We need to urgently renew the Age of Enlightenment

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Yesterday, at the UK Government’s daily new conference it was announced that the deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is now the highest in Europe. Ministers and Scientific Advisors have used the same chart almost since the beginning of the crisis. This shows a comparison of UK deaths with those of other countries. Yet those same Ministers and Advisors say it is too early to conclude anything about death rates, fearing (I suspect) critique of the Government response to the coronavirus.

I have a background in mathematics and big data, so I do understand the issues. Not every country measures things the same way, there are differences in population density, age, ethnicity and so on. But – and it is a big but – the data is what it is. The chart is the chart. How can the same people that started showing the chart, now say we should not fully consider it? Sadly this is accompanied with varnishing of the truth, which frankly is just not necessary. The UK has not ‘succeeded’ (Johnson, on Monday). We are still in the middle of this crisis. We have made progress, of course, and things are moving gradually in the right direction. But such glosses detract from positive things going on, and undermine trust.

I can only surmise that it all underlines a reluctance to admit mistakes, and discuss how they will be rectified, in an adult manner.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this morning Government-supporting media pursued what is euphemistically known as a ‘dead cat’ strategy, making headlines of the indiscretion of a  senior Government scientific advisor rather than examine the appalling loss in human life. But that’s for another post on the media.

We live in an era of extreme views. You are either ‘for’ something or ‘against’ something. Populism, Nationalism, Brexit, Trump, anti-lockdown, anti-globalism. Pick an issue – or its opposite – and draw the battle lines. This is exacerbated by the megaphone of universal social media. Outrage is everywhere. The Right dislike the ‘other’, the immigrants. To them, the ‘left’ are socialists and snowflakes. To the Left, the ‘right’ are fascists. Everything must be said with political correctness – except of course when Remainers criticise Brexiteer ‘gammons’.

Today on social media I see people being hyper-critical of the books in the libraries behind politicians and celebrities on video chats. First, what does it say about our ‘celebrity culture’, where that seems to take precedence over real news and commentary. And, second, are we moving to an era of banned books? I might dislike Ayn Rand’s selfish views, for example, but she had a right to publish and people have a right to read. Why should outrage be an accepted response?

Whatever happened to the ability to debate issues with civility, with critical thinking, and with respect for the views of others? Why do we need insults?

There are very few right or wrong answers to ‘wicked problems’. Such a problem is one that is difficult or even impossible to solve easily because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing contexts. The only way to deal with such problems is with reason and logic, with innovation and collective energies. You do not solve wicked problems with outraged opinion.

Sir Charles Dikes, 1873. John Stuart Mill. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia licence.

John Stuart Mill, the champion of liberty and enlightenment liberalism, saw that opinions can become tyrannical. In On Liberty, Mill argued for everyone to become ‘eccentric’, to use critical reasoning and not to pander to the crowd.

‘Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric’. (pg. 66. Chapter III: Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being).

Mill considered us social animals, and saw benefit in social living. But he was a fierce champion of the individual. Applied today, to what degree do we hold our individuality in check, and to what degree does our (social) media and political class terrorise us into conformity? Are we eccentric enough?

It seems to me that in the world today, and especially during the current pandemic, the essence of Enlightenment liberalism remains increasingly in question. Mill, again:

‘With respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases‘. (pg. 74. Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual).

Applying Mill’s thinking today, he would argue that the current regime of ‘social distancing’ is a public good, outweighing individual liberty – he would not be protesting. It is a regime of minimising public harm.

But he would also argue that if an individual is not harming others, they should be free. In other words, he would think his way through the issues, and not be either ‘black’ nor ‘white’. His principle of ‘minimal harm’ has much bearing on our current predicament, and in particular how to exit lockdown.

From another era, Mani was an Iranian born in 216, into a family with Jewish Christian Gnostic beliefs. (Gnostics believed that God wasn’t responsible for the creation of our world, essentially because there is much evil in it). Mani went on to found Manichaeism, teaching a complex but highly dualistic cosmology. Life was always a bitter struggle between the ‘good’, the spiritual world of light, and ‘evil’, the material world of darkness. Manichaeism was hugely popular for many centuries – even Augustine was attracted in his early years, although he later refuted those beliefs.

