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HowTheLightGetsIn – The Ideas and Music Festival

August 3, 2016
Janne Teller (Photo: Terry Vosbein)

Janne Teller (Photo: Terry Vosbein)

Post 11 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festivals

Can we ever really know reality?

No, said CERN physicist John Ellis, “We are increasing the number of things we know, but the number of things we don’t know will always be infinity.” Ellis originated the term “Theory of Everything”.

Ellis was speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival run in Hay-on-Wye at the same time as the main Hay Festival. A perfect combination – after binging on ideas and debates, we could rejuvenate by immersing ourselves in music.

Existential novelist Janne Teller, at the same session as Ellis, described a different way of knowing. “We can listen to our characters,” she said. “They teach us.” What would it be like to be a flying horse? She described  imagining her way into the horse, discovering what it was like to gallop, then feeling the moment as the wings stretched out and the horse lifted off the ground.

A Drug is defined as …

… something a politician once used and now regrets, said psychiatrist David Nutt. He was the chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but was sacked for telling the truth about drugs – for example, that horse riding is more dangerous for children than Ecstasy. He told the audience at Hay that the war on drugs has made the problem worse, and that all drugs should be decriminalised and addiction treated as a health issue rather than a legal issue. He points to the success of Portugal, and asks: Why believe in prohibition when we know it didn’t work for alcohol?

Edvard Munch, The Scream

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Gavin Turk, Bag [Painted bronze] (Photo:

Michelangelo versus Hirst

The Scream gives you something – it’s a visual attack on you, art critic Julian Spalding declared at HowTheLightGetsIn. But if you look at conceptual art, like Malevich’s Black Square, or Hirst’s shark, it gives you nothing – it’s no more than a clever idea. An unmade bed can’t be compared to the Sistine Chapel.

Spalding argued that the conceptual art of prominent British artist Gavin Turk was not art. Gavin Turk, who was on the same panel, quietly asserted that his art is art.  “No, it’s not,” cried Spalding.

The “yes it is, no it’s not” went back and forth a few times, then the chairperson told Spalding that if Turk says his art is art, then it is, and Spalding was not allowed to say it wasn’t. That really set Spalding off, and squashed any chance of an enlightened exploration of the question.

“If you doubt evil …

… look into your own mind.” Philosopher Peter Dewes quoted Kant in a session on evil at HowTheLightGetsIn. But psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen said he does not use the word – it is a leftover from religion, and is scientifically unhelpful. “Why shut down enquiry?” he asked. “If someone enjoys cruelty, ask why. Has abuse in childhood caused him to become an abuser in adulthood?

Dewes was unconvinced, arguing that “evil” is a way of expressing repugnance. Another philosopher, Rebecca Roache, said that the term is helpful for things that are extremely wrong and that we don’t understand.

For Baron-Cohen, empathy is a more helpful concept. He uses it in measuring and researching prosocial and antisocial behaviour to identify the social and biological factors that cause people to have low affective empathy, and consequently to do things that the philosophers might label as “evil”.

“There is no such thing as race,” …

… said geneticist Anne Bowcock at HowTheLightGetsIn. “There are no specific genes that can be used to determine a person’s race. There are more differences within populations that between them.”

Journalist Kurt Barling agrees. “Racism begat race. Race itself is a fiction.” He says we need to liberate our imaginations from all racialized seeing and racialized solutions.

That’s all from Hay – for this year

This is my final post on the 2016 Festivals in Hay. In this post I’ve shared just a few moments from more than 700 events at HowTheLightGetsIn, and previous posts have reported on a tiny fraction of the hundreds of events at the main Hay Festival. Next year, the Hay Festival will run from 25 May to 4 June, but HowTheLightGetsIn will skip a year and return in 2018.

Participating in these twin celebrations of books, ideas, music, art and culture was a ten-day high.

One of the HowTheLightGetsIn sites and the Yurt field beside the River Wye

One of the HowTheLightGetsIn sites and the Yurt field beside the River Wye

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