets in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. A shoe, a pack of cigarettes, a few scraps of letterheaded paper, a fireman’s oxygen tank, bits of twisted metal of inscrutable but portentous provenance. Unexpectedly, and even against my better judgment, I found myself overwhelmed by a wash of powerful and contradictory feelings: sadness, anger, nationalism, and perhaps most of all: a deeply-felt connection to a moment in history and to the lives lost in the event (and to one in particular). I felt weepy. Actually weepy. I cried a little bit. In the presence of this display, material objects turned unsettlingly fluid, potent, and peculiar. Twisted metal was transformed into a startlingly beautiful artifact evoking an incoherent mixture of thought and feeling. A pack of cigarettes became excessively and strangely resonant, overdetermined, both sacred and completely mundane. While undeniably potent, this encounter left me wondering whether these transformations of matter into emotion and idea were warranted, useful, or dangerous. It led me to consider how it is that we do (and how we should) understand the meaning and significance of these types of experience?

Read more »

A Notice of Mortalitie

To the Members of the Royal Society:

Quaeries 'Tis with much Relish Regret that we announce the final and utmost Demise, yea, the certain and irreversible Decline, which the Latins call corruptio and which, being English'd, is the Corruption or Passing-Away of the corporeall Substance; the throwing off of the Mortal Coil, the giving up of the so-call'd Ghost, the final separation of the immaterial Soule, leaving, where it had once been, naught but a stinking and rotten Corpse; the Departure, the Egress, the Going: yea, I say, the DEATH of Dr. Jus. Smith, FRS, this Tues-Day last at his Home in Dulwich, having succumb'd to the Gout.

He is surviv'd by his Wife, Mary, and a Dozen of Children, not counting three Bastards, a Half-Wit, and one that is evidently a Changeling. His first Wife, Anne, died many years hence under suspicious Circumstances, when she, so 'tis said, slipt upon the Rind of a Fruit of the Mousa Tree, lately call'd by the Hottentotical name of Banana (Dr. Smith had been raising up this Fruit of the Torrid Zone right here in grey England, by means of an oven capable of regulating its own Heat, by the Light of Phosphorus channel'd thro' a powerfull Lamp, and othersuch alchemick Machinations), and she landed, poor Anne did, squarely upon her Skull. The servants present reported a strange comick Effect of this sad Event: tho' distraught to see their Mistress so suddenly despatch'd, they could not help but snicker at the very Improbabilitie of Slipping upon the Rind of this foreign Fruit. Experiments were subsequently perform'd within the Scientifickall Society to determine the precise Cause of the Banana's comœdickall Virtù, tho' we confess it remains to this day a great Mysterium.

Read more »

Take Two: Accommodationism and Atheism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Reasonable-Atheism-Aikin-Scott-F-9781616143831 To our surprise, our February 3 Quarks Daily post has generated a good deal of comment from those who identify as New (or “Gnu”) Atheists, nearly all of it critical. It’s not that we don’t like criticism– we are philosophers, and criticism is our business. Our surprise rather derives from the way in which much of the criticism has been targeted. In fact, it seems to us that much of the criticism is mistargeted. Criticism that misses its mark is not a kind of criticism; it’s no criticism at all. And we’re happy to be criticized. So we’d like to clarify.

Our post began with a statement of fact. Reasonable Atheism is not yet available, yet we have been charged with accommodationism. What we failed to note is that shortly after Prometheus Books distributed a catalog announcing the publication of Reasonable Atheism, we received a handful of emails decrying our forthcoming book as accommodationist drivel. The author of one email characterized accommodationism as consisting in the very thought that religious believers are owed respect. In the first paragraph of our original post, we encapsulated the charge of accommodationism as it was brought in these emails. These provided the occasion for thinking about the charge of accommodationism.

We have been criticized for not citing our sources. For the record, most of the emails we received came from people who did not include surnames. Who are these people? We have no idea. And we’d like not to encourage them. Yet some critics have assumed that if we have been charged with accommodationism, and then have sought to respond to that particular way of wielding the charge, it must be that we believe that New Atheists are in some sense guilty of… well… something.

Read more »

Monday Poem

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
……………… -Emily Dickenson

The Book of Nobody

The book nobody can read
of words nobody can understand
is set in lines nobody can see
on leaves no one can turn by hand

It tells tales nobody can believe
of worlds nobody ever knew
of things nobody can conceive
of which nobody has a clue

The song nobody can sing
for nobody who will hear
is like the bell nobody rings
for nobody who is here

The nothing everybody fears
the nothing everybody knows
the sum of everybody’s tears
is of nowhere everybody goes

by Jim Culleny
Feb 15, 2011

Haiti’s Splendor Within

by Edward B. Rackley

Cathedral_du_cap_haitien_002 While other countries are rediscovering people power and casting out dictators, Haiti is allowing them back. ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier came and went last January; Aristide now has a passport and may return any moment. If Baby Doc’s mute visitation was a desperate bid to correct a country’s freefall, his affect conveyed the opposite: an unreadable face and inchoate gestures of a now pitiful, once grandiose despot. Aristide’s return will be neither silent nor impassive.

