Tonight (Monday, 7 April, 2014), Professor Charles Raab is giving a lecture on Surveillance, Social Values and Human Rights to the Edinburgh Group of the Humanist Society of Scotland. The HSS website relates that the
“…talk will focus upon contemporary surveillance and the challenges it poses to range of social values and rights.”
This year, Edward Snowden was elected rector of the University of Glasgow. This elicited an interesting reaction on BBC Radio Scotland’s morning call-in programme. Most of the callers were furious that such a frivolous result had emerged from a body who has previously elected heavyweights like Greg Hemphill. Snowden gave the Alternative Queen’s Speech on Channel 4 on Christmas Day, and came across as a guy who had given his actions a great deal of thought. Unlike the people who called in to ask why he hadn’t simply reported the NSA’s abuses to his superiors. Which he had done.
Staying with Scottish links to the ethics of modern information technology, one of this past winter’s London Review of Books winter lectures was given by the Scot Andrew O’Hagan. The lecture was on the subject of O’Hagan’s attempt to ghost write an autobiography of Julian Assange.
I’m not going to dwell on the subject of Assange himself, who is the embodiment of a kind of Western form of koan — he becomes less interesting, and more petty and tawdry the more one learns about him, until the viewer teeters on an apparent brink of insight regarding what the existence of Assange says about the modern world.
So for purposes of this post, I’m more interested in the introductions that the director of the British Museum and the LRB’s publisher give to O’Hagan, as well as the writer’s more general ponderings. Neil MacGregor, a Scot himself, focuses on O’Hagan as a Scot in the intellectual life of London, a latter day Boswell. Nicky Spice notes that his associate editor, colleague and friend is quite the polymath (or, the steal a phrase from the blog’s favourite polymath, a “high-functioning dilettante”):
an investigative reporter who is also a leading novelist; a novelist who is also an essayist.
In considering how a novelist’s training might complement an investigative reporter’s work, the publisher relates James Meek’s remark that the taxman should allow him to set off all his life’s expenses against tax, since as a novelist, he was always working.
For those of us who are not novelists, this is an arresting thought — the idea that the novelist’s mind is always on duty… like a whale metabolising plankton.
Just as there are writers with a painter’s eye, and writers who have a musician’s eye, Spice like to relate the lightness in O’Hagan’s work to the fact that he is a wonderful dancer, while acknowledging that this is, perhaps, just a metaphor.
It is solely a metaphor, of course, but maybe there is something about the nature of the dancer that lends itself to the possibility of good writing. I’ve written previously about the pleasure instilled by the visit of Juilliard’s young dance students to the Hospital For Joint Diseases. And I often tell Mrs Stroke Bloke, an enthusiast of ballet classes and a wonderfully alive and instinctive dancer, how much I enjoy queitly watching her move. The dancer is aware of how his or her body moves, and I speculate that this is a great jeté of a leap in the direction of apoplectic.me’s aspiration to consistent mindfulness.
Certainly, O’Hagan is thoughtful about the nature of his work in the lecture, particularly as (almost) the ghost-writer of Assange’s biography. I’ve written often about the importance of narrative in the attempts a brain injury survivor makes at recovery. O’Hagan expands narrative’s landscape when he quotes Denis Diderot, via John Banville’s Victor Maskill:
We erect a statue in our own image inside ourselves – idealised, you know, but still recognisable – and then spend our lives engaged in the effort to make ourselves into its likeness.
What a wonderful image! Although, in order to chip away at the imperfections — release the statue from grey granite — one has to be able to see the reality of one’s self. This is the tragedy of the character of Julian Assange in O’Hagan’s lecture: the stay-up-all-night, sleep-all-day hacker who lives on cold pizza likes to see himself as a kind of rock star, taking for granted a coolness and a charisma that the essayist’s eyes and ears can’t perceive. A sad part of O’Hagan’s story is that in rushing headlong towards the Moloch he has erected in his perceived likeness, Assange sacrifices friends and supporters, while enemies are venerated.
This myopia is supplemented by what the writer describes as
…a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop —