Thursday, 19 May 2011

The A to Z of Aberdeen - I is for Insecurity

is for Insecurity.

As we first set out in our page-top banner all those months ago: "Something is wrong with Aberdeen." We're not sure what the full extent or true nature of the pathology afflicting our town is, but we believe that life here is worth fighting for, so we try to find out and in doing so perhaps find out whether anything can be done to palliate the symptoms or - who knows? - maybe we'll find a cure!

Multi Million Pound!
We use the tools of psychogeography as both diagnostic method and potential antidote for this as yet unidentified Aberdonian syndrome. And so, by putting our feet on the ground and moving through the land- and city- and mind-scape quietly but determinedly minded to the task, we fathom truths in depths which might not otherwise be plumbed. Conter-intuitive facts build up behind and cascade over the now-crumbling dam of received-wisdom conditioning as we choose not to ignore the man behind the curtain. Thus we've defamiliarised ourselves with the town which we’ve lived in for so many years and, coming through a critical examination of our urban landscape from this defamiliarised high angle of attack - with the new eyes we have chosen to look through, we see things that we’ve simply dismissed or ignored before. We begin to see things as they really are, and we gain the key to decrypt the events and messages encoded within the fabric of the town itself and within its people themselves. And then we write up our findings. These essays sometimes in turn generate comment responses which we then re-use as psychogeographical feedback feedstock, hurling them back into the hopper for further explorations of both the physical landscape of our town and its psychological mindscape. By the geometry of this iterative strange-loop strange-attractor exploration praxis we shine our revealing fractal spotlight into the urbanism of Aberdeen.

Recently, when we complained about all the existing and forthcoming martial statuary in Aberdeen, we called for suggestions for alternatives; for more, em, conducive subjects for commemorative statuary. We were delighted by the responses we received. One contributer (coincidental with one of our private correspondents) suggested that we look at the life and work of Alfred Adler: a groundbreaker amongst the early 20th century Austrian psychological trailblazers; contemporary of (and rival to) Freud; and pioneer of 'individual psychology' which includes certain important psychological concepts which remain coin current (though sometimes subverted, as we shall see... ) to this day.

Adler toured extensively in the UK during the 1930's and was particularly well-recieved in Aberdeen during a lecture course he gave in 1937. (He died tragically of a heart attack on Aberdeen's Union Street the morning after the climax of his lecture course.) Tragedy aside, so well received was he in our town and such was his influence that it led directly to an appropriate Aberdonian legacy: the founding of a Chair of Psychiatry at Aberdeen University and the establishment of an endowment for the psychiatric treatment of disturbed children. But Adler's legacy is much wider than that, as primary amongst his theoretical achievements was the development of his most famous concept: the 'inferiority complex'. Broadly (forgive the short summary of complex concepts) Adler contended that children, because they are smaller than adults and wholly dependent upon them for their survival, experience a sense of inferiority which in turn can lead to harmful attempts to strive for superiority through a damaging and over-compensating desire to dominate.

Well - we thought as we read and learned about this - that's dynamite in an Aberdonian context. We thought of the essays we'd written about the hubristic PR-driven business-friendly churnalism and the self-serving boosterism which is very often evident in local discourse. We thought about the credulous gullibility evident in the cupidity of some of our local politicians and we considered the grandiose and overblown approach which now characterises property development schemes in our modestly-sized city. Aberdeen as Citizen Kane.

Adler also developed the concept of the 'style of life' - 'lifestyle'. This concept has since been subverted by the marketing/advertising/PR industry in support of consumerist aims, but Adler originally intended the term to describe the dynamics of a personality in a social context - an individual's uniquely adopted approach to the challenges of life: love, hope, work, disappointment, mortality etc. Adler identified several pathological 'styles' including what he called the ruling type: aggressive, dominating, not much social interest or cultural perception; the getting type: dependent, taking rather than giving; and the avoiding type: characterised by escapism, screened from reality, not much socially constructive activity. Again, all of this resonated in an Aberdonian context. Aberdeen as Citizen Kane.

A few weeks ago, we wrote in our ongoing "A to Z of Aberdeen" series, that we had identified a condition of hyperreality in the built environment and polity of Aberdeen, and we pondered "... what is the 'real' reality which this Aberdonian hyperreality is screening us from? Why is it that we seek the comfort of a surface simulation of past glories...?" Now we think that the answer to this question is that Aberdeen and the Aberdonian condition is characterised by an deep seated insecurity - an inferiority complex - and it is from this feeling of insecurity we flee to nibble on the simulacrum crumbs of hyperreal comfort - in the hyperreal avoiding type 'style of life' - 'lifestyle'. This is the Aberdonian inferiority complex. This is indicative of our insecurity.

