Half Awake in a Fake Empire …

The National, Usher Hall Edinburgh, 21st of September 2017

I am half awake in a fake empire …, I could be anyone/where in the present political climate, in the UK with the neoliberals chasing post Brexit trade deals with former colonies. In the US trading insults, a dotard to a rocket man. Instead I am watching “The National” at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. With the name like “The National” one might expect them to be a political band in some way, though clearly it is not the same as the type of nationalism promoted by Trump, it is probably more akin to the constitutional patriotism suggested by writers like Habermas (see here ), the inclusive sense that looks beyond ethnicity or citizenship to pluralistic values, the nationalism claimed by people in Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Which, given the intellectualism of the band, they have probably read.

Figure 1: Matt Berninger from the National, Edinburgh Usher Hall 21st of September 2017: Credit Hollie Taylor, CC BY SA 4.0

While we waited for them to come on, the screens at the back of the stage provided a glimpse backstage, they didn’t appear to be sitting around reading the New Yorker, all was strumming, stretching and guitar picking. At the front, there was no pushing, once the band came on I didn’t feel myself pinned to the barriers at the front, and indeed the only drink that was thrown was from the stage itself. At one point I went to the bar, “IPA please”, “sorry love, sold out”. Only at something as middle class as “The National” could you go to the bar in Scotland and find the only thing left was the Tennent’s Lager.

Getting back to the front was easy, polite and without a drop spilled. If the crowd was polite, the bands carefully constructed sounds, building waves of noise seemed in rude health. As the gig progressed the drummer shed layers, his brother head down sweating the bass. With the Dessner brothers on guitar/piano watching each other cool and knowingly, as the singer become more and more of a dishevelled angry middle aged man. I note the Guardian suggested this new album was their middle aged album , to me, on that evening, it was the older ones like “Mistaken for Strangers” that seemed filled weary melancholy. And anger, the first time I saw them live (not on YouTube) was 2008 at the Green Man. I remember the musicianship, the tightness of movement, but I don’t recall the rasping anger of now.

Figure 2: The National in Full Flow, Matt has a moment by himself to scream into the mic, Credit Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

As he sang the opening lines of “Fake Empire” I was reminded of a poem I had read years ago, called the “Mushroom Gatherers”, all together in the woods, passing, not talking,  written in the 1950’s, inspired by the work of Polish poet Mickiewicz, it is often read as a comment on the performance of political process. To me it seemed to speak to the way without care we can sleepwalk through ill times.  If you scroll to 13:30 you can listen to a reading of it here.  And learn more about Donald Davie here.

Of the songs that seemed most filled with angry sadness it was “Mr November”, with the band thrashing about and Matt foetal on the floor. For me it seemed to capture this strange feeling one has these days – what the fuck is going on!?!. Mr November was Obama, and even though they claim to be not too political, Obama went to their songs time again for a bit of hope.

Now, how are we to feel constitutionally patriotic, soaked in shared values, when our systems have thrown up odd these odd replacements.



The Captive Mind, Publics and THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE [TINA]


In this series of posts I want to explore the notion of the public, the public within public services and as articulated within discourses in public administration. While I do not make explicit reference to scholarship in the area, as this is not a review of scholars in public administration real or imagined publics.  It is an attempt to frame similar issues, like democratic process, and the public sphere that concern researchers in this area. In particular to think about how designers imagine the public.

It is an attempt to frame them in relation to different ways of knowing, and I am indebted to post-colonial writers and those who write about what is sometimes called Southern Theory, specifically  the feminist thinker Connell, who write about the dominance of western sociology, assumptions and about individuals and publics and their application in the global south through the colonial projects and the role of academic research in subjection and/or exotic othering. Her work and others like Comaroff and Comaroff have led to me question normative accounts of the public, and the dominance of a particular notion of the relationship between the self and society, and I wanted to explore this in relation to literary and academic sources.


Figure 1: Listening to History, Bill Woodrow, 1995, Used as Front Cover to “A Captive Mind” in recent editions. Source: Karsten 11, 2010, https://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Listening_to_History.jpg

The Captive Mind

In this first post I want to explore Ketman, or Kitman an idea I first encountered through the work of Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and then the subsequent communist state that followed its “liberation” by the Red Army. He continued to write poetry under the communists and indeed served as a public servant in Poland and the US. His book “The Captive Mind” is concerned with creativity under totalitarian regimes, regimes which seem to use and encourage openness and debate as a way to manage conformity and weed out errant thought. Kitman is concerned with hiding ones true thoughts from the public, and comes to Milosz from the work of a French public servant and is based on his writing about Persia and Islam.  Khan (2008), in her examination of selfhood and secrecy in Islam examines Kitman in the work of al-Jahiz (circa 776AD to 868AD) and his book “Kitab Kitman al-Sirr” (the book of concealing the secret), he suggests Kitman is the watcher within. Khan suggests we read al-Jahiz text on concealment of true beliefs, of care about what one says, and the need to match utterance to context in relation to the heated political period it was written (the complex Abbasid politics of Baghdad) and the audience for whom it was meant, administrators and those in what we might loosely call “public office”. While read in this way it seems little more than Hamlets father advice to “lend everyman your ear but few your words”, however according to Khan, for al-Jahiz it goes a lot deeper. She notes the interest in embodiment, in the way the body represents thoughts, and the way bodies can betray that which words attempt to conceal. The suggestion is not that we need to act in ways that help us conceal our true thoughts or beliefs, but we should also be concerned with how we censor the inner self in relation to the context in which we live. Here the public self needs also to become the private self to avoid our bodies betraying our real thoughts.

