On ‘consultation’

“It is too often forgotten that the gift of speech, so centrally employed, has been elaborated as much for the purpose of concealing thought by dissimulation and lying as for the purpose of elucidating or communicating thought” Wilfred Bion (1966)

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…” (George Orwell, from 1984)

“…there is a ‘symbolic’ violence embedded in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call our ‘house of being’ … this violence is not only at work in the obvious – and extensively studied – cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning.” Slavoj Žižek (2008)

“He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am looking for a man’.” Diogenes Laërtius (early third century AD)

 

Recently Barrelman and his colleagues have found ourselves being (apparently) consulted. There was a ‘Service Review’ in Athens and when its findings were announced, the thing that was proclaimed to follow was a ‘thirty day consultation period’. And when that was done, we were all unceremoniously turfed out of our barrels.

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It all reminded us very strongly of the last time the elders of the city conducted a Service Review. On that occasion, it was to consider the possibility that Socrates, late of this parish, had been ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. Instead of a consultation, there was a trial – as you may have heard; and at the end of the trial there was a cordial invitation to come by for a cup of something strong.

Socrates could have done a runner at this point, but he elected to drink the hemlock and of course it terminally disagreed with him. In this way, the outcome of the review came to pass exactly as it had been planned and intended when the review was begun – which makes us Cynical types wonder, naturally enough, what on earth was the point of all that window dressing in the first place?

So when the local bigwigs announced a Review, last Spring, our thoughts turned to all those dreary preparations that would eventually turn out to be necessary: like rolling our barrels over to some shady olive grove; finding someone to look after the dogs; writing our wills; that kind of thing. But they were very clear with us that it was not about, you know, ‘jobs’ and such, or clearing undesirables out of the city – and the summer was long and hot and there was plenty to be getting on with, so we just kind of let them get on with it really.

Conceive, if you will, of our discombobulation, when the findings of the Review were announced and they were exactly what had been predicted. It was indeed all about ‘jobs’; and those wandering undesirables (Barrelman in particular, it must be said) were indeed, after all, to be shunted off into the suburbs.

So much for the legendary hospitality of the agora towards the maverick and the marginal!

But it did raise a dilemma: because there was this thing called a ‘thirty day consultation period’. What could they possibly mean by this? If we were being consulted, did this mean what it said on the tin? Or was it something a bit more like ‘insulted’? Or ‘assaulted’, even?

Well, the Cynical response seemed clear: we’d question the ‘findings’, whether or not anyone was interested.

And of course, no-one was.

At least, none of the city elders were interested. Plenty of people in the demos had some very strong feelings about it, being somewhat partial to the itinerant philosopher community and having come to rely upon us for a good old-fashioned harangue when times were tough (which was pretty much always, as the city elders tended to keep all the good stuff for themselves and the people could go hang…)

Still, it left a bit of a puzzle all the same: what was meant by ‘consultation’?

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When in doubt about something like this, there’s worse moves to make than to go down to the library at the Metröon and look it up! And what we found is that ‘consultation’ derives from the word ‘consult’, meaning ‘seek information or advice from’ (someone who knows something). This in turn derives from the French verb ‘consulter’, from the Latin infinitive ‘consultare’; which in its turn derives from ‘consulere’, meaning ‘to take counsel’.

We also looked up ‘consultation’ and found that this is ‘the action/process of formally consulting/discussing’. Here is a definition that makes more sense if you are an Athenian elder – because if you take that definition and you stretch the word ‘formally’ just as far as it will go and then some; and if you then compress the term ‘consulting’ within that definition down to the smallest scrap or iota of meaning that you can manage; then you’re somewhere in range of what they meant when they said there’d be a ‘consultation’ period.

To put the matter succinctly: when you hear an ordinary human being, with a mind of their own and no tail, use the word ‘consult’, what’s going on is that someone doesn’t know something and is seeking counsel from someone who does (like consulting the oracle at Delphi, for example, a thing Barrelman once did, and never looked back…)

But when you hear the word ‘consultation’ being used, especially by officials of the Metropolitan City-State, what is meant is ‘the formal process of NOT seeking information or advice or enlightenment of any description from anyone at all …’.

To which one might add ‘… whilst nonetheless indulging in a piece of transparently cynical (with a small ‘c’) and spurious virtue-signalling to an imaginary constituency of people, presumably all born yesterday, who might be supposed to be capable of imagining or believing that a decision of such import had been taken with meaningful and dynamic and interactive reference to the views and experiences of those who knew something, from lived experience and expertise, about the processes being discussed’.