How secure do you want it to be?
Moreover we've recently documented a gnawing insecure paranoia amongst security people - both among self-empowered private security CCTV jockeys and among actual real police who are empowered by the state with investigatory powers and the power of arrest. We've had increasingly frequent encounters with these security (or rather in-security) people, each time for the innocuous and innocent reason that we were taking photographs of buildings. Risible rationalisations for the self-importantly self-empowered and querulous (sometimes insultingly presumptuous) questioning we've been subjected to have been proffered. All of them to do with the 'terrorist threat'. What nonsense! For even in the nation's capital we can wander about taking photos of the Secret Security Service building, the ruling political party offices and the military headquarters with impunity. But in Aberdeen, it requires a police follow up if one is espied by CCTV taking photos which happen to include a building which is (for example) partially occupied by some accountants who are sub-contracted on a temporary basis to some here-today-gone-tomorrow multinational oil company. We can now understand that the 'terrorist threat' excuse is but a fig-leaf for a deep-seated insecurity. Rather like those A-list celebs who ban their underlings from eye-contact, the proprietors of these buildings do not want us to look at them; for shame of themselves they dislike people examining them - for fear of criticism they dislike a record being made of their very existence. That they hide this motivation even from themselves and rationalise their insecure paranoia as being a self-important response to an incredible 'terrorist threat' is the self-deception which is symptomatic of their insecure need not to reveal this devastating self-knowledge.

Additionally, we can see a cliff's edge insecurity in the economy of Aberdeen "City and Shire". In this part of the world the extractive industry of oil and gas production is predominant, and the usual epiphytic ecosystem of accountants, lawyers, bankers and real-estate agents has grown up to service the capital which that industry has brought. Some time ago, we wrote of the 'Dutch Disease' and 'Resource Curse' which afflict the business sphere here. This pathology of an over-reliance on one business sector is, again, something which is characterised by self-deception. We recently attended a film screening where, in part of a live debate which followed the screening, Q&A panel member Lewis Macdonald MSP asserted that 'high oil prices are good for Aberdeen'. Yes, we can see why people might think that; our stock in trade is oil and gas; high prices must therefore ipso facto bring more money into the local economy. But money is not value, and affluence is not wealth -  an understanding of the distinctions is subtle but those distinctions are, nonetheless, fundamental.

One of the effects high oil prices will have is to hasten the day when there is no oil and gas left to extract, for in the short term producers maximise production to exploit the high price available for the commodity. In the meantime, capital is largely concentrated on this one extractive sector and is diverted away from other sectors which may be more sustainable in the medium and longer terms. An overbalancing in the economy results, with the attendant distortions of excessively high pay rates for certain skills, real-estate bubbles, social dislocation, conspicuous displays of affluence and a self deluding belief that these riches have been brought here by the skill of the people who are reaping the harvest, not by the blind hand of ante-deluvian providence which laid the hydrocarbon-bearing rock strata beneath the seabed those many millions of years ago. Again we see the willing self-deception which is symptomatic of the insecure need not to reveal this devastating self-knowledge.

The rush to exploit the jamboree business environment brought into being by high oil prices will, to be sure, continue to flood our little city with an abundance of money in the hands of but a proportionally tiny few. But very little of long-term value will be created by that money as long as capital is directed towards oil and gas to the exclusion of other sectors.

However, the business community in Aberdeen is not wholly future-blind. Key figures and corporations and industry bodies know well that oil and gas is not forever, but their visions for the future of the business sector in Aberdeen are at times characterised by over-blown schemes completely out of scale with what is affordable, achievable or desirable. It can seem that the business community (and some parts of the civic sphere) in Aberdeen is insecurely concerned only with how the city is perceived outwith its borders and outwith the country. And so we see projects and schemes which are designed not for the people who are already here, but for people who might come to live and work here, or people who just might visit for a conference or something, maybe ... if we build something 'iconic'. This is not only a cargo cult, but is also a clear display of over-compensation. There is much in the local economy which is good, praiseworthy and could form the basis of a sustainable economic future for our area - for instance, there is a great deal of technological crossover between oil and gas extraction and the burgeoning marine energy exploitation sector. But, when we read the minutes (MS Word direct download link) of the business association body which has taken responsibility for shepherding this burgeoning sector, we are reminded of that bit in Monty Python's Life of Brian when the People's Front of Judea are planning their rebellion:

Other coastal centres around the UK (Plymouth, Cardiff, Orkney, Dundee, Belfast, Hull, Yarmouth, Bristol) are already investing and creating capital in establishing and servicing this sector which actually now exists. It is not something to plan for it is already something which is "actually happening" - it is very much now something to be getting on with. Yet our high-tech industry in Aberdeen, swimming in highly liquid capital, drags its insecure feet in fear of risking a little bit of that capital on a pretty good medium to long term punt. Oh no, capital in Aberdeen much prefers the short-term near-certainty of the high rate of return afforded by the high oil price. Hiding behind the oh-so-certain sounding soundbite: "high oil prices are good for Aberdeen", we hide this insecurity from even ourselves. And we get paid for it too! Or so we think! The author of "Oil!" (recently filmed as "There Will Be Blood"), American novelist, investigative journalist, philosopher, trickster, politician and self publicist Upton Sinclair famously said:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
[Coincidence scoops us. Speaking at the All-Energy conference yesterday, a look of: 'O My God is that the actual time!' in his panicked eye, local oil tycoon and rich-list denizen Sir Ian Wood echoed our sentiments on the STV local news just last night.]