To quote Wikipedia:

‘[Manichaeism] was briefly the main rival to Christianity before the spread of Islam in the competition to replace classical paganism. Manichaeism survived longer in the east than in the west, and it appears to have finally faded away after the 14th century in south China, contemporary to the decline of the Church of the East in Ming China’.

We live in a different kind of Manichaean era, one that threatens the Enlightenment view which has been at the foundation of our (Western) culture since the 17th century. By Enlightenment, I mean the sovereignty of reason; the power of empiricism, logic and the scientific method; the ideals of liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity; constitutional government; and separation of church and state.

I have just finished reading Russell Blackford’s excellent book, The Tyranny of Opinion. He seeks to remind us that the values that built our society are at severe risk. Perhaps many of us already know that. But what is different about Blackford’s work is that he argues that those same values could also be essential to the recovery of civil discourse. No one should be afraid of speaking out. But, as Mill argued, this should be in measured and rational ways. Blackford:

‘Today left-wing and liberal thought (in the American sense of liberalism) is often in flight from Enlightenment liberal ideas. In their place, we can see something remarkably different: a social and political ideology, perhaps historically continuous with liberal traditions, that is increasingly centred on identity politics. To be more precise, it is built on glorifying or sanctifying (not merely assisting) historically oppressed cultural and demographic groups’. (pg 165-166)

In the book, Blackford discusses ideology, the power of propaganda, outrage politics, the problems in cyberspace, and our blame / victim culture. He includes the perils of no-platforming on free speech issues. Blackford sees fault on all sides. But he does offer a possible pathway forward.

‘If we stand in the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism, it means standing for secular government, individual liberty free inquiry and discussion, due process for people accused of wrongdoing, and more generally the rule of It means that we value reason, individuality originality; creativity spontaneity and the search for truth. To protect these, we value privacy. We value equality rather than hierarchies and subordination. We defend people and speak in uniquely individual ways, rather than as who live, think, representatives of communities, cultures, religions, political tribes, or demographic groups. We tolerate all ways of living and speaking that are freely chosen by those involved and not straightforwardly harmful to others.

As Enlightenment liberals, we won’t insist on a single, valorised template for the good life, or even offer a small group of templates to choose from. We’ll accept that even wrong ideas and even ways of life that prove untenable or unattractive have a part to play in the advance of knowledge, understanding, conduct, creativity, be. As far as possible, we’ll favour tolerance and social pluralism’. (pg 196)

Put that another way, we all have the right to an opinion, to free speech – although within the overall bounds of Mill’s liberal principles of non-harm. Blackford argues that we should defend the rights of those that we disagree with just as much as we would defend our own right to an opinion. And he’s absolutely correct.

In my use of social media, I enjoy the conversation. I have tried to offer a platform for opposing views, although the bubble effect makes that extremely difficult. I also try to stop any name calling, though that seems to be increasingly hard to do.

Social media makes it too easy to fall into what I would define as neo-Manichaean outrage. I do not mean in matters of religion, but in the continued drive for either black or white. Yet, we can all hold more than two ideas in our heads simultaneously, even apparent contradictions.

For example, I truly value what the UK Government is now doing to help solve the Covid-19 problem, both in the arenas of health care and in securing individual economic livelihoods. But I also have been critical from the beginning of the speed of action, especially the slowness to take things seriously (Johnson shaking hands with Covid-19 patients, Cheltenham races etc). The UK has also been slow to embrace other country’s prior experience with the virus. Too often, expression of criticism has been met with ‘you must support the Government’. On the other hand, support of the Government can lead to cries of ‘don’t you know the terrible things they have done?. Why is it binary?

As I mentioned above, everyone needs to stop varnishing the facts, on BOTH sides. It annoys the hell out of me.

Blackford accepts how hard it is to re-create an ‘enlightenment agenda’ (my words, not his).

None of this is the existing social consensus. On the contrary, it’s a position with surprisingly few contemporary defenders. It is, however, an intellectually coherent and attractive approach once it is set out explicitly and in sufficient detail.

If I’ve accomplished nothing else in the preceding chapters, I’ve at least described and attempted to defend a Millian viewpoint on liberty of thought and discussion that is currently almost forgotten and merits a full restatement. This Millian viewpoint connects with Enlightenment liberal ideas of liberty individuality spontaneity originality and intellectual and social progress that have never been much favoured by the political Right and have largely been abandoned by the Left (which is increasingly focused on avoiding offence to members of historically oppressed groups).

The Millian viewpoint on liberty and free discussion is not just intellectually pleasing. It offers the best future for liberal democracies and liberalism itself‘. (pg 215)

We live in challenging times, which are in many ways paradoxical. The virus, sadly, might serve as an accelerator of reduction in civil liberties and privacy, as well as a power driving isolationist politics. It might drive yet more outrage.

We want safety and we want liberty. We want free speech but we want our own views to prevail. We cannot handle paradox, so we tend to say that it must be ‘either / or’.

But I would submit that the only way to properly deal with social paradox is by saying ‘yes / and’.


Cabinet Office Slides. May 5th 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/slides-and-datasets-to-accompany-coronavirus-press-conference-5-may-2020

BLACKFORD, Russell. 2019. The Tyranny of Opinion. London: Bloomsbury.

MILL, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays. 1991, 2015 Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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Yet another Facebook challenge – this time, books. It does offer an interesting opportunity to revisit the library, not just at what is important looking back, but also at book design.

Eric Frank Russell. 1905 – 1978.

The header is Wasp by Eric Frank Russell, published in 1957. The Gollancz yellow jacket Sci-Fi series was one of my staples from the Saturday morning Library visit in the 1960s. And Wasp might (in my opinion) just be the best science fiction story ever written. The book cover is the UK 1958 edition.

Russell was born near Sandhurst, his father being an instructor at the Royal Military College. In 1934, while living near Liverpool, he saw a letter in Amazing Stories from Leslie J. Johnson. Russell met Johnson, and the two wrote a novella, Seeker of Tomorrow, published in the July 1937 number of Astounding Stories. Russell became a member of the British Interplanetary Society and the British representative of the Fortean Society.

His first solo novel was Sinister Barrier, the cover story for the inaugural, May 1939 issue of Unknown, which was Astounding‘s sister magazine devoted to fantasy. It is a Fortean tale, based on Charles Fort’s famous speculation ‘I think we’re property‘. Russell won the first annual Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1955 with his humorous Allamagoosa. 1962’s The Great Explosion won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1985, whilst Wasp had earlier been a finalist for that honor. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Russell in 2000.

Wikipedia notes:

‘There are two different and mutually incompatible accounts of Russell’s military service during World War II. The official, well-documented version is that he served with the Royal Air Force, with whom he saw active service in Europe as a member of a Mobile Signals Unit. However, in the introduction to the 1986 Del Rey Books edition of Russell’s novel Wasp, Jack L. Chalker states that Russell was too old for active service, and instead worked for Military Intelligence in London, where he “spent the war dreaming up nasty tricks to play against the Germans and Japanese”, including Operation Mincemeat. Russell’s biographer John L. Ingham states however that “there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in his R.A.F. record to show that he was anything more than a wireless mechanic and radio operator’.

Gilbert Ryle. 1900 – 1976. The Concept of Mind. 1949.

Penguin edition, 1980.

The Concept of Mind is Ryle’s best known work, and was required reading for my undergrad philosophy studies at the University of Leeds. Ryle is considered to have ended Cartesian dualism, famously denying the existence of a ‘ghost in the machine’. He writes that it is a ‘category mistake’ to try to reduce the world to either mind or body. A category mistake is, for example, to say that ‘the tide is rising’, ‘hopes are rising’ and ‘the average age of death is rising’ are all the same thing. (pg 24). Unpacking meaning is Ryle’s raison d’être, and, with the benefit of hindsight, his approach largely defines how I attempt to understand ideas and concepts in the world.

