Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Human Brain, 'Seeing' and Symmetry

So, the human brain then...

When our eyes communicate with the brain as to what they 'see' they are not presenting a complete set of data. Instead they scan a few bits of information for the brain to compare against its template of what reality is, in case those bits of data contain anything 'surprising' or 'off the map'. Figures from research suggest that information from the eye only provide 10-15% of what we see. The brain's pre-set picture of reality is the other 85%. This is because there is just too much information in our reality for the eye to cope with. The short-cutting is how we can interact with our environment speedily and without being overwhelmed, or taking so long that we are eaten or attacked. We take a lot for granted. To wit, the entire image of reality that the brain holds up as a knitting or jigsaw pattern. Our brains posit that human adults are upright creatures and trees also are vertical. The unpredicted and 'strange' are when we see a human or a tree horizontal. Then context comes into play as a modifier. We may not find a human lying down so strange if it is on a bed, or a sunlounger or a lilo. A horizontal tree, well has it been cut down or blown over in a storm? Or was there simply no one to see & hear it fall over and therefore it didn't? Perhaps an example of a left-field logic trying to explain something that doesn't accord to the regular template. 

In order for the brain to hold this template of constancy as to what perceived reality is, it requires pattern. Since our senses are actually searching for deviations from pattern to report to the brain as divergence requiring a possible response. And pattern derives from symmetry. Is it at all surprising that we find symmetry underpins all laws of the universe? (and of course is vital for the hermetic system of mathematics to function, the same maths that defines the physical laws of the universe). We need symmetry to organise and pattern the templates of our brains. Which our brains then stamp on all its interpretations of reality making them symmetrical. Again, I don't really buy into the centrality of symmetry. It just suits our anatomies and how they interact with our environments. And yet there are no straight lines in nature to form an axis of mirror or radial symmetry. Are our faces symmetrical? Not to my mind, but since face recognition is so hard wired into us humans, conceiving of face symmetry is an important value in face recognition so again we overlay it into our processes of seeing other faces. 

So for me my desire as an artist is to get to that 85% picture of reality the brain holds and take an axe to it. Or at least figure out where some of its assumptions/constructions derive from. That way madness lies? I'm pretty confident not. Also to strip away the notions of symmetry where they in fact may not exist, but our brain proffers that they do because it is so reliant on it. And as part of this process, that involves moving away from the symmetries of story, of beginning, middle and end as established by Aristotle in his "Poetics" The argument is that human beings are so constituted that story is naturally very important to us. And indeed it is because story organises events and experience into patterns. But as I suggest above, these patterns do not accord to anything by a workable reality, when in fact we may now strive for something just a bit better than 'workable'. I really believe that our fixed notions of reality hold us back and we would be far more creative and inventive (and who knows less exploitative in our dealings with our environment) if we had say more of a quantum approach to our reality. Just because it's comfortable for our brains to tell us this is how things are, doesn't mean that's the best recipe for going forward. Time for artists to think and write out the box. Visual artists have over a century's head start on us writers as painters like Monet, Cezanne, Seurrat et al challenged the way we 'see' things on a flat 2-dimensional canvas. They explored light, colour and materiality. They did not take their reality as given. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Search For Identity

Identity permeates every aspect of our lives. From the informal social dealings as to how (and who) we present ourselves as to other people. Through art as many artists explore notions of identity. All the way to politics as under-represented groups advocate for more visibility or equal treatment and status.

As a writer I tend to steer my work away from questions of identity. In politics I see it as atomising and preventing of any useful consensus that allows us to get things done. However, I fully recognise I can only state this from a position of privilege; that is my identity is not overtly under threat from others and is not ostensibly one that feels under-represented or unequal in society. While this seems the only pertinent argument for identity politics to me, it does also place the whole question within a negative context, one of asserting one's identity in order to overcome prejudices and barriers towards it. That such searches and struggles for identity are inevitably and irrevocably wrapped up and often defined against the prevailing majority identity it is contesting with.

However, I can't help feeling that such questions about identity do not address the real deep issues of what is means to be human. The questions of 'who am I?', 'what have I done?' and 'what am I here for?' that philosophy rather seems to have given up trying to figure out. Existentialist questions. Given that we are mortal and finite, what is the purpose for living a life? The philosophers starting from the Ancient Greeks, picked up by the Christian theologians, took us down quite a narrow path by asking 'what does it mean to lead a GOOD (moral) life?' The humanist philosophers also addressed themselves to this same question, Hobbes and Locke minimising the role of the divine and instead musing how man could live in societal groups without killing one another, from which developed the modern concept of the rule of law.

But these questions it seems to me address only the second layer of fundamental existence- How do we live together? What about the first layer, why are we even here to live at all? It is taken as a given that we exist at all, therefore the consideration is how to maximise the quality of that life on a practical/organisational level. But it is very much not a given and any answer would definitely feedback and inform the notion of how we live our lives. Leaving aside the religious answer of 'to glorify god' which doesn't hold much truck in our contemporary age, little has been done to explore these greater questions. Of course it is entirely possible that there is no answer to the 'why do we exist?' questions. Science and cosmology may not be able to furnish an answer. The blind, motiveless mechanism of DNA reproduction may forever remain blind and impermeable to our understanding. The human brain remains the most complex and unknowable organ in nature, for all our advances in its study. Notwithstanding all this, our current level of inquiry into identity I feel still misses the bigger picture, by remaining firmly rooted within the cultural sphere and finding one's place within that. Somehow we need to root the question in the species sphere.

Over to the artists rather than the philosophers and scientists now. Albeit from an acknowledged position of privilege...

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Songs About Animals

I've already done a chart of songs about birds but this week's musical odyssey is about the wider animal kingdom. So Mooove on up, no baaaaa humbug on show here as here are 10 songs about creatures great and small.

1) The Cure - "Love Cats"
One of the few bass lines I actually managed to learn myself (though not on a double bass as here). But the beginning of the end of a once mighty alternative/new wave band that the Cure started out as as they entered they Goth phase after this. I might have donned the black of mourning if I'd written this song too...

2) The Beatles - "I Am The Walrus"
If the backwards guitar and off key vocals didn't clue you into the influence of hallucinogenics, check out the video and the lyrics.

3) The Cramps - "Human Fly"
A bit anthropomorphic I know, but it was this or their song "Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?" which might have gained me higher SEO I don't know...

4) Scritti Politti - "Lions After Slumber"
See what I said about this band in my songs about cities. Too bloody clever by half to be any good.

5) Iggy Pop - 'I Wanna be Your Dog"
Okay, it's a deal. Good boy, go fetch...

6) Patti Smith - "Horses"

7) RZA - "Mantis"
I always found solo albums by RZA & GZA superior to those of their parent band Wu Tang Clan. The vibe through the album "Bobby Digital" from which this track is taken just reeks of the discomfiting.

8) Jefferson Airplane - "White Rabbit"
Another drug trippy animal as familiar in song. Good one though.

9) Pussy Galore - "Crawfish"
Some deliciously messed up Southern Blues.

10) Meat Puppets - "Monkey And The Snake"
I used to like this band when they were punk, know what I mean? I guess we all grow old and mellow.

11) The Who - "Boris The Spider"
Or what happens when you finally let the bassist (or drummer) in the band write a song. In this case it's a John Entwistle number which won't threaten the song writing prowess of Townsend and Daltrey. They even let him sing his ditty. Do you think there's vodka or gin in his mic stand drinks contraption?

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Miso Soup - Friday Flash

The preparation was not ritualised in any manner whatsoever. He writhed at the first touch of the razor's blade. He became particularly frenzied when the handmaidens were threshing his pubic hair. So much so that we had to warn him to be still, lest the acuity remove his sex altogether. All that body hair lying on the floor, did it serve to keep him warm? Well the poor lamb was shivering without his fleece, but there again that was just as likely through dread.

We endowed him with some more hair. Delilah weaved in plenty of extensions, doubling both the thickness and the weight of his thatch, tugging his neck downwards and making his muscles ache with the unfamiliarity of it all. We tried applying some false eyelashes with particularly effeminate curl, but the sweat teeming from his brow continually degraded the adhesive and so we abandoned the notion. Medieval torturers were wont to pull out their victims' fingernails, but we favoured the opposite approach. We attached acrylic nails to the bitten cuticles of his fingers. Then we painted them red. He moaned as they pinched the raw quicks like pilliwinks. We chided him that's what you get for a poor manicure regime.

