Sunday, February 22, 2009


I've been struggling to stay optimistic, putting it mildly, over the last few months. I've also been deluged by deadlines, many of which I've not met. But this post isn't really about my state of mind, it's more about the state of the world. As any good ecopsychologist would suggest, there's always a connection between the two. And I've been trying to get to grips with the implications of the financial crisis. It's hit our household hard - even with two decent jobs we've been struggling to maintain our overleveraged lifestyle and it's limited my mobility a lot - starting a new job, not having much spare money and trying to keep on top of a massive mortage and household maintenance bill hasn't left me with much time, cash or, frankly, inclination to 'get out there' and keep my networks going. So I've found myself in a very introspective frame of mind - which is one of the reasons this blog has been so quiet.

Which is interesting. One realisation is how much my work over the last ten years has depended on maintaining networks, and the huge hidden subsidy the family and the household has put into the maintenance of those networks - whether that's fronting up travel expenses and increasing the headroom on credit cards, days and nights time spent away from home, and the way the frenetic pace of work has taken away time from other, perhaps more important concerns, like making sure that that family and friendships are well looked after and the garden isn't full of weeds. As I wrote in 'The Creative College', a huge amount of invisible labour and hidden transaction costs get attached to collaborative ways of working, which the rhetoric of 'partnership', especially when promoted by the powerful, tends to ignore or marginalise... So I've been slowing down and trying to work out the most important things, but like most other people, have been transfixed and horrified by the scale and speed at which the economy - both globally and very personally - has unravelled.

Man on Wire was one of the films of the year for me. It's hard to say exactly why but I liked the small pun and massive metaphor of a tiny man tightrope walking between two massive phallic symbols of capitalist ambition; I liked the way the film invoked the experimental spirit of the 1970s in which demanding the impossible was still a realistic dream; and I liked the moving meditation that was necessary to keep Philippe Petit alive and on the wire.

It's an example to everyone: find the wire you want to walk, and focus your attention on it; and nothing is impossible.

But at the same time the film was sad - Petit's single minded, obesessive focus on making that monstrous journey destroyed his relationships, his friendships and left everyone around him bereft. A huge spectacle, a huge achievement, but ultimately an existential contract between life and death, an individual and the abyss. And the word 'poignancy' is too weak to describe the symbolic power of that playful act of cultural terrorism that Petit and his co-conspirators achieved in the more utopian days of the early 1970s, especially in the light of subsequent events.

So there's always a balancing act between work and play. It's one which is hard to get right, especially when the flow of money dries up as a social lubricant. And I've been as guilty as anyone else at single-mindedly persuing my various obsessions, wth the result that I"ve burnt up far too much cash trying to keep it all going. So we're having to live differently - as one lucid commentator put it - it's like the restaurant bill has to be paid after the party's over. Ultimately that restriction on money may be a good thing: it's a cleansing process that is forcing everyone to face up to what really matters, and leave other things behind. (But I'm aware that this is an easy thing for me to say, especially as even despite the economic strictures, our household has plenty of options and opportunities - and that's not true for a lot of people who, unlike Sir Fred Goodwin, have been left behind on the breadline in places like Ferguslie Park.)

Living in an overleveraged economy turns us all into tightrope walkers. Another friend, who understands money much better than me, had this to say in a recent blog post about debt:

"Minsky said that debt narrows your opportunity – it limits your future. It took me a while to work out why he was right. If you think about debt as a liability – whether personal, corporate, or national – for every dollar of debt you need an asset on the other side of the balance sheet. For an individual that asset may be your house, or it may be a portion of your future earnings. The key point is that you become beholden to the value of that asset. If it goes down, because house prices fall, or the job market sours – you’re in a pickle. However lean and mean you are. If, on the other hand you’ve got plenty of cash – a lot of fat – on the asset side of your balance sheet – that gives you a great opportunity – in a sense it’s a potential future income stream. You might choose to be lazy – work short hours and commune with your couch – or you might start a business or write a book."

So, when you're carrying debt (in my case an overextended mortgage and rather too much other debt) the tightrope strung between risk and opportunity is very taut indeed. Like a lot of people of my generation, I've been leveraging my skills and abilities but haven't been so clever at preserving cash and watching the bottom line. And now the bill has come in.

And I"ve turned back to William Basinski's incredible piece The Disintegration Loops, the story of which (especially with its 9/11 postscript) so aptly sums up this decade:

"In the process of archiving and digitizing analog tape loops from work I had done in 1982, I discovered some wonderful sweeping pastoral pieces I had forgotten about. Beautiful, lush cinematic truly American pastoral landscapes swept before my ears and eyes. With excitement I began recording the first one to CD, mixing a new piece with a subtle random arpeggiated countermelody from the Voyetra. To my shock and surprise, I soon realized that the tape loop itself was disintegrating: as it played round and round, the iron oxide particles were gradually turning to dust and dropping into the tape machine, leaving bare plastic spots on the tape, and silence in these corresponding sections of the new recording. I had heard about this happening, and frankly was very afraid of this happening to me since so much of my early work was precariously near the end of its shelf life. Still, I had never actually seen it happen, yet here it was happening. The music was dying. I was recording the death of this sweeping melody. It was very emotional for me, and mystical as well. Tied up in these melodies were my youth, my paradise lost, the American pastoral landscape, all dying gently,gracefully, beautifully. Life and death were being recorded here as a whole: death as simply a part of life: a cosmic change, a transformation. When the disintegration was complete,the body was simply a little strip of clear plastic with a few clinging chords, the music had turned to dust and was scattered along the tape path in little piles and clumps. Yet the essence and memory of the life and death of this music had been saved: recorded to a new media, remembered"

Perhaps some of the economic carnage will lead to some more radicalisation and even political polarisation, which might be a good thing. The political landscape suddenly seems much more like the 1980s, which is strange to behold in the months I approach my 40th birthday. We seemed to have left those days of less fuzzy politics behind in the Blair bubble - (now there's someone who managed to flee the crime scene at the top of the market and leave his aides to pick up the pieces!- a bit like the trickster Petit!), and the smug parade of bankers walking off into the sunset with multimillion pound pensions while the towers of capital crumble, makes the dividing lines seem much more sharply drawn. But there are some interesting emerging ideas floating around about opportunities to rethink how we live in the wake of this disaster. I'll try to chronicle some of them here and over at Creative Crunch.