Sunday, 2 October 2011

All you need is love and an iPad

Before John Lennon sat down in 1967 to write the lyrics for “All you need is love” I doubt whether he had been reading Hobbes’ “Leviathan”, but the question that Lennon was implicitly answering in his song was actually the exact same question that Hobbes set out to answer some 300 years earlier: What might bring people together – and hold them together - in a peaceful society where life would not be nasty, brutish and short? Hobbes’ answer was fear and prudence. Lennon disagreed. All we need is love.

But a love of what, though? Here are three objects of love.

Did Lennon have any of those in mind?

The song repeats a number of words. The word most often repeated is “you”:
…nothing you can do that can’t be done,
Nothing you can make that can’t be made,
No one you can save that can’t be saved,
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
It is all about you, so the message (or one of the messages) is: Learn to love yourself.

One doesn’t normally associate pop with metaphysics, but “All you need is love” has a metaphysics. Lennon is implying that there is an immutable order in the universe that determines what can be done and made and saved, and that determines where we are meant to be. The implication is clear: to properly love ourselves we need to love our place within that big cosmic order. So this is not a narcissistic love of our appearance or status. Rather it is a love that goes beyond the superficial realm of appearances.

However, perhaps it is a mistake to look too closely at the lyrics. There is nothing you can sing that can’t be broadcast, and when it is broadcast it might take on a slightly different meaning from the one you had in mind when you sat alone writing the lyrics.

John Lennon’s song was first broadcast as part of the first big international TV show, which was called “Our World” and which occurred on June 25 1967. The event was originally conceived by the BBC. The idea was to do what could be done with the new telecommunications satellites – satellites that made it possible to link up different broadcasting companies around the world so that people in different countries (31 were able to receive the signal) could watch the same TV programme at the same time. It was broadcast live with participants from 14 different countries. The participants included people like Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. The Beatles got the last slot in the two-and-a-half-hour event, and in the end their piece proved to be the most memorable.

It is worth watching the first few minutes of the broadcast as it was seen by viewers in Canada.

The presenter makes the obvious point that what is connecting people around the world is the technology of the “completely new communications age”. He is filmed in the control room so that viewers can marvel at the vast array of technology that has been amassed there.

That YouTube clip is an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who was then the biggest talking head with something vaguely interesting to say about the communications age. The interviewer is a bit of a loose cannon. After pointing out how the broadcast is supposed to bring the world together he suggests to McLuhan that perhaps the new technology actually achieves the opposite: a new divide opens up between those who have access to the programme on TV and the majority of the world in 1967 who had no hope whatsoever of singing along with John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles. Marshall McLuhan completely misses the point of the question and thinks he is being asked about an older generation in the West who don’t feel at all excited about pop culture and TV. For me, that is no accident. Among those infected by the excitement about the shiny, new hi-tech world the human being in all her unshiny humanity gets forgotten. The human beings who are supposed to be united in Our World fade into almost complete obscurity, overshadowed by the technology that is said to be uniting them.

In the end, the message in Lennon’s song proved weaker than the message in the medium itself. The world is no more united now by the sort of love that Lennon envisaged than it was then. There is, though, a pseudo unity around the world with all of us who are sufficiently affluent owning the same high-tech hardware. This gives us something in common, but it doesn’t really unite us. We are no closer to learning how to love ourselves and our world in a way that would prove once and for all that Hobbes was wrong – that we can overcome the worst instincts in ourselves and establish an order that is not based on fear and compusion and petty self-interest.

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