March 31, 2010
Jacques Dutronc "Et moi, et moi, et moi"
In Disobedient Rooms: China Mieville on J.G. BallardIn The Nation:
The publication of any book by J.G. Ballard at this moment--let alone so colossal and career-spanning a volume as The Complete Stories, running to nearly 1,200 pages--is an occurrence that can only be about more than itself. All writers are writers of their time, of course, but Ballard, who after a fight with cancer died in April 2009, feels somehow uniquely, precisely so. This book marks the fact that we are all post-Ballard now: it's not that we've gotten beyond him but rather that we remain ineluctably defined by him. Completists have pointed out that, its title notwithstanding, this volume is not a truly comprehensive collection of all Ballard's published short fiction. Those few omissions are a disappointment. Nevertheless, they are few, and despite them the book is indispensable.
The volume's ninety-eight stories (including two written for this edition) are printed in chronological order of publication, which illuminates Ballard's trajectory. There is something fascinating and poignant about watching various obsessions appear, reappear or come gradually or suddenly into focus: birds, flying machines, ruins, beaches, obscure geometric designs, the often-noted empty swimming pools. That the earlier stories are on the whole less compelling than the later, and more numerous, suggests a career-long process of distillation, a rendering-down. Both in facility and insight, early works such as the wincingly punning "Prima Belladonna"--the first of many journeys to Vermilion Sands, an artists' colony-cum-fading seaside resort supposedly somewhere in the real world though full of impossibilities and dream technologies--or "Now: Zero" and "Track 12," rather overwrought Dahl-esque tales of the unexpected, are slight compared with the later dense and strange forensics. Many of the stories function as testing grounds for Ballard's novels. For the admirer of his longer work there is the slightly disconcerting pleasure of déjà vu, of stumbling into précis and dry runs. Here are various aspects of Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Crystal World. This book is a valedictory, an event, the ground-laying for investigations.
The Fate of Angkor as Told by Tree Rings
Ed Yong over at his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science:
Today, the city of Angkor in Cambodia lies in ruins. But a thousand years ago, life there was very different. Then, Angkor was the heart of the Khmer empire and the largest preindustrial city of its day. It had a population of a million and an area that rivalled modern Los Angeles. And the key to this vast urban sprawl was water.
Radar images of the city by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) revealed that Angkor was carefully designed to collect, store and distribute water. The “Hydraulic City” included miles of canals and dikes, irrigation channels for supplying crops, overflow channels to cope with a monsoon, massive storage areas (the largest of which was 16km2 in area), and even a river diverted into a reservoir. Water was the city’s most precious resource, allowing it to thrive in the most unlikely of locations – the middle of a tropical forest.
But water, or rather a lack of it, may have been part of Angkor’s downfall. Brendan Buckley from Columbia University has reconstructed the climate of Angkor over the last 750 years, encompassing the final centuries of the Khmer Empire. The records show that Angkor was hit by two ferocious droughts in the mid-14th and early-15th century, each lasting for a few decades. Without a reliable source of water, the Hydraulic City’s aquatic network dried up. It may have been the coup de grace for a civilisation that was already in severe decline.
Many theories have been put forward for the downfall of Angkor, from war with the Siamese to erosion of the state religion. All of these ideas have proved difficult to back up, despite a century of research. Partly, that’s because the area hasn’t yielded much in the way of historical texts after the 13th century. But texts aren’t the only way of studying Angkor’s history. Buckley’s reconstruction relies on a very different but more telling source of information – Fujian cypress trees.
Scientists Explain How Males Evolved From A Self-Fertilizing "Third Sex"Annalee Newitz over at io9:
Most creatures on Earth have one sex that fertilizes and one that gets fertilized. Not so with olive trees. Last week scientists described how these trees evolved a system of males and a third sex which can go both ways.
The sexual system these trees have is called androdioecy: It includes males and a third "hermaphrodite" sex. A group of French researchers last week explained how such a setup could evolve from a pure hermaphrodite system. Initially, the trees were probably all able to pollinate or be pollinated. But over time, some of the trees mutated and lost their female functionality. Now, a very sizable male population exists among the olive trees.
But how? You'd think that males, who can only reproduce by pollinating, would have a strong disadvantage in a system where their competitors can reproduce either by pollinating or being pollinated.
However, among the olive trees these scientists studied, the androdioecy had reached a stable state.
Bill Brown on Whether the Web is Killing Criticism
Perhaps the greatest illusion that we, people of the democratic opposition, had laboured under was our conviction that we lived in societies comprising honest and noble people who had simply been silenced. We believed we were the voice of those who had been silenced and that is why our rebellion was fundamentally a moral one. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn told us “not to live the lie”. Leszek Kołakowski asked us to "live with dignity”. John Paul II exhorted us: “Don’t be afraid!” and he promised that “truth would set us free”. Václav Havel believed in the “power of the powerless”. For us, dissidents, this ethical motivation strengthened our morale but it also turned us into elitists. Being a dissident required being in open conflict with the dictatorship and everything it entailed: oppression, loss of opportunities, exclusion and often imprisonment. Yet our conviction that our voice was the voice of the enslaved nation was only part of the truth. In defending the historical truth and religious and civil liberties we articulated the collective consciousness. Yet our call for active resistence and for breaking the barriers of fear and apathy remained unheard. The ethical perfectionism of a Sakharov, a Havel or a Kuroń simply could not be shared by everyone, certainly not by the majority. The majority stayed silent and we assumed this was out of fear. Yet fear was not the only reason for the silence of the majority.more from Adam Michnik at Salon) here.
Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is—like Moby-Dick, Naked Lunch, or “Chocolate Rain”—an essential monument both to, and of, American craziness. It doesn’t just document our craziness, it documents our craziness crazily: 800 epic pages of gorgeous, profound, clumsy, rambling, violent, randy, visionary, goofy, postapocalyptic sci-fi prose poetry. The book is set in Bellona, a middle-American city struggling in the aftermath of an unspecified cataclysm. Phones and TVs are out; electricity is spotty; money is obsolete. Riots and fires have cut the population down to a thousand. Gangsters roam the streets hidden inside menacing holograms of dragons and griffins and giant praying mantises. The paper arrives every morning bearing arbitrary dates: 1837, 1984, 2022. Buildings burn, then repair themselves, then burn again. The smoke clears, occasionally, to reveal celestial impossibilities: two moons, a giant swollen sun. To top it off, this craziness trickles down to us through the consciousness of a character who is, himself, very likely crazy: a disoriented outsider who arrives in Bellona with no memory of his name, wearing only one sandal, and who proceeds to spend most of his time either having graphic sex with fellow refugees or writing inscrutable poems in a notebook—a notebook that also happens to contain actual passages of Dhalgren itself. The book forms a Finnegans Wake–style loop—its opening and closing sentences feed into one another—so the whole thing just keeps going and going forever. It’s like Gertrude Stein: Beyond Thunderdome. It seems to have been written by an insane person in a tantric blurt of automatic writing.more from Sam Anderson at New York Magazine here.
Welcome to my shiny world
There is an aspect of the American aesthetic that approaches design like a child. There’s a giddy lack of propriety, a joyful dismissal of taste, a love of big colors and sparkle. It’s connected to our attitude toward wealth, which often equates beauty with prosperity. In other words, if it looks rich, it must be beautiful. The shinier the better. This aesthetic of bling, though, is not simply about playacting at wealth; it’s about becoming lost in a fantasy of layers upon layers of artificiality and imitation. The Versailles that Larry Hart imitated in the Hartland Mansion (Versailles itself the classic contribution to Artifice) was not even the actual Versailles, but an idea of Versailles based on pictures of Versailles in a book and created with the mass-produced materials available to him at craft and hardware stores. All craft is imitation. There are cultures that imitate things they find in nature, or gods, or traditions that go back thousands of years. In America, imitation isn’t just about copying other essential things; imitation is the essential thing, the basis for whatever it is that “American craft” is. Sure, you’ve got exceptions like the Shakers, who designed elegant originals such as the flat-bottomed broom (which is an amazing thing, truly) and the clothespin. But the clothespin never screamed AMERICA! until Claes Oldenburg made a supersized imitation of it in downtown Philly.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
...."We saw reindeer
browsing," a friend who'd been in Lapland, said:
"finding their own food; they are adapted
....to scant reino
or pasture, yet they can run eleven
miles in fifty minutes; the feet spread when
....the snow is soft,
and act as snow-shoes. They are rigorists,
however handsomely cutwork artists
....of Lapland and
Siberia elaborate the trace
or saddle-girth with saw-tooth leather lace.
....One looked at us
with its firm face part brown, part white,—a queen
of alpine flowers. Santa Claus' reindeer, seen
....at last, had grey-
brown fur, with a neck like edelweiss or
lion's foot,— leontopodium more
this candelabrum-headed ornament
for a place where ornaments are scarce, sent
was a gift preventing the extinction
of the Esquimo. The battle was won
....by a quiet man,
Sheldon Jackson, evangel to that race
whose reprieve he read in the reindeer's face
by Marianne Moore
from News of the Universe;
Sierra Club Books, 1995
Addicted to Fat: Overeating May Alter the Brain as Much as Hard Drugs
From Scientific American:
Like many people, rats are happy to gorge themselves on tasty, high-fat treats. Bacon, sausage, chocolate and even cheesecake quickly became favorites of laboratory rats that recently were given access to these human indulgences—so much so that the animals came to depend on high quantities to feel good, like drug users who need to up their intake to get high. A new study, published online March 28 in Nature Neuroscience, describes these rats' indulgent tribulations, adding to research literature on the how excess food intake can trigger changes in the brain, alterations that seem to create a neurochemical dependency in the eater—or user. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Preliminary findings from the work were presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in October 2009.
Like many pleasurable behaviors—including sex and drug use—eating can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. This internal chemical reward, in turn, increases the likelihood that the associated action will eventually become habitual through positive reinforcement conditioning. If activated by overeating, these neurochemical patterns can make the behavior tough to shake—a result seen in many human cases, notes Paul Kenny, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics at The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla., and co-author of the new study. "Most people who are overweight would say, 'I would like to control my weight and my eating,' but they find it very hard to control their feeding behavior," he says. Despite a growing body of research, it has been unclear whether extreme overeating was initiated by a chemical irregularity in the brain or if the behavior itself was changing the brain's biochemical makeup. The new research by Kenny and his colleague Paul Johnson, a graduate student, shows that both conditions are possible.
The face in the Shroud
Does the Shroud of Turin show the "real face of Jesus"? That claim is impossible to judge, even though it serves the title of a documentary about the 3-D analysis of the Shroud of Turin premiering tonight on the History Channel. What can be said is that the centuries-old image wasn’t just painted freehand. Computer analysis of the imprint on the shroud suggests that it had to be left behind by someone draped in cloth. "Is this the artifact of a real person or not? Definitely it is," Ray Downing, the digital illustrator at the center of the show, told me today. Downing worked with specialists on the shroud to come up with a photorealistic representation of the man whose body's imprint appears faintly on a famous 14-foot-long length of linen. For some Christians, the stain serves as the miraculous snapshot of their risen Lord. For most scientists, it is a cleverly done fake from the 13th or 14th century, but nothing more. Back in 1988, carbon-14 dating tests were conducted on a sample from the shroud in an effort to determine whether the cloth was created in Jesus' time. The verdict from three laboratories was that the cloth was produced in medieval times. But the shroud's fans have insisted that the sample was actually taken from a patch, rather than from the original linen. Just this month, a chemist proposed a new series of non-destructive dating tests that would give an estimate for the entire cloth.
From a marketing perspective, the timing of the History Channel show couldn't be better: Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Christian holy days that mark Jesus' death and resurrection, are just a few days away. What's more, the shroud is due to go on display for six weeks at Turin Cathedral, starting April 10. The last time the relic was exhibited, a decade ago, more than 3 million people came to Turin to see it. More than a million reservations have been received already for next month's viewing. Have scientists been wrong about the shroud? Downing noted that historical records referring to the shroud predate the current carbon-14 estimate. "We know the carbon-14 [test] is wrong," he said. "The question is, how wrong are they? The further back you go, the less likely it is that anybody could have faked it."
March 30, 2010
The Chomsky Left and the Krugman LeftMichael Bérubé in Dissent:
Earlier this year I had a lively email exchange with an exceptionally bright young Chomsky admirer who was deeply annoyed by my book, The Left At War. Part of the exchange was frustrating, insofar as he seemed to believe that if you give up ye olde “false consciousness” explanation for people’s behavior you have no effective way of saying that they are just flat-out wrong. But after a week or so of back-and-forth, we hit upon something that (for me, anyway) shed a nice bright light on what was at stake in the discussion.
He adduced this 2009 essay, “The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia,” as an example of why he regards Chomsky as so valuable (his word) to a critical understanding of U.S. policy...
My interlocutor explained that whenever he lapses into a merely-liberal Krugman-like faith in American ideals, he finds Chomsky to be a bracing reminder that those ideals have routinely been traduced, and that the justification of torture by American officials is nothing new. And that’s why he’s vexed by left criticism of Chomsky, which he thinks is really “liberal” rather than properly “left.”
It cannot be denied that we have often traduced our ideals. And Chomsky’s essay is in many respects quite good, especially with regard to the history of how “in ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries.” (Though I can do without the ritual repetition of “The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction.” I still find it impossible to read those words without hearing, “and it was about time.” And his attempt to construe the extermination of Native Americans as a “humanitarian intervention” is yet another form of doubling down on his hands-off-the-Balkans position.) But I had two other responses to this young man.
Girls Gone Anti-FeministSusan Douglas in In These Times:
This was the Spice Girls moment, and debate: Were these frosted cupcakes really a vehicle for feminism? And how much reversion back to the glory days of prefeminism should girls and women accept—even celebrate—given that we now allegedly had it all? Despite their Wonderbras and bare thighs, the Spice Girls advocated “girl power.” They demanded, in their colossal, intercontinental hit “Wannabe,” that boys treat them with respect or take a hike. Their boldfaced liner notes claimed that “The Future Is Female” and suggested that they and their fans were “Freedom Fighters.” They made Margaret Thatcher an honorary Spice Girl. “We’re freshening up feminism for the nineties,” they told the Guardian. “Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a ’90s way of saying it.”
Fast-forward to 2008. Talk about girl power! One woman ran for president and another for vice president. Millions of women and men voted for each of them. The one who ran for vice president had five children, one of them an infant, yet it was verboten to even ask whether she could handle the job while tending to a baby. At the same time we had a female secretary of state, and the woman who had run for president became her high-profile successor. And we have Lady Gaga, power girl of the new millennium. Feminism? Who needs feminism anymore? Aren’t we, like, so done here? Okay, so some women moaned about the sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton, but picky, picky, picky.
Indeed, eight years earlier, career antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers huffed in her book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, that girls were getting way too much attention and, as a result, were going to college in greater numbers and much more likely to succeed while boys were getting sent to detention, dropping out of high school, destined for careers behind fast-food counters, and so beaten down they were about to become the nation’s new “second sex.” Other books like The Myth of Male Power and The Decline of Males followed suit, with annual panics about the new “crisis” for boys. Girl power? Gone way too far.
Sam Harris vs. Sean Carroll, Round IIFirst Sam Harris in Project Reason:
Sean Carroll's rejoinder:
[M]any people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. While maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot. And given that my notion of objective values must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases, and these led me to disparage traditional religious values from the stage at TED, I am also a bigot. While these charges are often leveled separately, they are actually connected.
I’ve now had these basic objections hurled at me a thousand different ways—from YouTube comments that end by calling me “a Mossad agent” to scarcely more serious efforts by scientists like Sean Carroll which attempt to debunk my reasoning as circular or otherwise based on unwarranted assumptions. Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time. Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth:Attempts to derive ought from is [values from facts] are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.
This is an amazingly wrongheaded response coming from a very smart scientist. I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.
Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth.
I wanted to try to clarify my own view on two particular points, so I put them below the fold. I went on longer than I intended to (funny how that happens). The whole thing was written in a matter of minutes — have to get back to real work — so grains of salt are prescribed.
First, the role of consensus. In formal reasoning, we all recognize the difference between axioms and deductions. We start by assuming some axioms, and the laws of logic allow us to draw certain conclusions from them. It’s not helpful to argue that the axioms are “wrong” — all we are saying is that if these assumptions hold, then we can safely draw certain conclusions.
A similar (although not precisely analogous) situation holds in other areas of human reason, including both science and morality. Within a certain community of like-minded reasoners, a set of assumptions is taken for granted, from which we can draw conclusions.
Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?