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So look – Barrelman is not one for special pleading. I don’t want you thinking he’s got a personal beef and he’s just using his platform to vent it. Not that much of a platform, let’s face it. But Barrelman did feel at home in his barrel in the agora and he loved his interactions with the townsfolk and passers-by and as far as he is concerned the Metropolitan City-State and all its works can shove it where the sun don’t shine.

That’s the thing about a barrel – you can always just up and roll it to some other parking place.

But there’s two things stick in his craw. The first is that he has a hunch that the good people of Athens, if asked, would have had other ideas. It’s not comfortable or pleasant to see people being trampled upon in the service of ideologies to which they are not subscribed. But I don’t want to say too much more about that here – not least, because those people are very well able to say it themselves and probably say it better than Barrelman ever could.

No: the main thing to say here is this: there’s a violence done to language in this use of the word ‘consultation’. It’s a symbolic violence but it’s no less lethal for not being a contact sport. Lies and doublethink begin with expedience and end in totalitarianism. ‘Consultation’ is a phenomenon of epidemic proportions, reach and spread, in these post-truth times.

Language is an infinitely versatile but also unwieldy technology. Fiddle with its very basis and you mess most dangerously with minds and souls and systems. This is why Barrelman carries a lamp even in broad daylight – hard to spot an honest man about the place…

To borrow from a joke that’s even older than Barrelman: that ‘consultation’ was no bacon tree – that was an ‘am-bush …

 

References

Bion, W.R. (1966) ‘Catastrophic change.’ Bulletin of the British Psychoanalytical Society, 1966, N°5.

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Žižek, S. (2008) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile.

Dariusz Galasinski writes beautifully about corruptions and collapses of language and communication in mental healthcare systems, including difficulties in psychiatric/clinical consultations – see his blog at http://dariuszgalasinski.com/blog/?stc_status=success&stc_hash=04835e4cdee77914d0112b0a133fe20e

Diogenes Laërtius’ account of the life of Diogenes is at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Eminent_Philosophers/Book_VI#Diogenes

The #PTMFramework debate – a Cynical view? By Barrelman

It’s been a busy old time for Barrelman in the agora, these last couple of weeks, I can tell you.

There’s all my daily challenges to grapple with: practising disappointment by begging from statues; waving my stick at people who don’t agree with me; trying to track down, by hook or by crook, one honest man hereabouts. Exhausting, questioning everything, you know. Not a lifestyle choice either, mind you – what’s a barrelman to do? it’s not about ‘good or bad’: it’s just the only place I can stand and still be me.

And now there’s all this tweeting and blogging and altogether just so many more things to Question. Take this latest example. All Athens is buzzing with this new philosophical manifesto – calls itself the Power Threat Meaning Framework. Aims to overthrow the Metropolitan Powers That Be. Especially the Medical ones. Sort of offering a Framework for a Meaning-full Threat to Power, if you follow me…

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Now you know me, I reckon. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s the Metropolitan (Metropolis – City State – what it says on the tin, really) system of care. Whole point of me and my dogs being holed up in my barrel, here outside the Temple and just along the way from the olive grove (where Socrates used to hang out and make a very creditable nuisance of himself, few years back) is precisely that I do not and never shall recognise the authority of the Powers That Be to tell me what’s wrong with me or how I should live my life.

They might offer to relocate me, like the Emperor Alexander (no less!) did when he popped by for a bit of outreach work the other day. Cool guy, as it goes. We had a good chat and discovered we even had the same teacher back in the day (of which, more later!) – but notwithstanding, I sent him away with a flea in his ear (‘get out of my light’, I told him – you should have seen his face!). I’m not taking anything from that lot on the terms they’re offering it – which is always and invariably, that they could take it away again if the fancy took them. I’m just temperamentally incapable of ceding them that kind of power, no matter how cosy and structured a retirement plan they might have in mind to buy me off and shut me up with.

Who do they think they are, might I enquire, these great city-States: with their bigwigs and their elite in-groups and their excluded out-groups and their categorisations and their unexamined lives? Not to mention their disregard for animal life and the ecosphere and their colonial wars of aggression and the undeniable fact that their economic prosperity is built upon slave labour and Knowing One’s Place (and Minding One’s Own Business). The ‘Philosopher King’ says ‘The cobbler should stick to his last’ – I mean, please? Plato? Don’t make me laugh!