Instead, Ryle proposed that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately. He was interested in the logical definition of such issues as knowledge (knowing how is not the same as knowing that); skills (not acts, but a complex of dispositions impacted by practise and learning); human behaviour (reflecting our inclinations, feelings, dispositions and not the result of some kind of occult / mystical cause and effect); and free will (not the result of a deterministic machine, but instead a mix of both voluntary and involuntary actions). Here is a classic Ryle statement ending the chapter on free will:

The movements of the heavenly bodies provided one kind of ‘clock’. It was the human pulse that provided the next. Nor is it merely primitive animism which makes native children think of engines as iron horses. There is very little else in Nature to which they are so closely analogous. Avalanches and games of billiards are subject to mechanical laws; but they are not at all like the workings of machines’. (pg 80).

His approach to philosophy was thus similar to that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, using ‘ordinary language’ to understand and explain philosophical concepts. Both philosophers were interested in the codification of normal human practices that are already existing, rather than creating some form of external metaphysics. In the history of philosophy, both develop on David Hume’s empiricist approach (more on him, later). However, Ryle is better seen as pursuing parallel paths rather than following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps.

Gilbert Ryle was born in Brighton, one of ten children. His father was a general practitioner with interests in philosophy and astronomy. Ryle went to Queen’s College, Oxford in 1919 initially to study Classics, but he was quickly drawn to Philosophy, graduating in 1924 in the then-new School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After graduation, Ryle was appointed to a lectureship in Philosophy at Christ Church College. He remained at Oxford for his entire career until retirement in 1968; in 1945 he was elected Waynflete Chair of Metaphysical Philosophy.

Warren Bennis (1925 – 2014) & Burt Nanus (1936 – ). Leaders – The Strategies for Taking Charge. 1985.

Harper & Row, 1985.

More than any other scholar, Bennis transformed the field of leadership studies. He wrote over 30 books, and it is hard to choose one. I opt for Leaders – The Strategies for Taking Charge (1985) with Burt Nanus, featuring the classic aphorism ‘Managers do the Right Things, Leaders do Things Right‘. I chose this as it is the first of his that I bought, when I was beginning my General management journey at Procter & Gamble. Warren and John W. Gardner were major influences at that time – the combination of leadership and learning, with values as fundamental, drove my own frameworks on the subject, and still feature in any training or teaching I do today.

Warren is credited perhaps more than any other in the field as defining leadership as a process, not some god-given or innate capability. Thus, leadership can be taught and learnt. He shifted the field from ‘great man’ theory to something applicable to all.

In later years I was lucky enough to meet and work with Warren. He wrote the forward to Linkage Inc’s Developing Leaders in a Global Landscape (2009, 2nd edition) to which I contributed a chapter. On another occasion Warren and I were helping facilitate a CEO’s workshop in California, around the time he and Noel Tichy had published Making Judgement Calls. At the workshop, Warren told a story researched by Daniel Baum about Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes of the US army. He averted a massacre in the early years of the Iraq War by telling his small unit to ‘take a knee’ rather than confront an angry and hostile crowd leaving a mosque. Baum’s original article Battle Lessons was in the New Yorker.

The moral was that there was no ‘playbook’ in the army training manual to deal with such situations – in fact, there was at the time some concern about leadership creativity ‘on the ground’ – and military instincts might have suggested fight, not flee. Lieutenant Colonel Hughes proved otherwise, exercising first-class leadership judgment.

Warren’s ability to tell a story and clearly draw the lessons was unmatched. His obituary – Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2014/08/warren-bennis-leadership-pioneer

Miyamoto Musashi. 1584 – 1645. A Book of Five Rings, 五輪書, Go Rin no Sho. 1645.

Victor Harris translation, 1974. Overlook Press, 24th printing.

‘It is said the Warrior’s Way is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways.  Even if a man has no natural ability, he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way’. (pg 37)

Miyamoto Musashi was a unique individual.  He was not a great General, but he was an unbeaten warrior, a Zen artist, and a person of unusual balance.  He is a Japanese folk hero. Yet, whilst many people know his name, few know much about what he did or what he stood for. The Book of Five Rings was the result of Musashi’s lifelong search, and was written in the form of a letter to a pupil; it is his personal Zen Heiho.  It is quite short, and was finished just days before he died. 

Musashi developed a unique two-handed sword fighting style, which became known as Ni Ten Ichi Ryu. He gained an invincible reputation by the age of 21, to the point that he won without using a sword. Musashi was a loner, studying Zen to help his skills, although he was never a teacher.

Perhaps Musashi’s most famous duel was against Ganryu (Sasaki Kojiro) in 1613.  This Long Sword expert was beaten by Musashi with a wooden pole, after a certain amount of psychological outmanoeuvring – Musashi’s lateness made Ganryu lose his self control. This combination of skill and psychology became a trademark for Musashi, and helps explain his writing. (Eli Yoshikawa’s fictional Musashi has excellent descriptions of how he fought – Kodansha, 1971).

Musashi retired into seclusion in 1643 to start to write the Book of Five Rings, a classic yet difficult work of strategy and tactics.  It ought to be required reading for any serious student of the martial arts, or Japan in general, and it has often been studied in the West to get clues about the ‘Japanese way of business’, especially in the 1980’s.  However, the book never really received the breadth of analysis from a business or leadership perspective that, for example, Sun Tzu’s Art of War has. Perhaps Thomas Cleary’s 1993 translation and commentary is best for this purpose.

The Go Rin no Sho has five books within it. First, the Earth (Ground) Book deals with strategy; the Water Book deals with technique; the Wind Book with competitive position; the Fire Book is about fighting; and the Book of the Void, the hardest to understand fully, deals with being one with the moment.

In this short summary, I cannot do justice to Musashi’s breadth of thinking, so I will just share a few extracts from the Earth Book that help to sum up his approach to strategy.

‘The spirit of defeating a man is the same for ten million men’. (pg. 37)

‘The warrior is different in that studying the Way of strategy is based on overcoming men’. (pg. 38)

    1. Do not think dishonestly.
    2. The Way is in training.
    3. Become acquainted with every art.
    4. Know the Ways of all professions.
    5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
    6. Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything.
    7. Perceive those things that cannot be seen.
    8. Pay attention even to trifles.
    9. Do nothing which is of no use’. (pg. 49)

‘There is timing (rhythm) in everything.  Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice’. (pg. 48).

‘In large scale strategy the superior man will manage many subordinates dextrously, bear himself correctly, govern the country and foster the people, thus preserving the ruler’s discipline’. (pg 49).

Finally, two screens attributed to Musashi.

Miyamoto Musashi. Undated. RoGan-zu (Wild Geese & Reeds), Left Panel. Eisei-bunko Museum, Tokyo.

Miyamoto Musashi. Undated. RoGan-zu (Wild Geese & Reeds), Right Panel. Eisei-bunko Museum, Tokyo.

Stan Davis & Christopher Meyer. Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy. 1998.

There was a  time when I had a pretty voracious appetite for business books. This was mainly when I was actually running businesses, always trying to figure out some kind of ‘next best thing’. Well, in 1998, I found such a book. Blur really rocked my business world. It also led me to an enduring friendship with Chris Meyer, an intellectual sparring partner every day since.

Today, we might consider some of Blur‘s premises ‘obvious’. But someone had to write about those ideas, first. Davis and Meyer suggested that the world was being changed by three separate but connected forces – connectivity, speed and intangibles (‘the derivatives of time, space, and mass‘ pg. 6). The title of the book comes from the way that these forces were changing the rules of business. One-size-fits all mass production, segmented pricing and standardised jobs all worked for the slow, unconnected industrial world. But Davis and Meyer’s three forces were not only shaping how the new economy was working, but also our personal behaviours. And, for me as the leader of a consumer products business, this meant that the very nature of a brand was being reshaped in what the authors said was ‘the blur of desires, the blur of fulfilment and the blur of resources’.