Initially we plumped for clip earrings, but he screamed as the clamps bit home on his tender virgin lobes. One of our circle took pity on him and suggested some pierced earrings of post and clutch. Maybe it wasn't pity at all, maybe she knew we didn't have the  requisite instruments. Another of our colloquy offered the exquisite contrast of the stab against the squeeze, by having one pierced earring and one clip-on. We discussed the matter and it was generally felt that since men rarely wore matching pairs, we did not want to reproduce such ornamental miscegenation. We settled on the drop-pearl earring solution, necessitating fist an ad hoc piercing of both ears. The chosen dangles were of sufficient mass so as to drag down into the flesh groove and incrementally distend the maimed flesh further.

We draped bracelets, bangles and thick steel bands across his supplicating wrists, which were of so onerous bulk as to drive his beseeching hands apart and then prevent him from holding them up at all. Li-Yu knelt down to affix the filigree chain to bind his ankle, conducting its delicious agony of intangible tangibility, as the local skin's feedback sensors are sent into overdrive as they try and calculate whether there was in fact any material pressure present at all. We plugged his navel with a heavy but cheap gemstone that probably leached its impurities straight into the heart of him. We placed a faux gold chain around his abdomen, whose verdigris stained the flesh green. Penelope set a heart-shaped locket around his throat, but couldn't get it to sit flush for his protruding Adam's Apple. Nevertheless its porcelain chill made him wince and brought out a local rash of goosebumps. We debated whether to overload the décolletage with choker, necklace and pendant, but felt the unsightliness of such clutter was not representative. We allowed ourselves only one further adornment, that of a low slung lavalliere that impelled his neck to droop his head further down. However Mother would not let go of her notion, so while the bedecking continued, we allowed her to hang the pearl necklace from the man's genitalia, though she was charged with restoring it in place each time it slipped off its stubby mounting.

We idly considered a tiara crowning glory for our fashion queen victim, but felt it was a touch of overkill. Instead we opted just for the finishing layers of eye liner, rouge and lipstick. His labia were dry and cracked, so the lipstick wrought its gleeful toil of granulation reflexively drawing the response of the tongue like a spider to investigate a disturbance in its web; the chemical redolence assailing the nostrils immediately above, a constant rattling of the dragon's twin caves; while it coated and filled in those cracks with its putty that made the scaly skin squirm beneath its tyranny.

We paraded this, our first serving of Misogynist Soup up and down impromptu street catwalks where those fashion dog's dinner of the male sex gathered. None of his gender dared proclaim him a martyr.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Songs About Birds

Tweet tweet, birds sing their tiny hearts out in an attempt to woo their mates, none too dissimilar to our pop heroes. So here's 15 songs dedicated to birds, even if most of them are anthropomorphised. So to redress the balance I've also posted pretty pictures of each bird.

1) T-Rex "Ride A White Swan"
Marc Bolan/ T-Rex were around a smidgeon before I became conscious of the existence of pop & rock music, so I kind of missed the whole thing with him. My exposure to Glam Rock was more Mud, Wizzard and (whisper it) Gary Glitter. Ah such days of innocence... One of my favourite bands were called Swans. Definitely black swans though given the heaviness of their music. They're not in this chart though, because they never penned a ditty to our feathered friends.

2) Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers - "Roadrunner"
This was originally released in 1972 when I was 8 and still sub-music, but I remember seeing it on Top of The Pops at the same time as the fledgeling punk songs so it must have been re-released around 1978. Yeah I know this song's about a car, but there really is such a bird so it counts. Look, here's a picture to prove it.

3) Rolling Stones - "Little Red Rooster"
The Rolling Stones display their Southern US Delta Blues influence by covering this Howlin' Wolf song. Don't think British roosters get overwhelmed by any heat. But I could be wrong.

4) Mahalia Jackson - "His Eye Is On The Sparrow"
I only knew this from the Marvin Gaye version, but that doesn't seem to be on YouTube. But I found this version instead which is really rather wonderful.

5) John Mayer - "Vultures"
Not my sort of music, but my sort of bird. I've written about vultures in several of my stories. I think along with swans, definitely my favourite birds. An odd coupling but then that's me all over, contrary. I'm so contrary I put a song like this in my chart, even though I detest it with a passion. 

