A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Month: March, 2014

Utopian thinking

A map of Utopia

A map of Utopia

While talking about the political presumptions inherent in the academic field of bioethics, Professor Richard Ashcroft asked if it was possible to imagine a non-liberal approach to the subject. In light of the title of his talk at King’s College London last week, “Bioethics as a style of utopian thought”, I was more tempted to ask if it was possible to imagine a non-utopian approach to bioethics.

I didn’t quite dare ask, however, as I was again interloping at an academic seminar, bringing only a very specific and naive perspective with me. The title had intrigued me, sparking off my continuing interest in concepts of Utopia, and I was hunkered down at the side of the room, at a table across which bars of light were falling from the window in a peculiarly attractive manner. Bioethics is not a field I am so familiar with but by the end of Ashcroft’s talk, I was wondering how anyone could doubt that it is a utopian endeavour: the demarcation of what is good or bad in biological research and medicine or, failing that, the identification of good or bad ways to identify what’s good and bad in biomedicine. I’ve probably misunderstood the entire field, whose practitioners apparently consider it to be resolutely non-utopian, but how can you consider good/bad or right/wrong dichotomies (or even spectrums) without having a view as to what would be ‘best’, and what is the world where everything is at its best but Utopia?

Now I should admit that my only real model for thinking about Utopia is the original story by Thomas More. I feel as though his work should have some elevated status if only because its title was yet another word that he coined for the English language. But perhaps the original has been superseded and redefined by all of its successors. There is a conference on Utopian studies in Canada in October (which I learned about from a tweet from Ashcroft later in the week): perhaps that would be a good place to find out how Utopia stands amid its later imitators and rivals? Now if there was only some way I could persuade work to send me….

Anyway, I don’t think More’s Utopia is the ideal of perfection that the current understanding of ‘utopia’ would suggest. Obviously it is hard (for me) to translate and comprehend the contextual culture of 1516, but even so, More’s Utopia has some downright illiberal features including, but not limited to, the use of slavery as a penalty for ‘un-Utopian’ behaviour. It is, perhaps, a mistake to read it as a vision of a perfect society. Of course, it is no dystopia either. To use today’s parlance, maybe the original Utopia is a heterotopia, a place of good and bad, written to pass comment on contemporary English society rather than to offer a vision of something ‘better’, or even ‘best’. I suspect that More’s temperament was not so far from Ashcroft’s, with a deprecating sense of humour born of a tendency to grouchiness that may seem cynical but probably hides a great big heap of idealism. Or maybe I am projecting on to both men what I would like the truth of my own temperament to be. Are utopias visions of (imperfect) happiness from generally unhappy people?

Relating this tentatively back to bioethics for a moment, I liked a quote that Ashcroft used in his talk: “If you don’t like the Utopia you’re being sold, build another one.” It reminded me of a talk last year, in which Ernst Bloch was cited as saying something along the lines of, “Life has been put into our hands…. If there is something missing, make it – now!” Bioethics may be riddled with solutionism (seeing medical technology as a body of (potential) solutions to social and political problems), but if you don’t like that, you could build your own version instead. But be in no doubt that in considering the best way for human societies to incorporate medical advances, you are at some level envisaging an ideal, utopian society, with the ever-present caveat that utopias can only really ever be signposts, not destinations.

In the Q&A afterwards, someone referred to a description of bioethics as a jardin des plantes, or zoological garden, which Ashcroft interpreted as, among other things, a place to breed familiarity with the strange. I liked that idea very much.

Purim poem

One of the benefits of living in Stamford Hill, amid one of the largest orthodox Jewish communities in the world, is that, once a year, we get to enjoy the spectacle of Purim. While the men are under orders to get stinking drunk over the course of the day, the children have to dress up in proper, full-on fancy dress, either hired from a specialist or home-made but to such a degree of creativity and professionalism that if we ever need fancy-dress costumes for the girls, we won’t have to look very far. So here’s my rundown of costumes spotted this year….