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So, anyway, not only am I well known to be ‘anti’ Metropolitan systems, but I’m also imagined to be pretty much ‘pro’ more ‘Cosmopolitan’ systems (which is what the ‘Framework’ is – bear with me!). I reckon this is because of one of my recent choice put-downs, when some practitioner or other asked me where I was from. Trying to get some narrative coherence out of me, no doubt. I drew myself up and I looked my haughtiest and I told him ‘I am a citizen of the cosmos, thanks very much’ … and before you know it, everyone and his uncle are wearing ‘Cosmopolitans do it ecosystemically’ badges and doing mindfulness courses in converted barns out towards Delphi way …

Well, I’ll come back to this point a bit later, about what I’m supposed to be ‘pro’ or ‘anti’, if I may – there being a rather significant and in fact total misunderstanding of my position bundled up in there somewhere. But when this ‘Framework’ comes along and is proclaimed in the main square and it’s avowedly Cosmopolitan and pokes its stick right in the eye of the Metropolitan system, speaking up for social justice, even asking some excluded people what they think about it all – well, you can see how people would figure I’d be like ‘yay!’ and gung-ho and putting out the bunting along with the rest of them.

Sure as I’m sitting here in a pile of my own dirty linen and not giving a damn, they got very cross very quickly when I started shouting at them too! Conceive, if you will, of their disappointment. But what I am urgently keen to understand is this: what on earth did they think they were thinking, imagining me as their cheerleader?

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To explain what I’m getting at here, the first thing to question, just to spell it out, is what exactly might be the difference between the Metropolitan and the Cosmopolitan systems. Might be obvious, might not be …

Now the Metropolitan system likes to think it’s not a system, not really and truly. ‘There’s no ideology hereabouts’, you’ll hear the in-group protest – ‘this is just how it is’ and ‘you can’t argue with science’ and all of that.

Okay, so this in fact is nonsense of the first water, because there’s a very clear ideology to the Metropolitan system – and that is that power rests at the centre and it’s up to the in-group to decide who gets invited in or not. Nice work if you can get it, of course (trust me, I’ve been there – or in fact, maybe DON’T trust me, because I’m tainted by association – well, either way…).

The small print of the Metropolitan kind of invitation is pretty damn specific and its special trick is that it excludes even when it looks like it’s including (note those active verbs, peeps!). If you look carefully, it says ‘Dear Barrelman (or whatever your name is, we don’t much care, so long as we know where you live) – Dear Barrelman, you too can be a Citizen of Athens, do please feel very welcome to come in from the cold, but only on the following terms (cue 426 pages of conditions, exclusions and penalties)’.

And right at the bottom, in slightly bigger font, just so we’re all clear, it reads ‘IF YOU DON’T ACCEPT THESE TERMS, WELL, TOUGH. We’ll either force you to come in, by means of what we call ‘medicalisation’ or ‘welfare benefit control’ or some other form of slavery – or we’ll leave you out there in the cold, and good riddance’.

So that’s the Metropolitan system of care, you see, and it’s kind of democratic, so long as you are not a slave or a homeless person – or a woman. Every so often someone says, okay, sod it, it’s bloody cold out here, and they accept the offer and the small print, even if they don’t read it or agree with it, and they get themselves some accommodation. Totally good luck to them, say I: I’m not knocking anything about that at all.

But there is a ‘but’. And the ‘but’ is that the Metropolitan system excludes faster than it includes, so the societal problem, if you get me, the problem of inequality and borders and privilege and force and generally trashing the place in pursuit of economic growth so we can go off and mash (or get mashed by) the Spartans or the Persians or whoever – the societal problem stays the same.

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So the Cosmopolitan ‘Framework’ has a much-hated system to go head to head against. And all credit to them: they go at it and set about it with much vim and gusto. Our Cosmopolitan friends pull no punches regarding the violence of the Metropolitan approach to sending out invitations. And then they argue ‘let’s not include or exclude by force across a boundary like those Metropolitans do’; instead, let’s include gradually, across a porous boundary so to speak (like the boundary of the agora, in fact, which is just a bunch of standing stones arranged in decorative poses at fairly wide intervals along the edge of the marketplace – nothing like your Long Walls down to Piraeus or anything). ‘Let’s see what develops’ and ‘why not come along for the ride’ – that’s their much more friendly and congenial idea of an invite.