Heady stuff.

Within that blur of desires, David and Meyer discussed the offer and the exchange. In my brand-oriented world, that used to be pretty simple – we made a new product for sale at a price deemed right to attract the customer. We used mass media marketing, and customers decided either to buy the product or not. Money changed hands. But Blur was one of the first books (if not the first) to note that products and services were becoming indistinguishable from each other. In parallel, buyers and sellers were in an interdependent relationship that was constantly changing. This mêlée was all driven by information and emotion, and not just money.

Similar things were happening in the fulfilment business. Markets were changing. With well-researched examples, the authors noted that ‘The blur of businesses has created a new economic model in which returns increase rather than diminish; supermarkets mimic stock markets, and you want the market — not your strategy — to price, market, and manage your offer‘ (pg. 82). As if that wasn’t enough, Blur showed that intellectual capital was the key resource and that traditional, hard assets have become intangibles.

Davis and Meyer devoted the last chapter to ‘living the blur’ – how to manage your business and your career with these ideas  at their core.

As a result of this, I organised a ‘Blur Shop’ with our J&J Asia Pacific management group and Chris’ team at the Centre for Business Innovation from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999/2000. Digging out my signed copy of the book, Chris’ hand written dedication on the frontispiece was ‘Hopefully an analgesic for the new economy. Best Blurs to J&J‘. 🙂

Stepping back, I still think that this was one of the best books charting our collective move into a networked society.

Adrian Henri, Roger McGough & Brian Patten. The Mersey Sound. 1967.

Penguin, revised 1983 edition.

This anthology of poems was from a trio of Liverpool poets. It was first published in 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’, whilst the music of Sergeant Pepper filled the country’s airwaves. Liverpool. of course, was then then cultural capital of the modern world, and the book’s title Mersey Sound directly plugged into that. It eventually sold over 500,000 copies (250,000 before the release of  the 1983 edition), becoming one of the bestselling poetry anthologies of all time.

The music and poetry worlds were kaleidoscopically intertwined. From Wikipedia:

‘Returning to Merseyside in the early 1960s, [Roger McGough] worked as a French teacher and, with John Gorman, organised arts events. McGough and Gorman later met Mike McGear [Mike McCartney – Paul McCartney’s younger brother] and together formed the trio The Scaffold; they worked the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until they were signed to Parlophone records in 1966. The Scaffold performed a mixture of comic songs, comedy sketches and the poetry of McGough. The group scored several hit records, reaching number one in the UK Singles Chart in 1968 with their version of ‘Lily the Pink’. McGough wrote the lyrics for many of the group’s songs and also recorded the musical comedy/poetry album McGough and McGear’.

All of the poetry in The Mersey Sound is urban, youthful and direct – yet always with more than touch of down to earth humour. One poem that I especially recall was McGough’s At Lunchtime. This was written rather counter to the daily love-ins, being about the fears of a nuclear holocaust. McGough suggested that the world would end at lunchtime, solely to enable him to persuade a fellow bus passenger to make love. She did, but it didn’t 🙂

Here are the first three verses:

When the bus stopped suddenly
to avoid damaging
a mother and child in the road,
the young lady in the green hat sitting opposite,
was thrown across me,
and not being one to miss an opportunity
i started to make love.

At first, she resisted,
saying that it was too early in the morning,
and too soon after breakfast,
and anyway, she found me repulsive.
But when i explained
that this being a nuclearage
the world was going to end at lunchtime,
she hook off her green hat,
put her busticket into her pocket
and joined in the exercise.

The bus people,
and there were many of them,
were shockedamdsurprised,
and amusedandannoyed.
But when word got around
that the world was going to end at lunchtime,
they put their pride in their pockets
with their bustickets
and made love one with the other.