Toward the end of John Banville’s new novel, “The Infinities” (Knopf; $25.95), a more or less contemporary tale over which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes rather startlingly preside, a snooty character to whom someone is describing an “updated” production of a play about the parents of Hercules declares that he “does not approve of the classics being tampered with”: the Greeks, he says, “knew what they were doing, after all.” The joke is that the pretentious young man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The play in question, “Amphitryon”—whose themes, of adultery, confused identities, and improbable Olympian interventions, are actually the model for Banville’s novel—isn’t Greek at all. Rather, it’s an early-nineteenth-century German reworking of late-seventeenth-century French and English rewritings of a second-century-B.C. tragicomedy written in Latin. And that was just then. In the twentieth century alone, the Amphitryon myth has been adapted by a French novelist, two German playwrights, an opera composer, an anti-Nazi filmmaker, and Cole Porter. Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?more from Daniel Mendelsohn at The New Yorker here.
dreyfus still an affair
The 20th century dawned not on the first day of 1900 (or, for purists, 1901) but on a September evening in 1894, when a cleaner at the German embassy in Paris found a torn-up letter in the military attaché’s wastebasket. The cleaner was working for French intelligence, and the letter, once reassembled, was found to contain military secrets being offered by an unnamed French Army officer. After a cursory investigation, authorities arrested Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain working at General Staff headquarters. Thus began the Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent man was unjustly convicted, amid rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and sent off to rot on a deserted island in South America. A vigorous public campaign against the howling injustice of the affair raged for more than a decade before the captain’s final vindication, which divided France into warring camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, republicans and traditionalists. Dreyfus’s ordeal was the first big test of a modern justice system, and it defined one of the central issues of democracy: should the rule of law be applied consistently, or are there cases in which it should be bent to fit a current crisis or pressing national concern? Even today, hardly a month passes without an alleged misstep of justice somewhere in the world being labelled a “new Dreyfus Affair”.more from Donald Morrison at the FT here.
Contra Krugman on China's Renminbi Exchange Rate PolicyYiping Huang in Vox:
Most economists would agree with Krugman that the renminbi is probably undervalued. But the extent of misalignment remains a controversial subject. For instance, applying a purchasing power parity approach, Menzie Chinn of University of Wisconsin at Madison and his collaborators estimated an undervaluation of about 40%. But after the World Bank’s 40% downward revision of Chinese GDP in PPP terms, that undervaluation disappeared completely. Nick Lardy and Morris Goldstein of the Peterson Institute of International Economics suggested that the renminbi was probably only undervalued by 12-16% at the end of 2008. My colleague Yang Yao and his collaborator at the Peking University found even less misalignment.
The renminbi exchange rate is but one, and perhaps not even the most important, factor behind China’s large trade and current account surpluses. Among other factors, economic studies have attributed the recent surge in China’s external imbalances to the unique population dividend and the relocation of industries from other Asian economies. My own research has also highlighted the importance of distortions in domestic factor markets, which were largely legacies of the pre-reform economic systems of central planning.
To resolve the global imbalance problem, China, the US, and other countries will need to work together and adopt more comprehensive reform packages, focusing not only on the exchange rate regime but also on domestic structural reforms in their respective countries. Exclusive focus on the renminbi exchange rate issue is likely to be both ineffective and counter-productive. Between mid-2005 and mid-2008, the renminbi appreciated by 22% against the dollar and by 16% in real effective terms. But China’s external imbalances continued to widen rapidly.
The US started to lose manufacturing jobs way before China emerged as a global manufacturing centre. China’s current account surplus increased after 2004. But America’s current account deficits mushroomed from around the turn of the century. There is no denying that China and the US should work together to resolve the imbalance problem. But to say that China’s surplus caused America’s deficits, which emerged much earlier, is simply at odds with common sense.
So what would happen were the Obama administration to follow Krugman’s advice?
An Interview with Péter EsterházyIn The Millions:
The Millions: Your acrobatic sentences may remind contemporary American readers of Donald Barthelme, or even of Diane Williams, but I’m guessing that when you turned to novel-writing during the Kádár era, such linguistic self-consciousness was sui generis. Can you tell us a bit about how your style developed, and how it fit into the social, political, and aesthetic climate of Budapest in the ’70s?
Péter Esterházy: My admittedly conscious use of language, I think, was not conscious. It was my hand or my stomach that knew. In short, I didn’t approach writing from the vantage point of theory, but from the side of practice – much like a stonemason. A stonemason is brick-centered, too. At the time this was considered marginal, but at the time marginality seemed the natural state of being. The center is suspect. Everything that is official is suspect. Except, in essence, it’s basically the official that exists. This is what we call a dictatorship.
TM: Did you feel yourself to be part of a broader movement of younger writers or artists, or did you have a sense of doing something quite radical? And how did your academic training as a mathematician inform your approach to fiction?
PE: I think that as far as my reflexes are concerned I would have liked to have been a so-called l’art pour l’art writer. But in a dictatorship everything takes on political coloring, and though a writer may declare, or rather practice, that a text is a text is a text (and a rose), still all this ends up in a pronounced moral sphere, it takes on social function; in fact, whether the writer intends it or not, that’s the role it plays. But that’s all right. It is what happened to my books as well.
At first I noticed similar aspirations among contemporary poets (Dezső Tandori, Imre Oravecz). Clearly, the same thing comes off as a sort of radicalism in prose. But my temperament is less radical than it is consistent.
Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran. The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them. But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.more from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe here.
forgive me if i laugh
you are so sure of love
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.
the rain exploding
in the air is love
the grass excreting her
green wax is love
and stones remembering
past steps is love,
but you. you are too young
and i too old.
once. what does it matter
when or who, i knew
i fixed my body
under his and went
to sleep in love
all trace of me
was wiped away
forgive me if I smile
young heiress of a naked dream
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.
by Sonia Sanchez
Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:
This weekend, a sad scene is playing itself out on a busy west London high street. The Kilburn Bookshop, which has served readers for 30 years, is closing its doors for the last time. Many factors are involved – the recession and rent increases among them – but the bookshop’s manager, Simon-Peter Trimarco, believes there are deeper reasons for the closure. One problem is that browsers now rarely put their hand in their pocket. “Only one in 10 customers will end up buying a book.” They find what they want and then go to Tesco or Amazon where there are heavy discounts. (There is even an iPhone app that lets you scan a book’s bar code and find the cheapest price.) The Kilburn Bookshop is friendly and has something of a literary pedigree: “Zadie Smith came in as a little girl,” Trimarco says. If this shop can’t survive, then which can? Very few, it seems. Last year, one in 10 independent bookshops closed, at a rate of three a week. “I’m despairing,” Trimarco says.
The death of independent bookshops is just one symptom of a much wider crisis in publishing. Discounted books, online bookselling and the advent of ebooks are destroying old patterns of reading and book buying. We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press – and authors and publishers are terrified they will become as outdated as the monks who copied out manuscripts. How this happened is down to ambitious editors, greedy agents, demanding writers and big businesses with an eye for easy profit. Combine that with devilishly fast technological innovation and you have a story as astonishing as the credit crunch – and potentially as destructive.
No Matter What, We Pay for Others’ Bad Habits
Sandeep Jauhar in The New York Times:
“I’m tired of paying for everyone else’s stupidity,” is a comment I read on the Internet last week after the health care bill was passed. It summed up the views of many Americans worried about shelling out higher premiums and taxes to cover the uninsured. Why should we pick up the tab when so much disease in our country stems from unhealthy behavior like smoking and overeating?
In fact, the majority of Americans say it is fair to ask people with unhealthy lifestyles to pay more for health insurance. We believe in the concept of personal responsibility. You hear it in doctors’ lounges and in coffee shops, among the white collar and blue collar alike. Even President Obama has said, “We’ve got to have the American people doing something about their own care.” But personal responsibility is a complex notion, especially when it comes to health. Individual choices always take place within a broader, messy context. When people advocate the need for personal accountability, they presuppose more control over health and sickness than really exists.
March 29, 2010
Joothan: A Dalit's Life
By Namit Arora
A review of a memoir by an ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s in rural Uttar Pradesh, India.
(This review was judged Top Quark in the 3 Quarks Daily 2011 Arts & Literature Contest. Read more about it here.)
I grew up in the central Indian city of Gwalior until I left home for college. This was the 70s and 80s. My father worked as a textile engineer in a company town owned by the Birla Group, where we lived in a middle class residential quarter for the professional staff and their families. Our 3-BR house had a small front lawn and a vegetable patch behind. Domestic helpers, such as a washerwoman and a dishwashing woman, entered our house via the front door—all except one, who came in via the rear door. This was the latrine cleaning woman, or her husband at times. As in most traditional homes, our squat toilet was near the rear door, across an open courtyard. She also brought along a couple of scrawny kids, who waited by the vegetable patch while their mother worked.
My mother often gave them dinner leftovers, and sometimes tea. But unlike other domestic helpers, they were not served in our utensils, nor did the latrine cleaners expect to be. They brought their own utensils and placed them on the floor; my mother served them while they stood apart. When my mother turned away, they quietly picked up the food and left. To my young eyes this seemed like the natural order of things. These were the mehtars, among the lowest of the so-called ‘untouchables’. They worked all around us, yet were ‘invisible’ to me, as if part of the stage props. I neither gave them much thought during my school years, nor recognized my prejudices as such. I, and the kids in my circle, even used ‘untouchable’ caste names as playful epithets, calling each other chamaar and bhangi.
It’s possible that I first reflected on the idea of untouchability only in college, through art house cinema. Even so, upper caste Indian liberals made these films and it was their viewpoint I saw. It is hardly a stretch to say that the way even the most sensitive white liberals in the US knew and described the black experience of America is partly why one had to read Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other black authors. A similar parallel holds for Native Americans, immigrants, and women, as well as the ‘untouchables,’ now called Dalits (‘the oppressed’), numbering one out of six Indians. In recent years, they have begun to tell their own stories, bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Theirs is not only a powerful new current of Indian literature, it is also a major site of resistance and revolt.
Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki is one such work of Dalit literature, first published in Hindi in 1997 and translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee in 2003 (she added an excellent introduction in the 2007 edition). It is a memoir of growing up ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s outside a typical village in Uttar Pradesh. Told as a series of piercing vignettes, Joothan is also a remarkable record of a rare Indian journey, one that took a boy from extremely wretched socioeconomic conditions to prominence as an author and social critic.
Valmiki was born into the Chuhra caste (aka Bhangi), whose ordained job it was to sweep the roads, clean the cattle barns, get shit off the floor, dispose of dead animals, work the fields during harvests, and perform other physical labor for upper caste people, including the Tyagi Brahmins. The Tyagis didn’t address them by name, only called out, ‘Oe Chuhre’ or ‘Abey Chuhre.’ It was alright to touch cows and stray dogs but touching a Chuhra inflicted instant ‘pollution’ on the Tyagis. During his boyhood, his entire family worked hard, yet they ‘didn’t manage to get two decent meals a day,’ not the least because they often didn’t get paid for their labor and instead ‘got sworn at and abused.’
The Chuhras were forced to live outside the village reserved for upper caste people. A high wall and a pond segregated their brick houses in the village from the Chuhra basti, or cluster of shanties. Upper caste men and women of all ages came out and used the edge of the pond as an open-air lavatory, squatting across from the Chuhra homes in broad daylight with their private parts exposed. ‘There was muck strewn everywhere,’ writes Valmiki. ‘The stench was so overpowering that one would choke within a minute. The pigs wandering in narrow lanes, naked children, dogs, daily fights, this was the environment of my childhood.’
In the rainy season, these narrow lanes of the basti filled up with muddy water mixed-in with pigs’ excrement; flies and mosquitoes thrived. Everybody’s arms and legs became mangy and developed itchy sores. There was one drinking well in their basti for about thirty families, and despite a guard wall around it, it became full of long worms during the rainy season. They had no choice but to drink that water, as they were not permitted to use the well of the upper caste folks. Their homes were made of clay that sprang leaks all over. During heavy rains, the ceilings or walls often collapsed, as it did for Valmiki’s house more than once. One season most of their homes collapsed; as always, there was no outside help or insurance, and they had to rebuild on their own.
What Valmiki had going for him was a headstrong set of parents, determined to give him a better future. In 1955, despite Gandhi’s work on ‘upliftment’ and the new anti-discrimination laws on the books, his father had a hard time getting him admission into a primary school. When the boy finally got in, he was not allowed to sit on the benches but on the floor, away from the upper caste boys, at the back by the door, from where he couldn’t see the blackboard well. Other boys hurled epithets and beat him casually, turning him into a cowering introverted kid. Even the teachers looked for excuses to punish him, he writes, ‘so that I would run away from the school and take up the kind of work for which I was born.’ In fourth grade, a new headmaster arrived, who thrashed him almost daily and one day asked him to take a broom and sweep all the rooms and the playground in school. The hapless boy spent two full days sweeping, hoping it would soon be over.
The third day I went to the class and sat down quietly. After a few minutes the headmaster’s loud thundering was heard: ‘Abey Chuhre ke, motherfucker, where are you hiding … your mother …’ I had begun to shake uncontrollably. A Tyagi boy shouted, ‘Master Saheb, there he is, sitting in the corner.’
The headmaster had pounced on my neck. The pressure of his fingers was increasing. As a wolf grabs a lamb by the neck, he dragged me out of the class and threw me on the ground. He screamed: ‘Go sweep the whole playground … Otherwise I will shove chillies up your arse and throw you out of school.’
Frightened, I picked up the three-day-old broom [now only a cluster of] thin sticks. Tears were falling from my eyes. I started to sweep the compound while my tears fell. From the doors and windows of the schoolrooms, the eyes of the teachers and the boys saw this spectacle. Each pore of my body was submerged in an abyss of anguish.
As it turned out, his father was passing by that day and saw him sweeping the grounds. Sobbing and overcome by hiccups, the boy told him the story. Father snatched the broom and with eyes blazing, began to scream, ‘Who is that teacher, that progeny of Dronacharya, who forces my son to sweep?’  All the teachers stepped out, including the headmaster, who called his father names and roared back, ‘Take him away from here … The Chuhra wants him educated … Go, go … Otherwise I will have your bones broken.’
On his way out, his father declared in a loud voice, ‘I am leaving now … but this Chuhre ka will study right here … In this school. And not just him, but there will be more coming after him.’ His father’s courage and fortitude left a deep and decisive mark on the boy’s personality. His father knocked on the doors of other upper caste men he had worked for, hoping they would support him against the headmaster, but the response was the opposite. He was plainly told: ‘What is the point of sending him to school?’ ‘When has a crow become a swan?’ ‘Hey, if he asked a Chuhra’s progeny to sweep, what is the big deal in that?’ When his father had all but given up, one village elder yielded to his tearful beseeching and intervened to get the boy reinstated. A close call, else he would have ended up illiterate like the rest of his family.
Most of his family worked at harvest time. For a hard day’s labor, which included harvesting lentils, cutting sheaves of wheat in the midday sun, and transporting them via bullock carts, each person got one out of 21 parts produced—about two pounds of wheat—as wages. For the rest of their labor in the cowshed, they got paid in grain and a leftover roti each day (‘made by mixing the flour with the husk since it was for the chuhras’), and at times scraps of leftovers from their employer’s plates, or joothan.
The Hindi word joothan, explains Mukherjee, ‘literally means food left on an eater’s plate, usually destined for the garbage pail in a middle class, urban home. However, such food would only be characterized ‘joothan’ if someone else besides the original eater were to eat it. The word carries the connotations of ritual purity and pollution as ‘jootha’ means polluted.’ Words like ‘leftovers’ and ‘leavings’ don’t substitute well, ‘scraps’ and ‘slops’ work better, though ‘they are associated more with pigs than with humans.’ Joothan is also unfit for consumption by anyone in the eater’s family or in his own community. Mukherjee writes:
The title encapsulates the pain, humiliation and poverty of Valmiki’s community, which not only had to rely on joothan but also relished it. Valmiki gives a detailed description of collecting, preserving and eating joothan. His memories of being assigned to guard the drying joothan from crows and chickens, and of his relishing the dried and reprocessed joothan burn him with renewed pain and humiliation in the present.
The word actually carries a lot of historical baggage. Both Ambedkar and Gandhi advised untouchables to stop accepting joothan. Ambedkar, an indefatigable documenter of atrocities against Dalits [and an ‘untouchable’ himself], shows how the high caste villagers could not tolerate the fact that Dalits did not want to accept their joothan anymore and threatened them with violence if they refused it.
Valmiki describes one such incident, among the most powerful in the text. His community looked forward to marriage feasts in the village when they would gather outside with big baskets. After the guests had eaten, ‘the dirty pattals, or leaf plates, were put in the Chuhras’ baskets, which they took home, to save the joothan sticking to them.’ At the end of one such marriage feast, Valmiki’s mother requested the Brahmin host for additional food for her children, only to be humiliated and told to mind her place, be satisfied with what she already had collected, and to get going. Valmiki writes:
That night the Mother Goddess Durga entered my mother’s eyes. It was the first time I saw my mother so angry. She emptied the basket right there. She said to Sukhdev Singh, ‘Pick it up and put it inside your house. Feed it to the baratis [marriage guests] tomorrow morning.’ She gathered me and my sister and left like an arrow. Sukhdev Singh had pounced on her to hit her, but my mother had confronted him like a lioness. Without being afraid.
His family fell on even harder times when his oldest brother and wage earner got a high fever, and without access to a clinic, died. Valmiki had finished fifth grade but their deepening poverty—they didn’t even have enough food—meant that he could not continue with school. He dropped out and began tending buffaloes in the field, watching with a heavy heart his schoolmates going to school. Over the protests of others, his brother’s widow pawned the only piece of jewelry she had, a silver anklet, to pay for Valmiki’s school—yet another close call.
Back in school, Valmiki continued to face severe discrimination. Though he consistently did well in his studies, his memories of school are suffused with pain and humiliation: from taunts and beatings by schoolmates and teachers in a ‘terror-filled environment’, to his exclusion from extracurricular activities like school plays; during exams, he was not allowed to drink water from a glass when thirsty. He had to cup his hands, and ‘the peon would pour water from way high up, lest our hands touch the glass.’ At times, he writes, ‘I feel I have grown up in a cruel and barbaric civilization.’ He does remember fondly a couple of boys who befriended him and didn’t let caste come between them.