So ended 2010 in Haiti, surely the country’s worst year since independence in 1804. The massive quake in January, then Hurricane Tomas, followed by a crippling epidemic of cholera. The year ended with a rocky electoral contest, still unresolved. These unwelcome malheurs conspired to attract the gaze of international media, holding it momentarily. Other spectacles now crow for our attention. Eclipsed by Libya and her neighbors, Haiti’s grip remains tenuous, its silence ominous. Jokes about the depths to which it has sunk—now a platform for foreign dignitaries so low even Sarah Palin can step up—would be funny if they weren’t true.

Leveled to rubble in January 2010, Port-au-Prince is gradually reconstituting itself, but progress will be painfully slow. The city was already mired in failed urban policies long before the catastrophic shudder; the flight of human capital among the political class only advanced as Haiti’s crisis deepened. Today’s void means easy access for anyone of means seeking political office, including pop singers at home and abroad (Michel Martelly and Wyclef). Haiti’s exhausted political class requires new blood, but where are the viable candidates? Popular elections rarely mean the collective interest is served; instead, a leader’s wish becomes his followers’ command. State-sponsored thuggery is a Haitian specialty.

To a new arrival, as I recently was, the obstacles confronting the average Haitian appear to stack up, layer by layer, to a point of monolithic immobility.

Read more »

This is not a poem – learning by heart in a rote world

By Liam Heneghan

For Patricia Monaghan, poet and friend

“I am cold and alone on my tree root, sitting as still as stone.” I recited this forlornly, lost in E. J. Scovell’s poem. I was ten years old and competitively reciting at the Father Matthew Feis, an annual all-Ireland poetry festival. The year was 1974. “The fish come to my net,” I continued, “I scorned the Boy Fishing0001 sun, the voices on the road and they have gone.” Beneath me I could feel, not the stage boards of the Father Matthew Hall in Church Street, Dublin, but dead root-timber; the stage light was the sun. “My eyes are buried in the cold pond under the cold, spread leaves; my thoughts are silver-wet.” The scuffling schoolboys and girls, their mammies and daddies and their elocution teachers, were gone; I was staring into the peat-dark and swollen waters of the Finglas River which emptied onto an Atlantic beach in Camp, Co. Kerry, my fishing rod in hand, dressed up as the sky.

This was my father’s experiment: on an overcast afternoon, beneath the dreep of autumn hedges, dress your sons in plastic rubbish sacks, fashion hats out of blue shopping bags and set them loose on the banks. No bites that day for me; perhaps the fish were fooled or perhaps in their own piscine way they shared the bemusement of the mirthful onlookers who strolled over to examine the young boys that were disguised as the sky. I scorned them, I scorned them all and slumped humiliated beneath the hedge and gazed damply into the waters; I endured my own thoughts; I waited. Though I failed at being the sky, and failed as a fisherman, I was, however, remarkably good at memorizing poems. An achievement made more remarkable maybe, by the fact that, at the time, I remained functionally illiterate.

Read more »

British Art Show 7: In the days of the comet. Hayward Gallery, London

by Sue Hubbard

300_0650[1] The poster for the British Art Show 7 promises a naked young man poised on a metal bench tending a live flame. The day I went to the Hayward Gallery there was only Roger Hiorns’ empty bench – which was a bit of a disappointment. Young men in the nude are still something of a rarity even in the most outré of contemporary galleries. There wasn't even a flame. Still there was the compensation of work by 38 other very diverse artists, three-quarters of which has not been seen before. Since its inception in 1979 the British Art Show has presented a five yearly snapshot of the UK art scene. Not a thematic exhibition, as such, the curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, have linked a disparate array of art forms created between 2005-2010 under the subtitle, In the Days of the Comet. This is taken from the title H.G. Wells’ 1906 novel in which Wells imagined the rarely seen comet releasing a green gas over Britain instigating a ‘Great Change’. As a result Mankind was deflected from war and exploitation towards rationalism and a heightened appreciation of beauty. The implication of this utopian vision is that the comet’s reoccurrence has the power to draw together past, present and future; thereby suggesting that Britain has always lived ‘in the days of the comet’.

Conceived as a ‘a dynamic shape-shifting exhibition that would renew itself as it travelled’ through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring there is no dominant house style. Boundaries are blurred between fine art and found object, between anarchy and formalism, between irony and a striving towards a more authentic aesthetic grammar. There are a lot of videos; some very long, and that makes it a difficult show to get round unless one has several days to spend. Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s new feature-length film The Empty Plan – made in German – juxtaposes Bertolt Brecht’s writings in exile with preparations for different productions of his play The Mother, staged in a variety of contrasting locations. In another arena this may have proved rewarding, but ,here, it is simply hard work. In contrast Duncan Campbell’s archive footage highlighting the 1970s Irish political campaigner Bernadette Devilin’s rocky relationship with the press, for whom she was at first a saint thena sinner, is highly evocative of those unsettled times.

Read more »