23 July 2013
The royal baby warrants a blog, so here it is.
The persistence of reductionism as any kind of guide to human affairs is remarkable. I am not talking about reductionism as a scientific tool; in that form, it is plainly useful, though its scope and effectiveness are increasingly arguable. Rather, I am talking about the use of reductionism as a concealed ideology. I say ‘concealed’ because nobody, as far as I know, has ever said, ‘Here I am taking a reductionist view of internet porn/the housing market/the royal baby’ even when that is clearly what they are doing.
Reductionism in its most literal form is often expressed by a sentence that begins ‘Everything is…’. One would have thought that this formulation had died with the pre-socratics – everything is fire/water/whatever – but it is still to be found in the wild today. ‘Everything is information’ is one obvious contemporary superstition. Less obvious are common reductive formulations like ‘every man has his price’ or ‘my critics are envious’. The assumption here is that all motives are, in reality, one motive, usually money or, less often, power and popular acclaim.
It is hardly necessary to point out the superstitious or self-serving nature of such sentiments. But, to take the case of information, the idea that everything is information is founded upon the conviction that information is everything which, in turn, is based upon Shannon’s information theory, the biology of DNA, and assorted contemporary geekeries. DNA and computer science convinced people that everything can be interpreted as a simple code – four nucleotides in the first case, two values in the second. The obvious problem with is that a list of my nucleotide sequences could not type this and several thousand pages of 0s and 1s could not react to and store my keystrokes. Of course, you could say that it is information that intercedes at every step of the process, but at some point you will be obliged to acknowledge that you are a fool who has rendered language entirely useless (and who, consequently, finds it difficult to talk to girls).
Because, I am afraid, of the use, derived from history, pragmatism, sentiment and sensibility, we make of the royal family as embodiments of the metaphysical – as opposed to the merely political – properties of the state. This is just the way we do things and it works
Anyway, I said this was a royal baby blog and so it is. My original inspiration was Richard Dawkins’ tweet – ‘I’m patriotically proud of British achievements like Shakespeare, Darwin & DNA fingerprinting. But royal baby nothing to celebrate.’ Putting aside the difficulties of the 140 character form, there is clearly a tension between the words ‘proud’ and ‘celebrate’. Furthermore, there is a conceptual confusion – the royal baby is not an ‘achievement’ at all and, therefore, cannot be adversely judged as having no place in a list of achievements.
What is clearly going on here – and in many Dawkins supportive follow-up tweets in response to my own brief refutation – is a refusal to accept the reality and significance of popular affection for the royal family. I had, for example, described the birth as ‘a rite of passage’ and @MuuPuklip responded ‘A rite of what now? An ordinary woman gave birth to an ordinary baby. No magic or symbolism or mystery there’. Well, any birth, especially a first one, is a rite of passage for any woman but the excitement surrounding this birth indicates it is being seen as an actual rite not just for the Duchess of Cambridge but also a symbolic one for all women. You may think that is ridiculous, but it is not harmful so far as I can see – I know, I know, there are anti-monarchist arguments about sustaining privilege but I don’t find them credible – so it should be left alone.
Ah, you might say, ghastly reality TV shows are rites that attain massive popular acclaim, why are the royals any different? Because, I am afraid, of the use, derived from history, pragmatism, sentiment and sensibility, we make of the royal family as embodiments of the metaphysical – as opposed to the merely political – properties of the state. This is just the way we do things and it works. I don’t see why the left don’t embrace royalty, seen in this light, as an important sustaining institution of the state, but, on the whole, they don’t and that is all there is to be said.
Those who pour scorn on the royal baby frenzy are being clever elitists who despise the feelings of the less clever …. and reductionists (he says, deftly retrieving his thread). They think, like @MuuPuklip, that a baby is just a baby. But to a parent no baby is just a baby and to this nation, this baby certainly isn’t. It means something, something rather benign and something that cannot be reduced. ‘It is what it is’ as Gary Barlow once said to me about something quite different. Or there was Chekhov on his death bed who, when, his wife, Olga Nipper, asked him the meaning of life, replied that this was rather like asking what a carrot was – ‘A carrot is a carrot and nothing more is known.’