It is an interesting idea, and not without political baggage, one only need google it to see the right wing vitriol and anti-islamic sentiment that goes with it. With lazy commentators  of “The Captive Mind” and Kitman suggesting it is a prime example of the lies and falsehood within Islam more generally. It is probably because it is actually quite a difficult idea to grasp that right wing propaganda can grasp onto it as a marker of untrustworthiness in Islam. It deals with a slightly different relationship between the public and the private from the one we are used to.  For example, Feinberg (2017) notes reviews of “The Captive Mind” in the US often failed to grasp the nature of the argument, reading it in relation to ideas around self, “the American Dream”, binary opposition between the freedoms of capitalism and the heavy fist and control of communism. It read the text as concerned with the ability of the creative mind to resist control. While Kitman is concerned with resistance and Milosz makes much of the pride in those practicing Kitman in  knowing “the truth” of not believing while performing as a believer, it is also about how the self changes, the difficulty in understanding your self when you police the internal self as part of presenting the public self. Where the self you are when alone becomes the public self, where any creative or resistant acts can only be understood in relation to the public face you have turned inwards. Your public self now structures your sense of who you are.  For Milosz the ambiguity also came from the sense of wonder amongst intellectuals and writers in Poland at the time as to whether this act served a broader political goal of creating a more equal society – that it was for “the greater good”.


One cannot help thinking about the work of Arendt, in particular the “Origins of Totalitarianism”, where she suggests what totalitarian regimes do is attempt to colonise every part of one’s life, to fold the private into the public discourse. Nancy Fraser suggests that while Arendt was concerned with the way these regimes destroyed public space, the sense of individuality, and also the notion of plurality, her work was not simply critique of these regimes, but also a commentary on the “free world” (Fraser 2004). While Fraser is careful to situate the work of Arendt in her time, Arendt contribution to our understanding of how nation states as breaking with its geographic boundaries through colonialism which led to things like stateless people, persecution of minorities, the delegitimisation of democratic process, and the “view from nowhere”. The sense of a totalising view of world events, which in treating things as global issues outside the scope of the nation state and its democratic process, depoliticises actions. The views from nowhere which are often presented as being apolitical are all around us in institutions like the World Trade Organisation, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund. The degree to which these bodies depoliticise decisions can be read in the consternation (see the UK Guardian here) around a recent report from the IMF that acknowledged there was such a thing as neoliberalism and it might not be a good thing. This from the body whose sole prescription for economic ills was a short sharp shock of the stuff (Harvey 2006). In that sense what Fraser is suggesting is  a situation which Arendt might recognise, and even wonders about, totalitarianism beyond the nation state, the feeling There is No Alternative.

What has this got to do with Ketman and Design

The connection of Ketman is whether and how we voice our dissent. For example I have often observed a dissonance amongst hard and soft advocates of neoliberalism, in part this is created by the disjunction between the assumptions within neoliberalism that we are all rational self-interested individuals and as Game Theorists suggest any altruism is simply a product of that self-interest – e.g. herd theory in animal behaviour, and how people actually live. These self-interested rational consumers are not them, or me, or the people I know, they are someone else, it is a view from nowhere, it does not reflect how people feel, or act, nor how they would imagine themselves being in the world. However, if we do build systems that assume people are all rational and self-interested, then we should not be surprised when people behave as if they are. Or at least perform as if they are. Therefore should we understand the fact political discourses rarely alight on the dissonance between a neoliberal view from nowhere and our own lived experience as a form of Ketman?


So what has this got to do with design, as this just seems to be a critique of neoliberalism, and of course it is. However, it is also concerned with framing, and how ones imagines the public. As governments become increasingly interested in using design in the development and delivery of public services I think we have to ask, just how are they, and indeed how are we, imagining the public.


Feinberg M. (2017) Curtain of Lies: The Battle over Truth in Stalinist Eastern Europe, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Fraser, N. (2004). Hannah Arendt in the 21st Century. Contemporary Political Theory, 3(3), pp.253–261.

Harvey D. (2006) Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, Verso: London

Khan R. Y. (2008), Self and Secrecy in Early Islam. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia

Milosz C. ([1953] 1981) The Captive Mind, Penguin Books: London