According to the Cosmopolitans, we’re all citizens and we’re all linked to each other and the thing to do is to bring people in from the outer rings (starting with foreign peoples in distant lands, when we’re not enslaving them of course, and working inwards from there) towards the inner rings (community, family, the self, you get the gist) – by keeping the focus on what connects us all and not on what divides us.

So they’re for frameworks rather than fences and for descriptions that connect, rather than labels that divide. They have got various progressive moves towards equality on the go and they worry about the effect of the post-Peloponnesian War recession on the morale of the citizenry and, generally speaking, I hear you cry, what’s not to love?

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Two things, actually (minor quibbles aside). Two things, and they’re quite closely connected.

The first is this: I hate systems. I just can’t be doing with them. People think I’m anti-Metropolitan because I’m ‘on the other side’. Me, I’m not interested in that kind of talk. I carry no torch for the Metropolitans; but I have a pretty strong hunch I’m none too keen on the Cosmopolitans, either – not if a system is what they are after.

I don’t think you can include by excluding. The Emperor Alexander can go boil his tail if he thinks I’m going to recognise his authority over me. But it’s no use the Cosmopolitans denying his authority. Question it – yes. Go for it. I’m all for that. But I’m pretty damn clear that most people figure he’s presently in charge. Ask the Corinthians, or the Persians, if you don’t believe me.

My saying Alexander should get out of my light is not the same as my saying he isn’t Emperor. He’s a bloodthirsty warmonger, make no mistake, but he’s the most powerful man on the planet and we may possibly never see his like again, IMHO. Him being Emperor doesn’t impress me in itself; but if I did want anything from anyone (which I don’t), I know it’s him (in effect) that I’d have to be asking. I’m not sure that the Cosmopolitans have quite worked out how to get round that one; but plenty of people around the marketplace seem to see this as a bit of a sticking point.

Be that as it may, I say again, it’s systems I don’t like. I’m a Cynic, you see? Now on account of me making myself a touch unpopular about the place (crapping myself in public, thwacking people who don’t agree with me, not bowing and scraping to the Macedonians, that sort of thing) people have taken to labelling me cynical with a small ‘c’, like I was being destructive or ‘doing it deliberately’ or something. “Get yourself a teaching job, Barrelman, instead of haranguing people all the time and being generally a menace to traffic – don’t you know there’s a war on?” – you know, the usual sort of thing. You’re either part of a hard-working family in this city, seems to me, or you’re out (or else you’re a Philosopher King, of course: in which case, you get other people to do the ‘hard-working’ bit and you live off of the proceeds) …

But there’s nothing ‘small-c’ cynical about me. I’m a Cynic – and Cynicism is not a System with a capital ‘S’ – it’s a practice (with a small ‘p’) and the practice is mainly around not being taken in by economic power, not identifying myself as a consumer and, above all, not taking anything as read EXCEPT that man and animal are all equal under the sun and let’s take it from there. I don’t concoct or proclaim ‘systems’. I don’t even usually write anything down at all. I made these notes for myself but I confidently expect none of my jottings will survive for Posterity and rightly so. You can’t enslave me with words: questioningly, that’s how I wander about the place.

This Cynical practice actually takes a lot of discipline, which is called askesis if you’re interested. Not bigging it up as a practice – just saying how it is. It involves another thing called parrhesis, which means speaking truth to power. Power comes along, like Alexander knocking on the hoops of my barrel in the agora – you speak Truth to it. Simple as. Fact that Power wouldn’t recognise Truth if you thwacked it amidships with it, needn’t deter us, right?

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The second thing ‘not to love’ is this: there’s a bit of an idea around that Cosmopolitanism is The Answer. You’re either Metro or Cosmo – no neutral ground allowed. But I’m here to say it’s not like that.

Once you have a system, on this scale, you’re including by excluding. It’s a binary. You’re ‘in’ or you are ‘not in’. Like I say, some systems have city walls with spikes attached; some systems just have waiting rooms with comfortable chairs and cute but informative signage in soothing colour schemes. But ultimately, the action of including leaves some people the other side of whatever line you draw, be it never so pleasing to the eye.

