Exploratory CW essay pieces look at the broader trends in contemporary society, politics and culture.

A selection of the Battle of Ideas’ Battles in Print is also available here.

Friday 15 July 2011

Hairy days for journalism

The bigger picture behind the crisis in British journalism

Instead of technology, neurology and nature, the following, brief episodes – flashes from the history of news – are intended to show that journalism has been socially determined; and so too is our capacity to change its centre of gravity. Revealing the real elements of compulsion can only make the case for concerted change more compelling.

Friday 8 July 2011

Belfast: Exposed

Where are the people? Contemporary photographs of Belfast 2002-2010, edited by Karen Downey

Ethical concerns can just as easily be motivated by an evasion of responsibility, as they can by a desire to capture the displacement of people from history-making. The absence of people in documentary photography can be an accurate picture of the position of the people in contemporary society, but this absence can also amount to an attempt to evade the question Where are the people?

Friday 20 May 2011

Using art to nudge the public

Culture and Class, by John Holden (Counterpoint 2010) / Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts, by John Knell and Matthew Taylor (RSA 2011)

Today, Voltaire’s Enlightenment optimism has deteriorated into a deep pessimism about humanity and its place in the world.  In Britain, art is no longer seen by the elite as a way of dragging the lower orders up by their bootlaces, but as a sort of Valium to stop us getting any worse.

Monday 9 May 2011

‘Muscular liberalism’: a paradoxical political philosophy?

Multiculturalism is far from dead. No apartheid exists in Britain. David Cameron touched on a few minority Islamist groups that hold segregationist attitudes, but many more Muslims live integrated lives. Nor does multiculturalism necessarily mean opposing to ‘British’ political values.

Better schools for all?

The Education White Paper and the Attainment Gap

The government has made some important proposals, such as refocusing on teacher quality as the key determinant of educational attainment.But this good work is in danger of being undone by the overly prescriptive and quixotic nature of the curriculum changes. The aim should not merely be to have good schools, but instead, a good schools system, so that all pupils regardless of their background and where they live have the chance to progress in a stimulating and challenging environment.

Monday 2 May 2011

Love your enemies… but don’t let them eat you

Sam Harris on the science of good and evil, Intelligence Squared, London, 11 April 2011

In response to questions, Harris asked, seemingly bewildered, why anyone should be afraid of the idea that scientific experts might determine human values. One answer is that we value democracy; and science, for all its other merits, is not democratic. For the very same reason we object to theocratic rule, we are right to be suspicious of ‘scientistic’ pronouncements.

Friday 1 April 2011

Not what you expect from opera?

Birmingham Opera Company and the politics of outreach

Niall Crowley asks if the work of Birmingham Opera Company – featured in a recent BBC documentary along with a screening of their unique production of Verdi’s Othello – and their goal of ‘making opera speak to a broad audience’ is just another attempt to use the arts for the purposes of social engineering or something to be celebrated.

Niall Crowley in • EssaysMusicOpera
Tuesday 22 March 2011

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan!

Mumbai Fables, by Gyan Prakash (Princeton University Press 2010)

The promise of the city, like that of Independence, was real – and perhaps still is. There is a tragic quality to Prakash’s account, but the gradual demise of the Modernist dream in the second half of the twentieth century should not be seen as inevitable or even, perhaps, final.

Friday 4 February 2011

Expecting the unexpected

Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut

When Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens, this does not mean he was taken to the reality of his train of thought or stream of consciousness; it does not have a metaphorical meaning. In the context of Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim really is abducted by aliens – or at least it has been written to be understood as so; this does not sustain an ‘allegorical’ or ‘poetic’ interpretation.

Thursday 20 January 2011

The Theatre of Protest

Forty years on from les événements, is the UK seeing the blossoming of a new, theatrical protest movement?

Similarly theatrical is the recognition that the human body is a symbolic site - be it dancing in the confines of kettle-raves, sportsday in Topshop, the spontaneous choreography of facing an armoured police line, or being violently dragged from a wheelchair. Indeed, when Cameron decries ‘the mob’, he is like a particularly insensitive critic, failing or refusing to grasp the nature of a very complex and energetic ensemble piece.

Tuesday 4 January 2011


The Return of the Public, by Dan Hind (Verso, 2010)

Hind effectively conflates Kant’s notion of public reason as a scholarly ideal with the whole idea of public participation in politics. The effect is to restrict severely what counts as properly ‘public’ participation, and even public opinion.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Probably the best advertising strategy in the world

Carlsberg don't make TV programmes... But the future of advertising could be content produced by advertisers themselves

Wouldn’t it just be more civilised for a nation’s cultural life to revolve around something other than deliciously crunchy breakfast cereals and not believing it’s not butter?

Thursday 2 December 2010

Rethinking Asia

Adapting to a different world view

Buy a world map in China, and China (the Middle Kingdom) is in the centre; not ragged islands on the edges of Europe, fringed by a small sea. We have not come to terms with Asia’s rise, and can have no conception of what it means for us (beyond, perhaps, a nagging anxiety that it can’t be good). As power shifts to the twin giants of China and India, we can only realise we are small, and what we think might not matter very much.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Mobility tomorrow: just take a cab!

On the future of innovation

Government, economists and product developers would be well advised to concentrate on those recommendations made by futurologists that consider the wishes of the user. The needs of the customer decide whether a technological innovation becomes successful or not, and the user prefers those innovations that improve upon existing technologies in the fields of energy, communications and mobility by dissolving the tensions between robustness, safety and cost-effectiveness without any compromise.

Thursday 28 October 2010

This is fact, not fiction (on biography)

Many writers, and examples could easily come from the sci-fi genre, did not have to endure the predicaments present in their characters and their plots in order to write. Furthermore, normalcy, or middle-class bourgeois normalcy, is, these days, predicament enough. Still, each individual’s account, in fiction or real life, is full of drama because it is one’s own.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical