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THE BIG IDEAS, UP FOR DEBATE: Sociologist Richard Sennett, architect David Adjaye and musician Emmy the Great are among the speakers and performers at the Observer-partnered HowTheLightGetsIn festival in Hay next month. Festival director Hilary Lawson talks about the genesis of the event where art, music, ideas and philosophy meet, and above we pick some highlights

April 27, 2014

You've described HowTheLightGetsIn as a place where there are no "off limit" views. Has that resolve been tested, since the first festival five years ago?

It has. The nature of philosophy is to ask the questions that we run away from. And an awful lot of ideas that are discussed in the public realm are tribal. We move like sheep, and follow whatever is the current fad - indeed, we're often deeply critical of ideas that don't follow that current tribal view. It's one of the jobs of philosophy to oppose that. To present points of view which are heretical, which challenge cosy assumptions.

"Heresies" are a theme for this year's event. Tell me about some that will be explored.

One's about tax - that it's not a moral issue, whether we pay tax. Could it even be that it's a perfectly respectable and responsible thing to seek to avoid tax? A pretty strong heresy at the moment, one that most of us would disagree with. There's another called "Bang Goes the Big Bang". Well, you could hardly get a bigger heresy than that - that the big bang is a mistake.

You've also got people proposing we give up on facts ("Would it lead to chaos or make us more open and pluralistic?") and on equality ("Should we be championing difference?"). Sticky wickets!

People can be very convincing. I could name some people from the past. . .

Go on.

Well, George Galloway. You may be critical of him in many ways but he's a remarkable speaker. He was talking about Syria last year, and taking the view that the Assad government was not the villain of the piece in quite the way that is understood in the tribal culture of British politics. And I'm sure there were people who went along who didn't expect to hear this, and who profoundly disagreed. But I think he won over the majority of his audience.

You've said the British struggle with philosophy. That perhaps we're embarrassed by it.

One of the things we're up to is breaking down the idea of philosophy as being the sort of thing that is undertaken only by a specialist and is impenetrable. Not to say laughable, frankly. And I think when we started - I founded the Institute of Art and Ideas seven years ago, two years before the first HowTheLightGetsIn - that was indeed the only way people thought about philosophy. But every human being, in a way, is a philosopher. Because that's what it is to be human. You wonder about life. You wonder about what you're doing. You wonder about where you're going. You wonder: "What the hell's going on?"

It's a magical mystery being alive. And it seems to me that philosophy is about exploring that. So the notion that philosophy - certainly in Britain - became separate from public life and people's personal lives seemed to me bizarre. Genuinely bizarre. If I met someone at a dinner party, and I was mad enough to say, "Well, I'm a philosopher," this would usually result in a nervous smile or a change in conversation. Because the assumption was that I would engage them in some technical conversation about the meaning of words. We're trying to change that. Put big ideas back in people's lives so that we're not frightened of talking about it.

Who goes to a festival of philosophy?

Everyone, now. When we started, the thinking was - and this is maybe implicit in your question - well, why would anyone go to a festival of philosophy? To engage in esoteric exercise? We're gradually breaking that down. To start with we wondered who would turn up, but people did turn up, and they turn up in increasing numbers.

You've taken a stand against waffle.

There's an awful lot of nonsense in the pretence of a subject being sufficiently complex that it's not understandable by ordinary, intelligent human beings. If somebody has something clear to say, and it matters to them, they've got to try to make sure that people who are listening to them understand. And if you don't have much to say, and you're trying to sound clever, walling yourself in with technical terminology. . . we have no time for that.

What motivated me on a personal level was that I grew up as a philosopher in Oxford. And Oxford at the time had the largest philosophy department in the world. I was trained there but I was aware of an awful lot of pretence going on. And that what was wanted was to somehow cut to the chase. There's something tragic about a situation in which appearance is more important than the content.

Is this why you have a rule for speakers: be ready to be challenged?

The problem with solo talks, on their own, is that they can become marketing vehicles. It's not unusual to have events where people are invited, often with a new book out, and what is really going on is promotion. If you want to get into a situation where there is actual conversation, as opposed to promotion, then you have to break through that. And so our condition is that people who take part in the festival need to be engaged in a debate. If you have a point of view, you need to defend it. And being famous, being a celebrity, does not mean you can hide behind the wall of your promotional speak.

Do TED talks let speakers off too easily?

You wouldn't expect me to criticise organisations that have been very successful and done some good work in bringing ideas to people. I don't want to criticise any other organisation. But I do think there's not enough challenge, and that a very large proportion of the cultural space is promotional.

You want people not to be just standing on a soapbox, or being pleased that they're the people in the limelight; you want to feel like you're in a real conversation. If you go to a talk, and it's in a big lecture hall, the space, the ergonomics - it's designed to make the lecturer feel important. They're behind a podium and they're right in the middle. You're just in the serried ranks. It's got a slightly hallowed, hushed-library feel. All of that is conveying authority. We try to break that down to some degree by designing softer spaces [for talks], and by keeping the distance between the space very limited - the audience are right up close. All to encourage engagement.

That's one of the reasons why we also have music at the festival, and our parties at night. We have our talks and debates during the day, of the type that I've described, and then in the evening we have a really good party. Comedy. Electronic dance music. Folk. All of that chucked in, and everybody mixes.

Do philosophers like a party then?

Philosophers love a party.

Interview by Tom Lamont


Hilary Lawson: 'We're trying to put big ideas back in people's lives.'

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Source: Observer (UK)

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