Remarkably enough, Valmiki was determined to make full use of the school library; by the time he reached eighth grade, he had read Saratchandra, Premchand, and Rabindranath Tagore, and relates this poignant vignette.
I had begun to read novels and short stories to my mother in the faint light of the wick lamp. Who knows how often Saratchandra’s characters have made a mother and son cry together? This was the beginning of my literary sensibility. Starting from Alha, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to Sur Sagar, Prem Sagar, Premchand’s stories, Kissa Tota Maina … whatever I found, I, the son of an untouchable illiterate family, read to my mother.
He studied in the light of a lantern in his intensely noisy neighborhood. ‘I was the first student of my caste,’ writes Valmiki, ‘not just from my basti but from all the surrounding villages of the area, appearing for the high school exams,’ and he felt the pressure that came from their pride in him. His graduation became an occasion for a feast in his community. He remembers that even one of the Tyagi Brahmins came to his basti to offer congratulations, and later took him home and fed him lunch in their own dishes while sitting next to him. Valmiki’s example inspired other children to show more interest in education, and for a while he even ran evening classes in his basti.
Unlike in the dominant Hindu tradition—which Valmiki pointedly denigrates and wants no part of—widow remarriage was even in the 60s an accepted norm in his community. He describes in some detail how their gods were utterly different from Hindu gods and how different their religious rituals were.  He also describes lots of family drama and interpersonal politics in his community, not shying from reproach where it is due, especially on their rank superstitions. He writes about their jobs, suffering, and everyday struggle for dignity, acknowledging that the women had an ever rawer deal than men.
Many Hindi writers and poets had written about the charms of village life, observes Valmiki, but its ‘real truth,’ depicting the ‘terrible suffering of village life has not even been touched upon by the epic poets of Hindi.’ He also recounts other changes that were beginning to take place. The young men of his community had begun to refuse to work without wages. This soon escalated into an open confrontation with the upper caste men who couldn’t tolerate their nerve, and even got the local police to beat them up. Valmiki calls this a turning point of sorts; young men began departing from their basti to nearby towns and cities.
Valmiki too left to pursue college education in the city of Dehradun, where his brother and uncle worked. They all shared a single room in a Bhangi basti. It was here that he encountered the works of Ambedkar, which shook him up; he ‘spent many days and nights in great turmoil.’ He grew more restless; his ‘stone-like silence’ began to melt, and ‘an anti-establishment consciousness became strong’ in him. Ambedkar’s books, he writes, ‘had given voice to my muteness,’ and raised his self-confidence. His rage grew sharper and he became more active in college events, until his penury made him quit college and seek technical training in an ordnance factory, with its promise of a shop floor job that would judge him only for his work. But quitting college made no dent whatsoever in his love of reading.
After a year of training, he got posted to the city of Jabalpur in 1968, moving in the ensuing years to Bombay and Chandrapur, Maharashtra. The last third of his memoir is on this phase of his life. Now he really came into his own: he met a bunch of Marxists, read Chekov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Hemmingway, Zola, and other Western writers. He joined a local theater group, saw Vijay Tendulkar’s plays, ‘read the entire works of Tagore and Kalidasa,’ was drawn to the Buddha’s teachings, and discovered Marathi Dalit literature, the most sophisticated in all of India, which energized him and forged his literary consciousness. He began to publish poems and write a column in a local weekly, later also plays and short stories. Almost two decades later, he published Joothan. In its last two paragraphs, he anticipates his critics:
Times have changed. But there is something somewhere that continues to irk. I have asked many scholars to tell me why Savarnas [caste Hindus] hate Dalits and Shudras so much? The Hindus who worship trees and plants, beasts and birds, why are they so intolerant of Dalits? Today caste remains a pre-eminent factor in social life. As long as people don’t know that you are a Dalit, things are fine. The moment they find out your caste, everything changes. The whispers slash your veins like knives. Poverty, illiteracy, broken lives, the pain of standing outside the door, how would the civilized Savarna Hindus know it?
Why is my caste my only identity? Many friends hint at the loudness and arrogance of my writings. They insinuate that I have imprisoned myself in a narrow circle. They say that literary expression should be focused on the universal; a writer ought not to limit himself to a narrow, confined terrain of life. That is, my being Dalit and arriving at a point of view according to my environment and my socioeconomic situation is being arrogant. Because in their eyes, I am only an SC, the one who stands outside the door.
Valmiki’s narrative voice brims with a quiet sense of outrage at what he had to endure as a human. Indeed, I’m inclined to see his memoir as a form of Satyagraha: in reflecting back to others their own violence and injustice, it attempts to shame them into introspection. This is the kind of book that becomes ‘the axe for the frozen sea inside us.’ More Indians ought to read it and let its hard edges get to work inside them.
(Also consider reading my companion piece, The Blight of Hindustan, which provides a brisk overview of the Indian caste system—its origins, spread, and some historical attitudes and debates.)
1. Arun Prabha Mukherjee notes that ‘Valmiki places his and his Dalit friends’ encounters with upper caste teachers in the context of the Brahmin teacher Dronacharya tricking his low caste disciple Eklavya into cutting his thumb and presenting it to him as part of his gurudakshina, or teacher’s tribute. This is a famous incident in the Mahabharata. By doing this, Dronacharya ensured that Eklavya, the better student of archery, could never compete against Arjun, the Kshtriya disciple. Indeed, having lost his thumb, Eklavya could no longer perform archery. In high caste telling, the popular story presents a casteless Eklavya as the exemplar of an obedient disciple rather than the Brahmin Dronacharya as a perfidious and biased teacher. When Valmiki’s father goes to the school and calls the headmaster a Dronacharya, he links the twentieth-century caste relations to those that prevailed two thousand years ago.’
2. Kancha Ilaiah attempts a more systematic exposition on the sociocultural differences between the caste Hindus and the Shudras and Dalits in his trenchant book, ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu’.
3. SC stands for Scheduled Caste, the neutral-sounding administrative term for the lowest castes, including the ‘untouchables’.
More writing by Namit Arora?
A Dialogue on the Death Penalty
Gerald Dworkin and Justin E. H. Smith
Jerry and I began this dialogue after he, in the process of preparing an ethics course on the topic of capital punishment, happened upon some pieces I wrote a few years ago at various activist venues (they are archived here, here, here, here, and here). The articles are polemical rather than scholarly, and I never expected the issue of capital punishment would someday get any attention from me qua philosopher (as opposed to qua polemicist). But Jerry found some of the issues I raised in them worthy of attention, and in turn has raised for me a number of issues that I never really worked through before in my very visceral opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful for this, and I think what has resulted is a discussion that should be of interest to reformers and philosophers alike (as well as to those who belong in both of these camps.) --JEHS.
Gerald Dworkin: Justin and I agree that capital punishment as currently administered in the United States, and in the absence of convincing evidence that it deters more than a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LIWP) for any crime, should be abolished. Where we may disagree --I put it this way because I am not sure what view I will emerge with at the end of this discussion-- is whether there is an argument for abolition that does not depend on contingent facts, such as that it does not deter, or that as currently administered the selection of who gets executed is both arbitrary (chance and luck play an enormous role) and unjust (the poor and racial minorities are executed at higher rates that those with money and those blacks who kill whites). For, as Justin points out elsewhere, believing that the facts are as they are is compatible with believing that in a world where deterrence is established and fairness reigns CP is justifiable. This position could be true even if one believed that as a matter of contingent fact our system will never be sufficiently just, and the evidence for deterrence will never be sufficiently strong so as to warrant CP. The first thing I want to do is see if Justin and I agree on a more rigorous definition of the issue. For it is, as I shall argue later, very important exactly how the problem is framed.
I propose that what the defender of what I shall call the non-contingent wrongness of CP must show is the following:
• There is no successful argument for the legitimacy of CP which survives empirical and normative scrutiny.• In addition to this via negativa there is a valid positive argument whose conclusion is that CP is illegitimate which does not rely in an essential way on contingent matters of fact.
This last claim is difficult to formulate accurately. Does an argument which involves the premise “death is different” (whatever that may mean) rely on the fact that once we die we don’t come back to life? That, presumably, is a contingent fact. Does an argument which says that CP is “cruel” rely on some characteristic of CP that makes it cruel? But maybe that characteristic is not an empirical one. If one defines cruelty as acting in a way which is intended to cause great suffering to another person for its own sake then, although it is a contingent fact, whether or not CP is designed or justified by reference to this feature, if it is then it is not a contingent fact that it is cruel.
Justin Smith: Jerry's initial characterization of my position is right on. I do not yet know whether there is an argument against CP that is not based on contingent facts, though I am quite certain that it is not a contingent fact that CP is cruel. I believe that CP is indissociably rooted in a social practice that until very recently was explicitly cruel: one of its principal reasons for being was to set an example of the infinite power of the state over the lives of its subjects. It is thus not surprising that in most of the Western world, the practice of CP died away along with the shift to democracy, and even more definitively with the somewhat later shift to a conception of the ultimate end of the penal system as a corrective one.
It is interesting that in many countries, such as Great Britain and France, the last vestiges of it survived as the form of punishment reserved for treason alone: this seems to me to have to do with the fact that under earlier, absolutist systems, CP, even though it was employed for all sorts of crimes, including murder, was in essence political, again in the sense that it demonstrated the power of the sovereign over the subjects. Long after murder and like crimes came to be seen as merely a criminal matter in Western Europe, and not a matter of state, direct crimes against the state could still be punished by death. The rest of the Western world eradicated CP by the late 20th century, even for treason, while somehow it managed to survive in the United States. Indeed it underwent a revival in the 1970s after some decades of desuetude, and in spite of a parallel commitment to individual rights at the political level, and to an understanding (which since the 1970s we may fear is only vestigial) of centers of punishment as 'correctional' institutions.
I apologize for starting off with genealogy, when the topic is whether there are any a priori arguments available against CP. I'm inclined to think that there is such an abundance of a posteriori problems with CP as actually practiced, and that these problems are so unlikely to be resolved, that the importance for any critic of CP of finding an a priori argument is not great. I do think however that there is at least one, so to speak conditional a priori argument against CP: if punishment is supposed to be correctional, then the death penalty is at odds with the purposes of punishment. Now a defender of CP might argue that there is a 'correction' of sorts that happens in the application of the death penalty: the wrongdoing is being corrected, or made right or absolved, by the death of the criminal. But of course this is not what our system of punishment claims to be in the business of correcting, nor is this kind of correction at all compatible with the rest of the legal and penal philosophy that our society claims to uphold.
Very broadly, it seems to me that the survival of CP in the United States leaves us with the impossible task of making two different conceptions of justice fit together: one that is based on the absolution of cruelty through an equal measure of cruelty (this is an ancient conception, and it implies a cosmology few people would explicitly assent to if pushed), and one that rejects cruel and unusual punishment out of hand in view of the fact that it is not conducive to the improvement of the individual criminal. This, then, is my first stab at meeting criterion (2) above. Death is different because it requires the destruction of the target of correction (it also requires the destruction of evidence, which is strictly prohibited in all other cases, a fact I might have occasion to return to later). But our system of punishment is a correctional system, not a restorer of cosmic balance through ritual sacrifice. Trying to be both at the same time leads to absurd results, as illustrated most vividly, I think, in the practice of swabbing the prisoner's arm with rubbing alcohol in order to sterilize it before lethal injection. As for criterion (1), perhaps Jerry can say a bit more about what would have to be shown in order to meet it.
G.D. I certainly agree that there are sufficient practical difficulties with the existing system of CP that we do not need an apriori argument to justify immediate abolition. Why then should I care if there is an apriori (I prefer non-contingent) argument as well? Qua reformer I do not. Qua philosopher that’s the business I am in. I want to know whether there is something about the very nature of CP which justifies its abolition. By analogy, it may very well be that eating animals is bad for us, both in terms of health and in terms of its ecological effects. But, while I am not (yet) a vegetarian, were I one I would want to say that there is something wrong with killing animals, even if this practice in fact made us slightly healthier and was ecologically sound. I am looking for an argument which says that even if we had reliable evidence that for each murderer executed we would prevent eight murders, and even if the process could be administered in a fair and equitable fashion, it would nevertheless be required that we abolish CP.
Justin presents a conditional argument: if the justification for CP is some kind of corrective notion, then CP cannot be corrective. True enough. Others have argued that even if the conditional is, "If the justification for CP is retributive, i.e. its function is see that people get what they deserve, then CP cannot be retributive." Although this sounds somewhat paradoxical I accept this claim as well. For it requires showing that what murderers deserve is to be killed, as opposed to LIWP at the lesser-punishment end or torture followed by execution at the greater-punishment end. Although I don’t have the space to argue it here I believe that there are a number of reasons for thinking this cannot be established. But what I am looking for is an argument that there can’t be a successful argument of the form, “If the justification of CP is X, then for any x, the conclusion cannot be that CP can be justifiable on the basis of x.” I want to know why for any reasonable theory of punishment --and unless we are abolitionists about punishment itself there must be one-- it turns out that LIWP is permissible (or some lesser sentence if you prefer) but death is nor permissible. Now there are some punishments that do fit this model. To take a widely disparate set of cases: punishing the spouse of the murderer; cutting off the murderer’s arms and legs; daily torture instead of execution; killing the murderer in order to salvage his organs for people who would otherwise die.
One needs in each of these cases an explanation of why the punishment is impermissible, and I believe I can give (different) explanations. My problem is that none of these explanations seems to rule out execution.J.S. Interesting that Jerry should mention vegetarianism, because I too think this is a very revealing parallel case. And here, as with CP, I think the most one can hope to find is a conditional a priori argument in favor of it: if you are, say, a hunter-gatherer, I am not prepared to say that your killing of animals is wrong; if you are, like me, a member of a consumer society with fully nourishing plant-based foods available to you that allow you to avoid complicity in the gruesome system of factory farming (gruesome in a way that traditional spear- or bow-hunting is not), then you should be a vegetarian. I share the philosophers' desire to find non-contingent reasons for avoiding certain practices, but I'm fairly convinced that as concerns both meat-eating and capital punishment, one searches for them in vain. The kind of contingent circumstances I'm focusing on are however relatively wider-scoped than the ones that are usually adduced against CP (fails to deter, is administered unfairly, and so on). I am saying that it fails to cohere with other values to which we are supposedly committed, and that even if it did deter, could be administered fairly, could result in the prevention of eight other murders, and so on, it would still be wrong for the reason that it conflicts with these other values.
What are these other values? One, which I've already mentioned, is a commitment to the penal philosophy of correction. This only became orthodoxy in the 19th century, and has been rapidly eroding since the 1970s. Another (in the United States, anyway) is the commitment to upholding the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. There has of course been a great deal of controversy over what this phrase means, and whether any instance of CP is by definition a violation of this prohibition. In actual fact, the US justice system has consistently taken seriously the argument of the defense that a given method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual. This is in part what is responsible for the continual migration from one method to another, even though each (starting with the guillotine) is introduced as the new and improved humane way of carrying the punishment out. What this shows is that there seems to be general agreement that there is a difference between the taking away of a criminal's life, on the one hand, and the killing of the criminal on the other. These are conceptually distinct, even if the one always implies the other. The general line of thinking in the US has been that the first of these is not in principle cruel and unusual, yet it has nonetheless proven impossible so far to find a way of carrying out the second that is not cruel and unusual. I am strongly inclined to believe, however, that taking away a life is cruel, if not unusual, whatever the method of killing, and whatever the crime for which it is punishment (mutatis mutandis, I similarly do not believe that free-range cultivation of beef or lamb takes away all of the moral concerns about carnivorism). Why do I think it is cruel? Because it is motivated by a desire to see the criminal suffer in the way that his victim has suffered (the fact that we can't really flagrantly make him suffer by, say, torturing him to death, results from the conflict between the two conceptions of justice of which I've already spoken), and I just don't know what cruelty could be other than the desire to see suffer.
No other currently legal form of punishment is motivated by this desire. Amputation or daily torture, as Jerry mentions, are not permissible, and Jerry already believes there are good reasons for this. I believe that the reasons for keeping torture illegal are not much more compelling than the reasons to ban CP: both are motivated by the desire to see suffer, to which our society, in its constitutional ban on cruelty, has a contingent --they did not have to bring this up in the Constitution at all-- but pretty deep --this part of the Constitution stems from an earnest attempt to reflect the principles of natural justice, so far as we can tell what those are-- opposition.LIWP, in turn, is the default punishment not because it is commensurate with the crime --no non-cruel punishment could possibly be that-- but because it prevents the criminal from committing more murders and, one hopes, gives him the rest of his natural life to seek absolution by changing his heart and his deeds. This means that, in effect, commensurateness to the crime is not a viable principle of punishment in a system that forbids cruel punishment. Criminal deeds, after all, are cruel. But cruel punishment is forbidden. Therefore punishment cannot be commensurate to the crime. This leaves us with LIWP, which might not be emotionally satisfying to many affected by the crime, but at least is not in conflict with other of our society's basic commitments. We could of course just scrap those commitments, and reverse the ban on cruelty. What we can't do, coherentl y, is to try to uphold the two together.
In sum, so far: no non-contingent arguments against capital punishment found, but some --I hope-- philosophically interesting discussion of the sources of the contingency involved.