6) Nick Cave - "Black Crow King"
When Cave has his black hair cascading down to cover his face, there is something of the corvine about him. An Aussie far from home also influenced by the myth and folklore of the Delta Southern US States. 

7) Nightingales - "Urban Ospreys"
That's a band called The Nightingales singing about Urban Ospreys, not vice versa. One of those bands which garnered much critical acclaim but not much commercial success. I dunno, I did use to own all their albums, but the music just sounded too brittle and light for my tastes so I got rid of them. Still a bit undecided on them to be honest.

8) Public Image Ltd - "Albatross"
The opening track from one of the most daring and radical albums that epitomised 'New Wave' that itself emerged from the 3-chord thrash of punk rock. The album fuses punk and dub-reggae into a very angular and disorienting sound. In my all-time top 10 albums.

9) Iron Maiden - "Where Eagles Dare"
When Iron maiden first burst on to the scene, they seemed to offer a new direction for Heavy Metal, one that addressed social issues in those gloomy years of economic hardship in the 1980s. But a bit of stadium success and it was a reversion to drummers in leather shorts and light shows that could have powered a medium sized third world country. Oh well, opportunity missed.

10)  The Mob - "No Doves Fly Here"
Giving the lie to the notion that anarcho-punk couldn't be 1) elegiac 2) intelligent 3) tuneful

11) The Three Johns - "Teenage Nightingales To Wax"
Three people dancing in the audience and a giant flag. Another one of those indie bands I dutifully used to like and follow around their gigs. Can't think what i saw in them now. 

12) Big Black - "Pigeon Kill"
And then there were bands like this which I wish I had seen live, but never quite managed it. And yes that is Steve Albini's own blood over his white teeshirt. Barnstorming (barnowl storming?)

13) Killing Joke - "The Raven King"
A song written as a eulogy for a dead band member.

14) Elbow - "Starlings"
Youa lways know when a band has gone over the top, when they get a massive orchestra to back them. Portishead excepted, they're allowed to since they're maling soundtracks for movies that don't actually exist.

15) Radiohead - "Morning Mr Magpie"
The first and in all probability last time Radiohead will appear in the pages of this blog...

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Harum-Scarum - Flash Fiction Story

When confronted with happiness, she tucked her hair behind her ear to reveal a timorous smile. When anxious, she took the same strands of hair and stuck it between her teeth to gnaw on it like a hostage's gag. In between states, she often coughed up a furball of affective emotion which she had swallowed down deep.

Standing in the gallery up close to the painting and one can see that the classical master painter of nudes stripped his sitters not only of their raiment, but also their body hair. It was almost as if the bristles of his paintbrush sucked up their down and fibrils in order to draw it into and bulk its own substance.  The artist neglected to render the goosebumps that colonised their scorched earth body in place of the hair. But oil paint has long since been eclipsed by the camera. And now the glamour models shave themselves smooth. Still posing exclusively for the observer's eye.  

He was constantly fighting to hold them back. Even though they were supposed to be forces of goodness. The hair in his nose that purified and purged the air of dust, which now rather might have been helpful in stopping up his nasal incontinence. The corkscrewing hair sprouting from his ears which were supposed to help him discriminate between sounds, but actually just clotted his audition and made all bruits dull. His filamentous eyebrows now snaking like vines over his eyes were no longer battling to keep his sight clear, since all his vision these days was milky. He attacked them all with scissors and tweezer blades, but the follicle jungles would not be held at bay. Forever a three-pronged creeping advance, to bury the temple of his body like the ziggurats of ancient cultures and stand as a monument to ruin and decay. And yet he was ever grateful for the still rampant pullulation of hair on his arms. Covering over the gnarled scar tissue of youthful miscalculation. The puckered knots and corrugated boles of mangled skin rind interred beneath tendrils of gauze. Only they're turning white now could not conceal the livid red of his mangled skin quite so efficaciously.  

The Hassidic teenager wears the culturally anachronistic Shtreimel fur hat in the sweltering humidity of New York. Fur upon fur. A glorious, exalted crown wrought from a repressive Tartar order for Jews to sport tails on their heads. Yet the only exposure of human hair emerging from the furry clamp, is the corkscrewing payot breasting his sideburns. Symbolic distinguishing marks that curiously echo the curlicue tail of the verboten pig.