And once you have two rival systems, well, before you know it, they’re like an old married couple that have started to look like each other and the rest of the world just quietly drifts off, leaving them to bicker themselves away into oblivion.

And what’s more: these two systems already look a lot more like each other than at first meets the eye. Both the Metros and the Cosmos have a plan for including and both begin by including. They just have different ideas about who and how many to include.

The Metros don’t muck around much; abrupt is their middle name; they’ll bang you up or pewk you out, soon as look at you. The Cosmos, they’ve got gentle, ambient stuff going on so you don’t even notice you’ve crossed the line (or signed on the line, perhaps more to the point); gradualism is their game and someday all peoples of the earth will be connected to the centre. But the invitation to come along in is still being made. And by the way, I got to quibble this one quibble: the Cosmopolitans don’t actually seem to be very, well, you know, cosmopolitan, in the loose sense of diverse: not when it comes right down to it. Not so very different from the line-up of the ever-so-Metropolitan Academy across the way, unless you squint sideways…

Me, like I said, I don’t care for System but I set myself a practice and my practice is to be asking, right, well then, so wtf? Who gets to say where ‘in’ is – or where it ends and ‘out’ begins? If including is to be our business, then that’s no practice of equality. That’s some gradual working towards equality at some unspecified date – signalled to be sooner in the Cosmo camp, a whole lot later in the Metro camp, but not in anybody’s lifetime either way.

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I’m a Cynic and I may not have mentioned this before, but Cynic comes from kynikos, which means dog-like – or dogged, even, as in bloody persistent, not to say downright stubborn, in pursuit of a practice …

So now I got to run. Dogs to water, heads to bang. But here’s two last questions for you. You remember I mentioned that the Emperor and I turned out to have had the same teacher? Aristotle, was his name. Well, as you can imagine, I let him know in no uncertain terms, what I thought of his system. But some of his ideas did stick in my head. He says you need to have a clear shared idea of what the virtues are, if you want to have a clear shared sense of what a good, a good thing worth striving for, might look like.

Now I know this smacks a bit of Metropolitanism and telling other people how to be virtuous. Aristotle will come in for some stick on this point one of these fine days, and it will be well-deserved when it happens. But imagine it the other way – imagine a debate where each group in the debate has a different idea of what a virtue is and a different idea of what a good is. I hope it never comes to that, particularly if this city gets any bigger, but I tell you, it’d be chaos – and then we’d have to propose ourselves a new system – and then round and round and on and on it would go.

On the other hand, what would happen if we assumed equality was already the way of things, agreed our equality right from the outset, rather than shoring up the crumbling walls of our personal or collective discomfort about inequality by signing up to a direction of travel, feeling at best doubtful that we’d ever have to negotiate the tricky business of arriving? How would it be if we just decided there was no need for ‘in’ and ‘out’ anymore, so that there was nobody left to include?

Just asking …

Author’s note

Barrelman would like to be clear that he has written ‘Diogenesquely’ for literary effect and so as to inhabit and personify the points he would like to get across – but also so as not entirely to veil other parts of his (online and offline) identity (in anticipation of one set of objections, likely enough!).

If anyone identifies with any part of this analysis of the debate, or feels Barrelman’s lantern has chased away a shadow or two, that’d be fantastic. But this piece reflects Barrelman’s take on the #PTMFramework debate and is NOT intended as an attempt to ventriloquise anyone else’s voices. There are perhaps many contemporary Cynics and barrel-dwellers in our communities but they are fully able to speak for themselves and don’t need words put in their mouths by the likes of Barrelman.

A couple of historical notes to end with, if that’s okay, to anticipate one other set of objections. It must be conceded at once that the historical Diogenes, while doubtless a great questioner of societal morals and mores, was no respecter of women – in that, alas, he was a more ordinary man of his time – and so Barrelman’s critical observation about Athenian democracy represents an ahistorical hypocrisy, one from which this author would wish clearly to disassociate himself. Also, ‘Cosmopolitanism’ didn’t really exist as a philosophical system at the time Diogenes was creating havoc in the Athenian agora, so a certain liberty has also been taken on that score … a couple of other philosophical borrowings at the end, Barrelman likes to imagine, could have originated with Diogenes anyway, so there he craves your indulgence …

“The only true commonwealth is that which is as wide as the universe. I am a citizen of the world”

“I am Diogenes the Dog. I brown-nose those who give me alms, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth on those who are rascals”