At that time, I was busy painting and writing poetry, whilst discovering Zen and other forms of discovery. I was a teenager enjoying as many of the joys of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ as I could handle. Somehow my 1967 copy disappeared, hence the 1983 version.

It’s lovely to re-read this, so thank you, FaceBook challenge.

Susie Linfield. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. 2010.

University of Chicago Press.

Susie Linfield’s book is the most important that I read during my recent Masters program in helping me to develop an intellectually robust view on the ethics of documentary photography, and particularly images of conflict, trauma and atrocity. She challenges the idea that photography of political violence exploits the subject and panders to the viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies. Instead she argues passionately that looking at such images, and learning how to see people in them, is both ethically and politically necessary.

Linfield notes that the book

‘.. is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag was wrong about most things, on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true. But it is Sontag, more than anyone else, was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them. I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag’s postmodern and poststructuralist heirs, and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike these critics I believe we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike these critics, I believe we need to look at, and into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”’. (pg XV).

Sontag, Berger, Barthes and the postmodernists were heavily influenced by the melancholy school of the Frankfurt writers, especially Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht. This school didn’t write just about photography, and they are treated by contemporary critics with fitting intellectual respect, but also with a kind of fundamentalist reverence, which (Linfield writes) is unhelpful. She does note that for Benjamin, photography was a part of the painful but necessary task of modernity. The photographer Eugėne Atget, who ‘set about removing the makeup from reality’, inspired in Benjamin some of his most appreciative and beautiful writing (pg 17).

Linfield argues that open-ended photographs don’t tell us what to feel, but encourage us to dig … a photograph’s ambiguities are a starting point for the viewer’s discovery of meaning and intention (pg 29).

‘Unlike Brecht, we don’t need to view photographs as carriers of a fatal emotional germ; unlike the postmodern, we don’t need to avoid emotion the way the Victorians avoided sex. Nor do we need to regard photographs simply as henchman of capitalism or tools of oppression [Sekula] … critics have crippled our capacity to grasp what John Berger called “The there was of the world”. And it is just that – the texture, the fullness of the wound outside ourselves – into which we need to delve’ (pg 30).

Linfield is arguing strongly for both the right to view and the right to critique … but not to censor. She makes it an issue of rights.

‘The establishment of human rights is a life and death project to build a “species solidarity” that is deeper and stronger than culture, nation, religion, race, class, gender or politics’ (pg 35).

The Cruel Radiance examines a great many examples of photographs of violence, atrocity and war, as well as placing images into the historic contexts of the Holocaust, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian Genocide, Abu Ghraib and more. She also discusses specific photographers, including Don McCullin, Robert Capa and James Nachtwey.

In a memorable phrase, she suggests:

‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’ (pg 60).

Every photograph involves a triangle – the photographer, the subject and the audience. All must be considered, not just in the act of creating the image, but in the act of viewing it. And all must be part of the ethical conversation enabled by photographs. Linfield’s book is well researched, thoughtfully argued, and brave.


To be continued ….

John Stuart Mill. 1806 – 1873. On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays. 1859.


Masahisa Fukase. 1934 – 2012. Ravens. 1991.

Mack Books, 2017 edition.


H.W & Dora Jane Jansen. The Picture History of Painting. 1957.

Thames & Hudson, 1963 concise edition.


David Hume. 1711 – 1776. A Treatise of Human Nature. 1738.

Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966 impression.


Time Life. Photography. 1970 onwards.



BENNIS, Warren & NANUS, Burt. 1985.  Leaders – The Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper & Row.

DAVIS, Stan & MEYER, Christopher. 1998. Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

FUKASE, Masahisa. 1991. Ravens. 2017 Edition. London: Mack Books.

HENRI, Adrian, MCGOUGH, Roger & PATTEN, Brian. 1967. The Mersey Sound. Revised edition, 1983. London: Penguin.

HUME, David. 1738. A Treatise of Human Nature. Editor L.A. Selby-Bigge, L.A., 1888. 2010 Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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