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“What a piece of work is a man!”

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An effective tool to counteract the onset of tedium induced by the interminable routine of work is to think of oneself as being an actor on stage. Ultimately it is all entertainment that is short-lived; this relieves one of the burden of taking oneself too seriously. Like life, the nature of work is full of contradictions. It is while doing what we loathe that we understand what we enjoy and even as we pursue what we love we encounter moments of dreariness where we hate the activity. Wittgenstein suggests that when we think we are exploring ideas we are really only exploring the language that represents the ideas. Since language, as the construction material of understanding, hovers between the negative and positive poles of binary opposites, we should not be surprised that life mirrors this perpetual tension.
Perhaps we have become addicted to pleasure and chase the ‘happy’ fix as a by-product of particular action or thought. Pleasure is not happiness and expecting life or work to offer a consistent flow of happiness is a fantasy, like trying to attain the never-ending orgasm. We need to experience the tension between loving and hating to settle into contentment where acceptance of both generates balance. The workplace offers us this tension in abundance and becomes the testing ground of our personal philosophies and belief systems. As emotional beings it is no wonder that we seek pleasure over pain. However, we are also rational beings and this is the space where we process the needs of our work and deliver the goods.
The industrial revolution introduced the era of technology, of systems and production that threatens to transform humankind into units of labour and consumption. It mechanized war and initiated medical breakthroughs which have contributed to increased longevity. Despite increased health and leisure time we appear to be more depressed than ever before. We hate work and in a manner befitting the twenty first century, are consuming our way to happiness with fanatical frenzy. Edwin Brock’s poem “Five ways to kill a man” remains an apt reflection of the human condition. In the poem he concludes that the simplest way to kill a man is “to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.” The dehumanizing effect of the modern world is a central feature of our art and literature. It is why we still need to come to terms with the notion of work and its impact in our theatre of being.
The prospect of a lifetime of a daily routine to and from work terrified me as a young man and it induced a crisis of being in my early 20’s. The anticipation of being bound to a lifetime of tedium seemed like suicide by slow ordeal. Overcome with hopelessness and growing despair I began searching for meaning within the perpetual slog of repetitive daily routine. I discovered Camus, Leonard Cohen and resilience. My work, engaging young minds in a classroom was fulfilling, but beyond the classroom the rigid regulation bound world of school systems was an internal corrosive. I felt little more than a bureaucratic cog in an immense sausage machine tasked with churning out productive, law abiding citizens who would in turn feed the system ad nauseam.
An event in my first year of teaching illustrates my growing sense of isolation in the school system. Walking along a corridor I came across a year 12 student standing and facing the red brick wall outside a classroom. His nose nearly touched the wall. I suspected he was the subject of Calvinist rehabilitation (corporal punishment was regarded an essential aspect of education then). I paused and shuffled up next to him to stare at the wall,
“OK, I’m looking but I don’t get it?” I said.
“I left my homework at home.” He replied.
“And you hope to find it here?”
He chuckled, “ma’am (female teachers were addressed as ma’am) told me to stand here like this.”
“I suppose it’s better than being inside” I said. We both laughed, too loud. The classroom door opened and the diminutive but steely tyrant stared me down, sneered, sniffed dismissively and shut the door. In that instant I was no longer a colleague but a bumbling school boy. Embarrassed and confused by the situation and my own response, or lack thereof, I slunk away like a child.
It was a seminal moment that began to shape my attitude to work. I felt like a failed court jester and knew I could never expect the system to nurture or support me beyond the meagre salary it provided. Fulfilment at work would depend less on the work being done and more on my frame of mind while doing it. “I work for myself” became my mantra rules became a rough guide secondary to creativity and fun. I wanted to generate enthusiasm and curiosity and have students look forward to getting to class, as much for myself as for them. I admitted ignorance to my students, I could be honest and debates were commonplace; students were learning and I was having fun at work. Later that year we first year teachers were being lectured by a teaching veteran, “work at discipline, work hard and work will be easy…”his voice droned on but all I could hear was Hamlet sigh “words, words, words …”.
By Mike Scallan

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ownership, philosophy, suburbia

I own therefore I am

I am on my way home, in my car, listening to my radio, I stop at our beach. We call it ours, this stretch of sand on this continent that is now my home. My country, this is how I refer to the 7,682,300.0 square kilometres beneath my feet. I have a passport which confirms my citizenship of the state. It is navy, embossed in gold, official looking. The cover is bendable but thick. It will not easily be damaged from frequent use. It holds the allure of adventure. This is how the institution of state draws us in and places the spell of attachment on us. “With us you may travel freely, ” it seems to say, “you are not the citizen of the world you imagined you were. You are not as free as you thought you were. This book marks that you are owned. We call this state of being owned ‘citizenship’.”  

