Iain Cameron's Diary
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2004-02-04 - 9:40 a.m.
The Bacharach story has moved onto his work with Dietrich – an extraordinary period given that she was such a dominant and unusual personality. I suppose he must have acquired some strong insight into what it is to put a song across.
First day back in my office after a week of external input from different quarters – much less fun structuring all the ideas and contacts and trying to ensure that things follow through. The Quadrangle input looks very powerful and I need to process that for Bob.
I was very irritated by Blair’s announcement of the latest enquiry on Iraq. The fact that he has been forced into it is not the problem – that’s a good example of the real process of politics at work. When I was at the College, Robin Butler was the chairman of our advisory board and so I got to observe him at close quarters. In fact I rather like the man – no that s not the problem. The annoying thing was Blair’s style of reasoning when he was before the senior MPs – a self satisfaction and an inability to appreciate what his real problem is and how best to cope with it.
Butler famously said that half the picture can tell the whole truth. Obviously this is a patrician argument against full disclosure and in favour of mandarin power. What I like about the half picture analogy is its philosophical richness. It is an argument in favour of philosopher-king style mandarins manipulating society’s self understanding.
You need the right kind of mandarins for this to work and I am not suggesting for one second that’s what we’ve got at the moment. The absence of the current head of the civil service and cabinet secretary from current debates is very striking.
But I think there was a time in the last two hundred years when an interesting group of middle class aspirants saw their role in this way – esp oin the decades following the first Reform Bill. All kinds of issues surfaced – whether the country should strengthen its culture by investing in design education, the causes and remedies of disease in cities, the need for a technological elite etc. There used to be an expression used to describe the people who advocated these causes and sustained these debates – the English intellectual aristocracy. The Huxleys were one of the dynasties that threaded their way through and it’s a nice irony how Aldous ended up in Santa Monica inventing a different version of society. There is an artistic thread through as well – the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement into early Modernism and probably as far as St Ives.
My own heritage isn’t in this stream at all. I come from Highland Catholic tribes who were alienated after the 1745 rebellion. One of the few ways back in was through the armed forces and my grandfather was a professional soldier who was in the BEF in 1914 and fought at the first Mons battle and retreat. His role was organisational – managerial – he specialised in logistics which was a key role as the first world war became more mobile in the last year or so. He spotted that the country was investing in a technological elite to support air defence in the 1920s and put my father into the programme. He was in the same class as an apprentice as the person who invented the jet engine. Eventually my father became a key figure in certification – before an aircraft can fly it has to have the design approved and someone has to certify that it has been manufactured according to the design. So I suppose at a push you could say that my heritage is more the Scottish Enlightenment than the English cultural reformers.
My first choice of career was in socio-technical studies – which was an emerging field when I graduated. I have been working on this quite intensively over the last couple of months as our organisation has moved itself into a strategic position on the national productivity debate. This area of work has never really found a name for itself and this is an indicator of the way it has failed to properly position itself. Similarly my chosen area of study – the sources of the image of the “scientific society” in Brave New World – was one where I was never able to find like minded individuals to teach or assess me. I think that s just a risk that you run when you move into a new discipline – you might find a valid area but not find people to help you develop it and not have the resources to do it fully on the set timescale.
The appealing thing about Butler is that he is a credible model for the kind of governing classes who set up and ran BNW. You could say for example that that was a society which ran on “half the picture” – and there’s a debate in the book about whether it presented or concealed some of the major truths. It was certainly a society where the moral principles of the Victorian Reformers – the greatest good of the greatest number – were put into practice.
But of course its also an attack on humanism – the suggestion is that you have to engineer out of humanity some of the quirks which conflict with the prevailing socio-technical system. Huxley suggests that you can’t quite refine the socio-technical system so that can cope with humanity as it is. Furthermore, Huxley suggests that you lose true creativity when you make these adjustments.
The creativity claim is not as benign as it sounds. The character that represents creativity is obviously deranged and he ends up in a risible situation. Huxley seems to be saying that highly creative people are weird and disruptive. And he makes this point on the basis of close observation of, for example, D H Lawrence who was a good friend the last ten or fifteen years of his life.
Indeed after BNW mainstream English society concluded that Huxley himself got weirder and weirder. He moved outside the legitimate social boundaries that the English intellectual elite sanctioned. At least he got to be good friends with Stravinsky in LA.