G.D. First, I like the idea of wide-scoped vs. narrow scoped contingent circumstances. But I am not sure that Justin’s argument above is not a non-contingent argument. For if CP is, in its nature, cruel, and if cruelty is always ruled out normatively, then it looks as if this is the argument we are looking for. So what we need is a conception of cruelty which 1) is inherent in CP and 2) is ruled out on normative grounds. With respect to the second point we need not say that it is always ruled out. Philosophers are good at coming up with weird cases which show that there are exceptions to everything. But at least the connection should be almost universal.
The analysis of cruelty Justin gives is the following: "I just don't know what cruelty could be other than the desire to see suffer." I have a number of problems with this. I think it is important to keep separate (sometimes) questions of motivation from questions of justification. I may be motivated to save the drowning child because his father is rich and I hope for a large reward. I am not a very nice person. But, surely, my saving the drowning child was justified.
So the issue is really: must a justification of CP have as an essential component a reference to the suffering that death causes? Well, undoubtedly some do. Any retributive justification does make reference to seeing to it that the offender gets what he deserves. And in this case death must be what he deserves. But there is a sense in which any theory of punishment assumes that what happens to the convicted is something that they do not want to happen, that they find unpleasant. For a deterrence theorist that feature is required to explain why the threat of punishment deters. But the point or purpose of the institution is not to make the guilty suffer. It is to deter. So at most suffering enters as a means to the end of deterrence. If that relation to suffering makes CP cruel it makes any punishment cruel. That is a reductio ad absurdum.
The phrase 'desires to see suffer' is misleading because it suggests that suffering is desired for its own sake. And that is not the case for the deterrence theorist. If, for some strange reason, sending convicted felons to Hawaii to lie on the beach were to deter future potential murderers from killing a deterrence theorist would be delighted. So I suggest that what Justin really means is that the desire for people to suffer for its own sake is cruel. And this seems to me a plausible idea. But on this conception CP is not inherently cruel on any justification. Only on very special ones, namely, very strong versions of retributivism.I am however intrigued by another point Justin makes. He thinks our prohibition against torture is on the grounds of cruelty. And that seems right. I said that my reason for prohibiting torture did not extend to CP. But if I believe that then I must have some other reason for the prohibition of torture. Or think that there is a conception of torture on which it comes out as cruel but CP does not.
J.S. Now what I'm about to say might sound pretty close to what has been described as 'punishment abolitionism', but if that is the case, so be it. I do not think that a theory of punishment that holds that its unpleasantness is an essential part of it is a good theory of punishment, or at least I do not think that the unpleasantness of the punishment should be part of the reason of the punishment, even if it always accompanies the punishment. The reason for the punishment is correction. By comparison, I think that unpleasantness might be an ineliminable part of coronary bypass surgery, but the surgery does not exist for the sake of its unpleasantness. So on my account the retributivist approach is the wrong one with respect to any punishment. This is as true for, say, white-collar crimes as it is for murder. Here my point is not that I think retribution is wrong, but that it conflicts with the fundamental commitments of our society's explicit penal philosophy (which I endorse, but even if I didn't endorse it this would not change the fact that retribution is incompatible with it). So that is how we can deal with the retribution theorists. As for the deterrence theorists, I had thought that what we were looking for here was a non-contingent argument against CP, which is to say in part an argument that would stand up whether CP in fact deters or not. Now, whether it does or not is a contingent question, but while we are on the subject of contingencies it is worth pointing out that CP does not, in fact, deter. States in the US in which CP is legal have higher murder rates, on average, than states in which it is not legal. (Then again, other countries in which CP is legal, such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, have relatively low murder rates, but it is almost certainly not the case that this is because of the deterrent effect of CP.) In any case, if we are speaking to the deterrence theorist on his own terms, it seems to me that we can only speak in terms of contingencies, and as it happens in the US context deterrence-based arguments are ungrounded.
So retributivism and deterrence theory are dispatched, and the remaining questions I need to deal with, I think, concern, first, my claim that the desire to see someone suffer is inherently cruel, and, second, whether CP is itself inherently cruel even if some people defend it because of a cruel desire to see people suffer. I said in my last volley that 'I just don't know what else cruelty could be than the desire to see suffer'. I was hoping, by putting it like this, to let it pass as a not-further-arguable intuition. If an argument is required, it will be one that gets us back to genealogy, to a consideration of the kinds of practices from which I take CP to descend. My thinking here is greatly indebted to Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity (and, though I hate his positive conclusions, to Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality), and perhaps in a subsequent round I'll have occasion to say more about this, but for now I think it takes us pretty far afield from our narrower task. Now, supposing that one of the motivations for defending CP is the desire to see suffer, and supposing this is in fact cruel, does it follow that CP itself is cruel? I think we are dealing with a case here that is essentially very different than that of the man who saves the child because of the child's rich father, in which we can clearly separate the character of the act from the motivation for the act. I do not think that you can find, in the current American context, a non-deterrence-based argument in favor of CP that does not base itself largely on the fact that it provides 'closure' to the victim's family. And I don't know what this closure could be other than the (partial) satisfaction of a desire for revenge, which might also be accompanied by some folk-cosmological assumptions about the way the second death 'balances out' the first one. So here the desire for infliction of suffering is not at all incidental, in the way that the desire for a reward is incidental to the saving of the rich man's child.
G.D. Let me summarize our agreements and disagreements at this point. We agree (1) that there is no evidence CP deters with respect to LIWP, and hence no deterrence argument can work; (2) that it is worthwhile to look for a non-contingent argument; (3) that there is an argument from the cruelty of CP where cruelty is defined as the desire to see another suffer; (4) that cruelty is necessarily wrong. We disagree (1) on the definition of cruelty. According to me, it has two interpretations; on one, I do not accept that CP is cruel; on the other I accept that CP is cruel but disagree that cruelty is necessarily wrong. We also disagree (2) on the question whether any deterrence theory must have as part of its reason for CP that it makes people suffer. I do not believe that it must.
Since we are looking for a non-contingent argument against CP I am going to assume, for the sake of argument, that CP does deter differentially. In particular, since assuming is cheap, I am going to assume that for each murderer executed eight potential murder victims are spared. (The number is not competely arbitrary. The recent study that Cass Sunstein --a distinguished legal theorist-- thinks is fairly plausible claims this figure. I take no view as to whether he is right about its plausibility).
Justin's argument is that, even so, CP must be abolished because it is cruel. But if cruelty means that the deterrence theorist must desire for its own sake that murderers suffer then I disagree. Classic deterence theorists from Bentham on have always insisted that the suffering of the murderer is a bad thing, that it must be minimized, and that if we could deter without making offenders suffer that would be the best state of affairs.
Deterrence theorists accept that murderers must be made to suffer in the same way that --in your example-- the heart surgeon accepts that his patient will suffer in performing a coronory bypass. It is an (unfortunately) necessary means to a good end. Just as you do not think the surgeon is cruel, or the operation is cruel, so I think that CP is not cruel if one's justification is deterrent.
Do you, Justin, agree with the above? If you do, is there another notion of cruelty?
J.S. Now I think our agreements and disagreements are starting to come clear. I'm afraid the list of disagreements is a little bit longer than the one Jerry gives above. First, I don't think cruelty is necessarily wrong, or at least I don't have any argument that could prove that it is. What I do think is that if a society is committed to not being cruel, then it cannot be a society that employs the death penalty. I have already said that I do not know what cruelty could be, other than the desire to see suffer. This was deemed insufficient, so I will add that, coming at the question from a different direction, a punishment is cruel that rules out the possibility of a criminal's rehabilitation over the course of his natural life (even if this rehabilitation were not to result in exemption from LIWHP, there are still many ways in which prisoners serving life sentences have been able to 'make something of themselves' within the very limited confines of prison life). Why? Because it lacks mercy. I might be accused of trying to import a religious virtue into a discussion in which this sort of consideration can have no place. But I think as an un-argued-for assumption, 'mercy is good' is at least as sturdy as 'cruelty is bad'.
It dawns on me that if we want something more than this sort of smuggled assumption, the thing to do would be to look at the history of legal reasoning about cruel and unusual punishment. Beyond our intuitions about what is cruel --and my intuition has proven less than universal-- I don't think conceptual analysis alone can bring us to any shared conclusions about what cruelty is. The boundaries of the predicate '...is cruel' as actually used seem to me both vague and flexible, and the closest thing we can find to a definitive answer as to the range of this predicate's application would be to consult the tradition on which current jurisprudence is based.
One passing observation about the Sunstein-sanctioned study showing that eight murders are deterred for every one execution. I'm sure this is dealt with somewhere in the literature, but I'm wondering how one might respond to the concern that deterrence-based reasoning seems to open up the possibility of, or at least go one step further down the path towards, preemptive punishment of the sort envisioned in Philip K. Dick's excellent short story, The Minority Report. What if executing one man who, say, shows signs in adolescence of incipient violent psychopathy could, per implausibile, save eight hundred lives? It seems that on a deterrence-based justification of CP, the punishment is no longer really a punishment for the murder carried out by the particular criminal, but rather a punishment carried out in advance of any potential future murders. But here any justification of deterrence-based punishment would seem to hold up even when the person punished is not in fact guilty of a crime. (I suspect, by the way, that this is not so far from how CP actually works, and explains why it is applied so grossly disproportionately to a certain group in the United States whose members, historically, have been 'kept in their place' by violent means, whether the individual members of the group are in fact guilty of any crime or not.)
G.D. I think that the new premise that Justin introduces, the claims that no form of punishment which precludes the possibility of an offender's rehabilitation is justifiable, is an interesting one to explore further. My only objection is that labeling it 'cruel' may simply be a way of saying that it is wrong rather than bringing it under one particular way of being wrong with its own special features.
The other point I want to make is that any plausible deterrence-based justification of punishment will have components which are constraints on the ways in which the goal of deterrence will be pursued. This part of the theory will address issues such as the one Justin raises about whether preventive punishment is legitimate. Notice that, although it is not punishment and that is important, we do have preventive detention as part of our civil law, e.g., quarantine of infectious people and civil commitment of dangerous people.
Let me try another, non-contingent, argument against CP. It is an objection mainly to general deterrence, i.e. that we are entitled to kill those convicted of murder to deter others from committing future murders. Special deterrence, i.e. killing murderers to prevent them from killing again does not fall prey to this attack, but special deterrence has always seemed a rather weak rationale even on deterrent grounds. Someone serving LIWP is not going to kill anyone outside of prison --barring prison breaks-- and while it might seem obvious that a prisoner serving a life sentence has nothing to fear from killing a guard or a fellow prisoner since there is no harsher sentence in the absence of CP, in fact there are many ways of making a life sentence much more unpleasant --complete lockdown, loss of all privileges, etc.-- so that it is not surprising to find the empirical evidence comparing states which have CP with those which do not does not support a higher rate of assaults or killings within prison in the latter.
The argument against general deterrence is that our justification for killing convicted murderers is that we need to do so to achieve a desirable end --reducing the number of total murders-- and that this is simply to treat each murderer as a means to promoting good consequences. His death is justified only by its being part of a causal process which deters others from killing. Treating people simply as a means is the well-known Kantian objection to all consequentialist views which justify failing to respect the rational agency of one person in order to achieve some --otherwise valuable-- end.
Suppose that the murderer about to die asks, “What justifies you in taking my life?” The answer cannot simply be, “You have murdered someone,” as it would be on a retributive view. It has to be , “You have murdered someone and our threats to punish murderers cannot be credible unless we carry out the sentence. We need your death as part of a credible system of threats which we believe deters other murderers.” Now the right type of argument against this response --right in the sense that it is a non-contingent argument, which applies even if CP is an effective deterrent and even if the process of administration is fair-- claims that there is an intrinsic feature of CP, use of persons as simply a means, which, if a certain normative theory is correct (Kant), forbids CP.
I have two objections to this theory. First, it is not true that CP uses convicted murderers simply as a means. Second, if the theory were true, it would apply as much to LIWP as CP. With respect to the first point I want to set out why a certain kind of deterrence view need not fall victim to the Kantian objection. This theory is an amalgam of various proposals that exist in the philosophical literature. In particular Phillip Montague and Daniel Farrell have put forward key elements.
Start out from the idea that (almost) all abolitionists accept that it is legitimate to use deadly force if that is the only way of stopping an aggressor from killing oneself or others. One plausible way of explaining this is the following principle: When X has unjustly created a situation such that either X or Y will die (X is about to kill Y) then it is fair that the death falls on X rather than Y. Call this the 'Shifting of Harm' principle.
Now turn to the institution of punishment. Assume that we live in a world in which some class of people will unjustly kill others. Assume that by setting up a system of threats --murderers will be executed-- we can in fact deter some people who would otherwise murder. Note that there may well be normative restrictions on the kinds of threats that are permissible. For example, we are not allowed to threaten the children of offenders. We are not allowed to threaten people who are doing perfectly acceptable things, like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, with punishment if they continue to do so.
We announce this threat in advance. All that citizens must do to avoid the punishment is to not unjustly kill other people. In effect, we have adopted the Shifting of Harm principle to a set of (unknown) people who are not imminent threats. We say to them that the members of their group --the potential murderers-- have created a situation in which either some of them will die as a result of our carrying out our threat, or some of us will die by failing to carry out the threats, and it is fair that the harm should fall on them.Notice that this argument does, in effect, extend the liability to harm for the individual (who is always liable for his own harm) to the class of all potential murderers. It says that each offender is paying a price not only for his crimes but for the crimes of others. But this is not simply treating the executed murderer as a means to the good end of murder reduction. If he has had a fair opportunity to avoid being part of the group creating the risk of death to others, if he has been warned that this is what will happen, if the harm that is produced by the punishment --death-- is really required to achieve the protection of others, then he has no complaint. Just as the aggressor about to stick his knife into you has no complaint that he is being treated simply as a means when you use deadly force against him.
As for the second objection above --that the argument, if valid, applies to any prison term as much as to CP-- simply note that the objection is not specific to any particular penalty. It says that if the purpose of any punishment is general deterrence, i.e. preventing future crimes, then we are using the convicted to prevent the crimes of others and that is wrong. It would be just as wrong to lock burglars up to deter others from burglary. In short, this argument does not work but, if it did, would prove too much.
Let me summarize my position. I believe we ought to abolish the death penalty because we have no reason to think it deters and it is administered in an arbitrary and unjust manner. I am open to the possibility that there is a non-contingent argument against CP which would justify abolition even if it did deter and was administered fairly. I have not yet been presented with such an argument that I regard as plausible.
J.S. Well it looks like Jerry saved his lethal blows for the very end. He considers a fairly strong non-contingent argument against CP (that is, not a cherry-picked one), and proceeds to knock it down. The argument takes up Kant's principle that a human being should always to be treated as an end and not as a means, and says that any deterrence-centered defence of CP necessarily violates this principle. Jerry offers two major objections to this argument: first, that deterrence-based CP might be seen as a legitimate application of the Shifting of Harm principle rather than as a violation of the Kantian ban on using human beings as ends; second, he notes that, if the argument were to stand against CP, an analogous argument against any punishment for any crime would be just as strong.
As for the second line of attack, I say so much the worse for deterrence-based application of punishment (whatever the crime). If using human beings as ends is wrong, and punishment for the sake of deterrence uses human beings as ends, then deterrence-driven imprisonment for burglary is just as wrong as CP for murder. But does punishment for the sake of deterrence necessarily violate the Kantian principle? I think Jerry's invocation of the Shifting of Harm principle here is fairly sound, in that I definitely think it's legitimate to suspend the usual rule about not treating a human being as a means to an end if that human being is coming at me with a knife, and it could be the case that the state's threat to potential future murderers is just a somewhat more complicated application of this same principle. But I wonder whether there isn't something about the immediacy of the threat that gives the Shifting of Harm principle its legitimacy. After all, when a dude comes at me with a knife, I don't run through the arguments of the Critique of Practical Reason in order to decide what I should do. So my suspension of the no-men-are-means principle isn't really a suspension of a principle at all, so much as a failure (whether laudable or blameworthy) to uphold it in certain circumstances. But to extend the Shifting of Harm principle to potential future murderers is in effect to say: we intend to fail to live up to something to which we are otherwise committed.
Mutatis mutandis, my uneasiness with this reminds me of one of the objections, from whom I do not recall, to Alan Dershowitz's horrible proposal that the government start issuing 'torture warrants' to federal agents who found themselves in situations in which they could, by getting cruelly and unusually rough, extract information that might save the lives of hundreds or thousands. The objection went as follows: it is perhaps not that agents will never find themselves in such a situation, and perhaps if they do they should just go ahead and start torturing. But what we don't want is to enshrine into law the possibility of suspending what are otherwise our deep moral commitments.
This last point leads me to a concluding thought I have about CP. I think some people almost certainly do deserve to die, but for better or for worse there simply is no person or body that can be entrusted with the grave responsibility of killing them. For me, one of the strongest arguments against CP has not to do with what it does to the criminal who is punished, but what it does to those involved in the application of the punishment. It makes it possible for killing to be the normal carrying out of a bureaucratic procedure, rather than a transgression or a suspension of our ordinary commitments. That to me is more terrifying than the murder to which the punishment is a response: the murder was plainly a transgression, whereas the compensatory execution is allowed for in our books of law. This means that to uphold CP is to make killing normal, something that it is not even for the great majority of murderers.
To sum up: I agree with Jerry that no compelling non-contingent arguments against CP are to be found. This negative conclusion, I think, is of less significance to me than it is to Jerry. I, unlike Jerry, am not an ethicist, and my interest in CP is, as my earlier pieces on it reveal, far from academic. As a non-ethicist, it never crossed my mind before to look for a non-contingent argument against CP. As a contextualist historian of philosophy, throughout this dialogue on the possibility of a non-contingent argument against CP, I've found myself returning again and again to the questions: what could even count as a non-contingent argument? The closest thing we've got to such an argument here is one that relies on a certain normative theory (Kant's), but that seems very much to me like something that one could either accept or reject, and accepting it seems to have a lot to do with what kind of society one lives in, and when. So I just don't know where any deeper non-contingency is supposed to come from, though I recognize that my perplexity here could very well arise from the fact that specialists in different domains of philosophy are trained to look for different things. Perhaps whether there really is such a thing as a completely non-contingent argument as to what it is human beings ought to be doing could serve as the starting point for another dialogue...
Spilling Ink on Africa's Fires
By Tolu Ogunlesi
Every time I find myself at Lagos’ Murtala Mohammed International Airport, a glance at the foreigners’ queue makes me wonder how many of those sweating Caucasians are there on a mission to spill ink on Africa’s endless fires.
It is of course an open secret that the continent teems with ‘anonymous’ white men and women destined to build enviable reputations from material from the ruins of what the Economist Magazine once proudly termed “The Hopeless Continent”. In recent months I have become deeply fascinated by the possibilities of assembling images of Africa as painted by outsiders – the Gospel of Africa according to Saints Blixen, Kapuściński, Forsyth, Dowden, Maier, Wrong; to mention just a few.
“For the last 20 years the news from Africa has been unremittingly bad,” the second line of Anthony Daniels’ essay Not as black as it’s painted, (originally published in The Spectator) declares.
Daniels is to a significant extent correct. This was 1987. Twenty years before then would have been 1967, the year that the Nigerian Civil War kicked off. In those two decades Nigeria, self-acclaimed Giant of Africa, saw 30 months of civil war, four coup d’états, and one horribly mismanaged oil boom.
But he soon strays into dubious territory, adopting that deadly attitude (a potent mix of condescension and incontrovertibility) that the colonial adventure seemed to implant deep into the European DNA. A few sentences later, after a litany of peculiarly African woes – desertification, population explosion, AIDS – Daniels jokes: “Perhaps most depressing of all, one is now grateful for a President who, however dictatorial, does not actually eat his opponents.”
And then the guns emerge, blazing. Four examples:
“As I remarked, no doubt cruelly, to several young African radicals, even if Africa were to unite economically, it would still scarcely amount to Switzerland.”
“Africa is so technically backward that it would be cheaper to ship things from Mars than to produce them on the continent. An arms embargo on South Africa has produced an arms industry; an arms embargo on the rest of Africa would produce bows and arrows.”
“There is little in traditional African culture that is compatible with a modern economy, and much that is inimical to it.”
“Very few Africans have – can have – the faintest notion of the depth of the cultural and scientific tradition necessary to produce a Mercedes, or even a simple light bulb.”
There is no doubt that ours is a continent that teems with stories; many of which are plain depressing. But in my opinion, redemption lies in the 'deserving-ness' of all our stories - The Good, The Sad, The Wobbly - to be given equal attention. Chimamanda Adichie has spoken often about the danger of “the single story”, the single perspective. And I recall the brilliant words of the novelist, John Berger, that “never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.”
There are those stories simply waiting to be unearthed. There are many that have already been unearthed, but are now forgotten, abandoned to gather dust. There are the ones that have been polished half-heartedly, so that the sheen they give off is a dull one. Africa’s stories are like its population, constantly exploding. But they all need to be told or retold; the untold, half-told and mis-told.
The earliest stories I read about Africa were of course told by outsiders who had come to assume the position of insiders. I remember King Solomon’s mines. The tales that made their way to me, told by Africans, tended to feature hyper-intelligent animals – the tortoise and the hare. The ones that had human beings were uni-dimensional: Wise, kind kings under whose rule kingdoms expanded, and who were succeeded by weak, evil sons under whom things fell apart; evil stepmothers who attempted to poison the innocent children of innocent co-wives: the Dark Continent expressed in Black and White.
The other black beings of my childhood were the golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s stories. In Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satire, How to write about Africa (essentially a guide for foreign journalists) he advises: “Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”
Wainaina adds: “Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with.”
In other words: Abandon Complexity All Ye Who Enter Here.
[PS. That mention of “prostitutes” makes me remember a name I failed to include earlier: Paul Theroux, another ‘veteran’ of Africa.]
Anthony Daniels remarked in his essay that “[e]xpressing pessimism about Africa is …the order of the day.” This was twenty three years ago. Nothing wrong with pessimism, if you ask me. My continent – littered as it is with Amins and Mugabes and Zumas and Gaddafis and Mubaraks – has by default always inspired pessimism. And pessimism – with its potential for colour – far more easily than optimism, makes for great literature. (Recall the famous quotation: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)
Even African writers are generally agreed that their land is a rich mine of unsettling stories. In his 1975 essay, Morning Yet on Creation Day, Chinua Achebe wrote: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them.”
Achebe was honest enough to admit the “imperfections” of his land. Chimamanda Adichie has written about how Things Fall Apart opened her eyes to the possibility that fully-formed Africans could inhabit fictional worlds. In a similar vein Zimbabwean writer Tinashe Mushakavanhu has spoken of Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger. None of those books is a flattering portrait of Africa, none is meant to be a starry-eyed depictions of paradisiacal bliss.
Therein lies the key to the kind of books that Africa needs – those ones patient enough to navigate the contested territory between the continent’s “imperfections” and the “savagery” that perfunctory observation would seek to impute to the continent. Even the cruel, condescending Daniels admits that Africa’s depressing character “is profoundly misleading if it is taken to mean that Africa is a continent of unrelieved gloom and misery.”
Ignoring the mainstream, spreading enthusiasm for difficult music and sustaining sonic subcultures: Colin Marshall talks to Chris Bohn, editor of The WireChris Bohn is the editor of London-based monthly music magazine The Wire. Subtitled “Adventures in Modern Music”, the magazine has covered the alternative, the underground, the experimental, the avant-garde and the generally non-mainstream since 1982, featuring a span of artists from Ornette Coleman to Björk to David Sylvian to Jim O’Rourke to field recordists like Lee Patterson to emerging Chinese sounds artists like Yun Jun. The magazine is also well known as a rarity in its industry for both its profitability and its loyal, growing readership. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
I was reading a slightly older profile of the magazine in the Telegraph. It had a quote from you saying that The Wire is best thought of as a magazine that does not cover certain types of music rather than a magazine that does cover certain types. So I'll put the question to you: what does The Wire not cover?
The stuff you could consider heavily featured in the mainstream media. Obviously there's some crossover with the mainstream media and the underground, noncommercial media, but generally we have no interest in covering stuff you just see on — if you go to a newsstand any see a range of magazines, be it music, culture, fashion, whatever, you see certain names cropping up over and over again. We just have absolutely no interest in being part of that interchangeability of faces, names, et cetera, et cetera. We'd rather focus on the music that interests us, and that most frequently is "non-mainstream" music, "underground" music, whatever that means.
That's kind of a very slippery word, you might say, because "underground" in a political sense is a whole lot different from "underground" in a Western sense. In London or, I should imagine, where you come from, almost anything goes. You can do anything without consequences. But last November I was in Leipzig for a festival of underground culture from the German Democratic Republic period, the communist period in East Germany that obtained between '48 and 1989 before the wall came down. Then, underground culture had a totally different meaning. It's a salutary reminder to know that sometimes music is as serious as your life, and you can end up in jail for playing it. That's not often he case here. Every so often I have to take one step back from the word "underground" and remind myself that it can be a far different thing to what perceive.
Since The Wire is read all over the world and targeted toward an international readership, does the concept of what is "not mainstream" take on different resonances to people of different regions of the world? The mainstream is obviously going to be different in different places. Are you against the mainstream whatever the mainstream may be in any given nation?
To say we're "against the mainstream" is — yeah, okay, it probably did sound like that. It's just that we're not interested in it. Not against it. Speaking personally, there's very little in mainstream culture generally that fascinates or interests me. Of course it changes from country to country, but, for instance, are Sonic Youth mainstream now? I would argue not, even though they had a long period of very successful activity signed to Geffen records. But the music they made and all their interests went way beyond what you'd expect of a group signed to a mainstream label. Geffen could accommodate Sonic Youth, presumably either for the kudos that went with having a group like Sonic Youth on the label and for the kind of other artists Sonic Youth would attract to the label, or because they somehow covered their costs and made some profit for Geffen. I don't know what their relationship was with Geffen.
Obviously you can't discount anything just because it's mainstream. But to go on back to your question, yes, the idea of the mainstream does shift from country to country. If it's new and interesting to us in the magazine, we presume that it might be of interest to our readership too. We accept that we have a very intelligent and informed readership, and that's our starting point. If we pick up on things from a country where the music is considered mainstream but it has something of musical interest and it resonates beyond that, in a different way, by the time it's reached our shores, we try to approach it for what it is, a piece of music, and then build up an article from there, taking into account its success or otherwise in the country of origin.
We should be clear about this, then: it's not as if you're looking at a London newsstand, looking at the copy of Mojo or what have you and saying, "We'll be the opposite of this." It's more that that's orthogonal to what you want to be, because you're driven entirely by the desires of the readership and the staff, correct?
Yeah, in that sense it's a kind of community, you could say. Within that community there will obviously be a lot of argument. There will be a degree of agreement, but there will also be a lot of discussion and dialogue going on in that community about what is worthy of our attention.
We don't judge ourselves against Mojo or Uncut or other magazines, and every so often there might even me some crossover with those magazines in terms of areas of interest: Krautrock or whatever. Pierre Henry making records with Spooky Tooth might get reviewed in both magazines, but our interest would come primarily from Pierre Henry's involvement.
The border cases are fascinating, where the mainstream touches it but The Wire touches it as well. I always think of Björk as that kind of figure. She's been on the cover of The Wire, but she's also been in some of the most mainstream venues one could think of.
For sure. It's a portal for us in terms of bringing in people. If they see Björk on the cover of The Wire, people who are not familiar with The Wire but are interested in Björk might find that it brings them to love other interesting musics, which Björk herself would do, since her interests go beyond the mainstream. Likewise with Radiohead and Sonic Youth. Below the deceptive surface of what they do are a lot of fascinating interests that feed into their music — you don't always hear it.
That is useful for the kind of musical culture we cover, because it does introduce a much larger audience, perhaps, to some very interesting, conceivably difficult musics, to a public that would not otherwise arrive to it. Hopefully, though, if they come via The Wire, they'll get introduced to a lot of other different interesting, weird, fascinating areas. In that sense, it's great to have people like Björk and Sonic Youth and — from my personal point of view — a group like Radiohead, to a lesser extent. They also have a lot of interests beyond the average rock group. These people are obviously important to musical culture for that reason.
I would imagine, though, that there's some contingent on the reverse side that, if you talk about somebody like a Sonic Youth or a Björk or a Radiohead, they will write in and say, "How could you talk about somebody so well known as Radiohead, Sonic Youth and Björk?"
Of course it does. There's a lot of holier-than-thou or hipper-than-thou people, you could say, in any area you work with. Some people are going to be totally disgusted by the fact that we might feature Björk or Sonic Youth in the magazine, but you don't have to scratch very hard at the surface of what they're doing to arrive at the depth of their interest in this music, so we happily stand by the covers we've had of these people. We don't have to defend it. We don't feel like we're defending it; we kind of celebrate the difference in music, and Sonic Youth and Björk embody that, to a greater or lesser extent.
It seems like the relationship is a closer one, probably a much closer one, than most music magazines have with their readers. You can tell by the flavor, by the tone, of the letters page. They're willing to engage on a very high level with the magazine. Am I just being thrown off by the letters that are selected, or is that level of discourse the norm?
You're right, the level of discourse with our readers is pretty high. A lot of that we experience personally, when The Wire has a stand or something at various festivals around Europe and America. Just by meeting and talking and discussing and getting engaged in pretty deep, heavy conversations or arguments with our readers in public — yes, you're absolutely right. We have a very intelligent, passionate, highly argumentative readership. We love 'em for that. We're not seeking agreement or accord with our readers; we're seeking dialogue and debates with them in the same way that, ideally, we feel about the musicians and artists we talk to.
It does seem as well that, in addition to there being a closer relationship with the readers, there in fact is a closer relationship with the artists. I get the impression that an artist who maybe wouldn't want to talk to a Mojo, say, would want to talk to The Wire. Is that at all the case?
It's difficult to say; I don't know what Mojo's relationship with their artists is. Of course we get turned down by artists and musicians every now and again, but we do have a good relationship with musicians. A fair number of our writers are also musicians and artists, so we don't see it as us against them. Far from it. It's a fairly broad front against mainstream mediocrity, I would say. I would like to think the musicians feel the same about us, even though we do have our fights, our struggles.
Spending some time in the world of The Wire, which I do whenever I read an issue, I notice that there tends to be — not a doubling-up of roles, necessarily, but — for example, a musician may also be a journalist may also be a reader. There's this exchange between the roles people take in the music The Wire covers. How much does that actually go on? I get the impression that people do move from subsphere to subsphere quite frequently in this realm.
Publisher and former editor Tony Herrington said it very well: there's always been, in music writing, a passion, especially in marginal, subcultural, underground — however you want to describe leftfield, non-mainstream music — a passion on behalf on individuals that starts sometimes with them selling records in the back of a barrow in a marketplace — that happened especially with reggae — to wanting to get this music across and what it's all about more. That would lead them to write about it. Also, sometimes the musicians themselves would be similarly engaged and have enough interest in other music as well to want to write about it and keep a discourse going, to keep all channels open about the culture they're a part of. It's all to do with a passion for music and sharing that passion with other people, whether it's selling obscure records, writing about it, writing about the artists who are making it or the artists themselves engaging with the music they love. Not only their own, of course, but the other musics — talking about, discussing, writing about that because they have something to say.
Or like myself, I got into music writing to try to understand and work out what it was I was liking about what were perceived as difficult or antisocial musics way back when I first started. To try to explain to a virtual partner why I was interested in a group perceived as deadly asocial, destructive or whatever. What was it about that music that interested me? Was it because it was destructive? Yeah, maybe that would be an initial attraction. But what is it about that music that holds you there? Surely not just the destruction. Of course not just the destruction. What was it they were constructing out of the ruins of the music — the leavening effects of what they were doing with noise, et cetera, et cetera. What were they constructing among the ruins? Trying to explain that is what got me involved in writing about it, and that's what sustained me here now, probably because I don't feel I understand right now what it is about the music that holds me. I'm still trying to get to it. I would imagine that's the case whether
Davy Keenan, one of our major writers who has been in a number of groups in the past and also runs Volcanic Tongue — David embodies all those things I'm talking about. He sells a lot of difficult-to-get-hold-of, obscure records out of this Volcanic Tongue web site. He writes about music and he's also appeared in a number of different groups, from Phantom Engineer to Tight Meat Duo, so we're not so concerned about boxing people in particular roles as maybe other magazines might.
How much of your own passion for the world of difficult music is simply the fact that you enjoy listening to this type of sound — purely the sound waves and you, you like to have an art experience with those — and how much of it is that you like the culture that surrounds difficult and experimental music?
The first thing is, yes, you're attracted to the music, so somehow it only starts appearing to be difficult when you're trying to explain it to somebody else. The difficulty in itself is not the thing that attracted you to it. It's appealing somehow to you, and you're trying to explain that appeal to a third person. You're trying to open up the excitement generated by the perceived difficulty in that music to a third party, or to the reader, or to your partner or whatever. Sorry, what was the question again, Colin?
The extent to which your own love for the world of difficult music is to do with the music itself, which of course is going to be a substantial part, but is some of the love also from the type of culture that surrounds difficult music, the sort of people and they way they engage with it as a miniature society.
You can't separate them. It's a culture — it's a community thing, isn't it? For sure, one is attracted to community. They're utterly inseparable, I think, the people who make it, the culture out of which it arises and the culture which it feeds back into. I can't see any difference, to tell you the truth.
I'd like to touch back on this phenomenon that, in the type of music The Wire covers, there still exist recordings that are hard to find, things that are tough to track down. There still exist rarities in a musical situation worldwide where it seems to many that, because of the internet, because of the distribution channels, because of filesharing or what have you, there are no more rarities. It seems to fascinate people that, in the type of music The Wire covers, there is still a lot of that searching to be done.
There always will be. There's always a holy grail just beyond — you think you've found it, and something else is there. I'm not an avid collector personally, but obviously there's certain kinds of musics that obsess you, and you start chasing it down and you really want to get hold of it because you've read about it or because you have a particular interest in that artist and it seems to be the key to something.
Of course, these days, with the blogosphere, it is much easier to get hold of some things that seemed way beyond reach years and years ago. Bet even so, I am of an age where actually having the physical object has some significance. Also, I do feel that artists, musicians or whatever should get paid for what they do. The idea of just downloading stuff free from the internet — okay, when it's very rare and impossible to get hold of, that's very, very useful, but I do kind of like, one, that the artist gets paid, or two, that I'd like to have the thing, the whole thing, in front of me, whether it's the album, the CD or whatever. I just feel that it makes it that much more real.
An example of something I've been looking for for a long time was Akio Suzuki and Takehisa Kosugi's album A New Sense of Hearing. I had an MP3 of it somebody had given me; it was only so satisfying to hear it on a computer in digital form. Somehow I managed to get hold of the album, and it meant a whole lot. It made much more sense to see it in front of me, to see the artwork, to get some impression of what Kosugi and Suzuki were up to from the photos on it. It just made it that much more real. The physicality of the, in this case vinyl, made the music for me that much more palpable.
Tell me if I'm correct in this impression: the artists that The Wire covers don't seem as bothered by the whole internet-ization of music as, say, more mainstream artists might be. I flip through the pages and see a bunch of creative things artists do — they don't seem to be as bothered by the fact that people are doing filesharing, perhaps because they weren't selling as many units to begin with. One doesn't get the sense they're ringing their hands.
Of course not. Don't get me wrong; I think the internet is really valuable as a way of spreading information and ideas about music, and I think The Wire is very much part of that. We pull together a lot of things that it would take people days to find independently on the internet by following links and whatever. I think The Wire has benefited enormously from the internet, and I think a lot of the musicians that The Wire covers also use the internet very, very well to get across their ideas, to get their music out. It doesn't diminish in any way their standing. It has had an impact on the number of records certain people sell, and that I think is a shame, but at the same time I think people use the internet more than they get damaged by the internet in Wireworld, in the world of The Wire. Some musicians use it very, very well.
Records aren't the be-all and end-all in the world of The Wire. In fact, it's the opposite. Live improvisations, one-off site-specific performance and installation work — none of these things is about documented recordings per se. When they are documented, quite often they can only be a very diminished souvenir of that. How can you get across the three-dimensionality of playing in a cave, for instance, like Suzuki or John Butcher have done? You can get across something, but it's never going to have the same impact as being there and experiencing that. Or a sound installation by Rolf Julius with tiny speakers buried by a lakeside. These things are all very, very site-specific, and through the internet, people can get a good sense of what Rolf Julius is doing or why he wants to do it through his own site or through discussions around it.
It's not all about recording, it's not all about CDs, it's not all about records. Far from it. It's about performance. What we The Wire are doing, what people on the internet do, is document the performance or the ideas the artists are dealing with or why they might be wanting to perform in very particular locations, what sound art is all about — and it's not about recordings, DVDs, whatever. It's about something that happens in the moment or in the space. How can you document that? They only way you can document it is through photographs, discussion and possibly the recording that gets across the sound element or maybe a 5.1 DVD — you could get a greater sense of music played in a particular space, but you're never going to get the full physicality of that space, what people are seeing when they're experiencing it, the atmosphere in the room, the temperature. All these things make it a one-of-a-kind moment, and once it's passed, it's passed. It's great to document it as best one can, but these things are what's really important. The records might be a little more permanent, but in the end they're just calling cards.
Records conceived as records, of course that's a totally different matter. But in the culture that we work in, because it's a commodity culture for everybody, they're allowed far too great an importance. I think that's one thing we fight against. To try to get across that it's not all records. Even though that's a very important part of it, it's not all about that. It can be about the moment, it can be about a site-specific place. It can be about something that's been and gone and is never going to come back again and the only way it'll be recalled is through description, through memory, through talking to the artist about it, or even just writing something.
In this current issue, where we have Ken Hollings writing a very individual take on Edgard Varèse as seen through Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. The best thing is to read it rather than have me describe it to you. Edgard Varèse is a very good case insofar as his recordings can probably be experienced in an afternoon. There are a lot of things that came and went, or were specific to his expo installations that cannot be reproduced on record. It's not all about records and commodities even though, of course, I'm sitting in a room surrounded by thousands of things. Sorry. You've caught me out.
It is fascinating, though, that the artists in Wireworld, they're good at using the internet, good at using physical spaces, good at using the moment, good at using non-reproducible happenings to further their own cause. But they do also seem to be better at making physical records. I think about USB drives made out of wood with the name signed on it, or I think about handmade CD-Rs that go out in editions of 250.
Absolutely. And they personalize something that's become cheapened and coarsened for mass production by doing it in this limited edition, creating artworks out of something that has become cheapened. I fully agree with you. That's why these people are not affected by all this talk about declining record sales. The kind of artworks they create through handmade CD-R covers or these USB sticks now — it goes way beyond. It takes it into an art market, possibly, but the hands-on involvement makes it that much more desirable, much more valuable, because some heart and soul has gone into each individual item.
It's a fantastic aspect of the world The Wire covers, I think, that people will take the time to do this. That's why people gather around the merchandise stalls at live concerts. They're going to see something that's only going to be there for a moment and possibly gone. There's obviously a deep interest in seeing what, say, Aaron Dilloway might have brought with him, because it's going to be incredibly individual, very personal, and representing a very personable form of music production as well.
It seems to me that, in a way, The Wire itself is successful in the way that an artist covered in The Wire is successful. Like we just described, it's kind of a success by super-specificity. It's mentioned often that The Wire gives you journalism that you can't even find on the internet, no matter how hard you look — some of it is that obscure. What are the similarities, do you think, between The Wire itself and the people it focuses on?
I can't really answer that. Sorry, Colin, you defeated me with that question.
But I do see a bit of correspondence there. The fact that the artists of Wireworld are not so worried as maybe more mainstream artists are — you can also see that The Wire itself does not do as much hand-wringing as mainstream magazines do about, you know, what has happened to their distribution system. The way I think of it is, if I read The Wire, it's because it takes advantage of the actual, physical magazine medium, and I'm guessing that's a big priority there.
It is, yeah. We think it's very important that it's actually on paper, rather than online. It's the time people allow for something in physical form — they read it properly. I think it's much easier, for instance, to read a lengthy article, essay or review as opposed to just three or four lines saying you should buy something or not. It's very important to us that this is actually a physical object, that it comes out on paper and in print, as old-fashioned as it might sound to some people.
The writers do stretch out quite a bit, if need be. They have the space to get into a lot of detail. As the editor, you'll be well-placed to answer this: how much space do writers — not like word count, but — what is the sensibility about how much space a writer should have? As much as they need to get something done?
Realistically, you have to give some rough guidelines, just because we only have so much space every month. Articles very rarely run longer than eight pages. Sometimes, when we have special themed issues, pretty much the whole issue might be devoted to the realization of that theme. What we do, if we give guidelines to writers for reviewing CDs, we always make it clear that, if it takes more space than those guidelines allow to get across what's in the record, if it cannot be discussed within that, then they should let us know and just write it to — it's negotiable, basically. We will allow, when necessary, the review to run until the idea is fully realized.
The areas The Wire covers, they can't be very easily summarized in a snappy sound bite. It takes a little bit of unpacking the ideas that have gone into the making of the record, the ideas that the artists are dealing with. It's just natural to us that pieces have to be allowed the space for those ideas to be fully unpacked.
I imagine that policy is a fairly large draw for a writer, for example, thinking, "What magazine do I want to write this for?" The Wire's got an advantage, natively, because they're going to allow the space one needs to get something actually explained.
Yeah, but it depends on the ambition of the writer in particular. The team of writers we have, they relish that aspect. Other writers who are in it, I don't know, to be media celebrities or as a stepping stone to getting onto radio or TV, the last thing they probably want is to spend a lot of time writing a Wire-type article, which can be incredibly demanding. I'm a writer, and I would hope at the same time it would be really rewarding for the writer. Of course, once it's printed, for the reader too, and hopefully for the artist covered. Everybody feels that the best has been brought out of the subject for all people concerned. That's the magazine: the writer, the reader, the artist, the subject of the piece.
How much knowledge of the experimental music world should be assumed on the part of the reader? It seems like anybody could just start reading and catch up on what they need to know by going through and picking up what they can. How much is it assumed the audience is going to come in knowing?
We assume that the audience is intelligent and informed, but we cannot immediately assume that they have some knowledge about, I don't know, Keiji Haino or something, or the culture he comes out of. What one tries to do is fill in all the information necessary for an intelligent and informed reader to get the best out of the article. I think we've got to the point now where we do realize that everybody knows that Miles Davis was a trumpeter, Coltrane played saxophone, et cetera, et cetera. We don't have to keep repeating this information, even though that's not necessarily a bad thing, like when broadsheet newspapers always refer to Obama as "President Obama" just so everybody knows who he is. That's not talking down to readers.
What we don't want is so that people have to feel that, in the middle of reading something, they have to look somewhere else to fill in some bits of information. Obviously space means we can only get so much into an article, but we assume that our readers have enough knowledge to find their way through pretty much anything. What we're trying to do always is open up the subject rather than close it down. We're not trying to make things more difficult. We're trying to get across the excitement of that difficulty, or wherever that music's coming from, or what it is that makes it unique, special, individual, idiosyncratic. Some people will know more than others and some might think, "Well, why are The Wire telling me this?", but we do acknowledge that there's going to be other people coming to the subject pretty much new. It's going to need a little bit more explaining to them than it might to your average college professor.
There's a core mission to, shall we say, make the inaccessible accessible?
Make the inaccessible exciting. We don't assume that everything is for everybody. Not everybody reading The Wire is going to love everything in it. Some people will get turned off by, I don't know, a Critical Beats column. To certain readers, it's complete anathema to them that there's music that has heavy 4/4 beats in it. Sorry, flip the page. You'll find something else that will be of interest to you.
The Wire is not for everybody, but everybody who comes to it should be able to enter at any point and understand what's going on and be stimulated, one would hope, by something they might not otherwise have thought would be of any interest to them whatsoever. That's our mission, really: to excite people about what we feel passionate about, whether it's the Stooges, or whether it's Akio Suzuki or whether it's Basic Channel. This is our mission, the way we perceive it.
I want to get an idea of your own journey to The Wire. The first chunk of your music journalism career was at New Musical Express, correct?
No, it was at Melody Maker.
It was? Why did I think that?
Because Melody Maker's disappeared, for one thing. I'm originally from Birmingham, in the English midlands. I came down to London in 1977, after spending six months in Germany. This was when reading about what was going on in Britain at the time, the punk music and everything — it just seemed like the wrong time to be in Germany. It got to the point where I wanted to be back in Britain, because the music scene was really flowing.
When I got back to England, I worked for a record company, Polydor Records, working with groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Richard Strange, Doctors of Madness. It became very unsatisfying, working in a press office; you just wanted to cut the middleman out and write about this stuff yourself. I found a job at Melody Maker, then from Melody Maker to NME. From NME, went freelance in about the middle of the eighties.
From that point, you found your way to The Wire how?
Richard Cook, a colleague at NME, became editor of The Wire when it was much more devoted to jazz, free improvisation and contemporary music. Richard started broadening it out a bit, to take in marginal rock, or however you'd like to describe it. That's when I started writing for The Wire.
Since you've been involved with The Wire, have you seen it change in any serious ways? Of course there was the big change from being more about jazz initially to widening out, but since you've been involved on a more heavy basis, what have you seen change of the magazine's culture?
The most significant changes happened just before I became a staff member. That's when Tony Herrington, the publisher, took over editorship. That was when the magazine was struggling to find its own direction again after a very strange period in the late eighties, early nineties, when nu-jazz looked like being a fairly dominant form. It was very much an idea of jazz. It never felt that natural. When that started peaking out, and also when the magazine was going through some difficult times — this was a long time back now — a period of trying to interface a little bit more obviously with mainstream culture, with that lifestyle, blah blah blah, when this nu-jazz in Britain partly seemed to be reflective of an upwardly mobile lifestyle choice, jazz being a sophisticated lifestyle accessory.
This is being highly reductive, and there's a lot of good music that came out of this period. We're not talking about free music; we're talking about a very specific kind of British jazz revival. When Tony Herrington took over the editorship, he made a decision: "Okay, let's just be part of a very particular culture and not aspire to anything else, not aspire to this lifestyle choice or whatever, just focus on the artists, the culture that it was part of and not try to be part of something else." Just determining what it didn't want to be part of, and then work out what it did, and then just pursue that. Since then, we've just pretty much followed that way. To be no part of it, in terms of the greater mainstream culture out there, just to pursue those obsessions and those areas of interest that we consider important, significant or whatever, and just stick with those. And obviously be alert to the changes in the cultures that obsess us, and follow the passions where they lead us.
I like that you phrase it in terms of culture and not simply music. Of course, it is known as a music magazine, it's got "Adventures in Modern Music" right there under the title; your show on Resonance FM is Adventures in Modern Music as well. But at the same time, I have always felt — and tell me if this is too grand a statement — that The Wire contains within it a certain very specific world. It's kind of the gateway to a world made out of a lot of subcultures. In a way, I don't even approach it as simply a music magazine, but I really can't describe how I do think about it. It is, of course, ostensibly about music, but maybe it's more a magazine about a sensibility toward art, and maybe toward life, if I want to get really grand about it? Does that make any sense?
Yeah, it does, it does — it's difficult to express it without making it sound pompous, but fundamentally I'd agree with what you're saying. It's difficult to say it like that without sounding too grandiose. We've devoted 14, 15 years of our lives to this, and we'd like to continue. It's difficult to shake it off. It's a drug, you know. It's an addiction and we love it.
It's one of the few magazines that is very optimistic about being able to stick around, being able to do it for all the foreseeable future.
Obviously we like to think so. The cultures that we cover, they're very resilient. The artists and all the people involved in it, they're not so prone to all the ideas of recession. Obviously we're all affected by it, but it's always been a struggle. The aim is not to make millions, even though nobody would complain if they did. The aim is to make the music and to get across that music, to get that music or that art or whatever out there, get it heard, get it seen get it experienced. For those very reasons, it's not recession-proof, but it's fairly resilient, the culture. I think The Wire is always optimistic because of that. It's survived some difficult times. We will continue to do so.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
My Life As A Crime Fighter: Absolute Prosecutorial Discretion – Part 1
My Life As A Crime Fighter: Absolute Prosecutorial Discretion – Part 1Norman Costa
Note: This narrative was created from three true stories. Each character is a combination of more than one real person. I changed names and story elements to preserve the privacy of individuals.
Call in your troubles
My nephew, Samuel, called me from his home in Huntsville, Alabama at eight o'clock in the morning, an unusual hour for him to phone. I stayed quiet and waited. After a moment or two he spoke. He was hesitant and uncomfortable, asking if he could borrow $550. I gave an immediate assurance that I would lend him the money, and then waited.“Uncle Norman, I got arrested for domestic violence.”
It made no sense, at all. In a more subdued voice, I asked him to tell me what happened. He said that he had pushed his wife, Kara, and she had fallen over a chair. He said it was an accident; he didn't mean to do it; but, it was his fault since he pushed her. Samuel was going to plead guilty to a criminal offense, agree to probation and anger management counseling, and pay a fine of $550. After twelve months his record would be wiped clean, if there were no more incidents.
And then Samuel started to cry. Inside a few seconds he was sobbing.
My nephew and I are close, and I felt very badly for him. I assured him that I would help, that I would stand by him, and that I loved him very much. He regained his composure, at least enough to tell me more. Then the Samuel I knew began to emerge. He was not crying for himself. He was worried about Kara. The past year had been extremely hard for her. Kara had taken a three month leave of absence from work, unpaid, to care for her sister, who eventually succumbed to breast cancer.
At the time of the pushing incident, for at least three weeks, Kara had been dealing with a recalcitrant, and very painful, anal fissure. The pain would ebb and flow throughout the day. Most days were manageable, but a few were so difficult she was barely able to function. Since the incident, Kara went to see a psychiatrist who prescribed an antidepressant for both pain management and depression. Samuel would sacrifice anything and everything, even plead guilty to a crime, if it would spare Kara any more distress.Samuel Anders and Kara Thrace had been together for eight years. They kept their respective last names, because Kara had a son, Peter, from a prior marriage. Samuel grew up in an apartment in Yonkers, New York. Kara came from a family ranch, some distance outside of Fort Worth, Texas. Yep, she could ride, rope, and shoot. Nope, Samuel did not ride, rope, or shoot, nor was he interested. Kara had an intriguing, and quirky, comeback that she used in conversation. If anyone used a foreign expression (Merci beaucoup, madame. – Ach du lieber! – La Via Dolorosa), she would interject, “You do, and I'll shove it up your ass!” This applied, as well, to unusual words or phrases like “considerable thermal inertia,” or “unknown insalubrious environment.” She was not a big woman, but I had a healthy respect for her. I sensed that if anyone tried to mess with her, she would, indeed, shove something up their ass.
Push comes to shoveSamuel and Kara shared all household responsibilities. One Sunday afternoon, it was Samuel's turn to make dinner. He was a half-hour late in starting dinner, and a half-hour late serving the food. Kara and Peter were seated for a half-hour, waiting for Samuel to escort his plattered roast chicken to the table. He sat down, apologized again for being late, and lead his small family in a benediction over the food.
Samuel sensed a tension at the table. He tried to divert everyone from whatever was creating the unpleasantness that hung heavy over the table. Before he could finish his pleasantries, Kara blurted out a scalding reproach to Samuel for not caring enough to get dinner served on time. The words, themselves, were harsh enough, but the delivery was charged with a great deal of contempt. Samuel apologized again, and tried to lead them to a better place for conversation. Kara was silent, and everyone started to eat. After some moments, Kara hurled another invective, this time honed with a nastier edge, and laced with a caustic. He renewed his apology and tried, once more, to change the mood at the table. It didn't help that Peter would add his own barbs, modeling his delivery from his mother's example.