Yet, as we consider historical dimensions and perspectives, we see that this willful and potentially self-defeating conservatism is nothing new for Aberdeen. Regular readers will be aware of our series of articles tracing Aberdeens ancient boundary stones - the 'March Stones'.  The obsolescence yet survival of these items fascinates us. There is no functional reason for the March Stones to have survived, yet this ancient method of denoting land boundaries survived functionally in our town well into the Victorian Era, by which time the system of land surveys and title deeds lodged with central authorities had rendered all such physical markers redundant. Yet they survived, and were replaced if necessary because of damage, flood, landslide or whatever. We cannot help but wonder if there's something very Aberdonian about this. Sure, other towns have boundary stones, but as far as we can find out not even Washington DC (a far newer and completely planned city) has managed to retain all boundary markers in situ. It is as if the new-fangled survey technology of theodolite and trigonometry was distrusted by the city fathers and land-owners of Victorian Aberdeen, it is as if deeds lodged with a notary or in a city hall meant nothing - all that mattered was the good earth, marked out by stone pillars that you could go and see. There was probably some merit in this attitude - it's certainly resilient. However, just because conservative attitudes may have served us well in the past it does not follow that the similar attitudes will help in the future. For instance: while some areas of Aberdeenshire languish with only dial-up internet; and while Aberdeen itself failed miserably when the opportunity came to have a next-generation fibre-optic communication system sutable for the 21st century installed, still we see local authority and public calls for pointless and bizarrely out-of-scale urban dual carriageway and motorway ring-road systems which were cooked up in the middle of the car-crazy 20th century.

While insecurity is a common state of mind, state of business and state of civic finance in these chewy economic times, we cannot help but fear that the specific circumstances of our town amplify these insecurities, and militate against us finding our way to the sunlit uplands of truly justified self-confidence; for finally, we discern a disquiet in the heart of the arts community in Aberdeen. Perhaps this disquiet reflects the pathologies we've identified above. But perhaps we also discern something a little more disturbing. As we've seen, large parts of the business sector in Aberdeen are at present superabundant in liquid capital, but they're insecure in that affluence. By contrast the creative arts - by definition a self-confident source of challenging discourse, a context creating discipline, is nearly always and nearly everywhere characterised by an ongoing need for funding. At a surface level, this might seem like an ideal marriage, but unfortunately the reality of the outcome is that in this town the creative arts are under constant threat of co-option by the demands of capital.

Describing an exhibition of new art by Aberdeen students,  Gray's School of Art's Gordon Burnett said recently:
The aim of this project is for the students to engage with the range of professional issues involved in responding to a client-lead brief.
(Our emphaisis) Which is fine. But to place the yolk of business and the concomitant profit motive on art at this early state in an art-student's experience might, we fear prove counter-productive to that artist's long-term development. Elsewhere, we see other attempts at the co-option of the arts by business interests, for instance in the forthcoming "Aberdeen Arts Award" at the "Arts and Business Scotland Awards" to be held in Aberdeen later this year.
The Arts and Business Scotland Awards celebrate successful arts and business partnerships and bring together many influential people in the business and cultural worlds from the high level judges to those who attend the awards ceremony itself.
This shotgun marriage of buisness and art troubles us. From the earliest rock art and clay fetishes, through the anatomically super-perfect and beautiful statuary of Ancient Greece, we discern, understand and participate in our world in the way we do because of the filters and guidelines which the artists of those artifacts have created for our cognition to follow. The arts is the branch of human striving which provides the context for our society and civilisation to then fill with content. That we think the way we do; that we say the things we say; that we behave the way we behave is all the product of the artists who have provided us with the collective cognitive tools to interpret and interact with the world around us since the beginning of human civilisation.

But now we see attempts by business bodies to define what art is, and to put it in a box which they control. It appears that the "ruling type" and "getting type" of "styles of life" identified by Adler as part of the inferiority complex are intent on subsuming the activities of arts and delivering the subverted content thus created into the ravening maw of capital for exploitation for profit. As business seeks to control the context, it denudes artistic content of meaning, gelding the message, and anodynising the very fabric of societal progress. It robs art of art itself.

We now voice our own insecurity when we say: 
"Beware the coming of the years without art."


Pam Hirsch
Apostle of freedom: Alfred Adler and his British disciples.

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