MORAL TURPITUDE

MORAL TURPITUDE

ON THE SECOND DAY OF CRANKVENT: NO TO NO PRESENTS!

Every year in the lead up to Christmas one of my siblings proposes the idea that, perhaps this year, we might not exchange gifts. My sibling cites financial constraints, which, I must say, coming from someone in a double-income-no-kids situation completely boggles the mind of me, your chronically under-employed, financially precarious correspondent. That’s not a financial constraint!

Another implicit justification for this no-present-Christmas proposal is the suggestion that we don’t need presents because it’s enough to be together and we don’t need material reassurance of our love we are the world we are the children—oh, puh-leaze! Have we met? Do you know our mother?

Here is not the place to go into my abandonment issues, but I do need such reassurance. I am one amorphous, self-destructive blob of neediness. I am a vampire, falling on the most minute manifestation of your possible regard for me with the blood-lust of Angelus on the sweet, pulsing jugular of a co-ed.

And besides, Christmas is one of the few occasions I can legitimately get my hands on decent loot (vide supra the financial precariousness of your esteemed correspondent).

Moving on from dissing my sibling (who really is very generous and lovely), I have also encountered this no-present pronouncement on those occasions when I’ve spent Christmas with other orphans, both figurative and literal. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was one year when all the other orphans readily agreed to this suggestion by one of our fellows (vide supra decent and legitimate loot).

Now I understand that, perhaps for figurative orphans in particular, Christmas is a stressful time, but surely by ditching our dysfunctional families we’re making a stand against the tyranny of unhappiness and unreasonable, self-esteem-destroying expectations? We’re spending it with people we’ve chosen. Show me your love with a lime, basil, and mandarin soy candle!

What’s that? You find my demand for a lime, basil, and mandarin soy candle as evidence of your love and friendship tyrannical and unreasonable? Shut up! This is my CRANK article.

As I was saying.

I love giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. I enjoy seeing the pleasure a carefully considered gift can bring. It’s my way of showing that someone matters to me and I’ve noticed them—what they like, who they are. And, of course, it’s nice when others reciprocate.

The thing is, we give presents at this time of year because in biblical lore the magi presented the newborn Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the often piously delivered ‘Jesus is the Reason for the Season’ isn’t contradicted by the tradition of buying or making presents for others. The origins of gift giving at Christmas are far from exclusively materialistic and commercial—in fact, given the wise men were kings, they seem more political—and to suggest otherwise misses important kinds of exchange and value between friends and family members that are the very foundations of our kinship and community groups.

*cue The Little Drummer Boy*

KIRSTY L (@KIRSTY_L), BRISBANE

PRESENTS: THEY'RE IN THE BIBLE. 'Christmas morning—hope realised'. Wood engraving by E Evans (engraver) and N Chevalier (artist). Published in  The illustrated Australian news for home readers , December 31, 1872 by Ebenezer and David Syme, Melbourne. State Library of Victoria, IAN31/12/72/SUPP/265.

PRESENTS: THEY'RE IN THE BIBLE. 'Christmas morning—hope realised'. Wood engraving by E Evans (engraver) and N Chevalier (artist). Published in The illustrated Australian news for home readers, December 31, 1872 by Ebenezer and David Syme, Melbourne. State Library of Victoria, IAN31/12/72/SUPP/265.

Speaking of presents, you should really buy a copy of Materiality: SURFACE for all your friends and relatives. Or, back copies (of PRECIOUS, TIME and BOOK), they're cheaper. Demonstrate your love and affection and head on over to the pinknantucket press shop.

MORAL TURPITUDE

TALKING AT THE MOVIES IS ACE

I hold that talking loudly with friends during the movies is a mark of the truly civilised. This argument may not satisfy everyone, so I hasten to add: I also look highly on the practice of talking loudly during the theatre, concerts, poetry readings, and especially at art galleries while the art is doing whatever it is that art does. 

Firstly, it is pleasant for those involved (Epicureanism). Secondly, it is beneficial for society as a whole (Utilitarianism). The first point is obvious to all; the second will take a little discussion, which I will enter into shortly. Thirdly, the movie itself may not be worth paying any attention to: recently I attended a screening of Godzilla with my brothers, and we proceeded to have a vigorous conversation about anything and everything to while away the two hours it took for the eponymous gigantic prehistoric lizard to wreak its entirely predictable devastation on several cities. 

To return to my second point: it is held against the talkers-over that they are no good to anyone, that they are distracting themselves and others from the art, and that they are not paying attention to whatever is the point that the movie is supposed to be making. This is summed up in a Sterne declamation in a previous CRANK:

But to my mind, if you enter a cinema—or any other theatre—you are making a compact with the proprietors, with the general public, and, damn it, with Art, to sit down, shut up, and pay attention. By all means, check the weather during the previews, text your mum during the ads, play another round of 2048 when the screen pops up futilely requesting that you turn your bloody phone off. Once the lights dim and the film starts, however, you need to put that thing in your pocket before someone puts it elsewhere. 

And there is a great deal of truth to this asseveration: it is exceedingly impolite to be fiddle-faddling with mobile phones, iPads, iPods, and the like when you could be engaging in pleasant conversation with your companions. 

However, it is hard to know what the point of Art, with a capital A, is at all. Art is utterly mysterious: coming from a place we know nothing about, and going to a destination about which our knowledge is somewhat less certain. Who is to say that in letting people talk loudly over a movie, that a great discovery will not inadvertently be made? In former days, we used to make more allowance for these possibilities; people would attend plays and operas to shout for the heroes, hiss the villains, regularly pelt poor performers with bits of fermenting vegetables, and take part in the occasional riot. Opera stalls could be the setting of scenes of the greatest debauchery, but also the highest genius: Paul Morphy, the greatest chess player of his day, once played a famous game at a Paris opera house during a performance of Bellini's Norma. [1]

Besides, sometimes the best way of paying attention is not paying attention. I learned more about the London Symphony of Ralph Vaughan-Williams—a composer whom I love—by not listening to it and simply pottering around doing mundane tasks while the music was playing in the background than I would have ever learned by listening to it intently. This is appropriate, as Vaughan-Williams’ art was in large part subconscious and instinctive; music came to him in dreams; he specialised in setting folk songs, music written by nobody-in-particular and in no-key-especially, for nobody-else-in-particular. Coming to his own in the age of cinema, many of Vaughan-Williams’ pieces are therefore written for audiences who will be too busy paying attention to beautiful actors playing charismatic characters uttering witty dialogue to forward the riveting plot unfolding in the scenic landscape to think much about the music—which is all the more effective because of it. Really, are there any arts apart from the most turgid and meaningless, that we cannot be distracted from? I love Walter Scott’s novels—which is why I still have many books of his on my shelf that I have still not read. (Don’t we all need something to look forward to?). And so on.

By now, I have rather gone off the point of this essay, but as the point of people talking over films is their tactful missing of the point, the lack of point at this point is very to the point. 

Actually, as a poet and dabbler in the arts myself, I’d be more than a little concerned if people started focusing too intently on my works. It is said that English composer Benjamin Britten played through Johannes Brahms’ piano music once every year just to make sure he still hated it. 

TIM TRAIN, MELBOURNE

[1] Astute historians may quote Wikipedia, noting that “Morphy created this brilliant game while spending his time trying to overcome his blocked view of the opera, while the performers tried to catch glimpses of what was going on in the Duke's box.” This is true; however, it is doubtful that such a brilliant game would have been played if he was actually paying attention to the board. In this sense, Morphy was attending a game of chess only to be pleasantly distracted by an opera, not the other way around. 

Hogarth well understood the importance of not paying proper attention to artistic performances. Though referred to by the original publisher as "the laughing audience", clearly there is much more going on here. Marriage (or some less formal relationship) is being proposed and rejected in the back row. Without theatres as a venue for covert nookie, who amongst us would even exist? And what better time to discuss the content of a treasure map, while simultaneously selling apples (or possibly buns), than during a performance of Fielding's The Intriguing Chambermaid ? Lastly, the importance of theatres as a hatching ground for various evil schemes may have been overlooked, as evidenced by the expressions of the majority of the audience.  The inside of a theatre and the reactions of different parts of the audience to the unseen play . Etching by W. Hogarth, 1733. Wellcome Library No. 39146i

Hogarth well understood the importance of not paying proper attention to artistic performances. Though referred to by the original publisher as "the laughing audience", clearly there is much more going on here. Marriage (or some less formal relationship) is being proposed and rejected in the back row. Without theatres as a venue for covert nookie, who amongst us would even exist? And what better time to discuss the content of a treasure map, while simultaneously selling apples (or possibly buns), than during a performance of Fielding'sThe Intriguing Chambermaid? Lastly, the importance of theatres as a hatching ground for various evil schemes may have been overlooked, as evidenced by the expressions of the majority of the audience. The inside of a theatre and the reactions of different parts of the audience to the unseen play. Etching by W. Hogarth, 1733. Wellcome Library No. 39146i

MORAL TURPITUDE

PANDAS: UNFIT FOR CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP, EXISTENCE

Few would dispute that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF; previously known as the World Wildlife Fund) is wrong in their assertion of being “the world’s leading independent conservation body” or that their aim to conserve “priority” places and species is anything short of laudable and, perhaps, even ecologically essential. But why the panda? Why has the panda been the logo since the organisation was founded with the best of intentions in 1961? The WWF itself tells us that according to the original designer, WWF founder Sir Peter Scott, the logo needed an animal that was “beautiful”, “endangered” and had “appealing qualities”. That an animal is beautiful or appealing is a dangerous rationale for wanting to conserve it; it relies on aesthetic human judgements rather than appreciation of the ecological pressures under which the world suffers. We shall return to this point and the consequences thereof below.

There is no doubt the panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is threatened by extinction, nor that the threat is to a large degree of human origin—mainly due to habitat destruction and poaching. The principal concern with using the giant panda as the logo for so important a cause is that the panda ought not to be prevented from going extinct.

The evolution of the panda has followed an interesting biological path, to suit its environment. As we know, ‘fittest’ in evolutionary terms does not mean ‘optimal’ but rather something more like ‘good enough for now’. What was ‘good enough’ for the panda in an earlier era is insufficient now. Humans have negatively affected the natural habitat of the panda, undoubtedly, but the reality is that pandas fit so precariously into their environment in the first place that entirely natural environmental change would have effected the same result.

A few facts will suffice to explain the natural fragility of the panda as a species. Principally, the panda is not adept at reproduction: short, annual oestrous periods, single offspring, and high dependency of the infant on the mother. Other species balance such limitations with benefits, as for example the human, whose offspring is even more dependent on the parent or parents and for longer. The pay-off, however, is improved and superior brain development. Moreover, although anatomically and genetically a carnivore, the panda subsists almost entirely upon bamboo; the body of the panda is of limited fitness to digest plant matter and so must eat constantly while deriving but little nutrition or energy from its diet. The panda’s fitness to survive can only be described, generously, as being of the ‘good enough for now’ variety.

So, let us consider the purpose of the WWF logo. That the panda is cute and beloved seems evident from the appeal of the animal in zoos and popular culture. That the choice of this animal for the logo makes sound business sense is also clear. But it did not evolve to be cute. Cuteness is not a Darwinian survival strategy but a subjective human reaction. Not only is this an insufficient reason for wanting to conserve this animal, it is actually dangerously consistent with a historical human practice of looking at the world too narrowly, seeing only utility or aesthetics rather than a holistic ecology. The panda logo blinds us to the broader demands of conservation.

What then are the consequences of the extinction of the panda? It would represent yet another human failure with respect to the state of our planet. However, from an ecological point of view, the removal of the panda from the local environment would have no discernible impact. Some may argue that the panda draws in those who are as yet ignorant of the nature of conservation and that through the panda such people become aware and committed. Perhaps. But the panda logo does not tell the truth of the responsibility we have. It is not the unfit animals we should concern ourselves with, but those animals which are so supremely well-fitted to their environment that they could only become extinct due to human action. Indeed, many such animals are indicators of rampant damage resulting from human agency and—depending on the role of such animals—can have dramatic consequences on their ecology. The WWF would better serve their cause with a logo that drew an ecological rather than aesthetic attention to such animals—animals such as the camel, the shark, the cockroach. These creatures are wonderful examples of biological fitness or even, as it were, deservedness to survive. They will continue to thrive as long as they are not subjected to human interference. The giant panda, for all its cuteness, is not a “priority” species but an evolutionary dead-end just a few bad bamboo crops away from extinction.

JEREMY DALY, CITIZEN OF EARTH

Detail from Buffon’s Celebrated Cockroach Exterminator [advertisement], 1876. Source: Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection, State Library of Victoria (H96.160/2243). Buffon is not thought to have made a Celebrated Panda Exterminator as demand was not sufficient.