Saturday, April 30, 2005

End of de World Explained

This marvellous piece, via Caoimhe.


I might have to write something proper on this in the next few weeks but, in the light of my own tentative comments on museums, I was interested to see this brief comment from à Gauche.

Quixotic Light

I see that Julian Evans has a piece in this week's Prospect Magazine on Don Quixote and Enlightenment. Well worth the read.

Music Roundup

Not much of note going on this week: I'm busy getting stuff together, and trying to finish a piece on Northern Ireland and identity (which means I'll be in most of the weekend). In the meanwhile, I'm listening to some pretty good music that a friend gave to me in SA: Laura Veirs's Carbon Glacier is very good, a little bit (but not too) country-ish. As is Gillian Welch's Time (the Revelator). Other music I picked up included R.L. Burnside's Come on In and various bits and pieces by Sigur Rós. All recommended.

Thursday, April 28, 2005


If you didn't see the spoof party political broadcasts on the Channel 4 News this week, they're available on the website here. My favourite is the strangely mad Lib Dem ad. Great stuff!

Slugger Event

I've posted a few photos from last night's Slugger event, held here at the Institute of Governance, over on Flickr.


Chris Smith has filed a number of reports on HIV in Africa for Radio 4's Today Programme. The final one, this morning, came from South Africa. You can hear it here (realplayer required). Well worth listening to.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Non no nej

Interesting post over on a fistful of Euros, suggesting the possible routes open to the EU after a rejection or set of rejections of the treaty. The consequences of each make interesting, not to mind sobering, reading.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Bright Spot

Ah well, a bright spot in a busy day. I received a complimentary copy of the 2nd edition of Frederickson and Ghere's Ethics in Public Management in my pigeonhole today. Of course, by far the most interesting chapter is the one that Mel and I wrote, entitled 'Accountability Through Thick and Thin: Moral Agency in Public Service.' A nice little ego-boost if ever there was one!
I think Mel will be putting a copy of the chapter up on his site, but it'll be password protected. That said, all you gotta do is ask!

Sunday, April 24, 2005


Well I'm back from South Africa, having had a marvellous, busy time. Anyway, I'll post on other aspects of the trip, namely some work reflections, at some other stage. In the meanwhile, I've posted photos from my weekend at Gwahumbe in Kwazulu Natal over on Flickr (apologies if my letting the image above spill over the margins offends your sensibilities!). The place is wonderful and the staff were marvellous: I could have stayed a lot longer! Anyway, since it's an hour's drive from Durban airport, I fully recommend the reserve as a place to recuperate after the long flight from Europe.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Tick Tock

Light posting for the next week or so. My gratitude to Anonymous, who recommended Tony Bennett's The Birth of the Museum in response to my previous post: I've done a quick Google and the book looks fascinating. I'll seek it out!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Framing the Nation

For some reason I'm fascinated by the cultural impact and social intent of museums. I keep meaning to read up on the issue, but never quite get around to it. Anyway, a rather confused stab at articulating my thoughts follows.

I suppose my fascination is rooted in the formation of museums as official forums (fora?) for the construction and maintainance of collectivities. The British Museum was established and maintained specifically for the purposes of educating the people: providing workers with a place where to go and to view the treasures and collections of early Empire. The museum was intended to have an improving aspect: a familiarity with the furniture of the classics would, it was envisaged by Sloane et al, have an educative effect on the people. Quite a democratic and noble idea for the time.

But I think the museum1 has a more significant or tangible role in creating and sustaining the collectivities within which we live.

What's fascinating about a museum (in a certain sense) is not so much the exhibits but the museum itself. The exhibits are merely furniture, supporting the mirror that society holds up to itself through the museum.

History as presented there as an element in continuity. The exhibition of Egyptian, Roman and Greek antiquities in the museum is not simply a function of Empire. Rather it proposes a connection between Britain and the classical world. It's a rather bold statement of civilisation, and place. In a sense, it's timelessness suggests Britain's future legacy , if you see what I mean.

The sense of continuity sets the nation outside time.

The paper I was at speculated in part about the manner in which we might look at archives will change with the advent of hypertext and internet searching. Certainly research in the humanities has, in a rather quietly subversive way, been revolutionised by computers. But I wonder if the same will be the case for nations. Though 19th century nationalism, created in part by things like museums, is defunct anyway (which is different to saying that nationalism is defunct), but we are left with the question of how nations will be sustained in the face of the fragmentation of sources of information (newspapers, as Benedict Anderson claimed, playing an important role in the imagining of communities) and in the increased fragmentation of debate, with people simply opting not to engage in arguments that they would have had to engage in under old structures. They can just go set up their own website. And what of great public buildings and works? Their role in imagining our collective selves will diminish.2

And what of the exhibits themselves? How, as individual items, are they framed by the museum? Well, as I said, they are simply furniture: I'm especially struck by the Easter Island statue above (click on the photos for larger images). It is simply a decoration around which the museum has set a café. It might as well be a water feature. I don't think this reflects badly on the people eating nearby. Rather, it highlights the individual artefacts purpose in the whole setting: it's simply there to furnish the national frame. The sense that these objects might once have been sacred, or the sense that they were once laden with distinct meanings and significance is lost. They are no more than etchings in the museum's significance to us.

1 Not just the British Museum, mind. In my experience many others perform this function. The British Museum is most interesting to me because I'm fascinated by these aspects of British national identity. Anyway, I had photos for the British Museum!

2 Of course, I'm overstating the case here: chances are that the internet will remain a distinctly marginal toy for quite a while yet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Hey: that's pretty cool! BA mails me two days before my flight reminding me of the flight time and requesting extra info, the provision of which means I can use the fast-track and avoid Heathrow's terminal one's nightmarish queues! Well done corporate monolith!

Sunday, April 10, 2005

What's Been Found

I took this in the British Museum a couple of years ago and have always liked it. Some online tampering really adds to the panel's idealised beauty as, strangely enough, does the slight camera-shake.

More Blogroll

Two photoblogs added to the blogroll this weekend. I'm left absolutely speechless by Lara Barrett: Photography. I came across Lara via a comment on This is Diopter. The images are stunning, intimate and yet abstracted in a dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic way.

Tim Gasperak's Big Empty is another new discovery. Tim's photos are very beautiful and also slightly disturbing. The current image (as I type) is profoundly claustrophobic but enveloping and welcoming at the same time.

Also, I've added the very funny, which I came across via a panel on Irish blogging on RTÉ's The Big Bite (which, in turn, I came across via Caoimhe).


I notice in yesterday's Guardian an article reporting that residents of a village in Wiltshire are seeking an Anti-Social Behaviour Order against a man's website which is a spoof of the villages 'official' site.

I'm not sure if this might be the first time that people have sought an ASBO against online activity, and it's hard to draw from a hard case (the guy at issue, it seems, is the local troublemaker and it does indirectly involve a village's online space, after all). Nevertheless the issue does suggest some important implications for blogging. Is it possible that ASBOs could be levied against us for being our contrarian selves. If an obnoxious blogger repeatedly targetted an individual or corporation could these powers be used against them?

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Meeting House Square, Dublin

I was just messing with this photo and thought, after posting cheerfully flowery photos this morning, I might post this one now. Really, I should be doing some work... Anyway, I love the suspicious look on the complete stranger's face in the background! If you load the large size you can just about see it.

So the World Appears

Here's a test: can you, off the top of your head, name 10 people who were born and died within the span of the 19th Century? Don't go to Google or wrack your brains too much! Just have a stab at it.1

The reason I ask is because I'm fascinated by the hype of legacy surrounding the death of the Pope.

Legacy, it strikes me, is something that happens, in an unpredictable way, across great spans of time. Perhaps we can predict who will be remembered as we live the moment. Hence childless, chaste Salieri's descent into madness in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: he could see Mozart's genius and, through Mozart, his own legacy slipping from his fingers:
I was to be bricked up in fame! Embalmed in fame! Buried in fame...

This was my sentence: I must endure thirty years of being called 'distinguished' by people incapable of distinguishing! ...and finally - [God's] Masterstroke! When my nose had been rubbed in fame to vomiting - it would all be taken away from me. Every scrap.

I must survive to see myself become extinct.

But mostly legacy just doesn't work like that. It is a far more fickle and serendipitous thing. How many of today's writers and thinkers will take their places in tomorrow's canon? Very few I suspect. And our current ideas of those who will be remembered may well be forgotten themselves.

What of John Paul II then?

Well, I think there are several elements to our idea of him now. There's his role in liberating the East of the continent from Stalinist rule. But will this be remembered as a footnote to the 1914-1989 post-imperial settlement of Europe, the short 20th century as Eric Hobsbawm calls it? Anyway, the Pope was one of many people who played a role in the collapse of Sovietism, from Gorbachev (hat-tip to Slugger) to, gulp, Reagan. Moreover, although he made many statements about the ravages of consumerism in the developed world and the (far more damaging) ravages of exploitative capitalism in the developing world, let's hope that he won't be the only person pointing that out before it comes to an end.

But what of his inadvertant role in spreading AIDS in Africa where, as he died, some areas had a HIV rate of 30% of more. Again, will the dead Pope simply be one other conservative, religious, governmental, whatever, who preferred moral certainty over the realities of others' lives?

And what of his non-response to child abuse allegations, and what they symbolised and entailed? I think I heard the Archbishop of Cloyne2 saying that, when he was sent back to Ireland from Rome, the Pope had expressed concern for the decline in faith across Ireland. I was struck that the clergy, including the Pope, seemed oblivious to their more than partial responsibility for this decline. Child abuse is just the most awful aspect of the clergy's misconduct in the using their power, in Ireland and elsewhere. Control over education systems that were designed more as recruitment vehicles for the priesthood rather than as means to prepare children for life, control over healthcare that had more to do with sexual neuroses than healing etc., might have come to an end, but these all played a role in people's turning away from the Church.

Filled with good and wonderful men and women, the church was systematically corrupt. John Paul II must bear some responsibility for this.

The modern idea of morality is rooted in behaviour, in the idea that we judge people as rational selves who either respond or don't respond to their duties and obligations. Given what I've just written about John Paul (not just me neither, Polly Toynbee and Terry Eagleton really laid into him in the Guardian), I think that he fails on these terms. He made a number of moral mistakes and these errors had real, tangible and catastrophic impacts on a vast number of people.

And yet.

But this is problem with my (charicatured, admittedly) image of morality. It leaves out the far more difficult concept of character. For example, it is at least theoretically possible to make the mistake of being a racist (believing that skin colour etc., has a bearing on the moral status of others) and yet to be distinctly virtuous, charitable, kind, selfless etc. The Pope, by analogy, might have failed a number of moral tests, or made a number of moral mistakes, and yet mostly, if not always, acted out of a deep concern for the welfare and well-being of others. In other words, he was a good person. And that might be the best we can say for someone.

And on the subject of legacy, well, I guess (literally) that John Paul II will be remembered primarily for his putting an end to proselytising to Jews. The implications of that are hugely important in the history of religion. As Clifford Longley put it in the Guardian,
[The Pope] has of course reiterated the teaching of the second Vatican council that the Jews cannot be blamed of the death of Christ, and that anti-semitism is a grave sin. But he has gone much further, coming close to declaring Judaism an open channel to God, a valid parallel to Catholicism. As a result the Catholic church has officially stopped evangelising the Jews. For them - and them alone, frankly - conversion is no longer deemed necessary for salvation.

This revolution was encapsulated in the few words of the famous prayer which he posted into a niche in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his millennium year visit to Israel. This is the most solemn and serious method pious Jews use to communicate with their God. By his action, Pope was declaring that the method works. By his words, he was undoing 2,000 years of Christian supersessionism. No matter what generations of churchmen had written and said and the clear impression in the New Testament to the contrary, the ancient Jewish covenant with God was still in force. The prayer simply stated: "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant." This was the high moral moment of his reign. If all else is forgotten, this deserves to be remembered in a thousand years.

I guess it will.

1 I should say that I failed this test myself! I could only think of six people, all British or Irish and all either politicians or novelists.

2 I could be wrong about this: I was half-listening and the comment just caught my ear.


Well, it's a miserable and cold day here in Belfast, so I thought I'd cheer myself up by posting some photos I took last week when it looked a little more like Spring...

By the way, Tom Cosgrave has a much better photo of daffodils over on This is Diopter. At least this way we can all pretend that the weather's lovely!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

One Step Forward

Great post by John Quiggin over on Crooked Timber on this week's appointment of a President in Iraq and whether it all was worth it or not. Good comment thread too.

I think I agree with what John has to say, although I think another (certainly marginal to the people of Iraq) cost of the war will probably manifest itself over a longer period: that is, the erosion of the strictly demarked relationship between executives in Britain and the US and their intelligence services. The manner in which Bush and Blair fibbed about WMD, based it on doctored intelligence reports and then blamed the intelligence services will, I'm guessing, have some impact, at least in the lifetimes of these administrations.

Frozen Ham and Eggers at the Penny Arcade

Well, it's been a quiet few weeks here at NINS. I've returned from Dublin to Belfast and have now got a stack to catch up on before making the rather longer journey to South Africa, first to Durban and from there to Grahamstown on the Eastern Cape. As always, I'm not really looking forward to the travelling, but it'll be a fun week.

Today's task is to start on a redraft of the paper I plan to present in the Politics and International Studies Department, Rhodes University, on identity and Northern Ireland. I've published on (largely southern) Irish nationalism before, so am writing a rather stylised account of Ulster Unionism.

The article has to serve a two-fold purpose, though, because it's to appear in a collection of papers, most of whom will attack my position. So I have to say what I want to say (a continuation of my usual theme, that setting up states based on cultural claims will end in tears) and rebut the expected points of my fellow authors. I think I've found a way to do this, by basing the piece on the claim that Unionism as an Ulster/British/Protestant identity is at base political, driven by fears about the border. The NI state, explicitly designed for the protection of Unionists from the perceived threat of all-Ireland rule, was bound to fail, since it was bent to that purpose, just as its mirror down south very nearly failed because it was partly aimed at achieving some mythical, mystical, Catholic Irishness, rather than having regard for the welfare of all citizens or towards the creation of wealth. In other words, the double secession of the 1920s was pretty much a disaster for all of us.

The good thing is that communicating this to people in other countries really just entails a discussion about Belfast, the politics of fear and cultural claims in general. I'll just skip the more boring theoretical bits and get on with trying to get to grips with NI's literally intractable problems. Fun!

Monday, April 04, 2005

What I do When I'm Not Doing This

I see that Mel, whizz-kid that he is, has posted our paper on his site. So you can see that I'm not just a feckless bastard. I'm a feckless bastard with a word processor!