Saturday, October 24, 2015

The madness of crowds


Sirventès was the poetic art that evolved in the País d'Òc region of France in the thirteenth century to protest against the violence of the times, the stupidity of powerful people and the decline of ethics. In an early expression of the madness of crowds, the Catholic Church had mounted the Albigensian Crusade against Cathars in Occitania, and in 1209, 20,000 inhabitants of Béziers were massacred by Crusaders on the pretext that the town harboured 230 Cathar heretics. The art of the troubadors from Occitania is much celebrated, but the dissent of Sirventès - which is an offshoot from the troubadors - is almost unknown. So an eponymous new CD from the maverick Accords Croisés label showcasing the art of Sirventès is particularly welcome.

The troubadors mixed fealty to the established Catholic Church with influences from the Moorish culture of Spain, and in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry Robert Graves suggests that the troubadours' real debt was to Sufism. The influence of mystical Islam is reflected in Sirventès by the use of oud (Gregory Dargent) and percussion (Youssef Hbeisch) accompanying Manu Theron singing in the Occitan language. This is the real appeal of this new CD: the lyrics are historically correct, but the music is deliciously incorrect as it ranges from traditional influences to Middle Eastern rhythms (percussionist Youssef Hbeisch works with the famous Palestinian Trio Joubran), and contemporary styles including jazz - sample via this link.

Eight centuries after the art of Sirventès flourished, the violence of the times, the stupidity of powerful people, and the decline of ethics remain preoccupations. My recent reading has included The Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans. This chronicles how the author left his research post at the prestigious Bristol Robotics Laboratory to found a community in the Scottish Highlands to explore survival in a post-global society without modern technology. In the book Dylan Evans describes the disillusionment that sparked his (spectacularly unsuccessful) utopian experiment in words that apply as much to social media as they do to robotics:
A lot of our research [at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory] focused on something known as 'swarm intelligence'. This involved taking a lot of very simple robots and programming them to work as a team. The idea was that, even though each robot was quite stupid on its own, a kind of collective intelligence - a hive mind - would emerge when they worked together to achieve a common goal. Human societies, it struck me, were just the opposite. Individually, people are very intelligent creatures. But in society a kind of collective stupidity seems to emerge spontaneously. The Scottish journalist Charles Mackay famously called it 'the madness of crowds in an 1841 book that chronicled such follies as economic bubbles, the Crusades and witch hunts. 'Men,' he wrote, 'go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.'
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