This sequence of shooting arrows, and then deflecting them, cycled a few times. Samuel realized that there was nothing he could do, at this time, to defuse the situation. He had not raised his voice, nor argued with his wife. My nephew rose quietly, and said he was going for a walk. He headed toward the door to get his coat and leave. Kara jumped out of her seat, sped to intercept him, and got between him and the door. She startled him by getting up-in-his-face, literally, and shouting some pretty venomous words. In scarcely an instant, instinctively he threw up his arms, his open palms landing on the fronts of her shoulders. Simultaneously, Samuel was backing away from his wife. But, his involuntary reflex was so swift, Kara was knocked backwards and fell over a chair.Kara was not injured. She got up, retreated to her bedroom, and locked the door. Peter said something unpleasant to Samuel and went into his bedroom, closing the door behind him. Samuel was disoriented by the suddenness of events, and remained so for a minute or two. He recovered his focus, assessed the situation, and concluded there was no longer a need to exit the house. It was quiet, and it seemed the worst was over. Samuel thought there was no reason to deny himself a Sunday dinner, so he sat down to finish his meal.
“All units, code 14.”Samuel ate in silence. He thought back to something Kara told him, when they were dating. From the time she was 11 years old, she would throw things at her brother (older by 6 years), and then run into her bedroom and lock the door. On one occasion she split his head open with a can of soup.
I always thought there was more to that story.
Eventually, Kara emerged from her bedroom, retrieved Peter, and walked quickly to the door. Not a word was said. They took their coats from the hooks near the door, Kara grabbed her keys, and they were out the door before they could put on their coats. Samuel continued eating his dinner, and thought to himself that Kara and Peter were missing a great roasted chicken.“Samuel Anders, this is the police. Come to the front door, and open it. Then come out, slowly, with your hands raised.”
As my nephew described the following scene, I had to cover the mouthpiece on my phone. I couldn't help it, but I was laughing at the absurdity of what happened. If not for the fact that this was very traumatic for my nephew, it could have been comical or surreal.
Samuel did not know that Kara called 911 from her bedroom. The police dispatcher asked her if there were any weapons in the house. She said, “Yes.” That changed everything! What she did not tell the police was that the sole weapon was her own hand gun, and that her husband did not know where she hid it, under lock and key.
Eventually, Samuel gathered his wits about him, walked to the door, opened it, and slowly walked onto a Hollywood film set – except there were no cameras rolling, and there were no actors among the cast. Officers were crouched behind six police cars with pistols and rifles aimed in his direction; red and blue lights were flashing and spinning; and the loud speaker commanded him with great authority. “Jesus Christ Almighty!” I said to myself.
Samuel got face down on his walkway, spread eagle. He was put in handcuffs, searched, arrested, and read his rights. He was dazed and disoriented. He had no idea if Kara and Peter were there, and witnessed him being taken into custody. Standing up against a police car, Samuel tried to explain what happened, that it was an accident, and certainly unintentional. He admitted that he pushed his wife, and she fell over a chair.
Then the officer interrogating him said something ominous. “Anytime we get a Code 14, and have to take the trouble to come out here like this, someone, sure as hell, is going to jail.”
My nephew has no recollection of what happened next, until he found himself with two other men, confined in a cinder block room in a police station. He had no idea where the police station was located. He was wearing a flimsy orange jump suit, flip flops, and his own underwear and socks. It was winter and the room was unheated. He could see a guard, on the other side of a thick glass window, attending to paper work and telephone calls. Otherwise, he had no outside-awareness from this room. There was a television suspended from the ceiling. It was on. There was a large sign, in block lettering, under the television that read, “DO NOT TOUCH THE CONTROLS ON THIS TELEVISION!”
The two others looked as if they came right out of central casting in Hollywood. Both were tall and heavy. One was bald, and the other sported an unkempt mullet. They were menacingly bearded, unwashed, they smelled, and had an abundance of tattoos. In spite of the posted prohibition, the two changed channels and adjusted the volume as they pleased.
It was at this moment, Samuel told me, that he was shocked out of his daze and regained his awareness. He finally grasped the situation, where he was, and what had happened. Looking at the two in confinement with him, he realized that he was well out of his league. He was there overnight before Kara bailed him out. Samuel was hypothermic. It took a full 24 hours before he felt comfortably warm, and he was free of intermittent shivers.
“Let's Set the Record Straight!”
Over the course of several weeks, Kara tried to get the police, and the Assistant County Attorney [ACA] to drop the charges against her husband. A recent change in the law pertaining to domestic violence prevented charges being dropped simply at the request of the victim. The police had said it was out of their hands, and they deferred to the ACA.
She met with the ACA and described her own situation, her physical pain, and her depression. She admitted she overreacted, that it was an accident, and that Samuel did not push her with intent. She explained how she got in his face, forcing Samuel to react instinctively. She went on, at length, telling how lucky she was to have a husband who was so loving, and gentle. They had started marriage counseling within days of his release from confinement.
The ACA, a young woman named Cassandra Misandre, refused to drop the charges. It didn't matter how much Kara pleaded on his behalf. She explained the options. Samuel could plead guilty to a criminal offense, and accept a program of counseling, probation that might lead to a cleaning of his record, and pay a $550 fine. The only other choice was to plead not guilty, go to trial, and risk a verdict that could send him to prison, without the possibility of clearing his record. Ms. Misandre made it clear that she would prosecute this case, vigorously.
“I don't need a lawyer!”
“Yes you do!”
My nephew is a very nice guy. He's sociable, friendly, gentle, has a generous spirit, and totally devoted to Kara. He thinks concretely, and his opinions are easily formed by the last person with whom he had a conversation.
I asked Samuel if he had spoken to a lawyer. He said, “No.” He didn't see that it would do any good, because the police had already explained his options. The only thing left for him to do, as he saw it, was to raise $550 for his fine, plead guilty, and begin his probation and counseling program.
I spent a great deal of time explaining the consequences of pleading guilty to domestic violence. If he applied for a job, he would have to disclose his arrest, and explain the circumstances, for many years to come. There was no guarantee that his record would be wiped clean, because if there were a new complaint, or the slightest infraction, he would automatically have a permanent criminal record. By pleading guilty he was giving up his right to appeal or change his plea.
Samuel said he understood what I was saying, but he didn't want to put Kara through any more distress. Besides, he didn't have any money for a lawyer. Regardless, I would help and support him in whatever he chose to do. I got his agreement that he would not do anything for a couple of days.
I found an experienced attorney in Huntsville, John Hunt “Thunderbolt” Morgan. We discussed my nephew's case, and said he would be happy to represent him. He would see Samuel, as soon as possible. He had a date for the following Tuesday in Thunderbolt's office, and I would fly there, from New York, to meet him.
I explained to an unbelieving Samuel what Thunderbolt had told me about criminal assault. By definition, Kara's
actions could actually be interpreted as criminal assault. Criminal assault does not
require the offender to make physical contact with the victim. A person
who is cowering under a threat, and the towering menace of a bully, who
feels in danger of being harmed, is a victim of assault. In fact,
Samuel could file a charge against Kara for criminal assault. Of
course, he wouldn't. I impressed upon him that he did not commit a
crime. However, he would need the advice of a lawyer who was
experienced in criminal law and domestic violence.
It had never occurred to Samuel that he was, in fact, not guilty of a criminal offense, not to mention that the law might construe Kara as the perpetrator of an assault. Thunderbolt said that Samuel's reaction was one of self-defense. In Texas, Kara's home state, the shooting and killing of another person was defensible when the other person violated your personal space.
[Please return on April 26, 2010 for Part 2 and the conclusion of the story.]
Fashion as a Metaphor
Your correspondent has wrangled a place in the first elevated row, just behind the backless futons reserved for buyers. The Three Quarks Daily seat is adjacent to the New Indian Express (Calcutta) and The Man (monthly). Black bleachers cascade all along on either side of the runway. There are bells suspended above one end, just above the backboard with Payal Jain's name on it. On the other end, the jostling mosh-pit of camera men in five, no six layers, like the green toy soldiers that you may remember from childhood: sniper flat on the ground, aiming and firing on one knee, mortar loader, aiming while standing, platoon leader yelling.
The lights go brighter for a moment before dimming, the music starts thumping, a thrill ripples through us all, and four models appear on the far end of the catwalk. Your correspondent has never been so aware of the dramatic tension between camera, focal length, object and field. The contemporary, globalizing fashion show, of course, is a media practice, which requires the collaboration and participation of so many players to create this sense of the new, the now, the it, which one can either be with, or else clueless about.
Payal's models are wearing hoodies and head-scarves of many designs, and occasionally smocks that look also like Iranian chadors. Her literature says that the collection is inspired by the monastaries of Laos, which God love her, is surely exotic territory for all of us. The music is vaguely Enigma, perhaps remixed by Laotian monks.
All is expectation while the model is still walking towards you, but nothing prepares you for the odd way in which she walks right on past, going on vogue the cameras, which crackle like crickets in the darkness. Notwithstanding a couple of thousand years since the natyashastra defined abhinaya, the art of communicating emotion through facial expressions, the model is a blank slate and cipher. Perhaps it all makes sense, for the point is the clothes she is wearing, not the character she is playing. If her expression means anything at all it means I have something very important to tell you, but it's slung from my hips.
As readers of this newspaper will no doubt be aware, the social life of clothing is estimated to have begun some 90,000 years ago, based on a reconstruction of the time taken for the strains of human head and body lice to have diverged from one another. This is also the point at which the first pigments, line drawings, visual representations are believed to have occurred. That was when we realized that bodies and things could adorn one another with meaning, creating socially individuated selves. And this is the eternally deferred, which is to say betrayed promise of the runway, that there is someone inhabiting that A-line smock, as opposed to a human mannequin, a professional zombie, someone who has trained herself so carefully to constrain her natural aura, to give off no scent of personhood.
The lights come on, and just like that, we're done. The models are well choreographed, the clothes were structured into several layers and variations upon one another, and the show seems a success. Payal comes out at the end to take a bow with a small smile and folds her hands, namaskar, which might be the only tell, giveaway, that this is an Indian fashion show. It is an oddly formatted dramatic experience, about as long as a sit-com, with the musicality and vividness of a music video and without breaks for advertising. There is a mood and a set of associations conveyed, with neither character nor plot. It sits like empty calories in the gut, leaving you hungry, but for something more substantial.
Payal comes from a family that has long been involved in garment exports. In the early nineties a series of billboards came up around South Delhi that announced her spring-summer collection. The idea was strange then, that some one in Delhi should proclaim themselves to be a fashion designer. For that you would have to go to New York or Paris, her classmates and cohort would have thought. Over time, though, Payal's collections have proved routinely innovative, continuously evolving, and responsive to the cultural trends and flows that have constitute India's present. Garment, Apparel and Trade Shows have meanwhile given over to Fashion Weeks and runway extravaganzas, more professionally organized by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), and more avidly consumed by the public through an Indian media industry that is still exploding, fragmenting and pixelating. And so, like so many of her fellows at the FDCI, Payal has moved from commodity manufacturing to intellectual property creation in a single generation. Fashion can serve us as a metaphor for the role of knowledge in the creation of value in India's still emerging economy.
Throughout the world, the proper place for high costume was once the royal court, which is why it should only make sense that Fashion in its modern avatar should come from Paris, where they first rid themselves of kings and courtiers. In the absence of titled nobility to serve, high performing houses of craft manufacture was released unto themselves, freed up to first seek out patronage, and then to promote it. In the later half of the nineteenth century, these houses organized themselves as the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, a self-governing association that could promote couture, guide growth, perpetuate scarcity, and limit competition from any new purveyors of Fashion, at least within France. In India, the FDCI was set up, just eleven years ago, as direct heir and counterpoint to the Parisian Syndicale.
One critical tool for the promotion of High Fashion houses was the Couture Parade, also invented in the late 19th century by Charles Frederick Worth, an English couturier working Paris, who had live models display an annual collection of his own designs, as distinct from the designs that might collaboratively emerge from the servicing of patrons. This shift in the pattern of creativity is central to modern fashion, for it is the taste of the designer, and not of the commissioning patron, that comes to be reflected in the suit. Now the customer may express taste by cultivating knowledge of designers and their work, leading directly to the necessity of fashion periodicals, image-making, mutual acknowledgment, in short the entire series of ricochets and reverberations, which constitute the discourse of Fashion.
According to Fashion-maven Aparna Jain (no relation), the big three of Indian Fashion are Tarun Tahiliani, Manish Arora, and Rajesh Pratap Singh. Tahiliani has long been a major force, with modern society patrons that swear by him and see him as a living artiste who brings wonder into their life. He has shown collections for two decades now, and led the transition of Indian fashion from its sputtering starts to the steady confidence it now increasingly enjoys. The sheer volume of his annual production -- he owns a state of the art high quality production unit in Gurgaon -- means that he must cater to every segment of the market and all kinds of tastes, ranging from traditional updates to bridal finery to occasional experiments in global sophistication. Manish Arora, on the other hand, is the reigning enfant terrible of the fashion world, giddily remixing traditional motifs in acid colors, more intense than any Rajasthani or tribal costume, but ensuring enough of a field of white to appeal to global consumers seeking a taste of the new India. The acid remix of traditional India, whether in terms of street art and culture, or folk traditions, or courtly motifs is a strong trend in contemporary Indian fashion, for there is just so much stuff there, in the legacy of India's visual culture, and there is a still unsatisfied yearning to make all of it meaningful for contemporary lives and lifestyles. Rajesh Pratap Singh is a new entrant to the upper echelons of Indian fashion, and his work seems a more refined synthesis of so many different currents and themes in Indian visual culture. His stores are famous for being art installations in themselves, with screens made of tailoring scissors, or entire an entire long narrow store designed in the idiom of an Indian Railways carriage. He can do Indian alright, but he's cool about it, and tones it down a thousand while he's at it.
Walking about the stalls of the trade show, your correspondent noted several different challenges to which designers are setting themselves. First, there is the legacy of the past. Courtly traditions from Mughal and post-Mughal states, repeated with minor variations throughout petty principalities through on up to the present are a major drag on Delhi's culture and still neo-feudal society. How to pep this stodginess up, without completely giving up on one's fabric, textile and sewing history? No definitive revolution can be reported yet, but the days of Indian designers serving as high-achieving Ladies Tailors are surely over. One must still do it, to keep operations alive, just as one must serve the bridal market, but that's surely not the road ahead.
Second, what do we do with the received sets of color palettes and motifs that make up India's fabric, tapestry and visual imaginaire? Here, regrettably, the answer is not new -- one must remix them, more violently and maniacally than Manish Arora, and then use them to create costumes that are familiar but dystopic. It is a stage we are still going through, but the light of beauty still promises to shine through the cacophony of it all.
Third, what to do with the churidar-kurta and the sari? It's all very well for retro films set in the sixties, but really now, what will we be wearing in the future? I saw one woman walking around wearing a salwar held up to her shoulders with fabric tape, like a pair of dungarees, or maybe an inverted parachute. I saw churidars whose crotch slung way low, around the knees, like maybe a Dr. Seuss character might wear. Payal herself showed a memorable sari-dress, which wound around itself and clasped tight on the shoulder, to offer a modern and flowing vision that evoked the classic female silhouettes of Raja Ravi Varma.
Outside, the lobby feels as large as an airport, but perhaps one from the future. Men and women of all nationalities, races and ages, are dressed like a good acid trip, all happy and smiley but bizarre. Bow-ties on denim shirts and thick black frames with psuedo-mohawks and other irregular accessories abound, a wide spectrum of ways to be normal. So far as the firang contingent goes, it looks to me that the Euros are being edged out by the Koreans these days, whose boutiques must be looking for this next cutting-edge corner of the fashion world. I'm slowly beginning to understand that there is a particular way to be Indian these days, that is as cool as Sinatra must have been in his Rat Pack days, cool the way American culture must have been in the pre-dawn of its globalization, and this ineffable vibe, indefinable attitude is what Indian Fashion is for. That's what it's trying to get out, express.
And maybe that's all clothes ever can ever tell us -- how you're trying to be, how I feel about that, what we can do together given what I happen to be wearing. That's what becomes possible, back in the runway of life, even if not actually in the Fashion Show.
March 28, 2010
Antinomies (not really) of Molecular Gastronomy: Industrial Processes as the New High Skill, Craft CuisineErica Westly in IEEE Spectrum:
The term molecular gastronomy conjures up images of strangely colored droplets and foams arranged on a plate. As a result, this scientific approach to cooking is often derided as cold and unfeeling—the opposite of what good food is supposed to be. At its heart, though, molecular gastronomy—or, as it’s sometimes called, molecular cooking—involves using technological tools to create dishes that are delicious as well as innovative. One of the genre’s best tricks is applying seemingly mundane technologies from the food-processing industry to high-end ingredients like oysters and lobster. As the following five examples illustrate—three of which premiered in February at the prestigious Flemish Primitives culinary festival, in Belgium—the resulting techniques stand to benefit restaurant chefs and even home cooks.
1. At this year’s Flemish Primitives, Bernard Lahousse, a food consultant with a bioengineering degree, used a high-pressure processing (HPP) machine to infuse oysters with tomato and other flavors without sacrificing freshness or textural integrity. This marked the first time an HPP machine was used for culinary purposes, but the technology is a staple of the seafood-processing industry, which started employing the technology to extract meat from shellfish in the late 1990s. At US $500 000 to $2.5 million, HPP machines are too expensive for most restaurant kitchens, but chefs have been known to create tabletop versions of industrial equipment. Take, for example, the Reveo meat tumbler, a miniature version of an industrial meat tenderizer that retails for about $170.