First, Napoleon at number 59,
Then clowns, kings, bakers and coppers;
Cats and bears and maybe a wolf
in thick woollen head-to-toe costumes.

Lions, and a big-headed dalmatian swapping hats with a musketeer;
A butcher with a string of pork sausages; an African prince with ill-judged black-face and a yellow and brown striped gown; a trio of sultans in powder-blue turbans and elaborate felt-tip mustaches.
A grey-haired ‘old woman’ in tartan, and a young man with his belongings tied up in a kerchief on the end of a stick on his shoulder, seeking his fortune.

More clowns, several pirates, girls in ‘English’ school uniforms;
boys with drawn-on glasses.
A ladybird toddler; a red-faced tomato in a pram;
Two ice cream cones and a choc-ice.
A Sainsbury’s shelf-stacker, a boy with a trilby and an inky five o’clock shadow, Royal Mail delivery personnel.

Princesses – less Disney, more Anne of Hanover – and queens and soldiers and paramedics and chefs;
A penguin, two Hello Kittys, and a panda toting his brother’s replica semi-automatic rifle;
A gaggle of 1950s midwives (or possibly Salvation Army troops).
Four gift-wrapped presents and a girl dressed as a packet of sweets.

Naked launch


Mosaic, the new publication at work, finally launched this week. I’d missed a lot of the build-up, as I was in India researching a story for a week beforehand, and also because I am not really an integral part of the project team, though I will be writing more for Mosaic than most. So launch day was a bit anticlimactic for me: it was my first day back in the office after India, and although I had a piece in the first batch ever to be published on Mosaic, it wasn’t getting as much attention as some of the other four pieces.

I had a blog post drafted here all about how I had always struggled to convince my Dad that I was grateful for the Christmas presents he bought me. It detailed how I usually was grateful (our family circulated lists of desired gifts well in advance, so it was rarely a surprise but usually wanted and appreciated), but my innately low-beat expressions of gratitude failed to persuade him of my sincerity, so I had to exaggerate, to display or perform gratitude, which stank even more of insincerity, thus leading to rows and ill-feeling on all sides.

This tension between sincerity and the display of sincerity remains. It was particularly challenging this Christmas because my Dad bought me presents from my Amazon wish list – except that he managed to find a different Michael Regnier on Amazon and bought me books about intellectual progress in 19th century Hapsburg Vienna. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised when I say that I could not have been happier to receive books about the history of Austrian philosophy, but how could I persuade my Dad of that? I must be getting better at it, because I think he was reasonably convinced this time round….

But why did I want to talk about sincerity on the occasion of the publication of my first piece on Mosaic? Because I still worry that my sincerity gets lost among a certain degree of intellectual posturing in my writing (such as making the links between Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges a fundamental motif in my explanation of the science of Alzheimer’s disease). Speaking sincerely, of course, this is utterly sincere: I believed this approach would genuinely facilitate an appreciation of the difficulty of doing medical research in this disease area and in all diseases, actually. And it is important to me that a feature of this length (5000 words and up) does more than just describe events or understandings at a particular point in time. I think we authors need to tell our stories in order to create something over and above that, to construct a deeper argument, to layer meanings and interpretations so that the scientific content becomes one element of a broader, more ambitious tale.

Mosaic offers us the chance to construct that kind of story, but I was worried that the emphasis was on more of a science journalism approach, which, though no less valid, assumes an existing degree of engagement from the reader, I think. Mosaic is intended, as far as I can make out, to appeal to a wider readership than that which already consumes science journalism, and I think there is an opportunity here to try different styles of science writing and see what else is possible.

My piece, then, is not just an attempt to explain Alzheimer’s disease; it is also an attempt at a different approach to science writing. I know that this particular piece is imperfect – it is my first go, after all – but it was important to me that Mosaic should be seen to be capable of innovating in terms of content as well as in terms of how that content is distributed. And my approach seems to have won some admirers: it was picked up by Pacific Standard magazine, and has garnered some positive comments on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s more than I’d hoped for on launch day, and I hope it means I get to do more in the same vein in the future.