It contains, inside, a black and white photograph of me, unsmiling. One is not encouraged to smile for official photographs. So here I am in my country seriously wishing to understand how I assume that so much is mine. I have even purchased a piece of land with a house on it and that I call mine but really, it is the bank that has deemed me fit to speak of it thus. I earn a salary, paid fortnightly. Most of this goes to the bank so that I can one day, decades from now, call the house truthfully, mine. Strange isn’t it? To speak of it seems strange, this suburban ritual of possession. I am told that it was not always so. I have read articles by clever men on the history of ownership and possession and it would appear that Indigenous people worldwide never considered themselves owners of land. My mate Matt, a Noongar man, once laughed off the notion of buying a home. “Why would I buy dirt cobber?” he asked me. Indeed, why?

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It seems to be a distinctly European invention, this idea that ownership begets identity. We assume it has always been so, genetic even, like violence. Seems we have been wrong about many things. They really started something those restless fifteenth century Spaniards and Portuguese. Further back the Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings caught it; this contagion of land-greed. Their desire to possess was passed on to the English, the Germans, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch and the Italians. What formed their view of the world? Why did they think a first meeting ought to be followed by the planting of their flags, declarations of ownership and brutal oppression? It’s a fundamentally flawed human practice that we continue to emulate 500 years later.

Where does this language of ownership came from? How did it come to be the mode of my tongue, my mind? The pronoun ‘mine’ is one of a child’s earliest words. It defines the boundaries of their existence: ‘my nose’, ‘my mummy’, ‘my house ‘. What does it mean to ‘have‘? How do I ‘have’ this home, ‘have’ this toothache, ‘have’ this bruise, ‘have’ these thoughts? In the marriage union I get to ‘have’ and to ‘hold’. I have a great deal, but when was I bestowed ownership of ‘my’ character? Who is this ‘me’ I speak of?

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Studies of human society suggest that one of the prime forces in our history is ownership. We have evolved through ownership. From feudalism to mass consumerism we have organised our social structures around competition for land and artefacts. We call land ‘real estate’. It forms our reality. Being landless thus presents itself as a an ‘unreal’ condition, an undesirable state of being. Material poverty is perhaps more an indictment on our modern tendency to insulate ourselves with our possessions. Poverty represents the way we think about the world, not a way of the world. It is perhaps more a consquence than a condition. It is a word denoting what one does not have. A street vendor in Mumbai, India told me there was no poverty in India. I did not understand what he meant. It appeared self-evident to me that poverty was not only real but rampant as well. I’m beginning to realise what he meant. I’m seeing more of it living in the first world.

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From somewhere in the stratosphere,  we humans must surely resemble ants. We move with purpose and yet we probably appear to be quite random,  chaotic even.

We labour to improve our world. A world that extends about five metres in all directions around our feet. We know the world is bigger than that, but we don’t really live in that world. We think we do though. We entertain thoughts of global citizenship via our mobile phones or laptops. It usually ends there.

On the way home we stop by the local shop for milk, bread, chocolate … we refuel, remember stuff we never did, watch cute pets on Facebook, like things we will have forgotten in ten minutes, eat, talk, sleep.

Then there are refugees fleeing Syria, kids drowning, ISIS blowing up World Heritage sites, idiots running for president, announcing their intention to run, “Run Forest!”, politicians trashing one another, more shootings in America, shooters running, presidents shooting their mouths off, suppressing the desire to run. Then buying eats, rechocolating, facing something, watching hostile people eat cute pets, fuelling animosity, buying kids, wanting to drown politicians, blowing out birthday candles in the wind while stuffing memories of forgetting to … where is the world now and how? Surf the world wide Web. Connect.

Seeking refuge from the world in, in this… running for the safe place where the world goes by quietly without wanting something from you. Unburdening the weight of the world.
Places to see.
Where in the world do I go when I can go anywhere?
Where do I come from? Or Belong? Stop.
Go back to where you came from.

Where do we come from we asked our parents once when we were very small and meant more than our biological origin I suspect. But our parents, and ourselves since then, always say the ‘when moms and dads ‘ thing because we’re not really sure. I mean being on this 110 000kph planet in what? In space, cyber, empty, infinite vastness of whatever then we die but before that we get the stuffing knocked out of us while dreaming of a better life somewhere else and there’s no such thing actually. So, this kid asks me where I come from and I don’t even know where I’m going because soon… So I say there is this egg and sperm and, just then, or maybe it’s 20 years later, who knows? I. I see these thousands of people running away, they’re walking when I see them, and they’ve been bombed and I know they’re human cos by now I know what humans look like and they’re them, and then there’s this discussion about the land and identity, and I imagine ants fighting over bricks. I don’t know if ants are territorial? Are they? I never saw ants fight. Mind you , I wouldn’t know because they might be fighting and it looks like they’re just carrying stuff. Maybe inside their network of tunnels they have strategies for outdoing other ants and maybe there are some clever ants who can argue how they actually own the planet.

I mean it’s possible. Maybe they do. Maybe after we’re dead our ash and ex bodies become ants and we keep on fighting. It must be important. It’s probably right that everyone just goes back to where they came from. Easier that way. We all do any way.
Don’t step on them ants.
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We’re all refugees.

We entertain thoughts of global citizenship via our mobile phones or laptops. It usually ends there.

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old fart

The evolution of a grumpy old fart

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I once had a solar powered plastic yellow daisy with a smiley face that would sway left and right when it was in full sun. Much like a suburban alcaholic walking home from the bottle shop in summer. The object sat on the dashboard of my car. Not for long. One afternoon after a particularly difficult day at school I caught the bobbing gaze of the contrived, smug flower and it did not induce warm ripples of love. I promptly threw the palm sized manifestation of joy out of the window. There were no cars behind me, I checked, so no one was hurt. It landed near the week old carcass of a kangaroo. Poetic justice. I, on the other hand was perplexed. What had possessed me to do this? More importantly, what had possessed me to buy it? Had I experienced what sloppy murderers call ‘temporary insanity’?

I recall a morning when a television salesman and his stupid smile tried to sell me a purple and blue vacuum cleaner that promised to last a lifetime. I was furious at the blatant lie. A pattern was emerging. Irrational anger would rise to the surface of my consciousness at lightning speed. Advertisements for cleaning products, toothpaste, banks that cared and once in a lifetime sales sent me over the edge of relative normality. A year later I was driving with my good friend Lilian who had on her dashboard, a smiley solar powered daisy. I had an epiphany. I smiled back this time and understood what had happened that day the daisy died . I had not reacted badly to the notion of happiness as a consumer commodity. I was not experiencing a moment of existential rage. It was far simpler and more benign than that. I was evolving into that dark spectre of suburban homes everywhere: the grumpy old fart.

I am coming to terms with my new condition. I suspect I am still in denial. I insist to my daughters and son that I am only being realistic and just weary of commercial crap. They respond the way I reacted to my father, they roll their eyes. Wait, their turn is coming. There will always be a market for stupid plastic smiling flowers. Nonsense, like humanity’s ills is cyclical.
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Photographs of objects created by Sean Scallan

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philosophy

What is progress?

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I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.”

As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress. Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system.

Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators.

Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.

After 25 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?” Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe. Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them.

Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music. Would Sisyphus be progressing each time he summited the mountain with his boulder? Perhaps mankind’s progress is an ongoing struggle with himself? We must assess progress alongside our brutality and our ability to be gentle. We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.

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Uncategorized

On contradiction

20140724_131438Ambivalence is the skin of the world pulled tight over everything. It creates an interesting tension of opposites that govern the world. It is the slim thread woven into the tapestry of life and we do not like it. We have been taught to see contradiction as the enemy of clarity, reason and problem solving. This is a pity.

The most glaring contradictions are so obvious they are invisible. They are clunky and dull and we all know them. Our age has embraced democracy as the ideal form of governance since it safeguards the rights of all of its citizens. Yet the choices we have are presented to us and governments monitor us to protect our right to choose between the options they have presented us with? Television, film, social media are the modern day equivalent of the circuses of ancient Rome; a distraction creating the illusion of participation in something grander than the mundane reality of everyday life. Contradiction cloaks international politics. States proclaim allegiance to God and then claim moral justification for murder. The central tenets of love, tolerance and allegiance to humanity as laid out by various teachers are replaced by cultural ideology. Democracy is delivered by force and submission to God’s love brought by explosives, bullets and blood. Billions of dollars change hands daily while people starve in faraway places. The first world cares, governments care, politicians care-everyone cares. ‘Care’ is becoming an obsolete word.

The more interesting contradictions are more subtle. Loss informs our sense of what we have. The inevitability of death enlightens our perspective of life. Dark nights of the soul prepare us for renewal and extra crunchy peanut butter is enhanced by silky syrup. Ambivalence is inescapable since the words comprising our language are each strung taut between opposites; each defined by what it is not. Having two opposing or contradictory attitudes simultaneously is generally considered as flimsy or weak; an inability to decide. I think we would all be better off if we embraced ambivalence more often and lost the need to always have an opinion. Science may shed some light on the matter.
Quantum mechanics had fame thrust upon it when photons (particles of light) were seen to operate as waves and particles-a contradiction called the wave-particle duality that has opened up more avenues of scientific exploration than Newton’s fabled apple. Today the study of atoms, their composition and how they behave is riddled with fascinating contradictions like the fact that matter is composed more of empty space. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implies we cannot measure the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time, much like tracking teenagers?
Children can swing from saying “I love you” to “I hate you” in seconds with unflinching intensity and integrity. When adults do the same we feel betrayed by the words; as if for the first time words have been able to detect and accurately measure the delicate frequency of our hearts. The constants in our lives exists beyond the reach of any language that must snake and ladder between positive and negative poles. When we struggle to articulate we sense the collision of two worlds of certainty-up/down; positive/negative; good/bad and the panic that ensues we have come to term ‘contradiction’ and regard this as an invalid state of being. A pity, there’s so much good stuff in between. Our humanity shines through when we rebel against this two dimensional tendency.

Holding two or more contrary thoughts at the same time ought not to be called ‘confusion’. Sometimes a thing is neither right nor wrong but what Richard Bach calls the “Isness”; it just is what it is. Contradiction emerges when we try to pin an idea or perception to a fixed place and keep it there. Ideas that become fixed as constant and unmoveable are called dogma and dogma that insists on allegiance is called propaganda. We like certain constants because they make our world seem more stable and deep down we all know that things always change. The only constancy is change.

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” 49 , 1324-1326.

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