The Tenure TractsCathleen McCarthy profiles some academic bloggers, including Brad DeLong, Dan Drezner, John Holbo and Cosma Shalizi, in California Magazine (via bookforum):
Whether blogs are bringing anyone closer to the truth, Holbo’s not sure. “People aren’t nearly as blunt in academic writing as they often are in the blog space. Even so, when academics argue with other academics on a blog, it’s generally pretty well-mannered—sarcastic, but well- mannered,” he says.
Cosma Shalizi ’93 is a case in point. Of all the blogs that brainiacs love to love, Shalizi’s The Three-Toed Sloth is one of the most esoteric. His undergraduate degree from Berkeley is in physics and he is now an assistant professor in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. Bloggers from every discipline comment on his posts despite the fact that, if you have no statistics training, they read like a foreign language. His posts are sporadic, well researched, and loaded with a scientist’s idea of tongue-in-cheek humor. Just one can effectively eviscerate the latest popular theory.
If there’s one thing Shalizi can’t stand, it’s misinformation bandied about in the name of science. “A lot of the time, when I’m motivated enough to post something, it’s because I think someone is ‘being wrong on the Internet,’ as the saying goes—and this cannot stand,” Shalizi says. “It’s usually something I’ve read more than once and it seems such a pack of lies, or utter misunderstandings, that I feel like writing something. I wish I wasn’t so destructively motivated, but I am.”
When asked how much time and effort that takes, he says, “Quite a bit, to be honest. Part of that is the fact that I’m way over trained as an academic, and part is also wanting to leave people no excuse or way out,” Shalizi says. “If I can show that they’re just totally wrong, thoroughly wrong, then I will try to do that.”
“Of all the things I’ve written about, IQ and Wolfram got the most reaction,” he says, referring to his dissection of Stephen Wolfram’s best-selling A New Kind of Science, and to a series of posts in 2007 debunking the theory of IQ—particularly “the statistical myth” of g, or general factor of intelligence. “I wouldn’t say Wolfram is lying as much as utterly self-deluded. The IQ people I do think are lying.”
Shalizi rebutted Wolfram’s book in a post titled “A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity.” He opens with “It is my considered, professional opinion that A New Kind of Science shows that Wolfram has become a crank in the classic mold, which is a shame, since he’s a really bright man, and once upon a time did some good math …."
Iceland: the World's Most Feminist CountryJulie Bindel in The Guardian:
Iceland is fast becoming a world-leader in feminism. A country with a tiny population of 320,000, it is on the brink of achieving what many considered to be impossible: closing down its sex industry.
While activists in Britain battle on in an attempt to regulate lapdance clubs – the number of which has been growing at an alarming rate during the last decade – Iceland has passed a law that will result in every strip club in the country being shut down. And forget hiring a topless waitress in an attempt to get around the bar: the law, which was passed with no votes against and only two abstentions, will make it illegal for any business to profit from the nudity of its employees.
Even more impressive: the Nordic state is the first country in the world to ban stripping and lapdancing for feminist, rather than religious, reasons. Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: "It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold." When I asked her if she thinks Iceland has become the greatest feminist country in the world, she replied: "It is certainly up there. Mainly as a result of the feminist groups putting pressure on parliamentarians. These women work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with their campaigns and it eventually filters down to all of society."
The news is a real boost to feminists around the world, showing us that when an entire country unites behind an idea anything can happen. And it is bound to give a shot in the arm to the feminist campaign in the UK against an industry that is both a cause and a consequence of gaping inequality between men and women.
According to Icelandic police, 100 foreign women travel to the country annually to work in strip clubs. It is unclear whether the women are trafficked, but feminists say it is telling that as the stripping industry has grown, the number of Icelandic women wishing to work in it has not. Supporters of the bill say that some of the clubs are a front for prostitution – and that many of the women work there because of drug abuse and poverty rather than free choice. I have visited a strip club in Reykjavik and observed the women. None of them looked happy in their work.
So how has Iceland managed it?
How to Erase Fear--in HumansDaniel Lametti in Scientific American:
“Memory”, wrote Oscar Wilde, “is the diary that we all carry about with us”. Perhaps, but if memory is like a diary, it’s one filled with torn-out pages and fabricated passages.
In January, a group of New York University neuroscientists led by Daniela Schiller reported in the journal Nature that they had created fearful memories in people and then erased them. Besides being rather cool, the result provides new insight into how to treat traumatic memories in people.
The research was based on the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, a coauthor on the paper. Ten years ago, while experimenting with rats, Ledoux made a discovery that changed the way neuroscientists view memory from that of Wilde’s tidy diary to something more along the lines of a James Frey memoir.
In that experiment, Ledoux conditioned rats to fear a bell by ringing it in time with an electric shock until the rats froze in fear at the mere sound of the bell. Then, at the moment when the fear memory was being recalled, he injected the rats with anisomycin, a drug that stops the construction of new neural connections. Remarkably, the next time he rang the bell the rats no longer froze in fear. The memory, it seemed, had vanished. Poof!
Ledoux concluded that the neural connections in which memories are stored have to be rebuilt each time a memory is recalled. And during rebuilding—or reconsolidation, as he termed it—memories can be altered or even erased. Neuroscientists now believe that reconsolidation functions to update memories with new information—something of an unsettling idea, suggesting that our memories are only as accurate as the last time they were remembered.
The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate
Sean Carroll on Sam Harris' TED talk:
He starts by admitting that most people are skeptical that science can lead us to certain values; science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be. There is a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is. And Hume was right! You can’t derive ought from is. Yet people insist on trying.
Harris uses an ancient strategy to slip morality into what starts out as description. He says:
Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures… If we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim.
Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.
Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.
Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur.
explore ancient sardis
Sardis, Sardeis, Sardes, Sparda, and Sart are all names of a settlement in Anatolia located 60 miles east of Izmir, Turkey. Sardis has a long urban history which began over three thousand years ago and has been host to many cultures--Mycenaean and Hittite, Lydian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Selcuk, and Ottoman. For more than a millennium it was a major city of the ancient world. The Harvard University Art Museum's exhibit, "The City of Sardis: Approaches in Graphic Recording" (2003), explores the topography and architecture of Sardis and approaches to graphic recording of the city since the middle of the 18th century. A guided tour of the exhibit, interviews with the curators and archaeologists, as well as slides and video from the exhibit and archeological dig are featured in this video. Explore the role of graphic recording over the last few centuries in preserving and recreating the ancient city of Sardis.more from Harvard here.
learn your urdu!
ethan frome... mumblecore style
Hydrology: Visions in Ice
Douglas Capron in Lensculture.com:
I am inspired by transformations and transitions that occur within nature, people and music.
My photographic opportunities often arrive unexpectedly and I am always fascinated by how our perception of time alternates with various life experiences. I hope my work travels beyond graphic emotional impact and that it will provoke and sustain a subtle dialogue with the viewer.
With my current series, Hydrology: Visions in Ice, my goal was to share with viewers the ephemeral mystery that occurs when water transforms into ice in
a natural setting. The resulting formations are surprisingly dynamic, organically expressive and complex, and pose more questions than are revealed beyond an aesthetic perspective in our relationship with the most basic element that sustains us all.
Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China
From The Telegraph:
Many years ago, my history tutor at Oxford snapped: “I am Anglo-Indian, by which I do not mean that I am half black.” I have thought of this often in the context of the term “mixed race”, not meaning what he meant, wondering why we have lost the words for cultural rather than racial crosses. Pearl Buck was American by birth but entirely Chinese by upbringing. A mission daughter born in 1892, she graduated to being an unhappily married mission wife and mother. The runaway success of her second novel, The Good Earth (1931), altered her life. She swapped China for the United States and her agrarian economist husband for her New York publisher. Her fiction continued to be set in Asia and to borrow from iconoclastic younger novelists in China producing richly plotted popular fiction in the previously despised vernacular. Buck took this one step further by writing about the agrarian poor. A Pulitzer and Nobel Prize followed.
The New York Times recently wrote that “in China [Buck] is admired but not read and in America she is read but not admired”. “Both views could do with reappraisal,” suggests Hilary Spurling. Her compelling examination of the imaginative sources of Buck’s fiction succeeds triumphantly in this aim.
March 27, 2010
The recent fatal attack of a SeaWorld trainer by the orca Tilikum has led to renewed questions about how humans should deal with potentially intelligent animals. Was Tilikum’s action premeditated, and how should that possibility influence decisions on the animal’s future treatment? Orcas, like their close relatives, dolphins, certainly seem smart, though researchers debate just how intelligent these cetaceans are and how similar their cognition is to humans. Should we ever treat such creatures like people? For centuries it seemed obvious to most people what separated them from other animals: Humans have language, they use tools, they plan for the future, and do any number of things that other animals don’t seem to do. But gradually the line between “animal” and “human” has blurred. Some animals do use tools; others solve complicated problems. Some can even be taught to communicate using sign language or other systems. Could it be that there isn’t a clear difference separating humans from other life forms?more from Dave Munger at Seed here.
the hippie mafia
In the 1960s, a group of psychedelic-loving misfits from Orange County called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love figured it could turn the entire world on to the mystical power of LSD. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time -- the brotherhood had been founded on a shared belief in LSD's transformative effects. But somewhere along the line, the spiritual message was squashed by thousands of kilos of smuggled marijuana and hashish. By decade's end, the psychedelic messengers had sidetracked into a smuggling operation that made the group one of the largest drug cartels in America. Instead of enlightenment, the members of the brotherhood wound up making their mark as narcotics trailblazers: They distributed Orange Sunshine, arguably the most popular "brand" of LSD in history; created the strain of pot known as Maui Wowie; and were the first to bring Afghan hash to the U.S.more from Erik Himmelsbach at the LAT here.
Pay, pack and follow, at convenience
She was neither the first nor the last diplomatic wife to receive the directive, later reduced to six words: “Pay, pack and follow, at convenience.” The version that reached Louisa Catherine Adams in January 1815 was less succinct — her husband was John Adams’s son after all — but she could hardly have complied more swiftly. In three weeks she had crated up the St. Petersburg household, settled the accounts and prepared to set off, across 2,000 miles, to join her husband in Paris. It was winter. Europe remained pockmarked by the Napoleonic Wars. With her Mrs. Adams would take knives and forks; hidden bags of gold and silver; a governess; two servants, one of them trustworthy; and 7-year-old Charles Francis Adams, whose third language was English. They set out late on the afternoon of Feb. 12. It was Mrs. Adams’s 40th birthday. There was some reason for the eager departure from Russia, to which John Quincy Adams had been posted in 1809. His was largely a ceremonial office. A St. Petersburg winter lasts from six to eight months. Neither Adams took naturally to diplomatic life, which in the court of Alexander I consisted of a debilitating round of balls, all-night marathons that left the Adamses to crawl from their beds the next afternoon with aching heads and parched throats. They endured as well the tribulation of every early American envoy abroad: how to survive in the most opulent of European courts on a preposterously low Congressional allowance? Especially to the London-bred Louisa Adams — she remains America’s only foreign-born first lady — the wardrobe-related indignities abounded. She had moreover held down the fort alone for nearly a year.more from Stacy Schiff at the NYT here.
The doorstep of your existence
is the morning’s clean slate,
a stone on my soul’s roof-hurdle,
a single necessary step
by love’s wall. Simple, stable.
I’ve never understood why people hunt
for crystal, or a lump of gold,
or a diamond. I’m simply
grateful for the stones at hand,
meteorites from the sky at times,
the magnet that holds two ships in harbour,
the loadstone of sensibility,
and the long stone that in an age of gravel
rolls, and gathers no moss,
the whetstone of my brain,
flints demanding an explosion
beneath the tissue, a fresh quarry.
Stone upon stone. Milestones
I walk towards happily,
chirping like a stonechat.
by Menna Elfyn
The History of White People
Linda Gordon in the New York Times Book Review:
Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.
Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.
Bonfire of the Intellectuals
Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:
Return with me now to the lusty days of yore, when engagé public intellectuals battled it out over Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, and just who betrayed whom in the bloody streets of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War—and later in the savage pages of The Partisan Review, where those battles were refought. Sometimes the intense seriousness of the intellectual combat can sound overstrained in retrospect (cf. the Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery). But in fact these were foundational postwar arguments, waged by some of the sharpest thinkers in print as they clashed over urgent questions about the future of totalitarianism and democracy.
The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman's new 300-page polemic (to be published this spring), recalls these heady days in a book that is likely to provoke an intense controversy among public intellectuals. The most contentious assertion in Berman's book is that some of the most prominent of these—people who rushed to the defense of Salman Rushdie when he was threatened with death for a novel deemed blasphemously irreverent to Islam—have failed to offer wholehearted support to Muslim dissidents today, people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and Muslim apostate, whose lives are similarly threatened. This failure, this "flight of the intellectuals," Berman argues, represents a deeply troubling abandonment of Enlightenment values in the face of recurrent threats to freedom of expression.
"Goddess" Glacier Melting in War-Torn Kashmir
Rebecca Byerly in National Geographic:
Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the world's tallest mountain range, the Kashmir region, disputed over by India and Pakistan, is home to thousands of glaciers. Until recently scientists had claimed they would be gone in just a few decades, mostly based on data from the United Nation’s (UN) 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
However, in 2009 scientists discovered major flaws with this prediction. A report published in November 2009 claimed the glaciers in the Himalayas are not receding and some have even expanded.
Despite the errors, it's clear that at least some glaciers, including Kolahoi, are still retreating. The latest data from the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) shows that in the past four decades, Kolahoi has lost between 15 to 18 percent of its total volume. The research also shows that the glacier is retreating by almost ten feet (three meters) a year.
Rereading: George Eliot's Mill on the Floss
From The Guardian:
On 5 March 1860, the scientist and journalist GH Lewes reported to the publisher John Blackwood that "Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story. But there is such a strain of poetry to relieve the tragedy that the more she cries, and the readers cry, the better say I." "Mrs Lewes" was, of course, George Eliot, and "the tragic story" on which she was working so damply was The Mill on the Floss, published by Blackwood 150 years ago next week. What was making Eliot cry was having to write the last few pages of her novel in which the heroine Maggie Tulliver and her estranged brother Tom drown in the swollen River Floss, locked together "in an embrace never to be parted".
More than mere melodrama, the watery hug represented a wishful reworking of Eliot's fractured relationship with her own adored brother, with whom she had grown up on the Warwickshire family farm in the 1820s. Ever since she had written to Isaac Evans three years before to explain that she was now cohabiting in London with the married Lewes – "Mrs Lewes" was a term of social convenience, her legal name remained Mary Ann Evans – the rigidly respectable Isaac had refused to have anything to do with her. Even more hurtfully, he had instructed their sister to break off contact too. This silence was to stretch bleakly over the coming quarter of a century. The brother and sister who, like Tom and Maggie, had once "roamed the daisied fields together" in loving childhood, would never meet again.
Climate Change Imperils the State of the Planet--Will the World Act?
From Scientific American:
NEW YORK CITY—More than 100 countries have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord—the nonbinding agreement to combat climate change hastily agreed to this past December at a summit of world leaders. As signatories, the countries agree to cut greenhouse gas emissions to keep global average temperatures from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. The countries that have signed up to date represent more than 80 percent of the global emissions of such heat- wrapping gases. "Climate change is one of the most important challenges humanity faces today," said Mexico President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa via teleconference at the State of the Planet gathering at Columbia University hosted by its Earth Institute on March 25. "This is urgent, we need to act now as countries and as governments."
As part of signing on, countries also listed their national goals for emission reductions. Mexico, for its part, pledged to cut 50 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2012. The U.S. pledged to reduce emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels, pending legislation, whereas China promised cuts of 40 to 45 percent of the total CO2 per unit of economic production, so-called carbon intensity. And it will fall to Calderón and his colleagues in the Mexican government as hosts of the next climate change negotiation meetings in Cancún this November to continue progress toward an international, binding agreement. After all, without a legally binding treaty there will be no accountability on greenhouse gas emissions, warned United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the conference.
March 26, 2010
Using Dark Matter to Sense Dark Energy
It's a weird, weird, weird universe we live in. Cosmologists and astronomers know that only 5% of it consists of ordinary matter of the sort found in stars and planets. Another 23% consists of mysterious dark matter that (so far) manifests itself only through its gravity. And a whopping 72% of the universe consists of bizarre, space-stretching dark energy which is speeding up the expansion of the universe. Scientists don't know exactly what dark matter and dark energy are. But now they've pulled off a bit of black magic and used the subtle effects of one to study the other. Dark matter gives structure to the cosmos. Space is filled with a vast "cosmic web" of strands and clumps of dark matter, which have grown from microscopic variations in the original, nearly smooth distribution dark matter after the big bang. Through their gravity, the clumps draw in ordinary matter, so the galaxies form and reside within these clumps. Responding to their own gravity, the clumps and strands also grow denser and more compact. At the same time, dark energy stretches the very fabric of space. So if scientists can study the evolution of the cosmic web, they ought to be able to see the effects of dark energy setting in and slightly slowing the growth and coalescence of the clumps.
And that's what astrophysicist Tim Schrabback of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, and colleagues have done.