Every day they left the house together for their commute. She in front and being considerably shorter than her husband, he was given access to chart the spreading darkened roots of her crown as her artificial colouring was pushed further back into recession. It was none to dissimilar to wondrously tracing the seasons of a deciduous tree through the changes in the hues of its leaves. But well before the autumn of their married life, it came to represent the spreading metastasis like unseen tree roots beneath the life giving clay of her body. In time she stopped dyeing her hair. Then it fell out and disappeared altogether under chemical assault. Eventually he was leaving the house on his own, the muscle memory of his neck still inclining his vision downwards in front of him, now solely populated with the fraying 'Welcome' mat.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

War! What Is It Good For? (A Music chart at least0

For my first themed music chart of 2016 I thought I'd reflect the world situation and offer you songs about war, armies and soldiers. I'd done an earlier chart about weapons which can be viewed here. So put on your tin hats and ATTENTION!

1) Jona Lewie - "Stop The Cavalry"
An anti-war song for Christmas that went to Number one. Juxtaposes the subject of war with an upbeat brass section. Whatever happened to Jonah Lewie I wonder?

2) XTC - "Generals And Majors"
XTC were an interesting band who tried to forge a British rock sound that wasn't based around US blues. They had lots of reasonably placed records in the singles chart, and I used to own all their albums, but there was always something just a bit brittle and light about their sound to my ear.

3) Angelic Upstarts - "Last Night Another Soldier"
Punk rock  was of course very anti-war and with the ongoing 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland until the new millennium, there were plenty of songs of protest about the military. I wonder in the current climate of terrorist threat whether you could still pen such songs? Lead singer Thomas 'Mensi' Mensforth was an ex-soldier (citation needed). As was Billy Bragg. So I guess they know of what they sing

4) Gang of Four - "He'd Send In The Army"
You can sing directly about war and its abominations, or you can use war itself as an oblique metaphor for all human relationships and conflict at its heart. Like Gang Of Four do.

5) Killing Joke - "Wardance"
Killing Joke landed on the scene at punk and new wave were on their last legs and brought us a tribal electronic throb. Lead singer Jaz Coleman was very interested in paganism and this song brings all that together.

6) Abba - "Super Trooper"
and by way of complete contrast... You couldn't get a less warlike song. From the group that brought you the blood and guts of "Waterloo"

7) White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army"
A song immune fro ruin despite being appropriated by football crowds into their terrace chants. For a duo, they sure made a racket.

8) Massive (Attack) - "Five Man Army"
From the band who dropped the 'Attack' part of their own name in deference for Britain going to war in Gulf. Still, singer/rapper Tricky made recompense by producing a brilliant cover version of Public Enemy's track "Black Steel in The Hour Of Chaos" about Afro-Americans being  disproportionately conscripted.

9) Spizz Energi - "Soldier Soldier"
Always a bit of a joke band, not least because they kept changing their name, this was one of their more forceful numbers, even if the video is throwaway campery.

10) Elvis Costello And The Attraction - "Oliver's Army"
Not the official military, but a song about mercenary fighters, broadened out for an overview of world geopolitics. From someone looking so young in this video too!

11) Stiff Little Fingers - "Tin Soldier"
Well SLF were from Ulster, so I guess they were entitled to ding about 'The Troubles' since they were living right in the middle of it. Until presumably they moved to London to have music careers... I do however remember singing along to this and punching my hand in the air to the chorus.

12) Pink Floyd - "Corporal Clegg"
An hallucinogenic take on the military, from the UK, why not?

13) Minutemen - "Just Another Soldier"
Was there ever a political protest band as committed as the Minutemen? Many of their songs were anti-war, replacing indignation with the Vietnam campaign of their musical influences, with those of the goings on under Reagan in Central America.

14) Ramones - "Bliztkrieg Bop"
Blitzkrieg was an apt description of the Ramones' attack on their instruments. Sadly this song has been appropriated by a UK home delivery service. One without drones.

15) The Jam - "Little Boy Soldiers"
Colonialism causes war, Paul Weller said so. And yet all his stage and album imagery embraced the nationalism of the Union Jack...